Friday, July 30, 2010

Summer Reading List

To help understand how we got here. In no particular order:

"Nixonland," Rick Perlstein. The original sin of contemporary American politics.
"The Looming Tower," Lawrence Wright. Al Qaeda without the hyperventilation.
"The Big Con," Jonathan Chait. Explaining modern snake oil economics. (Surprise: Dick Cheney was there at the creation)
"Legacy of Ashes," Tim Weiner. Why our relations with the world at large are so utterly dysfunctional.
"The Shock Doctrine," Naomi Klein. Chicago-school economics forced upon the world at gunpoint under the guise of "freedom."

"Nixonland" is particularly interesting for me because I grew up in a household that recognized Richard Milhous Nixon for the devil he was; the Watergate hearings were a seminal event in shaping my political consciousness. I've had to put "Shock Doctrine" aside several times since starting it over a year ago because what it describes is so...horrible.

Taken together, these books present a tightly woven narrative of how far modern American politics has strayed from our ideals. All these books interrelate to a significant degree. The question is if there is any way left for us to fix what has happened during the post-World War Two nightmare of American Exceptionalism.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Eyewitness News Update:

Problem solved.

A Long Dry Spell

I realized recently that this may be the longest time I’ve done the least riding since…well, since I went over to the dark side and started motorcycling over a quarter-century ago. I recall riding into town a couple of times back in the dark grey days of winter, when being a man of leisure still held some appeal. Even then, one trip was on the Rockster because Beast’s battery started weirding out on me, and of course Beast had two broken mirrors.

Then came the snows of 2010, and biking became impossible for most of February and well into March. By that time, Beast’s battery wouldn’t fire her up even when left on the battery tender overnight, and the Rockster had sprung a slow leak in her rear tire.

It wasn’t until late spring when I had the resources to start turning the tide of decrepitude—first, a new battery, then two mirrors. Each one of those items, by the way, cost the same as a meal at The Inn, excluding wine.

Then it was, all told, four new tires: a new rear tire for the Rockster (which somehow mysteriously developed a pencil-sized hole in it even as Phil was riding it home), the judicious replacement of Beast’s perilously worn (read: nearly bald) rear tire, and both sketchy front tires just for good measure.

But bikes got to be ridden.

Because poor Beast sat so long out in the elements (...unfortunately, right under the drip edge of the shed roof...) over the winter, she developed injector bronchitis. Could be simple fuel contamination, could be a side effect of the funky ethanol mixes everyone is flogging these days, could be gum, could be a colony of petroleum-eating amoebae, could be any number of things. What it means is she will fire up all right, but won’t idle worth a damn.

And first thing in the morning, there’s nothing like trying to coax a faltering bike uphill on a gravel road when all the sudden she clears her throat and the power jumps from somewhere around “just about to die” to “LET”S GO BABY!” Yeah, that’s fun.

I tried the round trip to work a couple of times, hoping the problem would take care of itself. The first time, I desperately sought out the first place that was open at that time of the morning for some injector cleaner. I dumped half the bottle into the fuel tank, crossed my fingers, then stumbled and lurched on to the superslab and to work.

Topped off the tank with fresh expensive super-duper premium name-brand designer gasoline on the way home, hoping for some modicum of improvement. No dice. Stopped at another joint, got a different kind of injector cleaner, dumped half of that into my tankful of fresh expensive super-duper premium name-brand designer gasoline and stumbled home through a living hazy hot humid summertime afternoon rush hour road work stop-and-go traffic hell.

Anyway. Beast is now receiving some tender wrenchlove, and though the stumbling problem is resisting the first few efforts to correct it, I expect it will be resolved in short order. I trust that shortly, we will be getting our ride on again, and I look forward to that with great enthusiasm. It’s been a long dry spell.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Fox News Update

It's not a fox—a raccoon, according to an eyewitness.
So should this be an Eyewitness News Update?


From Nancy Pelosi's Twitter feed:

"By August, more jobs will have been created by Obama and Dem Congress than all jobs created by 8 years of Bush Administration"

Monday, July 26, 2010

How Quintessentially American:

From the New York Times:
By most measures, Harley-Davidson has been having a rough ride. Motorcycle sales are falling in 2010, as they have for each of the last three years. The company does not expect a turnaround anytime soon. But despite that drought, Harley’s profits are rising — soaring, in fact. Last week, Harley reported a $71 million profit in the second quarter, more than triple what it earned a year ago. This seeming contradiction — falling sales and rising profits — is one reason the mood on Wall Street is so much more buoyant than in households, where pessimism runs deep and joblessness shows few signs of easing.
Many companies are focusing on cost-cutting to keep profits growing, but the benefits are mostly going to shareholders instead of the broader economy, as management conserves cash rather than bolstering hiring and production. Harley, for example, has announced plans to cut 1,400 to 1,600 more jobs by the end of next year. That is on top of 2,000 job cuts last year — more than a fifth of its work force.
“Because of high unemployment, management is using its leverage to get more hours out of workers,” said Robert C. Pozen, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and the former president of Fidelity Investments. “What’s worrisome is that American business has gotten used to being a lot leaner, and it could take a while before they start hiring again.”
And some of those businesses, including Harley-Davidson, are preparing for a future where they can prosper even if sales do not recover. Harley’s goal is to permanently be in a position to generate strong profits on a lower revenue base…the ability to raise profits in the face of declining sales is a triumph of productivity that makes the United States more globally competitive. The problem is that companies are not investing those earnings, instead letting cash pile up to levels not reached in nearly half a century.
“As long as corporations are reinvesting, the economy can grow,” said Ethan Harris, chief economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “But if they’re taking those profits and saving them, rather than buying new equipment, it hurts overall growth. The longer this goes on, the more you worry about income being diverted to a sector that’s not spending.” “There’s no question that there is an income shift going on in the economy…Companies are squeezing their labor costs to build profits.”
In fact, while wages and salaries have barely budged from recession lows, profits have staged a vigorous recovery, jumping 40 percent between late 2008 and the first quarter of 2010. Harley-Davidson’s profit gain last quarter was helped by a turnaround in its financing unit, as well as more efficient production, but the company is still cutting. Harley has warned union employees…it would move production elsewhere in the United States if they did not agree to more flexible work rules and tens of millions in cost-saving measures.
Even if sales do improve, a surge in hiring is unlikely. “The last thing we’re worried about is when are we going to have to add more capacity, because what we’re really doing is reconfiguring our entire operational system for greater flexibility,” Keith Wandell, the company’s chief executive, said.
This working-man's apocalypse is partly a result of the paradigm shift that has occurred over the last few decades (a guerilla class-war in which the plutocrats smartly defeated and virtually destroyed the middle class before we even knew what was happening) and partly an inevitable outcome of the devil's bargain H-D made the last time it became a publicly-traded company.

I really hate to beat up on H-D and their customers*, but for a 100+ year-old company which made so much from brand loyalty and labelling—and so little from engineering and quality control—it is galling. It is orphan-grade chutzpah to so lavishly reward Wall Street through devastating and empoverishing the union workers who builds their products. This shows such an incredible disconnect between the public face of H-D and its business strategy that it defies comprehension.

Frankly, I hope all the good, hard-working, hard-riding H-D owners will take a good long hard look at what H-D has become—reflected in its utter comtempt for the middle class—before they send another dime in the direction of Milwaukee. There are plenty of alternatives available to what was once an American icon, but is now just another metastatizing tumor, a corporatist cancer sucking the lifeblood from our country.

*Okay, technically, there's nothing I enjoy more...

Saturday, July 24, 2010

It Just Makes Me Angry...

I saw a flier pinned to a bulletin board the other day for a charity event. It was a motorcycle ride, sponsored by a motorcycle dealership, with a modest entry fee and perhaps some additional revenue-generators like a poker run or something.

The beneficiary was a man in is thirties who recently lost control of his motorcycle in a single-vehicle accident, and as a result, suffered a traumatic brain injury. His prognosis is not good.

He is in a coma, is likely to remain in a coma for some time, and will need intensive medical attention, rehabilitation and therapy—should he be fortunate enough to recover to that point. He has a family, who are probably still struggling to come to terms with the upheaval they have undergone, but apparently no health insurance or means to afford the millions of dollars in medical expenses he has incurred and will likely face for the foreseeable future.

Curmudgeonly misanthrope that I am, I immediately hopped on the interwebz,  and googled the man's name + "motorcycle accident" + (town). Within about two minutes, I found a local news article quoting the State Police report from the incident, and of course, it completely confirmed my prejudices:

"...lost control of his motorcycle...not wearing a helmet."

As Ian Malcolm said, "Boy, do I hate being right all the time."

Man, I feel like I know this poor dumb son-of-a-bitch, because I've surely talked with his ilk enough times. Let me fill in a few more pieces of the puzzle: Probably riding a used Harley he bought from a friend; self-taught rider or learned a few pointers from the P.O. while the title was being signed over; only owned a shorty helmet for ventures into neighboring states with helmet laws (incident occurred, needless to say, in one of those enlightened bastions of liberty that do not require helmets) and probably adorned said helmet with stickers that asserted his individuality, so to speak.

I can also hear the barroom rant (...jeeze, I can almost smell the cheap beer and Jagermeister shots on his breath) about freedom, liberty, let those who ride decide, yadda yadda yadda. I can almost quote verbatim the weird, fatalistically heroic twisted logic—"...An effin' helmet ain't gonna do me any good if I have an accident—I'll be dead meat!" And of course, the libertarian argument about how it's his business if he wears a helmet, not the government's.

But right now, it's really not his business anymore. It's fallen to a cadre of sympathetic fellow-travelers to right the heinous, grievous error in judgment this poor vegetable made. In all likelihood, it will be the government—the big, bad, librul gummit—and his fellow taxpayers—who will foot the bill for his little self-indulgent exercise in freedom and pig-headed liberty. Except, oops, he probably won't be paying any taxes anytime soon, now will he?

Fascinating thing about accidents. Despite (my assumptions about) the uninformed and speculative nature of this poor saps' understanding of motorcycle accidents and head injury, we actually have some...what's that stuff called? Data, yeah...DATA...on accidents. And you know what?

  • Any fall from a standing height—six feet or so—can cause traumatic brain injury. Walking, bicycling, horseback riding, motorcycling. It's all the same; horizontal velocity doesn't enter into the equation unless you run into something. That's why people generally don't get much over six feet tall; it's a natural limit.
  • Motorcycle accidents generally produce a number of non-life-threatening injuries. But add a traumatic brain injury to the mix, and the prognosis gets a whole lot worse. It's the difference between taking pain meds for a week and being on a ventilator. 
  • A single-vehicle accident means he couldn't control his bike, and essentially fell down; there was no other car or truck involved to share the blame. There was no car to be launched airborne over, no truck side to be thrown into. He did something wrong, was thrown through the air some distance, and landed hard on his unprotected head.
  • A helmet—even a stupid shorty bedpan helmet, but preferably a real, live D.O.T. or Snell approved helmet—might have turned this into a "...treated and released..." or a "...held for observation overnight..." instead of a "...long-term rehabilitation..."
I need to muster up an iota of sympathy for this man. I really do. For his family? My heart goes out to them. He really shafted them by his stupid, selfish actions. But for him?

No way. Sorry.
I won't be able to make the benefit ride.
Be safe.

An odd coincidence, and tragedy

A while back, I wrote about arriving at a train crossing as one train passed right before me right-to-left, and nearly simultaneously another train appeared on the second track heading left-to-right. What are the odds, I thought to myself at the time.

Well, apparently better than you might think.

This week a local woman was killed at that very crossing. She apparently broke from the line of  stopped vehicles, ignored the flashing lights and warning bells, drove around the lowered barricades, and around the train—the train on the first track of two closest to her. The train that wasn't going anywhere.

...And directly into the path of the second train, whose approach was hidden by the stopped train. The fast-moving train had enough time to activate its emergency stopping systems before impacting the passenger side of the car with a force witnesses described as "...a bomb blast."

There's nothing funny, or even ironic about this. It's just sad, and I wonder two things—what was so important to make running the barricade seem like a good idea, and what that last wave of appalling regret must have felt like...

Friday, July 23, 2010

Fox News Update

We are nearly three years into our ever-expanding poultry experiment. We have seen our flocks grow in number, complexity, and in their demands on our time. We have added varieties, species, and end-purposes (meat now, in addition to egg-laying). We have avoided losing birds to predation, suffering one attack from a hawk early on that was interrupted by our faithful dogs without any lasting harm, an odd death from unknowable causes, plus some egg-theft executed by a crafty snake (...who we executed right back, as described here some time ago).

Until recently.

Several weeks ago (perhaps because we had been lulled into a false sense of security by our perimeter defenses) we discovered a trail of black feathers leading to, and over, the fence near an overhanging tree. I was able to follow the trail of feathers into the woods for some distance, but gave up in the failing light of evening. What I saw in the twilight established to my satisfaction that the predator was small, powerful, and terrestrial; e.g., a fox, who dragged his victim off into the forest.

As a result, we examined our fences and discovered some blatant weaknesses we had ignored or overlooked. We beefed them up, fixed some weak spots, completed what we had left undone. Yet within a week or so, Mary discovered the headless body of another victim, left inside the chickenyard when the fox was unable to work her through the fence. Again, we examined the perimeter and found the achille's heel—the exterior gates provided ample space for a swift, determined predator to waltz under without a second thought or a moment's inconvenience.

More bolstering of defenses, this time with boards, chunks of broken cinder blocks, and bad thoughts directed fox-ward. We attempt some chemical warfare, sprinkling great wooly tufts of Schroeder-hair regularly about with abandon, and marking the trees and fenceposts ringing the chickenyard (from the five-foot mark on down) with a gallon jug of well-aged man-pee.

And yet, again, evidence of another attempt to breach our defenses—a broken board, some disturbance of the undergrowth, miscellaneous signs, but fortunately this time, no victim to be found and an early morning beak-count tallying all present and accounted for.

We now know what we're up against, and I am getting an inkling of how foxes have earned their reputation for craft. At night, our flocks roost securely inside tightly latched coops with no entry points; I like to think that is when they are the safest (please, fox, don't prove me wrong). Therefore, all three of the attacks we know about happened during broad daylight; two happened during the brief periods when Mary was off the property, and one while she was working in her office, at the farthest point in the house from where the attack occurred.

We cut back weeds and undergrowth to deprive the little bugger of cover and to reveal weaknesses in the fenceline. We will nail more boards, and bigger boards, across vulnerable spots. We will leave Schroeder out in the garden when we have to be elsewhere.

We are learning to think like a fox, and meanwhile, we keep our fingers crossed.

Friday, July 02, 2010

J.S. Bach: Unaccompanied Cello Suites—YoYo Ma

I have taken to indulging myself by buying things that I hear on the radio and like. Granted, this does not represent that big of an indulgence because I am not moved to commerce by the radio with (insert radio pun here) great frequency.

J.S. Bach's Unaccompanied Cello Suites fall into this category of impulse purchases. Though not as ubiquitous as the Brandenburg Concertos, the Cello suites may still sound familiar to the casual listener—some or all of them are staples of classical radio. But the Unaccompanied Suites are notable for being, well—unaccompanied. Just one man, one instrument, one composer; a lean, stripped-down version of classical music, which we often take to be synonymous with full orchestras or various hands-full of musicians—trios, quartets, quintets, ad nauseum.

In this instance, the music is spare and lean. I am struck by the undeniable presence of three well-defined personalities: Bach, the composer, pulling the music from the ether and capturing it on the page; Ma, the performer; reconstituting the written music; and the cello itself, giving voice to Ma's interpretation of Bach's brilliance. Three voices, singing in one medium.

Ma's cello is deep, dark and woody; it buzzes and burrs under his caress; it contributes its own quality to the music, going beyond what Bach composed. It is a different kind of sound from that of the orchestra, with its many overlapping and interwoven layers and brilliant polish. It is intimate, unadorned, direct, personal, almost conversational. You are in the presence three greats: composer, performer, and instrument.

Listening to this team is like savoring a varietal wine—in this case, a deep, dark, dry complex well-aged Cabernet Sauvignon. As wine from a single variety of grape will yield up its bounty under the guidance of a master vintner, so does the unaccompanied instrument yield up its riches in the hands of a gifted performer. All the richness and complexity, quirks and foibles, strengths and weaknesses are expressed to the pleasure of the patient, lingering listener without disguises, cloaking, masking or artifice. These performances are treasures to be savored at length.