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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 58 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Hiking, Parts 23, 24, and 25



Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
Words and pictures

My wife and I make at least one trip to Las Vegas every year, sometimes more than one.  Usually those trips are co-scheduled with her family who fly in from Hawaii.  In case you ever wondered where people who live in paradise go on vacation, it's Vegas.  The clientele is so large that three of the local hotels, the California, the Main Street Station, and the Fremont have discovered a very fruitful revenue stream catering to vacationers from the Islands.

Normally, we engage in the usual Vegas-ish types of activities, gambling, entertainment, gambling, eating, gambling, sight-seeing, gambling... well, you get the picture.  Until I discovered hiking this past two years, it never entered my mind that there was anything else to do.  In preparation for this trip, which we coordinated with our middle daughter and her family, I searched for and found a book called "Hiking Las Vegas."  The author, Branch Whitney, researched, hiked, and described over 80 different hiking routes in three areas, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area about 18 miles to the southwest, Mount Charleston about 40 miles due west, and Lake Mead about 35 miles due east.  The hikes range from easy one-milers suitable for young children, all the way to double-digit highly technical Class 5's which usually involve ropes and pitons.  

We arrived a day early and did the first hike by ourselves.  This 4-mile out-and-back is called "The Muffins," named for a group of conglomerate rocks that somehow ended up atop Blue Diamond Hill. Since conglomerates always form at the bottom of things, their placement there is something of a geological mystery.  To get to the trailhead, we drove out Charleston Road, which becomes Red Rock Canyon Road, past the Visitors Center to the Cowboy Trail Rides stables.  I should have parked in the dirt area just off the highway, but instead drove on up to another parking area near the corral.  This would later prove to be a mistake.



We got out of the car, geared up, and started out.  This particular area is criss-crossed with abundant mountain biking trails, which carry quaint names such as "Boneshaker" and "Bob Gnarly."  Hence, for the first-timer finding and staying on the correct path can be a bit difficult.  I missed a trail fork just past a dry wash and we ended up walking, not towards the clearly visible goal, but into a deep box canyon.  
 Looked pretty simple at this point.
 And that's definitely where we wanted to go.
But somehow we ended up here.

I don't like backtracking, so we attempted to bushwhack our way to the correct trail, stumbling over rocks and avoiding (mostly) some rather annoying light blue thorn bushes, all the while keeping a wary eye out for snakes.  Despite our best navigational efforts, we ended up in that canyon, trying to circle around the ridge and approach the Muffins from behind.  At one point, we left a trail and climbed straight up to a knife-edged ridge, hoping that perspective might provide us the proper direction.  There was a trail there, but it dead-ended.  The good thing was that we could now see, about a hundred feet below, the trail we should have been on.  So down we went.  The slope was steep, I would guess greater than 40 degrees, and covered with scree, a catchall term describing any manner of surface consisting of loose rock and dust.  Cheryl navigated it quite well.  But about halfway down, I slipped and gashed my knee and hand.  Muttering imprecations to, and about myself, I continued my descent, eventually gaining the trail.  From there, it was comparatively easy, except for the steep climb.  



We finally gained the top, and the view was as promised.

Looking back the other way, the trail we had worked to hard to find was clearly visible on the land below.


After a rest, we turned and headed back.  The way down was considerably easier to follow, so we were able to take a far more direct route.  But it was now late afternoon on a Sunday, and I was concerned that we would now be car-trapped on the wrong side of a steel gate.  Arriving at the parking area though, we found a note under the wipers telling us how to exit and how to re-lock the gate behind us.  Nice folks.

Two days later, with our son-in-law in attendance at his conference, we took the kids to what was described as a short and easy 1-mile out and back along a combo trail, Lost Creek, and the Children's Discovery Trail.  


This time, we entered the park, using our NPS annual pass, and drove along the scenic drive to Willow Springs Road.  Up this way a bit was a gravel parking lot.  From there, the trailhead was obvious and visible.  With our 18-month-old grandson in a backpack carrier, and his 3-year-old sister bravely taking the lead, we headed out.  The trail was level for the first couple hundred yards, but then started to climb and twist around some truck-sized boulders.  




Elena, our National Geographic Girl

At one point we looked up to see a couple of technical climbers doing it the hard way.


Along the path, there were some lovely cactus blossoms in full bloom.





At the end of the trail, we dead-ended into a small box canyon.  A small seasonal waterfall was still trickling over the edge of the rocks above.





We rested a bit, and headed back, this time taking the outer loop, giving us some different scenery to view on the way.

Lost Creek, aptly named.

I was a little unsure as to how the kids would take to the hike, but they managed very well.  Elena especially, at three years old, took to the adventure like a veteran.



The third, and last hike we took during our stay was one that finally our son-in-law would be able to participate, freed from work by the end of his conference.  We returned to Red Rock Canyon and drove to the White Rock Canyon road and took the bumpy road to the upper parking lot.  We got out, geared up, and headed out.  Unfortunately, the kids had already had a pretty active day, and they were in no mood for a desert stroll.  They headed back to the car, and Cheryl and I continued swiftly uptrail.  This was pretty standard stuff, a fairly straight and not too tough ascent for about three-quarters of a mile.  At the top, we could look down on the top of the Keystone Thrust earthquake fault.  Pretty interesting stuff for people who once lived in California. 



 The faultline runs down this canyon.

 As we made the turnaround, the clouds began to darken and rain began to fall, which speeded up our return to the parking lot.


It was our first hiking foray outside the heavily forested Shenandoah region we were used to, and it proved to be both a challenge and entertaining.  But we were very fortunate in that the whole week the Vegas area was visited by awesome weather, with temperatures ranging from the low 70's to the low 80's, a good 10 to 15 degrees cooler than normal.  I don't think we could have made these hikes if the temps had been their normal mid-90's, something to think about for next time.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Hiking, Part 22



Copyright © 2015
By Ralph F. Couey
Words and photos

This weeks sojourn took me back to one of my favorite places, the Appalachian Trail south of U.S. 50.  This hike, while containing some steep climbs, is one of the easier stretches of this great trail, leaving the hiker with energy and time to take in the wonder.  This route goes along the ridge part of Sky Meadows State Park and then into the Thompson Wildlife Preserve.  It varies from forest to meadow, and the path is well-marked and not nearly as rocky and rooty as other stretches. It is a pleasure to hike.

There is a small parking area at the foot of Liberty Hill Lane, all but invisible from the highway.  For hikers going north, there lies the dangerous crossing of US 50, a four-lane racetrack split by a grassy median, before tackling the infamous "Roller Coaster" heading towards Virginia Route 7.

My route south began with a steep climb out of the parking area, ascending to the top of the ridgeline.  As I climbed, I happily saw that the spring wildflowers were still in bloom, including this beauty...

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Hiking, Parts 19, 20, and 21

"With the coming of spring,
I am calm again."
--Gustav Mahler

Copyright © 2015
Words and images
by Ralph F. Couey

Once the holidays pass, winter is something I just endure.  Throughout those long, cold months, I yearn deeply for the days when the air turns warm, the world awakens, and color returns to the landscape.  It seems that the older I get, the more impatient I am, waiting for the return of the season of life.

I turned to hiking last year mainly for exercise and to reduce the pounding on my joints that comes with running.  But I found something unexpected.  The peace and solace of the woods.

I'm covering three hikes in this posting, mainly because Cheryl and I are in training after several months away from regular exercise.  Plus, she is breaking in a brand new set of boots.  Next month, we go to Las Vegas and will spend a day or two hiking in the mountains south and west of the city.  Looking at the trail guides, those treks will involve a completely different kind of terrain than what we have grown used to here in verdant Virginia.

The Bluebell Loop

This past Sunday, once we had discharged our responsibilities at church, we managed to squeeze a little more time out of the lengthening day for a short jaunt.  We drove down south to the Bull Run-Occoquan trailhead, an easy stretch for a couple of aging boomers.  Just off the main trail, their is a spur called the Bluebell Loop.  Aptly named, for the landscape in spring is liberally sprinkled with those bright blue beauties, as well as another lovely bloom called Wild Blue Phlox (photo at the top of this post).

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

America and the Bus Ride

From Travellerspoint.com

Copyright © 2015
By Ralph F. Couey
Except cited image

There is a road.  It doesn't seem to have a beginning or an end, even though logic and reason mandate such bookends.  No one can remember the history of the road, only that it's always been there.

It's not a terribly remarkable stretch of pavement, as roads go, in that it is in some places straight and wide, and narrow and twisty in others.  It climbs hills and descends into valleys.  It passes through verdant forests, empty deserts, along shorelines and coastlines.  It bisects endless acres of stolid corn and dancing wheat, and witnessed by grazing animals in vast meadows.

The road is heavily traveled because it is a vital artery; the only way to get from where we've been to where we're going; an endless ribbon connecting departure and destination.

On this road is a bus.  It is owned by a bus line, whose owners and operators superficially acknowledge that they're providing a service.  But they are obsessed with profit; they want to always have the newest, the fanciest buses not because of the passengers, but because it makes the other bus companies look bad.  They advertise for passengers, but when their motivations are revealed, they are simply searching for the perfect way to con people into allowing the company to take them for a ride.  

Like all the other vehicles, this bus is traveling along this eternal highway.  But in looking closer, it is apparent that the bus's course is far from straight.  Inside the bus are not one, but two drivers, both fighting desperately for sole control of the bus.  As a result of this dispute, the bus is veering all over the road, first lurching to the left, and then to the right.  It's a dangerous way to drive, one that endangers the bus, it's passengers, and the other vehicles on the road.  But that doesn't matter to either driver.  The only thing that matters to them is to be the only hands on the wheel.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Forgive Others, Because He Forgave Us

Image from kevinsandlin.com

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
except quoted and cited passages
and sourced images.

Jeremiah 31:34
And they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, 
and every man his brother, saying, 
"Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, 
from the least of them unto the greatest of them," saith the Lord: 
for I will forgive their iniquity, 
and I will remember their sin no more.

I’m going to ask you to do something that may cause some of you some pain, and for that I apologize in advance. If you don't want to participate, I'll understand.

Close your eyes. But stay awake! Look into the past, through the years of your life. Find an event in which someone really hurt you. Not a momentary or passing thing, but an act of hate or even betrayal that cut deep into your heart. For a moment, try to re-experience that hurt, that pain, and that anger. Whatever that person or people did to you, it changed your life. You could almost say that your life exists in two parts, before that incident, and afterwards.

Now. Take a deep breath. And forgive that person.

Now, put yourself on the other side of that line. Think about the absolute worst thing you've ever done or said to another person. Granted, it may have felt good in the heat and anger of the moment, but it has chewed at you ever since.

How badly do you want that person to forgive you?

Now, think about God. Think about the millions of times and billions of ways humans now and in the past have done things to him, or in his name that would have destroyed any of us. What would he say to us?

Ephesians 2:1-22
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, 
following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, 
the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience
—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, 
carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, 
and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 
 But God, because of the great love with which he loved us, 
 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. 
 For by grace you have been saved through faith. 
And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.

We take things personally. It’s part of our human nature. And we also transgress, also because we’re human. Being a husband, I am intimately familiar with that. One of my younger colleagues, recently married, asked me what the secret was to a successful marriage. I replied, “Liberal use of the words, “Honey, I’m sorry. You were right all along.” He asked, “But what if you are right?” I said, “Irrelevant and immaterial, counselor.”

Monday, April 06, 2015

A Dream, a Door, and a Decision



"Hold fast to dreams'
For if dreams die,
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly."
--Langston Hughes

Dedicated to Luke Mitchem
who answered the call of his dreams
and chose the open door.
 
Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
except quoted and cited passages.

Dreams.

We all have them.  Some arrive with birth, born within as we enter this life.  Others we pick up as we traverse the pathway that defines our journey.  Some dreams are small; transient thoughts about what could be made better.  Others are big; transformational, yet seemingly unattainable.

They are with us every day, it seems; sitting on our shoulders, whispering in our ears.  Beckoning, seductive, causing an itch we can never quite reach to scratch.  

Most of us brush off or even ignore the dream and the accompanying temptation.  We'd rather live a safe life, one with security and predictability, and a regular paycheck to fund the car payment, the mortgage, and groceries.

But even within that bubble, we still yearn for something different, a life with some adventure, some risk, something that doesn't involve a commute, a cubicle, and a computer.  In those random, ephemeral moments, we realize that even the most opulent and comfortable cage...is still a cage.

Then one day, out of the clear blue, something happens.  Perhaps a job eliminated, a salary cut, an intolerable change in circumstances.  The path of predictability has veered.  We feel a gust of air, spin around and see that a door has magically appeared before us.  And it stands open.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Hiking, Part 18

Copyright 2015
By Ralph F. Couey
Words and pictures

Today we were lured to Lake Accotink Park by the rumor of nesting eagles in the area.  Alas, we were disappointed by the absence of the great raptors, but had a great hike anyway.

Lake Accotink is a reservoir surrounded by a 500-acre piece of paradise plunked down amidst the urban bee hive of Fairfax County.  The park lies less than 2 miles (as the eagle flies) from one of the busiest freeway interchanges in the entire Washington DC area, I-495 and I-66.  Stitched through the hills and around the lake are a multitude of trails that branch off the main path which widely circles the lake itself.  Accotink Creek was dammed to create the lake and the area has been a government facility, a camp during World War I, an Army officers' retreat, and finally a county park.  The main trail follows parts of the old railbed for the Orange and Alexandria railroad, an important Union rail line.  Today, a massive concrete and steel Norfolk Southern bridge crosses the creek in the place where a log trestle stood during the Civil War, at least until Jeb Stuart and his cavalry burned it down.

This trail shares space with the Fairfax Cross-County Trail, a conglomeration of interconnected trails which runs some 40 miles from Occoquan Regional Park in the south all the way to Great Falls Park, where it joins with the Potomac Heritage Trail

The weather started out cool, but warmed pretty quickly, although the wind retained a bit of a bite.  This would be Cheryl's first time out on the trail, so I thought this might be a good way to start the season for her, especially as she's breaking in a new pair of Merrill hiking boots.

There are several ways to approach the park.  We chose the route through the Ravensworth Farm neighborhood off Braddock Road.  We parked in the first lot we came to and after gearing up, went down an asphalt path to the marina.  Here was a beach, a carousel, a couple of snack bars and several picnic shelters, from the looks of things a very busy place after Memorial Day.

The path leaving the marina was wide and in excellent shape.  It undulated a bit as we walked along, but nothing like the steep climbs we had experienced in other places.  

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Marketing and the Octane Myth



Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey

I admit it.  I fell for it.  I believed it, that myth that was promulgated by gasoline retailers about octane.  I thought that the higher the octane rating, the more power I'd get out of the engine, and when you're a teen-aged boy with a brain bathed in testosterone, power is everything.

Even as an adult, I persisted in my ignorance.  Now, age doesn't always make you smarter, but in my case the facts finally caught up with me.

In the 1950's and 1960's, gasoline retailers used to duel with each other in advertisements about the octane rating of their product.  The way the adverts were worded, it was easy for the consumer to misinterpret the meaning.  Also, since high octane gas was more costly, it did handsome things to the company's bottom line.  In the '70's, (especially after the oil embargo) smaller cars with smaller, less powerful engines began to hit the roads.  Now, the tune changed to miles per gallon, and eventually the value of detergent additives.  Even to this day, however, if you were to ask the average Joe/Josephine on the street what octane is for, you'd likely get the wrong answer 9 out of 10 times.

Octane is a chemical which is added to gasoline for specific reasons.  It's sole purpose is to raise the compression ratio, and therefore the ignition point (when it catches fire), of the fuel.  Car and truck engines are not the same.  The game little 4-banger in a Dodge Neon, for example, is vastly different than the 12-cylinder monster that Lamborghini drops into their cars.  One of the most basic differences is in compression.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Civil War: Events of May 1865

On May 3rd, Georgia Governor Joseph Brown called a meeting of the state legislature when word came through that Confederate General Joe Johnston had surrendered.

The next day, Confederate General Richard Taylor surrendered the remaining troops in Alabama and Mississippi.

A man named Phillip Henry Mulkey was arrested in Eugene, Oregon on May 6th after he publicly shouted "Hurrah for Jeff Davis!".  A pro-union mob stormed the jail, but Mulkey escaped.

After nearly a month of eluding U.S. soldiers, Jefferson Davis is captured near Irwinville, Georgia on May 10th.

Also on the 10th, the Confederate vessel CSS Imogene became the last known ship to successfully run the Union blockade.

Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens was arrested at his estate, Liberty Hall, in Crawfordville, Georgia by the 4th Iowa Cavalry.

May 12th and 13th was the last significant battle of the Civil War at Palmito Ranch along the Rio Grande river east of Brownsville, Texas.  Union Colonel Theodore Brown, perhaps grasping for one last shot at glory, attacked a Confederate camp near Fort Brown, despite the unofficial truce that had been observed between the two sides.  Confederate Colonel John Ford successfully resisted the attack and the battle is generally considered a Confederate victory.  Perhaps the most significant event to come of this battle was the recording of the death of Private John J. Williams of the 34th Indiana Regiment.  He was the last combat death of the war.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Civil War: Events of April 1865

On April 1st, a Union combined force under General Phil Sheridan met and defeated Confederate General George Pickett's combined force at the strategic Five Forks.  The Southern withdrawal left in jeopardy the Southside Railroad, one of the few remaining lifelines for the Army of Northern Virginia.

From April 2nd through the 9th, Union General Edward Canby led a successful attack on Fort Blakely in Baldwin County, Alabama.  The defeat opened the doors for the occupation of the vital port of Mobile on the 12th.

General Grant finally achieved his breakthrough at Petersburg on April 2nd.  The Confederate lines crumbled as Lee frantically sent the remnants of his Army of Northern Virginia in the direction of Appomattox.  Upon receiving word that Lee was abandoning his positions, President Jefferson Davis ordered the evacuation of the Confederate government.

Also on the 2nd, Selma, Alabama fell to Union forces under James H. Wilson, defeating Confederate legend Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Union troops occupied Petersburg and Richmond on April 3rd.  The next day, Union President Lincoln arrived in Richmond to the sounds of cheers from hundreds of freed slaves.  Lincoln went to the Southern White House and sat at the desk that had belonged to Jefferson Davis.

The Union army now in full pursuit of Lee's Army fought a series of engagements between the 4th and the 7th.  In the Battle of Saylor's Creek, 8,000 Confederate troops surrendered.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Hiking, Part 17


Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
Pictures and written content.

The forecast called for sun and 70 degrees.  Of course, they lied.  Or guessed wrong.  At any rate, I squeezed a few hours out of my other duties to make my first official hike of the season.  I decided to jump in with both feet and tackle a section of the Appalachian Trail which runs between Virginia Route 7 on the north to US Route 50 to the south.  This section is familiarly known to local hikers as "The Roller Coaster."  For good reason, as the trail continually climbs and descends.  Rather than start at US 50, I decided to get on at a different place.  

I headed out about mid-morning bound for Ashby's Gap rolling down my window to luxuriate in air that seemed actually warm.  But about halfway out, the wind appeared with a vengeance.  I frowned, thinking I had not seen that in the forecast. I got to my turnoff, Blue Ridge Mountain Road, one of my favorite motorcycle rides, and headed north.

About halfway up Blue Ridge Mountain Road, their lies the infamous Mt. Weather FEMA facility, ensconced behind chain link, barbed wire, and an assumed host of sensors.  Directly across from the front gate is a dirt path carrying the grandiose name of Virginia Route 605.  About a mile or so down (and I do mean down) that road is where the AT crosses.  There is a shallow pullout on one side of the road, and on the other side an elevated sort of grassy road meant to service the power lines that snake alongside the road.  

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Godfather and the Secret Life of Men*

The Don and his sons.
(Paramount Pictures publicity still)

*Somerset, PA Daily American
May 29, 2010
as "A Great Man Movie"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey
Written content only


In 1972, a movie hit American theaters that had a defining effect on our culture. “The Godfather” chronicled the story of a Sicilian-American organized crime “family,” the Corleones.

The story captivated the public to be sure, but men especially were riveted by the story. The characters were larger than life, and in a twisted sort of way, became role models. Suddenly, the Mafia had become cool. And in the decades since, the Godfather Saga has become irretrievably etched into our lives, to the unending exasperation of Italian-Americans across the nation.

Women are almost universally repulsed by the movies, due mainly to the violence and the portrayal of the female role in that that culture. My wife bought me for my birthday, the latest DVD incarnation of all three movies with the proviso that I could only watch them when she was out of the house.

Men, on the other hand, embrace Godfather, as Tom Hanks put it in the movie “You’ve Got Mail,” “the I Ching of life.” He was referring to the ancient Chinese “Book of Changes,” that helped people deal with life changes by providing solutions and a measure of solace. The aphorisms that the film created have found their way into the daily lexicon from the Boardroom to the ballfield:

“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
“Go to the mattresses.”
“It’s not personal; it’s business.”
“Luca Brazi sleeps with the fishes.”
“I want you to see what he’s got under his fingernails.”
“I heard you were a serious man; to be treated with respect.”
“You have to answer for Santino, Carlo.”
“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”
“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

They’re great phrases, adaptable to any number of situations and because they’re so well known, the intended meaning is instantly clear.

As to why males find the story so fascinating, the answer to that question I believe lies in the culture of manhood.

Opportunity: Waste Not, Want Not


Winter.  Ugh.

© 2015 
By Ralph F. Couey

The hardest part -- okay, ONE of the hardest parts of winter is how the cold keeps a person from being able to enjoy outside activities. I really don't like being forced inside for my entertainment and exercise.  I have written extensively of my absolute detestation for treadmills, comparing them to an earthbound form of purgatory.  I can (and do) run or hike outside on days when the temps range into the upper 30's, but those gems are few and far between this year.  

Let me hasten to extend my sincerest condolences for the poor folks in Boston and New England who are, at this moment, watching another round of the snowiest year on record.  We here in the DMV (D.C., Maryland, and Virginia -- this is Washington, so acronyms are required) have amassed only around five inches total for the entire season.  Last week, Boston saw that in just one hour.  You-all have my sympathy and respect.  First the Red Sox, and now, snow.

But the persistent cold has been frustrating.  So earlier this week, we had a day when the thermometer soared into the upper 50's, almost spring by comparison.  I could have (should have) gone running, but standing in the garage, my attention was drawn to my other passion, my motorcycle.  Since late November, the bike has sat quietly, the battery percolating on the tender.  I've started and run it at least once a week, but the cold weather and the overly enthusiastic application of sand and salt by VDOT has kept me from riding.  But that day was an opportunity which, judging by the latest long-range forecast, would not come again for several weeks.  So I dug through the pile of stuff in the garage and managed to find all the parts to my riding gear, including the liners.  I cleared the accumulation of flotsam that had piled up around the bike, backed it out, fired up the engine, and for the first time in three months, I took a ride.

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Hunger Games, The Reaping, and Vietnamnesia

The Fictional Reaping...
(© Lionsgate Entertainment)

...And the Real One.
(© UPI 1969)

Copyright © 2015
By Ralph F. Couey
Written Content Only

In recent years, I have become increasingly aware of the disconnect between what young people today call "history" and what I clearly retain as memories.  Sometimes the difference is identifiable as a deliberate attempt to scrub the past.  Listening to how the Japanese teach their children about World War II leaves most westerners scratching their head and wondering if they're talking about the same war.  Other times, the passage of time, the loss of vital documents, and the death of participants make the reconstruction of past events something of a guessing game.  The intertwining tales of the Knights Templar, the Holy Grail, and the Ark of the Covenant have become a gaping collective hole that hundreds of years worth of investigation still haven't solved. 

I have a lot of DVD's and Blu-Rays, as I'm sure the same is true for many of you.  Most movies on disc now include the special features section that usually contain edited scenes and short documentaries about how that particular film was made.  I don't always take the time to watch those, but when I do there's always something interesting to discover that more often than not, improves the viewing experience of the movie itself.

I've had on my shelf for some time a standard DVD of the first Hunger Games film.   When it first came out, I initially dismissed it as a JATM (Just Another Teen Movie).  But one evening when we were imprisoned by an epic snowstorm, my son, who was visiting us in Pennsylvania, slipped the movie into the player.  Thus, I became a reluctant captive.  But as the story unfolded, I was able to find some themes that tickled the part of my brain where the knowledge gained during my quest for my Political Science degree is stored.  I actually went to the theater to see the second and third ones, and then ordered the trilogy of Ms. Collins' books for my Kindle.  The books were every bit as fascinating.  I basically read through all three of them in the space of about four days.   

By all accounts, I'm far from alone in the fascination for these tales.  The books are all best-sellers and the movies have been wildly successful.  And everyone is waiting with baited breath for the denouement when it hits theaters next year.

On this particular evening, however, I skipped the movie and went to the special features.  It was interesting to hear how the stories were transitioned from print to film, and how unselfish Ms. Collins' was with the inevitable compromises that must be made.  But as the interviews unwound, I heard one of the book's editors talk about how the story reminded him "...of the Bush years..." when mothers had to watch their children go off to fight.

That got my attention.  I backed up the disc and listened to his repeated comments.  Again I felt the slight disorientation that goes with the statement, "But that's not how I remember it."

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

An Airliner's Eye in the Sky: A Serious Proposal

Picking up the Pieces
From ZeeNewsIndia.com

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
written content only

Aircraft, both civilian and military, vanishing over the "trackless ocean" is not a new occurrence.  Vessels of the atmosphere ranging from balloons to jet bombers have a long history of failing to return from overwater flights.  The latest instance, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, remains missing as of this writing, and has become the most intriguing air mystery since Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan.  What made MH370 so hard to comprehend was the sudden realization that beyond a certain radius from land, radar is nonexistent.  Since it's invention by the British during World War II, it has provided a sense of security for airline passengers as well as nations seeking to guard their airspace against hostile intrusion.  As senses of security go, this one proved to be false.

Radar, an acronym for radio detection and ranging, works by sending out an electronic signal.  If there is an object within it's range, the signal "bounces" or more properly, reflects off the objects solid surface and is gathered in by the receiving antenna.  The difference in time between when the signal was sent and when the reflection was received provides data on distance.  There are literally hundreds of different types using different frequency ranges depending on the application.

But radar has it's limitations.  Some types are severely degraded by weather, since water in the form of cloud droplets and raindrops is largely opaque to radio signals.  Also, radar beams don't follow the curve of the earth.  Past a certain point, the beams continue out into space.  Range of a particular radar depends on a host of factors, both technological and meteorological, which would take too long to discuss here.  To make things easier to understand, think of a radar as a flashlight.  

When you turn on a flashlight, you send a beam out in front of you.  If the object you're trying to locate is there, the light reflects off its surface and is returned to your eyes.  But if the object is too far away, even if the beam hits it, there's not enough power remaining to reflect the light back to you. 

So even the most powerful shore-based radars can only reach out so far.  Elevating the transmitting antenna can "lower the horizon" enough to pick up objects much further away.

So, when an aircraft flies out over the ocean and leaves the umbrella of land-based radar coverage, it is essentially on it's own.  Normally this is not a problem, since modern navigational technology does a great job of keeping the aircraft on course and on time.

But as recent events have shown, that may not be enough to ensure the safety of the plane, crew, and passengers.

An Exercise in Gullibility*

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
July 11, 2010
as "Humorous Lesson in Identity Theft Education"

One of the most effective of the email scams is the so-called "Nigerian Scam."  In it, the sender spins a tale of revolution and chaos, resulting in the need to relocate the subject nation's material wealth off-shore to keep it from being seized by whomever the enemy is.  This was a tactic primarily used by Nigerian criminal groups and has proven to be shockingly effective, as Americans, always eager for the quick buck, pass their vital information.  Of course, the criminals then drain acounts, flatten credit card accounts, as well as apply for other loans in that person's name.


As a joke, I posted a version of this on a website I belong to, and was amazed at how many took it seriously, despite the oh-so-obvious names in the "letter."  So here for your humorous enjoyment...

Dear Friend,

My name is Umaylme I. Robyu and I am the Undersecretary of the Treasury for the sovereign nation of Udumtu Antzer. Recently, our government has come under immense pressure from militant rebels led by the renegade General Yullbe Sahri, and a coup is imminent. Social order has broken down and our people are fleeing the capitol city, Baibai Cache, in hopes of finding refuge in the Yurpornow Mountains.

I have been directed by our President, Ushuda DeLeetthis, to disperse our governments assets to safe holding accounts in the United States, in order to keep our national wealth from falling into rebel hands.

Due to some unfortunate political decisions regarding support of recent American elections by our esteemed Ambassador, Wedrayne Akowntz, we find ourselves without official friends in the current U.S. administration. Since they have refused to assist us, I am making this personal appeal to you.

My Chief of Staff, Mr. DeNyle Ovzervyce and I have formulated a foolproof scenario. We have made arrangements with a local gemstone dealer in Chicago to receive our liquid funds which will be used to purchase quantities of Deesarfayke diamonds, our national gemstone. The dealer has given us a very good price and has assured us that subsequent re-sell should net the agent around 40% profit.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Ultimate Action Flick: Bauer v. Bourne


Jason and Jack
The Knights of the 9mm




Picture credits -- 
Universal for Jason and Fox for Jack

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
Except quoted and cited portions

"I regret every decision or mistake that I might have made 
which resulted in the loss of a single innocent life.  
But do you know what I regret the most?  
That this world needs people like me."
--Jack Bauer.

"Do you even know why you're supposed to kill me?
Look at us.  Look at what they make you give."
--Jason Bourne

I've long been a fan of the action adventure movie, especially those that involved in some form the dark shadowy world of covert action.  Being a guy, I guess that preference is kinda written into my DNA.  From "Man From U.N.C.L.E." and Mission: Impossible in the '60's through the library of Jack Ryan movies, and Tom Cruise's re-invention of the MI story, those releases have consistently drawn me like a magnet.

In the last 10 years, two series, one of movies, the other of television, have captured my imagination.

In November of 2001, Fox Television launched a novel new programming concept.  Called "24", it followed the work of a federal counter-terrorism agent named Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland.  Instead of the usual format, the series would follow in real time the minute-by-minute travails of Bauer through a single 24-hour day.  The tension was magnified by the ticking of the clock, a constant reminder of the passage of irretrievable time.  Although burdened with a certain amount of filler, and that Jack seemed to never be more than 15 minutes away from anyplace in the vast expanse of Southern California, the show was nevertheless an instant hit.  Although not intended to, it circumstantially fell into those dark, angry days following 9/11 when America at some level seethed with vengeance against the terrorists who had so brazenly attacked us and killed our people.  Americans saw in Bauer someone who would doggedly pursue and bring to justice, usually by death, of those who had sworn to do us harm.  "24" gave us a hero, albeit a fictional one, when we needed it the most.  

The series lasted nine seasons, each time with Bauer seemingly vanishing from sight only to reappear for the next "day."  The show not only glorified the agents of the Counter Terrorist Unit, but also made heroes out of some of the most unlikely of characters, particularly the very geeky Chloe O'Brien, underscoring that in the modern version of that secret world, a computer and a good operator can be every bit as dangerous as bombs and bullets.

In the summer of 2002, another action adventure franchise debuted with the "Bourne Identity," an adaptation of the Robert Ludlum novels.  I say "adaptation" with a certain irony because the movies resembled the books in the same way that a zebra resembles a parking meter.  That opener was followed by "Bourne Supremacy" in 2004 and "Bourne Ultimatum" in 2007.  All three movies follow Jason Bourne, a brain-trained CIA assassin, really a human killing machine, as he recovers from a bout of amnesia while trying to grasp the meaning and purpose behind his life and what he has been turned into.  Bourne and those who pursue him literally span the globe from New York to Tangiers, giving the films a rich locational canvas on which the action unfolds.

There are similarities in the two characters, beyond their common initials.  Both have done some difficult and dangerous things for the U.S. government, and both have been damaged because of that. Both find themselves largely on the outside looking in as their sponsors and supporters continually find new ways to betray and abandon them.  The question begs, is there enough of a link to join the two stories?

Friday, January 23, 2015

Opening the Gate: Measles and The Irrational Fear of Vaccines


The Measles Virus
From Science.com

An infected patient.
From Healthnet.com

People do not believe lies because they have to, 
but because they want to.
--Malcom Muggeridge

A delusion is something that people believe in 
despite a total lack of evidence.
 –Richard Dawkins.

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
except quoted and cited portions

In the year 165 AD an epidemic broke out in Rome.  Called the Antonine Plague, it claimed nearly 5 million lives.  Modern research suggests that the cause of this plague was a virus that would eventually come to be called Measles.  Highly contagious, the disease has touched nearly all of humanity at some point in time, killing over 200 million since 1855.

However, in 1963, Dr. Thomas Peebles and Dr. John Enders, who also pioneered the polio vaccine, produced the first Measles vaccine.  In 1971, the Measles vaccine was combined with other specifics for Mumps and Rubella, and since 2005 the shot included specifics for Varicella.  Once the vaccines were put into use, Measles cases fell from the hundreds of thousands per year until 2005 when the illness was judged no longer endemic to the United States.

Late in 2014, however, an outbreak of Measles occurred in Southern California, tied to exposures to infected people at two Disney theme parks.  As of this writing, the total number of victims has risen to 100 and will continue to grow.

How could this happen?

Part of the reason is the large influx of people into the United States from countries which still struggle with Measles, among other serious diseases.  Vaccinations are not widely used in many of these countries, allowing diseases to gain a foothold among the human population.  It doesn't help that Measles is a tough little bugger, as viruses go.  An infected person could sneeze a cloud of virus into the open air, and the virus would continue to live for up to two hours.  Most viruses don’t survive for any length of time outside the body.

But the real villain in this piece is a con man with a PhD by the name of Andrew Wakefield.