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Over a bottle of Di Majo Norante Sangiovese Tuscan red wine last night, the chiefs of staff for two Republican Senators, the chief of staff of a Democrat Congressman, and I bantered over the fate of Capitol Hill. The Democrat was crowing over soon-to-be Speaker Pelosi and Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, who could hardly wait to launch impeachment proceedings against President Bush.  The Republicans enjoyed their wine and let him crow.  Then one of them lowered the boom. "Dream all you want," he said, "but on November 7, gas will be way below $2 a gallon and you'll be kissing your majority goodbye."



Ever dream of going on a classic private-tented safari in Africa, to witness the world's greatest wildlife spectacle - the Great Migration of over a million animals across the Serengeti Plains - by day, and enjoy fine wines and gourmet food by a campfire at night with lions coughing in the distance? Ever dream of standing on the sea-ice of the frozen Arctic Ocean right at the North Pole, the very axis of the earth, while the entire planet revolves underneath you and the sun circles around you in constant daylight - and celebrating the moment with Dom Perignon champagne and beluga caviar? Ever dream of going to a place so remote and mysterious that few people have ever heard of it, a place that has been closed to outsiders for years and still needs a special permit to visit, a place tucked into a hidden corner of Asia with Tibetan monasteries, incredibly colorful primitive tribes who have never seen a Westerner, and white-water rafting through jungles full of tigers and cloudy leopards? Ever dream of standing on a glacier at the most scenic spot on planet earth surrounded by mountains over 26,000 feet high including K2 (28,250'), helicoptering to a tiny kingdom inhabited by the world's longest-lived people, driving by jeep track to villages peopled by descendants of the troops of Alexander the Great, then reaching the fabled Khyber Pass securely protected by Afridi tribesmen who have pledged their lives to you? Each one of these dreams can come true for you next year, 2007.



Although I live in Israel, I'm writing this from the American point of view, with the help of Web searches and articles and my cousins.  Here's the bottom line: The privacy of your data may depend on how you connect to the Internet. My cousin is a longtime DSL customer of the ISP now known as AT&T. He's been following with concern the coverage of AT&T's recently revised privacy policy.  The most startling revision to the policy is found under the "Legal Obligations/Fraud" heading: "While your Account Information may be personal to you, these records constitute business records that are owned by AT&T. As such, AT&T may disclose such records to protect its legitimate business interests, safeguard others, or respond to legal process."



His face swathed in bandages, Kassem Shalan had a chilling tale to tell the journalists who gathered around his bedside in the Jebel Amil hospital, where he was being treated for minor shrapnel wounds. As he was loading patients into his ambulance from another in the village of Qana, Lebanon, on July 23, both were attacked by an Israeli Apache helicopter:  "There was a boom, a big fire, and I was thrown backwards," Mr. Shalan told Time magazine. Curiously, he then told Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent for the Australian newspaper, a very different story.  Mr. Shalan said he was driving the ambulance when it was struck by the Israeli missile, and was "spared more serious injuries by the armored vest he was wearing and the driver's canopy that protected him from a direct hit." "He remembers nothing after the flash and bang of the missile then the crunch of the crash as his ambulance veered off the road," Mr. Chulov said then.



This has totally nothing to do with Dan Brown's ridiculous nonsense he made up for The Da Vinci Code.  It has everything to do with the most famous smile in the history of art. Oceans of ink have been wasted on the "mystery" of Mona Lisa's smile - when for anyone familiar with Renaissance culture it was no mystery at all.  Leonardo painted her smile as expressing the essence of the Renaissance, and the painting became famous because it was recognized as such by the participants of that culture. What follows is an explanation of that mystery and essence - and how we can use it to scare and intimidate the hell out of Moslem Jihadis with the Mona Lisa.


Chapter Twenty-Seven: “I SHALL CUT OFF CORTEZ’S EARS!”

The Jade Steps Chapter Twenty-Seven:  "I Shall Cut Off Cortez's Ears!" Over the next several weeks, the Spaniards marveled at how the Mesheeka accepted the loss of their gods.  Perhaps, they surmised, it was because the Mesheeka had been taught by their priests that if the gods were not fed the blood of human hearts, the sun would not rise and the world would collapse into darkness and chaos.  Day after day, week after week, there were no sacrifices and the sun kept rising.  Maybe the priests were wrong.  Maybe the new gods of the strangers were more powerful than the ones of old.  Malinali heard these whispers, and did her best to encourage these thoughts among the Mesheeka. Then one afternoon, a worried Orteguilla came to see Malinali. "Doña Marina, I am afraid Montezuma is plotting something.  He has been having meetings in secret with several of his nobles, which I am not allowed to hear.  He keeps talking about how he must be free of his prison so he can perform the ceremonies of Tlacaxipeualiztli (tlah-kashee-pay-ooh-ah-leesh-tlee).  What does this mean?" "It means the Aztec month of Tlacaxipeualiztli is about to begin.  Sacrifices must be made to the god Xipe so plants will grow.  Montezuma and the highest nobles must impersonate the gods in a sacred dance wearing a particular costume." She paused, sighed, and put her hand gently on the young boy's.  "Thank you, Orteguilla, for coming to me and telling me of this.  The costume Montezuma and the nobles wear for the dance is made of human skins, flayed from the bodies of captives.  Tlacaxipeualiztli means The Flaying of Men."



We've all heard the expression "Out of the frying pan and into the fire," to go from bad to worse than bad.  The question of the moment in America is:  Will that be what voters do on November 7? Congress's summer recess ended this week, with Congressistas, Senatorials, and their staffers flooding back into town.  The mood on Capitol Hill is not upbeat. The Pubbies know what a lousy job they've done, the Demmies terrified the voters will figure out they are a lousy alternative.  That's why the electorate is in such a lousy mood:  Let's see, frying pan or fire? An example of how demoralized conservative Republicans are in Congress was the shouting match that took place this morning during the GOP Caucus, a weekly meeting of all Republicans in Congress.



[Tibor Machan and I have been friends for almost 40 years.  I remember when he taught at Cal-State - and reminded him, when I read his column, that back then I had a bumper sticker on my car that simply said:  CommUNism.] In 1972, I was not rehired at the Department of Philosophy of the California State University, Bakersfield, even though I fulfilled the requirement of finishing my dissertation and obtaining my PhD to be reappointed. I was mystified - I had a good publication record, my teaching went quite well as a beginner. So what was up? I had a friend in the office. She checked out the secret records they could still keep on people back then and learned that those records contained something totally irrelevant to my qualifications. I had written a letter to the editor of the local paper, The Bakersfield Californian, in which I argued that the United Nations is mostly a coercive international organization that lacks any moral or even political legitimacy.



Assume you are a mid-level bureaucrat in a government regulatory agency, and you know your pay and title depend on how many regulations you are responsible for administering, and the number of people who work for you. Do you think you would push for more or fewer regulations? Assume you are a corporate regulatory compliance officer, and again you know your pay depends in part upon the number of regulations you must comply with, and the number of people who work for you. Would you tend to favor a world with more or fewer regulations? Or, assume you are an elected politician, and a major scandal occurs because a financial manager has embezzled funds. Are you more likely to get coverage on the TV news if you say, "We already have laws against theft, and the authorities will take care of it," or if you say, "We need more regulations to stop greedy financiers"?



Why isn't the world afraid of Jews With Nukes?  It's terrified of the prospect of Mullahs With Nukes - but Israel already possess hundreds of nukes and no one freaks out about it. Least afraid are the Mullahs of Iran and their leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinutjob, who glories in threatening to wipe Israel "off the face of the earth" and arming its enemies like Hezbollah. The reason they are not afraid and the world is not worried about Jews With Nukes is what philosopher Ayn Rand called The Sanction of the Victim. She defined this as "the willingness of the good to suffer at the hands of evil." In other words, Ahmadinutjob is using the moral decency of Israel as a weapon against it.  He is betting his country's existence that Jews are too virtuous to do to him what he most desires to do to them.  He expects them to be sacrificial victims doomed by their own virtues. It is now being argued in Israeli halls of power that his assumption should be a fatal mistake.  Atlas may be about to shrug in Jerusalem.