Friday, August 31, 2007

Bilbo's Quick-and-Dirty Guide to American Elections

A while back Yo, who blogs at Etcetera, posted a comment to my blog asking if I could explain the American election system. He thought that I might be able to explain it so he could understand it. While I appreciate the implied compliment, a full explanation of American elections is beyond the scope of an average post...but I'll try to summarize it as best I can for Yo and for other readers outside the United States who are mystified by our system. There's a very good, very detailed explanation of our Electoral College system on Wikipedia which will give you much more information...for now, here's Bilbo's short summary...

The fundamentals of our system of elections are set forth in the Constitution. First of all, it's important to remember that in this country, we don't elect our president by direct popular vote...when we vote for a particular candidate, what we're actually voting for are the members of the Electoral College from our state who actually cast votes for the candidates. Each state receives a number of electors equal to the total number of its representatives in Congress (one for each Senator and Representative, plus three for the District of Columbia). Remember this...we'll come back to it later.

The presidential election season traditionally begins early in the election year (2008 is the next one), when the individual states hold their primary elections or caucuses. These help to winnow down the roster of potential candidates and establish the front-runners, who are then nominated by the state delegations at the national conventions of the major political parties in late summer. Ideally, the candidates who won the majority of the party votes in the primaries and caucuses emerge as their party's candidate for the national election. Once nominated by the party conventions, the candidates select their running mates (vice-presidential candidates), usually on the basis of a desire to "balance" the ticket (one from the northern states and one from the southern, for example), and the campaign begins in earnest.

The actual election is held on the first Tuesday in November. Registered voters (every citizen over 18 years of age is eligible to vote, unless they are a convicted felon) go to their local voting station (mine is at the local elementary school) and cast their votes for the candidate of their choice.

The results of the popular vote are closely tracked at the state level, because what determines the outcome of the election is not the nationwide popular vote, but the winner of the popular vote in each state. The candidate who "wins" each state "wins" the votes of the members of the Electoral College from that state. The total number of electors is presently 538, and a candidate must win a majority of them (currently 270) to win the presidency. A criticism of this system is that candidates spend most of their time wooing the residents of the states with the most electoral votes, to the detriment of the smaller states, but so far there's been no serious effort to change the system. You may remember that in the presidential election of 2000, Al Gore actually won the popular vote, but George W. Bush won the election on the basis of electoral votes.

So, at the end of Election Day, the votes are tallied and the numbers of electoral votes for each candidate tabulated. The winner is generally known at this point, but the election is not official until the Electoral College meets and the electors formally cast their votes. At this point, the new president and vice-president are officially named and the planning for the inauguration and accompanying parties begins. The new president takes the oath of office and assumes his (or her!) position on Inauguration Day (January 20th)...and the nation breathes a sigh of relief that it's all over.

Okay, that's Bilbo's Quick-and-Dirty Guide to the American presidential election process. There may be some minor errors, but that's essentially how it works. Yo, and other readers in other countries, I hope this clarifies things for you. If you have specific questions, there is a lot of information available on the Internet both at Wikipedia and at the official websites of the U.S. government. Or you can ask me (by e-mail to and I'll try to answer it for you.

Wish us luck as we start into the new campaigning season. We'll need it.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, August 30, 2007

....and Don't Come Back Without Permission!

The history of Tibet is a long and often sad one, and the invasion and occupation of that nation by China in 1949 brought the independence of the near-mythical Himalayan nation to an end. China, of course, maintains that there was no "invasion," and that Tibet is a part of China; over the years, many millions of ethnic Chinese have been encouraged to settle in Tibet, displacing the native Tibetan population and changing the very nature of the country. The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan religious leader, has lived in exile ever since.

The Chinese are very sensitive to criticism of their occupation of Tibet, to the point that some amazingly stupid things can happen. According to an article on, the latest action in China's attempt to fully stamp out all traces of Tibetan independence is the banning of Tibetan monks, wherever they live, from reincarnating without government permission.

Yes, you heard that right.

I've always maintained that religion and politics can be a dangerous mix, and here we have an exhibit of what I mean. Tibetan Buddhists believe in reincarnation, and by banning any Tibetan Buddhist living outside of China from reincarnating, the Chinese hope to eliminate the influence of the only such person who matters - the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual and political leader. The Chinese have named their own "official" Dalai Lama, and want to get rid of the competition.

Will it work? I guess we'll see whether the law, described by the Chinese government as "an important move to institutionalize management of reincarnation," will have much impact. My guess is that if people are going to reincarnate, they'll continue to do it whether the Chinese government gives them permission or not. The Dalai Lama is one of the few major religious leaders I respect and admire, and I somehow doubt that a Chinese-appointed substitute will ever be accepted as legitimate by anyone outside the Chinese government.

If the Chinese government wanted to do this right, though, they'd have done it the way my beloved Commonwealth of Virginia would: put a heavy civil penalty fee (not a tax!) on reincarnation. Now that would probably work.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, August 29, 2007

With Friends Like These...

The long-expected resignation of Alberto Gonzalez as Attorney General has led to the expected flurry of news analysis and windy pontification on the part of our vast herd of feral talking heads. I, of course, have my own ideas on the underlying meaning of Mr Gonzalez' fall.

Many political observers have noted that Mr Gonzalez seemed to be out of his depth as Attorney General, and have commented that his primary qualification for the position appeared to be his long friendship with and support of Mr Bush. I think this illustrates the real problem.

The presidency is a hard and lonely job, and presidents don't have many friends. Tom Clancy noted this in one of his novels in which accidental president Jack Ryan's political adviser told him that, as president, he'd find that 40% of the people would hate him no matter what he did and 40% would love him no matter what he did...his job was to connect with the 20% that hadn't made up their minds yet. It's understandable for a president to want to surround himself (herself?) with advisers with whom they are comfortable, politically, philosophically, and personally. But there's a problem with that.

Presidents don't need friends at the senior level of their administrations. They need public servants who, while they understand and support the president's general agenda, are more focused on the good of the nation than their relationship with the leader. The emperor's friends and courtiers didn't tell him that he had no clothes, and the president's friends aren't going to tell him the unpleasant news, or drag him back from the brink when he's getting ready to do something stupid. A strong Attorney General, focused on his (or her) role as the chief law enforcement officer of the nation, would never have let Mr Bush get mired in a useless legal and political morass like the ill-considered mass firing of U.S. Attorneys, or the warrantless wiretap fiasco.

When the founders of our nation sat down to write the Constitution, they had just finished fighting a bitter war to escape the control of a distant king. They didn't want to create a political system that would just substitute one king for another, and so they created an elegant, if messy, system of checks and balances in government. They realized that we, being human, needed an alpha wolf to be the leader...but they also realized the dangers inherent in making the wolf too alpha, and so they created three co-equal branches of government: the legislative, the executive, and the judicial, and granted each one specific powers that would prevent any one of them from gaining too much abusable power. It guaranteed tension within the government, but it also guaranteed a system that would be more likely to prevent the development of a dictatorship...or a new king.

Mr Bush believes in the need for a more powerful executive with sweeping powers he believes are necessary to defend the nation in the so-called (and sadly mislabeled) War on Terror. Instead of the steady and complicated task of explaining the threat and seeking the support of the legislative and judicial branches, he's tried to amass more power to himself in the interest of being able to take what he views as strong and decisive action.

Well, we can see how that turned out.

Instead of a strong Attorney General who would help the president work within the law to meet the threat, Mr Bush relied on a yes-man who pushed his agenda unquestioningly, without asking the hard questions and giving the unwanted, but necessary hard counsel. Instead of working with the Congress to change the laws if necessary while protecting our freedoms, Mr Bush sought to bypass the people's elected representatives and used his political majority to ram through his policies...with predictable results in the last election. And instead of working with the Congress to pass the legislation the nation needs, both Mr Bush and the Congress complain about judges who "legislate from the bench" ... not seeming to realize that judges occasionally have to step in when the legislators can't or won't legislate from the legislature.

And so, after years of bloviation and political posturing, we still have no comprehensive reform of our immigration laws. We're fighting a global war against an implacable enemy with a bickering legislature tired of being sidelined by an imperial president, both of them frequently at odds with a judicial system upon which we rely to keep them toeing the line of the Constitution.

2008 will be an interesting election year. From my perspective, none of the front-runners for the presidency are real presidential material, and I don't see many people in Congress who impress me very much. Could I do better? Don't know. But I like to think that, by at least listening to the rest of the government, and to trusted advisers willing to tell me that I had no clothes, I'd at least do better than the current crop of ideology-focused bozos.

With over 300 million people in this country, you'd think we could do better.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Sounds of Silence

On August 14th, two weeks ago today, four suicide bombers blew themselves up in two Iraqi towns, killing more than 500 people, injuring nearly 300 more, and totally destroying the towns. The dead were all civilians, and included men, women, and children.

The world's reaction to this act of barbarity is instructive. Here is a complete list of the condemnations of this act issued by senior Islamic clerics:

Let me repeat that in case you missed it:

And here is the full text of the statement of condemnation issued by the Council on American-Islamic Relations:

This is the complete text of the statement of condemnation issued by Pope Benedict XVI:

Riddle me this, Batman: where is the outrage? Where are the voices of our religious leaders condemning the actions of a few twisted murderers who pervert their religious beliefs to justify the most heinous and savage acts of violence?

When the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison came to light, the story and photos ran 24/7 on Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and every other media outlet in the Middle East and around the world. When American servicemen were accused of murdering civilians in the town of Haditha, the howls of outrage around the world were deafening. What happened in these cases is instructive:

First, the Abu Ghraib abuses came to light because an American soldier, revolted by the actions of his comrades, reported the situation to his superiors. The case was investigated, and responsible individuals were tried, convicted, and sentenced to prison. It's true - and sad - that no senior officers went to jail, but the overall reaction is worth noting: America identified and punished the offenders.

The murderers of Hadita were identified, tried, and convicted.

The U.S. Army and Marines pay large amounts of money to Iraqi civilians whose property is damaged in raids or accidents, and compensation is paid in many instances when a civilian is accidentally killed or injured by U.S. forces. Here is the full list of compensation offered by Al Qaeda in Iraq, Hamas, and Hezbollah to the thousands of Iraqi civilians murdered in suicide attacks or other acts of violence, and the responsible individuals who have been convicted and sent to prison:

Quite a list, eh?

And our own government is at fault as well. Thomas Friedman wrote a superb article in the New York Times last Sunday titled "Swift-Boated by Bin Laden." It's been reproduced in several places, and is worth your reading. His thesis is that George Bush and the Republican Party skillfully used the accusations of Vietnam-era malfeasance by John Kerry while he served in a swift-boat squadron to smear him and injure his presidential effectively that the use of past deeds to damage present political campaigns is known as "swift-boating." And so, Friedman asks, why are the President and the Republicans not swift-boating Osama bin Laden and the faceless murderers of the Middle East? Why are we not seizing the information war from bin Laden, al Zawahiri, Hamas, and the others whose only language is that of terror and murder? Why are we not exposing their ghastly crimes and calling for the world to acknowledge and condemn them?

As long as we fail to condemn the silence of the so-called Arab street ... as long as we give murderers and religious bigots a free pass ... as long as we silently accept the condemnation of those whose own actions are deserving of that condemnation, we are no better than they. War is a terrible thing. Murder is a terrible thing. But ask yourself this:

Who is holding its people accountable for their actions? How many Iraqi murderers are being brought to justice? Why are our so-called religious leaders - of all faiths - giving these evil animals a free ride?

But we're Americans...and we're always guilty. Blaming America is easy. Looking at yourself and seeing the image that Dorian Gray saw, that's hard.

Where's the outrage? Where's the justice?

When you find it, let me know.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, August 27, 2007

The Wheat and the Chaff

There's an interesting post over at It Is A Numeric Life this morning, dealing with the so-called mere exposure effect, the idea that if people are repeatedly exposed to a subject, they begin to prefer that subject over others. She notes also that "Many psychology experiments clearly demonstrated that our brain always prefers the familiar."

This is both good and bad. On the good side, I think we all need that certain level of comfort that comes with what is usual, expected, and familiar. We prefer our country to others, think our home is more "homey," and our children are more intelligent and attractive than others. On the other hand, exclusive attention to the familiar chokes out new ideas and inhibits learning and personal development.

People smarter than I have noted this effect in the realm of the media: when there are hundreds of cable channels to choose from, we choose those which appeal to our narrow interests. There are tens of millions of blogs, more than we could ever hope to read, and so we tend to limit our visits to those we find that appeal to our interests and agree with our points of view. Between my job, my dancing, and doing most of the cooking and housework at home (since Agnes works two jobs to my one), I don't have the time I'd like to read more widely, although I make an effort.

It's important to look at various points of view in order to understand where others are coming from. A blog I visit regularly is titled "Raising Yousuf, Unplugged: Diary of a Palestinian Mother," and it's written by a lady who is a Palestinian journalist and mother who divides her time between Gaza and the United States. Her blog is relentlessly political, very well-written, and utterly infuriating in what I view as its perpetuation of Palestinian victimhood and tendency to blame everyone but the Palestinians and the larger Arab world for their plight. I've posted two mildly critical comments to this blog over the months I've been following it...the first never made it out of moderation; the second was accepted, but generated only a few silly ad hominem attacks against me for not toeing the Palestinian line (the best simply told me to go back to Bag End). As you know if you've been following my blog, you know that I am equally critical of both the Palestinians, who would rather revel in their victimhood and strike out violently than take responsibility for bettering their situation, and the Israelis who, while understandably motivated by the shadow of the Holocaust and the fear of terrorism, have evolved a political outlook based on raw power and the need to dominate their neighbors.

I'm not smart enough to sort out the festering snakepit of the Middle East. If I were, my name would be in the papers instead of Dennis Ross's and Tony Blair's. But I like to think that, by looking with open eyes at both sides of the argument and trying to look for both the good and bad points, I can better see potential ways ahead that don't involve suicide bombers on the one side and boots on necks on the other.

We need to see all points of view, but we also need to be able to determine which of those points of view have merit. We have to be able to separate the informational wheat from the chaff of stupidity and closed-mindedness. It's especially hard in a time when political and social discourse is so polarized, but that just makes it all the more important.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I need to start sorting through the vast mountain of chaff already generated by the 2008 presidential campaign. I find it hard to be as optimistic as the boy who looked at the pile of manure and implied the existence of a pony.

Right now, it's just manure. And the wrong end of the political horses.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, August 26, 2007

A Few Last Thoughts About Reading

I'm ready to move on to new topics, but wanted to share one last thing with you before I close off the subject of books and reading for a while. Over at Out of My Hat yesterday, John mentioned our current discussion of reading and offered a few interesting derivations of words which began their life as acronyms. I'd heard some of these before, and while some may be apocryphal, they're all interesting. But it got me to thinking about a humorous piece I ran across some years ago that I knew was buried somewhere in my vast and untidy digital archives. After much diligent search, I found it, and reproduce it below. It's a bit long, but funny enough to be well worth the read. Welcome to the B.O.O.K. (with a tip of the hat to the anonymous original author, and with very minor edits by Bilbo) ...


Introducing the B.O.O.K.

A new aid to rapid--almost magical--learning has made its appearance. Indications are that if it catches on, all the electronic gadgets will be so much junk.

The new device is known as Built-in Orderly Organized Knowledge™. The makers generally call it by its initials, B.O.O.K.

Many advantages are claimed over the old-style learning and teaching aids on which most people are brought up nowadays. It has no wires, no electric circuit to break down. No connection is needed to an electricity power point. It is made entirely without mechanical parts to go wrong or need replacement.

Anyone can use B.O.O.K.™, even children, and it fits comfortably into the hands. It can be conveniently used sitting in an armchair by the fire.

How does this revolutionary, unbelievably easy invention work?

Basically the B.O.O.K.™ consists of a large number of paper sheets, which may run to the hundreds where the B.O.O.K.™ covers a lengthy program of information. Each sheet bears a number in sequence, so that the sheets cannot be used in the wrong order.

To make it even easier for the user to keep the sheets in the proper order, they are held firmly in place by a special locking device called a binding.

Each sheet of paper presents the user with an information sequence in the form of symbols, which the reader absorbs optically for automatic registration on the brain. When one sheet has been assimilated, a flick of the finger turns it over and further information is found on the other side. By using both sides of each sheet in this way a great economy is effected, thus reducing both the size and cost of each B.O.O.K.™ No buttons need to be pressed to move from one sheet to another, to open or close the B.O.O.K.™, or to start it working.

A B.O.O.K.™ may be taken up at any time and used by merely opening it. Instantly it is ready for use. Nothing has to be connected up or switched on. The user may turn at will to any sheet, going backwards or forwards as he pleases. A sheet is provided near the beginning as a location finder for any required general information sequence, while more specific location finders can often be found at the end in a sheet called an index.

A small accessory, available at trifling extra cost, is the B.O.O.K. Mark.™ This enables the user to pick up his program where he left off on the previous learning session. The B.O.O.K. Mark™ is versatile and may be used in any B.O.O.K.™ without modification. Interestingly, almost any common item which can be inserted between the sheets of a B.O.O.K.™ can be used as a B.O.O.K. Mark™, resulting in significant potential savings and eliminating the necessity of purchasing multiple B.O.O.K. Marks™ to facilitate use of multiple B.O.O.K.s™ at the same time.

The initial cost of a B.O.O.K.™ varies with the size and subject matter. Already a vast range of B.O.O.K.'s™ is available, covering every conceivable subject and adjusted to different levels of aptitude. One B.O.O.K.™, small enough to be held in the hands, may contain an entire learning schedule.

Once purchased, the B.O.O.K.™ requires no further upkeep cost; no batteries or wires are needed, since the motive power, thanks to an ingenious device patented by the makers, is supplied by the brain of the user.

B.O.O.K.'s™ may be stored on handy shelves and for ease of reference, and can be easily located as the program schedule is normally indicated on the back of the binding. Altogether, the Built-in Orderly Organized Knowledge™ seems to have great advantages with no drawbacks. We predict a big future for it.

A Boss's Response:

The B.O.O.K.™ does not, in spite of the claims made above, seem “to have great advantages with no drawbacks.” Soon, it probably won't even be legal. Consider:

“It can be conveniently used sitting in an armchair by the fire.” Being made of paper, it might burn in the fire. Probably fire laws in most locations wouldn't allow its use there. Worse, such a device, which encourages close proximity of the user to fire, will be outlawed by Fire Marshals or similar safety officials in most locations.

“Each sheet bears a number in sequence, so that the sheets cannot be used in the wrong order.” How quaint; to think that the programmer (author) would be allowed to turn over such an important task to the user! “Cannot” is clearly misuse; any user could incorrectly turn to the wrong page. A proper user interface might correct that, of course, such as requiring that each sheet be torn off to expose the next. This is in clear conflict with “The user may turn at will to any sheet, going backwards or forwards as he pleases.”

“B.O.O.K.'s™ may be stored on handy shelves and for ease of reference.” The user interface obviously needs more work before such a system can be practical.

“…The motive power -- is supplied by the brain of the user.” Clearly, the inventors have not examined recent trends. No serious person would suggest even expecting a “user” to have a brain present, much less to use it so continuously.

I'd suggest the inventors return to their consoles and do a thorough associative search of various data banks, like the rest of us, and forget this nonsense.


Try out a B.O.O.K. today! You won't be sorry!

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, August 25, 2007

A Few More Words About Reading

Yesterday's post on reading set a near-record for the number of comments received, so I know I've hit a major nerve in my readership. John wrote, "I'd have to guess that most of us that read/write blogs might be more surprised about non-readers. After all, we are readers!", while "noisms" made the interesting comment that, "I doubt that it was ever the case that everybody read widely. I'd like to see the statistics for the number of regular book-readers in the USA in the 1950s and the 1900s, for example. I think the distractions are more common nowadays, but the number of people who really love reading has stayed the same, and probably always will. After all, if TV, films and the internet haven't distracted the hard core from giving up books yet, it's doubtful they every will!" And "Yo" commented on the cost of books as a limiting factor in their enjoyment (although good public libraries, where available, are a way around that).

All of the comments I received were good ones, but one got me to thinking about reading in a somewhat different way. Odile S, from The Netherlands, wrote this: "...Books are available on audio. (Are these considered to be books?)."

That's a great question. For me, reading will always conjure the mental image of curling up in my favorite chair with a traditional printed book in my front of a roaring fire in winter, or on a cool, shady nook during the rest of the year. I like to think that the heft and feel of a book represent the weight of the enjoyment and knowledge it contains. Are audio books really books? I think the weasely answer is, "it depends." There are some books that seem meant to be listened to when read aloud - books for young children and most poetry, for instance, fall into this category. Hearing someone read masterpieces like "Casey at the Bat" or "The Cremation of Sam McGee," or reading them aloud yourself, is a thrilling experience...and speaking as one who has read "Green Eggs and Ham" about seven million times to children and grandchildren, I can vouch for the joy of hearing Dr Seuss's simple, rhythmic language that draws children into the story. On the other hand, I don't think I'd enjoy listening to a mass-market bestseller quite as much as I would enjoy actually reading it. Some biographies and a few histories lend themselves to being read aloud - Winston Churchill's six-volume history of the Second World War is one, partly because of the majesty of Churchill's writing. Jim Dale's reading of the Harry Potter series is said to be superb, but I haven't heard them yet, other than excerpts he read during radio interviews.

And there's another twist on the audio book that's now available: the Star Trek-like "e-Reader" electronic book from Sony...a slim, elegant device about the dimensions of a large paperback, but only a half-inch thick, onto which you save downloaded books in the same way you load music to your iPod, and read them on a bright, crisp screen. I bought Agnes one of these for her birthday and she uses it occasionally, but I think that, like me, she prefers the feel of a "real" book. The advantage of the e-Reader is more in its utility for traveling - it's nice to be able to carry a dozen books or more for less than the weight of a single normal paperback.

No matter how you do it: reading the printed page, listening to the audio book, or reading aloud to yourself or others, there's nothing like reading. In fact, I think I'll go and do some of it right now!

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, August 24, 2007

A Few Words About Reading

You already know that I read just about everything I can lay my hands on...a gift I inherited from my mother, who once laughed at me for reading the back of the cereal box at breakfast because I didn't have a book handy. I can't imagine not reading, and I've tried to pass that love on to my children and grandchildren (I can probably start reading to Leya any time...she's four days old, after all).

A CNN article I found the other day documented an Associated Press-Ipsos poll on the habits of readers in the United States, and offered some interesting observations. According to the poll, one in four US adults said they read no books at all in the past year; of those who did read, women and senior citizens were the most avid readers, with religious works and popular fiction the top choices of reading material. By comparison, a 2004 report from the National Endowment for the Arts titled "Reading at Risk" noted that only 57% of American adults had read a book in 2002, a drop of four percentage points in a decade, and blamed television, movies, and the Internet for the decline.

According to the original AP-Ipsos poll, those who did read were very enthusiastic about it, with many respondents reporting that they'd read dozens of books and "couldn't do without them." The median figure of books read was nine for women and five for men. People from the South tended to read more than those from other regions, mainly religious books and romance novels. Whites tended to read more than blacks and Hispanics. People who described themselves as Democrats or "liberals" typically reading slightly more than Republicans and "conservatives." The Bible and religious works were read by two-thirds of the respondents, more than any other category of book. Half of the respondents reported reading popular fiction, histories, biographies, and mysteries, and one in five cited romance novels. Every other genre (including politics, poetry, and classical literature) was named by less than five percent of readers, while more women than men tended to read every category of books except for history and biography (underlining a book industry observation that men tend to prefer nonfiction).

So what does all this mean?

There are lots of books out there, and too few people are reading them. I tend to prefer history, biography, sociology and linguistics, but also have a lot of fiction authors I enjoy (Harry Turtledove, Carl Hiaasen, Michael Gruber, John Dunning, and many others). Agnes, on the other hand, prefers mysteries and thrillers.

To each his or her own, I guess. It doesn't really matter what you read, as long as you entertain yourself, stretch your mind, and learn something useful. The weekend is upon us - why not head out to your nearest bookstore and pick up something that looks good. You won't be sorry.

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


Thursday, August 23, 2007

Good Manners In the Age of Technology

An article I read on the CNN website yesterday asked, "Where are your high-tech manners?" It reported, among other things, the results of a Pew Research poll which revealed that 81% of the persons surveyed were irritated at least occasionally by loud and annoying cell phone use in public places, and that about one in ten respondents admitted they had been the target of criticism or stares because of their own cell phone use. Interestingly, the poll also noted that about a quarter of those surveyed believed they would need to answer their phone even if it interrupted a meal or a meeting. In a separate poll conducted in 2006, an ABC News survey reported that nearly 75% of those surveyed had observed someone using a phone or Blackberry during a meeting or while engaging in conversation with someone.

I think this is very interesting on several levels. First, a large majority of people find some cell phone use in public to be annoying; second, that many of those people would engage in the same behavior they find objectionable; third, that modern technology has provided us with more and more opportunities to be rude to others.

I wrote in this space a while back about a loud cell phone conversation I overheard in an airport waiting area in which an irate man was berating the person on the other end about a problem with his proctology appointment. It was bad enough that he was loud and obnoxious, but did the rest of us really need to know about such a personal issue?

I agree with the poll results on the basis of personal experience. In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I do conduct cell phone conversations in public, but never on topics I wouldn't want someone to hear about. I would never interrupt a meeting or conversation to take a cell phone call. Cell phones have also spoiled the experience of going to the theater and movies nowadays. I used to be annoyed by rude, loud talking ... now, it's even louder talking ("Can you hear me? Can you hear me?"), plus the annoying cacophony of very loud ringtones (evidently, most people can't hear a ringing cell phone unless everyone within 50 feet can hear it, too). And just last night, I was placing a take-out order in a restaurant that was interrupted - twice - as the lady at the counter took phone-in orders while I was actually standing in front of her. One might have thought she could have asked the callers to hold while she took care of me.

Loud cell phone conversations and texting at inappropriate times are just the symptoms of a general lack of common courtesy that I've mourned in this space before. If you're guilty of any of these transgressions, well, why not start now to fix the problem. Trust me - the world won't end if you turn off the phone for a few minutes, or wait until the meeting is over to send that critically important text message.

Sadly, technology has trumped good manners. It doesn't need to be this way, but somehow I don't see the situation changing any time soon. If parents and friends don't correct bad manners, they'll just keep on proliferating.

And eventually, Darwinian natural selection will produce humans with huge thumbs for texting, and ears shaped to fit cell phones.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Going to the Dogs

One of the side effects of the birth of our new grandchild is that we are now dogsitting for one of our daughter's very large dogs (our "granddog," if I can coin the term).

Yasmin and Vin have two dogs: Pip (a mix of black labrador and ... something ... rottweiler, pit bull, whatever) and Nessa (a chocolate labrador that thinks she's an enormous puppy). While they get Leya into a routine at home, they've farmed out the dogs to the grandparents. Vin's parents have Nessa, and we've taken Pip. I think we got the better end of the deal.

Pip is an elderly, overweight, gentle dog the size of a shetland pony. Yasmin adopted her many years ago when she was working as a veterinary technician at a local animal hospital...Pip was part of an abandoned litter of puppies, and no one wanted to take a chance on a dog with such a questionable mix of parents. Rather than let her be put down, Yasmin brought her home. As it turned out, the lab side of Pip's nature is dominant, and she's a gentle, loyal, and friendly - if very large - dog. She's a joy to have around, except for those times (like last night) when she needs to go for that necessary walk in a driving rainstorm. Labs are water dogs, so getting soaked to the skin doesn't particularly bother them...unlike those of us who didn't read the fine print in the marriage license closely enough to find out that they (not their wives) are responsible for walking dogs in the rain.

But anyway, we've gone to the dogs for the next few weeks. Rain notwithstanding, I love having Pip around. If you've never had a dog, you can't really understand the bond that forms between humans and canines, and the unconditional love and companionship a dog will give you. Many people have commented on the relationship between humans and dogs, but one of the best is this one:

"A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself." - Ben Williams

I'd write more, but it's time to take that morning constitutional with my four-legged main squeeze.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Grandparents Again (This Time with Pictures!)

We spent most of the day today with our daughter Yasmin, her husband Vin, and our newest grandchild, Leya. I couldn't resist just a few pictures...

Have you ever seen a more adorable child in your life (that wasn't your own, of course)?

Or a prouder grandpa?

Leya comes into the world at a difficult time, but if the love of two fine parents, four doting grandparents, a platoon of doting great-grandparents, and a host of family and friends has anything to do with it, she'll do just fine.

I just had to crow for a minute...but don't worry, I'll get back to my old, cranky self tomorrow.

Have a good day. We did! More thoughts tomorrow.


Grandparents Again!

It's good to be the King (and Queen): Agnes and I are now proud grandparents for the fourth time!

Our daughter Yasmin and her husband Vin delivered their first child - Leya Helene - late yesterday afternoon. Leya weighed in at 7 pounds (3 kg) and 20 inches (0,5 m), and is doing fine, as are mom and dad (who have no idea that they've had their last good night's sleep for a good while).

Leya joins our other grandchildren: Marcy (7), Joe (3), and Noah (1 next month) in our pride and joy collection. I'll post a photo or two later today, after visiting hours.

As a wise sage once said, "If I'd known grandchildren were so much fun, I'd have had them first!"

Have a good day. More thoughts (and pictures) later today.


Monday, August 20, 2007

Too Many Books, Part 2...But Good for You

A while back, I posted on my "problem" of having too many books, and the resultant problem of running out of shelf space for them. I bought another bookshelf at Ikea on Saturday (a narrow one, only 15 inches wide by 41 inches high) to fit the last remaining bit of wall space in the upstairs hallway, and promptly filled it up. There are more books still on floors and under the furniture, though, so I'm not sure what I've accomplished.

And, of course, we bought more books over the weekend. Agnes bought several cookbooks (we need more cookbooks like Iraq needs more violent lunatics), and I yielded to temptation and bought the latest (last?) book in Harry Turtledove's wonderful alternative history series about World War II as fought between the US and the Confederate States of America (title is "In At the Death"). So I suppose I shouldn't whine about an excess of books, eh?

But my problem could be a good thing for you, because I made a recipe from one of the new cookbooks for supper last night, and it turned out so well that I thought I'd share it with you. From our new "Fish and Shellfish Quick From Scratch" cookbook, here is your recipe for Seared Tuna with Avocado and Salsa Verde:

2/3 cup lightly packed flat-leaf parsley leaves (from my garden, of course!)
3 tablespoons drained capers
1 clove garlic, mashed
4 teaspoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon anchovy paste
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard (I forgot to add the mustard, and the sauce was still great)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh-ground pepper
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil
4 tuna (or any firm-fleshed fish) steaks, about 1 inch thick (about 2 pounds total)
1 avocado, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch chunks

1. Put the parsley, capers, garlic, lemon juice, anchovy paste, mustard, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, and 1/8 teaspoon of the pepper into a food processor or blender. Pulse to chop, about six to eight times. With the machine running, add the half-cup of olive oil in a thin stream to make a coarse puree. Leave the sauce in the processor/blender and, if necessary, pulse it again before serving to re-emulsify it.

2. Heat a grill pan or heavy skillet over moderately high heat. Rub the fish with the remaining tablespoon of oil and sprinkle with the remaining salt and pepper. Cook the fish for three minutes, then turn it over and cook until done to your taste, three to four minutes longer for medium rare (that's for tuna...if you use a different fish, cook it a bit longer until it's just done, rather than medium rare).

3. Serve the fish topped with avocado chunks and drizzled with the sauce. As accompaniments, try a nice rice pilaf and a crisp white wine.

4. Sit back happily while your guests tell you what a great cook you are.

This is a very good recipe, and very easy to make. You may want to cut back on the extra salt in the sauce, though. Anchovy paste tends to be pretty salty itself, and we found the sauce to be saltier than we usually like.

Hope you enjoy this recipe...we did. If you do try it, let me know how you liked it.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Deficiencies in My Education

I like to think of myself as a pretty well-educated person. I have a bachelor's degree (in Linguistics), a master's degree (in International Relations), and a graduation certificate from the Columbia School of Broadcasting. I read widely and voraciously, and keep up on the latest interesting statistics every day by checking "It Is a Numeric Life." I speak German and have traveled widely in Europe and North America. But for all that, I know that there are blank spots in my education, some of them fairly serious.

The most serious is economics.

Now, the way things are in the financial world today, that's a pretty serious deficiency. Happily, one of the many good things about being married to Agnes is that she understands Financial Sanskrit the way I understand German grammar, but better. Between Agnes and our financial advisor (never figured I'd need one of those), we're keeping our heads above the economic water so far. Nevertheless, I often wish I could make my own sense of the barrage of numbers, arcane terms, and bad financial news that hits me every day. Numbers baffle me, and I'm utterly lost in the tide of news about hedge funds, leveraged buyouts, all the various sorts of interest, and the ins and outs of various types of mortgages. To me, liquidity is that warm feeling I get when I wet my pants at the news that our 401(k) has taken another bath because of the greed of those who know more about economics than I do, and use that knowledge to make huge fortunes at my expense.

Wishing, of course, doesn't make it so. I try hard to make sense of the economic news, and I know instinctively that the truth lies somewhere between the Republican view (the economy's great, I've got mine, too bad about you) and the Democratic view (we're all going to be selling apples on street corners by the end of next week). But it's all a blur to me. My baseline understanding of economics is this:

1. If I work (or, at least, don't get caught not working) for 80 hours every two weeks, I'll get paid.

2. The government will take a large chunk of that pay and use it to do many things, some praiseworthy and necessary and others stupid and driven by ideology and greed.

3. I'll get by on the rest.

4. My 401(k) will, eventually, yield something which, in conjunction with my Social Security (if there's anything left in the fund in another 10 years), will have to support us in the style to which we have become accustomed...for another 20 or 30 years or so.

I'm trying hard to make sense of sub-prime mortgage swindles, futures markets, floating exchange rates, and options, but it's hard, and my poor brain just isn't wired for it.

Hope Agnes doesn't decide to leave me...

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. - yesterday's post on the revolt of my machines generated quite a few comments, and it's good to know that I'm not alone in my discomfiture with modern technology. Thanks for your words of support...and watch out for sneaky moves on the part of your own machines.


Saturday, August 18, 2007

Machines Hate Me

I'm not usually paranoid, but somehow I think that all the machines in my life have decided to gang up on me and drive me crazy. Lest YOU think I'm crazy, let me tell you what's going on...

It all started yesterday morning, when our fancy single-serving coffee maker refused to produce a cup of coffee for me. After a few tries, it grudgingly brewed me a mere half a cup. This morning, it attacked from a different direction, brewing a cup about a third more full than usual.

Back to yesterday. I hopped into my car and cranked the find the battery dead. Well, luckily we have an older car I was able to use. This car has power windows, three of which work reliably (the dead one is the front passenger's side window, of course). Now, as of yesterday, the driver's side rear window has slipped its gears, drops open every time I hit a bump, and won't respond to the switches. When I park, I have to put my hands on both sides of the window and shove it back up to close it. By the time I get back, it's usually managed to slip partly open again.

Ran errands, came back home, and sat down to print copies of the newsletter I write for our dance studio. As the third copy came off the printer, I noticed that it was grossly faded...I needed new black and color ink cartridges. Of course, I didn't have any spares, so I hopped back into the car (the one with the demon-possessed rear window) and drove to the nearby warehouse store, where I bought a multi-pack of cartridges (two small black and one large color). Back home, replaced both cartridges...and the printer's message window told me I had to put a black cartridge into the right-side holder. &^*%!, I said, there is a cartridge in there! I took it out, shook it, replaced it, and the printer still petulantly demanded that I insert a black cartridge. Well, okay, I thought...the printer can use either the #94 (small) or #96 (large) HP black cartridges, and since I was trying to replace a #96 with a #94, maybe it was balking at the smaller size.


Back to the car, back to the warehouse store, and bought a three-pack of #96 (large) HP black ink cartridges. Back home, took out the new #94 (small), replaced it with the new #96 (large), closed the printer cover...and it still told me I needed to insert a black cartridge.

Now, 24 hours later, it's still telling me the same thing.

I outwitted the stupid printer by using the printer attached to Agnes's computer, but I'm still stuck either with five apparently useless black print cartridges or a broken printer that will probably cost more to fix than I paid for it in the first place. The car window is still broken, the coffee maker is iffy, and I thought I saw my electric toothbrush eyeing me slyly from the corner of the sink.

I think I need a drink.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow...if the machines haven't done me in.


Friday, August 17, 2007

"A Nest of Infernal Complexities"

I draw your attention to an article by Douglas Borer from yesterday's Christian Science Monitor. Titled "From Belfast to Baghdad - What Have We Learned?", it provides a sobering, if not depressing, historical perspective on our prospects for pacifying Iraq.

Professor Borer notes that it took Great Britain 38 years to get the warring parties in Northern Ireland to the conference table and achieve a peace agreement...and this despite the fact that "The warring parties were all Christians, spoke the same language, were racially indistinguishable, and were all part of the same great Western 'civilization'." And there were international players muddying the waters as well: members of the IRA used the Republic of Ireland as a safe haven and place of refuge, while sympathetic Irish Americans supplied the IRA with weapons, cash, and other support.

The lesson is that peace, if it can be achieved, can take a very long time, a great deal of patience, and a level of exhaustion on the part of the combatants. Consider this summary offered by Professor Borer:

"Northern Ireland was a tough and thorny situation , but in terms of relative complexity, it was a game of checkers compared to the three-dimensional chess board that Iraq has become. Indeed, what began as a simple, old-fashioned war between the US and Iraq has now evolved into a nest of infernal complexities that almost defies description. When the US does something to support or appease one party, it creates hostility in at least two of the other internal actors and one or more external players."

We've been in Iraq for four years. Britain tried to pacify Northern Ireland for almost forty years. Our next administration faces a crucial strategic decision: do we accept the "sunk costs" of the war to this point, withdraw, and let the Iraqis sort out the mess themselves, or do we decide that we, as a nation, have the patience to continue fighting in "a nest of infernal complexities" that could take decades to end?

My own view is that we should take the first option, distasteful though it may be. We have given the Iraqis an opportunity to build a new and better nation, but they've squandered it in a spasm of sectarian violence and the settling of scores. There's no point in continuing to facilitate the lunacy of those who happily kill hundreds of innocent people at a time.

But I'm not the president...I'm just another opinionated blogger who thinks we can spend our efforts, our treasure, and our blood in better causes.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Prize I'd Really Like to Win

There was a wonderful story on NPR's All Things Considered show yesterday afternoon about the Russian town of Ulyanovsk's efforts to counter the effects of Russia's sharply declining birth rate. For the last three years, the town has had a "best parent" contest to see who could raise the best "Little Patriot;" the winners are selected by committee, and prizes have included refrigerators, cash, and this year's grand prize, a new SUV.

But in order to have parents to compete for the prizes, you have to have children...and so for the third year, Ulyanovsk has designated a "Day of Conception" on which workers wishing to ... um ... procreate ... can take the day off to do the horizontal tango in the hopes of winning those wonderful prizes. Of course, to an aging Lothario like me, the competition would be its own prize ... but then, no one asked my opinion.

All this, of course, makes light of a very serious problem: the declining birthrate in Russia and other industrialized nations. According to the NPR story, between 1987 and 1999, Russia's birthrate declined by a staggering 50%, and the cascading effect of that decline is magnified today by the smaller number of women available to have babies and the very high mortality rate in the population as a whole. Hence, the need to have contests to encourage people to do what comes naturally.

I believe this is a serious problem, and I think it's important to take appropriate action to reverse this sad trend. Therefore, on this year's Day of Conception, September 15th, encourage your significant other to help you show your solidarity with the citizens of Ulyanovsk by ... you know ... trying to win that SUV.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Evil Ice, and Some Happier Thoughts

A few weeks ago I read a moving article about life in Iraq that centered on an industry very important in the absence of reliable electricity: ice-making. With no electricity to run air conditioners, those who can make and deliver ice are very popular...but not, sadly, with everyone. The writer interviewed a man who ran one of the last functioning ice-making plants in Baghdad, and the gentleman ran down the litany of problems he faced in keeping his plant running: the lack of spare parts, electricity, safety in which to deliver his wares, and so on. But his worst problem, and the one that had made him decide to close his business, was with a radical religious militia that bluntly ordered him to close or be killed. Their reason: ice is un-Islamic, because there was no ice in the time of the prophet Mohammed.

Sadly, I think this says a lot about prospects for Iraq's future, and for overall hopes for peace in the Middle East.

On a happier note, I'd like to call your attention to some of the entries in my Recommended Link List. There are tens of millions of blogs out there, and finding ones that are worth your time in reading isn't easy...but I can recommend these:

Captain Picard's Journal. If you are a Star Trek fan you'll enjoy this blog, which is written in the form of the private log of the captain of the starship Enterprise, with frequent guest entries by other characters. The recent documentation of Seven of Nine's experiment in dating with the hapless Reg Barclay is a classic.

It Is a Numeric Life. If you're into numbers, or even if you aren't, you will always find something interesting here to stimulate your thinking...or just provide you something you can use to make conversation at those boring cocktail parties.

Out of My Hat. As you know, I'm not a traditionally religious person, but this blog is worth reading for its presentation of religious thoughts in a pleasant and straightforward manner. And who couldn't like a person like John, who is a preacher...and a magician?

Rhumba Dervish. I enjoy ballroom dancing, and this blog documents the dancing adventures of some of our friends here in the local area. If you live in, or are visiting Northern Virginia, check it out for observations on dancing opportunities.

The Milk Bar. Amanda is a stay-at-home-mom in Indonesia whose cheerful blog on life, love and children is a joy to read.

Enjoy these blogs. I do.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Arresting for Dollars

In the spring of this year, the Virginia General Assembly voted to impose a new set of draconian "civil fees" on top of the fines and court costs already imposed on traffic violators. The new fees began to be imposed on July 1st, and their impact is just now starting to be felt.

This is an issue which has me fairly conflicted. On the one hand, I'm appalled every day at the terrible drivers on our heavily-traveled local roads: the speeders, the red-light runners, and the fiercely aggressive drivers who tailgate and weave in and out of traffic. In one of my earliest posts in this blog, I noted somewhat morbidly that I expect to die as a result of being hit by a car at the intersection I have to cross every day, where drivers routinely fail even to slow down for the red light and are too busy watching for traffic coming from the left to watch out for pedestrians coming from the right...while they're yakking on their cell phones. On the other hand, though, I believe in fairness, and the new "civil fees" are just about as unfair as I can imagine.

Last Sunday's Washington Post ran a lengthy article about the new fees, noting that, "The fees, which range from $750 to $3,000, were passed by the General Assembly in the spring as part of a package aimed at funding scores of transportation projects. Backers said the fees would both raise money and improve highway safety by targeting the state's worst drivers--those guilty of severe traffic offenses such as DUI (driving under the influence), reckless driving, and driving on a suspended license." The article went on to profile one of the people hit by the new fees: a pregnant woman who thought she was in labor and was driving to the hospital was cited for reckless driving after being clocked at 57mph in a 35mph zone...she received a $100 fine, court costs, and a civil fee of $1,050 on top of that.

This is a pretty egregious example (who would be heartless enough to slam a pregnant woman like that?), but it is nevertheless an example of what happens when your government starts reaching for new sources of revenue. As a bit of background, you should know that we here in Virginia are subject to a so-called "Personal Property Tax" charged each year on the book value (not the actual value) of cars, trucks, motorcycles, boats, some animals, and various other things. Everyone hates the Personal Property Tax (known colloquially as the "car tax"), and one of our previous governors got himself elected on the basis of a pledge to reduce, if not eliminate, the hated tax. He delivered on his promise by greatly reducing the amount of the tax...made on the assumption that Virginia's booming economy would make up for the lost revenue with income from other, less visible taxes and fees. Well, you could have predicted what would happen: the economy turned down, and the lost income from the Personal Property Tax began to be felt in things like reduced highway maintenance (can you spell "collapsing bridge"?). And now our General Assembly, desperately seeking new sources of revenue, has hit on the sure-fire idea of slamming bad drivers with new, huge fees.

I don't have a problem with fines for persons convicted of traffic violations. I have paid a few myself over the years, and view them as the cost of my own stupidity. But what the General Assembly has done is to kick the citizens while they're down by using them as cash cows. The idea that the new civil fees will improve driving behavior is ludicrous, as anyone who spends a few minutes on Virginia highways will tell you...there has been no reduction in the level of moronic driving that I've been able to see. The fees are simply an attempt by a spineless legislature to raise tax revenue without having to admit they're imposing a new tax. And to add insult to injury, the fees are imposed only on drivers who are Virginia residents - if you are from out of state and ticketed on Virginia highways, you will still pay only your fine and court costs. Is this fair?

Many judges oppose the civil fees, a petition to repeal them has so far garnered over 170,000 signatures, and there are several pending challenges to their constitutionality in the state courts (one of which recently upheld the fees). One hopes that common sense will prevail, and the courts will strike down this egregious example of government gone wild.

But this is Virginia, and I'm not holding my breath.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Accidental Green Thumb

As you know if you've read my profile, I love to cook. And it doesn't take long for a cook to discover that many of the really good ingredients, particularly fresh herbs, can be pretty expensive if you buy them in the little plastic packages at the local supermarket. Thus it was that each year I told myself this would be the year that I was going to finally get off my pasty white backside and plant an herb garden to free myself from the tyranny of the supermarket.

I eventually got started two years ago by purchasing a large plastic bin to start my own mulch pile. All the right stuff went into it: vegetable peelings, coffee grounds, leftover or overaged vegetables, etc, and I dutifully watered and turned it through the summer. After it rained, or when I worked in the yard, I gathered up all the earthworms I found and tossed them into the mulch so that they could chomp their way through the pile and add their casts to the mix. Gradually, I ended up with a respectable amount of rich, black mulch.

Last year was the first year I actually planted my own herbs. I got several large pots filled them with potting soil (didn't have quite enough mulch yet), and bought bedding plants from the seasonal garden shop. I planted basil, thyme, tarragon, and chives and - voila! - we finally had our own herbs. The basil in particular grew very well, as did the thyme. The chives were a little sad and the tarragon not quite up to snuff, but the basil and thyme, which we use a lot of, made up for it.

With last year's success in mind, this year I got more adventurous. I hauled up some rocks from the woods behind the house and enclosed two plots on the sunny side of the house. I filled both with topsoil and put almost all of my accumulated mulch into the first one (it turned out that there wasn't quite enough mulch for both). In the first plot, I planted basil, rosemary, thyme, spearmint, and lavender; in the other I planted peppermint, more lavender, parsley, and the hapless chives (transplanted from the pot in which they'd survived the winter). Then I sat back, watered, and waited.


My little garden has exceeded my wildest expectations. In the first plot, my basil plants are each about four feet tall, bushy, and wonderfully fragrant. The lavender, rosemary and thyme are holding their own, but are hidden under a vast drift of spearmint. In the second plot, we have a huge patch of parsley, with the peppermint and lavender holding their own and the chives puttering along. I can tell the difference between the yield of the second plot (which didn't get much mulch) and the first.

But the real surprise turned out the be the success of what I didn't plant - tomatoes! From the tomato seeds in the mulch, I now have a veritable forest of huge tomato plants that are sprawling out everywhere! I have dozens of grape and cherry tomatoes happily ripening in the sun, along with a few larger specimens of other tomato sorts.

There's a real sense of accomplishment in being able to eat things you grew yourself, and I'm very proud of the way my little garden turned out. Our bounty is such that I've made the rounds of the neighborhood, encouraging everyone to come by and pick what they need. The mulch pile is still going strong as I prepare for next year, and you can smell the fresh scent of basil, lavender, and warm tomatoes from some distance. If you have the space (and all you really need is some pots or window boxes), you can grow some of your own things, too. It saves money, gives you something to do with idle hands, and just plain makes you feel good.

And we could all use that from time to time, couldn't we?

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. Thanks to all of you who commented on yesterday's post about my frustrations in booking a flight to Las Vegas - particularly the wishes for luck (which I'll surely need). I think that I left the impression that the trip was imminent...actually, Agnes will be attending a professional course out there in October, and I'll fly out to meet her for a long weekend when she's done with the class work. Reader John recommended the Mac Davis magic and comedy show at Harrah's - John, we saw that show two years ago when we were there, and it's great. And Amanda, thanks for the wish for luck! I'll need it, because I always think of the old joke about people who arrive in Vegas in $50,000 cars...then leave in $120,000 buses!


Saturday, August 11, 2007

Flying the Expensive Skies

Yesterday morning I fired up my computer and went online to book an airline flight. This is a task which used to be handled by professional travel agents, but which can now be done in the comfort of your own home with a few strokes of the keyboard. Of course, cutting the travel agent out of the loop deprives you of having someone to complain to when weird things happen as you book your travel...

I went to United Airlines website and quickly found the flight I was looking for: nonstop from Washington, DC to Las Vegas, Nevada, leaving DC early on Thursday morning and returning early enough on Sunday evening to allow me a good night's sleep before going back to work on Monday. I duly selected the combination of flights, which cost about $520...not too bad, I thought, for a round trip at the times I wanted. I pushed the "purchase tickets" button with my mouse, the website churned for a moment, and then up popped a new window which said:

"The fare you have selected is no longer available for this flight. The new fare is $556.30. Do you want to continue?"

Within the space of about ten seconds, the price of my flight went up by about $36.00.

Now, at this point I would have asked a travel agent what the $#%! was going on. After all, I wasn't booking through Orbitz or Travelocity or some other third-party travel website...this was the site of the airline itself. One would think they'd know up front that a particular fare wasn't available and quote you the correct price, without doing the old bait-and-switch.

Now, $36 isn't a huge amount of money, but it would buy me a nice meal at an average restaurant, subway fare to and from work for about a week, a nice dress shirt, or 144 pulls on a 25-cent slot machine in Las Vegas. And it only took United Airlines less than ten seconds to steal that money away from me by charging me a larger fare than the one they quoted when I selected the flight.

I'll never understand in a million years how airline pricing works. I know that no two people on the same flight have paid the same amount for their tickets. But I don't think it's fair that an airline is able to charge you more for your ticket than the price quoted when you chose your flight if you're actually using their own website.

Okay, no deep message for today. I just needed the opportunity to vent about one of life's little annoyances. I'm going to Las Vegas whether I have to pay the extra $36 or not...but I won't enjoy the trip as much as I might have, because there will always be this little voice in the back of my mind to remind me that my little vacation began with a minor, matter-of-fact screwing by the airline.

But maybe it will all work out. Maybe I'll win enough money in Vegas to buy the airline, and then I can find and fire the guy who designed the online bait-and-switch booking system.

As fantasies go, I guess that's a safe one.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Real People

Some years ago I attended a graduation ceremony at which the guest speaker was General Al Gray, who was then the Commandant of the Marine Corps. General Gray was a stocky fireplug of a man with a gravelly voice and an engaging, twisted grin, and that evening he delivered a great speech about leadership. One of the tenets of leadership, General Gray said, was the ability of a leader to pass what he called "The 7-11 Test": whether the average guy buying his cup of coffee at the 7-11 would think what you wanted to do made sense.

I don't think many of our current elected leaders can pass the 7-11 test, because they've lost the ability to talk, as General Gray could, to the folks I call "Real People."

If you've been reading this blog for very long, you know that I often refer to "real people," the average working people in what we sometimes call the middle, lower, or working class, the people who pay the taxes and buy the goods and provide the bedrock upon which the country is built. They're the people the Founders talked about when the wrote "We, the People" as the first three words of the Constitution. And they're the people least likely to be of particular concern to the political and economic leadership of the country.

Real People aren't pampered celebrities with the pull to get them out of trouble. They don't have a lobby in Congress to explain all the reasons why they shouldn't have to pay taxes, or why the taxes they pay in Iowa should be used to build eight-lane highways in West Virginia. They're not rich or politically well-connected. They worry about affordable health care for their families, bridges that won't collapse under them, and religious fanatics who come to America and insist on rights and privileges they routinely and unashamedly deny to others at home. In the words of the song "Israelites" by Desmond Decker, they "Get up in the morning, slaving for bread, sir, so that every mouth can be fed."

I like Real People because, well, they're real. They have a certain amount of common sense that doesn't quite believe everything the politicians tell them. They take simple, practical positions on important issues, avoiding the polarizing extremes that have so wrecked political discourse in America. They recognize problems and come up with solutions.

And as they buy that cup of coffee at the local 7-11, they wish for a few more Al Grays who could talk to them as equals about the practical things they care about.

If you're a Real Person, you're always welcome at Bilbo's Place. I'll even make you the coffee so you don't have to stop at the 7-11 first. But if you're a posturing phony, interested only in living the irresponsible good life or imposing your religious beliefs on others while insisting on rights you'd deny to them, please move on.

There are plenty of places on line for the intolerant and pigheaded. This isn't one of them.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, August 10, 2007

Legislating Civility

Back on April 18th of this year, I wrote an article in this blog titled, "Who Can Say What, When, and Why." You may want to go back and read that one before you read this one. I'll wait.

One of my friends sent me a link yesterday to an August 7th New York Times article that had me shaking my head in bemusement. The article was titled, "It's a Female Dog, or Worse. Or Endearing. And Illegal?", and it reported a measure introduced by a Brooklyn councilwoman to ban use of the word "bitch" (more genteelly expressed in the legislation as 'the b-word') because it "creates a paradigm of shame and indignity for all women."

Where I come from, this is called stupid.

I've often blogged on the topic of courtesy and the lack thereof in our modern society. From the halls of Congress to the streets of any city and even the halls of our schools, people are rude and use tasteless and inappropriate language to talk about - and to - each other. It's gotten to the point where the bad language has become so much the norm that it seldom registers any more. And, as I wrote back on the 18th of April, who you are often dictates what you can say.

Take the uproar over the dreaded "n-word." If you are white, use of this word is an unpardonable sin. If you are black, it's okay (although there are moves afoot to ban, or at least minimize its use). And it goes farther. I used to catch an occasional ride to work with a young black professional who always had his radio tuned to a popular local black station. The morning show featured liberal use of the "n-word" by the hosts and the listeners who called in, along with routine use of crude and racist language to describe whites...language that would have thrown posturing buffoons like Al Sharpton into a towering and indignant rage had it been similarly used on a "white" station to refer to blacks.

What's wrong with this picture? Why are some people given a pass to use inappropriate language, but not others? Do we really need to legislate civility?

My parents would have beaten me silly for using the sort of language that I now hear around me every day. Unfortunately, many parents today are absent, uncaring, or simply clueless, and fail to teach their children the lessons of common courtesy that some of us learned in a simpler time.

In another, unrelated New York Times article dated August 9th, reporter and military analyst Jack Jacobs wrote about changes in Army regulations on casualty investigation and reporting that arose from the death of Pat Tillman in Afghanistan and the failure of Army leaders to get the true story out. Jacobs wrote, "In many walks of life, legislating against unacceptable behavior is used as a barrier against potential misdeeds, but in most cases such laws and rules are really just substitutes for good leadership."

Those are wonderful words. In the context of the "n-word" and the "b-word," if we substitute the words "common courtesy" for "good leadership" we get to my point. All the laws in the world won't make people clean up their linguistic act if they haven't learned the basics of courtesy and civil behavior at an early age.

We live in a democracy which guarantees us many freedoms, including the freedom of speech. Sadly, as I've commented before, freedom of speech doesn't always come with freedom of smart. You need only look at Congress to see what happens when the lack of civility intrudes into the people's business - we're now stuck with 535 elected officials who snipe at each other rather than cooperating in a civil way to move the nation forward.


Brooklyn can go ahead and legislate against calling someone a bitch, but it won't solve the underlying problem that we just don't treat each other well any more. My parents taught me the Golden Rule as a guide to life. Unfortunately, nowadays many parents don't seem to teach any rules at all.

And that's sad for all of us.

Have a good day, and remember that words matter. Choose them well.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Right to Privacy, or "Who Knows Ya, Baby?"

Mac Johnson wrote an article published earlier this week at Human that I recommend you read. It's titled, "The NSA Can't Invade Our Privacy--It's Under IRS Occupation Already," and you can find it at

If you strip away all the hyperbole, Mr Johnson's central point is this: you're wasting your time getting hysterical about the possibility of the National Security Agency listening to your international phone calls, because very few of the tens of millions of phone calls made every day will ever actually be listened to (and you can reduce the chance further by avoiding terms like "ammonium nitrate" and "glorious martyrdom" when you talk to someone in, say, Pakistan). The real threat to your privacy, Mr Johnson points out, is already here, already in your informational face every day, and you don't even think about it.

He refers, of course, to the much-maligned Internal Revenue Service - the agency charged with collecting our income taxes here in the United States.

His point, which I'd never fully considered before, is that you have NO privacy from the information-seeking of the IRS, which is perfectly legal. Every dime you earn is reported by your employer, your bank, your broker, and everyone else. to the IRS, which then compares that information to the data you submit yourself, and has the legal authority to impose draconian penalties if you have made a mistake, however innocent. He notes that "Through the IRS, the government wants to know where I work, how much I am paid, how much money I owe on my house, and whether I received or gave cash gifts to family or friends. They must be told who lives with me, what my relationship to them is, and whether we had any major medical bills (and for what, as well as to whom the bill was paid, and when). I must tell the IRS if I sold stock, when I sold it, when I bought it, and how much money I made or lost in the process. I must account for all my property, to show that I did not keep that part of my income paid to other governments as property taxes and fees."

He goes on for several more paragraphs, but you get the idea. Forget the NSA - they're amateurs at the art of extracting information from the unaware and unwilling. For real, and totally legal threats to your privacy, nobody can beat the IRS.

Now, don't get me wrong. As I've written often enough in this space, I don't mind paying taxes. Our governments at all levels need to get the money to operate somehow, and the principle of sharing in the cost of the services the government provides isn't objectionable. I don't like paying my property taxes any more than anyone else, but I realize they pay for the police and fire protection on which I rely, and for the wonderful public libraries I patronize. I grit my teeth when I pay my income tax every April 15th, but I know that the armed services that protect my family and the whole array of government services I expect have to be paid for somehow.

No, there's nothing wrong with paying taxes per se. My problems with the system are these:

1. It proceeds from the supposition that you will cheat. The IRS collects every bit of information available about your life and earnings so that it can compare it to what you report. Your government doesn't trust you to report your income honestly.

2. Our tax system has drifted far from its true purpose, which is to generate revenue for the operation of the government and the provision of essential services of common concern. Instead, it is used as a means of social and economic engineering, to reward or punish various individuals and groups or to manipulate the larger economy.

3. Congress has a vested interest in using the tax code to do the things listed in #2. They'll never enact true tax reform, because it removes one of their major sources of power.

4. You don't have any voice (other than your vote) in how your taxes are spent. Hundreds of billions of our dollars have been spent on our misadventure in Iraq, to no evident purpose.

and finally,

5. When the government uses the tax code for social and economic engineering, it's usually without a full appreciation of the fact that the benefits bestowed in one area must be made up from another. When a particular industry gets a tax benefit, the government loses income which must be made up from one of three sources: spending reductions (not likely), increased taxes on other taxpayers (real people like you and I), or increased borrowing (which reduces the amount of money available to be borrowed by...yes...real people like you and I).

Okay, I've drifted from my original point, which is that Mr Johnson is right about the intrusiveness of the IRS's data collection and mining activities, and our lack of realization that it's going on. Taxes are a necessary evil. Unfairness is not.

And we are, for the reasons I began to outline above, unlikely ever to have a truly fair tax system.

Have a good day. Big Brother will, after all, know whether you do or not.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Unknown National Scourge of Faraday Cages

I recently came across a reference to something called a Faraday Cage. Curious fellow that I am, I looked up the term and discovered that a Faraday Cage (named for 19th-century English physicist Michael Faraday) is a metallic enclosure which prevents the entry or escape of electromagnetic radiation. Faraday Cages are often used as a security measure to keep eavesdroppers from listening to telephone and computer signals leaking through walls, or to prevent persons outside a protected structure from transmitting signals to the interior.

On the basis of this new knowledge, it occurs to me that perhaps Faraday Cages are the insidious reason our government is so dysfunctional.

Why else would we have a president so intent on maintaining secrecy in his administration, so reluctant to admit mistakes, and so resistant to taking advice? The White House must be a giant Faraday Cage which keeps information from the public and insulates the President from the sinister effects of external, unwanted data.

And why are so many members of Congress so reluctant to accept new ideas and make compromises to move the nation forward on crucial issues? Obviously, the Capitol is a giant Faraday Cage which protects them from the influence of dangerous and politically incorrect ideas.

I think there's a lot to be said for my theory. Can you think of any other reason why otherwise intelligent people are so resistant to outside advice and influences? I'm willing to bet that there's a Pulitzer Prize here for some aggressive reporter ready to expose the sinister effect of Faraday Cages on the Executive and Legislative branches of our government. Probably on the Judicial branch, too.

Because I have a hard time believing public servants could act this stupid without help.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Ultimate Love-Hate Relationship

One of my favorite commentators is classical historian Victor Davis Hanson, probably because I agree with almost everything he writes. On August 3rd, he posted an article to his website titled, "Popularity Contest: Why they hate, and like, us", which is worth your reading. You can find it at

Consider this quote from the article, which represents the heart of Professor Hanson's discussion: "...what enrages America about the petulant Islamic world's dislike is mostly the unwillingness of these nations to translate their popular anger into any concrete action. We would expect these belligerents to refuse U.S. aid, cease immigrating to the United States, keep their students from visiting the Great Satan, or kick the U.S. military out of the Persian Gulf."

I suggest you go back and read that quote carefully, because it's important.

If you've been reading this blog for very long, you know that I tend to be very hard on the nations of the Middle East for this very reason. The most important word in anyone's vocabulary anywhere in the Middle East seems to be "hate." It's more important to hate someone and blame them for your troubles, than to take action to solve the problems and make life better. If you're a Palestinian, it's more important to sit in a squalid refugee camp, fight with other Palestinians, and blame Israel and the U.S. for your plight than to figure out how to move forward and build a progressive, functioning society. If you're a Muslim, it's more important to hate Christians and Jews than to accept them and work together to build a better life for everyone. If you're an Israeli, it's more important to build untenable settlements in occupied land than to work with the Palestinians to determine the most equitable deal which meets everyone's minimum needs.

It's easier to blame the United States for all the problems, because then you don't have to take responsibility for your own actions. Rajiv Chandrasekaran's wonderful book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, makes the compelling argument that the U.S., awash in good intentions, ended up making life miserable in Iraq, and I wouldn't argue with him. On the other hand, the Iraqis, having been handed the foreigners' gift (to paraphrase Fouad Adjami), proceeded to loot the country into wreckage, then go on to savagely murder each other on the basis of tribe and religious affiliation. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez blames America for every evil down to the termites in his walls. Mexico berates the U.S. for its treatment of illegal aliens arriving from that country, while at the same time treating illegal immigrants arriving in Mexico from the south very harshly.

Yes, it's always better to have someone to blame for your own failures. But why, since we of the U.S. are so terrible, does everyone want to come here? Why aren't people acting as Professor Hanson rhetorically asks?

Consider this thought, which many people smarter than I have expressed before: they come here because we offer what no other nation can. For all our faults (and there are plenty), the United States has built the world's only true, integrated, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, society which offers equality of opportunity to all. Perfect? Hardly. Better than just about everyone else? You bet.

The so-called "anger of the Arab street" and the carping of morons like Hugo Chavez is the sound of jealousy...anger that we have worked together to build a nation and society that all others envy, and are unwilling to do the hard work of building.

So my message to the dysfunctional nations of the Middle East is this: get off your backsides, stop blaming everyone else for your problems, and start working to build, rather than destroy.

You may find you actually like it.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, August 06, 2007

"40 Is the New 20"

I was thrilled when I first heard this expression not long ago, because it helps give me a different outlook on life. Now that I'm officially closer to 60 than to 50, a little math (at which I'm not normally very good) tells me that if 40 is the new 20, then 60 is the new diggity, I'm almost 20 years younger than I thought!

It's said that you're only as old as you feel, and that's true, if not always equivalently measurable. When I first get up in the morning, or just after I've been pummeled by three hyperactive grandchildren, I feel like I'm 90. When I'm dancing with Agnes or some other beautiful lady, I feel like I'm 20 again. The effect of age is, like most other things, a matter of how you deal with it: if you've eaten a healthy diet, exercised well, avoided smoking, and generally treated your body like a temple and not like a tent (in the words of a Jimmy Buffett song), you'll probably age pretty well.

This reflects itself in all sorts of ways, great and small. In a society and a time in which we place great emphasis on youth and beauty, it can be hard for talented, but aging actresses to land prime parts in the movies and on Broadway and TV. A recent article noted that many "older" actresses once known for being "sexy" are now redefining themselves for a new generation of audiences and roles...looking for ways to prove "they've still got it." This has led to all sorts of commentary and new slang expressions - one of my favorites being "GILF" - "Grandmother I'd Like to ... uh ... Make Love To."

It's said that the compensation nature gives men for aging is that each year there are more women we think are beautiful. It's true, of course. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but the beholder's eye is greatly aided when the beholdee takes good care of herself (or himself). There's no reason why every lady shouldn't develop into someone's GILF...and every man work to keep himself attractive to her.

No particularly deep message for today. I'm going to dress nattily for work and head for the Metro...where I will, as always, engage in the eye exercises of the beholder.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, August 05, 2007

Too Many Books?

I hope you weren't frightened when the earth shook and thunder rolled as I wrote the title of this entry. As much as it must make my mother roll over in her grave and shake her head over her son, I have come to the conclusion that, yes, we have too many books. Coming as I do from a long line of voracious readers, and being married to another reader as voracious as myself, it's difficult to admit that we have an oversupply of books, but I have to reluctantly admit that it's true.

Earlier today, I drove down to the local Ikea store and purchased two large, new bookshelves. This action was necessitated by my realization that it was becoming dangerous to walk past the towering piles of books on top of existing bookshelves, on the floors, and in most unoccupied corners of the house...if one of those piles were to fall over, it could be fatal. Despite our frequent donations of old books to other members of the family, to the local library, and to various friends, we have become overrun with books.


I brought the two new bookshelves home, assembled them, put them in place, and filled them with books...

And we still have piles of books on the floors.

There are exactly 35 bookshelves of various sizes in this house (not counting the small one on my desk). I have no idea how many books are sitting on those shelves, but the number is certainly enormous...and there are, at the moment, four books from the library on my nightstand.

When we moved back to the U.S. from Germany in 1990, the movers who packed up our household goods were amazed at the number of books we were shipping...and even more at the percentage of them that were cookbooks. And that was seventeen years ago!

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you already know that we love to read. In my opinion, the more you read and learn, the better prepared you are to recognize B.S. when it's thrown at you, whether by your government, your church, or anyone else. Reading is one of the most important things you can do for yourself and for your children, and so from that perspective, it's tough to have too many books.

Unless they're piled high enough to fall on you.

Have a good day. Read something. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, August 04, 2007

Santa Cruz License Plates and Other Imponderables

Some time ago in my reading I ran across a term I didn't recognize: "Santa Cruz License Plate." A few minutes online research revealed the meaning: a tattoo worn by a woman at the small of her back, so that it's revealed when she wears low-rise jeans and bare-midriff tops, or a two-piece bathing suit. I thought it was a clever term, and certainly more genteel than the other term I've since heard for the same thing: "tramp stamp."

I still don't understand why anyone, and particularly women, would want to have a tattoo. I've never thought it made sense to permanently mark your body with a tattoo, or decorate it with so many piercings that you clank when you walk. Someday, after all, all those 18-year-olds with lots of tattoos and piercings will be 80 years old and look pretty stupid.

Nevertheless, there are plenty enough people who think tattoos and piercings are a mark of ... well ... something. I knew a young woman years ago who worked in the library at the Air Force base where I was stationed. She was the quintessential punk - tattooed from top to bottom (at least in all the places I could see, which was most of them, given how she dressed), hair a different and odd color every week (often different on opposite sides of her head), and with so many piercings that she couldn't possibly have made it onto an airplane nowadays. I knew the lady, whose name was Renee, pretty well, so one day I approached her at the library desk, made a show of carefully looking around to make sure no one else was in earshot, then whispering to her, "Can I ask you a very personal question?" She looked at me suspiciously, then agreed, and as she leaned forward I whispered into her heavily-pierced ear, "What color is your hair, anyhow?" She didn't know whether to laugh or slap me.

Renee was a very attractive lady, but I always felt she'd made herself much less attractive with all the tattoos and piercings. That was more than 20 years ago, and tattoos on ladies were much less common than they are now. Nowadays, it seems that the woman without a tattoo is a relative rarity. I especially don't understand the attraction of tattoos for black women - the dark colored inks tend to blend in with their skin tone and look more like skin disorders than decorations.

Of course, in the end what I think about tattoos doesn't matter, because people are still going to get them regardless of what I think. But if you're a woman, and you're thinking of getting a tattoo ... or another tattoo ... listen first to the great Jimmy Buffett song on the topic: "Permanent Reminder of a Temporary Feeling." And then change your mind.

You'll thank me someday.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, August 03, 2007

All Fall Down

The terrible disaster in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in which an 8-lane highway bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River during the afternoon rush hour, points up an insidious problem here in the United States - our crumbling infrastructure.

Talking heads on TV and "experts" of all sorts will be debating the cause of the collapse for years, but my simplistic mind has already identified the root problem: we're too darned cheap. Years of protest against taxes of all sorts, a government that believes in spending our money in Iraq rather than on our needs at home, and a general unwillingness to spend money on mundane yet important things...all these fiscal chickens have come home to roost. Our local TV news broadcasts are full of officials swearing confidently that the dozens of bridges in the Washington, DC metro area are perfectly safe, but one has to wonder...I'm sure that lots of similar officials in Minneapolis would have said the same thing.

The state of our infrastructure - roads, bridges, dams, electrical grid, water supply, and so on - is one of those things we never think about until something goes wrong. Bridges are always there. Clean water comes out when you turn on the tap. Throw a switch, and the lights come on. It's our birthright, isn't it?

The next time you complain about paying your taxes, think about the things they help pay for. Let your elected Reprehensibles know that you'd appreciate more money being spent to fix things at home rather than repeatedly fix things in Iraq just so that the local morons can blow them up again.

The Minnesota bridge disaster was avoidable. The next such disaster will have been avoidable also. And we'll have the same talking heads mouthing the same platitudes while nothing gets fixed.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.