Thursday, April 30, 2009

Today's Best Joke

Debbie is back.

Yes, my recently-rediscovered high school friend Debbie has struck yet again with the best joke I've heard in ages:

"Years ago, they said a black man would be president when pigs flew. Today, Barack Obama is the president, and what do we have? Swine flu!"

Good luck, Mr Obama - I wouldn't want your job. And thanks, Debbie - you da lady!

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Freedom of Religion - vs - Freedom of Speech

Last month the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted resolution 7/19, titled Combating Defamation of Religions. You can read the entire resolution by clicking on the link, if you're interested enough...and you should be, because it applies mainly to "defamation" of a single religion - Islam.

Most of you who are regular readers of this blog share similar general values, sometimes referred to as "Western Values," which include a general respect for individual rights, freedom of expression, and a generalized respect for the rule of law. Here in the US, one of our most cherished rights is Freedom of Speech, the defense of which is second only to the vigorous defense of our right to own the deadliest of weapons without restriction. However, we seem to be more willing to give in to restrictions on our freedom of speech than to restrictions on weapons. Some restrictions are obvious: incitement to violence and shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater should clearly be restricted; other restrictions are less obvious, but potentially more dangerous.

The resolution on combating defamation of religions was championed by the representatives of the Islamic world, which is famously spring-loaded to react negatively (and frequently violently) to the least perceived insult to their beliefs. The resolution, of course, doesn't apply in their minds to their ability to heap vitriol on other religions, which they tend to do with depressing regularity and volume. Hence, the danger.

The ability to challenge ideas and change our minds as a result of evidence is a hallmark of civilization. Freedom of speech allows us to do this. I have always believed strongly that people should be free to say pretty much whatever they want, however stupid, because it allows everyone else to listen, evaluate, and make their own decisions about the degree of stupidity that is revealed. The problem, of course, arises when people don't listen or think critically...when they believe what they believe so deeply and completely that each opening into their minds it shut, locked, welded, plastered over, hermetically sealed, and guarded 24/7/365 against any conflicting information. You see this in many racists, religious zealots, and ... yes ... the most radical of pro-gun advocates.

In an article recently posted to the Project website, Peter Singer wrote eloquently about the hidden dangers of the UN resolution. I recommend you read his article, which makes the points better than I probably could.

We are, as I have often said, guaranteed freedom of speech, not freedom of smart. Nor are we guaranteed freedom from insult. If the proponents of a particular religion object to negative characterization of their beliefs, is it not better for them to prove by persuasive word and demonstrable deed that those characterizations are wrong, than to insist on laws and resolutions that dim the light of legitimate criticism cast upon them?

I guess it depends on whose ox is being gored.

Read the UN resolution and the Singer article, and think hard about the implications. You can listen to the deeply-held and gently persuasive religious beliefs of someone like John, or you can have pressed upon you the harshly intolerant beliefs of those who would kill you for denying them. The choice is pretty clear to me.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, April 28, 2009


No, this isn't a post about that #%@&! adult-proof packaging that things come in nowadays - the sort of packaging you can't open without an axe, a chainsaw, and three pounds of dynamite.

This post is about psychoanalysis. You know, the sort of medicine about which Samuel Goldwyn once supposedly said, "Anyone who goes to a psychiatrist should have his head examined!"

There have been a number of different versions of this particular ya-ha, but this is the most complete one I've run across: the answering machine greeting at The Psychiatric Hotline ...

Hello! Welcome to The Psychiatric Hotline.

If you are obsessive-compulsive, please press 1 repeatedly.

If you are co-dependent, ask someone to press 2 for you.

If you have multiple personalities, please press 3, 4, 5, and 6.

If you are delusional, press 7 and your call will be transferred to the mother ship.

If you are paranoid-delusional, we know who you are and what you want. Please stay on the line until we can trace the call.

If you are schizophrenic, please listen carefully until the voices tell you which number to press.

If you are borderline, it doesn’t matter which number you press – no one will answer.

If you are manic-depressive, please press 7 as fast as you can for the next 24 hours, and then crash for the following 24 hours.

If you have bipolar affective disorder, please leave a message after the beep and before the beep and after the beep.

If you have low self-esteem, please hang up. All operators are too busy to talk to you.

If you are dyslexic, press 9696969696969696.

If you have Attention Deficit Disorder, wander away from the phone and start another task.

If you suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, please fidget with the pound key until a representative comes on the line.

If you suffer from social phobia, please hang up and go to a party.

If you have amnesia, press 8 and state your name, address, telephone, and mother’s maiden name.

If you have post-traumatic stress disorder, s-l-o-w-l-y & c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y press 0 0 0.

If you have short-term memory loss, press 9.

If you have short-term memory loss, press 9.

If you have short-term memory loss, press 9.

If you have short-term memory loss, press 9.

Thank you for calling the Psychiatric Hotline.

Don't you feel better now? Don't thank me, it's all part of the service. To feel better tomorrow, type and press enter. Then sit back and let Dr Bilbo make it all better.

Or, at least, no worse.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, April 27, 2009

Where Have All the Bookstores Gone?

I could be like Fiona and have a recording of The Kingston Trio in the background singing "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", but I won't. You can watch the video and listen by clicking the link.

Today, we ask the important and not-quite-rhetorical question, "Where have all the bookstores gone?"

There was a time when there were lots of small, niche bookstores all over. If you wanted mysteries, there was a store that specialized in them. Science fiction? - across the street. Romance? - three blocks down. Politics? - not far. Children's books? - all over.

But today, most of those little bookstores are gone, along with the clerks who had been there since the transition from cuneiform tablets ... people who could unerringly go to the exact spot in the dusty stacks to find that book you thought had long disappeared, and who could go on to recommend other things you might like.

What happened to the bookstores? A lot of things.

People don't read as much any more, for one. I can't imagine not reading, but I see a lot of people, particularly younger folks, who don't read anything more challenging than the latest issue of TV Guide or People magazine.

And books have gotten pretty expensive: new hardcovers can run to $30 or $40, especially for the nonfiction titles I often buy, and paperbacks can go for $15-$20. Is it any wonder that people now go to the big wholesale stores like Costco to buy their bestsellers, instead of going to the local specialty bookstore?

Rents have gone up, too, forcing out many smaller bookstores in favor of the big chains like Borders and Barnes and Noble. Some of those chain stores have knowledgeable staffs, but most of them rely on computers to look up the things that a little old clerk used to lead you to without fail.

People spend more time online as well. I still believe it's easier to read ink on paper, but many others would rather read things online...removing still more customers from traditional bookstores.

Last week, Marc Fisher wrote about the decline of the bookstore in an article in the Washington Post. Many of his observations are the same as the ones I've made over the years, but he also connects the loss of bookstores to the overall decline in our communities and our "sense of place." I agree.

I've written in this space before about the most wonderful teacher I ever had - the inimitable Mrs Penny Smith, she of the happy cackle and the "Expanding Horizons Nights" she hosted at her home for her high school Humanities students. When she retired, she opened a little bookstore called Calliope that was a wonderful place to go for books, peace and quiet, and stimulating conversation with a warm and erudite lady. Mrs Smith passed away many years ago, and in the place where Calliope once stood there's now a generic fast-food joint.

And we're all a little poorer for it.

Have a good day. Support your local bookstore. Tomorrow may be too late.

More thoughts coming.


Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Rules of Bureaucracy

Over the last few months, my long-lost friend Debbie has been feeding me odds and ends she thinks would be useful for my blog. Some are things I've already seen, some are new, and some are - frankly - a bit in excess of the PG rating I try to maintain here (since my children, nieces, and nephews read this blog, too).

This morning, since I need to get my wide, pasty-white backside in gear and get checked out of the hotel so I can spend a few more hours with Dad before heading home, I thought I'd dip into The Debbie File and share one of her offerings with you.

If you've never had to deal with a massive and opaque government bureaucracy before, you're very fortunate. But if you do have to do it, remember these ten rules that drive bureaucracies:

1. Preserve thyself.

2. It is easier to fix the blame than to fix the problem (see Congress for a prime example).

3. A penny saved is an oversight.

4. Information deteriorates upward.

5. The first 90% of the task takes 10% of the time; the last 10% takes the other 90%.

6. Experience is what you get just after you need it.

7. For any given large, complex, hard-to-understand, expensive problem, there exists at least one short, simple, easy, cheap wrong answer (government bailouts?).

8. Anything that can be changed will be, until time runs out.

9. To err is human; to shrug is civil service.

10. There's never enough time to do it right, but there's always enough time to do it over.

For really good parodies of mindless bureaucracy, I can recommend two classics: the administrative offices of Hell as depicted in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's recently-reprinted update of Dante's Inferno; and the marvelous and hysterically funny song Antrag auf Erteilung eines Antragsformulars by German folk singer Reinhard Mey. Mey's song is the story of a fellow who spends days being shunted from office to office in search of a special form he's been told he needs to submit to his local government office...only to find out in the end that all the stocks of the forms are being destroyed because they're superfluous and no one ever needs them for anything. Someday when I have time, I'll post a translation of the lyrics to go with the YouTube video I linked to above so you can enjoy it if you don't speak any German.

And now it's time for me to deal with the Best Western bureaucracy, pay my bill, and hit the road. See you in the morning.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, April 25, 2009

Father Report

Since many of you have e-mailed me or added comments asking about my father's condition, here's what I can say - he had a series of small strokes about two months ago, and is in a rehabilitation hospital trying to recover the use of his left side. His spirits are good, although being confined to a wheelchair and needing help with simple things is a blow to the pride of someone who has always been very active. All things considered, he's doing well for a man of his age and what he's been through. Thank you all for your concern, and please continue to keep Dad in your thoughts.


Cartoon Saturday

Cartoon Saturday comes to you this week from the Best Western Hotel in Greentree, Pennsylvania, my home-away-from-home for a few days while I visit my father, who is recovering from a stroke at a nearby rehabilitation hospital. Not the way either of us would have chosen to spend the weekend, but I suppose we're never allowed to choose our fates.

The Taliban is feeling its oats, trying to expand its vision of heaven on earth over the whole of a nuclear-armed Pakistan; a deadly strain of swine flu has broken out in Mexico and, sadly, doesn't seem to restrict itself to drug cartels; General Motors has decided to drop the Pontiac brand from its lineup (bad news for Agnes and her beloved 1996 Pontiac Bonneville SSEi, which will now be more difficult to maintain); and a murderer who found his victim on Craigslist has, of course, pleaded not guilty.

What would you do without Cartoon Saturday?
Those of you living outside the United States may not be familiar with the big, wholesale-level warehouse stores like Sam's Club, BJ's, and Costco which sell things at very good prices...but you have to buy them in bulk. Here are two cartoons that poke fun at the warehouse stores (where Agnes and I spend vast amounts of money each year)...
This cartoon will make more sense to you if your experiences include coach-class airline travel and watching a million clowns pour out of a tiny car at the circus...
Dad and I watched a frightening story on TV last night about the proliferation of air accidents caused by aircraft striking birds. Everyone's looking for a way to keep birds away from aircraft, and if that method could be "green," so much the better...
Eventually, we'll carry truth in packaging just too far...
And finally, have you ever wondered why law firms always have to carry the names of all their partners? There's Dewey, Cheatem, and Howe, made popular by generations of punsters, Hungadunga, Hungadunga, Hungadunga, Hungadunga, and McCormick (from one of the Marx Brothers films). And then there's ...
It's going to be a bright, sunny, and very warm day here in Pittsburgh, as it is back home in Northern Virginia. Hope it's good where you are, too, so you can get out and enjoy it.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Truth Is Out There...Maybe

You may have read of the annual "X-Conference" which recently wrapped up here in Washington. Sponsored by the Paradigm Research Group, the X-Conference, in the words of its website, "…bring(s) together in the Washington metro area a powerful group of speakers to focus on the governmental, political and media aspects of 60+ years of extraterrestrial engagement and societal denial - exopolitics." It goes on to say that, "the X-Conference speakers hold enough knowledge of extraterrestrial-related phenomena and government involvement with this phenomena to end the government imposed truth embargo tomorrow." The highlight of this year's X-Conference was an address by former astronaut Edgar Mitchell, in which he claimed that extraterrestrial life exists, and that the truth is being concealed by the U.S. and other governments.

Are we alone in the universe? Beats me. I would say that the odds are good that we aren't, but it's rather like trying to identify principled statesmanship in suspect it may be there somewhere, but there's really no good evidence.

When I was in high school, I was a UFO buff. I had a large collection of books about flying saucers, extraterrestrial life, alien abductions, and all that related stuff. I knew all about Project Blue Book, and about Barney and Betty Hill's tale of being kidnapped by aliens (as documented in their book, The Interrupted Journey). I loved the original Star Trek (cheesy special effects and all), and still enjoy movies like "The War of the Worlds," "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (original version only), and "Independence Day." I watched "The X Files" on TV.

And I have yet to see an actual flying saucer, an alien on an autopsy table, or anything else.

Are we alone? I doubt it. But I have to believe that if we aren't, and if there are planets out there more advanced than we are, they'd probably avoid us like the plague. If you could travel through interstellar space and visit any world you wanted, why would you come to a place that offers tourist joys like genocide, radical, violent, and intolerant religions, and widespread environmental pollution? Me, I'd look for a planet with quiet mountains, nice beaches, and a laid-back population.

Is the government hiding the truth about extraterrestrial life? Oh, come on, now...if you can believe the US government could keep a secret that big since, oh, say, Roswell in 1947, I have a bridge to sell you.

Yes, there's probably intelligent life out there. I really hope there is. Because I often despair of finding it down here.

Except, of course, among the members of my little blogging circle. You guys give me hope. Even you, Mike.

Have a good day. Don't accept rides from strange aliens. More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. - Yesterday, I passed on the Friendship Award I received from Jersey Girl to several of my female blogging friends.
Today, it's the men's turn. I hereby bestow the Friendship Award on (drum roll, please)...

Mike, at Billions of Versions of Normal (normal, he isn't...but he's fun);

John, at Out of My Hat (after all, how many preacher/magician/air traffic controllers do you know?)

Gilahi, at The Gilahi Blog (another cranky fellow like me); and,

Daniel, at Tales of a Media Addict (the only one of this group I've actually met - and a nice guy to boot).

Gents, a tip of the hat to you. And if a rabbit falls out, please give it back to John.


P.P.S. - I will be leaving very early tomorrow morning to drive up to Pittsburgh to visit my father, who is unwell. Those of you who are used to my early morning posts should know that tomorrow's post will not go up until sometime in the evening, assuming the Internet connection in my hotel works. See you then.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Why Adults Don't Go To the Movies

Yesterday I read this article in Yahoo Movie News: Studios Keep Aiming Young as Adults Avoid Movies. My response: "Duh!"

The article listed all sorts of reasons why adults don't go to the movies any more, including:

The recession. Not too many adults are willing to spend a lot of money to see a movie they can rent at the local Blockbuster for less than half the price; and,

A lack of films that appeal to adults. The article quotes a "top studio executive" as saying that "Adults are a harder audience to motivate, and the problem with some adult movies is compounded by their not being high-concept films that you can boil down to 30-second spots."

I can't speak for you, of course, but here's a list of reasons why a grumpy curmudgeon like me doesn't go to the movies any more:

Too loud. The average film has a thundering musical score, and most science fiction, crime, and political thriller films are built around spectacular crashes and explosions driven into your head like acoustic railroad spikes by the latest Dolby surround-sound system. On top of that, pile the people who bring their squalling infants because they don't want to pay for a baby-sitter, the asshats (thank you, Zipcode!) who can't stay off their cell phones for the length of a movie, and the boisterous teens who threaten you if you ask them to be quiet, and you can't even hear yourself think. If I want a headache, I can read the latest economic news.

Too expensive. Unless you give up a prime part of your early afternoon to go to a matinee, movie tickets cost enough to feed the average destitute Somali village for a month. And that's before you pay $7.50 for a box of popcorn, $5.00 for a soft drink, and $4.00 for a candy bar the size of a bathmat. Most theaters need a branch bank in the lobby to make loans. That is, if banks actually make loans any more instead of paying bonuses to their directors. Never mind.

Too uncomfortable. Theater seats are not quite as yucky as the coach-class airline seats that were originally designed by unusually creative Gestapo interrogators, but they're bad enough. Not to mention crusted with spilled popcorn and drinks and dotted with the used gum left by previous occupants.

Bad views. No matter how carefully I select a seat for maximum screen viewing, some dumbass the size of a minor Himalayan peak will select the seat directly in front of me. If he can't make it, he'll send someone with an afro teased to the diameter of a beach ball.

Dumb plots. If all your movie consists of is explosions, car chases, and sex scenes, none of it connected by any rational plot, you lost me. If I want to be confused, I can try to understand why some brainless morons keep getting elected to office, and not have to pay high double-digits for the privilege.

There are other considerations, too. When you get to be a relatively senior citizen, you have to think about important things like the distance to the nearest rest room. At the theater, if you have to make a pit stop, you miss at least $3.00 worth of movie for the time of the average pee, and then you can't find your seat when you're done. At home, you can push "pause" on the DVD player, do your thing, return to your comfortable sofa, and pick up where you left off.

So, all you studio executives who are reading this little diatribe and scratching your heads in wonder ... it's not rocket science. Make good movies that thinking adults will want to see, crack down on misbehavior in the theaters (as if that will ever happen), and install cell phone jammers at each place.

Or you can call me at home and ask my opinion. I'll pause the DVD player long enough to give it to you.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. - yesterday, Jersey Girl honored my blog and I with the Friendship Award, given to "kind bloggers (who) aim to find and be friends. They are not interested in self-aggrandizement."
As usual with such blogging awards, they are intended to be passed on to others as a way of helping introduce our readers to other blogs they may enjoy. Thus, I hereby pass on the Friendship Award to ...

Amanda at The Milk Bar (who has turned out to be not just a serial commenter, but a great pen pal);

OCgirl (who is both a thoughtful blogger and an interesting person to meet and talk to);

Fiona at Travelin' Through (who has some hysterically funny travelogues in addition to her tales of horse care); and,

SusieQ of (where else?) SusieQ's Place (who managed to wheedle a good recipe out of me, and writes a great comment).

You may have noticed that no male bloggers made it on to this list. It's okay ... I'll talk about them tomorrow. Ladies first, after all.


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Flying the Crowded Skies

You've all grown tired by now of my grousing about all the reasons flying is not fun any more, a lengthy list which includes...

* The pat-downs at airport security by bored and humorless TSA drones;

* Morons who think "one carry-on bag and one personal item" means a suitcase the size of an upright piano and a steamer trunk;

* Flying from Washington Dulles Airport and realizing the only place you can afford to park is in West Virginia; and,

* Realizing that the price quoted for your flight doesn't include extra, unmentioned-up-front charges for all sorts of things, like a fee for each checked suitcase, a "9/11 surcharge," takeoff fees, landing fees, in-flight fees, McAfees (no, pay those to protect your PC anyhow), and the ever-popular extra charge for an aircraft with the correct number of wings.

Yes, I hate flying for many reasons. However, one small victory seems to have come the way of the average traveler, even though it was prompted largely by airline revenue concerns and not by your comfort and safety.

According to this report, United Airlines will now require "passengers requiring extra space" to either move to a seat which has an adjoining seat free, or purchase a second seat on another flight if such space isn't available.


I truly do sympathize with overweight flyers. Coach class seats are miserably cramped and uncomfortable for people of "normal" size, much less for those who are ... well ... larger than average, for whatever reason. But when my seat that's already too small is reduced by a third or more because the person in the next seat has to raise the armrest and spill over and squeeze me even more tightly into my space, something's just not fair.

I applaud the new policy, even though the flyers most affected will certainly object to it.

Now, if only I could get the policy changed that prevents travel agents from booking travelers like Julia Roberts or Alyssa Milano (heck, even Fiona!) into seats next to mine, we'd really be getting somewhere...

Have a good day in an uncrowded seat. More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. - Reader Jersey Girl has generously passed on a new blogging award to yours truly: I am now the proud recipient of The Friendship Award, which she describes as being "...given to blogs that are exceedingly charming. These kind bloggers aim to find and be friends. They are not interested in self-aggrandizement."

Thanks, Jersey Girl! I'm not worthy. Particularly since the "not interested in self-aggrandizement" part doesn't quite track with my long-term goal of world domination, bwah-ha-ha-haaaaa!

Oops. Must be careful not to let my guard down before the coronation.

Tomorrow, I'll pass this award on to other deserving bloggers. For now, it's time to go to work. Sigh...


Monday, April 20, 2009

"Ten Things We Should Toss"

I was surprised and gratified by the response to yesterday's post (The Things You Remember), in which I asked what the earliest historical event was that you remembered. The Challenger disaster and the assassination of JFK were mentioned several times, and it was very interesting to see the things that make an impression on people and ground them in a particular time and place. I didn't get a record number of responses, but I got quite a few and all were great - thanks to everyone for replying!

I have another question today, this one brought on by a very interesting series of short essays in yesterday's Washington Post Op-Ed section: 10 Things We Should Toss. In this two-page spread, ten commentators suggested ten things we ought to get rid of to improve the nation. The ten things (and their authors) were:

The Nobel Prize in Literature (Marie Arana);
The Prom (John Green);
The NAACP (Jonetta Rose Barras);
Vice Presidents (Jeremy Lott);
West Point (Thomas Ricks);
The White House Press Corps (Ana Marie Cox);
Larry Summers (Naomi Klein);
Tenure (Francis Fukuyama);
The Term "Muslim World" (Parag Khanna); and,
Television (Farhad Manjoo)

In my humble and biased opinion, this is a great list. Each essay is well-written and thought through. Having read them, I can agree with most, although not necessarily for the same reasons put forward by the authors. For instance, John Green hates the expense vs the perceived return on investment of the high school prom...but it does show young people the value of dressing well and acting civil, if only for a night. Jeremy Lott doesn't think we need Vice Presidents, but I think it's not bad to have an understudy (although, having just finished Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, by Barton Gellman, I think we need to keep an eye on them). Farhad Manjoo wants to dump television, although I love the diversity of shows that keep things interesting. I must say, though, that I agree with Thomas Ricks, a military affairs commentator for whom I have great respect, that we should close West an ROTC graduate, I see all his arguments and agree with him pretty much across the board.

Take a few minutes, read the 10 short essays, and then suggest something you think we should toss. To start things off, I suggest we get rid of the Department of Homeland Security, which I don't think has made us any more secure, and has contributed to an unnecessary and expensive ballooning of the federal bureaucracy.

What do you think?

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Things You Remember

One of my co-workers asked an interesting question the other day: "What's the earliest historical event you remember?"

I thought it was an interesting question on two fronts: first, because I think it's useful to think about the time in which you've lived; second, because it makes one feel really ancient, if the ancient one is yours truly. It's also the sort of question Jean-Luc Picard tends to ask in his "The Weekend Question" feature at Captain Picard's Journal (feel free to use it, Jean-Luc, if you haven't already).


The responses of my various co-workers included:

The assassination of Martin Luther King (in 1968);

The first manned landing on the moon (in 1969); and,

The release of the original Star Wars movie in 1977;

My own first historical memory was of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962 - at which time I was a month shy of being 11 years old. The whole thing was a bit beyond my level of geopolitical understanding, but I remember my parents being nervously riveted to our old black-and-white TV, my father trying to explain what was going on, and - most of all - the school exercises in which we had to crouch under our desks with our hands clasped on our heads, which would certainly have ensured our survival in case of thermonuclear war.

As a history buff, I have long thought about my place in the endless train of events that connect Genesis with the age of Hugo Chavez, Britney Spears, and the Taliban. I've always found it fascinating that I was born less than 100 years (86, to be exact) after the end of the American Civil War and six years after the end of World War II (a "baby boomer"). I've lived through the first manned space flight (Yuri Gagarin, in 1961) and the first man to walk on the moon (Neil Armstrong, in 1969 - only eight years later). I was one of the last military folks of the Vietnam generation (I was commissioned in 1973, and was one of the few who didn't end up in Southeast Asia), was involved in the mass evacuation of Americans from Iran after the Islamic revolution in 1979; and observed the first Gulf War from my desk in the bowels of the Pentagon.

I oughta write a book: something with a catchy title, like Present on the Fringes: A Not-So-Innocent Bystander to History. But, at least for now, I'm too lazy.

So what are YOUR earliest memories of historical events? I'm waiting to see the comments, particularly those from those of you outside the United States - it'll be interesting to see what constitutes a "historical event" from your perspectives, and how it may differ from an American perspective.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, April 18, 2009

Cartoon Saturday

At least 18 people have been killed in the latest mine explosion in China; the last survivor of the sinking of the Titanic is selling off personal mementos to pay her nursing home bills; Mahmoud Ahmedinejad thunders that "no one dares threaten Iran," which prefers to do its own threatening; North Korea has thrown another temper tantrum; and a woman in Boston may have been murdered by a man who responded to her ad on Craigslist for massage services.

At least you have Cartoon Saturday to make you feel better.

This week, pairs of cartoons on related themes...

What happens when some people show up in front of St Peter is a popular subject. I was a little concerned about this one, which was sent to me by one of my co-workers...

But this one looks pretty good to me ...

A pair of riffs on the proliferation of electronic entertainment ...

And finally, two cartoons that are just what the doctor ordered. More or less.

It looks as if it's going to be a gorgeous weekend here in Northern Virginia, and I can already hear my winter-neglected yard whining for attention. Last weekend I put some plant food on the shrubs under the I can't sleep because I overfed them and they just sit out there and belch all night long.

You can't win.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, April 17, 2009


One of the things that gives richness to language is our use of metaphor - a description of one thing by comparison to another. Metaphors can be a marvelous tool for evoking vivid mental images; they can also make you cock your head to one side and say, "Eh?"

Last night Agnes and I were watching Bones, our favorite TV show, which follows the adventures of a team of forensic anthropologists who solve bizarre murders. This particular episode dealt with the murder of a musician from a death metal band, the music of which was elegantly described by one of the characters:

"This stuff sounds like a truckload of cymbals crashing into a saw factory."

Now that's metaphor. And, in my humble opinion, devastatingly accurate.

A great source of strange metaphors is the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Edward George Bulwer-Lytton was a 19th century British author most remembered for the classic and much-parodied opening line, "It was a dark and stormy night..." The 2008 winner of the contest, Garrison Spik of Washington, DC, submitted this classic:

"Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped 'Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N.J.'"

Jim Thomas of Gilbert, Arizona, received a "Dishonorable Mention" for this entry:

"The pancake batter looked almost perfect, like the morning sun shining on the cream-colored bare shoulder of a gorgeous young blonde driving 30 miles over the speed limit down a rural Nebraska highway with the rental car's sunroof open, except it had a few lumps."

I think I need to work on polishing my own metaphors so that I can improve the flow of writing in this blog, eh? Any suggestions? After all, I've got to do something to stay ahead of Mike and Fiona. How about,

"Bilbo's elegantly descriptive if overly verbose writing flowed like the smoothly moving torrent of effluvium gushing from the end of a large-diameter pipe exiting a water treatment plant, but without the larger and more unidentifiable chunks."


I think maybe I'll leave it here. I need to save some of that creativity for the office, after all.

Have a good day. Cartoon Saturday is coming...

More thoughts later.


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Tax Freedom Day, 2009

Here I am again, back from my trip out to Ohio. The business part of the trip was very successful and educational, but - of course - the best part was the ability to spend some (not enough) time with my son and his family. Before we get down to business, here's a picture of yours truly with Noah, Joe, and Marcy - the most wonderful grandchildren west of the Ohio state line ...

Jason took about 15 straight pictures in a hopeless attempt to get all three kids sitting still, smiling at the camera, and me with my eyes open. This was about as good as it got. To paraphrase Mel Brooks, "It's good to be the grandpa!"

Okay, now down to business.

Yesterday was Tax Day - April 15th - the day each year individual American taxpayers must submit their tax returns and pay their taxes due to the Infernal Revenue Service. Two other dates are worth mentioning:

April 13th: National Tax Freedom Day - the first day of the year on which, according to the Tax Foundation, Americans first begin to keep the money they earn, having made enough to pay all their federal, state, and local income, payroll, real estate, sales, excise, luxury, and other taxes and tax-like fees we're liable for. Tax Freedom Day came earlier this year than last, largely because the dismal state of the economy has reduced income, which has reduced the tax bite. You can read about it here.

April 16th: that would be today, which is Tax Freedom Day in the Commonwealth of Virginia. This means that we Virginians worked 106 days to pay all our taxes this year, and our Tax Freedom Day is the sixth latest (Connecticut is number one, with a Tax Freedom Day of April 30th; number 50 is Alaska, on March 30th). You can see all the rankings here.

As you all know by now, I don't object in principle to paying taxes. However, like all Americans, I believe in equality and fairness under the law, and in the belief that we should have to pay the minimum in taxes consistent with the needs of the government to pay its legitimate expenses. The problem, of course, comes in defining what those legitimate expenses are. In Bilbo's humble opinion, legitimate expenses include:

- National defense;

- Essential services (police, fire department, public health, schools); and,

- Operation and administration of government (this does not include any office led by an individual whose title begins with more than two qualifiers, as in "(1) Principal (2) Deputy (3) Assistant (4) Under (5) Secretary of ___ for ___.")

Illegitimate expenses, on the other hand, include:

- Any services of any sort for anyone in this country illegally;

- Foreign aid provided to any country whose citizens routinely participate in demonstrations which call for death to America or any specific American; and,

- Tax benefits provided to any specific individual or industry which increase the tax burden on individual taxpayers.

I believe in fairness. I don't think anyone's taxes should be based on their ability to hire a good tax lawyer, or to contribute enough to a Senator or Reprehensive who can craft the tax code to their advantage. If you want to take part in protest "Tea Parties," knock yourself out. But you're wasting your time. Making a lot of noise for the cameras and mouthing the platitudes that your talk radio heroes spout doesn't help - educating yourself, voting, and making your positive and constructive recommendations known to your elected leaders at every level does.

I'm all in favor of the earliest possible Tax Freedom Day consistent with the government's ability to operate and provide essential services. We just need to agree on what those essential services are...and that's no trivial task. One person's pork is another person's essential service.

As for me, I'll keep writing letters to my elected reprehensives. And I'll keep sighing and writing those checks to Uncle Sam and to the Governor of Virginia each year.

And I'll enjoy an occasional cup of tea without thinking about taxes.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, April 13, 2009

Navy 4, Pirates 0

Before I start on this morning's post, I should note that the counter on my Blogspot home page tells me that yesterday was my 974th post. That would make this my 975th post. And that means, of course, that - barring unforeseen circumstances - sometime in the next month I should hit my one thousandth post.


I didn't realize even I could pontificate that much.

Any suggestions for a topic for the approaching 1,000th post? Suitable for a PG-rated blog, of course (yes, Mike and Fiona, I'm talking to you!).


Yesterday, after a four-day standoff, Navy SEALs on board a warship reduced the pirate population of the waters off Somalia by four, shooting three, capturing one, and rescuing unharmed the American ship's captain the pirates had held hostage. Navy 4, pirates 0.

Unless, of course, you count all the other ships pirates have seized and hostages they still hold.

I have mixed feelings about the whole piracy thing. On the one hand, I think I can understand the poverty and desperation that supposedly drives people of that region to commit acts of piracy. On the other hand, it doesn't appear that the many millions of dollars of ransoms paid by shipping lines and their insurance companies have turned into food for starving Somalis, housing to replace their shantytowns, medical care for their children, and so on. Instead, the money is creating an economic boom in coastal pirate havens as pirate leaders build huge mansions for themselves and stock up on guns and other supplies to seize more ships and extort still more money. In the Somali heartland, away from the pirate dens, life expectancy continues to be 46 years, a quarter of all children die before age 5, and radical Islamists enforce their paradise on earth with lashings and stonings for accused criminals (i.e., women, men without beards, etc).

The heroic pirates the coastal Somalis love, and whom women flock from the impoverished interior to marry, are conniving opportunists who traffic in violence and theft. They aren't Robin Hoods, they're just hoods. And the problem won't go away until two things happen:

1. Companies stop paying ransoms; and,

2. The various navies stop cruising majestically around the waters off Somalia turning fuel into wakes, and start actually sinking a few pirate ships instead of just watching and chasing them.

This is a very hard problem. The area to be policed is enormous, the pirates are hard to catch in the act, and most Western nations tend to think in the legalistic terms of arresting and prosecuting pirates, rather than just turning them into chum for the nourishment of the local shark population, and their ships into small, smoldering chunks.

The pirates are now claiming they'll "retaliate" for the deaths of the scumbags that the Navy killed yesterday. No doubt they'll try, and no doubt they'll succeed, at least in part. But if we don't start letting them know that there are consequences ... that we're not going to just roll over and pay them to keep doing what they want ... innocent mariners, and not worthless pirates, will continue to suffer.

Here's what President Bilbo would do:

1. Sail a few warships into the coastal towns that harbor pirates and hail them as heroes. Shell every new mansion built by a pirate, destroy the harbor facilities, and sink every local ship.

2. Offer to stop when they do.

3. Repeat step 1 until the pirates realize we can and will remorselessly hurt them where they live, instead of just writing checks.

Good thing I'm not the President. But that's my advice.

At one time, captured pirates were hung, and their bodies were dipped in tar and hung at the entrances to harbors as a warning to others. Sometimes, heads were displayed on pikes at strategic locations.

Those were the good old days.

It's time to stop thinking of pirates as colorful characters with tricorn hats, earrings, peg legs, and squawking parrots on their shoulders as they shout "AARRGG, matey!" It's time to start treating them like the greedy, vicious criminals they are.

That's a pretty expensive Navy we're paying for, after all. And they need target practice to stay sharp.

Have a good day. More thoughts later.


P.S. - later this morning I'll be flying out on a business trip for the next few days. I won't have access to the Internet, so my next post won't be until Wednesday evening or Thursday morning. Don't give up - I'll be back.


Sunday, April 12, 2009

Why So Serious?

Yes, this was the signature line Heath Ledger hissed in his role as the murderous, psychopathic Joker in the latest Batman film (The Dark Knight).

And why would I be using it to introduce a post on Easter Sunday, the holiest day in the Christian calendar?

As you know, I have mixed feelings (bordering on a love-hate relationship) with organized religion. I think that as humans who are aware of ourselves, our surroundings, and the eventuality of our own death, we need to be able to think of some larger purpose for our lives, and the possibility that something exists beyond the end of our too-few years. Religious beliefs give us that. But a good case can also be made that religion has caused enormous amounts of pain and misery over the centuries. For every Pope John XXIII who preached a message of love and inclusivity, there's some bearded and beturbaned monster encouraging impressionable young people to kill themselves in the act of murdering others, guaranteeing that for their action they'll enjoy the eternal attentions of virgins in an imagined paradise.

Why so serious?

Why do so many different religions exist, each one claiming to be The One True Way, each one claiming that adherence to any other is a guarantee of eternal damnation, and many of them preaching a life of austere misery on earth as a guarantee of an imagined paradise in some promised eternity?

Does a God capable of creating the endless majesty of the universe really need to direct every aspect of the lives of humans on just one of the countless billions of worlds in that universe? Why would a God who can create the wonder of a living, breathing baby also demand a system that requires belief in Him down to specific sets of rituals and a mandated hatred of those who believe anything else?

Why so serious?

On this Easter morning, the beginning of what promises to be a gorgeous spring day here in The Old Dominion, it may not be a bad thing to ask ourselves that question.

I came to know Father James Martin (not personally, but through his writings and his appearances as a commentator on NPR) as a thoughtful and interesting person. Earlier this month, Father Martin aired a commentary titled, "God to Man: Get Over Yourself" which I thought was one of the most marvelous pieces of gently religious encouragement I've ever heard. Take a few minutes to listen to it. In it, Father Martin explains why he enjoys telling jokes about Catholics, Jesuits, and priests ("since I'm all three") ... he writes,

"Why is it important to tell jokes about yourself? It reminds you that you don't know everything, you can't do everything, and that you're not God. Humility underlines your place in the universe."

Why so serious? One of the things I always try not to do is take myself too seriously, to remind myself that I'm not always as witty and intelligent, suave and handsome, and adored by women everywhere (well, except for my granddaughters, and then only most of the time) as I might like to think. And perhaps it would be a good thing if that were shared by those who aspire to religious leadership. As Father Martin says with elegant simplicity, You're not God. What gives you the authority to command in his name? Where do you get off preaching hatred and intolerance rather than love and compassion? What have you done to make the world a better place, rather than one of death and misery and fear?

On this Easter Morning, as Christian believers stream to churches around the world (except in Saudi Arabia where, of course, it is a crime to be anything but a Sunni Muslim), let's ask ourselves why so serious? A little humility before the vastness and grandeur of creation isn't a bad thing.

And so is loving your neighbor, rather than killing him because he doesn't think the same way you do.

Happy Easter to all of my friends out there in the blogosphere, regardless of your choice of faith. Decide to ask yourself for once why so joyful?

It can't hurt.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, April 11, 2009

Cartoon Saturday

Somali pirates are still standing off two powerful warships and holding hostage the American captain of the ship they unsuccessfully tried to hijack earlier this week; a Sunday school teacher has been arrested for the murder of an 8 year-old girl; a mysterious fungus is killing off local bats, threatening an explosion of the insect population; graft and corruption in China is contributing to a series of deadly mine accidents; and a car driven by a retired priest plowed into a crowd of Good Friday worshipers, killing one and injuring several.

If there was ever a time for Cartoon Saturday, it's now.

From my unique perspective laboring away in a cubicle in the shadowy depths of the Pentagon, I can relate to this one...

Another in the ongoing series of cartoons featuring crash-test dummies ...

You all know the old joke about the dyslexic, apathetic, agonstic insomniac - you know, the guy who lies awake nights wondering whether or not Dog exists, but in the end doesn't really care. I love this cartoon that riffs on that joke as only Mike Peters can ...

This is the first cartoon I've seen that takes off on an obvious theme ...

Some cartoons, like this one, cleverly update old themes ...

And in the ongoing series of cartoons about the awful economy, cutbacks, reductions, and related bad news, comes this absolute classic (click it to enlarge and get the full effect) ...

Here in Northern Virginia it's a chilly, rainy, gloomy day. It looks as if I'll spend it housecleaning and catching up on paperwork, instead of planting my garden. Oh, well ... there's always tomorrow.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, April 10, 2009

Because SusieQ Asked...

Because reader SusieQ made a valiant effort to convince me that beets aren't so bad (as I opined in my post earlier today), and because she asked me to post the Chicken Marsala recipe I mentioned rather than e-mailing it on request, my culinary heart has melted. SusieQ, here is your recipe...

Chicken Breasts with Wild Mushrooms, Marjoram, and Marsala

4 large skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
6 teaspoons chopped fresh marjoram, divided
2 tablespoons butter, divided
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
12 ounces assorted wild mushrooms (oyster, shiitake, baby bella, etc), thickly sliced
1 cup sliced shallots (about 5)
3/4 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup whipping (heavy) cream
3 tablespoons dry Marsala

Sprinkle the chicken breasts with salt, pepper, and 2 teaspoons of the marjoram. Melt 1 tablespoon of butter with 1 tablespoon of oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the chicken to the skillet and saute until just cooked through, about 7 minutes per side. Transfer the chicken to a warm plate and tent with foil to keep it warm.

Melt the rest of the butter and the remaining tablespoon of oil in the same skillet. Add the mushrooms, shallots, and 2 teaspoons of marjoram. Saute until the mushrooms are brown and tender, about 6 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and transfer to a bowl.

Combine the broth, cream, Marsala, and remaining 2 teaspoons of marjoram in the same skillet. Boil until thickened and reduced to about 1/2 cup, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Divide the mushrooms among 4 plates, place a chicken breast on the mushrooms, spoon the sauce over, and serve. Dodge hugs and kisses from happy diners.

Note: because we're sauce lovers, I doubled the sauce ingredients. It doubles just fine.

Let me know how you like it.

Bon appetit!


You Are What You Eat

Agnes and I both love to cook. This is not a bad thing, because we both like to eat, too. And collect cookbooks. Every time we go to the local Costco megawarehousestore, cookbooks lie in wait for us, peering out from their ambush sites behind the latest thriller or historical fiction offerings for just the right moment to slide unseen into our cart, only to be discovered later when Agnes does her usual steely-eyed review of the receipt, just knowing we couldn't have spent that much.

We have a collection of cookbooks that is the envy of the Library of Congress. We have cookbooks for every conceivable type of cuisine, by every celebrity, from every charity, addressing every cooking style, using every ingredient.

Agnes: "What's for dinner?"

Me: "What do we have?"

Agnes (peering into refrigerator and pantry cupboards): "A pound of dried octopus, four kumquats, half a box of quinoa, and a block of some kind of cheese that needs a shave."

Me: "Look! Here in this Coastal Albanian Peasant Cooking for Two cookbook, there's a recipe for Octopus with Kumquats and Partially-Moldy Cheese on a Bed of Almost-Enough Quinoa!"

Agnes: "Yum!"

Actually, the truth is that we have so many cookbooks that we don't have enough time to search all of them for recipes, and can never find the cookbook with the recipes we want to use. We usually end up searching on for suitable recipes.

But, as usual, I digress.

Yesterday I noted this interesting article, reproduced on CNN's health page from Cooking Light magazine: What You Eat Can Improve Your Health, Mind, and Appearance. According to this article, eating a varied diet which includes a wide range of meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, and grains provides all sorts of nutrients and vitamins and amino acids (acids from Italy) that contribute to health, vitality, mental acuity, and long life. Eat right and you, too, can have smooth and glowing skin, silky hair, eyes like an eagle, strong bones, a mighty heart, and a brain that would make Einstein look like the school dumbass.

What a crock.

I eat all this stuff, and I still look like a confused, squinting, gray-haired, saggy man in search of his second childhood. I drink fruit juices, eat vast quantities of vegetables, enjoy fish (brain food, as my Mother always said), and generally eat pretty much anything that doesn't move fast enough to get away, prepared in pretty much any style. I do draw the line at beets, though. Beets are what Satan put on earth to take the fun out of brussels sprouts, peas, green beans, and other yummy vegetables.

So if you are what you eat, I ought to be a leafy, finned character with gills and a vague resemblance to a cabbage resting atop a scaffolding of celery, asparagus, and carrots. At least I don't look like a large sack of Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese Extra Large Value Meals, like many of the folks I have to squeeze next to in narrow seats on the bus.

Want to try the recipe I made for supper last night (Creole Catfish with Tartar Sauce and Red Rice), or a few nights ago (Chicken Breasts with Wild Mushrooms, Marjoram, and Marsala)? E-mail me and I'll send you the recipes. You'll thank me.

You are what you eat. Eat well. I need you around to read this blog for a long time.

Have a good day. Tomorrow is Cartoon Saturday!


Thursday, April 09, 2009

It's An Alternative to a Bake Sale...

As governments at all levels scramble to generate revenue in the current economic crisis, one sure-fire source of funds to which they always turn is taxes - more specifically, the so-called "sin taxes" imposed on things that are, if not actually sinful, then at least not quite socially acceptable. Taxes on tobacco products, liquor, and gambling winnings are examples of "sin taxes."

Now, you wouldn't think that a government would turn up its nose at a source of potential revenue, even revenue generated from a "sin tax," but it's happened - according to this story from the bucolic rural hamlet of Las Vegas, Nevada, the Taxation Committee of the state legislature has declined to impose a tax on prostitution. Prostitution, as it happens, is legal in Nevada, although it is generally frowned upon by those not engaged in it.

Oddly enough, the proposal to impose a $5.00 per act tax on on sex acts performed in legal brothels was proposed by a prostitutes' lobbying group and supported by Senator Bob Coffin (as senate bill SB369) as a way of helping the state overcome its fiscal woes in the wake of the downturn which has hit Nevada's gambling- and tourism-focused economy very hard.

Speaking of toxic assets...

Most of the state legislators recoiled in horror from the proposed tax, fearing the backlash from the religious right, and maintained that there were other, easier ways available to raise revenue. Those willing to comment said they feared that imposing a tax on prostitution might "...lend legitimacy and respectability to an industry that, while legal, is still heavily criticized" in the state whose motto is "All for our country." Really. Other opponents of the bill said it could encourage more illegal pimps and prostitutes to move to the state, and a psychologist and "prostitution researcher" (now there's an interesting job) called the proposed tax "an act of legislative pimping."

A check of the online survey which ran with the story showed that 872 people had voted thus far, of whom 677 (78%) favored the tax, 150 (17%) opposed it, and 45 (5%) "don't know."

All I know is that it seems like a good way to raise revenue, straighten out the state's finances, and get it out of the hole. So to speak.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, April 08, 2009

News Flash: Women Smell Better Than Men!

Really! And in more ways than one.

According to this interesting article from, women are much more attuned to and aware of men's body odor than men are to women's, the theory being that human sweat conveys biological information that is especially important to women when seeking mates.

In a test of the theory, researchers asked women and men to rate the strength of samples of underarm sweat collected from both sexes. When the scent was presented on its own, it smelled equally strong to both women and men; however, when the researchers combined the body odor with other fragrances (perfumes, deodorants, powders, etc), the smell was often masked for men, though women could usually still detect it. The study also tested 32 different fragrances to see how well they could hide body oder. Nineteen of the 32 fragrances successfully hid the smell of the women's sweaty underarms from the male subjects...but among women, only two of the scents were able to overpower the men's odor.

The scientists also tested the reactions of female volunteers to odors from men versus odors from women. They found that even though the female sweat might smell just as strongly as the male sweat did, it was easier to mask with perfumes. About 19 percent of the fragrances tested successfully reduced the strength of male underarm odor, while more than 50 percent decreased the intensity of female underarm odor.

Other studies found that women can tell when a man is interested from the scent of his sweat: their brains respond differently when smelling sweat samples from men who were sexually aroused and men who weren't. The same studies showed that men also use their noses to choose mates, proving that the scent of a woman's body odor is more attractive to men at certain times in her monthly cycle. Female underarm sweat seems to communicate when a woman is fertile, making her more desirable to men.

Sort of makes you want to treat the humble armpit with more respect, doesn't it?

No less a respected sage than the late scholar and science fiction author Isaac Asimov noted this many years ago when he published his delightful parody The Sensuous Dirty Old Man. Asimov noted that old men need to be careful how much they get aroused, because their hearts aren't quite as strong as they used to be. His suggestion: focus on womens' armpits, rather than on other, more traditionally arousing body parts. He wrote that many a dirty old man has ridden a bus long past his proper stop, having been distracted by the sight of a bewitching young lady in a sleeveless blouse holding on to an overhead strap.

I use public transportation every day, and I'm getting older all the time. I may need to look into this.

But I digress...

I can tell you from personal experience that ladies smell better than men, no matter how much they may sweat. The average lady can dance vigorously all evening long and still smell fresh and clean, while unfortunate males like yours truly can generate a staggering stench that would scare a buzzard off a honey wagon.

It's not fair.

But I guess I must clean up well enough, though...Agnes hasn't left me yet.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Servicing the Car

Today is one of those days I dread almost above all others.

I have to take Agnes's car in for repair.

You might not think this is such a terrifying event in and of itself, but trust me: it is.

First of all, this isn't just any car. It's a supercharged 1996 Pontiac Bonneville SSEi ("Luxury with attitude," according to the old ad campaign). It goes from zero to jail in about 4.2 seconds, has front leather Recaro seats that recline nearly flat (not so good if you're the one in the back seat), and gets surprisingly good gas mileage for a car with an engine the size of an average Toyota. It's very comfortable on long drives. Agnes loves it.

And almost anything you do to it in the way of maintenance ends up costing about the annual GDP of Botswana.

Agnes, wonderful lady that she is, tends to be profoundly suspicious of automobile service people. Throbbing veins stand out in her forehead when I tell her the estimate for whatever repairs are required. If large chunks of the car haven't fallen off, or flames aren't coming out of places she doesn't expect to see flames, she's convinced the dealer service folks are trying to sell us unneeded repairs. I can always expect a thorough grilling about whether or not the repairs they want to make are legitimate or not. Since my comfort level with transportation technology maxed out with the supercharged oxcart (two oxen), it's not easy for me to convincingly explain to her that we need to do certain things.

Nowadays, of course, with automakers desperate to sell new cars, I have a sneaking suspicion that they perhaps do ratchet up the cost of maintaining older cars to make you think it's more economical to take on a new monthly car payment instead (Dave Barry used to write about repairmen who would send their assistants back to the office to fetch more zeroes for the estimate whenever he came in). And I'm not sure about those manuals they say they use to calculate how long it takes to do a particular repair...who decides on those figures, anyhow? When you're paying $87,694.99 per hour for labor, it's a legitimate question. And there are, of course, all the extra charges...over the years, the average auto repair bill has started to look like the average cell phone bill, loaded with fine-print charges that spring up on each visit ("used tire disposal fee," "expendable shop material charge," "Hugo Chavez Dale Carnegie Institute tuition," "hazardous materials disposal fee," "mechanics' bail bond fund reimbursement," and so on).

And so I sigh deeply and prepare to drive across town to the last surviving Pontiac dealer, who at this moment is probably sending a flunky out to buy the donuts they put out in the customers' waiting room.

I can eat a lot of donuts for $87,694.99 per hour.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, April 06, 2009

This Never Happens to James Bond...

Last Friday I ran a post titled "All My Soap Operas," in which I took off on the coming demise of the long-running soap "The Guiding Light" to talk about my past infatuation with the show "All My Children." My friend Katherine wrote a comment to that post in which she told the story of being detained at the French/Spanish border by a pair of bored French immigration officers who wouldn't return her passport until she told them who shot J.R. (Ewing, from the prime-time soap opera "Dallas").

Those pesky French.

As it happens, I have my own story about adventures crossing the French border...

When we last lived in Germany, we rented a house in the beautiful city of Wiesbaden, which was only about a two-hour drive from the Alsace region of Germany. Oops, no, actually the Alsace region of France. My mistake...the two countries have traded it back and forth so many times, I lost count. Anyhow, we often would drive down into the Alsace on weekends and find country restaurants and hotels where we'd have a nice multi-course French dinner and a good night's sleep, along with some shopping and sightseeing.

On one trip, we were travelling with our German friends Martina and Horst, and we had visited a crystal factory near the city of Bitche (no, I'm not kidding), where we bought a few nice things at the factory's outlet shop.

That was on Saturday. Fast forward to Sunday, and we're driving home to Wiesbaden. As a military person stationed in Europe, I was eligible to get the value-added tax we'd paid at the crystal factory (a not-insignificant sum) reimbursed...but in order to do that, I had to fill out the proper paperwork at a customs office at the border.

This is Sunday, remember. We visited four or five border crossings back to Germany before finding one (at Wissembourg, if memory serves) that was actually manned, and I duly gathered up our receipts and marched into the office to face two bored, middle-aged French customs officers...who thought that an American looking for their assistance was a gift from God to relive their boredom.

For the next hour or so, I went through the most amazing display of bureaucratic obstinancy I've ever seen. One man went out to carefully walk around our van and inspect it minutely. The other searched his office high and low for just the right form ... and then for a pen that would write. He then had to locate a sheet of scratch paper to try out the pen to make sure it would make just the right line of the proper color. Then he had to carefully transfer every detail of my military ID card, letter-by-letter, into the correct blocks on his form. Then he minutely scrutinized each receipt, front and back, to make sure that I wasn't trying to cheat the Government of the French Republic with some bogus paper. Once the form was completely filled out (and the carbon copies carefully inspected to ensure they were properly illegible), he announced in French (which we'd already established that I didn't speak) that it would be necessary to inspect the articles we'd purchased!

We marched out to the van where, under the careful observation of both officials, I opened the rear hatch, took out all the stuff on top of our packages, carried the packages back into the office, and unwrapped each one so that Inspector Clouseau could compare everything to the receipts.

This done, I was allowed to repackage all our purchases and return them to the van (again under the observation of the second officer) while our stalwart official embarked on a thorough search of his office for the correct stamp to apply to the documents. This took about ten minutes. He then needed to find an inkpad with just the right amount of ink. Another ten minutes or so. Now another sheet of scratch paper needed to be found so that several test stamps could be made to ensure that the stamp was properly inked and aligned.

Finally, he applied the stamp to the correct (thankfully!) block on his form (and each copy), and then had to once again find his pen so that he could sign each copy with an original, illegible flourish.

After one last thorough review of each copy to ensure accuracy, our hero carefully filed each carbon copy in its proper folder before putting on a happy smile and handing me the original form with an officious, "Voila!"

I thought that people only said "voila!" in cartoons.

I thanked him (I know how to say "merci") and rushed with unceremonious speed back to the van so that I could drive away before he could think of anything he'd missed. Agnes, Martina, and Horst, of course, thought all this was grand fun.

To this day, the crystal decanters and glasses we bought that day sit in pride of place on a shelf in the living room...

And I have yet another story to tell of how I have developed my love-hate relationship with the French.

The moral of the story: don't try to get anything past a minor functionary at a French border post on a Sunday if you're in a hurry.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, April 05, 2009

The 2009 Credit Union Cherry Blossom 10-Mile Run

This morning I took my life in my hands and hauled Agnes out of bed at the unheard-of (for her) hour of 4:00 AM. She, along with a large group of fellow workers from her credit union, had volunteered to work at the 2009 Credit Union Cherry Blossom 10-Mile Run, held in conjunction with the annual Cherry Blossom Festival here in Washington, DC. We met the others at our local metro station at 5:00 AM and rode into town to the volunteers' staging area on the National Mall.

The sun was just thinking about coming up over the Capitol as we arrived at the staging area...

The runners were all properly welcomed with a photo opportunity in front of the Washington Monument ...

Which, as the sun came up, turned a beautiful golden color ...

After checking in and receiving our color-coded volunteer identification shirts, we had about an hour and a half before we had to do anything, so we decided to walk down to the Tidal Basin and look at the famous cherry blossoms ...

This is a view across the basin toward the Jefferson Memorial ...

And this is a view across the basin toward the Jefferson Memorial with me in the way ...

We weren't the only volunteers who didn't have too much to do before most of the participants arrived ...
We walked back to our assigned area, which was the assembly area for the runners in the "blue wave." There were six color-coded assembly areas for the "waves" of runners: the fastest and most experienced runners started in the first wave, followed by the next-fastest, and so on down to the last wave, the walkers. Each wave contained as many as 2,000 runners. It was quite chilly early in the morning, and people had all sorts of ways of trying to stay warm before the race ...

The first group of runners, the elite women, started at 7:30, and the rest of the waves of runners started ten minutes later, with the waves launching at three-minute intervals.

By shortly after 8:00, all the runners were underway, and the volunteers whose assignments were at the starting point helped pick up some of the debris from the roadway to avoid injury to the runners as they returned to cross the finish line.

And then we were done.

It turned out to be a beautiful, sunny, warm day, perfect for the race. The cherry blossoms were near their peak of beauty, and a good time was had by all.

Except for that part about getting up at 4:00 AM on a Sunday, for crying out loud.

Hope you have a good Sunday, too.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, April 04, 2009


So far today, two alert readers have taken me to task for making an error in the introduction to my Cartoon Saturday post.

For the record, the place where a gunman murdered 13 people at an immigration services center was Binghamton, New York - not Birmingham, New York as I wrote.

Sorry for the mistake.


Cartoon Saturday

A gunman murdered 14 people at an immigration services center in Birmingham, NY; international spoiled brat North Korea is getting ready to launch an "experimental communications satellite" over the heads of its nervous neighbors and threatening war if anyone watches; an ice shelf the size of Connecticut is ready to break off the continent of Antarctica; the US economy shed 663,000 jobs in March, for an overall unemployment rate of 8.5% and a total of over 5 million jobs lost since the start of the recession; and a company that recalled millions of pounds of possibly-tainted pistachios has accused another company of detecting salmonella in its nuts six months ago, but not admitting the fact until last week.

Cartoon Saturday rides over the horizon to your rescue!

Many newspapers are dropping features, reducing their size, or simply moving to an all-online format as readership declines and advertising revenues shrink. An online paper just isn't for everyone, though ...

There are those who find it easier to express themselves in writing ...

It's been one of those weeks at work ...

Agnes and I both love to cook. It can be frustrating (and embarrassing), though, when you misread the recipe and realize that dinner won't be ready quite when you thought it would ...

Part of my life at work revolves around getting the opinion of the international law community on various things. International law - you know - that thing we tend to worry about a lot more since last January. Anyhow, this cartoon offers an interesting twist on getting "lawyered up."

And finally, as the cost of prescription drugs soars and our medical benefits shrink, it's nice to know that you sometimes have an option ...

I hope you all have a good and relaxing weekend. Agnes and I will be up at a ghastly hour tomorrow since she's volunteered to work at the Credit Union Cherry Blossom 10-Mile Run. I didn't volunteer ... I'm going along to make sure she gets off the Metro at the right stop, and to take pictures. At my age, the only things I run for any more are the bathroom and the last donut in the box. Maybe we'll see you there.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.