Archive for January, 2012

The Thinker

Speaker Moon Colony

In case you missed the news, former House Speaker and Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich jumped the shark last week. While pandering for votes near Cape Canaveral, Gingrich said that by the end of his second term the United States would have established a colony on the moon. Even better for potential colonists, when the colony reaches 13,000 people they can apply for statehood!

It’s all part of Gingrich’s wanting to distinguish himself as a different, big picture kind of candidate. While the unemployed aerospace workers near the space center were enthusiastic, the other remaining candidates quickly realized that his proposal was ridiculous. Mitt Romney was quick to capitalize on it by criticizing his proposal at the next debate. Perhaps as a result, Mitt Romney now appears to be outpolling likely Republican voters in Florida, who vote Tuesday in the state’s primary.

Gingrich’s proposal is technically feasible. We obviously know how to get to the moon, as we have done it many times before. One thing we have learned since the days of Apollo, and has been reinforced through decades of space shuttle flights, is that while we know how to get man into space, we have failed to figure out a way to do it cost efficiently. The space shuttle was originally envisioned as a means for getting cargo into space for as low as $118 a pound (in 1972 dollars). It seemed sort of plausible when it was first launched. Subsequently we discovered it cost a lot more than that. In 2010 dollars, each shuttle mission cost about $1.5 billion dollars, if you divide the cost of the program in constant dollars by the number of flights. The last space shuttle flight was estimated to have cost about $40,000 per pound of payload.

That’s $40,000 to get one pound of payload into a low earth orbit. The moon of course is much further away. To really build permanent colonies on the moon all sorts of heavy equipment would need to be transported there, requiring spacecraft with relatively large cargo bays, something we don’t yet possess. While there is some hope that water can be harvested from the moon, it would certainly be neither easy nor cheap to acquire. For the foreseeable future, water would have to be imported from Earth. A gallon of water weighs about 8.35 pounds. Assuming we find some very efficient way of transporting cargo to the moon, say at a cost of $10,000 a pound, it would cost about $100,000 to move just a gallon of water from the earth to the moon. A hundred gallons would cost a million dollars to transport. Bear in mind that my cost is artificially low and it would likely cost much more like $100,000 a pound. It doesn’t take much back of the envelope calculating to discover that creating a colony on the moon, at least with current technology, would be ruinously expensive.

But when you are a big picture guy like Newt Gingrich, apparently these minor problems can be ignored. It’s unclear how such a major endeavor would be funded. Gingrich after all is a candidate famous for wanting to reduce taxes, not raise them. Based on his proposals, don’t expect a Gingrich administration to touch defense spending, except to increase it. From his belligerent talk it sounds like we might be fighting dual wars with Iran and North Korea too if he were elected president. But even if the money could be found, is it even technically possible in just eight years to have a sustained human colony on the moon? It seems unlikely, as we do not possess at the moment the launch vehicles needed to do the job, as the Saturn V rocket has long been retired. So not only is the proposal cost prohibitive, it appears technically impossible to accomplish as well, at least within eight short years.

Perhaps it could happen if Gingrich were to rescope the mission. Perhaps the goal should be to colonize the moon with a self-sustaining colony of gerbils instead of humans. We could probably do that for $100 billion or so, and chances are the gerbils would do a much better job adapting to the moon that we would. In any event, his proposal should be greeted with derision. Once the costs are understood this by itself should make him unqualified for president.

Governor Jerry Brown in his first term as California governor was famously called “Governor Moonbeam” for the sin of being New Agey. If I were Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum or Ron Paul, I would be attaching a “Speaker Moon Colony” label to Gingrich then let him twist slowly, slowly in the wind.

 
The Thinker

iPad first impressions

So I’m a wee bit distracted. My iPad 2 arrived Monday from some factory in China where it was assembled and engraved. (Yes, I have my name and email address engraved on the back so hopefully it will return to me if it gets lost. No extra charge for the service, at least if you order it online.) My evenings have been occupied playing with the device.

Did I need an iPad? I didn’t think so. It was sort of a belated Christmas present to myself. I don’t use a cell phone enough to justify the expense of a smartphone, but I wanted to understand this whole mobile computing arena a little better. The only real choice with tablet computers was whether to use the iOS or Android operating system. If it is iOS, it meant buying an iPad. I went with Apple’s iPad because I already have an iMac, and I knew from many reviews that it wouldn’t suck. Consumer Reports liked the cheaper Samsung Galaxy Tab just as well. However, once you own an Apple product, you expect it to give you the same thrill driving a Lamborghini gives a racecar enthusiast. It’s hard to say precisely why it does this to you, but it does, and in this case it’s worth an extra $200 or so. I bought the basic version: WiFi enabled but without the pricey 3G option, and with 16GB of memory. I don’t need to constantly watch movies or listen to music, so extra memory was not worth paying for.

The iPad turns out to be an excellent product, even by Apple’s fussy standards. Not that it is perfect but it is darn near perfect. It has some oddities and quirks that I will get into, but just holding it and using it is an electric and almost reverential experience. As you use it, you cannot help but marvel just how amazing a product it is and how intelligently it is designed. Steve Jobs went to meet his maker, but arguably this last product that bears his stamp was his greatest triumph. It is just so incredibly slick.

What’s neat

  • Portrait mode. Since the iPad is eminently portable and offers a fine resolution, portrait mode is possible. It’s amazingly how much better web pages and all your applications are in portrait mode. That’s because reading in landscape, even though we should be accustomed to it, is unnatural to our eyes and brain. The eye is lazy and it wants to read down more than across. You can take in so much more content at a glance in portrait mode and do it much more easily. Of course you can move between portrait and landscape simply by turning the device sideways.
  • Maps. Map interfaces are now standard, but using the Maps application is so amazingly slick. Using finger movements to zoom in, zoom out and scroll horizontally and vertically is so much faster than using a mouse. There is no delay waiting for images. Boom: they are there. Switching from street view to satellite view puzzled me for a while, until I saw the little page drag symbol in the bottom right corner. Drag it and options appear. What a neat and intuitive way to hide and reveal options in an application! More of this in other applications please.
  • E-mail and calendar integration. It couldn’t be easier to set up my email, and information carried over to the calendar application automatically. The calendar application just looks gorgeous. It makes you want to create meetings just for the fun of using the interface. And it synchronizes transparently with my GMail calendar.
  • On/Off. I bought the optional cover for my iPad, which has magic magnets that adhere like glue and in just the right spot to its left edge. Flip the cover over the display and it turns off instantly. Pull it back and it turns on and is fully functional instantly. This is the way all computers should be and hopefully all soon will be, thanks to cheaper persistent memory.
  • Touch keyboard. It’s amazingly usable. It’s not quite as productive as using a real keyboard, but almost, providing it’s in landscape mode. You can certainly reply to email with it but until you are fully proficient typing with it, you will tend to keep your emails short. A wireless Bluetooth keyboard is available.
  • Your bathroom Internet appliance. The iPad is the perfect bathroom companion. A laptop is too cumbersome, and a smartphone has too small a screen and keyboard to be fully functional. For toting around or anyplace where space is at a premium, it is the ideal device for full and unfettered access to the Internet.

What’s not so hot

  • Extras. Apple and their app vendors want to sell you stuff. eBooks, music, video access, apps, iCloud hosting, you name it and you mostly have to buy it online through Apple’s store. So set up an Account in the Apple Store and don’t be surprised if you have a sizeable bill every month for all the content you are buying.
  • Safari only. Want to surf the web? You had best learn to like Safari, because it’s your only option. It works great, but it is quite stripped down for the iPad. The good news: few confusing options. The bad news: by keeping it simple, it is what it is. I don’t think you can add extensions, and I haven’t found a hidden menu to customize its settings.
  • Single user only. This is your personal device. It helps to think of it as a diary. Unless your life is incredibly vanilla, be aware that anyone using your iPad can act as you. You cannot set up different accounts for different people. So they can get into your email, calendar, Facebook accounts etc. with no problems. Philanderers, beware!
  • Home, End, Page Up, Page Down. Perhaps there is an easy way to get to the top and bottom of a document, probably by first invoking the touch screen keyboard, but I haven’t found it yet. There is an iPad manual (PDF) you can download with instructions that I am making my way through. The iPad aims for simplicity but in achieving that goal it seems like things you take for granted, like convenient Home and End keys, are mostly not available. Prepare to use your fingers a lot to scroll. On the plus side, scrolling is very slick. It does not come with a PDF reader, but I was able to download a free Kindle reader app and thus was able to use that to read it like a stored local file, easily jumping to content of interest. Load it into Safari and Safari will keep refetching the document every time it starts.

Technical things worth noting

  • Battery life is about seven hours of continuous use. Finally, a useful fully functional, portable Internet device. Unless you are flying to China you aren’t going to run out of juice on a flight.
  • Opening and closing applications. Maybe I’m missing it, but I can’t seem to find a way to close an application. Basically Apple doesn’t want you to worry about these things. Stop worrying about these things, along with booting up and formally shutting down.

These are just some first impressions. Many of the limitations may not be limitations at all once I get to know the device better. Overall, the iPad is an immensely satisfying and amazing device. I didn’t think I needed one but now that I have one, I cannot imagine not having a tablet computer. In the future I don’t plan to take my laptop on travel, but just my iPad because it is nearly as functional at a fraction of a laptop’s weight. A rolled up Bluetooth keyboard will probably go in the backpack as well.

 
The Thinker

The Mormon, the serial adulterer, the zealot and the crackpot

Get out the popcorn! Thanks to Newt Gingrich’s surprising win in the South Carolina Republican primary yesterday, it looks like those of us who enjoy political theater have many more weeks or months of it to revel in. One thing is clear: Republican primary voters are having a hard time choosing from their crop of candidates. You get the feeling Bob Forehead would win if he were on the ballot. (Mitt Romney does remind me a lot of Bob Forehead. It must be coincidence.)

At least it is now down to four: the Mormon, the serial adulterer, the zealot and the crackpot. A number of other crackpots have already exited stage right, including Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Perry. Jon Huntsman posed as the moderate candidate in the race, although his tax policies were anything but moderate. Anyhow, they are gone and I for one will miss Bachmann, Cain and Perry for their circus sideshow qualities. It’s hard to lampoon candidates who are already crazy parodies of candidates but simply do not know it.

We are learning some things as these primaries drag on. First, it’s a bad idea to entrust vote counting to the Iowa Republican Party. They must not have excelled in math in school, and they lost votes altogether for some precincts. Mitt Romney won Iowa by eight votes, then some weeks later he lost it, but no one can really say for sure because they also lost precinct votes. Doing all that vote counting at an undisclosed location is hardly a way to instill confidence in the process either. Call it a tie, maybe, between the Mormon and the zealot.

Second, Republicans simply refuse to nominate a moderate. In today’s Republican Party, Ronald Reagan would be castigated as a flaming liberal. Even Jon Huntsman tilted much further to the right than Ronald Reagan ever did. Being angry is considered an asset; being statesman-like means you are a pussy. At least anecdotally, South Carolina Republicans picked serial philanderer Newt Gingrich not because of his family values, but because he was the best of the four of them at articulating their rage. It takes balls to tell an African American to their face their problem is they don’t work hard enough.

Third, for a party supposedly centered on liberty and freedom, they sure don’t want to hand much of it out. In fact, they want to take away a lot of freedoms. One freedom they can all agree on: the right to own lots and lots of increasingly lethal weapons, with no pesky laws to get in the way of you and your paranoia. But on many other freedoms, they would gladly rescind them. The freedom to have an abortion? Perish the thought. The freedom to marry someone you love who happens to be of the same sex? It’s immoral and hence must be outlawed. The freedom of a 17-year old girl to buy a Plan B “after the fact” contraceptive over the counter, which is clinically proven both safe and effective? Not for you, you little harlot. The freedom to vote without having an officially blessed form of state-issued identification? Sorry, no, at least in many of these Republican states which recently passed onerous voter ID laws.

Freedom, as Republicans like to tell us, is not free, which is another way of saying freedom has to be purchased, i.e. it’s sort of like buying emancipation. If you cannot afford to buy it, well that’s just tough. If you want the freedom to vote, then trek down to your local DMV and get an official ID and pay for it with your own money, and do it on your own time. (This is not, they tell us, a poll tax. Go figure.) You have the freedom to eat as much food as you can afford to buy, and if you cannot afford any you are free to starve. The same goes with your health, your employment and your choice of abode. You have the freedom to call a cardboard box home rather than pay rent. Freedom means never getting a handout. Freedom essentially means that those with the means get to have a whole lot more freedom than you do. Also it is an essential part of the government’s mission to remove any possibility that society might help the poor climb the social ladder. As Herman Cain informed us, if you are poor it’s your own damn fault. You just aren’t trying hard enough.

You can see why it would be confusing to Republican primary voters to choose a nominee, although right now anger seems to be a vote getter. In conservative family-values South Carolina of all places you would think that a serial philanderer would have a hard time getting votes. But voters seem more interested in a candidate who can express their anger than one who is consistent with family values. So they cheered Gingrich on in a recent debate when moderator John King asked Gingrich to comment on his ex-wife Marianne’s allegation that he petitioned her for an open marriage. Gingrich turned the inevitable question into a personal attack and the audience roared approval. Perhaps all this family value talk is just talk, as red states have higher divorce rates than blue states anyhow.

Then there is the question: can a true Christian pull the lever for a Mormon? New Hampshire Republicans had no problem, but they are suspiciously secular up there. In God-fearing South Carolina, if your candidate is not a real Christian, he doesn’t share your values, so you cannot vote for him. Instead, pick Gingrich, the faux-Christian instead. You would think his Catholicism would be a stroke against him in a deeply Protestant state, but it’s Christian enough apparently. Besides, Gingrich is about as Christian in temperament as Attila the Hun was a humanitarian, which in fact resembles most so-called Christians that I know.

Which leaves the zealot and the crackpot. The zealot, a.k.a. as Rick Santorum, is so incredibly monogamous he won’t even sit on a sofa with another woman not his wife. He was a huge failure as a U.S. senator but apparently did not get the message, even when he lost his reelection bid by seventeen points. Santorum says he is the only true conservative in the race. Maybe so, but he is conservative in a nasty Fred Rogers sort of way, although he looks great in a sweater vest. This is a guy who is so far to the right that even obvious right-wingers avoid him. His proposal to limit the National Weather Service to issuing severe long-range weather forecasts only was so bizarre and unworldly that not a single other senator signed on as a cosponsor. Santorum is a true conservative indeed. Even I have to give him credit for this.

Then there is the crackpot. Doubtless I risk the ire of legions of Ron Paul fans out there by calling him a crackpot, but he is one. Anyone who refuses to ever make an exception to move outside his or her ideology is a crackpot. One way I can tell a true crackpot is I tend to agree with some of their positions. I agree with Paul that we should be out of Afghanistan, for example. It’s all that other weird stuff he believes in where it’s hard to stifle derisive laughter. He wants to eliminate much of the government including essential agencies like the EPA, kill the Federal Reserve Board, go on the gold standard, and withdraw from the UN and WTO. And for a pro-freedom kind of guy, freedom apparently doesn’t extend to a woman’s right to have an abortion, or the right to have consensual sodomy, since granted to us by a conservative Supreme Court. Calling Ron Paul a crackpot is actually to diminish him with faint praise. Nonetheless, a significant portion of the Republican electorate apparently agrees with this guy. Fortunately, his anti-foreign-policy stand makes it impossible for him to win the nomination. His candidacy does beg the question: who is freakier: the fetishly clean Rick Santorum or the obsessively and ideologically weird Ron Paul? This is the kind of question I could debate with friends all night, and we could never agree on, but it would still be a fun debate.

I plan to stock up on popcorn and hope this nominating process goes all the way to a brokered convention.

 
The Thinker

Why is my tax rate higher than Mitt Romney’s?

Mitt Romney, the likely GOP nominee for president, is not sure but he thinks his tax rate was fifteen percent last year. We may or may not know in April when he may or may not release his tax returns for 2011. While we may or may not know his 2011 income and taxes, he seems much more reluctant to release tax returns for previous years, particularly when, you know, he was raking in the mega millions working for Bain Capital, where he made his fortune.

Mitt wants you to know his tax rate was probably fifteen percent last year because it was almost all unearned income, principally interest and dividends on his investments. This is, after all, a guy who says he knows the pain of unemployment because he is also unemployed. He says that he did have some earned income in 2011, mostly speeches, but it was “only” $374,000 dollars or so.

Poor guy. It’s a good thing he doesn’t have to live off just his earned income. Imagine his suffering! First of all, that would place him in the 33% tax bracket (35% is the maximum), which it might mean that instead of flying first class he might have to fly business class. By the way, his 33% tax rate doesn’t mean he paid 33% tax on all of that $374,000. First of all, taxable wages would be considerably less than $374,000, but he would only pay 33% on taxable income over $212,300. Income below this threshold would be taxed at a lower rate. In fact, for his first $17,000 in income, he would only pay a 10% income tax, just like me.

Unsurprisingly, my family does not come close to making $326,000 in earned income, but we are reasonably well off. Curious to see how I compared with Mitt, I pulled my 2010 income tax form. My wife and I fall into the 25% tax bracket, since our taxable income in 2010 was $104,345. Which means that Mitt Romney, whose net worth is estimated at between $190 and $250 million, is taxed at a lower rate than my wife and I. Ten percent lower, in fact.

Just for the record, I am releasing my tax returns (well, the first two pages, which is enough), which Mitt won’t do. Naturally I am obscuring some personal information, but as you can see we paid $16,589 in federal income taxes, after some substantial deductions and credits, on an adjusted gross income of $142,642.

If you want to understand why the 1% are doing so well and will continue to do well, it’s there is a nutshell. Essentially those who work are required to pay proportionally more of their income in federal taxes than those who don’t, at least if your taxable income is $17,000 or more (using 2011 tax rates). And $17,000 a year is essentially living in poverty.

Since Romney has not released his tax returns, we can only speculate about whether he is a shrewd investor or not. Most likely since he spends most of his time campaigning, he is not paying much attention to his stocks and mutual funds. It is unlikely that he is carefully moving his assets around from less productive companies to more productive ones, so that he can build wealth and presumably reward innovation in the economy. Most likely his funds stay largely the same from year to year, or he hires some smart person to manage his funds for him. In any event, regardless of how much he does or does not make on his investments, he pays just 15% income tax on that portion that is over $17,000, and none of it is earned. Presumably he is getting at least 5% interest on his portfolio, so probably this income amounts to no less than $10 million a year in interest and dividends, on which he pays no more than $1.5 million of that in federal income taxes.

Whereas I work forty or more hours a week, plus teach a class at a community college for some spare change, plus earn a couple grand with an online business I have. And my tax rate is 25% on taxable income over $69,000.

So if you have wealth you can effectively do nothing and pay less taxes as a percent of your income than someone whose source of income is likely almost completely earned and who makes more than $17,000 a year. Is America a great country, or what?

Yes, this is a great country, for those with wealth. It’s pretty clear why: because the rest of us subsidize their wealth. It’s not too surprising, if you think about it, that the wealth gap started growing almost as soon as we dropped taxes on capital gains and interest below top tax rates for income, which began during the Reagan Administration. The gap is currently twenty percent: with a top earned income tax rate of 35% vs. a top unearned income tax rate of 15%. To put it another way, unearned income is worth up to 233% more than earned income because it discounts your taxes by that much.

Supposedly this policy incentivizes capitalism. It’s proof that the fictional Gordon Gekko was right when he uttered, “Greed is good”. It certainly made him and people like Mitt Romney rich, but it’s clear that the money actually came from somewhere else. In the case of Bain Capital, it often came at the expense of shareholders in failing companies and workers who at best were asked to take a “haircut”, got stiffed on their pensions and/or found themselves out of a job. The plain facts are though that more of the costs of society are being borne by those who have a harder time paying for them. It’s not too surprising then that the wealth gap grows and more and more wage earners are falling out of the middle class. Their value has been discounted.

At a minimum, I believe that unearned income should be taxed at the same rate as earned income. This at least sets parity between these two forms of income. Most of us though intuitively understand that value added through the sweat of one’s brow should be valued more than income generated from having capital alone. All value begins with a human being making some physical change to the real world. If anything, these tax rates should be reversed and unearned income should be taxed higher than earned income.

Regardless of who wins the presidential contest this year, this inequity isn’t likely to be rectified, but it sure won’t happen if you elect Mitt Romney for president. Instead, you can expect that government for and by the wealthy will continue, and your vote for Mitt will be instrumental in ensuring that the value of your labor will continue to decline.

 
The Thinker

The forgotten battle

I’m going through a Civil War phase. Considering the scope and size of the Civil War, it’s a lot to absorb. Even when I complete Shelby Foote’s three-volume history of the Civil War, in a way I will have just sampled it. Having finished Volume One, I already have an appreciation for its origins and complexity.

There are over ten thousand books on the Civil War chronicling virtually every aspect of the war from multiple perspectives. And yet one battle of that war has gotten curiously little attention, the Battle of Chantilly, also known as the Battle of Ox Hill. Back in 2004 it got my attention when I visited a small site dedicated to the battle, which was fought about five miles from my house near Chantilly, Virginia. Given the tiny size of the 4.8-acre memorial park, it was easy to assume the battle was only a skirmish. That was not the case. While certainly not on the scale of battles like Antietam (which occurred a few weeks after the battle), it was hardly insignificant. The Confederacy had 516 casualties (83 killed, 418 wounded and 15 missing). The Union fared worse with 679 casualties (138 killed, 472 wounded and 69 missing). History happened practically in my backyard and me as well as most of my neighbors were largely clueless. It didn’t help that the monument site is hard to find, and virtually the whole battlefield has been developed and now consists principally of multi-family dwellings and shopping centers.

The battle finally got the attention it deserved in 2002 with the publication of the obscure book Tempest at Ox Hill by the historian David A. Welker. It drew my attention because it was the first book written about the battle. Welker, a resident of Centreville, was drawn to the battle for the same reason I was: because it happened so close to home. In the preface he expresses the disappointment I shared with this lost battlefield, and notes that the local Toys-R-Us store at Fair Lakes Plaza now stands where Confederate General Stonewall Jackson marshaled troops for the battle. On what was Ox Hill, the high point near the battle, the major attraction is another shopping center with among other things a Safeway.

September 1, 2012 will mark the 150th anniversary of the battle. I’m betting no one will bother to mark the occasion, in part because except for the hard to get to memorial park there is no real place to congregate in the area of the battle. Even at the time both the Union and the Confederacy sort of ignored the battle. It occurred a few days after the second Battle of Manassas, which the Union lost again. The head of the Union Army, General John Pope was largely unaware of the battle. He was aware that General Robert E. Lee, whose Army of Northern Virginia stared at him from across him from the battlements he was using in nearby Centreville, might be trying to flank him. Badly beaten, he wanted to retire his army into the safety of Washington D.C. but wanted the command to come from Washington so he would not be blamed for the retreat. To solve his problem he began a discreet withdrawal of his army along Little River Turnpike, but ordered units from Brigadier General Isaac Steven’s 1st Division to guard northern side of the road, in case General Stonewall Jackson’s division attempted to attack his flank as he withdrew.

Thanks to Welker’s meticulous research, this obscure battle has been brought to life in the book. There was little documentation of the battle at the time. This was in part because two Union generals, Brigadier Generals Stevens and Kearny both lost their lives in the battle. It was also due to General Stonewall Jackson’s belated and poor reporting of the battle. General Pope had no idea that the battle had happened until later, while General Lee, who ordered Jackson to perform the flanking maneuver, also had no idea what was happening, as his army was back near the Manassas battlefield. That left Welker to research myriad lesser and second hand sources to get a better idea of the battle, including memories of both lesser officers and common soldiers.

The book will more than scratch the itch of those curious about the battle, which should be lots of people who live in and around Fairfax, Chantilly and Centreville in Virginia. Some elements of the battle were well known, including the loss of two Union generals and the long, hellacious thunderstorm that occurred druing the battle. What was missing was the why and how, and here Welker amply fills in the details with a chronology supplemented by the memories of many veterans.

A curious set of circumstances led to a battle that was essentially a stalemate. It can be thought of as a Union victory in the sense that Stonewall Jackson and his army were prevented from succeeding in a flank attack as the Army of Virginia withdrew. Within weeks the defeated army was reconstituted and fought well at Antietam. Welker brings to light some facts that I believe were hitherto not well known. For example, Major General J.E.B. Stuart, in a skirmish close to what is still known as Jermantown Road and Little River Turnpike, unnecessarily informed the Union of the flanking attempt by having his cavalry’s artillery lob shells at Union troops guarding the intersection. It was stupid and spoiled the Confederacy’s element of surprise. The Union was also helped by Jackson’s surprising lethargy. For a man known to move his troops twenty or more miles a day to win many a flank attack, instead he dithered on Little River Turnpike, moving his troops only a few miles down the road. This may have been in part because the supply train for his troops was attached to Confederate General Longstreet many miles down the road. Jackson’s troops had gone without a meal for three days. This likely accounted for their somewhat lackluster performance during the battle.

Fortunately for the Confederacy, a number of factors made the Union’s preparations inadequate. General Pope was largely unconcerned about a sizeable flank attack, as he had little evidence to support it. He also focused on the problem late in the day, making it hard to place troops where they were needed in time. That duty fell to B.G. Stevens, who did his best but quickly discerned that the Union was at a disadvantage, as Confederate soldiers could hide effectively in nearby woods. Also, to attack Union troops had to climb up hill through cornfields, making them very vulnerable. When his orders seemed to continually get ignored, he died trying to reposition his troops. His untimely death resulted in a critical loss of leadership during the battle, which if Jackson had been more agile might well have destroyed much of the retreating Army of Virginia.

Union soldiers that straggled back from the battle kept trying to get help from generals moving their troops down the turnpike toward Washington. They asked for reinforcements but time and again they were spurned until B.G. Philip Kearny finally answered the call. Kearny had a reputation for being a hands-on general, and if that meant charging headfirst into battle to lead or rearrange his troops so be it. Only this time he suffered Isaac’s fate as well when he was shot through the saddle and the bullet lodged in his heart. He likely died instantly.

The violent thunderstorms caused thick muddy fields and fouled rifles, and often made it hard to even find friend or foe. Like many battles of its time, it effectively ended at dark. For the most part, retreating Union troops ignored the fighting to their north. The only real question was whether the fight would resume in the morning. By morning most of Pope’s troops were in the relative safety of Fairfax or closer to Washington, so there wasn’t much left to attack. But also General Lee finally realized that Pope was retreating toward Washington, and since it was heavily reinforced he thought it imprudent to waste time trying to attack the retreating army. Instead, Lee decided to move his armies north into Maryland, winning first a battle at Harpers Ferry and later arguably losing a huge battle at Antietam, the bloodiest one day battle of the Civil War.

It is no wonder then that this battle, wedged between the Second Battle of Manassas and Antietam, got short shrift by historians. Welker’s book though is interesting in part for the lessons in teaches: the subtle ways that battles are lost or won, and how counterproductive it is for generals to put themselves in the line of fire. Both Stevens and Kearny should have stayed well behind lines, despite their concerns. The loss of their leadership was in many ways far more costly than if they had stayed safely behind lines.

For myself, I hope there is a proper anniversary event in September marking this battle and if there is I hope to be there. My thanks to David Welker for satisfying my eight-year itch to really understand what happened during the Battle of Chantilly and Ox Hill.

 
The Thinker

Occam’s Razor 2011 Statistics

I usually start off the year with a set of blog statistics from the previous year. However, this year I was on a cruise ship on New Year’s Day, and in fact I was off the ‘Net for over a week. So it’s time to catch up with the state of the blog.

A quick note: I am considering ending the blog in December after completing ten full years of blogging. It may be a logical time to stop. Or not. I’ll need something to keep myself amused in retirement.

This year my Google Analytics web statistics are puzzling and probably misleading. As I mentioned in another blog post, in June Google seemed to have changed the algorithm for deciding what is a real page view. Page views dropped about in half toward late June. Anyhow, for what it’s worth:

Overall 2011 Statistics

  • Total Visits: 48,815 visits (134 per day on average), which is down 4% compared with 2010.
  • Total Page Views: 90,205 (average 247 per day) which down 6.8% compared with 2010. I expect 2012 to have a markedly lower number, as January thru June 2011 were likely inflated due to a bad algorithm.
  • Percent New Visits: 89.13%, which is down 2.26% compared with 2010. This is good because it means slightly more of you are return visitors compared to 2010.

Most Viewed Posts

  1. Eulogy for my mother (14,266 page views, up  31% from last year, #1 two years in a row)
  2. Blog Home Page (6,479 page views, down 66% from last year,  but still #2 two years in a row)
  3. You Porn: A Traveler’s New Best Friend? (3,763 page views, down 33% from 2010, but overall moved up from #4)
  4. Craigslist Casual Encounters: now officially a complete waste of time (3,709 page views, down 2%, but moved up from #6)
  5. The Root of Human Conflict: Emotion vs. Reason (3,422 page views, up 15%, moved from #7)
  6. Sharon Mitchell: Porn Saint (3,204 page views)
  7. Queer as a 3 dollar bill (3,125 page views)
  8. Danger: Wal-Mart Customer! (NEW on the top 10 list, 2,835 page views)
  9. The Illusion of Time (2,526 page views)
  10. The Id Unleashed at Craigslist Casual Encounters (1,435 page views)

The drop in the number of page views in the top ten actually suggest a broadening of the content being read. This is good. More people are getting beyond the top ten and are reading more obscure posts than in the past.

I still find it strange that the really old posts still bring people in, but more recent posts overall have people yawning. I guess they are just not very interesting. I am glad my mother’s eulogy is obviously helping so many people struggling with the loss of their mother. But mostly, human nature is what it is and pornography and internet sex seems to be what they want to read the most here. And maybe bizarre stuff as well, given that Danger: Wal-Mart Customer! is new in the top 10 (it was written in 2009). It’s also nice that the blog’s home page still comes in at #2.

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So it appears that my users are slowly ditching IE and Firefox in favor of Google Chrome and Safari. My suspicion is Safari is so high because most mobile traffic was via iPhones, which run Safari.

Busiest Month: May (12,671 page views)
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Mobile statistics are new in Google Analytics.

Mobile Visits in 2011: 3,904
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This site is also accessible as a newsfeed, both RSS and Atom. Most of those reading the blog via a newsfeed do so via FeedBurner. Here are a few FeedBurner statistics for 2011:

  • Subscribers as of 12/31/2011: 66 (up from 59 in 2010)
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More of my readers continue to read the blog through a subscription, but growth is modest. It may make up for some of the decline in visits and page views.

More on January 1, 2013, I hope.

 
The Thinker

Ports of call

When you are into a port in the morning and out by evening, any port of call will provide only surface impressions. Here are a few of mine based on our three ports of call in the Western Caribbean aboard the Voyager of the Seas.

Jamaica

I had heard that Jamaica was a third world country, but that was not the case. Perhaps it is a second world country. It helped that the country, officially independent only since 1962, was part of the British Commonwealth because the Brits helped provide much of the order and infrastructure the island needed. Today, Jamaica feels like a country pulling itself up by its own bootstraps, albeit slowly.

Yes, you can find shacks made of tin, but they seem few and far between. What you see far more of are homes under construction, a process that may take many decades for a single house. A family may decide where to build a home, clear the land, pour a foundation and then work on it piecemeal over many years. No contractor is needed, and apparently in many cases no government permission is needed either; you have squatters’ rights. Pick a site, work on it as time and money allow and maybe by the time you are a senior citizen it will be finished and you can move into it. There are no construction crews to pay and no mortgage seems to be necessary, just lots of time, tenacity and determination. It makes driving around Jamaica a surreal experience because so many houses are shells of what they hope to be someday.

Port in Falmouth, Jamaica

Port in Falmouth, Jamaica

The country’s populace is overwhelmingly black but many segments are upwardly mobile. Cars are relatively few in relation to the population but the roads we traveled on were first world. Gas is prohibitively expensive for most but it matters little because a car is also beyond the reach of most. Drug trafficking is an acknowledged fact of life on the island and is a significant but undocumented portion of the island’s economy. Marijuana possession and use (except in certain religious ceremonies) is illegal but it is not too hard to acquire. Electricity is controlled by a state monopoly. Many of the lower income residents cannot afford electricity rates, so they steal it instead and hope they will not get caught.

We found the climate in January to be delightful: in the high seventies but with comfortable humidity. Our day trip first to Dunn River Falls, took us about an hour’s drive south of Falmouth where our ship was docked to the city of Ocho Rios. Dunn River Falls is a steep but not insurmountable waterfall that you can climb up. A climb consists of a dozen or so visitors led by an experienced river guide, who often climb hand in hand to reduce slipping. Some groups chose a route along one edge of the falls, others ascended by repeatedly traversing across the stream. It was a neat experience with the comfortable water temperatures making it refreshing as well, but is not for the faint of heart. My sense of balance is not great, and my wife is vertically challenged. After she slid a couple of times we felt it best to exit about a third of the way up. For those with the agility (and even those without) it is great and somewhat scary fun. Upon entering and exiting the falls, numerous vendors will try to engage you in friendly conversation. Deals can be made, so if so inclined dicker away and you will likely get a better price. There is also a food court full of Jamaican food, including their popular jerk chicken. To save our sensitive western stomachs, we were advised to drink bottled water only.

We also took in the Green Grotto Caves, a limestone cavern half way between our Freeport and Dunn River Falls. The tour is relatively short (about 45 minutes) and does not go that far underground, but is probably worth the $20 entrance fee, if for no other reason than to see so many bat colonies up close. The bats looked more cute than scary.

Jamaicans really appreciate visitors, or at least their money. There was a small but enthusiastic party yelling, dancing, jumping and waving goodbye to our cruise ship when we pulled out of port. We caught the spirit and waved back from our Deck 7 balcony.

Grand Cayman Island

Beach at Grand Cayman Island

Beach at Grand Cayman Island

I’d like to say that I spent a full day seeing sites in Grand Cayman Island, a couple hundred miles to the west of Jamaica, but luck was not with us. Our crossing of the Western Caribbean was bumpy, to say the least, due to the arrival of a powerful cold front. The front made large waves, brought brisk winds and a night of interrupted sleep as irregular rouge waves seemed to punch you in the kidney as you slept. Considering the size of our ship, this was quite an accomplishment of nature. The winds had not passed by morning. This made the ship’s usual anchorage near George Town chancy. Instead our captain parked the Voyager of the Seas on the calmer leeward side of the island.

The high waves and cold air also canceled our planned scuba diving over a coral reef. Unfortunately, when we tried to book alternate tours they were all filled up. We did take the tender over to Grand Cayman Island, but there was little to do but look around the immediate vicinity while our tour options eventually dwindled to zero. Some vendors set up shop near the tender point, which allowed us to do a little shopping, but by noon we were heading back on the tender to our cruise ship.

The island certainly was photogenic and also more prosperous looking than Jamaica. Both islands are part of the British Commonwealth, which you can infer by the cars driving on the left side of the road. Unlike Jamaica, Grand Cayman Island is so flat and close to sea level that I fear that with climate change it will be one of the first islands to disappear into the sea. In short, I would not be investing in any property on the island. The water is a beautiful aquamarine color but the beaches were too turbulent to wade into. Luck of the Irish for us with this port of call.

Cozumel, Playa del Carmen and the Tulum Ruins

 

Cozumel, Mexico

Cozumel, Mexico

Cozumel is an island that sits off the eastern edge of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. While officially part of Mexico, it felt Spanglish, i.e. half Spanish, half English and more American than Miami. It’s a modern and beautiful destination as well as a Mecca for cruise ships because of its abundant shopping and beautiful extended beaches sitting next to lovely aquamarine Caribbean waters. I am convinced I could live here and never need to know a word of Spanish. Since its economy is virtually all funded from tourist traffic, virtually everyone involved in commerce must know English, or at least enough English to conduct business.

Four cruise ships were in port when we docked. We found ourselves looking into cabins of Royal Caribbean’s Liberty of the Seas, a nearly identical sister ship to our Voyager of the Seas. The cruise terminal in Cozumel came complete with many noisy vendors. We apparently arrived at the height of tourist season. In fact, it was a brisk day with temperatures in the low seventies in Cozumel, so if you were on the beach you were likely walking on it with a towel draped over you for warmth.

Several hundred of us opted for the tour of the Mayan Tulum Ruins on the Yucatan peninsula. We filled nearly to capacity a large chartered ferry that zipped us across choppy seas to the city of Playa de Carmen on the mainland, about ten miles away. How choppy a ride is it? The crew routinely hands out barf bag to queasy passengers, which fortunately I never needed. It is a relatively recent city that seemingly evolved to support the commerce on Cozumel. I knew from reports that Mexico is becoming increasingly violent as a result of drug commerce. At least here on the Yucatan no drug war is in evidence. We were soon on a chartered bus with an English-speaking tour guide heading south to the Tulum Ruins, traveling on a broad and well-marked expressway. Along the side of the road were many resorts, many with signs in English encouraging Americans to visit their resort or buy a home. Our tour guide happened to be Mayan by ancestry, and was fluent in Mayan as well as Spanish and English. This was useful for our tour, as it provided a depth to the experience that we might not have gotten otherwise.

Tulum Ruins

Tulum Ruins

The Mayan ruins at Tulum are a huge tourist attraction, and arriving at the height of tourism season as we did also made for a crowded experience. Fortunately, the weather cooperated by providing blue skies and comfortable temperatures. Touring the ruins was definitely worth the hassle of the drive and choppy ferry rides. Much of the ruins have disappeared, but many remain including much of the grand temple framed against the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean, are mostly intact, including the platform where many people (principally children) were sacrificed. Odd as it may seem, being chosen for sacrifice was considered a privilege as it supposedly moved you into a better life. Among the curious facts that I learned: the Mayans were short as a race, about four feet tall on average, due in part to nutritional deficiencies but also due to the fresh water containing too much calcium from being filtered through the abundant limestone rock. About 3500 B.C. the Mayans were the height of civilization in the western hemisphere and were by any standards an advanced civilization, having mastered math and the calendar. They were certainly on par with the learned Egyptians at that time. The site is definitely worth seeing if you are on the Yucatan peninsula and suggests a hemisphere with a far richer culture than is generally known or taught in our history books. It took the arrival of the Spaniards to kill the remnants of it and the Aztec civilizations.

For me, Mexico was definitely the highlight of our cruise. I wish we had another day for additional tours and shopping, but by sunset we were pulling out of Cozumel and northbound back to our cruise port of New Orleans.

 
The Thinker

Cruising for business

A second cruise just months after our first cruise in fifteen years was my wife’s idea, not mine. She thinks that vacations should be about relaxation and pampering, not about hassling with hotels, rental cars and airlines. I am naturally more active than she is, but I concur that cruises have some major virtues. For me, their chief virtue is that while you visit lots of places, you unpack just once.

This cruise is on Royal Caribbean, which as best I can ascertain is the fanciest cruise line, at least among the major players. They certainly have great looking and modern ships, unlike Carnival’s, whose fleet is looking seriously dated. Fortunately for their competitors, I am not someone who puts a premium on fanciness. I do expect staterooms to be comfortable, clean and reasonably quiet, the destinations interesting, and the price not exorbitant. I don’t need chocolates on my bed pillow or (an increasingly alarming trend among cruise companies) animals created from folded towels posted at the foot of my bed.

Voyager of the Seas, in berth in New Orleans

Voyager of the Seas, in berth in New Orleans

If I had to pick two characteristics of cruise companies that I measure them by, it would be their food and the evening entertainment. The entertainment on Norwegian was excellent every night, and since my wife and I see plenty of shows, so we know quality from crap. Norwegian even brought in a troupe from Second City for one night of entertainment. I had not laughed so hard in years. Comedians are popular entertainers on cruise ships, I expect because they are relatively cheap compared to staging these Broadway-lite shows. Still, Norwegian has their own cast of singers, dancers and acrobats that truly dazzled. Our last show before berthing in Boston last August had a Bollywood theme with acrobats on bungee cords jumping from the rafters in time to the live music. It’s pretty hard to top that. As for the food, if they were still around then I’d be glad to cruise again on a dumpy old Dolphin Cruise Lines ship again as we did in 1995. We did find gourmet food last night on the Voyager of the Seas, but it was at Portofino, their specialty Italian restaurant that naturally cost extra. On dumpy Dolphin, there was just one main dining room but all the passengers ate gourmet food. You left the dining room hoping your licking the plate wasn’t too obvious.

Otherwise our cruise on Royal Caribbean seems about the same as our cruise on Norwegian. Both ships are immaculately clean and over the top opulent. Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas wins marginally over the Norwegian Dawn, simply because the ship is bigger and no expense was spared. This is because at the time of its christening in 1999, it was the largest cruise ship in the world. For a guy who tends to shop at Kohl’s instead of Niemen Marcus, opulence simply does not matter. I won’t be purchasing fine diamonds or fancy artwork at their promenade in either event. Yet, in many ways Royal Caribbean is more pedestrian. Their “specialty” restaurants include a Ben & Jerry’s and a Johnny Rockets. Whereas Norwegian had at least half a dozen upscale specialty restaurants, the Voyager of the Seas offers only Portofino.

Royal Caribbean is at least less in your face with announcements. Norwegian made sure we were aware of every single event via frequent and loud announcements. I grew to loathe my cruise directors, particularly the assistant cruise director for her endlessly annoying and obviously insincere whines promoting bingo. On Royal Caribbean they are more discreet, and generally limit themselves to a morning and noon announcement. Given their four-page list of activities we receive every day, we should have a good idea of what’s going on.

One thing I am discovering: no matter how nice things are for us passengers, the bulk of the cruise staff has it rough. Perhaps there is something exotic about working for a company like Royal Caribbean, but after asking questions of our waiter I have to wonder what sane person would sign up to work on a cruise line. Most Americans would whine about working on Saturdays. At least for the waiters in the Royal Caribbean dining room, there is never a day off until the cruise season is over or their contract expires. Our waiter told us he works ten-hour days seven days a week. I guess when you are in international waters, you don’t have to worry about any stinking union contracts.

Moreover, the vast majority of these jobs are mind-numbingly dull and tedious. I watched one guy today in the café doing nothing but filling up glasses with ice and pouring water and lemonade into them. There are whole crews in the café that do nothing but constantly take your dirty dishes to the dishwasher or smile and squirt your hand with sanitizers as you enter the restaurant. Just the thought of doing this for seventy hours a week sounds like enduring one of the lower levels in Dante’s Hell. Hopefully they at least get to rotate through positions to relieve the tedium. Most are away from family, but today’s newsletter “fun fact” tells us the ship has 134 married couples among the crew. I hope they work the same shifts.

Once the land recedes, your world shrinks to your cruise ship. You may become myopic like me and notice things you should not. Royal Caribbean seems anally obsessed with cleanliness in a Joan Crawford sort of way. I imagine that a major outbreak on a cruise ship can have a huge effect on a company’s reputation and its bottom line, so it perhaps justifies the omnipresent Purex hand sanitizer machines and crew endlessly applying germ killers to handrails and surfaces. But is it really necessary to refrain from shaking the hands of our fellow passengers, as they recommend? Are we really supposed to give them fist bumps instead? Even Martha Stewart would have to find this behavior extreme.

However, kudos to Royal Caribbean for making smokers’ lives inconvenient. Norwegian lets guests smoke in their staterooms. Here guests are allowed to smoke on their balconies, if they have one, and on the port side of the cruise deck. Also, kudos to Royal Caribbean for creating child-free zones. Up on the cruise deck there are adults only swimming areas, hot tubs and lounge chairs that are far away from the shrieks of children. Been there and done the child-rearing thing and once was enough.

My mind keeps wandering. What, I wondered, would cruising look like if Wal-Mart ran a cruise ship? The idea may seem absurd, but given all the money in this cruising lifestyle perhaps they will enter the market someday. If so, I can already picture it. Cruising, which at least strives to be a classy experience, would devolve into mediocrity but at least it would be affordable to those with more modest means than ours. Here are some features of a Wal-Mart cruise ship that I predict if it ever gets into the business:

  • Everyone on the staff including the captain would have a smiley-faced yellow button on their breast and wear the ubiquitous blue Wal-Mart uniforms. But most of the crew would actually be subcontractors hired from third world countries so Wal-Mart would not have to pay any health insurance or retirement benefits.
  • One deck would be a Wal-Mart superstore, with the added bonus that purchases would be duty-free. That’s keeping those prices low!
  • Main dining would consist of a food court that would probably contain the greasiest of greasy franchises that you see at Wal-Marts, and no it would not be included in your cruise price. Yes, there would be a 24-hour Pizza Hut in the food court, along with a McDonalds, but definitely no Starbucks. Too upscale. Wal-Mart would market their own brand of coffee instead and the coffee shop would probably include boxes of Krispy Kremes you can purchase. The coffee would probably be a Sam’s Club brand. Need a salad? Wait until you arrive at a port of call and keep your fingers crossed. Instead, it you would get to choose from grease and sugar, with every entrée guaranteed to be at least 500 calories and contribute toward heart disease.
  • Pretty much every object in your state room could also be bought at a Sam’s Club or Wal-Mart, including the furniture.
  • To keep prices low, you would use the same sheets and towels for the duration of the cruise.
  • You could save five percent if you cleaned your own stateroom. There would be scouring powder under the sink and $19.99 vacuum cleaner in the closet, but your cabin would have to pass inspection before you vacated to avoid a cleaning fee.
  • When you sat on the potty in your cabin, you would stare into a TV screen with compulsory announcements promoting ship specials.
  • Instead of a U.S. Coast Guard drill at the start of the voyage, you would be forced to sit in an auditorium and listen to Wal-Mart affiliated time-share pitches.
  • The premium beer in the food court would be Bud Light.
  • There would be deals for special airline fares based on an affiliation with Southwest.
  • A sampling of evening entertainment: wrestling, an abridged play based on the life of Sam Walton and a contest for the most convincing imitation of a Fox News anchor.
  • You would have an RFID chip embedded in your earlobe for the duration of the cruise, so you could always be found. You would see advertisements customized for you on electronic billboards as you walked around the promenade.
  • Only penny slot machines would be allowed in the casino.

I had better stop before I give Wal-Mart too many ideas.

 
The Thinker

A glance at New Orleans

January 2nd, 2012 somewhere south of Cuba

Some years back, I wrote about spending a couple of days in Savannah, Georgia. I called it New Orleans Lite. In fact, when I wrote that post I had not been to New Orleans, but I did know it by reputation and the experience of friends. I still cannot claim to know New Orleans, having spent only one night in the city prior to departing on a cruise ship. But I have spent enough time in the city to be intrigued by the place, and to want to pay it a proper visit.

Ambling around the area south of the cruise terminal on New Year’s Eve, I happened upon a small memorial to Hurricane Katrina, which nearly wiped out the city in 2005. There are doubtless large parts of New Orleans that are still unoccupied or damaged from the hurricane, but for the most part New Orleans feels vibrant and back to normal again. There was enough Friday rush hour traffic to slow I-10 through the center of town.

Most of the passengers on the airport shuttle were destined for its famous French Quarter, there to celebrate a raucous New Year’s Eve the following day. The French Quarter is a bit like New York City’s famous Times Square: also a vibrant and sleepless place. It is also an eclectic and largely booze-filled area where just about anything feels possible. I am not sure why parents would want to bring their children to the French Quarter, given its high percentage of drunks and general misfits. There were also obvious prostitutes plying access to their junk in miniskirts on street corners. And yet there are children here, as well as buskers, galleries, lots of eclectic boutiques, a numbing array of bars, along with a sampling of pretty much every odd corner of America: from the 60’s hippie in stringy hair, to the Iowa corn farmer in overalls, to the staggeringly drunk. And yes, there are children here, generally closely supervised by Mom and Dad, but doubtless some runaways as well. The streets are so narrow that to make a turn vans like ours routinely have to climb over the curb.

The French Quarter, which we inadvertently toured at some length as our driver deftly maneuvered us around numerous obstacles, is charming in spite of its stench and mixture of denizens. It’s not a good place to go if you want uninterrupted sleep. From my perspective, the French Quarter is to be admired because it is the exact antithesis of the plastic, generic and overly-corporatized America elsewhere. Not that you cannot find a Subway or a Starbucks among all the hotels with their ubiquitous iron rail balconies overlooking the streets. What you cannot find it something resembling silence. It is a section of a city that, like Las Vegas, never sleeps and never stops.

Downtown New Orleans on a misty New Years Eve 2011 from the deck of the Voyager of the Seas

Downtown New Orleans on a misty New Years Eve 2011 from the deck of the Voyager of the Seas

New Orleans surprised me. It was much bigger than I imagined, with a dense urban core and plentiful towering skyscrapers. It is at the same time an old and lumbering city, and few places look older than its many cemeteries. The water table is too low to actually bury bodies underground, so instead there are above ground concrete tombs and mausoleums. They have a haunted look to them, lacquered as most of them are in decades, if not centuries of grime, mold and mildew. Apparently no one cares enough to clean them up regularly. Such attempts would be temporary at best, and perhaps spoil their spooky charms.

Our destination for the night was actually the Latin Quarter, picked because of its plentiful hotels near the cruise terminal. A Spring Hill Suites seemed a sensible choice and turned out to be only four blocks from the cruise terminal. Most of the people in our hotel were staging themselves for cruises the following day, but some were here to see sites. There are many noteworthy things to see in New Orleans aside from its famous French Quarter, with the relatively recent World War Two Museum apparently being one of the better day trips for tourists. There are even Hurricane Katrina damage tours for those so interested, where you can visit vast neighborhoods of largely abandoned homes in the city’s south side, areas that were hit disproportionally because of their low elevation. For my wife and I, there was little time to do much more than sleep.

However, I did find some time in the morning to amble down by the Mississippi River, in search of our cruise ship. For those who cannot wait for Mardi Gras, I found Mardi Gras World where you can sample some of the many floats from previous festivals. I eventually did find the cruise terminal, a bit down river from where Google Maps placed it, and closer to our hotel than I anticipated. There were actually two cruise ships berthed. The fancier of the two was our ship: Voyager of the Seas, a ship so large that when it was launched by Royal Caribbean in 1999 it was the largest cruise ship on the ocean. It remains impressive thirteen years later, but is now something of a smaller brother to its much bigger and younger brother, Oasis of the Seas. Next to our ship was a rather faded and frankly unattractive ship in the Carnival cruise line. Chatting with a family at our hotel on the Carnival ship, I discovered it was on the same voyage we were on: Jamaica, Grand Cayman Island and Cozumel, Mexico.

For a while it was hard to make out more than the outline of our ships, given the foggy and cool weather in New Orleans. I eventually found Riverwalk, a shopping center next to the cruise terminal offering a simple route into our embarking station. Getting on our cruise ship took nearly two hours, so I was glad that we arrived early. By noon most of the fog was gone, but the sun proved elusive. Once on board, we were suitably dazzled by the Voyager of the Seas, which is over a thousand feet in length. We were perhaps less dazzled than we could have been, having finished a cruise with Norwegian some four-months earlier.

I was anxious to see the lower Mississippi River, and particularly the Mississippi Delta but the sun set shortly after we departed and the fog quickly returned. Still, in the darkness one could discern much about the Mississippi Delta, and it was less than flattering. The area is rife with petrochemical plants, and it was not unusual to see or smell them from the river. Occasionally I caught the red and phosphorous-looking flare of a natural gas well. Being New Year’s Eve, residents along the river were in a mood to party. Those with fireworks seemed to time their modest displays with the passing of our ship. Eventually the fog obscured almost any view, except for the stars overhead and the occasional ghostly outline of the Carnival ship ahead of us.

So we headed inside. The huge promenade on Deck 5 served as a convenient place for a New Year’s Eve celebration. Most of the passengers and crew were in formal attire. After a formal dinner in the dining room, where we warmed to our evening dining companions, we were in no mood to party, so we slipped back into casual wear. However, we did enjoy the festivities from a perch on Deck 7, where our cabin was located. Royal Caribbean provided party hats and horns for passengers, as well as a beautiful holiday display in the promenade, highlighted by an enormous Christmas tree. At the stroke of midnight we dutifully and noisily celebrated, while hundreds of balloons were released from nets on the upper deck. It was certainly a unique way to ring in 2012.

We staggered into our stateroom, not from inebriation but from general tiredness. A few minutes on our balcony showed only channel lights. The Mississippi River had receded at last and we had entered the placid Gulf of Mexico. Orion displayed his majestic belt to our west. Our first destination, Jamaica, lay three days ahead of us.

 

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