The Column

Monday, July 28, 2008

Column is back with new look, features

You might have found this page by accident or by the whims of your favorite search engine. If you have, hope you stay a while. If you're a regular, I have a few new useful toys on this blog.

As you explore this site, you may notice a few things here and there. I've juggled the layout, hoping this cleans things up a bit. There's a lot less clutter at the top of the page -- when I ccouldn't even find my own postings right away, I knew that was a problem.

What I did leave at the top is a news ticker. The headlines will rotate in and out, so it's a pretty handy device.

In the left-hand column you'll find two ways to subscribe to this blog, by RSS or email (it is essential reading after all).

Pay attention to the boxed item, "News that caught my attention." It's pretty cool. I use Google Reader for my own RSS feeds, and I have the option of sharing news that way. In it you'll find some news and feature stories I found interesting. The box shows my five most recent additions to the reader's "shared items" page. Clicking on the headline itself brings you directly to the story. But if you click on "read more" at the bottom of that box you'll go to my actual shared-items page. You might find that particularly interesting because, not only will you see the links to the stories, but also my comments on some of these stories. Think of it as a blog-within-a-blog. My hope is that the shared-items page may become yet another reason for the Web traveler to stop by.

I especially like the "Playing in traffic" section. It's gratifying to know I get readers from places I can't even find on a map.

Down at the bottom of the page you'll find a search box, a handy way to get to Google. Also there's "About You," my favorite bit of Web mind-diddling. Do not adjust your set; that's really you and I know all about you. You think browsing on the Web is private? Guess again. Your location, IP address, and some aspects of your computer are public as soon as you crank up your Web browser. I think I've commented on that before.

My own "About You" reminds me that I live near Goose Creek, SC (where my Web service is based), that my wireless signal is from Comcast, that I'm runing Linux and using a "Mozilla/Netscape 5" browser. All of which is true, by the way. My operating system is indeed Linux, and I'm using Seamonkey, which is based on Mozilla's old browser after they began throwing all their resources into Firefox. I found the graphic on someone else's Web page, thought it was a real hoot, got the coding for it, and pasted it into my own page. So enjoy -- once you get over the panic attack, that is.

A footnote here. A friend turned me on to Google Mail a couple of years ago, and while I was a little goosy about getting text ads based on certain key words in my email (that part still freaks me out -- but forget about any email being totally private anyway) I've come to love it. Now I use Google services for nearly everything. I can store some files in my gmail box, I use Google for occasional on-line chats, and I've played with some online Google applications. But my favorite Google feature by far is the RSS reader. If you haven't played with RSS feeds yet, ask someone about it (maybe even me) and give it a try. You can waste many hours going through your RSS feeds, but at least they'll all be in one place.

Another bit of technology I sometimes use on this blog is Jott. It allows me to add short postings by phone. It's a bit of a throwback to the old days of journalism that I know and miss. Back in my days of deadline reporting I'd rough out the story, find a pay phone, and call my editor. Jott is something like that, though it's so tempting to preface my phone-in posting with the old "gimme dictation." Actually, I can. (Note to self: Change Jott entry code for The Column.)

One of the goofy things about Jott is that things sometimes get lost in the translation. Words get mangled. I don't know if it's because the people at Jott don't speak Southern, but messages are not always received as sent. So if the entry looks like it was typed in by a Martian on mushrooms, you'll know why. But until I edit my Jott-sent submission, you'll find a "Listen" link that will allow you to hear what I'd phoned in.

The page design remains simple, uncluttered, no-nonsense, designed for fast loading. There's a reason behind the color scheme, too, reflecting back to the days that my journalism critics (mostly politicians and land developers) claimed I practiced a certain type of reportage reflecting on said color and said so in uncomplimentary terms.

OK. I was out of commission for a little over a month. Most of this was while shaking out my new schedule -- I recently started full-time work at a railroad yard. Also, I've been without a computer, so any entries were typed in and sent from the local library. But I recently picked up a used computer, set it up the way I like, and am good to go. My Internet connection is wireless, for now. The problem is it's unreliable; it comes and goes. That situation will soon be mitigated.

Anyway, it's good to be back.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

With $4 gas, it ain't easy being green

(Note: This is an issue that won't go away, so you can bet this won't be the only article I'll write on the subject. I can be bold and call it the first of a series, but this implies discipline on my part.)

If you haven't noticed how ugly gas prices have been lately, you must be one of those people who are not affected by it. Maybe soon I'll meet one of those people.

It doesn't matter how you get around in your home town; you will still feel some effect of escalating energy costs. There's just no escaping it. Even if you ride a bicycle everywhere (as I do) and only check out the gas prices to see how badly those poor fools in SUVs are taking it in the shorts, you may have noticed the price of just about everything else going up.

I have no hard numbers to back it up, but even the cost of pork & beans has increased to reflect the cost of transporting it from the piggery or wherever they process it to your grocery store. Everything's sent by truck, rail, ship, or submarine, so there's a cost right there. And since no businessman in his right mind is going to "eat" that extra cost, you'll notice the difference at the checkout counter. I tell you, there's no escape.

What I find particularly interesting is that folks are starting to pay less attention to environmental issues with fuel doing such radical surgery on their wallets. While it's nice to bloviate about carbon footprints and global warming when gas is a buck a gallon (and it wasn't that long ago), all this talk seems to have gone out the window lately.

Like the noted social commentator Kermit The Frog once said, it ain't easy being green.

There's renewed talk of drilling for oil in previously-forbidden areas such as the National Wildlife Reserve in Alaska and in the Atlantic off the Carolinas. Nuclear power is starting to look feasible again. Even to environmentalists.

My own politics are decidedly conservative, though I'm also serious about environmental issues. It's sort of like what Edward Abbey once wrote: "God bless America ... let's save some of it." But now some of these options are starting to look real good right now. And I'm not the only one thinking this way.

But these are all short-term, for-the-moment measures. Face it. It's a mystery to me why we're still so reliant on fossil fuel anyway. Using our other technologies as a yardstick, oil-driven anything should have been thrown on the scrap heap years ago, where DOS-only computers, vinyl records, Underwood typewriters, and slide rules currently reside. We've built more effective ways of killing the enemy in war. We have radar and satellite technology that can track a hurricane from its point of origin. We've built desktop computers that are more powerful than the room-sized units that coordinated moon landings 39 years ago.

Everything is new and improved, except energy. On that score we're still in the Stone Age.

Back in my taxi-driving days, I drove a Texas oilman from his weekend home on Kiawah Island to the airport, and we spent most of the 45-minute trip talking about alternative energy sources. He'd studied that, and he said that in all of these alternatives there is some oil required somewhere.

(Personal footnote: When I started driving a taxi in 1997, I burned about $16 in gas a day. When I left the business near the end of last year, my daily dose was $30 a day, sometimes $40. The car was a Ford Crown Vic, which did best on high-test and got me about 18 miles per gallon. If I was still driving that cab, the fuel cost would be more like $50 to $60 per day. Sounds like a drug habit, doesn't it?)

As I write this, gas is hovering around $4 a gallon in Charleston, South Carolina. And historically, that's one of the cheapest places in the nation for gas. To get an idea of what people are paying elsewhere, check out -- in fact, use that site to find the cheapest gas in your home town. You might save a few pennies that way.

Even when fuel costs reach crisis proportions -- and don't tell me we're not there yet -- people in the good ol' U. S. of A. still like convenience above all. We are, I submit, a spoiled bunch. Despite talk of cutting back on driving, I can look at the freeway and see the same number of cars on it as before, when gas was much cheaper. And the cars look the same too. Maybe a few people traded in their SUVs and four-wheel-drive Diesel trucks for something more economical, but I honestly don't see much difference. And though I get around on bicycle, I don't see where many people have joined me there. Are you kidding? I have yet to see air conditioning or an mp3 player on a bicycle, and I still haven't figured where to put my coffee cup when riding it.

And the trickle of oil shapes our foreign policy. While most of our imported oil comes from neighbors Canada and Mexico, we have to go to some real sleazeballs for our daily fix. Some of my friends don't buy gas from Citgo because it's all Venezuelan oil, courtesy of Hugo Chavez. OK. Chavez may want to be the next Fidel Castro, but he's certainly no worse than the people running Iran, or Iraq, or Saudi Arabia, and his human-rights record is no worse than theirs.

But getting to the green aspect for a moment. Environmental study isn't so cut-and-dried like physics is, where everything can be boiled down to a handful of natural laws. To truly think green, one must have a grip on a number of disciplines -- from high-school biology and geology to high finance and politics. It's a multifaceted science, with a web of connections that would put an enterprising spider to shame. And much of truly-green thinking is almost the dead opposite of how we humans are built to perceive things.

Humans tend to take the short-term view as a means of solving their problems, and that's where the going gets dangerous. That's where ideas such as drilling in the National Wildlife Reserve come from. Even if we go drilling there or off the Carolina coast, and build a bunch of new refineries, it'll merely put in a dent in the problem without solving anything.

Even some of the feel-good environmental measures such as hybrid cars are, at best, a short-term stopgap measure. And I understand there are problems with those hybrids, that the battery needs to be replaced every so often at a cost that would scare Bill Gates. And, really, the gas savings are not significant enough to solve anything.

But if you wish to think in the long term, this energy problem presents a golden opportunity for some new technologies -- whatever they are -- to take shape.

I'm not a great fan of focus groups and conferences -- one man alone can do some pretty stupid things but it takes teamwork to really foul things up -- but maybe that's a partial answer. For some reason I visualize a summit of some of the best minds in the sciences, engineering, politics, foreign policy, and throw them together for about a month. Give 'em those large sketch pads, feed 'em yesterday's pizza with cheap wine, bunk 'em together in a dormitory, and see if they come up with something to get us off the oil teat.

Right now, we're at the point where we'll take anything. That's the good news. The bad news is, we're at the point where we'll take anything.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Pop quiz: Have you been around much?

Here's an amusing little quiz to find out how much you've been around. Simply match the grocery store chain with the state you're likely to find a store.

_____ Smith's
_____ Ingles
_____ Super WalMart
_____ White's
_____ Stater Bros.
_____ Piggly Wiggly

And the states:

A: South Carolina
B: Tennessee
C: California
D: Arizona
E: Just world conquest, baby!
F: North Carolina

There's no scoring, or at least if there is no one really cares. But if you can get them all right, you've been around some. And if you can say you've shopped in each one and/or know the name of the store's "house brand," I feel your pain.

(Oh, yeah. Up North and Out West, that thing you push in the store is a grocery cart. Down South, it's a buggy.)

Answers will come in a future posting.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Mystery Meat, redux

Dug this up in my archives ... shot at a grocery store in Kailua Kona, Hawaii a couple of years ago. Goes great with this regional delicacy ... some folks just love that mystery meat.