Previous month:
May 2010
Next month:
July 2010

I DID take that right turn at Albuquerque (or) Hugging a Hindu saint in a pyramid

Those of you old enough to remember Bugs Bunny will remember that the guys who made Warner Brothers cartoons thought Pismo Beach and Albuquerque were funny names; when Bugs dug along underground and popped up somewhere he didn't expect, his line was "I never shoulda taken that right turn at Albuquerque."

Well, I did take that turn and I am glad I did. I went with my wife to the Marriott Pyramid (a hotel in the shape and color scheme of a Native American pyramid)  in Northern Albuquerque, where I watched Amma, the hugging saint, conduct two days of public programs  in the hotel ballroom. Its a little different atmosphere from her Ashram in San Ramon, where I usually see her. It seemed less crowded, less hectic. But because my wife wasn't a behind-the-scenes volunteer, maybe it just seemed that way. It is always an experience to be hugged by a saint. Logistically, it is kind of cool to be in the same hotel as the programs.  It makes showing up on time and waiting around quite a bit nicer--and it certainly cuts down on the commute! One thing I didn't know, or had forgotten; Albuquerque is higher than Denver! It is America's highest major city, more than a mile up.

On Tuesday, we headed an hour north to historic Santa Fe, location of America's oldest public building, the 400 year old Palace of Governors. In fact, 2010 is a year long celebration of Santa Fe's 400th birthday. It is an amazing place, at 7200 feet of elevation. It is also supports America's second largest concentration of Art, after New York City. When you consider that New York is closing in on 9 million people, and Santa Fe is closing in on 60,000, that's quite amazing. We went to the Georgia O'Keeffe museum (the Wisconsin native who spent most of her career in New York City retired to New Mexico after her husband died) and saw an exhibition of her abstracts. I didn't even know she did abstracts! Afterwards, we decided the Georgia O'Keeffe cafe did not look as good in person as it did on the Internet. We walked around in the bright sun and absurd heat, and wandered into Pasqual's Cafe, a little place with a BIG awards wall. I had the single best chicken mole ever, including the one  I got in Mexico City. The New Mexico habit of putting a green pepper in everything made the mole stand up and salute!

We rented a condo in the Fort Marcy Compound (clean and well-maintained, albeit hardly luxurious)  that's walking distance from downtown old town (although the walk back is a bit steep). We've had some good food  and got to watch a rainless thunderstorm blow up and pass over while we ate lunch. Cool!

Wednesday we had lunch at La Casa Sensa, near the Palace of the Governors. Terrific ambiance and very good food. Best chicken quesadilla I've ever had.

Then we tooled up to the Buffalo Thunder Casino and Resort, where Vicki had a massage and I had a mud wrap. I'm all soft, and I smell good too! Or at least I was last Wednesday.

Thursday we ate at Ristra (which is the name of those garlands of dried red peppers you see on so many Santa Fe homes). It was a nice alternative to the New Mexican fare we had immersed ourselves in previously. It was basically continental food, although their signature dish was elk. My wife, a vegetarian, had their outstanding mushroom cannelloni. Anyone who knows me will not be surprised that the availability of herbed duck drew my eye; it was sumptuous.

No description of Santa Fe would be complete without a plug for the only soft-serve frozen yogurt (froyo or fro-yo) store in town, as of this writing: Ellie's Yoberri Park Frozen Yogurt and Gallery, 325 W. San Francisco St., 2 blocks west of the Plaza (the heart of the old town). Phone 505-995-1191.  It is a small place, with four rotating flavors (one of which is always signature tart), and a small selection of toppings. It is not serve yourself, but for me that is actually a good thing, since I don't overbuy. The staff is friendly, courteous and kind. A few more adjectives and they could  be Boy Scouts! (Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent--I still remember 40 years after I left scouting)

Elementary, my dear Watson

I haven't yet read the Watson article in the Sunday New York Times magazine, but I heard it being discussed on the daily podcast, the cultural gabfest (on my podcast list, and worth a listen).  Apparently, the IBM supercomputer can now play Jeopardy, and beat a pretty good opponent. The author of the article doubted the computer could beat Ken Jenning, the Jeopardy super-champ.  There is apparently an effort underway to have the two of them compete on an edition of the program. I can't wait! I haven't really watched Jeopardy much since I appeared on the show and lost in 1985, but I'd go out of my way to see this one. Check out a video here, or the NY Times piece here.

Color Me Impressed: New Mexico's RailRunner

I am sitting on board Train 511, the 4:10pm Southbound New Mexico Railrunner from Santa Fe to Albuquerque. Because of a scheduling quirk, I can't get all the way to downtown Albuquerque. The Southbound train arrives 15 minutes too late for the northbound departure, so I'll be getting off at Journal Center and waiting 15 minutes for the train back north to Santa Fe. Why yes, I am a train geek, why do you ask?

The New Mexico Railway Express (NMRX) is impressive several ways. There is free onboard Wi-Fi (officially, they are testing it). There is great air conditioning. The cars are double deckers, and the upstairs has a great view. This is clearly much newer equipment than they use on the Caltrain lines, either from San Francisco to San Jose or Oakland to Sacramento. It has a roadrunner logo (a stylized one, not a Warner Brothers one) painted on the side of its trains.

The tracks run down the median of Interstate 25 (which means they don't follow the old ATSF route to Lamy), but if you're upstairs you can see over the cars. And by a  half-hour out from the station, the right of way veers away from the freeway into its own little world, with nothing but an access road running parallel to the track. The round trip is $8 (must be amazingly subsidized). The 4:10 was jammed (mostly with tourists, I would judge), but there are clearly also lots of locals. At these prices, who's surprised? Although the trains are capable of 100 MPH, the top speed is 80 MPH, which is the speed at which we travel on those long, lonesome straightaways where the track is level and there are no grade crossings. Sometimes, for miles, there is no other mode of transportation visible.

The high desert is beautiful. The ride is quite comfortable; the track and ballast went into revenue service in December 2008, and clearly this is welded rail, because there is no clickety clack. Well,. some of it is and some of it isn't. The new part (18 miles) near Santa Fe is; some of the old Burlington Northern Southern Pacific Track (the other 70 miles) is not, including the track at the Journal Center station. All the sidings are slick new welded track with concrete ties.

Many of you may not have realized before what a railroad geek I am. I am not worthy to kiss the rings of real railroad phreaks; I do not own a collection of  steam and diesel engine photographs, and I can't tell a 4-6-4 from a 8-10-12. My real love is streetcars. But America's first all-new passenger train railroad tracks in 80 years were irresistible. On the way back, I sat in what  I like to call the "geek seat," the one facing out the front window, where you can see the track and the signals. I could see the speedometer and the engineer's hands, but not the engineer's face. I assume from their size, the flowery blouse and the nail polish that the train was being run by a female engineer--mighty rare.

Political Briefs

  • Louisiana Police Conspiring With British Petroleum
    Given that the policeman was present while the interrogation occurred (for the purpose of chilling the detainees 1st amendment rights), the interrogation was arguably under color of state law and was therefore state action in arguable violation of the 1st amendment to the Constitution. Further, if the Audubon card were issued by Audubon (as opposed to the foreign company, British Petroleum, which launched an unprovoked (and so far unrepelled) attack on the United States two months ago), there also appears to be a theft occurring by BP from Mr. Wheelan in the presence of, and with the cooperation of, the state (the police officer) which is an unlawful seizure in violation of the 4th amendment. When do the police plan to arrest Mr. Thomas from British Petroleum for what appears to be a theft from Mr. Wheelan? Further, if the police officer or Mr. Thomas were armed, does the forcible seizure of the card amount to armed robbery? If the forcible seizure is armed robbery, have the police officer and the "Chief BP Security" conspired to commit a felony? How many times and in how many other locations has foreign attacker British Petroleum conspired with state or federal officials to violate the 1st, 4th, or 5th amendments since British Petroleum launched the attack?

Neal Vitale Reviews: Toy Story 3 (in 3D)

5 stars out of 5

The third installment of the adventures of Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) is, like its predecessors, another brilliant effort by John Lasseter and his troupe at Pixar. This time, we find Andy (owner of Woody, Buzz, and all the other toys) heading off to college. As he packs up his childhood, feelings are hurt and fear is rampant among Mr. (Don Rickles) and Mrs.(Estelle Harris) Potato Head, Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Jessie (Joan Cusack), and the gang. A misdirected carton triggers the film's adventures, which involve the arrival of Ken (Michael Keaton) as a crush for Barbie (Jodi Benson) - and the basis of Toy Story 3's wonderful send-up of pop culture - and a malevolent strawberry-scented bear (Lotso, voiced by Ned Beatty). It is the ultimate tribute to all those behind the Toy Story franchise that they have made films starring dolls, stuffed animals, and plastic action figures that seem neither childish nor simplistic, and which trigger wave upon wave of deep emotional response in even the most jaded viewer. Wonderful entertainment, indeed!

(Note - The 3D technology used in Toy Story 3 is among the best I've seen. Nothing flies at you off the screen, but rather everything is natural and lifelike. Also, as is typical of Pixar, a short film precedes Toy Story 3. Day & Night is clever and fun - don't arrive late.)

Neal Vitale Reviews (on DVD): Shutter Island

4 stars out of 5    

Martin Scorsese (Shine A Light, The Departed) takes a novel by Dennis Lehane ("The Given Day," "Mystic River") and creates a brooding, portentous psychological drama that pays obvious respect to Alfred Hitchcock. Scorsese has never shied away from ornate, larger-than-life, almost surreal structures in his films, and Shutter Island takes that style perilously close to the melodramatic. But even at over two and a half hours, Shutter Island is engrossing and surprising, with fine performances throughout, dark and beautiful art direction, and an ominous soundtrack assembled by ex-leader of The Band and longtime Scorsese cohort, Robbie Robertson.

Neal Vitale Reviews: Please Give

3 stars out of 5   

Writer/director Nicole Holofcener (Lovely & Amazing, Friends With Money) has taken a snapshot of a brief period in the intertwined lives of several none-too-appealing Manhattanites, all self-centered and full of neuroses. Please Give has an interesting, indie-tinged cast, with Oliver Platt (Casanova), Catherine Keener (Where The Wild Things Are)(along with her real-life sibling Elizabeth), Amanda Peet (The Ex), and - with the most-captivating performance of the group - Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona). The film is quirky and quite slight, but it still manages to be oddly affecting.

Neal Vitale Reviews (on DVD): The Messenger and Taking Chance

4 stars out of 5 (both)

These two noteworthy films deal with largely-unseen aspects of military deaths in Iraq. The Messenger looks at the soldiers who notify the next of kin (and, in this case, become involved in their lives); Taking Chance tracks an escort who accompanies a private's remains as they are returned to his family in Wyoming. Woody Harrelson (Zombieland, No Country For Old Men) received a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for The Messenger, but the film is dominated by the nuanced performance of Ben Foster (unnervingly evil in 3:10 To Yuma). Taking Chance received multiple award nominations, and features powerful, understated acting by Kevin Bacon (Frost/Nixon, My One And Only) as the military escort. Both films provide stark, wrenching perspectives on pain and loss, but do so with elegance and somber grace.

Kent Peterman on the Academic Calendar, Craig Reynolds Checks In, Marjorie Wolfe on Business, Dan Grobstein File

Apropos of last week's item on the academic calendar, Kent Peterman (quoted therein) notes: "It's almost as if we (in education) belong to some different group that celebrates with a different calendar like the Chinese, Persians, Jews..."
Craig Reynolds checks in:
Long-time contributor Marjorie Wolfe has written a humorous column, Everything I Learned About Business I Learned At Sleep Away Camp, which I am proud to host.

Dan Grobstein File
  • Republicans don't oppose stimulus when it fits their policy agenda . 
  • It's worth recalling that Republicans didn't always mistrust stimulus. They didn't even mistrust deficit-financed stimulus (not that there are many other kinds). Back when they were selling the Bush tax cuts, the original argument was that the economy was great and the government was running a surplus and you should get your money back. But then the economy tanked when the tech bubble burst. No problem! “Because the economy is slowing down, I believe it is vital that Congress pass a pro-growth tax cut," said Dick Armey. We're all Keynesians when convenient.
  • The Washington Post's free content scam

  • The Financial Times reports that U.S. corporations are flush with cash and plan to use it to.....engage in stock buybacks. "From an economy-wide perspective," frets Matt Yglesias, "a general perception among firms that increased buybacks are the way to go is a sign of a world in which the people running successful businesses don’t see profitable investment opportunities."

    Yep. And the same was largely true during credit bubble of the aughts. It's one of our economy's most fundamental problems: increasingly, investors simply don't believe that there are great opportunities to invest in the real world. So instead they invest in the shiny, bubbly financial world. This is, needless to say, not a good thing. In the long run, it's only investment in the real world that provides sustainable growth and prosperity, and it's only rising income and consumption among the broad middle class that makes the real world an attractive investment opportunity in the first place. Our ruling classes need to figure this out pronto.

  • Over the past two months, the Western media have probed the stories of the apparent wave of suicides at Foxconn, the gigantic electronics maker in southern China. Over the past month, most Western outlets have publicized the apparent wave of labor unrest and demand for higher wages in Chinese factories. Over the past 18 hours, American tech and retail media have discussed the implications of the radical price cuts in the Barnes and Noble Nook and Amazon Kindle e-reading devices -- and this on the very day on which the Chinese RMB began its new rise in value against the dollar.

    A reader in China wrote just now to ask: Do Americans even think about the connection? Relentless price pressure on Chinese suppliers, all the more so now that, largely in response to U.S. government demands, the RMB is rising again? Relentless expectation of falling prices in U.S. stores? The Foxconn-suicide story is ambiguous, with many hypotheses about the cause. But the price pressure on these suppliers is unmistakable.
  • Op-Ed Columnist:  When Greatness Slips Away
    As we become increasingly accustomed to helplessness, the greatness of the United States is steadily disappearing.

  • San Francisco values ... the catch-all phrase that Republicans like to toss out to conjure up that conservative bogeyman, the DFH who wants to take away God, mom and apple pie while burning the American flag. Or as they like to call them, Democrats.

    If only there were more of them:

    A new report on who supplies — and who spends — California's public dollars shows an interesting disparity between the givers and the takers:

    Counties that provide most of the state's revenue streams like income and sales taxes reliably elect Democrats, who traditionally want to take more of your money. And counties whose Republican representatives argue most vociferously for social services cuts draw, per capita, the most state aid.

    And while Republicans love to blather on about "real" Americans (who seem to only live in flyover country or within sight of Alaska) being screwed over on a daily basis by the government in general and the Democrats in particular, the fact is that both are revenue lifelines for Republicans in California and throughout the country.

  • Why the Deepwater Horizon rig may have blown up
  • The Tragedy of the Ironing Board Tax
  • Business can be incompetent too: Miracles of the Private Sector
  • If you want government off you back, get your hand out of its pocket: Sucking the Teat
  • Did slaves like being slaves? The world wasn't better in the past --- but I was.
  • Isn't it wonderful having a supreme court that rule on cases just like a baseball umpire? They just call the balls and strikes.
    Siding With Skilling, Justices Limit Law on 'Honest Services'

    The Supreme Court has sided with Jeffrey Skilling, the former Enron chief executive, in limiting the use of a federal fraud law that has been a favorite of white-collar crime prosecutors.

    The court said Thursday that the "honest services" law could not be used in convicting Mr. Skilling for his role in the collapse of Enron. But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in her majority opinion that the ruling does not necessarily require Mr. Skilling's conviction to be overturned.

    The court in this ruling also sided with the former newspaper magnate Conrad Black, setting aside a federal appeals court decision that had upheld Mr. Black's honest services fraud conviction. But as in Mr. Skilling's case, the justices left the ultimate resolution of the case to the appeals court.

  • Commentary about that Washington Post blogger who covered conservatives and was fired for making disparaging remarks in an online forum.
  • Roger Ebert tweet: "I don’t know who the fuck anyone is. I go through US Weekly, and it’s filled with reality stars I’ve never heard of." (Bill Murray)