Monday, February 28, 2011

What Government Is For

First things first: last evening Agnes and I enjoyed a wonderful dinner at the Coastal Flats restaurant in Tyson's Corner in the company of fellow local blogger KathyA (of Kathy's Peace) and her husband Dick. The food was excellent, the conversation stimulating, and I have decided that - based on the number of shared interests, likes, dislikes, and experiences we have - Kathy and I are, on different levels of reality, the same person. God help her.

Okay, now down to business.

I plagiarized adopted the title of today's post from a marvelous editorial in yesterday's Washington Post. If you're one of my Facebook friends, you may already have read the editorial from the link I posted there yesterday; if not, you may want to take a few minutes to read it now. Go ahead ... I'll wait while you do.

This editorial does a great job of reducing the current bloviation from the Left and Right about government spending to the essential question that lies at the heart of the debate: what is government for? It's not as simple a question as you might think.

The Constitution is not clear on the issue, regardless of what shouting battalions of Tea Party wingnuts would have you believe. The Constitution does list a few of the things the federal government has the power to do (such as collect taxes to pay for everything else, oddly enough), but is largely a guide to the organization of the government as opposed to a laundry list of its powers. What the government is for, as a general issue of political and social philosophy, is summarized in the Preamble to the Constitution, which lists these "fors" (if I may use the term oddly):

Form a More Perfect Union;

Establish Justice;

Insure Domestic Tranquility;

Provide for the Common Defence;

Promote the General Welfare; and,

Secure the Blessings of Liberty.

Six things the Founders thought the government was "for." The devil, of course, is in the details ... what did they really mean when they wrote all these highfalutin' words back in the 18th century, and what do they mean in the 21st?

Take promote the general welfare. What did the founders have in mind? A few things seem obvious, and the Washington Post editorial offers a few common sense thoughts: "government should ensure that no one goes hungry, homeless or uncared for when sick;" and, "elements of a healthy, humane society that only government can provide: A safe supply of food and medicine. Clean air and water, national parks, a capital the country can be proud of."

Provide for the common defense is pretty straightforward - the government is responsible for defending us from those who would do us ill. And, regardless of what the idealists among us would wish, the world is full of people who will not love us if we just stop doing something they don't like ... the world has many more Hitlers, Chavezes, Stalins, and Ahmedinejads than it does Gandhis, Mother Teresas, and Pope John XXIII's. And, by the way, would you rather have 50 separate armies with all their checkpoints along the interstate that you had to negotiate when you went to visit Auntie Em? I thought not. One Army (and Navy, and Air Force), organized and funded by a central government, just makes sense.

I could go on, but I think I'll just summarize by saying that reasonable people can agree to disagree on what specific things the government is for. But reasonable people can also agree that we have to decide between the things that are essential and defensible, and the things that (in a perfect world) would be good for the government to do (support the arts, for instance). As the Post editorial says in conclusion:

"as a matter of politics and fairness, some of the nice-to-haves are going to have to take a hit: There are worthy things that government is no longer going to be able to do."

Give it some thought. It's a crucial issue, and you won't get any good discussion from the ideologues shouting from the fringes with their clue chutes up and locked. You need to understand, decide, and let your elected reprehensives know.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, February 27, 2011

My Data Can Beat Up Your Data!

I drew some fire from my friend Bob* over the past few days over some economic statistics charts I linked to from my Facebook page the other day (and which I linked to from this blog in last Friday's post). For those of you who may have missed them, here is the direct link - It's the Inequality, Stupid: Eleven Charts That Explain Everything That's Wrong with America.

Bob added this comment to my Facebook post:

"The data presented was clearly slanted to make it appear that the rich are evil, aren't paying their share, and are somehow controlling the system to keep it that way. The data are pretty unambiguous against that position. Probably why that data wasn't included in the display, even though it is easily available. Another example of arguing from a position of emotion instead of fact."

To support that position, he linked to this article on - Who Pays the Most Income Tax? Higher Income Earners Pay the Most, Treasury Says. The article cites as its source data from the US Treasury's Office of Tax Analysis, and makes these points (among others):

"In 2002 the latest year of available data, the top 5 percent of taxpayers paid more than one-half (53.8 percent) of all individual income taxes, but reported roughly one-third (30.6 percent) of income."

"The top 1 percent of taxpayers paid 33.7 percent of all individual income taxes in 2002. This group of taxpayers has paid more than 30 percent of individual income taxes since 1995. Moreover, since 1990 this group’s tax share has grown faster than their income share."

"Taxpayers who rank in the top 50 percent of taxpayers by income pay virtually all individual income taxes. In all years since 1990, taxpayers in this group have paid over 94 percent of all individual income taxes. In 2000, 2001, and 2002, this group paid over 96 percent of the total."

Now, being the suspicious guy I am, I went to the website of the Treasury Department's Office of Tax Analysis in search of the data cited in that article. After considerable searching in the OTA's Tax Policy Document Library and other parts of its Resource Center, I didn't find it ... but that doesn't mean it isn't there, just that it's buried within vast amounts of other data and you need to know just where to look for it. I would also add, in the interest of fairness, that I went looking for the supporting data cited in the original Inequality article and didn't find it, either ... also not surprising when the source is listed simply as an office or an organization, rather than a specific both articles do.

So, what does all this mean? Is it simply, as Bob thinks, arguing from a position of emotion instead of fact?

In large part, it probably is. And a part of why we end up arguing from emotion rather than fact is that we are no longer able to agree on what facts are. I've always been amazed at how the opposite ends of the political spectrum can look at the same data and spin it to support diametrically opposite conclusions. It's the same thing as how creative accountants can use Generally Accepted Accounting Principles to look at the same data and show either a profit (for the shareholders) or a loss (for the IRS). You might also be interested in reading Farhad Manjoo's wonderful little book True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society for a more detailed discussion of the my-facts-are-true-and-your-facts-aren't phenomenon.

I'll have more to say on the topic of taxes, fairness, and related subjects over the next few posts. In the meantime, I'll just say it's bad enough that we can't agree on basic facts ... but when you combine it with ignorance, well ...

Have a good day. We'll continue this taxing discussion tomorrow.

More thoughts then.


* I have several friends named Bob ... this one is not the one who usually feeds me prime funny blogging material, but he is good for bloggable discussions.


Saturday, February 26, 2011

Cartoon Saturday

The price of gasoline jumped six cents yesterday, the biggest one-day rise in two years; one person was killed and 23 injured in a Brooklyn fire that started when candles being used in a voodoo sex ceremony ignited the bedsheets; fierce fighting continues in Libya, where strongman Moammar Gadhafi has vowed to be a martyr rather than step down (hmmm...I sense a win-win potential, here...); GOP gadfly Newt Gingrich says Republicans should "stick to their guns" and close down the government if necessary to win the current budget fight (his job is secure, after all); and 145 people have been killed in a devastating earthquake in New Zealand.

What would you do without Cartoon Saturday to help you cope with the lunacy?

With all the cop shows on TV that keep spinning off other cop shows, how long will it be before we see CSI: Barnyard?

We never want to think about planning for our own demise, but it's one of those things that we have to face sooner or later. Here are two looks at the problem ...


You can't be too careful when ordering online ...

Or when making friends, either ...

The new reality of the annual salary review ...

Didn't you wish for something like this the last time you had to read a seventy-three-screen long hardware or software license agreement in 0.0065 pitch font ...?

Someone is copying my sure-fire retirement investment plan ...

This actually happened to me a few years back when a young lady came up to me in the produce section of the local supermarket and asked what garlic was and where she could find it. When I showed her, she picked up a head, studied it with a puzzled look, and asked what she was supposed to do with it. I don't think she did much cooking ...

And finally, our technology of communication keeps advancing, even if the quality of what we have to say to each other doesn't ...

After the last few days of cold rain and fierce wind, it looks as if the weekend will be a bit nicer. At least as far as the weather goes ... I still have to meet with our tax advisor for the annual review of the subsidies I pay to big business, illegal aliens, and those wealthier but less taxed than I, but there's not much I can do about that other than wince.

And I do a lot of wincing lately.

Have a good weekend. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, February 25, 2011

Of New Tankers, Weird Tyrants, and Paying Taxes

I noticed in the news this morning that the Air Force has announced it has given a 3.5 billion dollar down payment on a 35 billion dollar contract to Boeing to build 179 new tanker aircraft.

I guess Boeing isn't worried about things like, oh, possible government shutdowns.

In a related story, the chaos in Libya has had at least one predictable outcome: the price of oil skyrocketed to over $100 per barrel and gasoline prices zoomed to over $4 per gallon in many places.

This means that the Air Force will finally be able to replace its fleet of tankers which date to the Eisenhower administration (!), but probably won't be able to afford gas for them to carry around.

But getting back to Libya for a moment, there is a not-generally-recognized upside to all the violence and rioting in that unhappy nation: if the government is finally overthrown, we will no longer have to worry about the correct spelling of Qadaffi Gadhafi Kadaffy Ghadhafi that bizarre guy in the comic opera uniforms and shades with the team of amazon bodyguards.

Good riddance.

But it's Friday. The end of another work week, the start of the weekend. Tomorrow, I celebrate by meeting with our tax preparer to find out how much of my income the government will take for redistribution to big business and those in tax brackets higher than my own. I'm glad to stand up and do my part to help shelter gazillionaires and huge corporations from having to pay those pesky taxes. In case you missed it, this set of interesting charts will help you visualize the skewed distribution of income and relative share of the tax burden. Don't thank's my civic duty to help you know how well you're being screwed.

But for the moment, I'm going to ignore all that. I'm going to be positive. I'm going to go dancing tonight and forget all the world's troubles in three-minute increments of music and the company of lovely ladies.

Tomorrow will get here soon enough.

Have a good day. Tomorrow is Cartoon Saturday ... I'm sure you're as ready as I am.

More thoughts then.


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Wired ... Not

We have a new printer.

It's a really spiffy Hewlitt-Packard model, a sleek black icon of the digital age that scans, prints, copies, faxes, and squats placidly on the corner of my desk, flashing an occasional light and periodically emitting an odd growling noise. I'm somehow reminded of the plant in The Little Shop of Horrors that keeps muttering feed me!

Anyhow, we got this Spiffy New Printer for two main reasons: it was on sale; and, it can be connected to a wireless network. The sale part was very important, of course, but we also were looking for the ability to send things to the printer from our laptops ... which are, as the name implies, generally on our laps, which are attached to our backsides, which are frequently parked in chairs in front of the TV in the rec room at the other end of the house, well beyond cable length range.

Didja follow all that?

Well, last night I unpacked the Spiffy New Printer and set it up. It came with a large number of assorted cables, six different print heads and ink cartridges, an attachment that allows two-sided printing, and a three-foot pile of instruction sheets, books, warnings, warranty papers, and other stuff. The license agreement (which you must, of course, accept in order to install the printer) is longer than a Hugo Chavez speech, and as incomprehensible as Republican economic theories. I think something about my firstborn male child was involved.

Anyhow, I set up the Spiffy New Printer on the desk and worked my way through the step-by-step, designed-for-digital-morons, can't-possibly-screw-this-up-ha-ha installation instructions. The result, after several hours of work:

1. Printer connected to the wireless network, and all system tests check out - yep. So far, so good.

2. Wirelessly connects to the Mac - no. The Mac petulantly refuses to acknowledge the wireless connection to the printer, in spite of the fact that the wireless modem is less than 10 feet away and the Spiffy New Printer is less than a foot from the Mac.

3. Wirelessly connects to Agnes's desktop computer - no. Of course, her desktop computer is about 3 years old and still runs Windows XP, which makes it a relative antique. I think its wireless capability is a Gugliemo Marconi original.

4. Wirelessly connects to Agnes's laptop computer - yes! Test page printed fine. I'm on the scoreboard!

5. Wirelessly connects to Bill's laptop computer - I'll let you know...ran out of time and patience and went to bed before I got the software loaded.

So, I'm 1 for 4.

As I've noted here often enough before, machines hate me. So does software. And as I see it, the real advantage of a wireless connection is that there's nothing for me to hang myself with when I get frustrated with the whole thing.

My digital duel with the Spiffy New Printer and its sidekick, the Evil Wireless Modem, will continue this evening. I hope I have enough gin on hand to last out the fight.

I'll let you know how it comes out.

Have a good day. More thoughts - wirelessly - tomorrow.


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Whose Land Did You Say It Was?

Yesterday's Open Letter to Congress certainly got a lot of attention ... from you, Dear Readers, not from Congress. Raquel linked to it from her own blog, I got lots of comments from Real People, and so far I have received one reply from an actual Member of Congress ... sort of. I received an automated reply from the office of Senator Jim Webb, the meat of which was this:

"Thank you for your recent electronic mail message to my office in Washington. I am pleased that because of the Internet, more than 100,000 Virginians will send their ideas directly to me this year. Please be assured that your views are very helpful to me and my staff. As the Senate addresses crucial economic, domestic and foreign policy issues facing our nation, we will be sure to keep your comments and ideas in mind."

Well, I certainly feel confident that my opinion is being heard. If I were rich and well-connected, I might have received a reply that indicated that a human being had actually read my e-mail, but I guess I'll take what I can get.

But enough of all that. Nobody in Congress is going to listen to you or I at this point, anyhow - they're all interested only in counting political coups over your bankrupt body while the well-connected and protected bank puts up the foreclosure sign in your yard.

"So be it," right, Mr Boehner?

I think it's interesting that today is the anniversary of the day in 1940 that Woody Guthrie wrote one of America's most famous and beloved folk songs, "This Land is Your Land..."

The song contains the recurring lyric, "This land was made for you and me." As long as the bank lets you stay there, of course. Oh, and the Supreme Court says your land can be seized for commercial development, so it actually isn't really yours if a developer needs it more than you do.

Sorry about that. I guess this land really isn't your land.

Think about that while the Republicans go about gutting your government of the protections you now enjoy. You didn't need clean air and water, or any of those pesky consumer protections, anyhow.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

An Open Letter to Congress

Dear Congressman (includes those of you who are ladies),

Good Morning!

I don't know if you'll be reading this any time soon, because I notice that Congress is in recess until February 25th (the Senate calls it a "state work period" and the House calls it a "constituent work week"). It must be nice to be able to not be in session when the nation is in a grave fiscal crisis ... but we'll get to that in a minute.

I'm also not sure that you're especially interested from hearing from a Real Person. I'm neither a screaming Tea Party wingnut nor a Republican-stereotyped weed-smoking, America-hating liberal (be sure to pronounce the word "liberal" with the usual dripping scorn). I'm not an oil magnate or an agribusiness mogul. I'm not represented by any big-money K Street lobbyists. I don't belong to the NRA, the AMA, or what's left of any union. I'm a Real Person - a retired military officer with a job (for the moment, anyhow), a large mortgage, three children, five grandchildren, and a serious concern for the future we're leaving them. I absolutely refuse to be characterized as either a Republican or a Democrat, because I have nothing but disgust for how both parties are acting.

Anyhow, I thought I'd drop you a line to tell you what I think about the current budget "discussions" going on in Washington, particularly talk about a possible shutdown of the government if Republican and Democratic representatives can't agree on a combination of taxes and spending cuts. Let me offer you a Real Person's perspective on what a shutdown of the government would mean:

1. Along with tens of thousands of other people, I'll be out of work. I'm a contractor working for the government, which means that if you shut down the government, not only won't I get paid, but I won't get paid retroactively, either, as most Federal employees will. Oh, and by the way, I won't receive my military retired pay for my 23 years of service, either. At least I'm not drawing Social Security yet, so losing that won't hurt me like it will hurt all the Real People who depend on it.

2. If I'm out of work, this means that I won't be able to pay my mortgage (which is within 6 years of being paid off). Of course, I could explain my situation to the bank and hope that they'll be willing to work with me until I start getting paid again ... but I think recent history shows just how understanding and conciliatory banks are.

3. If I'm out of work, I guess I'll just go ahead and get another job. Oh, wait! There aren't any! Businesses are sitting on mountains of cash, but aren't hiring any new workers because they don't think they can afford it in this economy ... and, of course, throwing tens of thousands of government workers and those who depend on government activity out of work will certainly encourage businesses to hire!

I could go on, but I will just say this: I can't believe that you would go into recess at a time of crisis like this. Yes, it's important to stay in touch with your constituents, but you were elected to a national office. Don't you think it might be important to stay in Washington and deal with the situation that affects the nation?

Finally, consider this: if the government shuts down and I'm put out of work, you'd better be out of work, too. I would consider it the worst sort of treachery if you earned so much as a single dime after tossing thousands of Real People out of work because you are too stubborn and politically dogmatic to do your jobs.

I'm watching. So are millions of other Real People. But we're not expecting to see the sort of principled, yet flexible leadership the nation requires...just more political chest-thumping and tin-eared insults to hard-working Americans like "so be it" and "read my lips."

End of tirade.

I'm copying this into an e-mail and letter that will be going to my Senators and Representatives, not that it will do much good. Perhaps all of you, Dear Readers, can join with me and pool our resources to rent a Member of Congress for a while.

It's the only language they seem to understand.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, February 21, 2011

Paging Sisyphus

You may not think that the old characters from Greek and Roman mythology have much to do with your life, but take it from me - they do.

Consider Sisyphus.

As a punishment for his actions on earth, the gods had devised a terrible punishment for Sisyphus: he was condemned for all eternity to roll an enormous boulder to the top of a mountain...but just as he reached the summit, the stone would slip from his hands and roll back down to the base of the mountain, where he would have to begin the task yet again. In the gods' view, an eternity of futile, hopeless labor would be the worst of punishments.

Well, in those days, the gods didn't have the same view of futile, hopeless labor that we have today. Back then, rolling boulders up steep mountainsides over and over was the best they could come up with. How might the gods punish Sisyphus today? Here are a few ideas...

1. Endlessly wait for a parking place, only to have another driver cut him off and steal it from him.

2. Work hard, be frugal, and save his life long, and then have some amoral MBA ass clown not only loot the savings he worked so long and hard for, but escape all punishment for doing so while laughing at him for being such a trusting chump.

3. Walk up and down nonfuntioning DC Metro escalators every day.

4. Condemn him to clean up Bilbo's study (no, wait, Hercules already got that one as the updated version of cleaning the Augean stables).

5. Offer him an eternal choice between Republicans and Democrats.

Just a few ideas. Of course, concerning that Republicans and Democrats thing, if I were a Greek or Roman god, I'd just throw lightning bolts at the lot of them. Or maybe get Hercules to use that Augean stables dodge to get rid of them all. The possibilities are endless.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sometimes, You've Just Gotta Be Stupid

This is a blinding flash of the obvious, of course - you know it just from reading the news. Here are three "for instances":

CNN reports this morning that large numbers of Tea Party wingnuts are flocking to Wisconsin to join the bitter, take-no-prisoners battle over the governor's budget, which features huge cuts to the pay, benefits, and union representation rights of state workers. Adding a bunch of clueless twits to that fiasco will surely help resolve the situation.

Then we have the four Americans who were taken prisoner by Somali pirates while sailing their yacht in the Indian Ocean. Speaking of things that contribute to budget deficits, how much do you think the government will spend on attempts to rescue them?

There is talk of shutting down the government if stonehearted Republicans and stoneheaded Democrats in Congress can't agree on budget measures. Nothing like proving the size of your manhood by throwing thousands of people out of work and making yourselves (and, by extension, we who vote for you) look like utter fools. And thanks, Mr Boehner, for that snarky "so be it" comment. Thanks also for inviting us to read your lips on cutting spending. It worked well for George Bush, didn't it?

So anyhow, let's think about some stupid things that are fun.

Yesterday, Mike posted a list of things you wouldn't have known if you didn't watch the movies. They are true reflections of the need to suspend reality when the lights go down and the popcorn comes out. Here are my favorites from the list:

If staying in a haunted house, women should investigate any strange noises in their most revealing underwear. If ever there was a mainstay of horror and thriller genre movies, this is it. Bilbo's First Corollary to this one is: If the woman chooses to put something on over her most revealing underwear before investigating the strange noises, she will select the most transparent and gauzy garment she owns. Bilbo' Second Corollary to this one is: A woman being chased by a crazed axe murderer while wearing four-inch heels will not take them off to facilitate running (or use them as a weapon).


One man shooting at 20 men has a better chance of killing them than 20 men firing at 1 man. As I noted in my comment to Mike's post, that's because all action heroes carry weapons that, regardless of calibre or make, have a special high-capacity magazine that manufactures additional ammunition on demand by fusing the necessary atoms found in the air. God forbid the NRA should find out.

That's all for today. Lots to do, and breakfast and the Sunday paper are waiting.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Cartoon Saturday

Somali pirates are holding hostage four Americans stupid enough to sail their yacht in the Indian Ocean; House Republicans are leading the charge for more than 60 billion dollars in spending cuts, including limiting the activities of the Environmental Protection Agency (who needs all that clean air and water, anyhow?); a mother in West Virginia has been accused of smothering her baby while she was both drunk and high on drugs; the budget crisis in Wisconsin continues to search for new heights of absurdity on all sides; and a human rights group claims that government forces have killed 84 people in Libya, not including those reported moments ago to have been shot from military helicopters in the city of Benghazi (note to far-right-wing ass clowns: think about that when you're railing about how gawdawful your own government is).

I don't know about you, but this week I really need Cartoon Saturday.

When cows order pizza ...

They'll have to pry that hairdryer from my cold, dead fingers ... no, really ...

There are lots of reasons why health care costs so much ... this is just one ...

Survival of the fittest ... or, at least, the best-insured ...

$%#@ WikiLeaks ...

Brutal honesty in business ...

PETA goes on safari ...

If political polling were really accurate ...

Truth in advertising can also apply to the names of ships ...

And finally, I just liked the essential how-the-world-really-works-ness of this one ...

Yesterday was a glorious, spring-like day here in Northern Virginia - bright sunshine and temperatures in the mid- to upper-60's ... today, of course (this being Northern Virginia), the sun is still shining but it's colder than a Republican's heart, the wind is howling outside my study window, and our weather prognosticators are forecasting snow by Tuesday.

Just make up your mind, okay? Sheesh...

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, February 18, 2011

Really, Really Big Numbers (Revisited)

In the absence of our long-lost (and very much missed) fellow blogger Numeric Life, I've written about big numbers several times - you can read two of my past posts about really big numbers here and here. I got to thinking about really big numbers again a few days ago when I read this interesting article in the Washington Post: Exabytes: Documenting the 'Digital Age' and Huge Growth in Computing Capacity.

The point of the article is that we have reached the point at which there is so much data being stored in so many forms and places that we have had to invent a new term for amounts of information - the exabyte. The exabyte is defined as one billion gigabytes ... which, in turn, is defined as a thousand megabytes ... and a megabyte is, of course, a million bytes.

That's a lot of bytes.

I often think about the first computer Agnes and I bought, back in 1988 or so. It was a Cordata AT with the MS-DOS operating system and a staggeringly huge hard drive - 20 megabytes. I distinctly remember telling Agnes that I could hardly imagine so much storage - "We'll never fill it up," I said.

Well, I've been wrong once or twice ... Today, that hard drive would have held about 10 of the digital photographs I take of my grandchildren.

I recently replaced the 500 gigabyte hard drive in my iMac with a new Western Digital Green drive - one terabyte.

For someone as bad with numbers as I am, these are some pretty dauntingly large figures. The Washington Post article linked above contained this very interesting diagram to illustrate the explosive growth in stored information:

If the graphic is too small to read, you can see it in full size here.

So, how do we visualize such vast numbers? The graphic above is good, but it's two-dimensional ... how do we put it into everyday imagery? According to the study conducted at the University of Southern California in 2007 on which that graphic was based, the total world-wide capacity to store information digitally on media of all types was 276 exabytes. To put it in more visually friendly terms, picture in your feeble mind a tower of compact disks, each one representing one digital music album. To hold 276 exabytes, that tower would start at the surface of your table and top out 50,000 miles beyond the orbit of the moon.

That's pretty impressive. Of course, unfortunately, not all data is created equal, or is of equal value. I imagine that a pretty big chunk of that data consists of spam, digital pornography, violent religious bigotry, and other such digital sewage.

Too bad we don't have a better way to store that stuff. Perhaps we need a new term to measure it ... like the flushabyte, megacrap, or gigascum.

We can only dream. And hope that Numeric Life comes back to help us make sense of it all.

Have a good day. Flush some of that old data. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Meaning of Service

Once again, good ol' Bob comes to my intellectual rescue on a morning all my neurons aren't connecting with each other to produce my usual top-quality post. Let's talk about "service."

Consider the various "services" with which we interact every day:

The Internal Revenue Service;

The US Postal Service;

Your Telephone Service;

Your Cable TV Service;

The Civil Service;

Various State, City, County, and Public Services;

Any company's Customer Service;

Congressional efforts to service the national debt;

Given how all these various organizations tend to treat you, you might reasonably be confused over the meaning of the word service. It all became clear the other day, though, when I was visiting a local dairy farm and overheard two farmers discussing their respective herds. One of the farmers told the other that he had arranged for a bull to service his cows.

Now, I understand.

There's another take on service, too.

One day the parish priest came into the church and found a little boy staring intently at a large brass plaque with a long list of names that hung on the wall of the vestibule.

"Can I help you, son?" the priest asked.

"What are all these names? the boy asked him.

"Those are the names of the members of our parish who have died in the service," the priest patiently explained.

The little boy turned to the priest and looked at him with wide eyes.

"Would that have been the nine o'clock service, or the eleven o'clock service?" he asked.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. - I found this interesting historical tidbit this morning: today is the anniversary of the birth in 1766 of English economist Thomas Robert Malthus. In 1798, Malthus published his famous pamphlet "An Essay on the Principle of Population," in which he argued that the human population of the earth was growing at a faster rate than the food supply, and that war, disease, and famine were necessary in order to prevent overpopulation. He is remembered today in the adjective malthusian, popular in gloom-and-doom analysis. Because of his dark predictions about humanity's future, Malthus was often accused of being cold-hearted and inhuman...but he actually had a passionate love affair in his youth, and at the age of 38 he married a woman ten years his junior. He wrote in his diary: "Perhaps there is scarcely a man who has once experienced the genuine delight of virtuous love...that does not look back to the period, as the sunny spot of his whole life, where his imagination loves to bask ... which he would most wish to live over again."


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Questions on My Mind

This morning, I'm wondering about a few things:

What the hell is a Justin Bieber and why should I care? And did you know that "bieber" means "beaver" in German (yes, I know the word is actually biber, but it's 5:00 AM ... just give me the joke, okay).

Can we get Lady Gaga back into the egg?

Why the bizarre fascination with vampires? We already have the IRS, insurance companies, and "miscellaneous fees and charges" on our phone bills.

Who forgot to pay the Spring Bill this year?

How do the religious nuts who run Iran reconcile praising the revolution in Egypt while insisting that demonstrators in their own country should be executed?

Who put the ram in the rama lamma ding dong?

Has anybody on the far right actually read the Constitution?

And a brief message for those members of Congress who have not yet actually been accused of a crime, caught flirting on Facebook, or spend their free time villifying their political opponents:

By the way ... special note to our elected reprehensives on both sides of the aisle: the word bipartisan does not mean "my way or the highway."

That's all. I'm just feeling grouchy this morning.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Spam and Junk Mail

I get a lot of junk mail and it's digital equipment, spam. Most of the time, I just automatically throw the junk mail into the recycling bag without looking at it, and delete the spam (most of which is probably full of evil malware, anyhow), but sometimes it's interesting to think about how all that useless junk found its way to my mailbox or inbox.

I first thought about this a few years ago, when my father noted in passing that the composition of his junk mail had changed from ads for lawn services and free dinners at restaurants to include a heavy leavening of ads for retirement homes and cemetery plots. Nowadays, I see my junk mail evolving in the same way: no more do advertisers want me to come to swinging clubs and fancy-schmancy restaurants ... now, they're flacking for the local assisted living facilities and "memorial gardens." For pete's sake, I like a little quiet rest as much as the next guy, but I'm not quite ready for this yet.

The spam that arrives in my e-mail box is of a somewhat different character. It's clear that most of it is shotgunned out blindly, with no attempt to speak to a particular potential customer. Here are the subject lines of a few of the spam e-mails I've received in the last few days:

"You can afford AMAZING BREASTS!" - and here I thought all it took was a few champagne cocktails and a hundred dollars.

"Accutane Lawsuit Information," "Zoloft Lawsuit Information," and "Do You Qualify for an Avandia Settlement" - these are all variations on the annoying ads that ambulance chasers run on television all the time, promising huge cash settlements from companies allegedly responsible for diseases and conditions nobody ever heard of before. And we wonder why health care costs are so high.

"Have You Had a Hip Replacement Surgery?" and "Important Information About Hip Implants" - I always thought I was a pretty hip fellow, but somehow, I don't think this is what they have in mind.

"Search, Chat, Match at Speed Date!," "Meet 50+ Passionate Singles Near You," and "Dating for Singles 45 Plus" - I'm not quite that desperate. And Agnes would kill me, anyhow.

"Local Mom Quits Her Job She Hated..." - this one is one of several that have started appearing from "Channel 10 News." Yeah, right.


"An Orchard Bank Master Card Offer to Help Rebuild Your Credit" - I don't know what Orchard Bank is or who owns it, but over the past month or so they've sent me at least three offers a day on each of my e-mail accounts. Business must be either really good or really bad.


I could, if I wished, quit my job, get amazing and affordable breasts and non-creaking new hips, date people my own age, pay for it all with a new Orchard Bank Master Card, and pay off the Master Card with the proceeds of the lawsuits a bunch of shysters are standing by to file on my behalf ... assuming there's anything left of the proceeds after all the "legal fees" are taken out.

I think I'll just sit quietly in my chair and read. So far, there aren't any annoying ads in my books.

So far.

Have a good day. Don't forget to delete your spam. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine's Day

If you read yesterday's post, you already know my opinion of Valentine's Day - it's an anti-male conspiracy launched by a sinister cabal of florists, jewelers, candy-makers, and greeting card printers to force men everywhere to spend money to stay on the right side of their ladies. If you're a guy, there's nothing in it for you except potential land mines: if you forget the day, you're doomed. If you buy the wrong gift, you're doomed. If you say the wrong thing, you're doomed. If you say the right thing, but your timing is off, you're doomed.

If you're a guy, there's no margin in Valentine's Day.

There are at least three recorded St Valentines, all of them have some relation - however tenuous - to romantic love, and all of them were martyrs (no, not the you'll-get-72-virgins-in-paradise type, although that would be pretty appropriate for the day, eh?). I find the fact that they were all martyrs to be oddly appropriate, too.

In the year 1382, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote ""Parlement of Foules," in which he wrote:

"For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne's day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate."

If you can get past his spelling (which is about as good as most of that you find on the Internet today), you can see that he thinks this time in February was the time birds chose their mates ... and, by extension, people should, too. It seems to me that February, when the weather is still cold and miserable on most days, is much less conducive to love than the warm days of May or June, but what do I know?

In 1929, Chicago gangster Alphonse ("Al") Capone celebrated the day by eliminating seven rival gangsters in the notorious St Valentine's Day Massacre. When told before the event of the number of men who might have to be killed, his response was said to have been "I'll send flowers."

When I was doing my radio show ("The Audio Attic") on WEBR, I did an annual "Anti-Valentine's Day" program that consistently got my highest listenership stats. It was dedicated to peeling away the sugary curtain and exposing the truth behind Valentine's Day - two hours of songs dedicated to heartbreak, divorce, misery, two-timing, and all that other stuff we tend to forget about while besotted by love. One of my favorite anti-Valentine's Day songs was Joan Jett's "I Hate Myself for Loving You." Nobody could wear leather like Joan Jett ...

So, men, it's Valentine's Day, and you're stuck. The best you can do is buy some flowers: according to a study done by Rutgers University in 2005, flowers bring a smile to a woman's face in a way candy, fruit, and candles did not.

Of course, expensive jewelry brings an even bigger smile, but I think I could just do with the grin for return on investment.

Ladies, treat your men right. After all, they're under a lot of pressure today.

Have a good day. Men, send some flowers to your beloved. Or to your wife, if you're so inclined.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

I've Got Nothin'

Well, it does happen from time to time.

I can't think of anything to write about this morning that I feel like trading my time for. The Blog Fodder file is full of ideas, there's plenty of stuff in the news, and I'm still angry at $@#! Republican ass clowns and at arrogant religious bigots everywhere, but I just don't have the energy to resist the call of breakfast and the Sunday paper.


You'll just have to get your daily ration of grousing, complaining, and general crankiness somewhere else today. Try Mike's place, or Jay's.

But since I have to have something here, how about this candid shot taken by my daughter yesterday ...

Is it great to be an Opa or what? Yes, I'm wearing a pink scarf. It was Leya's idea. Really.

By the way, don't forget that tomorrow is Valentine's Day - that anti-male conspiracy launched by the sinister cabal of florists, jewelers, candy-makers, and greeting card printers to force men everywhere to spend money to stay on the right side of their ladies. More on that tomorrow.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Cartoon Saturday

Egypt is jubilantly looking to an uncertain future in the wake of the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak; Republican representative Mike Simpson of Ohio has raised the spectre of a shutdown of the government if conservative Republicans don't get their way in budget reduction talks; an anti-terrorism court in Pakistan has issued an arrest warrant for former president Pervez Musharraf in conjunction with the assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto; the California Supreme Court has ruled that retailers cannot ask for a customer's zip code to complete in-store credit card transactions; and a huge gas pipeline explosion in Ohio lit up the sky for 40 miles and sent flames 200 feet into the air, but caused no injuries.

Just five of the many reasons you need Cartoon Saturday at the end of another week.

Many of our old and cherished traditions are being irrevocably changed by technology ...

Would you look for this app for your smart phone at iTunes or Home Depot ... ?

Updating the classics ...

I think people all across America feel like this at this point ...

As an amateur gourmet chef of some experience, I thought this was especially funny ...

And I thought this one was, too ...

Me, most days ... just ask my daughter ... or Agnes ...

Those legal loopholes, you know ...

And finally, a cartoon that speaks directly to me after years of watching women shell out large wads of cash for very small bottles of the latest keep-you-beautiful-forever snake oil ...

Well, the weekend beckons as our temperature is expected to start a march toward the mid-50's by Monday. This means, of course, that Mother Nature is probably smiling at us while she hides another big, slushy snowball behind her back. But we can dream of warm beaches and sunshine and picnics, can't we?

Have a good day. Do the Bring-on-the-Spring Dance. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, February 11, 2011

A Cup Full of Security

Our local NBC Station yesterday ran a hard-hitting expose on a little-known security risk: bras. Yes, you heard right - put down that .38 calibre brassiere, lady, and nobody will get hurt.
It seems that the underwire that gives support bras their support tends to set off metal detectors, and some unfortunate women trying to visit jail inmates or board aircraft are being requested to take off their bras in the interest of full disclosure ... I mean ... security. I suppose that amazing skill most ladies have of removing their bras via a sleeve without taking off their blouses is finally paying off in more ways than one.

I guess you can't be too careful - after all, we've had the Underwear Bomber and the Shoe Bomber ... it was only a matter of time before our security professionals recognized the deadly danger posed by hard-wired, high-powered bras.

The NBC report notes that the rules concerning bras are different at different local jurisdictions. In Montgomery County, Maryland, for instance, visitors to the local jail are not required to remove bras but are inspected with a handheld detector if the bra happens to set off the primary metal detector.

Let me make a couple of points perfectly clear, ha, ha: I'm not going to make any snarky jokes about "handheld detectors" or "wands" in the context of examining potentially hostile bras or their dangerous contents, nor am I going to run right out and apply for a job as a bra screener with the TSA.

Victoria does need to keep some secrets, after all.

Have a good day. And ladies, don't worry about having to take off your bra in the interest of security. Red-blooded, patriotic American men will be happy to support you.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, February 10, 2011

There's an App for That, Part 2

Back on January 30th in this space, I wrote a post titled There's an App For That, in which I wrote about some of the more unusual applications that have been developed for use on your smart phones. There are clearly people out there without enough to do.

Well, I hesitate to say dumb things like "now I've heard it all," but now I've heard almost all of it ... for all you good Catholics out there who don't have enough guilt to wallow in, there's a new app for you: Confession.

Yes, Dear Readers, if you don't like sitting in that stuffy little confessional waiting for a priest behind a screen to listen to your confession, technology has come to your aid with a smart phone application that offers a password-protected "personal examination of conscience" and a step-by-step guide to the effective confession of your sins. It also provides suggested acts of contrition and the "ability to add sins not listed in standard examination of conscience" (Hmm... I wonder what those might be).

The developers of the Confession application say that two Catholic priests assisted in the design of the app, which has been given the blessing of the bishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne - South Bend, Indiana - the first time the Catholic church has been known to grant an imprimatur for a smart phone application.

Need help with your absolution? - download your Confession app for only $1.99 at iTunes.

It may help offset the effects if you downloaded the Profanity or iSwear apps earlier.

Have a good day. Say five Hail Marys. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Double, Double, Toil and ... Taxes

It just doesn't pay to be a witch in Romania any more.

According to this article from the Associated Press, practicing witches in Romania are now subject to fine and imprisonment if the fortunes they tell to paying customers are not true. Witches, not surprisingly, argue they shouldn't be blamed for the failure of their tools."They can't condemn witches, they should condemn the cards," Queen Witch Bratara Buzea told an Associated Press interviewer, reminding us of the old adage that it's a poor workman who blames his tools for his shortcomings. Ms Bratara went on to note that if people don't provide their real identities, dates of birth or other personal details, a fortune teller could render incorrect predictions and be unfairly charged for the results. "What about when the client gives false details about themselves?" she asked. "We can't be blamed for that."

Some cynical commentators have argued that this move, on top of a new tax on witches imposed by the government in Bucarest in January, is an attempt to distract the public from the nation's serious economic problems. The January change to the law designated witchcraft as a taxable profession, required witches to have a permit and provide their customers with receipts, and barred them from practicing near schools and churches. Angry witches, lacking expensive American-style lobbying skills, responded by dumping poisonous mandrake roots into the Danube River in an attempt to put a curse on the government.

It's no wonder that Christine O'Donnell made a point of declaring she wasn't a witch when running for the US Senate in Delaware ... as a Tea Party candidate, she'd have opposed taxing witches on multiple principles.


Be careful how you do that old black magic - somebody may decide to put a tax on it. And don't let the airlines know, or they'll charge extra to let you carry that crystal ball on board and slap a new fee on your black cat.

Have a good day. It's in the cards.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Let's Hear It for Old Farts!

There was a time when I looked down on cranky Old Farts. That was before I was looking the big six-oh in the eye and realized that - holy cow! - I was one. Nowadays, I think there's a lot to be said for them.

My friend Bob sent me this piece yesterday that I thought I'd share with those of you who are Old Farts and those of you who will one day be Old Farts ...

Old Fart Pride

Old Farts are easy to spot at sporting events: during the playing of the national anthem, Old Farts remove their caps, stand at attention and sing without embarrassment. They know the words and believe in them.

Old Farts remember World War II, Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, Normandy and Hitler. They remember the Atomic Age, the Korean War, The Cold War, the Jet Age and the Moon Landing. They remember the 50 plus Peacekeeping Missions from 1945 to 2005, not to mention Vietnam and the First Gulf War.

If you bump into an Old Fart on the sidewalk he will apologize. If you pass an Old Fart on the street, he will nod and smile or tip his cap to a lady. Old Farts trust strangers and are courtly to women.

Old Farts hold the door for the next person and always, when walking, make certain the lady is on the inside for protection.

Old Farts get embarrassed if someone curses in front of women and children and they don't like filth or dirty language on TV or in movies.

Old Farts have moral courage and personal integrity. They seldom brag unless it's about their children or grandchildren.

Old Farts know our rights and our way of life are protected not by politicians, but by the young men and women serving in the military.

This country needs Old Farts with their work ethic, sense of responsibility, pride in their country and decent values - now more than ever.

Let's drink to the Old Farts!!

Have a good day. More cantankerous thoughts tomorrow, dadgummit.


Monday, February 07, 2011

Of Charles Dickens, Crazy People, and Weird Science

Welcome to a new, hopefully snow-free week. Serious stuff first...

Today is the birthday of Charles Dickens, towering figure of English literature and author of such classics as Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, and Bleak House.


I think it's amazing that entire nations (other than Iran) can turn into complete and utter lunatics...see this link for a frightening report about the attitudes of "moderate Muslims" in Pakistan: In Pakistan, Even Anti-Violence Islamic Sect Lauds Assassination of Liberal Governor.

Okay, now that I've gotten the cultural and serious part of this post out of the way, let's get on to the fun stuff. Heaven knows we need it.

Did you ever wonder what some of the verbiage in scientific papers means? If you read the fine print in the reports, studies, and white papers every side of a scientific argument trots out to bolster its position, it's a wonder that rational people can ever understand where the truth lies. Here's a handy guide to understanding scientific papers, adapted from an original posted by Miss Cellania ...

It has long been known: We couldn't find the original reference.

A definite trend was evident: These data are practically meaningless.

While it has not been possible to provide a definitive answer to all questions: An unsuccessful experiment, but we're publishing anyway, because no one will read this, anyhow.

Three of the samples were chosen for detailed study: The other results didn't make any sense.

Typical results are shown: This is the prettiest graph we could come up with.

These results will be published in a subsequent report: Our funding ran out before we could finish.

In our experience: Once.

In case after case: Twice.

In a series of cases: Three times.

It is believed that: I think.

It is generally believed that: A couple of others think so, too.

Correct within an order of magnitude: Incorrect.

According to statistical analysis: Rumor has it.

A statistically-oriented projection of the significance of these findings: A wild-ass guess.

A careful analysis of obtainable data: We looked at everything that agreed with our conclusions.

It is clear that much additional work will be required before a complete understanding of this phenomenon occurs: We have no earthly idea how these results occurred.

After additional study by an independent team of researchers: They don't understand it either.

This represents a highly significant area for future exploratory study: The results are useless and inconclusive, but we got paid for it anyhow.

It is hoped that this study will stimulate further investigation in this field: We're broke, and really need another grant.

It looks like it's going to be another meteorologically schizophrenic week, with warmish temperatures early in the week turning to rain, colder temperatures, and snow by Thursday. I don't know about you, but I'm ready to shoot the guy who forgot to pay the good weather bill.

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


P.S. - Go, Steelers, anyhow!!


Sunday, February 06, 2011

I'm Just Not Sayin'

One of the things that drives me nuts (well, okay, Agnes would tell you it only requires a putt, not a drive, ha, ha) is the way our elected reprehensives make grand statements about what they're going to do, but never actually tell you how they're going to accomplish it. This is, of course, because the empty rhetoric they use to get elected is a good deal easier than coming up with the necessary (and often very unpopular) things that will have to be done to bring the promises about.

You may want to read this great article from that I ran across the other day: "What We Talk About When We Talk About the Deficit: How Washington Avoids Having an 'Adult Conversation' About the Federal Budget." As author John Dickerson writes,

"Politicians in Washington like to talk about talking about the budget deficit. They acknowledge it. They emphasize the importance of talking about it. They suggest they have strong feelings about it. But when it comes to details, they get vague. Not since Bill Clinton's second term has there been a topic people talk about so much without wanting to be specific."

True enough. I think we all know that. Except for the politicians, and they know it, but know we'd never elect them if they told us the truth.

Anyhow, Mr Dickerson uses his article to summarize nine of the dodges most used by those we elect to avoid serious discussion of bringing down the deficit. Or, by extension, addressing almost any intractable problem. Here they are, in order from (as Mr Dickerson puts it), "from most embarrassing to most courageous," and with my inescapable commentary:

Diet Tomorrow: This one is the classic Congressional approach - simply propose new programs or major extensions of existing programs, but don't say how you'll pay for them. When pressed for specifics, tell the questioner, "I'll get back to you." You won't, and they'll forget.

The Blue Ribbon Duck: This one is my favorite, and nobody does it better than Congress. Call for a commission to study the problem, launch it with much fanfare, and let it die quietly because no one will ever remember it anyway. Should anyone ask about it, tell the questioner, "I'll get back to you." You won't, and they'll forget.

The Blue Ribbon Dodge: This one is actually an outgrowth of the Blue Ribbon Duck. In this one, though, you call for a commission to study the problem, launch it with much fanfare, and if it actually comes up with any suggestions, ignore them. If anyone asks about what happened to the recommendations, tell the questioner, "I'll get back to you." You won't, and they'll forget.

Spinach Some Day: This is actually the umbrella plan for avoiding tough decisions - simply look right into the TV camera and gravely state that it is necessary to cut wasteful and unnecessary programs (i.e., those that your party's lobbyists oppose). Then suggest no way to do so. When pressed for specifics, tell the questioner, "I'll get back to you." You won't, and they'll forget.

The Big Empty: Call for a balanced budget amendment or a spending cap, with no specifics about how to implement either. This is simply a variation on the Spinach Some Day ploy, and it's ingenious in its simplicity: you know Congress will never pass a balanced budget amendment, and if it did, it would simply legislate its way around it when necessary.

Fear: Run ad campaigns that use gloom-and-doom rhetoric to imply that any spending reductions or program terminations other than those you support will result in a complete and total shutdown of the government. Perhaps. But how would we notice? This is a traditionally Democratic approach, but is also used by Republicans to great effect (can you spell "death panels"?).

Lafferable: Declaring that the budget must be shrunk by spending cuts alone. This is a traditionally Republican approach that is very popular because it allows avoidance of any discussion of raising taxes while allowing focus on the termination of programs you don't like.

The Fish Story: You see this one all the time - empty suits making tiny cuts that address only a fraction of the problem, and then holding flashy press conferences to boast about them.

And finally,

The Young Adult: Now, we're getting somewhere. This approach is sort of the polar opposite of the Blue Ribbon Dodge, in that it supports the recommendations of the commission that make sense, even if they're politically unpalatable (or, worst case, politically suicidal). You don't see this one often, for obvious reasons.

Read the whole article and think about it. It will help you recognize - if not make sense of - the hot wind blowing from Congress.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, February 05, 2011

Cartoon Saturday

Teen singer and actress Miley Cyrus has gotten her fifth tattoo (a dreamcatcher on her "torso"); major unrest continues in Egypt as protesters attempt to force president Hosni Mubarak out of office; Pope Benedict XVI has rejected an attempt to fast-track the process of sainthood for Ronald Reagan on the 100th anniversary of the former president's birth; the Internet has exhausted its pool of 4.3 billion numerical addresses; and lawyers for Republican gadfly Sarah Palin have filed applications with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to trademark the names "Sarah Palin" and "Bristol Palin."

Relax, take a big dose of Cartoon Saturday, and call me in the morning.

Effective justice consists of making the punishment fit the crime. Usually ...

The mortgage crisis is hitting everywhere ...

For those of you who aren't familiar with American dialects: trust me, it's funny ...

Sometimes, schools just don't teach you everything you need to know ...

Amazing how this always seems to work out, isn't it? ...

Those of you with small children (or grandchildren) can probably relate to this one ...

The realities of the new economy ...

There really isn't much that's funny about a character like Adolf Hitler ... except, perhaps, this ...

And finally, I think this is more accurate than funny, especially here in Disneyland-on-the-Potomac ...

Well, we're supposed to be getting liquid snow today here in Northern Virginia, as we seem to have successfully dodged the massive blizzards that have ravaged much of the nation...there's no snow in our forecast until around Thursday, so there's plenty of time for everyone to race to the stores in a panic for toilet paper, ground beef, and other critical necessities. Since we have enough toilet paper, though, I think I'll just sit back and watch the Steelers crush Green Bay in the Super Bowl.

Around here, in the midst of traffic, crime, and Congressional buffoonery, that's about as good as it gets.

Have a good day and a great weekend. More thoughts tomorrow.