Regions of Mind

Self-assured but self-questioning.

U.S. regionalism,
foreign policy,
politics, life.

Geitner Simmons is an editorial writer with the Omaha World-Herald.
This weblog expresses his personal views only.
He is also
a Midwesterner,
a Southerner,
a husband, a father, a son. And always
a student.

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of note:
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Thursday, June 12

Regions of Mind has moved to a new location, here.

My thanks to everyone who has stopped by here over the past year.

Wednesday, June 11

I am intending to launch the new site for this blog on Thursday. The name will remain Regions of Mind. An upcoming post here will provide the new URL. See you then.

Tuesday, June 10
Is it the Christian cross -- or only Thor's hammer?

A boar spear could be quite an effective combat tool when wielded by a Viking who understood its qualities.

Not far from the spear’s tip was a short metal bar secured at a perpendicular angle to the spear’s shaft. A Viking fighter could remain at a safe distance, use the metal bar to hook an opponent’s shoulder and rip into it. Or, if the opponent was using a shield, the Viking could use the metal bar to grab the shield’s edge and force the shield aside; with his opponent thus exposed, the Viking could make a quick lunge and skewer him.

The techniques of Viking combat were one of the points explained during a Viking re-enactor program at the recent Tivolifest, a Danish heritage celebration in Elk Horn, Iowa. Two groups of Viking re-enactors (one from Omaha, the other from Minnesota) set up an elaborate 11th century camp, demonstrated medieval crafts and put on a series of mock battles in a nearby field. I and my family were among those in attendance. It was quite a way to spend a late Sunday afternoon.

The mock battle began with two groups of about six Viking fighters each facing each other and shouting provocative remarks (in some Norse tongue). Then, with shields close together in phalanx-like fashion, the two sides slowly moved toward each other, grunting and banging their swords on their shields until the fighters came within striking distance of each other.

The Omaha re-enactors have Web pages here and here.

The most fearsome-looking Viking fighter was covered with black and brown animal skins and was referred to as a “berserker.” Berserkers were infamous as crazed fighters. Some would enter combat naked. Most drank a powerful drink that would narcotize them, feeding their rage even as it heightened their ability to tolerate pain. Berserkers grew increasingly reckless and uncontrollable outside the battlefield, to the point that authorities felt obliged to reign them in:

In 1015 King Erik outlawed berserks, along with holmganga or duels ... it had become a common practice for a berserker to challenge men of property to holmgang, and upon slaying the unfortunate victim, to take possession of his goods, wealth, and women. This was a difficult tactic to counter, since a man so challenged had to appear, have a champion fight for him, or else be named ni(dh)ingr, a coward.

The re-enactors included a wide range of Viking types, from a Viking who was part of an elite guard for the Byzantine Empire around 1000 to a Viking trader called “Ivor the Rus.” As the re-enactors’ Web site explains,

In order to be able to keep the fancy of all his customers, Ivor would’ve had to make it possible to claim both of the popular religions of the time. Simply by changing the way a piece of jewelry hung from his neck, he could show favor for one or the other, pagan or Christian. The usual, Thor’s Hammer, that most Viking men wore as a talisman of the Norse thunder god, was simply fashioned in such a way as to allow the wearer to invert it and portray the Christian symbol of the Cross.

One female re-enactor, representing a Viking woman in Russia, explained that in Viking culture, married women were obliged to cover their hair.

A male re-enactor, representing an “Anglo-Dane” in medieval England, noted that during the Vikings’ day, chain mail was expensive and used only by the well-to-do, whereas leather was cheap and widely available. Today, though, the opposite is true: Re-enactors who use chain mail, he said, don’t have to pay much for the metal they use. But re-enactors using leather have to pay quite a bit.

By the way: In 1999, at the very end of my North Carolina days, my final historical project at my old newspaper examined a Spanish expedition that traveled through Piedmont North Carolina in the 1560s. In putting that series of articles together, I had the privilege of working with an outstanding historical re-enactment group from Florida. The group specializes in 16th century Spanish explorer re-enactment. I plan to post on Spanish explorer topics here at some point in the not-too-distance future. Fascinating stuff.

No wimpy Dukakis, he

John Kerry may speak dreamily to the ideals of liberal Democrats, but he also knows how to use a gun.

And how to bring down doves.

And then skin ’em and eat ’em.

From the Washington Post:

The hat was a little mildewy. The green camouflage was fading, the seams fraying.

"My good luck hat," Kerry said, happy to see it. "Given to me by a CIA guy as we went in for a special mission in Cambodia."

Kerry put on the hat, pulling the brim over his forehead. His blue button-down shirt and tie clashed with the camouflage. He pointed his finger and raised his thumb, creating an imaginary gun. He looked silly, yet suddenly his campaign message was clear: Citizen-soldier. Linking patriotism to public service. It wasn't complex after all; it was Kerry.

He smiled and aimed his finger: "Pow."

(via a listserv run by Democratic activist/law student/blogger Wyeth Ruthven)

By the way: In their respective campaigns for the U.S. Senate, Nebraska Democrats Bob Kerrey and Ben Nelson have both played up their hunting enthusiasm during campaign time. Nelson succeeded Kerrey in 2000, when Kerrey opted not to seek re-election.

The wrong niche

Have you ever bought a product that was out of your “demographic”?

That was the case this week when my wife bought a modest cell phone. Although it has a sober silver design and fully meets our needs, the phone is geared toward teen-agers in several ways. One of its features is an option to receive daily updates from MTV.

Like, I don’t think so.

By the way: On a serious note, I heard on the radio program “Marketplace” this morning that teens are beginning to receive a lot of spam in their daily e-mail -- spam that includes pornographic material. I cringe at that, considering how graphic some of the material is that turns up in spam I receive.

Monday, June 9
Trade obstacles to our south

This article from In The National Interest explains how Brazil’s government remains an obstacle in promoting a Free Trade Area of the Americas. The piece also notes how frictions with the United States have undercut Mexico’s clout in promoting regional trade agreements:

Originally one of the main proponents of the FTAA, Mexico has been forced to build its own coalition after falling out of favor with the United States. Turning to its much-neglected neighbors to the south, Mexico is negotiating a free-trade agreement with Central America. President Vicente Fox has campaigned hard to gather a following for the Plan Puebla-Panama, a free-trade area that would unite the region from Mexico in the north to Panama in the south.

However, following Mr. Fox’s announcement that he would not support a U.S.-led intervention in Iraq , things have gotten harder for Mexico and -- in terms of negotiating trade treaties -- Mexico has lost some if its bargaining power. No longer viewed as the bridge to the U.S., a trade agreement with Mexico is not as critical as it was just a few months ago. As a result, the Central American nations -- in an attempt to hedge their bets -- have also begun negotiations for a free-trade agreement with the United States.

Big-media reporters and their city-mice ways

Predictable, but still infuriating: Reporters from the New York and London newspapers were polite in interviewing folks in the North Carolina mountain town where Eric Rudolph was arrested, but in their articles they unfairly trashed the town’s reputation. As described in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article:

Murphy residents are equally outraged by the way they believe the town has been portrayed to the world -- as a cousin-marrying, white lightning-swiggin', backward-stepping, white-supremacist-infested stronghold.

"The most frustrating thing is, you talk to these (media) people face to face, they're complimentary about your town -- telling us this is the nicest spot for covering news they've been in -- and then they get back and you can't believe what they write," said Tammi Johnson, manager of the Daily Grind, a gourmet coffee and wine shop.

Mayor Bill Hughes, retired from the Cherokee County school system, has an article from the New York Times and two from the London Times on his desk. Hughes is in disbelief about what he has just finished reading. ...

A London Times writer described Murphy as full of "aging sawmills and Baptist churches."

"Have you seen a sawmill since you've been here?" Hughes asked. "They make it sound like everybody up here can't walk straight because of cousin inbreeding," said the mayor, who has three degrees in education.

Yes, that’s just what they do: The parachute-journalists-as-piranhas find it easy to resort to stereotypes. I’ve seen that happen here in Nebraska, the same as I did back in North Carolina.

GOP anger; high art and urban landscapes; the Brown decision

  • Boy, are Republican activists in South Dakota cheesed off at this Democrat (and it’s not Tom Daschle).

  • Excellent op-ed piece at the NYT about how Lincoln Center is part of a failed urban vision from the 1950s and ’60s:

    Like the acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center has never really worked. This island of culture stands apart from the city like a fortress, with an elevated plaza on the east offering a lukewarm welcome to one segment of society while concrete walls shut off the less fortunate segment represented by the public housing to the west. Centers like this deaden urban street life, bringing a rush of traffic and human activity all at one time and then lying almost dormant the rest of the day, like a stadium without a game.

    So it seems almost inevitable that the New York Philharmonic would leave Avery Fisher to return to its ancestral home, Carnegie Hall, declared an anachronism in the era of urban renewal. The alleged outdatedness of Carnegie Hall was part of the rationale for Lincoln Center's construction in the 1960's. In fact, it is Lincoln Center that is outdated, even though 70 years newer. ...

    the Philharmonic's move is like a shot heard around the world. This could begin the undoing of the country's islands of culture -- some with streets, some without -- from Miami to Dallas to Washington that sit in isolated glory, strangers in their own neighborhoods.

  • I knew that some New England states place great emphasis on municipal government, but I had no idea that county government, in Maine at least, is such a nonentity. The governor’s budget package includes a push to consolidate town governments into regional entities; the measure is meeting much resistance from the public.

  • DNA testing is used to resolve uncertainties over the death of Billy the Kid. Reports the article: “The goal now, he said, is to compare genetic evidence of Catherine Antrim -- the woman believed to be the Kid's mother, who died in 1874 and is buried in Silver City, N.M. -- and of Brushy Bill, who lived out his life in Texas.” Genetic testing is being used in Kansas, too, to look into the demise of Jesse James. xavier Basora sent me a link to a National Post article on that, but the link is no longer viable due to my tardiness.

  • Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education; Chris Scott points that out at the Insecure Egoist. Chris links to an article explaining how a South Carolina case was consolidated into the Brown case. I imagine I’ll have several posts next year on the Brown topic, given that it includes the intersection of race, history, the Midwest and the South. If that isn’t something that I’d post on, nothing is.

  • Jim Bakker has returned to TV.

    Sorry, this is all I have time for right now. I’ve spent most of my normal blogging time working on the new site for this blog. The new site will make its appearance in a few days.

  • Friday, June 6
    More on Raines

    While the topic of Howell Raines' resignation is still fresh, I'll mention this vivid graf from a Village Voice piece last April on the Raines regime at the NYT (I ran across the article while researching a non-Raines-related topic today):

    According to insiders, Raines is the kind of 1950s-style autocrat who manages through humiliation and fear. Aside from right-hand men Gerald Boyd and Andy Rosenthal and a core of loyalists, morale is said to be at a new low. There are many rooms in that palace and nobody sees the whole picture. But, says one source, "the old timers who lived through the worst of [former executive editor] Abe Rosenthal say they have never seen anyone be so arrogant, so petty, so mean. Vindictiveness is in." Another source says, "It's no longer about managing down. It's about paying obeisance to the king." Among cognoscenti, 43rd Street is now known as the "republic of fear."

    A familiar irony

    The oddity of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, whose membership includes unapologetically thuggish regimes, is frequently pointed out. The same irony was demonstrated this week in a U.N. conference touting the importance of democracy. Democratic change is a legitimate and important topic, but the U.N. gathering was held in Beirut -- the capital of a country with a sham democracy. Did anyone at the conference speak out forcefully against the strangling of Lebanese democracy by Syrian puppet masters? I hope so, but I doubt it.

    The article I link to reports that "Butros Butros Ghali spoke of the necessity of instilling the democratic principles inside the United Nations and the participation of non-governmental sides in forming norms and resolutions pertaining to the future of the globe." Handing NGOs even more power on the international stage: Now that would promote U.S. interests and security, wouldn't it?

    Onto to Omaha Beach

    Next year will mark the 60th anniversary of D-Day; hard to believe. Today, of course, marks the 59th.

    Shortly after he issued the order for the launch of D-Day, Dwight Eisenhower wrote the following note; he ordered an aide to release it immediately to the press if the invasion proved a debacle:

    Our landings in the Cherbourg-Harve area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.


    July 5

    A facsimile of the message, written in pencil on a plain white pad, is available here. Yes, Eisenhower mistakenly dated the message "July 5."

    As I've mentioned here on occasion, Eisenhower and I are directly related. We both have a common 18th century ancestor back in the Palatine region of Germany. Children of that German immigrated to Pennsylvania. Some descendants eventually moved south (my maternal forebears) while others moved west (Eisenhower's forebears).

    By the way: This info, including the URL, comes from Friend 3, whose observations have made occasional appearances here and who writes today that he "is looking forward to the new location" of Regions of Mind.

    And: My new blog goes up sometime next week. Won't be any radical change from this one. But I hope to say goodbye to the technical problems that have become a hassle for myself and for visitors here. Have a good weekend, everyone.

    Thursday, June 5
    More spats among the Dems

    Work on my new blog is progressing. But I'm still posting here for the time being. Anyway, to business:

    The jousting between the Democratic Party's centrist and staunchly liberal factions continues. Harold Meyerson of The American Prospect fired back at the Democratic Leadership Council in a Washington Post op-ed piece. (Here is a related TAPPED post.)

    Notable quotes from the Meyerson piece:
    This year, the Democrats can only benefit from offering voters a major program that will make health care more attainable, affordable and secure. ...

    Lieberman is the only candidate who has forsworn all populism, and for whom the very notion of playing class politics -- even against an administration that has unceasingly waged class politics in behalf of the rich to the detriment of everyone else -- is anathema.
    In their zeal to demonize liberals, though, From and Reed miss the pragmatism that informs today's movement.

    How the Gephardt's health-care proposal, which Meyerson praises, can be accurately labeled "pragmatic" is beyond me. Philip Terzian, of the Providence Journal, pegged it right in a recent column (I'm not bothering to provide a link because registration is required):

    Huge, unwieldy, immensely expensive, a bewildering combi­nation of tax hikes, unfunded mandates and gigantic subsidies to large corporations, the Gep­hardt proposal is (in the words of a friendly Time reporter) “a clas­sic Old Democratic plan, pegged to a constituency that is shrivel­ing: the Big America of Rust Belt manufacturing and trade unions."

    Gephardt's opponents [the other Democratic presidential contenders during the recent South Carolina debate] were momentarily caught off guard.

    Their first reaction was to con­centrate on the plan's estimated expense ($247 billion per year and counting), its burdensome cost to entrepreneurs and small business, and the odds against its ever surviving congressional scrutiny. But their second reac­tion was pragmatic: Gephardt's plan may be delusional, but at least it's a plan.

    In the absence of any other overarching issue, Richard Gep­hardt had made his call for uni­versal mandatory health insur­ance the Democratic litmus test for 2004.

    For their part, leaders with the DLC had some fun this week by tweaking liberal Democrats attending a meeting of the Campaign for America's Future, a group formed in the '90s. Wrote the DLCers:

    We cannot regain the White House if we raise new doubts in Americans' minds about Democrats, or if we deepen, rather than rebut, the lingering doubt that Karl Rove and company exploited in the midterm elections: that too many Americans don't much trust us to protect them against terrorists and other threats to our national security. We're not convinced that your panel on "Next Stages for the Peace Movement" will reassure the country on this count. We will continue to speak out for an assertive, principled American role in the world, and bold, smart measures to make America safer at home. ...

    But let's not make the next several months a test of who's the loudest, maddest Democrat. ...

    Again, best of luck at your conference. If you join us in the effort to make the Democratic Party's support broader and deeper, there will be more than enough of that Ben & Jerry's ice cream and Newman's Organic Cookies to go around.


    On another matter, Democrats are stepping up their PR offensive against Republicans -- not just through Al Franken's verbal drubbing of Bill O'Reilly (a scene very heartening to the political left, I'd imagine) but also through the formation of a $10 million think tank/PR apparatus explicitly intended as a left-wing counterpart to the Heritage Foundation. there's nothing wrong with that; we'll just have to see how the institution fares in the marketplace of ideas and in public reaction.


    On a Democratic-related note, here is the text of a short editorial in today's Omaha World-Herald:

    Activists with the Nebraska Democratic Party will no longer call their annual get-together the Jefferson-Jackson dinner. Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder, and Andrew Jackson was a slaughterer of Indians, Democrats said in explaining their decision. (Of course, both men were also towering figures in the creation of the modern concept of democracy.) Will Democrats also boycott, out of high principle, any Lewis and Clark activities? That would seem logical, since the expedition, which included a slave owned by William Clark, was the brainchild of the unmentionable Mr. Jefferson.

    Tats in the NBA

    I found this NYT piece about the popularity of tatoos in the NBA surprisingly fascinating:

    The NBA finals that begin tonight between the Spurs and the Nets present a stark contrast in playing styles: New Jersey's stop-and-pop transition game against San Antonio's force-feed-Duncan offense. But another, if less obvious, contest is also being waged: part cultural, part generational and maybe even a tinge racial.

    It's not merely the Nets vs. the Spurs; it's tats and 'tude taking on a bunch of old-fangled Texans who refuse to go under the needle and ink. ...

    Over the past five years or so, body art on professional athletes has become so socially acceptable that, in an odd twist, players without tattoos have become the iconoclasts. ...

    Duncan, a quiet, unemotional, highly productive player, dispels the presumed link between rebelliousness and body art.
    "I know, you look at guys with tattoos and immediately think, those are the mean guys," Rose said. "But that's the stereotype. Believe it or not, there are guys with tattoos who are really nice guys. I use to have twists in my hair, had a 'fro, too. I'm a nice guy."

    The series between the Spurs and the Mavericks may have featured the fewest tattooed bodies on one NBA court at one time in recent years: a mere five players.

    Political principles north of the border

    Can't Colby Cosh make any topic sound interesting? I know a bit about the leadership fight within Canada's Progressive Conservative Party (enough, at least, to know I'm glad that the protectionist firebrand David Orchard didn't prevail), but even if I didn't, I would probably have found this Cosh post of interest:

    As the convention rhetoric made clear, the Conservative party exists only to be a big tent--why, it's the biggest and finest in all the land! It exists, as its name suggests, to take both the progressive and conservative side of every issue. MacKay was merely putting the old principle-of-no-principles into practice. The shock will wear off soon.

    Tuesday, June 3

    I hope to post here some more (among other things, I want to share fun material from a Viking re-enactor event my family attended), but blogging will be intermittent here for the time being. I'm going to move Regions of Mind off Blogger to a stable server. Should have done it a long time ago, of course. I'll provide the link once I get the new site up.

    Cavalry and aristocracy, infantry and democracy

    Jim Bennett, columnist for UPI, offered various thoughts, in response to an e-mail from me, in regard to my post below about the constitutional change in old California from principles of Mexican governance to those of an American system. Jim noted that the term alcalde (a type of unelected Mexican officer) has very deep roots and in fact originated in Arab culture:

    The implementation of the Anglosphere legal-political template in civil law societies (on which your discussion of the Lousiana experience not long ago was interesting) is something we take for granted but actually was a non-trivial accomplishment. I would suspect that even had the alcaldes functioned entirely consistently with Mexican law the Yankees would have found them intolerably arbitrary. We are just unused to a command structure of society.

    "Alcalde" by the way is derived from the Arabic "al-qaid", usually translated as "judge". Its survival in post-Reconquista Spain was one of many ways in which the Mideastern template continued to influence Spain, Latin America, and the American Southwest (as in Western water law, as you know.) We can see in post-Saddam Iraq how religious al-qaids are re-emerging as the accepted civil authority; it is an old, very deeply-engrained pattern in Islamic society.

    The formula "many are consulted, but one decides" is fundamentally a military paradigm, and demonstrates also the degree to which a military paradigm -- with centralized, top-down authority -- prevailed in the European Continent. It's no accident that the few states with effective citizen militias, local democracy, and decentralized traditions of civil and ecclesiastical government emerged in terrain where cavalry (the ultimate aristocratic arm) was at a disadvantage and the local bourgeoisie armed with standoff weapons (crossbows, logbows) and defensive technologies (cheveaux-de-frise and long pikes) had a chance of defeating aristocratic armies. Switzerland, the Netherlands, Scotland -- also the only countries where bishop-less Calvinists established themselves as the state religion.

    Such militia bands, in which each member had a high degree of skill, and where leaders were usually chosen by consensus, were as much schools of constitutional government, as cavalry regiments -- the heirs of the knights -- were schools of aristocracy.

    Going beyond talk

    Fritz Schranck, who runs the clear-eyed blog Sneaking Suspicions, has undertaken an impressive project: He's developed a plan to create the first new city in Delaware in 20 years.

    There is a need for such an incorporation, Fritz says, because of the confluence of various public needs in the Cape Region of eastern Sussex County, Del.

    It's important, Fritz says, to not just talk about a community but actually tackle it directly. A commendable endeavor.

    Saturday, May 31
    A very, very old political debate in California

    This information might not be news to the Californians stopping by here, but it was to me:

    The current tensions between the California Legislature and municipal leaders over taxation, special legislation, home rule, and the two groups' respective roles is nothing new. From the first days of the Legislature in December 1849 to the present, legislators and city officials have argued over these issues. Remarkably, the range of topics remains the same.

    That is from one of several historical reports prepared by the California Constitutional Revision Commission in the mid-1990s. (A complete listing of the reports is here.)

    From a historical perspective, this analysis about the shift from Mexican political values to American ones in the 1850s was notable:

    When California joined the Union in 1850, it had to transform the institutional remnants of Mexican rule and the de facto city governments of the Argonauts into a regular system of local government. The alcalde -- an office that combined the powers of mayor, magistrate, and sheriff -- dominated Mexican institutions. The Rev. Walter Colton was Monterey's alcalde, with substantial authority over not only the town, but also for 300 miles around. The Yankee notions of separation of powers and constitutionally delegated power were not evident in a system that relied on personal rule and few written statutes. As more Americans entered California, they characterized the alcaldes as capricious and instead installed the public values of their home states.

    UPDATE: xavier Basora of the blog Buscaraons says the commission's description of California's legal transition in the mid-19th century is not on the mark:

    To argue that separation of powers didn't exist in old California provokes an ambivalent response. Yes and no.

    Separation of powers did exist, but it was instutitionalized in the hoary French adage of beaucoup sont consultés mais un decide (many are consulted but one decides). Constitutionally, Europe has preferred to create a pletora of collegiated organs of consultation (some that must be imperatively consulted before the executive can present a bill or modify a law) which surround the leader(s).

    Contrary to the recieved wisdom, Montesquiu didn't write about England and its separation of powers (which in a strict sense doesn't exist since the executive is within the legislature) but of the practice of the French ancien régime's parlaments (i.e. law court more or less equivalent to the superior court) and the crown.

    Indeed, one area where the Anglosphere falls a little short in the separation of powers is in the judicial realm. Most European countries have a judicial police force to investigate the crimes. (The local police forces enforce the laws and do some limited investigation, but once a major crime's been committed, the judicial police takes over. In some countries, the cities are be enough that both the local/regional and judicial police work together.) The Anglopshere courts have to rely on the local and national police forces which are dependent on the executive.

    Plus ca change ...

    In this part of the country, ethanol production enjoys enthusiastic support from the ag sector. This is hardly the first time that regional farm interests have promoted an industrial project that would serve their own interests.

    Guy Gillette, who represented Iowa in the U.S. Senate during 1936-45 and 1949-55, pushed hard for the U.S. synthetic rubber industry to use alcohol derived from grains as the base raw material for American rubber. The proposal won strong support across the Midwest in the late 1930s and early '40s.

    I learned this from an Iowa history listserv I'm on.

    The end of Jesse Ventura's dream

    A look at Nebraska's nonpartisan, one-house legislature was the topic of a post here last week. As a frequent visitor here rightly pointed out to me in an e-mail, I should have mentioned that Jesse Ventura mounted a big push in Minnesota a few years ago for that state to switch to a single-chamber legislature. (His proposal would have allowed the legislature to remain a partisan institution.) I had intended to talk briefly about the Ventura proposal last week but I had too little time that morning in putting together the set of posts.

    The impassioned call by Ventura, a political independent, for the legislative restructuring was opposed by a broad coalition that included Common Cause (including the Nebraska chapter of the organization), farm organizations, the League of Women Voters and the central committee of the state GOP. These anti's argued that a unicameral legislature would be less accessible, less deliberative and less innovative. (Judging from the Nebraska experience, I'd disagree on the first two points; the third is more debatable.)

    Ventura received support from a well-funded campaign led by former state Sen. George Pillsbury, of the famous flour-milling family.

    The proposal went down to utter defeat in the state Legislature. A key reason, as I understand it from this distance, was public indifference. One poll indicated that only a third of Minnesotans surveyed supported the unicameral concept.

    Southern heritage and 'duality'

    This interesting blog by a Virginian has an intriguing post about Douglas Wilder, Democratic politics and matters Confederate.

    The bigger picture

    Wow. Our family just moved up from a 13-inch PC monitor to a 19-inch one. What a difference.

    I got a great deal on the monitor at Best Buy.

    I use a 19-inch screen at work when I sub for our paginator (who lays out and edits our editorial and op-ed pages). But going from the little screen to the big one at home is a mind blower.

    Friday, May 30
    Using the ‘Scheer-O-Matic,’ dialing 555 and reorganizing Israel’s military

    Before getting into the eggheadish, super-serious stuff, how about some lighter fare (along with a few heavy items)?

    From around the blogosphere (well, at least from the part I peruse when I have a chance):

  • The mysterious blogger at Curveball (I know who he is; you probably don’t) offers up a feast of great material: The longstanding problems with international aid efforts in Africa (and he’s absolutely right, unfortunately). A new wrinkle in Hollywood’s traditional use of 555 telephone numbers. A surprisingly interesting look at the family history of, of all people, Vidal Sassoon. And a good short item on Hadrian’s Line -- check out the zinger with which he ends his post!

  • One of the blogs that inspired me to jump into the blog thing nearly a year ago was Martin Devon’s stellar Patio Pundit. Check out Martin’s crisp new banner -- as well as his post on a call for the Isreali Defense Forces to reorganize themselves to implement lessons from the U.S. campaign in Iraq.

  • Mike Silverman of Red Letter Day introduces a clever idea poking fun at the out-of-control Robert Scheer: the “Scheer-O-Matic.” Take a look.

  • I like left-wing political humor. And I like right-wing political humor: Along that line, the column archive of Tom Purcell is well worth a look. A very funny guy, published in newspapers across the country. Tom's now in my blogroll, under "Wits." (His home page is here.)

  • Now this is the kind of argument I can get into: debating the meaning of the Renaissance. Chris Scott of The Insecure Egoist describes the dustup, which pits two of my favorite bloggers against each other: David Nishimura of Cronaca and Colby Cosh of his eponymous blog. (Hey, this must be a special post, because it’s one of the rare times when you’ll see me use the word “eponymous,” a term used too pompously too frequently).

    Chris has other worthwhile items at his site, including a look at the controversy over intensively realistic historical depictions of the slaveholding system at Colonial Williamsburg as well as thoughts on the release of the Joe McCarthy tapes.

  • There is a great analysis of the America-baiting Danish film “Dogville” over at EuroPundits. More good news: German blogger Amiland is a contributor to EuroPundits.

    Death on the tundra

    Anne Applebaum, a clear-eyed analyst of foreign affairs, has a new book out about the history of the Soviet gulags, as I mentioned last week in a post about her speech before the American Enterprise Institute. She describes how prison camps were found in every part of the Soviet Union and about the wide-ranging uses to which prison labor was directed.

    I was reminded of Bruce Lincoln’s description of the horrors of one of the world’s most ambitious public works endeavors, the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway, built in part by prison labor. From Lincoln’s book “In War's Dark Shadow: The Russians Before the Great War”:

    The construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway was an undertaking whose dimensions exceeded any that modern man had yet attempted. More than a hundred tunnels, some as much as two miles in length, had to be hewn through solid rock. Men had to build countless bridges over rivers wider, deeper, and more violent than any known in the United States or Europe.

    They had to work in temperatures that fell to such extremes that laborers grew numb and fell from the scaffolding to certain death. Millions of trees had to be felled, and billions of cubic feet of earth transported, to hew a track through some 5,000 miles of near-virgin wilderness. In all, the task demanded the labor of tens of thousands of men for more than a decade. Between 1891 and 1904, an average of 35,000 workmen were needed every year, and sometimes the demand rose to twice that number. ...

    Regardless of their origins, workmen on the Trans-Siberian Railway labored long hours under cruel conditions. ...

    On the average, there was one clinic bed for about every 1,000 workers. Along one 700-mile stretch of railroad, there were only two aid stations with inpatient facilities for 80. ...

    For more than a decade, tens of thousands of men bent their backs to the heaviest of labors, while they ate the poorest food and lived under the most primitive conditions, to lay mile after mile of track over some of the roughest, more tortuous terrain on the face of the Earth.

    'Nine kinds of hell'

    On a similar theme, historian Edward Ayers has vividly examined the brutalities of the convict lease system in the post-Civil War South.

    “This place is nine kinds of hell,” one prisoner recalled in a diary. “Am suffering death every day here.”

    From Ayers’ book “Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th-Century American South”:

    For half a century following the Civil War, convict camps could be seen scattered over the Southern landscape. Thousands of Southern men and women, most of them black, passed years of their lives in the convict lease system, deep in mines or waist-deep in swamps during the day, in wet clothes and filthy shacks during the night. Men with capital, from the North as well as the South, bought these years of convicts' lives. The largest mining and railroad companies in the region as well as small-time businessmen scrambled to win the leases. The crumbling antebellum penitentiaries, granite monuments of another social order, became mere outposts of the huge and amorphous new system of convict labor. ... Wardens had little to do; the state had become superfluous in the punishment and reclamation of its criminals.

    ... When investigators uncovered horrible conditions, officials self-righteously refuted the charges. ... Fragmentary and missing reports were not so much mistakes as they were part of a built-in incompetency, a purposeful confusion. Even today, the muck of smoky-room politics hangs about the documents of the convict lease system. ...

    Even as tireless a worker as [Alabama prison camp inspector] R.H. Dawson could not keep the scattered camps under control; he would note that he done some good at one camp, only to sigh at the next one: “Found things very bad -- Cells so low that a man cannot stand upright -- No hospital -- No privy -- No shoes -- Bad clothes -- and very little to eat.” ...

    About half the prisoners in the lease system had been sentenced for theft or burglary, often of petty amounts.

    By the way: Edward Ayers, a historian at the University of Virginia, oversaw the creation of a much-praised Web site, the “Valley of the Shadow Project,” that compares the experiences in two communities, one Southern, one Northern, over the course of the Civil War. He has a recent book on the same subject.

    Trapped behind the 'gates of commerce'

    Speaking of convict labor, Frank Pierson, who wrote “Cool Hand Luke,” had a sharp op-ed piece in the LA Times about the negative effects of corporatizing on the movie biz. (If you follow the link and are requested to register, I'd recommend Matt Welch’s suggestion: For the user name as well as the password, just type in “laexaminer.” It works for me.)

    Pierson, the current president of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Science, writes:

    What has happened here has happened to us all, because the focus of international business has shifted from production to distribution. Whoever controls distribution shapes what is produced ...

    As the movie business has changed, liberal critics have raised the alarm over corporate censorship. But the danger of censorship in the United States of America is less from business or the religious right or the self-righteous left than from self-censorship by artists themselves, who simply give up. If we can't see a way to get our story told, what is the point of trying? I wonder how many fine, inspiring ideas are strangled in the womb of the imagination because there's no way past the gates of commerce.

    To the studios today, the art of film and TV is a byproduct of their main business, a side effect, and like most side effects, more likely to be a noxious nuisance than a benefit.

    Wednesday, May 28
    Science, religion and the fading of premodern superstition

    Donald Sensing, a Methodist minister, has examined the relationship of science and religion in two worthwhile posts, here and here.

    In reading Don’s post, I was reminded of how George Marsden, in his deeply rewarding new biography of 18th century religious thinker Jonathan Edwards, explains how science and religion were once considered part of the same intellectual whole in Western culture:

    Only in the later Victorian era did "science" come to mean natural science, a verbal triumph of momentous proportions. In Edwards' day, by contrast, every serious thinker believed that natural philosophy and philosophy generally (and hence theology) must be of one piece.

    Edwards (1703-58) was especially attracted to such an approach, because, as "a polymath interested in all knowledge," he was fascinated by scientific study as much as by theological speculation.

    Edwards, Marsden explains, came along right at an interesting intellectual cusp, as premodern superstition was going out of fashion:

    Cotton Mather, however, came of age in a world different from that which young Edwards would find. New Englanders of the 1680s still lived in "an enchanted universe" filled with ghosts, devils, witches, and the preternatural, where one expected to see signs from God and wonders from a vast invisible world. [Cotton Mather’s father] Increase Mather, in good scientific fashion, collected and republished accounts of preternatural providences, of people struck dead for disobeying God, of pacts with the devil, witchcraft, monstrous births, even a man who stole sheep and then had a sheep's horn grow out of his mouth. New England was hardly different from England in such beliefs. Even the pages of the Transactions of the Royal Society [of London] in these days were a mix of the scientific and the preternatural.

    ... By Edwards' time withcraft and the preternatural had almost disappeared from clerical attention. In 1690 Cotton Mather could preached about a prodigious cabbage root he had seen that had one branch shaped like a cutlass, another like a rapier, and another like an Indian club, and pronounce that this was a special providential warning to New England. By the next generation such interpretations of prodigies would be a bit of an embarrassment.

    Retaining a recognition of God in understanding the universe had a powerful champion in Isaac Newton, Marsden says:

    The deists are sometimes almost equated with 18th-century enlightened thought, but it is often forgotten how many other renowned thinkers, especially at the dawn of that century, were resisting this dismissal of God's intimate involvement with the physical world. The most prominent was Isaac Newton himself. Newton was a pious, if unorthodox, Anglican with deep theological interests and expert knowledge of the Bible. At one point before he published Principia (1687), he put aside his work in physics because he was more fascinated with his studies in theology and biblical prophecy. ...

    In Newton's own Newtonian universe there was plenty of room for God not just as creator, but as sustainer of physical reality.

    Later this week: What I learned from the Viking re-enactors (I meant to blog on that today but I ran out of time). Plus some horrors from Russian and Southern history.


    Christie Whitman and Ari Fleischer are leaving the administration, and humorist Madeleine Begun Kane is giving them a send-off with new song parodies. To the tune of “Yankee Doodle,” for example:

    Christie Whitman went to town
    To do George Dubya's bidding.
    For power acted like a clown,
    Enviro head unfitting.

    Those who've smelled New Jersey's stink
    Got what they expected.
    Water that's unsafe to drink
    And air that should be tested.

    The rest is here.

    Mad says goodbye to Ari here.

    A nonpartisan, unicameral legislature

    That’s Nebraska’s, of course, the only state legislature in the country with those characteristics.

    Although 33 of the 49 seats in the Nebraska Legislature are held by registered Republicans, the nonpartisan nature of the body was underlined last week when the Legislature rejected the deeper budget cuts urged by Republican Gov. Mike Johanns (pronounced “JOE-hanz,” not “JOE-hahnz”).

    Instead, the Legislature approved lighter cuts and tax increases (and made permanent some earlier “temporary” tax increases). And it did so by veto-proof margins.

    Johanns appears to have an uphill battle in trying to convince legislators (called “senators,” although that is a term not actually contained in the state constitution) to change their mind:

    As the legislative session nears its end, Johanns' hands appear tied. Thirty-seven lawmakers voted to pass the budget and 36 voted in favor of the tax plan.

    With such heavy majorities on both bills, it's questionable that Johanns can sustain any vetoes he might issue. It will take 30 votes to override the governor.

    It isn’t that Johanns is unpopular; last fall, he cruised to re-election, to a second term.

    As Johanns said in another article, the fact that Republicans make up the majority in the Legislature doesn’t help him much, even though he shares their partisan affiliation. Instead, individual senators are independent-minded and have to be approached one at a time.

    Nebraska switched to a nonpartisan, unicameral legislature in the 1930s at the urging of George Norris, the state’s longtime, liberal U.S. senator. The main rationale was that such a legislative body would be less susceptible to lobbyist pressure (because the power and independence of individual senators would be unquestionably enhanced). The state would also save money by having a small legislature.

    The Legislature can be praised for its notable efficiency and transparency. (Even executive sessions are open to reporters. And there are no shadowy budget deals hatched by conference committee -- and I say that as someone who remembers the “super sub,” a handful of elite Democrats in the North Carolina General Assembly who used to shamelessly decide the key points of the state budget behind closed doors in the 1980s.)

    The Nebraska Legislature has few checks on its influence, aside from gubernatorial vetoes and voter referendums. As an editorial at the Omaha World-Herald noted a few years back, “the chamber's small number of members mean that districts which elect inarticulate or inattentive lawmakers are at a particular disadvantage to districts with more charismatic representatives.” And the lack of party discipline is, of course, quite idiosyncratic and, in the opinion of many, counterproductive.

    As Gov. Mike Johanns can attest.

    By the way: The Nebraska Legislature’s nonpartisan nature has important effects on the party system in the state. The main one is that the two political parties do not look to the Legislature as an automatic training ground for statewide candidates. In contrast to other states, the Legislature here generally had not produced the state’s gubernatorial candidates.

    UPDATE: Lawmakers voted handily Tuesday to override Johanns' vetoes of the Legislature's spending and tax bills.

    Sunday, May 25
    Infighting among the Democrats

    During the Clinton years, the line between Democratic "centrism" and enthusiastic liberalism became pretty blurred. The Clinton administration was an amalgam of DLCers and brainy but unapologetic liberal advisers. The Gore campaign further illustrated the overlap between the two during the 2000 campaign.

    True, there was ideological backbiting in the immediate aftermath of Bush's victory-via-Supreme-Court-ruling. Robert Reich and other liberal true believers argued that Gore would have prevailed had he adopted a populist-liberal agenda earlier and stuck to it. Al From of the Democratic Leadership Council argued that such a course would have been a net vote loser for the Gore campaign.

    Of late, the sniping between the Democratic Party's centrists and liberals has picked up dramatically. Earlier this month, the DLC lashed out with some sharp jabs against some of the rhetoric coming from the field of Democratic hopefuls, especially Howard Dean. Here is a sampling from one DLC essay:

    But the great myth of the current cycle is the misguided notion that the hopes and dreams of activists represent the heart and soul of the Democratic Party. Real Democrats are real people, not activist elites. The mission of the Democratic Party, as Bill Clinton pledged in 1992, is to provide "real answers to the real problems of real people." Real Democrats who champion the mainstream values, national pride, and economic aspirations of middle-class and working people are the real soul of the Democratic Party, not activists and interest groups with narrow agendas. ...

    What activists like Dean call the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party is an aberration: the McGovern-Mondale wing, defined principally by weakness abroad and elitist, interest-group liberalism at home. That's the wing that lost 49 states in two elections, and transformed Democrats from a strong national party into a much weaker regional one.

    The real tradition of the Democratic Party is grounded in expanding opportunity and economic growth, increasing trade, standing up for a strong national defense and for America's interests in the world, and strengthening community at home. ...

    Not only is the activist wing out of line with Democratic tradition, but it is badly out of touch with the Democratic rank-and-file. In 1996, a survey by the Washington Post compared the views of delegates to the Democratic convention to those of registered Democratic voters ...

    On most of the issues in the 1996 Post survey, Democratic activists and rank-and-file might as well have come from different parties. On every social and economic issue, registered Democrats' views were closer to those of all registered voters than to those of Democratic delegates. ... A majority of Democratic delegates opposed a five-year time limit for welfare benefits; two-thirds of registered Democrats supported it.

    And from a subsequent DLC e-mail:

    Democratic pollster Celinda Lake hooked up 30 union members to dial meters to measure the intensity of their favorable reaction to the seven candidates who appeared. (Sens. Joe Lieberman and John Kerry were present only by video, and were not "dialed.")

    The results speak for themselves, and show why we've never been big fans of focus groups, which encourage politicians to tell audiences exactly what they want to hear: According to the Des Moines Register, Kucinich was first with a score of 78 on a scale of 1 to 100. Sharpton was second with 76. Gephardt was third with 75. Dean was fourth with 73. Edwards was fifth with 69. Graham and Mosley-Braun trailed with 66 each.

    Call it a psychic flash, but we somehow doubt this will be the order of finish at the Democratic Convention in Boston in July of 2004.

    Unfortunately, party nominating caucuses are a lot like focus groups, with their tendency to put pandering first. And like the Iowa AFSCME audience, they reflect views that are vastly different from those of rank-and-file Democrats around the country, not to mention the Independents who often dominate not only general elections but even primaries.

    And, from the same essay, here is a punch thrown directly at Dean:

    Every time Gov. Dean suggests that unlike his opponents, he represents the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," he's being divisive. ... And ironically, he's doing this in a transparent effort to appeal to the same fringe activists who used to do the same holier-than-thou number on him in Vermont.

    The New Republic says that the DLC has made a tactical mistake, handing ammunition to Dean with which he can appeal to the party's liberal diehards.

    The DLC has taken a strong stance, too, in calling for no watering down of the 1996 welfare reform law. One DLC e-mail went so far as to cite with approval figures from the staunchly conservative Manhattan Institute (the bete noire of pro-welfare activists in NYC).

    The DLC has the facts on its side on the issues. But if a Democrat were to win the presidency next year (and that isn't a farfetched prospect; the vicissitudes of politcs can be astounding), wouldn't the same dynamic from the Clinton presidency hold sway, producing the blurring of any distinction between Democratic "centrists" and liberals? Seems likely.

    By the way: This is my first post using my new Windows XP software. I like XP, although I'm surprising that WordPad doesn't have an automatic spellcheck the way that its predecessor, Microsoft Word Processor, had. The spellcheck has been a help when I write posts late at night or at 5:30 a.m. after getting up early. Was the word "vicissitudes" spelled correctly in the graf immediately above? I didn't bother to check.

    Friday, May 23
    Chris Hedges and the Wellstone funeral dynamic

    I've gotten some great e-mail on the Hedges topic, responding to my post linked by Glenn Reynolds. Most writers have expressed cogent support for the students' actions during the Hedges speech. Among their arguments:

    A commencement speaker has an implied contract with his or her audience not to take advantage of the situation. The conservatives heckled in the '80s were on campus to speak on a prearranged topic; Hedges sprang an inappropriate surprise on his captive audience. "The leftist protests were cold, calculated, pre-planned suppressions of speech. This was a spontaneous outburst of anger, a very different thing." And "it's way past time for this nonsense to stop."

    Those are honest, respectable arguments.

    I've found that folks taking that stand don't share an assumption that I make. I fear that these individual instances of heckling anti-American speakers will give significant ammunition to the hard left, which can cite them as evidence that conservatives have been hypocritical in their defense of free speech on university campuses and elsewhere. In other words, that the raising of the PC/free speech issue over the past two decades by conservatives has been merely opportunistic rather than grounded in principle.

    I differentiate between what I consider the micro dimension (the emotional environment within the commencement area itself) and the macro dimension (the larger ramifications for political debate for this country.).

    As I see it, there is something of a Wellstone funeral dynamic in play here. Behavior that seems intellectually and emotionally appropriate within the confines of a ritualized setting -- cheering blatantly partisan rhetoric at the funeral, trying to shout down an infuriating commencement speaker -- turns out to have larger, negative consequences outside that arena.

    I find myself in a situation something like that of an activist. This is an issue in which I have invested much on a personal basis for years now, tethering myself to a position -- resolute opposition to the stifling of political speech on campuses -- as a matter of principle. After going to such considerable lengths over the years to deride the campus left for enthusiastically choking off speech, I'd regard myself as at best inconsistent and at worst hypocritical if I now support the Hedges hecklers.

    Monday, May 19
    The ubiquity of Soviet gulags

    Gulags turned up in some surprising places in the Soviet Union, Anne Applebaum noted in a recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute. Applebaum, who’s written for Slate, The New Republic and The New York Times among other publications, is the author of the new book “Gulag: A History.” From her speech:

    Thanks to archives, we now know, for example that there were at least 476 camp systems, each one made up of hundreds, even thousands of individual camps or lagpunkts, sometimes spread out over thousands of square miles of otherwise empty tundra.

    We know that the vast majority of prisoners in them were peasants and workers, not the intellectuals who later wrote memoirs and books. We know that with a few exceptions, the camps were not constructed in order to kill people -- Stalin preferred to use firing squads to conduct mass executions. Nevertheless they were, at times, very lethal: nearly one quarter of the Gulag’s prisoners died during the war years.

    They were also very fluid: Prisoners left because they died, because they escaped, because they had short sentences ...

    In total, that means the number of people with some experience of imprisonment, in Stalin’s Soviet Union, could have run as high as 25 million, about 15 percent of the population.

    We also know where they were -- namely everywhere. Although we are all familiar with the image of the prisoner in the snowstorm, digging coal with a pickaxe, there were also camps in central Moscow, where prisoners built apartment blocks or designed airplanes; camps in Krasnoyarsk where prisoners ran nuclear power plants; fishing camps on the Pacific coast. The Gulag photo albums in the Russian State Archive are chock full of pictures of prisoners with their camels.

    From Aktyubinsk to Yakutsk, there was not a single major population center that did not have its own local camp or camps, and not a single industry that did not employ prisoners. Over the years, prisoners built roads and railroads, power plants and chemical factories, manufactured weapons, furniture, even children’s’ toys. In the Soviet Union of the 1940s, the decade the camps reached their zenith, it would have been difficult, in many places, to go about your daily business and not run into prisoners. It is no longer possible to argue, as some Western historians have done, that the camps were known to only a small proportion of the population.

    This is only a tiny sampling of a long and well-conceived presentation by Applebaum.

    (I learned of the Applebaum speech from a link at Power Line)

    The role of the History News Network

    I'm delighted that Chris Scott, a public history grad student in South Carolina, has returned to blogging at The Insecure Egoist. One of his new posts provides a well-done look at the History News Network, using a current tiff between Eric Foner and David Horowitz as his starting point. Chris also provides a critical look at the old-time pro-"Redeemer" viewpoint of a 1954 history of a South Carolina county and compares the state houses in Georgia and South Carolina.

    Sunday, May 18
    A national sport

    From the beginning of this blog nearly a year ago, I’ve mentioned, on occasion, the surprising popularity of NASCAR racing outside its native South. (There is certainly a ton of NASCAR promotional gear on sale here in Nebraska.)

    One more indication: A writer for ESPN reported last week that the Southern 500, the Darlington, S.C.-based race that is the oldest in NASCAR, will be moving to California in 2004, giving that state its second NASCAR race. A NASCAR spokesman is trying to downplay the story, saying no decision has been made.

    (via a listserv run by Wyeth Ruthven of The Wyeth Wire)

    Don't dilute teacher testing

    More than 3,300 black and Latino teachers in New York have sued the state, claiming that the standardized certification tests they failed do not measure the appropriate classroom skills and instead merely reflect the majority culture. Such testing is a key part of the Bush education-improvement initiative.

    The USA Today editorial defending the tests had the better argument:

    To the teachers, the issue is about fairness. They claim the tests for basic math and literacy skills have nothing to do with their performance in the classroom. And they say because minority teachers failed at far higher rates than whites, the tests were biased. ...

    If the New York teachers win the back pay and benefits they are seeking, other states might feel pressure to dumb down their certification tests. Yet they already are so easy that test experts say they merely measure high school-level skills.

    Worse, a win for New York teachers would put their plight ahead of students' needs. That would perpetuate a troubling cycle in which inadequate teachers turn out poorly educated students. ...

    Certainly, many of the New York teachers who are suing the state deserve sympathy. They were already on the job -- some with many years of classroom experience. But the general-knowledge tests they failed are important. During the testimony, education experts established links between testing -- for both basic skills and subject content -- and classroom competency.

    USA Today a counterpoint op-ed piece criticizing the competency tests. The op-ed, written by an attorney for the suing teachers, was weak in claiming that such tests amount to “doing little more than evaluating a teacher's fluency in majority culture.”

    Wingardium Leviosa!

    In case regular visitors were wondering, the birthday party/sleepover went fine last Friday night. The six boys (including my 9-year-old birthday-boy son) and I stayed up watching watching the second Harry Potter movie, then “Monster Inc.” and didn't get to bed till well past midnight. Most of the boys were so excited they wouldn't have gone to sleep much earlier anyway. There was only minor mischievousness to cope with; a fine evening, actually. Although my son was really dragging the next day.

    I was struck by how deeply the boys have plunged into the world of Harry Potter. They were using sticks in the back yard in the early evening as magic wands to cast spells on each other. The most popular spell: “Wingardium Leviosa!” (If you’re not familiar with the details of the Harry Potter books and are curious, here’s an explanation of the phrase, complete with pictures.)

    By the way: I will be away from blogging for much of this week. I can still be reached via the e-mail address listed here.