Friday, October 21, 2011

U.S. Goof in Iraq?

So the Big O announced today that all US combat troops would be pulled out of Iraq by the end of the year. That really isn't news, according to what's been previously announced. Unless the previous announcement wasn't serious and our government thought there would be some way to extend our troops' stay. Seems like the Iraqi government wasn't going for a SOF deal so we decided to pull out for real.

Just how many countries can we keep troops in after conflicts end? We've had forces in Germany and Japan since 1945; in Korea since 1950. Smaller elements in many other scattered places. I guess entrenched interests of the government establishment figure that once we get into a place, we should remain there to some extent indefinitely.

Tragedy or folly often starts at the beginning of an event but the irony is that we often don't recognize it as such until along about the end. Our great taxpayer expenditure in Iraq may turn out to have been for nothing. Why did we go to Iraq the second time, anyway? To eliminate the threat of weapons of mass destruction? We never did find any. And even if we had, what made Iraq different in this way than say, North Korea or Iran? We haven't invaded them yet but they have or are working on weapons of mass destruction. Okay, how about terrorist activity? Saddam Hussein may have allowed terrorist groups to gather or train in his country, but it wasn't a major effort and many other countries have done the same to much larger extent (Yemen, Indonesia, Syria, Iran, et al) and we haven't found it necessary to invade them. So the question still hangs in the air. What was the real reason for invading Iraq? Not for a minute do I buy the liberal claim that it was done "to get the oil." So far as I know, we didn't get a drop of it to our own benefit. Unless there's a lot more going on than our deep-digging news media know about.

Oh, did we do it to gain freedom and democracy for the oppressed Iraqi people? If you believe that, then you believe in the tooth fairy putting a silver dime under your pillow.

Prior to the US government deposing him, Saddam Hussein was what is known in geopolitics as a countervailing force. Better yet for the US, he was a countervailing force that we had some control over. For some time after the first Iraq war, we controlled the airspace over Iraq which included constant surveillance so Saddam couldn't pop any surprises. Saddam interposed a barrier to Iranian ambitions in the region. Absent Saddam's rule in Iraq, Iran is gaining great influence there. It doesn't hurt that the Iraqi leader, al-Maliki, spent lots of time in Iran during Saddam's rule. So basically what may have happened is, throught great expenditure of treasure and blood, the US in deposing Saddam paved the way for Iran to consolidate power in the region. The Iranians have got to be laughing at our stupidity.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Swedish Twist is Back at My House

No, it's not a dance, it's a baked good.

Many years ago, there was a bakery in Los Angeles named Van de Kamp's. When large grocery stores started to be built, Van de Kamp's had sections in many of the stores where they sold their specialty baked goods. After Theodore Van de Kamp died, his family sold the company to General Host Corp. which fairly soon after got out of the baking business but you may have seen the Van de Kamp name on frozen food products, like fish sticks. The bakery has been gone for decades, was only in the southern CA area but the frozen foods are sold nation-wide.

Van de Kamp's had a Dutch windmill with Delft blue and white signage as their advertising themes. Van de Kamp's had their own in-store employees who stocked the merchandise, women who wore a kind of quasi-Dutch costume to include a white apron while they were working. In my experience, they were always kindly, older ladies who would patiently answer customer questions about the product. They were a bit like the presence of a made-up Santa Claus in department stores during Christmas.

One of my favorite baked items from Van de Kamp's since I was a child in the 1950's was called the "Swedish Twist." This was three thick strands of risen dough, braided together, and coated with sugar and cinnamon. No gooey frosting like Cinnabon rolls. My grandmother introduced me to this wonderful treat but as I got older, I bought them myself at the store. Then one day some time in the late 1960's, I went in to buy one and the shelf was empty. When asked, the Van de Kamp's lady told me that the item was discontinued; it seems that the braiding was done by hand and had been deemed too costly to continue the process. The Swedish Twist did make a brief reappearance in the early '70's, then it was gone for good.

In recent years, my wife has made a kind of coffee cake she calls Monkey Bread. I've been thinking about his, and with a few suggested modifications, I asked her to use this dough recipe to replicate the Swedish Twist. She did it tonight and her version is a dead ringer for the original.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Soldier of the Month

Actually, I was Soldier of the Month twice. What is Soldier of the Month? Well, in Army units (at least when I was in), they used to have these supposed morale-raising bogus contests to see who was the sharpest soldier in the unit. In my unit at Fort Leonard Wood, it wasn't a contest. A candidate for SOM was drafted. I was permanent party in a training unit, and only perm. party were "eligible" for this "honor." No trainees were permitted to "compete." The SOM deal was kind of a pet project of the Sergeants Major, and therefore of the First Sergeants of the companies. Most of the permanent party cadre were jaded Vietnam veterans who had utterly no interest in such things, and probably would have told the first sergeant to stuff SOM.

In my unit at Fort Leonard Wood, when I arrived I was "fresh meat." My fatigues were stiff with starch, I still played the discipline game, and as company clerk, that meant at least I could read. My first sergeant saw in me a possibility for being his pet Soldier of the Month.

I should say, in his words, "Sojer o' da Munt." My first sergeant was Elijah Ralls. He was an older black soldier, and since he was born in 1927, he must have joined the Army as a young fellow around the end of WW2. Back in the Vietnam war era, E-8's weren't required to be all that educated, and First Sergeant Ralls wasn't. He never could get my name right, and referred to me as "Swatley." What he lacked in education, he made up for in common sense, experience, and discipline. He wasn't without humor, as sometimes I would glance up from my desk and see that he was slying laughing at someone or something. He was a very tall, erect soldier. While in Germany, he had met and married a German woman. I must say, she was without doubt one of the homeliest women I have ever seen; tall, with a long neck like a goose that placed her head somewhat forward. She was polite in the extreme; on those rare occasions when she came around the company area, she would knock on the door of the orderly room, ask for Sergeant Ralls, and speak to him outside without ever coming in. Maybe that's how they used to do it at German Army orderly rooms, for all I know. First Sergeant Ralls was retirement eligible, and I once overheard another cadre member ask him what he was considering after retirement. He answered, "Oh, Ah speck Ah'll get a job wuckin f' da pote office." I don't know if he ever did; he died in 1997.

At Fort Leonard Wood, my company had the appearance of being an exclusive destination for black cadre members in my battalion. The battalion personnel sergeant was apparently practicing defacto segregation; remember, this was only five years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, so some of those things died slowly. First Sergeant Ralls was probably used to being crapped on, so he may have felt he could make the company sparkle a little bit if he could come up with a good prospective Soldier of the Month.

I hadn't been in the company long when 1SG Ralls came over to me and told me I was going to be his Sojer o' da Munt. He outlined the program to me, and gave me some tips on doing well. Soldiers of the Month went before boards of First Sergeants and Sergeants Major, competing first at battalion level, next at brigade level, then finally at post level. These boards would look the soldier over to see how well he was turned out as to uniform and personal appearance, and then grill him with questions about military knowledge. Since these men were mostly engineer soldiers, their questions were centered on that specialty. I didn't know squat about engineering; I was a clerk. It didn't matter; 1SG Ralls gave me a copy of FM 5-34, the Engineer Soldier's Field Data handbook. He told me to read it and gave me some tips about what kinds of questions that I would almost certainly be asked. No, they weren't going to ask me questions about the Morning Report or the Army Functional Files System, things I knew about. They were going to ask me questions like, "What is the burning rate of det cord?" (Answer: 20,000 to 24,000 feet per second), or, "What kind of knot is used to secure separate lengths of det cord?" (Answer: girth hitch).

So, I went up two times as SOM, and was crowned 3rd Battalion, 4th Brigade Soldier of the Month both times. When I went on to the Brigade SOM competition, I won that once and went on to Post SOM competition where I lost. Never mind, I made First Sergeant Ralls very happy with my limited accomplishments. For once, B Company had a feather in its hat. My efforts earned me several three day passes which at the time were well received. I also was given a little wood and brass plaque by the battalion sergeant major, SGM Gonzales. I still have the silly little thing; after I was made battalion SOM the first time, I sent the trinkent home with some other things. When I did the same thing months later, SGM Gonzales came around to congratulate me, then asked where my plaque was. I told him I had sent it home, and he told me to get it back so they could engrave the data for the second event on the original plaque. I guess he wanted to economize on plaques.

I'd completely forgotten about this thing. It spent over 30 years in my mother's attic with some other stuff from that time. A number years ago when I was visiting, my mother asked me clean out her attic and I found it there.

These many years later, I wish I'd gotten to know 1SG Ralls better on a personal level. At the time, I was only 19 years old and you know how it is at that age. I was living in my own little world, and wasn't paying much attention to the older people around me whom I was working with. I was focused on my own amusements in my rare time off when I could have been getting to know this interesting soldier better.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Finding the Dead Rat

About ten days ago, my wife told me she noticed a "funny smell" coming from the area of the computer and would I check it out. I did, and could only get a faint odor. A day or two later, I smelled it myself without trying.

My wife claims that I can't smell odors so well, but for me dead rat smell is unmistakeable. I've smelled dead rats in parked cars and, whoooee, some warm days of that and the smell is overpowering.

A few days ago, I noticed the bad smell eminating from the ducts in the forced air furnace. In winter, the use of the forced air furnace is limited because I'm always burning in the wood stove. However, my wife gets up fairly early to go to work and usually I'm still abed then. She turns on the forced air furnace to take the edge of the coolness that has settled into the house overnight. Then when I get up, I burn wood until I go to bed which is usually late. Get up late, go to bed late; makes sense to me.

I know the mechanics of my house very well. I know the entire layout of the plumbing, heating, electrical and so on. So I know the exact routing and layout of the furnace ducts. The heating system vents in two main runs. One is for the two-story side of the house, with ducting between the floors that serves both. The other main run goes out away from the furnace under the middle floor of the house (tri-level design). This run is in a crawlspace. There is a main gallery with laterals that feed out to the sides that go to the registers in the floor. It was from this run that I could smell dead rat.

My first fear was that a rat has somehow penetrated the duct system itself, gotten in there and died. Using a mirror, I looked in several laterals but couldn't see any rat turds or disturbed dust (or dead rats) that would indicate rat traffic. Since I couldn't see in the main gallery, I couldn't check it out. I'd been wondering about this, though. With the furnace turned on, the smell would only come out briefly during initial start-up. If a dead rat was in there, the smell would be constant and quite strong.

With this all in mind, today I went under the middle level to have a look-see. I'd been under there a couple of days ago to set some traps before I did much exploring. This morning, the traps had no takers. So I went on in and started investigating. I know what to look for. Rat turds, disturbed dust, and clawmarks on the framing. I also had a certain lateral in mind to drop down in case I wanted to inspect the main gallery. I went right to that joint and right away found evidence of rat. I started pulling away the plastic coating over the insulation and right away got a strong smell. A little more pulling and I could see a rat tail. Next I went out and got a black trash bag, returned and started pulling the nest apart. The rat hadn't been in there long from the looks of the nest. I put all the contaminated insulation and dead rat in the bag. The smell was very ripe.

I got lucky to find this so quickly.

So, there wasn't any rat inside the ducting. It was right up against the steel ducting at a joint. Even though the ducts are taped at the joints, there are fittings where the steel is just pressed together and apparently the odor was seeping into the system that way. With plastic coated insulation, there wasn't anywhere else for the odor to go. When I first entered the crawl space, there was no odor. It was only when I breached the insulation that the smell came out.

While I was under there, I checked around the whole place and looked at everything. I've had a rat or two get under here before, but I've always discovered this in warm weather after they've left. Cold weather is what drives them inside. Of course, I want to know where they get in. The last time, they had actually tunneled under the foundation footing from outside to gain entrance. Today, I couldn't find the place but it's got to be there somewhere. I sent several more mechanical traps that I will check periodically the rest of the winter.

When I lived in the city, I never had the problem of rats or mice. There, even in a nice but older part of town, cockroaches were the scourge. You can never get rid of all of those; if you eradicated 100% of them on your property, the next night you'd be infested again from adjacent properties. I'll never forget a realtor's comment when we were looking at a home for sale and I found a dead cockroach. Her exact words were, "Oh, that's just an itty-bitty old water bug." Water bug. Lady, I knew cockroaches from Vietnam, those great big fellas, and I know a roach when I see one.

For the many years since that I've lived in a woodsy area, we've never seen a cockroach. We've seen plenty of other pests, though. How about raccoons, opossums, squirrels, rats, mice, carpenter ants, and I don't know what else. They all seem to want to get into your stuff in some way.

I didn't have rats around (to my knowledge, anyway) until about ten years ago. I have some neighbors a ways off who are of a religious sect that believes in storage of food. Well, these people stored up whole grains loose in suitcases in their garage, which they often leave open for long periods. One famous time, they decided to clean out their garage. They got to the suitcases and found that rats had eaten holes in them and infested that part of the structure. When this whole mess was disturbed, the rats fled out the garage door in all directions and since that time, I've started seeing rats from time to time.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Collecting the 50 States Commemorative Quarter Coins

OK, did any of you get started on this nonsense back in 1999 when the first state quarters were struck?

My wife, way out of character and no coin collector, decided she would save "one of each." She sent away for this big, cardboard folder that had a map on it and a little hole for every state quarter to be issued. We dilligently kept a lookout for these coins to fill up the holes. One of the many jobs I had over the years at the PO was vending machine technician, so I had a fairly large pool of coins to scan.

The program was to run through completion in 2008. By that time I'd retired, and wasn't exposed to coins much any longer. We missed what I thought were a couple of the later ones. In the meantime, I found a Puerto Rico in pocket change and wondered where that came from.

To close this project out, recently I stopped in a coin store to get UT and AK, the two presumed missing quarters. While there, I asked about PR and found out the government had gone past the 50 states and also issued a piece for DC and each of the US possessions, so I had to get one each of these for the sake of completion (or compulsion).

In the meantime, I'd picked up a blue Whitman coin folder made for these quarters. This was much more compact than the huge folder we originally had, so I undertook to transfer the coins over to it. I got all 50 coins plus DC and the territories installed and still had a bunch of empty holes. Whaaat? I've now discovered that not only am I not finished, I'm far from it. Turns out, they minted these things at both Philadelphia and Denver mints. Living out west, I have mostly D's. So now I have to find 47 P's and three D's to complete. Fooey. I may just call it good to have one design of each and poo on mint marks. After all, they won't be worth over a quarter apiece in my lifetime and maybe not for 200 years. Not to mention the ravages of time against the current value of money. In 200 years, they will likely have a purchasing power of one cent apiece.

So I guess I have to be content with admiring the different designs on the backs of these coins. Some of them, anyway. The design committees or whoever selected the individual state designs worked at varying levels of aesthetic competence. Some designs are beautiful, some are handsome, some are cluttered, some are ugly, and some are just plain stupid. Without intending to make a statement about the state involved, here are some of the designs that I like:

CT, with the Charter Oak
MS, with the magnolia blossoms
MO, with the Louis & Clark explorer paddling their canoe in 1804 with the Gateway to the West in the 2004 background
KS, with the bison and sunflower
NV, with the wild mustangs, one of my favorites
CO, with the Rocky Mountains scene
ND, with the pair of bison
MT, for sure with the steer skull and landscape in background, very nice design
ID, with the falcon, outline of state, and motto. I don't normally like designs with the state outline, but the falcon trumped that on this one. Bird depictuion could be better, though
WY, with the bucking bronco
OK, with the flycatcher (bird) in flight over flowers
AZ, with the Grand Canyon in the background and desert flora in the foreground. Very nice design with integrated but unbusy themes.
AK, nice design with the grizzly bear

The design of my own state of WA I rate as fair, depicting a leaping salmon in mid-air with Mt. Rainer in the background. Multiple themes but not busy; could be a single wildlife scene.

Now in my opinion only, the following are stinkers:

TN, which celebrates musical heritage with pictures of random musical instruments. This is a case, as with a few other states, where they chose to select a theme other than something of natural or historical importance. It could be worse.

IA, my parents's home state. This design shows a school house in a Grant Wood drawing with the motto, "Foundation in Education." An admirable concept to honor, and this is a clear example where the state chose to celebrate an idea and tradition rather than some other, tangible topic. I don't like the design.

Many states chose to put a map of their state in the design in some way. As I said before, I don't overly care for these map designs because they do not much celebrate anything but the existence of the state. NM, however, has a pretty stylish version with their Zia sun symbol state emblem super-imposed upon it.

WI has a steer's head, a round of cheese and an ear of corn on it. Need I say more?

Some states chose busy designs that would cover multiple subjects, like LA, AR, FL, IL, SC. Some of these efforts were more successfully executed than others. Some looked cluttered and busy.

A couple of the worst, only in my own opinion, are:

DC, with a picture of Duke Ellington and a piano. Now I know that Ellington was a talented and popular musician. But so many other historical events and places are connected with DC that I just have to wonder about this choice.

AL, with a picture of Helen Keller sitting in a chair. Honestly, when I first saw this coin, I thought it was a picture of "Old Sparky" the electric chair and the state was celebrating capital punishment. The artwork is horrible, and although the story of Ms. Keller is famous and touching, is that the most important thing the state is known for??

All of these designs of course represent symbolism particular to a given place. Some artists and design committees have interpreted their charge in different ways. My own preference is for something beautiful, often a single theme, that is representational of what is celebrated and not necessarily purely objective.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Domino Theory is Alive and Well

This time in the middle east. First Tunisia, now Egypt. These were both "moderate" states that had the support of the US. Mostly, these so-called moderate states have been repressive to some degree in the governance of their populations. In Egypt, Mubarak has been in office since Anwar Sadat took a bullet. Mubarak has remained in office via bogus elections and other shenanigans. He has consolidated the power of the state around himself and like any dictator, is loathe to give up his power and priviledge.

Who's next in the cavalcade of toppled despots? Saudi Arabia, maybe? The US supports these so-called moderate states for a couple of reasons. One, US foreign policy favors a benign status quo. So long as despotic leaders can keep their countries in some mode of continuing stability, the US is willing to overlook repressive governance in that pursuit. Two, these states get their nominal label of moderate in that they are not wild-eyed eager to wipe Israel off the map. They may not like Israel, but they have come to some accommodation with its existence.

The US finds some alternative form of government in these moderate middle eastern countries about as welcome as poison. In all likelihood, the new regimes will be hostile to US interests, to some extent. Envision the change in Iranian government in 1979.

Tunisia and Egypt aren't important players in the world energy situation. However, change of government in Saudi Arabia could be a very unsettling experience.

The current Saudi regime won't go down easily. All those many expensive arms that the Saudis have bought from the US over the years were acquired for purposes beyond the repulsion of external threats. The Saudi royal family and the extended oligarchy that runs the country had in mind internal threats to their regime as well as attacks from outside.

As I see it, the US is in a no-win situation in the middle east. There's no way the divergent interests can ever be reconciled. The US would like to have easy access to oil, peace for Israel, and recognition for individual human rights. It ain't gonna happen.

As to recent events in Yemen, that's not much of a story. Yemen has been in turmoil for decades. I can recall doing a current event report in junior high school on the civil war in Yemen in the 1960's.

Neighborhoods in Distress

When my sister-in-law moved here last summer, we drove her around to many places looking at homes. This tour included newer developments, those built just before or during the big bubble. These were neighborhoods in much distress; it was obvious all around. These newer homes had all been purchased at very high prices, and many had been bought by unqualified buyers. When the bubble burst, they all were underwater on the money owned on these places, and the marginal buyers were marginal employees, many of whom found themselves out of work due to recession.

In some of these places, "For Sale" signs were rife; many were pathetic attempts. Some were bona-fide listings and some were short sales and bank-owned foreclosure properties. The bona-fide listings of course were priced many tens of thousands of dollars over the distressed sales and had utterly no hope of selling. There were lots of people standing around the neighborhood, none with a pleasant look on their faces. Lots of men needing haircuts and dressed in dirty tee shirts or "wifebeater" undershirts. It was terrible and personally, I would never move into a neighborhood in such distress like that. Petty crime is probably higher than normal. Residents are low on money and have plenty of time on their hands, a recipe for trouble. Stress within the households due to financial difficulties probably generates a higher than normal level of discord with resultant fighting, screaming, etc. Some of these households double or triple up within the same house, increasing density within the neighborhood. It might be hard to find a good neighbor thereabouts; with so many wanting to leave, who knows what kind of residents come next. Lots of renters for a while anyway. Speculators have bought some of these homes on the cheap and they don't care whom they rent to as long as the money comes in. Neighbors don't matter one whit to these absentee owners.

My guess is that it will take years for things to settle down in many of these newer developments that were thrown into turmoil from the housing price collapse and recession. Eventually, prices will stabilize and more permanent owners will settle in and take root. Hopefully.

In some places, these neighborhoods will never be the same. Like in CA, where all the "good people" move out and are replaced by an underclass of deadbeats. These are people who are permanently dependent upon the largesse that politicians there have doled out to perpetuate themselves in office. CA has made itself attractive to freeloaders, so it's no surprise that they make a bee-line for the state.

Diesel and Other Exhaust Fumes

At a time when my sniffer isn't working as well as it did when I was younger, I seem to be more sensitive to Diesel and other exhaust fumes. I really notice this more this time of year when I'm driving in my car with the heater on. If I get behind a Diesel pickup, the heater intake is apt to suck up some of those exhaust fumes and route them right into the passenger compartment. During warmer weather, I can roll up the windows and escape from most of these fumes. I try to avoid driving behind Diesel-powered pickups and the few cars that are around; the big rigs don't seem to bother me as much but maybe that's because their exhaust stacks are often routed up higher.

I've never owned a Diesel-powered personal vehicle and likely never will. I understand that they deliver better fuel economy than gasoline and produce more torque but these attributes do not interest me. I'm turned away from them primarily because they are noisey and smokey. They tend to last a long time, but from the people I've known who've had them, when something does go wrong the repair bill can be many times that for repairs made to a gasoline engine.

Then there is the subject of driver technique. With big rigs, there isn't much issue with excessive accelleration, but with smaller Diesel-powered rigs there can be. Hot dog drivers with a Diesel are just as apt to tromp on the throttle as they would in a gasoline-powered car, which of course creates an even greater burst of smoke. As I understand it, the fuel economy of a Diesel is optimal (even moreso that with a gas engine) with even, gradual accelleration.

Be prepared for an increasing number of Diesel-powered personal vehicles in the future. The US government likes the idea because of the increase in fuel economy (even if Diesel often costs a little more).

I wonder how all the "Green attitude" in Europe squares with their much wider use of light vehicles powered by Diesel. A great many smaller cars there have Diesel engines. When you're in the city, those streets can be like canyons, with breezes blocked off and no relief from the clouds of Diesel smoke.

My other complaint about fumes comes from old Ford trucks that have outlived their time. These would be gas-powered, older F-100's, F-150's, and F-250's. Whenever I see one of these ahead of me on the road, I groan inwardly and know that I am about to be treated to a big, long sniff of semi-burned raw gasoline fumes. Rarely am I disappointed. These old Ford pickups with carburetors just seem to have lasted longer than anyone ever anticipated. They mostly have FE series engines; big, heavy, gas-guzzler V-8's that by now have worn-out carburetors, all kinds of crankcase blow-by, and in general, are quite tired. But they keep running so the owners "cling to them" (sound familiar?). In this region anyway, by far and away, Ford sold the most pickups in decades past, so the original numbers of Chevrolet (and GMC) and especially Dodge were smaller. Given the greater propensity for rust, the GM products didn't last as long regardless of how good the engines might be. So it's the old Ford pickups that drive me nuts with fumes.

It's funny that the Ford pickups would be so long-lived, as the heavier trucks in their product line have tended to have presented the opposite experience. Professional operators that I've known have not particularly liked heavier Ford trucks, to include C-600's, C-750's and the conventional cab types in comparable weights. Forget about over-the-road trucks; Ford gave up trying to make and sell those some time ago.