Sunday, April 30, 2006

Well, I was pretty well spun up yesterday over the latest hubris of the illegal immigrant support community, but I decided to calm down for a day or two, the weather being as beautiful as it is and there being so many ways to enjoy the weekend.

Yesterday was the Day of the Yard, marked by weeding and watering and feeding to try and convince all our carefully-landscaped plants not to die on us. I also was able to use the toy I bought myself last summer - a power washer (WOO-HOO!!) - to try to clean the dirt and stains away from the driveway. It didn't work 100%, but the driveway looks a lot better than it did.

Today, I intend to tackle the Tarzan-daunting jungle that is our yard on the right side of the house. It has become an overgrown thicket of tall grass and weeds, dotted with big rocks that used to be part of my front yard landscaping attempts. I'm not looking forward to this, but it has to be done, if for no other reason than to eliminate hiding places for snakes coming up from the woods behind the house.

But before all that, Agnes and I will have the pleasure of seeing some old friends again for brunch. We had been very close once, but time and events caused us to drift apart and now we have the opportunity to get reacquainted. Life is too short and good friends too rare to not keep up the contacts. It will be a nice lead-in to an otherwise exhausting day.

But then, who wants to sit in front of a TV when the sun is out and the birds are singing and the air is ... well, okay ... full of pollen. Not me!

Enjoy the rest of your weekend. I will.


Saturday, April 29, 2006

Okay, my blood pressure is officially skyrocketing again over the staggering arrogance of those who are trying to blackmail this country into bending over backwards to accommodate those who break the law. I refer once again, of course, to the illegal immigrants rights movement. On top of all the other arrogant demands of these people, America now has to put up with a special version of the national anthem in Spanish for those too lazy or disinterested to learn the language of the country they expect to give them what they want on a silver platter. I've been offended by many things this group of people has done, but this one goes beyond even my expectations of how disgustingly arrogant and demanding they can be. Even the President - with whom I seldom agree - has actually started to grow a spine and bluntly state that immigrants should learn English and that the national anthem should be sung in that language. I could hardly believe that the Mr Bush could come out with such a statement when he - like most of our spineless elected officials - seem to spend most of their time scurrying in fear of alienating the Hispanic vote.

And now, also, we have a "Day without Immigrants" scheduled for Monday, May 1st, in which those who believe that willing lawbreakers should have the same rights and priviliges of any citizen of this nation will attempt to blackmail our government by boycotting jobs and businesses. I personally think every one of them should be fired. And I think they should be happy that they live - many of them illegally - in a country that lets them get away with this stupid behavior.

This activity is a slap in the face of the millions and millions of American citizens who came to this country as legal immigrants. Who obeyed the immigration laws of the great nation they hoped would adopt them as part of its community.

This country does not hate immigrants, as the arrogant and noisy protesters would have you believe. This country was built by immigrants who came here to add their contributions to make the peaceful and multicultural society that enjoys the highest overall standard of living in the world. My paternal grandparents came to this country legally from Hungary after the First World War. They found jobs, learned English, became citizens, and created the conditions for me to enjoy the life I lead as a citizen of the best country on earth. Want to see what happens when people ignore the laws and refuse to become part of a larger community and work together for the common good? Look at Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, and most other nations of the third world for an example of what happens when the members of a society don't work together in a framework of law.

How about everyone having the courage to frame this issue in the proper terms. It is NOT about hating immigrants. It is about expecting those who wish to immigrate to the United States to obey the same laws that the rest of us do. It is about expecting those who want to live in this country to share not only in the benefits, but also in the responsibilities of living here.

And don't EVER play the national anthem in anything but English where I can hear it. If you need to have a national anthem sung in another language, go and settle in that country. We don't need you here if you are unwilling to become an American.

If you participate in the boycotts and demonstrations on Monday, shame on you. You are spitting on the country that gives you more freedom than any other nation on earth. Perhaps you would be happier elsewhere. Go. But if you stay here, quit bellyaching and obey the law.

Friday, April 28, 2006

It's Friday once again, the weather forecast for today through the weekend is for glorious, sunny mid-60's and no rain - just the sort of weather that makes you feel great to be alive. My last few posts have been relative downers about Iraq and terrorism, so it's time to turn for a few minutes to the happier side of life. Time to think about a few of the things that make life here in Northern Virginia worth living:

Dancing with my friends on Friday night (nothing quite like holding a beautiful lady close for those three minutes of music).

Watching the ladies in their spring outfits on the Metro (and seeing that arms and legs didn't disappear during the long, cold winter).

Working in the yard in the warm sun while the birds twitter happily (and Agnes points out the weeds I missed).

Eating breakfast on the deck in the cool morning air, enjoying the peace and quiet (before the lawn mowers start).

So there are lots of little pleasures we can enjoy despite soaring gas prices and bad news from the rest of the world. I plan to enjoy as many of them as I can during this weekend. You should do the same. Life's too short to do otherwise.

Have a wonderful weekend. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, April 27, 2006

Yesterday, I moaned a bit about the situation in Iraq. But moaning about a problem doesn't do much good unless you also have a suggestion about what to do. Here are a few of my thoughts:

First, as long as we're in Iraq in force, the Iraqis have no particular impetus to resolve their problems and reconstruct their own police and military, knowing that we'll cover for them and - most important - we'll always be there to be blamed for their problems. So set a firm deadline for the withdrawal of our troops. I know the argument that says the insurgents will be emboldened and claim victory if we announce we're going to withdraw. That's why we should also...

Second, immediately crack down - hard - on the border crossings that are now run by corrupt Iraqi officials who let foreign fighters and materiel into the country. In conjunction with that, start getting draconian with people caught with suicide vests, car bomb factories, etc. Summary execution sounds good, and helps make the point that we're not going to be the punching bag any more.

Third, put a LOT more emphasis on fighting the insurgents in the media. So far, these bastards have had a free ride with their websites and audiotapes, CDs and DVDs, and their willing compatriots at al Jazeera and al Arabiya to push their let's take the mental fight to them with some sophisticated media offensives of our own. I know many will recoil in horror at the thought of America using "propaganda," but let's start living in the real world and playing by its rules.

Well, that's a start. It won't go all the way toward getting out of the tar baby's embrace, but it can't hurt any more than the slow agony we're going through now.

A happier post tomorrow, I promise.


Wednesday, April 26, 2006

So what do we do about Iraq?

I guess the answer to that question depends pretty much on your political leanings. I am a hard-core, card-carrying Independent with nothing but contempt for both of our major political parties, so I try to take a clear-eyed and realistic view of the situation. Here's how I see it...

Invading Iraq was a serious mistake. Yes, Saddam Hussein was a very bad guy, but he didn't pose a direct threat to us. Now, we are facing a raging and deadly insurgency in Iraq, Islamic radicals are energized around the world, and snakes like Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi are able to thumb their audio and video noses at us and exhort their crazy followers to kill folks like you and I. Muslims around the world listen to these morons and believe every word they say (since they do not have a religious tradition that encourages critical thinking), ignoring the fact that the United States, for all its faults, is always first on the scene with disaster relief and other good works.

But we've punched the tar baby. Mr Bush has gotten us into this mess, and we have to make the best of it. Giving up and pulling out is not an option, and neither is simply slogging along wasting blood and treasure. Firing Mr Rumsfeld may be satisfying, but it doesn't help the situation and the calls for his head do nothing more than provide encouragement to our enemies.

So what do we do? Some thoughts tomorrow.

In the meantime, have a good day. It's bound to be better than the day endured by our men and women in Iraq.


Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Well, look what happened...someone turned over a rock, and now Osama bin Laden has popped up again.

Yes, our favorite smug lunatic is back, peering out of his cave to encourage Muslims everywhere to go to Sudan and fight against the evil Crusaders (that would be people like you and I, most of whom couldn't find the Sudan on a map) who are daring to fight the valiant Muslims there. Of course, he doesn't mention that those valiant Muslims are the members of the Janjaweed militia who are responsible for much of the terrible suffering in the Darfur region of Sudan, and who have ruthlessly massacred thousands of innocent people...but then, logic has never been Mr bin Laden's strong suit.

So, let me see if I've got this right: Osama bin Laden, speaking in the name of the god he refers to as "the merciful, the compassionate," is exhorting his coreligionists to kill everyone who doesn't share his version of mercy and compassion. It appears that at least a few of his adherents have listened to him, as more than 20 people were killed yesterday in attacks on innocent vacationers enjoying a holiday at a resort in Egypt.

Make no mistake - Islamic fundamentalists like bin Laden, Zawahiri, and al-Zarqawi are the real-life version of The Terminator: They can't be bargained with. They can't be reasoned with. They don't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And they absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead. Or until you submit to their twisted view of paradise on earth. And if you don't believe that, watch what they do, listen to what they say, and read what they write. You can start by visiting the Middle East Media Research Institute ( to read English translations and view video clips of what they're saying. And if you thought the famous Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammed were offensive, take a look at some of the cartoons culled from the Arabic media that are collected at the site.

Theirs is not the vision of the future I want for my grandchildren. Take them seriously, folks. They won't give up. Will we?

More, and hopefully, happier, thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, April 24, 2006

One of my favorite segments of the "Wizard of Id" comic strip shows a life insurance salesman being presented to the king. The skeptical king asks, "What's life insurance?" The salesman answers, "Well, your majesty, think of it as a wagering game...we bet that you'll live long enough to pay us more money in premiums than we'll have to pay you in benefits." The king asks, "What happens if I die young?" And the salesman says, "You win!"

I had reason to think about this old cartoon this past weekend, when a nice lady named Greta came to my house in the service of a company that's trying to decide whether it's safe to insure me. This is one of those little indignities that comes once one is over the magical age of insurance companies assume that you are a dead man walking, and want to assure themselves that you're not going to keel over next week and cost them a lot of money. Thus, they send out platoons of nice ladies like Greta to visit prospective customers and ask lots of personal questions, measure lung capacity, check weight, and "samples."

Now, I can sympathize with the insurance companies up to a point, but I think you can understand that my idea of a fun Saturday morning does not generally include sitting at my kitchen table having my blood pressure checked and my blood drawn. I seldom object to having the undivided attention of an attractive lady, but when she's holding my hand only to check my pulse and blood pressure, it takes some of the gloss off.

Oh, well...I guess it's a good thing that she came this past weekend, instead of in another month or two when my real estate tax bill comes due...then, my blood pressure and general stress level would have been through the roof, and her employer would have run screaming from the opportunity to insure me.

No offense, Greta, but I'd rather dance with you than fill little plastic cups for you.

If you're under 50, this is what you have to look forward to. Have a good day, anyhow. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, April 22, 2006

May I have this dance?

As you know if you've read my profile and some of my past posts, one of my hobbies is ballroom dancing. I've come to enjoy it very much since that day more than 20 years ago when my wife, who is a dance teacher, signed me up for lessons in frustration at my ineptitude. Agnes doesn't try to teach me, of course, since we tend to argue and fight when she does, so I take my lessons from the director of the studio where she teaches...I serve as his patience trainer, as I am supremely uncoordinated and can take quite a while to learn even the most simple patterns.


Through sheer grit and endless practice, I've come to be a reasonably good dancer, even to the point of doing well in competitions. My only regret is that I didn't have these skills when I was in college, because there's a real thrill that comes from having attractive women come up and ask ME - professional geek that I am - to dance with them.

Plus, as one of my acquaintences from the dance school says in his blog (, it's a nice activity for a husband and wife to do together. We tend to run in separate directions all week long between jobs, errands, and the million other things that need to be done, and it's nice to have that few minutes of music to hold on to each other and remember how good life can be when we let it.

So if you haven't tried ballroom dancing as a pastime, go out to a studio near you and sign up for their introductory special (all studios have one). You'll find that it's a great form of exercise, wonderful for your social life, and - if you can get past the occasional frustrations of learning - it's richly rewarding on many levels.

Ladies, I hope someday to have the chance to dance with you!

Have a good weekend. More random comments later.


Friday, April 21, 2006

According to an amazing feature article on the CNN website yesterday (, distracted driving causes accidents!

Where I come from, this is known as a blinding flash of the obvious.

If you read my blog back on March 10th (still available in the archives), you know my thoughts on distracted driving. Just yesterday, I was nearly run down when a brainless idiot chattering on her cell phone blew through a red light to make a right turn without even slowing down or checking to see if anyone was in the crosswalk. In fact, she never even looked to see if any traffic was coming from the left, either.

Having lived in the Washington, DC / Northern Virginia area for many years, I think I've seen just about all the abysmally stupid things drivers can do. I've seen people zipping along at 65 or faster while reading their newspapers, putting on makeup, eating, or turning completely around to have a conversation with people in the back seat. The cell phone is just the latest in a long line of distractions.

To those folks who are stupid enough to drive without giving it your full attention, let me just say that I don't mind at all if you improve the gene pool by killing yourselves off. However, I do object if you try to take me with you.

Many years ago, about the time I got my first drivers license, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania mailed a small wallet card to each registered driver. The card contained "The Driver's Prayer," which read (this may not be exact, but it's close): "We thank you for the ability to travel from one place to another faster than our legs can carry us. And we recognize our responsibility to do so without injuring another human being." They probably couldn't send out something like that today, but it's worth thinking about no matter where (or if) you go to church. Driving is a privilege, and your car can be a weapon. Use it carefully. The life you save may be mine!

Have a good weekend. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, April 20, 2006

Never underestimate the ability of anyone in the Middle East to shoot themselves in the foot...

I don't pretend to have any solutions to the snakepit of political, social, and religious fights that are the hallmark of what we used to call "The Holy Land." But one thing that's certain is that the extremists on both sides - Arab/Palestinian and Jewish - will always do something incomprehensibly stupid in order to keep the pot boiling and make life miserable for the great mass of people in the region.

The Palestinians are upset that Israel occupies the West Bank and has carved it up into a series of noncontiguous enclaves that greatly complicate Palestinian life and set up an endless series of little embarassments every day. So how do they convince the Israelis that they can be safe and reliable neighbors willing to work together to build peaceful and prosperous neighboring states? By conducting suicide bombings of buses and restaurants. The Israelis, in their turn, crack down harder on the Palestinians, and the cycle continues.

The cynicism and bloodthirstiness is just beyond belief. Where's the Gandhi of the Palestinians? Where are the visionary leaders willing to set aside tit-for-tat hatreds and work together to improve life for all? The sad answer is that they've been hijacked and overshadowed by the extremists on both sides for whom violence and intolerance is the only response to everything.

A recent podcast headline from the satirical newscast "The Onion" read, "God Re-Floods the Middle East." Sometimes you could think that The Deity finally giving up, wiping the whole place out and starting over wouldn't be such a bad idea.

I'm in a somber mood today. I'll try to be more upbeat tomorrow as we slide into the weekend.


Wednesday, April 19, 2006

How about them gas prices, eh?

There are a lot of things I don't understand, but one of the biggest is the economics of oil. If you can believe everything you read, it appears that no one is responsible for record high oil prices. Oil companines say they're not responsible because because they make all their money by drilling and not refining (so where are those record profits coming from?). The countries who have the crude, to the extent they comment at all, just claim they're charging what the market will bear. Consumers who buy enormous, gas-guzzling SUVs aren't responsible, because it's their right to buy environmentally questionable vehicles. Congress isn't responsible, because...well...just because.

So, who is it? Loony Islamic fundamentalists who try to sabotage oil production facilities and bomb pipelines in Iraq? The oil companies? The American consumer? The Chinese, because their booming economy puts pressure on the market?

I think no one has clean hands in this mess. Every one of us is part of the problem, much as no one wants to admit it. If we had a responsible government that wasn't bought and paid for by special interests (including - surprise! - the oil industry), we'd have long ago funded a major national program to seek alternative sources of energy for the good of all, instead of the stupid things with which our elected reprehensives pad transportation bills (multi-million dollar bridge in Alaska to serve an island with a population of 50? Niche museums in Congressional districts?).

Time to wake up, folks. Accept some responsibility. Let your Senator and your Representative know that you expect them to act on the oil price issue...not by slapping a band-aid fix on the problem, or holding useless hearings that provide only hot air and political posturing, but by coming up with a real plan to address a real issue that affects real people.

If you don't, all those people who are making the record profits from the oil will laugh at you all the way to the bank.

Or maybe you prefer walking?

Have a good day. More tomorrow.


Monday, April 17, 2006

Good Morning, and welcome to Tax Day!

Actually, yesterday - April 15th - was Tax Day, but since it was a Sunday, taxes are due at midnight tonight. If you have been reading this blog long enough, you know that I have some pretty strong feelings on the subject of taxes, so I won't rehash all of that. But I did hear an interesting interview a few weeks ago on the subject of the complexity and fairness of our tax system. The interviewee, a tax policy expert of some sort or another, maintained that we have a tax system that is as fair as is probably possible. He stated that a fair tax system must of necessity be complicated, while a simpler system would of necessity be unfair.

In a way, I agree with him. The complexity of our tax system grows out of our use of it as a social engineering tool rather than a revenue generator for the government. Every time we craft a tax break or incentive for some special interest or group, we add an element of complexity that wasn't there before; thus, increasing fairness (as measured by the opinion of those who are getting the breaks) means increasing complexity. On the other hand, a "flat" income tax which charges the same rate for everyone regardless of income, would seem to penalize those with smaller incomes.

I don't know the answer, but I do know that our system, fair or not, is far too complex for the average citizen to understand. And if you make a mistake because you can't understand the system (which many IRS advisors don't understand, either), the penalty is exactly the same as for deliberately cheating on your taxes.

And that's not fair.

So get your taxes paid today so that you can sleep well tonight. Unless, of course, you are worried about an audit...and I can't help you there.

Have a good day. More random thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, April 16, 2006

Happy Easter!

It's a pleasant spring day here in Northern Virginia, and it's time to share with you my plan for resolving the current illegal immigration crisis. You may remember that I submitted an op-ed piece to the Washington Post early last week on the subject, but since they have evidently decided not to publish it, I'll submit it to you. This is a little long, but I think it's a reasonable compromise approach to solving the problem...everyone gets something, and no one gets a free ride. You judge. Here is the e-mail I sent to the Post:


To the Editor,

Since Congress has left town without doing its duty to the nation to deal with immigration reform, and since no one – in Congress or on the streets – seems able or willing to talk straight or to compromise on the issue, I herewith offer my own immigration reform plan. Because it’s a compromise, it won’t please everyone. But I think it makes everyone involved sacrifice a little to solve an otherwise intractable problem.

First, we need to agree on one thing: the problem is not immigration per se, but unchecked illegal immigration. Despite the many t-shirts I saw today on the Metro that said “We are not criminals,” the sad truth is that many of you are…because you have willfully broken the law to enter this county. The problem is not just Hispanics…there are thousands of illegal Asians, Europeans, and Africans here, too. There are many millions of illegal immigrants in America today, and we’ll never be able to round them all up and deport them, no matter how much some on the far right may wish. We need another solution, somewhere between amnesty (which is an insult to those who have come here legally) and an impossible police effort. So with that in mind, here’s my plan.

First, Congress enacts legislation to create a new category of immigration status: the “Provisional Resident Alien” and designate the status with a new form of ID card – let’s call it a “Blue Card.” Anyone who is in the United States illegally as of the date of enactment will have a grace period (say, until December 31, 2007) to register for PRA status without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or deportation UNLESS they are also wanted on criminal charges unrelated to their immigrant status. A person registering as a PRA must pay a fee of $100 per person for the privilege of obtaining that status. This fee does two things: it makes the person pay a fine for having willfully broken the law in the first place, and it partially funds the cost of the new program. I can foresee that many churches and immigrant rights organizations will object to the fine…they’ll say it’s too much for poor immigrants to pay, or that it’s unfair. Well, too bad. It beats being chased, arrested, and deported, and it’s considerably less than I paid in various costs to bring my wife and daughter to the United States legally in 1982. And if the money bothers you, then do something useful – pay the fine for those who can’t pay it themselves.

Once a person has been granted PRA status, they will be required to obtain a legal social security number, and will be entitled to the same rights, privileges, and social services as other immigrants; in exchange, they will be expected to obey the laws, pay all taxes, learn basic English, and otherwise act as responsible members of American society. They will have the protection of labor laws which require payment of the minimum wage, and with a legal status, will no longer be subject to exploitation by shady employers.

PRA status will be good for a period of five years. At the end of the provisional status, the individual must report to the immigration authorities with proof of employment and proof that taxes have been paid. If these conditions are met, the individual may either extend the PRA status for another five years, or may apply for citizenship. Citizenship is not automatic – it will still have to be earned through the same naturalization process completed by many millions of legal immigrants throughout our history.

On the date the grace period for seeking PRA status ends, anyone still present illegally in the country will be arrested and deported. You had your chance, and ignored it. Good-bye.

Second, on the date the law is enacted, most immigration enforcement agents immediately transfer to border security duty to crack down on new illegal immigration. Border security will be severely stiffened and those caught attempting illegal entry to the country will be summarily deported. Those who facilitate illegal immigration will be arrested and treated as criminals.

Third, on the date the grace period for PRA registration ends, a set of very steep fines goes into effect for businesses and individuals hiring persons who are in the country illegally (without a Green or Blue Card). This will help to remove the economic incentive for businesses to support illegal immigration.

Now, this takes care of those who are in the country illegally today. But comprehensive immigration reform must also address the need for a responsive program to allow unskilled, low-wage workers to enter the country to take jobs that might otherwise go unfilled. I propose to use the PRA status for these persons, too. Businesses would project their labor requirements, and the State Department would make an appropriate number of PRA visas available to meet the need. Immigrants would then apply at the US embassy or consulate in their home country for PRA status covering any period of time from six months to five years, and need only maintain a job and pay taxes in order to maintain their status. At the end of five years, they would also have the opportunity to apply for citizenship.

That’s my plan. I know it won’t please everyone, but that’s the nature of a compromise, and the ability to compromise is what has been missing from political discourse in this country for too long. The advantages of my plan are:

1. It offers a way to legitimize the persons already here illegally, but imposes a fine on them as a condition of legalizing their status (i.e., no reward for having broken the law in the first place).
2. It funds itself, in part, through the fines collected from those applying for PRA status.
3. It provides resources for increased border security by freeing up immigration agents who otherwise spend their days fruitlessly hunting down illegals.
4. It provides a pathway for low-wage workers to legally enter the country and take advantage of economic opportunities not available to them at home, while contributing to the US economy in taxes.
5. It removes the incentive for businesses to hire and exploit illegal immigrants who cannot seek their rights for fear of exposure and deportation.

The downside of my plan is, of course, that prices on some goods will rise. We’ll pay more for the produce picked by immigrants who are finally being paid a decent wage. But I believe that in the long run, this plan represents a good start toward a stronger America and a better life for those who would share in its dream.

If anyone in Congress is interested, you can have this plan at no charge. It’s obvious you can’t come up with a plan yourselves.


So, what do you think? Feel free to comment, as long as your comment is constructive and addresses the issues. If all you want to do is either build walls or forgive blatant violations of the law, I don't want to hear from you. If you're interested in a reasonable compromise that focuses on realistic solutions, have at it.

And, again, Happy Easter! More tomorrow.


Friday, April 14, 2006

Today is Good Friday, one of the holiest days of the year for Christians, who believe it is the day Jesus Christ died on the cross.

It's also a day that, for the last several years, has been marked by antimilitary demonstrations at the Pentagon. Today, oddly enough, there were no demonstrators, but yesterday a group of folks erected a cross near the building entrance, and a fellow dressed in an orange jumpsuit climbed up and hung on it for a while. Apparently he was demonstrating against the ghastly horrors propagated on a helpless world by the US military.

I think he's an idiot.

First of all, in this country (unlike many others) the elected government firmly controls the military. Contrary to what many demonstrators seem to think, generals do not wake up in the morning, yawn, stretch, scratch, and decide to invade some small country. In America, the military carries out the orders of the President and Congress. So why waste time demonstrating at the Pentagon? Go demonstrate in front of Congress or the White House, or make your voice heard through your votes.

Second, I'm having a difficult time remembering the last time there was a demonstration in this country against the Islamic maniacs who happily slaughter not only Westerners, but also members of their own religion. I've been waiting in vain for the imams in the US and Europe to condemn the actions of their coreligionists. I guess it's easier - and much safer - to blame the United States for everything that's wrong than to criticize the violent fanatics who kill in the name of their religion, or to look into the dark heart of their own beliefs.


On this Good Friday, think carefully about who and what you protest against. You have the constitutional right to peacefully demonstrate all you want, but you have the moral responsibility to understand what you're doing. Next time you want to protest against the military, why not take a few minutes also to demonstrate against those who hate you just for what you are - an American, a Christian, a Sunni (if you're a Shiite), a Shiite (if you're a Sunni), or whatever. Use your head for something besides a place to model's an ugly world out there and, as someone once said, you can sleep soundly because there are rough men who stand ready in the lonely and bitter dark to protect you from those who would do you harm.

You owe them more than you know.

Have a safe and happy Easter weekend. More thoughts in the coming days.


Thursday, April 13, 2006

The prosecution has rested in the penalty phase of the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person to be charged in conjunction with the terror attacks of 9/11. The prosecution argues he should be put to death.

I don't agree, but not out of any misplaced sense of mercy (mercy not being a quality generally associated with al Qaeda, anyhow).

I was at my desk in the Pentagon on the morning of September 11, 2001. Fortunately for me, my office was on the far side of the building from where the hijacked airliner crashed into it. I and my coworkers evacuated safely, and I was merely inconvenienced, while many hundreds of others were killed or horribly injured. Zacarias Moussaoui has admitted his peripheral role in the attack, has sworn his allegiance to Osama bin Laden in open court, and has mocked those who died and those who survived. If he's not directly guilty in this case, he is still a dangerous religious fanatic who should never again walk the streets as a free man.

Zacarias Moussaoui is a human cockroach. There's not a microscope in the world powerful enough to find any sympathy in my heart for a man who shows no remorse for his role in the deaths of thousands of innocent people. But consider this: although he may be a useless human being, his death would make him a symbol to many millions of fanatical Muslims throughout the would make him a "martyr" and give him a status in death that he never had in life.

So don't put him to death. Sentence him to life in prison. Lock him away in the smallest, most miserable solitary confinement cell in the toughest prison in America and let him rot in the acid of his own hatred. Feed him bread and water and let him shout his racism and religious bigotry to four cement walls for the rest of his life.

Make no mistake: as a taxpayer, I don't relish the thought of paying to house this useless, bigoted moron for many years. It offends me that he'll be breathing air, drinking water, and eating food that could be nourishing the next Mother Teresa or Albert Schweitzer...someone who could build rather than destroy, and love rather than hate. But let's not let his death inspire others like him.

Lock him away and forget about him. For the 9/11 victims, survivors, and their families, it may not be as satisfying as seeing him dangling from a gallows, but I believe it's more appropriate.

I'll try to be more pleasant in tomorrow's post. Today, my heart just isn't in it.


Wednesday, April 12, 2006

What's on your iPod?

I really enjoy good music, and so I was thrilled when Agnes bought me an iPod for my birthday last year. We have a pretty eclectic collection of over 500 CDs and a few hundred LPs, and I've been spending a good chunk of my free time gradually ripping my favorite music from the plastic and vinyl discs and importing them to my iPod.

My profile page lists some of my favorite music, but my tastes vary widely. About the only kinds of music I don't like are heavy metal (hurts the ears) and rap (nothing but pounding base, overlaid with vulgar and mysogynistic grunting and shouting). Of course, you could argue that Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture is the ultimate in heavy metal music - especially when performed with live cannons - but that's an argument for another day.

I think music should entertain and soothe ... not hammer on your head. There's nothing quite like sitting at a traffic light (or even at a filling station) and feeling my car bounce around because of the trememdous, pounding bass thundering out of a nearby car full of fools who will soon be deaf and want to deafen the rest of us, too.

My largest collection is the one I call "easy listening," which actually includes everything from traditional country to indie rock to instrumentals. I have lots of German popular and folk music, too, as well as French and Spanish pop music. I also enjoy classical music and Gregorian chants (the latter are very calming and are great background music to work or read by). I even have a section of poetry for when I'm in the right mood - "Casey at the Bat," "The Cremation of Sam McGee," or most anything by Emily Dickinson are real pleasures at the right time.

I can't imagine a life without books and music. TV and movies are fine, and I enjoy them, but books and music open your imagination and enrich your soul. So put some good music on your iPod, put on the earphones (at a low volume, if you value your hearing), and enjoy life more.

Have a good day. Tomorrow, come back and find out what I think we ought to do with Zaccharias Moussaoui. Hint: it's not what you probably think.


Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Bilbo takes on immigration reform!

Yesterday, with tens of thousands of well-meaning, but fundamentally foolish people loudly demonstrating for immigrant rights (i.e., unconditional amnesty for illegal immigrants) in the streets of Washington, I offered Congress a compromise plan for immigration reform. Well, not exactly. What I did was write a lengthy op-ed article outlining my plan, which I submitted to the Washington Post for possible publication. The Post sent back a pleasant form e-mail telling me they get lots of submissions and decide whether or not to use them within two to six days, and if I don't hear back from them in that time, it means they've decided not to use my article ("don't call us, we'll call you"). If the Post elects not to publish my article, I'll share my plan with you here in a week or so; if they do, I'll publish a link to it on the Post website.

It's a compromise concept, which means that it will irritate all sides of the issue equally...but that's the nature of a compromise: everyone gets something, but nobody gets everything. The ability to compromise, to give something to get something, is what we have lost in political discourse in this country in the last few years. No one is willing to give an inch for fear of being thought soft or offending someone. We are awash in spineless politicians driven by fear of offending potential voters, when what we need is principled statesmen willing to study the issues, make sound decisions, and stand up for the benefit of the nation. I think there are people like that in Congress.

But then, I believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, too.

Watch this space for the debut of Bilbo's Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act (Draft) of 2006, coming to this space soon. I guarantee you'll see a reasonable plan in this space before you see anything rational coming out of Congress.

Have a good day. Practice compromising. You may like it.


Monday, April 10, 2006

So, what are you reading?

If you've looked at my profile, you know that I enjoy reading. I like history, thrillers, science fiction, current events, biographies, and generally anything that catches my eye. I'm usually reading at least three books at any one time: one for the nightstand/bathroom; one for commuting; and one for the table. Luckily, Agnes enjoys reading as much as I do, and our mealtimes tend to be pretty quiet affairs as we each enjoy our books. We probably have the only home in which bookweights are part of the table setting.

Right now, I'm reading "Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945," by Catherine Merridale. It's a very interesting, and heartbreaking, look at the life of the Soviet common soldier in the Second World War. There are literally hundreds of books by and about American, British, and German soldiers' experiences, but very few (especially in English) about the many nationalities that made up the Red Army. Regardless of how you feel about war, you have to admire and pity the common Soviet soldier who faced a savage enemy in front and a brutal military/political structure behind that was perfectly ready to shoot him if he tried to retreat, and equally ready to punish him for the least comment that smacked of defeatism (soldiers were free to talk about victories, for instance, but could be arrested and imprisoned or shot for any mention of casualties, retreats, incompetence of their officers, or a host of other topics). Regardless of the sufferings of the common soldiers in the West, their experience of the war was relative bliss compared to that of their Soviet counterparts.

Reading, about anything, is a marvelous pastime. If the electricity goes out and you can't watch TV or play DVDs, all you need is the light of a candle to enjoy a good book. And as my mother used to say, as long as you have a book in your hand, you have a window into all the wonderful worlds your imagination can take you. If you have a book, you always have a friend.

So visit the library, pick something out, and enjoy it. The favorite books I've listed in my profile are good recommendations, but someone has written something about almost anything you could be interested in. Find it, read it, and let your mind grow.

More comments on reading and on individual books in the future. For now, I've got to get poor Ivan through the end of the war. Have a good day. Read something.


Sunday, April 09, 2006

It's been a glorious early Spring Sunday here in Northern Virginia. The sun has been out most of the day, the birds are singing in the trees, and although the temperature only got to the low 50's, it was a great day to work outside. I got new mulch spread around many of our plants, and was able to get the first of my herb garden planted. All things considered, a great day.

But even on such a wonderful day, there has to be a cloud on the horizon. The cloud of the moment is that Congress has once again deftly ducked its obligation to the nation by taking two weeks off without dealing with the immigration reform issue, and in true form, the Democrats and the Republicans are blaming each other for the impasse. It's a shame that "compromise" has become a dirty word in Washington, synonomous for most of our elected officials with "selling out." Where are the statesmen? Where are the men and women with backbones and the courage to tackle the tough problems? Where is the Henry Clay of the 21st Century? And does anyone even know who Henry Clay is any more?

I'm just glad that we have touch-screen voting here in Virginia...because it leaves one hand free to hold my nose when I vote. You'd think that in a nation with a population pushing 300 million, we could find 50 Senators and 400-odd Representatives who could quit bickering long enough to do their jobs.

But I'm holding my nose, and not my breath.

I hope you enjoy the rest of your weekend and have a pleasant week to come. More commentary tomorrow.


Saturday, April 08, 2006

Today, in an utterly uncharacteristic burst of technical competence, I single-handedly fixed my wife's malfunctioning PDA.

A few days ago, Agnes came home from work and greeted me with the dreaded words, "it doesn't work any more!" I eventually ascertained that the "it" that no longer functioned was the Very Expensive PDA I gave her last Christmas. This is, of course, not good. I asked the two key initial troubleshooting questions ("did you try to reset it?", and, "when was the last time you charged the battery?"). Well, she'd evidently done everything right, and the Very Expensive PDA still steadfastly refused to function...thus making it my problem (it says so in the fine print on the marriage contract).

As a good husband should, I immediately sprung into action by ignoring the problem and hoping it would go away by itself. Unfortunately Agnes, as a good wife should, kept asking if I'd fixed the problem yet. Today, I did.

I solved the problem by the time-honored expedient of reading the instruction manual. It turned out that the lock on the battery compartment had somehow slipped from the "locked" to the "unlocked" position, which automatically turns the device into a sleek, high-tech paperweight. I flipped the switch back to the "locked" position and - presto! - the Very Expensive PDA was again as good as new. Unfortunately, it will be a few hours before Agnes knows I've come to the rescue, because she had to work this afternoon. But I know she will be in suitable awe of my skill at repairing complicated electronic devices. That's not quite right...actually, she'll be amazed I was able to do anything about it at all.

Truth is, I am the most low-tech person you will ever meet - my mechanical aptitude and ability to master complex machinery are challenged by a can opener. And so it is that I have taken great pride in actually being able to figure out what was wrong with the Very Expensive PDA. I think I'll take the rest of the afternoon off.

And so should you - it's the weekend, after all.

Have a good day. More ruminations tomorrow. Bilbo.

Friday, April 07, 2006

SCRIPTURES, n. The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based.

This interesting definition was penned by Ambrose Bierce in his classic satirical book, The Devil's Dictionary. It's probably one of the most accurate and perceptive things he ever wrote, particularly in view of the rise in religious intolerance in the world today. Fundamentalist Christians tend to believe in the absolute, literal word of God as expressed in the Bible (although they have, for the most part, managed to step back from some of the more hideous punishments sanctioned in Deuteronomy). Unfortunately, the Islamic world hasn't yet found the ability to step back from anything. It seems that if you are not a Muslim, and if you so much as breathe in the vicinity of a Koran so that bacteria in your infidel breath land on it, you deserve you do for a whole host of other transgressions, from the horrific sin of wanting to worship in a different faith ("apostasy"), to adultery (but only if you have also committed the unforgiveable sin of being a woman).

As you may have gathered from my accumulated posts, I am not a particularly religious person, in the sense that I have chosen not to align myself with a specific faith. Do I believe in God? I think I do. But I don't believe in God as defined by any of a series of competing texts written under questionable conditions in a desert more than a thousand years ago. Especially when I consider that absolute, literal belief in a particular religious text grants anyone the ability - indeed, the duty - to kill me if I don't believe exactly as they do.

We've just started into Daylight Savings Time by turning our clocks ahead an hour. Unfortunately, the world is full of people who would chose to turn their clocks - and yours - back hundreds of years. And I'm afraid it's going to get worse before it gets better.

But for now, the weekend forecast is for pleasant weather, and I'm looking forward to working in my yard and admiring the beauty of land and sky, plants, animals and birds. And you don't have to worship from any particular book to admire the handiwork of a higher power in all of that.

Have a good weekend. More ruminations tomorrow.


Thursday, April 06, 2006

Filling up the frame...

One of my hobbies is photography, and I really enjoy taking pictures of all kinds, but especially landscape and architecture photos and candid shots of people. It's particularly fun taking pictures at dance competitions, because a camera attracts dancers like a porch light draws moths...couples will dance right up into your face and pose so you can get the shot, instead of grimacing and turning away. And the ladies are beautifully dressed and made up, which always makes for a good picture.

I learned two valuable lessons about photography from my father, who was a professional photographer: always take as many pictures as you can, and always fill up the frame. The first rule is important, because most of the pictures you take won't be any good for one reason or another (poorly composed, out of focus, flash didn't go off, subject's eyes closed, stupid expression, etc). By taking lots of pictures (which is easy and cheap with a digital camera), you can delete all the bad ones before anyone ever sees them, and because only the good pictures ever see the light of day, everyone thinks you're a great photographer. The second rule is equally important, because no one wants to see a photo of tiny people in the distance, squinting into the camera. By filling up the frame, you focus in on your subject and get a much more interesting picture. Obviously, this rule is may want to show small figures against a big landscape, or framed by something in the foreground, for instance. But in general, fill up the frame to keep your pictures interesting.

So that's today's message: nothing about politics, immigration, or the shortcomings of funds managers...just some advice on good photography from someone who loves to take pictures. Grab that Kodak Brownie (now there, I'm dating myself!), get out, and take some pictures today.

Have a good day. And remember to fill up the frame.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

I think I'm in the wrong business.

I'm retired from the Air Force, and I now fly a desk at the Pentagon as a contractor (a "Beltway Bandit," if you will). I like to think I'm very good at what I do, and that my customer thinks that I'm worth what I'm being paid. But I've found a potential new job that sounds pretty good...

As we march steadfastly forward into upper middle age, Agnes and I are working with a Financial Advisor to try to ensure that we don't spend our golden years eating leftover dog food and living in a tent made of Hefty trash bags. Our Financial Advisor is, as far as I can tell, a very knowledgeable and competent lady whom I trust as much as I can trust anyone who holds our future livelihood in her hands. But there's one thing about her - in fact, about everyone in the financial management community - that bothers me. It's summed up in two words: "No guarantees."

When you talk with anyone offering advice in financial management, the first thing they tell you (after how much their services will cost) is that they offer no guarantees that the advice they give you will actually result in long-term benefit to you. Every e-mail I receive from our advisor ends with this statement in capital letters: "NOT NCUA/NCUSIF INSURED, NOT A DEPOSIT, NOT INSURED BY ANY FEDERAL GOVERNMENT AGENCY, NO CREDIT UNION GUARANTEE, MAY LOSE VALUE."

Now I ask you, in what other business can you charge a hefty fee for your services, and then step boldly back and tell your customer that you guarantee nothing? Would you hire a roofer to fix your house if he didn't guarantee his work? If I told my customer that I didn't stand behind the advice I gave based on the analysis I did, would he continue to pay me my handsome salary? How confident are you in an auto mechanic who charges $95 per hour to fix your car, but won't guarantee his work?

I've gently (well, actually, not so gently) told this to our Financial Advisor, who isn't in the least impressed. She reminds me, and I understand, that I'm paying for professional advice on a topic in which I have absolutely no competence and need plenty of help. But my point, on which I stand, is that I have no problem with paying for expert advice. That's why my customer pays me. What I object to is the absolute refusal at every opportunity, orally and in writing, to guarantee performance in exchange for those fees.

Okay, I understand that markets are volatile. I understand that my Financial Advisor has no control over the political-religious fanatic who blows up something on the other side of the world, sending investors into hysterics and the markets into the toilet. But I'm not paying for perfect, crystal-ball knowledge. I'm paying for a person who can translate hundreds of linear feet of financial statements from Old Church Slavonic to plain English. I'm paying for a person who can interpret the historical record and make reasoned, professional judgements on what I should do with the few dollars I have to invest. I'm paying for sound advice on my future, which is of no small interest to me.

Call me naive, but I think that a person willing to hang out his or her shingle as a Financial Advisor or investment consultant should be willing to guarantee a minimum level of performance as measured in return on investment.

Have a good day. And don't bother checking your portfolio if someone else manages it for you, because they won't guarantee its performance, anyhow.


Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Time to beat the immigration reform drum again...

My friend Jake (you met him last month through my blog post and his comment about the joy of grandchildren) sent me an article yesterday that put an interesting twist on the immigration issue that I hadn't considered before. Here's the quote:

"The United States is the only politically and economically united country in the world that occupies a continent. This has meant, among other things, that much of the money that might otherwise have been spent on tanks and guns to defend land borders instead has been spent on development, and has made the United States the world's largest economy by a factor of three. Ironically, one of the "downsides" of all of this is that the U.S. population is extremely well-educated. And because the naturally occurring percentage of "unskilled" workers is rather small, there is an interesting dilemma: The country can seal its borders, thus forcing the skilled to take on menial jobs, or open its borders and give nearly unlimited access to those willing to do such work."

Now, that's a very cogent observation. Because we haven't had to invest in border defense, we've been able to build a native population that has, quite literally, educated itself out of the willingness to do menial work. And since nature abhors a vacuum, people will rush in to fill it, looking for their piece of the economic and educational miracle that's America.

Well, I don't have a problem with that, nor should any real, thoughtful American. This is, after all, a land of opportunity that has always welcomed immigrants (if sometimes grudgingly). But even though "security" is a much-abused term nowadays, it's still a serious concern. Part of our security, whether we wish to admit it or not, is our ability to rely on the rule of law and the control of our borders to keep us safe. And that's precisely what the crowds in the streets want to ignore. They want to reward people who have willingly broken the law. They want to give people who ignore the law the benefits and rewards that really should belong only to law-abiding citizens. And businesses want lots of cheap, exploitable, easily-replaceable labor.

Unfortunately, my prediction is that Congress will cave in to political pressure in search of business and Hispanic votes, and will end up letting the world know that it's not necessary to obey the law in America. Unless, of course, you are an ordinary middle-class US citizen. No one rallies huge crowds to protect your interests.

Okay, I've beaten this topic to death. I won't talk about immigration reform again until Congress does something worth commenting on. And that may be a long time.

Have a good day. Obey the law. Work to change it if you don't like it, but obey it in the meantime. It's what protects you.


Monday, April 03, 2006

It's been a busy weekend, but a good one. We did some dancing on Saturday, followed by the traditional Running of the Errands and a nice dinner.

But then came Sunday...

Agnes had volunteered to work with a group from her Credit Union to help out at the annual Cherry Blossom 10-Mile Run in downtown DC. That's laudable. Of course, the fine print in the marriage contract says that the husband has to go along. Well, okay. But then we realized that the show time at the Metro station to meet up with our group was 5:45 AM!! On a Sunday!! Not just that, but it happened to be the same Sunday that we lost an hour of sleep to Daylight Savings Time, too!.

And so the day began with my dragging Agnes out of bed by her shapely ankle and filling her with coffee to get us moving. Things got better once we were moving, though...we met the rest of the group on schedule and took the Metro to the Arlington Cemetery station, from where we walked across the Memorial Bridge in the morning chill, past the groves of beautiful cherry blossoms at the peak of their spring glory and into the spreading pinks and golds of the sunrise. We eventually reached the amazingly well-organized chaos of the volunteer reception area, were issued our t-shirts and ID bibs, then parcelled out to the various areas where we were needed, mainly involving a mad rush to organize the finish area once the runners had cleared out.

The weather was glorious, and the mood of the runners and the volunteers was (generally!) happy and positive despite the early hour. The combination of the excitement, the great weather, the beautiful cherry blossoms, and the riverfront scenery was great, and we waited in growing anticipation for the runners to begin returning.

The difference between the excited, pumped-up runners who thundered out of the chute at the beginning of the race, and the exhausted, sweating, nearly-catatonic runners who finished was quite something. But regardless of how they looked or felt, each runner could look back with pride at having accomplished something few others could have done. The men's winner, from Kenya, and the women's winner, from Russia, literally zoomed across the finish line, and the wheelchair winner came in with a rapid and strong finish. But the most inspiring were the average people - not the trained athletes - who struggled across the finish line with pride and exhaustion mixed on their faces.

All in all, it was a great morning, and it was hard to believe that it was pretty much over by 11:00. And while I wouldn't necessarily want to have a lot of early Sundays like that one, I left the scene feeling happy and full of pride that we have a country that still produces people who can run in 10-mile races...and who will volunteer their weekends to cheer them on.

Have a good week. More tomorrow.