An Uninformed Case.

Since one of the responsibilities of librarians is assisting patrons with research, they’re supposed to be trained to use research materials–everything from print bibliographies to electronic databases. That’s part of what makes Professor Bert Chapman’s “case against homosexuality” so surprising. Chapman is a librarian at Purdue University, and yet in writing his “case” he seems to have completely avoided doing any actual research of his own. He does cite one study by name which he claims is available at the web site of the Corporate Resource Center, but fails to provide a link to it. In fact there are several Corporate Resource Centers, none of which seem to have any such study available. I don’t doubt that such a study exists, but why doesn’t Professor Chapman–who is, after all, a librarian–make any effort to make it easier to find? He doesn’t even quote from it. We are, instead, expected to take his word that the report backs up his opinion.

What’s most appalling is Professor Chapman’s dishonesty. He claims his case is an economic one, and he makes the point that money spent on AIDS research is “wasted”. He says,

The money invested on AIDS research could be returned to taxpayers or transferred to more worthwhile areas of public health research such as cancer, heart disease, combating pandemic conditions like H1N1 flu, and promoting responsible sexual behavior such as monogamy within heterosexual marriage.

As one blogger has pointed out, perhaps money spent on librarians is being wasted as well. Professor Chapman doesn’t say so, but they money saved on AIDS research could also, in part, be used to fund the police state he envisions.

There have been serious responses to Professor Chapman’s “case”, but he refuses to acknowledge them. For one thing AIDS is not limited to homosexuals. Neither does the fact that allowing AIDS to go untreated would have even more serious economic consequences. Then there is the matter of same-sex marriage which Chapman claims to oppose on economic grounds, even though he makes it clear from the outset that his whole argument is based on his religious belief. One person has–unlike Professor Chapman–cited several actual studies and provided a link to one, a study which finds that

Extending marriage to same-sex couples will boost Vermont‟s economy by over $30.6 million over three years, which would generate increases in state and local government tax and fee revenues by $3.3 million and create approximately 700 new jobs.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, by blogger Timothy Kincaid, “Chapman suggests that gay people getting married would lead to increased rather than decreased sexual disease transmission.”

Professor Chapman dismisses these responses as “infantile ad hominem attacks”. He’s made up his mind and  isn’t interested in facts. He dismisses homosexuality as “sexually deviant”, proving he’s as ignorant of psychology as he is of economics. There have been those who have come to Chapman’s defense, claiming that he is being censored or that criticism of him represents intolerance. These defenders, like Chapman, have trouble distinguishing fact from opinion, and don’t understand the meaning of “censorship”. No one is preventing Chapman from voicing his opinions. Criticism does not equal censorship. As for “intolerance”, it’s Chapman himself who is actually promoting that by suggesting that anyone with AIDS should be allowed to die, and by refusing to engage in any discussion with those who disagree with him. This is also not a criticism of his faith. He doesn’t say, “I believe this solely because of my faith”, even though this is the case. Instead he tries to legitimize his argument with economic numbers that don’t add up and opinions passed off as facts. The irony, though, of those who call for Chapman to be treated with tolerance is that tolerance is an act of compassion, and compassion is one thing Professor Chapman clearly does not believe in.

Update: At least one academic librarian, has written a very thoughtful, intelligent critique of Professor Chapman’s “case”. While he considers several points of Chapman’s argument, he sums it up quite well in saying,

The only economic issue specifically regarding homosexuality in the entire post is the claim that businesses expanding coverage makes it difficult for them. That’s the case for any benefits at all, though. If companies dropped all their health benefits, they’d be more profitable. Tens of millions of people would suffer horribly, but economic arguments don’t address that.


Try This At Home.

As a kid I had a chemistry set. I started out with it doing some of the more “educational” experiments, trying to learn serious stuff about chemistry, but then I realized I was only interested in making cool looking crystals or colors or blowing stuff up–which is why I added potassium permanganate and glycerin to my collection of chemicals. By the way, if you don’t know what potassium permanganate and glycerin do when mixed together and you have young children, go to the drugstore and buy some of each. Then take some modeling clay and form it into a volcano and put about a tablespoon of potassium permanganate crystals in it. Pour some glycerin on top of that, then stand back. It’s best if you do this experiment outside since there will be plenty of smoke.

In addition to attempting to burn down my parents’ house I also tried collecting as many elements in their pure (or almost pure) state as I could. I remember having samples of sulfur, lead, a small bottle of mercury I tried to freeze (unfortunately the freezer wouldn’t go down to -40), some zinc, and maybe a few others. I never did my hands on the ones I really wanted–selenium, bismuth, bromine, thorium, or arsenic. I didn’t want these elements because they were dangerous–I just wanted them because they were unusual and interesting.

For the ones I’ll never see in their real state, though, there’s Theodore Gray’s Photographic Periodic Table of the Elements. And it is so cool. They’re not just photos–many of the pictures also have a “spin” option so you can see a video of them, or of various compounds made with them, from multiple angles. It is just amazing. Check out the video of a large and incredibly beautiful bismuth crystal. Gray has just published a new book, The Elements, which also includes his photos, but I think his earlier book Mad Science is worth checking out too. It’s full of “don’t try this at home” stuff. But you know you want to.

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Animals of Egypt.

The November 2009 issue of National Geographic has a cover article on animal mummies of Egypt. I think anyone who’s even a little familiar with Egypt knows that cats were often mummified, getting the same reverential treatment as humans because of their importance to the goddess Bast. The diversity of animals preserved as mummies, though, is really amazing:

Behind glass panels lie cats wrapped in strips of linen that form diamonds, stripes, squares, and crisscrosses. Shrews in boxes of carved limestone. Rams covered with gilded and beaded casings. A gazelle wrapped in a tattered mat of papyrus, so thoroughly flattened by mummification that Ikram named it Roadkill. A 17-foot, knobby-backed crocodile, buried with baby croc mummies in its mouth. Ibises in bundles with intricate appliqués. Hawks. Fish. Even tiny scarab beetles and the dung balls they ate.

Amazing diversity, but not surprising. Crocodiles were sacred to the god Sobek, scarab beetles were symbols of eternal life (because they were believed to come from dung), and many gods are pictured either as animals or with animal heads–Thoth with the head of an ibis, Horus with the head of a falcon, Hathor the cow, and so on.

What’s really surprising, given the Egyptian love of animals, is how little role animals seem to play in mythology and literature. There is an old dialogue between a cat and a jackal, but these are apparently metaphorical, with the cat taking the position that everything has a divine design and the jackal arguing that the universe is random and chaotic.

In Egyptian mythology too the animal forms of gods seems to be symbolic, or incidental. Anubis guides to the dead because jackals are associated with carrion, and in the battle between Horus and Set, Set takes the form of both a scorpion and a black boar. The only Egyptian god I know of who’s really animalistic is Sekhmet, who takes the form of a giant lioness. In one story Sekhmet is created to punish humanity for not respecting the gods, but the gods lose control of her and she goes on a rampage. Humanity is only saved when the people get Sekhmet drunk by offering her a large amount of red-colored beer which she drinks thinking it’s blood. Snakes, which were revered but also feared, weren’t mummified, but they play a pretty prominent role in mythology. When Amun-Ra refuses to give up the throne Isis makes a poisonous snake which bites him. She holds the cure but only gives it to him on the condition that Horus is allowed to become pharaoh. And in some stories Osiris and Set are allies in the afterlife and travel with Amun-Ra in his boat at night and defend him against a giant snake.

In another Egyptian story, the Tale of Two Brothers, two brothers are driven apart by the unfaithful wife of one of them. The unmarried brother is killed and eventually his ka or soul goes into a bull and he gets his revenge against the wife. Bulls were revered–and mummified–but this is the only story I know in which an animal gets a really prominent part.

Then again maybe there were Egyptian animal tales that were strictly oral and never written down. It should be noted too that a lot of the animal parts that were mummified were food for the dead, with the “best cuts of beef, succulent ducks, geese, and pigeons” being “salted, dried, and wrapped in linen.” This gets to what most people think of as the Egyptian obsession with death, since they went to such great lengths to prepare and store their dead and give them a proper send-off into the afterlife.

I think the idea that the Egyptians were obsessed with death is a misinterpretation. It’s true that life wasn’t easy. The Egyptians depended on the Nile’s annual floods, and if it flooded too much or not enough their crops would be ruined and they’d be in danger of famine. And yet their intense preparations for the afterlife reveal a deep love of life because they wanted to carry over everything they enjoyed in this life–and that included pets. Preserving the memory of the dead was a way of keeping them alive–although there was a dark side to that too. The names of Hatshepsut and Akhenaton were scratched out after their deaths in an attempt to wipe out their existence. And the preservation techniques of the Egyptians worked, too. We’re still talking about them. We still remember them. We keep them alive.


Word Of The Week: November 7th, 2009.

In a classic Calvin & Hobbes strip (okay, technically they’re all classics–Bill Watterson is a genius) Calvin tells Hobbes that he likes to “verb words”. It’s the process of taking nouns and adjectives and turning them into verbs. He even gives an example: “Remember when ‘access’ was a thing? Now, it’s something you do.”

This didn’t originate with Calvin, obviously. Words have been verbed probably as long as there’s been language. A good example is tinker. Originally it was a noun. A tinker is a person who, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “A craftsman (usually itinerant) who mends pots, kettles, and other metal household utensils.” This word dates back at least to 1265–that’s the OED’s first recorded use, anyway, and the word probably had a long oral use before it was written down. The etymology is unknown, although maybe it’s onomatopoeic–just imagine the sound of someone working metal against metal. In Scotland and Northern Ireland tinkers were called tinklers, which I always thought was an entirely different profession, but that’s another story.

By 1658, what I think is now the most common usage of tinker appears:

To work at something (immaterial) clumsily or imperfectly, esp. in the way of attempted repair or improvement; also more vaguely, to occupy oneself about something in a trifling or aimless way; to trifle, potter.

And again that’s just the first recorded written example that the editors of the OED could find. People were probably tinkering with the meaning of tinker well before that.

Hobbes finishes that classic strip by saying, “Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding.” He’s missing the larger point, though, which is that language is not fixed. It’s constantly evolving and changing and being stretched. The beauty of language is that we can expand it by tinkering with it.


Un-Fairgrounds.

As a coin collector one of my best sources is the monthly Nashville flea market. For decades it’s been held at the state fairgrounds, but its future is uncertain because the fairgrounds is being closed down and sold to private developers. I feel like a part of my childhood is being taken away; I remember going to the flea market when I was four or five with my grandparents and an aunt. My grandfather would always joke, “We need to go. Your aunt is running short on fleas.” That was before I started collecting coins, and I don’t think I ever bought anything at the flea market then, but it didn’t matter. Plenty of people did–and still do.

The Nashville City Paper’s report on the closing asks, “Did elitism doom the fairgrounds?” And there may be some point to the suggestion that “the folks who make these types of Metro-centric decisions aren’t interested in stock car racing, fairs or flea markets.” Yes, there is stock car racing at the track that’s adjacent fairgrounds, but claims of elitism should be made carefully. The City Paper’s article starts with a comment about the city’s most prime real estate being its golf courses and parks, acreage “that is utilized by relatively few citizens, maintained by tax dollars, returns little or no profit and would be an absolute gold mine for developers”. I think it should be noted that parks and golf courses are more environmentally friendly than racetracks. And while the City Paper points out that the state fair drew 209,131 visitors (that’s more than 20,000 people per day) it doesn’t provide figures on stock car race attendance. Maybe closing the fairgrounds and its adjacent racetrack is part of a vast conspiracy to “shed the city’s perceived Hee-Haw image”, but it could just as easily be about the money.

Let me emphasize that I’m not in favor of closing the fairgrounds or the racetrack. It’s not just for flea markets and state fairs, after all. The annual Lawn And Garden Show has been held at the fairgrounds for several years, an event where spaces inside the drab buildings are turned into elegant gardens where you can find plants ranging from rainforest specimens to cacti. A friend of mine who’s a member of the Orchid Society of Middle Tennessee has helped put together spectacular displays that are worth the price of admission. I’m not sure where they’ll be next year–or if there will be a show at all.

The fairgrounds also hosts everything from gun and knife shows to bead and jewelry shows to computer sales. The Nashville Comic and Horror Festival and a dog show were held at the fairgrounds on the same weekend, proving just how versatile the space is.

And then there’s the flea market, where you can find tube socks, tubers, and tapeworms. You can find just about anything there. Unlike eBay, which is fine if you know what you’re looking for, the flea market is a place where, if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’re bound to find something. Admittedly most of the time I do know what I’m looking for and I head straight for the coin dealers, most of whom now recognize me even though they must see hundreds, if not thousands of different people. There’s a wonderful couple who, every month, drive up from Florida just to set up a booth at the Nashville flea market. They’ve been making the trip back and forth for more than twenty years. I wonder what will become of them when the flea market ends. Maybe they’re close to retiring anyway, but they’re not the only coin dealers–and not by any means the only small business owners who come to the flea market to sell things.

Flea markets aren’t unique–although every flea market is different, and lots of places have racetracks, but then again lots of places have fairs too. That doesn’t make them any less of a source of local pride and interest. The closing of the fairgrounds and racetrack is being compared, with good reason, to the closing of the Opryland Theme Park. Opryland was torn down and replaced with a mall that’s no different from malls across the country. The City Paper story is illustrated with a picture of an antique merry-go-round similar to one that Opryland had. While you could find roller coasters and bumper cars and, for that matter, merry-go-rounds at every theme park, Opryland’s merry-go-round was unique, more than a century old and restored to working order after fifty years in storage (information about the history of Opryland, including the merry-go-round, can be found here). A true work of art, that old merry-go-round has been returned to storage and may never run again. And now another landmark is going the same way. Tourism has been a very big part of Nashville’s economy, but I don’t see how it’s going to continue to be if the city keeps moving toward being like everywhere else.


Getting Real.

Anyone who’s taken any art history course that covers Impressionism has heard that photography was, at least in Western art, the beginning of the end of intensely representational work–including the academic work of artists like Jacques Louis David. Starting with the Impressionists it was all a downhill slide to Pollock and Rothko, right? Well, not exactly. Various Surrealists and Pop Artists were representational, and artists from the Wyeths to O’Keefe stand outside any particular school. And there have been numerous photo-realist artists, including Tom Palmore, whose work is covered in a book called Earthlings.

The title is significant. In science fiction movies and stories human beings are often greeted or referred to as “Earthlings”, but Palmore’s subjects are usually animals–and often chimpanzees. It’s a funny and poignant reminder that all life forms on this planet are Earthlings.

Palmore, like Jamie Wyeth, paints animals–occasionally people, but animals are his primary subject, and he’s more controlled with his brushwork than Wyeth, aiming for realism so intense you feel like you could reach out and touch the nose of the frog in this painting:

It’s called Big Billy, Portrait Of A Prince, which is the other thing that makes Palmore’s work interesting. He’s got a great sense of humor. If you haven’t already, check out the wallpaper behind Big Billy. Sometimes the humor is in the painting, sometimes it’s in the title, sometimes both, as in Curtain Call For Teresa.

I’ve studied art a lot and even when confronted with the weirdest, most challenging conceptual art I can usually fall back on what I’ve learned to get some idea of what the artist is trying to achieve. But with Tom Palmore’s art I don’t feel like I have to fall back on anything–instead I feel I’m falling into it.


Word Of The Week: October 31st, 2009

Having had pagan friends for most of my life, I’ve been familiar with the holiday Samhain, but it wasn’t until I looked it up that I realized it was not, at least to modern pagans, October 31st, but the day after, November 1st. I’m not sure why this is, although maybe the answer lies in the Oxford English Dictionary‘s definition, which says Samhain was “celebrated by the ancient Celts as a festival marking the beginning of winter and of the new year according to their calendar”. Since in the Northern hemisphere this time of year marks cooler weather, animals going into hibernation, the harvest, and death, it seems a strange time to call the new year–although not necessarily any stranger than January 1st, which falls in the middle of winter in the Northern hemisphere and the middle of summer in the Southern. Maybe the Celts were being optimistic. Maybe starting the new year at a time when so many things were ending was their way of noting the promise of renewal. And renewal would come with Samhain’s May counterpart, Beltane, but that’s another story. Clearly this was, and is, a time of change, and the Celts decided to celebrate rather than resist it. As the poet Robin Skelton says in his poem Samhain,

celebrate the riches we’ve known, the profusion,
the births, the deaths, the ever changing history,
finding in fire a vision beyond illusion,
welcoming the holiness and mystery.

For now, though, it’s still Halloween–my favorite time to put on a costume and celebrate the season. Guess who I’ve decided to be this year.


Dangerous Jobs.

About once a month my wife buys eighty pounds of raw chicken necks which I then run through a meat grinder, pack into containers, and freeze. Now I know what you’re thinking: Hey, call me the next time because I’d like to get in on that! Seriously, you’re probably wondering why anyone in their right mind would do such a thing. The jury’s still out on the question of whether I’m in my right mind, but I do have a good reason. We have three dogs and feed them what’s known as the BARF diet. Supposedly that’s an acronym for Bones And Raw Food, a diet that tries to mimic what dogs would eat in the wild–minus the fur, feathers, and assorted diseases and parasites.

I take plenty of precautions while handling raw chicken because of the risk of salmonella, but I think this is the most dangerous job that I’ll do. And it doesn’t begin to compare to anything in Wired magazine’s list of the best dangerous science jobs, which include:


Cadbury Is Too Cool For School.

For some reason Cadbury bars, which are, I think, as synonymous with chocolate in Britain as Hershey bars are here, are kind of hard to find around here. About the only time I see anything made by Cadbury is either in the “imports” section of the grocery or around Easter when they start selling crème eggs. Maybe that’ll change, though, with Cadbury’s new cool image that’s helping the company’s sales. It might have changed a few months ago when Kraft tried to buy Cadbury but was turned down. And that’s a good thing. Honestly, can you imagine what the same company that makes Velveeta would do to Cadbury bars?

Anyway, as Marketplace reports, Cadbury has run two new cool ads, neither one of which actually tells you anything about Cadbury bars. The one with the gorilla is kind of weird and funny, but I really prefer this one with the racing airport vehicles:

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Ben Walker, who’s with a British advertising agency, said, “I would imagine a couple of years ago my perception of Cadbury might have been slightly old and fusty…” And even though he says he loved the gorilla ad, the fact that it doesn’t say anything about Cadbury bars made him ask “is that a good advert?” Apparently it was good: Cadbury’s sales went up by more than ten percent.

This is a company that’s been around since 1824, and while it’s hard not to get fusty when you’re almost two-hundred years old, it’s great that Cadbury is finding ways to reinvent itself. The ads almost seem like they’re promoting Cadbury’s coolness. The message could be, “We don’t need to tell you what a Cadbury bar is. Here’s a funny movie.”

One thing I’m pretty sure has changed, though, is that Cadbury doesn’t use random groups of school kids as focus groups. This was something they did even before “focus groups” became common parlance. Roald Dahl writes about this in his book Boy. Every kid at his school would get a plain cardboard box of twelve chocolate bars, and they “knew intimately every chocolate bar in existence”. Cadbury used Dahl and his fellow students as testers, and, I think, this was really the beginning of his career as a writer, since they’d have to write comments about each bar they tried. He says “Too subtle for the common palate” was one comment he remembers writing, and then adds,

I have no doubt at all that, thirty-five years later, when I was looking for a plot for my second book for children, I remembered those little cardboard boxes and the newly-invented chocolates inside them, and I began to write a book called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Even though it inspired at least one great writing career the risks of throwing chocolate bars at a random group of kids today would just be too great, but that’s okay. Cadbury is old school and still cool.


Disturbing The Cleese.

There’s something weird about October 27th. Both Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath were born on this day, in 1914 and 1932 respectively. Maybe this is just a coincidence, though. You could probably take any day and find that it’s the birthday of several famous people. For instance, John Cleese was also born on October 27th, in 1939.

And while it’s oddly fitting that one member should have a birthday in the same month that Monty Python celebrates its fortieth year, let’s not forget that John Cleese also gave us A Fish Called Wanda and Fawlty Towers. Episodes of Fawlty Towers have actually been used as instructional videos for hotel managers, which isn’t surprising since he made the sitcom after he did a series of instructional films for business. I’ve seen one of those instructional films. It was called More Bloody Meetings and it was almost funny enough to make me forget I was at work. And if you want to know what the real Cleese is like, pick up the biography Cleese Encounters. He’s surprisingly humble and private–or maybe that isn’t so surprising. His best friend was Graham Chapman, proving that opposites really do attract.

Happy birthday, Mr. Cleese. Here’s one of my favorite Monty Python bits.

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