Monday, August 31, 2009

A Linguistic Pet Peeve

I know "appreciative" is a perfectly acceptable word. I know it's in the dictionary and such.

I hate it with a passion. And I don't know why. It's just one of those irrational hates we all have.

I never use the word. And it's painful to my ears. I'd rather say things like, "I'm grateful," than to have that multisyllabic abomination come out of my mouth. If ever a word were the poster child for Mark Twain's admonition: "If you see an adjective, kill it," appreciative would be the word.

FEMA Learning A Lesson?

A few days ago, my wife and I were discussing, among other things, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, commenting on how the reaction to the disaster and the rebuilding afterward contrasted markedly with similar reactions to hurricanes in such states as South Carolina and Florida. Now, it's true that our memories may be tained by time, but it seemed to us that after the hurricanes in South Carolina and Florida, there was some media attention, but it kind of just drifted off because -- this is our assumption -- people there were able to get on with their lives, get rebuilding, and get their lives back in order.

Not so in New Orleans. We're still hearing about this disaster four years on. I don't think it's because the amount of destruction was unprecedented -- though the same area did get smacked by Hurricane Rita that same year. I think it has to do with the expectations of those in the disaster areas. New Orleanais -- and this, too, may be a generalization -- seemed to be waiting for someone else to come in and fix things up, while those in other states didn't wait. They were survivors, not victims.

Now FEMA wants people to respond in that same way -- avoiding being victims, and concentrating on survival.

Amanda Ripley has a short piece on Craig Fugate, the new FEMA director, in the Atlantic. This is a particularly illuminating passage:
“We need to change behavior in this country,” he told about 400 emergency-management instructors at a conference in June, lambasting the “government-centric” approach to disasters. He learned a perverse lesson in Florida: the more the federal government does in routine emergencies, the greater the odds of catastrophic failure in a big disaster. “It’s like a Chinese finger trap,” he told me last spring, as a hailstorm fittingly raged outside his office. If the feds do more, the public, along with state and local officials, do less. They come to expect ice and water in 24 hours and full reimbursement for sodden carpets. But as part of a federal system, FEMA is designed to defer to state and local officials. If another Katrina hits, and the locals are overwhelmed, a full-strength federal response will inevitably take time. People who need help the most—the elderly, the disabled, and the poor—may not get it fast enough.
This is nothing new to our way of thinking. We have a fairly good disaster plan at home. We have food and water stored, along with wood for fuel. We also have a small camper well-stocked with propane we could use for cooking and even refrigeration. We lack a plan for storing automobile fuel, but that's a difficult commodity for anyone to store, but I could do better in keeping the 5-gallon can we use for the mower filled up, and I could buy a few extra cans and keep rotating that fuel through. More importantly, we're prepared to help each other. Though we weren't here at the time, Sugar City suffered a catastrophic flood in 1976 when the Teton Dam broke. (The photo included with this post shows Sugar City underwater.) Citiens here and in surrounding communities proved they could take care of themselves adequately enough without even state help, let alone waiting for FEMA to arrive. That's the way to go, to my way of thinking. It's good to hear FEMA now thinking along those same lines.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Nickel and Dim(med)

I'm having a hard time deciding what to write about Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. One the one hand, it is definitely good to see a journalist actually applying some of the rhetoric that gets thrown around the newsroom, in that she actually tried to survive on poverty wages, rather than accepting tainted, conventional wisdom on the subject, taken from left or right. On the other hand, this book practically drips with condescension towards those in the jobs she takes on (Wal-Mart sales clerk, waitress, heinemakkefrau) and bends more toward pity than empathy. What's certain is that this is a book everybody should read, and that ought to be read especially by those on the right who want to abolish social welfare and by those on the left who believe throwing more bureaucracy at the problem of poverty in America is going to fix everything.

The condescension comes particularly when Ehrenreich goes undercover working at a Wal-Mart in suburbian Minneapolis (and starts off by showing that she has no idea what the real definition of "Minnesota Nice" means). She derides the personality "survey" she takes as part of the application process, in which she imagines the company is searching for sheep:
You might expect a bit of grumbling, some signs of unrest -- graffiti on the horatory posters in the break room, muffled guffwas during our associate meetings -- but I can detect none of that. Maybe this is what you get when you weed out all the rebels with drug tests and personality "surveys" -- a uniformly servile and denatured workforce, content to dream of the distant day when they'll be vested in the company's profit-sharing plan. They even join in the "Wal-Mart cheer" when required to do so at meetings, I'm told by the evening fitting room lady, thought I am fortunate enough never to witness this final abasement.

But if it's hard work to think "out of the box," it may be almost impossible to think out of the Big Box. Wal-Mart, when you're in it, is total -- a closed system, a world unto itself.
Ehrenreich may have indeed penetrated the world of the working poor, but she demonstrates the typical journalistic and, frankly, liberal weakness in thinking that a few weeks' immersion in the society, looking through lenses more attuned to what she expects to find (sheeple, servile morons clinging to religion) she fails to understand what's really going on. She seems to think a few idle conversations with the people she works with entitles her to fill their heads with all sorts of thoughts that may or may not be their own.

Also comical is Ehrenreich's belief that, with a few rabble-rousing comments she made, which were reciprocated by a handful of her co-workers at Wal-Mart, that she could have led a revolt that would have brought one of Minneapolis' Wal-Marts to its knees. She concedes that unions in of themselves aren't a cure-all and invite a certain amount of corruption into the mix, but it is amusing to see in her what I see in myself: Delusions of grandeur when what is more appropriate are delusions of accuracy.

I'm not saying I have a perfect understanding of this world, but I'm tempted to believe I understand a few things better than she does. In 2005-06, I spent just over a year in this world, working telemarketing jobs in the afternoon and evenings and a retail job in the mornings. I didn't meet sheeple unwilling to question what was going on, but very intelligent people recognizing that, yeah, they're not in the best position of their lives at the moment, but things will get better. They're not frozen where they are. I certainly wasn't, though I felt some times that I was.

The working poor certainly exist in this nation. I was one of them, for a year. I survived and got out of it, supporting a wife and three kids all the while. So read Ehrenreich's book, but don't take it as gospel.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Grammar Nazi Remains Unphased


Grammar Nazi here. Yeah, it's been a while. Don't assume that means I haven't encountered any egregious errors; it just means I've been busy.

Today's topic is another phonetic train wreck a lot of folks get into: The difference between phased and fazed. More people get mixed up on the differences between these two words than you'd think.

Phased is the past tense of the verb to phase, which means "to schedule or order so as to be available when or as needed," or, alternately, "to put in phase," according to the American Heritage Dictionary. The word has its root in the Greek phasis, which means appearance.

Fazed is the past tense of the verb to faze, which means "to cause to be disturbed or disconcerted," and is a synonym of to daunt or to fluster. The word is an American invention, popping up in common circulation in the early 1820s.

It's almost comical how many times I see people write phased when they mean fazed. Sometimes it goes the other way, but more often than not, it's that someone is trying to phase someone out -- and it's clear in context they mean fazed. All of it just makes me want to put my "fazers" on stun. And remember, I'm a Grammar Nazi, not a bricklayer.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Something Odd in Chester

Rocky Barker over at the Idaho Statesman has a provocative article in Thursday's paper in which Boise-based American Ecology questions whether a grassroots group based in Chester, Idaho, is really a front for a rival low-level nuclear waste disposal company, EnergySolutions, based in Salt Lake City. (The Salt Lake Tribune runs a similar story here.) Barker's story is superior, but that's to be expected as he's long written about environmental issues in the state.

Given that there are denials from the group's founder, former Utah developer Steven Loosli -- whose family has long had roots in the Chester area -- and a no-nevermind denial from EnergySolutions, it's clear that the question of grassroots group or shill won't be settled any time soon. And that's just as well. There are enough odd little tics throughout the situation that will keep the speculators speculating, and for good reason.

Of course neither Loosli nor EnergySolutions are going to outright say, yup, American Ecology's got us bang to rights. Both Loosli and EnergySolutions deny any connection between the group and the company. But there's something about Citizens for a Clean Idaho's specificity in how they want to keep Idaho clean that just seems a little odd.

Basically put, Citizens for a Clean Idaho doesn't like that Westinghouse is considering moving low-level nuclear waste -- mostly slightly contaminated soil -- from a Missouri reactor site to the Idaho landfill near Grand View (near Mountain Home). They claim that since American Ecology's site isn't licensed with the Nuclear Regulatory Committee, that the waste shouldn't be shipped to Idaho.

That's fine in and of itself. But what seems odd is that to stretch from Chester to Grand View, Citizens for a Clean Idaho have to leap over the Idaho National Laboratory, home of the United States' nuclear navy, its nuclear energy research lab, and a high-level nuclear waste respository that's currently being cleaned up. The group also apparently has no quibble with French company Areva's plans to build a $3 billion uranium processing facility west of Idaho Falls, producing a lot more waste that Westinghouse wants to send to Grand View.

The group says on its website that they don't oppose the nuclear industry:
We believe that a strong, regulated nuclear industry in the U.S. (and Idaho) provides competitive, security, and economic benefits to the country. We do believe, though, that the regulations and guidelines imposed by the NRC need to be followed to the letter to ensure the public health, safety, and welfare of American citizens.
Barker gets some interesting comments from the Snake River Alliance, a group which has long been a nuclear watchdog in the state. They, too, think Citizens for a Clean Idaho's concentration on the Grand View site, while overlooking the INL and Areva's pending arrival, is odd. Now, if this group wants to concentrate on Grand View and Grand View only, that's fine. It just sounds odd to me, that's all.

Shut up, Rex

Rex Rammell just won't shut up.

Yesterday, of course, Obama tags. Today, a non-apology that makes him continue to look like, well, a moron.

You can read the whole story here. Suffice it to say, Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo asked Rammell to apologize for his comments and for the perception it makes, presumably of Idaho because folks like Rex will never apologize for the perception others get of them, and Rex replies thusly:
Anyone who understands the law knows I was just joking, because Idaho has no jurisdiction to issue hunting tags in Washington D.C.
What, Rex? What?

You know, President Obama was in Yellowstone National Park a week ago, right? That's next door. What if he had come to Idaho? What would your statement mean then, Rex?

Understanding that you were just joking has nothing to do with the law, Rex. Your statement makes no sense. Understanding that you're a clod who enjoys the taste of your own feet doesn't require the law, either.

I tried to give Rex a piece of my mind through his website, but his "Contact Me" link brings up an error message: "We're sorry this page is currently overloaded. Please try back later." Gee, I wonder why.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Idaho's Joe Biden

If Rex Rammell wants to go down in history as Mr. Political Gaffe, he's doing a fine job. If he wants to be Idaho's next governor, well, he's going to have to try harder than this.

Jared Hopkins, writing for the Twin Falls Times-News, reports that Rammell jokingly agreed with a heckler that he's buy an "Obama tag" during a discussion on the sale of wolf hunting tags in Twin Falls. Hopkins reports:
Rammell's remarks on Otter came in an interview Wednesday after the Times-News asked about comments Rammell made Tuesday night at a local Republican party event.

After an audience member shouted a question about "Obama tags" during a discussion on wolves, Rammell responded, "The Obama tags? We'd buy some of those."

Rammell, a veterinarian and former elk rancher from Idaho Falls, said his comment was a joke and he would never seriously talk about President Obama that way, although he doesn't support anything Obama's done as president.

"I was just being sarcastic. That was just a joke," Rammell said. "I would never support him being assassinated."

"She kind of caught me off guard, to be honest with you."
Caught you off guard, sir? That may well be. But I'd rather that my governor be able to think to avoid making such a gaffe, rather than simply blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. But I'm glad you did, because it adds yet more fuel to the fire that'll keep you out of Boise in 2010.

Rammell was busy criticizing current Idaho Gov. Butch Otter for now following through on a promise to buy the first wolf hunting tag when they went on sale Monday. According to Hopkins:
On Monday, Otter attended in Lewiston and spoke at the funeral of Bruce Sweeney, 10-term state legislator who served while Otter was lieutenant governor. When told this, Rammell said, "That's a lame excuse."
You're the lame excuse, Rex. Shut that mouth up and stop grabbing at any stupid little straw you think will earn you votes. Or keep grabbing at them and lose votes. Idaho will be better off without you as governor.

And as for the idiot who brought up the "Obama tag" in the first place, shame on you. That's not political opinion. That's stupidity.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Van for Sale


The good news is that the actual van -- on sale now for $4,000, OBO -- isn't actually as blurry as this photo. And we just washed it, so all the bugs we accumulated on the bumper while driving in Montana last weekend are now, euphemistically put, "Rexburg's problem," because they've gone down the storm drain and are on their way to Rexburg's wastewater treatment plant.

So, yes, the van is for sale. 129,000 miles. It runs well and looks good. No egregious stains inside, nor dents outside, though if you look at the license plate carefully, you'll see where it took a good hit from a bit of a two-by-four that flew out of the back of a truck we were following on I-15 a few years ago. Still glad it didn't come through the windshield.

As a bonus, you get FREE almost all of the Kid Debris under the back seat, including the following:

Random candy wrappers
French fries
Tiny doll shoes
Matchbox car
Half-sucked hard candy
Lego bits (these will be surrendered to the current owner upon sale)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Don't Forget the First Commandment

Teh Internets r mad at U.
The first commandment of writing is this:

Know Thy Audience.

Where some writers fail in obeying this commandment is acknowledging that, truth be told, the commandment simply cannot be obeyed if the writer decides his or her audience is a static one.

Take my blog, for example. I have no idea who reads this stuff. I have a general sense, thanks to services like Clustrmaps and SiteMeter, of what they come to read, but as for knowing who they are and precisely why they read the stuff I write, I haven’t a clue. So I make up an audience. Mostly, they’re like me, Internet surfers seeking entertainment, solace, information. They may visit my site for a second or two after some Google search and decide, rightly most of the time, that what I write isn’t what they’re looking for. That’s because generally I write for myself, for self-satisfaction, self-edification, selfishness. Take it or leave it, I subliminally say to those who come here. Most leave it. And I’m fine with that. If I focused my writing more, I’m sure I would find a core audience growing around the things I produce. But that’s not the object of this blog. I know my audience. It’s an audience of less than a dozen regulars. I think, for the most part, I treat them fairly well.

Other projects are more focused. The Cokesbury Party Blog, for example, is targeted toward those familiar with the works of Sinclair Lewis, or who have an interest in commentary on the Cokesbury Party Book. Again, a narrow audience. An infinitely small audience, according to my numbers.

At Uncharted, we’re broader: We’re looking for those who go on adventures and want to share them with others, all the while reading and viewing what others have done. We may be reaching that audience. We may not be. With the Internet, it’s not always easy to tell because, in a sense, Internet users are just like newspaper readers: You never hear from them unless you screw something up.

Cintra Wilson, a New York Times fashion columnist, found that out this month after she wrote a snarky column about JC Penney’s debut in Manhattan and got everybody and their auntie stirred up.

Her column is here. It is, on the surface, rude. It is, taken in context with Wilson’s other columns for the New York Times, par for the course. She’s a lively writer not too terribly shy in expressing herself. She has a definite voice that many other writers would sacrifice Smurfs to attain. But the comments her JC Penney column incited from irritable folks all across the Internet – and the Internet is, as Wilson, not terribly shy in making its opinions felt – show that she broke the first commandment of writing, or at least its Internet-age corollary:

On the Internet, you can’t control who your audience is.

The NYT’s response to the bleepstorm surrounding her column doesn’t offer much help or solace to the writer seeking to attain his or her voice. In a piece written by Clark Hoyt on Aug. 22, NYT’s Executive Editor Bill Keller offers this advice:

The key, I guess, is to imagine that you are writing for an audience with a broad range of views and experiences, and to write with respect for them.

That is, on the surface, great advice. Until you try to apply it. Whose experiences and views do you choose, among this audience with a broad spectrum of them? The broader one attempts to write, the more quiet the voice becomes. Wilson might have avoided the JC Penney bleepstorm by writing broadly, but at the expense of her style.

Keller offers better advice further on in Hoyt’s piece:

Dismissing a point of view “with a contemptuous sneer is not only bad manners, it’s bad journalism.”
Boy do I know that feeling. Back in my newspaper column-writing days, I incited the wrath and truncheons of a segment of my audience by suggesting Mormon fast and testimony meetings would be better if, in Vaudevillian style, those whose testimonies went on too long or crossed bounds for weepage, self-righteousness and other offenses were dragged from the podium with a big hook. I, as a Mormon, thought it was funny. My non-Mormon editors saw no trouble with it. It was printed.

Ka-boom.

It’s been at least seven years since that column was printed. Four years since I left journalism completely. And I still hear people talking about that “moron at the paper who doesn’t understand what testimony meeting is all about.”

So, to use a cliché, I feel Wilson’s pain.

Hoyt reports this:

[Wilson] said it was “kind of provincial of me” not to realize how big The Times was and how her audience would expand when she reviewed a store like Penney’s She said she also thought she hit a raw nerve with people already disposed to think of The Times as disconnected and unsympathetic. “It was dumb on my part not to see this coming,” she said.

You and me both, sister. That little column I wrote and thought was so funny didn’t do much to help the image of my paper, already perceived as disconnected and unsympathetic to the majority LDS population in its service area.

Does that mean I wouldn’t write what I wrote again? No. Would I understand if a paper decided not to publish it, relegating it instead to the relative obscurity of Mr. Fweem’s Blog? You bet your boots I would. But that doesn’t mean I’d like it. But it would mean that, like Wilson, I’m growing to understand the power of the first commandment of writing.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Alice in Wonderland

Since I started work her at the RWMC three years ago, the back door to our building -- which leads to a building used by another contractor -- has been closed. Nary the two shall meet seemed to be the way things worked around here. Until last week. Since last week the door has stood open, like a portal into another dimension, beckoning us with the unknown.

Every time I go back to the water cooler or copy machine, I feel like Alice on the portal of Wonderland. Who knows what adventures and strange characters lie just beyond that tempting, open door? But like trained monkeys, none of us -- at least to my knowledge -- have wandered through that door into the netherworld beyond where, it is rumored, there are bathrooms for our use that lie much closer to our little cubicle farm than the bathrooms next door. But no one dares break the sarcosanct barrier that for so long lay there, but now lies broken.

I may be the first. I may do it today. But it won't be a long excursion. A brief one or two steps into the unknown beyond, hoping against hope that I don't trigger some unheard alarm and thus incite the wrath of hired goons in big black boots. If this is the last you hear from me, you'll know what happened.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Photos from the Weekend


Thing about Montana's Virginia City -- Ya gotta look at the textures as well as the buildings.


And the Signs. Signs are Good.


Then There's Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park. Yeah, so it was hot. And humid. Excuuuuuuse me.


We appear to be in the land of melted ice cream . . .

Friday, August 21, 2009

Favorite Comix: B.C.


I'll admit that when B.C. creator Johnny Hart died on April 7, 2007, I wrote the strip off.

I assumed, of course, that Hart had come to a Clarles M. Schulz/Peanuts agreement with his syndicate, wherein when he died, the strip would die with him. But it did not. An usurper took the pen and carried B.C. on after Hart's death.

In protest, I stopped reading the strip.

Now I'm reconsidering. And not only because Mason Mastroianni, the strip's current writer and artist, is one of Hart's grandsons. Primarily, I've come back to the strip because Mastroianni has worked hard to recapture his grandfather's quirky sense of humor and how to integrate it with his characters.

Once again, I have to blame my brother Jeff for getting me hooked on B.C. He had many of the books, and because they were there to be read, I read them. I really, really wanted B.C.'s buddies to believe him that clams had legs. I really wanted to know how the dookey bird and the turtle came to be friends. And I really wanted to know why Thor sticks with his inventions, even though he's not yet perfected the wheel. And thanks to Mastroianni -- and my re-examination of the strip after Hart's death -- I can continue to seek answers to those questions.

One of the questions I might ask is why did this come about:



While it's fun to see Hart's characters come to life on the screen, I have to wonder why the animators and writers let Ralph Bakshi inspire them so much. I like Wizards as much as the next guy, but trying to put those kinds of characterizations into Hart's characters is a bit dificult to swallow.

Who Are You? Anonymity on the Internet

So, how anonymous are you on the Internet?

I'll admit my level of anonymity depends on the portal -- and my lack of consistency in deciding how private I choose to be.

This blog, for example. My name doesn't appear here. But my photo does. And I talk enough about my family that it's pretty easy to pick me out of a crowd. On Facebook, there are no pretenses of anonymity. My name and photo are there, so everyone knows who I am.

And I'm fine with that. That I'm not anonymous on the Internet doesn't bother me. I don't avoid expressing my opinion, but at the same time I'm not opinionated on everything. I rarely blog or write about work, for example, because of the somewhat sensitive nature of the work I'm involved in. It's not exactly secret, but at the same time I'm also not the company spokesman. So I keep what I write about work to a minimum.

I've done some reading on the Internet this week about anonymity that makes me wonder why people think anonymity is such a wonderful thing. Lance Ulanoff, for example, writing at PCmag.com, declared this week that the time for Web anonymity is over. Ulanoff sees the distinct advantages of anonymity -- with the prevalence of identity theft, it's the wise person who keeps as many details as possible out of the public view. He points out, however, the darker side of Web anonymity:
But there are, as far as I'm concerned, too many people who use online anonymity as a license to say and do things they'd never do in the real world.
There's where anonymity crosses the ugly line from protection of self from illegal use of one's identity to the presupposition that anonymity offers us the opportunity to be rude, crass, loud, vulgar, insulting, demeaning and otherwise obnoxious without facing consequences because, hey, nobody know who we are. That's the dark side of anonymity, and, like Ulanoff, I think there's way too much of it. And he nails it on the head why:
It's less likely that people will feel comfortable hiding behind the moniker "fancyman34" as they post mean-spirited comments on blogs or on sites like YouTube and Digg. Have you ever read any of those comments? They can be incredibly cruel and profane. Imagine someone walking up to you on the street and talking to you that way, or a co-worker venting like that in the office. Public discourse doesn't work like this (though, sadly, I'm beginning to see some of it bleed over into everyday life—it isn't pretty).
That's what I object to -- people get away with being rude and vile in an anonymous situation and before you know it, they're doing it in public. I don't want to live in the kind of world that allows insult and invective to be the start and end of public discourse.

There's more. John D. Sutter writes at CNN.com about bloggers and other Internet writers actually losing their jobs over what they write online. Sutter, however, misses one vital point: He doesn't really say why the focus individual in his story lost her job because of her writings. Nevertheless, this is one of the reasons I'm cautious about what I choose to write on the Internet. I took advantage, of course, of 2 1/2 years of masters classes to post some of the things I've written in those classes, to hopefully show potential employers that I can be a serious person. Of course, these postings are interspersed with things like my last post, the Sesame Street Martians. I offer them up as a balance. I am a human being, after all. Above all, on the occasions where I do write about work, I do so thinking that what I write online isn't anything I wouldn't tell a boss or co-worker, so there's no real surprises.

Especially the surprise of finding people read what I write. I won't end up like Sutter's star:

She doesn't like the idea of being in the public eye. She describes herself as shy and said part of the reason she wanted to remain anonymous was so she wouldn't draw attention to herself. She also feels like her larger-than-life persona has been somewhat deflated now that readers know who she is.

She doesn't want to draw attention to herself, yet she's got a very popular blog where she's milking her anonymous fame? Well, you can't have one without the other, even on the Internet.

I like the idea of people knowing who I am, for good and bad. If I write stomething stupid, people can and have called me on the carpet for it. I didn't go through ten years of journalism to carry on with my writing anonymously. If I write something good, I want credit for it. So there we are.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

BBBRRRRRRRRIIINNNNNNNGNGG!

When we do have first contact with aliens from another planet, I hope they're like these guys.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Greed

It's probably becasue I don't get around much, but I've only seen one depiction of greed that I thought was funny, and that's the one from The Addams Family, in which Gomez Addams shows the impostor Fester how to get to the money vault by pulling on the book titled "Greed" on the bookshelf.

Then there's the other kind of greed, the greed that is just nasty, heartless, shameful and yet shameless, as epitomized in Barbarians at the Gate, a wonderful non-fiction book by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar. In the book they paint a picture of egos and cash chasing after RJR Nabisco, a conglomerate that makes everything from cigarettes to Oreo cookies. I found the book at a library sale over the weekend, and feel like the dollar I spent buying it was well spent (Sorry to the authors; but I rarely buy new books these days. In fact, it's been at least ten years since I last bought a new one). The story was so captivating I had to read it midstream, interruping my reading of Max Hastings' Nemesis, which si good, but just not as compelling.

So what makes Barbarians so compelling? It's the perspective. Over the weekend, we got a little perspective ourselves. We're looking for a new vehicle, one to replace our van but one that has the towing capacity to haul our camper. So we went to the local Toyota dealership and started looking at SUVs. Bad idea. Though they have what we want, their prices are just insance -- out of our price range, to the tune of $30,000 to $35,000. It all made the deal my father-in-law offered us on his Honda Pilot, at a mere $14,000, look a lot better, so we're going that route again.This ties in with Barbarians because with the amounts of money involved in competing attempts to buy RJR Nabisco, there is no perspective. Billions of dollars flying through the air, pushed there by men and companies poised to make millions in fees. And little of the money they're playing with is their own.

Soak this in a bit:
There were, Finn admitted, some unique problems to be ironed out. For one thing, deferring $3.5 billion in taxes -- a conservative scenario -- was unprecedented. According to Finn's calculations, this single transaction would boost the annual federal budget deficit by 2 percent. If first Boston proposed it, RJR Nabisco's board would almost certainly have to take into account the political fallout. "It's clear," Finn said, "that Washington would go apeshit."
No kidding. But as Theodore Forstmann, senior partner in Forstmann Little & Co., one of the firms that vied to buy RJR Nabisco in 1988, said, "It's like Alice inWonderland. The reason Kravis can pay these incredible sums is that his money isn't real. It's phony. It's funny money. It's wampum." Of course, Forstmann is talking here of the junk bonds of the 1980s, but in my perspective, when you're playing with billions of dollars, it is all funny money and wampum; such amounts have no basis in reality because none of us can imagine spending that much money on something, not even skee-ball.

That's the perspective I gained from the book. Anybody who plays with insane amounts of money -- whether they're corporate raiders or the federal government -- has lot perspective on what they're actually doing, or spending. It's all funny money or wampum. A billion here or three billion there is meaningless when you're dealing in hundreds of billions, or trillions. If a little leaks out along the way, it doesn't matter, because there's always more wampum where that comes from. So spend, friend, spend.
I'm sure, unfortunately, that the greed depicted in Barbarians is eclipsed by what's gone on in the past few years, from Enron to the mortgage meltdown. I'm grateful that we have fine writers like Burrough and Helyar to chronicle these kinds of things. but it's a truism in the business world, especially in New York, that the kinds of shenanigans displayed in this book are cheered on by the business press and the business world in general, unless the deals go sour and people don't make money. Everyone wants to be their friends (even their enemies) until the accusations start.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Uncharted at the Bar J


I'm in awe of those who can use a Dutch oven for things other than burning food. I've had a little success using such ovens -- I can make a mean stew and, this summer, at my wife's insistence, we made our first Dutch oven peach cobbler. But making something like biscuits in such an oven, without them ending up like charcoal, is a feat to be seen. So it goes without saying that one of my favorite things to do at Wilson, Wyoming's Bar-J Wranglers ranch, is to eat the biscuits they make in their Dutch ovens.

We're long-time fans of the Bar-J, their dinner show and chuckwagon cooking. If you've never visited their ranch, you've got to, next time you're in Yellowstone Country. Until then, read our Uncharted story on their enterprise here. Have fun. Just watch out for Granny.




Monday, August 17, 2009

BGO

In a study that brings us yet another Blinding Glimpse of the Obvious, an American research firm brings us the startling revelation that bout 40 percent of the messages sent on Twitter are "pointless babble."

The BBC has a story on the study here. The company, Pear Analytics, has posted its whitepaper here.

It's unfortunate that Pear doesn't provide examples of the kinds of Tweets they categorize -- especially in the context of "pointless babble." What is pointless to one, I've discovered, is meaningful to another, so to write off 40 percent of all tweets as pointless seems pointless in of itself. They ofer one example of a pointless tweet, "I'm eating a sandwich," but in the eight months I've been on Twitter, I've received only one such tweet, so it's not a good example. (I should note it was a turd tweet, someone talking about a bathroom visit. He was quickly expunged from the list of individuals I follow.)

This should come as no surprise: Mathew Robson makes an appearance in this report. You remember Mr. Robson, the 15-year-old Morgan Stanley Europe intern who got everyone aflutter over his ramblings on how teens us technology (I blogged about it here). Apparently it's an amazing find of Robson's that teens in general don't use Twitter because it costs too much. That's an odd thing to say about a free service, but apparently he was all worried about the cost of sending a tweet from a smartphone -- at a cost of texting, I suppose. I guess it's only us old folks who use desktop or laptop computers for such stuff.

Anyway, this report comes as no surprise to me. I'm fairly sure my 1,000-odd tweets contribute a fair amont to the "pointless babble" Pear identifies. Not that I mind. As I said earlier, one person's babble is another person's treasure. Which, I suppose, is why the Robson and Pear reports are getting people so wound up in the first place.

What Reform?

With President Obama now backing away from the "public" option of providing health insurance through the federal government, I have to ask the question: Can the bill proposed, and as tweaked by the Senate, even be called health care reform?

No. Because in my opinion, it couldn't be called reform beforehand, either.

I've had a few discussions with a few people about this, and, other disagreements aside, the one principal point that we agree on is that this bill and its iterations are not reform at all -- the bills merely represent an extension of existing government benefits to more than ahve been elibible for them before.

That's not solving the problem; that's extending a nice white picket fence further around the bullpen when you really need barbed wire to keep the bulls from getting out.

We need a plan that controls costs, not one that throws more money at what are already outrageous costs for health care. How that would be done, though, that's the trouble. I don't think government subsidies are the answer -- because they certainly don't work from the private point of view, either. Private health insurance isn't anything more than a subsidy that we pay for. We pay a certain amount and get discounted (or free) services, if we toss enough money into the pot. But the costs are the same, no matter if it's us paying a private ensurer or the government subsidizing everything in sight.

So what's the solution? How do we make costs go down? I don't know. I know doctors and other health professionals pay a lot for their education. I know they have their own bills to pay. But there's got to be some give-and-take, some wiggle room in there somewhere, where costs can be cut and the savings passed on to those who need the services.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Car Shopping, So Help Us All

Because we are gluttons for punishment, we went car shopping today. I'd like to say we briefly went car shopping today, but that's an impossibility in this day and age. We went to one dealership and were there nearly three hours.

Isaac, however, was enchanted. He's our five-year-old auto maven, who wants to know the make and model of every vehicle we pass. He's especially captivated by two vehicles in particular: Chevy's Avalanche (pictured here) and Cadillac's Escalade. Yes, in his own odd, entertaining little way, Isaac loves monstrous SUVs. So it was to his extreme delight that we test drove an Avalanche today. When we got it back to the lot, the salesman told us it was sold to the previous couple. No loss. It handled like a pig and felt like it was made by Fisher-Price, not Chevy.

So we left wihtout a new vehicle, a fact that really confused Lexie, our seven-ear-old. She doesn't yet understand the concept of leaving a place of business without buying something.

We left, of course, because we couldn't find a vehicle that met our expectations -- room for the family and enough power to pull the camper but at a price we can afford. Getting that blend of qualifications may be difficult. Which is why we're now looking at a Honda Pilot. One in particular, this one owned by Michelle's Dad. He wants a new vehicle and offered to sell us his Pilot earlier this year, but we demurred. Now that we've actually seen car prices, the deal is looking better. One problem: It's not blue. Both of our current vehicles are blue, and of the four vehicles I've owned in my life, all were some shade of blue, though the Oldsmobile barely qualifies due to its home-spun tiger-striped paintjob. Oddly enough, I miss that car. It was ugly but had a heart.

So we're back to square one. We have to sell the van first. So I'll have to put it in the paper this week. Whee.

Woodstock: The Rot is 40 Years Old Now

Ah yes, Woodstock.

Forty years old this year, and, frankly, showing its age. I have to wonder where these people and their Partridge Family bus are now. Well, the bus, it's easy to imagine, has long since gone out to pasture and is either peacefully rusting away in some wrecking yard or has been recycled and, if there is any justice in the world, its metal is now part of a stealth bomber or an aircraft carrier.

And the dog. Well, being what dogs are, I"m sure it was very happy to be where it was when this photo was taken. I'm with my Human! Outside! With lots of other Humans! And it REALLY STINKS HERE! Wow!

But the people? I don't know. I just do know that this is the generation that's leading us now. And they're so damned self-important we get things like the Iraq war and health care reform that's really not reform at all, but a swapping of one quickly-emptying moneypot for another. I know that's a cynical view. I'm sure there are many of my generation just as capable of producing and consuming crap at the same levels of previous generations. But to look back on the crapfest that was Woodstock, with the same misty nostaligia we're seeing for the members of the Manson Family as of late, is sickening.

The media panders to this, of course. I know. I used to be a media. THey love anniversaries such as this. Especially any anniverary where they can dredge up eividence that they were once part of an original generation. Look at us! their stories scream. We thought this up FIRST! We were the generation that brought rock music to the masses, where people could run around in the nuddy and wallow in squalor and listen to JIMI HENDRIX and smoke pot and do all the really cool stuff that our parents warned us about. We were the original rebels! We showed you young whippersnappers how to do everything decadent.

Now get off my lawn.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Firewood and Chickens

Saw two things that reminded me of Dad today: Firewood and chickens.

Firewood, which Dad called firewoot in his Dutch accent. And chickens, which we always had in the backyard, wandering, pecking, crowing, pooping.

I'm unfortunate enough to get my firewood in a rather conventional way -- I drive fifteen miles form home to a business that makes log homes and load up on their garbage, for which I pay $15 a cord. As a kid, I and my younger brother used to go with Dad and sometimes Albert, our older brother, to the woods in Island Park to get firewood, chainsaws, huge trucks to load and all. Dad cut the firewood and drove the truck. Randy and I were the loaders, and never loaded it high enough for Dad. I understand now. Even when I go to the log home place, I hate leaving without a full load, which we had to do today because we had to get home for Isaac's birthday party.

Going to and from Island Park used to take forever. I remember especially on the way home how the time would drag, and how disappointed I was when we crossed the Snake River and I thought it was Rigby Lake, which was closer to home. I remember eating sandwiches at lunch up there, upset because the peanut butter and honey was mixed a bit with sap from my hands. And the precious water jug.

We got cords and cords of wood, filling the woodshed to the rafters. And we'd burn most of it through the winter. Nowadays I probably end up with three or four cords, and it lasts us, mostly, though last year it almost didn't.

And then there are the chickens. In the old woodshed is a patch of concrete that, freshly laid, the chickens trod on, leaving their gooney footprints in the rock. They were odd, the chickens. We kept them for eggs. Dad wanted to cook a few, but we had them for a long time and they were tough old birds. So they ate our leftovers. They especially loved boiled potatoes and to pick at chicken carcasses -- we had cannibals in the backyard. Weird. We saw a few chickens at the Madison COunty Fair today, so that's why they came to mind.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

1982: Some Good TV

Because I have that kind of time on my hands, I got to watch today a few blasts from the 1982 past.

First, Police Squad! by messrs. Abrahams, Zucker, and Zucker. I vaguely remember the show, but as I was only ten years old when it came out, it wasn't sufficiently on my television radar to capture my interest. I do remember, however, that my older brothers and sisters rather liked it, so I was present in the room (shag carpeting, paneling, fake plastic bulls on the walls; we were stuck in the 1970s) when it was aired. It's interesting to see how entertaining the jokes are even in "censored" television form -- ZAZ really dirtied up the director's cut of Airplane! the movie that started it all.

Best joke from the show:

Suspect: Who are you? And how did you get in here?

Drebin: I am a locksmith. And I am a locksmith.



The other blast, Remington Steele. The show was soooo cool when I was a kid. I mean, they had car phones and everything. Didn't matter that they had DIALS on their car phones, that they were as large as suitcases and such. They had CAR PHONES. Also, when Remington Steele was taking his stealthy pix of the delivery guy, he he actually had to DEVELOP THE FILM himself. No digital camera for him. So wonderfully anachronistic.

Note I said I enjoyed the shows. Not cultish about either one in any way. They're fun to watch, yes, but there's no obsession here. It's just too bad, however, that Police Squad! didn't fare as well as it did. I'd like to see someone try to do it again. And still keep it clean.

The Goode Family: Just NOT Good Enough



Maybe this little clip from ABC's The Goode Family was a little prescient. This Mike Judge cartoon, lampooning the smugger sides of America, is being cancelled. Which is a pity, because Gerald and Helen Goode were growing on me. Not that I helped them at all. I pretty much watched what I could of the show on YouTube, so my fannery doesn't show up in the small (at its height, the show barely attracted 3 million viewers) ratings the show got. So ABC is pulling the plug.

I don't know why more people didn't like the show. While it does poke fun at the left-leaners in the nation, there's enough That's-Me-In-The-Mirror moments in the show to make everybody laugh at themselves. I especially liked the constant one-upmanship between Helen and her rival Margot, seeing who could out-Liberal each other. (Best moment: After Helen's long-time pen pal Mikinkin from Myanmar shows up to stay with the Goodes, Helen brags to Margot that she's hosting a refugee. Margot steams: How did she get a refugee before I did? I'm on a list!)

I feel like Judge and company struck enough similar chords between The Goode Family and their other, more popular project, King of the Hill, to get enough crossover appeal. But perhaps the KOTH appeal was more character than the satire, and if that's so, that's too bad.

I Got Fungus!

There's an old Carol Burnett show skit wherein Tim Conway is playing his old man to Harvey Korman's snooty actor. Tim gets Harvey's toupee stuck on his hand, stares at it and hollers, in his old man voice, "I got fungus!" That's how we felt last night.

Our raspberry patch, which has produced a fairly good crop this year, suddenly has fungus. Michelle started noticing the patches of white dust and fuzz on the leaves and berries earlier this week, and last night when we sprayed the fungicide, it was all over the place. Yes, we sprayed fungicide, all the while with me recalling episodes from Berton Roueche's "Annals of Medicine" of people who got deathly ill from having fungicides and other chemicals leach through their skin. But I'm feeling much better now.

We hope we've got the fungus wiped out, but only time will tell. It's a worry because right next to the raspberries we've got an apple tree -- well, it's the neighbor's tree, but he lets us pick the apples -- and our tomatoes, which might actually produce a crop this year. We don't want the fungus spreading.

By the way, I cursed a lot of mosquitoes last night. They kept flying INTO MY EARS to bite me in the ear canal, as if they were hungry for excess wax. Stupid little things.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

How About Ya Quit Makin' Things Up

http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-august-10-2009/healther-skelter

Thanks, Jon. I needed that.

And I needed this, too:

http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-august-10-2009/healther-skelter---obama-death-panel-debate

I, too, would like to see Obama put a spell on white people and favor a health plan that scares the public the most.

Obamacare: Let the Reading Begin Now

Despair.

That's the general feeling that comes to mind when I look at how the debate -- if the rancor and spitting and screaming and navel-gazing going on can be called ebate -- over health care in the United States is going.

All I know is this: The last two times I went to the doctor, I felt ripped off.

A few years ago, I had a mole removed. Technically, I called it a birthmark, since I'd had it for as long as I could remember. It had changed shape slightly, though. Slightly. To be cautious, I had it removed. Cost us $116, after what insurance would pay.

The time before that, I went in to get a prescription renewed for allergy medication (something I'll never do again). I sat in the waiting room for 30 minutes, in an examination room for another 10 minutes, had a doctor take my blood pressure and write out the prescription. All that cost $55. Plus whatever it was I had to spend on the medicine.

So I've been lucky. No huge bills.

Even having three kids hasn't been all that bad. For each, we ended up paying about $3,000 in hospital bills when they were born, plus the regular checkups and such. but no major traumas.

So we've been lucky.

I look at my mother, who has various medical conditions. She had a pacemaker put in a few years ago. Medicaid paid for virtually all of it. That's a government health care program that works, as far as I'm concerned, and I don't mind paying for a portion of it through my payroll taxes.

So why couldn't that work for me and mine?

Is it a government handout? Hardly. I'd pay for government-sponsored health care through my payroll taxes. Talk about a heck of a group discount. I already pay for private health insurance, and let me tell you how well that's worked out for us: For the first two years, we had a flat rate for a so-so policy. After the two years were up, they wanted to increase our premiums by nearly doubling them. How many claims had we had in those two years? None. Absolutely non. But because "the price of health care is going up," they wanted more money. We said no. We made our agent look for a less-expensive policy, that's actually a little better than what we had. If the government were to get involved and offer options, I'd study those as well, but I wouldn't feel forced to take them just because they came from Uncle Sam. Free market rules would apply -- if the feds offered plans worse than a private provider, guess what? I'd go with a private provider.

What I'd rather see is price controls. Yeah, call it socialism, communism or whatever you want. But price controls worked during World War II to curb inflationary prices, and it could work in health care today. To this day I still do not know why I had to pay my doctor $55 for a prescription and a blood-pressure taking. Or why thirty seconds in the doctors office to snip a mole off cost us $116, after what our insurance paid.

But before that's going to happen, we need to discuss what's going on. I haven't ready Obama's health care bill; I'm just like many in government who have not read this 1,000-page document. But I'm not going to cherry-pick things -- like this "euthanasia counseling" that the fringe nutters have latched onto -- to derail the conversation. I want to know what it means. So I'm going to start reading it. I'll let you know what I think as I go along.

Update 1: Yes, I will definitely be reading the bill and offering my inexpert opinions here. Any appeal to the Internet for a summary of the bill either brings up right-wing spittle or left-wing righteous indignation.

Update 2: One of the criticims I've read about this plan from the right is that it allows "government access" of individual checking or savings accounts for premium payment. Why is this such a bugaboo? I already let a private insurer automatically withdraw premiums from an account we have set up specifically for that bill. They don't get to see what we have in our other accounts. Plus, my employer automatically deposits my paycheck in our bank, after taking out federal and state taxes. Why is this such a scary thing?

Update 3: Another criticism I don't understand is that some out there figure we ought to install a Darwinian program in which those who are a burden on society (mentally ill, crippled, et cetera) ought not to be insured at all, since they're not "contributing" members of society. This from the same faction that criticises abortion because of the killing of fetuses. So protect them until they're born, and then if they're born crippled or handicapped or whatever, pull the plug? That's a plotline from Lois Lowry's The Giver, not one for public health care. Jesus Christ didn't limit his miracle-making to those who weren't crippled or possessed of all their senses of mental faculties. Opposite thinking is definetely un-Christian.

Update 4: The text of what I'm reading, by the way, is available from the Government Printing Office here.

Update 5: I'm a tenth of the way through. On page 113, the guidelines for families who would receive government help in paying for healthcare surfaces. If I understand this correctly, if a family makes less than 400 percent of the federal poverty line for their size of family, they qualify for subsidized health care. So going by these guidelines, a family of five (my family) would have to make more than $103,000 a year to be disqualified for government assistance. So my family qualifies, if this passes. But here's the wrinkle: If I have an employer that offers a health insurance plan that qualifies as an "acceptable" plan under these guidelines, I don't get the subsidy. The subsidy only applies to individuals who meet the guidelines and who work for an employer that does not offer health insurance. Again, this is all if I understand what I'm reading correctly.

I'm also unclear what happens if a family of my size and income opts to go for the public option. Does the subsidy kick in, or do we not get it because we chose the public option instead of the employer-offered/private option?

Update 6: They need to follow their own advice. Earlier on, they say that if this plan is enacted, they'll be required to use "everyday langugae" to explain it to people. They need to be doing that now. That's how they're losing the battle, and how the smug left and spittle-emitting right are losing.

Update 7: Are the spittle-emitters reading the same bill I am? One of their criticisms is that this public option is going to be open to everybody including (gasp!) illegal immigrants. However, on page 143 of the bill, undocumented individuals are forbidden from receiving subsidized government healthcare under this plan.

Update 8: Page 144, so if an employer offers health insurance but the employee opts for the public option, the employer still has to pay a portion of the costs, just as they would if the employee took the private option. No problems there.

Update 9: Found this, for those who want to be pro-active in controlling their own health care costs: Healthcare Blue Book, a site that lets you search geographically for average prices on any kind of surgical procedure or doctor's care you'd care to find. Use this as a bargaining chip with those you seek care from, I suppose.

Update 10: They are taxing the rich stuff. Make over $350,000 a year and you'll be taxed an additional 1 percent on your gross income; the rates range up to 5.4 percent for those with a gross income of over $1 million. Take that, Jon Stewart . . .

Update 11: I'm foundering. I'm 337 pages in and I wish I could find reference so the "death Panel" the spittle-emitters are all on about so I could apply to that and stop reading. This summary, done by the Associated Press and posted on the American Association of Retired People, reasonably sums up what I've read so far. But counting on $200 billion in penalties from employers who don't offer insurance or employees who don't take it sounds iffy to me.

I think I have a question answered, though. Sounds like a family my size would get health care subsidies, whether I opted for a public or private plan. That helps expalin why the cost estimates for the plan are $1.5 trillion over ten years.

Update 12: I know part of what would help thie situation is if Americans in general would make more common-sense approaches to health care. I know quite a few people who will take their family members to the emergency room at the drop of a hat, or who make poor choices in purchasing medicl necessities. We get our birth control, by the way, from Mexico, where the pills cost about a third less than they do in the states (my wife's parents visit Mexico on a regular basis, so they just bring the stuff back for us). I'm also off of the prescription sinus medication and have actually tried an alternative medicine trick this summer to combat the allergies: Rather than taking Claritin or a generic equivalent, I've been taking a mixture of lemon juice, lemon oil and peppermint oil, about two ounces of the stuff a day. Seems to be working as well as the OTC stuff I was taking, and I avoid the side-effects of numb fingers and occasional dizziness.

Update 13: An interesting quote, first of all, from Robert Laszewski at the Health Care Blog:

Affordability – [in Obama's plan] affordability is more about shifting the
cost of insurance to the government then it is making a more efficient U.S.
health care system. Health insurance is more affordable for people because he
spends many billions of dollars subsidizing access for everyone.

I've got a problem with that. Why can't we focus on reining in costs, rather than throwing money from different pots into the system? I know there are a lot of people out there who would flip out about price controls, but that seems to be a significant root to the problem, along with the apochryphal $5 hospital bandage or the $60 hospital aspirin.

Update 14: I admit I'm doing a lot of skimming. They really needed a Simple Language Filter for this before they put it out. But I understand it has to be all legal-like, like the Grogans' bill of sale for Petey. But still, it's a bit ridiculous.

Update 15: Here's Time magazine's take on healthcare exchanges. Sounds both good and bad. And, at the onset, exclusionary. I know the hybrid public/private approach is a safe political bet, setting the spittle-emitters aside, but it sure looks to be messy. I still go back to lucky Update 13. We need cost control above anything else.

Update 16: 2:58 pm. Will have to finish reading later. It's very verbose. And obtuse.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Two Weeks

Kids go back to school in two weeks, and I think they're looking forward to it.

A few milestones: Liam leaves the elementary school for the intermediate school, which means nothing outside our little school district. Isaac also enters kindergarten, and, hopefully, doesn't drive his teacher crazy in the first week. He's such a busy little kid.

The intermediate school is an entire TWO BLOCKS further from home, which is causing a little anxiety. I think the curse is taken off it by the fact he can walk through the elementary school playing fields to get to the intermediate school, but we'll see if that holds true.

One question I do have for the school district: You're starting the school year on a Thursday. A Thursday? Oh well.

So this weekend, one last fling. Not sure where we'll go, or if we'll go at all. I do know that with school starting, fall and winter won't be far behind, and I'm way behind in getting the wood we'll need to feed the wood stove all winter. If this winter is anything like the last two, we'll need all the wood we can get, as they started early, brought lots of snow and left late. I'm technically not sure I'm ready for winter, even without the scanty woodpile making me nervous. The older I get, the less prepared I feel for winter.

Speaking of prepared, Michelle talked me into another project last weekend -- converting the kids' fort into an enclosed playhouse, in an attempt to keep the bugs out. I don't know how well that will succeed, but I'll sure give it a try.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

He Writes the Songs, I Take Care of the Blog Posts

Ordinarily, I try not to mix this blog with the Cokebury Party Blog, but I've just written a post over there that I'm insanely proud of. It may be the first ever successful integration of a staid Easter Party with Mr. I Write the Songs himself, Barry Manilow.

I've had Barry on my mind since yesterday when I heard Copacabana on the radio and was bitterly disappointed when the song was immediately followed up with by a tire commercial. In my mind, the only way to follow up Copacabana on the radio is to immediately play Copacabana again. (The second playing, fortunately for those who don't like Barry, negates the playing of the song for a third time, because even rabid Manilow fans should learn moderation.) Anyway, you may read the aforementioned blog entry here. Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Corianton

Of the people I read about in the scriptures, one of the few I'd really enjoy meeting is Corianton, the son of Alma the Younger. We know quite a bit about the mission of Jesus Christ, the atonment, God's mercy and the purpose of life on Earth through the messages Alma sends to his son, but beneath it all we know that Corianton is getting these messages because, well, he's human. He has weaknesses any of us could have. He has his spectrum of sins and doubts spread over several chapters of Alma for all of us to read -- I can't say I'd want a part of my life to be in canon scripture.

But he's humble. Teachable. He repents of what he did wrong and goes on with his brothers preaching the gospel, bringing people to Christ. And that's a good thing. More fundamentally, he realizes that it's through his own choices that he's able to find permanent happiness, not the intemperate happiness that comes through the "pleasures" life on Earth offers.

I'd like to meet him, to talk with him about how he felt as we was beign instructed, and how he handled himself afterward. I believe he's a good man. I believe he's a man like me who has done things wrong, and has found forgiveness through repentance.

I also believe that Alma's lessons to his son are proof of what we're admonished to do in 1 Corinthains 13 -- Alma epitomizes charity, rebuking with love, and showing that as he speaks with the tongue of men and of angels, he has charity and is not as sounding brass nor a tinkling cymbal.

Anyway, that's my soapbox for today. Thanks for shopping with us.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Poor Twitter

So, Twitter saw its first major denial of service attack. Don't most websites regard that as a rite of passage, perhaps a signal that they've "made it," as Dorothy Gish might say.

Lillian and Dorothy Gish. "And, uh! True story. . ."

I read somewhere -- CNN, I think -- that some Twitter users felt "naked" without being able to Tweet. Pardon me, but that seems a bit pathetic.

I was once like that, though. About a month ago, I was a heavy Tweeter. But then my iPod Touch went through a full cycle in the clothes washer and stopped working. For a week, I felt pretty odd, not having that little instant gratification device in my hands whenever I wanted it. But as the week went on, and I visited Twitter less, and used computers less because I couldn't pull it out when I was on the bus or in the bathroom, I realized that I missed the thing less. I still feel badly that the iPod went through the wash, but I realize now that I don't really need one. I've got a desktop and a laptop, and that suffices.

And it does mean I spend less time on Twitter. And that's a good thing. I've read more books since the iPod went under than I did in the months I had it. And it's been at least 24 hours since I Tweeted. Don't miss it.

Oh Boy! Road Trip!


Eroded Rocks Sporting Pines in the Snake River Canyon

I have an affinity for the stretch of U.S. Highway 89 between Alpine and Jackson, Wyoming.

A long time ago, I remember riding with my family along that road, squeezed between the river and the hills the river snaked through. I don't remember if we were on our way to Yellowstone National Park or going home, but I do remember staring at the river far below, staring up at the trees clinging to the hills and listening to the chatter in the van as we tooled long with winding road. It's not a long trip -- less than 100 miles -- but it remains one of my favorite road trips ever.

Then there's this story:

My brother Albert is a bricklayer. I put myself through school working summers -- and some winters -- alongside him, most of the time as a hod carrier, occasionally as an apprentice bricklayer or rock layer myself. On this particular occasion, we were enroute from our homes in Idaho Falls to Jackson, where we were working on a house. It's one of those houses built by a real fusspot, which I understand; he was paying enough for the land, the house, and the work, nearly a million dollars, as I recall. The foundation, for instance, had to be built twice because the architect noticed it was off by a few degrees -- which was going to spoil the framing effect he hoped to achieve with the living room's big windows.

Anyway, we were enroute to Jackson, early in the morning. Albert was driving his white Chevy cream puff pickup. I was sleeping. It was winter, and the roads were slick. We were in the Snake River Canyon, headed north. Suddenly, through my sleep, I felt the truck slipping. I woke up to look down into the canyon as the truck was skidding towards the guardrail as Albert was trying to steer it the other way.

"Veer left!" I shouted, channeling Vizzini from William Goldman's The Princess Bride. "Veer left!" Albert finally got traction and we avoided going for a frosty swim.

I still love the road. Driving on it last weekend from Jackson to Alpine, we practically had it to ourselves. Most people touring the national parks to the north never go further south than Jackson as they visit, and they miss a lot. I love the eroded canyon walls where the copper-colored water bubbles and flows below. I love looking at the mountains, covered in pine trees from base to peaks. And I love turning west at Alpine and heading into Idaho, skirting the northern shore of the Palisades Reservoir, a 20-mile-long lake with arms and nooks and crannies flung north and south as the water fills the flooded valley.

The water is the deepest blue, embraced by the velvet green of the hills bearing pine trees to the water's edge. It's the kind of place I love to take people who tell me eastern Idaho is ugly. If it is, it's their fault; they never get off the interstates. Such hihgways are great for getting you from place to place, but they don't always take you through the prettiest places.

And then there's places like The Angus in Swan Valley, Idaho, a place certainly you'd never see if you're stuck on the divided highway. We wanted a good place to eat -- and you can't find such places in Jackson. We've tried. If you like coffee, they've got you covered. But the food there is, well, not to be desired.

The Angus was different. From the outside, it doesn't look like much: A very worn building that used to be a drive-in. We took two booths on the building's west end, feeling a little isolated form the rest of the diners -- but that was on purpose, as our kids were a little tired of being in the van and were ready to be a little loud.

I'll admit I wasn't holding out for good food -- this was just another greasy spoon, after all. But they surprised us. First, my Dorothy burger. Beef with ham, cheddar and Swiss Cheese, served with crisp French fries. Then my daughter's chicken strips. These were not cafeteria strips. They were huge. SHe couldn't eat them all, so we shared them out. Definitely worth the stop.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

It's Over

It's official. I got a 96% in my final class, so, for now, I am done with graduate education and can add the MS to my list of accomplishments.

Pardon me while I go squat in the corner and go bbbbbbbbb with my lips.

Dancing, Dancing, Dancing


The rumbling thunderstorm and rushing breeze mix their sounds with those of Main Street.

Main Street noises, though, are not the swoosh of cars, the occasional click of a bicycle wheel, the regular shuffling stamp of pedestrian feet. From around the corner of the brick-fronted jewelry store, in the center of the street, emerges a woman carrying the black-on-white, yin with yang flag of South Korea. Behind her, pushed as if they were leaves on the growing breeze, a knot of reedy dancers clad in pink and aquamarine silken clothing, ruffled by the breeze, buffeted, as it seems, by the tloing! tloing! doing! crash! zloing bloing! of the drums and cymbals carried by the similarly-clad band, some of whom growl away on recorders, adding the drill and trill to the cacophony of clashes, accompanied by the swirling dancers, the rumble of thunder and the rush of the wind.

This is the Idaho International Folk Dance and Music Festival, in full swing for its twenty-fourth year. The festival has its roots at Ricks College, a private school – now Brigham Young University-Idaho – in Rexburg. In 1983, a team of folk dancers from the school attended a dance festival in Europe and decided to stage such an event at home. Partnered with the Rexburg Chamber of Commerce, organizers brought the first folk dance festival to town in 1986. You can read more about the festival's history here if you like.

During the festival, Rexburg is gently taken over by the dancers, musicians and their entourages. It’s common to run into them at Kmart or Wal-Mart, shopping with the local families who host them – providing room, board and companionship – during the festival. During the festival week it’s as common to hear German or Mandarin Chinese being spoken frequently, loudly and punctuated with laughter as the dancers eat burgers at McDonalds or ice cream at the Dairy Queen. This is how you know it’s festival time.

It’s a great event. Go read about it at Uncharted by clicking here. And thanks.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Bear Pix


Finally, after 37 years, I have decent bear pictures. I'm very excited to share them. They'll also be going up at Uncharted soon.



Good ol' Lisa the Bear. Read more about "her" here.

Wha?

Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakira has written an odd, nonsensical column urging – or maybe warning about – Americans lurching back into spending mode to ease the worldwide recession. I’ve read it several times and still can’t fathom what he’s talking about.

He seems concerned that Americans will emerge from this recession riddled with debt. He also seems concerned that other countries – he mentions Germany and China – seem to be idling, waiting for Americans to spend again to get the world economy moving. And then he goes on about the savings rates, lambasting the government for “a series of government policies and programs [that] subsidized debt and expenditure and did nothing to reward savings.”

The most nonsensical thing he writes is this:

The biggest of these, of course, is the tax deductibility of mortgage interest, which costs the country almost $100 billion every year. Please don't tell me it creates an ownership society. Margaret Thatcher eliminated a similar program in Britain, and Canada doesn't have one either—and both have the same home-owner-ship rates as America. The policy does not encourage home-owner-ship; it encourages the accumulation of debt.

On the planet I’m from, this home mortgage interest deduction is a no-nevermind. Yes, I pay mortgage interest. So does everyone else with a mortgage. But I’ve not once been able to deduct it, because my itemized deductions never exceeds that of the standard deduction. I can’t believe I’m alone in this. It makes no difference to me if that interest is deductible or not. Maybe it does to others. But he just kind of inserts this paragraph into the column, without really explaining why. Does he want the tax deduction eliminated so that federal government can get more money through taxation? Does he think eliminating the deduction will encourage more frugality among Americans, or that the absence of such a deduction would have encouraged Americans to buy smaller homes? I don’t know. And I’m not sure he does, either, because he doesn’t really say.

He also seems to advocate a national sales tax, citing that as another “incentive” Americans have – over others in other countries, I suppose – to spend. He misses the boat here entirely, because in some countries that have national sales taxes, there are no such things as regional or state sales taxes, which most states in the US have. So once again is he lamenting that there’s tax money out there that’s not being fed to the Federal government? I don’t know. And he doesn’t really say. Do we need a national sales tax? I’d have to have a good reason to say yes. Health care? Sure. But having a tax merely to remove an incentive to spend seems a silly reason and surely wouldn’t stem the government’s need to spend whatever it takes in, plus some. I hope that’s not what he’s talking about.

In the end, he seems convinced that once somebody in the media makes the announcement: “The recession is over!” we’re all going to lurch back into our overspending habits. That may well be. But he’s got to figure out that there are people, like us, who didn’t overspend to begin with, who are scratching our heads over the whole mess.

For instance, my wife and I have been laughing over this “Cash for Clunkers” program which rewards those who bought gas-guzzling vehicles but doesn’t really help people like us who may actually have clunkers they’d like to trade in for a better-operating vehicle but don’t qualify for the program, so we’ll continue driving our cars into the ground while those whose cars work but get poor gas mileage can get new vehicles. Not that we want a new vehicle – but it’s just that with these government programs, they always start out with the aim of helping a certain group, and they miss every time.

Do we get government help? Sure. Show me anyone in the country who doesn't have their hand in the pie somehow and I'll show you a rotten liar. We get reduced school lunch prices for our kids. We get tax breaks because of our kids. All sorts of goodies come our way because of our kids.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Larsen Repair Again Hits A Home Run

I feel like explaining, once again, why we insist on taking our vehicles to Larsen Repair in Iona to get work done on them.

You've read here earlier about the brake trouble we had on our Toyota pickup over the weekend, and our interactions with yet another Rexburg-area auto repair shop. To recap: They had the truck in their shop for two hours and "Couldn't find anything wrong," but wanted to charge us $400 for new brake pads, turning of the rotors and other ancillary repairs, on top of the $88 they were already charging us for the time spent "diagnosing" the problem.

We demurred, and took the truck -- which was drivable, but evidently only just -- the 26 miles to Iona. Kevin -- in an act of derring-do the others evidently didn't try since they could not "find" the problem -- actually drove the truck around and, for a while, couldn't find the problem either. Then as he was pulling the truck back onto their lot, the brakes locked. He quickly jacked the truck up where it was and found that the master cylinder -- a part the other mechanics didn't mention in their promises of exploratory surgery -- was faulty. We'll get a new one put in tomorrow, for about $200.

So, on the one hand, we had a mechanic who wanted to charge us nearly $500 to guess at the problem. On the other, we had a mechanic who actually drove the truck around until the problem duplicated itself and can fix it for $200. Is it any wonder we keep going back? Oh, and the brake pads and rotors the Rexburg guys wanted to replace and turn, respectively? Kevin says they're just fine.

Kevin and Greg keep singlehandedly repairing the reputation of mechanics everywhere, and we're now 0 for 3 in Rexburg-area mechanics. That's not a good average.

One Fact I Am Proud Of

One fact I am proud of:

BA, 4 years in college, student loan debt of $1,500, paid off in the first year after graduation.

MS, 2 1/2 years, no debt at all.

I worked hard for this education, doing everything from technical writing, which I'm doing now, to working in a cefeteria, replacing windshields, bricklaying, stocking shelves at Target and, help me, taking customer service calls for Qwest.

Bears!

Blogger's Note: Photos coming soon.

Because the kids were disappointed we weren’t able to go swimming, we took them to Jenny Lake instead. Best part of the trip was seeing the bear. After we let the kids wade in the lake for a while, we decided to go walking up the trail that loops around the lake on the east side. We’d walked for maybe a quarter of a mile and some other hikers said there was a bear on the trail ahead. That immediately stopped the kids in their tracks; Lexie especially didn’t want to go anywhere near the bear. So Michelle took them back down the path to a little beach while I walked on ahead with the camera to get a picture of the bear.

And, as you’re walking through a rather silent forest, populated with trees and big bear-shaped rocks and on a little narrow trail that offers no hope of escape, you get to imagining things. I started whistling a lot, and looked for a big stick to grab. Nothing. Then, ahead, I saw three people stopped on the trail, pointing off into the brush. I knew what they were doing. I walked up, and, yes, there was the bear, grubbing about in the underbrush looking for bark or berries or deceased hikers to eat. The people there – man, wife and daughter – were very excited. Dad said to me a bit sheepishly, “They’ve named the bear, by the way. It’s Lisa.” So we watched Lisa the Bear move around, ignoring us, as it went on eating. I took about a billion pictures, hoping at least one would turn out. I have not seen them yet.

So to continue. Other highlights of the trip included driving home by way of Alpine, so we could see the Snake River Canyon, and having Liam fall down on a trail in the canyon and scream as if he’d just met Vlad the Impaler in one of his nasty moods because he (Liam, not Vlad) had skinned his knee. Michelle dealt with him really patiently. I told him, casually, “Hey Liam, next time you scream like that. . .” and didn’t finish the sentence. Michelle laughed at that.

Then, because the kids were hungry, we stopped at the Angus in Swan Valley – a place I’d driven by countless times but never stopped at – for dinner. Typical small-town greasy spoon, with shelves of books for people to browse in as they’re waiting for their food. I had a “Dorothy Burger,” which consisted of a hamburger embellished with ham and Swiss cheese. Good, but I never did get an explanation as to why it is called a Dorothy burger. I don’t recall Dorothy eating such a burger on the way to see the Wizard of Oz, so I assume there’s no L. Frank Baum connection.

We took the bat route home through Archer, of course. Very dark. I’m not sure I’d want to take that route in the dark if I weren’t familiar with it, because it was fun enough for me in the dark when I knew where I was going. It’s a stretch of about ten miles that cuts about another 20 miles off the trip home, so it’s worth it. But dark, as I mentioned. Going home the Alpine way meant we only had to cross the Teton Pass once, which is about as many times a trip as I prefer to cross that pass in the first place

BAMSPHD?

I find out this week, of course, if I've passed my online class on building an online class, representing the last three credits I need to earn a masters degree. I have high hopes. I know my final paper and website for the class aren't perfect, but I think I worked hard enough on them to accomplish something a little better than average. I have been wrong before, of course.

So now begs the next question: Since I may soon have the right to add the MS to the BA already behind my name, do I go on for the PhD? I'm listing pros and cons here, with cons first, as is my pessimistic wont:
  • Sounds like just about any subject I pick has a teaching element involved.
  • Not that teaching is terrible, but that means I can't complete the program and remain employed where I am, unless I want to drive myself crazy by driving all over the place. Nearest doctorate-issuing university to me is Idaho State, 75 miles. And do they have a program I want?
  • Obviously I could continue at Utah State, get a PhD in professional communication. But that means moving to Logan.
  • I can't provide for my family on what pittance I'd get from the university during the program. No way entirely. I'd have to work and go to school at the same time.
  • I know people have done this, but do I want to do it? It sounds insane.

Yes, narrative style is helping me think these through. Now the pros:

  • Earn big money, after spending big money.
  • Honors and benefits, and at the age of nine.
  • Working to accomplish something this difficult would be an amazing thing.
  • More, better job opportunities, as masters degrees are going the way of the bachelors, in becoming a dime a dozen.
  • Teaching experience on top of anything else. Could lead to better things, get me out of RWMC (not that it's bad, mind you) and into BYU-Idaho (not that BYU-I is necessarily nirvana).

One more con: I'd have to buy a suit.

So in a word, I don't know. I think a little more research is needed. That's a good place to start, right? But I'll have to act quickly because, like Cuzco, I ain't gettin' any deader.