Vacation Time: The View From The Deck

The infamous Pisciotta deck

We’re down in the Bahamas, at the Pisciottas’ sumptuous home in the Shoreline development outside Freeport.  It is a fantastic, relaxing place where we always enjoy ourselves. So far, we’ve managed to eat some good Caribbean food, drink beer at several oceanside bars, and crash a party thrown by some of the many Brit residents in the development.

The view from the foot of stairs at the bottom of the deck

We particularly enjoy the sprawling deck, which looks out over the Atlantic and is well-suited for a breakfast talk, a mid-afternoon siesta, or drinks before the evening festivities.  It has a great view of the ocean, and when you sit out there, sipping a beer and listening to the gentle sound of the ocean, you can’t help but relax.

Bailout Fatigue

The government will be distributing another $3.8 billion to GMAC, the former GM subsidiary that makes car loans and home loans, but mostly, bad loans.  Although the U.S. government already has given GMAC $12.5 billion in an attempt to shore up its balance sheet, the company is still experiencing massive losses.  This latest cash infusion from the government will leave U.S. taxpayers as the majority owner of the company.  It doesn’t seem like the wisest investment of our tax dollars, but no doubt the Treasury feels that having thrown $12 billion into GMAC, another $3.8 billion is chicken feed.

I’ve posted about our bailout activities on numerous occasions — such as here and here — but what I find most interesting about this latest bailout is the seeming lack of any real reaction to it.  It is as if we have heard about so many bailouts that we have become numb to another failed company, another expenditure of a billion here and a billion there, and other capitalist enterprise largely “owned” by the government, which purportedly will some day be repaid for its “investment.”  The outrage at the ineptitude of the corporate kingpins who ran the companies into the ground with risky and ill-fated business activities, and the outrage at the bad deals the government is striking in agreeing to make the bailouts, seems to have vanished.  We all apparently are suffering from bailout fatigue.

In the meantime, let’s all hope that GMAC’s continuing problems aren’t an early warning sign of the dreaded double-dip recession.

The U-Trou Bomber (Cont.)

Time has published a pretty good wrap-up of the various failings of security that allowed the U-Trou Bomber, Umar Abdulmutallab, to board the flight from Amersterdam to Detroit with enough high explosive to bring down a loaded airplane sewn into his underwear — notwithstanding the warnings from his father and the other circumstances that should have tipped off our security agencies.  The Time article makes clear that, at minimum, we need to improve our cumbersome system for identifying potential terrorists and sharing information about them.

The U-Trou Bomber (Cont.)

The U-Trou Bomber

The Passing Lane

Commuting presents a daily set of challenges and frustrations.  There are the timid souls who don’t understand that the proper way to merge onto a highway is to accelerate into the traffic flow, rather than creeping up to the merge point, hoping that the traffic on the highway will make way and then braking suddenly when that doesn’t happen.  There are the oblivious types who are talking on their phones or, God forbid, texting, and therefore not paying the slightest attention to what they are doing.  There are the self-absorbed characters who click on their turn signals and then immediately begin to drift into the next lane, as if the simple act of initiating the turn signal gave them a magic pass that automatically cleared the way for their cars.

For my money, the worst offenders are the people who seemingly do not grasp the purpose of the passing lane.  When I took my driver’s education class and ventured out, for the first time, onto a four-lane highway, the instructor made it clear that the left lane was the passing lane.  You moved into the left lane if you wanted to pass the car or truck in front of you, and when you had completed the pass you moved back into the right lane.  This allowed traffic to flow properly.

This salutary concept evidently is lost on some people.  In their view, the left lane is simply a lane like any other, to be occupied by traffic.  If they are going to be turning left in two miles or so, they may as well get over into the left lane now, stake their claim to that spot in traffic, and continue to drive their normal speed — which typically is about 5 miles below the speed limit.  Why not?  It’s more convenient for them.  In the meantime, the traffic piles up behind them and then frazzled commuters begin to consider whether they can shoot around the car on the right — and when they attempt that maneuver the offender, shaken from his reverie, usually speeds up for some reason.  Eventually people start driving recklessly, brake lights flash, and accidents happen.  I’ve often thought that more accidents are caused by overly slow drivers that overly fast drivers.  Others agree; this website has a helpful collection of quotes that make that point.

So I say:  Slow drivers, give us a break!  Let the passing lane be the passing lane!


These days I get my hair cut at a unisex salon about a block from my office.  It is quite a change from the barber shops of my youth, which usually had two or three red barber chairs on a black and white tile floor, a crew-cut barber with a white coat with scissors and combs in the breast pocket, and a waiting area of chairs that, if you were a lucky kid, might include an otherwise-illicit Playboy or two.  A haircut took about 10 minutes and involved using the clippers to mow your hair down to half-inch length.  At the end your neck would be dusted with witchhazel, the barber would slap the now-empty chair with a towel and send cut hairs flying, and say:  “Next!”

No more.  When I show up for my appointment at the salon, a nattily dressed host asks if I want a latte or a hot chocolate.  My hair is as likely to be cut by a woman as a man.  Usually the stylist wants to wash my hair before getting started, and often there is a scalp massage thrown in.  The whole process takes about a half hour.  When the haircut is done, they typically ask if I want any “product” put in my hair.  The only “product” featured at the old barber shops was Brylcreem (“A little dab’ll do ya!”) and an appalling product called “Crew Wax” that was the consistency of axle grease and featured a hard plastic brush on top that was used to painfully rake your scalp and leave your hair in prime, “flat top” condition.

Getting a haircut in a place that also has women patrons is interesting.  In some ways, I feel like I have gotten a peek at the mystical rites of a secret society.  For example, the woman in the next chair may be having some aluminum sheets put in her hair, for some mysterious purpose.  What the heck is that all about?  Or the woman and the hair stylist might be having a lengthy, detailed discussion about whether a different hair coloring or “frosting” agent should be used this time.  (I’ve never heard a male customer at a barber shop say anything about their haircut except:  “Give me the usual.”)  The last time I was at the salon the stylist working on the woman in the next chair wheeled over some large, scary-looking device.  I asked the stylist cutting my hair what it was, and she explained it was contained hot liquid wax that was going to be applied as part of an eyebrow waxing.  Ouch!

Sometimes I miss the old, no-frills barber shop, with its talk of sports and testosterone-drenched sense of male camaraderie.   But, I think I get a better haircut at the salon, and I often come away with a different perspective and newfound respect for hardiness of the opposite sex.

The U-Trou Bomber (Cont.)

The continuing story about the failed effort by the U-Trou Bomber, Umar Abdulmutallab, to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit will be interesting to follow in the next few days.  It is pretty clear that it was mostly due to luck and faulty detonation that we avoided another deadly terrorist attack that would have killed hundreds,  It also is clear that the unsuccessful attack exposed some serious flaws in our air travel security and some ambiguous standards that, in this case, seemed to operate in a way that made us less secure.  Finally, we also have been warned that there are many other suicide bombers ready to try to succeed where the U-Trou Bomber failed.  We should take that warning to heart and act promptly to shore up our security apparatus.

President Obama has ordered a thorough review of our air travel security, which I think is the right first step.  (It certainly is a more reassuring approach than Department of Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano’s absurd initial statements that the “system worked,” despite the obvious failings that allow Abdulmutallab to go forward with his plot.)  Although it would have been better if our systems had foiled this attempt in the first instance, it is crucial that we not allow recriminations about the current deficiencies in our systems to prevent us from fixing the problems.  From what I’ve read, I think we need to make sure that the State Department and its embassies, which received the warning about the potential danger from Abdulmutallab’s father, share such information with the Department of Homeland Security.  We also need to communicate more effectively with our allies; in this case, Great Britain apparently had Abdulmutallab on some kind of watch list, yet he nevertheless was able to board a plane to the United States.  I also think that, as a rule of thumb, if someone’s father makes the effort to warn us that his son or daughter may be a dangerous potential terrorist, we should accept that as “reasonable grounds” to put the individual on a no-fly list and revoke any visas they may have.  Let’s also not be afraid to give a meaningful pat-down search to someone who buys their ticket with cash and doesn’t seem to be carrying luggage consistent with their announced travel plans.

It appears that this particular incident was made possible only because multiple “red flags” were disregarded.  It’s time to start paying attention to those red flags, and acting on them.

PenPal’s Return

Yesterday Kish picked up Penny from the breeder’s home, where Penny — or PenPal, as we call her — had her second litter of puppies.  She had four healthy pups this time, and she looks like a female dog who recently was nurturing her offspring.  Still, she is a bit thinner than when she left, she looks fit, and she seems very happy to be home.

Having Penny home means our family is together again in close proximity and able to spend some time together, at least until Russell heads back to Vassar.  Although Penny has been gone for about six weeks, it didn’t take long for us to fall into our old routines.  Last night Penny and I did our first post-return circuit around the Yantis Loop, as twilight came and snowflakes fell.

Hanging With The Browns Backers

UJ has invited me to join him and the Westerville Browns Backers at Jimmy V’s in Westerville for prior Browns’ games, and today Russell and I took him up on the invitation.  The Browns Backers is a world-wide organization of Browns fans.  If you find yourself in a strange city on Sunday and want to watch the Browns with some kindred spirits, you can go to the Browns Backers website and see whether there is a local Browns Backers club that watches the game at a particular bar.  Russell and I did that some years ago and watched the Browns’ lone playoff game in recent years with the San Diego Browns Backers.

It was fun watching the game with a bunch of rowdy Browns fans, and Russell and I were impressed when UJ consumed an entire hummus platter after eating a gyro with chips.  We drank a few beers, cheered for the Browns, and were happy when they won their third straight game, beating the Raiders 23-9.  Good idea, UJ!

The U-Trou Bomber

The recent story about the failed attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit can’t help but send a collective shudder through the minds of holiday travelers.  The would-be terrorist, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, tried to detonate some high explosives strapped to his leg.  Fortunately, his device failed, and our country was spared the trauma of a Christmas Day attack that likely would have killed hundreds.  Credit also should be given to the brave fellow passengers who subdued the terrorist and put out the fire started by his device before he was able to do any further damage.

The terrorist’s backstory is, by now, disturbingly familiar.  Abdulmutallab comes from a privileged background and had been living in a fancy apartment and attending college in London.  Somewhere, somehow, he was introduced to radical Islamic views, joined al Qaeda, and received the training and device needed to carry out the plot.  He became disengaged from his family, which noticed the change in his personality and his religious and political views.  Indeed, his own father warned authorities that his son was a potential terrorist. His story should remind all of us that there still are people out there who want to harm the United States and kill innocent Americans and don’t mind dying in the attempt.

This incident should cause the Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration, and other American authorities to immediately revisit and tighten air travel security procedures.  Abdulmutallab apparently was on some kind of security watch list.  It is mind-boggling that he was able to carry a syringe and some form of high explosives through security.  It also appears that no one noticed other telltale signs of potential terrorist activity.  Abdulmutallab bought his ticket with cash.  Although he supposedly planned a two-week stay in Detroit, he did not check any luggage and had only a carry-on bag.  How was this guy not an obvious candidate for a careful physical search before he was allowed to board a plane to the United States?

The next time we travel by plane we no doubt will be inconvenienced by some new security procedures designed to prevent a similar attempt.  I don’t mind being inconvenienced if there is a realistic chance that the new procedures will foil the next terrorist plot.  And when I am in the TSA line, waiting, I may think of Abdulmutallab and smile at the thought that, when the explosive device strapped to his leg caught fire, he likely was badly burned in some tender areas.  Allah must have a sense of humor.

Happy Boxing Day!

I think every calendar I’ve ever owned has identified December 26 as “Boxing Day.”  We don’t celebrate it — whatever it is — here in the States, but the name of the holiday certainly is evocative.

The internet, of course, lets the us learn about these curiosities with a few taps of the keyboard.  It turns out that Boxing Day is celebrated in former British Commonwealth countries and has nothing to do with Muhammad Ali, sparring partners, or sports.  Instead, it is a day to give presents to tradespeople and those less fortunate — and, more recently, has become a big day for shopping.  Although the origins of the holiday seem to be obscure, it apparently began with presents given by upper-class Brits to their servants.  Whether those gifts were given in boxes, or whether the servants needed to remove the boxes left over from their masters’ Christmas celebrations in order to get the gifts, is anybody’s guess.  In any case, you can read about Boxing Day here and here.

A Hot Topic (Cont.)

One great thing about the holidays is seeing your children and nieces and nephews, fresh from their college campuses, and learning what is on their minds.  We were up in Vermilion to visit with the “Kishman cousins” on Christmas Eve, and I had a chance to chat with our godson Andrew, who is a junior at Grinnell College and recently returned from a semester abroad in Sri Lanka.  He, Kish, Richard, Patty and I talked about Sri Lanka, about politics, and a little bit about global warming, too.

Although Andrew and I come at the global warming issue from different perspectives, I think there is some common ground.  We both recognize that we aren’t scientists, and we both are disappointed that we are now at the point where we question what is the true state of the science surrounding global warming.  I think any fair-minded person who has read about the hacked e-mails and data taken from the Climatic Research Unit at East Anglia University realizes that, at minimum, it raises questions about whether the science that has been portrayed as reflecting an overwhelming consensus view based on undisputed evidence may be, instead, result-oriented and politicized.

I recently heard Al Gore interviewed in connection with the Copenhagen conference.  He dismissed the e-mails as old and meaningless, and then returned to the mantra that global warming due to human activity is the near-unanimous consensus of the knowledgeable scientific community.  And then I read a piece like this — written by a geologist who is an IPCC expert reviewer — and I wonder how Al Gore can say what he says.  Clearly, someone is not being truthful in their depiction of the data.

Obviously, no rational human being would want the environment to be irreparably damaged by human activity, causing sea levels to rise and turning temperate zones into jungle.   Equally obviously, however, no one should want to saddle our economy with crushing and enormously disruptive regulations, costs and taxes if doing so is not a scientific imperative.  The decision on how to proceed could have huge consequences, and making that decision therefore should be based on actual data and real science.  For that reason, I am relieved that the Copenhagen conference did not produce any binding agreement.  My sense is that allowing time to pass, observing the fallout from the East Anglia University incident, and seeing whether there are fractures in the claimed scientific consensus may help to clarify things and put our eventual decision on sounder scientific footing.

A Webner Family Christmas

Christmas at 2320 North Short Hills Drive in Bath, Ohio in the 1960s was a magical time.  It was a focus of the year for the five growing children in the Webner clan and lives on, rich and funny and idyllic, in my memory.

The Webner Family Christmas was steeped in traditions that heightened the excitement of the holiday.  On Christmas Eve we would leave a plate of cookies and a glass of milk near the fireplace, so Santa could have a snack after dropping off what we hoped would be a heavy load of presents.  Then we would rush upstairs to get into our PJs and try to go to bed extra early, because Mom had explained that the earlier you went to bed the sooner it would be Christmas morning.  (Smart move, Mom!)  In those days all five kids, separated youngest to oldest by nearly seven years, would sleep in the bedroom UJ and I shared, in a room crammed with pillows and blankets.  It seems impossible that five little kids, charged with excitement and crazed by their lust for toys, could ever fall asleep, but one by one we did.  Our last thoughts before falling into slumber no doubt were about whether we had been sufficiently good that year, or whether the Malt-O-Meal bird that Mom convinced us was reporting to Santa on our every activity had told about enough transgressions that we would only get the dreaded lump of coal the next day.

The next morning we would get up early — and by early, I mean 5:30 a.m. or so — wake up Mom and Dad, and then sit at the top of stairs, waiting.  Another tradition was that no one could go downstairs until Mom and Dad were ready.  The wait seemed to take forever.  (We later learned, of course, that Dad had been up until 3 a.m. putting together some of the toys we were about to get.)  In the meantime, we would give each other reports on Dad’s progress through his wake-up routine, like radio play-by-play announcers describing a ball game.  Yes, it was confirmed — Dad is out of bed!  Now we can hear the shower, that means he is making progress!  I’ve heard it from the source — Mom says Dad is shaving!  Shaving was always the last, and longest, step.  With each scrape of the razor, the excitement at the top of the stairs would build, reaching feverish proportions.  All five of us knew that just a few steps downstairs, but tantalizingly out of sight from our perch atop the stairs, was the Christmas Tree and Santa’s judgment on whether we had been good or bad.

Finally, seemingly hours after he had been abruptly awakened by five shouting, hyperexcited children, Dad appeared and we were permitted to race downstairs.  We first noticed the indisputable visual evidence of Santa’s midnight appearance.  We saw that the milk had been drunk and the cookies eaten, and the telltale track of sooty boots traced the path from the fireplace to the TV tray where the glass of milk and plate of cookies had been left.  We also could see the tree, glittering with tinsel and sparkling with ornaments, and appreciate the rich haul of brightly wrapped packages jammed underneath.  Our eyes immediately were drawn to the largest present, and all of the children shared the same greedy thought:  “Please, let it be for me!”  But we would not find out the lucky recipient for a while, for another time-honored tradition was that we could only open what was in our stockings.  You would get a candy cane or two, a chocolate Santa and perhaps a marshmallow snowman, and maybe a Tonka truck and a comic book.  Given our toy-hungry condition, it was like tormenting a starving man with a  Saltine cracker.  Afterward, we headed to the kitchen table, where we ate our breakfast of hot cereal — undoubtedly the influence of the Malt-O-Meal bird again.  Never was hot cereal consumed so quickly, as we thought furiously about what we had asked for in the Christmas lists prepared weeks before.  As we shoveled down the hot cereal Dad chugged a few cups of coffee, trying to steel himself for noisy orgy of present-opening that loomed dead ahead.

And then, the Supreme Hour arrived.  We would troop over to the tree and sit down close by, and Dad would hand out the presents one at a time.  Wrapping paper would be ripped to shreds, the presents would be speedily examined, and then they would be put aside so that the next one could be received as quickly as possible.  And all the while side-long glances would be cast at brothers and sisters and the presents left under the tree, and lightning-fast mental calculations of the remaining likely gifts would be performed:  “Jim got a stocking cap from Gramma and Grampa Neal — that means that one of my remaining presents is a stocking cap, too.  Arrgh!  A stocking cap!  Hey, everyone else has gotten a big gift, but I haven’t so far — so one of my remaining presents probably is going to be something big.  Whoo hoo!” Dad usually saved the biggest gift of all for the end.  By then we all had given eagle-eye looks at the present to look at whose name was on the tag, and the lucky recipient waited, adrenalin pumping, to see what was in such a big box.

Eventually the carnage of gift-giving was over and we sank back, hip deep in the blizzard of shredded wrapping paper, ribbons, and tags, our greed sated and ready for a more careful examination of the presents we had received.  And deep down, many of us felt:  “Hey, Santa must have concluded I was pretty good.  Maybe the standards aren’t very high, after all!  Or maybe the Malt-O-Meal bird didn’t see the time I broke one of Gramma’s figurines and blamed it on Margaret.  Or, maybe Santa just fell for the last two weeks of good behavior in the run-up to Christmas.  Heh heh!”  Flush with that important realization, we would gorge ourselves on the foil-wrapped chocolates from our stockings, play briefly with our toys, and then bundle up and head out into the quiet, frosty, snow-covered neighborhood, to find out what Santa brought to the dozens of other kids who lived there.

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes (Fin)

I have baked my last batch of Christmas cookies for 2009.

The last batch

Yesterday I baked some of the excellent Dutch spice cookies, and this morning I got up very early, baked the classic sugar cookies, and iced them up.  These two recipes are perennial favorites, and I wanted to have some cookies to take up to Gramma K. and the Kishman cousins during today’s visit.  Both cookies turned out pretty well.  Fortunately, Russell had his digital camera around, so we were able to take some pictures which I have included with this post.

Another part of the last batch

Patty asked today about the icing on the sugar cookies.  I use a few drops of evaporated milk and mix it with confectioners sugar until it reaches a thick, yet still spreadable, consistency that is sufficiently moist that it runs enough to leave a smooth look.  I then use food coloring to give the icing some pizzazz.  I like decorating the iced cookies with colored sugar, nuts, or dried fruit like cherries or cranberries.  Of course, nothing makes a better red nose for Rudolph than a cinnamon drop.

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes (Cont.)

I like a good, hard cookie that can be dunked into a cup of coffee or hot chocolate without dissolving.  These cookies fit the bill admirably.

Lemon-Pistachio Biscotti

Ingredients:  1/3 cup softened butter; 2/3 cup granulated sugar; 2 teaspoons baking powder; 1/2 teaspoon salt; 2 eggs; 1 teaspoon vanilla; 4 teaspoons finely shredded lemon peel; 2 cups all-purpose flour; 1 1/2 cups unsalted pistachio nuts; 1 cup sifted powdered sugar; 1 teaspoon finely shredded lemon peel; lemon juice.

In a large mixing bowl beat butter with mixer on high speed for 30 seconds.  Add granulated sugar, baking powder, and salt and beat until combined.  Beat in eggs and vanilla until combined.  Beat in 4 teaspoons of lemon peel and as much of the flour as possible using the mixer.  Then stir in any remaining flour and nuts with a wooden spoon.

On a lightly floured surface divide dough into three equal portions and shape them into 8-inch loaves.  Flatten loaves to about 2 inches wide.  Lightly grease two cookie sheets, then place loaves on sheets at least three inches apart.  Bake at 375 degrees for 25 minutes or until golden brown and tops are cracked.  Cool on cookie sheet for 30 minutes.  Transfer loaves to cutting board and cut loaves diagonally into 1/2 inch slices.  Place slices, cut sides down, on cookie sheets and bake at 325 degrees for 8 minutes.  Turn slices over and bake for additional 8 minutes at 325 degrees until dry and crisp.  Transfer to a cool plate.

Stir powdered sugar and 1 teaspoon of lemon peel together in a mixing bowl, then stir in drops of lemon juice until icing is of drizzling consistency.  Dip ends of cookies into icing or drizzle icing over tops of slices.

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes (Cont.)

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes (Cont.)

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes (Cont.)

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes (Cont.)

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes (Cont.)

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes (Cont.)

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes (Cont.)

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes (Cont.)

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes (Cont.)

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes

The Nebraska Compromise (Cont.)

A lot of people apparently are as appalled by the unseemly vote-buying in the Senate as I am.  Here’s another take on the shenanigans surrounding the vote of Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson on the “health care reform” legislation.

For me, the reaction of certain Senators to the outrage many of us feel is just adding insult to injury.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and some others, are saying that “compromise” is what legislating is all about — as if we are hopelessly naive in expecting our Senators to actually vote on the merits of issues, and occasionally on their consciences, rather than on the basis of the crass political or monetary advantages they can extract from those on one side of an issue or the other.  I despise that kind of insider attitude, which I think is a significant part of the problem with our money-addled, hyperpoliticized, and often fundamentally corrupt elected bodies.  If Harry Reid honestly thinks that cutting a deal which makes Nebraska immune, in perpetuity, from part of the shared costs of Medicaid is simply part of how business should be done in Washington, D.C., that attitude just confirms that he is no longer fit to hold his office.