Whatever I'm Thinking

Archive for the month “November, 2011”

A short epigram for BlogCon11

“While one person hesitates because he feels inferior, another is busy making mistakes and becoming superior.” -Henry C. Link.

That is all.

Los Alamos: A City on a Hill

Veterans Day is tomorrow, Friday November 11.  There are some important people not usually honored with the veterans but who should be remembered all the same.

The predecessor to Veterans Day was Armistice Day, commemorating the cease-fire at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 that brought the carnage of World War I to an end.  On that first Armistice Day, my grandfather, son of German immigrants to America, was a newly drafted member of the United States Army and enrolled in basic training. For him the armistice of 11/11/18 meant that he never saw any action in that terrible war; it may have been a death sentence commuted.

As the war in Europe neared its end, a man named Ashley Pond founded the Los Alamos Ranch School amidst the scrub pine of the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico.  Situated on a fingerlike mesa below the remains of an ancient volcano and with steep cliffs on three sides, the school emphasized academics along with challenging physical training. It was a place for turning privileged eastern boys into robust, learned men.

View of canyon below Los Alamos, New Mexico

In 1943 the Army Corps of Engineers appropriated the school and the land around it. Their intention was to establish one secret location for conducting wartime atomic research under the aegis of the Manhattan Project. Hundreds of scientists from major urban universities gathered here in one of the most non-urban settings imaginable develop the first atomic bomb.

I may owe my existence to the Los Alamos scientists.

During World War II Los Alamos was technically an Army post, entirely secret, isolated from the outside world, olive-drab and cheerless.  Residents called it “the Hill.” Outgoing mail was strictly censored. Incoming mail could be accepted only if addressed to P.O. Box 1663 in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  To make the post feel more like home the physicists and their families added names and numbering to the dirt paths that served as streets.  There was a Spruce Street and a Nectar Street. Homes for the highest-ranking scientists and officials lay along a path dubbed “Bathtub Row” because these were the only houses in Los Alamos with bathtubs. Director J. Robert Oppenheimer’s house still stands today at the corner of Bathtub Row and Peach Street.

Robert Oppenheimer’s House, Los Alamos, New Mexico

I walked around in awe of the place. A collection of Nobel Prize winners lived and worked right here. Their familiar names had appeared on my high school physics exams. Oppenheimer lived and worked here.  So did Enrico Fermi, Neils Bohr, the eccentric Edward Teller and many others.

After the War the area was expanded to become the Los Alamos National Laboratory — one of the largest science and technology institutions in the world. It employs nearly 10,000 people, many being highly educated technicians and research physicists. The new and expanded facility was moved from the old ranch school location to an adjacent mesa, behind heavy security.

Los Alamos National Laboratory, beyond Oppenheimer Drive

Things have changed of course. Los Alamos has grown to become a city and a county jurisdiction with its own courts.

Los Alamos County Justice Center

Los Alamos has a discernable business district with two wide avenues, stores, restaurants, and even a Starbucks. It is also a residential enclave for professionals with families.  I saw a lot of little children about.  With Halloween upcoming Central Avenue was festively decorated with flower baskets and straw-stuffed scarecrows tied to lampposts.

Central Avenue, Los Alamos, New Mexico

I ate lunch at a busy little restaurant called the Central Avenue Grill. Here the menu is best described as New Mexico chic while the diners resemble a gathering of an upscale social club. Los Alamos is a town of highly-educated white-collar employees. There aren’t any farmers or ranchers here.

My waitress was a tall, thin blond woman with a Russian accent who could have doubled for Maria Sharapova ten years ago.  I fancy she is a spy.  Foreign governments must place spies here — common sense says they simply must — and waitresses are certainly a cost-effective way of collecting the information overheard in technical chit-chat.

Over my hot Starbucks coffee I tried to comprehend the place.  Here in the course of two short years a team of physicists overcame the most complex scientific problems to produce the world’s first atomic weapon.  Meanwhile in the summer of 1945 the United States was assembling a massive amphibious force dedicated to the conventional invasion of Japan. The slaughter on the beaches was expected to be immense. My father was assigned to that invasion force, but the order to attack never came.  The men and women of Los Alamos ended the War instead. My father’s possible death sentence was commuted by scientists; otherwise I might not have been born sixteen years later.

I didn’t see any nuclear protesters in Los Alamos. Good thing. I might not be nice. Happy Veterans Day.

A list of all photo posts from the American County Seats series in TimManBlog can be found here.

A Ruling Congress

Steve Hayward of AEI and has an excellent piece in today’s PowerLine blog regarding Newt Gingrich, last night’s Presidential debate, and the proper relation between Congress, the Presidency, and the American people.

After a recap of the Presidential debate highlights Steve delves into a deeper consideration of the nature of the office:

Over much of the last generation or two—more or less since Republicans started dominating the presidency starting with Richard Nixon’s election in 1968—conservatives have tended to be president-centric.  This was especially true when Reagan was President, and there was a legitimate reason to resist the many ways in which Congress had aggrandized its power in the aftermath of Watergate.

So by force of habit conservatives have come to rely upon the President to lead their movement. Remember those conservatives who grumbled that G.W. Bush was only “conservative in some areas” but deferred to his policy leadership anyway? Can you say Medicare Part D?

It has not always been so.  Steve goes on:

But once upon a time, 50 years ago or so, many leading conservatives championed Congress as the pre-eminent branch of our government, as the Founders did.  After All, there’s a reason the first article of the Constitution is about Congress, not the President.  Partly this was a reasonable reaction to the liberals who championed the presidency as the institution for transforming America, following the teachings of Woodrow Wilson, the example of Franklin Roosevelt, and the orgasmic promise of John F. Kennedy.  (You think I exaggerate?  In 1961, Herman Finer, a leading political scientist of the time, wrote: “The presidency is the incarnation of the American people, in a sacrament resembling that in which the wafer and the wine are seen to be the body and blood of Christ.”  I would think the ACLU would have a conniption fit over language like this today.)

In 1959, James Burnham, one of the great writers of that first generation of post-war conservatives (his best known book was Suicide of the West), published Congress and the American Tradition, which set out the argument that conservatives should champion a reinvigoration of Congress as a counterweight to the post-Wilson transformative “visionary” presidents.  In making the case for legislative supremacy, Burnham was merely reprising one side of a debate that stretches back to the arguments over the legislative-executive balance of power from the time of the Founding.  Among other things, Burnham argued, there is a difference between a strong president, and a strong presidency.  He was in favor of the former, but skeptical of the latter, in part because he perceived the paradox that attempts to have a strong presidency will actually result in weakening the office.  Cue Barack Obama, the frustrated miracle worker.

I think Hayward’s analysis is spot on. (Read the whole article here.) I’d just like to add my two cents.

As a practical matter advancing the concept of a return to a Ruling Congress might suit the GOP very well. This is because conservatives have a strong Congressional brain trust but a weak field of Presidential candidates.  Paul Ryan understands the Federal budget better than anyone.  Michele Bachmann regularly schools other candidates on the exact Congressional processes needed to repeal Obamacare. Eric Cantor, Tom Coburn, Jim DeMint, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and many other GOP “stars” are well-known national names capable of carrying the conservative message through the media and to the general public.

Since future GOP policy leadership will apparently come from its Congressional delegation, why not emphasize that?

RIP Joe Frazier…and Joe Paterno too?

I came across another great post from the Sage of Mount Airy. RIP boxer Joe Frazier. He’ll be remembered as a tough fighter with fans who appreciated toughness.

Hat tip to the Sage for finding this quote from Sports Illustrated’s Richard Hoffer:

That fight [the “Thrilla in Manilla”] was pretty much the end of their careers (Frazier lost once more to  Foreman then gave it up; Ali stuck it out several more years, though never again as brilliant or determined), and Frazier was left to a life of resentment. He  never got over the losses, the insults, the legacy that was left him. Ali became  a world hero, lighting Olympic flames, an example of political courage the rest  of his mute life. Frazier, a bitter, old warrior, instead had to consider the  inadequacies of grit in a time that was more inclined to reward glamour. (my emphasis)

Indeed we live in a time inclined to reward glamor and not grit.  Our time rewards style more than substance, emotional outbursts more than rational conclusions.   (Perhaps it’s unfair for me to criticize “The View” because I’ve never seen a full show, but even the clips are enough to sicken me.) It’s a tough environment for those of us who were philosophy majors in college only to become computer programmers in our adult lives.

Today I heard an audio clip from James Carville explaining that (quoted from memory) “people appreciated the political skills of Bill Clinton. He may be the most popular political figure on Earth today. I haven’t seen such political skills from Herman Cain.”  Perversely, our time not only values ‘political skill’ over Cain’s honest bumbling, our time dismisses the most egregious actions so that we may worship fully at the pagan altar of style.  Anyone wanna bet that Clinton and Carville, at bottom, believe that truth is relative?

Today the arch-goodguy Joe Paterno has come under severe criticism for his handling of a sex crime at Penn State.  The actual details of Paterno’s responses to the allegations are unavailable to me at this time.  All the police say is that Paterno has not violated any laws. As far as I can tell Paterno’s actions fall somewhere within the bounds of these two extremes:

a) Paterno was told of the criminal actions of his assistant and tried to hide them as best as he legally could, or

b) Paterno was told of some ‘possible’ incident, without particulars or certainties, and relayed the information since he was legally required to relate his knowledge of rumors and hearsay ‘just in case’.

I don’t know the facts. No one does, yet.  But as my old college professor Dr. de Alvaraz told us, “What matters is the gross impression.”  The gross impression will impel the public to condemn Joe Paterno, Penn State, a Penn State degree, the “Nittany Lion” as an animal and perhaps the color blue as well, if not the game of football too.  (Remember how the sport of lacrosse was vilified in the wake of the Duke lacrosse ‘scandal’ — which wasn’t a scandal after all?)

This morning on ESPN’s Mike and Mike Show they played a call from a woman who started her rant with “Joe Paterno runs Penn State” then went on to condemn him and everything associated with Penn State down to the color blue.

People please!  Joe Paterno does not “run” Penn State. He does not make its laws. He does not judge its residents jailing those he finds culpable and releasing those he deems innocent. He does not arrest people. Like everyone else in Happy Valley Joe Paterno is a citizen subject to the laws of the State of Pennsylvania.

Society has done a very poor job of separating style from substance here; Paterno is a celebrity but state law is the substance.

Can anyone, anyone, tell me why a witness to a violent sexual act with a child did not do either of these two things:

a) intervene physically to stop the assault

b) call the police

If you witnessed a felony occuring in the restroom of Microsoft’s corporate office would you run and call Bill Gates first? Of course not.

These are our times. Like it or not. But times change. They always do. They just don’t change as often for the good as I’d prefer.

OWS as Class Warfare

Tip of the Hat to The Sage of Mount Airy.  Follow his blog.  I don’t believe he’s on Twitter.

The Sage links to Mark Steyn’s assessment of the Occupy Wall Street rioters:

What’s happening in Oakland is a logical exercise in class solidarity: The government class enthusiastically backing the breakdown of civil order is making common cause with the leisured varsity class, the thuggish union class, and the criminal class in order to stick it to what’s left of the beleaguered productive class. It’s a grand alliance of all those societal interests that wish to enjoy in perpetuity a lifestyle they are not willing to earn.

Read the whole thing here.

Occupy Wall Street as Superstition

You have to love this article by Abe Greenwald in Commentary. Here’s the thesis:

Watch any showdown between an articulate capitalist and an OWS-er. It’s not a political debate, but an anthropological event: present-day man reaching back through time to make contact with his primitive and superstitious ancestor.  The capitalist understands the benefits of the free market but the Occupier doesn’t have to. The shamans of socialism have told him that Wall Street is populated by evil spirits. He’s been warned of the capitalist’s use of incantation and alchemy.  If the capitalist seems to be making sense, it’s a spell. (And if the Tea Party seems to be comprised of thousands of voices it’s the wizardry of the all-powerful Koch brothers.) The Occupier will not engage a legitimate opponent because the opponent’s legitimacy is some sort of devilish illusion. Occupy Wall Street, therefore, literally has no need for logical argument.

Read the whole thing.

Please note that a fair observer of capitalism understands the limits of the free market as well as its benefits.

Most of us believe that the best form of government available to mankind is a modern democracy (or representative republic) and that the basis for such a government is rational discussion of issues amongst free and equal members.  Greenwald’s piece opens a Pandora’s Box. What if, hypothetically for now, rational discussion is impossible for a violently assertive segment of society?  In the past how did America deal with the American Nazi Party or the Communist Party or the KKK?

Well, for one thing we didn’t have a President excuse their actions as “broad-based frustration.”

In the end the superstitious will have to be made to accept the law and the politicians will have to be made to accept the will of the rational supermass of the people.  In the end the people will again demand a government with enough stomach to “Secure the Blessings of Liberty.”

Truth or Consequences — and Quixotic Occupy Wall Street

On the old game show “Truth or Consequences”, a  contestant would be asked a question (“Truth”) and if answered  incorrectly he would face the “Consequences.” Sometimes the Consequences could be an embarrassing stunt. At other times the Consequences could be happy ones — such as a chance to win money or a surprise reunion with a long-lost sibling. Host Bob Barker would often close the broadcast with the phrase “Hoping all your consequences are happy ones.”

In 1950, “Truth or Consequences” creator Ralph Edwards promised to do his national tv program from the first town that agreed to rename itself for the show. Hot Springs, New Mexico won the contest and promptly changed its name to “Truth or Consequences.” The game show is long gone but the town’s strange name remains today.

So here’s the “Truth” of Truth or Consequences. “T or C” (as it’s known) is a dusty desert town of 7,000 people. The nearby Rio Grande provides water and some recreation. Cactus patches speckle the rocky hillsides. The barren face of the Caballo Range towers in the distance, and beyond that lies the ancient Jornada del Muerto, or Journey of the Dead Man.

Desert scene, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

Desert towns can be odd and seem to stretch reality. Walking down Main Street feels like walking through a kaleidoscopic canyon. Storefronts are mostly trinket shops painted multiple pastel colors and the aroma of burned incense and marijuana fills the air around them.

Dust & Glitter, Truth or Consequences

Across the street a lawyer’s office is painted in red and white stripes as if it were a circus tent.

Lawyer’s offices, Truth or Consequences

Homes built of rocks cling to the hillsides above Main Street; their porch supports are stacks of rocks.  Many of the residents seem to be retirees who came here for the blue skies and warm weather. Yet this isn’t a wealthy town, so presumably many of those might be retired school teachers living on state pensions.

Hillside rock home, Truth or Consequences

As I turned the corner onto Broadway I found an open diner. I ordered some green chili or “chile verde” as New Mexicans call it. Chile verde is not simply a green version of chili con carne.  It’s a stew with meat (usually pork), potatoes or other vegetables, and chopped green chilies added for kick. This is perhaps New Mexico’s signature food — each restaurant seems to have its own recipe. Although you can find red chili on most menus here, it is referred to as “Texas Red” and is delivered to your table with some under-the-breath derision.

I overheard some waitresses chatting among themselves.

One said, “I think [man’s name redacted] might just claim my youngest to be his real daughter.”

“The one in first grade now?” another waitress asked.


“Oh she looks just like him.”

So once upon a time there was a Truth and now there are Consequences.

On my way out of town I saw, incredibly, some Occupy Wall Street protesters! There were maybe 10 of them, all old hippies, holding signs in the town park at the corner of Main and Broadway. They seemed to be a quixotic bunch, protesting Wall Street in a town too small to have a three-story bank. As I slowly drove by I could overhear one of them explain “right-wingers” this way: “It’s in their genes so they can’t resist the urge to hate.”  I’d hate to see the Occupy bunch turn into the next eugenics movement.

I tweeted about it later:

“I saw protesters today at Occupy Truth or Consequences New Mexico!! A dozen peyote-smoking middle-aged hippies. Truth!”

To my shock, I got an answer from one of them:

@que_taylor: “There were 18 of us and thank you for saying ‘middle'”

You’re welcome @que_taylor.  I looked up @que_taylor on twitter. She describes herself as “K Taylor: Math teacher, single mom with grandchildren, fan of humanitarians, love to re-post good tweets”. I looked up some of her other tweets. They weren’t as friendly as the one she sent to me:

“For one thing, #OWS are testing local police forces and local authorities; exposing the thugs and police-state mentalities.”

“Don’t put the bread in the oven until it’s done rising. #OWS far larger than T-baggers. No need to get personal.”

@que_taylor and the Occupy Wall Street people in Truth or Consequences might be having a problem understanding Truth. The police force here doesn’t seem to be thugs or the leaders of a police state. In fact their headquarters are in the Sierra County Courthouse just 200 yards away. Although the protesters are clearly visible from the courthouse the sheriff isn’t marching out with his shock troops.

Sierra County Courthouse, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

OWS might also be having a problem understanding Consequences. If they really lived in a police state they wouldn’t be able to protest openly in the town park, and their bodies would likely wind up at the bottom of the nearby Rio Grande.

In the final analysis OWS is simply demanding things for themselves that others have earned for themselves. I was in other parts of New Mexico the same week I was in Truth and Consequences.  Here are some alternative cause-and-effect scenarios.

There’s a burgeoning energy industry in the northwestern corner of the state, near the desert towns of Farmington and Aztec.  Natural gas collection sites are dispersed among the desert rocks and sage brush. Pickup trucks servicing the sites invariably pass you at 15 miles above the highway speed limit. That’s all ok though. The ultimate consequence of the energy work are blooming desert towns with middle class jobs and homes.

Main Street Bistro, Aztec, New Mexico

Residential Street, Aztec, New Mexico

But suppose you don’t want a mortgage or a 9-to-5 job. Eschewing traditional occupations, both Jack Kerouac in the 1950s and the old mountain men of the 1830s chose to wander the countryside with a pack and a tough pair of boots. They demanded nothing from anyone. The consequences of such a life would include hiding under rock ledges during storms. However after the rain stopped they would be rewarded with sights like this:

Foliage and homes near Jemez Springs, New Mexico

Jemez Canyon, New Mexico

So in the end, the vocal residents of Truth or Consequences don’t seem to have a firm grip on Truth. Because of that they experience only imaginary Consequences. It’s sad and I feel sorry for those modern day Don Quixotes.

A list of all photo posts from the American County Seats series in TimManBlog can be found here.

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