Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Musings Upon The Winter Solstice

If our bird feeder activity is any indication, we may be in for a humdinger of a winter. We're about to break into the second 50 pound bag of seed at the mountain retreat, where our four feeders have been standing room only since they went up in mid-November. And I'm into my second 25-pound bag at the pied-à-terre, which has a mere two feeders.

* * * * *
The triple-beam halogen light on the front of my mountain bike cuts through the darkness, but only barely. No matter, as I purchased it not so much to find my way as to warn motorists and others not to get in my way. It works. So far.

* * * * *
The great P.D. James, for my money the most artful of the great English mystery writers, penned 14 novels with Adam Dalgleish, a New Scotland Yard chief inspector, as the protagonist. These books are like eating popcorn, yummy snacks in between more serious fare, but alas I am only about 100 pages from the end of A Certain Justice, the last of the series. What then shall I do for literary snacking?

* * * * *
We eat a lot of home-cooked Indian and Japanese and food, some of it from Trader Joe's via our freezer, which has prompted me to give some thought to how our taste buds and brains are wired. Samosas, the Indian appetizer, taste great with various chutneys, our favorites being mint and tamarind. Vegetable gyozas, a Japanese appetizer, taste great with hot mustard and duck sauce. But just try eating a samosa with duck sauce or a gyoza with tamarind chutney. Bleech!

* * * * *
I'm not much on New Year's resolutions, but I am making a winter resolution: To get reacquainted with the zodiac and attendant constellations.

* * * * *
I heated with wood for something like 25 years and there is nothing -- I say nothing -- like padding around the house on a frigid February morning with the stove, crank, crank, cranking away. The aroma of the wood (black walnut in the fall, cherry and oak in the winter and Osage orange on the coldest nights), walls and floors warm to the touch, the heat insinuating itself under the skin, is wonderful in a primal sort of way. That noted, coal heat is a close second, especially with the Pennsylvania anthracite rice coal that we have burned the last three winters at the mountain retreat. Long burning, high heat output and less pollution than other coals.

* * * * *
Speaking of energy, we're ready to go solar early in January once the local electrical inspector signs off. And then, for joy, the Metropolitan Edison electricity meter will start running backwards. Happy New Year!

Cartoon du Jour

Ted Rall/Universal Press Syndicate

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By The Associated Press

Hat tip to Gawker

Monday, December 20, 2010

Yet Another Year Shot To Hell: The Best Of The Worst Of 2010 At Kiko's House

I thought 2008 would be tough to top, but 2009 was made in blogging heaven. And so this blogger approached 2010 with some trepidation. I need not have worried as there was an inexhaustible supply of rich material and practically every day was an adventure in bathos, pathos, mythos and . . . uh, hathos.

Herewith some posts from the past 12 months in which I stuck my neck out. And as events would prove, occasionally got it loped off:

As I write this, the brains of the people around us who are addicted to text messaging -- and there are millions of them -- are slowly but inextricably being rewired. Their ability to focus on the task before them, whether something as mundane as preparing breakfast or something as serious as driving on a busy highway at 65 miles an hour -- is compromised by their compulsion to text. What are we to expect from a generation that is going out into the world wedded to their smart phones, and Face Book, Twitter and email accounts? LINK

If Republican leaders were to be believed, the mid-terms were shaping up to be a watershed election for women, but how did Republican woman candidates actually do? The short answer is poorly overall, and in retrospect, the record number of GOP candidates for high-profile offices and in high-profile races was identity politics at its most blatant. The Republicans are masters of the lowest common denominator, and this simply was a bald-faced effort to out Democrat the Democrats gender-wise. LINK

the morning after the election seemed pretty much what they were the day before: The sun still came up in the East, the San Francisco Giants still were the world champions of baseball, and Christine O'Donnell still didn't have a job. The big takeaway from the election is that despite the sturm und drang of recent weeks, the news media's obsession with the Tea Party, and the self-flagellation of many Democrats, things are pretty much what they were. LINK

BOOK REVIEW: 'HITCH-22: A MEMOIR' (JUST DON'T CALL HIM A CONTRARIAN OR GADFLY (October 25) As literary genres go, biographies of journalists tend to be tedious and autobiographies by journalists even more so. But Christopher Hitchens, as he so often has done over a four-decade career of skewering the high and mighty (Henry Kissinger, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Mother Teresa and God Himself, among others) tries to break the mold with this memoir and largely succeeds in his trenchant and witty way. First and foremost, Hitch 22 debunks the notion that he is a flip-flopper. LINK

WHY THE VAMPIRE ELITE IS A FAR GREATER THREAT TO OUR SECURITY THAN TERRORISTS (October 18)A friend has appropriated the perfect term to describe the people who are sucking the middle class dry from their big corner offices in skyscrapers across America. He calls them the Vampire Elite. They represent a far greater threat to our security than feckless domestic terrorists or even Al Qaeda, yet most Republicans are in their thrall and most Democrats too cowardly to face them down although nothing less than the future of the American Dream is at stake. LINK

American Golden Retrievers are ticking time bombs. An extraordinary six of every 10 Goldens succumb to cancer before living to the once typical 12- to 16-year life expectancy. The mortality rate for other dog breeds, as well as for humans, is three in 10, but try telling that to breeders who are getting rich off of the epidemic. LINK

When someone like David Frum says that the former half-term governor from Alaska is running for president, it's time to clench the old sphincter and take notice. Frum, who was banished from the Republican temple earlier this year because he refused to bend to the purity tests of Palin and other right-wingers, writes that if Palin is indeed the frontrunner for the 2012 nomination, as many pundits have been saying, then "that 1964 feeling is settling upon the GOP."LINK

The great Henry Adams called his schooling "time wasted" and concluded that self-education through life experiences, friendships and reading were ultimately more important. Adams frankly admits that his traditional education (at Harvard, no less) failed to help him come to terms with the rapid changes that America was undergoing during the Second Industrial Revolution, and over a century later colleges still aren't preparing their graduates for the rigors of the real world. LINK

Don't go to war for political rather than national security reasons. . . . Don't start a war based on dubious intelligence. . . . Don't falsely link a war to the 9/11 attacks. . . Listen to your generals even when you don't like what they have to say . . .
Provide enough troops to do the job . . . Don't muddle the rules of engagement . . . LINK

Has there ever been a sustained American war without heroes? The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been hero-free, unless you consider the Bush administration's deceitful attempts to put Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman on pedestals. The short answer would seem to be that both wars have been deeply unpopular, but the real answer lies in the increasingly amorphous nature of the War on Terror. LINK

(July 6) I suppose that it was inevitable in our fractious, snark-heavy society that even a wonderful classic like Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is coming in for criticism as the 50th anniversary of its publication is celebrated, but I for one am royally pissed off -- and detect an element of sour grapes in much of the carping. LINK

When her body was found in October 1964, the apparent victim of a random murder, she was mourned by friends as a beautiful Georgetown socialite who in the years since her divorce from a high-ranking CIA official had blossomed into an abstract painter with an independent streak that included affairs with President Kennedy and other powerful men. LINK

GET UP June 1) So when will the media's fixation with the 1960s end? When the last survivor of that era -- like the last Confederate widow or the last Great War veteran -- passes on. And while I'd like to take a few more trips around the Sun, that will not be a moment too soon. LINK

It is unlikely that anyone in the pantheon of jazz greats has been idolized more and heard and appreciated less than Charlie "Bird" Parker, the mercurial alto saxophone genius and bebop trailblazer. In the end, his remarkable gifts escape easy analysis. They remain immense but inexplicable. And will forever remain that way. LINK

Scientists are hard at work belaboring the obvious: We live longer and lead more productive lives when we're in good relationships, and it's kind of nice scientifically quantifying the benefits of a stable relationship. Oh yes, and that sex thing. But unlocking the mysteries of love is a fool's mission in that scientists will never fully understand what makes us tic. LINK

ME, TA-NEHISI & THE GHOST OF BOBBY LEE (April 15) The Lost Causers allow their forebears no humanity for all of their very real flaws, instead manipulating them to reconcile their sanctimonious present. And although this comparison is not perfect, it works well enough: The Germans have fessed up to their history, the Japanese have denied it, while Lost Causers have simply rewritten it. LINK

IN NURSING (January 6) The moment that the crisis in American nursing went from being worrisome to dire was when hospital administrators stopped considering nurses to be care givers and they became "cost centers." It's not possible to pinpoint exactly when that metamorphosis occurred, but the consequences have been all too apparent. LINK

Best Cartoons du Jour of 2010

(Top to bottom) Matt Davies/Westchester (N.Y.) Journal News; Signe Wilkinson/Philadelphia Daily News; Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate; Ted Rall/Universal Press Syndicate; xxxx; Glenn McCoy/Universal Press Syndicate; Adam Zyglis; Nick Anderson/Houston Chronicle; Tom Toles/The Washington Post; Michael Ramirez/Investors Business Daily

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Glazemoo

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Science Sunday: A Decade Of Discovery

Just when you think that we've run out of new species to discover, along come a slew of them. Among the finds over the past decade are the phaner lemur. More here.
BBC photograph

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Condomnation of Julian Assange

The lazy explanation for Julian Assange's non-WikiLeaks legal woes is that the rape charges against him are arbitrary, trumped up or (my fave) the complaining Swedish women are U.S. government plants.

This is more or less what you would expect from mostly male American commentators in a society that still does not take rape seriously, and an easy way out from under the contradiction with which we are presented: That Assange can be -- and I believe is -- both a heroic figure and a rapist.

While this isn't quite the same as Roman Polanski being a great filmmaker and a rapist, and what Assange is alleged to have done pales in comparison to what we know that Polanski did, there is another common element: A whole lot of people who seem to have fully functioning brains believe that both should go free. (Polanski, of course, is still under indictment in the U.S. but is technically free in Switzerland, where he sought refuge, and presumably other countries, as well.)

Further muddying these waters is that a whole lot of these same people seem to think that not consenting to sex because the guy isn't wearing a condom is no big deal, as is the guy continuing to oomph away when the woman cries out "Stop!" if the condom breaks. Unless, of course, you're the woman.

I happen to be a guy, albeit one with a fairly righteous sense of right and wrong, a beautiful girlfriend and a lovely daughter, as well as a number of friends who were raped by men who didn't understand the meaning of the word "No!"

So while I support Assange's efforts to air out the Augean stables of the U.S. Defense and State departments, that does not color my condomnation of his more intimate behavior.

You do the crime, Julian, then you do the time.

Cartoon du Jour

Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate

Don Van Vliet (1941-2010)


Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Wink

Friday, December 17, 2010

107 Years Of The Thrill Of Flying

I guess some of us guys never lose our boyish enthusiasm for all things having to do with flying. In my case this begins with my being read the story of Icarus as a youngster, reading everything I could find on the first Wright Brothers flight 107 years ago today to flitting around in helicopters over rice paddies in a godforsaken Southeast Asian jungle to an emergency landing in an Air Force transport with multiple engine failures on the desolate rock known as Iwo Jima and onward and upward to the present. Whew! Never mind that the act flying -- as in getting through an airport and being shoe-horned into the seat of a passenger jet -- long ago lost its luster.

Beyond that first Wright Brothers biplane, there have been many other notable aircraft, but it might be tough to beat the faster ever.

Cartoon du Jour

Scott Santis/Chicago Tribune

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

More here.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Tostitos Shmostitos: Why Bowl Games Make A Mockery Of College Football

Nihja White dives for end zone in Delaware's quarter-final win
I'lll take the excitement and unpredictability of college football over pro ball any day, and the roof of a domed stadium hasn't collapsed at a college venue since forever. But this year's Bowl Championship Series, based not on post-season playoff performance but the vagaries of computer rankings and the stink of big bucks, yet again makes a mockery of the sport.

But then, one level down, there is the Championship Football Subdivision, the NCAA football division for medium-sized colleges like perennial powers Delaware (which is my alma mater), Appalachian State, Villanova, Georgia Southern and Montana.

Unlike the Bowl Championship Series, the FCS holds post-season playoffs that culminate in a true national championship game, whereas the BCS is beholden to the major bowls, which select teams based on those somewhat arbitrary computer selections and do not culminate in a true national championship.

Sure, Auburn will meet Oregon at the Tostitos Bowl on January 10 in what is being called the BCS National Championship, but neither team earned their way to Phoenix the old-fashioned way -- by a process of post-season elimination as in every other NCAA sport and NCAA football at all other levels.

A consequence of money and not true grit talking is that many bowl games have idiotic matchups. An extraordinary 12 teams that don't even have winning records are playing in bowls this year, while Boise State has been relegated to a third-rate bowl sponsored by an automobile muffler installation chain by virtue of a single missed field goal.

* * * * *
If you're still reading at this point, you may notice a geographic disparity with the Football Championship Series subdivision that does not exist in Bowl Championship Series subdivision: Other than Montana, the FCS powerhouses are all Eastern schools.

Wait, there's more.

Since the first FCS national championship game in 1978, schools in the Eastern time zone have won 23 times, Central (3), Mountain (5) and Pacific (nada). And including this coming weekend's semi-final games, over the last 10 years Eastern teams have been in the field 26 times, Central (8), Mountain (5) and Pacific (1, by virtual of Eastern Washington qualifying this year).

One explanation would seem to be that there are many more schools on the East Coast, as well as the hands down best FCS conference, the Colonial Athletic Conference, which has fielded four of the last seven national champions and was the runner up twice. Yet it cannot be that simple since there are 66 Eastern teams and 47 Central teams, but Eastern teams have overwhelmingly dominated.

What, if any, other factors come into play to make the best of the FCS so geographically lopsided season in and season out?

An obvious one is that
the overall density of high school football players is an overwhelming advantage for Eastern schools, while there are huge swaths of empty space in the Central, Mountain and Western regions. It is therefore harder to travel and recruit, and talent is spread much more thinly.

Yet as a knowledgeable fan friend notes, many kids outside the East grow up breathing, eating, and sleeping football, while back East much of the talent is late blooming and is relatively undeveloped.

* * * * *
This weekend's FCS semi-finals matchups: Villanova vs. Eastern Washington (8pm EST Friday on ESPN2 and Georgia Southern vs. Delaware (Noon EST Saturday on ESPNU.)

Photograph by William Bretzger for The Associated Press

Cartoon du Jour

Tom Toles/Universal Press Syndicate

Buy My Book Online. At A Discount

AbeBooks.com, one of the U.S.'s largest online booksellers, is now offering The Bottom of The Fox: A True Story of Love, Devotion & Cold-Blooded Murder, at a discount. A plot synopsis:
Eddie Joubert’s midlife crisis arrived right on schedule. The former truck driver and Teamsters Union organizer fell hard for the Poconos, a resort area in Pennsylvania where he bought a rundown tavern that became a magnet for an eclectic clientele that ranged from world-class jazz musicians to bikers to returning Vietnam War veterans.

But the Poconos held a dark secret. When Joubert was hacked to death, it was yet another in a series of unsolved murders and puzzling deaths involving hippies, gays and other people whom the authorities cared little about. This is because they were considered to be lowlifes.

The Bottom of the Fox
lays bare that secret for the first time in detailing the astonishing level of violence in an area known for resorts and verdant woodlands while revealing how evil doers could literally get away with murder.

Elaine Kauffman (1929-2010)


Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Norbert Maier

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Homage To A Diplomat

The death this week of Richard Holbrooke is a timely reminder that old-fashioned diplomacy still has an important role in this era of WikiLeaks, brinksmanship and global food fights.

That was easy to forget during the Bush interregnum, an era characterized by a bellicosity in foreign affairs that further diminished the role of Condoleezza Rice, a lightweight who parlayed her undistinguished tenure as a national security advisor who by her own admission was more concerned about Moscow than Al Qaeda in the run-up to 9/11 into four years as a nearly invisible secretary of state and toady for Vice President Cheney.

President Obama's foreign policy successes have been few, but it is not for a lack of trying, and credit for that goes first to Rice's successor, Hillary Clinton, and then to Holbrooke, whose iron fist- kid glove form of negotiating was legendary.

While it seems unlikely that the 69-year-old Holbrooke's current mission as Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan would bear significant fruit given the historic intractability of the political and social forces in that region, the Dayton Peace Accords brokered by him in 1995 are perhaps the signal diplomatic triumph of the last quarter century.

Photograph by Reuters

Cartoon du Jour

Tom Toles/Universal Press Syndicate

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

(Meiji Temple courtyard -- Tokyo, 1951)
Photograph by Walter Bischof/Magnum Photos

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Australia's Unlikely New Son Of The Soil

Our Australian friend Barbara was sad about leaving the U.S. today after a visit of several months, but was looking forward to flying into the eye of the Julian Assange Storm back home Down Under.

Australians have an outsized affection for outlaws, not surprising when you consider that the country was founded in 1788 largely on the backs of convicts transported from England. Some 160,000 convicts in all settled there over the next century, and it is a point of pride among many Aussies to say they have convict blood in their family tree.

I'll leave to you to decide whether Assange, a native of Queensland in northeast Australia, is an outlaw. I myself think absolutely not, but the roughshod way he has been treated by an embarrassed U.S. government has raised the hackles of Aussies from the prime minister on down, and he is being compared favorably to notorious Aussie outlaw Ned Kelly.

Kelly, born in 1855, was the bushranger son of an Irish convict, considered in life to be a cold-blooded killer but in death and the intervening decades to be a folk hero and symbol of Irish-Australian resistance against oppression by the British ruling class, for his defiance of the colonial authorities.

Kelly was dressed in home-made plate metal armor and a helmet for his final violent confrontation with police after a two-year dragnet, portrayed by none other than Mick Jagger in Ned Kelly, a truly awful 1970 movie, took place in June 1880. He was hanged for murder murder at Old Melbourne Gaol in November 1880.

Swaraaj Chauhan, The Moderate Voice's international columnist, notes that Assange is considered a son of the soil. And that from Aussies' vantage point halfway around the world, the U.S.'s treatment of him is an outrage. No, make that a bloody outrage.

IMAGE: "The Trial (of Ned Kelly)" by Sidney Nolan

Cartoon du Jour

Signe Wilkinson/Philadelphia Daily News

Buy My Book Online. At A Discount

AbeBooks.com, one of the U.S.'s largest online booksellers, is now offering The Bottom of The Fox: A True Story of Love, Devotion & Cold-Blooded Murder, at a discount. A plot synopsis:
Eddie Joubert’s midlife crisis arrived right on schedule. The former truck driver and Teamsters Union organizer fell hard for the Poconos, a resort area in Pennsylvania where he bought a rundown tavern that became a magnet for an eclectic clientele that ranged from world-class jazz musicians to bikers to returning Vietnam War veterans.

But the Poconos held a dark secret. When Joubert was hacked to death, it was yet another in a series of unsolved murders and puzzling deaths involving hippies, gays and other people whom the authorities cared little about. This is because they were considered to be lowlifes.

The Bottom of the Fox
lays bare that secret for the first time in detailing the astonishing level of violence in an area known for resorts and verdant woodlands while revealing how evil doers could literally get away with murder.