Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas 2009

We’ve been sending these Christmas letters now for at least twenty-five years, and, to my chagrin, I’ve noticed the plot is always the same. It always starts in January and ends in December. One of these days, we’re going to have to try writing an avant-garde Christmas letter that starts at Christmas and works backwards to the New Year’s Eve hangover. Not quite sure if the space-time continuum would hold up for that. Might earn us a visit from William Shatner: “You! Could! Rip! The fabric of the! Universe! So stop doing! That!”

We certainly know how that would feel, after the cruise last Christmas with Debbie’s parents, Bill and Audrey Wallace. An ostensible deal, on paper: five-day Western Caribbean Carnival Cruise, departing from Mobile, Alabama (close to Bill and Audrey’s house), $400 a head. But on the first day, it didn’t seem like such a bargain. The boat was eight hours late in boarding, so we spent an entire Saturday playing Mexican Train in the Mobile Civic Center, waiting with approximately 400 unhappy families. Turns out our ship was Carnival’s oldest, built sometime after the Monitor sank -- it’s the same one that was used for humanitarian purposes during the Katrina catastrophe. Ever had one of those hotel beds where, if you put a quarter in the slot, it would vibrate you to death? Well, we didn’t need one of those, as we were situated right above the 30,000 cubic-inch diesel engine. All the way through Mobile Bay to the Gulf, we were shaken and stirred by vibrations that were less than good, thus averting a Beach Boys copyright suit. (We later learned that the vibrations were mostly caused by the shallowness of Mobile Bay, and they diminished considerably once we had made it to the open sea.) We got off the boat in Cozumel. Then, we turned right around and got back on. The Third World looks better on television, and safer. The rest of the cruise was spent winning trivia contests, going to shows, eating wonderful food, and exploring such burning issues of the day as, “Can a bartender from Turkey make a decent martini?” Turns out he can, indeed –- in fact, after the first night, the waiter remembered my martini specifications down to the last twist of lemon. The professionalism of the servers on these cruises is a marvel to behold, particularly after many years of sullen, lip-pierced, teenage-style service at the local fast-food depot. Sometimes they were a little too professional. At dinner, Debbie made the mistake of mentioning that she is lactose-intolerant -- so the ship assigned Karen, a stunning young Filipino woman, to be Debbie’s personal “Lactose Nazi” for the balance of the trip. “Dere vill be nein cheating!” (Darn it.) It was a wonderful cruise. We had a great visit with Debbie’s parents, and the diesel engine bade us farewell in the best way it knew, by shaking loose our gold fillings on the return through Mobile Bay.

My buddy Ray and I went again to the Eastern Trombone Workshop, where we heard some very nice college trombone ensembles, along with the incomparable U.S. Army Blues Jazz Band. The trombonist in the Army’s jazz solo chair is a thin fellow named Harry Watters, an amazing player, who sports the best pompadour seen in the D.C. area since Ronald Reagan. Every time he played, I’d nudge Ray and say, “There he goes again!” In April, I got to play a solo with Dr. Dave Champouillon’s jazz band at Eastern Tennessee State-- an old standard called “Makin’ Whoopee!” I was hardly the star of the show -- Dr. Dave had three guest trumpeters, all respected pros (one of them had played lead trumpet for Harry James). Just to show what a great sense of humor he has, Dave scheduled me to go on right after the trumpet soloists’ flashiest number – which was like following the Battle of Britain with a Sunday nap. Dave just needed a cushion of about five minutes so his soloists could rest their chops before the big finale -- so I like to think of my contribution as having provided the necessary Whoopee cushion.

We mentioned our sun room re-modeling project last year, and now it is completed -- a terrific place to sit in the summer evenings and watch the robins duke it out just before sundown. At the moment, it is a Nor’easter room, as we are (presently) in the throes of one of those charmingly nasty North Atlantic storms that pulls down the power lines -- and makes me feel like the whole world’s a big cold-water rinse cycle and I’m a sweater with a ketchup stain. This year, we tackled the master bathroom, because Debbie had spotted a crack in the floor of the fiberglass shower stall. We didn’t know the half of it, as it turned out. When Carl (our remodeler) tore out the old shower stall, there was an even bigger crack in the concrete slab underneath the shower; it was about two feet long and eight inches wide, following the path of the drain pipe -- which was attached to, well, nothing. All we had was an open trench to the dirt beneath our foundation, and the drain pipe to nowhere. We know the master bedroom was a room addition to the original house, but we will never know whether the building contractor ripped off the previous owners, or the previous owners ripped us off. Either way, a dirt hole in your bathroom isn’t code -- not even in Virginia Beach, where the building inspectors think it’s just fine for highway runoff to drain through a private condo’s garage (ask us how we know). But long story short, the new bathroom is gorgeous, beautiful enough to bring a picnic basket and gaze at, in awe. There’s even a nice place to sit.

Our other “big money” project this year was on our car. We took our 1982 Checker Marathon to an auto-restoration place in Norfolk called FantomWorks; two months and many dollars later, we drove off in a class-A restoration. The hardest part was picking the color. At first, I thought maroon would be great -- until Dan (the restorer) explained the good and bad of metallic paint. Rats. Then, I considered doing it up like a New York cab (since that is how most people remember Checkers), but who wants to drive around town when tourists on the sidewalk are trying to hail you? So I asked Debbie, “What color do you think would look good?” She replied, “It’s your car, Lee, you have to pick a color you’ll be happy with.” So we went through a dozen paint chip books. I’d proclaim, “I like this color!” only to watch Debbie squinch up her nose and say, “Well, paint it any color you like, but I don’t like this one. Too washed out.” Hmmm. “Hey! Here’s a nice one!” Debbie shook her head, “Too dark.” Wow. Picking colors is harder than I thought. “Now this one is great!” Debbie cocked an eye and said, “Too boring!” After many such exchanges, Debbie had a revelation: “Look, here’s a wonderful sky-blue! The top could be white and the car would have a great Fifties look!” So, we painted it sky-blue and white. It really does look fantastic, in a time-warp kind of way, and Debbie is always very good about complimenting me on my choice of colors. I have to admit it was inspired.

Debbie made her goal with Weight Watchers this year -- she's lost a total of 60 pounds -- and in two months she will have maintained her “goal” weight for a year. She’s also been watching a lot of episodes of “What Not to Wear” on The Learning Channel, and has taught herself to dress in accordance with Johnny Mercer’s famous lyric: to “Accentuate the Positive.” I never have to harbor paranoid fears anymore about people staring at me, when Debbie is on my arm. She is even more beautiful than the lovely young lady I married almost 27 years ago. Her name was Debbie, too.

An elementary school was closed, and the year-round schedule schools were changed back to the standard Sep-Jun school year -- so Debbie lost her cherished schedule. She is still the music director at our church, despite her lapse in taste of letting me be her primary male vocalist. (I do a mean Jim Morrison impersonation, however -- not that this would help her case with the church’s elders.) She has also impressed the men at the church with her ability to prepare breakfasts for the men’s meetings – in particular, sinfully, wickedly delicious Krispie Kreme Donut bread pudding. It puts our church’s elders in an awkward position -- eating every morsel of Debbie’s dessert, and then having to subject her to church discipline for tempting the weak.

We’ve added another cat to the menagerie. We thought Gabby, our huge 17-lb. female Siamese, needed a companion, so we went to the SPCA and came back with Buster, an even more huge 22-lb. male Siamese. So how did that work out? Gabby spends all of her time trying to ignore him, while Buster keeps clamoring for her attention. Does this remind anyone else of high school dances? Gabby has become Greta Garbo in track shoes, having to beat feet constantly to escape her Brobdingnagian suitor. When she runs, the feet move, but the body is still -- like a Hanna-Barbera cartoon character. Buster, on the other hand, lopes like a constipated raccoon, which is about half right. We want him to lose weight so the vet will quit glaring at us.

No one knows what the future brings in these uncertain times. But we’re fortunate in knowing that we have a Lord who looks out for His people. It brings comfort to know that a leaf does not fall from a tree without His approval. The Child born in Bethlehem sits at God’s right hand, and all is well. Debbie and I wish you the merriest of Christmases, the happiest of new years, and the blessings of the almighty King who brings joy and meaning to an otherwise empty and pointless existence. Spend a few minutes this Christmas season to remember the greatest gift of all -- God’s own Son, to redeem the sins of many.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Trombone 101

I don't really write as often as I should about trombone or trombone-playing.  Heck, I don't really play very much anymore.  I'm becoming a gentleman!  That is, someone who knows how to play trombone, but doesn't.

Back in the Seventies, I was a student trombonist and played at every opportunity.  In the Eighties, I spent four years in an Air Force band; when I separated from the military, I worked as a computer programmer in various locales, and played a little here and there.  For a while, I was the second trombonist in the Boulder Philharmonic, and also played in various municipal bands in northern Virginia.  We moved to Omaha in 1988, and I started playing seriously again.  Then, in 1991, I won the bass trombone position in the Lincoln Symphony -- a decent orchestra, but (at the time) about as entry-level as a professional symphony job gets.  I also played with a lot of brass groups in Omaha and did some subbing with the Omaha Symphony.  But inexplicably, I somehow got old and gigging began to take too much of my energy and peace of mind.  So when we moved to Virginia, I made it a point not to pursue trombone on a professional basis and just to enjoy whatever playing comes my way.  And it hasn't been much -- too many youngsters out there doing what I spent my youth doing.  I played for a community orchestra for several years, and still play in church.  Once in the archetypal blue moon, someone offers me a little money to play.  But not very often.  It's an avocation, now.

It's strange how the passions that once stirred our souls are finally put into perspective, if one just lives long enough.  Sometimes I really wonder why I ever majored in trombone-playing.  I had a four-year ROTC scholarship, and could have majored in anything.  I've always loved history and writing, and I've always been adept at math and science, so I could have gone off happily in almost any direction.  But I really did love to play the trombone, and was (at first) blissfully ignorant about how hard it could be to make a buck in that field.  It's a tough profession, even for those who are very, very good at it.

Young and stupid, that was me.  But... you don't know what you don't know.  What I didn't know was how good the competition was, and how far behind I was relative to the trombone players who were graduating from the conservatories and colleges with great music programs.  Though I played for years in grade school, I never had a trombone lesson until I was a freshman in college -- and I never had a lesson from a real trombone professional until I was a junior.  I knew I was behind the 8-ball, but imagined that I could work my way out of the hole.  Unfortunately, musical intelligence is very different from the types of intelligence that  had always (well, not quite always) enabled me to do well in my academic studies.  Age and experience count for something, of course, and hard work never hurts -- but if God didn't put it in there, it just ain't in there.  I'm sure there were freshman at Eastman Conservatory who could play rings around me when I was in grad school, and most of them weren't going to make it in the field, so what chance did I have?  It took a while for me to learn all this.  It took even longer to accept it.

Fortunately, God always works His plan out according to His perfect will, even when we think we're doing all the driving.  Life is good.  I'm fifty-five, and still love playing trombone.  What's especially fun now is to watch the young players as they start to "get it" and begin making great leaps and strides in their playing.  Bill McGlaughlin was my first real trombone teacher when I was a student and he was a trombonist with the Pittsburgh Symphony; he went on to become a conductor, composer, and radio personality.  As Bill explained to me, "Music is a great art, but a lousy profession."  I like watching and hearing the young players who are just discovering it's a great art.  It makes me remember how I used to feel.

Really, though, it is an odd instrument to fall in love with.  It's like saying your favorite actor is Charles Durning.  Now, Durning is indeed a great actor, but with his portly frame and comical face, he was never a big star and certainly never a leading man.  Like Mr. Durning, the trombone is by and large a member of the supporting cast -- and also like Mr. Durning, it shines in that role.  Except for the triangle, almost every other instrument gets to play all the solos and take all the bows; the trombone players, meanwhile, usually play the background chords and sometimes get to carry the melody as a section, but seldom as individuals.  Not many trombone players have become prominent soloists.  (The last one whose name was a household word was Tommy Dorsey, and he died in 1956.)   For me, the joy of playing trombone is in the sound, especially the sound of a good trombone section.  The trombone is a good solo instrument, but it really comes into its own as an ensemble instrument.  When two or more are gathered, the mating together of the overtones is magical -- rich, dark, intense.  Our job, mainly, is to help create the context in which others shine.  This requires a selfless attitude, and as a result, trombone sections are generally free of the Prima Donna attitudes that can poison the experience in many other sections and settings.  At least, that has been my observation.

So, what would I tell a young player who wants to make a go of it?  Here are some observations, take 'em or leave 'em.

1.  I remember, first of all, the advice given to me by another one of my trombone teachers, the late Byron "B.B." McCulloh:  "Find a profession that you wouldn't mind doing for the rest of your life, and then practice like hell!"  He meant to say, learn a decent profession to fall back on -- a good "day gig", in the vernacular of music pros.  (For me, it has been programming.  I'm not God's gift to programming any more than I was His gift to the trombone world, but mediocre programmers often get paid, while mediocre trombone players often don't.) Then, if you still want to do the trombone thing, you practice your butt off, play as much as possible, and take auditions.  Of course, if a young player likes teaching, he can major in music education and become a teacher, or go the academic route (which is almost as competitive as performing).  The point is, art is a wonderful thing, but try not to starve.  Trust me, I've been there.  It isn't as much fun as it sounds.

2.  When it comes to selecting your trombone teacher, never settle for second best.  Once you know what kind of player you'd like to be, it should focus your mind on who to study with.  So go and study.  I studied in Pittsburgh with Pittsburgh Symphony players because, to me, they represented the ideal trombone sound.  To be honest, there were better sections, but there weren't any better sounding sections -- they had an ensemble sound quality that really sparkled.  If I had not joined the Air Force, I would probably have moved from there to Chicago to study with the Chicago Symphony guys (assuming one of them would have had me), or perhaps Philadelphia, another great-sounding section.  There is no sense languishing under a teacher who isn't doing you any good.  I've done that, too.  Which leads me to...

3.  Trust your instincts.  When I have made serious errors in judgment, usually it's because I overvalue my thinking and undervalue my instincts.  I studied for a year under a fine gentleman at a good Midwestern music school.  Don was an accomplished player -- a fabulous technician, with an encyclopedic knowledge of trombone, its history and literature.  But for me, he wasn't the right teacher; I knew this instinctively within a week or two, but allowed my intellect to talk me out of my conclusion.  Don was the ideal  teacher for someone with a more intellectual and methodical approach to trombone.  That wasn't me at all -- I'm an instinctive learner, and can't always articulate what I'm doing.  I have to hear it and be immersed in it.  For me, the best lessons are when I get to trade licks with the teacher and play duets, or at least to play melodious etudes or excerpts and have them demonstrated back to me when something needs improving.  But Don was more of a lecturer, and expected you to get it from his explanations.  He's had some wonderful students, and I know he was a good teacher.  Just not for me.  (And frankly, he deserved better than me as a student.)

4.  About equipment -- try to buy the trombone or trombones that make it easy for you to sound like that little trombone-player in your head.  You can start a lot of arguments between trombonists (usually a peaceable lot) by claiming this or that instrument is the "best" trombone on the market.  What you want is the best instrument for you.  In the U.S., most orchestral players seem to prefer Bach or Edwards trombones, while Conn trombones are perhaps more popular in England.  But no brand of trombone is the monolithic ideal, and many other fine trombone makers have a lot to offer -- Shires, Greenhoe, Kanstul, Yamaha, Getzen, B&S, Courtois, Rath, and others make wonderful trombones.

I've owned more than my share of bad trombones, and I was too stubborn to admit it's the trombone's fault.  Back in the 1970s, trombone makers were entering their Dark Ages and for many years it was hard to find a decent trombone.  Conn had moved their manufacturing operations from Elkhart, Indiana to Texas or Mexico, and I suffered for years with a 1972 "Mexi" Conn -- not a particularly good horn, even though 1960s Conns are justifiably sought out as some of the best trombones ever made.  When I won the Lincoln Symphony bass trombone position in 1991, I didn't even own a bass trombone (I won the audition on a borrowed Yamaha), so I had to buy one.  I wound up buying what I hope was the worst Bach bass trombone ever built.  After getting my butt kicked by this lousy piece of plumber's crease for two years, I was so desperate for a decent horn that I spent big bucks on a custom-made Edwards bass trombone, and couldn't have been happier with the results -- I still play it to this day.  When you've been trying to make music with junk horns all your life, a good trombone is a joy, and a great trombone is a revelation.  Edwards makes a great trombone, and many of the world's greatest trombone players such as Joe Alessi of the New York Philharmonic and the entire Philadelphia Orchestra trombone section agree.

But since the Nineties, the other manufacturers have come around.  The Pittsburgh Symphony section (it's a different section today) sounds fantastic on Yamahas.  Ian Bousfeld of the Vienna Philharmonic and Michael Powell of the American Brass Quintet sound like the Lord's own personal herald trombones on Conn 88Hs.  Jay Wise of the Omaha Symphony makes a Shires bass trombone sing like Caruso.  I have personally played Conns and Greenhoes which are as good as anything I've ever played.  Kanstuls are very popular on the West Coast, offering a sizzling sound and solid workmanship.  I hate to say it because I really love all of my Edwards trombones (I own three of them), but if I were starting out from scratch, I'd have to seriously consider trying to find something as good for less money (though it may not be possible!).  The situation that sent me scurrying to a "boutique" trombone maker doesn't appear to exist anymore; trombone-making has come back out of the Dark Ages.

The most important thing is to buy a trombone that won't hold you back as a player.  If you don't sound good, you want it to be your fault, not the instrument's.  So go to a trombone convention or workshop -- some place where you can sample many different makes and models -- with someone whose ears you trust (teacher, fellow student, fellow pro) and try as many trombones as you can.  When you find the horn that lights up your soul, you and your buddy will know.  (I had that feeling last March at the Eastern Trombone Workshop when I played a B&S tenor trombone with a "crown" around the bell -- mmmm! -- and when I played a Greenhoe-Conn 62H bass trombone -- yowza!)  Obviously, money is always an issue, but -- trust me on this -- buy the best horn (for you) that you can at all afford.  If you're unfortunate enough to be uplifted only by the most expensive horns (my favorite Greenhoe-Conn tips the cash register at about $6 grand), that's too bad.  But then again, the pain of paying for it is temporary, while the joy of playing it goes on and on and on.  My advice is to go for that joy, and spend as much as you need to spend.

4.  Now, back to that little trombone-player in your head: listen to as much music as you can.  Listen to all the orchestras and big bands, old recordings or new, and decide what you love and what you only like.  Symphony players should not neglect the classic big bands and the wonderful Nelson Riddle and Billy May arrangements from the Fifties and Sixties (and all those great barking bass trombone passages played by the legendary George Roberts); and jazz or commercial players should pay heed as well to the venerable symphony sections -- e.g., the Chicago Symphony recordings from the Fifties to the Eighties, and London Symphony recordings from, well, anytime.  Music is an imitative art, and you can't imitate it unless you can hear it in your head before you blow a note.  It goes without saying you have to practice hard, but unless you know what you're supposed to sound like, practicing hard is like running very fast in a circle in your back yard -- lots of huffing and puffing, but you get nowhere fast.

5.  Play as much as you can.  Symphonies, concert bands, jazz bands, combos, rock bands, solos, church music -- you name it.  Back when I lived in Pittsburgh, I was once the only white dude in an otherwise all-black disco band.  (A light-blue polyester leisure suit, complete with psychedelic yellow shirt with giraffes patterns on it, never looked worse than when it was worn by yours truly.)  The more you play, the more confidence you'll acquire, and the more versatile you'll be.

6.  Try to get along with people.  (I should talk.)  Two things that will turn you into everybody's least favorite section player are a metastasized sense of entitlement, and being overly impressed by your own wonderful self.  As always, Christ shows us the way.  If God Himself can be humble, it ill becomes us to preen and prance.  God is certainly not impressed by the greatness of our works; He remembers we are only dust.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Dissing Dissent

Dissent is either a time-honored American tradition or a cynical, rancorous affair, depending on who is doing the dissenting, and who is being dissed.

From Mr. Obama's speech on Afghanistan given at West Point, on Dec 1, 2009:
"I opposed the war in Iraq precisely because I believe that we must exercise restraint in the use of military force, and always consider the long-term consequences of our actions. We have been at war for eight years, at enormous cost in lives and resources. Years of debate over Iraq and terrorism have left our unity on national security issues in tatters, and created a highly polarized and partisan backdrop for this effort." [my italics]
"Polarized and partisan?"  So, whose fault was that?  Bush's?  Why?
"The wrenching debate over the Iraq War is well-known and need not be repeated here. It is enough to say that for the next six years, the Iraq War drew the dominant share of our troops, our resources, our diplomacy and our national attention — and that the decision to go into Iraq caused substantial rifts between America and much of the world."
If the wrenching debate need not be repeated here, why are we repeating it here?

But since he brought it up, the indispensable Mr. James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal has pointed out a subtle admission:  "There weren't a lot of surprises in President Obama's Afghanistan speech... but here's one: The president quietly repudiated the myth that Iraq has nothing to do with al Qaeda."  He did so in this passage:
"We must keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and to do that, we must increase the stability and capacity of our partners in the region. Of course, this burden is not ours alone to bear. This is not just America's war. Since 9/11, al Qaeda's safe havens have been the source of attacks against London and Amman and Bali." [my italics]
Taranto noted that the Amman bombing, which killed dozens and injured hundreds, was masterminded by one Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the "Jordanian-born leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq," according to the New York Times, which adds the following to Mr. al-Zarqawi's resume:
"The only attacks outside Iraq known to be directed by Mr. Zarqawi were in Jordan, said an American counterterrorism official who spoke on condition of anonymity because his agency does not permit him to discuss such matters on the record. Those attacks include the 2002 murder of Laurence Foley, an American diplomat; a foiled plot in 2004 to attack the United States Embassy and Jordanian intelligence headquarters; and bombings of three Amman hotels in November that killed 60 people."
Taranto can't help rubbing it in:  "Little wonder Obama also said in his speech that 'the wrenching debate over the Iraq war is well-known and need not be repeated here.'  That's easier than admitting that he has changed his mind and now regards Iraq as having been an al Qaeda safe haven and source of international terrorism."

Wrenching debate or not, the good news is that America helped Mr. al-Zarqawi become the late Mr. al-Zarqawi.  He communes with the worms today, courtesy of the United States Air Force and President George W. Bush.

Continuing on now with Obama's speech:
"Today, after extraordinary costs, we are bringing the Iraq war to a responsible end. We will remove our combat brigades from Iraq by the end of next summer and all of our troops by the end of 2011. That we are doing so is a testament to the character of our men and women in uniform. Thanks to their courage, grit and perseverance, we have given Iraqis a chance to shape their future, and we are successfully leaving Iraq to its people."
 Thanks to... what?  The policies Obama opposed?  You mean... the surge worked?
"This vast and diverse citizenry will not always agree on every issue -- nor should we. But I also know that we, as a country, cannot sustain our leadership, nor navigate the momentous challenges of our time, if we allow ourselves to be split asunder by the same rancor and cynicism and partisanship that has in recent times poisoned our national discourse."
Nice.  Noteworthy here is that when it was Mr. Bush's war and Mr. Obama was the dissenter, opposition was about "exercising restraint" and considering "long-term consequences."  Now that it is Mr. Obama's war, he preempts dissent by labeling it "rancor", "cynicism", "partisanship", "poison."

As Paul Mirengoff at the Power Line blog observed, it's "Non-partisanship for thee, but not for me."

Ah, well.  Like Rush Limbaugh, I want Obama to fail to implement his domestic agenda, but I support his decision on Afghanistan, as far as it goes.  The only caveat I would offer is, er, uninspired by words like these:
"Finally, we must draw on the strength of our values — for the challenges that we face may have changed, but the things that we believe in must not. That is why we must promote our values by living them at home — which is why I have prohibited torture and will close the prison at Guantanamo Bay."
Forget the partisan shot on the issue of "torture."  The best interpretation of this passage is that Obama is just not being serious.  Closing Gitmo will mean either freeing enemy combatants (including terrorists), or relocating them (in which case, big deal), or (what else?) bringing them to U.S. soil for trial in our civilian courts -- thus equipping our foreign enemies with rights under the U.S. Constitution.  This is a brand new thing.  In wars past, enemy combatants who were uniformed members of another country's military were treated not as U.S. citizens, but as prisoners of war, and as such were protected by the Geneva Convention, not the U.S. Constitution.  Enemy combatants who were not in uniform were considered spies, and were afforded a fair trial by military tribunal -- followed by a first-class hanging.

Is it really in America's best interests to grant constitutional rights to foreign terrorists?  To "promote our values," will soldiers from now on have to read to captured prisoners their Miranda rights?  And supply them with public defenders?  Do we really want to go there?  "If the bomb doesn't fit, you must acquit?"   Is it too late to point out that these people do not share our values, and do not respect them, and will exploit them against us?
"And we must make it clear to every man, woman and child around the world who lives under the dark cloud of tyranny that America will speak out on behalf of their human rights, and tend to the light of freedom, and justice, and opportunity, and respect for the dignity of all peoples. That is who we are. That is the moral source of America’s authority."
I know Obama intended this passage to be inspirational, and... hey, look, I'm trying, alright?  But  liberals just don't speak the same language as the rest of America.  He's saying:  Listen up, all of you poor folks who live under oppressive tyranny, help is on its way!  America will speak out for you!  There!  Take that, Kim Jong-Il!  Pow!  Take that, Ahmadinejad!  Biff!

"Tend to the light"?  Despite all the encomiums heaped on Obama's rhetorical gifts, they are still underrated, aren't they? Wow.  I haven't been this inspired since Lawrence Welk hawked Serutan ("That's 'Natures' spelled backwards!") to millions of constipated grandparents.

Sorry, but if America has any moral authority, it is in its willingness to take down tyranny, not just talk about it.

But maybe Obama is trying, too.  We'll soon know if his heart is in it.  Sending thousands more troops?  Just sending the troops is probably not enough -- and certainly won't be if they are made to follow rules of engagement that were crafted not by experienced battlefield veterans, but by an administration whose primary focus  is  the desire to be perceived as the "good guy" by people who will hate us no matter what.

Obama wants to defend the U.S. with a pretty war.  Sooner or later, he'll have to choose between "pretty" and "defending the U.S."

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Whose Side Are They On?

With the Ft. Hood shootings, we saw the tip of the iceberg, I think, on how political correctness has infected our military. It's been 24 years since I separated from the Air Force, when p.c. was in its infancy. I was there at its birth -- mostly, little things, nothing big enough to make one wonder if it was compromising military effectiveness. Political correctness always seemed out of place there, as if a cuckoo's egg had been placed in a nest of brooding eagles.

Since those days, judging from the news, the cuckoo chick has hatched and has outgrown her hosts, always kicking up a fuss and demanding constantly to be fed. The eagles' own chicks, meanwhile, go ignored and malnourished.

In the case of Ft. Hood, an Islamic Army psychiatrist spoke openly about his pro-terrorist sympathies and had even been observed trying to contact al-Qaida. Finally, he snapped, yelled, "Allahu akhbar!" ("Allah is great!") and opened fire on a group of military members, killing or injuring more than twenty people. So what was the Army Chief of Staff's response? To promise more due diligence aimed toward identifying those with pro-terrorist sympathies, so that we could stop such acts of terrorism before they happened? Well, that might have been the sane response, but it was not General Casey's. Instead, he opined, “ horrific as this tragedy was, if our diversity becomes a casualty, I think that’s worse.”

A military that welcomes those who love America as well as those who want to tear it down -- gee, how much more diverse can you get?

More recently, four Navy SEALs have captured a notorious terrorist. So they're getting a commendation? A medal? A promotion?

Nope. They're getting a court-martial.

It seems the terrorist had somehow acquired a fat lip.

Now, don't get me wrong. I know a bloody lip is a horrifying thing, and to give someone a bloody lip is to commit the foulest of atrocities.

But before we demand that these Navy SEALS be tried for a war crime and given the firing squad for hitting this poor innocent monster in the mouth, take a look at these pictures here (follow the link -- or don't, it's pretty graphic).

The terrorist with the bloody lip was one of the perps who hung these Blackwater contractors from a bridge and set them on fire.

Sorry, but I think he earned that fat lip. And now, the SEALs' chain of command has earned one, too.

A couple of interesting exchanges took place on Rush Limbaugh's radio program (they can be found here). According to a caller, "Greg from North Carolina," the chain of command is going after the SEALs as a form of institutional payback. A few months back, the SEALS rescued a merchant ship captain from Somali pirates. Obama got credit in the news media for "pulling the trigger," but according to Greg, very little credit was deserved:

CALLER: Well, the truth behind that situation is that the SEAL operators were kept off the scene for well over 36 hours. There was a lot of foot dragging by the commander-in-chief's people in letting them in the theater. After they were in theater and in place they were given a very restrictive ROE: Rules Of Engagement. The ROE was so restrictive that really they couldn't engage their targets. There were two previous opportunities to rescue Captain Phillips, and they were not allowed to take those opportunities...

When they finally did engage the hostiles, they did it liberally interpreting the ROE, and the on-site commander finally was kind of fed up with the situation and gave them a weapons-free command and they were able to engage and rescue Captain Phillips. The fallout from that was immediate and rather violent in its anger. The White House people -- I don't know the president himself, I just know their representatives with the chain of command -- were absolutely livid with this and they did not want the rescue to be conducted in the way that it was.

These people are very vindictive... But I do have to say this, and I'd like to make this one point... The military of today is not the military that fought World War II. It is not even the military that fought the first Gulf War. It is a military that has been thoroughly politicized. It is a military that is suffering the fallout of Patricia Schroeder's ridiculous, politically correct policies that still have great power and sway in the military. And I'm just going to have to tell you: I do not mean to impugn the junior personnel in the military, the line troops, the junior officers. I'm not talking about these people. These people are doing a fine job. They're outstanding people. But the senior ranking, the civilian and senior ranking military personnel are thoroughly indoctrinated and on board with this politically correct agenda that's in the military.

My own position is this is no way to fight a war. We're so concerned about not offending anyone, we're unnecessarily putting the lives of our troops at risk. Furthermore, as Rush points out in the transcript, it's evidence that some things -- i.e., political correctness -- are more important than victory.

I grudgingly supported the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq when Bush was president. I didn't think it was the right thing to do, but I was hoping Bush was right and I was wrong. Now, none of that matters. If this p.c. attitude is the way the game is to be played from now on, there is no sense in subjecting our soldiers and sailors to a two-front war -- that is, getting shot at both by the nominal enemy as well as their own chain of command.

I say bring them home, disband the military, and wait for our country's destruction like good little politically-correct children.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

2009 PASS Summit

I'm writing this from Seattle, as an attendee at the 2009 PASS Summit, a series of seminars for database administrators who specialize in Microsoft's SQL Server database facility. I don't often blog about my profession -- I tried it out once, but soon learned there are many geeks, Ubergeeks, and Obergruppengeeks in this profession, and I was a guppy swimming with the sharks. I should be reading SQL Server blogs, not writing them.

I think PASS stands for Professional Association of SQL Server DBAs, or something to that effect. Everyone talks about PASS as if I should intuitively know what the acronym means, so I'll just intuit it out loud here.

I'm into the second day of seminars here, and it has certainly been instructive. Today, I listened as PASS and Microsoft banged the drum and chanted rhapsodically about PASS and Microsoft. Which is not say that they have nothing to bang or trill about. Microsoft is touting their virtual server technology and hitting us with a new (new to me) term, "clouds", which I'm certain was thought up by their marketers. A cloud, as best as I gathered in between the self-administered high-fives and double-jointed auto-patting on the back, is a database-driven something or another which will "harness" (another great marketing verb) and "leverage" (ibid) the power of... sorry, I forgot. Anyhow, the briefing contained lots of pretty pictures of clouds. Somehow, it didn't occur to Microsoft marketers to put up a picture of a good old Midwestern wall cloud, or an incoming hurricane, but just a pretty, puffy little white thing that Joni Mitchell could sing about. Well, I really don't know clouds at all. At heart, I'm a practical sort of guy, and I have to see something work (at least) a few times before I can figure out what's going on. I spend most of my time tearing out the software equivalent of drywall and replacing it, so a discussion on the future of architecture is a little over my pay grade. But I can always use some handy hints and tips for how to put up dry wall.

The good news is I've already gotten some of that from the seminars I've attended. Yesterday, an entire day devoted to indexing data for high-performance querying. (In the world of querying, faster = better.) Indexes are to databases what... well, indexes are to dictionaries. At the top of the page in a dictionary is the first word and the last word on the page, and the words are always sorted in alphabetic order. Makes looking up a word a matter of turning, at most, eight to ten pages, depending on how many words are defined. What if you had to look up each word, every time, not by using the dictionary's index, but starting at the first page and checking each word sequentially until you located the right one? If the dictionary is 10,000 pages, that's an average of 5,000 page scans per lookup. Yikes! Everyone would be speaking in commonly-known one and two syllable words, and William F. Buckley, Jr. would have had to settle for using words that are somewhat less arcane than "callipygous" and "usufruct". Database indexes work on the same principle as the one in your dictionary -- they are information about your information, housing the locations on disk (also called, analogously, pages) where the information resides. Since this is software we're talking about and not the printed page, indexes can be a lot more numerous, intricate and sophisticated than the simple one in your dictionary, but the concept is still the same -- every piece of information has an address and the index helps you to find it quickly.

Anyhow, it looks like it's time for class again. Lots of empty tables around me in the chow hall and the occasional annoyed glance from the workers busing the tables, so I'll atypically cut this short.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Cockroaches, Bureaucrats, and Other Things That Need Stepping On

To most folks, Zachary Christie looks like a nice 6-year-old boy.

But to the perceptive and highly-trained personnel of the Christina School District in Delaware, he looks more like public enemy no. 1:

Young Zachary did something so heinous, it took the brave men and women of the Christie School District to save us all.  You see, Zachary brought this to school:

And that was all the ever-vigilant public servants needed to sentence young Zachary to 45 days in reform school.

Just who's the public enemy?

Here's the story (follow the link) courtesy of the NY Times.  And here is the web site his parents set up to plead for help.
"Zero-tolerance"? Of what? Common sense? Good folks of the Christina School District, here's a clue: if the NY Times is rubbing its eyes in disbelief, it's time to undo the lobotomy.

Don Surber sees it as a "war on scouts."

Glenn Reynolds (the Instapudit) thinks "the excuses offered for this piece of idiocy are even more damning than the idiocy itself."

What do I think?  It's just another day on another battlefield in our inexorable march toward tyranny.  But the good news is the people still have enough power to set the powers-that-be back on their heels.  Zachary's ordeal has a happy ending:  the school board, under the glare of publicity, reprieved Zachary and let him back into school.

It's nice to know our public servants can indeed do the right thing when watched constantly and cornered like rats.

But there are stories very similar to this all over the country in which the ending is not quite so happy.  The NYT article mentions "a third-grade girl [who] was expelled for a year because her grandmother had sent a birthday cake to school, along with a knife to cut it. The teacher called the principal — but not before using the knife to cut and serve the cake."  In New York, an Eagle scout was suspended for twenty days for having a two-inch pocket knife in his car.

When I was in high school, the knife would have been taken away and given back at the end of the year, end of story.

Overbearing, overreaching bureaucrats are like cockroaches:  they do their damage in the dark and scatter when the light shines on them.  And that's our job as American citizens: to shine that light.  When the idiocy threshold is reached and common sense refuses to kick in, it's time for us to do the kicking.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Boomers or Bust

I stumbled onto this column a couple of years ago by Mike S. Adams, at Professor Adams teaches criminology at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, about four hours south of where I live, in Virginia Beach.

It's one of my favorite columns of all time. It's about the inflated sense of entitlement felt by many, if not most, in my generation (born in 1954, I'm sort of in the final wave of the "Baby Boomers").

As my buddy Ray from South Carolina tells me: "Insofar as parenting is concerned, the report card is in: our generation has earned an 'F'."

Our parents, I believe, taught us manners and rules. What they did not teach was why we ought to conform to them. I believe they understood why, but could not articulate the real issue.

The reason we have manners, and politeness, and rules, and so forth, is out of respect for other people. There. It's not complicated.

My generation grew up largely to believe that the conventions of our parents were "old-fashioned" and "phony". The media and the entertainment establishment flattered us into believing we were America's greatest generation, so much smarter and more idealistic than our parents. What did we do to deserve such accolades? Nothing. What did our parents do to deserve such insults? Nothing, except win a fight to the death against two horrible fascistic regimes and suffer through an agonizing twelve-year economic Depression, determined that we, their children, would not have to suffer as they did.

The result is we, the Boomers, grew up with the largest, most metastasized sense of entitlement of any generation in history. I've said it before, I'll say it again: the opposite of a sense of entitlement is gratitude. Christianity teaches that gratitude is the proper attitude of a Christian, who knows he deserves nothing but God's condemnation, but is saved by faith through grace.

But, flaws and all, my generation is the one now running things. The kids who used to say, "Never trust anyone over thirty," are now in their fifties and sixties.

I hope and pray, through some miracle of the Lord's, that our children turn out better than we did.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The GOP: Enablers of Liberalism

Michelle Malkin is on top of the latest Republican-organized sell-out of conservatives.  Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)  appears poised to sign on to the "Cap'N Tax" scheme proposed by the liberals.

If you're a Republican, and liberal Democrats -- who have the Presidency and control of both houses of Congress -- are desperate to find Republicans to sign onto their craziness, what does that tell you?  It tells me that they are afraid Republicans will use their craziness as an issue; they wish to nullify it by donning the cloak of "bipartisanship" -- a code word meaning liberals win, conservatives lose.

I've written about the phenomenon of back-stabbing Republicans before.  Here, and here.

Go poke around at the Republican National Committee web site, if you want to read some inflammatory conservative viewpoints.  It's as if Rush Limbaugh writes their material.  Republicans know who send them money.  They know who man the phones and the booths.  They know who get out and vote. Conservatives, that's who.

But do not infer from the GOP's conservative talk that they are willing to perform conservative deeds.  When push comes to shove, the Democrats will shove them around, and they will in turn shove conservatives around.  I'm so old, I remember when Lindsey Graham was a conservative.  Then, he started hanging around John McCain, and the next thing you know he was calling conservatives a bunch of bigots for opposing Bush's Illegal Alien Amnesty Act, referred to in the mainstream media as "Immigration Reform."

Y'ever notice how betrayal of American interests is always preceded by lofty nomenclature?  The word "reform" usually plays a prominent role.  A demolition derby, if named by liberals, would be called "auto restoration reform."  Feeding someone poison would be called "metabolic reform."  Kicking someone in the butt would be called "pede-posterior reform."  Being kicked in the butt would be called "gluteal reform and impact aid."  Why, you can't be against reform, can you?  You aren't one of those reactionary right-wing troglodytes, are you?

In the case of cap-and-trade, we could accurately call it the "2009 Unemployment and Economic Tailspin Act", as if we didn't already have enough of that.  But it is being sold as emissions and environmental "reform."  It will become "change you can believe in" as soon as they take your dollars and give you back a couple of coins.

The GOP plays the same game every election year.  Talk conservative, gather conservative money, accept conservative votes, and then cave in to liberals.  But with the GOP completely powerless, grass-roots conservatives are doing a better job than Republicans ever did at standing up to the liberal machine, with their tea parties and marches and town hall meetings.

The GOP is not the opposition party; they are the "prone-position" party.  Republicans are not the opponents of liberalism; they are the enablers of liberalism.

My pledge is this:  Not one red penny.  Not one red cent of my money goes to the Republican National Committee; they will spend it on GOP insiders, "moderates" and "RINOs" all.  (RINO = Republican in Name Only).  We will gladly send money directly to candidates we believe to be legitimate conservatives, whether they are Republican or third-party.  We've tried everything we know to interest the GOP into fighting hard for conservative ideas.  Nothing else has worked, so let's try starving them until they get the message, or until a viable third party forms and we no longer need them.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

How to Avoid a Foolish Consistency

It's time for a quiz on American mainstream journalism. Ready?

Who wrote the following?
"There is a lot of good news in the latest intelligence assessment about Iran. Tehran, we are now told, halted its secret nuclear weapons program in 2003, which means that President Bush has absolutely no excuse for going to war against Iran. We are also relieved that the intelligence community is now willing to question its own assumptions and challenge the White House's fevered rhetoric. The president and his aides are apparently too worried about getting caught again shaving intelligence to stop that. . . . We don't know if the Iranians will find any offer [of high-level diplomacy] credible, or if they even want to. It is the least Mr. Bush can do to try to salvage his credibility with the American people and America's allies."
Hands are waving. Why, that was easy: it's from an editorial published by the Grey Lady herself, the New York Times -- you know, "All the news that's fit to print," the gold standard of journalism, "the newspaper of record"... you get the drift. Published on Dec 5, 2007.

Ready for another one? Who wrote this one?

"Iran has a long history of lying and cheating about its nuclear program, so the news that it has been secretly building another plant to manufacture nuclear fuel is hardly a shock. But it provides one more compelling reason (are any more needed?) why the United States and other major powers must be ready to quickly adopt--and enforce--tough new sanctions if negotiations fail to persuade Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions."
So what's your guess? Fox News? Nope. The Washington Times? Uh-uh. National Review? You're getting colder. The Jerusalem Post? Rush Limbaugh? The American Spectator? George F. Will? Commentary? The Heritage Foundation? Bill O'Reilly? Wall Street Journal? Sean Hannity? Donald Rumsfeld? Glenn Beck?

Not even close.

Time's up. Er, so to speak.

Believe it or not, again, that was from an editorial published by the Grey Lady herself, the New York Times -- you know, "All the news that's fit to print," the gold standard of journalism, "the newspaper of record"... yep. Those guys again. Published Sep 26, 2009.

Confused? You shouldn't be.

What was that observation about "double standards" again? Goes like this: behind every apparent double standard lurks an unacknowledged single standard.

So, in this instance, what could that single standard possibly be? What changed between 2007 and 2009? Can you think of anything? Hmmm?

Perhaps the most important thing that has changed is, well, the fellow and the political party who control the federal government. That was some change, I guess. Enough so, that what was once "fevered rhetoric" has now become a "compelling reason."

Air was wrong if President Bush breathed it. Sabre-rattling is right if President Obama does it.

Liberal journalists like to protest that the mainstream media is objective, unbiased, balanced, impartial, etc. -- to which I say, baloney. But now I have to admit, you can indeed get both sides of the story from the New York Times.

All you have to do is wait for America to elect someone they happen to like.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." But how much consistency does it take to cross the threshold into foolishness? Hard to say -- Emerson didn't specify. It may require quite a lot. But, as I'm sure the NYT editorial board would agree, why take any chances?

(Hat tip: James Taranto at the Wall Street Journal's "Best of the Web.")

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Nonsense Lyrics

Many folks believe that the Beatles were the greatest musical group of all time. Whether they were or not is debatable, but without question they were certainly among the greatest writers of nonsense lyrics.

As in:
Here come Ol' Flat Top,
he come groovin' up slowly,
he got juju eyeball,
he one holy roller...

I'm not sure I'd know a juju eyeball if one were to reach out and lash me.
Hello, hello!
I don't know why you say goodbye,
I say hello!

Is that what Obama told Hillary when he needed a Secretary of State?
I am the egg man,
they are the egg men,
I am the walrus,
goo goo g'joob!

When I was a kid, we actually had an egg man who delivered fresh eggs every week from a local farm. Perhaps that's how they did it in Liverpool back in the day, I don't know. But I'm fairly certain that they weren't laid by a walrus.
Picture yourself in a boat on a river,
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies.
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly,
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes.
Actually, that makes even less sense when you read it than when you hear it. I understood perfectly well what was going on when I thought the words were, "A girl with colitis goes by." Unlike Ol' Flat Top, she was probably going by pretty quickly.

These are just a few examples; their entire oeuvre is spackled with them. Our boys John, Paul, George, and Ringo weren't too concerned with whether their lyrics parsed. They wrote what they thought sounded good whether the meaning was clear or not, or indeed whether there was any discernible meaning at all. It's the sonority, stupid. Such an approach is not at all without artistic merit -- who said poetry needs to make sense? Still, it's amazing how profound even baby-talk can sound when the whole world is calling you a genius, and you're tripping like a long-haired hippie freak.

Since we're talking about the performance arts here, on a related subject: Paul Mirengoff (by the way, not the same Paul) at Power Line has thoroughly analyzed Obama's UN speech, so you and I don't have to. Paul is just a little bewildered, or perhaps disgusted, at what he perceives to be the meaninglessness of Obama's text.

Obama:"In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold. The traditional division between nations of the south and north makes no sense in an interconnected world. Nor do alignments of nations rooted in the cleavages of a long gone Cold War."

Mirengoff has several amusing and dyspeptic remarks about all this. Some of my favorites:

"'[P]ower is no longer a zero-sum game.' What does this mean? Has every situation in the world magically become win-win? Or was this always the case and it simply took Obama to understand it?"
"'No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation.' The 'should' part goes without saying and Obama looks embarrassingly naive saying it. The 'can' part is demonstrably false, and Obama looks embarrassingly stupid saying it. A nation can dominate another nation by conquering it or, in some cases, by credibly threatening to conquer it."
"'The traditional division between nations of the south and north makes no sense in an interconnected world. Nor do alignments of nations rooted in the cleavages of a long gone Cold War' ...Is the internet really that powerful?"

I think Mirengoff's analytical skills are performing admirably here, but it's the wrong venue. The problem is he's expecting to hear the prosaic homilies and earnest syllogisms of a statesman, when instead he should be listening for the lilting cadences and stimulating tropes of a lyricist. It's the sonority, stupid. Obama's goal isn't to make sense, but to inspire his liberal base and his claque of major media sycophants to swoon and scream like the young girls at the Beatles concerts did, back in the halcyon days of funny-looking cigarettes and even funnier-looking hair-dos and clothes (about which, I'm something of an expert).

Now, try again to hear this in your head as if it's set to music, and Obama is on stage in psychedelic garb, strumming a guitar and gyrating his hips to an audience of giddy liberals:
"In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game..." [Scream!!!!! Swoon!!!!!]

"No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation." [Shriek!!!!! Faint!!!!!]

Got to be a joker, he just do what he please.

There will be more, much more, nonsense lyrics for the fainting, and colitis for the faint of stomach, before this long and winding road is done.

Goo goo g'joob.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

"Now President Bush Tells Us"

The Wall Street Journal's John Fund wrote an article this week entitled, "The GOP, C'est Moi," finally giving conservatives an admission straight from the horse's mouth that, yes, it's true: George W. Bush never considered himself to be "one of us", a conservative. The article is subtitled, "Now President Bush tells us."

Mr. Bush is quoted as having said, "Look, I know this probably sounds arrogant to say, but I redefined the Republican Party."

Mr. Fund poses the final rhetorical question: "That may have been true, but how well did that work out for the Republican Party?"


As in, Mr. Bush did indeed change the Republican Party -- from "in power" to "out of power." Neither Bush -- father or son -- ever seemed to understand the importance of cultivating their own power base. The energy and drive of a political party comes from those who embrace the ideas upon which the party is based -- the "ideologues", if you will. Most ideologues are savvy enough about politics to know that you can't win every engagement -- that you have to give as well as take. But when it starts to look like your champion is playing for the other team, it demoralizes them. And when they are demoralized, they stay home. They do not contribute money. They do not get out and vote. There is no one to man the booths, to place the phone calls, to solicit the checks.

Both Presidents Bush were famous for being "pragmatic" rather than ideological. But pragmatism is not a philosophy. The word pragmatism has no meaning unless there are policy goals that one is forced to be pragmatic about. Policies "that work" are only desirable if they are working toward a goal that is deemed desirable by some set of ideals.

In the case of both Presidents Bush, there was never any philosophy behind the compromises, and there was never any pro quo in return for the quid. A compromise under such constraints looks more like a surrender -- and elicits a "What a chump I've been!" moment for anyone who gave blood, sweat, tears, money, and votes for their champion.

In the case of the elder Bush, that moment arrived when he broke the only substantive promise he had made during the 1988 campaign: "Read my lips -- no new taxes." The "compromise"? Bush would sign drastic new tax measures (in the midst of a recession, yet) in return for...? A promise by the Democrats not to use breaking his tax promise against him in the election. (Of course, the Democrats broke that promise, and I don't blame them one bit. As W. C. Fields said, "Never give a sucker an even break.")

In Bush the Younger's case, the moment arrived when he nominated his crony, Harriet Miers, as his first Supreme Court nominee. Why her? Because she was on then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid's short list of nominees who would not be filibustered by the Democrats. In other words: Bush wanted to avoid a fight. It was that simple.

Problem is, it was a fight conservatives had been spoiling for. For many years.

Conservatives volunteered in record numbers for the Bush campaign in 2004. It's not that they loved Bush. What they wanted was a chance to appoint a conservative Supreme Court justice. By 2004, we already knew we couldn't expect much from Bush in terms of conservative policy or dealing with a fiscally incontinent Congress. But, man, we wanted those conservatives on the court. That was the prize. That was our compromise.

But there was nothing in Miers' record to indicate that she would have been a particularly conservative justice -- and indeed, some reason to suggest otherwise. (She had been a registered Democrat, for example.) After the disastrous Republican nominations of liberal stalwart Justice Souter and the intellectually flighty O'Connor, they wanted more assurance than a wink from the President that she would fit in fine with conservative expectations. They wanted a bona fide conservative, with an unambiguous judicial track record and a trail of outraged liberals to prove it. The worst part of the whole deal was the kowtowing to Senator Reid. If the Republican Party was unwilling to fight for a conservative nominee with a 55-seat majority in the Senate, when would they ever fight? Bush reluctantly backed down and, to his credit, did under duress nominate Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito -- but only after being pushed back against a wall by his own supporters.

Later in his second term, George W. Bush did it again by supporting an illegal immigrant amnesty bill. Even worse, when conservatives grumbled, he wheeled on them and called them "bigots." At the time, these same conservatives were the only ones left who were still speaking up for Mr. Bush.

That's funny: Bush liked conservatives just fine when they were voting for him.

And did this betrayal of the conservative agenda make the liberals like him any better?

This is the award-winning recipe for leaving office with historically-low approval ratings: make your friends as well as your enemies angry at you. When you're in a fight, it can be fatal not to know who your friends are. Thus should read President George W. Bush's political epitaph. A Republican cannot succeed by pandering to liberals, as they feel entitled to it. The opposite of entitled is grateful.

The resulting political fallout forced the amnesty bill's demise, but conservatives got an even clearer look at the man they had supported in two elections.

So the revelation contained in Mr. Fund's article comes as no surprise at least to this conservative.

Republicans have never figured out that they can't make liberals like them better by doing liberal things. However, they can make conservatives hate them. Voting for Benedict Arnold because, "After all, he's less of a monarchist than King George III" eventually loses its allure.

There's another way to increase the size of the party's base that doesn't require selling out its ideals: argue your case. Republicans should try it sometime. Stop playing "prevent defense" and play instead to win. When Ronald Reagan won the Presidency, he ran as a conservative, and won by comfortable majorities (by a landslide in 1984). If Reagan could have run for a third term, he would have won that election as well. But Reagan could defend his ideals and was willing to take the time and trouble to do so.

One of George W. Bush's unquestionable accomplishments is that, once and for all, he has ruined the "lesser of two liberals" strategy for future Republican campaigns. If Republicans wish to become relevant again, they will need to embrace their inner conservative. And mean it.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Restoration by DRS FantomWorks

I had my venerable old 1982 Checker Marathon restored this summer. Dan Short, the fellow who owns and operates DRS FantomWorks, did a fantastic job of the restoration. I sent him the following blurb as an appreciation for the job he did. I will append pictures at the end.


Hello, fellow antique car enthusiasts!

I love vintage cars. Not that I don't respect the modern automobiles. Many of them are very reliable, very fuel-efficient and comfortable. But I just don't see them as real cars; they're more like appliances. You don't fall in love with an appliance; you just use it until it wears out. Same with these new-fangled motor vehicles. Sufficient substance, but no style. Lots of engineering, but no soul. I have trouble with the whole concept of "planned obsolescence" -- I just don't like it when, before the car's even assembled, the engineers have already calculated the number of years before the junkyard beckons. It just seems wrong. I prefer cars that are modern enough to perform well and be comfortable, but simple enough to be fixed and sturdy enough to last.

After many years of using my beloved 1982 Checker Marathon as a daily driver, it really began to show some serious age: faded paint; leaky windshield; holes behind the rear window; crummy carpet; bent hood; dreary, delapidated headliner. It's hard watching your "loved ones" get old.

I wanted to consider restoring the Checker, and interviewed several people who were in that line of work. They seemed nice enough, and all of them could probably have sold me a half-decent paint job. But then all I would have is a thirty-year-old car with fresh paint -- and who knows, underneath the new, glossy paint, how much of the car would consist of body putty instead of welded metal? Or even how long the paint job would continue to look glossy and new?

Well, after agonizing over the decision for a few months, a buddy of mine turned me on to DRS Automotive FantomWorks. I met with Dan Short, owner/manager, and he took me on a tour of his facilities. My first impression was how clean and well-organized his shop is -- it's very reassuring to take your car to a shop that does not reflect chaos and a crisis-management style. I knew within five minutes of talking to Dan that I could trust him to do a great job on my Checker. Dan is very well-educated and extremely smart. He understands, apparently, everything about cars -- historically, mechanically, and stylistically. He understands systems -- which impressed my inner computer geek very much. Best of all, Dan understands the needs of the customer (me), and assured me that I would be driving (so to speak) this entire process myself, from beginning to end. Dan would make recommendations and provide enough information for me to make well-informed decisions, in my personal search for the best trade-off between the ideal restoration and the limitations of the pocketbook.

Dan told me the job would be finished in about six weeks to two months. I harbored some doubts about that because one of the restoration shops I had interviewed gave me an estimate of seven months. (!) But Dan was as good as his word. I was able to visit the car each week during the process and witness the progress myself, every step of the way -- from disassembly, to sanding it down to bare metal, to priming and painting, and re-assembly. Dan also gave me a guided tour of my own car -- more of a lecture, really -- showing the good and maybe some of the not-so-good features in its engineering, and making recommendations on mechanical repairs. Not that Dan is the type of guy who sells unnecessary repairs -- far from it! On two or three occasions, I even pointed out something extra he might want to do while the car was disassembled; his usual response was, "There's no advantage to doing that now, just wait until you need that done." Dan does not waste his time, or your money, on things that aren't necessary or desirable.

I also found Dan's staff to be very helpful, pleasant, and knowledgeable. Everyone seemed to be enjoying his work, and were forthcoming about the parts of the restoration that fell within their own area of expertise. Dan himself is a whirling dervish of purposeful activity -- working on a car, on the phone, ordering parts, helping you with your color selection, explaining the latest engineering feature he noticed in your car, taking people for test drives. Best of all, Dan is honest -- unfashionably, ridiculously, even shoot-himself-in-the-foot honest. If Dan gives you two or three alternatives and asks you to decide, you simply have to ask him, "If this were your car, what would you do?" He will tell you, even if you just know he would have made more money by telling you something else.

It's not just a living to these guys: they love what they do.

And what they do is very much worth doing: they make the world a less humdrum, more lovely place. They resurrect old cars and make them young and beautiful again. And they want you to love the results. I certainly have. In a world of four-wheeled rolling jellybeans, I have a car that stands out and says, "I'm not a throwaway appliance; I'm a real car! I'm history!" Everywhere I drive, people turn, stare, smile, and give me the thumbs-up. FantomWorks deserves all the credit for that. Anyone who has an older car that he would love to see restored to its former glory desperately needs to take it to FantomWorks. Give Dan and the gang an opportunity to perform their special magic on your car.

Here's the "before" shot, taken this past May:

...and here's the "after" shot, taken in August:


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Selective Outrage

When I was in the Air Force, it was a routine complaint that the venerable Airman Proficiency Report (APR) system was inflated -- not unlike the "grade inflation" at many colleges. Intended to be an objective evaluation of each individual airman, the typical APR was anything but objective. Generally, they were "firewalled" -- that is, on a scale of 1 through 9, straight 9's were usually awarded in the various categories. Now, Garrison Keillor likes to remark that Lake Woebegone is a place where everyone is "just a little bit above average," but the truism of the matter is that half of the population is below average. Regression toward the mean: it's the law. There were an awful lot of officially "excellent" airmen walking around who were merely good, or average, or even below average. I ought to know.

And, as nobody was fooled, expectations adjusted themselves accordingly: anyone earning less than straight 9's was considered a poor performer even if the APR contained only one 8, or 7 (which technically was still "excellent"). It didn't matter that, every year, the junior officers and NCOs were admonished to give "objective" ratings to their men and women. Very few bit on it. The stigma of earning a less-than-stellar APR would have to give way before anyone would inflict that on their good people.

It didn't stop some of them from trying, however. In our band squadron, Sergeant Ken ran the APR system. Ken was a career NCO, an extremely feisty one, not a particularly good musician but a capable NCO nonetheless. He was an interesting choice for that position, however, as he had been "busted" (i.e., stripped of one or more stripes) several times. The fatal flaw in Ken's approach to his own military career is that liked to get into bar fights. His trophies from these, er, athletic events took the form of missing teeth; when he grinned, he looked like Liberace's piano keyboard. Ken didn't like me very much (which hardly distinguished him -- I had that effect on a lot of people), and during an interview, he let me know that our squadron was going to do things differently henceforth. Looking me right in the eye, Ken announced, "We're going to start giving realistic APRs from now on, so you'd better prepare yourself."

But I was pretty feisty myself in those days, and though Sergeant Ken had many more years in service than I did, he did not outrank me -- or if he did, not by much. So, I stared straight back at him and said, "You can go ahead and start your 'reform movement' if you want, but I'm telling you here and now: you're not going to start it with me." Fortunately, Sergeant Ken blinked, maybe the only time I ever saw him back down. And so my evaluation was once again spangled with straight 9's which, along with almost everyone else who got them, I didn't deserve.

And therefore, with great interest, I have been watching the brand new reform movement currently being championed by the press and liberal circles (but I repeat myself) -- something about 'decorum', and 'not calling the President a liar.' I can see their point, same as I could see Sergeant Ken's point almost thirty years ago. I too want to live in a country where the President of the United States can deliver a speech without an opponent rudely calling names and coarsening the public debate. I too want to live in a country where the news media holds people accountable for such rude outbursts.

But why start now?

As Victor Davis Hanson points out:

...sadly, I put no credence in liberal outrage. Dozens of Democrats booed Bush during his State of the Union address in 2005; an unhinged Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) called him a liar from the House floor. The currently outraged, like Maureen Down and E.J. Dionne, said little about the 2005 interruption of the President of the United States with catcalls. Congressional efforts at censure failed. Stark, for all I know, remains not an albatross, but an icon of the Left.

President Obama called for more civility on 60 Minutes the other night. A noble effort, all would agree. But he has himself been serially accusing his opponents of disinformation and lying about his health care plan—even as his own accounts of how many are currently uninsured, the status of illegal aliens under his plan, or the nature of his end of life counseling programs seem to change weekly.

The President in his calls for moderation, of course, said nothing about Van Jones’s profanity and racism—or his czar’s charging Bush with planning the deaths of 3,000, charging whites with being mass killers in the schools, and polluters, and on and on....

The Left is now furious that, as the new establishment, the rules of discourse are not more polite. But from 2002-8, they (Who are “they”? Try everyone from Al Gore to John Glen to Robert Byrd to Sen. Durbin), employed every Nazi/brown shirt slur they could conjure up.

So is the Right supposed to be "bigger" than the Left, and do the right thing -- be civil, be civilized, be respectful -- knowing that, not only will their efforts go unnoticed by the media, but also that the Left will interpret any sign of humility and civility as weakness?

I don't know. Maybe there are worse things than calling someone who lies a liar. Certainly the Left agreed with me enough to leave eight years of "Bush Lied, People Died!" still ringing in my ears.

Let's start the reform movement later. Sometime after the mainstream media can bring themselves to give conservatives an even break. Or sometime after they all go out of business. Whichever comes sooner. Either way works for me.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Big One

This is it. The big one.

We now have ourselves a trade war. That has been the missing piece. The current recession had been looking a lot like the Great Depression, until now.

Now it looks exactly like the Great Depression.

Here is economist Thomas Sowell on the Smoot-Hawley tariff and its aftermath:

Let's start at square one, with the stock market crash in October 1929. Was this what led to massive unemployment?

Official government statistics suggest otherwise. So do new statistics on unemployment by two current scholars, Richard Vedder and Lowell Gallaway, in their book "Out of Work."

...They put the unemployment rate at 5 percent in November 1929, a month after the stock market crash. It hit 9 percent in December-- but then began a generally downward trend, subsiding to 6.3 percent in June 1930.

That was when the Smoot-Hawley tariffs were passed, against the advice of economists across the country, who warned of dire consequences.

Five months after the Smoot-Hawley tariffs, the unemployment rate hit double digits for the first time in the 1930s.

This was more than a year after the stock market crash. Moreover, the unemployment rate rose to even higher levels under both Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt, both of whom intervened in the economy on an unprecedented scale.

Before the Great Depression, it was not considered to be the business of the federal government to try to get the economy out of a depression. But the Smoot-Hawley tariff-- designed to save American jobs by restricting imports-- was one of Hoover's interventions, followed by even bigger interventions by FDR.

The rise in unemployment after the stock market crash of 1929 was a blip on the screen compared to the soaring unemployment rates reached later, after a series of government interventions. For nearly three consecutive years, beginning in February 1932, the unemployment rate never fell below 20 percent for any month before January 1935, when it fell to 19.3 percent, according to the Vedder and Gallaway statistics.

In other words, the evidence suggests that it was not the "problem" of the financial crisis in 1929 that caused massive unemployment but politicians' attempted "solutions." Is that the history that we seem to be ready to repeat?

So if disaster comes to pass because of Obama's actions, does it mean we will vote him out of office? Not necessarily. Sowell continues:

Politically, however, Franklin D. Roosevelt could not have been more successful. After all, he was the only President of the United States elected four times in a row. He was a master of political rhetoric.

Who else do we know who is a master of political rhetoric?

On economic matters, the image the government likes to cultivate is that of a wise and shrewd doctor, complete with white jacket, stethoscope, and a wink, who can diagnose the problems in the blink of an eye and have us back on our feet in no time. That's the image. The reality is this: picture a Boeing jumbo jet flying 600 mph at 30,000 feet, with a four-year-old boy at the controls grinning like a fiend and possessing no sense of his own limitations -- and pushing buttons and pulling levers as fast as he can. He's having a great time, but the passengers are screaming.

As Rahm Emmanuel said, never let a good crisis go to waste. What he didn't say is, if you need a good crisis, you can always make one.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Republican Leadership and Other Oxymorons

It seems like it ought to be an anomaly that, in the midst of the most unambiguously left-wing American government at least since Carter and arguably since LBJ, or even FDR, the Right is finally getting its act together, showing fire and fight and even some unity.

It doesn't seem possible, does it?

Particularly since there haven't been any squeaks out of the Republican Party that could possibly be construed as leadership -- at least, not by anyone who isn't a soldier in the French Army. [Correction: except for Sarah Palin, who has withstood withering assaults in the press and the popular culture and still manages to stand tall in a stiff wind.]

Well, to me it's not a surprise at all. I can't say I was expecting this, but I was certainly hoping for it.

A friend of a friend, a nice fellow, a student of philosophy I knew in passing many years ago once made a statement that was relayed to me; I have never forgotten it: "I believe in the Republican principles of government; the problem is finding Republicans who believe in them." Small, limited government; strict Constitutional construction; private property; low taxes; equality before the law; free enterprise. That's the ticket. Problem is, nobody's selling it.

Except for the Reagan interregnum, the Republican Party during my lifetime has been little more than the Democratic Party's junior partner in the creeping socialization of America. They have been instrumental in consolidating liberal gains. Republicans have stood by dumbly while conservatives have lost ground on every issue they ever cared about. And finally, it cost them the presidency, as the GOP actually joined hands with liberals on immigration "reform" and forgot how to defend fighting a war of their own choosing.

The plummeting of Bush's poll numbers, from about 70% early in his presidency, to about 25% in his last year of office, seems phenomenal. If you're going to accomplish a drop of such magnitude, it requires not just polarizing your enemies but also infuriating your erstwhile friends.

It was a familiar dance for years. Betrayal after betrayal of conservative principles by the GOP would be practiced diligently until election season, by which time the only credible approach to campaigning was for Republicans to demonize their opponents as "too liberal." There's a joke about two guys out in the woods, discussing what they would do if they encountered a grizzly bear. One guy said, "I'd run." The other guy said, "That's silly, you can't outrun a grizzly." To which the first guy responded, "I don't have to outrun him; I only have to outrun you." Republicans figured they didn't actually have to be conservative; they only had to be more conservative than their Democratic opponents.

It's a losing strategy. A political party must fear its base. The argument that you're better off with half a loaf than none presumes that your guy actually wants you to have that half a loaf. Under Bush (both Bushes, actually), the GOP was more likely to seek common cause with Democrats on how best to take our half-loaf away. The GOP became not a supporter of conservatism, but a subverter of conservatism.

So the Republican Party shambled toward the 2008 election with all of its enemies and half of its friends angry at them. How did all that bipartisan blather work out for you, Senator McCain?

And now, with the GOP out of the way, conservatives and libertarians know they have no friends at all in Washington. Rather than rely on their sissified Republican champions, they flexed their own muscle -- and have managed to push the Obama agenda back on its heels. Considering the odds against them -- the Presidency, Congress, and the media all arrayed against them, with their long knives out -- they have accomplished quite a lot. In spite of no help from Republicans. Maybe because of it.

We're not out of the woods yet, and in fact may not prevail in this battle. But at least once in my life, I have been fortunate enough to witness what a ragtag group of ordinary schlubs can accomplish when their dander is up and there's no one else to do the job but themselves.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Stupefyin' Jones

If you happened to depend on the mainstream news media for your news, you might miss a lot of stories. For example, you might have missed the story about a man named Jones -- Van Jones -- who happens to have been (until today) Obama's "green czar" (not a position I remember from high school civics). It seems that Mr. Jones has been under attack by conservatives for the past week or two for various reasons. If you watch Glenn Beck, you would have known all about this controversy. If you listen to Rush Limbaugh, you would have heard all about it. If you watch Fox News, you have heard all about it. If you read conservative-oriented blogs such as the Drudge Report, Michelle Malkin, and PowerLine, you would have read all about it.

But the gatekeepers for our mainstream media? Hardly a peep, prompting the Washington Examiner's Byron York to start keeping score. As of two days ago (present writing), this past Friday, Sep 4, here's York's scorecard:
Total words about the Van Jones controversy in the New York Times: 0.
Total words about the Van Jones controversy in the Washington Post: 0.
Total words about the Van Jones controversy on NBC Nightly News: 0.
Total words about the Van Jones controversy on ABC World News: 0.
Total words about the Van Jones controversy on CBS Evening News: 0.
As of yesterday, York reported that CBS and the Washington Post had broken silence, but the others held firm. The Post's headline is rather comical: "White House Says Little on Embattled Jones." Now, that's chutzpah. The White House says little? Apparently, so do its friends in the media. Of course, now WaPo has to explain why, by the time of their first mention of the controversy, the situation had already reached the "embattled" stage.

How did they not know about it earlier?

Or did they know about it earlier, and just decided it wasn't news?

If so, what exactly isn't newsworthy about an Obama "czar" who is a self-proclaimed communist and had signed a "truther" petition? (For those blissfully out of the know, "truthers" are the crackpots who believe the Bush administration was complicit in the 9/11 attacks).

To put this into perspective: what if a Bush had hired a policymaker who was an avowed Nazi and signed a petition claiming the Clinton Administration had been complicit in the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole? Do you think Dan Rather might have found a few minutes for it to occupy in the CBS Evening News' busy docket?

My guess is it's really very simple. If it's good for Obama, it's news. If it's bad for Obama, it's spiked.

Well, good luck on your job search, Mr. Jones. I hear there may be some policymaking openings in Cuba soon.

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