Category Archives: Travel

It’s International Talk like Robert Newton Day

Some call it “Talk Like a Pirate Day,” but I’ve often wondered where we get the silly notion that pirates went around saying “ARRRH!” and growling in a West Country burr.

I assumed it came from the movies.

Apparently, it came primarily from character actor Robert Newton, who played Long John Silver in the ’50s. This was brought to my attention by the Slatest.

So, if you didn’t know before, now you know…

Robert Newton

Open Thread for Thursday, September 18, 2014 — Special Scottish Referendum Edition

Today, I’ll offer you two choices:

  1. Discuss the independence referendum in Scotland, results of which will come in over the next few hours.
  2. Discuss whatever you like. I mean, if the Scots can do whatever they like, including committing economic suicide, then why shouldn’t my fellow Americans say what they please? (Within reason, and my civility rules, of course. Because this blog isn’t a bloody democracy. Harrumph.)

I see that YouGov has the Scots deciding to stay in the UK. If that’s correct, they haven’t gone completely mad. Or, if you prefer, they haven’t gone totally radge.

As to why I oppose Scottish secession, I do so for the same assorted reasons I oppose the Confederacy, Quebec secession, the disintegration of the Balkans, the Anschluss and Putin slicing off a chunk of Ukraine on the grounds of protecting ethnic Russians. Throw in my Anglophilia and my affinity for the Special Relationship, which causes me not to want to see Britain divided and weakened.

Also, I think the Union Jack is one of the most beautiful flags ever. By comparison, the St. Andrew’s Cross alone seems rather sad…


Mind the gap there, cobber! Crowd works together to rescue fellow commuter

Does the public transit system in Perth, Australia, warn commuters to “Mind the Gap” the way the Tube does in London?

If so, this man failed to heed the warning, and might have lost his leg and even his life if not for the quick reaction and concerted effort of his fellow riders.

From the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

“Transperth spokesman David Hynes said the man was boarding at the tail end of peak hour, but the train was still fairly busy.

” ‘He stood in the doorway and as he was sort of taking up his position there, one leg slipped outside the door, slipped outside the gap, and he was stuck,’ he said.

” ‘We alerted the driver, made sure the train didn’t move.

” ‘Then our staff who were there at the time got the passengers, and there were lots of them, off the train, and organised them to sort of rock, tilt the train backwards away from the platform so they were able to get him out and rescue him.’ “

The man was fine, by the way, thanks to all those strangers.

Brigid Schulte of The Washington Post once teased me after I had said for the umpteenth time that I loved public transportation, saying something like, “I know you do, you communitarian, you.”

But this public transit incident is communitarianism squared…


Rebekah Brooks: How could anyone with hair like that be guilty?

OK, so maybe someone with hair like that could be guilty. But the jury said she’s not, and it’s sort of good to know that that mane will continue to wave wild and free, whatever its owner did:

David Cameron’s former communications chief Andy Coulson is facing jail after being found guilty of conspiring to hack phones while he was editor of the News of the World.

Rebekah Brooks, his predecessor in the job, walked free from the Old Bailey after she was cleared of all four of the charges she faced in the eight-month trial….

I imagine Boadicea, the Celtic queen who led an uprising against Roman occupation, having hair like that. I don’t know why; maybe because of pictures such as this one

A full day of wonderful meals in Thailand

My daughter — the one in Thailand, in the Peace Corps — posted today on her blog to let us know how well-fed she is, in keeping with the military junta’s happiness campaign.

She posted quite a cornucopia of enticing dishes. But they also came across, to this benighted Westerner’s eyes, as evidence of just how exotic her surroundings are. That plate of mangosteen and rambutan look like Star Trek props.

I hereby copy and paste her entire post. Shop Tart, eat your heart out:

In accordance with my host country’s happiness campaign (, I would like to share something that makes me SO happy every day in this country: FOOD.  I took pictures of my breakfast, lunch, and dinner the other day with the intention of making everyone back home super jealous of me.  

Mangosteen and Rambutan.  I’m not a huge rice for breakfast person, which is fine because wherever I go in the morning I will inevitably be presented with a large plate of fruit.  On this day, I was accompanying the health clinic to the schools to teach about oral hygiene, when I was  presented with two of my favorite fruits.  Mangosteen, the purple one, is the Queen of Fruits and Thai people say that it makes you cool when you eat it (temperature wise- I don’t want to get all you nerds’ hopes up).  Rambutan is also quite delicious and juicy once you peel those crazy green spikes off. Thai people have really got this whole hospitality thing down.


Pad Gapow- A spicy, garlicy, deliciousy chicken situation


Dtom Yom Gung- A classic, sour shrimp stew made with chili peppers, lemongrass, cilantro, limes mushrooms, etc. Idk I learned to make this the other day but I didn’t take notes. Whoops.


Gang Jut- Pork stuffed inside of large celery-like chutes, boiled with cabbage.


Pad Pak- Fried vegetables.




Rooa- Bamboo, coconut Milk, and mint


Nam Prik Ga Peet with Vegetables- Basically homemade chili sauce
Gang Malagow- A papaya stew with pork


Dtom Gai Baan- Boiled chicken, vegetables, and spices.


Gapow Moo- Spicy Pork


Khay Giaw Pak Da Om- Omelette made with a stringy green


As you can see, I eat pretty well.  I apologize for not cooking, therefore having no idea of the actual ingredients, but you get the “picture”.  Maybe in the future I will try harder.  I did not even include the many snacks I ate that day, including, but not limited to- grilled chicken skewers drenched in a creamy peanut paste, some kind of hot peanut drink, thai doughnuts that we dipped in a condensed milk and some sort of green fluffy stuff, boiled lotus seeds, and a sweetened coconut milk desert with tapioca balls and gelatin noodles.  We joke that I will return to America fat.  That’s fine.  Anyway, hope you enjoyed the pictures, and now you have evidence that I am not starving.  I will post a coup update soon!

I think my favorite would be the Dtom Yom Gung. Being a Southern boy, I’d eat it over rice, like gumbo….

Sir Patrick Stewart on the various accents of British cows

This seems a natural followup to our discussion the other day about how American and British accents — human accents — diverged.Patrick_Stewart_by_Gage_Skidmore

I didn’t listen to it until today, although it was brought to my attention yesterday by Professor Elemental. Let this be a lesson to you that when the Professor recommends something, one should drop everything and attend to it immediately, because otherwise one is missing out unnecessarily.

It’s a podcast in which Sir Patrick Stewart answers an American listener’s question regarding whether British cows moo differently — or rather, whether British people moo differently when imitating cows. (Although his answer speaks more to the first question.)

Sir Patrick answered the question thoroughly and respectfully. His answer, in part:

“It’s not a straight-forward, simple answer unlike, probably, many other country where a cow’s moo is a cow’s moo. In England, you understand, we are dominated by class, by social status, and by location. So, for example, a cow that is in the field next to my house in West Oxfordshire would moo in one kind of way, and a cow in a field in the semi-industrial town I grew up in in the North of England would moo in another kind of way….

Well, if I were at home in West Oxfordshire right now and I walked down my lane and there were all these cows and I say, ‘Hi, good morning, cows. And they would moo at me like this: ‘Mooooooouhh.’ Now that’s a very conservative moo…”

You should listen to the whole thing (the “listen” button is at the bottom of the post). Or at least, as the site recommends, don’t stop before he gets to the Cockney moo…

Is ‘Breaking Bad’ the best medical drama ever?

This doctor thinks so, and makes a pretty compelling case. An excerpt:

While most medical shows—much like the health system at large—focus on acute presentations, hospitalizations, and procedures, Breaking Bad follows its patients far beyond the walls of the hospital. When Hank, the DEA agent brother-in-law of the show’s meth-cooking protagonist, Walter White, is shot by the cartel, he is immediately rushed to a hospital where he gets the usual TV doctoring: wailing sirens, complex jargon, rickety stretchers and tense surgeons. But while most shows would either move on to the next thrilling emergency or end with the patient disappearing into the credits, Breaking Bad did neither. After initially being scared witless by the thought of being discharged, Hank spent almost an entire season in bed, obsessing over minerals and pornography. He became depressed, despondent, and angry. He vacillated between motivation and apathy. In short, he didn’t stop being sick as soon as the bullets were pulled out of his chest or when he was discharged from the hospital. If anything, that’s when his journey started. While most shows focus on the heroics of EMTs, surgeons, and doctors, Breaking Bad shows that the heroism of patients and their caregivers goes on long after they have moved on from an acute care facility. And importantly, Hank walks with a limp to this day, dispelling the notion of magical cures.

Another telling scene that somehow escapes the attention of most medical shows is the look on the faces of Skyler and Marie, Walt’s and Hank’s respective wives, when they receive their spouses’ medical bills. Not only do the bills make no sense to them, the doctors appear as bamboozled and helpless as the patients. In fact, a popular Internet memesuggests that Breaking Bad would not have been possible in a system which provides universal free health care, such as Canada’s, because Walt would never have been desperate to collect the money for his treatment.  …

Good points, I thought.

If “Breaking Bad” has appeal in Britain, it’s probably for the same reason that westerns were once popular abroad. A depiction of a health care system so wild, primitive and uncivilized, where every man is on his own, is probably particularly fascinating for people who don’t have to fret about such things. It’s even set in the wild West. (Hmmm. According to this, it’s NOT popular over there, so forget my theorizing. I guess it’s just too far-fetched for them.)

But aside from health-care politics, it’s true that “Breaking Bad” is more like real life. There’s no brilliant cure within 43 minutes. Hank still walks with a limp…

The Curtiss-Wright Hangar Project

I thought aviation and history buffs would take an interest in this:

Introducing the Curtiss-Wright Hangar Project
Historic site set for revitalization
(COLUMBIA, SC) August 20, 2013 – The Curtiss-Wright Hangar, an incredible piece of Columbia’s aviation and architectural history, will be preserved and restored.  The namesake legacy will live on 84 years after its original construction to be completely renovated as a special event venue, family restaurant, and intimate South Carolina Aerospace Museum.  The Curtiss-Wright Hangar is designated on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Curtiss-Wright Hangar history is plentiful.  Opening in 1929, the hangar was the first building constructed at Owens Field by a Company formed between Glenn Curtiss and the Wright Brothers.  Thirty-five of these vintage hangars were built all across the country by the Curtiss-Wright Company and at best guess less than six still exist, but only this one remains in its original form.  The Curtiss-Wright Hangar was Columbia’s first terminal serving passengers and airmail service.  Famed aviator Amelia Earhart’s signature is still listed in Columbia airport’s logbook at 11:30 a.m., November 16, 1931 and President Franklin Roosevelt flew into the airport in the late 1930’s.  The vintage B-25 bomber that is still in the hangar will remain as a centerpiece for the restaurant and museum.
The developers our asking for the publics support for this historic project from the community, businesses, and aviation supporter’s worldwide and have created a crowd funding site at
For additional information on the Curtiss-Wright Hangar Project please visit or to follow the project’s progress please follow us at

And maybe Burl, an acknowledged expert in these things, can offer some advice to the organizers…

Once a sailor, always a sailor: McCain hopes bill to eliminate bills will help enrich strippers

OK, to be fair, he was set up. But he rose to the bait, and had fun with it:

(CNN) – If Congress passes the COINS Act replacing the $1 paper bill for a coin, the U.S. government may be able to save billions in printing costs at the expense of a little more jangle in the average consumers’ pockets. But what about the strippers?

That’s what The Hill newspaper asked one of the bill’s co-sponsors, Sen. John McCain, in a piece published Thursday. The question came from a separate 2011 story where the publication suggested strippers could suffer in a bill-less economy, with G-strings and garter belts far less accommodating of cold metal.

For his part, the Arizona Republican responded in stride in a Capitol Hill hallway.

“Then I hope that they could obtain larger denominations,” McCain reportedly told The Hill.

According to The Hill, the 76 year-old McCain started answering questions from another reporter before a smile spread across his face and he shouted down the hallway to The Hill, “Fives, tens, one hundreds!”…

Hundreds? Bada-Bing!

You know, if this bill passes, and the senator wants to determine whether it’s having the desired, um, stimulative effect on the economy, I’ll be glad to help him with the research. But only if he’s buying; I hear the drinks are pretty pricey in those dives.

But seriously, I like the idea of this bill. When I was in England, I thought it was great that I could make small purchases — postcards, newspapers, a cuppa, or a bottle of beer from an off-license — with pound and two-pound coins. They were very handy.

But dollar coins have never caught on in my lifetime. And you know why? Because we haven’t produced a dollar coin that anyone could respect, much less love. Not since the old silver dollars, which by the time I came along were already collector’s items that your grandma gave you for your birthday and you stashed them safely in a dresser drawer where they still reside to this day.

I’m not going to get into the politics of choosing Susan B. Anthony and Sacajawea as the “heads” side of these coins; that’s neither here nor there. People would use dollar coins with Alfred E. Newman on them, if the coins themselves were substantial and respectable.

TwoPoundCoinBackInstead, our mints have produced these light, cheesy things that look and feel like they’re inherently worth less than a copper penny. They look and feel like something you’d get out of one of those old machines in arcades that squished a penny and stamped your name on it. And you can’t distinguish them from quarters in your pocket.

By contrast, the pound coin has heft, and thickness, and a good tactile feel to its surfaces. You can immediately distinguish it when you reach for one. As for the two-pound coins — they’re amazing. They are so distinctive, so substantial, you’d think they were crafted by the dwarves in Middle Earth in time out of mind. It even appears to have Elvish inscriptions on it.2pd02r

Craft something like that, and America won’t miss the dollar bill.

Maybe we could use some of the money saved by eliminating the paper ones to make these coins something Americans would actually want to use. For a change.

How about a ‘not a sports nut’ button? Or ‘no celebrity gossip’?

Note the hypertext link in the upper right-hand corner.

Note the hypertext link in the upper right-hand corner.

The Guardian today is providing readers online with a “Not a Royalist?” button, which they can click and get less coverage of the royal baby that’s on the way as we speak.

Which is really kind of irritating. I mean, what a time to bring politics into the thing. Oh, the Duchess is having a baby, so let’s grouse about how we hate the monarchy… Like labor isn’t enough of a hassle as things are.

There a certain sort of Brit who suffers from a kind of Jacobin insecurity, who feels compelled to signal to the world at every opportunity that While you may think everyone in what you imagine to be Jolly Old England is all gaga over this baby, and gets misty-eyed about the royals in general, I, for one, am not one of those sheep. I am a forward-thinking modern. Apparently, some editor at The Guardian is that sort of Brit. Michael Palin used to do a pretty good job of sending up that type of pretentious twit.

It bugs me because… hey, we know The Guardian’s political leanings, but it’s still a newspaper, and a good one. And saying to readers, we’ll give you news according to your personal political prejudices kind of undermines what remains of the idea of the newspaper as something that embodies the idea that there is such a thing as news that is news regardless what you think of it.

A newspaper should stand for Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s dictum that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

It’s the political nature of this that bugs me. Left and right in this country, and probably in that one, can already wrap themselves in a cocoon that contains only facts that fits their own prejudices, and that is why we’re so polarized today. It’s a very destructive thing. Newspapers, to the extent that we still have them, should be islands on which we can stipulate that certain things are news whether we want to hear about them or not. They should be touchstones of reality, a place where we can check in once a day and agree on a few basic points before spending the rest of the 24 hours arguing.

Now when you get beyond politics, I’ll admit that there’s a certain appeal to this idea. For instance, it would be great to be able to hit a button that would immediately reduce football coverage to a reasonable level (at least when it isn’t football season), or do the same with celebrity gossip.

To me, not being one of Her Majesty’s subjects, celebrity gossip is the category into which royal babies fit. At least, at the level of coverage we’ve seen. The birth of the first child of the first child of the prince of Wales actually is news, of the “take note of” variety. We just don’t have to go on and on about it.

But that’s a matter of taste, not politics.

I don’t know how many takers there are for the “republican” option among The Guardian‘s readers today. Even if you click on the “not a royalist” button, when you scroll down you see that the top story is “Royal baby: Kate admitted to hospital for birth – live coverage.”

And I don’t think that means people are necessarily “royalists.” They’re just interested. It’s not a political statement. Unless you’re just really, really pretentious.

Taking care of business in Memphis, eating at Pete & Sam’s


As previously mentioned, I was in Memphis over the weekend. It was quite a trip — seven of us (all adults; the little ones either traveled separately or stayed home) packed into a minivan. All the way there Friday, all the way back Sunday. Except for a couple of brief stints while I wolfed down some lunch in the passenger seat, I was the driver the whole time.

We were there for a wedding, and being out-of-towners, were invited to the rehearsal dinner Friday night. It was at my favorite restaurant in the world, Pete & Sam’s on Park Avenue. It’s my favorite mainly because of the great memories of many dinners there with my wife’s family over the years. It was my father-in-law’s favorite place, and he took the whole crowd there whenever we were in town. Mr. Sam used to come over to the table and chat with him whenever we did.

It’s just a very, very Memphis place, for Memphians. The opposite of touristy, it doesn’t attract the kind of clientele that, say, the Rendezvous does, or even Corky’s.

It’s an Italian place, so it may seem odd that it would be a favorite of mine, since I’m allergic to almost everything on the menu (can’t have cheese, can’t have pasta, and even their famous spinach has egg in it, so I can’t have that). But they have this great item on the menu called “Beef Tender,” a steak that comes in a hot, deep metal dish, and you can’t even see the meat because it’s submerged in a wine sauce with mushrooms. It’s awesome, and it’s preceded by a salad with the best house Italian dressing anywhere.

The place was established in 1948, and if it’s been redecorated since, you can’t really tell (although the little mini-jukeboxes that were once in the booths have been gone for awhile). It’s really, really old school. For whatever reason, the place has never gotten a liquor-by-the-drink license, so everybody brown-bags. Fortunately, there has long been a liquor store nearby (in Tennessee, you can only buy wine at a liquor store, not in a grocery). When I say it’s a place for Memphians, I’m not sure all Memphians know about it. But most Italian, Irish and other Catholics seem to. It has an ethnic feel. There are always large family groups there, with multiple wine bottles crowding the table. See the picture, below, that I took of a nearby table that had not yet been cleared away; I took it late one night on a previous visit in April.

Not all customers are Catholic, though. Some, for instance, are aliens. I mean, like from outer space. I once ran into Prince Mongo of the planet Zambodia, someone well-known to Memphians although not as famous elsewhere as Elvis or Al Green, at Pete & Sam’s. Photos of better-known celebs line the wall behind the cash register. Ed McMahon appears twice.

I learned on this trip that, sadly, Mr. Sam passed away last year, just a couple of years after my father-in-law (his cousin Pete was only a partner for six months back in the ’40s, but Mr. Sam kept the name). One would have thought he was immortal. Some robbers shot him in the gut on Christmas morning in 2000, when he was 76. He was soon back behind the register, and three months later was climbing on the roof fixing the air-conditioner, according to The Commercial Appeal.

By the way, Doug Ross will back me up on Pete & Sam’s being a good place to eat. He’s been spending a lot of time in Memphis on business lately, and I’ve been trying to keep him well fed. He’s tried both Corky’s and Pete & Sam’s on my recommendation, and he’s enjoyed it.

Beyond Pete & Sam’s, we didn’t have time to do much Memphis stuff (I never got to Corky’s for barbecue, for instance), but on Saturday afternoon, while the ladies were hanging at the pool, the twins were getting ready for their roles as flower girls and my younger son was taking a nap, my older son and I played tourist for a couple of hours. We dropped by Graceland for the first time in many a year, and went by Sun Studios — where the above photo was taken.


Memphis looms large in the family legend, and I think it’s spiritually important to make contact with these touchstones now and then. Mind you, I’ve never taken the tour of Graceland. That wouldn’t seem right. Elvis himself didn’t invite me into his house. I haven’t even been on the grounds since right after he died, when the family was still living there — his uncle Vester was sitting out on a folding chair by the famous gate greeting people who came from all over the world to file by the graves. It was more of a pilgrimage then than a tourist thing.

But I do like to go by and see the place. Before my family moved to the Memphis area when I was 18, I only knew one thing about the city — that it was where Elvis lived. I don’t think I could even have told you it was on the Mississippi River.

I’m feeling kind of wistful now that we’re back in SC. I don’t know when we’re going to get back to the Bluff City. Since my parents-in-law died, we only get there for weddings, and while we’ve had a nice string of them the last couple of years (nieces and nephews), there’s not another on the horizon currently — no “save-the-date” cards on the fridge.

So Friday night’s Beef Tender is going to have to hold me awhile.

photo (5)

Would you like a 3D print of fries with that?


We don’t have flying cars yet, or time travel, but I’m encouraged to see that NASA is at least working on this

NASA can send robots to Mars, no problem. But if it’s ever going to put humans on the Red Planet, it has to figure out how to feed them over the course of a years-long mission.

So the space agency has funded research for what could be the ultimate nerd solution: a 3-D printer that creates entrees or desserts at the touch of a button.

Yes, it’s another case of life imitating “Star Trek” (remember the food replicator?). In this case, though, the creators hope there is an application beyond deep-space pizza parties. The technology could also be used to feed hungry populations here on Earth.

Texas-based Systems and Materials Research Corp. has been selected for a $125,000 grant from NASA to develop a 3-D printer that will create “nutritious and flavorful” food suitable for astronauts, according to the company’s proposal. Using a “digital recipe,” the printers will combine powders to produce food that has the structure and texture of, well, actual food. Including smell…

Obviously, the food would not be created out of thin air. The “toner” on this copier would have to consist of the chemical building blocks of the actual food items. The story doesn’t really spell out why that’s such an advantage, but I’m guessing it’s because powders containing those compounds are more easily stored.

But still… you would have to have the water that would flesh out the food, and… I don’t know why this would be an improvement over Tang.

But it sounds cool.

Personally, I want a 3D printer that would print diamonds out of coal dust. Or make a really convincing 3D print of Christina Hendricks. Just as a for-instance. I think that would be highly marketable.

The thoughtful hedonist: Russell Brand on Thatcher


You probably don’t want to watch it with your mom, or with your children for that matter, but I have seen few things funnier in recent years than Russell Brand in “Get Him to the Greek.” From his first line, “I’m Aldous Snow, the rock star,” his embodiment of an out-of-control hedonist is so devastatingly spot on, you come away convinced that that is who he really is (of course, his personal biography isn’t that far distant from Snow’s).

But messed up as he may be, he’s a bright guy who can actually be fairly thoughtful (interestingly, there were flashes of that in the Aldous Snow character, tucked among the Jeffrey-induced outrages). He showed that in a piece he wrote for The Guardian a couple of days back. Excerpts:

One Sunday recently while staying in London, I took a stroll in the gardens of Temple, the insular clod of quads and offices between the Strand and the Embankment. It’s kind of a luxury rent-controlled ghetto for lawyers and barristers, and there is a beautiful tailors, a fine chapel, established by the Knights Templar (from which the compound takes its name), a twee cottage designed by Sir Christopher Wren and a rose garden; which I never promised you.

My mate John and I were wandering there together, he expertly proselytising on the architecture and the history of the place, me pretending to be Rumpole of the Bailey (quietly in my mind), when we spied in the distant garden a hunched and frail figure, in a raincoat, scarf about her head, watering the roses under the breezy supervision of a masticating copper. “What’s going on there, mate?” John asked a nearby chippy loading his white van. “Maggie Thatcher,” he said. “Comes here every week to water them flowers.” The three of us watched as the gentle horticultural ritual was feebly enacted, then regarded the Iron Lady being helped into the back of a car and trundling off. In this moment she inspired only curiosity, a pale phantom, dumbly filling her day. None present eyed her meanly or spoke with vitriol and it wasn’t until an hour later that I dreamt up an Ealing comedy-style caper in which two inept crooks kidnap Thatcher from the garden but are unable to cope with the demands of dealing with her, and finally give her back. This reverie only occurred when the car was out of view. In her diminished presence I stared like an amateur astronomer unable to describe my awe at this distant phenomenon…

The blunt, pathetic reality today is that a little old lady has died, who in the winter of her life had to water roses alone under police supervision. If you behave like there’s no such thing as society, in the end there isn’t. Her death must be sad for the handful of people she was nice to and the rich people who got richer under her stewardship. It isn’t sad for anyone else. There are pangs of nostalgia, yes, because for me she’s all tied up with Hi-De-Hi and Speak and Spell and Blockbusters and “follow the bear”. What is more troubling is my inability to ascertain where my own selfishness ends and her neo-liberal inculcation begins. All of us that grew up under Thatcher were taught that it is good to be selfish, that other people’s pain is not your problem, that pain is in fact a weakness and suffering is deserved and shameful. Perhaps there is resentment because the clemency and respect that are being mawkishly displayed now by some and haughtily demanded of the rest of us at the impending, solemn ceremonial funeral, are values that her government and policies sought to annihilate…

Rough stuff. But then there are bits like this:

When I awoke today on LA time my phone was full of impertinent digital eulogies. It’d be disingenuous to omit that there were a fair number of ding-dong-style celebratory messages amidst the pensive reflections on the end of an era. Interestingly, one mate of mine, a proper leftie, in his heyday all Red Wedge and right-on punch-ups, was melancholy. “I thought I’d be overjoyed, but really it’s just … another one bites the dust …” This demonstrates, I suppose, that if you opposed Thatcher’s ideas it was likely because of their lack of compassion, which is really just a word for love. If love is something you cherish, it is hard to glean much joy from death, even in one’s enemies…

I found it interesting because it gave me insight into the attitudes of a young Brit growing up in the Thatcher era — someone whose life wasn’t politics. I think he probably speaks for a lot of people in his generation, those who aren’t inclined to engage in the execrable “Ding-Dong” celebrations, but aren’t at all interested in fitting her with a halo, either.

I was also intrigued by the bits of communitarianism that crept into the writing of this young man best known in this country for playing a narcissist, such as “If you behave like there’s no such thing as society, in the end there isn’t.”

I share it as something from an unexpected quarter that broadened my understanding a bit.

House of Cards: A political fantasy in which a South Carolina congressional district is represented by a white Democrat


That — what I said in my headline — is what struck me first about the American version of “House of Cards.” Kevin Spacey’s character is a powerful congressman who represents South Carolina’s 5th District. At least, he’s from Gaffney, and that’s in the 5th District. (The Peachoid features prominently in episode 3.)

Indeed, that district was represented by a senior white Democrat, John Spratt, just a couple of years back. But that was before the Tea Party, before the Republican Party cemented its hold on the entire delegation — except for Jim Clyburn, whose district is secure because the GOP doesn’t want those black voters in their six districts.

Have you seen the series? It’s the first original series on Netflix, and in keeping with the new national watching habit that that service helped foster, they’ve given us the entire first series all at once. I appreciate that. That is, I would appreciate it if the series had proven to be as addictive as “Breaking Bad,” or “Homeland,” or “The Walking Dead.”

But it didn’t. Netflix had hoped it would, that the series would give it the kind of cred as a content producer (because it is such a hassle negotiating with others to use their content) that “The Sopranos” gave HBO. But this is no “Sopranos.” Nor is it a “Mad Men.”

First, it’s not original. It’s based on the 22-year-old British series of the same name, starring Ian Richardson, whom I will always think of as Bill Haydon in the original BBC production of le Carre’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” The first season co-stars the lovely Susannah Harker, who five years later played Miss Jane Bennet in the definitive production of “Pride and Prejudice” (the one with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. (Hey, did y’all recognize her in “Zero Dark Thirty”? Jennifer Ehle, I mean. I knew I knew her, but I didn’t realize who she was, with her hair down and all, until the credits. And can you tell my caffeine is starting to kick in? I’m writing this at Barnes and Noble, with a cuppa the black stuff from the Starbucks across the parking lot — I prefer it to the “proudly served” version served here — and since I don’t drink it much since my ear thing started, I’m feeling it. Sorry about the digressions…)

Let’s focus in on Ms. Harker’s character, because I think it will help define why I don’t like the new American series as much. Oh, the production values are better; you can tell more money was probably spent making it look good, and the technology’s just better now than it was in 1990. But it’s not as engaging. My wife and I watched two episodes a night for two nights, then stopped. Last night, I proposed going back to it, and my wife OK, but as I called it up, said with disappointment, “Oh, you mean the American one…?” So we watched the last of the first season of the original.

But back to Ms. Harker’s character. She’s much, much more engaging than the extremely irritating little girl (which I mean both literally, in the sense of stature, and in the sense that our governor uses the phrase) played by Kate Mara in the Netflix version. She’s also more believable. It is far more credible that this is a person who would be able to keep a job. OK, so she eventually gets fired, but she kept the job for awhile.

MaraYeah, I get it. Mara’s supposed to be the brash “new wave” of electronic journalism, sweeping aside the conventions established by the old-timey ink-stained wretches. And maybe that offends me because I’m pretty sure I’m as adept at blogging and social media as her character is, and even if I’m not a grownup, I know how to act like one. Obnoxious is obnoxious. Then there’s the fact that we’re asked to believe that Spacey’s character — who has Robin Wright waiting at home, and no end of young lovelies walking the halls of Congress — would be attracted to her. She was cute in “Shooter” several years ago, in a waiflike sort of way, but both physically and in terms of personality, is about as cuddly as a hedgehog in this.

By contrast, Susanna Harker’s character in the original series, which debuted when she was 25, draws you in. Even though, or perhaps because, her tragic fascination with Richardson’s character makes me think of the refrain of Elvis Costello’s “You Little Fool,” you can’t help caring about her. You see why, for instance, her editor loves her hopelessly. Oh, and for any young people who think, “Well that was made in the olden days before women were set free and allowed to have sharp edges,” I’ll point out that it was 20 years after the leading edge of the movement that produced today’s allegedly liberated generation. (Sorry, but y’all didn’t invent independence and assertiveness.) Harker made her soft and vulnerable, but she also made her real. I found myself wishing she were a little more cynical and tough-minded, to keep her out of trouble, but at least she doesn’t come across as cheesy and contrived.harker

Why is this difference important? Well, because the main problem with the new American series is the utter lack of a sympathetic character. Everyone is horrible. It doesn’t have to be a soft, vulnerable young woman — any sympathetic character would do. This sort of thing doesn’t bother everyone. And indeed, a really excellent series can get overcome that flaw, as I think “Breaking Bad” does — I keep watching in horrified fascination. But normally, the lack of a likable character will ruin any work of fiction for me. As much as I enjoy Tom Wolfe’s old New Journalism — especially Acid Test and The Right Stuff (his only book in which one could detect a hint of admiration of his subjects) — I hated Bonfire of the Vanities. Brilliant writing, interesting Tory social commentary, but everyone in it was so contemptible, like loathsome little bugs being fried under Wolfe’s magnifying glass.

Eventually, I’ll watch the rest of the new version, if only to see if it ever does anything interesting with the supposed South Carolina connection. But so far, I’ll have to say that it doesn’t live up to the ambitions that Netflix had for it.


My brief conversation yesterday with the professor himself


One of the truly awesome things about Twitter is the opportunity to converse with interesting people you might never otherwise meet.

I’ve mentioned in the past my exchanges with Adam Baldwin, of which I’m very proud because I’m such a fan of “Firefly” in general, and the wisdom of Jayne Cobb (a favorite example: “Eatin’ people alive — where’s that get fun?”) in particular.

I’m also an admirer of “chap-hop” artist Professor Elemental (greatest hit: “Fighting Trousers“). And so I thoroughly enjoyed this exchange with him yesterday:


The Professor is so generous, deigning to converse with his fans, even those in the colonies. Such affability, such condescension; it is hardly to be credited.

For me, an exchange like that is as fulfilling as… well, as when my (fictional) hero Jack Aubrey was addressed by his hero, Lord Nelson, as follows: “Aubrey, may I trouble you for the salt?” After that, Jack always tried to say it just the same way…

So yes, an old newsman who in his time has had extended conversations with Barack Obama, John McCain, both George Bushes, Al Gore, Jesse Jackson, Fred Thompson (and the lovely Mrs. Thompson), Joe Biden and so forth can still get a kick out of a brush with a celebrity.

But it has to be a certain kind of celebrity. I wouldn’t be particularly excited to have a Twitter conversation with, say, Beyonce. But I’d be thrilled — and not really in a good way, given that I’m a happily married man — if Felicia Day acknowledged me in a Tweet. (Again, as with Baldwin, there’s the Joss Whedon connection there.)

My standards are a little idiosyncratic, even eccentric, but they are my standards…

Whoa! I missed the part about ‘Peace in our time’!


As I said before, I didn’t catch all of the president’s speech yesterday, and something rather important got by me:

The WTF moment for me in Obama’s second inaugural address, delivered Monday at noon, was his use of the phrase “peace in our time.” This came during his discussion of foreign policy, and in such circles, that phrase is a synonym for appeasement, especially of Hitler by Neville Chamberlain in September 1938. What signal does his using it send to Iran? I hope he was just using it to jerk Netanyahu’s chain.

I also simply didn’t understand what he meant by “a world without boundaries.” But my immediate thought was, No, right now we need boundaries — like those meant to keep Iran out of Syria and Pakistan out of Afghanistan…

Yikes. You know, there are certain phrases that anyone with an understanding of history would be careful to avoid. Such as “Mistakes were made.” “I am not a crook.” “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”

And of course, “peace in our time.” What was the thinking on that? Did the president think that his base would like the sound of it, and not understand the profoundly disturbing historical allusion? Hey, it was politically popular when Chamberlain said it, although Britain woke up later.

I just don’t see how a line like that appears in such a formal speech by accident. And no other explanation is excusable.

That’s an association you don’t want. And for another thing, it doesn’t fit well with the president’s ongoing aggressive drone war. That suggests cynicism. As in, the president gave the gift of peace to four al Qaeda militants on Monday…

Oh, and another thing… since when did people who right for Foreign Policy start using such expressions as “WTF”?

Paul Ryan: The Deerslayer, policy wonk version

OK, you know veep candidate Paul Ryan is a major policy wonk. One thing you might not think of him as is a good old boy. But a magazine with a name that sounds like a stutter — Deer and Deer Hunting — is aiming to set you straight. See this release:

Republican vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan opens up to Deer & Deer Hunting Magazine about his love of the outdoors.

“Bowhunting is my passion,” said Ryan to Deer & Deer Hunting’s Editor Alan Clemons. “Studying the strategy, preparing food plots, the strategy of where a dominant buck is living or will be moving and then being in position to get a shot, that’s really exciting.”

Ryan talks more about his childhood, being a father and balancing his hunting and Capitol life in an exclusive interview with Deer & Deer Hunting. The column will be in the October issue of Deer & Deer Hunting and will be available on newsstands September 4.

If you’d like to learn more about the interview, I can provide you with the pre-released interview, a press release, a copy of the magazine issue or any additional information you may need.

For more information on Deer & Deer Hunting, please go to For any questions, please do not hesitate to ask.

I didn’t get to read the whole story because I didn’t want to give the mag my email address and have a whole new batch of emails to delete (I’ve made that mistake too many times in the past). But I confess to being curious as to whether the piece contains any other quotes as, um, interesting as “Studying the strategy, preparing food plots, the strategy of where a dominant buck is living or will be moving and then being in position to get a shot, that’s really exciting.”

Yeah, OK. I thought he only got that excited about cutting Medicare costs.

Of course, I’m a bit of an old hand with a bow myself. One day when we were in England last year, we were strolling in Hyde Park and came across a sort of carnival, which had a booth called “Robin Hood,” which enticed marks to shoot an arrow at balloons. Sure, it could have been a trap set by the sheriff, but I couldn’t resist. I immediately laid down my five quid (the real Robin Hood would have loved to find a fat friar carrying that on him), gave my camera to my wife to record the moment, and took my three shots. Unfortunately, my wife thought the camera was set for still photos rather than video, and merely aimed it at me, pressed the shutter release, and turned away.

So it was that she missed when I actually burst one of the balloons. But the great tragedy was that she missed my next shot, which split the previous arrow… yeah, that’s the ticket

OK, so that last part didn’t really happen. But I did get one of the balloons. Of course, I’m sure that doesn’t match the excitement that Ryan speaks of. But that’s OK by me.

Take THAT, ye oppressor of good Saxon yeomen!