The “Surge” as policy

The Defense Department, in a new national defense strategy, also emphasized the need to subordinate military operations to “soft power” initiatives to undermine Islamist militancy by promoting economic, political and social development in vulnerable corners of the world.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he hoped the change would help establish permanent institutional support for counterinsurgency skills acquired in Iraq and Afghanistan within a defense community heavily skewed in favor of expensive conventional and strategic modernization programs.

Your homework assignment:  go and read Petreaus’ book[*2] .  Then go read the new National Defense Policy[*3] (both PDF’s).  Then you will understand that “The Surge” was about much more than just throwing 30,000 more troops at the Iraq mess.  It was about understanding, adapting, and winning the trust of the local population.  Which, in Iraq, we have largely now done.  Now it’s required to maintain that trust–by leaving, if that’s what they want.  But from all reports, that’s not really what they want, although some Iraqis will say so for perfectly understandable politcal reasons.

Over the Water and Back Again-Part 4

Over The Water And Back Again—A Transatlantic Trip
By Snookums, edited by Filbert, photos by Filbert

Part 4

May 6 (Tuesday, Day 10, Azores) –

Off the topic of cruising, Snookums and Filbert received an email from their subdivision’s Board of Directors informing them that the annual garage sale would be delayed one week in order to handle the crowds associated with American Idol.  That’s right folks, there was an American Idol contestant in our subdivision.  David Cook’s mother and stepfather lived in our subdivision and American Idol was going to film David in his surroundings that upcoming weekend.  So, to accommodate the press and hordes of people, the annual garage sale was moved to May 15 – 17.  (By the way, Snookums stopped selling her rebate items at the garage sale two years ago and  instead donates the drug store items to the local battered women’s shelter at a rate of about $8,000/year.)  Now back to cruising…

The Azores
A jail with a nice view:  Azores

Snookums was sniffling, coming down with either a cold or allergies so she didn’t sleep well, but still ended up going to the 7:30 AM stretch class followed by the 8 M shape and tone class.  There still wasn’t enough exercise mats (or space) but the class gave out “ShipShape dollars” to redeem at the end of the cruise for tacky Royal Caribbean stuff.  Snookums hoped to get 20 tokens for the t-shirt but thought that she would probably have to settle for a plastic water bottle for 6 tokens—7:30 AM is VERY early.

When Snookums got back to the room Filbert was showered and ready to go so we had breakfast for our second time on the ship.  Then we went to the 14th floor lounge in order to do Internet and when we arrived in the lounge, we saw that we were now within sight of land for the first time in 5 days.  We saw two sets of dolphins about 5 minutes apart so that was neat.  We docked at Ponta Delgada, Azores at noon.  Sperm whales live year-round and breed in the waters off the Azores, and we signed up for a 3 ½-hour whale watching excursion. They are supposed to be the 2nd largest whale type.

Before we could go on our whale watching tour we had to meet in the main theater at 1 PM.  Unfortunately, Royal Caribbean decided that EVERY tour needed to meet in the main theater at 1 PM and that each person would be given a sticker with the bus number on it.  There were two people handing out bus stickers.  We lined up on the stairs outside of the theater at 12:40 and actually got our sticker around 1:15 which meant we were standing in line for more than 30 minutes.  The appropriate word for this method for organizing the shore excursions was a compound word, beginning with “cluster” and ending with a word starting with “f.”  Everyone was VERY upset about this and when we finally got to the bus with the other whale watchers, no one was in any mood to see whales.

Boarding the zodiacs
On the water
Whale Tail!

After we recovered from the trauma of disembarking from the ship, we had a great time on our whale watching tour.  There were three inflatable boats with 12 seats in each.  We picked the seats in the rear since the tour guides said would be the most stable—we were glad we did.  The folks in the very front got a very bumpy ride.  As it was, we enjoyed bouncing up and down a lot and got sea spray (especially Snookums’s side of the boat).  We went very fast for about 30 minutes to a spot where we started looking for whales.  We found out that there is a house on the hill that finds the whales and then radios the boats.  Anyway, we soon saw a spout from a sperm whale’s blow hole and watched it for a few minutes before it disappeared.  We could often see the top of the whale’s back and its rather small dorsal fin.  Sometimes we saw a flipper, too, when it was getting ready to submerge (but not do a deep dive).  Then we found four sperm whales in a group, then another single one, then another one.  We finally saw whale get ready for a deep dive and so we saw its tail flukes—very neat.  We ended up seeing two flukes during our excursion.

We also saw several Portuguese Man O’ War jellyfish, that Snookums thought it was a plastic bluish-purple bottle.  She didn’t believe the Zodiac captain at first when he kept saying that it was Portuguese Man O’ War.  They can kill you instantly.  Yikes!  It really did look like a hard plastic colorful thing floating in the water.  We had seen jellyfish before and this didn’t look like them at all.  We realized that we saw a bunch of them as we were pulling into the Azores on the ship and just didn’t know it at the time.  We thought they were pieces of colorful trash!  Dumb landlubbers, I guess.

After seeing the whales we went to another part of the sea off the islands to see a bunch of bottlenose dolphins.  We found about 20 of them and watched them for a few minutes before they disappeared.  Both the whales and the dolphins would just be there one minute and then gone the next.  The dolphins came back (or were they a new pod?) and we watched them some more.  They were graceful in the water but they didn’t do the jumps that we’ve seen before.  We think that spinner dolphins do the jumps and stuff.  These bottlenose dolphins were kind of “boring” in Snookums’ opinion.

Hi, Anja!

When our inflatable boat was coming back to the marina it took went by our ship, and actually circled in the water so that people could take pictures.  Snookums looked up and saw a woman on her balcony and realized it was Anja, one of our Danish tablemates.  Snookums yelled and Anja started waving.  Filbert took Anja’s picture and Anja took our picture.  It was pretty amazing that we could pick her out (and that she was outside at the right time).  It was the talk of the table at dinner!

We were hungry, cold and tired when we got back, so we went right to the concierge club for free drinks and food to tide us until dinner.  Snookums actually went back to the room to get some mail, since she had been told yesterday that the ship would get Portuguese stamps today and mail would go out right before the ship left.  She wanted to get some things sent off.  (Here we go again-Ed.)  When Snookums got to the front desk with her mail, she was told that the ship decided to NOT buy Portuguese stamps since this was the only stop in Portugal for its season and mail wouldn’t go out until Cartegena, Spain on Friday.  That irritated Snookums big time.  When we got back to our room the tv didn’t work.  It takes a lot to get Filbert really upset—but his outrage meter finally moved from apathy to anger.  So, Filbert called and was put on hold and decided to write a letter to the Guest Services Manager since being on hold for so long wasn’t a pleasant option.  His letter dealt with the poor organization of the tour groups, the Portuguese stamp situation and the tv not working (again).  The letter was dropped off at the front desk after dinner.

May 7 (Wednesday, Day 11, At sea) –

Our phone rang around 10 AM and it was the Guest Services Manager responding to our letter.  She was a welcome change—both courteous and concerned, and apparently in a position to actually do something to ameliorate the bad service we’d received.  Unfortunately, she wanted to give us a future cruise certificate, but we told her that we had decided several days ago that we would probably not sail on RCI in the future.  She asked what we wanted and when Snookums told her shipboard credit, she said that she can’t really give a lot in that area and asked if there was anything else.  She finally came up with a soft drink sticker for Snookums to use, a credit for our Internet bill for Filbert, and a pedicure, t-shirt, and backpack for Snookums.  We decided that it would do.

We finally got in touch with the spa manager from her phone message several nights ago.  She had heard that there were problems in the gym and wanted to know what they were.   Snookums told her that there weren’t enough exercise mats or fitness balls during classes and that it was so crowded that she couldn’t even do some of the classes and therefore couldn’t get ShipShape dollars.  The spa manager told Snookums to ask for ShipShape dollars at her pedicure.

Snookums started getting a cold/sinus pressure a few days ago and was very tired.  Since she was given antibiotics in mid-April for the same thing she decided not to wait to nip it in the bud.  A $162 doctor’s visit produced a Z-Pak (antibiotics) so she was happy.

Dinner was fun again and then we all went to the 10:30 Karaoke Championships and then met in the Promenade (the 24-hour pizza/dessert/coffee bar) after that for another hour or so.  It was the latest we had been up.  Our table decided to go to “Quest” at 10:30 tomorrow night, too.  (Quest was some kind of adult game that is on every Royal Caribbean cruise that our tablemates have been waiting for the whole cruise!)

The table gang (sorry for the dirty lens)

Fraggle Rock! Cool!

Season four is now available on DVD, according to[*1] .

In 1983, Jim Henson created Fraggle Rock[*2] , a groundbreaking piece of children’s television that still feels fresh and relevant 25 years later. To celebrate the release of season 4 on DVD, as well as a 20-DVD, extras-packed set of the entire show run (both coming in November), Red Fraggle was on hand (with her “friend,” Karen Prell[*3] ), for a sing-along with a packed audience:

If you’re a science fiction fan and you haven’t been to[*4] . . . just go there, OK?

Over the Water and Back Again-Part 3

Over The Water And Back Again—A Transatlantic Trip

By Snookums, edited by Filbert, photos by Filbert

Part 3

May 3 (Saturday, Day 7, At sea) –

Snookums read her book today while lounging beside the suite’s picture window. Filbert worked out and burned 1067 calories in 55 minutes. While he was there he saw a guy in a “Teahen 24” Kansas City Royals t-shirt. The guy had to be from KC since nobody else (Filbert figured) would be wearing a Royals free giveaway t-shirt on a cruise ship in the middle of the Atlantic. Sure enough, the guy was an entertainer on board and will perform on Monday night. He said that he always references KC in his show, so we decided we would have to go to his performance.

It was formal night so we got all dressed up and went to the concierge lounge for drinks before dinner. We were stopped the other day from taking our drinks out with us so now Filbert brings his insulated coffee mug in with him and when he doesn’t finish his red wine, he pours it in his mug and takes that to dinner. Snookums takes her backpack and puts a few cans of Diet Coke in it each time she goes to the lounge. Sneaky little cusses, aren’t we? I suppose the cruise companies will read this online and shut down our little game. Oh, well.

Filbert ordered the prime rib which was very good. For the fourth dinner in a row, Snookums ordered the vegetarian Indian option. Tonight it was chickpea and cauliflower stew. Every night the Indian entrée came with rice, raita and papadams. Each night there had been different types of curry (or biryani) but pretty good.

Prime rib

May 4 (Sunday, Day 8, At sea) –

We woke up at 11:30 AM, just in time to move our clocks ahead one hour at noon. Filbert was looking out the window and saw a turtle—our first sea life spotting since seeing the shark. We showered, went to lunch, then went to the 14th floor lounge that overlooked the swimming pools. This was also one of the five areas on the ship that had WiFi access but the internet is down today. The view of the sea from the 14th floor lounge was pretty good, too, and it was very calm. It wasn’t bad yesterday, either, and during his noon announcement today the captain said that we should have good weather from now on. It’s been sunny and 68 every day we’ve been at sea and pretty smooth so no one is complaining. We did notice that the seasick bags were discreetly placed around the ship by Saturday morning, though.

Filbert at sea

Sunday is a day of rest so that’s what we did.

Due to Royal Caribbean’s many “service errors” aka screw-ups, we had a free dinner at Portofino which is the $20/person Italian restaurant. Filbert also got to enjoy a free bottle of Francis Coppola merlot. The restaurant was small and quiet and it had a great view of the ocean since it was on the 11th floor. The appetizers were very good and in fact were better than the entrees.

Portofino plate
Why backlighting is bad
The Travelers at Portofino

For appetizers, Snookums had the mozzarella/tomato salad, shrimp on top of risotto and the fried calamari. Filbert had oxtail soup (with noodles in it?), fried calamari and carpaccio of beef. Snookums thought the fried calamari was great and Filbert liked the carpaccio of beef the best. Snookums tried two of the three pasta courses but found the pasta with beef ragu very salty and the mushrooms in mascarpone cheese sauce to be kind of bland. Snookums’s entrée was veal saltimbocca on top of mushroom risotto and as much as she loves mushrooms, the risotto was just too mushroomy for her. Filbert had the filet mignon that he said was incredibly tasteless and he also had the seafood skewer. The skewer was brought tableside and the waitress took the piece of salmon, the two large scallops, the hunk of lobster and the two large shrimp off it and then served it. Filbert said it was very good and the white wine sauce was excellent. We shared the flourless chocolate cake that Filbert deemed to be the best one he’s ever had but after one bite Snookums was done since she thought it had alcohol in it since it “burned” on the way down. The waitress answered, “No, not really” to the question about alcohol so it was a mystery! (Stay tuned for the thrilling and astonishing revelation, later in this series! – Ed.)

We had been told a few days ago that on Sunday there would be an envelope with our name on it in our room that contained the tip form to fill out if you wanted to put all the tips on your shipboard account. We returned to our room around 10:30 and low and behold – no envelope. We were, unfortunately, starting to get used to this kind of thing from Royal Caribbean. Snookums called Guest Services to explain that we had received a tip form on Thursday, but were then told via voice mail from the concierge on Friday that the Thursday version was wrong and we would receive the correct one on Sunday in an envelope with our name on it. OK, fine. So here it was, Sunday was almost over. We wanted to know where the correct tip form was. Guest Services told Snookums to call back at 8 AM on Monday to discuss this further and Snookums, not in the best mood, replied “no”. Then the Guest Services rep said he would figure it out. 10 minutes later our phone rang and it was our state room attendant standing outside our door with the form. He said that the Thursday version WAS correct—he had told the concierge that he didn’t want to leave another one since he didn’t want people to think he was begging for tips. Snookums thanked him and told him to slide it under the door. Not a big deal, Customer Service 101 says that if you tell someone that they will get something on Sunday, make sure they do! The concierge will not get a tip from us (and the stateroom attendant will get an extra tip)…

May 5 (Monday, Day 9, At sea) –

Filbert set his alarm for 6 AM and was on the balcony listening to his shortwave radio before the mid-Atlantic dawn while drinking coffee and watching the ocean. He was able to tune in KMOX (St. Louis), Radio Australia and the BBC. Snookums woke up and worked out.

Mid-Atlantic clouds

We did 30 minutes of errands including exchanging a paperback at the library, turning in the tip form, buying postcards, picking up the daily newspaper, going outside to the very front of the ship on the heliport pad and looking down into the ocean and returning an Azamara cruise brochure. Azamara is Royal Caribbean’s new, upscale cruise line but we didn’t see anything too exciting about it in the 2008-2009 big brochure.

For people that haven’t been on Royal Caribbean before, it is known for having tons of activities. Here are the scheduled events for part of today:

  • 11:00 – Lose Inches Without Pain Seminar (Voyager Day Spa)
  • 11:30 – Paella Cooking Demo (Poolside)
  • 11:30 – Soduku Challenge (Schooner Bar)
  • 11:30 – Drawing Class – Drawing in Depth and 3D (Conference Center)
  • 11:30 – Secrets of Make Up Seminar (Voyager Day Spa)
  • 12:45 – Celebrity Head Game Show (Cleopatra’s Needle Lounge)
  • 1:00 – Fox Trot Dance Class (Studio B)
  • 1:15 – Ratatouille (Screening Room)
  • 1:30 – Family Wii Tournament (Optix)
  • 1:30 – Enhancement Lecture: “Inside Hollywood” (Cleopatra’s Needle Lounge)
  • 2:00 – Open Bridge Play (Magic Flute Dining Room)
  • 2:00 – Afternoon Name that Tune (Schooner Bar)
  • 2:00 – Acupuncture: Healing with Natural Remedies (Voyager Day Spa)
  • 2:00 – Show Tender Demo (Poolside) (Note from Snookums – I have no idea what this is.)

We ate separate lunches since Snookums had been wanting to eat at Johnny Rockets. That was an American hamburger chain on the ship that costs $3.95 per person to order whatever entrees and desserts you want. Naturally, Snookums had a coupon, for “one person free.” Filbert didn’t want to eat there since onion rings aren’t low carb. Snookums ran into Len, our dinner tablemate from London, and wound up eating lunch with him. She enjoyed onion rings, a burger with Tillamook cheddar cheese, bacon and an onion ring and an Oreo sundae. Yum, yum, yum. Filbert ate at the buffet restaurant and for the first time didn’t have his normal “make it himself” taco salad. Instead he ate some hamburger patties and the topping off of some pizza slices. Up until today his daily buffet lunch had been a homemade taco salad: lots of lettuce, tomatoes, cut up hamburger patties or chili without beans, sour cream, jalapenos and salsa. He had been sticking to an ultra-low carb diet (other than last night when he ate the lightly breaded calamari and had half of the flourless chocolate cake).

Today was the our first day at sea where we do NOT lose an hour at noon so after spending a relaxing afternoon in the suite reading/sleeping (Snookums) and writing (Filbert), Filbert worked out prior to the 6:30 show. We lost a total of five hours so far and were to lose another two hours prior to docking in Barcelona on Saturday, May 10. We were looking forward to our 6-night Queen Mary 2 crossing if for no other reason than to gain back all that time!

Tonight’s show was JC Fisher, the guy Filbert met in the gym who was wearing the Kansas City Royals t-shirt. He was a romantic tenor – “From Puccini to the Platters.” It was okay (Filbert enjoyed it more than Snookums did) but he sang a lot of songs in Italian, German and Spanish.

Once again we had a great time at dinner. Everyone at our table agreed that the food wasn’t anything to write home about, but no one went hungry and our table mates were just great. Filbert continued eating very low-carb so he typically ordered two entrees and ate just the protein. Tonight he ordered the featured tilapia with a buerre blanc sauce and the “always on the menu” grilled salmon with chef’s vegetables. No one expected him to get two identical plates of the same sauce, same potatoes, same vegetables and just different fish, but that’s exactly what arrived on the table. We had expected a bit more variety than that. They also had two soups at lunch and today’s lunch soup was split pea. The soup on the dinner menu was also split pea. The cruise was only thirteen days—how difficult would it be to come up with different soups for lunch and for dinner every day? Oh well, we still had a good time every night with our table mates and in fact we usually sat in the dining room until 10:30—at least 30 minutes after we were finished with dessert, just talking and laughing.

We got back to our room and had a voice mail from Leslie, the Voyager Spa manager, saying “Please call me in the morning”. We didn’t know what is up with that since we had had no contact or issues with the spa. (The gym is different from the spa area.) Snookums hoped that they are going to give us a free service…

Cut the budget! Cut! Cut! Cut!

Who really, really thinks that the U.S. Federal Government isn’t big enough?  President Bush’s proposed FY2009 budget is 3,107 billion dollars, growing to 3,399 billion dollars in FY2013.

The FY2009 deficit is projected to be 407 billion dollars.  Discretionary spending is 1,062 billion, meaning that over 2,000 billion dollars are “non-discretionary.”

That is nuts.

Everything the Federal Government does needs to be considered “discretionary.”  I don’t know what laws you’d have to pass to get this done, but we need to do this.  And anybody who opposes that needs to be run out of government as too irresponsible to ever hold office.  We can’t afford to let 2/3 of the Federal Government’s budget be completely on autopilot, immune from any kind of review or check on waste, fraud, abuse, and governmental bureaucratic business-as-usual.

It’s time to cut.  If the managers in the Federal Government can’t find 10% in their budgets to cut, then we know where to start:  Start firing the managers and getting new ones.

The airline industry needs a collapse

I just saw on Fox News that Delta is going to charge $50 for a second checked bag.

It’s nice to see that the airlines are still (apparently) following the advice of an Alienating Your Customers for Dummies book.

If you need to raise your revenue, than raise your damn fares, for crying out loud.  The BEST way to piss off your customers is to nickel and dime them the way the airlines are right now.

The CIA: Masters of the Obvious

It doesn’t take much research or reading to quickly determine that Pakistan’s ISI espionage agency (or “elements” therein) are . . . how do I put this delicately . . . not counted among the good guys[*1] .

The decision to confront Pakistan with what the officials described as a new C.I.A. assessment of the spy service’s activities seemed to be the bluntest American warning to Pakistan since shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks about the ties between the spy service and Islamic militants.

Via Hotair[*2]