Friday, December 29, 2006

Checking In, Again

This is just a quick note to apologize for the light posting of late. A lot of bloggers are neglecting their Netly duties, with holiday commitments taking precedence over current events, politics, new scientific marvels and the like, and I am in the same place right now. Today we helped some friends move (we were ever so grateful that, even though it was cold, it was mostly clear and dry--God was kind to us), and tomorrow we're going sledding with our church youth group. Sunday, as everyone knows, is New Year's Eve. (We saved some fireworks from the 4th of July, and the really cool thing is that it gets dark by 4:30!! Fun! Of course, it'll also be 30 degrees out, but you can't have everything.) Monday is Celebration Recovery Day, which by Meow tradition is the day to take down all the decorations, but I promise I'll be worn out by Tuesday and ready to do some bloggin'. The new space photos should be up by then, so we all have something happy to anticipate (besides the weekend's celebration.) See you then, and until we meet again, Happy New Year!!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Good For Him

Looks like Prince Harry's got some character.

HT: Instapundit

Checking In

Like most of you, I'm just poking my head back into the www (wonderful worldwide web, or would that be wwww?) after a busy time with family and friends. We have had a lovely holiday spell, which isn't quite over, as Kedley's on vacation this week, and we have filled his free days up appropriately. We still have music to hear, and lights to see, and friends to play with, leading to the last bash of the year, which a friend is graciously hosting, sure to be full of bountiful merry-making, music-making, and (most importantly to my husband) good food. I have a little down time right now, though, so I thought I'd nose around the Net a bit to see what I've been missing.

The thing I've found the most interesting thus far is a look at the Hezbollah "protests" in Lebanon, from a recently returned Michael Totten. He had a Lebanese blogger, Abu Kais, fill in for him at his Middle East Journal, covering the events in Lebanon during his trip (most ably I might add), while he took an "under-the-radar" trip to the Land of Cedars. He's back now, and has a first-hand report, and photos from the first day of the Beirut demonstrations--Hezbollah's latest attempt to topple the Lebanese government. He gives us a good feel for what things are like right now in that shaky democracy, and his obvious love for the country does not impair his ability to give a clear picture of her current conditions. Totten plans to share the rest of his trip with us, and, no doubt, has a great deal to say. This is just the beginning of the story, but should be enough to get you started on the road to understanding the latest machinations in Lebanon, if her fate interests you. If you're like me right now, not fully immersed in the Webberverse, but interested in getting a glimpse of what's going on in the world, have a look.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Wishing You A Merry Christmas

Kedley and I have been working hard today, cooking and cleaning to get ready for Christmas Eve dinner tomorrow with my family. My family traditionally gathers on the Eve instead of the day proper. It's become the pattern over the years because my sister and nephew have another side of the family that claims their time on Christmas day. I like it that way. It usually means my husband and I spend a very mellow day together, watching Muppet Christmas Carol, eating leftovers and putting together our annual Christmas puzzle. This year we might take a drive up to Mount Hood in search of some snow. We like snow.

Tomorrow there will be about eight of us gathering here in the afternoon. It should be pretty low-key. The family decided to forgo presents this year in favor of just a nice meal and some family game time. We're all old enough now to be happy having togetherness, rather than gifts, as the focus of the day. Even the "youngsters" in the family are past the stage of, "Please, please, please, can I have the cool new toy that everyone else is getting?!!!?" So, this year we'll just spend time together. It'll be nice.

However you spend your days, I hope that it will be a blessed time for you, that there will be people you love, good things to eat, a warm place to give you comfort, and the love of Christ to give you joy. Merry Christmas.

Update: Christmas day turned out a little differently than we planned, but was wonderful just the same. A friend's plans fell through, so we loaded her and her two boys into the four wheel drive and took them up to Mount Hood to play in the snow. We got the sleds out of the attic, made a thermos full of cocoa, filled a box with snacks, and gathered all the hats and gloves we could lay our hands on for a bit of fun. Actually, it was a lot of fun. We sledded, and had snowball fights, and made snow angels, and just generally wallowed in the lovely white stuff. We sang every Christmas song we could think of on the way to and from the mountain, and even threw in a few songs we made up ourselves. (Is it blasphemous that we made up a new song called "Go Tinkle on the Mountain," done to the familiar spiritual tune? Keep in mind that these boys are 10 and 8.) The day didn't go the way we planned, no Christmas puzzle this year, but sometimes spontaneity has more to offer than tradition. This year spontaneity won hands down.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Gadget History

Here's something for you if you find the history of gadgets remotely interesting. Ralph Kinney Bennett, at TCS Daily, has a history of the remote control. Some of us are actually old enough to remember the early days of remote control wizardry. I'm not of an age to recall the very first versions of the device that most of us couldn't live without any more, but I do remember the first TV we got when I was growing up that had the incredible power to change the channel from across the room, and the all-important "mute" capacity. Those were heady days.

I also remember the VCR my friend's parents bought, back when it cost a thousand dollars for the new technology (and a thousand bucks was a truckload of cash), and my folks would no more have dreamed of spending that kind of money on something to play movies on your TV, when there were at least six perfectly good channels available--in color--for free, than take a hammer to the new Ford station wagon. That VCR was the much boasted evidence of my girlfriend's household superiority, and I was appropriately humbled in its presence. The one bright element, the thing which kept my chin just a little higher than it might otherwise have fallen, was that the remote for that monument to victory in the War of the Joneses had to be connected to the VCR via a twenty foot wire.

Our TV remote was wireless. We never tripped over the cord, thank you very much. It also made a very satisfying "khunk" sound as the dial on the television manually turned in response to the distant impulse from the wonderful little magic box that sat on the table next to my father's special chair. I remember sometimes, when no one else was around, pushing the buttons, just to make the dial turn, and hear that particular sound. I didn't even want to watch anything; I simply wanted to make the dial move by magic. Now, of course, it would drive me nuts if I had to push a button over and over to get the TV to go past all the shows I didn't want to watch and onto the channel I did, but at the time it was just so darn cool that we didn't have to get up and walk across the room--and the best part of all--we didn't have to listen to the commercials.

It turns out, we have the founder of Zenith to thank for the remote control. His reason for the development of our favorite gadget? He hated commercials as much as the rest of us do. What he really wanted out of the deal, for all of us, was the mute button. Have a look at Bennett's article if this sort of history sparks your interest. I found in entertaining--and there are no commercials.

Update From The Big Blow

We survived last Thursday's big windstorm just fine, and our trees weathered the blow with ease, but we just got word a couple days ago that some good friends of our in Seattle didn't make it through as well as we did. We keep up on the doings of this family quite regularly. Not only are they good friends, but they have a ministry in the Seattle area that we have watched grow over the years. When we got the latest news from them, we were expecting an update on their church, and maybe some personal tidbits. We were shocked to discover that the storm we had weathered with ease had hit them a good deal harder.

Their whole family was gathered, in what they thought was the safest room in the house, braving the 80 mph winds that were ravaging their neighborhood, when a large tree from their backyard uprooted and came crashing into their roof, right over the room where they all were gathered together sleeping. Praise God, no one was hurt, but there is now a giant hole in the back of their house. (It took till Monday for the insurance adjuster to give them permission to even remove the tree.) The past week has been rather more of an "adventure" for them than any of us would choose for the cold holiday season. Their whole neighborhood was without power, and they spent the next three evenings huddled around the living room fireplace--with temperatures in the twenties, no power and a gaping hole in their house!! When the electricity finally came back on in the neighborhood, the fire department had to shut off the feed to just their house again, because sparks were flying everywhere over what was left of their roof.

The amazing thing is that they are meeting this situation the way they always do, with hope and fortitude. Their whole church joined together to help one another in the aftermath of the storm, and a work crew from their congregation helped them remove the tree, without further damage to the house. We get a newsletter from them every week, sharing the latest happenings and prayer concerns with the church they planted in Seattle several years ago. We have watched it grow from the time it was a dream, and a vision of a place where interracial families could find love and acceptance, and worship together, to now, when such a vision is a reality, and the church is pulling together to help one another weather the storms of life. That is so encouraging, and while we would wish that our friends were not facing such trials, it is still a blessing to see the family of Christ supporting one another, and our friends drawing strength from their faith.

I'll end this post with the words our friend used to start his newsletter. I pray that this is the perspective I can have when facing life's trials:

We are not the same people that you heard from last week in our last installment of the "Hotline." There are those occasions where God does His best work and stretches us far beyond what we ever thought we were able and adds depth, richness, and a broader sense of His grace and purpose for our lives. Last week has been such a week for us.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Edicts From The Health Police

Oh my goodness, do I agree with John Stossel!!

Early Christmas

Today is Christmas with Ked's family. If you want to know what this will be like, reread this. For those of you not celebrating Christmas today, I hope your day is a great one anyway, and I'll see about posting something that attempts to be more interesting for you all when I get back. Until then, early Merry Christmas!!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Planning For Victory

Here's a news flash that will be encouraging to those of us who still believe that victory is possible in Iraq--So does President Bush. Fred Barnes, of The Weekly Standard, reports on the President's response to the recommendations of The Iraq Study Group:

It turns out you only have to attend a White House Christmas party to find out where President Bush is headed on Iraq. One guest who shook hands with Bush in the receiving line told him, "Don't let the bastards get you down." Bush, slightly startled but cheerful, replied, "Don't worry. I'm not." The guest followed up: "I think we can win in Iraq." The president's reply was emphatic: "We're going to win." Another guest informed Bush he'd given some advice to the Iraq Study Group, and said its report should be ignored. The president chuckled and said he'd made his position clear when he appeared with British prime minister Tony Blair. The report had never mentioned the possibility of American victory. Bush's goal in Iraq, he said at the photo-op with Blair, is "victory."

Now Bush is ready to gamble his presidency on a last-ditch effort to defeat the Sunni insurgency and establish a sustainable democracy in Iraq. He is prepared to defy the weary wisdom of Washington that it's too late, that the war in Iraq is lost, and that Bush's lone option is to retreat from Iraq as gracefully and with as little loss of face as possible. Bush only needed what his press secretary, Tony Snow, called a "plan for winning." Now he has one.

Barnes has what looks to be the inside scoop on what that plan for winning entails. I'm no foreign policy or military expert, but the approach Barnes suggests the administration is going to take seems reasonable and consistent with Bush's goals to me. It centers around increasing security and U.S. troop strength (by 50,000 troops) in strategic places, especially Baghdad, to limit violence and protect those who are cooperating with the Iraqi government. This has the potential of leading to more political cooperation, from people who right now are relying on sectarian violence to give them control over the country's future, when they find that alternate routes--the violent ones--are denied them. It would also enable those who are currently uncooperative out of fear of insurgent reprisals, rather than personal insurgent ambitions, to cast their lot with those who seek a peaceful and democratic Iraq.

The ISG report suggests removing many American soldiers from security duty, tasking them with training Iraqis instead, looking ultimately for a "graceful withdrawal", rather than a victory, but this approach fails to acknowledge what the fallout would be of handing things over to the Iraqis before real security is established. A violent and unstable situation would degrade even further, and people who are at this point refraining from entering into the fray would have almost no choice but to pick a faction and add to the violence to protect themselves. While training Iraqi security forces to take over their own security is the ultimate and ongoing goal, they simply are not ready for Coalition forces to dial down their security efforts. Barnes says the President's tack will be to continue the training efforts, while upping security personnel, clamping down on the instability that is hindering the political process. He says the new plan was "authored by Keane and military expert Frederick W. Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute":
It is based on the idea--all but indisputable at this point--that no political solution is possible in Iraq until security is established, starting in Baghdad. The reverse--a bid to forge reconciliation between majority Shia and minority Sunni--is a nonstarter in a political environment drenched in the blood of sectarian killings.
All of this doesn't seem that different from the goals, and on-the-ground realities, the President has had all along, but the addition of troops to accomplish these goals is where the plan takes a turn. The "new" approach steps up in large measure the level of U.S. activity to bring order to the chaos in Baghdad. Now one of the main questions is how Congress will react to the concept of increasing security in Iraq through temporarily increasing U.S. troop numbers, until the ever-expanding Iraqi police and military are fully trained and ready. It's uncertain how Congress will respond, since for a while now the focus of many, especially on the left, has been on withdrawing from Iraq as quickly as possible, without actually getting our tails slammed in the door of world opinion on the way out. Actually winning the war hasn't even seemed possible from the perspective of many politicians and pundits, for a long time. It is a key issue whether enough of them can be brought around to see the possibility of victory to support the President in actually increasing, rather than decreasing the troops. Barnes explains that some degree of cooperation from the new Congress is one of the President's concerns:
Before Bush announces his "new way forward" in Iraq in early January, he wants to be assured of two things. The first is that his plan can succeed. Initial evaluations of the Keane-Kagan plan at the Pentagon and elsewhere in the government have been positive. Alone among proposals for Iraq, the new Keane-Kagan strategy has a chance to succeed. Bush's second concern is to avert an explosion of opposition on Capitol Hill. Because this plan offers a credible prospect of winning in Iraq, moderate Democrats and queasy Republicans, the White House thinks, will be inclined to stand back and let Bush give it a shot.
What I would love to see is a few politicians setting aside their political (especially presidential) aspirations for long enough to think about what is best for the countries--ours and Iraq. Even other countries in the region (of which probably only Iran and Syria really want to see the insurgency continue) would benefit from the continued transformation of Iraq into a stable, democratic nation. Surely, if the loyal opposition here in the U.S. take off their "Bush is the enemy" hats for even a brief period, they can see that a victory in Iraq, even at a potentially higher cost, is still much to be preferred to a loss that leaves our credibility in tatters, and Iraq in ruins. (I tend to think that the costs would actually go down if we can really get control of the situation, but that's another post.) No matter whether they agreed with our entry into this war, it still must be possible for them to see a chance for honorable victory and support it, without sacrificing their principles and belief that we should never have gone there in the first place. Of course, the President hasn't actually presented this plan yet, but if Barnes is right, that day is coming, and I hope the Congressional response is supportive. It's what's best for Iraq. It's what's best for America, and if it happens to be what's best for the Bush administration too, well, then his opponents can comfort themselves with the realities of presidential term limits. This isn't about Bush. It's about doing what's right, and Congress and the media should get behind him on this one.

Update: Here's a somewhat different view.

Movie Review

I haven't seen the movie Pursuit of Happyness, but this review made me want to head out to the theater. The film is Will Smith's latest, and, according to John Hawkins at Right Wing News, it "breaks all of Hollywood's rules." Breaking Hollywood's rules is good--maybe even good enough to warrant our spending a little money to actually go to the movies, rather than waiting for it to come out on DVD--a matinee anyway. Ked and I never go to movies at full ticket price hours. No movie is worth full ticket price, especially when the same amount of money for two tickets will buy the DVD. Pursuit sounds like it might be a winner, and Will Smith is a favorite of ours. (He's made so many excellent sci fi flicks, he earns Meow bonus points as a box office draw. This one isn't sci fi, but it is still Will Smith.) I, like everyone else, am busy during this holiday season, but everyone needs a break from the rush now and then, right? Ked's got the week after Christmas off; a matinee sounds like fun. Have a look at the review--maybe we'll see you there.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Fun For Storm Watchers

I'm not usually one to talk much about the weather, unless there's snow involved, but we've got exciting action stirring things up around here, so I thought I'd give you something of a "blow by blow." We're just starting to see some healthy wind gusts from the big storm that's been bearing down on the Pacific Northwest. Gusts to about 35 mph so far, but they're predicting sustained winds of 40 mph, with gusts to about 70, by the time this baby really gets rocking. They're promising power outages and property damage, just to keep things interesting. Fun times in Meowville.

I love a good storm, although, when it gets this windy there's always some concern about the very tall cedar trees in our backyard. We lost one of them a few years back when a forty foot section of the biggest specimen came crashing down in another windy weather event. After this very large portion of the tree came off, making the whole a lot less stable, we decided it would be best to sacrifice the conifer for the sake of safety. We were blessed, however, because the branch fell straight into the arms of another cedar tree across the yard, and the only damage it did was a three inch hole in the roof of our shed. That's awfully minor, considering what could have happened. Cutting the branch down was a bit of an ordeal, but that's a different tale altogether. Anyway, we've battened down the hatches, stowed the blowables in the garage, and are keeping an eye on the other trees out back. It's pretty fun, watching them bend and sway. We can't do it for extended periods, though; they're so tall it puts a major kink in our necks to look at them for too long.

Going Down

I almost never wish I had lots of money. I've learned enough in my 40-odd years to know that if money is an aim in itself, you will never have enough of it. There will always be reasons why you "need" more than you have now, and who wants to live their whole life with that kind of discontentment? Better to be content with what you've got, if at all possible, don't you think? Having said all that, however, this article, by Michael Behar, did make me wish that I could be rich, just for a week or two, sometime after September 2008. Why September 2008? Because that's when the world's first underwater resort, the Poseidon Mystery Island, is scheduled to open its hatches off a Fijian coral reef.

Bruce Jones, a builder of luxury submarines, is taking his underwater endeavors to a new level. Here's a taste:

Jones designed Poseidon to provide guests—scuba aficionados and landlubbers alike—with an all-inclusive vacation package: fine dining, stunning views of the surrounding lush coral habitat, and the opportunity to dive directly from the hotel’s airlock, a hatch that lets divers out but keeps the sea from flooding into the hotel. Once the resort opens, visitors staying in one of the 550-square-foot guest rooms will enjoy a 270-degree view of the vibrant coral reef and tropical fish, visible through floor-to-ceiling windows and illuminated by external flood lighting. Guests will access the hotel through two elevators. Because the interior pressure will be held at one atmosphere (the same pressure as onshore), they won’t have to worry about getting decompression sickness. A Frisbee-shaped module at one end of the resort will house a kitchen, reception lounge and 3,000-square-foot rotating restaurant and bar. A second saucer will enclose a library, a conference room, a wedding chapel, a spa and the largest underwater accommodation in the world, the 1,200-square-foot “Nautilus” suite priced at $15,000 a night.
My hometown comes in for a bit of the action:
To keep costs down, the entire structure will be assembled in a shipyard in Portland, Oregon, and transported by a heavy-lift ship to Fiji. Meanwhile, engineers will drive guidance pilings into the seafloor. The hotel will float off the ship in one piece, and divers will thread small metal rings, bolted to the hotel’s exterior, onto the pilings. These pilings keep the structure aligned until divers can pin the hotel’s steel legs to the reef. The whole structure is then ballasted until it sinks to the seabed.
Sounds ambitious, but won't it be cool if they can pull it off? I wonder if they'll be giving tours of the hotel before it ships out of that shipyard in Portland? Just getting to see the thing while it's still on land would be a kick, even though it's really the ocean views that will make this hotel so special. Follow the link to the article. There's video that will show you just what a treat hotel guests are in for, once the Poseidon Mystery Island settles into her final home.

One question I had from watching the video was what impact the hotel will have on the marine life nearby. Since I can only imagine the hotel lights and noise will be a new and different experience for its aquatic neighbors, I can't help wondering whether they will cause any problems for the local ecosystem, and clearly, there would be other concerns as well. One assumes there must be adequate systems to deal with such things as waste disposal and energy needs, but the Popsci article didn't go into depth on these issues. I can see why; the piece was really more about enjoying the idea of an underwater adventure, than about janitorial details. As such, it did its job. It certainly made me want to go on holiday "under the sea."

Now, at $15,000 for a week's stay in a 550-square-foot room, I don't expect to get to schedule a visit--ever. I can't help dreaming a little, though, and if ever anything could make me wish I had more money, it would be this--this and maybe a chance to ride a space elevator up to a space hotel. If I had the resources for just one, and both were actually available, it would be a very hard decision to choose between the two. Would it be hard enough to make me wish I wasn't faced with such a choice? Probably not.

Hat tip: Futurismic

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Rich Get Richer, And The Poor Get...Richer

James Peron, at TCS Daily, has really good global economic news, coming from The World Bank. Poverty is in decline, worldwide, due in large part to increased production in developing countries:

The report expects the world economy to grow from last year's $35 trillion to $72 trillion by 2030. And this "is driven more than ever before by strong performance in the developing countries." Only two decades ago the poor nations provided only 14 percent of wealthy nations' manufactured imports. Today they provide 40 percent and by 2030 they are projected to provide over 65 percent.
Peron goes on to add:
The net result is that the income of developing countries "will continue to converge with those of wealthy countries. This would imply that countries as diverse as China, Mexico and Turkey would have average living standards roughly comparable to Spain today."
This should encourage those who fear that wealthy countries suck the resources of poor countries and grow richer at the expense of the impoverished. What those wealthy countries actually are doing is investing in infrastructure, opening markets and buying goods from developing nations, something that's a benefit to everyone involved. Peron notes that The World Bank report is pretty sure of its own predictions, and the WB even sees the possibility for far greater improvements in the economic conditions of the world's poor over the next 25 years. It's great news. Read the whole thing.

Hat tip: Instapundit

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

God's Fireworks

If you can get away from city lights this Wednesday night, and into Thursday morning, "the best meteor shower of the year" will be lighting up the sky:

"It's the Geminid meteor shower," says Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office in Huntsville, Alabama. "Start watching on Wednesday evening, Dec. 13th, around 9 p.m. local time," he advises. "The display will start small but grow in intensity as the night wears on. By Thursday morning, Dec. 14th, people in dark, rural areas could see one or two meteors every minute."
If my Kedley's feeling better (he's home with the flu), we just might head out to Crown Point, in the Columbia Gorge, and watch the show. Maybe you can find a dark corner of the world, too, and we can all watch it together. Wouldn't that be fun?

Update: Rats!! I just remembered to check the weather report for tomorrow night (via the fun little link to Weather Underground in the sidebar), and after remarkably clear and beautiful, albeit cold, weather last week, we have settled into a determinedly soggy spell. It's going to rain, rain, rain, thus rendering our chances to see the pretties in the sky almost nil. Hopefully you will have better viewing conditions. Let me know if you get to catch the fun. Living vicariously is now my only option.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Speaking Of Taxes...

Here's a tax tip. The government owes you a refund. You know the excise tax you've been paying on your phone bill--the one that's supposed to pay for the Spanish American War? I didn't think so. I didn't know about it either. It seems that we've been getting milked for that particular adventure in international conflict for a long time--a very long time. The Motley Fool started pointing out the problem with this situation about a year ago, and it turns out that Congress didn't really have a justification for continuing to collect revenue to pay for a war that started, and ended, in 1898. They've finally rescinded the-tax-that-overstayed-its-welcome. (Not that any of them are particularly welcome, but this one just moved into an unused portion of the house and stayed there, unnoticed, drinking the children's milk and eating the last of the pie.) Not only has the tax been dropped, but now you can get part of it back. Needless to say, there's paperwork involved, but for most of us it's just a standard deduction on the 1040 form, so it shouldn't be too painful. Just make sure you claim the refund when you do your 2006 taxes (in 2007.) Follow the link above to get more details, and more links to even more details, and so on. If you're in the mood to keep even more of your money come tax time, and are looking for some more deductions, here's some common ones that people miss. Drive a hybrid car? Pay part of your own health insurance? Getting higher education? There could be something there for you.

Hat tip: IMAO

A Call To Simplify

Since the holidays are upon us, we all know what lies ahead. We don't know what we'll get for Christmas (most of us anyway.) We don't know what the new year will hold. Heck, most of us don't know what we'll have for dinner tomorrow, but there is one thing that will be coming that we can all count on. (No, I mean besides that supremely irritating Pizza Hut commercial where the guy gets such a kick out of thinking that he's cheated the delivery boy.) Come on, you can think of it. What is the one thing we can be sure of every winter, come rain or shine? What's the thing we dread, and some of us put off till the last minute every year, because we can't cope with the complexity of it all, but we know we can't avoid, no matter how many stars are the recipients of our most fervent wishes? I think you know where I'm going now, don't you? Say it with me, "The only things certain in life are death and taxes." Ben Franklin said a mouthful with that one, didn't he?

Why do we dread tax preparation so much, though? It's not just that we have to pay taxes; we've been doing that all year. A lot of us get money back when we file our taxes, so you'd think it would be something we would look forward to, but most of us don't. For me, some years aren't so bad, and I don't mind doing the paperwork too much. Ked and I have one income, from his salaried job, and no rentals or other oddities to muck up the works. Usually Ked's and my taxes are reasonably straight-forward, but we have had a few years, when the group we sang with made some money, where I was ready to cry (something I don't do easily) because the rules were so complicated and the IRS so scary. In the complicated years, I would spend hours fussing over endless details and number crunching. I spent enormous amounts of time just trying to make sure the forms were in the right order, and that wasn't even touching the issue of whether the numbers were right.

One of those years, we got a letter back from the IRS saying something was wrong, and we would have to re-file, but they didn't tell us what was wrong, so I went over and over the paperwork, trying to run down the problem. I also made a plethora of phone calls, shifting from government department to government department, looking for answers. I didn't want to just resubmit the return as I already had it, because I figured the same mistake would still be there, since I didn't know what the snafu was. It literally took months to get things straight--seven to be exact. You know what was wrong? (Of course not. Silly question.) When I sent in the forms, I had accidentally replaced the second page of the federal 1040 with the second page of my state tax return. That was it. That was the reason they told me to re-file everything, but since they didn't tell me at the time, I fretted and stewed until August, worrying about all the mistakes I could have made on the more than seven extra forms I had to fill out because my husband and I took home a grand total of $2,000 extra that year from singing gigs. You know, I have actually turned down multiple opportunities to make small amounts of money over the last several years, simply because I haven't wanted to complicate our taxes. The money hasn't ever been enough to make the added stress worth it. I don't know whether that makes me pathetic, or the tax code way too complicated.

In defense of myself, I'll say that I'm not the only one who thinks the system is way too complicated. There are a whole lot of people who agree with me, and some of them are making their voices heard in Washington. (Okay, they're speaking anyway. I'm not sure if anyone is listening.) In any case, a "...broad left-right coalition of groups today released a statement urging the next Congress to make tax reform a top priority." John Berthoud, at Human Events Online, writes that this coalition, despite ideological differences about such things as the size of government and redistribution of wealth, is composed of organizations that do all agree on certain basic ideas: the American tax code is too complicated, and government should not be spending more than it collects in tax revenue. Berthoud provides some empirical evidence to support my perspective that the tax code has gotten too complex:

Politicians have been yammering for years about fixing the disgraceful U.S. tax code, but while many members of Congress have “talked the talk,” few have made a real effort to “walk the walk.” In fact, during the period of Republican control of Congress, the tax code has been getting more complicated with each passing year. According to the annual tax complexity study of my group (the National Taxpayers Union), taxpayers this year had to deal with 142 pages of instructions for the standard 1040 form and schedules. That’s a hefty jump from last year’s total of 128 pages, and more than double the number in 1985 (the year before taxes were simplified.)
That's rather astounding, don't you think? Doing your taxes now takes twice as much instruction as it did before they simplified things in '85? Clearly, there's been some "unsimplifying" going on over the last twenty years. The response from the concerned coalition is a letter to Congress, released today, calling for a resimplification of the tax code, and fiscal responsibility on the part of government. According to to the letter, which they have titled Cleanse The Code, because of the complexity of the current tax structure, a large percentage of Americans are intimidated enough that they don't even try to do their own taxes, and, to make matters worse, hiring a professional may not solve the problem:

Filing taxes should be simple and fast for Americans, yet the plethora of tax credits, exemptions, deductions, special rates, and complicated rules can make filing a nightmare. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), 56 percent of Americans have someone else prepare their taxes. Most taxpayers should be able to calculate their taxes on a single form or no form at all, and in most cases by themselves, with a few hours or less of preparation.

Calculating one’s correct tax burden is further hampered by the ever-shifting compilation of rules that make up the tax code. The GAO recently tested 19 professional tax preparation firms, and found that not one prepared an error-free return and only two ended up with the correct refund amount.

Wow, even the pros can't get it right? Something's gotta give here. It's not right in the first place for the tax code to be so complicated that a majority of Americans can't do their own taxes, but when you get to the point where even the people we're hiring to do them can't get it right, things have gone sadly amiss. Here's my hearty amen to the bipartisan call to "cleanse the code." I hope the powers that be are listening. (Hope might be a strong word. Let's just say, "wouldn't it be nice?")

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Y Files: Women, Islam, and the veil

Hey, here's an interesting discussion on whether liberating Muslim women from the veil, by means of illiberal bans on the burqa and the niqab, makes sense. The Y Files: Women, Islam, and the veil looks at a Weekly Standard article by Olivier Guitta, which examines the issue of the coercion in fundamentalist Islam for women to wear the full body and face coverings, and Cathy Young of The Y Files weighs in on whether the alternate form of coercion--banning the coverings--is an appropriate action in liberal societies with liberal standards, including freedom of religious expression. This issue is popping up all over the place: England, the Netherlands, France, and even in Muslim countries. So, the question is, is tolerating the veil, in the name of tolerance, truly the liberal thing to do? Young quotes herself from an article in the Boston Globe, and I think that portion is worth passing on to you here:

using the language of tolerance to justify oppressive practices is a grotesque perversion of liberalism. The veiling debate is a case in point. No amount of rhetorical sleight of hand can disguise the fact that the full-face veil makes women, literally, faceless. Some Muslim women in the West may choose this garb (which is not mandated in the Koran), but their explanations often reveal an internalized misogynistic view of women as creatures whose very existence is a sexual provocation to men. What's more, their choice helps legitimize a custom that is imposed on millions of women around the world who have no choice.
I understand the conflict of interest inherent to this question. One wonders whether banning the veil is not as much of a violation of the rights of the women who truly do want to wear it, as forcing the veil is a violation of the rights of others who are trapped behind its confines, but I tend to agree with Young on this one. So many women are either pressured, browbeaten, or literally beaten to induce their cooperation in what is basically a misogynistic tool of enslavement, that I cannot think that the rights of those who desire to cover every inch of themselves, including their faces, outweigh the concerns for those many women who adopt the practice of totally covering themselves simply to appease their oppressors. Young's post touches briefly on a point made in the Weekly Standard article, the fact that some Muslim countries have banned the veil in order to promote women's rights, and, while they have not always been "liberal" about these attempts at modernization, the results have been liberating for the women involved. Have a look at the whole post, and, if you have the time, read the comments as well. I found the discussion there quite interesting.

On the same subject, The Big Pharaoh, an Egyptian blogger to whom I have linked several times, has addressed the question of the full covering, as well as just the hair covering, often. He laments the changes that allowed his mother to stroll the streets of Cairo in a mini-skirt, forty years ago, to the state today, where uncovered, and even covered girls, are routinely accosted by prurient youths. He says the problem has increased, rather than decreased, as more and more women have covered themselves in Egyptian society, and clearly believes the illiberal teachings of religious leaders is largely to blame. His latest post is a "letter from God," addressed to those who claim to speak for him, and tell young girls that they must cover their hair. (The page is a bit out of whack, but just scroll down and the text appears lower down the page.) This post addresses some of the passages in the Koran which are commonly used to support the idea that women must hide themselves. It's a fascinating, if occasionally profane, read.

Update: I thought I ought to explain what I meant by the veil being "basically a misogynistic tool of enslavement." My point is simply this. Requiring women to hide everything that a man might find titillating (is that even possible?) is making her responsible for his behavior, and excusing his lack of self control, thus making her a slave to his libido. The claim is that it's about protecting women. Bunk. It's about recognizing that these men lack character, but refusing to address the root of that issue. If the Imams who preach that women need to be covered from head to toe to keep boys' hands out of the cookie jar spent half as much time preaching to the boys themselves about keeping their hands in their pockets, the men might take a little more responsibility for their own actions. Her bearing the consequences for his lack of self control=misogynistic enslavement.

Hat tip: Instapundit, for the Cathy Young link

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Heart Of Christmas

I got tagged at the blog My Heart On My Sleeve to list my five favorite Christmas songs, so here goes--in no particular order:

  • What Child Is This? (Roberta Flack Version)
  • Carol (First Call)
  • Mary Did You Know? (Michael English)
  • Do You Hear What I Hear? (Arranged by Su Elliott)
  • Jesus Christ Is Coming To Town (Su Elliott)
The Su Elliott tunes are from the close to a decade my husband and I spent singing with a vocal jazz (and just about every other variety of music known to man) and comedy troupe. We were always very busy at Christmas, and had a large Christmas repertoire, mostly written and/or arranged by Su, who was our intrepid leader. She'll be uncomfortable with me mentioning this, but she's an absolutely brilliant musician and songwriter. It was awfully fun getting to sing her arrangements.

Since we're on the subject of Christmas songs, here's one that didn't make my list, partly because I wrote it. (Su put it to music--brilliantly I might add.) It's probably not okay to have something you wrote yourself be one of your favorites, but I do love what it says, so I'll share it with you here:

The Heart Of Christmas

Candlelight on angels' wings
The cookies bake, the choir sings
A song of home and family love
And angels flying high above the city lights
Bringing joy to touch the heart at Christmas

A child in awe as wrappings fall
To reveal that longed-for doll
Or a puppy, or a treasured book
And all around the grownups look with smiles
And think they've touched the heart of Christmas

But the heart of Christmas is the need of man
The hand of God reached down to span
The gulf created by our sin
The Love of God shows the depth of grief
That can't be healed by what's beneath
The boughs of a pretty tree

Only the heart of Christmas can save us
Only the love which suffered such loss
Only our knowing that it was our needing forgiveness
That started His road to the cross

Candlelight on angels' wings
The cookies bake, the choir sings
A song of hope in Jesus' love
For Grace defines the meaning of His sacrifice
Bringing joy to touch the heart at Christmas

That's my view of the Christmas season. I love Christmas, but I just can't leave Jesus a baby in the manger. I have to let him grow up and take my place on the cross. I'm so grateful for that.

So now it's my turn to tag someone, and I pick Jay, from Truth Through The Fire. He's a musician, so I'm sure he has some opinions and favorites to offer us. He's been pretty busy lately, though, with law school final exams, so I'm not sure if he'll get to this, but let's give him the chance anyway, shall we? Tag. You're it, Jay.

Monday, December 04, 2006

More Iranian Correspondence

The Washington Times has an analysis, by Kenneth R. Timmerman, of a letter Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent last Wednesday to "the American people." You will recall that earlier this year Ahmadinejad sent an 18 page missive to President Bush "inviting" him to join Islam. Timmerman says, 'That is a well-established Islamic tradition when dealing with an enemy just prior to war. If they refuse, then the Muslims are "justified" in destroying them.' Timmerman says the warning has now been extended to America's entire population in a letter that:

...sets out the terms of the traditional Muslim warning to the enemies of Allah. "And never will your Lord destroy the towns until He sends to their mother town a Messenger reciting to them Our Verses." This is precisely what Mr. Ahmadinejad does in his letter. Dump George W. Bush, allow the Muslims to destroy Israel, and adopt Islam -- or else you will be destroyed. This is Mr. Ahmadinejad's message.
Timmerman's commentary is pretty interesting, especially given how close the evil overlords in Iran are to having their very own nuclear weapons.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Pics In Space--The New Batch

Yay, they're back!! Settle in for a minute or two, and get ready to wander with me into the great beyond, as we take our monthly pictorial tour of the universe. There's something new this month, and the most triumphantly geeky among us will have the opportunity to get out those 3-D glasses they've been saving ever since the last hometown 3-D sci fi festival. I think they're in the closet under the stairs, next to the mint condition Return of the Jedi action figures, aren't they? Alas, despite my official geek status, I am not actually geek enough to have any lying around the house, although they would come in handy to view the image Greg Piepol created to depict the recent transit of the planet Mercury across the face of the sun, on November 8th. According to MSNBC, he combined solar imagery from the Japanese Hinode probe with a planet image taken from NASA's Mariner 10 spacecraft. Seeing the picture made me wish I had the glasses, because I'm sure it's pretty cool, but, oh well, there are plenty of other fun pics to keep me happy this month.

I seem to be most partial to the galaxy, supernova and nebula photos in this batch. The glowing swirls of color and flashes of brilliant light are perfect for this season of the year, like a really impressive Christmas light display that God set in the sky just to make us happy. (I don't know if I've mentioned how much I love Christmas lights, but they're right up there with snow and fireworks in my catalog of favorite things.) Anyway, since the bright and shiny photos are turning my crank this time around, my best-of-the-bunch votes go to numbers 1, 11, and 16. Number 14, however, gets an honorable mention, because it's just plain cool--it's a photo of the Alaskan coast, complete with deep green waters, snow-covered glaciers and a glacial dust storm. There are other interesting pictures of Martian landscapes, the eye of a Saturnian storm, an assorted variety of moons, and other astronomical features of note. All are worthy of an appreciative gaze, but they are all fairly monotone. I don't know why, but I'm drawn to the colorful ones this time around. Maybe it's because we're heading into the drab, grey winter months. Maybe it's because I've been decorating for the holidays this week. Maybe it's because the sparkly ones are so darn pretty. I probably don't need a reason, huh?

Anybody else got a favorite this time around?

Friday, December 01, 2006

Tell Our Military We're Grateful For Their Service

My brother-in-law and I don't agree about much politically. He is extremely grateful for the results of the recent election, whereas I am choosing not to think about it much. Here's something he sent me yesterday, though, that we both agree is a great idea. Politics don't apply here. Xerox is making it easy for anybody with a computer to send a note of appreciation to American military folks overseas, at a site called Let's Say Thanks. They have a bunch of postcard designs, all created by kids, and all you have to do is pick one, choose from a selection of messages, or write one of your own, and hit send. Xerox is printing the cards and seeing that they make it to our guys and gals. They've received over 5 million messages of support so far. Let's make it even more!!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


What do you think of this? is reporting that, "U.S. District Judge James Robertson said keeping all U.S. currency the same size and texture violates the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in government programs." According to Fox, Robertson has given the Treasury Department "...10 days to start working on new bills that the blind can tell apart." Treasury lawyers argued against the imposition of changes, saying it would "make it harder to prevent counterfeiting." The judge, however, in his ruling, wrote the equivalent of, "Hey, over 180 other countries have different sized bills, so there's no reason we shouldn't be able to do the same."

The ruling is getting mixed reviews from advocacy groups for the blind. Some think it is a step forward in enabling independence for the blind. Others see the issue as a distraction:

But John Paré, director of public relations for the National Federation of the Blind, the nation's largest organization representing blind people, said identifying the money is hardly the most difficult obstacle for the blind to overcome.

"The focus for improving the lives of blind Americans needs to be put on earning money not figuring out how to identify money," he said. "Over 70 percent of blind Americans are under-employed or unemployed and this is what needs to be addressed.

"It really is distracting to have this lawsuit," he said, since assistance should concentrate on people "who don't have the money in the first place."

I have a mixed response to this decree, part of me agreeing that it's reasonable to make it easier for the blind to use money without the necessity of relying on possibly unscrupulous strangers, folding different denominations in different ways to differentiate between them, or buying expensive ($300) portable reader machines. Part of me, however, believes that the Treasury department would not resist the changes if there were not, indeed, counterfeiting issues to take into account--although, how size affects counterfeitability, I have no idea. I can understand how texture can impact the recognition of counterfeits, as people who work in banks learn to tell a counterfeit simply by feel.

One question I have in relation to the decree regards cost-effectiveness. The article reports that there are 7 million blind people in the U.S., and I wonder if the more frugal alternative would not simply be for the government to purchase a portable money reader for anyone who needs one, rather than to spend an enormous amount of money to design and print an entirely new money supply. I understand that money wears out and new bills are printed all the time, but entirely new designs, papers, presses, cutting equipment, and differently sized storage and transport equipment are not required with those new printings, and those changes must include an enormous amount of expense. Part of my objection is the immediacy with which the judge's decision demands change. I can see a long-term strategy to implement changes as equipment wears out, or other circumstances warrant changes anyway, but overhauling the whole system "yesterday" seems a bit extreme.

Given all of the more serious things going on in the world today, you may not consider this as worth much attention. Some days I might not either, but it is an example to me of the ways our society has to balance the needs of a small minority of her citizens with the expense and inconvenience to her general population. Will the value to the blind be worth the costs, especially if there are other options (like the reader) available? The government has required itself, and private business for that matter, to accommodate the accessibility needs of the handicapped. Should reworking the monetary system to make it easier for the blind to spend their money be part and parcel with that, or is it, as John Paré says, a distraction from the real issue of handicapped employment? Should the money for transforming our currency rather be spent on making it easier for the blind to hold a job? Should some of the money be spent to provide readers to those who need them? (I'm sure the government could bring the price of those readers down substantially with a bulk purchase.) Should the money be spent at all? Should there be a gradual shift to new currency over a long period of time as equipment wears out, rather than the immediate change the litigants and the judge are requiring? I'm kind of up in the air on this, although I am tilting a bit, and would be interested in anyone else's opinion.

Hat tip: IMAO

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

How To Protect Yourself From Cosmic Rays If You Ever Happen To Make It Into Space

This one is fun. Remember back in September when the poor commander got lost on Mars and couldn't understand Base's instructions? No? Okay, go here first and refresh your memory. I'll wait... Finished? Then we're ready to move on. Since you've now done your homework, you know that the reason the Mars mission was in jeopardy was that the crew's brains were being scrambled by radiation. Radiation is a big problem that scientists are going to have to figure out before humans start heading out past the protection of the Earth's magnetic field, beyond the orbit where the International Space Station flies above the Earth in relative safety. The Moon and Mars, as we all know, are on the short list for mission possibilities, and spending such long periods of time in space could do more than scramble a few brain cells; if current theories are correct, astronauts could be risking premature aging by heading out into the cosmic ray zone. (That last link leads to an interesting article about space radiation, telomeres, Einstein and pills to repair DNA damage--I followed a link from there to one about what the heck telomeres are, and how they affect aging, with possible implications for human life extension. Pretty interesting if you want to follow some rabbit trails.)

All of that aside, however, what I really want to tell you about is the idea some scientists have for blocking all that radiation, so that no astronautical DNA is damaged in the first place. Patrick L. Barry wrote an article for NASA about how they are looking to make space ships out of a revolutionary new material--you're not going to guess this one in a million years. (Well, okay, I wouldn't have guessed it in a million years.) The material? Plastic. Polyethylene, to be precise. This is what they use to make the plastic trash bags of which we all have an abundance under our kitchen sink.

Most household trash bags are made of a polymer called polyethylene. Variants of that molecule turn out to be excellent at shielding the most dangerous forms of space radiation. Scientists have long known this. The trouble has been trying to build a spaceship out of the flimsy stuff.

But now NASA scientists have invented a groundbreaking, polyethylene-based material called RXF1 that's even stronger and lighter than aluminum. "This new material is a first in the sense that it combines superior structural properties with superior shielding properties," says Nasser Barghouty, Project Scientist for NASA's Space Radiation Shielding Project at the Marshall Space Flight Center.

To Mars in a plastic spaceship? As daft as it may sound, it could be the safest way to go.

According to Barry, one of plastic's big selling points is that when radiation smashes into it, it doesn't produce nearly as much "secondary radiation" as materials like aluminum or lead. That secondary radiation can be just as much of a problem for astronauts as the cosmic rays themselves:
The advantage of plastic-like materials is that they produce far less "secondary radiation" than heavier materials like aluminum or lead. Secondary radiation comes from the shielding material itself. When particles of space radiation smash into atoms within the shield, they trigger tiny nuclear reactions. Those reactions produce a shower of nuclear byproducts -- neutrons and other particles -- that enter the spacecraft. It's a bit like trying to protect yourself from a flying bowling ball by erecting a wall of pins. You avoid the ball but get pelted by pins. "Secondaries" can be worse for astronauts' health than the original space radiation!
Barry says the lighter elements of hydrogen and carbon, the building blocks for those plastic bags, won't completely stop the space radiation, but can fragment that radiation so that it is much less harmful. He uses the example of a chain link fence blocking a snowball. Some snow still gets through, but it doesn't hurt as much. This author has a knack for making scientific-speak understandable, doesn't he? I'll let him tell you more:

Despite their shielding power, ordinary trash bags obviously won't do for building a spaceship. So Barghouty and his colleagues have been trying to beef-up polyethylene for aerospace work.

That's how Shielding Project researcher Raj Kaul, working together with Barghouty, came to invent RXF1. RXF1 is remarkably strong and light: it has 3 times the tensile strength of aluminum, yet is 2.6 times lighter -- impressive even by aerospace standards.

"Since it is a ballistic shield, it also deflects micrometeorites," says Kaul, who had previously worked with similar materials in developing helicopter armor. "Since it's a fabric, it can be draped around molds and shaped into specific spacecraft components." And because it's derived from polyethylene, it's an excellent radiation shield as well.

They're working on ways to address some of the drawbacks that come with polyethylene--like the irritating tendency it has to burn and melt and whatnot. Now, this article is over a year old, and my search on the NASA site didn't lead me to any more updated information, so I can't tell you right now how this research is progressing. Back in August of 2005, no one was sure yet whether plastic really could serve as a shield to make space travel safer, but "hypothetically" polyethylene might be "not just for trash bags anymore."

It's so interesting how many useful discoveries for right here on Earth come out of space research. Man may never fly to the Moon in a plastic rocket. We may never see plastic habitats on Mars, but--and this is important--we can be pretty sure that our garbage will never get cancer from radiation!! That's an encouraging breakthrough, right? Even more valuable, now that we've all read the reports from NASA and know how useful plastic bags can be, we can make the important fashion decision about whether we want to wear plastic bags over our clothes when we go outside, to protect ourselves from cosmic rays. Hey, come on, it's not such a bad idea. If enough of us do it, it could even become trendy. Maybe if we get some Hollywood type to do it first we can all pretend it's actually cool. Then we would just look like lemmings, and not freaks. Hmmm. Let me think about this. Somebody sci fi maybe, but with crossover appeal.... I've got it! Will Smith!! Men In Black, I Robot, Independence Day... yeah, he'd do nicely. Somebody out there want to volunteer to suggest it to him?

Note: Yes, I know I'm being goofy today. I can't seem to help myself. I start out with a perfectly reasonable piece about the science of using plastic as a radiation shield and end up looking to make Will Smith the poster boy for the tinfoil hat brigade (plastic bag, tinfoil hat--same difference.) I'll try to control myself now, but I make no promises. I have a very good excuse. The day started out with snow, and that always gets me a little giddy. Wait a minute... Snow comes from the sky. Cosmic rays come from the sky, too. Maybe I'm so goofy because the cosmic rays are making it past the Earth's magnetic field and sneaking down into my neighborhood disguised as snow!!! This could be a real problem. I better go put on some plastic bags just in case.

A New Feature

I thought I'd give you all an extra added bonus just for stopping by the Meow. The sidebar will now feature automatically updated local weather conditions. Everyone cares about the weather in Portland, right? Actually, even though what shows up on the blog is specific to my home town, posting it here really is about you, too, because if you click on the link, you'll be taken to Weather Underground, where you can plug in a zip code for the complete weather update and forecast for your location of choice. Cool, huh? It has links to satellite images, maps and ski conditions (very important here in Meowville), and a trip planner, where you plug in some dates and up pop predictions based on local averages for that time-frame. One neat little feature is the link to "Personal Weather Stations," where you can find frequently updated info from various locations all over your region, for a more precise view of the weather in your area. For example, I just discovered that, as of 3 minutes and 59 seconds ago, it was 35.5 degrees, with a NW wind of 2.0mph, at 135th and Division. I have no real use for this information, but who cares? I have it at my fingertips, and that's all that really matters.

Right now outside my window, beautiful snow is falling lightly to the ground. It's not much, and it's not going to stick around, but just to watch it fall is a treat. I can't remember the last time we got snow in November. Heck, I can barely remember the last time we got snow at all. Weather Underground says we can look forward to ice pellets on Thursday. That's not quite as fun, is it Precious? Oh well, for now it's snowing, and that makes the world a little more magical. Happy Kat.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Just For Fun

I hope you all had a lovely Thanksgiving weekend. Ked and I went to the farm where he grew up, to spend the day with his family--parents, grandparents, siblings and their offspring--which is much like stepping into a painting by Norman Rockwell. Seriously, I never knew there were families in the world that truly got along and had completely non-contentious and cheerful holidays until I married my husband. That single act introduced me into a whole new world, where one does not spend two days cooking a feast of ham glazed in Madeira sauce, with brandied fruit baked on top, and gratin potatoes with Gruyere cheese, and homemade cheesecake, only to be told that it's traditional to serve turkey at Christmas, and asked, "Where's the pumpkin pie?" Being part of Ked's family is like stepping into an alternate reality. Everyone falls over themselves complimenting every dish, and oozing out the door at the end of the night takes at least an hour, because everyone is so reluctant to say goodbye.

Gift giving is also a strange and wonderful experience in the alternate universe that is my husband's family, one that has not gotten old in the twenty years that I have been privileged to call his family mine. There are never complaints about color, size, or style, no comments about how another brand is better, or that the one purchased last year is still in the box. This is not meant to insult my own family, whom I love dearly, but things are just done in a completely different way in the Norman Rockwell painting. The painting is a whole new level of family togetherness. For years I have sat in awe as relatives read aloud the poetry they have written to each other for Christmas gifts. I've watched Ked's mom tear up as his brother's wife shared how grateful she was to her husband's parents for raising the man she loves. I've admired the beautifully worked handmade quilts, the squares lovingly painted with the hand-prints of each family member, the whole combining to tell the life tale of the grandparents who received it. I've seen the delight on the faces of siblings receiving sweet words about the value of family, all surrounded with a picture frame printed with treasured photographic memories from their childhood. These people have the whole "spirit of giving thing" down pat. It's not about the things for them. It's about the love they have for each other. It's amazing.

Okay, where to go from all this mushy stuff? I'm already paying the orchestra overtime, so we'd probably better move on to more down-to-earth, everyday reality, and let the violins have a break for now. I don't want to shift gears too suddenly, though, so let's stick with the topic of gift-giving. It is the holiday shopping season, and whether you live in a Norman Rockwell painting, or with normal people, most of us are spending a fair amount of time and money right now so that we have gifts to give the people we love this Christmas. (I could be politically correct here and list the alternative winter holidays that various people employ as gift-giving opportunities, to keep kids whose families don't celebrate Christmas from feeling left out during the holidays, but you already know what they are.) To aid you in choosing the perfect gift this Christmas, I'm going to send you to that pillar of American culture--Dave Barry. (Requires registration, but it's free.) He will be of absolutely no use in helping you select something nice or useful for the folks on your list, however, he will make your shopping easier, by eliminating some losers.

He has a whole selection of inappropriate possibilities that, while not giving you any assistance locating the right present for your aunt Marge, might give you a chuckle, and the realisation that no matter what you do eventually buy, it won't be as bad as it could be. Since this is Dave Barry we are talking about, be forewarned that some of his suggestions are juvenile and crude, but all of them are indeed real, purchasable products, such as the Marie Antoinette action figure, complete with removable head, the motorized ice cream cone (for when you just can't manage to turn the cone manually), and the Cruzin Cooler, which is something like a Moped with a cooler for a seat. (I predict this one could be a hit with kids who want to sell ice cream sandwiches in their neighborhood, but are too young to drive.) These truly awful gifts should make you feel better about even your worst gift choices, and indeed, about any of the attic-fillers you yourself receive this Christmas. Remember, of course, it's the thought that counts, and by not buying these turkeys you will have gone a long way toward proving that you put some real thought into your gift-giving. Have fun.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving

My prayer for you is that you spend the day with people you love, and that together you can be grateful for the blessings in your lives. If you will be spending the day with family, and you are looking forward to the day with some trepidation, I also pray for you that whoever is usually responsible for bringing the hot steaming plate of family conflict will show up empty-handed this year. May there be peace around your table today.

Here are some of the things for which Ked and I are grateful:

  • That God isn't finished with us yet. He's still molding our characters, and hasn't given up in despair. We're grateful for His forgiveness.
  • That we have each other.
  • That we can share our lives with friends and family.
  • That we live in such a free country, at liberty to believe and say what we choose. This is such a blessing, one that so often many of us take for granted.
  • That we have our daily bread, and today that we get turkey!! (and not tofurkey)
If you are so blessed as to spend the day with family or friends today, people who love you, take a few moments between bites and football games to think about (and pray about if you are so inclined) those people who will be spending this day oppressed by forces in this world who do not believe that all men are created equal, who deny God's blessings to their fellow men. So many people do not share our liberties. Let's be thankful for the gifts we have been given.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Iraq News

There's a very interesting, really long, and rather encouraging update of the situation in Ramadi, by Michael Fumento, at The Weekly Standard. Fumento reports from his embed with the 1st Brigade Combat Team in Ramadi, where he arrived in October, returning to the region after half a year away. He had previously visited both Ramadi and Fallujah--this is his third embed in the Anbar Province--and wanted to see what changes had occurred since he last saw the city of 400,000. Ramadi has been an enemy stronghold in Iraq for a long time, more so since the insurgents lost nearby Fallujah. It's a highly contentious and dangerous part of Iraq. However, Fumento outlines the real progress that is being made to root out terrorists and insurgents as both the Iraqi security forces and the Coalition are receiving ever increasing cooperation from the local Sunni tribes. The Weekly Standard article will take some time to read, but in keeping with this week's theme of Thanksgiving, I offer it to you as something for which to be thankful. Excerpt:

...Ramadi is both a litmus test for the counterinsurgency effort in Iraq and a laboratory. If we can defeat the insurgent and terrorist forces here, there is no place we cannot defeat them. And from what I found, we are defeating them. It's painfully slow, and our men there are still dying in inordinate numbers from a broad variety of attacks. But a multitude of factors, including tribal cooperation, the continual introduction of more Iraqi army and police, the beginning of public works projects, the building of more Forward Operating Bases (FOBs), the installation of more small operational posts (OPs), and plunking down company-sized Combat Operation Posts (COPs) smack in the middle of hostile territory are destroying both the size and the mobility of the enemy. This time the rats are dying in place.
It's clear from reading Fumento's piece that he is putting himself in substantial danger to bring us this report. What he's writing is not coming out of the relative safety of the green zone in Baghdad. It's eyewitness news, news that says we are winning in Ramadi. Read it if you have the time.

Update: (via Instapundit) More on progress in Ramadi, from Bill Roggio, who examines the growing support among the tribal leaders of Anbar for Iraqi and U.S. efforts to oust the terrorists:
The turning of the Sunni tribes is directly related to al-Qaeda in Iraq's attempts to install a Taliban like rule in the region. Al-Qaeda looks upon the tribal system with open contempt, and has killed, intimidated and humiliated tribal leaders during the past three years under the leadership of the slain Zarqawi.
This coincides with what Fumento wrote for The Weekly Standard. The Roggio post's not so long, but fills out Fumento's story a bit more. Worth a read.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Going Up

Here's a bit of tongue-in-cheek fluff at Colony Worlds for Space Elevator fans--a list of reasons not to build one. I couldn't resist leaving a comment on this post. Darnell Clayton, the blogger-in-charge, asked for additional excuses for not constructing the elevator, so I came up with one. Mine's the second comment. That made the total two, so I'm sure Mr. Clayton would appreciate your suggestions as well. Let me know if you come up a good one!!

Hat tip: Futurismic

Thanks For The Road

This holiday week, a lot of American writers are sharing the things which make them thankful, finding blessings both obvious and obscure that enhance life and warrant a little extra grateful recognition during this national celebration of Thanksgiving. I find it a pleasant respite after the requisite grumbling and complaining that accompanied the recent political season and its aftermath. I say, yes, let's count our blessings: great, small and frequently ignored. I'm going to be keeping my eye out for articles to pass along to you that follow the advice in Philippians 4:8: "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things."

How about we start with something so mundane that we Americans generally take it for granted, complain about the condition it's in, and resent what it costs to maintain--something that has only been around for fifty years, but we now use constantly, and would be much worse off if it didn't exist? This seems a great place to reverse the negative pattern and think about what's excellent and praiseworthy. So what is this often under-appreciated necessity of modern life? Ralph Kinney Bennett, at TCS Daily, brings us a fresh and grateful look at the Interstate highway system.

Thanks For The View

Flying somewhere this Thanksgiving? It's a good time for a little sky-watching.

Monday, November 20, 2006

A Geek By Any Other Name...

Geek, nerd, dweeb, dork, loser--When I was in school, all these words were synonyms for the kid nobody wanted to be. Probably anyone who ever went to an American school in the second half of the twentieth century knows what social disapproval fell on the heads of those poor unfortunate souls who, for various reasons, bore the shameful burden of these unflattering appellations. Uncool kids were nerds. Unpopular kids were losers. In school you either used these names to taunt others, or you were yourself the object of such taunting, or both. The two positions were not mutually exclusive. I knew many a dork in my day who was perfectly happy to make himself feel better about his less-than-stellar place in the cruel and competitive world of the public school pecking order by pointing out that a fellow dweeb's position was worse.

There were a lot of things that could garner you the uncoveted title of geek. Being too smart was, of course, one of the clearest warning signs of potential geekdom. It was the rare kid who had looks and social grace in sufficient quantities to overcome the serious social obstacle of conspicuous intelligence. General unattractiveness, social awkwardness, unfashionable clothing, glasses, poverty, reading on the bus (especially science fiction and history), technical know-how--these could all provide the social kiss of death. Who among us does not remember the kid in the plaid high-water pants who was always pushing up his too big hand-me-down glasses, while heading off to the AV room to fetch the film-strip projector because the teacher knew he could be trusted to bring it back promptly, and get it working on arrival?

Perhaps you were one of those kids. I know I was. I was unattractive, socially inept, unfashionably dressed (the grade school years), had a bad haircut (this pretty much lasted throughout childhood), got really good grades, got put in "smart" classes, loved to read (odd things like The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which I discovered when I was twelve and read till it fell apart), and had a penchant for correcting people. In what's probably the worst of all possible childhood offenses, I was also perennially an object of the approval of teachers. I was the kid they let out of class early to be cross-walk monitor. I was the kid who got to skip the test because the teacher told the class I was the only one who passed the last one. I was the kid who delivered notes to the principal, and never got sent there for any other reason. Oh the tragedy of it all. I cannot stress enough what a social handicap it is to have teachers like you in your formative years. I was also always getting teased for using big words--words I never knew were big or out of the ordinary. Everyone used them at home, and their meaning suited the occasion, so I used them without thinking. Social suicide.

Geek wasn't a big word, but it was a bad word. That was thirty years ago, however. What about now? Well, dweeb, dork, and loser (or their functional equivalents) are probably still a handicap for the underage set, but geek has taken on some new nuances of meaning over the years. (Words do change their meaning over time. How many of us toss around the word "gay" to say that we're carefree these days?) Now geek has morphed to include the synonym "techie," which didn't do much for the reputation of a kid when techie meant that you ran the projector, but is revolutionized when you throw it into today's high-tech context. Science Fiction isn't so fictional anymore, and the people who saw it coming, or better yet, are making it happen, have a new and important place in the world. "Geek" has come to earn a measure of respect as computers have become central to our daily lives. The unpopular AV kid who knew things about computers back when no one owned one, and no one needed technical support, has now become a valuable commodity. Geeks know how to beat computer games. They can reformat your hard drive. They can help you with your taxes, and make excellent Trivial Pursuit teammates. Geeks know things. Everyone needs them for one thing or another. That makes people like them--by necessity.

So, what about all those geeks who sat with me at the uncool table, and tried to pretend we didn't wish we could be friends with the popular kids? Where are they now? Rejoicing in their geekdom, of course!! What was once a mark of shame has become a badge of honor, at least if my friends are any indication (they're not the same ones from school, but they might as well be), only now, some of those very same qualities which made us untouchables in the past are the things that make us interesting adults today. All that reading pays off in the end, and the uncool kids usually have to develop other positive traits to make up for the lack of obvious social graces. Things like conversational ability, interesting personality, humor and kindness are often the result of years of geeky adolescence. Some of us have discovered that it's really fun to be a geek, and embraced the title with fondness, even ambition.

Ambition? Yes, just that. Let me explain. Sometime last week, a friend sent a "geek test", a lengthy exam to determine one's geek quotient. Ked and I both took the test, and, to neither of our surprise, we are both officially geeks. We had so much fun with the test that we passed it around to some of our friends. We all had a two day email conversation, reporting our scores and begging for bonus points because we had some other geek-factor of note, which the test failed to acknowledge. It was fine geek fun. As it turns out, almost all of my friends who took the test are, in fact, geeks, which I'm sure plays a large role in why we like them. Birds of a feather and all that. The thing I found particularly amusing was that the people who didn't qualify for geek status were embarrassed by it , or at least disappointed. If only we had all known as children that someday other people would be "geek wannabes," it could have made the awkward years much more bearable. It's become cool, in the parallel reality of adulthood, to be the best geek you can be.

Are you a geek? Are you uncertain, and want to find out for sure? Take the test. I scored 25.5%, which, according to the scale provided, makes me a total geek, but a couple of my friends outdid my score by a considerable margin. One of our friends had his brother take the test, and the guy scored a whopping 43.19527%. The really amazing thing about that one is that he didn't score that high by excelling in any of the expected geek categories. He wasn't dumped at a dance, and doesn't own the expanded editions of all the predictable sci fi movies. He's done things like design and build nuclear reactors, and studies fractal towers for fun. I'm not sure that in my mind he really qualifies as a geek, since I would categorize him as more of an "exceptionally smart person", so I won't hold him up as a target goal for you, but can you out-geek me? It shouldn't be too hard. I'm a total geek, but there were several categories that left my level of geekosity in the dust. Go ahead, join in the Geek-off. You know you want to be a geek. It's cool to be a geek.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Good Neighbors

Michael Totten pointed me to this new group blog that only started a week or so ago. The thing that makes it really interesting is the group involved:

Drima –Sudanese
Ramzi — Palestinian
Tif — Israeli
Big Pharaoh –Egyptian
Free Cedar –Lebanese
Yaser –Syrian
Shifaa –Jordanian
Yaeli –Israeli

Quite a combo, wouldn't you agree? The site is called Good Neighbors, and its purpose is to promote dialogue between people in the Middle East, but here, I'll let them describe their goal:
Welcome to Good Neighbors! Here you will find a communal effort designed to increase dialogue and understanding between all of the neighboring countries in the Middle East including Jordanians, Lebanese, Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians, Saudis, Iranians, and Syrians on a cross-country level, as well as to increase understanding, respect and dialogue among the various strata of society within our countries. This is a first of its kind region-building initiative and we invite you to pull up a chair and help make it a success!
I'm so heartened to see Israeli, Palestinian and Lebanese bloggers joining together, along with so many others. After the events of the summer, with so much military interaction, it's encouraging to see interaction of a more positive nature. It's a decided act of faith in the future, and the power of communication to overcome mutual ignorance, fear and enmity. In reading the posts from the past week at this fledgling enterprise, and the comments they've generated, I'm struck by how eager they all seem to understand one another and not let traditional animosities prevent progress toward peace in the troubled region where they all make their homes. Obviously, they would be positive about the prospects, or they wouldn't be joining together in this way, but hopefully they represent a much larger number of heretofore silent people who will read, comment and spread the word that there is a haven online for Middle Eastern people who seek common ground.

It'll be interesting to see where this thing goes. I suspect I won't agree with a fair portion of the opinions I see published there. What I've read there so far is rather socialist for my own political bent, and I could use a few less negative assumptions about President Bush and those who agree with his policies, but I'm willing to let that slide and observe this experiment in cross-cultural communication, because I very much admire its intent. (I'm glad to see Big Pharaoh as part of this group. His blog has been a favorite of mine for a while now.) Anyway, thought I'd let you all know that there are some friendly kids who just set up house down the street, and they're hoping to be Good Neighbors.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Smart People Predict The Future

In keeping with the theme of the past few posts, here's another Smart People link. This time I'm sending you to, for a set of forecasts, from "70 of the world's most brilliant scientists," about what revolutionary changes and advances in understanding we'll be seeing in the wonderful world of science over the next fifty years. Each of the 70 gives a taste of what the future may hold, or what they hope it holds, in their field of expertise. Understanding the origins of the universe is a common preoccupation among the smart set. The question of whether we are alone or coexisting with aliens, even hosting creatures from other planets right here on Earth, is another popular area of speculation, and parallel universes can't stay off the radar either. Medical breakthroughs are a hot topic--conquering illness and aging gets its share of anticipatory attention. Even the mystery of prime numbers gets a mention--solving it that is. (For those of you who didn't know there was a mystery to prime numbers, read the blurb by Marcus du Sautoy.) Cognitive neuroscience is also a very fashionable item of interest among these Smart People prognosticators. Energy, aliens, space travel, drug-implanted false memories, artificial intelligence--this is a geek smorgasbord, but don't worry; the articles are all very short and non-detailed, so it's more of a low-calorie smorgasbord, and there won't be a test. Yum.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

More Ideas From Smart People!!

Have you ever wished that you could charge all your chargeables with the same device, instead of having ten different cords plugged into ten different outlets? Wouldn't it be especially nifty if that universal charger were wireless and automatic? No more being tied to the wall. No more having all the videos from Christmas taken from the same awkward angle because you didn't remember to charge the camcorder and the only accessible plug-in is behind the tree. No more losing important documents because you forgot to hit "save" and your laptop battery unexpectedly bit the dust. No more sitting in that really hot sunny spot by the dining room window because your cell phone started to die during an important call and that's as far as the power cord you frantically hunted down and plugged into the nearest outlet would reach. Ahhh. Electronic freedom--the stuff dreams are made of.

Needless to say, the reason I'm bringing this up is because there are Smart People working on it. Celeste Biever, at, writes that Marin Soljacic at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (have I mentioned before how much I love cut and paste?) is working on a method called "evanescent coupling" to liberate chargeable electronic devices from their base stations and allow them to start refilling their energy coffers as soon as you walk in your door. What is evanescent coupling you ask? Something magical and useful all at the same time, and complicated, using magnetic fields and resonant frequencies and other things like capacitors. I'm going to cheat and tell you to go read Biever's explanation for the detailed parts, but basically it involves sending a weak electromagnetic field out from the wireless charger, which resonates with a compatible device, allowing it to induce an electric current on the receiving end of the combination. That's probably enough for most of us "Not As Smart People" to believe that such a thing as wireless chargers could be possible, and to be grateful that we aren't the ones who have to figure out how to make it all work. For the rest of you, you probably already know how to make it work, and are wasting your time with this post, so go read the article at New Scientist.

I started thinking about all the gizmos that we use that need to be charged; drills, razors, dust-busters, toothbrushes, you name it, and imagined how very cool it would be to have them all released from cord bondage. If they were always charging, just by being in the house, they would never go dead. Cordless drills might actually be worth having, and the dust-buster might come back out of the dustbin. Then my imagination really got going, and I started to wonder whether this technology, once they actually get it beyond the theory stage, might deliver us from cords altogether. Could everything in the house someday have the proper resonance receptor? I don't see why not, and some Smart People should get right on that notion. The one other thing that occurred to me was to wonder what my Naturopath/Acupuncturist would think of having all those electromagnetic fields flying all over the house all the time. I better not tell him I'm sitting here with my laptop actually in my lap. Gasp!! Oh well, let's assign some really Smart People to figure out how to make personal electronic shields. Whaddya think?

Hat tip: Futurismic

A Giant Sunbrella

Do you ever stop and ask yourself, "What if all the climate prophets-of-doom are right?" What if all the worst fears about global warming come to pass and the world is threatened with killer temperatures, droughts, floods, and all the other scenarios that would make this time of partisan politics and the global War on Terror look like the good old days? One possibility, of course, is that a whole lot of humans would die off, and if people and their greenhouse gas-producing ways really are the root cause, then the Earth would balance itself out again with less pesky humans to mess things up. It could be, though, that humans aren't the culprits. It entirely possible that cosmic rays affect our climate, and phytoplankton could play their role, as well. Theories, theories, everywhere. Whether humans are the cause, or natural phenomenon over which we have no control, if the climate does warm up significantly (and I do believe that the words if and significantly are pretty important here), we might want to come up with some options to keep ourselves from becoming barbecue.

This is where the "smart people" enter the picture. NASA's Earth Observatory reports that University of Arizona astronomer Roger Angel has come up with a plan, a sort of emergency cooling system for the planet, which won him and his colleagues a NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts grant. The grant will be used to further study the possibility of sending trillions of small spacecraft up into orbit, to form a giant cloud that would act as a sunshade, diverting a portion of the Sun's rays away from the Earth:

The spacecraft would form a long, cylindrical cloud with a diameter about half that of Earth, and about 10 times longer. About 10 percent of the sunlight passing through the 60,000-mile length of the cloud, pointing lengthwise between the Earth and the sun, would be diverted away from our planet. The effect would be to uniformly reduce sunlight by about 2 percent over the entire planet, enough to balance the heating of a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere.
One cannot fault the scientific community for lacking ambition, wouldn't you agree? Angel has the specs all worked out for composition, steering and delivery, and if the plan flies "as is," with all the current concepts intact, it will only cost about $100 billion a year to turn on the global air conditioning, "about two-tenths of one percent of the global domestic product." It sounds as if, were the Earth in such dire straits that implementation of emergency plans became necessary, the world's economy could afford to pony up that much, especially if the alternative was going to be factor 2,000 sunscreen, and/or a return to a pre-Industrial Revolution way of life.

In "science time" it wouldn't even take too long to pull the shades, once we were sufficiently motivated. According to NASA, it would only take about ten years to deploy all the flyers necessary for the job, if they can get the twenty electromagnetic launchers up and running that they would need to send the little life-savers into position. Twenty-five years could see the whole project developed and installed, and with a useful life of approximately fifty years, we'd only have to replace it once or twice a century for the duration of the heat wave. How's that for value, huh? Your average patio umbrella certainly doesn't last that long. Of course, your average patio umbrella doesn't cost $100 billion a year, either.

It's kinda comforting to know that whether or not all our technology is the cause of the potential climate crisis that's got the world in a dither, all our technology may also be the thing that saves the day. Wouldn't it be amazingly sci fi if we did end up with the equivalent of a giant parasol keeping the Earth's head cool? Mind you, since the global warming and cooling fears trade off every few decades, in a few years time we're going to be hearing about scientists who are figuring out ways to catch a few extra rays from the Sun, amplify them, and turn on the equivalent of a global heat lamp. Either way, it will be scientists who come up with the schemes to save mankind. Smart people are so useful.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

That's Insulting!!

It seems that someone is always insulting Islam, doesn't it? Even when they're not. At least that's the view of Kemal Silay, an Ottoman and Modern Turkish Studies Professor at Indiana University, writing for TCS Daily. Silay, himself a Muslim, looks at a trumped up charge levelled against the Fifth Avenue Apple Store by an Islamist website, and says "the Islamist thought police" are "foolishly and maliciously" interpreting the architectural design of the store as "blatant insult to Islam." The store, you see, is in the shape of a cube, and thus too closely resembles the building in Mecca towards which Muslims pray. Even worse, customers sometimes refer to it as the "Apple Mecca." Could an insult to a religion get any more blatant? After all, the building couldn't possibly be designed to pay homage to the cube shaped computer that Apple put out in the nineties, and calling it the "Apple Mecca" couldn't refer to the fact it's the place to which Apple customers are drawn because of all it offers. Nope, it must be an insult to Islam. (Of course, as a Christian, I often get offended this way myself. I frequently find telephone poles an insult to Christianity, and have considered throwing a riot or two in protest.)

Silay is not happy with the Islamist ability to see insult where none is intended, and even where it is intended, makes it clear that he would rather his fellow Muslims spent their time more productively:

While Western civilization is inventing scientific and artistic marvels, the other wings of Islamism are preoccupied with inventing provocations in the hope of mobilizing otherwise ordinary Muslims. We have seen this before: the Muhammad cartoon controversy exhibited the same faulty reasoning but unfortunately it succeeded in turning thousands of Muslims to violent protests. This latest incident is one more in a growing list of examples of Muslims over-reacting, over- and mis-interpreting, jumping to conclusions and causing controversy over something innocent or innocuous.
Silay sees Islamism as the threat to Islam, rather than the Apple Store and other Western objects Islamists try to co-opt as tools in the propaganda wars. He rightly calls Islamism "the most dangerous global phenomenon of our time." Have a look at the rest of the article, if only to support the efforts of moderate Islam. I often want to pass on things like this when I find them, because I am always encouraged to see reasonable Muslim voices speaking out to counter the Islamist agenda. We need more of them, and we need to encourage their participation in the public forum. I know I'm risking "insult to Islam" by doing so, but since by some standards I insult Islam on a daily basis anyway by being a Christian, it's a risk I can live with.

Note: Sorry about the sarcasm on this one--although not sorry enough to rewrite this post. I'm apparently just in one of those moods. I'll try to tone it down now, though. Maybe.