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March 2006

Bodega Bay/Rae Returns II

Vicki and I spent a wonderful three-day weekend at Bodega Bay, walking on the beach, taking long naps, watching DVDs and Olympics at night, and eating out at the Union Hotel in Occidental. The weather was cold and windy, sometimes even rainy, but it was relaxing. Just as there are mountain people and beach people, there are "relax on your vacation" and "get stimulated on your vacation" people. Vicki and I belong to the relax category, which, I believe, frustrated our girls when they were younger. Heck, it probably frustrates them now.

Rae arrived Monday afternoon at Oakland via JetBlue from Long Beach after a couple of days of rollicking with her Los Angeles friends. Her Macintosh has a little problem (it couldn't videoconference) which I managed to turn into a big problem (it wouldn't boot). I hate Macs. Of course, I did something so stupid it defies description: I did not back up her hard drive before starting work. A beginner's error and it embarrasses me. As it turns out it was a hardware failure, so I wasn't really at fault, but still. While she was home, I taught her how to do backups. Let's hope she starts doing them, and then keeps doing them.

Thursday after school, Rae and I rode bikes from the Iron Horse Trail trailhead at South Broadway do Andronicos in San Ramon--a little less than half the 40 mile length of this former SP right-of-way now converted to a multiple use trail. We had a great time, and I learned that Rae used to dread our rides here, but doesn't anymore. It is so cool when children grow up.

Vicki and Rae tried to play tennis on Friday, both in the morning and afternoon. It was cold (for California, which means 50) and a little windy, but the worst part was that all the courts were taken at Meadow Swim and Tennis. It was disappointing to both of them that they could not play tennis, and disappointing to Vicki and me that we pay all these dues for a club we rarely use, and still had the misfortune of not finding a court available.

Those of you who have been paying attention may well remember that Le Petit Nid was once my favorite restaurant in San Francisco--it was a little six-table French place in the Marina just off Lombard in San Francisco (I took you there once, Harrison, remember?) I didn't go that often, and it disappeared between visits.

Well, we don't get over to Lafayette as much since they closed the Park Theater, so imagine our surprise when the venerable hole-in-the-wall pizza place transmogrified into an absolutely delightful six-table Italian restaurant, with great food and real personality of an owner/host. Ask him about his remodeling!

Rae left Saturday morning and I missed her before she was off the ground. Vicki and I feel blessed by God in abundance by the fact that both of our daughters still want to spend time with us.


Going Soft, Telcos Role in NSA Scandal, Safe Nuclear

Maybe I'm losing my edge, but I cannot get riled up about the scandal du jour, the Dubai takeover of P&O. I really don't think it's going to compromise port security. I heard a telling NPR analysis, which noted that it is nearly impossible to find an expert (not a politician, but an expert) who is worried about the deal. Clearly Steve Gilliard and Uggabugga are worried (thank you Dan Grobstein),

First Dick Cheney, and now this. Speaking of Dick, there's a lot of speculation that he was drunk at the time of the shooting incident--well more than the "one beer" he admitted on Fox. Those of us who've known people with drinking problems  (or DUIs for that matter) know they always vastly underestimate their alcohol intake. I am sure Cheney is no different. But of course, we'll never know, so I plan to continue to give him a pass. Bad judgment, failure to notify the press--as the question goes, does this rise to the level of an impeachable offense? No. Bush's actions do, but we know he won't be impeached either. Batten down the hatches, it's going to be a bumpy ride.


Richard Dalton has been following the communications industry for years. He notes:

I guess it should have been obvious to me but I hadn't thought about the telcos culpability in the sorry NSA spying affair. Who else would provide NSA access to the ether? This piece, from the Boston Globe, is by Patrick Radden Keefe, a fellow at New York-based The Century Institute and author of Chatter: Dispatches from the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping. After reading his op-ed piece, I'm motivated to check out the book.


The problem with nuclear power, as those of you who have been paying attention are aware, is that in the event of a catastrophic loss of coolant, the reactor goes critical and can melt through its container vessel, spreading radioactivity over a wide area. How about a nuclear reactor that "scrams" (shuts down) when it loses its coolant. Thanks to the folks at MIT (among other places) such a reactor exists: it's called a Pebble-Bed Modular Reactor or PMBR. There are arguments, of course, some of them listed in this Wikipedia article. The South Africans swear by PMBR. There are better solutions of course, including mini and micro power generation by wind or solar. But if the world is going to avoid massive electrical shortages in the next few decades, it may be time to allow the good to triumph until we can get around to the perfect.



  • One shot over Cheney's bow; the Internet is full of speculation he was drunk; here's just one more example. I won't pile on; I could have done a whole section on this issue. If he was drunk, that does change things a little.
  • When William F. Buckley Jr. says "One can't doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed," you know the President is losing his right wing. National Review: It Didn’t Work.


Blonde Joke

I am married to a blonde, and still I can't resist:

A blind man makes his way to a bar stool and orders a drink.
After sitting there for awhile, he yells to the bartender, "Hey, you wanna hear a blonde joke?"
The bar immediately falls absolutely quiet.
In a very deep, husky voice, the woman next to him says, "before you tell that joke, sir,I think it is only fair... given that you are blind, that you should know five things:

1. The bartender is a blonde girl with a baseball bat.
2. The bouncer is a blonde girl.
3. I'm a 6 foot tall, 175 lb. blonde woman with a black belt in karate.
4. The woman sitting next to me is blonde and a professional weight-lifter.
5. The lady to your right is blonde and a professional wrestler.
Now, think about it seriously, Mister. Do you still wanna tell that joke?"
The blind man thinks for a second, shakes his head, and mutters, "Nah...not if I'm gonna have to explain it five times."


4 stars

While Rae was home, she talked me into seeing a little indie film called Illusion starring Kirk Douglas. I wasn't bowled over by the description: a man in a theater watches the movie of his life. It seemed familiar, even hackneyed. Well blow me over! First of all, the fit and finish, the polish of this film (made on maxed out credit cards according to the director in a radio interview I heard) is absolutely remarkable. Secondly, as any avid moviegoer knows, Kirk Douglas had a stroke a few years ago. If you head him on Terry Gross (or anywhere else) you know how much trouble he has communicating. Well, he doesn't have any difficulty turning in a virtuoso performance as the man near death in this film. It's kind of like watching Shakespeare. My mother the English teachers says you just have to accept the fact that you won't understand anything for the first 15 minutes. Same with Kirk. But as with Shakespeare, you start to get used to Kirk and you realize what an amazing actor he still is.

Believe you me, Illusion won't make it to the mall or probably even Blockbuster. But see it at the art house now, or put it on your Netflix list for later.

Lorrie's Alternate Pink Panther View, Invest in Rocketry, Peterman Finds Top Song Site, Tech Support, Dan Grobstein File

My Pink Panther review drew this letter, proposing an alternative and more appreciative view:

It's Lorrie, Neal's friend, weighing in once again. I liked your review of The Pink Panther a lot, and agree with most of it: that Kevin Klein will never be Herbert Lom (much too suave), that it is (in no way) a stinker. I actually tend to disagree with all the references that deify (or at least elevate) Peter Sellers as The Comic Genius of All Time. He was funny, yes. So is Steve Martin. And some of the shticks in this film were every bit as good as those in the original(s): the bouncing globe, the curtain camouflage (although some will cite Garden State as the origin of that one), and Martin's just-plain-wonderful beady-eyed performance. I am also beginning to think that Emily Mortimer is quite wonderful in a certain type of role, after this and Match Point.

Interested in advancing the cause of reusable rocket science? If you have deep pockets, you can lend a hand. Rich Pournelle wrote me to say:

On March 15, 2006 we’re inviting SEC accredited investors with at least $50,000 available for investment to attend a private briefing. The event will be held in the conference room of Silicon Graphics in Mountain View, CA.

I doubt I have many readers in that league, but if you are, this is your chance to help make space travel commonplace.

Kent Peterman checks in with advice from the New York Times on how to make a tech support call, as well as:

This is fun - you can check out the #1 song the day you were born or any other memorable date in your life...Pretty cool...

Dan Grobstein File

Your editor swiped two of Dan's items for the Politics section…

  • The Simpsonmaker, [to which your editor can only say two things: wow and "this flash programmer has too much time on his hands"]
  • This novelty item is probably only effective if you use mass transit.

Bodega Bay/Rae Returns

The column is early this week because Vicki and I are off to Bodega Bay, our favorite weekend getaway. I have a four-day weekend, so we'll stay over Monday night, returning to the Bay Area just in time to fetch Rae from the airport! Brandeis is taking a week off, so she's starting in LA and working her way north. Of course, every return home of one of our wandering daughters is a cause for celebration, every time. Rae's return is no exception. Let the fun begin.

Rain is predicted for the weekend, but nothing can dampen our spirits…

A short column and an early one--Craig's on vacation, Dan didn't have much to say, and I more or less offered Dick Cheney a pass. More or less.

The VP's Hunting Party

I was already with a pot-load of snarky comments about Cheney's huntin accident. Then I thought for a moment, realized that most members of the press corps have never held a gun, and consulted my friend Jim Forbes, who has hunted all his life. Here's why I'm giving Dick Cheney a pass:

Hunting accidents like the one Cheney had are not uncommon. I have birdshot in the back of my head from one, my dad had them in the side of his face from one and my maternal grandfather also has bird shot in his face from a quail hunting accident. In my own history what seems to happen is that a hunting party breaks up, quail fly up, you swing to take the shot, and someone is exactly where they shouldn't be, given the shot dispersal pattern of bird shot. It's unfortunate, but it happens in each of the three accidents in my family no one had been drinking, ever one was an experienced hunter and had a license. Furthermore there were no long lasting effects of the accidents, other than a certain amount of cautiousness and ribbing when the shooter and shootee were paired together again at Thanksgiving time.

I was surprised that this happened on a "game" ranch--private shooting preserve since everyone tends to be very aware of each other and firearms safety when shooting on private property.

It is too bad more people in the media do not know someone who has actually fired a weapon, like my second witness, Steve Coquet:

I could believe it was twenty-five yards or maybe a little less, but not much less. I doubt anyone was busy measuring the distance.

As someone who has been peppered (but from far enough away that it didn't break the skin), and who has had an accidental discharge that didn't hit a person, I can say that being the shooter in such a situation (where no one is injured) is probably more unpleasant than being just missed, or peppered without being injured. My own opinion is that the whole thing, while serious, should not stop anyone from hunting in the future. You watch the people you're with. If someone is unsafe, you will probably know in the first hour, maybe in the first few minutes. I don't think many people would hunt with him, even in hopes that some of his power would rub off on them, if he was generally careless around guns. I think he is probably a cautious individual.

The license: Apparently this is the first year Texas has had an upland game bird stamp, and hunters who have a license and no stamp are getting off with a warning. While I would expect the ranch owner (after all, it *is* a hunting ranch) to know the requirements, if the Vice President of the U.S. tells you that he has had a license since November and he's got it all under control, you take his word for it. Of all the aspects of this affair, this is the one for which the statement, "It's no big thing," really fits. He didn't intentionally kill illegal game, and the fine would probably be thirty-five or fifty dollars if he had gotten a ticket. He would get to keep his license. It's no big thing.

All this is a digression. The point is, I don't think he should be punished for something that was obviously an accident. I also don't think the nation should let this distract us from the real issues. The guy should be impeached for his multiple malfeasances in office: his high crimes and misdemeanors.

Even though I agree that we can't tag Cheney for this one (unless he was there with his mistress, which some web sites have suggested), I couldn't resist deconstructing the risible statement issued by his mouthpiece. Don't these people even listen to the words coming out of their mouths?

Mary Matalin, a spokesperson for Dick Cheney, admitted Cheney shot U.S. citizen, attorney, and campaign contributor Harry Whittington deliberately on Saturday, February 12, 2006. According to Matalin, Cheney "was not careless or incautious" and did not "violate any of the [rules]". Matalin also alleged that Cheney "didn't do anything he wasn't supposed to do. So, Cheney shot Whittington while hunting, Cheney was not careless, Cheney was not incautious, Cheney did not violate any rules. The existence of "rules" allowing this conduct became clear in light of the recent testimony/briefing on Capitol Hill. Bush (and presumably Cheney acting for Bush) can at any time shoot (or order the shooting of) anyone he wants to inside the United States pursuant to Congressional authorization granted in 2001. Cheney did not do anything he was not supposed to do. The only logical conclusion is that Cheney was supposed to shoot U.S. citizen Whittington. Given the admitted opportunity and means, one wonders how long it will take for law-abiding strict conservative law and order types to demand an inquiry into Cheney's motive.

You know you're in trouble when you're a conservative Republican and Peggy Noonan writes: Hit Refresh?: Why Bush may be thinking about replacing Cheney.




Neal Vitale Reviews: Tristram Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story

2 Stars

Unpredictable director Michael Winterbottom (9 Songs, Code 46, 24 Hour Party People, Jude, Welcome to Sarajevo) has veered off in a new direction yet again. Tristram Shandy is a mildly amusing mockumentary of the making of a film based on the supposedly unfilmable 18th-century novel "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman" by Laurence Sterne. The idea of Tristram Shandy probably was funnier on paper than it is on screen, though there are a few chuckles at the absurdist humor, thanks mostly to actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (both primarily veterans of British TV comedy). Eminently missable.

--Neal Vitale

Neal Vitale Reviews: The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada

4 stars

Texas-born, Harvard-educated veteran actor Tommy Lee Jones has inaugurated his film-directing career with a powerful story of friendship, retribution, and redemption. Jones plays an especially weather-beaten Texas cowboy who befriends an illegal Mexican, Melquiades Estrada, who is killed by an overly-zealous, newly-arrived border patrolman (Barry Pepper). The film follows Jones as he exacts revenge for his friend's death and seeks to fulfill the promise that he had made to Estrada to return him to his hometown if anything happened to him. While The Three Burials is long, it paints a rich picture - alternately comic and banal, poignant and gruesome - of life on both sides of the border, and of Jones' fellow townsfolk. The cast is deserving of note, featuring an assortment of talented though lesser-known actors, including Pepper, Dwight Yoakam, January Jones, Melissa Leo, and Levon Helm (former drummer/singer in The Band). A compelling film, very much worth watching.

--Neal Vitale