"When faced with a problem you do not understand,
do any part of it you do understand; then look at it again."
~(Robert A. Heinlein - "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress")

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Just 50 years ago today ...

... I celebrated my 19th birthday, on 25 May 1961.

It was a Thursday, and I was an A3C (Airman 3rd Class - E2 grade in 1961 ) in the USAF, stationed in New Haven, Connecticut, at Yale University's Institute of Far Eastern Languages (having just arrived there the previous month).

I don't recall if I treated myself at Sid's Diner; where a lot of the Airmen stationed there ate (because it was close and relatively cheap; as we weren't on a base and had no access to mess halls, in addition to our normal pay (pitiful) we were given a per-dium allowance of $2.58/day -- real money in 1961 -- and they were happy to cash our paychecks. Most of us had tabs there.), or more likely, went over to Tony's Pizza for beer and pizza (where I was first introduced to pizza).

If I went to Tony's, it would have been a quiet celebration, just for me. The minimum drinking age in Connecticut at that time was 21, and while I've sometimes been guilty of appalling stupidity (see The Anvil of Life ), I'd like to think my instincts for self-preservation would have kept me from jeopardizing the license of my favorite watering hole by openly celebrating being two years underage.

So, what was 1961 like?

Well, I got my first airplane ride.

A few years prior, our family left San Antonio and moved in with relatives in rural Arkansas to make a new start.  My feelings towards Arkansas cannot be expressed here unless I put an "Adult Content" warning on my blog.

Occasionally I would walk about a mile down the road to state highway 22 and flag down a Trailways bus for a twenty-mile trip into Fort Smith, to catch a movie or just to see what sights the town had to offer, returning by bus in the evening.

In mid-January of 1961, on one of those trips, I happened to come by a USAF recruiting office and walked right in and signed up.  My parents were not thrilled at the news I delivered when I got home, but I was old enough to enlist on my own, and there was really nothing they could do about it except to give me a ride back to Fort Smith and the recruiting office the next morning.  It would be my ticket out of that damned state.

From there, I was put on a bus, with some others, for the trip to the induction center in Little Rock.  After almost a solid day of exams (physical and otherwise; I don't recall ever dealing with so much paperwork in my life ), they took our group to the airport and sent us by a commercial flight down to San Antonio.

This was January 1961 and the airline (TTA - Trans Texas Airways, sometimes known as "Tree Top Airways" (they later became Texas International Airways, before eventually being absorbed by Continental - think I've digressed enough now?)) was still using the Douglas DC-3.
Trans Texas DC-3  -  Drawing by Bob Engle
(Check out his site; he has some truly amazing work there.)

From Little Rock to San Antonio is a bit under 600 miles as the crow flies, but that's if the crow flies a lot straighter than that flight did.  The flight swung down into Louisiana, and I'll swear it made about as many stops along the way as a bus would, probably not making much better time.  It seemed like every time it got airborne, it was already making its descent towards another field.

It was already late in the evening when we took off from Little Rock, and about 3 or 4 in the morning when we got off in San Antonio, to be bussed to Lackland AFB (where all USAF Basic training was conducted then (and still is, as far as I know).

In "The Anvil of Life" (linked above) I touched a bit on my time there, so I see no call to repeat it here.

So, for other things about 1961...

The # 1 hit record in America was "Runaway", by Del Shannon (If you ever saw the TV series Crime Story (1986-1988), you heard it as the theme music played over the opening titles -- "As I walk along, I wonder what went wrong...")

Other hit singles...
  "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" - Elvis Presley
  "Crazy" - Patsy Cline
  "Hello Mary Lou" - Ricky Nelson
  "I Fall to Pieces" - Patsy Cline
  "Mother-In-Law" - Ernie K-Doe
  "Spanish Harlem" - Ben E. King
  "Stand By Me" - Ben E. King
  "The Comancheros" - Claude King
  "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" - The Tokens
  "The Wanderer" - Dion
  "Town Without Pity" - Gene Pitney

Popular LP Albums (remember them) were by...
  Harry Belafonte
  Joan Baez
  The Kingston Trio
  Johnny Cash
  Chet Atkins
  Carlos Montoya
  Bob Newhart (what that guy could do with nothing but a telephone as a prop).

Addendum - It's Wednesday, 08 Jun 2011 and on the TCM channel I'm watching a documentary, produced by Clint Eastwood, entitled "Dave Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way". It's not yet available on DVD, but I sure hope it will be soon. Dave Brubeck should have been among the names I listed above.  His experiments with time signatures (The LP Album "Time Out", featuring "Take Five" & "Blue Rondo à la Turk") were already underway then.

Showing at the movie theaters then, among others...
  "Pocketful of Miracles"
  "Judgment at Nuremburg"
  "The Absent Minded Professor"
  "The Comancheros" (John Wayne, Lee Marvin - worth checking out just for Marvin).
  "The Guns of Navarone"

How about TV shows?

Tons of Westerns...
  "Have Gun, Will Travel",
  "Wagon Train",
  "Rawhide" (with this newcomer named Clint Eastwood),
    many others.

In other genres...
  "Peter Gunn" (the theme music became a hit and put Henry Mancini on the map,
                       although he'd already been around for years. The theme from
                       "Peter Gunn" was almost as iconic as the theme from "Jaws"
                       would become 14 years later.) ,
  "The Twilight Zone",

AND -- for the cherry on top -- "Rocky and Bullwinkle";  the "Simpsons" of its day.  If the Soviets truly wanted to attack us, the best time would have been whenever that show was on, as the cream of our defenders would have all been in the rec rooms ready for the latest round of silliness and rotten puns.  If they only knew...
 Natasha Fatale, Boris Badenov, Bullwinkle J. Moose and Rocket "Rocky" J. Squirrel

Ok. How about cars, then?

Absolutely the sexiest car on the planet in 1961, bar-none...
Jaguar E-Type - Photo cropped from image at www.conceptcarz.com
After half a century, I defy anyone to even try to improve on that.

At that time...
   Minimum wage was $1.15/hour.
   Average yearly income was $5315.00 (a bit over $100.00/week).
   Gasoline was around 27 cents/gallon.
   A new Volkswagen Beetle went for somewhere around $1300.00
   Some of the less expensive U.S. cars started at under $2000.00
   As for that Jaguar above, a Wikipedia entry mentioned "The test car cost £2097",
   suggesting a price in the neighborhood of $10000.00 -- very difficult to pin down.
   In some parts of the country, you could rent a house for $50.00/month.

In 1961, the U.S. launched the unsuccessful invasion of Cuba, at the Bay of Pigs.

The Berlin Wall went up later that year.

Vietnam was not that big a deal then, although we already had advisors there.  Laos was the hot spot that had many of us concerned;  a civil war having just erupted then.

On 12 April 1961 Soviet Cosmonaut Major Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, completing a single orbit and then returning to Earth.
 Yuri-Gagarin and Vostok-1 - from www.newshawker.com

A few weeks later, on 05 May 1961, U.S. Navy Commander Alan B. Shepard became the first American to go into space, but not into orbit; the Redstone rocket he rode (essentially an updated version of the German V2 ) simply didn't have the power for that.  An American orbital mission (John Glenn's) would have to wait for the not-yet-man-rated Atlas rocket to become available.
 Alan Shepard Postage Stamp         -         from www.spacetoday.com
They issued this three weeks ago, on 04 May 2011 (50th anniversary)

To take some of the sting out of always seeming to follow the Soviet's lead into space, on that 19th birthday of mine, 25 May 1961 (although I didn't hear about it until a couple of days later), President John F. Kennedy made a speech to Congress about what we could and should do about our position in space, vis-a-vis the Soviets.

It included this item which would personally affect me eleven years later, making possible Adventure of a Lifetime, which in turn led to The Adventure - Continued, the events in which would eventually lead to a whole new career and a complete change in my life. ...

"First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth."

"No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish."

Democrats were surely a different breed then.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

When not even Ian McShane can save your movie...

... Boy, have you got problems!!!

I absolutely loved the first three Pirates of the Carribean movies, whose audacity at using a Disney World theme park ride as inspiration proved that it ain't the idea that's important, but what you do with it.

While none qualify as perfect, the combination of actor Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski (whose latest piece is the wonderful Rango (2011)) was a made in Heaven marriage, making the films quirky original fun (although they all could have stood a bit of trimming) .

Verbinski's first major hit was The Ring (2002) (a remake of the Japanese horror film Ringu (1998); an extremely rare example of a remake that is actually as good as the original).  He's a more commercially successful version of Terry Gilliam; our first encounter with Depp's character, Jack Sparrow, in Davy Jone's Locker (in the third film) is pure Monty Python.

Unfortunately, Verbinski has apparently tired of repeatedly visiting the same well, and the fourth film in the series ( Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) ) was helmed by Rob Marshall, who directed Chicago (2002). While I loved that musical, it's not even in the same universe as the Pirates films.

That was a major uh-oh for me right there; Verbinski's as warped as the Coen Brothers  (I suspect he lives in a padded cell when he's not working), and Marshall's as normal as they come.  That did not bode well for a continuation of the inspired lunacy of the first three films.

On the other hand, giving me a bit of hope was the addition of this man to the mix...
Ian McShane (looking a bit like his Deadwood charcter, Al Swearengen)
- from twitchfilm.net

... to play the role of Blackbeard...
(From The Hollywood Gossip website)

Now this is a guy I have worshiped ever since Deadwood; an actor of Shakespearean competence, almost incapable of ever being boring.

But, no matter how good he is, he cannot get the job done all by himself!!!

First problem:  The writing.  In addition to the original team of Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, the IMDB lists at least three others, making this art by committee.

Second: as a director Rob Marshall was great doing Chicago, but an action movie with supernatural overtones just ain't his element.

So, is the movie terrible?  Just plain bad?

Far worse;  it's just there.  Appallingly average.  Verbinski didn't always succeed at what he shot for, but at least he took the shot.  I can't see that Marshall even tries.

The most heart-breaking thing about this movie is the lost opportunity; the feeling of what could have been.

I went to the movie ready to give it a chance, eager  to love it.

Bottom line: Save your money.  Sigh. :(

Friday, May 13, 2011

It's Friday, the 13th all right!

Wednesday, May 11, I had some repair work done to my car.

That night, I banged out, very quickly, an impromptu post ( $446.99 ) about it and published it.  I felt really good about it, thinking it a fairly decent piece of work.

This morning, looking for it got...

Page not found
Sorry, the page you were looking for in the blog Paul In Houston does not exist.


When I tried to sign in to my account, I got a message that Blogger.com was in read-only mode while they were trying to fix some issues and to check http://status.blogger.com/  for the current status, which revealed...

Blogger Status
Friday, May 13, 2011

We’ve started restoring the posts that were temporarily removed and expect Blogger to be back to normal soon.

Posted by at 06:07 PDT 

To get Blogger back to normal, all posts since 7:37am PDT on Weds, 5/11 have been temporarily removed. We expect everything to be back to normal soon. Sorry for the delay.

Posted by at 04:25 PDT

At the moment (15:45 CDT,  13 May 2011) my little labor of love has just reappeared on my blog, minus a comment it had already received.  Hopefully, that too will be restored soon.

We'll see.

That link above, for blogger.com status, is a nice thing for people who use this service.

Just save it somewhere else for when you may need it though.  Depending on finding it here would be all too reminiscent of an IBM commercial of not too long ago, wherein an employee is telling her supervisor, "Oh, by the way, the email system is down. I sent you an email about it." 

(There truly might be something to this Friday, the 13th business after all. )

From Blogger Buzz: Blogger is back ...
Update (5/13 7:46PM PST): Nearly all posts since Wednesday are restored, now bringing back comments from last couple days. We expect the comments to be back this weekend or sooner.

Update (5/14 5:37 PM PST): We're making progress restoring comments, some blogs with a lot of content are taking a little more time. Thanks for bearing with us.

Update (5/15 10:55PM PST): Blogger should be back to normal for the vast majority of people affected by this issue -- if posts are still missing, please check your drafts (you may need to republish). We are in the process of restoring comments made during the affected period from 7:37am PDT on 5/11 to 1:30pm PDT on 5/12. If you still have other issues, please contact us via the temporary form we’ve set up for this particular issue. Thanks again for bearing with us, we’re deeply sorry for the inconvenience we caused. We’ll share an incident report later this week.

(I'm still  awaiting restoration of the missing comment I mentioned above.  Also, I don't know why they keep saying PST in those updates; I'm pretty sure it's Pacific Daylight Time over there.)

My own update - 20 May 2011, 23:12 CDT -  The missing comment (for $446.99), which was still missing a couple of hours ago, has now reappeared.  Everything I had lost has been fully restored. Took a solid week.  Wouldn't be at all surprised if they were still working on other accounts, but I'm good. :-)

Wednesday, May 11, 2011



A few weeks ago, the water temperature gauge in my car started to rocket into the danger zone. I added some water to what turned out to be a very low radiator, bought a jug of 50-50 pre-mix, and decided to keep an eye on it.  So far, so good.

Then, yesterday, it did a repeat.  I added coolant and swung by the place where I get most of my car maintenance done and scheduled an appointment for today.

Today, they wound up pulling and replacing the radiator, for the amount I used for a title.

 (If you like gory details, clicking on this image will get you a larger one).

To keep things in perspective, that amount equals about 60% of a month's rent of my apartment (versus 100%  of a month's rent that the blown head-gasket emergency mentioned in Adventure of a Lifetime cost me).

In my current part-time job of grocery cashier, I often encounter large shopping carts loaded with over $400.00 in groceries, whereupon I'm apt to reveal my age by noting that the amount would cover both of my first two used cars, with some change left over.

Back in those prehistoric days, I would have handled the problem by pulling it out and replacing it myself.  I've had quite a bit of experience working on, and even rebuilding engines, and eventually got pretty good at it (my first effort left something to be desired, not then having a torque wrench, or even an understanding of how important it was and what a difference it made to a successful overhaul, but after a while I learned).

In 1975, I blew the engine of a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle ("blew" sounds more dramatic than it actually was; it was more of a "clunk") resulting in an engine that was suddenly transformed into junk.  It swallowed a valve:  meaning that an exhaust valve crystallized from too much heat, its head broke off and fell into the cylinder to be met by the top of the piston in which it blew a hole the size of a quarter, spraying aluminum shrapnel into the crankcase.

In other words, an unholy mess.

Having no viable alternative to fixing it myself,  I pulled the remains of the engine out, cleaned up everything as much as possible, spread a tarp on the living room floor and moved the mess into my apartment where I could work in air-conditioned comfort.

Fortunately I was well stocked with tools.  Needing a lot more expertise than I possessed at that time, I was lucky enough to come across...
How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive; A Manual of Step-By-Step Procedures 
for the Compleat Idiot, by John Muir.     -      Photo from daveswhiteboard.com

To this day, possibly the finest do it yourself manual ever printed, first because it is by someone who has been there and done that, and secondly (and most important), instead of beginning a procedure with "Using Volkswagen Special Tool #", he considers that you very likely do not  have such a thing, and then tells you how to get it done with what's at hand.

With that, and a few hundred dollars for which I bartered my soul to Household Finance, I got the necessary parts from a Volkswagen dealership and spent a week putting together a rebuilt, upgraded (from 1500cc to 1600cc) engine and re-installed it in the car.

Of course, it worked.  In 1975 I was only 33, still indestructible and capable of anything.  Never any doubt at all.

A couple of weeks later, I was driving that car to Florida, for my third trip to the Cape (to watch the liftoff of the Apollo-Soyuz mission, mentioned in passing in  The Adventure - Continued  ).

As the rebuilt engine was still in the break-in stage, at my first motel stop I slid under the car, popped the valve covers, and checked the valve clearances. While right on the money when I left Houston, they were now way too tight, a condition that may have contributed to the engine blow-up that started all this in the first place.

This is critical on the exhaust valves.  Intake valves get cooled when they open and cool air laden with gasoline is drawn in.  On the other hand, when exhaust valves are opened, it is to let extremely hot combustion gasses out.  The only cooling they get is when they are closed and heat is conducted away by contact with the valve seat.  Get them too hot, and the metal crystallizes and becomes brittle.

Having puzzled out a mistake I made in installing the rocker-arm assembly that works the valves, I pulled it and put it back they way it was supposed to be.  No further problems after that.  In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if that VW is still running today; but I'll never know, as it was stolen in 1977 and never recovered.

At 33, I thought nothing of diving underneath a car and fixing whatever needed fixing.

Hell, a dozen years earlier, my second car (a 1953 Ford) had some teeth broken off of first gear in its manual transmission.  I and my brother went to see a guy who had a junked Ford in his field, with a good transmission, and we crawled under both cars, pulled the transmissions, and swapped them out right there and drove back home using the replacement.

When you're in your twenties and thirties, nothing is too much trouble to handle.

If I tried crawling under a car now, I'd very likely need help just to get up afterwards.

So, when presented with what needed to be done to my Honda, and how much it would cost, all I could do was give in to the inevitable and say, "Do it!".

That car is just too vital to me in my current circumstances.

On the other hand, it could have been a Hell of a lot worse.

Update - 14 May 2011 - My brother commented, after looking at that invoice, "...you got a pretty good deal".  I agree.  In my second paragraph above,  I refer to the outfit as "the place where I get most of my car maintenance done".  There's a reason for that; they typically cost about 3/4 of what a dealer would charge and they do damned fine work.  So, they are definitely a keeper.

If I'm going to say nice things about them, and recommend them (which I do, highly), I reckon a link to them might be in order.

Okay, then...   http://mymechanichouston.com/

Friday, May 06, 2011


This poster is on numerous websites.  I have taken the version published on Wizbang (by author Rick, May 6, 2011 - 8:18 PM) and doubled its dimensions.  Click on it for the full-sized version.

Wizbang found this at Gateway Pundit, under the same "Vindication" title I'm using.

They got it from an article by Jim Geraghty ( A Motivational Poster for George W. Bush's Library ) on National Review Online.  An unknown (or undisclosed) reader sent it to him.

My sole contribution is doubling the dimensions of the poster.

An advantage to RSS and Google Reader

A few days ago, I decided to blow away a post of mine that I had gotten tired of and had seemed to attract no interest in any way.

When I took a look in Google Reader, it was still there (and will probably remain there as long as Google Reader endures).


Monday, May 02, 2011

"It DOESN'T!!!"...

...roared the CIA Records Keeper (Ernest Borgnine) to operative William Cooper (Karl Urban) in response to Cooper's observation, "I never knew this place even existed."

That's from the movie RED - See WANTED!!! -- For stealing these movies... to know what that's about.

In that movie, after an encounter with his target that did not go well at all, Cooper confronts his superior, "This is no retired analyst!  He's a very experienced field operative. What else have you been keeping from me?".

So he gets sent to meet the Records Keeper, in a vault deep in the bowels of CIA Headquarters, in which are kept what records exist of things that are never talked about because they simply never happened -- prompting Cooper's "I never knew..." statement.

In the Records Keeper's two-word response is the very essence of security.

Some of the coverage of Sunday's announcement about the death of Osama bin Laden had a lot of speculation about the U.S. Navy's SEAL Team Six, supposedly the ones who carried out and executed that attack (and bin Laden).

The very name of the outfit is a masterpiece of deception.  Supposedly, when the unit was first formed, there were only two SEAL teams (SEAL = SEa, Air, and Land) in existence, and the new commander (Richard Marcinko) supposedly named the unit as Team Six in order to confuse Soviet Intelligence as to just how many teams we had in operation.

It was to be one of two Tier One counter-terrorism and Special Mission Units.
(What's the other one?  The U.S. Army's 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta -- better known as Delta Force).

In the late 80's, the team was supposedly dissolved and replaced by a new unit called Naval Special Warfare Development Group, sometimes shortened to DEVGRU, but still called SEAL Team Six (almost certainly for disinformation, or "confusion to the enemy" reasons).

You may have noticed that I've been using the word "supposedly" as frequently as Obama's economic team uses "unexpectedly" in their reports of how the economy is doing.

This reflects on how much (or how little) is actually known, vs rumor, speculation, and deliberately planted disinformation.  If something is big enough to make it impossible to be kept completely secret, then adding tons of bulls**t to the mix can frustrate those trying work out the details.

One common theme in speculation on how these units function is their being outside of the normal chain-of-command structure and rarely (if ever) keeping records of their activities.

That last part sounds as if it makes sense; to refuse to comply with a Senate Investigation Committee's request for documents risks a firestorm, and to destroy such documents is probably a felony.

But, what do you do if such records never exist in the first place?

Problem with that notion is that records are kept for very good reasons; CYA probably being chief among them, but also to keep track of what worked and what didn't, for future use.

Finally, for all the romantic speculation about these units being outside of the normal chain-of-command, they are still a part of the United States Navy and the United States Army (in the case of Delta Force); two of the mightiest bureaucracies on the planet.

A bureaucracy without records?  Right!!!

You wouldn't write that as fantasy, because even fantasy should be plausible on some level.

About Sunday's news...

I'm really not gonna have much to say about this, as so many others have far more information and insight on it.

I'll just note that an article on Wizbang, ( On The Passing Of Osama Bin Laden ) has a title evocative of a bowel movement, which makes probably the ultimate comment on his elimination.

Other sites mentioned that his body was disposed of, AT SEA, eliminating any chance of his burial site becoming a pilgrimage mecca for his worshipers.  There is some skepticism of that being done just yet (as there are so many things they might wish to learn from a proper examination of his corpse), but the reasons for doing so remain sound and I've no doubt of that being its ultimate destination if it is not already there.

A good friend's reaction to the news was an ironic "Allah akhbar!"

To which, I could only respond, "Amen!".


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