Sunday, September 30, 2007

The 2007 National Book Festival

Yesterday I spent the entire day on the Mall in downtown Washington, DC, attending this year's National Book Festival, sponsored by the Library of Congress. Being an avid reader, this is an event I try not to miss each year - a chance to buy books, listen to presentations by authors, ask them questions, and have them sign copies of their books, and generally people-watch. Last year's festival was marred by chilly temperatures and drizzling rain, but yesterday's weather was glorious - bright sunshine, temperatures in the mid-70's (about 23 celsius for you overseas readers), and a nice breeze blowing all day.

The festival was held in huge tents covering seven blocks along the Mall, each tent devoted to a style of book (Home & Family, Mysteries & Thrillers, History & Biography, Poetry, etc) or a function (book sales, the Library of Congress tent, etc). There were also about 20 small individual pavilions for individual authors to sign copies of their books, and plenty of trailers and kiosks selling food and drinks, and one of the sponsors donated thousands of bottles of water which were distributed free to the attendees.

I took the opportunity to listen to talks by several authors whose work I enjoy:

Joyce Carol Oates (The Gravedigger's Daughter):

Jeff Shaara (The Rising Tide, Gods and Generals):

and Harry Turtledove (The Guns of the South, Household Gods, and many others):

All of the authors took questions from the audience after speaking...I was able to ask Harry Turtledove about his collaboration with Judith Tarr on one of my favorite stories, Household Gods, and he delivered a very entertaining and informative answer.

I spent quite a bit of time waiting in line to get three books signed by the authors: a copy of Harry Turtledove's new alternate history book, The Gladiator; a copy of Michael Oren's new book, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present;and, for Agnes, a copy of the new Thriller by Lisa Scottoline, Daddy's Girl.

Ms Scottoline was very nice; when I told her I hadn't read any of her books, but was getting one for my wife who was a fan, she said, "You mean you stood in line in the hot sun to get this for your wife?" Then she turned to the small crowd waiting in line and shouted, "Let's give this great husband a hand!" She signed the book, "To Agnes with love from your terrific husband and me." Awwwww.....

All in all, it was a great day. In spite of getting myself a world-class sunburn, I was able to meet and talk with some great authors and enjoy a beautiful day on the Washington Mall. There's no doubt I'll be back there again next year...and if you're a reader (as I know many of you are) and you have the chance to attend, you should do it - you won't regret it!

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, September 29, 2007

Turning Up the Heat

At one point yesterday, there were two headline links next to each other on the website. One read something like, "Bush Calls for Action on Global Warming." The other read, "World Turns Up the Heat on Iran."

Does anyone else think there might have been a little editorial ya-ha here, intentional or not?

Back on September 17th, in a post titled "Hot Enough for Ya?", I talked about my views on climate change. The Readers' Digest version of that post was that no matter whether you think climate change is caused by human activity, normal climactic fluctuations, or a combination of both, it's real, it's here, and we have to deal with it. There are still those who steadfastly deny there's a problem, but I recently found absolute proof that climate change is a real threat: the insurance industry has taken notice.

In an article in the Washington Post on September 27th, reporters John Morrison and Alex Sink wrote about how insurance companies are beginning to adjust their policies and strategies for dealing with the insurability problems caused by changes in the world's climate. They note that some insurance firms are refusing to insure property in areas prone to catastrophes, while others are raising their premiums by large amounts to cover expected huge losses in such areas. In short, the insurance companies are doing what they're good at doing: assessing risks and allocating assets. Insurability is likely to be the driving factor in many future business decisions which rely on the climate: what land to develop, what construction standards to impose, and what types of business and residential development to allow. We have to start asking ourselves the hard questions: living on the coast may be nice, but is it worth the risk of rising sea levels, hurricanes and tsunamis? Homes in the hills and forests may offer peace and tranquility, but is it worth the risk of the wildfires that have become annual events? As rainfall patterns and growing seasons change, do we need to reconsider where and how we plant our farms?

Global warming is the crazy aunt in the world's attic. It can only be ignored for so long before action needs to be taken. And if science alone won't convince leaders to act, then perhaps the economics of insurability will.

For more on global warming and climate change, I recommend National Public Radio's excellent series titled Climate Connections which offers information without hysteria. Read, study, and make up your own mind.

And, depending on where you live, start budgeting a lot more for insurance.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, September 28, 2007

A Parable About a Parking Space

You may recall a few weeks back reading my list of things that irritate me, one of them being the tendency of some drivers to block rows in parking lots while they wait for a close-in parking space, although many others may be available a short distance further on.


Earlier this week Agnes called me at work and asked me to pick up a loaf of bread on the way home, and so I dutifully picked up my car and drove to our local Panera bakery (great baked goods, horrific prices). As I entered the parking lot, lo and behold! A car pulled out of the very first space in the row, right smack in front of the bakery. I waited for the car to move on, then slid into the now-empty space. I was changing from my sunglasses to my normal glasses when I heard a loud knock on my window and turned to see an angry-looking young woman standing there. I rolled the window down and she snapped, “I hope you know I was waiting for this parking place!”

I had, in fact, noticed that a car was stopped further down the row, but as it didn’t have its turn signals or backup lights on, I’d ignored it. Here is what I said. (What I was thinking is in parentheses):

“I’m very sorry.”
(Why are you acting like the south end of a northbound horse?).
“I didn’t realize you were waiting for the spot.”
(You might have turned your blinkers and backup lights on to let me know).
“I’ll be glad to move and park somewhere else.”
(A little exercise might kill you, and I don’t need the lawsuit).

Here is what she said:

“Good!” Upon which she turned and stalked back angrily to her car, trailing clouds of righteous indignation.


I dutifully pulled out of the parking place and drove down the row, where I found – directly in front of this woman’s car on the other side of the row – not one, but two open parking places, side-by-side.

I pulled in, parked, locked my car, and walked to the bakery…passing the lady who was trying to maneuver her car into the parking place she just had to have, which was too small. I went into the bakery, bought my loaf of bread, and walked back to my car…again passing the lady who was still trying to jockey her car into the place she’d insisted I vacate. She still hadn’t managed to fit into the spot when I drove past her on the way out of the lot.

I know I shouldn’t be, but I’m still frosted over this little interlude. The open spaces that were right in front of this lady would have made her walk at most another fifteen feet (five meters for you readers overseas). I’m sure it wouldn’t have killed her.

And we wonder why many Americans are overweight.

Okay, I’ve vented, and now I feel better. Tomorrow, I’ll do the post on global warming I’d intended to do before I decided on this.

See you back here then.

Have a good day. And remember: a little walk won’t kill you.


Running Late...

This is one of those mornings when I suffer from the reverse Midas Touch...everything I touch turns to lead. There's just too much to do this morning, and something has to get pushed back. Unfortunately, my usual early-morning blog post is today's victim, forced to yield primacy of my attention to the need to figure out why my checkbook is suddenly about $460.00 off. AARRGGHH! Fortunately, the error seems to be in my favor. Unfortunately, I can't figure out where the mistake is. Sigh...

I'll try to post again later. Just to whet your appetite, my topic will deal with a different spin on the global warming controversy.

And that's not just hot air.

Have a good day. Please check back later on for more thoughts. If you happen to have an extra $460.00, please inquire about making donations to the Rescue Bilbo's Checkbook Fund, available via PayPal.


Thursday, September 27, 2007

Stars: Birthday, Looking At, and Dancing With

Let's talk for a moment about stars: the ones you look at in the night sky, the one that's your birthday star, and the first elimination round on the TV show Dancing with the Stars.

Miss Cellania is posting about birthdays this morning, today being her birthday, and as usual, she has a lot of interesting links to fun and enjoyable spots. One of the featured links is to a site called Birthday Stars, which offers a calculator that identifies your personal birthday star - the star whose light left home on the day you were born. My birthday star turns out to be Tau 01 Hydrae, in the constellation Hydra - the light we see from this star today started its journey 55.8 years ago, meaning it's 55.8 light years away. I find that fascinating.

I'm fascinated by stars in general. The night sky is a wonderful display of the glory of creation that can make one feel either very small and humble, a part of the vastness of the universe, or both. Because I live in a major urban area, much of the grandeur of the night sky is unfortunately washed out by "light pollution," and I have to recall the view from memory. One of my favorite memories is of the first time I saw the Milky Way in all its glory, as I crawled out of my sleeping bag in the remote mountains of southwestern Colorado one early morning in the summer of 1969 - the sight literally took my breath away, and I still remember - and miss - it all these years later.

Which leads us to Dancing with the Stars. For those of you who live outside the US, you may know the show as "Strictly Come Dancing" in the UK, or under some other name elsewhere. It features "stars" of generally lesser magnitude dancing with professional partners through a series of elimination rounds. The latest season of the show started this week, and last night the first of the 12 competing stars was eliminated from the competition: actress/model Josie Maran left the show after dancing a disappointing first-round Slow Foxtrot. On the upside, though, one of my all-time favorite actresses, Jane Seymour, continues on...her Slow Foxtrot with professional dancer Tony Dovolani was a joy to watch. And even better, I realized that she and Agnes and I are all the same age! And if I didn't have a near life-long crush on Ms Seymour, I'd still root for her because of her partner - Agnes and I met and got some coaching from Tony Dovolani while we were competing at the Grand National Ballroom Championships in Miami last year, so we have a bit of a personal connection. grand message today, just a few thoughts on stars of various types.

Have a good day. Go dancing. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Counting Sheep, Stacking Z's, and Checking the Eyelids for Light Leaks

Numeric Life had an interesting and somewhat scary post the other day dealing with the lack of sleep as a health hazard. According to the studies cited, cutting the amount of sleep we get from seven to five hours per night increases the risk of mortality from all causes by 170%, and increases the risk of death from cardiovascular disease by more than 200%.

I now expect to hear people shout "Dead man walking!" every time I enter a room.

I have for years gotten by with five hours of sleep or less per night. I'm an early riser: up every workday morning at 4:10AM, and usually not in bed much before 11:00 PM. Even on weekends and holidays, I'm usually awake by 6:00 AM or so, unable to go back to sleep. I got into the early rising habit early, inheriting it from my father; he was an advertising photographer who needed to get to work in his studio very early so that he could have uninterrupted working time before all the advertising agencies opened up and his phone started ringing. He was seldom up later than 4 AM, and I guess it just rubbed off. And I go to bed late mainly because that's how our lives work: Agnes often isn't home from the dance studio before 9:30 PM, and by the time we have dinner and catch up on the day, it's nearly 11:00. This schedule hasn't bothered me much until recently, but as I close in on 60, I'm finding that I need more sleep. Agnes is the exact opposite - she has always needed much more sleep than I do. Each evening before bed we go through an intricate kabuki dance as she estimates the latest possible time she can get up and still be at work (or wherever) on time...she starts with the time she has to be at the office, then works backward in careful calculation of the amount of time needed to shower, do her hair, eat breakfast, walk the dog, etc, etc...all culminating in the declaration of the time I need to set her alarm to go off. Needless to say, she doesn't do mornings well, while I'm a morning person.

A 1998 article in the Daily Telegraph titled "How Much Sleep Do We Need?" said that the Victorians regarded sleep as an indulgence to be frowned upon, noting that sleeping more than eight hours a night was thought to indicate laziness or a questionable excess of private income. It also quoted Napoleon Bonaparte's famous opinion that six hours sleep was enough for a man, seven for a woman and eight for a fool. I wonder what that makes me with my five hours per night.

When you're young, time spent sleeping is viewed as time wasted that could have been better spent on enjoying life. But I find more and more that I find myself experiencing the dread disease myasis draggin earlier and earlier each day. I guess that burning the candle at both ends is a lot easier when the candle is new and full-sized.

Well, I guess I'll prop the old eyelids open, take the dog for a walk, and head to work. After all, there's a quaint German expression that says Bueroschlaf ist das Beste - the sleep you enjoy at the office is the best. I'll have to try it out.

Have a good day. Get more sleep. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Mr Ahmedinejad Visits Columbia University

I'm not sure whether Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, the President of Iran, completely understood what he was doing when he accepted the invitation to speak and take questions at Columbia University of New York yesterday. He had to know that he wouldn't be particularly popular in a liberal American university, but he came anyhow...I don't know whether that represents a fundamental misreading of the American character or overwhelming hubris or (most likely) both.

I have to say, though, that I was very disappointed in the reception Mr Ahmedinejad received, especially the boorish and uncalled-for ad hominem introduction by Columbia's president Lee Bollinger.

Make no mistake: I think Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is a loathsome human being. His denial of the Holocaust and call for Israel to be "wiped off the map" are hardly comments worthy of the president of a great nation. He ranks "up" there in my estimation with ludicrous blowhard Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. I was appalled at Mr Chavez's comments at the United Nations earlier this year, when he used his speech to belittle President Bush, calling him "the devil" and commenting on the lingering smell of sulfur following Mr Bush's appearance at the same podium. I don't like Mr Bush, but such a childish display of disrespect was uncalled for and worthy of condemnation.

Compare it to Mr Bollinger's introduction of Mr Ahmedinejad yesterday: "you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator." While I happen to agree with Mr Bollinger, all comments like these do are generate sympathy for an otherwise hateful figure, and diminish his own authority as the president of the university. His comments played well with the hometown crowd, but were inappropriate.

And then there was the classic "have you stopped beating your wife yet" moment when Mr Bollinger asked, "Why is your government providing aid to terrorists? Will you stop doing so and permit international monitoring to certify that you have stopped?" How did he expect Mr Ahmedinejad to react?

Freedom of speech is a cherished tradition in this country, although at many universities it seems to be granted only to those whose speech conforms to whichever direction the prevailing winds of political correctness blow. I believe that it's important to let everyone have his say, no matter how hateful or stupid it may be...because it gives other people the chance to hear, evaluate, and argue against those positions. There was some discussion at Columbia as to whether to grant Mr Ahmedinejad a platform from which to express his crackpot ideas, but by exposing those ideas to a skeptical audience we have the opportunity to rebut them and expose them for the intellectual sham they are. This can be done in a respectful fashion without reduction to the sort of ad hominem attacks shown by Mr Bollinger and Mr Chavez.

Mahmoud Ahmedinejad didn't win any friends with his dodging, weaving comments and his tendency to answer questions with other questions. Whatever credibility he might have had vanished in the moment that he denied that there were any homosexuals in Iran (a comment which drew laughter from the audience). He showed himself to be a simplistic intellectual lightweight.

Whatever else one might say about Mr Ahmedinejad, it took guts to face a hostile audience at an American university. Unfortunately, that university didn't cover itself with glory during the visit. One wonders how an American leader addressing a similar gathering in Iran would be received.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, September 24, 2007

The Bubble-Wrapped Child

Yesterday's Washington Post had a very interesting article that may be of interest to those of you who are parents and grandparents. Titled "Buffer the Children, and Imperil Common Sense," the article by Robin Givhan laments the extent to which modern parents "in a certain demographic" go to protect their children from every conceivable illness, accident, or threat. She writes of children on tricycles wearing protective gear, and of how many children are kept away from sports for fear of injury, and from various foods for fear of future obesity, chemical additives, or whatever.

In many ways, she writes of the death of childhood. This is a topic I've thought about for a long time, as a parent and as a grandparent. We do, of course, love our children and want to protect them from injury and's irresponsible not to do so. But where do you draw the line between protection and over protection? If a child is protected from all dangers, how will he or she develop the common sense to recognize and avoid dangers on his or her own? An old saying says that the burned child fears the fire, and the message is clear - the child learns that fire is dangerous by experiencing a brief moment of pain and learning a valuable lifelong lesson.

Things were less complicated in years past. I grew up in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the 1950's and 60's, and at that time the homes in our area were fairly well spread out, with stretches of forest separating me from the homes of many of my friends. It was not unusual for me to walk home after dark through dense woods or along twisting rural streets without illumination. Today, I don't think most parents would dream of letting their children do that - too dangerous. Today, I think that children would be chauffeured door-t0-door ... safer, yes. But then, they don't experience the thrill of the forest at night, or learn how to walk safely along dark streets. My parents always told me not to talk to strangers, but they never went out of their way to wrap me in a no-strangers bubble. How do we teach our children to balance the avoidance of potential danger from bad people with the importance of learning social skills and politeness with strangers?

I think that many of our children nowadays are more sick more often because, paradoxically, many modern parents go to such lengths to keep them away from germs. I believe that such overprotection keeps the children from developing early the resistance to germs that will protect them from more serious illness in the future.

And how about television and the movies? Many parents get hysterical over things like the "wardrobe malfunction" that exposed Janet Jackson's nipple on network TV for a split-second, and yet no one raises an equivalent howl of outrage over the violence and foul language rampant on TV and in the movies. What are we protecting our children from?

In many ways, we've taken the fun out of childhood by being overprotective. In her article, Ms Givhan writes that "Children are assumed to be so fragile that they cannot be jostled." I think children are smarter and more resilient than we give them credit for. They need the minor hurts and scares of childhood to prepare them for the larger hurts and scares of life. We need to re-learn what my parents knew: it's important to let children grow up with guidance, but without the suffocating overprotection that keeps them from learning the common sense that will protect them for the rest of their lives.

Learning that lesson is hard. But no one ever said being a parent was easy. It's especially tough when life gives you the test first...and the lesson later.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, September 23, 2007

An Excess of Left Feet

My name is Bilbo...and I'm a klutz.

As you already know if you've read my profile, or have been reading this blog for long, one of my passions is ballroom dancing. People who know me well are always amazed at this, because two things for which I will never be famous are my sense of direction and my utter lack of coordination...both of which are relatively important for a successful ballroom dancer.

I've managed to do as well as I have in dancing because I've had good teachers and a very patient partner, all of whom have learned to accept that it takes me twice as long to learn patterns as most normal people, and half the time to forget them. I have tried to compensate for poor memory by taking huge numbers of detailed notes: I have a pile of notebooks full of my notes taken during lessons, and three three-ring binders full of the neatly-typed versions of those notes, all of which I study religiously. Unfortunately, it's tough to carry and consult a three-ring binder while actually dancing...not to mention that many of the notes I lovingly take during lessons make absolutely no sense to me when I try to interpret them 24 hours later.

As for coordination, well, the less said, the better. I do eventually learn even complex patterns, but it generally takes quite a while, and I know that I tax the patience of my teachers and of poor, struggling Agnes (whose toes I've stepped on often enough that she's trying to find a place to buy chain mail pantyhose). If a particular pattern requires my left foot to cross behind my right, you can be sure that I will consistently cross right behind left. If I'm supposed to do a left turn, nine times out of ten I'll turn right. I sometimes wish I'd been born coordinated instead of good-looking, ha, ha.

And while I love dancing, I have to admit that I don't enjoy the practice that's required to do it well. My biggest problem with practicing is that I get easily frustrated when I can't get a pattern to work right, or when I can't remember a sequence. The more frustrated I get, the more difficulty I have, until poor Agnes is ready to just take me out and shoot me to put me out of my misery. Or herself out of hers.

But for all that, it somehow always works out. I have enough confidence in my ability to ask strange women (well, stranger than Agnes, anyhow) to dance, and not fear making a total fool of myself. Agnes and I compete in both American and International style ballroom and Latin dance and do pretty well...something I'd never have dreamed of as a geeky klutz standing along the walls of the gym during high-school and college dances.


No ranting or political fulminations for today...just some reflections on a fun pastime I'd never have thought I'd be any good at. Why not try it out yourself? That way, should you happen to be female and in the Washington, DC area, I can ask you to dance!

And I promise you won't need the chain-mail pantyhose.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, September 22, 2007

Weighing the Evidence

There's an interesting article in today's Washington Post titled Blog Comments Become Fodder for Attack Ads which is worth reading and thinking about. We all know that there are literally millions of blogs which strongly focus on one or another political philosophy, candidate, issue, or position. This is what we call Freedom of Speech, and it's a good thing. The problem comes when unsupported and unattributed political rants drawn from blogs are used to fuel the attack ads which are an unfortunate staple of modern political discourse, and when people don't have the time or interest in assessing the truth of the claims made in these ads. This sets the stage for Freedom of Speech to mutate quickly into Freedom of Stupidity.

All together, now: what is Bilbo's First Law? Yes - "Don't let anyone do your thinking for you." As we move closer to the state-level elections in November of this year and the Presidential election next November, it's more important than ever to think clearly about the claims made and accusations leveled by the candidates. While it's natural for us to gravitate to people who share our beliefs, and to take on faith the claims made by those people, such blind belief can be very dangerous. Millions of Germans believed implicitly in Adolf Hitler's ludicrous and racist rantings...and the German nation was nearly destroyed as a result. I like to think that most Americans are smart enough to be skeptical of demagogues, but enough people aren't, and are loud enough about it, to be dangerous.

I encourage you to visit often the website located in my link list, which provides an even-handed, totally fact-based evaluation of the claims made by all sides along the political spectrum. You can also check the new Washington Post "Fact Checker" blog by commentator Michael Dobbs, which tries to do the same thing, but which I view as less nonpartisan that simply because it's tied to a newspaper which has its own editorial biases. The Post's Fact Checker uses a simple graphic to demonstrate the level of untruth in the political statements it examines: from one Pinocchio (indicating "some shading of facts") to four Pinocchios (indicating "whoppers") Gepetto (check mark) indicates "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." But, of course, don't take it as truth - examine the evidence and make up your own mind.

We'll be going to the polls soon, and the stakes are high. You owe it to yourself, your country, and your world to be well-informed on the candidates and the issues. You - and only you - can ask the hard questions the candidates don't want to answer, and decide for yourself if their answers make sense.

But don't believe me, because I'm just another opinionated blogger. Nevertheless, I do have a vested interest in the future your votes will shape.

Don't let me down.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, September 21, 2007

The Dogs (and Cats) of War

It's a bad time to be a mercenary. Not financially, of course, as we have all read in the news about how much "security contractors" are earning to protect US diplomats, facilities, and convoys in Iraq, but in terms of the odor that is now attached to them as a result of reported violent excesses and their apparent exemption from Iraqi, US military, or US civil law.

Mercenaries have always been viewed in this country with a mix of wary suspicion and quiet envy. The Hessian troops who fought for King George III during the American Revolution were, of course, mercenaries and despised by the American colonists. More recently, I have vague memories of a late-50's era television show called "Soldiers of Fortune" which documented the adventures of a pair of mercenaries (although they weren't called that, and were good guys), and Frederick Forsythe wrote a popular novel titled The Dogs of War which told the story of a group of mercenaries hired by a billionaire businessman to overthrow the government of an African nation with valuable mineral deposits. Mercenaries fought in the Belgian Congo (as it was then known) in the 60's, and even today there are magazines which cater to professional soldiers for hire (or wannabes who imagine themselves leading such a life).

The United States government has been forced to rely on "mercenaries" of all sorts to run the war in Iraq. Many years of downsizing the armed forces have forced reliance on contractors to drive trucks in supply convoys, cook meals and provide other noncombat services, and provide security - all because of a lack of soldiers to do those things. One might, depending on the breadth of one's definition, call me a mercenary because I work as a contractor in support of the US Air Force from my small and cluttered desk in the Pentagon. The major reason for the proliferation of "security contractors" such as the much-maligned Blackwater USA, of course, is the shortage of combat troops assigned to Iraq.

Blackwater is currently in trouble because of the alleged random shooting of Iraqi civilians by some of its employees in Baghdad, and the Iraqi government is threatening to revoke the company's permission to operate in the country. This has serious consequences for the State Department, because Blackwater personnel provide the security for American diplomats when they travel to the very dangerous areas outside Baghdad's Green Zone. Combined with the withdrawal of British forces from southern Iraq, it tremendously complicates efforts to provide security, suppress violence, and bring a semblance of order to Iraq.

So, what do we do about the mercenaries? The US can't operate in Iraq without them unless it's prepared to deploy many thousands of additional troops to the country...which, obviously, isn't going to happen. Clearly, more control needs to be exerted over their activities, and while there may be valid reasons for not making them subject to Iraqi law (and that's a long topic for another day in itself), they should at least be subject to the same standards of conduct as US military personnel. Commentator Ralph Peters, in a somewhat hysterical article in the New York Post titled "Lose the Mercenaries," argued that all the mercenaries should be withdrawn from Iraq, and that their employment reflects failed military and civilian planning for the war - a valid point. Nevertheless, Mr Peters goes far over the top in his unfair mocking of the performance, integrity, and valor of State Department personnel assigned to a very difficult and dangerous post.

So what do we do? We can't live with the mercenaries, and we can't live without them. The first, obvious, move is to bring them under strict legal supervision and oversight, holding them to the same standards as our troops. The second is to tie payment to performance (I'm not sure this is actually being done). And the third is to make sure we know who we're hiring - while I'm sure most of the people hired by the firms are solid citizens, the very nature of the business - the application of violence - argues that there will be some very bad men drawn to the hiring office.

We have enough problems in Iraq without shooting ourselves in the moral and public relations foot with out-of-control mercenaries. It's past time to bring them under control, for our sake and the sake of innocent people caught in the crossfire.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Chicken and the Egg

One of the classic unanswerable questions in philosophy is deceptively simple: "Which came first - the chicken or the egg?" Well, obviously, the chicken, you say. How else do the eggs get laid? But then, I answer, where did the egg for the first chicken come from? You can drive yourself crazy trying to follow this circular argument back to its source.

Another chicken-and-egg conundrum, this one with deadly consequences, is the situation in the Middle East. I was thinking about this yesterday in the context of the Israeli government's designation of Gaza as a "hostile entity." Israelis living near the border with Gaza suffer under a rain of crude rockets and mortar shells launched from Gaza, while the Palestinians on the other side suffer under the weight of Israel's military attempts to suppress the attacks. The Hamas partisans claim their rockets are revenge for Israeli oppression, and the Israelis claim their military and economic responses are in retaliation for the Hamas attacks. The Palestinians shout that their attacks avenge the illegal creation of the state of Israel; the Israelis claim their reactions are measures of self-defense against terrorists who deny the very right of Israel to exist.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

The question of whether Palestine should have been partitioned in 1948 to create a Jewish state will be probably be debated for centuries. The Israelis and their supporters will always claim that the creation of Israel was a principled and moral response to the horrors of the Holocaust; the Arabs will always claim that if an Israeli homeland was warranted because of the Holocaust, it should have been established in Europe, where the Holocaust took place. The Israelis will always claim that the areas they call Israel, Judea, and Samaria are the ancestral, biblical homeland of the Jews and they have a right to live there and own the land; the Palestinians will always claim that the Jews left many centuries ago in the diaspora, and so gave up their right to the land.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Mahatma Gandhi once said that the problem with the concept of an eye for an eye is that it eventually leaves everyone blind. The proof is easy to see in the Middle East. One has to wonder how long it will take for everyone to run out of eyes. Or chickens. Or eggs.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Ranting Alert!!

Last evening I was listening to All Things Considered on National Public Radio, a show I always enjoy for its wide variety of interesting topics. This time, though, I found myself utterly infuriated by a story titled "Staying in School Despite an Uncertain Future," produced by a 15 year-old fellow named Christian who is in this country illegally. In telling his story, Christian lamented the direction his life will take once he graduates high school: because he is in the United States illegally, he will be unable to attend many colleges or trade schools, enlist in the military, or get a high-paying professional job. He listed his career options as day laboring, returning to Mexico, or joining a gang, and in a unashamedly tear-jerking segment, he asked his infant brother (who, because he was born here - even to an illegal immigrant - is a US citizen) to compare future life options with him.

What a load of shameless BS!

Christian is in his predicament because his mother chose to break the law and enter the United States illegally. He was four years old when his mother sneaked across the border with Christian and his brother, and entered the illegal underground economy. His unfortunate situation is in no way the fault of an uncaring United States government - it's the fault of his mother who was unwilling to obey the law, and now her children are suffering the consequences of her actions.

Long-time readers of this blog know that I have no sympathy whatever for illegal immigrants. They've chosen to willfully break the law, and have earned the consequences of that choice for themselves and their families. What particularly infuriates me is the hypocrisy and dishonesty of people on both sides of the illegal immigration argument: those favoring full rights and forgiveness for illegal immigrants never use the word "illegal" - they prefer the linguistic dodge of "undocumented," and try to turn the argument against those who oppose them by using the all-purpose accusation of racism and "anti-immigrant(ism)."

On the other hand, the shameless refusal of those in our government to make the hard decisions and update our immigration laws is equally infuriating. Both Republicans and Democrats pander shamelessly to Hispanic voters by refusing to take necessary action while all the time mouthing platitudes about the importance of immigrants (never using the adjective "legal" to put it in context) to the United States.

I don't recall the last time I saw any demonstrations arguing for the rights of illegal immigrants to, say, Myanmar. Or Saudi Arabia. Or Mexico. Or Bukina Faso. No one wants to go to those garden spots, of course...they want to come to the United States, where people of all races and religions live together peacefully and have worked together to build the nation everyone hates but in which everyone wants to live.

As my regular readers know, I have put my money where my mouth is by sending a detailed immigration reform plan to my elected representatives and to the President, all of whom have responded with form letters featuring variations on "this-is-a-serious-issue-thanks-for-your-interest. Don't-let-the-door-hit-your-fanny-as-you-leave." But not one of them has come up with a plan any better than mine. Or any plan, for that matter.

So, Christian, I'm sorry for your situation, but it's not my problem to fix it. Your mother was looking for a better life for you when she brought you here illegally eleven years ago, but by deliberately breaking the law, she condemned you and your brother to a shadow existence and the limited future options of the underground economy. Go back to Mexico and help fix the problems there...or if you don't want to live in your own country, visit the US Embassy and apply to come here legally, and enjoy all the benefits that status provides.

But quit making dishonest, tear-jerking radio broadcasts moaning about how the Big, Bad US is holding you down.

And as for my American citizen readers, remember that we have elections coming up in November, and again next year for President. Ask those incumbents running for reelection exactly what they've done to solve the illegal immigration crisis. I think you'll find the answer is "nothing." Ask those running for the first time where they stand on the issue, and listen for the level of detail in the answer.

And remember it when you cast your vote.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

In Search of Elusive Sartorial Elegance

It had to happen sooner or later...people of good sense have finally realized that - gasp! - wearing one's pants halfway down one's fanny looks stupid!

Yes, good fashion sense is beginning to prevail, and according to CNN (and numerous other news outlets), many localities are beginning to ... uh ... crack down on low-riding baggy pants that let one's underwear (or more) show.

I've written about this before, shaking my virtual head in disbelief that people would willingly look silly, with baggy pants, disheveled shirts, and hats worn askew, all showcased by a slouching, lazy walk. I didn't realize, until I read yesterday's CNN story, that the baggy pants look was based on the look of prison inmates who aren't allowed to wear belts on their loose trousers (because they could be used as weapons, or to commit suicide).

Why on earth would anyone in their right mind want to imitate the look of a prison inmate?

Perhaps we have turned the corner and are finally seeing the backlash against the so-called "thug culture" glorified by hip-hop and rap artists. Can it be that young people are finally realizing that good manners and education are more important to a successful life than poor dress and grooming and an in-your-face attitude?

Of course, there are good things about loose, baggy, low-riding pants...I remember several news stories about would-be thieves who snatched purses or held up stores, then tripped over their own pants while trying to make an escape. I guess I'll take justice however it arrives.

So pull up those pants, put your hat on straight, and mind your manners. Your mother will be proud.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, September 17, 2007

Hot Enough for Ya?

It's been said (by yours truly and by others more eloquent and learned than I) that the real cause of Global Warming is the hot air generated by politicians, businessmen, and scientists on all sides of the issue. As I've written here before, I believe Global Warming is real, whether the cause is human activity (as the environmental lobby charges), natural fluctuations in the climate (favored by politicians and businesses, because it removes the need to take any potentially unpopular actions), or a combination of the two (Bilbo's theory).

I don't think you need to be a Nobel Laureate with a bunch of letters after your name to see that the climate is changing, no matter what the reason. And this leads to the obvious conclusion that it would be prudent to consider what actions we should take to ameliorate the effects of the change...such as altered growing seasons, rising sea levels, changing rainfall patterns, etc.

I thought about this the other day when I read a very interesting article in the German news magazine Spiegel Online titled Islanders Without an Island: What Will Become of Tuvalu's Climate Refugees?. The article posits the interesting question of what happens when a nation actually this case, by being lost beneath rising ocean levels. If there's no more nation, what nationality are the citizens? Where do they go? It's a sobering question on many levels: moral, legal, practical, and scientific, and it really points out the questions we need to ask and the plans we have to make, regardless of why the climate is changing.

No matter where you stand on the issue, it's real. Sticking our heads into the proverbial sand won't solve the practical problems that are coming up. We need to get practical, rather than parochial.

Because I like spending time at the beach...but not when the beach is in West Virginia. Or Central Europe.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. - Yesterday's post on awful songs led to a comment from The Mistress of the Dark, who said that "...any of the melodramatic oldies about boyfriends/girlfriends that were killed make the list. Not only are they depressing but they are bad." After reading that, I remembered (too late for my original post, naturally) a joke by a 1960's era comedian about such songs: he noted that the song "Tell Laura I Love Her," about the last words of a teenage idiot killed in a drag racing accident, had a sequel (there really was one) called "Tell Tommy I Miss Him." And the comic's idea was that the sequel to that one should have been, "Tell Laura Tommy Ain't Up Here." You've just gotta love it!


Sunday, September 16, 2007

Really Bad Music

As I come down off the high of yesterday's 25th anniversary and look forward to this afternoon's visit with our newest grandchild, I had a hard time figuring out which of the ideas in my bloggers notebook I wanted to take on today. And then I was reading The Mistress of the Dark's blog this morning and decided to look back into my misspent past for an idea...

I've always been a lover of radio, perhaps as a result of having both a vivid imagination and a love of music. One of my early heroes was KDKA radio's great personality Rege Cordic, whose show featured some of the funniest routines and goofiest characters you can imagine. One of his funniest bits was his live reporting from the ancient Roman gladiator fights ("...and Spartacus is down, and here's the count: I ... II ... III ... IV ...!"), which gives you an idea of what he was like. Many years later, I had the opportunity to host my own radio program on the local public access radio station, and I used the Rege Cordic model. One of my recurring characters was Wallace Goldersnobble, the Fairfax County Curmudgeon-at-Large (now my blog persona)...the fellow always complaining about something. Another feature was "The Toxic Jukebox," in which I played the worst songs I could find.

Which, in my long and windy way, brings me to the point.

The Mistress of the Dark's Top 5 List on Friday was of "depressing songs." While I'm not in the mood to be depressed today, it did get me to thinking about the old Toxic Jukebox and the really awful songs I had stored there (with appropriate bubbling-cauldron sound effects). There are songs that seem deliberately written to be awful (Walk the Dinosaur by Was (not Was) comes to mind), and there are those not meant to be awful that just ... well ... are. I've Never Been to Me by Charlene is a classic example.

So what are your thoughts? What are the most annoying, awful songs you can think of. What are the songs that, if they come on, make you want to unplug your radio and throw it out the window, then run over it with your car to make sure it's dead?

My list includes (in addition to the two above):

William Shatner's cover of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (gold medalist);

Almost anything rap, heavy metal, or acid rock (I'm not violent, racist, and misogynistic enough to enjoy rap, and I value my hearing too much for heavy metal and acid rock).

No Charge, by Melba Montgomery, and Teddy Bear, by Red Sovine (hideous tear-jerkers).

Any other ideas?

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, September 15, 2007

25 Years!

Today is the 25th anniversary of the day on which Agnes and I were married in our local registry office (Standesamt) in Berlin, Germany. Our witnesses were my friend Ken and Agnes's friend Andrea, and Agnes's daughter Yasmin (now my adopted daughter) was our flower girl and overall supervisor. It was a beautiful fall morning and the service, performed by a local registry official (Beamterin) was very nice. Because Ken and I were Americans, she insisted on performing the entire service in both German and English (unnecessary, as both Ken and I spoke German, but rules are rules, and I suppose she wanted to make sure I really understood what I was getting into).

The road to that moment began on a Berlin street about seven months before, when I was trying to maneuver my big American car into a European-sized parking place. I had just about gotten myself lined up when a little orange Opel Rekord came zipping out of nowhere, cut me off, and deftly slid into my parking place. As I sat there looking on in frustrated disbelief, a young woman hopped out of the car, grinned and waved, and disappeared into the building that was my destination. As luck would have it, a parking place opened up moments later about a block ahead, and I managed to park my Strassenkreuzer. I hiked into the building and as I rounded the turn of the stairwell to the apartment I was visiting for a party, the door was open and my friend Jeri, the hostess, was just welcoming...the woman who had just stolen my parking place! The lady and I traded dagger-glances, and Jeri looked from one of us to the other and asked innocently, "Oh...have you two met?" "In a manner of speaking," I replied.

The aggressive parking place filcher was, of course, Agnes. We got to know each other at the party, began dating not long afterward, and ended up in the Standesamt on the morning of September 15th, 1982. It was my revenge...she hasn't stolen a parking place from anyone since.

In the last 25 years (that's a quarter of a century, gasp!) I have learned many things and had many adventures, but not once have I regretted the step I took on that September morning. Agnes and I agree on most things (but not everything, of course), and she's always there kicking me in the fanny when I get my attacks of procrastination. It's said that behind every successful man is a woman pushing like hell, and that's certainly true of us...much of what I've accomplished, I've accomplished because she helped me overcome my natural inertia to get it done.

We now have between us three wonderful and successful children, four fabulous grandchildren, and all the physical and emotional bruises that come along with them...but I wouldn't trade any of it for anything. If it weren't for Agnes, I would never on my own have signed up for ballroom dance lessons, much less gotten to the point where I would actually compete (and win) in ballroom competitions. I probably wouldn't have developed into a passable gourmet chef without her gentle (sometimes not-so-gentle) prodding. And I certainly wouldn't have had the travel and adventures in German culture I've enjoyed without her.


As I look forward to the next 25 years, I can only hope that others will find their lives as happy and enriched through the choice of the right partner as I've found mine.

Oh, yes...Agnes is happy, too. She's found someone who can chop onions, kill marauding bugs, and retrieve items from the shelves she can't reach. Maybe I was a bargain after all.

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


Friday, September 14, 2007

Where to Now?

The past week has been notable for three things: the long-expected and much-anticipated report to Congress by Gen David Petraeus on the situation in Iraq; President Bush's endorsement of Gen Petraeus's report; and the predictable and disappointing reaction of everyone to the first two.

Those who oppose the war decided long before Gen Petraeus ever left Baghdad with his briefing charts that he wasn't to be believed. had gone so far as to run a full-page ad in the New York Times featuring an ad hominem attack based on Gen Petraeus's name. Members of Congress had gone on record either supporting or rejecting the General's comments before he ever made them. And, predictably, President Bush's address to the nation last night was received along party lines...either a masterful and statesmanlike approach to a difficult situation (the Republican view) or a craven use of a browbeaten general as political cover to continue a bankrupt course of action (the Democratic view).

Both sides are full of ... well ... stuff.

Regardless of how one feels about the war (and my position on it should be no surprise to any of you by now), one has to be depressed at the simplistic, knee-jerk reactions. Gen Petraeus is a man with the worst job in the world, stuck with having to win (or, at least, not lose) an unpopular war while being castigated by war opponents as a political hack of the President and shamelessly used by war supporters as a shield to deflect negativity from the administration.

The war in Iraq, begun in error, waged on the cheap, and spinning off ugly consequences every day, has been a disaster that wrecked Iraq, tarnished America's reputation around the world, and has led to an unprecedented attack on the Constitution by an administration anxious to save something from the wreckage. But that said, we're rather stuck. We've punched the tar baby, and now we have to deal with the consequences. I support withdrawing from Iraq, but I know that a precipitous withdrawal would be both irresponsible and immoral. The Iraqis will never try to reconcile themselves and rebuild their nation as long as the United States is available as a convenient whipping boy on which to blame their own failure to seize the opportunity presented by our sacrifices. We need to hold our noses and develop a rational plan that gradually extricates us from a bad situation while recognizing our responsibility for creating it in the first place.

Instead of running full-page ads in newspapers to insult Gen Petraeus, why not spend the money and the intellectual capital to come up with suggestions for a realistic and responsible course of action? Instead of shouting down the General while he tries to testify, why not present a calm, rational position based on a clear-headed analysis of the situation? Why not agree to stop the stupid and simplistic bumper-sticker approach to smearing one's opponents: Republicans characterizing Democrats as "intent on surrender," and Democrats castigating Republicans as cynically trading lives for oil, why not work together to develop a responsible policy?

As fantasies go, I guess this one is as safe as any. And as unlikely to be realized.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Things We Believe

Monday is generally protest day at the I ride the escalator up from the Metro station and emerge into the daylight, there are usually anywhere from two or three to a few dozen protesters lined up behind the police barricades. Most just stand there quietly holding up signs, and there are one or two Buddhist monks beating on their little drums and chanting. Occasionally things get more...interesting. On dates like Good Friday and the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, there are sometimes much larger and far less well-behaved crowds trying to surge past the barricades, shouting insults at us as we go to work, and occasionally throwing bags of animal blood and such, then denouncing the police for denying them their right to free speech when they get arrested and hauled away.

What constitutes Freedom of Speech is sometimes a matter of who is doing the speaking.

This past Monday, there was a fellow at the protest line holding a sign that read "9/11 was an inside job." He was clearly one of those fringe persons who believe, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the U.S. government planned and carried out the attacks of 9/11 in order to provide an excuse for going to war. There's also a small and vocal sub-group that insists that the Pentagon was struck by a missile fired from an Air Force fighter, rather than a hijacked airliner.

Some people will believe anything. I have long wondered why people are willing to believe some of the things they do, clinging in the face of all logic and evidence to some amazingly stupid concepts of vast conspiracies and downright silly ideas. From 9/11 conspiracy theories to Holocaust denial to the belief in "creation science," people cling to some very strange ideas. Why?

There's a fascinating book by Michael Shermer titled Why People Believe Weird Things, and it's worth reading if you have the time and inclination. The entire book is good, but if you only have time to read part of it, read chapter 3, "How Thinking Goes Wrong: Twenty-five Fallacies That Lead Us to Believe Weird Things." Shermer divides the fallacies into four general categories: problems in scientific thinking; problems in pseudoscientific thinking; logical problems in thinking; and psychological problems in thinking. A full description of all these is beyond the scope of this short post, but if you're interested, read the book or e-mail me ( for more details. Taken together, these 25 fallacies paint a very convincing picture of why people will cling to the most bizarre and outrageous beliefs.

Commentator Thomas Friedman once said that if you can't explain something to people in the Middle East without using a conspiracy theory, they won't believe it. Part of that is a result of inadequate education based on narrow religious constraints, part of it is the desire to blame someone else for their problems, and part of it is the lack of a tradition of skeptical, logical thinking. One of my recurring themes in this blog is this: don't let anyone do your thinking for you...least of all me. Weigh the evidence, consider the alternatives, and make up your own mind. As Mr Shermer says, cogita tute - think for yourself.

And don't waste everyone's time standing in front of the Pentagon with a sign advertising how stupid you are.

Have a good day. More thoughts on this topic tomorrow.


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Day After

Yesterday I wrote about how I survived the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon by the great good fortune of being on the opposite side of the building from where the aircraft hit. People are always a bit surprised, though, when I tell them that in some ways, September 12th was worse for those of us who survived the original attack.

The leadership of the Defense Department was anxious to show that, although we'd suffered a terrible blow, we were still up and running, and so those of us who worked in undamaged parts of the building were told to report to work as usual on September 12th. This turned out to be an adventure.

First of all, the Metrorail station underneath the Pentagon was closed, so we had to get off at the Pentagon City (shopping center) station and walk from there through the pedestrian tunnel under Interstate Highway 395, across the vast south parking lot, and into the building - a bit less than a quarter of a mile. We were stopped at each end of the pedestrian tunnel for an ID check, and then stopped again as we approached the building, where every package, parcel, and briefcase was searched before we could enter. Soldiers in full combat gear were everywhere, emergency equipment and workers were still assembling and organizing, and smoke and flames were still rising from the shattered side of the building.

Once inside the building, we saw more roving troops in full kit, and the air was foul - the internal air circulation system was still working, and it was pulling smoke, fumes, and soot from the burning side of the building and spreading it through the rest of the structure. I work in a secured vault space, and although our telephones, computers, and electricity all continued to work without interruption, our air was awful. About midmorning, people from the Air Force Flight Surgeon's office came by and passed out paper filter masks for us to wear...a bit like locking the barn door after the horse runs off, but a welcome gesture nevertheless.

By lunchtime, we'd all had about as much as we could stand...our eyes were watering and burning, and the air wasn't getting any better, and so we all went home.

We were, of course, back at work the next day, and the days after that, and gradually over the coming weeks the intense security and searches eased up. The fire was finally put out after a few days (it had spread from the original impact area through the old wooden parts of the roof) and the air handlers gradually got the soot and stench out of the air.

Today, six years later, the building is better than new. As a result of the around-the-clock labors of the workers of the Phoenix Project, the damaged sections of the building have been repaired and replaced, with many new safety features based on the lessons learned on that terrible day. A memorial is being built outside the building, and a beautiful memorial chapel now occupies the space where Flight 77 slammed into the building.

Even bad memories fade with time, and the horror of September 11, 2001 has gradually receded to be replaced with second-guessing and the wild conspiracy theories. I'll talk more about that tomorrow. Today, I'll continue to enjoy being alive to thumb my nose at those whose solution to the world's problems involves hate and murder.

Three of my grandchildren have been born since that awful day. I owe it to them to make the world they'll inherit a safer place.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

September 11th

Six years ago this morning, I was sitting at my desk in the Pentagon with my co-workers crowded around, watching the CNN website in horror as first one, then another hijacked airliner crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. About 20 minutes later, we felt the building shake and heard a deep, rumbling boom as American Airlines flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon. We evacuated the building and made it to our emergency rally point safely, where we watched enormous clouds of inky smoke laced with red and orange flames roll into the bright blue morning sky. We heard what we thought were two more explosions, but which we later learned were the sonic booms of two Air Force fighter aircraft arriving too late to do anything but watch the devastation.

We had evacuated the building in a rush, and so I didn't have my car keys (in the briefcase under my desk) or my cell phone (locked in my car). I borrowed a cell phone to call Agnes and let her know I was safe, but the volume of calls had collapsed all the local cellular networks. I ended up waiting in line for an hour and a half for a pay phone at the Pentagon City Mall, and then waiting nearly another hour for a Metrorail train with enough space for me to squeeze aboard and get to our local station, where my daughter picked me up.

I was hugely inconvenienced and badly frightened on that September morning six years ago, but I was fortunate. Almost 3,000 people died that morning, and the world has not been the same since.

As an American, one learns early on that Yankee Go Home is an English phrase most foreigners know by heart, and that we will generally be blamed for all the ills of the world, no matter whose fault they are. But it wasn't until that morning six years ago that we realized there are people in the world so consumed with mindless hate and fired by arrogant religious bigotry that they would happily kill themselves if it meant they could kill us at the same time...and that thousands of others would dance in the streets of the Middle East in celebration, even as they happily accepted our foreign aid. We learned that while the Bible tells us to turn the other cheek in response to hurts, there are those who would happily hit us with the other fist.

Six years later, many of those who planned and financed the attacks of September 11th have been captured or killed. Osama bin Laden and his pet snake, Ayman al Zawahiri still live and still encourage others to attack us. From a position of unity driven by extreme adversity, our government has degenerated into a gaggle of squabbling, unfocused people more interested in scoring political advantage than in punishing the guilty. Allies who once were glad to stand with us in a time of danger have been marginalized and turned into skeptics, if not opponents, by the ill-considered actions of the Bush administration.

On this September 11th, instead of the heads of bin Laden and al Zawahiri on pikes in the crater of the World Trade Center, we have squabbling partisan politicians picking at the testimony of General David Petraeus, the man trying his best to salvage something from the wreckage of our administration's adventure in Iraq.

And we wait for another shoe to fall.

On this September 11th, as in every September 11th for the rest of my life, I will be reminded of the depths of depravity that twisted religious beliefs can reach, and that a world happy to accept American handouts is equally happy to cheer those who would kill us.

The world changed six years ago. Unfortunately, in a deep and cobwebbed part of my heart, so did I. Where I once had a certain sympathy for those who suffer in the Middle East, I now have nothing but contempt. As a Christian, however non-practicing, I think that's a sad thing.

In The Divine Comedy, Dante wrote that there were seven levels of Hell. On this September 11th, I hope there are still deeper and more terrible depths reserved for the likes of the bin Ladens and the al Zawahiris and the other religious radicals of the world.

And even that is better than they deserve.

I'll be over this funk by tomorrow. In the meantime, have a good day. More thoughts coming.


Monday, September 10, 2007

Machines Still Hate Me

A few weeks ago, I ranted in this space about how the machines in my life were ganging up on me to make life miserable and drive me crazy (Agnes would tell you this is a mere putt, not a drive, but that's not important now). As of this morning, a new machine has joined the conspiracy.

Some time back we bought a new set of spiffy cordless phones which included a base station with answering machine and two remote phones. One of the reasons I selected this model was that one could also purchase a special remote station which included a clock radio, and this appealed to my desire to minimize the clutter on my nightstand. By combining phone and clock radio, I thought I could leave more room for piles of books and the bottle of water for those late-night cravings.


The clock-radio-phone is nice looking, but the radio's volume control has two settings - "off" and "too loud" - separated by about four nanomicrons of space on the volume control. In order to get the volume loud enough to wake me up, yet low enough that it won't wake up Agnes (who is not nearly as beautiful and loving when unnecessarily awoken), requires the supremely exact positioning of the volume control at exactly the right spot. And that supremely exact positioning can be knocked askew to the "off" end by the least vibration...such as when Amanda's son Aaron sneezes in Brisbane, or John bumps the table while removing a rabbit from a hat during his show. This morning, one or the other of those events seems to have happened, as the alarm went off as scheduled at 4:10 AM, but with the volume off. Happily, I automatically awoke about a half-hour later, so I won't be late for work (and will still get this post done, lucky you!)...but I still have to contend with the fact that my clock radio has joined the Conspiracy of the Machines.

Looks like I'll be trying to find a new alarm clock. And somehow keep it away from the evil designs of the other devices.

Wish me luck.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. - I just had to pass this recipe on to you...I found it in an Austrian cookbook over the weekend, and just had to make it, if only because of the name. It's delicious, and not nearly as much trouble as it may appear at first:

Maidens in Their Nightgowns

1 package frozen puff pastry (two pieces)
1 pork tenderloin
Chopped Rosemary
Chopped Parsley
12 oz mushrooms, sliced
4 slices deli ham
1 egg, beaten

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees (200 degrees Celsius).
Defrost the puff pastry, separate the two pieces, and roll each out to a thickness of about 1 mm. Separate the halves of the tenderloin, rinse and pat dry, and season with salt, pepper, and rosemary. Fry the tenderloin halves in butter until well-browned and almost cooked through, then remove them from the pan and allow them to cool.
In the same pan, adding more butter if needed, lightly fry the parsley, then add the mushrooms and fry them until soft.
Form the “maidens” by placing two ham slices on each piece of puff pastry, then placing a tenderloin half on each. Spoon the mushrooms over the tenderloin halves, then wrap the filet in the puff pastry and seal the edges by pressing them together with water. Pierce each one a few times to let any steam escape. Decorate each maiden with any extra pieces of pastry, brush with the beaten egg, and bake about 25 minutes.
Serve with a cabbage salad and a nice white wine.

Let me know if you make it...I'm curious to know if everyone else thinks it's as good as I did.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Stop the Presses! - Study Confirms Men Prefer Hot Women!

From our Department of the Blindingly Obvious: CNN recently reported the results of a study which confirms that, given a choice, men prefer good-looking women. Well, who'd a thunk it? The report also confirms something else most of us always knew: that women tend to be more choosy than men when it comes to selection of mates.

Speaking as a card-carrying, red-blooded, well-trained American male, I can tell you that no one needed to spend a lot of money on a scientific study to tell me that I prefer attractive women. I did marry Agnes, after all. And the idea that women would be equally, if not more, choosy makes perfect sense in many ways as well (after all, once they choose the guy, they're likely going to be raising his children, and so they have a vested interest in selecting for quality). No rocket science, here.

Some time back, Numeric Life posted an article about a study of women's strategies in mate selection, and the difference between selection of "dads" (chosen for long-term potential for support and healthy children) and "cads" (those who were losers when viewed over the long term, but were fun for a short "fling" now). Not surprisingly, good looks tended to figure more prominently in the selection of the "cads" than the "dads." And the men...well, as the old joke says, a man given the choice between a woman with dual PhDs in higher mathematics and quantum molecular biology, and a woman who is a world-class author and political theorist, will generally choose the one with the largest breasts.

Now, having said all that, I have to admit that I don't see anything wrong with initial selection of a prospective mate (or a dance partner, or a date, or whatever) on the basis of looks. After all, when you first look at a person, it's not intially obvious that he or she is financially stable, well-educated, a brilliant conversationalist, or a splendid companion. Like me, for instance, har-de-har, har, har. What lies beneath the surface emerges only after the initial contact and the getting-to-know-you phase of a relationship, at which point the factors more important for sustaining a long-term relationship become more important. As I've commented here before, and as we all know deep down, whether we want to admit it or not, none of us is going to look like Brad Pitt or Scarlett Johansson forever. All the diet and exercise in the world won't keep time at bay forever...the muscles will eventually soften, the breasts will go south, and that gorgeous mane of raven hair that caught your attention in the crowd will eventually go gray. If there isn't something else to keep your interest once all that happens, well, you're going to be pretty unhappy pretty fast.

I'm a realist. I'm not a bad-looking fellow, if not in the movie star class. But more than 30 years ago, when my former wife set her trap line for me, I was far from the handsome devil I am today (to see what I mean, surf back to my July 2007 post titled "Five Generations" for pictures showing Bilbo at age 23 and at age 55). There will be no doubt in your mind that my former wife chose for the long term, rather than for my rock-jawed good looks. And Agnes chose me for her own reasons...I don't know how much of it depended on my physical appearance, but I think I was strongly helped by the fact that she's nearsighted. For my own part, I was fortunate that the lady who I found so physically attractive also turned out to be smart, witty, and willing to put up with my quirks (of which there are many, let me tell you).


Yes, we make our initial choice of partners on the basis of looks. So what? So do almost all animals. But when we make that choice for the long haul, most of us do tend to look for the things that will contribute to a long, healthy, and successful relationship. Next weekend, Agnes and I will celebrate our 25th anniversary.

Which, I think, proves my point.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Latest News from Under a Rock in Pakistan

It had to happen again, sooner or later. Yes, that paragon of peace, love, and understanding, Osama bin Laden, has once again crawled out from under his rock and issued yet another bombastic and hectoring message to the world.

I don't know who's the bigger fool - bin Laden or the people who eagerly swallow whole his empty message of hate and intolerance. Why do so many consider this despicable fiend who planned and financed the cold-blooded murder of some 3,000 people a hero? Why does anyone pay attention to his rambling lectures?

Above all, why does no one ask the question that seems to me to be so obvious: why does this multi-millionaire spend his time paying for acts of terror and murder and recording hate videos when he could spend the same money on schools, hospitals and critical infrastructure for the Palestinians about whom he professes to care? Why do we ask ourselves why this hateful creature's beard is dark rather than gray, instead of asking why he doesn't channel his money and his organizational talents into building a future for the Arab-Muslim world? Why do we not point out to a credulous Middle Eastern public that idolizes such a vile being that instead of churning up hatred for Muslims in the West, he could be helping relieve the miserable situation of people in Gaza and the West Bank?

I've said it before, and I'll keep saying it: it's easier to blame someone else for your failings than to look inward and fix the problems yourself. This is the curse of the Muslim world - by seeing the entire world as an enemy seeking to oppress it, instead of a potential friend with whom it could live in peace and shared prosperity, it has doomed itself to an endless cycle of misery and ultimate irrelevance. Mosques may be crowded with fervent believers, but what is the price of that unquestioning, blind faith? The price tag is high: poverty, misery, violence and hate in the here-and-now in exchange for a mystical eternal life.

I don't see why anyone would see that as a bargain.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, September 07, 2007

Armageddon Insurance, Part 2

Yesterday, I started a discussion based on an article from Spiegel Online about a serious suggestion to create an "alternate Earth" on the moon...a storehouse of human knowledge and artifacts that would survive if some disaster overtook us here on Earth. The question I've been thinking about, and which I invited your thoughts on, was this: what five things would you put into the "ark" if you had the chance to vote? I threw off the number "five" without much thought, but as I considered the problem more, I found that I couldn't come up with that many really important things to go into the perpetual storage vault. Here are the three suggestions I finally came up with:

1. The contents of the major libraries of the world. Books, particularly if printed on acid-free paper, will survive where technology-sensitive media won't (can you still listen to those eight-track tapes? Or recover data from those 5-1/4 inch floppy disks?).

2. Black and white photographs of as many people, plants, animals, and things as possible. I
limit it to black-and-white because there aren't any color photo dyes I'm aware of that will last for millenia without fading away...good old B&W will probably survive better.

3. Seeds of as many types of plants as possible.

Why so few? Well, the need to avoid reliance on complex technology for information retrieval is an obvious one, as I mentioned in #1 above. Animals (including humans) won't survive unless we master some sci-fi type of suspended animation. And machines will probably degrade over time to become useless...better to include the books that would tell future generations how to build the machines.

All of the above assuming, of course, that we can still read those books millions of years from now (see my post titled "Don't Dig Here!" from a few days back).

Any other ideas?

Well, I'm officially tired of thinking about doomsday. Tomorrow, we'll take up a new and, hopefully, less depressing topic. In the meantime, you may want to visit It Is a Numeric Life and take her survey on your life's regrets, or A Little Night Music and offer your thoughts on the things you'd do over if you had the chance. I'll be doing both later today.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, September 06, 2007

Armageddon Insurance

A recent article in the German newsmagazine Spiegel Online discussed the proposal by a group of scientists to create a "backup Earth" on the moon, a warehouse-library of human scientific and cultural achievements that would survive us in the event of nuclear war, plague, or some other natural or man-made disaster that wiped out much of humanity. This is an interesting concept, and it raises more than the usual level of interest for me because it comes on the heels of my finishing of the book The World Without Us, which I mentioned in a previous asks the question: what will happen to all our works once we're gone?

It's disheartening that we need to think about things like this, but it's important. We humans have a long and tortured history of violence which by itself has destroyed much of our history in terms of burned libraries, destroyed artworks, and so on. And, of course, nature plays its part as well: how many things worth preserving are lost each year in floods, wildfires, tornadoes and hurricanes, etc? The idea of a storage place beyond the earth is a compelling one, even if it's unfortunate that we have to even consider such a thing.

I love good science fiction stories, and the idea of how mankind would recover from a world-shattering disaster is a staple of science fiction. Steven King's novel The Stand is a great, if hugely overwritten, example, as is the classic sci-fi story A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller. It makes for great "what-if" reading, even if it's a frightening concept.

So here's the question: if we were to create a "Space-Age Noah's Ark" on the moon, what should it contain? If you had the opportunity to select five things to go into the ark, what would they be?

I'll give you my list tomorrow. In the meantime, it might be a good idea to start working together to make sure that if we ever need such a distant repository, it's because of something nature did, and not something we did to ourselves.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Things That Make Me Feel Good

Yesterday I borrowed an idea from Serina Hope and took the opportunity to vent a little curmudgeonly spleen about things that get on my nerves. I've found that as I get older, there are more and more things that irritate me, and each year I suffer fools less gladly. But on the other hand, I tend to be a generally positive and upbeat sort of person and so, in the interest of balancing things out, here is the list of things that never fail to make me feel good:

1. A smile on the face of a baby.

2. Being mobbed by my grandchildren.

3. Beautiful sunrises and sunsets.

4. The smell of baking bread.

5. Eating a dinner I cooked myself, using herbs grown in my own garden.

6. The adoration of our granddog (see the photo in my profile).

7. Mountain vistas (you can find some glorious photos at Jill's blog Up in Alaska, which documents her cycling adventures across our northern frontier. Ansel Adams is one of my heroes, too.).

8. Walking in the woods, or along a shore, especially at dawn or dusk.

9. Reading (out on the deck in the spring and fall, in the shade in the summer, and in my easy chair in front of the fire in winter. Or in bed before drifting off to sleep. Or on the Metro on the way to and from work. Or at the table. Or while in the bathroom. Or...well, you get the idea.).

10. Listening to music.

11. Gardening (yanking out those weeds is a great way to get rid of excess aggression and energy!).

12. Waking up in the morning next to Agnes (she's warm, she smells good, and I love her. How much more could I want?).

13. Dancing a waltz with a beautiful lady.

14. Blogging, and reading the comments my random thoughts bring out from others (trading electrons is no substitute for good old face-to-face human interaction...but then, I'd probably never have met anyone from Palembang, Indonesia otherwise - right, Amanda?).

15. Cruise vacations (we've done the inside passage of Alaska and the Eastern Caribbean so far. As soon as I win the lottery, we'll do all the rest!).

Well, this didn't quite turn out to be a top-ten list...which, I guess, goes to show that there are more things that make me feel good than things that grind my gears. On the whole, I suppose that's a good thing.

And it's always a good thing, at a time when we're surrounded by news of disaster, war, hatred, intolerance, and bigotry, to think about the things which make life worth living. Think of it as a way to recharge your battery of life.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.


Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Things That Get on My Nerves

Yesterday evening I was reading Serina Hope's blog in which she listed ten things that get on her nerves. It got me to wondering what kind of curmudgeon I was if I couldn't do the same. So, with thanks to Serina Hope, here is your list of ten things guaranteed to get on Bilbo's nerves (not listed in any particular order):

1. People who get into the supermarket express lane with more than the allowed number of items, then get belligerent when you point it out to them.

2. People at the supermarket who let the cashier finish ringing up their merchandise before suddenly realizing that payment is expected...and then fishing around at great length in the cluttered depths of a vast purse in search of a checkbook or debit card...or digging out a mass of crumpled bills and loose change and laboriously trying to count out the exact amount.

3. Blocking traffic in a parking lot while waiting to get a space as close as possible to their destination...while there may be several vacant spaces just a short distance further on.

4. Loud cell phone conversations in public places about private topics. The rest of us don't need to know about your fight with your girl friend.

5. People who come to my door wanting to convince me that their religion is the one true way. I'm glad you've found your faith. Enjoy it. Now, please go away.

6. Rudeness, in person, on the telephone, or via e-mail. It doesn't take any additional effort to be nice.

7. People who smoke in restaurants or enclosed areas. I appreciate your right to smoke...but smoking is optional for you, while breathing is mandatory for me. And I don't like my clothes to smell like your smoke.

8. The use of loud, vulgar language in public, particularly around children. You know it's gotten bad when you find a town (Virginia Beach, in this instance) that has to post a sign like this:

9. The practice in the United States over the Labor Day weekend of firefighters collecting donations for the Muscular Dystrophy Association by flooding major intersections with men carrying large firefighters' boots and encouraging you to "fill the boot" with your loose change. While I applaud the work of the Muscular Dystrophy Association and think it's a worthwhile cause, I don't appreciate being shaken down while stopped at a traffic light...and besides, it's very dangerous to have firefighters in orange vests walking down the lines between traffic lanes waiting for the next red light while traffic is actually moving.

And finally,

10. People around the world who'd rather blame "the West" in general or the United States in particular for their problems, rather than looking for the solutions at home and working together to solve them. Having someone to blame for your misfortune is easy...taking the steps to solve the problems is hard. It seems that everyone - particularly in the Middle East - wants the easy way.

Well, that's a representative list of ten things that get on my nerves. Again, thanks to Serina Hope for the idea. And because I tend to be at heart a positive and cheerful person, tomorrow I'll post the opposing viewpoint: ten things that never fail to make me feel good.

Until then, take note of the list above and remember the immortal words of David Banner, television's "Incredible Hulk": "Don't make me wouldn't like me when I'm angry!"

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, September 03, 2007

Using the Right Word

The great American humorist Mark Twain once said that the difference between the right word and the almost-right word was as significant as the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug. Were he alive today, Mr Twain would certainly have something to say about the choice of words used in the loud and dishonest national debate about America's immigration policy.

I've written about this many times before in this blog, and I've also published my plan for immigration reform (which was acknowledged by both my Senators, my district Representative, and the President with form letters which were all variations on "thanks-for-your-views-don't-let-the-door-hit-you-in-the-fanny-on-your-way-out." At the risk of sounding like a one-note trumpet, I've decided to address the issue yet again, because the rank dishonesty and hypocrisy of people on all sides of the issue is once more getting under my skin.

Those arguing for what they term "immigrant rights" are hypocritical and dishonest when they accuse anyone opposing their view of being "anti-immigrant." This is beyond stupid. Of all the nations of the world, America is the only one (with the possible exception of Australia) to have been built almost entirely by immigrants. If you trace the family tree back far enough, every one of today's native-born American citizens is descended from someone who immigrated to America from somewhere else. The simple truth of this can be proven simply by paging through the white pages of any American city and looking at the enormous variety of names.

They are also hypocritical and dishonest when they refer to those who have entered the country illegally as "undocumented." Let's be clear on this point: "undocumented" is a fatuous attempt to finesse the fact that the so-called "undocumented" person is "undocumented" because he or she has willfully broken the law for his or her own benefit. To me, and to most people who can look honestly at the issue, this is pretty obvious. Laws are established to protect societies. If we wink and nudge and decide that we don't want to obey this or that law because we don't think it's fair or it should apply to us, we have taken a step on the road to the growing disregard for the rule of law that we see around the world. These people are not "undocumented" - they are lawbreakers.

The dishonesty and hypocrisy is not limited to the pro-illegal-immigrant lobby. It runs widely through our business communities and even our government. Businesses keep wages down and, thus, profits up by employing illegal immigrants who can't insist on the rights and protections available to American citizens or legal residents. And we consumers underwrite this hypocrisy by insisting on the lowest possible prices - not a bad thing, as long as we understand that we get those low prices by tacitly supporting illegal immigration and the exploitation of those who come here illegally. Our political leadership, on both sides of the aisle, continues the hypocrisy by pandering to loud and obnoxious "immigrant rights" groups while seeking the ever-growing Hispanic vote. Congress, unwilling to offend any side of the immigration debate, sticks its head deeply into the legislative sand and abrogates its responsibility to the states and local communities, which have responded with a patchwork quilt of varying and sometimes conflicting laws. Church groups claiming to support the human and civil rights of illegal immigrants offer them sanctuary and support, but fail utterly to press the Congress to fix the problem with fair and reasonable legislation.

This is what aggravates me most about the debate about illegal immigrants: no one is willing to be honest. No one is willing to call a spade a spade when it's easier and more politically correct to call it a pointy shovel.

Until we are honest with each other, the problem will not be fixed. Until we respond to blowhards like Mexico's President Calderon, who castigated the United States for its immigration policies in his State of the Union address, but ignored Mexico's brutal treatment of illegal immigrants entering that country from the south, we will continue to be the unwilling safety valve for every other nation unwilling to put its own house in order because it's easier just to dump the excess unemployed people on the U.S.

I have said this all before. I have also noted that my grandparents on both sides of the family were legal immigrants to this country from Europe. I have written of the bureaucratic fandango I had to dance to get legal immigration visas for my wife and daughter after we married overseas (I thought at one time that I'd be done when the weight of the paperwork equaled their combined weight, and I could prove I'd taken at least ten thousand miles of train trips back and forth to the American embassy to get all the right stamps, seals and signatures). I have no sympathy whatsoever for those who would ignore the law to achieve their ends, and no respect for legislators who fail in their responsibility to fix the laws that need to be fixed.

But what do I know...I'm just another opinionated blogger who believes in the antiquated concept of using the right word.

And being honest.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.