Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Texas - Reconstruction continues

A bright sunny day in November.

I completed the addition of new siding, extending the wood downwards, with three new power outlets and a backdoor light. The house facade is complete except for painting, now to work on the deck.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Culture - A letter from Oklahoma City

I received this letter from Oklahoma with a real stamp, not cheaper bulk mail.  My name and street address are correctly written in full, by hand. In the left corner is Rev20v15.  When I search this string the third hit is: Oklahoma City, OK Virtual Address, Virtual Mail | Earth Class Mail

Inside is a single page, a poor quality copy.  Crazy stuff, see the line that reads:

For I, the Lord your GOD, am a jealous GOD, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and forth generation of those that hate me .....

Does the sender really think this is a good idea?
Do they know me?  If they do, they must know this is not a convincing way to convert me.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Culture - Vive la Différence

Teresa May - 2017 November 13

"We know what you [Russia] are doing. And you will not succeed. Because you underestimate the resilience of our democracies, the enduring attraction of free and open societies, and the commitment of Western nations to the alliances that bind us," May said in a speech at the annual Lord Mayor's Banquet in London.

Donald Trump - 2017 November 11

"[Putin] said he absolutely did not meddle in our election. He did not do what they are saying he did,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Hanoi following a meeting with Putin on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Danang.

Asked directly if he believed Putin, Trump suggested he was keen to move on to other issues. “Look,” he said, “I can’t stand there and argue with him. I would rather have him get out of Syria, to be honest with you. I would rather … get to work with him on the Ukraine.”

 But moments later, Trump circled back to the issue of meddling, saying that Putin has repeatedly denied any involvement. “Every time he sees me he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” the president said.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Texas - Reconstruction starts

As I had the bottom skirting off the back of the house, it was the opportune time to add a back door light and outlets. The tricky part was threading the power cable through the wall, as I discovered there were two cross beams.

I drilled a hole in the one near the bottom with a very long drill bit. There was also cross beam half way up the wall, so I had to remove the wood at this point to drill another hole, this allowed me to thread a wire from the top to the middle, and from the bottom to the middle.

The switch for the light is on the inside on the other side of the door. It only had the lower cross beam.

If you look at the wall there is two styles of wood, the original cypress boards, and the newer yellow pine boards, luckily the area had been previously repaired with the new pine profile, which you can still buy. The repair will be invisible once painted.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Saudi Arabia - A strange land, where life could get much better or it could all end in tears

Attention: Saudi Prince in a Hurry

From the New York Times, by Thomas L. Friedman,  NOV. 7, 2017

Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, in 2016. Credit Fayez Nureldine/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

To understand the upheaval that is taking place in Saudi Arabia today, you have to start with the most important political fact about that country: The dominant shaping political force there for the past four decades has not been Islamism, fundamentalism, liberalism, capitalism or ISISism.

It has been Alzheimer’s.

The country’s current king is 81 years old. He replaced a king who died at 90, who replaced a king who died at 84. It’s not that none of them introduced reforms. It’s that at a time when the world has been experiencing so much high-speed change in technology, education and globalization, these successive Saudi monarchs thought that reforming their country at 10 miles an hour was fast enough — and high oil prices covered for that slow pace.

It doesn’t work anymore. Some 70 percent of Saudi Arabia is under age 30, and roughly 25 percent of them are unemployed. In addition, 200,000 more are studying abroad, and about 35,000 of them — men and women – are coming home every year with degrees, looking for meaningful work, not to mention something fun to do other than going to the mosque or the mall. The system desperately needs to create more jobs outside the oil sector, where Saudi income is no longer what it once was, and the government can’t keep eating its savings to buy stability.

 That’s the backdrop for this week’s daring, but reckless, power play by the 32-year-old son of King Salman — Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known by his initials M.B.S. I’ve interviewed M.B.S. twice. He is a young man in a hurry. I’ve found his passion for reform authentic, his support from the youth in his country significant and his case for making radical change in Saudi Arabia compelling.

 Indeed, there are two things I can say for sure about him: He is much more McKinsey than Wahhabi — much more a numbers cruncher than a Quran thumper. And if he did not exist, the Saudi system would have had to invent him. Somebody had to shake up the place.

But here is what I don’t know for sure: Where does his impulse for rapid reform stop and his autocratic impulse to seize all power begin? After M.B.S. arrested a slew of Saudi princes, media owners and billionaire businessmen on “corruption” charges, President Trump tweeted his applause, saying, “Some of those they are harshly treating have been ‘milking’ their country for years!”

I could only laugh reading that tweet. Hearing that Saudi princes were arrested for “corruption” is like reading that Donald Trump fired seven cabinet secretaries “for lying.” You know it has to be something else. Trump obviously missed the story last year that M.B.S. impulsively bought a yacht while on vacation in the south of France — it just caught his fancy in the harbor — from its Russian owner for $550 million. Did that money come out of his piggy bank? Savings from his Riyadh lemonade stand? From his Saudi government 401(k)?

I raise this point because when you’re making as many radical changes at once, and making as many enemies at once, as M.B.S. is, your robes need to be very clean. People have to believe that you mean what you say and that you have no hidden agendas, because change is going to be painful. Look at what M.B.S. is doing all at once:

To speed up decision-making, he is reshaping the Saudi state — from a broad family coalition where power is shared and alternated among seven major families and decisions taken by consensus — to a state governed by a single family line. This is no longer “Saudi Arabia.” It is becoming “Salman Arabia.” In the latest series of arrests, M.B.S. basically eliminated the “young old guard” — the key sons and his natural rivals from the other main Saudi royal lines. He also arrested the owners of the three main quasi-independent private television networks, MBC, ART and Rotana.

At the same time, M.B.S. is shifting the basis of legitimacy of the regime, ending “the 1979 era.” In 1979, in the wake of the takeover of Islam’s most holy site in Mecca by an ultra-fundamentalist Saudi preacher who claimed that the al-Saud family was not Islamic enough, the Saudi ruling family — to shore up its religious legitimacy — made a sharp religious turn at home and began exporting its puritanical Wahhabi Sunni Islam abroad, building mosques and schools from London to Indonesia.

It has been a disaster for the Arab/Muslim world, spawning offshoots like Al Qaeda and ISIS and retarding Arab education and women’s advancement.

M.B.S. has vowed to give birth to a more moderate Saudi Islam, starting by curbing his religious police and permitting women to drive. This is hugely important. He is daring people to judge his government not on piety but on performance, not on Quran but on KPIs — key performance indicators on unemployment, economic growth, housing and health care.

But he is replacing Wahhabism as a source of solidarity with a more secular Saudi nationalism, one that has a strong anti-Iran/Persian/Shiite tenor. And that is taking him to some dangerous places. To confront Iran, M.B.S. got the Sunni Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saad al-Hariri, to quit his office on Saturday while on a visit to Riyadh, and blamed Iran and its Shiite allies for making Lebanon ungovernable — and for a missile attack from Yemen. Lebanon, which had forged a relatively stable balance among Sunnis, Christians and Shiites, is now shaking. M.B.S. also led a Gulf effort to isolate Qatar for being too close to Iran and to crush Iran’s influence in Yemen — and crush Yemen in the process. It’s overreach, and there seems to be no one around to tell him that.

 As a veteran Saudi journalist remarked to me of M.B.S.: “This guy saved Saudi Arabia from a slow death, but he needs to broaden his base. It is good that he is freeing the house of Saud of the influence of the clergy, but he is also not allowing any second opinion of his political and economic decisions.”

I worry that those urging M.B.S. to be more aggressive in confronting Iran (whose malign regional influence does need counterbalancing) — like the U.A.E., Trump, Jared Kushner and Bibi Netanyahu — will push M.B.S. into a war abroad and at home at the same time, and we could see Saudi Arabia and the whole region spin out of control at the same time. As I said, I’m worried.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Texas - A Yellow Submarine

The classic 1968 Yellow Submarine inspired mini library, seen in Houston

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Texas - Destruction phase

Last year I dismantled the wooden deck and made a stone, ground-level patio. Now I and reusing the saved decking material to make a narrow deck at the back of the yellow house.

The deck will extend the width of the house, 10 m, and extend out about 2 m. It will encase and hide the three periods of concrete at the back door, to create a cleaner look.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Texas - Live Oaks

The annual cemetery tour in Columbus, the weather was warm and dry. There were maybe a dozen storytellers, um I mean dead people, risen from their graves, fully clothed in period-appropriate dress, cell phones carefully hidden.

One talked of her husband that kept a terrible secret from her, that he was an orphan from the Orphan Train.

Charles Brunson and an apparition 

Friday, November 3, 2017

Culture - There is hope where you least expect it

From The Economist, Nov 2nd 2017 - "The new Arab cosmopolitans"

Despots are pushing the Arab world to become more secular, but they are consolidating their own power in the process  

DURING Friday prayers the congregation of Muhammad Yousef, a young puritanical preacher in the Egyptian town of Mansoura, once spilled out into the alleys surrounding his mosque. Now Sheikh Muhammad counts it a good week if he fills half the place.

In Cairo, 110km (68 miles) to the south, unveiled women sit in street cafés, traditionally a male preserve, smoking water-pipes. Some of the establishments serve alcohol, which Islam prohibits. “We’re in religious decline,” moans Sheikh Muhammad, whose despair is shared by clerics in many parts of the Arab world.

According to Arab Barometer, a pollster, much of the region is growing less religious. Voters who backed Islamists after the upheaval of the Arab spring in 2011 have grown disillusioned with their performance and changed their minds. In Egypt support for imposing sharia (Islamic law) fell from 84% in 2011 to 34% in 2016. Egyptians are praying less, too (see chart). In places such as Lebanon and Morocco only half as many Muslims listen to recitals of the Koran today, compared with 2011. Gender equality in education and the workplace, long hindered by Muslim tradition, is widely accepted. “Society is driving change,” says Michael Robbins, an American who heads Barometer.

But so, too, is a new crop of Arab leaders, who have adjusted their policies in line with the zeitgeist. They are acting, in part, out of political self-interest. The region’s authoritarians, who once tried to co-opt Islamists, now view them as the biggest threat to their rule. By curbing the influence of clerics they are also weakening checks on their own power. Still, many Arab leaders seem genuinely interested in moulding more secular and tolerant societies, even if their reforms do not extend to the political sphere.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has led the way in relaxing religious and social restrictions. While leading a regional campaign against Islamist movements, Muhammad bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the UAE’s de facto leader, has financed the construction of Western university branches and art galleries. He has encouraged young women out of domestic seclusion and into military service, his daughter included. Female soldiers often walk the streets in uniform. In marked contrast to the region’s post-independence nationalist leaders, who purged their societies of Armenians, Greeks, Italians and Jews, he has embraced diversity, though tough restrictions on citizenship persist.

In Egypt President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has not only banned the Muslim Brotherhood, the region’s pre-eminent Islamist movement, but denounced al-Azhar, the Muslim world’s oldest seat of learning, for “intolerance”. He has closed thousands of mosques and said that Muslims must not sacrifice sheep in their homes during festivals without a licence. On some beaches burkinis—body-covering swimwear for conservative women—are banned. In a break from his predecessors, Mr Sisi has attended Christmas mass in Cairo’s Coptic cathedral three years in a row (though he doesn’t stay long). “We’re becoming more European,” explains an Egyptian official.

The most remarkable, albeit nascent, transformation is in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, where Muhammad bin Salman, the young crown prince, has curbed the religious police, sacked thousands of imams and launched a new Centre for Moderation to censor “fake and extremist texts”. Women will soon be allowed to drive cars and enter sports stadiums. They are already encouraged to work. Now Prince Muhammad wants to create a new city, Neom, that seems modeled on freewheeling Dubai. Its promotional videos show women without headscarves partying with men. “We are only returning to what we used to be, to moderate Islam, open to the world and all religions,” he told foreign investors in October.

This move to moderation is far from ubiquitous. In countries with less dynamic governments, such as Algeria, Jordan and Palestine, polls show that support for sharia and sympathy for Islamist movements is high and growing. But secularists can been found in even the most conservative quarters. Freed from the grip of Islamic State (IS) jihadists, residents of Mosul, in Iraq, congregate in revamped cafés that have sprouted around the city’s wrecked university. Many profess to be atheists. The fine-arts department is reopening after it was closed by IS three years ago, with twice its previous intake of students.

Economic hardship, long seen as fueling Islamist opposition movements, may also be eroding traditional views on women’s role in society. Amid soaring inflation and subsidy cuts in many countries, one salary is rarely enough to support a family. So husbands encourage their wives to work. Daughters are leaving their homes in rural areas to study or work in cities. Health workers say premarital sex is more common, in part because the age of marriage is rising (many blame high living costs).

Moderation without representation 

All of the change is bittersweet for the region’s liberals, who want more political openness, too. But Arab leaders are acting much like Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s dictator in the early 20th century, who abolished the caliphate and sharia, and banned traditional garb, all while consolidating his own power.

In implementing his modernizing agenda, Prince Muhammad has downgraded his family’s 250-year-old alliance with the Wahhabist clergy, who enforced a puritanical version of Islam and seemed to rule Saudi Arabia alongside the House of Saud. Now clerics who push back too hard against decrees are muzzled—or arrested. Dozens of public figures (including liberals) who were critical of the prince’s policies were detained in September.

Similarly, Mr Sisi fans criticism of religious movements, while censoring even indirect barbs of his rule. He has banned hundreds of newspapers and websites, and muzzled artists and musicians who might provoke opposition.

Yet many Arabs seem ready to forfeit political rights in exchange for personal liberties. A poll this year named the UAE as the state Arabs most want to live in, despite its dearth of democratic rights. But secularization may last only as long as the despots pushing the plan. And even they may not go as far as activists want. No sooner had Saudi women won the right to drive than some took their bicycles out on the roads, testing the limits of official tolerance. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Italy - Five years ago, 2012 October 31

It was cold and raining, we were in a cafe on the seafront, the mafia were meeting at the table next to us.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Texas - A flat tire

Considering, this worked out well.

The car front tire blew out turning a corner, we rolled to a stop, right next to a garage. The weather was dry and warm. A person came out to look and found the small spare tire needed air, and it needed a new valve, but after trying two new valves decided it needed a specific valve he did not have. We tried to pay the garage for the effort but the owner said there is no charge, just give us a good review online.

We called AAA to get the car towed to a tire shop we have used before. A flat bed tow truck came, loaded the car, drove the few miles to the tire shop, and offloaded the car. He said goodbye and left.

The tires were not that old, and shop replaced the damaged tire for free, and $130 for the other. We replaced both front tires. Including a new spare it was $300. The sales guy said it would be ready in 40 minutes, so we had dinner at a Chinese buffet, came back an hour later and collected the car.  The spare will take a few extra days as they had to order in the tire.

We were done, the car was whole again, we were fed, the garage help was free, the AAA tow was free (an annual membership), and the tire shop gave us a free tire. It worked out well.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Texas - The previous life of our guesthouse

An undated picture taken inside our guesthouse when it belonged to the local telephone company. This was on the back page of a newspaper, I hope to get a better picture from the local internet/phone supplier. On the bottom left you can see the plugs sticking out, that were pulled up and plugged into the correct number on the vertical panel.

Nearby is the replacement building, totally automatic except for cutting the grass.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Texas - Volcano bush in the early morning

Lespedeza liukiuensis 'Little Volcano' in bloom. We have not had this very long so will be interested to see how deciduous it is. Native to Japan.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Culture - The wonders of a free media

Saturday Night Live has been reborn in the Trump era, so much material for a satirical program. This video is a well crafted piece of art, so much packed into four minutes.

  • Anderson Cooper, an American journalist, television personality, and author, primary anchor of the CNN news show Anderson Cooper 360°
  • Kellyanne Conway, a political pundit and pollster, who is currently serving as Counselor to President Donald Trump


Thursday, October 12, 2017

Texas - Less mysterious construction

Update to Mysterious Construction

18 months later, and the building looks much better and is almost complete. It has been resurfaced in material acceptable to the city, and matches the other church building. The city communications with the church were never revealed, but seem successful.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Texas - Enchanted Forest after the flood

They were closed after being flooded, but now they back in business.  It is October and still hot and sunny.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Texas - Conversation at the car shop

I was waiting at the car dealership for my free service. A guy approaches dressed casually, with a measuring wheel, he sat down, he was waiting too. It seemed to me he was using it as a prop to start conversations, maybe he was, and it worked.

He had a home gutter installation company, but went to college to studied both catholic theology to be a priest, and accounting. He graduated and became an accountant, but did not like to work inside and with computers. He showed me his calendar, a sheet of paper.  He had fallen out with the catholic church too, and was more attracted to the episcopal church, the american version of the church of England.

He takes vacation in November, when business is light, and had been to Canterbury cathedral in the UK. He said there are only 450 active members!  I told him the UK is not very religious, more catholics go to church than protestants.

His gutter install and repair business suited him, an outdoor job and that used his accounting skills. I asked him if he every fallen from a two-story building.

"YES," he said.

It had happened earlier this year he had slipped on gravel on the roof, fell two stories, tried to grab the gutter, hit the house, landed on a hedge that poked him in the ribs, and then hit the ground and his head on a log edging the flowerbed. He was unconscious. The homeowner was not at home. While he was in hospital his phone rang and he got his wife to answer it.  It was the homeowner wanting to know why he had not finished the job, the homeowner had no idea what had happened. The guy said he will finish the job in 3 weeks, and he did.

Now he no longer gets on the roof, does everything from a ladder. The downside is he is up and down the ladder many more times, 20 times per house, and in the Texas summer it is exhausting. Having four workers allows him to spread the tiring work between them, so they can work through the whole day, removing, making, and installing gutter, adding downpipes, etc. He burns 5000 calories a day.

He intimately knows the weather, it is critical to what he does everyday. He can only work when the wind is less that 22 mile per hour. The most difficult issue is the humidity, the sweat and inherent poor visibility.

He said he pays his workers $200/day but he recently lost most of them as they can make more money installing sheetrock in houses that have been flooded. He charges 30% more than his competitors but said he uses good material, and all his people are insured. Most of the work comes when it is raining, he visits each home, and gives the homeowner a quote for what needs to be done. A percentage of them call back accepting the work.

The dealership took far to long to do a simple service, but then I would never had this conversation with a stranger.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Balkans - Travelling across borders and currencies

Travelling from Albania to Italy there are a variety of border checks exiting and entering countries. Some border crossings were "lubricated" with a case of bottled water, some with a few beers, until we got to the border with Croatia where it was done properly, no bribes, everyone's passport checked, we were entering the EU. However, Croatia is not yet in the Schengen Zone, so we had another passport check entering Slovenia.

Albania uses its own currency as expected, Montenegro uses the Euro, although it is not a member of the EU and not approved to use the Euro. Croatia uses its own currency but is a member of the EU, and Slovenia is a member of the EU, and uses the Euro. And is in the Schengen zone!

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Slovenia - Bled Lake and Island

There are no motorized boats on the lake, you can rent a row boat, or for 14 Euros be rowed, Venetian-style but with two oars.

Our rower used a traditional boat built by his father.  It held 15 people. It took about 20 minutes to reach the island and we had about an hour on the island.  A physically demanding way to earn money. They had had scull races the week before and the lake was still laid out with floating lane markers.


Friday, October 6, 2017

Slovenia - Bled back streets

Just one street back from the main road that borders the lake it is quiet and peaceful. Here the older houses are being restored.

I have no idea, seems like it would fill with water and snow

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Slovenia - Bled Castle

Bled is a small town surrounded by mountains, bordering a lake with an island.  A pretty place. High over one side of the lake is Bled Castle. A rainy morning.

Working Print Shop

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Slovenia - Postojna Caves

A must-see if you visit Slovenia, ideal on a rainy day. The caves are huge, they run for 20 km underground, and are carefully developed.  It is 10 C underground and they rent warm cloaks if you need them.

We took a fast electric train for 15 minutes through the cave system, to get deep inside, a guided tour for another hour, and the train back out. There is even a gift store inside.

This is an great experience, maybe not a photo opportunity.

Deep underground

And outside, very green and still raining

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Croatia - Poljanak - The Plivicic Lakes

The Plitvice Lakes are a wonderful huge three-dimensional landscape. Photos do not do it justice, you need to walk through it.

Lakes are a temporary feature of the landscape, they infill, but here it is different. The water is highly saturated with Calcium hydrogen carbonate from the extensive underground water flows through limestone and dolomite. In certain areas, it precipitates out as Travertine, growing water barriers up to 10 mm per year, raising the lake level. Somewhat counter-intuitive.

The water is clear and green-blue. A magical place, to which I would love to return to to see it in all seasons.