Blog Archive

19 November 2010

The Buddha on Debt

From "In the Buddha's Words- An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon"-

"And what, householder, the the happiness of freedom from debt ? Here, a family man is not indebted to anyone to any degree, whether small or great, he experiences happiness and joy. This is called the happiness of freedom from debt."

As the Bible says, there truly is nothing new under the sun. Given the current debt situation of the United States, the individual states that make up the Republic and the average American household (not to mention Ireland, Portugal, Greece...well, let's just say the entire world is in hock) these words written over a thousand years ago are as relevant now as they were then, if not more so. Having been deeply in debt, then out of debt, then back in debt and now finally (hopefully) permanently out of debt, I can say that the Buddha was correct in his statement. Drowning in debt leads to despair, stress and depression- being clear of debt leads to freedom, happiness and a lighter view of the world.

In America, the deep debt of the average household was brought on by a consumer driven society where material possessions are used to judge the character and value of the individual- who has the biggest house, the best car, the coolest vacation house. I see this scene play out repeatedly when interacting with parents at our kid's sporting events- despite the financial crisis that has engulfed as all to some degree, the talk is still about who is buying a new house in which upscale neighborhood, who bought a 2011 model year SUV etc. It all reminds me of the scene where the orchestra kept playing on the deck while the Titanic sank. My personal belief is that this behavior is driven by a deep sense of insecurity and lack of self esteem. A person with a healthy view of the world should not care what others think of his or her home or car, and shouldn't judge others on the same basis.

Hopefully, on both the world and individual scale, people have wised up to the personal and national destruction that a debt driven economy has brought upon us. People are saving more, shopping at cheaper stores and generally adopting the spending habits of our parents and grandparents who still carried memories of life during the depression. My prediction is that we will survive this economic crisis only have our own children and grandchildren fall into the same trap. After all, our parents and grandparents didn't know what they were talking about either, right ?

30 September 2010

Terrorists, Anarchists and Quakers, Oh My !

The recent revelations that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania paid a company known as the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response for weekly terror briefings has been alternately comical and worrying. On one side, our esteemed Governor Ed Rendell was full of righteous indignation when he learned that over $ 100,000 in taxpayer money was paid for reports that targeted Pennsylvania citizens- everyone ranging from anarchists to tea party members in an operation that was so wide ranging that nobody can really accuse them of playing favorites. As I’ve said before, I really admire the Gov and his ability to spin absolutely any situation to his advantage- brushing aside the fact that it was his administration that hired the company in the first place, he promised that their contract would be immediately broken (leaving out the fact that it was a one year contract due to expire in October anyway.)

This is a perfect example of one of my earlier posts which highlighted the outsourcing of intelligence by the government to private companies. Why spy on your own citizens when you can pay your fellow citizens to do it for you ? Some information on the company suggests that employees posed in chat rooms to gain information on assorted miscreants in Pennsylvania and passed this information on to law enforcement. It's all so very East Germany circa 1975.

If you have some time on a rainy Saturday afternoon, you can read all of the reports in their glory here. I have to say that I read quite a few of them, and even as a former Army intelligence analyst I’m really not sure exactly what the hell is going on. One of my favorites cites a threat by Al Qaeda to use hot air balloons in IED attacks overseas while noting how balloons are poorly secured around the U.S.- the large lake between the source and the target might be a slight obstacle one would think. Other reports mention such totally bad ass, militant organizations like the Quakers. Another one of my favorites involves potential reaction to the Arizona immigration debate spilling into the Pirates-Diamondbacks game at PNC. This completely breaks the rule of intelligence regarding knowledge of your area- nobody goes to Pirate games anymore.

I don’t know if this company is actually employing a whole cadre of analysts (their website and reports even hint at intercepted communications, translation and "closed" intelligence sources) or a couple of guys hitting Google all day long and selling their product to gullible idiots like the ones running our state. I’m amused by the response by those who take positions contrary to the popular ones in our state and feel like they are being targeted- hey, welcome to my life. They seemed shocked and genuinely hurt that our state government would employ a company to spy on them, pay them and then run the other way when the whole operation was exposed. It was all fun and games until Leviathan actually hit back, wasn't it ?

The only genuine hurt I felt was after I read all the reports and realized I never appeared in them.

Not even once.


29 September 2010

First Game- Consol Energy Arena

My first game experience at Consol Energy Arena last evening was an enjoyable one. I met up with my brother at Cafe Fifth Avenue which is about a 9 iron shot away from the new arena and had a couple of beers and some wings. Cafe Fifth, like our other favorite pre-game haunt Souper Bowl, won the jackpot when the new arena was built literally accross the street from them. If you're travelling from out of town, I highly recommend both places but be sure to get there early if you want a seat. I've never seen any problems with fans from other cities except for one Caps fan that hurled all over the Souper Bowl bathroom before a Sunday afternoon game a couple of years back.

Heading up 5th Ave. towards the arena-

Up the escalators. Amazing how much more open these are. The old ones at Mellon Arena felt like you were going up to the 2nd floor in your grandma's house.

Malkin scores the opener, view from our seats in 116. Crosby sat out but it was a good chance to see some of the younger guys. My favorite, Goligoski, was out there and looked very sharp carrying the puck through the neutral zone. Kane played for the Hawks, as did Brian Campbell (another favorite) and big John Scott- they show Scott at 6'8" on the roster, he looked like 7'8" on skates.

One strange new twist to the Pens is the introduction of a group of youngsters that have the job of entertainment and ice crew. I don't know if Mario is trying to scrimp on costs because of the new arena, and is trying to consolidate expenses, but both of these roles used to be clearly defined- one group consisted of young hotties who pranced around the arena, the other was made up of grizzled guys who trundled out onto the ice during breaks to clean up around the crease. Unlike the old ice crews that wore shoes with ice cleats, these kids were wearing skates and skated out onto the ice with shovels and buckets. The big difference was that the old ice crew did their job quickly and efficiently. The new ice crew was an outright cluster fuck.

Here is my pic of the "ice crew" coming off-

I'm going to make a prediction here- this venture, no doubt dreamed up by somebody on the Penguin's marketing staff, is going to get the hook in about 2 more games. First, one of the blond girls (who apparently has a twin that was out there with her- eliciting comments from my brother that will go unpublished) nearly ran into Hawks goalie Alec Richards with her shovel. Richards gamely skated out of her way without smacking her with his stick but had to be wondering what perverted sequel to "Slap Shot" he had skated into. Second, and more ominously, I saw some pretty scolding looks from the linesmen and ref which roughly translated as "get your ass off the ice you are holding things up." Since it was a pre-season game, I can sort of see this sliding by- come regular season, I wouldn't be surprised if its being discussed in Toronto.

27 September 2010

I'm in a Maine State of Mind

Rush hour commuting is always painful, especially on Mondays, and particularly awful on rainy Monday mornings. I boarded the train this morning with a dozen of my fellow wage slaves for the slog into Pittsburgh, downtrodden commuters pushing ear buds in, burying their faces in their papers and steeling themselves for another day at work. I was particularly depressed because although I was commuting to work in Pittsburgh, I was deeply in a Maine State of mind.

You see, less than 48 hours earlier I had been sitting on the edge of the pond where our family home is located, enjoying sunsets such as the one I snapped to the left. Days were spent working on the house, and getting it ready for winter, but you really can't call it work when the loons were singing, ducks were quacking and a large golden eagle meandered down the lake looking for something to eat. Throw in a lovesick bull moose calling forlornly for a girlfriend, and it was a relaxing week to say the least. No cell phone reception, no phone in fact, no television or internet- just a quietly burning fire, the gentle lapping of the waves on the shore and the haunting cries of the resident loons. I gamely took a bag of books to read, and ended up reading none of them because I was in bed asleep around 8 pm every night. Up early for breakfast and then endless, but enjoyable, hours of scraping old paint, adding new and getting the plumbing system drained and ready for the brutal Maine winter to come.

I felt sorry for my fellow passengers this morning. At least I have such a place to reset my soul once in awhile. The deep quiet of the north woods makes you realize just how completely we complicate our lives with 24 x 7 cable news, I Phones and all of the other accoutrement's of life today. It is a good thing to unplug and enjoy the simple joys of a sunny day, the incredible colors of autumn (which is a good month ahead in Maine,) a quiet paddle in a canoe and the entertainment provided by the local wildlife. I browsed through the pictures on my phone repeatedly with a smile on my face, completely oblivious that we were nearing my stop. I quietly packed up my gear and headed out into the madness of the city streets.

24 September 2010

Memory Row Week- 2012 & The End of the World

I have to admit, I really enjoyed writing this piece and have enjoyed discussing it even more. Some follow-up comments are at the end.

I was listening to some REM yesterday when I began to wonder why it seems like every time I turn on the television, I am bombarded by end of the world programming- The Nostradamus Effect, Life after People, Lost book of Nostradamus....why not just tune in for a whole week of Armageddon programming as advertised by the History Channel ? Just can't get enough ? It is rumored that a television series based on the recent blockbuster 2012 is being considered as a replacement for Lost. I usually enjoy watching the History Channel, Discovery etc. with the kids because they have some pretty good shows that are a bit more educational than Sponge Bob or Ren and Stimpy- okay, maybe not Ren and Stimpy but you get my point.

Recent programming, however, makes me wonder if blocking both porn and the History Channel might not be a bad idea. My older son (age 9) has been pretty upset about the whole end of the world media blitz that we are being subjected to and he has every right to be so. After all, when you are 9, the prospect of being vaporized before you turn the ripe old age of 12 has to be pretty upsetting. It reminds me of another kid that was always worried about the end of the world- me. When I was my son's age, it wasn't television that pushed the whole end of the world agenda, it was a book "The Late Great Planet Earth" by Hal Lindsey that my father read and then rather absentmindedly decided to share with the whole family. Armageddon, nuclear war, revelation all mixed up into a potent cocktail that scared the living hell out of me. (I'm happy to note that my old friend Hal is still making a living peddling his bullshit as evidenced by his rather snazzy website. Despite the fact that he was completely and utterly wrong in his assertion that the world was going tits up in 1981, 2012 has breathed new life into his career from what it looks like.) Seeing my son so upset really pissed me off so I decided it was time to sit down and talk through what he was thinking.

While discussing our imminent demise at the hands of planet X, avenging angels or a return of the Smurfs, I taught my son about Occam's Razor "entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem" which is a lovely little theory to apply to situations like this. What is more likely- a) The Mayans were able to predict the future and identify the exact date the world is going to end. b) The media has found out that pushing Armageddon sells lots of advertising so they are throwing together programming that supports this conclusion. Congratulations, if you chose "b" you are a rational human being. If you chose "a," please get back to work on your bomb shelter and tinfoil helmet.

What is it in the human mind that just loves predicting our fate ? I think eschatology, prophecy and all of that fun stuff is simply hardwired into our brains. I saw an interesting show the other night on PBS (actually Armageddon free, which was nice) where a scientist noted that we are only species that worries about the future. Zebras, for example, have been observed being attacked by a pride of lions, escaping and then nonchalantly munching grass 5 minutes later a short distance from the lions that chased them in the first place. Unlike the zebras, we constantly worry and obsess about the future- money, our jobs, our families, the economy, the weather, our kids etc. Add a pinch of special effects, a cup of Mayan prophecy that I don't think anyone has actually read, a dash of Nostradamus and the human brain starts accelerating into a brick wall.

Time to throw on the brakes. I think that the prospect of the world ending December 21st, 2012 holds some appeal, especially for those that are living miserable, unfulfilled and unhappy lives. A date certain for destruction somewhat alleviates us of the drudgery of getting up for work, dragging ourselves to our jobs, dealing with the boss and waiting for the next paycheck. What's more scary than December 21st, 2012 ? December 22nd, 2012 when you awake with an Armageddon party induced hangover, stare at the cold December sky and realize that making photocopies of your ass at work the day before probably wasn't the best idea.

"A-ha" you say, "you won't be laughing when you die on December 21st, 2012 !" Guess what cupcake, we are all going to die. I think that the avoidance of the subject of death in modern Western civilization has led to a generation of people that think they are going to live forever. I'm going to die, you're going to die, we're all going to die. "Strive diligently, for all things must pass" were the words of the Buddha and they are as relevant now as they were over 2000 years ago. I don't know if I'm going to kick off on December 21st, 2012...or maybe 2011...hey, I've got good genes I should at least reach 2050 unless I'm a total loser. Car wreck, heart attack, cancer, plane crash, who knows ? All I know is that I'm going to die at some point and I'm fine with that fact. Try meditating on that fact sometime. It makes life even better.

As the clock continues to tick down to December 21st, 2012, the media drumbeat goes on. The plethora of doomsday television shows and books continues to roll off the assembly lines, proving once again that nothing sells as well as potential disaster. You can take your pick of 2012 theories- magnetic pole shifts, mysterious planets slamming into earth, asteroids, demons, UFO's and somebody out there will sell you their theory on it and how to survive it.

Here's my theory and I'm not charging you a thing for it- it's bullshit, pure and simple. I'm beginning to think that this mania is tied to our fat and lazy existence here in the U.S. I seriously doubt that hungry people in Africa are agonizing over this or citizens in not so fun places like Iran or North Korea are worried that Planet X is going to slam into us in a couple of years. Our easy consumer driven lifestyle has created a demand for artificial fears- since we no longer have the primal fight/flee response sitting in Starbucks, we now have to replace the lion chasing us with maniacal theories to scare ourselves and remind us of our own mortality.

I would like to propose a bet with any 2012 proponent out there to put their money where their mouth is. I will pay them $ 100 cash money, right now, on the wager that nothing will happen in 2012. In return, if nothing happens, they will pay me $ 200 on January 1st, 2013. If you are completely sold on 2012, this is a no brainer- you get to enjoy $ 100 during your final days on earth, and know that it's a sucker bet for me since neither one of us is going to be around to collect my winnings when it all comes to a crashing end. Terms and conditions apply, subject to approval by my legal staff.

So come on people, are you gonna get your $ 100 and party like its 2011 ?

23 September 2010

Memory Row Week- The World That Never Was

I finally picked up a copy of this book and will be reading it on vacation this week. I'll post a review when I get back.

"The World That Never Was- A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists & Street Agents" by Alex Butterworth. 2010. Pantheon Books.

Book review by Stuart Christie, The Guardian.

Sounds like a good read. I'm going to pick up a copy. The book is available on pre-order for June 15th, through Amazon.

An interesting observation from the review-

"The main story, however, is of the penetration of these groups of often naive utopians by the sinister functionaries of the secret state whose job it was to protect the status quo: the policemen and spymasters who lurked in the shadows seeding uncertainty and dissent, cultivating tensions, beguiling with deceits, and luring credulous and impressionable idealists into committing crimes they may never have otherwise conceived."

History has indeed shown that idealists and revolutionaries are often long on ideas and short on proper counter-intelligence techniques !

22 September 2010

Memory Row Week- Funeral for a Soldier

I wrote this article in May 2010 about the death of a local soldier in Afghanistan. My comments are at the end.

Last week, a soldier killed in Afghanistan was laid to rest in a small town near where I live. By coincidence, my son goes to elementary school in the same town and met the soldier a few years ago when he stopped by to visit the children. By all accounts the soldier was an all American type of kid- well liked by his neighbors, a good athlete and respected throughout the community. I picked up my son at school the day his body was brought back to town and the children had lined the streets waving small American flags as the hearse passed by. The light poles were adorned with yellow ribbons and the town had turned out in a show of unified sympathy you only see in small town America.

For a 10 year old, my son asks some pretty tough questions. "Why did he die ?" he asked, followed by "Are we winning the war ?" The local news had covered the story in print and on television and it led the six o'clock news for a couple of nights so it became a running discussion between the two of us. I struggled to explain the war in Afghanistan to my son, the nuances of counter insurgency, the difficulty in defeating a group of guerrillas vs. a standing army. During my time in the Army I had been an intelligence analyst while serving in the Ranger Regiment. My job was reading intelligence reports regarding the Soviets and their invasion of Afghanistan- how they operated, their tactics and techniques and then condensing them for dissemination to the three Ranger battalions for what we thought was an inevitable hot war in Europe. Back then I gained a grudging respect for the Mujahedin and their ability to bloody the Russian bear. Little did I know that the seeds that would eventually lead to Al Qaeda, Bin Laden and 9/11 had been planted.

So why did he die ? The interviews with local citizens on television mostly addressed that question with the answer that he died "defending our freedoms" and "protecting us." I'm not so sure about that. I'm pretty sure that he died first and foremost, as soldiers have for generations, for his comrades and his unit. Grand geopolitical strategy was probably not going through his head in his final battle- he was probably looking out for his buddies and doing the best he could to stay alive. Although I tried to make the case in my head that he died protecting us here in America, I just couldn't make the mental jump that would connect the Taliban and scattered Al Qaeda forces to a direct threat against me and my family. Thinking that through made me feel horrible- he didn't need to die for me and my family, we would have gladly taken the remote chance of a Taliban-Al Qaeda attack on Pittsburgh if it mean't he was safe and sound.

Did he, and over 1,700 other coalition soldiers, die to bring freedom to Afghanistan ? I'm not too convinced on that score either. This wasn't like U.S. troops rolling into Paris or Holland during World War 2. Afghanistan was never really a country in the traditional sense, even during the best of times. Tribalism, war lords financing private armies through the drug trade and various religious factions just don't fit the profile of a country begging for liberation. The U.S. and its allies have suppressed the Taliban to a large extent in many areas of the country but its likely that once the U.S. pulls out the result will be an immediate slide back into its quasi feudalistic former self.

I'm still struggling with the answer. The U.S. invasion after 9/11 made sense- root out and destroy Al Qaeda and those responsible for harboring them. On that count, it is widely agreed that the operation was a success. Al Qaeda, which some reports show as having no more than a couple of hundred members in the country, has been dispersed and generally hunted down. I highly doubt that they have constructed some super secret underground facility in the mountains and are working on a nuclear bomb that will soon go off in the U.S. It is more likely that they are living like moles, reluctant to venture outside and risk being vaporized by a drone attack. If they no longer pose a direct strategic threat to the U.S., why is the Department of Defense adding thousands of new troops into the mix and billions more in funding ? Forget the money for a minute- most importantly, why is our most priceless asset (our troops lives) being spent on this hell hole ?

My guess is that it comes down to money. Billions of dollars for procurement of new weapons, logistical support contracts, beans, bullets and everything else that a modern army consumes. Congressional districts that rely on defense plant spending, corrupt leaders more worried about their own political skins versus those of the troops in the field. Al Qaeda and the Taliban, no larger than a German infantry division in World War 2 (at best) are on the receiving end of the full economic and military might of the U.S. I'm sure that some accounting geek at the Pentagon has examined the grim calculus of death and figured out that every dead Taliban was killed at the cost of about $ 1.5 million to the U.S. taxpayer. An elephant stepping on a gnat isn't even an appropriate analogy to the imbalance between the amount of military and economic horsepower being thrown at the situation.

So, why did he die ? I still don't know, maybe somebody out there can help me figure it out.

Since I wrote this article, the command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan was changed by an article in Rolling Stone, and a massive leak of documents regarding the war has been released. Over 285 coalition troops have been killed since then, many more wounded and billions of dollars have been pissed down this black hole. I am still very pessimistic about the future of Afghanistan and the prospects for the coalition forces to defeat the Taliban. Unlike the U.S. and allied forces fighting at the end of a very long supply line, the Taliban are fighting in their own back yard with access to protection across the border in Pakistan. Most importantly, they have the advantage of time- they can simply wait out the Americans, force the Afghan government to the table after U.S. forces withdraw and create their own state within a state. When the war transitioned from pursuit of Al Qaeda to building a new Afghanistan, the war was effectively lost- not by the forces on ground, but the elected ones playing geopolitics in Washington D.C.

21 September 2010

Memory Row Week- 2010 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Review

I wrote this article back in January after we purchased our new 2010 VW Jetta TDI. My update is at the end.

Last weekend, we finally traded in my Nissan Pathfinder for a new vehicle. The old girl had 147,000 odd miles on it, the exhaust system was falling off and it was doing annoying things like shutting off when I applied the brakes too hard. As if to make the point that it really didn't want to go to the big recycling plant in the sky, it died at the largest intersection between my house and the dealer where we had been looking at cars the week before. After a bit of swearing, pleading and pounding on the steering wheel, it wheezed into the dealer's lot and gracefully expired as it coasted into a parking spot.

After weeks of test drives, visiting dealers and doing some research, we settled on the 2010 VW Jetta TDI (diesel.) I've always had a sneaking love of German cars, born of racing AFX cars in the basement, reading racing magazines and dreaming about flying down the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans in a Porsche 917. My first German car, a used 1998 Audi A6, sealed this love affair and also confirmed everything that my engineer father thought of them- "over-engineered and over-priced" he would fume at the dinner table. Being an engineer he just couldn't see any point of designing anything beyond the functionality of an engine, four wheels and a steering wheel. The Audi was like dating a beautiful, temperamental woman. When it worked, it was an absolute blast to drive, luxurious and absolutely bulletproof when driving way beyond the safety limits on a snowy highway. When it bitched and was in a snit, it was horribly expensive to fix, cranky and temperamental. At one point I actually owned two Audis as I re-built a 1991 Quattro V8 which I bought for $ 3,500 cash but that's a story for another day.

Anyways, in the rush to build green vehicles with great gas mileage, Volkswagen has gone back to the future in the TDI. Years of building diesel vehicles (and testing them on the racetrack in Audi's TDI program) has yielded a vehicle that seems to do the impossible- get great gas mileage and yet be fun to drive. Many of the problems that hounded diesels in the past such as engine noise, wet and cold start issues ("don't call me when it's four degrees out" huffed my dad) have been eliminated. The interior is very well appointed, functional and the fit and finish is nice and tight. Turn the switch to the first position, wait a second for the glow plug light to go out and the 4 cylinder diesel rumbles to life.

4 cylinder you say ? No power you think ? Wrong again. Although the engine only generates 140 horsepower, it also pushes nearly 230 pounds of torque to the front wheels. Mash the pedal, wait amount for the turbo to spool up and the beast punches you back into your seat (rumor has it that Audi's new electric sports car will generate over 1,000 pounds of torque.) This is no breadbox with batteries stuffed into every nook and cranny, it is 3,600 odd pounds of solid German iron that makes me shake my head everytime I see a Prius. Although diesels have never really caught on in the US the way they have in Europe, Volkswagen may have finally come up with the right package of fuel efficiency, power and luxury to make more car owners take a serious look at vehicles like the TDI.

So far, so good. The car now has 19,900 miles on it after enduring two very long trips- one to southern Texas, another to northern Maine. As the engine is now broken in, the mileage from the little diesel continues to impress. During the trip to Texas, I averaged 48.5 mpg and slightly less during our summer trip to Maine. One thing that took getting used to was wondering if the fuel gauge had broken- on long highway trips, it barely budges. Getting nearly 700 miles of range out of a 14 gallon tank forces you to think differently about your trip- no more saying to the kids, we'll take a break when we stop to fuel up since that can literally be a few hours away. Despite the fears of my father, we have had absolutely no problems starting the car even during the extremely cold winter we had in Pittsburgh.

Mechanically the car has had no issues except for the hood shocks needing to be replaced. Although this gave me shudders concerning German reliability, they were replaced at no charge under the car's warranty. I am also liking the fact that the diesel only needs to have its oil changed every 10,000 miles and this is covered at no cost as well. The car rides well, is a blast to drive and the Satellite radio and I phone hook up are a godsend on long trips. On the downside, it can be a bit noisy inside the cabin during long trips and the seats aren't that well suited for marathon trips. Still, I can't complain. For a little less than $ 25,000, the car has been an absolute bargain.

20 September 2010

Memory Row Week- Home Grown

I wrote this article last Spring as we began our foray into trying to build a deck garden. My follow up comments are at the end.

I constantly daydream about living off of the grid. My thoughts are filled with a hand built house on some acreage in the wilderness, solar power, a big garden and smokehouse full of fish and game living free of the annoyances of modern life. "Mother Earth News" has replaced "Playboy" in terms of my fantasy reading as I eagerly read articles about really cool projects like building alcohol fuel stills.

Reality, usually in the form of a conversation with my wife, soon comes crashing back in and dispels these visions of grandeur. I did, however, take a recent small step towards self sufficiency by planting a deck garden. Whether or not this venture yields anything worth eating remains to be seen, but we have been happy to see the seeds sprout and the plants starting to grow above the top edge of the planters.

For around $ 10 bucks worth of seeds, we planted lettuce, spinach and a good assortment of herbs (cilantro, dill, chives, parsley and basil- I suggested another more profitable herb but was met with an icy stare of disapproval from my spouse.) I built the planters out of cedar boards and bolted them to the deck rail which proved prudent after a couple of severe storms roared through our area. I drilled holes in the planter bottoms for drainage and we filled them with a layer of rocks at the bottom to also help the roots from getting waterlogged. The three planters are all 4' long and cost about $ 40 total to build.

Update- Our deck garden was very successful and the amount of food we produced was far beyond my expectations. For about $ 10 worth of seeds we had multiple harvests of herbs including parsley, cilantro, basil and chives. We started our tomato and pepper plants here and then transplanted them to my in laws garden- the production we received was incredible. We processed most of the tomatoes into sauce and salsa and now have every square inch of our freezer filled with containers.

The peppers turned out great as well, although very hot. The lettuce and spinach did not do well at all and we will probably not plant them again next year. I think the problem was in the depth of the planters on the deck and the weather in the spring was too warm for them to get going properly. We were able to use produce from the garden in just about every dinner over the summer and it has saved us a great deal of money. For next year, I am working on getting back up to speed on canning and looking into building a rain retention and diversion system for our back deck. Using diverted rain water not only makes environmental sense, it makes economic sense as well.

19 September 2010

Memory Road Week

This week I will be heading 20 hours north of my current location to do some work on my family's house in Northern Maine. Rather than let a week go by without anything for you to look at, I'll be re-posting some of my past articles along with updates to the stories. I hope you enjoy them and have a peaceful and prosperous week.

17 September 2010

Taking the Hot Dog

During the great famine in Ireland, there arose the saying "Taking the Soup" to describe Catholics who denied their faith and became Protestants in order to get something to eat. I'm not sure that this is 100% historically accurate, and it could just be an apocryphal story, but I guess it could make sense given the situation- faced with starvation, and even worse the starvation of our children, who wouldn't sign up with the team that was giving away free food ? A few days ago, we awoke to a very colorful door hanger on our front door knob offering a free hot dog if we attended a local church fair.

Maybe there really isn't anything new under the sun.

Two things in life make me very nervous- clowns and proselytizing. Maybe I was approached by a proselytizing clown on the playground as a youngster, who's to say. I became a Buddhist as essentially an unrestricted free agent- I found a faith that dovetailed nicely with my own view of the world and where I want to end up. Nobody approached me, harangued me or dragged me to the Sangha kicking and screaming. I merely did my own years of research and made the decision on my own. My Buddhist beliefs are intensely personal and I feel that I greatly benefit from them in my life. That being said, I would never, and have never, approached a friend, family member or stranger and told them I had this great conversion that they needed to try as well. Just as importantly, I have retained a deep respect for other faiths and those that follow them- nobody has all of the answers and the only thing I know for sure is the limits of my own ignorance.

I've had my share of experience with front door religious recruiters over the years- earnest, well scrubbed Mormons, serious looking Jehovah's Witnesses and just plain old good folks out trying to get new members for the local church. Anyone coming to my front door is treated with respect, an invitation to have a cup of coffee (or juice for the LDS guys) and I'm happy to hear them out and take their literature. After a few minutes they realize they are dealing with a born again Buddhist who is asking too many obscure questions, they glance at their watches and head for the door. One gentleman pointed out that I was going to Hell unless I converted to his faith, right then on the spot. I genuinely admired they guy for his ability to get right to the point and thanked him for stopping by.

What has always confused me about religions that come to your front door is based on this simple argument that I always fall back on- "If your faith is so strong, so all encompassing and all knowing that I should switch my beliefs, why do you need to go door to door in order to spread it ? Shouldn't it be self evident ? Why are you out on the street effectively selling your faith ? If your particular brand of faith is so strong, the people must be pouring through the doors on Sunday morning, right ?" For the missionaries, I know there is the component of trying to save my soul in order to justify their actions. My soul is just fine where it is, thanks. "How's yours ?" It is very rare to have one of these people actually engage in a two sided conversation and it becomes apparent that they are merely rattling off a script that they are trying to follow. They aren't making the rounds because they are interested in intellectual discourse- they are on a mission and if you're asking too many questions, you're just slowing things down.

These conversations usually end with polite goodbyes and a hand shake. I actually read whatever literature is left, because I'm always interested in different faiths and views of the world. Who knows, maybe someday I'll switch faiths again. Come to think of it I'm getting where's that flyer ?

16 September 2010

Afghanistan's Buddhist History

An interesting article from the Wall Street Journal about an attempt to rescue an important Buddhist archaeological site in Afghanistan.


Howard Stern vs. Sirius

I have enjoyed listening to Howard Stern for many years on terrestrial and satellite radio. For me, the Stern Show is a guilty pleasure like Scotch Whisky- something I enjoy but am not really sure is good for me. While many people dismiss Stern as nothing more than a foul-mouthed boor, you start to realize over time what a genius the guy is when you listen to him every morning (or it just might be a media version of the Stockholm Syndrome.) Putting aside the locker room humor, fart jokes, midgets and strippers for a moment, I truly believe that Stern conducts the best interviews in media- period. He has an uncanny ability to disarm and get more out of his guests than any other show host on radio or television. Throw in his dysfunctional cast of characters and you have a mix of entertainment that I happily pay for with my Sirius subscription.

Over the past few weeks, Stern has begun the rumblings that many of us heard before his switch to satellite radio. His 5 year deal with Sirius ends in January 2011 and he has made it pretty clear that he isn't enjoying the treatment he has received of late in terms of negotiating a new deal. Stern has an enormous ego, and a loyal legion of fans, and has only half jokingly proposed that Sirius change its name to Stern. He has made dark hints about taking his show elsewhere by leveraging the new technologies that have emerged over the past few years. These technologies effectively eliminate the middle man (i.e. Sirius) between the provider of content (Stern) and the consumers of that content (his audience.) If I owned shares in Sirius, I would be seriously be preparing to sell my position- fast.

Sirius stock has been dead money for years. Despite the merger with XM, and the rapid increase in subscriptions (due to Stern and free trials of the service in new vehicles) the company has yet to post a profit. When Stern joined the company in 2006, revenues for the year were $ 637 million. By 2009, revenues had increased to $ 2.47 billion- and the company still managed to post a net loss of $ 343 million. Still, for some reason hope still springs eternal. S&P put out a "Buy" rating on the shares on September 11th, 2010 while citing "uncertainties with Howard Stern's contract negotiations" as a potential risk to the shares. I think a better sentence would have read- "Howard Stern has Sirius by the short and curlies- and he knows it. If he leaves, this boat sinks."

To put it simply, Sirius needs Stern far more than Stern needs Sirius. In a matter of a few weeks, Stern could simply build an alternate location for his show to broadcast from and distribute the content via live internet streams, podcasts, pay per view and whatever else becomes available over the coming years. Instead of needing the massive capital investment that Sirius had to make in terms of satellites and equipment, he could probably be up and running on a relative shoestring. His fans, including myself, would happily pay $ 5 or $ 10 bucks a month for this type of content and Stern could probably do something in 30 days that Sirius never could- earn a profit.

New technologies are killing the old dogs of media and although satellite radio seems like the future, it could just be another victim on the list that includes newspapers, radio stations and magazines. All of these sources were merely the vehicles through which media content flowed- now that the channels for this information have become quicker, better and more personalized, the big dinosaurs of yesterday are essentially doomed. Consumers are becoming more discerning and demanding content that is customized to them, not the other way around. Why would I put myself through 30 minutes of Katie Couric, including commercials, when I can get my news on my I phone from the sources that I like and trust ? For me, Couric's inane babbling is content that has no value to me- I wouldn't even take it if it was free. Other people might pay for it, who knows ? The new media will ruthlessly expose companies and individuals that have rested on their laurels and reputations for far too long.

15 September 2010

Book Review- "UFOs Generals, Pilots and Government Officials go on the Record" by Leslie Kean

I've had a strong interest in the subject of UFO's (more recently coined "UAPs"- Unexplained Aerial Phenomena") for many years and recently read an excellent book which is the subject of this article. Unlike many books and television programs on the subject, Kean's work is scholarly, well researched and contains a series of pieces written by men and women who have held very high positions of authority in military and civilian agencies around the world. The consensus of these opinions is that UAPs are real and operate with technology that is far beyond anything we have developed.

As I'm writing this, I can see my reader's collective eyeballs rolling skyward in skepticism but please stick with me for a moment. For individuals that have some done some reading on the UAP phenomena, many of the cases presented here are familiar- the silent black triangles reported by thousands of Belgians in the 1980's, the dogfight between an Iranian fighter and UAP over Tehran, Rendlesham Forest, the Japanese cargo plane over Alaska etc. What makes this book different is that the author has the format in which to expound on these stories, interview witnesses and present a very compelling case vs. trying to compress and cram the same information into a television documentary.

Of all of the accounts in the book, my favorite is that of wave of sightings in Belgium as recounted by Major General Wilfried De Brouwer of the Belgian Air Force. At the time of the sightings in late 1989, De Brouwer was a Colonel acting as chief of the Operations Division of the Air Staff of the Belgian Air Force. De Brouwer explains in this part of the book how thousands of Belgians, including significant numbers of police and military personnel, reported large, silent black triangles floating over the countryside. Some of this UAPs were photographed (analysis is included in the book) and triggered the scrambling of Belgian F-16's in pursuit which proved fruitless against the performance of these strange vehicles. For the Belgians, members of the NATO Alliance, these sightings were very distressing- large aerial vehicles were moving in their air space without authority and with impunity. De Brouwer made inquiries with NATO allies, including the U.S., and was assured both officially (and privately) that they were not new technologies being tested over Belgium.

I really enjoyed this book because it doesn't stretch out into the rampant speculation that usually surrounds the subject. It doesn't attempt to answer who is driving these things, where they are from or what their intentions are- despite the thousands of books on the subject of dubious quality that claim to know what's really going on. Rather, it focuses on hard data- aerial and ground radar returns, pilot reports, government studies and briefings and observations made by police, governmental and military reports either published or obtained through the FOIA. Kean provides nearly 300 end notes to reference the materials and interviews she sifted through to build her case.

Later in the book, Kean demonstrates how the U.S. government position on the subject has been markedly different from those of other nations. Unlike the French, who released the recent COMETA report, and English, who released their MOD studies on the subject, the U.S. has taken the familiar tack of denying everything and adding ridicule to those that bring up the subject- a strategy implemented decades ago. If you have seen a news report on your local station it usually includes a smiling reporter and the X-Files theme playing in the background. Kean's straightforward writing, and the quality of the material she works with, effectively demolishes the argument that any of these sightings can be laughed off. With her background as a journalist, and backing of her major publisher (a division of Random House) this book has already made a significant splash on the UAP subject.

Whether a skeptic, believer or solidly on the fence (like me) this is an excellent book that I highly recommend. I rate it a solid 8 out of 10. Regardless of your position on the subject, I am confident that you will find the book eye-opening and thought provoking. Along the same lines of solid research, I also highly recommend the James Fox documentaries, which Kean assisted with- "Out of the Blue" and "I Know What I Saw" both available on DVD.

The book's website.
Available on Amazon.

14 September 2010

The Little Grape of Wrath

I started getting a sore throat over the weekend but it didn't seem like a big deal. The kids are back at school and have been fighting colds with their classmates, and I thought it would just run its course and go away. Yesterday at work, I noticed that I seemed to be breaking out in cold sweats, chills and was having trouble swallowing- on top of that I was short of breath. I work at a job that keeps me moving on my feet all day long, so the shortness of breath was the thing that started to worry me. Not wanting to take any chances with what I thought was strep throat, or even worse the big heart attack I keep warning the kids they are pushing me towards, I decided it was time to go to the local Med Express.

I don't know if you have these types of establishments where you live but I think they are the greatest invention since canned beer and sliced bread. Instead of calling your regular physician, and hoping they can squeeze you in the during the next 8 to 12 months, you simply walk in these places, tell them what's wrong and get seen in a matter of minutes. My doctor is a great guy who I really like but I limit my visits to him to stuff like routine physicals- I have no doubt I could call him with a collapsed lung, or partially amputated arm, and his receptionist would ask if I could hold off coming in until 2011.

Like most incidents of adversity, whether great or small like this one, I even had a brief moment to quietly meditate on some Buddhist mindfulness. In this case, because the reception area was extremely busy and noisy, I simply closed my eyes for a minute and reflected on how fortunate I was to have access to excellent medical care when compared to the vast majority of souls on this planet. No matter what the problem was, I was confident I would be quickly patched up and back out the door.

The doctor took a look in my mouth, said something like "hmmmm", took another look and furrowed her brow. "Have you had any trouble breathing ?," yes I replied, "well typically you would want to go the ER at the hospital for something like this." It seems I had a raging case of Uvulitis (the Uvula is the little thingy that hangs from the roof your mouth at the entrance to your throat and means "little grape" at least according to Wikipedia) and it was so swollen it was partially blocking my ability to breath and swallow- which would account for me drooling all over my shirt at lunch. So, I got a shot of steroids in the butt to take down the swelling, some more oral antibiotics and steroids and was sent home with strict orders to go to the hospital if I couldn't breath- sarcasm obviously not being part of the medical school curriculum I just kept my reply to myself and headed for the door.

13 September 2010

Old Airplanes Never Die

I took this picture over the weekend at the Pittsburgh Air Show. This is a C-47 transport, the second oldest of its type that is still flying. What makes this aircraft so special in historical terms is that it actually dropped elements of the 82nd Airborne on St. Mere Eglise, France in the early morning hours of June 6th, 1944. D-Day.

I stood by the aircraft while my wife and kids were inside a KC-135 tanker that was on display so I had a few moments to reflect on the reaction of the crowds as they walked by. More than a few kids tugged on their mom and dad's sleeves as they spotted the cooler, more modern F-16's, F-18's and a myriad of other sleek jets that stood by. Some asked their parents what the plane was, but they were at a loss for words- some old thing they muttered as they walked past. What a shame. As far as examples of living history go, nothing among the 50 or so aircraft parked on the ramp even came close.

After their tanker tour, I grabbed the boys and walked them to the C-47. "THIS" I said jabbing my finger in its direction "is the most important airplane on this entire airfield." We were able to go inside the aircraft, through the jump door on the left, and I explained how 55 odd years ago, a group of very brave men strapped parachutes, equipment, weapons and a myriad of other gear to themselves, flew across the English Channel and parachuted into the darkness of the early morning of June 6th, 1944. Standing in the back of the plane, so small and cramped compared to the relative luxury of the C-130's and C-141's that I parachuted out of, I was nearly overcome with emotion. Small groups of young men, who had barely begun to live, volunteered to hurl themselves out of aircraft over enemy occupied ground to defeat Fascism and destroy the worst evil that the world has ever know. Knowing the fate of many of the young paratroopers who jumped over St. Mere Eglise only made it more emotional- some were hung up on electrical and telegraph poles only to be shot by the Germans, one famously on town's church steeple who watched the battle unfold beneath his feet.

I daydreamed for a moment, and imagined the night before after the first day of the air show. I thought of all of the other aircraft, circled around the C-47 as it creaked and turned, sat on its tail and said to a bunch of wide eyed, youthful jets- "You know the difference between a fairy tale and a war story ? The fairy tale starts off with 'Once Upon a Time.' A war story starts with 'This is No Shit."

12 September 2010

A Great Bird App

I'm an amateur bird watcher- not too obsessive beyond my time in the woods and watching birds at our feeders. The Peterson Guide to Backyard Birds is a nice, cheap (inexpensive) app that I started using on my I phone. For $ 2.99 you get a lot of stuff. It has some great pictures of birds for identification, samples of sounds from the various species, and a checklist (based on different regions of the U.S.) to mark off the birds and dates on which you spotted them. For times when you are out of the woods there is also a nice quiz function which tests your ability to identify different species by sight and sounds. During a hike last weekend, my wife and I were treated to an old growth oak forest that was absolutely saturated by Pileated Woodpeckers which I have to rank as my all time favorite bird.

10 September 2010

Burn Baby Burn

An article from the Guardian regarding the role of social media and the internet in propelling the aspirations of a Florida based preacher to burn a copy of the Koran. I heard a similar discussion regarding this issue on the BBC this morning and the general consensus is that the internet for better, or worse, has given nut cases such as Pastor Terry Jones a global audience for extreme positions such as his. Contrast, for a moment, what would have happened if Mr. Jones had made his thoughts known in 1970, or even 1980. The story might have picked up some local media attention, perhaps a wire story on the AP, but it could never have flashed around the globe in a matter of seconds as happened now. Since internet access, mobile phone availability etc. have increased, technology has ensured that an equal number of nutcases holding exact opposite positions as Mr. Jones were able to get the news at nearly the speed of light.

The predictable result of this story has been an escalation of Muslims now threatening to burn bibles, more Christians threatening to burn Korans and everyone threatening to burn a few Jews (just kidding, at least for now.) The mixture of religious extremism, hair trigger emotions and the technology to deliver hate in nanoseconds has suddenly shrunk the world from a very big place to a nasty, crowded, little one full of tribal and sectarian violence. You could argue that the internet, instead of a tool of enlightenment and education, will help the human race rush to extinction at a much faster rate than would have been expected.

On a side note, who cares if a Koran, Bible or Torah is burned ? Can't the world's great religions survive such barbarism ? Do these people really think that God, whom they believe to be the creator of ourselves and our universe, is somehow upset that one of his favorite primates decided to burn a book ? The absolutely unhinged response to the burning of symbols, whether they be flags or religious tomes, is to me a sign of deep insecurity, not of strength in one's beliefs.

"A ha, you say, what would you do if someone burned a pile of Buddhist books in front of you ?"

I would just shrug and thank the torch bearer for demonstrating the cornerstone of my beliefs-

Everything is impermanent and all things must pass.

09 September 2010

Let's Go Saints !

This evening, the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings play the opener for the NFL season. It will be a replay of last year's NFC Championship and will feature two of the marquis quarterbacks in the game, Drew Brees and Brett Favre. More importantly, it will mark the day where my 43 year allegiance to the Pittsburgh Steelers ends, and I set off in support of a new team. As some of my long time readers know, I made my feelings known about Ben Roethlisberger's off field antics last year and my disgust for him, the Steeler's ownership and organization. My wife joined me in this boycott of our hometown team, as have many others, and we settled on the Saints as our new adopted team. We may come back to the Steelers someday, but as long as Roethlisberger is on the team, it ain't gonna happen.

For the first time in many, many years I will not spend many of my Sunday afternoons, and a couple of Monday and Thursday evenings, sitting in Heinz Field. No more tailgating with friends before the game (and after,) enjoying the incredible atmosphere on a sunny afternoon, or snowy winter night. Nope, I'm going to be in my living room watching the Saints. As a born and bred Pittsburgher it was pre-ordained that I would be a Steelers fan, but they have broken the faith and showed their true colors over the past year. It's difficult for fans from other cities to understand how deeply the Steelers are ingrained in this city, how much we are tied to this team. It is therefore even more difficult how strange I feel in knowing that I won't be watching the Steelers this year and could frankly care less if they lose every single game. My buddies were shocked by my decision- probably like a Jewish kid telling his parents he wanted to be a priest- but they mumbled that they understood and hoped I would come to my senses.

Out with the pierogies and kielbassa, in the with the po' boys and crawfish. Let's Go Saints !

03 September 2010

Them's Fightin' Words Son

In an interesting side note to the ongoing Iranian nuclear drama, France has warned Iran to quit making disparaging remarks about the wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. No, this isn't from The Onion- you can read more about it here. The diplomatic row was apparently sparked by the world's foxiest First Lady, Carla Bruni, who voiced her opinion on the death sentence by stoning of Sakineh Ashtiani. The Iranian newspaper Kayhan called Ms. Bruni a prostitute who deserved to die.


I don't think it's very nice to call a man's wife a whore- I especially don't think its' very bright when that man is President of a nuclear armed power (no, not like the Iranians building one out of "Nuclear Weapons for Dummies"- the real stuff.) Say what you will about the French, they are the only people probably as bat shit crazy as the Iranians when it comes to affronts to personal honor.

This sorry episode just screams with story lines- the beautiful wife of the French President who has, let's be honest, a bit of a past vs. a bunch of sexually repressed mullahs in Iran living somewhere back in the 1100's. She is the the Euro uber MILF and they despise her for it and everything she stands for. As a strong, independent woman she threatens them to their very core. The fact that she is beautiful just adds insult to injury- they hate what they can never have. Okay, perhaps I'm getting too Freudian here.

Forget Sarkozy, Carla might just bitch slap Ahmadinejad on her own.

02 September 2010

Going to the Dogs

I want to get a dog. I grew up with dogs, love dogs and feel that a dog would be a great addition to our family unit- after all, every little boy should have a dog, right ? Despite my best arguments, pleadings, whining and general bitching, my wife has shot down the subject each time that I have brought it up. She’s not a dog girl, she’s a cat girl as evidenced by the three freeloading felines that lounge around our house (okay, to be honest one of them was mine before we were married but at least he catches the occasional rodent.) I can see some of you rolling your eyes right now. Just be a man and go buy one, right ? I actually thought that plan through a couple of times but kept coming back to visions of me and my new pooch sleeping in a tent in the woods behind my house. Besides, it needs to be a family decision since a dog is a big commitment in terms of time, exercise, vet bills and everything else that comes with owning a pet. So, I was resigned to daydreaming about one day, someday far in the future, taking my imaginary dog for a walk in the woods.

Unfortunately, something happened to make my case.

We live in a quiet suburban neighborhood where nothing much ever happens, at least until a week or so ago. Neighbors of ours had their home broken into in the middle of the night by a gang of four- two broke in, two were waiting in the car. The scariest thing about the incident was that the family was sleeping in the home at the time. The intruders, apparently driven by drug addiction, were caught by the police after the owners woke up and phoned the police. Fortunately, nobody got hurt but the incident shook us to the core. It also reminded me that a few weeks before, being a very light sleeper, I had awakened at around 3 AM to the sound of a car slowly cruising our neighborhood.

Suddenly, my wife seemed a little more interested in the whole dog idea. I have two weapons in the house. I keep a loaded magazine in a drawer by our bed and one of the rifles (an AR-15 carbine) under the bed in a locked case. I have no doubt that I can quickly load the weapon and shoot an intruder (or intruders) inside of my house- the mechanics of it are muscle memory, the result of training and practice. The question of whether or not I could actually shoot somebody, however, is a big one for me. The Karma risks of killing another human being are just too great for me to discount and the potential risk to my family are also worrying- a 5.56 mm round could easily penetrate our home’s walls and endanger everyone else involved. I suppose one of our cats could serve some defensive purpose but that would involve throwing them at an intruder and they aren’t very aerodynamic.

So, we are back to the dog. I have settled on either a German Shepherd or Shiloh Shepherd (an American variant of the German Shepherd.) Big, strong, alert and loyal seems to be made to order for our requirements of a good family pet that is also loud and imposing enough to scare off the occasional crack or meth addled intruder. A curious thing I have noticed while looking at different breeders has been the requirement for filling out applications to buy the dogs, giving references etc. These are steps I never had to take in having a son, yet dog breeders seem hell-bent on examining every aspect of your life to see if you are qualified to buy one of their dogs. In the old days, it was look in the newspaper, drive to the local farm and drive home with your new puppy. I suppose it is for the best. The breeders want to make sure their “children” are brought up in good homes. If only humans were so careful.

01 September 2010

Tony Blair- Man of Action

In other news today, Tony Blair, former English Prime Minister, admitted to OCWI (Operating a Country While Intoxicated) and also called for attacking Iran if it developed nuclear weapons. I'll leave it to you to draw your own connections between the two stories.

Iran & Musings on Insanity

I like to listen to Podcasts during work and have recently been enjoying Dan Carlin's "Hardcore History" and "Common Sense" programs. Both shows benefit from Carlin's rapid and sharp delivery and I especially enjoy how he pillories politicians from both parties equally. On a recent show he made an observation that nicely fit some of my own thinking lately, namely that if the U.S. attacks Iran we will have a final, and very clear, indication that the leadership of this country is insane.

Turn on Sean Hannity on any given night and I can almost guarantee that a reference to stopping Iran's nuclear ambitions will come up. It isn't only the right wing that is beating the war drums- our dear leader, President Obama, has also (sort of) reversed his earlier statements on a nuclear armed Iran in 2009 (he hinted that it might be acceptable) to those he made in 2010 (he hinted that it might not be acceptable.) With a full on drubbing of the Democratic party on tap for the fall midterm elections, the possibility grows that the President just might move forward militarily to shore up his own dismal approval ratings.

War with Iran would be an entirely different animal than war in Iraq and Afghanistan. First of all, Iran is a large country- at nearly 640,000 square miles in area it is larger than Iraq and Afghanistan combined. In fact, if you combined those two countries you could also add in France (actually, not a bad idea when you think about it) and Iran would still be larger. It is one of the 20 largest countries in the world and with 68,000,000 people is also one of the 20 most populous. The scale of the country makes it far more difficult in terms of targeting, and hitting, what is probably a very long list of military, communications and other infrastructure targets. It also makes it easier for the potential target of all of these massive air strikes, the Iranian military and government, to find places to hide and ride out the attacks.

Let's back up a second. Why exactly would we attack Iran in the first place ? Supposedly, the threat of a nuclear armed Iran is so frightening to Washington that it would justify a very nasty war that would produce far more casualties than anything we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. I can somewhat see the Israelis point of view- as a much smaller nation, diametrically opposed to the Iranian regime, a group of nuclear armed mullahs in the neighborhood is probably somewhat unsettling. But what strategic threat would a nuclear armed Iran pose to the U.S. ? If we are so worried about unstable regimes having nuclear weapons when are we going to bomb Pakistan ? How about next week ? Pakistan has the weapons in their bunkers, a massive humanitarian crisis from recent flooding and an intelligence agency that has actively worked against our efforts in Afghanistan. Throw in a big dash of unemployed young men living in poverty, whipped into a frenzy by religious zealotry, and you may start wondering why they don't start reworking the targeting maps.

As I have argued in previous posts, I say the best thing to do to the Iranians is let them have the bomb. Let them realize how utterly useless it is to throw billions of dollars down the drain to develop and deploy one of these expensive paperweights. The Iranians will quickly learn that MAD isn't just a magazine and that any use of nuclear weapons would result in their country being blasted back into the stone age. I don't agree, either, that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be in some great rush to use the bomb once he got it in his hands. Like all despots I would imagine that he knows its better to be a living despot than a dead one.

A war in Iran would quickly escalate into something far beyond what we have experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan. Any strike on Iran would result in their Hezbollah proxies attacking Israel from Lebanon- which would result in Israel invading Lebanon while fighting the Iranians, which could draw in the Syrians, which could draw in the Russians, which could...well, you get the picture. The U.S. military has been stretched by fighting two wars and the prospect of the even crazier North Koreans threatening to start something with their neighbors to the south. You want a nightmare scenario ? Imagine the U.S. fighting the Iranians, cleaning up in Iraq, fighting in Afghanistan and the North Koreans suddenly deciding that it would be a great time to take advantage of the situation.

The U.S. is in the midst of one of the worst recessions in its history, the Federal debt has ballooned to unimaginable levels and I believe that the real unemployment rate lies a few dozen or so points north of what the government claims. Fighting an unecessary war, killing more of our best and brightist and inflicting violence against a population that is young and actually quite pro-American is insane. Better to let history run its course and hope that another series of uprisings similar (and larger) to those in 2009 topple and consign Ahmadinejad and his fellow religious nutcases to the ash heap of history where they belong.

19 August 2010

Send in the Clowns

The recent debate over the proposed mosque/cultural center near Ground Zero in New York City has made me even more pessimistic about the future of this country- if that's possible. My anger over the issue has nothing to do with the proposed plans but rather with the political circus that we have been subjected to.

After seeing President Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich babbling all weekend on television I'm seriously confused how a country of over 250 million people can claim that our best and brightest are our leaders. Seriously, we are not talking about the varsity here. Americans are some of the brightest, hardest working, inventive people on this planet yet our elected leadership would be hard pressed to run the midnight shift at a Waffle House if they actually had to work for a living.

The arguments for and against the proposed building are not easily defined by party lines. Rather, like most things in politics they are based upon political survival and opportunism. President Obama did his usual routine of coming out with a statement (in support) and then back-pedaling in follow up statements to further define what he thought the public actually wants to hear. Harry Reid, who as a Mormon should know a little bit about religious bigotry, came out against the plan because he is in a dogfight for his job in the upcoming elections. Nancy Pelosi, never missing the opportunity to get her mug on television, is of course calling for investigations. On the right wing, like two vampires that just won't go away, we are treated to Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich jabbering away with their usual jingoistic garbage.

Newt Gingrich ? Is this the best that the Republicans can dredge up ? Sorry, but the guy turns my stomach. The same guy that had an affair while married to his first wife, dumped her and married the mistress, then had another affair, dumped the ex-mistress turned wife and married the mistress (I think I have that right, either way its giving me a headache.) At the same time he was running around with his pants around his ankles he was leading the impeachment charge against fellow reprobate Bill Clinton. Like the masochist that I am I often listen to Sean Hannity on the way home from work. Gingrich is a frequent target of Hannity's ass smooching as he refers to him as "Mr. Speaker" and hangs on his every word as he discusses his latest worthless book. Now that he is on satellite radio, I wouldn't be surprised if actual on air fellatio is in the offing.

The November elections are not going to change the course of this country. The expected landslide will only replace a bunch of worthless Democrats with a bunch of worthless Republicans. Real change would involve frog marching both houses of congress to Lafayette Square, pelting them with rotten garbage and then running them out of town with bayonets. Next, randomly replace every member of Congress with citizens chosen by lottery. Silly you say ? Many attorneys I know marvel at the conscientious service given by juries comprised of every facet of our society which are chosen in exactly the same manner. I seriously doubt they could do any worse.

18 August 2010

First Visit- Consol Energy Arena

During an open house for season ticket holders, my son and I visited Pittsburgh's brand new arena over the weekend.

Our view from section 116 is at the left. Stop by and I'll buy you a beer. The odd bend in the glass is actually one of the new side entrances for the Zamboni and would be closed during a game. I hope.

The place is impressive to say the least. I'm no architect but I appreciated the way they nestled the massive structure into a relatively small parcel of land in downtown Pittsburgh- part of one side is curved to make way for the grand old structure of Epiphany Catholic Church and the arena uses the elevation change from front to back with a system of glass walls and escalators to highlight the view of the city.

Once inside, I was struck by the "new arena smell"- sort of like buying a new car. No old Igloo funk of stale beer and popcorn here, at least not yet. I made a point of trying out the new bathrooms and was amazed to see actual urinals instead of the old troughs that consumed millions of gallons of processed brew during hockey season. On a safety note, I was glad to see the wide open concourses, stairs and escalators that should make exiting a game a whole lot less exciting with 15,000 of your closest friends. While coming and going, the Penguins preserved the neat touch of hanging local high school hockey team's jerseys on the wall and added local amateur teams as well. There is also lots of interactive displays for the kids and touch screen displays that highlight Penguin players of the past- if they are still working in a year, I'll be amazed.

The ice surface looked great, as would be expected, and I marvelled at the completely clear Plexiglas and unmarred dasher boards. As usual, the Penguins organization went out of their way to make everyone feel appreciated and had all of the concession stands open. My son and I spent an hour in our new seats eating hot dogs and marvelling at the place. He even managed some time on the new jumbo tron (or whatever they call them these days) as the camera man happily obliged him hamming it up for the relatively sparse crowd (the open house lasted 8 hours- we, of course, were waiting in line when it opened.) Thankfully, he agreed after much protesting that morning that he wouldn't wear his Montreal jersey.

Let's see what can I say negative about the place...

Well, I have to admit I'm a bit peeved at the "yuppie creep" that seems to have infected the NHL, and other sports. I realize that the Penguins are a business that needs to earn money and therefore catering to the yuppie crowd makes economic sense. Still, the special club seating and gourmet food offerings kind of make me shake my head. I also firmly believe that the yuppie fan, the highly paid young executive sitting in the stands with his shirt and tie still on for work (and Penguins jersey over top, which by the way looks completely gay) is not the kind of fan base you want. They are the first ones to abandon ship when the team hits an invariable downturn and starts to lose. Once the "coolness" wears off for the new arena, and the Penguins hit a slump, he will be off to find a better place to be seen.

"A-ha !" You exclaim, "you must be a rich bastard to be sitting so close to the ice." Actually, I'm not. My budget priorities are a bit difficult to understand, but in the midst of my business failing and a mortgage foreclosure a few years back, I made sure that my season ticket payment went in first. Thankfully, my otherwise sane and well grounded wife grew up with a family that had season tickets since the early 70's so she understands the immense hole we put ourselves into on an annual basis in order to afford this luxury. Call it bread and circuses if you must, but I never get tired of going to a game, drinking a beer (or three) and watching some hockey.

As an Anarchist I should rail against the use of tax revenues to build this barn but my view is that it is money well spent. Unlike most tax revenues which are wasted on worthless projects (and worthless bureaucrats) the new arena will be an asset to the city that millions of people will use over the next 50 to 75 years- hockey fans, concerts and shows, conventions etc. The money that built the arena was paid to local workers and craftsmen who built it, and the arena will help to keep Pittsburgh from sliding to even great irrelevance on the national and international scene.

17 August 2010

Welcome Back my Friends to the Blog that Never Ends

After some time off enjoying the summer, travelling with family and immersing myself in the Digha Nikaya (The Long Discourses of the Buddha,) I decided it was time to get back to blogging. I read an article about the millions of blogs that came out charging at the outset and slowly petered out over time and will forever inhabit cyberspace in sort of a suspended animation. I didn't want my blog to end like that.

I have to admit that when I posted my last story in June about my friends in the state revenue office calling to visit, I was feeling very burned out and discouraged. How do you fight the state when nobody really cares ? Well, some of you did care and I appreciate the comments and emails that I have received in support. As long as one person will stand by me, I will continue to try to expose the fascist bully boys (and girls) for what they are- intellectually lazy and morally shiftless cogs of the state.

Also, I'm going to take a whack at actually being a journalist. I have a couple of articles in mind about current events that will incorporate interviews from experts in their fields. Imagine that, a blog with original content ! Hopefully you will continue to stop by and tell your friends about our discussions here. In the meantime, on with the show.

Building the Prisons to House Ourselves

After reading a recent article in The Economist about the high rate of imprisonment in the U.S., I looked up an essay written by a Federal judge that was referenced in the article. In the essay entitled "You're (Probably) a Federal Criminal," Judge Alex Kozinski confirmed something that I have suspected for many years- an unholy alliance of out of control politicians, judges and a populace screaming of justice has created a vast labyrinth of Federal regulations that many of us probably break on a regular basis without even realizing it. The maze of Federal regulations is so dense and vast that a team of researchers from the Congressional Research Service gave up trying to count the number of separate offences currently on the books.

Federal regulations permeate everything we do in the modern world- the materials in our homes and cars, the paints, soaps and solvents we use, the food we eat, our ATM cards and bank accounts, our jobs and businesses etc. Like an immense fishing net, it is a fair bet that at some point you broke a Federal statute that could have landed you in the big house. While it is unlikely that you would ever be prosecuted for these transgressions, the real danger is when they effectively pile on one of our fellow citizens. In one of his examples from his essay, Kozinski notes how businessmen bringing lobsters into the U.S. using the incorrect type of shipping containers, soon found themselves in deeper trouble as money laundering charges were tacked on (they put the money in the bank, thus triggering Federal banking laws.)Any minor Federal violation, coupled with banking or mail fraud, can quickly escalate into serious prison time.

Who do we blame for this mess ? I'm afraid its every one's fault- left and right, Democrat and Republican, conservative and liberal. I suppose Anarchists can't be blamed since we have been calling the system rubbish for many years, but I digress. Right wing politicians and judges who want to appear tough on crime have caved into their constituencies by increasing penalties, adopting three strikes regulations and calling for ever greater regulation. On the left, the environmental movement (among others) realized some time ago that they could make their policies much more effective by adding the threat of the Federal stick to their carrot. The net result is a massive Federal bureaucracy built to support Leviathan- clerks, agents, judges and staff, field investigators etc. that are wholly dependent upon the system staying just the way it is.

Next time you hear a politician ranting about how they are going to make you safer by stiffening penalties, or environmentalists calling for oil company executives to be thrown in the slammer, ask yourself how punishing others effectively chips away at your own freedoms. I fear that it will be too late when we realize that building more prisons to house "them" was effectively done to house "us."

13 June 2010

The Empire Strikes Back

"Cue Scary Darth Vader Music"

I apologize to my readers for not being around last week but I was pre-occupied with another matter. Last Sunday, my wife, our children and I returned from a long weekend in Toronto. The trip to Toronto was a lot of fun and coincided with my son playing in his final hockey tournament of the year (thank goodness.) We had a great time visiting some of the landmarks of that immense city and enjoyed watching the high level of competition that the Canadian teams my son played against provided. A side trip to Niagara Falls was wonderful, as always, and I must admit that I never get tired of seeing the power and majesty of that incredible natural wonder.

Then we arrived home.

I was going through our mail when a business card fell out of the pile. I picked it up and was shocked to see that it was from an agent of the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue. "What the fu..." I muttered and put it in my pocket. There was no note, no letter, nothing written on the back of the card. The message was clear- we were here and we were looking for you.

Since it was Sunday night, the stress was heightened considerably. I couldn't call them to see what was going on since no self respecting state bureaucrat would be working on a weekend. I slept fitfully that night and spent most of the morning from 3 AM on wide awake, wracking my brain to see what could possibly be the problem. I always file my taxes, always pay what is due. I may not like it, but I'm smart enough not to give these thugs reason to come after me.

First thing Monday morning, I emailed the agent and passed them the name of my tax attorney. Owning my own business, I have used the same tax attorney/CPA for years. I called my attorney and spoke to him about it. He was amazed that they would send somebody to my house since he knew as well (after all, he does my accounting) that all of my paperwork and payments were spotless. We didn't hear anything from the agent until Tuesday morning.

The state claimed that I had failed to file 3 years of corporate tax returns. No, my attorney said, my business is organized as an LLC and I filed that way correctly for the past 3 years. Yes it's basically bullshit admitted the state agent, but we need those 3 years of corporate returns anyways. So, my attorney drew up the forms, I signed them and $ 450.00 dollars of his expenses later, I am once again squared up with my friends in Harrisburg.

A couple of points to ponder. This was an infinitesimally small tax matter when compared to what the state is trying to collect from other businesses and individuals. Would such a small matter warrant sending an agent to my house or is there something deeper going on ? Has my vocal opposition to the Stalin like tactics of the Department of Revenue triggered this episode ? I'll leave it to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. If my writings were the impetus for this little episode of state intimidation, I feel totally justified in stating that my rights as a free citizen of this state and country have been violated. Sending an agent to your house is so much more invasive and intimidating than a certified letter or phone call- they are invading your space and the message is clear that they know where you live.

I didn't post for a week because I had an internal debate on whether this is even worth it. What's the point of trying to stick up for the downtrodden, the dispossessed and the victims of state tyranny when nobody seems to give a damn ? Why stick my own neck out and invite state retaliation when 99.99 % of the sheep inhabiting this state and country are more worried about the new I-Pad than the steady destruction of their civil liberties ?

I run Google Analytics to see where my readers come from in terms of city, state and country. I do it for no other reason than it is fun to see that I have readers in places as varied as Finland, Quebec and all over the United States. Interestingly, I get a great deal of activity from Pittsburgh which is where I live. Most of my friends and family don't know I have a blog which can't account for the steady readership that I get from the city. Maybe it's the local office that the revenue agent works out of. If so, I'd like to thank all of them for reading my blog on the public dime.

I guess I write this blog for people like you Mr. Revenue Agent so that maybe, someday, you will see the evil criminal organization that you need to investigate most isn't the one around the corner- its the one that signs your paychecks.

02 June 2010

How a truck restored my faith in America.

I drove down to a friend's ranch in Texas last week for a get together of former and current Army Rangers. I had a great time, as I always do around other Rangers, and enjoyed the camraderie, Texas barbeque, beer and lots of stories. At the end of the gathering, I followed a buddy who needed to drive an Army 2 1/2 ton truck (affectionately known to generations of soldiers as a "Deuce and a half") he had recently bought at government auction to Dallas. The purpose of getting to Dallas was to leave the truck with a company that would transport it to his home in the northeast. I was following him as a support vehicle in case he broke down (which was a definite possibility as the truck was nearly 40 years old) and because it didn't have a license plate etc.

We plotted a course on backroads to avoid highway patrols on the busy Memorial Day weekend and slowly worked our way north for the next nine or so hours. Taking the back roads always makes your journey slower, but much richer in terms of actually seeing the towns and people along the route. Since I had never really been around much of Texas, it was a real treat to see the change in elevation and terrain as we headed out from the flat and desert like south, through the hill country and up to Dallas.

About 30 minutes into our journey, we got our first wave. A big semi truck came roaring towards us in the opposite lane and the driver waved with a big smile on his face. A few minutes later, another car came towards us with the same result. Wow, I thought, people in Texas are sure friendly ! It then dawned on me- they weren't waving at our ugly mugs, they were waving at the truck. It was the first of literally hundreds of waves and smiles that we saw during the rest of our trip. Even the policemen we saw (which easily could have busted us for the truck not having brake lights, turn signals etc.) just laughed and waved as the beast rolled through their towns. The best part of the trip for me was when we passed a retirement home and a couple of elderly gentlemen absolutely beamed as the truck roared past. My guess was that they were veterans and the old truck stirred some memories of far away places and the time when they were young, strong and old age seemed impossibly far in the future.

Spending 9 hours in the car behind gave me plenty of time to think. How could a 40 year old truck built for war, bring so much pleasure to so many people ? Since it was Memorial Day they probably thought we were coming or going to a parade but I guess in our own way, it was a parade of one. I spoke to the owner about the truck and how many of these vehicles are just scrapped. I was really glad that he had bought it and was going to restore it to its former glory. The people weren't just waving at a truck, they were subconciously waving at the generations of soldiers that drove the truck and paying homage to their service and sacrfice. For veterans, I'm sure the truck stirred memories of war but also some of the good memories that they carried from their service- the lifelong friendships and brotherhood, the sense of honor, duty and loyalty to each other.

The truck triggered good memories for good people. Good, honest hard-working Americans that we passed just stopped in their tracks and smiled- toddlers, kids, grown men and the elderly. We passed everything from palatial multi-million dollar ranches to small shacks with a couple of goats and a cow in the front yard. They were all scraping out a living in an unhospitable climate through hard work and sacrifice. It just reinforced to me that it isn't the government that makes up this country, its the people like the ones that we passed.

After our journey, we dropped the truck off. I know it's just a piece of equipment, but I swore that it looked like it was smiling. Maybe it was just the 103 degree heat. Then again, maybe it really was.

26 May 2010

Rumors of War

A slightly optimistic piece from the BBC regarding the recent flare up on the Korean peninsula. Perhaps the analysis is correct and this is just another incident that both sides will use to adjust their diplomatic and military stance against each other. The relationship between North and South Korea is so dysfunctional (primarily due to the actions of the North) that it almost seems routine that the North can sink a South Korean vessel (and kill over 40 sailors) and only face economic consequences.

I don't think Kim Jong-Il wants war. Although the North could inflict horrible damage upon the South, including direct artillery bombardment of Seoul, any conflict with the South and its allies would result in the destruction of the existing regime. Yes, the U.S. is currently fighting wars all over the place but the combination of allied air superiority, logistics and technology would eventually wear down and decimate the North's vaunted million man army. I think we would also see a surprisingly quick internal overthrow of the regime by the disaffected populace and military units once things started heading the wrong way.

Other analysis I have read opines that Kim Jong-Il ordered the ship attack to firm up his leadership within the regime and help pave the way for the eventual succession of his son. Over the years, Kim Jong-Il has acted like a spoiled child, throwing temper tantrums in order to focus world attention on him and allow him to then negotiate concessions from the South and the U.S. This time, however, he may have finally overplayed his hand.