Tuesday, July 31, 2007

New and Useful Words

There's a wonderful website I visit every day called "Word Spy" (http://www.wordspy.com/index.asp), which features newly-coined or otherwise unusual words that have recently appeared in the English language. I guess it stirs that long-dormant degree in Linguistics buried deep in the back of my brain, in addition to just being fun.

Two recent and related entries are worth sharing because I can relate to them: the first is floordrobe, defined as "a pile of discarded clothes on the floor of a person's room;" the other is carbage, defined as "the garbage that accumulates in some cars, particularly in the back seat."

Much as I try to keep myself organized and my surroundings relatively neat and tidy, it doesn't always work. While I manage to return my dirty clothes to the laundry hamper and the clean ones to the closet most of the time, the back seat of my car does tend to accumulate a great deal of stuff that I now realize is carbage. I just wonder if there's an equivalent word to describe the vast clutter that seems to spring out of nowhere to cover the floor and all desk surfaces in my study. I spent almost all day last Sunday dusting, shredding, scanning, filing, and reorganizing...and the room still looks like it was decorated by the Hamas and Fatah after they finished practicing on the Gaza Strip. It's more than just a simple and chaotic mess...I can't find the cable I need to sync my iPod with my computer. AARRGGHH!!

Oh, well...no deep thoughts today, just a few reflections on words that seem ideally suited for the life I lead. Check out Word Spy and see if there are any you enjoy. Or relate to.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, July 30, 2007

The "Good" Book

"The Devil's Dictionary" by Ambrose Bierce offers a brilliant collection of twisted and satirical definitions of common words. While I have many favorites in this collection, one of the best is Bierce's definition of scripture: "Noun. The sacred book of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based."

I've written before about the dangers of blind faith, and to the extent that there's a humorous aspect to a deadly problem, I think Mr Bierce has hit it squarely on the head. When we speak of "moderates," "fundamentalists," and "extremists" in a religious context, we are speaking to a large degree about their attitude toward the holy text of their beliefs. Muslims believe the Koran is the absolute, literal word of God, valid only in Arabic (making it, of course, impenetrable to any non-Arabic speaker). Fundamentalist Christians, on the other hand, believe the Bible to be the absolute, literal word of God, valid in any language (making its lessons, good and bad, available to anyone anywhere in the world).

Both the Bible and the Koran are venerated by billions of people, many of whom have only the vaguest notion of their contents. Any Christian knows the Ten Commandments, The Golden Rule, The Sermon on the Mount, the Nativity story, and the major parables of Christ. Few Christians, however, know or act upon the more bloodthirsty parts of the Bible...the book of Deuteronomy, in particular, recommends terrible punishments for certain things (would you really kill your disobedient child?). Unfortunately, many Muslims appear unable or unwilling in the same way to divorce themselves from the more bloodthirsty parts of the Koran, the so-called "sword verses" which mandate the subjugation or death of nonbelievers.

If you absolutely, totally, unquestioningly believe that your holy scripture is the literal word of God, you open yourself up to the ability to commit monstrous crimes and injustices in the name of your religion. Christianity went through the terrors of the Inquisition, but in time repudiated its excesses. Muslims, on the other hand, appear unable to act in a similar fashion - witness the hundreds of believers willing to murder thousands of others as suicide terrorists on the basis of unreasoning belief in a literal reading of Koranic verses.

I keep writing about this, but I realize I'm preaching to the choir. Those who understand the dangers of blind faith will nod their heads and quietly agree with me (after all, saying negative things about the Koran can lead some cleric with a 7th-century education to condemn you to death), while those who blindly follow the literal word of the Bible or the Koran will view me at best as misguided, and at worst as a deadly threat to be eliminated.

I have said it before, and I will keep saying it: never, ever, let anyone else do your thinking for you. Look to your scriptures for comfort and moral guidance...but when they start telling you to kill those who don't believe as you do, it's time to start asking some hard questions.

Have a good day. The Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule are a good way to frame it.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, July 29, 2007

Voices From the Past

A few weeks ago, during our mini-family reunion in Ohio, my sister brought me a large bag full of old photographs and assorted documents that our mother had saved over the years. Knowing that I'm the family history buff, she thought that I'd be more interested in the things than anyone else. And I was.

I already posted one of the treasures from the bag - in my post titled "Five Generations" earlier this month, I put up a photo of my very young and geeky self with my oldest son (then only a few months old), my father (who looks pretty much like a younger version of the present-day Bilbo, and my grandmother, who was then into her 80's. Grandma has long since passed away, but she lives on in that photo taken on a summer day nearly 30 years ago.

Also in the bag were bundles of letters I had written to my family over the years, letters which documented my adventures and the development of my own family as we lived in Louisiana, Germany, and Virginia. They include my commentary on the newsworthy events of the day (including the latest political jokes and cartons) and the trials and tribulations of raising a family in a military setting.

I can enjoy reading those letters now and recalling the events I described over the decades. I enjoy writing letters, although I don't have as much time for it as I used to; I don't believe in writing little "how-are-you-I'm-fine-see-you-soon" notes, but multi-page letters brimming with the details of life. My friends used to tell me how much they enjoyed my letters, and how entertaining they were...sadly nowadays, my letter-writing is pretty much confined to the year-end summaries I send to selected friends with their Christmas card, each letter carefully written from a master copy so that each person hears about the things in which he or she is most interested. The standard one-size-fits-all, mass-copied Christmas letter just won't do in this family.

But my larger thought for today is that few people write letters any more. We live in a fast-paced world in which instant messaging, e-mail, and phone calls have replaced the joy of opening the mailbox and finding a fat envelope with our name on it, brimming with personal details meant just for us, and bringing us for a few minutes into the lives and hearts of our friends. I regret not writing more and better letters now, and I use the same shopworn excuses we all do (no time, postage is expensive, I can't write, no one cares, etc, etc)...but I know in my heart that my brothers and sister, my sons and daughter and grandchildren, and all my friends would love to get that envelope in the mail.

And what of my grandchildren when they grow up? How will they know about Grandpa Bilbo and the events that shaped him into the man he was? Will they get their knowledge of the history of their family, and how it fits into the larger history of the nation and the world, from schoolbooks, encyclopedias, and Wikipedia, or will they also have the first-hand view of those events from the observations of their grandfather who lived through many of them?

Every year I tell myself I'm going to start writing letters again, and every year I don't do it. Maybe it's time to stop making excuses and start recording history in other than my blog. Not everyone cares about everything...but that's why you write lots of letters: so that everyone gets not just the information they need, but the warm knowledge that the letter was written just for them by someone who cared enough about them to spend the time.

Have a good day. Write a letter to someone you love, or a friend you haven't seen for a while. You'll both be glad you did.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, July 28, 2007

Thoughts About Lindsey Lohan and Insurance

One of the things we all love to hate is insurance...one of those things we spend huge amounts of money on through the years in the hopes that we will never need the return on the investment. And, of course, we all realize that when the time comes and we do need to file a claim against the insurance policy, the first thing the company will do is look for a reason not to pay us. One of my favorite Wizard of Id cartoons showed the Lackey introducing a life insurance salesman to the King. The King suspiciously asks, "What's life insurance?" To which the salesman replies, "It's like a wagering game, your majesty...we bet you will live long enough to pay us more in premiums than you will ever be able to collect in benefits." The King thinks about this, then asks, "What happens if I die young?" The salesman replies, "You win!"

I thought about insurance this morning in reading a CNN story about actress and professional bad girl Lindsey Lohan, who has made such a train wreck of her life that a major question in Hollywood now is whether or not she is insurable - whether any company will be willing to risk insuring her ability to complete a film according to her contract.

The obvious answer is that there are certainly insurance companies that will happily take her on, but at an enormous cost to her in premiums. She's made herself such a risk that she'll end up being a cash cow for some insurance company...which in this case will have well and truly earned its money because her bizarre, reckless and self-destructive behavior makes it likely that they'll have to shell out big bucks sooner or later

I feel sorry for Lindsey Lohan, but she - for whatever reasons - has made the decisions that have screwed up her life and led her to the point where her behavior makes her an insurance risk. The worst part of the whole thing is that it didn't have to be that way, any more than such a life is an inevitable outcome for any of us. She didn't have caring and loving parents to teach her what she needs to know, and as a result when she fell in with upright and well-behaved friends like Paris Hilton, she didn't have the little voice in the back of her head warning her to step back from the edge of the personal abyss.

I'd like to think of myself as the sort of wise, caring father that my dad has always been, and I guess in some ways I am, but I recognize my shortcomings. To the extent that I have two great sons and a wonderful daughter in whom I take enormous pride, I feel I can only take partial credit. That none of them turned into a Lindsey Lohan is one of the great accomplishments in my otherwise utterly average life.

So the thought for today is that if you become a parent, your job doesn't stop when you have the orgasm. There is a child depending on you to make sure she (or he) doesn't become the next Lindsey Lohan.

You are your child's insurance policy.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, July 27, 2007

Thinking About How We Dress

As much as anyone else, I enjoy lounging around the house in jeans and one of my beloved, ratty old t-shirts. I do, however, tend to dress a little better (at least, to the point of wearing a less-ratty t-shirt) when I go out in public. After all, Agnes is stuck with me, but I still have a chance to impress others with my natty attire, in the absence of spectacular good looks.

I think that pride in one's appearance is a good thing, which is why I am always amazed at the slovenly appearance of many young (and even not-so-young) people nowadays. Looking at some of the unkempt male creatures slouching around the malls with hats crookedly planted on uncombed heads makes me wonder where the pride in appearance has gone. And the girls are often similarly worthy of head-shakes: large numbers of piercings, large and often ugly tattoos, and overly-revealing clothes on those who should know better are enough to make one's head hurt. You wonder what they see when they look in the mirror.

I thought about this the other day while reading an article about a new, major crackdown by Iranian police on people guilty of the heinous crime of "unislamic dress" - men in "Western-style" clothing and haircuts and women guilty of showing any hair beneath their headscarves or wearing their overcoats overly tight. The Head of Information of the Tehran police was quoted as saying that his forces were targeting men and women who were "dressed like models."

This rather puts my observations of poorly-dressed Americans in perspective. It's clear that one should dress appropriately to the occasion (jeans and a t-shirt are as out-of-place in a ballroom as tuxedos and evening gowns are at the local mall), but in the end, how we dress is an expression of personal individuality. There's no law in the United States against looking stupid (as much as we might wish it were so), but at least we don't have the police taking time out from protecting us from criminals to arrest those who undermine our morals by showing a head of hair or a bare arm.

The Teheran police spokesman said the crackdown was meant to "increase security in society." I'm sure that Tehranis feel much better that they are not threatened any more by maldressed miscreants...but I'm equally sure they'd feel still better if the police had rolled up some drug dealers, muggers, or killers instead.

I'm glad that the Islamic Republic of Iran has its priorities right...after all, if you're going to thumb your nose at the world and build a nuclear arsenal with which to threaten to wipe Israel off the map, you may as well look good doing it.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, July 26, 2007

Harry Potter Comes Full Circle

Last night, just before turning out the lights, I finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the conclusion of the seven-book Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. If you are tired of being Harry Pottered to death over the last few weeks, or if you don't like to read, or would rather hear me talk about something deeper, just surf on and come back tomorrow. But for now, I have some thoughts about Harry Potter and about reading in general.

First of all - no spoilers here. Part of the joy of reading is the expectation of surprise, and it's not my place to ruin that surprise for you. Not everyone thinks that way, of course. Yesterday I was at the Lenscrafters store getting fitted for my new glasses by a nice young man who noted what I was reading. One of his co-workers was listening to the conversation, and said that she couldn't stand not to know how a story ended...she always read the last four pages of any book first!

But back to Harry Potter. Ms Rowling's great triumph is that she has created an internally consistent, richly layered world that's an absolute joy to read, either to oneself or aloud. Wonderful names roll off your tongue (who can resist saying "Xenophilius Lovegood" or "Ottery St. Catchpole" out loud?), and marvelous descriptions of magical places, actions, and things rank with some of the best in literature. One of my favorite scenes in literature is J.R.R. Tolkien's description of the charge of the Rohirrim in The Return of the King, and Ms Rowling's descriptions of battles between wizards are every bit as grand.

If you enjoyed the Harry Potter series (and I don't know how anyone couldn't), try reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, another marvelous story of magic full of brilliant description and rich plotting. In particular, reading Ms Clarke's description of the enchanted, talking statues of York Cathedral is a wonderful experience.

If you are one of the narrow-minded persons who objects to the Harry Potter stories on religious grounds, I feel sorry for you. If you lack the sense of wonder and imagination to make the words come alive on the page and take you away to another world of adventure for a few hours, your life is sadly limited.

I strongly recommend you read the Harry Potter series. In fact, I strongly recommend you read everything you can get your hands on. You'll be dead for a long time...as long as you're alive, reading can help make that life richer and more enjoyable.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Taxing My Health

One of the benefits my employer offers is the opportunity to put pre-tax dollars from my paycheck into a so-called "Medical Flexible Savings Account." The money thus saved can then be used during the year to pay medical expenses otherwise not reimbursed by my health insurance - things like co-pays, prescriptions, various over-the-counter drugs, eyeglasses, and so on. The medical FSA is a wonderful thing, as far as it goes...but I have a few problems with the system.

One is that the money placed into the account must be completely used up within the calendar year; any balance remaining after April 15th of the following year simply disappears. Why should that be? This is money I set aside for my health and the health of my family...it's not as if I'm going to use it in slot machines or to buy aluminum siding. Why on earth should this money not remain in the account and accumulate from year to year against the possibility of a major future medical expense? After all these years, no one has ever given me a rational explanation.

Another is that the Internal Revenue Service, because it isn't getting its cut of the money saved in the FSA, places many restrictions on what can be reimbursed and what can't. As an example, I submitted a reimbursement request last week which included receipts for two prescriptions and one over-the-counter drug - and was asked to submit a signed statement certifying that they "are to treat specific medical conditions and are not to be used for any type of cosmetic purpose or to maintain general health."

The part that irks me here is "not to be used...to maintain general health." I would have thought that the IRS would have a vested interest in keeping taxpayers healthy so they can keep earning money and paying more taxes. Why are prescription drugs used "to maintain general health" not authorized to be reimbursed? I suppose I can understand the constraint on reimbursement of drugs for "cosmetic purposes" (there's only so much I can do with this face, anyhow), but why the restriction on health maintenance? I have a similar problem with the restrictions on how much can be deducted for medical expenses on an itemized tax return - if the point is to get the maximum in taxes out of each of us, wouldn't you expect the IRS to want us to be healthy so we can keep working?

As a matter of general principle, I don't have a problem with paying taxes. But I do have a problem with what I perceive as unfairness and irrationality. If you're reading this blog and are a tax attorney or an employee of the IRS, and can explain this to me in real-people language, please post a comment.

Because all this beating my head against a wall is bad for my health.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

"A Bellicose and Uncompromising Strategy"

A continuing source of frustration to me, as to many Americans, is the seeming inability of Congress to accomplish much of anything of any importance to real people like you and I. An interesting article in the July 21st issue of The Los Angeles Times titled "Democrats Take Uncompromising Stance" analyzed the ongoing paralysis in Congress, specifically as it applies to Democratic lawmakers' attempts to force votes on the conduct of the Iraq war in the face of Republican opposition. The article used the terms "bellicose and uncompromising" to describe the Democrats' legislative strategy, and noted that "Democrats will work with any GOP lawmaker willing to vote for a mandatory troop withdrawal; other Republicans need not apply."

Now, you might think from the above brief discussion that my sympathies lie with poor, noble Republicans suffering under endless assaults from their opponents. This would be wrong in the extreme.

The article goes on to note that the Democrats are "...enraged by years of being brushed off and belittled by the White House...", and this is perfectly true. The Republicans have for years ignored the Democrats and questioned their patriotism, integrity and intelligence, and now the proverbial chickens have come home to roost. Of course, this is precisely what happened to Republicans when the Democrats were in power during the Clinton years, so I think it's pretty difficult for either side to complain about the actions of the other.

This is, of course, bad for the nation and the world. I have written many times in this space about the importance of principled compromise in making government - and life in general - work. Progress occurs when people of good will sit down, explore their agreements and differences, and work forward from agreement on small things to compromise on major ones. Unfortunately, we have developed an utterly poisonous political culture in which compromise is viewed as traitorous and it's not important just to win, but to leave a smoking, wreckage-strewn crater where one's opponent used to be. Winning is less important than making sure the other side loses in the biggest and most humiliating fashion possible.

Congress seems to be peopled with 535 George Pattons and no Henry Clays. For those of you unfamiliar with these names, George Patton was the hard-driving general who led American armies in World War II and was famous for his vulgar and bellicose personality. Henry Clay, on the other hand, was a 19th century American legislator who was known as "The Great Compromiser" for his ablity to forge satisfactory agreements among squabbling competitors.

The nation suffers from an imperial presidency, a crumbling infrastructure, a health care crisis, and a plummeting international reputation. The world suffers from the threats of AIDS, pollution, nuclear proliferation, and violent Islamic extremism. Until the Henry Clays outnumber the George Pattons, our Congress will continue to be an ineffective laughingstock, unable to accomplish anything more in the face of these difficult challenges than the generation of useless sound bites and ongoing paralysis.

Think about that the next time you vote, or listen to the presidential candidates debate. Ask your senators, your representatives, and your desired presidential contender what compromises they are willing to make to make the nation great again.

Unfortunately, I think I know the answer.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, July 23, 2007

"They Always Tell the Truth"

Yesterday while running errands I was listening to a call-in show on C-Span Radio. The question of the day was whether or not the listeners listened to political talk radio, and if so, to which sort of show: one with a liberal or a conservative focus.

One caller was absolutely adamant that he listened only to conservative shows like Rush Limbaugh's. The reason, as he stated over and over, was "They always tell the truth!"

And I suppose they do...at least, the truth as filtered through an ideological prism. This gentleman was obviously a very staunch conservative, and as such, was ideologically primed to believe whatever a conservative commentator said and discount as lies anything said by a "liberal" one. On the other hand, I can imagine a staunchly liberal listener calling in to say - with equal conviction - that the conservatives were all liars and one had to listen to liberal commentators to hear the truth.

So where is the truth? Who's right? If you have been reading this blog regularly, you know that I believe in weighing the strength of the argument before deciding whether the speaker is right or wrong, truthful or not. The label doesn't really matter - whether the message makes sense does.

The same holds true in the realm of religion. Muslims are absolutely convinced that the Koran represents the ultimate truth and the literal word of God. Christians believe the same of the Bible. Jews venerate the Torah. Hindus look to the Bhagavad Gita as a guide to life.

Who's right? Where's the truth?

One of my favorite quotes is from Andre Gide, who said "Believe those who seek the truth, and doubt those who find it." I think that's a pretty good guide to life. We all need something to believe in, but when we believe too firmly the result can be ugly - you need only look at the chaos and violence of the Middle East to see that.

So seek the truth...but don't blindly believe the man who tells you he's found it. After all, hundreds of people died at Jonestown in 1978 because they believed in the truth as spoken by Jim Jones.

Don't let it happen to you.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, July 22, 2007


I receive a daily e-mail called "Word of the Day" from yourdictionary.com, which - as you might suspect from the name - provides a new word every day to enrich ones vocabulary. Many of the words are so obscure and archaic that they aren't very useful in most instances, but even some of those can be very interesting and descriptive.

Like this past Friday's word: abibliophobia, defined as "the morbid fear of running out of reading material."

This is a word that resonates in our family, and with some of our friends. But actually running out of reading material is something I actually don't have to fear: a week doesn't go by in which we don't buy at least two or three books of one kind or another. The situation was bad enough for years, but when my mother passed away six years ago, I inherited most of her substantial library on top of my own...and I've now got such a backlog of unread books that I'll probably have to live to be 150 to read them all...assuming that new books stopped being published immediately.

So in reality, aibibliophobia is a fear I really don't need. The world has plenty enough things in it for me to worry about without tacking on one that's really not an issue. As my mother always used to tell us, "As long as you have a book, you have a friend."

And right now, I think I'll go and visit with my latest friend, the last Harry Potter story.

Have a good day. Read all you can...your brain needs food, too.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, July 21, 2007

A Moon Called Frank, and Other Thoughts on Names

A short article a few days ago in the New Scientist Space Blog reported that a tiny new moon, a mere 2 kilometers across, has been discovered orbiting the planet Saturn. That brings the total number of known moons of Saturn to 60, and leads to a predicament for planetary scientists: what do you call the new moon? For the moment, it's official temporary name is "S/2007 S 4," but according to the article, pending a decision by the International Astronomical Union on a final name scientists are calling the little moon "Frank."

And that got me to thinking about how we give names to things.

Names are, of course, critically important. In many cultures, the true name of an individual is a closely-guarded secret, for knowledge of a someone's name is said to give one power over that person. Parents in this country generally try to give their male children strong, masculine names (like "Frank" or "George"), and their female children lighter, more feminine names (like "Donna" or "Michelle"). Of course, some parents afflict their helpless children with silly names - prime examples are rocker Frank Zappa's unfortunate son "Dweezil" and daughter "Moon Unit."

Names of things are also important. Companies spend months of time and millions of dollars on selecting just the right name for new products, hoping the name will help lead to increased sales. Of course, this doesn't always work: the classic example is the urban legend about Chevrolet's attempt to market it's new model, the "Nova," in South America. No one understood why sales were miserable until the realization that in Spanish, "no va" translated as "it doesn't run." According to the Snopes Urban Legends Reference Page (http://www.snopes.com/business/misxlate/nova.asp), that story is a myth, but the cautionary lesson is nevertheless real - the names we give to things, and to people, are loaded with meaning and importance, both positive and negative.

Many Muslim imams refer to Jews and Christians as "apes and pigs." Blacks are infuriated when a non-black uses the "n-word," although they tend to use it extensively themselves. "Redneck" is considered in some circles to be an insult, and in others a badge of honor.

Names matter. Whether you're a tiny moon of Saturn named Frank, or the unfortunate daughter of Gwynneth Paltrow named Apple, what you are called shapes your existence in many ways. I chose the screen name Bilbo because of my love for Tolkien's classic tale The Lord of the Rings, and because Bilbo the Hobbit, with his love of friends, travel, good food, books, and learning, was a character with whom I could identify.

Think hard when you give a name to something, or someone, because the act of naming has consequences which may not be immediately obvious. The right name can make you a friend or an enemy. It can mark you as racially and socially insensitive, or as thoughtful and caring. If you're a two-kilometer-wide moonlet orbiting Saturn about 1.35 billion kilometers from the Sun, Frank may not be a bad, if temporary name. If you're a religiously observant Jew or Catholic, hearing a Muslim refer to you as an ape or a pig is unlikely to facilitate understanding and dialog.

And that's the name of that tune.

Have a good weekend. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, July 20, 2007

Thoughts on Islam from The Language Guy

I spend a lot of time checking out different blogs and enjoying what the bloggers have to say (well, most of the time, anyhow). I recently found a very interesting blog kept by a retired linguistics professor who calls himself The Language Guy - you can find him at http://thelanguageguy.blogspot.com/, and he's very interesting even if you aren't really into linguistics.

In August of last year, The Language Guy published a blog entry titled, "Is Islam a Religion of Peace?", in which he applied linguistic analysis to the argument, made in the Islam Herald (http://www.islamherald.com/html/index.htm) among other places, that Islam is inherently peaceful because its very name derives from the Arabic word salama meaning, "peace" or "submission." The Language Guy notes that the Arabic language is actually built on three-letter consonant roots to which vowels are added to form words. The root in question here is s-l-m, which gives words as varied as "Islam," "salaam" (or peace), and "salama" (which means the sting of a snake, or the tanning of leather).

Okay, that's deeper in the linguistic weeds than you probably want to go. If you're interested, you can read the entire fascinating analysis at http://thelanguageguy.blogspot.com/2006/08/is-islam-religion-of-peace.html; for now, I think his summary is worth quoting in its entirety:

"I think we must conclude that any claim to the effect that Islam is a religion of peace must be balanced by a recognition that it also supports the use of violence. The linguistic claims made by the Muslim Hearald mean nothing as compared to the actions of Muslims and this includes not just acts of terrorism around the world, but the brutal killings of Muslims by Muslims in Iraq.

"Muslims are not alone in engaging in violence. But let us not be fooled by linguistic analyses that suggest that Islam is a religion of peace. When I was a kid, the lesson that sunk home with me most about Christ was that his was a message of love. But, of course, that message was as irrelevant to the actions of Christians around the world as is the meaning of 'Islam' is to the actions of Muslims."

I think this is one of the best analyses I've ever read. Muslims are fond of castigating Christians for the Inquisition and the Crusades, conveniently forgetting that the Inquisition is long gone and the last Crusade ended nearly 800 years ago. They are less willing to acknowledge that Muslims are murdering dozens, if not hundreds of people every day now in the name of their alleged religion of peace.

Take a few minutes and read The Language Guy's fascinating analysis. It will help you separate the wheat of truth from the chaff of linguistic obfuscation.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, July 19, 2007

Strange Maps

I've found a new and amazing blog that I wanted to share with you: Strange Maps (visit it at http://strangemaps.wordpress.com/, or click the new link in my link list at the left) . If, as I am, you are interested in history and in the world around us, it offers a fascinating look at the world in many different and unusual ways. One map of the United States renames each state for a nation with a similar Gross Domestic Product; another renames each state for a nation with a similar life expectancy. Yet other maps are fanciful or historic, and all are very interesting.

Of course, if the radical Islamists have their way, we will need only one map: the entire world, colored green, and labeled as the New Caliphate...but one hopes we'll never reach that unfortunate situation.

Although geographic literacy among Americans at large is pretty dismal, and a site like Strange Maps won't appeal to everyone, I think those of you who are regular readers of my blog will find it fascinating. Check it out.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Joy...and Danger...of Reading

As my regular readers know, I love to read. At any given time, I'm reading at least two different books: one during the morning and evening commute, and one for the dining table, nightstand, and bathroom (well, I'm just sitting there...might as well read). This love of reading and learning was a major gift from my mother, and I've tried to pass it on to my children and grandchildren.

Have you ever read aloud to a child, or just for your own pleasure? Some books have wonderful passages made for reading aloud (read the description of the Rohirrim's charge across the Pellenor fields in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Return of the King, and compare your mental picture to the same scene in the movie), and there are many wonderful poems that beg to be read aloud (Ernest Thayer's Casey at the Bat and Robert W. Service's The Cremation of Sam McGee are classic examples). Reading, aloud or to yourself, is one of the great pleasures of life.

With this in mind, I was depressed by an article in this past Sunday's Washington Post titled "Harry Potter and the Death of Reading" (read it at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/ 2007/07/13/AR2007071301730.html), which lamented the modern American tendency to read nothing but major bestsellers, if that, at the expense of history, literature, or other important books. In the interest of full disclosure, yes, I will be in the heaving throng at my local bookstore this coming Saturday to get my copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but I also spend a lot of time reading other things...a quick look at my "favorite books" section of my blog profile will give you an idea how wide my interests are.

I think it's depressing that many children (and most adults) know every detail of popular TV shows, but don't read. If I were to give you one piece of advice, it would be this: read everything you can get your hands on, and use the knowledge you gain to inform your opinions. As I've said before, don't ever let anyone do your thinking for you.

On a related topic, the online version of the German news magazine Der Spiegel ran an article yesterday titled "Should Germany Republish "Mein Kampf"? The first question, given the theme of this post, is: do you know what "Mein Kampf" is? If not, you need to know that this was the book written by Adolf Hitler that outlined his sick and twisted political and racial philosophies, and previewed the horror of World War II, concentration camps, and genocide. The title translates as "My Struggle." The German State of Bavaria owns the rights to the book, and has not permitted it to be published in Germany (for fairly obvious reasons); however, the copyright expires in 2015, and many Germans are wringing their intellectual hands over whether or not it should be available in their country once it is in the public domain.

I say, go ahead and publish it. I tried to read it in English translation many years ago, and found it so dense and poorly written, full of anti-Semitic drivel and convoluted, cockamamie political rants that I never made it all the way through. What I was able to read in German was even worse. So, go ahead and publish it...let people see for themselves how screwed up Adolf Hitler was, and how much misery his debased ideas brought to the world. It's available around the world and online, anyhow.

By the way, it should come as no surprise that "Mein Kampf" is a bestseller in much of the Muslim world, where the translated title is Jihad.

Combined with the utter lack of independent thinking and inquiry in Muslim lands, that's pretty scary.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Peace Be Upon...Oh, Never Mind

Given the choice, I would always rather write about pleasant topics, like yesterday's discussion of feminine beauty. Unfortunately, the world just doesn't always allow that luxury. Consider three related articles in the recent news...

An article in last Sunday's Washington Post described local Muslim teenagers who are offended when described as "moderate" Muslims, because they think the use of that term implies that most Muslims are fanatical terrorists.

An article in the July 23rd issue of Newsweek magazine, titled "Last Rites in the Holy Land," describes the flight of Christians from the lands of the Bible, driven out by Muslims who threaten them with death unless they leave, convert to Islam, or pay the infamous jeziya, the tax (the Sopranos would call it protection money) imposed by Muslims on non-Muslims for limited permission to worship as their faiths dictate.

And finally, a July 16th report on the MEMRI website (check the link in my link list) notes that on the Hamas TV children's show Pioneers of Tomorrow, the character of Farfour the Mouse - who was beaten to death by a Jewish character some weeks ago - has been replaced by the character of Nahoul the Bee, who continues to encourage children to revenge and murder.

You don't need to be the proverbial rocket scientist to see the problem here. Young Muslims in America - a land that gives them freedoms and opportunities they would never have in majority Muslim lands (especially if they are women) - complain that they are judged on the basis of the murderous actions of their coreligionists. Muslims in what was once known as the Holy Land display their religious bigotry by killing or driving out Christians and Jews...when they're not busy killing each other for the crime of being either Sunni or Shi'a...while proclaiming that theirs is a religion of peace. And Hamas, a murderous gang of black-hearted thugs if ever there was one, uses television programming for children to sow the seeds of hatred in those too young to realize their manipulation.

If there are, in fact, "moderate" Muslims, where are their voices? Where is the condemnation of the violence, the bigotry, the ghastly twisting of children into machines of hate? Where is the voice of the Council on American-Islamic Relations speaking out in condemnation of all this? That was a rhetorical question, of course - CAIR is far too busy whining about how Muslims in America are misunderstood and discriminated against to worry about how Muslims are murdering Christians and Jews around the world.

As I've written here before, I'm not a traditionally religious person. I think that a God capable of creating the vast majesty of the universe has better things to worry about than whether or not I shave, or women cover themselves from head to foot, or we say the Mass in Latin or Swahili. If God is watching from wherever He lives, I believe one thing is certain:

She's shaking her head in disgust at the atrocities done in her name.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, July 16, 2007

The Eye of the Beholder

Okay, it's time for all my female readers to roll their eyes at me as I take on a topic I have discussed in this space before - feminine beauty.

I thought about this yesterday, while running some errands at a local shopping mall. I usually enter this particular mall through Bloomingdale's and pass through the cosmetics department on my way to the mall proper. There are some very beautiful ladies who work in this department...until you get close and discover that they look, well, too perfect.

Their skin is absolutely smooth and featureless, cheeks shaded and rouged, eyebrows carefully shaped, lips glossy and perfectly outlined, and eyes defined by layers of colors and highlighted by heavily-mascara'ed lashes. To me, they don't look real...they look like mannequins on display. I'd be afraid to kiss one of these ladies for fear of ruining her carefully-crafted makeup, or hug her and risk ending up with smears of makeup and lipstick over my face and clothes.

Now, I understand that every woman wants to look her best. But does that mean covering her face with layers of makeup that hide all the things that give a face character? The answer is, evidently, yes. Clearly, if a woman has serious skin problems or blemishes, she'll want to do something to minimize them...but the artificial, perfectly-crafted look doesn't emphasize her individuality and personal beauty. Well-applied makeup should enhance a woman's features, rather than cover them up.

I feel the same way about the tendency for many ladies to wax or shave away every vestige of body hair. I've always thought that hairy arms on a woman are very sexy, but the prevailing fashion seems to be that hair on the arms needs to go the way of hair on the legs or underarms...ruthlessly plucked, shaved, waxed, or lasered away. And I think that's too bad, because it removes yet another aspect of individual beauty.

I guess I'm just old-fashioned and out of step with current trends. But I would always rather see a lady who looks real, who dresses well and makes the most of her features, rather than hiding or changing them until you wouldn't recognize the original person under the makeup.

It is, of course, your body and you can decorate it as you wish. But don't feel like you have to do it just for me. And for pete's sake, stay away from the tattoos!

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, July 15, 2007

Any Time We Want

Iraqi president Nouri al-Maliki, the man with the most thankless and difficult job in the world, was quoted yesterday as saying that his army and police were ready to step up and do the job, and that American troops can leave "any time they want."

While Mr Maliki was almost certainly speaking for domestic consumption and can't possibly be stupid enough to think that an Iraqi army and police force riddled with sectarian stresses can provide security, he has - however unwittingly - provided ammunition to those who advocate an immediate pullout of U.S. forces from that unhappy country.

Is this wise? I wish I knew. My gut tells me that if we leave, the knives will come out without any of the restraining influences of the U.S. forces and the bloodbath will dwarf anything we've seen yet. On the other hand, if we stay the violence will just percolate along at its current level of agony, slowly bleeding two nations dry.

On balance, I have to say that I think we should begin a speedy, but not precipitous pullout from Iraq. We've given them what Fouad Ajami has called "the foreigners' gift" - eliminated a dictator and provided time and space to build a new and better Iraq. The Iraqis, though, have used the gift not to provide for a better future, but to settle scores and pursue agendas. We don't need to keep providing them with excuses and targets for their hatred.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell is credited with using the Pottery Barn analogy before the war - if you break it, you own it. Well, we've well and truly broken it...but we've also bought it with the blood and treasure expended over the last four years on a population unable or unwilling to use the gift we've provided. And once you've bought something, it's yours to do with pretty much as you want.

Mr al-Maliki says we can leave any time we want. I think it's time to call his bluff and see what happens. It will probably be worse...but then, it just might get better.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Last and Final Word

We often make jokes about oxymorons - noun and adjective combinations that are funny because they are self-contradictory. The classic examples are "jumbo shrimp," "enormously small," and the ever-popular "military intelligence." But there's another set of words that isn't exactly an oxymoron, but always sets my teeth on edge because it just doesn't make sense. That combination is "last and final."

I got to thinking about this on my recent business trip when I noticed that the gate agents at the airport always seemed to announce that, "This is the last and final call for flight number 666 to Gopher Crotch, Arkansas (or wherever)." Why do they need to say it's the "last and final" call...isn't the final call by definition the last one, or the last one clearly the final one? Is this call more final than other final calls because it's the last one? Why don't they say that "This is the first and initial call for flight blah, blah, blah" when they make the first announcement? Eh?

This isn't just limited to the airlines. I noticed this linguistic phenomenon while riding the Metro here in Virginia: as the train pulls into my station, which is the last one on the line, the train operator always announces that it is "the last and final station." Does that mean that the previous station was the next-to-last and final station on the line? Or the last and nearly final stop?

We sometimes use repetition as a means of reinforcing an idea. The classic speechmaking technique is to "tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them," and in its way that's a good method of being sure you beat your audience over the head to make them absorb your message. But how much repetition do you need to ensure people understand that something is the last one? Or the final one?

No deep message for you today. Just an observation on an expression that affects me like nails dragging across the linguistic chalkboard.

And that's my last and final word on the subject.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, July 13, 2007

Home Again

Did you miss me?

I spent the last four days on a business trip that took me to Ohio as the seeing-eye contractor supporting my customer's visit to some offices out there. Happily, it also provided me the opportunity to visit with my son and his family, who lived in the same town. During the day it was death by PowerPoint briefing...during the evenings it was grandchildren overload. I think that by the end of the coming weekend, the ringing in my ears will stop and the pain will go away (grandson Joe, age 4, greeted me every evening with a scream of GRANDPAAAAAAA!!!!!, and hit me like a runaway truck to hug my legs...the problem being that his hard little head is just at the right height to slam into my unprotected crotch).

Grandchildren are absolutely wonderful. I understand the old comment that says something like, "If I'd known grandchildren were so much fun, I'd have had them first!" Marcy, the happy chatterbox, Joe the perpetual motion machine, and Noah the cheerful little crawler made the evenings a joy. I'm still exhausted, but it was worth it!

Here are a few observations on business travel (actually, travel in general):

Don't wear shirt garters when flying. Before going through security, I carefully took everything out of my pockets, removed my shoes, took off my tie clasp and glasses...and still got pulled out for a full-body patdown and wanding because the metal detectors alerted on my shirt garters. AARRGGHH!

Bilbo's First Law of Airline Travel: If you change your flight with a later departure to a flight with an earlier one, the new flight will be delayed so that you arrive at the same time you would have had you taken the original flight. I was traveling with my boss, who changed his later flight to get onto my earlier one...which ended up with a delay that got us both home late. AARRGGHH!

Bilbo's Second Law of Airline Travel: On every flight some moron will try to cram an upright piano into the overhead bin. Or someone will interpret "One carry-on bag and one personal item," as meaning they can bring on board a rollaboard suitcase, a briefcase, a purse, and a large shopping bag, none of which can possibly fit in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of them without taking up your space, too. Sigh.

Okay, I'm done bragging about grandchildren and complaining about dumb travelers. This is a short post, but I've got to get back into the swing of things again now that I'm home. It's good to be back...at least, until I get to the office!

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, July 09, 2007

Things that Make You go AARRGGHH!! - Switching from PC to Mac

I purchased my first desktop computer - a Cordata AT with a towering 20 MB hard drive - around 1988, and have been a PC-person (that's "personal computer," not "politically correct") ever since. I've been through DOS, Windows 3.1, 95, 98, 2000, ME, and XP, gnashing my teeth at each new operating system's quirks and idiosyncracies. And now, just when XP and I have finally made peace and the number of mysterious crashes and blue screens of death has gone down to a tolerable level, XP is giving way to a new monster called Vista.

It's time for a change.

As I began experiencing more and more problems with my current PC, I finally yielded to the pressures of my friends and colleagues and stuck my toe into the Mac water by purchasing a spiffy new iMac. Phil, the nice young man at the Apple Store, answered all my questions and gently twisted my mental arm until I decided to take the plunge. And so, here I sit at my desk, with the PC on the right and the iMac on the left.

So far, I like the iMac, but it's really taking some getting used to. It appears to be much easier to operate, and the design is aesthetically pleasing, but I'm distressed that I now own gazillions of dollars worth of Windows-based software that I can now use for coasters and frisbees. I had my frustrations with Internet Explorer, but Safari is a perfectly yucky web browser (I'm trying Firefox). My beloved right-clicks to bring up menus don't work...well, okay, they work, but only if I push the "control" key as I click. I can't figure out where things are (where's my trusy "My Documents" folder??). I can't transfer all my music from my iPod to the iMac because the iPod is formated for Windows (but I'm told the Apple Store folks can move it all for me). In short, my current opinion is AARRGGHH!!

How's all this going to work out? Don't know yet. I'll let you know. For now, though, indications are cautiously positive. Which is a good thing, because I have just invested a lot of money in the new iMac, and Agnes will shoot me if I change my mind now.

Ah, life in the wired world!

Regular readers, don't despair - I will be traveling on business until Thursday, and probably won't be able to post to this blog again until - GASP!! - Friday the 13th. Don't give up on me...I'll be back.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming on Friday!


Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Language of Worship

This weekend, Catholics around the world are either celebrating or mourning the decision by Pope Benedict XVI to allow celebration of the Tridentine (or "Latin") Mass that was changed by the second Vatican Council under Pope John XXIII. Pope Benedict's reasons for allowing celebration of the Latin Mass are grounded in his desire to mend fences with ultratraditionalist Catholics who have always opposed the more "modern," vernacular Mass that came out of Vatican II, but nevertheless there are still those on both sides of the argument who have strong feelings about the language and structure of the Mass.

In its way, this illustrates the problem I have had for many years with all organized religions.

Let it be said up front that I believe in God. I'm not sure quite what that means, but I know it doesn't mean that I consider myself a Catholic, a Jew, a Muslim, or a Zoroastrianist, or anything else. I have doubted for many years that a God capable of creating the universe would be particularly worried about whether people chose to worship Him (Her?) in Latin, English, Arabic, or any other language, or about what form they chose to execute that worship. In my humble opinion (which grows ever more humble with the passing years), it's less important to worship God according to a specific book, ritual, or language than it is to acknowledge that He (She?) exists at all.

History shows that organized religion has been responsible for both good works and monstrous cruelty over the centuries. One needs only look at the chaos in the Middle East to see the hideous violence that an inflexible and supremely arrogant religion can generate in the name of a "merciful" God. While the Catholic Church was beyond doubt responsible for the Inquisition, one must remember that the horrors of the Inquisition ended and were repudiated long ago...while ghastly violence is perpetrated every day in the name of God as worshiped under Islam.

I personally like the Tridentine Mass. When I was in grade school, I served for several years as an altar boy (they're called "servers" today, and women are allowed, unlike during my childhood), and I loved the majestic and glorious Latin Mass. It just seemed more formal and ritualistic - and closer to God - than the current vernacular Mass (although I do have a fondness for the Folk Masses we used to celebrate when I was in college).

The message for this miserably hot Sunday: the label doesn't matter. Love your neighbor according to the Golden Rule, and God will be happy and the world will be a better place, Latin Mass or no.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, July 07, 2007

Facts and Opinions

I recently ran across a clever quote attributed to a lady named Bethania McKenstry: "I'm not sure I want popular opinion on my side. I've noticed those with the most opinions often have the fewest facts."

As you, regular reader, might suspect, that's a quote that resonates with me.

Particularly nowadays, when so many seemingly intractable problems face us, it's more important than ever to be well-informed so that we form our opinions on critical issues on the basis of the best information available. Unfortunately, for many people "facts" are malleable things which can be adjusted to suit the requirements of political correctness, party orthodoxy, or rigid religious belief. Popular opinion tends to be warped by these insidious opponents of clear and unbiased thinking.

As I admit in my profile for this blog, I have an opinion on just about everything. And I certainly don't claim to be immune to the stresses placed on facts when forming those opinions. But I like to think that I think things through a little better than many others, and thus form somewhat more clear-headed opinions...even though these may be at odds with prevailing popular opinion.

The message: don't view facts as inconvenient things to be twisted or ignored when they don't fit your previously-conceived notions. Rather, view them as springboards to vigorous and independent thought that leads you to make the best-informed decisions you can on the issues that face us today.

I have three and 8/9 grandchildren whose futures depend on your ability to make intelligent and clear-headed choices about serious issues. Don't let them down.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, July 06, 2007

Politics and the Price of Machetes

On July 2nd Reuters, citing a report from the News Agency of Nigeria, stated that the cost of machetes has dropped by half in parts of Nigeria since the end of general elections in April. The reason, according to the story (which you can read at http://www.reuters.com/article/oddlyEnoughNews/idUSL0246874220070702), is that the demand for machetes by political thugs has subsided now that the election season is over. European election monitors estimated, the story reported, that at least 200 people were killed in political violence in the run-up to the elections held in April of this year.

Let's think about that for a minute.

As we gear up for the 2008 presidential elections in the United States, it's useful to remember that the biggest threats we face in our political system are hot-air scalding, death by boredom, and traffic accidents on the way to the polls. We may not have a perfect system, and our political parties may be inane and tone-deaf to the issues that matter to real people, but we don't have to worry about being hacked to death by Republican or Democratic thugs as we exercise our right to vote. When you think about it this way, our endless hand-wringing over the security of electronic voting machines and penchant for litigation when the election results don't go our way don't seem so important.

Of course, if you're a seller of machetes in Nigeria, this is not a good situation. A trader quoted in the Reuters report said, "Before the conduct of the general elections, I was selling a minimum of seven machetes daily but can hardly sell one a day now."

I for one am glad that people in this country are more likely to buy ear plugs than machetes during election season.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, July 05, 2007

Pity for Madmen

Dr Samuel Johnson (1707-1784) is one of the most quoted men in history. Like me, he was interested in a wide range of things, and had opinions on almost all of them. This morning, my "Daily Curmudgeon" e-mail contained a Johnson quote I'd not heard before, that bears repeating:

"If a madman were to come into this room with a stick in his hand, no doubt we should pity the state of his mind; but our primary consideration would be to take care of ourselves. We should knock him down first, and pity him afterwards."

It seems to me that this quote is very appropriate for our times.

Liberals would see the madman in the room and steadfastly defend his right to beat us up with the stick, wiewing any infringement of his right to do so as an unconscionable limit on his freedom of social and political expression.

Conservatives would angrily reject any limits on the madman's right to own a stick, regardless of whether or not they ran the risk of his use of the stick to beat them.

If the madman were a Muslim, the Islamic community would blame the madman's actions on Israel and the United States, claiming that he was driven to his actions by all the grievances he'd amassed over the terrible things everyone else had done.

You can snicker at these generalizations, but I think you'll find that they are pretty close to current reality. I don't like generic political labels, but in this case, I believe they serve to illustrate my point. In the case of the madman in the room, "liberals" would worry about the madman's rights and their perceived guilt for his situation; "conservatives" would worry about the implications of limitations on the madman's right to possess his weapon; and Muslims would angrily blame everyone but themselves for the madman's mental state.

More than 200 years ago, Dr Samuel Johnson recognized that the most important thing was to protect oneself from the madman, and that there would be plenty of time later to pity his condition. Today, sadly, it seems we're more inclined to worry about our responsibility for the madman's condition than about our own safety.

Does anyone but me see something wrong with this picture?

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, July 04, 2007

July 4th, 2007

To all my American readers, happy Fourth of July! To all my international readers, good morning!

The Fourth of July is the quintessentially American holiday, the day we celebrate the initial publication of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. As dates for such a celebration go, it's a little arbitrary, because there were lots of events surrounding our independence from Great Britain that might have been selected, but if you've got to pick a single date, July 4th is a good one. It's in the middle of summer, the weather is usually good, and it's a great chance for a break from routine during that long stretch between Memorial Day at the end of May and Labor Day at the beginning of September - the traditional beginning and end of the summer season here in the U.S

But what does the Fourth of July mean, other than an excuse for picnics, massive fireworks shows, and patriotically-themed sales at every store?

For one thing, it offers a good opportunity to reflect on this country and on what it means to be an American.

Our image as a nation has taken somewhat of a beating in the world since the end of World War II. Most recently, we've lost much of our standing as the result of the ham-handed and inept actions of the current administration, although it's always been fashionable in other nations to blame the United States for every problem of the world as a convenient way of deflecting responsibility at home. But ask yourself: if we're so terrible, why do millions of people each year try - both legally and illegally - to come here? Why aren't Saudi Arabia, Burma, China, and Venezuela (to name a few) having bitterly divisive national arguments about controlling waves of illegal immigration to their countries?

Can it be because the United States - the Great Satan - offers them something no other nation on earth can? Is it because they can come here and speak their minds, enjoy economic and political opportunities limited only by their own willingness to work, worship God as they choose without fear of a brutal and repressive religious police, or live in a place where the rule of law protects them from fear of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment?

It's fashionable to blame the United States for everything bad. If it weren't for us, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela would be just another crackpot idiot everyone ignores, and the Islamists would have to find someone else to blame for their centuries of moral, ethical, and economic stagnation. But the tides of people voting with their feet ought to tell you something - no matter what our failings as a nation, we're still the destination of choice for people wanting a better life.

On this Fourth of July, many things are wrong in America. We're mired in an unnecessary and costly war that has squandered much of the good will we enjoyed after the brutal attacks of 9/11. An administration tone-deaf to common sense and slavishly devoted to conservative ideologies of questionable merit chips steadily away at our rights in the name of "national security." Hordes of immigrants unwilling to obey the law, aided by those driven by economic interests or misguided ideas of social responsibility, flood our borders and change the very nature of our society. But in spite of all that, it's worth remembering that almost any other country in the world would probably have collapsed under pressures like these - but America is still here, still strong, and still the last, best hope for those around the world whose hope is dim.

Happy Fourth of July. Think about what it means to be an American, and what your duties and repsonsibilities as a citizen of this great nation are. Vote. Get involved. Obey the law. Do your part to keep the United States of America, with all its faults, the greatest nation on earth.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Medical Care Crisis

Yesterday marked the premiere of Michael Moore's new film "Sicko," which presented his look at the crisis in health care in America. I haven't seen the film, nor do I intend to, but I appreciate the continued attention it is bringing to one of the most important issues in America today.

Few would deny there's a terrible crisis in health care. As a society, we spend more on health care than almost any other country, but the level and quality of care we receive in exchange is uneven at best, and very poor at worst. From the politically conservative viewpoint, there's not necessarily anything wrong with this: the marketplace governs the cost of health care like it governs the cost of everything else, and the law of supply and demand dictates that better care will be available to those willing and able to pay more. Liberals, on the other hand, decry a system that reduces an individual's health to a question of dollars and cents, profit and loss.

Who's right?

I wrote about this issue last year, following a lengthy discussion with my sister-in-law Brenda, who is a Physician's Assistant and who offered the medical professional's side of the debate (which doesn't often come through in the overall noise level). It's time to revisit the health care issue...as with immigration reform, I have my own thoughts on what's right and wrong with health care.

The preamble to the United States Constitution (battered and ignored by the current administration though it is) states that the government is formed to "establish justice, ensure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." The word "welfare" has some unfortunate connotations, but it's important in the sense the founders used it: the government has a responsibility (and, indeed, an enlightened self-interest) to look out for the general welfare of its citizens. With that in mind, I offer a few initial thoughts on health care reform.

The cost of health care is out of sight. The reasons are many, but here are three thoughts on reducing them:

- Reduce the cost of a medical education. The average doctor graduates from medical school as much as a quarter of a million dollars in debt. He or she needs to repay all those loans, and so - quite naturally - passes the costs on to the patient. The cost of medical school for qualified students should be centrally funded by the government. Yes, you'll argue, someone still has to pay the cost of that education, but I maintain that the money is there and much of it can easily be made available by controlling useless and stupid pork-barrel projects.

- Get rid of insurance companies and their pass-through costs and profit orientation by centrally funding health care through a national tax. This would allow doctors to concentrate more on caring for patients and less on the burden of complying with the administrative requirements of many different insurance plans.

- If the previous suggestion is too much to take, make all medical expenses (for doctor's visits, hospital care, ambulance service, and prescription drugs) tax deductable. Yes, I know I've complained often in this blog about the bastardization of our tax system, but I think this is a legitimate move - after all, a sick or dead taxpayer doesn't pay much in taxes.

Okay, that's my initial foray into the debate. I think all these suggestions are workable and affordable, and are a perfectly legitimate role for the government to take on.

What do you think? If you've got a better plan, let's hear it.

Have a good day. Stay healthy. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, July 02, 2007

If I Had a Billion...

In the 1932 movie "If I Had a Million," a dying bank president gives a million dollars to each of eight people he picks from the phone book, and the film then follows each of the eight and how they spend the money. My favorite was the character played by the great, curmudgeonly W. C. Fields. Fields' character was always enraged by the behavior of other drivers, and so he bought a fleet of old cars, hired a crew of drivers to operate them, then took several along in convoy with him whenever he went out on the road. Whenever another driver did something that irritated him, he would point out that person, and one of his drivers would pull out of line and ram the offending car.

I've often wished I could do that.

I thought about this movie as I read a little bottom-of-the-page article in the Parade Magazine that came with yesterday's newspaper. Titled "Better Ways to Spend $1 Billion," the article reported that the current group of presidential candidates (19 at the moment) will spend at least $1 billion in their election campaigns.

Yes, that's billion, with a b.

The article goes on to ask how we might better spend that one billion dollars, and offers this list of what that amount of money would buy:
- Treatment and prevention for more than 150 million cases of Malaria in Africa;
- Basic health insurance for 250,000 Americans;
- Over 415 million school lunches for needy children in the U.S.;
- About 6,700 new, fully-armored Humvees for U.S. troops in Iraq; or
- Hurricane relief for the Gulf Coast (foreign nations offered nearly $1 billion in aid in the wake of hurricane Katrina).

Now, I don't know who came up with these figures, or how accurate they are. But they underscore a distressing point: that our democratic system of government is, quite literally, up for sale. Candidates for office spend vast amounts of time raising vast amounts of money from donors large and small...many of whom will expect some future favor or consideration in exchange for their generosity. Effective campaign finance reform is little more than wishful thinking, because the very people who would have to vote on it are the ones who have the greatest interest in maintaining the status quo.

In my humble and generally-ignored opinion, the only really effective campaign finance reform will involve these elements:
- Public financing of campaigns to a firm upper limit; and,
- A ban on private donations to political candidates.

Unfortunately, this will never happen. Any attempt to limit private political contributions will be shot down as an infringement of the right to free political speech and expression (particularly by the current ultra-conservative Supreme Court), and in any case, there is just too much money out there to be ignored.

All you can do is make yourself a well-informed citizen. That billion dollars is buying a lot of air time and print inches, most of which is policed little if at all for honesty and accuracy. That's why my recommended link list at the left includes a link to FactCheck.org, a completely bipartisan watchdog which helps you evaluate the truth of political advertising. I encourage you to read it frequently as we approach the 2008 campaign season, because you owe it to yourself to be as well-informed as possible.

Because we have the best government money can buy. And if you don't have enough money to buy your own judge or congressman, you can at least arm yourself with information.

And dream about all the good things we could do with a billion dollars.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, July 01, 2007

Sex (Got Your Attention, Didn't I?)

I very much enjoy reading the blog "It Is a Numeric Life," which always has some fascinating statistic or another to get you thinking about the world around us. The latest post, titled "Few comply with abstinence and monogamy," offers some interesting numbers concerning the overall rate of virginity on the 21st birthday (a measly 4%), and how many sexual partners we have: a woman's median number of sex partners is said to be 3.7, while a man's equivalent number is 6.8.

I guess this means there's some woman from my past out there thinking fondly of me as the 0.7 guy of her median number.

But, all kidding aside, these are some very thought-provoking numbers. Consider that the average man has (or claims to have) twice as many sex partners as the average woman. In a way, this makes sense: in any sexual encounter, the woman runs the greater risk of unintended consequences (i.e., pregnancy), and so one would think she is more likely to be selective of her partners, and to have fewer of them. A man, on the other hand, without the need to cope with the results of an unintended pregnancy, can afford to be more indiscriminate in his selection of partners.

This discussion also hearkens back to the subject of my April 16th post of this year ("Nice Guys"), which was in turn inspired by another "Numeric Life" post on the subject of how and why women choose nice guys ("dads") or bums ("cads") as sex partners - "dads" being those partners chosen for their perceived reliability as long-term partners in raising and caring for a family, and "cads" being those who may be less reliable for the long term, but are "more fun in bed."

The whole topic of sex is a fascinating one, and since it's sex that drives so much of our culture, from advertising to art to relationships, it's worth discussing and thinking seriously about. Doing is actually more fun, but at age 56, I guess I'll just settle for the discussing and thinking seriously part. And as actor and comedian Woody Allen once said, "Sex without love is an empty experience, but as empty experiences go, it's one of the best."

And when you're not thinking about sex, visit "It Is a Numeric Life" by clicking on the link in my recommended links list, and prepare to be presented with something thought-provoking each day.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.