Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Just so much material

Good side of the Greek Tragedy in Yawkey Way: The heat's off Bill Buckner and Grady Little. Yes, fans, it is Greek tragedy in the clearest sense, with the 2500-year-old theme of the penalty of hubris at the forefront. Let us learn from this.

Moving on to unimportant matters, as we have said here before, in the "war on terror," the gods are on the side with the fewest idiots. It is al-Qaeda's curse that it seems even better than the GOP presidential primary race at attracting idiots. The terrorist idiot du jour seems unclear on the difference between flying a remote-controlled jet about the size of a riding mower and flying a balsa-wood airplane with a rubber-band engine. He seems shaky on the idea that it is one thing to dream of blowing up the Pentagon (a building slightly larger than Rhode Island) with a few pounds of plastique, and another actually to do it. Ferdaus seems also to be one of those charmingly naive people who have made the underside of the Internet, and especially Internet commerce, all that it is today. "Oh, I'll need some explosives and technical advice. Let me just Google that and I'm sure I'll find reliable sources." Heh.

All this does begin to resemble the U.S. Communist party in the late 1950s, when FBI agents in the ranks were said to outnumber Leninists by about 50 to 1. We can but laugh.

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Concerning Muffins

Down at the local muffin shop this morning, I made sure to check out my unit cost vs. what the Justice Department appears to have paid. It's $1.60 per muffin here, or $14.60 a dozen.

The reason I can't generate anti-government outrage is that the Justice Department, whilst stupid enough to pay these prices, didn't set them. The private sector did, specifically the Capitol Hilton. The Republicans ought to be applauding the initiative of the free enterprise system in maximising its profit at the expense of a gullible customer. That's capitalism in its rawest form.

I shared the story with the local proprietor, a hard-working guy who hadn't heard it. I admit there was a gleam in his eye.

A manufacturer said during the Civil War, "you can sell anything to the government, for any price you've got the guts to ask." We might add that you'll get away with it, because the media and the public will blame the buyer, not you.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Concerning class warfare

The lapdogs of the ruling class are at it again, whining that the outrageous idea that people making $1,000,000 a year* should pay their share of taxes is "class warfare."

I have something to say about class warfare: I'm for it. As long as it's directed at the rich. It also seems like about time, since the rich and their Republican lapdogs have been conducting class warfare against the middle class for about 30 years...and winning. That, apparently, is all right.

The people who can't figure out why the largely low-income foot soldiers of the Tea Party are out there defending the privileges of the rich weren't in my pol. sci classes. One hypothesis has merit: since America is the land of opportunity, those who have not are eager to defend the privileges of the rich, because they expect to become rich.

True, but we're also looking at one of the West's oldest political riffs play out. Ever since the middle class lurched into existence in medieval Europe, the aristocracy waged war on it. Figurative war, most of the time, but actual war now and then. And who do you suppose were their eager supporters? Why, the people at the bottom of the food chain, serfs and rural peasants. On the one hand, if a peasant were going to move up in the world, sense and experience said they would move into the middle and professional classes. Their chances of moving into the aristocracy were absurdly remote. Nevertheless, the peasants generally aligned with the bejewelled rulers against the middle class. Their motives may have been envy, or the innate conservatism of peasantry worldwide, or simple arse-kissing. But they were the chief ally of kings and princes against the people who were slowly accumulating wealth and power.

They still are. Scratch a tea-bagger and you'll find a peasant eager to act against his/her own interest, somehow believing the opposite.

Not so long ago, a "millionaire" had capital worth a million dollars or whatever.
Today, one can collect the interest on $1,000,000 and still be eligible for food stamps. Do the math to figure out the capital one now needs for an income of $1,000,000 a year in a world of two to four percent interest. Then feel the outrage.


Saturday, September 17, 2011

Concerning forts

A friend and colleague, although a long-time resident in these parts, is in his heart of hearts a New Yorker. Recently, he visited Fort Warren in Boston Harbour, and interpreted its existence as a symptom of Bostonian egomania. Boston, he reasons, is less important than it thinks it is. Well, that could be true of most cities, and quite a few nations.

However, forts on the East Coast are not so much relics of bygone civic pride as they are relics of bygone military priorities. Many of them are archaeological layer cakes, because what was a good site for a fort early in the 17th century remained a good site until the dawn of the nuclear age. Materials changed: the earliest ones were earthworks. They were succeeded by stone, then brick, then more elaborate stone (such as Fort Warren), and finally earthworks again, but revetted with concrete. The forts with the longest history contain traces of every occupation, from the 1630s to the 1950s. Some are still in use, and in unlikely places if the measure of importance is Manhattan.

By the time Fort Warren was built, New York had eclipsed Boston as the East's premier port. However, that had been true only for a generation or so, and a sizable part of the nation's GNP was still collected at the Boston Customs House. Protecting such a port made good sense at the national level.

It made even more sense to a nation that generally preferred investing in forts to investing in a navy. American policy hated and feared navies, as it had in the War of Independence, until very late in the 19th century. Forts were the thing. They were palpable and accountable, and government could put them where they seemed to be needed. They could even be brought back cheaply from extreme states of neglect.

Locations were equal parts national politics and sound strategy. Boston generated large customs revenue and had a navy yard. Portsmouth, NH and Kittery, ME had customs revenues, had (still has) a navy yard, and stood at the gateway of an inland sea tailor-made for invasion, so it was fortified. Maine's Kennebec River, far from any city, produced an enormous percentage of the nation's merchant marine tonnage, so its mouth was fortified. And so on. That all three points might better have been defended by one offshore naval squadron was lost on Jefferson's administration, and several succeeding administrations through the 1800s. It was also lost on most Americans. Voters could see forts. They made voters feel good. You could never tell what those aristocratic naval officers were up to, out there over the horizon. Up to a point, the voters were right: any good harbour that was undefended was likely to be a target just because it was undefended.

Generals and politicians were still thinking like that in the Cold War. Greater Boston is ringed with the remnants of antiaircraft missile batteries called into existence by MIT, Raytheon and other interests with the ear of the Eisenhower administration. So are most American cities once within range of Soviet bombers. Like all forts, they ceased to exist not as a matter of local vanity, but because newer weapons (ICBMs) made them obsolete. The ruins of the missile batteries are not as picturesque as older forts. If they were, we would be more aware of them, and the motivations behind a Fort Warren would be less abstruse.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The dumbest question

Well, the dumbest poll question. "Is the country (this one) headed in the wrong direction?"

Why is it dumb? Because our brilliant cadre of pollsters has been asking exactly the same question for the past 19 or 20 years. The great American pollelectorate has dutifully responded 'yes' by large margins every time. The pollocracy have hung this albatross on the necks of four successive administrations, representing both parties equally.

It would not be such a dumb question if the pollsters looked in the mirror for a bad guy. It would not be so stupid if the polls also asked why, instead of leaving the answer open-ended, enabling anyone to infer any possible answer. Of course, asking why would expose the question as bullshit, because it would elicit about 110 answers from every 100 people polled. If that happened, one would have to dismiss the question as worthless, and cast into doubt a generation of self-important punditry.

I've never been polled. I'd insist on crafting my own answer. Its chief premise would be that any wrongness to the direction has less to do with politics than with the epidemic of galloping idiocy afflicting the public.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

See this

Only one media moment in this weekend of obsessive mawkishness actually got it. It's no surprise that this Sunday's Doonesbury was it. If you haven't seen it, follow the link and see it now.

There's something else, which doesn't make much sense unless you've lived it. Those primarily caught up in any tragedy, whether one day's horrors or years of war, do live it forever. Even when they come to terms with their memories, it's still there. September 11 and the invasion of Iraq also happened before the eyes of people who had experienced the traumas of recent, and not so recent, wars.
When that's you, you at least do what B.D. is doing in this strip. If it's successful, you simply lose yourself in your thoughts. If it isn't, you go numb inside. Wiser, or at least more professional, heads than mine have warned me against the numbing. The warnings may be true, but numb gets you through the day when engagement will put you in a straitjacket.

I remember being moderately freaked when the Iraq war began. I came out, if you will, at my company as a collateral participant in the Vietnam festivities. Although I discovered that I was that firm's only veteran, one woman came up to me and said that her significant other was likewise freaked. He had been in the Gulf War and helped clean up "the highway to Hell."

Holy shit.

There are reasons this coverage doesn't rock for everyone.

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Saturday, September 10, 2011

Stupid dog tricks

Segments of both "ends" of the USA's rather short political spectrum possess certain shibboleths that they cannot set aside, even when it is in their interest to do so. Those of us who lean more or less to the left can recite many of the other side's obsessions, whilst being blind to our own. I've commented several times on a couple of those articles of faith. I won't belabour them now. This comment is about the small group of the Brookline faithful working to ban the pledge of allegiance from classrooms.

I'm not outraged by the idea. I'm not incensed. I'm just shaking my head at the obstinacy of an (apparently) tiny group of people whose primary objective seems to be picking a fight with conservatives and reactionaries. Their actual motives seem unclear, perhaps because the objectives vary with the personal agenda of the supporters.

As I recall it, the pledge was a mindless morning ritual, and would probably remain so for the kids if adults would just keep their hands off it. I'm old enough to remember when "under god" was added. I was in first or second grade, and my chief reaction was resentment at having to add a new phrase to something I'd learnt by heart.

My advice to both sides is to stay off these energy-wasting bombasts. Either pick real fights or lay the fights aside to help the one country out of this mess. If you don't, there'll be no question of "love it or leave it," because more than likely the country will be leaving you. "One nation indivisible" is more a pious hope than a reality just now.

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Tuesday, September 06, 2011

And now, a recipe

I may be repeating myself, but here is a bare-bones version of a New England country stand-by for the colder months, Yankee red flannel hash.

First, either take the afternoon off, or have a supply of leftovers in the marked [*] categories.

Ingredients (six- eight servings)

Two medium to large chopped onions. Haydn Pearson's recipe, on which this is loosely based, called for "authoritative" onions, which is about right. Native yellow onions are best.

Three large beets, or equivalent in smaller beets. Cheaters can use canned beets.

Four large boiled potatoes,* not bakers, just large bulk Maine spuds, or equivalent in smaller ones. With or without skin, your choice.

12 oz. of ground meat.* Leftover beef or pork roast put through a hand grinder is traditional, but it works with anything ground, including veggie burger. (Add a bit more meat for a meatier texture. Not too much, though: what makes this hash stand out is that it's chiefly vegetables, as a traditional hash should be.)

Black pepper

Butter or oil for skillet.

Wash the beets and boil until the skin rubs off easily, usually about 30 minutes. It's a nice touch between skins that slide off and beets the texture of shoe leather, so be careful. Good beets make or break this dish. Reserve a cup or two of the liquid.

If you don't have boiled potatoes on hand, prepare and boil (or steam) the potatoes whilst the beets are cooking.

When the beets and potatoes are ready, chop all the vegetables together in the instrument of your choice. Unless your instrument is large, it may take a couple of passes.

Heat the butter or oil in a large, heavy skillet. Be generous: this stuff sticks.

Put the chopped meat in the skillet, followed by the chopped vegetables. Mix thoroughly, until the predominant colour is beet red. A little white is acceptable, hence the name red flannel.

Cook over medium heat until the mixture is cooked through, adding pepper to taste. Watch out for scorching: a little adds to the flavour, but too much and the whole mixture will stick to the skillet. Use the reserved beet water, no more than 1/4 cup at a time, to maintain the texture.

Serve very hot. This is traditionally a one-dish meal, but use your imagination for accompaniments.

I'm not a huge beet fan, but there's something about the mixture of flavours in this hash that makes it (IMHO) the prince of comfort foods. It also lends itself, obviously, to communal preparation.

This seems to be a close relation to a Welsh hash called bryn teg.* Those who care to compare that recipe with the Welsh translation may wonder if there's some irony in the name. Give me the beets and onions: you can keep the parsnip and cabbage.

If you Google the name, you'll discover about ten thousand variants on the recipe. This one works best around here and lends itself very well to local fall produce.

*How the author of this link made this name Irish is beyond me, but the recipe is representative.


Social Security and the age thing

In theory, I think raising the Social Security retirement age is one good and logical step toward getting our house in order. After all, anyone my age already reaches full retirement age at 66, not 65. (It is a constant surprise how many younger people don't know that.) In practice, I have reservations, to wit:

1) Can we trust the lap-dogs of the people who have spent the last 30 years cheating--yes, cheating--their workers out of the pensions that they relied on for their retirement? Any tinkering with Social Security has to come with defences against this sort of thing. Putting Congress on Social Security is a good place to start, but it may need more. I've worked for the very rich. I know how they think, and in general they have no problem with older Americans dying by the roadside, as long as someone sweeps up the corpses so they don't frighten the horses. Cut the deck before starting this reform.

2) Living until 90 is a statistical construct, subject to many variables. Depriving the older poor of retirement income and health care is one of those variables. The more the reactionaries get their way, the more likely it is that "years left to live" (a more accurate statistical term than life expectancy) will decline, not increase. Don't make changes based solely upon this one, vulnerable measurement.

3) During my time of un- and under-employment, it has become clear that in the near future most "careers" will run from age 25 to 45. Age bigotry is entrenched in corporate America. If present mindsets are allowed to persist, the nation will have an entire generation greeting customers at Walmart between 45 and retirement age. This just at the time we have made the retirement age a moving target. This too introduces a factor that is likely to cause life expectancy to decline. What if anything will reform do to adjust corporate attitudes and keep people over 45 working?

4) Finally, remember that all those jolly age projections may work for the elite and professional classes, but they aren't realistic for the working class, now. For anyone in the sort of physical occupation praised in TV truck commercials, 66 is a stretch now. Age 90, for men at least, is absurd. I see this every day I work. Time to get out and see how the other half lives before dicking around with anything in the social safety net.

I'll save Keynesian rants about the benefits of deficits for some other time.

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Monday, September 05, 2011

Screw waiting for the big idea

Backstory. A couple of weeks ago I bought a used kayak, of a make and model that has enchanted me since I tried out a new one a couple of years ago. What I bought cost half what a new one does, and has all the features I loved at first sight, and for which I've managed to set aside a few bucks a week ever since.

Nothing is easy, getting into the details of the new machine included. The bad part of the deal is that I probably paid about $50 too much. The good part is that the kayak has idiosyncrasies. A number of these completely buffaloed the earnest libertarian type who sold me the thing. I'm resolving these one at a time. The Internet only helps you if you know how to research.

Nothing is easy. Kayaks have three types of steering systems: none at all, rudders, or skegs. The uber-purists go for none at all. Everyone else chooses the rudder, which moves and with which one can actually steer, or the skeg*, which merely simplifies steering by paddle. One would think that a sport a benign as kayaking would have mellow ways to resolve these differences.


I had (still have, actually) a rudder kayak, whose chief benefit is that it came free. I'm moving to a skeg kayak, which in some circles is tantamount to defection. There's a lot to learn about the thing.

Nothing is easy. There are two types of skeg mechanisms. One uses a metal cable (cyclists can envision a really really long rear derailleur cable) to raise and lower the skeg. The other uses a small diameter rope.

The kayak I bought has a rope skeg, which requires some tuning. But it turns out that the cable skeg people and the rope skeg people are barely on speaking terms. This makes it very difficult to get accurate, objective information on tuning and using skegs. So I'm faking it to a degree.

Something, though, is easy, and that is using the kayak. It's shorter than the old one, so slightly slower, but spectacularly nimble. It has already shown its stuff in waves and surf around here, and I'm looking forward to using it on my favourite rivers and marshes.

I'll drop in just one random thought among many rattling round my head. I want to be sure that all the states getting a piece of the tropical depression formerly known as Lee enjoy it, and notice that we in the northeast always want to share the love. I'm also waiting to see whether Rick Perry's prayers succeed in steering any of that rain toward the dust bowl formerly known as Texas. So far, it ain't working, Ricky.

* What is called a skeg in kayak-land is more like a centreboard in sailboat-world. Nothing indeed is easy.

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Saturday, September 03, 2011

To keep in mind

Some CNN pundit said this week that the GOP has enough candidates. He said, stop already, and let's move forward.

Well for openers, don't forget that the only direction Republicans don't move is forward. Further, the entertainment value of the present clown caucus can only be improved by having more candidates. They should go on declaring until every member of "The Base" is running for President. Then the only way they'll get a candidate is when someone votes against him/herself.

Now it's September, and the end in theory of the news silly season. Someone should remember (but they never do) that being the first candidate standing has little value. What matters is being the last candidate standing.