Córdoba

Statue of a mounted general and cathedral in a plaza.
Statue of a mounted general and cathedral in a plaza.

I’ve been wandering around central Córdoba during the day while Lore works. Córdoba is lovely and lively. There are always people walking around. It’s a big city of about a million people, but also a university town, so lots of college students live in Lore’s neighborhood. Each night is progressively noisier as the weekend approaches. It’s spring and the weather is warm.

A city center of high-rise apartments seen from a hill.
A city center of high-rise apartments seen from a hill.

Argentina is sort of a Second World country, if there ever was such a thing. Think of a beautiful, solid old house with peeling paint and an overgrown lawn: it needs a little cash and a lot of work to get fixed up, but it’s otherwise fine. That’s Argentina. The high-rise apartments buildings keep going up in central Cordoba, but the tile sidewalks are crumbling. Garbage collection was interrupted yesterday after the city ran out of money to pay the contractor. Today the teachers went on strike. We heard the demonstration pass down the boulevard a block over.

Photographs of people hang from clotheslines strung across an alley.
Photographs of people hang from clotheslines strung across an alley.

The Cabildo, the old colonial government house that is the central civic building of the city, is a nice tourist attraction but the former police state used it for imprisoning, torturing, and executing people. An exhibit now memorializes the victims, known as “the disappeared”. This is when speaking Spanish like a two-year old gets very frustrating. Lore says everybody here has an opinion about it, but I can’t understand them. To my eyes and ears much about this city is indecipherably quotidian. I’d like to find out more.

Last night I met Lore’s Italian grandmother. Italians are everywhere in Argentina. Except for that she speaks Spanish she could be one of my own relatives.

In transit

A statue of Snoopy the World War I flying ace brightens the terminal.
A statue of Snoopy the World War I flying ace brightens the terminal.

The passenger terminal at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport is named for Charles Lindbergh. His feat of flying solo across the Atlantic is receding in the collective memory, and I just tend to think of him as right-wing kook (there are only two aviation feats worth remembering: the Wright brothers’ first flights and the moon landing). I found a more appropriate representative of the Twin Cities in Snoopy, as the World War I flying ace.

I flew Northwest Airlines which is without a doubt our worst domestic carrier. They’re always late or have some other problem and so have both cranky passengers and cranky employees. Too bad the big airlines devoured all the regional carriers in the 1980s. Maybe it made sense to consolidate the industry then, but with the Internet I can put together a multi-carrier itinerary on my own.

A colorful illustration of the Everglades etched into the black airport floor.
A colorful illustration of the Everglades etched into the black airport floor.

So Florida was my fourth state on Saturday afternoon as I waited around the Miami International Airport. MIA is a regular global intersection. I heard Spanish there at least as much as English. It’s a good transition to when traveling to Latin America. The J concourse is nice a modern-looking, if dark. A treatise on the Everglades is etched at intervals into the concourse floor, like a weird manifesto (or an amateur blog post).

So much waiting. I brought my travel sudoku book. I haven’t played in a couple of years, but I tried out some new moves.

Wild card

The World Series is getting started. I can hear the television in the other room. More precisely, I can hear the numbskull FOX announcers. In the introduction, John McCain and Barack Obama each provided a couple of voice-overs. God only knows why they bothered. Jeannie Zelasko commented afterward, “…JOHN MCCAIN and (mumbling) barackobama…”. Gotta love FOX.

I was ruminating about the ALCS on Sunday after the Rays sent the Red Sox packing. I had nothing better to think about, of course, and the wild card playoff spot always annoyed me. The typical wild card team is a Florida Marlins or Colorado Rockies that puts in half a season of quality baseball. The announcers usually say something like, “they had the best record in baseball since the All-Star break”. They are theoretically but not actually good enough to win a division. Yet they get to compete in the postseason on an equal basis to the team that had the best record in baseball since spring training. This is the first year since 2001 that a wild card didn’t make the World Series. This is a penalty against winning and a reward for mediocrity. There is no reason the Rays (and often in past years, the Yankees), who already eliminated the Red Sox in the regular season, should not have to do it again with nothing more than home-field advantage.

Here’s my idea: the wild card team has to win their playoff series by two games. In other words, make it a six game Division Series and an eight game League Championship Series. A tie means the division champion moves to the next round. The World Series can remain a best-of-seven, since if the wild card gets that far they’ve earned a fair shot.

I ought to write to Bud Selig. Or if I really want something done, George Mitchell. Because he’s a fair and balanced member of the Boston Red Sox board of directors, right?

Ames

I went to Ames to recruit at the Iowa State University Ag Career Day. We don’t get enough applications for our seasonal positions. Ag Career Day is a big deal at Iowa State, which is a quintessential public agricultural college. All the Big Ag companies were there, plus some big food companies like Kraft. The financial industry may be tanking, but agriculture is still booming.

ISU is also a quintessential pretty college campus. One of the deans told me that it was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead’s firm right after they designed Central Park in New York.

Aftenposten, farvel

Carrie sent me the bad news that Aftenposten, a Norwegian news website, will discontinue its English news shortly. No more articles on King Harald’s cows, the Norwegian penis atlas, or moose wandering into Oslo.

Norway is a smallish country that is fortunate not to be preoccupied with being a political or economic superpower. Some of the Aftenposten’s news items are quaint without being fluff, and inform us which news is important to other people. For example, somebody over there wants to process American liposuction spoil into a Bokmål biodiesel bonanza. If I want idiosyncratic news from now on, I’ll either have to read Al Jazeera English or learn Norwegian.

Nah. Just plug me in to Fox News. Isn’t America the center of the universe anyway?

Religulous

Attention! Maybe a plot spoiler below. I don’t know. It’s a documentary, so there’s no actual plot…

Spur of the moment, I went to see “Religulous”, Bill Maher’s film about religion. Maher is a skeptic and an an iconoclast, to say the least.

I’ll get this out of the way before I discuss his big idea: it’s a funny movie if you think slaughtering sacred cows (figuratively) is funny. The film-making is pretty amateurish–microphones dropping into the shot and so forth–and I couldn’t tell if it is on purpose or not since some of the footage intentionally included the crew. Most first-person documentaries take pains to make it seem as if the crew didn’t exist, so you forget it’s a movie I suppose. Stock footage and movie clips spliced into the interviews account for some of the bigger laughs.

Maher establishes one of his minor points pretty early on, but it doesn’t stop him from repeating the scenarios: in interviewing a lot of lay people, activists, and ersatz theologians he shows that they don’t have a good grasp–or even a consistent understanding–of their own religious doctrines. Maher is a good foil for a lot of these folks because he’s very smart and logical and can their catch contradictions on the fly. Maher is mostly immune to the theological one-liners that usually shut me up for a while. He’d shake his head at these, and at first I thought he just plain disagreed with his subject, but perhaps he was regretting that they retreated from their attempts at reason. I’m not sure about that.

I am sure that he is not very interested in what these folks have to say, and he uses them as cues to interject his own opinions into the conversation. Maher is as certain about his correctness as he criticizes his subjects for being. He dismisses, without using comic irony, Islam as a violent religion prone to warfare and terrorism.

His main point, and he says it at the end lest you think this is a movie only about making fun of religious people, is that doubt and skepticism about religion are healthy. We possess the means to obliterate our own species yet many of us with profound disagreements are absolutely certain of our righteousness. Technological advancement and cultural immaturity make a recipe for disaster.

Doubt and skepticism are healthy indeed. I think, though, that we can separate a person’s religious beliefs from their actual behavior. We may have no choice in this, since it’s almost impossible to change someone’s religious beliefs by scoring logic points off of them.

This applies to current events regarding, say, Sarah Palin. Moral certainty is an admirable quality but it alone is not a substitute for expertise or competence, scientific method or administrative rigor. Nor have the pious demonstrated that their moral certainties produce the best results or broadest benefits.

Editorial note: As you may notice, I have a very hard time with verb agreement when I’m writing about movies. Did it happen in the past or is it always happening now? Ugh.

A quick survey of Roger Ebert’s reviews shows that both the content of the film and the filmmaker’s intentions are described in the present tense.

Vulture culture

A metal sign on the concrete dam spillway indicates record high water from 1993.
A metal sign on the concrete dam spillway indicates record high water from 1993.

The weather’s been nice so far this fall, but I haven’t been on my bike much. This morning I rode up to Lake Coralville . The leaves are just about peaking, I’d say. What’s not peaking is the water level. When I last rode to the reservoir in June, the water was about three feet below the top of the emergency spillway. Today I learned that there is a parking lot between the spillway wall and the river. The river is low enough that I could see that.

I have a new cell phone, one with a camera, but as I’m learning it does not take very good scenic photos, so I’ll have to bring my camera up to the dam to get a good shot of the foliage.

Several large birds glide in spirals overhead in a blue autumn sky.
Several large birds glide in spirals overhead in a blue autumn sky.

In addition to stunning foliage, the reservoir was swarming with hundreds turkey vultures. I suppose they were staging there for migration. Turkey vultures usually congregate in small groups, but I’ve never seen this many at once. I’ve definitely never seen so many on the ground and usually can’t get as close as I did today. They were gliding in the air and perched on the boulders that compose the dam. Some flew within about 20 feet of me. They are very shy birds, which is a good thing if you know anything about their peculiar natural history.

Just as barn owls and and ospreys are perfectly adapted to their respective niches of nighttime hunting and daytime fishing, turkey vultures are “intelligently designed” for eating dead, rotting animals. Their flight style, featherless heads, and giant nostrils are all part of this, but I’ll skip to the part that matters to me: they projectile-vomit super-caustic stomach acids and extra-smelly, partially-digested rotten flesh when they feel threatened.

So it pays not to get too close to the vultures even if you can. What I found, though, is that they fly off before you get too close to begin with. They weren’t feeding anyway. I wondered how close they would get if I played dead. I was at any rate close enough to see their red heads (or black, in the case of the juvenile birds), which are hard to distinguish when they are riding high on thermal updrafts or perched way up on a radio tower.

I’ll make a pitch for autumn as a distinctly advantageous time for nature study. Fall migrations make hawks easy to find. Lots of invertebrates are in season in late summer and early autumn: various butterflies and their caterpillars, daddy long-legs, craneflies, grasshoppers, and praying mantises. Snakes come out on cool, sunny days to warm themselves on roads and trails. There were plenty of snake carcasses on the road. Also lots of basking grasshoppers and woolly bear caterpillars crossing the road to who knows where. I accidentally gooshed a woolly bear with my bicycle tire. I hate that.

Vox idioti

Tonight the NLCS starts with the first postseason games on broadcast television, which means nothing except that I can watch them at home. This is always a mixed blessing, for when I tuned into FOX I heard the voice which bores into my soul “as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror”: Tim McCarver.

He was already over-praising Derek Lowe, who had thrown all of five pitches in the first inning. When will he mention that Lowe has made a career of not quite meeting his considerable talent? Later in the game after the Phillies start hitting him. First-guess, Tim, first-guess. And you’re not off the hook, broadcast partner Joe Buck, because God hates dickhead-enablers.

Now, as I type, I can hear McCarver yammering about how Lowe’s sinker ball might not be effective enough because he’s had too much rest. This is a typical load of Timshit. Maybe they should sentence sinker ball pitchers to hard labor between starts? Several years ago McCarver disagreed with a scientist’s claim that a so-called rising fastball is a physical impossibility. “Of course it rises,” McCarver said, “if you throw up. Why can’t you throw up?” Throw up indeed. That’s I feel like doing now.

As usual highly competitive professional athletes will go about their business oblivious to McCarver’s insights, and as usual I will endure this yearly ritual of baseball pain and pleasure.

October baseball blows so far

I just noticed that the ALCS is going to be on TBS also. Ugh. I’m already sick of watching the games in a bar. I can only take so much beer and cheesy food so I only watch a couple of innings anyway. The other option is watching it at the gym, but same problem: I can only spend so much time there working out. I’ll have to befriend some baseball fans here. Good luck with that. It’s football season in football land and now that the Cubs have choked their way out of contention nobody here cares anymore.

Small-town elitists

If it wasn’t so funny, I’d think it was sad that I have to check in with “The Daily Show” to get some perspective on the news and to keep my sanity. Sometimes Jon Stewart will even take a break from his sarcastic news commentary to make a keen observation about contemporary politics. This week he seemed annoyed about Sarah Palin’s faith in the superiority of small-town values, and her sneering at the elites in New York and Washington. In her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention Palin said, “We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty and sincerity and dignity.”

So I started thinking about Wasilla, Alaska, the city where Palin used to be mayor. According to the city’s website, Its population was just over 7,000 last year. I guess that’s pretty small, especially from my point of view.

I’ve never seen or heard a precise figure indicating when a town ceases to be small, though the U.S. Census Bureau has criteria for urban and rural classifications. The unincorporated hamlet where I grew up in suburban New York may be small enough to qualify for small town status, except that it was part of the largest metropolitan area in the United States. I can’t lay claim to those rock-solid values that form the backbone of our wonderful country.

Most Americans can’t either. Only about of fifth of us live in rural areas, and most haven’t since the 1920s. If small towns are important reservoirs of values and the proportions of Americans living in them are dwindling, this must leave much of our population dishonest, insincere, and undignified.

Towns in Alaska are so virtuously small that Wasilla is the fourth largest population center in the state (thus the fourth most immoral) and one of its fastest-growing. The still-growing population increased by over a third from 1990 to 2000. A similar percentage commute to work in nearby Anchorage. The city’s web page on development says it all: the abundance of land and propinquity to Anchorage means “Wasilla and the Mat-Su Valley are strategically positioned for further commercial and residential growth.” Wasilla is becoming more like Levittown than Mayberry.

In other words, Wasilla does not want to be too small of a town anymore. It’s letting those new commuters dilute its morality while they increase its property values. Wasilla may never sink to the depths of iniquity that characterize Las Vegas or New York, but it could realistically achieve the depravity level of, heavens forbid, Iowa City. If small-town virtue wasn’t enough for Wasilla, why should we all be held to this standard?

This makes her boasts sound pretty disingenuous. If small-town folks like Sarah Palin believe they are morally superior to those in large cities, and a small percentage of Americans live in these small towns, and per capita moral fiber increases inversely relative to town size, then what are they? They are elitist snobs who wave their superiority in the faces of us lesser Americans.

Maybe it’s time for Sarah Palin and her boosters to stop claiming ownership of this country. This country doesn’t belong to just Christians or taxpayers or pundits or politicians or financiers. By partitioning us into rural saints and urban degenerates, Palin is abdicating leadership over most of America. But it’s not too late! She can give up now and let someone with a broader perspective stand in line to be president.

Rats

I am so incensed about Congress passing that awful bailout I barely know what to write. Some people and sectors of our economy have been in crisis for decades but when Wall Street screams, Congress votes and votes until they get it right. If last week’s vote was about improving health care or immigration reform, they’d have waited 20 years before considering it again.

My own representative voted for it. Fortunately he has three opponents this year that oppose it, so I can vote for one of them.

Cubs fans

I forgot that the Division Series games are on TBS, so I had to go to the local bar to catch a bit of the Cubbies game. The game was on every single TV screen in the place. I could tell that the Cubs don’t into the postseason as often as, say, the Yankees, because the fans get excited about everything. Base hit in the fourth inning and they’re clapping and cheering. The Dodgers’ third baseman boots a grounder and one guy shouts “go for two!” Go for two? The ball is still in the infield and the runner hasn’t even gotten to first yet! As a practiced postseason fan with fan with several World Championships under my belt, I reserve the right to sneer paternalistically at these amateurs.

God bless ’em.