Spring in Oregon

Spring time in Oregon is one of the 7 wonders of the natural world. Here are some images from Mrs Pliny's and my garden. We set every stone and planted every thing in the garden. I have the aching back to prove it. It's kind of a Japanese, cottage, English, Northwest fusion garden of sorts. In other words we plant and add whatever strikes our fancy at the time. Our British neighbor refers to it as rather higaldy pigaldy (sp?). We like that whether it was meant as a complement or not... We don't use any chemicals of any kind other than some organic fertilizer. We're such old hippies that we have a worm bin that processes our kitchen waste and produces the most amazing rich soil. My little digital camera doesn't do the colors justice. We're lucky to have blooms in the garden from February through November. Hope you enjoy the album half as much as we enjoy the gardening.


My Belated Darwin Birthday Card

Sorry Chuck, but I had a devil of a time coming up with an appropriate card for you.

"Here kid. Read this. It explains a lot. Now go put on some cloths because I am a Victorian after all. Come to think of it, what I'm wearing is a bit too breezy for my tastes."


Is There Such a Thing as Nonfiction? Or Am I just too Darned Picky?

I'll return to my question about democracy and biology a bit later but for now I'm going to describe one of the many ways that I make Mrs Pliny and my friends crazy (they love and /or like me anyway...). It's on the subject of books. I 'm an obsessive bibliophile. Our home is overrun with books of all kinds. It makes Mrs Pliny crazy that I can never seem to find the butter in the fridge but if I am passing one of the shelves, I will often stop and ask a question like, "Where's our copy of Geek Love?" I have an internal Pliny decimal system and often confound my wife when she has a new book to read in her book club by usually pulling it out of some seemingly random corner of the shelves. (Yes, we even have a very extensive section on world religions including most of the sacred texts - right along side of Gilgamesh,... ;)) In addition to the crates of paperbacks that we recycle to the used book stores we have upwards of 3000 volumes in our library. Collected over 40 years. I have been privileged to read every one (the not so privileged ones got recycled to the used bookstore). Some more than once (the benefit of a short memory, I suppose). Making Ade out of lemons, my lifelong insomnia (or need for less sleep) has allowed me to read at least 2 books a week for many years. More if I'm in pulp fiction mode. It's my principle vice. At one time or another at least 30% of the collection has found itself on somebody's banned book list which I think is a good thing.

I don't think of books as revered art objects but as working tools. I collect those that have something interesting to say or teach, not because they have investment value. This being the case there is a habit that I apparently share with Darwin: writing in the margins of my books (not others books as this seems to be a sure way to never get loaned another). Questions, observations, thoughts, errors they are all in there. Some written on the pages and some on note cards or scraps of paper. Some day if the kids ever really want to know their dad, my complete intellectual life's journey is recorded in there somewhere.

Which brings me to the actual point of this post: errors in works of nonfiction. To give an example of the extent of my bibliogeekdom, I have been reading The Third Reich at War by Richard Evans. Evans is well regarded as the author of a three volume series on the rise and fall of the Nazis. This last book covers the war years. I was reading along nicely when on page 119, the balloon was burst. Evans mentioned the sinking of the German heavy cruiser Blucher (add the 'u' umlaut please) during the Norwegian campaign. True enough except he called it the 'battlecruiser' Blucher which it was not. A few pages later he erred in his description of the relative technical merits of one of Britain's aircraft during the Battle of Britain. Both were enshrined with underlined annotations in my copy less some future reader be misinformed.

It ruined the read for me. It seems a minor thing but for me any time I read a book of nonfiction and find but a single factual error (I am not so unfair as to equate typos with errors of fact) I tend to discount the rest of the book. It happens with alarming frequency. If I can find errors about subjects known to me covered within the text, how sure can I be in the accuracy of the other 'facts' outside my fund of knowledge? It makes me doubt the veracity of the complete text. What is the sum total misdirection in understanding that comes about from the aggregation of all these mistakes? Hard to know, but in books on complex subjects where subtle references mean the difference between knowledge and misunderstanding it makes me wonder. I know it seems a bit excessive but in an age where the seemingly most trivial made-up factoid gets recycled until it becomes canon, is it too much to ask of our authors that they check their facts? It seems sloppy to me and the last thing we need in this information age is more sloppy sources.

Such books (if they are interesting enough to avoid the recycler) are condemned in my collection to that bibliopurgatory shelf where books of dubious accuracy must reside until liberated by some bargain hunter sifting through my estate sale hopefully many years hence...


Throwing an 800 lb Gauntlet

I'm interested in your thoughts on a controversial topic. If you are willing to expound, great. If possible, try to refrain from reading anyone else's comments (assuming there are any ;)), before you share your thoughts. In a couple of days, I'll weigh in but I don't want to pollute the discussion just yet. I welcome all insights even into the basic premise of the question itself. If you have friends that should weigh in on this invite them too. I'd like to have some fun with this one.

Here''s the pitch: Do the facts of human nature, with humans being the product of descent with modification, preclude the long term stability of democracy.



Some people have expressed concerns about imprisoning terrorist suspects in the US.

This crazy malignant and totally evil SOB has been successfully incarcerated in US jails for more than 40 years.

Tell me again why this malignant and totally evil SOB's alleged henchmen can't...

They kind of look alike don't they?


The Incredible Rightness of Being Delusional

The power of delusional thinking was first made apparent to me in the summer of my junior year of medical school.

I was assigned to the acute care lock down ward of the county hospital for my psych rotation. The best way to describe the place is that it was where they emptied the nets. I had no idea the circumstances in which some of my fellow human beings would find themselves. Every time I see homeless people talking to themselves or a report on cutting mental health services, I remember that place and the people it admitted. But that's not the point of this little memory exercise.

One day I was walking around the common room when an attendant, who was playing checkers with one of the patients, said, "Why don't you ask the doc about it?" The first part of this patient's delusion was that I was a doc instead of a white coat garbed figure randomly moving about like one of those old electric football players that ends up stuck against the side, vibrating in place. But I sat down anyway and he decided he could tell me his theory.

The patient was a huge lad afflicted with schizophrenia and in that medical transition period between violent paranoia and drug induced sluggishness that was his most functional state. He was in that happy delusional land in the middle. You know, the place where many of us spend the lion's share of our lives.

He rolled up his considerable pants leg and asked me to feel a bone, the tibia, of his right leg. The attendant looked nonplussed so after a bit I cautiously palpated his anterior tibia. It took only a moment and my professional assessment and response was, "ok?"

He said, "So do you see?" (Fortunately this took place outside of a Thomas Harris novel.)

"Seeeee what exactly?"

"The bone. It's flat. Bones are round. My bones are flat. So my bones are made of metal."

Not much more logically challenged than the Discovery Institute was he.

Being a newbie I found it necessary to challenge his clearly delusional assertion. After all, it shouldn't be that hard to convince him of such an obvious error in reasoning. (The power of logic compels thee! The power of logic compels thee!) I explained the relevant anatomy to him - that the tibia is actually almost triangular in shape at that level and that he was merely feeling one surface of it. But none of it could wash that knowing smile from his face. So I decided that only one thing could convince him.

I rolled up my own pants leg and asked him to feel my tibia so that he would see the error in his thinking. (Many no doubt can see where this is heading...)

He did so. Then with an incredulous look on his face, he bellowed. "You've got metal bones too!"

That was the last time I ever tried to talk someone out of their delusion. Drugs as it turns out are far more effective than logic. I bring this up because neurochemical studies of brain function suggest that the difference between the kind of paranoid delusional state that my young friend experienced vs the dogmatic acceptance of mystical truths may be rather more a matter of degree than we might wish.

That's why Pliny avoids most of the intellectual arguments that go on around this great land of ours. Instead I have been quietly amassing a vast underground storehouse of Thorazine and Navane. When I have enough, a network of strategically placed crop dusters will spray key segments of the population with it in aerosolized form ushering in a new era of logical discourse...

(PS; for the NSA algorithms - that last bit is just a bit of satire...)


Deeply Disappointed

A headline in the paper this morning looked extremely hopeful - "Prosecutors to Grill Rove Today". Imagine my chagrin when upon reading the article I found that they only intended to question him intensely...
On a positive note, it would appear that Stacy and Seeker are our winners in the great Crayola Contest of 2009. Jamaican Jade and Yellow Cake were tied for first place. Each will win a copy of Pliny's totally corrupt coloring book when it hits the stores. The image below right is a page from that splendid collection.

http://www.crayola.com/canwehelp/contact/ask.cfm is where you can suggest to Crayola that the time has come for an underground and subversive box of 64.

I'm in the mood for butchering poetry - if anyone has a suggestion for a topic to which I might apply my highly limited style, I'm all ears.


Alternate Realities and Insular Perspectives

There are times when I question my chosen profession. A lot of late nights fixing the results of sub-optimal decision-making. Sometimes it's no wonder. A recent local lawsuit is a case in point. The names from this excerpt from the Oregonian have been omitted.
"This is a case about hair," said attorney .......

More to the point, the case is about the hair that isn't on the head of .......... explained this week to a Clackamas County jury.

......., 36, is suing ........, a high-class salon and spa in Lake Oswego, where a stylist bleached (said person's).... hair to the platinum shade that defined her signature look. She wants $50,000 for humiliation, depression and the cost of hair extensions.
Signature look? Pliny's signature look is a rumpled shirt, two day old beard, well worn shoes and some casual slacks - wouldn't require anything like $50,000 to restore at least.

A bit of background. Lake Oswego is one of those places that looks gorgeous as long as you don't look too close - at any level. The signature lake itself has been declared dead by state biologists. At this point it is believed to be more sterile than the primordial ocean. This is due to the runoff of years of chemicals used by the locals to keep up appearances and preternaturally green yards.

It's a place where a number of wealthy contractors and developers sue anyone who even threatens to disturb their faux bucolic surroundings using money they earned defacing other neighborhoods in the city with hideous infill houses and cheaply built condos. I guess you figured out I'm not a fan...

The litigant in this case has been bleaching her hair since she was 9 years old (after her mom reportedly told her she was unattractive with her dirty blond locks.... So she has been abusing her hair for 25 years in order to maintain her self image. It finally broke off in protest (a couple of inches off her scalp). But she sued a salon after she was dissatisfied with a $30,000 nonbinding arbitration because of the extreme emotional stress of it all.

She sued for the $50,000 dollars - she lost this week. The jury awarded her - nothing. She of course is completely beside herself with the injustice of it all.

Normally I would just roll my eyes and start reading the next article in the paper, but an experience yesterday gave me pause.

I was stuck in the 7th circle of hell for several hours - i.e., the Dallas airport. As per usual my connecting flight out of Fayetteville Arkansas was screwed up and I was stranded for several hours to await my earliest opportunity to be shoehorned into a seat that is smaller than an infant car seat. Oh well, that is the cost of modern air travel and it's probably better than traveling by Conestoga wagon and getting caught in Donner Pass.... At least after TSA was done with me I can rest assured that my colon is in good health.

Ok, enough griping. While eating lunch I noticed that there were hundreds of soldiers in the terminal all on their way to report for duty. They looked and were really young and were all very polite and well mannered. I was in the serving line of one of the food court places when I noticed a group of 4 soldiers counting up the cost of some food to see what they could afford to eat. These guys were reservists heading off to training and deployment. And they didn't have enough money to buy a decent lunch. I couldn't believe it. Talking to a noncom I learned that they don't get much travel money and have a hard time getting by sometimes.

We got 'em fed and on their way and they were extremely appreciative. I hope they all make it home safe. We got some more troopers fed on the plane and again they were very appreciative. It was an easy thing to do, but they seemed to be important to them that people gave a rat about them even in a very small way.

If you run into any soldiers heading for deployment, please consider buying them a burger or whatever if you are able. They are young people and much is being demanded of them. It isn't much to simply acknowledge them a bit if you can spare a few bucks. Or whatever else you can think of.

So what's the point? I guess it's that we can get caught up in all sorts of trivial conflicts and lose sight of the big picture. If you live in an insular world it's easy to have a Marie Antoinette perspective. I'll bet that this person with the hair really was upset by it all, and bully for her that this is the worst thing that has ever happened to her. I know from experience it is far from the worst thing I've seen this week and far better than the worst that awaits those kids...


Another Bad Law

"Moderation in all things." That line from Lost Horizon, in response to the question of how the monks lived such long lives, has always seemed like a good political guiding philosophy to me. Since my neck is sore from watching the extreme legal back and forth this country has experienced over the last few decades, it seems particularly attractive.

My beloved Oregon has a particular problem with moderation. A free range, gun toting, Prius driving libertarian bleeding heart, the average Oregonian is teeming with inconsistency. And we are ok with that. We are loath to enact new laws but quick to promote a new referendum on just about anything.

But Oregon is working on a bad new law. We wouldn't be the first to enact this particular stinker but our representatives have joyously jumped on the bandwagon.

What is this law? It's one that makes it illegal to talk on a cell phone unless it's hands free.

Now one might be surprised how old Pliny, working in a professional niche where the consequences of poor driving are all too evident, could be against such a law, so let me explain by way of example.

Last week I was driving back to my office from a meeting and merged onto a six lane highway where the speed limit is 55 mph. Traffic in the right lane was moving at about 50 mph so I checked my six, signaled to merge and began to move to the center lane. I noticed a car behind me also now coming off the on ramp and shooting into the middle lane. At the time I began my merge their were a good 6-7 car lengths between us. As I merged the driver gunned their car and by the time I was fully in the middle lane it was within 3 feet of my bumper. In my rearview mirror I could see some young woman cursing and waving her arms, completely red in the face. She flipped me off, pulled around the right side of my car to curse at me, and then she cut in front of me with only a couple of feet to spare. I had to brake in order not to hit her. Had I been a cop, I'd have thrown her out of control and reckless keester into jail.

I mention this episode (certainly not the only encounter I've seen with road rage) not to call attention to this appalling lack of judgement which could have caused an accident, but to illustrate my concern with new laws. Enforce the ones we have, determine what is missing from these laws when properly enforced and only then consider adding new ones.

The person in my encounter wasn't on a cell phone but she was a reckless driver. We have laws to cover that if they are enforced. Proponents of the cell phone ban claim that drivers on cell phones weave in an out of traffic and create a hazzard. That's reckless driving. Pulling over to make a call isn't necessarily safer. Mrs Pliny was rear-ended one time while on the cell - she had pulled over to answer the call when someone spaced and hit her.

There are a thousand distractions when we drive - kids, conversation, coffee, tunes, eating, primping, our mood, you name it. It is definitely true that driving a car is the most dangerous activity most of us perform. To complicate things without justification won't make it better or any safer. enforce existing laws. Get reckless and drunk drivers off the road before you worry too much about cell phones.