Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Advice for my kids

Note:this first appeared as an op-ed in the Valley City Times-Record.

Rules (of thumb) to live by

As my children get older I've been forced to think more about the advice I give them. I figure I've got this window of opportunity while they're still listening, I don't figure it's going to last much longer.

Soon, they'll become better-than-average bright teenagers. Then they'll know everything, and discover that the grownups are so stupid they can't hardly stand them.

Understand, I am not being holier-than-thou. When I was that teenager I had all the answers, and a vast contempt for the adults who couldn't see them. Now all I seem to have is a set of disturbing questions.

I miss those answers!

What I have now is some rules of thumb I'd like my kids to remember. Not accept on faith, that's not what a “rule of thumb” is for. I just want them to keep them in mind, because they worked for me (some of the time) and too often I paid a high price for learning them.

Some of them, in no particular order, are:

*Regularly read and listen to the opinions of people you disagree with. Force yourself to wade through the arguments of people whose politics you despise. Sometimes you find that you have points of agreement with them, sometimes you gain insight into why they think the way they do. And, you can't fight their opinions if you don't know them.

“We find comfort among those who agree with us, growth among those who don’t,” Frank A. Clark, newspaperman.

*Remember, any debater who uses sarcasm, ridicule and insult to make points is not trying to convince the opponent, but the audience. And always, always, always remember that sarcasm, ridicule and insult are often highly effective tactics, but say nothing about the truth of the argument, and are often used to hide the fact there is no argument.

*In any conflict between logic and experience – go with experience.

Q: What is the stupidest thing that walks this earth?
A: An adolescent with an above-average IQ.

This is not a contradiction. Any bright kid can see for themselves they are smarter than most of the adults around them. What they cannot see is that experience counts for something. They can't, because of course they don't have any.

And I have to say, I see some pretty tall juveniles around these days.

*Never trust a gambler who claims to give you the best odds, an investment broker who says he can consistently do better than the market rates, or a politician who claims not to enjoy the power and perks of the job.

“You can't cheat an honest man,” is not just a W.C. Fields joke, but sober truth. Every classic con game relies on an element of dishonesty in the victim, the desire for something for nothing. And that includes cons run by Wall Street hucksters in expensive suits, and politicians promising the moon in a basket.

Have you looked at the list of Hollywood sophisticates and big city slickers Bernie Madoff took in?

Makes you want to ask, “If you're so rich, why ain't you smart?”

*Read! A man who won't read has little advantage over a man who can't read. If you're a reader, you'll never have a reason, or an excuse, to be bored. If you've got nothing to do, books are easy to come by, and if you can't get hold of one you can think about ones you've read.

*Listen to that little voice in your head that says; don't walk down that street, something bad is going to happen at this party, that person is bad news.

*Never make irrevocable decisions when tired, hungry or intoxicated. Consider whether “being in love” is a form of intoxication.

*Before dismissing sayings, proverbs, and old wives tales, you might consider how they got to be such old wives.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

...and an anecdote for Mr. Holder

And a P.S. on AG Holder's desire for an honest conversation on race.

I think it was in 1992 or '93 I was attending a conference in then-Czechoslovakia, in a town called Swit (now Slovakia.)

There I met a delightful lady, South African author Frances Kendall.

Kendall had just published a book called, "The SeXY Factor: Gender differences at home and at work" about, as the title suggests, gender differences.

This was a bit of a daring subject, at a time when feminists were denying there were any differences in gender beyond basic plumbing.

Kendall told me that friends had told her, "This is great! Now why don't you do one on race?"

Her answer, "No way! Everybody who touches that subject gets burned."

Let's have that conversation some other time.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


*Gosh, aren't you glad we didn't elect McCain, a.k.a. "Bush III"?

Why, if we had more of the Bush policies, we might be maxing out the national debt and sending our troops to fight a probably unwinnable war in a far country of no strategic importance to us.

We'd have a cabinet of lobbyists totally in thrall to the multi-national corporations.

We'd be governed by a rich boys club who think the tax code us common folks live by doesn't apply to them.

Boy wasn't that a narrow escape?

*President Obama, to his credit, maintained a consistent position on the Iraq war from the beginning. Unlike opportunists such Hillary who trimmed their sails when it appeared to be going badly.

So what's this Afghanistan thing?

Iraq is at the heart of the ancient Caliphate, rich in resources and population. Afghanistan is rough country good for hiding out in, but otherwise poor and lacking in resources.

Iraq has been conquered many times throughout history. Afghanistan eats armies.

Experience has shown Iraq can be pacified, if its people can be shown peace and security will follow.

In Afghanistan, raiding your neighbors - and those effete lowlanders, is considered manly sport.

To be fair, that could be a description of Scotland before my family came over. And Scotland was eventually pacified and civilized.

So all we have to do is to place a civilized but warlike nation, with ten times the population and resources, right next to Afghanistan.

*I see our new Attorney-General, Eric Holder has ripped aside the veil of silence and boldly tackled a subject we've been too cowardly to talk about.

"Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and I believe continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards."

Wow, what an idea. Let's talk about race.

On second thought, how about we not talk about race for a change.

Of course I'm being sarcastic. It seems that all we do is talk about race. Like race is the single thing that defines us, more than say, character, intelligence, wit, staying out of jail...

Holder may have a point however. He went on to say, "If we are to make progress in this area, we must feel comfortable enough with one another and tolerant enough of each other to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us."

OK, now we're talking.

Let's talk frankly about the fact that the difference in crime rates, especially violent crimes, between black people and white people is... "astronomical" is one adjective that comes to mind.

And explaining it away as a result of White oppression doesn't wash. Young black men are mostly killing and assaulting each other.

Then there's those nearly three quarters of black children being raised without a father in sight. Is this a recipe for social collapse or what?

The fact is, after every vestiege of legal oppression and discrimination has been abolished, Us White Folks are watching with horrified fascination what looks an awful lot like the mass suicide of an entire sub-culture.

Is that frank enough for you?

Thought not.

We're not ever going to "to have frank conversations about the racial matters" because white people are afraid that if they did say what's on their minds, they'd, 1) get called "racist" and lose their jobs, or 2) get assaulted.

Rumor has it that Asian people are not speaking their minds because, 1) their contempt for the both of us is really extreme, and 2) they're waiting for us to destroy our society so they can pick up the pieces.

*Dutch member of parliament Geert Wilders, currently being prosecuted in the Netherlands for his film "Fitna," was denied entrance to the UK.

An English newspaper called "Fitna" a "nasty little rant against Islam."

That's true only if you consider actually quoting the Koran as a "rant against Islam."

For nostalgia night, you might rent "Soldier of Orange," to have a look at what the Dutch used to be.

To see what the English used to be... almost anything made before and during WWII will do. Or anything with David Niven in it.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Happy Valentine's Day

Note: This originally appeared on the editorial page of the Valley City Times-Record Valentine's Day weekend edition.

“Love is a condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.”
Robert Heinlein

Years ago around this time of year, when I was teaching English in the Warsaw Berlitz School, I asked a middle-aged Polish gentleman if he was going to buy a Valentine for anyone.

“It's an American holiday, not Polish,” he said, “so I don't celebrate it.”

“You'll learn to,” I replied. “The ladies like it. And besides, it's not American.”

And of course, it's not originally American. It is celebrated on Feb. 14 all over the western Christian world, with odd exceptions like Poland until recently.

But nobody knows exactly when it started, or who Valentine really was. At one time the Roman Catholic Calendar of Saints had 11 St. Valentines, of whom at least two were associated with Feb. 14, Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni. Both were martyred in the early years of the Christian era.

Though there was no early association with romance in the early biographies of the saints, by the fourteenth century a legend grew up about Valentine of Rome.

St. Valentine is known to have been martyred in 269 A.D., the last year of the reign of the Emperor Claudius II. Legend has it that Claudius, in need of soldiers, forbade young men to get married, believing they would be less willing to go to war if they had the comforts of a wife and family at home. Valentine defied the edict by secretly marrying young lovers. When he was caught at it, he was first imprisoned, then executed.

The legend further states that while imprisoned, he healed his jailer's daughter of some illness, and she promptly fell in love with him. On the eve of his martyrdom he wrote a love-note to her signed, “From your Valentine.”

There was by the way, nothing improper about this. Celibacy was not made mandatory for clergy until the Second Lateran Council in 1139.

In the year 1400 a “High Court of Love” was established in Paris (where else?) to deal with love contracts, betrayals, and violence against women. Judges were chosen by women based on a poetry reading contest.

The tradition of courtly love was an idealization of the ideals of chivalric romance, whereby a knight was inspired by the object of his affections to live up to the high ideals of chivalry and become the best person he could be.

Later the radical idea developed that a man's romantic ideal might even be the woman he was married to. Though considered scandalous at the time, the idea of a love match eventually caught hold.

The first surviving Valentine is a fifteenth century poem sent by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife, while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

The custom of sending Valentine cards began in the nineteenth century in England, and established in America by Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts in 1847. Today the U.S. Greeting Card Association estimates a billion Valentines a year are sent world-wide.

And the holiday is indeed spreading. Though many other cultures have days celebrating amity between the sexes, the tradition of sending cards, flowers, and chocolates on Feb. 14 is spreading beyond the western world.

Singapore, South Korea and China have all had booming sales of Valentine gifts in recent years.

Recent reports have it that the demand for roses for young men to send to young ladies is skyrocketing in Pakistan, in spite of being declared “haram” (forbidden) by the fundamentalist Muslim clergy.

In Saudi Arabia, the sale of Valentine items was banned by the religious
police, and shops were ordered to remove all red items last February. Nonetheless, there was a huge black market in roses and wrapping paper.

Which really goes to show, “Amor omnia vincit” (Love conquers all.)

Happy Valentine's Day!

Friday, February 06, 2009

Looking at the "economic stimulus" from North Dakota

Note: The body of this was written as a newspaper op-ed. I thought it needed to be extended for people who aren't familiar with the upper midwest.

Since I came to North Dakota last year I've covered a lot of government meetings, a couple of elections, and recently some of our district's legislative forums.

What I found was rather a pleasant surprise to me. The local elected officials I've observed and reported on are by and large, competent and decent people (many with their personal quirks to be sure) who are doing a reasonably good job under difficult circumstances. To say the least, it is not always thus in other places I've lived.

The reason I think, is that in North Dakota there is essentially no such thing as a full-time professional politician, until you get to the governor or congressional level. Most of our elected officials either have other jobs, or hold an office as a retirement job.*

One consequence of this is, these people know where money comes from.

Let me rephrase that, these folks know where wealth comes from. Money isn't wealth, money is the bookkeeping system. Wealth at bottom, comes from growing stuff, making stuff, and moving stuff around.

You can't create more wealth by moving the money around, that only transfers wealth from one person to another. You create wealth only by growing more stuff, making more stuff, or moving stuff to places it's more useful.

That's why it's worrying to me to see how eager some of our elected officials seem about the “economic stimulus” money they're expecting from the federal government.**

What occurred to me was, this is money from home.

I think most of us remember learning to live on our paychecks when we first went to work. We learned to budget what we made for our rent, food, gas, clothes and stuff we really needed, and maybe even saved a little, before we spent any money on what we merely wanted.

If you were fortunate enough to have parents who were reasonably well-fixed, they might send you money from time to time, maybe after the babies started arriving, or maybe it was just your birthday.

So how did you use that money?

Well, if your finances were in reasonably good shape to begin with, you probably took some of it and did something nice but not necessary for yourself. If they weren't, you likely got yourself out of that hole temporarily, but didn't learn to stop digging.

North Dakota's finances are in pretty good shape. We actually have a billion dollar budget surplus and people are thinking seriously about how to use it wisely and prepare for that proverbial rainy day. That's why we're in better shape than most of the rest of the country, so far.

Now it looks like we're going to get some free money. We can't just take it and put it away for a rainy day, that's not allowed. Nor can we replace existing funding for projects we've already got going, that's not allowed either.

We have to think up some new projects to spend it on, and have them shovel-ready RIGHT NOW!

I am personally convinced that the so-called economic stimulus, is nothing of the kind. I think it's a disaster in the making, and evidently not only professional economists think so, but a majority of the public at large as well.

But I can't honestly say that I'd recommend the state and city I live in refuse to take the money. Money is money, and if they're handing it out you'd feel like an idiot if you didn't get some while the getting was good.

All I'd say is, be careful. Like gambling money, or money from home, this doesn't feel like the kind that sticks.

And we'd do well to remember this is money, not wealth. It wasn't made here, it was taken and sent to us from somewhere else.

*North Dakota has a legislature that meets for only one session every two years. Our (Democrat) state senator and (2) representatives for District 24 make it a practice to hold scheduled forums in towns all around the district, every Saturday during the legislative session. They discuss the legislation they're working on and make themselves available to anyone who cares to come to ask questions.

Few other legislators do this and I must say I'm rather impressed.

**North Dakota is perpetually grappling with a problem unique to the upper midwest and Alaska. The state is about the size of Oklahoma (where I moved here from,) but with a fifth the population. And believe me, it shows in the amenities available out in the sticks.

The largest city is Fargo at about 100,000. (Though actually larger since it sprawls across the Minnesota line into another jurisdiction, and is commonly referred to as Fargo-Moorehead.)

To give you an idea: going west from Fargo across the Interstate to the next largest city Bismarck (the captitol, located at the western edge of the state), you go past two towns of about 7,000 and 12,000, and then across a hundred-plus miles of prairie whose widely scattered towns have populations measuring in hundreds.

Low population density equals thin tax base. The result is, the tax base is apparently inadequate to maintain basic infrastructure. For example how do you pay to build and maintain a paved road from the Interstate to a town that might be 30 to 60 miles away and have a population of 300?

(And by the way, a huge part of those maintenance costs is snow removal.)

In between are farms of course. But with modern machinery, even family-owned farms get larger and larger, because 1) not a lot of people really like to farm anymore, and 2) you have to have a huge acreage to afford a set of farm machinery these days.

The consequence of this is, farmers live at increasing distances from their neighbors. Which makes farm life even tougher, especially on women. Which makes people abandon farming and sell out, which makes the remaining farms larger etc.

North Dakota is a tax-absorbing state. It receives about 50 percent more money in federal aid than it pays in federal taxes.

So what do you do, abandon the state? For the past three generations, that's what a fair number of people have done. The population has had a steady decline from it's peak in the early 20th century.

In my gloomier moments I think the only thing that might populate the upper midwest would be disaster elsewhere. The decay of the inner cities might send refugees here, or the eventual reality of nuclear terrorism might motivate a decentralizing of our economy.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009


*From the AP wire:

'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.


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.

It's at times like this I have to pray, "Please exist God. Please let there be a hell for such as these."

Oh, and just one quibble. In "conservative" Islamic societies, women who are raped are not "shunned" by their families - they are killed by their families.

* Michael Phelps got caught on camera with his snout in a bong only a little smaller than the Olympic-sized pools he sets world records in.

Gotta watch that stuff, it really ruins your health!

It is one of the enduring mysteries of our time, that a vice which doesn't involve sex, and is indulged in by a fraction of the population large enough to swing any election and is most likely just short of a majority - can still get you time and a career-destroying record.

What gives?

That's not a rhetorical question, I really mean what the hell is going on here? What powerful vested interests give a damn about keeping pot illegal? (Aside from drug dealers I mean.)

The notion that pot would displace alcohol is silly. Ask any pothead what he wants after a couple of hits, a Pepsi or a beer?

*President Obama made his first overture to the Islamic world on Al-Arabiya, and seems to be clueless that he's had a huge loss of face.

I am not going to crow about this, it's my country too. But doesn't he have Rahm Emmanuel at his side to clue him in?

*Something has been bothering me ever since the presidential campaign. I was recently reminded of it when going through old comments posted.

It's about Sarah Palin and the brutal way the media treated her.

Understand, it's not about sympathy. At its worst, I'd say it was THAT LOOK on Katie Couric's face when interviewing Palin. You could see it in her eyes - Katie wanted to kill her.

But there's a saying about heat and kitchens that covers that one. Palin was visibly unnerved, Katie was in control. (God how I wish she'd lost control, gone for Sarah physically - and gotten herself stomped.)

Practice Sarah, practice. And remember, femina lupa femines.

No, what bothers me is the merciless fun poked at her for that answer, "I can see Russia from my house"* in the Gibson interview.

Damn it, I knew what that meant right away! My wife knew it without having to think twice about it. Any Eastern European would know what it meant!

Or, think about this. If someone asked a politician from the southern border states, "What do you know about illegal immigration?" and they answered, "I can see Mexico from my house" - you'd know what they meant.

It means, "I pay attention to this issue - because I have to. Because I can't avoid it."

Turn my example around, "I can see Canada from my house,"* means nothing - because Canada is not threatening.

So did the media deliberately misconstrue that one?

Doesn't seem likely, FOX didn't pick up on it and go to her defense.

No, what's frightening is, they flat didn't understand.

That does not bode well for us.

Update: It just occurred to me that it might work turned around though. If a Canadian politician said, "I can see the U.S. from my house," that could be very meaningful in certain contexts.

*Correction: What Palin actually said was, "There are parts of Alaska you can see Russia from." That quote is how Tina Fey lampooned her. Point remains the same.