Friday, July 31, 2015

The On-Crack Ass Clown of the Month for July, 2015

Today marks the first time since I started the Right Cheek/Left Cheek system of naming Ass Clowns that we've had five Fridays in a single month, and thus the need to name a third Ass Clown. Having run out of cheeks, I need to find an appropriate way of naming my recipient, and I have settled (for the time being, at least) on a title.

And so it is, Dear Readers, that today I announce

The On-Crack Ass Clown of the Month for July, 2015

Christopher Reed

Mr Reed was one of a number of concerned citizens who, after the murder of several military personnel in Chattanooga, Tennessee, stepped forward with his personal weapon to guard a military recruiting office in the town of Lancaster, Ohio. On July 23rd, a passing citizen asked Mr Reed if he could look at his AR-15 rifle; in the process of showing it off, Mr Reed accidentally fired a shot into the pavement at his feet.

Mr Reed told a newspaper interviewer later, "I was trying to clear the weapon and hand it over to him when it went off. I thought it was empty and must have missed it."

The owner of the shopping center where the military recruitment center is located ordered the armed volunteers to leave after the incident, saying in a statement that “for the safety of tenants, customers and construction personnel working in the immediate vicinity of the Military Recruiting Center, it would be best to request the removal of the armed individuals.”

There's a reason why the military does not want to have untrained civilians armed with powerful weapons "guarding" its facilities, regardless of their good intentions. Mr Reed is fortunate to have missed his foot when his weapon went off.

For his well-intentioned, but fundamentally misguided and foolish attempt to "protect" military personnel, Mr Christopher Reed is named our On-Crack Ass Clown of the Month for July, 2015.

Don't try this at home.

Have a good day. See you tomorrow for Cartoon Saturday.


Thursday, July 30, 2015

Warning Signs

We've entered a dangerous and traumatic time for the nation. Crazy people with guns run around shooting people, while other crazy people with guns think they should stand guard on the rest of us. Donald Trump, of all people, is leading in the polls as the favored GOP candidate for president. Hackers can seize control of your car. You can't say anything about anyone without being accused of being some sort of -ist. There's a crazy place where the United States of America used to be, and we need to be more careful every day about everything we say and everything we do ...

A long time back, I think I shared some of these useful warning signs with you. It's time to break them out again as we navigate our way through the legions of tinfoil hat wearers and those who are absurdly touchy about everything you say and do. Use as needed ...

No need to thank me. On top of everything else, it's an election year, and everyone is pissed off and armed to the teeth ... you need all the help you can get.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

When the Guns are Smarter Than We Are

A group of concerned scientists and thinkers from many fields of engineering, computer science, linguistics, robotics, and many other technical and non-technical fields released an open letter yesterday in which they warned of the dangers of so-called "autonomous weapons" - that is, highly-advanced weapons which employ techniques of artificial intelligence (or "AI") to select and engage targets without human intervention.

This is not a new concern. The potential dangers of computers that can outthink and outfight humans has long been a theme of science fiction and horror stories. One of the earliest (and most horrifying) I read was the 1967 novella "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," by Harlan Ellison; another (which was the inspiration for Skynet of the Terminator franchise), was the 1966 novel Colossus by D. F. Jones (later re-released as The Forbin Project, and now out of print); it was made into a 1970 science fiction film called (what else?) Colossus: The Forbin Project

The theme has appeared on television, too: in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation titled "The Arsenal of Freedom," the Enterprise investigates a planet whose people sold autonomous weapon systems that eventually killed them all off, except for a holographic salesman who lures passing vessels in for a possible sale that always ends badly* for the customer.

So anyhow, the idea of machines becoming self-aware and deciding people are a threat is not a new one, but it's one that is becoming more real every year. We are very, very good at coming up with very, very bad ways to kill each other, and not always so good at employing them rationally**. Coupling extremely deadly weapons (nuclear, chemical, biological, genetic, kinetic, directed-energy, or what-have-you) with an artificial intelligence program that removes human emotions from decisions to kill does not seem to me to be a very good idea.

Somehow, though, I don't think we're going to get this toothpaste back into the tube. Experience shows that if something can be built, we'll go ahead and build it and worry about the consequences later. I'm with the folks who wrote the open letter ... I can see the consequences of marrying AI and ultramodern weapons going south really fast.

Have a good day. Leave Colossus, Guardian, and Skynet to the movies ... we have enough problems already.

More thoughts tomorrow.


* Red shirt or no.

** After all, the only thing that stops a bad guy with a nuke is a good guy with a nuke ... isn't it?

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Old Switcheroo

Those of you who read Andrea’s blog know that she recently purchased a new house, which allows her to join the rest of us as wholly-owned subsidiaries of a mortgage company and enjoy all the tribulations of home ownership.

The other day she noted in her blog that “(The) House has some fun (ha ha ha) electrical issues. Outlets and fixtures that don't work for no reason...and yeah, that's going to be fun to fix.” This led me to think back a few years (24, actually) to the last time I lived in Germany, and the adventure we had with electrical issues …

I had been assigned to a unit in the beautiful city of Wiesbaden, and although there was plenty of government-owned housing for Americans stationed there, we didn’t want to live in an American ghetto, and so we sought a house to rent on the economy. Through one of my co-workers, we found and rented the larger part* of a beautiful house in the suburb of Kohlheck, overlooking the city in the foothills of the Taunus Mountains … it had a private yard separated from the street by a hedge, half of a two-car garage, and - most importantly – was within walking distance of a bus stop and a bakery.

We moved in and soon noticed that the house seemed to have an inordinately large number of electrical switches … where you might expect to see a switch or two, there might be a panel of four or five or more. Well, we thought, the living room had a cathedral ceiling and a lot of accent lights, so perhaps you really need a lot of switches.

Little did we know …

Here’s what we quickly learned:

1. There were switches that would turn various individual lights or groups of lights on, but not off again;

2. There were other switches that would turn off lights that had already been turned on somewhere else, but would not turn anything on;

3. There were switches that would turn power on (but not off) to various combinations of outlets, and other switches that would turn off the power to those outlets (but not turn it on);

4. There were switches that turned on power to various appliances (like the washing machine and dryer), and other switches that would turn them off again; and,

5. There were switches that didn’t seem to do anything**.

We were going crazy trying to figure it all out, so I called the landlady. “Oh,” she chuckled. “My husband*** was an electrical engineer, and when we built the house, he did all the wiring himself, according to his own system.”

“Ohhhhkaaaayyy,” I answered. “Do you have any notes that will tell us what all the switches do?”

She chuckled again. “No, I’m afraid not. I had to learn by experimenting, and so will you!”

Wonderful, I thought.

My next purchase was a label maker and a dozen rolls of tape in various colors. Agnes and I then spent an entire day and evening going all over the house flipping switches and working out what they did, then labeling each one. We did the same thing with each outlet that was controlled by combinations of switches, so we'd know where the switch was located to turn it on and off.

Eventually, we figured it all out. All the switches and outlets were labeled, and we gradually learned to live with the weird wiring …

… until the night my daughter told me that water was pouring out of the light switch panel in her upstairs bedroom.

But that’s another story.

Have a good day. Good luck with your own electrical issues, which can be shocking.

More thoughts tomorrow.


* Most houses in Germany are designed either as duplexes, or as a single house with a smaller, rentable apartment with its own entrance.

** I was reminded of this joke by Steven Wright: "I recently moved into a new apartment, and there was this switch on the wall that didn't do anything, so anytime I had nothing to do, I'd just flick that switch up and down, up and down, up and down. Then one day I got a letter from a woman in just said, 'Cut it out.'" I think it was probably our landlady.

*** Deceased.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Bad Sex in Fiction

If you do much reading beyond the, say, fifth-grade level, you have almost certainly made the acquaintance of that dreaded element of fiction, the sex scene. Ever since human beings first learned to write down their language, whether it was on cave walls, clay tablets, papyrus, parchment, paper, or digital tablets, one standard thing they've tried to record is vivid descriptions of the act of lovemaking. Whether in poetry or prose, in whatever language, sex is a major element of our literature, both high and low.

How many ways can you describe the sexual act? A lot, actually. And not all of them are equally ... uh ... literary. In fact, some of them are so bad that there is actually an annual award presented by Britain's Literary Review for "Bad Sex in Fiction." According to the Literary Review's website,

The purpose of the prize is to draw attention to poorly written, perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction, and to discourage them. The prize is not intended to cover pornographic or expressly erotic literature.

It's similar to the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, except that the Bulwer-Lytton contest is not limited simply to depictions of sex, but of generally overblown and awful writing, and its entries are limited to a single original sentence of any length. Depictions of sex in fiction, as you may know, can go on interminably and be of sufficient ghastliness to make one swear off sex.

The 2014 Bad Sex in Fiction Award went to novelist Ben Okri for a scene in his novel The Age of Magic, for a love scene involving a filmmaker named Lao and his girlfriend, named Mistletoe. I will not share with you the winning scene (because there are children who read this blog), but you can read it for yourself here. His editor was quoted as saying: “Winning the award is fun but a bit undignified, just like sex, assuming you do it properly.”

The shortlist for last year's award featured many other authors, including one of my favorites, Wilbur Smith. Smith writes action-packed adventure stories that brim with historical detail and crackle with vivid writing, and I can't think of a single one of his stories that hasn't included at least one cringe-worthy depiction of sex*. You can check it out for yourself by reading what I think are two of his most exciting novels: The Seventh Scroll and River God. Needless to say, you won't want to read them aloud to your children, unless you are home-schooling them in advanced sex and violence.

So, Dear Readers, share some of your experiences with the rest of us ... what book have you read that contains sex scenes worthy of a Bad Sex in Fiction Award? The 50 Shades Trilogy doesn't count, nor does the new book in the series, Grey, because the overall writing in those is so bad that it's in a class by itself. And the instructions for the IRS form 1040 don't count, either, even though they offer vivid depictions of the screwing of the average taxpayer.

Have a good day. Read something ... stimulating.

More thoughts tomorrow.


* I can't help it ... here's an excerpt from the scene in Desert God that earned Wilbur Smith a place on the shortlist: "(the woman's hair) did not cover her breasts which thrust their way through it like living creatures. They were perfect rounds, white as mare's milk and tipped with ruby nipples that puckered as my gaze passed over them." Oy.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Poetry Sunday

As I approach retirement for the second time (about 311 working days from now, not that I'm counting), I have to decide what it is I want to do when I grow up. Maybe Mike can give me some advice. Or maybe I ought to think more carefully about my options, as in this poem by Ron Koertge ...

Bad News About My Vocation 
by Ron Koertge 

I remember how the upper crust in my hometown
pronounced it-care-a-mel. Which is correct, I guess,
but to everybody else it was carmel.

Which led to the misconception about the order
of Carmelites.

I imagined they served God by heating sugar
to about 170 C, then adding milk and butter
and vanilla essence while they listened
to the radio.

I thought I could do that. I could wear the white
shirt and pants. I knew I couldn’t be good
but I might be a good candy maker.

So imagine my chagrin when I learned about
the vows of poverty and toil enjoined
by these particular friars.

I also crossed off my list the Marshmellowites
and the Applepieites, two other orders I
was thinking of joining.

Well, I guess there's always the Ginandtonicites.

Have a good day, and enjoy the rest of your weekend. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, July 25, 2015

Cartoon Saturday

You have to wonder whether this month will ever end ...

Three people were murdered and seven others injured when a man opened fire in a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana; armed civilians who had been guarding a military recruitment center in a Lancaster, Ohio, shopping center were ordered off the property by a sheriff's deputy after one of them accidentally discharged his rifle; a Navy destroyer was damaged when a missile it had test-fired exploded shortly after launch; Donald Trump ... 'nuff said; and in Broken Bow, Oklahoma, five people - two adults and three children - were murdered and one seriously injured, and police took two teenage boys into custody;

It's a yucky world out there. Good thing we have cartoons. Today, in honor of the just-announced mega-merger of health insurance giants Anthem and Cigna, our selection of theme cartoons deals with - what else? - health insurance ... because when the premiums go up (and you know they will), you'll need something to laugh at ...

Yes, it's funny ... just think about it for a minute ...

There's always an expensive new treatment your insurance won't cover ...

Too bad they didn't have a Supreme Court to work it out all those years ago ...

The most important test your doctor administers ...

Two takes on the insurance coverage of the world's most unfortunate egg ...

and ...

Now, that's really bad news ...

I have good news and bad news ... or is it, bad news and worse news? ...

This is clearly not one of those so-called "Cadillac Policies" ...

Incredibly enough, every once in a while, your insurance will actually cover something ...

And there you have it ... the last Cartoon Saturday for the month of July. You're welcome.

It looks like it will be a pretty nice weekend here in NoVa, at least weather-wise - temperatures in the upper 80's, but lower humidity and no rain in the forecast. That's good news, since I need to mow the lawn and since we're dog-sitting with Clara again this weekend, and she doesn't like to do those potty walks in the rain. Well, neither would I, I suppose.

Have a good day and a great weekend. Come back tomorrow for Poetry Sunday. More thoughts then.


Friday, July 24, 2015

Great Moments in Editing

Yes, it's that time again ...

There was a novelty song in the 60's by Norma Tanega called "Walkin' My Cat Named Dog." People name cats all sort of weird things ...

I wonder if he has webbed fingers and toes ...

Great ... child care already costs too much ...

Don't ask ...

I'm always annoyed when those watermelon bones get stuck in my teeth ...

Perhaps they could just spend the thousand dollars on extra guards every other Friday ...

How do you forget a coast? ...

Sometimes you can have too much truth in advertising ...

Karma ...

It's not really bad editing, but it's still great ...

Have a good day. If you find an example of great editing, send it to me and I'll share it in this space in the future ... AND give you a shout. Think of it ... your name in print, and without editorial mistakes*! How much better does it get?

See you back here tomorrow for Cartoon Saturday ... more thoughts then.


* Probably.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Revising the Preamble

A few years ago, I had a co-worker who was incredibly good at reviewing long and complex documents (which is one of the main functions of our office). This fellow (let's call him "Andy"*) could read a three-page document and come up with five pages of solid, well-reasoned and thoroughly-justified comments for its improvement, documented in what we call a "comment review matrix" or "CRM**." When he moved on to a new job, I gave him, as a gag gift (printed on parchment paper, no less), the CRM he would have written had he been tasked to review the Preamble to the Constitution back in 1789. It went over very well, and he loved it***.

I ran across a copy of that CRM the other day, and it occurred to me to wonder how the Preamble to the Constitution might be different if it were being written today. Here's the actual Preamble, one of the treasures of American history and political thought ...

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

And here are some excerpts from the CRM the author+ might expect to receive if the Preamble were being considered for adoption today ...

1. General Comment: correct irregular and inconsistent capitalization of nouns.
Rationale: Proper orthography; only proper nouns or the first word in a sentence should be capitalized.

2. Change “We the People” to read, “We the top one percent.”
Rationale: More accurate reference.

3. Change “United” to “Loosely-Affiliated” in the first and last lines.
Rationale: “United” is too strong a term, particularly given the reluctance of many states to accept the authority of the federal government, and to ignore laws of which they do not approve.

4. Change “more perfect” to read, “perfect.”
Rationale: Unnecessary modifier. Something “perfect” is, by definition, unable to be improved upon; therefore, “more perfect” is incorrect and illogical.

5. Change “Union” to “aggregation.”
Rationale: Use of the term “union” invites confusion with workers' representative associations, and will not be supported by delegates from red states.

6. Change "establish justice" to read, "provide justice for those able to afford legal representation."
Rationale: Justice requires adequate legal representation, which is expensive.

7. Delete the phrase, “insure domestic Tranquility.”
Rationale: Insurance of domestic tranquility is the responsibility of husbands and wives. Delegation of this responsibility to the government constitutes an unwarranted and illegal arrogation of rights legitimately belonging to individual citizens.

8. Change “defence” to read “defense.”
Rationale: Incorrect use of British, rather than preferred American spelling. We settled that in 1776.

9. Delete the phrase “promote the general Welfare.”
Rationale: If this language is included, destitute illegal aliens will flood the borders in search of handouts, to the detriment of hard-working, taxpaying citizens.

10. Add, “ensure for all time the right to keep and openly bear arms of all kinds, in any number, without restriction of any kind for any reason.”
Rationale: Criminals and other deadly enemies are everywhere; a citizen's ability to protect himself from Jack-Booted Government ThugsTM and from other citizens is too important to be relegated to an amendment.

11. Delete the phrase “the Blessings of.”
Rationale: Improper use of religious imagery in contravention of Article VI, Clause 3 and the First Amendment.

12. Change “Posterity” to “children.”
Rationale: “Posterity” is not a commonly-used word and may be confused with “posterior,” leading to improper and unfortunate comments of a scatological nature. Use of the term “children” is preferred and will prevent confusion.

13. Change “ordain and establish” to read “establish.”
Rationale: Unnecessary use of multiple terms. In any case, priests get ordained, not constitutions.

The new Preamble reads,

We the top one percent of the Loosely-Affiliated States, in order to form a perfect aggregation, provide justice for those able to afford legal representation, provide for the common defense, ensure for all time the right to keep and openly bear arms of all kinds, in any number, without restriction of any kind for any reason, and secure liberty to ourselves and our children, do establish this constitution for the Loosely Affiliated States of America.

I think it's more suited to our bizarrely twisted America of the 21st Century, which would be unrecognizable to the Founders for many reasons.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


* To protect his identity, I've not used his real name, which is "Andy."

**  A CRM documents the name of the person requesting the change, the requested change and the rationale therefor, and provides a space for the reviewer to document his or her adjudication of the comment.

*** He's still speaking to me, anyway.

+ It was Gouverneur Morris.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Why Doesn't the Government Do Something?

When six Service members were murdered in Chattanooga, Tennessee last week by a young Muslim man inflamed by radical Islamist teachings, the usual outpouring of anger took place across the country. Along with the usual calls for revenge was another call that one often hears at trying times like this:

"Why doesn't the government do something?"

 It's a good question without a satisfying answer.

The government doesn't "do something" for a lot of reasons. Here are a few:

1. Can you imagine Congress doing anything worthwhile, quickly?

2. Can you imagine Congress doing anything for which the President might get credit?

3. Many of the things that could be done involve intrusions into our privacy, which we absolutely hate unless it's done by big business or social media ... in which case it's okay.

4. Many of the things that could be done require limiting the freedoms we enjoy and demand as Americans. Think about possible limitations on your First (speech, press, assembly, and religion) and Second Amendment (heat-packing) rights and decide if it's what you want.

As historian Will Durant once said, “One of the lessons of history is that nothing is often a good thing to do and always a clever thing to say.”

The last time the government did something in the heat of passion, we got the Patriot Act ... and we all know how well that worked out.

Have a good day. Always count to ten before doing anything stupid. And if you work for the government, count to a thousand. At least five times.

More thoughts tomorrow.