Monthly Archives: March 2007

Bike Pome

Hmmm. Here’ s an impulsively shared work in progress:

Venus up

the sun not far behind

as we pedal east

all night in the saddle

and cold enough now

that I look for frost diamonds in the first light.

Why do you do it, you ask,

the all-night ride

through landscape you know you miss seeing,

the world that little sphere lit by your dumb headlight,

your ass sore from riding all through the day before,

the world that ribbon of bad pavement

through landscape you know you miss seeing.

Why do I do it?

I want to tell you

I’d love to tell you

But the sun’s up now,

there’s a hill to climb, another one after that, breakfast to eat,

a lot of ground to cover before night

and we shouldn’t burn daylight just sitting and talking,

not when there’s a ride to ride and so much landscape to see.

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Moonlight X

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A bunch of contrails in the evening sky tonight. Here’s a westbound plane crossing the trail left by a southbound jet about seven or eight minutes earlier.

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Supporting the Troops: A True Story

The president is getting lots of air time today for his visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center; now that imperfections in the nation’s care for its wounded warriors have come to light, he vows, solemnly and sincerely, that the government will do better. And as long as someone’s keeping their eye on the problem–someone like the Washington Post, which brought the scandalously poor treatment to light–things will probably improve.

Meantime, he is escalating the war in Iraq, guaranteeing a steady flow of new clients for Walter Reed and the nation’s other military and veterans’ hospitals. The escalation also means that the services have to scrape together bodies to make sure that units headed for Iraq, or those held there on prolonged tours, are as close to full strength as possible. Where is the Pentagon finding the bodies? Here’s a story involving a friend of ours and her son.

The son was in the Marines, part of the first-wave invasion force sent into Iraq in March 2003. His unit’s combat assignment was over quickly, and he and his comrades were pressed into police duty in Baghdad and other locations in northern Iraq. Back then, when the mission was declared accomplished and administration’s victory lap was interrupted only by the need to mop up “non-compliant forces” and “destablizing influences” in the lexicon of the day, the son’s unit was quickly rotated back to the States, and he was discharged soon after.

I don’t know the letter of military regulations, but my understanding of the deal Marines have is that when they leave the corps, they don’t really leave the corps. For the first 48 months after discharge, they’re considered part of a ready reserve force and can be called back to service at any time. Only after that 48 months is up are you free and clear from an involuntary call-up; if you decide to join the reserves or go your own way at that point, that’s your business.

For our friend’s son, that four-year period for involuntary call-up will be over in a few months. He got married recently, and he’s going about his life pretty much the way any kid in his mid-20s would, with the significant exception that he’s been in combat and was assessed a disability rating of 40 percent because of post-traumatic stress syndrome when he left the corps. His mom, who’s not a Veteran’s Administration bureaucrat, a Navy medical officer, or a military lawyer, sort of figured that the 40 percent disability meant her son couldn’t or wouldn’t be called back despite the news that the armed services have begun to recall discharged members.

So she was puzzled the other day when her son asked her whether he had gotten anything from FedEx. No, she told him. Was he expecting a package. No, he said–a letter from the Marines; they might be recalling him to service. How could that be, she asked–you have a 40 percent disability.

The son told her that sure, that was right–but that a buddy of his, someone rated with a 60 percent disability (I don’t know the reason) had been summoned back to duty.

So this is the support the troops get from an administration whose leading members made damned sure they were never anywhere near the shooting when it was their turn: First, send the troops out on a tragically half-baked mission; second, when they start coming home with major physical and psychological trauma, make them fight an ill-prepared bureaucracy and medical system for care; third, when you find yourself in a pinch, call on the guys who have already given pieces of themselves and tell them they’ve got to go back in. Oh, and fourth, you question the patriotism and loyalty of anyone who questions your way of doing business.

All in all, it’s a heck of a recruiting campaign.

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Generals Bound, Unbound

Now that Congress has done the unexpected and voted to try to rein in the president’s open-ended war in Iraq, the president is blustering about how the troops must be “fully funded.” That’s a non-issue, as the Democrats who engineered the bills in both houses made sure that, even if there’s no tax revenue to pay for it, the military and the president get all the money they want over the next year or so to keep the blood flowing into the sand. That’s fine. Congress’s power to limit the president’s warmaking by cutting off the money sounds great in theory, but it’s such a political snare that no one wants to get close to it until they see everyone else headed in the same direction. We haven’t gotten to that point; and if we haven’t yet, you wonder what it would take.

The president and the Republicans who want to prolong the war indefinitely also decry a bunch of politicians trying to manage the war by imposing conditions and timetables on troop deployments. It is a little strange to see a branch of government that appeared content to let the president have his way in Iraq for four years suddenly sit up and take notice. But the bills that have passed and the deadlines they include are trivial limitations on military commanders when compared to the conditions the president and his crew have thrust upon the generals and their troops.

To begin with, the war had to be a streamlined, lightning-fast operation. The number of troops committed was to be kept to a minimum. Planning for postwar Iraq proceeded on the rosiest assumptions about Iraqi society, politics and physical infrastructure. Those who dissented from the plan, who questioned the basic assumptions, were openly chastised or shunted aside. When it turned out that not a single element of the president’s blueprint matched the reality on the ground, there was no Plan B; certainly, there was no option to seek wider involvement from allies since we had charged into battle in nearly complete isolation from those who might have played a part. So, a year after the invasion, when the lid really came off, the commanders were left to figure out how to proceed in a situation whose own architects swore didn’t even exist: those resisting us were just dead-enders, or the insurgency was in its last throes, or it would go away once one or two or three key bad guys were eliminated.

Meantime, the reality of what has happened in Iraq is too awful to honestly contemplate in terms of the destruction of life and the unraveling of a society. We’re privy to pallid secondhand accounts of the ongoing mass killings and car-bomb attacks and the exodus of everyone who has a chance of getting out of the country; but at the president’s urging, we go on with our lives except for offering knee-jerk praise to the members of the armed services. The president’s answer to the disaster he unleashed is essentially the same as it has always been: more of the same, but smarter this time. If the current escalation fails–and it will, if the definition of success is really pacifying Iraq–the president will go looking for another general with a bright idea about how to prevail. And he’ll keep the military handcuffed to a war he never had good reason to start and which long ago ceased making sense. It’s about time someone tried to tell him that this can’t go on forever.

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My Former Great Trivia Feat

A stupid party game/trick I used to try to get people to play as a way of showing off some specialized knowledge I thought I had: Let’s name rivers! Specifically, let’s name X rivers in Y, where X is an uncomfortably high number and Y is a place I happen to know pretty well.

For instance: Name 25 rivers in Illinois (rivers bordering Illinois count). It’s been a long time, but: Chicago, Fox, Rock, Pecatonica, Apple, Mississippi, Illinois, Mackinaw, Big Muddy, Sangamon, Spoon, Vermilion, Kickapoo, Kankakee, Des Plaines, Wabash, Galena … and from here, with 17, I need help: the Ohio (a no-brainer), Kaskaskia (thought about this one, but wasn ‘t sure), Iroquois (same name as the county south of Kankakee County; forgot about it). That’s only 20. That means I have to look up rivers I may or may not ever have known existed: the Kishwaukee, the Green, the Saline, the La Moine, the Macoupin, the Cache. (For the really curious, here’s a map: Major Watersheds of Illinois.)

See what fun that is? The whole family can play!

If you don’t like rivers or Illinois, try counties in California. Or lost pets in Wichita. Whatever you know.

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Your War in Numbers

Seventy-six U.S. soldiers have died so far this month in Iraq, according to Iraq Coalition Casualties. That makes March the seventh consecutive month in which the toll of U.S. soldiers killed has reached 70 or above, the longest such period since President Bush launched the war in March 2003.

Five hundred ninety-nine U.S. soldiers have died since September 1, 2006; that’s the highest toll for any seven-month span in the entire war, exceeding the 584 U.S. lives lost from August 1, 2004, through February 28, 2005, a period that included both the costly offensive against Fallujah and an insurgent onslaught leading up to the Iraqi national elections on January 30, 2005.

Iraqi deaths in the same span: Conservatively, about 1,300 and counting for March. More than 13,000 since September 1.

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Clearing

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Early evening at King Middle School, after today’s rain passed. Tonight: cold (by Bay Area standards only) and clear.

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Circle of Friends

A former colleague of mine who went into freelance writing a few years ago has scored a significant career success: he has a new semi-weekly column in the Sunday New York Times business section. The general topic is technology and innovation. I admit to a twinge of envy: what a great gig. That’s small of me. My former colleague (MFC) has worked very hard to move from doing niche technology stuff and writing about things he didn’t have a lot of interest in to establish himself and then move beyond it to where he is now. Maybe I should just say “way to go” and shut up.

But that is not my way. Here’s something that MFC does in connection with his column that sort of annoys me: He spams me and I don’t know how many more of his acquaintances with an alert to each new column. The messages are more than, “Hey, everyone, check out my new article.” They’re written with a bit of a hook; this week’s, for instance, has the subject line, “My new NYT column is about … You.” Yeah, I’m vain enough that I looked just in case he had found some aspect of my life or career scary enough to serve as a cautionary tale for his readers. But no: That was just a come-on, and it ended with a nudge to spread the word about his column to others.

If this is a sin, it’s venial, not mortal. What bugs me, though, is that one, I didn’t choose to join this email list; two, getting off of the list requires me to do something that feels rude: “Hey, there, great to hear about your column, but please don’t send me any more email about it” (is writing a post about it less rude?); and three, MFC acts as though his circle of acquaintances is just another group of marketing targets.

Yes, sure: When I recently had my little Las Vegas article published, I broadcast that fact in a blog post and offered a link to the piece. I think the difference is that visiting this site and partaking of its sublime smorgasbord of observation and wit is a voluntary act; I’m not pushing anything out to anyone, and the only people subjected to my profundities are those who come looking for them.

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Powerful Sports Car

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Parked outside the main branch of the Berkeley Public Library: a Lamborghini Countach. Right out there on the street with all the Volvos and Nissans and VWs. But what got our attention was the fact the car was parked in the primo disabled parking spot in front of the library–parking is becoming very, very challenging in downtown Berkeley–with a disabled placard hanging from the rear-view mirror. In California, disabled plates or placards are available for drivers or passengers with serious mobility or sight issues. Now, I’m just guessing that you need to be pretty limber to get in an out of this car. which is built very close to the ground and doesn’t look like it has a luxurious amount of cockpit space for driver or passenger (sure–looks can be deceiving). And while I can imagine circumstances in which the driver or a regular passenger of this beast might have need of disabled parking dispensation, I find it easier to believe that this is a scam. I mean, if you’re able to climb out of this thing, you’re not impaired enough to require the best parking spot on the block. (Seeing this does make me wonder about the distribution of disabled plates and placards by vehicle, though; how many Lamborghini operators have them? How many high-step vehicles, like Hummers and big pickup trucks? )

[Update: On Monday (March 26), the Chronicle published a story on the increasing use of disabled placards throughout the state: According to the stats the paper published, the number of placards issued has doubled in the last decade, “with 1 issued for every 16 residents” statewide. With 36.5 million residents, that means almost 2.5 million placards are floating around out there (U.S. Census Bureau stats provide some interesting context: In 2005, the agency put the number of residents age 18 and over at 25 million, meaning about 1 in 10 people of driving age have disabled placards. The bureau estimated California’s over-65 population, the group that I’d expect to hold the most placards, to be about 3 million. One upshot of the Chron’s story, which is underwhelming in scope and detail, is that the widespread use of disabled placards, which exempts users from feeding parking meters, is cutting into local government revenues. I still want to know how many Lamborghini owners have disabled plates.]

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Powerful Vacuum Cleaner

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Left on the sidewalk out by Ohlone Park for the lucky passerby: a Hoover upright featuring so many little gizmos, features, slogans and claims it ought to be able to clean up Baghdad all by itself:

  • Self Propelled (note to Hoover: use the hyphen next time)
  • Premium
  • Wind Tunnel Technology (accompanied by image of cyclone for dramatic emphasis)
  • Bag Check Indicator
  • “Picks up more dirt than any other clean-air upright” (Hoover: that hypen’s a good one)
  • Green and red lights labeled “clean” and “dirty” respectively
  • “Carpet is Clean When Light Is Green”
  • Embedded Dirt FINDER
  • WindTunnel by Hoover
  • Mach 6.9
  • Patented Windtunnel

This machine looks like it’s survived a few IED attacks, or at least confrontations with pets that gnawed on its attachments. I like the accompanying Post-it note that explains: “Powerful Vacuum Cleaner/needs new belts & cleaning.”

This Berkeley habit of leaving spent vacuum cleaners out on the sidewalk–it’s starting to grow on me.

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