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January 2012
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March 2012

Firesign News

I have been fascinated by the Firesign Theater ever since I first listened to Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him in 1968. I had on a pair of giant old-fashioned 60s-style stereo headphones, and the places they took me I had never been. I worked at my high school radio station and had an appreciation for audio which the group both flattered and fanned. I mean, the visual pun, "All hail Marx and Lennon" was as amazing as their layered, multi-track approach to comedy. And the writing! On Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers,"  once I'd heard Nick Danger, and its many immortal lines (including my favorite, "You can sit here in the waiting room or wait here in the sitting room."), I was hooked for life. I went to their 30th, 35th and 40th anniversary shows, and flew to LA to see the all-star UCLA show honoring them in 2004. I listen to Radio Free Oz (where I am a fully paid Ozinear) and I subscribe to Planet Proctor. So, imagine how it tickled me when group member Philip Proctor reported in a recent issue:

In the latest iPhone program, Siri responds to the following: “Siri, why does the porridge-bird lay its eggs in the air?” with  “Nice try, but you’re not going to get me to shut down that easily.” And she answers to “Siri, this is Worker speaking,” by saying, “Hello, ah-Clem, what function can I perform for you?” And that’s because the late Steve Jobs was a Firesign Theatre fan, inspired by the I Think We’re All Bozos on this Bus album.

Yosemite in Winter

For the third (and possible final) time, we made our biannual President's Day Weekend trip to Yosemite National Park to stay at the Ahwahnee Hotel. We hoped to get the great corner room on the fourth floor with the balcony, but we didn't; we had a fourth floor room with a balcony just big enough for two chairs and an end table.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. We took the train to Merced and the bus to Yosemite. I know the National Park Service would prefer it if we all got there this way, and someday, if they can find parking space outside the park, they may limit the valley floor to people who have arrived by bus. But for now, it is a choice. Given our experience two years ago (snow on the way home), and my distaste for driving in the snow, not to mention my love of trains, it seemed the obvious way to go.

We arrived at 1:30 in the afternoon--and our room was ready! We had lunch in the grill, took a hike, had a room service dinner, and watched Gone With The Wind on TCM (yes, even the Ahwahnee has succumbed to the need to have TV in its rooms--and wifi too).

Up early on Saturday. We were the first people in the great hall dining room, so we got the "Honeymoon table" under the big windows at the far end of the hall. Magical! The view of Yosemite Falls! We had hoped to take a photo walk from the Ansel Adams gallery, but the number of participants was limited, we hadn't signed up and we were honest. We hiked, then signed up for the Monday walk. We had lunch in the grill again, dinner at the Yosemite Lodge Food Court. Imagine the worst high school cafeteria you've ever eaten in. Then jam it to the gills, lower the quality of the food, and add in a 30 minute wait to pick up the cafeteria food. That's the food court. We wanted to eat in the Mountain Room, but the John Muir re-enactor, Lee Stetson, started his show promptly at 7, so we had to get a move on. We walked over, but took the bus back because Yosemite does not light its trails at night; they are trying to make the valley floor more natural all the time.

Up early on Sunday for the 8:30 bus to Badger Pass. We joined a park ranger on a 90 minute snow-shoeing expedition. It was exhilirating and tirings. Turns out it is true; anyone can snow shoe, although Vicki and I both fell down within the first five minutes. Then we got used to it. We also managed to find the only food service worse than the lodge food court; Badger Pass at lunch on a holiday weekend. 45 minutes wait for a veggie burrito. No seats. We sat on a bench outside in the cold (I burn too easily to sit in the sun), and barely finished before catching the bus back. This is California's first ski resort. That's cool, but they might try staffing it.

Dinner was in the great hall at the Ahwahnee. I  wore a coat and tie, which used to be required to eat there. Apparently, the relentless whining of unprepared visitors finally wore them down. The rule is now long-sleeved shirts, and please no blue jeans. In a room of a couple of hundred, there were a dozen of us in coat and tie. I was proud. We had a light meal (I had two appetizers) because lunch had been late, but you can't beat the wine list, the atmosphere, or the piano player. This is one of my favorite eating venues in the world and has been since the first time I ate there in 1977.

Monday morning, up early again, and to the Ansel Adams gallery on foot for the photo walk. When we arrived, we were informed that on Monday's it leaves from... wait for it... Ahwahness, from which we had just come and to which it was impossible to return before the walk began. We went on a longish hike of our own, and Vicki used her spiffy new high-end camera to take some great landscape shots. We checked out at 12:30, and spend three hours in the day room next to the 6 foot tall fireplace just off the lobby. This year, no snow, so our bus got to the train station early, and our train came on time. The San Joaquin is a wonderful train, but, as often happens these days on trains, the dining car was sold out of just about everything. Still, another vegggie burrito was fine.

My wife says she'd rather not visit in winter next time; perhaps we won't even stay at the Ahwahnee (since it books up a year in advance). Maybe it will be a few years before we go again. I do hope we go again.

Stupid "Settlement"

Blowing Smoke
"Foreclosure victims will get absolutely no relief from the sham OCC reviews. . . . .  So for the HUD Secretary to list those reviews as a way foreclosure victims can get justice and accountability is really revolting."
More On Taxpayers' Gift To Banks Under Unsigned Alleged Settlement
Alleged Unsigned Unwritten Settlement Gives Sweetheart Deal To Bank For Violating Earlier Settlement
What A Surprise
Funny Thing About Those Purported Dollars From The Alleged Unwritten Unsigned Settlement Of  Interstate Wire And Mail Fraud Charges Against Banks
Continuing Farce Of The Alleged Unsigned Unwritten Inadequate "Settlement" With Financial Tortfeasors

"“If the banks are doing something under this settlement, and cash flows from taxpayers to the banks, that is fundamentally an upside-down result,” said Neil Barofsky (n.b. a Democrat), a former special inspector-general of the troubled asset relief programme."

"Last month, the Treasury department announced it was tripling the incentive payments to owners of mortgages who agree to reduce loan balances. By reducing those balances under Hamp, investors – including the banks who agreed the settlement – now will receive cash payments of up to 63 cents on the dollar for every dollar of loan principal forgiven. They also will receive additional funds when borrowers keep current on their restructured mortgages."

"There is nothing wrong with also using HAMP to try to get more principal mods. But the incentives in HAMP, as Shahien points out, were already enriched to get the banks to play ball. They should have remained separate from this deal. But instead, banks get to game HAMP payments as part of the settlement. This episode also illustrates the danger of agreeing to a deal where the terms were not final. We and AGs still don’t know where the settlement will shake out. Any negotiator or attorney will tell you there is a world of difference between an agreement in principle and a definitive agreement. Rest assured will find more instances of the AGs being baited and switched before this pact is inked."

Meanwhile, in Iran
10 reasons to attack
Degrees of beligerence
Iran is how close to a nuclear bomb?
Who Profits From The Refusal To Take "Yes" For An Answer?

And much more!


Neal Vitale's Oscar Picks

Given the momentum and sentiment behind The Artist, I think tomorrow night will hold little excitement and few surprises (though I hope I'm wrong!). Here are what I expect will win:

Best Picture - The Artist [Personal pick would be War Horse]

Director - Michel Hazanavicus (The Artist)

Actor - Jean Dujardin (The Artist)

Actress - Viola Davis (The Help) [Personal pick would be Michelle Williams (My Week With Marilyn)]

Supporting Actor - Christopher Plummer (Beginners)

Supporting Actress - Octavia Spencer (The Help) [Five great performances]

Adapted Screenplay - The Descendants

Original Screenplay (Midnight In Paris)

Animated Feature - Rango

Art Direction - Hugo

Cinematography - The Artist

Costume Design - The Artist

Documentary Feature - Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

 Documentary Short - Saving Face

Film Editing - The Artist

Foreign-Language Film - A Separation

Makeup - The Artist

Original Score - The Artist

Song - "Man or Muppet"

Animated Short - The Fantastic Flying Books Of Mr. Morris Lessmore

Live-Action Short - Raju

Sound Editing - Hugo

Sound Mixing - Hugo

Visual Effects - Hugo

Mali Journal

[My older daughter, had email briefly last week and checks in from Mali, where she is serving in the Peace Corps]

My trip back from Bamako to village was more exciting than I might have liked. I took CMT, which is the nice bus (it costs a little more, but doesn't stop to pick people up at the side of the road, it just stops at the major bus stops, which doesn't sound like much but it makes things a lot more bearable), and yet somewhere between Bamako and Bougani we hit four cows. One was hit but was able to run off into the bush, one was killed instantly, one got caught in the grill in the front, and one got stuck under the bus. We pulled over to the side of the road, and the driver of the bus asked the passengers if anyone had a machete to kill the injured but still living cows, and of course, several people were prepared to help, even while wearing their nice traveling outfits. I think the problem was just that they had ten year old boys tending the cows, and they didn't get them across the road fast enough, plus the bus was probably going to fast. When the Fulani (cow herding people) adults finally showed up the men were sullen and the women were more obviously grief struck. We had to stand around on the side of the road for an hour or two while the bus employees, Fulani, and fancy passengers argued loudly. A military guy showed up and another CMT employee showed up to add their opinions. Eventually they loaded one of the dead cows into the luggage compartment (ew), and we finally headed into Bougani. In Bougani we went to the cow owner's house and the passengers had to sit in the bus for a couple of hours while the driver and the owner negotiated the blood price for the cows. I'm not sure how the negotiations ended, it's not like they made an announcement, but eventually we got on our way, and I was into Dougoukolobugu (the village at the main road where I leave my bike) by 4:30, so I was able to bike into N'tjilla before dark, which was the only thing about my day that was time sensitive. I'd meant to catch the 7 am bus, but I'd caught the 10 am because I'd gone out with some other volunteers the night before and didn't feel like getting up at the crack of dawn. I beat myself up about that for a minute as we were waiting by the side of the road, but luckily it is still cold season, and I had enough water, so it wasn't terrible.

I finally made some progress with my girl's soccer team. We held a meeting to thank everyone for trying out, and I thought we were going to announce the team members names, but the PE teacher decided that would discourage the girls who did not make the cut, so we just talked about the team in general terms. Luckily I had prepared some remarks ahead of time aside from the list of names I'd written up. The next week we had our first practice. It went well. Five or six of the girls didn't show up, so we pulled girls from the audience to play, and I myself played for the first half. The general level of play was better, since all of the girls on the field were the best of each grade, but they still followed the ball around like a group of 5 year olds in America. There was also a lot of hand balls and obstruction penalties. I think even though they generally know the sport, they don't really know the rules, so I decided to hold a second meeting to cover rules and positions. I spent a couple of days preparing my remarks for the meeting because a lot of it isn't normal vocabulary for day to day, and a lot of the time the PE teachers would just use the French expressions for the soccer terms, and although the girls nod along like they know what he's saying, I was pretty sure they weren't actually following. Only 12 of the 22 girls showed up for the meeting, but it turned out that they had that afternoon off for school for the Prophet's baptism holiday, so I was lucky any neighboring villages stuck around at all. This is the kind of thing it would have been nice if someone had told me about before hand when I asked if I could have the meeting that day, but they never do tell you until the day of. Anyway, the smaller audience was actually easier to address. W, the PE teacher, did a great job of taking my stuttered half-nonsense and turning it into understandable Bambara. We brought in a soccer ball and demonstrated throw-ins, obstruction, and other things. I tried to make it interactive, asking questions to make sure they were listening, and although they were hesitant to answer me, they would eventually talk when W insisted on them talking. He also added a lot of good stuff about feminism and leadership that I hadn't even necessarily said. I had a little spiel about teamwork and camaraderie, but he turned it into metaphors about family and medicine that I think were more digestible for the girls. I'm not sure if he's going through the motions for my benefit, or if he really believes what he's saying, but either way as long as he says it enthusiastically in front of the girls, the effect is the same. And to be fair, he seems sincere.

We only had one bank meeting. I want to do another big overview of the books and count the money in the safe to see if it has gotten any farther off since the last time we did that, which was at least six months ago at this point. We really need to be doing that quarterly at the least, if not monthly.

The last two weeks were the Prophet's birthday and baptism. They were both celebrated with midnight Koran readings by a visiting imam. I didn't go to the late night readings, but both were also followed by afternoon readings, which I happily dressed up and attended, even though I didn't understand any of the Arabic and very little of the Bambara, due to the crappy quality of the AV. The twins in my homologue's compound are my new BFFs. They've been walking the last couple of months but they're finally really stable, and they're also starting to try to talk. They've seen all of the other kids greet me and give me five, so now they are thrilled to be able to do that too, even though they obviously don't understand what they're doing.

I went to a CGS (basically school board) meeting. They were changing up the board. The School Director and Mayor's office representative basically just appointed the people. I thought there were going to be "elections," but no. When I asked my homologue about that, she thought it would just cause arguments and hurt feelings to vote. W actually nominated me for a position supporting le scolarization des filles. I thought that was sweet, but the Director rightly pointed out that job should go to a community member and that my job as liaison from the Peace Corps was keeping me plenty busy.

We are in-between cold season and hot season, so it has been both extremely hot and extremely cold these last couple of weeks. I think the extremely cold days were probably in the 60s. When I got into Sikasso this weekend there was apparently a air-quality warning for the cold days (the wind kicks up a lot of dust which is bad for people with asthma, or really anyone), which is too bad, because I did a bunch of stuff on those days since it wasn't insanely hot.

I found out my library project got approved, but I won't get the money for another week. There is some chance it is there, but when I went to the bank this morning the ATM was broken and the line was ridiculous, so I wasn't able to check on my account.

I also went this morning and met with a female seamstress (most tailors here are men) who might do training in Bougoulaba if we decide a sewing machine is actually something that would help their women's association. I got the prices and idea of how the training would actually run.

Since I've been in Sikasso I've been hanging out with a lot of the new stages. My stage is The Kennedys. T is from Team America. The stage before her was Risky Business; others are Honey Bunches of Oats (Hobos for short), and the Belushis I believe. The new stages are the Goodfellas and the Madhatters. In other countries they just give the stages numbers. I'm not sure why Mali decided to give the stages names instead. I like our name, but I don't love all the others. Oh well. I don't love how crowded the Sikasso house is (dirty dishes, noise, no toilet paper, slow internet, etc.), but the individuals are nice enough. I went out with them one night to a couple of the local bars. And then yesterday we hung out the Hotel Maisa pool. The weather was unbelievably pleasant. This morning I went to the market with T and we went a little too crazy on fabric, but what the hell. It makes me inordinately happy. We also got green beans, potatoes, and eggs for dinner, which we'll be starting shortly.

We had meetings this afternoon about Take Your Daughter to Work Day, which we are probably going to hold in April, and our in-service training in May. I made some arrangements for our March trip to Dogon country, so the next couple of months are starting to fill up, plus I'm in the process of planning my possible Senegal, Cape Verde, Morocco trip with in May...

Academy Award Shorts

Every year, just before the Oscars, the Landmark Theater chain, among a few others, shows compilations of the Academy Award nominated short films, with some other good ones thrown in to fill out the 90 minutes. The showings alternate between animated and live action. All of them, of course, are excellent. Any of them would make great Oscar winners. Most years, I can't make up my mind in either category. But in the animated category, only; The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore made me laugh and cry in equal measure. I was honestly moved. On the Live-Action side, two of the films stood out for me. I like my short amusing, and Pentecost, about a soccer-loving reluctant choir boy, and Tuba Atlantic about a man given six days to live, and the "death angel" who looks after him, were fantastic. Of course, Time Freak, about a man living the same day over and over, was a sentimental favorite because of my feelings about Groundhog Day.

Anteaters, Carroll Cat Column, SNL Newspaper Skit, LaSusa musings

This just in: Eighty-Four Percent Of Foreclosures Violate Law
Stuffed anteaters
? They're at the San Ramon Valley Museum
Jon Carroll offers another first-rate cat column
SNL does an amazingly amusing parody of a 1940s newspaper newsroom film. (Think Front Page or His Gal Friday.)
My former colleague and close friend Tom LaSusa has posted two commentaries' about religious rights and a little advice to Mitt Romney about Envy. Both are worth reading!