Monthly Archives: January 2013

Unusual Uses For Olive Oil by Alexander McCall Smith – Book

How can someone so stodgy and clueless be so lovable? Talk about “tunnel vision”! Professor Dr. Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, whose family crest is embellished with the hedgehog his family name honors, is the author of an obscure, but scholarly and comprehensive text called Portuguese Irregular Verbs. He is pompous, set in his ways, and puffed up with his superiority to most other creatures and especially most of his colleagues at the Institute of Romance Philology in Regensburg, Germany. Fortunately the extent of his contempt for some of his colleagues and some of the people he meets is known mostly to us, the readers, because his old-world manners keep him from uttering his worst thoughts aloud. We are privy to his private comments and are able to see that, despite what he thinks, he usually manages to act on his better impulses. He is also very lucky. Some of his worst accidents do not produce the disastrous results they should.

However, the Professor Dr. Dr. has little luck when it comes to the ladies. Others in his institute are falling into love all around him, but von Igelfeld sabotages himself at every turn. When his friend’s wife tries to match-make, von Igelfeld (who would find my language quite vulgar) crashes and burns, spectacularly. He does not immediately notice his fall from grace but we do and there is only a little tradegy and plenty of humor in this chapter of Moritz-Maria’s life. .

But somehow, and this is Alexander McCall Smith’s talent as an author, we like Dr. Igelfeld . He is charming in his own way and we are able to smile at his foibles. Alexander McCall Smith is like one of those artists who can create an exact drawing of someone with very few lines. He is a delightful author who does not require complex plots and exciting action to entertain us. As to his current book, Unusual  Uses for Olive Oil, you will have to learn for yourself about what these unusual uses are, but believe me, there will be no household hints that will be in any way salacious. Alexander McCall Smith would never! As usual, this book by Mr. McCall Smith is totally enjoyable.

For a list of all of his books go to


Hillary Clinton – What Next

Diplomacy is made up of many, many small events and of intangibles like forging relationships with world leaders and the leaders of thousands of organizations that work tirelessly to make the world a better place. This entails lots of schmoozing and some “strong-arming” and meetings and conventions and conferences and speeches and travel; lots and lots of travel. From an article in USA Today we get a tiny glimpse into some of her activities as we see Hillary travelling to China to convince Chinese leaders to free blind dissident, Chen Guangcheng; travelling to India to cajole India’s leaders to reduce oil imports to Iran; renewing old friendships in one of the world’s poorest nations as she meets with Muhammed Yunus, a pioneer in providing microcredit to the poor or Sir Fazie Hasan Abed, founder of the world’s largest development organizations. USA Today says that Hillary is “part tough-talking diplomat, part back-patting politician.”

Unless you have really strong social, intellectual, and political skills you will never qualify for the job of Secretary of State. Two of our best recent Secretaries of State have been women. Madeleine Albright is legendary. I don’t think there could be a better “school” for an American President than being Secretary of State so I hope that Hillary is feeling well enough and rested enough to run in 2016, but even if she doesn’t run she has earned the chops and learned the skills to accomplish whatever goals she sets for herself.

If the only things Hillary Clinton ever accomplished were the things she has done for women that would still be enough to have created a prodigious legacy. Until the women of the world – everywhere in the world – have the same rights as men there will be important work to do and Hillary Clinton has dedicated herself to this one goal as a recurring theme that she returns to whenever she can. In fact, since she can hardly sit back and become a jet-setter for long, we may see her forming a foundation of her own to focus on the needs of women around the world.

Hillary, enjoy a rest. You deserve it. Take time out to set your new agenda and enjoy leisure and your family for awhile. And because everyone is so much tougher on the way older women look than they are on the way older men look, we will be quiet if you decide to have a few nips and tucks. Well I will anyway – others will not be able to keep their big traps shut, I am sure. Ignore them. I don’t believe you will be able to enjoy leisure for very long.

Maybe you will write a book. When you decide to return to public life we’ll be watching with interest. Maybe we can help. In the meanwhile we thank you for your energetic and very effective service to the American government and the American people (which are one and the same).

More Siri

I read an interesting article about Siri in the Huffington Post Technology section this weekend. Apparently Siri was not created at Apple. Siri was the brain child of a group of young computer geeks working for the Defense Department to develop artificial intelligence. The original Siri did not speak; she answered questions in print on the computer or mobile screen. She was apparently quite irreverent and liked sarcasm and wit, but did not mince words. Siri could swear. Siri was also designed to be something called a “do” engine, instead of a “search” engine. Rather than send you a list of restaurants, Siri would pick one for you based on your location and your past preferences and she would make reservations on the date and at the time of your choice. If you were planning a trip Siri could zero in on the one that best met your criteria. Rather than supply a list of sites for you to include in your research, Siri would complete the research for you. In other words, Siri could learn and reason.

Why don’t we have that Siri? When Apple bought Siri they watered her down. They did give her a voice and they programmed her to operate in many languages, but they took away her swear words and toned down her sassiness. And they turned her into a “search” engine instead of a “do” engine. However if the technology could be created by one set of “geeks”, it can definitely be recreated by some other set of IT guys. If they do then Apple will probably lose out because some other company will get control of a similar program and run it without the dilutions. The public will win because we will gain a useful personal assistant, but Apple could lose, seeing their stock lose even more value. Apple still has the advantage here because they own the original Siri programs and can wring out the excess “water” anytime they wish.

Here’s the link to the article that I have been paraphrasing. There is a lot more detail there for you techies.

SIRI RISING: The Inside Story Of Siri’s Origins — And Why She Could Overshadow The iPhone



An Endless Republican Loop



I feel like we are caught in a time warp or an endless loop. The Republicans have been giving us the same message over and over for the past four years and even though the American people voted against their plan they insist that Obama come to meet them when they should be offering to go to meet him. Their only message, offered to every commentator every time they are interviewed is about the need to cut spending, balance the budget, and get rid of the deficit. They always act as if Obama is a spendthrift who passes out money to everyone and pays no attention to the nation’s debt or its deficit. They are changing their message slightly because instead of expressing a desire to privatize everything, and to cut entitlements, they are focusing, for now, on Medicare. Health care costs are rising at an alarming rate and I am sure we all worry about whether Medicare will continue to be available. But it is very interesting that the party that wants small government is always talking about cutting our benefits. That is all they seem willing to cut. They never suggest cuts in any other programs or departments of government. They offer to revise the 70,000 page tax code, but again they rarely give us any specifics.

There are several economists who admit that avoiding austerity has actually helped the American economy. And although all of us are unhappy with huge national debts and deficits, some economists suggest that they are not that enormous given the recession we just came through. Paul Krugman, an economist who writes in the New York Times calls the Republicans “deficit scolds” with good reason because that seems to be their sole argument, repeated ad nauseum.

 I also do believe that Obama fully intends to make some cuts in spending, but I know he would also like to do some spending because he thinks it would help create jobs. Paul Ryan who appeared on Meet the Press this Sunday repeated the same alarmist message that we have heard from him before. He intimates through his arguments that Obama is ruining the American economy and that Obama is a stubborn idiot who needs to be saved by the Republican agenda. He still worries that we have created an “institutionalized” group of inner city minorities who lack initiative because they have been supported by the government for too long. I don’t think the financial support they get or the rigmarole they must go through to get that support really produces a living income or a satisfying lifestyle. I would think that a focus on educational models that help people succeed in school would be more useful than some “throw them in the deep end and see if they swim” strategy.

The Republicans do have some plans for how to become a more popular political party. They have decided to go after the minority vote by working with Democrats on immigration. They have decided that the only reason Obama won was by pandering to minorities so they want to get in on some of that pandering action. However, just in case Spanish and African Americans see through this courtship and decide they will not be wooed, Republicans want to change the way electoral votes are counted. Because big cities tend to skew Democratic and more rural areas tend to skew Republican.  Presidential candidates often win all the electoral votes in a state if they win the major cities. The GOP has come up with a plan to go district by district to count the vote and then to apportion the electoral votes in the state by the numbers of districts won, instead of the number of votes won. If a candidate won the popular vote s/he would not necessarily get all of that state’s electoral votes.  Electoral votes would be split among the candidates. If we had run the 2012 election Mitt Romney would have won the Presidency even though Obama won the popular vote, experts say. Why isn’t this the perfect time to get rid of the elitist Electoral College and decide the election by the popular vote alone?

Last week John Boehner accused Obama of trying to get rid of the Republican Party. Why would Obama bother when the Republicans are doing such a great job of sabotaging themselves? They are committing political seppuku.We are not a single party nation and I don’t believe we really want to be, but if the Republicans can’t moderate their agenda I, for one, would be just as happy to see them sidelined until they stop trying to dictate a path that Americans did not choose and do not want, for some very obvious reasons.

This is the view from the cheap seats.

This photo is from an article on Thank you Yahoo.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides – Book

In The Marriage Plotby Jeffrey Eugenides, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his novel Middlesex, we have three students on a college campus in the 1980’s, involved in a very modern love triangle. The author creates Madeleine Hanna in order to look at the “marriage plot” in fiction. Madeleine loves Victorian, Regency, and other “romantic” authors which are listed by the author on the first page of his novel. We have (in no particular order) Edith Wharton, Henry James, Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Bronte sisters. If you have done any reading of books by these authors, then you understand the important place marriage held in the 19th century (and before). If you were a daughter in an aristocratic family your mother, and often your father, spent a lot of money and energy to find you a “suitable” marriage. Love often had nothing to do with this “marriage market”. Elaborate wardrobes were purchased when a young woman attended her first social “season”, especially in London. While young ladies wanted someone handsome and “loveable”, parents often wanted their daughters to marry for money or to marry “up”. If you were not married by the time you were nineteen you were viewed as a reject and people felt that you might have to remain unmarried for life and thus a burden on the family.

However, this book is about 1980’s America, after the feminist revolution of the 60’s and 70’s. Young people act quite cynical about the marriage market and, although they still long for love, marriage is viewed by intelligent women as a possible trap which will turn them into a household drudge and keep them from finding their true potential. The money that was once spent on elaborate fashions is now plowed into a college education which is supposed to extend to graduate school and a doctorate. In spite of these new feminine aspirations more of the old impetus to marry by nineteen still exists than these young women might think.

Madeleine Hanna we are told is a beauty. She grew up in a more-than-comfortable lifestyle with great parents. She grew up in a bedroom which her mother had papered with wallpaper murals from the Madeleine stories whose eponymous character and Parisian locale had appealed to Madeleine as a child. These murals had to be designed specifically for Madeleine’s walls because there was no such wallpaper. So why would this young lady, from such a tony, healthy upbringing, choose the men she did for her companions and lovers?  Perhaps because she filled her head with the romantic and not so romantic marriage plots of 19th century authors.

Madeleine meets Mitchell Grammaticus first. Mitchell just loves Madeleine, but unfortunately, she doesn’t feel the love. She likes Mitchell enough to be confused about her feelings for him, but when they finally kiss there is no magic. Mitchell is exploring his spirituality, perhaps as a way to console himself about Madeleine, perhaps for his own satisfaction. He plans to travel to Europe and India after graduation from college and he does. His journeys do end up having a strong spiritual component but they do not exorcize his feelings for Madeleine.

The man Madeleine does fall for is the charismatic and handsome, Leonard Bankhead. Leonard ends up being an unsuitable match in almost every way. He is charismatic because he had stopped taking his lithium and he is deep in the manic phase of his first serious manic-depressive event. When Madeleine and Leonard break up, Leonard slides rapidly into a punishing depressive state. What do you do when you fall in love with someone who is unsuitable because he suffers from a mental illness, whose treatment suppresses the very brilliance that he treasures and you admire? That is at the heart of this story. What would have happened if you entered into such a marriage in the 19thcentury? What will happen to this relationship in the 1980’s? Madeleine has to fight with her overwhelming love, her guilt, and the 20th century demands that an intelligent woman lead a productive life. Leonard has to deal with his own desire to keep his intellect intact while taking just enough meds to control his manic-depression, a battle he is losing. Mitchell is always in the background. Sometimes he is a fantasy of a potential alternate partner, sometimes a source of unhealthy jealousy for Leonard, and sometimes Madeleine and Leonard are so involved with each other that they forget all about Mitchell. 

I imagined at first that this book would be a kind of esoteric, scholarly version of Bridget Jones, who was also involved in a romantic triangle. Although there is an element of this early on in the book, the serious issues at the heart of The Marriage Plot, along with the sophisticated literary commentary, turn this into a much more thoughtful story. This is well worth reading, but it is not Chick Lit. You have to get used to its more literary style and content to realize what a good and very modern story it is.

Curiosity and Terraforming Mars

We are human and we have a tendency to anthropomorphize everything. So, that little robot-science lab on wheels that is wandering around Mars makes it almost seem as if we have a person on Mars. Curiosity is cute; it has one of the same eyes as Wall-E who had a delightful personality. By association we also suppose that Curiosity is equally delightful. Wall-E, of course, skewed male, while Curiosity has been presented, so far, as androgynous, making it difficult to choose an anthropomorphic pronoun. Whatever sex is assigned to Curiosity, I have decided to think of her as a “she” because I can. As I go through my day I sometimes remember that our little Curiosity is traveling ever so slowly over the landscape on MARS! She is constantly taking photos that she sends back to earth and she is sampling the materials on the surface of Mars to send us data about the chemistry of the Martian surface. And like Wall-E’s girlfriend Eva, she is looking for any signs that there ever was or that there is now life on Mars.

Curiosity’s newest photos show that water, good old H2O once ran over the Martian landscape although she has not found any actual water. Photos show configurations that we know from long observation represent streambeds or trails carved by running water. There are rocks in the photos that show that the sedimentary action of water has acted on the Martian landscape at some time. This is all very encouraging to scientist who have long been discussing terraforming Mars.

Scientists believe that we could turn the thin Martian atmosphere thicker by purposely doing things we have done by accident which have thickened our earth atmosphere, or in other words by emitting greenhouse gases into the Martian atmosphere. Once a thick atmosphere was created we would use mirrors in orbit around the planet to melt the poles so they could release their water to fill the depressions on the Mars surface. We would then find a water cycle of evaporation and precipitation developing, after which pioneering life forms like mosses could be introduced and encouraged to cover the surface of Mars. You can see a demo of terraforming in this youtube video.

The ideas for terraforming Mars have been around for several decades now. Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a fictional Mars trilogy to help us picture the possibilities. Red Mars, Blue Mars and Green Mars, the three volumes in the trilogy create a set of Martian pioneer people who take us through the three stages of terraforming and the human drama that might accompany such an endeavor.

We may succeed in terraforming Mars or not but it always helps humans to strive for something beyond, something that stretches our minds and our talents and gives us a sense of some control over a massive and possibly indifferent universe.

The Benghazi Investigations


Yesterday, Wednesday January 23, 2013, was the day Hillary Clinton took her spot in front of the Foreign Relations Committee investigating events in Benghazi. She also testified in front of the Conress. Most members of the Foreign Relations Committee thanked Hillary for her service over the last four years and admitted that she had served well, before they ripped into her about her part in the Benghazi attacks that killed four Americans including diplomat Chris Stevens. Apparently there are several points of contention about this Libyan tragedy which occurred on 9/11/2012. Some Senators are exercised because Hillary Clinton did not see a key e-mail sent to the State Department in which Chris Stevens asked for more protection at the Consulate. Rand Paul said that if that had happened when he was President he would have relieved her of her post as Secretary of State. This was the harshest statement made by any Senator on the Committee. We are left with the question of whether reading e-mails sent to the State Department is a normal duty of the Secretary of State and, if not, why  whoever was responsible for reading such an e-mail did not pass the information up the chain.

They asked Hillary about the repercussions for the guilty parties in the Department of State and she said that they were fired. However, it turned out that all four employees in the agency who were held responsible were still working for the State Department in different capacities. It was not clear if their new positions were demotions.

The issue that has consumed Republicans since the attack is what Susan Rice told America about Benghazi on the Sunday morning political shows. Was Susan Rice a sacrificial lamb who was helping the President and Hillary cover up a terrible failure which would tarnish the reputation of one of them and, perhaps, affect the re-election of the President, or was this the true intelligence available at the time? Republicans insist that Susan Rice lied on purpose or was given false information on purpose. There are, of course, other possible explanations among them that we were told that these murders resulted from a demonstration because there were national security considerations, or that no one wanted this event to change the meaning of 9/11, but the President and the Secretary of State do not claim that either of these conditions pertained. We also have the tape of the speech made by the President at the hangar when the bodies of our dead diplomat and his staff arrived back in America in which Obama did call this an “act of terror”.

Did Al Qaeda plan this attack so that it would fall on 9/11? Possibly. Did they hope to interfere with the re-election of a President who had killed Osama Bin Laden? Maybe. The fact is that we have not captured these terrorists. They have apparently melted back into the streets of Benghazi and we are left to our conjectures. The most important question remains which is why we set up a consulate in a city that was not stable and in a country still in chaos. Apparently we do this to help stabilize the nation in turmoil and probably because we hope to steer the political outcomes of the revolution. Why we left our Ambassador, Chris Stevens, without enough protection even after he asked for more protection and informed the State Department of the dangers he and his staff faced is another question that we all have and that’s the one that seems to me to be at the heart of the matter. This is where there is an important lesson to be learned. We have lost other American diplomats in areas with unsettled issues. Do we keep putting diplomats in dangerous places and, if we do, how can we give them better protection without making it impossible for them to interact with the indigenous people?  

If the President and Hillary Clinton decided to “spin” this event to protect re-election and reputation if will not be the first time that politicians have done such a thing. I am very sorry that the questions surrounding this attack and these murders have overshadowed our grief at losing a young and effective Ambassador who will never get to enjoy his family again. Chris Stevens served us well and he will be remembered long after this partisan nonsense dies down. I am sad when I think about the frightening emotions Stevens and his staff must have experienced in their final moments and I hope we do find and punish the individuals responsible. I also hope the State Department has learned to trust and follow the requests of the people they put in harm’s way. And finally, I am quite sorry that this situation has somewhat tarnished the image of Hillary Clinton right at the end of her otherwise stellar tenure as Secretary of State.


Snow Days

This is the view from my office window. Believe it or not this photo is in color. Winter turns our world into a black, white, and grey world. This year, although I can see the beauty of snow, I resent all the extra effort it takes to clear it out of my driveway before I can leave my house, and I am not in love with all the clothing I must pile on my body to stay semi-warm. When I get anywhere I must divest myself of all these layers and find somewhere to put the wet boots and gloves where they will not create a housekeeping problem for someone else. Winter certainly makes you appreciate summer. 

If I am apologizing to you for why I am not reading books at my usual clip, which I am, you may have guessed that I am blaming winter. In winter I do spend more time in the house but I am basically hibernating and I don’t get things done the way I should because I sort of still see winter as one perpetual snow day. Actually jigsaw puzzles are also to blame for my lack of reading progress. Jigsaw puzzles are one of the most evanescent activities on the planet. You spend hours putting a puzzle together. You enjoy the accomplishment for a few days and then you take it apart and put it back in the box, knowing you will probably never use that particular puzzle again. Does this activity help prevent Alzheimer’s? I don’t know. It does require that you use parts of your brain that you don’t usually use. You have to match shades of color and shapes and you can feel your brain puzzling over this. It is something you can do while you also watch TV. It is something guests like to tackle when they come to visit. But I have not found a way to read a book and finish a puzzle at the same time. I wish I had ordered my current books on audio tape, then I would not be falling behind on my reading and I could complete as many puzzles as I wished. Let’s agree not to even talk about housework. Here’s my latest puzzle just to give it something to do before I dismantle it and put it away.

Knock on Wood: The Second Term Curse

When you repeat something over and over does it become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Is it true that you should not ask for what you don’t want because you might get it? Will positive things come to those who think positive thoughts and, conversely, will negative thoughts bring calumny down on your head?  I don’t know about these things. Sometimes they seem to be borne out by events and sometimes not. But why tempt fate if you can help it I always say.

On this Sunday, “politics day” was all about the inauguration. Actually I found the coverage on CNN and on Meet the Press quite enjoyable. It was like an Obama love fest and I think it was about time. It is touching to see how emotional people are about this historical inauguration. It was refreshing to not have to listen to Republicans repeat their spending cuts refrain all day long. CNN included lots of interesting information about past inaugurations. What was most refreshing of all was to hear unscripted and heartfelt conversations about the things people hope will be happening in the next four years. There was also a lot of discussion about what designer Michelle will wear tomorrow and about Michelle’s toned arms, and her new bangs. Something for everyone.

But then the reporters and pundits get off on these little bits of insider political superstition and they just drive me nuts. I still think it is very wrong that conventional wisdom says that a president has only 100 days in the first term and about a week in the second term to accomplish all of the nation’s business. Are they nuts?  All right that might be a slight exaggeration, but they supposedly only get maybe four years of effective service in a two term presidency. It costs billions for a president to get elected and billions more to get re-elected and yet a president can only expect to pass useful laws that answer the needs of the people during half of his/her time in office? If that is true it definitely needs to change. We are not getting our money’s worth.

Then we get to “the second term curse”. Apparently some presidents have had really bad luck in their second terms, like Katrina for GW Bush, and Clinton’s extra-marital activity and near impeachment. I wish they would stop telling us about this nonsense. Are they just trying to show off their intimate knowledge of presidential lore? To write off a president’s second term before it even begins is just depressing. I’m sure there are many presidents who experience no such curse in their second term. But just in case I’m going to complete one of those gestures that wards off evil. I don’t really want to spit so I guess I will knock on wood. I am also going to predict that we will make an unprecedented number of positive accomplishments over the next four years. Yay, us!


Even as we listened to Martin Luther King give his “I Have a Dream” speech, we already knew it would be one of the most famous and deeply meaningful speeches ever. It had that timeless quality of the very few moments that mark milestones in our lives. Having our first African-American president sworn in publicly for his second term on Martin Luther King Day is fitting and also deeply meaningful. It has a feeling of “the circle of life” about it. Deepak Chopra spoke on CNN today about this. He said “I just wonder when Martin Luther King made his speech did he have this day in mind? Well I don’t know if Dr. King was predicting Barack Obama, but I bet he is looking down and smiling on this day, if such a thing is possible.Obama will place his hand on the Martin Luther King Bible while he takes the public oath of office.

Of course, this is a symbolic rite, the swearing in of a president. We know the tough part comes next. The work begins on Tuesday as President Obama, Joe Biden, the Cabinet, and the Congress make decisions that will help the American economy and the job market, “save” the environment, and make decisions about gun control, mental health law, and decisions about immigration. We look to Obama to hold the line against those who seem determined to rob the middle class of their safety net and to rob the poor of the public assistance which makes life more bearable for their children.

I am very happy that Obama is with America for a second term and I will be watching to see what he is able to accomplish. Obama’s Presidency has already had a profound effect on America as it has forced us to face our differing points of view and to begin to make a commitment to a future that will bridge the gaps and heal the divisions without giving in to extremists. Can we remain an enlightened society and still find ways to prosper? This is a goal worth attaining and we should employ the prodigious skills we have available in America and the world to find a means to these ends. I have a good feeling about this. This is a day for optimism. Forward.