Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving, 2017

Happy Thanksgiving!

I've been writing this blog for more than 11 years, and some of you - masochists that you are - have been reading it for almost all of that time. You've learned many things about me over the years, one of which is that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. In a crazy world in which we too often focus on fear and negativity*, and on the material things in life, it's good to have a day on which to sit back and reflect on the things for which we can be truly thankful.

We’re living in a time when it’s easy to be distracted from things to be thankful for, because there is so much going on that is awful. For me, this year the awful things included:

A presidential administration and its unquestioning partisan supporters that has ruined America's standing in the world, coarsened our political discourse, and undermined the health, safety, and financial security of the great majority of the American people;

The horror of realizing that, for many Americans, the murder of children is an acceptable price to pay for the protection of the right to own and carry firearms; and

A profound undermining of my faith in the essential fairness and justice of our legal system and those who serve and administer it.

On the whole, though, it’s been a pretty good year. Although there have been negatives, I have to consider myself a lucky man, for a lot of reasons … such as:

The love of a beautiful and endlessly talented wife;

Three loving and successful children of whom I am proud beyond all measure;

Six adorable, intelligent, talented, and loving grandchildren;

A large and loving extended family (considerably larger than the part shown in this picture from last week's reunion at my sister's home in Pittsburgh);

A comfortable retirement**;

A roof over my head***;

Good health;

Good friends;

The good fortune to be able to live in the United States of America - a country which, for all its faults, gives me the opportunity to enjoy all of the above;

The ability to write what I wish in this space without worrying about government censorship††; and,

The ability to enjoy the good things of the world that would be denied by those whose harsh and intolerant worship of a jealous and angry God ignores the beauty and possibilities of the present in favor of rigid belief in an imagined paradise in an unknowable future.

I have many things to be thankful for on this Thanksgiving Day, and it's only proper that I should take a few minutes to acknowledge that I am, as ever, most richly blessed.

I wish all of you, Dear Readers, the very happiest and safest of holidays.

Have a good day. Give thanks for the good things you have and the bad things you don't. And stay out of the stores tomorrow ... you'll thank me.

More thoughts tomorrow, along with a new batch of Great Moments in Editing and Signage.


* Yes, Mr Trump and the GOP, I'm talking to you.

** So far, anyhow ... we'll see how it looks after Congress gets done wrecking our health care and undermining the tax code for the average American.

*** As long as we keep up the payments.

Until the GOP guts Medicare, anyway.

†† Yet. Given this administration's attitude toward the First Amendment, I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Planning the Holiday Seating

One of the most difficult things about planning the Thanksgiving dinner is not what to serve, but where to seat the guests.

You know what I'm talking about ... we all go through the exercise every year of figuring out where to seat each person based on an assessment of table manners, conversational abilities, political affiliation, familial responsibilities, and so on. It's especially dicey this year, when many families and friends are hopelessly divided by seemingly-irreconcilable political differences. Kings, Queens, and presidents have entire staffs dedicated to the issue of protocol and ensuring that everyone is properly seated and arranged ... we have to navigate the shoals of propriety and peacekeeping on our own.

Fortunately, a few years back I ran across this chart that I'll share with you as a way of helping you survive the holiday ...

Don't thank me ... it's all part of the service.

Have a good day. Come back tomorrow, when I'll wax eloquent on why I love Thanksgiving. More thoughts then.


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Imagining What's in the Void

A few weeks ago, there was an item in the news that got Egyptologists and horror movie fans all fired up: scientists using a technique called "muon radiography" announced that they'd discovered a "giant void" inside the Great Pyramid of Giza ...

What could it be? Might it be another glorious treasure trove like the tomb of Tutankhamun? Does it hold the construction secrets left by the aliens that taught the Egyptians how to build pyramids?

It's an interesting mystery, and it probably won't be resolved any time soon, because the Egyptians are reluctant to do any more potentially-destructive excavating inside the pyramid. For the time being, we'll just have to live with the tantalizing knowledge that the truth is out there, buried under millions of tons of stone.

Of course, there's been plenty of speculation on what might be found there ...

- Hillary Clinton's 30,000 missing e-mails; 

- Former president Obama's "real" birth certificate; 

- The secret photos that prove Donald Trump's inauguration crowd on the Mall was vast beyond all measure;

- Construction records that show how the Egyptians built a pyramid that has stood for 4,000 years, and will help make the Big, Beautiful Wall™ on the Mexican border even bigger and more beautiful; 

- The GOP's plan for ensuring health care for all Americans; and,

- Donald Trump's tax returns.

How about you, Dear Readers? What do you think we'll find in the mysterious void in the Great Pyramid? Leave a comment and let the rest of us know what you think.

Have a good day. If you still need to do any Thanksgiving grocery shopping, do it now - the crowds will only get worse later today and into tomorrow.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, November 20, 2017

A Thorn By Any Other Name

I ran across this historical note about November the 20th while casting about for a topic for today’s post: on this date in the year 1407, John, Duke of Berry, brokered a truce between John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, and Louis of Valois, Duke of Orléans. In true political fashion, the truce didn’t last, because the Duke of Orléans was assassinated by the Duke of Burgundy a mere three days later but, hey, they tried.

I went back to do some additional reading on the topic, which seemed like it ought to be interesting, but couldn’t make head nor tail out of the lengthy discussions of medieval French intrigue. The part that really caught my attention was a brief note on the Dukes of Burgundy: it seems that the predecessor of “John the Fearless” was “Philip the Bold,” and his successor was “Philip the Good.” Yes, Dear Readers, back in the good old days, noteworthy people had interesting nicknames that tended to lend them a certain gravitas*.

John the Fearless

Which got me to wondering why we don’t give catchy names to our political figures in today's world. The closest thing we have to such names are the sorts of nicknames the Mafia gives to its notable figures, like John “The Dapper Don” Gotti, “Scarface Al” Capone, and “Sammy the Bull” Gravano.

Sammy the Bull

Of course, we have the sort of juvenile nicknames that Donald Trump likes to hand out, like “Crooked Hillary,” “Little Marco,” and “Al Frankenstein,” but these are hardly in a class with something like John the Fearless or Richard the Lionhearted.

Here are a few of my suggestions for appropriate nicknames for some of our present-day political hacks …

Attorney General Jeff Sessions could be “Jefferson the Forgetful;”

Vice President Mike Pence could be “Michael the Obsequious;”

Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders could be, “Sarah the Prevaricator;” and,

White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway could be, "Kellyanne the Obnoxious.”

What do you think would be some appropriate medieval-type nicknames for our elected (or appointed) officials? Leave a comment and share your ideas ... Sir Bilbo the Idea-Bereft is interested.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


* Of course, there were also people like Ethelred the Unready and Alfonso the Slobberer, so the names aren’t always as positive as one might wish.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Poetry Sunday

Today is the last Sunday before Thanksgiving, and so it seems appropriate to have a Poetry Sunday dedicated to the avian hero of the season, and poet Mary Mackey steps up to the challenge ...

by Mary Mackey

One November
a week before Thanksgiving

the Ohio river froze

and my great uncles

put on their coats

and drove the turkeys

across the ice

to Rosiclare

where they sold them

for enough to buy

my grandmother

a Christmas doll

with blue china eyes

I like to think

of the sound of

two hundred turkey feet

running across to Illinois

on their way
to the platter

the scrape of their nails

and my great uncles

in their homespun leggings

calling out gee and haw and git

to them as if they 
were mules

I like to think of the Ohio

at that moment

the clear cold sky

the green river sleeping

under the ice

before the land got stripped

and the farm got sold

and the water turned
the color 
of whiskey

and all the uncles
lay down
 and never got up again

I like to think of the world

before some genius invented

turkeys with pop-up plastic


in their breasts

idiot birds

with no wildness left in them

turkeys that couldn't run the river

to save their souls

Enjoy the rest of your weekend, and get ready for Thanksgiving!

Have a good day; more thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, November 18, 2017

Cartoon Saturday

Agnes and I are in Pittsburgh, celebrating an early Thanksgiving with the extended family. Since we're a little busy, there won't be the usual news summary this morning, but you'll still get the cartoons ... this week featuring cave dwellers ...

The more things change ...

The truth comes out ...

It's a pre-antique antique ...

Isn't that how the story usually goes? ...

Prehistoric dinners may not have been all that different from ours ...

It's all in how you look at it ...

Parents have always worried ...

Don't laugh ... this is how you'll get your anesthesia under Trump Care if the GOP has its way ...

I guess that would definitely delay dinner ...

Vote Republican and move forward resolutely into the past! ...

And that's it for this week's edition of Cartoon Saturday, in which we've left no stone (age) unturned. 

I hope you're enjoying your weekend. Be sure to come back tomorrow for a new Poetry Sunday - more thoughts then.


Friday, November 17, 2017

The Left-Cheek Ass Clown for November, 2017

It's time once again to skim the scum from the top of the swirling cesspool of ass-clownery!

There are, as usual, plenty of candidates, ranging from politicians to quasi-religious figures to jurists. And sometimes, a candidate straddles all of those groups, as our dishonoree does today.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear Readers, I give you

The Left-Cheek Ass Clown for November, 2017

Judge Roy Moore

Roy Moore was recently chosen as the Republican candidate to run for the Alabama Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions when Sessions was appointed Attorney General.  Moore was an odd choice, having been removed from his seat as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court not once, but twice - in 2003 for refusing to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments he'd commissioned from the Alabama Judicial Building, despite orders to do so by a federal court, and again in 2016 (after being reelected to the position in 2013), for directing probate judges to continue to enforce the state's ban on same-sex marriage despite the fact that this had been deemed unconstitutional. He is known for his uncompromising anti-homosexual, anti-Muslim, and far-right positions, for his insistence that public policy should be based on Christian beliefs, and his ties to neo-Confederate and white nationalist groups.

As if all those things weren't enough, Moore has now been accused by numerous women of inappropriate sexual contact with them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s. While none of the women said that Moore forced them into any sort of relationship or sexual contact, they all accused him of inappropriate conduct with them when they were minors*. One of the women said Moore had threatened her if she reported his actions, telling her "You're just a child ... I am the district attorney of Etowah County and if you tell anyone about this, no one will ever believe you."

We didn't have enough bizarre and useless people in Congress already.

For his extremist views, religious bigotry, willingness to ignore the Constitution, and inappropriate sexual behavior, Roy Moore is named as our Left-Cheek Ass Clown for November, 2017.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow, when Cartoon Saturday returns.


* Even considering that this took place in Alabama, where the age of sexual consent is 16.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

For Whom the Toll Tolls

The Northern Virginia (or NoVa) area where I live is famous for it's horrendous traffic. Every workday morning tens of thousands of cars snail their way from points as far south as Fredericksburg, as far west as West Virginia, as far north as Gettysburg, and as far east as Annapolis, inching their miserable way to commuters' jobs in Washington, DC and its close environs. In the evening, the process is reversed, with all those cars headed in the opposite direction, carrying their owners the long distances to the homes they can afford*. Oh, and let's not forget the noontime rush hour, too ... between 11 AM and 1 PM, there's often another highway mess as people try to run errands in their lunch breaks.

Many things have been done to try to address the traffic situation, and none of them have worked out very well ... we have a Metro rail system that is chronically underfunded, grossly overcrowded, and plagued with safety issues; buses that end up stuck in the same traffic as everybody else; and a small but expensive streetcar system that will probably never amount to anything.

And we have toll roads.

The toll roads are the successor to our "High-Occupancy Vehicle" (HOV) lanes; now they're called "High-Occupancy Toll" (HOT) lanes. This means that if you have the right number of people in your vehicle (at least two on one highway, and at least three on others), you can use the road for free; if you have the right transponder, however, you can use these lanes whenever they're open in the correct direction if you pay the toll.

There are, from my perspective, two problems with this arrangement.

First, the toll is variable, and depends on the prevailing traffic conditions. If traffic on the main highway is light, the toll is small; as the traffic density increases, the tolls go up sharply, supposedly to help manage the flow of traffic by keeping the number of cars on the express lanes down. At the place this photo was taken on Interstate 95, not far from my home, the toll to the Prince William Parkway exit - a distance of about ten miles - is $20.80. At less-congested times, it can be $2.00 or less. On one occasion this past year, I had to suck up a toll of $13.65 in order to get Agnes to a medical appointment on time in Tyson's Corner ... a distance of 18 miles. For purposes of comparison, the toll for the 86-mile distance we travel on the Pennsylvania Turnpike** when we go to Pittsburgh is $12.10.

Second, the toll roads were constructed and are operated under a public-private partnership with Australian company Transurban. This means that the private operator that built and operates the roads takes a hefty chunk of the toll income, as well as interest and fees charged on motorists who don't pay the tolls***. Such partnerships are becoming more common as cash-strapped municipalities look for new ways to finance transportation infrastructure maintenance and improvements, but it appears to me that the ability of a commercial firm to levy and collect tolls and impose fines and penalties is ripe for abuse.

But that's just me, and it pisses me off to spend outrageous amounts of money on tolls when most of it goes to a company in Australia.

Have a good day. Ask not for whom the toll tolls ... it tolls for thee††.

See you tomorrow for the announcement of the Left Cheek Ass Clown for November. More thoughts then.


* Around here, a miserable commute is the trade you make for a home you can afford.

** Between Breezewood and New Stanton ... not a stretch of road I recommend if you can help it.

*** It's been the subject of lawsuits.

† Of course, in the business-friendly Trump Era, that's hardly a problem.

†† With apologies to John Donne.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A Personal Anecdote About Credit Reporting Agencies

We live in a society that runs on credit. You can't buy a car, a house, furniture, electronics, or pretty much anything expensive unless you can pass a credit check that indicates you're not a deadbeat. A good credit score is a requirement of modern life*, opening all sorts of doors and greasing the financial skids in a society where paying cash for large purchases can arouse the interest of the police and the local DEA office*.

And how does one get a good credit score? Well, of course, by paying ones bills on time, not having a criminal record, and so on. But where does that score come from? Who gives it to you?

There are three major credit reporting agencies: Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian, who hoover up all the available information about you, your income, your shopping and payment history, whether you own or rent your home, and pretty much everything else. Using their own proprietary systems, they crunch all those numbers down into a score that tells merchants and service providers whether or not it's safe to bet on your ability to pay for the things you buy.

The problems with this system are manifold, and many of them are coming to light. Equifax, for instance, is in deep kimchi with the government** over the lack of security of their databases, which have been repeatedly plundered by crooks looking to steal the financial and personal information we're required to provide to fuel the credit reporting system. And all of the credit reporting agencies maintain that they - not you - own all the information they hold about you and your life, and can sell it to anyone they choose like any other commodity.

But what if the information they have about you is wrong?

In theory, you can petition the credit reporting agencies to correct erroneous information they have in your record ... in practice, though, getting something changed is neither easy nor are results guaranteed. Here's a personal example ...

One day in the late 1970s, I was reviewing my credit history when I noticed something odd: a Gulf Oil Company credit card I was sure I didn't own. I had applied for and received credit cards from two other gas companies, but I had never gotten one from Gulf. I contacted the credit reporting agency to ask about it, and they said they would remove it from the record if I could prove it wasn't mine. How do I prove a negative, I wanted to know. We'll let you know when we're satisfied, they answered.

Well, I did some digging and made some phone calls and finally figured out what the problem was: there was indeed a Gulf Oil credit card issued - to my father, who has the same name as I, but not the same middle initial. The number on his card matched the number of the card shown on my credit report.

Problem solved, you'd think. Not so.

I notified the credit reporting agency in writing, explaining the error and pointing out that the card in question also showed up on my father's credit report. The agency, however, did not accept my explanation. So my father wrote a letter, too. The agency still maintained the record was accurate and refused to change it.

We went back and forth for nearly a year and I finally gave up. Since I was young and in the first decade of establishing my own credit history, my father's credit was better than my own, and he always paid off that card every month, I figured the heck with it. The Gulf card finally disappeared from my credit history sometime in the mid-1990s.

I tell you this story because I don't trust any of the credit reporting agencies, and neither should you. I realize that they are a necessary evil in a society based on credit, but they lack adult supervision, take no responsibility for the accuracy of the data they hold, and make a lot of money selling the information we we have no choice but to provide them.

Quite a racket, no?

Have a good day. Watch your credit report carefully ... the credit reporting agencies won't.

More thoughts tomorrow.


* I remember an ad for a credit card - I think it was BankAmericard (now Visa) back in the days when credit cards were a relatively new thing ... the ad noted how convenient it was to "pay with your good name," as if that were as good as cash on the barrelhead.

** Not to worry, though, with the current administration in power, I'm sure they'll come out all right.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Guy with the Socks

The other day Agnes and I were watching the German TV show Galileo, which featured a report that was part of a series covering the experiences of Germans living in other countries ... in this case, South Korea. One of the things the German living there commented on was the amazing array of wildly decorative socks that are sold everywhere in Korea, including in vending machines. Apparently, socks play a vital role in Korean society and are often given as gifts on many occasions. The reason for this is that since shoes are supposed to be removed when entering a Korean home, clean and attractive socks are important as a fashion statement.

How about that, eh?

I did a little more Google-ing on the topic and found this blog post written by Jen Fletcher on the Korea-Canada Blog of the Korean Cultural Centre in Canada (KCC), which goes into more detail on the importance of socks in Korean culture.

Okay, I told you all of that so that I could tell you the story of how I became known as "The Guy with the Socks."

When Agnes and I first met and began dating, I was in the Air Force. At the time, I was stationed in Berlin in a job in which I normally wore conservative civilian clothes, and only occasionally my uniform. After we were married, I was transferred back to the States to a job in which I wore my uniform every day ... and an Air Force uniform requires plain black socks.

Well, Agnes's mother was a lady of many talents, among which was knitting. And she decided that she woud hand-make my socks for me. Thus it was that, about twice a year for many years, I got a box of beautiful black wool socks in the mail, hand-knitted by my mother-in-law.

Time passed, and in 1996 I retired from the Air Force and began my second, civilian career as a contractor supporting the Air Force in the Pentagon. Of course, I now wore snazzy civilian clothes, and Agnes helped me pick out an array of nice suits, dress shirts, shoes, and accessories I'd never had to worry about during my 23 years in uniform. And Agnes's mother, back home in Germany, realized that I was now able to wear other than plain black socks ...

... and those every-six-months boxes of socks began to contain some of the most incredibly eye-hurting, vividly-colored socks you can imagine. Mom seemed to delight in seeking out the most bizzare color combinations of yarns and turning them into socks that were - to say the least - eye-catching. I never knew what would come out of the boxes that arrived from Germany, but I knew they'd be unusual. They were ghastly, and didn't match anything I owned, but they were comfortable, warm, and free, and so I decided to just go ahead and wear whatever came out of the drawer first in the morning darkness.

It wasn't long before my ... colorful ... socks were noticed and commented on. Before long, when I'd show up at conferences or meetings, it wasn't unusual for someone to walk up to me and pull up a pants leg to see what kind of socks I was wearing. People might not have known my name, but they knew I was "The Guy with the Socks."

The pinnacle of my sock fame came one day when I was scheduled to brief the conduct and results of a study I'd done on computer security to a "murder board" composed of retired general officers, chaired by General John Shaud, a retired four-star who had once been the Chief of Staff of the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE). For the occasion, I dressed in my snazziest gray suit, polished my shoes, and wore my loudest socks: vivid red, shot with flashes of blue, yellow, and green. I was ready.

The morning's presentation, with questions and answers, went by quickly, and it was soon time to break for lunch, which had been scheduled for a small, private dining room in the Pentagon. As we were walking down the hall, General Shaud came up beside me, threw an arm around my shoulders, and said, "Bill, I've just gotta ask you ... where did you get those damn socks?"

His team approved my project and recommendations. I credit hard work, detailed preparation, and lucky socks.

So that's how I became known as "The Guy with the Socks." Sadly, Agnes's mom passed away in 2013, and she'd stopped making the socks a few years before then as she suffered from arthritis in her hands ... but she did her part to make me famous, and I loved her for it.

Have a good day, and remember - life's too short to wear boring socks.

More thoughts tomorrow.