Sunday, January 31, 2010

Brought To You By...

To Susie Q and everyone else who wondered where my Sunday post was...here it is! As you know, I usually write my post very early in the morning, but I spent my normal blogging time today digging out from our latest 6 inches of snow so that we could get out and visit our granddaughter. This was important today, as it was Agnes's last chance to visit with her before she leaves on Friday for two weeks visiting her parents in Germany. And so it was that I shoveled snow from about 5 to 7 AM, and then we went visiting, and just got home a few minutes ago.

So, enough with the excuses - on with today's rant post! Let me introduce my old friend Ed.

Ed and I have known each other for many years. We were friends through four years of high school, roommates through four years of college, and - amazingly enough! - are still speaking to each other. We share many of the same views, and Ed occasionally e-mails me with commentary on my blog or comments on my Facebook page. He's a good guy, not to mention a Professor Emeritus of some exotic branch of science I can't even spell.

Well, Ed e-mailed me earlier this week after reading my spluttering tirades about the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (the astounding decision that basically sold our electoral process to corporations and organizations with deep pockets). He had a brilliant idea that he said I was free to plagiarize use on my blog if I wanted, and I thought I'd share it with you...it's not only a brilliant concept, but - properly implemented - could result in a sharp increase in government income without raising taxes (cue the screaming Republicans)...

Ed's idea is simple: since corporations are now allowed to pump unlimited money into the political process, why not sell naming rights to the parts of government that they've purchased? One of the cartoons in yesterday's Cartoon Saturday touched on this idea, but here are a few more specific examples:

* The Honorable Microsoft-Boeing Senator from Washington, and the Exxon-Mobil Representative from the Shell District of Texas.

* The White House could be named The PPG Paints House of Many Colors (double points for the nod to "diversity"!).

* The Dewey, Cheatem, and Howe Supreme Court (sponsored by the law firm of the same name).

* The Blackwater/Xe-Halliburton-General Dynamics Department of Defense.

* The Monsanto-ConAgra Department of Agriculture.

The possibilities are endless. As the old saying goes, if life gives you lemons, make lemonade...and considering the size of the lemon the Supremes have dropped on us, we could crank out a whole lot of lemonade.

Thanks, Ed! And if anyone else has any good sponsorship ideas, feel free to add them to the comments.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Cartoon Saturday

After a "tense but civil" meeting between President Obama and House Republicans yesterday, reprehensive Mike Pence (R-Indiana) said that "House Republican leaders are grateful for (the President's) willingness to come ... and have a frank and honest conversation" ... translation of "frank and honest" in current political terms: "we scowled and shouted at each other, no one changed his or her mind, and we'll all go on blaming each other for everything and insisting on no compromises"; anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder was convicted of first-degree murder after a 37-minute jury deliberation in Wichita, Kansas; a thief trying to steal copper wire from an electrical substation in San Antonio received a fatal jolt of 69,000 volts when he tried to steal the wrong wires; and on Wednesday evening, President Obama delivered his first State of the Union Speech, followed immediately by the Republican Nanny-Nanny-Boo-Boo Speech delivered by Governor Bob McDonald of Virginia...dead air never sounded like such a good idea.

Cartoon Saturday: take as needed to relieve the pain of living in a steady state of DUMBCON 1.

I had to look at this one for a while before I got the joke...but then I liked it...

I enjoyed this take on the Supreme Court decision allowing unrestricted corporate funding of political campaigns ... after I stopped crying ...
My friend Katherine sent me this one, which ought to resonate with anyone who has recently tried to buy a pair of what we used to just call generic sneakers ... and yes, you can buy dance sneakers ...

You have to be careful where you buy your crystal ball ... it might have been previously owned by an economist ...
As a grumpy old geezer in training, I loved this one just on general principles ...

And finally, in case you were wondering how original divisions of domestic labor came about ...

It's good to be home after another flight-from-hell saga coming back from a business trip to Colorado. I'm more certain now than ever that I'm on a painful-fly list maintained by some higher power I've pissed off in the past.

But that's a story for another day.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Friday, January 29, 2010

Circus Acts

No, I'm not talking about The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeeze, or lion tamers or acrobats...I'm talking about your government.

The latest acts to take the center ring are these:

- President Obama committed a "rare breach of political etiquette" in his State of the Union address when he criticized the Supreme Court's recent decision removing most restrictions on corporate financing of political campaigns...while the Supremes were sitting a few feet away in the audience, trying to look suitably grave and impartial.

- When the President expressed his disappointment with the decision, Justice Samuel Alito, a member of the court's conservative majority, was shown on camera clearly mouthing the words, "not true."

Of course, it fails to beat the low standard of political courtesy set by Representative Joe Wilson, who famously shouted "You lie!" at the president during a speech a few months back, but it's still depressing.

A political blogger has noted that Justice John Paul Stevens, the longest-serving current member of the Supreme Court, never attends State of the Union addresses because he believes "...it involves the justices in a 'political circus' that can damage a justice's image of impartiality."

It's clear that the facade of judicial impartiality is just that, and a new standard for political hypocrisy has been set. And the circus goes on...

At least in the circus, the clowns all smile at each other.

Have a good day. Tomorrow is Cartoon Saturday...you know you need it.

More thoughts then.

Bilbo

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Video Chats

As you well know by now, my Blogging Friends, I am a seriously technologically challenged individual. My ability to troubleshoot computer problems is generally limited to knowing that something is wrong if I push the power button and nothing appears on the screen. I started having problems when the trusty telegraph key on the computer was replaced by a mouse, and MS-DOS took over from Morse Code.

Yes, I'm not very tech-adept.

Nevertheless, I have managed to coax Agnes's and my laptops into a configuration which will allow us to chat via video while I'm on the road.

How cool is that?

Well, since you asked...

It has its ups and downs. When you make an ordinary phone call, it doesn't matter if you're fully clothed, or sitting on the porcelain throne, or unshaven, or whatever. Nobody knows what you look like, or that you're watching TV or doing your Suddoku puzzles while you talk.

Not so with video chats. Before Agnes and I tested out the connection on our first long-distance video chat yesterday evening, I felt it necessary to check my standard of dress, comb my hair, brush my teeth, shave, and refresh my deodorant. Of course, when you look like I do, there's only so much minor maintenance you can do, but everything helps, eh? Agnes, of course, was her usual cheerful and beautiful self, particularly since she'd just come home from a long evening out with her friends.

So...

Do I recommend video chatting? Yes and no. If the person on the other end already knows what to expect, you're golden. Otherwise, it's the high-tech equivalent of a blind date, except that you can't pretend not to be home when the other person shows up.

Video chats. Not for sissies.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

P.S. For those of you who figured that I'd use this morning's post to comment on the State of the Union Address and the Republican Nanny-Nanny-Boo-Boo Rejoinder, sorry about that. Nobody in the Executive or Legislative branches of the government has anything to say any more that's worth listening to. And don't get me started on the Judicial Branch, since the Supremes sold out to big money. At least the old joke is true - we will soon officially have the best government money can buy, courtesy of the Supreme Court. Sigh...

B.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Tooth, the Whole Tooth, and Nothing But the Tooth

When I say the words root canal, what mental image forms?

(a) Pain? (b) Suffering? (c) Enormous expense? (d) All of the above?

The correct answer is - at least in my case - (d).

This story actually begins last Sunday, when I awoke with a moderately painful toothache. By Monday morning it had gone from "moderately painful" to "AAARRRGGGHHH GIVE ME DRUGS!!!", and I called my dentist to beg for a euthanasia appointment.

So it was that yesterday morning at 1000, I sat in the chair in my dentist's office while he gravely explained the gray and white blobs on the x-ray picture that showed that (a) I needed a root canal, and (b) because of my exceptionally long and narrow tooth roots, he needed to refer me to a specialist in long and narrow roots (translation: very expensive).

One hour later, I found myself checking in at the office of the new dentist. The tasteful furnishings, marble-surfaced check-in desk, and soft, pleasant elevator music had me wary from the start, and I knew I was in trouble when the beautiful young receptionist welcomed me with the standard greeting of the health care industry:

"Drivers license and insurance card, please."

I surrendered the required documents, filled out a ream of papers (which included one informing me that nothing would be done until I was able to guarantee payment by a combination of insurance, cash, credit cards, cut gems, or livestock (oops, sorry, the last one only applies in rural areas). Since I was in relative agony, I filled out and signed everything with only the quickest of readings. This dentist probably now owns my soul.

Since I was a walk-in patient, I then proceeded to wait for nearly two hours until the doctor could fit me in. A Sweet Young Technician with a delightful accent (El Salvador, as it turned out) came out to the waiting room, woke me up, and led me to the room where I would be convinced to confess to whatever I had been accused of.

Here is how a root canal happens:

1. You sit in the chair and answer for the Sweet Young Technician all the questions you already answered when you filled out the forms in the waiting room.

2. You wait.

3. The doctor comes in, greets you, and asks you all the questions you've already answered for the Sweet Young Technician and on the forms you filled out in the waiting room.

4. The doctor tells you to open wide, then identifies the problem tooth by hitting each tooth with a nine-pound hammer until you scream.

5. You get a shot of novocaine to deaden the site.

6. The doctor leaves to attend to another patient.

7. The doctor eventually comes back and begins to drill, dig and blast. You scream because the novocaine has worn off. The doctor gives you another shot, then leaves to attend another patient.

8. The novocaine wears off.

9. The doctor comes back and repeats step 7.

10. Repeat steps 8 and 9 as often as necessary.

11. Eventually, the doctor declares you finished, having extracted all the dead nerve material from the tooth and money from your wallet. He tells you to see the secretary for your follow-on appointment.

At this point, all the novocaine shots had finally kicked in, and the left side of my face was sliding into my lap. I staggered out to schedule my follow-on appointment, and the secretary greeted me with the alternative health care industry greeting: "The balance not covered by your insurance is $450...how would you like to pay that?"

I reviewed the payment options and discovered that "Monopoly money" and "Smiles and handshakes" were not on the list. I grudgingly surrendered my poor, battered credit card.

So...

I have survived my first root canal. The insane pain has been replaced with a dull ache and two bottles of Really Good Drugs, and my credit card bill has skyrocketed.

And today, I get to fly to Colorado Springs for a conference.

At least, I'm already suffering from a dull ache. I'm ahead of the game.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

P.S. - I will be traveling today through Friday, and on Friday the DC area may have a "significant" snowfall, just in time for me to get back. Sigh. I will probably be able to keep up the blog and Facebook page normally, but be prepared for possible glitches.

You'll get over it.

B.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Truth in Advertising

You've probably seen the ads on television in which Domino's Pizza trumpets how it listened to the complaints of dissatisfied customers and improved the quality of its pizzas. If you live in some Dominos-less location, or don't pay much attention to television, you can read the story online here.

The key quote in the online story is this:

"By doing that they are basically saying, 'We've been shoveling you crap for years and now we want you to trust us,'" said Kelly O'Keefe, managing director of the Brand Center at Virginia Commonwealth University.

That's a good line. Keep it in mind when you listen to the steaming piles of rubbish heaped on you by ultra-conservative Republicans, ultra-liberal Democrats, and the "corporations" whose vast floods of unrestricted cash (courtesy of a conservative Supreme Court majority that has set a new standard for political hypocrisy) work to buy their services in this year's congressional elections.

"We've been shoveling you crap for years and now we want you to trust us."

Good luck with that.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

P.S. - We're still at DUMBCON 1, but only because there isn't a higher level.

B.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Big Money and Freedom of Speech, Part 2

I spent some time yesterday reading the Supreme Court decision in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (there's a link to the text of the decision on yesterday's post). I have to admit that much of the intricate legal discussion was well beyond my feeble understanding of the law...nevertheless, I thought it was important to try to understand a decision that has such a potential impact on our electoral process.

Most of you will probably never read the entire document (I can tell you that my eyes are now bleeding and smoke is coming out of my ears from reading 183 pages of dense legal arguments). But if you don't read anything else, read the stinging dissent written by Justice John Paul Stevens. It's long (89 pages), but it's worth reading for its passionate analysis of Constitutional law, tradition, and the perceived shortcomings of the Citizens United decision. Here are a few excerpts from Justice Stevens' dissent...

"Corporate 'domination' of electioneering, Austin, 494 U. S., at 659, can generate the impression that corporations dominate our democracy. When citizens turn on their televisions and radios before an election and hear only corporate electioneering, they may lose faith in their capacity, as citizens, to influence public policy. A Government captured by corporate interests, they may come to believe, will be neither responsive to their needs nor willing to give their views a fair hearing. The predictable result is cynicism and disenchantment: an increased perception that large spenders 'call the tune' and a reduced 'willingness of voters to take part in democratic governance' ... To the extent that corporations are allowed to exert undue influence in electoral races, the speech of the eventual winners of those races may also be chilled." (page 168)

"If individuals in our society had infinite free time to listen to and contemplate every last bit of speech uttered by anyone, anywhere; and if broadcast advertisements had no special ability to influence elections apart from the merits of their arguments (to the extent they make any); and if legislators always operated with nothing less than perfect virtue; then I suppose the majority’s premise would be sound. In the real world, we have seen, corporate domination of the airwaves prior to an election may decrease the average listener’s exposure to relevant viewpoints, and it may diminish citizens’ willingness and capacity to participate in the democratic process." (page 170)

"The Court's blinkered and aphoristic approach to the First Amendment may well promote corporate power at the cost of the individual and collective self-expression the Amendment was meant to serve. It will undoubtedly cripple the ability of ordinary citizens, Congress, and the States to adopt even limited measures to protect against corporate domination of the electoral process. Americans may be forgiven if they do not feel the Court has advanced the cause of self-government today." (pages 172-173)

"Today's decision is backwards in many senses. It elevates the majority’s agenda over the litigants’ submissions, facial attacks over as-applied claims, broad constitutional theories over narrow statutory grounds, individual dissenting opinions over precedential holdings, assertion over tradition, absolutism over empiricism, rhetoric over reality." (page 176)

"At bottom, the Court's opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics." (page 177)

I wish I could have written so eloquently about this disastrous decision. Many conservative theoreticians and apologists are trying to make the point that this decision changes nothing; I submit that they are wrong.

The proof will come when we see its effect on the Congressional elections this year, and on the presidential campaign of 2012. If you're an average citizen, good luck learning anything other than what those with the big money and the big power want you to hear.

Read Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, and especially Justice Stevens' dissent, if you want to know what is happening to your voice in government. Such as it is.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Big, Big Money and Freedom of Speech


As you no doubt know, this past week the Supreme Court decided, in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, that limits on the amount of money which could be spent by corporations (as opposed to individuals) are unconstitutional. You can read the entire decision on the Supreme Court website (link here).

This decision has put me into an intellectual quandary like almost no other in recent memory.

First of all, I am absolutely opposed to limits on free speech. In a representative democracy, the citizens must have the assurance that their right to be heard on issues that affect their lives is not restrained. I've often spoken at public hearings on issues I cared about, and I've always been thankful that I lived in a country that allowed me to do so.

That said, there are some practical and obvious limits that need to be considered on what constitutes protected free speech. Everyone knows that it's illegal to yell "fire" in a crowded theater, for instance, and it's also illegal to incite riots or call for the murder of particular individuals or groups (unless, of course, you are a Muslim, when calls for the murder of infidels are considered not only protected, but downright praiseworthy).

So, what does Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission actually do to the concept of free speech?

If you listen to its backers (primarily, although not exclusively, wealthy Republicans, big businesses, unions, and major political action organizations), it removes a limit on their ability to engage in protected political discourse, and corrects a blatantly unconstitutional infringement of their rights. But I believe a little thought puts a bit different angle on the discussion.

When good old Bilbo stood up in front of a town hall meeting some years ago and argued passionately against a proposal to build a baseball stadium on land less than a mile from his house, arguing that it would cause major traffic congestion and loss of property value for himself and other homeowners, he was exercising his right to free speech as envisioned by the framers of the Constitution. The county executives who would decide on the stadium were there, listened to Bilbo and the other speakers (both for and against the idea), and - eventually - decided to build the stadium elsewhere.

Bilbo spent nothing more than gas money to drive to the meeting and a few hours of his time to exercise his right to free speech. Consider the difference between this and the free speech envisioned by Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission...

A major corporation with a financial interest in building the stadium could spend unlimited sums of money to convince the local government in its favor. It could buy full-page newspaper ads, flood the airwaves with radio and television spots arguing its perspective, hire top-tier legal firms to argue its case and public relations firms to burnish its image.

Is the amount of money spent by the corporation Constitutionally-protected free speech as envisioned by the framers of the Constitution? Did they envision that the opinions of individual citizens could be snowed under by the vast weight of effort that could be mustered by the wealthy and powerful?

One might also ask whether, for instance, a labor union ought to be able to spend money collected as dues from its members to support or oppose candidates or issues that some of the represented members might not support.

Last Thursday on the NPR show All Things Considered, Melissa Block interviewed two people representing opposing views of the impact of the Supreme Court decision: former Speaker of the House and conservative advocate Newt Gingrich, and Fred Wertheimer, representing Democracy 21, a group that supports campaign finance reform. You can read a transcript of the interviews here, and it's worth your time to take a few minutes to do so.

One thing that struck me in the interview was Mr Gingrich's repeated emphasis on how the decision would empower under-represented middle-class voters. Ms Block said at one point, "You say that campaign finance restrictions are anti-middle-class. I'm curious how you see this ruling as helping the middle class, as opposed to giving a lot more power to big business. The president said today this is a major victory for powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of every day Americans." Mr Gingrich's answer was this: "...the president was elected in part by labor unions who massed their resources of people, who have no choice but to have their money taken out of their dues. The president spent money that was donated through to a variety of organizations, including MoveOn.org, by very, very rich people."

Good point. And MoveOn.org is about as dumb an organization as anything the conservatives can muster on their side. Of course, Mr Gingrich did not mention that a variety of other organizations and "very, very rich people" supported the Republican candidate, John McCain.

Mr Gingrich later goes on to say that, "This will, in fact, level the playing field and allow middle-class candidates to begin to have an opportunity to raise the resources to take on the powerful and the rich."

I'm very happy now that he's explained it so well. I'm quite sure that if a true middle-class candidate ... a Bilbo or a Mike, for instance ... decided to run for office, that the removal of limitations on campaign financing will spur big business, labor unions, professional associations, and major political action committees to flock to our banners and support our candidacies.

How stupid does Mr Gingrich think we are?

Big businesses and professional political organizations are not interested in this issue as a question of free speech per se ... they are interested in this issue because it has economic impacts on their interests. Republicans are generally pro-business and can be counted upon reliably to support the interests of the wealthy as the solution to all problems, regardless of their attempt to spin the discussion as a protection of individual rights. Democrats, on the other hand, are convinced that unlimited social spending - without adequate regard the source of funding - is the solution to all problems.

Both are stupid.

This is what drives me batty about this discussion: each side does the exact same thing, but conveniently fails to note this in its sanctimonious denunciations of the evil bastards on the other side.

My personal opinion, for what it's worth (absolutely nothing to conservative or liberal die-hards) is that Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is a travesty of justice that will serve only the interests of big business and major organizations at the expense of Real People. The Supreme Court that in 2005 gave local governments the right to exercise the power of eminent domain to seize your property for the benefit of developers (in Susette Kelo, et al. v. City of New London, Connecticut, et al. Supreme Court docket number 04-108) now gives the wealthy and well-connected the right to overpower your voice in discussions that affect you.

Of course, you could always form your own political action committee and raise a few hundred dollars to fight back.

If you aren't pissed off, something's wrong. I've often said here that there's a big difference between freedom of speech and freedom of smart.

And this ain't smart.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Cartoon Saturday

Over 111,000 people are now confirmed dead in the Haiti earthquake, and the toll is still rising; Laredo, Texas, population 250,000, is now officially one of the largest US cities with no book stores (read more about it in my post of December 18th, last year); airline passenger frustration with fees, ever-changing security measures, and overcrowding is at an all-time high; an auction of designer handbags purchased with money embezzled from the Washington DC city government by a former city tax official has raised nearly $105,000 for the cash-strapped city; and the Shady Lady Ranch, a legal brothel in Nye County, Nevada, has hired its first male sex worker...known colloquially as a prostidude...thereby putting the "bro" in "brothel," ha, ha.

Heaven knows what we'd do without Cartoon Saturday to help make sense of it all.

The condition of the economy has got most of us rethinking our old cliches...

With this past week's Supreme Court ruling removing all limits on the amounts of money big corporations and interest groups can spend on political advertising, it's going to be a banner year for stupid campaign tactics. If you thought mindless and insulting campaign ads were bad before, well, imagine how many more of them you'll be able to enjoy now ...

Having some experience in dealing with energetic children and grandchildren, I can appreciate the need for a t-shirt like this one ...

Remember my screed the other day about political correctness? Here's another take on the subject ...

As cost-cutting measures for businesses go, this one is about as good as any ...

Did you ever wonder how telecommuting might have worked in the past? ...

And finally, a bonus cartoon for the end of a crazy week (click to enlarge - it's worth it) ...

Our house is almost warm again after our power was restored last night...did you know that it's possible for your house to have full power in some rooms...brownouts in others...and no power at all to big appliances (like your furnace), and still have all your circuit breakers untripped? We learned a lot last night about how power comes to your house. So did our next door neighbor, now that our power is temporarily coming from his house until our defective cable can be dug up and repaired.

It's a shocking tale, but I thought you'd get a charge out of it.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Friday, January 22, 2010

Fee Per Wee

When my good friend Katherine sends me an e-mail with the subject line, "You Gotta Blog About This," I sit up and take notice. First, because I've known Katherine for a long time and have great respect for her opinions; second, because it's always good to have someone give me the intellectual equivalent of a jump-start to get the creative juices flowing.

Today, Katherine alerts us to the growing threat of "Fee Per Wee" in air travel.

Yes, this is what Katherine sent me, as it was sent to her by her corporate travel advisor:

"Cross your Legs: Ryanair to Implement Fee Per Wee

"Ryanair says it will press ahead with plans to charge passengers to use its aircraft’s toilets. Despite admitting its announcement last year that it might install coin-operated facilities was a publicity stunt, chief executive Michael O’Leary is now revisiting the issue, according to the airline. Ryanair would also like to remove the two toilets at the back of each aircraft, leaving only one on board and creating room for six extra seats. In its in-flight magazine the airline described the coin-operated toilets as a cost saving proposal that would help reduce fares by at least 5 per cent. Ryanair spokesman Stephen McNamara said the charge would apply only to flights of an hour or less, which would include most all Ryanair routes between Ireland and Britain."

Yes, friends, at least one airline is now looking at a urine surcharge, a "cost-saving proposal that would help reduce fares by at least 5 percent." It'll work, of course. You've seen how much fares have plummeted since the imposition of checked bag fees...not to mention the $5.00 chocolate chip cookie, the $3.50 mini bag of trail mix, and the $7.00 cocktail (exact change or credit/debit cards only).

Of course, there is another way to take advantage of the cost-savings potential of body waste in air travel, as discussed in this article from Time Magazine: Go Early: Japanese Flyers Get Some Bathroom Advice. According to this article, Japan's All-Nippon Airlines is gently encouraging passengers to visit the rest rooms and relieve themselves of extra weight before boarding their flights, the theory being that if each person leaves a few pounds of ... um ... waste products ... in the rest room, it's that much less weight the aircraft has to carry, and that much less fuel it needs to burn. Voila! It's a stand-up double*: the airline spends less on fuel, and the airplane burns less fuel to produce less pollutants.

I predict the next step will be to have airline-run barbershops near the gates, where passengers will be required to get their hair cut to save weight. After that, who knows? Perhaps we will be required to pack our clothes in Hefty Trash Bags to eliminate the weight of suitcases. Or there will be a surcharge for portly passengers based on weight that exceeds a certain limit based on combined height and width (much like the post office charges you for packages).

The possibilities are endless.

And trust me - the airlines will explore them all.

Have a good day. Visit the rest room now.

More thoughts tomorrow. It's Cartoon Saturday...you know you'll need it.

Bilbo

* Note to Mike: another baseball metaphor!

B.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Danger of Political Correctness

Former Secretary of the Army Togo West and retired Navy Admiral Vernon Clark recently published an 86-page report documenting their investigation into the murder of 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, earlier this year. You'll probably recall the incident, in which an Army doctor named Nidal Hassan opened fire on a group of other medical personnel preparing to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan.

That incident has been exhaustively investigated and reported in the press, and the West-Clark report (which you can read or download here) represents the Army's official investigation and resulting recommendations.

Oddly enough, though, the report makes no mention - at all - of the role played by Mr Hasan's religious beliefs as a contributing factor, nor does it mention Mr Hasan by name.

It just wouldn't do to offend Muslims, you see.

It's quite all right for Muslims, in the name of their religion, to forbid others to worship according to other faiths. It's all right for Muslims to riot and kill and burn churches in response to real or perceived "insults" to their religion. It's all right for Muslims to go to court to forbid Christians to even use the word "allah" as a reference to God, and to riot when the legal decision goes against them. But somehow, it's not all right to point out the role of radical fundamentalist Islam in the mass murder of American citizens.

When the adherents of a religion are so insecure in their faith that they must resort to violence to defend it, and to forbid others to worship God in any other way, something's wrong with that religion. But when a nation which prides itself on its freedoms of speech and religion turns a blind eye to the abuse of those freedoms in the name of political correctness, something's even more wrong.

It's clear that not all of the world's Muslims are murderous fanatics. But we must not lose sight of the fact that their faith and traditions seem uniquely able to justify and encourage the most horrible of crimes. Ignoring this in the pursuit of some ill-considered political correctness keeps Muslims from looking inward to see what's wrong with their faith, and keeps the rest of the world from taking the steps necessary to protect itself.

Mr West and Admiral Clark have compiled a flawed report. It's utterly useless because it ignores the fundamental issue that drove Malik Hasan to murder the people he, as a doctor, was sworn to protect and care for - a religion that not only permits, but encourages and glorifies the oppression and murder of those who worship differently.

I detested political correctness before, but in most cases it's just a stupid annoyance. In this case, it's criminal ignorance that puts us all at risk.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Snow Diary

Well, almost all of the snow from our blizzard last month is gone, just in time for more snow to be forecast for tomorrow night and into Friday. Somehow, sitting here and singing "I'm Dreaming of a White January Twenty-Second" just doesn't have a very good ring to it. We don't need any more snow. I'm ready for spring and summer...pretty girls in tank tops...firing up the barbecue without putting my parka on first...driving up our hill straight, not at a 45-degree angle.

Enough snow, already!

You've probably seen some variation of the famous "Snow Diary," but this one from my friend Bob is as good as any. Amanda, think about this while you're enjoying your steamy Australian Christmas this year...

The Snow Diary

December 8: 6:00 PM. It started to snow! The first snow of the season: we made cocktails and sat for hours by the window, watching the huge, soft flakes drift down. It looked like a Grandma Moses print...so romantic, we felt like newlyweds again. I love snow!

December 9: Woke to a blanket of crystal white snow covering the landscape. What a fantastic sight! Moving here was the best idea I've ever had. Shoveled for the first time in years; felt like a boy again. Did the both driveway and sidewalks. Later, the snowplow came along; I got to shovel the driveway again. What a perfect life.

December 12: Sun melted all the lovely snow but our neighbor said we'd have a white Christmas. Then commented that by the end of Winter, I'd never want to see snow again. Not a chance!

December 14: Snow, lovely snow! Eight more inches last night, and cold, too. Wind took my breath away, but I warmed up shoveling again. This is the life! Later the snowplow came back - again - but I'm getting in better shape. Just wish I didn't huff and puff so much.

December 15: Twenty more inches forecast. Sold the van and bought a 4x4, along with snow tires for the wife's car. Shoveled out again, then stocked the freezer. Wife wants a wood stove in case power goes off. I think that's silly - we aren't in Alaska, after all!

December 16: Ice storm this morning. Landed on my butt trying to salt the driveway. Hurt real bad. Wife laughed for an hour. (I think that was very cruel.)

December 17: Too cold and icy to go anywhere. Power was off for 5 hours. Piled on blankets to stay warm. Nothing to do but stare at the wife and try not to upset her. Can't believe I'm freezing to death in my own living room. (Won't admit that I should have bought wood stove: hate it when she's right.)

December 20: Power's back on and had another 14 inches of the stuff. Shoveled all day. Snowplow came by twice. Kids too busy playing hockey to help. Hardware store sold out of shovels, salt, sand, and firewood. Next shipment of snow blowers due in March. Neighbor says I have to shovel or city will have it done and bill me. (I think he's lying.)

December 22: White Christmas!!! Thirteen more inches of the white stuff; it's so cold, it won't melt 'til August. Tried to shovel - just too tired. Tried to get help from neighbor who has snow plow on his truck but he said he was too busy. (I'm sure he's lying.)

December 23: Only two inches of snow today, and it warmed up to 0. Wife wanted me to decorate the front of the house. What is she, nuts? Why didn't she tell me to do that a month ago? She says she did. (I think she's lying.)

December 24: Six inches. Snow packed so hard by snowplow, I broke the shovel. I'm gonna get that snow plow driver...I know he waits around the corner to see if I'm finished, then roars by at 100 mph, shoving all the snow back into my driveway. Wife wanted me to sing carols with her while we open our presents, but I was busy watching for the &%#$ snow plow.

December 25: Merry &%$! Christmas. Another 20" of the slop. Snowed in again; the idea of shoveling makes my blood boil. I hate snow! Then the snowplow driver came by asking for a donation. I wanted to hit him over the head with my shovel. Wife says I have a bad attitude. I think she's an idiot, and if I have to watch "It's a Wonderful Life" one more time, I'll throw her in the snowbank.

December 26: Still snowed in.

December 27: Temperature dropped another 30 degrees. Pipes froze.

December 28: Warmed up to -25. Still snowed in and the wife is making me crazy!!!!!!

December 29: Another ten inches...neighbor says I have to shovel the roof before it caves in. That's the silliest thing I ever heard. How dumb does he think I am?

December 30: Roof caved in. Another nine inches forecast.

December 31: Set fire to what's left of the house: no more shoveling.

January 8: I feel sooooo good. I just love those little white pills they keep giving me. Why are these straps holding me to the bed?

Have a good day. Without any more snow than necessary.

More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Perfect Crime

The "perfect crime" is a staple of detective fiction and police procedural novels. Every writer dreams of devising a crime so clever and well-plotted that the criminal escapes scot-free while the forces of law and order scratch their heads and bump into each other in a futile attempt to close the case.

There probably aren't any "perfect crimes," though. DNA analysis, computer forensics, telephone wiretaps, good police work, and all the neat stuff you see on TV shows like NCIS, Bones, and CSI make getting away with a crime pretty much a thing of the past. Unless, of course, you succeed in looting an entire economy, in which case you're pretty much guaranteed to escape meaningful punishment.

But wait - there is a perfect crime in the making, and I'm sharing the story with you so that when I'm gone, the perpetrators can be brought to justice.

I refer to the sinister plot hatched by an unnamed software company to drive me to suicide by trying to use their product.

We have something like 758,000 VHS tapes stacked on shelves here at home, most of them dance videos Agnes bought over a 20+ year career teaching ballroom dance. As you know, VHS tapes take up quite a bit of space compared to DVDs or CDs, and so in an attempt to recover some of our limited shelf space, Agnes decided it would be a good project to transfer all those VHS tapes to DVDs.

Well, yes, it's a good idea...but like so many good ideas, it ain't quite as easy as hooking the VHS player to a DVD recorder and lettin' 'er rip. You need to insert chapter breaks and menus to allow you to search the DVD. And there's the rub...

Some years ago, I spent the GNP of an average African country to buy a spiffy software program that would let me make and edit movies. That software proved to be so complicated to use that my head started to smoke, and so it sat unused for a long time...until yesterday.

We were able to copy the VHS tape to the computer's hard drive with no problem. Inserting the chapter markers was a little bit of a problem. Figuring out how to insert a top-level menu was a fairly big problem. Figuring out how to edit the menus was an insurmountable problem.

After two telephone conversations with tech support people in Ouagadougou whose English was barely up to the task (and who referred me to each other to solve the problem), I ended up conducting two lengthy online chats with two more tech support people who finally ended up deciding that my expensive program would not allow us to do that which we expected it to do, and we would have to upgrade to the newer (and more expensive version) of the software. Of course, in true modern software fashion, the program comes in three versions: "basic," "ultimate," and "ultimate collection," the price of each escalates astronomically. And, naturally, the ability to insert multiple menus (which we need to do to make the DVDs useful), is only available in the "ultimate" and "ultimate collection" versions of the software.

AARRGGHH!!

So I bit the bullet and ordered the "ultimate" version of the program. I downloaded the installation file, saved it to the computer, then double-clicked to install it ... only to get a message telling me that it was "not a valid Win32 application."

DOUBLE AARRGGHH!!

Another online chat with yet another drone, who tells me that the file must have been corrupted during the download, and I should download it again. I do this. The file downloads correctly. I double-click to install it.

And...

About an hour and a half later, after endless extractions of compressed files, two system reboots, acceptance of huge legalistic User Agreements written in Old Church Slavonic, and the sacrifice of two chickens and a small goat, the installation is complete.

Does it work? I don't know. It took so long to troubleshoot the original program, get straight answers from tech support, download the installation files, and install them, that we ran out of time to see if it all works.

I'm going back to work today. Agnes will get to try out the program on her own. She will no doubt call me to ask how it works...

And I'll shoot myself.

The perfect crime.

She'll probably split the insurance money with those guys in Ouagadougou.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow...if I haven't done myself in.

Bilbo

Monday, January 18, 2010

Name Dropping

The mental connection that led to this topic began with one of the entries in an interesting online article I bookmarked last month: 20 Secrets Your Waiter Will Never Tell You. Along with all the bad things you might have suspected, including stories of food dropped on the floor and rinsed under water before being put back on your plate, was this one:

"I get this call all the time: 'Is the chef there? This is so-and-so. I’m a good friend of his.' If you’re his good friend, you’d have his cell."

This is an example of the scummy art of name-dropping ... tossing the names of famous (or infamous, or - at least - notable) people with whom one claims to be friends, usually for the purpose of gaining some advantage (in the example above, a table at a crowded restaurant) or impressing the listener. It's also an example of how it doesn't always work.

I've always figured that if you need to invoke someone else's name to accomplish something or impress me, you are beyond help. I don't care who you know, I care about what you are.

Of course, my distaste with name-droppers may come from the fact that I don't know anyone whose name can be dropped for significant advantage. I tried telling people at the phone company that I was a friend of Mike's, and they said, "Mike who?" Then I clarified, and they said, "Mike who?" even louder. I thought about dropping Amanda's name while buying grandchildren supplies at Buy Buy Baby, but since the store is in Northern Virginia rather than Brisbane, I figured it probably wouldn't help. I also thought about dropping Jay's name, but then, I may want to run for office someday, and I already have all the skeletons in my closet that I need.

I wonder if I'm socially hampered by the fact that all my friends are Real People. Nah. Real People are fun. They're not pretentious. They're comfortable being who they are, and don't need to define themselves by a real or imagined connection to who they know. Of course, there are those people who don't need to invoke someone else's name because they're so impressed with themselves that they think the earth shakes when they walk by. You've probably had the experience of hearing someone (often at an airline counter, or trying to get past a bouncer at a fancy club) shout, "Do you know who I am?!?!?"

Sorry, if you don't know, I can't help you. Perhaps in this case, you need to invoke the name of someone else. Preferably someone with better manners.

Drop your own name. If you've taken care of it, it'll get you as far as you need to go.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Devil's Letter to Pat Robertson

From the Department of Gee I Wish I'd Written That comes a masterpiece written by a lady in Minnesota. First, the backstory...

As I mentioned in the lead-in to yesterday's Cartoon Saturday, evangelist Pat Robertson suffered another dumbass attack this past week when he spoke of the terrible disaster in Haiti as God's punishment of the Haitians for making a "pact with the devil" to gain their freedom from colonization by the French. This, of course, is not the first example of Mr Robertson's tendency to blame the victims of a disaster for their plight...he has blamed former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon's stroke on his ceding of land to the Palestinians, and he said Americans brought the 9/11 attacks on themselves for banning school prayer and allowing abortion.

Such a nice fellow is Mr Robertson, eh?

Anyhow, a few days ago the Minneapolis Star-Tribune published a letter to Mr Robertson from Satan. Well, not really...the letter was actually written by a Minneapolis lady (a Minneapolitan?) named Lilly Coyle, Satan being far too busy in the Middle East to take the time to write it himself. This is the letter in full...don't read it with a mouth full of anything, because you'll make a mess...

Dear Pat Robertson,

I know that you know that all press is good press, so I appreciate the shout-out. And you make God look like a big mean bully who kicks people when they are down, so I'm all over that action.

But when you say that Haiti has made a pact with me, it is totally humiliating. I may be evil incarnate, but I'm no welcher. The way you put it, making a deal with me leaves folks desperate and impoverished.

Sure, in the afterlife, but when I strike bargains with people, they first get something here on earth -- glamour, beauty, talent, wealth, fame, glory, a golden fiddle. Those Haitians have nothing, and I mean nothing. And that was before the earthquake. Haven't you seen "Crossroads"? Or "Damn Yankees"?

If I had a thing going with Haiti, there'd be lots of banks, skyscrapers, SUVs, exclusive night clubs, Botox -- that kind of thing. An 80 percent poverty rate is so not my style. Nothing against it -- I'm just saying: Not how I roll.

You're doing great work, Pat, and I don't want to clip your wings -- just, come on, you're making me look bad. And not the good kind of bad. Keep blaming God. That's working. But leave me out of it, please. Or we may need to renegotiate your own contract.

Best, Satan

Now, in my humble opinion, this is the very best kind of satire...it takes aim at some ludicrous buffoon and delivers a spear of humor straight to the gut. Unfortunately, it's unlikely that someone like Mr Robertson will understand the humor or appreciate the truth...like the savagely intolerant mullahs of the Islamic world who can see things only through their darkly distorted prisms of the seventh century desert and blame all the world's ills on some imagined Great Satan (aka, America), neither the Robertsons nor the Islamists of the world will ever understand or embrace the real Christian message of love, charity, and forgiveness. And when someone like me writes something like that, you know there's some deep feeling there.

Have at it, Pat. Someone way south of here is keeping a seat warm for you.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Cartoon Saturday

As many as half a million people may have been killed in a massive earthquake that devastated the already-miserable nation of Haiti; evangelist Pat Robertson, demonstrating true Christian love and charity, says Haiti is paying for swearing a pact with the devil to gain freedom from France; banking giant J.P. Morgan Chase showed a last-quarter profit of over $3 billion, while its "compensation expenses" climbed 18% during the year to $26.9 billion, much of which is expected to paid out as as bonuses; United Airlines became the latest airline to impose fees on passengers for checked bags; and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has announced that he might run for president in 2012.

If it weren't for Cartoon Saturday, how would you make it?

Ever found anyone odd in your family tree...?

I always knew there was a relationship between the financial mismanagement industry and the fortune-telling industry...

Careers in crime offer more opportunities nowadays...

Don't you just love the people who come up with the latest management fads? I don't, either...

The health care industry is doing its part to help control the skyrocketing cost of medical services...

And finally, the truth about greenhouse gases...

It looks like we'll have nice weather today, as Mother Nature winds up for a day of cold rain tomorrow. At this point, I'll take what I can get.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Friday, January 15, 2010

Steampunk

I'd never heard of Steampunk until earlier this week, when one of my co-workers passed me this link to the 12 coolest Steampunk gadgets. Steampunk, it turns out, is a category of science fiction that came into prominence in the 1980s and early 1990s to refer to works set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used—usually the 19th century, and often Victorian England, but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy. Steampunk envisions fictional technological inventions like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or real technological developments like the computer occurring at an earlier date. A quick Google search reveals all sorts of websites devoted to Steampunk, including guides to modifying everyday items to create new Steampunk works of art...here's one example.

Here is a desktop PC as re-imagined in Steampunk:

And a close-up of the keyboard...

You need a mouse to use with your Steampunk PC, of course...


Not to mention an external USB drive to use for moving files...

There are websites devoted to building Steampunk devices, where you can find other interesting devices, like a Steampunk toilet...

And even ... uh ... intimate personal devices...

I knew that if I waited long enough, old stuff would come back into fashion. There's hope for Mike, Gilahi, and I.

Have a good day. Cartoon Saturday is coming.

Bilbo

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Too Many Men

No, I'm not talking about singles bars on a Friday night - I'm talking about China.

From the Department of It's Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature comes this troubling story: Skewed China Birth Rate to Leave 24 Million Men Single.

According to a study commissioned by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, more than 24 million Chinese men of marrying age could find themselves without spouses by 2020, an imbalance largely caused by sex-specific abortions designed to favor the birth of sons to families under China's one-child policy. This gender imbalance among newborns ranks as China's most serious demographic problem, according to some reports.

You would think that with a population of over 1.3 billion, there would be plenty of young women for all those men to marry. But a traditional societal preference for sons, linked with the state's general policy of allowing only one child per family, has led to a tremendous imbalance in the ratio of men to women. The normal male-female ratio at birth ranges from 103-107 males for every 100 females, which is nature's way of compensating for the fact that more men are likely to die early in wars, accidents, and so on. But in 2005, the last year for which data were made available, there were 119 boys for every 100 girls, and the ratio in some areas was as high as 130 males for every 100 females. In a time of (relative) peace, with no war or other cause to reduce the number excess men, the ratio can skyrocket rapidly...as we see in today's China.

The one-child-per-family policy was instituted by the Chinese government in 1979 an attempt to control the rapidly-growing population. In the 1980's, when ultrasound and other tests to identify the gender of a fetus became widespread, couples began engaging in "gender selection" to ensure the birth of sons who could help support the parents in later years, and were viewed as more valuable for work and family prestige.

The result: a vast number of men who will never be able to marry, and all the attendant problems of prostitution, trafficking of women for sex and marriage, and social unrest in poorer regions where low-income single men are unable to compete for the attention of the available women.

An old commercial for a brand of margarine showed a furious Mother Nature, angered because she couldn't tell the difference between the margarine and her beloved butter. If she gets this upset over margarine, how will she react to the vast number of sexually frustrated men in China?

This will be an interesting...and frightening...issue to watch in the coming years.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

DUMBCON 1 - The Sequel

Last July, I proposed a set of national standards for stupidity that I called the DUMBCON. It was based on the range of military "conditions" that specify actions to be taken at various times for various reasons: there's the Defense Condition (DEFCON), the Force Protection Condition (FPCON), and the Information Condition (INFOCON), among many others...not to mention the color-coded, silly, and utterly meaningless Terror Threat Condition.

That turned out to be a popular post, and I still use the DUMBCON to refer to current degrees of dumbness (although most days I think we need a DUMBCON level higher than 1 to account for radical Islamists, people who text while driving, members of Congress, and anyone with a degree in economics).

Others have taken up my idea, too. Yesterday, one of my co-workers passed me a clever PowerPoint file which introduced a related concept called the STUPICON. This proved two things:

1. People other than I recognize the need to identify discrete levels of stupidity; and,

2. Someone, somewhere, has way too much time on his/her hands.

I've modified the slides a little bit to take out Air Force-specific terms and make them more general, but the basic idea and work is that of an unknown - but very disturbed - person. Here you go...

The lowest level is STUPICON A...day-to-day stupidity...

When we get to STUPICON B, you need to start worrying...

STUPICON C is getting serious...

And if we get to STUPICON D (the equivalent of my DUMBCON 1), it's time to head for the hills..

You'll use these every day. Don't thank me - it's all part of helping you cope with the world as it is. You have to wonder whether, if the Bible were being written today, the Book of Exodus would have reflected an eleventh plague visited on the Egyptians - stupidity.

But then, Egypt is part of the Middle East. Never mind.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Briefly...

This is one of those mornings when I have a lot to do before I head out to work, so we're just going to go the minimalist route...consider these two items:

If you've ever tried to do something with the innards of any piece of electronic equipment, you can relate to this. It also works with assembling enormous Lego sets...just ask Agnes...

If your spouse has ever sent you to the store for something you couldn't find, and you picked up a substitute, you can appreciate this one...

Sorry for the short post. We should be back to normal tomorrow.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Professionalization of Politics

The last few weeks have shown a large number of members of Congress deciding they need to spend more time with their families...which is, for those of you not familiar with political euphemisms, pol-speak for getting out while the getting is good. Democrats are worried that they will lose their filibuster-proof majority, Republicans are smelling the political chum in the water, and we can all look forward to another season of brainless political attack ads and the general stupidity which accompanies the modern political race.

Which brings me to this interesting article from the blog In All Things, which is part of America, the National Catholic Weekly magazine: Dodd's Departure and the Changing Face of Politics. I don't spend much time agreeing with author Michael Sean Winters, but I thought this article was pretty good. Mr Winters reflects on how political campaigns were run in the days before focus groups, robo-calls, and attack ads; before political handlers that ensured that candidates stayed on message, rather than meeting with Real People and running the risk of accidentally saying something that was true, that made sense, that they really believed in. Reflecting on his relationship over the years with retiring Senator Chris Dodd, Mr Winters writes,

"Dodd was of that generation that remembered the time when politics was not all manufactured, when candidates were not emasculated, when friendship co-existed with political and intellectual rivalry. I fear those days are gone."

“Something fine and bracing has gone out of our political life when candidates are turned into commodities, and when politics is seen as a skill-set rather than a connection of human beings with dense, overlapping affiliations and friendships. I do not see how we can ever get that something back. No candidates, of either party, have been able to resist the onslaught of the professionalization of political campaigns.”

Candidates don't often meet with Real People any more, because there's too much danger of making a mistake. I've written in this space before about the earnest young woman who showed up at my door one day, flacking for a gentleman running for state office...a young woman who couldn't answer a single question about her candidate that wasn't on her script. The incumbent, who has been in office for several terms now, showed up at my door himself when he was first running, and spent almost half an hour talking to me and answering my questions. I'm still voting for him, and the challenger last year lost his second run at the seat.

Now, it's easy to look back at an imagined Golden Age of Politics, when elected officials actually listened to their constituents and didn't owe their political souls to the big campaign contributors. It never happened, of course. American politics has always been dirty, going back to the underhanded shenanigans of Thomas Jefferson that no one quite remembers now. But wouldn't it be nice if, for once, we could have an intellectually honest campaign?

There will be a lot of chances for that coming this year. Sadly, I don't think anyone will take advantage of them.

And it's sad for the country.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Thomas Friedman's Rules for Understanding the Middle East

Mike's last two posts (this one and this one) illustrate the lunacy that defines the Middle East in general and the Arab/Islamic world in particular (yes, I know that Malaysia is not part of the Middle East). Who can understand how these idiots think...or even if they think at all?

One of my favorite commentators on issues of the Middle East is Thomas Friedman, the author and foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times. He speaks both Hebrew and Arabic, lived in the Middle East for many years, and is one of the most perceptive observers of that bizarre region that I've found. If you only read one book about the Middle East, it ought to be his classic From Beirut to Jerusalem, which is one of the most even-handed, witty, and sad things ever written about this screwed-up region.

One of Mr Friedman's best contributions to helping confused laymen comprehend the hopeless muddle of the Arab-vs-Israeli and Islam-vs-Everyone Else messes came in the form of his classic Fifteen Rules for Understanding the Middle East. Here they are:

Rule 1: What people tell you in private in the Middle East is irrelevant. All that matters is what they will defend in public in their own language. Anything said to you in English, in private, doesn't count. In Washington, officials lie in public and tell the truth off the record. In the Mideast, officials say what they really believe in public and tell you what you want to hear in private.

Rule 2: Any reporter or U.S. Army officer wanting to serve in Iraq should have to take a test, consisting of one question: "Do you think the shortest distance between two points is a straight line?" If you answer yes, you can't go to Iraq. You can serve in Japan, Korea or Germany -- not Iraq.

Rule 3: If you can't explain something to Middle Easterners with a conspiracy theory, then don't try to explain it at all -- they won't believe it.

Rule 4: In the Middle East, never take a concession, except out of the mouth of the person doing the conceding. If I had a dollar for every time someone agreed to recognize Israel on behalf of Yasser Arafat, I could paper my walls.

Rule 5: Never lead your story out of Lebanon, Gaza or Iraq with a cease-fire; it will always be over before the next morning's paper.

Rule 6: In the Middle East, the extremists go all the way, and the moderates tend to just go away.

Rule 7: The most oft-used expression by moderate Arab pols is: "We were just about to stand up to the bad guys when you stupid Americans did that stupid thing. Had you stupid Americans not done that stupid thing, we would have stood up, but now it's too late. It's all your fault for being so stupid."

Rule 8: Civil wars in the Arab world are rarely about ideas -- like liberalism vs. communism. They are about which tribe gets to rule. So, yes, Iraq is having a civil war as we once did. But there is no Abe Lincoln in this war. It's the South vs. the South.

Rule 9: In Middle East tribal politics there is rarely a happy medium. When one side is weak, it will tell you, "I'm weak, how can I compromise?" And when it's strong, it will tell you, "I'm strong, why should I compromise?"

Rule 10: Mideast civil wars end in one of three ways: a) like the U.S. civil war, with one side vanquishing the other; b) like the Cyprus civil war, with a hard partition and a wall dividing the parties; or c) like the Lebanon civil war, with a soft partition under an iron fist (Syria) that keeps everyone in line. Saddam used to be the iron fist in Iraq. Now it is us. If we don't want to play that role, Iraq's civil war will end with A or B.

Rule 11: The most underestimated emotion in Arab politics is humiliation. The Israeli-Arab conflict, for instance, is not just about borders. Israel's mere existence is a daily humiliation to Muslims, who can't understand how, if they have the superior religion, Israel can be so powerful. Al Jazeera's editor, Ahmed Sheikh, said it best when he recently told the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche: "It gnaws at the people in the Middle East that such a small country as Israel, with only about 7 million inhabitants, can defeat the Arab nation with its 350 million. That hurts our collective ego. The Palestinian problem is in the genes of every Arab. The West's problem is that it does not understand this."

Rule 12: Thus, the Israelis will always win, and the Palestinians will always make sure they never enjoy it. Everything else is just commentary.

Rule 13: Our first priority is democracy, but the Arabs' first priority is "justice." The oft-warring Arab tribes are all wounded souls, who really have been hurt by colonial powers, by Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, by Arab kings and dictators, and, most of all, by each other in endless tribal wars. For Iraq's long-abused Shiite majority, democracy is first and foremost a vehicle to get justice. Ditto the Kurds. For the minority Sunnis, democracy in Iraq is a vehicle of injustice. For us, democracy is all about protecting minority rights. For them, democracy is first about consolidating majority rights and getting justice.

Rule 14: The Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi had it right: "Great powers should never get involved in the politics of small tribes."

Rule 15: Whether it is Arab-Israeli peace or democracy in Iraq, you can't want it more than they do.

Thomas Friedman has the place figured out. And in my humble opinion, it all comes down to the application of Rule 15: You can't want it more than they do. Arabs, Palestinians, Israelis, and Muslims all want peace. It's just that everybody wants it on his own terms.

And that just ain't gonna happen.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Cartoon Saturday

A man armed with an assault rifle, two handguns and a shotgun killed three people and wounded five at his office in St Louis; in Angola, a bus carrying the Togolese national soccer team to a tournament in Angola was riddled with bullets by unidentified attackers; the date of President Obama's first State of the Union address has been changed because of popular outrage that it would interfere with the season premiere of the final season of the hit TV show Lost; a young woman who once modeled for Playboy magazine has been identified by Miami police as the person found dead and "burned beyond recognition" in a trash bin; and according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Obama administration is making a renewed push for Mideast peace, stepping up pressure on Israelis and Palestinians to reach an agreement...which will no doubt be as successful as every other push for Mideast peace (but more on that tomorrow).

If it weren't for Cartoon Saturday, how would you cope?

The biggest news is, of course, the weather, which is as cold as (insert joke here). How cold is it? A few cartoonists have their opinions...

Yep...it's cold...
A quick look at the weather map tells the story...

You may have to think about this one for a minute, but it's worth it...

Okay, enough about the weather. How about a dose of just plain silly...?

It wouldn't be Cartoon Saturday without taking a jab at the health care industry, would it...?

And finally, apropos of the linked story above about yet another push for a Mideast settlement, who can ever understand these stupid people? Cartoonist Pat Oliphant has them nailed...the comment by the little birds at the bottom is the best part...

And that's it for this week's Cartoon Saturday. It looks like a good weekend to stay inside by the fire, wrapped in a quilt, with a cup of hot chocolate, a good book, and a stack of DVDs. After all, here in Disneyland on the Potomac, it's so cold outside that I saw a Congressman with his hands in his own pockets.

Have a good day. Stay warm. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo

Friday, January 08, 2010

Calculating Fines

Who among us has not engaged in a little speeding...looking at the sign that says "Speed Limit XX" and deciding that it really doesn't apply to us. We're special, after all. Perhaps we're Hollywood celebrities, or well-connected and wealthy, or Members of Congress...or perhaps just ordinary people looking for a bit of quasi-innocent naughtiness.

Don't do it in Switzerland.

According to this article in Yahoo News, a Swiss court has fined a Swiss millionaire a record sum of $290,000 for driving as much as 35 mph over the posted 50 mph speed limit. The fine was based, per Swiss law, on the malefactor's estimated wealth of over $20,000,000.

I expect he'll appeal, don't you?

So, proceeding from this interesting data point, one might ask how fines would be calculated for various offenders here in the good old US of A if the individual's net worth were used as a basis for the levy.

How much would we fine our elected reprehensives who adjusted the laws to make it possible for the financial mismanagement industry to loot the economy? Let's see...an average member of Congress earns $174,000 per year. The Swiss benchmark for fine calculation seems to be about 1.45% of net worth, so we might assess each member of Congress 1.45% of $174,000, or about $2,500. Multiplied by 535 members, we get the grand total of $1,337,500.

Oh, heck, it's not worth it...the government spends that much money in the amount of time it takes to type it out. Even if we add in a fine based on the President's salary of $400,000, it adds only another $5,800 to the total. A good lobbyist can get that much out of Congress without even getting out of bed.

Let's just forget the whole thing. Except for the part about not speeding in Switzerland. Or in any residential neighborhoods here at home.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.

Bilbo