A History Making Dick and Irvine's Pioneering Pigeons

On Saturday, Dick Cheney assured himself a place in history by becoming only the second sitting vice president ever to gun down a man. While hunting quail at a ranch in Texas, Cheney shot Harry Whittington, another member of the hunting party, apparently mistaking the 78 year old attorney and big-money Republican party donor for either a small bird or a patch of empty space. For reasons known only to Bwana Dick and his loyal retainers, the public was not informed of his new historical status for almost 24 hours, and even then the task of spinning the hunting tale was delegated Katharine Armstrong, the owner of the ranch. While Armstrong didn't quite go so far as to claim Whittington had it coming or that being blasted in the head and chest by a shotgun is good for a 78 year old, she did come close when insisting that Cheney is completely blameless and the injuries that landed Whittington in a local hospital's intensive care unit are nothing to worry about. Given her performance, it's no surprise to learn that Ms. Armstrong is the daughter of one Cheney's old Halliburton cronies.

Armstrong claims Cheney was merely following the flight path of the quails, when he took out Whittington, adding yet one more item to the growing list of bird-related bad news. Not content with spreading the monstrous new bird flu (which has just be found in Italy and Greece), birds have now conspired to spoil Cheney's perfect record of letting others do all his human-targeted shooting for him (see, for example, Iraq). And after all the trouble he went to getting multiple deferments to keep himself out of Vietnam. It's a shame, but even Hitchcock couldn't have seen this coming.

In the interest of fairness, let's balance out the bad bird news with some good bird news. Thanks to the cutting edge of UC Irvine science, pigeons will soon have access to both cell phones and blogs in an attempt to answer that age old question: just how polluted is San Jose? According to the February 4 edition of Britain's New Scientist magazine, UCI's Beatriz da Costa, an "interdisciplinary artist and researcher" (last seen in the pages of the Weekly designing a cell phone interface for a website which helps the caffeine hungry find independent coffee shops), is heading up efforts to design a backpack small and light enough to allow a pigeon to carry a stripped down cell phone, a GPS unit, and carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide detectors. The plan is for the cell phone to transmit the information from the chemical detectors and GPS unit to a blog, in order to give realtime information about air quality. If all goes well the first pigeons will be released during the Inter-Society for Electronic Art's annual symposium in San Jose in early August.

Although scientists may not have warmed to the idea of letting the rats of the skies collect data for them (according to the San Francisco Chronicle: "Da Costa acknowledged that she wasn't sure if the information provided by the pigeons will have any real scientific value. "'But we do have an air pollution research laboratory at Irvine, and the director told me he's very interested in the technology we're developing for the birds,' she said. 'He may not want to use it on pigeons, but he thinks it will have other applications.'" ), the story has certainly caught the imagination of the media across the country and around the world, and articles on UCI pigeon-based technology have appeared in newspapers and magazines from New York to India. Australia seems particularly taken with da Costa's efforts, with the story appearing in all the country's major papers. There seems to be only one area of the English speaking world completely uninterested in the new technology: Southern California. As far as I can tell, neither the Times or the Register has printed a word about the pioneering pigeons of Irvine. Strange that readers of the Hindustan Times or the Sydney Morning Herald should know more about what's going on at UCI than readers of the Los Angeles Times or the Orange County Register.

But perhaps the local newspaper disinterest is no stranger than a vice president deciding that he wanted to go beyond just rolling history back to the days of Nixon's imperial presidency, and roll it all the way back to Jefferson administration, when vice presidents weren't afraid to shoot people who got in their way. And that may be a good thing. After all, Aaron Burr, the first shooter-vice president, is also the only sitting vice president ever to have faced trial for treason. With any luck, Cheney will continue to follow his example.

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