Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A Bit of Amazing History

Still sick, and going bonkers from sinus pain, headache, and general blahs. I have a doctor's appointment in about two hours, at which I expect to be given some medicine or another and told to go back to bed. For someone like me who likes to stay busy, it can drive you nuts. As much as I love to read, I can only read so much at one time, and it's tough to sleep during the day, especially when I can hear weeds growing in the garden, crying out to be pulled.

Oh, well...at least I can still blog. Here's something I think you'll find interesting...

The last time I was traveling on business, I sat in my hotel room one evening channel-surfing and stumbled on one of my favorite movies: The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, and an all-star international cast. It's the story of a group of prisoners of war who plan an ingenious, daring mass escape from a custom-designed, escape-proof German prison camp during World War II. The film is at times funny, sad, and grippingly intense, and it provides a window into a little-known part of the history of the Second World War.

Yesterday one of my old college friends sent me this link to a fascinating interactive website which describes the mass escape on which the film was based. By mousing over the numbered spots on the sketch of the prison camp, you can follow how the prisoners designed and built their escape tunnel under the very noses of the Germans, who thought they had taken every precaution to make the camp escape-proof.

Check it out. Even if you're not a military fan or a history buff, you can appreciate the courage and ingenuity shown by men who, under the most trying and austere conditions, managed to plan and carry out one of the most amazing prison breaks of all time.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Two Crummy Days, and More About Selective Truth

After having such a grand time over the weekend, between schmoozing with our granddaughter and enjoying the barrel tasting event at Linden Vineyards, I woke up yesterday morning feeling pretty yucky...sneezing, sore throat, runny nose, and a little guy in my head trying to smash his way out of my eyeballs with a nine-pound hammer. I went to work, but by 10:00 I decided I could suffer better at home, so I spent most of the rest of the day in bed. Just as well - the weather was hideous, with pouring rain all day long.

This morning I still feel like I've been beaten with a two-by-four, so I'm going to stay home another day rather than share my misery with the other folks in the office.

But while I feel lousy, there's nothing wrong with my brain (no comments, please, Mike), and so let me pontificate for a few minutes on the subject of truth...or whatever passes for it these days.

On the way home from work yesterday I finished the book that I wrote about in this space a few days ago: True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society, by Farhad Manjoo. This is a short, but well-written, thoroughly documented, and thought-provoking book that lays out the many ways in which truth has lost its meaning in a time of aggressive marketing, news as big business, and single-issue politics.

Mr Manjoo analyzes some of the psychological gymnastics we go through in order to make facts fit our preconceived notions, and also demonstrates how we have allowed "experts" who may not, in fact, have any particular expertise in the topic, to sway our opinions. I've often thought about this as I listen to programs on the radio and (less often) on television - who are these "experts" and what credentials do they bring to the discussion? Talking heads are often introduced simply as being "from (name of organization)," without any specific explanation of why they are more qualified than anyone else to discuss the topic at hand, or what their organization's vested interest in the issue might be. In True Enough, Mr Manjoo carefully analyzes the way in which clever marketing and public relations specialists can manipulate the discussion of important topics to obscure the vested interests of their clients - a classic example he documents is the clever plan by the RJ Reynolds tobacco firm to divert anti-smoking sentiments into a generalized campaign to "get government off our backs." They morphed legitimate discussion of a serious health issue into a blustery campaign of righteous indignation at government intrusion into our private lives.

The most disturbing part of the book, though, is Mr Manjoo's eloquent discussion of the death of trust - in a world where people rely on carefully selected facts and ignore those which might contradict their positions, where "experts" speak on topics of which they have no knowledge, we develop a sense of cynicism - a belief that no one can be trusted. How can you know whose opinions are worth listening to? When can you tell that you are being cleverly manipulated by people with a hidden agenda?

An underlying theme of this blog is don't let anyone else do your thinking for you. In a world of loose facts, too much information, and carefully obscured agendas, it's getting more difficult by the day to know what to believe and who to trust.

And that doesn't bode well for a future full of serious problems on which we will have to unite to take effective action.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Monday, April 28, 2008

Barrel Tasting at Linden Vineyards

At the invitation of our friend Nadja, Agnes and I and our friend (and my dance instructor) Ben drove out to the scenic Linden Vineyards in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains for their annual Barrel Tasting event. I wasn't sure at first that I would be interested in tasting barrels (mental picture of Bilbo sitting at a table, sucking on an old stave), but decided we might as well do it, since the alternative was yard work and house cleaning. Besides, why not spend the day with not one, but TWO beautiful ladies? I'm not so dumb.

Linden Vineyards sits atop a hill with a beautiful view of the surrounding wooded terrain. The day was cool, overcast, and misty, but the view was nevertheless spectacular.


On arrival, we each received a glass and a program describing the various wines to be sampled...


Thus equipped, we went down to the cellars to begin the four-barrel tasting event. There were enough barrels to go around...here are a few.

Each barrel to be sampled was attended by one of the staff members who described the vintage and how it was created as he (or she) dipped into the barrel with a glass siphon to give each sampler a small amount of wine. There was also plenty of sausage, cheese, and bread available for palate-clearing between samples.

The science of wine-making is fascinating, and we enjoyed the tasting, the commentary, and the opportunity to view the wine-making machinery. I think there's a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek humor that goes into the process...


After sampling the four barrel vintages (new wines) and a few newer vintages in the cellar, we moved upstairs to sample some other wines and enjoy a small wine-and-cheese lunch. Agnes and Nadja were clearly enjoying themselves...


After lunch and (of course) purchasing a few bottles to take home, we took the opportunity to take some pictures in the beautiful landscape. I considered PhotoShopping the gray out of my hair, but I guess it sort of makes me look distinguished...


Ben needed to get into some of the pictures, too...although he rather misjudged the drop-off behind the rocks...

All things considered, we had a great day. It was a bit chilly, but still beautiful and a great opportunity to enjoy an outing with good friends.

But now, sadly, it's time to go to work.

Sigh.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Has Anybody Seen My ... uh ... Never Mind

Just when you thought things couldn't get any weirder...

Last Tuesday in my post titled Just True Enough..., I wrote about my endless fascination with all the really bizarre things people will believe no matter how much contradictory evidence you provide. Just to reinforce my point, I call your attention to this Reuters news story that is truly more outlandish than anything I could ever make up: "Lynchings in Congo as Penis Theft Panic Hits Capital."

Yes, you read that correctly. According to the first sentence of the story, "Police in Congo have arrested 13 suspected sorcerers accused of using black magic to steal or shrink men's penises after a wave of panic and attempted lynchings triggered by the alleged witchcraft."

As a man, I know that I would be horrified at the possible loss of my manly hydraulics. But it occurs to me that an easy way to verify if I'd been so ensorcerated (I made that word up on the spot, looking for something more horrifying than "bewitched"), might be to simply unzip, look down, sigh in relief, and move on. In fact, in this country, many young men probably wouldn't have to unzip, since they already wear their pants riding so low that you could probably tell.

(Note to Serena at (Parenthetically Speaking) - you are welcome to use "ensorcerated" as you see fit!)

But back to the point at hand.

The Reuters story goes on to note that fear of the theft of body parts for sorcery is not uncommon in parts of Africa where ancient religious beliefs hold sway, and murders of suspected witches are a periodic occurrence. Jean-Dieudonne Oleko, Kinshasha's police chief, was quoted in the story as saying, "...when you try to tell the victims that their penises are still there, they tell you that it's become tiny or that they've become impotent. To that I tell them, 'How do you know if you haven't gone home and tried it?'"

Hmmm...

I've just checked, and everything looks normal. Nevertheless, perhaps I should go and wake Agnes to help me find out for sure.

I'll be back tomorrow.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.

Bilbo

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Cartoon Saturday

Lots to do today before the rains come in, including paying bills, pulling weeds, and cleaning the house. That's no fun...let's get right to another Cartoon Saturday!

I think this one calls it just right:


Something I've always thought needed to be said:


I felt the same way the first time I got my Senior Citizen's discount...

The probable future of affordable health care in this country...no matter who gets elected...


And finally, I think this one is both tremendously funny and tremendously sad. The Arabic script translates roughly as, "Weapon of Palestinian Resistance." Look closely...



Have a great weekend. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Friday, April 25, 2008

Baseball as Religious Metaphor

Regular readers of this blog know that I am frequently critical of blind faith in any particular system of religious belief, because blind faith can lead to blind justification of some of the worst in human behavior. There are, literally, hundreds of different religions, all of which tend to believe that all the others are misguided at best, or hateful at worst.

How do you sort out all the different religions?

One of my friends sent me an interesting and funny e-mail yesterday that explained religious belief systems in terms of baseball. It seems to me to be as good a model as any, and so here - with a few edits of my own - is Bilbo's Guide to Religion as Baseball:

Calvinists believe the game is fixed.

Lutherans believe they can't win, but trust the Scorekeeper.

Quakers won't swing.

Unitarians can catch anything.

Amish walk a lot.

Pagans sacrifice.

Catholics feel guilty about stealing bases.

Jews always expect to lose, and get nervous when they don’t.

Jehovah's Witnesses are thrown out often.

Christian Scientists play when injured.

Televangelists get caught stealing.

Buddhists spend all their time getting ready for the next game.

Episcopalians pass the plate.

Methodists want to rewrite the rules.

Muslims won’t play by any rules but their own, and must travel to Cooperstown at least once.

Evangelicals make effective pitches.

Fundamentalists balk.

Hindus refuse to kill the umpire, because he might be a relative.

Fundamentalist Mormons are in left field.

Dunkers are down by three.

Adventists have a seventh-inning stretch.

Atheists refuse to have an umpire.

Agnostics will play, but don’t know whether or not to accept the authority of the umpire.

Baptists want to play hardball.

Premillenialists expect the game to be called soon on account of darkness.

The Pope claims never to have committed an error.

I hope this helps. If you have any suggestions for the list, send them in.

Now, go out and play ball. Faithfully.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A Brief Thought on Elections

Pennsylvania, my beloved home state, has completed its long-awaited and hard-fought presidential primary, and Senator Clinton's presidential bid has come lurching back from its grave like a political zombie in a grade-B horror movie. Hooray! Now we can enjoy another month or so of Democratic fratricide as Ms Clinton and Mr Obama continue to reel around each other like a pair of punch-drunk fighters in round six of an agonizingly unwinnable fight.

I'm reminded of an interesting thought on the democratic political process from author George Bernard Shaw: "Democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few."

I'm glad to be a proud part of the incompetent many. Like most of us, I'm absolutely opposed to all the political corruption, if only because I can't get my share of it.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Sleep Deprivation

My daughter Yasmin has been on my case lately about getting enough sleep. I've always gotten by on about five hours of sleep a night and found it to be plenty, but as I get older, I'm finding that I need a lot more sleep than I'm getting, in spite of those quality naps at the office.

The problem is that, given our goofy schedules, it's hard to squeeze out the time to devote to sleep. Because Agnes works two jobs and usually doesn't get home evenings until around 9:30, I end up doing most of the cooking, dog walking, laundry, and general housework. Having dinner between 9:30 and 10:00 PM means we usually don't get to bed until around 10:30...and then I'm up each weekday morning at 4:10 to be out of the shower by 4:30 so that I can have the hour between 4:30 and 5:30 as my private time to write this blog, check e-mail, pay bills, etc. More and more, that 5 1/2 hours of sleep just isn't enough.

Yasmin sent me this link to an article about the importance of good sleep habits. I guess she's trying to use the choke: the article talks about the short-term and long-term consequences of not getting enough sleep. In the short term, the consequences include:
  • Decreased performance and alertness (I can see this sometimes in my dance lessons);
  • Memory and cognitive impairment (since my mother died of complications of Alzheimer's Disease, this one is probably the most immediately scary);
  • Stress on relationships;
  • Overall poor quality of life;
  • Occupational injury (more of a risk when you operate machinery than when you work in an office, but still a concern); and
  • Automobile injury (Agnes has pointed out that I sometimes tend to doze off when stopped at traffic lights...not a good thing).
And the long-term consequences include:

  • High blood pressure (my doctor mentioned that at my last exam);
  • Heart attack;
  • Heart failure;
  • Stroke;
  • Obesity (I'm not obese but, like most of us, I could easily lose a few pounds...eating dinner right before going to bed doesn't help);
  • Psychiatric problems, including depression and other mood disorders;
  • Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD); and
  • Fetal and childhood growth retardation.
Well, okay, the point has been made. Now, how do I go about getting more sleep? It's easier said than done, but I guess that the consequences make it necessary figure out how to trade off the things I do now for the sleep I need for the long run.

After all, with four adorable grandchildren to watch grow and lots of beautiful ladies out there to dance with, I have a vested interest in staying healthy ... and awake ... for a long time. And so, if you'll excuse me, I need to catch 40 winks so I won't be too tired while I'm resting up for my nap.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Just True Enough...

Thanks for checking back again!

It's already been a long day, starting with the early morning meeting, lunch with one of our friends at Tony Cheng's Mongolian Barbecue in Chinatown, actually getting some work done in the afternoon, then coming home to walk the dog, fold the wash, post the blog, clean the kitchen, set the recorder to tape "Dancing with the Stars," and have dinner ready when Agnes gets home from the dance studio.

I'm already tired.

But not too tired to share some thoughts with you about a fascinating book I'm now reading. I heard the author, Farhad Manjoo, interviewed on NPR a week or so ago, and decided I had to read the book right away - True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

I have long been amazed at how some people can believe the most ridiculous things, no matter how overwhelming the evidence to the contrary. Holocaust deniers, 9/11 conspiracy theorists, UFO cultists, hollow-earth fanatics - all are able to believe deeply and completely in the most outrageous and improbable ideas, even though most of us shake our heads in amazement.

In True Enough, Farhad Manjoo looks at some of the reasons why (and how) many people choose belief over the strength of contradictory facts. You will learn about (among many other things):

Selective exposure - our tendency to read the newspapers, books and magazines, visit the blogs, watch the TV stations and listen to the radio programs which agree with our own biases; and,

Selective perception - the tendency to interpret evidence in terms of our preconceived beliefs; to believe that the sources of information we seek out through selective exposure offer proof positive that what we believe must be true.

Mr Manjoo also makes a very interesting point that hadn't occurred to me: that vast amounts of available information, instead of making it easier to disprove falsehoods, actually make it easier for those falsehoods to gain traction and build credibility. Consider the tens of millions of blogs, the vast number of websites on every conceivable topic, the dozens of news channels and single-issue radio programs - no matter what you want to believe, someone out there will agree with you, and you'll feel yourself vindicated because of it.

I'm only about a third of the way through the book, and I'm completely hooked. I strongly encourage you to buy it, or to check it out of your local library and read it. You'll never look at the world the same way again.

Because nowadays, facts don't have to be true.

Just true enough.

And in a hard-fought election season, in an age of altered documents and PhotoShopped pictures, that's a frightening thing.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Check Back Later...

Because I have an early morning meeting at work today, I have to leave home at an ungodly hour and won't have time to post at my usual time this morning. Check back later in the day - I will be posting late this afternoon or this evening when I get home from work.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming...

Bilbo

Monday, April 21, 2008

Yet Another Monday - Pride and Rants

Another weekend is over all too soon. Sigh.

Saturday was a beautiful day, and we spent much of it visiting with our daughter and with Leya, the most adorable and intelligent grandchild in the Commonwealth of Virginia. If these two pictures don't convince you, you're beyond help.


The remainder of the most adorable and intelligent grandchildren are in Ohio, where our oldest granddaughter, Marcy, celebrated her eighth birthday last week. This is a picture of Marcy and her brothers Joe and Noah taken last fall. I rest my case on the subject of adorability and intelligence.

Okay, now I've had my fix of grandparental bragging. On to other topics.

If Saturday was a beautiful day, so was yesterday...but only if you're a duck. It rained almost nonstop all day, it's still raining, and it's supposed to keep raining all day today. My garden is cheering, but I'm thinking I should probably have spent the weekend reading my copy of Ark-Building for Dummies. I know I'll be thankful for this rain later on, when my garden is overflowing with fragrant herbs, but for now, I don't like having to wear water wings to go out and do the weeding.

Pope Benedict XVI has finished his visit to the United States and is now home at the Vatican. His visit - his first to America as Pope - was extensively covered in the newspapers, and led to a great deal of very interesting commentary on the state of religious belief in 21st-century America. There was a particularly interesting article in yesterday's Washington Post, titled "Perceived Slights Have Left Many U.S. Muslims Wary of Pope." Muslims are still loudly offended by some of Benedict's words (such as his Regensburg speech last year) and actions (like the very public baptism and conversion to Christianity of a prominent Muslim critic of Islam). There doesn't seem to be any accompanying offense, however, against "slights" committed by Muslims against Christians and Jews, such as the characterization of those believers as apes and pigs, the fact that it's against the law in much of the Muslim world to do so much as wear a cross or pray openly according to a faith other than Islam, and the fact that some Muslims believe that it is religiously sanctioned to kill anyone who does not acknowledge Islam as their religion.

Clearly, not all Muslims are wild-eyed fanatics. But the fact that the Muslim "mainstream" spends its time bemoaning perceived slights rather than working with other faiths in a spirit of peace and fellowship in belief leads one to question their commitment to real interfaith dialog and peace.

But that's all an argument for another day. Now it's time to feed and walk Punky, slip the oars into the oarlocks, and row myself to work for another week.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Taking the Day Off

Because of the press of other things that need done today, I won't be making my usual post this morning. Check back tomorrow for your recommended daily allowance of Bilbo's random commentary.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Cartoon Saturday

I'm feeling more than usually old and creaky this morning, as our oldest grandchild, Marcy, celebrated her eighth birthday this past Thursday. As a reminder of incipient decrepitude, it doesn't rank up there with having four great-grandchildren (sorry, Dad!), but it works for me. And this afternoon, we will visit with our youngest grandchild, Leya, who will be eight months old tomorrow. I like the symmetry as much as I love the munchkins.

But to avoid overstressing my aging, battered carcass, I'll take the easy, less-intellectually challenging way out for today's post...

Yes, once again it's Cartoon Saturday!

This one is older than you might think...I found it in a letter I sent to my parents when I lived in Berlin back in 1981...


Once you hit a certain age, cartoons like this one get to be a lot funnier. Or not.

Budget cutbacks hit everyone, everywhere, no matter what year. This is a cartoon I cut from a German magazine and mailed home sometime around 1980. The translation inked into the margin is, of course, mine...


"Blondie" is one of my favorite comic strips, and has been for many years. I think Dagwood and I are the same person, just on different levels of the universe...

And finally for today, as much as we may hate our managers, bosses, and human relations staff people, they've got a tough row to hoe...


It's going to be a gorgeous spring day here for a change (on a weekend, I mean). After visiting with Leya, I'll be able to be found out in the garden, loudly exhorting my plants to grow faster. It can't hurt.

Have a great weekend. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Friday, April 18, 2008

Obsolete!

A while back, I posted on the topic of things that are "going away," inspired by the growing irrelevance of the terms "clockwise" and "counterclockwise" in a world of digital clocks. My friend Katherine wrote to me on the subject of something else she suddenly realized is getting more rare: the dreaded blue screen of death.

Anyone who uses Windows knows about the blue screen of death, the ugly blue screen covered with odd combinations of numbers and letters which are the Microsoft code for "dude, you are sooo screwed!", and indicate that your computer has changed from valuable office instrument to expensive paperweight. If you used versions of Windows before XP, you became intimately familiar with the blue screen of death and the horrors of trying to figure out what had caused the problem. Microsoft helped you with useful and intellectually friendly messages like, "The kernel at j3y776pt has lost contact with the hyperborean frammistat and caused a rupture in the fabric of the universe. Universe will reboot in 30 seconds. Continue? Abort? Ignore?"

Windows XP, however, was a much more stable platform, and blue screens of death became relatively rare (this rare stability made it necessary for Microsoft to switch to Vista in order to continue tormenting users). Katherine's point was this: blue screen of death has become a term likely to be meaningless to new generations of computer users.

But as there are many things that are fast becoming obsolete, there are also skills that are becoming obsolete as well. Miss Cellania today included a link to this interesting post dedicated to obsolete skills, many of which I once possessed:

Dialing a rotary phone;

Using a slide rule;

Using carbon paper to make copies;

Getting off the couch to change channels on the TV set; and,

Adjusting the rabbit ears on the TV set to improve the reception.

This has spawned a new site formally dedicated to obsolete skills, with a lengthy A-to-Z list of things we once needed to know, and now mark us as hopeless old codgers.

The world is moving on, and moving faster every day. Much of the information we once thought was important and the skills we once believed were critical is now quaintly outdated at best, or completely useless at worst. My grandchildren live in a world I would never have imagined, and I'm sure my parents and grandparents would say the same thing.

I'm not quite ready yet to sit on the proverbial ice floe and drift out to sea, but it's getting harder to keep up with the technological joneses all the time.

It does, however, provide ample things for us professional curmudgeons to grouse about.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Gordian Knot, 2008

Although I'm utterly unimpressed with everyone running for President this year, I'm still grateful that we have people willing to stand for election to the most thankless job in the world. If America gets blamed for everything that goes wrong in the world, the President - as the most recognizable American - is the one who gets burned in effigy and insulted in the UN by ludicrous buffoons like Hugo Chavez. You have to wonder why anyone would want the job, other than to live rent-free in the White House and throw out the first pitch of the baseball season. In one of Tom Clancy's novels, an advisor reminds accidental President Jack Ryan that, no matter what he does, 20% of the people will love him and 20% will hate him...his job is to connect with the 60% of the people who haven't made up their minds.

Today's e-mail from The Curmudgeon Online contained a quote from Lawrence Peter (articulator of the Peter Principle) that seems appropriate in this context:

"Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them."

Boy, ain't that the truth?

No matter what you do as President, you're goring someone's political, social, economic, or religious ox. Support gay rights and you alienate the religious right. Support gun control and you alienate the NRA, for whom there's only one issue in the world worth discussing. In favor of health care reform? - the AMA, the trial lawyers, and patient rights advocates all know how to solve the problem, and none of them agree. Financial catastrophe? - the Fed, the financial services industry, the banks can all rally reinforced battalions of lawyers to fight whatever you try to do to fix it. Everyone in the Middle East hates everyone else? - You are said to be the only person who can bring all sides together, but nobody takes you seriously because they think the other side has you in its pocket. About the only thing no one will criticize is how you go to the bathroom...and if that issue ever comes up, surely the New York Times and Washington Post will run front-page-above-the-fold articles claiming (on the basis of information from confidential sources) that you can't hit the urinal without assistance.

When you're the President, everyone expects you to untie the Gordian Knot into which all the world's problems are bound. Unfortunately, Alexander's solution won't work for you, because Congress decides whether or not to pay for your sword, the Supreme Court ultimately decides whether you're allowed to draw it, and the rest of the world will criticize you for wielding it.

I wouldn't want the job, but I'm glad there are people who do.

Even if I don't like any of this year's choices.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Olympic Flame-Out, Revisited

Last week I posted a piece titled Olympic Flame-Out, in which I suggested that the ongoing anti-Chinese demonstrations against the Olympic torch relay were counterproductive. That post generated nine comments (including my response to comments by Anonymous and Chimera, who strongly disagreed with me).

I haven't changed my opinion, and I doubt that my readers have changed theirs. But I'd like to offer you the opportunity to read an article that provides a thoughtful and important perspective on understanding Chinese behavior.

My friend Jake sent me this article, China's Loyal Youth by Matthew Forney, which was published in the New York Times last Sunday. Mr Forney, formerly Time Magazine's Beijing bureau chief, draws on his experience of living in and reporting from China to remind American readers that the world looks like a very different place from the perspective of a young, educated, urban Chinese. The article begins with this observation:

"Many sympathetic Westerners view Chinese society along the lines of what they saw in the waning days of the Soviet Union: a repressive government backed by old hard-liners losing its grip to a new generation of well-educated, liberal-leaning sophisticates. As pleasant as this outlook may be, it’s na├»ve. Educated young Chinese, far from being embarrassed or upset by their government’s human-rights record, rank among the most patriotic, establishment-supporting people you’ll meet."

Mr Forney goes on to enumerate the reasons that young Chinese are so patriotic. Indoctrination-style education which minimizes the more negative parts of Chinese history and stresses past injustices directed against China is one; effective spin and management of the news is another. He points out that the average young adult Chinese has no memory of the Tienanmen Square massacre, and will probably never hear about it in school. The horrors of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution are glossed over with the observation that Chairman Mao was "30 percent wrong." Young urban Chinese see a booming economy that's producing a good life, but don't see the inequality and misery of the more remote provinces. They study hard, but lack an international outlook and understanding of foreign perceptions. They can't fathom why crazy and ungrateful people in Tibet should be rioting, because as far as they know, China has - at great sacrifice and expense - dragged a poor, feudal society into the 21st century...as Mr Forney writes, "They can’t imagine why Tibetans would turn up their noses at rising incomes and the promise of a more prosperous future. The loss of a homeland just doesn’t compute as a valid concern."

I strongly recommend you read the whole article. I think it will give you a new perspective on how to reach the mind of the young, educated Chinese. It also, I believe, supports my contention that noisy demonstrations against the Olympic flame relay make good news reporting, but don't have the desired effect on the government and population the demonstrators most want to affect.

As I wrote last week, there's nothing wrong with demonstrating against injustice. The Chinese government has acted reprehensibly in Tibet and Darfur. But if you're going to demonstrate against Chinese government actions, you need to know what you want your demonstration to accomplish, and structure it accordingly. Looked at in this way, I don't think demonstrating against the torch relay accomplishes anything except piss off a billion and a half people who lack the political and historical background to understand what's going on.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The State of the Campaign in Mid April

As we go through the extended national root canal of the 2008 presidential campaign, I remain amazed that anyone still wants to consider themselves a Republican or a Democrat, to the extent that those labels still have any meaning. It looks like there are:

Ultra-Conservative Republicans, who think everything that's happened since 1789 has done nothing but ruin the country.

Conservative Republicans, who hate Democrats of any sort, as well as Republicans who fail to worship at the festooned altar of Ronald Reagan.

Mainstream Republicans, who consider themselves "conservative," but aren't quite as hysterical about most things as Conservative or Ultra-Conservative Republicans. They might be appealing, but can't organize themselves enough to rein in the most radical wings of their party to create a comprehensive, understandable, and realistic platform most Americans can support.

Liberal Republicans, who are viewed by Conservative and Mainstream Republicans as heretics and apostates, fit only to use as kindling at an auto-da-fe.

Conservative Democrats, who might be attracted by Mainstream and Liberal Republican ideas, but can't stand the thought of being associated with the extreme right.

Mainstream Democrats, who are embarrassed by the antics of their party's extreme wing, but can't get themselves organized enough to rein them in and come up with a coherent platform that can appeal to most Americans.

Liberal Democrats, who think it's still 1965 and seem to view things through a hazy cloud of burning hemp; and

Ultra-Liberal Democrats, who just don't think, period.

As for the candidates:

Barak Obama is an empty suit, but sounds good to those who don't look below the rhetoric in search of the substance.

Hillary Clinton has more relevant experience than Mr Obama, but not as much as she wants to think. She's also got the albatross of Bill Clinton hanging around her neck.

John McCain is a brave American and a genuine war hero with broad experience in military and legislative leadership, but in trying to appeal to everyone, he's managed to alienate the Conservative and Ultra-Conservative Republicans and the Liberal and Ultra-Liberal Democrats. Most of the rest of the people are getting suspicious, too.

So who do I support in the November elections?

Nobody.

The only candidate I can actually admire is John McCain, but I can't figure out what he really believes in, and don't think I could handle another four (or eight) years of Republican administration. As a pubic speaker of some experience, I enjoy listening to some of Barak Obama's speeches, although after a while they all sound the same and there's nothing substantive behind the grand rhetoric. And forget Hillary Clinton - her resume inflation alone has gotten under my skin, and I think she's an empty dress to match Mr Obama's empty suit.

So far, I'm voting for "none of the above" in November. You'd think that in a country with over 300 million people, we could have come up with three better candidates than these.

Wake me when it's over.

No, wait! Just let me sleep on. I think the self-induced coma may be better.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Monday, April 14, 2008

A Good Weekend, with Pictures!

After a morning of pouring rain and general misery, last Saturday turned out to be a good day - the sky cleared, the sun came out, and it turned warm and pleasant. I took the opportunity to take my camera and snap a few early photos of my garden, plus a few pictures of spring flowers with my spiffy macro lens...

Here's the left side garden as of April 12th:

Three basil plants on the left, three rosemary plants on the right; two tarragons in the back, two dills in the middle, and two thymes in front. If things grow like they did last year, we (and all the neighbors) should have plenty of herbs for the year.

And here's the right side:

The parsley and chives came roaring back from last year, and there's still some space in the back for something else...I may put in some more thyme, since we use lots of it.

I also took Punky and wandered the neighborhood looking for good pictures of spring flowers. Here are a few samples:

Isn't Spring great?

On Sunday, we drove up to the University of Maryland at College Park for the Baby BAM Jam, a beginner-level dance competition sponsored by BAM (Ballroom at Maryland), the university ballroom dance club. We didn't go specifically for the competition, although we did enjoy watching some of the warm-ups and practice dances; we actually went because we'd learned that a noted British tailor would be there to take measurements and orders for custom-tailored men's tailsuits for international-style dancing. Since I'm now learning (and ready to compete in) the international style, Agnes has decided that my trusty classic tuxedo needs to be augmented by the tailsuit that's considered proper attire for international events. Sigh.

If you want to know what it's like to dance in tails, you can get an idea from this comment by Adam Corolla on "Dancing with the Stars:" Samantha Harris asked him if he was able to relax a little more since he'd survived two weeks of competition, and he replied, "Relax? I'm wearing a nine-piece suit and dancing live in front of 25 million people, and you want me to relax??"

The man has a point.

Once I get the tailsuit (before our next planned competition in June), I'll have Agnes take a picture of me looking suave and debonaire...or swayve and deboner, as is probably more accurate. The ladies can all swoon and Mike can make jokes...but of course, he's just jealous.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Sunday, April 13, 2008

No Guarantees!

When you buy an expensive electronic gizmo or a car or a major appliance, one of the things you probably look for is the warranty - the manufacturer's offer of repair, replacement, or refund if something goes wrong within the period of guarantee. The more money you spend on the product, the more likely you are (well, I am, anyhow) to expect a solid guarantee of performance.

But as we know, expectations frequently crash on the rocks of reality.

This has bothered me for a long time, but most recently in regards to the huge travel mess caused by American Airlines' cancellation of thousands of flights in order to carry out FAA-mandated inspections of wiring harnesses in its fleet of MD-80 aircraft. Much has been written about the hardships encountered by stranded passengers, and the bottom line of many of the stories is that it's better to endure the short-term agony of disrupted travel than to risk deadly accidents. Can't argue with that, I suppose.

Unless you are one of those people who foolishly thinks that, in exchange for your payment of a fare, the airline is actually guaranteeing to fly you from point A to point B. Think again.

I call your attention to this article that ran on the CNN website the other day, in particular this quote:

"...airlines are not required to compensate passengers for canceled flights. The only time airlines legally have to provide compensation is when a passenger is bumped from an overbooked flight, according to the Department of Transportation's Aviation Consumer Protection Division."

Yes, you read that correctly. The airline is not required to give you your money back if they fail to deliver the transportation service for which you paid in good faith.

I took a few minutes to check the website of the Department of Transportation's Aviation Consumer Protection Division, where I read this:

"Contrary to the belief of some, airlines are not required to compensate passengers for "damages" when flights are delayed or canceled. Compensation is required by law only when you are "bumped" from a flight that is oversold. Airlines almost always refuse to pay passengers for financial losses resulting from a delayed flight. If the purpose of your trip is to close a potentially lucrative business deal, to give a speech or lecture, to attend a family function, or to be present at any time-sensitive event, you might want to allow a little extra time and take an earlier flight. In other words, airline delays and cancellations are not unusual, and defensive planning is a good idea when time is your most important consideration."

Note that defensive planning on your part is said to be a good idea, rather than airlines actually planning to deliver promised service.

I understand that some things are beyond the airlines' control. They can't ensure perfect flying weather, for instance. If my destination is socked in by a huge snowstorm, well, they can't do much about it. But if they can't deliver the service for which I paid, why should they be allowed to keep the money? Or offer me a "voucher" for a future flight I may not need?

I need a better lobby in Congress to shape the laws on my behalf.

The lack of guarantees for performance isn't limited to the airlines. If you got kicked in your fiscal crotch during the ongoing financial meltdown, the "professionals" on whom you may have relied for advice aren't accepting any liability, either. Our financial advisor is probably as good as any other, and generally does a good job of helping us lurch toward retirement. But she offers no guarantees of her effective performance as a steward of our meager retirement funds. In a recent exchange of e-mails, I noticed that her standard message template includes the following at the bottom (extracted from a much longer set of words):

"Investment and insurance products:

"Are Not FDIC Insured *** May Lose Value *** Are Not Bank Guaranteed

"The information contained in this e-mail was obtained from sources believed to be reliable; however, XXX Investment Services, Inc. does not guarantee the accuracy or completeness of this information, nor is it responsible for results obtained from use of this information.

"The delivery of this information ... in no way guarantees the future performance of the securities.


"Past performance is no guarantee of future results."

In other words, "I think I'm giving you good advice, but if it doesn't work out, I'm not responsible."

I think I'm in the wrong line of work.

In my job, I'm paid for being able to apply my specialized knowledge of an arcane set of topics to produce useful and timely advice and products for a demanding customer. If I don't deliver the promised product, or if the advice I provide results in other losses or problems, I get fired. This is as it should be. I don't have the option of putting a disclaimer on my work that says, in effect, this is my best effort, but if it doesn't meet your needs, I'm not responsible - no refunds, no guarantees.

So riddle me this, Batman: whatever happened to the quaint concept of taking responsibility for one's actions? Yes, I know it's a silly question, but I just had to ask it.

And so, maybe, should you. After all, we're all in this mess together.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Cartoon Saturday

It looks as if today will be a strange weather day - mostly cloudy, with rain off and on - so I guess it'll be a day to do inside chores, rather than work in the garden (which I finally got planted on Thursday evening, yay!). But regardless of the weather, it's the start of the weekend, and that means it's Cartoon Saturday.

This is one of my favorites, and it's been in my collection for years. A little black humor isn't a bad thing...


From time to time, I could use a little help...


As I always suspected...


Everybody needs an appropriate, up to date job title...


And, finally...

I'm always on the lookout for great cartoons. If you have one you particularly like, send it to me at bilbo_the_blogger@yahoo.com.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Friday, April 11, 2008

My Next Car

The first car I ever owned was a 1973 AMC Hornet Sportabout. I have also owned many other cars over the years, including a Volkswagen Rabbit, a Chevy Nova, a Ford Aerostar van, and - now - a 1999 Pontiac Grand Prix. They've all been good cars in their way, but yesterday I found the car I really want:

Yes, it's a tank.

According to this article from the Flint (Michigan) Journal, Kettering University Student Will Foster has built a 1/2-size model of a World War II-vintage German panzer. According to Mr Foster, the tank cost about $2000 to build, has a maximum speed of 20mph on a three-cylinder diesel engine, and is equipped with an air cannon which fires golf balls and empty Red Bull cans.

I have just got to have one of these.

Just think of it: no more worries about finding a parking place - just park on top of anyone who's in the space you like. No more fears of other drivers with road rage. Plenty of traction for those nasty winter driving conditions. Of course, gas mileage is probably not that great, and it's probably tough to parallel park, but hey, it's a tank. How cool is that?

The great 1932 film "If I Had a Million" tells the stories of eight people selected at random from the telephone book by a dying millionaire who leaves each a million dollars. My favorite is W.C. Fields, who plays frustrated driver Rollo La Rue: Rollo uses his money to buy a fleet of old cars and hire a crew of drivers...each time he goes out for a drive, he takes several of the cars with him and, when another driver angers him, he signals one of his crew...who pulls out and rams the offending car. I've often wished I could do that, but a tank is definitely better.

I hope the airlines get their schedules straightened out soon, because I've got to get to Flint right away.

And then all those lousy DC area drivers had better watch out!

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Noise Annoys

It's loud out there.

For some reason, the world seems to get louder all the time, and for someone like myself who appreciates peace and quiet, it's pretty disconcerting. No matter where you go, it seems like there's more and more discordant noise - not just loud music, but shouted cell phone conversations, traffic noise, advertisements, low-flying airplanes, etc. There's no escape from noise.

Tom Sietsema, the Washington Post's food critic, published an article in last weekend's Washington Post Magazine on the subject of noisy restaurants, in which he bemoaned the impact of noise on the dining experience and announced that his restaurant reviews will henceforth include a noise rating ranging from quiet (normal conversation possible) to extremely loud (noise level exceeds that of heavy traffic).

Commercials on television also tend to be played at a louder volume than the surrounding programs. We've all experienced the frantic-grab-for-the-remote to turn down the volume when our favorite programs give way to overly-loud urgings for us to buy shampoo, cars, cereal, or Viagra. The sudden change in volume is meant to get your attention, and it works ... but probably not in a positive way.

It's getting harder all the time to find oases of peace and quiet. Even libraries - once the bastions of quiet enforced by strict librarians - now are under assault from cell phones and people unable or unwilling to hold down the volume for a while. Some commuter trains have designated "quiet cars" for those seeking escape from cell phones and music players.

The volume of "normal conversation" for some people also tends to be very loud. Some ethnic groups appear to be louder in general than others, and people across the board seem to be getting louder every year. This has been ascribed in part to the long-term impact on hearing of listening to very loud music - after years of listening to hard rock, heavy metal, and hip-hop music played at boiler-factory volume, the ears eventually don't register lower volumes, and people find it necessary literally to shout at each other. Loud noise can be, literally, hazardous to your health.

But so, it seems, can be quiet.

CNN reported yesterday on allegations that hybrid cars are too quiet, and thus pose a hazard to blind pedestrians who can't hear them coming. I've already noticed that hybrid cars are very quiet, which I've actually found refreshing - it beats the thunderous roar of cars with cancerous (or missing) mufflers favored by some people - but it does increase the danger of street-crossing for those who depend on sound to give warning of oncoming traffic.

On balance, I vote for quiet. I can always train myself to be more careful crossing the street, but I can't recover hearing battered by inescapable noise. So...

Until we've worked the bugs out of the Cone of Silence, please keep it down.

Thanks.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Cone of Silence

One of my favorite old television shows was the classic Get Smart, starring Don Adams as bumbling secret agent Maxwell Smart. It was stupid, funny, and a great sendup of the more serious shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Mission: Impossible. Who can forget great lines like "Sorry about that, Chief," and "Missed it by that much"?

While the most memorable secret agent tool of the show was Maxwell Smart's famous shoe phone, my favorite was the Cone of Silence - the transparent plastic bubble that descended to enclose the conference table in The Chief's office to ensure private conversations. The show being what it was, the Cone of Silence never quite worked right...Smart and The Chief had to cope with thundering echoes when they used it (or when they used the Portable Cone of Silence, which looked like a huge plastic dumbbell - one end clamped over each man's head, and the conversation took place through the connecting tube, with similar results to the basic model).

The Cone of Silence lives.

Many people seem to think that cell phones have a built-in Cone of Silence. Which of us hasn't shared the trials and tribulations of the person shouting loudly into his (or her) phone at the next table in a restaurant, or behind us on the bus? A while back in this blog I told the story of a conversation I overheard in an airport gate area in which a fellow was loudly berating the staff in his proctologist's office because they couldn't give him an appointment when he wanted one. I hope he got it...he was certainly quite a pain in my ... well ... never mind.

Why do people believe the Cone of Silence descends when they use their cell phones? The other day I was in a Pentagon men's room, and had the pleasure of listening to a fellow sitting in the stall behind me, carrying on a loudly-intimate (?) conversation with a lady he was attempting to convince that he wasn't cheating on her. I wonder what the lady would have thought if she'd known where he was calling from. I also wonder what made the fellow think that closing the stall door would provide privacy for such a personal call.

There's been much written about poor cell phone etiquette, and there's not too much more I can say on the subject, other than to just gently remind everyone that the Cone of Silence doesn't work any better for you than it did for Maxwell Smart.

And I hope your proctologist can see you when you need her.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Olympic Flame-Out

Although I find it distasteful, I have to admit that for once I agree with the Chinese government on something: the raucous demonstrations against the Olympic torch relay are despicable. I don't, however, believe that for the same reason the Chinese do.

What is it, exactly, that the protesters hope to accomplish with these actions? Call attention to Chinese actions in Tibet? I think the world is already pretty well aware of this. Condemn the relative lack of personal freedom in China? Chances are that most Chinese (at least, those who are better educated and live in the well-developed coastal regions and large cities) don't see it the same way.

I have no problem with organized protests...sometimes they're the only way to call attention to injustices or problems. But for a protest to be effective, it's got to be able to accomplish its purpose, and I don't think that protests that target China's hosting of the Summer Olympics are going to accomplish what the protesters want. At best, they'll accomplish nothing. At worst, they'll backfire and cause worse problems down the road.

Protests work when they have some element of leverage over the targeted agency (government, company, etc). One element of leverage is popular opinion. In a democracy, the government generally takes protests into account and adjusts its policies based on the popular will (assuming that the protests are widespread enough and the expressed grievances have sufficient foundation in fact).

Now, consider that the Chinese government maintains a near-total monopoly on news entering the country. Television and radio news is carefully monitored and supervised by the government, and you can read a very good article about the so-called Great Firewall of China, which filters out information the government doesn't want the average Chinese to know, in this article from Atlantic Monthly. Consider a few examples of what the average Chinese is allowed to know about a few international incidents:

Concerning Tibet, the average Chinese knows that Tibet is a paradise that owes all its development and advancement to China, that the Dalai Lama is a monster in human form, that the ungrateful Tibetans are attacking Chinese for no reason. There is no mention or acknowledgment of the legitimate grievances of the Tibetans...only of the righteous indignation of the aggrieved Chinese.

A few years ago, a Chinese fighter collided with an American reconnaissance aircraft over international waters while doing some fairly aggressive maneuvers to intimidate it and force it away from the Chinese mainland. The Chinese plane was lost and pilot killed, and the badly-damaged American aircraft made an emergency landing at an airfield on Hainan Island. What did the Chinese people learn from their government? That a large, four-engined, propeller-driven aircraft flown by a crazily aggressive American spy had recklessly rammed a heroic Chinese jet fighter stalwartly defending his homeland.

As for the Olympics, the Chinese government position is that the Dalai Lama and other evil people are trying to embarrass China and deny it the opportunity to showcase its "harmonious society" and economic achievements by attacking the Olympic ideal.

These examples illustrate how the Chinese government, with it's monopoly on information, is able to spin world events to present only one side of the argument. Without access to all sides of the issue, the Chinese population knows only what it's being told...and it's being presented with a very slanted picture of events.

My point is this: protests targeting the Olympics are counterproductive. The only ones being hurt are the people carrying the Olympic torch, and the athletes who may end up being deprived of the opportunity to compete in the games. The protests only convince the average Chinese citizen to swell up in righteous indignation and feed the paranoia of ultranationalists.

How do we influence the Chinese government to change its policies? I don't know. But I do know how not to do it...by shameful and counterproductive demonstrations targeting the Olympic flame relay.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Monday, April 07, 2008

Criminal Masterminds

One of the prime sources of "filler" for newspapers and Internet news sites is the "stupid criminal" story. It seems there's never a shortage of people who are not only dumb enough to break the law, but dumb enough to make you shake your head at their methodology.

And so it was that I found this article interesting last week: Burglar Plays Dead in Funeral Parlor.

Yes, in Burjassot, Spain, a small town near Valencia, an aspiring criminal mastermind broke into a funeral parlor in search of ... well ... let's not go there. Anyhow, in the process of breaking and entering, he made enough noise to alert the neighbors, who called the police, who responded and searched the building ... whereupon they eventually found the would-be burglar lying on a viewing table, playing dead. What gave him away?

1. The police noticed that, unlike the other patrons of the establishment who were dressed in their nice, presentable, ready-for-The-Big-Sleep suits and dresses, this particular corpse was dressed in dirty and wrinkled duds.

2. He was breathing.

This would have been a great story for the Darwin Awards, except that the guy wasn't actually dead.

The story ranks up there with the brilliant criminal who, a few years ago, held up the bank at which Agnes works ... and then, a few days later, came back and waited patiently in line to deposit the money he stole (still in its original wrappings) into his account. The story gets better, though: the fellow was, in fact, a military policeman.

Brains. Don't leave home without them.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Risk...More Than Just a Board Game

Ah, yes...I remember the good old days. When banks were banks, insurance companies were insurance companies, and Risk was a board game where you massed your multicolored armies to seize Irkutsk from your opponent with a lucky roll of the dice.

That's all gone now, especially the risk part.

You all know by now that I don't profess to understand high-level economics, other than as an example of herd psychology. But I do now understand that much of it involves the intelligent management of risk - Investorwords.com defines risk as "the quantifiable likelihood of loss or less-than-expected returns," while my trusty Websters New Collegiate Dictionary defines it as a noun as "possibility of loss or injury," and as a verb as "to expose to hazard or danger."

Risk is at the heart of our economic system. If you want rewards, you incur risks. You invest in a company at the risk that you will lose your money, but on the expectation that your money will in fact grow if that company takes off. There's nothing wrong with this...in general, if you do your homework and invest wisely, you can minimize the risk.

Unfortunately, recent events have shown that risk is a variable thing. You and I, as small investors, assume a great deal of risk; very large banks and brokerage houses assume very little.

When the investment brokerage house Bear Stearns threatened to go under last month, the Federal Reserve arranged a buyout of the company (at a fire-sale price) to J.P. Morgan Chase. So far, so good. After all, as Fed Chief Ben Bernanke told the Senate Banking Committee on April 3, "Given the exceptional pressures on the global economy and financial system, the damage caused by a default by Bear Stearns could have been severe and extremely difficult to contain." Hmmmm...

What risk did J.P. Morgan Chase incur by purchasing Bear Stearns? It depends on how you look at it. J. P. Morgan bought Bear Stearns with assistance from the Fed in the form of a loan backed by $30 billion of Bear Stearns assets, agreeing to absorb the first $1 billion of losses if the value of the assets declines. The government - meaning You and I, the American Taxpayer, is at risk for the remaining $29 billion.

I was listening to an interview on this topic on NPR one evening last week. Unfortunately, I was driving at the time and didn't write down exactly which government official was being interviewed on the Bear Stearns bailout, but I remember the question that really got my attention: the interviewer was trying to pin down the interviewee on the amount of risk the American Taxpayer was incurring as a result of this action. The interviewee flatly stated that there was little or no risk.

Let's look at this from the perspective of an inquisitive fellow in Northern Virginia with a large mortgage.

If there is little or no risk to you and I from the government's guaranteeing $29 billion of a $30 billion acquisition backed by $30 billion of Bear Stearns assets, why was J. P. Morgan Chase only willing to accept $1 billion of the entire $30 billion risk? What did they see that isn't quite obvious to me? Why is there little or no risk in accepting the $30 billion of assets that somehow weren't enough to save Bear Stearns in the first place? It sounds like it should be a sure thing.

It also sounds to me like you and I are being played for all-day suckers.

I don't know much about economics, but I know this: if I make a bad investment, and lose my shirt, the Fed isn't going to have a bunch of weekend meetings to figure out how to save me. My IRA took an $11,000 beating last quarter, and that was on the basis of the best advice of my financial advisor, whose sage advice is to "look at the long term...don't worry about short-term fluctuations." If I had the money of a J. P. Morgan Chase and the backing of a compliant Fed, that would sound a lot better than it does.

If I don't make payments on my house, the bank will have me living out of a shopping cart before you can say "leveraged buy-out." I don't see much chance of J. P. Morgan Chase rushing to my aid.

Risk was fun when I was trying to wrest Irkutsk from another player. It's much less fun when you're playing on a field where the rules can change from day to day, and you're too small to have someone worry about minimizing your risk.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Cartoon Saturday

I have 20 minutes until time to wake Agnes up...I'm not totally awake myself...my joints hurt from dancing last night...

Time for Cartoon Saturday!

I've always been amazed at the way financial professionals can do such a fine job of looting the economy and yet get bailed out at our expense. I'll have more to say on that tomorrow. For now, it's all in how you apply "generally accepted accounting principles," and I think this version is truer than we might want to admit:


A few days ago I wrote about terrorists and nipple rings, and this cartoon seemed somehow appropriate to my response to this deadly new threat:


If the shoe fits:

Some people are just really good at what they do:


And finally, from the Department of Really Silly But Really Funny (to me, anyhow):



Have a good weekend. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Friday, April 04, 2008

Corporate Economics for Dummies

I've often admitted here that I don't understand the financial markets and the vast opportunities they give some people to get rich and others to get like me. Until recently, I thought macroeconomics had to deal with the price of pasta. I've been looking for a clear, comprehensive explanation of corporate economics so that I can gird my fiscal loins against the battering they're taking recently (my IRA took a hit of over $11,000 in the last quarter. The next hit is coming on my financial advisor).

Look no further!

Here, courtesy of one of my friends, is the best explanation of corporate economics I've ever seen. I've actually seen previous versions of this, but this one is the most clear and comprehensive. Read it carefully...it's at least as good as anything any s0-called professional economist or financial planner will give you:

Democratic: You have two cows. Your neighbor has none. You feel guilty for being successful. Barbara Streisand sings for you.

Republican: You have two cows. Your neighbor has none. So?

Socialist: You have two cows. The government takes one and gives it to your neighbor. You form a cooperative to tell him how to manage his cow.

Communist: You have two cows. The government seizes both and provides you with milk. You wait in line for hours to get it. It is expensive and sour.

Capitalism, American Style: You have two cows. You sell one, buy a bull, and build a herd of cows.

Bureaucracy, American Style: You have two cows. Under the new farm program the government pays you to shoot one, milk the other, and then pour the milk down the drain.

American Corporation: You have two cows. You sell one, lease it back to yourself and do an IPO on the 2nd one. You force the two cows to produce the milk of four cows. You are surprised when one cow drops dead. You spin an announcement to the analysts stating you have downsized and are reducing expenses. Your stock goes up.

French Corporation: You have two cows. You go on strike because you want three cows. You go to lunch and drink wine. Life is good.

Japanese Corporation: You have two cows. You redesign them so they are one-tenth the size of an ordinary cow and produce twenty times the milk. They learn to travel on unbelievably crowded trains. Most are at the top of their class at cow school.

German Corporation: You have two cows. You engineer them so they are all blond, drink lots of beer, give excellent quality milk, and run a hundred miles an hour. Unfortunately they also demand 13 weeks of vacation per year.

Italian Corporation: You have two cows but you don't know where they are. While ambling around looking for them, you see a beautiful woman. You break for lunch. Life is good.

Russian Corporation: You have two cows. You have some vodka. You count them and learn you have five cows. You have some more vodka. You count them again and learn you have 42 cows. The Mafia shows up and takes over however many cows you really have.

Taliban Corporation: You have all the cows in Afghanistan, which are two. You don't milk them because you cannot touch any creature's private parts. You get a $40 million grant from the US government to find alternatives to milk production, and use the money to buy weapons.

Iraqi Corporation: You have two cows. They go into hiding and send audio tapes of their mooing.

Polish Corporation: You have two bulls. Employees are regularly maimed and killed attempting to milk them.

Belgian Corporation: You have one cow. The cow is schizophrenic. Sometimes the cow thinks she's French, other times she thinks she's Flemish. The Flemish cow won't share with the French cow. The French cow wants control of the Flemish cow's milk. The cow asks permission to be cut in half. The cow dies happy.

Florida Corporation: You have a black cow and a brown cow. Everyone votes for the best looking one. Some of the people who actually like the brown one best accidentally vote for the black one. Some people vote for both. Some people vote for neither. Some people can't figure out how to vote at all. Finally, a bunch of guys from out-of-state tell you which one you think is the best-looking cow.

California Corporation: You have millions of cows. They make real California cheese. Only five speak English. Most are illegals. Arnold likes the ones with the big udders.

And there you have it! Don't thank me, it's a public service.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Standards of ... um ... Performance

Each year scientists conduct tens of thousands of studies on subjects of all kinds, which produce mountains of reports, most of which occupy pride of place on remote, dusty shelves, never to be taken down unless they're the right size to level up an uneven table leg. Many of those studies are funded by your tax dollars and examine all sorts of obscure subjects important to one congressional district or another...you can read about many of them in "The Pig Book," which was discussed in this CNN report the other day.

But today I call your attention to this valuable study which - amazingly enough - seems not to have been funded by a Congressional earmark, and which will be of interest to men everywhere.

A survey of sex therapists, the results of which will be published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine next month, concluded that the optimal amount of time for sexual intercourse is 3 to 13 minutes. This will, of course, be welcome news to those overly excitable men who finish their sexual encounter if their partner smiles at them across the dinner table.

There are asterisks, of course...the 3 to 13 minute time span documented in the study does not count foreplay, and the surveyed therapists rated sexual intercourse that lasts from 1 to 2 minutes as "too short" (well, duh...).

Now, I'm no expert on either scientific studies or sex (at my age, I have but vague memories of the latter), but somehow I have to think it was unnecessary to spend any money on a study of the optimum time for a sexual encounter: most men, if asked, would probably say, "until I'm done;" most women would probably say, "until I'm done;" end of study, thank you very much. In any case, since the women in the study were armed with stopwatches (!), one has to imagine that the results may have been skewed by more-than-usual performance anxiety on the part of the men...the ticking of a stopwatch in the hands of ones partner could tend to be a little more off-putting than soft jazz playing in the background.

So, male readers, take heart if you are challenged in the arena of sexual endurance...it's not as bad as you think! Just make sure your partner has a chance to read the study. You can even underline the good parts, and block out the part about 1 to 2 minutes being too short.

Female readers, it has been officially documented that 1 to 2 minutes is too short, and the 3 to 13 minutes doesn't include foreplay. Stand up for your rights! Or lie down, whatever.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

America's National Pastime

No, it's not waiting for the next Britney Spears meltdown, or the next message of imminent disaster for the financial community.

Baseball season has started.

Not that I care very much, of course, not being a baseball fan on the order of John. I enjoy playing baseball, but don't find it all that interesting to watch, and I've never been able to get into the Talmudic parsing of the most obscure statistics and game trivia that seem to inspire true baseball fans:

Announcer: "And now Schmidlap steps up to bat. He was 3 for 4 last season, with a batting average of .300, 563 RBI's, 5200 RPM's, and an RDA of 300 mg's. Schmidlap holds the American League record for at-bats by a right-handed, blue-eyed, cross-dressing lapsed Catholic history buff with three children and a dog."

Bar Patron: "That's wrong!! He had 5204 RPM's last year, which was his personal best record for a year divisible by 3! And he has a cat, not a dog!"

One of the time-honored traditions of American baseball is that the President throws out the first pitch of the opening game. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it gives presidents something to do that they can't really screw up. Of course, in my opinion, we should have thrown out the president and kept the ball, but that's just me. Or as writer Gore Vidal once said, "These presidential ninnies should stick to throwing out baseballs and leave the important matters to serious people."

I think Mr Vidal was on to something.

Here in Washington, DC, the brand-new stadium for the Washington Nationals has just opened to generally rave reviews, except from the nearby small shop-owners who are finding their rents soaring out of sight as developers rush to build up the previously-distressed neighborhood. Parking? If you want to park within a day's walk of the stadium, take out a second mortgage on your house first. Or you could take the Metro to the stadium and save the parking money to pay for your hot dog, popcorn, and drink, which will cost you an amount equal to the GNP of a small African nation.

But if that's your thing, by all means go for it. In fact, treat your congressman to a trip to a game. For the few hours he'll be watching the game, he won't be able to foul up the economy any more.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

P.S. - Last night was the second elimination on Dancing with the Stars, and actor Steve Gutenberg was voted off the hardwood island. Too bad. I personally think Marissa Jaret Winokur should have gone, but that's the breaks. The high point of the results show was the "Mango" danced by Steve Gutenberg and Jonathan Roberts. Roberts had stepped in to train Gutenberg during the previous week while his wife - Gutenberg's partner Anna Trebunskaya - was sick. It was hysterical.

B.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Who's the April Fool?

Today is April 1st - April Fool's Day. The origins of this celebration of tomfoolery are complicated, but you can read two versions of its history here and here. One version of the history tells us that the celebration of April 1st as a day of trickery and lightheartedness can be traced back to the change from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar in the West...because a week went missing in the change, and communications at that time were quite slow and unreliable (comparable to the speed and quality of communication between Congress and the President today), some people either didn't get the word, or elected to stay with their traditional calendar and be a week out of sync with their fellows...who made fun of these "April Fools."

Today, we celebrate April Fool's Day with silly practical jokes - who hasn't seem something like an office with everything in it wrapped in aluminum foil, or received a message to call "Mr Lyons" at a particular number...which turns out to be the number of the local zoo?

But the real April Fools, I say, are you and I. We are the victims of an enormous practical joke played on us by those who have wrecked the economy through their shameless greed and lack of willingness to accept responsibility for their actions. Lots of people made a killing in the subprime mortgage market, leaving a vast mess for the April Fools - taxpayers like you and I - to clean up. We're the victims of a joke far more disastrous than having our offices shrink-wrapped or our telephone numbers spread around with the note to "call ... for a good time."

The real April Fools are the people who have lost their homes because unscrupulous lenders convinced them to take out mortgages they couldn't afford, the Enron employees whose life savings vanished in an instant, and the people whose retirement plans are in the toilet because they were invested in unregulated and irresponsible financial instruments.

At a time when our national infrastructure is crumbling, we're bogged down in ugly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we're awash in a flood of illegal immigrants, our taxes must now be used to fix the mess caused by greedy and irresponsible financial "managers" who tried to enrich themselves without thought of the consequences.

Happy April Fool's Day. At least there's one day a year we can celebrate each other.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo