Saturday, April 30, 2011

Can Dogs Think?

When I was in college, I had a biology teacher who was thoroughly convinced that animals could not think. We had an ongoing argument that caused us to consume astonishing amounts of coffee in the university inn while we presented our latest arguments. He said that non-human mammals reacted by moving toward food, or away from pain. The things that made it seem as if they were thinking were patterns hard-wired into their brain.

Anyone who has ever had a dog knows better, although the professor was correct in his claim that a dog is focused primarily on food and companionship, almost as much as most of the people I know. Whenever we start to leave our house, our dog gives us this look that says, ‘you’re leaving and I will never see you again.’ Reassurance that we will return never seems to work and usually results in a loud sigh that communicates the idea of ‘yeah right, like I should believe that.’

Food seems to be a close second to the worry over the human members of the family becoming lost. ‘You forgot to feed me,’ becomes a point of contention, as does the quality of the food placed in the food bowl. When I left the restaurant a few days ago, I wrapped up the remains of my T-bone steak and carried it home to Rocky. After sniffing the offering for several seconds, he swallowed the strip of meat without bothering to chew. He then looked at the bowl and back at my eyes several times to let me know that I was improving with my selection of food. Rather than assuming that dogs don’t think, maybe we should work on the problem of people not thinking. If I interpret Rocky’s expression correctly, he is saying, ‘this is what I want to eat. Do you get it?’

Saturday, April 23, 2011

What Easter Means to the World

What Easter Means to the World

While I am a Christian, I do not normally use this website to try to force my beliefs on the people who read my articles, but this is an especially sad time for people all across the world. We have had natural disasters that have affected millions of people. There has been famine, war, lost jobs, and a runaway economy that will not become better next year, or perhaps not in the year to come. Many of the people I know have recently experienced personal tragedy, and that is one of the hardest things to understand. Why me? is the question all of us ask, and it is a question that is hard to answer, but let me try.

To be alive, really alive, is to know pain and anguish. Who among us would want an existence in which we felt little, or nothing, in response to human suffering? Anything worth having in life can be lost, and as a result, we suffer. Suffering is the most accurate measurement of love, for those things we love most are the hardest to turn loose of when the time comes.

As the clock moves toward Easter morning, people all around the world will stop to remember what Easter has to offer to each of us. There will be the hiding of Easter eggs and the presentations of baskets and other gifts to smiling children. None of this is bad unless it overshadows the real meaning of this holy day. Others will read slowly through the passages that tell us about that first Easter, with the sense of wonder it deserves. Many of us will leave early for a church service to hear the message, the songs, and the fellowship of friends. There is hope in all of these things, for that is the real meaning of Easter. I think Paul Wilbur has expressed the hopes of millions of us in his moving video, ‘Baruch haba b’Shem Adonai, that you can see and hear by clicking on the title to this post.

‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’

Friday, April 22, 2011

Who Is Watching You?

As technology continues to advance, most Americans are becoming increasingly concerned over their privacy. Banks and financial institutions send out notices concerning the amount of information they are sharing with other organizations. The wording on these notices attempts to soothe us into accepting their claim that they would do nothing to invade our privacy, when in fact they are releasing information that is anything but innocuous.

Few people are aware of how many ways companies and private individuals can invade their privacy. If you have been on the Internet for a long period of time, various sources will have accumulated a vast amount of information about you, and it doesn’t take a hacker to gain possession of this information. None of us intend to lay bare every tiny detail of our existence, but we do, a crumb at a time in emails to our friends or things we post on forums. None of it ever goes away and will be there for employers searching you out after you put in your résumé.

Sitting in a doctor’s waiting room for my first visit, I noticed the young woman at the reception desk was spending a long time at her computer. Thirty minutes later when I talked to the doctor’s nurse, she asked me some questions that she could only have known from an Internet search. Nothing alarming, but enough to make me aware of the ease in which people can find that elusive piece of information they are seeking.

Government law enforcement agencies can locate you anywhere if you are carrying a cellular phone by pinging your phone and triangulating the response through three different towers. Congress is demanding answers concerning a piece of software installed on iPad. It is alleged to contain an application that will track and record your every movement. It will only be a matter of days until hackers will be able to access this from their phone and track where you have been at any moment of the day or night. To me that is a little scary. The stalkers are, no doubt, waiting in line for access to this new application. Click on the title to this article and it will carry you to an article on the investigation by certain congressional members.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Music, Music, Music!

The news media always wants us to think that we are on the brink of some disaster of the other. I am especially bothered by some of the guys on CNN and on Fox news who are permanently out of breath, gasping from one disaster to another. We are told that bad things are getting worse, and the worse is yet to come.

I was especially delighted when I ran across a video made sometime last year showing the Russian leader dancing to the tune, ‘American Boy.’ Can things really be so bad when the leader of a country that is supposed to be stodgy and humorless, can turn into a preppy kid when the band starts playing?

Don’t take my word for it. Click on the title of this story and judge for yourself.


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

American Myths

It has always been astonishing to me that there are so many incorrect things that are commonly believed that are actually false. Writers should check and double check their sources of information and try to be accurate, because many people are going to read what you write and some of them will believe it. In the sixteenth century Thomas Cardinal Woolsey gave some very good advice. He said: “Be very, very careful what you put in your head, because you will never, ever get it out” There are a lot of myths that are believed by almost everyone, simply because our parents, friends, or teachers told us. Here are a few of them.

Some myths are actually harmless. One example is the idea that fingernails and hair continues to grow after death. Actually, the skin shrinks away from the hair root and also from the fingernails making it appear that they have become longer.

Rice will explode the stomachs of birds and kill them, thus the switch to throwing birdseed at weddings. There are municipal rules in some areas that forbid the practice of throwing rice at weddings, but it has nothing to do with birds. Rice can be slippery if thrown on a concrete surface and cause humans to fall. Many birds include rice as a part of their daily diet. If you drop rice into water it will not expand as the myth claims. It must be placed in boiling water. If the birds that attend your wedding are full of boiling water, then beware of the practice.

A picture known as ‘The Surgeon’s Photograph’ proves the existence of the Loch Ness Monster. The creator of the photograph later admitted that he had faked the picture to create a hoax, yet almost no one believed his confession

The curse of Tutankhamen was unleashed by Howard Carter who opened the tomb of King Tut after ignoring the inscription at the door of the tomb. Actually there were such curses at many Egyptian tombs, but none at the tomb of King Tut. Carter did die a short time later, but all of his fellow workers lived for many years after.

The British army performed the outrageous act of burning the American Capitol Building for no good reason during the war of 1812. Actually, the American troops burned the Canadian capitol the previous year and the British were only trying to get even.

Everyone learned in their high school science classes that the cariolis effect causes water being discharged from a bathtub or a commode to swirl counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere, and clockwise in the southern. Actually, it can twirl in either direction because the cariolis effect is too weak to have any effect on running water.

These were a few of my favorite myths. What are yours?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Max Takes No Prisoners

Several years ago, a feral cat took up residence in a shed at the back of our lot. There was no way you could get close to the beast. We would sometimes get a glimpse of her, usually nothing more than a fleeting shadow in the underbrush. We would put out food for the cat but it was seldom touched. There were too many small rodents among the brush and honeysuckle vines for canned cat food to offer any temptation. Over a period of months, she would look back at us from across the distance, but it was impossible to approach her. We named her Maize, after an eccentric young woman in R. T. Delderfield’s novel, God is an Englishman.

One day when I went to check her food bowl, there was a little of it missing. Not a lot, but just enough to let us know that she had tried it, but found it far short of her usual fare. A few days later, I started out the backdoor and found a mole on the welcome mat. When I turned it over with the toe of my shoe, I saw the impressions of small teeth on the back of the mole’s skull. I didn’t know if this was her version of the famous scene from The Godfather, or if it was a hint for something a little more suitable to her taste. It took several years before we could coax her to our back steps. Another summer passed before we were able to make physical contact, and then it wasn’t in the way I imagined. I remained motionless in a lawn chair as she approached from underneath the azaleas. I could hear the faint sound of her sniffing, then the light touch of whiskers along the back of the hand I had dangled over the arm of the chair. After a short and tentative exploration, she was gone.

By the end of the next summer, we were finally able to run a hand along the top of her back. Maize tolerated it in the same way a drama queen will allow a kindly old grandfather to pat her on top of her head. The back lawn was her kingdom and she tolerated our presence, although her acquiescence was usually accompanied with a regal toss of her head.

The daily routine changed somewhat with the appearance of a large tomcat on our back steps. He was bigger than she was and didn’t seem to understand the rules. He had the appetite of a Shetland pony and ate everything we put in front of him. We named him Max. Maize became more affectionate, often rubbing against our legs and giving us an imploring look that seemed to say, ‘I was here first.’

After a few weeks of Max’ appearance, Maize decided that the best way to handle the situation was indifference. When indifference didn’t work, she would give him a swift swipe with her claws that would send him skittering backwards. He seemed bewildered but never discouraged, despite the frequent putdowns. The situation was the kind of tangled scenario that reminded me of my first year in junior high.

One afternoon as both cats were eating their evening meal on our patio, a large Pit Bulldog appeared and confiscated their dinner. They disappeared into the top of a nearby tree. Max seemed offended by the outrageous intrusion, while Maize became somewhat withdrawn. We started feeding the cats on an upstairs deck of a storage shed where the dog couldn’t reach them, but still put out food on the back step to keep them coming to the door. We didn’t want Maize to revert to her former feral behavior.

Yesterday, Maize picked her way daintily to the backdoor. I was preparing to get her a snack when the pit bull appeared and started toward her with its head lowered in attack mood. There was a sudden explosion of activity from underneath the azaleas. Max launched himself directly toward the dog’s head. The surprised dog gave a little yelp, then turned and ran. Max was on his heels as they rounded the corner of the house and went across the front lawn toward the road. A few minutes later, Max was back. He has always had a springy walk, but this time he was prancing like one of the characters in a Walt Disney cartoon. Maize was as impressed as I was and ran to meet him. They sniffed each other’s nose and then started licking tongues. I don’t know why I never have a camera handy when the good stuff happens, but I would have liked to have captured this incident on video. Romance is definitely in the air. I think this is going to be an interesting summer.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Royal Wedding

No one can deny that Americans have a love relationship with British Royal Family, which should not be the case considering the fact that we fought two wars to be rid of them. American children read countless stories containing a prince or princess, and these stories are among the most exciting things we read as a child. What would our life have been if we had not had a sword like Lancelot’s to defend our Guinevere? There were few girls who were not a princess at frequent intervals, complete with crown and a dazzling array of jewels. It should not surprise us when we read about the many millions who impatiently await the grand event later in the month. Most of us can identify the individual members of the royal family when we see them, while we don’t even know the members of our own government, or what, if anything, they do. The wedding of Catherine and William will be the most dazzling event in this century, full of pomp and circumstance, or maybe not so much if William and Harry were to have their say. Click on the title of this story to see one man’s version of the event. It probably won’t turn out this way, but one can only hope.

Monday, April 11, 2011

UFO Report

By now, many of you have read the reports released yesterday by the government under the Freedom of Information Act. These reports document UFO sightings since 1947, which is the date the federal government began to document these events. There are other reports that date back to the beginning of recorded history. One of the earliest by a reliable witness was from a Chinese official named Shen Kuo about 1050 A.D. He stated that the object he saw was like a large pearl that radiated a bright light. There are other records that date much further into antiquity, mostly consisting of paintings by medieval artist, and stone carvings that show human-like figures with a circle around their head, having a resemblance to the helmet of a space suit.

UFO enthusiasts are taking an ‘I told you so,’ attitude about the reports. These files mostly consist of documents from various military and government agencies sent to the FBI. Accompanying these reports are some photographs that show cigar and saucer shaped objects aloft. Most of the pictures are indistinct and were made from a great distance. There are others showing small human-like creatures that were purported to have been taken from three UFOs that crashed in New Mexico in 1947. If you discount the hoaxes, the sightings of familiar objects under doubtful conditions, you still have from 5 to 20% of them that can’t be readily explained.

A report in 1960 by the Brookings Institute speculates about the nature of the sightings, and suggests that the reluctance of the Federal Government to support their own evidence might have a cultural explanation. Proponents of the ‘Young Earth Theory’ find no reason to support assumptions that might challenge their current religious beliefs. Vatican scientists have wisely advanced the possibility that their might be civilizations in other solar systems. There is also a supposition by some physicists who believe that parallel universes might exist, requiring the inhabitants to cross through a nearby ‘portal’ to enter our world.

Regardless of how these reports or the various theories fit into your current beliefs, it will be interesting to see how this develops in the coming months and years. Government files maintained by the various investigative agencies of the federal government contain what is called ‘raw information,’ the product of cramming every piece of paper into the current filing system and keeping it there forever. Some of it consists of unsubstantiated reports full of rumors, gossip, and well thought out lies. It requires experts with a well-developed sense of what is, or is not, plausible. Sloppy techniques can result in a debacle like we had during the run up of the Iraq invasion.

So what do you think? Are UFOs real, and if they are, who are these creatures that are invading our world, and what are their intentions? Are they benevolent creatures, spiritual perhaps, or are they mercenaries like the ones in science fiction? If Orson Wells was still around he would have a field day with this.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Susan LeFever Fugitive Story

If you failed to see Oprah today, you missed one of the most fascinating stories to come along in a long time. Oprah’s guest was Susan LeFevre, who was sentenced to 10-20 years for a minor drug offense when she was 19 years old. LeFever had been promised probation, but instead started serving her sentence in a Michigan prison. She managed to escape by going over a fence, made her way to California where she married and raised three children. She was a well-respected member of her community, played tennis, served on committees, and performed community service. He husband or family did not know who she was until the police appeared at her door 32 years later. LeFever’s story has been published at Createspace and will be available on Amazon soon. The title is, ‘A tale of Two Lives – The Susan LeFever Fugitive Story.'
I would say that this book has a story that none of us want to miss.

Dialogue in Period Fiction

I just finished an excellent book about the lives of three young women during the WWII era. The book raised an issue with which writers of historical fiction have to wrestle. The issue involves dialogue and the presentation of details that will make the story believable. James A. Michener discussed this once in a magazine interview after several history writers borrowed some ‘facts’ from Michener’s books in the belief that they were accurate. When the reporter complained to Michener that his fictionalized accounts were having a diverse effect on real history, he defended his position.

‘You have to be inaccurate in order to be accurate on occasions,’ he explained. An example he used concerned the wardrobe of the average young woman during the mid eighteen hundreds. Unless she was extremely wealthy, she wouldn’t be likely to own more than two nice dresses. Michener explained that an author was required to fudge somewhat on these ‘facts,’ or he/she would present an inaccurate picture of the person’s social status. Today’s readers, with a wardrobe that would fill a closet to overflowing, would not identify with a Scarlett O’Hara who was dressed in drab clothes or a Lancelot who carried a rusty sword.

This raises an interesting point regarding problems with the WWII book I mentioned above. Language evolves rather quickly and each generation invents their own sound bytes and catch phrases. Whenever you leave a convenience store, you are asked to ‘have a nice day.’ Or if the young lady waiting on you is really with it, she might want you to ‘have a blessed day.’ If you spend some time around the younger generation, you are likely to hear WHAT-ehv-errr, accompanied by an eye roll or two. There is also a problem with exasperation, which will evoke the word, Fine! accompanied by a lot of lateral lip movement.

So my question is this: Does words or phrases like Tiger Blood® (recently trademarked by Charlie Sheen), WHAT-ehv-errr, or Fine have a legitimate place in period fiction? Or to put it another way, is departing too much from today’s vernacular for the sake of accuracy a good idea? What do you think?