Wednesday, May 30, 2007

I should quit while I'm ahead

All this time I've been blogging, I haven't realized I've been sitting on a gold mine! According to one website, Pole Hill is quite a valuable piece of cyber-real estate, and instead of worrying about what to write next, I ought to cash out instead:

Your site is valued at: $68,232,393.

Hey, that's a lot of monkey chow!

Send checks to: Dr. Sardonicus, Pole Hill Sanitarium, Pole Hill, Tennessee. Or if you're curious, you can go see what your blog is worth.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day

On this day, the traditional beginning of the summer season, we raise the flag atop Pole Hill and pause a moment to honor those who gave their lives in America's wars.

Today in the main hall with the barbecue we'll feature this presentation of Mark Twain's "War Prayer". H/T to Kevin Drum, who also posted a brief history of Twain's prayer.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Big eight

Once again, I've been out of the office for a bit, though anyone looking for me could find me on the comments threads. I've spent most of my online time reading the commentary on the Iraq war funding bill, and may even come up with something profound on it myself eventually. In the meantime, the Farmer has been feeding the surrender monkeys for me, that is, when he can keep his own hands out of the kibble.

Beth sends the latest hot meme our way - a simple request for eight facts about myself. A lot of times in the past, I've been cautious about what I write about myself on the Web - too much information may be hazardous to the Doctor's online health. By now, however, it's reached the point where you can find out just about anything you know about me if you know where to look, and I'm fairly confident that the people who would be most likely to mess with me (certain people I work for) wouldn't know how to go about looking. So with that in mind, and out of my love for Beth, eight fun facts about Dr. Sardonicus:

1. I was an Air Force brat. I attended nine different schools by the time I finished the eighth grade. Seemed like by the time I got to know somebody, it was time to move again. I believe this has affected my ability to form close relationships ever since.

2. I have never lived at any address more than five years. Partly related to #1, but it still took a long time to get established after becoming an adult. The wandering finally has stopped at Pole Hill.

3. I have lived in six different states (Illinois, Louisiana, Texas, Kansas, Florida, Tennessee) and one foreign country (the Phillipines).

4. I have over 1000 albums and CD's in my collection. Some people may consider that to be an impressive number. To me, though, it's no big deal, as I've known people with ten times as many records.

5. I was originally an engineering major in college. I quickly found out I didn't have an engineer's temperament, so I switched my major to communications. Had I known then how I would be making my living today, I would have stayed in engineering.

6. I once met Ronald Reagan. For those of you who've commented about my interesting friends. Reagan came to Wichita State on a campaign stop in 1980. There was no way in hell I was voting for him, but I was curious about what he had to say, and I figured it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He probably shook 5000 hands that day, so I'm sure he never remembered me. (That's not an Alzheimer's joke, BTW.)

7. I've also met Ralph Nader. Three times. He's quite a fascinating man to speak with, and his personality is every bit as rumpled as his public image. He would have made an interesting President.

8. I am certified as a water treatment operator by the state of Tennessee. The Grade IV certification, the state's highest, is rather difficult to obtain. You have to have a good knowledge of math, chemistry, physics, biology, and engineering. It took me two attempts to earn my license. Had I gone on to receive an engineering degree, I would have many more management opportunities in the water treatment profession. Going back to school would be hard for me now because of the hours I work and the difficulty of returning to the student mindset.

The final act is to tag eight more bloggers. The thing about tagging eight at a time, though, is that you burn through the known universe of bloggers quickly; odds are if you're reading here that this meme will soon show up on your doorstep, if it hasn't already. Tell you what, I'll set the tags out on the back dock. Anybody looking for a good used meme can back their pickup to the dock, load it up, and haul it away with them.

Sunday, May 20, 2007


Deb (Life As A Parent) had an interesting meme come through her place: Why do we blog? The meme asks bloggers to list five reasons why they write, which I thought would be interesting to think about in light of some of the things I've been thinking about concerning blogging lately. I need something I can refer back to in my darker moments. Therefore, five reasons why I blog:

1. Obviously, I blog to express my opinions on various things going on in the world. After nearly 22 years together, Mrs. S. is sick and tired of hearing me pontificate, not to mention scream at the TV news (although she does a fair amount of screaming at news anchors herself). Most of the guys I work with think I'm nuts, and I haven't had time the last few years to do the political work and rabble-rousing I used to do. So this blog provides an outlet for my stray opinionating.

2. I have a lot of random thoughts, but they don't always seem to cohere. I look at blogging as a way to try to gather my opinions and put them together in a way that makes sense.

3. I roam all over the internets and see all sorts of interesting things. This gives me a chance to call attention to some stories and other matters going on that I feel need to be better publicized.

4. I want to leave something that I can look back at in later years and say that I was here riding the merry-go-round. It's a sort of history of myself and how I related to whatever was happening at the time. Also, as I continue to develop my opinions and my knowledge, I can look back on my archives and compare how I felt at any particular time to what I think about an issue at that moment. Provided, of course, that Google sees fit to support the archives of millions of blogs years into the future, which is not guaranteed by any means.

5. Most importantly, I blog because of the many people I've met online. When I was a kid, I wanted a ham radio so I could talk to people all over the world. I never did buy a ham rig, but I found the internets to be far mor interesting, not to mention cheaper. As a result of blogging, I have people from upstate New York, southern California, and Alberta by to chat regularly, not to mention days like the one when a gaggle of Swedes came through here to read about Simon Pretty. (I'm guessing they must have had something about Pretty on Swedish TV that day.) The great thing about blogs is that each one creates its own unique community. Go by Sonia's or Mixter's or anyone else on the blogroll and you'll meet another unique group drawn together by that blogger's particular talents and interests. These little communities all form part of a larger whole, one that nurtures and supports us, and helps us all feel a little bit less crazy.

Since I wasn't officially tagged, this meme is fair game for anyone who wants to blog on it themselves, comment on it, or ignore it.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Jerry Falwell

In noting the passing of the Reverend Jerry Falwell, I don't feel compelled to join the ranks of liberal observers standing in line to stomp on the man's grave. Steve Benen at the Carpetbagger Report has put together a list of some of Falwell's most egregious behavior for those who have a taste for such things.

Falwell made his greatest impact by organizing thousands of fundamentalist Christians for political action. Alan Wolfe, writing at Salon, has the best understanding of Falwell's legacy I've come across so far:

To the religious life of the United States he made no significant contribution. But to the political life of the country, he made one: He founded the Moral Majority. In so doing, Falwell managed to take something holy -- one does not have to be a Christian to admire the life and teachings of Jesus Christ -- and turned it into something partisan and divisive. Falwell, the quintessential conservative Christian, was always more conservative than Christian. To the extent that history will remember him, it will be as a politician, not as a preacher.

Conservative Christians' participation in American politics has waxed and waned over the decades. Falwell, along with contemporaries like Pat Robertson, helped put together one of the most effective mergers of religion and politics America has ever seen. Over the last 30 years, this movement provided a key base of support for the election of Republican presidents and legislators, as well as gaining leverage in a number of state and local governing bodies. They did this in large part borrowing from the organizing tactics of the left, such as the civil rights movement. The Moral Majority was a prime example of conservatives beating liberals with their own stick, while many on the left stood and watched in dumbfounded amazement that their strategies worked equally well for conservatives.

Falwell's influence declined with advancing years and a series of foot-in-mouth statements, culminating in his suggestion that America's immoral culture was in part to blame for 9/11. Wolfe correctly notes that Falwell would have been barely visible if not for the cable news shows that kept the Reverend on call in case he had something nutty to say. Meanwhile, a new breed of high-profile ministers like Rick Warren and Joel Osteen have been moving evangelism away from direct political action and toward emphasizing believers' personal relationships with Christ. It may be that Jerry Falwell helped many people find comfort in their soul, but I would suggest that he gave equal numbers of people good reason not to believe in God.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Random blogservations

Every blogger ends up on the receiving end of some oddball searches from time to time. I haven't had too many of those. Simon Pretty still draws quite a bit of traffic over here. I hope he's found a donor by now; I haven't seen any updates on his situation. I also get a fair number of searches for various musical effluvia - people looking for chords to 70's pop hits and such. Over the weekend, though, I got one that's not going to be topped for awhile - "Man Gets Pole Shoved Up His Ass In Texas". Somehow, it doesn't surprise me that if such a thing were to occur, it would be done in Texas...


Even crazier than having a pole shoved up your ass: Newt Gingrich may run for President.


Coming home from work this morning, I heard "The Story In Your Eyes", an old Moody Blues classic that doesn't get played much on the radio anymore. As I was listening, it struck me how cheesy the production sounds on those old Moodies records today. For a while in the late 60's and early 70's, the Moody Blues were big business. They were probably the first rock band to record with a full orchestra. Everybody's stoner older brother had their albums. Rich Dalton, a popular St. Louis DJ for many years, made a big deal of his "Nightly Visit with the Moody Blues". They had all this hippie mystique, yet they made records that sound like they were recorded with two tin cans connected by a piece of string. By that time, the Beatles had shown everybody how to make records. Early Pink Floyd classics like Atom Heart Mother didn't sell nearly as well, but they achieved a much cleaner sound. There are some interesting things happening on Moody Blues records like to Our Children's Children's Children, but they're hard to pick up because of the cheap production.


Some great comments on the teaching history thread. I particularly agree that techniques aren't as important as the motivation of the teacher, and that teaching a child to enjoy reading is the key to getting them to enjoy learning. I was fortunate to always have adults around me who encouraged me to read. I wish I had some of that encouragement when it came to writing. I had a seventh-grade English teacher, Mr. Flach, who drilled us on punctuation and grammar like a Marine boot camp instructor. We diagrammed sentences for days and days on end. If you want to kill a kid's interest in writing, make them diagram sentences over and over till their hand falls off.

My high school composition teacher, Mr. Shea, was a stickler for developing precise arguments and rhetoric. Any opinions you put in an essay, you had better have been prepared to back them up - and in detail. Not only were you expected to thoroughly document your arguments, but you had to know and be able to refute all the counter-arguments as well. And your spelling and punctuation had to be perfect - just one spelling error or punctuation mistake, and your paper would automatically be downgraded one letter grade.

These men did make me a good technical writer - I never received a grade lower than B+ for any essay I wrote in college. But they made writing about as enjoyable for me as digging ditches. In college, I would agonize for hours over the use of a single word. I would put off papers until the last minute, and then drive myself almost to the point of breakdown to complete them. Now, at least two or three times a week, I say to myself, "Screw this blog - it just ain't worth worrying over what I write". My original plan was to write when inspiration struck, but to my surprise and delight, Pole Hill in recent weeks has begun to draw a decent amount of traffic. Now I find myself stressing over writing enough to keep the stat counter hopping. Don't get me wrong - I enjoy the attention this blog gets, and I can't ask for a better group of regular commenters - but blogging more often than not feels like hard work, and going out in the garden to pull weeds seems relaxing by comparison.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

History, backwards

Kevin Drum gives us some outside-the-box thinking - he suggests that kids would be more interested in learning history if we taught it to them backwards:

(C)urrent events are intrinsically interesting, and learning about them make you genuinely curious about why the world ended up the way it did. If the lessons are structured with curiosity about causes in mind, this will make you interested in the Cold War, which in turn makes you interested in World War II, which in turn makes you interested in the Great Depression, etc. It's a solution to the most obvious problem of teaching history: without any context, why should a 16-year-old care about dusty topics like the Missouri Compromise or the rise of the labor movement?

The strength of this approach is that kids are naturally more interested in what's going on at the moment than in what happened decades ago. The backwards approach might work on some subjects, such as working backwards from 9/11 and the Gulf War to provide a better understanding of US - Middle Eastern relations. Another problem with the way history is taught in many schools is that so much time is spent focused on the nation's founding and the Civil War that there's little room left to understand more recent events like the Vietnam War.

I'm skeptical, though, that this would be the best approach to providing an overview of American history. History is a narrative, and like most good stories, events build upon one another. The key to understanding is recognizing how one event leads to the next, an example being how the incomplete resolution of the slavery issue in the Constitution was a factor leading to the Civil War, or how the failure of government officials to heed economic warning signs in the 20's led to the Great Depression. Maybe I'm being too much of a traditionalist, but it still seems that the best way to build a house is to start with laying the foundation.

The real secret to learning history is with the teacher. A good history teacher is one that makes the story interesting - a good history teacher can make the Missouri Compromise a compelling part of the narrative. There are undoubtedly teachers who could also start with current events, work backwards, and make that interesting. The culprits who make history dull and boring to students are the ones who can't see the stories embedded in our nation's past and turn their classes into a dull repetition of dates, places, and names. Rote learning deadens interest in any subject, and is especially inexcusable in history class, with the great range of pivotal events and intriguing personalities that teachers can choose from to present the ever-fascinating and important story that is America.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

America's best and worst drivers

Taking note of Christie's and Gina's recent bad experiences on the roadways, and searching for a blog topic that I don't have to do much thinking about following a long day of mowing and weeding, The Hill presents Men's Health magazine's "The Capitals of Crash", their study of America's best and worst cities for driving.

Men's Health explains their criteria:

To calculate our rankings, we included the rate of fatal accidents, as well as the deaths caused specifically by speeding, both from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). In addition, we pulled city statistics on accident frequency from Allstate Insurance. And then we used statewide numbers on speeding from the Governors Highway Safety Association, plus NHTSA state data on seatbelt use. (Going without may be a sign of recklessness.)

Men's Health ranked 100 of the nation's major metropolitan areas. As with all such lists, the interpretation of the data can be subject to debate - at the least, it provides some interesting fodder for water-cooler conversations. Without further ado, the ten worst:

100 Columbia, SC F
99 St. Louis, MO F
98 Greensboro, NC F
97 Jackson, MS F
96 Cheyenne, WY F
95 Kansas City, MO F
94 Orlando, FL F
93 Charlotte, NC F
92 Nashville, TN D-
91 Corpus Christi, TX D-

I've never been to Columbia, South Carolina. But the two cities where I've driven the most, St. Louis and Nashville, as well as another where I've spent a lot of time, Kansas City, make the bottom ten.

St. Louisans are the all-time champions of running stop signs. Some traffic engineer in St. Louis got the bright idea to use stop signs as a form of speed control. St. Louis has over 1700 intersections with four-way stops. By comparison, Kansas City, with a similar population, has only 43. Because there's a stop sign on every corner, St. Louis drivers tend to ignore them. St. Louisans are so adept at the rolling stop that the Kansas City police call it a "St. Louis stop". I've long suspected that Kansas Citians have nothing to brag about, though, and this list would seem to provide evidence for that.

Nashville drivers are polite - often, too polite. Nashvillians are so concerned with their fellow driver that hardly a week doesn't go by that somebody gets rear-ended because they stopped suddenly to let another driver into traffic. Yet these highly conscientious drivers have a strange obsession with speeding. Give them the slightest stretch of open road, and they've got the hammer down. Some Nashville drivers claim that speed limits are an affront to their civil liberties; the rest just watch too much NASCAR.

The list of America's best cities should please our Iowa contingent:

10 San Jose, CA A-
9 Grand Rapids, MI A-
8 Buffalo, NY A
7 Minneapolis, MN A
6 St. Paul, MN A
5 San Francisco, CA A
4 Yonkers, NY A
3 New York, NY A+
2 Jersey City, NJ A+
1 Des Moines, IA A+

Yep, those laid-back folks up in Des Moines are Number One. Des Moines drivers are decent enough, but to me don't seem that much different from Wichita (ranked #84). Maybe it's because Wichitans are champion red-light runners. If you're in Wichita and you're the first car at a red light, wait a few seconds after you get the green. At least two or three cars will be coming through the intersection after their side turns red.

Jersey City, New York, and Yonkers rank 2-3-4. I guess that's because there's no room on the streets of metropolitan NYC for drivers to misbehave.

Of interest to Gina and Christie: Anaheim ranks #42, while Atlanta comes in at #62, thirty spots better than Nashville. Probably they're too rude to stop to let drivers cut in line there - Atlanta drivers make their own breaks.

Check out the full list by clicking the link.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Dennis McKinney

Dennis McKinney at right, speaking with Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius.

Few events in Nature are more terrifying or devastating than a tornado, as the people of Greensburg, Kansas will tell you after their community was leveled by a tornado packing winds of 205 mph over the weekend.

Dennis McKinney was one of the first people I met my freshman year at Wichita State University. He lived in the room across from mine in our dorm. Already, Dennis was interested in politics, working to elect Democrat Bill Roy in the race for the US Senate against the Republican Nancy Kassebaum. Upon hearing that I leaned toward the Democrats, Dennis asked me if I was registered to vote.

"No", I said, "I just got here from Illinois, and I don't turn 18 until October."

"No problem", Dennis replied. "You only have to be a resident for 30 days, and you'll be 18 by the time of the election in November."

Dennis had the voter registration papers handy, and thanks to him, I became a registered voter for the first time. We also agreed to split the cost of a Wichita Eagle subscription, both of us being impoverished college freshmen. Roy lost the election to Kassebaum, a common result for Kansas Democrats in those days, but due to Dennis McKinney's efforts, he at least got my vote.

Dennis had a sharp mind for politics, and he taught me a lot about how life was on the windswept plains of southwest Kansas, which was his home. Everything I know about sheep ranching I learned from him. Already he was thinking about going into politics. His goal was to return home, buy a farm, and one day do something to help the people of his home region.

Dennis would go on to distinguish himself as the president of WSU's Student Government Association, while I would distinguish myself by spinning records at the campus radio station and by frequently getting drunk. Following graduation, Dennis went on to achieve his dreams. He settled down in Greensburg, not far from his hometown of Coldwater, and became a farmer and politician. He won a seat in the Kansas House of Representatives and rose to the rank of Minority Leader, a position he currently holds.

Dennis was home with his family in Greensburg the day the deadly tornado hit. Denis Boyles, in a National Review article describing the strength and resolve of Greensburg residents in the face of the storm, tells the story:

The minority leader of the Kansas house is Dennis McKinney, a much-admired conservative Democrat who represents the heavily Republican constituency that includes Greensburg. Until 9:45 last Friday night, McKinney had a house in town, and when the storm hit, he had been in it. I asked him about the miracle of the cleared roads. “We got help,” he told me over an intermittent cell connection. “We live in an area where most of the towns are small, but most of them have volunteer EMT units and volunteer firefighters. After the storm, within minutes, we had several fire companies here, and then more came. We had a huge response from the surrounding communities — all well-trained volunteers. And we have a lot of pick-ups! One of the things about living out here is we all have four-wheel-drive pickups. So for example a few of us cleared my road right away — cut up a tree that was across the road, hooked a chain to it and dragged it away with the pick-up. We just helped each other.” On Main Street and out on the highway, the people who only minutes earlier had been residents of a small Kansas town had been joined by others and together they all spent the whole night hard at work on a dark and unsheltered plain.

One of the remarkable stories to emerge from the storm coverage is the one about McKinney receiving a call a little while after the tornado warnings were issued. It was from a young man who lived next door. He explained to McKinney that he was too far away and didn’t think he could make it back home in time to take care of his wife and baby. His house had no storm cellar, no place for them to go. Could he tell them they could seek refuge in McKinney’s basement? McKinney said of course. He sent his 14-year-old daughter, Lindy, down to the basement and went out to wait for the woman and the baby.

But it was too late. As his house started exploding around them, McKinney turned back toward the basement stairs. Debris showered down on him; he lost his flashlight. His daughter helped him into a bath in the basement, and he threw his body over hers to protect her. As the house disintegrated above them, Lindy McKinney suggested they pray for the mother and child next door. “And that’s what we did,” McKinney told me. “My daughter — she didn’t pray for us. She didn’t pray for herself. She prayed for the people next door.” The significance was still settling on McKinney. His voice suddenly hoarse, he said, “As a father, I don’t think I’ve ever been so proud.”

When the wind subsided, McKinney climbed out through the wreckage of his home into the darkness and found the house next door had vanished, leaving only a thick carpet of debris. Suddenly, he heard the sound of a woman’s voice crying for help. Working with another neighbor, the two men pulled the mother and baby out. Their only injuries: a few scratches.

When McKinney told his political rival and personal friend, former Kansas House speaker Doug Mays about it the next day, Mays told me McKinney had called it “a miracle” and Mays agreed. “Dennis said that after emerging from the rubble of what once was their home, and seeing every thing including their vehicles gone, one might expect to feel absolutely despondent. Instead, he was overwhelmed with joy at the knowledge that he and his daughter were alive.”

“Dennis McKinney and his daughter, Lindy, demonstrates the strength and resolve that typifies Kansas,” Mays told me in an e-mail. “Knowing their lives might end in seconds, what could have been their very last prayers were given for their neighbors. That is why Greensburg will rebuild.”

In Dennis McKinney, the people of Greensburg and southwest Kansas have a leader they can be proud of. And Dennis can certainly take pride in raising a fine daughter.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Mrs. S. update

Mrs. S.' surgery went well yesterday. She's OK and back at home resting. The surgeon doesn't think that the two areas he removed were cancerous, but won't know for sure until the results come back from pathology.

Thank you as always for your warm thoughts and support. I don't have the most readers in the blogosphere, but I do have the best.