About Me

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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 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.

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Epidemic of Anger

Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters
 
Copyright © 2012 by Ralph F. Couey
 Written content only
 
It has already been a worrisome year, a maelstrom of events, economic, political, and meteorological.  For some, it has become a question of survival.  A dark welcome mat has certainly been laid before the doorway leading to an appropriately-numbered 2013.

We were worried about jobs, about money, about war.

Then on Friday morning, all that became irrelevant.

The news flashed across our consciousness that yet another school shooting had occurred. There were probably many like me who saw the headline, sighed and whispered, "Not again."

But in a time when these kind of violent episodes occur far too often, we perhaps have become inured to such news. Then we heard about the death toll.

26 were dead. 20 of them were small children.

All of a sudden, everything changed.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Stolen December Ride

Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Couey
 
Tuesday is one of my regular days off, one I try to reserve for chores, appointments, and riding, weather permitting. Today was chilly (mid-40s), but sunny so I decided to take the bike out for a spin. I plotted an 80-mile course on some roads I hadn’t been on yet, which according to Google Maps should take about three hours. Yes, it is the second week of December, but as long as it was above freezing and not snowing, that’s a reasonably good motorcycle day.
 
In deference to the chill, I dressed carefully, starting with a base layer then jeans and sweatshirt, a pair of heavy sweatpants over the jeans, then my jacket with all the liners in and chaps. Under the helmet I donned a balaclava. The final addition was a pair of heavy lined leather gloves.
 
Even with all those layers, it didn’t take long for the cold to penetrate. Still, the sun felt warm. I went west on US50 to Aldie, VAwhere I picked up the Snickersville Turnpike.
 
This historic route was the first toll road in the United States, opening in 1786. It was part of a longer route that connected Alexandria, VA with Winchester. The section between Aldie and Bluemont (originally Snickersville) is 15 miles of narrow, windy blacktop that passes through both rural farms (all carrying sophisticated names) and dense Virginia forest. At one point it crosses Hibbs Bridge, a short 180-year-old arched span of stone and mortar that roofs Beaverdam Creek. The road terminates at Virginia Route 7, which continues on to Winchester.
 
I took my time, as I always do on new roads. Traffic was pretty much nonexistent, which was good because the scenery was eye-catching. This is part of what is called “Hunt Country, home to large farm estates owned by wealthy families, some of whom have been on the land for two centuries. It is here in the fall when fox hunts are organized and attended by those on magnificent horses, wearing the traditional red coats, cream pants, and tall boots. Tradition is a vital part of this part of Virginia, and the road is lined by those incredible stone fences, the design of which date back to the very beginnings of settlements.
 

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

A Real Hero



Credit: Facebook/Maria Santos Gorrostieta)

 
Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Couey 
Written content only.

In these days of trial and adversity, we seek heroes, but few step up.  If you’re in need of a hero, I offer one to you.
 
Dr. Maria Santos Gorrostieta Salazar.
 
For several decades, a war has been going on just across our southwest border.  In Mexico, rival drug cartels have been shooting up towns, villages, and each other in a desperate and violent effort to dominate the drug trade.  Some 60,000 people have been slaughtered in this war, and not all of them cartel members.  They have been the number one priority of three Mexican presidential administrations, but endemic corruption and the sheer economic power of the criminals has made the fight an uphill battle. 
 
To the north, the 21 million of America’s citizens who use and abuse drugs have funded the violence, apparently too high to see the bloodstains on their hands.
 
The Mexican state of Michoacán has been one of the eyes of this storm, being home turf to several of the more violent groups.  Politicians and police, outgunned, outmanned, and out-financed, have pursued the path of least resistance, rather than risk the wrath of the drug lords.  Until 2008.
 
Maria Salazar was a physician.  Angered by what was happening to her country, she became involved in politics, winning the election that put her in the Mayor’s chair of the town of Tiquicheo.  She ran on a platform characterized by defiance of the cartels.  She won the election, and less than three months after taking office, she was sent a message.
 
She and her first husband were traveling near a rural community when their car was cut off by another vehicle.  The occupants sprang out, fired guns in the air, and warned her to resign.  Undaunted, she soldiered on.  About a year later, in January 2009, they were attacked, suffering injuries that did not prevent them from carrying on their public lives.  In October of that same year, they were ambushed.  Her husband was killed, and Dr. Salazar was wounded, but feigned death enough to fool their attackers.
 

Using Stats Like a Gumby Doll

On a New Hampshire Jaunt.

Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Couey 

For reasons that still astound me, the admission that I ride a motorcycle nearly always sparks the same response.  The other person dives into a terrible and tragic story of someone they knew who was seriously injured or killed in a motorcycle accident.  I get that there may be an on-going macabre fascination with violent death.  But there are, at last accounting, 10.4 million motorcycles in the United States, a number that increased 58 percent since 1998.  Statistics show that the average rider is a responsible adult who rides straight and sober, has insurance, and rides responsibly.  Yes, I know about the squids.  Despite their high visibility however, riders who actually engage in riding stupid are well in the minority.
 
But that doesn’t stop people from taking pot shots.
 
Fox News Latino published on November 28, an article which reported on a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study that tallied up the costs of death and injuries from motorcycle accidents.  Deftly weaving numbers in and through what was a thinly-veiled hit piece on the motorcycling community, the fair and balanced journalists (who went nameless in the byline) painted a grim picture.  82,000 injuries.  4,502 deaths.  $16.2 billion in direct costs.  
 
The tone and tenor of the writing implicated the motorcyclists themselves as being the sole cause of the entire tragedy.
 
But in this journalistic dance, the authors completely side-stepped what continues to be the most important source of motorcycle accidents.
 
Other drivers.
 
I looked through reports authored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Insurance Institute of America, and some state-centric statistical studies.  They all point the finger at the operators of cars, trucks, busses, even riding lawn mowers.  Numbers vary from report to report, but between 66% and 75% of all motorcycle accidents are caused by vehicle operators who either failed to yield the right of way (turning left across the bike’s path, pulling out of parking lots and driveways), or who blew by traffic control signals (stop signs and traffic lights) bursting into intersections.
 
This is not news to anyone who rides.  Every day of our commute, or joyriding in the country contains at least one, if not more tales of motorcyclists narrowly avoiding disaster.  The problem has gotten worse in recent years, due to the explosion of cell phones.  People who used to focus solely on the road now find their attentions divided by talking, texting, checking email, or any of the plethora of tasks now performed by even budget-priced cell phones.
 
The article went on to preach about helmet laws, which I suspect was the real reason for this production.
 
Just so you know, I’ve been riding for over 20 years and I’ve always worn a helmet.  That is my choice.  I respect the rights of others to not wear a helmet, even though I know that they’d be safer.  The old arguments that the weight of a helmet would make cervical injuries more likely were blown up last year when Johns Hopkins published a study which proved that modern helmets with their lighter and stronger materials actually prevent broken necks.

Besides, no helmet ever made is going to protect you at 60 miles per hour when T-boning the bonehead who pulls out from the country lane without looking.

But there are those among us who insist on being our mothers forever.  Oddly, they same demographic that supports Pro Choice in women’s issues is Anti-Choice where helmet laws are concerned.  Some other day we’ll talk about how abortion has killed almost 40 million African-Americans since Roe v. Wade.
 
As far as costs are concerned, $16 billion dollars is a chunk of change.  What the article didn’t point out was that nearly all of that was covered by insurance.  What is also being ignored continually is that 2 million times a year people show up at emergency rooms across the country suffering from “unintended drug overdoses.”  The direct cost associated with the treatment of those patients is $193 billion per year. 
 
And how many stoners do you think have health insurance?
 
There are risks to life inherent in living.  As Al Pacino once said, “You can get killed walkin’ your doggie!”  But hand-wringing never changed a dad-blamed thing.  If people are seriously interested in reducing the incidence of motorcycle death on the streets and highways, do two things:
 
1. Hang up the phone.
 
2. Pay attention.
 
After all, whether on two wheels or four, we’re all travelers just trying to get home. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Another Piece of Childhood Lost


Picture from Hostess Corp.
 
 
Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Couey
Written content only.
 
Looking back across the years there are always certain things that define eras of one's life.  It may be something like a baseball glove, or a certain shirt; a ticket stub from a concert. Or something that commemorates the moment when we met that person who completely changed our life.  More times than not however, it's food that whets the appetite of rememberance.
 
A couple of weeks ago, a labor-management dispute reached a critical point.  Normally, these events come and go in the news without much outside attention.  But this time, the dispute involved the bakery and confectionary giant Hostess, the maker of things like Ho Ho's, cupcakes, Ding-Dongs, Donettes, and the iconic delight Twinkies.  I won't go into the specifics of the dispute, only to note that management, rather than compromise with the union, committed an act of corporate kamikaze and announced that it would close it's doors forever.
 
The announcement sparked an immediate run on the snack products, especially Twinkies.  A box of a dozen appeared on E-bay for $200,000.  Across the country, shelves of grocery stores and convenience marts were stripped.  In Kansas City, a radio station talk show received donations of several boxes of hostess treats and auctioned them off for charity, garnering almost a thousand dollars for a pile of treats that a week earlier could have been bought for 20 bucks.
 
The nationwide reaction to this news and the instant appearance of hoarders and collectors no doubt pleased retailers.  It became clear that a latent love affair with the golden cream-filled snack cakes had been revealed.
 
On the surface, there would appear to be no good reason to eat these things.  For adults, the amount of sugar and calories make them verboten to those with cardiac and blood sugar problems.  And yet, when an adult eats one, you can see in their face the memories that have returned.
 
Kids can eat just about anything, and usually do, without seeming consequence.  I suppose that's one reason why the affection for Twinkies is so strong.  At that age, it didn't matter how many calories or grams of sugar were in them.  We ate them because...well...we could.
 
And they were so good. 
 
On Friday nights after dinner, our family would make our weekly trek to the grocery store.  I was given the empty soda bottles to return for deposit.  For those, I would receive the astounding total of twenty-seven cents.  That left me the exact amount to buy the latest Superman or Batman comic book for fifteen cents, and a two-pack of Twinkies for twelve.  Thus supplied, I was rendered happy and content.
 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Riding into the Sunset

 
Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Couey
The experience of life can best be summed up as a series of beginnings, middles, and endings. As the years pile up, what changes is that endings begin to outnumber beginnings. Some things are given up simply because we get bored and move on. Others fall by the wayside due to other demands upon our time. This is natural. Time is always in motion; things and people are always changing.
But there are those things we give up because…well, we just can’t do them anymore.
Softball was once my second religion. It was how I spent just about every summer. I can still recall the rising sense of excitement as I walked through the humid Missouri evenings toward the complex of diamonds already lit. I was never a star, but I played hard. The competition was tough and I loved every minute. But as I got older, I grew weaker and slower. Frozen ropes that once leapt off my bat became dying quails. I knew the end was coming, but it wasn’t until I suffered the humiliation of being thrown out at first base by the left fielder that I finally accepted inevitable and hung up my cleats for good.
But there are still times when I can pick up my glove, slip it on, and wait for the aroma of leather, sweat, dirt, and chalk to fill my senses and bring the inevitable flood of memories.
It was in my late 30’s that I discovered motorcycles. In the 20 years since, riding has been my source of joy, freedom, and soul-satisfying inspiration. Although primarily a commuting tool, I’ve done a lot of miles through countless countrysides, mountains, prairies, plains, deserts, and coastlines ranging from 2-hour Sunday jaunts to a 9-day 5,000 mile sojourn through the southwest.
I would tell you that I’m in the middle of this particular activity, but I have to be honest and admit that I can see just over the horizon the sorrowful day when age will force me to lay this aside as well.
I want to make one more long trip while I still can. But a few things will have to happen first.
I have to get a more capable bike. My current ride, a Kawasaki Vulcan 900LT is a great bike for commuting and day excursions. But a lack of luggage capacity and a seat that has all the comfort of a concrete block disqualify this motorcycle for a cross-country tour.
I like the Honda Goldwing, partly because it’s a Honda and therefore will run forever. Mainly though, it’s a known quantity. A few years ago, we rented one and did New England for 6 days. Though relatively gigantic, it was a dream to handle and possessed a perfectly comfortable place to park a tushie for 9 or 10 hours per day.
The passage of many hours contemplating road atlases and gazetteers has resulted in three possible trips.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Time, Life, and That Perfect Moment of Clarity


This road upon which we all travel; this path we call "life"
is one on which we can never see the end.
We cannot know the destination, or the route we must take to get there.
The only thing we can see clearly
is the path that lies behind us;
a past marked by the decisions we have made.
Copyright © 2012 by Ralph F. Couey 

This has been a busy year, to which the reduced production on this website attests.  I lost a job, got a job, moved, sold one house, bought another.  My son, anticipating a possible relocation, is selling his house, and he and his family have moved in with my wife and I.  In the press of these events, I just haven’t had the time to devote to the kind of reflective contemplative writing that I’ve done in the past.  

The election this year left me mentally exhausted and emotionally drained.  As I’ve written before, I was once very passionate about politics, but a course in Critical Thinking, and application of those strict evidentiary processes to the wares of the political marketplace revealed to me the breadth and depth of the blatant lies being sold as fact by both Democrats and Republicans.  I found within myself the startling realization that it no longer mattered to me who won.  I became instead a dispassionate observer, sort of like a visitor to a zoo.  What wore me out was the incessant pounding of my senses with statements I already knew to be false, and the apparent willingness of partisan voters to blindly follow their leaders.

I reconsidered my future over the course of several long motorcycle rides through the lovely and peaceful Virginia countryside.  I am 57 years old.  Over the next 10 to 15 years, I will slowly feel my mental faculties begin to fail.  My circle of awareness, that orb that describes the universe of my concerns, will begin to shrink.  Therefore, it matters little who sits in the White House or who controls the houses of congress.  I will eventually become blissfully unaware of the larger events of the world and stay that way until the time comes for me to board that bus to eternity.

I have a wife who needs my love and concern.  I have children (grown adults, really) whom I love and admire; who still call from time to time and ask my advice.  I have grandchildren whose only desire is to have fun with Grampa.  That’s where my attentions should lie while I still have attention to pay.

One can get so caught up in the routine of life that the passage of time becomes a forgotten thing.  Most people I know have gone through the same experience of waking up one morning and realizing that, as Captain Picard once said, “There are fewer days ahead than there are behind.”  Our bodies have grown stiffer, perhaps more frail.  I’ll never forget the last day I played softball.  I was thrown out at first base by the left fielder.  Going back to the bench, I felt very, very old.  The harsh truth is that things will get worse as the years pass.  I see people in their 70’s and 80’s plodding along the street, if they’re not being rolled in a wheelchair, age having robbed them of their vitality and intellect.  I know now that they are a mirror.  That will be me, all too soon.  

There are two rules about time:

1.  People get old.

2.  No one can change rule Number 1.

Civil War: Events of December 1862


President Lincoln, on the first day of the new congress, December 1st, proposed three new amendments to the constitution.  The first called for a gradual emancipation of the slaves until 1900.  Secondly, all slaves freed during the war would remain free.  And the third stated that the U.S. would pay for consensual colonization.
 
Following his victory at Cane Hill, Union General Blunt realized his precarious position, 35 miles away from any support.  He ordered reinforcements to march immediately.  He set up defensive positions and waited.  Blunts reinforcements under General Herron, executed an amazing forced march and met Marmaduke’s cavalry south of Fayetteville.  On the morning of December 7th, Herron’s artillery executed a withering 2-hour barrage that disabled most of the enemy’s artillery and forced the troops to shelter behind a ridge.  Herron decided not to wait for Blunt and began moving forward.  Two regiments were attacked on three sides by Confederate troops killing or wounding half of their numbers.  As Union troops retreated, Confederates charged, tragically straight into the maw of canister fire.  Two more Union regiments charged and were forced back.  Blunt, belatedly realizing that the southerners had moved past his flank, ordered his troops to march towards the sound of the guns.  This they did, ignoring roads and taking the direct path through fields and woods.  The burst out of the woods, surprising Hindman’s troops and driving them back up a hill.  The battle continued, charge, and countercharge, until darkness took the field.  Over the next 36 hours, Blunt reinforced and Hindman was forced to withdraw towards Van Buren, Arkansas.  On the 29th, Blunt and Herron closed on the Confederate’s sanctuary at Van Buren, forcing the southerners to leave northwest Arkansas, as it turned out, permanently.
 
On December 10th, the U.S. House passed a bill allowing the creation of the state of West Virginia.
 
The next day, Union forces occupied the city of Fredericksburg.
 
Between December 11th and 20th, a Union army under John G. Foster invaded North Carolina attempting to sever the railroad lines into Virginia.
 

Civil War: Events of November 1862


On November 2, Union naval forces tried again to neutralize Ft. McAllister which guarded the approaches to the vital Southern port of Savannah, GA.  This was one of several bombardments that took place until the fort was finally subdued in 1864.
 
Also on that day, General Grant began the first campaign to capture Vicksburg, entering the towns of La Grange and Grand Junction on the 4th.
 
After the Confederate defeat at bloody Antietam, Union General McClellan failed to follow up the battle by pursuing and possibly destroying Lee’s army.  On November 5th, McClellan paid the price for that lapse, along with many others, when Lincoln relieved him of the command of the Union Army of the Potomac.
 
November 6th saw the official election of Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens to lead the Confederacy.  James Longstreet and Stonewall Jackson were also promoted to Lieutenant General (3 stars) that day.
 
The next day, the Union Army of the Potomac was given it’s new commander when Ambrose Burnside was appointed by President Lincoln.
 
On November 8th, Union General Benjamin Butler was relieved of duty in New Orleans due to his brutal treatment of the citizenry.  Nathaniel Banks, the loser at Second Manassas, was appointed in his place.
 
On November 15th, the first indications of strife within the Confederate administration emerged when Secretary of War George Randolph resigned.  Randolph was incensed at President Davis’ insistence on running the war himself.
 
One of Burnsides’ divisions under Sumner arrived on the north bank of the Rappahannock River opposite Fredericksbug.
 
James Seddon became the new Secretary of War for the CSA on November 21st.
 
On the 24th, Joseph E. Johnston, CSA, assumed command of the Department of the West.
 
The Battle of Cane Hill, AR was fought on November 28th when a Southern force under General John S. Marmaduke moved north attempting to retake ground lost during the Pea Ridge battle earlier in the year.  His opponent, Union General James G. Blunt heard of Marmaduke’s approach and moved south himself.  He caught and surprised the Confederates 35 miles further south than Marmaduke expected.  Blunt, held up by a delaying action fought by Jo Shelby’s cavalry, nevertheless pursued the southerners into the Boston Mountains. 

Friday, November 02, 2012

Looking Up From Despair


Photo by Denny Medley -- US Presswire.
 
Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Couey 
Written content only

A writer never wants to admit to a state of wordlessness. Creative verbiage, after all, is our sandbox, our playground. But attempting to characterize the Chief's Thursday night tilt against the San Diego Chargers is a true test of any wordsmith.

Ugly doesn’t begin to describe it.  Even a stark and simple an expression as that utterly fails to describe what happened at QualCom.

This was beyond ugly. This was morning-after-the-bachelor-party ugly. This was medical-school-hemorrhoid-training-video ugly. This was 2 A.M.-and-the-bar’s-closing ugly.

It was even worse than Chris-Christie-in-a-Speedo ugly.

I’ve been a Chiefs fan for 47 years. What is history for many are memories for me. I was 14 years old on that early January day at Tulane Stadium in 1970, yet it seems as fresh to me as if it had happened yesterday. Every year since has been a renewal of hope dashed by disappointments too numerous to enumerate.

From that brief scintillating stand atop the NFL pyramid, it has been a long trip downhill. And after watching the Chiefs utterly embarrass themselves in front of a national TV audience, as a fan, I think we’ve reached the floor of a very deep canyon.

The relationship between the Chiefs and their Nation of fans has always been one as deeply passionate and devoted as the perfect wedding night. Now, face-to-face with the harsh reality of a completely wasted season, the love is fading. Estrangement may be imminent.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Treasure Hunting in the Junk Drawer

Mom
 
Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Couey
 
 It was a rainy day, one to leave the motorcycle in the garage.  Feeling bored and restless, I decided to tackle my junk drawer. With a sense of adventure, I slid the drawer out and carried it over to the bed, where I had thoughtfully placed a junky towel to protect the frilly-quilty bedspread. I dumped the contents and went to work.
 
I dug through the flotsam, keeping some items, discarding others.  But near the bottom of the pile, I found a folded piece of notepaper. Opening it, I felt my heart skip. 
 
It was a letter from my mother.
 
Mom contracted cancer in the early '70's. But after a very extensive surgery, it seemed she would survive. Six years later, however, the cancer started again, spreading rapidly. She underwent chemo and radiation, but it was too late and on a sad September day in 1982, she passed away. 
 
Between the two illnesses, we were gifted with 6 more years with her. Doesn't seem like much, but during that time she saw both her children get married, and was able to cuddle her grandchildren. 
 
I was in the Persian Gulf when I got the news. What followed was an epic 48-hour journey back home to Missouri, arriving just in time for the funeral.  It was a hectic few days, and before I was able to fully comprehend the event, I was on my way back to my ship.  I had been back aboard about an hour when one of my shipmates brought me my accumulation of mail. In that pile of magazines, newspapers, and letters, was that note.
 
When you lose your mother, a light goes out inside. She was the one who loved us without question or condition. That care and devotion cannot be replaced. As author Erica Jong wrote, “Motherhood cannot finally be delegated. When a child needs a mother to talk to, nobody else but a mother will do.” When you lose her, nothing is ever the same.
 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Civil War: Events of October 1862


October 3rd saw the Battle of Corinth, Mississippi.  Union General William Rosecrans defended this vital rail junction from a series of attacks by a Confederate force under General Earl Van Dorn.  Initially successful, the southerners routed the first line of Union defense, a series of rifle pits dug during the siege of Corinth in April.  On the second day, Union counterattacks repulsed and drove the Rebels back.  But Rosecrans failed to pursue and Van Dorn's force escaped.

On October 5th, Van Dorn's retreating forces were attacked by Union forces under General Edward Ord in Hardeman and McNairy counties in Tennessee.  Ord drove the Southerners back five miles to Hatchie's Bridge, for which this battle was named.  Ord was then wounded and command was passed to General Stephen Hurlburt.  A hot fight developed around the bridge, but Van Dorn's scouts found another ford across the Hatchie River, which enabled them to escape destruction yet again.

Near Lavergne, TN, a Union force under General Negley met and defeated a combined force of Confederates, including General Nathan Forrest's cavalry.  The Rebels stood their ground for 30 minutes, then fled in disorder leaving behind most of their equipment and 175 prisoners.

Near Perryville, KY on October 8th, the South's Kentucky campaign culminated with a tactical victory by General Braxton Bragg over General Don Carlos Buell.  The South won the battle, but Bragg withdrew to Tennessee within a few days.  It was the largest battle fought in Kentucky, and in terms of the percentage of casualties to troops engaged, one of the bloodiest of the entire war.

On October 9th, J.E.B. Stuart circled McClellan's army for a second time.

On October 16th, Ulysses S. Grant assumed command of the Department of Tennessee.

On the 19th, Bragg moved his army through the Cumberland Gap, effectively escaping General Buell, who, allowing Bragg to escape three times, was relieved of command on the 24th.

Samuel Heintzelman relieved Nathaniel Banks of command of Union forces protecting Washington DC on October 26th.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

"We" and "They," and Being Fans


From Erik Cassano's Weblog
 
Copyright © 2012 by Ralph F. Couey


In all my travels through the 28 countries I’ve had the privilege to visit, I’ve spoken to people of many lands, cultures, and races.  In those interactions, I’ve learned a lot about them and the lives they lead.  They, in turn have taught me much about how Americans are perceived.  But the one word that surfaced most often which they felt characterized us best was “competitive.”
 
Yes, we are competitive.  There lies within us an irrepressible urge to be the best; to be Number One.  That, in part, explains our fixation with sports.  
 
We can be totally fixated on sports, semi-pro, pro, and college, to the exclusion of almost everything else.  One company recently ran an ad about a couple who had attended every home game of their college alma mater for several decades.  Nothing got in the way of their attendance.  When their daughter thoughtlessly planned her wedding for one of those October Saturdays…well, as the ad put it, “they really enjoyed the reception.”
 
We develop a strong emotional tie to particular teams. Some college teams because we went there.  Other teams because we live in the same city.  For some teams and some fans, that adoration approaches the religious.
 
Close to the end of the 2006 AFC Championship game, the Pittsburgh Steelers were driving for a touchdown that would salt the game away and send them once again into the Super Bowl.  Running back Jerome Bettis took the handoff and blasted into the line.  But the ball was stripped and the Colts’ Nick Harper grabbed it and sprinted towards the other end zone.  At a sports bar in the Pittsburgh metro, Steeler fan Terry O’Neill keeled over from a heart attack.  
 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Dawn and the Journey of Life**

*Chicago Tribune
March 11, 2011
as "Everyone needs a reason to start the day"

*Somerset, PA Daily American
March 12, 2011
as "Everyone needs a reason to start the day"

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

“When you arise in the morning,
think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive
--to breathe, to think, to enjoy…to love.”
--Marcus Aurelius
 
There’s something marvelously clean about the morning. The day is perfect; clear of wrinkles and scribbles, stains and tears. The hours ahead are ruled solely by the power of potential, and after a restful night’s sleep, we have the strength and energy to turn possibility into wondrous reality. Yesterday is done. The mistakes we made, the opportunities we squandered are in the irretrievable past. Before us is a blank canvas, ready and waiting for whatever portrait we choose to paint.
 
“It was morning; through the high window,
I saw the pure, bright blue of the sky.
It, too, seemed full of joy, as if it had special plans,
and had put on its finest clothes for the occasion.”
--Herman Hesse
 
As dawn approaches, the sky changes. The black starry dome lightens to non-committal grey as the night stubbornly gives way. On the eastern horizon, the great beacon edges upward, the glowing rays the harbinger of its pending arrival. Even in these pre-dawn moments, the sun engages in a bit of artistry as the still-hidden star brushes the clouds with strokes of pure gold. In the landscape around, that which was formless and invisible in the dark now becomes familiar and known. Our deepest fears are associated with darkness. We know instinctively that in the light we will find safety from those unknown dangers that lurk in the night

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Economic Sanctions: Predicting Utility

Copyright © 2000 by Ralph F. Couey

ECONOMIC SANCTIONS:

PREDICTING
UTILITY

The Challenge of Effective Foreign Policy
in a Monopolar World


By Ralph F. Couey

ABSTRACT
Can game theory be married with real-world cases to provide a predictive framework for economic sanctions? In this study, the theoretical work of Jonathan Eaton and Maxim Engers is applied to selected case studies from the data base of Gary Hufbauer, Jeffrey Schott, and Kimberly Ann Elliott. This application will demonstrate the utility of game theory in the real world and also provide the ability to predict the appropriateness and effectiveness of economic sanctions.

INTRODUCTION
Throughout human history governments have sought at various times to influence, or coerce, the policy directions of friends and foes alike. In cases where this diplomatic interaction has become hostile, states have resorted to force to settle disputes. In other cases, governments have used a superior economic position as a basis for imposing economic sanctions against other nations as an alternative to open warfare. With the improvements in the technology of warfare the ability of states to inflict increasing amounts of damage upon each other motivated governments to seek less destructive methods to settle disputes.


For most of the 20th century economic sanctions have been used as a leverage tool in disputes. Success in those cases has been mixed, at best. In recent years, as relative prosperity has become more widespread, and due to the fundamental shift from bipolar to monopolar global politics, the effectiveness of economic sanctions has declined. Despite their less than successful track record governments, particularly the United States and the United Nations, continue to resort to this ineffective tool in attempting to solve interstate disputes. To most governments, the resort to armed conflict is an anathema. Novelist John Ball wrote, “Nobody wants war; it’s an unmitigated horror. The only reason a sane nation involves itself in one is because the alternative is even less acceptable.” (Ball, 206) The imposition of economic sanctions has become the alternative of choice in international politics, one that requires a careful examination of costs versus benefits.

Hypothesis: Governments should weigh the cost of imposing economic sanctions against the gain realized by coercing a policy change in a target government.

Pearl Harbor: Conspiracy or Complacency?

USS Arizona -- where the blood first flowed,
and USS Missouri -- where the killing finally ended.
Pearl Harbor, Hawaii


Copyright © 1991 by Ralph F. Couey

"Yesterday, December 7th, 1941, a date which will live in infamy,
the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately
attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan”

With those evocative words, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt committed a deeply shocked and angry America to war with Japan. The surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, coupled with other assaults throughout the western Pacific united a bitterly divided government and galvanized the citizenry. Even with the newfound unity, many pointed questions were raised, not the least of which was “how could this happen?”

Today, over 65 years later it is even more difficult for present generations to comprehend how a military, a government, and a nation of free people could have been the victim of such a terrible surprise attack. It is that still pointed question that leaves some unsure whether the attack was facilitated by a numbing complacency on the part of America towards blatant Japanese aggression, or the result of a dark conspiracy originating within the highest levels of government to involve the United States in global war.

As with any disaster, the inevitable witch hunt to locate the person or persons responsible ensued with nine official investigations by the executive branch, the congress, and the military. In addition, historians have delved deeply into this subject publishing countless books, articles, and essays. It is safe to say that no other event in American history has been subjected to the level of scrutiny as the attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet even after six and a half decades, the search for the smoking gun - and the hand that held it - remains alive.

How Ideal was the "Ideal State?"

Copyright © 1998 by Ralph F. Couey

Throughout human history, philosophers witnessed the worst parts of man's inhumanity to man. In response, they strove to construct, at least in a theoretical sense, an outline for what was perceived at "the ideal state." One of the first of these efforts is embodied in Plato's epic work "The Republic."

This exercise, interestingly enough, grew out of a discussion centering on the nature of justice. Socrates and the elders quickly reached the realization that in order to properly define justice as it relates to the individual it was necessary to consider the larger question of the nature of the state's view of justice. The attitudes of the state shape the attitudes of its citizens, so in order to nail down what constitutes a just man, one must account for the state's definition of justice.

In our modern world, punishment for crime is meted out in accordance with the way the state's laws have been molded by culture. In Singapore, for example, theft is punished by caning; in Somalia, by the amputation of a hand; in America, by a stern lecture from an overburdened Judge and perhaps a few weeks in a climate-controlled corrections facility with satellite TV and three squares per day. In each of the above examples, the punishments reflect the respective culture's highly subjective view of justice.

Today, of course, we can take advantage of the long view not only of history, but through the images and impressions of other contemporary cultures through electronic eyes in order to properly contextualize these very basic questions. In contrast, the view of Classical Civilization was necessarily myopic, there being no GNN (Grecian News Network) to expand their limited view beyond the eastern Mediterranean.

Friday, September 07, 2012

The Center of...Everything*


The famous Hubble deep field image
Photo copyright © NASA/JPL

 
Copyright © 2012 by Ralph F. Couey
Written content only

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
October 2, 2012

The universe fascinates me, and has since my formative years during that breathless era known as “The Space Race.” My earliest recognizable memory was following Alan Shepherd’s Mercury suborbital flight on the radio (yes, the radio). It was a wonderful time in history. NASA reigned supreme, and everything seemed possible. We would put men on the moon before 1970, so it seemed logical, even expected that human footprints would decorate the surface of Mars by the 1980’s.
But times and national priorities change. We still explore space with robots, but it is sad that humans haven’t left earth orbit in…well, it will be 40 years this December.
Even today I still remain deeply curious about space. I watch a lot of space-oriented programming on the television, and I’ve learned a lot.
But I still find myself looking into the night sky at distant stars and wondering if there might be someone up there looking back at me, asking the same unanswerable question.
In trying to understand the universe, scientists have probed deeply, achieving amazing discoveries.
Planets range from small and rocky to huge orbs of rotating gasses. The smaller ones contain various layers of progressively denser rock as one gets closer to the center. Some, like ours, contain hot cores of molten metal. As this core rotates, it creates a protective magnetic field that shields the planet’s surface from life-robbing radiation. Earth has such a field. But her close relatives, Venus and Mars, do not.
In our solar system, and also some other systems now being discovered, are the gas giants. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune consist of rotating atmospheres of carbon-based gasses. Some speculate that as the elemental carbon sank into the depths over the millennia that the incredible pressures at the core of such giants may have created planet-sized diamonds.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Skyline Drive and the Perfect Day

 
The delicate palette of an evening's colors cloak the Shenandoah.
Copyright 2012 © by Ralph Couey

A perfect day is hard to come by. For one to happen, you really need three things to synch up.

First, it has to be a day off. Yes, we can have rewarding days at work. But perfect? Secondly, it has to be a day on which you have nothing scheduled, nor any errands to run, and an empty honey-do list. Thirdly, it has to be a perfect weather day. Partly cloudy is great, but nothing’s better than that clear blue dome above. Oh yes, and the temperature has to be right. Not too hot, not too cold, like baby bear, just right.

During the last week of June, I had one of those days, a Tuesday. It was a day off, with my somewhat unusual work schedule, my “weekend” runs from Sunday morning through about Wednesday noon, when the walls of work once again enfold me. The weather couldn’t have been any better if I had special ordered it on Amazon.com. The sky was clear of anything resembling a cloud, and the temperatures were forecasted to be in the low 70’s, a rare day indeed for Northern Virginia in late June.

I had but one mark on my calendar, a short appointment that was done by mid-morning. My honey-do list was clear for the first time since we moved into our new home in April. With the appointment done, I gleefully headed home, geared up, climbed aboard my motorcycle, and headed west.

Still new to this part of the country, I’m in the process of finding out where all the good roads are. This day, with all its beauty and freedom, was written for the Blue Ridge.

Leaving Chantilly, I headed west on VA 234, Sudley Road, which assumes a number of identities as it meanders through the Virginia countryside. After crossing US 15 at Woolsey, it becomes Waterfall Road. The path is mixed open and forest at first, but once on the Waterfall segment, it becomes mostly forest.

9/11: Where Do We Go From Here?


The Flight 93 National Memorial

Copyright © 2012 by Ralph F. Couey
 
We made it through the 10th anniversary commemorations.  Memorials now exist at Ground Zero in Manhattan, at the Pentagon in Arlington, and in that field near Shanksville.  The enemy who planned and carried out the attacks, in the opinion of some experts, is on the ropes, their founding leader dead, courtesy of the U.S. Navy SEALS.  Other terror groups are discovering how hard it is to hide from drones.
 
The United States is a far different place than it was on September 10, 2001.  The changes, far too many to enumerate here, have for the most part become second nature, part of the background of our daily lives.  People are far more vigilant.  In fact, several terror attacks have been discovered before they were carried out simply because someone somewhere saw something, and said something.  Higher security measures are in place, but like an old man with a limp, we’ve all learned to live with them.  Instead of constantly looking over our shoulders, we’re focused instead on the depth of our economic rut, and the spinning wheels of the government bus that only makes the hole deeper.  The election campaign has done more to spotlight our divisions instead of our unity.  None of us know when we’ll get our national feet under us again.  Some are quietly suggesting we may never come back; that the chapter of world history entitled “America” is coming to a close.
 
There hasn’t been a successful attack on our soil since 9/11.  That success is attributable to the unceasing efforts of thousands of unsung heroes, ranging from soldiers humping through the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan, to the deskbound intelligence analysts relentlessly digging and sifting, looking for that one nugget of data that could stop a potential attack in its tracks.  But make no mistake, an important part of that success is due to the actions of ordinary citizens who notice things that don’t look right, and report them.
 
But I think it important to pause and ask ourselves a very important question:
 
Where do we go from here?
 

Civil War: Events of September 1862


Union General John Pope, apparently broken by his defeat at Second Manassas, planned to retreat to the defenses of Washington.  But  General Halleck instead ordered Pope to attack Lee’s forces at Manassas. But Lee had already begun to move.  He sent Stonewall Jackson’s corps around the Union right flank while Longstreet stayed in place to deceive Pope.  Jackson marched north and east and near the intersection of modern-day US 50 and US 29.  Union cavalry sighted Jackson’s forces and alerted Pope, who canceled the attack and began the retreat from Centreville.  On the morning of September 1st, Pope sent two brigades under Isaac Stevens to block Jackson’s march.  Phillip Kearny’s division followed in the afternoon.  Jackson’s men, exhausted, made camp on Ox Hill.  About 3 p.m., Stevens’ Union brigades arrived at Ox Hill.  Despite being outnumbered, Stevens immediately attacked across a field towards the Confederate center.  The attack was initially successful, but a counter-attack by Jubal Early drove them back.  General Stevens died during this fight.  Kearny arrived about 5 p.m., along with a raging thunderstorm that soaked ammunition and eliminated visibility so much that at one point, Kearny rode into the Confederate line.  He realized his mistake and turned back but was shot and killed.  The Union troops then withdrew from the field.  Although tactically inconclusive, it is counted a southern victory because the battle neutralized any threat from the Union Army and allowed Lee to begin his Maryland campaign.  Pope was fired by Lincoln and replaced by Ambrose Burnside.
 
Also on September 1st, in Madison County, Tennessee, Union and Confederate cavalry clashed at Britton’s Lane.  The fight resulted in a southern victory and helped the larger strategy of trying to keep Grant from reinforcing Buell in Tennessee.
 
On September 2nd, southern forces under Kirby Smith began their invasion of Kentucky.  Two days later, they captured the state capital Frankfurt.
 
Robert E. Lee led the Army of Northern Virginia into Maryland on September 5th, taking Frederick on the 6th.  As they moved north, the southern troops destroyed the Baltimore and Ohio railroad bridge over the Monocacy River.
 
On September 9th, Lee drafted Special Order 191, which described how he would divide the army, and what routes they would take into Maryland.  That same day Samuel Heintzelman takes command of the defenses on the south side of Washington.
 
The Battle of Harpers Ferry was fought from September 12-15.  Jackson attacked the town, location of the Federal Arsenal, from three sides.  The Union commander, Dixon Miles, although knowing of Jackson’s approach, declined to post troops to the strategically important heights surrounding the town.  When Jackson’s forces arrived, they set up artillery on the heights and began a systematic bombardment of the town.  Miles realized that his situation was hopeless and surrendered, making more than 12,000 Union soldiers prisoners.
 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Paradigm Shifts in Personal Transportation


Delivery, Korean style

Copyright 2012 © by Ralph F. Couey
 
This summer has seemed interminable.  Record-breaking heat, coupled with some violent storms and drought that hasn’t been seen since the Dust Bowl days of the thirties.  The weather has dealt a direct blow to an already-creaky economy, driving up utility usage, damaging infrastructure, and with a slim harvest approaching, food prices will likely spike and stay high through the winter. 
For a while, gas prices were headed in the right direction.  But in the last few weeks, the gains have been lost to an uncertain supply situation in a market where fuel usage continues to rise.
For motorcyclists, this has been a dangerous season.  Most states are reporting increases in crash-related injuries and fatalities.  In addition, there have been many accidents that involved the motorcycle simply driving off the road for unknown reasons in broad daylight.  You have to wonder if extended exposure to the triple-digit heat and high humidity is not taking a hidden toll.
But the increases in crashes has been readily apparent to anyone who has followed the news.  For a few years I carried an updated post on my motorcycle blog, Soul of a Motorcyclist, in which I posted brief summaries of motorcycle accidents culled from the news courtesy of Google news alerts.  Normally, updating the blog involved an hour or so a couple times per week, but this summer the accidents were coming so quick and fast that I finally abandoned the task. 
A large majority of the accidents involved the rider being the victim of a failure to yield by a car or truck driver.  The second-most often cause involved riders losing control of the bike for various reasons.  But drunk riders really made the news this summer, in crashes that more often than not involved very high speeds. 

Monday, August 06, 2012

This Vacant Room*

Photo by Michelle Perich

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat, August 12, 2012
as "NDIC: Memories permeate the silence"
 
Copyright © 2012 by Ralph F. Couey

The room is empty, and somehow seems much larger.  The lights are off and the only illumination is the late afternoon sunlight streaming through the windows.  But the most profound impression is the lifeless silence that permeates the space.

There was once life here, the noise of machinery and the hum of electronics.  Mostly, though, it was the sound of voices.  In this now-silent space, the delightful sound of laughter was heard.  There were low voices engaged in earnest discussion, louder ones raised in passionate debate.  It was the orchestra of dedicated people engaged in work that was important and vital. 

A building is…just a building.  It is an amalgamation of concrete and steel, plastic and fabric, wiring and piping.  Some are grand and glorious designs, others decidedly pedestrian.  But the building itself is never as important as what goes on inside.  

People give it life.

The floors bear the constant tread of footsteps, hurrying to and fro.  Walls echo with the vibrant sounds of human activity.  The building now has an identity; a name that presents to the world the nature of the work that goes on inside.  

But it wasn’t just the work.

Life went on here as well.  People came, some from far away and became part of a larger family.  Friendships were forged, love was found.  People married, had children, and shared the drama of their lives together.

And for some, this building was the last place before they passed on to another more glorious life.