The Dark Side Is Eloquent

Darth Vader has a blog!

Estate Tax

Mortimer B. Zuckerman, Editor-in-Chief of US News & World Report, has this to say about the estate tax:

By Mortimer B. Zuckerman
So the Rich Get Richer?

The political argument over the inheritance tax or, as its opponents like to call it, the death tax, brings to mind the approach a charity made to a very rich member of the community. "Our research," the charitable group gently told the man, "indicates that you have contributed nothing to any of the civic, cultural, medical, or educational organizations that have contributed so much to the environment that made your success possible. So we are here to ask you for a donation."

The rich man replied: "Did your research find that my 95-year-old mother has Alzheimer's, requiring 24-hour-a-day, very expensive, highly qualified nursing?" "No," the group replied. "Did your research uncover that my brother was involved in a car accident in a foreign country from which he cannot be removed without his having at least six operations to help him recover his ability to walk?" "No," the group admitted. "Did your research discover that my daughter has been abandoned and now divorced by her husband, who left her with three young children and no means to support herself?" "No," the group replied. "Well, then," the rich man said, "if I don't give money to them, do you think I am going to give money to you?"

The story captures for me the attitude of those who now favor granting a huge tax break to the richest Americans. Congress, in the deceptive 2001 budget, voted to reduce the estate tax gradually until it ultimately vanishes in 2010 and to reinstate it completely in 2011, with a tax of 55 percent on estates after the first million.

Scare tactics. The House of Representatives has voted to repeal the estate tax altogether, and the Senate is moving toward a very significant reduction. This year the tax is collected only on assets of more than $1.5 million. That would account for about 18,800 people, less than 1 percent of the 2.5 million people likely to die annually. Of the 18,800, only 440 will leave estates with assets primarily generated by farms or family-owned businesses. That's relevant because proponents of eliminating or further cutting the tax portray it as dismembering family businesses that have been built up over many years. The Democrats, seeking a compromise, have proposed exempting $3.5 million per person, or $7 million per couple, with a reduced tax rate of 47 percent. Under that plan, they would tax only 0.3 of 1 percent of estates, but even so, only the wealthiest of the wealthy would be taxed. If the exemption were set at this level, the Tax Policy Center of the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute notes, only 50 estates would be those of owners of farms and family businesses. The notion that thousands would be forced out of family businesses is, in other words, preposterous.

So much for scare tactics; now for the effect. The estate tax this year will bring in about $18 billion--not exactly chicken feed. The House motion would cost the nation about $745 billion from 2012 to 2021--call it an even trillion if you figure in the interest we'd have to pay on borrowings to make up for lost revenue.

But wait, the gift to the super-rich is even bigger than it seems at first blush. The effective tax rate wouldn't be 47 percent. It would be much less. Why? Because the tax would be levied only on the amount above the exemption, combined with state tax payments and charitable bequests. In 2003, the Internal Revenue Service reported, the actual inheritance tax rate averaged just 18.8 percent.

Those who would abolish the estate tax contend that it represents a double tax. An individual is taxed, these worthies would have us believe, on assets built over the course of a lifetime and then again at death. This is, to put it charitably, specious. First of all, the tax doesn't kick in until the assets exceed $1.5 million. Second, much of the wealth transferred at death has never been taxed at all, not even once, let alone twice. The largest estates are basically made up of stocks, business assets, and long-held property. Since taxes aren't assessed until such assets are sold, no taxes have been paid on them. The repeal of the estate tax would mean that the heirs would also never pay a dime in taxes.

How, in the face of our increasingly dire fiscal problems, can Congress even think about giving away so much money to this handful of wealthiest Americans? And how dare it add to our national debt in this way when it is cutting so many other vital social programs while forcing the middle class to pay still more in taxes!

Eliminating the estate tax would widen the gap between rich and poor and deepen the divide for generations to come, passing wealth on to those who never earned it, creating a plutocratic leisure class. We would do well to remember that the current estate tax dates to a Republican president named Teddy Roosevelt. It was TR who, among his many other memorable utterances, stated that a "man of great wealth owes a particular obligation to the state because he derives special advantage from the mere existence of government." Amen.

Social Security

More from Brad DeLong:

The Bush Social Security Clown Show Continues

Bush gives a press conference...

You will recall that there are four potential dealbreakers--four hurdles a Bush plan must surmount before it is worth supporting:

  1. Its private accounts must be a good deal for beneficiaries.
  2. The plan must increas national savings (which means not carve-out but add-on).
  3. The plan that preserves the defined-benefit component of Social Security in the long run.
  4. The plan must implemented by competent technocrats, not the deranged monkeys who have brought us such wonders as the current deficit, the steel tariff and the Iraqi nuclear program.

Bush may have made progress on (3)--or may not. I cannot tell. He certainly did not make progress on (1), (2), or (4).

FT.com / US - Bush shifts approach on Social Security reform: Edward Alden and Holly Yeager in Washington: President George W. Bush on Thursday night endorsed a controversial plan to ensure the scheme's solvency by cutting benefits sharply for better-off workers. In a rare prime-time news conference that also focused on rising petrol prices, Mr Bush said he wanted to reform the national pension scheme so that future benefits for low-wage workers would be preserved, while middle and upper-income workers would receive less than currently promised.... An ABC News-Washington Post poll this week found 64 per cent of Americans did not approve of the way Mr Bush was handling Social Security and 51 per cent did notsupport his plan for private accounts, down from 41 per cent in mid-March. While he reiterated his support for allowing younger workers to shift into private accounts some of the money they pay into Social Security.... Private accounts that divert funds from Social Security have faced united Democratic opposition, as well as criticism from some Republicans....

You know, when I look at my four requirements, it strikes me that three of them--(1), (2), and (4)--are primarily Republican issues, or issues that are of especial concern to those whom I once thought Republicans to be. They are supposed to worry about whether Bush's private accounts are structured to be a good deal for beneficiaries (they are not). They are supposed to be worried about raising national savings (the Bush plan doesn't, except through very indirect and improbable channels). They are supposed to be worried about competence in government.

So where are the grownup Republicans on this? I don't hear a peep.

More Head Scratching

From Brad Delong:

Why Oh Why Are We Ruled by These Fools? (Republican Congress Edition)

Kevin Drum notes the Republican Congress in action:

The Washington Monthly: A SHINY NEW BUDGET....Here's your new Republican budget:

The House and Senate broke a lengthy impasse over federal spending Thursday night, narrowly adopting a $2.56 trillion federal budget for 2006 that aims to trim the growth of Medicaid by $10 billion over five years, add $106 billion in tax cuts and clear the way for oil drilling in an Alaskan wildlife refuge.

Attaboy! Reduce the deficit $10 billion by cutting back on healthcare for the poor, and then turn around and increase the deficit $106 billion by approving additional tax cuts for the rich. Moral values, baby, moral values.

Democrats Stepping Up

While the Republican's (i.e. Frist and DeLay) try to push policies and rhetoric that most Americans don't agree with, Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada) is pushing for actual change. Here's a list of the Democratic initiatives they are working towards.

  1. Women’s Health Care. “The Prevention First Act of 2005” will reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and abortions by increasing funding for family planning and ending health insurance discrimination against women.
  2. Veterans’ Benefits. “The Retired Pay Restoration Act of 2005” will assist disabled veterans who, under current law, must choose to either receive their retirement pay or disability compensation.
  3. Fiscal Responsibility. Democrats will move to restore fiscal discipline to government spending and extend the pay-as-you-go requirement.
  4. Relief at the Pump. Democrats plan to halt the diversion of oil from the markets to the strategic petroleum reserve. By releasing oil from the reserve through a swap program, the plan will bring down prices at the pump.
  5. Education. Democrats have a bill that will: strengthen head start and child care programs, improve elementary and secondary education, provide a roadmap for first generation and low-income college students, provide college tuition relief for students and their families, address the need for math, science and special education teachers, and make college affordable for all students .
  6. Jobs. Democrats will work in support of legislation that guarantees overtime pay for workers and sets a fair minimum wage.
  7. Energy Markets. Democrats work to prevent Enron-style market manipulation of electricity.
  8. Corporate Taxation. Democrats make sure companies pay their fair share of taxes to the U.S. government instead of keeping profits overseas.
  9. Standing with our troops. Democrats believe that putting America’s security first means standing up for our troops and their families.
I know a lot of Republicans in the House and Senate would agree with this list. Let's just hope they have the backbone to stand up to a minority group of conservatives who would rather legislate our personal lives.

Deep Jungle, Episode 3

The last episode of Deep Jungle is tomorrow night. I believe it focuses on humans and primates. Should be good.


Firefly the Movie

The first trailer is up for the upcoming movie Serenity. This is the offshoot of the tv show Firefly which the buffoons at FOX completely bungled(in terms of marketing). It was a brilliant program that, sadly, was canceled after 14 episodes. Hopefully, the movie will be hugely successful and bring the series back, or at least spawn some sequels. The movie comes out September 30th. Check out the preview here.


Why Can't We Have An Intelligent Congress?

The House of Representatives, in its infinite wisdom, recently passed an energy policy bill. Here are the highlights:

1. At least eight billion (spread over ten years) in tax breaks for oil-and-gas exploration, coal extraction, and nuclear energy (this one is not a terrible idea if we can find a place to store it).

2. Only 500 million in incentives for energy efficiency and renewable sources.

3. Open the Artic National Refuge to oil and gas drilling.

4. MTBE manufacturers would be given immunity from lawsuits alleging pollution of drinking water by gasoline additives.

5. Would not require car manufacturers to raise mileage standards (to an average of 33 mpg; current standars are 27.5 mpg for cars and 21 mpg for SUV's and trucks).

Does any of this make sense when we have high gas prices and politicians talk about energy independence?


Intelligent Design Isn't So Intelligent

Dr. PZ Myers has an op-ed article he wrote for the Minnesota Star-Tribune regarding the teaching of evolution and why science teachers don't include Intelligent Design. It is a beautifully written piece and well worth reading.

Intelligent Design (ID) has failed to meet even the minimal standards of evidence and scholarship we should expect of the science we teach our children. Teaching it steals time from more vital subjects in which our kids should be grounded.

Science is a conservative process. Most college-level introductory textbooks contain only material that has stood the test of time and has been confirmed independently. ID proponents have not only failed to provide any evidence for their thesis, they aren't even trying. There are no labs doing research on this subject; all the papers the Discovery Institute has tried to publish are exercises in spin, in which they try to distort biology researchers' work to fit their preconceptions. With no established body of results, no current work, and no promising prospects for future research, why should ID be supported? It's a dead end. It is absurd to propose that our kids learn about a subject that no legitimate scientists are pursuing and that has no utility.

With no track record to earn the respect of scientists and educators, ID is attempting to circumvent the accepted standards of testing and validation to sneak into our schoolrooms—it's cheating. It takes a great deal of hard work and persistence and time and evidence to establish a scientific idea, work that should not be shirked by taking the easy route and asking the government to legislate a concept into the schoolrooms. Yet this is exactly the strategy ID proponents are following: spreading propaganda to persuade school boards and state education departments to insert the ideological dogma of ID into classrooms, in the absence of support from scientists and informed science teachers.

Contrast ID with how legitimate scientific work gets into the curriculum. There is an active ferment of new ideas, new experiments, and new evidence constantly bubbling up in the scientific literature. Many controversies work themselves out in the pages of Nature or Science or other journals, and prompt hypothesis testing and the gathering of new evidence. If an idea is well-supported by the evidence, it gains wider currency within the scientific community, and eventually works its way into the science textbooks, which are usually written by people with a solid research background in their discipline. Biology books are written by biologists, not by the hodge-podge of lawyers, philosophers, theologians, rhetoricians, and rare scientists willing to abandon scientific principles found in the ID movement. Textbook content should accurately reflect the general opinion of the scientists who do real work in a field.

And what is the state of modern evolutionary biology? Thriving, growing, and more productive than ever. To name a few examples, in paleontology within the last year, we've had the amazing discoveries of Homo floresiensis, the Indonesian "hobbit", and remarkable finds from Dmanisi, Georgia. The human genome project, and genome projects analyzing other organisms, has been yielding research dividends as this wealth of data is analyzed from an evolutionary and comparative perspective. We are beginning to tease apart the genetic differences that make human brains different than those of chimpanzees. Molecular studies of protists are revealing the roots of multicellularity. We study oncogenes, genes that when damaged can cause cancers in humans, in nematode worms. Epidemiologists study looming disease threats, such as bird flu and the Marburg virus, using evolutionary principles.

My own discipline of developmental biology has been revolutionized in the last few decades as we've embraced evolution more fully than before; new papers in the rapidly growing field of evo-devo, or evolutionary developmental biology, pile up on my desk faster than I can read them. This is a genuinely exciting time to be studying biology, at a time when new syntheses of various disciplines with the ideas of evolutionary biology are fueling new innovations, new discoveries, and invigorating evolution yet further. When students ask me about the hot fields that promise great careers, I steer them towards evo-devo (and developmental biology in general, of course), bioinformatics, proteomics, and genomics, all fields in which knowledge of evolution is indispensable.

Note that I do not and cannot recommend anything to do with ID.

ID is a sterile philosophy whose proponents spend their time lobbying school boards, producing nothing new, and with no promise of new ideas for the future. Asking our schools to teach ID is like suggesting that they offer instruction in buggy whip manufacture—it's a futile exercise that is going to leave the students unprepared for both college and the real world. As a university instructor, I want my incoming students to be well versed in the fundamentals of biology, which includes evolution but not the empty pseudoscience of ID, so that we can move quickly to the real excitement of modern biology...which is almost entirely informed by the concepts of evolution.

Deep Jungle, Episode 2

Tonight is the second installment of PBS' Deep Jungle. More exploration of the unknown. I know one biologist is going to be featured as he searches for the gian bird-eating tarantula; should be creepy!


Hotel Rwanda

Beth and I just finished watching the movie Hotel Rwanda. It's a hard movie to sit through. At the end you can't help but feel sickened and pissed at the way our country and the rest of the civilized world did absolutely nothing to stop the genocide, because it would have been a bad move politically. And to think that there are similar situations occuring now, on a smaller scale, and we're still not doing anything makes me even madder. There isn't much more that I can say, except that we need to do more for the world and protect those people who can't protect themselves, even if they are not American.

New Food Pyramid

The Department of Agriculture has released their new food pyramid. Improvements: they have included exercise and have a neat feature that allows you to personalize what foods you need according to age, gender, and the amount of exercise you should have on a daily basis. Letdowns: the pyramid fails to identify what foods we should be avoiding like the plague (not surprising since this would be a political issue). It does warn of sodium, trans fats, saturated fats, and sugars, which is good. Noticeably absent: alcohol. Despite ever increasing evidence that moderate consumption is healthy, they left it out. I assume this is to avoid confusing students, who will and should be using this pyramid. It will be interesting to see what nutrition groups have to say about this.


Olympic Park Institute

I just got back from taking my students to the Olympic Park Institute in the Olympic National Forest on Lake Crescent. It was a great experience for our students to enjoy the outdoors hiking, canoeing, as well as learning about streamside ecology, forest ecology, watersheds, and plant/animal identfication. Stewardship should play an important role in any elementary education program, and this institute allows students to directly relate what they learn to the outdoors.

A highlight (not necessarily for me): My 6th graders decided to play a little prank on the last day. We had learned a water cycle song and dance that my students were going to perform in front of the rest of our school. My students insisted that I be in front. I'm not much of a performer and am not really comfortable with that sort of thing, but I knew they really wanted me to, so there you are. We were to sing it three times with the accompanying dance. When I got to the end spin on the third time around, I noticed that I was the only one dancing! They thought it was hilarious. I'm now busy planning my revenge when I take them to the Grand Canyon in June. If any of you have any suggestions, I'd love to hear them.

A little advice: Never share a cabin with five 6th grade boys after an eight mile hike and a dinner of burritos. Can anyone say flammable?


Biodiversity Loss

An editorial in this week's journal Science highlights the serious issue of biodiversity loss. I'm probably breaking copyright law by posting it here, but I consider this important and I hope anyone visiting the site will read it and think about it.

Several recent studies have independently come to a consistent and deeply troubling conclusion: The diversity of life on our planet is declining rapidly, and in the absence of well-targeted conservation efforts, that trend will surely accelerate in the decades ahead. Loss of habitat, invasive species, global warming, pollution, overexploitation, disease, and perhaps other unidentified stressors present a massive threat to global biodiversity. The world’s ecosystems provide services whose estimated value is in the trillions of dollars annually. The loss of a significant fraction of these services would have far-reaching biological and economic consequences. Preventing that outcome will require a global response that far exceeds current actions.

This past December, results from the first global assessment of amphibians were reported in Science (Stuart
et al., 3 December 2004, p. 1783). The findings were chilling: More than 43% of all amphibians are in decline, 34 species are reported extinct, and another 113 species have almost or completely disappeared since 1980. Nearly one-third of amphibians worldwide are threatened. Also in December, a Stanford University group reported that 21% of bird species are extinction-prone and 6.5% are functionally extinct. Other studies show that 23% of mammals are threatened.

These results are consistent with a comprehensive analysis of biodiversity in the United States, completed 5 years ago by NatureServe and The Nature Conservancy, indicating that one-third of plant and animal species are at risk of extinction. Beyond species, the recent Millennium Ecosystem Assessment paints a bleak picture of human impacts on the world’s ecosystems. The assessment found that about 60% of the ecosystem services that support life are being degraded or used unsustainably.

These data are disconcerting at best and alarming at worst, but equally troubling is the reality that governments throughout the world are poorly equipped to address these declines. That’s the dilemma of global change: Political processes are slow to recognize and respond to challenges that play out over decades. In some policy areas, dramatic one-time events of less consequence focus government attention and lead to aggressive action. Species and ecosystems are declining rapidly in the context of natural history, but relatively slowly in terms of human history. Hence, governments are slow to respond.

Although the United States has often led in addressing past environmental challenges, today it lags behind other countries in formulating environmental policies to protect species. The United States has not ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity developed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, nor is it a party to the Kyoto accords. And even if the world were united behind the Convention on Biological Diversity, its provisions alone are insufficient to stem the rapid decline in global biodiversity. What new approaches might make it possible to attack these issues more aggressively, and what form should they take?

Scientists must work harder to inform political leaders about the urgency of environmental challenges, aid them in developing solutions, and urge them to respond. However, placing the future of life on Earth in the hands of governments alone is a risky strategy.

Lasting societal change usually depends on actions by one or more of these institutions: governments, nongovernmental organizations, corporations, and universities. We may need to depend more heavily on the latter three sectors of society by exploring an unprecedented partnership among them. The objective would be to identify ways of working collaboratively to stem biodiversity decline. Academic scientists already team with nongovernmental organizations in directed efforts; more of the same could greatly expand the global database on biodiversity loss and build our international capacity to deal with the growing environmental challenge. Corporate participation in such partnerships adds an especially valuable element: the possibility of enhancing the innovative efforts already under way by harnessing the power of the marketplace. Measuring the value of ecosystems and the services they provide to human societies has already begun to demonstrate to policy-makers the importance of biodiversity and of building conservation values into planning processes and the price of commercial products. Ultimately, we must engage the tremendous power of individual action and consumer choice through information and economic incentives. Otherwise, the decline in Earth’s biodiversity will continue with each tick of the clock.

Mark Schaefer

Mark Schaefer is president and chief executive officer of NatureServe in Arlington,Virginia (www.natureserve.org).

Shaefer, M. 2005. In Search of a Lifeline. Science 308: 325.

Deep Jungle

Don't forget! Tonight on PBS is the premier of a 3-part series titled Deep Jungle. It looks fantastic. Tune in.


Switzerland Part VII

Finally I reach the skiing. We were very excited and a little nervous to go skiing in the Alps. I honestly don't know where in the Alps we went other than it was south of where we were. A navigator I am not.

The drive up the mountains was amazing. This was wine country, and the slopes of the hills were crawling with vines. Every square foot. Driving the winding roads up the mountain didn't improve our nerves as the roads are narrow and people don't really slow down on the curves. You practically find religion (I found several) when you see a semi or bus coming at you. Raphael was an excellent driver (he still is I imagine) and got us to the parking lot in safety.

The particular resort we visited is called Tele Villars Gryon. Whatever I imagined the Swiss Alps to encompass, this place surpassed it. The place is huge. There is a fairly long mini-gondola to get you up to the first lift, which is in itself and interesting experience. If you are afraid of heights, I don't recommend it.

A note on my attitude towards the day. I hadn't skied in four or five years. Despite the long hiatus, I have skied quite a bit in my life and so I was sure the old skills would kick in after a couple of runs. I was confronted with two immediate problems, one physical, the other more a blow to my ego. Physical first.

The Swiss don't have any idea what a bunny slope is. I could have used a bunny slope to get my legs back under me and practice some turns. They don't have a slope that's less than 50 degrees. Confronted with such an incline right away was slightly intimidating. But I got over it; how bad could it be?

The other problem you ask? Europeans are irritating. I don't mean they swear at your or flick lewd gestures in your direction or generally sniff in disdain at your inferior skiing skills. No, they show off. Worst of all, it's unintentional. Raphael, Rene, and Fabienne looked like they came out of the womb with skiis on. Some examples. While I got off the lift and desperately tried not to run over a group of 6 year olds preparing for their first run (and looking a lot more natural than I was), Raphael slid over to an embankment (overlooking an extremely steep drop) and alighted upon it so gently I wanted to push him off just for spite. No one should have that kind of balance. Rene would ski backwards and do circles in place just to make sure we were doing okay. Nevermind that I could barely point myself downhill correctly without becoming a human snowball. The last straw was Elin, a friend of Beth's family from Sweden who came down with her husband to ski with us. She slid by me on the first slope sans poles talking on a cell phone........and she's SIX MONTHS PREGNANT! I ask you, is that necessary? You could have put a chimp on skiis and we would have looked about the same.

All jesting aside, we had a great time. As the terror wore off our skills came back to us and we were able to enjoy a number of different slopes. Alas, my body failed me after about half a day. I had borrowed boots from Raphael's brother and they were just different enough to cause severe pain over time. Still, the Swiss have constructed many little restuarants next to the slopes, so I could enjoy a beverage and watch for spectacular crashes (much like a NASCAR race).

After a full day of skiing we drove back to the Sonney's house for a traditional Swiss fondue. Of course, gruyere is the only cheese to use. This was a special event because of Elin and her husband Peo, as well as Virginia's boyfriend Stephon and Damien's girlfriend Elise (from Belgium). I can't tell you what an experience it is to have dinner at a table where English, French, German, Dutch, and Swedish are all being spoken. When such a diverse group of people can find common ground and laugh together, it is a wonderful thing. I'll remember that evening for the rest of my life.

Some highlights. As usual, Rene kept the wine flowing like the Mississippi. We sampled several different regions, all delicious. At one point, Peo inquired as to what the schnapps situation might be. Rene was out of his chair and into the cellar before you could say 'Bonjour!" He returned with two bottles. It turns out that Rene's father used to distill his own shnapps. Rene presented us with a bottle of pear schnapps from 1959 and a bottle of apple from 1985. Had it not been for all of the wine, I wouldn't have attempted either. As it was, my thinking was impaired. I won't lie to you; neither went down well. My face nearly inverted, my stomach shriveled, and I'm fairly certain I lost five years of my life. Peo asked for more.

We finished the evening with a chocolate bunny. It was a holdout from Easter Sunday. Three feet tall (or maybe that's the shnapps talking), we couldn't dispatch it in a regular way. Raphael, Damien, and Stephon decided that a simultaneous head butt was the only way to break it open. Fortunately, they all aimed for a different spot. We then passed around chunks of chocolate and enjoyed some coffee before heading off to bed. All in all, an amazing day.


Slime molds and the Bush Administration?

This was too funny to resist:

Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld are now species of slime-mold beetles

U.S. President George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld may not all get a library, airport or highway named after them. But each has a slime-mold beetle named in his honor. Two former Cornell University entomologists who recently had the job of naming 65 new species of slime-mold beetles named three species that are new to science in the genus Agathidium for members of the U.S. administration. They are A. bushi Miller and Wheeler, A. cheneyi Miller and Wheeler and A. rumsfeldi Miller and Wheeler.

(Via: Science Blog)

Click on the link to read the whole piece.


Switzerland Part VI

The more observant of you may have noticed that I completely forgot to talk about Castle Chillon. Skiing will have to wait until the next post.

Castle Chillon resides in canton Vaud between the towns of Villeneuve and Montreux. You reach it by crossing an amazing bit of architecture of Swiss making. Slender towers hold up a highway that overlooks Lake Geneva. Only, you don't really realize how high up you are until you are at the castle and can look up. I was pretty startled. Again, the Swiss are not afraid of heights.

If you've ever tried to imagine what it is like to live in a castle, or the Middle Ages, then Chillon embodies it all. If you've never thought about it, but have seen Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail ('Go away or I shall taunt you for a second tima!') then that works too. (By the way, it's really important to pronounce the n on Chillon; without it, the word becomes something extraordinarily offensive to the person you are talking to.)

Chillon is a massive edifice encompassing 25 buildings on a slab of rock surrounded on all sides by water. Courtyards, grand halls, little drawing rooms, spiraling secret passageways, dungeons, it has it all. The oldest parts date to the 13th century, under the rulership of Peter II of Savoy. Over the next couple of hundred years it was built up to what it is today.

The most famous story surrounding the castle is that of Bonivard. He had suggested independence for Geneva and was subsequently chained to a stone pillar in the dungeon from 1530-1536. His plight inspired the poet Byron to scribe an ode to him. Bonivard was eventually freed by the Swiss. Having been in the dungeon and sat in the spot where he was chained, it's simply amazing he didn't go insane. He must have had an impressive list of showtunes memorized to wile away the time.

Here are some more pictures to give you an idea of what the place looks like, since I'm not doing a very good job describing it.

The castle. The entry. The dungeon. A courtyard. Bonivard's prison.


Opinions in Science

The Guardian, a UK newspaper, asked 250 scientists what they thought everyone should know about science. You can find some of their responses here. It's a good read.


Science T.V.

There are a couple of new science programs coming out. Bill Nye the Science Guy has a new show on PBS (Tuesdays, 8 PM PST) called The Eyes of Nye. It's meant for adults but the format would still be appealing for kids. The first episode concerned astrobiology and was excellent (though only 30 minutes).

On Sunday, April 17th (PBS 8 pm et/pt) is a special called Deep Jungle. This program looks especially exciting as there are not many shows that explore the deeper recesses of our ancient jungles. It looks like scientists will take us to a number of different zones throughout Central America and the Asian Pacific. Don't miss it!

Switzerland Part V

Sorry for the long delay in my travel emails. Our trip got so busy I didn't have time to finish while I was there and I lost my momentum. Procrastination then set it. Feeling sleepy.......

Okay, back to our story. Instead of breaking this into seperate days, I'm just going to do the last three in succession, so this might be a long one. I'm going to devote a separate email to our return home. Normally I would skip this, but it was such an interesting (that may be a poor choice of words as you'll find out) experience that it is worth the telling. So, we begin with Wednesday.

(By the way, since I am now at home, there is really no excuse for missed punctuation or grammar. I'm using a solid American keyboard.)


Two main goals for today: visiting the medieval village of Gruyeres (heart of cheese country) and the ancient fortress Castle Chillon.

Gruyeres has two things going for it, besides being in Switzerland: La Maison Du Gruyere (The House of Gruyere) and Chateau de Gruyeres.

First to the House, which is a museum to cheese making along with a restaurant. Very cool place to visit. If you enjoy eating cheese (and who doesn't , except for those poor bastards who are lactose intolerant) you can take a tour of what Swiss cheese making is all about, in particular Gruyere cheese. You follow a path through the dairy listening to a narration by a cow named Cherry (no idea where the name comes from). You learn about the history of raising the ever important bovines from whence the milk comes. Farmers deliver milk to the museum twice a day. The purpose of the beginning of the tour is to allow all of your senses a chance to experience the alpine life of the cow. This is all true and much appreciated with one exception. Tall steel cylinders contain certain plants that the cows consume. You can lift the caps to get a sniff and enjoy the fragrant aromas. Here is how the brochure describes it:

Smell- is represented by typical aromas, such as the flora of the high pastures and the hay. These are deeply suggestive odours that penetrate deep into the subconsciousness.

Here is how I would describe it:

Smell- over inhale noxious weed deep into your nasal passages, initiating seizures and anaphalactic shock, followed by mercifully swift descent into unconsciousness. Be slapped awake by embarrased wife while foreign tourists give you wide berth and anxious glances.

Back to the tour. You come to an overlook, overlooking naturally, an area that contains four 4800-liter vats that swirl and heat the cheese forming curds. You end up with 75 pound rounds which are then transported to the cellar to age. Their cellar can hold around 7000 rounds which is quite impressive. Afterwards, we tasted some samples and had lunch in their restaurant. All in all, a good time.

Up the hill from the fromagerie is Chateau de Gruyeres, built in the 11th century. The whole compound has been maintained and is now a collection of cafes and tourist shops leading up to the castle proper which allows tours. Very quaint and charming. One feature that seemed very out of place and very surprising was a museum and bar devoted to H.R. Giger. For those of you who are unfamiliar, he is the artist who designed the alien for the movie Alien. The bar is dark with seats shaped like thrones of bones. If you remember any of the scenes of the alien ship or anatomy, that was the make up of this bar. We didn't bother with the museum.

That night Beth's mom, Pat, was nice enough to take the entire Sonney family to a fabulous dinner in Fribourg. I won't bog you down in details, but I had a filet in a mushroom cream sauce that could melt in your mouth. Dessert was a round pience of chocolate cake with melted fudge in the middle. Surrounding it was kiwi and mango sorbet with pieces of pomogranate (sp?). Unbelievable.

Okay, I lied. I'll write a seperate email for Thursday's ski trip in the Alps, or How Cameron Learned he Skiis Like a Girl.

Switzerland Part IV

Today we took a train south to Luzern, perhaps the biggest tourist destination of Switzerland. This was our first chance to really see the country side along the way. The movie Heidi isnt far off. Rolling green hills and old farms with interspersed forest. Although agriculture doesn’t make up a large part of the economy any more, the government heavily subsidizes it to maintain the tradition. I can see why as it really adds to the charm of th environment.

Luzern is a beautiful city. It became important in 1220 when St. Gotthard Pass opened up and later led the Catholic resistance during the Reformation. Again, you have a mix of ancient city with modern flair and technology. This is the perfect city to wander around in, with lots of shopping available, which Beth took advantage of. We also discovered our first Starbucks here and introduced Raphael to the frappacino.

There are two really important sites within the city. The river Reuss cuts through the city center and one way to cross it is the oldest wooden bridge in Europe, Kapellbrucke, or Chapel Bridge. It was originally part of the old town’s fortifications and is a wonderful feature to stroll along. Artistic wooden panels line the roof beams displaying the history of the city. Attached to the bridge is an octogonal stone tower, the Wasserturm, which served as a lighthouse, prison, and treasury. As you cross the bridge you can gain a 360 degree view of the city and surrounding hills while swans and ducks swim along beneath you.

Another spot we visited was the Lowendenkmal, or Lion Monument. This a sculture, thirty feet long by twenty feet high, of a lion, its head resting on a shield and a broken off spear piercing its side. On August 10, 1792, the Swiss Guard of Louis XVI defended the Palais des Tuileries in Paris from revolutionaries. Most died in the attack and the rest were arrested and sent to the guillotine. The lion represents the courage and nobility of the guard. Its a striking sculpture.

These were the only two real sites we visited in the city as we were scheduled to take a boat tour on Lac Vierwaldstattersee. Despite our brief opportunity to explore, it was here that I made another shameful discovery: I am horribly unfashionable. Everyone in Luzern, and Bern, Fribourg, and Zurich, is better dressed than me. 97 year old woman chain smoking outside the fromagerie: better dressed than me. Train steward checking our tickets: better dressed than me. Here I’ve spent the last few years putting my money into books and education when it should have been spent on designer clothing. I would certainly gain points with my 6th graders if I looked hip; they’ve never really appreciated my witty erudition. So, when we visit Zurich on Friday I’m going to be on the lookout for a way to transform myself. But I digress.....

The real reason we went to Luzern was for the boat trip. A two hour ride up the lake, stopping at the various towns lining either side. The Swiss are not afraid to build on the steepest of slopes, no matter the altitude. You honestly have to wonder how they got up there, let alone the building materials.

Im sure there is more but its quite early here and my brain is feeling fuzzy. Stay tuned for our trip to Castle Chillon and the heart of cheese land....

Switzerland Part III

Back to my lunch fiasco. Buffet, what a mistake. It consisted of a variety of micro-shrimp in weird sauce, miniature raw fish, some limp vegetable that I could not identify, and mozzarella balls marinated in more weird sauce. I felt like a anorexic supermodel (only not as pretty) sitting at the table sipping water and munching on a thin bread stick. Damn my fluency in only one language (exclamation; youd think id have found the punctuation on this keyboard by now). It should be noted that every other meal Ive had has been excellent.

On to Bern, which is the capital of Switzerland. Bern means `bear`and they do have a bear pit in the middle of the city to display their namesake. It was actually kind of depressing and the bears didnt show, which I was glad for. I suppose it is the bears way of thumbing their nose at the stupid humans who keep them in a pit. Fortunately (for us, not the bears), the pit is next to a brewery, where I had the chance to finally sample a Swiss beer. Very good.

Bern is like the other cities in that it is very old; a city made to walk around in. We passed by the Swiss presidents house, which is not even guarded. In fact, the president has to pay rent on the house that is provided him. What a interesting concept. We also went by the American embassy. You cant drive within two blocks of it. Many gates, machine guns and barbed wire. Actually, none of the Swiss federal buildings have that kind of protection. Anyone is free to walk around them without any problems.

The highlight of Bern is their cathedral. Built over a two hundred year period, starting in the 1500s, its a little over 300 feet high. We climbed 344 steps up a narrow, spiral stone staircase to the top of the steeple. Amazing view. Inside the cathedral are more stained glass, worn wooden pews, soaring buttresses, and some impressive sculpture. Whether zou are religious or not, you can feel the weight of history. Switzerland is prettz secular now, but you can tell they are rightfully proud of their churches.

Tomorrow (actually, yesterday, since I am falling behind), we go to Luzern for sightseeing and a little shopping. Plus, I have another embarassing admission to make. Until then......

Switzerland Part II

Today we traveled to several towns in the vicinity of Fribourg. Our first stop was to see a Roman amphitheatre in Avenches. Build in the first century A.D., this amphitheatre is something out of Gladiator. Lions, tigers, and bears (oh my) were routinely used in the contests. The cages that housed the animals are still here. During the middle ages, the towns folk built a wall and tower over one side to serve as a prison and watchtower. The current inhabitants of Avench have now converted the arena into a more family oriented form of entertainment, opera, symphony, and theatre.

(Disclaimer: I still havent discovered most of the punctuation on this keyboard, sorry. Also, the z is where we usually put the y, so there may be a few switches.)

Next was the town of Murten along Lake Murten (or Morat, in the French). This is also a verz old town. The original ramparts (walls, battlements, and crennelations) still stand and you can climb to the top to gain an impressive view of the town and water, or you can look out at the surrounding hills and country. It was here that Adrian von Bubenburg, in 1476, managed to form a makeshift armz of 10,000 peasants to defend the citz of two thousand against Charles the Bold, who headed an armz of 20,000 invading Burgundians. Knowing the military limitations of his men, Adrian devised an unorthodox strategy - he attacked Charles (no longer so Bold) when his army was hung-over from a night of revelry. It was a rout. This was the beginning of the Confederation Helvtica.

A note on government. Switzerland is composed of 26 cantons, similar to US states, only they quite a bit of autonomy from the federal government. Each canton has its own education system, taxes, etc..... The Federal Council heads the federal government. Each member is in charge of a certain area (finance, diplomacz, agriculture etc..) and one member also serves as president for the term of one year. The Swiss, therefore, dont place much importance on the president (i know the feeling; sorry, i couldnt resist).

Onward. We stopped for lunch is Aarberg. Neat little town. You drive across a small, roofed bridge and the town opens into an enormous cobblestone courtyard, ringed by shops and restaurants. It was here I had to admit to one of my failings as a traveler- I am not an adventurous eater.

Just like Sherlock Holmes did not want to waste his brain power on subjects that did not directlz relate to solving crime, I do not like wasting stomach space on food Im sure I wont like. Couple this with the fact that I could not read anything on the menu (it was in German and Italian), and eating can be a very frustrating experience. I recognized a few words like basel and mozzarella, but that was about it. So I retreated to the one thing I recogniyed unequivocally: buffet. This turned out to be a mistake.

Unfortunately, I have to catch a train to Luzerne, so part 2 of this post wil be forthcoming to describe the remainder of my lunch debacle and the town of Bern. Stay tuned......


Switzerland Part I

Camerons (cant find an apostrophe on this french keyboard) Swiss Travelogue
I received my first shock after take off from Dulles Airport: drink are no longer free on international flights across the Atlantic. I nearly wept. Other than that, no travel problems. Zurich has a great airport. Quiet, clean, efficient.
Our friends Raphael and René picked us up (René is the father) and we managed to cram three Americans worth of luggage into a compact European car (dont ask me what the countryside looked like, i couldnt see it). Off to Fribourg (cant find the exclamation mark).
Fribourg dates from the middle ages and the original walls can still be seen around the citz. In fact, to enter, you still drive through the original gates. Cobblestone streets with terra cotta roofs. We spent a couple of hours wandering around the town last night. Several very old cathedrals with beautiful stained glass. Many fountains with statues of important figures from Fribourgs history.
I wasnt sure what consisted of Swiss cuisine (besides chocolate and coffee) but I havent been disapointed. Dinner was a feast. Started with a pumpkin soup (from the garden), followed by salad. Then the main course of mutton, mashed potatoes, fresh breads with jam and honey, plenty of vegetables, and several bottles of 20 year old French wine. Dessert was an icecream cake followed by a varietz of coffee and dessert bisquits. Im sorry, that was lunch. Dinner was a simpler affair of a varietz of local cheese, bread, and fruit, also excellent. Im not going to go hungry on this trip.
Raphaels familz consists of his father (already mentioned), his mother, Fabienne, brother Damien, and his sister, Virginia. It was a great experience sitting around a table, drinking wine and listening to three languages being spoken (everyone in the family speaks French, German, Italian, and English; Raphael also speaks Greek and Latin and soon will have Spanish under his belt).
Since Beth and I have stayed up for around 40 hours now, we taking an early night. Tommorow we will travel to a 2300 year old Roman amphitheatre and then on to Bern. More to follow........


My first post

The continuation of my Swiss experience will be up tomorrow (Thursday).