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!!