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Monday, October 5, 2009

The Good Book

The digital signal on the television froze just as our favorite team scored the winning points in the final seconds of the game. The browser suffered some unexpected failure and had to shut down. We found a radio station that plays all our favorite songs, but the transmission only reaches us on cloudless nights when we hold the tip of the antenna. Equipment needs to be repaired or replaced, or becomes so outdated as to be almost useless. We couldn't help but feel frustrated. Thankfully, comfort is near at hand.

A book is both the information on the printed pages, and the mechanism that delivers the information to us. Though printing was invented by the Sumerians, and the basic codex first appeared in the third century BCE, modern technology has not improved either form or function.

The information we receive in a book doesn't come with commercial interruptions or advertisements that pop up from the pages. We can easily navigate through the book using the table of contents or the index. Even without a pricey gadget, the information is available to us on demand, always appearing quicker than even the fastest download speeds. We can start or stop reading at any time, and page backward to reread or forward to skip ahead. We can even record our thoughts in the margins and highlight the critical parts. Best of all, these functions are right at our fingertips -- no remote necessary.

A book doesn't require any installation or set-up. There is no user's manual. Batteries, electricity, and gasoline are not needed; nor is an extended warranty to protect it against mechanical breakdown. Books are completely portable, without ever having connectivity issues or reception trouble. A bookworm might eat a tiny hole through some pages, but the book will never catch a virus that causes a loss of information or performance. And if a book does lose its cover, or if a few pages come lose, the information can still be accessed and used. A reader never need take a book back to the dealer for regular maintenance, or have a serviceman come to perform repairs.

More than just a container or infotainment, books have a pleasing aesthetic that just can't be found in a radio, television, or computer. Those things have their advantages, but none can touch the soul like a good book. What will we read tonight?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Let's Roll! Ordinary People, Extraordinary Courage

Marking September 11 seemed as good a reason as any to read Let's Roll! Ordinary People, Extraordinary Courage, written by Lisa Beamer. Her husband Todd was one of the passengers who fought back against the hijackers of the United Airlines flight that crashed in Pennsylvania on that terror-filled day. This book, written in 2002, is their story.

Mrs. Beamer comes across as honest and unpretentious, simply "a mom and a housewife from a small town in New Jersey." Though this is her first-hand account, much of the success of the book must go to the co-author Ken Abraham. It is structured well and presented in easily digestable chapters. Despite knowing the outcome, we wanted to keep turning the pages. We read the whole thing in just a day and a half.

The book opens with the events of September 11, 2001. The narrative then shifts to the early life of Todd Beamer. The early life of Lisa follows. Their life together leads back to the opening of the book. The rest is Mrs. Beamer's experience following the death of her husband.

Though she reveals as much as she knows about Flight 93, and the role her husband and several others played in bringing the terrorists down, there are other books that give more-detailed accounts. To our surprise, this book was rather a story of inspiration. This is an account of Mrs. Beamer's strength in dealing with the tragedy.

Thanks certainly to Mr. Abraham's guidance, this turns out to be a story of how God operates throughout Mrs. Beamer's life. She did not discover faith as a way of coping. Her faith was the foundation that helped her weather the storm. She had always found God present in her life, and by her actions, just as her husband did, she honored that presence.

Fewer than three months after Todd's death, Lisa faced his birthday without him. Even while she tried to carry on for her children, she struggled with pain and grief. Her oldest son was concerned.
I attempted to explain. "Mommy is sad because Daddy isn't with us on his birthday," I said, wiping the tears from my eyes.

In his inimitable innocence, David looked up at me and asked, "But, Mom, we can still have cake, can't we?"
In many ways, this book is like another we read earlier in the year, Leap of Faith, by Queen Noor. They both are biographies of a sort about a deceased husband. The work of God is a strong theme in both. And though each deals with tragic events, the message of both Lisa Beamer and Queen Noor is one of hope, inspiration, and strength.

Another special woman noted recently that we have to look forward to all the good things that we have right here with us and around us, not look back and think about what we might be missing. These stories teach us that life doesn't begin when we see each other, or when our debts are finally settled, or when we are home again. Life is what we make it right now.

Let's all go enjoy a piece of cake.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The President Goes to School

Why are many people upset that President Obama will be addressing public school children today?

Many supporters of Obama claim that this negative reaction is personal. They note that in the past, Presidents Reagan and Bush also spoke to school children. They recall no opposition to those speeches at the time, and so believe that people are not affording Obama with fair treatment.

The answer for us is simple. We have found ourself paying more attention to political matters this year than in past years. The reason for this is that we have the distinct sense that the federal government is encroaching too far on our life, on our liberty. C.S. Lewis said, "Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive." This is what many people fear today.

Conservative voters naturally involve themselves as little as possible in politics. Government, for them, should be in the background. When government becomes too apparent, conservatives become suspicious. We have begun to question things boldly.

We listened to the speeches of Reagan and Bush today. We read the text of Obama's speech, which can be found on the White House website. For us, the speeches all sounded remarkably similar. And we found almost nothing political, or objectionable, to Obama's speech. And we expect his presentation will outshine that of his predecessors.

Obama suggests children use their critical thinking skills. We don't believe critical thinking is something which is being taught in grade schools, but which should be. It is these skills which allow people to weigh information and make judgements about that information, rather than simply accepting and digesting. Part of the uproar over the speech is the lesson plan that was initially produced by the Department of Education, asking children to think about how they could help the President. This, unfortunately, is not critical thinking. The lesson plan has since been withdrawn from teachers, although it can still be found online.

Our only quibble with the speech is, at the end, the comment that the President is trying to get more computers and things for schools. The problem with this is that the Constitution grants no authority over education to the federal government. This is an example of how the federal government is encroaching on our lives.

Aside from that one small complaint, we think this speech from President Obama to students is appropriate. And even if one doesn't agree, if one thinks Obama ought not address their children, this strikes us as one of those teaching moments. If this speech is not appropriate, lets allow the children to hear it and then figure out what makes it inappropriate. This is what a balanced lesson plan, with a focus on critical thinking, would involve.

President Obama should get an A- today. We will continue to pay attention and be wary of government involvement in the future, as everyone should.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Sorry For the Inconvenience

After sending a private message to the Administrators of Critique Circle in response to them shutting down a thread and attacking me publicly, the website returned this message:

This user account has been closed.
Your user account no longer has access to Critique Circle. We are sorry for the inconvenience.
If you have any questions please contact support@critiquecircle.com.


For fun, we posted several threads on the Critique Circle forums concerning free speech and censorship, ranging from quotes from the Wizard of Oz to Milton's Areopagitica. The Moderators placed them all into a single thread, explaining that it was our intent to spam the forums. Apparently they know us better than we know ourselves.

This morning the Administrators closed that single thread, with their own reply:

As to the content — it was very sad for us to see that a member would try to hurt our other members here at CC by trying to stage a "crit strike" in retaliation for a short-term forum ban he received over a month ago when he specifically chose to ignore CC rules and requests from the CC team to stop stirring up trouble.

This is a supportive writing and critiquing site, where people should feel free to post on the forums without being attacked, and to critique as they wish—not to sacrifice credits they need or feel pressured to conform to a minority mob mentality over personal agendas. This is not a place where personal vendettas should be allowed to hurt members' chances to get feedback on their work—that goes against what CC is about.

Anyone who can't live with CC's rules and style of administration is free to leave our site. They are in fact encouraged to so at their earliest convenience, rather than keep disturbing the peace for the rest of us. Anyone wishing to leave, just let us know, and we'll close your account and refund your membership.

The thread they replied to had nothing to do with another thread they characterise as a retaliatory "crit strike". They were posted in two separate forums. We never chose to ignore rules over a month ago; we asked for clarification, in a private message as directed, and were never given any. We only knew we had violated the rules when we were told we were banned.

Now we have been banned again, this time without any notification.

Our heart goes out to the saddened Administrator.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Fanning the Flames

We are an active member of the writing website Critique Circle. Recently the admins of the website sent messages to other members threatening them with expulsion if they did not refrain from voicing negative opinions on other sites like Facebook, Twitter, and personal weblogs. We believe admins have no business with what happens on another website. They are counting on people wanting their membership on CC more than on wanting what is right.

We posted the following quote from a film in the public forums on Critique Circle:

There were those who understood what was happening, who knew it was wrong but who kept silent. And in the vacuum of that silence, order was imposed.

It was removed and we were immediately banned from the forums, without any warning. When we questioned why we were banned for what we had posted, they told us that we know why. When we questioned their omniscience, they did not reply.

On top of the censorship issue, what bothers us is that they refuse to discuss this, or allow discussion. Their rules say to send a private message to admins if one doesn't agree with something. We did this, several times. We asked for clarification of their new rule that "what happens on CC stays on CC". They said we know what the rule means. We asked for further clarification. They said they will not discuss it further. We asked what the guidelines for forum posts are. They did not respond.

They have no cohesive plan. They don't consider how one decision effects the other. They don't apply their rules evenly. Their rules and judgements are purely subjective and arbitrary. They worry that members will be afraid to post things if they think those things will be ridiculed or quoted elsewhere. Well, members will be afraid to post things if they think those things will be monitored, censored, and possibly lead to their expulsion. But the admins can do no wrong.

In one message, they let us know that they wanted the website to be "pink, fuzzy, and full of bunnies". We placed that phrase in the signature line of all our forum posts. They deleted it, and immediately told us to remove the words from our signature. Such action clearly indicates they now have a personal gripe against us, and that everything we do, like several other members, is being closely watched.

They claim CC is supposed to be more than a critique site; it is supposed to be a community of writers. Our plight has generated much support from others. Why, then, if we have so much support within my community, are we being ostracized and even threatened with expulsion? What are the admins afraid of? Why can't they accept criticism of a critique website they constructed? These and other actions they have taken show they are not interested in the issues that real writers face and need help with; they are interested only in attracting and keeping hobby writers who find affirmation in purchasing a membership on a so-called writer's website.

We are sure our membership will be revoked before we ever find the answers.

Last Thoughts on the Last Frontier


We always imagined some day taking a cruise to Alaska. This was no cruise; we were not tourists for a day. Five weeks is a great way to experience a place. With the surrounding wildlife, Sitka is not the same from one day to the next. Come and leave on a rainy day, and never see the amazing colors in the sun. Come and leave on a sunny day and miss the clouds coming down from the sky and hiding the mountains. Be looking in the wrong direction and miss the breaching whale or the hungry sea lion. Stop to read an educational sign in a national park and miss seeing a bear crossing the path around the bend.

The name of the state comes from the Aleut word alaxsxaq, meaning "the mainland" or more literally, "the object towards which the action of the sea is directed". Alaska covers the same area as seven midwestern states combined. We saw only a tiny portion of the state's wonders, and all of it was coastland. What the interior offers we can only imagine.

Sitka and the southeast panhandle is the warmest and wettest part of Alaska. The coldest recorded temperature in Sitka was zero, making it much warmer than Chicago in winter. And while Chicago's temperatures fluctuated between the fifties and the nineties, with lots of humidity, the temperature in Sitka hovered just above and below the sixties, with a mix of rain and sun.

In our mind, Alaska represents not only a beautiful place, but also a way of life, a sense of self-reliance. Subsistence hunting and gathering remains a way of life for many. When we moved from the suburbs out to the country, we noticed that people seemed friendlier. When we arrived in Alaska, we felt that people seemed even more friendlier than in the country. And people showed more pride and ownership in their city and their state than those in the country or suburbs.

In many ways, the state is still the last frontier. Fifty years ago, Alaska joined the American Union. Most people understand it is the northernmost state, but it also extends further west than Hawaii, as well as (technically) further east than Maine. In many ways, it will never be conquered or tamed. But even if one doesn't have a pick axe, or a rifle, Alaska is still open to being experienced and enjoyed and appreciated for its raw beauty.

Thanks to everyone who helped make this amazing trip possible. And Alaska, thank you. We hope to meet you again.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Free Day

Friday we enjoyed an unexpected free day. Let's walk down to the dock and see what's happening.

We saw a couple kids had crawled out across the breakwater rocks, so we decided to do the same. Halfway to the end we stopped and sat down to look for some wildlife outside the harbor. Then behind us, between the breakwaters, we heard some water slosh. Spinning around we spotted a sea lion less than fifty feet away. As we watched he popped out of the water again with a fish in his mouth. Then we followed as he bobbed up and down on his way back out to sea.

He appeared and disappeared so fast that all the pictures we took captured only the ripples on the surface of the water where he had just submerged. He can be seen in the water directly below the center of the three mountain peaks.

We walked out to the dock under the bridge to watch the tourists arrive. A bald eagle greeted them all as they came ashore. We kept an eye on the sea and saw several more seals and sea lions. From atop the bridge we saw hundreds of jellyfish floating just under the surface. We also spotted several starfish and an octopus clinging to a rock under water.

Then the sea lion (or another one) appeared again almost directly below us. He swam under the bridge, and we ran across the street to follow him on the other side. He did some spins and floats and then took a deep dive and disappeared again.

For the rest of the day the sea lions appeared and disappeared. The tourists slowly went away. We went home with the joy and satisfaction of having seen more marine wildlife up close, and not in captivity or on a tour, but all by our own luck and observations.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Sitka Conservation Society

Before heading to the Raptor Center on Tuesday, we checked the weather forecast. Rain was predicted for every hour through Thursday morning. If we wanted to go to the Raptor Center, we couldn't wait for clear skies. And the marine tour we had scheduled for Wednesday evening promised to be wet.

Wednesday morning dawned with continued rain. When we set out for Whale Park, the rain had stopped, but the skies remained overcast. We wanted to looked for marine wildlife once more, but apparently the whales and friends didn't want to be seen. We saw lots of trees in the surrounding wilderness, some little ducks, and starfish.

Thursday morning brought strong winds that rattled the cottage, followed by steady rains. Somehow, though, when we walked down to the dock on Wednesday evening, the clouds had cleared out and the sun had emerged, as if on schedule. The air was cool, and the winds would be whipping on the boat, but at least we would be dry.

The three-hour tour had been originally scheduled for two weeks earlier. For some reason it had been postponed. This was the last tour of the season given by the Sitka Conservation Society. We had heard about the tour from a local bus driver, and at $30 per person, it was much more affordable than any of the offers from the tour companies we had researched. Most of the thirty or so participants were locals, and many of them had taken the tour before. We were thankful to still be in town to enjoy it.

We boarded the two-deck boat and found our spot along the rail outside on the upper deck. The boat offered warm beverages and snacks, along with binoculars for use, and educational materials. Of course, there was also merchandise for sale, to help fund the Conservation Society in its mission to protect the temperate rainforest of southeast Alaska and Sitka's quality of life. Off to sea we went.

Almost as soon as we were out among the islands, the boat slowed down and turned around. A small group of otters had been spotted, and the captain chugged back to give us a better look. They were difficult to see as they were among a patch of floating kelp, and they like to float on their backs. At one point, a harbor seal popped its head up and then disappeared.

The boat moved in and out around the islands. The views were similar to the ones from the ferry, but with a smaller vessel our captain had the ability to navigate into much tighter passages. The naturalist aboard provided an informational narrative about the features we saw along the way. Everyone was on lookout for wildlife. On a grassy beach in the distance we were lucky enough to spot through the binoculars a deer standing and observing her surroundings. Her colors matched the surroundings so well that we couldn't catch sight of her with our naked eye.

The water in the sound and channel leading away from Sitka had what we would call a light chop. The boat was not greatly affected. The water grew calm through the interior passages. Then as we turned to head back into open waters, the sea began to roll. At high speeds, the boat bounced along. We clung to the rail to get down to the lower deck and sit in the front. Out the window the water rose and fell around us in great but smooth peaks and valleys.

Back on the upper deck, we continued to scan the horizon for wildlife. We happened to be near one of the tour lookouts, who directed us to look in the direction she had spotted something. And sure enough, we saw the spout of a whale. After another moment, the captain cut the engines and turned the boat to move in closer. Another smaller boat had spotted the whale, and also pursued from the other direction. The naturalist counted six minutes, and then the whale resurfaced further to the left. Again the captain idled the boat closer. Everyone watched and waited for another six minutes to pass.

We continued to look all around for the appearance of other wildlife. While gazing out to the right, we heard the spout of the whale close on our left. We turned to see its back almost right beside the boat. The first attempt at a photograph was a failure. We recovered just in time to capture its fluke on the dive down.

The naturalist proclaimed that to be a final wave goodbye from the whale, and the captain turned the boat back toward Sitka. To the stern, the sun was setting behind Mt. Edgecumbe. As we watched the view, the whale made another sudden appearance. They are unpredictable and instantaneous, but once again we were able to capture its fluke as it took another deep dive.

We turned into the harbor. Just before crossing the breakwaters, we spotted another more active group of large otters. We watched them frollicking. After disembarking, we walked around to the closest point overlooking the harbor to continue watching the otters as they twisted and twirled and dove and flipped around in the dusk.

Like us, several other people climbed the bridge to admire the sunset. The great Raven had given us perfect weather for what had been a one-of-a-kind experience. Thinking back to the Raptor Center, we believe that it is not so much seeing the birds that people report is the highlight of their vacation; it is the up-close experience of any wildlife. Seeing the whales on the tour, and the ferry, even for just a few seconds, was the highlight of our vacation. The best had truly been saved for last.

Tomorrow, we will have some final thoughts about our Alaskan adventure.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Boat Etiquette

I learned that the polite thing to do is to allow the locals to dock their smaller boats closer to land. I parked my ship out beyond the breaker, where it won't get all dinged up.

Raptor Center

In the middle of a downpour we set off on foot for the Alaska Raptor Center. It is the only full-service avian hospital and educational facility in the state. Thankfully, we didn't have to walk more than a few blocks.

There are several pens outside where the birds are kept, some in groups and some in isolation. Many of the paths through the forest where the birds are kept were closed due to bear activity.

Inside we saw four or five birds sitting around the flight center. This is a large enclosed open-air space where the birds are left to stretch their wings. A few of them had lost parts of their wings and would never regain the ability to fly. These are the permanent residents, for they would never be able to hunt and survive in the wild. A couple were recovering from unfortunate encounters with automobiles and power lines, and these would soon be set free.

We had seen more eagles in the evenings outside our inn at Eagle Bay. They perched at the tops of trees, hopped along the ground with the gulls during low tide, and floated in the breeze. Many were obviously large. Despite their injuries, the variety of birds at the Raptor Center are healthier and longer lived, thanks to regular feedings and medical care.

The other main function of the facility is to provide education about the birds. We sat in a room to view a short video that showed active raptors in the wild. Then calmly we sat and watched as a young woman walked in and sat down with a bald eagle on her arm. The eagle, even when hunched on its human perch, stood half as tall as the woman. On stage, the eagle sat alert and watchful of every movement of the audience. The woman told us a little about this eagle's history, fed her some fresh snacks from a pouch, and answered questions. A few times the eagle spread her wings, but usually remained calm and still.

The informational pages published by the Raptor Center say that many visitors report "that seeing live birds close up is the highlight of their Alaskan vacation." We enjoyed it as well.

Riding the bus home the next day, we talked with someone who works at the Fortress of the Bear. In our mind, the two places are easy to compare. The price of admissions is similar. People are on hand to give information about both creatures. Birds and bears are kept in captivity among natural habitat. But seeing the eagles was much more satisfying than seeing the bears. Somehow the experience of the Fortress was more like being at a zoo. Seeing the eagle handled directly in front of us was much more impressive.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Mendenhall Glacier

Previously on the Juneau junket: Juneau

Welcome to another part of the largest forest in the United States, the Tongass National Forest. Among these 17 million acres of temperate rain forest, we discovered the awesome Mendenhall Glacier.

The ice was originally know as Sitaantaagu or Aak'wtaaksit by the Tlingits. It has been steadily retreating, over two miles, since 1500, and is predicted to continue its retreat in the near future.

The ice first came into view as the ferry pulled into Auke Bay. Then as we approached along the road, around the bend the ice reappeared from behind the trees.

At the base of the glacier, chunks of ice are calved off and go floating in Mendenhall Lake. Also a small waterfall at the bottom right corner spews into the lake. Further off to the right, emerging from the surrounding mountains, pours a large waterfall.

The water is cold to the touch. The air temperature at the rocky point facing the glacier is noticeably cooler than near the visitor center, as cold air rushes down from the mountains and replaces the warmer air. We sat at the point for quite a while, waiting to witness some live calving, but the ice didn't oblige.

Many of the creeks in the area are full of salmon. The beavers have also been busy with their dam building projects.

While heading back to the bus, we followed a trail along the road, through the forest and over the creek, and were pleasantly surprised to see a bear cub fishing for dinner. He followed the creek further into the forest, and we headed out, not keen on encountering the mother who we assumed must be nearby.

The newspapers and oral reports have been full of bear sightings, and we had begun to wonder if we would see one in the wild. Our Juneau junket not only resulted in the bear sighting, but also several whale sightings, and an up-close experience of a glacier. Despite the drawbacks of the city itself, the trip was great. Seeing Alaska by water is wonderful and definitely one of those things not to be missed.