Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Missing the give and take

Well, I have to admit, today is the first day I've actually missed participating in the Bilge discussions. Admittedly, as a very passionate partisan, I sometimes let my activity there overwhelm me... and getting banned for reacting badly to an insult (unrelated to the discussions) was probably not a bad thing... but there are a few threads going on there I wish I could participate in. One thread, talking about 'radical equality', is esepecially interesting.

My 'ban' gets lifted on the tenth of January (barring a New Year's Pardon), so I guess I ought to be as productive as possible between now and then.

Monday, December 28, 2009


I ordinarily shiver when people talk about 'values'. Most often, it's a word which is loaded with double meanings; 'my' values, not 'your' values... usually applied by some right wing conservative, most often to try to impose some religious or political viewpoint on others.

However, I've been seeing some TV ads lately, credited to 'www.forbetterlife'org', which seemed genuinely innocent, and quite beautifully done, so I did a little digging. Eventually, it led me to, which at first, caught me by surprise.

It represents an organization called 'Foundation for a Better Life', and after exhaustively searching, I find nothing sinister or hidden about it. It claims to be privately and anonymously funded, doesn't accept donations, doesn't have a link to any other similar organizations, and is not affiliated with any religion... yet it expounds on a long list of 'values' for which I think no one could find fault. The ads and billobards it produces are beautiful, with simple, heartfelt sentiments, and very high production values.

For several years now, I've often engaged in heated debates with religious folks who argue that my agnosticism means that I have no moral absolutes, and therefore can't appreciate values.

The stuff on this site proves them wrong.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Seasons Greetings to my Bilge friends

It's been pointed out to me that I've received a few 'Seasons Greetings' myself, from my friends in 'The Bilge' (who constitute most of the population down there). So, I'd like to extend the same to them, and wish them a very happy Christmas holiday. I suppose I'll be back there when my ban ends... sometime in the New Year.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

2009, the 'half true' year

As something of a politics junkie, one of my favorite websites is The fine folks there vet the statements of politicians and other notables, assigning ratings of their statements ranging from 'true' down to 'pants on fire'.

In today's post, the reflect on the scoring for 2009, a rather contentious year, and report that you hear the truth, or something resembling it, about half the time. Sounds about right, to me.

The Truth-O-Meter went red in 2009.
We mention red because that’s the meter’s color for our lowest ratings, False and Pants on Fire. Of the 432 fact-checking items we published this year, 26 percent were rated False and 10 percent earned a Pants on Fire.

That means more than one-third of all the claims we checked were incorrect.
Another way to look at it: The truth took a beating in 2009.

That was particularly true in the debate over health care, where nearly 40 percent of claims were rated False or Pants on Fire.

And if you’re relying on pundits or talk show hosts for your facts, you might want to reconsider. More than 45 percent of their claims were False or Pants on Fire.

The social scientists on our staff (okay, there’s just one) discourage us from comparing this year’s ratings with last year, when we were focused on the presidential campaign. Our ratings are journalism, not social science, after all, and the items are chosen based on our news judgment and staffing, not randomly selected. But with that big caveat, it’s still interesting to note that we had a lower share of False and Pants on Fire ratings during the 2008 campaign – 24 percent – than the 36 percent in 2009, when we rated the Congressional debate and comments from the White House.

In case you’re scoring at home, here are the stats for 2009:

True 18%
Mostly True 14.5
Half True 17.5
Barely True 13.8
False 26.2
Pants on Fire 10.0

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Another writing tease

Bridget seems to enjoy these:


They grabbed her in the parking lot of her gym. It wasn’t difficult; they simply used a moving van to block the view of her car from the street. It was a well-practiced ploy, and the emigrant Russians from Bayside, Queens, New York, were experts at it. Ordinarily, they would be nabbing a recalcitrant shop owner who failed to pay his tribute to the Russian mob, or perhaps a drug dealer who wasn’t selling his quota. They more commonly used a lot more force, since their victims were going to be quite intentionally hurt; however, Casimir carefully instructed them to treat this Rosenbloom woman as if she was their own sister. One of the Russians laughed derisively and told Casimir that his own sister was a working girl, usually found hooking along the docks on the west side of Manhattan. Casimir feigned a hearty laugh with the other men, but inside was disgusted at the crudeness of the joke. Casimir never met these men, although he knew of them; Directorate 12 frequently supplied them with drugs, and took a piece of the profits in tribute. These men weren’t political or cultural refugees in America; they were criminals, plain and simple. It was easier for the authorities in Moscow to convince them that they would have greater criminal opportunities in New York than in Russia, while at the same time establishing a source of funds, via kickbacks on the drug business. From time to time, they could be called upon to do favors, although they certainly weren’t agents in the traditional sense.
Mimi had just opened the door of her car, and was in the process of throwing her gym bag into the back seat when she heard a male voice behind her. “Excuse me, miss, do you have a light?” the man asked. She turned and looked at him, in his 40’s, perhaps, thick ‘salt and pepper’ beard and fashionable leather jacket, gold chains exposed by an open shirt. The fact that his voice was heavily accented didn’t register with her, and she barely had time to begin to explain that she didn’t smoke, when the lights went out. A rough hand over her eyes, and stronger hands around her waist, dragged her into some vehicle that she heard screeching up to a halt beside her. More hands bound her ankles and wrists with cords, and a piece of tape was placed over her mouth before her head was covered with a black hood. Finally, she stopped struggling, and sat there, panting, terrorized, waiting. She could smell the leather jackets and the cigarette aroma lingering on these men.

Outside, Casimir stood around with the remaining men, who were lighting cigarettes and laughing. Casimir joked and kidded with them in the mother tongue, trying his best to be ‘one of the boys’, despite his seething resentment and hate for these men who were nothing but common criminals with an uncommon connection.

“Good work, comerades” Casimir complimented them.

“Who is the bitch?” a short, broad shouldered man asked.

Casimir thought quickly, devising a story even as he spoke. “Oh, just a secretary. We want some information on her boss. We’re going to convince her to cooperate. We’re good at convincing people like that,” Casimir replied, laughing.

“If she doesn’t cooperate, let me know,” one of the men told him. “My nephew runs a stable in the Bronx. The bitch would bring in a lot of money,” the man explained. “We can turn her into a whore easily,” he snickered.

Casimir nodded. “I’ll let you know, but I suspect I’ll be successful. OK, get over to the airport. The jet is waiting, and I should be along in a half hour or so. You guys did bring a change of clothes, didn’t you? The jackets are nice, but you’ll look out of place where we’re going,” Casimir told them disapprovingly. The men looked sheepishly at each other. “Never mind,” Casimir advised them, “just get over there and wait for me. I’ll see you shortly.”

The other men hopped into the moving van, and pulled out of the parking lot. Casimir turned and got into the limousine, sitting alongside a quivering and shaking Miss Rosenbloom. He spoke to Viktor in Russian, who was already in the driver’s seat, telling him to drive out towards Bethesda, Maryland. Casimir then pressed the button to raise the glass partition between Viktor and the rear compartment. He pulled out a woolen ski mask, placing it over his head carefully. Then he spoke to her in an assured voice, his practiced English bearing only a slight accent.

“Miss Rosenbloom, let me assure you, you are not going to be hurt in any way. I simply need to speak with you about an important matter. Please try to calm down. I know all of this is quite frightening, but I promise you’re completely safe,” Casimir told her. He could see that his words did a great deal to calm her, although her chest was still heaving, and her breath was still ragged.

“I’d like to remove the hood from your head, and the tape from your mouth. First, let me tell you that I’ve put on a ski mask so you won’t be able to identify me. I realize the mask looks a bit threatening, but I promise it’s meant only for anonymity and not for any sinister purpose. Do you understand?” Casimir waited. After a few moments, he said, “Please nod if you’ve understood what I said.”

Mimi nodded slowly. The fear was soaking through her, but for some strange reason, this man’s voice seemed somehow safe and reassuring. She was calming now; still frightened, but able to deal with the situation.

“All right, then. I’m going to remove the hood. You’re in a limousine, by the way, and we’re simply taking a ride down the highway so we can chat. After our chat, you’ll be dropped off at a safe place. The police will be called shortly, and no doubt they’ll pick you up. We want nothing to happen to you, Miss Rosenbloom, so you can feel safe,” Casimir continued, in calm tones.

Mimi felt the hood being lifted. She saw him, a tall man, trim, dressed in a business suit, but incongruously wearing a ski mask. She recognized the highway as being the road to Bethesda. She couldn’t see the driver; the glass partition was heavily smoked to preclude forward visibility. She was beginning to feel strangely calm now, reasoning that this would hardly be the behavior of someone with sinister intentions.

“Here, let me remove the tape from your mouth. I’ll try to be gentle,” Casimir assured her. He began to peel back the tape, and Mimi assisted by wetting the adhesive near her mouth with her tongue. Finally the tape was off, and Mimi could breathe easily.

“What do you want from me?” she asked, in a quavering voice.

“Allow me to introduce myself,” Casimir replied. “I’m an official of another government. It ought to be obvious which government that is, based on the accents of my comrades. While I certainly can’t reveal my real name, you can call me Uncle Jonas, practically everyone in our business does,” Casimir explained.

“What do you want with me?” Mimi protested in a thin voice. “I’m just a statistician. I work for the State Department. I don’t know anything,” she protested, unconvincingly mouthing the cover story she had been given at Langley. An instant later, she realized that it had been foolish to blurt out her cover story before she was even asked.

“Miss Rosenbloom, this will be a very long drive if we insist on maintaining such foolish pretenses. I confess I don’t know precisely what you are, and you could indeed be a statistician, although you work for the NSA, not the State Department, and there would be very little point in denying it. Can we drop this posturing and move on?” Casimir was chiding her, sensing that she was bright enough to understand when, in American parlance, ‘the jig was up’.

“All right, I won’t obsess about who my employer is, but I’m not admitting anything. I told you the truth when I said I don’t know anything,” she maintained.

Casimir sighed. “All right, then, perhaps you might just listen for a moment. I think I can prove that I’m aware of whom you work for, and that we share a common interest. That interest happens to be related to an unsolved murder in southern California, in the desert. A place called Euston. A dead man, and a radar gun. A defective radar gun. I can see by your eyes that you understand what I’m talking about.”

Mimi was truly frightened now. How could anyone know about her interest in this mystery? Had she gone and done something incredibly stupid and naïve, by pressing her investigation without getting permission from Corbin?

“Well,” Casimir continued, “it so happens that I have an interest in this case, too. I know very little about it. However, I have other information. Profound information. Are you listening?”

Mimi nodded slowly.

“All right. I hope that you share this information with your superiors. I believe that a small radical group is going to commit an act of terrorism against the United States. It will be a very serious act of terrorism. There’s a relationship between this terrorist act, and the incident in California. Don’t bother to deny it; I know you’ve been investigating the Euston Borehole incident. But I doubt you know anything about the terrorist act.”

Mim was stunned by this revelation. Not knowing just what to do, she decided to play along. “All right, suppose this is true,” she replied. “Suppose I have been investigating some incident. What is this terrorist act? Tell me and we’ll put a stop to it.”

“Ah, there’s the problem,” Casimir countered. “For reasons I will not reveal, I can’t tell you anything more about it. In fact, I don’t expect your organization to be able to stop it, and I don’t even want you to try. My organization will stop this terrorist act, before it happens. But we will need your help. You have access to information. Powerful computers.” Mimi cringed as he said the word computer, wondering if this stranger had any inkling whatsoever about the Inference Engine. “You can give us the information to defuse the situation.”

“How can we possibly help, if you won’t tell us what the situation is all about,” Mimi asked. “I doubt my superiors are going to blindly supply some unknown individual any information, just on his word…”

“There’s nothing more I can say. After you’re released, you’ll undoubtedly tell your superiors what happened to you, and you’ll relay my plea. They’ll have to decide if it’s worth taking the risk or not,” Casimir told her.

“Why do you want to help?” Mimi asked. “What do you care if a terrorist act is committed in the United States?”

Casimir sighed heavily, and responded softly. “It is in no one’s interest to see such a thing happen. It took us nearly 40 years to get past the animosity and suspicions of the Cold War. No one can benefit by another holocaust. I wish that I could tell you everything, and make it easier to intercept this potential disaster, but I can’t. As incredible and unlikely as it seems, your organization will have to trust us. We’re trying to help you and save lives. Many lives. More than you can possibly imagine.”

Mimi was confused. “What am I supposed to tell them?”

“Tell them that they need to investigate. There’s a radical right wing group, possibly called ‘The Sons of Paul Revere’, and located in Montana. They’re indirectly involved. There’s an Arab who has recently been in Montreal, by the name of Mahmoud Al-Najjar. He’s involved. You need to find out who else is involved. And tell us. Give us the names. Tell us where they are.”

Mimi ‘s mind was working frantically, trying to memorize the slivers of information being handed her, while at the same time trying to remember the details of this stranger’s appearance, in hopes it might help to identify him.

“How will I get in touch with you?” she asked him.

“You won’t. I’ll call you,” he responded. “At your home, or on your cellular phone. In a day or so. Please go to your superiors immediately. Tell them what I’ve told you. It could possibly be a matter of days, so we need to act fast, very fast.”

Casimir tapped on the glass partition, and in a moment, the car slowed and pulled into a strip mall alongside the highway. “Do you see the pay phone at the end of the building?” he asked her. “If you wait there, the local police will be by for you shortly. I suggest you tell them nothing, other than that you are lost and need a lift home. Don’t bother to look at the license plate of this car, it’s a stolen vehicle and we’re going to abandon it shortly anyhow. Trust me, neither the car nor I will be traceable. We’re professionals, I’m sure you realize by now.”

Casimir took out a pocketknife and cut the cords binding Mimi’s wrists and ankles. He took the woman’s hand in his own, giving it a firm and warm squeeze, which Mimi found strangely reassuring. “We’re on the same side in this effort, Miriam. You haven’t the slightest reason to believe me or trust me, except by reason of intuition. I hope that intuition convinces you of my sincerity. God knows we must succeed. Good bye.”

Casimir opened the door. She stepped out quickly, and the limo sped away.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Not an ordinary cold

I figured that I had simply caught a cold from either my 4 month old granddaughter, or my 2 year old grand-nephew, both of whom have had the usual winter colds in the last few weeks. So after playing with both of them last weekend (with the usual drool and wet kisses, etc), I figured that Monday morning's sore throat, tingling ears, and general malaise were just ordinary symptoms.

But it got progressively worse during the week. I figured I could hold off until tomorrow, when I happened to have my annual physical scheduled... but Saturday and Sunday were much worse.... the aching chest from the coughing, and the sore throat and painful ears, were so bad, I resorted to some Percocet left over from my knee surgery last year. Gotta admit, it worked wonderfully, and at least I was able to be comfortable yesterday.... albeit asleep for much of the day and evening.

So, I'm in my office, waiting for a call-back from my doctor... hoping he can fit me in today. There are no more pain-killers, so unless he is able to diagnose an infection or something treatable with an antibiotic, I'm going to be in misery until this thing lifts.

UPDATE: The Doc says it's a bacterial bronchitis, and that's a good thing, because if it were viral, it would take a lot longer to resolve. I started Azithromycin yesterday, and feel slightly better today... it's been eight days now. Hoping I'll feel a LOT better tomorrow.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Still another writing sample

Bridget made me do it! :)


Casimir trudged up the gravel road leading to the cabin, smelling the strong scent of Norwegian pines in the air. It was late in the afternoon, and even in the early autumn, darkness descends early at these latitudes. He could see lamps burning through the windows, and a few wisps of smoke from the chimney, and imagined that the cabin would be warm and comfortable inside, a welcome respite from the chill autumn air. As he approached, he could begin to make out girlish laughter, alternated with giggling and shrieking, the sounds of a young woman, being teased, toyed with.

Casimir pulled out his 9mm automatic and switched off the safety, as a precaution. He had no reason to expect to need it, but it had been a long time since he had done any fieldwork, and decided that he would be best if he erred on the side of caution. Pausing at the front door of the cabin, he gathered his courage, and quietly pushed the unlatched door open. Stepping inside, he saw no one in the living room, but clearly heard the sounds of a playful tussle coming from a room in back, which he guessed was the bedroom.
Suddenly, a tall, thin young girl with dazzlingly pale blonde hair appeared, laughing and running out of the bedroom, stark naked except for a pair of black lace panties, carrying what might have been a sweatshirt. She turned and saw Casimir, glanced at the weapon in his hand, and let out a shrill scream, freezing in her tracks. Casimir moved quickly to the doorway, just in time to see Alex, clad only in a pair of boxer shorts, trying to reach into a drawer at the nightstand, as the girl continued to scream, with gasping ragged breaths in between.
Casimir clicked back the hammer of the automatic, and quickly shouted "There will be no need for that, my dear nephew. I'd advise you to leave it alone."

Alex heard the click from the gun, froze, breathing hard, and dropped the revolver he was trying to retrieve, realizing he was simply too late. The young girl was no longer screaming, but was now whimpering, holding the sweatshirt up to her breasts, crouching and shivering, tears streaming from her eyes.
"Relax, nephew. I'm your Uncle Jonas. You were expecting me, were you not?"
Alex nodded slowly, realizing whom the intruder was. "It's all right, Bibi. Everything is OK. It's only my uncle. He's harmless, really." Alex managed to produce a short convulsive laugh, more to calm the girl than for any other reason. The young girl quieted just a bit, but her chest was heaving, eyes wide open, frightened. Alex walked over to the girl, pulling her behind him, trying to shield her nakedness from his visitor.
"Bibi, you'd better get dressed and go, for now. I need to speak with my uncle. Meet me at the boat later, around 7 PM, we'll have more privacy there."
The girl nodded, snatching the rest of her clothes from the floor, and disappearing into the bathroom. Alex turned to Casimir and said angrily, "That's a hell of a way to greet me. If I was any quicker, one of us would be bleeding out on the floor right now."
Casimir breathed hard, laboring, feeling the pulse of his heartbeat resonating through his body. He released the hammer of the automatic, carefully allowing it to drop back to the rest position, and switched the safety back on. "I'm sorry, nephew. I don't ordinarily get out like this, and as you probably already know, I'm a cautious man."
Alex was already pulling on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, as Bibi reappeared, fully dressed now, but still obviously shaken from the experience. Alex turned to her and said, "Don't forget. Meet me at 7 PM, down at the boat. Will you be there?" The girl slowly nodded, never taking her eyes off of Casimir, and disappeared out the front door.
Casimir holstered his gun, pulled off his overcoat, and sat down in a club chair in the living room. In a corner of the room, he spotted a desk with two large computer screens, each doing a slow dance with a geometric screensaver, incongruous among the rustic furnishings of the cabin. Alex crossed over to a cabinet near the fireplace, pulling out a bottle of clear liquid and two glasses. Handing one to Casimir, he poured out several fingers of aquavit, then poured for himself before replacing the bottle. Alex flopped down onto the nearby couch, still breathing a bit hard from the experience.
"Thanks, for coming, uncle. I've always wanted to meet you face to face. The Director himself. The main man in our little theatrical exercise," Alex said with a sly smile.
"There had better be a damned good reason for dragging me out here, my young friend," Casimir sternly replied, wanting to maintain something of a posture over this young fool.
"Ah, but there is, uncle, a very good reason. But first, don't you want to inquire as to my health and comfort?" Alex was cynically teasing now.
"It looks as if you're quite comfortable, and judging from the company you've been keeping, quite healthy. She's a bit young, wouldn't you say? Is she legal here in Norway?" Casimir sneered.
Alex laughed. "Beautiful, isn't she? Classic Norwegian beauty. Delectable. Barely legal. Of course, you interrupted what was promising to be a very satisfying afternoon at home. No matter, I'll see her later. Or someone else. There are many like her, here in Norway, one of the reasons I chose this place for my initial retirement. Speaking of which, I suppose I have you to thank for securing my retirement with that small deposit you made to the Banque Du Lucerne?
Casimir took a sip of the surprisingly fiery liquor and nodded, "Indeed, you do, although I'd hardly call it a small deposit, dear nephew."
"I don't wish to appear to be ungrateful, uncle. But the figure I was thinking of was substantially larger, say, five times as large," Alex ventured, watching Casimir to gauge his reaction.
Casimir reddened. "I love you like any uncle would love a nephew," Casimir spat out sarcastically, "but don't think for a moment that our 'family relationship' would prevent me from applying some rather severe discipline to such an insubordinate youngster. I'm sure you know how severe the discipline could be." Casimir was fighting the urge to pull out his nine-millimeter automatic and simply end this exasperating charade, with a well-placed shot between the eyes.
"Relax, uncle, I didn't drag you out here to merely put the bite on you. I'm not stupid. I know precisely what discipline you're referring to. No, I asked you to come here because I have information for you. Information you'll be grateful to receive. And I would hope that your gratitude would be expressed in substantive ways," Alex said.
"I've been known to be grateful in the past, nephew," Casimir responded. "Depending, of course, on the value of your information." Casimir was piqued now, interested to learn what Shirovsky had to tell him.
"I suspect, uncle, that the information would be worth the figure I proposed to you a moment ago. Worth even more than that, but I'm not greedy. It's just that I'm easily bored. I want to travel. Spend a bit of time in other places. Spend a bit of time with the women in other places. My present funds don't quite allow me that flexibility," Alex explained.
"I see," Casimir said, resignedly. "Planting your wild oats in every country of the world? Is that what you had in mind?"
"Something like that, Uncle. Oh, yes, I need one other small favor from you. A Swiss passport. I'm afraid these Argentinean documents you provided are something less than convincing. I barely managed to escape the suspicions of the Norwegian immigration officers. A Swiss passport might make my retirement travel a bit easier."
Casimir nodded. "Those sorts of documents are hard to come by. But it might be arranged. Depending upon just what you're going to deliver, nephew," Casimir replied.
"For some reason, I trust you," Alex volunteered. "And I'm not normally a trusting soul. Which is why I insured my retirement, and my safety, by planting little deposits in hundreds of computers worldwide. Guarantees, so to speak. Just making sure that my loving uncle wouldn't turn on me in my retirement. But, as I said, uncle, I trust you." Casimir became very uncomfortable, wondering just what this brilliant and egotistic computer expert might have done.
Alex returned to the cabinet, getting out the bottle to refresh their drinks. "First, I need to make an admission to you, uncle. I know a great deal more about the play than you think I do. It seems that your computer security isn't particularly good. At least it isn't adequate to keep a top rank hacker like me from getting through the firewalls. I know all about the scenes that were written out of the script on the 1960's and 1970's. I've read every one of those scenes. Does this surprise you, uncle?"
Casimir looked hard at the young man. "Yes, I am a bit surprised. You're better at your craft than I thought you were. Nonetheless, it worries me that you were able to read that material at all. Could others do it? Surely you're not the greatest 'hacker', as you say, in the western world.
"Relax, uncle," Alex reassured him. "I wouldn't have been able to get in without having some inside contacts. I don't think anyone on the outside could have gotten in."
Casimir didn't feel especially reassured, but he wanted the young man to continue. "All right, so you've read the scripts. What of it?"
Alex continued, "You recall a script from the 1960's called ‘The Egg Drop'?"
Casimir swallowed hard, and nodded. "We wrote it out of the play. On moral grounds. We'd never perform such a scene."
Alex snickered derisively. “On moral grounds? Now that’s a joke. Not that I care, mind you. I have no relatives or friends on the West Coast, and I frankly don't care about these things, as long as I'm nowhere nearby. But I wanted you to know that I know about it."
“All right, so you know about it. And now I know you know about it. Is there a reason I should care?" asked Casimir.
"I'll explain," Alex said. "As you can see, I have a good connection to the Internet, here in Norway," and he pointed to the desk in the corner, the computer screens still doing their mesmerizing dance of geometric patterns. "I've been keeping tabs on FBI telecommunications traffic back in the United States. I don't like surprises, and even though my retirement scene was carefully planned, I don't believe in taking chances. I want to be sure that the missing twenty five thousand dollars isn't traced to me here."
"You can tap into FBI computers?" asked Casimir, somewhat surprised.
"Not into their computers, per se. But I can tap into the communications that flows into their computers. Facsimiles and e-mail. I monitor as much of that traffic as I can, searching for any information that might warn me that I’ve been compromised. Thankfully, I haven’t seen anything with my name on it,” Alex assured him.
“I still don’t see where this is going, nephew. You’re trying my patience.” Casimir was exasperated.
“I’m getting to it, uncle. A few days ago, I happened across a facsimile sent from a police chief in southern California, to the FBI field office in Boston, Massachusetts. It seems that there was a murder. A dead man was found in the desert, shot in the head. He was lying next to a borehole. There were bolt cutters lying nearby, indicating that someone was trying to get into the borehole by breaking the lock on the cover. Oh, yes, the man was Palestinian, connected with Muslim fundamentalists.”
“Why was this facsimile going to the Boston FBI office?” asked Casimir.
Alex replied, “Because the dead man was a student at MIT, studying engineering. And he entered the country with a student visa claiming Pakistani citizenship, although he wasn’t Pakistani, he was Palestinian. One more thing, uncle, they found a police radar gun nearby, although it was apparently defective. One of the investigating officers tried it, and it didn’t work.”
Casimir nodded slowly, understanding why Shirovsky demanded to see him. “So, you think there’s a connection? Just because a man was found dead near a borehole... there are hundreds of boreholes in the western United States. Why do you think there’s a connection?
Alex shrugged, “I don’t know. There might be no connection whatsoever. But after reading the ‘Egg Drop’ scene, I’d say it would be something you’d want to know about. Critically important to you, don’t you think?”
“I can see your point, nephew,” Casimir replied. “Do you have a clue as to what the radar gun was all about?”
“Not really,” replied Alex, “although perhaps a radar gun could be used to check and see if the borehole was clear and usable. I don’t really know.”
Casimir took a long pull at his aquavit, grimacing as the fiery liquid slid down his throat. His head was spinning from pondering the possibilities and consequences of what might be occurring. “All right, nephew, I apologize for my impatience. You’re right; of course, it’s information that I’m grateful for. You did the right thing by summoning me,” Casimir assured him.
“Are you grateful enough to grant me the request I made at the outset?” asked Alex.
“All of this could be nothing, purely coincidental, “Casimir replied. “If it is, I’ll be the happiest person on the face of the earth. But until we find out what is going on here, none of us will be completely safe. Obviously you have certain skills, which surpass even our most experienced engineers and programmers. If you assist me in getting to the bottom of this, regardless of the outcome, I’ll grant your request for the higher level of funding.”
“And the Swiss passport?” Alex asked.
Casimir nodded. “Yes, the Swiss passport. You’ll be able to threaten the honor and virginity of every young girl in the entire world,” he said, snickering.
Alex beamed. “Uncle, I’ll never forget your generosity. And I’ll certainly assist you in your investigations; it will give me something interesting to do while I await my reward. Aside from chasing Bibi, that is.”
Casimir sighed, “All right, very well. I’m grateful I have no daughters to be threatened. Here’s what I want you to do, however. I want you to keep on monitoring, keep on looking for any references to this situation that you can find. But more importantly, I need you to identify someone.”
“Identify?” Alex asked quizzically. “What do you mean?”
“Chances are good that this incident has not escaped the notice of someone in the office in Langley, Virginia. My counterparts there probably have taken notice, especially because of the citizenship of the dead man. I want you to find out who, in Langley, is asking the questions. The case officer, if you can find the name.”
Alex furrowed his brow deeply. “A case officer in the NSA? The folks in Langley are much, much better at this game than those in Moscow, uncle. It won’t be easy, and it might not even be possible.”
Casimir nodded. “Well, accept it as a challenge, nephew. A challenge slightly harder than getting into the panties of the local young girls. You enjoy a challenge, don’t you?”
Alex smiled and nodded. “I’ll do what I can, uncle.”

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Where did the deficit come from?

The graph makes it especially clear: around 40% of the deficit comes from Bush launching two wars, while at the same time, slashing taxes for the wealthy. The rest comes from the recession and the efforts to combat it. Anyone who doesn't think Obama didn't inherit this mess is practicing self-delusion:

Tragically un-hip

Let's face it: a 58 year old father and grandfather isn't likely to be viewed as especially contemporaneous, in the eyes of his children. I still don't know what a 'schizzle' is. I can't name a rap song, other than the ones Wierd Al Yankovic has parodied. When 'Entertainment Tonight' comes on the TV, I've never heard of the vast majority of celebrities that they are scooping. My favorite movies are B&W films of the 1940's, and neither of my daughters will even attempt to watch a black & white film. When they Skype me while I'm in my office, I'm usually wearing a headband-mounted magnifier (needed for circuit board work), which they call my 'geek glasses'.

However, I'm not quite that bad... I own a TiVo, an iPod, and iPhone, a Kindle, and an HDTV. This doesn't place me in the pantheon of hip, but it at least doesn't leave me in the dust. I'm also big on email, Skype, and text messaging, so we do have a few things in common.

For the first time, though, I think I'm ahead of the curve!

I've been into acapella for the past two or three years; my iPod probably has at least 50 acapella pieces on it. My daughters have paid no attention. Yet, this week, NBC launched a miniseries of sorts, a contest among acapella groups. For once, my interests have led the awareness of the masses!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

My Partners

"An Irishman, a Scotsman, and a Jew walk into a bar...."

I've been trying to come up with a joke to match that intro line, but can't think of one.

It is a strange partnership, for sure. Bob and Mark are, in many ways, as unlike me as humanly possible, but we share a common vision, attitude, and philosophy (on everything except politics, which is why I tend not to talk politics with either of them).

Bob is the Irishman, and I've known him since the very first day of my career, on April 4th, 1974. At that time, I was a wet-behind-the ears electrical engineer at my first job, designing test equipment for a well known electronics company. Bob was a bench technician, building and debugging the equipment, and he worked on some of my designs. We both progressed in our careers through very different pathways; Bob, with no college degree, managed to eventually get into the Marketing department and trade his jeans and t-shirt for a shirt and tie. Within a short time, he elevated himself in Marketing, went into sales, left the company, came back to the company.... he was on a roll. In 1992, when, utterly burnt out, I decided to leave the company and form my own, Bob was the first guy I called. I wanted him to be the marketing/sales guy for my new firm. He agreed, although within a couple of months, it became clear that he wasn't in a position to tear himself away from his well-paying job, and take the risk, so we parted company, amicably. I regretted that it didn't work out; Bob has a really wonderful sense of humor and a hearty laugh, and despite the fact that I jokingly call him a 'right wing fascist', he's a sincere and warm-hearted guy.

Fast forward to late 2008, when he gave me a call and invited me to dinner. At that time, it was just a re-connect with an old friend. It turned out that he had eventually joined a startup, was able to buy in for a small percentage, and 11 years later, the company was sold, leaving him a huge pile of cash. A few months after that dinner, he called me again, and once again invited me to dinner... this time, with a product idea. It wasn't fully fleshed out, and Bob was no longer really a technologist, so he needed an EE. At about the same time, I was running out of consulting work due to the recession, so I was immediately interested.

Mark, the Scotsman, was the third guy in on the deal. Affable, congenial, ruddy-faced and optimistic, Mark invited me to lunch, ostensibly to 'vet' me as a potential partner. Mark was also a veteran of his own startup, which had been recently sold, and although he was now a VP for the company that bought it, he was eager and anxious to do something different. I got along with Mark immediately... all three of us seemed to have very much the same business philosophy, and the same attitude about life.

By February of 2009, I was essentially committed, and we incorporated as an LLC. I can't say I was completely convinced, but Bob and Mark's excitement and optimism about the product was contagious... and once we had some functional prototypes to show to prosepective customers, I caught the fever as well.

So, about that joke... any suggestions? :)

One last writing sample

"We've had two blow-outs, in one day, no less."

Vasily Chernenko slumped into the guest chair in Casimir Pliskin's office in Moscow, slowly and heavily, as if the weight of the world rested upon his shoulders. He sighed deeply, dejected eyes staring at the dull linoleum on the ancient office floor.

"Comrade, the world isn't coming to an end," Casimir advised. "This isn't even a minor Armegeddon. Blow-outs happen all the time, there's nothing to be done to prevent them. We simply have to cope with them as they happen. Look at the bright side; you now have the maneuvering room to try out some of the scenes you've been working on. Do you have the reports?"

"Here they are." Chernenko summoned up the energy to lean forward and toss the yellow folder onto Casimir's desk, then, falling back into the guest chair, searched his coat pockets for a cigarette and matches. Casimir pushed the ashtray toward his young friend as he flipped through the folder contents.

"Let's deal with these one at a time. Tell me about Popov, he was an old actor, wasn't he?"

"One of the oldest, actually. He was responsible for 5 scenes, all overt, but the blowout occurred on one of the best of them. The scene was a water system hallucinogenic vector. The nearby community has a very high concentration of high technology executives. Popov was caught by a municipal worker during one of his regular tests. The worker is dead, although it is uncertain if anything was compromised"

"According to the report here, Popov stated that no compromise occurred. Do you have reason to disbelieve him?"

Vasily shrugged. "I suppose not. Still, each time these things happen, I can't help but shake the feeling that we're closer to the precipice than yesterday." Vasily inhaled deeply on his cigarette, and exhaled the smoke straight up into the air until a mushroom cloud rose over his head. Casimir momentarily reflected on the irony of the symbolism.

Where's Popov now?"

"In Costa Rica, as planned. He reported on time, and according to the book. He extends his sincerest apologies. The field agent there stated that Popov was sincerely regretful, but composed, and showed no sign of instability."

"Have you reviewed his record?" inquired Casimir.

"Exemplary. He's Russian born, a patriot all the way. No black marks."

"Well, it seems to me that Comrade Popov has justly deserved his retirement. I see no reason why we don't follow through. Let the field agent deliver the good news. I presume he will co operate in the transfer of his other scenes to new actors."

"He explicitly stated he would, in the report." Vasily replied.

Casimir responded, "Well, my friend, I don't see why you're particularly distressed about all of this. I agree, it's a shame about the blowout, but all of the contingency plans have played out exactly according to the script. What about the other one?"

"This is the one which I find most distressing. Aleksander Shirovsky, American born, son of a consulate employee. Calls himself Alex Shirer. Very young, only one scene, just four years old."

"I know this one, I helped to design it. This is the fellow with the computer expertise. He's the one who feeds Directorate 17 the information about economic activity. It’s a telecommunications tap of extraordinary sensitivity."

"Yes, that's it." Vasily responded. "An extraordinary scene. Shirovsky not only had an active tap for some exceptionally useful information, but his scene was one of the most powerful in the entire play. Capitalists live and die by their dollars, you know. Shirovsky had his finger on the switch.”

"Chernenko, you're such a hypocrite." Casimir's voice was stern now. "You and I both know why we do this work. We're in it for the perquisites. Don't you travel first class when you're researching a scene? Don't you rent luxury cars and book the best hotel rooms? Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't your suitcase bulge with Western consumer products, as you bypass the custom officers on the way back? My God, Vasily, isn't that a Movado watch you're wearing on your wrist? How can you pontificate about greedy capitalists? It seems to me that you've been contaminated by the Western influence worse than the rest of us." Casimir shook his head, as if to sadly reflect on the state of such affairs.

Vasily cringed at the stinging accusation, and seemed to attempt to shrink his arm back into his jacket so that the watch wouldn't show.

Casimir instantly regretted his tirade. "I'm sorry, comrade. I'm really not as cynical as that might have sounded. There was a time when patriotic considerations dominated my thinking, and I'm now as morally corrupt as anyone, I suppose. Please forgive me, and tell me more about this Shirovsky fellow. Where is he now?"

Vasily's countenance lightened somewhat, and he continued his narrative. "He's on a fijord near Oslo. The local agent hasn't debriefed him yet. His contingency plans called for a relatively high level of escape funding, so he' s probably OK for a while. Of course, he will be awaiting his pension."

"How old is this fellow? What was his lifestyle?" Casirnir inquired.

"32 years old, something of a rogue, the field agents report. Likes to chase the women. No long-term relationships. Politically, he's an atheist. He’s about as different from Popov as two actors can be".

Casimir thought for a moment. "Well, I suppose I see your concern here. This fellow is too young to retire, and might be something of a thrill seeker, perhaps he'll become trouble in the future. What about the blowout, is there any evidence to believe that he might have precipitated it himself?"

"This was my greatest concern." Vasily replied. "Shirovsky's scene was highly technical, and even the experts would have a difficult time confirming or debunking his story. Furthermore, we've lost an important asset, one that will be difficult to replace. Still, I have no specific reason to believe he caused this accident on his own."

"Tell me about his pension expectations,” Casimir inquired. “What does he believe he's getting?"

"We promised him a third tier amount, comfortable, but not luxurious by Western standards,” Vasily informed him. “Also, it' s not in the form of a funded annuity, so he will be depending upon our honor and good will to deliver."

"Well, clearly that was a mistake." Casimir replied. "This fellow is not going to sit in a cabin in Norway, abusing himself, or the local women, for very long. The first thing we should do is to instruct the field agent to tell Shirovsky that his pension will be funded by deposit in Geneva. We'll show some good will to begin with, perhaps that will reassure him."

Vasily offered, "I'll be talking with the Scandinavian agent manager myself, this afternoon, so I'll inform him personally."

"Good. The next thing we need to do is to see if we can't find a European scene that he can participate in, and offer him a significant bonus to delay his full retirement. A fellow this bright needs something to occupy his time beyond the women, and his skills might be put to better use. Besides, we will be in a better position to watch him for any signs of instability."

"Will you be reporting this to the Producer?” Vasily inquired.

"Of course, I'll have to inform him that we've lost the scene. I'll keep the personal characterization of Shirovsky our little secret, however. He would probably expect us to cancel his contract, and I frankly don't care to do that unless there's an obvious and imminent danger. The rest of the work we do here, my young friend, can be thought of as something of a game, but contract cancellations are a serious business, and I don't much care to participate. Besides, as you should be well aware of, contract cancellations are in themselves dangerous, for the play as well as you and me."

"Nonetheless, the play has been dealt a serious blow," Vasily offered. "Shirovsky, especially, was a particularly powerful scene. There aren't too many actors with his skill and knowledge, combined with an incredibly useful position."

Casimir reached into his pocket and withdrew a cigar. "Nonsense, my dear friend." Striking a match on the rough edge of the table, he continued. "Let's see, how many are there? Don't we have several dozen scenes analogous to Shirovsky's? Telecommunications pinch points?"

"Perhaps you're right," Vasily sighed as he ground out his smoke in the ashtray, reflexively reaching into his pocket for the next one. "Still, this scene was uniquely situated, and who can tell if this Shirovsky fellow cleaned up adequately before retiring? I tell you, comerade, the play is like an elephant that dances on the head of a pin. Just a small misstep, and the balance can be lost..."

"All right, Chernenko, you've made your point," Casimir snapped. "Perhaps the most important point you've made here relates more to your suitability for being the Director some day. You must learn to roll a bit more with the punches, Vasily." Casimir's tone became somewhat softer, more supportive. "I've lived through dozens of blowouts in the last fifteen years. The basic principles of the play do indeed work, comerade. The scenes are sufficiently isolated. Even a bad blowout can be survived, and the play lives on."

Chernenko sat upright in his chair, seemingly snapped out of a funk by his supervisor's last comments. "I'm sorry, Casimir. I suppose you're right, I do let these things bother me."

"And because they do, my friend, it shows me that you have the dedication needed in this job. All right, the day is going to be a long one, let' s get started. I'll need all of the field agent reports before I can file my notices with the Producer. You also need to talk to the Scandinavian field agent right away. We'll need to replace Popov's water system scene, so send the new script writer to see me tomorrow, what is his name, Sergei something or other?"

"Kamazof, Sergei Kamazof," Vasily interjected.

"Yes, Kamazof. This should be a good type of scene to break him in. And Vasily, for God's sake, take off the Movado before you interview him," Casimir said, glancing at Chernenko's watch. "He'll be corrupted before long, but there's no need to accelerate the process."

Vasily smiled. "Very well, Casimir, although I would keep your own watch out of sight, as well. Rolex, isn't it? And you call me a hypocrite?"

The First Winter Cold

I'm nearly always good for one per winter season.

This one seemed to start Sunday night... irritated upper throat, tingling in my ears, and that usual 'crummy' feeling that is the prologue to a classic winter grippe.

Nothing I can do about it, I just had to resolve that bug in the circuit, so my partners could make an appointment with a potential software partner for our product. I managed to do it, but felt miserable all day yesterday, and worse today. It's one of those days when I wished I actually worked for a living, when I could just 'call in sick'... but in the midst of a startup, there are no such reprieves. The list of things I have to do is enormous.

Wife and child said 'cranberry juice'. I said 'orange juice'. I did both.

It doesn't help.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Wisdom of Paul Krugman

He may not have much of a TV personality, but he's a brilliant guy... and a recent op-ed in the New York Times distills a bunch of facts down to a crystal clear essence:

"Talk to conservatives about the financial crisis and you enter an alternative, bizarro universe in which government bureaucrats, not greedy bankers, caused the meltdown. It's a universe in which government-sponsored lending agencies triggered the crisis, even though private lenders actually made the vast majority of subprime loans. It's a universe in which regulators coerced bankers into making loans to unqualified borrowers, even though only one of the top 25 subprime lenders was subject to the regulations in question.

Oh, and conservatives simply ignore the catastrophe in commercial real estate: in their universe the only bad loans were those made to poor people and members of minority groups, because bad loans to developers of shopping malls and office towers don't fit the narrative.

In part, the prevalence of this narrative reflects the principle enunciated by Upton Sinclair: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it." As Democrats have pointed out, three days before the House vote on banking reform Republican leaders met with more than 100 financial-industry lobbyists to coordinate strategies. But it also reflects the extent to which the modern Republican Party is committed to a bankrupt ideology, one that won't let it face up to the reality of what happened to the U.S. economy."

Another bug squashed

Please, can this be the last one?

I fixed this one fast... my partners are paying a sales call to a potentially important partner company tomorrow, and were going to cancel the appointment if we didn't have a working unit. Whew!

Yet another bug

This is beginning to get really annoying. This design is supposed to be done, and these circuit boards, having all the corrections of the previous revision, are all supposed to work. I'm beginning to feel like Michael Corleone in 'Godfather'..."every time I think I'm out, they drag me back in..."

This one is a wireless comunications problem. It works... just not consistently, like the previous versions. Once more into the breach... drag out the oscilloscope, voltmeter, schematics, layout drawings....

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Another writing sample

From my unpublished novel:

Two years ago.

Laila walked up the gentle incline, her arm securely tucked inside that of her father, Ahmed. It was a warm, dry day, with brilliant sunshine and a fresh wind out of the north as the two made their way up the rocky, dusty slope. Laila and her father lived farther north, in Lebanon, but had traveled down here to visit the land that had once been the home of the family. It was bare ground now, a dusty, rock strewn field where once existed a thriving community. After the 1967 war, the Israelis had leveled the village and obliterated any trace of its existence, ostensibly to help with their claims of possession, in the eyes of the international community. It was Israeli land they walked on now.

Ahmed wanted to show his daughter the ground, even though the home was long gone. He had sensed in her a lack of appreciation for her family history, was afraid that the traditional nationalistic fervor was lacking in his beautiful young girl. He wanted to instruct her, teach her, to give her an understanding of why, even after 35 years away from this land, he still considered himself, and his family, to be refugees. He hadn’t been able to summon up the courage to visit this ground since the war, long ago.

Neither of them noticed the rusted sign. The upper portion, written in Hebrew, was still readable, but rust obscured the lower half, written in Arabic. Neither of them could read the warnings about this area being an uncleared minefield.

Ahmed had moved ahead of his daughter, searching the ground for remnants of the foundations of his house. Laila slowed, staying back, allowing her father to reconnect privately with his past before moving closer to him.

Laila suddenly saw the blast; it was as if a strong puff of dust-laden air had risen up out of the ground at her father’s feet. The old man crumbled to the ground, and Laila stood for a moment, not comprehending, until the sudden realization of what had happened soaked through to her thought processes. Screaming, she rushed forward, heedless of the mine beneath her feet. Then, it was black…

The sky. Puffy white clouds slowly drifting by. The tickling sensation of the scrub grass being brushed against her cheek by the wind. Gulls flapping their gray and white wings overhead. The wispy contrail of a jet plane traveling to the south. No pain. No feeling. Time moving slowly, if it moves at all.

She was able to turn her head a little, and she struggled to get her eyes to focus. Her mind was still too cloudy to understand where she was. Straining her neck, she saw her father, lying on his side, perhaps 10 or 15 yards away. Dark red blood was oozing down the shirt visible beneath his open vest. There was another object between them, perhaps two or three yards away, a shapeless lump at first. Laila struggled to comprehend it. Her mind cleared a bit. She knew what it was.

It was her own right leg.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Squashed that bug!

OK, I just fixed that bug... and it's the coolest freakin' solution to a circuit problem I've ever invented. It's elegant and simple... and actually fixes an analog hardware problem by using software.. how cool is that?

Unfortunately, ain't nobody ever going to appreciate it. The only people who could, would be circuit geeks like me, and only a certain kind of circuit geek... and I'm not going to publish the fix, or reveal it, because it's now the proprietary intellectual property of my start-up. Damn, even my partners aren't going to appreciate it.

*sigh* That's the way it is, in my particular profession. No glory. Just the satisfaction of doing something wayyyy cool. It's my little secret.

It is 2009, isnt it?

It was only 42 years ago that the state of Virginia still prohibited racially mixed marriages. 1967 seems such a long time ago, yet I can still remember, as a child on vacation with my family, seeing 'whites only' bathrooms and other signs of segregation in the near-South (Virgina). We're not very far removed from the era when civil rights had little meaning in parts of the country.

So, perhaps it doesn't come as a surprise to me that a number of states still technically prohibit an atheist, or (in the wording of one state) someone who does 'not believe in the almighty God' from serving in public office. I spotted this item today:
Conservatives threaten lawsuit over Atheist city councilman: The head of a conservative weekly newspaper says city officials shirked their duty to uphold the state's laws by swearing in Cecil Bothwell, an atheist who was elected last fall. David Morgan, editor of the Asheville Tribune, said he's tired of seeing his state Constitution "trashed," and the state does have a provision that bars anyone who "does not believe in almighty god" from serving in elected office. Of course, Bothwell can't be forced from office for being an atheist because the North Carolina provision is unenforceable under the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution. But when the States Rights rubber hits the Constitutional road, it ought to present a conundrum that explodes a few teabagger heads in North Carolina.
Maybe it's true that America has come a long way... but the road is so much longer than we thought.

Now I'm stuck in financial hell!

OK, something is going on here. This morning, I decided to click 'next blog' just to browse the blogosphere, and nearly all of the blogs are dedicated to financial interests... stock and commodity trading stuff. What gives? Yesterday, it was religious blogs. There must be something to this... and no, I don't wear a tinfoil hat!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Struggling with a bug

Hmmm... I better start with a warning:

[begin geekspeak]

In this digital age, everyone knows that a 'bug', in computer parlance, refers to a software error; usually, it's one that's hard to find. The origin of the term, as most everyone knows, dates back to the late 1940's when the precursors of computers were built with electromechanical relays, and one pernicious fault was traced to a moth trapped in the relay contacts... hence, the word 'bug' used to describe computer errors, most notably, software.

However, in the more narrow domain of hardware designers, there are 'bugs', as well. In the domain of software, the bug is found by judicious examination of pages and pages of code, combined with numerous test executions of that code. In the hardware domain, the bug is found with the aid of an oscilloscope, voltmeter, probes and tools, and, in the end, most often, by simply thinking about the problem.

That's right. The problem rarely pops out at the designer as he stares at the waveforms on the oscilloscope. Far more often, the scope traces merely provide a pile of clues... and by sifting through the clues, the designer can form a hypothesis, test it physically to form a theory, and thence, create a solution.

It's gotten far harder to do that, these days. Back in the 1970's, it was far easier. Each component had visible leads, large enough to reliably apply a voltmeter or scope probe to. The circuit boards had two layers, each side of which was accessible. Making a change to a component, or 'sky-wiring' some additional components into place, was trivial.

Nowadays, we're not so lucky. The price paid for smaller, more fully integrated electronics is smaller size... so small, that often, it's impossible to visually check anything without a stereoscope. The spacing of the leads, once a very generous tenth of an inch, is now as small as 0.5 millimeters (20 thousands of an inch), and it takes a very steady hand to be able to touch a single lead with the tip of a probe. Soldering and desolering components usually must be done under the aforesaid stereoscope. Some parts don't even have visible leads; they must be soldered in an infrared oven, hoping that the unseen leads on the bottom of the part have actually become soldered to the board. Worse yet, circuit boards often have 4, 6, 8, or even 10 layers, meaning that some connections can't be reached by a probe for testing, in any fashion.

All this gets pretty tough for the weakened eyes of the older guy, like me... I sit here wearing a 'halo', which is a headband-mounted magnifier, often turning around to another table to view something under the scope.

In my particular project, I now know what is causing the bug... now I've got to figure out how to fix it.

[end geekspeak]

Stuck in a religious hell of sorts?

I'm new to using Blogger, so I may be missing something here.

Just for fun, I've used the 'next blog' button at the top to skim through other blogs... and all I seem to be getting are religiously-oriented blogs. Do these kinds of blogs dominate Blogger? Or do I have some sort of setting screwed up? :)

Does one bias cancel another? (a Fox News Rant)

The notion of a liberal bias in the mainstream media is decades old. From my recollection, I think it started in the Nixon Administration, when conservatives, possibly frustrated by the ethical lapses of their party's nominee and President, went looking for a boogeyman to blame. I have always contended that it really doesn't exist, that the center-left orientation of the mainstream media reflected the general consensus of the population at large, or at least, the portion of the population following the media news. The only real bias of the media is a ratings bias; that which generates good ratings is what gets covered.

But that was before the advent of the Internet and cable television, when it became possible to carve out specific demographics of the media-consuming public, and make a big business out of specific political orientation. Thus sprang to life things like right wing radio, and it's become a huge business. Of course, the political slant of narrowly-focused media doesn't represent mainstream thought; it's not supposed to. If someone like Rush Limbaugh can capture 90% of a market which represents 30% of the political thought in the country, it's a whopping demographic in media terms, resulting in many millions of dollars of revenue.

Right wing media has a problem, though; it can't be perceived as too blatantly biased, or else it can't achieve much growth. Therefore, we have Fox News, and its' 'Fair and Balanced' slogan. It's not hard to find a conservative fan of Fox News who thinks that the slogan is actually true, but it's even harder to find even a centrist who thinks it is.

I ran across a posting this morning on which illustrates the point. Fox News is fond of running 'polls' on political issues. These polls are just as meaningless on Fox News as they are on MSNBC, of course... they're not even remotely scientific, and reflect just the opinions of viewers, who, by the very nature of the media, are biased to begin with. The thing I found so incredibly interesting, though, was just how blatantly biased the questions can be. Here are some examples:

* "Do you think former President Bill Clinton's meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il and securing the release of the two American journalists will encourage kidnapping of more Americans or not?" (Fox News poll, August 2009)

* "Barack Obama says he quit smoking cigarettes. Do you think Obama is still sneaking cigarettes at the White House or do you think he has completely quit smoking? (Fox News poll, June 2009)

* "Do you think the United Nations should be in charge of the worldwide effort to combat climate change and the United States should report to the United Nations on this effort, or should it be up to individual countries and the United States would be allowed to make decisions on its own?" (Fox News poll, April 2009)

* "How much do you think Barack Obama loves America?" (Fox News poll, June 2008)

* "Do you think illegal immigrants from Mexico should be given special treatment and allowed to jump in front of immigrants from other countries that want to come to the United States legally, or not?" (Fox News poll, April 2007)

* "Do you think the Democratic Party should allow a grassroots organization like to take it over or should it resist this type of takeover?" (Fox News poll, March 2007)

Amazing, isn't it?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Is blogging narcissistic?

Some guy on my previous Internet forum hang-out suggested that blogging is narcissistic... I think he said that because he just wanted to take a personal shot at me, after learning that I had started a blog.

So, is it narcissistic? After some thought, I'd argue it isn't, and for a number of reasons.

In my case, blogging is a connection to the 'outside world'. Although I do have two partners in our high tech startup, our company is virtualized; the three of us maintain the same independent offices that we had before incorporating, and although we meet weekly and email or phone often during the day, we spend most of our time alone. While I like this arrangement, and have worked this way for most of the past 17 years, it does have it's disadvantages: isolation and a feeling of being unconnected, not to events in the world, but to other people's reactions to them. The hope of any blogger is that he/she will draw comments and reactions. This isn't narcissism; it's the need of people to be and feel 'connected' in many senses.

Another reason for blogging is to have a voice on issues... or, at least, to feel like you have a voice. Most Internet forums, unfortunately, are not moderated.... and some percentage of participants are drunk with the anonymity of the Internet and lose all sense of proportion, grace, and plain ordinary manners. I've been doing the forum thing for nearly 6 years, and have found that it's exceptionally rare to be able to have a good, in-depth discussion of issues with anyone, including people you respect personally but disagree with, because of the ill-mannered participants.

So, blogging isn't narcissistic, at least no more so than anyone who writes a letter to an editor, engages in discussion, or even speaks from a soapbox in the town square. It's our way of being heard... even when no one is listening.

A writing sample

This is from my one and only novel, rendered un-sellable by the events of 9/11 (the reason: the plot treads a bit too close to real life). Posted here on request, and, of course, Copyright 2000 by Me.

Chapter Seven

Vern moved lightly across the desert landscape in the early morning haze, alert for the small movements that might betray some critter out hunting for a last meal before finding some cool shade for the heat of the day. But this was not his hunting habitat, for sure. Instead of the lush and verdant hills of Kentucky, the southern Californian desert was a dusty, rock-strewn wasteland, with a meager scattering of wiry brush and an occasional cactus. Unlike those born and raised in this environment, Vern saw none of the desert beauty that inspired many. He hated the oppressive summer heat, a dry heat that irritated his throat and nose, and made him sweat uncomfortably, unlike the more humid summers back home where a cool drink in the shade would render the heat not merely tolerable, but almost delightful. He hated the winters here, the air even drier than in the summer, with bitter desiccating winds unbroken by forest trees, unlike the soft snowfalls that coated the countryside in blankets of white, back in Kentucky.
But Vern had little choice. Kentucky called him, but pushed him away at the same time. The two ex-wives, to whom he owed money, the gambling debts, and the local warrant for his arrest, made his escape to California an unfortunate necessity. Now, with a reasonably decent job as a janitor in a local printing plant, and a boss who saw no reason to ask too many questions, he could at least live like a human, and spend his weekends hunting in the desert instead of being hunted across the counties of Kentucky. At 58 years old, with no education, no assets, and no friends, Vern realized he was lucky to have a job and still have his health, and it wasn’t such a terrible life after all.
Vern crested yet another hill, carrying the 22 caliber rifle in both hands, ready to aim and shoot if he spotted a rabbit, although his eyesight, diminished with age, precluded much hunting success these days. Nonetheless, today was a good day; his knapsack contained the carcass of a jackrabbit, the successful shot having come just twenty minutes before. These desert hares were thin, stringy, with a bitter flavor from eating the local desert vegetation; they were nothing like the fat, slow rabbits of the Kentucky countryside. But hunting was in Vern’s blood, deeply ingrained, seemingly a genetic trait passed down from father to son in Kentucky. Vern’s own son would break that chain; the son was a punk, a local hoodlum, living off a succession of girlfriends, launching a series of get-rich-quick scams and petty crimes, never making the big score. Vern had long since resigned himself to his son’s fate, blaming himself mostly for his frequent absences, but knowing that it was far too late to do anything about it.
Instead, Vern was satisfied to be able to hunt occasionally, even if the prey was nothing more than a stringy, tough desert jackrabbit. He would cook up the rabbit, in the same way he did so many times back home, and ignore the bitter taste while in his fantasies he’d be back in the Kentucky hills with his father, in an age that passed so long ago.
Cresting a small hill, Vern looked down, blinking his eyes and squinting for a clearer view. Suddenly, there was a brief flash of white, over by the hollow just a hundred yards away. Reflexively, Vern raised the rifle to his shoulder, barely able to take aim at the flashing spot of white before squeezing off a round. The crack of the bullet echoed around the hills, magnifying the sound. Vern was still trying to get his eyes fully focused when his prey hit the ground, sending up a small cloud of dust.
Wait a minute, there’s too much dust. A big cloud of dust was kicked up, far more than what a jackrabbit would make. Perhaps I only winged him, Vern thought, and he dropped his rifle down to his side and began to trot down the hill toward the target.
Oh, sweet Jesus... it’s a man...

A tax rant

Well, I didn't intend to start off this blog with a really 'wonky' post, but, hey, I don't control this diarreah of the mind... it just happens.

This has to do with a loophole of tax law (see, I told you it was going to be wonky!)

To understand the context, we need to discuss the business of hedge fund managers, first. A hedge fund manager is somewhat like a mutual fund manager; he/she accepts investment money from individuals or other entities, manages it for the best possible return, and earns a management fee from the result. The usual arrangement can be extraordinarily lucrative for the manager; they normally charge an investment fee of 1% or 2% of the prinicpal, and then also skim 20% of the profits, as their fee. Yes, it's a very high fee, although some hedge fund managers can produce exceptional results, so the clients really don't mind.

So far, that's fine.

Now, here's the problem: the hedge fund managers insist, and the loophole permits, that their management fee be taxed at capital gains rates (15%) instead of ordinary income rates (up to 35%). Their argument: the profit for the hedge fund consists of capital gains, so their percentage ought to qualify for capital gains tax treatment. Preferential treatment of capital gains was established to encourage long term investment, and it makes sense (although I could quibble about the rates applied).

But wait a minute: those gains weren't gains of their money, they were the gains of the client's money! The money going to the hedge fund manager was compensation, not a capital gain. Compensation is the same as salary and wages... why should the hedge fund managers get a whopping break on money that didn't belong to them in the first place?

(Minor adjustment here: most hedge fund managers have some of their own money in the fund, as well as the client's money; the clients feel better when the manager has a little 'skin in the game', even if the exposure is small. My understanding is that the manager's investment is often just a few percent; the gains on THAT part of the money would indeed be long term capital gains, to the manager, and deserves the tax break... but not the entirety of the management fee!)

Anoyhow, the reason I'm writing about this is that I just read that Nancy Pelosi is taking this up in Congress right now, hoping to close the loophole. Let's hope she's successful.

Welcome to my new blog

I love to write, even if nobody is reading. Sure, like all aspiring, or even casual, writers, I like to get feedback on what I write. Does anyone agree? Disagree? Have I made anyone angry? Have I enlightened anyone? In all likelyhood, I won't get that feedback, because I started this blog purely for myself, as a writing excercise.

The impetus for starting this blog came from being banned in my usual forum for reacting badly when provoked... something I'm not proud of, but not sorry for, either. So, if you wandered in here by accident, or even if you know me from other websites, relax and enjoy. Feel free to disagree with me. It's all good, you know. I'll be civil, and hope that you will, too.