Thursday, December 30, 2010


Our home of 19 years has finally sold; we settled into our new home earlier this last summer. I stopped by to say goodbye to the old place yesterday. Below are some pictures of the old home:

The home was newly constructed when we purchased it but I began remodeling it immediately, adding custom features and the Japanese garden landscaping. We were pleased to find out that the new owner had lived in Japan for several years; we are certain they will appreciate the garden and pond.

If you are curious to see more photos of the garden, you can view them here. And a chronicle of my remodeling efforts can be seen here.

We are looking forward to living in our new home which has adequate space for our children and grand children and out-of-town visitors to stay.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Dust in the Wind

Senate Republicans attempted to filibuster the bill but the “9/11 First Responders Health Care Bill” was passed by the Senate this month and the president is expected to sign it into law. Republicans, philosophically opposed to increasing the Deficit, were cornered into looking like the Grinch who stole Christmas through their opposition for the bill which provides medical coverage, to the tune of $4.3 billion, for September 11th emergency response workers.

The underlying claim is that, in working continuously around the toxic dust and chemicals surrounding the collapsed World Trade Center buildings, emergency responders have suffered a myriad of health related issues. It certainly is not a stretch to conclude that asthma and other pulmonary conditions could result from working in such conditions. However, it appears that pretty much any and all health issues arising with emergency responders working at the site, such as cancer, are now being tied to those hazardous conditions.

I recall the years of litigation regarding the Dow-Corning and the leaking silicone breast implants. Women were claiming a broad range of illnesses on the defective product. Dow paid out millions of dollars in damages after losing their case in court. However subsequent studies have since shown that the illnesses claimed by the women occur no more frequently in the implant recipients than in the general population at large who did not receive the implants.

Though scientific advances in detecting and curing cancer have increased in recent years, various cancers are still one of the largest causes of death in our society. How are we to objectively evaluate that all the claims of diseases suffered by the 9/11 first responders stem directly from their working at the World Trade Center site?

Science will take a back seat to emotional appeals, in this situation, as the "heroes" we all love to love ask of us to acknowledge their sacrifice. But in the run-up to this legislation, I have not seen any independent studies which compare the types of diseases (excluding pulmonary related) claimed from the WTC site exposure and comparing them to the prevalence of the same diseases in the general population.
"Doctors aren't sure, though, exactly how many people are ill, and scientific doubt persists about just how many of the hundreds of illnesses are actually linked to the trade center dust. Doctors still don't know whether there is any connection between the dust and potentially fatal illnesses like cancer" 1
The political irony here is that police and fire fighters generally tend to lean politically conservative and usually support Republican candidates. During the upcoming election cycles I hope these workers remember which party was the one arguing AGAINST their interests.

For me, the bottom line is that the controversy over this bill would be completely unnecessary were we to have in place a National Health Care System which would take care of ALL sick people, whatever their cause or reason. Why do a few select Americans, who by the way chose a hazardous profession, get to have their health care covered and not their fellow citizens who worked in fields or factories or have simply had the unfortunate luck of having been a victim of probability? Who in Congress speaks for these "heroes"?
The legislation is named for James Zadroga, a police detective who died at age 34. His supporters say he died from respiratory disease contracted at ground zero, but New York City's medical examiner said Zadroga's lung condition was caused by prescription drug abuse. 1
1. 9/11 First Responders Health Care Bill Faces Key Test Vote In Senate - Huffington Post, December 24, 2010

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Christmas Song

My hope is for you all to be blessed by being among loving family and friends this holiday. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Myth of Internet Privacy

“Most people do not know they are being tracked, and they aren’t given a choice whether to be tracked or to have their online behavior and personal information shared with large networks of advertisers.” – Nancy King, associate professor of business law, Oregon State University
In my final article about the “hidden” internet I will uncover what most of us probably already know – that we are being watched and profiled, not by a nefarious Big Brother government but by private commercial interests. Our browsing, searching and purchasing habits are being tracked, tabulated and targeted.

Most of us know that “cookies” are placed on our computer hard drives when we visit a web site. These bits of code identify us as return visitors and record what we looked at and how long we dwelled on a particular site. This information is also sent to companies which compile this information and sell it to advertisers to target us for marketing pitches based on our purported interests.

Many of us believe that we can disable or delete cookies, but many sites require them enabled in order to use certain sites. And deleting them is of no protection when the information is passed on to a third party. Beyond cookies there are also “beacons” which run on some of the web sites we browse. Because the Beacons reside on the remote site rather than our hard drives, their information collection activities are beyond our reach or control.

Nancy King quoted above warns that there is little in the way of legal protections over our privacy and even scant less governmental oversight with respect to e-commerce and data collection. It is the Wild West out there and business interests seem limited by only what they can get away with.

In some cases this information can be good, sending information out way that we may not need to search for. But a vast majority of consumers do not realize they are being tracked, who is tracking them and what the information is used for. Recently one of my readers was unaware that their IP address can give away their geographic location. Try for yourself:

Laws are scant, having not kept up with new technology. Government wire taping restrictions were written for the times when we all had telephones connected via wires to our homes and offices. It is a Brave New World out there and the laws regarding how technologies have not kept up. (1)Wireless connections themselves can open up more opportunities for surveillance and exploitation.

Unfortunately we cannot look to government to protect our interests with respect to Internet privacy; oversight has been recently undermined by the FCC recently adopting business recommendations allowing businesses to disregard (2)Net Neutrality.
Instead of a rule to protect Internet users' freedom to choose, the Commission has opened the door for broadband payola - letting phone and cable companies charge steep tolls to favor the content and services of a select group of corporate partners, relegating everyone else to the cyber-equivalent of a winding dirt road.~ Timothy Karr
Read Nancy King’s full article in the Corvallis Oregon Gazette Times, “A Matter of Privacy”


1. “ Google says mistakenly got wireless data.”Reuters, May 15, 2010

2. “Net Neutrality is the freedom of speech, freedom of choice issue of the 21st century. It's the guarantee of a more open and democratic media system that was baked into the Internet at its founding.” ~ Obama FCC Caves on Net Neutrality -- Tuesday Betrayal Assured, Timothy Karr, Huffington Post, December 20, 2010.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Myth of the Democratic Internet

Following on the heels of my last post about the problem of sorting factual from dubious sources of information on the Internet, there is another pervasive myth about the World Wide Web – that it represents an exemplar of free exchange of ideas and is, potentially, an engine for world democracy. It ain’t necessarily so.

A few months back I had posted links to two videos of interviews with former US President, Bill Clinton. Several of my readers outside the US told me they were unable to view these – access from outside the US was being blocked.

In the uproar over the recent Wikileaks controversy, Reuters reported that “The U.S. Air Force has blocked employees from visiting media websites carrying leaked WikiLeaks documents, including The New York Times and the Guardian…” Note – it was not access to WickLeaks that was being blocked but access to public news sources where one could find articles about WikiLeaks.

Yes, the Air Force, like any employer, does have the right to control how their “employees” use their information technology. But the blowback against Wikileaks has been quite revealing. The entities controlling their domain registration and web hosting, bowing to outside pressure, pulled the plug effectively shutting down the site. PayPal and Amazon discontinued their financing connections making it difficult or impossible for Wikileaks to receive funding.

China, a huge engine for emerging Capitalism, has reminded us that they are also still a totalitarian state. Propaganda minister Li Changchun, after Googling his own name and finding information he didn’t particularly like, forced Google to shut down their China based servers. It has long been known that Chinese citizens are unable access information about Chinese dissidents, pro-democracy sites or even accessing any information about the massacre at Tiananmen Square.

Google “Internet Censorship” and one can find any number of organizations deeply concerned freedom to access the Internet. But censorship, control and manipulation of the Internet is not solely a government intrusion. The private commercial companies who provide access, connectivity and content have a strong hand in what flows through the web. The issue of “Net Neutrality” has been lobbied and debated in the halls of Congress. Business interests would dearly love to institute tiered charges for access, promote favored products and services over less profitable, or even completely block or deny access to information they deem for whatever reason.

The technology enabling censorship is remarkably simple. Having been a network technician in my previous occupation, I know how, with simple mouse clicks within Firewalls and Routers, how to divert, block and reroute information traffic. It is common practice now to routinely obtain your precise geographical location from the IP (Internet Protocol) address of your computer or phone.

Google, of course, has made billions of dollars by charging for prioritizing search results using applications such as AdWords and AdSense which offer pay-per-click services to businesses.

Can you trust that what you search for on the Internet today return the best possible results? The answer is No. There are growing numbers of entities with vested interests to protect and the means for controlling what we are able to access. The issue surrounding the controversy about WikiLeaks is but one example. The more frightening prospects are the censorship we don’t know about.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Truth, Lies and the Internet

Last year I had the dubious pleasure of serving on the board of directors of a Home Owner’s Association (HOA). Normally the administrative functions of the board are rather mundane but occasionally there is that one unique person who likes to keep things interesting.

After having conducted exhaustive research on the internet, this individual felt confident leveling charges against the board of directors that his children’s “asthma-like” symptoms could be squarely blamed on the chemicals applied to the lawns by the association’s landscape contractor. Apparently his children were immune to the dander of their three cats and two dogs in the household.

Gaining no traction in his effort to go “organic” and have the landscape crew pull weeds by hand, he conducted a daring propaganda blitz, skittering around the neighborhood in the dead of night leaving fliers under the door mats of his neighbors in an attempt to warn them of the conspiracy being perpetrated by the nefarious board of directors and their gardening storm troopers.

In public view, he became stoic and civil member of the Landscape Committee, lobbying his evidence to the committee chair – a man whose profession is as a water quality scientist. However, Landscape Poison Crusader, a computer technician by trade, was undeterred; armed with “facts” gleaned from web sites, the noble activist assailed the committee studies of how these chemicals caused cancer, allergies, birth defects and any number of horrible health risks.

But the committee chair politely responded with his own Internet research explaining that the landscape products were all approved by federal, state and municipal authorities for application by professional state-licensed technicians in accordance with manufacturer recommendations. And it was pointed out as well that the intrepid health crusader didn’t seem to mind his children swimming in the community pool… sanitized with equally deadly chemicals.

More recently a member of our local Secular Society became the focus of a rant who is convinced that that the 19 hijackers who struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11th are alive and well and living abroad and that these acts of terrorism were the work of the CIA to instigate a Bush-lead “Gulf of Tonkin” style pretext for war on Islam. Their source: “credible” Internet web sites.

Today it is possible to instantly retrieve information on any topic imaginable. But sometimes lost in this information cloud is; how much of this information is truthful and useful? I usually try to cite sources when I offer information and opinions; but I am not immune to falling into my own positional bias. We all tend to look for information sources which support our view and discard those which do not.

I the case of the 9/11 conspiracy theorist, this person sought sites which supported their view; dismissing the “official” information as tainted, propaganda, lies. So then how is one to sort out and choose which information to trust and which not? The most direct way is to “consider the source”.

I have sometimes sought health information on the Internet. To my annoyance, often the sites bearing information about, let’s say a vitamin supplement; also provide the opportunity to purchase the item as well. That immediately sets off my credibility alarm. Likewise the sites themselves can provide clues of inherent bias. I’m not sure but a URL with “” just might be lacking what one could consider an objective stance. Nancy often restricts her search of health information to known sources such as the CDC or the Mayo Clinic, for example.

But as with 9/11 conspiracy “truth” sites, one can find substantiation that the Holocaust was a hoax, as was the moon landing. One can Googled up evidence that Big Foot stalks the woods of the Pacific Northwest and people are routinely abducted in their sleep by alien spacecraft which perpetrate any manner of probing of their bodies. Who would have known that, remarkably, aliens from millions of light years away are fascinated with our anuses.

Still one cannot be too complacent; dangerous risks all around us. Each of you reading this post may not be aware that the compound Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO) is being used heavily in YOUR community every day. DHMO is used in fire retardant and as a coolant in nuclear reactors yet it is found in large quantities in our drinking water, rivers; it is even found in acid rain! Be safe – be informed – visit the non-profit Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division before it’s too late!

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Mouse that Roared

The photo at the left is of a sprung mouse trap found two rooms away from where I had set and placed it; the yummy peanut butter on the trigger completely gone.

The back story: Some sort of little rodent had recently chosen to take up squatting in our vacant house which we have up for sale. Since squinty-eyed little vermin are not a particularly attractive selling feature for a home on the market, the little visitor(s) would need to vacate.

After finding evidence (droppings) around the parameter of the kitchen floor, and bits of chewed insulation from the garage door, I purchased a few of the cheap garden-variety mouse traps, bated them with peanut butter and placed them at strategic locations around the house.

I had every confidence that I could catch the offending rodent as my major in college had been Biology; particularly excelling in Vertebrate Natural History and Mammalogy. I had been on numerous expeditions in the field where I had trapped any number of small mammals including rats, squirrels, bats, mice even a nutria once. My university level knowledge on animal Ethology and the natural history of small mammals would surely be of practical use now after a 32 year career in banking, information technology and social services.

Unfortunately it appeared that the rodents had also availed themselves of studying the predatory habits of Homo sapiens likely in an effort to ensure their survival. For when I returned to check for trapped rodents, I found all the traps sprung and devoid of their bait; the one pictured having been carried victoriously down the hall and displayed as vengeful mocking.

In reexamining the animal’s droppings evidence again I noted that they seemed rather large for a mouse. Perhaps my quarry was larger, perhaps the Dusky-footed Woodrat (Neotoma fuscipes) which I had so successfully trapped in my college days. Clearly what were called for were larger traps.

However, the following morning, one of the large traps had again been sprung, the other, carefully avoided. When I related my lack of success to Nancy, she drew on her Psychology degree and extensive research in college with rats, reminding me that the animal had now been “conditioned” to avoid the traps. This concept ran through the crevices of my brain like a maze – of course... rats had the capacity to “learn”! A strategy would be needed.

The game between the rats has now escalated. I recalled having had previous success with “sticky” traps”; little plastic pans with gooey jelly which ensnares the little buggers. I placed these adjacent to paper plates of enticing peanut butter. But yet again the following morning, the traps remained untouched and the peanut butter uneaten.

At this point Nancy suggested that we call an exterminator. Indignantly I refused; I was not about to let an expensive college education go to waste – I became even more determined to catch that rat.

By this point I had been invested in increasingly costly trap solutions; my military budget required expansion. I obtained a “Rat Zapper”; a trap which lures the rodent into a small box at point it is dispatched via a huge jolt of electricity. The zapper instructions recommended that the bait, resembling dog food, be placed nearby the un-set trap for one or two nights prior to turning on the lethal current. The strategy: to build up a sense of confidence in the little pest so that it would let down its guard, enter the zapper and…

I placed the zapper trap and spread out the delectable fare to attract the little monster. However the next day the bait remained untouched; likewise the second and third days as well. I also noticed there were no longer droppings in the house. Had my quarry decided to move on to more sumptuous digs?

The rat and I decided to mutually retain our dignities ending the the conflict in a truce.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Myth of Franken-Foods

My friend Will was proudly showing me his new big/flat screen TV purchase the other day. With regard to operating the remote, he is still on the uphill side of the learning curve, however he was soon flipping through the myriad of channels. The picture quality was exquisite. At one point the channel surfing landed on one of those science archeological reenactment programs about the ancient indigenous Americans and their simple agrarian villages in pre-historic North America. The scene we watched was a beautiful Indian maiden harvesting huge ears of “maize” from a primitive field roughly 10,000 years ago. But something was majorly wrong with this picture – Corn back than was about the size of your thumb with gnarly irregular kernels, not the big yellow sweet buttery corn-on-the-cob of modern summer BBQs.

Corn has been modified by humans over centuries where today there exist about a thousand varieties – corn varieties selected for starch content, for popcorn, for animal feed. In fact, one of the country’s largest crops, the corn grown for making high fructose corn syrup, is completely inedible. Most consumers don’t realize that all the produce we enjoy today has been modified by human hands through selective cross-fertilization and hybridization from their original wild forms. There were no Fuji or Granny Smith apples, no Thompson Seedless or Red Flame grapes, cherry tomatoes or tender asparagus until agriculture scientists, and very cleaver amateurs, selectively crafted them.

Recently a judge ordered that several crops of genetically-modified beets be destroyed. The concern was over the environmental “safety” of these crops possibly inadvertently seeding other nearby fields. But often, when the skin is peeled back from these controversies, the core issues are economic, not food safety. Patent and intellectual property concerns – It’s who “owns” the patent on that crop.

Most of the public do not realize that a sizable amount of the food they consume today, both fresh and processed is at least partially genetically modified. Genetic Engineering involves using a micro-pipette and microscope to lift individual genes responsible for some specific trait and placing that gene in another plant. It is a technological advance no less remarkable than open heart surgery or satellite imaging.

Recently I asked my father-in-law Melvin, a retired professor of Agriculture from Oregon State University, how they used to develop crop plant hybrids at the university a few short decades ago. “We would take plant seeds and radiate them x-rays”, he told me. “About 99% of the seeds were destroyed by the radiation, but the few that survived we would plant and see what mutations developed in the growing plant.” Selecting for the few beneficial mutations was simply a game of odds back then; a hit-and-miss proposition. Occasionally they got lucky and a mutation turned out to be beneficial. They then would try to propagate that beneficial trait into a new plant species.

Scientists would also discover natural plant mutations in the wild. They would collect these plants, graft or hybridize them with other plant species. The successful progeny of these modified plants would find their way into commercial orchards, fields and nurseries. One of the most beautiful trees I had in my garden was a flowering crab apple tree which Mel hybridized from a species which had a natural immunity from a form of disease called Pseudomonas.

The term “genetically modified” or “genetically engineered” brings forth images in people’s minds of dangerous and toxic “unnatural” substances potentially poisoning our bodies. In reality the only thing that has changed is the technology used to selectively manipulate the evolution of plant species. Man has done this for thousands of years; and with animals as well. There were no prehistoric cows, goats, pigs, chickens, until man selectively bred domestication into wild species.

No studies have found any health risks to the consuming public from foods modified by modern genetic engineering over the analog hybridization that has been done by hand over the millennia. We are far more at risk from our eating habits than from the foods themselves that we eat.

Patent #PP4591 - Autumn Blaze Pear
September 9, 1980
Melvin N. Westwood, PhD
Oregon State University

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Red Rock Lodge

Nancy’s lineage reads like pages from a Zane Gray Western Novel. Her mother grew up in Santa Fe on a ranch; the ranch is now a tourist attraction. Nancy's dad was likewise raised on a farm in Moab Utah. His grandfather, Nancy’s great grandfather, was the local sheriff during the era of the real Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and the “Hole-in-the-wall gang” with which great grandfather had a couple run-ins with. But I’ll save those stories for a future post.

Nancy’s grandfather, Howard Shields, was an enterprising man. Ranching was hard work for low pay. Noticing there were no plumbers in Santa Fe, Howard acquired the necessary skills and soon set up a plumbing shop. During WWII, the government set up some sort of odd research laboratory in nearby Los Alamos. There was a flurry of construction going on at this facility which nobody quite knew what it was for. In any event, they needed a good plumber and so Howard got the job.

Again, why the government would want to build some kind of base in the nowhere part of New Mexico desert was a mystery. Even more puzzling was that Howard noticed that most of the people there spoke a lot of different foreign languages. It wasn’t until sometime later after the war that Howard realized he had been the “official” plumber for the Manhattan Project.

Howard moved to Moab where his daughter Wanda met her then-to-be Nancy’s father, Melvin. Howard had done well in the plumbing business and so had purchased some land in Moab. He built a trailer park, Laundromat and a motel, the Red Rock Lodge.

Moab is situated in some of the most scenic region of the United States; most notably, Arches National Park is just outside of town. The Colorado River cuts through the red rock canyons there winding its way on to the Grand Canyon. To decorate the motel, Howard and a friend located a small natural sandstone arch somewhere out in the desert which they promptly dug up, loaded onto a trailer, and planted in the front of the motel. I guess nothing says Red Rock Lodge better than a red rock arch outside the motel office. You couldn’t pull off a stunt like that today, without running afoul of the law.

In the 1950’s and 60’s, Arches, Canyon lands, Monument Valley and other beautifully scenic locations were the backdrop for cowboy and western movies. Directors such John Houston brought their casts and crew to these locations to shoot some of the classic westerns in cinema history. Needing a place to house the actors and crew, The Red Rock Lodge was a favorite of director John Houston and cowboy actors such as John Wayne, Jack Elam, and others.

When Nancy was a little girl the family would vacation with relatives in Moab every summer and would often help Howard with remodeling projects at the motel. One day Howard and Nancy’s father, Mel, were installing the latest new enhancement to motel technology – air conditioning. They knocked on the door of John Wayne’s room asking permission to install one of the new air conditioners. Wayne warned the pair that they should start instead with Mr. Houston’s room; the temperamental director apparently was even more so when he was too hot. Wayne figured it would be a hell of a lot easier on the cast and crew shooting in the desert on location if Houston got his air conditioning before the rest of them.

Howard and his wife Lena sold the plumbing business, Laundromat and finally the motel and retired in comfort to a house Howard built a near the motel. For years Howard and Lena Shields received cards and letters from some of the biggest stars in western films.

Both Howard and Lena died a few years ago but the Red Rock Lodge is still in Moab, catering now to an upscale clientele of mountain bikers who have descended on the red rock trails of Arches National Park.