Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Day At the Park

This past Sunday was a beautiful Spring day here in Northern Virginia, and we decided to take advantage of the nice weather to take Leya to the playground at a nearby school. As you might suspect, a good time was had by all ...

Contrary to what you might think from her face, Opa did, in fact, take a shower today...

Mama was having fun, too. Really.

I know why hamsters like these things!

You know, I could get up a lot more speed if Mama and Oma would just back off ...

Ohhhh!! A puddle!! Gotta check it out...

Hmmm...if we take some of that water ... and add fistfuls of wood chips ... it's not quite as cool as the cornstarch and water, but it's not bad!

My Opa thinks I'm a real swinger!

If Mama would just stop worrying, I could show her I've got this balance beam thing nailed!

Oh, oh ... this slide is a little higher and steeper than I thought ...

But oh, heck - let's go for it!

And Oma still seems to have a little energy left, so maybe we can do some airplane rides...

Yes, there's nothing quite like a day at the playground with a 19-month-old toddler to make you feel young again. Or a lot older.

But it's all worth it.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, March 30, 2009

Laughing at the Terrorists

The Outlook section of yesterday's Washington Post had a very interesting article in its recurring section titled "What's the Big Idea?" In yesterday's article, the big idea was a unique antiterrorism tactic: Want to Fight Terrorists? Try Mocking Them.

The article was based on a longer essay from the April issue of the magazine Prospect titled License to Kill. In this essay, the authors hypothesized that violent extremism often appeals to young Muslims because it appears to offer "adventure, excitement, and notoriety," in contrast to their lives which are frequently ones of poverty, oppression, and sexual repression (the 72 virgins waiting to service them in paradise if they're killed in their adventure are just icing on the cake). The authors cite research which shows that most members of Islamic terrorist cells "...tend to be young men with little religious training beyond 'a few cut-and-paste lines' of jihadi literature."

The suggestion? Attack the mystique of glorious jihad, and show that the life of the Islamic extremist is more like that of the petty thug than the heroic secret agent. The authors contend that if the extremists are mocked and belittled, their appeal will diminish.

This may not be as silly as it may sound.

In a 2006 article titled Ridicule as a Weapon, Professor J. Michael Waller of the Institute of World Politics suggested that "...we inadvertently aid our enemies and potential enemies by taking them too seriously," and wondered whether "...our relentless portrayal of individuals, ideologies, movements and philosophies as mortal dangers to America enhance the enemies’ status and prestige." His suggestion: use ridicule as a weapon. He contends that ridicule

- raises morale at home;
- strips the enemy/adversary of his mystique and prestige;
- erodes the enemy’s claim to justice;
- eliminates the enemy’s image of invincibility; and,
- literally, can be a fate worse than death.

We always tend to demonize our enemies, but this runs the risk of making them seem larger and more fearsome than they are. During World War II, Nazi Germany was a truly existential threat to the nations of Europe and to the United States, and the German army seemed utterly invincible for the first few years of the war. But one strategy used against the Nazis was ridicule directed against Adolf Hitler. Hitler was mocked in cartoons that exaggerated his toothbrush mustache and bombastic rhetoric. Comic entertainer Spike Jones lustily sang his hit song "Der Fuehrer's Face," in which the Nazis' "heil!" salute was punctuated with loud raspberries, and Nazi racial and political theories were lampooned. The result was a boost in allied morale at a time when it was sorely needed.

Would ridiculing Islamic terrorists actually work? It might, but it would have to be carefully planned and executed. Care would have to be taken not to mock essential Islamic religious beliefs, but those which are twisted and exaggerated to offer a religious justification of murder. Good targets might be the theological two-step that attempts to show that suicide bombers are not really committing suicide, but carrying out "martyrdom operations," or the promise that those killed in violent jihad will be served in paradise by dark-eyed virgins (what's offered to the women who are conned into being suicide bombers, after all?).

Terrorism justified by religious beliefs is despicable, and the alleged "holy men" who encourage it surely have a special place awaiting them in hell. But if we can use weapons other than guns and missiles against them...if we can make the impressionable young men and women who are swept up in the mystique of violent jihad question their motivation...perhaps we can slowly strip away the appeal of violence.

It's worth a try.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, March 29, 2009

Cartoon Saturday. On Sunday. Don't Ask.

Mother Nature pounded much of the country this past week with blizzards, floods, and tornados; both of the bus routes I take to work are being proposed for elimination to help balance the county budget; a 14-year-old girl has been charged by police with posting nude photos of herself online; a "vast spying system" apparently based in China has systematically looted information from computers around the world; and an Army veteran was charged $3000 for treatment of wounds suffered in combat.

What more proof that you need Cartoon Saturday...even if it's on Sunday?

In last week's offering of cartoons using crash-test dummies, I somehow missed this classic:

We're always amazed at the proliferation of TV commercials hawking various drugs...especially when 80% of the air time is devoted to running down all the terrible side-effects the lawyers have to warn you about...

The idea itself isn't bad, but...

Getting old is bad enough, but when even the metaphors start taking a beating, you're in real trouble...

Another of those cartoons that I love because they put a bizarre twist on an ordinary situation or expression...

And finally, taking a poke - so to speak - at what mothers give up for their children. Or not.

For a few more good cartoons (including one I really wanted to use today, dammit), check out Mike's take on Cartoon Saturday.

Have a good day, and enjoy the rest of your weekend. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, March 27, 2009

Cartoon Saturday Will Be on Sunday This Week

Because I know how popular Cartoon Saturday is with my readers, I need to let you know that I will not be able to post on Saturday this week - I will be flying out of Colorado Springs at a ghastly early hour, won't arrive home until late afternoon, and plan to spend Saturday evening getting reacquainted with Agnes.

Therefore, Cartoon Saturday will appear on Sunday this week. It'll confuse Mike, but the rest of you should be able to handle it.

Have a great Saturday, and I'll see you back in this space for Cartoon ... uh ... Sunday.


Random Thoughts on a Snowbound Day

Well, it's happened. My flight this morning has officially been cancelled...fortunately, I anticipated it yesterday afternoon and rebooked. Unfortunately, I can't get out today, and am booked out Saturday morning. So here I am, surrounded by roads that are sheets of ice, blowing snow, and generally yucky conditions. Good thing I have plenty of books, my crossword puzzle magazine, and my ailing laptop.

A few random thoughts for a blizzardy morning...

Sean Penn has apparently been cast to play, of all people, Larry in the upcoming Three Stooges film. Jim Carrey and Benicio del Toro are rumored to be playing the roles of the other two Stooges, Curly and Moe. With the exception of Jim Carrey, this is some of the oddest casting I've ever seen...the movie should be interesting, nyuk, nyuk, nuck.

An article in yesterday's USA Today talked about the proliferation of Local/State/National _____ Days/Weeks/Months. For example, did you know that March 27th is Medical Biller's Day in New York, or that August 1st is the start of Clown Week in Wisconsin? September of last year was Indoor Mold Awareness Month in Georgia; April 8th-11th of 2008 was Tumor Registrars Week (?) in Nebraska, and this month - March, 2009 - is Certified Government Financial Manager Month (one hopes they know that they've only got a few more days to get the economy straightened out before their month is over). And of course, this coming September 19th-28th will be Ballroom Dance Week in Virginia. All you lady readers who come to our studio during that week can dance with me for no extra charge!

This morning's Writers' Almanac from Garrison Keillor offered this wonderful poem: Meditation on Ruin, by Jay Hopler:

It's not the lost lover that brings us to ruin, or the barroom brawl,
or the con game gone bad, or the beating
Taken in the alleyway.
But the lost car keys,
The broken shoelace,
The overcharge at the gas pump
Which we broach without comment — these are the things that
eat away at life, these constant vibrations
In the web of the unremarkable.

The death of a father — the death of the mother —
The sudden loss shocks the living flesh alive! But the broken
pair of glasses,
The tear in the trousers,
These begin an ache behind the eyes.
And it's this ache to which we will ourselves
Oblivious. We are oblivious. Then, one morning—there's a crack in the water glass —we wake to find ourselves undone.

And, thinking about ruin, I move on to figure out how to maximize the value of a day stuck in the hotel. I guess I'll finish Amanda's letter, write the long-overdue letter to my daughter (whose birthday is today), and start my new book - Inferno, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.

Who knows? If I'm bored enough, I may even post again later.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

Bilbo's Handy Guide to the Home Workshop

Hello once again from beautiful Colorado Springs, where it is - so far - not snowing. According to last night's forecast, our snow is supposed to start in mid-afternoon and continue into tomorrow afternoon, with accumulations of ... well ... whatever. It varies. So far they're calling for 2-4 inches this afternoon, 5-8 inches overnight, and another 1-2 inches tomorrow. My flight is at 8:00 tomorrow morning. I think I may be here a while. Sigh.

While I'm waiting for breakfast, I thought I'd share this guide to the various types of tools found in many home workshops. Being the world's worst handyman, I am always on the lookout for handy guides like this, and thought it would be of use to you as well:

DRILL PRESS: A tall upright machine useful for suddenly snatching flat metal bar stock out of your hands so that it smacks you in the chest and flings your soda across the room, splattering it against that freshly-stained heirloom piece you were drying.

WIRE WHEEL: Cleans paint off bolts and then throws them somewhere under the workbench with the speed of light. Also removes fingerprints and hard-earned guitar calluses from fingers in about the time it takes you to say, “OW!!”

ELECTRIC HAND DRILL: Normally used for spinning pop rivets in their holes until you die of old age, or for perforating something behind and beyond the original intended target object.

SKIL SAW: A portable cutting tool used to make studs too short.

PLIERS: Used to round off bolt heads. Sometimes used in the creation of blood-blisters.

BELT SANDER: An electric sanding tool commonly used to convert minor touch-up jobs into major refinishing jobs. Caution: Avoid using for manicures.

HACKSAW: One of a family of cutting tools built for frustration enhancement. It transforms human energy into a crooked, unpredictable motion, and the more you attempt to influence its course, the more dismal your future becomes.

VISE-GRIPS: Generally used after pliers to completely round off bolt heads. If nothing else is available, they can also be used to transfer intense welding heat to the palm of your hand.

WELDING GLOVES: Heavy duty leather gloves used to prolong the conduction of intense welding heat to the palm of your hand.

OXYACETYLENE TORCH: Used almost entirely for lighting various flammable objects in your shop on fire. Also handy for igniting the grease inside the wheel hub you want the bearing race out of.

WHITWORTH SOCKETS: Once used for working on older British cars and motorcycles, they are now used mainly for impersonating that 9/16- or ½-inch socket you've been searching for the last 45 minutes.

TABLE SAW: A large stationary power tool commonly used to launch wood projectiles for testing wall integrity.

HYDRAULIC FLOOR JACK: Used for lowering an automobile to the ground after you have installed your new brake shoes, trapping the jack handle firmly under the bumper.

EIGHT-FOOT LONG YELLOW PINE 4x4: Used for levering an automobile upward off of a trapped hydraulic jack handle.

TWEEZERS: A tool for removing wood splinters and wire wheel wires.

E-Z OUT BOLT AND STUD EXTRACTOR: A tool ten times harder than any known drill bit that snaps neatly off in bolt holes thereby ending any possible future use.

RADIAL ARM SAW: A large stationary power saw primarily used by most shops to scare neophytes into choosing another line of work.

TWO-TON ENGINE HOIST: A tool for testing the maximum tensile strength of everything you forgot to disconnect.

CRAFTSMAN 1/2 x 24-INCH SCREWDRIVER: A very large pry bar that inexplicably has an accurately machined screwdriver tip on the end opposite the handle.


TROUBLE LIGHT: The home mechanic's own tanning booth. Sometimes called a drop light, it is a good source of vitamin D, 'the sunshine vitamin,' which is not otherwise found under cars at night. Health benefits aside, its main purpose is to consume 40-watt light bulbs at about the same rate that 105mm howitzer shells might be used during, say, the first few hours of the Battle of the Bulge. More often dark than light, its name is somewhat misleading.

PHILLIPS SCREWDRIVER: Normally used to stab the vacuum seals under lids, opening old-style paper-and-tin oil cans and splashing oil on your shirt; but can also be used, as the name implies, to strip out Phillips screw heads.

STRAIGHT SCREWDRIVER: A tool for opening paint cans. Sometimes used to convert common slotted screws into non-removable screws.

AIR COMPRESSOR: A machine that takes energy produced in a coal-burning power plant 200 miles away and transforms it into compressed air that travels by hose to a Chicago Pneumatic impact gun that grips rusty bolts which were last over tightened 40 years ago by someone at VW, and instantly rounds off their heads. Also used to quickly snap off lug nuts.

PRY BAR: A tool used to crumple the metal surrounding that clip or bracket you needed to remove in order to replace a 50 cent part.

HOSE CUTTER: A tool used to make hoses too short.

HAMMER: Originally employed as a weapon of war, the hammer nowadays is used as a kind of divining rod to locate the most expensive parts adjacent to the object we are trying to hit.

MECHANIC'S KNIFE: Used to open and slice through the contents of cardboard cartons delivered to your front door; works particularly well on contents such as seats, vinyl records, liquids in plastic bottles, collector magazines, refund checks, and rubber or plastic parts. Especially useful for slicing work clothes, but only while in use. It is also useful for removing large chunks of human flesh from the user's hands.

DAMMIT TOOL: (I have lots of these) Any handy tool that you grab and throw across the garage while yelling 'DAMMIT!! at the top of your lungs. It is also, most often, the next tool that you will need after a really big hammer.

Don't thank me. It's all part of the service.

I may or may not post tomorrow morning, depending on whether or not I actually am able to leave town. Stay tuned for more of Bilbo's Eskimo-Wannabe Adventures.

Have a good day. More thoughts ... whenever.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

On the Road (with Apologies to Jack Kerouac)

It is 5:15 AM, and outside the snow is falling. Another lovely winter morning in Colorado Springs - except that it's supposed to be Spring, for pete's sake.

The free breakfast buffet opens in 45 minutes, so that gives me some time to crank out a short post on my first business travel in quite a while. Herewith a few observations:

1. Flying is still a pain in the neck. Airport security is still effectively punishing the innocent. Airport parking is still ruinously expensive. On the plus side, my flight from Washington-Reagan to Houston wasn't more than half full, so I had a row to myself for a smooth flight. On the minus side, the last half hour into Colorado Springs was a bit like taking a ride in a pinball machine. You pays your money and you takes your chances.

2. After all this time, there are still people who don't understand what to do at airport security. It's easy, people! Leave your gun, hand grenades, and machete at home. Get the laptop out of the bag, take your coat and shoes off, empty your pockets, put your liquids in tiny bottles in a ziplock bag, and look innocent. Don't argue with the TSA screeners...they have no sense of humor. And when your things roll out of the end of the X-ray machine, don't stand right there and get yourself back together...gather your things and move out of the way so everyone else can get through. You've been warned...next time, I'm bringing my cattle prod.

3. For some reason, our company travel agent booked me at the Holiday Inn Express, rather than the full-up Holiday Inn across the street where I usually stay. For a three-night stay, I can live with the smaller and less comfortable Express...but if I end up snowed in for another day, I'll be wishing for the Holiday Inn with it's big, comfy armchairs and roaring fire in the lobby.

4. Whoever decided to establish Colorado Springs where he did was a genius. There is nothing like the view of the sunrise painting the Front Range of the Rockies a pale gold in the early morning. Of course, you've gotta take the snow with that, so...

5. The restaurant at the Holiday Inn no longer has Fat Tire beer on draft. What an outrage!

I am getting some things done, though. I'm up to page 7 on a letter to Amanda (who sent me a very nice letter last week...actually, in February, but hey - it's a long way from Palembang to Virginia). I'm reading Spade and Archer, the excellent prequel to The Maltese Falcon. And I have about 15 more crossword puzzles left in my book.

I think I'll survive.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow, weather permitting.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Bilbo Remakes "The Shining"

Well, here I am in Colorado Springs, Colorado. I have meetings scheduled for tomorrow, a quarterly conference to attend on Thursday, and I'm scheduled to fly home on Friday. Unfortunately, a major winter storm is scheduled to hit the area on Thursday and into Friday. AARRGGHH!!

Do you remember the film version of Stephen King's novel The Shining? The one in which Jack Nicholson played the writer slowly going insane and trying to murder his family under the malign influence of the remote, haunted hotel where they were snowed in?

I don't remember exactly, but I surely hope that hotel wasn't this particular Holiday Inn Express.

And just to make things worse, my elderly laptop refuses to accept any network connections - wired or wireless, so I have to use the PC in the hotel business center to do anything online.



My blog posts may be less frequent until I get back home...whenever that is. I hope to be back in time for Cartoon Saturday, snow and airlines willing.

Stay tuned.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow. Or the next day. Or, maybe, not until the weekend. Sigh.


Monday, March 23, 2009

Coats of Arms

A while back, I wrote a popular post called "My Title's Better Than Your Title," about the titles we give ourselves to boost our sense of self-importance. My choice was the title I'd seen on a reserved parking place at a local fraternal lodge: Illustrious Potentate.

But having a good title is only part of being a big shot. To be a big shot of real caliber, you also need a coat of arms.

No, Mike, not an overgarment for an octopus - something to put on my shield, my business cards, and other stuff. Something with roaring lions, prancing unicorns, flying griffins, and an appropriate, manly motto. But what would be an appropriate coat of arms for me?

A little research provided a possible idea: a debtor rampant on a field of unpaid bills.

No. It's accurate, but too depressing.

I know! How about this:The motto: Bilbo is crazy, with (his) hair always on fire.

Yep, that'll work. But this is an important decision, not to be made lightly. I think I'll give it some more thought. Your ideas are accepted, as long as they don't include any comments about including a bar sinister.

Any thoughts?

Special note: I'll be traveling to Colorado Springs on business, flying out at an ungodly hour tomorrow morning...thus, tomorrow's post won't be done until I get there and get settled in my hotel. Those of you who tend to check at this time of day will be disappointed...calm down, and check back later. I'll be here.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, March 22, 2009

Cooking Instruction

Yesterday afternoon Agnes and I visited our granddaughter Leya and those two people she lives with...oh, yes - that would be our daughter and son-in-law. Sorry, I was distracted.

Yasmin was baking some muffins, and Leya was in the full-up "this-is-really-neat-I-want-to-help" mode. Sitting her on the counter to observe wasn't enough, as Leya loudly insisted on taking part in the operation, and so Yasmin decided to meet her halfway - she dug out her biggest steel mixing bowl, dumped in a mixture of cornstarch and water, added a whisk, and put it on the kitchen floor for Leya to work on.

You can only imagine the results...

Let's get started...

You really need to mix your batter energetically...

No, Leya, let's not carry it around...just keep it on the floor, please...

Now, we're getting somewhere!

Hmmm...needs more sugar...

Time to give Papa a hug...

This is a bigger job than I thought...maybe Papa and Opa can help...

And the aftermath...
If the White House needs a new pastry chef, they may need to wait a few years until the skill catches up to the energy.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, March 21, 2009

Cartoon Saturday

The Postal Service is cutting 3,000 jobs and offering early retirement to 150,000 people - a quarter of its workforce; the International Monetary Fund says that the global economy will shrink in 2009 for the first time in 60 years; the "supreme leader" of Iran has blown off overtures of friendship offered by President Obama for the Iranian new year; two U.S. Navy ships collided in the Straits of Hormuz yesterday; and - shocking news! - bankers are protesting heavy new taxes on the enormous bonuses paid to people working in the financial industry (editorial comment: I suspect those taxes, while providing the satisfaction of revenge, may be borderline unconstitutional, anyhow).

Oy, how we need Cartoon Saturday!

I always enjoy sets of cartoons that take off on similar themes. Today, we have two pairs of cartoons riffing on the same topic. First, a look at how labor protests might be carried out by nudists...

and by sign painters...

We all know about crash test dummies (no, Andrea, not the folk-rock group). Here are two cartoons that take a look at their off-duty time...

You've all seen the colorful plastic bracelets that people wear to send their personal messages, usually something like "WWJD" (for "what would Jesus do?"). One of my co-workers found this one on the Internet the other day...

If this cartoon doesn't make sense to you, check out some Escher art here.

And finally, from the department of just plain silly...

Do you suppose she bought it at Victor's Secret, ha, ha?

It looks like it will be a nice weekend (weather-wise) here in northern Virginia - maybe I can get started on cleaning all the winter wreckage out of the yard and see what the deer have left me to work with. I hope all of you have a good and relaxing weekend. If you're a first-time visitor here, please come back.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, March 20, 2009

What the Well-Dressed Tourist Doesn't Wear

From the Department of Religious Tolerance and Can't-We-All-Just-Get-Along comes this story from Time Magazine: Jerusalem Rabbi Insists the Pope Must Hide His Cross. The basic story is this: Pope Benedict XVI ("B16," as he's sometimes known) will visit Jerusalem next month, and will visit two famous religious sites: the Western ("Wailing") Wall, sacred to Jews, and the Dome of the Rock, a major Muslim shrine. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich, the spiritual overseer of the Western Wall, insists that when the pope visits the site, he must hide the cross he wears as a symbol of his faith, claiming it would be disrespectful to Jews to do wear it openly. The Muslims, on the other hand - although not generally noted for their tolerant and gently accepting view of other religions - don't seem to care: Sheik Tayseer Tamimi, Chief Justice of the Shari'a law courts in East Jerusalem, said that the pope was free to wear his cross, saying that "We don't believe in interfering in another religion's affairs."

I think I've heard it all, now.

I'm reminded of the joke about two elderly nuns driving down a winding country road late one night. As they drove past an old cemetery, Count Dracula suddenly leaped out of the darkness onto the hood of the car and leered at them through the windshield. The nun who was driving frantically swerved from side to side in an attempt to throw him off, but the vampire spread his arms and clutched both sides of the windshield to hang on. She honked the horn without effect, then turned on the windshield wipers and squirted the Count with washer fluid, but still he hung on, laughing and baring his fangs at the terrified sisters.

The driver turned to her passenger and screamed, "Quick! Show him your cross!!"

The second nun rolled down her window, leaned out, and shouted, "Hey, #%@! Get off the &$!# car!!"

Go ahead, Benedict - show them your cross. I think we have a lot more important things to worry about. And wouldn't it be nice if Muslim clerics everywhere took Sheikh Tamimi's view and encouraged interfaith friendship and understanding instead of hatred and intolerance?

I'm not holding my breath.

Have a good day. Hang in there - Cartoon Saturday is coming!


Thursday, March 19, 2009

Understanding the Stimulus

You all know that I'm not the brightest bulb in the chandelier of economic knowledge. I admit it. I don't understand credit default swaps. I thought hedge funds were the money you set aside to pay the gardener. I thought macroeconomics had something to do with being sure you could afford to buy pasta. I don't know why someone needs to earn millions of dollars a year in bonuses, or why people will quit a perfectly good job if they don't get huge bonuses or are paid a starvation wage of a mere $500,000 per year (as people at AIG will supposedly do). I'm always looking for places to go for information that will help me make sense of the world of higher economics. Or even lower economics. And especially the concept of economic stimulus.

My old friend Ken has come to the rescue.

Here is some valuable information he sent me the other day to help me understand the concept of economic stimulus:

Q. What is an Economic Stimulus Payment?
A. It is money that the federal government will send directly to the taxpayers.

Q. Where will the government get this money?
A. From the taxpayers.

Q. So the government is giving me back my own money?
A. No, they are borrowing it from China. Your children are expected to repay the Chinese.

Q. What is the purpose of this payment?
A. The plan is that you will use the money to purchase a high-definition TV set, thus stimulating the economy.

Q. But isn't that stimulating the economy of China?
A. Shut up.

Here is some helpful advice on how to best help the US economy by spending your stimulus check wisely:

If you spend your money at Wal-Mart, all the money will go to China.

If you spend it on gasoline it will go to Hugo Chavez, the Arabs and Al Qaeda.

If you purchase a computer it will go to Taiwan.

If you purchase fruit and vegetables it will go to Mexico, Honduras, Chile, and Guatemala.

If you buy a car it will go to Japan and Korea.

If you purchase prescription drugs it will go to India.

If you purchase heroin it will go to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

If you give it to a charitable cause, it will go to Nigeria.

None of this will help the American economy.

We need to keep that money here in America. You can help keep the money in America by spending it at yard sales, going to baseball games, or spending it on prostitutes (only those who are US citizens or legally registered aliens), domestic beer, or tattoos, since those are the only businesses still in the US.

I hope this has helped. If you meet a tattooed prostitute at a yard sale or baseball game, buy her a beer. It's not only patriotic, but economically sound.

Or at least as sound as paying bonuses to idiots.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Bonuses for AIG: Polishing the Turd

When you work in Washington, you learn lots of interesting expressions, many of which deal with putting the best face on a disaster of some magnitude. Two of my favorites are "putting lipstick on a pig" and "polishing a turd."

"Putting lipstick on a pig" (sometimes referred to as "porcine cosmetology") infers, of course, that that no matter how much you dress up the pig, it's still a pig. "Polishing a turd," on the other hand, has a somewhat dual meaning: first, that you need to work really hard to make a nasty task turn out well; second, that this is virtually impossible to do.

Or not.

Here, we see a typical corporate spokesman attempting to explain why AIG should be allowed to spend millions of dollars of taxpayer bailout money to pay bonuses to the people who helped wreck the economy:

And here, you can see the dedicated staff at the Mythbusters television show demonstrate how you can, in fact, polish a turd. Well, it's not exactly a turd, and they're not exactly polishing it, but it gets the idea across.

Perhaps they are the ones who can finally give a good explanation of why we should be expected to reward not just failure, but outright criminality.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Incredible Shrinking Languages

I was angry enough this morning about the AIG bonus payouts. And then Mike blogged about it and mentioned a petition against the bonuses sponsored by moveon.org, just about the only organization I detest more than the financial mismanagement industry. So here I sit in my study with my cup of coffee and a full head of righteous indignational (?) steam...and need to write about something else to get myself centered again.

Let's talk about disappearing languages.

This very interesting article appeared in yesterday's Washington Post: Preserving Languages is About More Than Words. Today is, of course, St Patrick's day, when everyone in the country thinks he's Irish...but the Irish language, known as Gaelic, is actually disappearing. The article notes that Gaelic is one of thousands of endangered languages around the world...although it is Ireland's official language, there are only about 30,000 fluent speakers left, down from 250,000 when the country was founded in 1922.

Everywhere, languages are dying out. Most of the traditional American Indian languages are all but extinct, and most of the rest are considered "endangered," and on just about every continent there are languages which are disappearing as they are crowded out by English, Spanish, Chinese, and the other "mega-languages" that are widely spoken. In Indonesia, for example, 147 languages are threatened with extinction and one - Lom - had only ten speakers remaining in 2000. You can find an interactive atlas showing the various endangered languages here, and download a .pdf file of the UNESCO Map of the World's Languages in Danger (speaking of danger, this is a 19MB file, so don't try to download it if you have a slow connection).

Why is this important? Language is an integral part of who we are, what we think, and how we act. If a language dies out, so does the world of those who spoke it. We may never know the history of that people, or understand how they viewed the world around them. For my own part, I don't think you can really understand the stories of Franz Kafka unless you read them in the original German, and I'm sure that the literature of other languages is much the same.

Language is important. It helps define us. We admire those who speak and write well, noting that the good use of language is a mark of education and culture. If we lose the language, we lose a little bit of ourselves.

So do your part to keep your langauge from dying out. Practice by writing to your senator or congressman to complain about the AIG bonuses, or whatever is on your mind.

You could even write me a letter. Mike.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, March 16, 2009

Minnesota - The Land of 10,000 Lawsuits

One of my favorite radio programs is Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion, which is funny and entertaining and derives a lot of its fun from its satirization of the joys of living in the little town of Lake Woebegone, Minnesota ("where the men are strong, the women are good-looking, and the children are above average"). If you're looking for some good-natured fun, it's the show to listen to.

There are other things about the state of Minnesota, though, that I find a lot less entertaining and fun, such as the endless wrangling over the results of the closest, most bitterly contested senatorial election in American history.

For those of you living outside the United States who may not be aware of the backstory, here's the Readers' Digest version: Democrat Al Franken opposed Republican incumbent Norm Coleman in Minnesota's senatorial election last November, and the initial results were - quite literally - too close to call. While it appeared that Mr Coleman was the winner, the vote was so close (477 votes out of some 2 million cast) that a recount was conducted. This was duly completed, and showed that Mr Franken was actually the winner...by a margin of 225 votes. You can see an interactive graphic of the recount saga from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune here.

As you might suspect, both sides of the issue are desperate to win this contest. The Republicans are happy to tie the case up endlessly in court as a way of limiting the size of the Democratic majority in the Senate, while the Democrats are equally anxious to improve their position. The result is an unsettled election which leaves the people of Minnesota with only one senator in an ongoing political circus.

This is stupid.

Yes, it's important to ensure the integrity of the election process and the proper counting of votes. Yes, I understand the political motives driving each party's position.

But it's still stupid.

The only real winner here is the lawyers. Can you imagine how much money is being made by the army of lawyers carefully examining and arguing over every single ballot? Now, can you imagine how many schools could be improved with the same money? Or how many other public services could be sustained or improved? The political bosses care very much about keeping this case going as long as possible, although the people of Minnesota are starting to get understandably frustrated about it, arguing that there are a lot of problems Congress needs to be working on, and they are at a disadvantage as long as they have only one working Senator (Note: I use the term working Senator with my tongue buried deep in my cheek)

There's no end to this three-ring political circus in sight. Both sides are ready to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court, regardless of the effect on the critical business of the people. If you needed a better example of the shameless corruption of the political system in this country, you'd be hard-pressed to find it.

Note to all those #$! lawyers, and to the Republican and Democratic political bosses: you had your recount. One guy won, one guy lost. Shake hands, move on, and show the people of Minnesota and the rest of the country that you can solve the nation's problems, not compound them.

Of course, I'm not holding my breath. And, unfortunately, neither should you. Vote for your favorite contestant on Dancing with the Stars - you know where they stand, and they wear better costumes.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Visualizing Really, Really Big Numbers

A week or so ago over at Out of My Hat, John tried to put the enormous numbers we hear about in the context of the economic crisis into some perspective, relating a trillion dollars to how long ago a trillion seconds was ... if you're too lazy to read his very interesting post, a trillion seconds is "just over 31,688 years."

Well, Numeric Life he isn't, and he's certainly not as beautiful as our fill-in number lady Amanda (in my opinion only, of course, not wanting to incur Chris's wrath), but he's done a very respectable job of trying to make an unimaginable number somehow understandable. Nevertheless, I am a visual - not a numeric - person, and I could use a bit more visual explanation of a trillion dollars. Happily, John thoughtfully provided that, too, offering a link to this gem at a site called pagetutor.com: What does one TRILLION dollars look like?

If you don't want to actually visit the site (although you should, because it's worth it), the idea is this: we begin with a single $100 bill, the largest in general circulation. We then move on to a standard bank package of 100 Benjamins, or $10,000, which is about a half-inch thick and easily carried. A million dollars would take 100 packages of C-notes - a relatively small pile that can easily be carried in an ordinary shopping bag....

...and it goes up from there to visualize a hundred million, then a billion, and finally a trillion dollars. At each level starting with $1,000,000, a normal-sized person is shown standing next to the pile of money for comparison.

You will probably be as amazed as I was.

Nowadays we are bombarded with sums so vast that they're beyond comprehension, so huge we often don't even bother to say the entire amount. Real estate signs advertise homes "from the low 400's," knowing that saying "four hundred twenty-five thousand dollars" might scare off some people. Or not.

In the Pentagon and other government offices, we often talk about "a hundred K," with each K meaning one thousand dollars. Small numbers of millions (as if a million is a small number in itself) are sometimes referred to as rounding-off errors or decimal dust.

In his novel Hannibal, Thomas Harris imagines a conversation between venal FBI official Paul Krendler and multi-billionaire Mason Verger, in which Krendler is seeking Verger's help in funding his Congressional campaign:

"Are you saying you can help me?"
"I can help you with half of it."
"Let's not just toss it off like 'five.' Let's say it with the respect it deserves - five million dollars."

Good advice. Let's say our numbers with the respect they deserve, particularly when we're discussing amounts of money so vast that they're nearly beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. And when they represent sums that our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will inherit as our legacy.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Cartoon Saturday

As the economy continues its free-fall, the number of registered cars on American highways is projected to decrease this year for the first time since World War II; in France, the credit crunch is being blamed for a dramatic decline in the sale of sex toys; a Brazilian man stole a single-engine plane and crashed it into the parking lot of a shopping mall, killing himself and his 5-year-old child; Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera has been featured in Forbes magazine's world's billionaires report as a "self-made" billionaire; and the Supreme Court in Afghanistan has upheld a 20-year prison sentence for an Afghan university student journalist accused of blasphemy.

Thank goodness for Cartoon Saturday!

Don't show this one to Mike...

Have you seen the masterful evisceration of over-the-top CNBC reporter Jim Cramer by Jon Stewart? You can see an edited version of it here. And you can relate to these two cartoons...

and ...

OCGirl wrote in her blog the other day about some of the things people do in interviews to make sure they don't get hired. Sometimes, you just need to think carefully about the answer to the interviewer's question...

I just liked this one for being so utterly non-PC...

Someone once said that marriage is a compromise entered into by two people, one of whom can't sleep with the window closed, and one who can't sleep with it open. And then there's this take on what really happens in fairy-tale weddings...

The weekend weather forecast here in Northern Virginia is for two days of dreary, rainy, cold. Agnes and I will try to ignore it with some dance coaching this afternoon and a day spent with The Cutest Grandchild East of the Ohio Border tomorrow.

Life can be good.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, March 13, 2009

Friday the Thirteenth

Yes, folks, today is Friday the 13th. If you have the option (yes, Mike, I'm talking to you), you may want to just go back to bed; otherwise, it's time to get up, shudder, and face the day.

Do not open the door for this fellow, particularly if you are a triskaidekaphobe (that's someone with a fear of the number 13):

People have believed for hundreds of years that Friday is a generally unlucky day. Tradition had it that Jesus was crucified on a Friday (ever wonder why such a dreadful day is called Good Friday?), which was bad enough...but by the 1800s, people with nothing better to do had compiled a lengthy list of things considered unlucky to do on a Friday, including needleworking, writing letters (I'm doomed...), beginning a sea voyage, moving, getting married, and going to the doctor.

The status of the unfortunate number 13 as the premiere unlucky number has developed over many years, and may have originated in the Bible, where Judas Iscariot was said to be the 13th guest to sit at the table at the Last Supper. By the 1700s, it was generally believed that if 13 people sat down at a table together, one of them would die. Eventually the number 13 grew to be considered unlucky in any circumstance...in fact, many hotels and office buildings still do not have a designated 13th floor, going directly from 12 to 14.

I'm not sure when the two superstitions of unlucky Friday and unlucky 13 merged to make Friday the 13th a really unlucky day. Certainly the original Friday the 13th film didn't do the unfortunate day any favors, and the endless series of sequels, prequels, and remakes were lucky only for makeup artists and manufacturers of stage blood, prop machetes, and hockey masks.

But we're digressing again.

Yes, it's Friday the 13th. No, you can't avoid it.

Good luck.

Have as good a day as you can. Don't walk under ladders, let black cats cross your path, break mirrors, or anything else which will multiply the chance of bad luck.

More thoughts tomorrow for those of you who survive, bwah-hah-haaaaaaaa!!


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Why Manners Matter

Most of you who have been my digital friends for the last three-plus years have probably at one time or another read the "About Me" piece over there on the left of your screen, if only to wonder if this guy is for real or what. Buried in that little section is this sentence: "I believe in courtesy, common sense, and fair play."

Courtesy. It's one of those things we don't see quite as much as we used to, especially in larger cities. I've gotten used to self-important people whose time is obviously much more important than mine, who shove ahead of me to get just the right seat on the bus, who see nothing wrong with cutting into lines, who have no problem with chatting loudly on their cell phones at the movies, or cutting you off in traffic, or ... well ... you get the idea. The common courtesy, the manners that parents of my generation drilled relentlessly into us when we were young seem to have gone south like a vee of geese honking their way across an autumn horizon.

I'm not the only person to note this.

Last weekend we were in Borders, where Agnes was busily squeezing the last dime out of a long-lost gift card I'd found in the rubble on her side of the desk in the study. While I was browsing the shelves, talking myself out of hundreds of dollars worth of gotta-haves, I spotted this little gem: Why Manners Matter: The Case for Civilized Behavior in a Barbarous World, by Lucinda Holdforth. I could hardly pass up a book like that, and so it is now my commuting book, and I'm about halfway through it (having started it yesterday morning) - it's only 172 small, but wonderful pages.

This isn't an etiquette guide (Ms Holdforth has nothing but scorn for those), but an essay on the importance of manners, of what we might once have called (and I still do) following the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. It isn't a preachy book, but a thoughtful one that ought to be read by the very people who would never think to read such a thing.

"In a gesture combining laziness and pragmatism," Ms Holdforth writes, "How about (a modern template for manners) something like:

"1. Keep to the left (or right, depending on jurisdiction).
"2. Keep your word (especially about time).
"3. Wait your turn.
"4. Look after the weak.
"5. Obey the laws and regulations, unless you are mounting a campaign of civil disobedience.
"6. Watch what you are doing: multitasking is the enemy of manners.
"7. Show appreciation for the kind gestures of others; and,
"8. Most of the time, shut up."

The rest of the book is much like this...a breezy, practical, somewhat sad essay on what has happened to what we once called good manners and what we might do to get them back.

I strongly recommend this book, although I doubt very much that any of my regular readers actually need it. I think most of you will probably read it and end up with a sore neck from nodding your head in constant agreement. It's sad that someone decided it was necessary to write a book like this, but such is the temper of our time. If you read Why Manners Matter and enjoy it, you can move on to something more erudite, like Stephen L. Carter's Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy. It's about twice as long and a lot more preachy, but has the same message.

And he wrote it eleven years ago.

Isn't it a shame that Lucinda Holdforth saw a need to write something similar in 2009?

Have a good day. Be polite...it won't kill you. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Wednesday Pictorial

Once again this morning, I'm all fired up about so many topics that I can't decide what to write about. Therefore, I'll take a twist on Cartoon Saturday and share a few of the odd pictures from my collection...

This one is titled "The Four Ages of Man." Somehow it doesn't seem as funny as it used to ...

When I went off to college many years ago, I wanted to be a chemical engineer; however, my ... um ... modest performance in my chemistry and calculus classes made me decide to change over to Linguistics instead. This was the only chemical compound I really understood:

We have so many books that we sometimes find ourselves buying paperback copies of older books we've forgotten we already read. We need an alerting system like this one:

The ongoing financial crisis is affecting everybody, including the military. Air Force weapons developers have been looking at ways to economize on aircraft armaments...

I just liked this picture...I can relate to it a little more every day:

And finally, this is one of the most clever and original things I've seen in a long time - it's called "Roadside Romance" (click to enlarge it for easier reading):

Just a few ya-ha's for a Wednesday, to get you over the hump of the week. Hang in there - the weekend's on the way!

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Debbie Strikes Again!

A few days ago I depended on the contents of an e-mail from my long-lost and newly-re-found-via-Facebook friend Debbie for a clever post on the economy. Since that post got so many rave comments, I decided not to argue with success...I went back to another e-mail from Debbie for this collection of off-the-wall comments. I'd already heard some of them before, but they're worth repeating (with commentary, where appropriate) ...

I used to eat a lot of natural foods until I learned that most people die of natural causes. (In Indonesia, you can eat unnatural foods - see this post from Amanda)

There are two kinds of pedestrians: the quick and the dead. (Especially if you have to negotiate the intersection of Frontier Dr and the Franconia-Springfield Parkway at the entrance to the Franconia-Springfield Metro Station here in lovely Northern Virginia)

Life is sexually transmitted. (Question: when all those women told me over the years to "get a life," was it an invitation I was too slow to recognize at the time?)

Health is merely the slowest possible rate at which one can die.

The only difference between a rut and a grave is the depth.

Health nuts are going to feel stupid someday, lying in hospitals dying of nothing.

Have you noticed since everyone has a camcorder these days no one talks about seeing UFOs like they used to?

Whenever I feel blue, I start breathing again.

All of us could take a lesson from the weather. It pays no attention to criticism.

In the 60's, people took acid to make the world weird. Now the world is weird and people take Prozac to make it normal. (Note: it doesn't work)

How is it one careless match can start a forest fire, but it takes a whole box to start a campfire?

Why does your OB-GYN leave the room when you get undressed if they are going to look up there anyway?

If quizzes are quizzical, what are tests?

Do illiterate people get the full effect of alphabet soup?

Does pushing the elevator button more than once make it arrive faster? (Note: at least in the Pentagon, it makes the elevator stop)

Why doesn't glue stick to the inside of the bottle?

And finally, the person who sends me my Joke of the Day e-mail seems to have read yesterday's post on data conservation. Mike, Gilahi, and I can all relate to this one ...

You know you're getting old when you've bought the same album five times: vinyl in 1965, 8-track in 1975, cassette tape in 1985, CD in 1995, and MP3 in 2005! (Mike, I didn't mention the wax cylinders because I didn't want you to feel too old)

Have a good day. If you're a pedestrian, be quick.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, March 09, 2009

Raiders of the Lost Files

The very fact that you are reading this indicates that you are part of the (more-or-less) computer-literate masses. And the fact that you do anything at all with a computer means that you, by definition, have lost files at one time or another. Or at many times or another.

Yes, there's nothing like the terrible sinking feeling that comes when the screen suddenly goes blank and you realized you haven't saved that gigantic document you're working on since last St Swithen's Day. Or the feeling that comes when you just know you saved some desperately-needed item, but have no idea where it is. Is it on one of your fixed or removable hard drives? Which backup CD/DVD it is on? Or is it on a ... gasp! ... floppy disk (3.5 inch or, worse, 5.25 inch) for which you no longer have a reader? AAARRRGGGHHH!!!

Yep. Welcome to the Lost Data Zone.

I thought about the perils of lost data when I read this recent CNN SciTech blog article a while back. There's also a good overview of data preservation techniques and suggestions at the Library of Congress website.

I had the experience of the "ohmygawd where did I store that file" this weekend when I was desperately looking for the scanned copy of an appraisal I needed for insurance documentation. I looked everywhere I could think of on my Mac and my three external hard drives, and searched my stack of CD backups.

I finally found it on the Mac, in the folder labled "Insurance Documentation."


I can't save you from the perils of forgetting where you put things, but I can summarize the most common data preservation recommendations:

* Save your work every 10 seconds.

* No matter what medium you saved your work on, if it's really valuable, re-save it once a year.

* Save your work every 5 seconds.

* If your data is preserved in an off-the-wall, non-standard, or proprietary format, save it again as something else (for instance, if it's a graphic file, consider printing it out, scanning it, and saving it as a .jpeg or .gif rather than a .zpqx or whatever, or save documents as .pdf's).

* Save your work every time you blink.

* If your data is really, really important, back it up in more than one place and format...keep a printed copy, save one on a removable drive or CD, and save another in yet another place.

* And did I mention saving often?

Lost data today are the equivalent of the socks that have gone to the vast and mighty Black Hole 'O Hose over the years - you know, the mates of all those individual socks you keep saving because you know you'll find the other one sooner or later.

Take care of your data. You never know when you'll want to find one of those hysterically funny cartoons you lovingly saved from Bilbo's Cartoon Saturday two years ago.

Have a good day. Save something right now. More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. - My cartoon file is saved in three different places!


Sunday, March 08, 2009

News From the Business World

Since I started up my Facebook site, old friends have been coming out of the woodwork - particularly people I knew back in high school. It's interesting to see what happened to them over the years, and especially good to see a few pictures, so that we won't be doing the old jaw-drop when we see each other at the 40th high school class reunion in October.

One of the folks I've gotten digitally reacquainted with is Debbie. Remembering that I won the senior class award for best sense of humor (it was a plastic outhouse...if you opened the door, the little guy inside turned and squirted you), Debbie has sent me some funny things I hadn't seen yet and which, since we all need some relief from the daily terrible economic news, I thought I'd share with you...

News from the Business World...

1. The US has made a new weapon that destroys people but keeps the building standing. It's called the stock market.

2. Do you have any idea how cheap stocks are? Wall Street is now being called Wal-Mart Street.

3. What's the difference between a pigeon and an investment banker? The pigeon can still make a deposit on a BMW

4. What's the difference between a guy who lost everything in Las Vegas and an investment banker? A tie.

5. The problem with investment bank balance sheets is that on the left side nothing's right and on the right side nothing's left.

6. I want to warn people from Nigeria. If you get any emails from Washington asking for money, it's a scam. Don't fall for it.

7. What worries me most about the credit crunch is that if one of my checks is returned stamped 'insufficient funds,' I won't know whether that refers to mine or the bank's.

New Stock Market Terms...

CEO - Chief Embezzlement Officer.

CFO - Corporate Fraud Officer.

Bull Market - A random market movement causing an investment banker to mistake himself for a financial genius.

Bear Market - A 6 to 18 month period when the kids get no allowance, the wife gets no jewelry.

Value Investing - The art of buying low and selling lower.

P/E Ratio - The percentage of investors wetting their pants as the market keeps crashing.

Broker - What investing has made me.

Standard & Poor -- Your life in a nutshell.

Stock Analyst - Idiot who just downgraded your stock.

Stock Split - When your ex-wife and her lawyer split your assets equally between themselves.

Financial Planner - A guy whose phone has been disconnected.

Market Correction - The day after you buy stocks.

Cash Flow - The movement of your money as it disappears down the toilet.

Institutional Investor - Past year investor who should be now locked up in a nuthouse.

Profit - An archaic word no longer in use

Don't thank me. It's all part of trying to laugh instead of cry.

Did you turn your clocks ahead last night? If not, it's later than you think...

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, March 07, 2009

Cartoon Saturday

The families have given up on rescuing two NFL players lost in a boating accident near Florida; the Mexican government has sent 7000 soldiers to the border city of Ciudad Juarez to try to contain the war between murderous rival drug cartels; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has advocated a "scorched earth" strategy in dealing with House Republicans, proving that Democrats can be just as stupid and pig-headed as Republicans; the government is still bailing out insurance giant AIG, without an accounting of where the $160 billion so far spent is going; and unemployment has reached 8.1% - the highest level since 1983.

If you didn't need Cartoon Saturday before, you need it now.

For a while, it seemed as if the animal of choice for cartoons was penguins. Now, I realized I've accumulated quite a collection of cartoons about turtles...which may be appropriate, considering the blinding speed with which Congress is moving toward collegial resolution of our problems.

This one is cute, and just plain silly...

There's still plenty of construction going on in the DC area, although much of it has slowed down during the recession...

What sort of questions would you ask a tortoise in a job interview? ...

I've always wanted to do this to a car salesman ...

The "Non-Sequitur" cartoon strip has had a good run this week with cartoons taking on the banking crisis. I liked this one especially well ...

And finally, I think you're all aware of my opinion of Rush Limbaugh. I think this cartoon from Washington Post editorial cartoonist Tom Toles says it all ...

Would Republican conservative (or Democratic liberal) religious law be called sharidiot?

Inquiring minds want to know.

If you are living in most of the United States, don't forget to turn your clocks ahead one hour before you go to bed tonight ... otherwise you'll be embarrassed tomorrow when you show up for the 9:00 church service at 10:00, and everyone turns to stare at you when you walk in. Is that right? I don't know. I don't do math this early in the morning. Just fix the clocks, okay?

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.