Friday, February 29, 2008

Bus Stop Debate

A few days ago I was waiting for my bus at the local Metro station and, as always when I have free time, I was reading. The book I was reading was Frederick Taylor's The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989 - a book of particular interest to me, as I lived in Berlin for 2-1/2 years in the early 80's, back when it was still an encircled and divided city, and I'm fascinated by its history.

While I was reading, a gentleman standing next to me suddenly said, "We're doing the same thing, you know."

I was engrossed in reading, and didn't make the immediate connection of what he meant. "I'm sorry, I don't take your meaning."

He pointed to the book and repeated, "We're doing the same thing today. Along the Mexican border."

Ah, I thought, he's equating the Berlin Wall with the barrier being built across parts of the southern border to control illegal immigration. "I don't think I agree with you," I said. "They're two entirely different things."

"No they aren't," he replied. "They're exactly the same."

"Well," I said, "I still have to disagree. The Berlin Wall was put up by the East German regime to keep its people in, and the guards along it had orders to shoot to kill. The southern barrier is being built to keep people from entering this country one is preventing anyone from leaving, and most certainly no one is ordering the police and army to shoot to kill when people cross."

"Nope," the other man said confidently. "They're just the same thing. They're trying to keep people from going where they have a right to go."

I was starting to reply to that point when the other man's bus arrived and he had to leave. As he got on board, he turned back to me and said, "Think about it."

Well, I have. And while I respect his opinion, I think he's utterly wrong.

First of all, the Berlin Wall was put up by an intellectually and morally bankrupt regime to keep its people from voting with their feet. It was a heavily fortified barrier, overwatched with guard towers manned by border guards with orders to shoot to kill. While I lived in Berlin, several people (including two of the border guards) actually escaped over the wall, and at least one was shot dead. As far as I know, our Customs and Border Protection officers are permitted to shoot only in self-defense, and are more likely to be fired at by drug smugglers and human traffickers than to draw their own weapons.

The United States now, like West Germany and West Berlin then, recognized and made provisions for the right of people legally to emigrate to their territory. In the era of the Berlin Wall, East Germans had no such equivalent right to leave...if they wanted to relocate to the West, they literally had to take their lives in their hands to do it. Along the southern border of the U.S., Mexicans and others have the legal right to apply for visas to enter the country legally...but tens of thousands aren't willing to go to that much trouble, choosing rather to risk arrest and the dangers of the desert to cross illegally. The Mexican government has no particular interest in stopping them, since it relieves them of the burden of employing and caring for their own citizens (and, by the way, the Mexicans ruthlessly enforce the security of their southern border).

I appreciate the unknown gentleman's opinion, even though I think he's wrong. The beauty of this country is that we can agree to disagree without resorting to Lady Bird Johnson once said, "The clash of ideas is the sound of freedom." But opinions need to be informed by facts, and I don't think my unknown debater had considered all the relevant facts.

My position on illegal immigration is clear to everyone who's been reading this blog, and I've provided my own recommendation for immigration reform here and in letters to the President and my Senators and Representatives (all of whom answered with earnest, windy, and ultimately meaningless letters). Our current immigration laws are outdated and in desperate need of reform...sadly, we don't have anyone in Congress with the political and moral courage to take it on.

The Berlin Wall was a ghastly barrier meant to imprison a population, accompanied by the threat of death. The southern border wall, such as it is, is meant to secure the U.S. border from those who willingly break the law to enter, for whatever reason.

I don't think anyone can reasonably compare the two, but you're welcome to try to convince me. Good luck.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, February 28, 2008

What's in a Name - Part 3

Since this thematic horse isn't quite dead yet, I thought I'd beat one more post out of the very fascinating subject of names.

In some cultures, names are considered to have their own magic: knowing the name of a person or thing is believed to give you some level of power over that person or thing, and so true names are kept secret...which may be why we're sometimes reluctant to give out our real names in some contexts (consider that most of us use screen names while online, or don't give out our full names to people we meet casually in bars). In an age when identity theft is a serious problem, there really is some magic in the knowledge of a name (or, especially, a social security number).

How do we get our names? In the U.S., the convention is for people in general to have three names: first (Christian or given), middle, and last (or family). The first name is often the name of the parent or some respected relative or other figure, and the family name is obvious, but the source of the middle name is somewhat more flexible: it can come from the name of a relative, a friend, or someone we want to honor. It can also be ... well ... different. Some people don't have a middle name, and some have only an initial (U.S. president Harry S. Truman is an example of the latter - the "S" doesn't stand for anything, it's just an initial). Sometimes there's name overkill when one middle name just isn't enough: the heir to the throne of Great Britain, for example, is named Charles Philip Arthur George Windsor. Russians have a first name, patronymic, and family name, the patronymic middle name being derived from the father's name; thus, Ivan's son Peter would be Peter Ivanovich, and his daughter Larissa would be Larissa Ivanova.

Reader Mike commented on the first of these posts that it's also tough to have a first and middle name (Robert Michael), then be called by your middle name (Mike) tends to confuse people. Sometimes, though, this is done by choice when an individual doesn't really like his given name: one of my college friends was named "Claude Robert," but signed his letters "C. Robert" and preferred to be called "Bob." We often called him "Crobert" just to irritate him.

The family name can also have its own issues. The tradition in this country for many years was for a woman to take the name of her husband's family upon marriage; however, many women, particularly those who are established professionals, now choose to either keep their own family name or combine it with the husband's name through hyphenation. In some Latin cultures, combined family names are also common. And sometimes, people just don't like their family name, and opt to change it legally to something else: I once knew an individual named "Raper" who legally changed his name to something less inflammatory.

The order in which names are presented is culturally determined. In the U.S. and much of the rest of the world, the order is first name, middle name, family name; but in China and much of the Orient (and in Romania, go figure), the family name comes first. Thus, Chinese president Hu Jintao is President Hu, not President Jintao, and gymnast Nadia Comenici would be found in the phone book (and formally addressed) as Comenici Nadia.

Names can also lead to great fun (or embarrassment), as we saw yesterday. One of the funniest comedy routines ever done was the classic "Who's on First" baseball team lineup by Abbot and Costello. If you've never heard this wonderful (and perfectly clean) routine, you can read the transcript and hear a recording here. There are also several versions of a takeoff on this routine, involving President Bush being briefed by Secretary of State Rice prior to a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao; you can read the transcript of "Hu's on First" here.

And so we come full circle to our original question: what's in a name? Actually, there's quite a bit to a name, and it's interesting to think about it.

But we're done now, and tomorrow we'll think about something else.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

What's In A Name, Part 2

Yesterday's post on names drew quite a few comments - another topic that, for whatever reason, seemed to resonate with all of you out there. One of the commenters was my long-time friend and co-worker Katherine (writing under her cutesy pen name of "Anonymous"), who noted that sometimes people end up with names that are somehow appropriate to their occupations. She wrote about an officer named "Payne" who was an instructor at her ROTC summer field training. He was a Major. Which, of course, made him "Major Payne," which, she claims, he was. She also wrote about a doctor named "LeMorte" who once treated her brother in an emergency room...probably not the best of names for a physician.

Many years ago, my parents had a friend who was a urologist named - uniquely - "Fawcett." He was a bluff, hail-fell0w-well-met sort of guy who was fond of booming, "Fawcett's the name, urine's the game! If you can't pee, see me!" And I remember a heating contractor back home named Raymond Helt, whose trucks all bore the splashy motto, "If you need heat, go to Helt!"

One of the word games I've enjoyed playing over the years is inventing names for people that reflect their occupations. Mad Magazine (that paragon of literary excellence I so enjoyed) often ran lots of these, and if you listen to the "Car Talk" program on NPR, you can hear lots of them in the credits that follow the show. Here are a few classic examples:

The head of a Working Mothers' Support Group named "Erasmus B. Dragon;"

A medieval castle defense strategist named "Mandy Battlements;"

A female bouncer named "Amanda B. Warov;"

A social worker named "Karen Ford DeNeedy;"

A conspiracy theorist named "Nadia Believeme;"

The valet parking staff: "Denton Fenders," "Randy Batterydown," "Nick Adore," and "Kent Steerwell."

A back-seat driver named "Veronica Lisioncourse;" and,

A complaint department representative named "Xavier Breath."

Having thus begun plumbing the depths of awful puns related to names and occupations, I turn it all over to you...any other suggestions?

Have a good day. More thoughts (and a third stab at discussing names, courtesy of reader Mike) tomorrow.


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

What's In A Name?

An interesting article popped up across the web yesterday, looking at the somewhat odd names sported by some of the people standing for election in the Indian state of Meghalaya. The 331 candidates contending for 60 seats include Frankenstein Momin, Billy Kid Sangma, and Adolf Lu Hitler Marak, among other colorful characters.

Makes Barak Hussein Obama look pretty pedestrian, doesn't it?

The story goes on to relate how some new converts to Christianity often named their children after the missionaries that converted them, and then chose other names from words, phrases, and expressions they'd heard in other languages, but often didn't quite understand. As a result, many people sport names like Britainwar Dan, Admiral Sangma, and Bombersingh Hynniewta.

What's in a name, as Juliet might have asked?

Some years ago, country singer Johnny Cash recorded a huge hit song written by Shel Silverstein called "A Boy Named Sue" that told the story of a man who spent his life searching for the father who abandoned him after naming him "Sue." In the end, they meet and the father explains that he named his son Sue to make him tough (since he'd have to fight all the people who made fun of his name)...and Sue, realizing the wisdom of this plan, declares that if he ever has a boy, he'll name him "...Bill, or George, anything but Sue!"

Like Sue's dad, many people, particularly celebrities, seem intentionally to inflict bizarre names on their helpless children. Rocker Frank Zappa has daughter Moon Unit and son Dweezil. Gwynneth Paltrow named her daughter Apple. The Phoenix family of actors includes River, Liberty, and Rain, in addition to Joaquin. My mother, when she worked as an executive secretary for an insurance company many years ago, started a collection of the bizarre names she ran across in company documents: Rusty Pipes, 7/8 Smith, and Cigar Stubbs, among several multi-column pages of others. It's not a wonder that many people go to court each year to change their names.

What's in a name? What's in some parents' heads? When I was growing up in the Pittsburgh of the 1950's and 60's, boys were named John, Peter, George, and Fred; girls were named Kathy, Sandra, Donna, and Mary. Today, parents seem to delight in selecting odd names, or twists on traditional ones - consider the number of black men named "Antwan" rather than "Antoine," and the number of black women with names beginning with "La" - Latasha, Latoya, Lashonda, and so on.

What's in a name? I leave you with this cartoon to help you ponder the question:

Have a good day, no matter what your name is. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, February 25, 2008


I subscribe to a lot of "____ of the Day/Week" e-mails: Joke of the Day, The Daily Curmudgeon,'s weekly recipe summary, and so on. One of my favorites, though, is the "Word of the Day" from I enjoy building my vocabulary, and as a degree-holding linguist, I always find the information on the derivations of words interesting.

The Word of the Day that popped up in my mailbox this morning is snollygoster, defined as a regional slang term for an unscrupulous but shrewd person, often referring to a politician, and I think it's a particularly useful word nowadays. Consider all the snollygosters running around out there:

Moqtada al-Sadr;

Vladimir Putin;

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad;

Pervez Musharraf;

Hugo Chavez; and,

Anyone running for President this year.

The word snollygoster, according to the website, originated in the Pennsylvania-Maryland region of the U.S. (although I don't recall ever hearing it when I was growing up in Western Pennsylvania). The snollygoster was said to be a monster, part bird and part reptile, that preyed on children; the threat of the snollygoster was used by parents to keep unruly or disobedient children in line. The etymology suggests that the word is derived from the Pennsylvania Dutch expression schnelle geeschter, or "fast spirits," which makes sense in the context of a bugbear used to frighten children, and the general meaning is one of something "noxious and deceptive."

Like, well, politicians.

The term snollygoster is also sometimes used in New England to refer to the sort of powerful storm generally called a nor'easter. This also suggests the application of the word to politicians, which are frequent sources of directionless, powerful, howling wind.

So, friends, the word of the day is snollygoster. Not something you can sprinkle liberally in your everyday discourse, but a useful term in the right context.

Remember to vote for your favorite snollygoster in November. There's no shortage.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, February 24, 2008

Feelin' the Joints

Most of the time, I don't think about my age. After all, nowadays 56 is pretty much solid middle age as compared to long ago, when life spans were much shorter, a woman of 12 or 13 was prime marriage material, and a guy my age was pretty much considered a waste of food.

Every once in a while, though, I get a whiff of mortality. The thought that I have four grandchildren, the oldest of whom will be 8 in April, is a bit sobering (although I have to say that my father, healthy and happy at 85 with eleven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, would probably think I'm overreacting). I also have what Dad once called a "curfew body" - all the joints close up at 10:00 and don't open again until afternoon.

Over at Billions of Versions of Normal yesterday, Mike posted an item (#317) called "Retarded Grandparents" that was supposedly reported by a's a hysterical piece allegedly written by a school child that relates his visit to the place where Grandma and Grandpa live now that they're "retarded." Half of me laughed till tears ran down my cheeks; the other half flashed back to visiting my mother as she wasted away in an Alzheimer's care facility.

Watching the long, slow decline of a beautiful, well-educated and erudite lady wasn't pretty, and is one of the reasons I keep up this blog and do other things to keep my mind active and alert. As I wrote yesterday about my Bucket List, I plan on being around to dance at my grandchildren's weddings and tell stories to at least one great-grandchild, and that's not going to happen unless I take care of myself now (I'm reminded of the line from Jimmy Buffett's song Fruitcakes in which his girlfriend criticizes him because 'I treat my body like a temple, you treat yours like a tent').

I can't let the sore feet, the arthritis in the neck, and the curfew joints get in the way of making the most of the time I've got here. There are grandchildren to be played with and educated, things go be blogged about, books to be read, letters to be written, and ladies to be danced with. Especially ladies to be danced with. I'm not ready for that retarded place in Florida just yet.

Help keep me stimulated so I can put it off as long as possible.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, February 23, 2008

Bilbo's Bucket List

Here I am, home again in Northern Virginia after an uneventful (yay!) set of flights home. The only problem was the usual problem I have with flying...I have arthritis in my neck that flares up when I fly in those roomy and delightfully comfortable airline seats, and it's back with a vengeance. But other than having to turn my whole body from side to side to look at things without having to turn my head (and scream loudly enough to wake the neighbors), things are fine.

For me, anyhow.

Poor Agnes is down with a terrible case of the flu. She looks and sounds like the home demo version of Death 5.0, and has a whole bag of medicines to take at regular intervals between bouts of groaning and honking. She positively radiates misery. I feel badly for her, and just know that the little flu beasties are rubbing their hands and smacking their lips, getting ready to attack me as soon as they're done tormenting her. I can hardly wait.

All of which made me think about the recent Jack Nicholson/Morgan Freeman movie, The Bucket List.

I haven't seen this movie, but I know the premise: two elderly, terminally ill men "escape" from a hospital cancer ward and set out to cross off as many things as possible on their "bucket lists" - the things they want to do before they kick the proverbial bucket. This, of course, made me wonder what my own "bucket list" would include. Here are a few entries that come immediately to mind:

1. Dance at the weddings of all my grandchildren.

2. Hold my first (at least!) great-grandchild and tell him (or her) stories.

3. Visit Vienna (Austria, not Virginia) and St Petersburg (Russia, not Florida).

4. Go on a really long cruise with Agnes...around northern Europe and the Mediterranean, or through the South Pacific.

5. Dance a waltz with Edyta Sliwinska.

I suppose I can afford the first two on the list (which are the most important, anyhow); perhaps we can work out the next two if the President and the Governor leave enough in my battered savings account after taxes; and if we go to enough dance competitions, I may just have a chance to meet and beg a dance from the lovely Ms Sliwinska. We'll just have to see.

So what's on your bucket list? This isn't a meme, but I am curious to know what all my virtual friends out there would like to do before checking into the Hotel Permarest.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, February 22, 2008

On the Road Again...

Well, in just a few minutes I'll be heading from my hotel to the airport to leave lovely Colorado Springs. The weather here is cold, with light snow...nothing too nasty; however, CNN is reporting that the East Coast is experiencing horrendous winter weather. Nothing about DC yet, but New York, Philadelphia, and points north are getting hammered, with delays in New York reaching 7 hours. AARRGGHH!! Luckily, I'm flying through Dallas-Fort Worth, so as long as things in Washington don't get too bad, I should be all right. In any case, I have two crossword puzzle books, two books to read, my iPod, and my laptop.

I guess I'm ready.

See you all back here in this space tomorrow, weather willing.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, February 21, 2008

Pets, Good and Bad

When I was growing up, if you had a pet, it was probably a dog, cat, or bird. Baby chicks were popular at Christmas and Easter, goldfish and baby turtles were also popular pets. In my semi-rural neighborhood, we sometimes temporarily kept the large box turtles that lived around our local streams. My father kept a tank of colorful tropical fish, and we had a pair of canaries (but that's another story). As you know, Agnes and I have a dog. Punky is a Black Lab/Rottweiler mix who is very old, very gentle, and very laid back...just the right sort of pet for a busy couple like us.

But there are other sorts of pets, and they're not all cuddly.

This morning's USA Today newspaper had a front-page article about giant Burmese pythons - enormous snakes that can grow up to 20 feet long, weigh as much as 250 pounds, and are now found wild across the southern United States and the coast of Virginia. They found their way to the U.S. as exotic pets, and entered the wild when their owners suddenly realized that 20-foot, 250 pound pythons probably weren't a good choice of pet for small apartments or homes with small children.

Pets are a good way of teaching children responsibility. Unfortunately (for the pets) some people irresponsibly seek out "exotic" pets - large snakes, Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches, tarantulas, tigers, or whatever. They want pets that are conversation pieces, a way to attract attention, show off, or outdo the neighbors in conspicuous consumption. By the time they realize that these animals are completely unsuitable as house pets, it's too late...they're stuck with living creatures no one wants. The solution? Take them out into the country and dump them to fend for themselves.

And so we have a problem with Burmese pythons. The problem also exists with alien plant species, but at least the plants usually don't attack you once they've gone wild.

Here in Northern Virginia we have a problem with poisonous copperheads (makes tending my herb garden an adventure), but at least we haven't seen any pythons yet. Thank goodness.

Want a pet? Get a dog. Or a cat, so that my dog will have something to chase.

But please leave the pythons...the copperheads are bad enough.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Flying the Unfriendly Skies, Revisited

It's been a while since I've had to travel by air, and given the sorry state of air travel nowadays, that's not a bad thing. But yesterday I flew from Washington to Colorado Springs, changing flights at Dallas-Fort Worth. Sigh.

First, the good news: both flights left almost on time (within about 10 minutes), and both arrived almost on time (I actually got to Colorado Springs about 20 minutes early). My luggage arrived at the same time I did, intact, and I only waited a few minutes for it to come off the airplane (of course, I gave them some extra time by picking up my rental car first).

Now the bad news.

I flew the same model aircraft on both legs of the trip: an MD-80 with 2 seats on the port side and three on the starboard. I had the exact same seat on both trips - 27B, The Seat From Hell. This was an aisle seat (which I'd requested) on the port side. So far, so good. Unfortunately, this seat is right in front of a bulkhead, which means it can't recline; thus, there's no way to escape the person in front who can (and invariably does) recline back into your lap. This seat is also strategically placed so that the line for the bathroom forms right next to you...and there's nothing like spending a flight sitting straight up, with people lined up in the aisle so that their fannies are right on a level with your face. And, of course, when people squeeze past each other in the aisle, they always lean into the person in the aisle seat...nothing like getting someone's big, wide posterior in your face.

But I'm here, in one piece, with my luggage, and only moderately jet-lagged, so I guess I shouldn't complain.

But I will, anyhow, because what kind of professional curmudgeon would I be if I didn't?

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. - CNN is reporting a "major earthquake" in Indonesia near Banda Aceh. On the map, it looks safely distant from Palembang...Amanda, hope you and your family are okay.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Ownership of Meaning

Yesterday I wrote about changing concepts of literacy, based on a Washington Post article (to which you can link from yesterday's post). That article, in addition to many other interesting comments, reminded us of the effect of the introduction of the printing press on "those who wanted to protect and interpret the word of God" - they didn't like it. Then as now, knowledge was power. If you possessed and controlled information upon which others depended, you exercised a degree of power over those people as long as your information monopoly remained secure. The medieval Church relied on the illiteracy and ignorance of the masses to protect its monopoly on the text and meaning of the Bible - people believed the Bible said what the priests and bishops said it meant. People believed, among other things, that they could purchase indulgences to buy their way out of sin (and, oh-by-the-way, enrich the Church officials who sold them the indulgences). Once books could be printed in mass quantities, and in the vernacular, people could read them themselves, ask questions, and extract their own meanings from them. This marked the beginning of the decline in the secular power of the Church. Today, dozens of different versions of the Bible are available in virtually every language. The ultimate source of the word of God for billions of people can be purchased (or obtained for free), read, and studied by anyone, without the need for a religious hierarchy to tell them what they're reading.

The situation is different in Islam. Practicing Muslims believe the Koran is the ultimate, perfect, final word of God, every letter of which is exactly as God gave it to Mohammed via the angel Gabriel. The real importance of this belief lies in the fact that God gave this document to Mohammed in the language spoken in the Arabian desert of the seventh century. What this means to Islamic scholars is that no version of the Koran not written in that language can be considered true and authentic. God spoke to Mohammed in Arabic; therefore, you must speak Arabic in order to understand what he said. No other language is valid.

Consider this for a moment. One of the great strengths of Christianity was it's ability, once it came to grips with the technology of the printing press, to spread its version of God's word in languages intelligible to the vast mass of people. It didn't matter if you spoke English, Greek, Hebrew, Xhosa, or Mandarin - there was a Church-approved translation of the Bible available for you (indicated by the certifications "nihil obstat" - "nothing stands in the way (of publication)," and "imprimatur" - "free of errors.") In Islam, by contrast, the only valid version of the Koran is the one in Arabic.

This is a problem, of course, if you don't speak Arabic. If you aren't fluent in that language, you must depend on an Imam to tell you what God's word is. And this leads to a problem when Muslims who don't speak Arabic depend on Imams who often don't speak their language. Many of the Imams exported around the world from the Middle East to interpret the Koran for Muslims are trained and paid by the harshly intolerant Wahhabi sect of Saudi Arabia (which, by the way, you are indirectly funding by purchasing the oil sold by the Saudi royal family). If your Imam believes in the most hostile and intolerant verses of the Koran, if he tells you the Koran says you must shun or kill believers in other faiths, if he tells you the Koran says that women must be covered from head to foot and utterly subordinated to men, if he tells you the Koran says Jews and Christians are apes and pigs...and you don't speak the Arabic which would let you see if that's what the Book really says and ask the questions you should ask, you are likely to grow up believing a form of your religion which has produced legions of suicide bombers and a system of justice that endorses mutilation of thieves and flogging or stoning of adulterers.

The ownership of meaning is a critical issue. Christianity grew by sharing and spreading the word of God in the vernacular, making it accessible to everyone. Islam is growing on the basis of absolute and unquestioning faith in a document most of its adherents cannot read without the interpretation of an Imam who may have his own agenda.

There's an old joke that defines The Golden Rule as "whoever has the gold makes the rules." The same might apply to the ownership of religious information. As long as a select coterie of people controls the meaning of critical information, they make the rules by which you live.

And they may not have your best interests, spiritual or temporal, at heart.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, February 18, 2008

New Literacy

Since I started this blog on March 8, 2006, I have posted more than 500 times and received more than 900 comments. My champion post, with 206 hits as of this morning (and usually getting at least one or two a week), is Don't Dig Here, in which I looked at the linguistic challenge involved in warning people thousands of years in the future of the hazards posed by nuclear waste storage sites. It seems that this is a topic that's more on people's minds than I thought when I wrote it.

There was a very interesting article in the Washington Post's Outlook section yesterday that relates to the ideas I tried to develop in that post. The article, by Howard Gardner, was titled "The End of Literacy? Don't Stop Reading", and was a fascinating look at the future of reading and writing. He began with the observations that students' reading scores are declining, and surveys indicate that half the adult population of the United States doesn't read a single book in a year, and asked the rhetorical question: what does this mean for the future of a literate American culture?

His conclusion, surprisingly enough, was relatively upbeat. He notes that the technology that made it possible to print books for wide distribution was originally fought by those who wanted to keep knowledge to themselves (particularly in religious circles), and that each new method of mass communication - from the telegraph to the Internet - has had its own critics. In the end, Mr Gardner concludes that the obituaries being written for books and reading are probably premature. There are simple pleasures involved in holding, reading, and pondering a book, just as there are advantages of speed and breadth in digital communication. He also notes that "Fewer people will write notes or letters by hand, but the elegant handwritten note to mark a special occasion will endure."

I bought Agnes a Sony E-Book reader last year, and she likes it for traveling, but is still hooked on the good old printed books that fill every corner of our home. I do most of my "written" communicating by e-mail and word-processed, printed letters...but I still enjoy writing letters by hand, and receiving handwritten letters of ink on paper. After all, if the power goes out or the batteries die, e-mail will be lost, electronic books will go dark; tomorrow's word processing software may not read today's digital documents; but ink on paper will endure, as it has for hundreds of years.

Literacy isn't dead yet. Changing, yes. Underemployed, definitely. But still here.

I feel a little better about current literacy than I did before. Read Mr Garnder's article and see what you think.

Have a good day. More thoughts (on a related topic) tomorrow.


Sunday, February 17, 2008

Cartoon Sunday

I woke up with an attack of the lazies this morning, Agnes is still asleep, the coffee smells great, and there's the usual 15-pound Sunday paper to read, so I thought I'd just fall back on the old dodge of sharing some more of my favorite cartoons with you.

I'm not mentioning any particular names, but this one might conceivably apply to certain persons highly placed in our government...

A few days ago, I wrote a post called The Expectation of Privacy. This cartoon turned up too late to include as an illustration, but it's wonderful. For those of you who live outside the U.S. and have never seen the New York Public Library, it's famous for the statues of the two resting lions flanking the front steps...
As the presidential campaign grinds on, particularly in a campaign season dominated by foolish concentration on the race or sex of particular candidates, there's less and less critical thinking on the part of the electorate. This about sums it up...

And I'll wrap it up with one of my all-time favorite cartoons. You just can't imagine how much I miss Bill Watterson and the classic "Calvin and Hobbes" strip:

As you may have noticed by this time, I collect great cartoons. If you have a particular favorite, I'd love to see it. E-mail copies to me at You may see them return in a future cartoon-centric post.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, February 16, 2008


Nowadays, when you hear the acronym "PDA," you probably think about your "personal digital assistant," the expensive electronic gizmo that stores all your addresses, phone numbers, shopping lists and other stuff so that they can all be conveniently lost at once when the Evil Digital Gods decide to smite you down. Agnes has a PDA and loves it; I used to have one, but never quite trusted it...I'm sufficiently old-fashioned that I like a good, old notebook and calendar, and an address book with looseleaf pages. I'm just a low-tech guy in a high-tech world.

But my problems with that PDA are a topic for another day.

Today, PDA stands for "public display of affection."

I remember when I first entered the Air Force, I was told that we were to avoid PDA when in uniform...strolling down the street with one's arm around one's main squeeze can interfere with saluting the brass and, in any case, acting lovey-dovey with your partner fails to project the proper, ruggedly military image.

Of course, we all did it. When we could get away with it, anyhow.

Today, my feelings about PDA are a bit more complex. I really don't need to see young people groping each other and French-kissing lustily at the shopping mall, or to watch a young man stuff his hand down the back of his lady friend's jeans instead of just slipping an affectionate arm around her waist or over her shoulder as they walk along.

Sometimes, PDA can get you into real trouble. Actor Richard Gere was nearly arrested in India last year after publicly planting an overly lusty kiss on Indian actress Shilpa Shetti...something that just isn't done in that conservative culture. I am, nevertheless, moderately jealous of Mr Gere, Ms Shetti being an extraordinarily attractive lady.

But I digress.

I don't think anyone needs to be arrested (in India) or flogged (in enlightened places like Saudi Arabia) for overly enthusiastic PDA. But I think it's worthwhile to raise the common sense flag once in a while. As the old saying goes, "Get a room!" Lights were invented so we'd have something to turn off in bedrooms so that we could do the horizontal tango in privacy, and a public display of carnality isn't always the best way to display your affection for someone.

Call me old-fashioned (or worse), but I like walking hand-in-hand with Agnes, or strolling along with our arms around each other's waists. And I'm not above planting a smooch on her cheek or the top of her head (which - since she's a bit vertically challenged - is at just the right height). But I just think it's disrespectful and a bit unseemly to get aggressively affectionate in public.

Of course, you could use your other PDA to wirelessly transmit suggestive messages to the object of your affection, but it's just not the same.

Have a good day. Hold hands with someone you love, unless you're in Saudi Arabia, where they have special police to control that sort of thing.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, February 15, 2008

Another Low, Dirty Machine Trick

Yes, you already know that machines hate me, for I have bitched and complained endlessly about it here. But their campaign is relentless, and their attempts to screw up my life are neverending.

It wasn't enough that my car left me stranded in the center of three lanes at a major intersection earlier this week, or that my computer occasionally simply decides to do something wacky that will eliminate hours of work (regardless of how often I've saved or backed up).

This morning, my alarm didn't go off.

Actually, it did go off, but I didn't hear it because the problem is not with the alarm per se, but with the volume control on the clock radio. The volume is controlled by a slider, which has two settings - off and way-too-loud - separated by the tiniest and most fragile of margins. If the control is set to way-too-loud (as it must be) and, for instance, Amanda slams a door in Palembang, the control slips to off.

Amanda slammed the door this morning.

Agnes shook me awake at 4:30 (my usual alarm time is 4:10), sweetly and urgently asking me if I knew what time it was. Now, since I am a creature of habit who depends upon my morning rituals to ease into the working day, my whole morning schedule is fried and the rest of the day is in question. AARRGGHH!!

Today is payday. Tomorrow, I'm buying a new clock radio. And I'm going to make sure the new clock radio doesn't have a chance to meet the old one before I install it.

But it won't matter, because they're all linked on some unknown level of mechanical consciousness.

And they're all out to get me.

Watch out for your own machines...when they get tired of screwing around with me, they may turn on you.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

Your Congress At Work

Here is a short list of some of the major problems facing America today:

1. Quality, affordable health care.
2. Illegal immigration.
3. War in Iraq.
4. Economy in the toilet.
5. Tax reform and repair or elimination of the Alternative Minimum Tax.

Here is what Congress worked on yesterday:

1. Berating Roger Clemens and his former trainer over the use of illegal steroids to enhance performance in major league baseball.

Am I the only person who finds this to be a disgraceful waste of the People's time?

Just thought I'd ask. After all, we're paying these people $169,300 per year (which, for the record, is considerably more than Agnes and I make together).

I'd write more, but I'm too angry. I'll just leave things here for today, along with a wish for all my female readers that you'll continue to be my intellectual Valentines. Mike, John, noisims, zero_zero_one, Anonymous, and all you other guys, here's a hearty, virtual Valentine's handshake. Treat your ladies well today.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008


As I get older, I find myself less and less willing to suffer fools gladly. Things that I might once have laughed off can really get under my skin, and examples of willful and blissful ignorance and stupidity can send me into a rage.

Enter the city of Berkely, California, stage left.

Berkeley has long been known as one of the most ultra-liberal cities in an ultra-liberal state. Students of UC Berkeley were some of the earliest and loudest opponents of the war in Vietnam, and the city has ever been in the forefront of far-left causes and interests. And that's fine. This is America, where the right to express one's opinions, however unpleasant or silly, is enshrined in the Constitution and protected by law.

But Berkeley has now gone far beyond the limits of common sense, decency, and simple politeness. In it's opposition to the war in Iraq (which, you will recall, I have also opposed from Day One), the Berkeley City Council has declared its own war on Marine Corps recruiters operating in the city. The council has officially and unofficially harassed the Marines, reserved parking places directly in front of their office for protesters to park and has declared the United States Marines - the defenders of their very right to live free and act stupid - to be "uninvited and unwelcome intruders" in the city, demanding that the recruiting office be closed.

I am a firm believer in the value of a military career for young people. Military service teaches concepts of personal responsibility, discipline, and leadership that no other career can match. As a 23-year veteran of the Air Force, I had the opportunity to work with - and for - people of every race and religion, both sexes, and all sexual orientations (I neither asked nor told). I learned that there are fine and decent people who are black and white, Christian and Jewish, male and female, gay and straight. I also learned that, contrary to the simplistic bumper-sticker mentality of anti-military demonstrators, there are in fact some problems it takes war to solve. You can thank a Soldier, Sailor, Marine, or Airman that Adolf Hitler never got to finalize his "final solution;" that the Japanese empire was defeated; that the Cold War never turned hot; that Kuwait was liberated from Iraqi occupation; that ethnic cleansing in the Balkans was stopped.

Some people never learn that the concept of civilian control of the military illustrated by the constitutional designation of the President as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces means something. It means that American generals don't wake up in the morning, yawn, scratch their armpits, and decide to invade some small country for fun. It means that the President and Congress make the critical decisions of war and peace, and that the military forces become the blunt instrument in the national toolbox, to be used when all other tools fail. This is why I shake my head in disbelief at the simple-minded idiots who demonstrate against the war in Iraq and the military in general at the Pentagon every Monday morning. This is why I think the members of the Berkeley City Council give morons everywhere a bad name. Do you hate war? I guarantee that the members of the military who have actually seen it face-to-face hate it worse than you do. But they have volunteered (yes, volunteered...the draft has been gone since 1973) to do a dirty, dangerous job to keep you ensure you continue to enjoy the freedom to tell them they are "uninvited and unwelcome" in your town.


Think about this when you go to the polls. Think about it when you oppose the actions of your government. If you don't like the way the country is going...if you opposed the war in Iraq, or any other particular action of your government...don't waste your time demonstrating against people who have volunteered to serve their country. Exercise your right and duty to vote and change the government that acts in your name. Get rid of the right morons.

And thank a Soldier, Sailor, Airman, or Marine for protecting your right to do it.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Expectation of Privacy

One of the hot topics in the U.S. these days is the erosion of personal privacy. In a time when we are observed by more than 30 million surveillance cameras in the United States alone, when we bare our deepest secrets on Facebook, express our views in blogs, fill out "warranty cards" for our purchases which request information totally unrelated to the repair of an appliance, what secrets are left? Where is our cherished "right to privacy" (which, by the way, is not specifically guaranteed by the Constitution)?

If your name isn't John Smith, you have pretty much no chance of anonymity, much less privacy, any more. I spend quite a bit of time considering what to write in this blog in order to maintain some degree of privacy and personal safety (there being all sorts of people who will take offense at some of the positions I take on issues, particularly those relating to a specific religion). I know that my picture will be taken by a surveillance camera each time I use an ATM, enter and leave my workplace, conduct a bank transaction, check out at the supermarket, check in at a hotel, enter many buildings, and cross many streets.

The degree of privacy and anonymity I can retain is partly under my control, and partly beyond it. To the extent that I share information about myself in this blog, I've chosen to expose that information and am responsible for it and the consequences. I would never think of posting revealing or embarrassing photos of myself in this blog or on a Facebook page. But to the extent that I'm photographed by surveillance cameras, or that credit bureaus and data brokers trade and sell all sorts of data about me (generally without my consent), I've lost control over my personal data and what use may be made of it. The lesson: there's some personal information we can control; most of it we can't. The task is to be judicious about what information we choose to share with others.

There's a great song by Robbie Fulks titled "I Like Being Left Alone" that pretty much summarizes my feelings. I enjoy interaction with the friends I choose, and I like expressing my opinions through blogging. But, as Robbie Fulks sings,

"I like chocolate pie, clear blue sky,
"A glass of Cotes du Rhone.
"I like summer, I like fall,
"I like music, but most of all -
"I like being left alone."

Enjoy your privacy...or that part of it still left you by the telemarketers and public opinion pollsters.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, February 11, 2008

"Junk Fees"

If you're like me, when a bill arrives in the mail, you pay it. If the amount is what I expected, I'll usually write the check or schedule the online payment without much additional thought. However, I do occasionally read a bill thoroughly, which leads to some interesting observations.

My combined local telephone/Internet/long distance telephone bill is full of bizarre fees, taxes, and strange charges: the VA Public Rights of Way Use Fee; the Federal Universal Service Fund Surcharge Long Distance; the VA Cost Recovery Surcharge; the VA Federal Universal Service Fund Surcharge; the VA Communications Sales Tax; the PEG Grant Fee; the Federal Subscriber Line Charge; and the Non-Primary Line Subscriber Line Charge. I have no clue what most of those are for, or if they are legitimate. The service provider is willing to explain them to you as long as you are willing to wait long enough to talk to the nice person in India who is paid (although not very well) to listen to your question and provide some stock answer.

The documents you sign at closing when you buy or sell a house are worse. You sit at a table for an hour, surrounded by brokers and lawyers, and sign page after page of densely-printed documents that are passed in front of you in a rapid-fire sequence. Most of these are designed to protect the interests of the bank who's lending you the money to buy the house; relatively few are intended to provide any protection for your interests. And the parade of documents is thick with small print and various fees, charges, surcharges, and other odd things you're not encouraged to ask about.

An interesting article in the Washington Post last Saturday discussed a lawsuit that's taking on some of the most egregious of the so-called "junk fees" - the various undefined charges for "admin fees," "document preparation," "regulatory compliance," etc, that add hundreds of dollars to the closing costs that are already very high. The focus of the lawsuit is a ruling by the Department of Housing and Urban Development that any fee imposed in connection with a real estate transaction must be for services actually rendered...and it seems that many of the fees being imposed are for services covered in brokerage fees that are already being assessed. The real estate industry, of course, is fighting this suit, which would deprive it of a small, but significant source of income.

The problem is also seen in other areas, too. Consider the last time you bought or repaired a car: how many "dealer preparation charges," "destination charges," "environmental fees," and other undefined assessments did you pay? How many of those are legitimate, and how many are actually already covered in the cost of the car or the repair? The dealer can explain these to you at great length, if unconvincingly, if you ask; it really doesn't matter to him, because if you've gotten to this stage, you're probably going to buy or repair the car, anyhow.

Junk fees. As the economy continues to tank and businesses of all sorts look for ways to keep up their revenue intake, I expect we'll see more and more of them. Not all will be as egregious as the charge assessed by a law office a few years ago for "HVAC" (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning - essentially, charging the customers separately for heat and a/c), but they're out there...and we need to be aware of them. You may not be able to escape, but you can question them, and if enough of us do that, perhaps the glaring light of public opinion may result in some of them going away.

As fantasies go, that's a pretty safe one.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

Another Part of the Past Fades Away...

According to this article in yesterday's Washington Post, another of the signature elements of my childhood has finally disappeared.

Say goodbye to the Polaroid instant-picture camera.

I remember graduating from the old Kodak Brownie to my spiffy Polaroid - the one I had to take out of the case and expand the bellows before using.

I remember the stench of the nasty chemicals that the internal rollers squeezed out of the little pack on the edge of the print to develop the image in the open air. I remember the little sponge applicator of fixative that had to be smeared across the finished image so it would be protected from sunlight, air, and fingerprints.

It was a pain in the neck, but it was really neat. Sigh.

Of course, the Polaroid - the cutting edge technology of its time - couldn't begin to survive against multi-megapixel digital cameras built into cell phones. Digital imaging is much more accurate and less messy, and you get your results instantly instead of waiting days or hours (for regular film prints) or minutes (for the Polaroid). But I loved my Polaroid camera.

I now shoot photos with my Canon Digital Rebel XT, not to mention with my cell phone. I know that nostalgia colors all the things that used to frustrate me about the Polaroid (not the least of which was the occasional uneven distribution of the chemicals across the image, which led to some nasty pictures). But I still can't help thinking that photography was, at that time, more fun.

Oh, well...I guess someday I'll look back wistfully at my antique Digital Rebel XT as my grandchildren show off their new 10 terapixel holographic cameras that can take your perfectly-focused picture from 50 miles away in complete darkness while automatically smoothing out wrinkles and erasing age spots.

But it's just a shame that time and advancing technology have conspired to erase something else from my childhood.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, February 09, 2008

Quotation Saturday

Sometimes it seems as if other people can say things much more elegantly than I can. It especially helps when this happens on days when I'm suffering from temporary shortage of time, thought, or get-up-and-go. Like today. Herewith a few really good comments I wish I would have made:

Orson Welles, in the film The Third Man, offered this perceptive comment: “In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed; but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

The great American comic Groucho Marx was a perceptive observer well worth quoting in an election year: "In America you can go on the air and kid the politicians, and the politicians can go on the air and kid the people."

Few people remember Franklin P. Adams, the American satirist and newspaper columnist who wrote under the pen name of FPA. He had a lot of great comments, but at this time of insane economic bad news, this is one of the best: "There are plenty of good five-cent cigars in the country. The trouble is they cost a quarter. What this country needs is a good five-cent nickel."

Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, etc. It really doesn't matter in the end because, as Stephen Millich points out: "Democracy is the most equitable form of government because, in it, greed and corruption are most widely spread."

Most of the time I can take Woody Allen or leave him, but I really liked this quip: "I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam; I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me."

Have a good day. More thoughts - of my own - tomorrow.


Friday, February 08, 2008

Taxing Experiences

Earlier this week I gathered up the past year's worth of tax receipts, W2 and 1099 and other assorted forms with obscure numbers, and went to the local commercial tax preparation office for my annual date with Pat, the nice lady who navigates the rocky shoals of tax law and turns all my paperwork into the tax return that tells me how deep Uncle Sam and the Governor of Virginia have stuck their hands into my pockets for the year.

For many years, I calculated my own taxes and filled out my own forms, but I eventually reached the point at which it was worth it to me to pay someone like Pat to translate the Old Church Slavonic of the IRS instructions into a return. I'm afraid of the IRS. I mean, I'm really afraid of the IRS. Few agencies of the Federal government can cause you as much grief and agony as the IRS can. Make an innocent mistake on your return, and you can owe not just extra taxes, but interest and penalties on the extra amount...often running to huge amounts. And did I mention jail?

Unless, of course, you are wealthy enough to be able to afford a reinforced battalion of tax attorneys who can face down the IRS on your behalf, or help you hide your income in exotic tax shelters.

Or you are a corporation.

Last week, the President published his proposed $2.7 trillion - yes, I said trillion - 2009 budget (not including the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). Most major newspapers published charts showing the distribution of that 2.7 trillion dollars, and some also included other charts which showed where the income to pay for that budget was to be raised. This latter charts are the ones I found most interesting.

The largest single source of income for the Federal government is "Individual Income Taxes" (that's what you and I shell out to Uncle Sam), accounting for 1.259 trillion dollars. "Social Security, Medicare, and Retirement tax receipts" (these are also ones you and I pay) amount to $949.4 billion. "Excise Taxes" (yep, these are taxes you and I pay on commodities we buy) bring in $26.3 billion. "Estate and Gift Taxes" (we pay those, too) - $26.3 billion. There are other sources of income, but this is the one I want to call to your attention:

"Corporation Income Taxes" - $339.2 billion.

Yes, you heard that right. Corporations, the big industries and businesses that can earn vast sums - frequently on the basis of jobs farmed out to overseas workers - paid very little in taxes compared to what you and I are asked to deliver.

Maybe it's just me, but I think there's something wrong with this picture. I think there's something wrong with big businesses paying such a small proportion of their income in taxes while the rest of us worry about things like the Alternative Minimum Tax and jump for joy at the thought of a measly $600 or $1200 tax rebate.

I know some will argue that businesses should pay less in taxes so that they can use their income to create jobs and fuel the larger economy...but when more and more of those jobs are sent overseas, that excuse rings a bit hollow.

I've often written here that I don't object to paying taxes, because I realize that they provide the money the government needs to operate. I do, however, object to a system I believe is fundamentally unfair, skewed to provide shelter and protection to the wealthy and to big businesses at the expense of the middle and lower classes. And, of course, we can also have the philosophical discussion of what amount of government we should be required to pay for.

But that's a discussion for another day. For now, if you've finished your taxes for 2007, I hope you came away relatively unscathed. In our case, we'll be getting a small refund from the Feds, half of which will be spent on the amount still due on our Virginia taxes. Go figure.

Have a good day. Don't do anything too taxing.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Decline of Memory

I had already decided what to blog about this morning, but changed my mind on the fly when my attention was caught by an interview on NPR. The person being interviewed was Harriet Harvey Wood, editor of an anthology of studies called Memory.

Memory is a fascinating topic, and I find it more interesting and intriguing as I grow older and cope with my own problems of memory. How do we remember things? Why? What makes us remember some things and not others? Why does memory seem to get worse as we get older?

Ms Wood made the observation in her interview that she finds herself no longer able to remember her friends' telephone numbers, and guesses that it's because she has all the numbers stored in her telephone, ready to be retrieved at the push of a button - why memorize them? She noted also that many of the bits and pieces of data we used to keep in memory are now stored in PDAs for easy retrieval - no need to memorize an address or a factoid when you can whip it right out of your trusty digital assistant. And students soon learn that whatever they may need to know can be Googled at any time - leaving plenty of room in memory for ... what?

People who study memory tell us that the brain is like any other muscle - it needs to be exercised and kept in trim in order to work at its best. Unfortunately, many people don't bother to exercise their brain any more. Schools don't emphasize rote memorization of facts any more; while the ability to think is good, the brain training done by memorization may well be at least as good, if not perhaps better. I love crossword puzzles, which are good vehicles for teaching vocabulary and spelling; Agnes enjoys suddoku puzzles (not being good with numbers, I don't). I enjoy reading, and love the old radio comedy and dramatic programs that forced you to use your imagination to set the mental stage that TV and movies can easily and effortlessly fill with vivid digital imagery.

Many other people nowadays don't work their brains that way. Of course, as I've often lamented in this space, people don't do much thinking for themselves any more, anyhow. But in all seriousness, the decline of memory is a dangerous thing. Each time I find myself unable to remember some bit of information, I worry about the onset of Alzheimer's Disease - the terrifying scourge that robbed my mother of her mind and led to the long decline that ended with her death seven years ago. I try to exercise my mind and memory as much as I can to avoid the same dreadful decline.

What does the decline of memory skills mean for the population at large? What we call experience is the application of lessons learned and stored in our memories. What happens when the memories aren't there? We lose the lessons of experience. If you're a Republican, you revere Ronald Reagan while forgetting the tawdry Iran-Contra scandal. If you're a Democrat, you long for the days of Bill Clinton while forgetting his disgraceful personal behavior. The selective memory employed by children and spouses works overtime for everyone during an election year...and political campaigns count on it.

So the message today is simply this: your brain is a muscle, just like your biceps. You need to exercise it. Read more books, magazines, and newspapers, and think about what you're reading. Do puzzles. Listen to the radio instead of watching TV.

You may never know your memory is failing until it actually happens, and by then it's too late. Work your brain now. It's good for you, and for the rest of us, too.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Bilbo Goes Out On a Political Limb

Super Tuesday is over, except for the bloviation of all the talking heads telling us what it all meant. But I don't need them - I think I know.

As you know, I don't think there's anyone running for president that I believe is ready for the job, especially when you consider the need for a real statesman and leader to clean up the broken glass left by the current administration. So I'm not endorsing anyone...but I'm going to go out on a political limb and make a prediction.

I predict that the November election will pit the Republican team of John McCain and Mike Huckabee against the Democratic team of Barak Obama and John Edwards. And I further predict, subject to future red-faced adjustment, that the Democratic ticket will win.

Here's my thinking:

If the Republicans can quit squabbling among themselves like a bunch of Democrats, they'll realize that there's no point in arguing whether John McCain is sufficiently conservative, and that he's the only person in their stable with the national stature and experience to make a credible candidate. Unfortunately, in order to attract the far right wing of the party, Mr McCain will need a vice presidential person who can appeal to those who are fixated on perceived hard-core conservative religious and political values. Mr Huckabee can attract the evangelical Christians and others who aren't completely comfortable with Mr McCain. Thus, the Republicans will grit their teeth and go with a McCain-Huckabee ticket. And lose.

The Democrats have their best chance to win the White House in eight years, and the election is theirs to lose. Most of the electorate is so despondent over the state of the country after eight disastrous years of Republican mismangement that they'll vote for almost anyone who isn't George Bush. The Democratic advantage this year is that they offer the perception, if not the reality, of real change. For the first time in American history, the Democrats are offering a credible black candidate and a credible female candidate. Unfortunately, they are also offering a credible black and a credible female candidate.

Barak Obama is a charismatic and attractive figure - a black man that Americans of all colors can support. Unfortunately, he lacks the experience and the seasoning needed for a president at this critical juncture in history. While I think he can be an inspiring and uniting leader, I also think his simplistic views on ending the war reflect an unfortunate willingness to pander politically rather than take an unpopular, but more realistic stand. Hillary Clinton is also charismatic in her own way, but she carries the baggage of Bill Clinton, who has not done her candidacy any favors...and if anyone can unite the squabbling Republicans in a solid wall of opposition to anything she says, it's her. If Hillary Clinton endorsed motherhood and apple pie, the Republicans would unite in endorsing cloning and chocolate cake. I just don't see her being able to accomplish anything in the face of fanatical, mindless conservative Republican opposition.


Mr Obama will never be able to live with Hillary Clinton, both because she's a divisive figure and because she'll always be overshadowed by her she can't be a realistic vice-presidential option. I believe Mr Obama will select John Edwards, a popular and charismatic individual who can help him attract southern whites and the slightly more conservative elements of the party.

And I think they'll win, because they'll be really different, and because so much of the country is so pissed off at the Republicans.

So that's Bilbo's prediction as of February 6th, 2008. It's NOT an's a prediction based on my perception of the political realities. I can't find it in me to endorse anyone in this sad crew of presidential wannabees.

I'm fattening up a few crows in a cage out back in case I have to eat them later, but I think my analysis is at least as good as anyone else's. We'll see.

Your thoughts?

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Vanity Plates

One of the things parents in the United States often use to occupy children on long road trips are variations on the license plate game: seeing how many different state (or Canadian provincial or Mexican state) license plates each child can identify (in our family, if you passed a graveyard on your side of the car, you lost your license plates and had to start over). This may not make sense to some of my overseas readers, for I don't recall ever visiting any other country that allowed personally-customized license plates (in Germany, for example, plates are standardized as three-part numbers, with the first 1-3 letters signifying the area of registration (1 letter for the largest cities, 2 for smaller cities, and 3 for the smallest towns or regions), followed by two letters and three or four numbers).

Nowadays, license plates are still a big deal, but for a different reason: it seems as if everyone and his uncle has to have a customized, "vanity" license plate. I used to think that it was mainly California that was consumed with this craze, but Virginia is every bit as bad. The states love them because they can make extra money by charging an additional registration fee for a specialized theme license plate and/or personalized message; drivers love them because they offer a chance to (as Virginia's ad for the plates says) "drive your message home," ha, ha.

Some vanity plates are used as advertisements:

On a plumber's truck: NO DRIPS
On a heating contractor's truck: GET HEAT

Some reflect the owner's hobbies, preferences, or personal situation:

TIED UP (no comment, there).
COL RETD (obviously a retired colonel from one of the services).
DANCER (I like this person already).

Some of the best vanity plates make use of the theme of the license plate, or of the frame that holds it in place (which often carries a message or advertisement of its own):

I've seen a Virginia license plate with the City of Alexandria theme (a fully-rigged sailing ship) on a car with a rear-window sticker reading "US Navy, Retired": the plate read ARG M8Y.

On a late-model Saturn sedan: the plate (sitting just above the word SATURN embossed on the rear panel) read RINGS OF.

But the all-time vanity license plate champion was this one from New York that featured a load of black humor: the frame holding the plate in place read US ARMY BOMB DISPOSAL, and the plate read OOPS BOOM.

I got to thinking about this topic when I read this article yesterday on the CNN website. It seems that some wealthy people in the United Arab Emirates (where, if memory serves, Random Magus blogs) with more money than good sense are spending enormous amounts of money to buy vanity plates consisting simply of the lowest possible number. According to the article, the numbers 5 and 7 have already been sold for the equivalent of $6.75 million and $2.97 million, respectively; next week, the number 1 is supposed to go on sale, and is expected to fetch an astronomical amount. The numbers 5 and 7 both belong to the same person, a stockbroker in Abu Dhabi, who notes that plate number 5 is on his bright red Rolls Royce...and cost more than ten times what the car did.

Just in case you were wondering what happens with all that money you spend on gas at the pump...

Before you ask, no, I don't have a vanity license plate...I'm too cheap. I have the plain old vanilla blue-on-white Virginia license plate on my car. Agnes has an "animal lover" theme plate on her car, but without a personal message...the plate itself costs an extra $25 on the annual registration; a personalized message would be another $25 or more.

For that kind of money, I'll just lean out the window and yell my message at other cars.

Have a good day. If you've seen a good vanity plate, let me know what it is.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, February 04, 2008


I've been trying to figure out the psychology and structure of spam e-mail.

Spam has changed quite a bit over the last few years, although it's remained as much of a nuisance as ever. Early on, you could identify it by the bizarre addresses from which it came, often consisting of random combinations of numbers and letters. Then it changed, now most often coming from what appear to be real names, although the subject lines clearly shout "SPAM!" Here are a few examples from my recently filtered-out spam:

"Botar sunnis airframe Moscort cloodle Bathen," from "Sheila Hinton;"

"Whereoscolid skant raddle kity," from "Dirk I. Griffith;" and

"festar Shocket trandoscord glow pephain," from Brenden Reyes. This one included the deeply-moving and highly-original message, "tryeboyfriend inkennecottI seeCalexei, wminutemena ineimprudent injswelter andcobblestonex onxforwentthe oecstaticsome mayCgarth butcballerina nothardingB bewinconvertiblemay 4downdraft, seeScoliform !Mcaramel notnetherlands6 itcirrelevant! rbosonsee somemobscene."

What kind of time-wasting BS is this?

All of the above e-mails wanted me in one way or another to click on a link to visit their alleged website which offer discount medicines, the opportunity to get a larger male member, or some other ridiculous thing. What makes the people who churn out this tripe think anyone with a brain would be smart enough to answer? Do they have lives beyond their endless quest to develop ever-stupider types of spam to waste our time and choke our in-boxes? Do they really have parents or are they pure ... well ... you get the idea.

Spam. You can run, but you can't hide. But you can dream: someday when I win the lottery, before I set up all the trust funds for my grandchildren, I'm going to hire a super-geek to build me a device that will track every piece of spam back to it's original designer, then send an insulting e-mail from his personal account to the local office of the IRS (for you overseas readers, that's our tax collection agency).

As fantasies go, I like it.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, February 03, 2008

February Blues

Maybe it's just me, but I think February is a crummy month.

Now don't get me wrong, it has its high points: today is my son Matt's birthday, Tuesday is my son-in-law Vin's birthday, and Valentine's Day is coming up a week from Friday. Unfortunately, that leaves another 25 days of crummy month to get through.

Other months have it better. January has two Federal holidays (a pretty good deal for those of us working for the Federal government), March has St Patrick's day (when we can all wear those stupid buttons that say "Kiss Me, I'm Irish!"), April helps us ease into Spring, and May starts edging us into Summer. Kids get out of school in June, July starts the big picnic season (with the Fourth of July), and August is the hot month for swimming pools and walks on shady trails. September may be the official end of summer (on Labor Day), but the parents get to breathe a sigh of relief as the children go back to school. October starts the crisp days of autumn, when the leaves change colors and the mornings can be cool and bracing; November has two federal holidays (including Thanksgiving, my favorite) and my birthday. December, of course, has the Christmas holiday season.

And that leaves poor February.

It's short, having had days ripped off by various Roman emperors who wanted their months to be longer. The weather's generally lousy. Football season is nearly over. In an election year, you can't avoid being bombarded with political messages, most of them asking for contributions to keep the Satanic Opposition from triumphing over The Forces of Goodness and Light. We start worrying about getting our income taxes calculated. If you're a man, you start worrying about Valentine's Day gifts for your significant other (and heaven forbid you forget, or buy a gift deemed insufficiently demonstrative of the degree of your affection). If you're a lady, you start worrying that your significant other will expect ... uh ... horizontal favors in exchange for the gift he's bought you. I didn't even like this month's centerfold model in Playboy.

Yep. February pretty much takes home the loving cup for yucky.

Perhaps this explains my funk this morning. I know I'll feel better later, after I've called Matt to wish him a happy birthday, had the weekly talk with my Father and with my son and his family in Ohio, and after we've visited with Leya for a while to get our cuteness quotient elevated; but for now, sitting here at the keyboard, wondering when the phantom problem with my disc drive will pop up again (see yesterday's post), I think I'll just be grouchy for a little while, and blame it on February.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, February 02, 2008

Yes, Machines Still Hate Me

You may recall that on two previous occasions, I have blogged about the troubles I have with machines of all types and sizes, from cars to can openers. I am convinced that the Mystic and Secretive Fraternal Order of Machines has a special subcommittee dedicated to the sharing of information among all machines everywhere of how best to drive me nuts.

The latest machine to join this vast conspiracy is my spiffy, relatively new (since last July) iMac home computer.

Now Bilbo, you say, computers in general exist to drive us nuts, it's nothing personal. But I have to differ with you. Computers are designed to have minds of their own, and I'm as convinced as ever I was that certain computers come off the assembly line specifically designated to move through the commercial supply chain and find their way to specific users who have been selected to feel the Wrath of the Machines.

Like me.

The latest fiasco began a week or two ago when Leslie, one of my acquaintances from the dance studio, asked if I would take a batch of her CDs and make a special mix disc for her from designated tracks. Sure, I replied, I can do that (the added bonus of getting a look at someone else's CD collection being a deal-clincher). She gave me her Mighty Bag-O-Discs and I shoveled out space on my desk to start working on her mix.

At first, all went well. I ripped my way through nine of 15 discs and was well on my way to completing the job when I heard an odd noise coming from my internal CD drive ... instead of the nice, steady whirring hum of a happy, healthy drive, I began to hear the asthmatic wheeze of a drive speeding up, then slowing down, then speeding up again, and finally grinding to a halt in the middle of a disc.

Drat! I said. Well, not exactly, but there may be children reading this blog. I managed to extract the disc from the drive (no easy task, that), then tried another disc. Same result. And another. Same result.

Drat! I said again, and called the friendly Apple Store to make an appointment to take the ailing machine in this morning at the ungodly hour (for a Saturday) of 8:00 in order to avoid the rush. I disconnected the tangle of cables, lovingly packed up the iMac, and presented myself at the Apple store at 7:50 this morning. I was greeted by a friendly young technician who listened to my tale of woe, clucked soothingly, and hooked up the machine for a quick exam.

At which time it performed flawlessly.

No asthmatic whine, no grinding noises, no discs stuck deep within the bowels of the machine. Not only did it perform perfectly normally, it performed better than perfectly normally. It hummed and flashed, played CDs and DVDs without a hitch, and did everything but run down to Starbucks and bring back lattes and scones for us.

I felt like a horse's ass.

And so here I sit back at my desk, the iMac reconnected to its tangle of cables, laughing at me from deep within its grinning, high-fiving circuitry. I haven't tried to play any more discs yet, because I don't want to give it the satisfaction of jerking me around again.

Two can play at this game.

So, dear friends, machines still hate me.

And, despite the fact that I need them, the feeling is mutual.

Have a good day. Shoot a machine for me. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, February 01, 2008

Creative Constipation

Did you ever have one of those mornings when, no matter what you do, you just can't get your brain working? Today appears to be one of those mornings, because I just can't think of a thing to blog about.

Actually, that's not true...I have a notebook full of ideas, a folder full of stored e-mails that have given me ideas, and another folder full of scanned documents, links to interesting websites, and all sorts of other bloggable things. Unfortunately, as I look at them this morning, the ideas just aren't making the eye-to-brain-to-fingers-to-keyboard connection they usually do.


Well, I guess this is one of those times when I just have to fall back on the old dodge of sharing some cartoons and other fluff with you.

A typical day at my office...

There's nothing like a good glass of wine. Or is there?

With apologies to my friend Katy, who loves opera, I have a little different opinion...

And finally, from the department of Be Careful What You Wish For Because You Might Get It:

Tomorrow, I hope to be back to normal...or whatever passes for normal in my case.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.