Thursday, November 30, 2006

Now HERE'S a "Quagmire"

Here’s a lil something that should really embarrass us as a nation, instead of, let’s say, being embarrassed about certain political leaders and their foreign policy:

A record 7 million people - or one in every 32 American adults - were behind bars, on probation or on parole by the end of last year, according to the Justice Department. Of those, 2.2 million were in prison or jail, an increase of 2.7 percent over the previous year, according to a report released Wednesday.


"Today's figures fail to capture incarceration's impact on the thousands of children left behind by mothers in prison," Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based group supporting criminal justice reform, said in a statement. "Misguided policies that create harsher sentences for nonviolent drug offenses are disproportionately responsible for the increasing rates of women in prisons and jails."

From 1995 to 2003, inmates in federal prison for drug offenses have accounted for 49 percent of total prison population growth.

“Misguided policies… (concerning)… non-violent drug offenses” and more specifically, the “War on Drugs” that spawned them are hot buttons with me. The “WoD” is perhaps my biggest hot button and is just one example of where traditional conservatives and I part company.

The “War on Drugs” is, has been, and will always be, a miserable failure by any objective standard. Assuming, of course, “objective standard” means stopping the flow of illegal drugs into the country or reducing the number of people, in relative or absolute terms, that use said illegal drugs. The only beneficiaries of the War on Drugs are the bureaucrats and minions of the various government entities (DEA, FBI, and their state and local equivalents) charged with enforcing our bizarre drug policies. The DEA alone employs 10,891 people and will consume $2.4 billion dollars of our tax money this year. The DEA’s growth rate is astounding, as well…up from 2,775 employees and a budget of “only” $65.2 million in 1972. That’s a lot of damned money down a rat-hole, ain’t it? Or, to look at it another way, $2.4 billion dollars would buy a lot of F-22s.

It took the United States 13 years, in the case of alcohol, to realize it is futile to legislate morality when it comes to prohibiting what reasonable and responsible people ingest. People are going to eat, drink, or smoke whatever they want, the law be damned. That was true during Prohibition and it’s true today. And the national crime rate soared during Prohibition. Sound familiar?

I’ve long been in favor of the so-called “Dutch Model.” I’ve seen it and I believe the Dutch policy works, regardless of objections to the contrary found at the Wiki link I’ve given. Yet the American public, and a large percentage of the EU, as well, continue to reject what the Dutch have effectively lived with for years. Deep down inside I think the majority of the American public thinks it’s just OK to persecute “them.” We need someone to kick around, right?

You can find…if you’re interested…additional arguments on drug prohibition, pro and con, here.

Portales WX Report...

The above is what the WX Channel’s web site said about our weather just before I turned in last night, and here’s the “warning” that accompanied the graphic.








True to form, I woke up this morning to see there’s only about a half-inch of snow on the ground. Gloom ‘n’ Doom, unrealized yet again. WX forecasters: there are no greater pessimists in life. It is bloody cold, though!

Here’s what I woke up to this morning:

You’ll note we had some pretty stiff winds last evening, and I think the wind-chill number in the graphic is understated. The winds have diminished a bit this morning, but as I said: it’s still bloody cold. I popped outside this morning to read the gauge on my propane tank, and I’m good-to-go for another 24 hours or so before I’ll need to give Albert The Propane Guy a call. My “inside gauge” is an LED read-out that’s calibrated in fourths…and I’m showing a quarter of a tank. It can be a problem if one relies solely on those LEDs for tank status, because you can go from 25% to Zero instantaneously if you don’t pay attention. Not good. One worries about that sort of thing when it gets really cold.

A day like today would be totally unremarkable were I still in, say, Rochester, NY. I’d just brush off the snow and drive on in to work: No Big Deal. A day like today would be downright balmy were I still here:

The very definition of cold. “The lowest recorded temperature was -50°F in 1983.” No kidding. I saw temps of -35 degrees-- absolute, not wind-chill -- while I was stationed there, "there" being Fortuna Air Force Station, ND. Coldest weather I have experienced, ever. Makes one wonder why people would choose to live in such a place.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

This is Unusual

Dang, but I love weather! It’s a fascinating subject. But…I haven’t seen a forecast map like this in quite a while, not for this part of the country, at least. And most assuredly, not this combination of regional WX…rain, snow, mix, ice, and strong storms. Although I’ve been known to bitch about snow (ed: really?), I deal with it. But I hate ice.

You take care, Lou!

A Change in the Weather...

The WX forecast changed. Now we have this…










Oh, Goody. P-Town is in “northern Roosevelt County” (should I have made that all caps?), so that means snow. Just how much remains to be seen, because… know how those WX forecasters can be. Doom, gloom, and all that. But: I’m glad I’m not going anywhere. The Green Hornet hates snow.

Back to Normal Again

We lost an F-16 in Iraq yesterday, and the “we” is up close and personal. From yesterday’s Clovis News-Journal:
The pilot of a Cannon Air Force Base F-16 fighter jet that crashed Monday in Iraq is still missing, Air Force officials said.
The pilot was not found at the crash site, the Air Force said. The Air Force has not identified the pilot nor said to which base or unit the pilot was assigned. Cannon officials said the pilot was not stationed at Cannon.

Needless to say, folks in this neck of the woods are relieved, but that doesn’t mitigate the fact we’ve lost another hero. Lex posted a piece on Close Air Support yesterday, and this loss, specifically. He knows from whence he speaks, because, well, he was in the business. And as he said: the news is hard, and it gets harder.

I’ll bet most Congresscritters just hate to see this list come out. Some predictable winners and some interesting categories, e.g., “Meanest,” “Biggest Windbag,” and “Babe” (“Hunk” for men). Maria Cantwell as “Babe?” I’m sorry…I just don’t see it. But Mary Landrieu? In a frickin’ heartbeat!! South Dakota’s Stephanie Herseth, too. Via Real Clear Politics.

I tend to talk more about TV ads I don’t like than those I do. Well, here’s my favorite ad at the moment, and I like it a lot. I’m not alone: the YouTube video has been viewed 33,423 times (as of last evening) and “favorited” 445 times. That’s a lot. The soundtrack to the ad is by a band called HEM; the song is “Half Acre,” and you can hear a 30 second snippet here (requires Real Player); their home page is here. Actually, you can hear more than 30 seconds just by playing the ad, which is a minute long. But nonetheless, it’s truly a beautiful song and the perfect soundtrack to that ad.
The advertisement is a wonderful testimonial to the effectiveness of The Golden Rule. Or, put another way, it’s a series of mutually-reinforcing random acts of kindness. I wish there were more ads like this. Inspirational.

Bravo, Liberty Mutual! If I needed insurance, I’d buy it from you. (Am I the guy that’s supposedly immune from advertising? Really?)

Glenn Reynolds, the Instapundit, writing in his TCS Daily column (“A Second American Civil War?”):
Nonetheless, Card's cautionary tale is worth bearing in mind. Civil wars are, traditionally, among the most bloody, and the hardest to prevent once the ball gets rolling. So what do we do?

One question is "who's 'we' here?" I don't see much of a sign that the American public -- which, after all, overwhelmingly favored centrists in this month's elections -- is as divided as Card suggests. But -- as Card also notes -- the elites are much more divided, and the media tend to play up those divisions, because division and conflict are good story-drivers. ("We live in a time when moderates are treated worse than extremists, being punished as if they were more fanatical than the actual fanatics.") To the "activist" crowd on the left and right, people who don't share their views 100% are evil, and on the other side. This tends to backfire politically, which I think is why the elections favored centrists this time, but that doesn't stop the polarization. In a way, it tends to make it worse.

I’m generally “off” politics at the moment, and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. Why? I’m simply sick-to-frickin’-DEATH of it, all of it. Most of the political views one reads in the blogosphere are written by the folks Reynolds describes as “activists,” aka extremists. This is especially true on the Left, but the Right isn’t immune. And I’ve had bloody well enough of extreme views for the moment. All that said, Mr. Reynolds’ column struck a chord with me…

So. A major cold-front is sweeping down from the north. The wind is picking up, and we’re likely to reach today’s high temp of 48 degrees sometime in late morning, after which the mercury will fall and keep falling until we bottom out around 15 degrees tonight. Tomorrow’s forecast is for snow flurries, with a high of 39 degrees. I expect no sympathy from you residents of the Northern Tier.
But…I’m steeling myself, psychologically, for the onset of winter. Which means remembering to leave the faucets dripping so as not to freeze up, burning through ten gallons of propane a week, and wearing sweaters and my fleece slippers in the house, instead of summer’s tee shirt and shorts (or less). {sigh}
It is what it is… But that doesn’t mean I have to like it!

Today’s Pic: Art? I post, you decide. A work in SFO’s Museum of Modern Art. Art or no, I thought it was pretty cool. Cool enough for a photo, anyway. August, 2001.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

A Lengthy Reminiscence: Part Four (and Final)

TSMP in the Forbidden City.  She did touristy stuff while I froze my ass off at work. 

More Forbidden City
Still More Forbidden City
The tale continues…earlier installments are just below. (ed: still sorta true - see below for Parts One and Two)

After about five days of work, we (the client and I) finished editing the RFP, producing a final document which was ready to be put “on the street” for prospective bidders. One of the final activities was to wrap up some administrative details, which necessitated a visit to the Chinese government contracting authority who handled the business end of the deal. The contracting authority was an entity separate and apart from the Ministry of Rails and was responsible for oversight of the project. The purpose of my visit with these guys was to verify that the consulting contract had been completed to the MOR’s satisfaction; all items on the Statement of Work, including the deliverables (the RFP), were done; and EDS could submit our bill for services rendered. I delivered a written statement from MOR saying the work had been completed to their satisfaction, and from my point of view that should have been the end of it. But first I had to complete an interview with a contracting officer.
The contracting officer was a middle-aged, bilingual bureaucrat who spoke excellent English, and my visit with him was anything but pleasant. I suppose the guy had to justify his existence, because I was subjected to a half-hour’s worth of what could only be called an interrogation…in the worst sense of the word. While I wasn’t waterboarded or anything, it was close. A clerk or some sort of minor functionary ushered me into a small bare office where the interview took place. The office was furnished only with a desk, two metal chairs, and was lit by a single naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling. The office resembled the set of a bad spy movie, which is one of the reasons I characterize this interview as an interrogation.

As I entered the room the officer, sitting behind the desk, pointed to a chair in front of the desk and instructed me to “sit.” He gave me his name, took a few minutes to read the MOR documents and then began to pepper me with rapid-fire questions about the nature of the work, why it took so many hours to complete, who were my principal counterparts at MOR, did they express any dissatisfaction with my work or the deliverables, were there any loose ends, did I give MOR my very best efforts and so on. The officer asked many of the questions over and over, some were repeated several times. He abruptly concluded the interview by handing me some documents and dismissing me, literally, with a “Very well. You may go.” And that was it. He didn’t rise from behind the desk and there was no parting handshake. Just a curt “You may go.” I walked out of the office, and the building, more than a little angry. This encounter had been completely different than the sum total of my other experiences the past week, and I was mildly shocked. Maybe the guy was having a bad day, or maybe this was just the way they did business. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t pleasant, as I said. But it was over.

I returned to MOR’s offices and gave them their copies of the documents given to me by the contracting officer. I was then led to the same conference room where the week’s activities had begun, and was surprised to see all my project counterparts, the Chief Engineer, Wen, and several other people gathered there. What followed were several speeches (in Chinese) by the Chief Engineer and the junior engineers, many smiles, thank-yous, and handshakes all around. I, in turn, made a brief speech thanking them for their hospitality, cooperation, and hard work. All very formal!

The Chief Engineer presented with me with a parting gift, followed by a brief period of informal socializing, with tea and sweet cakes. The Chief Engineer asked (through Wen) when I was leaving Beijing (day after tomorrow), and what were my plans for the following day? I replied TSMP and I were going to do more sightseeing, after which the Chief Engineer had a brief exchange with one of his subordinates. Wen then told me the Chief Engineer was giving me the car and a driver for the day tomorrow, and we were going to go to the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs. Wen told me the car and the trip were rewards for a job well-done. And then it was time to go. It goes without saying that those two experiences, back-to-back, were as different as night and day…a true “good cop, bad cop” kinda thing!

PLA Soldiers on the Wall
Wen, car, and driver arrived at the Shangri-La early the following morning and we were off to the Great Wall, which was about an hour’s drive outside of the city. Once again, it was cold. Bone chilling cold, and if that Lada had any heat, it only got to the occupants of the front seat. TSMP and I shivered in the back. We arrived at the Great Wall and spent about two hours there, clambering all around, taking lots of photos, and just generally having a marvelous time. TSMP and I were impressed with the scale and scope of the Wall, its skillful restoration, and the sheer numbers of people that were there. There were literally thousands of people, the crowds were amazing. The majority of the people were Chinese, including quite a few PLA soldiers and officers. There were also many tourists of every conceivable nationality. The people-watching opportunities were unlimited and fascinating.

Wen gave us a running commentary of the history of the Wall all through out our visit and included lots of trivia, including the fact that I was now a “real man.” Say what? Wen explained there’s an old Chinese proverb that says a man isn’t truly a man until he’s stood upon the Great Wall. Well, Allll-RIGHT!!! I’m a man, spelled M-A-N… da, da, da-DAH! (Apologies to Muddy Waters.)  (pic: Wen and TSMP on the Wall)

We had lunch and did some shopping at an artists’ mall (for lack of a better word), where we picked up a beautiful large watercolor painting of blooming cherry blossoms, done in the classic Chinese motif. As an aside of no purpose whatsoever, that painting was one of the few items TSMP decided to keep when we ended.

And then it was on to the Ming Tombs (there are great photos and external links at this reference), which weren’t nearly as interesting (to me) as the Great Wall. Whereas the Great Wall was over-run with tourists, we were virtually alone at the Ming Tombs, a fact I found rather strange. The architecture was great, as was the extensive collection of statuary, but the cold was really beginning to get to me by the time we arrived at the Tombs. And, as I mentioned previously, the lack of heat in the car meant that warming up was a virtual impossibility. (pic: At the Ming Tombs)

We capped off the day with a tremendous meal in a roadside restaurant on the way back into the city. The meal, and the restaurant, seemed pre-arranged. Our driver pulled right into the restaurant’s “parking lot” with no prompting from anyone, and we all got out of the car and went inside. An unusual aspect of this experience is the restaurant’s proprietors wouldn’t let us eat in the main dining room; we were ushered upstairs to a small room where the four of us ate, alone. I though that rather odd. But, that’s a small point. The meal, as I said, was tremendous. The four of us shared what had to be 15 main course dishes, all delicious, and all served up with great flair. There was meat, chicken, a huge baked fish (bass, I think), and numerous vegetables, some spicy hot, and some not. Each dish was deposited on one of those large lazy-susans one finds in Chinese restaurants all over the world, and we ate Chinese style. That meal was the best meal I had while in China.

We got back to the hotel in the early evening. TSMP, Wen, and I got out of the car and said our good-byes. Wen blushed, very visibly, when TSMP ignored his outstretched hand and gave him a hug and a big kiss on his cheek instead. The good-byes were quite poignant, as TSMP and I had become quite attached to Wen during the week. And it all went by SO fast…

And so we left for Tokyo the following day. Our arrival at Narita, and the subsequent bus ride into Tokyo was something of a relief. TSMP and I both arrived at that particular conclusion simultaneously, remarking on that fact to each other nearly at the same time. We agreed that it was largely because we were now in familiar surroundings, the known versus the unknown. It was good to see lots of cars, lots of traffic, and above all, lots of light. Beijing was unbelievably dark. (pic: back in familiar territory - Tokyo)

Bedtime in Japan - at one of TSMP's host family's house
Why I love Japan - Beer Machines!
TSMP and her best friend Junko
We spent a week in Tokyo and the surrounding vicinity (including Christmas Day), staying and visiting with friends and TSMP’s host families from her Rotary exchange student days. The week in Tokyo is worth a story all its own, so I won’t go into detail, except to say it was something of a sentimental journey. TSMP and I met in Tokyo in 1975, when she was an exchange student at Sofia University. Yeah, she milked that exchange student thing for all it was worth, and then some!
Some final observations I was unable to work into the foregoing narrative(s)…

Besides being dark and cold, Beijing was also the most polluted city I’ve ever visited, bar none. There was a fine layer of soot all over everything in our hotel room by the end of the day, despite the Herculean efforts of the housekeeping staff.

Each city I’ve ever visited outside the US has a characteristic and unique…uh…aroma. Beijing smelled old to me. It was a musty sort of smell, a combination of coal smoke, diesel exhaust, natural dust, and construction dust plus an indeterminate “other.” As I said: unique.

The elevators at the Shangri-La had carpets inside with the day of the week lavishly embroidered on them, i.e., “Monday,” “Tuesday,” etc.. TSMP and I never figured out when, or how, the carpets were changed. We made a game of trying to catch the staff changing out the carpets, hanging out in and around the elevators at midnight, but we never saw them do it. And the “day of the week” changed precisely at midnight!

While I'm on about the hotel, I have to mention the servers in the Lobby Lounge, who were all beautiful, tall young women dressed in qipaos, the silky, clingy, traditional female Chinese dress. The one with the slits up the side…all the way to mid-thigh. And the servers were quite friendly, too, bordering on flirtatious. I got several hard looks from TSMP on account of that fact. Well, that and my trying-not-to-be-obvious leering.

We thought our driver was a member of the Chinese KGB (or equivalent thereof). We always had the same driver, he never said a word, and he was always observing us in his rear-view mirror. We were sure he spoke English, even though Wen said he didn’t. TSMP and I devised several “tests” that convinced us the guy did indeed understand English. That aspect of the trip was kinda strange, yet fun and interesting.

And finally…I replaced that dishrag, the one that started this series of incredibly long posts, with an English tea towel. That tea towel was, up until now, used for the sole purpose of drying my glasses after I wash them. And I’ve had it nearly as long as the dishrag it replaced. Don’t get me started on how I came to acquire that rag. Or where. ‘Tis a whole nuther story, as they say…

Blackbird Redux

Today’s Pic(s): As the title of this post indicates, two more shots of the SR-71 at the Strategic Air and Space Museum near Omaha. I apologize for the quality of the images. The excuse explanation is the photos were taken with a first-generation digital camera, whose sensor sported a mere one megapixel. But, the pics do give one an idea, however grainy, of the subject matter. As always, click the pic for the larger image.

We must never forget that freedom is never really free.” Words to remember.

A couple of fun links from today’s Lileks: Bollywood action movie FX and Bugger! (an Aussie ad). Both will make ya smile at the very least.

And now it’s off to tap out the final installment of “A Lengthy Reminiscence.” I think.

Monday, November 27, 2006

A Lengthy Reminiscence: Part Three

I have a lot of memories about the Beijing trip, but the one that stands out most is this: it was cold. From the Wikipedia entry on Beijing:

The city's climate is harsh, characterized by hot, humid summers due to the East Asian monsoon, and cold, windy, dry winters that reflect the influence of the vast Siberian anticyclone. Average temperatures in January are at around -7 to -4 °C, while average temperatures in July are at 25 to 26 °C. Annual precipitation is over 600 mm, with 75% of that in summer.

Minus 7 Celsius is 20 degrees Fahrenheit. And keep in mind, those are averages. We were at least that cold the whole time I was there, if not colder. I’m not stupid…I knew it would be cold. Both The Second Mrs. Pennington (ed: "PK" in the photo titles) and I brought clothes appropriate for the weather, as we anticipated we’d be doing more than a bit of outdoor sightseeing. I assumed the Ministry of Rails (MOR) offices would be comfortable (read that: heated), but I was wrong. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

To pick up the tale…

I scheduled our trip so TSMP and I would have one full day to adjust and work off the jet lag after arriving in Beijing and before I began work. The evening we arrived in Beijing was a low-level affair. We checked in, went up to our room, cleaned up and went back downstairs to have a couple of Tsingtaos in the Lobby Lounge, followed by dinner in one of the four hotel restaurants. We turned in after dinner and slept late the following morning.

Our first full day in Beijing was overcast, slightly breezy, and cold. TSMP and I bundled up after breakfast, went downstairs to the lobby and asked the concierge to call a taxi for us. Keep in mind: this is 1991, and as such, was a bit before the economic boom that swept China in the late ‘90s. Taxis, among other things, were a pretty rare commodity in Beijing at the time. If one was smart, one made arrangements for a taxi, including a time and place for the taxi driver to meet you and return you to your point of origin. I learned this from the Shangri-La concierge our first day, and we made our arrangements accordingly.
TSMP and I spent our first day hanging around Tiananmen Square and environs. The square is huge, reputedly the largest open air square in the world. I believe it. We spent the entire day there, doing things like watching the changing of the guard at Mao’s tomb, walking along the moat of the Imperial Palace, scoping out the Peoples Architecture, and wandering around the shopping areas adjacent to the square. We were struck by how friendly the people were and by the large numbers of men in uniform…seemingly every third male we saw was in a uniform of one sort or another. English signage, as may be expected, was in short supply. This wasn’t as big a problem as you might think, because TSMP discovered in very short order that she could read Chinese ideograms quite easily, and that those ideograms were roughly equivalent in meaning to the same, or similar, Japanese kanji. We were also equipped with a copy of Fodor’s Beijing guidebook, so we got around very well. (I’ve mentioned this elsewhere on the blog, but just for the record: TSMP speaks, reads, and writes fluent Japanese. Or at least she used to.)
The day was punctuated with quite a few encounters with English-speaking Chinese, and every single one of our encounters was pleasant and very friendly. With one exception. TSMP attempted to strike up a conversation with a very young, very tall (well over six feet) PLA soldier during the changing of the guard ceremony at Mao’s tomb. He simply glared at her the whole time, acknowledging her presence but refusing her attempts to talk to him. I was decidedly uncomfortable during the whole exchange, which only lasted a couple of minutes. But, hey…that’s her, and that’s her style. She’s a button-pusher from the word Go.

We returned to the hotel in the late afternoon, took a nap, and then went downstairs for dinner. I noticed the type of restaurants have changed at the Shangri-La over the last 15 years. We had dinner our first full night at the Shangri-La in a wonderful French restaurant that’s no longer there. And the cuisine was remarkable, what with a resident French chef overseeing the whole affair. The food was every bit as good as that served in any restaurant in France I ever ate in, and that’s saying a lot. We turned in early that evening, as I wanted to be well-rested for my first day on the job.

I had been given a contact number to call upon my arrival in Beijing to verify I had indeed arrived and was ready to go to work. I made that call our first day “on the ground” and was told I would be picked up the following morning at 0900 and driven to MOR’s offices. I was downstairs at the appointed time when the car—an old, clunky, wheezy Russian Lada—arrived with the driver, an interpreter, and a young female engineer inside. They got out of the car, we introduced ourselves and then piled back into the car for the drive to MOR’s offices.

Ten minutes or so later we arrived. The MOR’s offices were in a low, two-story concrete block building surrounded by a high masonry wall with a steel sliding gate, attended by an armed guard. The offices appeared to be in a residential neighborhood and had no identifying signs (or anything else) to indicate what the building might be. The interpreter, a young man by the name of Mr. Wen, explained that the offices were MOR’s engineering facility. We went into the building, walked down a long, dimly-lit corridor, up a staircase to the second floor, down another corridor, and into a medium-sized conference room, where there were about five people waiting. We made our introductions, passed out business cards, and I made the ceremonial gift presentations (small boxes of Godiva chocolates), part of the ritual of doing business in China. An attendant brought tea, we sat down at a conference table, and we began to go over the schedule for the week.

 At Work
It was then I noticed that everyone in the room was dressed in parkas and were wearing those fingerless gloves one sees here and there. And that it was cold, very cold, in the room. When I say “cold,” I mean it was 40 degrees F inside, while the outside temperature was in the 20s. You could almost, but not quite, see your breath as you breathed in and out. I had taken off my overcoat when I arrived, and it wasn’t too very long before I put it back on, to many smiles around the table. That morning was the first and last time I went to the office in “appropriate business attire,” to wit: suit and tie. My MOR counterparts were dressed in heavy sweaters and parkas, and although I didn’t bring a parka, I had several sweaters and warm wool casual pants. I dressed accordingly for the remainder of the week. But I was still cold the whole time. I drank a lot of tea over the course of the next week, using my teacup as an impromptu sort of hand warmer.

 MOR Staff - Male Engineer, Two Female Engineers, the Chief Engineer and Wen, My Translator
I’ll not go into detail about the business. Suffice to say that my days were spent doing a tedious, but necessary, line-by-line edit of the Request for Proposal. We edited the RFP as a group, and my primary interactions were with the previously mentioned mid-30s female engineer, an older male engineer, and our interpreter. We were joined occasionally (at least once a day) by the Chief Engineer, a man in his mid- to late 60s, who was obviously idolized by his subordinates. I’ve never seen another senior manager given such deference and obvious admiration by his or her subordinates, ever. I’m sure there’s some sort of back-story there, but I never learned what it was. At any rate, I’d arrive at the MOR offices every day just after 0900, work until 1230 or so, return to the hotel for a two-hour lunch break, go back to the office and work until 1800 or so. Nights were spent incorporating the day’s edits into the master document, which I had on my laptop. Rinse, repeat…until we were done.

 Wen and Me in Tiananmen Square
Wen (“Please. Just call me Wen, not Mister Wen”) and I developed a close and friendly relationship over the course of the week, primarily because there was not much of a language barrier, and also due to the fact that we spent a lot of time together. Wen would arrive at the hotel by bicycle every morning about a half-hour before the car. I discovered this the second day when I saw him waiting outside the hotel, in the cold. He refused to come into the hotel, even after much pleading and persuading on the part of TSMP and myself. But we finally convinced him to join us inside, and on the third day we talked him into having breakfast with us in the hotel restaurant. That may or may not have been a smart move, as Wen was mildly embarrassed because he had never used a knife and fork before. We solved that situation by asking the waiter for chopsticks, which were delivered with a mild look of disapproval on the part of the waiter. Wen explained to us that “ordinary” Chinese were heavily discouraged from mixing with foreigners and were generally prohibited from entering the western hotels, except on business. We convinced him that it was indeed business when he joined us in the hotel, and he finally, but reluctantly agreed. TSMP and I would pick up quite a few tidbits of information like that from Wen as he became more comfortable with us.

We learned that Wen was from a small village in the south of China and went to university in Beijing. The government assigned him his job as an MOR interpreter following his graduation from university. Wen had absolutely no choice in the matter, at all. He lived in an MOR dormitory with other young males. One evening after work, TSMP, Wen, and I were sitting in the lobby lounge having a beer, and TSMP, in her inimitable style, asked if Wen had a girlfriend. Wen said no, but he used to have one. “What happened?”, asked TSMP. “She wanted too much,” replied Wen. TSMP: “Too much?” Wen: “Yes. She wanted a car! Can you believe that? She actually wanted a car!” TSMP changed the subject…
My, but I do go on, eh? There’s a lot to say about this trip, but I don’t want to write the Not-So-Great American Novel while doing so. One more installment and I think I’m done. More tomorrow.


It’s a gray and chilly day here on the High Plains…winter’s a comin’! There’s actually snow in the forecast for this coming Thursday, and we’re about to endure a run of low 20s and teens for our overnight lows. The heating season is upon us!

Today’s Pic(s): Two views of the SR-71 on display at the Strategic Air and Space Museum (formerly the Strategic Air Command museum), near Omaha, NE. I’ve seen a couple of other static display SR-71s, but this is the only one I know of that’s displayed inside a building, other than a hangar. This SR-71 is the centerpiece of what is a very high quality museum…one of the better USAF museums in existence. If you’re ever on I-80 heading west out of Omaha, you’ll really miss something good if you don’t stop and spend a few hours. They have a B-36, too! Photos taken in May, 2000.

And now to work on the third installment of “A Lengthy Reminiscence.”

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Hong Kong and On to Beijing... (Part Two of " A Lengthy Reminiscence")

I tore up El Casa Móvil De Pennington last evening searching for something that doesn’t exist, or at least doesn’t exist in this little corner of the space-time continuum. I seemed to remember examining the contents of a shopping bag while I was looking for something else in the not-so-distant past. That shopping bag, emblazoned with “White Peacock Shopping Center” (or white mouse, white elephant, or something white, anyway) contained some souvenirs of the Beijing trip. I was hoping to find the bag so I could use those souvenirs to jog the ol’ memory as I try to complete the tale begun yesterday. Alas: nothing. Well, a little something, anyway. I did find a box of old business cards printed for the trip, English on the one side and Chinese on the other. And $85.00 in Canadian money, for what that’s worth.

About the cards…Chinese is a phonic language, meaning that various ideograms can be read in entirely different ways and can have different meanings, depending on the context of what you’re writing about. The ideograms on my business card read something like Nō-maan Pen-ling-tōn, and supposedly mean (literally) “Silken Net of Words.” I got the literal translation from someone I trust, but the characters could actually say “Has an Unhealthy Affinity for Goats,” for all I know. No one laughed when I passed them out in Beijing, though, and that’s a good thing.

On with our story.

Flying in business class is most definitely better than cattle-car: service is attentive, the food is actually edible (and quite good), you eat off of real china, using real silver, the drinks are free, and the seats are roomier than those in coach. At least that’s the way it was, it could have changed by now. All in all, the 16 hours in the air between Detroit and Hong Kong, plus a two-hour layover in Narita (Tokyo) passed uneventfully and fairly comfortably.

Flying into Hong Kong, at least into the old Kai Tak airport (now closed), deserves special mention. Since we arrived in the evening, we could literally look into the tower block apartments and see people walking around there in. See this link for photos that explain, in pictures, what I cannot adequately put into words. Landing at Kai Tak was an amazing and somewhat harrowing experience.

Hong Kong was a blur. We arrived sometime in the early evening, say around 1800 hrs or so, jet-lagged and quite tired. Frank Wong, EDS’ manager in Hong Kong at the time, met us at the airport and was a great help getting us out of the airport quickly and efficiently. The three of us took a taxi to our hotel, and Frank waited in the bar while TSMP and I checked in, went up to our room to freshen up and change clothes, and return to the bar in short order. Frank and I did the requisite business over a couple of drinks, and then Frank graciously offered to “show us around.” TSMP’s eyes lit up like the Fourth of July at Frank’s offer, jet lag seemingly gone, and we were out the door and into the street in short order. We didn’t get back to the hotel until the wee, wee hours of the morning…like 0400 or so. (Photo - TSMP on a HK street)

Frank is a Chinese-American, speaks fluent Chinese, and knows/knew Hong Kong like the back of his hand. HK is also one of those “cities that never sleep,” and the three of us spent the night/morning cruising around some of the lesser known streets and alleys of Hong Kong, eating, drinking, and just letting it all soak in. A marvelous time, with lots of laughs, punctuated with Frank’s repeated offers to host TSMP if she’d only stay in HK while I went to Beijing to conduct my business. She kept refusing, and he kept offering…all evening. I half-think he was serious. Anyhoo…the experience was a lot of fun and much, much different from the first and only other time I’d been in Hong Kong.

Two Pics - The Morning We Left Hong Kong

TSMP and I slept in that morning and took breakfast in our room. Since our flight to Beijing didn’t leave until late afternoon, we checked out of the hotel at the last possible minute, left our bags with the concierge and hit the streets again to do a bit of exploring, and, of course, lots of picture taking.

Our departure from Kai Tak was uneventful…the plane took off on time, and it was a Boeing 7xx, thankfully, rather than a Soviet-bloc Tupolev or Antonov, as I had feared when I learned we were flying Air China from HK to Beijing. The landing in Beijing, on the other hand, was a white-knuckle affair. Our descent seemed to take forever as we let down gradually into the thickest of pea-soup fogs I can remember. The first and only indication we were even close to the ground was the thump of the landing gear as we touched down. I’m not what one would call a comfortable flyer, and that experience was semi-terrifying, especially given the reputation of third-world airlines. But, we made it. I’m still not sure how the flight crew found the terminal, but they did.
Deplaning and walking through the terminal into the customs and immigration area was…uh…interesting. There were lots of young, very young, Peoples Liberation Army soldiers cradling AK-47s in their arms, walking around in pairs, everywhere. And they didn’t look upon the people deplaning with what I would call “kind” eyes. I had never seen as great a military presence in an airport in my life, and still haven’t, to this day. It was chilling.

Passing through customs and immigration was, once again, interesting. The immigration officer inspected our passports carefully, studying the visas for quite a while and asked us the usual questions… “where are you staying,” “the purpose of your visit,” “How long will you be in China,” etc., etc. He finally stamped our passports and we went to the baggage claim area, collected our bags, and proceeded out of the terminal, where we were mobbed by taxi drivers. I negotiated, as best I could, what seemed a reasonable fare into the city, the driver loaded our bags into the trunk of his car, and we were off. (I later found out I had paid three times the going rate for our taxi, but that’s another story.) 

I told you it was foggy. It was also dark, what with it being around 1900 hrs in mid-December. And dark isn’t the word. It was pitch-black. Beijing, in 1991, had to be the darkest city I had ever been in. There were absolutely NO street lights what-so-ever, and our driver took what I gathered to be a series of “short-cuts” into the city. We drove out of the airport (which was also very, very dark) down two lane roads, turning into two-lane streets, for about 30 minutes before we got into the city proper, which was also dark. Did I mention it was DARK?? People and animals would materialize out of the gloom, flash by our windows and disappear, to be replaced with more people and animals. There wasn’t much traffic at all, only trucks and the odd bus here and there. There were virtually no cars on the road.

Things brightened up a bit once we got into the city, but only slightly. All in all, it was about a 45-minute trip from the airport to the hotel, and TSMP and I heaved sighs of relief as we pulled up to the door of the Beijing Shangri-La hotel. A bellboy unloaded our bags and we went into the hotel to check in. The first phase of the trip was complete… we had arrived successfully at our destination.

Looking out the hotel window the morning after we arrived.  The air was bad!

To be continued…but in the meantime, check out that Shangri-La link, and take a couple of the virtual tours. Pretty neat stuff!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

A Lengthy Two Parts

(Part One of a lengthy two- [or perhaps more] part post.)

Hey, come on try a little
Nothing is forever
There's got to be something better than
In the middle
But me & Cinderella,
We put it all together
We can drive it home
With one headlight

-The Wallflowers

“Nothing is forever.” That was brought home to me (once again) this past week when I got rid of another relic from “Former Happy Days.” This time it was an old, old dishcloth that’s been hanging around for…oh…about the last 15 years or so. I only got rid of it because, in the course of drying a dish, I ripped a big hole in the thread-bare fabric. I probably should have tossed the thing at least a year ago, but…it was special.
And what’s special about a dishcloth, you ask? It was a gift; a gift from a man who owns a construction company in Tokyo, and as such, was emblazoned with his company’s logo and the ubiquitous “Green Cross” signifying on-the-job safety. So, the dishrag wasn’t really a dishrag; I just used it as one. It was actually a small terry cloth towel of a type typically worn by Japanese construction workers under their hardhats, much as we would wear a head-band. The man who gifted me the dishrag/head cloth—at my request—was one of The Second Mrs. Pennington’s “host fathers” from back in the day when she was a Rotary high school exchange student in Japan, and the occasion was a visit to this man’s home outside of Tokyo in the early ‘90s. And, of course, the act of throwing out the dishrag prompted me to reflect on its origins and the circumstances leading up to my acquisition of same.

Along about this time back in 1991 or so, TSMP and I were making preparations for a trip to Beijing. I was working on a consulting project to develop a Request for Proposal for a packet-switched data network for the Ministry of Railways in the Peoples Republic of China. The client requested a final, page-by-page edit of the RFP be done on-site at their offices in Beijing, before the end of the year.

To make a long story short, I convinced TSMP it would be a “good thing” if she came along. It didn’t take much to convince her, especially once I agreed that we would combine the trip to Beijing with a week’s vacation in Tokyo on the way home. We would fly from Detroit to Hong Kong, spend a day there liaising with the manager of EDS’ Hong Kong offices (we had no presence in Beijing), fly on to Beijing, do the job, and then return to Detroit via Tokyo. The only fly in the ointment was TSMP’s reluctance to drop a significant sum of money on her ticket; she saw no value at all in spending the additional money to upgrade her ticket from cattle-car to business class. (EDS’ travel policy at the time provided business class tickets for all flights over ten hours in duration; thus they were springing for a business class ticket. For me. TSMP’s ticket was on our dime.) I finally overcame her objections by pointing out the airline probably wouldn’t allow us to switch seats back and forth during the flight—as she wanted to do—and that 16 hours in a coach seat would be just a bit too much.

So, after much preparation, including a frantic one-day drive from Detroit to the Chinese consulate in Chicago and back to get our last-minute visas walked through the bureaucracy, we were off to Beijing. The next installment of this two-part post will contain my impressions of Beijing…as best as I can remember them.

Stay tuned.

(Photos added for update - Biz Class Menus.  Click for larger)