Monday, March 31, 2008

What the Toddler Wants...

One of the problems with having four grandchildren, three of whom live a ten-hour drive away (four hours, if Agnes is at the wheel) is that the nearest grandchild tends to get the immediate attention. It has nothing at all to do with how much you love all's just that it's easier to cuddle the one that lives just a half-hour away.

We spent the afternoon yesterday visiting our daughter Yasmin and her family. This was a special occasion, as we were celebrating Yasmin's birthday, and so Leya was in Grandparent Overload, with two sets of old fogies all jockeying for cuddling time. I got on the scoreboard early...

I'm still not quite sure if she was happier at the attention of Grandpa or the ability to play with her feet.

After a very nice Indian lunch prepared by Grandma Indira, we got ready to cut the birthday cake. Yasmin is actually a bit more than six years old, but it's never too soon to stop calling attention to a woman's real age. Leya was very interested in the cake...

We thought it would be nice to have a three-generations picture of all the ladies, and so Grandpa Gopi and I tried to herd all the cats into an appropriate pose...Leya's not too sure about the whole thing...

Now we're ready for the picture. Everyone is looking at the!...quick - while everyone's attention is distracted...

Yep, you guessed it:

It's a little-known fact of child physiology that a toddler's arms can extend to a reach of approximately four feet when something interesting is within range. I believe she's thinking something like, "Forget all that pureed peas stuff...gimme the cake, NOW!"

Happy Birthday, Yasmin! You've got your work cut out for you!

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, March 30, 2008

Random Thoughts on Fine Dining

Agnes and I decided to eat out last night after our dance coaching session, and enjoyed a marvelous dinner at a great, modestly-priced Indian restaurant in Bethesda, MD - Haandi. Strongly recommended if you are in the area. But it also got me to thinking about the dining experience...

I was reading a collection of Sniglets (words that aren't in the dictionary, but ought to be) over at Verbicidal Tendencies the other day, and one of the words included was my old favorite, Peppier. The Peppier is the floating waiter in restaurants whose sole job seems to be circulating with a pepper mill, offering to grind fresh pepper onto whatever happens to be on your plate. I find this a little annoying, partly because I prefer to grind my own pepper, and partly because a whole subculture has grown up in restaurants around pepper mills and the drones that wander around operating them. One of the best I've seen was a restaurant that had a pepper mill with a built-in flashlight (no kidding) so that the Peppier could accurately grind in the low-light conditions prevalent in the establishment. I have also noted a trend toward ever-larger pepper won't be long before you'll have three guys marching up to your table with a pepper mill the size of a utility pole: one to aim, one to grind, and one in the middle to help hold it up. One of my Army friends once said the next thing would be the "crew-served pepper mill," and I think he was pretty close.

Waiters in most fine restaurants cultivate that aura of hauteur that tells you you're going to have a coronary when you see the bill. At more moderate restaurants, they're a bit more laid back - "Hi! I'm Wendy, and I'll be taking care of you this evening!" I sometimes reply, "Hi, we're Bilbo and Agnes, and we'll be your customers today!" This is where Agnes always hides her face behind the menu.

Next comes the Ritual of the Announcement of the Specials, in which the waiter reels off a list of the day's specials at high speed in a single breath: "Todaywehavethepureeofoctopuswithfenugreeksauceoverpastaforeighteenfifty." I can't listen that fast, particularly with the usual restaurant background noise, and so I always end up looking like a doofus by asking them to repeat a few times.

Why does every passing waiter need to stop and ask whether everything is satisfactory? It's extra annoying because they all learn at Waiters' School to carefully observe you so that they can properly time their approach and ask the question when your mouth is full:

Waiter: "Is everything delicious, sir?"

Bilbo: "Ummph glog hrumm!"

Waiter: "Great! Enjoy your dinner!"

Then there's that magic moment when the bill is presented. In the distant past, the waiter would automatically hand the bill to the man, on the expectation that he was treating the lady. Now, of course, many modern women would be gravely insulted to think that they were dependent on a lowly man to provide for their sustenence, and so the waiter carefully positions the bill on the table at a neutral spot midway between man and lady. And then the man pays it, anyhow. At least, in my experience. Maybe I need to go out with richer women.

And don't you just love it when the waiter sets the bill down and says something like, "I'll take care of this whenever you're ready." I always want to say, "Wow, that's really generous of you - thanks!", or, "Okay, come back in 2014."

But somehow, I don't think they'd appreciate the humor as much as I do.

Tonight, I'm fixing dinner. Unless I can talk Agnes into doing it. Enjoy your own dinner, whether you make it, order it, or go somewhere to have it. And see if my observations aren't right on the money.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, March 29, 2008

Of Terrorists and Nipple Rings

You may have seen this story on CNN, or on one of the other news outlets. The Reader's Digest version of the story is that the guardians of our ability to travel safely, the TSA, recently forced a female traveler to remove her nipple rings - but not her navel ring - in order to proceed through security to board her flight. Nipple rings apparently not being designed for easy removal (not that I know much about the topic), the woman had to use a pair of pliers and suffer great pain and humiliation in order to endure the sheer joy of modern air travel.

Leaving aside for a moment the obvious question of why a sane human being would want to pierce her nipples in the first place, this unfortunate incident illustrates the ridiculous lengths to which we have been driven by fear of terrorism, not to mention the death of common sense in 21st century America.

The lady in question, when her nipple rings set off the airport metal detectors, apparently offered to submit to a private visual search or pat-down by a female security officer to prove that she was not carrying an explosive bosom. This right (which the TSA's own regulations permit) was evidently denied, and the lady suffered needless pain and humiliation.

This ranks right up there with our discussion the other day of the fellow who shot his wife while trying to drill a hole in a wall with a .22 caliber pistol. What's wrong with people nowadays? In the immortal words of Ripley in the movie Aliens, "Did IQ's just drop sharply while I was away?" Consider all the questions this incident raises:

1. Why didn't the TSA follow its own rules?

2. Why didn't the TSA supervisor who was summoned exercise a little common sense?

3. How will my security be enhanced by the inevitable lawsuit which will follow this incident, which will no doubt result in a large cash settlement to the aggrieved lady? Wouldn't that money be better spent on measures which really enhance our security? And by the way, don't forget that you and I as taxpayers are the ones who will ultimately be paying the lady.

4. Why would someone want their nipples pierced, anyhow?

I fly fairly often, and thus have a vested interest in the security of the air traffic system. I have been willing to accept the many delays and indignities inherent in our approach to ensuring this security. But I expect the people who are responsible for security planning to evaluate the risks and take appropriate measures to minimize them. Risk management involves a balancing of threats and's impossible to protect against everything, and so rational decisions must be made on what to look for and defend against.

For the record, the TSA has admitted that proper procedures weren't followed, although they point out that they are "...well aware of terrorists' interest in hiding dangerous items in sensitive areas of the body. Therefore, we (TSA) have a duty to the American public to resolve any alarm that we discover." This is, of course, prudent. But so is common sense in the performance of a difficult job.

I will feel much better on my next flight, knowing that the lady sitting next to me won't be packing heat in her bra. Nevertheless, you can be sure that I will be carefully observing the potentially dangerous breasts of ladies from now on.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, March 28, 2008

Halfway to Creation

One of the websites I check every day without fail is the Astronomy Picture of the Day. This site features a daily picture of some aspect of our universe, with an accompanying explanation written by an astronomer. There aren't very many things more fascinating and beautiful than some of the photos of the distant universe taken by the Hubble Space Telescope or other observatories. I have downloaded hundreds of these pictures and integrated them into my screensaver (along with pictures of the World's Most Beautiful Grandchildren, dancing, fabulous Alaska landscapes from Jill, etc).

I don't know how it's possible to look at some of these gorgeous astronomical photos without a sense of wonder and humility at our tiny place in the inconceivable vastness of the universe. I don't think for a moment that we are alone in the billions of beautiful galaxies we can see, even if we are so far away from them we may never know for sure. It's no wonder that we refer to outstanding people as "stars."

The photo on the APOD website today isn't one of the most vivid and beautiful...nothing like the famous "Pillars of Creation" image or some of the glorious nebula photos like this one. It's a pretty nondescript photo of an exploding star...but what makes it unique is that it is so unimaginably distant - quite literally, halfway to creation.

The idea that something is so far away that it takes 7.5 billion years for its light to reach us is just about as amazing and humbling as anything I can imagine. On those days when I wake up feeling like I'm a hundred years old, it's useful to think of what that span of time means in the great scheme of things.

There are two ways to look at the immensity of the night sky. You can feel tiny, lost, and utterly insignificant, or you can feel wonder at being a part of something so awe-inspiring. I choose the latter.

Although I'm not a conventionally religious person, I don't see how you can look at the universe and not believe in God. But I also don't see how one can see the immensity of creation and believe in a God that worries about whether or not men grow beards or women cover themselves from head to foot, whether you eat meat on Fridays, pray five times a day, or worship in a church, synagogue, or mosque. Somehow, I think God - whatever that means - sits back and shakes His (Her? Its?) head at the things we do in His (Her? Its?) name.

The universe is a grand and glorious place that we seem to work very hard at diminishing. As for me, I prefer to keep the sense of wonder at this vast, unknowable place that God - however you choose to understand the term - has laid out for us. It's a comfort in difficult times.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Right Tool for the Right Job

One of the great things about being a curmudgeonly blogger is that one can never run out of things to inspire new posts. Each new day dawns revealing new horizons of breathtaking stupidity at every level of life from the great and aristocratic to the humble and ordinary.

I call your attention to this news story from Sedalia, Missouri. The headline: "Man Installing Satellite TV Shoots, Kills Wife."

This is the story in brief: a fellow trying to install a satellite TV dish needed to drill a hole through the wall of his house. Either lacking a drill or being too mentally challenged to use one (in the words of the story, "after several unsuccessful efforts to punch a hole through the exterior wall using other means"), this mental giant decided to use a .22 caliber pistol to shoot a hole through the wall. The first shot didn't quite work; the second not only made the desired hole in the wall, it also made a hole in the chest of his wife, who was standing out in the yard.

As I have often admitted in this space, I'm not much of a handyman. In fact, I'm a terrible handyman. The only tool I'm adept at handling is a pen, and I've even been known to draw blood by accidentally stabbing my hand with a fountain pen. But that said, I have to yield primacy of place in the pantheon of ineptitude to someone who could shoot his wife while installing a TV.


But there's a larger, more serious dimension to this tragically ridiculous tale, and it deals with our uniquely American fixation on the right to own firearms. Last week I wrote here about the gun control case now before the Supreme Court, which focuses on the constitutionality of the ban on handguns in Washington, DC, and - in a larger sense - attempts to determine the real meaning of the Second Amendment to the Constitution. What did the founders really mean by a right "to keep and bear arms?"

As I said in my earlier post, I have no problem with gun ownership. I don't have any guns myself, but I don't have a problem with anyone else having them for any legal purpose. I do, however, have a problem with stupid people having unlimited access to deadly firearms. If you're dumb enough to try to use a handgun to drill a hole in a wall, you're probably too stupid to own a deadly weapon in the first place.

My point remains as it's always been: reasonable people can have a reasonable discussion of practical and defensible limits on the possession of firearms. Rabid advocates of unlimited freedom to own weapons of all types are as silly as rabid advocates of a complete ban on guns. Where to draw the legal line is the hard part...but that line will never be established by people shouting at each other across a vast philosophical chasm.

So, let's have the discussion. The case now before the Supreme Court is a starting point, and the decision is expected in June.

Hopefully, before one of my neighbors shoots me while installing an appliance.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Sorry, Passengers!

If you've traveled by air in the last year or so, you have almost certainly experienced the precipitous decline in the quality of the experience. Seats seem to be narrower (although that may just be a factor of your big, wide American backside), fewer flights take off or arrive on time, more luggage goes to the dreaded Black Hole of Vanished Bags, and you often have to pay for the yucky food that at least used to be free. Sometimes, as a result of weather, traffic jams in the air and on the ground, or scheduling errors, you can end up sitting on the tarmac for hours without food, water, air conditioning, or even working toilets. That's all bad enough, but the worst part of it is that the airline owns you during that time, and you have no recourse to compensation for discomfort, lost time, and general aggravation.

Things got so bad last year that the state of New York enacted a Passengers' Bill of Rights Law to address some of the more flagrant abuses. The airline industry, of course, objected to such a law, which would cut into profits already battered by the soaring cost of fuel.

And your Federal government, in the form of the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, has stepped in to help you. In a recent decision, the court struck down New York's law requiring airlines to provide food, water, clean toilets and fresh air to passengers stuck in delayed planes, saying that while it was well-intentioned, it interfered with federal laws governing the price, route or service of an air carrier. The court's decision called the goals of the law laudable and the circumstances that prompted New York to adopt it deplorable, but said that only the federal government has the authority to pass such regulations.

Can you spell stupid? Few recent decisions so well illustrate the famous quote from Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist, in which character Mr Bumble said that "the law is an idiot." While its legal reasoning is technically sound (Article 1, section 8 of the Constitution gives the federal government the authority "To regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states..."), what we have here is a classic example of the states stepping in where the federal government has failed to exercise its responsibility. Instead of recognizing the problem and allowing the New York law to stand as a prod to Congress to start doing its job, the court simply struck down the law, saying it was a federal, not a state issue.

And you know, of course, how quickly Congress will move to protect your interests, as opposed to those of the airlines (which, as a general rule, contribute more to political campaigns than you do).

Think about that the next time you get ready to fly, and think about it again the next time you get ready to vote.

Have a good day. And try not to have it stuck in an airplane without basic services.

More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. - Dancing with the Stars update: magician Penn Jillette and tennis star Monica Seles were the first two stars eliminated from competition last night. Both decisions were righteous, although I hated to see Monica Seles go, if only because I liked her. Sigh.


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Lower Mathematics

Different people are good at different things. Agnes, for instance, is very good at crafts of all kinds...she can make beautiful things out of stained glass, knit sweaters, sew elegant dresses, mat and frame pictures, cook, teach ballroom dancing, and live with me without resorting to murder. If you gave her 500 pounds of steel wool, she could probably knit you a suit of armor.

I, on the other hand, have different talents. I write reasonably well, am a fairly good public speaker, tell great shaggy dog stories (well, I think they're great, anyhow), take good pictures, and plant a mean herb garden.

Just don't ask me to do anything with numbers.

I admit it - I've never been much good with math of any sort. Arithmetic in grade school, okay. Algebra, plane geometry and trigonometry in high school, not so good. Differential and integral calculus in college ... well, that's why I majored in Linguistics instead of Chemical Engineering. Count in other than base ten? My brain starts to smoke and melt and run out my ears.

Numbers and I just don't get along. I can count to ten with no problem, twenty when I'm in bare feet, and twenty-one with my fly open. But manipulating those numbers gets a bit problematic. Long division, short division, multiplication tables, matrix algebra, the Pythagorean Theorem, and all that stuff - forget it. Perversely enough, the only higher mathematical concept I ever found a use for was imaginary numbers - government accounting is all based on imaginary numbers anyhow, so they're fairly useful as long as you forget all that stuff about i being equal to the square root of -1 or some such nonsense.

Numbers are important in traveling, because you need to know how much your dollar is worth in the local currency...if you find yourself on Yap Island, for instance, it's useful to be able to calculate how many tons of stone money you can get for your poor, battered dollar. It's also helpful to aid in calculating how many truckloads of dollars you'll have to exchange for Euros for that European vacation this year. This website can help. And humorist Robert Benchley once offered a way of calculating the value of the French Franc based on the day of the week: Monday: 1 franc = 45 cents; Tuesday: 1 pound of chestnuts; Wednesday, 2-1/2 yards of linoleum; and so on.

One of the reasons I enjoy dancing Waltz is that I only have to be able to count to three. Paint-by-numbers; forget it. If my checkbook balances to within $10 of what I think it ought to be, I'm happy. And Pat the nice lady from H&R Block helps keep me out of jail by calculating my taxes for me.

Numbers. Don't leave home without them. But please don't bring them to me unless they're in very large quantities (for instance, in the form of a Power Ball or MegaMillions lottery jackpot).

Have a good day. By the numbers. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, March 24, 2008

Spring Has Sprung!

It was a beautiful weekend here in Northern Virginia - mostly sunny, temperatures in the low- to mid-50's, a little wind. I spent a large chunk of Saturday out in the yard cleaning out old leaves, gathering up 750,000,000 little $#%& spiky seed pods from our messy sweet gum tree, and generally trying to spruce up our 0.3 acres of property the county says is worth more than our house for tax purposes.

Yes, here in Northern Virginia, the plunging price of homes is causing fits for the county government, which depends largely on property tax revenue for its operating expenses. In order to keep the revenues up on dropping home assessments without actually increasing the tax rate, the county tax authorities have kept the overall assessments pretty much the same by hugely inflating the value of the land on which the house is built to compensate for the decline in the value of the house itself.

What kind of crock is this?

Don't bother answering, I already know.

I also looked into building a nice, spiffy new fieldstone wall around my garden least until I found out what the stone would cost: nearly $500, delivered, to build 28 linear feet of 14-inch high wall. AARRGGHH!! (or blergh!, as The Mistress of the Dark would say). For that kind of money, I can drag a lot of irregular stones up out of the woods, build an ugly but perfectly functional wall, and spend the money on more herbs and flowers.

Who'd have thought rocks were that expensive?

The weather should continue to be nice and springlike this week, at least until Saturday when more rain is predicted, so I'm sure I'll keep feeling the impact of spring fever as the flowers bloom, the trees and shrubs bud, my thyme plants perk back up, and the lovely ladies shake the mothballs out of their tank tops and start worrying about their summer bikini figures. I'll keep an eye on all that for you.

Last thing for today...we visited our newest granddaughter yesterday and had a great time. Here is a picture that proves she's really part of this family: while grandma and grandpa smile for the camera, Leya is showing her opinion of the whole thing by blowing a very loud raspberry.

That's our girl!

Have a good day. Enjoy spring if it's springing where you are. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, March 23, 2008

Power Wimps

There are a lot of things those of us who live in "developed countries" take for granted: clean water comes out of the tap when you turn it on. The car starts when you turn the key (well, most of the time, anyhow). Your trash gets picked up and hauled away somewhere on a regular basis. And the lights go on when you throw the switch.

I thought about the last one several times recently.

I was at home a few days ago when the lights flickered, brightened, and suddenly went out...we'd had a power failure. No PC (well, Mac, in my case). No clocks. No cordless phones. No stove, oven, or microwave. No powered garage door opener. Nada, zip, nothing.

I was annoyed, but not particularly inconvenienced. The weather was nice, so I'd planned to work in the yard anyhow, and it was fairly early in the morning, so I didn't have to worry about cooking anything. And the juice came back on within an hour, so it wasn't a major catastrophe.

But, as people in New Orleans, New York, and other places that have suffered extended loss of power can tell you, once you've gone a few days without electricity you've got trouble: the stuff in your freezer melts, the perishables in the refrigerator go south on you, you sweat miserably in the summer (no air conditioning) and freeze in the winter (no heat). Your cordless phones don't work. You can't surf the internet (or blog...gasp!). No video games for the kids. And so on.

We've become power wimps.

Much of our modern society is heavily dependent on the availability of cheap, reliable electricity to keep all our conveniences, and many of our necessities, going. When that power goes out - as it did for a few minutes the other day, and for weeks in some areas hit by hurricane Katrina, many people have a tough time coping.

The longest time we've ever been without power here in Northern Virginia was about three days. This was a few years ago when hurricane Isabella came through and zapped us. We'd stocked up on candles, laid in a supply of drinking water, and had plenty of charcoal for the barbecue, so we managed well for the few days of relative inconvenience. But what happens when the power goes out for longer periods? Or forever?

The other thing that got me to thinking about this was a blurb in Uncle John's Fast-Acting, Long-Lasting Bathroom Reader (yes, that's the real title) about things that used to be really important, but have since vanished. At the top of the list was card catalogs in the library. If you're my age or a bit younger, you grew up with libraries that had vast rows of deep, narrow drawers filled with the cards that identified each and every book in the library, giving you the title, author, subject, and Dewey Decimal Number to enable you to find it in the stacks. Most libraries had three such files: one for titles, one for authors, and one for subjects...making the card catalogs of major libraries pretty massive.

Nowadays, of course, there are no more card catalogs. Libraries keep their catalogs on computers that allow you to sit at a terminal, poke in the key words, and in seconds get the list of books you want. No more searching endless rows of drawers and thumbing through dozens of cards to find the one you want.

But what happens when there's no power? How do you find your book? Libraries don't keep backup indexes on cards any room.

As with so many other of our modern conveniences that we take for granted, we don't have a "Plan B" that lets us figure out how to cope when those conveniences are taken away. Some are easy enough to plan for: keep a few days supply of bottled water on hand, have a stockpile of canned and dried foods, and always have a few boxes of candles and a battery-powered radio. But can we cope with the long-term loss of the things that were once conveniences, but are now necessities? I could probably remember how to hunt and trap game if I got hungry enough, but I wouldn't know how to properly skin and gut anything I'd catch...and that makes me marginally better off than everyone who has never hunted in their lives, and doesn't realize that herds of cattle in their natural state aren't cut into chunks and shrink-wrapped.

Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 got many people thinking about this, if only for a little while. But we're modern, civilized people, and we've become power wimps because the power always comes on when you throw the switch.

Except when it doesn't. And then you've got a problem.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, March 22, 2008

Cartoon Saturday

Between the meltdown of the economy, the soaring price of gas, ongoing stupidity in the Middle East, and rapid expansion of that huge bag of inert gas known as the 2008 presidential campaign, we can all use a few laughs.

And so, once again, Bilbo brings you Cartoon Saturday, featuring a few ya-ha's culled from my collection. Have a laugh on me...Monday will be here soon enough.

Eliot Spitzer may not be enjoying a great deal of nookie, amateur or professional, for a while, but lust always seems to find its way into our hearts...

Gary Gygax, the inventor of the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, died this month at age 69, but not before inspiring a bit of topical humor...

This one's for everyone who works in a thankless job for a demanding boss...

We are lucky enough to live in a house that backs up to a thick stand of wooded parkland, and to enjoy waking to the sound of birds singing in the trees. Well, I am, anyhow. Agnes has it in for one particularly loud bird she thinks lives just to sit outside our window and wake her much too early. Uncle Sid might agree...

And finally, it's never been easy to find just the right person for the right job, but I like Hagar the Horrible's approach...

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, March 21, 2008

A Pain In the Gas

The Mistress of the Dark has twice in the last week blogged eloquently about the price of gasoline, the lack of attention to it by the presidential candidates, and the silly American penchant for buying huge cars that drink lots of that expensive gas. There is, naturally, lots to be said about the price of gas.

First of all, in world terms, our gas is still pretty cheap. In Germany and England, gas costs about $9.00 per gallon, so we have a way to go. That doesn't make the economic pain to the American consumer any less, but it illustrates that we've gotten by well for a long time relative to the rest of the world.

The Government Accountability Office has published several reports examining the price of gasoline. One, "Motor Fuels: Understanding the Factors that Influence the Retail Price of Gasoline," was published in May 2005, but provides still-relevant background on the issue. You can download and read this report (GAO-05-525SP) at the GAO website (or e-mail me and I'll send you a copy); you can also find there numerous other studies and reports dealing with energy policy...none of which anyone in the government appears to be using for anything other than doorstops.

According to the study cited above, the cost of a gallon of gasoline breaks down roughly as shown:

Crude Oil - 48%
Taxes - 23%
Refining - 17%
Distribution and Marketing - 12%

These percentages are not fixed, and vary over time. Today, I would expect that the cost of crude oil is a much higher percentage of the total, as the price charged per barrel is wildly out of line with the actual cost of drilling it. Taxes are still about a quarter of the total, and provide the money to keep roads repaired (although if you live in Northern Virginia, or in my home town of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, you'd never know it). The owner of the local gas station doesn't make much on the $3.50 per gallon he's charging you...he gets a few cents of this, and makes most of his profit on auto repairs and the snacks, drinks, and other things he sells in addition to gasoline.

We are, of course, paying the price for the way we've chosen to develop the country. We are a nation wedded to the automobile, with sprawling urban areas, widely-spaced neighborhoods, and poor public transportation. Europe, in contrast, has wonderful public transportation: when I lived in Germany, I took the bus to work almost every day, and the train for longer-distance travel whenever possible. In addition, European towns are much more compact, and it's easy in most places to walk to all the basic things you need: you are seldom not within walking distance of all the stores and other services you might need. In contrast, where I live in Northern Virginia, it's a bit more than a half-mile to the nearest shopping center...not a long walk, but if you're elderly, or it's pouring rain or the snow is coming down, it's long enough.

Big cars are an American tradition, but one that may slowly change as the price of gas continues to rise. Most people don't need an SUV or a huge pickup truck to commute to work...the cost of gasoline may gradually drive those who really don't need such big vehicles to smaller cars, but it'll take a while. In any case, people in this country love their cars - every day when I ride the bus or Metro train to work, I can look out the window and see long lines of cars creeping up I-95 toward DC, most of them with only one person on board.

The skyrocketing cost of gasoline may lead us to improve mass transit, although I'm not holding my breath. It will almost certainly drive higher real estate prices for properties closer to the urban centers, and may lead to a change in where we live - today, in order to afford a decent house, many people live a great distance from DC and accept a very long commute; as the price of gas rises, that may no longer be an acceptable trade. Future suburbs may be built more along European lines, with compact development around a commercial and service center.

Where is all this going? I don't know. But it is, to use the terrible pun, a real pain in the gas.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, March 20, 2008

Bitter Anniversary

This week the newspapers and airwaves have been full of reporting tied to the fifth anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq. Much of Washington was tied up yesterday by people demonstrating against the war, talking heads have pontificated ad nauseum, the President says everything's fine and victory is just around the corner, and on the other side of the world, the war grinds on.

As you regular readers know, I think the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a terrible mistake. Unfortunately, now that we've punched this tar baby, we're stuck with it with no particularly good options for getting out. Despite what many demand and Mr Obama and Ms Clinton advocate, we can't just pull up stakes and leave...well, actually, we could, but the resulting maelstrom would be truly horrifying and would likely be worse than anything we're seeing now. The only difference is that, having wrecked Iraq and destabilized the region, we'd just hunker down at home and ignore the consequences.

Perversely, the war is going fairly well from a purely military standpoint. Mr Bush has finally found a general who understands the war he's fighting, and the much-maligned "surge" strategy has begun to pay dividends in bringing the country under control and providing the tenuous security the Iraqi government needs to exert its authority and begin rebuilding the country. Unfortunately, the country as a whole doesn't seem too interested. Sunnis and Shia still hate each other, graft and corruption are endemic, and religious passions still outweigh practical day-to-day issues.

As long as the Iraqis fail to take advantage of the security provided by American sacrifices, the country will never pull itself back together, and we'll remain stuck to the tar baby, covering it with more and more layers of blood and treasure.

There was a very interesting and sobering feature article in the Washington Post yesterday titled "Iraqis and Americans Offer Perspectives on the War," and I'd like to share two excerpts from it with you.

The first looked at Army Captain Derek Bennett, who has chosen to leave the Army after his second combat tour in Iraq. After detailing the reasoning behind his decision, he asked the rhetorical question, "What have we been doing? This isn't like World War II. There's no VJ Day, no sailor kissing a girl when he comes home. This is somebody saying that trend lines indicate a sustainable level of violence. That's not a great feeling."

The second looked at another Army officer who "...spent nearly a year walking patrols as an infantry officer in Baghdad. He saw soldiers dying, his squad leader lost his legs, and he witnessed problems with missing supplies. But when he returned to the United States in 2004, the biggest news story was that Janet Jackson's breast was exposed during the Super Bowl halftime show." This officer, Paul Rieckhoff, who joined the Army Reserves in 1998, volunteered for active duty after 9/11, and went to Iraq in 2003, went on to say: "The lack of involvement on the part of the American people is unprecedented. And it's my biggest criticism of the president: He has never asked the American people to do anything."

And so here we are, five years into a war nobody quite knows why we started. The war's architects are now publishing their books which defend their actions and blame the problems on each other. American Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines are still dying and suffering horrific injuries for an Iraqi population that isn't interested in reconciling its internal differences and moving forward to build a thriving new nation. And, as has often been said, the Armed Services are at war, but America is at the mall.

Have a good day, and thank the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines who protect your ability to have it. If you choose to exercise your right to free speech by blocking traffic and acting silly in the streets of Washington, remember it's their sacrifices that enable you to do it.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Dancing with the Stars and Other Odds and Ends

I was a little disappointed in my post on the gun control issue yesterday. Because my whole daily routine had been thrown off by the misfiring alarm clock (which has since been terminated with prejudice), I had to write it yesterday evening in the middle of doing a lot of other things, and despite my extensive prep notes, I don't think it measured up to my usual standards. I'm usually pretty good at multi-tasking - in this case, fixing dinner, setting up to record Dancing with the Stars, walking the dog, cleaning the kitchen, and calling The World's Best Daughter-In-Law to wish her a happy birthday - but somehow it just didn't all come together as I'd have wanted. Oh, well...

But speaking of Dancing with the Stars...

Yesterday was the second show of the sixth season. There are 12 "stars" dancing this time: the six men danced on Monday, and the six ladies danced last night. Here are my first comments...

* Jason Taylor and Kristi Yamaguchi are the standouts at the start of the season. Taylor showed great footwork and had a marvelous dance frame, while Kristi just seemed to float across the floor, doing a fantastic job on her Fox Trot. At this (admittedly early) point, these two seem to be the ones to beat. In any case, since I'm in love from afar with Edyta Sliwinska, I have a vested interest in Jason Taylor holding out as long as possible...

* I've had a crush on Monica Seles for a long time, and was glad to see her on the show. She appeared a bit stiff and nervous (understandably), but I hope the fans pull her through so she'll continue on for a while. I don't think she'll make the finals, but once she finds her groove, I think she'll do pretty well.

* Priscilla Presley looks good for her age, but I thought she looked a bit wooden and got overly generous scores from the judges. I don't think she'll last.

* Penn Gillette should stick with magic. He dances like I do in my average practice session.

* Marlee Matlin was amazing - not the best or most polished dancer, but considering she's deaf as a post, she did an incredible job of maintaining the rhythm, even when dancing apart from her partner. I don't think she'll go all the way, but I give her a lot of credit for going this far out of her comfort zone.

So those are my comments at the beginning of the season. We'll revisit the competition from time to time in this space.

In the meantime, here's an appropriate cartoon:

Gives new meaning to the term "ballroom," eh?

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Ready, Aim, Fire!

It's said that there are some topics you should never discuss with people you don't know. Race, religion, and politics are a few; in this country, gun control is another.

Today, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller, which seeks to overturn the city of Washington, DC's ban on residents owning handguns. This is the first time in many years that the issue of Americans' cherished right to own guns has been addressed at this level, and the issue bears some serious thought.

The second amendment to the Constitution reads in full:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

People in this country have been arguing about those twenty-seven words for years. There are those to whom the right to own any types of guns in any number is nearly sacred, and there are those to whom the vast number of guns loose in the country is a deadly danger to the innocent. Suggesting to an American gun enthusiast that there should be limits on gun ownership will elicit a reaction similar to the one you get from publishing cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. It's one of the most passionately divisive issues in the United States today.

Let me establish a few key points right up front:

1. I don't own any guns. This isn't because I object to them, it's simply because I've never seen any need to own one. When I was young, we had a rifle and a shotgun at home, and my father and brothers used shotguns to hunt geese. My limited hunting experiences were all with bow and arrows, which I just thought were more sporting.

2. I don't care if you own any guns, as long as you keep them under control and don't threaten me with them.

As you know if you are a regular reader of this blog, I value calm, rational discussion of issues. We may never agree on everything, but if we can discuss things like reasonable people, we can at least reach a friendly truce. Unfortunately, it's hard to have a rational discussion of gun control. People seem to be hysterically passionate one way or the other, and unwilling to seek reasonable accommodation of each other's views.

That said, here is Bilbo's take on the issue of The Right to Bear Arms...

Speaking with all the authority granted by a 35-year old degree in Linguistics, the wording of the Second Amendment seems pretty clear: the right to "bear arms" is linked with the need of a new nation in the late 18th century to maintain a militia for its defense against external enemies. Americans have a traditional mistrust of large standing armies (which can, like the army of King George III, be used to oppress the citizens); we traditionally preferred the citizens' militia that could be called up when needed and sent home when the danger was past.

There is a reluctance on the part of gun advocates to admit that the America of 2008 is not the America of 1776. The dangers we face are different, and our requirement for weapons is different. In 1776, if you lived outside of a city, you ate what you grew, trapped, or shot. You didn't have the option of going to the local supermarket to buy
meat for supper...if you wanted meat, you hunted it and killed it yourself. In 2008, you drive to the Safeway and buy it. In 1776 you ran the risk of attack by Indians or wild animals, and had to be able to defend your family. Today, you dial 911 for the police to come and protect you, and depend on the Army to protect you from external threats.

Firearms today are much more powerful and accurate than they were in 1776. In
1776, you had a single-shot musket that wasn't accurate at very long distances. In 2008 you can buy a 9mm pistol with a 15-round magazine that will let you hit a small target at long distances.

My point is that the situation today is very different from what it was when the Constitution was written. I do not advocate rescinding the Second Amendment, but I think the time is right for a rational discussion of what needs to be done to reduce the level of gun violence in this country...and I don't think encouraging more people to carry guns is the answer.

Here's what I propose:

1. Acknowledge that there are some types of guns we just don't need. Military-style semiautomatic assault rifles aren't needed for hunting deer, and a 9mm Glock with a 15-round magazine probably isn't the weapon of choice for hunting bighorn sheep in the Rockies.

2. If you think you need a gun for protection, buy one. More than one is, literally, overkill.

3. Don't ban guns per se...ban large-capacity magazines, which have no legitimate purpose for hobby needs like hunting or target shooting. All they do is provide massive firepower for those who probably shouldn't have it.

4. Instead of keeping guns away from those who are otherwise entitled to own them, impose draconian penalties for the use of a gun in the commission of a crime. I'd suggest a mandatory 5-year minimum sentence without possibility of parole for the use of a gun while committing a crime. If a gun is used in the commission of a crime and results in injury to the victim, the mandatory sentence should be at least 10 years. If a person is killed with a gun in the commission of a crime, the minimum sentence should be at least 20 years, without parole.

I don't know what the Supreme Court will decide, but it will be tremendously important to every American, because it goes to the heart of one of our most passionately-advocated rights. We all have a stake in the outcome
, whether we own guns or not, because we should never take the infringement of our Constitutional rights lightly.

Maybe it's just me, but I'd rather see beautiful ladies with bare arms than beautiful ladies bearing arms.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


#%@$! Alarm Clock...

My worthless alarm clock failed to go off this morning, and so I am running around like a chicken with my head cut off. Just out of the shower, the dog needs walked and fed, my lunch needs packed, and I've got to be off for work.

Not even time for my morning cup of coffee.


Look for todays real post later this evening, after I get home from work.

It's gonna be a rough day...

More thoughts later.


Monday, March 17, 2008

Going, Going, Gone...

A few years ago at the dance studio, I was explaining to a new student the concept of the line of dance. This is the imaginary line which runs counterclockwise around the outside of the dance floor and regulates movement in the smooth dances (such as Waltz, Tango, and Foxtrot); it keeps everyone moving in the same direction and prevents collisions. The student's reaction was interesting: he said, "You know, it won't be long before no one will understand what you mean."

It took me a minute to understand what he meant - that in a world of digital clocks, the concepts of clockwise and counterclockwise won't have any meaning. I thought that was an interesting observation, and filed it away for future this morning.

Yesterday's Washington Post Magazine featured an interesting article titled, "Left Behind" that discussed 209 things that once were part of everyday life, but now are either gone or well on the way to obsolescence. Oddly enough, clockwise and counterclockwise weren't on the list, but many other things - some surprising and some not - were. A few of the things cited were:

Handwritten Letters. Not surprising in an age of text messaging, e-mails, and ubiquitous cell phones. I used to be famous among my friends for my long and chatty letters; now, most of them only get one letter per year, and it's the included-with-the-Christmas-card summary of the past year's events. I just don't have the time to write long letters any more and that's sad, because I don't think there's a simple pleasure more satisfying than sitting down to read a handwritten letter from a friend.

Mix Tapes. We all used to own cassette players, and spent hours sitting at the record player to copy individual songs onto our own personal mix cassettes. Now, of course, we download the music we want and load it directly into our digital music players. Even burning music to CDs is going away. I certainly don't miss the frequent frustration of a lovingly-assembled mix cassette groaning and shrieking as the tape was eaten by the player, and digital downloads are much easier and provide better sound, but mix tapes represented a labor of love in your music.

Stovetop Popcorn Poppers. Do you remember those: the popcorn-filled foil pans with a wire handle that you shook over the stove burner? As the corn popped, the foil top of the pan expanded until it was the size of a basketball; when it was done, you tore the foil open to eat the popcorn. I'd all but forgotten about those in this era of microwaveable popcorn.

Fashion Models Weighing More Than 110 Pounds. I may be old-fashioned, but I think a lady ought to have some substance. Rubenesque figures may be long out of fashion, but I don't think there's anything wrong with having a little meat on the bones...when giving a lady a hug feels like embracing a bag of coat hangers, something is wrong.

Telephone Booths. There was a wonderful scene in the first Superman movie (with Christopher Reeve) that showed Clark Kent racing for a phone booth in which to transform himself into Superman ... and looking dumfounded at the little bubble with the pay phone in it, hanging on a pole. In an age of cell phones and vandalism, it's hard to find a good old, simple, phone booth any more.

And finally,

Competence. Singer Billy Joel is quoted in the article as missing artistic competence in the music industry, but the idea applies across the board. As we lose accountability for actions, we lose the competence we once expected of those we deal with for goods and services. This one hurts.

So, what do you see leaving the scene? Read the article and see if it doesn't make you think differently about the world around you. Of course, there are lots of people who once lamented the demise of spats, buggy whips, and corsets...but they couldn't read about their loss on the Internet.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, March 16, 2008

Mr Obama Fires His Minister

The participation by Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton in this year's presidential campaign has made things quite interesting by giving us an object lesson in how a party that almost couldn't lose an election is trying its best to commit political suicide and throw the contest to the opposition. And it's giving us one of the best windows ever into how race and gender have become the dual third rails of American politics.

For breathtaking insincerity and hypocrisy, I have to give this week's award to Mr Obama for his handling of the affair of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, pastor at his church. You will recall from recent news reporting that Reverend Wright has come under heavy criticism for his outrageously racist comments, which include this gem from a 2003 sermon: "The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no; God damn America! That's in the Bible for killing innocent people."

The shocking thing about this whole affair is not that Reverend Wright made such statements; it's long been clear that blacks can be just as racist as whites, although able to escape the condemnation that would pour down on whites for the same sort of comments. What grinds my gears is this comment by Mr Obama, quoted in The Washington Post yesterday: "The statements that Rev. Wright made that are the cause of this controversy were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity or heard him utter in private conversation."

Let's step back a moment and think about this. Mr Obama has known Reverend Wright for 17 years, and considers him to be " an uncle who talked to me, not about political things and social views, but faith and God and family." He also says that, "All of the statements that have been the subject of controversy are ones that I vehemently condemn. They in no way reflect my attitudes and directly contradict my profound love for this country." I think it beggars the imagination to think that in 17 years, Mr Obama didn't personally hear, or at least hear of, the sort of comments that have now caused controversy in the campaign. And it's clearly the coldest sort of political calculation that has led him to throw his old friend and mentor under the bus at this point.

Standing by one's friends in times of trouble and controversy is an admirable trait. But Reverend Wright is known for making the sort of offensive comments he would himself quickly condemn if made by a white man about blacks. Can you imagine the howls of outrage if any white person running for president depended on the counsel of an openly racist religious figure? This is the sort of friend Mr Obama doesn't need if he wants to be president. It's just a shame it took this sort of attention to make him realize it.

Yes, America has a sad history of race relations and racial justice. But as I've often written here, I think that America doesn't get the recognition she deserves for facing the problems and working to fix them. Race relations in this country aren't perfect and probably never will be, especially when the bar for what's considered "racist" is set to different heights depending on the race of the observer. We won't really get beyond the legacy of racial problems until blacks realize and acknowledge that they can be every bit as blatantly racist as whites...but less willing to acknowledge it.

I don't think Mr Obama is any more ready to be president than Ms Clinton, but I wish them both well and I'm glad they're both running. I just wish they'd quit fighting each other and start working toward giving us a realistic option to the disastrous presidency of Mr Bush.

Leadership and competence have nothing to do with race or gender, any more than being a stupid buffoon does...anyone who has served in the military can tell you that. We need a president who can unite the country to face the serious problems that stand before us. Mr Obama can be a very inspiring figure. But can he provide the leadership to implement his vision of hope for the future?

His choice of friends and mentors gives a window into the answer.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, March 15, 2008

My Title's Better Than Your Title

We humans tend toward social hierarchies. You see it in schools (if you don't believe me, you were never a geek in a school run by jocks) and in the workplace (especially in the military, where the lieutenants get the coffee for the colonels, and the colonels get it for the generals). In almost all settings, we tend to show deference to those who are better educated, more attractive, higher in the social pyramid, or otherwise distinguished.

We often define ourselves in social hierarchies through the use of titles to establish our position relative to others. The military is, of course, the gold standard here: I was once a "lieutenant colonel," which meant I could give orders to "majors" and below, and had to obey those given by "colonels" and above. In the business world, the CEO outranks the President, who outranks the Executive Vice President, who in turn looks down on the mere Vice Presidents and Assistant Vice Presidents. Academia is also big on titles: a professor outranks an "assistant professor" or "associate professor," and everyone outranks a "graduate assistant" (also known in some academic circles as "pond scum"). Aristocratic societies like Great Britain have whole industries built around the precise definition of the social pecking order...if you're interested in the arcane intricacies of British titles, you can refer to Burke's Peerage and Gentry, which can prove invaluable if you can't remember where to seat the Earl in relation to the Baron and the Viscount at your next barbecue.

Some titles are downright amazing. I often drive past an obscure fraternal lodge which has a parking space reserved for the "Illustrious Potentate." Lodges and secret societies always seem to have great titles, like "Grand High Exalted Mystic Ruler," "Supreme Lord of the Arcane Mysteries," and so on. I still like the grand simplicity of Illustrious Potentate, though...I can see myself as an Illustrious Potentate. Agnes might have another opinion, though, and the grand title "Chief Cook and Bottle-Washer" may be more relevant.

I started thinking about the subject of titles and honorifics when I read this article in yesterday's Washington Post, about recent enforcement of a German law which prevents holders of PhD's from nations other than Germany from referring to themselves as "Doctor." If you are a PhD from, say, Penn State (a fine school, by the way!), and you are working in Germany, you cannot legally refer to yourself as "Doctor Smith" - your business card can say that you are "Joe Smith, PhD, Penn State," but you cannot legally use in Germany the academic title you earned in another country.

Having lived in Germany for a number of years, I can certify that the Germans take their titles very seriously, and tend to pile them on: it's not unusual to meet "Professor Doctor Count So-and-So," whose wife can also be referred to as "Frau Professor Doctor Count So-and-So." It's not as good as being an Illustrious Potentate, but it's not bad.

And so it is that I sit here at my desk in my study, blogging away with the self-appointed title of "Fairfax County Curmudgeon-at-Large." Not as good as Illustrious Potentate, but it'll do until I realize my ultimate dream of world domination.

Until then, you can just call me Bilbo. It'll save time.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, March 14, 2008

Because You Just Can't Hear Enough About Sex...

After a detailed review of the media, I have determined that yesterday there were exactly three sources - two blogs in Uzbekistan and a weekly newspaper in Upper Volta (oops, I mean, Burkina Faso) - that didn't prominently feature detailed coverage of the Eliot Spitzer fiasco. I'm glad I wasn't bucking the trend.

Sex sells. And since it offers the possibility of boosting my readership numbers, however temporarily, I thought I'd try it again today.

The wonderful Strange Maps blog the other day had an interesting, if depressing, map: Ludacris' Rap Map of US Area Codes. Based on the "song" Area Codes by rapper Ludacris, it showed the area code map of the US telephone system, with the area codes in which Ludacris claimed in the song to have "ho's" highlighted in red. We'll ignore for a moment the fact that I think rap is to music as epileptic seizures are to ballroom dancing, and consider this comment from the Strange Maps post: "Rap music has been criticised for its content, which often consists of crude and ludicrous bragging about the rapper’s lyrical, financial, criminal, physical and sexual prowess. ‘Area Codes’ could be considered as an example of this phenomenon."

Nuff said on that score.

There was another interesting take on the Spitzer affair over at In All Things, the blog sponsored by America, the National Catholic Weekly. The post, Spitzer's Other Moral Lapse, written by Michael Sean Winters, built on this quote: "The public is generally quick to forgive sexual misdeeds. Witness Bill Clinton's continued high approval ratings throughout the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But, I wish the public would become far less forgiving of one aspect of these dreadful news conferences when sexual misdeeds are discussed. I cannot bring myself to forgive Spitzer for dragging his wife in front of the cameras today." I think this is a very cogent observation. It seems that every time some politician or other such low creature is caught in a scandal, it's mandatory for him to deliver his mea culpa speech with his wife and/or family at his side to share the shame and embarrassment of his disgrace. This is just wrong. It's designed, of course, to help deflect the questions that the subject wouldn't want to answer - even the most shameless reporter might be reluctant to heap further embarrassment on the poor family - but it's still wrong. And it reflects a cowardice on the part of the subject that he has to hide behind his innocent family. Go back and read Mr Winters's post...he makes the case much better than I can in a short summary.

Okay, I think that's enough about Eliot Spitzer, Ludacris, tawdry sex, crude music, and lousy judgment. Everyone may have the right occasionally to be stupid, but it really rankles when some so shamelessly abuse the privilege. I'd just as soon never hear about any of this again...but I will, because sex sells.


But it's Friday! There's a dance party tonight, the weekend beckons, and Dancing with the Stars begins its new season this coming Monday. Life is good. Enjoy it!

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Cost of Lust

If you've spent the last few days in a cave in Outer Mongolia, or if you are one of my readers outside the U.S., you may have missed the ongoing hysteria over the affair of Eliot Spitzer, the crusading New York governor and scourge of white-collar criminals everywhere, who has been caught up in a prostitution scandal. According to FBI investigators, Mr Spitzer employed the services of high-end (so to speak) prostitutes at least eight times in the last few months, spending more than $80,000 on the services of the ladies employed by the "Emperor's Club" escort service... including $4,300 for a 2-1/2 hour session on February 13th.

Let me see if I understand this. Here is a man who has made his reputation on crime-busting, including cracking down on prostitution and financial crimes, whose sexual misadventures were exposed because he moved so much money between various bank accounts to pay for them that it attracted the attention of those who crimes. How dumb is that?

It's said that sex makes men crazy because all their blood goes to the wrong head, thereby inhibiting their ability to think. That may be true, but it doesn't explain why a successful and respected man would recklessly risk everything he'd worked for - his marriage, his reputation, and his very livelihood - by paying for professional nookie. I have a very vivid imagination, but even I can't imagine what I would be willing to pay a lady $4,300 to do for 2-1/2 hours. Of course, if she were a first-class auto mechanic, I could see her charging that much to fix my car, but beyond that...?

Part of the problem, I suppose, is that we tend to want what we don't have, and the ability to control our desires is what sets us apart from the lower animals. The Ten Commandments enjoin us not to commit adultery or to covet our neighbor's wife...indeed, Lust - the uncontrolled exercise of sexual appetites - is one of the traditional Seven Deadly Sins, and it seems to bring more famous people low than any of the other six.

Now I'm certainly no prude, and I enjoy a little lustful activity as much as the next person (as long as the next person isn't Mr Spitzer), but I like to think that it belongs in the context of a loving relationship.

There seems to come a point in a marriage at which sex is usually practiced doggie style: the husband sits up and begs, and the wife rolls over and plays dead. At this time, perhaps sexual frustration can lead one to seek pleasure elsewhere. But is it worth the cost to one's reputation and the feelings of one's family? I don't think so.

A few days ago in writing about sex, I noted Lord Chesterfield's famous comment about sex that the pleasure was momentary, the position ridiculous, and the expense damnable. I think Mr Spitzer probably understands that now. Unfortunately, he certainly won't be the last man to be betrayed by the call of his untamed glands. And that's very sad.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Fighting the Irrational Rationally

Terrorism is a terrible problem that isn't going to go away any time soon. It's the poor man's power - a way for small numbers of very focused and fanatical people to spread fear and wield influence far in excess of their numbers. It's cheap and easy to use and fiendishly difficult to fight effectively. So how do we fight it?

An interesting article appeared yesterday on the Project Syndicate website: "Re-Thinking Counter-Terrorism," by Bjorn Lomborg and Todd Sandler. In their article, Lomborg and Sandler advocate spending counter-terrorism money differently, pointing out that while the billions of dollars spent on homeland security since 2001 created an initial drop in the number of terrorist attacks, the actual number of deaths rose, on average, each year. The reason is fairly obvious: as it becomes harder to board an airliner, embassies and other official buildings are turned into fortresses, and "hard" infrastructure targets are made ever harder, the terrorist simply turns his (or her) attention to softer targets which can have higher casualty counts: suicide bombings in markets and restaurants, and so on.

Lomborg and Sandler advocate spending proportionately less money on making individual targets harder, and more on actions that will undercut the "appeal" of terrorists by removing the rationale for their actions, working to achieve greater international cooperation in fighting terrorism, and doing more to project a positive image of the U.S. and fight the very slick and effective propaganda employed by the terrorists.

These are certainly worthwhile measures that need to be taken. It's clear that fanatical terrorists can breed faster than we can kill them, and so a purely military approach is unlikely to achieve complete success. Nevertheless, there are some people who are so focused on their grievances, so convinced of the righteousness of their cause, and so intent on committing murder they believe is sanctioned by their politics or their religion, that they are beyond the appeal of rational argument. As English essayist Sydney Smith once said, "Never try to reason the prejudice out of a man. It was not reasoned into him, and cannot be reasoned out." Or, as they say more simply in Texas, "Some people just need killin'."

Lomborg and Sandler advocate greater international cooperation in strangling terrorist finances, extraditing captured terrorists for trial, and cracking down on the illegal activities which allow them to function (things like drug trafficking, counterfeiting of goods, kidnapping for ransom, etc). They note that such cooperation will be difficult to achieve "because nations jealously guard their autonomy over police and security matters," noting that "a single non-cooperating nation could undo much of others' efforts." This is true, but it also misses the point that some nations profit from these illegal activities, and often support (whether openly or clandestinely) the efforts and activities of the terrorists. These are the nations whose cooperation we most need, and are least likely to get. It's hard to imagine a blustering buffoon like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, now exposed as a supporter of the deadly FARC guerrillas in Colombia, cooperating with the U.S. and other nations in this way.

Somewhat more practical and achievable is the suggestion for the United States and other Western nations to either increase their humanitarian aid to developing nations, or target it better. Lomborg and Sandler note that U.S. aid, for instance, " highly skewed toward countries that support America's foreign policy agenda." They advocate spending the same or more money on direct action to fight hunger, poverty, and disease, granting the money without strings attached. I believe there is real merit in this suggestion, except for the "no strings attached" part...experience has shown that cash supplied without condition often disappears into the overseas numbered accounts of ruling elites rather than being applied to the needs of their populations. We need to share our bounty with the rest of the world, but we need to do it with our eyes open. We need to offer inspiration and an alternative to the way of the terrorist, something we don't do well.

We need a foreign policy and a counter-terrorism approach that is, as the authors say, "smarter and more inspirational."

We'll never be able to reach everyone and change their minds. For an example of the sort of mindset we're unlikely to change, read this transcript of a debate between Arab-American Psychiatrist Wafa Sultan, Egyptian Islamist Tal'at Rmeih, and the host of a program on Al-Jazeera TV.

None of the ideas espoused by Sandler and Lomberg in their article are new, but they've been crowded aside by the more emotionally satisfying approach that focuses on military and police action...what we sometimes call "visually pleasing destruction." But when the purely military approach fails, perhaps it's time to look at the alternatives with a new appreciation for their potential.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Sins, Great, Small, and New

One of my favorite movies is the 1995 thriller Se7en (no, that's not a typo), which starred Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt as a pair of detectives tracking a serial killer who preys on people guilty of the Seven Deadly Sins: Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Envy, Wrath, Pride, and Lust. The film is moody, atmospheric, and graphically terrifying, with one of the most shocking twist endings in memory.

The traditional Seven Deadly Sins which for centuries have identified the ultimate condemned actions have now been updated. The Holy See has announced a list of seven "new" deadly sins for the modern era:

Environmental pollution;

Genetic manipulation;

Accumulating excessive wealth;

Inflicting poverty;

Drug trafficking and consumption;

Morally debatable experiments; and,

Violation of fundamental rights of human nature.

I think this new list represents a fundamental change in the Church's approach to what constitutes a "deadly" sin, moving away from what might be considered "personal" sins toward those which reflect an emphasis on social justice and protection of the earth and humanity at large. This is an interesting and, perhaps, overdue update of actions worthy of condemnation, although it raises some questions which require clarification: What are the "fundamental rights of human nature?" What constitutes "excessive wealth?" "What sort of experiments are "morally debatable?"

The issues of genetic manipulation and environmental pollution in particular are ones about which I have long been concerned. The fact that we can modify the genetic structure of organisms and even create new forms of life is truly amazing - but do we know and understand what we're doing and what its long-term implications are? And the pollution of the earth is a terrifying reality: when we can't drink our water and breathe our air, how can we live? Across the United States and in many other parts of the world, recent tests have shown the presence of antibiotics and prescription drugs, not to mention industrial chemicals and other pollutants, in our drinking water. China is finding it necessary to resort to draconian measures to clean up its air so that Olympic athletes will be able to breathe. And the landscape in many parts of the world has been devastated by unregulated mining, logging, and other mineral extraction activities.

So perhaps it's time that the Church updated its teachings and moral standards to account for sins that perhaps were never imagined centuries ago. Whether the seven new sins are as fundamentally "deadly" as the original seven is a matter for debate. That they are worthy of our attention and condemnation is beyond doubt.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, March 10, 2008

Parental Visits

Over at The Milk Bar this morning, Amanda has a short post about the arrival of her mother for a visit. She wrote about how happy her son is to see his grandmother, and included a photo of the goodies her mother brought along that she can't get in Indonesia.

That got me to thinking about parental visits.

Because of my military career, which involved living in lots of places not always convenient to visit, we didn't have that many parental visits, and so my children grew up without much contact with their grandparents. I had two memorable visits from my parents when I was living in Germany, but - because of their varying work schedules and commitments - they had to come separately. Dad visited while I was living in Berlin (and there's a great three-beer story of how he and I faced down the Russians at Checkpoint Bravo). Mom visited while I was in Wiesbaden, with a list of things she wanted to do on the only trip she'd probably ever make to Europe: it included visiting a castle (which we did), driving along the Rhine (which we did), and drinking coffee and eating cake in a sidewalk cafe. Despite the fact that we had an unexpected cold snap while she was visiting (in May, no less), she still insisted on that coffee and cake in the sidewalk cafe...and so it was that at the Cafe Maldaner in Wiesbaden, we were served by a shivering young lady who probably thought we were totally nuts.

Agnes's parents have visited us from Germany many times, and their visits are always an experience: since they don't speak any English, it's hard for them to get around on their own, and since we live in a typical American suburb, they don't have all the stores and services within easy walking distance that they're used to. But nevertheless, we've always enjoyed their visits. Like Amanda's mother, they always showed up with lots of "stuff" for us...they usually had either an extra suitcase or an extra-large one filled with Swiss chocolate for Agnes, Mama's handmade socks for me (that's a story for another time), and all the other goodies we can't get (or can't afford) here.

But time passes. My mother passed away in 2001, my father and Agnes's mother are both 85, and her dad is 89. My dad still visits occasionally (most memorably last Thanksgiving, which you may have read about in this space), but Agnes's parents probably won't be able to make the long trip to the States again...they want to visit (certainly to see their first great-grandchild), but they're not as young and mobile as they used to be. I think a trip to Germany to visit them may be in our not-too-distant future.

We used to joke about reaching the "PSP" - the Parental Saturation Point, where you're glad your parents visited, but you're ready for them to leave. As time goes on and everyone gets older, we think less about the PSP and more about the simple pleasure of seeing and holding and loving the people who held and loved us for so many years.

In a time when we're all busy all the time, and our families are spread out across the US and the world, it's hard to maintain the traditional family ties we once enjoyed. The periodic reunions of Mom's side of the family were the high points of many summers, but it's been many years since we've been able to attend one. I hope to keep up a closer connection with my children and grandchildren.


The Fifth Commandment enjoins us to honor our parents. I like to think I'm half the man my father is, and I miss the puns and jokes and trading of books with my mother. I've heard all Agnes's father's war stories a dozen times, but I still listen to them, if only with half an ear. Our parents raised us and made us what we are. Honoring them in ways large and small is the least we can do.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Cuss-Free Zone

I shot this picture several years ago in Virginia Beach, a town trying to remind its citizens that it's not polite to use foul language. A few days ago USA Today ran an article about the city of South Pasadena, California, which has declared itself a "cuss-free zone."

Yes, amazingly enough in this age of loud and frequent use of foul language by people of all ages, one town has finally had enough, and has officially declared itself to be a "cuss-free zone," if only for one week a year. South Pasadena mayor Michael Cacciotti designated the first week of March as "No Cussing Week," saying that it would "...provide(s) us a reminder to be more civil, to elevate the level of discourse."

This is, of course, not a bad thing. The sort of language my mother would have washed my mouth out with soap for using is now not only common, but shouted at high volume by loutish young people in public who aren't intelligent enough to think of anything better to say. Not that I haven't used intemperate language myself - I can curse with the best of 'em when the situation requires it - but I don't think it's necessary to lard your every sentence with four-letter words.

The thoughtlessly common use of bad language represents a benchmark of how low we've sunk in our level of education and in the level of personal decency and respect for others we're willing to show. I wrote the other day about the tendency of some people to demand respect for their religious beliefs without being willing to extend that same respect to the beliefs of others. In some places, failing to show the expected level of respect to someone ("dissing" them, in street slang), can get you killed. As I've written in this space before, words matter. While the old adage that "sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me" is true to a point, it also misses the fact that the offhand use of insults, foul language, and other forms of disrespect can actually, hurt...if not physically, then certainly by poisoning the level of rational discourse.

There can never be an outright ban on the use of foul language in this country. If South Pasadena were, for instance, to enact a law imposing fines or jail time for public cursing, it wouldn't take more than about three nanoseconds for reinforced battalions of lawyers to show up with truckloads of lawsuits, drooling over billable hours and howling about the infringement of the people's right to freely express themselves. But as I always say, you can legislate freedom of speech, but not freedom of smart. It's just plain smart to speak clearly and show respect the sensitivities of others.

Unfortunately, smart is in short supply lately.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, March 08, 2008


Yes, I thought I'd get your attention with that title.

There's an entertaining article in the March 7th issue of Time Magazine titled "More Sex Please, We're French." It reports on the results of a new "Study of Sexuality in France" which rather proves the reputation of the French as great lovers: it shows that, statistically, "both the number of partners and diversity of sexual activity has significantly increased in France in the last decade."

Vive la France!

Having lived in Germany and seen the considerably more relaxed attitude toward matters sexual that Europeans in general have, I suppose that isn't surprising. German and French television certainly don't balk at the "nudity and sexual situations" about which we in the States feel compelled warn sensitive viewers, and magazine ads and billboards don't leave much to the imagination. If sex sells, as advertisers here say, business in Europe must be booming.

The French have a reputation, deserved or not, of being passionate lovers. An old joke says that French women are great lovers because they've had so much experience at greeting conquering armies, but we won't go there. We'll just note that the survey indicates that although French men have long enjoyed a larger number of sexual partners and affairs than their ladies, French women "...have closed the gap with men in terms of number of lovers, age of initiation, and variety of acts engaged in."

I wonder what multitude of sins is covered by the expression "variety of acts engaged in"...

But I really don't want to think too much about it. I'm approaching the age where I tend to agree with Lord Chesterfield's observation on sex that the pleasure is momentary, the position ridiculous, and the expense damnable. I'm not quite there just yet, but I can see it on the horizon, and it's probably just as well that I wasn't interviewed for the survey. Balding, pudgy, cantankerous curmudgeons don't make good poster boys for a vigorous and lusty sex life. Not a day goes by that I'm not thankful Agnes is nearsighted.

But of course, if sex were all that was important marriages wouldn't last as long as they do...not that that's all that long any more. My father used to joke that when Mom hit 40 he would trade her in on two twenties; he never did (Mom would have murdered him, anyhow), but a lot of men seem to take that joke seriously. The idea of the "trophy wife" is alive and well and silly, and women like the late Anna Nicole Smith manage to make a good living because of it.

So, men and women of France, go for it! Have fun! Enjoy the momentary pleasure, twist yourselves into the ridiculous positions, and ignore the damnable expense.

You'll keep the statistics skewed for the rest of us.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. - If you live in (most of) the United States, remember that Daylight Savings Time begins at 2:00 AM tomorrow. Turn your clocks ahead an hour before you go to bed tonight. It's one less hour to enjoy sex, but you'll end up with more daylight to enjoy it in.


Friday, March 07, 2008

Thursday Thirteen...on Friday

Yesterday both Amanda and zero_zero_one took on an interesting Thursday Thirteen theme (how alliterative, eh?) - "13 Wants I Can't Classify as Needs (Yet)." Since I'd already written my post for the day, I decided to fire up the old time machine, pretend today is Thursday again, and take a stab at this topic. Here's what Bilbo wants, but really doesn't need...

1. A new laptop computer. There's nothing wrong with the one I have, except that it's fairly old (4 years or so), slow, and a little balky. But since I only use it when I travel on business, and I don't travel very much any more, this classifies as a want, rather than a least, unless I start traveling again.

2. A new car...preferably something sleek, sporty, and comfortable, with great gas mileage and an enormous trunk. My car has the advantage of being paid off, but is showing its age. I don't need a new car, but it would be nice to have one.

3. A door on my study. I had to take the door off in order to fit in more bookshelves. I don't need the door, but it would be nice to have.

4. A cruise to a new destination every year. As vacations go, cruises are wonderful, and not all that expensive if you manage to control your spending once you're on board (since all your meals and services are included in the cruise price).

5. A really huge house. I grew up in a fairly small house with three brothers and sisters sharing two bathrooms. I don't need the burden of a huge mortgage payment, and I certainly don't need the agony of cleaning it, but I would love to have lots of rooms to roam.

6. A top-of-the-line, professional digital camera. I have a perfectly good Canon Digital Rebel XT that takes great pictures, so I don't need a new camera...but I'd sure like to have the latest and best.

7. A second, high-end desktop computer, running Windows XP (not Vista!). My Mac is great, but it would be nice to have a PC on which I can run all the software that won't work on the Mac.

8. An unlimited shopping spree in the local Borders Bookstore. The last thing in the world I need is more books...but then, you can never have too many books...

9. Visit Hungary. That's where my paternal grandparents came from, where I'm descended from a long and impressive line of ... well ... peasants.

10. Visit Florence. All that art and culture in one place waiting for me to come and see it...

11. A renewed membership at the local Gold's Gym, and someone to force me to go there and work out regularly.

12. A good wide-angle lens for my trusty camera. The four lenses I have cover pretty much all my needs, but we're talking about wants, here...

13. One more grandchild. Four is a nice, even number, but five would be nice, too. It would be nice to need that wide-angle lens (see number 12) to take the family picture...

And that's my Thursday Thirteen, on Friday. Actually, it was pretty hard to come up with 13 wants. On balance, I'm happy with what I have, and there really isn't much I want beyond that. Nevertheless, it's fun to dream.

Well, let's get on with Friday. Today, there's work to be done. Tonight, there are ladies to be danced with. And tomorrow, the Bonneville goes back to the dealer for more service. Ugh.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Coming Catholic-Islamic Talks

In the news recently has been the announcement that Pope Benedict XVI will hold a summit meeting of sorts with a large group of Muslim leaders and scholars later this year. Both sides had discussed the possibility of such a meeting since the downturn in Christian-Muslim relations in 2006 caused, it is said, by comments the Pope made in a speech in which he quoted a 15th-century Byzantine emperor's assertion that Islam was a violent and irrational religion. The worldwide Muslim reaction to this was, as in the famous Danish cartoon incident, well, violent and irrational.

At this point in history, Christian-Muslim relations are indeed strained and a meeting between the Pope and Muslim leaders to help calm things down and ease the rhetoric is certainly a welcome event. My concern, though, is that the meeting will end up being less a real dialog than yet another opportunity for Muslims to vent their anger at perceived slights and demand "respect" from the Christian world.

I don't think this is a particularly misplaced worry. While Muslims are concerned about their image in the West, and the perception of their religion as being "violent and irrational," it is undeniably true that:

- 3000 people were murdered in cold blood on September 11, 2001 by Muslims motivated in part by religious fervor.

- Hundreds of people are murdered each year by suicide bombers who are overwhelmingly Muslim and motivated in part by religious fervor.

- Churches were burned, Christians murdered, and economic boycotts were called for by Muslims in reaction to a collection of sophomoric cartoons against which they took offense.

- Similar reactions took place in late 2006 in reaction to the remarks made by the Pope cited above.

Unless the Muslim leaders and scholars who meet with the Pope are ready to face the reality that their religion, regardless of what they profess, is at times violent and irrational, and are ready to enter a dialog which will help to control the passions on both sides, this meeting will probably be a waste of time.

Muslims insist on respect for their beliefs and accommodation to their customs, but appear unwilling to accommodate the beliefs and customs of others. If you doubt this, try holding a Catholic mass in Saudi Arabia. Harvard University has recently caused a stir by agreeing to establish "women-only" hours at the university gym to accommodate the desire of six Muslim women to exercise in an environment free of men. While a certain level of accommodation to religious beliefs may be appropriate in some instances, I think it's a little silly that the entire university population is denied the use of facilities - for which they all pay handsomely - to accommodate the wishes of six people.

Respect, like academic, personal, and professional honors, cannot be demanded - it must be earned. It seems to me that each time Muslims insist on accommodation to their wishes without a concurrent willingness to accept the legitimate wishes and beliefs of others, it undercuts their demands for respect. To the extent that the Pope can make the Muslim leaders and scholars understand this very basic concept, the upcoming meeting will be a success and will lead to a better world for all. I'll try to be cautiously optimistic, but will probably tilt a bit to the pessimistic side until I see how all this will work out.

Actions speak louder than words, and Muslim actions have shaped the Western perceptions of them which they now decry. The sad part is that I don't believe they are able to understand this. If you have absolute faith in the righteousness of your position, it's pretty much impossible to see things from any other point of view, or bend to accommodate anyone else's concerns.

I wish the Pope well as he meets with the Muslim representatives. I hope some good comes of it. Unfortunately, I'm not holding my breath.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.