Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Welcome to Belize

Time to break from politics to put on my other hat - travel writer. I'll be writing some columns for the Washington Times Communities, but here I'll be recording my day-by-day impressions of Belize.

Belize City is just under three hours from DFW. It really is in our back yard, closer to Dallas than Seattle and Boston are. It's also definitely another country.

On stepping out of the airplane I was hit with a hot, humid blast that made me wilt. The terminal building was cooler, but the cooling system definitely felt over-worked. A young woman from the Belize Travel Bureau escorted me through immigration and customs, then took me to the Tropic Air desk to get me squared away for the next leg of my trip, to Punta Gorda in the Toledo district.

The flight from Belize City was on a "puddle jumper," a small aircraft with room for about 15, if they're all slender. I practically had to crawl to my seat, so meager was the head-room and so narrow the aisle. The staff, however, were all pleasant and professional. The flight to Punta Gorda, which included two stops, took an hour.

I was met in Punta Gorda by a driver from the Machaca Hill Rainforest Canopy Lodge - let's just call it the Machaca Lodge. He took me to the lodge in an open canopied vehicle that looked like it was meant for taking tourists on safari, and that's probably not far off from its usual use. We left Punta Gorda and zoomed through the countryside, the wind making my hair look like it had been through a weed whacker. My kids would have had a blast. I enjoyed it myself.

At the lodge I was met by a charming young woman (so far everyone I've dealt with here has been charming and young - I'm really liking the Belizians) holding a tray with a cool damp towel on it. After I wiped my face, she handed me a ginger infusion drink - refreshing and delicious. The standard hotel form filled out, we left the main building to go to my cabin.

The Machaca Lodge is comprised of a main building which houses a lounge and check-in area on the first floor, a restaurant and bar on the second. The building is wide open, and the restaurant serves dinner on the balcony that wraps around the building. There's a swimming pool, a sauna and spa, and then 12 individual cabins set on the side of a hill and overlooking the rainforest canopy.

The cabins are casual, comfortable and welcoming. The bedroom opens to a screened in balcony with a table and chairs. The tile floor gleams like it's been highly polished. The bathroom has a stone pebble shower built so that you can enjoy it with four or five very good friends. It has a large window overlooking the rainforest. The young woman who showed it to me assured me that it's completely private, only the monkeys will look in to see you shower. And they've signed non-disclosure agreements. It's a bit open-to-the-world for my taste, but there's no denying that it's a lovely shower, and it sure felt good after a day of travel.

After my shower I made my way to the restaurant and was reminded by the large, many-legged creature on the path in front of me that I am indeed in the tropics. It was dark enough that I couldn't see it clearly, and I'm really glad I couldn't. I thought of turning back to my cabin to go to bed hungry, then reminded myself that I was a thousand times bigger than my fellow traveler (which would put it at a bit over three ounces). It scuttled to one side and I trotted past it.

I'm glad I did. Dinner was excellent. I had shrimp ceviche, served with a couple of wedges of watermelon and perfectly seasoned. The dish had a fiery sparkle that had me wanting more. Next came grouper with hollandaise, served over rice and fresh vegetables. It didn't sparkle quite the way the ceviche did, but the fish was nicely grilled and the vegetables were perfectly cooked. I think the hollandaise was more unctuous than the dish called for - a beurre blanc might have been better.

Dessert was called "chocolate pate." It was a scoop of something very much like ganache, with some nuts and roasted coconut sprinkled on top. It was chocolate heaven. If other diners hadn't joined me on the balcony by that time, I'd have licked my plate. I'll be attending a chocolate festival this weekend, and if that pate was any indication, I'm going to enjoy it far more than is decent.

I chatted with one of the senior staff during dinner. She told me that almost all the produce used in my dinner was organically grown on the grounds of the lodge. Being from Louisiana, I'm not really that keen on "organic" (I'm just happy when my water doesn't contain benzine), but there was no denying that the lodge's produce is superior. She admitted that there are times when their gardens don't produce enough for every meal (the organic gardening project is still relatively new and will be expanded), but on those occasions they buy from other farmers near the lodge who also grow their produce organically.

At $65 (exclusive of taxes and service), dinner at the Machaca Lodge isn't cheap. But neither is it a bad deal. The dining experience was altogether satisfying, an entirely reasonable splurge.

The couple at the table next to mine told me that they're here for birding. The balcony where we had dinner is apparently an excellent place to watch birds. They told me they watched toucans this morning, and a lodge guide has took them out yesterday on an expedition that she thought was wonderful. I don't know what kinds of birds they saw, but the Machaca Lodge has won highest praise from two Texas birders.

Tomorrow I'll head out for two days with the "Maya home-stay" program, which lodges tourists with Mayan families. Then I'll be back at the Machaca Lodge for three nights to experience the Toledo chocolate festival.

Friday, May 6, 2011

How he did it

The White House is understandably pleased that Osama bin Laden was brought to justice. After taking a victory lap around the Mall, President Obama donned his SEAL uniform to describe his planning and execution of the mission. "Basically," he said, "I had to fly my chopper in low over the Himalaya mountains to avoid Pakistani air defenses. It was some touchy flying, but the maps I'd made were flawless and I'd forecast all the weather problems, so when I gave myself the go-ahead, I had high confidence that I'd succeed."

Asked how intelligence had found bin Laden's hiding place, Obama said, "I had a feeling that one of our Gitmo detainees was an al Qaeda operative, so I put him between Michelle and a tamale and in no time he was begging to tell me all he could. I talked to him in Pashto, and he spilled everything about bin Laden's favorite sushi place in Islamabad. I wrote a quick program to analyze data on fish deliveries in Central Asia, and in no time I had him located."

Obama's description of his fire fight with al Qaeda operatives was gripping. He admitted that the operation wasn't perfect. "I'd talked him into surrendering, but I mistook 'I'll come peacefully' in Saudi Arabic for "screw you" in classical Arabic. So I shot him. But I should point out that I did read him his Miranda rights and I followed all the procedures of peaceful confrontation listed on the back of my Nobel Peace Prize certificate. It was just an unfortunate mistake."

After running a careful field DNA test and confirming that it was indeed bin Laden he'd killed, Obama recalled his education in world religions to provide him with a proper Muslim burial at sea. He then piloted Air Force One back to Washington for a press conference, then on to New York, where he humbly thanked all the little people who made his mission possible.

"I'd also like to thank the families of the 9/11 victims for supporting me through this very difficult and challenging time in my life," he added. "They'll all receive autographed copies of my new book, 'Magical Me,' as well as my complete speeches on commemorative iPods."

Friday, March 18, 2011

A comment on race and looting

I've been accused by a number of readers of trying to ignore race altogether, to pretend that it's irrelevant that the looters in New Orleans were black, the non-looters of Japan Japanese.

I don't think that race is irrelevant to the discussion. I think it's highly relevant. What I don't buy is that race is the answer. That is, I don't think that black people are intrinsically more likely to loot that white people, all else constant. The thing is, all else is not constant.

Decades of federal policy have made black people more and more dependent on the government. Black educational levels and economic achievement were both rising faster than in the white population back in the 50s. Black families were mostly married father-mother nuclear families. Black civic institutions were strong.

Then came welfare, the Great Society, benefits for mothers without husbands (better benefits than they could get with husbands at home), benefits for doing exactly what you shouldn't do to have a stable family life or to get a good job. Because blacks were the poorest group in America, they were hit first by these programs.

White people haven't been immune. We're just 20 years behind blacks on the curve. The same family disintegration that's devastated black communities has come home to white America. The same lack of responsibility that hit black America is now part of white America. It just isn't as wide spread yet. Small communities are more resistant, as are communities in areas with strong religious and family ties. We probably wouldn't see much looting in Bismark or Fargo or Salt Lake after a Katrina-type disaster.

I submit that race is a factor, but it's not a cause. The problem as I identify it is social irresponsibility and family disintegration due to pervasive and perverse government policies. But before I write an article with my answers, I like for people to think about the problem themselves. I'm a teacher, not a prophet or an oracle. I prefer to make people think about answers rather than give them mine. I'm not convinced that I'm entirely right about this, but I've yet to see anything convincing to the contrary.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Public sector pay

I've been hearing over and over again that public workers are not overpaid. Yes, they make more than private-sector workers, but when you look at their educational levels, they're really underpaid.

It would take some serious econometric analysis to answer the question definitively, but my knee-jerk reaction is "nonsense." If comparing college-educated public workers to uneducated private workers is apples and oranges, then comparing college educated teachers to college educated engineers is apples and kumquats.

About half the public workers at the state and local level are teachers. Teaching requires a college degree, most private jobs don't, and so it's clear that public workers will be better educated on average than private workers.

Unfortunately, a college degree isn't by itself a good measure of education. Different majors attract students with different academic abilities. People who can do chemical engineering don't typically get education degrees. They know that chemical engineers make more, and the discipline is more intellectually challenging. The best students go into engineering, medicine, finance and the like, not education and sociology.

I've known many fine teachers, some of them with fine minds and able to do well in any discipline they choose. The performance of teachers on tests like Texas' TExES/ExCET don't create confidence that the fine teachers are the norm, though. There are way too many tenured time servers in our school systems who have the intellectual skills of a hamster and much less intellectual curiosity. They aren't underpaid.

Educational administration is another place where there are too many people making too much money. The ranks of administrators should be ruthlessly culled, the money saved put into the pockets of classroom teachers (after we've done a bit of culling there, too).

The Last Ringbearer

For you Lord of the Rings fans, there's a Russian novel written from the perspective of the losers in the War of the Rings. It's been translated into English and made available for free download. Apparently it must be free in order to avoid the wrath of the Tolkien estate, which guards its copyrights much more zealously and effectively than Sauron guarded Orodruin. Sauron as proto-scientific enlightened despot, Mordor as emerging technological state, elves as alien and backwards guardians of a feudal way of life - interesting. I haven't read it yet so won't endorse it, but I plan to download it to my Kindle if I can. Download it here.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

What happens in Vegas...

I heard that advertising slogan again the other day, "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." I attended a conference several years ago in Yalta. One evening a game of "truth or dare" broke out in my hotel suite (I managed to luck into a suite with a living room) while I wasn't there, and when I got back I found a young Slavic scholar seated on the stomach of a sleeping attorney as she sang "on the good ship lollypop." I ordered the party out of my room, and learned the next day that the game went considerably down-hill from there, with a now well-known political scientist wandering the halls naked with his glasses perched a couple of feel lower than is customary. On the train back to Kiyiv, a normally prim and mature sociologist commented, "I guess we took a vacation from our morals."

You can't take a vacation from your morals, and what happens in Vegas doesn't stay there. It goes home with you. That's because our morals aren't a coat we can wear or take off at will, but a distillation of who we are. I'm not talking morals in the narrow sexual sense, but in the broader sense of our code of right and wrong. I don't care what you believe about premarital sex or treating sleeping attorneys like pleasure boats, but rather what you believe is the right way to behave. If you don't behave that way, it changes you. The man who abandons his morals in Vegas goes home a man who's abandoned his morals, period. If you can slip out of them, they aren't yours.

Taking a vacation from your morals is like taking a vacation from yourself, an impossibility. Leaving your indiscretions in Vegas is only sneaky and covert, not a free pass on life. The person you are in Vegas is the person you brought with you, and the person you are in Vegas is the person you take home to Iowa or Maine or Mississippi. As I think about it, that advertising campaign is a vile lie.

Las Vegas is like old age; it just lets you be who you really are.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

50 Neoclassicists and a Keynesian

The problems in Wisconsin illustrate a rather difficult point for economic stimulators in Washington: They're surrounded by 50 governments that have to balance the books. There you are trying to goose the economy with Keynesian medicine, and the states are running in the opposite direction. They have to. They have balanced budget requirements in their constitutions and on the books. Spending has to be cut, and you can't make up for it with the electorate by giving everyone a tax cut.

The Federal government doesn't know whether to pursue expansionary fiscal policy or not. On the one hand they cut taxes (expansionary) and on the other hand are newly converted deficit hawks. At least by Washington standards. If I ever cut the projected growth of our household budget and tried to sell it to my wife as a budget cut, she'd laugh at me and take away my TV watching privileges. Or at least she'd block MSNBC.

Whichever policies the states are pursuing, they're emphatically not the policy Obama would like.