Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving

I've taken a few days off, but I'll break my silence to wish you all a great day.

And, while I'm at it: Happy Hanukkah!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

College Sports Brings out the Cynic in Me

I admit it, I'm a cynic.

I'm particularly a cynic about college sports at the highest level, but I think I am perfectly justified in that case. My assumption is that colleges will do anything to win and they are often aided in that endeavor by local authorities-- Penn State of course being the classic case -- but there are many, many other examples.

Which brings us to this example:
As the state attorney's office weighs whether it believes it has sufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, the family of the woman who has accused him of sexually assaulting her in December 2012 issued a second statement Friday night, saying the woman was raped by the Heisman Trophy candidate. 
Responding to earlier claims by Winston's attorney that he had consensual sex with the woman, Patricia Carroll, the family's attorney, said in the statement: "To be clear, the victim did not consent. This was a rape."  
On Wednesday night, reported that a DNA analysis completed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement confirmed that DNA provided by Winston matched the sample taken from the underwear of the woman. According to the DNA analysis report, a copy of which was viewed by on Wednesday, the Florida state crime lab determined the chance of the DNA in the woman's underwear being a match for someone other than Winston was one in 2.2 trillion.
To be clear, it is very possible that the accused is totally innocent. False rape charges are not at all rare.

However, Florida State's rules say that a player charged with a felony must be suspended from the team. What causes the inflammation of my cynicism gland is that the investigation has taken so long. If he had been charged relatively soon after the alleged rape, he would have missed spring practice at least and might have missed a good part of the season, given how slowly courts often move. So my cynical assumption is that Florida State (with the assistance of the local police) have stalled the investigation in hopes of making it through the season before losing their Heisman Trophy candidate.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Best Magazine Cover of the Year

Another Person Who Needs to Be Fired

According to Jonah Goldberg's newsletter today, there was an article in Time magazine in June that said that the president's chief of staff, Dennis McDonough, was spending two hours a day working on the implementation of Obamacare.

That's a substantial amount of time. And yet somehow he managed not to see that it was a major f$#k-up. That's kind of like spending July in Phoenix and not noticing that it's hot.

Q: Why does this guy still have a job? 
A: Because his boss is as incompetent as he is.

Nominee for Worst Book Title

I have commented on several occasions on this blog and elsewhere that I am not deeply offended or upset by the somewhat racist language and attitudes sometimes found in the books of earlier times.

I simply accept that any book is going to include evidences of the prevailing attitudes of the times in which it was published. The author, as a product of his/her culture, would have been likely to share at least many of those attitudes, and would be likely to impute them to his/her characters. Therefore, casual conversation among the characters in a book published in the 1920s or 1930s might well include negative comments about Jews, or there might be black servants speaking in dialect. Such things can be mildly annoying in some cases, mildly amusing in others, but I don't too worked up over them.

And I'm not getting worked up over this book, either, but I've got to say it this is possibly the worst book title I have ever seen (or at least it's in the running with Agatha Christie's Ten Little Niggers -- later retitled Ten Little Indians, now known as And Then There Were None).

In checking on Amazon, I note that this was re-issued later as 12 Chinamen and a Woman, which is an improvement.

I'm going to guess, based on the title and the cover blurb, that this is about 'white slavery', which was a popular delusion of the first half of the twentieth century.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Big News in Arizona

I was just watching the noon news and the lead story was that there may be rain this weekend. Not just a bit of rain, mind you, but a veritable downpour, with an accumulation from Friday through Sunday of at least a quarter inch and maybe as much as an inch.

This was so important that in the course of the one-hour show, they returned to the topic twice to provide more details. Not only that, but the daily highs are likely to drop into the sixties.

To further torture my friends in Chicago, I spent most of the morning sitting on my sister's back patio, drinking tea, reading, and soaking up the sunshine.

Update, Friday: It rained today, and my sister couldn't remember how to turn on the windshield wipers in her car.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

One Hundred Fifty Years Ago Today

I don't watch much TV, but it seems there has been one documentary after another all this month about the assassination of JFK, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the event, to the point that I am thoroughly sick of it. Kennedy was an OK president (he looks great considering his horrid successors), but in the great scheme of things, his death, while a personal tragedy for his family, was not one of the most important events in American history.

Some of those who died for the new birth of freedom.
Gettysburg after the battle.
This week (today, in fact) also marks a milestone anniversary, the 150th, of a truly momentous event -- probably the greatest speech in American history, the Gettysburg Address, in which Abraham Lincoln restated the principles upon which the nation had been founded four score and seven years prior to the battle.
"... that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
This event has been totally ignored.

I fear that this is another case of the self-absorption of my generation. Too many Baby Boomers grew up with the belief (and some continue to believe) that they are the center of the universe, that nothing that occurred outside their span of awareness has any significance, and that anything that touches their lives is of surpassing importance.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Skydiving in Eloy and Singing Some CCR

For the third time in my life (first time in about twenty years) I jumped out of a plane last Thursday. Kathleen and I drove down to Eloy (halfway between Phoenix and Tucson) where Skydive Arizona works out of the town's small airport.

It was, of course, a lot of fun. It was a different experience from my previous skydives because those gave me greater control --  I held the straps of the canopy and thus controlled the rate of descent, got to choose to do loops, etc. In this case, the instructor did everything, which was less fun in that I was just a passenger along for the ride. At the same time, it was more fun in that I didn’t have to remember much of anything beyond crossing my arms as I went out the door.

We jumped at 13,000 feet, did a free-fall to 5,000, and then floated down from there.

The price was $189, which is a good bit higher than I remember, but I guess twenty years can account adequately for the increase (besides which, they throw in a certificate and a t-shirt).

The airfield was on a road that ran past some cotton fields. As we were leaving, Kathleen said she had never seen cotton up close, which to someone who grew up in Arizona seems strange. We stopped and she inspected the plants as I sang:
When them cotton bolls get rotten
You can’t pick very much cotton
In them old cotton fields back home.
We’ll leave aside Kathleen’s comments about my singing, but after she was done with that, she added that she had never heard of the song before. Therefore, I’ll close with this.

Hiking Shaw Butte

My daughter Kathleen and I went to North Mountain Park and hiked the Shaw Butte trail. I’ve read different things as to how long the trail is and how high it goes – consensus seems to be that the trail is about five miles long and it is a climb of about 1000 feet to get to the top.

Whatever the exact measures are, it was enough to have my thighs aching on the upward portion. This is one of those occasions when it’s good to have a workout partner because, had I been alone, I probably would have quit halfway up. Kathleen’s presence shamed me into finishing, though she was in maybe worse shape than I was by the time we reached the top – her knees were hurting her badly.

There was a guy climbing just ahead of us, wearing a weight vest. We were agreed that he was insane.

It’s a challenging climb for someone not used to mountain trails, but I guess it would be no big deal for more experienced hikers (the rating is ‘moderate to difficult’). There were some very nice views over the Valley from the top.

Anyway, we made it all the way up and (just about as tough) down, in a little over two hours. I was really, really glad when the North Mountain Visitor Center was in view.

Since I'm planning to take lessons in mountain-climbing when I get to Ecuador, this was a real eye-opener as to how far I am from being ready to take on any serious mountain.

Book Review: The Girl at Central (1914) by Geraldine Bonner

Short version: Good story, well-written, laughable solution to the mystery.

Wikipedia’s entry for Geraldine Bonner doesn’t tell us much about her, so little in fact that I will quote the whole thing (other than a listing of her books):
Geraldine Bonner (1870–1930) was an American author, born on Staten Island, New York. As a child, she moved to Colorado where she lived in mining camps. After moving to San Francisco, California, she worked at a newspaper, the Argonaut, in 1887, and subsequently. She wrote the novel Hard Pan (1900) and used the term "Hard Pan" as a pseudonym. 
Bonner wrote short stories which were published in Collier's Weekly, Harper's Weekly, Harper's Monthly, and Lippincott's.
The highly-admirable Golden Age of Detection Wiki has no entry for her, though in fairness she is only very marginally a writer of that era, her last book being published in 1919.

She wrote several mysteries, of which The Girl at Central is the only one I have read thus far (although I’ve downloaded a couple others at Gutenberg).

The title character and narrator is Molly Morgenthau, a telephone operator of Jewish-Irish ancestry (thus the name) in Longwood, New Jersey, a small town on the rail line between New York City and Philadelphia. Because of her job, she overhears a good deal of information about the locals, which she shares with the reader. She is a likable character and her narrative style is interesting and fun. The author gives her a voice that seems quite authentic for her time and socio-economic background.

The mystery involves the murder of Sylvia Hesketh, the wealthy belle of Longwood, who is murdered on a deserted road, apparently by a blow from a blunt instrument. The mystery is not only who killed her, but what the heck was she doing at that location.

We know already that Sylvia’s money was supporting her household (her mother and stepfather) and that she was on bad terms with the stepfather, who disapproved of her flirtatious behavior. Evidence is found of her plans to elope on the evening of her death with one of her several suitors, giving the stepfather (who would be financially ruined if she left) with a powerful motive. But it appears she stood up the suitor, which would certainly give him a motive as well. And she also (via a phone call Molly had conveniently listened in on) had made plans to see another, disfavored, suitor before the elopement, to give him the bad news. Thus another person had a motive.

Like the last mystery of that timeframe that I reviewed, an airplane (or rather, aeroplane) figures in this story, and the way it is used in this story is every bit as improbable as in the previous one. I think maybe some writers of the time felt like they had to put a plane in the story because it was the Big New Thing, but they didn’t know enough about flying (how could they?) to get the details right.

Luckily, the improbable aviating doesn’t have much to do with the solution, other than clearing up side issues. That’s the good news; the bad news is that the actual solution to whodunnit is even more unlikely.

Oh, of course Molly meets a nice young man and ends up married to him. I knew that would happen on page one.

Despite the very disappointing solution, I thought the overall story, especially the lively narration, made this a worthwhile reading experience. I would not recommend it to most modern readers, but those who enjoy books of the era, and are willing to overlook a few plot holes (and the word ‘dago’) will like this one.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Why Obamacare May Be the Best Thing to Ever Happen to America

Well, maybe not ever. The ratification of the Constitution and V-J Day and a few other things were no doubt better.

But, if it finally gets Americans to realize that they can’t trust the government to do things competently or trust politicians to tell the truth; if it teaches us to stop looking to the government for handouts; and if it causes us to recognize that government is usually the problem, not the solution -- then it will have at least been worth all the pain.

Friday, November 8, 2013

James Buchanan: The Last of … The Only …

Mentioning Buchanan in the previous post led me to do a little reading about him.

Buchanan is distinguished (if that is the word) by being the last president or the only president who had several characteristics. It is rather surprising, for example that Pennsylvania, which has been one of the most populous states throughout our history, is the birthplace of only one president. Has the Keystone State been cursed forever by his incompetence?

Buchanan was, in addition, (apparently) the only gay president. His very close friend for many years was William Rufus King, who has the distinction of being (apparently) the only gay vice-president (King was VP for Franklin Pierce, Buchanan’s predecessor). Andrew Jackson, who never felt a need to be PC, referred to the couple as Miss Nancy and Aunt Fancy.

Buchanan is the last Democrat to succeed (on his own) another Democrat as president, according to Wikipedia (Truman and LBJ both succeeded on the death of their predecessors). Let’s hope he retains that title for a while. I was more surprised by the statement that he was one of only two such cases, Van Buren being the other. That is true, I guess, if we insist on the specific label ‘Democrat’ – during the Jefferson-Madison-Monroe years, the party used the name Republican or Democratic-Republican. Republicans (as now defined) have had more successors – Grant was succeeded by Hayes (though only after a bunch of chicanery* on both sides) and Hayes by Garfield; TR was succeeded by Taft, Coolidge by Hoover, and Reagan by Bush.
* (Had Hayes not won the disputed election, Buchanan might not have been the last gay president. Hayes’s opponent, Samuel Tilden, is often said to have been gay, though there seems to less evidence than in Buchanan’s case).
Another ‘last of’ title that I hope Buchanan retains at least through 2017 is that he is the last former Secretary of State to become president. It is interesting that this office, which was definitely the stepping-stone to the White House in the country’s early days (Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Adams, and Van Buren, in addition to Buchanan, all had served as SoS) fell so completely out of fashion after Buchanan.

A (Halfhearted) Defense of Barack Obama

I know some Republicans who say that Barack Obama is the worst president ever. Though I make no secret of my disdain for the guy, I must protest at this egregious example of ahistoricity. Until someone bungles us into another civil war, James Buchanan* shall reign supreme in that category.

Another frequent meme is that ‘the country can’t survive three more years of this!’ Though I certainly don’t look forward to the remaining thirty-eight months of Obama's term (and intend to absent myself from the country for as much of it as possible), I must point out the seventeen-plus years the country suffered under Johnson-Nixon-Ford-Carter. In that period we had two people who, if they deserved to be housed at the taxpayers’ expense, it should have been in a penitentiary rather than the White House; and then those two were followed by two inept clowns who blundered us though five years of economic disaster (to say nothing of Carter’s diplomatic failures).

As an aside, I think there is some sort of cosmic balance that has dictated that not only are these Four Horsemen evenly split two from each party, but also the two subcategories of awfulness to which I have assigned them (Criminals and Clowns) each consist of one Republican and one Democrat.

Anyway, I figure if we can get through that gauntlet of crapitude, a mere eight years of Barack Obama should be a cakewalk.

* More about Buchanan

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Book Review: 32 Caliber

This is a short book (a novelette or novella or whatever the preferred term is) of about 120 or so pages (I read it in ebook format, so I'm not sure about pages). It was copyrighted in 1920, and it definitely shows its age – not always charmingly so.

I am a fan of books of this era and am used to racial, class, and gender attitudes that are not in line with current thinking. I generally just shrug it off as an artifact of the times. I did the same with this book, but let me warn you that it took a hell of a lot of shrugging.

Given that the story is rather short, an added problem is that the author seems uncertain whether he is writing a mystery or a romance. I enjoy a mystery that includes some sort of love interest for the protagonist, but in this case, of the 120 pages, the author has split them about sixty pages each between mystery and romance. The result, as you might expect, is that neither element is developed very satisfactorily.

The basic story here is that of the eternal triangle. A young lawyer is having domestic problems and the story begins with his wife telling him she wants a divorce. A nasty scene (overheard by the servants) follows, in which the husband, wife, and boyfriend threaten each other, joined in by the husband’s law partner, who is also the wife’s brother (though he seems to like his partner much better than his sister).

The husband digs up some dirt on the boyfriend’s business dealings and lets him know about it, also telling his wife, who is temporarily still with him. The boyfriend calls and asks for a meeting with the husband, telling him to come – alone – to the country club they all belong to at a specific time. The husband comes, but brings his wife and the car goes off the road on the way, killing him and badly injuring her.

You’ll not be surprised to learn that it was not an accident. He had been shot in the head. Suspicion falls, naturally enough, on the wife, who had a gun of the correct caliber (.32, of course). The law partner investigates, quite ineptly, in order to clear his sister.

The other principal suspect, the boyfriend, has a strong alibi, having been seen at the country club eating his dinner at about the time of the shooting.

There were also a bunch of Bolsheviks thrown in as suspects, one of whom had been convicted of sedition during the war, largely through the victim’s efforts, and had upon his recent release threatened those who had put him away. They just happened to be driving on that road at precisely the time of the killing.

A major no-no for reviews of mysteries is spoilers. So I will give you adequate warning that I am about to tell you how this crime was committed. I am doing so in full confidence that you won’t believe me anyway. What I’ll do, though, is put the spoiler in reverse type – if you want to see the solution, highlight the text that follows:

The villain (the boyfriend, of course) flew a plane, taking off and landing from the fairway of the country club, and machine-gunned the victim from the air. He was not gone long from the dining room because it was near the fairway.

See, I told you you wouldn’t believe it.

Oh, and the reader is also supposed to believe that the police were so slipshod that they never noticed that the car in which the victim was driving had bullet holes in it. A bunch of them. I know cops were supposed to be dumb in a lot of the books of that era, but this seems to be rather stretching things.

To end on a positive note, I enjoyed the book despite the many, many flaws, primarily because it was such an interesting picture of upper-class attitudes of the time (the protagonist is very concerned with maintaining his family’s image), and especially because of the insight into political thinking. Bolsheviks, though they actually played little role in the story (it felt like they were thrown in just to provide another suspect(s), but even the author never seemed to really believe that they could have done it) were very much on people’s minds at the time – the Palmer Red Raids took place in late 1919 and early 1920, while the Sacco-Vanzetti trial was in 1921.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Unlikely Words

Every once in a while, I read alleged 'quotes' that sound considerably more like something written -- they generally make me laugh and/or cringe. Here's an example -- it appeared in a newsletter that I get about life in Ecuador, which presented it as genuine.

The item consisted of a supposed slice of life incident about a new expat trying the buses in Cuenca for the first time, guided by a friend. Upon boarding and not finding a seat, a couple schoolgirls get up and offer their seats. A nice gesture, right? The expat gushed a bit much, in my opinion, over how nice it was (c'mon, it's a couple kids offering a seat on a bus) to which the friend supposedly replied:
"Kindness crosses cultures. Like the bus, it unites us on a common journey, if only for a few minutes at a time."
Sure she did. Do you know of anyone who talks like that?

Monday, November 4, 2013

The NFL Seems to Have a Lot of Really Awful People

No doubt there are good guys in the league (the Manning brothers seem nice enough), but boy, there are some real stinkers.

Of course this Incognito guy (his name is appropriate, since I had never heard of him until now) has never killed anybody, which makes him better than some in the league.

What’s interesting is this part of the story:
During last night’s edition of Football Night in America on NBC, former Patriots V.P. of player personnel and Chiefs G.M. Scott Pioli (who should be getting some credit for the talent he left for the new 9-0 regime in Kansas City) told Dan Patrick, ”I didn’t want [Incognito] coming out [of college], and I don’t want him now.” 
Former Bucs and Colts coach Tony Dungy echoed that sentiment earlier in the hour on The Dan Patrick Show.  Dungy explained that, when Incognito entered the draft in 2005, the Colts had him on the “DNDC” list, which means “do not draft because of character.”
Pioli was GM at New England in 2005, when he didn’t want Incognito. Which says something, since New England is the team that decided Aaron Hernandez was worth the risk.

San Francisco Street Scene, 1906

You may have seen this before, I first came across it a couple years ago. Anyway, I thought of it yesterday and decided to post it for anyone who missed it before.

A camera was mounted on a streetcar in San Francisco in 1906 (a few days before the famous earthquake/fire).

The street scene (to me at least) is totally fascinating. The most interesting points, I think, are:

The lack of traffic rules. For the most part, traffic keeps to the right, though even that is not a universal practice. Other than that, it’s pretty much a free-for-all. And yet it seems to work (though that may be only because of the relatively light vehicle traffic). Pedestrians seem as little interested in rules as drivers.

Almost all (maybe all, I’m not sure) of the automobiles used right-hand drive. When did that change, I wonder?

People are so well-dressed. Perhaps Market Street may have been more ‘up-market’ (so to speak) than other areas of the city, but it is still interesting that that nobody was in anything approaching business casual. This practice of dressing up to go out in public lasted for quite a while past 1906, of course (I remember my mom getting quite dressed up for shopping trips to downtown Phoenix in the fifties), and even such casual (in our time) occasions as going to a sports event called for a surprising degree of formality. Here’s a picture of Sandy Amoros’s great catch that saved the 1955 World Series for the Dodgers (I remember the game very well). Look at the crowd – every man (there are, as far as I can tell, no women) is wearing a suit coat, and with one or two exceptions, a tie.

An interesting though sobering thought is to look at the people in the San Francisco video and wonder how their lives changed (in some cases, perhaps, how their lives ended) just a few days later.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Distrust of Government Is Growing

To the degree that I am a Republican (which is not a very great degree) I am troubled by polls such as those cited in this article, showing the Republican Party in great disrepute.

To the extent that I am an opponent of Big Government (which is a very large degree), I am pleased by the same polls. What it appears is happening is that people are seeing that government is the problem, while the Big Government advocates continually try to sell it as the solution; Republicans, when in power, are as guilty of advocating for bigger government as Democrats are, and differ only in terms of which problems they try to solve via government and which solutions they prefer. As the article notes:
74 percent of Americans believe Congress is contributing to problems in Washington rather than solving them.
Related: a poll by a Democratic-aligned polling firm, Democracy Corps, and released with the title "Revolt against DC and the Republican Congress" also shows trouble for Republicans. But as even far-left Mother Jones magazine noticed, it also reveals equal or worse voter unhappiness with Democrats. The fact is, I think, that people are fed up with the Washington elite – regardless of party label.
In Democratic districts, net incumbent approval has plummeted by 11 points, from +8 approval to +3 disapproval. In Republican districts, incumbent approval has gone down only 4 points. You see the same results when they ask a question about warmth of feeling toward incumbents: It's down 7 points in Republican districts and 9 points in Democratic districts. 
This isn't good news for Democrats. It's true that attitudes toward the Republican Party have taken a bigger hit than attitudes toward the Democratic Party, but attitudes toward actual incumbents are exactly the opposite. And in elections, that's what matters.
As an aside, I think the spectacular failure of the Obamacare website and related revelations are probably feeding this anti-government mood. Perhaps a quick fix of the problems will reverse or at least ameliorate voter attitudes, though I think the real causes are deeper.