Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 - The Year in Books

Last January zero_zero_one, who blogs at Cognitive Blindspot, posted a list of the books he'd read during the previous year. It was a pretty lengthy list, and it got me to thinking about how many books I read in the course of a, being a list-oriented person anyhow, I started a list of books I'd read in 2008. As one way of recapping the year, here is my list of what I read during the past year, along with comments and my favorites (in bold print):


The Cabinet of Curiosities, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Childs - it's brain candy, but it's fun...the adventures of FBI Special Agent Pendergast and his evil brother continue.

The Fall of Berlin, Anthony Beevor - I enjoy reading the history of places I've lived. This is a harrowing account of the final battle for Berlin at the end of World War II. For detailed, yet readable history at the level of those who lived it, it ranks with Cornelius Ryan's The Last Battle, which I read many years ago.

Thunderhead, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Childs - more Preston/Childs brain candy, but a cracking good read about exploration, heroism, and eerie happenings in the most remote corner of the American southwest.


The Day of Battle, Rick Atkinson - gripping history of the brutal struggle for Italy during World War II.

Sword Song, Bernard Cornwell - Uthred continues his struggle to regain his birthright in the England of King Alfred the Great. If you like vivid descriptions of swordplay and the details of grubby life centuries ago, it's for you.

Death in Vienna, Frank Tallis - a great, atmospheric mystery set in Vienna at the end of the 19th century. The writing is elegant and brilliantly captures the sights, sounds, smells and feel of old Vienna, and the cast of characters includes Sigmund Freud.

The Greatest Battle, Andrew Nagorski - a solid, well-written history of the titanic battle between the German and Soviet armies at the gates of Moscow. Be glad you weren't there.


The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989, Frederick Taylor - a little plodding at times, but a very good history of the politics that led to the construction of the ghastly (and now, thankfully, demolished) Berlin Wall...a chunk of which now has pride of place on the shelf in my study. You'll want to buy a picture of Walter Ulbricht just so you can throw darts at it.

Silent in the Sanctuary, Deanna Raybourn - brain candy. A disappointing mystery.

Stalin’s Ghost, Martin Cruz Smith - Arkady Renko, Smith's Moscow detective who first appeared years ago in the brilliant novel Gorky Park, is back on the job. Not a bad story of contemporary Russian crime, but not Smith's best.

A Prisoner of Birth, Jeffrey Archer - it's a knock0ff of The Count of Monte Cristo, but it's a great story of wrongful imprisonment, redemption, and revenge.


Vienna Blood, Frank Tallis - the first of Tallis's stories about crime and psychoanalysis in Vienna (see Death in Vienna, above). His next book in the series, Fatal Lies, comes out in February...I'll be there when they open the boxes.

Compulsion, Jonathan Kellerman - the continuing adventures of consulting psychiatrist Alex Delaware. A good story, but not one of Kellerman's best.

True Enough, Farhad Manjoo - I wrote about this marvelous book in my April 22nd post titled Just True Enough... It's a short, well-written, and very thought provoking look at just what "truth" means in the modern world. This is a must-read.

The Serpent’s Tale, Ariana Franklin - brain candy. 'Nuff said.


The Killing Ground, Jack Higgins - IRA enforcer turned British agent Sean Dillon and his compatriots continue the twilight war against evildoers of all sorts. If you ignore the fact that Dillon is probably by now about 80 years old and the plots are all interchangeable, it's a good book to read in your spare time. Brain candy, but fun.

The Library at Night, Alberto Manguel - if you enjoy books and reading, you'll love this. I wrote about it here back on May 8th. A wonderful book...what more can I say?

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, Mary Roach - Ms Roach has written several interesting books on topics ranging from the ongoing lives of cadavers (Stiff) to the investigation of life after death (Spook...see the comments in December, below). Bonk is hysterically funny and tremendously entertaining. I reviewed it in the blog on May 20th.

Days of Atonement, Michael Gregorio - excellent, atmospheric murder mystery set in French-occupied Prussia during the time of the Napoleonic Wars. You'll be glad you didn't live then.


The Forgery of Venus, Michael Gruber - I love Michael Gruber's writing, but this one left me a bit disappointed. The idea is good, I just found myself unable to keep up with the twists of the plot.

The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby - brilliant. Read it.

The Steel Wave, Jeff Shaara - a novel of World War II in Europe. Jeff Shaara is the son of Michael Shaara, who wrote the brilliant Civil War novel The Killer Angels. He's not a bad author, but he's no match for his father.

Vienna, 1814, David King - a very interesting, very readable history of the Congress of Vienna, which tried to resurrect Europe after the initial defeat and exile of Napoleon. How can you go wrong with a cast of characters that includes Talleyrand, Metternich, Tsar Alexander, and Beethoven? Strongly recommended.

Escape, Robert K. Tannenbaum - the latest installment of the ongoing adventures of Butch Karp, the incorruptible and indestructible New York District Attorney, and his bizarre collection of family and friends. Brain candy, but fun.

Skeletons at the Feast, Chris Bohjalian - the harrowing story of a group of German women and children fleeing from the advancing Soviet army in the closing months of World War II, and the man who becomes their unlikely protector. Brilliantly written and plotted. Read this one.

Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen - a marvelous novel set in a traveling circus during the Depression. Wonderful, well-developed characters (including Rosie the elephant), and a twist ending I never saw coming. Another must-read.

The Broken Window, Jeffery Deaver - Lincoln Rhyme, the quadraplegic detective, comes through again. You'll never want to go online again after reading this story of identity theft and Internet-enabled criminality.


Odd Hours, Dean Koontz - the continuing adventures of Odd Thomas. An okay read, but a little on the ho-hum side for my taste.

The Critique of Criminal Reason, Michael Gregorio - philosopher Immanuel Kant as consulting detective. First book in the two-book series that continued with Day of Atonement (reviewed above). A good, atmospheric read.

The Monster of Florence, Douglas Preston - Preston gets himself declared persona non grata in Italy as he investigates the tale of the serial killer in Florence known as The Monster (who also appeared in Thomas Harris's book Hannibal). Interesting if you like true crime stories, but not a must-read.

The Driver’s Seat, Muriel Spark - I read this short novel because of a short review on the Head Butler website. A bizarre, twisted tale worth reading.

Sepulchre, Kate Mosse - more brain candy, but a good tale that bounces back and forth in time to reveal the dark secret in a family's history, and its connection with an eerie old sepulchre in the forest. Read it in a dark room during a thunderstorm.

The Man with the Iron Heart, Harry Turtledove - nobody writes alternative history like Harry Turtledove. In this brilliant, fast-paced story, he looks at what might have happened if the Nazis had planned an Iraq-style insurgency to bedevil the Allies after the defeat of Germany in World War II. If you enjoy "what-if?" stories, read this one - they don't come much better.

Killing Rommel, Stephen Pressfield - I first read Stephen Pressfield in his wonderful novel Gates of Fire, about the Spartans' stand against the vast Persian army at Thermopylae. In Killing Rommel, he moves his skills forward to describe the British Army's attempts to kill the Desert Fox in the North African desert. A brilliant tale of men at war in terrible conditions.

Franklin and Lucy, Joseph Piscopo - a very good study of Franklin Roosevelt, his wife Eleanor, and Lucy Rutherford, the woman he always loved but could never have. An interesting look at one of our greatest presidents and the relationships he maintained even under the pressures of the most terrible war in our history.


A Voyage Long and Strange, Tony Horwitz - a readable and very interesting look at the period of American history that's blank to most of us: the time between Columbus's landing in 1492 and the Pilgrims' landing in 1620. There was a lot of exploring and fighting going on, and Mr Horwitz describes it all very well.

Executive Privilege, Phillip Margolin - Margolin writes good, workmanlike thrillers, but has a gift for utterly unbelieveable plot twists. This one's no different. Brain candy.


The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins - whether you believe in God or not, this is an interesting look at how and why we believe on the basis of faith alone. He's a bit too dismissive of those who don't share his beliefs, but it's a good book to read for the questions it raises.

Rough Justice, Jack Higgins - the indestructable Sean Dillon returns yet again. Brain candy, but you'll love the villain's ugly demise.

Fractured, Karin Slaughter - whenever I finish reading Ms Slaughter's books, I want to wash my hands. Many times. Good writing, interesting plots, but no one quite plumbs the swamps of moral depravity like she does (except, perhaps, Andrew Vachss with his character Burke - see Terminal below).

City of Thieves, David Benioff - didn't make much of an impression on me...I can't remember anything about it, which ought to tell you something.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol I and Vol II, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill - these were the first graphic novels I'd read, and I was pleasantly surprised. If you suffered through the awful film of the same name, you might be inclined to pass these up...but don't. The concept is superb, and the two stories - one inserting the League into the classic H.G. Wells story The War of the Worlds; the other having the League fight the famous villain Fu Manchu - are well-plotted and illustrated. Not must-reads, but fun if you like the idea of a graphic novel.

Devil Bones, Kathy Reichs - forensic anthropologist Temperence Brennan, star of the TV show Bones, takes the stage. I liked the TV show better.

The Spies of Warsaw, Alan Furst - nobody, but nobody, captures the atmosphere of World War II Europe like Alan Furst. This is a great story of espionage, loyalty, and betrayal.

The War Within, Bob Woodward - the Iraq war as fought between the White House, the Pentagon, Congress, and ... oh, yes ... Iraq. Try to sort out the competing agendas of those who allowed themselves to be interviewed for this book.


The Black Tower, Louis Bayard - another moody, atmospheric mystery set in Revolutionary France. Not bad, but not as good as I'd hoped.

The Gargoyle, Andrew Davidson - it's hard to describe this story about a horribly burned and disfigured man and the woman who has loved him...for centuries. It's a great story of love, loss, and redemption.

Terminal, Andrew Vachss - like Karen Slaughter, Vachss plumbs the very deepest depths of human nature for plots and characters that will make your skin crawl. It's a good story, but you'll want to take a shower after reading it.

A Most Wanted Man, John Le Carre - I may be the only person who thought this story was grossly overrated, but I can't help it - it was grossly overrated. And in its depiction of professional intelligence officers as amoral bastards, it did a disservice to people who do a hard job in an ugly world we'd rather not admit exists. An okay read, but far from LeCarre's best.

By the Sword, F. Paul Wilson - the latest adventure of Repairman Jack, a one-man combination of The A Team, McGyver, The Equalizer, and the Impossible Missions Force, trying to rid the world of bad guys while caught up in a fast-approaching apocalypse. Fun, but brain candy.


No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945, Norman Davies - a good summary of the war in Europe, persuasively making the case that it was the Soviet Union who won the fight against Nazi Germany...for all the heroism and hype, D-Day was a sideshow to the titanic struggle in the East.

Bones, Jonathan Kellerman - more Alex Delaware. More of the same. Not a yawner, but far from an edge-of-the-seat thriller. Brain candy.

The Groucho Letters: Letters From and To Groucho Marx - if you want to laugh loud and long, enjoy this collection of letters from and to one of the most genuinely funny men ever to wield a pen. I could read this book over and over, and laugh anew each time.

The 7th Victim, Alan Jacobson - yep, more brain candy. Who dreams up these convoluted and unbelievable plots, anyhow?


Spook, Mary Roach - not as good as Bonk or Stiff, but interesting and written in Ms Roach's incomparable, witty style. Is there life after death? If I can read more of her work there, I hope so.

The Road, Colman McCarthy - my daughter recommended this book, and gave me a copy for my birthday to make sure I'd read it. It's the story of a father and son walking The Road through a horrifying, post-apocalyptic America peopled with wolves, cannibals, lunatics, and the occasional good person. Very depressing. Read Stephen King's The Stand for a different (and in some ways, better) riff on the same theme.

World Without End, Ken Follett - a wonderful historical novel of the 14th-century England of lords, serfs, peasants, bishops, nuns, outlaws, and the Black Plague. Long and complex, but readable and full of characters you'll either love or hate. I'm now reading the book that came before this one - The Pillars of the Earth - which seems to be just as good.

Just After Sunset, Stephen King - a collection of short stories from the king of horror stories. When he's on his mark, no one writes good descriptive prose like Stephen King...but no one can overwrite like he can, either. What he needs is an editor who can grab him by the lapels and smack him around until he cuts each manuscript by about a third...what's left will be superb.

Well, that was the year in books. What were your favorites? Did you read any of these and have a different take on it than I did? Let me know.

Tomorrow will be a new year which, hopefully, will be better than this one. But before we get to tomorrow, we have to survive tonight - if you are celebrating, do it safely. Don't drink and drive. I need you all back here in one piece tomorrow morning...or afternoon, depending on how hard and late you party.

Happy New Year! Have a good day. More thoughts next year.


Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Incredible Shrinking Just About Everything

One of the things that really grinds Agnes's gears is opening a new bag of chips, box of cereal, or some other such thing to find it only half to two-thirds full. The fine print on the box says something like "product is sold by weight, not by volume," so that you are (supposedly) getting what you paid for, but it still feels like you're being cheated, doesn't it? Everywhere you look, prices are going up while the products you're buying are getting smaller. Labels tell you they are "new and improved!" but they never tell you "smaller than last year, but more expensive!"

I got to thinking about this when I ran across this New York Times article yesterday: The Mysterious Shrinking TV. If you're one of my readers who doesn't follow the links, here's the Readers' Digest version of the story: the screens of most big-screen television sets are actually smaller than what their sales ads trumpet. They get away with this by, for example, advertising the sets as being in the "52 class" when the screen measurement is 51.5 inches or smaller. And while we normally think of screen size in terms of area (width multiplied by height), the screen measurement in advertisements is always diagonal. Does this make a difference? Do we really notice the difference in size between 51.5 inches and 52 inches? Does size really matter?

Sit down, Mike.

In point of fact, we probably don't notice the difference. And that's why manufacturers can get away with gradually reducing the size of our products - from candy bars to television sets to boxes of cereal and laundry detergent and bags of snack chips. Things may be packaged by weight rather than volume, but when was the last time you hauled that bag of Cool Ranch Doritos to the bathroom scale and tested it to be sure you weren't being cheated? And many of us don't know we've been ripped off for a while, which makes it easier for the crooks to fold their tents and sneak away into the night...the radical downsizing of our IRAs and 401(k)'s didn't really hit home until that quarterly statement arrived and we saw how much red ink they needed to print it, right?

Of course, some things don't shrink. Some things are much bigger than you need. Movie theaters sell candy bars the size of bathmats (at equivalently large prices). You can buy a Super Big Gulp drink (1.5 liters!) at your local 7-11 store and a "venti" coffee at Starbucks (if they call it "venti" rather than "large," you don't mind paying through the nose for it because it's more exotic, dontcha know). Drink enough of those Super Big Gulps and you'll get bigger, too.

Well, that discussional horse has stopped twitching, so I'll stop beating it. Suffice it to say that I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this downsizing any more.

Until the next time I need chips or laundry detergent, when I will trudge to the checkout with ovine resignation and buy them anyhow.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, December 29, 2008

Generally Accepted Accounting Principles

Ever since Numeric Life dropped off the net and Mike gently prodded Amanda into taking up blogging about numbers and statistics to fill the gap, I've been lost on the raging sea of numbers as I try to make sense of the smoking wreckage of the economy. You all know that I'm a verbal, not a numeric person. German and Russian grammar, creative writing, semantics, and stuff like that - no problem; manipulating low-digit numbers much beyond addition, subtraction, long division, and the multiplication tables - my head starts to smoke and my eyeballs melt.

Semantics (the study of meanings), economics (the science of fooling all of the people as much of the time as possible), and statistics (the science of torturing data until it tells you what you want to hear) come together in a field we call "Accounting." At the level of the individual, accounting deals with how we try to match income to outgo; at the level of the corporation, accounting deals with the numeric alchemy of turning bad news into good in time for the big shots to get their bonuses and run.

Which brings me to the subject of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, as defined by the Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board.

Good luck understanding the explanation.

One reason I have such a problem understanding the disaster which has befallen the economy deals with those accounting principles. I just don't understand how it is that an accountant can take the same set of numbers, apply different sets of generally accepted accounting principles, and show either a profit or a loss. At the checkbook level (which is the last level before my understanding of higher economics peters out), the accounting principles are pretty simple: my employer gives me money every two weeks in exchange for my work; I use that money to pay bills, buy food, and (when possible) put something away in savings; whatever is left over is our discretionary income, used for books, dining out, dance coaching, or whatever. Ideally, on the day before each payday, the balance in the checkbook is not preceded by a minus sign.

Things are different for big corporations. Depending on which of the generally accepted accounting principles they choose to apply, they can show a profit to the stockholders, and a loss to the IRS. The corporation can appear huge and strong, or weak and gasping like a fiscal fish flopping on a shore washed with waves of red ink. And governments can exert pressures to force the use of one set of principles or another. I don't understand this.

You and I, Dear Readers, make it from payday to payday by matching income to outlay. Some of us do it better than others, of course, but most of us understand at some level that we can't spend more than we have (yes, we know credit cards are bad, but they're so good for instant gratification that we just can't let them go). Why should corporations be different? Why should we accept (or governments allow) the use of accounting principles that can obfuscate the picture of the health of a corporation, a bank, or whatever?

I know that there are vast armies of MBAs, PhD economists, CPAs, and corporate lawyers out there who would read this and shake their heads at how dumb and simplistic I am for asking silly questions like these. I see things in terms of Occam's Razor. I think things ought to be fair and equal across the board...sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander and all that.

Until we accept that there ought to be a simple set of accounting principles based on income, outgo, and the fair evaluation of assets, we'll never dig our way out of the economic crater the financial wizards have dug.

And I'll stick to manipulating my checkbook on the basis of my generally accepted accounting principles: addition, subtraction (mostly subtraction), multiplication, and division. At least I understand those.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, December 28, 2008

Powered by Imagination

Someone smarter than I (and there's no shortage of those) once said that imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not, and a sense of humor to console him for what he is.

I have a pretty vivid imagination. As you know, I love to read and to listen to old-time radio dramas...both of which activities require the use of one's imagination to fill in the gaps between the words and the imagery around the sounds. Imagination is a wonderful thing, especially for children, because it stretches the mind and allows us to visualize things that we may otherwise never see or experience. Life is, in many ways, powered by imagination.

That's one reason why I was a bit distraught when I saw this story on the CNN website yesterday: Classic Radio Flyer Wagon Updated for 2.0 World.

Many years ago, not long after the invention of the wheel and axle, my parents gave me a Radio Flyer wagon. It looked like this:

It was made of solid steel (which tended to smart when you hit your head on it...which you did a lot), had a high ground clearance for maximum instability (you had a 50% chance of tipping it over while getting in or out), was manifestly unsafe (especially when zooming downhill), and tremendously fun. It was a space ship, a tank, a pirate ship, or anything else we needed it to be. It was powered by imagination.

This is the Radio Flyer wagon as updated for the 21st century:

You'll note that it's made of plastic with gently rounded edges (for safety), has a digital handle (able to track temperature, time, distance and speed), has a very low ground clearance (for balance), has built-in seats and seat belts for pity's sake, and even includes speakers and a dock to plug in your mp3 player.

What is left to the imagination? And how do we aspire to greater things without imagination?

In September of last year, I wrote a post called The Bubble-Wrapped Child in which I fretted about the lengths to which modern parents go to protect their child from every conceivable danger, and wondered whether we are doing our children a disservice by insulating them from the bangs and scrapes kids of my generation and earlier accepted as a daily part of life. The same might be said for toys which are laden with features that take away the imagination that inspires life and learning. I griped about that, too, in last month's post titled Old Toys, New Toys, and Memories.

Imagination is a wonderful thing. It allows us to reach beyond the everyday to the things that shimmer on the distant horizon. It allows a child to be a space explorer, a knight, or anything else.

I'm just a 1.0 guy living in a 2.0 world, I guess. And probably about 50 years from now my grandchildren will be reminiscing about the good old days when the plastic Radio Flyer with the seat belts and the mp3 dock seems as antiquated as the solid steel box Radio Flyer of my generation.

That's sad, but that's life. Gimme imagination any day.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, December 27, 2008

Cartoon Saturday

A man dressed as Santa Claus murdered nine people, burned down their house, and then committed suicide...on Christmas Eve; Pakistan is moving troops to its border with India; a Tennessee town is buried under a billion gallons of coal sludge; Israel and Hamas are slugging it out again in Gaza and the border regions; and banks who received tens of billions of dollars of your tax money as an "economic stimulus" refuse to account for how they're spending it.

Aren't you glad you have Cartoon Saturday to help you cope?

There's someone out there who probably knows how to take care of those brazen pirates in the waters around the horn of Africa...unless he lets himself get talked out of it...

I personally think this one will never come to pass, but we can always dream...

Having survived the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, I never cease to be amazed at the number of morons out there who are utterly convinced that the U.S. government was responsible for the mass murders that day, rather than the arrogant and insane religious zealots who claimed responsibility and were cheered in the streets of countries happy to take our foreign aid. Some people will believe anything, no matter how stupid or how much contrary evidence you present...

Even superheroes have their problems...

And speaking of those banks that refuse to tell us how they're spending the money you and I are digging into our pockets to pay them...

And finally, I just love the imagery of this one...

I hope you have a pleasant and relaxing weekend. Agnes has to work today, and I have more leaves to rake, but I take solace in knowing that there's a peaceful evening in front of the fireplace shimmering on the temporal horizon. And who knows? - maybe I can actually get my study cleaned up. Stranger things have happened.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, December 26, 2008

The Death of Eartha Kitt and Other Musings

A few miscellaneous riffs on the news...

Eartha Kitt, actress, singer, and political activist, has passed away. Many of her obituaries refer to her role as Catwoman in the old Batman television show, or to her outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War in 1968. I'll remember her for two things: her role as Tina Mara, the impossibly sexy contortionist whose flexibility was the key to a complex plot in an episode of the old "Mission: Impossible" TV show; and her marvelous song "My Discarded Men," in which she makes the best use of her distinctive throaty singing voice in a tune that's the ultimate in slow Fox Trot rhythms. She was a beautiful, complicated, classy lady, and she'll be missed...whether you agree with her political and social views or not.

CNN reports this morning that a German warship has foiled a pirate attack off the coast of Yemen. That's the good news. The bad news is that the crew of the warship captured and disarmed the pirates, destroyed their weapons, and then let them go. Whatever happened to the way we used to deal with pirates...putting their heads on pikes, or coating their bodies with tar and hanging them at the entrances to harbors as a warning to other would-be pirates? Aarrgghh, matey...methinks we need to take a bit more direct approach to dealing with these scummy weasels of the sea. It appears, though, that the only plan the major powers can agree on is to dispatch warships to sail majestically around the Horn of Africa, turning fuel into wakes, while preparing to deliver third-degree burns to pirates by blasting them with fierce waves of hot air.

There's good news here in Northern Virginia and other nearby jurisdictions, where the plummeting value of our real estate (as much as 40% in some locations) has finally caused our local governments to take action and provide themselves with fiscal relief by jacking up our property tax rates to make up for their budget shortfalls. I wish I could find someone to tax to make up for my budget shortfalls.

And finally, from Afghanistan comes this report of the newest weapon in the arsenal against the Taleban - Viagra. Yes, the CIA is reported to be distributing the little blue pills to Afghan warlords as a way of getting them to stand up to the to speak. We've gone from the 1960's mantra "Make Love, Not War" to the 2008 version - "Make Love AND War." The downside of this, of course, is that in another nine months we'll have lots of little warlords-in-training to deal with.

I hope you all had a great Christmas. I'm lucky enough to be off until next Monday, while Agnes has to go back to work today and tomorrow. Believe me, I'm hearing about it, too. But as long as there are leaves to be raked, laundry to be done, and a house to be cleaned, I can use all the "days off" I can get.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas, 2008

Well, here we are. It's Christmas morning. Not a creature is stirring, not even a mouse. Well, not exactly...Agnes is still asleep, and I'm stirring the electrons on the old hard drive to put out today's post, but I'm stirring as little as possible on this quiet and peaceful morning. Another glorious sunrise is coloring the sky outside the study window, but there's no snow on the ground...but neither is there rain or sleet, so I guess I can't complain. Who dreams of a Wet Christmas?

We're actually pretty much done with the festivities at this point...we have always done our gift exchanges on Christmas Eve in the German fashion, and yesterday was no different. The Ohio grandchildren are enjoying Christmas at Disney World, so we had a somewhat scaled-down group for the festivities. Our daughter Yasmin and her husband Vin came for dinner and to celebrate granddaughter Leya's first Christmas (second, actually, but she was too young last year to really appreciate what was going on). After an afternoon of enjoying all the snacks and goodies, Agnes served up her marvelous beef rouladen with mashed potatoes and red cabbage, after which those of us who could still move headed down to the family room to exchange gifts.

The tree was beautiful...

Horton the elephant was a big hit...

And we had to do a little rockin' around the Christmas tree with Psycho Santa (it's a long story)...

Don't you hate it when that stray piece of wrapping paper sticks to your fingers and just won't come off?

The child-sized shopping cart was a big hit, too...especially when used for rides around the room...
Leya wanted to make sure everyone else was opening things, too. She was always happy to help if things got too slow...

And all that unwrapping and playing can leave you pretty tired...

And so another Christmas is here and gone. Later on today, we'll enjoy our traditional Ham the Size of a Volkswagen with Agnes's wonderful warm potato salad, and spend the rest of the day doing what we enjoy doing most at this time of year...absolutely nothing.

And from our house to yours, Agnes and I wish you the very safest and happiest of holidays.

Merry Christmas! More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Restructuring

Yes, the economy is still in the toilet. Yes, Republicans and Democrats can both hang their heads in shame for their shared responsibility (although it's likely that no current politician knows what "shame" is). Businesses everywhere are trying to figure out how to cope with the new economic realities...some by ruthless cutbacks, and some by merging with other businesses in the hopes of becoming Too Big To Fail, and thus qualifying for government handouts at the taxpayers' expense.

Christmas is no different.

Here are two items from my vast files which address this issue: one dealing with cutbacks; the other with mergers. Grab yourself an egg nog, give thanks to the original authors, and read on...


From: North Pole Enterprises, Human Resources Division

Subject: Management Initiatives

To: All North Pole Personnel

1. The recent announcement that Donner and Blitzen have elected to take the early reindeer retirement package has triggered a good deal of concern about whether they will be replaced, and about other restructuring decisions at the North Pole.

2. Streamlining was appropriate in view of the reality that the North Pole no longer dominates the season's gift distribution business. Home shopping channels and mail order catalogues have diminished Santa's market share and he could not sit idly by and permit further erosion of the profit picture.

3. The reindeer downsizing was made possible through the purchase of a late model Japanese sled for the CEO's annual trip. Improved productivity from Dasher and Dancer, who summered at the Harvard Business School, is anticipated and should take up the slack with no discernible loss of service. Reduction in reindeer will also lessen airborne environmental emissions for which the North Pole has been cited and received unfavorable press.

4. I am pleased to inform you and yours that Rudolph's role will not be disturbed. Tradition still counts for something at the North Pole. Management denies, in the strongest possible language, the earlier leak that Rudolph's nose got that way not from the cold, but from substance abuse. Calling Rudolph "a lush who was into the sauce and never did pull his share of the load" was an unfortunate comment, made by one of Santa's helpers and taken out of context at a time of year when he is known to be under great stress.

5. As we consider further restructuring options, today's global challenges require the North Pole to continue to look for better, more competitive steps. Effective immediately, the following economy measures will be implemented in the "Twelve Days of Christmas" subsidiary:

a. The Partridge will be retained, but the pear tree never turned out to be the cash crop we projected. It will be replaced by a plastic hanging plant, providing considerable savings in maintenance.

b. The Two Turtle Doves represent a redundancy that is simply not cost effective. In addition, their romance during working hours could not be condoned. The positions are therefore eliminated.

c. The Three French Hens will be retained. After all, everyone loves the French.

d. The Four Calling Birds will be replaced by an automated voice mail system, with a call waiting option. An analysis is underway to determine who the birds have been calling, how often and how long they talked.

e. The Five Golden Rings have been put on hold by the Board of Directors. Maintaining a portfolio based on one commodity could have negative implications for institutional investors. Diversification into other precious metals as well as a mix of T-Bills and high technology stocks appear to be in order.

f. The Six Geese a-Laying are a luxury we can no longer afford. It has long been felt that the production rate of one egg per goose per day is an example of the decline in productivity. Three geese will be let go, and an upgrading in the selection procedure by personnel will assure management that from now on every goose it gets will be a good one.

g. The Seven Swans a-Swimming is obviously a number chosen in better times. The function is primarily decorative. Mechanical swans are on order. The current swans will be retrained to learn some new strokes and therefore enhance their outplacement.

h. As you know, the Eight Maids a-Milking unit has been under heavy scrutiny by the EEOC. A male/female balance in the workforce is being sought. The more militant maids consider this a dead-end job with no upward mobility. Automation of the process may permit the maids to try a-Mending, a-Mentoring or a-Mulching.

i. The Nine Ladies Dancing function will be phased out as the current dancers grow older and can no longer do the steps.

j. Ten Lords a-leaping is excessive. The high cost of Lords plus the expense of international air travel prompted the Compensation Committee to suggest replacing this group with Ten Out-of-Work Political Appointees. While leaping ability may be sacrificed, the savings are significant because we expect an oversupply of unemployed Republican political appointees in the coming year.

k. Eleven Pipers Piping and Twelve Drummers Drumming indicate that the band is getting too big. A substitution with a string quartet, a cutback on new music, and no uniforms will produce savings which will be reflected in our bottom line.

l. We can expect a substantial reduction in assorted people, fowl, animals and other related expenses. Though incomplete, studies indicate that stretching deliveries over twelve days is inefficient. If we can drop ship in one day, service levels will be improved.

6. The lawsuit filed by the attorney's association seeking expansion to include the legal profession ("Thirteen Lawyers a-Suing") is pending, and the eventual results will be addressed by separate memorandum.

7. Lastly, it is possible that deeper cuts may be necessary in the future to remain competitive. Should that happen, the Board will request a management analysis of the Snow White Division to see if seven is the optimum number of dwarfs.

Further reductions, if necessary, will be announced by separate correspondence.



Continuing the current trend of large-scale mergers and acquisitions, it was announced today at a press conference that Christmas and Hanukkah will merge. An industry source said that the deal had been in the works for about 1300 years.

While details were not available at press time, a source close to the merger discussions said that the overhead cost of having twelve days of Christmas and eight days of Hanukkah had become prohibitive for both sides. The merger will allow the world to enjoy consistently high-quality service during a new holiday period which will tentatively be known as The Fifteen Days of Chrismukah.

Massive layoffs are expected, with Lords a-Leaping and Maids a-Milking being the hardest hit. As part of the conditions of the agreement, the letters on the dreydl, currently in Hebrew, will be replaced by Latin, thus becoming unintelligible to a wider audience.

Also, instead of translating to “A great miracle happened there,” the message on the dreydl will be replaced by the more generic “Miraculous stuff happens.”

In exchange, it is believed that Jews will be allowed to use Santa Claus and his vast merchandising resources for buying and delivering their gifts.

One of the sticking points holding up the agreement for at least three hundred years was the question of whether Jewish children could leave milk and cookies for Santa even after having eaten meat for dinner. A breakthrough came last year, when Oreos were finally declared to be Kosher.

All sides appeared pleased with the agreement.

A spokesman for Christmas, Inc., declined to say whether a takeover of Kwanzaa might not be in the works as well. He merely pointed out that, were it not for the independent existence of Kwanzaa, the merger between Christmas and Hanukkah might indeed be seen as an unfair cornering of the holiday market.

Fortunately for all concerned, he said, Kwanzaa will help to maintain the competitive balance. He then closed the press conference by leading all present in a rousing rendition of “Oy Vey, All Ye Faithful.”

It's time to get moving...there are onions to be chopped, gifts to be wrapped, and a house to clean. Agnes and I wish each and every one of you the happiest and safest of holidays. We can afford one lousy day of peace on earth, can't we?

Have a great Christmas Eve. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Brief Look at the News, and a Story from Christmas Past

A few interesting items from the news...

CNN this morning is reporting that archaeologists have unearthed 264 ancient (1400 years) gold coins at a national park site in Jerusalem. Everyone seems to be all excited about this discovery, but I don't think it's anything special. Anyone can find lots of old coins just by pulling out the cushions from my La-Z-Boy and digging in the seams. This is, in fact, now my retirement plan, considering that I have given up on banks and financial advisors.

Speaking of banks...according to this article posted yesterday, there is no system to account for how those banks and investment houses are spending our money they received as part of the Big Economic Candy Giveaway of 2008. Consider these quotes from the article:

1. Thomas Kelly, a spokesman for J.P. Morgan Chase (which received $25 billion in bailout money): "We've lent some of it. We've not lent some of it. We've not given any accounting of, 'Here's how we're doing it...We have not disclosed that to the public. We're declining to.";

2. Barry Koling, a spokesman for SunTrust Banks Inc. (which got $3.5 billion of your hard-earned dollars): "We're not providing dollar-in, dollar-out tracking."; and,

3. Wendy Walker, a spokeswoman for Dallas-based Comerica Inc. (which received $2.25 billion from the government): "We're not sharing any other details. We're just not at this time."

Sleep well tonight. Your government knows what it's doing. The banks don't. You're screwed. Merry Christmas.

You can buy dolls nowadays that do just about anything: cry, pee, blink, talk, wave, etc. Many years ago, my father wanted to make his fortune marketing the ultimate real-baby doll he called "S***sy Mitzi," which would ... um ... defecate. A front page (!) article in yesterday's Washington Post (Baby Dolls Raise a Stink in More Ways than One) shows that someone has stolen poor Dad's idea: yes, Virginia, you can now buy a baby doll that poops. Excuse me if I don't run right out and buy one.

Which leads me to this story from a few days before Christmas, 1982...

Agnes and I were getting ready to fly from Berlin back to The States. Our daughter Yasmin was six years old, and we'd given her an early Christmas present to help keep her occupied during the long flight: an amazingly lifelike doll that not only blinked, but (because of a battery-operated bellows in its chest) breathed...the little chest rose and fell gently as the bellows worked. Agnes had also dressed the doll in a beautiful infant-sized dress and blanket - no doll clothes for this doll.


There we were, boarding our flight at Berlin's Tegel Airport, and Yasmin was already tired of carrying the doll. Naturally, I ended up with it. And, because it was so darned lifelike, I found myself unconsciously holding it like a real baby, gently rocking and bouncing it in my arms as we inched down the aisle to our seats. When we reached our places and Yasmin was strapped in, I asked if she wanted to hold her baby for the flight...she didn't; and so - not wishing to spend eight hours holding this doll (which, remember, was gently breathing) - I opened up the overhead compartment and stuffed it in.

There was a loud gasp from the row of seats behind us, and I looked down to see an elderly couple gaping in unconcealed horror at the despicable parent who had just cavalierly suffed his poor, breathing child in with the luggage.

Fortunately, my command of German was such that I could talk my way out of going to jail.

Nowadays, the only doll I travel with is Agnes, who is too big to fit into the overhead bin, and would break every bone in my body if I tried to put her there, anyhow.

Today is my last day of work before Christmas...after I escape from the office, I'll need to pick up the ham (for Christmas), the slices of beef rouladen (for Christmas Eve), and the last of the cooking supplies, and then hustle home to finish wrapping gifts and cleaning the house. When Leya is a little older, I'll continue my father's tradition of ostentatiously studding a length of 2x4 with nails to chase Santa off the roof.

As traditions go, it's not bad...and I can use the 2x4 on my financial advisor the rest of the year.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, December 22, 2008

You May As Well Laugh, 'Cause Crying's No Use

The combination of lousy winter weather (rain and cold here in Northern Virginia, snow and ice up north), the tanking economy, and the pressures of the season are enough to drive even a strong man or woman to his (or her) knees. Since I exorcised my inner humbug yesterday, I thought you might want something a bit more light-hearted this morning. Here are a couple of Christmas ya-ha's for you:

Number 1...

Winter in Russia is brutal - just ask Napoleon and Hitler. This makes it very important to Russians to get timely and accurate weather forecasts, and in the history of that land there has never been a weatherman as good as the immortal Rudolf Pinsk. Year after year, Mr Pinsk churned out spot-on forecasts that were the envy of the meteorological prognostication community and the delight of happy Russians who could confidently plan their activities with sure knowledge of the coming weather. When he finally retired after many years of faithful service both to the Former Soviet Union and the Russian Federation, President Medvedev presented him the nation's highest award, and the assembled crowd cheered and applauded as he read the citation: "Rudolf the Red Knows Rain, Dear."

Number 2...The true story behind the tradition of the little angel on the top of the Christmas tree...

It was a terrible pre-Christmas season at the North Pole, and Santa was a nervous wreck. Mrs Santa had a towering case of PMS, and was stalking the workshops in a hormone-fueled rage. Toy production was weeks behind schedule because of a bitter labor dispute in the workshop and a work slowdown by the Longshoreelves Union that had shipments of Chinese toy components stuck on ships. The reindeer's fodder supplier had delivered a partially moldy load of hay that sickened the entire team, and the reindeer were flying around and defecating uncontrollably all over everything. Santa's financial advisor had just told him his retirement funds had all been invested with Bernard Madoff, and as he reviewed his ledgers to assess the damage, the nib on his pen broke and spread a puddle of ink across the page. Every line on his phone was ringing, the elves' shop steward wanted to see him, and Mrs Santa was demanding to know why he was spending time with that cute elf in shipping instead of her. As he sat at his desk with his head in his hands, there was a sudden flash of light and there in the middle of his office stood a little angel holding a beautifully-decorated Christmas tree that twinkled with lights and shone with glorious ornaments. The little angel looked at Santa, her bright eyes shining with love, and asked, "Hey, Santa...where would you like me to put this tree?"

Number 3...

The Scholastic Scribe, Serena Joy, and Hale McKay already know what linguists and grammarians everywhere know - Santa's elves aren't really elves. They're subordinate Clauses.

Okay, that's enough punishment for today. It looks like it's going to be a pretty light week at work...I'll be on vacation from Wednesday through Friday, and today the only things on my calendar are a meeting I'm actually looking forward to (gasp!) and lunch with one of our closest friends who is retiring after many years of distinguished service at the Department of Agriculture. Then, of course, there's tomorrow...when I can look forward to standing in line with a bazillion of my closest friends at the Honeybaked Ham store in the annual quest for Christmas dinner. Sigh.

Hope you'll have a good and Grinchless week, too.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, December 21, 2008

Peace on Earth, Goodwill to ... uh ... Let Me Get Back To You On That

Scrooge alert - I just have to get this one off my chest so that I can move forward and enjoy the season. If you choose not to have your Christmas parade rained upon, come back tomorrow, when the Bilbo you know and love will be back to normal. However you define "normal."

Today, we begin the final countdown to Christmas (the countdown which started in most retail establishments shortly after the Fourth of July), and it's time for me to temporarily take off my spiffy Santa hat and put on my Scrooge nightcap for the rant that overcomes me every year about this time.

I refer you to the classic version of the Christmas Story: from the King James Version of the Bible, Luke 2:8-14:

"(8) And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
"(9) And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
"(10) And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
"(11) For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
"(12) And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
"(13) And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
"(14) Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."

It's a wonderful story, but Peace on Earth ain't coming, so don't wait up.

Put out the milk and cookies and hang the stockings by the chimney with care, because the odds of Santa coming down that chimney are far greater than the odds that people around the world will suddenly wake up, look around in astonishment, wonder "what on earth were we thinking?", and run outside to embrace their neighbors of other colors, races, and faiths.

Peace on Earth is a good idea, but like so many other good ideas, it appears to work much better in the abstract than in the practical. Much of the problem, sadly, lies in the fact that we have tried to find meaning in a hard world and a vast, unknowable universe by seeking ultimate meaning and comfort in God. Unfortunately, we just can't seem to agree on what God is, what He expects, and how we are supposed to worship Him.

Each of the great monotheistic religions offers roughly the same guidance: believe as we say and worship exactly as we do and you may be utterly miserable now, but after you die things will be wonderful forever. Some go a bit farther than that, to some variation of "believe and act as we say, because if you don't not only won't things be wonderful for you forever after you die, but God says I can kill you now because you're an infidel."

How one worships God has become much more important than the fact that one acknowledges His existence, or tries to live an upright and virtuous life.

And so, my friends, that bitter and cynical character who lives in the deepest cobwebby subbasement of my heart...the guy that I try to keep wrapped and buried beneath layers of goodwill and adherence to The Golden Rule...rears his ugly head every so often to demand attention. Usually it's at this time of year, when we say all the right things and sing all the right songs and pay our hypocritical lip service to the grand idea of Peace on Earth and Goodwill to Men...or, at least, to those who believe the same way we do.

As for me, I'm with Grandma...

Okay, I've successfully exorcised the Scrooge Demon for another season. My Santa hat is back on and - rainy, yucky weather notwithstanding - I'm ready for Christmas.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, December 20, 2008

Cartoon Saturday...and a Holiday Ball Photo

The auto makers have finally gotten their bailout, Hamas has decided not to renew it's cease-fire with Israel, skeletal remains found in Florida have been confirmed as those of a missing toddler (whose mother is now accused of murder), an Iranian religious court has decided a man will be blinded with acid as punishment for doing the same to a woman he'd been stalking, and there are still 31 days in the Bush administration.

Thank goodness we still have Cartoon Saturday.

As I noted above, the gentle and peace-loving folks at Hamas announced this week that they will not renew their cease-fire with Israel, Israel has just killed another Palestinian leader in an air attack, and the Taleban is on the march in Afghanistan. This cartoon about sums it all up...

We had a major crisis last night at bedtime when Agnes discovered she didn't have anything to read. I tried to interest her in ... um ... other activities, but she wasn't in the mood for humor. And speaking of reading and crummy puns...

The banks and financial managers have gotten their bailout, and so have GM and Chrysler. I'm sure ours must be coming any day's Christmas, after all...

The watchword this year is change. It doesn't really matter what we change to, as long as we change. Perhaps some change is good...

And finally, sometimes you just get inspired for the right gift for that hard-to-please individual...

If you're one of those people who only visits me here for Cartoon Saturday, have a safe and happy Christmas. If you're one of those intellectual masochists who visits every day to hear what Bilbo is bitching about, I'll see you tomorrow.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.


P.S. - Last night we had the annual Christmas Ball at the dance studio. It was a happy (and somewhat silly, as you can see) crowd. Hope you've been having some happy holiday parties, too...


Friday, December 19, 2008

Friday Miscellany

As I surf the web, I often find interesting (or infuriating) news articles, websites, and other items that get my posting gland secreting (no comments, Mike). When this happens, I bookmark them or e-mail the URLs to myself and store them in a file called "Blog Fodder" until I need a topic about which to write.

Well, just as the universe is expanding at a faster and faster rate, so too is my Blog Fodder file, and so it's time to haul out a few odd topics and offer my witty commentary thereon...

In an article reposted on Yahoo News this past Wednesday, Reuters news service reported the results of a survey which asked people to identify admirable jobs, which professions they trust or do not, who is overpaid, and which profession they would prefer to marry. On the marriage front, 16% of respondents nominated doctors, nurses and other health care professionals as their preferred marriage partners, higher than any other profession; educators scored 14% and scientists, 10%. As to the most trusted professions, educators and doctors led the pack with an overwhelming 86 and 87 percent, followed by homemakers and those in science and technology. At the bottom? The media, marketing, and retail sales. Lawyers and corporate executives were cited as among the most overpaid professionals (shocking, isn't it?).

There was no mention of financial mismanagers, or child molesters.

Speaking of financial management, in this article, CNN reported on the phenomenon of "rate-jacking," in which credit card companies suddenly spike the rates charged their customers with no warning other than a brief notice in the time-honored "fine print" of the statement. The article cites examples of rates jumping from 9.5% to 16.99% with no clear warning. CitiGroup, a major credit card issuer, wouldn't talk to CNN about it, but said this in a written statement: "To continue funding in this difficult credit and funding environment, Citi is repricing a group of customers." Good luck if you got "repriced." I think there's some hope, though, as yesterday the Fed was reported to have voted to crack down on the most egregious activities of the credit card firms. (I'll write more about this in another post because, while I think credit card issuers are often the most greedy of predators, there's another side to the Agnes, who works in a credit union, never ceases to remind me).

On a somewhat brighter topic, here is an interesting site for you to visit: the Life Expectancy Calculator. This "virtual age" calculator starts with your current age and walks you through a series of 32 questions dealing with your lifestyle, habits, family health history, and environment, and ends up presenting you with two figures: your "virtual age" (which may be more or less than your real age, depending on how honestly you answered the questions), and your projected life expectancy. My scores, starting with my real age of 57, were: Virtual Age - 49.9; and Life Expectancy - 85.1. Give it a try, if you dare...

And finally, from the Department of What On Earth Were They Thinking? comes this story about a store that refused to decorate a birthday cake for a child named Adolf Hitler Campbell. Little Adolf, it seems, also has a sister named JoyceLynn Aryan Nation Campbell. You have to get a license to get married...too bad you don't also have to get one to be a parent.

That's all for now. Time to get ready for work, and then tonight is the big Christmas Ball at the dance studio. Dancing with beautiful ladies is good. Dancing with beautiful ladies in formal gowns is better. Eat your hearts out, guys.

Have a good day. Cartoon Saturday comes tomorrow.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Late Again...

It looks like it's going to be one of those days...I am behind schedule and don't have enough time to write a proper post this morning. I'm on time and awake enough, though, to remain cranked about the ongoing discussion of bailouts. This about sums up my thoughts on the subject:

If I can get my act together, I'll try to post something better later today. Otherwise, I'll see you in this space tomorrow.

Have a good day. More thoughts later.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Clean Sheets

Well, I'm still not feeling altogether well, but since Mike and John have made such a fuss about it, I guess I'll go back to work today. When the rest of my office comes down with the Stomach Virus from Hell, I'll have them call you guys to complain.

In line with my theory that great minds work on the same wavelength, I would like to point out three events that all lined up yesterday in the Great Karmic Crapshoot of the Universe: Mike wrote a post about sweat, Fiona posted about her unfortunate bodily reaction to certain perfumes, and I did a few loads of laundry.

Trust me, this is going somewhere.

Of our five senses, the one we most often think of and rely on is sight; but some scientists believe the sense of smell may have been more important to our evolutionary development...early man probably smelled predators long before he saw them. When something is wrong, "we smell a rat," a bad deal "doesn't smell right," and really bad news can "stink to high heaven."

Smells can be good, too. The smell of bread baking in the kitchen has long been used by canny real estate agents to get prospective house buyers into a homey mood and we plant flowers to scent the air. The sense of smell is closely linked to memory: how many times have you visited some place from your past and had a sudden, overwhelming sense of being there in the past because of the smell of the place? (I last experienced this when I walked into my old high school for our 30th reunion, and was almost instantly swept back to the 1960s).

We spend bazillions of dollars each year on soaps, deodorants, perfumes, colognes, and other things designed to cover up our natural scents...not all of which work as intended, as Fiona has discovered. But we each have our unique smell, and it's important. A baby recognizes the scent of its parents, and I'm quite sure I could identify Agnes in a pitch black room just by the warm and wonderful smell of her hair and skin.

All of which finally brings me back around to the laundry.

One of the loads of wash I did yesterday included our bed linen, and let me tell you, there is nothing in all the world like the smell and feel of clean sheets. It's a sensation that only lasts a few brief minutes, but I think it's one of the great pleasures of life. Agnes probably thinks I'm crazy, but the smell of clean sheets just brings a sense of comfort, peace, and security that nothing else quite matches.

And this seemed like a good topic to write about today, since I've been feeling pretty sheety for the last few days, anyhow.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Few Random Thoughts on Science Fiction

The other day Mike posted a review of sorts of the new Keanu Reeves movie The Day the Earth Stood Still. Actually, his review was more concerned with the need for potty breaks during long movies, which is resonating with me as I continue fighting off this $@#! stomach virus and having to run to the bathroom every ten minutes.

But back to The Day the Earth Stood Still.

The movie is, as you know by now, an update of the 1951 film of the same name, which starred Michael Rennie as Klaatu. That version, while looking pretty dated today, is a true sci-fi classic, and reflected the concerns of the time: in 1951 the Cold War was raging and nuclear destruction was everyone's concern...Klaatu and his robot Gort came to earth to tell humankind to cut it out, or they'd put a stop to us. The new version of the movie has Klaatu coming to earth to save the planet from humans who are destroying the environment.

Both movies are loosely based on a short story titled Farewell to the Master, by Harry Bates. I won't tell you much about that story, other than to say that the robot's name is Gnut (instead of Gort), and it offers a major twist in its last six words. If you can find the story in an anthology anywhere, I recommend you read it. Unfortunately, neither movie makes use of the final plot twist of the short story.

While I'm sitting here at home, I'm also catching up on some reading that's been piling up. One of my co-workers loaned me a collection of short stories by Arthur C. Clarke a while back so that I could read a particular story he thought I'd like. The story is titled The Star; it received a Hugo award in 1956 and was turned in to a TV play for Christmas in 1985. You can read it online here. This is another amazing story with a marvelous twist at the end...I recommend you take a few minutes and read it.

That's all for now. Gotta run to the bathroom. Maybe I'll post more later.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.


Monday, December 15, 2008

Better Late Than Never, and Catching Bad Guys

I'm posting a few hours later than usual this morning because of an early gift I received from my Very Best Beloved...she spent the last few days down for maintenance with a ghastly stomach virus which she has, in her usual loving and thoughtful way, decided to share with me. Between about 3:00 PM and 9:00 PM yesterday, I was racing to the bathroom about every 10 minutes while everything I've eaten in the last two weeks revisited me at one end or the other. I then slept from 9:00 until 6:30 this morning (unheard of for me), called the office to tell them I was out of commission, then went back to bed until 11:00.


I still feel like s**t, but I'm well-rested.

But you didn't come here to listen to me talk about my gastrointestinal difficulties, so we'll drop that pleasant topic and discuss something more uplifting.

Like forensic pathology.

I'm old enough to remember when TV's law-enforcement heroes were flawed, hard-bitten tough guys like Mike Connors (Mannix), Tom Selleck (Magnum P.I.), and Jack Webb (Joe Friday); accompanied by their radio counterparts like Philip Marlowe, Johnny Dollar the insurance investigator, Boston Blackie, Nero Wolfe, and Sam Spade. They got to the truth by drinking lots of scotch, chasing bad guys and beating the tar out of them in the end, and interacting with mysterious and exotic women..

It's different, now.

Now, the airwaves are ruled by the forensic pathologists like Quincy, Temperence Brennan ("Bones"), CSI (New York, Miami, Las Vegas, etc), Cold Case, and so on. Villains are caught not by lantern-jawed detectives battling crime in dark alleyways and dim, smoky bars, but by geeky scientists in lab coats who find the ultimate clue to be a microscopic bit of something-or-other amidst the gooey remains of a victim.

I liked it better before. I like seeing the bad guy get his come-uppance at the hands of the hero, lying gasping on the floor right after the hero has beaten him to a pulp and before he's dragged off to a richly-deserved jail sentence. It's so much more satisfying than watching some character in a pristine laboratory cinch the villain's fate with a minute speck of gotcha. The real people like it better, too. My good friend Bakr, who is a forensic pathologist, has complained about how difficult the TV shows have made his work, because TV-besotted juries now don't understand why the answers aren't presented to them on a silver platter of scientific jargon.

I still enjoy watching all the shows, new and old, but something's missing.

And now it's time to go back to bed.

Have a good day. More (and more coherent) thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, December 14, 2008

"These Dreams Go On When I Close My Eyes" - Heart

Using song lyrics as the title of posts seems to be catching on ... it works for lacochran and Fiona, anyhow, so I figured I might as well try it to introduce this frightening topic: according to this article from Agence France Presse, some Japanese researchers claim to have created a technology that could eventually display people's thoughts and dreams on a computer screen.

This is probably not a good thing.

You may recall a 1983 film called Brainstorm, in which scientists developed just such a device for recording a person's experiences. One of the most interesting scenes in the movie was when one of the scientists took a tape that had been made while a couple was having sex, made a loop out of the ... um ... climactic moment, then hooked himself up to the playback machine and turned himself into a twitching, drooling idiot as he experienced the orgasm over and over and over.

I, too, have been known to be turned into a twitching, drooling idiot by sex; nevertheless, Agnes still keeps me around because I can fix computer problems, chop onions and garlic, and recover items from high shelves.

But I digress.

Would I want to be able to record my thoughts and memories so that they could be played back like the VHS of a B movie? I don't think so. Although I spend most of my time thinking lofty thoughts that would, if properly focused and not diluted by my procrastination, eventually yield me a Nobel Prize or some other such honor, I have also been known to think less charitable ruminating on the questionable ancestry of some of the morons I meet, or the utter ineptitude of our political classes, or even boobies (thanks to Rima, Mike, and Fiona). Would I want someone many years hence to be able to browse dusty shelves of tapes and be able to play back the twisted thoughts that might have been recorded when my guard was down? I don't think so.

Of course, the device works by recording brain activity, and there are those who would argue that my brain isn't actually active long enough at a time to create a useful baseline, so perhaps I'm safe after all.

But why take the chance that someone might turn it on while I'm thinking about rubbing suntan lotion onto a Playboy Playmate of the Month instead of while I'm thinking about ways to rescue the economy?

I have a legacy to protect, of course, meager though it may be.

I think I'll stay away from Japanese research labs for a while.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. - I was distracted while writing this by the gorgeous sunrise outside my study window. This picture doesn't really do it justice, but it's the best I could do while half awake...

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Cartoon Saturday

A bomb has killed a police officer at a bank in Oregon, everybody in Illinois except Governor Blagojevich thinks he should resign, Bettie Page has passed away, your tax money may soon be used to save the auto industry from its own ineptitude, and there's an acorn shortage in much of the country.

Good thing you have Cartoon Saturday to pick up your spirits.

I have to be careful which television shows Agnes is watching...

There's a great song by Erin McKeown called "Blackbirds" (from her album Distillation) that I could listen to a dozen times a day. This cartoon brought it to mind, although Ms McKeown's style isn't doo-wop...

The more I read about the crooked antics of Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, the more I admire useful words like hubris...

The comic strip "Rhymes with Orange" is one of those that's either hysterically funny or goes right over my head. This cartoon from early this week is one that really hits the sweet spot where literary allusion, intellectual heft, and downright silliness intersect...

You all know I love to read, and that I think there's nothing quite like the feel and smell of a good book you can curl up with in front of a fire on a cold and snowy night. Of course, you can take the fun out of almost anything with enough technology...

Well, it's time to take a shower and get ready for a day of entertaining my hyperactive granddaughter so that my daughter can get some work done. There's nothing quite like an adorable 15-month old to make me feel every one of my 57 accumulated years...but the squeals of delight, the hugs and the wet, sloppy kisses, and the plop as she drops into my lap with a book that will hold her interest for three nanoseconds make it all worthwhile.

It's good to be the grandpa.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, December 12, 2008

Crime and Punishment, Effective Advertising, and Huge Crowds

In yesterday's post, I referred you to a news story about the use of very loud music as an interrogation tactic - after a few hours of listening to Barney, Sesame Street, or Nine Inch Nails, even the most hardened terrorists were ready to cooperate with their questioners. In that post, I misremembered (is that a word?) a related story about teens being punished for playing their music too loudly by being made to listen to Barry Manilow. The actual story can be found here. It seems the offender was offered the choice of paying a $150 fine or spending 20 hours listening to classical music...he was only able to survive 15 minutes of Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin before giving in and paying the fine. What a dumbass.

And from the intersecting worlds of Why Didn't I Think of That and Hey, Buddy, My Eyes Are Up Here comes this interesting story of a lady named Kelly Kinney who printed her resume on the front of a t-shirt and spends her days hanging around upscale coffee shops and major intersections, hoping to be noticed (according to the article, Ms Kinney said she chooses coffee bars and intersections because they offer captive audiences where prospective employers are stuck waiting for lattes or for lights to change). Yes, the story's dateline is Los Angeles...where else could it have been?

Closer to home, here in the so-called National Capitol Region, local governments are trying to gear up for crowds estimated in the millions for the historic inauguration of President-elect Obama on January 20th. Some of the problems the planners are facing include:

- Where do you park 10,000 (yes, that's ten thousand) tour buses?

- Where do all those out-of-town people stay? (enterprising people as far away as Gettysburg and Richmond are renting spare bedrooms for hundreds of dollars per night).

- Where do you find enough porta-potties to accommodate 5 million people?

- How do you move crowds this size on a subway system that is notorious for choking on its normal daily ridership, much less heavy tourist days, much less 5 million people? Those of you who want to attend the festivities and live within walking distance (now defined as suburban Cincinnati) of the National Mall should start walking now.

- What...and they all eat?


- Who cleans up all the debris when everything's over? Actually, this last one is probably not a problem, because the incoming administration will already be so busy cleaning up the wreckage of the current one that a few hundred more tons of reeking caca won't make much difference.

I'm sure glad somebody else has to worry about all that. Me, I have enough to worry about, like not drowing in the rain as I hike to the bus stop this morning, and making sure the bus actually stops to pick me up (unlike the other day). By the way, Twinkie, your mental image of Bilbo as homicidal Mary Poppins was not all that far off the mark.

But now it's time to get ready to face another day. At least tonight I can go dancing...the opportunity to hold lots of different ladies close (Agnes first, of course) and move to the music is always a good way to end a tough week.

Eat your heart out, guys.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, December 11, 2008

I Couldn't Make This Stuff Up...

One of humorist Dave Barry's signature lines before he reported on something true but silly was, "I'm not making this up!" Well, I'm not either. Today, presented for your approval (I'm channeling Rod Serling this morning), three really bizarre recent news stories that I managed to find before Mike scooped me...

Number 1: Ooga Ooga! Men Overspend to Attract Mates. From comes this searing blast of the obvious - that men will spend themselves into poverty to attract desirable sexual partners. Oddly enough, this article led to a lengthy scholarly discussion in the office yesterday during a break from our usual routine of defending the nation from godless communists and over-godded religious fanatics. One of my coworkers claimed that men marry for sex, while women marry for security...seen this way, men who vaporize the magnetic strips on the back of their credit cards to impress cute girls are simply fulfilling the biological imperative to prove they are good providers. This is important, as it's pretty hard nowadays to show up at a girl's door with a gutted, bleeding aurochs slung over your shoulder.

Number 2: Military Interrogators Use Blasting Music as a Weapon to Break Detainees. The most interesting thing about this story isn't that playing Nine Inch Nails at top volume makes hard-core fanatics crazier than they were's that the playlist also includes Barney the Dinosaur's "I Love You" song and several hits from Sesame Street. This is, of course, not news to parents who have been driven around the bend by their toddlers who want to hear those songs seven billion times a day. I also recall a recent news article about a judge who sentenced some teens guilty of blasting their rock music at top volume in public to sit in a room and listen to hours of Barry Manilow tunes. I'd confess, too.

Number 3: (Alert - temporary interjection of seriousness into an otherwise frivolous post) Pope Pius XII Unfairly Criticized for Not Speaking Out About the Holocaust. In this article reproduced on the Project Syndicate website, Rocco Buttiglione (Italy's former European Affairs minister) maintains that Pius XII could not have condemned Nazi Germany without appearing to give moral comfort to Josef Stalin's less-than-saintly Russian government, and couldn't condemn Stalin without giving a propaganda gift to Hitler's war effort. Therefore, he didn't condemn either one. Where I come from, this is called horses**t (a topic with which, along with boobies, fellow blogger Fiona is passingly familiar). When the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church can't bring himself to speak out against unspeakable evil, regardless of who is at fault, something's wrong.

Okay, that's enough for now. Time to get ready to out and face this odd world of ours yet again. Hopefully today will start off differently from yesterday, when my bus drove right past me as I jumped up and down and yelled like a wild man. This morning, it's raining...and if that bus passes me up again, I'll just jam the point of my umbrella into the nearest tire.

So there.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.