Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Leya's First Halloween

Earlier this evening, our daughter and son-in-law brought our newest grandchild over for her first trick-or-treat experience. I just can't pass up the opportunity to show off a little ...

Is this an adorable child, or what? The costume is a little Holstein cow pattern, and the sign in front says - of course - "Got Milk?" Someday, Leya will probably hate us for this, but for now, it sure is cute!

You may applaud at any time!

Have a good evening. I'll be back to the usual fulminations tomorrow.

Proud grandpa Bilbo


Happy Halloween!

For those of you who don't live in the United States and may not celebrate (or understand) the concept of Halloween, here's the Readers' Digest explanation: one night each year, children (and their parents) dress up in costumes and go door-to-door in search of free candy or other handouts. It works like this: you dress up in your costume, approach a house, ring the doorbell, and shout "trick or treat!!" when the door is opened. The homeowner thus assailed makes an obligatory comment about the children's costumes and offers them treats lest they perform some "trick." Popular tricks from my childhood included ringing the doorbell and running away, shooting dried beans at windows from a bean-shooter (makes quite a racket), and soaping windows (drawing pictures and messages on windows with a bar of soap). Our tricks were generally harmless and considered to be in the spirit of childish fun and "letting off a little steam."

Halloween is a pretty big deal for children (and their dentists). Unfortunately, like so many other things, its character has changed greatly over the years.

I grew up in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the houses were widely separated by empty lots and stretches of forest. Our street was (and remains today) unlit, narrow, winding, and without sidewalks...and yet, somehow, we managed to go trick-or-treating every year without mishap. Some of our older neighbors handed out fresh fruit, made candied apples, or baked cookies, cupcakes, or brownies to pass out; others just bought huge bags of candy to distribute. The more energetic actually made small individual orange and black crepe paper bags filled with small treats.

My father used to get into the spirit of the day by accompanying us on our trick-or-treating in his own costume: he would cut a huge handlebar mustache out of black construction paper and poke a hole in it through which he could smoke his cigarette. He also carried a shot glass in case he might get lucky "trick-or-drinking." I don't recall his ever getting the desired handout, but he got an "A" for effort.

Things are different now. Nowadays we agonize over the flammability of our children's costumes (which are flimsy, cheap, and usually made in China), and carefully shepherd them from place to place to be sure they're safe from gangs, pedophiles, muggers, and other dangers. After the trick or treating is over, we have to go through the ritual of carefully examining their haul of treats to make sure they've not been given anything dangerous. Those candied apples and brownies I remember from so many years ago - throw them telling what may be inside. Unwrapped candy - throw it may have been adulterated somehow. Even the tricks seem in many cases to be more mean-spirited, and the reaction of people who are tricked is more likely to be a lawsuit than a laugh and an invitation to cookies and a glass of hot cider.

And, of course, there are those who consider Halloween to be not a chance for children to have innocent fun, but a sinister plot by satanic forces to corrupt the young. Deeply-held religious beliefs insert themselves into the simple joy of trick-or-treating, turning it into something evil which must be avoided.

It's all sad, and it's just another example of how we're losing our ability to let our children enjoy the things that made my childhood so much fun.

So, those of you who live in areas where trick-or-treating is still observed, let your children have their fun. Keep them safe, but let them enjoy the wonder of being, for one night, a ghost or a princess or Spider Man or Wonder Woman. Let them have their candy. Don't worry about what Halloween may or may not have meant hundreds of years ago - enjoy it today. Your children will grow up fast enough, and they need the chance to have some fun doing it.

Have a good day, and good luck with tonight's trick-or-treating. Be safe. More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. - yesterday's post on the need for nuclear power (and the need to understand its risks) generated quite a few comments, as did my post a few days back on taxicabs. Thanks to all of you who commented...I'll be revisiting both topics in the next few days to address some of the accumulated comments.


Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Nuclear Renaissance and the Questions We Aren't Asking

A new series of reports on National Public Radio is looking at the "renaissance" of the nuclear power industry - after 30 years of no new construction of nuclear plants, there is a sudden rush to license and build new facilities to generate the electricity demanded by a growing world population and economy. The nuclear industry advertises itself as environmentally friendly, generating no carbon emissions or greenhouse gases and providing a nearly inexhaustible source of clean, safe energy. The lessons learned from the disaster at Chernobyl in 1986 and the near-disaster at Three Mile Island in 1979 have been factored into the construction and operation of new plants, nuclear proponents say, and there's now no reason not to invest in the "new" nuclear.

Or is there? Before we go there, let's look at two incontestable points.

First, and most obvious, is that we need electricity. We can blog at each other because we have computers and an Internet which run on electricity. I love my computer my iPod, my coffee maker, my electric range and oven, and my microwave, refrigerator, and hot water heater. I've grown used to my electric heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer. When the power is out, life as we know and like it grinds to a halt. There's no way around it: we need electricity to power our modern life.

Since we need electricity, we have to make electricity. We can make the electricity we generate today go farther by building more efficient appliances and practicing conservation, but the fact is that as populations grow and economies boom, we must generate more and more electricity each year. How? We're running out of dammable (?) rivers to exploit for hydroelectric power, and those dams create their own environmental consequences (see the Chinese experience with the Three Gorges Dam). Wind turbines are assailed by environmentalists for killing birds. Solar power requires large and ugly collection arrays and generally works best in areas with abundant sunlight. Geothermal and ocean wave power generation can't produce enough output at current states of technology. And so on. So what does that leave to generate electricity in large quantities? We can burn fossil fuels like coal and petroleum (generating carbon emissions and greenhouse gases and wrecking the environment with coal mines and oil fields) or split atoms.

Which brings us back to the "new nuclear." I'm willing to concede that the latest nuclear power plants are probably as safe as they're likely to get. But, as in so many things, we're not being told the whole story, and if we're going to enter a new nuclear age we need to do it with our eyes open to the risks as well as the benefits.

The biggest drawback to nuclear power, and the one that receives the least attention, is the problem of nuclear waste. Power plants that run on fossil fuels generate smoke and gas that belches into the atmosphere. Nuclear plants generate radioactive waste which must be stored and protected over vast spans of time. The most dangerous radioactive wastes will remain deadly to humans (and animals) for tens of thousands of years. It will be dangerous long after our great-great-grandchildren's great-great-grandchildren are dead and forgotten. It will be dangerous for so long that we don't even know how to let generations that far in the future know how dangerous it is...go back and read my blog post from September 1st of this year titled "Don't Dig Here!" for a look at that problem.

And yet we drag our feet on creating the facilities to store and protect this waste: no one wants it stored in their back yard, much less their state or country. No one wants it transported through their communities. It won't go away. Where does it go?

The Department of Energy has spent years building a facility under Yucca Mountain in the remote Nevada desert, but it appears that the earliest date at which the facility might begin receiving waste is 2017. In the meantime, the waste continues to accumulate at less secure and protected facilities.

So let's be honest. We need nuclear power. New nuclear plants will be built. But let's acknowledge the full costs and admit that there's no nuclear free lunch. Let's agree that the storage facilities have to be built and the waste has to be brought to them somehow. This crazy aunt in the attic won't go away, as much as we try to ignore her. I'm waiting for the nuclear industry and its supporters to clearly and honestly address the problem of the storage of nuclear waste, but I think I'm waiting in vain, and I think that the issue will still be swept under the discussional rug when my grandchildren write their blogs many years from now.

Don't let it happen. We need electricity, and no matter how we generate it, there will be problems. Make your voice heard, but understand and be willing to live with the consequences of the option we select. There's no choice.

It'll be tough to blog by candlelight on a wind-up computer.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, October 29, 2007

Visual Monday

I have a lot of things in my notebook and in my "blog fodder" e-mail archive to write about, but since I just wrote my last post less than nine hours ago and didn't sleep well last night, this morning my creative gland just isn't secreting the way it usually does. So, in the interest of maximizing fun and minimizing actual intellectual input, here are a few cute recent images from my vast collection of useless, yet fun stuff:

First, a few "Maxine" cartoons relevant to the upcoming elections:

And two really good motivational posters:

Have a good day. More - real and original - thoughts coming.


Sunday, October 28, 2007

A Busy Day and A Great Recipe

It's late, I'm tired, and I didn't get to write my usual post this morning because the time just ran away with me after I slept until the unheard-of (for me) hour of - gasp! - 7:15! After reading the three-cubic-foot Sunday newspaper, eating breakfast, cleaning up the kitchen, having the usual Sunday morning phone calls with Agnes's parents and my dad, and getting organized for the rest of the day, I was already tired. These relaxing weekends will kill me yet!

Agnes and I rented floor space for an hour at a large local dance studio for some intensive practice this morning, then zipped from there down to our daughter's home for some visiting time with little Leya, the newest grandchild. Leya was in full, all-out, stand-back, watch-out, utterly-cute mode today, laughing and cooing and generally acting like the most adorable baby on earth. We had a great visit and it was hard to leave, but we realized it was time when our daughter started trying to coax us into taking our granddog Punky home with us...something for which the time has not yet quite come.

On the way home, we had to make a quick stop at Agnes's favorite store - G Street Fabrics - for "invisible thread" for one of her projects. Of course, there is really no such thing as a "quick stop" at G Street Fabrics, and so I had plenty of time to buy myself a new pair of shoes at another store while Agnes roamed the G Street store, chumming with her quilting friends and deciding on all the things she'll buy when we hit the lottery.

Once home, we lived the latest installment of the Adventure of the Enormous Quilting Frame ... but that's a story for another day.

Before I go, I wanted to share with you a great recipe I made last night for dinner. We've done this one before, and it's absolutely great. It can be a little pricey, so it's a good special occasion this case, the special occasion was that I was hungry for something luscious and decadent. Here you go...

Pan-Seared Tuna with Ginger-Shiitake Cream Sauce

Tuna steaks, about 1” thick, one per person
2 tbsp peanut oil
3 tbsp butter
1/3 cup thinly sliced green onions
¼ cup chopped cilantro
2 tbsp peeled fresh ginger, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
8 oz fresh shiitake mushrooms, stemmed, caps sliced
6 tbsp soy sauce
1 ½ cups whipping cream
3 tbsp lime juice

Preheat oven to 200º F (about 90-95º C). Sprinkle one side of the tuna steaks with pepper. Heat two tbsp oil in a large, heavy skillet over high heat. Place tuna steaks pepper side down in the hot oil and sear two minutes. Turn the tuna over and continue cooking to the desired doneness, about two more minutes for rare. Transfer tuna to a rimmed baking sheet and keep warm in the oven.

Add butter, sliced green onions, cilantro, ginger, and chopped garlic to the same skillet and saute until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Mix in the mushrooms and soy sauce and simmer 30 seconds. Add whipping cream and simmer until sauce lightly coats the back of a spoon, about three minutes. Stir in lime juice. Spoon sauce onto plates and arrange tuna atop sauce. Garnish with lime wedges and cilantro sprigs if desired, and serve with rice. Your guests will worship you.

I personally recommend doubling the sauce, which is wonderful. In fact, you can just make the sauce itself to serve with grilled steaks or other meats. And any leftover lime juice goes well in the nice gin and tonic you earned for making such a great dinner.

Have a good evening. Bon appetit! More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, October 27, 2007


We live, unfortunately, in a world in which the security of ourselves, our homes, our schools, and our places of business has become an item of great concern. The days when we went to work or school and trusted that we'd be safe are long gone. It's a shame, and it's reflected in one of the inescapable symbols of modern times.

The badge.

If you work in a factory or a government agency or similarly large office complex, or if you enter a school other than as a student, chances are you have to wear a badge that verifies your identity and your authority to be there. They come in various shapes and colors, may be adorned with photos or logos (or both), and usually include one's name and (occasionally) nickname.

As a contract employee supporting the Department of the Air Force in the Pentagon, I wear three different badges. One, with my photo, name, and a coded magnetic stripe, grants me access to the Pentagon itself; it also identifies me as a contractor via its spiffy pink color (government employees' badges are white, members of the press are blue, etc). I also have a badge with my name, photo, and an embedded chip that grants me access to my company's facilities when I need to go there. I have a third badge that identifies me as an accredited courier, and I might have a fourth or fifth as well if I were a member of the Pentagon Athletic Club or if I had a reciprocal "community" badge honored by several different Washington agencies. When I was a part-time DJ, I had a badge for the radio station. And so on.

Around Washington, the type badges you wear can be a coveted indication of your status. At the top of the heap is the White House badge. Badges for the houses of Congress rank a bit lower, and those for some of the major government agencies (the State and Defense Departments, in particular), are considered relatively status-granting. Of course, if you work for an agency that prefers not to advertise itself (like the CIA or NSA), your badge will be pretty bland and generally won't mention your employer anywhere on it...but to those who know the Secret Language of Badges, you're pretty cool.

The number of badges you have is also a mark of status. Many people try very hard to accumulate - and wear simultaneously - as many badges as they can get. I once worked with a fellow whose array of badges spanned his chest in a mighty, curving arc like the glittering pectoral medallion on a royal Egyptian mummy. I thought he looked a bit silly, but he obviously saw his array of badges as the bureaucratic equivalent of the tail of a strutting peacock.

Badges also appear in the movies. In one of the great Marx Brothers comedies (I believe it was A Day at the Circus), Groucho keeps trying to board the circus train, only to be repeatedly thrown off by guard Chico because he doesn't have a badge. After several rounds of this, Chico gets tired of the whole thing and gives Groucho his badge. Groucho walks away, pins on the badge, and returns to the train...Chico demands to see his badge...Groucho proudly flashes the badge Chico just gave him...and Chico once again throws him off the train, growling, "Hey, whatta you tryin' to pull? Thats-a last year's badge!"

And, of course, there is the classic exchange between Humphrey Bogart and Alfonso Bedoya in the movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in which Bogart demands to see the badges of Bedoya and his men to prove that they are, as they claim, Mexican federal police. Bedoya's reply: ""Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges! I don't have to show you any stinkin' badges!!"

Finally, Weird Al Yankovic's film UHF has one of the most horrible puns in movie history, all the worse for the lengthy build-up to it through the course of the film, which takes off on that famous Bedoya line. It's so bad I won't even quote it here, because you'll never come back again, and I'll be blogging to myself forever.

So, badges. They're a pain when you have them, and a worse pain when you forget them and have to prove that you're really who you say you are. Here in Washington, guards tend not to be very understanding or forgiving if you try to sweet-talk your way out of the temporary loss of your badge...if you don't have two or three photo ID's, a blood sample, a DNA swab, and a copy of your last colonoscopy images, you might just as well forget getting past their steely gaze.

And they're a problem even when you do have them. Many mornings I've been embarrassed when I try to swipe my Metrorail SmartTrip card instead of my access badge at the Pentagon entry turnstiles (but, hey, I'm not always awake yet!). And how many times as I leave the building in the evening in a tired fog do I try to swipe that same SmartTrip card through the exit turnstile? I also can't tell you how many times I've tried to use my "membership cards" from one grocery store at a different store, or tried to use my American Express Card instead of my driver's license to validate a check. They're the same color, after all...

Badges. Don't leave home without them. In fact, any more you're better off not leaving home at all...just sit back and let trouble come to you while you wait on your own turf.

Just make sure it shows you a badge.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, October 26, 2007

Things That Make You Go "Huh?", Part 2 - The Metro

Over at The Milk Bar the other day, Amanda put up an interesting post offering her observations on how people form lines ... or not. She and I are cosmically connected somehow, because I'd been thinking about the same thing in light of our recent adventures in Las Vegas and my daily travel on our local public transportation system (the Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority, or WMATA ... better known just as "Metro").

Our Metro rail and bus service is, in general, clean, attractive, and runs more-or-less on time, unless you're really in a hurry to get somewhere. If you're a people-watcher, as I am, it offers matchless opportunities to see the best and the worst in human behavior.

As you enter most Metro rail stations, you put your ticket into or flash your pass at the turnstile, which opens just long enough to let you squeeze through (although it has closed painfully on me - right at family jewel level - a number of times). Then you take an elevator or escalator down to the track level to meet your train. The adventure begins at the turnstile, where there's always someone in a blazing hurry to catch this particular train, and doesn't mind knocking down anyone in his/her path to get there. This person will roar through the turnstile, fly down the escalator, zoom across the platform, and do a flying leap through the train doors, leaving a trail of battered fellow-passengers behind ... then sit down innocently in righteous appreciation of a job well done.

If you are waiting on the platform when a train pulls into the station, the arrival announcement asks you to step away from the doors and let passengers exit the train before you try to board. This works occasionally. What usually happens is that as soon as the train stops, the people on the platform crowd right next to the train door in a teeming mass that curves inward to leave a small, semicircular funnel outside the door, through which people try to exit before the boarding stampede begins. Fairly often, some character desperate to get onto this particular train will plant him or herself directly in front of the doors, and push forward like the center line of the Washington Redskins as soon as the doors open. God help you if you're in the way.

There's also a subtle psychology to seeking one's seat on a Metro train. Because I carry both an over-the-shoulder briefcase and a lunch box, I usually try to get one of the front seats which has extra floor space and leg room to store my bags so that I don't have to keep them on my lap. This gives me a good vantage point from which to observe other passengers. In general, when the train is relatively empty, each person boarding will take a vacant seat (our trains are designed with two-person seats, one on each side of the aisle, half facing forward, half facing backward). As the train fills up, women will generally try to sit with other women, while men will (surprise!) generally try to sit with the more attractive ladies. Women (and most men) usually either read or doze (especially in the morning), while those men who don't read or doze, and have parked next to attractive ladies, will usually spend the trip slyly peeking at their seatmates out of the corners of their eyes.

When the train arrives at the station, there's always someone on board who doesn't realize it's arrived until the doors are ready to close again. This causes the "exit panic reaction" characterized by a frantic scramble to the door while shoving people madly out of the way. It only works about half the time. More often than not, the person will end up with the train doors slamming on some part of his or her anatomy (or baggage), and the train operator having to re-open the doors to free him, which allows other people to try to cram on, which gives more people a chance to try to get off, which ... well ... you get the idea.

I suppose I shouldn't complain about our odd Metro ways, because at least we don't have official train-packers like they have in Japan to smash the largest possible number of people onto the trains. But we don't need them because we can do a great job of it on our own, thank you very much.

I have lots of other observations of Metro psychology, and the general psychology of forming lines and taking turns, but I need to bull my way onto one of those Metro trains in a little while, and I need to do my blocking and tackling exercises so that I'll be ready.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, October 25, 2007

Things That Make You Go "Huh?" - Taxis

Taxicabs, of all things, have been on my mind lately.

I don't take cabs often, because here in the DC metro area I usually try to drive myself or take the Metro bus or subway; when I travel on business, I usually rent a car. But I have used taxis enough to make a few observations.

1. Washington DC taxis are hopelessly screwed up, but there's a light at the end of the tunnel. DC cabs don't run on meters, but on an archaic and incomprehensible system of "zones" understandable only to the cab drivers, under which your fare is calculated based on how many "zones" your trip crosses. What this means is that you can take a cab between the same two places in town on different days and times, and the fares can be radically different. It's driven residents and tourists nuts for years, but the taxi drivers love it. It looks, though, as if sanity is about to break out in this town for once: Mayor Adrian Fenty has ordered the cabs to transition to a meter system which will be more comprehensible...and the best part of it was that he made the announcement at a press conference held at an intersection on which each corner was in a different "zone." Of course, the taxi drivers are up in arms and predicting the End of the World As We Know It, but everyone else thinks it's great. You can read another local blogger's take on it here. Go, Moxie!

2. While we were in Las Vegas, I noticed the taxi rates painted on the doors of the cabs. "$3.90 for the first 1/11th mile; so much for each additional 1/11th mile." What's up with that? Who came up with a figure as stupid as one-eleventh of a mile for a fare calculation? I suppose it has something to do with ensuring profit over short trips, but one-eleventh of a mile? Why not one-thirty-second? Or five-sixteenths? Or seven-fifty-sixths?

3. Taxi driving is a time-honored profession for immigrants to this country. Buy a decommissioned police car, paint your name on it, add a meter (unless you're in DC), and you're in business. Actual knowledge of the area you serve is optional, as is fluency in English and the cleaning and maintenance of the vehicle. The big cab chains (Yellow Cab, White Top, etc) are generally clean and well-maintained, but when you are picked up by "Ephraim Zabongolo's Taxicab" (not a real cab, but my example), you never quite know what you're going to get...or where you'll end up. I've taken taxis in Germany many times over the years, and the difference between clean, spiffy taxis there and hacks here is amazing.

4. Back to the idea of meters - vs - zones. One of the arguments sometimes made in favor of zones over meters is that unlike meters, the zone system doesn't keep running up the bill as you sit stuck in traffic. There's no frustration quite like sitting immobile in a traffic jam and watching the meter tick over even though you haven't moved even the smallest fraction of that magical one-eleventh of a mile. The meter's calculation of time as well as distance ensures taxi profitability even when the taxi isn't moving, but it surely does irritate this curmudgeonly passenger.

Okay, enough about taxis. I have a Metro train to catch in just about an hour, and I have a few comments on that, too ... but that's a topic for another day.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Last Comments on Las Vegas, and a New Rant

As you've no doubt figured out by now, we enjoyed our little vacation in Las Vegas. Just to finish off the commentary on the topic, here are a few more observations...

1. I'll never get used to the sight of men and women lining the sidewalks snapping decks of advertising cards to get your attention. The cards advertise "Girls Who Want to Meet You!", and can be at your room in 20 minutes. I'm not sure I'd want to meet any of them. Related to the card-snappers are the trucks which cruise up and down the Strip with the same message on their sides and back.

2. Don't gamble, and if you do gamble, don't do it on the slot machines. We were told by our Hoover Dam tour guide that the slot machines have a 78% profit return to the house. Yes, that was 78%. You can see slot-zombies all day and all night long just feeding bills into the machines and pushing the buttons like hamsters pushing the bar for a treat.

And finally,

3. If the airline boarding pass you receive at check-in has the letters SSSS printed on it, think of everything that can possibly cause you grief at the security checkpoint, because you have been "randomly" selected for extra screening. We had to do some fast talking to get the unsmiling TSA security drones to believe that Agnes's bookweight was not a blackjack, but a legitimate reader's tool.

Okay, enough about Vegas. I have a stack of things a foot high to blog about, and here's the first one...

Those of you who are my overseas blogging friends may never have heard of the Alternative Minimum Tax, or AMT, but it's one of the less-endearing features of our archaic, bloated, and incomprehensible tax laws. The AMT was introduced by the Tax Reform Act of 1969, and was intended to target high-income households that had been eligible for so many tax benefits that they owed little or no income tax under the existing tax code. The original, perhaps laudable, intent of the AMT was to ensure that high-income people who could claim large numbers of exotic itemized deductions were forced to pay a fair share of taxes. However, because the AMT is not indexed to inflation, more and more middle-income taxpayers find themselves subject to this tax each year. Most people never realize it until they, their tax preparer, or the IRS discover it when the tax return is prepared and they learn that their tax liability is as much as several thousand dollars more than they expected.

The AMT is on my mind because each year inflation pushes the tax value of my income higher, to the point where, on paper, people like Agnes and I now earn as much as the high-income taxpayers who were targeted by the AMT in 1969. If Congress doesn't act soon to index the AMT to inflation, or to factor into it the tax cuts instituted over the years, we stand to get hit with a very large tax bill at a very bad time. And we all know how quickly Congress moves to do anything important, especially when it's concerned with things like Iraq, the California wildfires, and Idaho Congressman Larry Craig's wide stance in airport restrooms.

As I've said here before, I don't mind paying taxes. What I mean, though, is that I don't mind paying taxes that are fair, reasonable, equitably-shared, and appropriately spent by my government. Unfortunately, in the case of the AMT, the first three don't apply and the fourth is a joke.

I'd write more, but the subject is just too ... uh ... taxing. I think I'll do something more fun than thinking about taxes. Maybe my dentist has an open appointment today for a root canal without anesthetic.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Las Vegas Notes

As I wrote yesterday, we had a really grand time in our Las Vegas weekend. The problem with Vegas, though, from the perspective of an old curmudgeon, is that it's just too much: too loud, too fast-paced, too bright, too everything. We stayed at the Bally's Casino & Resort, and every time the elevator door opened into the casino level, the thundering din of bells, whistles, clattering slot machines, electronic beeps and squeaks, and people shouting at each other over the general din was deafening. Interestingly, some of the other casinos we visited or passed through (the Venetian and the Bellagio, in particular) were much less noisy and seemed a bit more "sedate," if that word can be used in connection with anything in Las Vegas.

The other thing I noticed, as on our last visit, was that everyone over the age of two seems to smoke like a factory chimney. I've never smoked, Agnes quit years ago when we started dating, and I've gotten spoiled living in a largely non-smoking environment. The smoke level was very annoying.

Okay, enough of that ... how about a few pictures?

This is a shot of the marvelous dancing fountains at the Bellagio hotel. Each hour the fountains erupt for a five-minute show, synchronized with the music being played. In this photo, the fountain is dancing to Frank Sinatra's "Luck Be A Lady Tonight." A still photo can't capture the incredible fountain activity, but this one tries. That's the back of Agnes's head in the foreground (and a nice head it is, too).

Inside the Bellagio Hotel lobby is a beautiful garden with all sorts of wonderful displays of flowers, trees and assorted sculpted plants. This picture is a closeup of a display featuring Treebeard the Ent from The Lord of the Rings. I'm especially fond of this picture because this is what I look like before I've had my morning coffee.

We offered to take a picture of another couple, and they returned the favor - this is Agnes and I at the entrance to a beautiful flowered bridge through the garden.

We also visited Hoover Dam, which was very interesting and impressive. Pictures can hardly do it justice because it's so huge, but this is one of the best I took of the face of the dam itself:

We also took the tour down inside the dam and the diversion tunnels originally cut to re-route the Colorado River for the construction of the dam. This part of the tour was not for the claustrophobic or faint of heart...

This photo is of the inside of the generator hall on the Nevada side of the dam (there's another one just like it on the Arizona side). Each of those generators is seven stories tall.

And this is what the generator halls look like from the outside:

If you ever have the chance to visit and tour Hoover Dam, do it. It's beautiful and fascinating!

Oops...out of time for today! Time to pack my lunch and head to work.

Have a good day. The tour continues tomorrow.


Monday, October 22, 2007

Home Again...

Good Morning, Fellow Bloggers!

Agnes and I returned from our mini-vacation in Las Vegas late last night, and we were up pretty late getting unpacked and reorganized. It feels as if this morning started about six hours too soon. I've got plenty still to do this morning before leaving for work, so this will just be a very short post with a few highlights of the long weekend. I'll post some pictures and additional details later today or tomorrow when I have more time.

Here are a few hints for anyone thinking about visiting Las Vegas:

1. Bring money. Even if you don't gamble (and we didn't this time, at least, not more than $50), eating can cost you a fortune if you're confined largely to the area of The Strip where the major hotels and casinos are located.

2. Take a Hoover Dam tour. It's a really eye-opening and fascinating look at a marvel of engineering.

3. See a Cirque du Soleil show. For pure, glorious entertainment, it's hard to beat the amazing athleticism and sheer sensory overload of this unusual circus. We saw the show "O" at the Bellagio resort, and my jaw is still on the floor. There are three other Cirque du Soleil shows at other hotels in Las Vegas, all unique.

4. See a real Las Vegas Revue show. Agnes bought tickets to the show "Jubilee" at Bally's, and we really enjoyed the 0ver-the-top singing, dancing, and special effects. Several short acts punctuated the major song-and-dance productions: the best was a pair of Korean acrobat/contortionists who did amazing things with each other, a metal tube, and two steel rings. I hurt just thinking about it. The fact that this act sticks in my mind as much as the grandly-costumed topless parts of the show ought to tell you something.

5. If you fly out of McCarran Airport in Las Vegas on a Sunday (when most people are leaving), allow a minimum of three hours to check in and clear security. It's about as well-organized as it can be, but the airport is grossly undersized for the number of passengers it serves, and the crowds are mind-boggling. Best advice: fly out on Tuesday or Thursday when the crowds are somewhat smaller (but remember that this airport is always busy - according to our Hoover Dam tour guide, it's the third-largest by passenger volume in the country).

That's all for now. It's good to be home and back to our regular routine again. I'll post more details of our trip, and a few photos, tomorrow.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

12 Hours and Counting...

In just over 12 hours, I'll be catching my flight to Las Vegas to meet up with Agnes for our long weekend quasi-vacation. This, of course, presupposes that I don't have the reservation fiasco that Agnes had when she flew out last Sunday (see Flying the Unfriendly Skies). I've done everything I can think of to make sure it's okay ... we'll see what happens when I show up at the counter tomorrow.

The main thing we want to do is just relax for a while and enjoy each others' company. Agnes has been working hard all week at the course she's taking - high intensity, with lots of math and legal stuff - and she'll need a chance to decompress and have some fun. Hopefully, without breaking the family bank.

We have reservations to see The Phantom of the Opera at the Venetian, and the Cirque du Soleil show "O" at the Bellagio. We may also try to get a tour out to Hoover Dam (which we saw from the air on our last trip, as we flew by on our way to the Grand Canyon), if we can find one at a reasonable enough price. If not, there's plenty to do and see in Las Vegas, and I'll tell you all about it (well, maybe not all about it, wink, nudge) when I get back.

This will be my last post for a few days. We'll be back Sunday night, so don't look for anything before Monday morning (assuming we get back on time and I'm not overly comatose). Everyone have a great weekend, and I'll see you back here again early next week!

Have a good day and a better weekend. More thoughts when I get back.


P.S. - thanks to all of you who wrote to express concern for the personal safety implications of my recent posts. I appreciate the thoughts and will try to ratchet things back a little. But as I commented back, part of the problem is that few are willing to speak the their minds in an era of political correctness and moral relativism. I'll be more careful. But I won't change my mind.


The Third One in the Bed

Much has been written about the institution of marriage (including the comment attributed to actress Mae West that she wasn't ready for an institution). Most religions have rituals that make a marriage official, as do most civil societies, and it's always amazed me that civil authorities require you to take classes and pass tests to earn a driver's license, but impose no such requirements to get a marriage license. Such requirements might, perhaps, help to bring down the rate of divorce. When I was married for the first time, the Catholic Church required my fiancee and I to attend a series of "Pre-Cana" classes that were part practical lessons on the full impact of marriage (i.e., it's more than reserving an exclusive sexual partner) and part religious exhortation (reminding us that the Church considers marriage a formal sacrament witnessed by God). Because my ex-wife was Lutheran to my Catholic, the Church raised an eyebrow at my choice of mate, but didn't tell me I couldn't marry her. We did, however, have to sign a letter stating our intent to raise the children in the Catholic faith. When, nine years later, we decided a divorce was necessary, our respective religious beliefs didn't have anything to do with the decision - our ability to live together in an atmosphere good for the children did.

I got to thinking about God as the third person in the marriage bed one day last week when I read this article at the MEMRI website. If you don't have time to read the whole article, here's the Readers' Digest version: an Islamic jurist has issued a fatwa (religious ruling) decreeing that a Muslim woman who marries a non-Muslim man "...has committed an open (act of) abomination that may hurl her into the abyss of heresy and apostasy," and "...(has taken) the first step towards religious suicide, whether (it is the woman's) suicide or that of the children she will bear."

There's something fundamentally wrong with this. I have recognized for a long time (and we can see every day) that Islam can be a terribly intolerant, sometimes violent, religion. The Danish Cartoon hysteria, the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, the death threats against Hirsi Ali and Salman Rushdie, and the intense and violent reaction to Pope Benedict's comments linking Islam and violence in an address at the University of Regensburg all display an admittedly extreme, but nevertheless internally unchallenged religious bigotry that is all the more frightening because it comes from a religion which describes its vision of God as "merciful and compassionate." The world seems to have forgotten (and the Islamic world continues to deny) that it was Islamic extremists that murdered nearly 3,000 people in cold blood on September 11, 2001. While it is clear that not all Muslims are wild-eyed murderers, it's equally clear that the tenets of the religion provide fertile ground for the planting and growth of self-righteous intolerance.

But the real thing I find wrong with the fatwa cited above is that it was published by Dr Sheikh Salah Al-Sawy, the secretary-general of the Assembly of Muslim Jurists in America. Read the last two words of the preceding sentence again: In America. Our country was founded on several bedrock principles, one of which is freedom of religious expression. Dr Al-Sawy, who has chosen for whatever reason to live in America, makes a mockery of this freedom through a religious ruling that is clearly both religiously intolerant and fundamentally misogynistic: consider that the fatwa describes woman as "...weak by nature," and goes on to baldly state that "...the guardianship of a (non-Muslim) man affects her powers of reasoning."

Dr Al-Sawy's fatwa describes marriage between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man as "invalid and despicable," and says that "The excuse that (the man and the woman) share an emotional bond, which comes to justify that which is forbidden, is one of the most despicable excuses." What this means, in even more plain English, is that the emotion of love has nothing to do with the success of a marriage and the relationship between two human beings.

You cannot openly worship God in Saudi Arabia and in many parts of other majority Muslim countries if you are a Catholic, Jew, Buddhist, or anything other than a Muslim. In fact, if you choose to try to share your faith with a Muslim, you are taking your life in your hands. Perhaps Dr Al-Sawy should consider that America gives him a freedom to spout rulings which insult and demean other faiths - a freedom his religion denies to everyone else. But such a thought would never enter his tightly-closed, seventh-century mind.

If you're a Muslim, you're okay. If you're anything else, and dare to criticize Islam, you are contemptible and your murder is sanctioned by Islamic authorities.

Remember this as you watch the aggressive proselytizing of Muslims in this country. Be prepared to turn your mental clock back 1400 years.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Slow Cities

I recently read an article in the German newsmagazine Spiegel Online about the "Slow Cities" movement, which seeks to make cities more livable by slowing down the hectic pace of modern life. In order for a city to be certified as a Slow City, it must have fewer than 50,000 inhabitants, ban cars from the city centers, require restaurants to serve locally-grown products, and preserve traditional architecture while requiring new construction to observe ecologically-friendly standards. The movement got its start in Italy (where it's called cittaslow), and there are now over 40 Slow Cities in Italy and more in Germany, Spain, Great Britain, Poland, and other European countries.

Reading this interesting article gave me a flashback to one of the most pleasant times of my life: the second half of 1982, when I was in the Air Force and stationed in Berlin, Germany. I had moved in with Agnes and was adjusting to life "on the economy" rather than in the cocoon of the American community. The first major difference at the time was that stores closed at 6:00 PM on weekdays and 2:00 PM on Saturdays (except for the so-called "Long Saturday," the first Saturday of the month, when stores remained open until 4:00 PM). Everything except gas stations, most restaurants, and emergency pharmacies was closed on Sunday. This meant that we had evenings and weekends of enforced quiet: stores weren't open, so we spent time at home with each other, rather than running out all the time to pick up something we decided we needed. Of course, the American PX and related services were open on a more American schedule, but because they were across town from where I now lived, we tended not to go there. Even in a vast metropolis like Berlin, life had a slower and more relaxed quality on evenings and weekends.

I found this arrangement very relaxing. Nowadays, hardly a day goes by that I'm not jumping in the car each weekday evening and several times on Saturday and Sunday to go to some store or another for something we "need" at the moment. Evenings and weekends are much less restful and quiet than they were in that slice of 1982 in Berlin, and I feel like I'm always rushing to get things done.

I wouldn't mind living in a Slow City. We've traded our ability to slow down and relax for the convenience of 24-hour shopping and services, and we've lost the ability to just take life easy for a little while each day. Our weekends are often just as hectic as our workdays, and we never have the chance to sit back, enjoy home and family, and recharge our batteries.

Germany is, sadly, different now - at least in the bigger cities. Store hours are closer to the American model, and the enforced lazy evenings and weekends are a thing of the past. But it's nice to think back sometimes to that time in 1982 when I decided that the frustration of not being able to rush out and buy something I had to have right now was worth the trade in peace and quiet. I can still live slow ... it just means I have to consciously plan to do it.

Which, to me, sort of defeats the purpose.

Have a good day. Live slower. You'll probably like it.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, October 15, 2007

Flying the Unfriendly Skies

Yesterday I mentioned that Agnes was ready to leave for her trip to Las Vegas to attend a special course on IRA planning and related legal topics, a course her employer sends her to every two years. This was to be her third session, and by now the gild has worn off the lily ... she wasn't looking forward to the trip, other than as a break from the usual routine and the opportunity for us to spend some time together on a mini-vacation when I fly out to meet her on Thursday. As a result, she was dragging her feet more than usual yesterday morning with her last-minute packing and organization. Nevertheless, we made it out of the house more or less on time, and showed up at Washington Dulles Airport at about 1:00 PM to check in for her 2:35 PM flight to Las Vegas on United Airlines.

But then Murphy showed up.

Agnes had booked an electronic ticket, and when she got to the check-in counter, she dutifully stuck her credit card into the designated slot to retrieve her reservation. The system churned and fretted for a few seconds, then announced it couldn't find a reservation in her name. Agnes went white (she's actually pretty pale to begin with, so that was quite a reaction). She tried again. Same result. We called for non-automated assistance. A uniformed human being appeared, got the same result, and directed us to a different counter to sort out the problem. We went there, and a friendly but not especially helpful lady poked Agnes's name into her computer and found ...


No reservation in Agnes's name to anywhere at any time on United. She found the reservation I'd made for this coming Thursday (with a Sunday return booked on the same flight Agnes had already scheduled), but nothing for Agnes. And oh-by-the-way, all the other direct and connecting United flights to Las Vegas through Monday afternoon were fully booked by people who were not Agnes.

We jumped up and down, but to no avail, and so went looking for something ... anything ... on another airline. As it turned out, Jet Blue had space on a direct flight to Las Vegas departing at 9:00 PM, arriving at 11:05 PM (2:05 AM Washington DC time). After some agonizing about price (since she'd already paid for a non-existent flight on United), Agnes gritted her pearly white teeth and booked the later flight.

Luckily, her course doesn't actually begin until 1:00 PM today, so her delay getting to Las Vegas wasn't a complete disaster and she has some extra time to rest up after the red-eye arrival. But it still deprived her of the chance to arrive on time, get settled in her room, have a leisurely dinner, and get a good night's sleep before starting a very demanding and high-intensity course.

The story doesn't end there, of course. After getting Agnes packed off, I went home and got on the phone to United Airlines to figure out what happened. I ended up speaking with a drone named Neal who claimed he found Agnes's reservation with no trouble, and she was a no-show for the flight.

At this point, I got a little hot.

I explained to Neal that not one but two United gate agents (whose names I fortunately had recorded) at Dulles Airport had searched the system and found no reservation in Agnes's name, and I wasn't listening to any sentences that contained the words "no-show." After much time spent in back-and-forth arguing and (in my case) on hold, Neal grudgingly allowed that there might have been a problem. He arranged (and "confirmed," whatever that means in this context) for Agnes to keep the original return flight (on which I was already booked), and offered the standard airline olive branch: a voucher for a future flight in an amount equal to some arcanely-calculated portion of the cost of the flight she hadn't taken. No refunds, of course. I think all airlines are run by Ferengi (the Star Trek characters whose culture is based on hard-nosed commerce), whose First Rule of Acquisition is "Once you have their money, never give it back."

So ...

I think Agnes is now in Las Vegas. She said she wouldn't call when she got in since it would be so late here, but I'm waiting to hear from her sometime this morning to know she's okay. I'll let you know.

In the meantime, the lesson for the modern air traveler is: take a bus. We learned yesterday that even if you have a confirmed reservation, it doesn't necessarily mean anything, and the airlines don't feel obligated to fix problems for you, even if they are the ones who screwed up in the first place. Air travel, if never actually "fun," at least used to be tolerable. Flights were generally on time, passengers weren't treated like cattle, and customer service was something on which airlines prided themselves.

No more.

Between the relentless pressures of revenue generation, security considerations, and grossly overcrowded flights and airways, air travel is something to be dreaded rather than anticipated. Try to guess how much I'm looking forward to my trip later this week.

No, don't. I don't want you to think I know that sort of language.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.


Sunday, October 14, 2007

Customer Service, RIP

You can read horror stories all over about how terrible "customer service" has become as companies try to maximize profits by cutting back on things that don't directly generate revenue. Some of the worst come from the airlines (read one example here), but you have no doubt found them all over on your own. My latest example is from yesterday...

A few years ago, Agnes was feeling a bit homesick and decided she'd like to have some German TV channels to watch. Being the dutiful husband, I went to our cable TV service provider and checked the channel offerings ... only to find that unless you wanted Spanish (seven billion available channels), Chinese (only a few less), Arabic, Urdu, Tagalog, or any one of a gazillion minority language stations, you were out of luck. No German.

So I looked into satellite TV, and discovered that the Dish Network offered a two-channel "international package" of German stations. I went through the kabuki dance of credit checks and engineering surveys, had a dead tree blocking the view to the satellite cut down, and - finally - we had German TV.

Fast forward to a month or two ago.

No satellite signal for our German stations. It seems that Dish Network (or someone) had moved the German channels to another satellite. OK. New service call to Dish Network to readjust our antenna. Oops ... technician tells us that there's another tree blocking the new satellite. Oops again ... the tree is not on my property, so I can't have it removed. AARRGGHH!! Technician goes away, I call Dish Network, and ask to cancel the service since we can't access the satellite. Welllll, says the lady on the other end, why don't you let us send a supervisor out to double check and make sure, because sometimes the technicians don't get things just right (???). Okay.

Fast forward to yesterday morning.

A Dish Network contractor shows up, climbs up onto the roof, pulls out his trusty satellite-o-meter, carefully peruses the low southeastern sky, then comes down to give me the good news-bad news message: the good news is that we really can see the satellite; the bad news is that I need a new feed horn for the satellite dish, he doesn't have such a feed horn with him, and even if he did, he couldn't install it because his work order was only to evaluate the reception.

Back to the telephone to Dish Network to set up a new appointment to replace the feed horn and reacquire the satellite. While waiting for a service person to answer, I decide to inquire into adding another outlet so that we can watch the German channels in the rec room, the guest room (for Agnes' parents when they visit), and the master bedroom (for those times when we're not doing anything else, wink, wink). A nice lady named Cassandra finally comes on the line and I explain the situation. She sets up a service call for two weeks hence (first possible Saturday appointment) to fix the feed horn, and then I ask about the new inside outlet. She puts me on hold to do some research and comes back with the news that yes, we can do that, this is how much it costs, but it can't be done on the same work order because there are two different "promotions" involved...we have to schedule another appointment to do the extra outlet. Eh?, I ask in puzzlement. The technician is here anyhow, why do I have to have two separate work orders? We then go into a long and endlessly circular Talmudic argument about how there are different billing systems for different promotions, and each requires a separate work order to complete. Okay, I suggest, how about this: write up a second work order and assign it to the same guy so that he can finish one, close it out, then do the other one right after? Answer: we can't do it that way.

By this time Agnes, listening to this in the background, is making slashing motions across her throat to indicate that I should stop arguing with poor Cassandra the Drone who, clearly, is in the position of having to try to explain a stupid rule she didn't make. I grit my teeth and go with Cassandra's suggestion to just ask the technician, once he's done with the antenna, if oh-by-the-way he has another receiver box he just might be able to install while he's here. If can't (and he probably won't, as these folks are heavily booked anyhow), I need to call Dish Network back and schedule yet another appointment for yet another technician to come back and do the rest of the work.

Is it just me, or is this stupid? It seems to me that it would make sense to coddle the customer a little bit here, as I am asking for something that will, after all, increase their earnings. The technician is already here. All he has to do is bring along some extra cable and a new receiver box. How hard can this be?

Pretty hard, evidently, at least from the perspective of someone at Dish Network sitting in an office drafting arcane rules in Technical Sanskrit.

Okay, I've got that off my chest now.

Old-fashioned Customer Service is pretty much dead. Economics killed it, and those of us who suffer through it aren't likely to see it come back any time soon. The lesson here is that if you need a home service call, if you need to fly anywhere, or if you need warranty help on almost anything you buy, medicate yourself heavily before you embark on the quest.

You'll need it.

Have a good day. More thoughts later.


P.S. - In an hour or so, Agnes will be off to Las Vegas for the class she's taking. Between this afternoon and Thursday morning, when I fly (oh, oh!) out to meet her for a mini-vacation, I'll be a footloose Class Two geographical bachelor. Time to catch up on a few of those back posts I've been meaning to get to. Stay tuned...


Saturday, October 13, 2007

Good Days, Bad Days, and Unhappy Feet

There are so many things on my list to blog about that I don't know where to begin, so I decided that I may as well start with a simple one, since it's late and the day has been so busy. Today's subject is dancing. Sort of. As you know, I really love ballroom dancing. Unfortunately, some days it just doesn't love me back.

Yesterday evening I had my usual lesson in the hour just before our weekly dance party. It turned out to be one of those times when I felt like I had more left feet than a centipede. Nothing seemed to work right ... if my posture was good, my timing was off; if my timing was right, I danced the wrong pattern; if I danced the pattern pattern correctly and with the right timing, it was bound to be at the wrong place in the routine. I felt like Bozo the Clown in dance shoes. Agnes enjoyed it, though ... she'd had a tough week at work, and enjoyed the belly laughs at the expense of her hapless husband.

Sadly, it didn't get much better at the party. The downside to being married to a dance teacher is that everyone expects you to be the reincarnation of Fred Astaire ... but last night, I danced like the reincarnation of Fred Flintstone. Fortunately, ballroom dancing is a sport characterized by good manners, so the ladies all thanked me graciously for the dances, without asking me why I was dancing like a spastic water buffalo.

Things went a little better today, when Agnes and I drove up to Bethesda, Maryland, to meet with our dance coach for additional training. But it's all relative: the men aren't going to be giving up dancing in fear of competition from me ... at least, for a while.

I've been doing this long enough to know that I'm always going to have good days and bad days. The problem is that I have enough good days that I sometimes get used to them, and feel that much worse on the bad ones. Oh, well ... next week is a new week, and it has to get better.

Doesn't it?

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, October 12, 2007

Ready, Aim, Shoot Foot!

As you've read often enough in this space, I stand in awe of the ability of the Palestinians to always take the course of action guaranteed to bring the maximum misery to the largest number of people. I didn't think any other group of human beings could be that consistently stupid ... until now.

This week, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives voted 27-21 to approve a non-binding resolution describing the 1915 mass murder of Armenians in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire as "genocide." Depending on one's view, this can be interpreted either as a principled stand against a historic injustice, or as shameless pandering to a loud and influential voting bloc without regard for the dire consequences of the action. I take the latter view.

No one, not even the Turks, deny that many hundreds of thousands of Armenians died or were killed in the terrible aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of modern Turkey. The problem comes, as it often does, in the interpretation of those events and their cause. A case can be made that the deaths were a result of a systematic campaign by the Turks to rid their nation of a hated minority group. A case can similarly be made that Turks and Armenians killed each other in large numbers as a result of hatreds that had festered for many years. A good summary of the history of the event and its twisted interpretations can be found in Margaret MacMillan's superb book about the Versailles Peace Conference, Paris 1919.

But the tragic events of 1915 and the surrounding years happened nearly a century ago. Today, we live in the very complicated world of 2007. At a time when we are mired in a deadly war in Iraq, and Muslims everywhere are increasingly intolerant and spring-loaded to believe the worst conspiracy theories about everyone else, common sense tells one that it isn't a good idea to poke a sharp stick into the political eye of America's only relatively stable ally in the Arab-Muslim world.

In a statement reflecting utter ignorance of reality, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi yesterday said she didn't think the Turkish government had any reason to be upset over the Armenian Genocide resolution because it dealt not with Turkey, but with the Ottoman Empire. I fail to understand how anyone could be that stupid. First of all, I believe that in an international legal sense, the government of Turkey is considered to be the successor government of the Ottoman Empire. And second, anyone the least familiar with modern Turkey knows that the Turks have a very prickly sense of pride and honor and quickly take offense at perceived slights (you can be jailed there for "insulting Turkishness," an offense which can take many forms). Even a fatuous numbskull like Ms Pelosi should have gotten the message about how seriously the Turks take the issue when the Turkish government yesterday recalled its ambassador to Washington "for consultations" - a diplomatic shot across our bow.

What makes this so serious? Consider that our access to air bases in Turkey is essential for supplying and supporting our troops fighting in Iraq. Consider also that Turkey has a long-running fight with violent Kurdish separatists who are supported in part by the Kurds of northern Iraq. The Turkish army and much of the Turkish public strongly supports military action - up to and including an invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan - to eliminate the problem. The U.S. government is anxious to keep the Turks from taking such action, which would bring chaos to the only reasonably peaceful region of Iraq ... but the Turks aren't going to be particularly interested in our concerns when our Congress has shown so little concern for theirs.

I believe much of the blame for this lunacy lies with Mr Bush and the Republicans. By routinely sidelining and ignoring the Democrats while they were in power, they squandered what political capital they might have had to sway the opinions and actions of their political opponents, turning potential allies into the political equivalent of petulant toddlers. For their part, those who support the Armenian Genocide resolution are lining up for a powerful shot to the foot by not considering the larger political implications of their actions.

I hope that common sense and good judgment will prevail, and that Congress will step back from taking an action which will play well at home, but will have terrible consequences for our larger foreign policy interests.

But, as in so many things dealing with Congress, I'm not holding my breath.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, October 11, 2007

New Phones

This month marked the two-year anniversary of our cellular phone service contract, meaning that we were eligible to trade up our museum-piece cell phones for newer, spiffier models. This is important, because cell phones, like all modern electronic devices, are outdated by the time the ink dries on the contract, obsolescent by the time you get them home, and obsolete by the end of the week. We decided that it was a good time to get the new phones, since Agnes is headed for her class in Las Vegas next week (remember the story a few months ago about airline ticket purchasing?), and we figured she should have a nice new phone before she leaves.


We went to the local store operated by our service provider (which shall remain nameless for the moment) in search of new phones. Agnes is very, very picky about these things, and spent the better part of an hour examining and comparing the vast range of available phones, "assisted" by a not-especially-helpful salesman. She finally narrowed it down to the one she wanted, and the salesman disappeared into the Secret Back Room Vault O' Phones ... only to return with the news that this particular model was sold out. Agnes ground her teeth and went back to the search again, finally deciding on a second choice phone ... which turned out also to be out of stock. By this time she'd had enough of the store and the poor salesman (who, she pointed out, didn't seem to care enough about the sale to try to locate the desired phone for her anywhere else), and we left.

We went across the street to the local shopping mall, back to the kiosk where we'd bought our current phones two years before. Here, the experience was a bit different. A fast-talking, hyperactive, dreadlocked young salesman couldn't do enough to make the sale, bouncing back and forth between his limited stock, his telephone to his supplier, and his computer to search sources on the internet. In the end, Agnes got the phone she'd originally wanted, although the salesman wasn't able to find the exact Bluetooth earpiece she wanted, since we didn't know the exact model number. I bought a phone of a different make and model, but will take it back today and exchange it for one like Agnes's (it's easier to be the family help desk if I only have to worry about one make and model of phone).

Cellular phones nowadays aren't really phones ... they're multimedia extravagances that pack huge numbers of capabilities into the smallest possible package. I just want to make phone calls. I don't need to take pictures (I have a gazillion dollars worth of camera equipment for that), play music (the old iPod works fine, thank you), surf the web (my eyes are bad enough without trying to surf on a one-by-two inch screen), read my e-mail (the 24-inch screen and full-sized keyboard on my desktop are much better for that), or shoot videos (that's why God made video cameras). The instruction book for the new phone is an inch thick, and comes with a CD full of instructional videos and software that allows one to sync the phone to the computer. The only thing it doesn't have is a remote Taser attachment so that you can shoot lots of volts at morons who waste your time with recorded political ads or sales calls.

But that will probably be available in next week's version.

The new-generation cell phones are a lot smarter than I am. Of course, our new toaster is smarter than I am, too, but it's much larger, and it makes toast. I'm glad for the convenience of a cell phone, and the safety factor it allows for keeping in touch when Agnes and I are apart. If they're difficult to learn to use, and full of features we don't need, well, I guess that's the price we pay for progress. It wasn't easy to find phones with large enough keypads for our pudgy fingers, and screens large and friendly enough for those of us who wear tri-focals. And we discovered that the service agreement we have is so good that it isn't even offered any more (although we're grandfathered into it, so we can keep the good deal).


We have our spiffy new phones. If you are one of the select few who has the number, you won't notice any difference ... you dial, we answer (if we recognize your number). After all, these phones are for our convenience, not anyone else's.

And in two years, we're going for the models with the Taser. Or the toaster ... that should be available by then.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A Few Words About Hives. And a Stupidity Rant.

First of all, thanks to those of you who commiserated with my day of misery yesterday. A few years ago, I was hospitalized twice within two weeks (second time with an ambulance ride from the Pentagon to Arlington Hospital) for a severe allergic reaction to ... something. Each attack began with an outbreak of hives, so I've been (understandably) nervous about the hives that have been popping up over the last two weeks. If you aren't familiar with hives (the medical term, I now know, is urticaria), they are red, blotchy swellings that are generally harmless reactions to some allergy trigger. They are maddeningly itchy and can just drive you crazy. Yesterday, it was crazy. I spent all day popping Benadryl capsules like candy, smearing Benadryl cream on the worst areas, and taking cold baths and showers (a side benefit of all that, from Agnes's perspective, was that I wasn't bothering her, if you get my drift).

I have a follow-up appointment with the allergy doctor this morning, and I think we'll go through the same kabuki dance we did a few years ago. I kept an "allergy diary" for about six months, dutifully documenting everything I ate and drank, every product I used, all the soaps and detergents we used, etc, etc. The doctor tested me for allergic reactions to everything you can imagine (involving little pinpricks up and down both arms and all over my back). The result: nothing. We never learned what caused the severe reactions, and the only thing all the tests showed I was allergic to was - ready for this? - lamb. Considering that I don't care much for lamb, and we haven't eaten any in years, I found this not especially helpful. Bottom line: we never found out what I was allergic to...hence, my concern over the return of the hives (in addition to the general misery of constant itch).

But you didn't come here to listen to me whine about hives, so let me launch into a typical rant about something really stupid.

About three years ago I used a credit card to pay for gas at the pump at my local gas station. When I slid the card back into my pocket, I somehow managed to miss the target, and the card fell unnoticed to the ground. I noticed it was missing several hours later and quickly called the card company to cancel it...but not before someone had used it to run up several hundred dollars worth of charges. I wasn't held liable for the charges, partly because I'd reported the loss quickly and partly because it was obvious from my credit history that I wasn't likely to have charged a few hundred dollars worth of long distance calls to Africa.

After that, in an attempt to try to make my credit cards unusable by thieves, I stopped signing them on the back. Instead, in the signature space I write some variation on: "Do not accept this card unless photo ID is also provided." I then offer my driver's license with the card whenever I use it. Much of the time, the clerk/server/cashier just hands the license back without looking at it, but I feel a little better, anyhow, on those occasions when they do check the name and photo against my card and face (not that I look that much like my driver's license photo, but who does?).


Late yesterday afternoon I felt good enough to make a quick run to the local post office to mail a packet of new photos of Leya to Agnes's parents in Germany. When I reached the counter, the clerk weighed the packet and announced that first class airmail postage would be $3.60. I handed her my debit/credit card from my credit union, along with my driver's license. She looked at the license, turned the card over, and announced, "I can't accept this card."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because it's not signed. It says right on the back, 'Not valid unless signed'."

"Yes," I replied, but I'm giving you a photo ID that lets you verify that I'm who I say I am. If I had signed the card, how would you know the card wasn't stolen?"

"Sir, it's not my rule." she said firmly. "The card isn't signed, and I can't accept it."

As usual, being utterly without cash, I fought down my strangle-the-idiot reflex and asked what she would accept as payment.

"Cash, check, or debit card," she replied.

I ground my teeth, wrote a check for $3.60, and handed it to her.

"Can I see a photo ID, please?" she asked.

"You mean, the same photo ID you wouldn't accept to validate my credit card is good enough to validate my signature on a check?" I asked innocently.

She glared at me, not appreciating my witty repartee. "Sir, it's not my rule. It's the bank's rule. Do you need to talk to a supervisor?"

Since I hate being kept waiting in line by people who make useless fusses at checkouts, I just swallowed my irritation and handed over the driver's license. The woman carefully compared the tiny digitally-reproduced signature on the license with my manly scrawl on the check, and handed the license back, along with my receipt and the standard, "Have a nice day."

Now, is it just me, or is this stupid? To me, if someone is going to check the validity of the card at all, it would make more sense to see a photo of the owner, rather than a signature that anyone might be able to forge. But that's just me, trying to be logical. The best part of the whole thing was that I could have used the card as a debit card, whether or not it was signed...the theory being that only the owner would know the PIN number (yes, I know that's redundant) and be able to use it.


Okay, I'm done. Time to go and hit the Benadryl cream again. This morning, the hives seem to be limited just to my lower legs. I hope they stay there...I don't need to take another day of sick leave just to stay home and scratch. I remember the good old days, when hives were just the places where bees made honey.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, October 09, 2007

38 Things (A Meme from La Chanson de Phoenix)

Sue G, over at La Chanson de Phoenix, tagged me with a meme this morning. Normally I don't respond to meme tags, because they can end up being a time sink worse than blogging already is. However, this morning I am sitting at home awash in hives, itching to death and wishing Benadryl cream came in 55 gallon drums.


To take my mind off my temporary (I hope) misery, here is my response to Sue's meme (and oh-by-the-way, why do these things always come in weird numbers?):

1. Name one person who made you laugh last night? Ben, my dance teacher. He was imitating a mistake I made and … well … it was pretty funny.

2. What were you doing at 0800? Waiting for a doctor’s appointment.

3. What were you doing 30 minutes ago? Driving home from the doctor’s appointment.

4. What happened to you in 2006? My third grandchild (Noah) was born. Among many other things.

5. What was the last thing you said out loud? “Thanks, doctor.”

6. How many beverages did you have today? Three cups of coffee and many glasses of water.

7. What color is your hairbrush? Black, with a red handle. But after I use it, it tends to look much grayer from the accumulated hair.

8. What was the last thing you paid for? The prescription at the doctor’s office.

9. Where were you last night? First, at the dance studio; later, at home.

10. What color is your front door? Brown with inset glass panels.

11. Where do you keep your change? In the cup next to the pencils I'm trying to sell.

12. What’s the weather like today? Very hot and humid.

13. What’s the best ice-cream flavor? Tie: Butter Pecan or Chocolate Mint.

14. What excites you? Besides Agnes? Ballroom dancing.

15. Do you want to cut your hair? I get it cut every two weeks or so, whether it needs it or not, because Regina at the Hair Cuttery gives great scalp massages.

16. Are you over the age of 25? For the last 30 years.

17. Do you talk a lot? It depends on who I’m with and whether I have anything to say.

18. Do you watch the O.C.? No. I don't even know what you're talking about.

19. Do you know anyone named Steven? Several.

20. Do you make up your own words? Of course. What else do you do with a degree in Linguistics?

21. Are you a jealous person? No.

22. Name a friend whose name starts with the letter ‘A’. Andy.

23. Name a friend whose name starts with the letter ‘K’. Katy.

24. Who’s the first person on your received call list? Kaiser Permanente. Not a person, but it was the last received call.

25. What does the last text message you received say? “Meet me baggage claim 7.”

26. Do you chew on your straw? No. I prefer hay.

27. Do you have curly hair? On my head? No.

28. Where’s the next place you’re going to? Back to the doctor’s office tomorrow.

29. Who’s the rudest person in your life? There are no rude people in my life because I don’t let rude people into my life.

30. What was the last thing you ate? A roast beef sandwich at breakfast.

31. Will you get married in the future? Not if Agnes has anything to say about it.

32. What’s the best movie you’ve seen in the past 2 weeks? Premonition, starring Sandra Bullock. It’s the only movie I’ve seen in the past two weeks, but it was still good.

33. Is there anyone you like right now? Not in the gaggle of people running for president.

34. When was the last time you did the dishes? Last night.

35. Are you currently depressed? No. Itchy, yes. Depressed, no.

36. Did you cry today? Only because of having to fork out another co-pay at the doctor's office.

37. Why did you answer and post this? Sue tagged me. Ordinarily I don’t respond to memes unless I find one I like and decide to do it myself; however, since I’m stuck at home waiting for my #@%&* hives to go away, it gives me something to do besides scratch.

38. Tag 5 people who would do this survey. Since I don’t usually respond to tags, I also don’t tag others…however, if any of you want to take a stab at this, go right ahead.

Back to you, Sue.


Friendship in the Digital Age

As I've gotten more into blogging over the past year and a half, I've accumulated a small but growing set of digital friends...people I'm never likely actually to meet in person, but with whom I've shared a lot of thoughts. These are the people who listen to my rants, agree with me on some points, disagree with me on others, and generally make the day more interesting...all of which got me to thinking about the meaning of friendship in a digital world.

We form our traditional friendships based on shared interests over time spent together learning about each other and building a relationship based on trust and confidence. It's said that a friend is someone who'll help you move, but a real friend is one who will help you move a body. I'm not sure I'd go that far, but to me a friend is someone you can count on to be there when you need help, and who is confident that you would be there for him (her), too. When I answered Serina Hope's "10 Words or Less" meme, I noted that one of the characteristics I most look for in friends is trustworthiness, which is what I'm talking about here.

Friend is one of those words that is sometimes used more freely than we really mean. I've noted that Agnes draws that linguistic line more definitively than I do: where I will talk about my friends at work, she'll talk about her colleagues (Arbeitskollegen, in German), drawing a subtle difference between those she cares about as friends and those who are just co-workers she spends office time with, but wouldn't necessarily want to chum around with in her free time. In our online circles we talk about our blogging friends, which we understand to carry a certain level of meaning in the context of our digital lives.

What does that all mean in the virtual world of the Internet, blogs, MySpace, Facebook, and so on? It means that we form our digital friendships through the exchanges of the written word, rather than through the traditional means of meeting, greeting, sharing experiences, and learning about each other by observation and shared adventure. It's the 21st century equivalent of the old-time pen pal we knew only through ink on paper. As we share memes and linkbacks, trade online profiles, give each other awards, and exchange glimpses of our lives through posted pictures, we form a mental image of the individuals with whom we're holding digital hands. We don't actually know the real person on the other end of the line, but we perceive that person based on what they've chosen to share about themselves. Philosophers tell us that each of us is really three different people: the person others see; the person we choose to expose to others; and the person we actually are. Singer Nanci Griffith expressed it well in her wonderful song "Late Nite Grande Hotel," when she sang that "no one really knows the heart of anyone else."

Would we actually like each other as much in person as we do in the blogosphere? I have a feeling that, in most cases, we would. There are tens of millions of blogs out there, and most of us have a fairly small number that we visit regularly because we've decided over time that we like what we see and read of the person on the other end of the wire. If we only post the most flattering photos of ourselves, well, so what? It's natural. Most of us have posted some variation on the "(pick a number) facts about me," (mine was back on October 5th), but not everyone can be as honest (and funny) as Amanda, who actually posted about how annoying she is.

So what's the point of all this? Just a few random thoughts that occurred to me as I considered the digital friends I've made since launching this blog. Someday a few of us may actually meet each other and have the opportunity to decide if the image we've formed is accurate. But for now, I'll take the digital relationship for what it's worth, and continue to look forward to the few minutes I spend each day with each of you.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, October 08, 2007

In 10 Words or Less

Yesterday Serina Hope tagged me with an interesting meme: answer a series of 29 (an odd number, that...why not 25, or 30?) questions with answers of 10 words or less. I couldn't sleep, so it seemed like a good opportunity to take this on. Herewith, my 29 answers, in 10 words or less:

1. What is your idea of perfect happiness? Being surrounded by family and friends at Thanksgiving.

2. What is your greatest fear? Something bad happening to a member of the family.

3. Which historical figure do you most identify with? Will Rogers.

4. Which living person do you most admire? No question: my father.

5. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? My tendency to procrastinate.

6. What is the trait you most deplore in others? Religious intolerance.

7. What is your greatest extravagance? My camera, lenses, and photo processing and managing software.

8. What is your favorite journey? The one that ends where I’m going.

9. On what occasion do you lie? Never on specific occasions; generally only to spare someone’s feelings.

10. What do you dislike most about your appearance? My ugly, nasty, cracked toenails.

11. Which words or phrases do you most overuse? “Oh, for cryin’ out loud…”

12. What is your greatest regret? My mother didn’t live to see her great-grandchildren.

13. What or who is the greatest love of your life? Agnes, who else?

14. When and where were you happiest? Wherever I was when each child and grandchild was born.

15. Which talent would you most like to have? Singing. I couldn’t carry a tune if it had handles.

16. If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be? We’d all live within two hours drive of each other.

17. What do you consider your greatest achievement? Fathering three great and successful children.

18. If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be? Myself, version 2.0, new and (hopefully) improved.

19. If you could choose what/who to come back as, what would it be? A dog in my family, where dogs are loved.

20. What is your most treasured possession? My library.

21. What is your favorite occupation? Reading.

22. What is your most marked characteristic? My sense of humor.

23. What is the quality that you most like in a man? Trustworthiness.

24. What is the quality that you most like in a woman? Trustworthiness.

25. What do you most value in your friends? Trustworthiness and reliability.

26. Who are your heroes in real life? Police, firefighters, and military personnel.

27. What is it that you most dislike? Bugs of all kinds.

28. How would you like to die? In my sleep, after a good meal.

29. What is your motto? I have seen the truth, and it makes no sense.

Okay, Serina, back over to you. I won't tag anyone else with this meme, but would be interested in knowing what the answers are for any of my regular blogging friends.

Maybe I can go back to sleep now that it's almost time to get up.

More thoughts later.


Sunday, October 07, 2007

Grandchild Update!

Today has been a pretty hectic day, and so I didn't get my usual early morning posting done. I did notice, however, that most of my usual readers stopped I hope you didn't give up on me.

Serina Hope has tagged me with an interesting meme that I'll respond to in the morning, and I have lots of other things tumbling around in my brain at the moment to post about, but first things first. We spent the afternoon visiting our daughter Yasmin, son-in-law Vin, and newest (fourth, gasp!) grandchild, Leya. Time for a few pictures:

Here Leya expresses her joy at a kiss from Grandma Agnes...

And here she expresses her opinion about Grandpa Bilbo's not shaving before visiting her...

But later on, we went for a nice walk in the afternoon sun, and all was right with the world...

It's hard to believe that we have four wonderful grandchildren. If all goes as planned, the entire family will descend on our house for Thanksgiving, and we'll be awash in love, laughter, great children in whom we take great pride, and fabulous grandchildren who, sadly, will grow up before we know it.

But for now, we'll just revel in the happy smiles (and even in the multi-decibel screams) of the world's most adorable grandchildren. My friend Jake will probably beg to differ...but, of course, he's biased in favor of his own grandchildren.

Have a good evening. Tomorrow, we'll take on Serina Hope's "In 10 Words or Less" meme, and maybe some other topics...but for now, it's bedtime.

Good night.


Saturday, October 06, 2007

Golden Rule, Leaden Heart

My regular readers know that I have a deep and fundamental problem with excessive and obsessive religious faith. Not a problem with religion or religious belief per se, but with those whose mindless adherence to literal interpretation of religious texts leads them to do terrible things. From the self-styled True Christian who bombs family planning clinics and murders doctors to the Islamist radical who straps on vests packed with explosives and blows himself up in a crowd, twisted faith has brought untold misery to people and nations everywhere.

Consider two items in the recent news:

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an outspoken critic of political Islam and of Islamist extremism, has been routinely threatened with death by those against whom she speaks out. Since 2004 she has been one of six people provided with protection by the government of the Netherlands, and she may lose that. Read the story here.

A magazine for children (Al-Fateh) published by Hamas (in London, no less) regularly features stories which encourage the murder of "infidels" (any non-Muslim) and glorify murder by suicide (cynically and euphemistically called "martyrdom"). The latest issue of the magazine continues this outrageous and despicable attempt to poison the hearts of the young. You can read a translated version of excerpts from the magazine, and see the illustrations, here.

Mosques and Islamic study centers are springing up in Europe and America like toadstools after a summer rain. But it is illegal to build a church in a Muslim country, and in many places the penalty for encouraging a Muslim to convert to any other religion is death.

I was raised in the Catholic faith, and never recall any priest, monsignor, bishop, cardinal, or Pope encouraging me to go out and kill people who aren't Catholics. Instead, they taught me The Golden Rule. The King James version of the Bible (in Matthew 7:12) tells us, Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them. In modern English: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

If there's an equivalent expression in Islam, no one seems to be preaching it. The Golden Rule has given way to the Leaden Heart, hard and cold, unfeeling and unyielding in its hatred of and disdain for all who do not worship God as interpreted by clerics whose thinking has not changed in more than thirteen hundred years. And this belief stretches beyond the grave: there are actually people who spend their time worrying about whether or not Muslims can visit the Pyramids of Egypt because they are the tombs of "infidels." You can read more about this here.

In a world consumed by social and economic inequality, violence, and hatred, much of it inspired or stoked by religious beliefs, we have a choice. We can follow the way of the Golden Rule or the way of the Leaden Heart. Sadly, many of the hundreds of millions of people who follow the Islamic faith have chosen the latter way...not, perhaps, because they are themselves bad people, but because by their silence and their inability to adapt the lessons of the 7th century to the utterly different world of the 21st, they encourage those whose contemptible actions make the world a worse place to live.

The Golden Rule encourages us to treat each other in a way that leads to a peaceful and prosperous life for all; the Leaden Heart encourages intolerance and violence now in the expectation of an imagined paradise beyond this life.

I live in the here and now. My children and grandchildren live in the here and now. My faith, such as it is, lies in the Golden Rule. Sadly, there are all too many who embrace the Leaden Heart instead.

And all too many who encourage them.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.