Sunday, March 28, 2010

Twitter Can’t Keep A Secret

I've become so accustomed to firing up new technology programs without reading the instructions I sometimes find myself in "default" hell. For example, on my newly discarded Blackberry Curve I added a small program called Ubertwitter to use with the ubiquitous Twitter platform. I tore through the setup without paying much heed to the various options. For all I know my credit card and bank account were posted on the JumboTron in Times Square as a result of my Twitter-zeal.

But, I would advise people, especially my fellow males to be careful with programs like Ubertwitter. You see, this program, like many others associated with Twitter and the iPhone contains something called geo-tracking or geo-locating. Essentially, the program appends you location at the time you 'tweet' using a small hyperlink. Anyone following your tweets can click on that link and up pops a Google or GPS map leading to your location. On some programs, it will even overlay a Google Earth current satellite photo. Depending on the options you choose, the location shown may be as accurate as 100 feet (using GPS) or almost a mile (using cell phone tower triangulation).

So, let's say you told your girlfriend (because married men would never do the following, as we all know) you were heading to Duck Woods for a round of golf. But instead, you snuck a visit to that pretty young thing you met at the Brew Station last week when your girlfriend was out of town rescuing puppies for an animal shelter in need of volunteers. After a successful outing, you Tweet your friends with an iconic "thumbs up" gesture. And you return home to your girlfriend.

GF: How was golf?

Victim: I did OK. Shot in the 80's.

GF: Get a drink later?

Victim: Had one at the clubhouse.

GF: And the "thumbs up" tweet?

Victim: Birdied the ninth hole!

GF: And the lipstick on your shirt there?

Victim: You know how happy Dave gets when someone birdies…

GF: Hmmm..what about this map on your geolocater?

Victim: What's a geolocator?

GF: This…

GF: It shows up every time you 'tweet' Isn't that where Dave's wife said y'all met that really cute waitress last week?

Victim: (Note to self—married men tell their wives everything)..

Now, if you insist on keeping geolocation with your tweeting activity, I suggest you choose the " non-digital non-3G cell tower" option. Right now, 'tweeting from home, it says I am here…

Which is quite a distance from Nags Head….

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Health Care Thoughts-#2

Watching the adoption of the Democrat’s health care program is akin to witnessing the proverbial train wreck in slow motion. Whether one is a liberal, conservative or moderate, it is baffling to me that any citizen as this point in American history would support any such program.

Since the end of the nineteenth century we have witnessed program after program evolve along the exact same path. The first income tax (not including the temporary Civil War tax and its failed successor) was proposed by President Taft. The tax was 1% with the top bracket of 7%. Today, its evolved to almost every state, and combined brackets can easily exceed 50% on both corporations and individuals. The appetite to collect is so insatiable, as part of the health care reform, 16,500 additional enforcers will join the ranks of IRS. Without reciting the litany of ever-expanding government programs, I would challenge any reader of this blog to offer up a federal program that has a) maintained a sustainable/controllable budget and b) demonstrated positive results relative to the programs original goals and the dollars expended. I submit it cannot be done. Yet, every twenty years or so, American’s elect politicians who swear to fix a seemingly intractable problem and another horse is added to spending carousel.

If the above were not enough to give one pause, let’s consider the entirely new ground which reform is breaking . In the past, programs of this nature did not cross the line between public and private sector employment and pricing. Income tax is levied by the government and collected by government employees. Public education dollars are likewise collected by government and distributed via government administrators and teachers. The same holds true for public safety employees, those who handle Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Aid to Dependent Children and the like. Most of us are forced to contribute to these programs but government employees are the ones who actually deliver the service. Physicians had the right to accept or reject Medicare participation.

Not so with health care. Unlike the job of policeman, school teacher, or welfare case worker, the employees of our health service sector are mostly private sector individuals. They include physicians, nurses, pharmaceutical industry employees, insurance employees and hospital workers and shareholders of these companies. Yet, in order for Obama and the Democrats program to succeed, the labor of these private sector employees will have to be regulated in some fashion. If a person chooses to become a cop or a school teacher, they enter into such service knowing they are public servants and generally accepting of the method by which they earn their salary. We have a right to their services because they chose to, and literally do, work for us.

A health care employee entered into no such agreement. While our heartstrings may tell us everyone deserves health care, the hard truth is there is no health care without private-sector individuals willing to provide such service at a wage or fee they negotiate freely. Again, taking out the emotional argument that cancer treatment is more important than hiring a plumber, the reality is that almost any person who advocates health care workers being under the payment thumb of government would not agree to the same such interference in their own lives. I have no more right to the services of a plumber or an artist than I do a doctor; nor do I have a right to dictate their fee schedule, wage rate, or profit margin.

It is bothersome, as one reads letters-to-the-editor, internet discussion boards, and even Facebook comments, to realize just how many people miss this point and shrug off health care reform with such platitudes as “no one should go without access to a doctor”. At no other time in our history have Americans been willing to accept such a level of interference in the mechanism of the work force.

But it shouldn’t surprise us. American’s don’t care about their own individual freedoms these days, so why should they care about your freedom if, for example, you choose to be emergency room nurse? Because more of us don’t smoke than do, we think it noble to ban smoking in privately owned restaurants and stores. We don’t complain when our mayors, like Mr. Bloomberg in New York, decide we no longer need “trans fats” or, as they are now attempting in the Big Apple—salt.

If we read a news snippet about some poor kid who gets suspended for bringing an empty shot gun shell he picked up at the circus to school, or the two girls in Birmingham, AL suspended for sharing Altoids, we find the offending teachers still in place and the administrators who set such policies keeping their jobs. We want to control the color of our neighbors house as well as what kind of vehicle he parks in his driveway. The trees on my property belong not to me, but the town in which I live once they attain a certain size.

No, I shouldn’t be surprised that Americans will stand idly by and join Europe in the long lines and onerous tax rates so we can all replace one bad system with one even worse and destined to grow beyond all recognition.

But I can be disappointed.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Health Care--Early Thoughts-#1

For more than a year, the nation has engaged in a dialogue on health care reform. Aetna has been part of that discussion, sharing our experience and expertise. As early as 2005, we were the first national insurer to call for an individual insurance requirement to bring more people into the health care system.

Words from Aetna CEO and Chairman Ronald A Williams the day after health care passed the U.S. House. Need another reason to be very worried about health care reform? Our intrepid CEO blathers onward...

The challenge unmet by this bill, however, is how to effectively deal with the critical issue of affordability, which has become a burden for so many people, particularly individuals and small business owners.

That's right, the CEO of Aetna doesn't believe health care reform goes far enough. There you go Russ, putting words into this CEO's mouth. He just wants costs controlled and he didn't really say above he advocated the government requiring people to purchase his product.... And,you're correct. It wasn't the CEO who said that, it was Aetna's president Mark Bertolini who said as much in an article from under the headline "Aetna's President: Health Reform Bills Don't Go Far Enough"

So far the health-care reform bills lack the “teeth” necessary to bring meaningful payment reform, he said. Bertolini is factoring in some kind of health-care overhaul at this point, and “its acceptance and effectiveness will depend on providers and how they are organized,” he said.

Stuff like this always amuses me about liberals. They want so much to believe the altruistic motives of the politicians who carry their banners, but in reality, the Democratic Party is as much in thrall to corporate interests as the GOP--perhaps more. If the post-Bush Wall Street bailout didn't convince you, or the tax-dodging former Wall Street insider Timothy Geithner, now Obama's point man at Treasury, perhaps senior management at Aetna will finally merit your attention.

The mere fact this company lobbies to convince the government to force all Americans into the health (read: insurance) system should be enough. And, all that junk above about more teeth in payment controls? If you read this article and other statements by Aetna in congressional testimony what you find is Aetna lobbying both sides of the medical coin to their advantage. Payment control means physicians and hospitals should have their pricing scrutinized and, if required, tamped down by the Feds and state insurance commissions. Lower outflows for Aetna might mean lower premiums for their customers. Or, it might simply increase Aetna's profits. While Aetna is lobbying to lay bare the justification for physician, hospital and drug price increases, I don't see where they offered to lay bare their internal pricing, profits or expenses, nor those of their competitors. Oops.

In fact, this corportate president is so enamored of government health care reform, he had this to say about the failed Clinton initiatives:

“I think it’s a shame we didn’t get reform done then,” Bertolini said. “We have to get it done now. If we don’t fix it we will continue on an inexorable decline, and that’s no good because when they point the finger they’re going to point it at us.”
When I was a banker, we saw similar trends in our industry. Large banks often turned a blind eye to heavy-handed regulations and the cost in personnel and time required to implement them. The reason was simple; large banks can mitigate onerous costs of regulation much easier than small banks as a result of economies of scale. The extra cost burdens suffered by smaller banks, which cannot spread out initial compliance expenses as efficiently as larger entities reduces service and pricing advantages local banks typically realize vis a vis their larger siblings.

So, liberals, who often held up insurance companies as the bogeyman in the health care drama might need to take a breath and ask themselves why Aetna seems so sanguine about health care. Having government force people to buy their products on one side, while asking government to force cost controls on the recipients of their payouts (doctors, hospitals and pharmaceuticals) on the other is not what one would expect from a private sector company. And Obama, who spent much time on the campaign trail chastising these insurers should also be concerned. Except, we discover that in the fourth quarter of 2009, Aetna upped their lobbying expense 55%, to $802,000. The White House was among those tasrgets.

Be scared...very scared.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Swallow-Tailed Kite

In Dare County, swallow-tailed kites are relatively rare. They show up from time to time, usually in transit from about now through the early summer. Sitings seems to fade by August. Some years no swallow-tails are recorded, although I suspect somewhere in Dare County they appear each and every year.

Click on the photo for a much larger image where you can see the birds coloring and swallow-tail quite easily.

I caught this one, my first ever Dare sighting this afternoon around 2:30. The bird flew right over my car on Colington Road about 25 ft. up. By the time I found a place to turn around on this curvy two-lane road and backtracked, he was still hawking insects but gaining altitude on a thermal. When I finally got the camera and changed lenses to a 300mm telephoto, he had climbed considerably and almost out of site. This shot was the only one I got before he headed south and out of sight.

A Better Scientific Model? A Judge Out of Control

We owe a tremendous debt to Irene Nolan and her Hatteras Island Free Press for their exhaustive coverage of the ORV issue. As I have contended for some time, it is no coincidence that the Southern Environmental Law Center and their two partners--the Audubon and the Defenders of Wildlife reneged on their agreement with the Negotiated Regulation process (aka Neg Reg, where stakeholders were supposed to bang out an ORV driving compromise and where parties agreed beforehand not to sue until the process is over).

Derb Carter is no fool. Judge Boyle has for years telegraphed from the bench his dislike of beach driving in general and his disdain for the fact that Cape Hatteras Seashore's NPS managers had failed to come up with an ORV plan. The SELC didn't need to "shop" judges to uncover an amenable venue; Jude Boyle basically held out a huge neon sign to them that said "seek and ye shall find a friend".

The Neg Reg is over, and the Park Service has settled on a plan. This plan, after intense reading, actually closes more beach more often than the current interim plan forced upon the park and the county by Judge Boyle himself. The NPS, perhaps correctly, states that a more restrictive plan would be more predictable, since it would reduce the number of "floating" closures. As bad as this sounds, in the long run, for the sake of our tourists, knowing that 9o% of the closings will be the same year after year would allow visitors to plan their trips and avoid surprises once arrived. Yet, even this more Draconian plan doesn't rise to a level that satisfies the Audubon and I suspect they will sue to get their way if the NPS doesn't amend the plan to their liking once the public comment period ends.

But, to really gain insight into just how far off the reservation this federal judge can be (and, to my utter embarrassment, he was appointed by a Republican president), here is a sample from the Island Free Press from the March 2010 'Status Conference", which is a regularly scheduled meeting during the "enforcement" agreement between the judge, the plaintiffs, defendants, and intervenors. The link to the entire article is here.

The first 15 minutes of the conference were devoted to an uninterrupted dialogue between Boyle and Derb Carter of SELC representing the plaintiffs. They discussed the plaintiffs’ status report and notice of compliance to the consent decree.

In it, SELC noted the hostile behavior of the intervenors in the suit.

Boyle’s opening question to Carter was, “If the intervenors are hostile, why retain them?”

Boyle went on to observe that the SELC’s original complaint sought relief within the NPS, seeking nothing except the federal government’s compliance with federal law, specifically the National Environmental Policy Act.

“I was concerned about their standing” from the outset, Boyle stated, going on to note that the intervenors voluntary agreed with the consent decree. The judge asked, “Why do they need to be in the case?”

Intervenors are specifically Dare and Hyde County and one access group--CHAPA. "Standing" is a legal term that says the parties, while not defendants, are affected enough by the possible legal proceedings to have a significant interest in the outcome--in other words, third parties to the suit acting in their own self-interest. Apparently, the judge seems to think neither Hyde nor Dare county really have any standing in this case since "all" SELC sought was to get NPS to comply with federal law. This has been a major issue in the entire case...Boyle has expressed his lack of concern for the economic impact on Hatteras Island or the two counties, and taking their cue, SELC has worked hard to push economic and cultural arguments out of the process. Watching SELC and Boyle interact is like watching the pitcher and catcher in baseball game signal one another while Dare and Hyde stand on second trying to steal the signs, but to no avail.

And part of Boyle's latest hostility to the intervenors is they agreed to the consent decree. In a prior blog I contributed to, I stated that Dare & Hyde committed a grievous error in signing the decree and that it would come back to haunt them. Better we had shut the beach down in 2008 and fought the good fight than to agree in front of a judge to accept a bad proposal and then try to "take it back" later. In case you live on Hatteras, here is what Boyle thinks of your concerns:

Boyle then stated that people on Hatteras were “complaining about something that’s not impacting on them.”

Now, follow these words from the judge and his exchanges with NPS and US Fish & Wildlife personnel:

Boyle said. How does turtle nesting in the regulated seashore compare with the nesting situation in the Currituck wildlife refuge, where beach traffic is unregulated?

“You couldn’t have a better scientific model,” said Boyle, than a comparison of the complete degradation of Currituck with the controlled access in the seashore.

Note: Currituck beaches and Hatteras/Ocracoke have very little in common as most beach goers know. See more below.

Boyle asked Murray if the 2009 improvement wasn’t a good demonstration of the earlier degradation of habitat from beach driving. Murray replied that in earlier years there had been a statewide decline in nesting shorebirds and waterbirds , that weather is always a factor, and that there is natural cycle in nesting behavior.

Boyle stated that what changed between 1995 and 2009 was the increase in beach driving.

Judge Boyle then asked a series of questions about the shoreline distances of the Currituck refuge versus the distances of the three areas of the seashore. He stated that the NPS was willing to compare the three seashore areas and he couldn’t see why they wouldn’t add the beach area from Nags Head to Currituck to the mix for comparison. In his view, Currituck looks very much like north Bodie Island.

Boyle then called from the spectators Dennis Stewart, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife biologist for Pea Island and Currituck refuges. He asked Stewart to comment on the similarities of Currituck and the seashore. Stewart replied that the Currituck refuge of 4,000 acres is laid out like a checkerboard, not a large single unit like the seashore and Pea Island. The eastern boundary of the refuge stops at the mean high tide line, and that leaves a corridor for beach driving. Technically, there is no driving on the beach behind the refuge boundary signs.

Boyle told Stewart he was trying to get him to recognize the similarities among Currituck, Pea Island, and Cape Hatteras. Stewart insisted that there are confounding factors in trying to make comparisons. For example, he said, Pea Island records 13 sea turtle nests, but as one goes north, the number of nests drops off. Currituck has no more than one or two nests.

The entirety of the above quotes are instructive. Boyle is dead-set on comparing Currituck, more than 100 miles north and further west--to our subject area-- Pea Island and Cape Hatteras. Currituck's ORV area is much closer and more environmentally and geographically akin to False State Cape Park and Back Bay NWR in Virginia. In fact, cross the fence by foot where Currituck ends and one enters False Cape. Apparently, Judge Boyle is either ignorant of, or chooses to ignore that very few sea turtles nest just across the border in Virginia at a park where ORV's have been banned for decades, but also an area that hosts damned few people-- unless one is willing to hike for miles to access the southern end of the park. The truth is, turtles have always nested in smaller numbers north of Hatteras, primarily because of the colder water. If the judge actually chose to get off his bias, he'd also note turtle nests increase dramatically as one travels south--again in response to the Gulf Stream and warmer climes. Virginia sea turtle nests are extremely rare, and there is no reason to believe the situation would be different on the 24 miles of beach south of the state line in Currituck.

And note his total rejection of Murray's observation that bird populations went up and down all over the NC coast in the time period ORV driving increased and that one year of data (Plovers actually did worse in 2009 than 2008, the second year of the current 'ban') was not reliable. Instead, Boyle chose to believe the only "change" was in ORV driving and therefore divined an unprovable and totally non-scientific causal effect where absolutely none exists.

The final set of comments from Boyle, which I placed in bold and italics reveals the judge literally browbeating a scientist in an attempt to get him to agree with the faulty preconceptions the judge holds dear.

God save this honorable court. Or rather, save us from it.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Trader Joe's Wine Review #1 plus a Bonus Merlot

As promised in a prior post, I have rolled out the first of the low price mixed wine case I purchased recently at Trader Joe's in Virginia Beach's Hilltop region. With the exception of one wine, all of the bottles were priced under $4.

The first sampling was an Espiral Vinho Verde from Portugal. Like most Vinho's this was a non-vintage bottling. Vinho's are meant to be drunk quickly, typically within months after bottling. A good Vinho will be light colored, slightly effervescent with firm acidity and fruit flavors--typically described as tart, citrus or pear-like. It is never a good idea to store a Vinho--drink it quickly. This wine is a blend of several grapes from the Vinho Verde region of Portugal. Because of the acidity and spritz the wine is a good pair with raw shellfish and spicy Asian foods such as Thai or sushi. On this night, we paired it with some spicy sushi from Taiko in Nags Head.

The Espiral was very lightly straw colored, almost clear. It possessed more spritz than many Vinho's. Notes were fruity and citrus like. On the palate however, the wine was rather flat in taste and acidity--lacking the punch of, say, Twin Vines (available at Chip's at MP 6 shopping center) that retails for about $9. As a result, I wouldn't recommend pairing it with food.

The wine is about 11% alcohol and can be served cold. With that kind of profile, the wine is perfect for summer sipping out of doors--the low alcohol content works well in hot weather and if you're not looking for a wine to stand up to food, the Espiral is an excellent economical choice. Our verdict--use it for parties, especially in hot weather. A case would run you less than $48. If you want a Vinho Verde to pair with food, I would still stick with Twin Vines--it is cheap and bursting with flavor and possesses a firm backbone.

An Expensive Merlot

We served up some baby back ribs last week using the method where they spend about 2 hours in the oven wrapped in foil & Saran wrap and then about 15 minutes on the grill. I seldom, if ever buy wines that cost more than $25 a bottle. This isn't a money issue per se, its simply that I find expensive wines don't taste "x" amount of dollars better than lesser priced wines. Typically you can find wines rated 88-91 under $20 and for me, I can't really taste a four point difference for a 95 rated wine costing $50.

I'm not sure how I came to own the 2003 Miner Stagecoach Vineyard Merlot, I suspect it was a gift. The wine retails for about $38. Since it was now about seven years old, I decided to pop it open. Merlot's are generally soft reds and we were using a sweeter (Jack Daniels) rather than hot BBQ sauce, so I felt the pairing of Merlot and pork would work.

Not all reds are meant to age, and I suspect this one had peaked already. On the nose there was slight oak and chocolate tones. The tannins were not silky however, more dusty in mouthfeel. Flavors were jammy--cherry and chocolate and dark fruit jam. But the wine was a little flat in the flavor profile, a sign it had probably peaked. I know the wine was sold locally at the Old Firehouse Wine store in Kitty Hawk when it was open, so some locals may still be hanging on to a bottle or two. It's a well balanced wine, but has definitely peaked, so if one is chillin' in your wine storage area, break it out. I suspect when this wine peaked, it was a great red.

As to the price, there are plenty of less expensive Merlot wines that can deliver equivalent flavor and balance. So, even though many wine lovers seek out older vintages, if you happen to come across the vintage on a retail shelf I'd pass based on price and the fact it has peaked.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Cornhole @ the Shrine

No, this is not a picture of the actual event. Due to brotherly vows and other such codes of secrecy, I never take pictures of Shrine related events unless its a parade. But tonight was the long awaited Cornhole tournament at the Dare County Shrine Club, a fundraiser for our ladies companion club, the Shrinettes. (Note to Gloria Steinem--I didn't name this group and I apologize if it perpetuates stereotypes of women).

The best cornholers from Roanoke Island and points beyond (Nags Head, Kitty Hawk, even Currituck) showed up for a sport that, as a kid, we referred to as simply 'beanbag toss". Where and how it came to its current moniker is a mystery, and I hope it remains so.

The game, as played hereabouts, involves teams of two pitted against each other. One player from each side occupies one end of the field, and the object is to toss your beanbag such that it either lands and rests upon the gently sloping board (1 pont) or goes through the hole (3 points). The catch is that the score is netted. Thus, if player A gets one in the hole (3 pts) and player B lands three on the board (1 pt each for 3 total points) the score is net zero and neither teams scores a point. Of course, since players at each end alternate between teams, one can knock the opponents bag off the board, or push one of your already landed bags into the hole. Obviously, you can also screw up and knock your opponents bag into the hole or knock your own bag off the board. The game is played to 21.

The mechanics of the toss vary to the point where each player displays a different method. Some lay the bag flat in the palm and toss "softball" like towards the target board. Others pinch the extra fabric on the top of bag and toss. Some use a looping trajectory similar to a "granny" shot in hoops from the foul line, others use a more flattened trajectory and try to slide the bag into the hole. Some bags spin end over end, some side to side, some tumble not at all.

As is customary among the Masonic brotherhood, no one really took the game seriously and not a soul got mad at his or her partner if they failed to score a point. About 100 pounds of Boston butts were on the grill, paired with beans and cole slaw. The warm weather allowed several cigars to be consumed out of doors, including a nice Cuban Cohiba supplied from an unnamed source. As with all Cuban Cohiba's, it was perfect.

The event was PR'd on Dixie 105.7 and we hope many, many more of you turn out next year.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Death is Easier than Exercise

It all started with a dinner hosted at a neighbor's house in celebration of my wife's completion of radiation treatment. The crab cakes were perfect as was the grilled shrimp wrapped in bacon. And the wine was flowing. When wine flows, I imagine I am still a young guy—able to play football or ride a skateboard. So, when one of the wives present mentioned she taught a cardio course at the Outer Banks Sports Club, one of the other wives thought it would be "fun" if she, her husband and myself joined in. Now I go to the OBSC most days. I do about 30 minutes on the treadmill at 4 mph and a 10-12% incline. I then follow up by using the weight machines for about 30 minutes, although I admit to more socializing than weight work. Even so, my doctor says I could stand to lose 10-15 lbs and I need work on my core. So, fortified by that Aussie red, I said what the heck. A few reminder messages on Facebook sealed the deal.

And then the problems started. First, the class starts at 7:10 AM. Not my hour. To make matter worse, I got home about 11PM the night before after a Shrine Club meeting and didn't fall asleep until well after 1AM. As I walked into the OBSC, the morning darkness has not yet receded in full and the colorful lights of the nearby Dunkin' Donuts called my name. But I went on in. That was my second problem. Always trust your instincts.

The class was composed of about a half dozen women and the two men—myself and my neighbor's husband. As my other neighbor/drill instructor launched the festivities, I knew I was in trouble. First, there was this fast paced dance music. And moves unnatural for a male—bounce, upper cut, upper cut, cross, cross, bounce bounce football dance 180 turn bounce bounce cut, cut, cross, cross and so on for about seven hours. I was already dead, plus I discovered I am mirror dyslexic. I want to do the opposite of what I see there. And this is when I knew I would never be a synchronized swimmer, dancer, or diver. Next we trotted off to the spinning bikes. I forgot to open up the straps on the pedals beforehand. Whoever had the bike before me must be a Leprechaun. Couldn't get the shoes in the straps without half the spin cycle elapsing. I hurt too much to bend down and loosen them. Spinning, by the way, is easy. If you sit on the bike, which is why the manufacturer put a freakin' seat there in the first place. But when you alternate standing and sitting every ten seconds, it's a crime against nature. Plus, it hurts.

Of course, it was back to the floor where we lifted bars over our heads, held them down, and then did heel lifts. Six hundred and twenty times. By the next set of exercises, where we did four push-ups, rotated left and right with one arm outstretched towards the sky, (apparently reaching for that white light in the sky beckoning me), then four more push-ups, another rotating white-light reach (It's getting closer and more beautiful! Where is Jennifer Love-Hewitt when you need her?). I think all in all we did about 12 push-ups that set. I am pretty sure I am right because I took one of several "knees" at this time as I watched these women effortlessly work though the routines. By the next exercise, which involved a stretchy piece of elastics to work something called a lat, all I could think of was a glazed donut, a cup of coffee and maybe a Big Bite at 7-11 later.

By the second or third time on the spinning bikes (I blacked out for about five minutes, but enjoyed the out-of-body experience), my male comrade, who was holding up much better than me muttered "What's the name of this Stalag again?" If my choice is life in Stalag 13 with Hogan and Klink or taking the class twice a week, my vote is leaning towards prison camp. This went on non-stop for a forty full minutes, or three times longer than I participated. Later today, when my neighbors arrived home, I was telling the husband of my experience. "Oh, those girls will kill you, they're animals". Of course, his wife said "You took Cathie's class? They are really good".

So, here are my conclusions. I will no longer tolerate any woman who tells me she doesn't go to the gym because her butt is too big. After being humiliated by a half-dozen women (not terribly younger than me, but I didn't say that), I think you need get over your vanity and embarrass yourself with the rest of us. Next, women are way too healthy. It occurs to me that they will one day take over the world. I bet Nancy Pelosi takes these classes. In fact, I bet these girls are actually training to become an Army of super-soldiers who wear pink and listen to David Gates and Bread in their spare time. Third, there is a reason only two men were in the class. I'm not sure what that reason is, but I know it's important because I was one of only two men in the entire county taking this class. And fourth, I've decided that risking cholesterol overload is not so bad. In fact, it's just God's way of saying 'I'll see you tomorrow! Which is OK, because after today I am sure there are no spinning bikes, body bars and bouncy bouncy boxer stance dances in Heaven.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Nags Head Java Journeys--Part 3-The Front Porch Cafe

There is Dunkin' Donuts at South Beach Plaza. Less than a quarter mile south, on the other side of the road is Morning View, our second newest coffee locale. And now, across the street in the MP 10.5 shopping center (home of the new Food Lion among other cool stores and restaurants) comes the third location of Dare County''s local chain, The Front Porch.

To be precise, the new store is actually a relocation. The Front Porch had a previous Nags Head location in the spot where Morning View now resides. When the Front Porch decided to move north to new digs, former employee Ashley Barnes stayed behind to run her own gig. And, the "Porch" moved on.

The latest version of this store continues to improve upon the initial store in Kill Devil Hills (a mile post 6). When Manteo opened last year, there appeared a large coffee shop with ample seating and entertainment. Now, the Front Porch even has its own house band!

The Nags Head store is divided into two sections. The main lobby offers the service counter, a view to their now-famous roaster, where all the Front Porch coffees are roasted and blended, and ample seating. The second section is all seating, with counters, tables, and relaxing sofas and chairs in the rear. Wi-fi is offered. The retail section of the store is also located here.

A large skylight accentuates the second seating area, decorated with a coffee plantation mural and flags from the world's coffee producing nations.

Paul and Susannah Manning are among many local coffee purveyors from Duck to Ocracoke that have provided ample evidence that local concerns can compete against the mega chains like Starbucks and thrive. Nags Head alone sports three locally based coffee shops, and even the Dunkin' Donuts is a locally owned franchise. Stay tuned for more features on new local businesses (and some revists of previously reviewed sites) as we close in on our summer visitor season!

Co-owner Paul Manning hosts a "cupping" (tasting event) as part of the 2010 Taste of the Beach last week.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

[Cheap] Coastal Living

Some time has passed since I wrote a wine or cigar review. But the time has come, and in the spirit of the new economic realities, I thought I'd give you not only a special set of reviews, but also a preview.

Hampton, Virginia has had the pleasure of hosting a Trader Joe's for some time. Next to Fresh Market and Barnes and Noble, Trader Joe's is one of those things I miss about big cities (until I get into Saturday traffic, that is). And Joe's became famous for introducing Americans to Charles Shaw wines, a/k/a "Two-Buck Chuck". Various varietals of this brand, especially the Cabs, received mid-80 scores from wine experts while sporting a $1.99 and $2.99 price tag. Now, Va. Beach has one at Hilltop, and its right across the street from Fresh Market and Border's (almost as good as B&N) and Baker's Crust....

Alas, Two-Buck is now $3.29 Chuck, but I went ahead and purchased a case of twelve wines, including four versions of "Chuck".An entire case of Joe's wines rung up at just over $50. Most were $3.99 and the most expensive wine in the group was $7.99!

We'll be tasting and reporting over the next few weeks, so stay tuned. And chime in if you've tried these wines.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Things That Bother Me--#1

While driving round trip to Suffolk today, my trusty iPod, set to "shuffle" served up the Kingston Trio cover of the song "M.T.A". Something about that song has always bothered me. At first, I thought it might be the fact that the song's writers (Bess Lomax and Jacqueline Steiner) were leftists. Not your garden variety liberals, but honest-to-goodness "progressives". The original song was actually a campaign ditty for a Boston mayoral candidate, Walter O'Brien, Jr., who ran on the Progressive party ticket. The Kingston Trio, a cautious band politically, changed the name to "George" O'Brien.

As you may recall, the song speaks to a proposed fare increase on the Boston subway from .10 to .15, a 50% increase. Walter O'Brien staked part of his campaign on rolling back that fare increase. One might think, given my adulation for government programs that this is the part that bothered me. But alas, 'tis not the case. In fact, I would fully expect a government subsidized mass transit facility to be so far in hock that it would require a 50% fare increase just to tread [dirty] water in Boston. Can you say Medicare? Medicaid? Public Education? FEMA?

No, it turns out, as I listened to the next to last set of verses that my problem with the song, all these decades, is identified here:

Charlie's wife goes down to the Sculley Square Station every day at quarter past two,
And through the open window she hands Charlie a sandwich as the train comes rumblin' through.

I know Progressive love to distribute food stuffs, but jeez.... give the man a nickel, not a salami and cheese sandwich!

This is why "progressives" never "get it", and the same reasons Obamacare is destined to become the straw that broke some poor camel's back. The solution is simply not that hard. I mean, the song could have been four verses shorter.

I'm just saying....

Sunday, March 7, 2010

DEIS ORV RELEASE-Objects in Mirror May Not Be What They Appear

Art by I.M. Wilde. Caption by Russ Lay & I.M. Wilde

Some blog spots have declared the release of the DRAFT Environmental Impact Study of the ORV driving issue a win-win for everyone. I assume those commenting have read all 800 pages of this release, plotted out the maps of where we can and cannot drive during the course of the year, and read the early press releases from the environmental and pro-ORV driving sites. But, I suspect that's not the case.

I have been wading through this report ever so slowly. On the other hand, the Audubon Society has already released an early opinion, and one is left with the feeling there might be yet another lawsuit in the described on the Audubon site:

The preferred alternative announced today falls short of the U.S. Department of Interior’s own scientists’ recommendations regarding the measures needed to protect wildlife within the national park.

“We look forward to working with the park service to ensure compliance with legal and scientific requirements to guarantee adequate space and protections for pedestrians and wildlife, while still allowing responsible beach driving in some areas, so that all visitors can fully enjoy this national treasure,” said Julie Youngman, senior attorney, Southern Environmental Law Center. “The final rules should improve public access to the beaches for pedestrians and people with disabilities by adding boardwalks, parking spaces and public facilities to enhance visitor enjoyment in balance with wildlife conservation efforts.”

The park service’s preferred plan in today’s proposal sets aside only 16 miles of the 68 miles of seashore year-round as non-ORV areas for pedestrians, families, and wildlife.

Not as pretty as some hope. The bold areas indicate areas of potential concern, especially the last paragraph, which expresses displeasure with the "small" amount of beach banned year-round, the call for adding more boardwalks and pedestrian areas, and the use of the term "some" in regards to ORV access.

So, while this writer thinks the preferred NPS plan is a good one, he will review the report in its entirety first. And, he will wait and see if the S.E.L.C. and their financial backers go back to court or pressure the NPS to fall back to a "non-preferred" alternative. Based on the double talk above, we're not sanguine. Until then, the cartoon at the top of this blog reflects my view...

Saturday, March 6, 2010

TJ Maxx to Open

Never been to one so don't know if its a good, bad or indifferent thing. I suspect jobs will go fast. But here is a picture of workers putting the finishing touches on a new T.J. Maxx store, slated to host their grand opening April 22nd at 8 AM.

The store is located in the old Food Lion location in Nags Head, adjacent to the Staples store.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Big Honking Washers & Dryers

Some time past…many, many months ago in fact, came the time to part with the washer and dryer that had been with us throughout our marriage. Being a member of one of the last generations of American males truly dedicated to the Sears brands of Kenmore and Craftsman, we headed down to the mini-Sears outlet in Nags Head. Confronted with about a zillion models, but haunted by the specter of a headless Al Gore riding through my backyard in the saddle of a Prius, we chose one of those new "Canyon Capacity" washers which are also energy/water efficient.

If you are as yet unfamiliar with these washers, they feature a tub able to hold 1 large comforter, 287 pairs of jeans, or 17 domestic cats (properly tranquilized). Amazingly, the washer claims to clean these huge quantities of clothing whilst using the equivalent of one "double-sized" shot glass of liquid. Of course, we also had to buy a dryer of like capacity in order to properly match the wash load to the drying load.

That's one of those super-large 172 oz. detergent containers....doesn't even rise to the top

Now, as a male, I believe in the power of technology, especially big, hulking American technology. If a washer claims to hold and clean the equivalent of 287 pairs of jeans in one step, I feel it my moral and patriotic duty to put the machine through its paces. To wit--a typical "Russ" laundry day reduced to one step:

Now, I am not inexperienced in the ways of washing. I was single until 29 years of age, and I learned through trial and error most of the pitfalls of laundry. I know for example, that new color clothes, especially of the red or dark blue variety will turn a white tee-shirt to a girlish pink or a hue of blueprint blue if washed together. I am aware that linty clothes of a dark color will leave tiny dark hairs on any light colored clothes washed within the same tub. And, I am painfully aware of the damage done when attention spans allow a stray dark piece of clothing to mix with whites intended for a bleach cycle. I also know this occurs because it's easy to accidentally pick up a colored piece of clothing when scooping 103 pairs of socks in one motion, clutched to the breast and tossed rapidly into the washing machine before a solitary sock escapes gravity—never to be seen again.

Most of all, I know that somewhere exists a maxim which states: If you fill a dryer bin to capacity, no clothes will be presented at the denouement of the drying operation unwrinkled. I know all of this stuff. I also choose to ignore all of this stuff, especially when there sits before me one of the last remnants of American-made "hard goods". Why have a dryer capable of drying 327 polo shirts if, in the end, a mass of wrinkles and static electricity awaits? If the label says "Canyon Capacity", I believe it to be true.

My wife, being female and a CPA, is not swayed by the power of these big machines, nor is she sufficiently scared of Al Gore to utilize the washer to its environmental peak efficiency. Apparently, the only reason to possess a large washer or dryer is for the purpose of washing, on rare occasions, a comforter. And, some of the comforters in our guest rooms have never, I suspect, been introduced to this marvel of domestic engineering and EPA mandates. As a result, while I divide my clothes into one, possibly two loads (I use the two load method only if there are whites in the load not previously marred by mixing with colors, and then, only if I have enough spare time to actually open, measure, and pour the Clorox bleach into its own dispenser, assuming it doesn't accidentally get added to fabric softener dispenser, whatever the hell that's for). And, for the record, a hell of a lot of clothes marked "dry clean only", like Hawaiian shirts, cheap suits, and purebred cats---can be washed. On the other hand, some appear to actually require a trip to a certified professional. How one can determine this upon mere observation is a mystery to me; as a result, I use the "throw it all in and see what comes out" method.

Thus, nary a drop of water is saved as my spouse sorts clothes into colors, whites, khaki-like things, then sub-divided into cottons, synthetics and delicates; further divided into hot, warm, cold and cycles labeled cold-warm and warm-cold. Of course, all of the above excludes required separate loads for linens, towels, rugs and other such nonsense, all of which are dutifully subdivided into the aforementioned sub-categories. When it all comes out in the wash,so to speak, rather than saving untold gallons of water and electricity by pushing the washer and dryer to its crush-depth limits, we end up with a load that looks like this…………..

repeated several….dozen…..times.

We'll talk about ironing next week.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

March Nor'easter

Waves were probably 5-10 ft today, depending on location and time. These were taken around noon at Avalon Pier, which was well past the peak winds of the nor'easter. Last night around 8:30 PM wind speeds were close to 60 mph on Hatteras and in the Pamlico Sound. A recap of the weather is at

As always, click on any image for a much, much larger view....