Thursday, December 24, 2009

Medic Alert tags: which one is best?

I have worn a medic alert bracelet for years, but it needs to be updated. I looked at Road ID wristband, which has two versions: one gives you six lines of basic information, the other gives a phone number and passcode that will let first responders access a complete health file that you can update at will. I decided to ask an EMT which one would be best.

To my surprise, he said that if I really wanted to get information to the EMTs, the best way would be to wear it around my neck. He said that the EMT's first job was to check for breathing and a clear airway, so the first place they look is at your head, neck and chest areas. So they would see a medic alert tag around your neck right away. They really wouldn't look at your extremities until later.

As a result of this conversation, I am looking for a Medic Alert-type dogtag that I can have engraved or stamped with basic info: blood types, allergies (esp. to medications), emergency contact.

If you have a serious or life-threatening condition that an EMT would need to know if you were in an accident and unable to speak, I suggest that you get some sort tag to wear around your neck. It could save your life

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Lizard Man cometh

So Sunday I went to a church potluck dinner and pigged out. Couple of hours later, I began having stomach pains and took some Pepto Bismol. I have been having bouts of this for some time, and usually a dose of Pepto calmed it down. NOT THIS TIME.

The next morning I went to my doctor, who immediately put me in the hospital. Ultrasound and a CAT scan showed I had gall stones and one of them was blocking the common bile duct. This blocked my pancreas and gave me pancreatitis. They decided to take out my gall bladder and gave me antibiotics to help deal with the pancreatitis.

Unfortunately, one of the antibiotics they gave me caused an allergic reaction--big time. In a few hours, I looked like the Lizard Man: red, scaly, and ITCHY.

The operation went well and, thanks to Benadryl, I am looking less and less lizardy--and feeling less and less itchy.

My sisters decided that I did not need to be alone while recovering, so I am at Martha's house in Hope Mills, NC, till after Christmas.

Friday, November 27, 2009

A lovely noise

I went to celebrate Thanksgiving with my sister, and returned that afternoon: 125 miles on Scarlett each way, temps in the 50's Fahrenheit.

What a lovely noise the 750 Breva makes! A kind of barking growl, not a scream, not a cough, not a vibration. No thumps, no bumps, no shrieks, no whines. Just a constant reminder that the motor is waiting under you, ready to go faster than you want or need, yawning at 55, mildly pleased at 65, pleased at 75, happy at 85. Going, and going, and going, like the road has no end and you have no destination, and you are on this magical thing, riding forever, like Sleipnir, the tireless, eight-legged horse of Odin, who ran on 4 legs until those tired, then ran on the other 4. And you are borne up, like a knight or a demigod, untiring through the chill and the fog and the dark.

So you leave it, to go indoors, while it sleeps, waiting--dreaming perhaps, of places you have never gone, to which it wishes to bear you away.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

What I am thankful for

In the back of drawers, or stacked in closets or old footlockers, there are some old boxes. Inside these boxes lie corroding shapes of metal, and moldy strips of varicolored ribbons--the emblems of heroism forgotten or overlooked.

These boxes lie hidden, mostly forgotten, in the homes of people we meet every day: postmen, teachers, doctors, salespeople, workers and, too often, the unemployed or homeless. Men and women who seem no different from those around them. They work, and play, and laugh, and go to ball games like everyone else. And they seldom or never mention the boxes hidden among their belongings.

But all of them, and many others, have this one great and glorious secret: somewhere, in a time of desperation and danger, they faced a momentous choice. The world said to them, "Will you go into a place of danger and do a desperate or dangerous thing for the sake of your nation?" And they said, "Yes."

We overuse the word "hero" in these days. A pitcher on a baseball team who strikes out that last batter is a hero. A football player who makes a winning score is a hero. A singer who sings a new and interesting song is a hero. A politician who says something in a new and interesting way is a hero.

The ancients had a sterner definition. The hero was the one who faced death, and did not falter. Hector, fighting for his doomed city and knowing his death was certain, was a hero. Aeneas, who halted in his flight to save his aged father, was a hero. The 500 from Sparta under Leonidas who died rather than retreat from a doomed struggle were heroes. Paris, who abandoned all to save his own life and died outside the cave of the nymph he had betrayed, was not.

And we should not forget either. A hero is not a Superman. A hero is an ordinary policeman, who knows the bullets will not bounce off his chest, but confronts the gunman anyway. Or an ordinary firefighter who goes into a burning house to rescue a bedbound old person. Or a nurse who does not shrink from treating the infectious. Or a warrior who goes to Iraq or Afghanistan to help a people with who he or she shares neither religion, nor culture, nor ideals, but goes anyway, because he or she does share a common humanity--and it is his or her duty.

Our choice is to honor them, with their modesty and their hidden medals, or to surrender the idea of hero to the media, who judge only by what is popular and salable.

But be warned: when we have emptied the idea of hero of all that requires courage and commitment, we also empty our civilization. The Roman Empire did not die out from the world because there were no Romans of ability. They died out because the idea of Roman virtue had become, even among the Romans, a joke. The able Romans pursued their own personal advancement, even at the expense of their own city and civilization. The ideals that had led Junius Brutus to slay even his own son because that son had betrayed his city had become a comic cliche. To do well for yourself, even if it meant making a profitable deal with the Lombard invaders, was the obvious, honorable course--even though your city died as a result.

So, this day, while enjoying my friends and relatives, and stuffing myself with good things, I have taken a moment aside. I have said, in silence, a word of thanks to the men and women who have the boxes with medals in their boxes and closets. I do not know all their names. I do not know all their deeds. And I do not even agree always with their causes.

But this I do know: when the time came to stand for the freedom they believed in, they stood. And when danger threatened that freedom, they endured. And some of them paid for that endurance with life, or health, or sanity, or wholeness.

Thank you. Whoever you are, wherever you are, you have my deepest and profoundest gratitude. Always, and everywhere, I thank you.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The best TV program

I think the best program on TV is Top Gear, a car program on the BBC. It has three hosts: Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May. The chemistry between them is excellent. They occasionally pretend that they are about ordinary cars, but it takes little time to discover that they are really interested in fast, exotic cars.

One of their greatest features is their races. They have had a race between an airplane and an Bugatti Veyron, the world's fastest car. Then they raced a Mercedes against a boat, a race between a bike, a car, a motorboat, and public transport across London. Two of their epic races that I best enjoy were the race between a car and a marathon runner around London during rush hour, and a race between a car, a bike, and a steam train set in 1949.

I just wish there was such a program about motorcycles.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Long, wet day

James Micheal Harris II's funeral was today and I rode with the PGR to honor him.

Left Jacksonville at 9:10 in the rain for Washington, NC. Then helped transfer the casket from the funeral home to the hearse. Then we escorted the hearse to the family home, where the family joined us, and we went to the cemetery, near Pantego--about 45 miles away. At the cemetery, the rain finally stopped, so I took off my Frog Togs rainsuit. The funeral was fairly long, and the ride there and back was longer, so I was running behind.

I left the cemetery and started back to Washington, then Jacksonville. It started to sprinkle, but I decided to ignore it and press on--big mistake. By the time I hit highway 17 back to Jacksonville, it was coming down in buckets and I was soaked. So I kept on.

By the time I got back home, I headed straight for the Presbyterian Men meeting. Delicious dinner.

250 plus miles on the bike, most of it in the rain.

My Frog Togs rainsuit did very well, but no rainsuit will keep you dry when it is in your saddlebag.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Mary Travers has died of leukemia

Cam Rahn Bay airfield, Vietnam, November, 1970:

The rainy season had begun, with a constant drizzle when the rain did not fall full force. The temp was in the low 80's, but we were wet, and used to much more heat, so we felt chilly in our thin tropical fatigues. The "barracks" were full of rats that fought over anything edible, living or dead. So we sat on the wet sand dunes, around makeshift fires, and in every circle was a guy with a guitar who played, "Leaving on a jet plane" by PP&M and "Early morning rain" by Ian and Sylvia.

And we dreamed of Mary, with her soft, long, blond hair, ample
figure, and intelligent, alive face. And waited.

I will not remember her as she later became, bloated by the drugs she took to combat her leukemia, (though her voice never changed), but as she was then; beautiful, alive, aware, with that voice with the faint rasp, as of passion.

Goodbye, Mary. One of those who will never forget you wishes you well on your long final journey.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Why we must honor veterans

In small boxes, hidden in closets, in the back of drawers, or in attics, little pieces of metal and colored cloth lay quiet, the medals given to men and women who, once, placed their lives on the line so that we may live in freedom. Save for a few, most of those men and women will never make headlines, be featured on the news, or invited to talk shows. They will live and work among us, seldom very different from everyone else. Most of them will not be in any sports Hall of Fame, or have their handprints immortalized on any Walk of Fame. The rich and famous, whose lives so often disappoint, are called heroes, but these people are called simply neighbors.

Yet they are the true heroes.

If we forget them, we will have as heroes only those who seek fame for self-gratification, or for talents only a few can ever share. It will be the possession of the media, a title bestowed to encourage viewers or listeners or readers, no longer based on the real achievement of heroes: willingness to face danger and endure pain for the sake of a cause greater than themselves. The highest regard of our culture will be given to people who either we cannot emulate, since we lack their special skills, or who are not worth emulation, as they are motivated only by selfishness or egotism.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Labor Day weekend, 2009

Over Labor Day, I rode my motorcycle to Lake Waccamaw, NC. My sister Martha and her husband Walter lent me their lake house for the weekend. It is the house my mother and father lived in after they retired. Here are some pictures of my weekend.

Lake Waccamaw, picture 1
This is a picture of Lake Waccamaw taken from my sister's pier. The lake is 5 miles by 7 miles, but very shallow.

Boys and Girls Homes of NC
MacNeil House is the main building of the Boys and Girls Homes of North Carolina campus at Lake Waccamaw. Once primarily an orphanage, today it mainly serves children whose parents have abandoned them or are unable to take care of them.

Lake Waccamaw Depot Museum
The old railroad depot at the lake has been converted into a museum, with many artifacts about the history and industries of the area. A retired caboose contains artifacts and exhibits about the railroad that once ran through the Town of Lake Waccamaw. My motorcycle, Scarlett O'Guzzi is parked in front.

Lake Waccamaw bike rally
A "Jesus Loves Bikers" motorcycle rally was being held at the exhibition hall of the Boys and Girls Home. It was the first year for the rally, and the publicity ran late, so it was sparsely attended. I believe next year will be better.

My parents' graves
My parents' graves, at the Hillside Cemetery at Lake Waccamaw.

Pierce and Co., Hallsboro, NC
Pierce and Company is an old-fashioned general store located in Hallsboro, NC, about 8 miles from Lake Waccamaw. It is a really interesting place to visit. It offers everything from food to clothing to furniture to building supplies and hardware. Every year, they make and sell some delicious homemade sausage.

Columbus County Courthouse
The Columbus County Courthouse in Whiteville, NC. It is built in a traffic circle. Several years ago, there was a movement to tear it down, but the local people rallied and raised money to repair it, so it is still in use.

General Howe oak on US 74-76
Scarlett is parked in front of the General Howe Oak. According to local tradition, British General Howe camped his men near the oak to protect Wilmington from the Patriots. After the British Pyrrhic victory at Guilford Courthouse, he marched his men northwards on a route known as General Howe Road, now NC-11. His forces served as the right flank guard for General Cornwallis on his march to Yorktown--and defeat. Although the tree is very near the roadway, it has been preserved for its historical significance.

Cape Fear River Bridge
The bridge over the Cape Fear River on NC-11 (General Howe Road). It looks very rusty.

Cape Fear River
The Cape Fear River from the bridge on NC-11. You are looking downstream, toward Wilmington, about 40 miles away. The Cape Fear is the longest river which lies entirely within North Carolina.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sad week for the North Carolina National Guard

In the last 8 days, I have participated in 9 Patriot Guard Rider missions to honor the fallen in our armed forces:

Sunday, July 5: presented a plaque to the widow of a Ft. Bragg soldier whose funeral we participated in last month.

Monday, July 6: SGT Bittiker, NCNG, killed in Iraq, arrived in Onslow County. We escorted the hearse from the airport to the funeral home.

Tuesday, July 7: Flag line at the funeral home for the visitation for SGT Bittiker.

Wednesday, July 8: Funeral for SGT Bittiker--flag line at funeral home, escort to cemetery, flag line at interment.

Thursday, July 9: Funeral for SGT Kramer, NCNG, killed in Iraq, in Wilmington. Flag line at Church, escort to VA cemetery, flag line at interment. Driving rain for the entire time.

Friday, July 10--morning: SP4 Adams, NCNG killed in Iraq, casket arrives in Onslow County. We escort hearse from airport to funeral home.

afternoon: Memorial service for SGT Baldeosingh, NCNG killed in Iraq, in Morehead City. SGT Baldeosing will be buried in Arlington National Cemetary.

Saturday, July 10: Flag line during the visitation for SP4 Adams at the funeral home.

Saturday, July 11: Funeral for SP4 Adams. Flag line at Jacksonville High School, escort to veterans cemetary, flag line at interment. Extremely hot, but there was a breeze.

The four men (SGT Bittiker, SGT Kramer, SGT Baldeosingh, and SP4 Adams) were all members of the same National Guard unit and were riding in a humvee destroyed by an IED. They were all within one week of coming home.

I sincerely hope we never again have so many missions so close together.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Why the U.S.A. should not use torture

Either we are a nation that is conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, or we are just another nation that justified whatever it wants to do by "reasons of state."

Either we mean what we say, or we say it and don't mean it. By
my reckoning, that is what a hypocrite does.

If torture was sure, or the only way to get information from an enemy, the arguments of the the statists make might make sense. But torture is not sure. As John McCain said, a victim of torture will say anything he thinks the torturers want to hear, true or false. And the experience of the British in WWI and WWII shows that there are equally effective ways of getting information that do not involve torture and are far more likely to get good information.

So it isn't sure, and it isn't reliable, and there are better methods. How can we justify it?

Finally, there are risks in any situation when one faces an antagonist that is a fanatic. No matter what you do, such an enemy may still do harm. So we can torture and still be subject to terrorist attacks, or we can use other methods and still be subject to terrorists attacks. We will be subject to such attacks in any case. There is no way to guarantee we will be safe from all terrorist attacks. The only question open to us is, what kind of people are we going to be as we fight our enemies. Will we be what we have always claimed to want to be, an indivisible nation under God, with liberty and justice for all? Or will we become as deceitful and treacherous as our enemies?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Scholarship banquet

On Thursday, our local scholarship foundation gave $1000 scholarships to 74 high school seniors. This was our 25th annual awards banquet. There was a video featuring every scholarship recipient, a medal to wear with their graduation robes, and a book featuring their pictures and a brief biography.

Every senior who graduates from Onslow County schools can earn a $1000 scholarship if they
--maintain at least a B+ average (88 or better)
--scores a composite score of at least 1200 on the SAT
--performs 100 hours of community service

In the last 25 years, we have awarded more than 1000 scholarships for at total of more than $1,000,000.

One of our associate superintendents was in the first class to receive scholarships, and one of our principals in the second.

Congratulations to all our scholarship winners!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Sri Lanka

News of the final collapse of the Tamil Tiger guerrilla movement led me to post about General Lee's sword. I hope, now that the Sri Lankan government has managed to destroy this bloodthirsty insurrection and kill its leader, they will now display wisdom equal to their military skill.

The Tamil minority in Sri Lanka have legitimate grievances. Those grievances allowed the Tamil Tigers to get support from the Tamil minority. If the victorious government will make a few concessions that will allow the Tamils to feel that their grievances are being heard and attended to, it is likely that the civil war can end permanently. But if the grievances are not attended to, it will only be a matter of time before a new charismatic leader arises, and the whole bloody process begins again.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The USA's wonderful luck

In our history, the United States has been fortunate to have some extraordinarily remarkable leaders.

George Washington could have made himself King of America. He could have created a virtual lifetime Presidency. He chose not to. I am convinced that one of the reasons our government has lasted so long and so successfully is that it started out with such a remarkable man as a leader.

Even our tragedies have had shining moments. Someone you don't think of as a graceful politician is Ulysses S. Grant, but he had one moment of truly supreme statesmanship.

When he and Gen. Robert E. Lee met at Appomattox Court House, Lee wore his dress sword, a gilded one presented to him by the ladies of Richmond, which he expected to have to present to General Grant. The surrender of the sword of a defeated commander is one of the most enduring ceremonies in history. To accept the sword is normal. To refuse the sword is condescending. Either would have humiliated Lee, who would have been portrayed forever as handing that sword to Grant, with Grant either grandly accepting or grandly refusing it.

But Grant did neither.

Instead, he inserted in the terms of surrender the clause that the surrender of the weapons of the army would not include the side arms of the officers. Meaning that neither Lee nor any of his other officers would have to turn over their swords to their conquerors. They would bear them home, to hand to their posterity as a sign of their valor, and the chivalry of their opponents. Lee did not even have to offer his sword. Neither man mentioned it at all.

I think it is significant that, on the night following the surrender, before the formal disbanding of the army, Lee was approached by a group of his younger officers. They wanted to go into the mountains and swamps of the south and begin a guerrilla war against the Union, a war, that had Robert E. Lee led it, would probably have lasted for many years, devastated the south, and permanently embittered relations between the sections.

But Lee, standing there with his presentation sword still on his hip, refused, saying he was too old to go out and become a guerrilla. He later called upon the members of his army to go home and become good citizens. I am convinced that part of this willingness to forgive without bitterness came from the fact that General Grant had treated him and his fellow officers with such tact. The character of General Lee is widely admired. The character of General Grant also deserves to be admired. He was a bad politician, but a good man

Friday, May 8, 2009

Betsy Magill, poet and nurse, has died

Betsy died Wednesday of COPD. She was a wonderful poet, with a delicate sense of the power and rightness of words. Last year, she published a chapbook of her best poems.

Here is one of them that expresses how I feel:


How cruel lace looks
on loneliness
white against stark black
when the poverty of grief is insulted
with abundance
just give me
one hand
one shell
one open flower
the intimacy of rain
one more

Despite all I can do, I cannot get this poem to format as she has it, for she does not use even lines, but I hope you will get some idea of her work from it.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Poetry and wounded warriors: follow-up

I learned from the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Lejeune that the proposal for a workshop by Marty Silverthorne was circulated, but got no response. I am sorry, as I thought it would be very beneficial. But the men are the best judges of what their needs are.

I will now approach the Mayor's Committee for the Handicapped to see if they are interested.

new air conditioner

I cool my house with two window A/C units, as it has no ductwork for a household unit. One unit cools the back of the house, and the other the front.

The one in the back is about 8 years old, and when I tested it this week, the fan did not start up. I replaced it today with a new Westinghouse. My friend Ed came over and gave me a hand getting it into place. It is about the same size as the old unit, but slightly more powerful. One thing about it: the filter is very easy to clean, as it just slides out.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Poetry and wounded warriors

Our Coastal Poetry Consortium is trying to organize a poetry-writing workshop for wounded warriors at Camp Lejeune. Marty Silverthorne, a good poet and a great guy who is also a quadriplegic, has agreed to lead the workshop. I can't think of a better leader for such a group!

Marty and Mike Hamer, who is also wheelchair-bound, have a group called "Eight wheels and nowhere to go." They present programs of song and poetry. They are excellent.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Walking into April

Went with Nancy and Les King to Barton College today for the N.C. Poetry Society's annual Walking Into April program.

Nancy and Marty Silverthorne presented their poetry in the morning and had an open forum. In the afternoon, Lenard Moore read, followed by the three poets he had mentored for the Gilbert-Chapell Distinguished Poets Series read. Then there was an open mike.

There were a good number from Jacksonville: Nancy, me, Veronica Williams, Patsy Lain, and Donna Graham. Patsy and Donna were two of Lenard's students and read wonderful work.

Spent entirely too much on wonderful poetry books.

I will post pictures later.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Poetry and music in Greenville

I went to the Eclipse Gallery in Greenville to attend a performance of poetry and music by Marty Silverthorne and Mike Hamer. Both men are in wheelchairs: Marty is a quadriplegic and Mike a paraplegic. Marty's poetry was excellent, much of it with a true rural NC flavor, and Mike's music, which he sang and played on the hammer dulcimer and harmonica was interesting and often amusing. Marty and Mike collaborated on the lyrics of some of the songs. An excellent program!

The mighty Breva scooted down and back smoothly, efficiently, and gorgeously, as usual. I am going to have fun on my motorcycle this summer!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

A memory

Our family was coming back from Japan on the SS Sultan. My dad, a Marine, had served an accompanied tour over there, and now we were coming home.

On the last day of the voyage, we got up early to pack up the last of our stuff, then went out onto the deck. The foghorn was blowing, the ship plowing through a calm sea, barely rolling. Fog made it white in every direction.

Then the sun, a great disk, rose, hanging in the sky like an enormous glowing orange, at least twice as big as a sun should be.

The foghorn blew, the gulls cried. We tasted the salty fog, lost in a vast world of black and silver sea, white fog, and a huge orange sun.

Then, out of nothing, a giant bridge appeared, orange like the sun: the Golden Gate.

It was such a perfect moment. I have never forgotten it: the orange sun and the great bridge, the salt tang in the air, the hoots of the foghorn, the screams of the gulls, the vibration and slight sway of the ship.

Whenever I see anything beautiful, I compare it with that.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The "new frugality" of the rich

1. What are they being frugal for? Have they suddenly realized that their spending habits were compromising their future? Have they piled up too much debt and want to pay it down? Have their sources of income decreased (very likely if it was based in part on investments)? Have they decided to establish a savings program in order to pursue some important goal (for instance, retirement if their 401ks and other current plans have decreased)?

If so, then their frugality is useful to the economy in the long run, although it may be harmful in the short term.

If it is solely a response to current social pressures, it is harmful in the short run (by depriving the people they hire or patronize of income), and in the long run. Instead of creating savings to invest, when the current downturn is over, they will simply return to their old ways, and spend any surplus they may have accumulated on other luxuries in a time when there will be no shortage of spending on luxuries.

2. This issue illustrates one of the problems of basing any major part of the economy on the behavior of the rich. It varies so wildly and is so unpredictable. Places that have based a large part of their civic growth on the spending of the rich flourish mightily in good times, and suffer mightily in bad times.

A small, select coterie of purveyors of extreme luxury goods will continue to do well; people who patronize them will not change their lifestyle because instead of a billion and a half dollars, they are now only worth a billion. But the stores, shops, and services whose customers were the "middle rich," such as brokers or traders in Lehman Brothers or AIG, are suddenly finding their stores, restaurants, and shops empty and their phones silent. Of course, they will come back after the economy turns around, but only AFTER, not AS it turns around.

3. This brings up again the question of what kind of economy do we want to have:
--one that is built on the economic power of the few rich, or one based on the economic power of the many middle and working class?
--one based on full time work with appropriate benefits, or one based on part-time work with the social safety net entirely provided by the government?
--one that is based on the idea that every adult must work, no matter what their family responsibilities, or one where a single wage earner can support a family in reasonable security?

Sunday, March 22, 2009


My town is essentially a big-box store town. 2 Wal-Marts, 2 Lowes, a Home Depot, a Target, a Barnes and Noble (mall store), a Belk's (mall store), a Sears (mall store), a Penney's (mall store), a Books-A-Million, 2 K-marts.

We also have a few of the older stand-alone clothing stores, hardware stores, and variety stores.

Our downtown (Court Street) is dead, but it wasn't killed off by Wal-Mart or the mall; it was killed off by the growth pattern of the city. Most of the new houses were not convenient to downtown. Now Old Jacksonville has the lowest population density of any of the wards of the city. Retailers don't locate there because there is not a large enough customer base, unless the business caters to the lawyers and others that work around the court house. It is significant that the restaurants in the downtown area are open for breakfast and lunch, but not for dinner; there are simply too few people in the area after the court closes for the day.

Wal-Mart is blamed for ruining downtown and killing off the locally-owned (Mom and Pop) stores. But that is blaming the symptom for the disease. Sam Walton was not a visionary who invented something that never would have been though of if he had not thought of it. He was a visionary because he thought of something that inevitably was going to happen first. If it hadn't been Wal-Mart, it would have been Smith-Mart, or Jones-Mart, or Someonelse-Mart. Whoever thought of the idea, and had the energy and skill to push to push it through, could have done what Sam did.

Globalization is real, and among its effects we must count the increasing effectiveness of large-scale retailers in taking advantages of it. Wal-Mart and Target and Best Buy can can afford to hire people to scour the world for the best prices and the cheapest shipping, to bring things to the US from China, India, Indonesia, and the other industrializing countries.

But that may be changing.

As the Internet becomes more pervasive, and as businesses become more adept at using it, smaller retailers may discover that they can do the things Wal-Mart does. While Pop tends the counter, Mom may be on the net negotiating with a factory in Shanghai. Because they cannot buy in the bulk of a Wal-Mart, they may not get quite the price of the big boxes, but they can get close enough that their advantage in a closer, less crowded location, better service, and a willingness to cater to the needs of individual customers will give them a secure customer base.

Finally, not everyone shops at Wal-Mart for price alone. The only time I shop at Wal-Mart, almost everything else is closed. When I need something at the last minute for a trip that starts at 5:00 a.m., I buy it from Wal-Mart or, too often, I can't get it at all. I go to Wal-Mart faute de mieux--for the lack of a better alternative.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Happy St. Urho's Day

St. Urho was a hermit who lived in Finland in the Dark Ages. When a plague of locusts threatened the grape crops of Finland, and the destruction of Finnish wine production. The saint was appealed to by the Finnish vintners, and he went to the top of a mountain looking down on the main area of viniculture. There he prayed day and night, then took a pitchfork and went down to the valley, chanting his holy chant, "Heinäsirkka, heinäsirkka, mene täältä hiiteen," loosely translated as "Locusts, locusts, go to h3ll." A strong wind suddenly came up and blew the whole swarm out into the Gulf of Bothnia.

Ever since then, March 16 has been St. Urho Day. People drink Finnish wine and sing Finnish songs. They wear purple and green to remind themselves of the grapes and the vines saved by the holy hermit. If they can't find Finnish wine, they drink beer with purple food coloring in it.

Of course, there are certain problems . . .

Grape vines have never thrived in Finland.

There have never been swarms of locusts in Finland.

Since there were no grape vines, there could have been no vintners.

And finally, there is no record of St. Urho in any Finnish manuscripts of the time.

In fact, the earliest mention of this saint was in northern Minnesota, by a learned loremaster named Richard Mattson, who was also a manager of Kotala's Department Store in Virginia, MN, who used this historical personage as an excuse for a sale and a party.

So if you want to start celebrating St. Patrick's Day a little early, here is a great excuse.

All together now:
"Heinäsirkka, heinäsirkka, mene täältä hiiteen"
"Heinäsirkka, heinäsirkka, mene täältä hiiteen"
"Heinäsirkka, heinäsirkka, mene täältä hiiteen"

Thursday, March 12, 2009


I have been having trouble maintaining my blood sugar on certain days. When I go to Lions Club, they have great food, and peanuts. I eat too much and my glucose gets all messed up.

When I can ride my bike, I can usually keep my glucose down, but when the weather is bad, I often find that I don't take the time to go to the gym and work out on the stationary bikes or elliptical trainers there.

Just a sulky rant.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

What are we leaving our children?

A lot has been said and written about the massive debts we are running up in an effort to stem the economic crisis. The constant complaint is that these debts will be a burden to our grandchildren.

What I think is being overlooked is what we will be leaving our grandchildren if we don't deal with this economic crisis effectively.

In the late 80's and early 90's, Japan went through the same kind of property bubble we have gone through. The Japanese government, afraid of debt, did not move strongly enough. They started a few, very large stimulus projects and propped up the banks, but did not reform them. They did this over and over, putting patch on top of patch, but never dealing with the fundamental weaknesses of their structure. The result has been a period of no growth, followed by very slow growth. As a result, the children of the generation in charge when the bubble burst have inherited a massive debt and inflexible, ineffective system that no longer has the power to respond strongly to the current situation. They dribbled out unused airports and unnecessary bridges, spending slowly what might have worked if they had spent it all at once. They kept zombie banks operating, sucking money from the economy and not passing it on in the forms of loans.

Back in the Second World War II, our government created a massive (for the time and the value of the dollar) national debt. But we won the war; the problem the money was spent on was solved. As a result, we could leave it behind and turn our attention to building our country and the world. So massive debts will not harm our grandchildren provided we solve the problem we ran up the debts to deal with.

That is so important I will say it again: massive debts will not harm our grandchildren provided we solve the problem we ran up the debts to deal with.

As I see it, whe have these choices:

1. Intervene massively and solve the problem, leaving our children free to turn their attention and effort to growth and innovation.

2. Intervene ineffectively and fail to solve the problem, letting it grow until it paralyzes the economy, locking our children into a paralyzed, ineffective system.

3. Do nothing and hope that the invisible hand of the markets will cause everything to work out--without regard to how long it may take for the invisible hand to do its work or how much people may suffer in the interim. And I am not talking about inconvenience in the interim; I am talking about real suffering--hunger, homelessness, and a permanent underclass lacking the very basics to benefit from whatever good outcome the invisible hand may, possibly, produce. Along with the high possibility that the Keynesians are right in this: the invisible hand will not work at all in this case, because when we finish our fall, it will have nothing to work with.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Twirling the flag

In the mid-70s, I went to a high school game between the school where I was teaching and a very rural high school in a very poor and rural county.

We were playing on their field. Many of our players were the sons or grandsons of Marines, who had come out to see their boys play.

At the beginning of the game, the home team's band came out on the field to play the National Anthem. They had a flag team, with 2 girls carrying the national and state flag, and two others with wooden rifles as an honor guard. We all stood up and removed our hats, the band played, and the flag and honor guard marched off.

At halftime, the band came back on the field to perform its program, and the flag team came out with it. Most of the girls had banners with the school colors, but two of them still carried the US and NC flags. The music started, the girls on the flag team began their routine, waving and twirling with the flags--including the national and state flag.

I thought the Marines in our stands were going to have collective heart failure!

When the young lady threw up and caught the US flag along with the others, you could hear a collective gasp.

Several of them wanted to go in a body to the band leader and tell him off Marine style. But a retired colonel and the civilians among us (including their wives) finally convinced everyone that a confrontation there, on their field, at their school, and in their county, might not be a strategically good idea.

What they finally decided to do was to get a copy of the USMC flag manual and send it to the school with a letter advising them that they needed to handle the flag more respectfully.

This was done. The next time I happened to see that school's band perform, the flag was not twirled.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The poverty effect

During the housing boom (or, as we now know, the housing bubble), many people felt richer than their incomes might have indicated because their house had increased so much in estimated value. They took out home equity loans and other loans to buy things they would not otherwise have considered buying. They felt that, if necessary, they could sell their house at such a profit as to be able to clear their debts and still leave enough to buy another house. Some people even made this a practice, buying a run-down house and refurbishing it and "flipping" it with a profitable resale.

Economic reporters called this feeling that a house was a storehouse of value that you could tap to improve your lifestyle, the wealth effect. It led people to buy more, spend more, and rack up more debts.

Now that we are in a recession, many of those people who enjoyed the wealth effect are suffering from the poverty effect. Some of them are really much poorer than they were, having lost their jobs, their health insurance, and their house to foreclosure.

The poverty effect, however, is spreading beyond this group. Many young people with good and stable jobs have looked at the falling values of their 401k's and gone into panic mode. The fear of losing your job is real; it is wise and reasonable to take precautions. It is wise to revisit your 401k and put whatever is left into more conservative investments for the time being. It is wise to increase savings and decrease waste in your daily expenses. It may be wise to postpone getting that new car or replacing your living room furniture until you are sure of your job situation.

But the poverty effect can lead to irrational behavior as much as the wealth effect. If you are in your 50's and your 401k had sunk like a rock, you are facing serious problems. But if you are in your 30's, you still have thirty more years of work and investment to repair that damage. You may never get back to where you appeared to be at the top of the boom, but you can reach a level of safety. And, in fact, you never really were as well off as you thought at the top of the boom: like the invisible assets of so many toxic bonds, you had imaginary wealth, like the imaginary food in old tales that seemed real, but evaporated when you swallowed it.

It is wise to postpone replacement of a good, reliable car. It is unwise to skimp on its maintenance to save money, or to hold on to it when it has become unsafe.

It is wise to try to take care of minor problems yourself. It is unwise to try to take care of things that are beyond your skill because plumbers or electricians are expensive. The fifty or one hundred dollars you might have saved is nothing to the result of a flooded house or one burned down by an electrical fire.

It is wise to cut back on luxuries, but homeowners and liability insurance is not a luxury. Yes, you've had your house for ten years and never needed it. But that is no guarantee; during Hurricane Floyd, part of North Carolina flooded that had not flooded since before the Civil War. You may be able to save on premiums by raising your deductible, but if you raise it to a point where you don't have the cash to cover it readily available, you are actually worse off than before.

Above all, we all need to remember that this is not going to last forever. We have gone through these situations before. The Great Depression was long and difficult, but it ended. The panics before it ended. The recessions since the Depression ended. And this will end.

I am not being Pollyanna. I know we are in trouble, and that closing our eyes and whistling "Happy Days Are Here Again" is not going to solve the problems we face.

But neither is panic and irrationalism.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Unemployment for part-time workers

As I understand it, several governors are asking their legislatures to refuse that part of the stimulus money that extends benefits for part-time workers who lose their jobs. The governors of South Carolina, Louisiana, and Mississippi are among them.

These governors feel that such an addition to the unemployment insurance program, if begun, would be politically difficult to end. Once the stimulus money is gone, the state would then have to increase unemployment insurance premiums on businesses in the state, adding to their expenses.

All of that is true.

What they are not saying is that it has become a common practice for many businesses to hire many part-time workers instead of a smaller number of full-time workers deliberately, just so they will not have to pay benefits to those workers. Wal-Mart is not the only major chain that practices this.

One result of this practice has been to exacerbate the health care crisis by adding to the number of workers without health care.

Another has been to increase the number of working poor: people who have a job, but don't earn enough to sustain an adequate standard of living. These people further strain social service benefits, such as food stamps, housing assistance, etc.

In other words, to keep the cost of their business down, some businesses are deliberately acting to force the local and state governments to accept greater expenses. The taxpayer is being forced to assume the costs these businesses are refusing to pay. They are doing this very rationally; a good businessman acts to increase profits and/or decrease expenses. They do it because it is legal. It is an unintended consequence of the original decision to exclude part-time workers from unemployment insurance when that program was set up.

We need to decide if we are going to become a full-time or part-time labor economy. If we are going to make it economically advantageous for businesses to hire part-time workers instead of full-time ones, we need to structure our system so that the national, state, and local governments are prepared to take on the social costs of that decision.

In the long run, I think such a decision would be wrong economically, socially, and ethically. I believe it would increase the percentage of working poor at the expense of the middle class. I think it would greatly increase the tax burden on every level of government.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Recession and the motorcycle industry

I wonder how this recession will affect the motorcycle manufacturing industry? I think we may end up very glad that MG is affiliated with Piaggio, which seems to be one of the manufacturers that is set to weather the storm. Piaggio's strong presence in the scooter market gives it an income stream that is likely to resist the downturn. In fact, as people look for cheaper vehicles, they may prosper. And while they do, our marque will last, if only because the Italian government insists that it last.

Honda and the other Japanese manufacturers are part of very large industrial concerns that are likely to weather the storm.

Royal Enfield is part of a large Indian transportation group, Eicher Group.

BMW is also part of a larger manufacturing concern.

Harley has enormous reserves. If the recession lasts too long, however, they may also find it hard to adjust their product mix. Piaggio sells Guzzis as well as scooters. Harley sells Harleys, and their past offerings of cheaper bikes have not gone over well. For one thing, can they retool to produce much smaller motors?

Victory, which is part of Polaris, may have a good chance.

It is the smaller marques that may suffer the most. Ducati and Triumph may have a harder time. Mergers with stronger firms may hold the best outlook for them.

I think that in 5 years we may have a much smaller range of marques.

What I would do about the current economic crisis

I would do what Henry Paulson said he was going to do and did not do, and what still has not been done.

I would create a program to buy the unsalable toxic assets of the banks--mostly collateralized mortgage packages that contain an unknown amount of sub-prime mortgages that cannot be valued. I would buy them at an amount greater midway between their salvage value (8-10 cents on the dollar) and their face value--around 60 cents on the dollar.

I would place them in a fund where, as those mortgages that were sound were paid off, the money could accumulate to repay the government for their initial investment. In the long run (10-15 yrs.), I think the entire cost could be amortized, so that the program would cost the government nothing.

Many banks are resisting the sale of these assets. Some still hope this crisis will be short (4-5 yrs) and they can recoup their investment. More are unwilling, by revealing how much of these assets they have, to reveal how stupidly they behaved during the real estate bubble. I would use the regulatory authority of the government to compel a sale.

From the beginning, the current problems have been caused by the toxic assets that are weighing down the banks and destroying their ability or willingness to lend. Everyone has said this, yet no one seems willing to do anything about it. They remain there, month after month, the recession drags on month after month. We create programs to deal with the consequences of their effects, but we do nothing to deal with the cause.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

GM kills Saturn, Hummer, and Pontiac

As part of their reorganization plan being presented to Congress, GM will shut down or spin off Saturn, Hummer, and Saab. GM will also end Pontiac as a separate division, retaining a few models that will be sold at GMC dealers. It's about time.

In the Roger Smith era, GM reduced the individuality of its brands. In essence, when you saw a car coming down the road, you knew it was a GM product, but until it got close enough to see the badge, you often didn't know which GM marque it was. This was a disaster. The distinctions and marketing differentials the various divisions worked for years to build up were wiped away. Every attempt to re-establish those differences has failed except for Cadillac, which has managed to regain its reputation in the luxury car market, just as Lincoln has been losing theirs.

GM needs two divisions with separate dealer networks: Chevrolet and Cadillac. The Chevy division should have Corvette as a draw, and the Caddy division should sell the Crossfire as its rival. Chevy could sell Chevy trucks, and Cadillac could sell GMAC trucks.

Very few people will miss Buick. Saturn will be a lost opportunity. I hope someone will buy Saab, preferably to return it to Sweden, where it got its original reputation as a superb but quirky car.

Ford has already gone this way: There are Ford dealers and Lincoln-Mercury dealers, with Mercury being only a few models to attract younger buyers. But unless Ford begins to pay real attention to Lincoln, it will lose this brand as well. While Cadillac has finally managed to build some fast, sporty upscale models, Lincolns continue to be huge, clumsy Interstate cruisers. Sorry, but if I had the money for a Lincoln, I would not get one. And I am at the age where comfortable cars are a real draw, belonging to the War Baby generation, before the Baby Boom. If I had the money, I would buy a Jaguar. Why can't Ford build cars that handle like Jags in its Lincoln plants? They once owned Jaguar, so they should know the technology.

Chrysler tried to merge with Mercedes, and is now trying an "alliance" with Fiat. It isn't going to work unless Fiat is able to cut off the entire top leadership of Chrysler and start over. The current Chrysler management still has a "Big 3" mentality, thinking of Chrysler as an equal or superior partner in any merger. They aren't. But that arrogant attitude will ruin the culture in any merged company, as it ruined the merger with Mercedes.

Finally, Americans need to learn how to build luxury cars. I'm sorry, but no matter how realistic the interior plastic looks when it's new, it's still plastic, not wood, and you can tell. And vinyl is not and never will be leather.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The stimulus package and its opponents

This is why bipartisanship did not work on the stimulus package, in my opinion.

The Democrats and the Republicans have two entirely different theories about how the economy works. These theories, strongly held on both sides, determine what each party believes is the best way to deal with the current economic downturn.

The Republicans believe that market conditions are self-correcting--this theory is sometimes known as the "invisible hand of the market." If the market goes down, demand will shrink until prices begin to fall. When prices fall sufficiently, demand will rise again, and the downturn will become an upturn. In their opinion, the best thing the government can do in a downturn is to get out of the way and let the market work smoothly, doing only whatever is necessary to prevent absolute want. Part of that getting out of the way is reducing taxes, to put more money in the hands of businesses and individuals. The great economic theorists that support these beliefs are Adam Smith and Joseph Schumpeter.

Most Democrats believe that all of the above is true
most of the time. But, in exceptional circumstances, they believe that the market may lose the power to self-correct. In other words, the normal cycles of ups and downs predicted by Smith and Schumpeter may, under certain circumstances, run out of control. One of the things that might cause this is a structural flaw in the market system. In such a case, the government can't just get out of the way of the market, because the market will spiral down to catastrophe, as it did in Germany prior to the rise of the Nazis. When such a "death spiral" begins, they think the only force that can prevent it is for the government to create and pump stimulus in the form of deficit spending (to be repaid when the crisis is over). The gurus of this view are John Maynard Keynes, Paul Krugman, and Joseph Stiglitz.

The Republicans believe that most of the predictions that we are entering a "death spiral" at the present time are overblown and alarmist. Yes, things are bad, but in their view, not so bad as to require huge deficit spending. Indeed they fear such spending will create huge inflationary pressure once this downturn comes to its natural end, as they think it will. They believe that the markets will indeed self-correct.

The Democrats believe the subprime mortgage crisis and the resulting blow to bank liquidity have created the kind of structural flaw that will prevent the markets from self-correcting. They point flaws in the banking system in 1929 caused by a lack of a system for guaranteeing bank deposits. These flaws meant that when the banks wished to inject capital in the markets, they could not, and that the same conditions exist today. Therefore, they believe that only quick, massive, and decisive action by the government can prevent the "death spiral" which they fear we have begun to enter.

Notice that these viewpoints make it very hard to compromise. If you believe we are not yet in an out-of-control situation, as most Republicans believe, then you think all this huge stimulus will do is create a huge wave of inflation in a few years. High inflation is a very cruel thing, especially for the poor.

On the other hand, if you believe we are in a systemic crisis, as most of the Democrats believe, you think that if we fail to act strongly now, we will create a situation that may be uncorrectable for many years--years of joblessness and misery.

Please note that there are degrees of agreement with both theories in the academic community and in the political community as well. Some Democrats (who voted against the stimulus in the House) are not convinced the situation is out of control. Some Republicans (the 3 who voted for the stimulus bill in the Senate) believe we may indeed be getting to a crisis point.

Both sides are sincere, I think. They sincerely hold views that lead them to opposite conclusions as to the best way to act. They are not traitors or buffoons, but principled people who disagree.

For the record: I have attempted to put the views of both sides as neutrally as I could. I personally think the banking crisis points to a serious structural flaw in the market system and that the danger of an out-of-control economic fall is real; in other words, I agree with the Democrats. Indeed, I believe that the current stimulus bill is, if anything, much too small. Nevertheless, I respect the positions of those who agree with the Republicans, and deplore the nasty tone and vicious attacks that BOTH sides have engaged in.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The blame game and the economic mess

Letting the chips fall where they may is all very well as long as the ones that fall on you are few and small.

But when the chips falling where they may, means that you lose your income, your health insurance, or your house, then what others call a chip may look a lot like an avalanche to you.

Part of our defense against fear is generalizing that the others who are harmed "earned" it. I saw this a lot in Vietnam. He got wounded because he didn't wear his flak vest. I always wear my flak vest, so it can't happen to me. This defensive blame game is very easy to play.

The same rationale appears today, They are losing their home because the took out too big a mortgage. I was careful not to overextend myself on my mortgage, so it will not happen to me.

But I learned in Vietnam that being careful and thoughtful and doing the wisest and best thing doesn't always save you. Buddies of mine who were more careful, more skilled, and more experienced than me died, and careless, foolish guys lived. When you are in a bad place, bad things happen--and they can happen to you just as easily as they can happen to others. Until we realize this, we cannot really do the things we need to do that might actually help save us.

Right now, we are all in a bad place, and the defensive blame game is in full cry. You read and hear it all the time. The people losing their homes got mortgages that were too big. The people losing their jobs didn't keep up with their skills so as to remain competitive. All of the businesses that failed were run by greedy, incompetent people and deserve to fail.

All of that is untrue: many people who bought houses that by traditional standards were completely affordable are losing their houses, many well-trained people who kept up with their skills so as to remain competitive are losing their jobs, and many perfectly good businesses that were run by prudent, careful operators are being forced to close.

We need to get out of this blame game, however comforting it may be. Unless you are in the Bill Gates class, this downturn will affect you, even if so far you have been lucky.

Schadenfreude, pleasure at the misfortunes of others, is an ugly emotion. More important, it is a counterproductive one. As long as we blame greedy bankers, foolish mortgagees, and stupid business managers, we are like children who laugh when the sand castles of others are washed away by the tide. We keep forgetting that the tide will wash ours away too.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Buying a used car

Anyone buying a used car should get a car history from CarFax. Quazen has a checklist that you can use. Here is a list from Consumer Reports about best and worst models of used cars.

One thing that has changed over the last few decades is the expected life of a car. Back in the 70's, most people felt they were lucky to get 100,000 miles out of a car before it was so worn out in all its major components that it was essentially worthless.

Since then, the Japanese (primarily) and the Ko reans have raised the stakes, and many makers have responded. American and European have also improved in quality--with the possible exception of Mercedes and Volkswagen. Today it is very common for a car to last 150,000 miles, and many of them last 200,000 miles. This means they last that long without a major failure of a main component. Mercedes and VW have not so much gotten worse as simply stood still, so that now what would have been a perfectly good quality car in the 60s is now below average.

So if you are looking for a "new" used car, do not dismiss cars with more than 100,000 miles.

Do you have a friend who is a mechanic? Does your school, or the HS in your attendance district, have an auto shop program? Do you know its teacher? Ask them what they would charge you to give any used car you buy a good going over and tell you about any obvious mechanical problems. A pressure test on the cylinder heads can give you a good idea of how much the engine is worn. A careful check of the brakes, suspension parts (tie rod ends, shocks, etc.), transmission, differential, and exhaust. Ask them to give the car a quick once over before you buy it--looking for things like blown head gaskets or sawdust in the transmission or differential, and let the buyer know that if the after-purchase check shows something major, you will want a refund of part of the price. If the owner refuses, walk away.

Expect to replace hoses and belts, the fuel, oil, and air filters, the oil, battery, and coolant. If you can do any of these yourself you can save a lot of money. Changing the battery is very easy: AutoZone or CarQuest will test your battery for free and help you change it.

There are a lot of people who are "junk shoppers." They usually have a measure of mechanical knowledge and enjoy working on cars. They will buy a real junker car for $100-$500, then keep it working for a year or two, then sell it for scrap, and buy another. They often do this for a second car, but some will do it for their only or primary vehicle.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The mystique and reality of Moto Guzzi

Moto Guzzi is an Italian motorcycle manufacturer that specializes in bikes with a unique engine configuration. They are the oldest continuously-operating motorcycle manufacturer in Europe, and the second-oldest (after Harley-Davidson) still making bikes. They make comparatively few machines every year, assemble them by hand, and sell them in the US through a very tiny dealer network.

They have been in the past powerful agents of change and progress in the motorcycle world. Many great experiments in cycle design and manufacture have been tried by Moto Guzzi. As in all such cases, some have failed, but some have succeeded brilliantly.

The current products of Moto Guzzi are unique. No other manufacturer produces a full line of 45-degree V-twin engines set perpendicular to the main axis of the frame, using a shaft drive. The only marque that comes close is the BMW parallel twin engine, with its cylinders set at 180 degrees opposition, instead of 90 degrees. They are excellent bikes, but they are big, fat, wide bikes--in comparison to Guzzis.

Guzzis have a unique look, an unmistakable sound, and a very different feel.

They are not the biggest, the fastest, the most responsive, the cheapest, or the most fashionable bikes. They excel in no single category.

Except character. Or if you prefer, soul. Or perhaps feel. or maybe you prefer passion.

Those of us who ride them speak of the "character," or "soul" or "feel" or "heart" or "passion" of our Guzzis. We are not talking about something abstract caused by our adherence to a specific brand. We are talking about something that is real and concrete, but not quantifiable. It is something so many riders have felt that it has become impossible to say it is just a subjective impression caused by our love for our marque.

People who have no love for the marque have ridden Guzzis. When they ride them for a short time, they may feel nothing. But I have never read a review from a person who has ridden a Guzzi every day for a month that denied that there was something about a Guzzi that was different from every other bike he had ridden. He may like it, or he may hate it, but he will never deny that it exists.

It is a combination of all the characteristics of a bike: its geometry, its engine, its suspension, its riding position, its control locations, its sound, its speed, its responsiveness, its very method of moving you from one point to another. There is no single number, and no set of numbers, that can quantify it. But if you ride a Guzzi for a time, you will feel it.

I am giving every single biker who reads this log a challenge and a warning:

Go out and ride a Guzzi. Not a momentary ride around the block, a long, varied ride over several days and a considerable distance. You may be captivated, or you may be repelled.

But you will never forget.

Monday, February 2, 2009

A winter poem by Alfred Kreymburg

A Pantomime of Beads

Earth Voice
Thoughtless of life,
A lover of imminent death,
Nun Snow
Touching her strings of white beads?
Is it her unseen hands
Which urge the beads to tremble?
Does Nun Snow,
Aware of the death she must die alone,
Away from the nuns
Of the green beads,
Of the ochre and brown,
Of the purple and black
Does she improvise
Along those soundless strings
In the worldly hope
That the answering, friendly tune,
The faithful, folk-like miracle,
Will shine in a moment or two?

Moon Voice
Or peradventure,
Are the beads merely wayward,
On an evening so soft,
And One Wind
Is so gentle a mesmerist
As he draws them and her with his hand?

Earth Voice
Was it Full Moon,
Who contrives tales of this order,
And himself loves the heroine,
Nun Snow

Wind Voice
Do you see his beads courting hers?
Lascivious monk!-

Earth Voice
Was it Full Moon,
Slyly innocent of guile,
Propounder of sorrowless whimseys,
Who breathed that suspicion?
Is it One Wind,
The wily, scholarly pedant
Is it he who retorts?

Wind Voice
Like olden allegros
In olden sonatas,
All tales have two themes,
She is beautiful,
He is beautiful,
With the traditional movement,
Their beads court each other,
Revealing a cadence as fatally true
As the sum which follows a one-plus-one
So, why inquire further?
Nay, inquire further,
Deduce it your fashion!
Nun Snow,
As you say,
Touches her strings of white beads,
Full Moon,
Let you add,
His lute of yellow strings;
And, our Night
Is square, nay,
Our Night
Is round, nay
Our Night
Is a blue balcony
And therewith close your inquisition!

Earth Voice
Who urged the beads to tremble?
They're still now!
Fallen, or cast over me!
Nun, Moon, and Wind are gone!
Are they betraying her?

Moon Voice
Ask our Night.

Earth Voice
Did the miracle appear?

Moon Voice
Ask our Night,
Merely a child on a balcony,
Letting down her hair and
Black beads, a glissando
Ask her what she means,
Dropping the curtain so soon!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Bambi myth

Too many city and suburban people today suffer from an overly-romanticized view of animals, which some call Bambiism. They may not actually think deer, rabbits, and other animals talk to each other, but they impute to them human awareness and human emotions. Some of them say, and some may actually believe, that the life of an animal is equal in value to the life of a human.

Don't get me wrong; I hate cruelty to animals. The practices of some factory farms are revolting. But that is a far cry from believing that a sheep, a cow, a pig, or a dog, are morally equal to a human being. As between the life or safety of a human being, however depraved, and the life or safety of an animal, however noble in appearance or rare, then there is no choice in my mind. May I point out that there is also no choice in the animal's mind; a mother wolf or bear will attack a human to protect its young. The only difference is that I will attack a wolf or bear who attacks a human being who is not related to me, and a wolf or bear would not.

Nor do I believe that a swift and painless slaughter of animals for food is cruel. Our dentition alone shows that humans are not purely herbivores. If you wish to be a vegetarian on grounds of health, religion, or any other reason, you can certainly do so. But do not pretend that eating meat is unnatural for humans.

Wild or uncontrolled dogs are actually more dangerous than wolves. Dogs do not have an instinctual fear of humans, as wolves do. A dog that will attack your pet in your yard will attack you, especially if that dog is in a group. Wolves, through generations of experience, have developed an instinct to flee humans.

I wrote this post as a result of reading and hearing about several dog attacks in the last few days. In one case, a dog uncontrolled by its owner came onto a person's property and attacked a family pet. The owner of the property and the pet came out and shot the dog. As this happened outside the town limits, the sheriff said the property owner was perfectly within his rights. Several acquaintances of mine were horrified that the cruel man shot the pretty dog. I wasn't. I was horrified that the owner allowed a dog to run free without restraint.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Boil water advisory ended

The city robocalled about 5:30 to report that tests showed no contamination of the water supply had taken place and the boil water advisory was at an end. Very good!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Boil water advisory

Around noon, I got an automated call from the city government saying that a contractor had breached a city water main and there was a possibility of water contamination. The southern half of the city was under a "boil water" advisory; if you wished to use tap water for drinking, cooking, brushing teeth, etc. you were advised to boil it first for at least one minute.

Subsequently, I've heard reports that the repairs to the line should be completed sometimes around 7:30 p.m. EST, but it would take 22 hours to complete the tests proving the water is safe. This will mean we will be without potable tap water until at least Saturday afternoon, and perhaps longer.

The advisory noted that their was no proof that the city's water had been contaminated, but it was possible that, as a result of the reduced pressure in the line after it had been damaged, that unpurified water had seeped into the line.

As a clerk in one store told me, "Welcome to the Third World!"

Redoubt Vocano in Alaska

The Alaska Volcano Observatory reports that Redoubt Volcano, across the Cook inlet from Anchorage is showing signs of volcanic activity. They have put it under an aviation watch and are monitoring it full time. They have a live webcam in place that observes it and streams images to the Internet, but at this time of the year, the days there are very short. Here is an image of the volcano and a map showing its location.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Adam Davidson speaks in New Bern, NC

Adam is the NPR editor for economic affairs, and he gave an excellent talk about the origins and implications of the current economic situation. He spoke at Craven Community College in New Bern, NC.

What most impressed me was his admission that not only did he not fully know how everything works, but that, in fact, no one knows--and even that the full situation is so snarled that no one can know it.

He is an excellent speaker. I would enjoy reading his thoughts on this situation, when he has to chance to write a book about them.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Rose Art Museum to close

Brandeis University will close its Rose Art Museum and sell the collection in order to strengthen its endowment. I wonder if it will sell its library next?

Both the economy and the Academy are in terrible shape when great and beautiful artifacts in a university are regarded as economic assets which can be sold, and not treasures to be guarded.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Last week it snowed

Here is one of the pictures I saved. It shows my house in the late afternoon of Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

More about rescuing my pictures

It seems I made a rather stupid error when I saved all my pictures to the same file. I am now, rather slowly, moving them one at a time to a series of different files, with no more than 20 pictures in each one. Because of the size of the files, this is slow. But it is working.

Here is one image I have saved. It shows the finish at the Camp Lejeune Run for the Warriors 2008, a run to raise funds and awareness about the Wounded Warrior Battalion there. A Marine is running with a wounded warrior, who made the run in his wheelchair. His buddy ran beside him the whole way, encouraging him and even helping him on the hills.

I participated as a member of the Patriot Guard Riders. We provided escort and road guards for the runners. It was truly a moving experience.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Kay Yow is dead at age 66

She died of cancer while on leave from her post as women's basketball coach at N.C. State University. She had long battled breast cancer.

She had missed the last several games this year, but I know everyone who knew her was hoping that she would bounce back again, as she had in the past.

She was a courageous woman and a great role model for young people. My sympathy and prayers go out to all who knew and admired her.

This link connects you to her New York Times obituary.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Harley is having troubles

Harley-Davidson, the world's oldest continuing motorcycle manufacturer, has been forced to close one factory, laying off more than 1,000 workers. It's financing arm is seeking to be part of the government's financial bailout, like GMAC was.

Personally, I feel that if GMAC is going to be bailed out, Ford, Chrysler, and Harley's financial subsidiaries should be eligible as well. So should GE Capital and other loan makers for goods. If we want to pump up our industries by having people buy, then we must have places where they can get financing. Most of us can't simply walk out and buy a car or a washer and dryer for cash. And these dedicated credit arms offer far better terms than credit cards do.

I know, a Harley (or a Guzzi) is not a necessity. But some kind of reliable transportation is for almost everyone. And although fancy backyard grills are luxuries, most families really do need a washer and a dryer.

As a biker, I am very concerned about how the state of the economy is affecting the motorcycle industry. Harley probably has capital to weather the storm. Piaggio, which owns Moto Guzzi, is the major scooter maker in Europe, and scooter sales actually tend to go up with the economy goes down, as they offer cheaper transportation than a car. The Japanese marques are all affliated with major industrial concerns. But I think that a lot of smaller marques may go under, especially if they are stand-alone operations. I wonder about Triumph, Ducati, and Victory. Are they part of larger operations? How well can they weather a big turndown? And if the turndown is big enough, can even Harley and Piaggio weather it?

I do not have a Harley, partly because the models I like are out of my financial reach, but mostly because I like Guzzis so much. I just think they are cooler-looking bikes.

At the top is a picture of a red Moto Guzzi Breva 750ie, like mine.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Recovering my pictures--slowly

It appears that I may be able to recover many or all of my pictures, but only very slowly. My camera is a 10 megapixel Olympus, and the picture files are huge. Apparently, I can recover them, but only very slowly. I'm glad I won't lose all of them. But it will take a long time to get them all.

The snow here is mostly melted, but there were a few places this morning, where the road was shadowed, that ice remained. Driving was treacherous. Temps today got up to the 50-degree range, so I hope that most of that is gone. Nevertheless, I passed several accidents today.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Motorcycle break-in

I am going to restate something I just posted on, a discussion board for owners and fans of the greatest motorcycles in the world, Moto Guzzi.

It addresses an old problem: the fact that most bikes have break-in periods during which you are asked by the manufacturer to voluntarily limit how hard you ride the bike. Moto Guzzi has a particularly long break-in, with a series of gradually diminishing restrictions in RPM.

Some bikers (I am one) try to follow the restrictions as well as we can. Others advocate the "ride it like you stole it" philosophy: start riding the bike the way you intend to ride it all the time.

I look at it this way:

The manufacturer knows that bike buyers want to run their new bikes hard or at least without niggling restrictions, and they certainly don't want to deliberately do things that makes new buyers have a negative opinion of their product.

But they also know the cost of warranty work, especially as it directly affects their bottom line.

So when a manufacturer takes the risk of alienating their customers by putting in those break-in restrictions, they must be calculating that the cost of increased warranty work on bikes that have not been broken in correctly is greater than the cost of lost repeat business because of break-in restrictions.

If it is that important for the manufacturer, it must be important to the motorcycle. And as I pay a good bit of money for my motorcycle, I want it to last a loooooong time.
A commentator on NPR just observed that President Nixon when he resigned, had a higher approval rating that President George W. Bush had when he left office. I wonder if that is deserved.

Nixon was a crook, and did great damage to our political system, although he also had positive achievements, such as the opening to China and beginning the peace process in Vietnam.

George W. Bush, for all faults, is an honest man, but also did great damage to our political system. His positive achievements are fewer: working for better health in Africa, presiding over a very smooth and orderly and gracious transition.

So the question is: is it better for the nation to have a high-achieving crook or an honest but less able man as President?

On the whole, I am inclined to say that the nation benefits more from a highly-able man, crooked or not. Obviously, it is better to have an honest man (or woman) of high ability than a crook.

But in either case, we need for Congress to take more seriously its oversight function. I know how difficult it is to impeach the President, but the Congress can also impeach other officials. I was astonished that, when various Cabinet-level and below officials refused to obey the subpoena of various committees, they faced no real sanctions. If a person in the Executive Branch is told, "You will answer our questions, or you will not only lose your job, you will lose your pension, and never be able to work for any part of the United States government again," I think most would answer.

On another matter, it is increasingly clear that my pictures have been lost. A great shame.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Lost pictures

I have a Western Digital Passport as a backup device and auxiliary hard drive, onto which I have downloaded several hundred pictures. Now I can't get them to open. I hope I have not lost all my pictures.

I have subscribed to webshots as an online repository, but I have not been having much luck uploading to them, even for pictures that were not on the Passport.

I think I will have to stick to Photobucket.

Getting started with a new President

It may seem strange that a retired teacher wants to start a blog so late in his career, but I feel a need to start something new and different as a new (and quite different) President comes in.

I have already noticed that two controversies have arisen about President Obama's inauguration:
  • Aretha Franklin's singing of America: I cannot hear her saying "shut up," as some others have heard. To me, she is riffing on "let it," as in "let it ring."
  • Rev. Joseph Lowery's prayer. I can't understand what the fuss is about. He prayed that the Lord will help white people embrace the right. As a white person, I thank him. I hope the Lord will let me embrace the right, also. He didn't say that no one else was ever wrong. He didn't even say that EVERY white person needed to embrace the right. Yet I have read that he is engaging in hate speech. How is praying that someone will embrace the right, hate speech?
In any case, good luck to President Obama. He will need it. Things are not very good right now, and promise to be not-so-good for a long time.


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About Me

Jacksonville, N.C., United States
Retired teacher, motorcyclist, member of the Patriot Guard Riders, the Christian Motorcyclists Association, and the Moto Guzzi National Owners Club.