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It's a fine line between living for the moment and being a sociopath.

Patricia B McConnell: For The Love Of A Dog.

Pema Chodron: The Places That Scare You

Daniel Wallace: Mr Sebastian & the Negro Magician

All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. --Pablo Neruda

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Location: Oxfordshire, United Kingdom

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Thursday, November 30, 2006

Note to self

In future, avoid international flights originating from Heathrow.

At all costs.

This used to be one of the best airports in the world. Now, its slow


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Warning Label Generator

This has got to be one of the best web applications I've seen.

Make your own warning labels!


Monday, November 27, 2006

256 gigs on a piece of paper

Very cool. If it's real.

Indian student stores 256GB of data on A4 paper
[MarketClusters - 27 Nov 2006]

Indian technology student Sainul Abideen claims to have developed new technology that can store up to 256GB of information on an A4 sheet of paper using "rainbow technology" that encodes the data into dense coloured shapes printed on the paper. The encoded information is printed onto the paper at a density of 2.7GB per square inch. A custom scanner is used to read and decode the data into its original digital format. Abideen says the technology has a vast number of applications, with scanners embedded in mobile phones allowing mobile access to the cheap and prevalent paper storage medium.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

On being a Parisian garbage man

It might not be your dream job, but it's just that for a surprising number of folks, here.

Listen here to why becoming a garbage collector is such a plum job in Paris.

Indeed, the Paris street cleaners are one of the first things you notice, after moving here. They're everywhere, all the time. Yes, Paris has more dog crap on the sidewalk than any other city I've been in, but it has cleaner streets in every other way. It's a city almost entirely without litter.

And all these folks with bright green suits and bright green plastic-bristled brooms are always so cheerful when you when you wish them good morning. Must be the croissants.


Saturday, November 25, 2006

An extraordinary story of two people who should never have met

...even though their parents, who shouldn't have survived, did.

Listen to the NPR story here.

Debbie Fisher wears Maya Lee's mother's tattoo

Friday, November 24, 2006

New digital camera? The megapixels don't matter.

Since high school, I've spent more of my disposable income on camera equipment than many people have spent on cars. And I've spent almost as much time fantasizing about new photo gear as I have fantasizing about women. As a result, I know way more about photo tech specs than about female specs. I have, however, spent considerable time combining these two favorite pastimes.

As a result of all this indepth research and profligate spending, I'm the guy friends come to for advice when they're buying a new camera. Sometimes they're disappointed to find I'm also the guy who tries to convince them to spend less money than they were planning to. The reason is simple: most people will never use half the camera they've got their eyes on. The camera is important, but most of the best photos in the history of photography were made with machines that were, frankly, primitive compared to every camera over 100 bucks that's for sale, today.

The difference isn't features. The difference is that those old cameras required dedication, expertise and monstrous investment of time and money to use well and deliver decent pictures. You can get a similar result from modern cameras by pointing them generally in the right direction and absent-mindedly pressing the shutter button.

This is depressing for photography boffins, whose arcane knowledge used to predictably put the quality of their pictures several levels above all but the very luckiest snapshooters. Today, you've got to be pretty inattentive to take a technically bad photograph. (The value of the subjects you choose is, of course, another matter.) For that very reason, what's been bad for boffins has been wonderful for photography. People are taking better pictures because of the technology built into modern cameras, and they're taking way, way, way more shots, because the incremental cost of each one is essentially zilch. Moreover, people are sharing their photos much more widely than ever before on the web.

Now, sure, I could go on about the decline in "serious photography" that a lot of photogs complain has accompanied the great democratizing force of digital. But I won't, for two reasons. First, the medium used to be relatively exclusionary for all the reasons I mentioned above. Excluding people from a medium I'm so passionate about is something I could never embrace. Second, I think it's bullshit. Either more people are taking better pictures, or they're not. And it's clearly the former.

But the silliness of camera marketing is the same as ever. The mantra is "Sell people more camera than they need." Indeed, more camera than they'll ever use.

So, it's delightful to see the debunking begin. (Hat tip to LifeHacker.)

We blew up a photograph to 16 x 24 inches at a professional photo lab. One print had 13-megapixel resolution; one had 8; the third had 5. Same exact photo, down-rezzed twice, all three printed at the same poster size. I [hung] them all on a wall in Times Square and challenge[d] passersby to see if they could tell the difference.

Even the technician at the photo lab told me that I was crazy, that there’d be a huge difference between 5 megapixels and 13.

I’m prepared to give away the punch line...

...We ran the test for about 45 minutes. Dozens of people stopped to take the test; a little crowd gathered. About 95 percent of the volunteers gave up, announcing that there was no possible way to tell the difference, even when mashing their faces right up against the prints. A handful of them attempted guesses—but were wrong. Only one person correctly ranked the prints in megapixel order, although (a) she was a photography professor, and (b) I believe she just got lucky.


Thursday, November 23, 2006

Breadmaking as therapy for the un-stuck

It is an odd time to be making bread. My stepfather is in the hospital, my Flame-Haired Angel is on the other side of the planet, and my company is trying to decide what to do with me after they close their imminent merger.

Which, I suppose, is why I'm making bread every few days. No hope of eating it all. But there's something about making dough, seeing it slowly rise, and taking it out of the oven brown and bready. Grounding.

But I'm yearning for a puppy and about six months off work to bond with it.

That, and Flame-Haired Angel's arms. I could definitely bond with those.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Physicist out of time

From the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

If his experiment with splitting photons actually works, says University of Washington physicist John Cramer, the next step will be to test for quantum "retrocausality."

That's science talk for saying he hopes to find evidence of a photon going backward in time.

"It doesn't seem like it should work, but on the other hand, I can't see what would prevent it from working," Cramer said. "If it does work, you could receive the signal 50 microseconds before you send it."

Uh, huh ... what? Wait a minute. What is that supposed to mean?

Roughly put, Cramer is talking about the subatomic equivalent of arriving at the train station before you've left home, of winning the lottery before you've bought the ticket, of graduating from high school before you've been born -- or something like that.

"It probably won't work," he said again carefully, peering through his large glasses as if to determine his audience's mental capacity for digesting the information. Cramer, an accomplished experimental physicist who also writes science fiction, knows this sounds more like a made-for-TV script on the Sci Fi Channel than serious scientific research.

"But even if it doesn't work, we should be able to learn something new about quantum mechanics by trying it,"


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Those who forget history...

The lessons of Viet Nam that George Bush should have learned, but hasn't. Courtesy of Keith.

(Hat tip, as so often, to OneGoodMove.)

Elmo's friend Bob


Monday, November 20, 2006

For recent belt-test champions

A spoonful of crystal helps the prostitute go down

For those of you who haven't yet gotten enough joy out of the Ted Haggard scandal hypocrisy.

Parody of "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" (Sherman/Sherman)
Lyrics by M. Spaff Sumsion

Listen or Download MP3 (1.8 MB)

I used to be a master of the anti-gay crusade
Until a butch disaster blew my pastor masquerade
But if it's true I'm pounding more than pulpits, don't blame me
It's 'cause I caught my hooker-tweaker-stud's infirmity

Supertelevangelistic sex-and-drugs psychosis
Worse than plague and bird flu crossed with osteoporosis
We were playing doctor and he gave this diagnosis:
Supertelevangelistic sex-and-drugs psychosis

Umm Haggard Bakker Swaggart umm Tammy Faye
Umm Haggard Bakker Swaggart umm Tammy Faye

I found the perfect therapist - the kind that gives massage
I like to drive my Escort and I park in his garage
I swear he only serves me crank when all his Coke is gone
And then he helps me straighten out my Peter, James, and John

Supertelevangelistic sex-and-drugs psychosis
That's my greatest guilty pleasure next to Guns N' Roses
Good thing there's no ban on it in all the books of Moses
Supertelevangelistic sex-and-drugs psychosis

Umm Haggard Bakker Swaggart umm Tammy Faye
Umm Haggard Bakker Swaggart umm Tammy Faye

It seems all pious public figures bugger on the sly
But Jesus loved republicans and sinners; so must I
Say "Holy moley, Mister Foley! That boy's underage!"
But I believe the congressman has turned another page

Supertelevangelistic sex-and-drugs psychosis
Next time, better cut me off at handshakes and Mimosas
No more meth or men for me - at least in overdoses!
Supertelevangelistic sex-and-drugs psychosis!

(Just a spoonful of crystal helps the prostitute go down...)


Sunday, November 19, 2006

Mom: "It's all about the size of your gun"

This is my 69-year-old mother. With fair certainty I can say that any notion of her you might glean from this photograph is accurate, but probably doesn't go far enough.


Saturday, November 18, 2006

Saturday Night Bakery

Hanging alone, this Saturday evening, listening to music, blogging, baking bread, scanning old photos. It's a mellow-happy way to spend an evening de-stressing after a week of merger craziness. I'd be blissed out but for the distance between Flame-Haired Angel and me. But, right now, she's on a train headed for the outback to spend a week as Standby Wardrobe mistress on a Fox production. And that rocks for her. A few days after she returns to Sydney, she'll be back in my arms.

Then, four hours after that, I'll be on a train to London.

Love that international lifestyle, kids.

We had a two-hour phone date this morning, Paris time, though, so I cruised into the rest of my day high from that.

After a few errands, I hopped up to the Metro to meet an ex who's in Paris for the weekend. (Those of you who know Sly will appreciate the pic at right. Click it for a bigger version. Those of you who don't know Sly might appreciate the pretty fall foliage and the groovy Paris Metro sign.) We had an entirely lovely three-hour yammer over pot au feu and a bottle of wine at my favorite table d'hote, talking about parents, love lives and work. Then I dropped her back at the Metro and returned home to set the bread up for its second rise.

Now, it's just me and Al Green on Saturday night, waiting for bread to bake. Which is a sure-fire sign it's been too long FHA's been away. Tomorrow morning, I'll be eating the bread with peanut butter on it, wishing FHA were here so's I could ridicule her "ruining" my artisinal loaf by smearing Vegemite on it, then falsely protesting as she moves to kiss me with Vegemite breath


Friday, November 17, 2006

Best. Dog. Picture. Ever.

From The Daily Oliver.

Wanna know a bonobo?

A delightful article on bonobos, from the wonderful Smithsonian Magazine.

My heart stops as a youngster casually steps off a branch maybe 30 yards up and plunges toward the forest floor through branches and leaves. About ten yards before crashing into the ground, he grabs a branch and swings onto it. I'm told by the trackers that this death-defying game is a favorite among young bonobos, and invariably concludes with a wide grin on the acrobat's face.


Thursday, November 16, 2006

Dining underneath guns

Today, I gave a speech to 100 tech marketers about the state of tech
marketing. The jokes didn't go over nearly as well as the serious content.
Which, I think, means I'm getting to be much less fun at parties.

The event's closing dinner was held aboard the HMS Belfast, a WWII-era
heavy cruiser now moored in the Thames.

Try though I might to find some profound analogy between warships and tech
marketing, I failed utterly.

...But the food was surprisingly good, and the dinner company fascinating.


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A Farsi place to blog

Go figure.

Farsi has moved into the top 10 languages of the blogosphere. The ancient language of Persia, and the current dominant language of Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan, it's also spoken by minorities in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, and Southern Russia.

It's also the dominant scriptural language of the Baha'i Faith, which is my favorite non-secret secret brotherhood.

Whatever you do, don't call it Arabic. Like callin' a Tar Heel a Blue Devil.

More on the state of the blogosphere here, and a lot more here.


Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Hanging on the telephone

I just had to post this. Some of you will understand why. Others, alas, won't.

I actually saw the "Parallel Lines" tour, live, at Ontario Place, in Toronto. My sister wanted to go, so, in true Spencer family form, we all went. Great show. I still remember the sweat pouring off the drummer. It must have been very early adolescence for me, as I don't remember how hot Deborah Harry was. Watching this video, I can see I missed something.

(Hat tip to BoingBoing, which has also posted links to eight other punk-pop gems.)


Live from Lakehurst, NJ...

The pun may be the lowest form of humour, but this was one of those rare times I laughed out loud at my computer screen.

If you're scratching your head at the joke, have a listen to the audio clip HERE, under the title "Explosion of the Hindenburg". That recording is from the very first coast-to-coast radio broadcast in the US. Don't you just love the web?

I'm convinced this Internet is going to change everything.

(Hat tip to BoingBoing.)


Losing your head over your tatts

Don't make the same mistake I did. Before you get all up in a snit about this photo, read the page it comes from, at TheHumanMarvels.com.

Turns out we should actually admire this guy, and are in his debt.

Just fascinating stuff.

(Hat tip to Neatorama.)


Monday, November 13, 2006

Tolerance and its discontents

This is for those of you who've always proclaimed, but never felt entirely comfortable with the logical inconsistency of, the position that you are tolerant of all things but intolerance.

Welcome to the built-in hypocrisy of the liberal philosophical tradition. Not that that's a bad thing. Bad's relative.

In this book review, from the Chronicle of Higher Education, Stanley Fish nails the problem. It then goes one better by examining the problem with identifying the problem of tolerance. A wonderful, provocative piece, but not one I could read with the television on in the background.

[This] account of liberal tolerance tells us how it works not only in this instance, but whenever and wherever it is deployed; but it doesn't tell us whether liberal tolerance is a good thing, or whether there is something better.


Is the relativity or ambiguity of autonomy the answer to any question posed by circumstances in the world? If there is a particular problem to resolve or decision to make, is saying, "Autonomy is relative and ambiguous" going to help or point you in a particular direction? I think not.


Best web graphic seen lately. Maybe ever.

For those of you scratching your heads, click this link and open your wallets.



Sunday, November 12, 2006

Greatest Rumsfeldian press conference moments

Somehow, I think we'll see this idea used again. It's just too good. This technique is to satire as WMDs are to ... Oh, never mind.


Light my fire. Make me Shwetty.

I've been desk-bound on a personal project most of today. It's something I'm passionate about, but it's menial. So, to pass the time, I've been listening to back-broadcasts of some of my favorite National Public Radio (NPR) programs. Mostly, it's just pleasant background chatter, but the whole reason to listen to NPR isn't about what you know you'll hear as it is about being surprised by things you wouldn't have ever imagined hearing.

One of those serendipitous gems transformed my Sunday as I listened to an interview with legendary Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek. (Listen to it here.) I was only marginally interested in the segment, at first. Then, he sat at the piano and talked through the genesis of Light My Fire. It's jaw-dropping right off the bat, starting with the revelation that the hit was guitarist Robby Krieger's first-ever attempt at songwriting. From there through Sonny & Cher, Coltrane and Bach, the evolution of one of the most penetrating songs in rock history is simply fascinating stuff, whether or not you've ever played an instrument or care a whit about the Lizard King.

And, if you've never experienced NPR, below is an infamous Saturday Night Live parody sending up NPR programming. That's Alec Baldwin offering an object lesson in how to take a stupid joke so far that it becomes irresistable.


Saturday, November 11, 2006

Truncated Jest

The image on the right has appeared in the left column of this blog for about six months.

It's been a lie for the last three. I ain't reading that book.

David Foster Wallace is one of the most impressive prose stylists I've ever confronted on a page. His craft is astonishing. His book, Consider the Lobster, reviewed here some months back, convinced me that he is the thinking reader's Bill Bryson, but with a swag of skills Bryson could only admire at a distance.

I had read Lobster because I was intrigued by the glowing reviews of Infinite Jest, by all account's Wallace's masterpiece. Then again, it's also his only fiction monograph, and it tips in at about 1100 pages. I didn't want to commit to such a brick until I was confident the writer was worth it and the effort would be rewarded. So, I read Lobster as litmus. It's much shorter, and comprised of digestible-sized essays, to boot.

From page one until page last, Wallace's balletic, athletic writing in Lobster's essays left me gob-smacked. Again and again, he would surprise. His is not a light style, but it frolics and gambols and jives and is just implicitly self-effacing enough in its self-consciousness to be endearing. It is both unbearably erudite and unbearably funny.

I finished Lobster with a sense of anticipation. Infinite Jest seemed to just beckon my literary pleasure receptors.

Never on so much evidence have I been so disappointed.

If great novels are cathedrals, in Infinite Jest Wallace never makes it past the vestibule. I struggled through 100 pages of beautifully crafted prose that served no apparent purpose and went nowhere in particular. With 1000 pages to go, the Jest appeared infinite indeed, and I wasn't getting the joke. So, I put it down muttering to myself something about life being too short for an infinite joke when you're pretty sure the punchline isn't worth it.

I will keep recommending Wallace as an incomprehensibly gifted essayist. But if anyone wants my copy of Jest, you're welcome to it. Just leave a note in the comments. But you pay postage.


Keeping warm driving in winter

I first heard about this some months back -- probably via Neatorama or BoingBoing -- and kind of just filed it.

On the phone with poxy, house-bound Flame-Haired Leopard Angel, this morning, however, we spent about 15 minutes talking about it. Now, I can't even remember why.

I'm unconvinced it's art. I'm totally convinced it's cool.

"I get men admiring the racing lines and old women look at the needlework."

In addition to the knitting, she welded the steel frame that supports it, herself.

And, hey, any woman that can knit and weld can't be all bad.


Thursday, November 09, 2006

What have we won?

I am one of only a few token Americans at my office. Most of my colleagues consider me more Australian, in fact, but my Yankee twang makes me their go-to guy for questions about the U.S. political ruckus this week. The elections have only just barely breached the limen of French consciousness, but it's a conversation starter. And the French do like to drop by for a chat. One such chat turned into the long-lunch equivalent of a grade-school civics class: how the Congress works, how it gets elected, and what power it has.

My French table-mates were hardly put off by the complex of differences between House and Senate, or the idea of mid-term elections. Their legislative system is at least as arcane as America's, and their motivation to understand was spiked by the revelation that the elections would force Bush Jr to eat some humble pie. They were all over that. Sensing I didn't mind that aspect of the outcome, either, they asked if I was happy about the Democratic victory in the House of Representatives.

I was guarded.

Today, the Senate fell to the Democrats, too.

I am more guarded.

I am, of course, happy about the forceful rejection of Bush Jr's policies and politics. Having ranted here so often about the damage being done by the Republican dominance of US politics, it would be disingenuous of me to do other than admit a little schadenfreude. As the New York Times editorialized, Tuesday's vote was:

...an angry shout of repudiation of the Bush White House and the abysmal way the Republican majority has run Congress. It was a satisfying expression of the basic democratic principle of accountability. A government that performs badly is supposed to be punished by the electorate. And this government has performed badly on so many counts.

Well, Amen to that. The fall of the House and the Senate, and the scapegoating* of Donald Rumsfeld, are all symptoms of the big disease of disillusionment over the Bush Jr worldview, and the Republican leadership's track record. Even if the electorate is prone to see the world your way, it is impossible to continuously claim success while failing to deliver any. You can only be wrong for so long. On Tuesday, Americans simply said "We don't believe you, anymore."

(*I use the word "scapegoating" in relation to Rumsfeld advisedly. He is certainly blameworthy for much that has caused great harm, but he did not lose the election for the Republicans. He was only the sub-figurehead of failure in an administration rife with it. His departure is simply a post-election set-piece: meat to appease the howling within his own party, and a bone of tribute to the conquering forces.)

I'm also happy about the outcome because I'm a fan of divided government. When parties are forced to share power, more views tend to be heard and considered. Many of the problems of the last 6 years have come to us not because Republicans are bad, but because total dominance by any political party brings out the worst tendencies in the party's dogmatic extremists. Sure, I believe Republicans have shown outrageous cynicism in trying to undermine the courts (activist judges!), the constitution (habeas corpus) and the electoral system (gerrymandering). I'd also like to believe the Democrats would stand above such power-hungry violations of the spirit of democracy. But faith in character and trust in virtue are not enough against the corrupting influence of power. Where politics is concerned, and when stewardship of a great nation is at stake, I'll line my faith and trust up behind structural impediments to imperiousness. The best impediment to the abuse of power, in a democracy, is a countervailing power. With a Republican White House, a Democratic House of Reps, and a Senate that is damn near evenly split, no party is in a position to impose its will.

Lastly, I'm happy because I personally line up with the Democrats' policy platform more often than with the Republicans'. I don't follow the Democrats down every path; were I in Congress, my votes would be split between parties, issue by issue. Indeed, I'm more conservative than the neo-cons on a number of hot topics. It's safe to say, however, that I'd be a Democratic-leaning independent.

So, "my side" won. The "bad guys" took a beating. Divided government will force some self correction in the system. Why, then, am I not wearing garlands and dancing in the streets?

I guess it comes down to this: Seeking a future for America that is better than its present, my eyes are focused on the state of governance of the Republic. How well will the world's only superpower, and its largest economy, be run? By any level-headed estimation, the next two years are going to be hard going: hard governing.

The temptation toward vindictive hubris is one danger. It would be completely understandable were the Democrats to take their new seats and wield them like cudgels. They have scores to settle. They could hardly be blamed for wanting to get their own back after being belittled and forcefully shoved aside for six years. A Democratic politics of revenge would, no doubt, feel damn good for a while. But they'd be guaranteeing their failure. To succeed, they need to get things done. Getting things done means finding ways to work with a White House that still has an obstinate neo-con in it. He may be a two-year lame duck, but he can prevent every ambitious Democratic bill from becoming law.

Moreover, the fall of the Senate, today, is not without its down-side. Two-house control is dangerous. It could make for calcifying politics if the Democrats get over-confident and act like they hold all the cards. And if there's anything the US needs in the two years between now and 2008 -- the next Presidential election -- it's political de-calcification: a dismantling of the "with-us-or-against-us" politics of the last 12 years, and a search for ways to heal a country that is snarling at itself. The smug post-election gloat of the cartoon above is fine -- maybe even earned -- but we need to move beyond it quickly.

The Democrats could also become their own worst enemies. They are not renowned for unity, unlike their opposition. They are not united by a platform or a policy agenda. This election clearly was not about that. As the aforementioned New York Times editorial bluntly put it, "The Democrats won a negative victory, riding on the wave of public anger about Republicans." Vilifying the Republican majority unified Democrats, but that was merely an election strategy. Having won, they have the challenge of forming an agenda and moving it forward. Governing requires working together to find common ground on policies, and carrying that collaboration through the messy process of passing bills into law. The narrowness with which they hold the Senate means that any break at all in Democratic unity will render the party impotent.

It is perhaps ironic, then, that it is the very precariousness of that Senate majority that gives me most hope. It is why I am tentatively optimistic. While the Dems have a handy majority in the House of Representatives, they've barely scraped over the line in the Senate. Technically, in fact, they've got the equivalent of a Westminster minority government. The Senate chamber is split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, with 49 seats each. Two independents will caucus with the Dems to tip the balance. So, while Democrats control the machinery, they're going to have to oil the middle to deliver any results. Functionally, the Senate majority won't belong to either party, but will be made up of all the moderates who work across party lines in the center. That could make the divided Senate -- sitting as it does between the hotly Democratic House and the cool Republican president -- a moderating sea between the conflicting climates of two political land masses.

All this must happen, however, in spite of every politician having his or her motivations tempted by the spectre of 2008, when the Presidential prize is up for grabs. How much of their energy will they devote to running the country, and how much to positioning themselves for that next pitched battle? That is the single most profound question before the new Congress. That, beyond all else, will determine if anything of importance was really won this week.

(Hat tip to Neatorama for the cartoon.)

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Still crazy after only 9 days

Just a reminder for regular readers of this space: I'm going for full NaBloPoMo honours.

Previous post about NaBloPoMo and Postcardsfromhome here.

Poxy Angel thankfully untouched by flame

So, it's been an eventful week for Flame-Haired Angel, who's still down in Oz.

Yesterday, I called her at about 10am, Paris time, to let her know that she gets to keep all her dresses. I made the call from my mobile phone while standing on the sidewalk watching the Parisian fireman put out the raging blaze in the building next door.

I had awoken to street noise, but thought nothing of it, as we live across from a school, which, you know, occasionally offers up some scholastic din in the morning hours. It was only after getting out of the shower that I registered that some of the street noise was slightly siren-esque. I threw back the curtains only to find I couldn't see anything because the smoke outside the window was so thick. Running across and looking out the windows on the other side of the apartment only served to confirm that the smoke was all around and, judging from its thickness and opacity, coming from very close by.

All that grade-school training kicked in: I felt all the walls for heat. Happily, all I found were cool walls. Then the grade-school training fled from me, and I threw open the French doors to stick my head outside. I promptly choked on the smoke, but not before locating its origin: the building next door.

Now, we live in what is called a Hausmannian building. They're about 150 years old, and they're near the top of anyone's idea of beautiful urban residential architecture. They have loverly carved stone facades. They are also packed full of hardwood infrastructure and flooring, as well as timber-backed plaster. They're tinder boxes.

I unplugged my back-up hard drive, shoved it in a bag with our wedding albums, and got out. And there I stood, waiting on the street for visual cues indicating relaxed firemen. The sight of firemen frantically running around and yelling at each other is pretty much a bad sign, especially if they're glancing toward your building in a manner that suggests they're wondering which windows to break first.

The only reason I'm not 100% glad Flame-Haired Angel missed the conflagration is that she's got a soft-spot for French firemen, or "pompiers". They are notoriously handsome and fit. And they've got the coolest helmets in the world. That picture? No kidding. That's what they wear to fires: silvered visor and all.

All was eventually subdued by the pompiers, but not before it became apparent that the French phrase for "serious smoke damage" would be figuring large in my neighbors' futures.

I waited to call Flame-Haired Angel until I was sure her dresses were safe. I didn't want to upset her unnecessarily.

Given she has chicken pox and all.

Yep. She's in Australia, staying at her parents' place, covered in more than 100 spots.

Normally foxy. Currently poxy.

Which might explain her emotional state when I called her about an hour ago. I broke the news that US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had resigned, and FHA cried. Literally. Cried. With joy.


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Celebrating democracy: Polls are open

Given how often I've ranted in this space about the assaults on intelligence/freedom/democracy/decency/morality rained upon the United States and the world by the current administration in Washington, DC, it would be remiss of me not to mention that the polls are open, right now, in an election that could flip the majority in either or both houses of Congress. I'm grateful for the election, not because I have any real sense of its likely outcome -- I live too far away for that, and don't much trust polls -- but because it gives the American people another formal opportunity to make its preferences clear. Like the outcome or not, it is an anti-spin reality check.

There's another thing I'd like to take this election-day opportunity to make clear. I am not a partisan Democrat. (I can just hear my Rush Limbaugh-listening father scoffing. But he claims never to read my blog for fear of being offended by its political sentiment, so...) As often as I have railed at the arrogance and evils of Bush Jr's Republican administration, I believe a review of this blog's content would reveal that comensurate fealty to Democrats is missing. The reason is simple. I am against the Bush administration and its rubber-stamp Republican congress and much of what the present incarnation of the Republican party has fashioned itself to be, but that does not make me a partisan Democratic party cheerleader.

In the current polarized US political environment, you are either one thing or you are the other. Nuance, itself, is seen as liberal. (That last word should be, by current convention, spat more than spoken.) Yet, what I am for, in the current election, is not the Democratic party, but for powerful opposition. I am supporting the viability of an opposition to arrogant government, and an opposition to the Bush administration's political and policy agenda that stands against what I believe to be the better angels of America's nature. I am for a great, free nation. To get it, I am for divided government.

Indeed, I am generally for divided government. Power corrupts, and the absolute power that comes from controlling the House, the Senate, the Executive and the Judiciary, corrupts absolutely.

So, I do hope the Democrats win, today. But not because they're Democrats. I hope they win because we need a balancing power. Because the arrogance of any party un-checked damages the country.

And because I want to knee-cap George W Bush. Politically, I mean. Not because he's a Republican, but because he's the Worst. President. Ever. Because his Presidency, unchecked, has been an embarrassment to a great nation.


Monday, November 06, 2006

Multicultural Manners

I am almost an absolutist when it comes to individual civil liberties.


There's a part of me that doesn't like that most of me agrees with this: "Multicultural Manners," from Slate.

Removing a full-face veil at work is simply a matter of politeness.

It seems an odd basis for rebutting the niqab (which is the veil), but it sways me.

This whole issue is a huge deal in Europe, right now, and has been for a couple of years.


Sunday, November 05, 2006

Americans weren't always full tossers

I have written before about my passion for the game of cricket, and how that, combined with my distinctly North American twang is considered somewhat exotic by other cricket fans. So, I was rather happy to read this great article on the heritage of cricket in the United States: "Cricket, Anyone ?", from the always surprising and consistently magnetic Smithsonian Magazine.

Cricket—now played by millions of people in 92 countries ranging from the Caribbean to Europe to Africa to South Asia—was once the national game of, yes, these United States. And one of the first outdoor sports to be played on these shores. An 1844 cricket match between teams from the United States and Canada was the first international sporting event in the modern world, predating the revival of the Olympic Games by more than 50 years.

The photo shows Philadelphia native son J. Barton King who, in 1908, set records that stood throughout the cricket world for 40 years. Indeed, Philadelphia was once a world cricketing power. Today, however, as the article points out, "many Americans dismiss cricket as an elitist game played by girlie-men.

Just don't say that to Aussie Rules football players, who play on a round field ("pitch" actually) because the game was invented as a way to keep cricketers fit in the off-season. Yep, they're bashing each other up on what was, originally, a cricket pitch.


Saturday, November 04, 2006

Another father. Another son.

I was moved to tears by a father and son team a few weeks back.

Here's another that just blows me away:

Among the members of this year's University of Louisville marching band is a musician who is blind and doesn't walk.

At Thursday night's game ... Patrick Henry Hughes was in the trumpet section, in a wheelchair pushed by his father.

The blonde young man, holding his silver trumpet in a white uniform, was spun around the field by his father, who wore a red Louisville jacket.

Click here to listen to the full story from NPR's All Things Considered.


Thank goodness for post-9/11 airport security

We all remember that the US federal government decided, post 9/11, that it was high time to start taking airport security seriously. Damn good thing, too.

Except it's a cluster-fuck.

In a recent unannounced test, airport screeners at Newark (NJ) international airport failed to find 20 of 22 planted "weapons", including bombs and guns.

Yes, you read that right.

So, we're not safe, we're just more hassled. We've all heard the stories about harrassment for lip gloss and juice boxes, but maybe my favorite is the following, from David Gagne:

"About a week ago I flew to Rhode Island on business. I was forced into the 'security threat' line because I was in a bad mood and refused to remove my sunglasses at the second of four TSA checkpoints at LAX."

“There’s no law that says I can’t wear my sunglasses in the airport. ma’am”

“Yes, there is. It’s a rule.”

“It’s not a rule.”

“It is. I can’t let you pass.”

“Yes, you can.” She took my boarding pass and used her yellow hi-liter to turn the line into an X. An X of shame and potential threat.

She called to the top-of-the-stairs officer, “Threat alert!”

The story of what happens next is both frightening and hilarious. You can read it at this link.

So, we're no safer in the end. Federalizing airport security has resulted in an incompetent net that is, well, pretty much like a net: more holes than string.

In the meantime, it's taken a toll that's more important than a bit of hassle and delay. The result is that we're just a little less free. The pathetically ineffectual federal security lock-down of airports is but one of myriad post-9/11 measures that has given the government more power to intrude on our lives.

But it's all okay, you know, because it's all about fighting the terrorists. Because the terrorists hate our freedom.

Yay, freedom.

(Hat tip to BoingBoing for both pieces.)


Friday, November 03, 2006

The Great Divider

Yesterday's New York Times editorial on the Bush Jr's electioneering rhetoric.

Great Divider

Published: November 2, 2006

As President Bush throws himself into the final days of a particularly nasty campaign season, he’s settled into a familiar pattern of ugly behavior. Since he can’t defend the real world created by his policies and his decisions, Mr. Bush is inventing a fantasy world in which to campaign on phony issues against fake enemies.

In Mr. Bush’s world, America is making real progress in Iraq. In the real world, as Michael Gordon reported in yesterday’s Times, the index that generals use to track developments shows an inexorable slide toward chaos. In Mr. Bush’s world, his administration is marching arm in arm with Iraqi officials committed to democracy and to staving off civil war. In the real world, the prime minister of Iraq orders the removal of American checkpoints in Baghdad and abets the sectarian militias that are slicing and dicing their country.

In Mr. Bush’s world, there are only two kinds of Americans: those who are against terrorism, and those who somehow are all right with it. Some Americans want to win in Iraq and some don’t. There are Americans who support the troops and Americans who don’t support the troops. And at the root of it all is the hideously damaging fantasy that there is a gulf between Americans who love their country and those who question his leadership.

Mr. Bush has been pushing these divisive themes all over the nation, offering up the ludicrous notion the other day that if Democrats manage to control even one house of Congress, America will lose and the terrorists will win. But he hit a particularly creepy low when he decided to distort a lame joke lamely delivered by Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. Mr. Kerry warned college students that the punishment for not learning your lessons was to “get stuck in Iraq.” In context, it was obviously an attempt to disparage Mr. Bush’s intelligence. That’s impolitic and impolite, but it’s not as bad as Mr. Bush’s response. Knowing full well what Mr. Kerry meant, the president and his team cried out that the senator was disparaging the troops. It was a depressing replay of the way the Bush campaign Swift-boated Americans in 2004 into believing that Mr. Kerry, who went to war, was a coward and Mr. Bush, who stayed home, was a hero.

It’s not the least bit surprising or objectionable that Mr. Bush would hit the trail hard at this point, trying to salvage his party’s control of Congress and, by extension, his last two years in office. And we’re not naïve enough to believe that either party has been running a positive campaign that focuses on the issues.

But when candidates for lower office make their opponents out to be friends of Osama bin Laden, or try to turn a minor gaffe into a near felony, that’s just depressing. When the president of the United States gleefully bathes in the muck to divide Americans into those who love their country and those who don’t, it is destructive to the fabric of the nation he is supposed to be leading.

This is hardly the first time that Mr. Bush has played the politics of fear, anger and division; if he’s ever missed a chance to wave the bloody flag of 9/11, we can’t think of when. But Mr. Bush’s latest outbursts go way beyond that. They leave us wondering whether this president will ever be willing or able to make room for bipartisanship, compromise and statesmanship in the two years he has left in office.


Thursday, November 02, 2006

Selling stems as wedges

In recent years, Republicans in the United States have trundled out "wedge issues" every election as a way of inciting their base and swaying fence-sitters. Wedge issues are political topics people tend to feel very strongly about even if they have little impact on governing the nation as a whole. Gay marriage is a wedge issue. Religion is a wedge issue. Wedges get people riled up and take the focus off, say, Iraq.

Democrats have always sucked at wedge issues. Dems either are chronically disposed to take the high road and run on substantive issues, or they just aren't as good as their Republican adversaries at coming up with exploitable wedges. Or both.

Well, there's an election next week that will determine the composition of Congress for the next few years, and it looks like the Democrats have stumbled, almost literally, onto a wedge issue: stem cell research.

The vast majority of Americans support stem-cell research. Republicans oppose it on principle: because it "destroys life". Never mind that the "life" it destroys is in the form of embryos that fertility clinics would have thrown in the trash anyway. Republicans can appeal to their "pro-life" base by taking an absolutist stance.

When Michael J Fox recorded a commercial for a few Democratic congressional candidates, it set off a firestorm. Fox suffers from Parkinson's Disease, a hot candidate for an eventual cure from stem-cell research. But not only is Fox's ad moving on its own, it roiled into a fury when Fox was mocked by ultra-conservative talk-radio blow-hard Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh accused Fox of either faking his symptoms or going off his meds to shill for the Democrats.

Now the Republicans are having to fight uphill against looking heartlessly uncompassionate on two levels: first for opposing potentially life-saving research and, second, for mocking genuinely sick people.

Smelling blood, the Dems are trying to drive this wedge as far as they can. They've cut a new ad of their own. In general, I'm not a fan of emotionally manipulative attack ads, but I'm also not a fan of bending over and taking it from the Republican crap machine. And if you have to fight fire with fire, the Democrats new ad is damn hot flame.

Below is the Michael J Fox ad, and its follow-up.

And this link takes you to a good Salon article on the nascent phenomenon of this potential wedge.


Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Ben Stein on Iraq

Ben Stein has been a lot of different things in his life. For example, quoting from the bio on his website: "His part of the boring teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off was recently ranked as one of the fifty most famous scenes in American film."

One thing he's never been, however, is a lefty. He was a lawyer and speechwriter for both Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. He's also been a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal.

In other words, he's deeply a part of the Conservative establishment in the United States.

It's significant, therefore, that he went on national television on Sunday and made the following statement:

(Click this link, or on the picture, to watch the video on the CBS News site. It's on the right side of the page.)

Times are very tough in Iraq, and if I were still a speech writer for the President, as I was for Mr. Nixon and Mr. Ford, this is what I would suggest he say:

My fellow Americans, I have some sobering news. It is my duty above all to protect the nation and to protect the Constitution. I sincerely believed I was doing that when I ordered the invasion of Iraq. I still believe Saddam Hussein was the most dangerous man in the world.

But it is clear to me now that things are not working out well in Iraq. Despite the incredible competence, bravery, and sacrifice of our men and women on the ground there, Iraq is still a violent, largely out of control country. We may be making more terrorists than we destroy. The word "quagmire" comes to mind.

It is clear that changes must be made. I have this morning accepted Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's resignation with sincere thanks for his service to the nation. Despite his flaws, he is a great American. He will be replaced by a truly heroic American, Senator John McCain of Arizona.

I relied on the best minds I could access to make my decisions about Iraq. I prayed long and earnestly. Nonetheless, I made mistakes and good men and women died and hard earned tax money was lost. Fine young men and women are crippled and disabled. It is time for a change. Therefore, inspired by Secretary Baker's and Senator Kean's fine unofficial committee, I am convening a national, bi-partisan Blue Ribbon commission composed of leading Democrats, Independents and Republicans , civilian and military, to start meeting at once and give me a recommendation in one month as to what our Iraq policy should be. All options are on the table.

That is, I will consider all options, no matter how critical of my present policy.

I want to close with this thought. I am just a man. I have no miraculous powers. I have no special pipeline to God. Like all Presidents, from Jefferson and Lincoln onwards, I make mistakes, and sometimes good people die. I am deeply sorry. Now, as we re-examine our policy, I would ask that you all pray for us to make the right decision. I am in politics. I get criticized for a living. But let us all stand behind the brave men and women and their families who fight for this nation and give up their lives for us. May God continue to bless us all and especially those who wear the uniform and their loved ones.

Thanks Margot!


Yoda says write, bitch!

Yoda hollers a big shout-out over on the right side of the blog, from today.

I am participating in NaBloPoMo: National Blog Posting Month. The challenge? Post every day during November.

Every. Day.

Exquisite posts. Lame-o, crappy posts. Matters not, it does!

A hastily scrounged link. A YouTube vid of a cat falling into the toilet. Ha ha! It all counts! Every day is all.

That said, I'm going to do my best to use NaBloPoMo to steer Postrcardsfromhome back onto the meandering country road I had originally intended for it: a bit more personal reflection to engage both my virtual fountain pen and my engagement with the world around me.

The blog, itself, is a tool for that. But I often sit down to write and then don't because, well, writing is hard. Harder than scumping for amusing web video, anyway. Like so many thinkgs, I like the end-point of writing a lot. I even like the process of writing once I'm hip deep in it. It's the moment of beginning that is such a bitch, she is: the blank page or the lonely, blinking cursor.

This month, no chickening out.

It's all about the daily output, baby!

(Thanks, Mrs Kennedy!)