Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Did Tea Partiers Severe Gas Line At The Home of Congressman Tom Perriello's Brother?

See story HERE.

The Sociological Experiment

This weekend, the Curmudgeon will be off to South Carolina for a reunion of his junior high school class. Now, most junior high school classes don't have reunions, and this one will be the first for the Fairwold Junior High class of 1972.

It really all evolved from a series of Facebook friendings with classmates, followed by establishment of a Facebook class page--more on a lark than anything else--and then the half-serious suggestion: "hey, why don't we have a reunion?"

So, re-une we will.

But it's an auspicious time to get together. Forty years ago, in the fall of 1970, the kids attending Fairwold Jr. High were part of a large sociological experiment. That fall, in Columbia SC, where the Curmudgeon grew up, the public schools implemented a court ordered school busing plan to integrate schools that had largely been segregated for a hundred years. (The two prior years, the city schools had adopted a "free choice" plan that allowed black students to attend white schools, but few took up the "choice" in the face of considerable hostility.)

The way these plans usually worked in the South, mostly it would be black students taking the bus to a previously all-white school. The white schools were almost always better facilities, and black parents generally didn't object to their children being sent to such schools. In contrast, white parents were quite vocal when their kids were sent out on the buses.

Still, the busing plans required busing at least a few token whites to black schools to win court and Justice Dept. approval.

It just so happened that the Curmudgeon's white neighborhood got the designation to be bused to a formerly all black school--Fairwold. It was a bit of a shock, since the year before we thought we were going to walk a few blocks to our neighborhood Jr. High; but in the new plan, that school was turned into a high school.

Anyway, Fairwold wasn't bad at all. Built in the heart of one of Columbia's middle class black neighborhoods, it was a fairly new facility. So while the adults ranted and raved, us kids took the bus each day across town (and yes, across the train tracks) to Fairwold. That first year, Fairwold had an almost exactly 50-50 split between white and black students.

To make the whole thing more palatable to the white parents, the school district added a bunch of really good white teachers to the school, which already had a bunch of really good black teachers because it served the more elite black neighborhood.

As a result, we all got a good education at Fairwold. And kids like me met a bunch of very smart black kids for the first time in our lives.

Leave it to the adults, however, to mess things up. A lot of people, mostly white, resisted the plan. Each spring, riots would hit the high schools, and when they closed, the Jr. High's weren't far behind. (The Curmudgeon can remember sitting on a hill, in a mix of most of the white and black students at the school, watching a small handful redneck white kids battle a small handful of thuggish black kids. The rest of us were chatting together and wondering when they'd close the school and send us all home.) It wasn't long before parents (mostly white) were moving out of the city district to suburban districts, or putting their kids in private school, or parochial school, and over time, Fairwold essentially re-segregated.

But for the two years we were there (and for some time thereafter), it was a pretty good school. Today, the school is named for the then-principal of the school, W.G. Sanders, and it may well still be an excellent school, just with not very many white students.

Because so many students went so many different ways after Fairwold, the reunion is a chance to catch up with some people we haven't seen since the early '70's, and others we went to high school with (but still haven't seen in decades). Judging by what we've learned so far of what our former classmates are up to these days, the sociological experiment worked out just fine, with no lasting scars--lots of doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers (and professors), business people, artists.

We're looking forward to seeing everyone. Maybe we should take a ride together in a big yellow school bus!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Earthquake: Drop And Cover, Or Triangle of Life

Today, a friend sent us an email that is circulating on the internet concerning what to do if you're inside a building when an earthquake strikes. The advice in the email--which one is urged to forward to one's entire email distribution--is from a fellow named Doug Copp, who has done earthquake search and rescue around the world. He says that you'll get killed if you "duck and cover," i.e., get under some object, like a desk, table or bed, because the object will get crushed on top of you.

Instead, Copp advises that you get on the floor, in the fetal position, NEXT to such an object. When the building comes crashing down, the object will create a pocket--a "triangle of life"--around you. A few days later, Mr. Copp and his crew will presumably be there to rescue you!

It all sounds very persuasive. We were going to put Copps' warnings on our blog, but when we went to find a link to his article, we discovered that his advice is quite controversial.

The American Red Cross, for example, says Copp is full of it, at least when it come to quakes in America. You can find their retort here.

For more, including a fuller explication of Copp's advice, go here for the point/counterpoint.

We guess the best thing to do is simply stay out of an earthquake!

The Runaway Prius

As a fairly recent Prius owner, the Curmudgeon is understandably concerned about all these reports that his world-saving automobile may suddenly shoot down the highway without warning.

So far, no problems. In fact, we've found a benefit: we can careen down the interstate at 90 miles per hour (about as fast as you can get a Prius to go) and if we get pulled over we'll just thank the officer for helping us bring the car under control.

As for the now infamous runaway Prius in California, it will be interesting to see what the investigation turns up. The driver, who seems like a reasonably normal fellow, has his story. Toyota has questioned some particulars, and the forensic evidence does give some pause.

At this point, we do believe the driver that after he hit the gas to pass another car, the accelerator seemed to get stuck and send him down the highway at an uncomfortable speed. After all, Prius drivers don't go that fast on their own--it totally ruins the gas mileage!

We also think he probably didn't hit the brakes nearly as hard as he thought. Toyota says the evidence suggests that he just tapped the brakes. Probably so. It appears undisputed that when the driver called 9-1-1 he was instructed to put the car in neutral, but refused--he claims he was afraid it would accidentally slip into reverse and cause the car to flip.

Now that's plain stupid. It's easy to put a Prius into neutral, and it's impossible to slam any car from full throttle into reverse. You can severely damage your transmission, but you won't suddenly flip the car.

Just to be on the safe side, we practiced putting our Prius into neutral the other day. No problem--we easily coasted to a stop.

Still, we can sympathize with someone who's car has done something it shouldn't, and who fears that if he does something else, it'll also do something weird and wild.

In any event, someone too scared to take the simple step of putting the car in neutral--after the 9-1-1 operator advises it--is also going to be timid on the brakes. In this case, we think something went wrong with the accelerator, but also that the driver compounded the problem, which is how this became such a spectacular incident.

Sudden acceleration is a vexing issue for auto safety regulators. Over the years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has received complaints of sudden or unintended acceleration for almost EVERY make and model of vehicle on the road. Some vehicles get more complaints than others, but MOST cases end up being driver error. Sometimes a floormat gets involved, and sometimes something gets stuck in the pedal. But usually the driver stomps on the gas thinking it's the brake. With millions of drivers driving billions of miles, it happens. (But we don't think that's what happened in the California incident.)

Furthermore, once you get publicity for a particular vehicle being associated with unintended acceleration, the number of complaints goes up dramatically. Believe us, pick any car, and if NHTSA reported tomorrow that it was having Toyota-like problems, you'd have drivers coming out of the woodwork saying "yeah, happened to me."

There's some speculation that Toyota's problems have to do with the electronics in their vehicles. Maybe, but we'd take that with a huge grain of salt absent solid evidence. If there is such a problem, it should be replicable, and so far no one has replicated any such defect.

One problem Toyota does have: in many vehicles, the manufacturer has programmed it so that if both the accelerator and brake are depressed at the same time, the brakes will override. Toyota evidently has not used that feature, although it says it will now. We suspect they'll wish they'd adopted brake override some time ago.

Anyway, if you see us whizzing by in our Prius, give us a wave--we may be able to cut a good 2 hours off our drive to the beach in SC this summer!

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The Church of Arlington County

Who would have thought that liberal Arlington County would end up with it's own state-sponsored church?

That's the conclusion of many of our neighbors in Lyon Village, where new signs are sprouting up like mushrooms after rain, asking:


It's a good question. The dispute centers around a plan to transform the First Baptist Church of Clarendon. The church, with a dwindling congregation and facilities falling into disrepair, came up with a plan a few years ago to take advantage of the prime land it's sitting on in the heart of the popular Clarendon neighborhood.

The idea was to demolish the existing church (most of it), add a high rise apartment tower, and use the financing to renovate and rebuild the church. This, of course, was in the hey-dey of the real estate boom, when anything was possible.

The only problem was that the land was zoned for a seven story building, but the church's consultants said they needed at least 10 stories to make the project economically feasible (i.e., to have enough money to rebuild the church).

So they approached Arlington County with a scheme to increase the allowed height of the project in exchange for including 70 "affordable" housing units. The County bought in, pledging $4.5 million and making the zoning change happen, despite universal objections from neighbors in two-story houses that would be dwarfed by the mammoth new building.

Since then, the original funding has fallen through, forcing the County to increase it's share to $13.1 million--more than the private investors in the project are putting up.

As the facts about this project get out, opposition is spreading. Here at the Curmudgeon we certainly think the economics are suspicious. We're not fans of the County building "affordable" housing in the first place. We'd much rather see the County negotiate with private developers to get affordable housing in exchange for zoning trade-offs, AND use rent vouchers to help lower income families afford apartments out of their range.

Needless to say, for $13 million Arlington could subsidize the rent for many families for many, many years.

In any event, it's clear that the Baptist Church project has become a classic boondoggle, regardless of however well-intentioned it might have been (although we're convinced the Church's main goal was it's own self-preservation, not affordable housing).

County Board members should drive through Lyon Village and take a look at the signs. They're going to keep spreading, and may become a true political liability as the extent of coming budget cuts become more widely known. It's not too late--the County can back out of this one.

For more information, put together by opponents of the project (who, to be fair, are primarily motivated because they don't want such a large project looming over them), go to

Virginia GOP Launches New Jihad Against Gays

If Virginia's new attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, had openly campaigned on an anti-gay platform, he would have lost the election. Now that he's in office, however, the Fairfax Republican has launched a jihad against gays in the state.

Recently, the AG sent a letter to universities in the Commonwealth, advising them to back off of campus policies designed to prohibit discrimination against gays. The Cooch could have chosen to do nothing on this, but he deliberately stuck his nose into it, as if there aren't more important law enforcement issues in the state.

Students are taking this lying down. The Washington Post reported today that student groups on many campuses are organizing rallies to protest Richmond's action.

This is where the Virginia GOP starts to get itself into big trouble. There are a lot of moderate and independent voters who would side with the Republicans on tax and fiscal issues, the types of issues Gov. McDonnell tried to focus on in his campaign.

For some reason, however, the right wing of the party, allied with so-called fundamentalist "Christian" groups, is at least as much interested in the politics of hate. Their forebears resisted the civil rights movement; they resisted the women's rights movement; and now they're gay-bashers.

Mind you, this isn't just people against gay marriage. Nope, the Cooch and his cronies, including quite a few GOP legislators, want to make it lawful to discriminate against gays across the board, soley for their sexual orientation.

We know a lot of real Christians, and they're not into hating anyone. Just like most real Muslims are peaceful. Frankly, the religious extremists in Virginia are no better than those in Iraq. They may not be using car bombs to get their point across, but the actions of people like Cuccinelli are equally terroristic, intended to intimidate another group on the basis of who they are.

If the AG keeps on with his jihad, we can look for Virginia Republicans to lose their recent gains quite quickly. Let's hope the state's students keep the issue alive.

Friday, March 05, 2010

The Pat Tillman Tragedy

We just finished a terrific book: "Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman" by Jon Krakauer.

Krakauer is a great writer, whose books include "Into Thin Air" and "Into The Wild." In "Where Men," he explores the tragic death of former NFL defensive back Pat Tillman, who left the NFL at the peak of his career to join the Army after the 9/11 attacks. As an Army Ranger, Tillman was sent to Afghanistan, where he was killed in a friendly fire incident, the details of which initially were covered up by the military.

Krakauer's book is a thorough examination of what happened, as well as of the intensely interesting life of Tillman.

The book is also a reminder of just how awful the Bush presidency was. Before serving in Afghanistan, Tillman did a tour in Iraq. There, he played a bit role in the Jessica Lynch "rescue" operation.

Krakauer reveals new details of the Lynch case--at least details we'd never heard before--that reveal the depths of cynicism of the Bush administration. You may recall that Lynch was the young woman wounded in a battle with Iraqi soldiers after her convoy was ambushed; she was captured and held in a hospital in the city of An Nasiryah until her dramatic rescue by U.S. special forces.

Or so that was the story we were told. In fact, Lynch's convoy got lost after a collossal set of blunders. It was eventually fired upon by Iraqi troops (who military intelligence had said weren't there). Contrary to stories that Lynch fought it out with Iraqi troops until she was wounded, she never fired her weapon; she was injured when her humvee collided with another American truck. The Iraqis took her to their best local hospital, where she was treated well and given excellent care.

Several of the doctors at the hospital contacted American forces to let them know where she was. At one point, they even tried to deliver her to an American base in an ambulance, but the ambulance was fired upon and had to turn back.

At the time, things weren't going too well for the Americans. There had been a number of friendly fire incidents, and a force of Marines in Nasiriyah had spent an entire day shooting at each other, with considerable fatalities. The Bushies needed some good news. A Bush PR operative on the ground in Iraq--Jim Wilkinson--seized on the Lynch situation as a means to manufacture that good news.

Instead of sending a unit in to pick Lynch up, he had the military commit nearly 1000 special forces troops (including Tillman in a supporting role), accompanied by a video crew, to storm the hospital and rescue Ms. Lynch. He then helped fabricate an entire story about her capture, which the media couldn't get enough of. Tillman saw through the whole thing at the time. Unlike many soldiers who served in Iraq, he never thought it was a legitimate war--he wanted to be in Afghanistan instead.

In any event, Krakauer has some other Wilkinson exploits that ought to nauseate you.

All of this is by way of prelude to what happened in Afghanistan after Tillman was killed. His own brother was in the same Ranger unit, but didn't witness what happened. The other men in the unit were instructed not to talk to him about it, and Tillman's family did not learn that he was killed by friendly fire for several weeks after his death. Meanwhile, Bush and the military (who were aware of the circumstances) made the most of Tillman's fame while they covered up the facts as long as they could.

It's a fascinating read, one that will make you SO glad that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove and their merry band of lying incompetents are gone. It will also make you very sad for Tillman, his sweet wife and his family.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Key Vote In Virginia Senate On "One Gun A Month"

Less than three years after the Virginia Tech massacre, and just a few months after a man in southwest Virginia gunned down several relatives and caused a massive police manhunt (at large cost to local and state taxpayers), Virginia legislators are busily dismantling the woefully few restrictions on guns in the state.

You can bet that relatives of the Va. Tech victims, and survivors, are furious over this. But the gun nut lobby could give a damn. Those victims are just collateral damage of the "freedom" to own guns and take them wherever you damn well please (including, now, bars).

Today, the Virginia senate holds a crucial vote on whether to repeal one of the remaining restrictions, the so-called "one gun a month" rule. That law was enacted a number of years ago--with support from then legislator Bob McDonnell--to stem Virginia's reputation as the supplier of choice for guns used in the murderous drug wars going on in cities up and down the east coast.

McDonnell nows supports repeal of the law, arguing it is "ineffectual." Bullshit. Cite some data. Guns used in murders in various large cities are no longer being routinely traced back to Virginia gun shops as they were in the past. The murder rate in big cities is way down.

What, exactly, is the need for repealing the law? The gun nuts don't have enough toys to play with already?
Let's hope Democrats in the Senate chamber have the balls to stand up to the gun lobby on this one.

What's next? The gun lobby will be taking aim at restrictions on automatic weapons, triggering a new nationwide arms race. Heck, why not let everyone carry around rocket-propelled grenade launchers while we're at it. Just what we want to see at our local Starbucks.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

National Geographic and XM Radio Flunk Accountability Tests

Time for a bit of a curmudgeonly rant.

Yesterday, we received from National Geographic a video that was part of some promotional "trial" package they sold us over the phone. The phone call was a few weeks ago and we had forgotten the details of the promotion, but we knew it was a "free" trial.

Yet, when we opened the package, there was an invoice. Nothing about any free trial. So we called Nat'l Geo up and asked why we were being charged for a free trial. "Oh, you signed up for a 14-day free trial. After that, you pay the invoice amount, which is still HALF off," said the enthusiastic lady on the other end.

We're sorry, but the invoice should clearly state the terms of the offer and be explicit about what to do if we don't want the videos being offered. Since the invoice was misleading, we decided to cancel sight unseen. Not a good way to treat your customers, especially a reputable organization like National Geographic. (The lady graciously told us we could keep the video, or "donate it to your local library." If they keep selling stuff this way, our library will be awash in videos.)

On to XM Radio. A couple years ago, we purchased a home XM radio unit. Turns out it doesn't work too well--difficult reception from the satellite. We used it less and less and now, darned if we even know where the thing is.

We were then reminded that our subscription was about to renew automatically, so we went online to cancel it. Turns out you can do almost anything online with XM EXCEPT cancel your subscription. How nice. We had to call XM and navigate the automated phone system for several minutes to get to a live human who could actually cancel a subscription.

And they have the nerve to argue to the feds that they aren't a monopoly.

Here's a reminder to businesses: good, honest service will get you loyal customers for life. Difficult economic times only bring that fact home.