Friday, November 30, 2007

Then and Now

A few months back, in a post I called "The Bubble-Wrapped Child," I lamented the great extents to which parents nowadays go to protect their children from real and imagined dangers that parents and children of my generation (and earlier) took for granted as a normal part of the process of growing up.

Related to this is the unfortunate (downright moronic, if you ask me) tendency of many Americans today to go to insanely stupid lengths in reaction to things we once accepted as normal. In many instances, we've become a nation of whiny crybabies, resorting to lawsuits out of greed, sheer laziness, or a lack of willingness to talk problems out with our neighbors. Many people have commented on this trend, which seems to benefit only the lawyers and others who specialize in capitalizing on the stupidity of people who have lost the capacity to think for themselves and suffer from a common sense deficit.

Through the magic of e-mail, one of my co-workers sent me yesterday a marvelous piece which I reproduce here with only minor edits. As another of my friends once said, it's a bit like a clown on fire - kind of funny, but kind of sad at the same time. In 1967, I was a sophomore in high school; today I'm a crusty father and grandfather who really appreciates the differences between then and now, as expressed in these eight scenarios:

1967 vs. 2007

Scenario #1: John goes quail hunting before school, pulls into school parking lot with shotgun in gun rack.

1967 - Vice principal comes over to look at John's shotgun. He goes to his car and gets his shotgun to show John.

2007 - School goes into lockdown, and FBI is called. John is hauled off to jail and never sees his truck or gun again. Counselors called in for traumatized students and teachers.

Scenario #2: John and Bob get into a fistfight after school.

1967 - Crowd gathers. Bob wins. John and Bob shake hands and end up best friends.

2007 - Police called. SWAT team arrives. John and Bob are arrested and charged with assault. Both are expelled even though John started it.

Scenario #3: Bill won't be still in class, disrupts other students.

1967 - Bill sent to office and given a good paddling by the principal. He returns to class, sits still, and does not disrupt class again.

2007 - Bill is diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and given huge doses of Ritalin. Becomes a zombie. School gets extra money from the State because Bill has a learning disability.

Scenario #4: Scott breaks a window in his neighbor's car and his dad gives him a whipping with his belt.

1967 - Scott is more careful next time, grows up normal, goes to college, and becomes a successful businessman.

2007 - Scott's dad is arrested for child abuse. Scott is placed in foster care and joins a gang. State psychologist convinces Scott's sister that she remembers being abused herself, and their dad goes to prison. Scott's mom has affair with psychologist.

Scenario #5: Mike has a headache and brings some aspirin to school.

1967 - Mike takes aspirin in lunchroom and headache goes away.

2007 - Police called. Mike is expelled from school for drug violations. Car is searched for drugs and weapons.

Scenario #6: Ken fails English in high school.

1967 - Ken goes to summer school, passes English, goes to college.

2007 - Ken's cause is taken up by a wide range of activists. Newspaper articles appear nationally charging that teaching English as a requirement for graduation is racist. ACLU files a class action lawsuit against the state school system and Ken's English teacher. Teacher is fired and English is removed from core curriculum. Ken is given a diploma anyway but ends up mowing lawns for a living because he can’t speak, read, and write English.

Scenario #7: Jeff takes apart leftover firecrackers from 4th of July, puts them in a model airplane paint bottle, and blows up an ant hill.

1967 - Ants die.

2007 - Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Homeland Security, and FBI called. Jeff is charged with domestic terrorism. The FBI investigates parents; siblings are removed from home; computers are confiscated. Jeff's dad goes on Terror Watch List and is never allowed to fly again. EPA files a lawsuit charging Jeff’s family with killing endangered ants.

Scenario #8: Andy falls while running during recess and scrapes his knee. He is found crying by his teacher who hugs him to comfort him.

1967 - Andy soon feels better and goes on playing.

2007 - Teacher is accused of being a sexual predator, loses her job, and faces three years in state prison. Andy undergoes five years of therapy at school expense.

If you both laughed and cried at these eight scenarios, you understand the Clown on Fire nature of this sad situation. Growing up in the 1950's and 60's, I experienced situations similar, if not identical to all of the above. I attended a Catholic grade school, had plenty of spankings and knuckle-raps from the Nuns, and was never once molested by a priest (all of our priests were real men of God we still admired and respected). I did lots of stupid and dangerous things, and somehow managed to reach successful adulthood without drugs, lawsuits or anything other than the love and support of great parents, the attention of good teachers (nuns and lay people), and the spiritual guidance of a series of fine pastors.

You have to wonder why we can't do the same today.

Have a good day. Practice and encourage common sense. You'll probably find you like it.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, November 29, 2007

Thoughts on Teddy Bears and Religious Beliefs

Yesterday was one of those intellectual "perfect storms" that drop a wonderful blogging topic into my lap in more depth than I could ever muster on my own. Let me share these cascading thoughts with you.

The first item was the news report from Sudan (of all garden spots) about a British teacher arrested and facing a potential sentence of prison, a fine, or 40 lashes for "blasphemy" and "insulting religion." Her crime was allowing her students, as part of a lesson on animals and their habitats, to name a teddy bear "Mohammed." Another report indicated that it was one of the students, not the teacher, who suggested the name, but the teacher is being charged nevertheless.

The second item was a blog post on this topic from The Reality-Based Community titled "On the Apparent Fragility of Moslem Faith," in which the author noted that millions of Muslims are named Mohammed, and notes that "Naming an infant Muhammad runs a finite and non-trivial risk of thus naming a criminal or otherwise really bad person, as some kids are always sure to turn out. Aren't these bad apples a lot more dangerous to the reputation of the original than a stuffed bear, especially a stuffed bear a bunch of seven-year-olds were trying to honor?"

The third item was a wonderful post from John Hill at his blog Out of My Hat, titled "Have It Your Way." This post doesn't address the terrible injustice being perpetrated in the Sudan, but it does discuss - in John's clear and compelling fashion - the tendency of people to want to have their religion "their way," to believe that they know and understand the mind of God and are thus justified in taking actions, however terrible, in His name. John writes that, "Unfortunately, there is much done in the name of God, or in the cause of religion that is wrong. We can do what we want, say it is God's will and convince others and ourselves that everything is okay."

Charles Kimball, Professor of Religion at Wake Forest University and a distinguished scholar of comparative religion with specialization in Islamic studies, published a book a few years ago titled When Religion Becomes Evil, in which he postulated five signs that religious belief has been corrupted and turned to evil:

1. Claims of absolute truth;
2. Insistence on blind obedience;
3. Establishing the "Ideal" time;
4. The end justifies any means; and
5. Declaring holy war.

Dr Kimball notes that belief in God and adherence to a particular religion per se are not the issue: the twisting of that belief and adherence to violent and ungodly ends is. We can see this in the warped and deadly versions of Islam which will condemn a teacher for naming a teddy bear, sentence a young woman to jail and flogging for the "crime" of being raped, or churn out hundreds of suicide bombers convinced they are doing God's will.

Take a few minutes and visit Out of My Hat, and read John's post to which I linked above. Then think about how much better the world would be if we could all take this simple and clear-eyed view.

It's a good dream.

Have a good day. Act out the Golden Rule. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Helio Castroneves Wins "Dancing with the Stars"

Alas, Season 5 of Dancing with the Stars is over. In a great season finale, Indianapolis 500 racing champion Helio Castroneves edged out "Scary Spice" Melanie Brown for the cheesy mirror ball trophy.

Okay, I know you don't really care about this (particularly if you don't live in the USA or aren't a dancer yourself), but bear with me for a minute. Since Agnes and I are ballroom dancers, we've been avid fans of this show for all five seasons, and followed this season especially closely because of the amazing level of dancing on the part of the "stars." As an amateur and coordinationally-challenged dancer, I really appreciate the level of effort that the participants are putting into their performances, and what it means to be able to reach the finals.

This is why I think it was appropriate for Helio Castroneves to win over Melanie Brown.

Melanie, although not a professional dancer, is an experienced entertainer and singer. Her individual dance performances were, in most cases, technically superior to Helio's, and she worked very hard to get to a well-deserved spot in the finals. Maksim Chmerkovskiy, her professional partner, enjoyed a good working relationship and chemistry with her that added sparkle to the routines he designed, which were often complex and demanding. They danced Mambo and Paso Doble routines that were literally jaw-dropping, and their dancing tended to be much more physical than their competitors.

Helio, on the other hand, is neither a dancer nor an entertainer. What he brought to the competition was a fierce competitive attitude and desire to win, along with a ten-thousand-watt smile and a cheerful personality that endeared him to home audiences and helped smooth over any technical imperfections in his dancing. His professional partner, Julianne Hough (who, incredibly, is only 19 years old!), did a fantastic job of coming up with choreography that was tremendously complex and demanding for a student with no prior dance training, but which was within Helio's capabilities. This is an important point, because (in my humble opinion) a problem on the show in the past has been that some of the professionals have tended toward choreography that showcased their own capabilities, rather than capitalizing on the strengths and capabilities of their students. The Quickstep routine they performed as their last dance was absolutely spectacular.

Both couples took risks with their choices of music, choreography, and style that paid off well for them.

All in all, the result was very satisfying. In a way, I wish both couples could have shared the trophy, because both couples earned it. I also wish that Sabrina Bryan could have made it to the finals - if she hadn't been unexpectedly (and undeservedly) eliminated earlier in the competition, it would have made for an unbearably exciting final.

But then, I wish I could dance with Edyta Sliwinska one time, but that's not likely to happen either.

No deep thoughts for today - just some observations on the end of a season of great dancing and entertainment on Dancing with the Stars. I can't wait for Season 6!

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Freedom of Speech...Maybe?

I have written in this space before about my tormented opinions on the subject of free speech. On the one hand, I absolutely agree with John Stuart Mill, who maintained that even offensive ideas should be freely aired so that they can be exposed and refuted. On the other hand, some free speech is so far divorced from good sense and good manners that I wish it were legal to wrap the offenders' heads in duct tape just to shut them up.

Freedom of speech doesn't equate to freedom of smart, I always say, and two recent articles brought this topic to mind again.

The first, by Alan Gomez in yesterday's issue of USA Today, looked at the court ruling against the members of the Westboro Baptist Church who demonstrate at military funerals with signs like "God hates fags" and "Thank God for dead soldiers." As examples of tasteless and offensive speech go, disrupting a funeral ranks pretty high on the list. But did the court, in trying to protect the families of dead soldiers, step on the free-speech rights of the church members? The answer, sadly, is yes.

The other article, by Bruce Thornton, compared Columbia University's decision to allow Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to speak on campus with the decision by the University of California at Davis to cancel an appearance by former Harvard president Lawrence Summers because of indignation over his 2005 comments about the relative underrepresentation of women in the sciences. He asks what honest purpose is served by providing a platform to a ludicrous buffoon like Ahmedinejad when a respected scholar like Summers is denied the right to speak simply because some parts of the university population find his ideas to be distasteful.

Now I'll grant you that comparing these two situations - the funeral demonstrations and the university speech invitations - is a little like comparing apples and oranges. The first deals with the heavy hand of the government coming down to directly prevent the free expression of an idea, however distasteful. The other deals with the prevention of free expression in an academic environment - which is where one might most expect free speech to be vigorously upheld. Both, however, demonstrate the level to which our ability and willingness to refute offensive beliefs has been undermined. It's easier to shout down someone with whom you disagree than it is to argue with him (or her) - you don't have to think, all you have to do is make noise loud enough to drown out what you don't like.

As Mr Thornton points out, "Now(adays) an idea's political correctness is the basis of evaluation, rather than its contribution to revealing truth and its fidelity to the university's standards for serious thought."

I personally think the Westboro Baptist Church demonstrators are offensive and disgusting morons without the least shred of common decency and respect for the grief of others. But for better or for worse, the framers of our Constitution granted them the right to express their opinions, however stupid they may be. It's up to other people like you and I to meet such people on the level field of ideas and expose them for the intellectually and morally bankrupt clowns they are. By the same token, you may disagree with Lawrence Summers' willingness to discuss the underrepresentation of women in science, mathematics, and engineering ... but women are underrepresented there nevertheless. Do we solve the problem by shouting down the one who exposes it, or by tackling the issue and deciding what to do?

Free speech isn't always pretty, but it's always necessary. Let the morons have their say, then expose them for what they are on the basis of rational argument, not mindless noise.

Otherwise, the next person to be shouted down might be you.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, November 26, 2007

Thanksgiving Weekend is Over, and Boy, Am I Tired!

He's back!

Yes, Thanksgiving at the Maison de Bilbo is over, the last of the family and friends have departed, and Agnes and I are getting used to a level of peace and quiet we've been unaccustomed to since last Wednesday ... but we wouldn't have traded it for the world.

This was the first time in many years that we've had almost the entire family together at one time. Only my youngest brother and his wife weren't able to make the trip, but we did get them on the telephone and everyone had a chance to talk with them.

I couldn't possibly sum up this week without pictures, so here we go:

First, the best picture of almost the entire group, taken after Thanksgiving dinner. Only two people were missing - our friend Nadja, who took the picture, and our sister-in-law Laura, who was temporarily missing. You may recognize me peeking from between my oldest son Jason and my Father.

The table arrangements. It took our dining room table, an additional six-foot folding table, and our four-foot-diameter deck table to accommodate the 15 adults. The other table, for the six children, is out of sight at the right of the far end.

And, of course, the food. No one ever goes away hungry from our Thanksgiving dinner. The bag of dog food visible at the left was offered to our nephew Eddie and granddaughter Marcy, who are notoriously picky eaters.

For dessert, our daughter Yasmin baked four pies: apple, cherry, pumpkin, and a glorious chocolate walnut pie that vanished without a trace very quickly. Here she demonstrates how to cut pies while keeping granddaughter Leya quiet and happy. Our son-in-law Vin supervises (having already overseen the baking and taste-testing).

On Friday and Saturday, we put up the Christmas tree and holiday decorations. We deputized the children to assemble the tree, put up the lights, and do the trimming ... amazingly enough, with all the frantic energy and children racing around at high speed, only two of our glass ornaments broke, and the tree didn't get knocked down once! Here's the finished tree and the decorating team - from left to right, granddaughter Marcy, niece Valerie and grandson Joe, nephew Daniel, and the foreman of the crew, our nephew Eddie:

We also celebrated Great-Grandpa Bilbo's birthday a month early, since we were all together. Our daughter-in-law Tabitha bakes a mean cake - here she is with the work in progress (and her eager helpers), followed by the end result with the Man of the Hour:

Granddaughter Leya practices junior dentistry on Grandma Agnes:

There had to be a photo with all the grandchildren - Noah, Marcy, Joe, and Leya with Grandpa Bilbo and Grandma Agnes:

A nice group photo shot by by good friend Bakr, who dropped by on Saturday to visit. Sadly, Yasmin, Vin and Leya weren't there to take advantage of Bakr's great wide-angle lens for those post-Thanksgiving-dinner group photos!:

And finally, I give thanks for the love and companionship of the greatest lady in the world:

You know that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and I'm glad to reflect on all that I have to be thankful for. Everyone had a good time, everyone made it home safely, and now we can get ready for Christmas!

I think I need a drink.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Countdown to Thanksgiving

It's 5:00 AM, the first batch of Chex Party Mix is in the oven, and my checkbook is screaming in agony. My younger son arrives from California in about 4-1/2 hours (USAirways willing), my brother and his family are en route from Florida and will arrive sometime this afternoon, my sister and her family and our Dad will arrive sometime around 8:00 this evening from Pittsburgh, and my older son and his family will roll in from Ohio around 10:00 PM. Final cleaning needs to be done, vegetables need to be chopped and prepared, bread cut and baked for stuffing, and the silverware polished.

We're in the final countdown to Thanksgiving.

This will be my last post until Sunday evening or Monday morning, but I need to take a minute to do two things:

The first is to wish all of my blogging friends, and those of you who just happen to stumble into Bilbo's place, a very happy and safe Thanksgiving. Take one day out of 365 to reflect on all the things you have to be thankful for, and to look forward to the Christmas and New Year's holidays and the blessings of a new year. I have much to be thankful for; if you think about it, so have you. One of my friends sent me an Estonian proverb yesterday that says a lot about the true Thanksgiving attitude: "Who does not thank for little will not thank for much." No matter how bad things look, there's always something - however little - to be thankful for. Use this day to reflect on it.

Secondly, yesterday I received not one, but two blogging awards from my friends out there in the blogosphere. It's nice to be recognized, but it's also important to pass such awards on to others who are deserving of recognition, too. Therefore, with appropriate drum rolls and trumpet fanfares, I pass on the following awards to the designated deserving individuals:

The "Blogging That Hits the Mark" award, given to me by Amanda, goes on to zero_zero_one and noisims, and their blog Cognitive Blindspot. There's always something interesting going on there in a blog that alternates its point of view between Japan and the UK. Check it out!

Serina Hope gave me the "Nice Matters" award, referring to me as "sexy nice" and thereby clearly indicating that she's never had to deal with me before I've had my morning coffee. I humbly ask her to please let Agnes know. But I'm honored my the attention, and pass the award on to John, the air traffic controller/pastor/magician who blogs at Out of My Hat. Always a gentleman, always interesting, and a clear head in a difficult time. Feel good, read his blog.

So now, I have to go back to washing dishes, chopping vegetables, making stuffing, and generally getting ready for the arrival of the family. It's a lot of work, but it's worth it

Come back on Sunday night or Monday morning for the full story, with pictures. And once again, from Bilbo's family to yours, have a wonderful Thanksgiving. And if you don't live in a country that observes Thanksgiving or a similar holiday, take a few minutes anyhow to reflect on the things, large and small, for which you can be thankful.

Have a good holiday. More thoughts in a few days.


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Some Thoughts About Reading and Speaking

I hadn't realized it until I'd already written and published yesterday's post, but November 19th was the anniversary of the day in 1863 when president Abraham Lincoln delivered one of the greatest speeches in American history - the timeless Gettysburg Address. In less than 300 words, President Lincoln honored the sacrifice of those who fought and died at the horrific battle of Gettysburg, summarized the reasons the war was worth fighting, and eloquently described the fundamental ideals of democracy.

At the time, Lincoln's speech was derided as too short and perfunctory for such a solemn occasion. The man who spoke before Lincoln was Edward Everett, one of the grand orators of the time. Mr Everett spoke for nearly 2-1/2 hours, delivering a sweeping historical overview that stretched from ancient Greece to the present day ... and today, no one remembers a word he said.

In a time of speeches which are little more than fluff surrounding sound bites keyed to news broadcasts, it's a good thing to remember a time when good public speaking really mattered ... when speakers knew their topic and spoke passionately about important things. American oratory is pretty much dead; in my opinion, the last really great speech given by an American was the "I have a dream" speech delivered by Martin Luther King in August, 1963 - nearly a hundred years after Lincoln's address at Gettysburg, and more than 40 years ago.

And this relates to another sad thing - the decline of American reading. On the anniversary of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, the National Endowment for the Arts released a new study documenting the shocking decline in American reading. As recreational reading declines, so too does the foundation of knowledge that allows us to grasp complex ideas, to deliver and understand grand oratory, and to participate as useful citizens in civic life. A few months ago I published a series of three posts in this blog that related to reading - they were some of the best-received and most commented-on posts I've done so far ... which speaks well for the education and involvement of the readership I've managed to build over the last year and a half.

If we do nothing to improve the state of reading in America, if we don't build in our children a love of the well-written word and the power of literature, we will find ourselves in continuing decline. By the same token, if we don't teach or children that good, well-informed public speaking and effective writing are also important in getting our ideas out in front of others, we will raise a generation of citizens unable adequately to participate in the rough-and-tumble of modern American democracy. In time, we will lose that which Abraham Lincoln recognized on that November day so many years ago ... government "...of the people, by the people, for the people" will indeed perish from the earth.

We're fresh out of Abraham Lincolns and Martin Luther Kings, and that's a bad thing for America - because this is a time when sound bites and bumper stickers just won't do.

Read, write, and speak, and make sure your children can, too. You can give them no better gift.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. - Yesterday was a great day: I received not one, but two blogging awards from my friends out there:

First, Amanda honored me with the "Blogging That Hits the Mark" award -

And then this morning I discovered that Serina Hope had bestowed the "Nice Matters" award on me for my efforts, describing me in her post as "sexy nice." Wow, it surely is nice that she doesn't get to see me when I'm in a bad mood, or when I haven't had my coffee yet!

I will be passing these two awards on to other deserving bloggers in the next day or so, but for now, I unfortunately have to get ready for work - the last working day before my Thanksgiving "vacation." Stay tuned for more details!


Monday, November 19, 2007

"Hate Crimes" - Push Button, Get Banana

We had yet another large demonstration here in Washington last week as thousands of people marched around the headquarters of the Justice Department demanding Federal action against so-called "hate crimes." The immediate precipitating cause of this demonstration was the action of a few stupid louts in various parts of the country who have learned a valuable lesson: if you do something dumb and simple, like hanging nooses from a tree, you can get a level of national attention that your moronic actions wouldn't normally attract. News reporters will flock to your town, religious and civil rights leaders will fulminate, and the impression will be created that the nation is a vast hotbed of racial intolerance.

In the words of psychological testers: push button, get banana.

I read an interesting article not long ago (unfortunately, I have lost the link and so can't direct you to it) in which the author opined that the nooses and other manifestations of "hate crimes" would probably go away if people would just ignore them. Unfortunately, by drawing vast amounts of unnecessary and counterproductive attention to the actions of a few idiots, we encourage them. We teach them that they can spin up an entire country with their dumbass activities, waking up useless grandstanders like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and giving them an opportunity to push their own racist agendas.

Push button, get banana.

For the record, I think it's a stupid idea to generate laws against "hate crimes." If bigoted idiots won't obey the laws we have already, they're not likely to be deterred by new, vague and amorphous legislation that attempts to criminalize stupidity. Hanging nooses from trees is indeed hateful and stupid, but is it a crime? You can just bet that if someone is finally arrested and prosecuted for the heinous crime of hanging a noose on a tree or painting a swastika on a home, the ACLU will be out in force to defend his/her right to free expression, the Sharptons and Jacksons will piously thunder from their soapboxes, and reinforced battalions of lawyers will smell the financial chum in the water and flock to either prosecute or defend some drooling morons who aren't worth our attention in the first place.

Push button, get banana.

If you're looking for a real "hate crime," consider this one, in which a 19 year-old Saudi woman convicted last year and sentenced to 90 lashes for the crime of being gang-raped, has had her sentence increased to six months in prison and 200 lashes for "her attempt to aggravate and influence the judiciary through the media."

We surely do know how to pick our allies.

So let's stop this useless posturing and crowing about legislation against "hate crimes." Time and experience show that you can't legislate intelligence. The way to work against "hate crimes" is through education and strong enforcement of any actual, existing laws that have actually been broken. Otherwise, all we'll keep doing is encouraging stupid people to do stupid things, and letting the buffoons who profit from their activities continue to waste our time and the courts' energy.

Push button, get banana.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

Home Excavations

I feel like an archaeologist, reveling in the delight of finding more and more wondrous and intriguing things from the past the deeper I dig.

We're cleaning house.

Yes, with Thanksgiving only four days away and our first guests arriving in just three, the pressure is on to get the house sparkling clean or, at least, looking less like the home of the Addams family and more like the home of the First Family.

Agnes and I have a pretty large house for two people: five bedrooms, 3 baths, living room, dining room, kitchen, family room, and utility/laundry room. The five bedrooms are subdivided into the Grand Imperial Master Bedroom, my study, Agnes's workshop, a guest room, and Agnes's nest (available as a second guest room). Three of those bedrooms - my study, the guest room, and Agnes's nest - tend to be the rooms where things end up which must be saved, but for which there's no good storage location. We usually clean the guest room and nest by the simple expedient of closing the doors so we don't have to see the mess, but since we'll need both rooms to accommodate guests, we've actually had to grit our teeth, put on the moon suits and respirators, and start seriously cleaning.

We've got a lot of stuff. Twenty-three years of moving around where the Air Force wanted us has resulted in a lot of beloved things (i.e., dust-catchers) reflecting the places we've lived and adventures we've had. And with Agnes being a marvelously handy crafts person, we have an enormous amount of stuff for each of her hobbies: piles of boxes of yarn and needles for counted cross-stitching; boxes of yarn for knitting; odd bits and pieces of assorted mats and frames from her matting and framing phase; boxes of glass and tools (hand and powered) for stained glass projects; tottering heaps of fabric, boxes of thread, cabinets of patterns, and three sewing machines for various pending sewing projects; a huge (10 feet by about 5 feet) quilting frame, and dozens of books relating to each of the aforementioned hobbies. For my part, I have a large desk which accommodates the computer, printer, stereo equipment, lamp, and telephone, along with vast piles of books, papers, computer parts, and photographs, sorted and unsorted, leaving an open space of about 12 by 18 inches on which I can actually work.

And that doesn't include the vast piles of books for which we still don't have enough shelf space.

Bottom line: we've got about three days to figure out where to put all this stuff.

As of yesterday, Agnes's nest is officially more or less clean. We can see the floor for the first time in months, and Agnes was actually able to lie down on the sofa bed and read yesterday evening while I fixed dinner. The downstairs guest room is sort of cleaned out...there are still a few things that have no place else to go, but at least you can go in and out and actually sleep in the bed.

Because we'll have to accommodate 15 adults and six children (at last count), we've had to reconfigure the living and dining rooms so that we can extend the dining room table far enough into the living room to seat the adults (the children will get their own table in the living room). Chairs will be a challenge, but between what we have and what we can borrow from the dance studio, we should be okay.

I told my boss the other day that I'm looking forward to the Monday after Thanksgiving so I can come back to work and relax. I don't think he was overly impressed.

So ... the time right now is 6:15 AM, and I've been up since about 5:15. Agnes is still asleep, but should be up soon, and we'll have a quick breakfast and start the frantic cleaning and rearranging once again. With any luck, we should be able to have everything more or less cleaned up by this evening.

Of course it may all be moot, because by Wednesday the house will be buried to the eaves in the leaves I haven't had time to rake, so our visitors may not be able to find us, anyhow.

Hope we can eat all that food ourselves.

Stay tuned for more of the unfolding adventure of Thanksgiving at Chez Bilbo, with pictures. Let me know how your preparations are coming, too, so I don't feel so frantic.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. - Sue, who blogs at La Chanson de Phoenix, has given me a very nice award:

Of course, as a confirmed curmudgeon with a generally crusty attitude, I'm not sure that I really deserve it, but it's nice to be recognized. Thanks, Sue, for this award, which I now proceed to pass on to a few others:


Serina Hope

The Mistress of the Dark (who is going five rounds without gloves with Mr Murphy at the moment)


Dari Donovan (who's having a rough weekend and could use your support)

Thanks to all of you, and have a great Thanksgiving (or whatever the equivalent is in Palembang for you, Amanda).


Saturday, November 17, 2007

Hitting a Record, and Setting it Straight

Yesterday was the day my blog recorded the largest number of hits in a single day so far: 125, according to MyBlogLog. Incredibly, 100 of those 125 were to the same post: Ewwwww...a Contractor, the day before yesterday. Through the magic of an unexpected top billing on DCBlogs, a site which features blogs by Washington, DC area bloggers, I suddenly attracted a very large number of visitors and comments (10 so far) based on my little screed about the pitfalls of being a contractor. Most either supported my observations or were neutral, although one - SciWonk - made the perfectly correct observation that " may not all be bad, but some of you are indeed very bad."

I guess it would be a good thing for me to set the record straight. I agree completely with SciWonk: there are indeed some really awful contractors out there feeding at the government trough at all levels. I was first introduced to contractors as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force, running a division on the Air Staff in Washington. In that position I was able to observe many contractors representing many different companies, large and small. Some of them were hard-working, dedicated individuals I appreciated and respected more than some of the useless buffoons who were government employees; others were notorious for overpromising, overcharging, and underdelivering. There are good and bad contractors everywhere.

For my part, within my rather arcane area of expertise and the circle of offices I was hired to support (and I should note that there are seven different people/offices who can legitimately task me to do things for them) I am respected and treated as an integral part of the team. The problem comes when I run into the limitations of my role as a contractor: I can attend meetings on behalf of my customer, but can't commit the Air Force to anything, since I'm not a government employee. And I always find that reluctance on the part of many "govvies" to pay attention to what I have to say, because I'm a just a contractor (whether or not I know more about the topic at hand than they do), and the suspicion is that I'm just in it for the money. The outer limits of stupidity in government-contractor relations was reached for me that day a few years back that I wasn't allowed to contribute a dollar to help pay for a cake for a monthly office birthday party...because I was a contractor, and that dollar might have been considered an improper fiscal contribution (bribe?) to the government. Oh, for pete's sake...can we push the reality reset button here?

The customer is always right. Hardheaded, stupid, and clownish perhaps, but always right.

Here's the real bottom line of my rant on the contractor issue: be honest about it. Don't ruthlessly cut the size of government offices, then hire contractors because you can no longer do the job, then turn around and blame those contractors for sucking the government dry. If you are a government employee who is a contract manager, do your job - administer the contract and make sure that the government is being well served...don't just sit back and ignore poor performance until you find your name on the front page of the Washington Post. If you are a contractor, do your job, too, and remember that all the other contractors out there are being judged by your performance - if you're a bozo, everyone will automatically think the rest of us are bozos, too, and I resent being tarred with your brush.

I'm very good at what I do, and I'm proud to be part of a team that helps keep this country safe and secure. I'm a Contractor, with a capital "C." I just resent those people - other contractors, government employees, and investigative reporters - who would turn all of us into contractors with a little "c," the objects of scorn, blamed for the things that go wrong, even when they're not our fault.

Okay, I've said all I have to say on that topic. I need to go and fix some breakfast, and it's one of those jobs I can't contract out. Too bad.

Have a good day and a good weekend. More thoughts coming.


Friday, November 16, 2007

Thigh Bone's Connected to the Hip Bone, etc.

Most of you (well, those of you who are Americans) probably recognize that line from the old children's song about how all the bones are connected to build your body. Most parents have probably sung it to or with their small children a few hundred times.

It occurs to me that this song is a useful metaphor for what's wrong with our election process and our government in general - we focus on the thigh bones instead of the skeletons, about the particular rather than the general. We don't look at our government, our economy, and our nation as a complex, interconnected system, rather than as a collection of individual parts in which we may have a vested interest.

If you have a broken leg, you can't walk properly...but the damage to the leg affects not just how you walk. It also manifests itself also as back pain (from holding your body differently to try to walk), shoulder and arm pain (from the effort of walking on crutches), and other physical ailments. In the same way, actions taken in one political or economic area don't have an isolated effect - their impact cascades through the interconnected systems that surround us.

* If a legislator votes to cut taxes, she's a hero to her constituents...until all of a sudden there's no money to pay for the services those constituents have come to expect, and the howls of outrage arise.

* If you want to pay for a war without putting a burden on today's taxpayers, you borrow the money to fund it and shift the burden of repayment to voters who won't come of age until you are long out of office.

* If you give a legislative tax break to one special interest, you have that much less income to pay for the operation of the government, and have to either cut spending, transfer the tax burden to someone else, or borrow the money and kick the fiscal can down the road. If spending is cut, you can bet it won't be spending supported by those who can afford special representation that protects their interests.

* If you object to birth control or abortions, what's your plan for taking care of all the children who will be born to parents who don't want them? - a terrible thought to those of us who love our children, but a sad question that nevertheless must be faced.

* If you support huge jury awards in often-frivolous lawsuits, you need to recognize that you'll end up paying for them in terms of higher prices or taxes down the road.

The thigh bone's connected to the hip bone.

George Bernard Shaw was once quoted as saying that "The government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend upon the support of Paul." Paul, in this case, is the special interests who can muster the legislative support to ensure that their concerns are addressed, generally at the expense of all of us Peters out there. The worst part is that there's no real outrage about it. Because we are conditioned to look at our own narrow special interests, and not as our government and economy as a system...or more properly, a system of systems...we don't see the bigger picture of how focus on a single issue has an effect that cascades across many other areas.

No matter what your elected leaders would have you believe, we can't have it both ways: we can't have low taxes and big services. There ain't no free lunch. We may be able to put off paying the piper, but sooner or later that piper is going to show up for payment and he'll be mad and won't go away. We have to start looking at the real impacts of the decisions we make today, particularly those which affect only a particular industry, voting bloc, or single-interest group.

The thigh bone's connected to the hip bone, but also - indirectly - to the brain and the heart.

As we approach this critically important election season, we need to start asking the hard questions, and we need to look at the interconnected Big Picture. We need to engage the brain, and not just the heart.

Have a good day. Ask those hard questions. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Ewwwww....a Contractor!

My name is Bilbo, and I'm a contractor.

This is a term that carries a certain odor these days, largely as a result of the deadly activities of the security contractors (we used to call them mercenaries) employed by the US in Iraq to compensate for the lack of troops. But contractors in general are a fact of life in a government turned upside down in its misguided search for economy. After all, you've got to save money somewhere in the vast Federal budget in order to have the money to pay for all the stupid pork-barrel projects our Senators and Reprehensives load onto the hapless taxpayers. The system works like this: our elected leaders (Republicans more so than Democrats, but both are guilty) rail that Big Government is evil and needs to be cut back. They buy out, fire, or simply don't replace a large enough number of civil servants to be able to crow that they're finally bringing Big Government under control. But because the amount of work to be done by those civil servants who remain doesn't go down, and unhappy constituents complain that their expected services are no longer being provided, Federal agencies find themselves short-handed and need help ... so they spend money to hire contractors to do the jobs that used to be done by the folks they got rid of to save money in the first place.

Didja follow that?

Now, I must admit to being conflicted on this issue because I am, in fact, a contractor. When I retired from the Air Force in 1996, I was hired by a company to fill a position on the Air Staff in the Pentagon. I am still doing the same job today (although I'm on the third employer, as they tend to buy each other out regularly), and I like to think I'm very good at it. There isn't anyone else who does what I do, which makes me the expert by default. But I'm still a contractor, no matter how much I know and how good I am. My Pentagon access badge is pink in color, to distinguish me at a glance from Federal employees, whose badges are white. I'm excluded from some meetings because of the perception that I might misuse the information to which I am exposed for the unfair advantage of my company. I'm referred to jocularly as a Beltway Bandit, shamelessly feeding at the public trough. The term contractor covers a multitude of sinners, as it were.

The fact is, though, that your government couldn't function without us. The more Big Government is viewed as the enemy and is cut back for political reasons, the more contractors will need to be hired to do the jobs thus lost. The budget cutters won't tell you this, though. It's easier just to show how well they've cut back on the size of the government, and to castigate the faceless contractors who are running amok.

Back in 1992, William Greider wrote a marvelous book titled Who Will Tell the People: the Betrayal of American Democracy. You won't find the word contractor in this book, because contractors weren't an issue yet back then, but what you will find is an angry, well-argued and -documented tirade against the corruption of our democratic processes that continues to this day. That the book was written in 1992, and that many of the corrupting influences Mr Greider explores are still with us, and worse than before, ought to give us pause. Read this book, get mad, and vote. Hold your elected officials to account. And remember that there are over 300 million Americans, and not all of them care about the same things you do...don't be a person blindly focused on a single issue, no matter how important it is to you. Vote locally, but think nationally.

Next year's presidential election will be the most important one in decades. The fact that we are presented with a slate of candidates of ... well ... modest capabilities is unfortunate, but we are faced with the candidates our corrupted political system has presented to us. We have to do the best with what we have. Learn all you can, cast your vote wisely, and don't disengage once you leave the polling place. If you don't hold your elected officials to account, they'll continue to do what they've done all along, which is ignore you. Don't let it happen.

But what do I know? I'm just a contractor.


Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

"Guppy Love"

There is a very interesting article over at titled "Guppy Love" that's both entertaining and thought-provoking. It begins with the unscientific observation that some women tend to prefer men who are already "spoken for" (a tendency also known as the wedding ring effect), and goes on to compare this human trait to "mate choice copying" in - of all things - guppies.

I blogged about this general topic some time back when I was set off by a post at Numeric Life about women's thought processes in choosing men for long-term mates (dads) or short-term recreational relationships (cads). The new article puts a somewhat different spin on this aspect of our behavior, though...why would a woman pursue a man who is already married or in a committed relationship?

Well, duh, you say - it's the thrill of the hunt, the idea that I'm better than she is and I can prove it by going after her partner. There may also be a certain element of I can flirt with him and it's safe because he's married and things can't go too far.

And the same is true, of course, of men - some men of low character seem to find a certain thrill in illicit liaisons that makes them that much more exciting, not to mention the chest-thumping potential of out-testosteroning the competition: I'm the man - she prefers me to him! Or hey, look at me - I've still got it!

For the record, I think people who try to steal other people's spouses are despicable. But I think I understand some of the psychological issues that could drive people to it. Friendships are perfectly fine - as it happens, most of my close friends are women, although I'm completely and utterly committed to Agnes. I'm also a shameless flirter, which is not a bad thing when you're married to a dance teacher and do duty at the dance parties as the staff gigolo, dancing with all the ladies who don't have partners.

Well, this post has turned into a bit of a ramble, but my brain isn't totally warmed up yet this morning. I'm also facing the prospect of a dull, day-long meeting which isn't conducive to getting me up and hitting on all cylinders.


Be careful with your mate choice selections. It's not a good idea to go after one that's already spoken for.

Unless you're a guppy.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. - I'm really looking forward to attending the Enterprise Christmas Party over at Captain Picard's Journal. Hope to see you all there!


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A Few More Ruminations on Food

Having finished my morning bowl of oatmeal (prescribed by my doctor to help bring down my cholesterol level), and having enjoyed it's wonderfully cardboardy taste (since I'm not supposed to use any sugar on it because my blood sugar is too high), my mind is back on food again.

As it happens, "ruminations" is a good term to use here, because it derives from the same root as "ruminant," an animal (such as a cow) that chews its food over and over...hence the similarity to turning an idea over and over in one's mind.

But enough of that linguistic blather.

Several of you who commented on my post the other day concerning the book The Omnivore's Dilemma indicated that you planned to read it. That's great - you won't regret it, although you'll never look at your meals the same way again. The book is packed with interesting facts and observations, such as the role of fad diets in screwing up the American way of eating. The Atkins Diet, the South Beach Diet, low-fat, no-fat, non-fat, fat-free, lo-carb, high-protein, free-range ... the list of diets and content fads is endless, and seems generally to do little other than offer the manufacturers of processed foods new ways to reduce your weight by limiting the overall thickness and density of your wallet. Here's Bilbo's Guide to Healthy, Happy Nutrition:

- Eat what you like, but eat it in moderation. Smaller portions are your friend; all-you-can-eat buffets and supersized meals aren't.

- Vegetables are wonderful. The only vegetable I don't like is red beets...I never was able to get past the earthy texture and taste (not that Agnes hasn't tried to con me into eating them over the years). Broccoli, brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, carrots, leeks, cabbage - bring it on!

- Fruits are delicious, and are great sources of vitamins, too. Apples, oranges, pears, apricots, cherries - bring 'em on! Fruits also make great additions to recipes: I have a lot of wonderful recipes that use fruits, nuts, raisins, etc. If you want any sample recipes, let me know. It's always good to have limes on hand in case you might want, say, a gin and tonic.

- Fresh herbs are always better than dried, and fresh herbs you grow yourself are much better than the overpriced ones you buy in plastic boxes in the supermarket. We've had our first frost and my basil plants are now dead, but we're still awash in fragrant dill, parsley, thyme and rosemary. Nothing flavors your meal like fresh herbs. And muddled fresh rosemary in a gin and tonic is superb!

- Go easy on the salt - you need less than you think. On the other hand, I don't think you can overdo pepper (Agnes has another opinion on that one).

- I firmly believe, based on no evidence whatsoever, that religious dietary laws (kosher, halal, etc) have nothing to do with what God says you should eat and how you should eat it, and everything to do with codifying the hard-learned knowledge of what is safe to eat, and how - in a time before refrigeration and reliable food preservation technology - to prepare it so it doesn't kill you. For instance, pork is wonderful - but before we knew about things like trichinosis, undercooked pork could be deadly ... thus, it was easier just to avoid pork altogether.

- Dining is a social event. Most of us don't have family dinners any more, but they provide a great opportunity to bring everyone together for dining and conversation. Of course, if the dinner is sufficiently good, conversation yields to what Agnes rather elegantly calls in German das gefressige Schweigen - the silence of gluttony. All that said, Agnes and I almost always eat together (being now a family of two), and very little conversation ensues because we're both reading while we eat!

Okay, now I'm hungry again. Maybe I can squeeze in another bowl of that wonderful oatmeal before work.

Or not.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, November 12, 2007

When a King Finally Has Enough, and Other Ruminations

I was reading the final pound of the Washington Post yesterday evening when I ran across a story about a summit meeting of Latin American leaders, plus the leaders of Spain and Portugal. The Prime Minister of Spain, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, had used part of his allotted speaking time to politely urge Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez to be more respectful and diplomatic in his comments about other leaders, to the applause of the assembled delegates. Chavez, for his part, kept trying to interrupt Mr Zapatero - unsuccessfully, as it turned out, because his microphone had been turned off. Finally, King Juan Carlos of Spain, who was sitting next to Mr Chavez, had had enough. He turned to Mr Chavez and bluntly said, "Why don't you shut up?"

I suppose Mr Chavez is fortunate that we no longer live in a world in which kings tell those who displease them to shut up, rather than dragging them off to be beheaded. And you have to admire King Juan Carlos, despite his undiplomatic comment, because it's high time someone told that odious buffoon to put a sock in it.

You don't have to like George Bush (and I don't) to have been offended when Hugo Chavez gave a speech at the UN in which he ostentatiously sniffed the air and noted that it smelled of brimstone after Mr Bush's speech. Like him or not, Mr Bush is the elected president of a great nation, and deserves respect for his position, if not for his policies. Mr Chavez, too, is the elected president of a great nation, but you wouldn't know it from his moronic pronouncements and routine insults directed at other leaders.

It's fine to be a populist and to play to your home audience. In his own clownish way, Mr Chavez expresses the frustrations and aspirations of many people in Latin America. But does he do them a service by making himself a laughingstock in the larger world? I doubt it. He probably views himself as a straight-talking statesman, not understanding (or caring) that he comes across as a petulant jerk. He does not serve the people of Venezuela well with his grandstanding, and the damage he is doing to the Bolivarian philosophy he professes to follow will last for a long time. If ever an emperor had no clothes, it's Hugo Chavez.

A few other short, unrelated thoughts for a quiet holiday morning:

Edyta Sliwinska dances again tonight on Dancing with the Stars, but not with me. Sigh.

An interesting and useful quote from Fred Hoyle: "There is a coherent plan for the universe, though I don't know what it's a plan for." I believe this is related to the famous Ashleigh Brilliant observation that "I try to take one day at a time, but sometimes several days attack me at once."

One of the entries which received an honorable mention in this week's "Style Invitational" contest in the Washington Post responded to a request to propose hypothetical mergers of existing companies: "Halliburton merges with Blackwater to form 'Allied Casualty.'" I love it!

That's all for now. Have a good day. More thoughts coming.


Sunday, November 11, 2007

Dinner Time!

Food has been on my mind quite a bit lately, as I think about the logistics of putting on a Thanksgiving dinner for as many as 19 adults and 12 children. As much as I like to cook, that's a pretty daunting challenge. But I've also been thinking about food and eating in general as a result of reading a fascinating book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan.

In this book, Mr Pollan looks at America's culture of food by examining the history and pedigree of the ingredients of four different meals, in the process generating many interesting observations about where our food comes from and the compromises we make in taste and quality in exchange for convenience and quantity. Can we have "organic" food on an industrial scale? What sort of life does a "free-range" chicken actually have? Is the bucolic picture on the package of food a true indication of that food's actual source?

I won't bore you with the conclusions, some of which I don't agree with myself, but Mr Pollan's baseline observation is sound: if we need to feed huge populations, the faustian bargain we make is to depend upon industrial-style and scale food production that may, in fact, contribute to some of our health problems.

There's a very interesting discussion in the book about American "food culture" (such as it is). Mr Pollan suggests that there's not really a distinctive "American cuisine," largely because we are a nation of immigrants. Each successive wave of immigrants brings its own food culture with it, and as a result we have restaurants which feature French, Ethiopian, Chinese (Mandarin or Cantonese), Indian (northern or southern), Italian, Vietnamese, Thai, Mexican, Salvadoran, German, Indonesian, and every other type of cooking you can think of...but none that boasts a distinctive, definably "American" style. In part, this may be because we don't really "cook" as much as we used to. When I was a child, most mothers stayed at home and cooked meals while the fathers went to work; today, particularly in ultra-expensive areas like Washington, New York, and so on, both parents have to work to make ends meet, and there isn't much time left for things like home-cooked meals eaten as a family. TV dinners, ready-made meals picked up at the local supermarket, fast food, and pizza delivered by Domino's or Papa John's are the new American cuisine, often eaten on the run or in shifts as the members of the family come home from work or school and zip out again to other activities.

I'm one of the very few men I know who actually enjoys cooking and is pretty good at it. It wasn't always that way, though...I remember the time I accidentally burned the pork chops that were the only thing I had in the house when my boys were visiting...Matt looked at the charred lump on his plate, looked up at me sadly, and said, "Daddy, when Mommy makes pork chops, they don't get black." It was a wake-up call to clean up my culinary act.

I love grocery shopping, and I think there's something great about turning a bunch of raw ingredients into a fragrant, well-presented meal. My father is a very good cook, too, and I've picked up a lot of pointers and good recipes from him over the years...maybe it's genetic. My daughter is an excellent chef and baker, and both of my sons are capable, if not great chefs. I hope it's something that will be passed on to the grandchildren.

Well, I could go on about food ... and I will another time ... but for now, I need to cut this short because it's time to start fixing dinner. I'll let you know how it comes out!

In the meantime, I strongly recommend you read The Omnivore's Dilemma. If nothing else, it will make you appreciate the food you eat and what it takes to get it to your plate.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, November 10, 2007

Porcine Cosmetology

The other day I ran across a marvelous euphemism that I hadn't heard before: Porcine Cosmetology. It's the more genteel equivalent of the popular expression putting lipstick on a pig ... referring to the art of dressing up bad or unpleasant news in a more palatable form.

I think I'm in the wrong line of work: the real money nowadays is probably in Porcine Cosmetology. You'd never run out of bad news to spin, no matter where you live and work:

If you work for Congress, you could spend hours spinning out excuses why vital legislation (think health care, immigration reform, and the war in Iraq) never seems to go anywhere. Or you could explain why there's been no real action to fix the Alternative Minimum Tax (at least the House finally passed a half-assed measure this week...but the Senate will probably mess it up).

If you work for the Executive Branch, you could spend fruitful days figuring out ways to blame everyone else for your disastrous missteps.

If you work for the State Department, you could work for years coming up with good reasons why some Foreign Service Officers don't want to go to the places they're needed to do the jobs they signed up to do.

If you work for the Washington DC city government, you can spin the story of how a group of city employees scammed the city for more than $20 million over many years without being detected.

If you work for a major American corporation (General Motors, for instance), you could come up with good reasons why it's okay to lose $29 billion (yes, billion) dollars in a fiscal quarter. Or why it's a good idea to ship jobs overseas and lay off the workers who then can't buy your products because they don't have jobs.

Yep. I'm going for a degree in Porcine Cosmetology. There's no shortage of troughs from which to feed, and of gullible voters to let me get away with it.

I'll let you know how it works out.

Have a good day and a great weekend. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, November 09, 2007

I Still Don't Understand Economics

Back on August 19 I wrote a post in this blog titled "The Deficiencies in My Education," in which I lamented my lack of understanding of economics. I regret to tell you that not only does that deficiency remain, but it's gotten worse. I must tell you now that not only do I not understand economics, I will never understand economics.

Forget the sub-prime mortgage fiasco and the conundrum that the push for lowest prices can result in people losing the jobs that make those low prices so attractive. Forget the fact that the same set of numbers, crunched by different accounting systems, can yield either a profit (for the shareholders report) or a loss (for the tax man). Consider this:

Earlier this week, General Motors announced that it had suffered a 39 billion ... yes, I said billion ... dollar loss in the third quarter of 2007. In considering this number, consider also that the total value of GM's outstanding stock on that day was $20.4 billion. That means that, in one quarter, General Motors lost almost twice the value of the company in one fell swoop.

How can this be? How can a company lose such a staggering amount of money and continue to exist? And it's not limited to GM ... how many other companies (the airlines come to mind) routinely announce huge operating losses, yet continue to function from large, modern headquarters buildings staffed with exorbitantly-paid executives?

In fairness I should note that the article to which I linked above clarifies that the loss was a one-time "non-cash, non-recurring item" rooted in the arcane economic Sanskrit of the tax laws, but the fundamental fact remains that GM suffered a loss in a single fiscal quarter that was so enormous that it is literally beyond my ability to comprehend.

I'm convinced that there are no real economic laws or principles. If there were, I doubt that the vast, intricate, interlinked modern economy would function at all. I believe that economics is nothing more than applied psychology: if you can spin the news and project the proper air of sober gravitas and calm leadership, people will continue to believe in their placid, bovine way that all is well even as they watch their jobs head to Mexico and China, and the goods they used to make get cheaper even as they lose the jobs that would enable them to buy those goods. The old joke says that the economy is in recession when your neighbor loses his job, and in depression when you lose yours ... but it's not a joke any more.

As the 2008 presidential election approaches, I'm watching carefully to see what the leading candidates say they'll do about the economy. So far, I haven't seen anything that makes me believe anyone has a clue what to do.


I still don't understand economics beyond what appears to me to be the Real Person's Fundamental Economic Principle: there are no accounting rules or grand economic principles that protect you. You must have a job, you must pay your taxes on time and in full, and you must pay your bills when due.

After all, you're not a huge corporation with a staff of suits and accountants that can make everyone else believe you're prosperous when you can't feed your family or take them to the doctor.

And that's the worst thing about the country I love and served in uniform for 23 years.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, November 08, 2007

Crazy Eights

I don't generally like to be "tagged" with memes, because they create an obligation to respond that forces me to use my limited free time. But, perversely, I do enjoy some of them for what they make me think about.

The Crazy Eights meme popped up not long ago...Serina Hope and Amanda both responded to it, and I thought I might as well also, because it forces me to think about really skinnying down lists that in some cases are very long. Here we go...

Eight Things I'm Passionate About:
1. Agnes.
2. My Children.
3. My Grandchildren.
4. Ballroom Dancing.
5. Reading (education in general).
6. Cooking.
7. Courtesy.
8. Good writing.

Eight Things I Want to Do Before I Die:
1. Attend the weddings of all my grandchildren.
2. Write and publish at least one book.
3. Get my PhD.
4. Dance a Waltz with Edyta Sliwinska.
5. Visit the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and the Prado Museum in Madrid.
6. Take a cruise through the Panama Canal.
7. Visit Kathmandu, Nepal (I just love the way the name rolls off my tongue).
8. Spend a Week Exploring London.

Eight Things I Say Often:
1. "What a revoltin' development THIS is!"
2. "Great Caesar's ghost!"
3. "Whatever."
4. "Hope you didn't have to pay extra for that turn signal..."
5. "Oh, for Pete's sake..."
6. "You've gotta be kidding!"
7. "What a dumbass!"
8. "Come on, Schatzi, it's time to get up!"

Eight Books I've Read Recently:
1. The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan (now reading)
2. The Perfect Summer, by Juliet Nicholson
3. Malice, by Robert K. Tannenbaum
4. 15 Stars, by Stanley Weintraub
5. The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman
6. The Museum of Dr Moses, by Joyce Carol Oates (now reading)
7. In At the Death, by Harry Turtledove
8. The Children of Hurin, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Eight Songs I Could Listen to Over and Over:
1. Song for Judith (Open the Door), by Judy Collins
2. Who Am I to Say?, by the Statler Brothers
3. Angel Mine, by the Cowboy Junkies
4. Pachelbel's Canon in D
5. Closer and Closer Apart, by Mary Chapin Carpenter
6. Fields of Gold, by Sting
7. The Ballad of Mr Shorty (full-length version), by Marty Robbins
8. The Perfect Partner, by Jimmy Buffett

Eight Things That Attract Me to My Best Friends
1. Sense of Humor.
2. Trustworthiness.
3. Dependability.
4. Intellectual Stimulation.
5. Reliability.
6. Openness.
7. Similar interests.
8. Different interests.

Okay, there you go. More about Bilbo than you ever wanted to know.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Happy Birthday to Me!

Yes, the old calendar has rolled over one more time, and in spite of all efforts of the local traffic to kill me, I am officially one year older today. There are both good and bad aspects of this, as there are of everything: on the good side, obviously, I'm still alive. On the bad side, I get to enjoy more "oldest guy in the office" jokes. The good outweighs the bad, though.

A few thoughts on being 56 years old:

- It's not 60. The lower border for "old age" is always 10 years ahead of you.

- Jane Seymour (sadly voted off Dancing with the Stars last night, and a woman I've loved from afar for many years) is the same age I am.

- Having four grandchildren is, well, grand!

- It's a bit amazing to think that I was born less than 100 years after the beginning of the American Civil War (traditionally thought of as the bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861).

- I can still dance rings around most men my age. Heck, I can still dance rings around most men, period.

- For a guy who was the poster child for geekdom in high school, I think I've managed to turn into, if not a hot stud, then at least an Alpha Geek.

- Despite my mother's prediction many years ago that I "have at least one good book in (me)," I haven't published anything yet. I think I'll try to race Serina Hope to the authorial finish line.

- Agnes hasn't strangled me in my sleep yet, though not for want of provocation. She's a saint.

Okay, enough ruminations. Here's my birthday gift to you: I love squash of all kinds, and was hungry for a good squash recipe last night. Here's one I found on and made last night - fast, easy (except for cutting the hard squash), and absolutely delicious:

Sausage-Stuffed Acorn Squash with Molasses Glaze

- 4 small acorn squash
- 1 tbsp butter
- 1/2 cup diced red bell pepper
- 2 large green onions (scallions), thinly sliced
- 1 pound bulk breakfast sausage (I used Jimmy Dean regular)
- 1 cup fresh white breadcrumbs
- 1/2 cup canned beef broth
- 1/2 tsp pepper
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 2/3 cup mild-flavored (light) molasses

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Farenheit (205 Celsius). Cut two 3/4-inch slices from the center of each acorn squash, for a total of eight slices (reserving the ends for another use). Scoop out the seeds and fibers from the center slices and discard. Spray a 15x10x2-inch baking dish with cooking spray and arrange the squash rings in a single layer.

Melt the butter in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the bell pepper and green onions and saute until tender, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and cool. Mix in the sausage, bread crumbs, broth, pepper, and salt. Mound the sausage mixture in the center of each squash ring, using about 1/3 cup of mixture for each. (NOTE: the recipe can be prepared up to this point a day ahead...cover and refrigerate until ready to cook).

Brush the sausage and squash with half the molasses. Bake 15 minutes. Brush with the remaining molasses and bake until the squash is tender and the sausage cooked through, about 25 minutes more.


Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Election Day, 2007

Today is election day here in Virginia, and the polls will open in about an hour and a quarter. I'll vote on my way to work, as I usually do, and if experience is any indicator, because the voting is for state and local offices and issues, the turnout is likely to be light...especially since it's cold and raining this morning.

I have my choices already made, so it shouldn't take long to do my civic duty; I'll probably spend longer waiting in line than I will actually voting. But however long it takes I'll do it, because this is one of the most important things we are called upon to do as citizens. In today's America, everyone shouts loudly about their rights and privileges, but few think about their responsibilities. Voting, jury duty, paying taxes, and upholding the law are things that can be inconvenient, but without which the society will collapse. It's disheartening sometimes to think of the long lines of Iraqis who braved attacks by insurgents and suicide bombers to cast their ballots, while Americans can be put off by rain and cold - particularly if the election isn't a major national one.

Of course, election seasons can be a trial. It's a pain to come home to a half-dozen or more messages on the answering machine and discover that they're all recorded political ads. And I won't miss running the gauntlet of glad-handing politicos and their shills pressing me with glossy campaign literature as I fight my way through the Metro station each morning and evening. Negative campaigns won't be missed either: don't tell me how bad the other guy is, tell me why I should vote for YOU.

One-issue candidates are a pain in the neck, too. This year is the year to beat the illegal immigration drum as a way to get votes. As you know, I have absolutely no sympathy for illegal immigrants and those who support their right to break the law with impunity and obtain the same rights and privileges as those who are here legally. But don't just demonize the illegals...what ELSE do you have to offer? In many cases, there's just an empty suit once you get rid of the bombast of the single issue.

In addition to the list of state and local offices to be filled, we're also voting on two bond issues: one for $365,200,000 to provide funds for building and maintaining public schools, and another for $110,000,000 for transportation improvements. I'm really conflicted you know if you've been reading this blog for very long, I strongly believe in education as a lifelong process and one of the most important gifts we can give our children. We grossly underpay and underappreciate our teachers and underfund our schools that build the citizens who will make the key decisions in our future. But somehow, over $300 million for capital improvements and a bus repair facility doesn't seem to me to be the best investment we could make. I'm not sure how I'll vote on this one. As for the transportation bond, I suppose I'll vote for it because our transportation infrastructure is in such desperate straits...but I'll also be holding my nose as I do, because I think the Virginia-DC-Maryland area as a whole lacks a coherent and integrated plan to maximize the impact of everyone's bonds and other investments. We're just putting band-aids on the problem without such a plan.

There are the occasional fun things about election season, too. One of the cleverest ads I've seen in a long time was a roadside sign sprinkled in among the tens of thousands of "vote for me" signs that simply said "Vote Joe Schmentrick for Plumbing!", with his business phone.


I'm girding my mental loins to go forth and do my duty by pushing the desired buttons on our electronic voting machines. By tomorrow morning, I'll know how it all came out. I'm ready for any results: I have a nearly full bottle of gin and plenty of limes and tonic water to help me either celebrate or mourn.

Time to get moving.

Get out and's your duty. If your idea of voting is limited to phoning, e-mailing, and texting for your favorite on "Dancing with the Stars," don't be letting me hear you complain about how the country is going.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, November 05, 2007

Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall...

"...who's the fairest one of all?"

I think everyone knows that line from the story of Snow White, and how the Evil Queen was distressed to learn from her magic mirror that she was not, in fact, the fairest one of all - that honor went to Snow White.

Well, not according to Entertainment, which recently revealed actress Angelina Jolie to be the "Ultimate Hottie."

Well, with all due respect to Ms Jolie, who may be a fine human being, a good mother to her adopted children, and a primo organic bedwarmer for husband Brad Pitt, she just doesn't do anything for me. I guess I'm just not into tattoos and general weirdness.

I am, of course, married my own Ultimate Hottie (and I don't mean just the flashes, ha, ha).

I think we can all agree that beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder. When you're a teenaged boy, in many cases a "hottie" is one who is recognizably female through a beer haze at 50 feet. As you get older, your tastes (if not your actions) mature. It is said that the only consolation given to a man as he gets older is that every year there are more women he thinks are beautiful...and it's true.

Thinking about beautiful women is as good a way as any to keep my mind off how much the #$@! hives itch, but it's time to move on. Time to go and make sure my Ultimate Hottie gets up in time to go to work.

No grand thoughts today. Just a reflection about one more thing I have to be thankful for as we gear up for Thanksgiving.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, November 04, 2007

Mr Morley Hits the Nail on the Head

I have a very large collection of quotable quotations that I've put together over the years because, at one time or another, they caught my eye and impressed me for one reason or another. Also, if you quote lots of famous people in your speech and writing, it gives you an air of quasi-erudition without forcing you to go through the mental trauma of coming up with anything original on your own. Rudyard Kipling once unknowingly described me when he wrote of someone that "He wrapped himself in quotations, as a beggar would enfold himself in the purple of emperors." I think Ol' Rud and I would have understood each other.

Christopher Morley (1890-1957) was an American author, essayist and poet (from Pennsylvania, no less!) of whom I was relatively unaware until I read this morning in my daily e-mail from Curmudgeon-Online a great quotation attributed to him:

"By the time the youngest children have learned to keep the house tidy, the oldest grandchildren are on hand to tear it to pieces."

Having now nearly eight years of experience in dealing with grandchildren who can reduce a tidy house to rubble faster than a tornado in a trailer park, I believe Mr Morley has hit the nail on its proverbial head. As Agnes and I gear up for the Thanksgiving Family Reunion I wrote about yesterday, part of me asks why I'm bothering to clean the house to white-glove (well, okay, gray-glove) standards when the impending onslaught of grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and children of drop-in friends will make a mockery of the effort in short order. The answer, of course, is that it's just one of those things you've gotta do. After all, it's no fun trashing a house that was already messy, right?

No deep thoughts for today ... just an observation about a few things that seem to go together naturally in the framework of the universe: grandchildren, holidays, and messy houses. The holidays will quickly be only a memory and the grandchildren will grow up too quickly, but you can always put the house back together the way it was.

A quick reminder: if you're in one of the affected localities here in the US, you should have turned your clock back an hour last night to mark the end of Daylight Savings Time. You're welcome.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.


Saturday, November 03, 2007

Holidays Coming - RUN!!

Amanda noted in her blog the other day that it was 55 days until Christmas, and she was in the mood. For Christmas, of course, ha-ha. Here in the US of A, the Christmas retail season usually seems to start about Labor Day (if not earlier), and we face the incongruity of hearing Christmas carols and seeing holiday decorations while we're still going on picnics and wondering who will win the World Series. It makes it a bit harder to stay "up" in the holiday spirit, but this year I'm giving it a better-than-usual shot.

In just a few weeks, almost the entire Clan Bilbo will descend on our house for a Thanksgiving Family Reunion. At last count, we're expecting 15 adults and six children, including all of our children, all the grandchildren, my sister and her family from Pennsylvania (bringing Dad, the Patriarch of the Clan along), my brother from Florida, and assorted friends with no better invitation. It's going to be great, but the prospect of all it involves is daunting: we need a turkey the size of a Volkswagen, which may or may not fit into our new oven; the house needs to be cleaned and organized (where are the armies of elves when you need them?); and much shopping must be done. Amount of food will not be a problem: Agnes always uses the basic planning assumption that the 82nd Airborne Division could land in the yard and need feeding, and cooks one ever goes away from our house hungry unless they're on a hunger strike. Type of food may be an issue: our granddaughter Marcy is still one of the world's premiere picky eaters, and so we'll have to ensure that somewhere on the groaning sideboard is a bowl of Kraft Mac and Cheese.

Despite all the flailing agony of preparation, I'm really looking forward to Thanksgiving. As you know, it's my favorite holiday because it forces me to spend at least one day looking around in wonder and thankfulness at how fortunate I am. Everyone's probably tired of hearing my Thanksgiving Speech before they can eat, but that's too bad: it comes from the heart and I think it needs to be said, if only once a year.

Of course, after Thanksgiving comes The Dreaded Christmas Season. Some things about the Christmas season are truly wonderful:

- Enjoying two weeks of relative calm at work, plus the plethora of pig-out hallway parties that erupt in the Pentagon beginning in early December.
- Watching "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and "Mr Magoo's Christmas Carol" on TV.
- Watching the grandchildren tear into their gifts.
- Listening to my favorite Christmas carols: "Do You Hear What I Hear?" (the Harry Simeone Chorale version); "One of You In Every Size" (Marty Robbins); "Feliz Navidad" (Jose Feliciano); and "White Christmas" (Bing Crosby).

And then there are the things that aren't so wonderful:

- Spending hours cruising parking lots, looking for a space within a day's walk of the store you want to visit.
- Putting up the artificial tree (the helpful color-coding of which is lost on me - I'm color blind).
- Putting five miles of lights on said tree (naturally, the strings of lights don't connect at each end, so we have The Amazing Colossal Rats-Nest O' Wires emerging from the power strip hidden behind the tree).
- Joining seven hundred of my closest friends in the Line From Hell at the Post Office, waiting to mail the packages I waited too long to get ready.


On balance, I'm looking forward to the season. I'll keep you all posted on the unfolding adventure of trying to balance General Curmudgeonly Outlook with Holiday Benevolence and Good Cheer. Gin and tonic helps. So does a dog that's also in the spirit.

That's all for now. If you are here in the US and living in one of the states that observes Daylight Savings Time, don't forget to set your clocks back an hour before you go to bed tonight. You've earned that extra hour of sleep ... as long as you're doing your job (see yesterday's post).

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.