Friday, July 24, 2009

Dangerously Dumb People in the World -- The "Birthers" Edition

Each Friday, my blog post will be what I believe to be the three "dangerously dumb people in the world", a segment inspired by the "Worst Persons in the World" on Keith Olbermann's Countdown. My candidates will be focused on the "dumb" part more than the "evil" part, however. And with that, we begin with a themed edition this week.


Another week, another slew of dangerously dumb people in the news. I thought I'd go with a theme this week, and what better theme than to focus on the people who refuse, despite the insurmountable evidence to the contrary, to give up the idea that President Obama was not born in this country.

The nonpolitical website and the State of Hawaii, among others, have verified Obama's birth certificate as authentic. Yet the conspiracy theories continue, even months after his inauguration. Anyone who believes in the "birther" theory despite all of the evidence to the contrary is either idiotic, paranoid, or racist -- and likely a combination of the three.

And so, here we go...

3rd: G. Gordon Liddy, who was trounced by Chris Matthews during Hardball this week. As Liddy struggled to respond to any question Matthews asked, Matthews finally showed him a live birth certificate. Liddy noted that the birth certificate was "redacted". Matthews then showed a copy that wasn't. "What do you think now?" As the awkwardness of the interview continued to its inevitably painful and obvious conclusion, the increasing agitation of Matthews at the insanity of Liddy's arguments combined with Liddy's increasingly outlandish theories were enough to convince even the dumbest people in the world whose side sounds more reasonable, logical, and correct here.

2nd: Liz Cheney, for her obvious attempt to keep alive the "birther" debate by insinuation and fear-mongering. On Larry King Live earlier this week, she pretty much sealed the deal that evil in that family is a genetic trait.

I think the Democrats have got more crazies than the Republicans do. But setting that aside, one of the reasons you see people so concerned about this, I think this issue is, people are uncomfortable with having for the first time ever, I think, a president who seems so reluctant to defend the nation overseas...

She did not say (and, in fact, said she was not saying) that Obama was born in Kenya, as asked by King. But she, sadly, did not stop there.

I'm saying that people are fundamentally uncomfortable and fundamentally I think increasingly uncomfortable with an American president who seems to be afraid to defend America, stand up for what we believe in.

See what she did there? People are uncomfortable with a President who seems to be afraid to defend America. Like a person who isn't American. Nor did she denounce the "birther" movement, especially in her nonchalant response to the absurd Mike Castle-meets-the-disturbed
video she was shown. James Carville accused her of "wanting people to believe this". It's not often I say this, but you are exactly right, Mr. Carville. Liddy is just stupid, but Liz Cheney is dangerously stupid. She allows stupidity to continue even though she herself does not believe it to be true, feeding on the fear of the lack of defense toward Americans. It's disgusting.

1st: Lou Dobbs, ex-journalist (for which that is even debatable). His stance is that there is a "document issue".

He further claims that the entire Presidency may be illegal.

Then he lashed out at his critics the following day.

See, the problem, Lou, is that a certificate of live birth IS an official document and is considered synonymous if not identical with a birth certificate. (It's a certification of the original "long form" of the birth certificate.) A certificate of live birth has been provided by Obama, and the State of Hawaii has already authenticated it. What is so difficult about this to understand?

Media Matters for America issued a stern statement denouncing Dobbs and claiming that CNN has a "very serious Lou Dobbs problem".

Today, the Southern Poverty Law Center has demanded CNN fire Dobbs:

Specifically, about the "long form" of birth certificate, it is well-known these were destroyed in 2001 when Hawaii's Health Department went digital. The following quote is from TVNewser, with the inside quote from CNN President Jon Klein, to staffers for Lou Dobbs:

"It seems this story is dead- because anyone who still is not convinced doesn't really have a legitimate beef." Klein asked CNN researchers to dig into the question of why Obama couldn't produce the original birth certificate. The researchers contacted the Hawaii Health Dept. and confirmed that paper documents were discarded in 2001 when the department went paperless. That reportedly includes Pres. Obama's original birth certificate.

As if the "long form" is even necessary, as FactCheck confirmed with the State of Hawaii that the short form is sufficient for any "reasonable" means of documentation.

Mr. Dobbs, RESIGN. For the very least, for being this week's...and maybe even this month's...dangerously dumb person in the world.

Stories from the Road -- Whitaker Point, AR

A grime covered my skin and clothes as I entered the car for hike #2 on a warm Saturday afternoon in early September 2008 in northwest Arkansas. After completing the hike at Lost Valley, I was preparing myself for a hike of a different kind. The Lost Valley hike was one of curiosity. I sought to uncover the strange rock formations of the Ozarks, the seeping waterfall that provided a soundtrack to the hidden cave just above it, and the solitude that is possible even in the midst of the large population of wildlife inundating the region.

Whitaker Point was a hike of introspection. I was drawn to the place as soon as I saw the picture in a Rand McNally atlas years ago. With something as simple as an elevated rock overlooking a splendid horizon of trees and hills, the photograph called to me in a way only few can do. The photograph is not particularly beautiful (or even professional). But it spawned the imagination, something only a drive on the open roads could make a reality. To reach this point was to look out at the world with a new prospective, and to look within with a freshened sense of what is and what could be.

I mentioned in the "Lost Valley" post that I went to northwest Arkansas the weekend after the qualifying exam. The OU meteorology Ph.D. qualifying exam is an absolute abomination. Weeks of preparation, of studying and learning basically anything and everything about meteorology, precede a two-day, ten-hour exam of ten questions on subjects specific and broad, specialized and generalized. The exam can best be described as "hit or miss", with the stress and strain on the student inexcusably high and impossibly omnipresent. And yet, my complaints about the exam are trivial compared to my complaints about the post-traumatic stress. There is a fallout after taking the exam (for me, at least). As I drove east from Norman, I began to realize the personal impacts the months of preparation and the endless hours of stress had imposed. I was beyond irritable, socially distant, and susceptible to long periods of exhaustion. The exhaustion only sleeplessness and depression can provide.

As I had realized the repercussions of the previous weeks, I was driving on I-40 in an eerie silence. I turned the music off for a time and just listened to the white noise of the car's engine and the strong breeze hitting the car. I've never believed in meditation while driving, but I became a quick believer after speeding my way past Henryetta. I then saw the turbulent waters of Lake Eufala, and I knew that the trip would only be a first step in my recovery. But, it would be the most crucial.

The hike in Lost Valley was the first step. It reaffirmed the fact that I still had a desire to learn, had a desire to seek things I did not know. Whitaker Point assured me that I could face the truth from within. That I knew I was not well, and that I knew I could be again. The hike to Whitaker Point was one of the most important events for me in 2008.

They say that the journey is more important than the destination. The journey to Whitaker Point became a metaphor of sorts. There are no signs on the highway indicating where to find it. I missed the turn at least four times. I finally realized that the road by the bridge actually meant the "gravel road" by the bridge (one of three in the area). I turned off and traveled a white-knuckled thirty minutes over a steep incline of very large, very poor-traction rocks to a trailhead I was unsure would be visible or even existent. When I reached the top of the incline, I passed farm after farm, barn after barn, horse after horse. Each farmhand waved with a refreshing sense of genuine kindness. It had been a long time since I had an experience like that.

Fortunately, the trailhead was easily identified by a sign. (Why there was no sign at the highway entrance remains a question mark, however.) I stopped the car and began the trek. This hike is one of the few that starts downward. Essentially, the hike is all trees, all the time until you hit the destination. The deceptively long three miles actually get a little tiresome for a soul seeking some sort of redemption. Am I even in the right place? Did I take a wrong turn? Did I really just drive on a rock-infested, dent-encouraging six-mile road to hell?

As usual on hikes, I question and then I observe. Transcendent moments in my life always work this way. I panic at life, my place in it, and my moment of realization. Why am I here? What am I doing? Where am I going? And then. I stop, listen, feel, love. I absorb nature, and a feeling of absolute nirvana hits me like a crashing wave on an ocean shore. Religious people might say that it is the moment you touch the face of God. For me, my god is nature, and I don't touch it. I envelop it. I become it. I succumb to it. And then, I look inward.

By this point, I had reached Whitaker Point. The sky was darkened with an eerie gray from a dying thunderstorm. It was an absolutely stunning sight, with a dark haze overlooking the beautiful horizon from which Whitaker Point pokes outward. It is a stunning view of contrariness. The shining rock against the calming colors of plants and sky. It was shockingly beautiful, something photographs can give no description of.

As I sat on Whitaker Point eating some beef jerky, staring outward at the vastness of the trees, the sky, and the silence, I had the courage to face myself. I encouraged myself to live for moments like these, endure the trials that sometimes seem so unnecessary in the rather short period of life. Why endure so much pain to only feel this happy, this assured in satisfaction so little of the time? Because the trials make moments like this possible. They may be unpleasant, but they only make the best moments better. More memorable. More life affirming.

In the end, it took a full four months for me to recover completely. But Whitaker Point, that's how it started. And as I look through the pictures of that day, I'm amazed at how little I remember of the walking and how much I remember of the sights and sounds. The sound of a rope scraping rock as the wind forces it back and forth. Of tree limbs rubbing each other. Of a fly buzzing on my left side for nearly a mile. Of a quiet rumble of thunder from a storm announcing its death. Of the wind only heard by the trees. Of the gleaming yellow reflecting off the full-life trees from the waning sun.

And I remember what I felt before, during, and after the hike. I sought, I saw, and I survived. Older, better, and more alive. I met Rand McNally, and as usual, I was more informed because of it.

Whitaker Point is a story you can only get by traveling. By hitting the open road. Gather the courage to find yourself by seeking new sights, seeing new places. Sometimes, you have to go. Sometimes, you have to go alone. All the time, you will gain something...something only nature can provide. Through observing the world, you become a far better observer of yourself, and your place in it.
Lake Eufala from I-40.
The first view outward from the Whitaker Point hike.
The dying storm.
The dying storm over the horizon of trees and hills.
Beautiful Whitaker Point.
Looking straight down.
View west from Whitaker Point.
View east from Whitaker Point.
The sun gleams off the leaves.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Stories from the Road -- Lost Valley, AR

After taking the Ph.D. qualifying exam last August, I decided to reward myself with a long weekend in southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas. This is a demonstrably underrated portion of the country, with scenic hills, beautiful forests, and an abundance of lazily flowing water. I was inspired by Rand McNally's photograph of Whitaker Point, located in Newton County, AR, slightly over an hour southward from Branson, MO.

There are several attractions in the Ozarks of northwest Arkansas, probably most notably Eureka Springs. Eureka Springs is a gorgeous tourist attraction. Dozens of shops and restaurants line the streets of the town, with roads clinging to deceptively steep inclines. Many of the buildings have the "old wood" look to them, giving the town more authenticity than it might otherwise deserve.

I used Eureka Springs as the jumping off point for a long day's double hike. The first hike was located in Lost Valley, which is 5-10 miles northeast of Whitaker Point. Lost Valley is known for the large boulders that line the trail a mile onward from the trailhead. It is an absolutely gorgeous hike.

However, this was northwest Arkansas in late summer. It was warm. Very warm. And the trees were respirating more than I was. (Given that I washed the clothes three times before I deemed them wearable again, this should be some indication as to how "grimy" the hike was.) Temperatures that weekend were in the lower 90s, and the humidity was often oppressive. Thunderstorms dotted the Ozarks in the afternoon, which provided nice photogenic backdrops for some of the photos taken later that day.

The Lost Valley hike intrigued me for a couple of reasons. First, I had never seen a waterfall in Arkansas before. Now, about the worst month to go hiking in Arkansas is September. Spring flows have long since ceased, and summer is not a particularly wet time of year in the region. However, Lost Valley features what I call a "seeping fall", where water drips off the sides of rock seemingly clinging for dear life. In relatively wet years, the seeping falls typically last through the year, and I was counting on the wet spring and early summer to help out in making that happen.

The second was that the hike ended in a cave. Now, I'm not a cave explorer, either. I'm severely claustrophobic in caves, especially those not lit and not guided (i.e., led by someone who is well-versed with the cave). This was a lone man's hike, and the tight spaces and dark places of this 200-foot-long cave were not particularly inviting to me. However, I've never taken a hike that has ended in a cave before, and I figured I would at least have good shots of the cave entrance.

One problem with late summer hikes in forests is the bugs. They were everywhere in the Lost Valley. I was chased by horseflies, wasps, and bees for much of the hike. Fortunately, I was never stung, but the buzzes of relatively harmless bugs kept me as jumpy as a meth addict (not that I'd know). The bugs were plentiful, but redemption was mine in the realm of butterflies. Beautiful blue and black butterflies were numerous and not very shy that day.

The hike in Lost Valley was sweaty but not particularly brutal. There was a pretty steep climb near the end of the hike, between the still pool and the cave. And the seeping fall was active, though barely. But what struck me most about the hike was the steep walls that lined the latter portion of the hike. The wall was easily 1000 feet high and made for beautiful "straight-up" photos. The colors of the rock against the sun and water were gorgeous.

The cave opening was also beautiful. The climb to the cave was rather steep but was enjoyable to view the steep wall of rock lining the west side of the hike. No, I didn't enter the cave. Each time I attempted, my claustrophobia angel said no. I also realized that crawling would be a requirement, and I was not wearing the clothes for that. What a wuss.

The Lost Valley portion of the hike ended with the sight of cumulonimbus. The heat and the terrain were too much, and storms had begun to develop in the area. This would prove to be a key ingredient in the next portion of the hiking day: Whitaker Point. My rendezvous with Mr. McNally was nearing.

Tomorrow: Part II

The Lost Valley trail guide
Gorgeous rock formations were plentiful on the hike.
This is a photo of the seeping fall. It's hard to see, but the rock is definitely wet. Below the rock wall was a very small pond.
This is a larger pond found about one mile into the hike, with the beautiful rock wall.
Looking straight up.
The cave entrance at the end of the hike. The cave actually is bigger than what it looks like here.
The western rock wall as seen from the steep slope near the cave on the opposite rock wall.
"Say hello to my little friend."

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Pictures from the Road

I've just gone through my first batch of photos from the California trip earlier this summer. Here's a preview of many "Stories from the Road" posts to come...
Sunset in Kansas on Day 1.
Mom and her favorite hobby. In downtown Reno, NV.
The classic tourist picture.
Outstanding Lake Tahoe.
Lake Tahoe, in full recreation mode.
Beautiful valley just east of the Sierras.
The Great Western Divide along Tioga Pass. Jaw-dropping scenery here.
Ellery Lake, just outside of Yosemite National Park.
Tenaya Lake in Yosemite.
View from Olmsted Point looking northeast.
A glimpse of Yosemite Valley.
Half Dome.
Yosemite Falls.
Horsetail Fall and El Capitan.

Monday, July 20, 2009

I Hope My Legs Don't Break

My sister was nearing the halfway mark to two years of age. My brother was born three years later. And I, well, I wasn't even a figment of someone's imagination.

Forty years ago, man walked on the moon for the first time. It seems far-fetched, even now, to imagine such a gigantic feat. In fact, some conspiracy theorists believe that we never did. I am not a conspiracy theorist, but I am aware of the shocking complexities involved in such an extraordinary event in the history of humanity. And to think it was forty years ago.

The space program has faced many catastrophes, before and since. Brave astronauts, in love of the science, their imaginations, and the dreams of Americans and the world, have died for the cause of living temporarily in space. Conducting experiments, mapping the universe, and feeding the curiosities of millions.

I have wondered, many times, the feeling you would get in such an otherworldly experience. To see the Earth from outside of it. To step on an extraterrestrial object. I suspect it would be a pure adrenaline rush, maybe even better than the ones I get when hiking up the tallest mountains and gazing out over the ferocious seas. And the danger of it all, where one hiccup of almost an infinite number can quickly end your life. To me, this is the ultimate means of risking your life. For knowledge and experience. So that others may learn more about the world--or, more appropriately, the universe.

I can imagine orbiting the planet, gazing out as the Earth rotates beneath me or around me or nearby. Objects floating effortlessly in the air, people in a jubilee of a newfound experience. And landing on the moon, the most nervous of any type of landing. The moment of impact. The astounding success of motionlessness.

To imagine walking on the moon is one thing. To experience it, I feel, is something that imaginations can only dare to describe. When the famous words "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." were spoken during the almost mystical event, the world nodded their heads in agreement. No more did we have to dare to dream. We made it a reality.

What science taught us that day is that learning is the most courageous thing humans can do. And the most rewarding.

Don't Let Drumline Fool You

Today was one of those days that become ever so rarer with age. I had a completely fresh experience. Sure, I had heard of Drum Corps International, through a few documentaries and a really terrible movie named Drumline, but I had never been to an event. This was true, despite the fact that I love marching band and the sounds of brass and drums. Well, today, I finally had the opportunity to go see what a DCI event was all about, and it was a blast.

Apparently, the DCI competitions are intense, and it looks that way to the outsider. However, I think the more important thing about this group and these competitions is the celebration of kids who are superb at their craft. I was downright impressed with the choreography some of the teams possessed, and the musical talent was universally assured. Something about the visual and audible combination of marching band makes it such a delight to watch when done with the high level of quality that these DCI teams possess.

Before the competition, some friends and I walked around the parking lot at the high school football stadium (I'll have an aside on this shortly.), and we gazed at the teams, their last-minute practices, and the growing number of onlookers. The kids played the drums with an effortlessness that I find enviable. The discipline they show is commendable, despite the countless hours repeating the same stanzas and rhythms in the insanely uncomfortable conditions of very hot sunshine and very warm uniforms.

The performances were exceedingly good, with the talent increasing as the competition progressed. The crowd appeared to really enjoy it, and I did as well. It's hard not to be moved by such musical and visual splendor. This will probably not be my last DCI event.


I spoke earlier of the high school stadium and parking lot. The DCI event was held in Denton, TX. One look at the stadium and parking lot, and my jaw dropped to the ground. They take the football quite seriously in the South. Granted, the school is larger, but my recollection of our high school stadium is one of a few rotting bleachers, a grass field, and dirt-and-gravel-filled parking lot (which often could pass for junkyards on Friday nights). Even the bigger schools in Nebraska could not compete with this place. Some colleges don't even compare. It was eye-opening.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Walter Cronkite: In Memory

I was not alive when Walter Cronkite was anchorman for the CBS Evening News. He retired before I was born. However, I am well aware of his profound impact on television journalism. He was essentially the creator of the anchorman, at least as we see it (somewhat fadingly) today. As Ken Levine pointed out in his blog yesterday, can anyone even name a "most trusted man in America" today?

Cronkite's four most well-known historical events during his tenure were the JFK assassination, the lunar landing, the Vietnam War, and Nixon's resignation. Of the four, I believe Cronkite's ominous conclusions about the Vietnam War were his most important contributions to America and his most sterling achievement as a journalist. Dan Rather called his review of the Vietnam War an "objective opinion", which seems contradictory but actually explains Cronkite's approach to the craft perfectly. Cronkite was a fierce and avid reporter, but he always reported the news. Rarely did Cronkite inject opinion into his reporting, but his most memorable moments were when he did exactly that.

Cronkite observed, reported, and concluded about the Vietnam War by actually going over to Vietnam. Here is an interview he gave a few years ago on what his thoughts were about his editorial on the war:

His opinions were based on what he saw, plain and simple. And everyone knew he meant it.

This is not to say, however, that Cronkite was best when he gave his opinions. His opinions would not have had much sway without the many years of matter-of-fact, honest reporting that made him a giant in the field. And his death yesterday is a reminder of how far journalism has evolved since his retirement, how much he shaped it, and how necessary it is for today's generation to look back and learn a few things.