Thursday, January 31, 2008

Melting Pots, Tossed Salads, and Mosaics

Around the end of the Jurassic Era, when I was in elementary and high school back in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, one of the classes we were required to take was "Civics," in which we learned about American government and the responsibilities of citizenship. I don't know if such classes are still required (I don't recall my daughter having one), but if they aren't, they need to be, because I don't remember a time in which such lessons were needed more than they are today.

It used to mean something special to be an American. You were a citizen of the greatest nation in the world, the country everyone wanted to come to. No matter what your name was, your religion, your ethnicity, your race, your original home, there was a place for you as long as you were willing to work hard and do your part to build the American dream.

It wasn't perfect, of course. Through the years, almost every ethnic group has suffered discrimination and economic deprivation on its way to the achievement of that mythical American Dream. There were times when you could see signs everywhere with messages like, "No Irish Need Apply," "Whites Only," and "Jews Not Welcome Here." But in the long run, all of those groups persevered and became part of the group called "Americans."

In my old Civics classes, we learned that America was a Melting Pot - a great kettle into which people of every race, color, creed, and ethnic background fell, melted together, and emerged as something new called an American. The Melting Pot helped to get rid of (or at least, to minimize) old prejudices and produce citizens who spoke English and believed in core American values of hard work, tolerance, and civic responsibility.

Sometime during the intervening years, the Melting Pot gave way to the Tossed Salad - the concept of America as a huge bowl into which people of every race, color, creed, and ethnic background were dropped and tossed around to create a salad that preserved the identity of each individual ingredient while producing a pleasing whole. This was the beginning, I think, of the trend toward emphasis on preserving ethnic backgrounds at the expense of the concept of an American identity. We became a nation of hypens: Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, and African-Americans, people to whom the ethnic designation to the left of the hyphen was as important (or more) than the American to the right.

And today we have the Mosaic - the concept of America as a image made up of millions of individual pieces, each one separate and distinct, each one demarcated from all the others by its color and placement. In the Mosaic, the color, shape, and location of each individual piece has become more important than its value as part of the whole: one is no longer an American, but rather a Black, a Hispanic, a Muslim, gay or lesbian, or whatever.

In the Mosaic America, many Muslims insist on maintaining a religious identity that trumps civic responsibilities; many Blacks want special treatment to compensate for past discrimination; and many Hispanics want a Spanish-speaking environment in which it isn't necessary to learn the English language that was once the glue that helped hold a wildly diverse nation together.

The Melting Pot may or may not have been the best metaphor for America, but it did manage to make us the Nation of Choice for people fleeing oppression and discrimination elsewhere. Unfortunately, as the Melting Pot yielded to the Tossed Salad and then to the Mosaic, the entire concept of being an American has changed. Nowadays, people stream into this country - many in flagrant violation of the law - and insist on recreating the environments they left behind. The America of toleration and rational action runs the risk of changing to a collection of polarized elements, each insisting on its perceived rights and privileges at the expense of the nation as a whole.

As we lurch through the endless banality and empty posturing of the presidential campaign season, it's worth thinking about what's not being said. The next president will inherit a badly fractured nation in danger of changing from Tossed Salad to Mosaic. He (or she) must be prepared to be the president of all Americans, and to articulate a vision of the America we stand to lose if we lose sight of the virtues and traditions that made us a great nation.

Think about that as you decide which of the mediocre candidates out there deserves your vote. One of them is going to set our course for the next four years, and probably influence it for much longer. I'm old, crusty, and pissed off...I can vent my spleen in my blog and wish for the return of the better days of the Melting Pot. Unfortunately, my beloved grandchildren will grow up in the era of the Mosaic.

And it'll be an era of a diminished America of squabbling bits and pieces, not the great engine of progress and toleration.

And that's sad.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, January 30, 2008

And If I Am Elected...

Several of my regular readers, who have obviously been hitting the well-fermented cider, have suggested that I run for president. The clear implication is that I couldn't possibly do any worse than the current occupant of the White House; nevertheless, I'm flattered that Serina Hope, Mike, and John all think I ought to make a try for the Oval Office.

So...assuming I were to run for president, what would I promise (because you can't be a candidate without promising everyone something)?


A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage? Nah...already done.

Free beer? Well, that'll get me the votes of both my brothers and everyone in my office, but won't really contribute much toward a majority in the Electoral College.

How about something really radical...

I promise, if elected, to talk to - not at - the American people.

In line with the observation that we have two ears and only one mouth, I promise to listen twice as much as I talk.

I promise to follow a foreign policy based on what's best for America...not what's pushed by special interest blocs or advocates of the needs of any other nation.

I promise to use the word illegal at every opportunity when discussing our out-of-control illegal immigration problem.

I promise an administration based on common sense and sound moral principles...not on the tides of political correctness or the dictates of a specific religion.

I promise to focus on the needs of the Real People of America...the ones who go to work every day, care for their families, pay taxes, and worry about Real Issues like affordable health care, affordable housing, and safe streets.

I realize that a list of promises like this invalidates me as an electable candidate in an era of political correctness, moral relativity, and the need to pander to every splinter group and religious sect. But I think it's what I'd like to hear a real candidate - one that I can support - promise.

I'm not holding my breath.

I leave you with this picture, borrowed from Miss Cellania's blog this morning:

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The State of the Union, 2008

No, I didn't listen to Mr Bush's speech last night. If I want to watch engrossing theater, I can wait for the next Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation.

The President is required by Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution to "...from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." George Washington gave the first "State of the Union" speech on January 8, 1790; until the address delivered by Woodrow Wilson in 1913, subsequent presidents fulfilled this duty by sending a written report to Congress.

Regardless of how it's done - in person or by letter - the State of the Union report is an important Presidential duty. It directs him (or her) to tell the people how he views the world, what policies he intends to follow, and what direction he intends to take the nation. It is supposed to make the Chief Executive come out and explain to the American people what the government they elected is doing on their behalf.

Of course, as time has gone on, the State of the Union address ("SOTU" in government shorthand) has become less about information and direction and more about fluff and theater. From the introduction of the President by the Sergeant at Arms and the traditional walk down the aisle amid thunderous applause and cheers to the carefully choreographed language which leaves "applause spots" in the text, the State of the Union has become nothing more than an opportunity for political speechifying and a full-employment program for talking heads.

I read the transcript of Mr Bush's speech this morning and found myself utterly unimpressed. The last few paragraphs were the best, but were deprived of real meaning by the very actions of the Bush administration. This is what he said:

"The secret of our strength, the miracle of America, is that our greatness lies not in our government, but in the spirit and determination of our people. When the federal convention met in Philadelphia in 1787, our nation was bound by the Articles of Confederation which began with the words, "We the undersigned delegates." Constitution, he offered an important revision, and opened with words that changed the course of our nation and the history of the world: "We the people."
"By trusting the people, our founders wagered that a great and noble nation could be built on the liberty that resides in the hearts of all men and women. By trusting the people, succeeding generations transformed our fragile young democracy into the most powerful nation on earth and a beacon of hope for millions.
"And so long as we continue to trust the people, our nation will prosper, our liberty will be secure and the state of our union will remain strong."

Unfortunately, this President, and this Congress, don't trust the people.

And, sadly, the feeling is mutual.

You will derive your own lessons and message from the State of the Union address. I encourage you to read it and think about its meaning. Your duty as a citizen is to inform yourself about your government and the actions it takes in your name.

If the President and Congress can't or won't do their duty, at least you can do yours.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. - If you aren't overloaded on political campaign news yet, you may be interested in this editorial from last Sunday's Washington Post. It's the best summary of the major candidates I've seen yet, and worth your time in reading.


Monday, January 28, 2008

Did You Notice The Weekend That Just Flew By?

I like to think of myself as a man of contradictions. One of the major ones is that I love to stay busy, but I also love to just sit and read and relax. Agnes does her part to make sure I stay busy and don't have to worry about wasting time sitting and of the phrases I dread hearing is "We need to..." which is Agnes for "Get off your wide, lazy butt and get this done!"

Sometimes, though, Agnes doesn't need any help keeping me busy. This past weekend was a prime example.

After getting home late Friday night after the weekly dance party at Studio One, on Saturday morning we were up at (for a weekend) the very crack of dawn to be able to meet our dance coach at 9:00 AM in Bethesda, Maryland for two hours of work on our International-style dancing. When the coaching session was over, we each hauled a change of clothes out of our carry bags and did a quick change in the rest room, then raced across DC and down into Virginia to get to the 1:00 PM memorial service for one of our acquaintances who had passed away recently.

Well, okay, one doesn't race across Washington, DC, which is where all the extra traffic lights and stop signs that aren't being used elsewhere in the country are stored. We lurched from intersection to intersection, finally arriving at our destination (no particular thanks to Map Quest) at about 12:15 PM.

We'd agreed to help one of our friends set up for the reception after the service, a task complicated by the fact that no one seemed to know quite how many people were going to be there. Agnes and I, our friend, and her brother, did our best imitations of whirling dervishes as we unpacked dishes and silverware, prepared food trays, rushed everything from the downstairs staging area to the upstairs reception room, and tried to estimate the size of the milling crowd.

In the end, we never did make it to the memorial service (although we did hear parts of it through an open door as we frantically tried to organize the reception). We had food and drinks for about 300 people...of whom roughly 100 actually came. Everything came off all right, but it was quite a frantic production right up to the moment everyone started crossing the hall from the church to the reception...and it culminated with more frantic flailing later as we desperately tried to clean everything up for the next group scheduled to use the rooms.

We slept well that night.

Yesterday morning was fairly quiet, and at 3:00 we presented ourselves at Dance Studio Lioudmila to participate in that studio's Winter Showcase. It was quite a large affair, with over 60 amateur and professional dance exhibitions organized in four groups. Agnes and I danced our crowd-pleasing Cha-Cha routine in the third group; Agnes then did a quick change into one of her long gowns to dance an International Tango routine with Phil, one of her students, in the fourth group.

We had a great time, and I even managed to remember our routine and dance it with few mistakes, all of which were recoverable. The best part of the day, though, came after the Showcase - two young children, a little girl of about 3 and a little boy (in trousers, white shirt, and vest) did their own dancing on the now-empty floor...she did a wonderful job of dragging his reluctant form around the room in vague time to the music still playing in the background. I was kicking myself for not bringing my camera!

After all was over, we got home about 9:30...just in time for Agnes to feed Punky while I ironed my shirt for work today. By the time the shirt was done, it was time to take Punky for her final walk of the day.

And then time to collapse into bed.

And here we are again. It's Monday. Punky's ready to go out again, another work week looms, and Mr Bush delivers his final (woo-hoo!) State of the Union address tonight. According to CNN, the speech will run about 42 minutes, but I can't imagine it can take that long to say "awful." Then again, I'm not a politician (with apologies to all the readers who think I should run for president).

I need a vacation.

Well, gotta run. I hope your weekend was pleasant and enjoyable, and that the coming week will be good for you.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. - Thought for the day: "Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from a liberal, who wishes to replace them with others." - Ambrose Bierce

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Where You Live, How You Worship

One of my favorite blogs is Strange Maps, which offers a very interesting way to look at the world through our various representations of it. Some are funny, some are downright fascinating, and all are at least worth looking at for the way in which they represent someone's attempt to describe the world around us in just two dimensions. Today, in post #237, is a map of the United States showing the distribution and relative dominance of the eight major Christian denominations in the United States. You should read the complete analysis for yourself and draw your own conclusions, but (of course) I have a few thoughts on it. First, here's the map itself:

And here's my take on it...

One of the things you often hear (especially in an election season, and in the context of the current international situation) is that the United States is a "Christian Nation." This map would seem to prove that graphically, but remember a couple of things.

First, this map shows only the eight major Christian denominations; Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, and others aren't included in the depiction. Granted, the United States is a majority Christian nation, and you probably wouldn't find most of the other religions with enough of a regional majority to show on a map of this scale, but it's useful to remember that there are, in fact, other forms of worship out there.

Second, don't believe the old chestnut that the United States was established as a Christian nation. It wasn't. The Founders came from a Europe that had been wracked by centuries of religious wars, the terrors of the Spanish Inquisition, and the use of religion by rulers to enforce their will on their populations. They weren't having any of that. That's why the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution) includes - as the very first amendment, no less - these words: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Think about that for a minute. You could live in a paradise like Saudi Arabia, where it's illegal to show the least outward sign of any religion other than the Wahabi sect of Islam. You could live in a paradise like much of the Middle East, where it's illegal to build a church and where preachers endorse enlightened concepts like female genital mutilation, honor killings, and arranged marriages. The Founders weren't "Christians" according to our current understanding of the term...they believed in a God, yet they included these words in Article VI of the Constitution: "The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

That's worth thinking about at a time when candidates for office are routinely asked where they worship, if they believe in God, how they stand on issues like abortion, and so on. There's a reason the Founders wrote the Constitution the way they did...they'd seen what the heavy hand of oppressive religious belief could do, and didn't want to see it in the new nation they were trying to create. Any crackpot Muslim imam who wants to reduce women to fully-concealed objects walking three paces behind a man can set up a storefront mosque in this country and try to sell his medieval beliefs to those insecure enough to accept them...but you could be sentenced to death for trying to open a church in most of the Muslim world. And if you're a woman, heaven forbid you should be caught on a Saudi Arabian street wearing something pornographic like a short-sleeved blouse or a knee-length skirt.

Think about it.

Many Muslims in this country would like to see Islamic sharia law accepted alongside our state and federal laws, based on their belief that only God's law (as expressed in the Islamic legal code based on the Koran and the Sunnah (traditions of the time of Mohammed) should apply on earth. This is the law that gives you such punishments as cutting off the hands of thieves and stoning those guilty of adultery.

Think about it.

The United States was not established as a rigidly secular or godless nation, but one whose Founders recognized the dangers inherent in the legalized imposition of specific religious beliefs. The founders recognized the need for the nation to safeguard the rights of all people to worship God in their own way.

Unfortunately, to listen to many candidates for office, and to many of the people organizing political campaigns, the only part of the Constitution that matters is the Second Amendment, not the First.

Think about that as you go to your chosen house of worship today.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, January 26, 2008

Cartoon Saturday

Today is one of those days when I'm going to be busier than the pump handle at a temperance picnic, a one-armed paperhanger, etc. Lots to do. But I wanted to share a few really excellent cartoons I've run across lately that I think may give your day a rise:

This one is far and away the best, given my feelings about the presidential campaign season...

This one is so silly it's great, especially for a hobby chef like me...

You just can't escape the plague of lawyers. I'm reminded of the wonderful Tom Paxton song called "One Million Lawyers"...

Remember when you used to get sick and go to a doctor, who cured you? Now you go to an HMO, which ...

Gotta run. Have a great weekend. More thoughts tomorrow...


Friday, January 25, 2008

Bilbo's Economic Stimulus Package

You may have felt the earth shake yesterday when Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives actually managed to agree on something other than mutual hatred. In a rare moment of bipartisan teeth-gritting, our esteemed representatives reached agreement on an "economic stimulus package" designed to give the economy a shot in the arm and help counter the cascading effects of continuing economic bad news. Because Republican fingerprints are on it, the "stimulus package" includes tax cuts for businesses; because the Democrats got a vote, it includes direct payments to taxpayers in the form of a one-time tax rebate.

Will this solve our problems? I doubt it. It can't hurt, but I think it's too little to do any good.

Here's Bilbo's Proposed Economic Stimulus Package:

1. Burn all hedge fund managers, stock traders, and similar bottom-dwelling creatures at the stake.

2. Impose the death penalty for stock fraud. Crushing the miscreants under giant piles of loose change would do it.

3. Eliminate all budgetary earmarks and plow the money thus saved back into the operation of the government. It might even be applied to partially pay for the tax rebates!

4. Impose hefty fines on any member of Congress who recommends a spending plan without explaining where the money to pay for it will come from.

5. If Congress is fixated on screwing around with taxes to fix the economy, how about this: make medical expenses 100% deductible, and pay for it by eliminating tax credits for paper losses incurred by individuals and by businesses that are otherwise profitable. Healthy taxpayers will probably work more, being more productive for the economy and thus paying more taxes. Oh, and how about some form of tax credit for businesses that create actual, paying jobs for Real People?

6. Did I mention burning the weasels responsible for economic mismanagement and fraud at the stake?

Okay, I'm not an economist. I don't even play one on TV, and I didn't stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. But I know, at the level of the Real Person on the street, that something needs to be done. Real People need Real Jobs that pay Real Wages so they can buy Real Products and keep the American economy humming along. It seems to me that if we want low prices, the way to get them isn't to send manufacturing and service jobs overseas ... that just means that Real People won't have Real Jobs to earn Real Money to pay for those low-priced goods.

I'm angry and starting to get incoherent, but I need to swallow it for a while. At least I have a job, and I need to go and do it.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. - a thought from comedienne Paula Poundstone: "The wages of sin may be death, but by the time taxes are taken out, it's just sort of a tired feeling."

I'm tired.


Thursday, January 24, 2008

If You Can't Cry, You Might As Well Laugh

I know, I know ... you're getting tired of hearing me whine about the dearth of quality candidates in the ongoing presidential derby. But it's my blog, and I'll whine if I want to, whine if I want to (sorry, Leslie Gore).

Today, let's take a little different slant on this shabby topic. Here's a collection of good topical quotes and general silliness to take your minds off the depressing pander-fest:

Hungry for good candidates? -

As you listen to all the promises and platitudes, remember this quote from famous American newsman and curmudgeon Henry L. Mencken: "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."

Tired of so-called debates? Me, too:

Most candidates are masters of torturing unpleasant data until it says what they want it to say, or of cherry-picking the statistics to bolster otherwise questionable arguments. Here's one take on it:

The great American news reporter Edward R. Murrow had this to say about television and elections: "When the politicians complain that TV turns the proceedings into a circus, it should be made clear that the circus was already there, and that TV has merely demonstrated that not all the performers are well trained."

Tired of all the candidates trying to pander to the hard-core religious right? Others are, too:

Don't you wish for a candidate who is up front with you...a candidate you can count on for a consistent stand on the issues, regardless of the audience being addressed? Time to vote for the ultimate candidate (with apologies to H.P. Lovecraft):

And finally, for today, comedienne Lily Tomlin once made this observation, which applies both to the presidential campaign and (unfortunately) to the economy: "Things are going to get a lot worse before they get worse."

Keep a stiff upper lip - only nine more months of this junk.


Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The History Buff, Part 2

Yesterday's ruminations on being a history buff got a few interesting comments.

* The Mistress of the Dark commented that she's always been interested in the royal families of Europe. Andrea, you may be interested in the book Grandmama of Europe: The Crowned Descendents of Queen Victoria, by Theo Aronson...a great and very readable history of the enormous extended family of Queen Victoria.

* Serena Hope, like me, loves European history, but finds world history to be "painful." For what it's worth, I agree..."world history" is just too much to bite off. What I've found is that I started off with an interest in American History, focusing on the World War II era...which led me to the European history of the same period...which led me to the history of the interwar years...which led back to World War I...which led back to ... well ... you get the idea. I'm back to the Revolutionary War in America and the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, and still going strong.

* Amanda noted an interest in the history of the Straits Chinese - the Chinese that married local Malays and adopted the Malaysian culture and language. That sounds interesting, although I have to admit I've never been able to get into Asian history as much as European. Part of it is difficulty in sorting out names in Asian languages (now isn't that an awful thing for a linguist to admit?). My daughter loaned me the book 1421: the Year China Discovered America, by Gavin Menzies, but I haven't yet been able to get into it, although it looks fascinating.

* Captain Picard made the cogent observation that "What we live now is the history of tomorrow." Who knows...someday someone may use what we write in our blogs as source documentation for a social history of this era. Hmmm...maybe I'd better pay more attention to grammar and spelling ...

And finally (as of now),

* Mike told the story of always wanting to see the great film series Victory at Sea, and finally finding it available on, among many other places. I saw this thrilling series many years ago and loved it - especially the stirring orchestral accompaniment. This leads, of course, to the note that The History Channel, The History Channel International, The Military History Channel, The Discovery Channel, and many other television networks offer some great (and some not-so-great) historical programming, much of it available for purchase on tapes and DVDs. Agnes bought me Ken Burns' The War series for Christmas, and I love it.

History. It's not for sissies. And it contains all the drama and adventure you could ever want.

Thanks for the comments, everyone. Keep making your own history.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The History Buff

The end of another long weekend is here. Sigh.

One of the nice things about working for the government (or as a contractor for the government) is that you get Federal holidays off. And since most Federal holidays are arranged so as to fall on a Friday or Monday to allow for a three-day weekend (one thing our government has done right), that's a nice thing. Of course, a three-day weekend just means that we work on chores at home rather than stuff at the office, but it's the principle of the thing, you know.

Anyhow, I wanted to talk today about history, because I'm a history buff.

There are any number of things I think are fascinating. One of them, as you already know, is language: the idea that I can make these marks on a page (okay, screen) and you can understand what I mean when you read them, or that I can make noises shaped by my lungs, diaphragm, sinuses, tongue, and nose, and you know what they mean and respond. To me, that's just amazing.

Another thing I find fascinating is history. Not the dull, dry history of remembering and regurgitating the fact that the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648, but that real people, people like you and I, lived through the events that led up to it. Happily, we're living in a time when there is a lot of great narrative history being written...history that makes the past come alive in a way that many of the fat, dreaded history texts of my high school years couldn't.

Military history is one of my particular interests, and the works of Cornelius Ryan (The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far, etc) and, more recently, Rick Atkinson (An Army At Dawn and Day of Battle), bring the struggle of armies and the innocents caught in the crossfire into sharp focus. Social and political history can be fascinating, too, in the hands of someone like Doris Kearns Goodwin (No Ordinary Time) and Mark Bowden (Guests of the Ayatollah). American history is being well served by great writers and historians like David McCullough (John Adams) and Nathaniel Philbrick (Mayflower).

History, well-researched, well-interpreted and -written by a good historian, is a window into a fascinating world, most of which we've never seen and only the smallest fraction of which we've lived through and on which we have our own perspectives.

The philosopher George Santayana once said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. There's also a danger of remembering the past and drawing the wrong lessons from it. The fascinating book Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers, by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, offers cautionary stories of misguided (or outright disastrous) decisions made by leaders who misinterpreted the lessons of history.

History. It's not just for elderly professors with droning voices, leather patches on their jacket elbows, and dust in their hair. You're living it now. You'll find learning about it interesting. Give it a shot.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, January 21, 2008


Today is the federal holiday commemorating the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr., the great American civil rights leader, who was born in 1929 and killed by an assassin in 1968. Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he was the man who became the symbol of the civil rights movement and whose efforts in mobilizing the conscience of the nation led directly to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Today, from a dark and bitter legacy of slavery and discrimination, black Americans have moved beyond the past to achieve much of the American dream. Today we have black doctors, black military officers and astronauts, black state governors and city mayors, black judges at every level, black police officers and college professors. In almost every area of public life, whites work for blacks and vice versa, and no one thinks about it. Race-based discrimination is illegal, and laws exist (and are frequently invoked) to combat it when it appears.

But the situation, of course, is not perfect. Discrimination still exists, if sometimes only in the mind of the individual who perceives it. Black citizens are, for many and complex reasons, overrepresented in prison populations. On average, black citizens have smaller incomes and less education than their white counterparts. Things improve every year, but every year the bar of expectation is set somewhat higher and the advances we've made in the past mean less to the citizens of today as that past recedes into distant memory.

Expectations today are different. Demonstrators aren't attacked by police dogs and water cannons as they were during the great civil rights movement of the 1960's. The rights those people fought for are now enshrined in law and taken for granted. The bar is higher, and the perceptions of discrimination and injustice take different forms.

One of the things you frequently see nowadays as an inscription on a wristband or a badge lanyard, or a note in letters, is "WWJD?" - shorthand for "what would Jesus do?" in a particular situation. Today, we might ask "WWMLKD?" - "what would Martin Luther King do?" Were he to return and observe the landscape of race relations in this country, how would he feel about the result of the campaign he fought, and for which he gave his life?

On balance, I think he'd be pleased. He'd see the advances in law, custom, and society and the degree of integration of black and white society, and think that all the striving and suffering was worth it. On the other hand, he'd see rampant drug abuse, black-on-black crime, a soaring rate of out-of-wedlock births and young men abandoning the children they've fathered, and he'd wonder what use was being made of those rights and advantages for which he fought so hard.

The great black comedian and entrepreneur Bill Cosby gave a famous speech on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs Topeka Board of Education Supreme Court decision that struck down the doctrine of "separate but equal" education and led to the racial integration of American schools. In that speech, which has become known colloquially (and crudely) as "The Ghettosburg Address," Dr Cosby took black parents to task for not providing the right role models for and oversight of their children, and black society in general for squandering the opportunities made available to them as a result of the civil rights struggles of the 60's. He spoke eloquently about soaring illegitimate births, the failure of young black men to take responsibility for their children, and the rate of crime in black communities.


Would Martin Luther King, Jr, have given the Cosby speech, were he alive today? Would he be encouraged by the advances made by black citizens, or would he be depressed by the growth of the thug culture among young blacks?

It will be said by at least some black people who may read this that I, as a middle-aged, middle-class white guy, can't possibly have anything useful to say about race relations in America. But they're wrong. We're all in this together. My perceptions of the black community are at least as important as the perceptions the black community holds of me. We need to be prepared to move ahead as a team, not argue with each other as opponents. The image I have of black America is a complicated one, ranging from admiration of the many fine black military and civic leaders I've known and worked with, to disdain for the small number of foul-mouthed, sloppily dressed and crudely-behaved louts who, unfortunately, attract most of the attention.

WWMLKD? Would he speak out against the problems about which Bill Cosby spoke, or would he enter the black defensive crouch used by so many, blaming the many problems of the black community on the nefarious whites rather than encouraging black people to rise up and solve their problems through education and hard work? I think, from a reading of his life, that Rev King would have taken the latter course. Sadly, we'll never know.

WWMLKD? It's a question worth thinking about today, whether you are black or white, because we're going to build 21st century America together.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, January 20, 2008

If At First You Don't Succeed, etc.

You may recall that last Sunday didn't turn out quite as we'd planned: a trip over to a local dance studio for about $12 worth of rented floor space for practice ended up costing us over $200 when the studio was closed and we ended up diverted to a shopping expedition instead.


A week has gone by, and the plan for today is - go over to Lioudmila's and rent floor space to practice. I'm a little concerned, given how last Sunday turned out, but Agnes has arranged for one of her students who works there to meet us and let us in if none of the full-time staff is available. We'll see. At least, if we get locked out again, we have our Costco Annual 2% Reward Certificate (a whopping $298 this year, woo-hoo!!) that we can spend instead of gouging at my poor battered, bleeding checkbook again.

On other fronts, one of my Christmas gifts was a spiffy turntable that connects directly to my computer to allow me to get working on digitizing the roughly ten linear feet of old LPs that I've been storing for years. Agnes is particularly anxious for me to digitize all the old German children's records that she bought for Minnie many years ago, so that we can turn them into CDs for Leya so she can start learning German early. I got the turntable assembled and hooked up and it seems to work fine, but the capture software (a program called "Audacity") that came with it is for the birds. On my agenda for today is to see if I can make it work with the "Toast" program I bought some time ago. Back when I had my old PC, I had a great program called Sound Forge that was the gold standard for digital audio...sadly, like so much of my other software, it won't run on the Mac. Anybody have any other suggestions for good digital audio capture and processing software for the Mac?


Yesterday's post about words and phrases that ought to be banished elicited a comment from reader Mike, who blogs at Billions of Versions of Normal, and who posted this cartoon about one of them: "X is the new Y" ...

Thanks, Mike!

Final thought for today: Writer Gore Vidal once said, "These presidential ninnies should stick to throwing out baseballs and leave the important matters to serious people."

Anyone know any serious people?

Have a good day. Stay warm (it's colder than a divorce lawyer's heart this morning). More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, January 19, 2008

Banished Words

Not long ago I ran across an article that mentioned a list of "banished words." Oh, boy, I thought to myself ... here's another example of overzealous political correctness run rampant. But imagine my surprise when I visited the website of Lake Superior State University and found that the list was, in fact, a clever and much-welcomed list of words and phrases that, because of overuse, stupidity, or just plain silliness, deserve to be banished from our collective vocabularies.

The list is fairly comprehensive and entertaining. Here are a few samples, followed by some of the comments on the website, and my own observations:

Organic: "overused and misused to describe not only food, but computer products or human behavior..."; "another advertising gimmick to make things sound better than they really are...". I think this sounds particularly stupid when we say that something is "organic to" something else. Can something be "inorganic to" something else?

Author/Authored: "...would (it) be correct to say that someone 'paintered' a picture?" I wonder also if the guy who has "mechaniced" my car three times in the last month has finally fixed the ignition problem that has several times left me stranded at the side of the road.

Sweet: "It is annoying when young children use it and have no idea why, but it really sounds stupid coming from the mouths of adults." A supremely annoying term, the successor to inane comments like "cool," "rad," and "awesome" to describe something deemed especially good. This one is a personal un-favorite of mine ... it sounds particularly stupid when uttered in Pentagon meetings by officers who supposedly have college degrees.

Decimate: a word from the Latin which described a Roman punishment in which one-tenth of a number of people were selected to be killed. Now "...the word is so overused and misused, people use it when they should be saying 'annihilate.'" And no, it doesn't refer to Lucille Ball. If that reference confuses you, I'm older than I thought...

And ...

It Is What It Is: "This pointless phrase ... accomplishes the dual feat of adding nothing to the conversation while also being phonetically and thematically redundant." Good point. I supposed I'd have to worry if something is what it ... isn't.

What are your suggestions for words and expressions to be banished? One I would add to the list is at the end of the day, meaning "once everything is finally over." What if it's over in the morning? Do we have to wait the rest of the day for real closure?

Inquiring minds want to know.

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


Friday, January 18, 2008

Let's Watch Bilbo Get Hysterical

Being the opinionated and intellectually pugnacious fellow I am, I frequently get into extended political arguments by e-mail with many of my friends. One in particular, Bill, has learned over the years which buttons to push to send me off on a screaming high parabola of outrage ... he often sends me articles he knows will spin me up, then sits back to watch the mushroom cloud rise from my keyboard.

This happened yesterday, when Bill sent me a link to an article by Larry Elder in the Jewish World Review titled "What Republicans Believe, What Democrats Believe." This article, which Bill described simply as "simplified but insightful," epitomizes for me everything that is wrong with the poisonous political rhetoric that passes for rational thought and debate nowadays.

Take a moment to read Mr Elder's article, then read my e-mail back to Bill, reproduced below. NOTE: in the interest of fair disclosure, you will probably recognize some of my rhetoric from earlier blog posts. I can recycle arguments with the best of them. Here we go:

"My bottom line comment on the linked article: simplified, yes; insightful, no.

"As with so much of what nowadays passes for political discussion in this country, this article is a hodgepodge of exaggeration, minimization, and outright balderdash. I consider myself fiscally conservative and socially liberal, neither Republican nor Democrat, and from that perspective, I think this article grossly overstates Republican virtues while minimizing Democratic ones by limiting discussion to the positions of the most radical wing of the party.

"I have developed a lot of these themes in my blog over the past month or so. Here are just a few specific comments:

"'Republicans believe ... that a government that taxes least taxes best.' Nobody likes paying taxes. But, amazingly enough, the Constitution grants Congress the power to levy taxes to pay the legitimate expenses of the government. You and I have to go to work to earn money to pay our bills. The government gets the money to pay its bills in three ways: levying taxes, assessing fees for services, and borrowing money. Each time taxes are reduced, one of two things has to happen: spending has to go down, or the money has to be found in one of the other two places. Neither party has done a very good job of reducing spending, although they have radically different views of what should be reduced if they had the guts to do it. Rather than cutting spending (which always irritates some part of the electorate) or assessing fees for government services (wait till you get your Defense Bill in the mail), the government opts for the secret way: borrowing the money. This levies a huge interest bill down the road AND reduces the amount of money available for Real People to borrow for things like homes, cars, and college educations. I long for the day when some wild-eyed, tax-bashing Republican admits that there is a reason we have to pay taxes ... and then clearly and specifically lays out a plan that tells exactly where the money lost in the tax cuts will be made up.

"'Republicans consider the Constitution a contract, limiting the duties, powers and obligations of the federal government.' Mr Bush seems to take a somewhat different view, especially as it concerns the powers he believes are implicitly granted to him as Commander in Chief. He obviously has one of the copies of the Constitution that inadvertently omitted the Bill of Rights (except for the sacred and untouchable Second Amendment...see below).

"'Republicans believe in the Second Amendment ... the Founding Fathers wanted this right to protect against tyranny by government. Democrats consider the Second Amendment an impediment to public safety.' Has it occurred to anyone that both sides have a legitimate argument here? While I believe that the "protection from tyranny by government" argument is hyperbolically overblown in most cases, I also believe that I am in far more danger every day from gun-toting criminals than I am from the Feds. I long for the day someone will take both sides of this argument and lock them in a room without food or water until they start acting and thinking like responsible adults.

"Republicans believe in peace through strength ... Democrats believe in strength ... through demonstrating our good intentions." Once again, this is a stupid and illogical argument. No responsible person argues that we don't need a strong military. However, no responsible person would argue that we should exhaust all possible avenues of resolving disputes before lobbing bombs. Every so often there comes a Hitler who just needs killing. But military force should always be the last tool drawn from the box. Even Mr Gates has said as much.

"I could go on, but I hope I've made my point. Nobody is golden in this debate. Republicans are arrogant, opinionated, simplistic, and self-righteous; Democrats are whiny, opinionated, simplistic, and self-righteous. Both are acting unutterably stupid. The current Republican administration has done a wonderful job of ignoring the Constitution, ruining our image abroad, and wrecking the economy for those on whose backs it rests. If you're rich, this is a great time, and the Republicans are your best friends. If you're middle class or poor, hey, that's the breaks.

"The Constitution was written to "...form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty..." It applies to everyone. Everyone, regardless of political party, has a vote. It's time for some adult discussion of these issues.

"Which we won't find in an election year, and particularly with the crop of losers running on both sides.

"Okay, I'm calm now. You'll probably see some of this, and more, in my blog in the next few days."

If you read Mr Elder's article (and I hope you do), I think you'll agree with me ... unless, of course, you're one of those rock-ribbed, dyed-in-the-wool, bottled-in-bond, aged-in-wood, gold-plated, head-up-the-butt-all-the-way-to-the-esophagus political partisans who believes everyone who doesn't agree with him has horns and a tail and lives to demonize the opposition, rather than seeking rational discussion of the issues.

Bill hasn't responded to my diatribe yet. I'll let you know what he says.

New topic: the weather stinks.

Yesterday we had a typical Northern Virginia winter storm: rain, changing to snow, changing to freezing rain and sleet, then back to snow, then rain again, then sleet, then snow, then freezing rain, etc, etc. The ground this morning is a messy morass of dirty slush.

But at least it reminds me of the state of political discussion this year.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Bilbo's Ideal Presidential Candidate

I know you're probably tired of my hysterical ranting about the miserable cast of characters in the ongoing theatrical circus of our presidential primary season. If you've read this blog more than three or four times, you already know that:

1. I think George W. Bush has been an utterly disastrous president.

2. I think there's no one now running for president that's fit to hold the office. I respect John McCain, but don't think he'd make a good president...everyone else is a loser of the first rank.

As Sam Rayburn once said, "Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a good carpenter to build one." Being no ordinary jackass, I guess I should stop griping about how bad all the candidates are and say what it is I'd be looking for in the next president. Here's what UPS would deliver if I were able to order a presidential candidate to my specifications:

1. Sex: either one. Doesn't matter. Whether you stand or sit when you go to the bathroom, or which side of the shirt your buttons are on, has no bearing on what kind of leader you are.

2. Race: black, white, brown, yellow, red, green. Doesn't matter. All brains are gray and hearts are reddish's what's in them that's important.

3. Vision: I want someone who has a clear idea of what America is and what her role in the world is. I want someone who knows that there are a lot of other countries out there we have to live with, and who understands that you can work with them (aggravating though it might be) and get them on our side, or lecture and hector them and turn them into enemies. I want someone who doesn't just make empty promises, but has the vision of how to turn them into programs that produce results.

4. Religion: I don't care how hard you thump your bible, whether you've memorized the Koran, or can parse the most arcane Talmudic arguments. You and God will eventually sort it all out. I want to know whether you are a moral and ethical person, no matter where you worship (or even if you don't).

5. Good Looks: let's face it - we're naturally attracted to attractive people. I want someone who looks presidential. Someone who can project the air of gravitas and solid respectability that makes me instinctively trust him (or her).

6. Well-traveled: Someone who has never been outside the United States has no conception of how the rest of the world lives and thinks. My ideal candidate has traveled widely and, preferably, lived in a foreign country for a few years.

7. Military Experience: The Constitution makes the President the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. No one ever wants to go to war, but if it has to happen, I'd feel a lot better knowing that the Commander in Chief had some practical experience serving in the military he's supposed to lead.

8. Good Communication Skills: I want a President who sounds presidential. The President wrestles with some of the most difficult and intractable problems on earth, and has to make decisions that affect all of us (and most of the rest of the world). He (or she) absolutely must be able, clearly and concisely, to explain policies and actions to the American people and to the world. We need someone who doesn't speak down to inferiors...we need someone who speaks the truth and inspires us to action.

9. Economic Savvy: no one except an economist understands economics, and every economist disagrees with every other economist most of the time. We need a person who understands that you can't spend more than you earn, and that if you are going to tax your people, you need to spend the money thus earned wisely. "Tax Cuts" is not a complete economic policy.

And finally (for the moment),

10. Humility: when you're the President, isolated within the security and information bubble of the office, it's easy to think that you're God's gift to the nation. You aren't. You're just the man (or woman) who managed to convince enough Americans to vote for you. We haven't had a King since 1776, so don't think like one.

David Broder wrote a good op-ed piece in the Washington Post last month titled "What Presidents Must Know." I hope everyone running for the office, and everyone voting for them, reads it.

Our next President will take office in an extraordinarily difficult time. When he (or she) sits down in that nice chair in the Oval Office for the first time, all the problems of the world will land on the Big Desk with a wet, heavy splat. At that moment, all the sound bites and attack ads and campaign BS no longer mean a thing. At that moment, we have to have a transition from politician to President.

I hope we can find someone to vote for who is worthy of the title, who has at least some of the qualifications I listed above.

But, sadly, I'm not holding my breath.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Card Games

People enjoy playing cards with me because I'm such a lousy player. I can't remember which cards have been played, I have a hard time remembering whether a flush beats a straight, or what a trump is other than a rich, obnoxious blowhard with bad hair. I had to learn to play pinochle to be accepted into my first wife's family, but was never any good at it, and Agnes's father enjoys skat, but it never made any sense to me.

Let's face it...I'm just not cut out to be a card player.

Neither, it seems, are Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama, because the news the last few days has been full of the long-expected, long-dreaded playing of the race card and the gender card in the presidential campaign.

Race, of course, is the 800-pound gorilla sitting in the corner of any issue which remotely involves individuals of differing racial backgrounds. Blacks never forget it, whites try to ignore it, and no one ever really wants to bring it up, because it immediately prevents rational discussion of whatever issue it touches: it leads to unfortunate assumptions like "he's just saying/doing/getting this because he's black/white," or "I didn't get that job because the guy doing the hiring hates blacks," or "He only got that job instead of me because he's black."

The ugly background of racial relations in the United States has made it all but impossible to rationally address many issues, and it colors every issue it touches, however remote the connection may be. Every problem is deemed to have, at the bottom, some racial cause or aspect.

But is the issue always race? Sometimes the black guy doesn't get the job because he isn't the best-qualified candidate. Sometimes the black guy goes to jail because he's actually guilty of a crime...but, of course, it's manifestly unjust if he gets a stiffer sentence than a white convicted of the same offense.

There are black people I don't like, just as there are white people and Asian people I don't like. If you're a horse's ass, you can be a horse's ass no matter what color you are. I've always maintained that one of the great advantages of a military career is that it is as close as we come in America to a true meritocracy: you are more likely to be promoted to your level of ability in the armed services than in almost any other part of American society. The military is probably the only place where blacks routinely supervise large numbers of whites, and nobody thinks anything of it. When your life may ultimately be on the line because of decisions made by your superiors, you tend to think more of their skill, character, and integrity than about their color, gender, or religion. It's a great place to learn what people are really like, apart from the spurious rhetoric of race and gender.

It will be a long time before race relations in this country improve to the point that the 800 pound gorilla finally leaves the room, and people stop playing the race card. As long as racism remains a convenient, all-purpose excuse for the things we don't long as we can't relate to each other as people rather than black/white/male/female/gay people, the gorilla will stick around. We've come a long way toward fixing race relations in America, much farther than we're usually given credit for. But there's still a long way to go, and the effort has to be made on both sides, black and white.

For now, as we work through the agony of selecting the next president, we need to ask the real questions: are Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton, regardless of race and gender, the best people the Democratic Party can put forward to lead America into the future?

My personal opinion is that neither of them is qualified to be president. Both Mr Obama and Ms Clinton lack executive experience and seasoning, and both take overly simplistic views of complex issues. Of course, I don't like any of the other Democratic (or any of the Republican) candidates, either. I'm really ready to vote for none of the above.

No matter what color or gender he or she is.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Really Bad Movies

One of the blogs I read every day is Miss Cellania, whose collection of really funny stuff always manages to get me in the right frame of mind to face the inanities of another day of bad news and general ass-clownery.

Today, Miss Cellania's theme was "Making Movies," and one of the links in her post was to the Internet Movie Database's "Bottom 100" - the hundred stinkers rated absolutely at the bottom of the bottom on the basis of votes cast by IMDB readers. Naturally, I had to read the list to see how many movies I hate (or like) were there...I expected to see quite a few, since I really enjoy schlocky old sci-fi and horror movies, and many films I like seem to be despised by critics and real people alike.

I enjoyed reading the list although, oddly enough, there were very few movies on it that I'd actually seen.

One of the movies (at position 80, with a rating of 2.4 and 1,646 votes) was the immortal "Howling III: Your Sister Is a Werewolf." Aside from the worst performance ever delivered by Christopher Lee, and the featured role (and frequent baring) of Sibyl Danning's splendid breasts, this is a bomb of the highest yield. Heroine Annie McEnroe probably wishes the werewolves had just killed her when she was hanging in their dungeon, rather than letting her live to regret starring in this abysmal waste of film.

Conspicuous by its absence was the Mexican classic "Wrestling Women Versus the Aztec Mummy." Nobody makes stupid and unintelligible, yet atmospheric horror movies like the Mexicans, and this one stands at the pinnacle of utter ludicrosity. Badly written, terribly photographed, and howlingly ineptly dubbed, this is a movie that can even make you forget the latest presidential candidates' debate.

I could go on, but then I'd just want to stay home and watch movies. Maybe we'll soon have a snowstorm that will force me to stay in, sit in my chair in front of the fire with a cup of hot chocolate, and watch movies until my eyeballs liquefy.

One can only hope.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


P.S. - From the Department of Stupid International Political Stuff comes a report from Venezuela that President Hugo Chavez has cut off asphalt shipments to the rest of the world. If you were waiting for me to make any jokes which included "Hugo Chavez" and "asphalt" in the same sentence, I'm sorry. That fruit just hangs too low even for me to pluck.


Monday, January 14, 2008

The Best-Laid Plans...

There's a famously misquoted line in Robert Burns' poem "To a Mouse" that reads, "The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft a' gley." If you translate that from the Scots dialect into modern English, it reads, "The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry."

Mr Burns was watching over me yesterday.

We were up early, for a Sunday, and had planned to go to a local dance studio with a nice, big floor and rent space for an hour or so to practice some of our routines that require more space than our own studio has. This particular studio (Lioudmila's) charges non-students $12 per hour to rent space during off-periods, so we figured that was a good investment of our time and money.

At this point, Mr Burns was joined by Mr Murphy.

We arrived at Lioudmila's at 10:50, laden down with our shoes, notes, CDs, video camera, and my crying towel ... only to find the place locked up tight as a fanatic's mind. AARRGGHH!! We'd assumed that the studio would be open, as there had been several people there at this time the previous Sunday, but yesterday was obviously different.

Without knowing when anyone with keys might show up, we decided to go home so that Agnes could sew and I could finish taking down all the Christmas decorations. Well ...

Agnes wanted to stop at the Bed, Bath, and Beyond store en route to pick up a few kitchen odds and ends, so I duly detoured there. She didn't find what she wanted, and so decided we might as well go to the big Pentagon City shopping center, which has two large, high-end kitchen stores. But first, she wanted to stop at the Barnes and Noble Bookstore next to Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Cost of visiting Barnes and Noble: about $38.00.

Up to Pentagon City. By now, it's lunchtime. Lunch at Chevy's Mexican Restaurant: about $37.00, including tip.

Stop at the Sur la Table kitchen store for the things not found at Bed, Bath, and Beyond (and other neat stuff): about $80.00.

Stop at the Harris Teeter supermarket for dinner fixings: about $35.00.

Stop at the Apple Store for a headphone splitter so we can use our iPods to play dance music without using the sound system at strange studios: $20.00 (including tax and my military discount).

Then home. Grand total of our originally-planned $12.00 excursion to Lioudmila's: about $210.00.

Next Sunday, I'm not getting out of bed.

Gotta go. I need to go back to work to fiscally recover from yesterday. Sigh.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, January 13, 2008

Common Sense and Taxes

Yesterday I saw something amazing: a letter to the editor of the Washington Post that actually nibbled at the edges of reality in the discussion of taxes. In this letter, a local gentleman commented on an earlier op-ed piece in the Post, closing with this memorable sentence: "The fact is that we live in a country with low taxes, and politicians should let it be known that if we want to keep it that way, we will have to forget about our children's future."

I want to buy that man a drink.

As you know if you've been reading this blog for any length of time, I consider myself to be a tax realist. I don't like paying taxes any more than anyone else does, but I realize one important fact: taxes provide the money on which the government runs. Contrary to what the most wild-eyed anti-tax crusaders would have you believe, the Constitution does not prohibit the federal government from levying taxes on us. The Founders knew that it takes money to run a government, and that's why Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution says, "The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States..." The Founders were not opposed to taxation...they were opposed to taxation without representation, to taxes levied by a king many thousands of miles away who was not required to answer to his subjects for how the money thus raised was spent. That's why the Constitution grants the power of taxation to the Congress, whose members are, in theory, closer to the people they represent, and not to the President.

Everyone hates taxes, but everyone loves the services the government provides. The government needs money to operate, just as you and I need money to run our families. We earn our operating funds by holding down jobs. The government, at every level, raises operating funds in three ways: taxes, fees for services, and borrowing on its credit. No one likes paying taxes, but no one likes paying fees for government services, either (would you want the fire department to wait until you wrote the check for their visit to start saving your burning house?). If the government borrows money to meet its obligations, the money it borrows is no longer available for you and I to borrow to buy houses, cars, college educations, etc. And the principal and interest on the borrowed money becomes a millstone around the necks of our children and grandchildren.

So, how about a little reality in the political hyperbole, eh? Instead of candidates rushing to promise that they'll cut our taxes, why not have them show a little fiscal responsibility and understanding of the basic economics of government by admitting a few things:

1. Taxes are a necessary evil, they provide the money the federal government needs to operate, and the authority to levy them is clearly assigned to Congress in the Constitution.

2. Taxes ought to be fair. The definition of "fair" is key, here. For instance, I think it's fair that I pay taxes on my income, but I don't think it's fair that there are wealthy individuals (and major corporations with profits in the tens of millions) that pay little or no taxes because they're able to manipulate the tax system in ways we lesser beings can't.

3. The government has an obligation to the citizens to wisely spend the money it takes from us in taxes. I have a few suggestions:

a. Immediately cut off foreign aid to nations that can't show the money is being spent for the intended purposes.

b. Immediately stop the odious practice by members of Congress of "earmarking" money to be spent on projects in their home districts. There is no defensible reason why I, as a Virginia taxpayer, should see my federal taxes being spent on a railroad museum in Pennsylvania or a local bridge in Alaska. Things at the state and local level should be paid for with money raised by state and local taxes.

c. Spend our federal taxes on things that will benefit all Americans (that's the "common defense and general welfare" thing that the Constitution talks about). There's no reason why we can't have good health care, good basic education for every citizen, a clean environment, and safe, secure borders...unless it's because we're spending the money to build those railroad museums in Pennsylvania and bridges in Alaska, and to prop up corrupt governments overseas.

Okay, that's enough ranting. I'm sure that people with degrees in economics and highly-paid positions in liberal and conservative think tanks can shoot my thoughts full of holes, and convincingly explain to you why all the things that appear to be patently stupid are really unarguable truths of the world of high finance.

But what do I know? I'm just a guy trying to live my life according to economic rules that don't seem to apply to the government that wants me to pay its bills.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, January 12, 2008

Legislating Common Sense

One of the things that really grinds my gears is the tendency of legislatures to put off the really important things (health care reform, tax reform, immigration reform, etc) in favor of some unutterably stupid things that ought to fall under the heading of common sense. Of course, what we used to call common sense isn't so common any more...which breeds opportunities for useless legislators to generate useless legislation.

The most recent example comes from my own Commonwealth of Virginia. A headline in the Metro section of today's Washington Post reads, "Virginia Considers Ban on Driving While Texting."

Oh, for Pete's sake, can we get real, here?

The last time I looked, using a telephone or Blackberry to send or read text messages requires the use of both hands. If both hands are on the device, how is the car being steered? How stupid do you have to be to zip down the highway at speed, using both hands and devoting your attention to working your Blackberry, instead of watching the traffic around you?

I've often griped that you can't legislate common sense. If people are going to be stupid, they're going to be stupid even if Section Blah-de-Blah of the city/state/federal code makes it illegal to do so. The mental giants who tried to cash the dead man's check with the dead man riding along in an office chair weren't distracted by things like laws against check fraud. And people who thunder that laws requiring them to wear helmets while riding motorcycles are an infringement of their rights probably wouldn't incur noticeable brain damage in an accident.

The annual death toll from avoidable highway accidents in this country is appalling and getting worse. Not a week goes by that I don't nearly get run down crossing an intersection by some driver more interested in his cell phone conversation than in the action of driving. It's already illegal in Virginia for people under 18 to talk, send text messages, or take pictures with a cell phone while driving (but only if they've already been stopped for some other infraction)...but simple observation shows that it hasn't made much difference in stupid behavior.

Okay, this is a rant, and I apologize. Sort of. Really stupid things really irritate me, and outrages against simple common sense are the worst of all. I long for the day that well-meaning but foolish legislators stop wasting time trying to legislate against stupidity and start taking on the real problems of the nation.

But I'm not holding my breath.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, January 11, 2008

Really Big Numbers

Yesterday one of my friends forwarded me an e-mail that I found very interesting, although I was (as usual) very skeptical of its content. It dealt with making the really huge numbers of the federal budget understandable, and I quote it here:


The next time you hear a politician use the word 'billion' in a casual manner, think about whether you want the politicians spending YOUR tax money. A billion is a difficult number to comprehend, but one advertising agency did a good job of putting that figure into some perspective in one of its releases:

A. A billion seconds ago it was 1959.

B. A billion minutes ago Jesus was alive.

C. A billion hours ago our ancestors were living in the Stone Age.

D. A billion days ago no-one walked on the earth on two feet.

E. A billion dollars ago was only 8 hours and 20 minutes, at the rate our government is spending it.

While this thought is still fresh in our brain, let's take a look at New Orleans It's amazing what you can learn with some simple division:

Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu (D), is presently asking the Congress for $250 BILLION to rebuild New Orleans. Interesting number, what does it mean?

A. Well, if you are one of 484,674 residents of New Orleans (every man, woman, child), you each get $516,528.

B. Or, if you have one of the 188,251 homes in New Orleans , your home gets $1,329,787.

C. Or, if you are a family of four, your family gets $2,066,012.


As you can probably tell, this message was written by someone who is pretty seriously down on politicians...especially Democratic ones, as evidenced by the shot across Mary Landrieu's bow. But here's the question: is this true and accurate?

I consulted one of my favorite websites,, the Urban Legends Reference Page. Snopes dates this e-mail to 2003, when they first collected it, and notes that the math, as far as it goes in its interpretation of billion, is relatively accurate. Of course, the original calculations being from 2003, things are now (five years later) a bit off, but that's to be expected...what I found interesting was that the figures were accurate at all. I thought this was just a typical mindless political screed. Even the part about the $250 billion for New Orleans was mathematically fairly accurate, even if the charge levied against Landrieu wasn't...she didn't ask for the whole $250B for New Orleans, but related it to the population of New Orleans to demonstrate the size of the amount being requested for the post-Katrina reconstruction of the Gulf Coast.

So, what's the point here? First, that while many of the e-mail screeds that clog your inbox are stupid and wrong, some can have a kernel of truth and provide good food for thought. Second, that you should always check out things like this for yourself before believing them. Never let anyone do your thinking for you. is a great reference for these sorts of things.

But let's not let the politicians completely off the hook...after all, it was Senator Everett Dirksen who once famously said, "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money."

And, oh, by the way, that money is yours, courtesy of the taxes you pay.

So you might want to watch how your government is spending it.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, January 10, 2008

Stupid Is As Stupid Does

I spend so much time railing about how dumb and insipid the current political race is that I often forget there are other vast wellsprings of stupidity begging for attention. Yesterday CNN reported the arrest of two brilliant criminal masterminds in New York who tried to cash a check made out to one of their friends. The inconvenient fact that their friend was dead didn't slow these geniuses down: they propped him up in a desk chair and wheeled him down to a local check cashing establishment in case anyone questioned their attempt to cash his check.

According to the CNN report, the men left the body of Virgilio Cintron (in the chair) outside the store, went inside and tried to cash the check. The clerk, who knew the dead man, asked the men where he was, and one of the men said he would go and get him, according to police.

As luck would have it, a police detective was having lunch at a restaurant next to the check-cashing store, noticed a crowd forming around the seated body, and quickly realized the individual was dead.

The two would-be check cashers are now guests of the NYPD, charged with check fraud.

But the story gets better!

The last paragraph of the story says - and I quote - " A call to a telephone number listed for Cintron at the apartment he shared with O'Hare (one of the would-be check cashers) went unanswered Tuesday evening."


Mr Cintron is dead. Mr O'Hare is in jail. Who was supposed to have answered the phone?

Inquiring minds want to know.

On other topics, I'm always gratified to read the comments readers leave on my blog. Some are interesting and thought-provoking, some are fun, and some seize on my random thoughts as an opportunity for entrepreneurial enterprise: yesterday, reader Mike commented that "I charge a $25.00 fee for comments and my interest rate is a low, low 2% (per day) (compounded per minute) (with a daily late fee of $50) (payable in cash)." At rates like those, I may have to finally break down and let Blogger put ads on my space.

Mike, you can call my hotline at 1-800-HAR-D-HAR. Nice try, though.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Fine Print and Low Lights

It often happens that people have to give you information that they know will upset or enrage you or, perhaps, if you are a customer, cause you to take your business elsewhere (assuming you have a choice).

This is why we have fine print and low lights.

When was the last time one of your credit card issuers printed in huge letters on the face of your bill a message like: "WE ARE GOING TO RAISE YOUR ANNUAL PERCENTAGE RATE TO 24.99%, EFFECTIVE JULY 1ST!"? Never, of course. They'd rather you just mechanically opened the envelope, looked at the minimum payment due, and wrote the check, without thinking about how badly you're getting screwed. They are required by law to notify you of these changes, but they'd rather do it without attracting your attention...thus, the practice of stuffing your bill with assorted flyers and multi-page handouts printed in 0.007-pitch Times New Roman in which the unpleasant news is buried at paragraph 4.7a(2)(g) and written in a combination of pidgin Sanskrit and Old Church Slavonic. You can't say they didn't tell you.

Agnes takes a bit different view of this, as she works in a credit union and often has to absorb the outrage of people who suddenly realize that they have to pay some new or increased fee they hadn't expected. When we talked about this the other day, she pointed out that when people open new accounts, they're provided with detailed lists of fees and rates, and new fees and rates are announced in the flyers mailed to members with their monthly statements. "What else would you have us do?", she asked. My suggestion, to put the bad news in large type on the face of the bills or statements (as in my example above), went over like a transatlantic rowboat. I think we've agreed to disagree on this one.

Marriage documents are another example of pernicious fine print. I didn't realize that I was agreeing to chop all the onions and garlic, walk the dog in the rain, kill large insects, take out the garbage in howling gales, and perform other duties as assigned. It was all in the fine print. Of course, my fine print was in legal German as well, but I was warned.

Restaurants do the same thing, but they use a little different tactic - they turn down the lights so you can't quite see the prices on the menu. You probably thought the low lights were meant to enhance the romantic atmosphere, but you were wrong. They use other tactics as well: one is the use of a simple number for the price - "14" instead of "$13.99." Another is overwhelming you with words: "Thirteen Dollars and Ninety-Nine Cents" instead of "$13.99." A third is to appeal to your sense of the exotic: for instance, charging you $5.95 for a side order of green beans by calling them "haricots verts."

Fine print. You can't leave home without it. You can't hide at home and avoid it, either. That's why God made magnifying glasses.

And obscure, elderly professors can make a living teaching Sanskrit and Old Church Slavonic.

Have a good day. Nothing hidden in the fine print here.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, January 08, 2008


Last evening while fixing dinner, I listened to NPR's broadcast of the Republican and Democratic candidates "debates" from New Hampshire. If you need something good for a headache, that was it ... although why you would want a headache, I don't know.

Debates. Not.

I suppose I'm just old-fashioned, but what I heard last night - and what I've heard any number of times since this presidential campaign began - wasn't a debate. My trusty Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary defines debate as "a contention by words or arguments: as a: the formal discussion of a motion before a deliberative body according to the rules of parliamentary procedure; b: a regulated discussion of a proposition between two matched sides."

In those terms, what I suffered through last night wasn't a debate. It was two unwieldy groups of opinionated individuals shooting volleys of statistics and accusations at each other. If there was a genuine debate ... a detailed discussion of policy differences and approaches to the future, I must have missed it. The general course of this "debate," and all the others this election season, seemed to be this:

1. The moderator asks a question.

2. The first candidate says whatever he or she wants, whether it relates to the question or not.

3. The other candidates tell him or her how clearly unfit for election he or she is, using volleys of statistics, half-truths, and general bloviation.

4. Everyone shouts at everyone else for a while while the moderator tries to reestablish control.

5. The moderator asks another question.

6. Steps 2-4 are repeated ad nauseum.

I remember the good old days, when a debate was a debate. We've come a long way from the days of Lincoln versus Douglas and Kennedy versus Nixon. Part of the problem is a format that provides equal time to a thundering herd of candidates, most of whom have no realistic chance of being elected. In a misguided attempt to be "fair" to all the candidates, we have lost the ability to have the kind of thorough, detailed discussion - real debate - that the electorate needs to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Or, this year, the chaff from the other chaff.

Ah, for the good old days, when a debate was a debate. Nowadays, it's just what you use to catch de fish.

Sorry about that.

And sorry about the current herd of candidates. Maybe things will look better once we've thinned the herd down to two.

But somehow, I doubt it.

According to the US Census Bureau's population clock, at this moment the population of the United States is 303,193,217. Even if we take out all the illegal aliens, that's still a pretty big number.

You'd think that out of roughly 300 million people, we could come up with better candidates than these.

Maybe next time.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, January 07, 2008

When Insults Had Class

I enjoy insults. Not just any insults, but good insults, well-thought out and delivered with panache and impeccable timing. Nowadays, sadly, insults seem to fall into two categories:

1. Crude and without class, as in: "#$%! you!"

2. Just plain dumb, as in: "Your mother wears army boots!" This one is, of course, not so funny any more, now that so much of the Reserves and National Guard has been called to the war and all too many mothers actually do wear army boots.

There was a time when people were literate and well-educated, when they could still turn a good phrase and deliver a stinging insult that was both clever and deadly. My mother used to say that people who used foul language did so because they weren't smart enough to say anything better. I tend to agree with her, although I have to admit to using the occasional earthy comment when nothing else seems to fit the situation. The expression "horse's ass" is in a special category, being marvelously applicable to so many individuals in an election year.


Courtesy of my friend Jake, here is a compilation of wonderful classic insults of the kind I wish I could deliver on demand:

"He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire."
-Winston Churchill

"I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure."
- Clarence Darrow

"He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary."
- William Faulkner (about Ernest Hemingway)

"I've had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn't it."
-Groucho Marx

"I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it."
- Mark Twain

"He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends."
- Oscar Wilde

"I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend, if you have one."
- George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill

followed by Churchill's response:

"Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second, if there is one."
- Winston Churchill

"I feel so miserable without you; it's almost like having you here."
--Stephen Bishop

"He is a self-made man and worships his creator."
- John Bright

"I've just learned about his illness. Let's hope it's nothing trivial."
- Irvin S. Cobb

"He is not only dull himself; he is the cause of dullness in others."
-Samuel Johnson

"He is simply a shiver looking for a spine to run up."
- Paul Keating

"He had delusions of adequacy."
- Walter Kerr

"Why do you sit there looking like an envelope without any address on it?"
- Mark Twain

"His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork."
- Mae West

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go."
-Oscar Wilde

Lady Astor once remarked to Winston Churchill at a Dinner Party, "Winston, if you were my husband, I would poison your coffee!" To which Churchill replied, "Madam if I were your husband I would drink it"

Got any others? Post them here as a comment or e-mail them to I'm always looking for good insults, particularly in an election year...not everyone running for president (or currently occupying the office) can rise to the esteemed level of "horse's ass."

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, January 06, 2008

Sunday Morning Odds and Ends

Sunday morning, just after 6:30. Agnes is still asleep, Punky is curled up on the couch, and the usual early morning quiet reigns. Plenty to do later, though: Agnes teaches a dance lesson at 10:00, after which we'll practice for an hour or so before heading home to the usual weekend afternoon fun activities of laundry, and another stab at getting the study cleaned out.

Yes, the study isn't cleaned up yet. It does look marginally better than it did in the photo I showed you last week, but there's still quite a way to go. I got rid of a lot of old paper and pictures by running the scanner until it screamed, and then shredding the old stuff - you'd be surprised how heavy a tightly-packed large-sized Hefty bag of shredded paper can be. You can actually see more of the floor, and the piles of stuff on the desktop aren't quite as large as before, but there's lots more to do. Sigh.

I vented my spleen about the election season yesterday, and got the expected comments back from readers. My favorite was from craziequeen, who assures me that politicians in the UK are as corrupt, venal, and all-around worthless as they are here...they just sound more erudite and trustworthy because they have those great upper-crust British accents that all Americans are afraid to admit they really like (most of us would rather listen to Tony Blair reading the phone book than George Bush reading the US Constitution...or the parts of it he chooses to acknowledge). I'll have more to say about our ongoing political circus later, but I'll try to keep things more cheerful and unfocused for today.

As you know, I love photography and am a fairly serious hobby photographer. That's why I really enjoyed this picture I found on Miss Cellania's blog this morning:

Also found on that marvelous blog, this little cartoon that says it all about winter:

Speaking of winter, those of us here in Northern Virginia are wondering just what season it really is. Two nights ago, the temperature was in the upper teens (that's -7 Celsius for those of you in the rest of the world) ... tomorrow and Tuesday, it's supposed to reach 66 degrees (or almost 19 Celsius). I wish the stupid weather would make up its mind. Each time it warms up, Punky starts to shed her winter coat again, and I can't vacuum fast enough to keep up. Yesterday I took her outside for a good brushing, and ended up with enough hair to knit a new dog. For pete's sake, decide, already - winter or spring! AARRGGHH!!

Okay, I'm done now. The newspaper has just landed in my driveway with a satisfyingly heavy Sunday thud, and I think I'll take Punky for a walk and pick it up.

The rest of the day awaits!

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.