Monday, June 30, 2008

Of Divas and Train Wrecks

Last week the University of East Anglia hosted a one-day academic conference on a topic of critical importance to modern society. The name of the conference was, "Going Cheap? Female Celebrity In The Tabloid, Reality And Scandal Genres," and it featured in-depth discussion and analysis of the "gender dynamics of fame" and the viewing public's fascination with "train-wreck" celebrities like Lindsey Lohan, Amy Winehouse, and Britney Spears. The conference announcement listed a few of the papers to be presented, among them Britney’s Tears: The Abject Female Celebrity in Postemotional Society; Hooker, Victim and/or Doormat: Lindsay Lohan and the Culture of Celebrity Notoriety; and, Heather McCartney Mills: A Woman with An Agenda.

Now, I'm not sure who decides on topics for academic studies. But in a world festering with problems like rising food prices, religious intolerance, Robert Mugabe, and $140-a-barrel oil, figuring out why Amy Winehouse is such a bizarre flake may not be the best subject for in-depth analysis.

You didn't hear these sorts of tabloid stories about big-name celebrities back in the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood. I'm sure there were the same sorts of issues back then as immature people tried to grapple with sudden celebrity, but at that time the big studio machines ran Hollywood, and stars were carefully managed and packaged to protect them and preserve their marketability. There also wasn't the culture of Gotcha Journalism in which reporters dug for the worst stories they could find, and swarming paparazzi sold the most unflattering photos they could shoot to tabloids always hungry for any hint of scandal.

I enjoy music and movies. I admire the talents of actors who can create utterly believable characters and singers whose voices can evoke emotions my own harsh croaking never could. Heath Ledger seems to have created a masterpiece character with his portrayal of the Joker in the forthcoming Batman film, but I don't need to know that he died from an overdose, accidental or not, of prescription medications. Amy Winehouse crooned one of my favorite songs with "You Know That I'm No Good," but other than the tragic waste of talent, I don't care that she's working hard to ruin her lungs by smoking everything but the tiles on her bathroom floor. And Lindsey Lohan was cute and delivered a good performance in the otherwise forgettable film Herbie Fully Loaded, but I certainly don't care whether or not she wears underwear all the time.

We're all human and we all have failings of one sort or another. It's just a shame that some of our most talented and gifted performers lack the emotional maturity to handle their fame, and end up descending into the abyss of drugs and selfish behavior that leads to their designation as "train wrecks."

And so, last week at the University of East Anglia, a group of earnest researchers read meaningless papers to each other and tut-tutted about all the problems faced by female celebrities. I'm sure they felt good about what they accomplished, which was likely nothing. As long as we have a culture of celebrity fame that relies on the celebration of scandal rather than talent, nothing's going to change.

And that's too bad, because I'd like to think that I'd have been able to enjoy music from Amy Winehouse and films from Heath Ledger for a long time to come.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, June 29, 2008

My Daughter Is Trying to Kill Me

But of course, being my daughter and having observed her old man for these many years, she's being very clever about it.

Yesterday she e-mailed me the link to this story on The Washington Post: "Political Maneuvers Delay Bill After Bill In Senate," no doubt calculating that it would send my blood pressure through the roof and probably cause me to have a coronary on the spot.

Ha, ha, though...little does she realize that I have become so inured to the political shenanigans of our elected reprehensives that I just shrugged it off. Better luck next time, Moose!

But all that aside, I was well and truly appalled by the first line of the story: "The Senate went home yesterday for the Fourth of July holiday to face voters, having failed repeatedly to address critical economic issues from skyrocketing gas prices to climate change to the nation's housing crisis."

Having failed repeatedly. Those three words say it all. As I have lamented here often enough, we have a Congress full of blustering ideologues to whom it is more important to be seen as a staunch representative of a particular political party than as a statesman rising above petty politics to do what's best for the nation. I think it's an absolute scandal that these people can noisily feed at the public trough without being held to account for producing anything.

A Senator earns $169,300 per year. That's quite a bit, unless you move in the same circles as Bill Gates or Tom Cruise or Rupert Murdoch. It's significantly more than I - and probably most of you - earn in a year. The difference seems to be that Senators and Representatives don't seem to have to be able to show much in the way of accomplishments in order to keep receiving their checks. If I don't produce the deliverables my customer expects, I lose my job. If Bill Gates had mismanaged Microsoft and lost billions instead of earning them, he'd have lost his job. If Tom Cruise makes a bad movie...well...we'll skip that one. If Rupert Murdoch runs a newspaper into the ground, he just goes out and buys another one and starts over.

But our elected reprehensives seem to be able to escape the consequences of their failures by the simple expedient of blaming it on "them." Democrats blame Republicans. Conservatives blame Liberals. And everybody blames George Bush (who, to be fair, has worked hard to earn his blame).

I wish that our ballots in Congressional elections were able to show what the incumbents have done for the nation. Not just for their narrow home constituencies, but for the nation as a whole. Yes, we expect our elected officials to look out for us. But we are one part of a larger union that needs the united efforts of 50 states (oh, and the District of Columbia) to really serve us as a single nation.

They can't do that.

It's easier to pander to the local voters and kowtow to the lobbyists with the deep pockets than it is to take a hard, honest look at the needs of the nation and do the right thing.

And it's easiest of all to blame someone else for your lack of spine.

Vote Nobody this November. It has to be an improvement.

It could hardly be worse.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, June 28, 2008

Bilbo and Agnes Dance - the Sequel!

The success of posting our previous dance video clip (this past Tuesday) has led me to try this again...

The previous clip was from a competition in 2006; the one below is from the Inter-City Amateur Dance Challenge in May, 2001. It's about twice as long as the previous clip because it's a solo exhibition, which can generally last up to three minutes, as opposed to a competitive heat, which usually lasts only 60 to 90 seconds. And, of course, there's a story with it...

If I remember correctly, this was the second solo exhibition we'd done; the previous one was an American Gold Rumba, while this one is an American Gold Waltz. Because it's about 5 years older than the one you've already seen, you'll probably see that my performance isn't quite as smooth as it might be, and that I have a look of sheer terror on my face much of the time. Nevertheless, it was a great routine, choreographed by Ben and Agnes, and we had a ball doing it.

You will also notice that the sound doesn't start until just about the moment we step out into the routine. The company that was always hired to videotape this competition managed to mess up something each year: either they missed heats, cut off the beginning or end of a heat, or filmed from an angle that ensured another couple was blocking the view. This particular year, the camera that filmed all of our heats had a defective microphone, so our tape was delivered with no sound. We complained, and the company took the video back and dubbed the sound from their master tape onto ours...unfortunately, they were just a bit out of sync, and so it looks like we're dancing slightly off rhythm. Trust me, we weren't.

And this was our American Gold Waltz Solo Exhibition from May, 2001...

And, once again, doesn't Agnes look great in that dress?

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Cartoon Saturday

I'm in the sixth consecutive day of the Summer Cold/Flu from Hell...haven't slept well in the last week, I'm cranky and headachy, and I'm ready to take up smoking cigars to keep from wasting this mighty hacking cough. I need something to pick up my spirits.

It looks like Cartoon Saturday has arrived just in time!

I think we can all agree that with all the constantly-changing security restrictions, soaring ticket prices, poor customer service, and cascading fees for everything except on-board bathrooms (and those are coming, mark my words), flying is no fun any more. But it's less fun for some than for others...
I finally scanned this cartoon before it crumbled to hung in pride of place on our refrigerator door for years because it spoke to me about the economic realities of our family...

This one has been in my collection for a long time, but now seems like a good time to trot it out. Of course, if you live in Washington, DC, and keep up with the news, you won't be sure whether it's funny or not...

I have the greatest of admiration and respect for those who teach our children. They have a thankless and woefully underpaid, underappreciated job, and they can always count on some outraged parent to give them hell over the grade they gave little Johnny, even if Johnny has the smarts of an anvil. You just know that every teacher has wanted to say something like this at some point in his or her career...

And finally, this past week the Supreme Court issued its ruling in the case of DC-vs-Heller, in which the city of Washington, DC's ban on private ownership of handguns was challenged as unconstitutional. I wrote about it yesterday in this space. Well, while I must say I agree with the Supremes' decision on constitutional grounds, I think it's a really bad idea to pump more guns into a city already full of illegal guns. I think Tom Toles, the editorial cartoonist of the Washington Post, agrees with me...

Have a good weekend. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, June 27, 2008

The Supreme Court Takes Its Best Shot...Sort Of

Yesterday, the Supreme Court released its long-awaited decision in the case of DC-vs-Heller, which challenged the constitutionality of Washington, DC's ban on ownership of handguns. Not surprisingly, the court found the DC law to be unconstitutional; equally unsurprisingly, the decision was a 5-4 vote drawn strictly along conservative/liberal philosophical lines. You can read the decision and the dissenting opinions here.

The Second Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees citizens the right to "keep and bear arms." For many years, the debate has centered on whether the amendment's curious wording implies that gun ownership is an individual right, or is permitted only in the context of membership in an organized, government-run militia. Yesterday's decision comes down squarely on the side of private ownership, and has been hailed by gun advocates as a clear victory.

I'm not so sure victory is the right word if you're not a die-hard gun owner. As I've written here before, I have no problem with any upstanding citizen owning a gun. I myself don't own any, but I don't care if you long as you don't use them against me. And that's really the problem, as I see it.

I'll have more to say on this topic when I feel better and have the energy to get my thoughts organized. For now, I'll just say that the Supreme Court made the correct decision in a strict constitutional sense. But I think they missed the chance to open up a rational discussion of the need for limits on firearms in the America of 2008, as opposed to the America of 1789.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, June 26, 2008

Yes, I'd Like a Large Order of ... Oh, Never Mind...

One of the interesting things about traveling around the world is enjoying all sorts of new foods. Or, at least, being exposed to all sorts of new foods. I'm not really excited about some of the more exotic Asian treats like Spiders on a Stick and other insect delicacies, but in general, I enjoy trying new things. Agnes and I are pretty omnivorous that way.

But almost more fun than actually trying new foods is looking at the English translations of the delicacies that sometimes make their way onto the menus handed to tourists by smiling waiters. One of my favorites was a house specialty at a Balkan restaurant in Berlin many years ago - a delicious shish-kebab in a spicy sauce that appeared on the menu as "Gypsy Spit." Now, I know that someone translating the menu looked in his dictionary for the English word for the metal rod on which the meat was cooked and served (a "skewer," or Spiess in German) and instead found the alternative term "spit," perhaps not realizing the unfortunate connotation of the shorter word. Every time I visited that restaurant (Ujak Tom in the Zehlendorf district, if it's still there), I had a vision of a big, swarthy, mustachioed man hocking onto my plate.

But Chinese menus are the most fun. My daughter sent me a link to this wonderful article from Slate magazine: "What's Up with Chinese Menus? The Stories Behind 'Chicken without a Sexual Life' and 'Bean Curd Made by a Pockmarked Woman'." Speaking with all my weighty authority as a linguist, I found the article fascinating and informative; speaking as a curmudgeon who appreciates the more bizarre things in life, I found it hysterically funny. Take a few minutes to read it and learn that, for instance, Ants Climbing a Tree vividly describes the appearance of the dish: bits of minced pork clinging to bean thread noodles make it look rather like ants trooping along the branches of a tree.

I'd write more, but now I'm hungry. I think I'll enjoy a nice plate of Eggs Beaten Up in the Fashion of the Farmer's Wife.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. - letter-writing project update: Andrea has received her letter, Amanda's is en route to Palembang, and I finally started Mike's last night. John and Moose, hang in there...I haven't forgotten you!


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Ten Million Millionaires

According to this article on the CNN website this morning, the number of persons in the world with total assets of more than a million dollars has now exceeded ten million.

Ten million millionaires. That's a lot.

Of course, I'm not one of them, nor am I ever likely to be. I'm just an ordinary fellow who's happy when the balance in his checkbook has four figures, and they're not evenly divided on the left and right of the decimal point. If the bills are paid and there's enough left over for a new book or a few downloads from iTunes or a Berry Smoothie at Costco, I'm a happy guy.

But then, a million isn't what it used to be. At one time, a millionaire was someone who'd really made it, who commanded respect in the corridors of economic power. To paraphrase a brokerage firm's ad, when a millionaire talked, people listened.

Nowadays, the millionaires get sent out of meetings to fetch coffee for the billionaires. And I know from countless Pentagon budget meetings over the years that a million is an almost embarrassingly small number...many budget figures are rounded to the nearest million. Millions are almost decimal dust on the economic floor. If your program has a budget of a mere million dollars, it's liable to be axed to help pay for something bigger.

If you're one of those newly minted millionaires, I don't mean to rain on your parade. Congratulations, pip-pip-cheerio, and all that. Just remember that money can't buy you friends.

But it can get you a better class of enemy. It worked for America, after all.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Bilbo and Agnes Dance!

One of the things you can do when you're sitting at home sick is experiment with all the gadgets you never have time to figure out in the time left over from the normal day-to-day rat race.

Well, I am sitting here at home today, stuffy and congested, honking and sneezing, and have spent much of the day in two projects: cleaning up my study (believe me, Hercules had it easy with the Augean Stables), and figuring out how to get our gazillions of hours of family and dance videos digitized so we can make our own DVDs. With the aid of my spiffy new Pinnacle Dazzle Video Transfer gizmo, I have finally made a breakthrough - I can get video from the tapes to the Mac. Now I just need to figure out how to combine all the video clips into the sort of DVDs Agnes wants, with chapters and titles and bells and whistles. But one thing at a time...I'm happy just to have gotten this far for now...and it gives me a chance to try something else - post my first video clip to the blog!

The clip below is from the video we had shot during our participation in the 2006 Grand National Ballroom Dance Championships in Miami, and it shows our Quickstep heat. I chose this one because it has a story behind it...

Those of you who are ballroom dancers or have watched the popular show "Dancing with the Stars" may recognize national champion Tony Dovolani in this clip...he was attending the competition with one of his students and, with his partner Elena Grinenko, did the competition's professional show. Agnes and I went down to the ballroom early one morning to warm up before the day's sessions started, and discovered Tony Dovolani and his student already there. There was plenty of room on the floor with only two couples, and so we all were able to work, and when we all took a break, Agnes and I asked Tony if he might have time to teach us for an hour at some point. He agreed (no dance professional ever turns down a paying customer), and later that afternoon during a session break, he spent an hour coaching us in the Quickstep. Quickstep is Agnes's favorite dance, but it's my least favorite, because its speed and complexity seriously challenge my limited coordination skills, and so I figured that if I was going to spend a lot of money for an hour of time with a national champion, it might as well be in a dance I needed serious help with.

Tony was a very nice, very down-to-earth fellow, but warned us up front that he was a very tough teacher. Agnes fired right back at him that she was a tough teacher, too, and the two of them spent the next hour riding me all over the floor like a rented mule.

So, fast forward to the next day, when we danced our International Style Standard heats (Waltz, Tango, Slow Foxtrot, Viennese Waltz, and Quickstep). As the video clip begins, Agnes and I are taking our places on the floor, and you'll see Tony and his partner come up behind us. Knowing that I was going to be nervous about dancing the Quickstep, he steered his partner right to the spot I was in and tried to elbow me out of the way. I pushed back, we both laughed, the music started, and ... well ... click on the clip below to see how it came out.

We took first place in our age category in that heat, and I think I owe a lot of thanks to Tony Dovolani for distracting me at the start so that I'd think about something other than being nervous.

And doesn't Agnes look great in that dress?

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


The Right Tool for the Right Job

In my continuing quest to bring you stimulating commentary on the most interesting and informative things going on in the world, and being sick unto death of Mr McCain and Mr Obama, I direct your attention to this headline that caught my eye on CNN this morning: Sports Bra Saves Hiker Stranded in Alps.

It's truly an uplifting story (so to speak) of courage and resourcefulness in dire circumstances. The lady had gotten lost while hiking, tumbled down a cliff face to land on a narrow ledge, and managed to survive for 70 hours by breaking into a supply box she found on the ledge (and how's that for a deus ex machina event, eh?). She took off her bra and tied it to a timber transport cable that ran past the ledge, the cable being slack and within reach only because the system was being repaired; when the repairs were finished and the cable was tested, the bra waved its way past a startled lumberjack at the lower end, who alerted authorities to the presence of an unauthorized bra hitchhiking on the system. A helicopter followed the cable up the mountain and found the lady - alive and well, if a bit saggy - on the ledge.

As stories of heroic survival and rescue go, this one ought to live on and its lessons entered into survival manuals: "If trapped on an alpine ledge, use bra to attract attention of lumberjacks."

So, ladies, remember when hiking to wear a bra, preferably of a bright and noticeable color, for use as a signaling device if necessary. Your chances of rescue are, of course, inversely proportional to the size (and, hence, noticeability) of the bra, so those of you who are Hooters waitresses are probably more likely to be rescued than, say, the average anorexic runway model.

And as for us guys, well, somehow, I think that if I had been in the same situation and had attached my underwear to the cable as a signal, my skeleton wouldn't have been found until sometime around 2055.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, June 23, 2008

The Death of George Carlin

CNN broke the news today that George Carlin, one of my most and least favorite comedians, had passed away.
He was one of my "most favorite" comedians because he was a genuinely funny man with the same sort of twisted, curmudgeonly outlook on life that I have. Many of his early routines, like his "Wonderful WINO" riff on top-40 radio, were howling classics: who else could deliver a news break teaser like: "The sun did not come up this morning, huge cracks have appeared in the earth's surface, and big rocks are falling out of the sky. Details at 11 on Action Central News, kids!"; or a weather report like: "Today's forecast, Dark. Followed by Light"?

On the other hand, he was one of my least favorite comedians because of his increasing reliance over the years on horrendously foul language in his routines. Instead of the rich belly-laughs he once delivered, much of his later work relied more on shock and embarrassed giggles. The downhill slide began, I think, with one of his most famous routines: "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television," and went down from there (for the record, you can hear many of those seven words on network television nowadays, not to mention cable.)

I love satire and sarcasm (which is why I think Mike and I would get along so well), puns, and humor that relies on clever twists in the fabric of reality for its effect. If you enjoy my Cartoon Saturday offerings, or my two posts on Rita Rudner and Steven Wright, you know what sort of humor floats my boat.

George Carlin was a genuinely funny man who drank the Kool-Aid of vulgar humor. I enjoyed his work, but never thought he was as funny as he might have been had he continued on his earlier comic trajectory.

But wherever he is, they're laughing.

Have a good day. Laugh at something, even if it's only the Republicans or the Democrats. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, June 22, 2008

Growing Old in the Wrong Country

It's later in the day than I usually post, but then, this has been a very busy day. We went to visit our granddaughter Leya very early this morning to accommodate her nap schedule and her late-morning date (I was aghast at a 10-month old going on a date, until my daughter patiently explained that it was a play date with her friend Emma). We then zipped over to a local dance school and rented an hour of floor time to practice, after which Agnes taught for an hour. We then drove up to the Pentagon City Mall for lunch and a relatively expensive visit to the Apple Store, where I bought a thingy (sorry about using high-tech terms) to allow me to download video directly from our camera to the Mac. We then did the grocery shopping, I brought Agnes home, then went out to get my hair cut.

Now I'm exhausted...and I still have to fix dinner, iron my shirt to wear to work tomorrow, and try to at least get started on the third of my promised five letters (don't give up, Mike and John ... Andrea has hers, Amanda's is on its way, and you're next, bwa-ha-ha-ha!).

But in spite of so much yet to do, I still feel the urge to note that I'm growing old in the wrong of my co-workers forwarded me this Time Magazine article - Japan's Booming Sex Niche: Elder Porn (none of those young whippersnappers I work with has any respect for their elders).

The thrust of the article (you should pardon the expression) is that given Japan's steadily aging population, the market for elder porn has doubled over the past decade, and those who follow trends in pornography (and what a job that must be) believe that that in the future, the demand will only go up. So to speak. And since elder porn films feature...well...more mature players, they can be made with actors and actresses who can be paid much less than the young studs and maidens who star in more mainstream porn features.


I'd write more, but I'm heading down to the Japanese embassy to see if I can get a work visa. All they can say is "no."

And don't tell Agnes.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, June 21, 2008

Cartoon Saturday

At the end of a week of rain, bad news, stratospheric gas prices, and general craziness, what do you need to bring your spirits back up again?

Cartoon Saturday, of course!

There are specialized competitions for jocks of all types. This one's mine...

Coming from a family of voracious readers, and being married to Miss "...I'm Almost to the End of This Chapter," I appreciate this one...

Some of the best cartoons are the ones that put a silly twist on a normal situation...

If only all of our festering problems with religion were this easy to solve...

And finally, lots of things are changing as the price of gasoline goes through the proverbial roof. Even some of our cherished bits of folk wisdom...

As always, Bilbo gratefully accepts your contributions of "clean" (slightly off-color is okay) cartoons for future editions of Cartoon Saturday. I'm looking for a good source of old Charles Addams cartoons, so if you've got a line on them for me, send me an e-mail!

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, June 20, 2008

Bilbo Endorses A Candidate!

You thought it would never happen, but - believe it or not - I have found a candidate I can endorse for President in this year's election.

But before I get there, I need to go back for a minute to this past Wednesday's post. In that post, I quoted a former Government commodities regulator who blamed the soaring price of oil in part on the deregulation of the crude oil energy futures market in the year 2000. I added my own comment, asking rhetorically "... which party is it that champions deregulation of everything as the solution to all our problems?" An anonymous reader commented on that post, saying, "Well, Bilbo, the party that deregulated oil trading on behalf of Enron happened to be William Clinton, since George W. Bush was not inaugurated until January 21, 2001. Nothing is as simple as it seems."

Well, it's true that Bill Clinton (a Democrat) was President in 2000 when the market was deregulated. However, it's worth remembering that both houses of Congress at that time were solidly controlled by - the Republicans! So I guess nothing is as simple as it seems, and it depends on who you choose to blame for the ill-considered legislation: the President who signed it into law, or the Legislature that bowed to the special interests (remember Enron?) and gave them a huge break that eventually came back to haunt us. Now, don't get me wrong - the Democrats can be just as venal and mendacious as the's just that the Republicans tend to be more openly and shamelessly pro-business-screw-the-public about it. You have to admire their chutzpah.


With that in mind, who has Bilbo chosen to endorse for President?

At first, I was leaning toward Cthulhu, the unspeakably evil character created by H.P. Lovecraft. He was appealing because he's up front about his evil nature...the ultimate what-you-see-is-what-you-get candidate:

But on reflection and further study, I have officially decided to throw my full support behind a better, more well-rounded candidate:

Yes, I have chosen to endorse Nobody.

If we're going to vote for an empty suit, let's vote for a real empty suit.

See you at the polls.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, June 19, 2008

Tony Schwartz and the Power of Imagination

Tony Schwartz died on June 15th.

I had no idea who he was, either, when I first heard the obituary on NPR and read about his life in the Washington Post. But as it turns out, Mr Schwartz was a giant in a medium I love - radio. He was an audio recording genius who, in his long career, churned out more than 20,000 radio spots ranging from a few seconds to an hour in length, including some of the most memorable political ads in history. One of his most famous sayings was, "The best thing about radio is that people were born without earlids. You can't close your ears to it."

As long-time readers of this blog know, I love radio, and had my own program (The Audio Attic) for nine years on WEBR, the Fairfax County Public Access radio station. I was born in 1951, toward the end of the era of Big Radio, but I still remember listening to wonderful radio comedy and drama that made long evenings exciting. To this day, I have a very large collection of old-time radio programs on CDs and mp3's, and enjoy listening to them frequently.

Of course, this makes me a relative dinosaur in an age of ever-more feature-packed Blu-Ray DVDs. Video may be where it's at, but for my money, audio is by far the better medium, because it challenges you in a way video doesn't. It makes you use your imagination, rather than presenting everything to you on a flashy, high-definition plate. What you imagine in your mind is more detailed - and often far more frightening - than what you can see on the screen.

Comedian Stan Freberg once said that there were some things you could just never do on television, and proved it with a wonderful sketch in which - with all the appropriate sound effects - he drained Lake Michigan, filled it with chocolate syrup, shoved in a mountain of ice cream with bulldozers, blasted it with clouds of whipped cream, and dropped a giant maraschino cherry from a fleet of create the world's biggest ice cream sundae. In my mind's eye, I could really see that sundae take shape, and I don't think it would have been the same on video.

Or take the marvelous radio drama Gunsmoke, starring William Conrad as Marshal Matt Dillon in Dodge City of the Old West. William Conrad couldn't have played Matt Dillon on television, because he weighed close to 300 pounds...but no one else could have lent the drama that deep, strong, endlessly weary voice. I can still get chills when I listen to his introduction to the old shows, saying about being a US Marshall on the frontier that, "'s a chancy job, and it makes a man watchful. And a little lonely."

Or Abbot and Costello with their classic routine, "Who's on First?"

Or Agnes Moorehead as the terrified lady waiting for a murderer in the classic thriller, "Sorry, Wrong Number?"

Radio taxes your imagination in a way television and the movies never can. A famous quote that has been attributed to both Francis Bacon and Oscar Wilde says that, "Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor, to console him for what he is."

Reading and radio - two of the world's great pleasures. Enjoy both...perhaps by reading John Dunning's great thriller Two O'Clock, Eastern Wartime, set in a radio station during World War II.

And tip your virtual hat to Tony Schwartz, now creating audio clips for the next elections in the Great Beyond.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. - Letter-writing project update: Amanda's letter is finished and will be mailed today. Mike's is up next. My hand hurts...but it's a good hurt.


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

If the Price of Gas Is Really Bugging You...

...why not try using real bugs?

Yes, according to this article in the UK Times Online, scientists working at a lab in California (where else?) have created a genetically modified bacterium that eats garbage and ... um ... excretes crude oil.

Yes, you read that correctly.

According to the director of a company working on exotic ways to make alternative sources of crude oil, single-cell organisms like industrial yeast or nonpathogenic strains of E. coli can be modified by redesigning their DNA. The result is a microbe that eats anything that can be broken down into sugars (such as agricultural waste like wood chips or wheat straw), and turns it into crude oil - which, on a molecular level, is pretty close to the fatty acids normally excreted by yeast or E. coli during fermentation.

Imagine that. Bacteria that poop crude oil! As one of my co-workers pointed out when he read the article, we already have bacteria that are used to eat oil slicks, so this just brings things full-circle. Maybe we could also train the bacteria that eat oil slicks to poop the oil back out in the right place! This might also provide additional work for people who used to train flea circuses.

We may be on to something, here.

Well, that's the good news. The bad news is that bacteria tend to be very small, and thus don't poop all that much crude oil at a time. The trick is going to be to grow enough bacteria, or a few bacteria big and mean enough, to poop crude oil on an economically feasible, world-supplying, industrial scale.

I hope it works out. Not only could we have plenty of crude oil, but there would be a certain perverse pleasure in seeing puffed-up religious bigots like the Saudis and blustering buffoons like Hugo Chavez replaced by bacteria. There's that whole problem of tinkering with life forms, but hey, we've been doing that with food animals and plants for hundreds of years.

Who knows? Someday, I may keep two compost to feed my garden, and the other to feed my car. And the new question might be, "how many miles-per-leftover-salad do you get?"

We can only dream...

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. - if you're still irate, like me, over the effect of speculative trading on oil prices, you may be interested in this interview that ran a few days ago on NPR's Marketplace show. Host Kai Ryssdal was interviewing Mr Michael Greenberger, a former government commodities regulator, who said that,

"...about 30 percent of our crude oil energy futures are traded in what is called a dark market -- that is a market that was deregulated in December of 2000 at the behest of Enron. Prior to that legislation being passed, all energy futures traded in the United States or affecting the United States in a significant fashion were regulated by United States regulators under a very careful regime that had been perfected over about 78 years and many observers believe that because those markets are not being policed, malpractices are being committed and traders are able to boost the price virtually at their will."

Well, how about that! And which party is it that champions deregulation of everything as the solution to all our problems?

Think about that as you decide how to cast your vote this year.

Just a suggestion.


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Topical Joke

I ran across this joke yesterday, and decided it says everything that needs to be said about how some people nowadays view religion. It's a bit long, but worth it:

I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the railing, about to jump off. So I ran over and shouted, “Stop! Don't do it!”

“Why shouldn't I?” he asked.

I said, “You have so much to live for!”

He said, “Like what?”

I said, “Well, are you religious or atheist?”

He said, “Religious.”

I said, “Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?”

He said, “Christian.”

I said, “Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?”

He said, “Protestant.”

I said, “Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?”

He said, “Baptist.”

I said, “Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?”

He said, “Baptist Church of God.”

I said, “Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God or Reformed Baptist Church of God?”

He said, “Reformed Baptist Church of God!”

I said, “Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?”

He said, “Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915!”

I said, “Die, heretic scum!”, and pushed him off.

Did you ever wonder what happened to the Biblical injunction to love thy neighbor? Whether your viewpoint is Catholic - vs - Protestant, or Muslim - vs - Everybody Else, you may want to step back and think about it for a moment.

Not that it's likely to do any good, unfortunately.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, June 16, 2008

Death (of the) Sentence

I'm making progress on the letter writing project: the first letter, to The Mistress of the Dark, will be mailed today, and the second one, to Amanda in Palembang, is about half-written. The other three will follow as I have the time to devote to their writing.

And speaking of writing...

Yesterday's Washington Post ran an interesting story titled, The Fate of The Sentence: Is the Writing On the Wall? The article discussed, in some detail, the sorry state of writing skills on the part of many people, and looked at some of the reasons for said sorry state. Text messaging is one obvious cause of the decline in effective writing, and although I send perhaps one text message per year, I've grown used to seeing comments to my posts containing things like LOL, ROFLMAO, YGBSM, and so on. Speed of composition and transmission often trumps elegance (or even completeness) of expression.

But the key issue here is how we define "effective writing." If the recipient of the message understands it and the desired response is elicited, one can argue that the writing is "effective," even if it violates all the established rules of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and composition that we (at least, those of my age and older) learned in school.

The Post article quotes James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, as seeing a "creeping inarticulateness," which is true to some extent. Tom Schactman's elegant book The Inarticulate Society made the same point a few years ago, and the Post article quotes an essay titled "Death of the Sentence" from Atlantic the October 1937 issue.

As a linguist, I know that language is in a constant state of change. We can't stop that change any more than Canute could hold back the tide. But what we can do is insist on clarity of expression, accuracy of spelling, and more attention to composition that effectively transmits complex ideas and information. I spend much of my time at work reviewing and commenting on documents prepared by others, and I'm appalled at the quality of much of what I read that has supposedly been written by college graduates.

Now, I don't mean to suggest that I'm the supreme paragon of literary excellence...but I believe in good, well-thought-out, effective writing. I wish others did, too.

Have a good day. Watch your spelling. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, June 15, 2008

Fathers' Day, 2008

It’s tough to be a parent, but it can be especially tough to be a father.

You have to be a fountain of wisdom, knowing your children will think of you as an overbearing know-it-all. You have to be firm and set rules, knowing your children will condemn you as a heartless tyrant. Should your marriage end in divorce, you are unlikely to get custody of your children. And you will eventually be told that everything you did to raise your children was wrong, everything you know is out of date, and you have completely screwed up your children’s lives.

That’s what you get for being the Dad.

Fathers get respect once a year: on Fathers’ Day. This is the day we think about Mark Twain’s famous observation that “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he'd learned in seven years.”

My father will be 85 years old in December. He lived through the Great Depression and World War II, raised four children and buried one, and sent three of us to college. He worked hard, but always had time for us. He can build or repair or do just about anything (although I really hated some of those haircuts he gave us). And he tells great jokes (well, I think they’re great, anyhow),

Dad’s mechanical and artistic skills went to my brothers; my sister and I got our Mother’s verbal and literary skills instead. We all share the family sense of humor. If you think I’m bad, you should see us all together. Or maybe not.

On this Fathers’ Day, I just want to take a moment to reflect on the lessons I learned and the person I grew into from watching the finest man I’ve ever known…even when I wasn’t smart enough to realize it at the time. All I am that’s good, I owe to him. All that’s … well … not so good, that’s my own doing. I’d like to think I’m half the father, grandfather, and great-grandfather that Dad has been to all of us.

I don’t think anyone ever expressed love for a father any better than Dan Fogelberg in the last two verses of his wonderful song The Leader of the Band -

I thank you for the music
And your stories of the road
I thank you for the freedom
When it came my time to go.
I thank you for the kindness
And the times when you got tough,
And Papa, I don't think I said
"I love you" near enough.

The leader of the band is tired

And his eyes are growing old
But his blood runs through my instrument
And his song is in my soul.
My life has been a poor attempt
To imitate the man -
I'm just a living legacy
To the leader of the band.

To the leader of our band, and to all fathers everywhere: happy Fathers’ Day. There’s no better title than “Father,” and none harder to live up to. Good luck.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, June 14, 2008

Cartoon Saturday

As another week staggers and gasps to a close and I look forward to a day of working in the garden in 90-degree heat, I need a bit of cheering up to launch me into the weekend.

Yes, once again, Bilbo presents Cartoon Saturday!

The first one is a bonus repeat...I've used it before, but in the context of my previous post, I think it's worth running again...

I enjoy poetry, and I love puns. It's great when the two come together...

Sometimes, what you need is a cartoon that sets up a really dumb joke. And if it's a pun, so much the better...

Blondie is one of my favorite running cartoon strips, and Dagwood and I understand each other all too well...

Some years ago, I was in charge of personnel matters for an Air Force unit, and we often struggled to put the right person in the right job. We tried all sorts of tests and methods of evaluation to make what sometimes turned out to be the wrong choice, anyhow. This particular test, we never had available...

I had to look twice at this one, but once I got it, I laughed myself silly (of course, it didn't take too much effort)...

Don't forget that I collect cartoons, and always welcome great ones that you might have hidden away. I'm particularly looking for cartoons with different takes on the same caption: two examples are "Any other messages?" and "I told you not to order in French!" If you have a favorite cartoon you'd like to share, e-mail it to me at bilbo_the_blogger at symbol yahoo dot com. Every contribution is welcome.

Have a great weekend. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, June 13, 2008

The Essence of Religious Leadership

I don't often post twice in one day, but I couldn't pass up this one.

Check out this story on, which tells about how that paragon of religious virtue, Moqtada al Sadr, is announcing that he's forming a new force to fight the U.S. in Iraq. I'll wait a minute while you read it.

Done? Okay, did you notice the part where Mr Sadr says, "We will not stop resisting the occupation until liberation or martyrdom"?

Who do you suppose the "we" is to whom Mr Sadr refers? I don't think for a moment that he will be risking his empty, turbaned head to seek "martyrdom" fighting against the "occupiers." He has plenty of deluded young men and women he's willing to encourage to die on his behalf while he urges them on from his place of safety.

This is what passes for principled religious leadership in the Middle East.

You have to think that God is shaking his (or her) head in frustration at the morons who act in his (or her) name.

Have a good day. More thoughts later.


"Not Immediately Returned" and Other Things That Grind My Gears

I'm feeling grouchy this morning, so it's time to get in touch with my inner curmudgeon again by griping about a few things.

One of the things we are blessed with here in the United States is a vibrant and unbridled free press. The problem is that "vibrant and unbridled" doesn't always equate to "intelligent." One of the things that amazes me is the trend toward what I call "Gotcha Journalism" - the desperate search for the scandal that just has to be there if the reporter only digs long enough. Part of Gotcha Journalism is the line that is almost standard in any embarrassing investigative report (i.e., gotcha article): "A call to Congressman Earmark's office asking for comment was not immediately returned."

Not immediately returned. I think this line represents the height of arrogance. It implies that nothing is more important than returning that call from Marty Muckraker at the Daily Bloviator. I don't always immediately return calls. At my age, when I come home I don't immediately check the answering machine...I immediately go to the bathroom. Whatever's on the answering machine can wait. But in the context of Gotcha Journalism, not immediately returned implies that that Congressman Earmark, that dirty scumbag, is hiding something by avoiding the stern gaze of Mr Muckraker, lantern-jawed guardian of the public good.

What a crock.

Another thing that irritates me nowadays: point-of-sale terminals.

I almost never pay cash for anything over about $5.00 any more - I use my debit card. I used to write a dozen or more checks a I write them only to pay bills that have to be paid by mail, or to rent floor space for practice at a local dance studio. Everything else goes on the debit card. The problem is that there are no two places on earth that have identical point-of-sale terminals. Do you swipe on the left, right, top or bottom of the machine? Magnetic strip up or down, left or right as you swipe? Do you have to select credit or debit, or does the machine sense it? How many silly questions do you have to answer on screen while you wait? Where are the yes/no buttons to answer them with - left, right, or on the screen? Is the machine a touch-screen that needs a stylus (which is usually missing) or can you use your finger?

Someday, when I'm fabulously wealthy and spending the rest of my life taking Princess Cruises to every destination they visit, I'm going to endow a foundation dedicated to developing and fielding a single, standard, easy-to-use point of sale terminal...and driving every business that doesn't use it into receivership.

So there.

Gas prices. Out of sight. And I'm tired of everyone saying it's nobody's fault, particularly when the major oil companies are posting all-time record profits even as the local stations make pennies on the sale of each gallon. You may have seen these pictures:

and...What more can I say?

It's Friday, which means that the weekend is almost here. And I'll spend much of it swiping my debit card at a dozen different point of sale terminals.

If you listen carefully, the low, griping sound you hear in the background is me.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Suit's Here!

You may recall that I told you some time ago that I'd ordered a custom-tailored "tailsuit" to wear for international-style ballroom dance competitions. I'd grown used to wearing a tuxedo for the smooth dances (Waltz, Tango, Fox Trot) in the American style, but as a result of a conspiracy hatched many years ago between the High Overlords of Ballroom Haberdashery and the tailoring industry, it is considered necessary to wear tails to dance the standard dances (Waltz, Tango, Slow Foxtrot, Quickstep, Viennese Waltz) in international style.

The tailsuit arrived yesterday via Fed-Ex, and is now hanging up to let the worst of the packing wrinkles fall out. I hope it works. Agnes has tried hanging me up to get the wrinkles to fall out, and that didn't work.

Anyhow, I've been looking at this very expensive suit and trying to figure out how to wear it. There are the pants (which have a very high waistline) and the jacket, and there's the shirt, which has separately-attached cuffs and celluloid collar, as well as the shirt studs and cuff links. And the white tie. And the suspenders (braces, I suppose, for my British readers). This is going to be interesting. It took long enough to get used to wearing an ordinary tuxedo: between the suspenders pulling the pants up and the garters pulling the shirt tails down, I kept having an almost uncontrollable urge to pitch forward all the time.

One particularly interesting thing about this suit is that I can pretty much only wear it for dancing because of the way it's cut. An ordinary suit (or tuxedo) is designed to fit as one stands in a normal position with arms at his sides. But when you dance, and raise your arms to the position required to hold the lady in dance position, the jacket rides up and bunches across the back because you're standing in a somewhat unnatural position (to imagine dance position, stand up and extend both arms straight out to the sides at shoulder height. Then bend your left arm up at about a 45-degree angle, and fold your right arm forward at the elbow until the flat of your hand is parallel to your chest. That's basic dance position for a gentleman). The tailsuit is tailored to fit properly when I'm actually in dance position...meaning that when I'm just standing there, it looks as if it's not properly cut. Sigh.

It does look good, though, for the most part. I am very upset, though, because the tailor has spelled out its logo ("Pure Class") in silver rhinestones across the top of the front breast pocket. I think this is tacky. Everyone knows I'm a classy fellow and don't need to advertise the fact. I don't think it's dignified to look like a decal-bedecked NASCAR entry while I'm dancing. Ladies' ball gowns don't have such tacky advertisements on them.


Well anyhow, once the wrinkles fall out, I'll try the suit on and have Agnes take some pictures so you can see how I look when I clean up. If nothing else, I can wear it to fancy restaurants and try to trick people into thinking I'm the headwaiter, and give me tips.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. - Letter-writing project update: the first letter (for Andrea) is nearly done and should be ready to mail tomorrow. The next ones will go to Amanda, Mike, John, and my daughter. Jean-Luc, if you're still interested, I'll send you one...just drop me your address.


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Reading, Writing, and Googling

Well, it's 4:38 AM, and our power just came back on about a half-hour ago...we had another big storm last night and - as usual - our electricity went out. It was out longer than usual this time, though...about eight hours. Good thing we keep lots of candles around the house...perhaps Dominion Virginia Power ought to give each household a box of them once a year or so.

My offer in yesterday's post of handwritten personal letters to the first five people who sent me their address has had four takers so far. Andrea's letter is in progress (partly written last night and this morning by candlelight); Amanda's, Mike's, and John's will follow as my brain and wrist can handle them. There's still one more letter opportunity for another reader...if you would like to have the old-time, exciting experience of actually getting a real, handwritten snail mail letter that doesn't ask for money, send your mailing address to me at "bilbo_the_blogger - at symbol -," and I'll add you to the list. Once again, the deal is this: I'll write you a letter, and you promise to write back once you receive it. Think of it as Bilbo's effort to bring back the lost art of personal correspondence.

Yesterday, I started my post with a look at the marvelous book The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby. Today, I'd like to point you to a related article in this month's issue of The Atlantic titled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" This article focuses on the negative effect of Google in particular and the Internet in general in diminishing our ability and willingness to read full-length books and longer essays, noting that "...the more (people) use the web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing." For my part, I haven't noticed this happening - I still enjoy reading full-length articles and books as much as ever. However, I have noticed that I'm much more likely to stop reading something if it doesn't hold my interest. I don't know if the Internet is to blame, or if I'm just exercising my curmudgeonly right to jettison stuff that isn't worth my time to read.

Here is a particularly interesting quote from the article: "'We are not only what we read,' says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. 'We are how we read.' Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts 'efficiency' and 'immediacy' above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become 'mere decoders of information.' Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged."

When we read things online, we're often distracted by pop-up ads, flashing comments in the margins, and other elements of what Edward Tufte would probably call chartjunk. We don't focus the way we do over the printed page. And we're tied to a screen that depends on a battery that can die or a cable that keeps us within a certain radius of an outlet. Last night and early this morning while the power was out, I was able to light candles and keep reading while my otherwise marvelous iMac was reduced to a high-tech paperweight.

Take the time to read the Atlantic if you must, but it's better on the printed page. If you are at all interested in reading and thinking, and the impact of the Internet on both, it's very much worth your time.

And speaking of time, it's now time for me to take Punky for her morning constitutional, pack my lunch, and head to the office to slay more paper dragons.

Have a good day. Read more. Write more.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Have I Got a Deal for You!

Yesterday I finished reading The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby. It took about twice as long to read as a book of its length normally would, because of the wealth of history and detail, and the power of the arguments.

Ms Jacoby articulately traces the history of America's tendency toward "anti-intellectualism," and its effect on our history, culture, and international relations. Stiff-necked "conservatives" and ivory-tower "liberals" are equally pilloried for their efforts to dumb down American education. She looks at educational fads (like the "Baby Einstein" DVD sets), the pernicious effect of video and the Internet on reading, and the decline of American's skills in math, geography, reading, writing, and conversation. And she doesn't think much of blogging as a substitute for any of these.

One of her most devastating arguments deals with the decline of writing in general, and the art of writing letters in particular. She writes,

"Future historians will look in vain for the kinds of letters that passed between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson; Gustave Flaubert and George Sand; Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann; Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy; Lord Byron and everyone in his world. They will look in vain for traces of an intellectual life in which reading, writing, and conversing face-to-face are seamlessly linked in a way that facilitates deep connections among people who love ideas."

I have written here often enough about my love of writing letters, and about how little of it I do any more. Katherine can tell you that my once-awesome correspondence has been reduced in most cases to a single, multi-page, individualized Christmas letter that goes out only to about a dozen of my oldest and closest friends. At one time, I was churning out long, chatty letters to my friends and relatives at the rate of about five or six a week...and now it's down to one a year at Christmas. I could blame lack of time (which is true), and lack of feedback (since most people love receiving letters, but don't like answering them), but those are just evasions. The simple truth is that I've gotten lazy.

And so here's the deal I have for my blogging friends...

The first five of you who e-mail your snail-mail address to me (bilbo_the_blogger - at symbol - will receive a personal, hand-written letter from yours truly, delivered directly to your mailbox by a real, uniformed letter carrier (we used to call them mailmen in a less gender-sensitive time). There's a catch, though: you have to promise to write back. You also have to promise to accept the fact that my handwriting is usually excellent at the top of the first page, but gets worse as it goes along.

Maybe together we can ensure that when Susan Jacoby issues a future reprint of her book, she can point to us as one small spark that tried to rekindle the dying art of correspondence. It was, after all, John Steinbeck who once began a letter to a friend with, "I have owed you this letter for a very long time, but my fingers have avoided the pencil as if it were an old and poisoned tool."

I have plenty of ink and lots of paper. Let's get started.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, June 09, 2008

The World According to Wright

It's Monday again. Sigh.

Here in Northern Virginia, the weather forecast for the week is hazy, very hot, and humid - our usual summer combination. Temperatures today and tomorrow will be in the upper 90's, with humidity approaching 100%. My sweat glands will be working overtime. And yes, Amanda, I'm sure you are sitting there in Palembang, suffering through weather like this every day, but I could use a little sympathy anyhow.

Or a little humor to start off this beastly hot week.

Last month, I looked at the world from the point of view of Rita Rudner, one of my favorite comedians. Today, let's look at her male counterpart - Steven Wright.

Steven Wright is a hysterically funny comedian whose deadpan delivery, Albert Einstein-like appearance, and generally twisted observations of the world never fail to cheer me up. Here are a few Steven Wright-isms:

All those who believe in psychokinesis raise my hand.

The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.

I almost had a psychic girlfriend but she left me before we met.

Support bacteria - they're the only culture some people have.

I intend to live forever - so far, so good.

I used to have an open mind but my brains kept falling out.

I spilled spot remover on my dog. Now he's gone.

"Did you sleep well?" "No, I made a couple of mistakes."

I stayed up all night playing poker with tarot cards. I got a full house and four people died.

I used to work in a fire hydrant factory. You couldn't park anywhere near the place.

I went to the hardware store and bought some used paint. It was in the shape
of a house. I also bought some batteries, but they weren't included.

I went to the museum where they had all the heads and arms from the statues
that are in all the other museums.

A lot of people are afraid of heights. Not me, I'm afraid of widths.

That's your jump-start for another Monday. We need more Steven Wrights.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, June 08, 2008

Linguistic Curiosities (and Embarrassments)

Last Thursday, Amanda's "Thursday 13" at her blog listed 13 Indonesian words she'd run across that she thought were interesting enough to share. It was a very cool list, and got me to thinking that it was perhaps time I did something interesting, if not particularly useful, with that degree in Linguistics I've been hauling around for the last 35 years. And so, here are a few stories and linguistic nuggets dredged up from the cobwebby recesses of my vast store of useless, but interesting knowledge...

All languages borrow words from each other freely (except French, which does it, but doesn't like to admit it). A fun example: the Russian word for "pencil" is karandash, which derives from the Turkish words kara dash, meaning "black stone." It also was adopted as the pen name of the French satirist and political cartoonist Emmanuel Poire, who called himself "Caran d'Ache;" that name eventually was adopted by a Swiss company which manufactures fine writing instruments.

The famous American writer Mark Twain had his problems with German - his essay "The Awful German Language" is as funny today as it was when he wrote it in 1880...unless you are studying German, in which case it makes much more sense than he may have realized. My German is pretty fluent, although not as good as it was when I was living in Germany and using it every day...Agnes's English is so good that I've gotten pretty linguistically lazy. Nevertheless, German offers many unique pitfalls for the unwary...

Dialects. The German you learn in an American language course is spoken only on the TV news in Germany, if there. People in Berlin speak something totally different from what they speak in Frankfurt, which is radically different from Bavaria or extreme northern Germany. And forget Austria and Switzerland...we visited one of Agnes's friends in Switzerland one time and I didn't understand a word anyone said for three days.

The Dangers of Direct Translation: One evening Agnes and I went to a dinner in honor of a visiting Air Force general, and she met the commander of one of the large units in Berlin. He fell in love with her (easy enough to do) and spent all evening fussing over her, much to the chagrin of his wife. The following week I drove across town to have lunch with her at the Officers' Club at Templehof Air Base, and while we were eating, this particular Colonel came in. He spotted us and zoomed over to our table...ignoring me, he looked warmly at Agnes and asked how she was. She smiled sweetly at him and said, "Good, till now!" You could hear the crash of his face hitting the floor from across the room. Agnes had translated directly from the proper German expression bis jetzt, gut; in German, it means "up till now I'm fine, but I don't know how I'll be in another 20 minutes." In American English, of course, it means, "everything was fine until YOU showed up." I salvaged my career by explaining it to the Colonel; many years later I ran into him again, and he was still laughing about it.

It works the other way, too. One evening I was relating the day's events to Agnes, and told her that one of my friends had asked about her. He'd asked "how's it going with Agnes;" I translated it directly - So-und-so hat mir gefragt, wie's mit dir geht. She was turns out that by expressing it that way, I was telling her my friend had asked what it was like to have sex with her. For the record, it's great...but it took a while to sort out the fact that we hadn't been discussing what she was like in bed...

Untranslatable Words. Amanda wrote about the Indonesian word dong, which gets tacked onto the ends of sentences to add emphasis, but doesn't seem to have a meaning of its own. In linguistics, we'd call this a particle, and German has one too - gel (pronounced with a hard g, like "gong"). You don't learn this in school, and it drove me nuts for months as I tried to figure out what it meant and why it was being used all the time.

Idiomatic Meanings. In German, the Dative (indirect object) case is used more frequently than in English for many different things. For instance, if the temperature is too high, you might say, mir ist warm (literally, "it's warm to me"); you learn this in school...but what you don't learn is that if you literally translate the English "I'm warm" as ich bin warm, you're announcing that you are gay (ein warmer Kerl - a warm fellow - is a euphemism for a gay man). Oops.

Well, I could go on in this vein, but the Sunday paper is waiting to be read, dance practice awaits in a few hours, and a brand new upscale grocery store - Wegman's - is opening not far from us later this morning. Yee, hah!

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, June 07, 2008

Cartoon Saturday

Gas prices are up again, Hillary Clinton is conceding the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama (sort of), unemployment is up, and fatuous blowhards like Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Hugo Chavez continue to contribute vast amounts of hot air to the global warming problem.

It's time once again for Cartoon Saturday!

In today's economy, you never quite know what's in store...and sometimes you may not want to know...

The Democrats prepare to pull together to fight the Republicans...

This one is really about Agnes and I...

I love this one because it's so silly...

And I love this one because you have to look twice...but once you do, it's me to a T...

Happy Cartoon Saturday! Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, June 06, 2008

Who Am I?

Well, it looks as if Hillary Clinton has finally bowed to the inevitable and conceded the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama. This allows the Democratic party to stop bickering internally and begin bickering at the Republicans, led by John McCain, the presumptive nominee of the GOP.


I hope I didn't embarrass you with that unseemly display of raucous celebratory glee.

If you've been reading my moaning for the last year or so, you know that I am about as disgruntled a voter as can be imagined. Neither of the major parties and none of the minor ones speak for me, none of the candidates are qualified to be president, and I'm looking forward to an election season marked by shouted oversimplifications and a lack of policy specifics. It's sad, but it's the modern American way.

I don't know what to call myself any more. I consider myself an Independent because there are some elements of both the Republican and Democratic philosophies that appeal to me, and very many that don't.

I could be a Republican because I'm a fiscally conservative retired military officer who believes in a strong defense, I'm almost 60, and I believe taxes should be held to the minimum necessary to perform essential functions that "provide for the common defense (and) promote the general welfare." I couldn't be a Republican because the party panders far too much to the single-issue partisans of the Religious Right and the NRA, and is far too deeply in the pockets of Big Business.

I could be a Democrat because I'm a socially liberal individual who believes the government has certain responsibilities to its citizens, that paying taxes is a civic responsibility, that government policies must balance the good of business and the welfare of the citizens, and that prosperity is not inconsistent with protection of the environment. I couldn't be a Democrat because the party takes too many positions on too many issues which are overly simplistic if not downright silly. And who needs a bunch of dumbasses like

I'm not whiny and simplistic enough to be a Democrat, and not arrogant and self-righteous enough to be a Republican.

So who do I vote for?

Barack Obama may be a fine man, but he is utterly unprepared to be president at this point in his life. This has nothing to do with his race; in fact, his race and the possibility of bringing black and white citizens closer together, is about the only thing I believe he has going for him.

John McCain is a true American hero, but he's too closely tied to the failed political and economic policies of George Bush. I admire him, but I can see what eight years of Republican administration has done to the country, and don't think the country can stand four or eight more years of the same.

Bob Barr, the Libertarian Party candidate, isn't even worth mentioning.

I hope you have more luck than I do reconciling your personal beliefs with the available political parties and candidates and the reality of the modern world.

I think I'll move to Australia. Maybe Amanda has a spare room in Brisbane.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, June 05, 2008

Birthdays and Economic Theories

Today is the birthday of two men who have had tremendous influence on modern economic theory: Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes.

Mr Smith was a Scots merchant whose classic book The Wealth of Nations (published in 1776), suggested that market forces serve the public good, and that government regulation, for the most part, doesn't.

Mr Keynes was an English economist who published his famous book The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money in 1935, during the Great Depression; in it, he argued that governments can correct severe depressions by increasing their spending, even if it means running a deficit, so as to increase employment. The policies pursued by president Franklin D. Roosevelt in his "New Deal" were heavily influenced by Mr Keynes' theories, and "Keynesian" economic concepts have been used to justify deficit spending ever since.

Well, now we know who to blame.

Adam Smith's ideas on the role of government regulation of markets lie at the heart of the difference between economic "liberals" (read, for the main, Democrats) and "conservatives" (generally, Republicans). Economic "conservatives" argue that the marketplace, left to itself, will eventually correct all of its own problems through a sort of economic Darwinism that will hurt some, but benefit most; therefore, government regulation is anathema. Economic "liberals," on the other hand, tend to focus more on the social impact of economic policies, and are more liable to advocate the judicious regulation of various parts of the economy to minimize the impact of economic ups and downs on the lower and middle classes.

John Maynard Keynes gave us the wonders of deficit spending. This is something I've never quite understood, since if I engage in too much deficit spending I end up bankrupt, while if the government engages in too much deficit spending it just prints more money (yes, I know that's overly simplistic, but I'm a relatively simple observer). While some may argue that Keynesian theories may have helped us to recover from the Great Depression, I think that deficit spending is no more a good idea for governments than it is for lower and middle class workers who try to cope with skyrocketing prices through easy credit.

Now you know why the Nobel Prize selection committee has overlooked me for the prize in Economics for all these years.

To me, there are two steps to sound economic policy on the national level as well as the personal level: don't spend more than you earn, and save as much as you can. The fact that I don't follow my own advice doesn't make it any less valid.

So drop your loose change into a coffee can and save it for a rainy day. The economic weather forecast is calling for a lot of rainy days, pushed by the massive hot air front coming out of Washington.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, June 04, 2008

A Dung Heap By Any Other Name

It's been a long time since I left Penn State, clutching my BA in Linguistics, but words still fascinate me. Words have a power that can't be denied, and as much as my mother used to say, "Sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you," the names we give to things are incredibly important. They shape our opinions and beliefs, separate us from one another, or bring us together. In Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet, Juliet asks plaintively,

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

Well, Juliet, that's a good point. But there are also some things that would smell just as bad no matter what we call them.

Take the phrase, war on terror. It's stupid. As rallying cries go, it lacks the punch of "Remember the Alamo," but we're stuck with it. Terrorism is a tactic employed for political or religious ends. It's not an ideology that can be contested, or an enemy whose lands can be devastated and capital occupied. It's a weapon. This article in the Financial Times makes the case pretty well.

Another name that seems to be badly misused is jihad, the word usually translated into English as "holy war." Muslims loudly split the definitional hair, insisting that the term refers not to sawing off the heads of those who disagree with them, but to an honorable quest to find one’s faith, or an external fight for justice (as described in Islamic terms). If this is the case, should we use a term with supposedly honorable and praiseworthy connotations to refer to the despicable activities of savage lunatics? This question has been asked before, and is addressed well in this New York Times op-ed article by P.W. Singer and Elina Noor. Singer and Noor argue that use of the term jihad to refer to the murderous actions of violent extremists acknowledges a legitimate religious justification for their actions, and that we should seek another, more descriptive term to use in its place.

So, if we aren't to use the terms jihad (for the activity) or jihadi (for the one who pursues it), what do we say? Religious lunatics probably isn't politically correct enough for government spokesmen and highbrow editorial pages; and violent extremists seems too simplistic. Singer and Noor reach into the Arabic language to recommend the terms hirabi or hirabist as likely replacements. They note that the basic root word, hirabah, refers to barbarism or piracy, and that "...Unlike 'jihad,' which grants honor, 'hirabah' brings condemnation; it involves unlawful violence and disorder."

Yes, Juliet, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. And a despicable murderer by any other name would smell as foul. So, as my little linguistic shot across the bow of those who would use religious justification for political murder, I intend to start using the term hirabi to describe these evil creatures, and hirabah to describe their philosophy. If the term jihad really does have an honorable meaning in an Islamic context (which, given how many Muslims use it themselves, I have to doubt), then I can't use it to describe those who would wrap themselves in an honorable religious cloak to justify the worst of subhuman savagery.

I just knew that all those hours I spent listening to lectures on semantics would eventually pay off.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.