Sunday, July 26, 2009

Corner Shelves for the Library, Finally

One of the sets of corner shelves in the libraryFor most of the spring and early summer, we've been working outside at Chateau Papillon, putting together our gardens (both natural and vegetable), but the oppressive heat of the past few days--coupled with the work I got done inside while Beth was out of town, such as redoing the pantry shelves and installing some of the baseboards and trim--gave us the impetus to move the library one step closer to completion.

In designing and building the floor-to-ceiling shelves, I left space in the corners for transition units between the two walls. I'd debated butting the two sections against each other and perhaps crafting some "secret doors" into the hollow columns thus created, but in the end, decided 45-degree corner units would be the best use of space and would allow for additional book storage, photo display, and a place for some of the knick-knacks we've accumulated over the years.

Building the shelves began with the back support uprights; using the table saw, Beth and I cut 45-degree angles on the two sides, such that each upright panel would fit flush into the corner and provide support along the backs of the shelves themselves. I still had the drill template handy for the shelf peg holes (although it didn't line up perfectly left-to-right for the uprights--ah, well), and attaching the back uprights to the walls was fairly easily accomplished with several heavy duty wall anchors. I may eventually put in some really heavy-duty long screws through into the studs, but 6x 100-pound wall anchors should be more than sufficient for the duty--and there's really no way the support can collapse; the shelves, once in place, are wedged by the walls and the side shelving units; the back support is really there as a shelf peg holder.

The shelves were a tricky design; they're irregular hexagons, with a back edge (against the corner support) about 7 inches wide, a front edge of around 14 inches, and then two sets of sides (one set parallel to the shelves, one set parallel to the walls) of something like 11 and 16 inches, respectively.

Still, a table saw makes fairly quick work of this sort of carpentry; the hardest and most time-consuming part actually was attaching the facing strips of moulding to the shelves.

With the corner shelves in place, we've now got even more room to grow our library's collection; I also rearranged one of the main upright units to accommodate an extra shelf of paperbacks, which was dearly needed.

There's still plenty to do in the library; although the baseboards are all back in place, and all the shelves faced now, there's still the matter of the purple ceiling (no, that's not an intentional color choice on our part!) We intend to apply some false tin ceiling tiles for a classical look; it's just a matter of ordering them and doing the layout properly. After that, the crown moulding needs to go in along the tops of the shelves to complete their woodwork.

The closet still has a lot to do; at least with getting the corner units in place, we're able to clean out the stuff piled in the library closet so that I can pull up the carpet there and install bamboo flooring like the rest of the library. After that, we're debating how to finish it off; I'll put the closet door back on temporarily, but we want a fireplace (fake for now; perhaps gas logs in the future), and will put in some brick veneer for a nice hearth look... and perhaps a "secret" compartment behind the edge of the shelves where they meet the closet opening. Oh, and the antique claw-footed chair from my grandmother's house: it needs to be reupholstered; we've got the fabric, wood, and foam, but have not had the time yet.

And we have light fixtures to install; way back before we bought Chateau Papillon and were waiting out the bank for the short sale buy, Home Depot had a sale on chandeliers, so we've got a small one to put in over the library's seating area, and will also need some additional lighting at the other end.

With the corner shelves, though, we're one step closer to finishing the library!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Revisionist History from the Religious Right, Deep in the Heart of Texas

When I said I'd have to take up the ridiculous notion that America was somehow founded to be a Christian nation in a future blog post, I didn't realize I would be writing on that topic so soon!

A recent article in Britain's Guardian newspaper describes the logical (if deeply disappointing) extension of the fruitcake fringe's attempts to force creationism into our science classrooms: the Texas state school board is "considering" revising the state's history curriculum to include the "role" [the Christian] God played in the history and success of the United States.

From the Guardian article:

One of the panel, David Barton, founder of a Christian heritage group called WallBuilders, argues that the curriculum should reflect the fact that the US Constitution was written with God in mind including that "there is a fixed moral law derived from God and nature", that "there is a creator" and "government exists primarily to protect God-given rights to every individual".

Barton's knowledge of history clearly deserves a bright red "F" and reflects an apparently- growing misconception of the United States' founding amongst religious (and perhaps broader) circles, which erroneously conflates the historical fact of the religious backgrounds of many of our earliest settlers with the demonstrated and deliberate secular principles of government laid down by the founders.

Yes, the Constitution was written with "God in mind": if you accept protecting citizens from the tyranny of religion as having had God in mind. Madison, Jefferson, Paine, et al, expressly excluded the very concept of a state religion in the First Amendment to protect citizens of all faiths (and none) from the very religious persecution so many groups had fled in Europe.

Debate about recognizing Christianity did arise amongst the founders, but examining Jefferson's own words on drafting Virginia's Statute for Religious Freedom, it's clear that the intent, time and time again--from the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution--was against establishing Christianity and indeed to reject that it and other religions as having some special place in our government:

Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting "Jesus Christ," so that it would read "A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;" the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.
-- Thomas Jefferson, from his autobiography

Jefferson's writings are filled with similar sentiments, as are those of other of the founding fathers who played a critical role in the shaping of our government and the early history of our country.

Likewise, a common notion offered up by revisionist Christian "historians" is that the Declaration of Independence somehow defines America as a Christian nation, which fruitcake-fringer and TX school board advisory panel member David Barton seems to be talking about with his references to the laws of "God and nature" and a "creator." Disregarding for the moment that the Declaration is hardly of real legal standing in our system of government (unlike, say, the Constitution), or the fact that it was written largely by no friend to religion (Thomas Jefferson), let's look at the language so often cited by these revisionist fruitcakes:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
-- US Declaration of Independence (emphasis mine)

Oh, my--see that "Nature's God" and "Creator" bit? Doesn't that mean the Christian God is explicitly spelled out in one of the most important documents in America's history?

Not quite. Well, not even close.

As any real historian would be able to explain, "Nature's God" and the generic "Creator" do reflect a religious belief... just not a Christian one. They are hallmarks of deism, an Enlightenment philosophy held by several of our founders and which do not bear much resemblance to Christianity (they're also--to the delight of conspiracy theorists--the hallmarks of Freemasonry, to which many of the founders also belonged). If these terms were reflective of the Christian--or even the broader Abrahamic God, to include the Judaic God and Islamic Allah--then why use such a generic term as "Nature's God?"

The acclimation of "a creator" is common to nearly every religious faith, but you do not see Barton demanding a recognition of the creation accounts of classical Greek mythology, the many Native American mythic traditions, or the farcical faiths of the Invisible Pink Unicorn or Flying Spaghetti Monster, do you?

Simply put, Barton and his ilk are poor historians at best, deliberate revisionists at worst, and rather telescopically Christiancentric in their views.

Of course, Barton doesn't limit his ignorance and ethnocentrism to religion; he twists and conflates the very notions of democracy and republican government with none other than the Democratic and Republican political parties; in a bit suitable for a late-night comedy sketch, he says (again, from the Guardian article):

Barton, a former vice-chairman of the state's Republican party, said that Texas children should no longer be taught about democratic values but republican ones. "We don't pledge allegiance to the flag and the democracy for which it stands," he said.

The most frightening aspect of this discussion--aside from the fact it exists at all--is that unlike prior attempts to insert Christian religion into the public school system, it is not occurring in a backwater like Kansas, Louisiana, Arkansas, or rural Pennsylvania (no disrespect to residents of those areas; stick with me for a moment), but in Texas. As described by Diane Ravitch in her fantastic (and non-partisan) lament for the detrimental role of special interest groups in the public education system, The Language Police, school textbook publishers base much of their content on the demands of the public education systems of two states: California, and Texas.

That means should the religious right successfully rewrite history as presented by the Texas public school system, their egregiously incorrect revisionism could show up in textbooks used throughout the United States. While a footnote on "intelligent design" in a Dover, PA, school biology text would make local residents the butt of late-night jokes, such a ridiculous addendum would not find its way into the science texts in Massachusetts, Idaho, or Hawaii.

As a sad footnote, the Guardian article also points out that the religious right succeeded in Texas in introducing religion into science class. Discussion of evolution now includes the widely-discredited notion of irreducible complexity of the eye, a favorite canard of (un)intelligent design advocate Michael Behe, saying that evolution cannot explain eyes. Evolutionary science has demonstrated credible mechanisms for modern eye development for decades, a fact Behe, who continues to make the argument, is blithely (and likely deliberately) ignorant of; adding this ID notion to a science class is akin to teaching that the Earth might actually be the center of the universe; after all, geocentricism was only discredited a few centuries ago.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Bill O'Reilly: But you really ARE a dimwitted conservative at odds with smart Republicans!

For some perverse reason, I'm subscribed to Fox News pundit Bill O'Reilly's newsletter. Now, normally, those e-mails go straight to the proverbial /dev/null, but the headline of a recent issue caught my eye and granted his waste of electrons a brief reprieve from the bit bucket. The newsletter's teaser claimed "the left-wing media" were somehow "marginalizing" Sarah Palin, someone who I might add does quite a fine job marginalizing herself with no assistance needed, thank you.

After presenting an unrelated paragraph lauding a prior column and demonstrating a total lack of statistical acumen, Bill gifts us with this gem:
"Now we have another media deceit. In the most recent Newsweek magazine, there is a nasty hatchet job on Sarah Palin by a guy named Rick Perlstein. The piece is presented as hard news, not an opinion column, and basically says that the governor is a moron who is supported by dimwitted conservatives at odds with smart Republicans. Perlstein also submits that the dumb GOP folks are led by me and other Fox News people."
Obviously, since O'Reilly is defending the former Miss Alaska runner-up and quitter of a governor, he must count amongst those accused of being "dimwitted conservatives at odds with smart Republicans"; he goes on to take personal offense to being lumped in as a "leader" of that dimwitted bunch (perhaps he feels it's more a case of the blind leading the blind?) with his Fox (aka Faux) News cohorts.

I hate to demur, but I must submit as evidence to the court that Bill's continued unflinching, unwavering, and unthinking support of Palin is a sign exactly of the sort of dimwitted idiocy he's been labeled with. We're talking a woman who in a single speech meandered the length of the Iditarod and back, including her truffle decrying the "quitter's way out"--when she was, in fact, announcing the moment of her quitting as Governor of Alaska.

This is a woman whose qualifications for national political office are the fodder of Saturday Night Live skits (Tina Fey's frightening-spot on parody earning the SNL alum an Emmy nomination), and which seem best described as being able to tick off Democrats (I must thank Charles P. Pierce for that realization, in his Idiot America) and deliver zingers to rile up a base who would already vote for a decaying log if said timber were running with an (R) next to its name. This is a woman whose behavior has bordered on the bizarre ever since her nomination, mixing a constant whine about media attention on her children (while lugging the tots and teens to every media-covered appearance), about media attention in general (while whoring herself out--pun intended--for every media appearance possible).

In short, smart Republicans are afraid of Sarah Palin and what she represents for their once-proud party, and realize that they must find someone other than the lipsticked-pig as their mascot if they are to regain their lost glory. To them, Palin is at best a distraction to be tolerated while they must, a serious detraction to the party's future at worst. And Bill O'Reilly continues to display his dimwittedness by insisting otherwise.

I was once a Republican in all but the letter after my name; as a Libertarian, I often voted for the GOP's candidates. That was before the party became one of religious extremism, more concerned with keeping gays from marrying and spending trillions in Iraq than with reducing the deficit or fighting for long-held individual rights. Like me, many moderates have been driven away from the party by the brainless pap foisted upon us in the persons of Sarah Palin and her ilk.

What the Republicans and pundits who feel St. Sarah is the Messiah transubstantiated in the flesh don't realize is that she brings no moderates, no independents, to their party. She offers no solutions, only criticism delivered in the form of one-liners and tautological bullet points. She only appeals to the very people who already vote reliably Republican and preaches only a divisive wedge, not an embracing circle.

Bill O'Reilly is not a smart Republican; he's a rat who refuses to flee a sinking ship, a horse who runs back into the flaming barn. Perhaps he feels a special kinship with the meandering "dialogs" of the former Alaska Governor; I raise this last point in a tangential criticism of his "column" quoted above, which digresses from its topic (claiming the big ol' meanie media is out to "marginalize" St. Sarah) to repeat his favorite broken-record canard of the "evil secularists" and their agenda to take the "G" out of "God" and the pie out of America:
"[T]he left sees a major opportunity to knock out Judeo-Christian traditions, replacing them with a secular philosophy."
I hate to break it to Bill, but this country was certainly not founded upon "Judeo-Christian" traditions (which oddly enough always seem to skew decidedly to the Christian and away from the Jewish part in the words and minds of the speakers of that bit of revisionist history). That's not my argument for today, though; I'll take it up in a future post. O'Reilly rants onward with an invocation of Godwin himself, comparing the "left-wing media" to Nazis--a point where in any discussion you know there can be no room for reason or dialog (though, to be fair, that point typically comes with the first word out of O'Reilly's mouth; no need to wait for the accusations of Goebbels-ism).

Le me close with the unintended irony of Bill's own closing line from his column:
"If crazy ideologues have infiltrated the news business, we need to know about it. And now you do."
Yep, Bill, we hear you, and we know about it, indeed--I'm just glad you're finally willing to own up to being a crazy ideologue who has tried to infiltrate the news business--along with your Fox "News" compatriots like Sean Hannity and company.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Applying a Wiki to the Muse: Getting Back Into Writing

I've been interested in writing fiction since around the fifth grade, when I drew some very space opera-esque comics incorporating elements of Tom Swift, Star Trek, and V--the genesis of the Exerda, in fact (and a story for another time--no pun intended). Over time, the quality of my prose improved greatly, as did that of my stories, and though I cringe a bit when reading back over some of my earliest work, I can pick up dozens of books from the shelves of my home library which are equally cringeworthy, if not more so.

But over the past couple of years, I've been in a bit of a writer's funk, tinkering with chapters already written, refining the prose and re-plotting the stories yet making little headway on actual new writing. I've come up with dozens of great new ideas, too, but really putting pen to paper (even if by proxy of the keyboard) has been a real challenge. Call it writer's block; call it too much focus on "perfect" prose and not enough ability to get past "good enough" and put off perfection for the revision phase; however you label it, the prose which had formerly poured off my pen now came in only the merest of trickles. Gone were days of penning 7,500 words in an evening (something I did once in a creative writing course in college, putting an entire story together the night before it was due); I was lucky to even get 100 words of new work done.

However, recently I have found a new muse, an effort which has gotten the creative juices flowing again and has enabled me to plow ahead with work I'd set aside months and in some cases even years ago.

With the upgrade to the Web server, I've been able to deploy several pieces of software which the old system--an Pentium 100 from 1994, if you can believe it; isn't Linux grand?--just wouldn't support. Among them is MediaWiki, the engine which powers Wikipedia, and the de facto standard for wikis (collaboratively-authored Web sites) on the Internet.

Though one purpose I've in mind is to create a simple bird encyclopedia which incorporates my bird photos along with some well-sourced information about each species (an idea I've been tossing around in my head for a couple of years), the wiki application which spawned this post and which has me so excited about writing again is an encyclopedia describing the worlds of my imagination and the characters which populate them.

Now, this isn't the first time I've worked on encyclopedic content for my writing; several years ago, I'd worked up a lengthy timeline for the Exerda science fiction universe, along with a "technical manual" including drawings and designs for the various starships, weapons, and so forth. But with the fantasy which has made up so much of my serious writing since, a static document simply won't cut it. And though hypertext has been around for a long time, the framework of a wiki--and its encyclopedic, article-style layout--makes for a simpler task than wiring together a bunch of static Web pages.

Already, in fleshing out characters and events, I've discovered nuances and plot elements which I hadn't considered before but which vastly improve the stories. I'd set aside at least two novels which the stories simply seemed to adolescent, the characters too shallow and their motivations stiff and jerky. Suddenly, I saw connections which flowed from the foundations I'd already laid, and realized that I could so easily eliminate this deus ex machina aspect and give that character a more prominent (and sensical) role. In other cases, stories for which I had only a vague concept took on the depth at last necessary to be written out.

Even crafting the encyclopedic "articles" about things like particular magical abilities helped me realize new facets, directions, and nuances for the stories into which they fell. What had seemed a simple role playing game-esque piece of magic gained a solid foundation and contributed to the story itself, rather than being a plot element, no longer a McGuffin at best and a hackneyed special effect at worst. Characters for whom the plot and story structure logically insisted an "ability" suddenly gained such, and in ways which made so much more sense than I'd thought through before. Having to make the connections and the consistency across characters and story components because of the wiki has really, really done a lot to help me both iron out the inconsistencies and drive new creative juices to flowing.

Before you ask: no, my muse wiki is not publicly-accessible, though when particular stories see their way into print, I do intend to migrate the appropriate content to a wiki which is. In neither case, though, do I intend to allow the use of one of the primary aspects of wikis: collaborative editing. (Sorry, these are my stories, after all.)

That said, however, I do have an idea bouncing around in my head for a truly collaborative writing project in which much of the groundwork might be done using a wiki, and perhaps even the final product, something like those "pass the story around" exercises but writ large and perhaps resulting in a more coherent piece of writing than the much-satirized tugs-of-war so often the end product of those exercises. Indeed, if I ever return to academia, I'd love to try that notion out... the field of "new media" has really grown since I wrote a paper on the issues of gender and online identity in MUDs a decade ago.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Outdoor Cats: An Unnatural Tragedy for the Bluebirds

When I got home from work yesterday, I went to put out some mealworms for our busy Eastern Bluebird pair, who had recently hatched their second clutch of the year and were feeding five hungry babies. Oddly, I didn't see or hear either adult, who normally make an almost immediate appearance when the mealworms are out and rarely stray far from their nest box.

When Beth returned from a petsitting appointment, she said she'd fed them around 2:00pm, and had watched the parents feeding the babies at that point. Keeping careful watch on the feeder and nest box, I watched well into the evening for the mysteriously-absent parents, and also checked on the crying, hungry baby birds.

At ten days old, the babies would be able to go 24 hours without feeding, and as it grew dark, I didn't want to risk scaring off the mother's return, so I left them for the night.

Early this morning (around 6:00am), I went out to check on the nest and see if the parents had returned. Unfortunately, they had not, and tragically, several of the babies had died during the night. I quickly rescued the remaining two from their nest and got them inside, on a warm blanket, and did what I could to feed them. One was strong enough to take whole mealworms from my hand and ate a dozen or so in several feedings; the other appeared much weaker, and I had to feed it small pieces of watermelon and dry dogfood "mushed" with water to a soft consistency.

We got both the surviving babies to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, who said she thinks both will pull through, fortunately (even the weaker baby). She'll feed them for a week or so every hour, then eventually take them to a bluebird site in Winchester (about an hour to the west of us) to be released.

The real tragedy is that the parents were apparently killed by neighborhood cats. Cats kept outdoors kill literally hundreds of millions of birds in the United States each year, and in Hawaii have caused the extirpation and even extinction of species. Cats simply should not be kept outdoors; they are not natural predators in our environment, and those cats fed and kept up with veterinary care easily out-compete the natural predators.

We're utterly heartbroken for the two adults, as well as the three babies indirectly killed by these two cats--two cats we successfully rescued a baby robin from earlier this summer. Worse, they may have in effect extirpated the neighborhood bluebird population, as I've yet to hear or see them anywhere else in the neighborhood or surrounding woods. We'll really miss our cute little bluebirds.

Please, if you have cats, keep them indoors! Killing birds is not "natural" since domestic cats are not a natural part of the environment. No one likes to get a feathered "trophy" dropped on the doorstep, either, even the cats' owners. Beth and I are both cat lovers, and Neptune is one of the sweetest kitties we know--but we'd never let him outside!--and after this most recent cat-borne tragedy, we find ourselves really hating that pair of neighborhood cats.

The American Bird Conservancy has a Campaign for Safer Birds and Cats program if you want to read more about this problem.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Second Clutch Hatches

After a first clutch of five eggs which hatched only a single baby, our backyard bluebirds at Chateau Papillon, Eloise and Nathaniel, have successfully hatched a second clutch. Joining little Harry (or Harriette?)--now a juvenile getting brave enough to visit the yard proper--are five new arrivals.

As of about 1pm, Beth checked and saw that the first three eggs had hatched, and we both figured that the other two, if they hatched at all, would do so over the next couple of days. So imagine our surprise this evening when we went to check on the box and saw that all five had hatched in the same day! (I can only see four in the photo I took, but Beth said she counted five in the box itself--and one might be a bit hidden in the photo on second glance.)

Already, whistling will bring the babies to poke their heads up and open their mouths, begging for food. We're ramping up the number of mealworms we put out for the bluebirds so they'll have plenty to feed the new arrivals without having to hunt all over the neighborhood for bugs and the like (and expose themselves to the hawks I've heard calling out from the woods).