Monthly Archives: March 2011

Behind the Scenes on the World Stage

When crises happen on the international stage, a lot often happens behind the scenes that we know nothing about.

The Daily Beast has a superb article about George H. W. Bush (that’s the father, for those of you who are initial-challenged). It’s called “A Wimp He Wasn’t.”

The article tells about a somewhat hair-raising secret mission the then-vice president took to El Salvador, which was then in the midst of a nasty civil war. He read the riot act to the national leaders, especially about their widespread use of death squads, and reforms soon came. That was very interesting to read.

But I was most intrigued by a story which occurred as the Berlin Wall was crumbling in East Germany.

Bush, now president, received an urgent cable from Soviet President Gorbachev. Gorbachev asked Bush to avoid taking a provocative action that might instigate a Tiananmen Square-like crackdown in East Germany. He, likewise, would mute the Soviet response. The goal was to avoid provoking confrontations that might get out of control.

Bush was criticized for not cheering what was happening in East Germany. He seemed unenthused about this historic happening. And he never talked about his behind-the-scenes agreement with Gorbachev. But the result was a peaceful transition of power. He didn’t go on national TV to posture about democracy. He got it right.

Now we hear numerous critics griping about how President Obama is handling Libya (as they gripe about anything he does). But all kinds of dynamics are at work behind the scenes, balancing relationships with our European allies and with the Arab League, and with various other interests. It’s complicated stuff, and we may never hear some of the things that happens in secret. Just as it took 20 years for that crucial agreement between Bush and Gorbachev to become public.

It’s easy to engage in simplistic posturing that plays well to American audiences (as Rush and the folks at Fox News know all too well). It’s harder to get it right.

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Book: “Matched,” by Ally Condie

“Matched,” by Ally Condie (Nov. 2010), is the first book in a planned trilogy (the second book, Crossed, arrives in November 2011). This is juvenile fiction set in a dystopian society. I read it on my Nook.

There’s a word I’ve not used before–dystopian. That term refers to a futuristic society which appears utopian, but is repressive and authoritarian. It’s a negative utopia. Dystopias often require conformity to a regimented social order. Other examples from literature and film would be 1984, Farenheit 451, Logan’s Run, Minority Report, The Handmaid’s Tale, Rollerball, Brave New World, Aeon Flux, Clockwork Orange, and the Hunger Games trilogy.

Movies like Bladerunner and Soylent Green are futuristic, but not utopian. And movies like Mad Max and the Postman are post-apocalyptic, but neither futuristic nor utopian–just set in the future.

“Matched” revolves around Cassia, a girl living in a world where the Society (the government) controls and predicts everything. (The cover, with a girl enclosed in a green bubble, excellently portrays that.) The book starts with Cassia being matched–learning who the government has decided she will marry. This is a big event, a special day, something young people eagerly await. They willing accept their Match, because the Society knows best.

As it turns out, Cassia is matched with her best friend, Xander (it’s rare that you’re matched with somebody you know). But when she plugs in a data card containing information about her match, she briefly sees the face of another boy she knows, Ky. An Official comes to talk to her, telling her this was a mistake. But it gets her wondering, and she begins questioning the rules of her world.

Allie Condie

As the author said in an interview on Amazon, the book is about Cassia “learning to choose.” She loves Xander, who is a genuinely Good Guy, but is intrigued by Ky, who has a mysterious past and knows things other people don’t. Also, he’s an Aberration–a classification far beneath Cassia’s social status, something for people who don’t fit in. As an Aberration, Ky can never be matched, and his role in life will never get better than working in the garbage processing plant.

It’s kind of a love story, or an infatuation story, as Cassia’s friendship with Ky deepens. And there’s obviously a love triangle. But it’s all G-rated, innocent. I think there was a kiss, but nothing beyond that.

Condie builds a society that seems perfect. The government controls everything, but in a way people accept. It’s not a heavy-handed police state, at least not where Cassia lives. In the outer regions, where Ky is from–that’s a different story, though this book doesn’t tell us much about it. There are many Officials–both of Cassia’s parents are Officials–who have extra authority in the Society. But nobody’s carrying a weapon, nobody gets imprisoned. It’s a benevolent dystopia.

The Society determines who you marry, what job you’ll have, what you eat (meals are delivered, with portions and enrichments tailored for each person), and even when you die. Everyone dies on their 80th birthday.

If anyone bucks the system, shows individuality, they can be Reclassified. That’s what happened to Ky, as a result of transgressions by his parents. But it’s even worse to be an Anomaly. Condie never really explains the ramifications of this classification; we just know it’s the lowest rung on the ladder.

The book alludes to an earlier world, which is clearly our world. People are allowed to own one “relic” from the past. In Cassia’s case, it’s a compact. Most everything else from the World That Was has been destroyed.

Cassia, who tells the story first-person, says:

You never know when technology might fail. That’s what happened to the society before ours. Everyone had technology, too much of it, and the consequences were disastrous. Now, we have the basic technology we need–ports, readers, scribes–and our information intake is much more specific. Nutrition specialists don’t need to know how to program air trains, for example, and programmers, in turn, don’t need to know how to prepare food. Such specialization keeps people from becoming overwhelmed. We don’t need to understand everything.

When it comes to culture, the Society kept 100 of everything and ditched the rest. There are the Hundred Poems, Hundred Paintings, Hundred Songs, Hundred Stories. Everyone knows and studies these, but nothing more. The Society had decided their culture was too cluttered, “and everyone believed because it made sense. How can we appreciate anything fully when overwhelmed with too much?”

Cassia’s grandmother was one of the cultural historians who helped select the Hundred Poems. But she receives from her grandfather a Dylan Thomas poem he has secreted away, “Do Not Go Gentle.” This poem plays an important role in the book, a continuing theme which motivates much of Cassia’s thinking and actions.

Condie draws an interesting world, with plenty of details, and yet there’s so much I don’t know about it. The Hunger Games struck me the same way. I’ve read only the first book in each of these series, and will definitely read the others. I’m sure more of this futuristic world–how it developed, who is in control, etc.–will unfold in subsequent books. I guess Condie provided enough, for now.

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Book: “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter”

This afternoon I finished “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter,” by Seth Grahame-Smith, the same guy who brought us “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” I read it entirely at Barnes & Noble over the past two months, taking advantage of the ability to read a book for an hour on my Nook when in the store. Had 60 pages left today.

This was a fun, harmless read. The book was published in March 2010. Grahame-Smith takes real-life events and injects a world in which vampires exist. Lincoln learns about the existence of vampires as a child, and with his trusty axe becomes a proficient vampire slayer. He is befriended by a vampire named Henry (there are “good” vampires”) who regularly feeds him the names and locations of vampires, who live as regular people with ordinary jobs. Lincoln then picks up his axe and heads to that town, dispatching vampire after vampire.

Most of the book takes place during Lincoln’s early life. We travel with him to Louisiana, where he finds vampires living somewhat openly. He discovers that many slaveholders are vampires, using slaves as fresh food. We follow Lincoln’s life through his business enterprises, his family life, and his budding interest in politics.

Lincoln runs for office in Illinois, but continues his vampire-hunting on the side, sometimes squeezing in a kill between speeches. Then, finally, he becomes president.

The Civil War is, to a large extent, a war against the vampires who, behind the scenes, rule the south. This part of the book doesn’t last all that long, but it’s quite fascinating since the events (especially battles) are far better known (to me) than the rest of Lincoln’s life. I enjoyed watching how Graham-Smith wove his vampires into the Civil War.

Then, of course, we come to John Wilkes Booth and the assassination of Lincoln. I thoroughly enjoyed how the author brought his book to a close.

Overall, not a deep book, obviously, and I’m sure Grahame-Smith played loose with historical facts. But hey, it was a fun read.

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All About Tilapia

I love fish. Growing up, we never had fish at home. But when we’d go out to eat, I would often order fish. Back then, the choices in white fish were usually haddock, perch, or cod. It was typically breaded and fried.

Today, restaurants often have cod, but not haddock or perch. But now there’s tilapia. Tilapia everywhere. And I really like tilapia. Good flavor, nice texture. I’ve been buying parmesan-crusted tilapia filets at Fresh Market. Sautee for a few minutes on both sides, then throw it in the oven for 12 minutes. Delicious.

Back in October, BusinessWeek ran a feature article on tilapia called “From China, the Future of Fish.” They described it as “a bland food product that grows fast and sells cheap.”

Interestingly, about 80% of the tilapia sold in the United States comes from China. Like everything else, I guess. It was quite a fascinating article. Here are some fun facts about tilapia.

  • Most tilapia is grown on large fish farms. US fish farmers can’t come close to meeting the demand. Besides, tilapia do better in tropical climates, like Asia and Latin America.
  • Tilapia is a fast-growing species of fish. After just a couple months, tilapia is a harvestable 1-2 pounds.
  • 80 percent of the frozen tilapia in the U.S. is now imported from China, with restaurants and supermarkets the biggest buyers.
  • In 2009 the U.S. imported 404 million pounds of tilapia, up from 298 million in 2005.
  • Tilapia is mild in flavor. It doesn’t really have its own flavor. Instead, it takes on the flavor of whatever you put with it. Which is why chefs like it so much–they created its flavor with whatever herbs and spices they use. They consider it very versatile.
  • Tilapia, being bland, is good for Americans who don’t like their fish tasting “fishy.”
  • Tilapia fish farms tend to be very clean. Since the fish takes on the flavor of whatever’s around it, tilapia grown in muddy, algae-filled ponds end up tasting bad.
  • Shrimp is the most popular seafood for Americans. The average American eats 4.1 pounds of shrimp per year.
  • Pollack, caught off the coast of Alaska, is the most popular white fish. However, most of it is ground up into fish sandwiches and nuggests for fast-food chains like McDonald’s. You don’t normally eat a pollack filet.
  • Until 2002, tilapia didn’t even make the top-ten list of seafood eaten by Americans. Now it has surged ahead of cod and catfish, and is just behind pollack as the most popular white fish in the US.
  • A negative: tilapia doeesn’t contain Omega-3 oils, a major health benefit of other fish.
  • There are hundreds of tilapia processing plants in China. The Chinese government is aggressive in inspecting and regulating their fish industry, to ensure quality, cleanliness, and safety. But their track record can still be spotty.
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Don’t Mess with Old Dogs

Someone sent this to someone who sent it to someone else who sent it to me and a whole bunch of other people. Now I post it for your enjoyment.

One day an old German Shepherd starts chasing rabbits and before long, discovers that he’s lost. Wandering about, he notices a panther heading rapidly in his direction with the intention of having lunch.

The old German Shepherd thinks, “Oh, oh! I’m in deep doo-doo now!”

Noticing some bones on the ground close by, he immediately settles down to chew on the bones with his back to the approaching cat. Just as the panther is about to leap, the old German Shepherd exclaims loudly,

“Boy, that was one delicious panther! I wonder, if there are any more around here?”

Hearing this, the young panther halts his attack in mid-strike, a look of terror comes over him and he slinks away into the trees.

“Whew!,” says the panther, “That was close! That old German Shepherd nearly had me!”

Meanwhile, a squirrel who had been watching the whole scene from a nearby tree, figures he can put this knowledge to good use and trade it for protection from the panther. So, off he goes.

The squirrel soon catches up with the panther, spills the beans and strikes a deal for himself with the panther.

The young panther is furious at being made a fool of and says, “Here, squirrel, hop on my back and see what’s going to happen to that conniving canine!”

Now, the old German Shepherd sees the panther coming with the squirrel on his back and thinks, “What am I going to do now?,” but instead of running, the dog sits down with his back to his attackers, pretending he hasn’t seen them yet, and just when they get close enough to hear, the old German Shepherd says…

“Where’s that squirrel? I sent him off an hour ago to bring me another panther!”

Moral of this story: Don’t mess with the old dogs. BS and brilliance only come with age and experience.

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The 2011 Brain Game

Some of the eight teams in the finals.

One of the team tables. Most teams dressed up in interesting outfits. We didn't. Think about it--a table for an accounting firm? Don't ask for creativity.

A unicyclist showed up for the finals. (Thanks to whoever posted these photos on the Facebook page of the Fort Wayne Center for Learning)

Last Saturday night, Feb 26, Pam and I participated in “The Brain Game,” a big trivia contest which serves as a fundraiser for the local Fort Wayne Center for Learning. Pam’s firm, Christian Souers LLC, bought a table for ten, which got us entered.

They used a street carnival theme this year, and it worked well. Wander around and get hot pretzels, popcorn, peanuts, cotton candy, and even Eskimo pies–all for free (no doubt gift-in-kind donations from sponsors). The meal was a simple (but bountiful) hamburgers, hotdogs, chili, fries, onion rings, and slaw. We got serenaded by a wandering barbershop quartet.

Throughout the night, they interspersed a lot of other fun things–a unicyclist, juggler, dance group, ballet trio, and other things. This is, hands-down, the most fun you’ll ever have at a fundraiser.

Last year, I was on the four-person team that almost–ALMOST–won our 8-team round and the right to proceed to the finals. We came from behind to take the lead in the ten-question heat, but lost in overtime on about question 13 or 14. Bummer.

This year, they did it differently. The whole table of ten participated in the opening round, which went for 50 questions. There were 43 teams, and all competed against each other at the same time. The others gave me the clicker. The multiple-choice question would appear on the screen, and we had 15 seconds to punch in an answer. The top 6 teams would advance to the finals. They would be joined by the team voted as having the best outfits, and by the team that raised the most money for the Fort Wayne Center for Learning.

I thought we did pretty well.

We guessed right that Denmark had the world’s highest per-capita candy consumption. We knew that a giraffe’s tongue is black, and that Butler is in the Horizon conference. Pam knew that Obama went to Harvard. We knew there were no purple M&Ms. I knew that Congo was the only one of the four African countries listed–the others being Niger, Chad, and Burkina Fasao–that wasn’t landlocked.

Luke’s daughter Jaclyn, our one teenage member, got questions from Harry Potter and Hannah Montana. Jason Wilson knew that “Please Please Me” was the first song the Beatles released in America (most people picked “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”), and he knew that Ozzie Osborne’s first name was John. He also knew his Shakespeare–that Brutus committed suicide at the end of the play, and that a Shakespearean sonnet has 14 lines (I, a writer, didn’t know that).

After 25 questions, we were in 9th place. I thought we would be higher than that, but alas, the competition was stiff. To reach the finals, we had to be in the top 6. So for the second 25, we had to hunker down and focus.

We did well, nailing some difficult questions, but missed a couple we should have gotten (I thought I knew most of the world’s capital cities, but I didn’t know that Canberra was the capital of Australia). Like nearly everyone else, we didn’t realize that potatoes were introduced to North America from Peru (we guessed Poland; Ireland was way too obvious). The last question asked for the definition of “scholio,” from which we get “school.” I had a feeling that it was “leisure,” but we went with something else.

We moved up…one spot. To 8th place. Doggone. Maybe “leisure” would have moved us up to 7th.

The finals had three radiology teams–two from Fort Wayne Radiology, and one from Summit Radiology. Can you believe that the correct answer to the final question was “MRI”? A team from Fort Wayne Radiology won.

I liked the format this year, having the entire table compete for 50 questions. That was fun, and got everyone involved. Placing 8th out of 43 teams, I guess, is commendable.

But next year we make it to the finals.

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