The Random Comic Strip

The Random Comic Strip

Words to live by...

"How beautiful it is to do nothing, and to rest afterward."

[Spanish Proverb]

Ius luxuriae publice datum est

(The right to looseness has been officially given)

"Everyone carries a part of society on his shoulders," wrote Ludwig von Mises, "no one is relieved of his share of responsibility by others. And no one can find a safe way for himself if society is sweeping towards destruction. Therefore everyone, in his own interest, must thrust himself vigorously into the intellectual battle."

Apparently, the crossword puzzle that disappeared from the blog, came back.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

We Are All Connected

We are young and old, energetic and tired, happy and sad.
And we are all connected.

We are aunts and uncles, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters.
And we are all connected.

We are married and divorced, newlyweds and old married couples, together and estranged.
And we are all connected.

We are friends and neighbors, management and workers, partners and associates.
And we are all connected.

We are competitors, opponents, and members of a team.
And we are all connected.

And when we die...

We are all alone.

My grand-nephew, Danny, was 20 years old. A tall, bushy haired, lanky kid who loved to play golf, drive around in his truck, work and play like any of us did when we were that age. He was just starting out as an adult, finding a place for himself in Tennessee with a new job and friends.

And early that Sunday morning, he lost control of his truck, just for a second, enough to go off the pavement and then back on, too quickly, the truck rolled over and hit a tree, and now Danny is all alone.

And his family mourns him.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Where I Live

This is the state of Florida. As you can see, it strongly resembles a large, flaccid... wait a minute, this is a "family" friendly blog. The big hole in the lower half is called "Lake Okeechobee". The lake's name was taken from two Hitchiti Indian words "Oka" for water and "Chobi" for big or large. Not exactly colorful, though it is descriptive. It is a very shallow lake considering its size, averaging only 9 feet. It is the source of water for all the farming to the south, east, and west of it.

If you find the northernmost point of the lake and look northwest, you will see another somewhat smaller lake. This is Lake Istokpoga, another large shallow lake (this one averages 4-6 feet and only 9-10 foot at the deepest). "Istokpoga" is Seminole for "our people died there", a more colorful name. Both it and Lake Okeechobee are fishing destinations for people from all over. Since I don't fish, that means little to me. People around here look at me oddly when I reveal that.

Continue in that WNW direction from the north tip of that lake and you can see a small red dot. Ok, you will have to click on the Florida picture to see a large enough image before you will find it.

That, my friends, is where I live. An odd fact: It is the farthest inland from any ocean I have ever lived. All my life, I have lived within 30 miles of the ocean (either Atlantic or Pacific) except for an 11 month stay in Orlando when I was just within 50 miles "as the crow flies." Sebring is at least 65 miles from any salt water. Measuring by that same weird crow travel method.

The lake you see in the picture above is called Lake Jackson. It is considered two lakes; Lake Jackson and Little Lake Jackson. Little Lake Jackson is actually a small cove attached to Lake Jackson on the south. They are separated by US Highway 27, a once major artery to the north. I live just to the southwest of Little Lake Jackson. Behind a golf course.

Golf is one of the more important recreational activities in Sebring and surrounding communities. We have a lot of golf courses and that is one of the main reasons I chose the area to retire in. Fishing is probably the most important activity here, though (which is why I get those odd looks I mentioned). As I wrote once before, it is mostly a retirement area. People come here to escape the harsher winters of the northern states and Canada each winter and an awful lot of them eventually come to live here year round. Not all of them, mind you, because it is hot and muggy in the summer.

The Neocounter over on the right gives me some idea where my readers live but I know it is less than precise since it (and others like it) show me originating from places nearby and, sometimes, not so nearby. So I would like to know... if you don't mind... Where do you live?


Saturday, March 28, 2009

"Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies"

"Lie to me" or when we ask for the truth, do we really mean "tell me the 'truth' I want to hear at the moment"?

I just finished reading an opinion piece on by Paul Farrell. I normally do not agree with this writer. However, in this instance I am definitely in his camp. People do want to be lied to. Maybe more so in bad times than in good. The opinion piece is fairly long (he's wordier than even me) so budget 5 minutes to read and digest it if my synopsis below isn't enough for you.

Basically, what he is saying (as I see it) is that people know they are being lied to, accept the lies at one level, reward the liars, and then complain that the lies aren't true. Let me quote a specific part of the article:

In early 2009 BusinessWeek and Kiplinger's reported on lies fed to us last year as the meltdown spread: Bernanke, "I don't anticipate any serious [failures] among large internationally active banks." ... Barney Frank, "Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae are fundamentally sound" ... Madoff, "In today's regulatory environment it's virtually impossible to violate the rules" ... Barron's, "Home prices about to bottom" ... Ken Fisher, "This year will end in the plus column ... so keep buying." ... Worth, "Emerging markets are the global investors' safe haven." ... Cramer, "Bye-bye bear market, say hello to the bull." ... and in late 2008 even Kiplinger's said, "Stock investors should 'beat the rush to the banks."

Bad calls? Grow up. Stop the "political correctness" whining. They're "lies." And we're all trapped in this new disease we're calling the "lie-to-me" syndrome, a cultural malaise.

I would take exception here because there is only one provable lie in the above and that would be Bernie Madoff's. The others could easily be hyperbole, wishful thinking, poor judgment, etc. However, those are equally dangerous because we want to believe "experts" who tell us things aren't as bad as they appear and that things are about to (or have started to) turn for the better. It's why I stopped giving credence to brokers and, especially, the business experts on TV.

I have even taken to doing the opposite of what they advise in many cases. When they recommend moving into Bonds, I take a closer look at investing in them. When they say certain companies or sectors are poised for recovery, I steer clear of them. To a great extent, either through luck or cleverness, this has panned out for me. I suspect it's the former but I am willing to take that... so long as it holds out.

By the way, things are getting better... Trust me.


Friday, March 27, 2009

What's in a Name?

There was a woman I came across on the internet some years ago who had a pet peeve. She didn't like that people from the United States of America were referred to as, well, Americans. She seemed to think it was arrogant and that it somehow insulted other people who live on the two continents. I thought she was being silly. I still do.

I recently had occasion to recall my conversations with her about the subject during an exchane with Argentum of Nether Regions of Earth (I and II) on his Tomas Arcanum blog (see the blog roll on the right side of this blog). It seems it bothered him a bit also. I cannot understand why. What difference does it make what someone identifies himself as?

In any case, it does seem to bother a number of people that we, US citizens, call ourselves "Americans" and I thought it might be interesting to explore the subject.

I don't believe we were the first to think of ourselves as "Americans". We thought of ourselves as members of whatever colony we lived in; Virginian, Georgian, Carolinian, etc. Or we identified by region; New Englander, for example. We might even reduce our identity to city; Bostonian, New Yorker, Philadelphian. It was likely those in England who started calling us "Americans" after we freed ourselves from King George. And then the French likely did also. Much later, during World War I, we were known as "Yanks". An affectation that was not exactly affectionate most of the time. That nickname sprang from a song popular during the American Revolution.

Yankee Doodle went to town
riding on a pony.
Stuck a feather in his hat
and called it "macaroni."

Yankee Doodle went to town,
Yankee Doodle dandy.
yadda, yadda, yadda.

Well, that's how it is sung today. There were some different lyrics back in the mid 1700s. Some of them weren't all that nice since they were made up by the British.

In any event, that song was probably where the term "Yankee" came from and it normally referred to a person from the northeastern colonies (Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, etc).

I suppose it became a common name for those of us living south of Canada and north and east of the Spanish and French colonies because there was no other commonality available. We were a mix of various European ethnic groups so we had no common country beyond England. Most of our industry and commerce came out of New England so the nickname seemed appropriate, I suppose.

Now, as we moved out into the world, across the seas, people might have asked where we were from. We'd likely have said "the Americas" and it would be easy for those folks to see us as "Americans" because of that. Not so in South America, I suppose, but they call us "Norte Americanos" (North Americans) anyway. Or "Yanquis" (Yankees). It's odd to me that Mexicans often call us the former since they are also in North America. In fact, anyone living north of the Isthmus of Panama would be in North America. Contrary to popular belief, there is no Central America. That is a region. To be honest, there is no separate North America or South America. It is one large continent separated by a man made canal.

I really think anyone complaining about our usurping the name "Americans" is making much a do about nothing. If anyone not a citizen of the US but living on this continent wishes to call himself "American", I have no problem with it. He might confuse some people who have accepted the term as meaning citizens of the US but that would be his (and their) problem.

After all, what should we call ourselves? "United Statesians?" How about "USians?" Nah, the latter would sound too much like "Russians".

We are routinely called a lot of names and "American" no longer has a favorable connotation, if it ever did. Why worry about such things anyway? As long as I don't call you something you don't want to be called, what do you care what I call myself?


Thursday, March 26, 2009

More Adventures With Tech Support

I like my computer. Really. It's a nice computer even though it has this quirk. It loses icon images for internet shortcuts from the desktop and replaces them with default Internet Explorer icon images. It's annoying. Frustrating. I have managed, however, not to get to the point of throwing the computer through the conveniently placed window to my right. Instead, I did the mature thing. I contacted Microsoft's support and dumped the issue on them.

This is what a normal icon looks like...

This is what the affected icon looks like...

It only took 4 or 5 exchanges to explain the problem to them so that they understood the following:

1. In all cases, it is custom images that are affected (images I applied through "Change Icon" under Properties for the shortcut file).

2. I do not use Internet Explorer for browsing, I use Firefox and it is my default browser.

3. The problem is intermittent and quite random. I have many icons on my desktop, many of them are internet shortcuts, not all of the internet shortcuts have been affected (though most have at one time or another), it is not only internet shortcuts which get affected. I don't think they really get this item but they are close to understanding it.

4. When I view the Properties of the affected icon file, I see the proper image displayed, not the one I see on my desktop.

5. I can reset to the desired image by finding a copy of the original image file (.ICO) and Applying that. I cannot simply Apply the original image file. Therefore, I have two copies of each of my custom .ICO files so I can switch back and forth when the problem occurs.

A few days ago, Shalley (this is the name of the support tech... whom I have begun to suspect is a "bot" of some sort) suggested I rename the Iconcache.db file in my \Users\Local folder and reboot. Then try changing my screen color resolution from 16 bit to 32 bit or vice versa (thus forcing a reset of the screen images). So I did. A strange thing occurred while doing the latter... Here is what I related to him:

"Re-booted and tried the Display Settings changing. And here is where I got the interesting results:

My normal is 32 bit so I changed it to 16 bit. The display prompts for a 15 second delay then reverts. I noticed no changes and allowed it to revert. Then I tried again. This time, I got a change (two or three icons -I am not sure- changed to default IE types). I accepted the change. Then went back in and reset it to 32 bit. The affected icons reverted to what I had set them to. I did this a couple of times and the results were the same; Go to 16 bit resolution and lose a few icon images, go back to 32 bit and the icon images return."

Is it fixed? Will the problem return? Why is the 16 bit color setting still broke?

Why am I pulling my hair out?


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Snippet of Life - The Outing

I was in the 8th grade. In an English class. One of my least memorable classes (and there were many of these) It was taught by a short, rotund, ego-maniac. There appears to be something about teaching English to youngsters that attracts the pompous. Not all English teachers are obnoxious... or rotund... or even male. Please, don't get me wrong. In fact, a couple of years later, I had a fetching young woman (well, at the time I viewed her as an "older woman") trying vainly to have me conform to her idea of what her English students should do. Miss Grossman, I never gave you the appreciation you deserved. I also never even attempted to do the homework you assigned.

This teacher, whose name is forever lost to me, was a frustrated preacher. And a rabid anti-communist. In 1959, the latter wasn't viewed in any kind of negative light. In fact, it was a "plus" on one's resume. One of the first things I noticed was two of the books on his desk were anti-communist, one explained dialectical materialism (in a negative manner, I presume) and the other was entitled "You can Trust a Communist... To Be a Communist". I didn't read either of them.

Our relationship tone was established on the first day of school. He entered the room after we had all arrived and found seats. Seating choices, when made by the students, clearly reflects a kind of self-imposed hierarchy and caste system. The suck-ups all grabbed seats in the front couple of rows. These students were first into the classroom anyway so they had no trouble getting those seats. The average students grabbed the middle rows, behind the suck-ups, and leaving the outer row by the windows open. My crowd (my "peeps", to use the more current vernacular) took the window seats and the back row. I preferred the window row, myself, but took a seat one row over in the back. Why I recall this, I have no idea.

After introducing himself, he announced that he had minored in Theology in college. He beamed while telling us this, he clearly wanted us to be impressed. He then proceeded to ask the following questions:

Who are my Catholic children?

Who are my Protestant children?

Who are my Baptist children?

Who are my Jewish children?

I may have recalled the order incorrectly but those were the essential questions. And, after each question, hands were raised. He would look around and note the respondents. When he was done, he took note of the fact that I had not raised my hand at all. He zeroed in on me.

"And what is your religion?"

"None," I responded. "I am atheist."

He was shocked. Here I was, a mere 13 years old, and a heretic. Well, maybe not a heretic but certainly misguided and in need of his ministering. But, first, he had to make sure I wasn't a "Commie" and questioned my political leanings. I may have decided on eschewing religion but I was essentially apolitical at that point in my life.

I was outed! Or so he thought. The truth was that anyone who knew me already knew my non-religious nature. But perhaps I should explain myself a bit here. I was not a militant atheist. I was not a Madelyn Murray O'Hair atheist. In fact, I hadn't yet heard of her. She made a name for herself the next year when she filed suit challenging school prayer. I do not like such people. They are every bit as bad as those evangelicals who try to convert anyone and everyone they meet. We should all leave each other alone in this aspect of our lives.

The kids within my band of miscreants consisted of 3 Jews, a methodist, 3 Catholics, a "Jew-Cat" (his mother Catholic and his father was Jewish which meant he wasn't really Jewish so we called him that on occasion), and me. Outside of making jokes using the usual sterotypes, we never had any problems because of religion. At that time, school prayer was a regular thing in my district (and state). In spite of the horror stories that were trotted out during the suit to end school prayer, no one ever harassed me (or anyone else) in any way for not praying or praying "differently".

We, the teacher and I, had several philosophical conversations during that term. None of them very memorable, none of them particularly heated. He came to accept that I was sincere in my non-belief, that I wasn't merely being rebellious, and he also gave up on getting me to apply myself in the curriculum.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Does This Compute?

When I was young, very young, computers took up whole rooms and were operated by men, and a few women, in lab coats with clip boards, glasses, and who had serious looks on their faces. Well, in the movies anyway. In movies, the men generally wore suits and ties, the women in dresses no matter what kind of job they had. Movie life and real life didn't mesh well in my head. My father never wore a suit, at work or anywhere else. Neither did anyone else's father that I knew except for Norman's, the nerdy kid down the street. But his father was a lawyer so it was to be expected. In movies, men were mostly dressed in suits (except for cowboys and convicts), even bad guys like bank robbers. But I digress, this isn't about men in suits.

It's about computers.

Some say the first computers were mechanical clocks. After all, they computed time. But that really isn't the definition of "computer". A computer, in simple terms, is something that accepts data, processes it, and displays the results.

I just found out that a man in Germany, Konrad Zuse, built the first electrical binary programmable computer (the Z1) in his parents' living room between 1936 and 1938 (Wikipedia says 1941 but referred to the Z3).

I suppose there was room because his parents didn't have a stereo and TV to take up a lot of space. Just that huge radio that they could listen to Herr Hitler on.

For years,people got along without computers in their businesses and homes. My father certainly did. He owned a business and the closest thing to a computer in that was a manual adding machine; punch in the numbers, and pull the lever, repeat as necessary. I think it only had 4 types of calculations and ran to two whole decimal places.

The military was the main driver behind the computer. It needed to calculate trajectories, quickly and accurately. This helps you destroy the enemy more efficiently while lowering the possibility of of destroying your own men and machines. World War II was the impetus behind the invention of Eniac, the first American electronic computer of note. However, the war was over by the time it was built. The Eniac is younger than I am.

The Eniac was a mass of electro-mechanical devices and electron tubes. It wasn't until the transistor was developed that the computer could truly start to evolve. The transistor meant miniaturization and less heat generation.

In 1981, I bought my first computer, an Osborne 1. Relatively few people owned computers at the time. But that is about the time that people started thinking about them. Large businesses had been using what were called "small computers" which took up the space of maybe three or four refridgerators, sometimes more. Large corporations could afford mainframe computers which took up whole rooms. Small businesses were getting into what would later be called "personal computers", mostly made by Radio Shack and companies that are now long gone.

By the time I bought that Osborne, Apple had stores, Radio Shack was big, and people had started buying personal computers for entertainment rather than just business needs.

Fast forward to today and it's a surprise when I hear someone say "I don't own a computer." They are everywhere. And they are attached to the internet.

The newest phones, like the I-Phone, are little computers which can tap into the internet and play online games. They are the logical evolution of those PDAs of a few years ago that only kept your address book and an appointment calendar.

We are a tapped in, connected, digital species. What next? Implants that we can use to make calls and access the internet?


Sunday, March 22, 2009

Crazy Laws

A former co-worker and alleged friend sends me jokes and oddities via email from time to time. Our friendship is based primarily on our warped senses of humor. Other than that, we see eye to eye on almost nothing.

Today I received an email with a link to "The Top Ten Craziest Sex Laws in America".

Since I am a curious sort, I didn't stop there but went on to follow a link to yet another page where some really stupid laws are revealed... felony-misdemeanors-and-absurdity

Here's an excerpt, with commentary by me...

* It’s illegal in the U.S. to use any live endangered species, excepting insects, in public or private sexual displays, shows or exhibits depicting cross-species sex.

I have to wonder why insects were excepted. And is it illegal if you use mammals with insects?

* It’s illegal in Alabama it’s illegal to drive a car while blindfolded.

This is probably a good law. I am betting there are lots of people in Alabama who would try this if not for a law against it.

* In Alaska you can’t legally push a moose out of a plane in motion.

Just think about the possible things that caused this law to be considered.

* A man can only legally beat his wife once a month in Arkansas.

"Honey! Put down that stick, it's still March!"

* It’s illegal for small boys to throw stones, at any time, at any place in Washington D.C.

I am sure the politicians got pretty fed up with the constant torment.

* In Georgia it’s illegal for a barber to advertise his prices.

OK, I give up. Why?

* In Bakersfield, California, anyone having intercourse with Satan must use a condom.

Who says you cannot legislate good sense?

* It is against New York law for a blind person to drive a car.

Did they drop the word "drunk" from this law?

* In Washington State, you can’t carry a concealed weapon that is over 6 feet in length.

Probably had a lot of 8 foot tall people walking around with concealed 6 foot weapons.

* In Montana, you can’t pretend to abuse an animal in the presence of a minor.

Yep, it has to be for real.

* In Nome, Alaska it is illegal to openly carry a bow and arrow.

I am sure this has cut way down on those bow and arrow assaults.

* In Arizona, Any misdemeanor committed while wearing a red mask is a felony.

But Sheriff, it's really a sort of bronze!

* Maricopa County, AZ, No more than six girls may live in any house.

What if I had 6 daughters? Does my wife have to move out?


Saturday, March 21, 2009

"Oh, what a world! What a world! "*

There has been an auto advertisement showing lately that caught my eye and triggered something in my brain the other evening. It's a Volvo ad. Very elaborate, with a green motif (green as in eco-friendly), with a youngish couple in a woodsy area being greeted by a friendly person (almost elf-like) who invites them to see their new car being made. The feeling presented was like elves and fairies building this beautiful vehicle as they float about the air (well, they made no attempt to actually hide the harnesses but still...). In the end, the couple drive off in apparent bliss.

It was an advertisement for a 2010 model. Excuse me? It is March of 2009! A full 9 months before 2010. You could expand your family easily by then. What's the hurry? Why not call it a 2009? Or maybe a 2009 and 1/2?

I thought dealers were having trouble all over the world selling cars but Volvo is advertising in advance. It isn't all that green, either. Its standard engine is the usual gasoline burning non-hybrid V-6 (turbocharged). An SUV that's rated 16 mpg city, 22 mpg highway.

Is it just me or does this seem a bit odd to you?

We are in a topsy turvey world, aren't we? I just got through reading an article referenced through Argentum's wonderful blog, Tomas Arcanum

I would like you, when you have time, to read the referenced article (link)

The scary thing is I was not shocked about anything in the article.

Tell me, am I being too judgemental?

* Quote from The Wizard of Oz


Friday, March 20, 2009

Adventures in Tech Support

Technical support is undoubtedly a difficult job. I know this because I did it for a few years while I was pre-retired. The primary problem is communication. We think, because we speak the same language, we can communicate but it is not that simple. Throw in technical jargon along with frustration and you have the basis for communications chaos.

There are a number of factors involved in technical support communication.

1. There should be a common understanding of the subject on at least a fundamental level.

This is only possible when two people reasonably familiar with the subject at hand are talking. It is rare when technical support and a novice are talking. That is what happens 99% of the time with technical support. The technical support person assumes, therefore, that the petitioner lacks the basic knowledge and has simply not followed the directions properly (or at all). More chaos ensues when the petitioner is more knowledgeable than the tech. That upsets the "balance of power."

2. The jargon used must be common to both sides.

One would think that the only jargon used would be by the tech. Well, one would be wrong. Novices often use jargon they think is proper, use jargon that applies to something they are familiar with (and the tech may not be), or simply make some up.

3. The fundamentals of the problem must be understood by both sides.

This is the crucial factor. And its achievement is rare.

Of all the things which interfere, the lack of knowledge of the subject by the technician is often the greatest impediment to communication and resolution of the problem. Unfortunately, it's all too common.

I write this because I just recently escalated a problem to technical support because I couldn't seem to resolve it on my own. It was a simple problem (as they all are, really): Sharing a printer between two computers on a private, simple, network. My problem was difficult for me to resolve because I assumed I did not have sufficient personal knowledge to do so. This wasn't so. My problem was actually made more difficult because I did not realize I did have sufficient knowledge.

The solution, obvious at the end, was to install the drivers into the computer which would share the printer attached to mine. Re-visiting the Help available, it becomes quite clear what to do. Of course, rather than being under setting up a shared printer "To share a printer attached to your computer", it was under "To print using a shared printer".

And it said this:
"Double-click the printer. Windows will automatically add the printer to your computer and install the printer driver. When the process is complete, click Next."

I even asked the technical support person (4 exchanges into the troubleshooting process) if I needed to install the drivers in the computer I wished to be able to access said printer. I was assured I did not need to do this.

Then, in the very next exchange, I was instructed to try installing an alternate printer in the other computer, including the drivers. So, naturally, I installed the proper drivers in that computer and everything went according to plan. The shared printer is now actually capable of being shared.



Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Simple Conk on the Head

Natasha Richardson, an actress, died yesterday from a head injury sustained on the beginner's slope while taking a skiing lesson at a ski resort in Quebec, Canada. It shows how fragile we are, doesn't it? A simple fall, she was seemingly fine until an hour or so later. Then she collapsed, slipped into a coma, became brain dead and died. All within three days.

This has elicited a lot of talk on the TV about helmets and the need for them when a head injury is possible while pursuing some activity. That does make sense to me. Skiing is dangerous, you do fall, and head injuries are quite possible. One would think that helmets would be mandatory when taking lessons. Especially if one is first learning, as it is implied by the reports on Ms Richardson.

It also got me thinking about all the head injuries I have sustained throughout my years. Any reports that I was dropped on my head as a baby cannot be verified as no one in the family would ever admit to these.

The first one I recall was when my brother threw a small rock at me as I was walking away from him. I was 4, I believe. It hurt, but not badly, broke the skin and there was some bleeding. My mother held a pad to my head then had me hold it until the bleeding stopped and nothing more happened. No concussion, no coma, no brain damage (that anyone is aware of).

The next one of note was when I was fifteen. I was walking home one afternoon from school and I coerced a younger (smaller) kid to give me a ride on his bicycle. There are a few ways to do this: Sit on the seat dangling your feet while the peddler stands in front of you and pedals, Sit sidesaddle on the handlebars, and sit on the handlebars using the axle nuts on the front wheel for footpegs.

I chose the last option. We went along just fine for about a block when the toe of my shoe caught in the spokes and we tumbled forward. I mean the front wheel stopped and the back of the bike came up and I landed directly on my head on the sidewalk. No blood this time, no concussion, no known brain injuries.

The next, and last, one of note requires a little background information. When surfing, there is something that occasionally happens called "pearling". It's short for "pearl diving" and means the nose of the surfboard was forced down into the water at the base of the wave. The result of this is the surfer gets separated from the board, staying in the water, while the board pops back up out of the water. In most cases, where the waves are smallish, the board only pops up a few feet at most. When the waves are larger, the board can pop up quite high and come down rather hard on whatever is below. Some of this is avoided by the use of "leashes" where the board is connected to the surfer's ankle. We did not have leashes in my day, the boards were much bigger and no one had thought of these things.

We also did not have surf helmets then. Nor was it likely any of us would have worn them if we had. In any case, we had some decent surf one day and the waves were fair sized, about 6 foot. I pearled on one especially strong one and found myself underwater and no longer attached to my board. Usually, you can just relax and float to the surface to find your board had already come down a few feet away. And this is what I did. Except just as I began to break the surface, the board came down edge-wise square on the top of my head. The force pushed me back down into the water a good two feet or so and, basically, "rang my bell."

I continued surfing the rest of the day. No concussion, no apparent brain damage.

The last one of note happened in the Navy and involved a hatchway. There are two kinds of hatchways; one vertical, one horizontal. Horizontal ones are the ones are accesses between decks, vertical ones are accesses through bulkheads (walls). I had been on liberty (in Sasebo, Japan, I think) and had been drinking, heavily, as I was wont to do in those days. After returning to the ship, a few of us sat on the mess deck eating some moldy bread with some purloined peanut butter and telling jokes or lying about our exploits on liberty.

I got up to stagger to my compartment where I intended to pass out for a few hours before reveille and headed for the hatchway. Normally, one steps over the bottom of the hatchway and ducks through the opening since these opening are about 5 feet in height and start about a foot from the floor. Instead, I placed one foot firmly on the bottom and stood up within the opening slamming my bean on the upper edge. I promptly sat down while I listened to the bells ringing in my head and the laughter of my shipmates. I then got up, made it down to my compartment, managed to pass out in my rack (bed) until the next morning. Again, no coma, no concussion, no known brain damage.

It is the luck of the draw, I suppose, and you may never know.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Eyes Have It!

The eyes are the windows to the soul, it is said. Some say you can tell when someone is lying by the look in their eyes. Fear shows in the eyes, as does confidence, love, and many other emotions.

Or do the eyes show these things? I no longer think they do. I think what we mean is the face around the eyes reveals these things. The eye itself has no expression, it is purely a reactive organ. It reacts to the amount of light to which it is exposed. Nothing more, nothing less.

We imagine more than we see, I'd say. We hear a subdued voice, we see a frown, the lids seem heavy, there are tears welling along the bottom lids, and we see "sadness" in the eyes. But if the lids seem heavy and there is no frown, maybe no expression at all, no tears welling then we see maybe sleepiness or maybe we think he (or she) is deep in thought. If the eyes squint, there's a turn up at the lips, dimples in the cheeks... why, then, we see happiness in those eyes.

Mona Lisa's eyes, Bette Davis' eyes (why is her named pronounced "bettie" and Bette Midler's pronounced "bet"?), Greta Garbo's eyes, and a few others have captured the imagination of people all over the world. Yet, is it really the eyes? Or is it the way they appear in the face?

I once met a young woman in Sherman Oaks, California who had the most beautiful green eyes. The color was magnificent, translucent, almost luminescent. Then I learned she wore contacts. I was crushed. But it was the color that did more than the eyes, same for Paul Newman's, I suppose, for the women.

If the eyes were all then why would there be mascara, eyeliner, and eye shadow?


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy St. Paddy's Day!

Well, Top o' the mornin' to ya! And a fine St. Paddy's day it is, too. Whatever we are are the rest of the year, we all seem to be Irish today. So, what do I read the first thing this morning? St. Patrick not only didn't drive all the snakes out of Ireland but he wasn't even Irish!

Yes, that's right. The actual St. Patrick was a Welshman who had come to Ireland at age 16 when he was captured and enslaved by Viking (according to MSNBC, Irish according to Wikipedia) raiders back in the 5th century. Six years later he escaped (following a dream in which God told him to) and wandered all over Europe, eventually returning to Britain. There, at age 40, he had another dream. This one led him back to Ireland to convert the Druids to Christianity. He is credited with converting some 120,000 Pagan Druids.

Well, I suppose we should have known it wasn't about snakes. The 3 leaf clover, the national symbol of Ireland, was used by St. Patrick to teach about the Trinity. Wiki suggests that the story of the snakes has to do with the snake being a symbol of the Druids. Therefore, driving the snakes from Ireland might be interpreted as converting the Druids.

Like so many bits of history, there is myth and legend intertwined with fact. And the true story of St. Patrick is difficult to discern. It seems that he did live to be 120, a remarkable feat at the time in its own right, and that he was directly involved in converting much of Ireland to Christianity. The actual time period for this is a bit fuzzy.

His birthday wasn't much of a deal until the influx of Irish immigrants to America in the last half of the 19th century. This large influx produced a backlash against immigration and against the Irish in particular. According to MSNBC, the first St Patrick Day parades were more political protest than celebration and this brought politicians to vie for the votes and loyalty of the Irish. After all, the New York parade is said to have brought out some 15,000 Irish to march and that was a large bloc of voters.

Whatever is true, it's a good day to celebrate. Just don't have too big a hangover come Wednesday morning.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Time For Another Question

I think it is time for another question. Something to intrigue the curious, to initiate mischievousness in the clever and witty, yet something everyone can relate to.

But what subject? Maybe Bernie Madoff. Most of us didn't give him any money. But we might have some opinions about him and Ponzi schemes and about the ones who did lose money in that particular one.

I like that idea. Madoff, it turns out, is worth some $820 million plus. Since the losses are alleged to be some $50 Billion, that money had to have gone somewhere. I mean, we are talking about over 49 Billion dollars here. I am reasonably sure he didn't spend it all. Even with the help of his family, I am reasonably sure he couldn't have spent all that without some huge assets sitting around.

The way a Ponzi scheme works is pretty simple: You take money from investors and keep drawing in investors. As new ones invest, after skimming a bunch for yourself, you use that money to pay dividends to the earlier ones. Eventually, the schemes collapse because you run out of investors. Or because too many investors demand their principal back. Look at it like a run on a bank.

So who was hurt by Madoff? Mostly rich people who are complaining about losing millions. These are rich people who undoubtedly are not wiped out and have millions more in reserve so it is hard to feel bad for them. But I am told there were some charities who had invested with him and they will be hurt since they usually have no reserves at all.

The scope of this Ponzi scheme is what makes it so fascinating to us, I suppose. It went on for something like 20 years. That's a lot of new investors. I am reminded of P.T. Barnum's famous quote, "There's a sucker born every minute." Apparently, Madoff had the line on all the rich ones.

It does show one thing, though, even the rich aren't all that smart.

Oh, the questions (there's two)...

Have you ever been cheated in a Ponzi scheme?

Where do you think that $49 Billion went, if it was really that much lost?


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Parting Ways

When I was a little boy, my mother parted my hair on the left. Well, she tried. It was a little unruly, as was I. I kept it that way as I grew up, right into the Navy.

But, after I got out, I changed it. As it got longer, parting it on the side was not fitting. It looked strange so I started parting it down the middle...

This lasted a number of years, even as my hair grew much longer. Much, much longer.

But something happened along the way. In 1978, I got my hair cut. Short. Normal length. Like a responsible adult. And parting it down the middle looked silly, like Dagwood Bumstead. So, I got rid of the part down the middle. But I couldn't get it to part on the left anymore. Not neatly anyway. So I just combed it back, straight back. Like my father did. And his brother (my uncle) does. And their father did. And like my brother does.

I just noticed that.


Friday, March 13, 2009

Friday the 13th

I am a little late posting today and don't have a prepared piece. It's a golf day so I get nothing done in the morning anyway but some other things are happening around here today.

On Tuesday each week, Faye and I meet with a group of couples for dinner at some restaurant around town. These are people that we both know; Faye through her work in tax preparation, me from golf. It's a decent crowd, maybe 16 people at most but usually 12 show up. It gets us out of the house, gives the cooks a break, helps the local economy, and makes for a pleasant social gathering. Next week, however, we are doing something a little different. We are having them over for a lasagna dinner.

Faye makes a great lasagna. The problem is that it is difficult to make it for just three so I only get to taste when there is enough company over.

What this means is that the house gets extra cleaning. And it means that I have to catch up on some chores, like cleaning my desk, picking up the computer parts and boxes that are strewn about, and so forth. It also means that Faye wants to burn a music CD to play in the background. This last is what interfered the most with my blog today. Faye is pretty good at this but she usually needs just a little help.

I have to admit, I am a little puzzled over how my computers are linked. The media is supposed to be linked through the router for the DSL. We do not have a formal LAN but this is supposed to be a network. I can see Faye's music and access it from my desktop and I can see the laptop's music and access it. The laptop can see both her media and my desktop. But Faye's computer can only see the laptop. Chaos reigns. I guess I need a "Networking for Dummies" manual.

But I managed to burn the CD she wanted (79 MP3 files). And then I burned another MP3 CD for my car (7 hours of music).

And now I can finally write and post this.

But I did win $25 (net) at golf today.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

In The News

One of the things I do each morning (or whenever I finally wander onto the Information Superhighway) is glance through the news. I realize some of you are more advanced and efficient about this and get pertinent news fed to you. But somewhere along the line, I got in the habit of perusing headlines. I did this back when I read actual, physical, paper and ink, newspapers. I think it started when I had a paper route as a boy.

I use Goggle News. I realize there are a number of other ways to get news feeds, or headlines, or items of interest emailed to you but Google News works for me. You see, I made Google my home page a long time ago and, naturally, the News link caught my eye. The link brings me to a page full of headlines.

The purpose of headlines is to draw your attention, to intrigue you, to make you want to read the story. Some do, some don't. It's an art form, I would say, and not everyone is good at it.

One grabbed my attention right away this morning.

"Billionaires aren't as rich as they used to be"

It turned out to be a Houston Chronicle business section article that was actually titled:

The Rich Get Poorer"

Two things came to mind as I read the Google headline and then went to the article.

1. Was I supposed to feel sorry for the billionaires suffering in this bad economy?
2. How can someone who is rich get poorer? Wouldn't you have to be poor first in order to get more poor? It should be "The Rich Are Still Richer Than you"

I am fortunate enough to be in a position where this economic downturn will not hurt me badly. Not because I was clever and saw it coming. Not because I was smart enough to plan ahead years ago. No, like most of the good things that have happened to me in life, I lucked into this position.

But I am no billionaire. And I can't seem to work up much sympathy for people who have to consider buying a slightly smaller yacht this year.

I also can have Google News provide me with headlines from my little area. This is a nice little feature. We have four Google worthy stories. All are boring. So boring that the only one of note is:

"Sebring preparing for the future, one flush at a time"

The headline is about the most interesting part of the story. Unless you are interested in sewage plants... which I am not.

What I learn from a glance through the headlines this morning is:

That someone seems worried about what will happen to Bernie Madoff if/when he goes to prison. Yeah, that's a real concern. Still he's not a pedophile and we do try to protect them....

There's unrest in Pakistan. Now, that's a surprise, isn't it?

Remember the shoe-thrower in Iraq? He got three years in prison. I wonder if he's worried about his safety while in prison?

The space shuttle launch scheduled for this evening got scrubbed. This seems to happen often. I want to go see a shuttle launch and, since I live only a few hours away from Cape Kennedy, you'd think it would be easy. Nope, sure isn't. the least predictable thing in Florida after the weather is shuttle launches.

In sports, some teams won and some lost. High paid athletes continue to be highly paid, even in this poor economy. Ok, I am not real interested in sports news.

On the Health front, an 18 year study concluded that the air in Los Angeles could be hazardous to your health. I wonder how much that study cost?

Back to you, Chet.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Six Things (a Tag Assignment)

Let me start today by explaining about "tagging" for those who do not understand it. That would be the 1%, or so, of you that don't blog and have somehow managed to avoid any blog that has been "tagged." It is a game of sorts where one blogger randomly subjects a number of other bloggers to a kind of challenge. In this case, the number is 6.

Here are the rules... (I just did a little Copy & Paste from Jules' site, with a little editing)

1) Put the link of the person who tagged you on your blog (That'll be The Jules, at The Gravel Farm in this case)

2) Write the rules (What you are currently perusing)
3) Mention 6 things or habits of no real importance about you (see below)

4) Tag 6 persons adding their links directly (I shall choose people randomly, and by random I mean subjectively)

5) Alert the persons that you tagged them (hopefully by reading this post)

Since I am an official "Old Guy" and designated Party Pooper, I will follow the first 3 of the 6 rules. I will then commit the Sin of the Chain Letter and not obey the last 3. You see, I am against involuntary assignment. If these tags were true suggestions and did not carry the weight of peer pressure, I would see no harm. But I was often the "last kid picked" in school and the one who was dared to do things that would inevitably get me in trouble. This creates great psychic trauma which resulted in mental scars which, when "rubbed", release the demons inside my head and that causes some fear and trepidation in my neighbors.

Anyway, the other 5 bloggers Jules has tagged will most likely carry on the tradition and that means some 30 other bloggers may (or may not) write some post that will reveal things about them no one really needed to know. Click on the words "Gravel Farm" above to take you that list and his Six Things... Visit those blogs, read them, you will enjoy them, I am sure.

This is actually an easy list to make up. Most things about me are of no real importance.

1. I am not old by the standards of my golfing associates. Since I am 62, I am often referred to as "the young'un." Still, players 10 or more years older than me hit the ball farther and score lower.

2. I am pointlessly dependable. I take it as a matter of personal pride to keep promises and feel incredible guilt when I fail to do so. Which I occasionally do.

3. Though I only spent exactly 3 years and 11 months in the US Navy, it is a major part of who I came to be. Had it happened at a different time period, I might have stayed in for 20 or 30 years.

4. I think I am smart. But I am only smart enough to get myself into trouble and annoy those around me with my endless prattling.

5. I have only broken one bone in my body. My right index finger. That happened during a scuffle with my brother when I was about 6 years old. It was not set so the finger is a little bent to the right. As am I...

6. People often ask me if I dye my hair because it is mostly dark brown while my beard is quite gray to white. I haven't figured out why anyone would think that. Wouldn't I dye my beard dark too if I was that vain?

So, there you have it. 6 things you really didn't need to know and which did not enrich your lives in any way.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Chatted With a Plant Lately?

When I was on liberty in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, back in 1967, a young lady showed me something interesting. She called it "bashful grass". It looked more like clover or fern, a weed maybe, than grass. You touched the plant and the leaves would close up quickly in reaction. After the contact with the plant is broken, the plant will slowly unfold its leaves again. It amazed me. It's also called "Sleeping Grass" and it can be found a number of places.

Video of plant in action (12 second video)

We all have heard of the Venus Flytrap. It reacts to the insects caught in its mouth-like flower and closes up to trap them and, eventually, digest them. This is called "thigmonasty" or "seismonasty". Botanists consider these reflex actions, not intelligence.

But can plants be intelligent? Or are they simply reactive? First, we'd have to understand just what intelligence means. Basically, it is the ability to reason, to plan, to solve problems, to use a language, to think independently. Currently, we (as a species) do not consider plants to be intelligent.

Of course, we once didn't consider the so-called lower animals to be intelligent once either. We thought they functioned entirely by instinct. Then we began to see that they could think independently, learn a language (sign language).

We thought animals didn't dream and that dreaming was, therefore, a sign of intelligence. Anyone who had a dog or cat has witnessed the evidence that they dream. So we decided that tool making was a sign of intelligence... until we found that some animals do make tools.

The reality is that we decide what intelligence is. Someday, we may decide that plants do exhibit intelligence.

There has been a belief, starting back in the 60s or 70s, that talking to plants helps them grow. The idea is credited to Dr. Gustav Theodor Fechner, a German professor, in 1848. His idea was that plants were capable of emotion and would, therefore, respond to emotion. He wrote about this in his book "The Soul-life of Plants". Some experiments have been done in this regard but the weirdest was one done by the TV show "Mythbusters"...

"Seven small greenhouses were set up on the M5 Industries roof. Four were set up with stereos playing endlessly looping recordings (as having the MythBusters actually talk to the plants could contaminate the samples with their expelled carbon dioxide): Two of negative speech, two of positive speech (Kari and Scottie each made one positive and one negative inducing soundtrack), a fifth with classical music and a sixth with intense death metal music. A seventh greenhouse, used as a control sample, had no stereo. The greenhouses with the recordings of speech grew better than the control, regardless of whether such talk was kind or angry. The plants in the greenhouse with the recording of classical music grew better, while the plants in the greenhouse with the recording of intense death metal grew best of all."

Most scientists thought that talking to plants helped them grow because you exhaled carbon dioxide which they need. The more you talk, the more CO2 they get and the greener and bigger they get. The Mythbusters' experiment controlled for that and showed, once again, scientists just ain't all that smart.

I am beginning to think that we have no idea just what intelligent life is.

Monday, March 9, 2009

I Got Nothin'!

Ever have one of those days? You just can't seem to get started. It is especially troubling if you want to write something. I toyed with various ideas but got nowhere. I'd start out fine but within a few paragraphs, I'd decide it wasn't what I wanted. Or maybe it looked like it was going to be too long. Or some other idea seemed more attractive.

Writer's block. A terrible thing. It comes in many forms, this is one I call "stuttering overload". Many ideas that just don't pan out. I suppose that's better than the "empty head" version. That one scares me. There's also the "rather boring" model which essentially means anything I write bores me silly within 5 sentences. And if I am bored, believe me, you will be too.

So, basically, I got nothin'. Except you. And I figure you can help me. You've done it before. Some comment you made or a blog you wrote (if you are a blogger) planted a seed in my head and I then turned it into a post.

Here's what I propose. I will give you a list of subjects and you choose one or you offer a different subject instead. Ok?

1. Chance meetings which change your life.
2. A day in the life of a sailor at sea.
3. Are plants intelligent?
4. A high school date gone wrong, really wrong.
5. Failed hobbies and pastimes.

There you go. If none of those tweak your imagination and you have an idea you'd like to someone else (me, for instance) write about, here's your chance to pass it on. Who knows? It might just intrigue me.

Now, if you don't like any of those choices and you are thinking "Hey! This is his blog, why should I have to think up something for him?" then I guess I will be on my own tomorrow.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Synchronize Your Clocks

I woke up this morning already losing an hour. It is not 6:45, as my clock showed, but 7:45. Of course, it doesn't matter what time it is because I am retired and don't have to go to work and I wouldn't likely be going anywhere early on Sunday morning anyway.

We have now entered Daylight Savings Time. Which is a misnomer because no daylight is actually saved.

But what an arbitrary thing time is anyway. Why is it 7 AM in one place and 6 Am somewhere else? You can, literally, take one step and travel through time if you happen to be at the demarcation point between time zones. Or a whole day if you cross the International Date Line. Which I have done a few times. Well, on a ship. You cannot actually walk across it since they cleverly drew it around all land masses. Could you imagine your neighbor across the street (or in the next town) existing in a different day than you?

All time is arbitrary on this planet. We call it Coordinated Universal Time (actually, we call it Temps Universel Coordonnéor UTC) now. But, not so long ago, we called it Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). It began because men went to sea and went out of sight of land in order to get to another land. When you go to sea to the point where land is no longer visible, you need a reference point in time for purposes of navigation. GMT was/is Solar Mean Time. It is arbitrarily the time when the sun is directly overhead in Greenwich, England. Though that isn't actually true every day of the year, is it? But it was a reference point and navigation requires a reference point.

I used to wonder why we divide the day into 24 hours. It seems we might not have except the ancient Sumerians liked the idea of 12 and it caught on. After all, there is no real reason we couldn't have divided the day into 10 hours. But, for some reason, they decided on 12 hours of day and 12 hours of night. Something that only happens on one day twice a year. And now we are stuck with it. And that is fortunate, I suppose, since it fits within our conception of a spherical earth (which really is only nominally a sphere) and allowed us to divide it into 360 degrees. A number usefully divisible by 12. Or maybe we have just grown used to it.

In any case, time is not a fixed thing. It is an invention and a convention. It is something we all agree on, for the most part. Except maybe for what year it is. That can depend upon what culture you belong to or live in.

So, if you haven't, set your clocks forward one hour unless you live in Arizona or one of the other places that refuse to follow this silly Daylight Savings ritual.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Amazing Chandi

I have a friend who sends me animal related videos, pictures and stories. Some of them are beyond description, some are just interesting.

The following video from YouTube is just amazing. It runs just under 5 minutes and well worth the time.

Tina's and Chandi's website is

Friday, March 6, 2009

Black and White

When I was very young, everything was black and white. And I don't mean just the TV set and most movies. I mean life itself. It was "yes" or "no", "right" or wrong", everything on one side or the other. I could stay out just so late, go just so far from home, do just certain things, and so on. Pretty much clearly defined.

As I got older, my world grew bigger but things stayed black and white, right or wrong. You could be "good" or you could be "bad." I knew where the lines were drawn, all of the other kids knew too. Sure, we crossed them but we knew where they were. There were no mitigating circumstances, no excuses, no valid reasons to escape punishment if we got caught. We knew that, too.

Then something changed. And it changed throughout society. People started talking about how something wrong might be justified "under the circumstances." They started talking about "not judging someone" because you might not understand what drove him to do whatever bad thing he did. Oh, the things were still "wrong" but now you had another factor to consider. It might be his childhood, or his intelligence level, or the events leading up to the act. Suddenly, "right" and "wrong" got a little hazy. "Black" and "white" became shades of gray.

I bought into that for some time. It allowed me a lot of leeway. Rationalization helped me overcome those pesky moral issues. Drinking while underage, driving while drunk, smoking marijuana and doing a few other drugs were easily justified when everything is not simply "right" or "wrong".

Then I had a son and I was caught up in that hypocritical mode of "do as I say, not as I do." I knew I had to make sure he knew right from wrong, good from bad. I had to teach him that the shades of gray that allowed me to do wrong didn't really exist.

I did. But I also taught myself that. And now I know it never really changed, that there always was a right way and wrong way. And we all know it, we all learn it early in our lives. And it never really changes. We do.

Thursday, March 5, 2009


My first wife's name is Barbara (I always want to say "was" but, since she is still alive, it must be "is"). So, all our friends referred to us as "Barb and Doug". We had other friends whom we referred to by couple names, like "Dave and Nancy", "Rick and Carol", "Carol and Mario" (no, not the same "Carol").

After awhile, I noticed that these were couplenames and that there was a hierarchy to them. The dominant one of the couple would always be first. Maybe. Sometimes it seemed only that it was alphabetical.

I also noted that women often put the name of the friend first in a couplename.For example, my (now ex-) wife would say "Nancy and Dave" while I would use the opposite order. In most cases, however, the order would be the same regardless of the speaker.

And then I began to apply this to other couples. I have two older siblings, I always say I have a "sister and brother, both older." I don't know if that is because my sister is the eldest or because of the "ladies first" rule that was implanted in my head as a child.

Then there's the president and vice-president. "Obama-Biden", "Reagan-Bush", "Bush-Cheney", "Ike and Dick" (now, why do I think of Eisenhower and Nixon that particular way?). Even other politicians, like Reid and Pelosi (mostly in that order but not always).

How about Abbott and Costello when, clearly, Costello was the main one of that duo? Or Martin and Lewis? Or Rodgers and Hammerstein? Or Roy and Dale (Rogers and Evans)? Burns and Allen?

Why do we prioritize names in the way we do?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

On Foundation and Empire

I am re-reading "Foundation Trilogy", by Isaac Asimov. It's probably been 20 or more years since I last read any one of the three books. So far, I am still wading through Foundation. Mostly because I am reading it before going to sleep. This means a chapter, two at the most, each night.

This is classic science fiction of the late 40s, early 50s. Published in 1951, much of the story involves atomic power. Which, at the time, was stuff that dreams are made of. It was the answer to all our problems. Unlimited electric power, nuclear powered spaceships, cars running on it (maybe even flying cars!), even small arms using it for our army. And that optimism is evident in this book. Not one word about the hazards except for it getting into "the wrong hands". It is the keystone for rebuilding the Empire.

An awful lot of people do not remember the early 50s, mostly because they hadn't been born yet. It was a time of great optimism about America. We had emerged from a decade of economic woe (The Great Depression), into a war that truly threatened liberty throughout the world, and had not only survived but had ended up as a superpower and the only nation with atomic bombs. That quickly changed, of course, when the Soviet Union developed their own.

All of a sudden, we were embroiled in a Cold War with an evil adversary. Nuclear power became synonymous with destruction, massive destruction, end of the world destruction. The golden promise of nuclear energy was replaced by the very real threat of nuclear devastation.

That is one of the things that Asimov reflects in his book, the dichotomy of (as he calls it) Atomic Power.

But there is another theme that runs throughout the book that bothers me. It is the concept of an empire that is benevolent; of having power centralized in the hands of an Emperor, one man. Though he speaks of a political body that acts as a democratic entity, it is less important than this image of one man rule.

In the last half of the Eighteenth Century, the US eschewed one man rule for a democratic form of government, a republic. Even so, we almost made George Washington our king. Don't laugh, there was a number of people who wanted that to happen. Just as there was a number of people who wished to remain part of a monarchy.

Having been raised in this country and schooled in a time where the evil of one man rule was still fresh in the minds of its citizens, and where the threat of single party rule (Soviet Union) was present in everyday life, I have always been amazed by the desire of humans to seek a savior, a king, an emperor, a permanent (but always benevolent) leader; puzzled by their willingness to cede authority to a single entity.

While I was in the Navy, I traveled a bit and got a glimpse of life under de facto one man rule. The Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos and Taiwan under Chiang Kai Shek. But I also learned, first hand, what that kind of rule was like. The Navy, any military organization, is a dictatorship. Leaders are followed, whether you think them good or bad. You do not elect them. There is an elite, an aristocracy, called "officers". There is the common folk, the peasants and workers, called the "enlisted". In between, a buffer, called "non-commissioned officers" who have power but not too much.

I am not a fan of one party rule, nor of blind allegiance to a leader. I worry when we establish an elite in this country. When we see a family as producing great men to follow (Kennedys, Bushes, Rockefellers, etc.). When we see one man (or woman) as the "image of hope" for the nation. It frightens me to think that people see politicians as anything other than employees we hired to conduct business for us and who can, and ought to, be fired at the very moment that they think of running for a third term.

The idea that one man can lead us out of our misery and into glorious prosperity is the most dangerous concept man has ever devised. The willingness to be subservient, to have someone else take on the responsibilities, to be a "father figure" to us all, is anathema to me.

When Jim Jones perpetrated the horror that was the Jonestown Massacre, my son was 8 years old. It was all over the TV and he wanted to know what it was all about. I told him that this is the kind of thing that happens when people believe that one person has the answers to all their troubles. I told him that no one had all the answers and he should never believe them when they tell him they do.

He then asked me, "Not even you, Dad?" And then I realized just why people unite behind despots and dictators and grant people "savior" status and sell themselves into social slavery. And I told him, "No, not even me. Maybe especially not me."

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Power to the People

There's a lot of talk about alternative energy sources lately, about getting off the oil "addition", about becoming energy independent. That should have an "again" appended to it. Because we once were. We used to be the main producer of petroleum. We provided most of the oil to the allies (and ourselves) to fight WWII. We fueled our economy with oil. We grew to be the largest economy in the world on that oil. And we used most of it up doing so.

So now, 35 years after we finally started realizing it, becasuse OPEC cut us off, we are supposedly getting serious about developing alternatives to fossil fuels. Personally, I think the people capable of developing alternative fuel sources have been serious about it for longer than 35 years. And I do not mean that in a negative way. I think they have worked very hard, all over the world, to develop viable alternatives to oil. That we do not yet have economically viable, efficient, alternatives says a lot about the technology levels and very little about the willingness to develop them.

While thinking about this subject I started considering the push lately to develop affordable and truly useful electric cars. I am not a big fan of these except as short haul commuter vehicles. And, even then, I am not a big fan. There are too many negatives involved.

First, consider the short operating range. Currently (no pun intended), they max out at around 50 miles. And they do not recharge all that quickly. You cannot just pull into a charging station, plug it in, and drive back out with a full battery in 10 minutes. So, even the Chevy Volt will actually be a sort of hybrid in order to get a long range (an impressively long range, if it holds out to be true). Most people cannot afford to own an expensive (these ain't cheap!) commuter car and a family touring wagon. We like our cars to be commuters and long drive platforms.

Second, consider the batteries. They have a life span and then must be refurbished or replaced. Most people will replace them. The cost for doing so will not be cheap. And then there's the pollution issues from the heavy metals, etc. Certainly, there will be entrepreneurs who will deal with recycling these things but the added pollution (old batteries are already a problem) will need to be considered.

Third, and this is a doozie, our electrical grid is overtaxed as it is. What will happen when tens of thousands of these electric vehicles get plugged into the grid about the same time in each time zone? We are nowhere near prepared for this.

Which brings me to the issue of power generation. This is where we, in my humble opinion, need to concentrate our research and investment. While transportation sucks up a lot of oil, so does power generation. And a lot of that power is wasted in transmission. There is a lot of talk lately about "smart" power grids. That's a good thing, we need that. We also need alternative methods of producing the power that feeds into those grids. Most of our electricity is produced by carbon based fuel; oil, natural gas,and coal. That's about 71%. The next largest sector is nuclear at a little over 19%. Hydroelectric is 7.1% and, finally, renewables for the rest.
(Click on image to see larger picture)

We could expand our nuclear generating capability but a significant portion of our population is afraid of it. So, we don't. The renewables are nowhere near ready to take up the slack.

We had better stop thinking about cars and start thinking about that power plant no one wants in their back yard.

I'd like to take a little poll so I placed one over there on your right. That's it, just glance over at the side bar, toward the top. Now, go answer it.

Thank you.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Invasion - The Battle Rages

After searching the outside perimeter of my house and finding no signs of any active fire ant mounds, I merely lay down some Sevin Dust along the edges of my carpeting on the inside. The dust does not kill a nest, it usually just acts as a fairly effective barrier. The ants, apparently not entirely stupid creatures, know it is toxic and avoid it if they can. It kills more than the few who travel through it because they carry it back and others "groom" them and come in contact with it. But it never reaches the queen and, so, the nest lives on.

I am almost convinced I have been through an isolated incident. A foray by a few ants in search of food though, deep in my brain, I know that can't be so.

I was working the "graveyard" shift. That is, from 11:30 PM to 7:30 AM each night. And Faye was working for a tax preparation company in the afternoon and evenings. That meant that I, who slept from noon till 6 or 7 PM, would wake up to an empty house. An often dark one if I slept late.

One evening, a day or two after the First Encounter, I wandered out to the kitchen in search of nourishment. After turning on the light, I walked over to the sink and noticed something odd. Movement. There were some dishes in the sink, dishes left by Faye earlier in the day. On the dishes were ants. Lots of ants. They were cleaning the plates. And silverware. And carrying bits of whatever they found back toward their nest.

Picture a crowded highway from a helicopter flying overhead. Picture 6 lanes, 3 in each direction, packed with cars. But, instead of cars, there are ants. Three lines moving in each direction. Half toward the sink and half in the other direction.

I follow the trail back along the countertop, to the baseboard and along it, to the wall, up the wall a short space to an electrical outlet. The ants are going into, and coming out of, the bottom of the outlet's baseplate.

The nest is in the wall!

They found a way in from outside into the kitchen wall from a mound I had tried to kill not so very long ago. Silly me, thinking I could wipe them out with none escaping when the mound was up against the wall of the house.

There are some fire ant poisons which kill the mound. These are slow acting toxins which cling to the ants and which are ingested by other ants as they groom them and which get into the food brought back by the ants and eventually reach the queen. Or so the theory goes. They work well enough on outside ant mounds. Sprinkle a little around the entrance to the mound, locate and sprinkle more around any "back door" entrances to the mound, and a few days later the mound is no longer active. This stuff smells like a broken sewer pipe, however. I don't like to use it inside the house and it really isn't supposed to be used inside. Especially if you have pets or small children. I had a cat then and as annoying as he was, I had no desire to kill him.

So I grab the Sevin Dust and the fire ant poison dust, carefully remove the baseplate cover from the outlet, and gently block the path of the ants, placing just a little of the fire ant poison in the outlet's box. I am hoping that I might kill off the nest in this way.

The next day and evening shows no sign of the ants. I am hopeful. But I am no optimist. I know things are never this easy when it comes to these devils.

The weekend comes and I slip, for two days, back into the normal sleeping pattern of humans. But early Sunday morning I wake up to a sharp pain on my cheek. A fire ant is biting me. On my face. In my bed. They are back! Well, actually, they never left. They just moved on, in the wall, along the east end of the house from the kitchen past the master bedroom closet to the master bedroom itself.

The next several days are spent coaxing them through the bedroom (by dusting areas behind them, thereby cutting off retreat) toward the master bathroom. This takes a week. But I finally get them into the bathroom wall, behind the sink. I am tracking them by the number of ants in any one area. The larger the number, the closer to the main body. I must keep them moving or they will create a new nest.

I now use more of the fire ant poison. Some will still survive to travel on, to seek a safer place for the eggs they carry, for a new nest. They are as determined to survive as I am to rout them.

I see no sign of them a day after their arrival beneath the bathroom sink. I worry. Have they found a way to double back? Will I have to fight them in the bedroom again? Have they crossed the barriers of dust I had laid to find an internal wall to nest in? They shouldn't nest in internal walls, there is no insulating foam or fiberglass to build nests in those.

I am cleaning the cat's litterbox on the back porch. It sat, at that time, near the outside wall of the master bathroom. I notice movement, a line, a column of ants on the move toward the pool along the bottom of that wall.

I am faced with the dilemma of military commanders at the end of a great battle. Do I try to cut off all avenues of escape and annihilate them? What if a few hardy ones slip away, back into the house, and rebuild their forces? Do I let them slip away unmolested, hoping to cut them off somewhere else, in another campaign where my homeland is not so vulnerable?

I allow them to take their dead and wounded and retreat with honor. I salute them and vow to vanquish them from my yard in the near future... Knowing I will fail. Knowing, some day, they will own the earth and humans will be the species which became extinct.