Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Microsoft vs. the leap second

You may have already heard the news but 2008 is going to be slightly longer than you might have expected, one second longer to be exact. To account for the gradually slowing rotation of the Earth, scientists occasionally tack on an additional "leap second" to bring atomic clocks and other time pieces in line with the slow-down. While largely unnoticed by we fallible humans, there is always the chance that the leap second would prove the adage, "To err is human, to really screw things up you need a computer."

It looks like we might be seeing evidence of this. Microsoft's Zune players are crashing as we get closer to midnight on New Year's Eve and you just have to wonder if they are falling prey to the leap second in the same way that Y2K was supposed to wreak havoc among computers in general. While Silicon Alley confirms that Apple systems are good to go for the leap second, they also point out that Microsoft's position is, well, largely unintelligible. Go figure.

Of course, it's also more proof that the writers on "Chuck" truly have their fingers on the pulse of geek chic.

The Senate now recognizes the Ego from Illinois

I know nothing about Roland Burris, who has been appointed by The Hair from Illinois to succeed Barack Obama as senator. However, I don't have a good feeling about this man's view of himself and his place in the world following this posting by Patrick O'Connor at Politico's The Crypt.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Curse of the M

My recent posting on the Detroit Lions' historically bad year led to two comments from the M-i-L (mother-in-law):

December 29, 2008 3:53 PM: My advice to the Lions, going forward, is to avoid hiring any GM or coach whose last name begins with the letter M. Skeptical? Let's take a nostalgic look back at Millen, Morninweg, Mariucci, Marinelli, etc. See what I mean? So no more M is for Misery, please.

December 30, 2008 5:33 PM: Can you believe it? The new Lions' GM is . . . MARTIN MAYHEW!! And the curse of the M continues. Noooo!!!

Maybe Mr. Mayhew will be smart and consider hiring Mike Shanahan now that he's been fired by the Broncos. I wonder...would Shanahan's first name be enough to trigger The Curse of the M?

One President at a time

In today's The Nation, Robert Dreyfuss takes Barack Obama to task for not stepping up and doing more to address the renewed violence between Hamas and Israel. I'm going to pass on commenting on his assessment of the actual situation in the Middle East (the virulent comments left by other readers at the end of the article flog the topic to death) but I am not entirely sure why Obama is seen as shirking his responsibilities here. After all, he technically has absolutely no authority.

Unfortunately, George "Vanishing Act" Bush isn't doing much himself so there's a power vacuum unless something is going on through the State Department that we don't know about yet. However, unless someone wants to change the rules and move up the Inauguration date, Obama a) can't actually do anything until January 20th and b) runs the risk of offering mixed messages if he says something that is contradictory to the current State Department efforts.

Something for next year's Christmas stocking

Why didn't anyone tell me about this site prior to making out my Christmas list?

Monday, December 29, 2008

And from the wilds of Alaska, another shall rise

Sarah Palin's daughter Bristol has given birth to a healthy baby boy. Continuing the Palin naming tradition (Track, Trig, Bristol, Ski-Doo, etc.), he's named Tripp. Personally, I think "Tripp" pales in comparison to some of the suggestions from members of the public but what do I know?

Are you literate?

The 2008 America's Most Literate Cities rankings have been released. Seattle and Minneapolis tie for first with St. Paul ranked fourth (having lived in the Twin Cities for 5 years, I have no trouble believing those rankings) while Rhode Island's cities aren't anywhere to be found. Actually, we don't qualify anyway -- the survey is limited to cities with populations in excess of 250,000 while Providence tops out at only 172,000. Hell, the entire state barely crosses the 1 million mark.

The study, by Central Connecticut State University President Dr. John W. Miller, ranks the top 50 cities in the nation based on:
  • newspaper circulation
  • number of bookstores
  • library resources
  • periodical publishing resources
  • educational attainment, and
  • Internet resources
Hmmm...OK, if Providence or even Rhode Island as a whole did qualify, would we have had a shot of getting on this list? Between my wife and I, we read enough books and news, patronize enough bookstores, and listen to enough NPR to carry some portion of the state into at least the #50 spot all by ourselves if there were enough people around to qualify! Seriously, I know we're not a big state but Providence alone is home to multiple colleges and universities (Brown, RI School of Design, RI College, Providence College, Johnson & Wales, etc.) plus others throughout the state. and we've got some smart people here in the Ocean State.

Nevertheless, I can see where we might fall down here in Little Rhody. Newspaper circulation sucks because our local paper has sadly become smaller and less capable, now little more than a collection of articles from other papers and wire services and not even complete articles at that (NY Times articles picked up by the Providence Journal are routinely chopped off to save column inches and I'm pretty sure that words are removed from the middle of some sentences). We canceled our ProJo subscription because we could get better, more complete, and more timely news from other news sources on the Internet or through our subscription to the Sunday New York Times.

We also don't have any major publishing houses here in Rhode Island though there are some outstanding small press publishers like Burning Deck Press in Providence while along the shore, Newport and Middletown are understandably home to a number of major international sailing and boating publications. Bookstores are also tough. Barnes & Noble and Borders have made their presence known to the detriment of some longtime local booksellers (RIP College Hill Bookstore) though thankfully some, like the outstanding and wonderful Island Books in Middletown have survived the big box bookstore onslaught and hopefully will continue to do so for a long time to come.

On the educational side of things, we're in pretty good shape. We're slightly below the national average for high school graduates (82.7% vs 84%) but make up the difference with a 2.4% bump in Bachelor's degrees or higher (29.4% vs 27%). Of course, Minnesota kicks our butt all over the place in these areas but at least we've still got bragging rights over Mississippi.

So, all things considered, we might have a shot if the qualifications were ever altered to allow us to compete. In the meantime, we're going to do all we can here at my house to get in shape for that competition. Bananagrams anyone?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Of course, it could be worse.

And the new winners of the worst team in NFL History...

your 0-16 Detroit Lions!

Ugh. The people of Detroit deserve better. If former general manager Matt Millen hadn't been fired earlier this year, he'd probably turn up inside the crushed hulk of a Hummer somewhere.

Missed it by that much

Kudos to the New England Patriots who, despite losing all-universe quarterback Tom Brady 7 minutes into the season and a number of other key starters over the course of the season, still finished with a sterling record of 11-5. Matt Cassel stepped up along with the rest of the team, Bill Belichick and his coaching staff stepped it up a notch, and the Pats finished the season as perhaps one of the top 4 teams in the league.

Sadly, 11-5 wasn't quite good enough to make the playoffs in the face of the resurrected Dolphins (1-15 to 12-4 in one season? Are you kidding me?) and a pathetic New York Jets team that rolled over and died in the final weeks of the season, led into ignominy by Brett Favre (2 TDs, 9 INTs in the final 5 games). It's just too bad that the playoff setup allows an awful team like the 8-8 San Diego Chargers (assuming they hold their 38-13 lead over Denver) to get into the post-season simply because they happen to play in a miserable division.

Regardless, well done Patriots! You deserved (and earned) better. See you next season!

The iPhone now at low low prices (well, not really)

As an Apple fanatic, I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the announcement that Wal-Mart begins selling the iPhone today. First, there's no real discount (only $2 lower than regular MSRP) even given Wal-Mart's mammoth buying and selling power and, secondly, it just seems like an odd venue for an Apple product.

In general, Apple products just don't seem to fit the business profile or buyer demographic for Wal-Mart. However, I realize that I'm coming at this from the perspective of a life-long Apple Computer user and, as was made clear a year ago, Apple is no longer simply a "computer" company. The name change made complete sense, of course, given Apple's expansion beyond the box historically labelled the "personal computer" and opened up a host of new opportunities and sales venues.

Apple is out to become the #1 maker of smart phones and Wal-Mart can certainly move more product than anyone else. Plus, from Apple's point of view, Wal-Mart and the iPhone might be something of a gateway drug -- get someone who wouldn't normally consider an Apple product to buy an iPhone and they'll be more inclined to stick with Apple for other products in the future. Of course, Wal-Mart also sells iPods so it's not such a huge stretch I guess. Besides, if you can get your product into the world's largest retailer without giving up your shirt (or soul) or without concerning yourself about how Wal-Mart keeps those prices so low, what company wouldn't want to do that? As an Apple purist, though, I just wonder about the cost.

Send one to get one

We're sporadic holiday card mailers. In fact, we rarely send cards, preferring instead to send the occasional letter complete with a photo or two every other year or so and usually written from the perspective of one of our cats (I think my father is right...we are a touch obsessed with the feline contingent here at home). We, of course, also enjoy receiving holiday cards as most people do and, upon receipt, they get taped to the door in our living room to add to the festive spirit while showing off how many people have us on their holiday list.

The trick is that you need to send cards to get cards. If you fail to send one for a year or two, you gradually begin to fall off the mailing lists of those who wrote to you in the past. And so this year, even as we wrote and prepared this year's card (an Apple card created through iPhoto...just a little unpaid product plug there), the incoming mail seemed a bit less robust than in prior years and we had to flesh out the wall of cards with the cards I received from co-workers so our "wall o' cards" wouldn't look so empty. It was clear that we'd crossed over into the "hmmm...we haven't heard from them in a while so I guess we don't need to write this year" zone, which applies not only to holiday cards but just friendly communications in general. It's remarkably easy to fall out of touch and just be in your own world. (On the other hand, maybe fewer people are sending Christmas cards in general.)

Anyhow, this round of holiday cards is step 1 in our new plan to have more of a social life and to not fall out of touch with people. We've already heard from a few people who clearly responded to our card (thanks, guys! it was great hearing from you) and we are now actively trying to find some other addresses for people who aren't where we thought they were. Hopefully we haven't lost track of them forever. You'd think that with the power of the Internet at your fingertips -- Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, online white pages, etc. -- that you can usually find someone but for the moment, a few people seem to have vanished. Still, I haven't given up hope. Besides, taking the time and putting in the effort to find these friends again is a worthwhile penance for my having fallen out of touch with them in the first place.

Fun in the snow

You can put your speakers on mute if you wish but it's definitely worth watching this dog have way too much fun.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

TV Review: A masterpiece of pop references

God bless the DVR.

We just finished watching last week's episode of one of our favorite shows, Chuck (in the spirit of the holidays, it was an episode titled "Chuck vs. the Santa Claus"). Cementing its place as the finest current example of geek humor around, this episode was even more chock full of laugh out loud pop nuggets than usual, if you're in on the jokes. Among the gems...
  • an homage to an incidental yet memorable character in the brilliant Bill Murray film, "Groundhog Day", as the man who takes the Buy More staff hostage is named Nathan Edward Rhyerson ("My friends call me Ned")
  • a multitude of "Die Hard" gags, right down to the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth, an appearance by Reginald VelJohnson reprising his role as Sgt. Al Powell (apparently a cousin to Big Mike, the Buy More's manager), and the eating of Twinkies
  • a tip of the cap to Police Academy's Lt. Mauser
  • the dangerous version of "Jingle Bells" from the original Lethal Weapon
All it was missing was a cameo by Bruce Willis or Bonnie Bedelia. Chuck, the gift that keeps on giving!

Was that a loafer?

In case you were wondering if the Internet was good for anything besides blogs, porn, and videos of cute kittens, the answer is finally here.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Giants Delight

As a long-time fan of the New York Giants, I just find myself tickled at the latest goings-on down in Irving, Texas, where the disfunctional Dallas Cowboys appear to be just one jar of barbeque sauce away from eating their own young. You have to feel for the fans of this once-proud franchise now suffering through yet another year of mediocrity. But don't take my word for it. Read Randy Galloway's commentary in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to get it from someone who has been watching the last decade plus of pathetic play.

Of course, it could be worse for Dallas fans. They could be living in Detroit.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Home in time for Christmas

I'll be home for Christmas
You can plan on me
Please have some snow and mistletoe
And presents on the tree

Christmas Eve will find me
Where the love light gleams
I'll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams

– "I'll be home for Christmas" as sung by Bing Crosby in 1943

Another year is coming to a close and with it comes another Christmas for the men and women serving in the U.S. armed forces to be away from home, hearth, and families during the holidays.

I found myself thinking about this over the weekend as a result of two things. First, my wife and I took part in an annual ritual (it usually takes place during a snowstorm): firing up the DVD player and watching "Band of Brothers", the stunning HBO mini-series that follows Easy Company of the 101st Airborne from the D-Day landings in Normandy to the invasion of Germany. Far and away the finest mini-series I've ever seen and quite possibly one of my favorite pieces of film-making ever, it never gets old thanks to a talented cast led by Damian Lewis (now of NBC's "Life") and Ron Livingston ("Office Space") and outstanding production values but most of all because it's a tremendously compelling story based on the lives and actions of young men from across the United States. You come to care about them as they live and die and sacrifice themselves for each other.

Watching "Band of Brothers" always reminds me of my grandfather, who joined the Navy at the age of 17 in 1943, around the same time and age as many of the men in Easy Company. He served as quartermaster of the light cruiser U.S.S. Montpelier throughout the remainder of the Pacific War. The tale of the Mighty Monty and its combat service are told in James Fahey's remarkable "Pacific War Diary", his first-hand account of life aboard a cruiser in wartime. While the book was required reading of a sort in my family, I also grew up listening to my grandfather's stories of life on a warship and his travels throughout the Pacific, including participating in the initial occupation of Japan. He didn't tell them often but when he did, it was fascinating and his stories have lingered. I even have a framed picture of the Montpelier that used to be his hanging on the wall by my desk at home to remind me of him.

At Christmas time though, I usually find myself thinking not of his time on the Montpelier but instead of a letter that he saved from his time at sea. I discovered it among his files while conducting researching for his biography, a project my grandmother asked me to take on when his health and memory began to fail as the early stages of Alzheimer's cruelly began to take bits and pieces of him away from us.

Written by my great-grandfather on December 27, 1943, the letter brings my grandfather up to date on life at home during the holidays and a Christmas spent without him. I wonder what that 18-year old young man thought and felt, gone for the first time and half a world away, as he read about the turkey dinner and how his father received "a nice new bathrobe, 1 pair stockings, one tie, 2 cartons of cigarettes and a pair of slippers which I need very much". With Christmas 1943 gone past, did the crew dream of ending the war quickly and being home in time for the next Christmas? I regret never asking him.

In the movies and in history books, ending the conflict and returning home for Christmas always seems to be the wish of the men and women who serve. Sadly, it never seems to work out that way, regardless of the conflict. We are left hoping for loved ones' safe return, wondering when we'll see them again, and staring at an empty stocking on the hearth or an empty seat at the holiday dinner.

And so, with the holiday season upon us, I hope you will take a few minutes to give thanks for the loved ones who will be with you for the holidays. Reach out to a family with loved ones serving far from home and let them know that their sacrifice is appreciated. Thank a veteran for all he or she did on behalf of you and your country. And be sure to make your loved ones, even those no longer with you, part of Christmas, if only in your dreams.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Now that's the Christmas spirit!

A heartwarming holiday tale of tolerance and charity towards others this is not...

From the Associated Press:

The sponsors of Proposition 8 asked the California Supreme Court on Friday to nullify the marriages of the estimated 18,000 same-sex couples who exchanged vows before voters approved the ballot initiative that outlawed gay unions.

The Yes on 8 campaign filed a brief arguing that because the new law holds that only marriages between a man and a woman are recognized or valid in California, the state can no longer recognize the existing same-sex unions. The document reveals for the first time that opponents of same-sex marriage will fight in court to undo those unions that already exist.

Now that's the way to go into the holiday season -- not only manage to get discrimination written into the California Constitution but then also try to strip away the happiness felt by 18,000 couples who married absolutely legally. Ugh.

Kick Line

When I was 13 or 14, I went on a bus trip to New York with my scoutmaster and saw the Rockette's Christmas spectacular and living nativity and there's no doubt that those synchronized leg kicks are impressive. What's more impressive is the absolutely grueling physical toll placed on the dancers (1,500 kicks in a 5-show day). Seeing the billboard and all of the other Rockettes advertising reminded me of a 2005 NY Times feature that looked at a day in the life of a Rockette during the holiday season..

Reestablishing Communications

It's common wisdom in the radio industry that the absolute worst thing is dead air...that silence that leave listeners wondering if your radio station is actually still broadcasting or if a giant monkey climbed up and pulled down your broadcast antennas. The same applies in a fashion to blogs. I just finished reading an excellent set of tips on how to be a better blog written by Farhad Manjoo and published on and the very first tip was to set a schedule and blog often. Ooops...I fell down on that one this week as I was swamped at work to start the week and then attended a 3-day seminar in Manhattan for the latter portion of the week. Now however, I'm home and figure I'll rattle off some quick thoughts to get back on track.

On television, the Christmas tree and skating rink in Rockefeller Center always look larger than they seem in real life. Or maybe they really are very big but there are so many people there in the evenings looking at the decorations that it feels very cramped.

In either case, the tree and the skating rink really are fun to see during the Christmas season.

In fact, the city itself just seems even more fun to visit at the holiday season. I was staying on a hotel at the northern end of the Times Square area (W52nd and Broadway) and from my window, I could see down into the heart of Times Square, which seems even more lit up than usual, as well as the vertical lit sign for Radio City Music Hall, not to mention a giant Rockettes Christmas spectacular billboard, all of which added to the festive look of the place.

Walking throughout Times Square, over to Radio City (and the cattle pens of people waiting to get into see one of the aforementioned showings of Rockettes dressed as toy soldiers), to 30 Rock and back actually made for a pleasant evening. If you're not trying to get anywhere fast or hauling luggage, you have time to people-watch, window shop, and just soak in the atmosphere.

I became a fan of Cosí Deli while in New York. Steered there on the recommendation of the seminar leader, I had two outstanding lunches during my stay. The big benefit? Fresh-baked, really fantastic flatbread. You watch the bakers pulled the flatbread out of the open ovens, slice the hot bread up, hand it off to the folks making the sandwiches, at get your lunch on fresh-baked bread moments later. Personally, I'm a fan of the Chicken MBT (grilled chicken with fresh tomato, basil, and buffalo mozzerella, and house vinagrette). They also had a large salad selection and flatbread pizzas. I'd never heard of this chain before but they're apparently expanding so if you're in the neighborhood of one in the future, I highly recommend it.

I took the Acela to and from Manhattan this week and, given an option, it's my preferred means of getting from Rhode Island to NYC and back. Acela, Amtrak's high-speed rail service offers most things you would hope an airline flight would provide -- comfortable seats, plenty of legroom, quiet, smooth, easy boarding and exiting, electrical outlets so you can plug in a laptop if need be, and the opportunity to avoid the occasionally miserable traffic you encounter along stretches of I-95 from the New York/Connecticut line through New Haven.

Sadly, what the Acela doesn't do is offer a great savings in time. Despite the fact that the Acela is rated to reach speeds of 200+ mph, the trip from Penn Station to Providence is roughly 3 hours on the Acela and 3:45 or so on the regular commuter rail, with much of the difference coming from the frequent stops made by the older trains. Why? Because the Acela is running on the same tracks as those slower commuter train through the heavily congested Northeast Corridor. Coming home this evening took an additional 30 minutes for exactly this reason...we essentially caught up with a local train and got stuck behind it.

What I'd love to see is the equivalent of the Acela from Boston or NYC to Chicago and then to the West Coast. One of my favorite movies is North By Northwest and I was always fascinated by Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint traveling across sections of the country by train. Someday, when money and time are no object, I'd love to do that, seeing the country by train, perhaps east to west across Canada. Sure it would take longer but unlike a jet, you'd actually feel like you've traveled from one place to another. With a jet, you only see "flyover country".

The snow was socked in by the time I returned home tonight. Leaving Manhattan, it was just a heavy blattering rain but by the time we entered Connecticut, there was plenty of snow on the ground resulting in a very long drive home from the train station. However, because the weather might not be good this weekend, it will be the perfect time to catch up on writing our holiday cards and more while the cats do their best to interrupt.'s good to be home.

Monday, December 15, 2008

We're Number One! Pssst...just slide the envelope of cash under the door

In the wake of the Rod Blagojevich scandal, all eyes seem to be turning to state corruption in general. Based on an article in the Sunday New York Times' Week in Review section, those of us in the Ocean State can hold our heads up proudly as Little Rhody came up big. In a survey of statehouse reporters nationwide, The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations was voted the #1 most corrupt state in this great nation of ours, just edging out Louisiana. Plus, we still kick butt with the longest name of any of the 50 states! Woo hoo! Go us!

Of course, Rhode Island is only in the middle of the pack when it comes to the actual number of convictions of public officials in the last 10 years, both in total numbers as well as on a per capita basis.

But stay positive, fellow Rhode Islanders! I don't look at this as a failing on our part, merely as evidence that our public officials are better at not getting caught and convicted than less capable politicians in other states.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Good Day

It was a good day today. The sun was out, it was crisp and cool but not uncomfortably cold, and our tree trim was a success in every way. Usually, there is some sort of drama -- lights won't work, I buy a tree that's too tall (that one seems to happen a lot, leaving my wife shaking her head and laughing at me), it's a hassle getting the tree home, the tree ends up a bit crooked, etc. -- but today, not a bit. I did have to do a bit of searching for the right tree, of course. The first two places I went just didn't have anything suitable but the third was perfect. I walked in among the trees, saw one that stood out, took a look at it, and realized it was exactly what I was looking for. And as a bonus, this local farmstand and market had great prices and a fantastic little store with great fresh produce, homebaked pies, and other appetizing items.

In past years, getting the tree home involved a blanket on the roof, opening the doors, and running rope or twine through the car (and yes, on more than one occasion I forgot to open the doors and ended up tying the doors shut). Not this year. Prior to our vacation to Maine this August, I invested in removable Thule roof racks for our bikes. So I threw them on this morning, making tying down the tree a snap.

After driving home, the tree went into the stand and up in the living room. Perfectly straight the first time! That's never happened before. And every old string of lights worked just fine. What the hell's up with that?

We listened to our Frank Sinatra-Bing Crosby and the Glenn Miller Christmas CDs as we decorated the tree with ornaments old and new (including this year's additions -- it's a tradition in our house to get each other an ornament as a gift for tree trim every year). The Red Sox 2004 Champions ornament found a place of honor while the New England Patriots and New York Giants globes were diplomatically placed on opposite sides of the tree. Up went the caroling lobstahs, the fat glass reindeer, the antique ornament from Poland, a multitude of lighthouses, the handmade ornaments from my grandmother, the cheerleading moose and reindeer, and the green glass pickle. All of the treasures that had been carefully wrapped and boxed last January and put away safely until this evening.

90 minutes later, the tree was decorated, the boxes and tissue paper were packed away, the lamps were turned off, and I turned on the lights on the tree.

"We are the Borg. Happy holidays. Resistance is futile," declared the Borg Cube located about a quarter of the way up from the floor.

"I wish you a most honorable holiday. Ka-plagh!" chimed in Commander Worf from the Runabout Rio Grande from the other side of the tree.

We sat there on the couch, the only illumination coming from the tree and the icicle lights in the bay window while all three cats desperately sought our attention or simply some reassurance that the temporary chaos was over, which indeed it was. Then, a short time later, ZuZu ended the evening (and the DVD) by reminding us all that every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.

And with that, the holiday season really did get kicked off in our household. Happy early holidays, everyone!

My gift ornament this year. The sailing theme is pretty big on our tree.

The gift ornament I gave my wife. Sadly, Wall-E's lights don't actually light up but he's fun to have on the tree anyway.

What might just be our most perfect Christmas tree ever.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Protecting my own backyard

This is just a quick follow-up to my earlier post about Republican senators vs. the auto unions. posted a very interesting article today on that fact that the Republican senators who nuked the $14 billion bailout were not only looking to bust or at least significantly break the unions, they were also playing protectionist games for their own states' benefit.

Tempting frustration is the price of being a geek

When I was a kid, we had these big incandescent colored lightbulbs on the Christmas tree that always seemed a hairs-breadth away from turning it into a vertical yule log sans fireplace. If one burned out, you unscrewed it and then screwed in another. We even had fake candles that were bulbs hidden in the base with a liquid-filled glass "candle" above -- turn on the lights and watch the candle boil! Only one step beyond having actual lit candles on the tree, it's a wonder that whole neighborhoods didn't go up in smoke as the Christmas season rolled around.

Then we moved to the little bulbs -- safer, cheaper, and oh so much more frustrating. However, I figure if I can reuse them, then I minimize, at least by a little bit, how much goes into a landfill plus I save the $8-$10 that it will cost to buy a few hundred new lights. More importantly, I know that last year's string of lights works with the various ornaments we have that plug into the sockets and light up themselves. So I end up tempting fate twice...deliberately unplugging bulbs from the "never go out string" so I can plug in ornaments with flashing lights and, if I have to get new lights, never being 100% sure the bulb sockets on the new string will fit the ornaments I'm trying to plug into it in the first place. Such is the price one must pay if you're going to have a Christmas tree decorated by the U.S.S. Enterprise.

Additional compelling evidence that I'm a's the Enterprise-E hanging from last year's Christmas tree! When we get around to decorating the Christmas tree tomorrow, it will be joined by the Enterprise-D, a Borg cube, a Romulan Warbird, a Federation shuttlecraft (complete with Christmas greeting from Leonard Nimoy...yes, I know he's Jewish; you can discuss it with Hallmark), a Klingon bird-of-prey, Deep Space Nine, the U.S.S. Defiant, and, just for variety, an X-Wing and TIE Fighter from Star Wars.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Payback's a bitch

I found Daniel Howes' column on Friday to be a fascinating look at the vindictive dynamic between Republican lawmakers and the unions that drove the collapse of the auto bailout, at least as seen from the perspective of Detroit.

What do you mean you're not going to pay me $120 million?

Poor Manny Ramirez...apparently he's so insulted by his lack of suitors and the sole 2-year, $45 million contract that he's been offered that he's considering retiring.

I just don't understand why no one is willing to give in to his agent's demands for a 6- to 8-year contract at $20 million or more per year. After all, who wouldn't want a 36-year old slugger who is only adequate in left field, is so spoiled he pushed a 61-year old man to the ground when his last-minute and excessive ticket request couldn't be honored, who clearly let himself be struck out by Mariano Riviera on 3 pitches in a fit of pique when the Red Sox called his bluff about a leg injury (he couldn't remember which leg was supposed to be hurt, by the way), and who blatantly quit on his teammates in a transparent attempt to get traded so he could try for another monster payday?

Girding for battle

This weekend is tree trim around our house. I'll go out, find a suitable evergreen, bring it home, and we'll have a relaxing afternoon and evening rediscovering the ornaments we put away so carefully 48 weeks before. Of course, before that can happen, I get to string the tree with lights. I make an effort to try and reuse the lights from the year before but as Tom Bodett so ably explains, sometimes that's not always the best option.

More on the trimming of the tree later...

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Nice clean Sox

I'm a Red Sox fan through and through, always have been, always will be. But really, are they so strapped for cash to hire free agent Mark Teixeira that they have to stoop to rolling out a "new" logo and away jerseys in an effort to sell more merchandise? I saw the news about the new "Hanging Sox" logo and spent a little while looking at it trying to figure out what was different. Hadn't they always had a secondary logo of the two red socks with the white heel and toe?

Then I read the following:

"Certainly the 'Hanging Sox' has an iconic value that transcends anything else in our assortment of brands and logos," Red Sox chief operating officer Mike Dee said of the new logo, originally unveiled on uniforms in 1931. "To have it be defined and standing alone is certainly the right thing to do."

So let me get this straight...

You are rolling out a logo that was actually unveiled during the Great Depression (ok, can anyone else see the irony here?) and calling it new because it's not on the image of a baseball anymore?

And you want us to buy new team merchandise to display it?

I thought this type of logo change for fundraising purposes was left to teams that weren't rolling in cash (aka the Tampa Bay "Not Devil" Rays) or teams in serious need of a personality change (the Patriots switching from Pat Patriot to the Flying Elvis logo). I didn't think I'd see the Red Sox resort to this and expect anyone to seriously consider it news.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

If you can't trust your plumber...

A conversation overheard tonight in the McCain household:

"Sweetie pie?"

"Yes, Cindy dear?"

"There seems to be something stuck in your back, pookie muffin."

"Really, sugar lips?"

"Most definitely, you hunk of sexy man."

"What is it, light of my life?"

" looks like a toilet plunger, lover boy."

" looks like my buddy Joe left something behind. I was wondering what that sharp stabbing pain was!"

Monday, December 8, 2008

Yeah, but if one bulb burns out, do they all go out?

Every year, we set up our Christmas tree, maybe some icicle lights in the windows, perhaps even Christmas lights in our kitchen and a little fake tree in our home office. Even so, I always feel a bit inadequate next to our neighbors who have their porch decked in lights, the white lighted reindeer family in the yard, etc. However, I think we should all bow down before the obsessives who created this Christmas display synchronized to the holiday strains of Jethro Tull, among others:

According to the Steel City Christmas website:
  • There are more than 200,000 lights connected to more than 5 1/2 miles of extension cord.
  • It took over 3 months to put up the lights.
  • There are 27 inflatables around the yard along with 112 computer controlled channels.
  • This year's show runs for about an hour featuring 13 songs.
  • Each song takes between 10 to 50 hours to sequence.
And best of all, the creators are using their display as an opportunity to collect donations for the Children's Hospital Research Center in Pittsburgh.

Thanks to Jay McDonough at the excellent Swimming Freestyle blog for pointing this out.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sadly, this is better than the movie it's spoofing


We had our first snowfall here in Bristol this morning with big heavy flakes actually managing to accumulate a bit before slowly turning to slush as the day warmed up a bit. Maybe it's just the kid in me but I do get a certain amount of joy and excitement when I see that first snowfall. Of course, during my last winter living in Minnesota many years ago, we had 30 inches of snow fall on October 30-31. It takes a bit of the romanticism out of it when you have to dig your car out of that.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Putting the No-Spin Zone on "Ignore"

Henrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker tells a fascinating story on his blog about how Bill O'Reilly and his producers tried to get Hertzberg and the New Yorker editorial staff embroiled in a non-controversy after ambushing Hertzberg outside his apartment. What's wonderful is how Hertzberg and David Remnick, the New Yorker's editor, simply chose not to engage following that ambush.

What's even better is the growing desperation on the part of O'Reilly's producer in his e-mails to Remnick, almost pleading for Remnick and Hertzberg to get riled up, followed by the smooth put-down by Remnick. You could just about see the smile that must have been on his face when he press the Send button. O'Reilly must have been chewing on the scenery at being ignored like that. That, ladies and gentlemen, is why I'm such a fan of the New Yorker.

Barrel of fun

I never cease to be amazed at how random thoughts trigger a progression of ideas that leads to someplace completely unexpected. When we're driving somewhere, my wife will occasionally ask me "What are you thinking?" and I'll usually say, "Nothing, just driving" because the actual answer, while it makes perfect sense if you follow the step A to B to C sequence until you get to what I'm thinking about (usually well down the line at Step Q), is just totally weird.

I recently read a fascinating article in the New Yorker about Bob Kramer, a Master Bladesmith who works exclusively on the creation of absolutely amazing kitchen knives. As it happens, we ended up talking about this article last night at dinner as five members of my family gathered for dinner at a local restaurant to celebrate my grandmother's 93rd birthday (happy birthday, Babci!). Anyhow, I woke up thinking about these knives for some reason which sent me off the the races and I ended up remembering something that had been long tucked away in the dusty recesses of my head.

So here we go, bear with me...

I'm thinking about these Kramer knives. Does he make them the same was as they used to make swords? Probably not because the metal in a truly high quality sword would be folded hundreds of time within the blade. But what if the sword blade wasn't folded like that? Not every sword had that level of craftsmanship. Did someone ever just hammer out a pointed piece of metal and call it a sword? But would it be strong? I imagine it would just be a long, pointy metal club of sorts with chips and dents in the edges. Hey, where do I remember seeing something like that...a sword with a no edge and a grey hilt. Wait a minute, I think I might have played with something like that as a kid (get over it...I'm almost 40 and grew up in a time with wood burning kits, candy cigarette, no seatbelts, and lawn's a wonder any of us survived). I remember having sword fights with friends but the swords were really heavy and dented and could bend easily. In fact, I think they might have been mine. I have no idea where they came. I used to keep them in that metal can in my closet as a kid. Wow, that's a blast from the past. I'd completely forgotten that can years ago. It had blue and white vertical stripes. I kept the metal swords and my wooden swords and my baseball bats and my toy rifles and light saber there when I was a kid (really, it may sounds like I'm an ideal candidate but I didn't grow up to join the NRA or a medieval reenactors group). I distinctly remember the clunking sound stuff would make when it was dropped into it. Whatever happened to that can? I think it might have belonged to my uncle when he was kid. Did it have some sort of a label or logo on it? Maybe outlined in orange? I think I saw cans like that in my grandparents' basement once. Now that I think about it, it might have contained pool chemicals or something years before. That's right, my grandparents had an aboveground pool in their backyard when I was really really little. I remember being in that pool with my parents, hanging on to the ladder and then swimming. Is that where I learned to swim? Wow, I'd forgotten about that.

And so, a conversation over dinner that kicked off as we watched my mother use my uncle's pocket knife to remove the wrapping from my grandmother's new lipstick morphed into a memory of me learning to swim in my grandparents' backyard in Farmington, CT. Makes perfect sense, doesn't it?

Friday, December 5, 2008

Beware the Doghouse

With the holidays fast approaching, here's a quick tutorial for any gentlemen out there as they prepare to shop for their loved ones. I definitely took notes.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Four Horsemen of the Automotive Apocalypse

"I believe we could lose General Motors by the end of this month."

So said United Auto Workers president Ron Gettelfinger in testimony before the U.S. Senate today. But does anyone really believe that the General would vanish from this Earth? Wasn't Gettelfinger really saying that we could lose General Motors (and Ford and Chrysler) as we've known them -- big, ponderous, slow to react, arrogant, profligate spenders, burdened with $80 per hour labor costs to build automobiles that people don't want, living on their legacies, historically a golden goose of sorts for the unions, and largely uncompetitive with more innovative, more nimble foreign competitors here in the United States?

The Four Horsemen of the Automotive Apocalypse (aka Gettelfinger and the Big 3 CEOs, a quartet joined in a mutual groveling pact), rode into Washington not in their private jets like they did two weeks ago when pleading for $25 billion. This time, of course, they arrived asking for $34 billion but did so by driving hybrid vehicles produced by their respective companies (yes, it appears that they can learn a lesson but only after having a Gulfstream rammed up their keisters by a mocking public). By all accounts they were a bit more humble this time around. What hadn't changed was the skepticism of members of Congress.

I don't think anyone wants to see these companies collapse and vanish, least of all the politicians who will have to answer to their constituents who work for these companies, the suppliers, the dealers, etc. However, I think people seriously wonder if the same people who helped lead these icons of American industry into this mess actually have any idea how to get them out or if they can be trusted with $34 billion in taxpayer money.

To many, the idea of bankruptcy, preferably a negotiated one, would force the Big Three to undergo a radical overhaul that would result in leaner, more competitive, and more financially viable companies. Maybe not three but perhaps one or two as a result of consolidation but the end result might be a better American car business retooled for the 21st century. The short-term pain for workers and other supporting companies would be undeniable but the long-term benefits to the American car industry and the economy as a whole might be significant.

Talking about this issue with several savvy businesspeople earlier this week, I heard an interesting counter-argument of a sort. Basically, it goes like this -- If this was happening in 2000 when the economy was humming along, you screw the bailout and let the car companies crater into bankruptcy and then rebuild. However, it's questionable if the economy (financially but mostly psychologically) could handle the body blow that would result from the Big Three going bust right now. As a result, we should bail them out under the assumption that they're still going to crater eventually anyway and take our $$34 billion with them but only after the bailout sustains them long enough for the economy to rebuild some strength to withstand the inevitable tripartite collapse.

As tempting as this is, I'm still more inclined to accept the bad medicine now. Hell, in some people's eyes, the Big Three are as good as bankrupt already! These companies, or some version of them, will probably still exist if they make the move to restructure under the protection and watchful eye of a bankruptcy court or similar Federal watchdog. The economy already feels like a large section of it has been nuked so let's just get the rest of the disaster over with now and then take the opportunity to help the automakers, like other businesses, rebuild themselves into something newer and more viable, while providing the support necessary to help the auto workers weather the change. But the key would be to manage it.

If workers show up at Ford plants around the country next Monday and find them shuttered and the buildings dark, that's what would spark a panic and not a little outrage. However, if the CEOs or more preferably, their replacements, stand up in front of the American people with their new benevolent bankruptcy overlords and explain exactly how they will retool, reposition, and reinvigorate themselves through the process, as well as why consumers should still trust that they should buy American cars that are actually fuel efficient.

If that were to happen, I'd even be inclined to say, "OK, give them the money as long as when they accept the cash with one hand they hand over senior management's resignations and some serious plans to completely overhaul their business, including a pledge never again to make a passenger car that gets less than 45 to 50 miles per gallon." If they do this, perhaps they can avoid visiting the misfortunes that ride along with the Four Horsemen of myth upon the automotive industry of today.

Who's calling? No way. Hang up on him.

A little skepticism is a good thing. Too much and you just start looking paranoid, not to mention getting very very embarrassed.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Waterlogged on the Great White Way

This "commercial" confirms my assessment that Patrick Warburton ("The Tick", "The Dish") is an underappreciated talent. Besides, if they can turn "Legally Blonde", "Young Frankenstein", "Shrek", and apparently "Spider-Man" into musicals, why not this? Besides, it can't be any cheesier than the original.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Let the spirit move you

Once I got rolling on this blog, it was exciting to discover:
  1. how much I enjoyed writing for it
  2. how much I looked forward to writing for it
I'm a writer and editor by trade and spend much of my day, well, writing and editing as the director of marketing for my employer, a high-tech firm here in Rhode Island. Unfortunately, writing and editing have often been the last things I want to do when I get home in the evening or over the course of a weekend.

That's been a bit frustrating for me as I have loads of personal projects that I've started over the years -- short stories, scribblings for mysteries, the skeleton of a novel or two -- but have never finished. However, I didn't feel the compulsion to work on them and never felt like I could force it. When I was ready to write, when the creative spirit moved me to do so, I would.

I guess I failed to realize that the creative spirit sometimes needs a bit of a kick in the pants to wake up from its stupor and get into gear. Walks in the Marsh appears to provide that necessary jolt to help get my mind engaged again about writing for my own pleasure.

I thought this blog would be a collection of short observations, maybe some links here and there to interesting stuff on the web. As anyone who has read this blog over the last few months has discovered, it didn't quite work out that way as on occasion my blog entries get a bit more...robust. I occasionally find myself spending an entire evening pouring over something I'm writing and loving the process. It's been a long time since I felt that way about my own personal work.

As a result, I rediscovered some of the larger projects that lay dormant for many years. Among them is a fantasy novel that I first starting playing with in the summer of 1991 when the initial ideas for a few scenes came to me while on a camping trip in the South Dakota Badlands with my father and sister. As the years progressed, I expanded the concept, wrote whole chapters, attended a class on getting published out of which came a short-lived but engaging writers group that gave me great feedback, revised and scrapped large sections, compiled a 50+ page outline, and left it to gather dust for long stretches of time.

In recent weeks, the novel emerged, refreshed and revitalized, and ripe for a complete rethinking. That's what's happening now. Massive sections of the 50-page outline are falling by the wayside and a new approach is on the boards. I discovered a new tool -- Scrivener -- that not only seems to suit my organizational, brainstorming, and writing styles but also helps make the task of writing the first book in a potential trilogy somewhat less daunting. I'm fired up about this project now.

Somewhat to my surprise, I suddenly find myself making the transition from "God, that last thing I want to do is sit in front of a computer anymore today" to "Cool, I'm home and have time to work on my blog/my novel!" And therein lies the challenge. Time spent working on the novel is time away from the blog. Time on the blog is time away from the novel. Of course, time spent on either of them is time away from family but my wife, engrossed in her own writing efforts, seems to understand completely as illustrated by her willingness (eagerness, perhaps LOL) to leave me for a large part of a weekend day to go work on her own project at the library or a coffee shop.

In the grand scheme of things, it's a worthwhile problem to have -- two writing projects that I find engaging and stimulating. I'm simply going to have to figure out how to give enough time to both so they each thrive. I figure if I get hung up on one, I can switch to the other to keep up the momentum.

Who knows if I'll finish the big project or not. I know I can write something that long and involved, having written an absolutely god-awful novel my first year of college (frighteningly bad and cliché-ridden, it is a document that will never see the light of day). Hopefully, if I do finish this one, it will be a damn sight better than the first attempt.

So just a warning...if I go quiet here on Walks in the Marsh for a few days at a time, it's probably because I'm on a roll on the other project. When the spirit moves you, you go with it. I'm writing again! Hallelujah!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Eleanor Rigby, R.I.P.

I always thought she was a fictional character created by Paul McCartney for one of the Beatles' most haunting songs but it turns out that Eleanor Rigby actually might have been a real person.

Four Minutes

This weekend, I checked out a fascinating video entitled, "The Civil War in Four Minutes" after hearing about it on Slate's Political Gabfest. Created for the Lincoln Library and Museum and shown on a large movie screen to visitors, it's an powerful representation of the continuously shifting lines of battle (you really get a sense of what Sherman's March to the Sea did to the Confederacy) and the horrific casualties that were inflicted by both sides.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Turkey Day!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! I hope your turkey goes down a bit more easily than this today. Bork bork bork!

Shalom! D'oh!!

Apparently the Bush Administration had some problems getting its holidays straight as its annual Hannukah invitations were festooned with Christmas wreaths in the White House windows and a wagon hauling the 2008 White House Christmas tree. Up next, the White House's annual open pit barbeque for members of PETA!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Ummm...get out of the boat, please. need to get out of the boat.

Andrew Sullivan posted the video below on his Daily Dish Blog and I thought I'd share it as well. His comment? "When the odds are against you, remember this little penguin."

My comment...Think long and hard about whether you want that penguin in the boat with you at that particular moment.

Line of the Day (so far)

"You look a bit stressed. What better way to handle it than with tropical fruit and cured meat."

-- said to me as a co-worker handed over a small slice of pepperoni and pineapple pizza to make sure that I ate something for lunch today

Please, someone make her stop. The irony is killing me.

Ironic video of the week -- Sarah Palin pardoning a turkey in honor of Thanksgiving and then proceeding to give a 3-minute interview in front of a guy slaughtering turkeys (got to love that bloody trough and his occasional glances over the shoulder as if to say, "Ummm...ok, you ladies just keep talking while I behead these here birds.") I'm sorry but I just can't post the link. I'm sure it's on YouTube if you want to see it but really, I'll just be thankful when she goes away.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Ghost Town

I'm in the middle of reading Bill Bryson's outstanding travelogue, "A Walk in the Woods", picking it up whenever I need a brief break from Barack Obama's "Dreams from My Father" (also excellent but not necessarily lighthearted bedtime reading). At one point along Bryson's summer-long encounter with the Appalachian Trail, he finds himself in Centralia, Pennsylvania, a modern day ghost town.

Centralia, like so many other towns, sprang up around the anthracite coal deposits upon which much of eastern Pennsylvania rests. Due to its high carbon content, anthracite coal is difficult to ignite and once it's lit, even harder to extinguish. Sadly for the residents of Centralia, they received a first-hand education on this particular fact in 1962 when a fire at the town landfill ignited a vein of anthracite that extended beneath the town. Efforts to staunch the fire failed and as it penetrated farther underground into an estimated 24 million pounds of coal, it was simply allowed to burn.

While authorities didn't realize it at the time, they'd signed Centralia's death warrant.

The fire continued to spread and the evidence of the subterranean destruction eventually made its way to the surface. Carbon monoxide from the underground fires seeped up into homes resulting in illness. A 150-foot deep sinkhole opened beneath a 12-year old boy who was only saved from death by grabbing exposed tree roots and being hauled out by his cousin. Additional sinkholes appeared as the town, bereft of the coal that had served as its foundation, began to collapse in on itself in areas. The temperature in underground gas tanks rose to more than 170 degrees while the ground only 13 feet deeper reached 1,000 degrees. Roadways cracked and collapsed, with steam and smoke rising from the asphalt equivalent of volcanic vents. In time, sections of the town became what Bryson describes as "an extensively smoking landscape, on possibly no more than a skin of asphalt, above a fire that had been burning for thirty-four years --- not, I'm bound to say, the smartest place in North America to position oneself."

By 1984, the government realized that it would be more affordable to just relocate everyone than to try and extinguish the expanding fire which had grown to encompass more than 350 acres of underground coal veins. While a few hardy (ummm...obsessed? foolhardy? stupid?) souls remained for a few years, eventually they were all forced to relocate. In an ultimate symbol of the community's eradication, the Post Office revoked the town's zip code. Centralia, by all reasonable measures, had ceased to exist.

I find myself absolutely fascinated by the story of Centralia. Fires threatening communities is old hat in a tragic way. Every year, the national news is filled with stories of wildfires threatening and sometimes destroying parts of communities in California and other points west. These conflagrations sweep across the landscape, visible to all, lighting the night sky, as courageous men and women fight to slow and then stop the destruction. But the concept of a fire steadily eating away at the ground upon which you walk, your children play, your house rests, immolating the literal foundations of the community slowly and inexorably and with no hope of stopping it? That's the stuff of horror stories I think.

I wonder how the residents who stayed could have slept at night without worrying if they would awake to the rending and tearing sound of their house collapsing into a burning chasm. Dedication to one's community is an admirable thing but I'm reminded of the story of Harry Truman (not the president) who refused to leave his lodge near Mt. St. Helen. Thankfully for the residents of Centralia, none of them perished as a result of the fire or their refusal to leave, unlike poor old Harry who died when the mountain blew out its guts on May 18, 1980.

I expect that in reality, Centralia wasn't quite that bad though I certainly wouldn't have wanted to trade spaces with Todd Domboski, the young boy who almost fell to his death. Looking at the photos here, clearly Centralia (or what's left of it), hasn't devolved into a hellish landscape of fire. However, there's no denying the grim fascination of the collapsing, smoking Route 61 or the images of steam and smoke rising from otherwise innocous fields and yards.

Call it Mother Nature's revenge for decades of strip mining and other environmental desecration or simply bad luck that brought about the ruin of a small rural town. Either way, after 130+ years of habitation, Centralia itself died a slow, lingering death at the hands of the coal the town's residents had come to claim.

By the way, if you're planning a visit anytime soon, there's no need to rush. The Centralia fire is expected to burn for at least the next 250 years.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Movie Review: Bolt

Just a quickie review for a trifle of a film:

We went to see the new animated film, "Bolt" last night and it's surprisingly good, even verging on excellent. The action scenes are better than anything in "Quantum of Solace", it's well written, the voice casting is solid (perhaps the best thing John Travolta has done in years), the animation is crisp and clean, and the pigeons absolutely steal every scene they're in. Not quite the emotional and brilliant film you get with Pixar's WALL-E but fun and very entertaining.

Blessings upon you, Eleanor Rigby

So I guess we know what's on Benedict XVI's iPod now, right?

Comments are like a box of chocolates...

I've discovered that the scourge of spam even reaches into the blogosphere.

As a writer, I find feedback invaluable. As a blogger, it's nice to know that someone out there is actually reading what I write (or at least visiting the blog and considering reading it). That's why that new little map tool on the sidebar is so cool. Not only is there the ubiquitous "visit counter" but the map shows that there were people in Iceland and Australia reading something I wrote. But it raises all sorts of questions -- how did they find "Walks in the Marsh"? How did any of you? What were you looking for? Did you find what you were looking for here? I definitely wonder about these things and that's why, when I get an e-mail alert that someone has left a comment, I'm always excited.

Did the reader like what I wrote?

Did they disagree with something in the blog?

Do they have something to add to the conversation?

Comments are like Christmas presents. You see them under the tree and can't wait to open them to discover what treasure lies within. I hope that, as someone reading this blog, you might feel the same way about the blog itself...looking forward to opening it up and finding out what lies within.

And that why the appearance of spam comments today is just so disappointing. There's nothing quite so disheartening as when you open that Christmas present to discover that it's just nice wrapping around an overdue utility bill, a confirmation of an upcoming prostate exam, or a nice steaming pile of something unpleasant (not that any of those things have happened, mind you, but you get the idea).

Don't we get enough of this stuff in our e-mail? Do we really have to put up with someone taking the time to post commercial messages here?

They start out innocuously enough ("hey, great blog" or "I love this post") and are then immediately followed by a commercial pitch (pre-lighted fake Christmas trees in one case; a link to a low-interest rate finance site in the other). Ugh. And if the people who left those messages actually did like the blog, that's fantastic...just please don't tack on that spam message at the end.

At least, as the proprietor of this blog, I'm given the option to delete comments if necessary. I haven't gone so far as to turn on comment moderation yet but I suppose that's always an option so that you don't have to see them. Hopefully, they won't last and this and other blogs will remain open to legitimate, thoughtful commentary because that's why this blog exists for me. It's a venue in which I can ramble on in the hopes of stirring some sort of response from you.

So in the holiday spirit, take a minute and leaving me a Christmas gift of your comments to unwrap. I love getting Christmas presents!

And won't it be ironic if a spam comment shows up in response to this posting? I might actually leave that one up. Nah...not really.

Geez, what's the world coming to when you can't trust McDonald's?

Here's a little tip for you...if you have nude photos of your spouse on your phone, don't forget the phone at your local McDonald's.


When did assassination (or the discussion of the act) become a legitimate part of protests against the President or President-elect?

Reading the stories about the assassination pool in Maine, betting on the date President-elect Obama would be killed, was chilling. The worst part of the sign in the Maine store window wasn't the title ("Osama Obama Shotgun Pool") but the fact that the sign concluded with this flat statement: "Let's hope someone wins."

Reading these 45 years to the day after JFK was gunned down was horrifying. I wasn't born in 1963 but I've read the stories, seen the news footage, and talked to relatives who remember exactly where they were and what they were feeling when they heard the news. The only thing I can imagine from my own life is that I will never forget where I stood and how I responded when I heard the news of the planes on September 11th and their aftermath.

I believe that the violent death of a President must shake our society to the core. No one feels safe. There is no certainty. How can people consider the actual act with some sense of glee as part of casual conversation?

I remember when I was just a little kid and President Reagan was shot. My friends and I started dancing about thinking this was a good thing because all of our parents had so clearly hated him and the conservatism he stood for and we didn't know any better. In no uncertain terms, the adults with us made it clear that the President being shot was never a reason to celebrate, no matter who he was or how much we disliked him or his policies, that it was a terrible thing, that it was something no person should ever, ever wish for because it would hurt the country too much.

How could someone hate so much, fear so much, or be so ignorant, as to wish such a thing on a person and on a country?

And more to the point, what brings a person to actually attempt such a thing?


Hey, fella,
Feel like you're a failure?
Bailiff on your tail? Your
Wife run off for good?
Hey, fella, feel misunderstood?
C'mere and kill a president...

- "Everybody's Got the Right" from the musical, "Assassins"

Saturday, November 22, 2008

People Standing Up

From the Associated Press earlier today:

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) - Authorities in Maine say no charges are planned against the owner of a store where a sign invited customers to bet on a date when President-elect Barack Obama would be assassinated. Cumberland County Sheriff Mark Dion said Friday that Oak Hill General Store owner Steve Collins denied any knowledge of the "Osama Obama Shotgun Pool" sign.

Today, the Portland Press-Herald ran two articles that fleshed out the story of the sign and highlighted the strong response by residents of Portland members of the University of Southern Maine community to this and other recent displays of bigotry, ignorance, and intolerance within the state. Good for the members of the Portland community and the USM students and faculty.

It's something of a paradox of course -- in an open, enlightened, and educated culture, we must be tolerant of other beliefs and ideas but do we break that covenant when we are not tolerant of intolerance?

(Obviously, the attack upon a Portland man wearing makeup following a theatrical production because he "looked gay" has no bearing on tolerance or the First Amendment -- he was assaulted and all of the people of Portland should feel safer once the Neanderthals who did it stand trial for their crime...more on this in a minute.)

But back to the topic of the sign in the window and the black figures hung in effigy...they highlight again a thorny question -- where does free speech end and the abridgment of others' rights to a safe life begin? The courts have grappled with this for years, attempting to find a balance between the critically important First Amendment and the civil rights granted to all members of the community to keep them safe from defamation, intimidation, discrimination, or victimization. Sadly, no clear bright line yet exists, with lower and higher courts batting limits and reversals back and forth like a grim ping-pong ball. As a result, communities come to rely upon other laws to punish violators and protect the innocent from what might otherwise be considered "hate speech.

Consider the case of Robert A. Vincent vs St. Paul in which a teen was arrested after burning a cross on the front yard of an African-American family. Rather than charge him under more established ordinances that addressed topics such as terrorist threats, arson, or criminal damage to property, he was instead charged with the violation of a statute that criminalized activities such as burning crosses or Nazi swastikas. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually tossed the conviction noting that, while "burning a cross in someone's front yard is reprehensible. St. Paul has sufficient means at its disposal to prevent such behavior without adding the First Amendment to the fire."

In the end, the Court's decision rested on the belief that St. Paul's statute unconstitutionally made speech and forms of expression (a burning cross) aimed at racial or religious minorities illegal but not other types of speech that might have targeted "unprotected" groups. The same standard and question of fairness is often applied to the concept of "hate crimes" -- should the punishment be more severe if someone is convicted of assaulting a black man or a lesbian because he is black or she is gay vs. assaulting a Caucasian man or a straight woman?

I'm not a lawyer and can't speak to the constitutionality of hate crimes legislation either at the state or federal level. I do recognize that hate-filled members of our society clearly target those they believe are different or a threat. I also believe that when these fearful bullies (because that's what drives them -- fear -- and they then seek to prey on the weak either in packs or from the shadows due to their cowardice) perpetrate an assault, whether physical, emotional, or otherwise, they should be prosecuted and made to pay for their crimes. Strapping them to the side of a mountain where eagles can feast on their entrails might be a good've got to love those ancient Greeks. They knew how to punish someone. Honestly though, speaking as heterosexual white male, I do want to know that if I get my ass kicked by some ignorant cave dweller who sought me out because I held a different political belief, said cave dweller would be punished just as severely.

I'm an ardent defender of the right to free speech as well as the right of a minority to be safe from repression by the majority. I also am proud that the right to free speech extends to the freedom for members of a community to tell the scared, ignorant fools perpetrating bigoted, racist, homophobic, xenophoic acts that the community categorically rejects those messages of hate and intolerance. The examples set by the Portland community and by protestors nationwide speaking out against the discrimination now written into law by California Proposition 8 are ones that we should remember and support. While there's no law against people saying things that are stupid and ignorant, the law also allows us to stand up and announce that discrimination and intolerance have no place in our society.


By the way, there is at least one notable exception in the case of spoken, written, or implied threats actually resulting in a violation of law: legitimate threats against the President, Vice President, and the POTUS-elect and VPOTUS-elect...though the sign in the store window certainly doesn't meet that threshold. A slightly drier presentation of this statute may be found here though it seems to be more restrictive that the first explanation. How does it account for spoken threats or e-mail? Is e-mail considered the same as snail mail in this case because it is interstate communications/commerce?

It's curtains for you, Dr. Horrible. Lacy, gently wafting curtains.

For those who missed it the first time around, Joss Whedon's delightfully twisted and entertaining "Dr Horrible's Sing-Along Blog" is now available in its entirety on Just click the below to enjoy 42 minutes of fun highlighted by an outstanding Neil Patrick Harris and a brilliantly dense Nathan Fillion as Captain Hammer. And for fans of Whedon's "Firefly", look for the model of the Serenity hanging in the window in Dr. Horrible's lab.

Friday, November 21, 2008

On the topic of cars and searching in multiple states...

After my brief rant yesterday about the auto CEOs, lawmakers fawning over their American cars, and NY Rep. Gary Ackerman's saga of searching 5 states for the car with the right color, right package, and nav system yesterday, I realized I could understand where he was coming from. Not the whole "tell the story in the U.S. Congress" part -- that seemed a bit unnecessary -- but the quest to find exactly the car you want.

As the summer came to an end, we decided that it was time to part ways with my wife's venerable Saturn. So we decided to do the car shuffle -- she got my Honda Accord and I went looking for something for me. My wife also got a big ole I.O.U. that she gets to cash in at any time with no comment from me.

So I started looking and as my wife can tell you, once I get going on a project like this, I get a bit obsessive about it, not to mention compelled to bring things to a successful conclusion as quickly as possible. We found ourselves at a local dealership on a rainy Saturday driving a Saab 9-3 that was just a few years old with almost no miles. Man, that was a fun car. Saab might be owned by GM but their engineers apparently kept the skills necessary to make the driver's seat feel like you're in the cockpit of a jet. Alas, they also kept the quirky electrical issues that seem to crop up in Saabs.

I had a Saab 9000 several years ago and in the months before I moved on to the Accord, I'd regularly be startled by the sound of electrical short circuits somewhere in the dash in front of the passenger seat. No amount of testing and checking by my mechanic could ever determine what it was so I was left to wonder what combination of buttons would leave me unexpectedly crispy. Anyhow, this relatively new Saab was a great ride...until you made a 90-degree left turn when going at any speed and suddenly the electric door locks would rapidly unlock, lock, unlock, and then lock again with loud "chunking" noises. Now that's an interesting extra...hang a left and your car sounds like a package of Orville Redenbacher microwave popcorn. My uncle, who still owns his pre-GM Saab among other cars, shared a valuable observation when I called to ask his opinion on this: Saabs are fun cars but not for the faint of heart.

And so ended the flirtation with a sweet black Saab 9-3 that went like a bat out of hell. I might not be faint of heart but repeated trips to the garage for repairs? One of the more terrifying prospects in modern American life.

So I started doing some more research, realizing that among other things, I didn't want to give up a manual transmission. I tried driving a few other cars that were either automatics or the automatics that allow you to "shift" by tapping the gear shift up or down but these were either boring or felt like gimmicks that I'd never use. Yep, I need that manual transmission. It's fun to drive and much more manly. Would James Bond drive an automatic? Only if it's a rental like those Fords he's been showing up in when he doesn't have his Aston Martin. Rocky Balboa? In mourning for Apollo Creed, dead at Drago's hands, the Italian Stallion goes tearing off and shifting over and over and over and over again to illustrate how upset he was. An automatic? Pshaw! I'm a manly man, dammit! Just ignore that I said "Pshaw" and the fact that I tear up every time Red and Andy are reunited at the end of The Shawshank Redemption.

The new round of research led me to a 2005 Volvo S40 just two days later that was cherry red, fully tricked out with the spoiler sport package, and a 6-speed manual transmission. Really? 6 speeds? Wow, I've never had one of those before. That sounded very cool. And it was. And so was the car itself. You don't usually think of Volvos as sporty. Do you remember that movie, "Crazy People" in which Dudley Moore plays an ad man suffering a breakdown and a need to tell the truth, leading to the slogan: "Volvos...they're boxy but they're safe!"? That seemed to sum it up. This one, however, was very sporty and loads of fun to drive. It was just screaming out for me to get my radar detector up on the dash (not that I would ever violate traffic ordinances or speed limits, of course). The interior was, well, a bit bland but it handled well and I'm a guy so the whole spoiler thing appealed to me. They actually made this Volvo look muscular and cool. I took some photos, decided to put down a deposit to hold it for a day or two so I could think about it, and headed home.

"Honey, you're too young to need a mid-life crisis car."

That was the response I received when I returned home and showed the photos to my wife. Really? It's not like it's a Porsche or a convertible. It's a Volvo, for Pete's sake.

"Honey, you're too young to need a mid-life crisis car."

What made me change my mind, however, was not that it might be seen as a mid-life crisis car but that it didn't have any way to directly connect my iPod. Horror of horrors! The year before, I had the factory radio pulled from my Accord in favor of an iPod-ready Kenwood. God, I hated using those damn FM transmitters to play my iPod through the radio. With the Kenwood, I could not only play it through the radio but control it through the radio. Sweet mother of mercy but that was a slick setup.

But here was the Volvo sales guy, along with two of the dealership's electronics guys, telling me that Volvo didn't include a direct link for iPods until 2007 due to the fiber optic design of the Volvo stereo system. Instead I'd have to go with an FM transmitter again but really, they work great, sir. Come on guys, the iPod has only been the world's most popular piece of consumer electronics for the last 8 years! There's no way to do with this without major surgery that violates the car's warranty?

Yes, that was a deal breaker. No iPod interface? No sale. Call me superficial but I spend a lot of time in my car and the iPod has become an integral part of my travel routine. Did it make sense to spend money on a car that couldn't support my one must-have accessory? I don't think so.

So I went back to doing more research and found exactly what I wanted...a 2006 Acura TSX with 6-speed manual transmission. Awesome reviews, top of the class in virtually every category, audio input for the iPod, the reliability of a Honda with the bonuses that come with an Acura. It was perfect...

...and it wasn't available. No one had one. They were so beloved by their owners that people never got rid of them. Welcome to Gary Ackerman territory. With the power of the Internet and various used car search engines at my finger tips I carried out my noble quest, expanding my search area again and again until there it was. Exactly the car I was looking for and at a dealership in Connecticut.

Here's how the thought process went as I discovered it while taking a brief break for lunch on a Tuesday: Oh wow. That's it. There it is. Is it a 2006? Yes. 6-speed manual? Yes. Reasonable mileage? Excellent! Color? Dark grey...mmmm cool. It even has a spoiler package? Oooooo very very cool. In my price range? Close enough. I'll just be extra super sweet to the wife from now until the end of time! But it's the web. Oh no. Maybe it's still online but has actually already been sold. I'd better call. Yes, it's still there? How late are you open tonight? Hmmm...if I leave work right on time and only mildly stretch the speed limit (really, I'd just be going as fast as everyone else around me; it's a safety thing, you know), I could make it there before they close tonight. Because as we all know, someone else could come along to snatch up that car now that I've discovered it. So yes, I'll be there.

Four days later, I drove home in my new, pre-owned Acura TSX. It only took test drives of and deposits on (refunded of course) two other cars that were almost perfect and a quest through three states to find it but this ride is worth every minute, dollar, and gallon of gas spent during that search.

And the fact that my mother-in-law just happens to also drive an Acura TSX? Does that detract from my feeling of automotive coolness?


Because I've got a spoiler.

And my mother-in-law is actually pretty cool. So sue me.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

So exactly how much cluelessness can you buy for $25 billion?

You've probably heard about the boneheaded Big Three auto CEOs who each flew in their private corporate jets to Washington to ask for financial assistance from Congress. What you might not have heard is how thoroughly they were raked over the coals for it by some members of Congress (as opposed to other fawning members who gushed over their American cars).

Dana Milbank of the Washington Post offers a great look at both sides of this story in today's Washington Post. Among my favorite lines is this one from Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY):

"There's a delicious irony in seeing private luxury jets flying into Washington, D.C., and people coming off of them with tin cups in their hand. It's almost like seeing a guy show up at the soup kitchen in high-hat and tuxedo. . . . I mean, couldn't you all have downgraded to first class or jet-pooled or something to get here?"

Of course, a short time later, Ackerman goes off on how he had to check with dealers in 5 states before before he could get the car he wanted in blue and with GPS so any points he won sticking it to these guys promptly went out the window.

But back to Rick Wagoner of General Motors, Robert Nardelli of Chrysler, and Alan Mulally of Ford. These guys make $15 to 20 million a year. You'd think they'd shell out for a consultant who'd have the balls to say "Ummmm...perhaps a dose of humility might go over well here, sir."

Apparently not and that's a big reason why the Big Three are getting the Big Zero when it comes to a bailout, at least for now.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Coffee or Tea?

"The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family." - Balti Tribal Saying

We all know the phrase, in one form or another, "One person can make a difference." It feels so overused as to be little more than fodder for a cheesy inspirational poster. Sometimes though, you get a reminder that there is truth in that phrase, whether that reminder comes from hearing about someone who did it or, luckier still, when you are there as that person is doing it.

At the recommendation of a friend, I recently read Three Cups of Tea, an account of Greg Mortenson's efforts to fund and build schools for rural villages in Pakistan and Afghanistan. His efforts were spurred on out of gratitude for the aid he received in a small village called Korphe following his near-disastrous attempt to scale and then return from K2, the world's second highest mountain.

While the book itself, written by David Relin of Parade Magazine and Mortenson, is at times somewhat overwrought (Relin clearly didn't check his hero worship at the door), Mortenson's commitment to expand educational opportunities for children can't be denied. Learning how to create and lead a development effort (the Central Asia Institute) on the fly, he overcame remarkable challenges during his quest -- a kidnapping by mujahedin in northern Pakistan, corrupt officials, firefights among warring Afghan tribes, fatwahs from mullahs opposed to education for girls, and post-9/11 threats from fellow Americans enraged that he would seek to provide educational resources for Muslims.

It's in that last challenge that Mortenson was most prescient. He recognized far earlier than many that an education for all could empower young women and build new resources within the communities while also offering an alternative to the Islamic fundamentalism that gave birth to the 9/11 terrorists and others like them. Without schools like those funded by Mortenson, the only voice, the only vision, the only "truth" for many young men and women in these regions is often the word of the fundamentalists, funded by millions of petro dollars from the Middle East. And so he forged on even as war came to the region and despite his vilification by those in America who would tar every Muslim an enemy of the West.

It takes a unique person to recognize a need like this AND to actively take steps to address that need, especially in the face of daunting challenges. Many of us shake our heads sadly and say "oh, what a shame" or simply send a check or enter our credit card numbers in an online pledge form. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. Non-profits rely on the people who are willing to write that check, collect those non-perishable food items, walk for a cause. But it's the people who see an issue and lead the way in helping address it that are the ones who truly embody the "one person can make a difference" concept, keeping it from simply being a cliche. They make it possible for the rest of us to help in some way as well.

I count myself lucky to have worked with such a person -- Bill Fishbein, the founder of Coffee Kids. Owner of the Coffee Exchange coffee roaster and cafe in Providence, RI, Bill launched his non-profit effort in 1988 after visiting coffee-growing communities and meeting the farmers and families who lived in poverty and grew the beans that Bill and other businesses roasted, sold, and brewed. Compelled by a need to give something back, Bill created Coffee Kids as a means to direct resources to these communities with a mission to help these families, who often earn as little as 4 cents per pound of coffee picked, improve their lives.

Initially, Coffee Kids simply acted as a middleman, connecting donors to child sponsorship programs operating in coffee-growing regions. Over time, however, Bill and the Coffee Kids team realized that more could be done through direct action within these communities and the role of the organization changed.
  • Coffee Kids was among the early adopters of micro-credit for women. As a result of Coffee Kids' efforts, more than 4,000 women now have their own businesses, empowering them within their communities and building financial independence for their families.
  • Health programs sponsored by Coffee Kids are training women in these communities to diagnose and treat common illnesses, provide pre- and post-natal care, and then enabling these women to train others to do the same.
  • Coffee Kids is funding school programs to provide books and materials, carry out repairs to school buildings, and pay for scholarships for high school and college students within these communities.
I met Bill very close to the start of his Coffee Kids journey. My mother was the organization's first volunteer, then the first executive director, and remains a member of the Board. As a result, I got all the news, heard about all of the challenges, and learned of the successes that came with long, hard effort. I eventually found myself volunteering to assist with the communication efforts and eventually assumed the role of Coffee Kids' first Publications Director. From there, I witnessed some of the maturation an organization like this goes through.

Part of it was a learning process, trying to figure out what would work and what wouldn't. At the early trade shows, we spent all of our time selling t-shirts and coffee mugs before realizing that doing so prevented us from achieving our true goal – actually building a relationship with donors by telling them about our mission. The next more t-shirts at the trade show. Once, we got on the charity road race bandwagon. In the end, the return from the 5K race really didn't warrant the effort that went into it from a financial standpoint and the runners, well, they were there to run, not to learn about the work Coffee Kids was doing in places like Guatemala and Nicaragua.

Nevertheless, those early attempts helped the organization to evolve and remain focused on the mission established by Bill -- to help coffee-farming families improve the quality of their lives. This was driven home most sharply for me when I spent a brief time in Guatemala visiting the project communities around Lake Atitlan. It was eye opening, not only because it was my first foray into Latin America, but because the results of Bill's vision, the Coffee Kids team's effort, and the support of individuals and businesses around the world were right there in front of me in the small businesses and the women who owned them as a result of micro-credit funding. In my journal notes from that trip 11 years ago, I wrote:

September 5, 1997
San Pedro La Laguna

Touching is the only way to describe meeting members of the program's Directiva. Each woman shook our hands and embraced us with a kiss on the cheek, sincerely pleased to meet us. A prayer in both Spanish and Tzuhuil (the indigenous tongue) followed by a beautiful song of prayer and thanks. Five women, probably with no formal training and they rocked the building. No congregation ever sang with more heart and soul.

These are very intelligent women with very clear ideas. They aren't sitting around waiting for us to tell them what to do. They know. They just haven't had access to the resources necessary to put their skills, creativity, and initiative into action.

It's a testament to Bill's vision that these resources are now available to families in coffee-growing communities around the world. While Coffee Kids relocated to Santa Fe and I moved on to other things, I remain a proud supporter of Coffee Kids. I treasure the time I spent working on behalf of the organization, and I am proud to call Bill Fishbein a friend. It's been 20 years since inspiration struck and Bill set out to make a difference. Since then, Coffee Kids has directed more than $4 million into these communities and made it possible for coffee businesses and coffee lovers around the globe to give something back to the people who grow the beans we crave every morning with our cereal and morning paper.

Isn't it time for you to get involved? Here are two ways to do so. What's your preference -- coffee or tea?

Coffee Kids

1751 Old Pecos Trail, Suite K
Santa Fe, NM 87505 USA
Phone: (505) 820-1443
Fax: (505) 820-7565
Toll Free: (800) 334-9099

The Central Asia Institute
P.O. Box 7209
Bozeman, MT 59771
Phone: 406-585-7841
Fax: 406-585-5302