Archive for December, 2007

The Martini

December 31, 2007

Ever since its invention, various writers have tried their hand at the martini. Drinking it and writing about it. Because I am new to both, I suppose I better have a go at it too. A thing has to be done properly after all. Besides, it’s New Year’s Eve.


The reason writers write about martinis can be summed up in single word: Gin. But all have used more words; one word essays don’t sell well. Here is Ogden Nash:

There is something about a martini,
A tingle remarkably pleasant;
A yellow, a mellow martini;
I wish that I had one at present.
There is something about a martini,
Ere the dining and the dancing begin,
And to tell you the truth,
It is not the vermouth —
I think that perhaps it’s the Gin.

Winston Churchill famously knew it was not the vermouth. He did not mind making his martini in a room where there was a bottle of vermouth; just as long as the bottle was securely capped. Others of like mind hold the closed bottle of vermouth up to the light so that a few photons reaching the Gin have passed through vermouth.

Until quite recently my only experience with martinis was ordering one for Hugh Downs in the La Fonda bar in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was a friend of my uncle’s and we were at some family function there. I was a teenager but the bartender made one anyway when I told him who it was for. Never having tasted one before, I surreptitiously took a sip on the way back to the table. It was awful. Reminded me of the taste of wild fuel oil berries. Decades passed before I tried another. Not even James Bond tempted me to try again. Shaken? Stirred? I didn’t give a damn.


Recently though I was persuaded to try another and learn how to make the things. We have friends, both of whom drink martinis, and it was embarrassing not to offer them one when they came to dinner. I had no clue how to construct one and we didn’t own martini glasses. They took care of the problem one night, bringing a hostess gift of 4 martini glasses and giving me a lesson in making them. He made me a fine martini but it was a good thing that party was at my home. He makes professional size martinis and I needed an amateur’s.

Now either I’ve developed a taste for fuel oil or my palate is better educated. Martinis are pretty good, especially after the first few sips. But I’m still too uncivilized to opine on whether they should be shaken or stirred, contain an olive or be misted with a squeeze of lemon peel, or even assert which juniper-berried gin is the best. I can’t weigh in on whether Bernard de Voto’s science was right: He maintained that a precise ration of 3.7 parts gin to 1 part vermouth was the correct mixture. Hemingway demanded 15 parts gin to one part vermouth and named his after Field Marshall Montgomery because, according to Hemingway, Monty would not attack unless he had a 15 to 1 numerical superiority. Patton agreed with Hemingway, both about Monty’s shyness and about the vermouth. Patton thought it appropriate to point the bottle of gin in the direction of Italy. MFK Fisher liked even less than 15 to 1. She used an eyedropper to measure the vermouth. On my recent Grand Canyon expedition one of us had what he called a martini each night of the trip: A few sips of straight gin out of a nalgene bottle. Some nights the gin was chilled to 48 degrees Fahrenheit — the temperature of the Colorado River about 80 river miles downstream of the Damn Glen Canyon dam — and on others, when we weren’t near the river, the gin was the same temperature as the warm air. (That should give those of you who don’t backpack some idea of the hardships we endure.) Had Mae West been with us, I’m sure he would have jumped fully clothed into the Colorado just to hear her say, “You ought to get out of those wet clothes and into a dry martini.”


Dorothy Parker wasn’t with us either. Had she been, he might have offered her one of his martinis. Here is what she had to say:

I like to have a martini —
Two at the very most.
After three I’m under the table,
After four I’m under my host.

I am civilized enough to know that a martini must be prepared with ceremony. Here is Barbara Holland on that necessity: “A casual martini would be inappropriate, like reciting Keats while watching football.” Some authorities hold that it is appropriate to drink one while watching football but I am not sure about that: A martini is closer to poetry than to football.

Happy New Year.


News You Missed

December 29, 2007

From an advertisement in the Battle Creek (Mich.) Enquirer (via the New Yorker) we learn of a job opening:

Full service hotel looking to expand its existing food operation with a quality Sioux chief. Salary range 25KO, commensurate with experience.

We don’t know if the job is still available but, due to the limited number of people who qualify, it may be. If you are one of the few, the proud few, who do — why would you want it?

Commas and the Law, Part II – The Second Amendment

December 27, 2007

At the conclusion of our last exciting episode we learned that any purported right to own private guns depends on the “ablative absolute” Latinate grammatical construction of the 2nd Amendment. I’m sure you’ve been kept on the edge of your seats waiting for today’s exciting installment. This is almost as stirring as those old weekly black and white serials in the movie theaters where the hero is cast down into a pit of poisonous snakes at the end of the episode or the heroine is tied to railroad tracks just minutes before the west-bound is due.


But what is the ablative absolute?

From Wikipedia I learn:

In Latin grammar, the ablative absolute (Latin: ablativus absolutus) is a noun phrase cast in the ablative case. More specifically it consists of a noun or pronoun and some participle (in the case of sum [“to be”] a zero morpheme often has to be used as the past and present participle do not exist, only the future participle), all in the ablative absolute.

There. Now that we have that clear . . . .

It indicates the time, condition, or attending circumstances of an action being described in the main sentence. It takes the place of, and translates, many phrases that would require a subordinate clause in English. . . .The closest English equivalent is the nominative absolute.

Good. Now all I need is a couple of examples, please. (Are you paying attention here, Justice Scalia?)

Ovidio exule, Musae planguntur.

* Ovid having been exiled, the Muses weep. (literal)
* With Ovid having been exiled, the Muses weep.
* The Muses weep because Ovid has been exiled.

Ira calefacta, sapientia dormit.

* With anger having been kindled, wisdom sleeps.
* Wisdom sleeps because anger is kindled.

Here is one more example, this time from Adam Freedman writing in the New York Times of December 16, 2007:

Caesar, being in command of the earth, I fear neither civil war nor death by violence” (ego nec tumultum nec mori per vim metuam, tenente Caesare terras). The main clause flows logically from the absolute clause: “Because Caesar commands the earth, I fear neither civil war nor death by violence.

Perfectly clear, sir.

If we are dealing with this Latinate construction, the 2nd Amendment reads, “Because a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”

That means it is the right to a well-regulated militia that is being protected, not an individual’s private right to possess firearms. (There is no doubt that the Amendment provides a right to possess firearms to individuals serving in a militia. The unanswered question is whether individuals not serving in a militia also have the right.)

Will the Supreme Court rule that there is no private right to bear arms in the United States? To find out the answer, tune in to our next installment of this series: A Snowball Travels to Hell or Global Warming: Myth or Fiction?

Commas and the Law, Part I The Second Amendment

December 23, 2007


Commas are the Border collies of language. Their job is to round up all the sheep and put them where they belong — in the corral of the author’s intended meaning. Occasionally though the sheep get out. That appears to be what happened when the Founding Fathers wrote the Second Amendment to the constitution. Here is the official text — watch the commas — of the Amendment:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Three commas. And upon those commas hang the question of whether individual citizens of the United States have the right to keep guns in their homes.

Modern lawyers are deeply suspicious of commas. They can create ambiguity. The Founders, lawyers mostly, were not. At the time they were writing, a long tradition in Anglo-Saxon law held that punctuation marks in statutes and laws should be ignored. The Founders used commas promiscuously, inserting them in places they had no business. That third one in the Second Amendment for example. What does it think it is doing there? Or the first one?

After two centuries of abstaining, the Supreme Court may be about to tell us. In November, the Court agreed to hear a case raising this question:

Whether [a District of Columbia law barring all pistols not licensed before 1976; and requiring that all guns kept at a person’s home be unloaded, disassembled or locked up] violate[s] the Second Amendment rights of individuals who are not affiliated with any state-regulated militia, but who wish to keep handguns and other firearms for private use in their homes?

The case goes to the Supreme Court after a D.C. resident, who has a pistol in his home and wants to keep it, won in the federal court of appeals which sits in D.C. (By a split decision, 2-1.)

That court, when it read the Amendment, ignored the entire business about the Militia. Those two judges think the Amendment reads, “The right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” If that was all the Amendment said, an individual would have the right to keep whatever armaments he wished. The problem is that the first clause of the Amendment is there and so has to mean something. While lawyers could once ignore punctuation marks, never could they ignore entire clauses.

How could a court ignore the entire first clause? By deciding that the second comma is the only one that counts. That comma, according to that court, divides the sentence into a “prefatory” clause and an “operative” clause and the “operative” clause is the one that insures an individual’s right to have guns in her home. In other words, the Founders were just clearing their throats in that first clause. The dissenting judge thinks that you can’t ignore the other two commas, which results in a reading that the Amendment supports the right to a well regulated militia and confers a “collective” right to bear arms, not an individual right.

The best “punctuation” analysis of the Amendment that I have seen I don’t understand. That is because I never had a chance to take Latin. In a life full of regrets, I regret never learning to play the piano or learning Latin. Sigh. So much to do, so little time.

Anyway, a commentator who did take Latin says the Amendment is the rhetorical device of the “Ablative absolute.”

Now. Isn’t everything perfectly clear?

If it isn’t, you’ll have to stay tuned for our second post in this series: Get Your Guns — Here Come the Commas or How I learned to stop worrying and love Latin.

Happy Solstice!

December 21, 2007

Later today the sun will be directly over the Tropic of Capricorn 23.5 degrees south of the equator. (Think Australia, Chile, Brazil and South Africa.) Lovely. Tomorrow the days for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere begin to lengthen. Imperceptibly at first. We won’t notice it for several days. “Solstice,” after all, is Latin for “Solstitium” or “sun standing still” which is what the sun appears to do. (We’ve known better ever since the Catholic Church sent Copernicus out to prove that the earth is at the center of the universe. Copernicus flunked the assignment.)


Nonetheless, the days begin to lengthen at 0608 UTC today. Which is actually tomorrow. UTC is the modern term for Greenwich Time (GMT) and it won’t be December 21st anymore in Europe. In fact, it won’t even be December 21st on the east coast of the United States. It will be 1:08AM, December 22. But from the Mountain Time zone west it will still be December 21st. 11:08 MST, 10:08PST and so on. Giving western residents of the United States two full days to celebrate. Plus the full moon is on the 23rd so one could stretch it to three days.

No matter. Where ever you are, Happy Solstice!


December 17, 2007

goldenstatelimited1950.jpgRecently I learned that I am a “Foamer.” Until then I had thought I just liked trains. I supposed I could be called a “rail fan.” But using the correct word is important. As Twain famously said, “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. ” “Foamer” it is then. (It is better than being called a ferroequinologist — a student of iron horses.) From here on, I dispense with the quotations marks around the word. I will add it to my computer’s spelling dictionary when I get to the end of typing this piece.

Foamer is the term used by railroad employees to describe people like myself who like to hang around railroads. I suspect that railroad professionals use the term with derision but I don’t mind. Because I love trains, I lack discrimination. I look at the railroads’ share of the pillaging of the American West with a tolerant eye. Want to plow up wildflowers and decades old trees for a new railroad? I will bless the activity even though I would be manning the barricades if you are trying to bulldoze those trees for a new highway. Train noise? That isn’t “noise,” it is music. I’m even in love with “Julie,” Amtrak’s computerized voice which I call from time to time to see if there is a train somewhere near I could go watch. Her number is 1-800-USA-RAIL if you want to hear; but remember, she’s mine.


We’ve added more about foaming in this post.

Better Cheating through Chemistry

December 15, 2007

George Mitchell turned down a seat on the Supreme Court and negotiated a peace in Northern Ireland but he secured his place in history this week when he named baseball’s last twenty years “The Steroid Era.” I call it “Better Cheating through Chemistry.”


Senator Mitchell is getting some flak by people ignorant of the difference between the criminal justice system and ordinary civil investigations. Much, if not all of it, is unjustified.

For instance, Senator Mitchell correctly draws conclusions from the fact that the players to whom steroid use has been attributed refused to talk to him. Mitchell was not a prosecutor; only an investigator hired by a private party — Major League Baseball — to conduct an investigation. He had no subpoena power and could not indict anyone. Had he had that power he would not have been able to draw conclusions from the players’ silence nor could he have commented on their silence. But his was not a criminal court of law and the players’ Fifth Amendment privilege not to incriminate themselves did not apply. Obviously, the players’ lawyers told them not to talk to Mitchell, but that is because their statements to Mitchell might have started a criminal investigation by law enforcement. It is perfectly appropriate that they chose not to talk to him; it is perfectly appropriate for him to draw conclusions from that fact.

Plus, his report is full of evidence that the players he named cheated. Mitchell had documentary evidence such as cancelled checks, receipts, etc. He also had the oral testimony of people who sold or injected the drugs. Some sports writers have complained about that oral testimony, calling it “hearsay.” It isn’t. But even if it was, it is still evidence and evidence from which a skilled trial lawyer — which Mitchell once was — can draw conclusions. We aren’t required to agree with his conclusions but that does not make them off-base.

As I have said before, Henry Aaron is still the home run king. Now we know that Roger Clemens is not the best pitcher in baseball’s history. And we know that baseball’s statistics for the last couple of decades should be thrown out at the plate.

In the case of Mitchell v. Clemens, Bonds, et al., the court rules in favor of Mitchell.

Blogging, Part I

December 11, 2007

I’ve been at this for several months now. Sometimes it feels pretty good; sometimes it feels like this:


But then, every so often I get a nice comment, like that from the author of (here), which keeps us going. And, by the way, that is an interesting site. Check it out.

Nature’s Intelligence or The Nature of Intelligence

December 8, 2007

75-mile-juniper-2.jpgThe juniper tree in the photo lives at the top of 75 Mile Ridge in the Grand Canyon. I have no idea how long it has lived there or how long it will continue living but I suspect it is in its middle age. Perhaps it is a hundred years old with perhaps another century to go. Two hundred years to watch the Grand Canyon. Not too bad a life. I spent a night with it last month and remembered a poet who thought it might be nice sometime to be a tree, “looking out in all directions at once.”

Science is beginning to learn that our definition of “intelligence” has been too limited. Many organisms have differing kinds of intelligence. We humans often divide organisms into three categories: Those which are inanimate, those which are sentient, and those which are also sapient. Sentient beings can feel; sapient beings are also self-aware and capable of judgment. Eastern religions don’t make the distinction, at least not as clearly. Most recognize many non-human sentient beings and many include “sapient” within the category of “sentient.” That is why a Mahayana Buddhist Bodhisattva, an enlightened being devoted to the liberation of others, vows to free all the numberless sentient beings which exist, not just the human ones.

Crows and Ravens use tools, hide their food caches and feel pain. Obviously they are sentient. Are they also sapient? Aware that another Raven is watching, a Raven will pretend to cache food at one spot but then hide the food somewhere else when it is not observed. Doesn’t that imply self-awareness and even judgment? Single cell organisms “learn” to avoid unpleasant stimuli. Aspen trees “learned” to clone themselves to avoid the vicissitudes of sexual reproduction. Doesn’t that evolutionary decision imply sapience?

It is safe to assume that juniper tree at the top of 75 Mile Ridge is at least sentient. What if it is also sapient in some way we don’t yet comprehend? It may not be that much of a stretch into anthropomorphism to imagine that it is. That at some level it knows where it lives; knows what it is. I engaged that idea — or is it just fancy? — while sleeping next to it last month. I wondered, “On cold blustery winter nights does it wish to be somewhere warm? Does it wish I would quit thinking and just exist here with it and communicate with it in silence, which is the only way it can reach me and I can reach it? Does it care? And, if it is middle aged, is it dissatisfied with its life from time to time? Do trees experience mid-life crises? Does it ever wonder where the humans who walk by it go? Would it like to hike along sometime and go experience what is up there two thousand feet higher at the South Rim of its home?”

It can’t, of course. Even if it is sapient, it is still a tree. Whatever consciousness it possesses is cabined and confined by its essential nature and its history in the Grand Canyon. It is not free to get up and move. It cannot be something other than what it is. It is not free to re-create itself from scratch. About all it can do is rearrange a branch here or there, drop some needles or change the direction one of its roots is growing.

Pretty much like us.



I wasn’t the only one speculating about intelligence yesterday.My good friend at Wild Resiliency was also blogging about the same subject and so was Steve Conner. You can read their pieces here and here.

Gahan Wilson also speculated recently — in a manner only he can do — about the nature of plant intelligence. Here is the result of his speculations as published in the New Yorker’s issue of November 26th, 2007.


The Lone Truther – The Holocaust and the University of Kentucky

December 5, 2007

From time to time we get questionable emails in our inbox. Today we begin a new program to deal with them. It’s time for this week’s episode of THE LONE TRUTHER.



cue the music: tatatump, tatatump, tatatumptump tump


Camera pans in on our hero and his trusty side-kick Tanto sitting around the campfire in the wilderness. Crickets chirp and coyotes howl in the background. . .


LT: Well, Tanto. We’ll have to check this out. Somebody is claiming that the University of Kentucky removed a class about the Holocaust from its curriculum for fear of offending Muslims. You ride into town, get beat up and then come back and tell me if anyone is getting this email.

T: Kemo Sabe, why do I always have to get beat up?

LT: Because it’s in the script every week.

T: Ugh. I think it is time for the writers to take a hike. A nice long hike.

Tanto leaves. The LONE TRUTHER pours himself another cup of coffee and wanders off into the desert to look at the stars. Sometime later TANTO returns. . . .

LT: Well, Tanto. Only one black eye this week. What did you find out?

T: Kemo Sabe, an email is floating around alleging that the Holocaust has been removed from the curriculum at the University of Kentucky. Here is a copy.

The LONE TRUTHER reads. . . .

IN MEMORIAM — This week the University of Kentucky removed The Holocaust from its school curriculum because it “offended” the Muslim population which claims it never occurred. This is a frightening portent of the fear that is gripping the world and how easily each country is giving into it. It is now more than 60 years since the Second World War in Europe ended. This e-mail is being sent as a memorial chain, in memory of the six million Jews, 20 million Russians, 10 million Christians and 1,900 Catholic priests who were murdered, massacred, raped, burned, starved and humiliated with the German and Russian peoples looking the other way! Now more than ever, with Iran among others claiming the Holocaust to be “a myth,” it is imperative to make sure the world never forgets. This e-mail is intended to reach 40 million people worldwide! Join us and be a link in the memorial chain.

LT: Well, Tanto. This looks suspicious. Look at this: “German and Russian peoples looking the other way! ” That would have been a little difficult given how rapidly they were killing one another. And why would a Muslim be offended by teaching about the Holocaust? Muslims didn’t murder the Jews; the Nazis did that. Muslims didn’t invade Russia nor did they rape and kill Germans. Stalin murdered Russians no matter what their religious beliefs. The writer of the email is anonymous. And I don’t like those exclamation points either. We’d better check this out.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the citizenry waits with baited breath. Pretty soon the LONE TRUTHER AND TANTO ride into the ranch yard in a cloud of dust.

Innocent Citizen No. 1 – Good thing they don’t have a helicopter. We wouldn’t have any topsoil left.

LT: Innocent citizens, lend me your ears! There is NO truth in the email. It is all false! Made up! You can return safely to your homes now. Here is what TANTO and I found out:

1.) The University of Kentucky was compelled by this email to issue a press release denying it which you can read here:

2. ) The story originated in the United Kingdom which has the same initials as the University of Kentucky.

But it wasn’t true even about the UK. Read here.

The sun begins to set in the West. . .

Innocent citizen number 2: Where else would it set?

Cue the music . . . .tatatump, tatatump, tatatumptump tump. . . .

THE LONE TRUTHER and his trusty side-kick TANTO ride off into the sunset . . .We hear the plaintive call, “Hi-Ho Silver” as they ride off.

Innocent Citizen No. 1: Who was that masked man? I didn’t even get a chance to thank him.

Innocent Citizen No. 2: Why, that was the LONE TRUTHER!

The end.