Monday, April 27, 2009

Not A Good Day To Wake Up With A Fever

The Curmudgeon awakened this morning to a fever, cough, achy joints and fatigue.

Hmm. With all those swine flu headlines, not the best of days to get out of bed sick. Accordingly, we're staying in bed and ignoring the headlines. Hope it will go away!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Donald Trump's Vision For Lowes Island

Come May 1, Lowes Island Golf Club will become Trump National Golf Club Washington D.C.

Last night, Donald Trump, sporting pink shirt and tie, visited the club to speak to an overflow gathering of members, in which he presented his vision and some of his plans for the revitalized club.

It was an upbeat session. Not surprisingly, Mr. Trump is a good salesman. But he'll also be good for the Club.

First off, Trump has a vision for the property, which was previously lacking when it was owned by Chevy Chase Bank. Lowes Island was a nice, family oriented club that just happened to have two terrific golf courses on a spectacular piece of land. But the bank never had any real vision of what the place should be.

Trump does. He wants it to be one of the best golf clubs in the country, and certainly THE best in the DC area. He was quite explicit in stating that he wants Trump National to be superior to Congressional Country Club in Bethesda.

One member asked "what if we don't want to be better than Congressional" to which Trump responded, without hesitation, "then you should leave and find another club." We think that's fair advice to the existing members.

Many rumors have swirled around the club the past few weeks as the Trump purchase began to sink in as reality. Trump debunked most of those last night. Our advice to existing members: wait and see. It may be truly exciting to see what Trump does; he doesn't ever set out to fail.

Here's some specifics. Trump has retained Tom Fazio, designer of the original "Island" course at the club, to redesign it and make it into a Championship course. Trump says Fazio has told him that the land on which the club is situated is suitable for the finest course in the country, and that could be true. It sounds like their plans include incorporating the Potomac River into play, which would certainly be exciting. It will also be a challenge--Trump should've seen the place in the great flood of 1996, when two-thirds of the course was under at least 10 feet of water!

In any event, it is pretty clear that the club is going to go from having a great golf course to a spectacular one.

Trump also plans to build an indoor tennis facility (members currently play in a bubble during the winter). He plans to add a ballroom to the clubhouse, greatly expanding the existing building's footprint in the process, such that it can also have a real grill, a first rate fitness facility and expanded lockers and other amenities.

He is putting a caddy program in place. Some members are grumbling about the cost of playing with caddies, but we think if it's done right, most will see significant benefits. Trump is also pledging to expand the practice facility, which is a real achilles heel of the club now--cramped and inconvenient.

We also give props to Trump for agreeing to keep, and even expand, the childcare program at the club, an unusual feature that had made it one of the most family friendly in the region. That, in turn, has kept the membership young and lively, a nice contrast to all the old folks out at Congressional and many other local clubs.

The cost is going up, but not really by much. In fact, if Trump succeeds in fashioning his vision at Trump National Washington, it could very well be the best bargain in the country. For the members themselves to put the kind of money Trump is talking about into the club would've required a quite hefty assessment.

If you've been to any of Trump's other clubs, you know they all have waterfalls, so expect one at Trump Washington too. The hill between the practice green and the 18th green would make the perfect place for one--it's a hill that for years members have said "we ought to do something nice with that."

Personally, we're excited. If it doesn't work out, then we can always go someplace else.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Don't Go On A Torture Witch Hunt

We're sorry, but Obama's making a mistake saying he can envision prosecutions of Bush administration personnel in connection with torture allegations.

Nothing good will come out of it, and a lot that is bad could.

We don't, by any stretch, condone the most extreme methods the Bush administration ultimately used to interrogate some prisoners. But let's step back a minute and get some context.

On September 11, 2001, approximately 20 middle eastern men operating under the influence of a radical form of Islam, killed 3000 Americans, destroyed the World Trade Center towers, tried to destroy our Capitol building and attacked the Pentagon. They got away with it, in part, because despite some credible leads, our law enforcement agencies acted too cautiously.

This was no small event, and it opened everyone's eyes to the fact that these same terrorists would--if they could--do something even bigger and more destructive, including unleashing a weapon of mass destruction in an American or European city.

These are not people to take lightly. They are not dope dealers on the corner.

The Bush administration may have overreacted in some senses, but not by much; and overreacting was better than underreacting.

Furthermore, any effort to prosecute individuals will, inevitably, sweep up the wrong people. The two most culpable are George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Do you really think they are going to be prosecuted? Of course not.

Going after lower level people will only make CIA officials, FBI officials, military officials and law enforcement officials overly cautious and legalistic when greater action may be necessary to protect our nation. It will also punish people who, in good faith, believed they were lawfully doing the right thing, and who were pressured from above. Even investigating them and threatening prosecution is problemmatic because it forces everyone to "lawyer up" at great expense.

Here's what should happen: Obama should grant clemency to any government employee who was involved in government sanctioned activities that could be construed as torture in the Bush administration. In exchange, those persons should be required to cooperate and testify with investigators to determine exactly what happened--not with the intention of punishing anyone, but rather with the intention of deciding what, in the future, is lawful, and what is not.

We should not be out for blood on this; we should be out to learn the facts and engage in reform.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Greatest Hurricane Story, EVER!

If you're a weather freak or disaster nut--and especially if you're fascinated by hurricanes (like the Curmudgeon, on all three counts), then you're going to love this new book: Landstrike.

Landstrike is the eerily realistic story of Hurricane Nicole as it forms in the Atlantic Ocean and eventually tracks straight up the Hudson River, devastating New York City and its environs.

Landstrike is told through eyes of a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center, who's tasked with tracking the new storm as it forms off the coast of Africa in mid-September--peak season for hurricanes. The meteorologist, Daniel Chen, soons finds himself in a harrowing, white-knuckled ride aboard a "hurricane hunter" turboprop into the eye of the rapidly intensifying storm. With him on the trip is glamorous television reporter Tina Morrow, out to make a name for herself covering the latest hurricane threat.

After surviving the trip, Chen goes back to the Hurricane Center in Miami, while Morrow goes off to cover Hurricane's Nicole's rampage through the Caribbean. Taking too many chances, Morrow nearly pays the ultimate price while covering the storm's direct impact on St. Croix.

Meanwhile, using new software, Chen begins to fear that Hurricane Nicole is headed for New York City, while others at the Hurricane Center disagree. While debate rages, Charleston, SC, considered the more likely target, evacuates. New Yorkers go about their lives largely oblivious to the threat.

By the time Nicole's path becomes clear, time is short. The storm is accelerating up the coast as New Yorkers frantically try to prepare. It's too late. Advancing into the lower Hudson River as a category four storm, Nicole is moving at 40 miles per hour, similar to a major hurricane that struck Long Island in 1938, killing 700 people.

It takes just two hours for the hurricane to traverse New York City, bringing with it a devastating storm surge and howling winds that result in catastrophic destruction of the city. The fabled Verrazano Bridge collapses in the roaring winds, Brooklyn is inundated by the surge, high rises implode as wind-blown debris smashes their windows, the subway system is submerged, and trees pound into homes as they smash to the ground.

As the hurricane rapidly moves northward, New Yorkers of all stripes find themselve suddenly trying to survive in the stone age conditions of an urban jungle bereft of electricity, water, transportation and communications, while federal and state officials work frantically to bring relief to the region.

What's so great about this book is its realism. Many a story has been told of New York being devastated by giant lizards, asteroids, a volcano, evil villains, instantaneous climate change, and other unlikely scenarios. A category four hurricane, however, is not only plausible, but likely at some point in the next couple of decades. This book is a must read for disaster and emergency planners in any major city on the Atlantic coastline, as it illustrates the awesome potential of a major hurricane to bring a metropolis to its knees.

The author, Ken Bass (pictured here), is steeped in disaster literature. He carefully researched the likely timeline for and effects of a hurricane on New York. The story is so true to life that you will have to remind yourself that what you're reading isn't true.

Landstrike is currently available in both hardcover and paperback from the publisher, Xlibris Press, HERE. (Having just been released by the publisher, it will be a few weeks before it is available on Amazon or in bookstores.

Oh, if you think that photo of the author looks a little like Xcurmudgeon, you're right--they're one and the same!

Turn Off Your TV AND Your Lights

The Curmudgeon kids watch Nickolodeon television. A lot. For Earth Day, Nickolodeon is promoting turning off your lights for one minute.

We don't favor these fairly pointless symbolic gestures. However, if Nickolodeon wants to promote a symbolic gesture for Earth Day, how about this: turn off your TELEVISION for a minute. Better yet, turn if off for an hour.

Happy Earth Day

Earth Day is a good time to pause and take stock of what you, personally, are doing to help save our planet from ourselves.

You needn't do everything at once, and you needn't change your lifestyle or live in misery to make a difference. Instead, try an incremental approach. It starts with simply being aware of how much you and your family are consuming, where it comes from and where it goes.

We now track our electric, gas and water consumption monthly, comparing each current month to the same month over the past three years. We also try to be conscious of how much garbage we're throwing out and what's in it, while doing our best to increase recycling. And we're soon going to start tracking gasoline usage as well.

If you set a goal of reducing your energy and water consumption, while increasing recycling efforts, each year, you'll know you're headed in the right direction.

You'll find a lot of tips in some of the "back-pages" of this blog--things that have worked for us. So take advantage of today's Earth Day festivities to take stock and begin a plan for the future.

Monday, April 20, 2009

E-Books Are A Step Forward

Amidst blistering sales of Amazon's Kindle e-book reader, there are various doom and gloom prognostications about the future of books.

Today's Wall Street Journal brings us a different perspective, an in-depth analysis of how e-book sales promise to revolutionize book reading in positive ways. See "How The E-Book Will Change The Way We Read And Write."

Steven Johnson, an author who wrote the WSJ's article, is spot-on with his review.

We would add a number of other points. One, without the E-book, the future of the book itself would be bleak, indeed. We have a whole generation growing up that's used to accessing information online and in electronic format, and we want them to be reading books, so e-books are a positive advance.

Two, the reason books have been so successful over the past 500 years is that they were an economical, portable way to store and convey information. We now have even more economical, portable ways to store and convey information, so its natural that the physical world of books, papers, printers, bookstores, warehouses, bookcases, etc. should gradually give way to this new technology. We haven't heard too many people lamenting the demise of hand-copied illuminated manuscripts in the wake of the printing press.

Books are great. But they take up a lot of space, require lots of trees to make paper, need transport and otherwise require a lot of physical handling. The cost of most books includes several dollars just for printing, binding, storage and transport. In time, the cost of e-books should come down significantly. Right now, an author gets roughly 10-25% of the money paid to purchase a book, while the rest goes to the printer, publisher, bookstore, etc. There's no reason why an author couldn't do quite well selling an e-book for $10 and keeping, say, 80% of that money. Cheaper books would ultimately lead to more sales.

Portability is also a factor. When the Curmudgeon went on a cruise late last year, he took three books along. They were fairly heavy in his carry-on bag. In contrast, today's Kindle weighs about the same as a small paperback, and yet it is like having a million books with you.

E-books will also make it easier to illustrate and annotate books with images, weblinks, maps and other useful information.

That said, we're still pretty traditional around here--we like a good book, in traditional book form. We hope the traditional book will still be around for another 40 years, but we suspect the future lies firmly with the emerging e-book form.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Rick Perry To Give Up ALL Federal Funds For Texas

That Rick Perry, what a hoot.

After threatening to have Texas secede from the Union (again) at one of those tea-bagging parties Republicans were having yesterday, today he agreed to give up the following:

Lackland Air Force Base
Randolph Air Force Base
Laughlin Air Force Base
Goodfellow Air Force Base
Sheppard Air Force Base
Dyess Air Force Base
Brooks City Base
Biggs Army Airfield
Camp Bullis
Corpus Christi Army Depot
Fort Bliss
Fort Hood
Fort Sam Houston
Red River Army Depot
Corpus Christi Naval Air Station
Fort Worth Naval Air Station, Joint Reserve Base
Ingleside Naval Station
Galveston Coast Guard Station

He also kicked all the FEMA people out of Galveston; sent back all federal highway funds; had all state universities return their federal grant money; agreed to close all National Weather Service stations in Texas; refunded federal Medicaid and Medicare funds; closed down all federal courts in the state; cancelled all federal defense contracts active in the state; asked the Border Patrol and INS to leave; said the State of Texas would now guaranty all the banks in the state; and closed all FBI offices in the state.

For some reason, however, he said the George W. Bush Presidential Library could stay.

What a dickhead.

McAuliffe Destroys A Forest

Just because you have money doesn't mean you have to waste it. And just because you're determined to spend it doesn't mean you have to destroy the planet in the process.

At Wednesday's "Shad-Planking" down in Wakefield, Virginia, Terry McAuliffe's campaign reportedly set out more than 25,000 signs on the road into the event. It's shame how many trees had to die for this gaudy display of excess at a time of economic distress.

McAuliffe's campaign slogan: "New Energy, New Jobs, Vote Terry." Well yeah. We can power the state burning the damn signs; and employ the unemployed putting them up and taking them down.

In our opinion, the "winner" at the shad planking was Creigh Deeds, who spent his time an a multi-town tour of southwestern Virginia, instead of drinking beer with an insular group of political junkies who were only there to impress each other.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Bravo For Arlington's New Recycling Program

Effective April 1, Arlington expanded its curbside recycling program for homes. The new program is a big improvement.

Although we haven't yet gotten ours, Arlington residents should expect to get new recycling bins to replace the yellow tubs they've been using. The new bins are much larger, wheeled and covered--more like the trash bins.

Under the new program, residents don't need to sort their recyclable items--just toss it all in the bin. And, more items can now be recycled. Basically, all paper products--newspapers, magazines, junk mail, food containers, even hardback books--can now be recycled. In addition, cardboard can be recycled without the need to cut it up (a chore we won't miss), and even pizza boxes, previously prohibited, can now be reused.

In addition, Arlington now accepts most plastic items, as well as juice and milk containers. Previously, many plastic items, such as yogurt cups, were not accepted. Frankly, there was a lot of confusion in the old program as to which plastics were eligible. Plastic bags can also be recycled through Arlington, so we won't have to save them to take to the grocery store (readers, remember that includes the bags your newspapers come in).

For some reason we don't understand, however, Arlington says it cannot accept "clamshell" containers, as well as plastic cups and styrofoam. We're not exactly sure what counts as a clamshell container, so we'll take a strict view. We'd be happier if the County would take all items--including styrofoam--labelled with a recycling symbol and number, as it would make matters a lot clearer.

Notwithstanding the minor limitations, the overall expansion is a huge improvement. We hope Arlingtonians will take advantage of this new program and increase the percentage of materials that get reused instead of sent to a landfill.

Americans still have a good ways to go on recycling. In Japan, where landfill space is practically non-existent, necessity has been the mother of invention. Japanese households in some cities recycle more than 97% of the material they discard each year (Americans are at around 30% nationally). Eventually, we'll catch up as the economics of recycling make more and more good sense.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Veritable Sucker

There's a sucker born every minute. And we might just be one!

While in Florida for Spring Break, we took our amusement park junkie kids to two of central Florida's best known destinations for major roller coasters: Busch Gardens in Tampa and Universal's theme park in Orlando. (Disney's coasters are generally quite lame.)

It was no surprise to encounter large crowds at both parks; after all, it was the peak week of Spring Break.

We also encountered something else new: premium passes that let a small percentage of patrons leap to the front of the long lines for rides and attractions. These have various names such as the "Quick Pass" at Universal (hey, what about a "Quickie Pass"?) and the "VIP Pass" at Busch Gardens.

At Disney, they have the "Fast Pass," but you don't pay extra for it; instead, you get to pick 2-3 attractions you're really interested in and elect to use a fast pass option at those attractions. In other words, everyone at Disney can cut in line, but only a couple times.

In contrast, the Universal and Busch Gardens premium passes cost, well, a premium. So at those amusement parks there are two classes of patrons: first class and everyone else. And you better believe that the everyone else class is standing in LONGER lines because of all those first class patrons cutting in front. We think the premium passes should be called the Jerk Pass (our teenage son had another name, but this is a family blog, so we won't print it).

Now, of course, having stood in long lines one day while the Jerk Pass holders breezed by, we decided (ok, Mrs. Curmudgeon decided) to join the Jerk Pass crowd at Universal. Universal is a particularly galling rip-off of an amusement park. They have divided their property into "two" parks, each requiring separate admission. Neither is really big enough for a full day of activities, at least not by experienced park death marchers like us. So you end up buying the "bargain" two-park pass. When you add the two-park Jerk Pass to all this, you're in for $150 FOR ONE DAY. Per person. (After parking, etc.) [We highly advise you to avoid Universal; it's just not worth it.]

Alright, so having made the trek over to Universal (we had to spend an hour in Disney traffic to get there) and having spent a small fortune to get in and be jerks, we were bound and determined to make the kids ride EVERYTHING. And that we did. The Jerk Pass does work. In just eight hours we were able to do everything worth doing at Universal, plus quite a number of things not worth doing. [Shrek 4-D, anyone?]

The next day, we were determined to get a Jerk Pass at Busch Gardens (which we'd already been to two days earlier--there, they had a special deal where if you bought a one-day pass, it was good for the rest of the year; of course, the one-day pass cost double what it would cost at a nice family park like Hershey, but that's a different story). Only problem was that they sold out of Jerk Passes right before we got to the front of the Jerk Pass line (we needed Jerk Pass Line Jerk Pass). Obviously, if you sell too many Jerk Passes, they lose their cachet, so there has to be a limit on them.

Without the Jerk Pass, life was miserable. We rode three rides in four hours. We saw a lot of stressed out families, getting little enjoyment out of their massive investment, standing in long lines while the jerks breezed past them. We left early, retreating to the modest pleasures of our hotel, for which there was no line!

Fundamentally, we don't like the Jerk Passes. We don't think someone who paid $70 to get into an amusement park should have to wait longer because a select group was able to pay $100. When you take an airplane flight, it doesn't take any longer because of the folks in first class. The Disney system is better--it allows you to prioritize and use your Jerk Pass selectively; but everyone gets the same opportunity.

Here's what we'd really like to see, especially at Universal: a riot, in which the regular folks chase out all the Jerk Pass holders. Now that would be worth having a special pass to see!

No Spring Break Recession In Florida

There sure didn't appear to be a recession at central Florida's amusement parks last week during Spring Break.
We took the Curmudgeon kids to Busch Gardens in Tampa, and Universal's park in Orlando, and both were jammed. We heard additional horror stories from families that had been to Disney during the week.

Not only were they jammed, but the parks were doing a brisk business is special passes that allow one to jump ahead of the long lines for premium attractions. Indeed, when we got to Busch Gardens last Wednesday, they had sold out of their "VIP" passes, and the "QuickPass" lines at Universal, while faster than the regular lines, were still occasionally long. (More on these special passes in a separate post later.)

There weren't any bargains, that's for sure, yet folks were spending money like it was . . . 2007. By the time you paid for parking, park admission, various add-ons, food and souvenirs, why you'd be better off with a subprime mortgage.

We suppose it's good that someone is still spending money.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Those Porn-Loving Mormons

We were a little surprised at this: Utah has the highest rate of subscriptions to adult-content websites, at 5.47 per 1000 households. (This was in Discover Magazine, from a paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives.)

Utah? We thought Utah was the state of clean living and all that. We wonder why. Could it be all those large families? The absence of other diversions? This could be an economic opportunity for the Mormon Church.

We were a little surprised that Montana has the lowest rate, at 1.92 per 1000 households, roughly a third that of Utah. But then maybe a lot of folks in Montana don't have broadband yet, and porn without broadband is hardly worth it.

We were completely unsurprised, however, at a report that 36% of internet users visit at least one adult web site per month. We wonder what percentage of the web is taken up with porn. (And no, we're not going to go try to find out.)

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Common Sense Needed On Child Porn Prosecutions

Child pornography is disgusting. The U.S. has very strong laws to prevent and punish the distribution of child pornography, and those laws should be enforced vigorously.

The primary reason to prohibit child pornography is to protect children from sexual exploitation. We have a friend who used to prosecute kiddie porn as an assistant U.S. attorney and he told us that much of what is out there is absolutely disgusting and lurid "beyond belief," reflecting obvious exploitation of children, sometimes as young as 1-year old.

Some recent developments, however, have us concerned about a certain lack of common sense in the prosecution of these laws.

Earlier this week, a Virginia state court judge dismissed charges against a Loudoun County school official for possession of pornography. The defendant, an assistant principal at a high school, was charged because he had possession of a cell phone photo of a female student taken by another student that allegedly was sexually explicit.

The assistant principal, however, was investigating rumors that students were circulating nude photos, and the judge ruled that the photos in question were not sexually explicit enough to constitute child pornography. Thank goodness the judge exercised some common sense in this case, but the poor assistant principal's life has no doubt been utter hell since he was charged in the case. The dismissal will hardly make up for the pain he has endured over the past few months while the charges hung over his head.

In other cases, teens themselves have been charged with possession of child pornography and distribution of child pornography for photographing themselves and sending the pictures to other teens. This practice, called "sexting" falls in the category of "stupid things teens do."

While sexting is not to be condoned, the solution is not prosecution of teenagers for felonies under child pornography laws. What a waste of law enforcement resources!

Recent court decisions have also ruled that possession and distribution of cartoon images of children in sexually explicit situations can be prosecuted under child pornography laws. While we think this is a closer issue than "sexting" or prosecuting an assistant principal who in good faith is investigating a school issue, we're uncomfortable putting cartoon images on the same plane as those of real children.

We're sure that some of the cartoon imagery can, no doubt, be as--or even more--disgusting than photographs or film. But how does one tell the age of a cartoon figure?

Child pornography laws are quite broad, and often vague, to make sure pornographers can't evade them on technicalities. Prosecutors, however, must apply some measure of common sense to such broad laws; frivolous prosecutions only erode support for such laws, weakening public resolve.