Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Off on Vacation

In less than 12 hours, Agnes and I will be leaving for Germany to visit her family and help celebrate her father's 90th birthday. The suitcases are packed, the camera batteries charged, the passports double-checked, and we're just about ready to go.

I plan to keep posting this blog and my Facebook page while we're in Germany, but we probably won't have any guaranteed connectivity for a week or so. Bear with me and don't give up...we'll be back.

With pictures!

Stay well...see you in a week or so.


Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Government?

Since this will probably be my last post for a week or so, I thought it ought to focus on an important and timely topic. Like the national health care debate, and what it says about our love-hate relationship with government.

I'm sorry, did I say debate? What I meant to say was meaningless shouted accusation and innuendo fueled by questionable statistics and political buffoonery.

Few problems are more important, and few are less likely to be satisfactorily resolved any time soon. As with many other thorny issues, there is an element of truth and sincerity on the part of every side to the argument...but the elements of truth are so deeply buried under hurled accusations and countercharges that the average person can't begin to understand what the options are, much less evaluate which one is the best.

One of the most amazing aspects of this debate is what it says about our views of and relationship to our government. As soon as any mention is made of a health-care option that involves any degree of government involvement, the airwaves and print media are filled with ads that thunder about how the world will end and we will all die horrible, lingering deaths if that inept government sinks its twisted claws into our medical care. Announcers, their voices dripping with scorn, warn us of the unspeakable danger of unelected government bureaucrats making decisions on our health care.

Hello... hello... can we take a moment and cash a reality check here?

You may not have noticed it, but unelected bureaucrats are already calling the shots on what sort of care you receive. The only difference is that they don't work for the government (which we elect), they work for insurance companies and the health management industry (which we don't).

The American tradition of mistrust of government is rooted deep in our national psyche. It began with rebellion against the arbitrary authority of a distant king, and continues to this day. We don't trust government writ large, and still less the fallible individuals who compose the leadership of that government. I'm no different in my scorn for individual lawmakers than anyone else.

But is the government really as bad as we think?

Take a minute and read this article by Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. In it, Professor Zelizer looks at the history of the Medicare program as an example of how the government can create a successful and beneficial program. Whether you agree with his analysis or not, it's useful to read something that takes a bit less hysterical approach than most of the drivel you read or hear nowadays.

In a perfect world, when we needed medical treatment we would walk down our tree-lined streets to the clapboard home of the local doctor behind its whitewashed picket fence. We'd go in and a kindly, avuncular Marcus Welby would carefully examine us, prescribe necessary medicines that would be filled for free by the local pharmacist, and never mention payment for his services. But the world ain't perfect. Marcus Welby owes his medical school hundreds of thousands of dollars for his education...and wants to make a decent living, and the drugs he prescribes are developed by companies that spend billions of dollars on research and development, testing, and lawsuits...and want to make a profit.

One way or another, decisions on our health care are going to be made not just by kindly doctors, but by people hunched over ledgers and computer screens in hidden offices. We just need to decide whether those people - those bureaucrats - work for the government over which we have some measure of control, or for an insurance company focused on profits, which we don't.

Let's stop shouting and start thinking and discussing.

Have a good day. More thoughts later.


Monday, July 27, 2009

Handwriting, RIP

This past February, I wrote a post titled "The Write Stuff," in which I blogged about Kitty Burns Flournoy's fascinating book, Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting. Handwriting, or cursive as it's sometimes called, is a dying art, having been replaced by keyboarding skills taught to people who communicate exclusively by telephone, e-mail, text-messaging, SMS, Twitter, and other electronic media. Why teach beautiful handwriting when nobody writes any more? In my February post, I wrote that "...good handwriting, like good speaking, is an important component of how we are perceived by others. Time was that elegant handwriting was a sign of a good education and general social grace. Nowadays we print or type, and typewritten letters offer no sense of the personal effort that went into the creation of the epistle. For business writing, typing may be all right...for personal correspondence, there's nothing like ink on paper in one's own hand." Just another useless and nostalgic rant from your favorite professional curmudgeon.

The latest issue of Time Magazine has an article by Claire Suddath titled "Mourning the Death of Handwriting" which brings back this topic. Ms Suddath traces the beginning of the long, slow decline of handwriting to the educational theories of the 1920's, which held that "...because children learned to read by looking at books printed in manuscript rather than cursive, they should learn to write the same way." Today, cursive writing is introduced in the third grade and then pretty much dropped as a topic of instruction. Children learn to print, then they learn basic handwriting, and then they learn ... to type. What remains is a hodgepodge of printing and a scrawl that vaguely looks like cursive. It's sad.

Over the past year or so, I've exchanged real, handwritten letters - real ink on real paper, with envelopes and stamps - with some of my blogging friends. Amanda, John, Fiona, and Andrea have all sent letters or cards (Amanda being the reigning champion with two long letters, two cards, and a postcard). Mike sent a letter that simply contained a newspaper clipping, which sort of counts. And the common comment each of them has made at least once is a variation on "my handwriting is really bad."

Handwriting styles have changed more or less continuously over the years, from the very ornate Victorian styles to the clean and elegant Palmer script I learned from the nuns at St Teresa's School in Pittsburgh all those years ago. Of course, those who have received my letters know that my handwriting is nothing to write home about either, ha-ha...my letters tend to have neat and tidy handwriting at the outset, and then degenerate into something like a seismograph recording of the latest Chinese earthquake by the end of the second page. It's too bad.

I do a lot of e-mailing just like everybody else, although I draw the line at text-messaging and "twittering." But I really do love writing genuine letters. The problem isn't that my handwriting is so bad, but that I just don't have the time to write the sort of long and chatty letters I would enjoy receiving. Most of my friends only get the basic, semi-personal Christmas letter.

There are all sorts of organizations dedicated to saving this or that endangered creature, but nobody seems to be worried about saving handwriting as a skill. I can't be the only person who cares about this...where are the rest of you?

Why not take a few minutes and write ol' Bilbo a letter? I promise to respond (and some of you know that I really do). Let's save the Post Office, the stores that sell stationery and fine writing instruments, and the teachers who impart cursive skills to our children.

Let's do the write thing, right now. We could spend our time on worse things.

And most of us do.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, July 26, 2009

Getting Ready to Travel

After all the months of waiting and planning, it's hard to believe that our trip to Germany starts on Tuesday. We haven't been back to Germany for about three years, and so the level of excitement and anticipation is high. Even the thought of having to do the airport security kabuki dance, followed by eight hours spent jammed into Spanish Inquisition-quality airline seats seems almost bearable.

But there are lots of things you have to consider when taking a long trip, and even more when that trip is to an overseas destination...

- Passports up to date, and any visas needed? (Yes, and no)

- Is the airline still in business? (So far)

- Practiced looking innocent at passport control? (Yes)

- Arrange to stop the mail and newspaper deliveries? (Yes to both)

- Will key electrical devices work on the voltage available at the destination? (Yes, and I have plug adapters so that our American-style two-blade grounded plugs will fit European two-pin outlets. Useful information here)

- Will our cell phones work in Europe? (Still need to find this out, but not having a digital leash for two weeks isn't necessarily a bad thing)

- Laptops charged and loaded with the desired family history files, games, movies, etc? (Yes)

- Puzzle books and reading material for the airplane and train? (Yes)

- Camera charged and ready, equipped with large-capacity memory card and card reader for the laptop? (Yes)

- Travelers' checks bought, enough Euros for the initial expenses on arrival obtained, and credit cards ready to go? (Yes to all)

- Desired clothing and shoes cleaned, folded, and ready to pack? (You don't know Agnes very well, do you? It's not the absolute last minute yet)

- Can Bilbo lift the suitcases onto overhead train racks without incurring his third hernia? (Stay tuned)

- Ensured we're still on speaking terms with Agnes's cousin we planned to stay with for a few days? (Yes)

- Made sure the rest of the family knows how to reach us in an emergency? (Yes)

Okay, I guess we're ready.

Now, some of you have asked about whether I'll be posting the blog and my Facebook page while we're gone. I plan to try to update more or less regularly, but I'm not sure we'll have Internet connectivity until we reach our hotel in Singen. Worst case - you might have to wait until we get back on August 12th...but you'll manage. Mike and Amanda, Andrea, and John and Fiona will keep you entertained. And I'll come back with pictures! And stories! And observations and cranky gripes and other stuff!

And the beauty of Internet travelogues is, of course, that you can just surf someplace else when you get bored.

Okay, the countdown has started. Visit here tomorrow and Monday for the final pre-departure flails.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, July 25, 2009

Cartoon Saturday

An 8-year old Liberian girl who was gang-raped by a group of Liberian boys ranging in age from 9 to 14 has been placed in the custody of child protective services in Phoenix after her parents said she had "shamed and embarrassed" them; a Saudi Arabian man has been arrested after bragging about his sex life on television; public mailboxes are disappearing across America as people increasingly communicate by telephone and e-mail; the international body which governs competitive swimming has outlawed the use of high-tech swimsuits which give some swimmers a competitive advantage; and die-hard conservatives continue to insist - in a campaign fueled by ignorance and innuendo - that President Obama is actually a Kenyan citizen and thus ineligible to be president.

If ever you needed Cartoon Saturday, it's now.

This week features cartoons on two topics: death and lawyers. No, not death to lawyers, although some would say this is not a bad idea, either.

You may have wondered about the early experiences that shape future lawyers ...

Or about how experience as Boy Scouts affects lawyers when they grow up ...

Contrary to what evidence would indicate and many of us believe, serious discussions about ethical behavior often take place within big law firms ...

Death is another pretty serious topic which nevertheless often finds its way into cartoons. There are the just plain silly ones ...

There are those that bring death up to date ...

And, finally, there are those that remind us of the old adage about the inevitability of ... well ... you know ...

Here's one more bonus cartoon for today. I saw this one not long ago and thought it was appropriate as Agnes and I approach the magic contractual two-year point at which we can upgrade our cell phones. We all know that you can't just buy a phone any more - you buy a hand-held device to play games, take pictures, send e-mail, surf the web, and run hundreds of other apps. Some of those apps can be pretty specialized ...

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, July 24, 2009


Those of you who have served in the military may recall that the American armed services use a set of numbered "conditions" to briefly express desired states of readiness, and particular actions to be taken without further orders. The best-known is the Defense Condition, or DEFCON, which has five levels - DEFCON 5 is normal, day-to-day operations, with everyone singing kumbaya and Kim Jong-Il acting no more stupid than usual, whereas DEFCON 1, the highest level, represents the need to enjoy that last roll in the hay with your beloved because the nukes are on the way. That's a bit of an oversimplification, but you get the idea.

There are other types of conditions as well, all expressed on the same numbered scale as the DEFCON (with 5 being lowest and 1 highest). There's the Force Protection Condition (FPCON - a measure of the threat to your installations and forces), the Information Condition (INFOCON - which expresses the assessed threat to networks and information systems), the Readiness Condition (REDCON - a measure of the overall readiness of military forces), and the CONCON (a wild French dance, ha, ha).

These are all well and good, but they don't do much good for most of us on a day-to-day basis. We need a way to express the prevailing conditions we encounter every day.

I propose the establishment of an official national Stupidity Condition - the DUMBCON. Here's are some examples of how it works:

DUMBCON 5 - ordinary, day-to-day level of stupidity. Congress is in session, Nancy Pelosi is still using expensive Air Force aircraft to commute back and forth to California, gas is pushing $3.00 per gallon, and people actually pay attention to morons like Ayman al-Zawahiri. Lindsey Lohan is arrested again for something or other. People continue to listen to rap music.

DUMBCON 4 - things are more stupid than usual. Washington, DC Metrorail trains crash because nobody wants to pay to keep the system in good repair. Congress insists on spending money on military equipment the services don't want, but which are built in the districts of key lawmakers. Mahmoud Ahmedinejad of Iran makes a speech on any topic. Osama bin Laden issues another video or audio tape that gets 24/7 air time on al-Jazeera television.

DUMBCON 3 - things are getting pretty stupid. President Sarkozy of France says high-speed internet access is a basic human right. People continue to deny the Holocaust. Kim Jong-il petulantly launches a few more missiles because he's not getting what he wants. Hamas and the Israelis continue to play a fatal version of "After You, Alphonse," blaming each other for their latest outrages. Sonia Sotomayor gets a free pass after claiming that a "wise Latina" would make better judicial decisions than a white man.

DUMBCON 2 - start shaking your head - it's getting really stupid out there. People keep listening to clueless blowhards like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Nancy Pelosi. A crazy person uses pistols and high-powered rifles to kill large numbers of people, and the NRA says that the guns are irrelevant, that the killer would still have killed the people if he didn't have guns - he'd just have smothered them with pillows or something. A chunk of ice the size of Manhattan breaks off the Arctic ice cap, and critics of global warming blame...something else.

DUMBCON 1 - stupidity beyond your wildest dreams. Go back to bed and hide under the pillows. Michael Jackson dies and receives news coverage 24 hours a day for two weeks. Former Mayor Marion Barry of DC gets away with another outrageous act and blames criticism of his behavior on racism. Businesses increase prices because of "increased costs," but your employer wants you to accept wage cuts and IOUs. Congress spends billions on silly earmarks, but can't manage to craft a plan that will ensure health care for all Americans.

You get the idea. Write to your elected reprehensives and demand that we get something more useful for day-to-day planning than a color-coded terrorism threat level - demand the DUMBCON.

Have a good day. We're at DUMBCON 1. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, July 23, 2009

The World's Worst Tourists

As we get ready for our trip to Germany to celebrate the 90th birthday of Agnes's father, I've been observing the hordes of tourists that descend upon Washington, DC, at this time every year. I'm looking for pointers on how not to be a tourist. Some of the reasons tourists are hated in DC include:

Jaywalking ...

Insistence on standing on the left side of the Metro escalators, blocking those of us who are in a hurry to catch a train; and,

Reaching the top or bottom of an escalator and immediately stopping to get their bearings, so that the still-moving escalators roll you right into them.

Are Americans the same when we travel outside the country? Do we do stupid touristy things? Is the "Ugly American" still a valid stereotype?

Maybe not. At least, maybe not completely.

According to this article from the French news agency AFP which reported the results of a study of the global hotel industry, the French are the world's worst tourists. They are described as rude, penny-pinching, and terrible at foreign languages. At the other end of the spectrum, Japanese are characterized as clean and tidy, polite, quiet and uncomplaining; along with the Japanese, Canadians are reported to be the least likely to complain loudly when things don't go right or meet their expectations. Sharing the bottom rung of the yucky tourist ladder with the French are Greeks and Spaniards. The French did score some positive points, however, for elegance (a category in which they placed third), discretion, and cleanliness.

British tourists took second place for their overall behavior, politeness, quietness and (oddly enough) elegance, taking a surprise second place in dress sense only to the Italians.

We so-called Ugly Americans were rated as more likely than the French to try to speak the local language (the French don't really recognize the existence of a language other than French, anyhow), and we tend to be the most generous tippers. On the other hand, Americans are said to be the least tidy, the loudest, the worst complainers, and the most badly dressed.

Looks like I have my work cut out for me. So far, here's how I think I stack up:

Speak the local language - yes.

Quiet and polite - well, generally yes, although I'm less likely to suffer fools gladly than I used to be.

Tip generously - yes, with appropriate guidance from Agnes.

Don't dress like a garish American tourist - Agnes makes sure of that.

Don't stick my gum on walls or kiss inanimate objects (read more here) - check.

Looks like I'm ready. We leave on Tuesday...I'll let you know how it comes out.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Tokyo Crime Wave

If you live anywhere in the world outside the United States and listen to our news broadcasts, you'd think that the country was awash in guns, people are being murdered everywhere, and no one can leave his heavily-guarded house for fear of becoming the victim of random street crime. This isn't actually the case. Yes, we are awash in guns (gun worship being the American national religion), but America is like everyplace else - as long as one is careful and avoids known dangerous areas, crime is not that much of a problem. Of course, I live in Washington, DC, where we are used to the elegant forms of criminal activity practiced more-or-less legally by Congress, so my opinion may be a bit skewed.

In the context of discussing criminal activity, this interesting article appeared in yesterday's Washington Post: "In Tokyo, a High-Pitched Whine Repels Teens, Attracts TV Crews."

Japan is a very law-abiding nation in which, according to the article, "Shootings are exceedingly rare. Most people don't lock their bikes. Lost wallets are returned." This is very bad for television news crews, which - in Japan as in the United States - thrive on the lurid reporting of terrifying crimes (as the news adage goes, "if it bleeds, it leads"). If you're a Japanese news reporter, what do you do to earn your daily bread in a country where everyone - even the criminals - is polite?

According to the article filed by Blaine Hardin of the Washington Post Foreign Service, "By Tokyo standards, Kitashikahama Park in Adachi Ward is a crime-infested hellhole. Thirteen acts of vandalism have been committed there in the past year. Toilet seats and windows have been broken. Spent firecrackers have been found. Some residents living near the park have lost sleep. The perpetrators, still on the loose, are believed to be neighborhood teenagers, probably in junior high school."

And what was the plan to clean up this crime-infested hellhole? Simple. Put up a sound system that broadcasts a noise that irritates teenage ears, but is inaudible to adults, and which will thus encourage the teens to take their terrifying crime spree elsewhere.

As I read the article, I wondered what type of sound would irritate teenage ears that enjoy rap and heavy metal music, but it seems to work ... except that now the formerly crime-infested hellhole is now crowded every night with TV news crews looking for the would-be criminals to see if they were really chased away by the noise.

Yes, Mr Hardin's article goes on quote Haruyuki Masuda, head of park management in Adachi Ward: "We see them (TV news crews) on the surveillance videos, and there are too many of them to count ... They hide behind trees and bushes. They are waiting for kids to come. I think they have scared off the kids."

So, there's a potential new counter to street crime in DC: station TV news crews everywhere to scare off the criminals. It just might work. And even if it doesn't, they'll probably catch some Congressman in a criminal act involving payoffs or illicit sex, which is almost as good. With 535 Senators and Reprehensives to choose from, it could keep our news crews busy for a long time.

We could do worse.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Adventures in Travel...Not

As Agnes and I enter the final week before our trip to Germany (translation: two weeks of beer, good sausage, visiting the family, and no work), we've been thinking about some of the things we ought to see in our travels...not just on this trip, but on others coming up. We have the things on my 101 Things to Do list that are travel-related (by the way, I've added "Visit London" to the list), we're planning a trip to Colorado in September and, of course, the 40th high school reunion is coming up in October (speaking of visiting old ruins, ha, ha). So many places to visit, so little time.

Fortunately, there are plenty of sources of advice about what to see, and what not to see.

Yes, folks, augmenting the books like 1001 Places to See Before You Die comes this list of the world's "germiest" tourist attractions. It includes:

* The Blarney Stone (Ireland) and Oscar Wilde's Tomb (Paris) - whose idea was it for hundreds of thousands of people to decide there were things that they all had to kiss? Yuck...

* St Mark's Square (Venice, Italy) - very picturesque, with those beautiful buildings...and those tens of thousands of pigeons. When everything is colored white, and it's not because of paint, I think I'll pass. Special note: if you visit Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, you can see acres of white cars in the parking lots. Same thing...

* The Market Theater Gum Wall (Seattle, Washington) - who on earth thought that a wall of used chewing gum "several inches thick, spanning an area 15 feet high and 50 feet wide" was a good idea? I think I'll pass...

* Grauman's Chinese Theater (Hollywood, California) - think all those movie-star handprints in the concrete, the ones that everyone walks over, birds poop on, and every other tourist in the world has stuck their own hands into. Ugh.

There are more, but you get the idea.

Maybe I should just stay home, where at least I know whose germs I'm getting.

Have a good day. Kiss your significant other, not some stone. And keep your gum to yourself.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, July 20, 2009

Machines Still Hate Me, But I Help Them

Yes, Monday is starting early this week.

Yesterday I spent the day power-washing the driveway, washing Agnes's car, weeding the yard, carrying out trash, and generally working quite hard in the warm sun...and that was before fixing a nice dinner of marinated, planked salmon and rice pilaf. By bedtime I was exhausted, and so I was extra careful about following my normal routine: I carefully checked and re-checked to make absolutely sure that my alarm was set for the Monday time (4:10 AM) rather than the Saturday time (6:30 AM). Satisfied that it was correct, I collapsed into bed.

Of course, the alarm clock always works better if, in addition to properly setting the time, you actually turn the alarm on.


I woke up at about 4:40, gawked at the clock in horror, cursed in several languages, and sprang out of bed. Not only was I half an hour behind schedule, but I also had to factor in time to take Nessa (our daughter's dog, for whom we are, if you remember, dog-sitting) for a walk in addition to everything else.


Here I sit, with my body clock and carefully-crafted daily routine out of whack. I am not a person who deals well with changes in my normal routine outside of the office, so things will be rocky for a while. Even my blog suffers, as I don't have the time and mental capacity to write my usual well-crafted and spectacularly popular (well, with my usual 36-45 readers per day) post.


But I must pull myself together enough to remark on the fact that this is a most remarkable day: it is the day on which, in 1969, man first landed on the moon. I didn't actually know it had happened for several days, as I was far out in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of southwestern Colorado with the rest of Monitor Patrol, all of us attending the Colorado Outward Bound school. We first learned that the landing had been a success when we came down out of the wilderness to a public campground to meet our resupply vehicle, and got the news from some campers roughing it in their camper van (complete with TV and radio).

Now, forty years later, we are still stuck in earth orbit. Don't get me wrong, the International Space Station is a marvelous achievement, but it's just not the same as actually walking on another planet. Okay, moon. Where's the dream and the drive to go beyond orbit and back to the Moon, on to Mars, and then ... well, wherever? How can we be ready for First Contact with the Vulcans and the Borg, not to mention Klaatu and Gort? How can we (sorry, Army) be all we can be?

Of course, we could solve a few problems here on earth, like religious intolerance, affordable health care, and an economic system that benefits everyone, but you can't do those with flashy special effects and the thrill of high adventure.

Food for thought on an already-hectic Monday.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, July 19, 2009

Really Big Houses

One of the problems with living in Disneyland on the Potomac is that lots of people can't actually afford to live here. The cost of homes - even with the collapse of the housing market - is such that many young couples just starting out can't find homes they can afford within a reasonable distance of where they work. The vast herds of wealthy lobbyists, lawyers, corporate executives, and similar demigods has driven the price of real estate to stratospheric heights, and has led to the proliferation of the sprawling edifices disparagingly called "McMansions" - gigantic houses with all sorts of tasteful (and expensive) extras like gourmet kitchens, sun rooms, multi-car garages, spa-quality bathrooms, media rooms, game rooms, home gyms, and so on. Of course, land being as expensive as it is, these gigantic homes tend to sit on postage-stamp-sized lots, so that you have to turn sideways to walk between your mansion and your neighbor's mansion. It's ludicrous.

And it's expensive. If you're a clerk at the local grocery store, a janitor, a short-order cook, or a minor government employee with a title below the rank of First Principal Vice Deputy Assistant Under Secretary of Homeland Security for Making Air Travel a Pain in the Ass, you can't afford to buy a home appropriate to your income and the size of your family anywhere close to the capitol of your country...and you probably couldn't afford to pay the property taxes even if you could.

But nevertheless, I would love to live in a Really Big House.

I grew up in a modest 3-bedroom house in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with my parents, two brothers, and sister. Eventually, my father turned the basement into a bedroom for two of us, and installed a second (half) bathroom, which helped ease the crowding. But I always dreamed of having a Really Big House in which I didn't have to wait in line for a bathroom. In which I could have a bedroom to sleep in and another room for all my stuff. A Really Big House with long hallways, grand staircases, dens, parlors, sitting rooms, a solarium, and big French windows opening out onto terraces overlooking smooth, emerald-green lawns dotted with trees and flower beds. And a library - it absolutely must have a library, preferably with a nice stone fireplace. And a big kitchen with enough counter space that aircraft in trouble could make emergency landings without hitting the sink.

I'll never own the Really Big House of my dreams. But I'm close enough, and perfectly happy with what we have. Agnes and I have 2-1/2 bathrooms, so we're never far from relief when nature calls (and she calls much more often as we get older, dontcha know). We also have five bedrooms, allocated as follows:

The Grand Imperial Master Bedroom (use your imagination);

The Guest Room (which is large enough to be comfortable, and small enough to discourage lengthy stays);

The Nest (where Agnes can curl up with a book while her hair dries, and where we can stash the overflow from other rooms during spasms of housecleaning);

My Study (shared with Agnes); and,

Agnes's Workshop (currently piled high with fabric and equipped with an array of fancy sewing machines that each have more computer power than NASA used to put Neil Armstrong on the moon).

It's a minor-league place when compared even to the smaller of the McMansions, but it's a good size for us, and the payoff of the mortgage is actually glimmering on the not-so-distant horizon. We've worked hard be able to live in our nice, comfy Maison de Bilbo, and I'm not complaining.

But if I ever win the lottery, I'm getting my Really Big House. I think, at Northern Virginia prices, we can afford this one ...

And someone to clean it.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, July 18, 2009

Cartoon Saturday

Walter Cronkite, "the most trusted man in America" and the most admired newsman of his (or any other) generation, has passed away; an Air Force jet with two crew members on board has gone down in Afghanistan; six people have been killed and at least 50 injured in the bombings of two hotels in Jakarta, Indonesia; anti-government protests continue in Iran where, according to a former Iranian president, the clerical leaders are losing the people's trust; the Iraqi government has sharply restricted the movement and activities of U.S. forces, leading to concern on the part of commanders about the safety of their troops; and Michael Jackson and Anna Nichole Smith are still dead.

What would you do without Cartoon Saturday?

I always have to laugh when I see young men so loaded down with gold chains, rings, grilles, earrings, piercings, and other flashy junk that they look like the wrecks of Spanish galleons. Don't they realize how stupid they look? I loved this twist on that image ...

I had wanted to use this cartoon as part of a set of two on a related topic, but - of course - I can't find the other one in my file. You may see this once again in the future when I find the other one...

This one just appeared this past week, and it had us all in stitches in the office. But then, we're easily amused...
Here's a good twist on an old adage ...

This one should have been here all those years ago when I was studying Greek mythology ...

And this one is for all you men out there who, like me, have wives who are seamstresses seriously into the selection of just the right material for their next project ...

We're dog-sitting this weekend with Nessa, our daughter's very large Chocolate Lab that can't seem to remember she's not a puppy any more. So I'm off once again for an energetic drag around the neighborhood in search of just the right place to poop...followed, no doubt, by hours of thrilling excitement tossing balls and frisbees for a dog with far more energy than brains.

She ought to be in Congress.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, July 17, 2009

When I Was 10 Years Old

Last Monday I wrote a post titled The Things That Shape Our Points of View, which looked at two different ways of understanding how particular people look at the world. In researching that post I ran across a third proposed system, but - of course, being a geezer-in-training, I didn't write down where I found it, and so can't remember. You'll just have to take my word for it.

According to this system of estimating one's worldview, our perceptions and opinions of the world around us are shaped by the time we are ten years old, the benchmark year being the year we reach the double-digits. I was born in 1951, and turned the magic ten in 1961...what happened that year to shape Bilbo's view of the world? In 1961:

Cuban exiles backed by the United States invaded Cuba in an unsuccessful (disastrous, actually) attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro. History records this event by the name of the site of the abortive invasion: the Bay of Pigs. The lesson: plan well, plan realistically, and think twice before doing something hugely stupid.

The Berlin Wall was built in an attempt by the government of East Germany to stem the huge exodus of its citizens to freedom in West Berlin. Twenty years later, as a young Captain in the Air Force, I was stationed in West Berlin and working with those who managed to escape over, under, or around The Wall.

President Kennedy established the Peace Corps. I've always thought that while military power is good, it needs to be augmented by so-called "soft power" that shows the generous and idealistic side of America. For some reason, our government doesn't seem to be particularly interested in my opinion.

Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly in space. Ever since then, I've been fascinated with space travel and a big fan of Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and similar shows and movies.

Bob Dylan (real name: Robert Zimmerman) was discovered by a Columbia Records representative, singing in a club in Greenwich Village. If anyone out there can explain the more bizarre lyrics of his song "Shelter from the Storm" ("...and the one-eyed undertaker, he blows his futile horn/come in, she said, I'll give ya/shelter from the storm"), I'm listening.

The civil rights movement continued to grow in the American South, with the Freedom Riders drawing national attention to segregation in Alabama. I learned very early in life that there are lots of good reasons not to like someone...and that race isn't one of them. There are large numbers of blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asians that I can't stand, generally because stupidity is not dependent on race, religion, or gender.

So, what happened in the world when YOU were ten years old?

Time to get ready for work. Today's goal is to make it to 9:00 PM so that I can enjoy an evening of dancing, which is much more fun than sitting in a cramped office, rearranging electrons on a hard drive for the greater glory of the U.S. Air Force. The latter activity does, however, pay the bills.


Have a good day. Tomorrow is Cartoon Saturday - be here.


Thursday, July 16, 2009

Odds and Ends

My Blog Fodder file is backing up, and I need to start moving things out of it while they're still timely. Today, I have a few random things to offer - each worthy of a full post on its own, but I only have so much time. Sigh.

1. Where's the Outrage? As China cracks down on the Uighurs, Foreign Policy magazine asks an interesting question: why isn't the Islamic world reacting with its usual outrage? When Danish newspapers published cartoons Muslims found offensive, the result was incredible: embassies and churches burned, priests and nuns murdered, calls for boycotts of Danish goods by Muslims, and angry fatwas demanding death for the cartoonists. In China today, Uighurs suffer discrimination, loss of their lands and culture, and even death ... and where is the level of outrage caused by a few stupid cartoons? Good question.

2. Putting It All in Perspective. Things seem to be back to "normal" in the news world now that the All-Michael-Jackson-All-the-Time spasm is over. On July 5th, a lady named Martha Gillis wrote a letter to the editor of the Washington Post in which she noted that her nephew Brian Bradshaw was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan on the day Michael Jackson died. Ms Gillis asks, "Mr. Jackson received days of wall-to-wall coverage in the media. Where was the coverage of my nephew or the other soldiers who died that week?" Good question. Read on to the next item...

3. A Soldier Comes Home. Yesterday, the Washington Post published, with the permission of the Bradshaw family, a letter the family received from the crew of the military aircraft that took Brian home on his last journey. I literally cried when I read it. You will, too. No matter what you think about our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, you have to honor the sacrifices of those who serve there.

4. More Thoughts on Passwords. The other day I wrote about the Password Fandango - the mess we all go through all the time with the endless parade of logins and passwords we need to get access to websites and networks at home and at work. There are actually people who think about this stuff for a living...here is a semi-heretical article on the topic: Do Strong Passwords Accomplish Anything? The authors' short answer is ... sometimes. The article is interesting, even though it does contain Greek letters and math and stuff.

And finally for today ...

5. Visually Pleasing Destruction. This is an expression I heard some years ago in the context of the joy one feels when watching a really bad guy meet a really bad end in a huge and theatrical explosion. We see VPD in the movies all the time - remember the destruction of the White House in the film Independence Day? This is an interesting article from Slate.com on how famous landmarks get blown up in the movies...complete with video clips. You'll love it.

And that's all for today. Time to go to work. No comments, Mike.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Wise Latina, Stupid Process

Every few years here in the United States, we go through the national trauma of selecting a new Supreme Court justice. The process works like this:

1. A sitting justice dies or retires.

2. The President considers potential replacements based on:

a. Judicial philosophy of possible nominees;

b. Gender balance of the court;

c. Racial balance of the court;

d. Special interest groups which haven't been placated lately;

e. Religious considerations;

f. Cost of linoleum in Fond du Lac;

g. - y. - Other socio-political considerations; and,

z. Legal qualifications of the nominee.

You can see all this at play in the ongoing soap opera over the nomination of judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.

No matter what anyone thinks, the selection process for Supreme Court justices is not designed to identify and nominate the most outstanding and well-qualified jurists. It's the legislative and judicial equivalent of making sausage - you toss all the social and political considerations into the hopper, let a few cranks have a turn, and out comes not the best, most qualified individual, but the one who is least offensive to the largest number of people with a vote.

It's all so predictable. Republicans will insist on a "strict constitutionalist" who will not "legislate from the bench." Democrats will insist on someone who understands the problems and concerns of average Americans. Every member of the Senate Judiciary Committee will bloviate at length for the benefit of his/her constituents, the nominee will give all the right answers, and then - after days of grueling grilling and political theater - a vote will be take under conditions of exhaustion. And then, either there's a new justice on the court, or the whole kabuki dance begins again.

This is stupid.

For the record, I think Judge Sotomayor is a very impressive jurist. I also think she shouldn't be on the Supreme Court. Consider her much-quoted and much-maligned comment that "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." Can you imagine the howls of outrage that would have arisen if a white male nominee had said, "I would hope that a wise white male with the richness of his experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a (insert minority here) who hasn't lived that life"? Be honest. You know it's true.

The comment was stupid. Even if you read Judge Sotomayor's comment in the context of the entire speech (which you can read here), it remains insensitive and in poor taste, and it plays directly into the hands of those who would object to her nomination simply because she's a woman or a Hispanic.

And consider the recurring, moronic canard about "activist judges legislating from the bench." I would suggest that judges legislate from the bench when spineless legislators won't legislate from the legislature. When Congress is too wrapped up in political considerations and too indebted to various special interests to write necessary laws, the courts step in. This allows Congress to have it both ways: they don't have to be on record as having taken politically unpopular positions, and they can blame someone else for doing what they were afraid to do.

Unless Judge Sotomayor shows up drunk for the hearings, or a video of her dancing topless while waving a Nazi flag appears on the Internet, she'll be confirmed to the Supreme Court. I just hope that she proves to be a wise jurist, regardless of her sex and ethnicity.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Password Fandango

There are so many serious things I need to write about that I sometimes just have to step back and reset my internal system with something off-the-wall. Today, that would be passwords.

At work, I use five different networks, each with its own login and password. At home I have my Mac, which has a system password, and about 700 websites I visit regularly, 2/3 of which require a login and a password. Agnes's computer has its own login and password that I need to know on the rare occasions I need to use her machine.

I'm up to my pasty white backside in passwords.

The ones at work are the worst, because each network has its own standards for login (firstname dot lastname, lastname plus first and middle initial, lastname plus first intial dot six hundred random characters, lastname plus California's current budget deficit estimate, etc, etc, etc). But the passwords are worse. Each network wants its own password that can't duplicate the password used on any other network ... and then there are the other rules ... this is my latest attempt to summarize the Arcane and Mystical Rules of Password Generation:

* Each password-protected network will begin prompting you to change your password three days after you change it, and will warn you that it will soon expire ("Your password will expire in XX days. Do you want to change it now? Well? Do ya, punk? Yeah, I'm talkin' to you!").

* Each password-protected network will allow its passwords to remain valid for a different length of time - one week, 30 days, two sidereal months, etc. The validity period will change randomly each time you reset the password.

* Each password must be at least 72 characters long, at least 17% of which must be upper case, 19% lower case, 22% numeric, and the remainder “special characters.” A given number of each character type must appear in specific locations, and the required number and specific locations will randomly change each time you have to change the password.

* Your password must not duplicate any of the last 475 passwords you used.

* Your password must not include any words contained in any unabridged English, Spanish, French, German, Russian, Chinese, Urdu, Hindi, Swahili, or Xhosa dictionary.

* It must not offend anyone for any reason.

* It must be complex enough that you will lock yourself out of your account at least twice per week.

* All of your passwords will change at irregular intervals which are not synchronized with any other networks, so that at least once a week you need to remember a new password for one of the networks...and you can never remember which one.

I'm not the only one who finds the Password Fandango maddening. Yesterday in the Washington Post, John Kelly wrote this wonderful little article - "So Many Passwords, So Little Time," which pretty much summarizes my password fatigue. Check it out. Oh ... I forgot ... you may need a login and password for washingtonpost.com. Sorry about that.

Aren't you glad you don't need a password to read my ramblings every day?

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, July 13, 2009

The Things That Shape Our Points of View

In my post last August 20th, I suggested you check out the interesting Mindset List from Beloit College - a list the school publishes each year to help the faculty understand the factors that have shaped the incoming freshman class. This is a fascinating way of looking at why young people think and act the way they do (and it would probably be equally interesting to look at similar lists for persons of any age).

Last week in the Washington Post, staff writer Ian Shapira interviewed business coach Anne Loehr about the similar, and equally interesting, list that she called her "Generational Cheat Sheet." Because the online version of the article doesn't reproduce the cheat sheet as clearly as the print version, I've reproduced it here (sorry if the quality isn't perfect ... I did it as an MS-Word document, saved it as a .pdf, and had to re-save it as a jpeg to post it here) ...

In contrast to the Beloit Mindset List, Ms Loehr's approach is to look at the "life-shaping events" that produce certain "traits" in people of a specific generation. She looks at four generations: the Traditionalists (generally speaking, the World War II generation of my father, born in 1923); the Baby Boomers (yes, I'm one of those, born in 1951); Generation X (the generation of my children, born between 1974 and 1977); and Generation Y (which would include Marcy, my oldest grandchild, who was born in 2000).

The full article provides a very interesting look at how we miscommunicate across generations based on the events and times that shaped our views of the world. Based on my own very unscientific observation, this is generally a pretty accurate and astute list. I'm not particularly politically correct and I tend to believe in following, rather than breaking the rules, but the rest of the traits seem to fit. How does this list apply to those of you of the other generations, and how is it different? No single list can provide a one-size-fits-all guide to the way everyone in a particular generation thinks, but as general guides to beliefs and behavior, the Beloit College Mindset List and Anne Loehr's Generational Cheat Sheet are pretty good efforts.

I'm interested in your opinion...post a comment to let me know what you think, and how well the cheat sheet applies to you.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, July 12, 2009

Girl with No Future

One of the most interesting and sobering articles I've read in a long time appeared this past Thursday in The Washington Times. Written by Michael Yon, it dealt with the sobering realities of trying to accomplish anything politically and socially realistic in Afghanistan in the short term...short term meaning, oh, 50-100 years or so. The article was titled "Girl with No Future," and if you don't read anything else about Afghanistan this month (or ever), you should read this one.

I've long believed that the Afghan people would be best served if all the non-Afghans (and the concept of Afghan-ness is itself secondary to ethnic and tribal affiliation) would just get the hell out and let the Afghans sort things out themselves. Get rid of the Arabs, the Pakistanis, the Indians, the Russians, the Americans, the Brits, and everyone else who has been fighting over some of the world's crummiest real estate for centuries. Don't try to build a central government with all the trappings of Western-style democracy...they don't have a tradition of that, anyhow. And in any case, there's no infrastructure outside the major cities to support a modern society. Here is how Mr Yon describes his observations of the Afghan province of Ghor:

"A person can tool around in towns like Kabul, Jalalabad or Mazar-i-Sharif and build up hopes, but to extrapolate beyond the tangible is folly. Iraq is 1,000 years more advanced than Afghanistan. Nepal is far more connected to and cognizant of the outside world. ... After nearly eight years of war and billions spent, there is not a single Afghan soldier in this entire province. There is not a meter of paved road. There is a single television station that operates for maybe four hours a night when it has fuel."

And it gets worse...

"Today," Mr Yon writes, "I was in the village of Karbasha Qalat, situated in a remote area at 8,800 feet. The 20 families had no electricity and not even a battery-operated radio. During the winter, the horses, cows, donkeys and other animals live with them inside their mud homes. Only the village elder was literate, and his language was Dari. He said that only two trucks had come to Karbasha Qalat in the 14 years since the village was founded; the visitors were searching for information on land mines. None of the children had been to school, and none are likely to go. The mothers are illiterate ... the hand that rocks the cradle. Nearly all mothers in Afghanistan are illiterate."

Mr Yon's ultimate point is that we are fighting for the wrong goals in Afghanistan, at least in the "short term." A modern, or even a nascent democratic society needs an educated and informed population that can understand and debate issues on a national scale. We may luck out in spite of ourselves and someday establish a quasi-democratic government in Afghanistan, but I doubt that it's writ will extend much beyond the city limits of Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kandahar (maybe), and other "big" cities. Out in the remote provinces, at the very end of the dirt road where everyone is illiterate, electricity is non-existent, young girls are considered useful only to keep house and have children, and the tribe is more important than the nation, nobody is worried about what a national government has to say.

I think the best thing we could do in Afghanistan is flood the place with people who can make a difference. People to build a modern infrastructure to bring electricity, clean water, medical and dental care (hey, we could use that here in America!), improved farming techniques, and schools that can teach things beyond rote memorization of the Koran. Work within the cultural system that the Afghans know and understand, while trying to bring the most backward parts of it into the 20th century. The 21st may take a little longer.

Take a few minutes to read Mr Yon's article and think about what we can realistically accomplish in Afghanistan.

Then wait for the next Cartoon Saturday to cheer you up.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, July 11, 2009

Cartoon Saturday

The death toll continues to rise in deadly ethnic violence between Uighurs and Han Chinese in China's Xinjiang province (and, according to the Chinese government, it's all orchestrated from elsewhere...couldn't possibly have anything to do with their policies); a cemetery in Illinois is now a crime scene as police investigate the digging-up and resale of burial plots; insurance giant AIG is trying yet again to pay some $235 million in bonuses to executives in its financial products division...that would be the division that wrecked the company, leading the government to bail it out to the tune of about $182 billion; the Taliban in Pakistan may finally be ready to talk with the US; and our top general in Afghanistan says he will need more money and troops to prevail.

Well, at least you have Cartoon Saturday.

Yesterday morning, long after I'd finished my post about toilet paper, this cartoon appeared in the daily paper. I expected Mike would have gleefully posted it this morning, but I guess he's still soaking in the hot tub, recovering from his construction mishap...

World leaders at the G-8 summit have once again taken firm action to address global warming. Sort of. I think the real plan they agreed on was more like this one...

I thought this cartoon was hysterical...but then, I have that degree in Linguistics I need to put to use occasionally...

One of our granddaughter Leya's favorite nursery rhymes is "The Itsy Bitsy Spider," and it's fun to watch her work her little hands to mimic the actions of the spider and the rain. This cartoon was pretty timely...

I started my Facebook page a few months ago, and have enjoyed using it to reestablish contact with some of my old friends (sorry, Debbie, I meant long-time, glamorous friends). I thought this cartoon was a very good look at how some people can get carried away with Facebook and other online social networking sites...

And finally, there's been much concern in some quarters about the real or imagined dangers of eating genetically-modified foods. As the old commercial for Chiffon Margarine said, "it's not nice to fool Mother Nature" ...

And that's Cartoon Saturday for today. Take some deep breaths, relax if you can, and let's do this all again next week, shall we?

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, July 10, 2009

In Praise of Humble Toilet Paper

If you have traveled much outside the US of A, chances are that one of the things you missed most is one of the things you otherwise think about least. I speak, of course, of toilet paper.

Yes, common toilet tissue. The soft, multi-ply wonder with which we tenderly cleanse our nether regions once nature has taken its course. We don't think about it much unless we find ourselves looking with horror at an empty cardboard tube chuckling at us from beside the porcelain throne. Good thing other people have.

Yes, the good folks at Mental Floss offer this interesting history of one of our most underappreciated things: Why Toilet Paper Belongs to America. In this article, you will learn that over the years, people have used coconuts, shells, snow, moss, hay, leaves, grass, corncobs, and sheep's wool (hopefully, without the sheep still attached) to clean themselves. Later, advances in printing technology allowed us to use newspapers, magazines, and pages of books (ever been down on the farm and been thankful for the old Sears catalog in the outhouse?).

The article goes on to note that "...the idea of a commercial product designed solely to wipe one's bum ... started about 150 years ago, right here in the U.S.A." Yes, good old American know-how and marketing skill turned something utterly unmentionable into the must-have product we know today.

The problem with the widespread adoption of toilet paper was that it was used with something people didn't like to talk about. And also, not to put too fine a point on it, it tended to complicate the cleaning of outhouses. Thus it was that toilet paper didn't really take off until the end of the 19th century, when more and more homes began to be built with indoor plumbing and sit-down flush toilets. Modern indoor plumbing required a product that could be flushed away with minimal damage to the pipes, meaning that the old, free, standards like corncobs, moss, and sheep's wool had to be retired. Soon, ads for toilet paper boasted that the product was recommended by both doctors and plumbers, and in time we ended up with things like squeezably-soft Charmin and other tissues which attempt to outdo each other in their claims of softness.

I recall traveling in old East Berlin before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and discovering that one of the greatest shortcomings of Communist government was its inability to provide its citizens with decent toilet paper ... East German TP tended to be stiff and waxy, and to contain the occasional chunk of wood. I doubt that toilet paper caused the downfall of Communism, but it certainly must have been a contributing factor.

The article goes on to note that Americans spend more on toilet tissue than any other nation in the world - we shell out more than $6 billion a year, using on average 57 squares a day and 50 pounds a year. But other countries are catching up ... Dave Praeger, the author of Poop Culture: How America Is Shaped by Its Grossest National Product, says that "The spread of globalization can kind of be measured by the spread of Western bathroom practices," noting that when average citizens have enough money to be able to buy a luxury like toilet paper, wealth and consumerism have arrived.

And you can always jazz up your common toilet paper roll...

What'll they think of next?

So there you are - more than you ever wanted to know about something you never really want to think about. Wipe your cares away and look forward to the weekend!

Have a good day. Cartoon Saturday is coming.


Thursday, July 09, 2009

An Unfortunate Vacation

It’s interesting how history moves in cycles.

For eight years, George W. Bush was hailed by conservatives as the greatest president who ever lived, and reviled as the Antichrist by die-hard liberals. In November, America elected Barack Obama…who is hailed by die-hard liberals as the greatest president who ever lived and reviled as the Antichrist by die-hard conservatives.

Disclaimer: I think George W. Bush was an appallingly bad president in many ways; last November I voted for Barack Obama mostly because he wasn't a Republican, and I think the jury is still out on his performance.

But the jury is grumbling with discontent.

My old friend Debbie, who is not particularly fond of the current president, forwarded me an e-mail yesterday with the intriguing subject line, “This oughta frost your cookies!” It turned out to be a stinging rebuke of Mr Obama for conspicuous waste of money and resources by taking his family along on his recent European trip, complete with several photos and descriptions of shopping and sightseeing trips taken by his family in Paris and London after Mr Obama had already returned to Washington.

I replied to Debbie that, in my humble opinion, the e-mail wasn’t totally fair, as presidents of both parties have a long history of taking their families along on state visits. Traffic jams and inconvenience for the masses are par for the course when presidents and their families travel (and even when they stay home, as those of us who live in Disneyland-on-the-Potomac well know) – for, sadly, we live in a dangerous world in which major disruptions of daily life are necessary to protect our leaders and their loved ones from those who would rather cast a 9mm ballot than a paper one.

Debbie, in turn, wrote (and I trust she’ll forgive me for quoting her), “You're right, other 1st ladies may have done this, doesn't make it right does it? Their husbands did not run on a ticket of "changing how things are done in Washington" AND the country was not in an economic crisis, according to our VP who said they underestimated the problems. With so many families unable to shop like they used to, this family really upgraded their shopping habits...it's so ‘in your face’.” She went on to lambaste House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s routine use of expensive Air Force aircraft to fly back and forth to California on weekends, and finished up with this: “It wouldn't irritate me so much except I have several friends who are either laid off, or their hours have been cut and can barely make ends meet. Their young children need new clothes and would love to splurge on a trip to McDonalds. The first family should be leading by example not flaunting the fact that they are capable of squandering the working poor's money.”

After I extinguished the flames coming out of my monitor, I thought more about the Obama family vacation, and about what Debbie had written.

As I told her, I still don’t completely agree with the original savaging of the First Family’s trip. Like it or not, the First Lady and the members of the president’s family play an important part in what we sometimes call “public diplomacy” – putting a human face on an America the rest of the world often sees only through the prism of policies and actions that in the recent past have shown an in-your-face disrespect for the interests, feelings, and opinions of other nations. To the extent that people around the world see Americans as a family on vacation, shopping and eating fish and chips in a London pub, rather than soldiers fighting in other lands, I think it’s a good thing.

That said, of course, the President and his family also need to set an example. Debbie is right: at a time when the economy is in the toilet, millions are out of work, and millions more have been ruined by the reckless greed of the financial management industry, this vacation was at the very least ill-timed, and sends a very unfortunate message to the American people. If the President wants to take the CEOs of the big auto companies to task for flying in expensive corporate jets while they're laying off tens of thousands of workers, he ought to be willing to forego taxpayer funding of aircraft to fly his family (and their security detail, and their armored limousines, etc, etc) on the sort of vacation that the average working American can only dream about. You can read about the vacation, and the estimates of its cost by the Congressional Research Service (the White House wouldn't comment) here.

Presidents must set an example. The example set by Mr Bush was unfortunate. Mr Obama must do better. This wasn't the way to do it.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, July 08, 2009

A Quick Riff on the Subject of Love

You all know by this time that I'm not "religious" in the traditional go-to-church-every-Sunday, Bible-study-every-day sort of way. I don't think it makes me a bad person...just one who doesn't think most traditional, organized religions offer very much I can believe in.

But there are some things religions offer that can't be improved on very much. The other day, I noted that there are 50 separate "titles," containing thousands of individual laws, in the U.S. Code. The Bible needs only ten commandments. God must be a really good editor.

And the Bible does, in fact, contain some wonderful passages. If you leave out the most bloodthirsty parts of Deuteronomy and Leviticus (which the vast majority of true Christians do), you find gems like Chapter 13 of Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians:

"1: If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

"2: And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

"3: If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

"4: Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful;

"5: it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;

"6: it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.

"7: Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

"8: Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.

"9: For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect;

"10: but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.

"11: When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways.

"12: For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.

"13: So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love."

As words to live by go, these aren't bad. And they're certainly not what you hear thundered in Friday "prayer" sessions by radical Muslim leaders with turbans wound tightly enough to cut off the blood flow to the brain. "Death to (insert your preferred infidel here)!" just doesn't have quite the same ring as So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Storage Alternatives

I've written before about, and we've all experienced, that feeling of pure horror we get when the project we've been doing on the computer suddenly disappears...and we realize we haven't saved anything for the last hour. Awful, isn't it? Well, as it turns out, there is a way to ensure that what you write is never lost when the power goes out, the computer crashes, or some other automated disaster happens. Here's the official memo that explains how it works...


After extensive testing of various alternatives, management is introducing a simple and reliable new system backup utility designed to meet short-time emergency needs in case of a computer failure. This system consists of two parts, both of which are required for proper operation: an input device known as the Primary Emergency Network Computer Interface Link (PENCIL) and a data reception and storage device called the Principal Alternative Place for Entry of Records (PAPER). PAPER is available in one of two storage formats: Local Input Needed for Entry of Data (LINED) or Basic Limited Access to Necessary Knowledge (BLANK). The basic unit of storage capacity for PAPER is called a "sheet."

This system has been extensively field tested, including volume and stress testing, and has been fully certified by our Information Systems Division. Properly maintained, it meets all Federal and State requirements for coding and data input.

Prior to use, the PENCIL requires preparation and initial checkout. This operation requires a sharpened knife or grinding device and a supply of PAPER (for purposes of initial checkout, either PAPER storage format may be used).

Gripping the device firmly in your hand, scrape or grind the wooded end until it attains a cone-like appearance. The dark core area must be exposed to properly function. (Note: the initial preparation and checkout procedure is the same for right- and left-handed users.)

Place a single sheet of PAPER on a smooth, hard surface. Place the sharpened point of the input device against the PAPER, and pull it across the surface. If properly done, this will input a single line.

CAUTION: Excessive force may damage components of the input and/or data reception and storage device. If either the PENCIL or the PAPER are damaged, repeat the preparation instructions above until proper data input and recording are achieved.

Proper use of the device requires data simulation input by the operator. Placing the input device against the storage medium, form symbols resembling the computer lettering system you normally use. As each simulated letter is completed, lift the input device from the PAPER, move it slightly to the right, replace it against the PAPER, and form the next symbol. Although his may appear tedious and somewhat redundant, with practice you should be able to increase your speed and accuracy.

The PENCIL is equipped with a manual deletion device known as the Error Removal And Spurious Entry Reviser (ERASER), which is located on the end of the PENCIL opposite the data entry component. The error deletion function operates similarly to the “backspace" key on your computer. Place the deletion device against the erroneous data, and pull it backwards over the letters. This should remove the error, and enable you to resume data entries. If data fragments remain, repeat the procedure until all data has been removed.

CAUTION: Excessive force may damage the data reception device. Insufficient force, however, may result in less than acceptable deletion, and may require re-initialization of action as above.

This device is designed with user maintenance in mind. However, if technical support is required, you can still call your local computer desk supervisor at (800)-URA-FOOL.

Don't thank me. It's all part of helping each other survive the computer age.

Have a good day. Write something ... like a letter to ol' Bilbo.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, July 06, 2009

New Laws

On July 1st, a long list of new laws went into effect here in Virginia. I wonder why.

The major new law prohibits text messaging while driving - it carries a $20 fine for the first offense and a $50 penalty for subsequent violations, and drivers can be cited only after being stopped by police for another reason, such as running a red light.

On the one hand, texting while driving is so dangerous that one side of me is glad it's been outlawed. On the other hand, I think it's depressing that we need a law to keep people from doing something so dangerous. It's also depressing to know that the Common Virginia Dumbass (moronus oblivious) will keep on doing it anyway, until he kills himself or someone else.

We seem to have the idea that problems can be solved simply by passing laws. My personal view is that a proliferation of laws breeds resentment and what one might call "law fatigue." I've never believed you can legislate common sense - we can ban smoking in most bars and restaurants (coming here in Virginia on December 1st), and people intent on killing themselves and others by smoking will still find a way to do it; you can ban texting while driving, and fools who think they'll live forever will still do it; you can require motorcyclists to wear helmets, and morons will line up to prove they have granite heads impervious to injury when they come out second in a contest with a fixed object.

I have the same feeling about so-called "hate crime legislation." If a person is murdered because he's black or white, gay or straight, Jewish or Muslim, male or female, or whatever - the crime is murder. Murder has been illegal since Cain slew Abel (unless, of course, you are a radical Muslim, in which case you believe killing infidels is okay). The victim, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, or anything else, is still dead and the killer needs to be punished. Adding another layer of legal obfuscation atop the original crime does nothing except give new ammunition for lawyers seeking to drag out the procedings and make more money.

Paradoxically, more laws can lead to less-lawful behavior as scofflaws ignore them, shrewd lawyers engineer workarounds, and venal legislators legislate exceptions for their campaign contributors. We started out with 10 Commandments...the United States Code alone is divided into 50 separate "Titles," and each state, county, city, and minor municipality piles its own laws on top of those. Each of us can almost certainly be arrested for something.

Common sense isn't so common any more. We've buried it under heaps of laws.

Have a good day. Do the right thing because it's right - not because the law forces you to.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Fifth of July

Yesterday was the Fourth of July, America's premier national holiday and the traditional high point of the summer. There were parades and picnics, family reunions were held, much baseball was played, and huge fireworks displays were offered in those communities which can still afford them. Here in Pittsburgh, where we're visiting my father, the weather was warm and cloudy, with a nice breeze. It was a good, traditional, American Fourth of July.

But today is the Fifth of July.

If you're the Fifth of July, you get no respect.

Nobody goes to a movie called "Born on the Fifth of July." There are no parades and fireworks, just the complaints of a lot of grumpy people who have to clean up the mess from the previous day. Stores don't have blowout Fifth of July sales. Even all the red, white and blue bunting looks a little limp and sad, and the flags don't seem to fly as high and float as proudly on the summer breeze.

So let's make the Fifth of July feel a little better. What happened on the Fifth of July?

In 1943, the largest tank battle in history - the Battle of Kursk - began. What the Germans called "Operation Citadel" pitted some 50 German divisions against an enormous Russian force, and led to a decisive defeat for the Germans.

Showman P.T. ("there's a sucker born every minute") Barnum and American Naval hero David ("damn the torpedoes - full speed ahead!") Farragut were born on July 5th, as was former French prime minister George Pompidou.

On July 5th, 1865, William Booth established the Christian Mission in London's East End. The Christian Mission in 1878 became what we know today as The Salvation Army - one of the world's major charitable organizations.

Swing Era bandleader Harry James and architect Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school of design, both died on July 5th.

On July 5th, 1946, French designer Louis Reard unveiled a daring two-piece swimsuit at a swimming pool in Paris. He named it the "bikini," after the location of the recent nuclear weapons tests at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific.

And on July 5th, 1687, Isaac Newton published his book, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (Principia Mathematica). The book contains Newton’s laws of motion, which are part of the foundation of modern physics.

So let's show a little love to the Fifth of July. Even if you'd prefer the fifth of bourbon, ha, ha.

Agnes and I will be heading home later this morning, so please try to avoid us on the highways if you're traveling, too. The drive up here was stressful enough...I could use a break.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, July 04, 2009

Cartoon Saturday

A US soldier taken prisoner in Afghanistan has reportedly been sold to one of the warring clans; Sarah Palin has resigned as governor of Alaska, probably because she can see Washington from there; North Korea has test-fired seven missiles, the international relations equivalent of a two-year old's temper tantrum, but slightly more dangerous; no one is quite sure who the real president of Honduras is; and the Navy reports that a sailor standing guard duty at Camp Pendleton was murdered earlier this week.

Sit down, take deep, cleansing breaths, and let Cartoon Saturday make it all better.

It's not always easy to go through life with a degree in Linguistics, cringing when language is misused and abused (especially when you live in Washington and have to listen to the tortured screams of English coming from Capitol Hill). Here are two cartoons about language...

and,There are some good cartoons out there poking fun at those of us in the blogging community, too...


Getting old is a real pain. Of course, the alternative is worse. I was moaning one day some years ago about getting old, and my loving daughter told me not to worry...that I wasn't getting old, I was just getting fat. I think I can relate to this cartoon ...

And finally, surrounded as I am with brilliant and precocious grandchildren, I thought this was an especially good cartoon ...

Cartoon Saturday comes to you today from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Agnes and I are spending the weekend with my father and my sister and her family. Wherever you are spending this Fourth of July holiday weekend, I hope it's safe and happy.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.