Thursday, October 29, 2009

Dave is going South and Deb is irked about holidays

I've been remiss in reporting that Dave, our man of the woods, told me on Monday that he's moving in with a friend from Norristown for a couple of weeks and then he will he heading south to Florida. That's sort of good and bad news. The good news, for Dave, is that he'll no doubt be a lot warmer in Florida over the next few months than he would be here. The bad news, for me, is that I'll miss running into him in the woods.

The worse news is that Dave mentioned the possibility that he won't return north, at least this far north, next summer. He's thinking of summering in the mountains of Georgia. I told him to keep in touch, which he will hopefully do with Alex when he stops by the occasional library and can get on email.

In other news Debra showed up for a visit a couple of hours ago because she had dropped her mom Dolores off at the hairdresser nearby. We talked her into having a bit of dinner after which she complained that at her school they are not allowed to refer to Christmas and Easter as holidays, instead calling them winter and spring break. But they do refer to Yom Kippur and Kwanzaa as holidays. Kwanzaa, of course is a fake holiday invented by an FBI informant, if memory serves; but Yom Kippur is definitely a religious holiday.

Well. . . after Deb left I got on the computer and one of the first things I found was a post on The Corner by Jay Nordlinger of National Review complaining about the same sort of thing. Here's what he had to say in a post titled Unsilent Night:

"A reader from Boulder, Colo., sends a note that may interest you. It responds to an item in Impromptus today. She says, “In 1994, the Fairview High School Christmas concert was going to close with the students processing out of the auditorium singing ‘Silent Night.’ Huge controversy, with multiple cries against ‘religion in the public schools.’ The school district’s attorneys said no. Since it was too late for the music teacher to arrange for something else, the students began to recess in silence. The audience was having none of it, and started singing ‘Silent Night’ themselves. That story still gives me goose-bumps.”

Holy mackerel, that took brass (and I’m not talking about trumpets and trombones). By the way, I imagine the Boulder people were not able to call that concert a “Christmas concert.” “Winter Serenade”?

Another reader writes to say, “Every December in Chicago, they have the Christkindlmarket. If they called it the ‘Christ Child Market,’ the world would come to an end! And the local bank flashes ‘Happy Holidays,’ followed by ‘Feliz Navidad.’” True, true: You can’t say “Merry Christmas,” but you can say it in Spanish. “And, in my daughter’s public school, they banned Handel but allow black spirituals.” For sure, and thank goodness for spirituals.

We could do this forever, but I’m stopping now. Happy Halloween! (Actually, it’s the day of the Crash, but in any case . . .)"

You can find Jay's post here:

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Things are getting beyond ridiculous

A Yale educated sycophant named Rocco Landesman made a fool of himself the other day. Based on what he said in his address of October 21st to the Grantsmakers in the Arts he would have better spent his time and money studying wrestling at Bobo Brazil University rather than Drama at Yale. Mr. Landesman is Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

He said about President Barack Obama, "This is the first president that actually writes his own books since Teddy Roosevelt and arguably the first to write them really well since Lincoln. If you accept the premise, and I do, that the United States is the most powerful country in the world, then Barack Obama is the most powerful writer since Julius Caesar."

First off I'll give him a break and not quibble about the fact that a specific president is a "who" rather than a "that" even though I would have expected better usage from a holder of a Doctorate of Dramatic Literature, even one from Yale.

But let's get on to serious stuff.

Barack Obama is certainly not the first president to write his own books since Teddy Roosevelt because (duh!) since TR there have been many other presidents who have written their own books. Woodrow Wilson wrote multiple books while he was a professor. And Calvin Coolidge wrote books. And Dwight Eisenhower wrote a book. And Richard Nixon wrote books. And John F. Kennedy wrote a book, And even Bill Clinton wrote a book.

It's true that Eisenhower, Nixon, and Clinton arguably had at least some help with their books, and Kennedy almost surely had a whole lot of help. But it has been credibly argued that Barack Obama may have had a bit or more of help writing his books as well.

Now, about that other assertion, that Barack Obama is the first president to write books really well since Lincoln. First off, it's a bit of an odd assertion since Lincoln never wrote a book even though he did a pretty fair job as president and he wrote very good speeches. But regardless, it for sure ain't true, no how, no way; as Huckleberry Finn might have said. For Ulysses S. Grant was a president after Lincoln, and his book was highly praised by no less a critic than a fellow named Samuel Clemens who went by the monicker Mark Twain.

Back before the utter degeneration of university academic standards I would have assumed that a person with a doctorate from Yale would recognize the name Mark Twain; but in case Rocco is reading this, I'll mention that Twain was a middling fair writer back a while ago. One of his many books was titled Pudd'nhead Landesman, or Rocc'nhead Wilson, or something like that.

Now we come to that curious construction whereby Rocco asserts that Barack Obama is the most powerful writer since Julius Caesar. Aside from it being a tad strange to liken an elected American President with a usurping Roman Dictator, that's simply not true as well, if only because there have been numerous presidents who have certainly been writers, although admittedly some of their books are not very highly regarded.

But if one were to set out to think of a writer president in connection with Julius Caesar, I would have thought it impossible for a Ph.D. to fail to think of Dwight Eisenhower long before thinking of Barack Obama, unless he was on a crusade to find something nice to say about Obama.

For Rocco's benefit I'll point out that, like Caesar, Eisenhower's most famous deed before becoming president, was conquering Gaul. He even wrote about it in his well regarded best selling book, Crusade in Europe, pretty much the way Caesar wrote about it in his well regarded best selling book The Conquest of Gaul.

Now, in fairness to Rocco, I'll mention that they may well not have copies of Caesar and Eisenhower's books at the Yale Drama School, but they're fairly readily available. Really Rocco. Even I have a copies of them.

My copy of Caesar's book starts, "Omnia Gallia in tres partes divisa est." No it doesn't. I lied. My copy doesn't start that way because I pretty much cruised on autopilot through Latin One and Two in high school. So my copy starts, "Gaul is divided into three parts." Like Rocco Landesman's common sense, of which he must have left two parts back at his other job when he moved to Washington.

In that regard I'm reminded of a little piece of trivia that gives another reason why Rocco shouldn't be quite so ready to praise President Obama's intellectual heft to and beyond the sky in comparison with all presidents "since Lincoln".

President James Garfield, who I'll mention came after Lincoln in case any Yale Ph.Ds are reading this, was said to be able to write an answer in Latin with one hand and in ancient Greek with the other hand in response to a verbal question put to him in English. I just found out he could also juggle indian clubs, with one of which Rocco Landesman should perhaps be smartly tapped upside the head in hopes of loosening the cobwebs in there.

Here's the whole text of Rocco's spiel to read if you think you can stand it. It actually does have some other funny parts besides the paragraph I quoted above; but I don't think Rocco meant them to be funny. They're more like funny pathetic. If he doesn't have a speechwriter he should get one; but before that he should dispose of the crayons they gave him to write and color with at Yale.

Update - Hat tip to Scott Johnson at the Powerline Blog
On reflection I'm realizing that's where I originally learned of Rocco Landesman's speech

And: I also posted this on Zombie Contentions at

Monday, October 26, 2009

A brief visit to the Peoples Republic of Massachusetts

Three days we've been away, and in that time the big sugar maple tree has dropped about half of its leaves. It was at the very peak of its splendor on Sunday of last week, all shades of gold and red and green. What leaves now remain on the tree are yellow or brown.

But I don't want to write about the swift decay of the splendor of the sugar maple, its leaves deprived of essential nutrients by the choking off of tree's systems. I want to write about the splendor of the great Peoples' Republic of Massachusetts, which Linda and I visited this weekend.

We stayed in the Brookline Holiday Inn, which Christina got for us via Priceline. A great location for observing some pretty interesting stuff, and only ten blocks or so from Alex and Christina's apartment. The very first evening was made special when I observed a local copper making time with nine well oiled young ladies who emerged from a building across the street as part of a much larger group who were perhaps the competitors for the Miss Miniskirt Massachusetts title. Every one of those girls had their heads in the clouds; but their legs reached all the way to the ground.

The copper, Steve was his name, loaned his uniform hat to one of the nine he was wooing. I was hoping she would try to make off with it the way Dillon tried to do with the Guardia Civil's fancy tricorn back in Barcelona in the 1960's; but she meekly handed it back after trying it on and displaying it to the passing cab drivers. Those cab drivers were not looking at the hat, and neither was Steve. The Guardia Civil back in Barcelona was definitely focused on his tricorn when he gestured very meaningfully at Dillon with his submachine gun. He looked pretty determined to me; but to this day I don't rightly know if he would have fired had Dillon not thought better of keeping his hat.

Steve got his hat back before he guided the nine young ladies into a cab and told the cab driver it was okay to take the passenger overload. Whether he scored a phone number or not I don't know; but he did give the dollies his email address. I hope he got a number because I don't think those lasses were in condition to remember an email address.

To be continued. . . The next thrilling episode will include our encounter with the exuberant
Russkis at the restaurant, and our tour of the Harpoon Brewery. It may also include
commentary on the events that did not occur when we found our car boxed in by the idealistic young civil engineer who was so preoccupied with saving humanity by delivering materials to the Boston Headquarters for Idealism that she had no time to worry about inconveniencing a few mere humans.

Ah to be young and heedless of the risks of rudeness. Hopefully the next time she will block in someone like me in my much younger days, for even idealists, perhaps especially idealists, need learning in the wages of sin. Randy or Dillon or Paul or Dave or Nick and I would have levied quite some wages on the car of someone who boxed us in back in college days. Thomas Harris had his character Hannibal Lecter go perhaps a smidgen too far; but it is a very certain truth that free range rudeness should be answered with consequences by anyone truly idealistic upon whom it is practiced.

Update: In other news I just got an exceedingly pleasant surprise when I leafed through the mail we collected upon returning home the other day. It included a very nice postcard from Aruba where Alex and Christina are enjoying a great honeymoon, or at least they were when they sent the postcard more than a month ago. They mention seeing "enough colorful fish, sunsets and iguanas to fill at least two honeymoons". The Aruba post office must have tied this postcard to an iguana who then hitched a ride on a fish to bring it to the U.S.

Just think how quickly and efficiently our medical care will be attended to when health care is run by the government the way the post office is.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The promised recipe for Pasta e' Fagioli and some other stuff

There is a squirrel with a kinked tail sitting in the pot of the baobab. He's been sitting there grooming that tail, looking around, occasionally licking for salt at the sides of the pot for a good fifteen minutes. When Linda came over and stood by the patio doors he froze up until she moved away. His threat recognition system ignores a giant monster sitting fifteen feet away; but it reacts to one standing ten feet away. The amount of time and careful attention devoted to studying such things by the wildlife biologists and such must be truly stupendous.

This particular squirrel has time to waste playing with his tail because the big white oak by the back door has produced a fall of acorns practically beyond all imaginings. Like all the other squirrels, he's probably glutted with acorns and already possessed of enough caches of them to last the winter. Plus he knows he can be blase' about acorns because the black walnut trees have also produced a bumper crop. The walnuts are still in their thick and nasty iodine smelling outer coats on the ground right now; but those coats will rot away and leave just the nuts in their shells, which will lie there contentedly until the squirrels get around to them; because nothing else can eat them. Those nuts are everything but squirrelproof.

But enough of that fat and lazy rodent; who better save his teeth for the walnuts and keep them off the trunk of my baobab tree. I sat down here to complete the recipe for Pasta e' Fagioli that I started a few days ago and then abandoned. I set the beans to simmering on Columbus Day before Jas came to get me for our tour of the new Wegmans and Best Buy, and then I forgot to finish the preparation - at least I forgot to finish the description of the preparation - of the meal. And I just remembered that I promised Linda L a description of the full recipe when we had dinner with her and Mark at the creole restaurant down in Royersford.

Linda L wanted that recipe even though I mentioned that my Pasta Fagiole, which used to be Mom's, and before that her Mom's and Pop's Mom's Pasta Fagiole, has nothing much in common with the recipes the restaurants use and the one that appears on the box of ditalini. Those other recipes are for a watery bean and vegetable country soup which contains some macaroni. My recipe is for a fairly thick bean and macaroni stew flavored with garlic, salt and pepper, and olive oil. Linda L told me that she had tasted my version one time; but for the life of me I can't remember when I ever served such a thing to a crowd.

We ate the finished Pasta Fagiole for dinner on Columbus Day and then again on Wednesday, I think it was Wednesday, of last week. And, of course, I ate some of it for lunch a couple of days last week also, and one time for breakfast even. If you remember, I cooked two pounds of great northern beans pretty much according to the directions on the package, except about four times longer. I did not make Pasta Fagiole out of all of those beans because that would have been enough to feed me and Linda and much of Royersford. Out of the pot that resulted from cooking all those beans I used nine cups for the recipe I made last week. And I also froze three containers, of five cups each.

So, let's get that recipe out of the way before I get off on another digression as I am sometimes wont to do. Cook two pounds of Great Northern Beans on low for several hours, stirring occasionally, until most of them have been reduced to mush. Mom used to like a greater percentage of the beans whole; but then Mom sold out to the point of using canned beans eventually. Pop liked Mom's canned bean ersatz concoction; but he preferred the more mushy bean consistency you can only achieve by simmering those beans to death and beyond. This I know because Pop used to describe how good the bean scrapings from the bottom of the pot tasted when his mother gave them to him. She, Grandmom Filomena, used to cook her beans on the big woodstove that sat in Aunt Carmella's kitchen, and may still sit in that kitchen now, ten years and more after Aunt Carmella passed away.

That stove was huge, and the iron top of it was at least a half inch thick, which I know from playing with the round cover things that were about the size of CDs only much thicker while Mom and Aunt Carmella and Aunt Tavia and sometimes Aunt Mary were having coffee and cookees at the table. You could lift those round things and then let them accidentally clang down very satisfyingly onto the stovetop with that iron tool that slotted into them until you were given another cookie and chased from that kitchen.

You only get the sort of bean curd effect on the bottom of the pot that Pop described if you cook beans until they disintegrate. Which I would remind Mom about whenever I saw her opening bean cans in her later years and I wanted to generate a sharp reaction to liven things up. Despite her immediate reaction, which usually entailed the waving of her big spoon, Mom loved that line of discussion because it inevitably led straight back to feeding families cheaply in the days when she made great pots of beans and macaroni from scratch down on Penn Street. Sometimes it even led all the way back to the story about trapping blackbirds in the back yard of 403 Walnut Street; or the story of Grandmom Angela catching the boarder not shaking the milk and using the cream on top for his morning coffee; or the story of the men sneaking into the rail yard at night to dislodge coal from the cars, so the women could go in the morning to gather it; or the story of Grandmom Angela feeding ten, or was it fifteen, or twenty, with one pound of beef and a whole lot of potatoes and greens - in the era after the blackbirds had learned to avoid her back yard.

But I see that I've done it again, digressed from providing the recipe. Cook two pounds of beans according to the package directions but much longer. About 2/3rds of the way through cooking the beans add two bulbs of garlic, the cloves peeled and more or less finely chopped, of course. Fry the garlic just a bit in about a cup or so of olive oil, to drive the hotness out of it, before adding it and the oil to the bean pot. Also add two or three level teaspoons of salt and half or maybe a whole level teaspoon of pepper. And add a 14 ounce can of tomato sauce for color. If you don't have tomato sauce you can use ketchup or diced tomatoes, but if Mom heard you say you did that the spoon would really have waved. The addition of the oil and garlic will help in keeping the beans from sticking. This is the modern age of dials to control the heat and flat ended stirring spoons with which to scrape the bottom of the pot, not the age of cooking over a wood fired stove and wooden spoons shaped pretty much like blunt sticks. We do not end with bean mush stuck to the bottom of the pot, if we're careful.

From the resulting pot of beans, oil, garlic and tomato sauce for color, remove 9/24ths of the total and mix that with about 2/3rds of a pound of Ditalini cooked to the bare minimum time suggested on the package and then almost completely drained. If the beans are especially thick drain a little less water from the ditalini. If the beans seem a bit thin drain all of the water from the ditalini. That's the recipe I made the other evening. Each of the three containers I have in the freezer contains 5/24ths of that pot. I will probably mix each with about a third of a pound of ditalini, maybe a little more.

Pop used to eat Pasta Fagiole for breakfast whenever there was some of it in the refrigerator. In later years he would sometimes be sitting there in the kitchen window when I went over there for coffee, eating beans and macaroni with that giant flat bowled tablespoon he liked for that specific purpose. We have that spoon, the one with the slightly kinked metal fatigued spot on its handle. We still occasionally use it as a serving spoon for salad, although I prefer a different spoon for that purpose.

Pasta Fagiole is perhaps the ultimate comfort food from the days when people ate cheap and hearty stuff like beans and macaroni for the comfort of a full belly; before some wiseacre thought up the term "comfort food" and thus consigned such foods to mild association with eating to assuage our neuroses.

Update: In other news, scientists have discovered a new species of web spinning spider whose females grow to be bigger than a CD. So far they haven't actually seen a live one, just dead specimens in museums and parts of recently alive ones that have fallen to the ground in the rainforests of Africa. They think the reason they haven't seen a live one in its web is that the females live in the tops of the tall trees where they don't fear most birds and lizards and other such predators on ordinary two or three or four inch in diameter spiders because they look upon them as comfort food.

The scientist who study spiders are apparently short of help. They desperately need a few assistants to climb up those trees, ignoring the trifling snakes and foot long centipedes and other biting stuff, to find those giant spiders and study them, perhaps even capture one to bring down to the ground alive. They assure me that these particular spiders do not jump on things they want to eat but rather wait patiently, camouflaged in their sturdy webs, confident that plenty of food will come to them.

Who says there are no jobs available in this economy?

Update 2: The other night, after I told the story of Lefty and the drapes which Mom always used to tell, Linda told me she had never heard Mom tell her Lefty story, which was a cautionary tale about the taking in of stray troubled souls. Jas and Kathy also seemed to have never heard that story even though Jas remembered that Lefty used to sleep on the pile of burlap bags in the back of Harry's Potato Market until he pulled the knife on Patty. Lefty had a lot, a very lot, of very hard miles on him when we knew him. Mom's story predated that. One of these days I have to tell it here, but not in connection with a food recipe.

Harry took in strays all the time. He took in the quiet and nice black guy from down at the wharf who later stole some money Harry had in the trailor for a trip South to buy watermelons, which caused Harry to buy the pistol about which Patty used to act out a very funny story. And, of course, Harry later took in Eddie Fight, who never stole anything, but who also never did even a lick of work that I ever saw. Eddie had a lot of hard miles on him also, and he could be provoked to crack us up with one of his sayings. "Smarty, eh, smarty had a party." and "Nice man, Harry, very nice man. He'll give you a leaf for a lettuce patch any day."

Monday, October 19, 2009

Those idiots can't even carve up and pass out pork intelligently

Mark Twain famously said, "Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself."

Well. . . we've just had an example of the liberals in congress passing out pork so stupidly that they gave far more to their opponents than to their supporters.

According to analysis at The Audacious Epigone blog the three most liberal states are Massachusetts, Hawaii and Rhode Island; and the three most conservative states are Wyoming, Idaho and Utah.

Now you would think that the liberals in congress would have passed out more juicy pork to the liberal states than to the conservative states when they put together their big stimulus bill back in February. But according to the three most conservative states overall got one job for every 3,898 residents; while the most liberal states got only one job for every 10,544 residents.

Wyoming – 61 jobs/532,000 population = one for every 8,741 residents
Idaho – 632 jobs/1,523,000 population = one for every 2,410 residents
Utah – 536 jobs/2,736,000 population = one for every 5,104 residents
Total - 1229 jobs/4,791,000 = one for every 3,898 residents

Massachusetts – 583 jobs/6,497,000 population = one for every 11,144 residents
Hawaii – 249 jobs/1,288,000 population – one for every 5,172 residents
Rhode Island – 6 jobs/1,051,000 population – one for every 175,166 residents
Total - 838 jobs/8,836,000 = one for every 10,544 residents

Congresscritters aren't even smart and efficient when it comes to rewarding their friends. How can it possibly make sense to want to give them more control over the national economy?

State by state conservative versus liberal rankings from

State by state job creation figures from

State population figures from

Hat tip to Razib Khan who writes as David Hume on The Secular Right blog. His post there got me started on this train of thought with his link to The Audacious Epigone.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

You break it, you own it

Colin Powell and Richard Armitage famously cited the Pottery Barn rule in talking about intervention into the affairs of other countries – “You break it, you own it.”

It seems to me that application of a corollary of that rule is a cure for one big problem that ails our current health care insurance system.

Currently, under COBRA, a company’s health insurance provider is required to offer continuation coverage at the company cost rate for two years after someone leaves the company. But after that the provider has no further obligation.

For people with pre-existing conditions continuation coverage is a great boon since they can’t easily get other insurance. On the other hand it’s a potential trap for people who don’t have pre-existing conditions when they leave a company because at that point they can get alternative coverage, but if they stay with the company’s provider they court the danger of developing a pre-existing condition during the two year continuation period.

If COBRA were amended to require insurers to offer continuation coverage to age 65 to anyone they once insure that problem would go away. People who develop pre-existing conditions would have the option of extending their coverage with the insurer who had them when they developed the condition.

Naturally, insurers would have to take this new obligation into account in setting their rate tables. And they would have to negotiate to swap responsibility with other insurers when people move to other states and such. But doing stuff like that is what insurance companies are good at.

All in all, it seems to me that this change would be far less onerous than what the insurers are going to get in the way of regulation because of the very understandable sympathy there is for people who become orphaned and uninsurable two years after being laid off.

Why can’t insurance companies be required to follow a “You own him when he breaks, you own him for life” rule.

Update: Another thing about the health care insurance debate. Why do many persist in saying that a new not-for-profit health care insurance provider is necessary without mentioning that there is already a national association of not-for-profit providers that’s a major factor in the market – namely the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association?

I also posted this at Zombie Contentions -

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Being the continuance of Jas and Sull's excellent adventure

When I left off the other day Jas and I were pretty much finished with our exploration of the big new Wegmans, so we drove over to the new Best Buy. We had to drive because the Best Buy is a pretty long way from the Wegmans. That shopping center is big; it has more length of commercial streeds than Norristown did in the 1950's when Al Martino was still a young pup of a crooner and Mom and Pop used to take us down to see the Christmas lights on Main Street.

We would go into Chatlin's Department Store and marvel at the toys, which were up on the fourth floor as I recall. Days of Wonder! Erector Sets and cap guns and bows and arrows and Daisy Air Rifles; and a Lionel Train display with working trains going around and around the tracks. Chatlin's display of trains was almost as big as the one Uncle Froggy used to set up in the combination living room and dining room of Grandmom and Grandpop's row house up on Walnut Street.

All four floors of that old Chatlin's would be lost within one corner of the Best Buy. The place is as big as an aircraft hangar. And it's positively crammed with toys for boys that would have been beyond our wildest imaginings back in the 1950's. The TV in our old house on Penn Street had about an 8 inch screen on which little cowboys and indians may have ridden; but I can't remember ever seeing that TV on. That was no terrible hardship because Uncle Chick and Aunt Mary had a big screen TV next door. Their TV was the most amazing thing I ever spent much time with until Uncle Froggy got the first color set any of us had seen in the 1960's.

I watched Hopalong Cassidy with Uncle Chick on many and many a Saturday morning, both of us lying on the floor with our noses a few inches from the twelve inch screen. Uncle Chick was a big kid on those Saturday mornings. He was also a Slovak, the only Slovak I knew. So I thought for quite a while that all Slovaks were big kids, just as I thought all South Philly Italians were big kids because Uncle Froggy was a big kid.

Uncle Froggy lived in Norristown, but he had grown up in Philly and you could tell. He acted like a kid much more than my other uncles. First off, he was a fireman, and when the fire siren sounded he went running. Plus, he drove a big dump truck around as his regular job. But he seemed to go where he wanted pretty much as he pleased with that dump truck. He was sort of like a foster son of the guy who owned the mill where the dump truck was supposed to be; so I guess nobody was keeping real close tabs on him. He also did unusual things when he worked the counter down at Babe's luncheonette. If me or Matty or Sonny went in there and gave him a quarter for a lemonade he would give us a big lemonade, and he would also give us three or four dimes and a nickel back as change. I was pretty little when we still lived in Norristown; but even when I was little I knew that getting four dimes and a nickel back as change for a quarter was unusual.

But I need to stop dwelling on my first childhood and get back to the present one. . .

The Best Buy has a wall of big screen TVs that's about a hundred yards long. Jas and I started off at the left end looking at the little 40 inch sets and then strolled up the marching line of sets until we got to the end of the selection of 55 inchers that cap off the display. In the cavern of the Best Buy those 55 inchers are suprisingly small looking even though any one of them is probably as big as the table in Aunt Mary R's kitchen that would hold enough meat ravioli to feed the 20 or so of us who would eat around it in shifts on Christmas Day because the dining room was, of course, filled with Uncle Froggy's train layout. Matty used to crawl under the train table and pop up through the hole in the middle of it to run the display.

After spending a good bit of time with the TVs we moved along to the laptop computers, the very smallest of which has a screen about the size of Uncle Froggy's first color TV set. The people on those laptop screens don't have green faces and the grass on them is not blue.

But enough of the Best Buy. We left there after spending some time with the young pup salesman near the laptops and learning that he had to go ask somebody else what the difference is between 3G network and a 4G network, or whatever, which Jas wanted to know for some reason. As if either of us would have understood the answer even assuming the salesman had come back with a coherent answer. I just looked up the matter on Wikipedia and I still don't think I understand it even though Wiki probably does have a coherent answer.

I made coffee when we got back to our house, and Jas and I discussed the usual things that we've been gnawing at like bones for thirty years over coffee. Then he suggested that we go for a walk becaue he wanted to see Dave's little camping compound in the woods. So we strolled out the driveway and over to the right of way on our neighbor's property that leads past the water company's little chlorine gas danger building and then past the little strongly fenced enclosure that I think has something to do with the sewer interceptor. That right of way took us back onto our property and put us on the path I keep mowed along the sewer line right of way.

Incidently, our neighbor may not know that the right of way on his three quarter acre suburban lot is not necessarily intended for use by private guys with tractors like me who are too lazy to make a ford across the big creek to allow easier direct access to the other side of their property, so if you see him don't say anything.

Anyway, Jas and I shortly came to where the side path leads to Dave's kraal, for that's what it's become, in the woods. Dave has been more or less been living back there in our woods, happy as a clam or a Masai, for a few years, but the kraal is new this year. Formerly Dave moved around between three or four little campsites where he would simply stretch his hammock between trees but he became more ambitious this year as the cold has started to come on. He now has a little low cabin made of cast off lumber, surrounded by a brush stockade which is quite impressive. Dave doesn't have any livestock in his kraal; but he does have a little semicircular seating area aound the firepit in front of his cabin for visitors.

By a miracle Dave was home at about noon when Jas and I stopped by. I say a miracle because the other day was the very first time I've ever come upon Dave sleeping in any of his campsites in all the times I've walked or driven my tractor over there. A bit inconvenient - I will no longer be able to say to the neighbors or the police that I don't actually know for a fact that Dave sleeps in the woods. Dave has always been elusive. I usually see him coming or going from his dad's house up in the neighborhood on the other side, or I see him on the paths, seldom more than once every couple weeks.

Jas and I spent a few minutes talking with Dave, learning that he's making a longbow, inspired no doubt by Chris the bowhunter who just got his first deer with a longbow a few weeks ago. Dave also told us that it was Chris who made the deer that died of natural causes a couple of weeks ago right near the pond disappear from the place where I dragged it with the tractor. Dave said Chris dragged the deer to a low spot in a gully where it will decompose faster. A mystey solved!

When we were done talking with Dave, Jas and I continued up the paths toward the old house on Route 29. And who should we encounter but Dan who was fueling his chainsaw. I gave Dan permission to cut wood on the property earlier in the fall because I want the field behind the Route 29 house to become a pasture. And Dan needs the money he's been earning by selling firewood since he's out of work. So far he's cleared about an acre of our land, doing a very nice job of it. The stumps are cut low enough so I'll be able to keep it mown without trouble.

It was at that point that Jas suggested lunch at the new Ray's across 29, his treat. Dan commented that he had found the hamburgers at Ray's very good, but considered the french fries a bit greasy. We found him to be right about the french fries, but thought them greasy in a good way, like Boardwalk Fries in Atlantic City. Route 29 isn't Park Place quite yet; but it's come a very long way from the two lane road with no shoulders that it was back in 1978 when we bought this property. It's now three lanes wide in front of the our old house there, and four lanes wide just up the way where the commercial office buildings are across from the big new Wawa.

I doubt that a single one of the pharmaceutical company yuppies who endlessly zip back and forth along that road are aware that Dan is patiently clearcutting in the woods behind a screen of trees and brush that I suggested he leave standing for the moment, piling up dozens of cords of firewood, about seventy yards away. I'm practically certain that not a one of them is aware that Dave is happily living in his kraal, making a longbow and practicing with his sling, generally living a bit of the life of a solitary pre-industrial Masai or Navajo, less than three hundred yards away from their bustle.

For God's sake don't tell them any of this. The new world those yuppies are making is an excellent, a fantastic, world, containing many new wonders; but I like being able to come across older style wonders as well.

Postscript: It would be wrong of me to close this out without mentioning that I just saw that Al Martino died yesterday at 82. Al got his start as a crooner in South Philly back in 1952, the year that Sam was born, and the year before Jas was born, when I was four and just becoming aware of the wonders in the world.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A day of wonder in second childhood

First off, it's impossible to find time to think undisturbed. It's about 1:00 and I just sat down to write up this day of wonder. And almost immediately that possibly winter damned little woodpecker came back and started tapping at the patio door window and shamelessly displaying to his reflection. Yesterday he woke me up, very thoughfully just before the alarm went off, by tapping on the bedroom window. All the little buddies he was playing around with last week are gone. They may already be headed south. You had better give up with the windows guy, and get your backside south. It's getting cold.

Maybe he listened to me. He's gone now so I can get back to the events so far of the day.

Jas, who is off work because of Columbus Day, called at about 9:30 to ask if I wanted to go out and play. Of course I did; so he came by after stopping at the drugstore. While I was waiting for him I started two pounds of great northern beans on low. The package directions call for simmering them only a couple of hours after soaking them overnight; but I like them mostly disintegrated for Pasta Fagiole, so those beans are still over there slow cooking.

After Jas arrived we went over to the big new playground that just opened and took a couple of hour walk through the Wegman's and then through the Best Buy which are pretty much the only stores open over there at this point. The Wegmans is enormous! And it has friendly people giving out sample snacks here and there, which the little dusty playgrounds of my first childhood did not have. And even if those old time playgrounds had had people giving out snacks they would certainly not have included samples of buttery brie on bread. Very good brie, and the nice lady insisted on giving us some even after we told her we weren't shopping but only walking around.

As we were walking down one of the aisles I heard an old woman exclaiming to her buddy about the price of the gourmet cat food she was looking at. Once we were out of earshot Jas mentioned that she probably drove ten miles to price out the cat food the way Mom and Aunt Mary used to run around to all the stores buying this here and that there. Mom and Aunt Mary never bought catfood though. Cats ate leftover people food back in those days.

Old people sure are funny. They've got all the time in the world to go around doing stuff like strolling around five acre supermarkets eating free samples and checking prices. Which reminds me, I noticed that Wegmans sells the big bottles of soda for 89 cents, which is a lot better price than prevails at Redners where the best you can do, even on sale, is a buck a bottle. Not that I would save any money by going to Wegmans to shop. The place is positively filled with enticing stuff that is not priced at 89 cents and I'm an impulse shopper even when not hungry.

There is, for instance, and olive bar that has selections you don't even see down at the cheese and olive store in the Italian Market down in Philly. I could easily spend twenty bucks at that olive bar after I save 11 cents on a bottle of Diet Mountain Dew.

And Wegmans has five kinds of caviar. Imagine that, caviar for sale right here in Collegeville. And most of that caviar isn't even expensive. Four of the caviar varieties are bargains at only $5.17 an ounce; a pretty darn good price compared to the 28 bucks and change that they want for an ounce of the one expensive variety. Caviar for poor folks. I'm sure only really rich people buy that expensive caviar. Regular guys like me and Jas would never pay that outrageous price. We would stick to the cheaper stuff.

And the produce section! What a thrill that was for two kids who worked at Harry's Potato Market back in our first childhood. That was back when we told people to please don't squeeze the tomatoes displayed under the big cardboard sign that said "FLORDIA TOMATS - 3 lbs FOR 50 (CENTS)".

I put that "CENTS" in parentheses because this darn computer doesn't have a key for the little "cents" symbol. I'll bet Wegmans has computers that have a key for the "cents" symbol; and I'll betcha dollars to donuts they have somebody who knows how to reliably spell "Florida" as well - or maybe they have a spell checker on their computers. Harry apparently didn't have a spell checker on his computer, and he didn't trouble to use me or Jas or Sam or Patty as spell checkers when he made up signs. We laughed about that Flordia sign every year for three or four years when Harry took it out each fall after the last of the local tomatoes were gone.

Harry's computer used to do other funny things. One time, for instance, he priced the figs for individual sale at far less than their bulk cost. Which didn't much matter anyway because there was a lot of shrinkage of those figs. . . a very lot of shrinkage. Harry himself liked them quite a bit, and we did too. Working at Harry's had very few perks; but one of those was eating all of the fruit you could possibly want to eat. It was accepted practice, for instance that the last watermelon off the truck simply had to be dropped, not far enough to make it mushy, but far enough to make it needful of cutting up.

But back to Wegmans. They have fruits and vegetables in their produce section that I haven't seen since I walked through the outdoor markets of Singapore and Hong Kong and Bangkok back when live monkeys were to be had in out of the way places, and not for pets. And, even forgetting about the exotic stuff, there are brussel sprouts still on the stem, about fifteen varieties of lettuce and an aisle of different types of tomatoes that has more shelf space than Harry's whole potato market. The most impressive thing is that they have all of those fruits and vegetables in both normal form for people who eat normal fruits and vegetables, and in super high priced organic form for the kind of people who turn their noses up at cheap caviar and insist on the 28 buck an ounce variety. And the milk! Don't even get me started on the milk except to say that they have at least three big milk sections scattered around that store.

Not that I had a lot of time to pay proper attention to the milk sections. As always Jas was in a hurry, just like he always was back in first childhood. Now, as then, he even wastes time in a hurry. He was always a few steps ahead of me and making me feel guilty for not moving along fast enough. So now I'm going to have to go back to Wegmans one day to see if one of their milk sections is like their produce section. At this point I can only report that it will not surprise me one bit if I find that they have goat and camel and yak milk, all in both normal and organic varieties.

More later. . . I have some stuff to do for tonight's Pasta e' Fagioli. My next post will start "After we left the Wegmans. . ." That next post will include the thrilling tale of our stroll through Best Buy and our brief stop at the big new Wawa, along with the events that led up to our visiting Dave at his little camp in the woods and then coming upon Dan, who was refueling his chainsaw, and getting his opinion of the french fries at the place we were walking to for lunch.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

With apologies to Samuel Taylor

Ode to NASA's LCROSS Mission

At Cabeus did NASA geeks,
A swifty Centaur rocket hurl,
Where dust, and mayhap water reeks,
‘Pon craters numberless, and peaks,
Under the cosmic whirl.

Sent a metric ton of massy metal,
To feel out lunar soil’s fettle.
And cunning careful cameras set,
To record impact on lunar rill,
Ensure the wants of public met,
Make time long record of the thrill,
Assure balmy days for budget till.

But, oh! When stopwatch ended countdown,
To indicate the mighty crashdown,
Appeared no hint of fiery flash down,
There on Selene’s apparition.

Were the cameras to be faulted,
For missing flash on Moon assaulted?

Or had some Lunar Politician,
Told Ace, a junior lab technician,
"Strip down that leftover techy thing,
From building that new Saturn ring,
Set a force field strong and watchful,
To stop this arrogant man tossed missile. "

"Include a grokking gizmo, Ace,
To do that thing of the Martian race.
Twist that racing Terran thing,
Clear outa this here four D space.
Enough of taking human guff!
Teach those Earthlings right enough,
That they're not really red hot stuff!"

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Cow Peas, Political Kings and Saturn's Rings

Usually I'm the one who brings up scientific trivia during our nightly walk; but the other night Linda surprised me with news that scientists have discovered a new ring around Saturn. Then she moved on to calling the Nobel Prize given for ribosome chemistry "boring."

That led to me, falsely it turns out, criticizing the Nobel Committee for the "fact," as I then thought, that Norman Borlaug had never been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize while Fat Albert the Gorester and Jimmy the Peanut Farmer Carter had each been awarded one, along with Henry Kissinger and Yasser Arafat, at least one of whom should have been awarded iron shackles and a copper jacketed bullet to the head rather than a peace prize gold medal, depending on your point of view.

And thus I learned that Linda, who's probably better informed than 90% of this country's population, and 95% of the world's population, had never heard of Norman Borlaug.

. . . never heard of Norman Borlaug, even though he actually was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, plus a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977, and a Congressional Gold Medal in 2006.

Norman Borlaug was also awarded a Padma Vibhusan, which is India's second highest civilian award, also in 2006. He wasn't apparently thought quite as worthy as Nelson Mandela, who holds the distinction of being the only foreigner ever awarded the Bharat Ratna, which is India's highest civilian award.

Now, I certainly have nothing against Nelson Mandela, who is a very great man as men go; but, but, but. . . what sort of world is it where Nelson Mandela deserves India's highest civilian award while the best it could do for Norman Borlaug was to award him its SECOND highest civilian award.

India, of all places, where probably a third of the population is alive and eating instead of dead and rotting because of Norman Borlaug. . .

It's true that Norman Borlaug did nothing but stunningly boring and tedious work in agronomy, a stunningly boring field, from when he got his PhD in plant pathology and genetics in 1942 until he died on September 12th of this year.

First he fed millions of Mexicans by developing a high yield, disease resistant, semi-dwarf wheat. Then he doubled down and fed tens of millions more Mexicans by bucking his boss and the agronomy establishment and going on to develop various varieties of his special wheat to allow double cropping each season.

In 1962 he got bored with feeding Mexicans, so he moved to South Asia, where he fought and won a long battle with hidebound government bureaucrats (oxymoron alert) and proceeded to feed hundreds of millions of Indians and Pakistanis by proving to farmers that they could plant and harvest and eat his Mexican semi-dwarf wheat varieties without having to give up their naan and raga rhythms in favor of tortillas and mariachi music. In the process he made a fool of Paul Erlich whose Population Bomb, thereby, er, bombed, big time.

Probably because he missed the Mariachi music he was back in Mexico and had already left for his test fields in the Toluca valley by 4:00 AM on the day the Nobel Prize Committee called to tell his wife that he had won the peace prize. After she told him about that, totally in character, he finished his work in the fields before he came back home to where the microphones were and pretty soon made his name mud with the environmentalists by hurling a big cow flop at them.

. . . "some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things."

Having skewered the well fed and self satisfied Al Gore types like so many kebabs he retired to rest a bit, soakin' up the rays part of the time in Mexico and part of the time in Texas. But there was to be no enduring rest for him; because well fed Western European and American environmentalists were determined to keep most black Africans starving, their children stumbling dazedly around with hunger swollen bellies, even as they praised Nelson Mandela for achieving change by voluntarily starving himself in prison.

So it was that a Japanese shipbuilding tycoon, Ryoichi Sasakawa, called up Borlaug, who was probably enjoying a well deserved marguerita by the pool, and lured him to Ethiopia, where what he saw convinced him to stay in Africa for a while to feed tens and hundreds of millions of people there.

"I assumed we'd do a few years of research first," Borlaug later recalled, "but after I saw the terrible circumstances there, I said, 'Let's just start growing'." Soon, Borlaug had projects in seven countries. Yields of maize and sorghum in developed African countries doubled between 1983 and 1985. Yields of wheat, cassava, and cowpeas also increased in these countries."

Even Jimmy Carter was impressed enough to put down his knife and fork for a while to help a bit by travelling to Ethiopia and convincing the latter day pharoah there to let his people go. . . and use fertilizer. . . no matter how much the environmentalists who were growing fat eating lobster and caviar on the self congratulatory lecture circuit whined and stamped and insisted that Africans were better off dead or starving than alive and well fed enough to stomp around to the music of their koras and mbiras and bougarabous.

That's who Norman Borlaug was until he died last month at age 95 after a life spent saving the lives of perhaps a billion people.

Norman Borlaug, unlike Al Gore and a lot of other much more famous men, was a man who had a dream, a dream of well fed peasants in India and Africa and Asia and South America. A dream of a world without so many bloated belly babies to provide photo ops for Madonna and Bono and Sean Penn and Al Gore and Jimmy Carter.

And he was a man who patiently and incredibly made that dream a reality, with his hands and with his brain, on the ground amidst the cow flops, in a dozen countries, despite the carping of ivory tower environmentalist types and the foot-dragging of status quo government types. A man who actually did something, quite a big thing, about the simple fact that "Without food, man can live at most but a few weeks; without it, all other components of social justice are meaningless. . . Yet food is something that is taken for granted by most world leaders despite the fact that more than half of the population of the world is hungry."

And that's why it's a damn shame that there isn't even a plaque honoring his name in the hall in India, now home to a billion much better fed people because of his dream and work, where they mark the names of those, like Nelson Mandela, who have been awarded the Bharat Ratna.

Facts and quotes mostly from the well of Wikipedia. Outrage and shamelessly plagiarized Mario Puzo/Hyman Roth quote from my own deep well. The contents of a can of Campbell's Chunky New England Clam Chowder were heated and enjoyed during the writing of this message.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

From a world lit only by fire to a world connected by the internet

Bob just bought my copy of A World Lit Only By Fire; and Bill just bought my copy of Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army. Bob lives in Virginia. Bill, who is a Chief Warrant Officer, has an APO armed forces address, so there's no telling where he lives right now; but I'm going to take a wild ass guess and say he's either in Afghanistan or will be headed there soon.

There's an old military maxim that goes something like, 'Amateurs talk about tactics, professionals talk about logistics.' And, if Bill is indeed in Afghanistan, he's living out a bit of what it was like when the world was lit only by fire.

Alexander had to worry quite a bit about logistics when he decided to go to Afghanistan, which wasn't a walk in a park, because Darius had gone on the lam up that way after running away from the battle of Issus. Alexander was pretty serious about catching Darius. He took about 64,000 fighting men with him when he crossed the Khawak Pass in the Hindu Kush; and he also took about 36,000 or so camp followers who straggled along with his army providing various more or less essential services. For one thing there were thousands among those camp followers who managed the tens of thousands of pack animals that carried supplies from the fertile areas to the barren ones.

Logistics were a lot simpler in those days, but men have had to eat three or so pounds of food a day in all ages, so something like a couple of hundred thousand pounds of food had to reach those fighting men pretty much every day, especially when they were taking sixteen days to file through the narrow passes where there was snow on the ground and the cold was nearly unfathomable to we who have lived all our lives with central heating. The pack horses and the cavalry horses had to eat pretty much every day while they were up in those passes too.

Most of us will never walk the passes of the Hindu Kush as Alexander's men did and as Bill may. But quite a lot of us have crossed Rocky Mountain National Park on Trail Ridge Road while going from Denver to Craig via Estes Park and Hot Sulphur Springs. When I was last there it was still pretty cold at Milner's pass even during the day in late May. For a fairly sedentary sort like me walking that route is nearly unimaginable, although it is possible for me to imagine Dave and Alex walking a good bit of it when they went out there hiking a couple of years ago. Part of the very distant reason a million Alex's are named Alex is because that distant past Alexander walked and rode the passes of the Hindu Kush with those 64,000 men.

Which sort of brings me back to the Bill who's interested in the logistics effort behind Alexander's conquests. By the miracle of the internet I may know a bit more about Bill if I give my assumptions some rein so they can run pretty free. For instance, there's a Bill with the same last name who is a Technical Chief Warrant Officer 3 and was just selected for promotion to Chief Warrant Officer 4. If that's the same Bill I congratulate him on his promotion and thank him for his long service to our country that has gotten him to that rank.

I think I'll put a congratulations and thank you note in Bill's book when I send it off today.

Incidently, I also know a bit more about Bob than the fact that he's interested in history and technology and the way the world changed at the end of the dark ages. I know he's retired, and I know he contributed a couple of hundred bucks to a Democratic Party candidate for a state office. I'm not going to hold that against him; but he gets no note with his book, although I hope he enjoys it as much as I did both the first time a couple of dozen years ago and the second time a month or so ago when I rediscovered it. When I rediscovered A World Lit Only By Fire I listed it for sale at an artificially high price to ensure that it wouldn't sell before I had a chance to re-read it. Learning now that Bob is a Democrat I can't help but feel just a little pleased that I never got around to re-pricing it lower.

By great coincidence I happen to be re-reading A Canticle for Leibowitz right now because I rediscovered it in the course of sorting out my books and putting the ones that have any value on Amazon for sale. It's about a future world lit only by fire and in part about the nitty gritty details, the logistics if you will, that are entailed in rediscovering technology after a long dark age like that which still befogs most of Afghanistan. A Canticle for Leibowitz is also about a problem facing all of us who are readers - so many books, so little time.

Update: In other news, there is a somewhat confused but very persistent woodpecker who has been trying to mate with his reflection in our windows for a couple of days. The other day he gave up and joined with a flock of other woodpeckers who came around to see what was up; but he's now back and patiently going from window to window, doing his thing, trying to get a reaction from his reflection.