Friday, December 27, 2002


How I'm rushing through this! How much each sentence in this brief story contains. "The stars are made of the same atoms as the earth." I ususlly pick one small topic like this to give a lecture on. Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars -- mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is "mere". I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination -- stuck on this little carousel, my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern -- of which I am a part -- perhaps my stuff was belched from some forgotten star, as one is belching there. Or see them with the greater eye of Palomar, rushing all apart from some common starting point when they were perhaps all together. What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined! Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?

-- Richard P. Feynman

Saturday, December 21, 2002

Is It Frozen Yet?

The Weather in Hell

Christmas is Coming

Christmas is coming,
Cthulhu's getting fat.
Please put a virgin in the Old One's vat!

If you haven't got a virgin then an Eldar Sign will do,
If you haven't got an Eldar Sign, then God help you!

Wednesday, December 11, 2002


Somebody at the Patent and Trademark Office is either very, very clever or very, very clueless. They have a newsletter. They did an article on "Homeland Security". No big deal; everybody wants to get into the act. But check out the logo:
Keyhole in flag with eyeball

This is just too appropriate. I've saved a copy of the image; It'll probably go away when some pointy-hair type at the USPTO gets a clue.

Friday, December 06, 2002

Snow Job

<BackgroundMusic cut=”Colorado” album=”National Lampoon Lemmings”/>

Just finished shoveling the cars out. I cleared the walk yesterday (as required by local laws, of the unenforced variety), so it just needed a bit of dusting off. The guy next door was doing the same thing; I remarked that we had to do the shoveling now, or the snow might melt before we get it shoveled. He got a laugh out of that. He seems like a nice guy; unfortunately, like everybody here in Suburbia, he doesn't seem to be really interested in talking to a mere neighbor.

There are advantages to being unemployed. I didn't have to drive in it. People from colder climes have trouble believing just what goes on in the Washington, DC area when it snows. Problem is, south of DC, it doesn't really snow that much, and north of DC, it snows enough for people to learn how to handle it. DC is right on the climatic boundary. Add in the problem that we have people from (quite literally!) all over the world here; each with their very own driving style. Top off with the fact that snow generally falls at 0 degrees C, and tends to turn to freezing slush immediately. Result is one all-time godawful mess.

A friend of mine had a visitor from Michigan during one of our little toy blizzards. "Step aside" says he. "Let an expert do the driving." He drove her car straight into the median. Didn't realize that the DC brand of slush is actually slipperier than ice.

The physics is simple. What makes ice slippery is the thin film of water between the ice and your foot or tire. The colder the ice, the thinner the film of water and the less slippery the whole system is. I’ve driven on snow in Maine in January; it’s a little slipperier than sand, but not much. No problem. Here, we get a mix of water and ice on the road, which is the worst of all possible worlds.

This year, we have an additional problem. Usually, before we get any significant snow, the County has come around with their big vacuum truck to pick up the leaves. Not this year! On the side streets, all that snow is sitting on top of a layer of leaves. Gonna be interesting when the snow starts to melt; problem with leaves in the street is that they block water drainage. This means that the snow melts, pools up behind the leaves, and then refreezes. Messy. Wet leaves are also seriously slippery by themselves.

There’s also the way the local news media play the snow. I think if Robert E. Lee and the Army of Virginia were suddenly reincarnated and marched on DC that it wouldn’t get as much news coverage as a few snowflakes. Some of the news shows give you useful information, like what schools and businesses are opening late or not at all; some just concentrate on showing pictures of fender-benders and the resulting traffic jams.

Snow in this area did have one good result: it helped bring down DC’s sick joke of a mayor, Marion Barry. Barry never learned the main secret of running a successful corrupt city administration, which is that people don’t care squat how much the city pays its contractors as long as the job gets done. Turns out DC was paying about three times as much per mile per year for snow removal as most places in New England, where they get real snow. And, in violation of the rule above, the snow wasn’t even getting pushed around. The contractors responsible tended to wait for the snow to melt enough so they wouldn’t have to risk actually driving in the snow they were supposed to remove. Now, this tended to be a bit of a kerfluffle every time we had a snow; what made this one different was that Soviet Premier Michael Gorbachev had been in town the previous week to talk to President Bush (no, not this President Bush. That President Bush.) There was much national media hilarity speculating on what Gorby would have thought about DC’s snow “removal”. Wasn’t long after that the FBI set up their little sting operation. (Personally, I still think it was entrapment, but a jury said “no”.)

As an aside, at one point, I worked for a Russian guy. He described how they handle snow in Moscow. Needless to say, they’re rather good at it. You can’t just push it around; if it falls in October, it’s gonna be there until April. You have to actually remove it. They have big dumpster-style trucks that pick up the snow; then it’s all trucked to a big field outside of town and dumped into a big pile. People can ski on it until May. Why don’t they pile it on the river? I dunno. Maybe it’s too heavy. Maybe the river doesn’t freeze soon enough or hard enough.

Later: A correspondant tells me that dumping that much snow in the river all at once would do Seriously Nasty Things to the local ecology. I can't see that as making that much difference to the Soviet government. A better reason might be that all that snow is seriously heavy; trying to drive a truck onto the ice and pile up snow would be seriously risky.

Colorado is, by the way, the only song I’ve seen a sign-language translator refuse to translate. American sign language is pretty salty, but Enough is Enough. Personally, I think it’s hysterically funny. Best fake John Denver I know.

Thursday, December 05, 2002

And So It Begins ....


We'll have to give up a little freedom, they said. A bit more of a wait at airports. No nail clippers. We have to make sure that Bad Guys won't blow up the plane (with nail clippers?) No real problem; we're only interested in Bad Guys. If you're not a Bad Guy, you have nothing to worry about. After all, we're the Good Guys.

A lot of us were profoundly uneasy at this. It's just too easy to define Bad Guys as "people I disagree with". "Trust us", says the Administration. "We'll do what's right."

Well, it's started. And who is singled out for intensive scrutiny? Rich Saudi kids (the kind who did the 9/11 hijackings)? New American converts to Islam ("no fanatic like a convert")? High level couriers (the guys who pay cash for one-way first-class tickets at the last minute)?

Nope. Elderly anti-war nuns. Left-leaning journalists. Green Party organizers. Yep. To the Administraiton, the Green Party is on the same level as Al Qaeda. Elderly war-protesting nuns are going to hijack airplanes. Yeah. Right.

Look, we all know what's going on here. The Republican Party is right and they know it. Anybody who disagrees with them is wrong, and shouldn't be allowed to confuse things. A person who is so deluded as to disagree with the Republican National Committee is capable of anything at all. Keeping them off of airplanes is just the first step ....

This could explain a lot about the 2002 elections. The way things normally go, the Democrats should have picked up strength. The Republicans get plusses for kicking over the Taliban, but most of the other things they've done have not been successes. No Osama. Afghanistan is still a mess, waiting to collapse back into the anarchy that spawned the Taliban. The crusade (I think the word is proper, here) against Saddam Hussein is offending practically everybody in the world. The economy is still in the toilet. More big companies collapsing into bankruptcy, amid accusations of fraud. Massive payoffs to Republican campaign contributers.

Yet we never heard any of this, either from journalists or from the Democrats. Perhaps some chains were yanked? What would happen to, say, ABC News if some of their key technical people suddenly had trouble getting on airplanes?

Just to make things more ominous, the 2002 elections were the first to make heavy use of computerized voting machines. These machines, hastily designed after the Florida disaster of 2000, have the interesting characteristic that they are totally audit-proof. That is, there is no assurance that what the machine spits out at the end of Election Day has any correlation at all to what voters punched into it. The Risks Digest has been chronicling problems with computerized voting, both theoretical and actual. See, for example, here, here, and here. I should note that the Risks Digest is probably the best regarded chronicler of risks to the public from computer systems in existance, and has been for well over a decade.

Most alarming (other than the utter cluelessness of the districts buying these pieces of crap) are the alleged ties between the voting machine manufacturers and organized crime.

Most we ever heard in the mainstream press was that some academic types don't like the voting machines. No details, no indication that the news types have any comprehension of either the technical or the political details.

It's gonna be fun to watch all the right-wing phony libertarians on the Net tapdance around this one.

Tuesday, November 05, 2002


I just got back from voting. If you are eligible to vote and don't, today, you have no right to gripe about what the politicians do for the next couple of years.

They say that all politics is local, and we have a prime example of that, here in my district. The power of incumbancy in US politics is so strong that any incumbent is essentially unbeatable. The only time you get a real race is when the incumbent retires or dies. Or, in the case of Maryland's eighth district, gets her district rearranged under her.

Redistricting is one of the prime tools of political corruption in the US. Basically, the party in power gets to redraw the district lines however they want after each census. The originator of this was a guy named Eldrige Gerry. When one wag pointed out that a district that he'd drawn looked like a salamander, somebody else said "No, it's a Gerrymander". And thus was a new word born. All over the US, in every state except Iowa, you'll find districts that look like something out of a mathematical paper on fractals. Idea is that They are slightly outnumbered in each district, so that We win every race. Or that They are all in one district, so that They only win one district and are guaranteed to lose all the others.

Maryland's eighth district used to be Montgomery County, including both the close-in suburbs (liberal) and the up-county rural areas (conservative). After the redistricting, we lost a lot of the rural areas. The new district is much more heavily Democratic than before. And our incumbent Congresscritter is a Republican. She's fighting hard to keep her seat.

Connie Morella is one of the last of a dying breed, the Liberal Republican. Design a Congresscritter from the ground up, the way s/he should be, and you'd get Connie. Her staff answers letters. Local concerns get taken care of. She understands what she's doing in Congress.

Unfortunately, she's a Republican. The Republicans control the House, and may take back the Senate this year. The current Republican party is an alliance between right-wing religious bigots and rich folks who care only about their own finances. They take their tiny majority as a total mandate to do whatever they feel like. It would be nice if the Democrats could take back the House and throw a wrench into some of the more brainless policies that the Republicans have come up with ("Faith- based initiatives", Social Security privatization, massive tax breaks for rich people, huge agricultural subsidies, "Star wars").

Unfortunately, again, the Democrat running against Morella (Chris Van Hollen) is a jerk. He's a sometime state legislator, and was in office when the Lege (as Molly Ivins calls it) passed the UCTIA (Uniform Computer Transactions Information Act), which is the most egregiously anti- consumer piece of legislation imaginable. (Subject for another article). He'd of course come in as a freshman, and take several terms in the best case to get to a position of any power. (Morella is chair of the subcommittee on Science and Technology.) His campaign literature emphasizes that he's for Education and Gun Control. Sorry, but those are pretty thin issues. Show me one candidate (or one person, for that matter) who's opposed to education. Gun control is one of those "flag waving" kind of issues that everybody feels very strongly about, but doesn't know squat about. It's a topic for another essay. Far as I'm concerned, any candidate who mentions gun control, one way or the other, is a jerk who doesn't deserve consideration.

My brain insists on parsing "Van Hollen" as "Van Halen", which would certainly have made for a more interesting campaign

Ahh, well. I'm assuming that the Dems wouldn't take the house anyway, so I voted local. Morella. We'll see what happens.

Friday, November 01, 2002


She's singing.

Sounds like she's doing a guitar arrangement of "Porge Amour" from Le Nozze de Figaro (possibly the silliest opera ever written.) Before, it was "The Black Swan", from an opera called The Medium. It's one of the flat-out spookiest pieces of music I've ever heard -- think William Hope Hodgson does opera.

Now she's done a segue from "Porge Amour" to "April Come She Will".

Sometimes, I wonder why I got married. Other times, I know.

Friday, May 31, 2002

Al Qaeda to Unleash Giant Marine Iguana on NYC

Just when things start calming down, you run into a news item like this from the Washington Post. (It's credited to the New York Daily News, which may explain something).

Basically, it turns out that the FBI is spending a lot of time interviewing Abu Zubaida, the operations chief for Osama bin Laden (duh!). He is talking a lot, but seems to be actually saying very little (again, duh!). In talking about planned al Qaeda attacks, he seems to have been thinking about that famous al Qaeda operative, Godzilla. If you remember the movie, (American ripoff, not the Japanese series), they finally nail the big G on the Brooklyn Bridge, which comes out much the worse for wear. Seems like this was what Zubaida had in mind.

Now, of course, the FBI is going to continue interrogating him. Of course, he's going to try to avoid giving out any real information. From what little I know of police procedures, I suspect that they will eventually get some real information out of him, but not for a while. The question is why this extremely vague threat was turned onto a warning of "terrorist activity against New York City landmarks".

Couldn't have anything to do with the FBI revelations that some of their agents had dark suspicions about some of the hijackers, but they got sandbagged by their superiors. Couldn't have anything to do with the press starting to play the "who knew what and when" game about terrorist threats last August. Couldn't have anything to do with folks getting antsy waiting for the FBI to find more al Qaeda operatives (all of them got blown up except one? Gimme a break!)

Remember, children, according to our Attorney General, who is responsible for enforcing such things, criticizing the President is treason. Treason carries the death penalty, and we all know about Georgie Bush and the death penalty.


Sheesh! No matter how cynical I try to be, I can't keep up. The fact that the White House was using the vague terror threats to kick dirt over criticism comes from no less than Ari Fleischer, official flak for the Administration, as reported in the Washington Times. Note that the Times is about as politically-correct right wing Republican as you can get.

Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Required Reading

Bruce Schneier is one of the world's top experts in computer security, and, in particular, cryptography. In his latest newsletter he talks about some general security principles that are very relevant to the post-9/11 security frenzy. The article you want is the first one, "How to Think About Security"

Basically, there are five things we have to look at for any proposed new "security" procedure or doodad:

  1. What problem does it solve?
  2. How well does it solve the problem?
  3. What new problems does it add?
  4. What are the economic and social costs?
  5. Given the above, is it worth the costs?

In Schneier's field of computer security, this little checklist is very common. Unfortunately, our politicians and news people haven't heard of it, to our peril.

Go read it. Now. I'll wait.

Tuesday, April 16, 2002


I say again, AARGH!

April 15th. Income Tax Day in the US. Should be like Election Day, with all the bars closed.

This year's AARGH is not so much for the taxes (although I took a major hit, both due to a miscalculation of estimated tax and to a change in the laws), but to the %##)_@ computer program I used (or rather tried to use) to figure out my taxes. Now, unless you have no income except wages and bank interest, you're going to have to use a computer program to figure out your taxes. Doesn't matter who you are -- professional tax preparers use computer programs that are essentially the same as the ones you get for yourself. The tax laws are just too complicated for any one person to figure out on their own. The personal computer is the only thing that has saved the United States from a full-scale tax rebellion.

For years, I have used Turbo Tax to do my taxes, and every year I get more disgusted with what they're doing with the program. For years, the Turbo Tax people have ignored the opportunity to improve the operation of their program, choosing to concentrate on sprucing up the user interface. The user interface has gotten "spruced up" to the point of being nearly unusable.

So this year I tried TaxCut. Bad move. I thought the user interface on Turbo tax was bad, but TaxCut sets new standards for incompetence. TaxCut is the Yugo of tax programs.

Basically, the problem is that the forms wouldn't display properly. It apparently uses a fixed size for all the forms, and then assumes that whatever font your machine is using will fit into that size. This is a beginner's interface design mistake, and should have been caught in a design review. What takes it past the "beginner" category and puts it into the Design Disaster Hall of Fame is that they managed to do the same thing with the printed output. More on that later.

OK, thinks I. Problem probably is that I'm running Windows 2000, and TaxCut can't handle it. Not to worry, I am running a program called VMWare that lets me run multiple operating systems at once. I happen to have one set up for Windows 98. Cool, I'll just run it under Windows 98. Hey! It works! 640x480 screen resolution, but I'll cope. Enter all the data. Like TurboTax, they assume that the way you want to enter all your data is through an "interview". Tedious, as it asks questions about everything in the world, including things that are simply incomprehensible ("Do you have any Form 4668 income?") I ignore this, find the forms menus, track down the associated worksheets (another area of incompetence for TaxCut) and fill in the numbers. They have something called "the shoebox" that is supposed to help you do this. Doesn't work.

There are a few problems, still. Some of the forms simply cannot be seen at 640x480 resolution (funny, there's no display resolution limit mentioned on the box. Another beginner's mistake.), but it's doable. OK, move the forms back to the main system for printing and filing.

Let's try this electronic filing business. More accurate (because the forms don't have to be retyped) and supposedly less subject to audit. Oops. Won't work -- they don't like my wife's name. Now, having a different name on your return than you had last year is the second biggest audit flag there is (only behind having "travel and entertainment" expenses more than 50% of your gross income) Don't wanna do that. Also, what's this nonsense about a fee for filing electronically? We do this to make life easier for the Government, and they charge us for it? They should give us a discount. Bag it. Whatever happened to the form 1040PC? All the advantages of electronic filing and it didn't cost anything extra. Plus, it worked.

While we're futzing with this, let's print an archive copy. Print a test form. Looks OK; print everything. Oops. Same resolution problem as before. I just created 120 pages of scrap paper. OK, back to Windows 98. Print to a Postscript file. Move the file to the main box. Convert from Postscript to PDF. Print from Acrobat Reader. Works! ... or does it? The spacing on the forms is all messed up. In particular, numbers. "$123.00" is rendered as "$12     3". I have never seen this problem anywhere before.

I should mention that, for all this printing, my computer is in the basement. The printer is attached to my wife's computer upstairs. Every test and print oddity means a trip up or down the basement stairs. I got my exercise for the day, yahsureyoubetcha.

[Deep breath] One last thing to try. I've been printing to my LaserJet in normal mode. Let's try printing from Acrobat Reader in Postscript. Works! Now I have printed copies of everything. Wrap it all up and mail to the Government.

Safe again, for another year. Or at least until some drelb at the IRS finds a problem. They have three years to find things wrong with your return, unless they suspect fraud, where they have seven. When they have had problems with my returns in the past, they've waited two years and ten months.

Saturday, March 30, 2002

So You Want People to Read Your Blog?

The key is readability. Far too many blogs (and other things, I might add) are totally unreadable. Not because of content, but because of the presentation. The default font for most Blogger templates is a teeny-tiny sans-serif font that I, for one, simply can't read without a magnifying glass.

How To Fix It

Note that this applies only to Blogger templates. I have no idea how any other log-type things like LiveJournal work because I don't use them. If you have a way of fixing the fonts on some of these, drop me an e-mail and I'll put a link to your instructions here.

Most Blogger templates use something called Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). This controls the appearance of text from descriptions in the header of the Web page. If you click on the "template" button, you'll get a screen full of HTML stuff. Look for a section between <style> and </style> tags. This controls the entire Webpage at once. Change this, and you don't have to change anythig else. There will be several sections, starting with a dot and a name and followed by some stuff in curly brackets, like so:

  .blogtext { ... font: 12px arial, verdana, helvetica, sans-serif; ...}
  .blogtext { ... font-family: arial, verdana, helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 10px; ...}
You need to change the one that controls the size of your blog text. This is really the only one that needs changing; all dates, links, and stuff works just fine in small type. Unfortunately, there is no standard for names; you just have to play with it until you find the right one. Some don't even start with a dot. Until you figure out how the CSS stuff works, it's just a matter of trying things until you find what works for you. When I'm working with it, I cut the old data to a scratch text file so I can just paste it back in if I get it wrong. Worst comes to worst, there's a button that throws away all your changes and goes back to the original. You don't want to do this unless you ablolutely have to; it wipes out all changes to your template. Note also that if you switch templates, you'll have to go back and do it all over again.

In the "blogtext" section (remember, it may not be called that on your template!), I just erase the part that says "font-family: (whatever); font-size: (whatever);" or "font: (whatever);"Note that the font, font-family and font-weight data ends with a semicolon. Delete everything up to and including the semicolon. This will make the text appear in whatever font and size the viewer has set as "default" in his or her browser. I'm sure we all have our defaults set to something we like to read. Mine is eleven-point Georgia; yours is probably different.

If you insist on specifying font sizes, you can specify them in "points" instead of "pixels". This means that the type size will be independant of such things as screen resolution. In the "font-size" description, make sure it's something like "font-size: 10pt". This gives ten point type, which is quite readable on most systems.

Wen you're done, click "Save Changes" to return to the main editing screen, and click "publish" to make the changes effective. Then reload your page to see if the change did what you expected it to do. If not, just repeat the procedure until you get what you want. Be sure to publish and reload. Forget this, and you will go crazy trying to figure out why your changes didn't seem to have any effect.

Why Do They Do It That Way?

Graphic designers can't read. See Sneakers for a discussion of this little problem.

Im not worried about offending graphic designers here; the good ones are more familiar than I am with the problem and the bad ones can't read.

What About Other Peoples' Pages?

OK, you've fixed your blog. What about other peoples'? They're still unreadable. My solution is to switch browsers. The Opera Web browser has a little button that makes all the fancy fonts, colors, and backgrounds go away. One click and you can read practically anything. You can download Opera for free, but it has obnoxious flashing ads. If you pay for it, the ads all go away. For me, it's definately worth it. Main disadvantage is that far too many Web pages (including Blogger!) use nonstandard HTML. Speaking as someone who designs such things for a living, this is just pure, unprofessional laziness.

Friday, March 29, 2002


The following is a paid announcement, and may not represent the views of this station.

Hi. I'm Buffy Summers, and I want to talk to you about a very serious problem. All over the world, demons are dying out. Whether this is from the loss of their natural habitats of swamps, impenetrable forests, or British boarding schools, through the greed of egg or antennae collectors, or through their inability to adapt to human cities, this cannot be allowed to continue. Some irreplaceable species have already been lost forever. No government or United Nations program addresses this problem. The Save the Demons Foundation does.

Why am I asking you this? As a Slayer, you might think that I don't like demons. Nothing could be further from the truth. Actually, some of my best friends are demons. I only want to keep them from killing my other friends. I care even less than you do about the extras that die every week to support our local demon population.

After all, without these beautiful and increasingly rare demons, I'm just another college dropout with a crummy, dead end job and an obnoxious little sister. You don't want to know about my love life.

So please give generously:

  • For only a dollar a week, you can provide counselling for a new vampire. The shock of joining the Immortal Undead is considerable; you can help one to adjust to his or her new, uh, life.
  • For only two dollars a week, you can help a rare slime demon egg hatch. Throughout Europe and America, the dungheaps that they need to hatch are falling victim to short-sighted environmental regulations.
  • And for five dollars a week, you can provide shelter and fake ID for a whole family of Madagascar Sludge Monsters. All they really need is your love, a warm little hole down by the sewage treatment plant, and a nearby jogging trail.

For your pledge, you will receive progress reports on your demon, with photographs, letters, and police reports. There are few things as exciting as receiving the report of your demon's hatching, first moult, or first human kill. The feeling when you see a photo of your very own adult Samoan Rim Slider emerging, shiny and new, from its pupa in a shriveled corpse, simply cannot be described.

If you don't want to sponsor a demon right now, the Save the Demons Foundation can use your contributions in other ways. For example, your donation can provide chastity counseling at a local church, as many of the more delicate demons, like the Moldavian Rainbow Crawler shown here, must subsist on virgins, which are becoming as rare as the demons that require them.

So call in your pledge to the number at the bottom of your screen; operators are standing by. And remember, all contributions to the Save the Demons Foundation are fully tax deductible.

Call now, and you can go to bed tonight with the warm feeling that you're doing something that really matters to this world, and several others.

The preceeding was a paid announcement, and may not represent the views of this station.

Friday, March 15, 2002

Six Months

Has it really been six months since 9/11? Seems like a lot less. Well, time to stick our heads up and do a quick status report. Some items, in no particular order.

  • No bin Laden. My hunch is that he left Afghanistan shortly before the fall of Khandahar and is in Pakistan under the protection of ISI, the Pakistani intelligence agency. He may be dead of kidney failure by now.
  • Al Qaeda's main training area in Afghanistan has been disrupted, hopefully permanently. As a side effect, the Taliban are gone and Afghanistan has a semblance of a working government. Good luck, guys, you're gonna need it.

    Note to the Powers that Be: Don't just walk off and leave the Afghan government twisting in the breeze, like you did last time.

  • Airport security is very little better than it was, but it's a lot more inconvenient. The new security procedures do essentially nothing for security; the idea is to make people "security conscious". The Powers the Be have to be seen as doing something, whether they are or not. Main improvement in security is one of attitude -- from now on, anybody trying to hijack a plane is going to have to deal with a bunch of extremely irritated passengers. The old "book" of "cooperate" is out.
  • We have a bunch of new laws of dubious effect and constitutionality. Depending on whose numbers you believe, between 1200 and 2000 people have been "disappeared". Scary. Nothing in the US press, of course. Here's an item from Britain.
  • On the bioterror front, basically, zip. The Government doesn't like to admit that whoever did it was connected with the US biowarfare program, either stealing Army-manufactured anthrax (manufactured in violation of international treaties, BTW) or able to make "weaponized" anthrax himself. Best estimate that I've seen (unclassified, of course) is 200 people. See Analysis of the Anthrax Attacks, by Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, of the Federation of American Scientists.
  • Internationally, folks seem to be getting a little fed up with us. The Bush administration has made it perfectly clear from Day One that they have no interest in international cooperation. Their trashing of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty are just the tip of the iceberg. They've even managed to get the Canadians riled at us. Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech was particularly poorly received.

    Colin Powell is working very hard to keep the anti-terror coalition together, but he's not getting much support from the rest of the Administration.

  • Some of the vast amount of money collected for the "victims of 9/11" is actually starting to get to the victims. Took some doing. The International Red Cross got an enormous black eye and the United Fund didn't get half the toasting they deserved. Coupla things to note, guys:
    1. When people donate money for cause "X", they get real ticked when you divert it to things that you think are more important.
    2. After a disaster, people need help now. Folks can't sit on the sidewalk and stop eating for four or five months until some bureaucrat decides to hand out money. United Fund took months to get around to handing out anything at all.
  • The US's visa system is coming under scrutiny. About time. It's a nightmare of inefficiency, bureaucracy, selective enforcement, and special interests.

    Perhaps we can start by enforcing the laws on all of the lawn/landscape workers, child care providers, house cleaners and so forth that people can't live without?

  • The US is still more "unified" than at any time I can remember. Everybody except a few isolated bigots has always known that we're really all Americans. Now, a lot more people know it at the gut level, where it counts. We'll see how long it lasts.

    There are still flags everywhere. The fundamental respect that we all have for America and American institutions has spent a long time being overshadowed by what we see now are relatively trivial differences.

  • We have a "Director of Homeland Security". No authority and little budget, but he's there. Presumably, he's in charge of coordinating other agencies who will actually do the work. I've seen no evidence that anybody within the Government actually listens to him.

Can It Happen Again?

In a word, yes. The terrorists who did the 9/11 attacks were saying "We'll follow all your rules and we'll still win". If they try again, all our protections will be just as effective as they were on 9/11. It won't involve hijacking airplanes -- we've closed that route.

The biggest Government failure was in intelligence. We simply have nobody in place who can report what is going on in most places. The 9/11 terrorists communicated by e-mail. No encryption or anything -- they simply wrote in Arabic. Effectively, it was as secure as if the NSA had encrypted it. I have the horrible feeling that, even now, we're getting most of our "intelligence" from the ISI, who, to put it mildly, have their own agenda.

As to the guys with the anthrax, near as anybody can tell, we don't have a clue. Officially. All he/she/they have to do is drop some more envelopes in the mail. Mail to Congress is supposedly disinfected with something strong enough to kill anthrax spores. I wouldn't bet on any other mail.

Naturally, every fearmonger in the country has jumped on the terrorism bandwagon. There has been an amazing amount of blather about "infrastructure protection", with every village waterworks coming up with a "contingency plan". While all this nonsense has the useful effect of making us all more aware about the incredibly complex set of interrelationships that are a modern society, it basically just scares people.

The key to "infrastructure protection" is redundancy. Basically, any time you have a critical resource, make sure that you have enough of it to survive at least one failure. Perhaps we need a Department of Redundancy Department?

Have We Had Our Reichstag Fire?

I hope not. I really, really hope not.

But it's too early to tell. On one hand, everybody is bending over backward to be "fair". On the other, we now have a bunch of very harsh laws that bypass most of our Constitutional protections, with no oversight and no accountability. Attorney General John Ashcroft has been quite free with his use of the word "treason" for people criticizing Administration policies (Note -- politics in the USA is conducted at a high volume. Get used to it.)

Even if the current Administration is careful to keep the "anti terror" measures for cases where nothing else will work, and where "terrorism" is defined sensibly, we can't guarantee the behavior of future administrations. Unless we make some serious changes (basically, making sure our definitions are as restrictive as possible and any use of these laws is subject to detailed judicial oversight and a lot of record-keeping), we could be getting ourselves into Real Trouble some time in the future.

Were Hoover, Nixon, Mitchell, and Meese the worst we'll ever see in the US? It would be foolish to assume so.

Monday, March 11, 2002

Hail to the ... What?

Here in the Washington, DC area, folks are getting into one of their periodic snits about the Washington Redskins. Not about their free-spending, hero-worshiping owner, or their dismal record these last few years, or their ugly, expensive, non-functional, traffic-snarling stadium.

No, that might be sensible. Might actually accomplish something useful, like better public transportation to the stadium or receivers who can hold onto the ball.

It's the name. "Redskins" is not Politically Correct. It is Disrespectful towards Native Americans. It needs to be changed to something more Sensitive.

Spare me. One of my own personal "warning signs" that turns up the sensitivity on my bullshit detector is when somebody gets mad on behalf of somebody else. The latest person getting all offended at the name is DC City Councilwoman Carol Schwartz. She's Jewish. Real affinity there. I have talked to exactly one Native American who was offended by the name. However, (1) she looks less Indian than I do (to my eyes, she looks Black Irish), and (2) she is an academic type that goes out of her way to be offended at all sorts of other non-PC things. Most Indians seem to get a kick out of it, especially when the Redskins beat the Cowboys.

I have heard (unable to verify this) that the reason that the team name was changed to "Redskins" in the first place was that their coach at the time was full-blooded Native American. Change the name to something else and you're disrespecting Native Americans, or at least the first coach of the team under that name.

When you think about it, just about all of the football team names are some kind of slur, or glorify violence, or might offend somebody, if you think about it hard enough:

SaintsReligion being used to justify violence. Remember the hoohah when the US Navy tried to call a submarine "Corpus Christi?"
PatriotsImplies that everybody else isn't.
Bills"Buffalo Bill" Cody, who was responsible more than anybody for driving the American bison to the edge of extinction in order to wipe out the Plains Indians? Talk about disrespecting Native Americans!
PanthersEndangered species, noted for stealthy attacks on unsuspecting prey smaller than it is.
JaguarsEndangered species. Insensitive to Hispanic issues.
CowboysSynonomous with "uncontrolled, armed, and violent". Also ecological insensitivity.
49ersWe can't have Native Americans but we can have the ones who ran them off their land? Also, major ecological catastrophe.
BuccaneersThe Caribbean pirates were some of the nastiest characters in human history.
TitansPagan religious figures

Hey! This is fun! Maybe this is why so many people are out there getting offended on behalf of other people.

So let's force everybody to change their names. Perhaps we can have the AFC use cute furry creatures and the NFC use flowers? The Denver Gerbils and the Dallas Daffodils?

Hmm. We may have something here. Extend "flowers" to "vegetables" and we don't have to change the name at all. Just change the mascot to a redskin potato. Anybody want to take a stab (sorry, not PC) a try at a logo? Maybe a "couch potato"?

Thursday, March 07, 2002


I was TV slumming the other day on CBN (Christian Broadcast Network), watching Pat Robertson. Now, Robertson at the best of times comes across as an exceptionally slimy used-car salesman. His oily, oozing, obviously phony pseudo-sincerity makes my skin crawl when I try to watch him for more than a couple of minutes at a time.

However, the other day, he was railing about the "diversity" education that some California schools are supposedly teaching. I had seen a fairly extensive online discussion of this, and it seemed that Robertson and company were going ballistic over it. From the discussions, it seemed that he was complaining that they didn't teach that Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, etc really worship Satan. (Side note -- it seemed to me that the California programs go too far in a couple of directions -- study is fine, but when you start doing play-acting of certain religious activities of somebody else's religion, you are being extremely disrespectful.)

Then Robertson put his foot in it. He put pictures of pages from the textbook on the screen to show how awful they were, with the "bad parts" highlighted. For example, the book said "Muslims believe that Muslims, Christians, and Jews all worship the same God." I've seen the exact same phrase on several Muslim Websites.

However, the phrase on the screen looked like this:

Muslims believe that Muslims, Christians, and Jews all worship the same God.

Robertson ranted at length about how the book was teaching that "Muslims, Christians, and Jews all worship the same God".

Sorry, Patsy. That's not what it says. It's the worst sort of selective quoting.

In Kansas, where I grew up, we call that "lying".

I find it amazing that he could even think that he could get away with it at all. After all, the "real" text was right there on the screen for everybody to see. This wasn't the only example -- there was at least one other that I saw before my stomach turned over and I found some other trash to watch. Used the exact same selective highlighting -- ignoring the "Muslims believe that ..." prefix.

The implications aren't pretty. Either we have:

  • Robertson assumes that his viewers can't read
  • Robertson assumes that his viewers can't tell the difference between quoting something and advocating something.
  • Robertson can say anything he wants. His viewers aren't listening.

In either case, Robertson assumes that he can get away with a blatant, out and out lie. I'm sure he knows his audience. They're probably writing nasty letters to school boards right now. Such is the "religious right" that currently owns the Republican Party.

Theological note to Robertson, and other pseudo-fundamentalists -- Christianity is monotheistic. One God. One. "Satan" is not a God. Satan is not even an independent entity. One God, remember?

Also note, in the phrase that Robertson found so repugnant, that all three religions are monotheistic. All say that there is only one God. Therefore, if they are to allow each other the minimum of respect, it has to be the same God. After all, there's only one. Of course, this assumes that one respects the other religions. Robertson has made it obvious that he doesn't.

The Right Wing is Desperate

Just watched a Fox "News" program. Somebody's written a "new" book about Jane Fonda and the Vietnam War. Basically said that she should be tried for treason. Quoted the line about "aid and comfort to the enemy". They conveniently forget, of course, that during the war, that same line was used on anybody who criticized LBJ's or (especially) Nixon's handling of the war.

Sheesh! The war has been over for almost 30 years. We lost. Anybody who has studied the subject (then or now) knows that the Vietnam War was an enormously complex affair. The reasons we got sent home with a tin can tied to our tail are many and varied; the story of Hanoi Jane was a trivial sideshow. The main effect was to totally enrage every conservative and totally disgust every liberal in the country. This was, of course, its aim. The North Vietnamese stage-managed her to a faretheewell.

So why trot out the old "Hanoi Jane" stories now?

Looks like desperation to me. Clinton is gone. The Left is in such disarray that it seems to be going on momentum.

The Right has, for now, won. The President is a sock puppet for the Republican National Committee. Republicans control the House, and only lost the Senate because they pissed off the one remaining moderate Republican senator. So why haven't peace and prosperity and social harmony descended like a dove from the heavens? Can't possibly be that the Right's lower middle class/rural/white/TV preacher protestant view of What Things Should Be Like doesn't work very well. Must be that the Bad Guys are still out there, messing things up.

But when you have to go back 30 years to find a Bad Guy, you're in real trouble.

Tuesday, March 05, 2002

Cop Show

We've gotten desensitized. The world is full of big horrors. The ongoing bloodbath in the Middle East. China in Tibet. East Timor. Rwanda. We see these on the news and it just rolls off.

But the little horrors can still shock. The other day, there was a bank robbery. Robber fled, armed and considered dangerous. FBI investigated. Nothing unusual; bank robbers are almost always pretty dumb. Even if he avoids getting tracked down at once, he'd probably start spending money like a drunken sailor. Easy to track as the Potomac River. As a matter of fact, they did catch him a couple of days later with no particular trouble.

Problem was, at one point, a couple of FBI agents pulled over a suspect. Ordered him out of his car, hands up. And blew his face off. Literally. Rifle bullet to the jaw. Then they made him lie on the ground and handcuffed him.

The more I hear about this, the worse it gets. The FBI agents' car was unmarked. They had no lights or siren. They never showed ID. Joseph Schultz, the victim, did not resist.

What the Bloody Hell Is Going on Here?

Back when I was in college, J. Edgar Hoover was running the FBI. He didn't have a good reputation. It was years later that the story of him blackmailing US Presidents came out. Ditto the story of him being blackmailed by the Mafia to deny the existence of organized crime. However, his persecution of Martin Luther King was well known, as was his enormous ego. One antiwar organizer described being detained for several hours at an airport while a couple of agents very earnestly tried to convince him that Hoover was really a good guy, working very hard to do what's right for America.

Even among the antiwar organizers that I knew who were the subject of FBI investigations, there was no questioning the professionalism and integrity of the agents themselves. Mostly they were a joke -- the agents' dress code wasn't relaxed while investigating antiwar activities and you could spot them a mile off. The one at the antiwar rally or Grateful Dead concert in the gray suit was the FBI agent ...

Hoover retired, to be followed by a bunch of undistinguished directors who tried to keep up Hoover's professionalism without his overarching ego. Then came William Sessions. He was forced out as Director for a number of severe ethics violations. However, scuttlebutt has it that he was forced out because he "wasn't a Hoover man". He wasn't the first Director that didn't start out as an agent, but he was the first one to try to pull the FBI away from the Hoover style of organization. The agents loathed him. From what I heard, the "ethics violations" consisted of one occasion where he had his official driver pick up his wife from shopping.

His successor was Louis Freeh, who had a firm reputation as a Hoover man. Unfortunately, he is best known for putting Larry Potts, with no qualification except for being his best friend, in charge of two of the biggest disasters in the history of the FBI -- Ruby Ridge and Waco. At Ruby Ridge, Potts issued a "shoot to kill any adult" order, which was carried out. (I've heard people dispute this. However, I've seen it. It says "shoot to kill", in some of the most turgid bureaucratese I've ever seen.) At Waco, he disregarded the FBI's own procedures for dealing with religious nuts and insisted on treating Koresh like a bank robber.

The result was a severe demoralization of the Bureau. In addition, the "War on Drugs" started taking its toll of the overall professionalism of the Bureau. (Topic for another time.) They've lost their squeaky clean, uncorruptable image.

So What Will Happen?

Nothing. After all, Joseph Schultz didn't die. That seems to be the criterion for getting something done in this society -- somebody gets killed. Crippled, disfigured, ruined financially or emotionally, nobody cares. Gotta die first.

The FBI will pull in around the agents. Can't tell why they pulled over Schultz's girlfriend (who was driving). Might jeopardize sources. Can't identify the agent. Against policy. Anne Arundel county cops are investigating; they have no authority over Feds.

The agents involved will be quietly reassigned to somewhere else. "Investigations" will turn up the fact that Schultz isn't a Nice Man (whether he is or not. Point is publicity.). His lawyer will go away when he runs out of money -- and it'll be a long time before he can work a normal job.

There will be no criminal charges. There will be no civil action -- takes years, costs a fortune, almost certainly won't win. Cops in the "performance of their duty" get a lot of leeway.

And we move a step closer to a strict two-class society. Cops and politicians on one side, all the rest of us on the other.

Thursday, February 28, 2002

Sign of the Day


-- Laytonsville Fire Department

I don't think I'd better comment on this one.

Wednesday, February 20, 2002

Musical Interlude

Last Saturday night, we went to see a new (to us) group at a new (to us) coffehouse in Virginia. The group was GrooveLily, at Jammin' Java in Vienna, VA. Both are highly recommended. GrooveLily's music is sort of in between heavy folk and light rock, with a rather unusual instrumentation (electrified six-string violin, keyboard, and drums). There are samples of their music on their Website; check it out. Jammin' Java has a good (not overpowering) sound system and, wonder of wonders, is smoke free.

There are a number of interesting things here. First, GrooveLily seems to be a typical "non contract" band. They live in an RV and get all their income (such as it is) by touring. The cover was rather high ($12), and they sold T-shirts and their own CDs. They're very good and quite well regarded, but they're not getting rich, by anybody's definition.

The Rest of the Industry

Question is, are the "contract" bands doing any better? The "big guys", of course, are getting rich. NSync are not living in a bus. But how about the guys who haven't "made if" yet, if they ever will? Courtney Love, who should certainly know, has an article in Salon. Basically, the way her numbers come out, the second rank bands are living in buses and making their money (such as it is) by touring and selling T-shirts. They're not getting rich, by anybody's definition. Nobody that I've seen has ever challenged her numbers.

The contract band is broke, but broke on a much higher plane. Their gigs are many times the size, they sell vastly more albums, they make music videos, they rub elbows with bigwigs. But they're still broke.

All the fuss about Napster and its cousins talks about "stealing from the artists". Turns out that the artists aren't getting any money anyway. The Napster settlement seems to have disappeared into the record companies' general funds; the artists haven't seen a cent. The latest agreement with the record companies' own download services gives the musicians about US$0.0024 per download. Over 90% of the money from the download service stays with the record companies. See the article in the NY Times for details.

One thing that Love, et al haven't seemed to notice is that all of the Draconian recording contracts look a lot like employment agreements. The infamous IRS 20 Questions are long gone, but the rules are still in force. They apply to artists just like they apply to everybody else. These rules are what the IRS uses to determine whether a person is an employee or an independent contractor. Note that a clause in a contract saying that a person is not an employee is legally worthless; the IRS determines whether or not a person is "really" an employee. If a person is found to be an employee when he or she has been working as an independent, the company is liable for all back income taxes. In other words, since the person was legally an employee, the employer presumably withheld income tax from their "wages" but just didn't report it. It's a convenient little fiction that keeps the words "tax fraud" from showing up. Therefore, if a musician was found to "really" be an employee, the record company would have to cough up the musician's income tax. All of it, for at least the last three years. The musician could then file for a big tax refund (after all, the company paid it ...)

Copyright? The record companies own it. Rights reverting to the author? Nope. Not in the contract. Royalties? Maybe, maybe not; depends on the contract. Saw a TV interview with Bo Diddley a few weeks back. He's still performing. He'd love to retire, but he signed away rights to all his music to the record companies. Remember, that was back in the Jim Crow era -- he took what he could get. No royalties. Supposedly Howlin' Wolf, Taj Mahal, and all the other great bluesmen are in the same boat.

The Bottom Line

Anyway, the point is, if you want good new music, you ain't gonna hear it on the radio for years, if ever. Go to the clubs and coffehouses. Avoid any place that advertises a DJ; they're all in the pockets of the record companies. If you like a group's sound, buy their CDs. Yeah, a lot of the music is really bad; that's the risk you take. At least, you won't get some prepackaged, slick, bland slop that some clueless record company exec thinks is what people want.

Saturday, January 26, 2002

Enron Losers

So who loses in the Enron debacle? The news is full of weeping and wailing about the poor stockholders and the poor employees, who have lost millions while the Big Shots cashed in their stock for huge profits. They're not necessarily losers. When something gets this large, it's Government Bail-out Time. When a small company goes bust, nobody cares. When a company gets as big as Enron, it simply can't be allowed to go bust. At the very least, the employees will almost certainly get some kind of reprieve. As to the stockholders, tough bananas. Anybody promising "guaranteed results" is probably running a Ponzi scheme of some kind. There will be all sorts of lawsuits against anybody who has money; the outcome is not at all certain.

The potential big losers here are the Enron execs, especially Enron CEO Ken Lay, the Bush administration, and Arthur Anderson, Enron's auditor and financial advisor.

Enron Execs

Kenneth Lay, Enron CEO, and others are probably headed for jail. They'll spend a couple of years in a Federal country-club prison and retire with their multi-hundred-million dollar profits. There are two things that they might be charged with: misrepresenting Enron's financial state and "insider trading". Misrepresenting the financial state is basically plain old fraud. They said everything was hunky-dory when things were really falling apart. Bad.

"Insider trading" is one of those technical crimes that can be really hard to define, like off-sides in hockey. However, bailing out of the stock based on unpublished and totally unexpected bad news is a definite no-no.

The Bush Administration

Much as I dislike them, the Bushies seem to be playing this one exactly right. Yeah, Enron asked for favors, but didn't get any.

There are, however, a couple of unanswered questions.

  • Georgie Bush says the last time he saw Ken Lay was a year and a half or so ago at a charity fundraiser. Probably true. However, there are such things as telephones. Nobody has asked about the last time he talked to Ken Lay. Note that Ken Lay "communicated with" Cabinet members. This is a whole lot more general than "seeing" him.
  • What about VP Cheney? It seems that he talked to the Enron folks a lot in putting together the Administration's energy policy. This could get interesting, especially since Enron's business model translates into English as "fishing in troubled waters". With stable energy prices and sufficient supply, Enron doesn't make any money.

Arthur Anderson

An accountant friend of mine tells me that AA will probably go out of business. Some of their execs will probably go to jail too. Shredding documents? Accountants are the ones who are always telling their clients to keep every scrap of paper.

However, AA accountants have a very good reputation in the profession. While AA may go away, the folks who work for them probably won't be out of work very long. Especially since a lot of companies are going to be looking really hard at their current accounting procedures.

Two Sets of Books

The traditional form of accounting fraud is "keeping two sets of books". This means that the accountant shows one set of numbers to Management and another set of numbers to the tax people or to investors. Very illegal. Also very difficult to do -- there are a lot of numbers that have to be "cooked", and they're kept in a lot of different places.

What the nightmarishly complex accounting schemes that AA cooked up did was act as "two sets of books". It enabled Enron execs to shuffle money from place to place so that it showed up on whatever line of the balance sheet they wanted it to. Unfortunately, they overdid it. It got so complex that nobody could figure out what was going on.

The whole point of accounting, after all, is to give management a picture of what is really going on with company finances. Without this, management would be working blind. I suspect that the collapse at Enron really did take everybody by surprise. With proper accounting, this shouldn't happen. Unexpected losses, shifts in values of investments, etc, should show up in time for management to take notice of them. With Enron, this simply didn't happen.

The Biggest Loser

The accounting profession as a whole.

For years, the accounting profession has claimed that their internal procedures are all that is necessary to keep their clients honest. That stance is crumbling. The latest revelations are how various professional organizations for accountants have lobbied Congress to keep them from passing laws that would have outlawed some of the more odious practices that the Enron collapse has uncovered. In particular, the practice of having the same people set up all the fancy derivatives, shadows, etc, audit them is right straight out. Auditors are supposed to be independent fa cryin' out loud. I'm sure that the professional groups will be slapping together all sorts of new rules to try to stave off Government regulation. I suspect that it won't work, and that accountants are going to find themselves looking at a whole lot of new regulations, written by people who have no idea of what accounting is. Just like everybody else, in other words.

Learn to pound sand like the rest of us, guys.

Sunday, January 06, 2002


So here I sit. Sunday morning in an "assisted care" facility in Arizona. I should be writing things. I should be doing things with computer programs. I should be phoning people, who should be up by now, but I really don't want to wake anybody up. I want them to be in a good mood when I call.

There's no TV. There's no Internet. Unless you count the TV from next door. Seems to be some sort of preacher. I can't make out words, but the tones are distinctive. Probably middle of the road, like everything else here. Not subtle theological points, but not "death to Democrats" either.

That "middle of the road" is subject to interpretation; this is Arizona, after all. I am not interested in any more explanations of how Bill & Hillary Clinton are the Embodiment of Evil. I'm from DC. I hear all the political rumors first. If I haven't heard it, somebody is making it up.

Dad is taking things rather well. Donn has things under control. I'm worried about finances; Donn talks a good show, but doesn't seem to be making any money. Odd for a supposed expert on robotics, assembly line automation, AI, and computer graphics. He seems to get whatever money he has by helping people set up their computers. Donn is not good with money. However, if he's going to continue helping Dad, he will need power of attorney on Dad's money. He already has medical power of attorney; when Dad broke his hip, Donn was able to take care of everything before Dad regained consciousness.

Solitaire on the computer. What music I have recorded onto the computer. I bought some headphones at Fry's. Nice sound, but not comfortable for long term listening. The speakers on the laptop are lousy. I bought some DVDs. Not comfortable to watch on the computer. In any case, I get really irritated trying to watch something more than once a year or so. My memory's too good. "Yeah, yeah. Get on with it."

I know that this is drivel, but it's the only thing I can seem to come up with. I should be writing up a paper on what's really going on with the stock market (the story the Powers that Be don't want you to hear). Or doing a formal write-up on my ideas for a new operating system (Unix is not the ultimate OS). Or a "diff" program for XML (a SAX parser would let us handle files of any size) The brain doesn't seem to be working that way.

It's Sunday. The service is on Thursday and I leave on Friday. Counting the hours. I only hope that all the Fiesta Bowl folks have left by Friday. I don't want to have to spend two hours standing in line at the airport like I did on the way out.

The Funeral

Well, she died. I suppose I should be singing "Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead". I don't have the heart. Dad loved her (in my cynical mind, for all the wrong reasons). Her two sons are great guys.

There were five of us at the graveside service. Don and Fred, her sons, Diane, Fred's wife, Dad, and me. The service was kind of "out of the box" generic Protestant, with nothing to show that it was Presbyterian. We were all standing up. After the preacher was done talking, Fred put her ashes in a little hole in the ground next to a fountain. He tried to get Dad to help; Dad can't bend over too well after the hip replacement. Don took a video; he doesn't think it will come out because of the lighting. I thought the lighting was fine but I have never done videos. Don is a pro.

At some point, they will plant roses around the fountain.

She was loud, bossy, opinionated, ignorant, and bigoted. The last time I talked to her, she did her anti-Italian rant to my Italian wife. I dropped the ball -- I'm so used to being ranted at, cursed, and insulted that it just bounces off of me. My wife doesn't have that kind of crust. I simply didn't pick up on what was happening. After all, isn't that what everybody's elderly relatives do? Tell you how you are the scum of the Earth and deserve to be taken out and shot?

I brought up my wife's ancestry in conversation. From the looks on faces, apparently they had never picked up on this -- even though I'm sure I explained why my wife's family has three different last names. They could have asked before this. Nobody cared enough to ask why we were upset.

The Fisher King, the Guardian of the Holy Grail, was wounded by a spear through the thighs (PG version) or testicles (real version). He can only be free from the pain when a visitor to the Grail Castle asks the cause of his distress.

My father cannot bear to utter the words "I don't know" or "I was wrong". But why is it that hard to ask "what's wrong"?

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