Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Shortcomings in My Education

Without appearing to pat myself on the back too much, I like to think I'm a man of many talents. I can cook well. I can dance a mean tango (and waltz, and rumba, and other dances). I enjoy writing interesting and chatty letters (as many of you know from personal experience) and am very good at reading to children.

But for all that, I am a babe in the economic woods. I don't understand a lot of the economic gobbledygook spewed out by the presidential wannabes and have to work very hard to make sense of the competing statistical broadsides launched by each political party. It continues to amaze me that different commentators can use different interpretations of the same data to prove diametrically opposing positions, in the same way that accountants using differing accounting systems can use the same data to prove a profit (for the shareholders) or a loss (for the tax man). I wrote about this back in December of 2008 in this post. I wish I understood economics, but I don't, and I'm not likely to in time to be as well-informed as I'd like to be for the presidential election.

And this is why this article, which has been in my blog fodder file for a while, is very timely: Politicians Exploit Economic Ignorance, by Walter E. Williams. I don't agree with everything Mr Williams writes, but he does make some very good points about taxes and the double-talk and sleight-of-hand politicians use when they try to convince us about who really pays them, and why.

Where I break with Mr Williams is where he discusses the issue of taxing corporations. He writes that a corporation faced with a tax increase on its profits has three options: raise the price of its product (which essentially passes the tax on to its customer ... you); lower the dividends it pays to its investors (which could well be ... you); or lay off workers (which might mean the loss of a job ... yours). His main point is that "In each case, it is people, not some legal fiction called a corporation, who bear the burden of the tax."

Mr Williams was, of course, writing before the Supreme Court decided (in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission) that corporations are, in fact, people. And Mr Williams clearly implies that economic ignorance means ignorance of conservative economic theories ... under which anything that interferes with the ability of a corporation to make maximum profits is bad.

It's true that, ultimately, it's you and I who pay taxes, because we can't afford the reinforced battalions of high-powered lawyers and lobbyists who ensure that corporations and the very wealthy are legally protected from the burden of taxation. Is this fair? Well, of course it is, if you're a corporation (excuse me, a person) or a very wealthy individual. If you're a member of the struggling middle and lower classes, not so much.

And this gets back to my original wish ... that I better understood the ins and outs of economic theory - in both its liberal and conservative interpretations - so that I could more intelligently fine-tune my BS filter during this trying season.

Unfortunately, I'm stuck with the storehouse of information and experience I have now ... which allows loudly-shouting talking heads to give me a variation on the lecture I got from my four year-old granddaughter Leya this past weekend: she was upset because I couldn't see the gaping wound she thought was there on her utterly unscratched knee, and told me that "If you can't see that, Opa, you need to go to the hospital and get your brain fixed!"

All I can say is that it'll need a lot of fixing once the election is over...

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Good Editor Still Wanted

I got all excited this morning when I saw on the Blogger dashboard that I had 1,998 posts. Wow! Only two more posts until I hit the magic 2,000 number!

Well, not so fast there, Bilbo ... I added up the number of posts on my archive list (over on the left side of the screen), which totals only 1,975. Why the difference? Is Blogger playing with what's left of my mind in this election year? AARRGGHH!!

Well, anyhow, I guess I'll err on the side of caution and assume that the smaller number is correct, meaning that we'll celebrate the Big 2,000 sometime next month. Next week (on Thursday) will be my sixth blogoversary, and it would have been nice to have the two events come together, but I'll take what I can get.

But you don't care about statistics, you care about other stuff ... like more great moments in editing. Here we go ...

I wonder if this is where all those dance lessons will finally end up ...

I wonder if it's just the math majors who are having the reunion ...

And if they're in the majority of the class of 1971 ...

Despite what you might think, it really is a good idea to know a second language ...

Most cops I know could work with this description of the perp ...

I don't think Agnes will be letting me stay at this particular hotel on my next trip ...

I wonder if these guys will be catering the continental breakfasts at the Republican and Democratic conventions later this year ...

What? Are you kidding?? STOP THE PRESSES!!! ...

It just might work, as long as the improvements include big-screen TVs and in-cell minibars ...

Well, I guess you've got to be practical when you make a big investment like this ...

I'm down for maintenance today with a terrible cold, so I think I'll just go back to bed for a while. Check back tomorrow to see if the coroner has been by.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, February 27, 2012

Unfortunate Apologies

If you've been reading this blog for very long, you know that one of my running themes is the danger of blind religious faith. You don't have to look very far for examples nowadays, from the desire of the homegrown religious right to impose its values on the country to the current situation in Afghanistan, where dozens of people have been killed and injured in riots protesting the burning of copies of the Quran at an American base there.

The wild rage displayed by those who protest the burning of copies of the Muslim holy book is compounded by the despicable behavior of those here at home who take advantage of the situation for cheap political advantage. I refer, of course, to the Republican presidential wannabes who have condemned President Obama's formal apology to Afghanistan for the inadvertent destruction of the books.

So, what would a President Gingrich (God forbid) or a President Romney have done?

For the record, I don't think President Obama should have issued the apology. In my heart and in the long view, I think it was the wrong thing to do, because it appears to put the United States in a subservient position vis-a-vis the Muslim world.

But let's look at the situation on the ground.

We have many thousands of US troops in Afghanistan, many of them serving in isolated or exposed positions, some of whom have already been murdered by people whose passions were inflamed by irresponsible religious leaders. Something needs to be done to help defuse the situation. Halfhearted calls for calm by some Islamic clerics and Afghan president Karzai don't seem to be doing the job, and so the President took the unfortunate step of issuing a formal apology in an attempt to help defuse the situation.

The sad truth is that deeply-held religious beliefs can drive otherwise reasonable people to terrifying acts of cruelty and violence. Whatever else you might say about Muslims - and much of it is very good - they take their religion very, very seriously. Many of them, particularly in extremely religious conservative lands like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, are spring-loaded to react with extreme negativity ... and often with violence ... to real or perceived slights against their faith. Such people would never believe that the burning of the Qurans was an accident or an honest mistake - to them, no matter what the evidence to the contrary, it's a deadly insult and an example of a war being waged against Islam by a West whose beliefs, customs, and culture they despise.

Writer and commentator Thomas Friedman once said that in the Middle East, people will never believe a simple and honest explanation of an act when it can be explained by a sinister conspiracy theory, and it's true. The average simple citizen of Afghanistan doesn't read the Washington Post or the New York Times, doesn't listen to CNN or Faux News or MSNBC, and doesn't subscribe to The Economist. He believes what his local imam tells him, and his local imam doesn't read, listen to, or subscribe to those information sources either ... that imam believes with all his closed and circumscribed heart that the West is hell-bent on destroying his faith, and makes sure his followers believe it, too.

So ...

While it pains me deeply to agree with people like Newt Gingrich on much of anything, I think the President's apology was wrong but, unfortunately, necessary. Will it do much good in the long run? Probably not. But ask yourself honestly: whatever your personal political beliefs are, what would you have done, given the many moving parts of this unfortunate situation?

Sadly, I think you'd have done the same as I ... and apologized, as much as it might have stuck in my craw to appear to bow to wild religious bigots.

Just something else to think about as you decide which candidate to back in November. And when you think about your own religious beliefs.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, February 26, 2012

Cooking for One, and a Way-Cool Website

I am now in my fifth full day of geographical bachelorhood, and have not yet starved to death.

Yes, Dear Readers, it seems that when a married man is suddenly left temporarily without wifely care and supervision, the assumption is that he will either starve to death or die buried under a vast, collapsed mound of dirty laundry and take-out food packages.

Because I enjoy both cooking and saving the money I would otherwise spend on overpriced lunches at the various eateries in and around the Pentagon, I am working my way through the list of recipes I enjoy, but that Agnes doesn't care for as much as I do ... such as my Chicken in Zesty Peanut Sauce (recipe available on request) and the platter of hot wings I made last night to eat while watching TV. I have even kept up with the dirty dishes AND washed several loads of laundry AND gotten a good start on spring cleaning (even though spring is a bit iffy at this point).

Bottom line, Nessa and I are surviving quite well ... although Nessa would like you to believe otherwise ...

Dinner tonight will be leftovers as I work on eating my way out of the refrigerator and freezer. Tomorrow, I think I might marinate and grill some pork chops ... or maybe make a batch of my famous Baked Macaroni and Cheese, which will yield a lot of leftovers for lunches. Hmmmm ... decisions, decisions ...

Speaking of food (you'll see why in a minute), I wanted to point you to a really interesting website I stumbled on the other day: Retronaut ("The past is a foreign country. This is your passport.") It's a fascinating collection of old photos and other information about years past, subdivided by decade (once you get to the 1900's) and with special sections for World Wars I and II. It's an awesome site for anyone interested in history, or for anyone just interested in taking a stroll down memory lane.

One of the things I found there was a copy of the US Senate restaurant menu from 1964 (see, I told you there was a food connection!), which features such delicacies as a 12-ounce broiled US Choice New York-Cut Sirloin Steak with french fries, green salad, hot rolls and butter, for $3.75. By way of comparison, the restaurant at the US Capitol Visitors Center today will happily serve you just the french fries for $3.50 (check the whole menu here). The Senate restaurant menu also includes, on its back cover, the recipe for the "Famous Senate Restaurant Bean Soup," which my mother used to make back in the day, and which I never did really like very much. Of course, I don't care much for the Senate in general, so I guess dissing their soup just goes with the territory.

All of which reminds me that it's time for Nessa and I to have breakfast. This afternoon, I'll spend some time with the local grandchildren, do a bit more housecleaning, and then ... well ... I guess I'll just do whatever it is that geographical bachelors do. Probably be in bed by 9:00.

The life of the swinging single, eh?

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, February 25, 2012

Cartoon Saturday

And the ass-clownery just keeps on coming ...

In Afghanistan, deadly riots continue and at least three people are dead in protests over the burning of Qurans at a US base; international inspectors report that Iran is increasing its efforts to enrich uranium, probably in order to build the nuclear weapons they say they're not building; GOP presidential wannabe Newt Gingrich said that if elected, he would get the price of gasoline down to $2.50 per gallon; international leaders meeting in Tunisia have promised to get really, really angry if Syrian president Bashar al Asad doesn't stop what he's doing; and Hollywood is preparing for its annual orgy of self-congratulation as Oscar night fast approaches.

Don't worry ... Cartoon Saturday is here to get you through it all.

In leading off with the awful pun of the week cartoon, I was torn between going with the political in "honor" of the ongoing GOP scrum ...

Or with the just-plain-silly ...

Ever had to do one of those sleep tests? This is pretty much how it really works ...

The bad news is that an election year brings bumper crops of lies, distortions, robo-calls, yard signs, and general BS. The good news is that it's all good for cartoons. Here are a few of the latest good ones ...

This is why you really need Fact ...

Yes, elections ... and, particularly, primaries, can actually be fun ...

Old adages, updated ...

There's something to be said for getting back to basics ...

As I suspected ...

Gives new meaning to "pain in the neck," doesn't it? ...

And finally, there's the old joke about the woman whose husband was a notorious hypochondriac. One day, she runs into a friend who asks how her husband is doing. "Well," she says, "I think he's worse. He used to think he was sick ... now he thinks he's dead." Which leads me to today's final cartoon ...

And so we end another week here in Disneyland-on-the-Potomac. We're expecting bright and sunny weather today, but with a high wind warning. The winds will be worse than usual, of course, since Congress is in session.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, February 24, 2012

Remembering the Important Things

I've written a number of times in the past about the need to forgive or forget things that happened in the past, and how the acts of forgetting and not forgetting can be something for either good or ill (you can read one of those posts here).

I thought about the dual subjects of remembering and forgetting again yesterday when I saw this article on CNN: Fury Over Japanese Politician's Nanjing Massacre Denial.

It seems that the mayor of the Japanese city of Nagoya set off a firestorm of rage in China when he made comments which downplayed the 1937 incident in which Japanese troops raped and murdered as many as 300,000 people in Nanjing. He was quoted as saying that "It is true that a considerable number of people died in the course of battle. However such a thing as so-called Nanjing Massacre is unlikely to have taken place."

A statement issued by the Nanjing information office said, "The historical facts of the Nanjing Massacre have been solidly proven. The claim by Kawamura [the mayor of Nagoya] is extremely irresponsible. We hope the mayor can admit the historical facts and draw lessons from the past." In its turn, the city government of Nagoya tried - somewhat ineptly, in my opinion - to repair the damage with a statement which read in part,

"What our mayor said is only his personal opinion. As a city government, we are to follow the national government's perception that the occurrence of [the] Nanjing Massacre can not be denied."

I don't know about you, but if I were Chinese, I probably wouldn't view that as a ringing denunciation of Mr Kawamura's comments.

The horrifying events at Nanjing in 1937 are well-documented and unquestioned by historians - they are not a "national government's perception"; nevertheless, many unrepentant Japanese nationalists continue to deny the historical reality of the Nanjing Massacre, just as many fervent anti-Semitic activists deny the Holocaust. A particularly good history of the Nanjing events can be found in Iris Chang's book The Rape of Nanjing: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II.

There's a danger in never forgetting trivial hurts, but an even greater danger in forgetting things that are important. Some things have to be remembered so that we draw the right lessons and redouble our efforts to prevent them from happening again. The Bible (Matthew 5:39) tells us,

"But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also."

Of course, you don't want to turn the other cheek just to get hit by the other fist.

I think the Chinese tend to be overly sensitive to some perceived slights or insults, but in this case, I think they're right. Mr Kawamura is clearly wrong, and his position needs to be denounced by all people of goodwill. And whoever drafted the Nagoya city government's statement needs to be taken to the historical woodshed as well.

Because there are some things we really need to remember.

Have a good day. Be here tomorrow for Cartoon Saturday.

More thoughts then.


Thursday, February 23, 2012

I've Heard of Point Shaving, But ...

You can read a complete, more-than-you-ever-wanted-to-know discussion on the topic of point shaving in this Wikipedia article, but that's not the sort of shaving I was actually thinking about this morning.

According to this article I read yesterday, a Maryland girls' swim team was retroactively disqualified and lost its county title because one of its members shaved improperly. And I'm not talking about her points.

It seems that the rules for swimming, diving and water polo competitions published by the National Federation of State High School Associations stipulate that athletes can not shave before, during or after a meet once a team is at the location of the competition. Because one of the competitors from the Broadneck (no pun intended) High girls swim team shaved in the locker room just before the competition, the team - which had won the Anne Arundel county championship - was disqualified.



Apparently the rule about not shaving on site is intended to protect the competitors from possible exposure to each other's blood; however, there don't seem to be equivalent rules that prevent athletes participating in other sports from shaving in the locker room before or after a competition.

I personally don't care whether ladies shave or not, and in any case it seems like a silly thing to give up a championship over. I'm reminded of the skit by comedian Alan King in which he imagined life for Romeo and Juliet if their story had had a happy ending:

Juliet: "You didn't shave this morning, Romeo."

Romeo: "It's Saturday. Why should I shave?"

Juliet: "My mother is coming over."

Romeo: "So? She doesn't shave on Saturday, either."

A few years back, Deanna Carter had a popular song titled "Did I Shave My Legs for This?" ...

And there are plenty of cartoons on the subject ...

But that's enough hair-raising discussion for today. It's time to leave for work, where I can tear my hair out rather than shaving it.

I'm nothing if not realistic.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Bachelor, Class B (Geographical)

A while back, I introduced you to some military slang with the term "tracks" as used to describe the insignia of a Captain (in the Army, Air Force, or Marine Corps, that is ... the Navy has to be different, and a Navy Captain is the same as a Colonel in the other services. Go figure.).

Today, we take another stroll through the vocabulary of military service as I describe my current condition ...

Yesterday Agnes departed for her trip to Germany to visit her cousin Anna in Reutlingen and her parents in Singen am Hohentwiel, landing in Frankfurt a full 45 minutes ahead of schedule in spite of the ongoing ground workers strike. She'll be gone for two weeks, leaving me - in the slang of the military - a "Class B" or "geographical" Bachelor.

A person in military service is often transferred on a temporary basis to a location other than his (or her) usual duty station. The Army and Air Force refer to such an assignment as "temporary duty," or "TDY;" the Navy, again having to go its own way, refers to it as "temporary assigned duty," or "TAD."

In the olden days, before there were large numbers of women in the Service, it was generally the husbands who left for TDY or TAD, for periods ranging from a few days to six months. These husbands often referred to themselves as "Class B" or "geographical" bachelors ... single by virtue of distance. Some men took this as an opportunity to fish in new waters and plow distant fields, if you get my drift; others used it as a chance to catch up on sleep, read a few new books, or buff up with some extra time in the gym. Wives generally tended to assume the former, and Class B bachelors returning from their trips were carefully examined by their suspicious spouses for the presence of stray female hairs or lipstick stains on clothing.

I am fortunate in that Agnes has full faith and trust in my faithfulness in her absence. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that I think fooling around is wrong, being married to a German redhead is a great motivator of fidelity. We all know about the image of the fiery redhead ... and the warlike German ... now combine the two, and ... well, let's just say that it's a lot safer to be faithful.

There's also the ankle bracelet and the GPS tracker. And a reinforced battalion of friends at the dance studio and around the neighborhood who serve in the unofficial Spousal Fidelity Monitoring Service.

And then there's Nessa, who is charged with barking ferociously at any woman under 75 who approaches the house or comes within 50 feet while we're out for walks.

The ladies in this family stick together.

So, this Class B (Geographical) Bachelor will be spending the next two weeks cleaning house, walking Nessa, playing with the grandchildren, and generally being a good boy. Because who knows? - Agnes may bring me a treat when she gets back.

One can only hope.

Have a good day. Faithfully. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

100 Things Every Man Should Know

I'm not sure where I stumbled across this link to an article from December 2009's Popular Mechanics magazine, but I thought it was interesting, and that you might as well: 100 Skills Every Man Should Know: 2008's Ultimate DIY List. The link takes you to the complete list, which broken down into sections (automotive, home, outdoors, medical myths, etc), and each individual skill has an associated video. Very cool. Sort of a merit badge list for aging boy scouts. Or, as the introduction to the list says, "Brains and charm are fine, but a real guy needs to know how to do real stuff."

Oddly enough for as inept a handyman as I am, I'm able to handle quite a few of the skills on the list ... some better than others, of course. 23 years in the Air Force taught me to shine shoes very well (Military Know-How, #48), and growing up in Western Pennsylvania - the snow and pothole capital of the western world - taught me all about changing a tire (Teach Your Kids # 67), handling a blowout, and driving in snow (Automotive, #'s 1 and 2).

The list is interesting and comprehensive, but I think it does miss out on some important skills that every modern man (okay, woman, too) should know. My list would include:

Critical Thinking. Essential to separating the wheat of important information from the chaff of political bullshit.

Reading to Children. Most adults don't know how to read a bedtime story with flair, gusto, and multiple voices for the characters ... trust me - children love it.

Using Common Courtesies. Little things matter, and nowadays many people act as if simple acts of courtesy - like saying "please," "thank you," and "excuse me" are symbols of weakness or subservience rather than essential social lubricants.

Accepting that Others Might Have a Point. This one is one of the skills most desperately lacking nowadays, especially in the take-no-prisoners, I'm-right-you're-a-clueless-ass political shouting that has replaced sober discussion of serious issues.

The corollary to the last one is ...

How to Compromise. In today's overheated political climate, compromise has become a dirty word generally equated with selling out one's bedrock principles. Unfortunately, we've lost sight of the fact that nobody (except for every single religion) has a monopoly on truth, and that the best courses of action may come from combining elements of different approaches to solving problems. I don't see many people today earning this particular merit badge.

So, Dear Readers, what skills would you add to the Popular Mechanics list? E-mail me or leave a comment, and if there are enough good responses, I'll publish them in a follow-up post.

For now, though, it's time to finish getting Agnes packed and delivered to the airport for her trip to Germany. Although the weather is cooperating, it seems that the airport in Frankfurt many not ... there's an ongoing strike by some ground personnel that has caused flight delays and cancellations of all sorts.

What's life without a little drama, eh?

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, February 20, 2012

SNOWSTORM!!! I Mean, snowstorm!

I'm channeling the title of a fifties-era science fiction film ... The Amazing Colossal Disappearing Snowstorm!

Yes, Dear Readers, our mighty snowstorm that started out with apocalyptic predictions (for Disneyland-on-the-Potomac) of four to five inches of the terrifying white stuff ... which then diminished to one to two inches ... then to an inch, mostly on cars and grassy areas ... to ... well, according to the old Pittsburgh tradition, it counts as "snow" if you can track a cat in it. Which you can. On the grass. Assuming you have any interest in finding a cat.

Oh, and the temperature today will be over 50 (that's 10 degrees Celsius for you, Jean-Luc, Craziequeen, and Amanda).

Now, I'm not sad that we've dodged the crystalline bullet, as we already have enough experience of major snowstorms for which our local governments are woefully unprepared and in the face of which local drivers grow unaccountably hysterical. But for pete's sake, if we're going to have a winter, let's get on with it!

At least we won't have the experience of Agnes's last trip to Germany, when she was scheduled to fly during our last Snowmageddon. You may recall that at that time, her flight to Germany was cancelled two days in a row ... then it flew as scheduled on the third day, but we were snowed into our neighborhood and couldn't get to the airport. She ended up leaving a week later.

The Old Farmer's Almanac (online edition) had predicted a major storm with heavy, wet snow along the East Coast for this time, so I guess they called it partly right. We dodged this storm, which tracked more to the south, but the next one the Almanac is calling for is supposed to hit on or about March 7th ... which is the date Agnes returns from Germany.


So, let's all do the No-Snow Dance so that we can avoid this ...

... at least until Agnes gets back.

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


Sunday, February 19, 2012

Guest Post

Hey, everybody! Nessa here once again. How's everyone this morning? I'm feeling comfortable and well-rested, thanks for asking...

But yesterday was a bit grueling, though. Let me tell you about it.

Bilbo and Agnes went out early in the morning to watch their granddaughters' swimming lesson, and they left me here to guard the house from burglars, itinerant political hacks, squirrels, deer, and other dogs. It's a job I can do very well, especially since I can do it from the sofa under the window or - as you can see in this picture - from my nice cushion in the upstairs hallway, right between the doorway to the kitchen and the steps down to the front door (from here, I have a great view out the transom window, so no evil mailmen or delivery people can get past my watchful gaze).

Oh, and speaking of my nice cushion ... why don't they make these things bigger?

But I was talking about yesterday, wasn't I?

Anyhow, after Bilbo and Agnes came home, they felt guilty (I helped!) because they'd left me alone for a while, so they decided to take me for a nice long walk up to the local shopping center. They do this fairly often, actually ... we walk up to the shopping center, and then Bilbo waits with me on the sidewalk in front of the Giant (that's a store that sells dog food and lunch meat and treats, and some other stuff that people need) while Agnes goes in to buy whatever they need. This is a pretty good deal, since I get to rest up for the second leg of the walk AND have people fuss over me while I sit there with Bilbo.

Bilbo says I'm a babe magnet, which is true. Women love me. They'll cross the street to come up and ask Bilbo, "Can I pet your dog?", which he almost always allows. And then the women always comment on how cute and well-behaved I am and all that. Which is all true, of course.

This is a bit frustrating for Bilbo, though. He told Agnes yesterday that it doesn't make much sense to have a dog that's such a babe magnet now that he doesn't need it any more. I think he wishes all those good-looking women would scratch him under the chin and kiss him and rub his tummy and all that stuff.

Sometimes, it's good to be the dog.

So anyway, Agnes finished buying all the stuff she needed and then she came back and we got ready to walk home. I picked up my stick (I always have to have something to carry, you know ... it's that retriever thing) and Bilbo and Agnes divided up all the bags and we strolled on home. People in passing cars looked at us and smiled, because I think they enjoy seeing a good dog taking her people for a walk.

And I am, of course, a good dog. Don't listen to what that #$@! cat down the street tells you.

Well, it's going to be a quiet day here. Agnes is getting organized for her trip back to Germany, Bilbo is trying (again ... or is it still, I don't know) to clean off his desk and organize his study, and the weatherman says we're going to have something happen this afternoon. I hope it's snow, because it's really annoying when it rains a lot and we come home and Bilbo smells like a wet human.

Have a good day. Bilbo will be back tomorrow.



Saturday, February 18, 2012

Cartoon Saturday

Just when you thought it couldn't get any crazier ...

A 29-year old man from Morocco - an illegal alien, no less - was arrested for planning a suicide bombing of the US Capitol building (evidently not realizing that Congress has already done a thorough job of reducing it to twisted, smoking wreckage); having nothing better on which to report, news outlets across the country devoted 24/7 coverage to the death and funeral of singer Whitney Houston; in an attempt to regain some shred of profitability, the Postal Service has requested a rise in the first-class mail rate to 50 cents an ounce ... evidently not realizing that no one sends any first-class mail any more; German President Christian Wulff resigned amid a political scandal, confusing observers around the world who had no idea that Germany even had a president; and Congress finally approved a plan to extend the payroll tax cut, as legislators were anxious to move on to other topics on which to conduct shameless election-year political theater.

Just another week in the land of I-Couldn't-Make-This-Stuff-Up.

We begin with our semi-traditional Ghastly Pun of the Week Cartoon ...

Those of us of a certain age sometimes have difficulty with the latest technological innovations, as we see here ...

And here ...

I have an enormous collection of cartoons, and try to keep track of them by sorting them into categories ... one of which is cartoons about symbols. Here are three new additions that just popped up recently ...

And ...

In case you can't read the word bubble in that one, it says, "For some odd reason, I find myself really attracted to you." And, finally ...

I think this one explains a lot about how the political system works ... or not ...

You may recall that last week's Cartoon Saturday featured one of my favorite "Far Side" cartoons that I liked because it was so totally bizarre. This week, I bring back another of my Far Side favorites, along with a related take on the same off-the-wall idea ...

And ...

And we round out this week's Cartoon Saturday collection with a look at the old ... uh ... bait and switch, restaurant division ...

It looks like it's shaping up to be an ... interesting ... weekend here in Disneyland-on-the-Potomac, not least because we're awaiting the arrival of our first "real" winter storm tomorrow which, in true Northern Virginia weather fashion, will roll in and hit us with anywhere from rain to four or five inches of snow. Meteorological prognostication is not really an exact science around here.

For today, we'll spend some time with the local grandchildren, then join a million of our closest friends as they mob the stores in search of the crucial supplies needed to survive a winter storm: beer, bread, toilet paper, and cold cuts.

Not necessarily in that order.

Have a good day. Stay warm and dry.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, February 17, 2012

What This Country Needs Is a Good, Five-Cent Nickel

We tend to think of the cost of money in terms of the interest rates charged by banks, credit card companies, and loan sharks (often, the same) for its use. But there really is an actual cost of money, as I was reminded the other day when I read this article: Obama Wants Cheaper Pennies and Nickels.

According to the article, in 2011 it cost 2.4 cents to mint a single penny ...

and 11.2 cents to mint a nickel ...

figures which include both the cost of the metal used and the cost of production. This got me to wondering about the cost of printing "paper" money, and a quick internet search yielded figures ranging between six and ten cents to print a dollar bill ...

mostly based on the costs of cotton (yes, your wallet is filled with recycled underwear) and ink. According to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP), during the year 2011 about 5.8 billion banknotes of all denominations were printed at an average cost of about 9.1 cents.

You can find all sorts of fascinating facts about the money you don't have enough of at this website run by the BEP. Follow the links at the left of the page for even more neat stuff, including a store from which you can buy uncut sheets of bills in various denominations. Think of it: you can buy a small, inexpensive gift for your Very Best Beloved, then wrap it in a sheet of fifty dollar bills!

But let's get back to the cost of the penny and the nickel. If it costs 2.4 cents to mint a penny (of which the US Mint produced about 4.3 billion last year) and 11.2 cents to mint a nickel (of which some 913 million were pressed last year), that means that your government actually lost money by making money.

I can't believe that the Republicans haven't used this as a campaign cudgel with which to beat President Obama, but I'm sure they'll get there soon enough.

And all this is fascinating, but because I need those pennies and nickels and bills of various denominations, I need to go to work to earn them.

Have a good day. My birthday is in November, and you can wrap my gift in one of those sheets of $50 bills if you like.

See you tomorrow for Cartoon Saturday.


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Hair-Raising Thoughts

The story of Rapunzel is one of the classic fairy tales: a beautiful young woman is imprisoned in a tower by an evil witch (no, not Michelle Bachmann), and the only way to reach her (since the tower has no door) is to call "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair/that I may climb the golden stair!" Rapunzel backs up to the window and lowers her tremendously long hair, which the standard handsome prince is able to climb.

The rest of the story depends upon whether you are reading the adult or the children's version, if you get my drift.

I hadn't thought about the story of Rapunzel for a long time (other than in the context of the wonderful animated film Tangled) until I saw this online article the other day: Rapunzel Number Helps Scientists Quantify Ponytails.

It seems that there is a particular number - the Rapunzel Number - which provides a key ratio needed to calculate the effect of gravity on hair relative to its length, determining whether the ponytail looks like a fan ...

or whether it arcs over and becomes nearly vertical at the bottom ...

This is a generally a matter of interest only to a limited audience. According to the article, scientists say the Rapunzel number and related studies of hair "(have) implications for understanding the structure of materials made up of random fibres, such as wool and fur and will have resonance with the computer graphics and animation industry, where the representation of hair has been a challenging problem."

Hmmm ... and here I thought long hair was just an attractive feature of some ladies.

It can be dangerous, too. Until you've danced a fast swing with a lady with a long pony tail or braid and had that hair smack you in the face at high speed as the lady spins, you don't know just how dangerous.

But not all ladies choose to wear their hair long. And for those who choose to wear it short, there are a few "fightin' words" we observers should avoid. According to this article, here are seven things you should never, ever say to a woman with short hair (with my helpful translation of what the lady hears when you make the mistake of saying them):

1. "May I help you, sir?" What the lady hears: "I'm an inobservant twit."

2. "It totally reminds me of Sandy Duncan in Peter Pan." What the lady hears: "You look like a 1970's fairy."

3. "Did you just give up when you had the baby?" What the lady hears: "Please rip my head off and beat me to death with it."

4. "I loved you back when you had long hair." What the lady hears: "I only loved you for your hair."

5. "Don't worry - it'll grow back." What the lady hears: "You spent $150 on that?"

6. "You look so much better with short hair." What the lady hears: "You were ugly before."

7. "Your short hair makes you look thinner." What the lady hears: "You're fat."

Hair, long or short, has been described as a woman's crowning glory. Just tell her she looks beautiful and no one will get hurt.

And I don't think that "Hey, baby, I'll bet you've got a great Rapunzel number!" will ever be a good pick-up line at the club on a Saturday night.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Two Stories About Tracks

Many years ago, shortly after the earth's crust cooled and the dinosaurs died out, I was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the US Air Force. Now, for those of you who may not be familiar with military ranks and customs, I will just tell you that no one gets any less respect than a Second Lieutenant. You're expected to be young and stupid, to keep your mouth shut and learn to be - as crusty old Sergeant Bowmar, who was responsible for me, once said - a real officer. Two long years went by and I was promoted to First Lieutenant ... and crusty old Sergeant Bowmar told me that I was almost there - when I finally made Captain and got my "tracks" (the slang for a captain's insignia) ...

... I'd be a real officer. Fast-forward two more years, and Captain Bilbo strode proudly into the office, whereupon old Sergeant Bowmar closely examined the new insignia glittering on my collar and grunted, "Humph! Narrow gauge!"

And, speaking of tracks, here is a little bit of history that I'd heard before, but of which I was reminded by my old co-worker Dave in a blog fodder e-mail he sent me yesterday ...

The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. This is a bit of an odd measurement ... why was that particular gauge used? Because that's the way railroads were built in England, and English expatriates designed the US railroads.

Why did the English build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that's the gauge they used.

Why did they use that gauge then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools they had used for building wagons, which used a wheel spacing of 4 feet, 8.5 inches.

So, why did the wagons have that odd wheel spacing? Because if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels and axles would risk breaking on some of the old, long distance roads in England, on which the wheel ruts were 4 feet, 8.5 inches apart.

So, who built those old rutted roads?

Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (including England) so that they could move their legions quickly from place to place. Those roads were so expertly designed and laid out that they have been used ever since.

And the ruts in the roads? The original ruts were formed by the wheels of Roman war chariots, which were designed to imperial military specifications. Because a Roman war chariot was drawn by two war horses, the roads were built to accommodate the passage of a war chariot drawn by two horses.

Yes, Dear Readers, the Roman military roads - on which the gauge of today's railroads were ultimately based - were laid out to accommodate the original design specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot ... which, in turn, were based on the size of horses' asses.

Bureaucracies live forever.

So, the next time you are handed a specification/procedure/process and wonder, 'What horse's ass came up with this?' you may be exactly right ... because Imperial Roman army chariots, and their supporting roads, were made just wide enough to accommodate the rear ends of two war horses.

Now, the twist to the story:

When you saw a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, you probably noticed that a huge booster rocket was attached to each side of the main fuel tank. These were the solid rocket boosters, or SRBs, manufactured by the Thiokol Corporation at their factory in Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs would have preferred to make them a bit larger, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory ran through tunnels, and the SRBs had to fit through those tunnels. The tunnels were slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track, as you now know, is about as wide as two horses' behinds.

So ...

A major design feature of the world's most advanced transportation system was determined
over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse's ass.

And you thought being a horse's ass wasn't important?

Little did you know!

And that's today's little bit of history for you, courtesy of your ol' Uncle Bilbo.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Valentine's Day, 2012

Today is February 14th - Valentine's Day - the most obvious symbol of the worldwide, anti-male conspiracy launched by a sinister cabal of florists, restauranteurs, 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 man, you know what I mean. If you're a woman, this will go over your head because Valentine's Day is just part of the tribute you have been trained from birth to expect from your drooling love slave. Or your husband, whatever.

You can read what I wrote in this space about Valentine's Day last year here. But another year has gone by, and it's time to take another critical look at the sinister phenomenon of Valentine's Day.

This is how life goes if you're a man ...

Sometimes, it's more like this ...

Now, I'd be willing to admit that, sometimes, we men aren't all that good at planning the lovey-dovey, spur-of-the-moment things our women say they like ...

It's often hard for us to say the right thing ... and we don't always get the response we were hoping for ...
And we all know that women are very, very good at stockpiling grievances ...

Even pets are not immune to the evil lure of Valentine's Day ...

Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that we know we're being set up, we men lurch forward blindly each year into Valentine's Day. We know what's expected of us, and we perform our steps in this annual kabuki dance in the way we've been conditioned. Our ladies play us like fine violins, drawing the bow of female expectation expertly over the strings of male guilt and sexual desire. Yes, we all play our parts, because we've been conditioned to do so. And because we hope that, for once, we'll manage to do the right thing and get our reward.

Good luck.

And with that, we close out another Valentine's Day post with this classic video from Joan Jett ...

Have a good day. I hope all goes well between you and the object of your fondest desire. Or your wife or husband. You decide.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, February 13, 2012

The Ass Clown of the Month Award Returns!

It's been a long time since we designated an Ass Clown of the Month dishonoree here at Bilbo's Place. It's not for want of candidates (the Republican primaries are going on, after all, and there are plenty of useless Democrats out there, too), but - as ever - it's just been too hard to pick.

But I have made a selection!

We generally make an award to an individual, although there is a precedent for group awards (to the Westboro Baptist Church), but today we give the award not to an individual or a group, but to an entire country! Ladies and gentlemen, with an appropriate drum roll we award the coveted Ass Clown of the Month award to


Yes, Dear Readers, the spectacle of lunatics rioting in the streets of Athens because they don't want to give up a lifestyle they expect the rest of the world to subsidize has cemented Greece's worthiness for this award. You've had a great life you couldn't afford. Don't burn the place down because you expect the rest of us to pay for it.

Of course, the only real difference between Greeks and Americans at this point is that Americans don't want to make any sacrifices either ... we just aren't rioting yet. But don't worry, I'm sure the Republicans and the Democrats will work together to ensure we'll get there.

Have a good day. Be here tomorrow for our Valentine's Day special.

More thoughts then.


Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Ones Who'll Help You Move the Body

I wrote this past Monday about Agnes's ongoing project for her digital scrapbooking and journaling course in which she had to develop a two-page spread about herself based on the supposed characteristics of her Zodiac sign. Well, the drama continued yesterday evening as she called me into her nest to look at an online, two-page list of adjectives that could be used an individual, and asked me to pick out the ones that applied to her.

Not being stupid, I (to paraphrase the great W. C. Fields) rejected those words that might, if misunderstood, end up eliciting the attention of the coroner, and offered a careful selection which included the word friendly.

This led to a discussion of the concept of friendship which - to Agnes - is a word not to be taken lightly. And, on reflection, I have to agree that she's right.

There's an old saying that an acquaintance will help you move, but a friend will help you move a body. This is a crude, yet accurate statement of a difference we don't often think about much in the Facebook era, where we collect "friends" as if they were Hummel figurines, beer cans, or decorative paperweights. You may recall this cartoon from two weeks ago on Cartoon Saturday ...

It makes a statement that Agnes reminded me of as we talked about the implications of the word friend. If she were introducing someone from her office to me, for instance, she'd use the term co-worker, where I might have loosely described the individual as a friend from the office. The difference is ... or, at least, should be ... profound.

If I think of a friend as someone I can share my innermost thoughts and secrets with, someone I can turn to for help at any time and know that he'll drop everything to come to my aid, someone I'm completely comfortable with in any setting, I can only think of one person out of the many hundreds I might loosely describe as friends. I have 119 friends on Facebook (the average number is actually 120, according to the Facebook blog), but I would probably describe only one of them as a true friend according to the definition earlier in this paragraph (yes, he's the one friend I mentioned above).

There are a great many people I consider friends in a looser fashion ... people I care about and whose company I enjoy. Most of my dancing acquaintances and many of my co-workers fall into this category. But real, honest-to-goodness, help-me-hide-the-body friends ... just one.

The concept of true friendship was summed up in one of my favorite poems - The Thousandth Man, by Rudyard Kipling ...

One man in a thousand, Solomon says.
Will stick more close than a brother.
And it's worth while seeking him half your days
If you find him before the other.

Nine hundred and ninety-nine depend
On what the world sees in you,
But the Thousandth Man will stand your friend
With the whole round world agin you.

'Tis neither promise nor prayer nor show
Will settle the finding for 'ee.
Nine hundred and ninety-nine of 'em go
By your looks, or your acts, or your glory.

But if he finds you and you find him,
The rest of the world don't matter;
For the Thousandth Man will sink or swim
With you in any water.

You can use his purse with no more talk
Than he uses yours for his spendings,
And laugh and meet in your daily walk
As though there had been no lendings.

Nine hundred and ninety-nine of 'em call
For silver and gold in their dealings;
But the Thousandth Man he's worth 'em all
Because you can show him your feelings.

His wrong's your wrong, and his right's your right,
In season or out of season.
Stand up and back it in all men's sight
With that for your only reason!

Nine hundred and ninety-nine can't bide
The shame or mocking or laughter,
But the Thousandth Man will stand by your side
To the gallows-foot - and after!

Just so that I'm not misunderstood, let me emphasize that I care about all my friends, of whatever degree. But there's only one ... and I think you know who you are ... that I would ask to help me hide a body.

And the thought that I have even one friend that close is a very comforting thought.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.