Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A visit to the Waitekere Ranges, New Zealand

I landed in Auckland on January 23rd. My first visit to New Zealand, a country of which I have heard so much over the years. Off I went to my hotel, the Langham (voted Best NZ Hotel in 2007 - certainly a very nice place), noticing very quickly that Auckland is like most cities: mostly concrete and steel and brick, full of smelly vehicles and so on.
I vowed to get out of the city as soon as possible....

I landed in Auckland on January 23rd. My first visit to New Zealand, a country of which I have heard so much over the years. Off I went to my hotel, the Langham (voted Best NZ Hotel in 2007 - certainly a very nice place), noticing very quickly that Auckland is like most cities: mostly concrete and steel and brick, full of smelly vehicles and so on.

I vowed to get out of the city as soon as possible, and explore the natural environs. So I finished up my two days of training for Oracle (with a small, but very engaged and friendly class) and then on Saturday morning was driven to the Waitekere Ranges (pronounced Why-TAK-er-ay) by George of Bush and Beach for an "eco-tour." Waitekere is due west of Auckland City and is now a large reserve that goes all the way to the west coaches and the black sand beaches there.

George was a food processor analyst for some 25 years, advising food companies on FDA regulations (for import into the US). A transplant from Scotland, he decided a few years ago to stop doing anything he didn't really like to do, so he quit that job and switched to eco-tour guiding, since he loves the outdoors and heads over to the Ranges almost every weekend anyway.

Well, it was a very fine day. I won't go into all the details, but instead offer some highlights. As one reads, New Zealand was a very isolated place (multiple islands, large and small) so flora and fauna developed in some unique ways. No snakes, no mammals naturally occurring on the island; and the Maoris who arrived hundreds of years ago lived in a sustainable way in the rainforests and other ecosystems that developed there. Unfortunately when the British (directly or indirectly as Australians) hit the beaches in the 1800s, things changed quickly....

** Captain Cook came to the island several times, and often dropped off pigs on the island to breed and provide meet for the settlers. To this day, Kiwis (that is how New Zealanders refer to themselves) say things like "I'll put a Captain Cooker on the barbecue for dinner." Well, at least pigs didn't take over the island and destroy whole species.

** Unfortunately, Brits also introduced rabbits and deer and possum and stoats. Now, many of the unique birds on the island were flightless, so they lay their eggs in nests in the ground. Stoats went wild, growing madly and unchecked, gorging themselves on the eggs and eradicating many species, or coming close to it. The possums ravaged many trees due to overpopulation. In later years, the NZ government has led highly organized campaigns to beat back the possums, and now some of the bird species are returning to the forests. George told us how when he was much younger, he and the boys would head out to the west coach beaches, like Piha, and see how many possums they could kill along the way (the animals would lie on the warm roads at night). What good citizens!

** Wood pigeons are one particular breed on the mend. We saw one as we walked through the Auckland City Track. These birds are big, fat things and like to eat the fruit of the palm trees that grow on the island (no coconuts, though). The fruit often ferments while on the tree, the birds eat the fermented fruit, and then they get drunk. Back in the day when the birds could be hunted (and probably still done by some Maori claiming indigenous privilege), you could simply toss a stick up at the bird and knock it off the tree. It would be too drunk to fly away.

** The Pururi grub has an interesting lifecycle. It bores into trees, creating a hollowed out area. Then it builds a cocoon and emerges during the summer months as one of the largest moths on the planet: the Pururi Moth. Its wings are bright flourescent green and it doesn't have much of a life to look forward to. It is born without a mouth or digestive system, so it lasts at most a few days time, in which it mates and leaves behind the next generation of grubs, or is food for some other animal. http://www.terranature.org/gigantism.htm

** The Manuka Bush is another one of those incredible stories of how the rainforests are full of plants that may hold cures for lots of what ails us. I didn't know this before, but honey generally serves as a natural antibiotic. Well, the Manuka takes that a step further. When the plants, which grow prolifically all over NZ, starts to bud, beekeepers move the bee hives near the bushes. The bees visit the flowers and take back whatever the active ingredient of the Manuka is to their hives and it goes into the honey. This Manuka Honey, in strong enough concentrations, serves as a powerful antibiotic that is effective at killing off the super-resistant strains of viruses that are rampaging through hospitals, immune to all of the pharmaceutical companies' antibiotics. You spread it topically on wounds and infections simply don't occur. It is being used in Iraq by the US Armed Forces, according to George. I bought a couple bottles of medical strength (25) Manuka Honey, as well as version (strength level 5) that you can eat like you would regular old honey - it's supposed to be very good for digestive problems, as well. I hold out hope that the medicinal version could help some members of my family who are having serious problems with hives.

** The kawakawa plant is another very interesting resident of the forests. You can readily identify the plant by its leaves, which are usually full of holes from caterpillar munching. Caterpillars are abundant, because birds to not like the flavor of the leaves - a somewhat basil-ly sort of taste. You chew the leaf and it makes your breath fresh - but chew it for too long and gets very bitter. And don't swallow, cause it could you give you a stomachache.

** Rangiora is known as the Bushman's Friend. Its leaves are strong and resist tearing, but they are supple. Plus the underside of the leaf is velvety soft. Let's see...soft, supple, doesn't tear easily....yes, it is nature's own toilet paper.

** The rata vine - now this was really amazing. George pointed out a fern soon after we started on the first Waitekere track that had lots of very small (a 10th the size of a fingernail) roundish green leaves growing on it. It was a young rata vine. These vines creep up the trunk of a tree or plant, and then blend into the surface of the tree itself, growing with the tree. Overtime, the rata vine gets thicker and thicker and after the tree or plant dies, it basically takes over, growing in the place of the original plant. He showed us a rata vine that is estimated to be over 600 years old! Here are a variety of photos: Young Rata - Ancient Rata - Young and Old Rata - Explanation.

** Finally and most awfully, the Kauri tree. Kauris were abundant up through the first half of the 19th century. They are (mostly were) the giants of the rainforest. They are, like many New Zealand trees, a hardwood. So hard, in fact, that a Kauri trunk that was buried for 30 million years was excavated and found to still be wood - it had not yet rotted or fossilized. The Kauris grow straight up, shedding branches from the trunks until 20-30 meters up (60-90 feet). They live (used to live) for thousands of years, with the biggest growing to 9 meters in diameter, or more. Their bark also sheds as the trees grow, naturally casting off vines, moss and other growths that might harm the tree. Amazing, eh? Too amazing. The British Navy realized that the trees would be a great source of timber for masts and for planking (they lasted a long, long time in the seawater). And so the clear cutting began. Massive devastation and waste ensued. And it gets worse. It was discovered that the gum of the tree (cut into the trunk and it "bleeds" gum), when mixed with linseed oil, created a very hard and durable resin. So trees were bled by the thousands, and then left to die. Now NZ is working hard to replant and save any remaining Kauris. I saw some trees that were certainly massive to my way of thinking, but puny compared to what had been cut down.

I tell you, a visit to New Zealand does not make a person of Western Europe proud. Actually, a visit to and education about so many places on the globe (the Americas North and South, Africa, Australia - where it was legal to hunt down, shoot to kill, Aborigines until the first half of the 20th century, New Zealand, and so on) is enough to make any Caucasian with a conscience burn with shame. Of course, in New Zealand, it was the Maori, Polynesians who arrived hundreds of years before the British, fought hard against the settlers and were massacred over and over again. Now, their remnants struggle for dignity or are assimilated. Oh, and as with the aborigines of Australia, their art is highly prized.

More on my visit to New Zealand to come...I still need to tell you about my visit to a very young piece of land - the 600 year old Rangitoto Island!

In the meantime, here is a link to all the Waitekere photos...


Sunday, January 27, 2008

More, more on Singapore!

I am on my last day of a 2.5 week swing through APAC (Asia Pacific). I have been in Auckland, New Zealand for the last five days and will write about that soon. But first, some thoughts on the first stop of my trip....

Singapore was a fascinating place. It seems to be something of a benevolent dictatorship. Strict enforcement of laws, I saw police wandering down very busy Orchard Street with automatic weapons slung over their shoulders and their fingers on the triggers!. Minimal freedom of speech rights - my friends from Quest Software joked as we sat at a restaurant for dinner that officially we could be arrested, since you were not allowed to gather in groups of three or more. And public criticism of the government is strongly discouraged or avoided. The newspapers had a "feel good" feeling to them, with minimal coverage of terrible events around the world and lots of articles promoting positive lifestyles. But they also contained articles that raised clear concerns regarding quality of life issues for residences. Definitely not any sort of oppressive feeling as I walked around the very crowded streets, or rode the bustling metro.

No, overall I got the sense that the Government of Singapore offered a very interesting "deal" to its citizens: behave and follow the rules, and we will give you very little to complain about. For example:

* Mass transit is of incredibly high quality and low cost. The metro was clean, modern, beautiful, absolutely packed with people. The bus system - yes, I actually took a public bus, which totally amazed some of the tech people I met; I guess that wasn't a very standard tourist/American thing to do - also seemed very comprehensive and efficient.

* There is strong discouragement to own and drive a car. Singapore is a very small island and they are very concerned about environmental quality, about overcrowding. So there are very high taxes on cars. Stanley of Quest told me that the Subaru Forester that I paid about $22K for in Chicago would cost something like $80K in Singapore (assuming he meant Singapore $, that is at least US$45K). And there is a mandatory electronic metering system - every car must have a sensor installed in it. And as you drive around through the busy areas, you are dinged small tolls. Drive during rush hour? Extra charges...and so on. You have to be well off to own a car. But that's OK, because mass transit is so fantastic.

* According to one friend, 85% of the housing stock is government owned and maintained. Individuals can buy 99 year leases on the properties - almost all of them apartments in substantial complexes. So in effect people own their own homes, but the government guarantees good upkeep, painting them every five years and performing other maintenance. So there is a more of a sense of their own government caring, and a personal investment in keeping one's home and environs nice.

Of course, I saw only a small part of the island and talked to only a small fraction of the population, admittedly from the more affluent, high tech sector. Still from walking around the streets, from taking the bus, from visiting the Bukit Timah nature reserve, I didn't get the sense of a lot of suppressed anger or dissatisfaction. Instead, everyone I met was polite, friendly, even enthusiastic....

The motto of the Singapore Government is "Integrity * Service * Excellence" and I have the strongest impression that they actually take this mandate seriously.

Here in the US, we value our rights and our Constitution, and well we should. But in the meantime, our government has been hijacked by right-wing Christian fundamentalists and corrupted by the widespread purchasing of votes and legislation by multinational corporation. Fifty million people have no health insurance, our infrastructure is falling apart, public education is failing, crime is rampant, government workers at all levels are considered losers and often do very shoddy work. Hundreds of millions of guns flood the nation and are used by the mentally unbalanced and criminal elements to kill thousands and injure many thousands more each year. Our economy is a house of cards (over $1 trillion in credit card debt alone) and big chunks of that economy are now being snapped up by foreign governments and companies - including the Government of Singapore!

Singapore seems more and more like a darned good deal these days.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

What a rough life I have

2007 was a busy year for me.

Quest Software released Quest Code Tester for Oracle, a tool that will (according to me, anyway) revolutionize the world of PL/SQL testing and more broadly development. It hasn't yet taken the world by storm, but it is off to a solid start.

I wrote and O'Reilly published the 2nd edition of Oracle PL/SQL Best Practices, a very entertaining book that I hope you will enjoy very much (if you write PL/SQL code).

I traveled to Europe a half dozen times, doing trainings for Oracle in eight different countries and many seminars for Quest, and also visited India for the first time ever - quite an amazing country with a incredibly vibrant, rapidly growing community of PL/SQL developers.

In fact, I traveled so much that I got two pieces of really horrible news during the year:

** American Airlines upgraded my status to Executive
Premier (which means I traveled more than 100,000 miles in the year - actually a total of over 130,000 miles). That means I can usually get complimentary international flight upgrades, and can hang out in fancy airline lounges.

** American Airlines also sent me a letter right at the end of the year congratulating me on crossing the 1,000,000 mile mark on AA flights. This means that I get a new frequent flyer card with a special "1M" purple icon on it, and now I am assured that my AA status will never fall below Gold no matter how little I fly in the future.

And this was all horrible news, because all it did was remind me of how I was sacrificing time with my wife and children to be a "jet setter." It's kind of weird...I found this person, Veva Silva, who made (makes) me more excited and happier than anyone else in the world, and yet I spend more time with AA flight attendants than I do with her (of late).

This has got to change.

I think that 2008 will be may last "life on airplanes" year. I am going to start pulling back on travel and adjusting how I spend my professional time.

In the meantime, however, it is only January, and I have already visited Singapore and Australia, doing trainings for Oracle and seminars for Quest. And I am right now flying to Auckland to finish up my tour and then head back home in 5 days. I am home for 10 days then off to Europe for a week, home for two weeks, then off to Europe for another two weeks. Craziness!

Yes, what a rough life. Let me give you an example from today of how rough it is for Steven the Premier Executive 1M traveler. Took a taxi to the Melbourne airport. Came in to the terminal and was confronted by a long line for check-in. At this point in my traveling life, standing in a queue is simply not what someone of my status should have to do. So there. So I looked around and found the Qantas Club check-in line, which is also for OneWorld ruby cardholders and above. I am Emerald. Even higher. So I got on that very short line. And a moment later, a very pleasant Qantas lady came over and asked to see my membership card, and then asked me to follow her. Did I do something wrong? No! I qualified for going into the small and very private First Class check-in room.

Okey, dokey. That was nice. So I waited about 1 minute there, during which I had the fortune to be able to hold hands with a beautiful little one year old girl who was very friendly. I almost was able to hold her - that would have certainly made my day - but then her parents left and so did she. So I checked in, and another very nice young lady asked me if I had visited the First Class lounge lately. No, I hadn't. Oh, I was told, you will like it very much. Great! I replied.

So off I went through the express Immigration queue (almost no line) and made my way to the Qantas First lounge. Now, on my way over to Singapore, I stopped over in Tokyo and visited the Japan Air Lines First Class lounge. That was very nice - completely putting to shame even the AA Flagship Lounges. They even had a half dozen shiatsu massage chairs. I sat in one for 20 minutes. That was fantastic.

But the Qantas First lounge was the most amazing of all. First of all, it featured several living walls - walls covered with real, live, green, moist, growing vines and flowers. So beautiful and it smelled so nice. Complementary wireless, sit-down restaurant with cooked to order food. And...a spa with free massages! Well, I couldn't pass that up, so after checking my email for urgent matters, I visited the spa. More living walls, soft music, running water - and a 20 minute personal massage that left me feeling both relaxed and revitalized and even rehydrated (just like their materials promised).

Then it was time to board the plane. And even though I only had an exit row economy aisle seat, and even though the open seat next to me was after takeoff occupied by a guy who couldn't stand to sit near a family with kids....I still feel very relaxed. Somehow, somehow, I will manage to survive this flight without sitting in a business class seat.

And that, dear friends, is just a glimpse into my rough life.

If only Veva could be traveling with me.....

[Update: at the end of the flight as we were waiting to leave the plane and enter New Zealand, I did get to hold a very cute little 7 month old baby. That was so nice....]

Friday, January 18, 2008

Bush "Stimulus" Plan: DANGER, WILL ROBINSON!

President Bush claims to want to save us from a recession. He wants more tax cuts that might on average put a few hundred dollars into the pockets of individual Americans - which will do exactly what? Pay off 1% of their credit card debt? Encourage them to buy another HDTV?

I say that Bush really wants us to continue digging ourselves into a deeper and deeper hole with one key result:

The weakening and eventual collapse of the US Government as we know it.

Bush comes out of the neocon wing of the Republicans who have been pushing and following Reagan's longterm plan:

Defund the government so that it cannot provide services to its citizens so the citizens get more and more disgusted with the government so the middle class supports endless tax cuts (which almost always overwhelmingly favor the richest), meaning the government can do even less. Which gets people even more pissed up, so they support the next round of tax cuts.

Pile a war, no two wars, on top of that, causing a massive transfer of our tax dollars from health, human services, education, etc. into the pockets of executives and shareholders of Halliburton, Northrup, Boeing, etc.

And then push for increased privatization of government services -- since obviously the government is screwed up and can't do anything right....and eventually there will be no more government. Just a bunch of corporations extracting every last possible dollar out of the citizens of the greatest democracy on Earth.

Until there is nothing left -- and the Chinese middle class has grown large enough to provide the necessary consumption levels. And then US corporations (already thoroughly globalized) will simply write off US consumers as a bunch of losers. At which point the US government, run by lobbyists and their paid-for pals, will stop bailing out the economy and then recession will be a mild word for what we experience.

We don't need tax cuts. We need a government that uses our current tax dollars wisely. We need a government that cracks down on speculators and greedy millionaires and billionaires who pillage through the wallets of poor and middle class Americans - and then when their ludicrous pyramid schemes come crashing down go to the government (us) for a handout. We need a government that will stimulate investment and growth without stripping its own ability to deliver on services and regulatory enforcement.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A visit to Singapore - first report

I arrived in Singapore at 12:30 AM "today" (whatever that really means; I am not sure right now, having passed the international date line). Now it is 8:30 PM and I am totally exhausted. I flew for about 20 hours on Thursday-Friday, passing through Tokyo. That was rather grueling, and I had upgrades. I will be doing two days of training for Oracle Corporation on Mon-Tue, then on to Sydney on Wed (7 more hours of flying) and more training there, then Melbourne, then Auckland and then home. I'm really looking forward to the flight home. Well, I am looking forward (already) to being back home, but the flight? No...not really looking forward to that.

Singapore has a reputation for being a very safe and clean place, which is achieved at least in part by very strict enforcement of laws. I saw a bit of this on the immigration form I had to fill out to enter the country. Large red letters on one side said:


Anyway, I spent today walking around Singapore, riding their beautiful and very crowded Metro, and melting a bit in the heat. It is mid-80s here. When I was in Chicago I relished the thought of going to a warm place. The lack of snow and shivers really is nice, but it is also taking its toll on me. Hopefully I will be better adjusted tomorrow, Sunday, when I plan to visit a big nature preserve, among other things.

Singapore is a busy, vibrant, crowded, clean city. It also feels a little bit like a big Disneyland island, full of parks and resorts that offer quasi-pretend, constructed environments in which tourists (and there are lots of us, it seems) and citizens can "experience" things, including: Underwater World, Jurong BirdPark, Night Safari, Sentosa Island (a whole, small island south of the main island full of resorts and constructed beaches and so on), Snow City (!!!! - "Singapore's first permanent indoor snow centre"), Chinese Gardens, Japanese Gardens, Malay Village, etc.

And then there are the shopping malls. There are lots of malls. Big ones, upscale ones (and I am sure lots of less upscale ones in neighborhoods I have not visited), and they are all very crowded. The taxi cab driver from the airport told me that I could still get lots of good deals right now because the Chinese New Year is approaching and there are lots of sales.


Well...now it is Wed and I am waiting to board a flite to Sydney. 7.5 more hours on the plane. I will write more about my time here - it was great, especially my visit to Bukit Timah - http://www.nparks.gov.sg/nature_bukit.asp.

But in the meantime, you can see all my photos (most without any descriptive info, sorry) at:


Saturday, January 12, 2008

Some of my favorite foods

I like to eat. And I am very fortunate in that I have been able to eat large quantities of food and not gain weight (though as I get older, this is less and less of a sure thing). So I thought I would share with the world some of my favorite foods.

Potato Knish from Knish-Nosh (Forest Hills, NY)

Ah, potato knishes – such great comfort food! Seasoned mashed potato cooked inside a thin crust of dough....a classic Jewish food and one that I enjoyed greatly as a child. I can still remember going to work with my Dad and being handed a few dollars and given instructions: "Go down to the deli and bring back hot dogs and knishes for us." What an adventure!

Today, the best knishes I have come across may be found at a small and very busy storefront operation on Queens Avenue in Forest Hills: Knish-Nosh. They churn out thousands of knishes a day, most filled with potato, some with pastrami and other way out (for me) fillings. I'm a knish traditionalist: potato only, please.

Veva's Poppy Seed Cake

Veva, my wife, is a really fine cook. I can still remember in the early days of our marriage being totally blown away by the fact that she made her own pasta for lasagna. I gained something like 50 pounds in our first year of marriage.

And her poppy seed cake with cream cheese frosting is just delightful. Very rich, certainly very rich, but not too sweet. Definitely one of my favorite desserts of all time.

Veva's Chocolate-covered Almonds

In recent years, Veva discovered Blommer's Chocolate, a shop where you can buy bulk quantities of high quality chocolate. And with one of those 10 lb. slabs of chocolate and roasted, salted almonds, she makes far and away the best chocolate-covered almond candies that I have ever tasted in my life! I think that is partly because they are saltier than the usual stuff you buy in the stores....

Mom's Chocolate Raisin Cookies

Hmmm. Another dessert? Yes, it certainly is a good thing I don't put on weight too easily. This recipe was handed down from my grandmother, if I remember correctly. My mom's cookies are (like most baked goods) best eaten fresh, right out of the oven. They are rather simple cookies – a smooth texture, not-too strong chocolate, liberally populated by raisins. I can eat dozens of them in a single sitting.

Brussels Sprouts in Ramen Noodles

What about vegetables? Don't I like vegetables? Aboslutely! I discovered Brussels sprouts relatively late in life, but I now declare them to be my favorite vegetable. I think that part of the reason for this vaunted place in my "top ten" list of foods is that I have a preference for bitter flavors. If something is really bitter, I don't like it. But slightly bitter? Ah, that seems to increase my enjoyment dramatically. That's why I like tonic water so much – and Brussels sprouts have a bitter flavor that is best balanced by grilled onions.

So what I do is cut up an onion and a whole bunch of fresh garlic cloves, sautee them in a pan, then toss in a couple handfuls of Brussels sprouts and cook those, being sure to slightly burn the outsides. Then I boil all that in water for a little while to make sure those Brussels sprouts are cooked. Finally, I toss in the ramen noodles. The result? A really wonderful soup!

Garlic Naan

A naan is a flat bread that is baked on the side of the Indian Tandoori ovens. They literal slap the raw dough on the vertical walls of the oven (at the bottom of which is cooked Tandoori chicken) and pull them off when the bread is crispy and dark.

Add to that lots and lots of fresh, diced garlic.

Serve it piping hot at the table.

What could be more delightful? A garlic naan with more garlic, I suppose!


Fruit is really amazing stuff. Most of it is really beautiful, from the standpoint of both form and color. And so much of it tastes completely delicious – with any need for processing by food conglomerates. I like all sorts of fruit, but I would have to say that my favorite fruit is the dark red, juicy (and yes perhaps even a tiny bit bitter) cherry. When they are in season, I devour them voraciously. I am kind of fussy about my cherries (and most fruit; I think I got this from my dad). I like them to be firm and crunchy. If they are the least bit soft, I leave them for less discerning consumers, like well just about everyone else, including my wife and sons, or blend into a yogurt smoothie.

Peanut Butter and Low Sugar Red Raspberry Jelly on Ritz Crackers

What can I say? I am a simple soul. PBJ is, of course, a classic combination. And when the jelly isn't too sweet (Smucker's Low Sugar Red Raspberry is my favorite)...and when the Ritz crackers are fresh and crisp, well....I am a happy camper, as they say, whoever they are.

Fried / Tempura Cauliflower

French fries are good, especially when they are "fresh cut" – not processed potato "product", but simply sliced up potatoes. Fried onions are very tasty, but I don’t think that sliced onions are best suited to be enclosed within an outer fried crust. They can be mushy and I hate that. Ah, but fried cauliflower – that is one excellent snack....the cauliflower stays nice and firm (if you don't over-fry it anyway) and there is lots of surface area to which the outer layer can adhere.

Pasteis de Belem

The most recent addition to my list, these are small vanilla cream pastries that are served piping hot in one restaurant in the Belem area of Lisbon. I went there in December with my friends from Dutec, who sponsored my seminar in that fine city. It was quite an experience. Hundreds of people crowded into a winding and seemingly never-ending maze of rooms. All of us ordering 3, 6, 9 and more of these little pastries (the cream rests in a crispy, crunchy pastry shell) along with cappuccino or port or water or whatever, the waiters scurrying in and out of the kitchen.

And that is all they serve at Pasteis de Belem – that one pastry. And they have been doing it since 1837.

Mmmmm. I can't wait to go back to Lisbon and eat there again!

Going back through my notebook, I remembered that I even wrote a poem about my experience:

Pasteis de Belem

Life in the moment
and the moment
is a fresh, hot pastry.
Crusty on the outside,
creamy on the inside,
not too sweet.
Want to take
small bites.
Make each one last.
But they are so fresh
they come apart in my hand
even after a single, careful bite.
No choice
but to gobble.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Evan Almighty – One Bizarre Film

I watched a lot of movies over the holidays. I was actually home for four straight weeks, sandwiched between out of country trips (I am now flying over Alaska en route to Singapore for two weeks of trainings for Oracle – Singapore, then Melbourne, Sydney and Auckland). And with the cold winter nights, my wife and I settled into a pattern of playing a game of Scrabble and then watching a movie.

So we went through lots of movies. And one of the strangest movies I watched was Evan Almighty. This movie is a follow on from Bruce Almighty. In Bruce Almighty, God (played with obvious relish by Morgan Freeman) bestows upon Bruce (Jim Carey) all his godly powers, and Bruce makes a hash of things.

In Evan Almighty, Freeman reprises his rather thin role as God, and this time Steve Carrel is assigned the role (by the movie's director and by God) of Noah.

A newly-elected Congressman (previously a TV anchor, and a shallow, obnoxious, self-centered fellow), Evan has just moved to Washington, and is settling with his family into a big suburban home.

Well, I am not going to go through the whole plot. God leaves Evan little choice but to wear a long beard and flowing robes, and to build an ark. Why? Is the world going to flood all over again? Have we been that bad?

Undoubtedly, we (or the powers that be that are ruining our world) have been that bad. But in this case...


The bad guy is a corrupt Congressman, who has allowed contractors building a dam nearby to cut corners. So at the appointed time, the dam breaks, the water comes surging down the valley, and – Hallelujah! – Evan, his family, the thousands of animals who have gathered in twos from around the world, and some lucky few people who boarded the ark in a panic, are saved.

As a bonus, the bad Congressman is exposed and punished.

As a double bonus, he is no longer a jerk and his kids finally like him.

So why do I call this movie bizarre?

OK, let's revisit what just "happened":

  • God knows that the dam was going to break on September 22 at mid-day.
  • God goes to Evan and calls on him to build an ark (giving him no choice in the process). A really big ark.
  • Animals came from all over the place (or maybe they just emptied out of the DC Zoo?) to get on the ark.
  • The "flood" does not sweep the world, it only devastates a big chunk of the Washington DC metro area.

So I found myself asking afterwards:

  • Why did all those animals get on the boat if the flood wasn't going to wipe out the rest of their species?
  • Why didn't God tell Evan to evacuate the Washington DC metro area?

In other words, the unspoken subtext of this movie is that God chose to let the broken dam kill thousands of people (all of them sinners?) by instructing Evan to build an ark.

There is no other way to interpret the effect of that enormous wave of water crashing through the suburbs and DC.

Yet this awful consequence is left entirely unmentioned in the movie. No mourning of the destruction and lives lost.

And Evan is the hero...for saving the lives of oh maybe 100 people when he could have saved 1000s.

I think that is just downright bizarre.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Electonric Voting System DOs and DON'Ts

Most electronic voting takes place on machines supplied by Diebold, which is run by people who contribute or have contributed heavily to the Republican Party:


That doesn't mean their machines aren't flawless, bug-free, and a great aid to our democracy. It just so happens, though, that many people have proven that their machines are full of bugs and security flaws. I believe that closed, black-box electronic voting systems that those provided by Diebold are a great threat to our democracy.

The problems encountered by these systems have prompted others, including the Open Voting Consortium, to press for a completely open and transparent approach - including PAPER TRAILS - when it comes to electronic voting.

OVC sent out this "dos and donts" yesterday.

Wrong way: Take the ballots into a room where few people can see or understand what's going on, then come out and announce the results.

Right way: Conduct the tabulation in public where everyone can see and understand what's going on, and the results are apparent to everyone.

Wrong way: Use software code that only certain people sworn to secrecy can review

Right way: Use software code that is fully open to public scrutiny

Wrong way: Make the system as convoluted as possible and force the public to just trust the officials

Right way: Make the system as simple as we can

Wrong way: Print the voter's selections on little curled-up strips of paper that make it difficult to handle them and count them (try stacking up your grocery receipts) and the law says are NOT BALLOTS anyway

Right way: Print the voter's selections on regular-sized durable paper -- called a BALLOT -- that can be easily handled and counted

Wrong way: Force voters with disabilities to use a separate system where they can't verify their ballot and which may compromise their privacy

Right way: Give voters with disabilities the same system as everyone else with a printed ballot that looks exactly like everyone elses ballot, and make it possible for them to verify their ballot.

If you are concerned about the future of our democracy, when it is so clearly manipulatable by these machines, I encourage you to contribute to OVC. They are building an open source voting system that is getting more attention from our elected officials.

Here are the details:

Press the PayPal button on http://openvoting.org or use OVC's Amazon account to contribute:

Monday, January 07, 2008

New Year blogging resolution

I resolve that in 2008 I will post more frequently and more concise pearls of wisdom on my blog.

I tend to feel like I shouldn't write anything unless it is polished and fully elaborated. As a result, many of my most incredibly brilliant, witty and insightful thoughts never make it to my blog.

I know, I know - who would've thought it?

And to start right away on this resolution....

I listened to Mike Huckabee mock Mitt Romney for "flip-flopping" on issues - like his change in position regarding abortion - and thought to myself:

Poor Mitt. If only he wasn't a Republican. If he was a Democrat and was accused of "flip-flopping", he could reply:

"I didn't flip-flop. I changed my mind. After getting older and - I hope - a bit wiser, I realized that I had been wrong. That is what thoughtful, rationale people do through the course of their life. You have a problem with this? At least I am not like George W. Bush, who maintains his beliefs and positions even as they are contradicted completely by reality, even when a clear majority of the American public no longer believe him and believe he is wrong."

But poor Mitt cannot say this, because he thinks this President is peachy-keen.

[Note: I am not implying I think his earlier position in support of abortion was wrong. I think it was correct and he is mostly now pandering to the fundamentalist Christian extremists in this country.]