Saturday, February 28, 2009

Now for something completely different!

So finally a web site that lives up to the promise of the internet!

A Possible Interruption

I am off tonight to see my father's hometown in what is now Latvia. I don't know how much internet access I will have there so it may be a while before I can make another entry. But I will be back late on March 16 and should have some reflections on the Baltic countries by Saint Patrick's Day.

Wish me luck.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

I usually don't run articles without comment or refutation but....

Study Zeroes In on Calories, Not Diet, for Loss

Published: February 25, 2009

For people who are trying to lose weight, it does not matter if they are counting carbohydrates, protein or fat. All that matters is that they are counting something.

That is the finding of the largest-ever controlled study of weight-loss methods published on Wednesday in The New England Journal of Medicine. More than 800 overweight adults in Boston and Baton Rouge, La., were assigned to one of four diets that reduced calories through different combinations of fat, carbohydrates and protein. Each plan cut about 750 calories from a participant’s normal diet, but no one ate fewer than 1,200 calories a day.

While the diets were not named, the eating plans were all loosely based on the principles of popular diets like Atkins, which emphasizes low carbohydrates; Dean Ornish, which is low-fat; or the Mediterranean diet, with less animal protein. All participants also received group or individual counseling.

After two years, every diet group had lost — and regained — about the same amount of weight regardless of what diet had been assigned. Participants lost an average of 13 pounds at six months and had maintained about 9 pounds of weight loss and a two-inch drop in waist size after two years. While the average weight loss was modest, about 15 percent of dieters lost more than 10 percent of their weight by the end of the study. Still, after about a year many returned to at least some of their usual eating habits.

The lesson, researchers say, is that people lose weight if they lower calories, but it does not matter how.

“It really does cut through the hype,” said Dr. Frank M. Sacks, the study’s lead author and professor of cardiovascular disease prevention at the Harvard School of Public Health. “It gives people lots of flexibility to pick a diet that they can stick with.”

Dr. Sacks said that to reduce bias the researchers avoided associating any of the diets with well-known commercial eating plans. While attendance at counseling sessions was linked with better weight loss, that was not true for every dieter. In some groups, people lost large amounts of weight even though they attended only a few counseling sessions.

The real question for researchers, Dr. Sacks said, is what are the biological, psychological or social factors that influence whether a person can stick to any diet.

“The effect of any particular diet group is minuscule, but the effect of individual behavior is humongous,” Dr. Sacks said. “We had some people losing 50 pounds and some people gaining five pounds. That’s what we don’t have a clue about. I think in the future, researchers should focus less on the actual diet but on finding what is really the biggest governor of success in these individuals.”

Rollin' Down the Track

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Speech

The President's address to a Joint Session of Congress on February 24. Well worth watching. Note when the Republicans rise to applaud and when they don't.

Monday, February 23, 2009


'Doubt' is a truly riveting movie about a Catholic school in a working class section of New York in 1964. It pairs two of the best actors of the age, Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman plays a priest in the school and Streep is Sister Aloysius, a mother superior to the nuns who teach in the school.

The school gets it first black kid. Sister Aloysius soon accuses the priest of molesting the boy. The story develops as the evidence evolves and the certainty grows.

The story and the dialogue are nuanced and layered. The writing is splendid and the acting superb. All four of the principal actors were nominated for academy awards. The screenplay was nominated as well. The cinematography was excellent too, if on occasion a bit much.

The emotional pitch as the movie progresses was so strong that I found myself tensing and having trouble calming myself with assurances that it was just a movie.

The only failing of the movie is a big one. I simply did not believe the last scene that supposedly morally resolves the conflict. It just isn't believable. The character Streep draws for Sister Aloysius is just too harsh, unrelenting, and un-self-critical for the ending to work.

The story reinforced my long-standing resolve never to be around children. Friends from middle schools have told me that it is uniform practice never to be alone with a child for fear of accusation. And that is when they have the whole weight of an institution on their side.

For an elderly single man, well-known to be eccentric, any suggestion would bring instant conviction by any jury just for the profile. Even if I proved by photos, witnesses, and passport stamps that I was in Canada at the time, I would be permanently tainted in the eyes of everyone I know.

It is not an exaggeration that the consequences to my life would be worse than if I committed armed robbery. Which is too bad. I like kids and have often been told that I would be a good teacher. But the risk of encountering an unstable child or even a persistent liar is not a risk worth taking.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Monday, February 16, 2009

Why I Am Not Going to Russia

[the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg]

I am planning a trip to my father's home town in Lativa, formerly Mitau, now Jelgava, and to my grandfather's hometown in Lithuania, formerly Zheimely, now Sonauli.  

I don't expect to see much.  Since they lived there, the First World War, Russian Civil War, and Second World War have all been fought there.  These were the most destructive events in human history.   Both Latvia and Lithuania were under Nazi occupation from 1941 to 1944 so it is unlikely that any relative survived.   

Last year when I planned this trip, I planned on spending  two weeks in Saint Petersburg seeing the Hermitage, a justly famous museum from what I have heard.  In the straitened circumstances of 2009, I wondered if I could still afford the Russian portion of the trip.  I still have the air tickets from last year so the additional cost is the ground portion.  

Poking at possibilities, I checked visa requirements.  Latvia, no visa required.  Lithuania, no visa required.  Estonia, no visa required.  Russia however requires, an application, photographs, evidence of paid hotel reservations in Russia, and definite entry and exit dates which limit the validity of the visa.  And a $131 fee.   All in advance.  No visas at the border.  Nor by mail.  To get a visa one appear in person at the Russian embassy in Washington or at designated agencies in a few cities.

Checking whether this was a scam by some visa-selling no-goodniks, I checked the website of the Embassy of the Russian Federation.  I learned that all this rigmarole is part of a tit-for-tat set of restrictions on Russian tourists to the USA, what the embassy website calls "maintaining reciprocity".

Which means Russia and the United States are still peeing in each other's soup twenty years after the Cold War ended.   Which is very interesting.

We were told in great detail and with great emphasis that the quarrel between the United States and the Soviet Union was a conflict between two visions of society, capitalism and communism.  While that was and is a choice between distinctly unappetizing alternatives, it was easy to see why people devoted to one or the other would be inclined to fight about them.

That is no longer the issue, yet the friction goes on.  It doesn't take much critical thinking to recognize that the issue is great power rivalry, a struggle for power and influence.  One thinks back to the rivalry between the British and Russian Empires in the 19th Century.  While the British may have trotted out a reference to Czarist despotism now and again, no one was under any illusion that the issues were anything other than British imperial interests versus Russian imperial interests.

The conflict with Russia before the Revolution was great power rivalry and the issue now that the Revolution is no more, is great power rivalry.  How hard is it to conclude that some large part of the Cold War was also great power rivalry?

Which means that all the debate, contumely, and struggle between communists and their apologists on the one hand, and anti-communists on the other, was a delusion.  Which is not to say that the ruling classes in each country did not believe the ideologies they espoused.  They did.  But underneath their conscious purposes were other reasons, reasons of national and group self-interest and dominance.

Which leads us to two interesting reflections.  One is what that tells us about the still-flourishing-in-academia culture of Marxism.  Once it could be seen as one pole in a bipolar world.  Now it can only be understood as anti-national.  Patriotism is the love of country.   Marxism without prospect of revolution, regardless of its intellectual pretensions, is no more than disdain of country.

Similarly, today's struggle with Iran is not just, or even primarily, about Islam.  It is also about power in the Middle East and in the world generally.  Islam, like communism and anti-communism before it, is a pretext for national interest and a struggle for power and influence.

For once, we are fortunate in our choice of adversaries.   The struggle with Russia and communism made us focus on capitalism and business, the least loveable features of our society.  The struggle with Iran and Islam focuses us on our open-mindedness, tolerance, democracy, and freedom, the best things about us.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Drought

[Anasazi ruins at Mesa Verde]

The recent rains dampened but have not ended the current drought in California and other Western states.  Speaking exactly a drought is a period of no rain, so the drought just ended.  Speaking in practical terms, a drought is a period of water shortage.  The reservoirs at Oroville, Shasta, and elsewhere are way below seasonal normal.  The snowpack in the Sierra is puny.  That drought has not ended.  

It may be becoming a tradition that depressions are accompanied by droughts.   The Great Depression was exacerbated by the Dust Bowl.   The current drought may be a companion piece to the looming Depression 2.0.  We may yet find ourselves tieing our mattresses on top of our cars and driving to Oklahoma.

What will we do if the drought continues or worsens?  The first thing we will do is fight among ourselves.  

The farmers will argue that, though they use huge amounts of water, that they deserve priority because they produce the nation's food supply.  They will not mention that they produce so much of the nation's food supply that the government pays them subsidies not to grow so much.  So it is urgent that they get enough water to produce the food surpluses we are paying to reduce.

Southern California will argue that there are 23 million people living there and they all need water.  They will not mention the endless lawns, swimming pools, and golf courses built in deserts, nor the cult of cars and carwashing. 

Northern California will argue that it is our water and we should get all we want before sending it south.  Presumably it is ours because it fell out of our sky after evaporating from our Pacific Ocean.   It is given to us by G_d, who is definitely a Northern Californian, and is widely believed to have been Herb Caen.  They will not mention that most of it falls in a different part of the state entirely, the Sierra, which is eastern California. 

Arizona and Nevada will want water for their burgeoning populations.  They will not mention that, unlike Southern California which originally had a water supply but outgrew it, Phoenix and Las Vegas were built in places with no water supply at all.

Everyone will unite in abusing the environmentalists for protecting a rare smelt at the cost of not diverting fresh water from flowing through the Delta into the ocean.

If the drought worsens, some people might get distracted from the bickering and recriminations enough to consider doing something about it.  The usual thing to do about droughts is to build canals and giant pipes to bring water from somewhere else where there is plenty.   When this has been discussed in the past, that has meant building a water system to bring water from Washington state.

Yet Washington and Oregon are in drought as well.  So far from having water to send us, they have their own deficits.  Anyone who has seen it would be hard pressed to believe there is not enough water in the Columbia to ever use all of it.  But one might have said the same of the Colorado fifty years ago.  Today no more than a trickle of the Colorado reaches the sea.

Sadly the same may eventually have  to be done to the Columbia if the drought does not abate.  And even that may not be enough.

There are 56.6 million people in the five westernmost states, more than half of them in California.  We consume a lot of water.  

The West has an ominous history in this regard.   We Americans are not the first people to live here.  We are not even the second or third.  We are the fourth that we know of.  Before us were the Mexicans and before them were the Native Americans.  Before them were the Anasazi, the Ancient Ones.

According to the National Park Service visitor center archaeological display at Chaco Canyon, the Anasazi population dwindled to zero because of persistent drought in the 700's C.E.  The land that was empty of water became also empty of people.  The drought lasted until the 1300's, six hundred years.

Such a drought can come again.  There is no reason to believe that it will happen again in our time.  But the fact that it happened once proves that it CAN happen.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

My Life as a Dog

It's Working

The object of renting out my house as an inn was to make enough money to not lose the house.   I have just written a check for the spring property taxes. I didn't have to use savings.   My pension just covers the monthly mortgage payment. I am as poor as an inn mouse, but my house is covered for now.

Yesterday at Costco I got whitefish salad and a baguette.  The baguette was stale but the whitefish was outstanding. I watched "Advise and Consent", an ancient classic black-and-white movie with a young Henry Fonda, Walter Pidgeon, Charles Laughton, Franchot Tone, Betty White, Peter Lawford.  Some decent California brandy.  Life is good.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Seizing Power in the Middle East

[Jerusalem Zionists standing in line to seize power]

Bibi and Barak

[an Israeli cartoon, 1998]

The leader of Likud is Bibi Netanyahu.   A few years back, quite a few now, he published a book titled, "Fighting Terrorism".  I read it expecting a rousing defense of all things good and an occasional right-wing absurdity.   Much to my surprise, the premise he argues is simple, reasonable, and hard to argue with.

Netanyahu argues that terrorism is essentially military.   It is armed assaults on specific targets.  And like all militaries, it needs bases in which to assemble, to train, to amass weapons, maintain communications, and so forth.   Without bases terrorists are no more dangerous than other criminal gangs and can be arrested by local police when detected.  

 Netanyahu says that terrorism can be defeated by denying them the use of bases.  He argues that these bases have to be somewhere, on some nation's sovereign soil.  And that assumes the support or at least connivance of the government of the nation on whose soil the terrorists have their base. 

Netanyahu's prescription for what to do about it, is to pressure the government conniving to permit or sponsor the terrorist base.   Pressure it by every means available, both public and covert.  Since Israel is scarcely in a position to apply meaningful diplomatic or economic pressure to terrorist-harboring countries, the book is meant as advice to Bibi's fellow Americans (born in Tel Aviv, came to US at 14.  High school near Philadelphia.  BA & MS from MIT.)  Indeed it is a book addressed primarily to American presidents.

George W. Bush read Netanyahu.  So apparently has his successor.   In his press conference yesterday, President Obama referred several times to "safe havens" for terrorists in Pakistan and his intention to "assist" the Pakistani government to suppress them.

The mark of a brilliant idea is that once one has been shown, it seems something obvious that one has always known.  Once one has been shown.   For example, the wisdom of collecting fares only one way on Bay Area bridges is now obvious to everyone.  Yet tolls were collected both ways for 50 years.   Holding terrorist host countries only peripherally responsible for their proteges was global practice for 50 years as well.  Holding them centrally responsible  is Netanyahu's contribution to world understanding.

More Arab Suicide

[Captain Charles C. Boycott, 1880]

The Israeli elections are today.   Early reports make it sound like it will be a three way tie for first among Likud, Kadima, and Labor.   

Avigdor Leiberman's party, which demands that Israeli Arabs sign loyalty oaths to the state of Israel, is doing well.  Some Israeli Arabs have announced they will boycott the elections in protest of Leiberman's popularity.    I think that is a great idea.  They should ALL boycott the elections.

Actually it is mutual idiocy.   If it is implemented, the Arabs will sign but will be more pissed off and disloyal than ever.  Presumably the object of the exercise, if it has one, is to oblige those few Israeli Arabs too stupid and intransigent to sign, to leave the country.  

The reports I have been reading are that the campaigning has been desultory and without much in the way of issues.  Which, in a country that just emerged from a war, is illuminating.  I have read that there was no important dissent in Israel on the Gaza bombardment and invasion.   There was 92 percent agreement on the policy, which is astonishing if true.  Especially in view of he profound unpopularity of the Olmert government which carried it out.

Apparently all the important decisions are being made by the Hamas leadership, not by Israel.  Israel is united in reacting to them.  The fact that Hamas continues to make disastrously destructive and self-destructive decisions, has united Israel all the more

Monday, February 09, 2009

More Palestinian Suicide Attacks in Israel

[Hadassah Hospital, Jerusalem]

According to the Times, today the Palestinian Authority announced it was withdrawing all Palestinians from Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.  57 of the patients were being treated in the department of pediatric hematology, oncology, and bone marrow transplantation.  I.e. kids with cancer.

The reason given by the Palestinian Health Minister was that the children were withdrawn as a protest against Israel.

In the story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, when the Lord provided a ram to sacrifice instead of the boy, the Hebrew people learned not to sacrifice their children.   That was 3500 years ago.

The Palestinians have yet to learn that.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

More Shopping

FIRST, Chilean cherries and American seedless mandarins are ripe and on sale. Both are cheap and delicious. Both, especially the cherries, are the fruit equivalent of salted nuts. Unlike nuts, fruit soon requires one to get up and take a quick walk to the room with the shower in it, but not to take a shower. So there is some exercise involved.

SECOND, I learned about browsers. These are easy to shop for because they are by definition online. And they are free. The main three options are the inevitable Internet Explorer that comes with Windows, Mozilla Firefox, and now Google Chrome.

The great virtue of Internet Explorer is that you already have it and don't have to do anything. Just click on it and it comes up.

The great virtue of Firefox is that it uses tabs, so you can have several pages loaded at once and switch among them just by clicking on the tabs. You can have your startup page be several pages each in a separate tab. If your computer has enough memory, you can have lots of them. I used Firefox for years, until very recently.

The newest version of Internet Explorer now has tabs too, but they are cumbersome and insincere by comparison. For some, the fact that Firefox is from a nonprofit competitor to mega-Microsoft is also a reason to use it.

Google Chrome confused me at first. It has a simpler less cluttered appearance than the other two so I didn't see the point. Until I did comparison tests. Chrome is a mile faster at loading pages than Internet Explorer and several hundred yards faster than Firefox. It starts up faster than they do as well. Internet Explorer, which had seemed normal before, now seems painfully slow, almost unusable.

The confusing simplicity turns out to be a trick. Google has concentrated the menus under three icons, the wrench, the page, and the star. Roughly the same collection of features are there, but take up less space on the screen.

Today I learned a useful and cool feature. Say one is writing a blog entry fulminating against something one read in the Times. One has to keep switching tabs to have the object of one's ire in view, then switch to the blog composition screen to vent in, and then back for the next quote and so on.

With Chrome in a window rather than full-screen, one can click on a tab and drag it onto the open screen, et voila, a new Chrome window with the tab in it. Right-clicking on a tab gives the opportunity to duplicate it before dragging it to the screen. This is useful if one screen is previous to the other like an inbox is to an email. One can see both on screen at the same time by clicking the back arrow on one of them.

Attempting to drag and drop a tab in Firefox just puts an icon on the screen. Attempting it in Internet Explorer gets a blank look -- nothing happens.

I have not fiddled with Safari much since it seems like a Mac-specific thing though it is now available for Windows.   Thoughts from the MacMeister, the Sage of Chico?

THIRD, don't ditch your Internet Explorer yet.  A few things will only run in it, notably Netflix's instant movies. These are an amazing service. There are no end of movies, literally thousands, that will play on your computer screen directly, just by clicking on them. 

Netflix provides this as an accessory to their snail mail DVD business which is just ridiculous. Sending hi-tech disks from a hi-tech service provider to a hi-tech consumer who has broadband, by way of trucks and hand-delivery is so dumb as to make me shake my head in dismay.

Just a little background here - High Definition (HD) television screens come in two flavors, the older 720p or 720 vertical lines, and the newer 1080p or 1080 vertical lines. Standard broadcast has 480 vertical lines. By comparison, computer monitors have mainly 1024x768 resolution or 1280x1024 for larger ones, which is 768 lines or 1024 lines. That is, they are roughly the same as HD televisions, only smaller.

One huge drawback of computer monitors compared to televisions is that one generally cannot watch them from a couch. Which presumably is why the newer televisions come with pc input plugs, to make them function as big, couch-watchable computer monitors.

The petty nastiness here is Radio Shack which has some ludicrous price on the video cord from the box to the tube.  As your consumer reviewer here, on a scale of one to five, the Scenic Route awards Radio Shack the full five Eff You's.  Buy the connector mail order online from someone else.

Once you've got a $9 a month Netflix subscription, a computer connection to your television, a freezer full of food, and someone you love near at hand, there is no reason why you should ever leave your house.

The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere

From a Wikipedia background note to its entry on the 1942 Battle of the Solomons --
In the words of the Japanese Navy's Combined Fleet Secret Order Number One, dated November 1, 1941 [five weeks before Pearl Harbor], the goals of the initial Japanese campaigns in the impending war were to, "(eject) British and American strength from the Netherlands Indies and the Philippines, (and) to establish a policy of autonomous self-sufficiency and economic independence."

Which is to say the purpose of the War in the Pacific was to free Japan from globalization.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Rivalry with Russia

Vice-President Joe Biden spoke at an international security conference  in Munich.

The Russian deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ivanov, had proposed that Russia would refrain from putting missiles on the Polish border (because Poland is now a member of NATO) in return for an American review of our missile defense program.

Those with long memories will recall that program as the Reagan Administration's "Star Wars." The Soviet Union objected not only to the prospect of losing its leverage to peacefully launch nuclear missiles at the West, but also to the enormous strain developing its own Star Wars would put on its economy.  Apparently portions of our missile defenses are now available as operational systems sufficient to protect Poland from Russian missiles, if put in place.

Biden clearly rejected the proposed rapprochement with Russia.  The United States will continue to side with Georgia and deny the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Russia claims are not part of Georgia (and thus Russian satellites), and continue to press the expansion of NATO (i.e. furthering the encirclement of Russia by Western allies.)

The Times reporter, perhaps on briefing from officials, wrote that the American hard line was in response to Russia bribing the Kyrgyzstan government to close our airbase there.  The Russian plan was apparently to make a major attack on American interests and to hope that by acting like nothing had happened, to suffer no consequences.  
Notably, the European governments represented at the conference were not conciliatory to the Russians either.  Apparently the recent Russian stunt (it is hard to think what else to call it) of turning off natural gas supplies to Europe in mid-winter to vent its displeasure with the Ukraine, did not win hearts and minds there.

Antagonizing the new administration in the United States shortly after having antagonized Europeans does not speak well of the judgment of the Russian government.

One wonders if there is any significance to the American representative having been the Vice-President rather than the Secretary of State.  Ordinarily the Vice-President's remarks would be vetted by the State Department, he being the layman and they the experts.  That is scarcely the situation now.  

One wonders if the reason was that State's failure to prevent the closure of the Kyrgyzstan airbase has put the Secretary into eclipse.   One can hope.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Our Airbase in Kyrgyzstan

[our Secretary of State]

The Kyrgyz government announced that it is withdrawing permission for the United States to maintain our airbase at Manas in that country.  The base is crucial to the American war effort in neighboring Afghanistan.  

The base closure announcement came at the same time as the announcement of a new Russian $2.15 billion aid package to Kyrgyzstan.  Which is to say the Russians bribed the Kyrgyz government to kick us out.  Why didn't the State Department anticipate this and pre-emptively bribe even more or otherwise finagle so as to keep the base?

Mrs. Clinton described the loss of the airbases as "regrettable."

Hint:  From Condoleeza Rice to Hillary Clinton is not up.  Clinton apparently got out-maneuvered by the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, in her first major diplomatic challenge.  It is a major diplomatic defeat for the United States.

The Clinton appointment was a political deal, doubtless with various objectives in mind.  None of which apparently was having an adept Secretary of State to manage our foreign policy.

Good Ol' Egypt

From the LA Times story about negotiations in Egypt about the ship that attempted to run the Gaza blockade --

The Hamas delegation later was stopped from returning to Gaza with $9 million and 2 million euros in their suitcases, an Egyptian security official said.

The official said the group initially refused to be searched by Egyptian authorities at the Rafah border crossing. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The money stayed in Egypt while the delegation was allowed to return to Gaza, said another security official.
Which is least surprising, that Hamas is getting substantial foreign money, that Hamas negotiators abused their diplomatic status in Egypt to smuggle money into Gaza, or that the Egyptians kept the money?   :o)

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Is It Just Me, Or.....

are the Republicans getting more hateful by the day?

From the LA Times today -
Consumer panel's decision on lead testing law is overturned
Manufacturers and retailers cannot sell children's products containing phthalates, which are chemicals used to soften plastic, after Tuesday, a federal judge rules.
By Alana Semuels
February 6, 2009
Environmentalists are battling small businesses to preserve a law that would pull children's products that may contain lead and chemicals from shelves by next week.

The environmentalists won a round Thursday when a federal judge overturned a decision by a government commission and said manufacturers and retailers could not sell children's items containing phthalates, which are chemicals used to soften plastic, after Tuesday.

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, adopted last year, bans use of phthalates in children's products. But the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which enforces the act, said retailers could sell items containing phthalates if they were manufactured before Tuesday.

The National Resources Defense Council and consumer group Public Citizen had sued to reverse the commission's decision. Without the ruling, "a consumer going to the store to buy a teething ring or any other children's product would have no idea if it contains phthalates or not," said Aaron Colangelo, senior attorney at the council.

Small businesses are trying to buy time by asking the commission to postpone the effective date of the law, especially the portion of it that makes it illegal to sell any products that contain more than 600 parts per million of lead.

"Compliance with these new lead content requirements will be a practical impossibility for thousands of manufacturers, distributors, retailers and resellers," read a letter from the National Assn. of Manufacturers asking for the effective date of law to be postponed.

Colangelo said that any movement by the commission to postpone the rules would violate the law and would "perpetuate harm through children's exposure to lead."

But business groups aren't surrendering. On Thursday, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and five other Republican senators introduced an amendment to the economic stimulus bill that would make changes to the consumer product safety act. It would delay the regulations by six months, clarify rules about component testing, exempt resellers from the act, prevent retroactive enforcement of the act and require the commission to provide small businesses with a compliance guide.

The bill is being backed by small business groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Little Known Genre of Palestinian Philately

In 1974 the Syrian Orthodox Archbishop Hilarion Capucci was arrested, tried and convicted of smuggling arms to the Palestinians. In 1977 he was released from prison by the Israelis.

On the stamp issued by Syria in 1977 (above image) Archbishop Capucci is pictured in front of prison bars beside a map of an undivided Palestine colored red.

Never underestimate an Anti-Semite.

An Archbishop

From today's New York Times --
Among the nine people aboard [the ship attempting to run the Gaza blockade] was the former archbishop of Jerusalem, Msgr. Hilarion Capucci, who was convicted of smuggling guns from Lebanon to Israel in 1975 and spent two years in an Israeli prison.


Tuesday, February 03, 2009

What I Have Learned Lately

A lot of it is shopping.

I want a video camera to make Youtube videos of my house to supplement my VRBO ad.  I was unwilling to spend more than $500 and reluctant to spend more than $400.    

I learned that there are several flavors of video cameras with the flavor depending on how the movie is stored on the camera.   One kind stores the movie by writing it to a DVD disk in the camera.  A variation stores data on a mini-DVD disk in the camera.  Another kind stores data on a small hard disk drive in the camera.  A third kind stores the movie to flash memory in the camera.  

The third kind is the newest.  It has no moving parts except the lens and buttons.   Which makes it the most durable and reliable.  It has become practical because of the continued fall in price of ever larger memory modules.   Because of the ever-shrinking size of memory, flash memory video cameras are also smaller and lighter than DVD and hard disk drive cameras.   Since there are no disk drive motors in them, they have the best battery life of the three.  Because of the continuing fall in prices of flash memory,  flash memory cameras are becoming the cheapest as well. 

A 16 GB flash memory can hold more data than a DVD,  more than a mini-DVD,  but less than a hard disk drive.  It can record for hours and costs $37 mail order from New York.

There continues to be marketing hype for the other two kinds, but the companies selling them are just unloading obsolete inventoriy.

Pursuing the particulars, and staying under $500 and preferably lower, I narrowed down to three cameras -- the Sony Webby, the Canon FS10, and the Panasonic little tiny camera whatever its name is.  

I read a user review of the Webby and read that while it is fine while one points it steadily at the subject, moving it around is disastrous.  It gives a sea of blur until the camera is held in a fixed position again.  Reading over the specifications again, sure enough, no image stabilization.  Which makes the thing all but unusable.  I was astonished to find such a damning review on Sony's own website.  That suggests either they didn't read it or they have some serious commitment to consumer sovereignty.  Sony deserves our praise and admiration for that, just don't buy their camera.

The Panasonic was appealing because it is so small.  all these cameras are small, but the Panasonic is tiny.   But its zoom is a relatively limited 10x.  Given all the creative screwing around one can do with a long zoom that seemed to outweigh its tiny size and light weight.

Though I am getting the camera for making Youtube videos of my house to assist in renting it - Wowie Zowie!  That makes it tax deductible! - I will of course use it recreationally as well.  Birds and animals rarely sit still for long so the Webby won't be of much use.  They are seldom up close either, so the Panasonic's short zoom will rarely suffice.  

That leaves the Canon FS10.  Which turns out to be two models, the FS10 and the FS100.  For the life of me I could not figure out the difference.  They appear to be identical and their specifications are identical.  Both have 37x zoom, image stabilizaiton, and on and on.  Finally I found a user discussion forum where the question was discussed.  Somebody with the same confusion called Canon and asked what the difference was other than $80 in price.   The FS10 has an 8 GB memory chip built in and a slot in which to insert additional memory.  The FS100 has only the slot.   Since the camera was first marketed, the price of memory has continued to fall but the price spread between the two models has not shrunk.  As I mentioned before, 16 GB of class 6 (the fastest class)  memory now costs $37. 

So that is my solution -- the Canon FS100 with a 16 GB memory flash card.  Available from B&H Photovideo in New York for $250 and $37 respectively, free shipping and no sales tax because it's out of state.   If it matters to you, they are the blackest of black hats and their website shuts down its shopping cart from  Frday afternoon until Saturday evening.

Iraqi Female Population Boom or Harvey's Cartoon Becomes Reality

Samira Ahmed Jassim is seen in a detention facility in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, Jan. 27, 2009. The woman, nicknamed "Umm al-Mumineen," suspected of recruiting more than 80 female suicide bombers has been arrested, the Iraqi military said Tuesday, dealing a major blow to one of the most effective forms of attacks in Iraq. Iraqi military spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said the suspect had recruited more than 80 women willing to carry out attacks and had admitted masterminding 28 bombings in different areas. (AP Photo/Qassim Abdul-Zahra)

`Mother' of Iraqi women bomber network arrested


BAGHDAD (AP) — A woman accused of helping recruit dozens of female suicide bombers looked into the camera and described the process: trolling society for likely candidates and then patiently converting the women from troubled souls into deadly attackers.

The accounts, in a video released Tuesday by Iraq police, offer a rare glimpse into the networks used to find and train the women bombers who have become one of the insurgents' most effective weapons as they struggle under increasing crackdowns.

In a separate prison interview with The Associated Press, with interrogators nearby, the woman said she was part of a plot in which young women were raped and then sent to her for matronly advice. She said she would try to persuade the victims to become suicide bombers as their only escape from the shame and to reclaim their honor.

The AP was allowed access on condition the information would not be released until the formal announcement of the arrest.

The U.S. and Iraqi militaries have made past claims without providing much evidence about efforts by insurgents to recruit vulnerable women as well as children as attackers. Those included statements by the Iraqis that two women who blew themselves up last year in Baghdad had Down's Syndrome, accounts that were not supported by subsequent investigations.

It also was not possible independently to verify the claim that insurgents sent out people to rape women who could then be recruited as bombers in the volatile Diyala province northeast of Baghdad.

But the suspect, 50-year-old Samira Ahmed Jassim — who said her code name was "The Mother of Believers" — has given unusual firsthand descriptions of the possible workings behind last year's spike in attacks by women bombers.

The Iraqi military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, said the suspect had recruited more than 80 women willing to carry out attacks and admitted masterminding 28 bombings in different areas.

Female suicide bombers attempted or successfully carried out 32 attacks last year, compared with eight in 2007, according to U.S. military figures. Most recently, a woman detonated an explosive under her robes that killed at least 36 people during a Shiite religious gathering last month.

The attacks reflected a shift in insurgent tactics: trying to exploit cultural standards that restrict male security forces from searching women and use the traditional flowing robes of women to hide bomb-rigged belts or vests.

In response, Iraqi security forces have tried to recruit more women. In last week's provincial elections, women teachers and civic workers helped search voters.

Al-Moussawi, the military spokesman, alleged Jassim was in contact with top leaders of Ansar al-Sunnah in Diyala, the last foothold of major Sunni insurgent strength near Baghdad. The group is one of the factions with suspected ties to al-Qaida in Iraq.

Al-Moussawi said Jassim "confessed to recruiting 28 female suicide bombers who carried out terrorist operations in different areas." He gave no other details on the locations or dates of the attacks.

In the video played for reporters, Jassim described how she was approached by insurgents to urge women to carry out suicide attacks. She said her first assignment was Um Hoda, a nickname meaning mother of Hoda.

"I talked to her a number of times," said Jassim, who has four daughters and two sons. "I went back to them and gave them the details on her. And they told me, bring her to us. ... And I took her to the police station, and that's where she blew herself up."

Another woman, whom she called Amal, was involved in long conversations, Jassim said.

"I talked to her many times, sat with her, and she was very depressed," she said on the video. "I took her to them, and then went back for her and she blew herself up."

Jassim gave no further information on the attacks or her role in the video.

In speaking with the AP — a week after her Jan. 21 arrest — Jassim repeated statements she had allegedly made to interrogators that insurgents organized rapes of women and that she would then try to coax the victims to become suicide bombers.

She said she was "able to persuade women to become suicide bombers ... broken women, especially those who were raped."

In many parts of Iraq, including conservative Diyala, a rape victim may be shunned by her family and become an outcast in society.

Police interrogators were not in the room during Jassim's interview with the AP, but they were in an adjoining chamber.

Jassim did not offer additional details on her alleged role in the attacks, but suggested she was pressured into working with the insurgency.

She claimed that Ansar al-Sunnah provided her a house in Diyala, where she operated a shop selling the traditional robes for women called abaya. She added, however, that Ansar al-Sunnah once threatened to bomb her house if she did not cooperate.

"I worked with (Ansar al-Sunnah) for a year and a half," she told the AP.

Women suicide bombers are uncommon, but not unknown, outside Iraq.

Among Palestinians, several woman have carried out suicide bombings for militant groups including Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

There also have been cases of women in the West Bank attacking Israeli soldiers so they can be imprisoned after being accused of breaking traditional rules on sexual conduct. In the Palestinian territories, relatives can seek harsh punishments, including death, on women seen as dishonoring the family.

Associated Press Writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.


[El Presidente Hugo Chavez]

There are those who continue to deny the connection between anti-Israel agitation and anti-Semitism. In Venezuela that pretense has been dropped.
Join San Francisco Voice for Israel/Stand with Us at the Venezulean Consulate today!
January 3
5-6 pm.
311 California St
San Francisco, CA


Call the Venezuelan Consulate

Stop anti-Semitism in Venezuela!

There is a well-orchestrated campaign on TV, radio, print and Internet media owned by the government, openly questioning Israel’s right to exist, even including publication of such anti-Semitic materials as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. A group of pro-government journalists is urging the population to boycott of businesses owned by Jews in Venezuela.  Only 4 days ago a synagogue in Caracas was vandalized by a group of 15 armed men. Graffiti left at the scene included the phrases “Damn the Jews,” “Jews out of here” and “Israel assassins.”

Most frightening is a 'plan of action' published in a pro-government digital newspaper,, giving direction against Venezuela’s Jewish community which includes:
- publicly denouncing by name, the members of powerful Jewish groups in Venezuela, names of their companies and businesses in order to boycott them
- avoiding products, stores, supermarkets, restaurants, and where Kosher food is sold which either belongs or has links with 'Zionist Jews'
- questioning the existence of Jewish educational institutions
- shouting pro-Palestine and anti-Israel slogans at Jews on the street
- inviting anti-Zionist Jews living in Venezuela to publicly express their disassociation from 'Zionist war crimes' and the imposition of artificial State of Israel on Palestine
- nationalization of companies, confiscation of properties of those Jews who support the “Zionist atrocities of the Nazi-State of Israel”, and donate this property to the Palestinian “victims of today’s Holocaust”

Say no to anti-Semitism anywhere in the world.
Stand with us in solidarity with world Jewry

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Life and Death and the Australian Open

The Australian Open tennis tournament was the scene of the Changing of the Guard today. The huge, familiar champion, Roger Federer, lost. He was by far the best tennis player of his era for years. He won the four big national tournaments - the Australian, the French, Wimbledon, and the US Open, 13 times, the second most anyone has won ever. Mind you, each tournament starts with 128 contenders, of whom only one gets his name on the trophy. He was the one of the 128 who did that -- 13 times. All 128 are so good at tennis that they get paid to do it. He was consistently better than any of them.

Except occasionally. When he played the Spanish teenager Rafael Nadal, for instance. Nadal, the Majorcan Strongboy, consistently beat Federer on slow clay courts, common in Spain and France, but in not too many other places. But that was a sort of anomaly. Nadal was a clay court specialist. And besides, Federer could beat everyone except Nadal even on clay.

Last year Nadal beat Federer in the Wimbledon final, on a fast grass court. But Federer had mononucleosis so that couldn't be taken seriously. Even so, he beat everybody else but Nadal at Wimbledon, so it would be the Age of Federer again as soon as he got well.

Today at Melbourne, the court was hard court and Federer did not have mononucleosis. But Nadal won anyway. Given that Federer served abominably it was remarkable that he could stay with Nadal until the end of the fifth set. Even so, I served abominably when I played, and that didn't mean I was a better player on account of it.

So, at least for now, the Age of Federer is over, and the Age of Nadal has begun.

Why is sports news worth noting in a blog entry?

Because Federer is done -- at 27. Nadal is 22. Part of the reason Nadal has surpassed Federer is that he is still getting better. Federer is at his peak and will never get any better than he is now.

The stadium in which all this took place was the Rod Laver Arena. Rod Laver was the greatest tennis player of his era, arguably of all time. I remember seeing him play on black-and-white television in the great era of Australian dominance in tennis. He had a devastating forehand, which earned him the nickname 'Rocket Rod'. He was in the stands for the Federer-Nadal match, a man in his 70's.

Laver's era has been over for 40 years. Federer's has been over for a day. For the rest of us there are no obvious markers like losing a tennis tournament to tell that our day is done and the rest is just a long goodbye.

But what does it mean to be over with? Laver and Federer were each the greatest tennis players of their eras. That feature of their lives is what defined them to other people, and doubtless to themselves. Australia named a tennis stadium after Laver, not an art gallery or a courthouse, because that is how it defined him.

Most of us are not defined by our public lives like famous athletes because we don't have public lives. But even for the many who have only private lives we are still defined by externalities to others and generally to ourselves. Strangers we meet always inquire after our occupations. Strangers look for wedding rings or the lack of them to size us up. Many men are prouder of being daddies than of anything else in their lives. But it is a doomed relationship. Success means that the twerps will ripen into independent adults. Then one is only sentimentally a daddy.

Even good values lead us into self-definitions that melt in our hands. Shallower values melt even faster.

Everything that we are changes, decays, and ends. So, in the self-help phrase, we have to continually re-invent ourselves, to find new ways to define who we are. Like Roger Federer will have to, like you and I will have to.

Maybe that is what is meant in the blather phrase that one has to keep growing to stay alive. Maybe the phrase is merely inarticulate. Maybe what is meant that one has to be constantly defining oneself anew just to stay afloat.