Thursday, April 30, 2009

Back to the Trail, Again.

My hike two weeks ago was cut short by hot weather and the detritus of a huge ice storm. My friend and I worked hard but covered only a little more than half the distance planned. This afternoon I'm going back to Massachusetts and finish the other half (23 miles) in two days.

Tomorrow morning I begin by scaling the north face of Mt. Greylock, the highest mountain in that state. It's a serious mountain, with 2,800 feet of vertical gain in six miles. I'll start early in the morning when it's cool. When that's done the pain will be largely over, except for a 1,200 foot climb at mid-day on the second day. Hopefully, I won't run into any more ice storm chaos.

It's so good to be healthy and fit at my age (sixty-five this year)! Right now several of my friends and neighbors in the same general age group are fighting serious medical issues. Also, it's great to have the time and resources to act on goals I set for myself. In my case, fate has rolled the dice to my advantage. I'm truly thankful.

My Latest Walk in the Woods

My friend and I returned from our recent hike in the beautiful Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts a bit humbled by Mother Nature. Two days of 90 degree heat and six miles of trail trashed by a huge winter ice storm made the hike a real trial by fire. We didn't get as far as we had hoped, but we neither got heat exhaustion nor got lost in the chaos of the forest. The Appalachian Trail can never be assumed to be easy, because it has many ways to get you. But discussing the difficulty of the trail is not where I'm going on this post.

As my partner and I sat trying to recover our strength in the middle of a huge woods totally devastated by the ice storm, it was hard not to begin talking about humanity's place in the overall scheme of things. Was there a purpose to all this destruction? Even in a rather remote part of the Northeast, many lives were affected - negatively. Ours, too. Did God do this on purpose, or did it "just happen".

I'm in the "just happen" camp. I believe nature was set up by the creator to run in accordance with natural laws, and that it pretty much does that. We take what we get. If it's bad, there was no malice intended. If it's good, no special gift was given. Maybe God intervenes on rare occasions, but I don't presume to know when that occurs. It's more interesting for me to just observe the majesty of it all as I walk down the trail.

I feel pretty small in the middle of a giant forest, and I feel even smaller when I look into the night sky. But I'm a giant compared to the tiny black fly that bit me or the many cells that make up a pretty fungus on a rock. We all have our place in creation. Who can really comprehend the complexity of it all, even if science opens up many mysteries to us? I love to say "thank you" to the author, and ask only for the chance to help move the plot along.

My life at the home base is often interesting and rewarding, but it is often hectic with little time for reflection. A few days in the woods always brings me back to contemplating the questions that have puzzled and perplexed men and women since we began to think.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Phone Call from the NRA

As I was dividing my time this afternoon between checking my pack (AT hike starts tomorrow morning) and watching the PGA Tour golf match, my phone rang. It was the NRA.

A lady, speaking urgently, announced that "all patriotic Americans need to listen to this message from the president of the NRA, concerning the most outrageous gun control legislation now going before congress."

I interrupted her. I told her that I was a veteran, once an army officer, and also a hunter. Then I told her that it was the NRA that was being outrageous in its opposition to gun control. I said that I had no interest in everyone being able to own an assault rifle. Then I signed off.

Owning guns has nothing to do with being patriotic. Owning guns is not a reasonable way to protect yourself. Owning guns will not save you from an over-reaching government. Owning guns is nothing that anyone should be getting phone calls about.

This morning's paper reported that two deputies were called to a disturbance at a private shooting range in Florida. Both deputies were shot dead by ex-soldier who was interested in militias and most likely an NRA member. The deputies were trying to arrest the man for beating up his wife a second time. Another "patriotic citizen"...

Here's the plain truth. The NRA is nothing more than a marketing agent for the gun manufacturers and a primary inciter of the wacko right wing. It is about money and politics, not patiotism. How many cops will be killed by "patriotic citizens" before people figure out that uncontrolled guns are a cancer on our country and the NRA is a primary cause?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Education of the Left and the Right

RWorld's current post, which deplored the marginalization of facts in modern culture, prompted me to write a comment that referenced the minimal educational backgrounds of right wing spokesmen Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. My point was that if you don't know facts or been taught by education to honor them, you really don't care about them. Today, I will build on that idea by comparing the educational backgrounds of major cable news commentators.

On the right, we have Glenn Beck (no college), Rush Limbaugh (2 unsuccessful semesters), Sean Hannity (dropped out of two colleges) and Bill Cunningham (no reported education) as the minimalists. Going up the ladder, we have Bill O'Reilly (2 masters degrees) and Michael Savage (2 masters and a PhD in scientific majors).

On the left, we have Keith Olberman (entered Cornell at age 16 and graduated), Wolf Blitzer (MA in international relations from Johns Hopkins), and Rachel Maddow (PhD in politics from Oxford University). One of my favorites, Stephanie Miller, has a degree from USC. The much-maligned Christiane Amanpour graduated summa cum laude from the Univ. of Rhode Island.

In the populist arena, Lou Dobbs graduated from Harvard University.

So, there you have it... almost proof positive that the less education you possess, the louder you have to shout and the more you need to communicate your opinions through character assassination. Michael Savage is a major exception, but his hate comes from being an arrogant high achiever who nobody wanted around.

I'd be the last to say that the liberals never stray from facts, but at least they've been exposed to more of them than those right wingers who are crusading to dumb down America. And, if you doubt me about them loving the dumb, just remember that they adored the last Bush until his administration, and the economy, imploded.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Saying Goodbye to Peter

For the past year and one half I've had a little part-time job keeping the books for a downtown Rochester church, an old mainline church once great in the city but now surrounded by rundown housing. That's where I met Peter, the pastor. Today marked the church's farewell to Peter, who, after sixteen years in Rochester, will soon begin to serve a larger church in the south. The farewell was bittersweet.

Great leaders are few and far between, as are great pastors. In my view, being a "great" pastor means being true to the faith - you know, really taking the Jesus of the synoptic gospels seriously, loving your neighbor no matter what he or she looks like, or does. It doesn't have much to do with the grandeur of the church, or the size of the congregation. Peter has been true to the faith, and the church shows the fruits of his ministry.

Sixteen years ago this church was rich in funds but in the midst of crisis, unable to agree on how to deal with demographic changes happening rapidly around it, unable to see how its mission applied to these new circumstances. Today, it's a very different place, but it's a place with a mission. It may be the place that Peter built, although I've not been around to see the process.

Saying "goodbye" to Peter last Sunday was a thankful group comprised of mostly elderly caucasians, a much younger group of Burmese refugees (two different "tribes"), a significant number of gay and lesbian couples and singles, and other persons of several colors. Everyone got along, to some extent because they know it's their responsibility to get along. They have heard Peter, who gets along with all of them - in fact, he "ministers" to all of them. He got a lot of hugs, and in his little speech Peter thanked the church for helping his children be open to everyone.

Peter will soon be far away and fully involved in the difficult task of being accepted in a new church. Will his Rochester church be able to replace his leadership? Will his new church be able to live with his straightforward gospel? These are the kind of questions that make life so interesting.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Usage-Based Internet? Not yet.

Time Warner Cable, my internet service provider, backed down this week from a plan to institute usage-based pricing for residential users in September, 2009. The reaction from heavy users was extremely negative, and even our illustrious Senator Schumer apparently was involved in the roll-back. I have mixed feelings about this, but I lean against Time Warner.

Internet usage varies greatly from home to home, but rates do not change based on usage. Everyone pays the same. However, the top 25% of users consume 100 times the bandwidth of the bottom 25%, and I'd guess that the top 5% use 50% of the total bandwidth. The heavy users download a lot of video (movies, pornography, tv programs), or play on-line video games. The rest of us use email, surf the web, and blog; most of us are not heavy users.

In the parlance of economics, the heavy users are called "free riders" because others subsidize their consumption to a great extent. Time Warner must continually upgrade its hardware and software to keep up with growing demand for services - demand that comes largely from the heavy users. But, when these cost increases flow through to higher rates, everyone pays.

Push-back to Time Warner's proposed plan by heavy users was immediate and loud, since the pricing change would have significantly raised their monthly bills. They say the internet should be like the highway system, open to everyone whether they drive once a year or every day. They also contend that the cable providers need to constantly upgrade services for other reasons, such as higher bandwidth HDTV service. They want, of course, to "free ride" in perpetuity, and they know they have no alternative to cable if they must have very high bandwidth.

Time Warner's position is also suspect. They did not tie their proposal to increase rates with a proposal to reduce rates for low-usage consumers. In other words, Time Warner loves it when many customers pay more than $40 each month for a product they use only infrequently or at a low level. These customers represent a large part of Time Warner's customer base. Consequently, Time Warner did not wish to offer these people a significant rate reduction at the same time they installed higher pricing for heavy users. Time Warner wants to have its cake and eat it, too.

Internet pricing probably needs to be addressed, but it's very complex. Changing the pricing model could have many unintended consequences. For now, it's probably a topic best left on the back burner.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Fighting Piracy, Part 2

Well, the stakes have gone up in the Somali pirate conflict. American high technology and some effective subterfuge dispatched the three young pirates who held the American merchant ship captain. Unfortunately, that trick will only work once. What happens from this point will likely involve considerably more blood, and some of it will be our guys, or our allies, who bleed.

The right wing radio freaks are calling for Obama to get tough. The Somali hotheads are calling for retaliation. I don't like the trajectory of this. We need to be smart. Unfortunately, I'm not sure what being smart entails.

Perhaps ThomasLB's suggestion of convoying ships through these dangerous waters makes sense. Perhaps interdicting the pirates near the Somali coast makes sense; after all, they do have bases that they work from. Perhaps changing the rules of engagement makes sense. But, are these and other actions likely to be 100% successful? No. More ships and crews will be captured in the near future. Will the pirates conduct an ugly demonstration of what will happen if we continue to use force against them?

And, what do we do about the 200 hostages and roughly 10-12 ships now held? The right-wingers say nothing about whether they consider these people and ships expendable. The death of three pirates has definitely changed the game for the hostages, negatively for certain. Has the price of their freedom gone up exponentially? We will soon find out.

This entire situation is a mess. Can the countries whose ships are threatened make threats serious enough to scare the top bad guys into remission? Our history of failure to accomplish objectives in Somalia doesn't seem to be overly intimidating. Perhaps we will be goaded into making an ugly demonstration of what our power can do. Chaos would result, at least for awhile.

The military and political strategists must be in a state of high anxiety. I'm glad this is not my problem. But, if the consensus is that we must stop piracy (and stop the payment of huge sums to really bad guys), Americans and our allies must be up front about the cost in lives that will surely be paid. It is not what anyone wants, but maybe there is no other way out.

We celebrate one ship, one crew, and one captain who were saved. I have the feeling we will be crying soon.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday Lament

Whatever our religious views, Good Friday should remind us that:

All of us have the capacity to do great evil or stand by while great evil is done.

We all do the latter, every day. The stones should cry out against us!

We need to do better, but it's not at all clear that we're making progress.

Perhaps it's foolish to believe we will change our ways.

Unearned forgiveness may be our only hope.

Even if we only forgive each other,

and accept each other's forgiveness in true humility,

that would be a good start.

Faux News Update

A few minutes ago I was checking out "Alternate Brain", another of my favorite blogs. There I found a link describing retired Lt. General Tim McInerney's promotion on Faux News of the F-22 Raptor as the weapon of choice for the "War against Pirates". It noted that the general was a consultant to Northrup Grumman, a major F-22 contractor now in jeopardy of having that lucrative program cancelled by the Obama administration. The link focused on the general's failure to mention this rather important fact during his appearance on Faux.

After considering the total senselessness of the general's recommendation, I decided to click on over to and give them a little s**t about this double journalistic sloppiness - a biased commentator making a stupid suggestion on their network. This, of course, brought me face to face with Faux for the first time in a very long time. A short perusal was all it took to refresh my understanding of how Faux allowed the McInerney fiasco to take place.

Faux will forever be known for turning the phrase "fair and balanced" into a joke. I need say no more. But, there may be hope: the crap they peddle is so outrageous ("the economy is fine", for example, or, "Jeb Bush tells Obama not to blame U.S. problems on his big brother") that even diehard listeners and readers may likely figure out that they are being scammed. Certainly lots of ex-republicans, now independents, have already figured that out. The F-22 recommendation can't help but hasten the next wave of defections.

(That said, I heard recently that Faux News is enjoying record ratings. It may have fewer fans, but its fans are loyal watchers. They're the same crowd that began creating the current ammunition shortage on the day Obama was elected president. Pray for them.)

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Piracy and Technology

The highjacking yesterday of a U.S.-flagged freighter in the Gulf of Aden raises some interesting questions about our military technology. Experts are saying that there is no way for us, or for a consortium of nations, to put together enough ships to stop the piracy in the Gulf and the nearby Indian Ocean. This is not encouraging news.

On the one hand, there are plenty of military supporters who cry out for the next generation of technology - technology to keep us safe, they say. On the other hand, there are plenty of experts who say that technology can't give us a winning edge over our enemies. Recent developments give the weight of evidence to the latter group. Unconventional warfare is very difficult to fight.

You'd think that radar, satellite and unmanned drones could give us the ability to monitor huge swathes of water and detect pirates. You'd think that aircraft could be scrambled to intercept the pirates soon after they were detected. But, the subject freighter apparently had been followed by pirates for many hours before it was attacked, yet could not get any help. Why not?

The U.S. has spent uncounted billions on F-22 Raptor jet fighters ($160 million each) that have an uncertain mission. One F-22 costs the same as perhaps 35 small patrol ships that could be in the Gulf of Aden right now. Are our strategists really that smart, or are they mainly concerned with spending money rather than getting results?

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Back to the Trail!

On April 27th I'll be hitting the Appalachian Trail again, this time for a short hike (51 miles) from Tyringham, MA, to North Adams, MA. I've got a partner this time - Randy, a neophyte who's been hearing me talk about hiking for several years. Many people have expressed an "interest" in going out there, but he's the only one who has followed through. Randy has a family and a real job, so he's taking five days of vacation to hike with me. He's excited.

We'll be driving to Massachusetts in 18 days, but my pack is packed and I can see it, up against the wall in my sun room. I bought a few food and hygiene items today to finish up the necessities for a hike. I guess you'd say I'm looking forward to getting back on the trail! (Long time readers will remember that I got heat exhaustion the last time I hit the AT, and I basically "gave up" on hiking after returning.)

Assuming I complete this easy hike, I'll be going out again once or twice more this year. I've got about 800 miles to go, with 1,400 completed. Why not finish? I'll only be 65 in July, and I've met a bunch of guys in their 70's out there in the boonies. Plenty of time to finish... and, some day I will tell you I've finally done it. The Appalachian Trail is an all-day-sucker, to put it mildly.

The highlight of this hike will be Mt. Greylock, the highest mountain in Massachusetts. It's only 3,500 feet above sea level, but the start point is 1,000 feet, so the climb is 2,500 feet up (think 250 stories of steps) with a very steep final half mile. I chose this hike because it includes Mt. Greylock, but I'm skipping over some of the AT in NY and CT that I'll need to hike later. Randy deserves to conquer a mountain if he's only going to hike one time, so I'm breaking from my normal pattern of south to north. Nobody cares in what order you do the chunks.

My knees are not so good after being a dedicated high school sprinter, then a paratrooper with lots of running and many falls, then road-running for many years of my younger adulthood, then hiking 1,400 miles of the AT. In fact, my knees ache, some days worse than others. But, I'm far from crippled. I do 35 minutes on an elliptical trainer three days each week, and then I lift free weights. I'm fit and strong. The pain is bearable. This hike will be a walk in the park, even if a little Ultra-strength Ben-Gay will be my friend, too.

I'll give you a report and some pictures on my return.

P.S. I quit smoking 11 weeks and one day ago. Still smoke-free and happy. Mt. Greylock will be just a bit easier as a result.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Gun Control - It's Never Too Late

Ever since I completed my military service 40 years ago I've been a big proponent of gun control.

I believe civilians should not be allowed to own pistols, or, if they do, those weapons should be housed at secure ranges and checked out/in whenever they are fired. Military-style short barrel semi-automatic firearms should be outlawed.

I believe semi-automatic long guns owned by civilians should have a maximum capacity of 4-5 rounds and be of a minimum overall length. Military-style long guns should be outlawed. Long guns capable of certain range/energy outputs should be outlawed as well. Hunters would be perfectly capable of doing their business under my rules.

It should be a crime for a private citizen to own a bulletproof vest or armor-piercing bullets.

I'd be happy if the government offered an amnesty period where guns now deemed illegal under my rules would be purchased by the government at the price paid by the owner. After that period expires, jail time starts.

I own three long guns and a hunting bow. I hunt, and many of my friends are shooters or hunters. I don't want to interfere with a pastime long entrenched in our culture. However, I do want to interfere with two ideas more recently brought into our culture: 1) that ownership of a super-powered or concealed weapon makes an individual personally powerful, and 2), that these types of guns are appropriate for self-defense.

I have been scared out of my wits at shooting ranges, watching guys and gals pretend to be something they are not - soldiers or law enforcement personnel. They act out fantasies where their weapons give them power they have not been able to achieve in other aspects of their lives. I have felt a lot of danger as these people played with their grownup "toys". Now, more and more often, my fears are becoming a reality.

Our gun culture has provided drug gangs with arsenals. It has allowed the arming of many people who now feel disenfranchised and angered by the economic downturn. It has given incredibly destructive power to those who, incited by right wing ideologues, feel that the government should be attacked if they disagree with its political decisions. In many instances, law enforcement personnel (often infatuated with weapons, themselves) have supported the right of citizens to own non-sporting weapons and such items as bulletproof vests. Now, the piper is being paid. Cops and innocent citizens are being murdered in cold blood.

It's sad that police are being killed by "average citizens". It's sad that police have to wait outside gun crime scenes because they fear they are outgunned by some fool who just killed a bunch of people inside. It's sad that in downtown Rochester, NY, there are likely far more unregistered, concealed pistols in the pockets of ordinary citizens than pistols in the holsters of the police. The answer to this ridiculous situation is not, as some would argue, everyone getting a gun for their own pocket. The answer is to get rid of the guns.

The NRA likes to pretend it's for the hunters. Baloney! The NRA is for the gun industry, an industry grown prosperous by arming citizens with types of weapons they have no good reason to own - with weapons that are often used in crimes and, increasingly, against law enforcement. The NRA is a menace to America. Are the profits of the gun industry worth the lives being lost due to the NRA's foolishness? Check back on this a year from now.

If people love guns, let them join the military, the reserves, or the police. Believe me, shooting a cannon or a rocket launcher is a lot more thrilling than shooting a puny little Glock9! Otherwise, let them find another way to assert whatever manhood they may have (or lack, I would surmise in many cases). I'm tired of all this nonsense with guns! Let's pull them back in and melt them down.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Ten Weeks

It's been ten weeks, this time. The last time.

Back in January, Good Witch and I visited some close friends. Their daughter, a free spirit now in her late 30's, met me at the door with a genuine hug. Then she stepped back and said, "You smell like smoke. You need to quit that shit!" She's not bashful, you know.

Later, as we sat and talked with the group, she said that she had quit smoking last year, "cold turkey", after many years of two packs a day. She had suffered for many years with an agonizing knee injury that defied all treatment and put her in a wheelchair for quite awhile. She's still on a heavy dose of big time painkillers (one of her doses would be enough to kill me). In spite of all this, she got through law school while taking care of two kids. That's enough stress to give her a break about smoking, yes? Not smart, but understandable.

After graciously accepting her tough love, I quit the next day after enjoying my last three smokes. I now use some nicotine gum to quiet the craving from time to time, but I've not had any puffs of smoke since then. My senses of taste and smell are recovering nicely, and my blood pressure and pulse rate have come down. And, although I've always worked out pretty hard and hiked the AT while smoking, my stamina is clearly better. This should be the last time I need to quit (I once quit for three years). Strengthening my resolve is the fact that cigarettes in New York now cost almost $8 for a pack; who can afford that?

Isn't it amazing that an otherwise fairly smart guy like me would smoke cigarettes for 43 of the past 46 years? I think it had something to do with being a rebel. Don't need it no more!

Golf and Politics, Yesterday

I played golf yesterday with a 30 year old wounded veteran of Iraq War #2. Jake, an army ranger non-com, entered an Iraqi building in 2004 and took an AK-47 round in his thigh, fired by a guy who was hiding in a closet. The guy was deceased shortly afterward. Jake, fortunately, is doing fine. He has a decent job and a family.

Jake and I met as I was walking to the first tee, alone. As he walked by to the pro shop to pay his fee, I asked him if he would join me on the course. That's one of the good things about golf - it's not unusual to play with perfect strangers. I always look forward to meeting new people and seeing the world through their eyes as we golf together.

The subject of the war was not broached until we had played for quite awhile and apparently established a trusting relationship. Jake was unscathed during his tour in Afganistan, but Iraq was a different story. Also, his best friend was killed there. Jake was proud of his personal bravery, but he had no illusions about war being glorious. People who have fought know that fighting is ugly.

Much of Jake's identity relates to his service, which is understandable. (Although not a combat veteran, I also see myself as very much shaped by my military service.) He feels that his sacrifice must be validated by the U.S. achieving a reasonable outcome in Iraq. He doesn't want to have suffered in vain. He makes me think about the hundreds of thousands of American boys who fought in Viet Nam, only to receive few accolades upon their return and no satisfaction about achieving a worthwhile objective.

Jake was shocked to hear that I voted for Obama. He's believes that Obama is for those people who want something for nothing, the "freeloader class". From his reaction to me, I got the feeling that he seldom runs into people who support Obama. Jake personifies the class of average people who, in my opinion, have been pandered to by the republican party. He loves the unqualified verbal support he gets from the right-wingers, and he doesn't think about the idea that he might have been sent to war on false pretenses. Yet, Jake is a good guy and a solid citizen who I respect a lot. Obama will have to earn Jake's support - a tough order, but possible.

We're at the cusp of spring in Rochester. No daffodils, yet, but the shoots are coming up. The grass is beginning to turn from brown to green. The golf course fairways and greens have been mowed only once, and are still pretty rough. Another year is beginning; the cycle of life continues to turn. It's a miracle every year.

Jake and I exchanged cell phone numbers. Our schedules are such that we share times when we are both free to play golf. Isn't it great that two people of such different ages and political beliefs can find common cause in punishing a little white ball? I'll keep you posted if anything interesting develops out of this.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Ex-Senator Stevens Tomfoolery

So, Senator Stevens' conviction is set aside and the prosecutor is accused of misbehavior. Surprise, surprise! No, actually, the fix was in.

How does a republican-appointed prosecutor atone for bringing a successful case that results in the loss of republican senate seat? That's an easy question. The answer, of course, is to mess up the case so the perpetrator does no time. Nothing to it!

Is there any question whether Stevens accepted a lot of stuff from someone who had business before the congress? Of course not. Is there any question whether Stevens didn't report these gifts as required by law? No. Did he lie about all of this? For certain. Should he be convicted and disgraced? Yes. But it's not going to happen.

The new attorney general is going to make an example of the prosecutor, who no doubt was going to lose his political-appointee job anyway. Not a big deal, either way. The real truth, in my opinion, is that the attorney general just didn't want to waste time beating a dead horse - Stevens, that is.

I'm tired of the guilty getting off. Democracy depends on laws that are enforced regardless of status, social or political or monetary. But more and more I'm seeing the low end white collar criminal going to prison and the high end wired-in criminal walking. This is the kind of stuff that results in revolutions.