Saturday, June 30, 2007

Harry Potter Fans Celebrate July's Eve

We are on the day before July, 2007, begins - aka "July's Eve." July, 2007, is the month Harry Potter fans have been looking forward to, and simultaneously dreading, for most of the past year. We look forward to the release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix film and to the publication of the seventh and final novel in the Potter series: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Obviously, we have mixed feelings about this final book. On the one hand, the arrival of a new Potter novel is always an occasion of happiness. On the other hand, so long as the final novel had not appeared we were part of an on-going story involving characters about whom we had learned to care. With the appearance of Book 7, it would seem that the story ends. Author Rowling has said she wrote the final chapter, the denouement, of Book 7 some years ago. In it she indicates what happens to all the characters in later life. That seems to preclude any sequels, although prequels might be possible.

Presumably Potter fans would like there to be subsequent novels concerning the characters and "wizards' world" of the Potter books. Were Rowling not the wealthiest woman in the United Kingdom, as a result of her book/film/game royalties, we might have hoped for more Potter. However, as those of us who've done it know, writing is very hard work that doesn't get dramatically easier with practice. JK Rowling has very little need for additional money and is likely to write, if she writes anything at all, something quite unlike Potter to demonstrate that she is more than merely the modern world's best loved children's author.

Jo Rowling could do what many best-selling authors have done (c.f., Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, Janet Evanovich, etc.), that is, take on one or more collaborators to carry on the series and extend the franchise. She could do this, but seems unlikely to do so based on the insights into her persona which have appeared in the press.

Two Buck Chuck Kicks Butt

The Trader Joe's chain of gourmet food stores has for several years sold wine under the Charles Shaw label. The wine is priced at $1.99/bottle and is widely known therefore as "Two Buck Chuck." I've seen people load several cases of this wine in their Lexus SUVs - quite a steal at $24/case.

Now comes the news that Charles Shaw Chardonnay took first place for Best Chardonnay from California regardless of price at the California State Fair wine competition. In this blind tasting, the judges must have been amazed when they learned what they selected. The Charles Shaw label is produced by Bronco Winery, a part of the Franzia family wine business, and sold only in the Trader Joe's stores.

Take that, wine snobs!

Friday, June 29, 2007

Thoughts on Jet Lag

About a week ago we returned from Russia. Moscow is nearly half way around the world from the west coast of the U.S. - eleven time zones away to be precise. When we arrived home in CA we were seriously jet lagged, our sleep/wake/eat cycles were truly screwed up. We were awakening at 2 a.m. and practically passing out in mid afternoon. Those cycles aren't entirely settled down yet.

The other DrC, my wife and traveling companion of 36 years, has a rule of thumb concerning jet lag. She believes that for every time zone your cross in an airplane flight, you need a day to get readjusted. For example, if you fly from the East Coast to the West Coast you cross three time zones and need three days to get over the resulting jet lag.

Gentle readers, I would be interested in your experiences with jet lag.

More Good News

The McClatchy papers are reporting a survey that shows 52 per cent of Americans say they would not vote for Hillary Clinton if she becomes the Democratic nominee for president. Now if the Democrats will only nominate her...she's the current front-runner.

The same survey shows that 46 per cent of Americans would not vote for Mitt Romney if he becomes the Republican nominee. The odds of Romney winning the GOP nomination are considerably smaller, though greater than zero.

Supposing both became nominees, we might see record low turnout on election day. Anyway you analyze it, this poll has to be good news for conservatives. Whoever says the mainstream press only reports bad news didn't have this story in mind.

Not All News is Bad

There are two positive items in the current news. The Supreme Court ruled that the use of race in school assignments is inappropriate and not allowed by the Constitution. This provides incontrovertible evidence that presidential appointments to the high court are important.

The second piece of good news is the defeat of the amnesty-granting immigration bill in the U.S. Senate. To be sure, this leaves a bad situation bad, but at least it doesn't make it worse. After the next election there will be opportunity to make it better.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Barone Runs the Numbers

Michael Barone is one of the best political analysts working today. Writing in the National Review Online, Barone says Republican voters have been shopping around for a candidate while Democrats have pretty much hung tough with whoever they originally supported. The whole article is worth reading but this paragraph stands out:

Why is the Republican-primary electorate so fluid? One reason is that none of the candidates matches, or has matched until very recently, the issue preferences of the conservative Republican base. That’s why Thompson, who seems to be a closer match, has moved up rapidly, to the point that he led Giuliani by one percent in the most recent Rasmussen poll.

Coulter to Bush: Get Lost

Ann Coulter is the leading conservative practitioner of bitterly funny dish. The ABC News political website, The Note, has the following quote from her:
"We're all just waiting for this nincompoop to be gone. I think we all finally are on the same page on that," Ann Coulter, on President Bush, on ABC's "Good Morning America" this morning.

With friends like that, the President doesn't need enemies. Actually, George W. Bush doesn't have many friends left (or right).

As a lifelong Management professor, I am disappointed in the performance of our first president with an MBA. He was so busy not making the mistakes his father made as President that he failed to emulate the things his father did well.

Friday, June 22, 2007

More-or-less Final Thoughts on Russia

Moscow is an impressive city, not at all drab. Commercialism has hit big-time: shops everywhere, billboards ditto including some that are a block long and 60' tall, lots of cars and trucks and buses. People drive crazily, like in any big city, and park wherever they can, legal or otherwise. We saw people drive up on the curb to pass on the right, park and drive on the grass, and take their lane out of the middle of the road, regardless of lines. Oddly, they must do it pretty well because we saw very few dented cars.

The countryside is beautiful, the cities are just cities. It is an old country with plenty of old buildings, but they are building new high-rises in Moscow ASAP. Apparently there are some controls on such tall buildings in the older parts of St. Petersburg. However in the newer parts of St. Pete 20 story apartments are common. One sees very few non-Europeans (i.e., Asians, Africans) in Russia, the population is overwhelmingly white and most are fair. This makes sense because at various times the Norse (Swedes, mostly) controlled the land.

City dwellers all live in apartments but many have so-called dachas, summer houses in the countryside. In Yaroslavl we were told people were given a plot in the countryside, not a bad deal if true. Some of these dachas are truly shacks, without plumbing or power, others are quite upscale. The Russian dacha occupies roughly the same psychological space as the New Zealand bach (pronounced "batch" and probably derived from bachelor place). Having a summer place makes having a car highly desirable, to enable getting back and forth. It seems everybody with a country place grows vegetables, or tries to. The countryside is green, unlike California, so irrigation may not be essential for garden success.

Speaking of summer houses, they also have over the years built "summer churches" and "winter churches." A summer church will be expansive and therefore impossible to heat in winter while a winter church, often built next door, will be more compact so it can be heated for use when everything freezes.

We were in Moscow on the longest day of the year - June 21 - aka the Summer Solstice. It was light outside long before the alarm went off and still light at 11 p.m. This tells you that Moscow is far north, and St. Petersburg even farther north. Winter has got to be dreary.

We've returned to CA tonight, I write this in San Francisco. Tomorrow we drive to Chico and get ready to move to the summer place in Wyoming. We should be there a week from now.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Travel Blogging Moscow

Well, the old Tikhi Don made port in Moscow yesterday and today we transferred to the hotel. Going online I discover that Moscow is, for the second year running, the most expensive city in the world. Well, duh, this internet connection is costing me $21 U.S. for an hour online.

I have discovered that Russians sure do like Putin, even if he is unpopular in the western press. Since the country seems to work, maybe that is all they need. I suspect he is copying the Chinese model: if the economy is doing well and people's standard of living is going up, they'll forgive a lack of political freedom. Anyway, we in the west really don't understand how hated the oligarchs are by the Russian in the street. When Putin throws an oligarch in jail the man in the street eats it up.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Travel Blogging from Yaroslavl

We've spent the last 5 days cruising from St. Petersburg toward Moscow, having come as far as Yaroslavl. We've cruised across the two biggest lakes in Europe, Ladoga and Onega, and are now cruising the storied Volga River, known as "the Mother Volga." The countryside has been beautiful, green and forested. There hasn't been a lot of development along the banks until today. River cruising is the best! The water is calm, and there is always something besides water to look at. A couple of days ago, practically in the middle of European Russia, we saw a submarine tied up to a dock in water so shallow it could never submerge. Go figure....

Today we heard an acapella choir singing in an Orthodox Church. If you've never heard their acapella choirs, you've missed a treat. This one made you want to cry. More later....

Monday, June 11, 2007

Travel Blogging Hiatus?

This afternoon the DrsC board our river ship, in the company of some 200+ other merry travelers, to cruise in leisurely fashion toward Moscow. We have no idea what the nature of Internet availability/cost/practicality will be either on shipboard or at the river towns we will visit. The safest assumption is "nonavailability." Therefore, blogging may be sparse-to-nonexistent in the next week.

In the meantime, we enjoy the period Russians call "the white nights." St. Petersburg is very far north, perhaps as far north as Anchorage, Alaska. At this time of year, near the Summer Solstice, there isn't a whole lot of darkness. You could still read a newspaper outdoors without artificial light at 11 p.m. and it gets light long before one awakes. I suppose Russians act like Alaskans and sleep as little as possible during this period. As we came back to the hotel from Swan Lake Sunday evening around eleven p.m., there were plenty of people out walking and driving. Of course, we understand Monday was a holiday which may have facilitated staying up late on Sunday.

More from St. Petersburg

We aren't the first to observe that providing service is not a strong suit of the Russian culture. Earlier today the other DrC wanted to revisit the Hermitage museum, saying as much she asked the hotel concierge for a car to take her and two friends there and bring them back in 3 hours. She got her car, but wasn't told by the concierge that the Hermitage museum was closed today as it is every Monday.

By the time they learned the museum was closed, the car had departed. So they asked the local tourist information office how they could call the hotel to ask the car to return. They were told that pay phones only existed at the Post Office, which was closed as today is a holiday. "Well then, where can I make the call?" was her next question. Answer, "At the Post Office." Response, "But the Post Office is closed?" Rejoinder, "Yes, it is closed." She and her two friends waited the three hours and took the hired car back to the hotel.

In order to not waste the 3 hours, they decided to take a city cruise on a river boat on which they were told English interpretation would be provided. It wasn't provided, even after specific requests were made, but of course they were stuck on the moving boat and thus took the interpreted-only-in-Russian tour. As you might guess, the other DrC isn't an entirely happy camper at this point.

I think someone could create a definite market niche teaching Russian employees about service: what it is and how to provide it. Upon understanding the expectations, perhaps many otherwise able Russians might simply refuse to take the jobs as demeaning. Communism seems to have had that effect on certain people. The DrsC have run into this phenomenon in other former Communist countries.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

KGOY Is Not a TV Station

I just read a marketing term that was new to me: KGOY which stands for Kids Getting Older Younger. It appeared in the transcript of the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board weekend program on Fox TV.

It is a shorthand way of describing the phenomenon of 11 year olds being more aware of the details of straight and kinky sex than 15 or 17 year olds were a decade or two ago. KGOY has marketing implications, including the sexualization of children, ala Jon Benet Ramsey.

When parents allow or even encourage KGOY, what are they thinking? A couple of possibilities occur: they wish they'd had those sexual opportunities at a young age, or they are cowed into accepting the current cultural malaise out of their guilt about spending so little time with their children.

Capital Punishment Deters Murderers

Take a look at this article which summarizes research supporting the deterrent effect of capital punishment. The article reports that each execution deters up to eighteen (18) additional murders. It turns out that the American public knew more about capital punishment's effect on the murder rate than the so-called opinion leaders did.

Predicting human behavior relies on history. Or as an old racetrack handicapper said, "Bet 'em the way they ran in the past." Not all of us are capable of killing someone on a sunny afternoon just because we're angry or greedy. If you've murdered in the past, you are capable of murder.

I'm of the opinion that even if the only murderer deterred by capital punishment is the executed party himself, capital punishment is still worth doing. A convicted murderer, once executed, will murder no additional folks.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Travel Blogging St. Petersburg

Seems like everything in this town is supersized. The buildings tend to be huge, not so much tall as long and imposing. I think I've seen 70 buildings that would look right at home on the mall in D.C., and this isn't even the current Russian capital (it once was). There are rivers and canals everywhere, and a population of 5 million in a country with a shrinking population. St. Pete is supposed to be the fourth largest city in Europe, after London, Paris, and Moscow, not necessarily in that order. I do know the tsars created some stupendous palaces, about which more later.

Russians have a famous sense of humor. Some years ago an elderly Russian was interviewed for European TV about his life. He said "I was born in St. Petersburg, went to school in Petrograd, got married in Leningrad, and now I've retired in St. Petersburg." The EuroTV interviewer asked, "You've moved many times?" To which the elderly Russian responded, "No, I've lived in the same neighborhood the whole time." The point of the story is that the name of this city has been changed repeatedly, depending on what was going on politically.

We went to Catherine's Palace this morning. That is some pretty nice digs, mate. It has beautiful grounds too. The old gal lived well, she did. Can you say "lap of luxury?"

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Further Thoughts on Estonia

Our lecturer this morning seemed to believe the period when this area was a part of Sweden was its golden age. That was the first time, according to him, when the state took an interest in educating the children of peasants. He also mentioned that the first time people hereabouts began developing nationalistic feelings was during the 1800s. Prior to the nineteenth century people identified with their village or perhaps county or parish, nothing larger. Today, roughly a third of Estonia's 1.5 million population lives in the capital, Tallinn.

Estonia has a relatively long border with Russia but most of it is along a quite large lake. Militarily, this is relevant because invading in strength across the lake would be difficult and impractical. Think of it as "lake = moat." All young males must spend 9 months in the Army or 11 months in the Navy, followed by several years in the reserves. Increasing numbers of young women are joining up too. Estonia is part of NATO and their troops are doing peacekeeping duty in various places where NATO is deployed.

We would have liked to take a train south through Latvia to Lithuania and back today, to see two more countries. Unfortunately, no passenger trains now make this run, although we are assured they did in former Soviet days. Now locals take the bus or drive their cars.

Estonia has a flat income tax, something conservatives have talked about but failed to achieve in the U.S. Furthermore, over the next four years their flat tax rate will decline from 22% to 18%, and corporate income that is reinvested is not taxed at all; this economy is going to grow! Of course anything you buy carries an 18% value added tax or VAT. What this means is that money that is saved is today taxed at 22% whereas money that is spent is taxed at 40% (22% plus 18%). This provides a nice savings incentive. If only the U.S. was so economically rational.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

More Blogging on Estonia

We spent the morning riding and walking around greater Tallinn. We drove around the newer parts and walked the old town's cobblestoned streets. The city has a lot of green parkland which makes it a pretty place.

What follows are several gleanings from the interpretation provided by this morning's local guide. A former part of the Hanseatic League, Estonia has only been independent between the two world wars and since 1991. Depending upon whom you talk to, major influences here have been Germany, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Now the Estonians are trying to become themselves, living in their own traditions.

One thing that seems unusual is that there are numbers of Baptists and Methodists here, in addition the usual Lutherans, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics. For most Europeans today, religion plays a relatively minor role in life. I've seen no evidence that Estonia is different in this regard.

Our guide said Estonians have relatively positive memories of the pre-Communist Russian Empire. Apparently the Tsars liked this area and treated it relatively well. If anything, the Emperor protected ordinary Estonians from their local warlords. The guide was quoting what he'd heard his great grandmother say about the pre-1917 era. A young man, I suspect he cannot personally remember when Estonia was anything but independent.

A number of outstanding officers in the Russian, and later Soviet navies were Estonians of whom they remain proud. One such was Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen after whom a Russian base on King George Island in the Antarctic is named. The other DrC and I saw Bellingshausen base and the Russian Orthodox Church there earlier this year when we visited nearby Frei Base (Chilean), to medevac an injured passenger out to a hospital.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Travel Blogging Estimable Estonia

Greetings from Estonia, northern-most of the three Baltic Republics (the other two are Latvia and Lithuania). The trip by SuperSeaCat across the Gulf of Finland was smooth and uneventful, we rode in comfortable airline-type chairs and our bus with our luggage came with us. In fact the crossing was so uneventful that several of us took naps.

The older parts of Tallinn, Estonia's capital, has very much the look of an old European city. The new, modern parts look like they could be anywhere in the developed world. The Estonian language is closely related to Finnish, and more distantly related to Hungarian, all three are not Indo-European languages but members of a cluster called Finno-Ugric languages that arose in the northern Ural Mountains.

One observation concerning both Finland and Estonia: the long-stemmed blond young woman is alive and thriving here. The weather is warm and as a consequence these attractive people are lightly clothed. All in all, they are a very decorative aspect of the local scene. I wonder if the famous-for-15-minutes Paris Hilton's relatives come from Estonia? In the last 24 hours I've seen 3 young women with her face, more than I'd see in a year in the States.

Our Russian guides say all the dislike is on the Estonian side, that folks in Russia care little about this tiny country one way or the other. I suspect, however, that the roughly 25% of Estonia's population that is ethnically Russian care a great deal and don't much like their adopted homeland's rejection of its fifty-year Soviet past.

Monday, June 4, 2007

An Assessment of Fred Thompson

John Fund, writing in the Wall Street Journal's Online Journal, does a nice overview of the Fred Dalton Thompson phenomenon. Fund reports Thompson's take on immigration.

"We are a nation of compassion, a nation of immigrants," he told the crowd. "But this is our home, and whether you're a first-generation American, a third-generation American or a brand newly minted American, this is our home and we get to decide who comes into our home."

I like that view.

Finland is Fine

Greetings from Helsinki, Finland. Talk about a country where everything is embedded in a giant forest, this is it. As we flew in you could see the trees covering everything that isn't paved, plowed, or mowed. In that regard it resembles British Columbia. As I write the local time is 11 p.m. and it is almost bright enough outside to read a newspaper without artificial light. Finland is far north and the longest day of the year is a couple of weeks from now.

The architecture I've seen is modern without being inspiring. It is a sort of grim functionalism that metaphorically has its shoulders hunched against the everlasting winters. Perhaps that is the Russian influence, in the past Finland has been both a Swedish province and a Russian grand duchy. One outstanding exception is a rock church we visited - carved out of the living rock with a circular footprint, and roofed over with a soaring ribbed ceiling that is about half glass, this place was amazing. It almost awakened religious feelings in DrC, which is saying something.

Like Rio, Helsinki is a city wrapped around various bays and beaches. Unlike Rio, it doesn't include steep mountains in the city limits or run to huge squatter slums. That is the difference between the tropics and the sub-Arctic. Living here without serious heating would be very marginal, perhaps nearly impossible.

We've been stuck in the capital, which is fine, but I suspect that the DrsC would better enjoy driving a small rented RV through the vast wooded up-country of Finland. Perhaps the next time we're here.

Tomorrow we're off to Estonia, a short ferry ride across the estuary (the mouth of the Neva River?) which divides the two countries. In Estonia the locals have been in a tiff with the Russians over plans to move a statue of a Soviet soldier/hero from a public park to a less-conspicuous location.

Estonia spent unhappy decades as an Soviet Socialist Republic, that is, as a Russian colony. A sad-for-Estonia by-product of that status was that large numbers of Soviet military retired in Estonia with their families and are still there. They may make up as much as 40% of the population and they have no interest in becoming culturally Estonian.

Estonia wants these Russian-speakers to assimilate and learn the local language; they don't want to do that, or to go home. As a tiny country sitting across an undefended border from giant Russia, Estonia can't afford to offend the Russian military which could occupy Estonia in an afternoon without breaking a sweat. It will be interesting to compare what we hear about the conflict from Estonians and from our guides who are ethnic Russians.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Reading the Bushes, Father and Son, Out of the GOP

Peggy Noonan writes a "must read" in the Wall Street Journal's Online Journal. In it she entirely disinvests in George W. Bush and his father, George H. W. Bush. This is a major step for a Republican stalwart like Peggy to take. Her bottom line is that W. has behaved in thoroughly un-Republican ways. The meat of the argument is in the first paragraph:

What political conservatives and on-the-ground Republicans must understand at this point is that they are not breaking with the White House on immigration. They are not resisting, fighting and thereby setting down a historical marker--"At this point the break became final." That's not what's happening. What conservatives and Republicans must recognize is that the White House has broken with them. What President Bush is doing, and has been doing for some time, is sundering a great political coalition. This is sad, and it holds implications not only for one political party but for the American future.