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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.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Sorry, America

The fact that I have not yet bought a roll of red duct tape reminds me that I have been sort of remiss in my contributions to the American economy.   Over the years I have been a boon to several of the smaller industries, but generally speaking I have not put my shoulder to the economic wheel..   Sorry America!

   But let me say this: if it had been up to me every citizen in the U.S. would not be up to their ears in the sea of the red ink of the 14 trillion dollar National Debt.   In fact, they wouldn't be in debt at all.   I have never gone into debt for anything, except a used house, and I didn't let that unfortunate circumstance last for long, to the dismay of a banker that I knew personally.

Women and Duct Tape

The two most interesting articles I saw this morning were about the great and greater merits of duct tape and women, especially the red kind (of duct tape).

The title of the first article was "Why Women Are Better at Everything."   And its lead sentence reads:

"Recently in the Wall Street Journal, MarketWatch columnist David Weidner noted that women "do almost everything better" than men — from politics to corporate management to investing."

The general gist of why that may be so is that women are more cautious about things, and it could be seen as a modern elaboration of the old adage, "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread."

I'm not so sure about the first such use mentioned, which was to use red duct tape to mark off safety zones in hospitals to keep the workers at a safe distance from the infected.  I don't see how tape on the floor can keep people at a safe distance from anybody  But I liked the other impromptu medical uses given, especially the probably age-old one about covering a bad scrape with a paper towel or toilet paper and then wrapping it with duct tape, for which the red color should be especially good, and this means that I have to run right out and buy a roll.

I have never seen red duct tape on the store shelves, but then, I haven't been in any stores enough lately to have seen anything.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Marvelous Human Capacity

In the interest of finding out how the First World War came to be conducted in such a horrendous and limited form as a bunch of trenches strung across France and in other places as far-flung as Gallipoli, resulting in so much wholesale slaughter and not much else except setting the stage for the Second World War. I've been reading Barbara Tuchman's explanations in "The Gun of August."   According to her it was clearly a matter of a great many self-important politicians and military leaders on all sides combining their talents for self-deception..   And on page 265 she may have summed it all up when she spoke of "the marvelous human capacity to see what you expect to see even if it is not there." .

And speaking of that, B. is coming over here in the next 45 minutes to play our weekly game of chess.  It will be earlier than usual, because later it may be too hot for the ladies to take their usual walk.

Added Remarks

Added remarks about the so-called "U.S. National Debt:"  In whose name and on whose behalf was such a stupendous sum as fourteen (14) trillion dollars so stupidly borrowed?  And were interest rates taken into account and amortization tables studied?   Of course, it is well-known that the U.S. has its share of stupid people, but this is going some.

And anyway, does an amount that large even exist anywhere in the world?   I mean all at one time, and in a form that can be seen and touched, as distinguished from ones and zeroes on computers, or in some other form that has real value, since value is such a relative thing?   For instance, I would not spend a dime for all the skyscrapers in New York City, or for all the diamonds in South Africa for that matter, because they are of no value to me personally and would be way too much trouble if they were in my hands.   But a good screwdriver, or a hammer, or a computer motherboard, or food to eat - those are things of real worth.
But maybe here, hopefully, it's only a matter of money valuations differing from one place to another, so that billions in one country could be seen as being equal only to pfennigs in another.  There has to be a rational explanation for all this, because "Oops!" is not the right answer to owing 14 tril.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Where You're Headed

Here is where you're headed, those of you who are certain citizens of the future, to the world in which it'll be increasingly hard to tell the real from the digital.

This video, best seen in full screen, and provided that it comes out all right from here to your monitor, shows how Japanese computer whizzes took parts from a six-girl musical group and combined them to make a seventh member who is not real, yet it's hard to tell that she is not real unless you've already been forewarned that something is not right.

What would I take first in that world?   My first thought is being able to roam through a Triassic Age jungle, complete with the smells, the sounds, and the sights of some digital monsters with everything in place.  Next I'd take a few hours in the Roman forum or maybe the Senate during a debate -- translated of course, then a few minutes in the Colosseum, and then a little while at Little Big Horn just when Custer happened to be trotting through, then a longer while sailing with Magellan through the Straits, and then checking out the market in 14th century Timbuktu, and then facing Billy the Kid in Lincoln County, New Mexico, while armed with something with real caliber, and on and on....

Here We Go Again -- the National Debt

I had a very good friend named Fred, who unfortunately left this world long ago.   But even back in the 1970's, and I guess forever, people were talking about the National Debt and the ugliness of its size.  And whenever the subject came up, Fred would say, "There's only one thing that I want somebody to tell me, and that is, who do we owe all that money to?"   And there was never an answer.   Not even a bad answer, for to say, "The banks," and let it go at that, never made enough sense.

If Fred thought the billions in debt in the '70's was bad, what would he think if today he were to read a BBC report that says the U.S. has a debt of fourteen (14) trillion dollars?

My question then is, to whom do we owe this sum that has such an otherworldly ring to it that I would not be surprised to hear that it doesn't even exist, and if you think that's being in denial, then you're quite right that I'm in denial, as I suspect every other American citizen is.

What are we talking about here?   Who had the 14 trillion in the first place that it could be borrowed?   I guess nobody, and what we are talking about instead is quite a lot of shadow money, called interest.

My guess, then, is that whoever thinks they're owed this sum is out of luck, because who has the muscle that is going to force the U.S. to pay this amount, even in respectable installments?   The name of China and its bankers is always put forward, but it's hard to see how they can have much effect, and besides, they have too many things that they have to worry about falling in on them from their rear.

I know I'm not looking at this in an informed, sophisticated way.   Still, unless questions like these are given some kind of sensible answers, it's hard to look at the National Debt crisis as the looming catastrophe that it is cracked up to be, and that instead its all a part of the continuing scam by the several Haves of the world to talk the many Have-Nots out of the little they have left, so that those greedies can go on off and happily spend all the ill-gotten gains that they have amassed ...but where, and on what?

Those are probably the most interesting questions of all, regarding all this.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Bad to Worse at Fukushima

A report on Aljazeera takes a detailed and hard look at the current situation at the tsunami-damaged power plant in Fukushima, and things there don't look good, by a long shot.

"Fukushima has three nuclear reactors exposed and four fuel cores exposed," he said, "You probably have the equivalent of 20 nuclear reactor cores because of the fuel cores, and they are all in desperate need of being cooled, and there is no means to cool them effectively."

That is what Arnold Gundersen, a senior vice-president in the U.S. nuclear industry, says, and this man ought to know.   He has almost 40 years experience in operating 70 nuclear reactors, and a man with those credentials is very unlikely to paint such a dismal picture of a nuclear disaster if there is any way out of doing so.

  I had thought that a meltdown is the ultimate nuclear power plant disaster and that just one was plenty enough,  enough, that is, to put a large amount of territory off-limits for a great many years.  But at Fukushima there have been not one but three meltdowns..   The Japanese  authorities have come out and said so.  And there have been not only these three incidents, meaning the nuclear fuel melting down into a big blob on the bottom of the reactor container, with more meltdowns in the offing, but also there's been one "meltthrough," meaning, besides melting to the floor, the fuel has also burned through several layers of the bottom of that "thermos bottle.".   Even worse, all this stuff is still percolating and hot, and not much of anything else can be done until a way can be found to get the whole mess down to a decent temperature.   Pouring water on it is the only way to do that, because of the half-life thing, but then you end up with thousands of tons of radioactive water, and ways have to be found to dispose of that safely, and no one knows yet how to do that.

Meanwhile the equivalent of 17 Manhattan Islands (minus all those monstrous skyscrapers, naturally) of Japanese territory is "likely" uninhabitable so far, which means that that land is uninhabitable, and that amount of lost Japanese real estate that is not seriously mountain can only rise, maybe sharply.  Also these meltdowns have released a large amount of radioactivity in the air, at least as much as during Chernobyl, with as many as 19 more Chernobyls highly in prospect there at Fukushima, and already the U.S. Pacific Northwest is being affected, as shown by a 35 percent increase in infant mortality, which means that there is no telling what it is in Japan and in places close to Japan, like Korea, China, and the Philippines, though I guess that depends on which way the wind blows.  The curvature of the earth must make Japan closer to the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. than it would seem, though those trips on  several kinds of ships that I took from Seattle to Yokohama and back, in the 1950's and '60's, seemed pretty long, taking two weeks of non-stop chugging across the ocean, one way...

I suppose the rest of the world wishes that this disaster would just go away, so that it can once again lift its head safely from the sand.   But all the signs are that it is not going anywhere anytime soon except farther down into the toilet, because there seems to be much more hot water in Fukushima (and vice-versa) than can possibly be dealt with, short of digging a hole to China, and unfortunately China is right next door.   But maybe a few of those Chinese ghost cities, you know, for the Japanese ...and their neighbors, to live in temporarily ... till all this is over.....

The Japanese are some very resourceful people, so you never know.   After all, this problem is not just in their back yard.   It's inside their HOUSE.  They have probably just decided to take their lumps and their casualties, while declining, politely or otherwise, to sip from any more nuclear cocktails.

The article also said that it wasn't too late for aftershocks to the big earthquake that kicked up Fukushima's tsunami.   As if in response, yesterday a magnitude 6 to 7 quake hit in that vicinity.   The reports speak of not much in the way of damage, deaths, or another tsunami so far, but they leave plenty of room for the usual ultimately more grievous truths to come out later.


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Dangerous Analogies

Right now I'm reading "The Guns of August," which might be Barbara Tuchman's best-known book. It is about the onset of the First World War.

In it she speaks of a concept that a French military thinker tried to sell to his colleagues, and she says it went over the same as if Mistinguett were to be nominated for admission into the French Academy of Arts or some such.

It's easy to grasp Tuchman's point, but the analogy still suffers if you don't know who Mistinguett was. Though I didn't know, nothing was lost and maybe something was gained, because now I do know, and it only took the usual one tap on Google's brain.   She lived from 1875 to 1956, and she was a very famous French vaudeville singer and also known for her risque bits on stage and in her personal life.   Among other things, she's the one who had her legs insured for half a million.  I thought that was Jean Harlow, Mae West, Betty Grable, or somebody like them. But maybe they had theirs insured in dollars instead of francs.  So it looks like I missed out on Mistinguett by just a little, and now you are forwarned and forearmed, should this analogy next be sprung on you.

This shows, however, how dangerous analogies and allusions can be, in that the reader can be short-changed if he is not seriously up on things, and also not up for stopping what he's doing and doing the googling -- or if the analogy is past its day, like in 1924.

George Will, the usually wrong-headed conservative columnist (and what conservative columnist is not wrong-headed?), whose name should never otherwise be included in the same sentence with that of Barbara Tuchman, relied heavily on analogies and allusions like that, after he graduated from Yale and got a job pontificating and thus had unlimited opportunities to show off his recently gained erudition, which he did, profusely. He should be quite old now. I wonder if he has grown out of that yet?  Ha-ha.

But nowadays there is another political writer who outdoes Will in the overuse of that tempting literary device by a country mile. That is Angry Arab, of the celebrated Angry Arab News Service weblog, which I read every day because he is an interesting character, and it's also sometimes informative to find out what's vexing him now in the Arab world, and there are always ten or twelve of those, every day of the week, including Sundays. He uses analogies by the boatload and they are especially knotty to this American reader because they always refer to people with obscure Arabic names. I suspect these figures are unknown even to his Arabic readers most of the time, but it makes him look informed beyond all get-out, and that is the main thing.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Ghost Cities in China

It's interesting to see how China, which has been a disgrace to communism in so many ways in the past 60 years, has found a new way to do so, and by using capitalistic methods.

There's a case for saying that the many accounts in the media speaking of "Chinese ghost towns" are misusing the language once again, and that instead, they should always say "Chinese ghost cities." because these things are not towns at all.  They are bonafide cities -- if we can refer to them as being true cities, when they have an occupancy rate of only about 30 percent and in most cases much less -- built to house many millions of people,   Ugly cities, but cities nevertheless, featuring a great many skyscratchers that look like they would bring about a great many deaths of the soul if all those apartments and offices were occupied.

The Chinese must have an incredibly efficient and huge construction industry, because all these nearly empty cities were thrown up in just the last few years, and there is also obviously a great deal of money tied up in them  -- so much that we are told that these cities are a real threat to the world economy.   As nearly as I can make out with my admittedly stunted economic mind, the reason is that a lot of the world's metal supply is tied up in these cities, and this has had a bad effect on the metal industries in other countries and that has affected the global economy and so forth and so on.

 It is all a part of how everything on the planet is tied together and not only in human affairs -- a principle that I first ran into many years ago in a very interesting little 1941 paperback about the weather called "Storm," by George R. Stewart, in which he gives a saying that goes along the lines of, "A Chinese man sneezing in Peking can cause a hurricane in California," or some such.  I can't quote it exactly, because like all my paperback treasures of the 1940's and '50's -- all that I could afford in the way of books in those days --  the pages, though still intact, are badly yellowed and dry with age, and they would start falling apart if I looked for anything in them.

The reason that all these freshly thrown-up cities in China are sitting there with just a few tenants so far is because of the usual economic demons that you see in capitalistic societies: speculators, developers gone wild, berserk bankers, and all the rest, and these edifices are too expensive for the middle class that was expected to move into them.

I would expect that, wherever they are living now, those middle class people will eventually move into those buildings, though only at some financial cost to somebody, hopefully not to a tie-dyer in Zanzibar.

But meanwhile what a great difference between the American ghost towns and the Chinese ghost cities!  The American towns were much smaller, always just a few buildings thrown up hurriedly on the wagon trails during the frenzied rush westward and soon deserted and just left there, without even a match being put to the ruins, and today some of them are still kept in reasonably good states of desertion, for the benefit of drivers-by.  As such the American ghost towns reach back farther and farther into the past, while the Chinese ghost cities reach a somewhat lesser distance ahead into an uncertain future, because among other things, where's all the water, the food, the fuel,the power, and all the other necessities of life going to come from when eventually these places are fully occupied?

All the same, just as I was always interested in ghost towns and ghost buildings during the several car trips that we took out west, I would very much like to walk around for a few minutes in one of these Chinese ghost cities.   I don't know why edifices without any other humans around appeal to me so much.

Here is an interesting article that, along with a lot of satellite photos of these cities, explains what's with these eerie places..

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Drivers License Renewal

Yesterday morning wife drove me down to Lynchburg to get my driver's license renewed.  Because such a thing is always on the traumatic side for me, a month ago I tried to make things easier for myself.   I wasn't totally confident about my sight.   I can see just about everything I want to see, except the birds sitting in the trees, but still things tend to be slightly murky, especially in bright daylight.  It's great inside, though I'm beginning to wonder why book publishers are so stingy with the ink and the size of the print.   So I went for a complete eye examination at my eye doctor, and he gave me a slip that I could give to the DMV people, so that I wouldn't have to be examined there.   I am still haunted by how when I got my first drivers license, at the age of 32, in 1963, I failed it twice before finally passing, not because I couldn't steer or park but because of nerves.   This galled me because they were the first and so far the only tests I have ever failed.

Wife arranged to get herself and me down there at the best possible time, exactly in midmonth and in the early morning, and I zipped right on through and was only at the DMV for about 10 minutes tops.   So now, in the mail, I will get a new license, and just in time, too, because I only had a month and a half to go before my birthday came up and my old one would have expired..

 And now guess what?   My new license won't expire till 2019.  That's right.  Twenty nineteen!    That is eight years from now!   I have that long before I will need to start worrying about it again!

And where will I be in 8 years?. Well, there's a good chance that it won't be on the road.   Not very much anyhow, despite our neighbors across the road, K. and L., who, on hearing this, said that in 2017 they will start casting a wary eye out for me behind the wheel. 

Even right now I drive so little that if you needed my total mileage per year to get to the next big city, you wouldn't have enough to get there,  even -- almost-- if you were already in the nearest big city.

Congress Notices Libya

After about three months of the U.S. playing mainly a support role in the NATO military effort in Libya, some people are attacking President Obama for doing this.  The sense of deja vu is so powerful here and goes back for so many years, with so many Presidents having gone to the latest shootouts without getting Congressional permission, that I would call it a case of beating about twenty (20) dead horses.

Things were probably slow in Congress.   Summer is setting in, and for all I know they're in recess and spending all their time raising money and going to picnics and raising money.    But so as not to let the public forget that there is a U.S..Congress, which is always an easy thing to do, a bunch of the more zealous among them thought they'd take advantage of this hiatus by trying to grab a few quick political points.

But their case, the very old one about how the White House is keeping the Congress out of the loop on military involvements, is weaker than usual because they have found nothing new to throw into the fire, plus the U.S. isn't exactly leading the charge in Libya,, and there are no U.S. ground troops involved.   The Congressmen argue that the Libya thing is too expensive, because the cost to the U.S. is now just 200 mil short of 1 bil.   But any U.S. military move anywhere and at any time  is always going to cost an arm and a leg, regardless.   That's just about Biblical.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

World History ="Mine is Bigger Than Yourn"

I have now read 350 of the 450 pages of Laurence Bergreen's book on the Magellan "Moluccan Armada" expedition, and I don't know what to say.   Man!   --Except that it has led me to wonder if a lot of history, both in the commission and in the telling of it, isn't in large part a matter of  mostly male hormones that went seriously out of whack, so that history might be really best seen as being largely  a series of  medical case studies instead of evocations of the great achievements that statues, memorials, holidays, "the writing of many books" (as the writer of Ecclesiastes so scornfully said several thousand years ago) and other salutes to the "great men" are all built around.   How else to look at the Magellan saga rationally?   Because when all else is said and done, and all the characters are considered, from the biggest to the smallest, it is a very irrational story.
         At this point in my reading, Magellan is long since dead and gone, sliced into a bunch of never recovered pieces at the edge of the sea on an island in the Philippines, nearly as far from Spain as he can be in all directions.   He has successfully found and negotiated the straits named after him, and after that he has sailed many thousands of miles across the Pacific, and the main things he has discovered, to his stunning surprise and also horror, is that, one, the Spice Islands (Indonesia) that were supposed to be his ultimate destination are not just a crossbow shot past the other end of the straits, right next to Chile, and two, the Pacific Ocean is really, really BIG!
        But he has also made two more discoveries that are equally serious, and this is where the story of him and his men goes seriously off the track.   Those trade winds that so conveniently pushed them across the broad Pacific with such great speed, ease, and abandon for 98 relatively blissful days, except for the eating and scurvy bit, have brought him not to the Spice Islands, as he might have thought God's will had obliged those winds to do.   Instead he has reached a bunch of other islands to which he has quickly given the name that their inhabitants have all been waiting for: "the Philippines,"   And the best thing about these islands is his fourth discovery: all he has to do to throw the fear of God into the inhabitants is to stand offshore and fire off some of  the vast amounts of military hardware that he has hauled all this distance -- the cannons, the mortars, the muskets -- and everything else is a piece of cake.   Follow up with planting a cross on the highest mountain on each island and that will bring everybody to Christ, especially after he demonstrates to all the local kings that one of his men dressed in a suit of armor would be more than equal to 100 of their nearly naked warriors.
         It's too bad that Magellan never made yet another discovery that would've stood him in good stead, and that would've been the self-awareness that by this time, all those months of being an all-mighty admiral of an "armada" had caused his cojones to swell far too large for his britches, and that he could've used some serious therapy.   Instead he gets into a mode of operation where he tells these kings that if they would just lead all their subjects into converting to Christianity, he, Magellan, will dispose of all their enemies.   And it is in the course of having picked a highly unnecessary fight with the enemies of one of those converted kings, just to show off how well the Spanish fight (in the 200 suits of armor that they had also brought along), that those enemies notice that those suits don't quite reach down far enough.   Magellan gets hit by a poisoned arrow in his leg that causes his chin to have an unplanned meeting with the sand, and that is followed by dozens of other arrows and chops in his arms and other places, and quickly he is history..  
         So now, in my reading, his now badly bedraggled survivors have had to get rid of yet another of their ships, by fire, because seagoing termites have tunneled into it so badly, and now the "armada" is down to only two ships, after two others had already been lost even before they had cleared the straits,, one to a storm and another to crewmen who, taking expeditious advantage of the fact that Magellan was momentarily elsewhere in the straits, backed out of there without telling him and headed home again to Spain, because they had had enough of him and his high-handed ways..
        Therefore, it can be said that, thanks to his highly excessive religious zeal, Magellan's name can only loosely be attached to that first circumnavigation of the globe, and that the achievement was more that of the 18 uncelebrated guys, whoever they were, who were left to complete the second half of the trip before finally staggering into port nearly insensibly, home again in Spain, another long while later.   And the Magellan tale suggests that the great Age of Discovery was actually a story of mainly some avaricious adventurers just feeling their way along and bumping up against their ignorance of many things, including the many human shortcomings, the geography of the planet, the makeup and the validity of other cultures, the tenets of simple morality, and even of being able to tell the time at sea, so that they could always compute their latitude fairly easily but they could never be really sure of their longitude, which meant that much of the time they didn't know where they were even after they had gotten there, and so weren't able to write it down accurately, any more than they were able to record with the most reliable truth what they had seen and done.
        But still, there are certain things that you have to hand to those explorers, especially that thing of going up against the totally unknown, and I'm not saying that I don't envy them in many ways. I wonder how I would've done, going as I would've without a cross, a crescent, or any other religious symbol in my hand?.   But that is another innocent ramble for another day.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Finding the Strait and Narrow

For my bedtime reading in the past several years, I've been concentrating on long accounts of life experienced at its utmost extremes. voluntarily or involuntarily, by a fortunate or an unfortunate few.   Right now it's "Over the Edge of the World," a 2004 book by Laurence Bergereen.  This tells of a venture, not long after C. Columbus brought the Europeans over this way -- the first sea voyage completely around the world at one of its widest circumferences, headed, at first, by Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese, in a tiny but expensive fleet paid for by the Spanish, and how that arrangement came to be is a pretty wild story in itself.

  Magellan had so many early failures that it's unbelievable that he would have even been considered for leading an expedition into the Great Unknown, which almost any trip of more than 100 miles out into the Atlantic was thought to be.   He got the chance by shrewdly taking advantage of some high-stakes boxing in the dark that was being conducted between the Spanish king, a guy named Charles, and the Portuguese king, a guy named Manuel.   Magellan's earlier setbacks must've helped, too.   It meant that he was expendable, as were most of the sailors, an unruly bunch, and the only real costs were for the ships themselves and the provisions.

And what was money anyway?   The main Spanish industry of that day consisted of  beating other Europeans to finding as many hitherto untouched territories as they could, so that they could relieve the natives of all their gold and other treasures that, it turned out, in the eyes of the Spanish rightfully belonged to the Spanish. and only to them.   And they had God's okay on that.

   Though Magellan was the guiding light of the whole thing, another of the many ironies of the voyage is that it was barely half over before death dropped him out of the telling altogether, through some sort of misunderstanding in the Philippines, as it gradually did in the case of nearly everybody else, after they had left Spain with such high expectations of finding a short cut across South America that would allow them and others, preferably and hopefully only the Spanish, to reach Indonesia, then called the Spice Islands, without too much trouble.   The idea was that the Spanish King could get a chokehold on the worldwide spice trade, while Magellan could finally secure his place in the world's esteem that he thought he so richly deserved.   But the immediate outcome of the expedition was that, of the five ships with 239 men aboard that had comprised the fleet when they set out in 1519, only one ship was still in enough of a floating condition to reappear off the Spanish coast four long years later, with only 18 men aboard, starved, in tatters, and barely able to tell what had happened.

       But they at least proved, beyond all shadow of the doubt, and before astronauts could bear witness and convincing photos could be taken, that the Earth was a huge globe, covered mostly by water, and that sailing ships, though they could fall over a number of things, one of those hazards was not the edge of the world -- which means, doesn't it, that this book was slightly misnamed.

         I haven't finished reading it.  I'm not even halfway through.   I'm rationing it to myself, so as not to run out of reading material.   My own books, I mean, freshly bought from Amazon.   I don't like reading library books, as my wife does.  You have to be too careful with them.

       But it seems to me that while Magellan didn't live to see the completion of the voyage, besides surmounting all the aggravations of even getting to leave Spain while still in charge of things, he did see the successful outcome of what must have been the main thrust of the voyage, which was not sailing completely around the world all at one shot.  I have an idea that they were chased into doing that, for lack of any better alternatives.   Nor was it in even reaching the Spice Islands.  Instead it was in solving a problem that had been as knotty for the Spanish and Portuguese explorers of the 16th Century as finding the complete Northwest Passage was for the English three centuries later, and that was in finding the waterway, the straits,  across the southern part of South America that they knew were there and hopefully weren't going to turn out to be so far south that they would have had to cross part of Antarctica -- a development that would have been a really first-class downer, in almost anybody's book.

      The trouble was, aside from being unable to wait long enough for Cessnas or Piper Cubs to be invented, which would have cleared the whole thing up in a hurry, they couldn't tell which of the many indentations into the southern South American coast were dead end inlets, the estuaries of rivers emptying into the Atlantic, or the big Prize.  As a result Magellan spent a great deal of time trying to guess which one of those numerous openings into the coast hid the lucky number, and meanwhile the mutinous Spanish captains under him kept complaining and carping for all they were worth. 

       So far, in this book, Magellan still hasn't found the straits that are now so justifiably named after him, but that's right around the corner, and I have a feeling that even while he's picking his way through them, long before he gets across the ocean and starts messing around in the Philippines, which to my geographical memory isn't exactly on the straight track to Indonesia, he's going to go through a lot more aggravation.  I've always heard that that southern tip of South America is some of, if not the, toughest sailing in the world.

And now for one of my favorite verses from American blues music:

            Which-a way, which-a way, does that blood red river run
            From my back window, down to that setting sun.


Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Countries of the Criminal Class

Here is going from one thing to another for you--

If I wanted I could have as many as five computer cases filled with stuff humming at one time, though I use only two monitors, two keyboards, and two mice, thanks to the magic of KVM switches.   Like the rest of my equipment of all kinds, all of those computers have some quirk that makes them temperamental to various degrees, but taken together they work great, and also it means that I never have to worry about having a complete computer breakdown.

That kind of a thing must be part of the rationale behind having harems.   While the idea of five men to one woman is so obscene that it is totally out of the question, the notion of five women to one man sounds rational -- as a thought, not as a practical matter.

That is why it is so unforgivable that right now the Indians in India, just like their Chinese companions in population villainy, have been blotting out before they are even born as many of twenty percent of all those remarkable beings (at least to look at -- their only aspect that I can report on with authority), women from India.   Don't the Indians in India realize that the world needs as many of those creations as it can get, as long as they insist on having too many of everybody?

Their badly mistaken thinking on this matter has something to do with what if those "lost girls" were to be born and get married twenty years later -- dowries, parental greed, and all that kind of garbage -- I forgot what it's all about, except that this preference for scrubby men over glorious women is all the more reason for me to keep India right where, because of its population excesses, it has always been -- on my list of countries of the criminal class.

I've had this list since Nazi Germany in the 2nd World War.  The charter members on the list are Germany, China and India for reasons just mentioned, and the Confederate States of America (except the county where I live, of course), even though the C.S.A. has finally moved its capital out of Richmond, which is just 100 miles down the turnpike from here, to Phoenix, after bypassing Anyplace, Texas (except Austin).   Not only does the C.S.A. absolutely refuse to stop its yearly celebrations of obvious wrongs of the past, but also it keeps right on investing heavily in every new permutation of the same crimes that comes along.

Newer countries on the list are Israel, because, of all people, they should know better, Colombia, because of everything, and . . . .

Who else?

 Oh yes.   Nigeria, because of its population excesses, its con men industry, and its massacres, and Somalia, because of its warlordisms and its massacres, Rwanda, because of its warlordisms and its massacres, the Central African Republic because of its warlordisms and its massacres, Sierra Leone because of its warlordisms and its massacres, Ivory Coast because of its warlordisms and its massacres, Ethiopia because of its warlordisms and its massacres, Sudan because of its warlordisms and its massacres, Mozambique because of its warlordisms and its massacres, Liberia because of its warlordisms and its massacres, Congo because of its warlordisms and its massacres--   How many have I left out?

Well, you get the idea.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Wife's Birthday

Today my wife Esther turned 68.

The only significance that she sees in this seems to be that in just two more years she will be 70.

I told her not to worry.   A lot of truly horrible things happened in my 70th year, both in the U.S. and personally.   Hers will be much better.

Truncation Follies

The BBC News writers are at it yet again.

When I saw their link this morning that read: "Chinese execute hit-and-run killer," I thought, Wow!  The Chinese can really get serious about things!   But then I read the story, and it quickly turned out that it wasn't a hit-and-run case in the ordinary sense of the term.   Usually the driver never gets out of his car and instead just keeps on going.   But in this incident the driver saw the woman whom he had knocked off her bicycle busy writing down his tag number and such, and fearing that she would use that to turn him in, he lost it completely, jumped out of his car, and stabbed her to death.   Only then did he leave, which made it much more of a regular murder.

So hit and run drivers in the U.S. can breathe easier . . .for the time being.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Prediction for Today's Infants

My wife says that she recently read a report predicting that fifty (50) percent of those people born after the year 2000 will probably live to be 100.   That will be a LOT of centenarians still walking around.

If that turns out to be true, then it stands to reason that social security, medicare, and many other things need to be put on a much firmer footing not later but RIGHT NOW!   --Instead of listening to the Teapublicans, who are working as hard as they can to -- in the words of S. Palin and others -- "take the country back," presumably.to where it was when people were doing good to reach age 55.

My Take on Palin's Latest

I get a big kick out of Sarah Palin, though I can't understand how anyone in their right mind could think that she is anywhere close to being a reasonable prospect to lead the country.   Surely their respect for the Presidency must be higher than that!  She skipped too many classes early in her life, being a beauty queen.

All the same, I think she has to be given credit for her enormous entertainment value.  Of all the candidates whose names are kicked around, she is invariably the one most likely to tickle a person's funny bone, at times uncontrollably..

I think I know why that is.   It's in her personality, and specifically in her extreme volubility, and in her absolute determination to put her point forward, whatever it might be, even if so much of the time it makes no sense at all.  Her latest dust-up, about the intent of Paul Revere's ride, is a great illustration.

She was asked, "Who was Paul Revere?"   That is an unusually strange, foreshortened, and -- let's face it -- dumb question, since every American schoolchild through all the generations must know that he was the guy that jumped on his horse when the American Revolution was being born and rode through the countryside, warning the rebels or the patriots, depending on which side you were on, that, "The British are coming, the British are coming!"

I can see how anybody might be taken aback by this weird question, and Sarah Palin was no exception.   But, as is her custom, she didn't dally or sidestep.   You ask her something, she's going to answer it, some kind of a way.   And since she couldn't immediately think of something key about Paul Revere, such as that he was a silversmith, and a masterful one, she fell back on a tactic that I am sure has stood her in good stead since her earliest days in school.   She grabbed a fistful of phrases and words that sounded vaguely applicable out of the ether and, without trying to put them into any logical order, just hurled the whole verbal lump back at the questioner, complete with bells ringing, while saying that he warned the British.    It's called "trying to snow somebody," which fits right in, considering where she lives.
Besides seeing her doing this, it's also entertaining to see the lame defences being thrown up by her and her supporters.   They claim that by his own words Revere admitted that he was warning the British.   But the main writing of his that they cite has him telling some British soldiers who had surrounded him that the Rebels are arming and ready for business, and that he had already been riding for some time through the countryside raising the alarm to the Americans or rebels that the British were coming and to be ready.  In my book that wasn't warning the British for their sake.    Instead it sounded to me like gutsy out and out heckling, or "agitating," as the guys during my youth would have said..

As for arguing that everybody was still British at that time, including the Rebels that Revere was warning, that is like saying that the people who fired on Fort Sumter were just good Americans.  At the time of Revere's ride the sides were being chosen fast, and what those sides were was very clear.


Sunday, June 05, 2011

Unusual Quiet

It's been unusually quiet around here, outside, generally speaking, for the past two days.   At night, too.   The lull before the storm?   But what storm?

Part of it is because right now there are no industrial sounds.   Not the "industrial" as relates to factories, railroads, and the like.  There is a railroad but no factories of any kind for a great many miles around, that I know of.  I meant "industrial" instead in the sense of being industrious.   Nobody seems to be cutting any wood, having any wells dug, running any road equipment, building or repairing houses, or even mowing any hay or grass.   And even the U.S. Navy, from its safe position 200 miles away, hasn't sent its pairs of roaring jet fighters to attack us with their thunderous and sometimes scary, extreme noise pollution lately, which they do at intervals whose lengths are obviously determined by flipping coins, while thinking that the U.S. citizens living here are too few to matter, even though a couple of those citizens -- not anywhere close to a majority but at least a couple -- run up U.S. flags on poles every morning, and you would think that would be enough.

The other part is that the smaller wildlife -- the birds in the daytime and the insects any time -- are not having much to say.

There's probably not much use in even mentioning all this surrounding silence.   The use must be in just noticing it while I can.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Helping the Chinese

According to an article about China's difficulties in communicating with people of other economies because of language, two-thirds of the people in the world are bilingual.   But that's not all.  Unless I have misunderstood the unclear writing in that part of the article, it also suggests that people who can speak three or more languages are more common than those who confine themselves to only one.

If true, this information is absolutely crushing to this definitely monolingual American, and it is no consolation to know that I am far from alone in this glaring deficiency.

After all, I can both read and write till the cows come home.   I can puzzle out the instructions to computer equipment.  And unlike 99.999 percent of all the people in the world, I know the best ways to play the Nimzovich Variation of the Sicilian Defence, a chess opening.   Yet close to three-fourths of the people in the world have with seeming ease learned how to speak more than one language, while I have managed to learn only one.

It's not because I haven't tried.   At various times I have taken what I thought were serious stabs at French, German, and Japanese, but each time I was soon forced to fall back on good ol' warm, comfortable American.   Not English.   American.   The language spoken by people in London and nearby is merely a dialect of American.

Maybe if I had ever had a French, German, or Japanese girl friend, or if I had been cast ashore somewhere in Europe or Asia at the age of five, things would have been very different, but alas, such was not to be, and it wasn't till just now, with this article, that I've let it bother me.

  The moral of the old story about the Tower of Babel is that everybody should speak the same language, isn't it?   And just by chance I was born in the same 20th Century country that a little later fancied itself -- but secretly -- to have become the empire of the world.  What then was the point of having spent all those trillions of dollars to reach such an exalted state if not to have everybody speaking American, which we are assured is a noble, rich, colorful, and living language?   It is the language of -- well, not Chaucer or Shakespeare, and I am glad of that -- but of Mark Twain after all!

Meanwhile, how are we to help the Chinese out of their dilemma?    

I fear that, unless the Chinese are ready to get themselves together for an effort at least as drastic as damming up the  Yellow River, they are already doomed to go down the same road of failure to stay on top for long as the Japanese earlier.

It's all because of the ideograms.

Those things are beautiful and great for the fine and wonderful art of calligraphy, but for communications purposes -- when the Japanese and then the Chinese suddenly discovered to their horror that they were not alone on the planet -- those mysterious little sketches should have long ago gone the way of the hieroglyphics.

"Fat lot of good that did for the Egyptians," someone can argue.   But that's another story.  Their day was already long gone.

For the Chinese today there still might be time, and meanwhile it's simplicity, simpleton!

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Perils of a Bocce Court

A year or two ago, at considerable cost and effort, our longtime neighbor and good friend, G., put in a full-sized bocce court, out on his "party grounds" and close to his horseshoe pits.

Building a full-sized bocce court, especially on a slope however gentle, is no small undertaking.   You are talking about something that eventually resembles a miniature landing strip, about 100 feet long and as much as 14 feet wide, and to take it out of the English realm of lawn bowling, it has to be as smooth and level as possible, covered with something like ground-up oyster shells and no grass.   But after I told G. that it was time that he stopped talking about it and actually got to cracking, he stuck with the project and proudly and admirably finished it in record time.

  Of recent Croatian derivation, as a boy G. had seen his elders in Cleveland regularly playing bocce, and now that he had 50 acres in which he could put a regular court, the horseshoes that a small group of us played regularly for a time had kept putting bocce in his mind.   It would be a good activity for visitors and for parties, especially since bocce balls, though actually not that much lighter, are nevertheless much easier to pitch than are horseshoes, and so women would be able to play on his court as easily as men.

Let me just mention here that at NO time did G. mention small children.   No, not once!

It looks like people around here are into a thing of memorable wedding celebrations, even long before the couple are united in matrimony, and the other day G. and his wife C. held a big pre-wedding lawn party for their younger son, P. who will be marrying a quaint and personable little young lady named R.   It was held for those who might not go to the actual wedding, which won't be held in the humble environs of rural west-central Virginia.   Instead it will be held far off next to the ocean, at Cape Hatteras, in North Carolina, in September (if there isn't a hurricane talking at that moment.   Hurricanes like to bounce off of places like Haiti and Florida and end up in that area.)

This party had a 20' by 40' tent and a four-man catering team who came in there with a huge barbecue wagon and all sorts of edibles that are apparently impossible for regular people to resist, though I find it easy to do so.  And it was the first big party in which G's impressive bocce court was available for use.

I am going to have fun the next time I talk with G., while asking if he noticed, as I think I did, that at no time during the party were any adults observed playing any bocce.   A 60-year older and I were the only ones that I think braved it.   We played a short game against two pre-adolescents, which we won, and then we rushed over to the horseshoe pits, making our escape from those basically berserk larval stages of the human species.

  In G.'s Cleveland and in the Lower East Side in New York, where I tarried for a few weeks in the 1960's, bocce was purely the province of middle-aged and older males who looked like they knew all about the Mafia, and I am sure G. had intended his court to be mainly the province of grownups, not the small children and the young mothers who had exclusive domain over his court through the whole evening.

  My wife saw advantages in that.   I thought, Well maybe, but still....

One pint-sized scourge named M. especially brought attention to himself.   He took huge delight in just standing in one spot and slamming the bocce balls straight down into the court surface as hard as he could.   I asked him why he was doing that.   He said he liked seeing the dents he produced, unappreciative of the pains that  G. had taken in manicuring that surface to make it as smooth as possible.

   I told M., as others already had, that he had better look out for the toes of his bare feet.   But I kind of hoped he would  nip the end of a toe or two.   Children can't expect to escape the results of their idiocies forever.

M., whose adoring mother usually stood near, was also fond of throwing the jack all over the place, and of running ahead to grab up the balls and flinging them back as soon as they had been thrown and before anyone could look at the final positions to see who had won the points.

When R. and I went to pitch horseshoes, M. followed us, and he started grabbing up the shoes as soon as we pitched them,  to "helpfully" return them to us -- heedless of our need to see how we had done.  But finally I accidentally found a way to fix M.s little red wagon.

     I said, "Don't do that.  These shoes are heavy, and if one of them hits you, you will get hurt bad, and your mother will be very angry."

I don't know which part of that he understood, but after considering for a brief moment, M. quickly fled from the scene, and that was the last we saw of him.

Blogger Glitch

I like to write my posts on Blogger, because it saves my posts every minute, and so there's never a danger of losing one -- an unspeakable disaster that is going to happen sooner or later on Wordpad.  But lately, if I take too long writing a post, Blogger has taken to forcing the computer on which I like to write posts to take a "memory dump" -- a blue screen of death (I'm using XP) that freezes the computer so completely that I have to use the on-off switch on the power supply to turn the machine off and then back on.

I can't remember if it does this while I'm using a word processor.  I think it's just during Blogger.

But I can't start writing posts with the time on my mind. That would be too much like playing blitz chess, an activity that I could once do with ease but now has drawn pretty much beyond my abilities.