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Unpopular Ideas

Ramblings and Digressions from out of left field, and beyond....

Location: Piedmont of Virginia, United States

All human history, and just about everything else as well, consists of a never-ending struggle against ignorance.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

On a Wing and a Prayer

Regardless of their size, the wild life around here, and I assume everywhere else in the world, definitely lets you know when you, as a member of that group that they call "the Big Clumsies" but which we are pleased to call "human beings," unwittingly place yourself smack in the middle of their reproductive affairs.

This morning while divesting myself of some extraneous bodily fluid in front of one of my sheds --- a luxury of outdoors living that isn't ordinarily available to men with the bad luck or the bad taste to have to live in cities, though very few rural women avail themselves of the privilege either --  two small birds, a female and a male, started flitting around in that very recognizable perturbed state.  I don't know what kind they were, though they looked like cedar waxwings, which we rarely see.

I was surprised and puzzled, because I could think of no possible place anywhere near where I was standing that they could have built a nest.  But after I finished and turned around, I saw that there had indeed been a tiny nest right behind my head, perched on the end of a decorative strip on the shed door, a strip only three-quarters of an inch thick!   And here it is:   

They must be planning on raising some really midget offspring!   But meanwhile there's the question of how that nest can even stay there, given the laws of physics.   But as always, this pair didn't consult with me first on the engineering problems involved, and so there it is.   It's a good thing that I don't have to open that door for anything much and anytime soon.

I lived in this shed during the first several years while I commuted from D.C. building my house.    It consists of twelve demountable sections that I made in my basement in D.C. and brought down here in a U-Haul truck.  This means that even today I could easily disassemble this building and put it up somewhere else, at the cost only of having to re-shingle it.  Right now, though,  this shed is full of stuff that uncomfortably reminds me of the good old days when, even as a young adult, all that I owned to my name was a chess set and a modest shelf of books.  Now look!  And this isn't the only or even the second or third such structure on the premises.

Meanwhile here's my now 32-year-old yet  never quite finished 1,400 sq.ft. "green oak" house, looking at it from the southwest:   And obeying the  true American ethic it's extra-crammed with things -- because of Wife.  (She doesn't read this weblog.)

A-Twittering Not I Will Go

I am trying to see if I can successfully ignore Twitter till it, too, is a thing of the past. A person doesn't need to try to catch every wave that rolls in from God knows where, and in fact I have yet to see anything that clearly tells me what Twitter is, what it does, what it's for, or anything else of a useful nature, and I strongly doubt that I will be asked any questions about it on the final exam later. With any luck, then, that will merely join all the other popular waves that I have let go by and that by now have formed a huge ocean.

But if that question does appear, maybe I'll be able to substitute some other ephemeral esoteria on which I can speak with authority -- and one such subject has already suggested itself. That one is: how to get through life without catching any waves at all, at least those that might put some money into a person's pocket.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Pledging Allegiance to Torture

What is being said, then, when one insists that torturing people is essential to "help keep the country safe?" 

I thought "keeping the country safe" is the business much more of the U.S. military than it is of a secret society like the C.I.A. with its never disclosed budget and  its taste for conducting interrogations far out of sight of the public eye and accompanied by torture.

If that's not true, then what has been the purpose of funneling all those astronomical amounts of money to the military?.  

Unlike the C.I.A. the costs of the military appear to be on record, generally speaking, though there are some "black' areas there, too.  But at least it's clear that the taxpayers have to cough up hundreds of billions of hard-earned dollars for the "defence" mechanism each year.   (How many can remember when that establishment was much more honestly called the "War Department?")

   So what is really being said here, then, by those who would tolerate torture? That despite those enormous costs the military can't really "keep the country safe" all on its own, and instead all those expensive planes, ships, trucks,  and other assorted candidates for the military junkyards are mainly to furnish endless fuel-wasting joyrides for  young people in uniform, along with perfecting their art of  the fast draw, though there the combat methods of choice appear to be  focusing much more  on  assassinations from afar,  by  the decidedly non-courageous use of  implements such as guided missiles, sniper rifles, and drones?    Is it saying that instead we have to make it our business to go overseas, kidnap the citizens of other people's countries, pack them into prisons, and submit them to grossly wrong processes of humiliation and extreme pain, through torture?   Are they saying that if it could just as well be asserted that eating ice cream flavored with cat feces, or carpet-bombing cities such as Paris out of existence, or mass rape regardless of gender or age would "keep the country safe," then such processes, to which torture compares in its horror, are justified and ought to be employed?  

If such acts were necessary, then it would mean that no country could be kept safe from what such acts would suggest as being the worst danger of all -- itself -- and it would mean that in their assertions the defenders of torture are actually saying some highly uncomplimentary things about a nation when its well-being would in that way need to be secured.

I had thought that when we saluted the American flag every morning in grade school (without, also in an earlier day, pulling God into it) , we were having inculcated in us and we were promising to each other the certainty, among other things, that never subsequently in our lifetimes and definitely not on our behalf would we hear of torture being employed or that we would permit its use. 

 But in such ways can one generation betray another.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Temporizing on Torture

In an article in the NYTimes that follows the same tenor as thousands of articles and other kinds of statements on the same subject, we find the following conjecture:

Even the most exacting truth commission may have a hard time determing for certain whether brutal interrogations conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency helped keep the country safe.

That's a great way to open your essay when you''re trying to sound reasonable and responsible, especially when your piece is going to appear in an organ as prestigious as the NY Times.  The trouble, though, is that the sentiment expressed is actually an extremely moot point, and trying to be sweetly reasonable and "balanced" on this subject actually does a big disservice to all. 

 The plain fact is that here there is no balance, and torture is such a hideous and unspeakable act that there is never a good reason -- never, ever! --to resort to it.  And that holds true even for the often nebulous business of "keeping the country safe," and regardless of what the results of questioning by means of torture may or may not be.

How can it really be known how effective the results were?  It's on the bogus side to accept as certainties events that haven't happened.  The hopeful terrorists prefer to follow their own timetables, not those that interrogators might presume to set up for them,  and the terrorists are still around, and will always be around, because to act in that manner is an integral part of the fanatic area in the human  genome. 

The article speaks of setting up "truth commissions" to get to the bottom of what the CIA did.

That sounds like just the sort of thing that governments routinely resort to when they really don't have the heart or the resolve to do something decisive.

All that needs to be known is something that ought already to have been known to every American citizen, and that is that torture is outright WRONG, period, and on numerous levels, and the only reliable information it provides is that humans really are a supremely despicable species whenever they can't resist the temptation to reduce other beings -- human and otherwise -- to so much helplessness and to inflict such unbearable pain on them, for little more reason than that they simply can.

People who would excuse the use of torture must not have nearly enough mental power -- or are too inexcusably slothful -- to be able to imagine how it must feel to be tortured.  Or maybe it's because they see  cases of people who have been tortured yet are apparently still walking around and talking as well as those who have never been so unlucky.  It's like cities like Hiroshima, Dresden, Tokyo, and many others that have been bombed almost to oblivion and yet today they're functioning as if nothing terrible had happened there at all, right?  

But that's no sort of a justification.   The point is that the act of torturing is so grossly wrong in and of itself that it ought to be excised from the whole range of human behavior, if that is at all possible. It is so thoroughly wrong, in fact, that, unlike most issues, it doesn't even have two sides that make it worthy of debate.  Yet the fact that people can look on the subject with so much detachment and look for reasons to justify it strikes me as showing that more damage has occurred to our inner fiber than any terrorist strike, by itself, could possibly have accomplished. 

  It follows then, as unacceptable as it sounds, that we are much better off taking our chances on being hit by terrorists than by we are by choosing torture to try to root them out. 

Besides, people look in all the wrong places for true terror.

For real terror, for instance, take any of the thousands of different kinds of physical illnesses waiting to impair the lives and the comfort of us all, or take any badly led police force, or take any regressive politician whose main platform is bias and ignorance, or take those real tigers that everybody is busy swinging by their tails while being careful  to think about the eventual consequences as little as possible, nuclear power plants.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Importance of Keeping a Good Lookout

In this news item an Australian describes in a somewhat nutty style an encounter that a cruise ship on which he was lollygagging had with  pirates who tried to climb aboard but were rejected with the aid of guns and firehoses, so that, despite bulletholes in the ship from about 100 rounds fired by the pirates, it was in the end all a big lark and a day's entertainment for the Aussie and the other 1,200 passengers.

The thing I never understand about stories like this is why none of the crew or, in this case, the passengers saw their attackers coming from a long way off.

Having been across the Pacific on a variety of large ships and having kept a good lookout, unbidden, all the while, without, however, ever seeing anything other than an occasional flying fish, I think I can reliably report that the open sea is like  a Kansas wheatfield just before planting, or  the Bonneville Flats in Utah, in that you can see everything moving on the surface for miles in all directions,  and there are no hills that a speedboat can lurk behind or use to mask a sudden sneak attack from behind.  But instead nobody notices anything, and the pirates are given all the time in the world to make their approach without being picked off, one after the other, with bazookas or some such,  till suddenly a bunch of speedboats are right there next to the ship, manned by highly excited and most likely drug-inspired  desperados  firing guns and tossing up grappling hooks, their eyes filled with as many dollar signs as locusts in a swarm.

But I guess that despite the frequency of those pirate attacks in or adjoining the Indian Ocean,, the probabilities are still so low and the crewmen and passengers have so many more interesting things to do, that maintaining a constant lookout is not cost-effective or exciting enough.

Maybe the ships could carry passengers like the one I was 50-odd years ago, to whom they could give big discounts in exchange for keeping a constant lookout at the rails.   

There are far  worse things that a man can do with his time,  all day long and at night, too.   Even a seemingly empty ocean is, with  its many mysteries,  a big entertainment all by itself.

The meerkats in the deserts of Namibia have something to teach us about this.

A Horror Story for Our Times

Described here is a story that happened in England, but the same kind of thing undoubtedly is common here in the U.S., and it adds to the longstanding impression that being placed in a nursing home carries its hazards, with added touches from the outside, whether from serial killers, as happened recently in North Carolina, or from those matching criminals on supposedly the right side of the law, swat teams.  People get a job that gives them a little power over others, and all of a sudden all that matters is that the PROCEDURES.must be carried out, machine-like.

Acceleration of Time

I am engaged in a pitched battle with the ever-increasing acceleration of time, which set in with a vengeance after I passed a certain age-point.   This must be an illusion, but the perception is  still exceptionally strong, and a bunch of people much farther down on age's ladder have told me that they have noticed the same thing happening to them.

 I still haven't figured out the purpose of this phenomena, but it seems important to resist it, and the handiest way to do this is keeping track of the rate at which I go through my various food supplies.  But though she subsists on a mostly different diet, my wife insists on sharing a few kinds of my food that she likes, such as the cream and milk that, along with sugar, is so essential for giving coffee any sort of  a decent taste, no matter what they say in areas of Minnesota and many other poorly informed parts of the world.  And because she consumes faster and in more quantity than I do, that practice of sharing, as meritorious as it is, causes those parts of my food supply to vanish at an alarming rate and so contributes unhealthily to my perception of the speed-up in time.   So, at some risk, I'm trying to get her to change things here, though, being 12 years younger than I, she still suffers from that inability of the young to take seriously certain matters that really count, and are most easily seen after passing a certain age-point.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Hoped-For is Here

All through the past winter I kept hoping for the coming of warmer nights and mornings.  Yet right up to just a few days ago, the dawn temps here in our frost pocket stayed too close to 32 F.

But now, suddenly, the ice-cold winter and the frigid spring are over, and today as well as yesterday the thermometer has hit 90 around here, and the problem instead is the sun, which in recent years has been edging closer and closer, and the heat, which is now inervating me.

But I'll take it!
(This is posted just to show that I am not ungrateful for the sudden turn in things.

Also note that I didn't say I prayed for warm weather.

It's ridiculous to pray for things that we know will come anyway, because we know that their choosing not to do so is not in the design, intelligent or otherwise.  And I am extra careful and sparing in what I pray for, anyway.  There are too many unknowns involved.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Sliding into the Mental Fog

My wife has a very good friend with whom she has gone on walks on these country roads, off and on, for years.   Lately that lady friend was diagnosed with what I'm calling "pre-Alzheimers."   The condition has a fancier name but at the moment I can't recall it.   

As with so much else that all along has been waiting alongside  this far end of the road of my life, with no way to know which things will hit and which will not, I've been paying a lot of attention to Alzheimer's and what's involved -- that mental fog into which some people gradually slide,  never to return.   It is one of many terrors that I would very much like to avoid, if such a thing is possible, but  a magic suit of armor or a comfortable gas mask to guard against that particular threat has not yet been invented.  And this lady is nearly 20 years younger than me.

I keep wondering if she knows, and whether in general the victims are told from the beginning.  And if they are told, do they eventually forget and so in the later stages can't realize what is happening to them?

 In an otherwise heavily unengaging 2008 movie called "The Family that Preys," the character played by Kathy Bates, the matriarch of a weatlthy family, reveals that she has been diagnosed with the same pre-Alz. She enlists her best friend, played by Alfre Woodard, to help her with her memory lapses, but then, at the movie's conclusion,  its makers resorted to the old standby for mediocrity in film plotting  by having her ingest a whole medicine cabinet of pills and so taking herself out of here well ahead of time.

My wife's walking buddy is in another bag altogether, and she strikes me as being as happy as a bug in a rug.  The only differences in her behavior from her former subtle and super-cool state of mind that we've been able to note is that she will rarely bring up subjects for conversation -- but she has an extremely talkative husband to cover that -- and that when she does speak, her statements  are curiously like those of a deacon in a Baptist church who is highly appreciative of everything the preacher says and every song that the choir garbles -- and,  above all, there is her pet  comment, repeated an average of 10 times per walk. that "It is so peaceful and quiet here!"

And so it looks as if my wife is now playing Alfre Woodward to B's Kathy Bates, and when B. and her mate come over here for that brisk. healthy walk of the two ladies a mile and a half down to the river bridge and  back, her husband spends the time here at the house in a game of chess against me.

That takes other things into other odd  mental states.   But that's another story.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Book Review: "R. v. R."

A decade or so ago there was one of those greatest of commercial enterprises, a genuine used book store, right here in the local county seat, a town  officially populated by less than 500 people.  But that salutary time didn't last long.  After a few years the proprietor yielded to the lure of the big money, and he moved his business, already a long 14 miles from here, another 25 years farther north, to the much greener pastures, dollar-wise, in the college town of Charlottesville.  

But before that happened (which, by the way, added to the occasional cultural shortcomings in this area that have long been  typified by the absence of pistachio ice cream in any store that supposedly sells food, as far in any direction as a small Cessna can comfortably fly), I was lucky enough to happen across a thick, yellowed hardcover titled, "R.v.R.: the Life and Times of Rembrandt van Rijn."   It had been published in 1930, and its flyleaf bore the distinguished-looking and -sounding signature of some lady, with a date of the following year, the same year that I was born.

Every night I have been reading myself to sleep with this book.   It is the third time I've read it, and each time I get more out of it than I did the time before.

That's partly because of the somewhat weird way that the book is written, which might offend some literary purists.  

The author was Hendrik Willem van Loon, a Dutchman, and he presents it as the diary of one of his great-gteat-grandfathers nine times removed, Joannis van Loon , a medical man and the closest friend of the famous painter.   As such the book is extremely diffuse, and it is, if anything, even more the biography of that van Loon ancestor than it is of Rembrandt.  But the author makes no apology for himself or for his purported grandfather for the monumental digressions, and that's fine with me, as any reader of this weblog would expect.   There's nothing wrong with some healthy digression.

No one,  then, should be surprised if  a bunch of things suggested by this book should pop up in this weblog, because "R.v.R" discusses and gives interesting insights on a wide range of subjects and issues that are still very much alive today. 

Meanwhile it looks like I stumbled into getting a collector's first edition, though I am a little surprised to see that copies of  this book are still widely available today, though it is probably totally unknown in the painting world, just as are the huge majority of the most fabulous writings of any genre

  And also meanwhile I wonder about the author's proposition, too.   The language in it is somehow too ...today and only barely what I would expect to be the idiom of three and a half centuries ago, and of the Dutch moreover, and that's compounded by the fact that the book is already nearly 80 years old

I think the authors of the Rembrandt volume in the excellent Time-Life cycle of lives of the artists about 20 years ago would be wondering, too, in light of this statement by them:  

With one or two notable exceptions the Dutch have not produced poets, playwrights, novelists, letter-writers, or critics of the first rank.  They prefer to act and wordlessly to contemplate, not to involve themselves in comment or analysis, and thus during the golden century of their art they made only sparse notes about their greatest painters.

 That said, "R.v.R." is a  huge exception.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Violating Chess Principles

Recently some friends of ours, B. and B., have come over so that the distaff side of that couple can go on a long walk with my wife, down and then back up  our beautiful country road, and meanwhile the husband and I sray behind and contest a game of chess.

B. flattered me by saying that he had been waiting a long time to play me some chess.   I guess it's been out for a while that that is my game -- especially when a few years ago I managed to get out to play on quite  a few nights, though only for a short period, in the county seat 14 miles away.  A coffeehouse there was frequented by several  players who were surprisingly strong for such a tiny burg, and I enjoyed the games. I held my own, though eventually the night driving got to be too much for me.

B. said he had been playing chess for a long time, though I was astonished to hear that in that time he has only played three other people in his life, and one was his brother, with whom he played "thousands" of games.

I never thought to  mention  just when I first picked up the game, but I have a feeling that at the time B. had not yet been born, even if he could now be as old as 60!   But I immediately thought that three opponents is not nearly enough for anybody.  But I guess that depends on the strength of those opponents.

Two of B.'s first four moves as White told the tale.

On about his third move he played his King's Knight out to its R3 square, and on the next move he plunked down his Queen on his KB3, the square where that Knight ordinarily goes. 

These were violations of two of Chess's most basic principles, which I have almost never seen go unpunished to some degree.   You don't station a knight on the edge of the board at its first move.   Instead you aim it toward the all-important center.  And  even worse, you don't bring the Queen out at all, that early.  But aggressive people, especially while learning the game in the company of others who are also new to the game, like to try to scare their opponents by brandishing the lady straight off, having heard that  she is the most powerful piece.  And that's true, but they don't realize that, nevertheless, this is playing right into the hands of more experienced players, who instead instantly start licking their chops, because they know that, with so many men still on the board, the threats posed by the enemy queen at that stage are all easily parried, and that instead she merely offers an easy target for first one piece and then another of far lesser value.

B. tried that Queen sally in both the games we've played so far, and both times it quickly and fatally wrecked his position.  I tried to tell him that it wasn't a good thing to do, but I could tell that, probably remembering numerous earlier successes, he wasn't buying that wisdom of bitter experience from many ages past.   And the same thing with sidelining his Knight on  its first move.

B. is vowing to keep playing me regardless, because he just enjoys chess, and he has now gotten too old for all his former sports except golf.  But I am curious about how long he can keep it up, should I keep on winning, though it is early yet.

Though a longtime and highly respected schoolteacher, he has probably never  extended his studies to chess books, and knowing what they have to say goes a long way toward making things easier and more comprehensible.

I am steadily getting older and shakier, and I could always overlook something, so I guess  there's always that chance, too.

But I retain enough of the arrogance of my long ago youth  to strongly doubt it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Interesting and Baffling Headlines

House Arrest of a Child

This is the title of a post in the Angry Arab News Service. It is supposed to point to an article somewhere that tells of a child who is only a year and two months old, yet has been put under house arrest by the Israel occupation authorities on the Golan Heights.

I very much wanted to see what that was all about. I've heard that children mature much earlier now than they did in my day, especially in my own case. But there just happens to be a kid right up the road who is exactly that age, and it's true that he is as extra active as he was expected to be, given his mother and her side of his family. Still, it's impossible to see him as being a threat to anyone except himself, as shown  by his habit of charging straight ahead everywhere while looking at things only at the level of his eyes or upward but never ever downward, leading to his having tumbled down the same full set of stairs, from one floor to the other, not once but twice -- so far -- without any obvious injury.

But fie! The article seems to be in Arabic, and I can't read Arabic, though it is a very graceful-looking language, even if it gives the impression of being oriented in the "wrong" direction, from right to left instead of left to right.

Teenagers Fly Nest in Stolen Plane

I had trouble with this headline in the Times Online because of the two words stuck right next to each other, "Fly Nest," which struck me as being two verbs thrown together in an awkward way that didn't make sense, though they both could refer to birds. For instance, I thought instead of "Nest in," "Next to" might've been intended, as that story was accompanied by another incident on the same day in which a guy stole a light plane in Ontario and flew it over four U.S. states for six leisurely hours before he finally landed safely, even after being followed and screamed at by Air Force fighter jets through most of that time.

But this story is about two teenagers in California, who found another light plane untended, at a tiny, unsecured airport outside Los Angeles, and they took a short joyride before making a quick landing, after they finally realized that they had grabbed an aircraft that had had only about 90 minutes of flying time in its gas tank.

It took me a while to realize that the headline writer, trying to be precious, like many headline writers, was referring to the teenagers' warm, comfy homes, and he was trying to say "flee the nest."  Or could the writer have been thinking of a smiliar expression, heard most often in the past tense: "flew the coop?"  But it's been a long time since I've heard or seen either expression, and also I have to always keep in mind the fact, though I have used the English language intensively in the intervening decades, the written word much more than the verbal, I learned it decades ago and now I fly it strictly by the seat of my pants and relying only on my memory. That means that by now a lot of usages could and have changed without my knowing -- or maybe it was always "fly" instead of "flee," or both.

I suppose I could look it up.

High-Speed Sex Costly in Norway

This article offers slightly less mystery than the two above, though I had to read it to find out if the "High-Speed" refers to the velocity with which the sex was being done, or whether a racing driver had smuggled one of those Nascar-type trophy babes into the only seat in his machine, as there is, I believe, rarely a back one in those vehicles.

The article described an incident in which some Norwegian highway police happened to notice a car weaving across a busy highway, as in drunken driving. But it turned out to be a man having carnal fun with a woman. using the lapdance position while driving along at a pretty good clip.  Though the police were diligent about photographing this, to be used as "evidence in court" they said, they still took a dim view of it because of the obvious vision problem posed by the woman's head and torso. So they pulled the pair over at the next rest stop.

They leveled charges at the man that could mean a heavy fine and losing his driving privileges for a while. The article didn't say whether the woman would be similarly charged, though she was allowed to drive her boyfriend home.

I assume that that time the two lovers waited a little longer -- or either kept out a better eye for uniforms with cameras.

Had they seen that done in movies? I mean the regular ones, not the porns.  I wouldn't be surprised if that bit of "business" was actually first tried in action flicks years ago, and many times since then.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Petting the Pirates -- Eh? Update and Resolution

Just a few minutes ago -- it is 2 PM here -- the news came in that the Maersk Alabama hostage situation has suddenly been resolved, much in the U.S.'s favor.  There has been a short firefight that left three of the four Somali pirates deceased, and the Maersk captain has been freed and is now safely on the destroyer Bainbridge.

And that's all we are being told, so far.

As with so much else in this matter, the authorities are being notably tight with the information here.

And I am amazed.

I had thought that it would always be easy for the pirates to carry out their threat and do bodily harm to the captain, should a rescue attempt be tried.  So I had dismissed that as being too risky.

So what happened?   Did  the pirate quartet turn out to be another case of the Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight?   Or did the Navy Seals use one of probably many techniques that they have perfected that enables them to pop up out of the water and immediately start shooting before anyone knows they are anywhere around?   If so, that would be a military secret that they would never want revealed, so as to keep miscreants in the next such situation guessing. 

Meanwhile, is it possible that all along the pirates have been following some kind of code that keeps them from getting really lethal, because it would be bad for business, which is solely connected with collecting large sums of ransom money?   If I am not mistaken this is five deaths that I know of that have occurred during this piracy binge -- the captain of the Ukrainian freighter with all the battle tanks, who had a seizure, a heart attack or something, supposedly from a pre-existing condition, and died in the first days of that takeover, and then the Frenchman who was accidentally shot during the French rescue a few days ago, and now these three.   Yet none of these can be laid directly at the pirates' feet, because the jury is still out on whose bullets got the Frenchman.

While saddened that it took so much dying to do it, I am overjoyed that the captain is free.

And now to see what this means for the piracy in general.

Some of that may depend on how this sudden and unexpected resolution came about, which maybe we will get soon, when those who know have enjoyed sitting on it realize that they have had it all to themselves  long enough.

Update, 7:50 PM:

I am puzzled.

It is now almost six hours since I saw the news item about the Maersk captain, Richard Philips, having been rescued unhurt, at the cost of three of his four captors being killed.   In that interval, with my wife I have answered an invitation to have Easter dinner at the home of  two of our neighbors and close friends, G. and C., pitched a hard-fought game of horseshoes, which I lost, walked a mile back home, checked the Internet, and transplanted another forsythia offshoot.    Yet on the Google News, there is no mention of the resolution of the hostage crisis, though I had expected it to be splashed all over that page by then.  But there is the gripping story about the Obama family's acquiring a dog.for the White House.

Something must be wrong, unless it's just a case of me not understanding how things work, with the Google News and other things as well.

Petting the Somali Pirates -- Pt 3

It is in the events that followed the pirates gaining access to the deck of the Maersk Alabama that the mystery of that hijack attempt really deepens.

All news accounts say the same thing, and that is very brief, and so far little that sounds really plausible is known, especially when compared to how things have gone in the numerous other Somali ship jackings.

 It looks as if the pirates took control of the Maersk, though only for a short and unrevealed length of time.  That repulsion after they had actually gamed the deck with their weapons is unprecedented.

  At some point and in some unknown way the crew members, supposedly unarmed, supposedly fought off the heavily armed attackers, and the pirates all ended up in a small boat back down on the water, though not before they were able to bring the ship's captain with them, and all his supporters say he volunteered to be their hostage, "to save the lives of his men." 

That is all of what's been reported of the events aboard the Maersk Alabama, and it may be boorish to raise questions about it, in a country that lately has had a definite shortage of legitimate heroes, and there's a whole town in Vermont, and maybe the entire state, too, that has gone positively delirious with exclamations of pride in the captain..   Still, can I say it?  Can I ask it?

Exactly how did the commandeering of the Maersk go down?   And did the captain really need to make such a bargain with the devil and devils?

 After five days that information, safely in the hands of the Navy and the FBI, is still being kept closely under wraps, like all "Top Secret" flipdoodle, and instead  yesterday we were told that the  hijackers were on a second ship that they had already grabbed, and they happened to notice  the Maersk chugging along nearby, and four of them decided to nab that one, too, while they were at it.  So they jumped into a dinghy belonging to the  ship that they had already taken, and off they sped, and that is supposed to account for the small number of only four attackers, and the sense that it was all done on an impulse.  So maybe in the case of the Maersk the Somalis didn't have their thing as together as usual.   ...Maybe.   But still....

Okay.   They find themselves aboard a large ship without at all knowing what is there, except they can see the big containers.  They might not have known that those containers contained a large amount of food meant for some highly needy fellow Africans further south, though, if they did divine that, it is quite likely that that would not have mattered one iota to them.  All that mattered was the big juicy ransom that they could feel now, palpitating warmly in their hands, like a heart freshly extracted with an Aztec obsidian blade.

This new quarry has an entirely American crew, with all that that implies in that part of the world.  But for a while they don't know that.  The crew has 21 men, but how would they discover that?  Couldn't some of those men be elsewhere on that large boat, and already looking for big wrenches to take to the reckoning?   Unless they all delivered themselves up in a body to be iron-assed by a mere four scruffy Somalis even with firepower.  That's doubtful, but it is what the poll-parrot news accounts would have us believe.

So the 20 equally scruffy and naturally salty American swabbies are nevertheless all rounded up and lined up  (you have to forgive me --  I was in the Air Force on a troopship a couple of times), to take orders under threat of being shot.   But the captain rises to the occasion and in so doing becomes an instant hero.

To save his men ,,,though from what?   From execution, or from being under captivity on their own ship for days, weeks, or months, as has happened so often to many crews of many nationalities, the biggest number of those so inconvenienced being Filippinos, who then survived despite having to eat a lot of goat meat. 

  To "save his crew" the captain volunteers to be a hostage, and he is escorted down into presumably one of his own lifeboats, though what boat he and his abductors are in is not clear.   Is it the dinghy from the first commandeered ship, or  did it belong to the Maersk?  It was reported that after boarding the Maersk the hijackers for some unknown and unfathomable reason destroyed the small boat they came in, and then, having no lack of what my mother used to call "cheek,"  they cranked being recompensed for that into their early demands for payment, though nothing has been said about that lately.

So the captain is now down on the water in a lifeboat with his captors -- a covered lifeboat and so not at all like the one in the classic movie of that name that starred William Bendix and Tallulah Bankhead.  But how many of the captain's  captors accompanied him at first, and exactly how was that worked out?   Because early on we also were told, variously, that the crew meanwhile overpowered the hijackers, or that they overpowered just one and then tried to trade him for the captain, and not having seen enough other movies about such scenarios, they bungled the exchange, that left the pirates in a lifeboat instead of on the big, juicy ship though still with all four of their guys, while the Maersk ended up without their all-important leader.  But if the crew smacked their boarders so thoroughly, how was it that all four pirates ended up safely in the lifeboat while being none the worse for the wear and with a big prize, theship's  captain, well in hand.  And a little later, and true to form -- because it is the money first, last, and always in their eyes, and furthermore it's their money that they earned fair and square and which is now unfairly being withheld from them - the pirates, who on the face of it would appear to be sitting out on the end of a thin, watery limb, nevetheless see themselves as still in total command of things, and they are demanding a big ransom. 

  I was certain that they would put the amount they were owed at 3 million dollars.   That seemed to be the going price that their cohorts had earlier received for the really big prizes, namely the Ukrainian freighter with the 30 huge battle tanks aboard and the Saudi supertanker that was carrying 100 million dollars worth of crude oil.  Surely a bonafide American ship's captain, though only one man and not a ship at all, was worth the same, especially because he was sure to be seen in his boundlessly weatlthy home as a true hero.  But they asked for only 2 million, along with, of course, a definite way to get back to shore safely  with their loot, because not long ago, as they were headed back from a ransom payment scene with bags of fresh, new money, the boat of some of their colleagues capsized because of too swift a turn or something, and four or five of them drowned before they could get back to Eyl or wherever to joyfully spread around even a nickel or a dime.  And besides, they have good reason to fear that their lives aren't worth a plugged nickel until they finally do melt into the trees beyond the surf, without having their victim along..

I know that very few Americans are taking this whole incident seriously.  Still, especially aboard a destroyer where there must be some Marines with their dumb haircuts,  there are still a number of red-blooded male Americans who have roused themselves from the normal muddle of their lives  to be cooking up all sorts of scenarios in which they can see themselves kicking serious Somali butt.   Even I, while far from being your typical normal, gun-loving, red-blooded American hood,  have entertained a thought or two along such lines.

Meanwhile we can be sure that the kidnappers of the captain also want the Americans to say that they are sorry for putting the pirates through this.  But so far that has not yet been reported..

I would also like to ask what happened to the old principle that a captain never abandons his ship.   That dictum is hundreds of years old, and I thought it was still in effect, just as it's also good practice never to get out of your car should some sort of disagreement with somebody come up out in the streets -- unless you're dealing with police.   And I am sure that in the lifeboat, which, though long out of fuel, is drifting closer and closer to the forbidden shore till now it is only 20 or 30 miles from the pirate's nests, the captain, replete with all the accolades of heroism with which he has been adorned, presents a much bigger problem to the political calculus than would have been presented by a scruffy crew detained on a stationary ship.

Now,  several other things have happened, though they don't materially change the basic equation. 

One is that the captain,  apparently after making  calculations of his chances that were obviously on the same level as his appraisal of the best thing to do when he was confronted on his ship by four gun-toting Somali strangers, jumped into the sea despite the sharks and tried to swim for the American destroyer, despite the fact that, as usual, it was in sight but not at a very feasible swimming proximity, especially when your abductors were likely to shoot, besides being younger, stronger, and probably with much more practice at doing the Australian crawl.  And so  the Somalis jumped in and quickly pulled him back in, along with plenty of lectures about his ingratitude..

Another thing that happened, and much more to the point, is that meanwhile French commandos, at the order of their President Sarkozy, jumped hijackers of a sailboat with six or seven people aboard, who had been on an adventure,as carefree French people are prone to do, and they had gaily headed out from nearly Djibouti, bound for Kenya, which meant passing right by Somalia.  .(I know about Djibouti, from my long ago stamp-collecting days.   They made a lot of large, beautfil stamps, many more than you would've thought would've been needed to mail stuff from an obviously offbeat and small place that would be named something weird like "Djibouti.")  

 The French, who have taken the international lead in doing something about the pirates, and who had previously rescued two of their ships and clapped a number of the pirates into jail, their own jail, lost patience after negotiatitions in which they had seemed to be even over generous toward the hijackers, and finally they had to act in accordance with Sarkozy's decree that no French abductees are to be allowed to be taken ashore, and the sailboat was steadily drifting closer, after the French had already shot out its mast..   

In the ensuing rescue attempt, the French killed two of the hijackers and grabbed three more, while saving all the abductees -- except the captain of  the sailboat, who  got in the way of the bullets and was killed.  

Since the French had repeatedly warned him about taking that jaunt and bringing others along, including a small child, it's doubtful that the mourning in Paris will be heavy.

And also in these four or five days  another vessel has been hijacked, a tug pulling two barges through the Gulf of Aden, and it is even an American-owned boat though with a mostly Italian crew.

Concerning the Maersk, there are only two ways this thing can turn out,  and neither can escape leaving a very bad taste..   Yet I don't see how having the FBI along can help the Navy or the Obama administration with that.  But I suppose the FBI is coming in handy to grill the 19 Maersk crewmen and to make sure they all get their stories straight about what happened aboard the Maersk before being allowed to talk to anyone off the ship.  Also the Navy figured they needed someone to share the blame when either of the only two ways it can be resolved has transpired.

Either the Somalis will get back to Puntland safely with or without "their" two mil, or the captain, soon followed by his four friends, will meet an unfortunate end.

The first likelihood will fly strongly in the face of the attitude that the U.S. has long said it holds toward terrorim, which ship hijackings surely are, while the second will result in bad P.R. and heavy grief for  a family and friends in Vermont and for others in Somalia.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Petting the Somali Pirates -- Pt 2

The situation with the latest ship hijacked by Somalis can't possibly come out well, and each new development only complicates the matter and makes a poor outcome all the more certain.  And this is on top of decisions that were made by the ostensible hero so far, the ship's captain, that shouldn't be made immune from questions under the familiar righteous bleat of "Don't blame the victim!"

In a sense, aside from the captain being shot or thrown to the sharks by the pirates, the worst that can happen has already happened, and that is that the military, with the prospect of being joined by a similarly close-mouthed bunch called the Federal Bureau of Investigation, has  already thrown the impermeable  cloak of supreme authority and  SELF-IMPORTANCE over the whole scene, so that only what they want to get out, of everything that they can control, will get out, and that will be not much.

  It helps them, and also the pirates, but very few others that they are in an unusually good position to do this, close to 400 miles out in the Indian Ocean.   They are so far out, in fact, that a group of other pirates in a captured German ship turned back after trying to get there to act as a shield for their buddies, claiming -- though there is reason to be skeptical about this, as there is about most other reports so far in this matter -- that they couldn't find the spot.  Wherever the lifeboat with the captain and his four detainers are, plus one and now possibly more American waraships,  it's  far from the eyes of determined, prying, inquisitive  civilian reporters -- provided that that genus still exists anywhere in the American media, and there are reasons to think that, under the purging of the Bush admins and their corporate friends, it no longer does.  This means that the only information that these authorities will allow to be released will be the non-informative dribs and drabs common to any American military affair in this era.  That is shown by the announcement already that none of the 19 crewmen still on board  the Maersk Alabama will be available to news reporters after the ship arrives in Mombasa, Kenya tomorrow.  What really happened will be kept under tight wraps, and meanwhile it will be "washed," "sanitized," and "heroized" into the bland pap of the "official" version that won't be any good to anyone, as far as dealing with such situations is concerned.

So most likely it will be a long time yet  before we get the actual answers to questions such as how good of a watch did the ship's crew keep for possible pirates even in the dead of night?   Did they know when the four pirates threw up a grappling hook and successfully got a grip, and if so, what measures did they take against this?  Did they try to make a quick grab of the  hook and throw it back into the sea, preferably while a man was two-thirds of the way up the high, perpendicular freeboard.   Or, failing that, did they take a good sharp ax to the line as it bent over the rail? Or, failing that, did they use the tactic that has most often been successfully employed in this instance, of keeping off the scalers with well-aimed, hard blasts from firehoses?   To combat that the pirates have taken to shooting at places on the ship that are vulnerable to fire so as to keep the hoses busy elsewhere, but that hasn't been reported in this case.   But then hardly anything has, about what went on during the taking and then the untaking of  the ship.

And such questions are just for starters.  

Rebuilding the Distant Past

Every picture you see of the Parthenon, the most spectacular surviving temple of the ancient world, shows things there looking pretty scrubby, what with huge broken pieces of marble and other stone strewn all over the place, and seemingly still no roof on the thing.

Civilization is supposed to be characterized by order, among other things, and all our lives we are told that that particular building was the crowning glory of the birth of civilization, architecturally speaking.. So, with all our enormous modern capabilities, why hasn't the Parthenon long ago been brought back to what it was at that birth and for a long time afterward? Why does crowning achievement have to look so constantly incomplete and decrepit? And what is technology as far advanced as ours for, if not for a cause like that?

Well, it seems that the good people of none other than Nashville, Tennessee, have already done just that, and a long time ago, too, such as in 1897, when for an exposition they built an exact replica of the Parthenon.

But that is not Athens, Greece,is it? Where everything happened. That is not high up on the Acropolis, from where you can see for many miles in all directions, and even to the beautiful seas over which so many storied figures came and went, making history and mythology.

No, instead it's in Nashville, in Tennessee, the home of rock and roll, or rockabilly, or country music, or Elvis Presley, or entities like that. It's not where Pericles, the great building, orator, and leader walked and talked, and, for all we know, may even have delivered a few knee-wobbling licks on his lyre as well.

However, we read that the people who are living in Greece now actually are rebuilding the Parthenon, and, as much as possible, from its original stone and not of the concrete that the Nashvillians used to rebuild theirs in 1920 from its original wood. The trouble, though, is that the modern Greeks have been at it for the past 30 years, and they're saying it's such a job that it might take an additional 30 years.

Two 30's equal 60 years.

Yet, without an electric motor, a gas engine, or a steel cable anywhere to be seen, it took the ancient Athenians just nine years to put up the Parthenon, and most likely less than that to put it back up a little later, after some Persian dummies, wantonly destructive and with no sense of proportion, as military types almost always are outside their own territory, demolished it.

I appreciate that the modern Greeks have better things to do, such as maintaining themselves in that rocky land. And the Parthenon is not really all their responsibility anyway. It is so renowned that true possession of it escaped from the Pelops long ago, and it now belongs to all the world.

So look at Dubai and Las Vegas to see just two of the most flagrant examples of modern architectural fancy run amuck and for no good purpose, yet built at costs that ought to dwarf what it should take to bring the Parthenon back to its full glory of a mere 2,500 years ago. 

And we wouldn't need the gold, silver, and ivory statue of Athena that once stood inside either -- unless the more twisted of us, with no sense of proportion, insisted. The Nashvillians have already been unable to avoid that mistake, and they put a lot of work and good research into it, too -- though not the gold, silver, and ivory.  But from here there was something a little too bizarre-looking about that thing, or at least about the artist guesses based on verbal descriptions, which are the only images we have of it. A goddess deserves better.

But I've heard that acid rain and air pollution in Athens and also in Rome, where it would be even more engrossing to wander around in the Colosseum complete with its canvas roof just as it was in gladiator days -- but  minus the spectators and the spectacles -- are doing a number on all the ancient stone. So the rebuilders, if they actually exist, need to get busy.

The Great Pyramid outside Cairo need not be included. Bringing that back from its present rat-gnawed state would just be a waste of time, as was the case when it and all the other pyramids were built, a series of the greatest make-work projects ever to be inflicted on men -- that is, unless the present inhabitants of Egypt likewise have nothing better to do, and after all it was their ancestors who stripped so much of the casings off those things to begin with -- too lazy to go to the trouble that the ancients -- or maybe extra-terrestrials -- took.

But the Parthenon and the Colosseum are something else -- minus, of course, anything resembling the devotions in the one and the obscenities that went on for so unmercifully long a time in the other.

(The pics are from the Wikipedia or a related place.  I have never crossed the Atlantic,  and have had no occasion to go to or through Nashville either.)  

Friday, April 10, 2009

Precept for a Bad Day

This has been one of those days when I have had a series of disturbing mishaps, one after the other, all of them being my fault, either at once or having taken time to develop.   And as I have to stop what I would much rather have tried to do today and instead I have to buckle down to  dealing with these things, which is mostly a matter of some sort of clean-up, I am lucky that at such times my mind always has a verse at the ready, which it quickly puts on my mental turntable and starts playing, over and over, as, I guess, a challenge to me.

It is a verse from one of the many versions of "John Henry," an old, traditional folk song, and it goes:

      I was born one morning at the break of day.
      I picked up my burden and I walked away.

Petting the Somali Pirates -- Pt 1

It had to happen.

The Somali pirates, having been thus far given free -- or almost free -- reign to range far and wide in the seas off the Horn of Africa, finally tried a few days ago to hijack a  U.S. cargo ship.  And what's more, they chose a vessel fully manned not by an assortment of people of many nationalities but instead  consisting entirely of U.S. citizens -- a situation that I had thought no longer existed.  Or, to use the D.C. Rainbow street parlance in the days of my youth, the pirates tried to "yoke" the ship, or, more accurately, its crew.  Because, in extremis, a ship, being inanimate, can be sacrificed, but never a crew of living people.

And now suddenly, as a purveyor from NY of certain forbidden substances who briefly was seen around in my more recent but still distant days loved to say, seriousness sets in.  Or at least it's supposed to, because this was no ordinary Ukrainian or German or Turkish or Saudi or any other ship of some funny foreign nationality, as always and so profusely in the past.  No, this one -- gulp goddammit! -- was an American ship, with 20 full-blooded Americans aboard!  And that means that now, though it apparently didn't beforehand, something finally has to be done -- something more solid and lasting than merely  grabbing three or four pirates, as an American warship and, before that a frigate from India managed to do just recently and hauled them off to some never disclosed fate and place, which could have involved their release later and their return to their yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum activities.

But the way this most recent incident of piracy has gone down has left me  suspicious, and I wonder if all along different kinds of collusion between the pirates and the shipping companies and others haven't been going on, because, as I have said before, though there's a strong tendency to see things that way, piracy is no joke.  It's not in any way a quaint relic from the storied and now long-gone past, set on the Spanish Main .  Instead it's a form of hijacking, and just as virulent as any other form, and I see no reason why it shouldn't be just as reviled as car jackings or the acts that led to four airliners failing to land safely eight years ago this coming September 11..

This ship,  American flagged but oddly named the Maersk Alabama because Danish interests are somehow tied in, has been described as being a small container ship.  But it is rated at 17,000 tons and it looks gigantic to me, with a windowed superstructure five or six stories high.   Yet, supposedly, after a pursuit, supposedly, of up to five hours, it was boarded by a mere four men from one skiff or speedboat -- both terms have been used in the news reports, though for some undisclosed reason, whatever their arriving vessel was, the pirates themselves sank it, supposedly, after they threw a grappling hook  aboard and climbed up on the Maersk.

Usually the Somali pirates have found it necessary to use nine or ten men to board a ship, but in this case  they succeeded with a mere quartet -- armed with assault rifles and what-not but still a very small number for so much nautical real estate and with five times that number of  red-blooded American sailors aboard.  But their success was short-lived, though we still don't know exactly how that happened, except that the captain, "to save his crew," heroically offered himself as a hostage, and he ended up down on the water in one of the ship's lifeboats, along  with all four of the pirates.   The reports were that the American sailors, supposedly a harder-nosed bunch than sailors of any other nationality, threw these  Somali cutthroats armed with AK-47's and what-not off the ship, which had never been done before by any crew in this era of Somali piracy.

  The ship's crew held on to one of the pirates, so as to use him to negotiate a trade for the captain.  But after that fourth and last pirate was returned to his buddies down in the lifeboat, the Somalis predictably and even understandably didn't hold up their end of the bargain, and  as of now, the heroic captain remains their prisoner, still adrift with his captors in the lifeboat.

But not alone.   Having needed a day to get there, an American destroyer is fully on the scene with all its modern weaponry, including an unmanned drone, which is kept hovering over the lifeboat and sending back pictures, while the destroyer sits close by, and the Maersk is steaming on to Kenya to deliver its cargo consisting of food aid for a great many hungry people in that part of Africa, and while several other U.S. warships are on the way to the lifeboat scene. so they can take part in the fun.

And it is going to be fun, because the pirates still have the captain, and so what now?

I can't possibly be the only one, can I, who sees this whole matter so far as being a big mess-up?  On the face of things the attempt to watch out for and to fend off the pirates was severely lacking.  To all appearances  the hijack attempt on the part of the pirates was misconceived and deeply flawed.   Certain signs suggest that  the crew's resistance to and the ejection of the pirates was bungled and maybe even non-existent.  And it's easy to think that neither the Captain's scheme nor the hostage exchange was  at all thought through to a reasonably likely good end.   Yet, long before it started,  all the parties had had plenty of time to plan what they would do, and had been talking about it.

Now all that remains is to see what the pirates and the American authorities will do.

It's hard to see any way that all this can come out very well, because too many people see themselves as being too distant from it, not only in geographic and human terms, but also in terms of eras.  But maybe one day in these hard economic times, from a TV series that was seriously lacking in worthwhile messages they will at least and at last remember  that one guiding principle behind the things that an American gangster, though a fictional character,  Tony Soprano, did, which he revealed whenever he spoke of  something being "bad for business." 

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Much Ado, aka the North Korean Rocket

As a lifelong member of the group proverbially referred to as being "the Little Guy," I enjoy seeing people in little countries twitting big ones and getting away with it. and in the past two weeks we saw a good example of that. It was accomplished by a Roman candle of sorts fired high into the atmosphere by North Korea.

True, the People's Republic of North Korea is no sort of country in which anyone in his right mind would want to live. Though it must, like any country, have a large population of pleasant women, the impression is that it exists for only one purpose, to scare its neighbors, and the mass of its population is forced to undergo all kinds of privation to support that habit. Plus the climate there is painfully and gloomily cold and therefore terrible, and the terrain isn't much better, and that kind of thing could very well be why the attitudes there aren't the best.

Therefore not so long ago, in the early 1950's, at the beginning of the Police Action of which I am listed as being a military veteran, we saw the North Koreans come spilling over the 38th Parallel from their half of the peninsula with knives clenched between their teeth, just like invaders from the north in many places in the world since time immemorial, though that can't be all that the leaders in countries like South Korea, the U.S., and Japan have in mind in their constant present-day tussles with the North Koreans.

Actually you see much these same intransigences and stalemates in many other longitudes and latitudes, especially in the cases of the U.S. vs Cuba, and with Israel vs. the Palestinians, and with the U.S. and Israel vs. Iran, wherein the stronger force, for appearance's sake as much as for any other reasons, is unable to bend the weaker fully to its will but is so hellbent on continuing to try to do so that it starts looking ridiculous in its methods.

Therefore recently we heard the North Koreans announce that they were going to put a communications satellite into high orbit, and for that obviously you need a powerful rocket, of the kind that conceivably could also be used to deliver nuclear devastation to places ranging from just a few miles away to thousands of miles, such as Seoul, Tokyo, or Seattle. So North Korea's adversaries went into high dudgeon, high alert, and carefully modulated hysterics, though mainly into what I would call "intense rocket gazing," which is all that what they did amounted to and was all that the effort merited being.

Japan took the lead in seizing this chance to do some woofing that the world could hear. Up to 1945 it used to do the lion's share of the woofing and the biting in that part of the world, but as a result was so thoroughly neutered that it has remained curiously comatose ever since, even with its numerous glorious sights and, secondarily, its ec0nomic might.

Japan used as its weak excuse for its suddenly loud barking this time the possibility of debris from the rocket falling on its territory, and North Korea has been criticized for directing its rockets over Japan's islands. But a glance at a map shows that it would be hard for North Korea to arrange for a long-range rocket to fall harmlessly (except to a few fish with bad timing) in a large body of open water without crossing some part of Japan's long string of islands. And what made Japan's protests extra-comical was that the territory in question was in its lightly inhabited far north, on Hokkaido and thereabouts, where not one Japanese in a hundred would ever think of going to spend a vacation, much less of building a happy hacienda.

Also you would think that the Japanese would welcome a rain of debris, so that its intelligence people and also its artisans could make something of it, not to mention the wonderful souvenirs that such an event would supply. And anyway, what's a little debris? When the space shuttle Columbia burst apart six years ago while coming in for a landing with several unlucky astronauts aboard, it strewed all kinds of debris across several states (especially Texas, with its peculiar and continually demonstrated ability to intrude itself into all kinds of situations and tragedies), without injury to anyone beneath, and people were glad to get that, in memoriam as much as for any other reason.

Meanwhile warriors in the U.S. joined the Japanese, with speculations on the ability such a rocket would have to reach Seattle and elsewhere, despite the fact that the U.S. has been bursting to overflowing with all types of rocketry and missiles, enough to reduce North Korea to a single dust speck, and has had that ability -- and sometimes a barely suppressed desire to do just that -- for quite a long time. During the Korean Police Action, H. Truman had to fire General D. MacArthur over just such a suggestion, when North Korea, in comparison, had relatively little more than a few hammers and sickles.

Unperturbed and unsympathetic with its adversaries' concerns, especially because in the past two of its critics had at some point invaded them, and the third had also done that when in retaliation it got enough help, and with Japan in particular having squeezed both parts of Korea in a murderous grip for many years that are still fresh in memories, the North Koreans marched straight ahead and leisurely set up their rocket in plain sight, and at the appointed hour they lit the fuse, while ignoring threats from some Japanese to shoot it down.

North Korea's trio of adversaries declared that the mission was a failure and that the rocket landed without damage to anything but itself in the Sea of Japan. But the North Koreans insist that the launch was a success and that it placed a satellite in orbit, from where it is now bouncing back, apparently only to them (and good thing!), patriotic songs.

It all reminds me of a line from E. Ionesco's Theater of the Absurd play, "The Bald Soprano," which went, "The truth must lie somewhere between." And meanwhile the U.S. and Japan are pushing hard to get North Korea censured in the U.N. for this effort that amounted mainly to knocking askew its adversaries' toupees.

One of these days maybe some powerful and power-obsessed entity somewhere will test the idea that much more can be gained by helping seemingly intractable and usually much smaller entities out of their troubles by walking the extra mile with consideration and generosity, or at least just letting them go on their merry way, instead of relying on kneejerk pugnacity and unending threats. I see no reason why that wouldn't work as well on the international level as it does with neighbors right across the alley.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Mower Cart Picture

Above, as per LLL's request, is a picture of my newly converted lawnmower cart. It's supposed to be mounted with a box, but I took that off temporarily so that I could use the "cart" to move this big forsythia offshoot to the new hole I dug for it at the right, just forward of the rubber bucket. The distance was only about 15 feet, but the root ball weighed more than I could comfortably lift. One of my greatest fears is having another hernia operation, this time on the left, following the one I had a few years ago. That op went great but I don't want to go through another one. So I try to be extra careful now about lifting things. And besides, it was yet another chance to use my spiffy mower conversion..

Today I intend to make and install another box of a different, size than the one I had on it first, with more capacity and versatility.. Meanwhile that's another advantage. It's easy to switch the container part. That's not practical with a regular garden cart.

Meanwhile, while I'm at it, here is a shot of the same garden area little more than a month ago, when we had that late winter snow. The three pines are joined by a high "trellis" made of cedar poles. An unplanned consequence of this is that whenever the wind blows, all three trees sway together, and the movement of the poles creates some weird sounds.

Attitude toward Congress

It is definitely lucky for me that I have absolutely no chance ever to be called to testify at a Congressional hearing. That non-likelihood is because, though state and national legislatures manufacture new crimes every minute to justify their existence and their perks, the only real crime that I know that I have committed and on a regular basis is attacking the Republican Party, with words and in public, though this site couldn't be considered to be in the public eye by any stretch of the imagination.

But of course that is not a crime at all but a duty that is incumbent on every American who cares about observing the country's ostensible ideals, and it must be done whenever necessary, which is pretty much all the time, because siding with the Republicans is invariably following the German model of 1933.

Nevertheless, it's a wonder that, during the last eight years from which just recently they were finally removed for power, the Republicans did not outlaw webloggers criticizing them. In that time the Repubs certainly did all they could to make the U.S. even more of a prison-happy state in every other way they could contrive, most often using the "terror-fighting" ploy.

The reason why I am so fortunate is that I know the moment I stepped into the hearing room and even long before, such as now, I could reasonably be charged with something close to Contempt of Congress, though I guess it would all depend on how that charge is defined by whoever happened to be present among the row of glowering hucklebucks sitting high up on their carved walnut perches. I assume that merely looking at them cross-eyed would be offense enough, especially from someone like me.

From my point of view, however, what I feel toward them is not actually contempt. That is too powerful a word and an emotion, that can't easily apply to such an inconsequential and ineffectual group.

But Congress people need to have the concept of contempt ready for instant use as a lethal weapon, because their inflated natures require them to cast any challenge to their nonsense in the worst possible light.

So, because Congress people have the power to jail me for the least little offense to them, while neither I nor anyone else has the power to jail them for the great offenses that they routinely commit against everyone just by being too buried in their act to do anything really beneficial for about 99.9 percent of the time, I would best be advised to come there prepared not to be able to return home for a long while, if ever, no matter what I said there. (And I have long had a couple of tiny, set speeches prepared to bat back any garbage on any subject that they might try to fling at me.)

It's sad to see how much hope is invested in sending people to Congress, when it's so certain that, from one term to the next, that group they join so proudly and confidently will not do anything worth writing home about. The culprit is overweening pride and ego, several hundreds of such cases all milling around and trying to prevail over each other while maintaining the grossest of crocodile smiles and syrupy strychnine words. And that becomes as much a part of them as their gleaming new offices, the moment they arrive on Capitol Hill. They may have been pleasant, considerate, and even thoughtful and innovative people at home, but the moment the majority of them steps into those marble halls in the Federal City, it's all over.

But that seems to have been the nature of all Congresses in all lands in all eras, which is why, as bodies, they never receive much attention, much less praise, from History's otherwise generous hands.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Recycled Gas Mower

Above is a picture of a formerly gas engine-driven push lawnmower that I am happy to announce I have successfully converted into a garden cart.

If you don't see a picture, it means I have not yet posted it. Taking photos and then running them through my computer takes a little time and effort that I am often slow to expend. But you get the picture anyway. It is simply a box mounted on a mower where there once was but now no longer is a gasoline engine.

You might say, "Well, regardless, what's the big deal? You already have not one but two fair-sized garden carts. You can't carry nearly as much stuff in your lawnmower contraption as you can in a regular garden cart."

That's true. But my mower takes less effort to propel, it goes in narrower places, I don't have to worry so much about it getting rained on, and the price is right. But mainly it's just the idea of getting some use of that mower that otherwise had just sat around with its infernal engine needing to be fixed for more than five years, but with me being unable to find any justification for getting it repaired.

Now, however, I'm getting a big kick out of this second life of the mower as a garden cart. I even love the clanky, clunky sound it makes as I push or pull it along, I think because all that creaking harmonizes so perfectly with the state in which I see myself as being, most of the time.

After the mower's engine stopped working, against all advice of my friends and neighbors I bought two identical electric mowers, and I have been quite happy with them ever since. Their advantages, despite my uneven country terrain, greatly outnumber those of a gas model. They're less expensive, they're quieter, they're easier on the environment and on poisoning me, they don't require any gas and oil all the time, and, best of all, they require very little maintenance, in fact, hardly any at all. And, unlike my experience with gas mowers, they always start up right away, even after long winter months of disuse. And the inconvenience of the power cords is negligible, since there are strategies available for that, and also I have two weed-whackers that I use in conjunction with the lawnmowers. The so-called "grass" around here, all of which showed up entirely on its own after I cleared things, grows VERY fast, tall, and tough.

Meanwhile, you might then ask, why do I need two weed-whackers, and two electric lawnmowers that are just alike, and two garden carts that are nearly identical, and two of so many other things?

It's because I fervently believe that a man should have two of everything, with the only exceptions being houses -- one is hard enough to keep up -- and, I suppose, wives, because of the logistical difficulties involved.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

The United States Breakup

In the astounding melange of articles, some insane and others quite informative, that appear in great profusion on the Far-Fetched News Service, also called "Les Dessous de L'information Mondiale" or the "Downside World News," I found an article called "When America Fell to Pieces the Shouting Was Outrageous." This article features a Russian professor named Igor Panarin, who proposes that the U.S. is in a process of breakup into at least six pieces, and he claims to have foreseen this as long as 10 years ago.

But maybe because he is a professor in the frozen wastes of Russia instead of, say, in the heat of Memphis, Tennessee or any other place in these United States, he doesn't present the clearest naming of the parts into which he says the U.S., like an Arctic ice floe in a year of global warming, is busily separating, of course not geographically but demographically, to become new nations of their own. But, as nearly as I can make out, those six are, first the Pacific Coast, and next a section vaguely called "The South," and then the one state of Texas, the Mid-Atlantic, and finally two unnamed areas in the nation's central plains and mountains.

Maybe because the article was in the form of an interview, Panarin got cut off before he could finish this list, but conspicuously missing was all-important New England and the rest of the Northeast, unless to him that is all part of the Mid-Atlantic. He also overlooked Hawaii, but he did manage to drop in with amazing nerviness the statement that meanwhile Russia will "require" the return of Alaska, because all along it has merely been out for rental.

As a longtime geography and even a geo-political buff, I see all sorts of things wrong with this appraisal, which is what made that mess so entertaining to read.

Panarin implies, first of all, that the Pacific Coast will become some kind of Chinese colony, on the strength of saying that San Francisco is already 53 percent Chinese. But I doubt that statistic, and in any case San Francisco is just one enclave, and not the largest, among many on the West Coast and nearby.

Next, he doesn't say what he means by "The South," aside from suggesting that it will be taken over by the Mexicans and others. Is he talking about just San Diego, Arizona, and New Mexico? What about all those loud, salty, and rascally states that make up the southeastern United States and are generally referred to in the U.S. itself as being "The South?"

A number of its Euro-derived inhabitants. who have dominated that large area from the start, at gunpoint, are already having many violent things to say about being replaced. Once they had to worry about the Rainbows, but now they're busily tooling up against the Spanish speakers, i.e. "illegal immigrants,"and they can never be counted on to accept a takeover of their blood-srained territory by anyone, graciously or in any other wise.

But a Russian professor with a neo-Soviet agenda might not appreciate that.

It's true that there has often been talk of Texas breaking loose, and if that were to happen (hopefully taking Oklahoma with them), I am not too sure that, unlike as in the Civil War, this time there wouldn't be a great many who would view that particular detachment with just that.

Now that its oil is largely depleted, along with the supply of reckless young guys that, along with Brooklyn, it formerly supplied in such disproportionate numbers to the military, before, along with Virginia, and most likely Oklahoma, Ohio, and other such places, it apparently decided that more profits could be made by warehousing them in prisons, in recent years the main export of Texas to the rest of the country has often seemed to be a severe poisoning of the political discourse. However, Steve Bates assures us in no uncertain terms that that is changing. And that's possible, considering the heady though long-gone days of the great Lone Star politicians like Henry Gonzales, Barbara Jordan, and Lyndon Johnson -- the latter having been an outstanding domestic President who, however, fell victim to inhaling too much of the Vietnam opiate.

That leaves, of the sections that Panarin mentioned, only the two central areas. These he seems disposed to hand to Canada, at least in their northern parts, though that country is always indeed in danger of itself breaking apart, into two or even three sections, with the French-speaking regions, mainly Quebec, remaining a big threat to Canada's intactitude.

If Alaska could be given to anybody, it should be to Canada and not to the Russians. Alaska is far too distant from the Russian soul and heartland, and that was why they sold it to Secretary Seward in the first place. But pure geography would argue that it really should be part of Canada instead, because it is joined at the hip and everywhere else to the Yukon, and it is no less remote from D.C. than it is from Moscow.

And besides, if the Russians were to come striding over to Alaska, muttering something about a rental having ended, the U.S. is full of good ol' boys who, no matter how scarce the dollars had become, would immediately drop everything and march up there barefoot to dispute that claim with maximum prejudice. After all, some of them go up there regularly to hunt bears. I personally knew one guy here who did that, despite all the bears that we have walking around here -- something I also know something about, from personal experience.

As for the lower parts of the U.S.'s central sections, the professor mentions that that's "where the Indians live," thereby suggesting that those regions will return to their guardianship, though here he goes off the deep end almost as bad as with Alaska.

For just one thing, the Sioux and the others haven't been at all diligent about building their numbers back up from the 10 million they used to have. Those were scattered all over the place and not just in what is now the U.S., and today the barely more than one million that they might be able to scare up wouldn't be enough to stock a decently-sized big city, much less the vastness of almost all the middle of the U.S., and the days of a hundred horses per brave are long over.

Panarin should come over here and drive around. I think he would find that the little secession talk that you hear is just bluff designed to gain some kind of relatively little thing.

To get back to Texas -- which for some reason I always seem ready to do, though I have been there only once and then didn't really set foot on it, though what Texas fanciers can't understand is how their state presents, on its exterior, the aspect of a huge housecat with which no opportunity should be missed to violate their congenital aplomb by tweaking its tail or ears -- it is a great example. Texas is not about to go anywhere, when it can get much more from the rest of the U.S. than it gives.

Or, to put this another way, we could be tempted to adapt a now often-heard statement that that quintessential Texan, LBJ, made about J. Edgar Hoover, the late, unlamented FBI director, and say it's better to be "inside the tent, pissing out, than it is to be outside the tent, pissing in." Though, on further thought, one might also want to ask what it is about either of those actions that would make one so superior to the other.

Friday, April 03, 2009

That's Why

All too often the prevailing American rudeness prevents them, men and women, from letting me finish what I had to say, face to face. They regard my one or two opening sentences as merely springboards for their own use in launching what they are moved to say, which has to be indescribably more important than what I had in mind and so must be delivered at once and in a much larger number of words.

Hence one of the attractions of writing a weblog.

That's why I have no qualms about posting something at length, though I know that there, too, only the opening lines, if that, will ever be read. At least I will have gotten to go on to the finish, and it is even on record, somewhere, somehow, for some short period of time.

Preordained Stickup

In Woodbridge, Va., which is not far from D.C. and an easy drive from here by any ordinary citizen though not for me, yesterday three guys dressed all in black and wearing ski masks, made a robbery happily devoid of injury or other violence -- except for the threat of a gun though we are assured that they don't kill people -- of an armored car that was making a pickup from a branch of the Bank of America.

This morning we are told that the three perps have already been identified and rounded up, along with every cent of their ill-gained loot, 160 grand.

Everything about that robbery makes things seem as if they were supposed to work out in exactly that way.

The news reports blame the quick apprehension of the trio on a tip by an "alert citizen," after seeing some kind of suspicious activity involving a white Cadillac.

Maybe the suspicious activity was the white Cadillac itself, because it's not easy to think of a more noticeable vehicle, especially if it can be seen to be occupied by three men dressed completely in black.

But that's not all. It turns out that one or more of the guys lived right across the street from the bank. And that's still not all. One of them also used to work for that armored car company.

In other words, it was just about as local an event as any bank robbery could get. They're sitting in the living room and happen to notice the bank across the street for the umpteenth time, and a light bulb suddenly pops on in their minds. "Let's go relieve it. We can get away with it. Sheer audacity will carry us through."

Obviously these worthies hadn't seen many of the enormous genre of caper movies -- not the rude, crude ones involving mayhem, but the ones detailing smooth operations sometimes even carried out by police, that involve a lot of planning and research, which first of all decree that if you have to rob the casino, it should be at least a few blocks through preferably a whole continent away, such as in Las Vegas, Paris, Monte Carlo, or some such.

Films, like any sort of instructional videos, have a lot to teach us on almost any project of substance, and it pays to see what the movie industry has to say about things first.

--Such as that sheer audacity isn't enough. Though maybe they counted instead on the fact that the tenor of the times is such that these days bankers are getting even less sympathy than usual.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

This is What Happens When....

You find that you have a can containing a large number of keys of various colors, configurations, and sizes, and you have no idea what any of them fit ...or when. There's no telling how far back into antiquity my collection goes.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Listening to the Birds

Lately I've been getting off on listening to the birds.

When we first moved here and there were only the woods, the birds were not nearly as evident as they are now, or as they were in D.C. at that time, with all its pigeons, starlings, and English sparrows.

Even the modest amount of clearing that I've done, amounting to little more than half an acre of the 20 and a half that we have, appears to have opened up the habitat enough to allow them to dart, swoop, and observe much more freely, and now they can be seen and, more often, heard through most of the year, trilling a great variety of songs or making all kinds of comments, often four or five at the same time though never in unison.

They make great background music while you're outside roaming, playing, or working, so that you don't need your buildings to act as huge speakers pumping out your human song, and that is much handier than dealing with CD's or DVD's.

Sometimes the birds even seem to have picked up some English. I didn't think from me, until I remembered that a few times I have held debates with a row of crows lined up on a tree branch just like a bunch of the ecclesiastical judges of the Spanish Inquisition, though I am more likely to try to get the attention of squirrels, who, however, talk only to their own and then only when they're chasing each other.

For instance there's a bird close by the house right now that seems to be saying, over and over, "We need you we need you we need you!"