Thursday, February 24, 2011

It Is Interesting, Is it Not . . .

..  .  .  that the Libyan army loyal to Muammer Gaddafi, or Khaddafi, or however you want to spell it (ABC News collected 112 ways to spell his name), are attacking mosques where protesters have taken refuge?

So much for the sanctity Muslims ascribe to those most holy joints.

(Not a photo from Libya, but apropos)

I guess that means it's OK for us to go get the bad guys hiding in mosques, too.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

My Joke Proposal for World Peace

I recently read a very lengthy and thoroughly engrossing article in The New Yorker centering on a well-known world religion.  This religion has the following characteristics, among others:

     --  It believes in a very colorful founding mythology that is centered on a single charismatic leading figure.

     --  It believes that a single book has all the answers and provides a complete, consistent, and correct guide to all aspects of life and death.

     --  It has millions of believers worldwide.

     --  Some of its acolytes behave as though they have been brainwashed.

     --  Acolytes are willing to suffer all manner of deprivation and degradation for their faith. 

     --  It has a single leader and sub-leaders whose edicts are regarded as infallible and must be followed.

    --   Most significantly:   It cannot stand the slightest criticism of its tenets.  Even the most innocuous questioning of its beliefs or tactics, even parody or other humorous treatment, calls forth a variety of well-organized and severe defensive measures.  These measures include mob action, lawsuits, propagandistic publicity, accusations of discrimination, and even violence.  It sustains itself largely on instilling in its acolytes the belief that the rest of the world is against it, and that those who are not acolytes are condemned.  Believers are expected to sacrifice enormously to advance this religion.

Nope, not Islam.  Nope, not Radical Islam, if that is a different thing from Vanilla Islam (and who the heck knows?  But that's another article). 

You've guessed by now.

A-yup.  Scientology.  (You can find the article here.)

Unhinged Celebrity Scientologist Tom Cruise declaring
his love for Katie Holmes to an apparently hissing Oprah

But read that list again.  It could have been Radical Islam, couldn't it?   Especially that last bit about how touchy-touchy they are about, oh, you know, opposing views in a free society?

Unhappy Muslim

So here's my proposal:

Get the CIA, the FBI, the Secret Service, and Howard Stern's listeners (that last population might be the most effective) to infiltrate Scientology and Radical Islam in large numbers.  Among Scientologists, they spread the idea that the greatest threat to Scientology is Radical Islam, that in fact R.I. has an active program to attack Scientology from without and within, all over the world.
Scientology Leader and Accused Serial Batterer Richard Miscavage

You're way ahead of me:  At the same time, the R.I. infiltrators spread the same information about the threat to Islamic fundamentalism represented by Scientology's highly-organized, insanely-motivated worldwide cadres. 

These efforts can be supported by fake websites, propaganda, YouTube, the possibilities are endless.

And then you stand back and watch these two stupendous international nuisances eliminate one another.
An Operating Thetan VII
 Result:  World peace.

Or, if not, at least we can go back to arguing with the Russians and the Chinese, which we seem to know how to do, as opposed to suppressing fascistic and imperialistic religions, which we seem to not. 

If you want a nice tidy Cold War, you really need to be dealing with a better class of international thug.

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Friday, February 18, 2011

I Felt Kind of Silly Flying an Airline Called "Virgin"

I recently flew Virgin America round-trip between DFW and LAX.  My report:

First, does the “Virgin” moniker of the various Richard Branson ventures strike anyone as kind of . . . icky? When I think Richard Branson, the extremely public face of his airlines and other ventures, I think of a gentlemen who – although I know nothing of his social life, and his love life, if any, does not seem to be tabloid fodder – I strongly suspect of spending little time supporting virginity, and his entertainment interests have likely done more than their share to depopulate the world of the subspecies that possesses it. Nor do his ventures call forth an image particularly reminiscent of Roman Catholic iconography. So all this Virgin stuff seems kind of jokey to me, and I feel a little like a punch line flying Virgin America.

Especially since all of its airplanes have red tails.  Come on.

All right, enough of this distasteful talk. How was the travel experience?

Pretty darned good. The Dallas end of things is particularly flyer-friendly. Virgin America presently has few flights out of DFW and exactly one gate – E20 – so possibilities of being shunted from gate to gate, or having any trouble locating one’s flight, are eliminated.

At both DFW and LAX the in-terminal staff was courteous, friendly, and nicely-turned-out, as one would expect from a hip company like VA. At LAX, the chap who was assigned to float around the computer check-in area assisting folks was positively chatty, and even upsold me an exit-row aisle seat for $30.

Flight attendants ditto. The flight to LAX featured an attractive pair of Asian sisters, supervised by a very fast-talking young black gent – very VA-ish. A couple of beauties were also working the LAX-DFW flight. No fatties. Based on my very limited ability to observe the VA work force at DFW and LAX, I am guessing that among airlines, the male FAs and customer-service guys at VA are at the more, uh, fabulous end of the scale. Announcements were warm, boarding trouble-free. Employees seemed generally happy to be working for Mr. Branson's airline.

The highlight of preflight obligations -- actually, the highlight of the entire flight -- was the instruction in seat belts, exits, water landings, and the like. There is a monitor on every seat-back, and all of that information was conveyed via some extremely clever – funny, in fact -- and quite informative animation. (I think I learned more about that inflatable vest thing than I ever have watching a bored flight attendant.) Always wondered whether the Federal Aviation Administration had to pass on some of the snappy patter I’ve heard from flight attendants trying to liven up that pre-flight spiel. The voiceover patter on this animation is snappier than most, but entirely clear and inoffensive. I enjoyed it even more on the flight back, picking up some visual gags that I missed on the first viewing.

The flight out was an Airbus 319, a smaller jet (only 20-odd rows in coach). The cabin is quite attractive, lilt with a muted purple glow, and the seats are comfortable.  I was struck with how quiet this jet was. The A320 on the flight back to Dallas, a bigger plane, was even quieter.

The touch-screen seat-back monitors offer a variety of entertainment. I did not view any of it but I looked at the menus. You can shop, view movies and TV shows, order food on the plane, play games with your kids, chat seat-to-seat, and even send e-mail and text messages. (Some of these features are not yet activated but are promised soon.) I did hear a young man across the aisle say that he tried playing a game, but it was kind of slow.

Touch-screen monitors
I only noticed two problems with my flying experience.

(1) The first was not such a problem for me, but it could be for others. I mentioned those seat-back monitors. If you don’t turn them off, or use them for entertainment, they run a series of ads, many of them for recent movies. Some of these trailers are not what parents would want a child to see. (My particular codger-based problem is that I’m weary to death of the no-talent generation of non-entertaining, featureless, indistinguishable young actors and actresses in leering slacker tales.) No nudity or profanity, but inappropriate for children. So, parents and people with standards: You may want to switch off that monitor if you don’t want to use any of its cool stuff. And even if you don’t object to the content it’s beaming at you at the particular moment, if you’re doing something else at your seat (reading, composing a website article, sudoku) it is a distraction to perceive a flickering screen in the upper part of your field of vision.

(2) The control for some of the entertainment available in your seat is in the armrest. You can pop open the armrest and take it out. But if you don’t want to take the control out of the armrest, the controls are also accessible through a large hole in the armrest itself.

Monitor control removed from armrest; note large hole in armrest

Controller in the armrest, looking down into the hole
This large hole renders the armrest uncomfortable at best and useless at worst as a feature upon which to rest one’s arms. I tried to snooze a bit and the discomfort of that ditch in the middle of the armrest positively prevented it. This is not a small thing and detracted materially from the comfort of the flight.

So – not an A+, but a solid A to A- for Virgin America. If you don’t mind feeling like a punch line. Or if you have no interest in resting your arms.

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Friday, February 11, 2011

The World Is on the Brink, but What I Really Want to Talk About Is Mini-Moo's

I'm an optimistic guy. I have always thought things would go my way. I think that way about the world, too. Yes, we're going through a period of smallish world leaders pretty much across the board and evil philosophies held by evil men, but I'm thinking that in the mid-run things will be OK if people of goodwill apply their good brains to matters of public importance and let their voices be heard.

But some stuff is definitely getting worse.

Thing is, they are things that should be getting better.

I've already written about the appalling deterioration of AOL Mail with each successive version, which has caused that trailblazing service to plummet into almost complete uselessness.

But what has come closest of all to destroying my faith in the entire Universe is . . . Mini-Moo's.

But even before I tell you how this product has sent me into a descending spiral of Weltschmerz, we must deal with its name, which, as you can see, is a singular possessive: "Mini-Moo's." It designates something that belongs to Mini-Moo -- or is it "a" Mini-Moo? This in itself does not make it a bad name for a product. (Think "McDonald's.") But it leaves us with the issue of how to comfortably refer to the singular and plural of this product. I've researched this.  Some people would form the plural "Mini-Moo'ses," some would say "Mini-Moos," and some would treat the word as an invariant, like "sheep," with the plural the same as the singular. I vote for that one. But it would be better if the manufacturer had just called the product "Mini-Moo." But between you and me, "Mini Moo's" will be treated as both singular and plural. If, heaven forbid, I have to use it as a possessive, I will form it: "Mini-Moos'." 

And there's another problem for the careful writer:  Sometimes it has a hyphen, sometimes it doesn't -- see the photos below.   And its manufacturer, Land O Lakes?  Sometimes it appears as "Land O' Lakes," with the apostrophe indicating that it's a contraction of "of," and sometimes without.  Sheesh.

Mini-Moo's are little containers of half-and-half for use in coffee and other drinks.  They are little corrugated plastic cups covered with foil that is sealed around the rim of the cup.  As noted, they are made by the good people at Land O Lakes, who put that rather fetching Native American princess on all of their products.  Don't ask me why they don't have to be refrigerated.  (I know why, just don't ask me.)  You have seen them in 7-11's and other places where you can grab a quick cup of coffee (my own workplace favors the Mini-Moo's):

Perfectly fine product.  Excellent product, in fact.   Its major competitor, the famous Coffee-mate, is OK, I guess, but it's not half-and-half -- it's "non-dairy."

Now I know most of you have used one of these products or something like it.   When the item is produced, the manufacturer leaves the adhesive off a fair portion of the foil that covers that little tab.  You tease at it,  the foil on the end of the tab lifts a little, you seize the newly-liberated foil tab and pull toward the cup.  The foil top easily peels off and you can then pour that fine concoction into your drink.   The image on a box of these items portrays -- rather more dramatically than it happens in reality -- a successful peel-back and pour:

I have been using Mini-Moo's for years.  I cannot number the consecutive successful peel-and-pours I have executed. 

Until the last several months. 

One day I was preparing my morning coffee at 7-11.  Picked up a Mini-Moo's.  As I had done thousands of times, I held the cup between the thumb and index finger of my left hand.  With the thumb on my right hand, I scraped it lightly against the tip of that little tab, which usually lifts the unattached foil away from the plastic, and, with the thumb still moving, I prepared to bring the index finger of my right hand forward to grasp the little loose foil tab to complete the peelback.

Except that this time, the foil did not separate from the plastic.  It had been glued down all the way down to the tip of the tab. 

I tried it one more time.  Nothing.  Tried to stick a fingernail in to pop that little foil tab off the plastic.  No. 

Threw that one away.  Undoubtedly an outlier.   Possibly rare.  Maybe worth some money, like a misstamped coin.  Began to be sorry I threw it away.

Picked up another one.  Stunned to discover it suffered from the same defect.

After one or two more, I was able to select one that was more conventionally glued, and was only happy that my coffee had not unacceptably cooled in the meantime.

Since then, I have encountered many many Mini-Moo's that are almost impossible to open because the peel-back foil tab is glued all the way down to the end of that little sticking-out tongue. 

One might think this was a conscious decision on the part of the Land O Lakes people.  Perhaps  .  .  .  I don't know, product security?  Except that not all Mini-Moo's suffer from this inability to actually get at the product.  If you grub around in the bowl of cuplets long enough you can find one that's sealed like they all used to be.

No, this is a factory issue.  Either Land O Lakes has some new machinery that slathers on too much fastening stickum, or the quality assurance function at LOL (!) has suffered some unfortunate turnover.

It may seem like a small thing, those little gold-foil cups of half-and-half serially resisting my efforts to get at their creamy nectar. 

But what I want to know is:  If, in this marvelous world of ours where we witness the blessings of progress day after day and year after year, does the decline in the quality of Mini-Moo's after being so good for so long represent some kind of cosmic signal that we have gone as far as we can go?  That it's all downhill from here?  

Or  .  .  .  that I'm just wrong about the fundamental nature of reality?

And that there is, in fact, no chance at all that we can repeal Obamacare?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Elizabeth Bishop at 100

Today is the centennial of one of America's greatest poets, Elizabeth Bishop.

She published very little during her lifetime, fewer than 100 poems. However, her poems are considered near-perfect. They are not obscure in the way of much modern rubbish; the reader understands every word, every phrase. While she does not have the fame of Robert Frost, her reputation among both critics and poetry lovers is equal to his -- indeed, to that of any other poet of the twentieth century.

Here is her most famous -- certainly, the most analyzed -- poem, "The Fish," published in 1946:

   I caught a tremendous fish
   and held him beside the boat
   half out of water, with my hook
   fast in a corner of his mouth.
   He didn't fight.
   He hadn't fought at all.
   He hung a grunting weight,
   battered and venerable
   and homely. Here and there
   his brown skin hung in strips
   like ancient wallpaper,
   and its pattern of darker brown
   was like wallpaper:
   shapes like full-blown roses
   stained and lost through age.
   He was speckled and barnacles,
   fine rosettes of lime,
   and infested
   with tiny white sea-lice,
   and underneath two or three
   rags of green weed hung down.
   While his gills were breathing in
   the terrible oxygen
   --the frightening gills,
   fresh and crisp with blood,
   that can cut so badly--
   I thought of the coarse white flesh
   packed in like feathers,
   the big bones and the little bones,
   the dramatic reds and blacks
   of his shiny entrails,
   and the pink swim-bladder
   like a big peony.
   I looked into his eyes
   which were far larger than mine
   but shallower, and yellowed,
   the irises backed and packed
   with tarnished tinfoil
   seen through the lenses
   of old scratched isinglass.
   They shifted a little, but not
   to return my stare.
   --It was more like the tipping
   of an object toward the light.
   I admired his sullen face,
   the mechanism of his jaw,
   and then I saw
   that from his lower lip
   --if you could call it a lip
   grim, wet, and weaponlike,
   hung five old pieces of fish-line,
   or four and a wire leader
   with the swivel still attached,
   with all their five big hooks
   grown firmly in his mouth.
   A green line, frayed at the end
   where he broke it, two heavier lines,
   and a fine black thread
   still crimped from the strain and snap
   when it broke and he got away.
   Like medals with their ribbons
   frayed and wavering,
   a five-haired beard of wisdom
   trailing from his aching jaw.
   I stared and stared
   and victory filled up
   the little rented boat,
   from the pool of bilge
   where oil had spread a rainbow
   around the rusted engine
   to the bailer rusted orange,
   the sun-cracked thwarts,
   the oarlocks on their strings,
   the gunnels--until everything
   was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
   And I let the fish go.

Gives me the spine-shivers. I invite you to take a minute to think on Elizabeth Bishop today.

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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Egypt, Israel -- and Our Grandsons

The Memsahib and I are blessed to have three sensational grandsons and two more arriving in 2011. What’s happening in the Middle East is of the greatest significance for their lives, their parents’ lives and, perhaps, depending on how quickly things move, on the life of the Mem and me. I’m going to try your patience with another blast on the Egypt situations. First, it’s necessary to understand this:

Everyone is Wrong. It is almost impossible – no, it is impossible in fact – to say anything about the situation in Egypt without sounding fatuous – no, without being fatuous. Your Cool Hot Center most assuredly included. I’ve been reading up. Nobody knows anything. Nobody knows exactly how Islamist (i..e, radical) the Muslim Brotherhood is. Nobody knows how influential it might be in a successor government. Nobody knows whether Mubarek’s plan to hold elections in September, when presumably he would exit, can possibly succeed. Nobody knows anything. Nevertheless, please keep reading.

Who Are These Pro-Mubarak Fighters? It seems as though there are some non-military types who are out in the streets fighting in favor of the government. Who are they? (See above paragraph.) I do wonder whether there is a non-military, non-“elite,” non-paid-thug, dare I call it “middle-class” faction in Egypt that maybe isn’t that crazy about Mubarak but who is even less crazy about the prospect of Islamists taking control of Egypt. What other reason would a man-on-the-street Egyptian want to risk life and limb for Mubarak? Alas, they do seem like paid thugs; it appears that they’re fairly well-equipped and rather vigorous fighters.

Looters? Or Commenters on Egyptian History? Some of the fighters – I don’t know which side – have breached the Egyptian Museum. Some King Tut artifacts were damaged, as were some mummies. At this writing, the Museum is secure. But there seems to be a great fear that there will be looting of some of the great Egyptian treasures. I am quite certain that the main motivation here is criminal, and monetary, although where one fences a mummy I’m unsure. It has occurred to me to wonder, however, whether part of the motivation here is that some Egyptians find their Pharaonic history shameful – they’re tired of living under Pharaohs and don’t want to celebrate them any more.

Yeah, but What About the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists? In my last post I came down on the side of the anti-Mubarak guys and assuming the risk of a hostile government in Egypt. That risk about the same today as it was a few days ago. Mubarak is going to be gone – elections have been promised in his deal with the military, although why in September and not in March or April I dunno. I think it’s pretty likely that we are indeed going to end up with a radical-influenced, if not radical-led, government in Egypt, unless the military can take over and stay put. This isn’t a good thing, but if it is inevitable, geez, let’s do what we can to stick our toe in that transition. The Obama administration has dithered, and even Secretary of State Clinton has not exhibited her usual sure-footedness. But see first point – nobody knows quite what to make of all of this.

Whatever Happened to the Enlightened Despot? What is it about being a modern despot in some of these countries that requires him to line his pockets and those of his cronies while utterly devastating his people? Isn’t being a despot likely to create a real darned nice lifestyle for you and your pals without creating conditions so intolerable that they lead to exactly this kind of revolution? Not to mention the political (and in this case, religious) radicalization of the masses.

Not Too Early to Ask – How Do You Feel About Israel? Are You Willing to Go to War for It? Egypt. Jordan’s unstable. Yemen is about to go and is a snakepit of al Qaeda conspiracy. The Muslim Brotherhood is on record for Israel’s destruction and jihad against the U.S. We know about Iran. When we leave Iraq, Afghanistan . . . . If those governments become radicalized, how long will Saudi Arabia be able to hold out?

Will Israel be Poland 1939?
Israel has been a critical U.S. ally for decades. Such a critical ally, that some say it has had an influence on U.S. policy that is disproportionate to its importance. At least until recently, we have been pledged to its survival.

But folks, it is not too early to say that the noose is tightening. It is not too early to imagine Israel with not one single surrounding country with which it is reliably at peace.

I don’t need to remind you that Iran will soon be nuclear, and Pakistan already is.

And the Islamists -- and, I very strongly suspect, some percentage of Muslims who in other respects would call themselves moderate -- hate Israel and desire its destruction not because it is imperialist, not because it threatens Islam, not because its treatment of Palestinians, but because it is not Islam.  And because its founding was midwifed by the victorious WW II allies and placed in their midst.  I am not here to debate whether the creation of Israel in 1948 was a good idea or whether Arab perceptions are accurate.  I am here to say that diplomacy is not going to change the growing Muslim fundamentalism that holds that Israel must go.  I read today that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has repudiated the Camp David accords.

So when the missiles begin to fall – not next year, maybe not for the next five years, but maybe a decade from now, how will the U.S. respond?

Which begs the critical long-term question, really the only important question that is going to come out of this, the question for our grandsons: If the Middle East as a whole decides for Islamist primitivism, and makes Israel its first target, will the U.S. risk a world war with Islam – that is what it would be – to come to Israel’s defense?

But Wait, Cool Hot -- I Thought You Were in Favor of Regime Change in Egypt!  Quite true. And of course I don’t favor a world war with Islam, and by that I mean Islam as it presents itself to the world – accurately or inaccurately – through Islamist governments. But here’s how I figure it: (1) Successful revolution against guys like Mubarak is inevitable. (2) It is inevitable that these revolutions will be fueled by anti-Western sentiments, and that there is likely to be a anti-Western cast to any resulting administration. (3) We will be better off if the anti-Westernism of the Middle East manifests itself in constituted governments that we can talk to, cajole, threaten, sanction, inspect, negotiate with. Who have real representatives to talk to. Who have some chance of exercising authority over the bloodthirstiest among them.

(Which also assumes that we will have restored and continued to elect American presidential administrations and Congresses that believe strongly in American values, that have re-strengthened our military, and are not afraid to threaten American military and economic action to ensure international security under a regime of freedom.)

If it is inevitable that the next world war – be it a fighting war or a cold one – will be with Islam in its political aspect, we will be better off dealing with people with something to lose. And maybe keep Israel safe in the bargain.

As well as those precious grandsons.