Opinion/Good Read

James Suroweiki makes a brilliant case for The Wisdom of Crowds. He opens his book with the tale of a scientist wandering the English countryside until he comes upon a county fair where a bull is being raffled. The prize goes to the person who most accurately guesses the dressed out weight of the animal. Not how much it weighs on the hoof, but rather how much meat will it produce after it is butchered. 
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Well, the good folk pay their money, record their guesses on lottery strips, and the winner is announced after the bull is butchered. The scientist asks for and receives all the lottery tickets. They aren't of any good use to anyone else any more. Upon analysis he discovers an interesting fact: The average of all guesses is closer to the actual weight than the guess than won the prize. In other words, the sum of expertise (or rather, experience) of all those people – including butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers as well as tinkers, tailors, soldiers, and spies – is greater than the most expert among them.

The remainder of Suroweiki's book goes on to examine this hypothesis in greater detail. He includes other examples and scientific proofs that seem to convince us that it's true.

If we are smarter as a group than any individual, why isn't our country working? We're a democracy, aren't we? Well, no, actually, we aren't. We're a representative republic. We just happen to elect our representative's democratically, and we don't seem to be doing a very good job of it.

I better digress a moment. You may not agree with my assertions that the country isn't working and that we don't elect good representatives. Okay, let's examine that. We have accumulated debt well beyond our ability to repay. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office concurs. They postulate that the United States won't even have an economy within approximately twenty years and Congress has not even attempted to address this issue. They have failed in their most basic duty, to pass a budget, for the past several years.

Governmental units are filing bankruptcy. Stockton, California, a city of 300,000 is the most recent to fail. Other cities and states have obligations, especially pensions for public employees, that they have no discernible means of paying. The nation's most vibrant economy, the State of California, is a hopeless mess.

So, the people that you and I elected to represent us, have led us down this path. Furthermore, we reelect them almost without exception to lead us over the edge of fiscal disaster that they have brought us to. Why do we do that to ourselves?

Are term limits the answer? Seriously, I don't believe so. To me, term limits appear as a collective admission in which we throw up our hands and say, “We can't help ourselves. We just can't stop voting for the same cretins who have done this to us.” And, what if a good person gets into office? Term limits would force us to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

How about public financing campaigns? Sure. There's something else we can't afford. But, why not. After all, who can resist a glitzy ad? Who can resist the siren call of a celebrity campaigning for a candidate? Regardless of who finances the campaigns, who is going to protect us from our own inability to look past the appeal of the verbal virtuosos who run for office and the intellectuals who they call on for advice?

So, does all of this belie Suroweiki's hypothesis that there's wisdom in the crowd? I don't think so. Rather, it appears that we have been deluded by the seeming wisdom of intellectuals and surrendered our sovereignty to them.

If you look back at another book I recommended in an earlier posting in this blog, Intellectuals and Society by Thomas Sowell, you'll learn how this has happened. We were misled into believing that the intellectuals have more and better information on which to base their decisions. As Professor Sowell puts it: “...intellectuals are so preoccupied with the notion that their own special knowledge exceeds the average special knowledge of millions of other people that they overlook the often far more consequential fact that their mundane knowledge is not even one-tenth of the total mundane knowledge of those millions.”  
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Sowell is not anti-intellectual and neither am I. Sowell is commenting on those intellectuals who produce only ideas: Historians, journalists, philosophers, and the like. “Intellectuals are often extraordinary within their specialties – but so too are chess grandmasters, musical prodigies, and many others. The difference is that these other exceptional people seldom imagine that their extraordinary talents in a particular endeavor entitle them to judge, pontificate to, or direct a whole society.” The problems we suffer today have largely resulted from the fact that we have allowed the intellectuals to advise us in areas in which their expertise is no more special than ours.

Yes, intellectuals are uncommon “...that is, [they are] saying things that are different from what everyone else is saying.” However, as Sowell explains, “Beyond some point, being uncommon can mean indulging in pointless eccentricities or clever attempts to mock or shock. Politically, it can mean seeking dramatic ideological 'solutions' instead of prudent trade-offs.”

It's time to get over them. Intellectuals have given us the world's greatest failures: Nazism, Fascism, and Communism, all attempts to insure equality of outcome. Intellectuals in America and other Western nations were among Hitler's and Mussolini's greatest supporters. Stalin, Mao, and Castro, too. Interestingly, some of history's greatest murderers.

On the other hand, we have seen Americanism work. Liberty to rise or fall on our own merits has produced the wealthiest nation in history. Only under capitalism has a middle class come into existence and thrived. Well, at least it did until the intellectuals began "improving" it.

But what about poverty? No one has spoken more forcefully than the community of intellectuals against poverty. Sowell observes, “Yet virtually none of the intellectuals who have been preoccupied with poverty for years has shown any real interest in the actual reduction of poverty through market mechanisms in China, India, or anywhere else. It did not happen in either the way they predicted or the way they preferred – so it was disregarded, as if it had not happened at all.”

Sowell pounds on the message above all others. Intellectuals avoid facts that do not agree with or support their world view. Furthermore, intellectuals in the journalistic community hide these facts from the rest of us, helping to explain why we remain fascinated with intellectuals and the politicians who espouse their ideas.

We must have faith in ourselves and our collective wisdom to make our own decisions. Millions of free men and women making millions of decisions every moment, decisions based on their own self-interest will correct the economy. We need to choose representatives to all elective offices who will return that power to us. We are collectively smarter than any individual.  
 
 

Trifle

George beat on the wall. “I'm telling you, it was right here!” he exclaimed to the police detective and his partner.

The detectives remained stoic while the blue clad patrolmen loitering behind didn't even attempt to mask their snickers. 
The senior detective squeezed past George and examined the wall. “Right here, you say?”

“Yes, there,” George replied as the detective felt around the edges of the wall.

George's wife, Jane, scowled in the background, peeking past the two uniformed officers. The junior detective turned and looked at her. “You didn't see anything?” he asked.

Jane shook her head and snorted. “I've told you ten times, I wasn't here.”

The detective admonished her with a stern look. “Please, ma'am,” he said, “there's no need to raise your voice.”

Jane pulled her head closer to her shoulders and backed away. “Well, it's true,” she insisted. “You keep asking me. I wasn't here.”

“Your husband came to see the house with the realtor and you didn't accompany him,” the detective persisted.

“No.”

The detective scribbled in his pocket notebook while his partner finished searching the closet. “There was an elevator here you said?” he asked George who was watching over his shoulder.

“Yes, right there,” George responded reaching over the detective's shoulder to wave at the wall that the detective had just finished inspecting.

“You're sure it wasn't one of these other walls,” the detective continued as he scanned left and right with his flashlight.

“No,” George insisted. “The back wall. The one you were just looking at.”

The detective turned and faced George. He drew himself up to his full height and George melted under his scrutiny. “And, you said that this elevator took you to a secret underground city?” the detective continued as he glanced at his notes from their earlier conversation.

“No,” George corrected him. “It took us to an underground tube that took us to the city.”

“Denver?” the policeman asked.

“No,” George almost whined. “A city under Denver. They called it a sub-urb.”

"That's eight hundred miles west of here."

"I guess," George replied.

"And you said it took you just a few minutes to get there?"

George didn't answer. His eyes began to dart between the detectives and his wife. He turned to the real estate agent standing across the basement room, and he simply responded with a sympathetic look.

The detective flexed his jaw and shook his head. “Well, there's nothing here now,” he said as he ushered George back out of the closet and into the basement playroom.

George waited for the detective to pass and rushed to the back wall of the closet. His hands raced over every surface as he muttered, “It has to be here.”

The senior detective whispered to the uniformed policemen to keep an eye on George while he went to talk to the wife. “Is your husband on any medication?” he asked.

“Yes, for his blood pressure,” she replied. Then her face brightened. “Oh, no, not that kind of thing,” she added.

“Not what kind of thing?”

“You think he's crazy,” Jane responded.

Before the detective could respond, George rushed from the closet and grabbed the detective by the shoulder. “You have to dig outside!” he shouted. “It has to be there.”

The detective wiped George's hand from his shoulder and admonished him with a look. “You want us to dig up the yard to find a secret elevator that took you to an underground city?”

The realtor standing in the corner shook his head and shrugged.

“Don't worry,” the detective spoke in the realtor's direction. “We won't have to dig up anyone's yard.”

“But you have to,” George persisted.

“No, sir, we don't,” the detective said with a smile. He pulled his smart phone from it's holster on his belt and held it up in front of George's eyes. “We have an 'app' that can find things that are buried.”

George regarded the instrument with suspicion.

The party left the basement and George watched with dismay as the detective waved his phone over the corner of the house where the basement closet was located. 

The uniformed officers were openly laughing. One was waving his baton over the grass like a divining rod. The senior detective scowled in their direction. "What are you doing?" he called to them.

The one with the baton smiled and answered, "We have something over here. Oh, no," he added melodramatically and looked at the detective. "It's only a septic tank."

The other uniformed officer burst out laughing. "Yeah, it's a real pile of..." he began, but the detective cut him short with a harsh glare.

George scowled at them. When he turned back, he found his wife signing a paper on a clipboard that the junior detective was holding for her.

“What are you doing?” he demanded.

The senior detective looked deeply sympathetic as he walked back to George. “Nothing to worry about, Mr. Arkens,” he said softly. “The officers here,” he said waving to the uniformed patrolmen, “are going to give you a ride to the hospital to have you checked out.”

“Checked out!” George shouted. “For what?”

“Well, Mr. Arkens,” the detective explained, “your realtor said you hit your head on the overhead as you were going into the basement and you took a nasty fall.”

“I did not!” George insisted.

“You may not remember it,” the detective responded, forcing patience into his voice. “That's why you need to be checked out. It'll just be forty-eight hours.”

“Forty-eight hours!” George responded and tried to move away. “I don't have forty-eight hours and there's nothing wrong with me.”

The uniformed officers gently restrained him and led him away to their patrol car. The detectives tipped their hats to the realtor and escorted Jane to her car as the realtor dialed his phone.

“Yeah, they're gone,” the realtor spoke into the phone when the connection had been made. “No problem. They didn't find anything.”

There was a pause as he listened to the party at the other end and watched the detectives leave to drive Jane home.

“No, these things happen,” he added after listening a few moments. “We thought he was a good candidate, but he couldn't handle it. Some people just can't.”
 
 

Vietnam

I WILL NEVER forget my first day in the Army at the Fort Jackson Reception Center, filling out forms, a mountain of them. We were ushered into a large hall filled with old-style student's desks, the ones with an armrest and writing surface on the right side that left-handed writers would have to twist themselves uncomfortably to find a way of using them. underneath was a small shelf to hold their books. 
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We were told to stand by the desks and keep our hands in our pockets to prevent us from touching anything. Our forms were wrapped in a rubber band with two No. 2 lead pencils on top. Sergeants patrolled the room ready to jump anyone who attempted to touch them while the Non-Commissioned Officer In Charge (NCOIC) stood at the front repeating threats to anyone who removed his hands from his pockets.

Step-by-step we were directed to place the forms on the shelf below us, sit down, remove the top form only and place it in front of us, fold our hands on top of the card, and not write anything until we had been instructed on the proper method of providing our name, date of birth, Social Security Account Number, and home address. After three recitations of these instructions, we were allowed to proceed with those items only. Annoyed at being treated like an idiot, I took my pencil in hand and began to comply. Feeling the eyes of others on me, I looked to my right and found the person there looking confused and following my every action. I often wondered if he even copied my information rather than providing his own. To my left, another man was holding his hand aloft to ask a question. Then and there I came to understand the Army and its ways.

One of the forms we filled out that day was the request for Home Town Releases that would allow the Army to provide stories to our home town newspapers whenever we completed training, were advanced in rank, or deployed to a new unit. We quickly learned to rescind this permission when anti-war activists began harassing the families of servicemen and women whenever one of these stories were published.

The most insidious form of harassment came in the form of official looking but counterfeit notices of death that were sent to the families of servicemen and women stationed in Vietnam during the war there. Thus, a program designed by the Army to create good will for them turned into a nightmare for our loved ones.

I never denied the right of anyone to dissent with the policies of our government, but I would gladly harm anyone who abused our families in this manner.
 
 

Vietnam

THOSE WHO SERVED "in the rear with the gear" took a lot of flak from their brethren in combat even though the rear areas in Vietnam, unlike previous wars, were planted in the middle of the combat theater, and every perimeter was a front line. Regrettably, there wasn't any distinction when we returned home (if we were lucky enough to return). We were all "baby-killers" to the antiwar movement.

Still, the attitude of combat soldiers towards support troops was sometimes understandable. It was motivated partially by envy and partially by real REMF (Rear Echelon Mother F**kers) who didn't have the common sense to remember that they were there to serve the combat soldiers. There were times when support units failed to deliver the guns and butter that the combat soldier needed to fight effectively. Then there were some who were simply mean-spirited SOBs who demanded respect that they did not deserve. These are their stories as I experienced them. 
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Helping the wounded
An Avoidable Death

As I discussed in my posting on the Rules of Engagement, our division headquarters at Camp Bearcat enjoyed the rare privilege of free unobserved fire in all directions at any time of the day or night. However, there was a rubber plantation to the south of us that had been excluded from this free fire zone by senior officers who, rumor had it, enjoyed the society of the plantation's French owners. Their wishes prevailed until we lost a patrol there. The patrol was denied artillery support when they came under attack by a large concentration of insurgents who were using the plantation as a sanctuary. 

Our new division commander, a former artillery officer, was not pleased and ordered all division artillery to fire TOT (Time on Target – a tactic where cannons of all calibers fire in a specially calculated sequence to have their munitions arrive on the same targeted area at a specific time). We sat atop the berm surrounding the base camp that day, cheering the flight of rubber trees as they were thrown into the air by the massive explosions. I have no idea if we did any damage to the enemy that day, but it is clear that they were served notice that their sanctuary had ended.

The Salute

Exchanging salutes is a sign of respect, not only for enlisted men to show respect for commissioned officers, but also for these officers to show respect for the men under their command. The ritual is initiated by the enlisted man or junior officer whenever his path crosses that of a senior officer while not under cover (not under a roof, inside a building or a covered porch). 

I never had occasion to reprimand a soldier for failing in his duty, but I was riding in a jeep with a senior Adjutant General's officer at our brigade headquarters at Dong Tam, home of the Mobile Riverine Force, when we passed a young soldier who was the very picture of a man returning from combat. He was not physically wounded, but the scars of battle were clearly visible. He was obviously bone tired, dragging his weapon behind him. His helmet was gone, thus violating the general order that a soldier always be “under cover” when not under cover – that is wearing a regulation hat or helmet when out-of-doors. His flak jacket was open and his web belts were loosely hanging from his shoulder. 
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The salute
This soldier obviously did not see us as we passed and failed to salute.  The senior officer ordered the driver to turn around so that he could go back and berate the young man for his lapse of duty. I tried to hide in the back of the jeep. The driver passed the soldier and pulled to a stop whereupon the senior officer jumped out. I remember the young man looking dazed as he slowly absorbed the fact that his way was blocked by a senior officer, and then slowly raising his hand to salute as the man began berating him for his lapse in military etiquette. The driver stifled a laugh when the soldier explained his actions by saying that he was not accustomed to saluting an officer who had over-taken him from behind and drove past. The officer bellowed that the infraction occurred as we first drove past in the opposite direction.

It was obvious to the driver and myself that the soldier simply had been unaware of the first passing as he was too focused on reaching his bed or maybe getting a hot shower and a meal. We could only speculate on how many of his buddies had been killed or injured in the action he was returning from, and we were embarrassed to be in the company of a senior officer who could not ascertain these simple facts for himself.

The story of this incident soon became common knowledge when we returned to division headquarters, not that I had any part in spreading it, of course.

A Combat Veteran Turned REMF
Although I served as a staff officer at division headquarters, I had the opportunity to put my training as an infantry officer to good use when I was given command of one of our base camp reaction force platoons. However, before this posting was made, I was asked by a friend to accompany him one day as he led his platoon on a mission. Our company commanding officer (CO) was an infantry officer who had served nine months with one of the division's battalions before commanding the 9th Administration Company. While there, he lost most of his men in an ambush.

My friend had received his commission via the ROTC program and served in the division finance office. He had some basic combat training, however, he knew his limitations when he was called to assemble his platoon and rally with the rest of the company at the midpoint of our southern perimeter. There we learned that two Vietnamese civilians had grabbed a case of ammunition, scaled the berm, and headed for the rubber plantation about a quarter mile away. The guard on duty at the bunker about a hundred yards distant merely observed and reported the theft.

The CO deployed us in two lines facing each other and perpendicular to the berm. One line, consisting of two platoons stretched from the berm to the farthest wire tangle about two thirds of the distance to the tree line. My friend's platoon was positioned about a quarter mile from the first line, also perpendicular to the berm. Let me pause to clarify the deployment – you may not believe what you just read. Yes, we had two groups of heavily armed men facing each other and separated by about a quarter mile. The ground between was filled with concertina wire and barbed wire tangles. The ground was clear of vegetation but shallow trenches could have concealed someone. If anyone popped up between us, the firing would have commenced and many of us would have been wounded or killed by “friendly fire.”

Let me also clarify the fact that, in all probability, the Vietnamese who stole the ammunition had escaped into the tree line long before our deployment – at least I hoped they had because I didn't want anyone to pop up and start the shooting.

My advice to my friend was to keep his men low to the ground and tell them to keep their heads down if the shooting started. Don't shoot back otherwise they would only encourage their own men to keep shooting at them.
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Rubber plantation without grass
I decided to get out of there and see if I could do any good. I had heard that a road paralleling our berm was somewhere about a mile deep into the rubber plantation, and I felt that if we moved quickly enough, we might be able to reach it before the two men carrying a heavy case of ammunition between them. Thus, we could lay an ambush before they got there. I had my friend radio the CO for permission and took four volunteers with me into the rubber plantation. 

Tall grass filled the area around the trees and I led the men in single file through it. I was moving quickly to get ahead of the men we were seeking until I came upon what appeared to be an eggplant growing wild in the grass. I stopped. Suddenly, I realized that I could come upon anything hidden in that grass unexpectedly. It gave me pause, especially considering that I had no radio or pre-arranged support. Oh, what the hell, I continued as soon as the men following me caught up. 

We hadn't gone far after that when a runner sent by my friend reached us and said that we better turn back. The CO had spotted movement in the rubber plantation and was bringing the whole company on line to “recon by fire.” Think about it. Do you have the picture? We were that movement.

Thank God, my friend was paying attention and sent the runner. We escaped the fire zone just moments before the whole company, including to M60 gunners, opened up.

I was hopping mad; literally, I was jumping up and down in front of the CO while he stammered some lame excuse about forgetting me and my volunteers. Noticing that I had torn my pants leg and cut myself on some barbed wire during my headlong rush to get away, he offered to recommend me for a Purple Heart. That only made me angrier.

Luckily my friend pulled me away and the CO was soon sent home. One less Mother F***r to contend with.

These men, the officers who denied artillery support for men in combat, who demanded rituals of respect when they were not warranted nor deserved, or who did not have the courage to face a man while assassinating his character; these were Mother F***rs. There were others. 
 
 

Vietnam

WHEN IT CAME to strategies for winning the war in Vietnam, the only thing certain was change. Changes in the political winds back home. Changes in commanders in Vietnam. Changes in enemy strategies and tactics. Changes in the seasons. Winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese was one of those fleeting strategies that came and went with these changes. The objective was to win the support of the civilian population, support that would translate into denying sanctuary for the enemy and encourage civilians to report enemy activity with greater alacrity. The tactics of this strategy included civic action programs such as MEDCAP (Medical Civic Action Program) visits, that I believe were sometimes effective. Propaganda programs, especially those without substance, were, at best, counter-productive.
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Medics provide care at Vietnamese Village (click to enlarge)
My involvement in civic action came in a remote village somewhere between Camp Bearcat and the Mobile Riverine Base at Dong Tam on the Saigon River. A sergeant, three enlisted men, a Vietnamese interpreter and I, crowded into a single jeep to visit this village. We had built them modern latrine facilities that the Viet Cong countered by lobbing mortar rounds the night before our visit. We arrived to find the village chief comforting a mother holding a child who had suffered a grazing head wound from a piece of shrapnel. We sent mother and child back to the hospital at our division headquarters accompanied by my sergeant and one enlisted man to drive. That left me with two enlisted men and the interpreter, and about thirty members of a Popular Defense Force (PDF) platoon. We mounted a patrol to check the perimeter of the village and its rice paddies to insure no enemy was lurking nearby.

The PDF was a ragtag group of local militia dressed in odds and ends of uniforms. Their weapons were equally eclectic. One carried a Browning Automatic Weapon that was as long as he was tall. I spent several minutes with him examining it. It was the first of its kind that I ever held, and I am something of a gun nut. However, I was concerned with these men about whom I knew nothing. I arranged them in a double file with my men and I in between. I whispered to them that if we got into a firefight, they were to keep an eye on the PDF.
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Durian tropical fruit (click to enlarge)
The village chief and I conversed with the help of the interpreter as we swept the area. He wanted to expand the area they were farming, but could not effect his plan unless we altered the boundaries of the free-fire zone encircling his village and its holdings. Unfortunately, I had not come prepared with a map to chart this area and had to make notes that I could later use to explain his plan at our tactical operations center. Fortunately, my interpreter was a farm boy. Many of the interpreters who served our forces came out of Saigon and could not relate well to issues in the rural areas. He stopped often to examine the crops and explain them to me, giving the village chief the impression that his concerns were receiving a fair hearing. At the end of the day, when my jeep returned with a bandaged infant and its mother, as well as my sergeant and driver, we shared a moment with the villagers. The chief offered me a durian; a great honor, according to the interpreter, as it is considered the king of fruits in Asia and could fetch a significant price at a Saigon market.

When opened, it emitted a strong odor like fried onions to me; like gym socks according to one of the enlisted men. The interpreter demonstrated proper etiquette, by dipping his fingers into a pasty substance that filled cavities in the fruit and licking it with gusto. I dipped a fair portion and smelled it gingerly. I sensed all eyes on me and felt committed to taking the plunge. My expression elicited cheers, laughter, and applause. It tasted to me like fried onions, very sweet and very delicious (I have always enjoyed onions in all forms).

I think that we won a few hearts and minds that day, if only temporarily. 
 
 

Opinion

Seriously. I read a review of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the movie and the book, and the author wrote, “I would give Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter 5 stars just for freshness alone. I mean, Abe Lincoln killing vampires? Yeah, that could have gotten real corny, real quick. It didn’t.”
To be fair, I believe de gustibus non est disputandum [Latin: To each their own]. However, the next paragraph of the review gave me the creeps.

“There has always been something creepy about Abe Lincoln. His life was marred by tragedy, his wife was obsessed with the occult, and he was freakishly tall and gangly [sic]. This book centers his creepiness in a way that any history buff can appreciate; Grahame-Smith 'vamps' up the real life events of Lincoln’s life in a big way. Not only does he 'revamp' Lincoln’s personal history, he rethinks America’s! After reading this, you’ll forever perceive slavery in a different light. A darker light.”

This struck me wrong on several levels and I'm probably going to upset more than a few readers as I explain. So, hang on. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

Abraham Lincoln is only creepy to a child who hasn't been taught history properly. Yes, his life was marred by tragedies, not the least of which was his wife's odd behavior. She also came close to bankrupting the family with her extravagant purchases in New York, ostensibly compensating for those other tragedies that she and her husband shared. Lincoln, on the other hand, somehow found the inner strength to console others with his compassion and humor. I suppose that could sound creepy to someone who might be narcissistic.

Lincoln also had an uncanny ability to inspire the best in others. A young man whom Lincoln saved from the gallows for sleeping on guard duty following the Union rout at the First Battle at Manassas (Bull Run), went on to sacrifice his life heroically while saving others at a later battle. With his dying breath he begged for his comrades to inform Lincoln that he repaid his debt. I suppose that would sound creepy to someone who didn't understand the true meaning of valor and self-sacrifice to a higher cause.

Abraham Lincoln might also sound creepy to someone who hasn't been taught to revere their country. After all, it was Lincoln alone who championed the cause of keeping the nation whole. His cabinet was unanimous in their opinion that the South should be allowed to secede. Of course, had they had their way, there would have been no “arsenal of democracy” to help free nations defeat fascism and communism in the Twentieth Century. There would be no free world to lead the fight against terrorism and religious fanaticism in the Twenty-First Century. I suppose that sounds creepy to an intellectual who believes that there is nothing special or exceptional about the United States.
Ultimately, I am left to wonder why anyone, any woman would want to “revamp” Lincoln. The only plausible explanation I can come up with is that the author of this review is like one of the girls I knew in high school who liked the bad boys. My wife complains bitterly when I mention this. She wasn't one of them. But there were many girls who liked the boy who appeared dangerous. Anthropologists have hypothesized that females are attracted to dangerous males based on primitive desires to feel safe protected by such a man. That seems like a reasonable explanation for the behavior of primitive peoples. By extension, this may explain the current fascination with vampires who are, after all, the ultimate bad boys. However, there are more, like my wife, who understand that primitive behaviors don't necessary succeed in a modern world.

In an episode of Modern Family, ABC's popular sitcom, Alex Dunphy, the smart daughter, entices a group of geeks to do her a favor by flaunting her femininity. Haley Dunphy, the sexy sister who is attracted to stereotypically virile though dumb men, is taken aback that Alex can manipulate boys. Alex explains, “One day, your boyfriends will be working for my boyfriends.” Yes, it may be creepy to consider that brains will win over brawn, even vampire brawn.

Which brings me to the creepiest part of the review that set off this rant. 

“In some places, this book is scarily convincing. Seriously, that gut feeling that Honest Abe was up to no good in his downtime will only intensify once you finish reading. It may not have been vampires, but *something* just might have been going down in the White House.”

“Scarily convincing?” Are you kidding? News Flash: Vampires are not real! 

“...something just might have been going down in the White House?” Well yes, as a matter of fact. Starlets were going down under John Kennedy. Interns were going down under Bill Clinton. The economy is going down under Barack Obama.

But, for the love of all that is decent, let us revere the memory of one of the few good men to occupy the White House. If your teachers failed to teach you that lesson, I can recommend a few good books.

Oh, and as must be obvious to anyone who follows this blog, I am a history buff and no, I don't appreciate anyone's attempt to “revamp” Lincoln, nor do I need the metaphor of vampires to understand that slavery was and is an evil practice.
 
 

Blogging

For want of a serif a reader was lost. It's true. People magazine published its first edition using a sans serif font to typeset the body copy. Despite the nascent fascination with celebrity, few people did more than scan the photos. The publishers quickly corrected that mistake.
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Click to enlarge
Unfortunately, it's the same mistake I see repeated in many websites and printed matter. Writers untrained in the graphic arts are selecting fonts that appeal to them. They're selecting sans serif fonts, notably Arial (a knockoff of Helvetica that Microsoft contrived so they wouldn't have to pay licensing fees to the people who held the design rights for this popular font). They like the look. It seems contemporary.

The problem is that they aren't seeing the finished typeset piece the way that readers see it. Writers are evaluating their typeset text on the basis of an ill-defined, subjective value and ignoring the most important criteria – is it readable? It's an easy trap to fall into because it's easy to overlook readability when you have already read it, probably numerous times. It's your baby. You have it memorized.

You should be evaluating your typeset text from the point of view of someone who hasn't yet read it.

So, what's a “serif,” I hear you cry, and why is it so damned important? I'm glad you asked...

The earliest handwriting wasn't accomplished with a pen or a pencil. It was written with a brush. Now, anyone who has ever painted their living room knows that a brush leaves bristle marks at the end of a stroke. The bristles don't all magically rise together when you raise the brush, and the last ones leave traces of their late departure. There are two ways of preventing this. You may reverse the stroke and leave a blob at the end or you may pull the brush to the side. It's obvious that the first choice is unacceptable, it leaves a mess. The second choice leaves a nicely squared off end with a little tail in the direction that you pulled the brush. In typography, this little tail is known as a “serif.”

Every letter in a font is composed of “strokes.” There are “risers” and “descenders” as well as “bowls” and “ligatures,” “spines” and “stems.” There is no need for a serif where two strokes intersect. One stroke covers the other. However, any stroke that terminates without overlapping another stroke needs a serif.
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Modern fonts created with phototypesetting and castings that didn't necessarily require a serif to square off the ends of strokes and designers began developing new font families without serifs known as sans serif. [“Sans” – French: without] 

Modern word processing programs usually come equipped with a wide selection of fonts, both serif and sans serif. It's a trap, one that I hope I can help you avoid.

Keep these simple rules in mind:

  1. Always use serif fonts for body copy – anything more than a paragraph.

  2. Use serif fonts for headlines and headings only – just a few words.

  3. Choose no more than two fonts for any website or printed matter – one serif and one sans serif. Make sure they look good together (ask your wife or girlfriend for help in choosing them if you are of the masculine persuasion).

“But, I really like Ariel and no one ever complained before,” I hear you cry. 

I could respond by assailing you with my qualifications garnered from a former life as a designer and creative director, then tell you to sit down, shut up, and do as I say. Or, I could add another thousand or so words explaining why serif fonts are more readable. Then, using all bold and upper case type, pronounce like the voice of doom, “That which is readable is more likely to be read!”

The truth is, I'd rather keep this in the realm of friendly advice and stop now. I've grown bored writing this, probably as much as you've grown bored reading it.

Good luck, and happy typesetting.  
 
 

Opinion

I BECAME POLITICALLY aware at a very young age. You may find it hard to believe, but I have conscious memories of the Eisenhower/Stevenson run for the presidency in 1952 when I was just nine years old. 

Why did Stevenson shoot his dog?

He stepped on its tail and it ran down the street howling, “Ike, Ike, Ike.” 


Those were more civil times.

Something happened since then. The lines between Republican and Democrat faded, and ideology replaced politics. Although members of the two major parties may have disagreed over the means and methods to achieve national objectives, they seemed to agree on the objectives. Security. Liberty. Equality? Not so much. At first blush, it may seem ironic that the party who filibustered in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1966, has since championed special entitlements purportedly to offset past injustices that arose from racial discrimination. However, politicians have played musical chairs with issues so often that its hard to distinguish which party accomplished what.

Historically, the American population has always seemed to divide itself into thirds. For example, only a third of the Americans supported the rebellion against British sovereignty over the colonies. Another third were Tories. Support for the “rebellion” to secede from the Union also amounted to a third or less of the population, and a third supported the fight to preserve it.

What of the other third? In both cases, the remaining third of the American population was more concerned with avoiding the fight and focusing on more mundane issues such as “The Pursuit of Happiness.” Things are pretty much the same today. Neither of the two major political parties can claim the support of more than a third of the registered voters. Probably far less than one third participate in Tea Party gatherings or Occupy Movements. The remaining third appear content to sit on the sidelines and watch “you and him duke it out.”

I suppose this is why I remain content to sit on the sidelines with them and have declined to state a political affiliation. I don't care to get involved. That's not to say that I don't have an opinion. It just seems that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats are interested in hearing it. I know. I've spoken out and written to elected officials of both parties to no effect. They simply place my letter in a pile of those who “agree” with them and respond with a plea for money or they place it in the “other” pile and respond with a letter of hope that we can still be friends and find other areas on which we agree. Both letters, of course, are pumped out of the same word processor.   

Believe it or not, there was a time when no member of Congress would allow the sun to set on an unanswered letter with a response that they personally dictated. Imagine that!

Certainly, progressives don't want to hear my opinion. Whereas conservatives seem content to let me blather on and pretend to listen respectfully, progressives become annoyed. They tell me to shut up and if I don't, they avoid me.

Also, not joining either major political party does not make me part of the center. Sitting on the fence just makes you a good target. In fact, "governing from the center" is a joke. Imagine two sides arguing over whether or not to build a bridge. One is for it and the other is against it. What is the centrist position? Build the bridge just half way? 

There also used to be a time when I could discuss politics rationally with friends, family, and neighbors. Disagreements could be passionate but never heated. I'm sure that those times resembled the eras long before the Revolution and the Civil War. However, the rancor that I'm hearing these days is beginning to sound more like the enmity that I have found in diaries and editorials that were published in the days just prior to those conflicts.

However, as I stated before, it's not about politics any more. There's a fight going on over ideology. One side won't be happy with America until they “change” it, and the other wants to return it to “what it was supposed to be.” Now, I know that some will jump in here and think that I am casting aspersions at President Obama because I mentioned “change.” The truth is that I can't see where he has “changed” all that much. Things seem to be pretty much business as usual in Washington since he took up the mantel of President. Indeed, progressive leaders are among those complaining most bitterly that he simply hasn't acted “progressive.”
Roberto Unger, a progressive firebrand and President Obama's former advisor at Harvard Law School, now advises "Don't Vote For Obama."

Does Professor Unger look like a man who is prepared to debate. His body language and stern demeanor tells us that he is a man with a message that we must believe. Seriously, doesn't he resemble a TV evangelist preaching hellfire and damnation? Why? Professor Unger is an intellectual. He has spent a lifetime studying the law and becoming expert in a small segment of it. However, he is confident in his wisdom in matters far beyond his narrow sphere of expertise. 

Most people don't debate anymore. Most people don't even want to listen to one. Indeed, the attempts at Presidential debates that we've seen in recent decades resemble a debate about as much as television news reporters resemble real journalists. It's sad. I long for a good debate. Unfortunately, people are quick to attack those who so much as hint at disagreeing with them. Did you notice how quick I was to defend myself from personal attack in that last paragraph? Rather than offer proofs of their own positions, they dismiss their opposition with personal attacks. 

Anyone care to debate?
 
 

Trifle

We called her Summer. She was hot. Summer warmed up a room by making the other girls jealous and many young romances were torn apart when boys couldn't take their eyes off of her long enough to notice their girlfriends walking out. Yeah, she was that hot.
Summer was my date to the senior prom and we dated until I left for college the following September.

I dated another girl at school and felt guilty when I came home for Christmas break to find Summer waiting for me at my family's home. They had invited her over. It was almost too late to get her a present, but I slipped my brother some money and he dashed to a store for something while I entertained her. My brother was a good guy. I could always count on him. She “oohed” and “aahed” when she unwrapped it and made me believe that she was genuinely pleased.

Don't get me wrong. I was happy that she was there that Christmas. I just hadn't expected it, and I blurted it out at a New Year's Eve party at my friend Bob's house. “You haven't dated anyone else?” I asked when we slipped outside to cool off.

“No, have you?” she responded.

I said “No” but couldn't look her in the eye and she knew.

“Why?” she asked. “Why did you just lie?”

“I didn't want to hurt you.”

Summer bit her lips as she studied me and I began to sweat even though is was a degree or two below freezing.

“That's too bad,” she said after several minutes. “I liked you. I liked you a lot.”

She turned away as I gathered my thoughts. “You really liked me?”

“Of course,” she said and looked up at the stars shining in the cold dark night. “You don't believe me?”

I hesitated and she turned to face me. Surprise widened her eyes. “No, you don't,” she continued, almost amazed as though she had discovered some new truth.

“No, no,” I protested, “of course I believe you.”

Summer studied me, her head tipped to one side. “No, you don't and I know why.”

I didn't want to know why she said that but she explained.

“You don't think you're good enough for me.”

“That's rather conceited, isn't it?” I objected.

Her head tipped to one side again. It was a gesture that I had always found adorable, whenever she was deep in thought.

“No,” she after waiting long enough to convince me that she had given careful consideration to my assertion. “Conceit has nothing to do with it. I know guys think I'm hot.”

My eyebrows climbed my forehead and I smirked.

Summer crossed her arms under her breasts and shook her head slowly. “I've heard the talk,” she continued. “I just thought...” she said and hesitated.

“What?” I encouraged her to finish her thought.

Summer looked at me straight in the eyes. “I just thought you were different. I thought you liked me because of me, not just because the other boys thought I was 'hot'.”

“I did like you,” I protested.

“Yes,” she agreed, “but you didn't think you were good enough for me.”

I blushed.

“Well,” she added, “I guess you aren't.”

“What do you mean?” I asked almost afraid of the answer.

“I just have to take your word for it,” was her reply, and it cut deeply into my soul.

I took Summer home early that night and we never saw each other again.
 
 

Vietnam

OUR TWO MOST popular shows on Armed Forces Radio and Television Network (AFRTN) in Vietnam were Vic Morrow's Combat and Bobby, the Weather Girl. I suppose that my friends and I liked Combat because it portrayed a better war. Bobby, the Weather Girl, was the funniest show on the air.
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Bobbie getting soaked as she predicts rain
I was happily surprised to find that Bobby has been memorialized on the World Wide Web. You can find more than a half million links on Google. There are even YouTube video clips.

Interestingly, the weather girl that you'll see in the clips is not the same one I watched in 1967. It's the same person, but not the same performer. The girl I watched looked like a deer in the headlights whenever the camera first turned on. She glanced frequently off-camera where, we supposed, her handlers were attempting to distract her; to help her relax. They dressed her in tight sweaters, and when she attempted to point to the DMZ, we were riveted somewhere further south.

I had guessed that she was a Red Cross employee, inasmuch as there was scant reason for young women to be in Saigon at the time. I was glad to learn that she wasn't. (Few who have served in combat theaters remember the “doughnut dollies” with any great affection – but that's the subject for another posting). Bobbie was a Red Cross volunteer, which set her apart from the “paid” girls.

I hope that you'll click on the links that I've provided and learn that Bobbie was an exceptional individual as well as a brave young woman. Stumbling on her story has been one of the greater rewards of building this memoir.