Tuesday, December 29, 2009

If I was a shareholder, I'd be pissed

Reuters is reporting that stockholder in companies endorsed by Tiger Woods lost up to $12 billion as a result of his scandal. Ouch! I wonder if those losses can be deducted from your taxes. "Please Mr. IRS person, I should be able to count those losses because our highly paid spokesman couldn't keep his 3 iron in his pants."

Monday, December 21, 2009

I'm sorry...you need police help for what?

I'm not sure what's more ridiculous about this story -- the fact that the mother called 911 because her son wouldn't stop playing video games or the fact that the police actually sent two officers to deal with the issue.

Where have the ideas gone?

Jonathan Chait's article, "The Rise of Republican Nihilism" published today in The New Republic is well worth reading. In it, Chait examines the following idea:

The question isn’t whether the Republican Party has any ideas. The question is whether the party has any relevant ideas.

It's a fascinating piece, as is the companion piece, "Women’s Suffrage and Other Visions of Right-Wing Apocalypse", which takes a look at classic Republican quotes in opposition to social reform like women's suffrage, Medicare, and a national minimum wage. While they're all good, my personal favorites from this list include:

“[T]he child will become a very dominant factor in the household and might refuse perhaps to do chores before six a.m. or after seven p.m. or to perform any labor.”
—Senator Weldon Heyburn (R-ID), in 1908, on why child labor should remain unregulated


“It is destroying the amicable relations between the white and Negro races that have been created through 90 years of patient effort by the good people of both races. It has planted hatred and suspicion where there has been heretofore friendship and understanding.”
—Senator Strom Thurmond (D-SC), Senator Richard Russell (D-GA), and other Southern legislators, in 1956, describing the perils of integrating public schools

Thursday, December 10, 2009

New York Stories

I've been in Manhattan since Sunday, ensconced in a seminar during the days and doing some exploring at night. The offices hosting the seminar are right on Times Square, well 48th and Broadway to be precise, but basically, it's ground zero for Christmas craziness and huge crowds. I head home tomorrow evening following the fifth and final day of seminars. As I prepare to pack up and head home, I figured I should post some observations.

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I managed to get a hotel room only a few blocks up Broadway so it's been an easy walk to and from the seminar each day. The hotel seems to cater primarily to European tourists and Air France flight crews. I feel like I'm in a foreign country as I walk through the lobby or stand in the elevators. Everyone is talking French or Spanish. If they're speaking English, it means they're British, Scottish, or Irish.

It's a comfortable, not many frills hotel, which is just fine. The bed is clean, the pillows are decent, and it's quiet. Of course, it's always disconcerting to step out of the hotel in the AM, turn to the right to walk to Broadway, and be faced with a giant billboard declaring "New York has a Bedbug Problem! Protect Yourself!" Nice advertising, that. No sign of any nasty little critters so far.

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The next block up is home to the Ed Sullivan Theater where David Letterman's show is filmed. Sadly, no luck getting tickets. I suppose I could have tried to be featured on the show by going into Flash Dancers, the strip club and sushi/sake bar across the street that is sometimes featured in the "live camera segment" of the show but I don't like sushi.

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If you're looking for an excellent meal of Mexican cuisine, I heartily recommend Rosa Mexicano on Columbus and 62nd. It's the third one that's opened in New York apparently and I met my uncle there for dinner. It was phenomenal.

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One night, I made my first pilgrimage to Mecca or, in my case, the Apple Store on 59th and 6th. Oh my god. I was in heaven.

The view from the outside -- the Apple Store Cube

It just screamed out for me to buy something. Much to my wife's surprise, I showed great restraint and bought nothing. I have a perfectly fine iMac at home, an excellent laptop for work purposes, and all the other gadgets I might need. Still, those new Bose Quietcomfort 15 noise canceling headphones...mmmmmm. Nope, I refrained. I have a nice set of Audio-Technica noise canceling headphones for travel. But still, the place is open 24 hours a day, there's tons of stuff to try and to buy, and I don't think it ever isn't busy. I was there at 10 PM (yes, I'm here in NYC alone and have no life) and it was packed.

Heading down the curving stairs next to the clear cylindrical elevator into geek heaven

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While I don't think I could live in New York City, I do enjoy visiting. One thing I find appealing (being something of a night owl) is that people have no problem going out for dinner at a decent restaurant at 10:30 PM.

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I owe my brother-in-law an apology. While I've always had very good service with my iPhone, he's told me on many occasions of the lousy iPhone service in New York City. I never believed him until this trip, my first to the Big Apple with the wonder phone in my pocket. I'm a believer now. It's sad when I have to step outside to make a phone call because I'm unable to connect inside some buildings.

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It's a damn shame when a restaurant ruins a truly excellent hamburger -- organic Angus beef, perfectly cooked, really tasty -- by putting it on a lousy roll that isn't much more than the puffed-up white bread used by McDonald's or BK. Don't they realize that an outstanding crusty roll or other good bread is just as important to the whole hamburger experience?

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Did you know that it takes 15 people and 6 months to make a traditional Japanese sword? I learned this at the "Art of the Samurai" exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Yes, New York is safer than it once was but sometimes you get reminded that in a city of 7 million people, unpleasant things happen. Yesterday, as I was walking to lunch during the seminar break, I was accosted by a young man holding CDs in plain cases. I did my best to ignore his entreaties to tell me my name, where I was from, or to consider taking one of the CDs. On my way back from lunch, a different guy hit me with the same pitch and I ignored him, too. Today, one of those guys is dead following a shootout with cops two blocks from my seminar location about an hour before today's seminar ended, right on 46th and Broadway in Times Square, a place I've walked a number of times this week and in past visits.

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I think the single greatest benefit of being in New York City is access to the museums. They're all over the place and they're amazing. There's nothing quite like walking through the Museum of Modern Art, turning the corner, and coming face to face with a masterpiece and then another one and another one.

A roomful of Monet's water lilies

Up close and personal with Van Gogh's Starry Night


The unique perspective of Salvador Dalí


I can't walk into a room with a Picasso and not stop in awe

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Standards

It's refreshing to know that in the eternal competition between high-class escorts and mistresses of married celebrities, that there are still some standards you can count on.

White

There's snow on the ground. I don't know how long it will last but it's the first of the season here and it feels soothing to stand by the window and watch it come down in the darkness.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Trekkies under the tree

For those of you with Star Trek geeks in your family, allow me to point the way to some Christmas gifts for your consideration...

Star Trek cologne, including Tiberius for that overacting male with a bad toupee in your life and Pon Farr for that lovely lady who wants to add some zip more often than once every seven years

The Star Trek Spork, because they don't allow Swiss Army knives at Starfleet Academy

A Live Long and Prosper foam hand, for when you have some fine motor control issues at the ball game

Your own Interactive Tribble but remember...they don't like Klingons and breed like, well, tribbles

An Enterprise Bottle Opener (insert your own Romulan ale joke here)

And finally...Red Shirt Star Trek Cologne and your very own Red Shirt clearly defining your role in the Star Trek universe because the future is coming but you're not going to live to see it.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Return of the Judo Master

Vladimir Putin is leaning toward running for the presidency of Russia again but says he'll sit down with current president, Dmitri Medvedev, to decide which of them will run in 2012.

Any bets on who will step aside?

And is anyone really surprised by this news?

Another reason to go back to Maine

We love Maine. It's our favorite vacation spot and, when we win the $200 million Powerball jackpot, we'll be sure to spend loads of time in our secluded cabin on the rocky shores of Mt. Desert Island with regular jaunts down to Portland for Sea Dogs baseball games. As if we didn't already need more reasons to spend time there, a new attraction is opening in Portland and it will be on my must-see list the next time we're back there:

The International Cryptozoology Museum

Seriously...where else can you go to see lifesized Bigfoot, coelacanth, and Fiji mermaid scultpures?

Plus, you can get some cool Christmas tree ornaments (be sure to read museum curator Loren Coleman's comments about the differences between the two).

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Is it art? Do I want to clean it up?

Courtesy of boingboing.net, the world's first rotating kitchen sculpture. Bear with it. It starts slow but is worth watching for at least a little while just to bet on what's going to spill, topple, or crash next:

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Pardon Me

Joe Conason offers an interesting look in Salon.com at Mike Huckabee's "faith-based" parole and pardon process while Governor of Arkansas and at the grim results, including the tragic slaying of four police officers in Washington State only days ago.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Farewell to the Grey Bullet on the Eve of Thanksgiving

We lost one of our cats yesterday. Annabel, our lovely 19-year old and perhaps the sweetest cat I've ever known, became suddenly ill and we learned to our dismay that it was a fast-moving cancer. It was a tremendously hard thing to do but for her sake and her comfort, my wife and I sat gently stroking her fur as she purred quietly and finally went to sleep for the last time in the vet's office.

The last 36 hours have been so strange. She's been a central part of my everyday life for more than 9 years and I first met her when she was just a kitten. For my wife, Annabel was a beloved companion since she was 4 weeks old, almost half my wife's life. I walk in the house expecting to see her. We still have her pill schedule on a white board in the kitchen and I can't bring myself to erase it. She was doing so well, perhaps a little arthritic, maybe suffering from a bit of kitty senility most notably when she'd forget where we were, but for a cat who was 19 years, 4 months old, she was in pretty good shape and we thought we had more time.

Sadly we didn't. It happened so fast that I'm still trying to wrap my head around it. I tried to put it in words earlier today on my other blog, on which I'm recording our progress toward the hoped-for adoption of a little girl. It didn't help with my grief. In fact, my efforts simply reinforced how important Annabel was in our life. Until we made the decision to try and adopt earlier this year, our cats and any future pets were our children. They were as close as we were going to get. The act of losing one creates a void and an aching feeling of incompleteness around the house and in my view of my world.

This has been, in many ways, a dreadful year. My grandmother passed away, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, my folks lost their wonderful dog Maggie to a fast-moving cancer, and now we said goodbye to Annabel.

In a matter of days, we'll be celebrating Thanksgiving and happily, my mother will be there bustling about my sister's kitchen helping with food prep, doting on her granddaughters, and mercifully cancer-free following her final radiation treatment in just 72 hours. My grandmother won't be there and we'll all feel her absence. But with my grandmother, Annabel, and Maggie, I'll be so thankful this Thursday to have had them in my life for as long as I did. They added color and humor and just a bit of slobber (Annabel and Maggie, not my grandmother) and won't be forgotten.

It doesn't make up for their loss but it's a start.

May you, your families, your friends, your pets, and all of your loved ones have a very happy and healthy Thanksgiving next week.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Gotta get a move on

Already 15 days down in the National Novel Writing Month and I'm only at 16,440 words. I need to get cracking if I'm going to be at at least 50,000 by November 30th! I guess I need to not wait for the weekends to let my fingers fly over the keyboard.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Monday, November 9, 2009

Not an eyewitness to history

So much history 20 years ago between the middle of October and the middle of November -- the Loma Prieta earthquake rocked the Bay Area and disrupted the World Series and several weeks later, the Berlin Wall came down. Two major moments in U.S. and world history...

and I missed them both.

As it happened, I was at sea throughout that eventful fall on the R/V Westward along with 23 other students as we headed south as part of the Sea Semester program.

In both instances, we learned about events well after they occurred, making landfall first in Antigua where we got details about the earthquake and then later, as we headed farther south, discovering that the Berlin Wall had come down while we were gone.

In today's ultra-connected world, it's odd to think that you could be out of touch so completely that you would miss milestone events in history. One of the products made by the company I work for is an antenna system and global network of satellite communications that offers the equivalent of a cable modem experience at sea so even in the middle of the Atlantic the world is simply a mouse click or telephone call away.

Even 20 years ago, we at least had radio. Thinking about it, I believe we did get word of the earthquake while at sea -- one of the students was from the Bay Area and the SEA staff tracked down her family, confirmed that everyone was OK, and radioed the ship to let her know. But that was it. No other details. No television images. No text messages with "OMG wall is dwn" to keep us up to date.

Instead, we were in a bubble unconnected and seemingly untethered from the rest of the world and it was a wonderful thing.

Pretty much everywhere I go now, I carry my iPhone. I'm available by phone, by e-mail, by text message. I can get on the web, I can send and receive photos, I stay up to date with events as they happen, regardless of where I am. Today at work, I heard a few people reminiscing about watching the live footage of the events in Berlin -- the people on the Wall, the celebrations, all the things that come to mind when you're asked the question "Where were you when you were watching..."

I found myself smiling because I didn't really have an answer. I wasn't anywhere that I would have been able to watch and part of me thrills at the memory of how amazing it felt to set foot on a new island and be told that while I'd been at sea, the world had changed in some dramatic way.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Spur

OK, I realize that with regard to my writing, it's time to get back on the horse, back in the saddle, or whatever other equine reference you care to use. After the exhaustion of September and October -- two months during which the last thing I wanted to do after a day at work was come home and write -- I need to buckle down and force myself to get back into the habit and not just on my two blogs but on something big and challenging.

To help prod the creative writer in me to get off my ass, I decided I needed something to spur me along, to give me a target to shoot for when I sit down and look at my computer. And so, I signed up for National Novel Writing Month for the first time a few days ago.

The goal is to write 50,000 words between November 1 and November 30th. They don't necessarily have to be good words and in fact, the organizers advise against excessive editing, rewrites, or deletions. The goal is to get to 50,000 and then you can start worrying about whether or not it's any good, or as they say in the helpful tips section:

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It's all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.

Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that's a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.

I've had an idea I've wanted to work on for a long time but have been held up because I didn't really know where I want it to go. I'm the type of writer who feels like I need the details all planned out to ensure that I get where I want to go. I'm the same way with opening paragraphs -- in college I'd agonize over an opening paragraph for hours sometimes because that small bit of text provided the thematic hook for the entire paper. (I'm still that way though I don't agonize for quite as long now.) The idea of trying to write a novel without knowing exactly where I want to go with it makes me uncomfortable.

However, with this project, I know how I wanted to start it but honestly, my ideas for where it would end up just haven't felt quite right. It's not really writer's block...more like a writer lacking a map.

National Novel Writing Month gives me an excuse to ignore the wished-for map for a while and instead just write, let the ideas flow, and see where they take me.

I might not like where I end up but I'll have forced myself to plow on and push through, getting back into fighting trim as it were for the purposes of writing. Who knows? Maybe something will shake loose and I'll figure out how the story needs to end or, if nothing else, how to continue it. But one thing I won't do is stop writing or scrap what I've done because:
There's an old folk saying that goes: Whenever you delete a sentence in your NaNoWriMo novel, a NaNoWriMo angel loses its wings and plummets, screaming, to the ground.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Emerge into daylight

October is finally over, thank God -- 31 days long and it felt at least double that.

The weather was bizarre (cold, warm, rainy, sunny, monsoon), the Red Sox lost in the playoffs, and work was absolutely overwhelming in terms of the number of projects divided by the time available. I think I saw my parents at some point during the past month but in all honesty, it's a bit blurry. There were days when my wife and I only managed a mumbled "goodmorninghaveagoodday" as we passed each other on the way out the door followed by a shambling "hi, I'm really beat and am going to bed" when we arrived home at night. Most frustratingly was the dramatic slowdown in our adoption efforts (previously mused upon here). Generally, October was brutal.

What felt especially odd was that I couldn't summon the energy to do much writing at all -- only 10 entries on "Walks in the Marsh", 3 entries on "150 Steps", and absolutely no progress on my maybe-novel, which is stalled following a promising start. After a long series of months filled with writing, everything came screeching to a halt and it felt so weird. It's not that there weren't things to write about -- baseball, football, politics, adoption, movies, TV ("Castle" is our absolute favorite TV show by the way) -- but the idea of sitting down and writing simply lost its appeal after 12 hour days crammed with meetings, writing, and editing at my office or during a weekend otherwise full of work.

Believe me, I'm not complaining. Jennifer and I both have jobs, work with people we like and respect, and get paid for it, which is a damn sight more than other folks. October simply was one of those perfect storm situations where so many things came together that you just needed to focus on getting through the next task or project in the hope that when you emerge on the other side, you would be able to slow down and get your breath (aka "downshifting to impulse speed" as described by my delightfully geeky wife).

And now, at last, October is in the rear view mirror. The major projects that were underway are now done, and there's some breathing room to finish our adoption materials, to hopefully leave work in time for dinner at home with my wife, to relax just a bit, to start taking some of that accrued vacation time that is in danger of being lost come January 1, and hopefully to let some creativity flow and enjoy the feeling of tapping away on the keyboard or scribbling in my Moleskine notebook.

Welcome to November.

(cross-posted on "150 Steps...An Adoption Journey")

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Ah, perhaps this explains why the GOP isn't getting on board

One of the reasons the debate about a public option in health care reform has spun off the road into the dusty field of absurdity:

"100 percent of Republicans have indicated that they don’t think having government in the insurance business is a good idea.” - Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Republican minority leader, 10/25/09

Medicare: A social insurance program administered by the United States government, providing health insurance coverage to people who are aged 65 and over, or who meet other special criteria.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A new way to spell "SOS" at sea

The growing number of satellite phones in use on ships worldwide has given rise to a modern day "SOS". Inmarsat, a global satellite service provider, has rolled out its new 505 service for use with its new FleetBroadband voice and data service. Now, mariners at sea who might be in need of some assistance and are equipped with a suitable piece of hardware, simply pick up the handset and dial 505 to be connected to a 24-hour emergency service center.

Sure, it's not exactly like 911 but really, who wants to tap out • • • – – – • • • when your boat is about to go all Poseidon Adventure on you.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Clueless

I wonder if we've reached the point where mobile connectivity has crossed a line from useful and trendy to the ridiculous.

Is there a reason why a classic game like Clue can't be played without having to text message throughout the game?

It must be a generational thing because if I was lost in a storm drain with my cell phone, updating my Facebook status would not be my first call.

And can I just say that whenever our adoption is complete and our Plus One is growing up, you're not going to find me text messaging her when it's time to wake up in the morning.

I'm a technophile, there's no doubt about it, and while I find texting useful and Facebook a diversion, I do have to draw the line somewhere.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

OK, this day in sports can come to an end anytime now

Ugh...the day started so promisingly:


1. The Red Sox prepping for a major comeback against the Angels
2. The Giants lining up to squash the Raiders like a bunch of rotten grapes
3. The Patriots and Broncos setting up for a mile-high matchup

And then...

The Red Sox lost as Papelbon gave up three runs in the 9th inning, eliminating them from post-season play

The Giants were crushing the Raiders and then CBS decided that the blowout wasn't interesting and so didn't let Giants fans continue to watch it.

The Pat's defense destructed, the offense looked sloppy, and the Broncos won in overtime.

To add insult to injury, the Yankees then beat the Twins, eliminating any interest in watching the final two weeks of baseball.

Oh well. Only five months until Major League Baseball Opening Day 2010. Hope springs eternal.

She's sleeping where?

One of our cats has taken to sleeping in the bathtub. We have no idea why. One of us will walk in there, glance down, and there's a cat sprawled in the tub, blissfully unconscious.

It's a bit unnerving actually when you expect you've got some privacy and suddenly this little furry head pops out from behind the bathtub curtain with a curious "mrroow?"

Quick sports thoughts on a Sunday

Finally the Red Sox are showing some signs of life in the playoffs. Three more outs and they stave off elimination for one more day.

So the Giants are clobbering the Raiders, making it an extraordinarily entertaining game for Giants fans and Raiders haters everywhere. So what does CBS do coming back from halftime? Switch to a blah Pittsburgh-Detroit game and then later to Cincinnati-Baltimore. Big raspberry to CBS for keeping Giants fans from watching their team's game.

45 minutes until Patriots-Denver. Should be an interesting matchup as Denver coach Josh McDaniel was New England's offensive coordinator for the last few seasons.

Monday, October 5, 2009

OK, maybe Owl Stretching Time wasn't the best choice for a title

Happy anniversary, Monty Python's Flying Circus, which debuted on the BBC 40 years ago today (after the BBC rejected alternate names like "Owl Stretching Time" and "The Toad Elevating Bucket"). Imagine how bland our world would be without ex-parrots and silly walks.



Sunday, October 4, 2009

Play of the Year

As the Major League Baseball regular season comes to a close today, I just wanted to enter my vote for the Play of the Year (if there was such a thing). Not only is this a spectacular catch but to do it in the 9th inning to save a perfect game? Are you kidding me? I'll even forgive Dewayne Wise for robbing Gabe Kapler (one of our favorite ex-Red Sox players) of the hit.

Twinkies never say die

As a former resident of the lovely (and occasionally very cold) state of Minnesota, I've always had a soft spot for the Minnesota Twins and not just because I was living in St. Paul for both of their World Series victories. As a result, I've been quietly cheering them on from here on the East Coast as they made an improbable run to catch the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central race for the post-season. Now, they've done it, entering a tie with the Tigers with one game to go in the season. This is what end of the regular season baseball should be like -- a nail-biting "who wants it more" pennant race.

Believe me, I decided long ago that I was willing to accept the Wild Card addition to the baseball post-season. Hell, the Red Sox have feasted off the Wild Card and won the 2004 World Series thanks to it. But a true pennant race like the one going on between the Twins and the Tigers? That just can't be beat.

Go Twinkies!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

School Daze II

Just a quick follow up on an education story I first wrote about in my original "School Daze" post:

Last year, the local school superintendent fired an elementary school teacher after repeated incidents of being under the influence of alcohol during the school day, reports of driving under the influence with children in the vehicle, and repeated arrests for domestic assault and battery with alcohol involved. To many peoples' surprise, an arbitrator ruled that she was fired unfairly, a ruling upheld by a RI Superior Court judge.

So, after all that, you'd think that the teacher might have realized she needed help and made some changes for the better, right?

To quote Bruce Willis in Die Hard..."Sorry, Hans, wrong guess!"

On Monday morning, one month after being reinstated, the teacher at the center of this story was arrested by Bristol police for suspicion of drunk driving on her way to school! Of course, it's only "for suspicion" as she refused a field sobriety test (her legal right in RI) after witnesses reported erratic driving and police observed her swerving back and forth along the road.

I sincerely hope that this woman gets help and treatment for her own sake, the sake of the kids who were put into her charge, and for the sake of other people on the road (like me...I drive right past where she was arrested every day on the way to work). And while I'm a firm believer in the concept of innocent until proven guilty, it is a relief to know that the superintendent has suspended her while the allegations are being investigated. Now we'll just see if the suspension actually sticks.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Happy One-Hit Wonder Day!

Yes, it's that little-known holiday, "National One-Hit Wonder Day." The songs to be celebrated are the soundtrack of my teen years, absolutely littered with musical classics that never went anywhere but are still featured prominently in my iPod's "1980s" playlist.

As I wrote this, I just found VH1's list of the top 100 1-hit wonders of the 1980s. Is it sad that 20-30 years later, I can read the song titles and immediately begin singing (or at least humming) the vast majority of these? Nope. They may have only been fleetingly famous but these songs are loads of fun. Seriously, how can you not enjoy "Your Love" by The Outfield?

Jenn and I just looked at the list and began singing spontaneously. We are baffled, however, that "Rock Me Amadeus" by Falco and "Walking on Sunshine" by Katrina and the Waves didn't make VH1's top 100 list. You have to be joking!

All in all, "National One-Hit Wonder Day" gives us an opportunity to celebrate some great 1980s cheese. Thankfully, I never had the 1980s hair. Or at least there's no photographic evidence. But I will admit it here for the first time that I went out and bought the 45 RPM single of Taco's "Putting on the Ritz". It was a moment of temporary weakness. I really should have invested in the single for "The Safety Dance" by Men without Hats.

Can Nemo and the Nautilus be far behind?

Scientists conducting research in the Gulf of Mexico announced that they netted a 20-foot long giant squid earlier this summer. Unfortunately, the creature didn't survive the inadvertent capture due to the changes in water pressure as it was raised more than 1,500 feet to the surface. I suppose, in a way, that was lucky for the scientists involved because we all know what the squid tried to do to Kirk Douglas and James Mason.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Literacy gets a reprieve!

Just a follow up to my recent post about how the 54 libraries serving the City of Philadelphia were about to be closed down due to funding issues...

It appears that the legislators in Pennsylvania realized that they were on the verge of being colossal boneheads and came up with the $$$$ to keep the Philadelphia libraries. Not that I've ever been inside a Philly library or even to Philadelphia (yes, I know, it's a cultural gap I need to fill) but you can't help but be in favor of funding libraries, wherever they may be.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Born to Run

My parents and I went to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform at an outdoor venue just as Born to Run was reaching the airways. Sadly, I don't remember much of the experience but it's understandable I guess, having only been 6 at the time. The only thing that I came away with from that experience (besides a really cool balloon that actually had a valve at the bottom to fill it up) was a lasting appreciation for Springsteen. Of course, the fact that my parents were Springsteen fans and played his albums at home might also have had something to do with it.

Anyhow, it's with that background of fandom that I recently read "The Birth of Born to Run" by Louis Masur on Slate. It's a fascinating look at the songwriting process. As a writer, I'm used to crafting multiple drafts of documents, throwing away pieces, moving others. However, I'd never really given much thought to the songwriting process. I love the idea that there are alternative versions of the song -- rough drafts, if you will -- out there to listen to, to compare with the final brilliant song, and that small club crowds in New York and New Jersey heard them as he worked out the kinks. That sounds like a lot more fun than writing a novel.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Call it what it is

Bribe
verb: persuade (someone) to act in one's favor, typically illegally or dishonestly, by a gift of money or other inducement
noun: a sum of money or other inducement offered or given in this way

In today's Sunday New York Times, the grand jury investigation into payments to former Senator John Edward's mistress is described as follows:

According to people familiar with the grand jury investigation, prosecutors are considering a complicated and novel legal issue: whether payments to a candidate’s mistress to ensure her silence (and thus maintain the candidate’s viability) should be considered campaign donations and thus whether they should be reported. (my italics)

Campaign donations? Are you kidding me? Please, let's be adults about this and just call these "campaign donations" what they are -- bribes. They were bribes paid by Edward's wealthy supporters to ensure the political survival of their man. In doing so, these supporters would no doubt then gain tremendous levels of access and have a prominent politician in their back pocket. Edward's mistress received "large financial benefits, including a new BMW and lodging, that were used to keep her out of public view".

It's no different than the revelations that Senator John Ensign's parents (!) paid his mistress nearly $100,000 "out of concern for the well being of longtime family friends during a difficult time." Oh please. Wrap it up in the trappings of "a pattern of generosity by the Ensign family to the Hamptons and others" and comply with tax laws on gifts all you like but be honest here. It was a bribe, pure and simple, to try and save their son's political career and avoid the shame and embarrassment that went along with it.

Our language is a powerful tool. But like any tool, it can be misused and abused. Too often, it is employed to obfuscate, confuse, and manipulate in the service of those who seek to the avoid consequences of their actions.

Even as the rationalizations and wordsmithing tumble like so many counterfeit coins from the mouths of these politicians and their lawyers, we all know the truth. People aren't fooled. We know what happened and why. So please spare me the flowery statements and own up to what we all know this miserable business is -- bribery, carried out by and for politicians and their families to save their careers, their reputations, and their influence.

The last time I checked, bribery was illegal. Can someone please tell me why no one has been punished yet?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Old Ben is Rolling in His Grave

Another casualty of the financial situation, budget shortfalls, or perhaps simply a gambit by the city to get more money from the state? Whatever it is, this recent posting on the Philadelphia Free Library website is rather distressing:

All Free Library of Philadelphia Branch, Regional and Central Libraries Closed Effective Close of Business October 2, 2009

All Free Library of Philadelphia Customers,

We deeply regret to inform you that without the necessary budgetary legislation by the State Legislature in Harrisburg, the City of Philadelphia will not have the funds to operate our neighborhood branch libraries, regional libraries, or the Parkway Central Library after October 2, 2009.

Read the entire letter...

If you read the whole letter, it's stunning the impact this system-wide closing will have. This isn't simply about people being able to check out books for free. It's after-school programs, programs for seniors, small business programs, support for those seeking jobs, computer classes, and so much more.

How sad. Let's all appreciate the irony that the city that saw the creation of the first public library in America (founded by Ben Franklin) will have no libraries in less than 3 weeks. Oh, and if this is the city playing financial chicken with the state, can we all agree that it's a reprehensible tactic?

I feel for the people of Philadelphia and count myself lucky that I live in a town that, despite nay-sayers and many who failed to recognize the long-term value, went ahead and invested in the updating and expansion of the town library. In doing so, they created a jewel in the state's library system and a new center for culture and community in town.

I grew up going to the library constantly and still do. Every time I go into the Rogers Free Library, the computers are full of kids working on school projects, adults searching for jobs or doing research, people browsing the stacks, and others curled up in chairs by the wide windows immersed in books. The idea of losing that resource in our small town would be heartbreaking. The idea of losing every library in a city like Philadelphia? It must be devastating.

Thanks to Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing for spotting this as well as for his impassioned response.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Kicking off the season

It's only one day into the 2009 NFL season and I'd already like to propose a new rule. Before the Giants/Redskins game came on yesterday, I watched the conclusion of the Philadelphia/Carolina game, which appeared to have been an utter disaster for the Panthers - 7, yes 7 turnovers and down 38 to 10 at the end. Towards the end, a Panther player sacked the Eagles QB or tackled a running back for a loss (I don't recall which...it was such a lousy game that I didn't really care). However, at the end of that play, the Panther player who made the stop began to do the "no way, not in my house, you're stuffed, I denied you" strut, complete with waving arms, shaking head, and an apparently primal scream of triumph.

And so I would like to propose a new rule for the NFL that I call the "You Haven't Earned It Prohibition": if your team is getting crucified, if your defense has given up 38 points, if you can't score, and your team looks like a bunch of half-drunk frat boys who can't throw a spiral or run in a straight line during a pickup game, you are not allowed to do the "no way, not in my house, you're stuffed, I denied you" strut, complete with waving arms, shaking head, and an apparently primal scream of triumph. Trust me. Trying to do it only makes you look foolish.

It's just a thought.

And on a final note...did anyone watching tonight's game doubt that Tom Brady would lead the Pats back against the Bills? Not me. Of course, I didn't have much confidence that the defense would stop the Bills on the final drive but it's nice to be proven wrong.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Remembrance Eight Years Later

Driving to work today I passed the Portsmouth, RI, fire station as I always do on workdays. Today was different though.

From the base of the hill on East Main Rd, well before the station itself came into sight, the ladder truck's basket soared into view, extending out over the wooded, four-lane road.

An American flag, stirring in the gentle breeze, hung straight down above the cars that slowed almost as if in a funeral cortège as they passed below.

In front of the truck, visible only as you reached the station itself, was a single wreath of flowers, a fireman's jacket and helmet, and a pair of empty boots.

No one honked.

No one sped up to pass the other cars.

Everyone remembered.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Thanks for the help but...

First, let me just say that the Providence Place Mall is a perfectly adequate mall, provided you're not susceptible to vertigo, in which case the long, narrow, and extremely tall mall with a wide open center is not for you. Regardless, it's easy to find your way around and has all of the requisite stores that you expect in a mall (Apple Store woo hoo!). On the flip side, the Providence Place Mall's parking garage has to rate as one of the worst on the planet. Labyrinthine, narrow, virtually impossible to navigate, capable of hiding whole families, and a multitude of accidents waiting to happen, I dread having to park there.

Such was the case today when I drove into the city to volunteer for the United Way of Rhode Island's Waterfire event. For those who haven't attended one, I heartily recommend Waterfire. Tonight was the kickoff of UWRI's annual campaign and some 150 volunteers would be walking the 1/2 mile Waterfire route to raise awareness.

Anyhow, I park at the mall, close to the end of the Waterfire walk and trek down to the other end where I meet up with my wife and the rest of the UWRI staff and volunteers. After a practice walk down to the location of tonight's "Ring of Fire", a leisurely stroll back to the start, and a brief break we turn around and trek back, this time for real. At the end, we settle down, the torches are lit around the perimeter, the torches are lit out in the river, the music plays, and then it's time for me to head home. I work my way through the dense crowds, trek across to the mall, and then find my way to the sixth circle of hell where my car is parked.

Stepping out into the parking lot, I come to a stop. I was lucky, having found a parking spot directly in front of the doors. From there, I can see a large piece of paper quite conspicuously sticking out of my door for all to see. Hmmmm...I think. Maybe it's a flyer for one of the stores or for an event. So I cross to the car and grab the paper.

"Providence Place Security Tip" it reads.

It would appear that one of the parking garage security personnel was wandering among the cars and spotted my radar detector, which is stuck to the front windshield but very low, just above the dashboard.

OK, I can appreciate the thought. If I'd pulled the radar detector off the window and put it in the glove compartment, perhaps it would reduce the risk of crime.

On the other hand, I can guarantee that virtually no one would have spotted that radar detector except a security guard walking among the cars...or anyone who knew that these prominent pieces of paper fluttering in car doors are clearly identifying exactly which cars have perceived valuables exposed, have unlocked doors, have unlocked trunks, etc.

Basically, in a move designed to raise my awareness of a potential crime risk, my car has just been flagged as a prime stopping point for any ne'er-do-well casing the joint for targets of opportunity.

Fine, next time I'll stash the radar detector but please, Providence Place Mall parking lot cops, I'd appreciate it if you didn't help quite so much next time.

So how fast do the lobsters go?

Oh sure, if you want classic lines and lovely sails, you go to see the schooner races in Maine. But if speed and a certain level of craziness is your thing, then it's the lobsterboat races throughout the summer that will seize your fancy. And at the moment, that craziness appears to have reached new heights with Sunfire, the Ca'-Boat (say it with a Maine accent and it makes perfect sense). Of course no one will actually be lobstering using the Pontiac Sunfire convertible mounted on a sawed-off cabin cruiser but the Ca-Boat apparently is adding even more zip to an already wild circuit of events.

Just one more reason you've got to love Maine.

Friday, September 4, 2009

School daze

As the school year gets underway, you sometimes just need to shake your head in wonderment.

In the local weekly paper, a constant source of amusement is the Speakout section in which anonymous calls to the paper's voice mail are transcribed and reprinted. Usually the comments range from the pleasant (thanks to the person who returned the caller's purse) to the obsessive (really people, can we just drop the incessant rantings about the local university and paying taxes?). Last week, a new topic showed up as a caller railed, in a righteous rage that clearly came through in the transcript, against the local school district for asking the students to read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. "Why are we asking our children to read socialist and communist books," asked the caller. "They should be reading good American books!" Sigh...so much for open minds, a literate society, and an appreciation for a classic of American literature.

..........................

In other local news, the question has been asked: so exactly what does it take to remove a teacher from her classroom? Surprisingly, it appears that being under the influence of alcohol during the school day, reports of driving under the influence with children in the vehicle, and repeated arrests for domestic assault and battery with alcohol involved aren't quite enough. After the local superintendent fired an elementary school teacher, she was restored to her position after a R.I. Superior Court judge upheld an arbitrator's decision that she was fired without proper cause.

Obviously, you never want to see someone lose their job unfairly. Clearly, this woman is in need of help for her issues with alcohol and instigation of domestic violence. However, as someone who will hopefully have a kid going to elementary school in the years ahead, I can understand the outrage and shock among parents that someone with this track record (and the inherent risks associated with such behavior) would be allowed back into a situation where she is responsible for the health and safety of children. I can only hope that she gets the help she needs to combat her addictions and that no child is put at further risk or comes to harm.

Is he "Steele" a jackass? Oh, you bet!

How can these people be taken seriously? Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele exceeded his already stratospheric jackass quotient for the day when he mocked and laughed at a young woman whose mother passed away from cancer 6 months ago after having insufficient insurance and financial resources to pay for all of her chemo medications. You show 'em, Mike! That's the way the Republicans will win back the hearts and minds of Americans.

Ugh.

Don't get convicted in Texas

Last night, I read David Grann's profoundly disturbing article "Trial By Fire" in the New Yorker. An investigation into the arrest, trial, conviction, and execution of Cameron Willingham, Grann makes a remarkably strong case that the unthinkable has happened -- that the State of Texas put to death an innocent man. What's worse is that in a state other than Texas, there's a good chance that Cameron Willingham would still be alive, if not a free man.

Willingham was tried and convicted in the 1991 deaths of his three children, accused of setting fire to his home while his wife was out and the children were asleep. The conviction rested largely on the testimony of an assistant fire chief and a deputy arson investigator. Their commentary, along with the statements of two psychologists who never actually met or spoke with Willingham, were sufficient to lead the jury to a guilty verdict and hand down the death penalty.

Looking at several reports that were commissioned in recent years to examine the Willingham case, however, Grann eviscerates the "expert" arson investigators whose testimony directly led to Willingham's execution:
Nearly two years later, the Innocence Project commissioned Lentini and three other top fire investigators to conduct an independent review of the arson evidence in the Willingham case. The panel concluded that “each and every one” of the indicators of arson had been “scientifically proven to be invalid.”

In 2005, Texas established a government commission to investigate allegations of error and misconduct by forensic scientists. The first cases that are being reviewed by the commission are those of Willingham and Willis. In mid-August, the noted fire scientist Craig Beyler, who was hired by the commission, completed his investigation. In a scathing report, he concluded that investigators in the Willingham case had no scientific basis for claiming that the fire was arson, ignored evidence that contradicted their theory, had no comprehension of flashover and fire dynamics, relied on discredited folklore, and failed to eliminate potential accidental or alternative causes of the fire. He said that Vasquez’s approach seemed to deny “rational reasoning” and was more “characteristic of mystics or psychics.” What’s more, Beyler determined that the investigation violated, as he put it to me, “not only the standards of today but even of the time period.”
What's almost as tragic as the use of such disastrously flawed "evidence" to convict and then execute a man is the case Grann makes for how skewed in favor of death the Texas penal system is right now. Reading the article, I was aghast at the callous and indifferent attitude of officials who have the ultimate responsibility for whether or not someone lives or dies:
  • Judge Sharon Keller, now facing charges of judicial misconduct, refused to allow a clerk's office to remain open for an additional 15 minutes to permit defense attorneys to submit a petition for a stay of execution for another inmate following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that very day that directly applied to the Texas inmate's case. The inmate was executed hours later.
  • A scientific report submitted to the Board of Pardons and Paroles and demolishing the prosecution's case against Willingham was apparently never even read by members of the Board, one of whom remarked, "We get all kinds of reports, but we don’t have the mechanisms to vet them" despite the fact that according to that same member of the Board, they are tasked with ensuring that before an execution occurs that there are "no glaring errors."
What does this add up to? 439 executions in Texas between 1976 and 2009 with the trend line accelerating (33 in the 1980s, 166 in the 1990s, and 240 thus far in the 2000s).

I guess comedian Ron What wasn't actually joking when he declared "Texas has the death penalty and we use it! Other states are trying to abolish the death penalty. My state's putting in an express lane."

I've always had somewhat mixed feelings about the death penalty. In virtually all cases, I'm opposed though I suppose that there could be extreme situations in which I could be convinced it would be justified. Maybe. The issue is that execution is irrevocable. There's no option for "oops!" You can't take a mulligan. There's no additional appeal. If you're wrong, you can never take it back.

Former Supreme Court Justice referred to the execution of an innocent person as "a constitutionally intolerable event". On the flip side, Justice Antonin Scalia, that paragon of compassion, declared that there has not been “a single case—not one—in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops.”

Sadly, David Grann's article and the diligent work of arson investigators basing their work on scientific analysis appear to make a compelling case that the State of Texas did indeed execute an innocent man in the face of evidence that he was innocent, a profoundly wrong and irrevocable action.

Perhaps it will be Cameron Willingham's name that will be shouted from the rooftops, hopefully somewhere within earshot of Antonin Scalia, Sharon Keller, Texas Governor Rick Perry, and the members of the Texas Pardons and Parole Board.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Sports Musings

Just a quick post of some random thoughts on happenings and around sports...

In a big game situation, I loved to see Curt "Bloody Sock" Schilling on the mound but does that really make him qualified to run for senator?

OK, maybe it's legally feasible but did anyone at the Washington Redskins stop to think that it might be a PR nightmare to sue a 72-year old woman and 45-year long season ticket holder into bankruptcy over her season ticket contract after she lost her job and was living on $400 a month in Social Security?

No one can tell me that it's as hard to pitch in the National League as it is in the American League. John Smoltz, who went 2-5 with a 8.32 ERA while pitching for the Red Sox against the likes of the Yankees and Angels, suddenly looks like a Hall of Famer again after moving to the Cardinals. Brad Penny, who could barely get anyone out the second half of the season for the Red Sox, immediately looked like the second coming of Cy Young after shifting to the San Francisco Giants. I have trouble believing that it's all a matter of feet slipping off the pitching rubber but no one noticing (Smoltz) and an overuse of his fastball (Penny). Something tells me that BoSox pitching coach John Farrell and catcher Jason Varitek would have spotted these things.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Harbinger

You know that summer is ending and autumn is upon us when that yellow school bus rumbles by at 6:50 AM for the first time. It comes to a halt, brakes wheezing, and the driver or aide sounds like an adult in a Charlie Brown special, using the microphone and speakers to tell the kids to sit down.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Geeking out over a big cat

Yesterday was the day Apple released a major new update to its operating system, code named Snow Leopard in keeping with their past big cat nomenclature...Tiger, Leopard, Panther, etc. Eventually they'll run out of big cats of course and move on to the less imposing felines like bobcats, civets, and caracals (Mac OS X 10.18 Ocelot!).

While I had yesterday off, I refrained from rushing off to the Apple Store in Providence to pick up a copy. I'd already pre-ordered it on Amazon, of course, specifically to avoid having to hit the mall.

The drawback to that approach is that it imposed a brief waiting period as the rest of the Mac tech heads rushed off to the stores and started playing with the new OS yesterday. But that's ok. Delayed gratification can be good for the soul. Jenn simply rolls her eyes when these computer-based events happen but that's ok. Eye rolls and sighs of "you go right ahead, honey" will not deter my inner geek or Apple's big cats. Meow!

The first thing I did this morning when I sat down at my computer was check the package tracking. Apparently, my family pack copy of Snow Leopard was handed off to UPS in Warwick, RI, at 3:13 AM this morning. Woohoo! Of course, the scheduled arrival date say August 31, which is Monday. Does this mean UPS doesn't deliver on Saturdays, even if the shipment was a "next day" deal?

If it arrives today, that would be perfect. The remains of Tropical Storm Danny are raining down moderately hard and are expected to do so throughout the weekend. I would therefore not have to feel guilty about missing a lovely day outside as I upgrade all of our computers. On the other hand, there's now a chance that my copy of Snow Leopard is sitting in a warehouse 25 minutes away, right across the bay, and will just remain there gathering dust until Monday. That would suck. Of course it could be worse. I could live in New Zealand.

I guess I should have just gone to the mall.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Rendition

As a candidate, Barack Obama railed against rendition, the practice of shipping terror suspects off to other countries where they would most likely be tortured even more severely than at U.S. facilities like Guantanamo. But in the past day or two, the Obama Administration confirmed that extraordinary rendition would continue, albeit under more stringent oversight to ensure that suspects aren't tortured.

Can someone explain to me why we need to bother sending suspects overseas if we aren't torturing any more and our rendition "partners" aren't going to be allowed to torture any more? Are we not able to question them here? Is it a political move to make closing Guantanamo more palatable? Is it simply to put suspects in a position to undergo "enhanced interrogation" but not run the risk that the CIA or other U.S. agencies be held legally liable?

The concept of rendition is forever tainted by the spectre (and reality) of torture committed previously. Realistically, is anyone going to believe that it isn't happening again? After all, once a suspect is shipped off on a secret flight to somewhere else and held incommunicado, who is to know?

I understand that upon becoming President, Barack Obama and his team came into possession of more information than he had as a candidate and more than we'll ever have. Obviously, that has led to a change in position but all in all, it's still just another touch of disappointment in the compromises made by the Obama Administration.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Book Review: "The Battle for America 2008"

OK, on the heels of finishing "The Lost City of Z", I plunged into another non-fiction tale of obsession, "The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election" by Haynes Johnson and Dan Balz. As anyone who has read my prior blog entries here at "Walks in the Marsh" will know, I'm a political junkie and followed the 2008 presidential campaign obsessively myself (just click "Election 2008" in the tag cloud to see proof).

Anyhow, my obsession carried over to getting my hands on a copy "The Battle for America 2008" to revisit the two years of events that led up to the election and inauguration of President Obama. A quick read, it offers an excellent and even-handed recap of the overall primary and general election efforts with special focus on the campaigns of Senators Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain, the key personnel within each campaign, and how the views and responses of the electorate changed over the course of 24 months.

Anyone not living in a cave for the last two years will be familiar with the basic details. People addicted to the election campaign like me will know some of the more arcane lore. However, Haynes Johnson and Dan Balz provide an entirely new level of insider details as a result of their extensive interviews with key players during and after the campaign. Many of their observations aren't exactly new but the presentation of these observations in the context of campaign e-mails, focus group commentaries, and the words of the candidates themselves make for engaging reading.

Two elements are of particular fascination to the authors. First, they clearly illustrate the evolution of the campaigns and illustrate just how long the odds were for Barack Obama. Take for example, the anecdote of how, following an early campaign visit, Obama was sitting in a cramped 6-seat charter airplane as Hillary and Bill Clinton roll up in their motorcades, emerge, and take off in their Gulfstream jet. And Obama? His departure was delayed by the need to find a long extension cord with which to jump start the dead battery in his plane.

Secondly, they are unsparing in their dissection of the crippling dysfunction in the Clinton and McCain campaigns. At times, each campaign comes across as the Democratic and Republican versions of the Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, more often taking out their own feet or their own people than anything else. In contrast, Johnson and Balz illustrate how the Obama campaign, led by David Axelrod and David Plouffe, showed a remarkable prescience and ability to be at the right place and the right time with a unified team. Sure they made mistakes and Obama and his team own up to them in their comments to Balz and Johnson but they didn't let miscalculations or gaffes derail their plan, established and adhered to starting two years before election day.

Many people want to put 2008 behind them and focus on what the Obama Administration is doing now (or, heaven forbid, anticipating the 2010 and 2012 elections). But for those who want to remind themselves of just how extraordinary the 2008 campaign was and gain some insight into how Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain battled it out for the presidency, "The Battle for America 2008" is a worthwhile read.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Book Review: "The Lost City of Z"

In the waning days of summer, I'm plowing through more of my summer reading, this time moving from the fun fiction to some very interesting non-fiction.

In a nice juxtaposition of my passion for history and my enjoyment of travel writing, I plowed through the outstanding "The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon" by David Grann, a staff writer for The New Yorker. In it, Grann explores the disappearance of Col. Percy Fawcett, "the last of the individualist explorers", his son, and his son's best friend as they entered the Amazon rain forest in search of the fabled city of El Dorado, or "Z" as Fawcett named it.

A parallel story of past and present exploration, "The Lost City of Z" follows both Fawcett's history and the events leading up to his final expedition along with Grann's own expedition into the Amazon in search of the truth of Fawcett's disappearance though the majority of the is given over to Fawcett, his obsession with finding the legendary lost city, and the realities of exploring the vastness of the Amazon rainforest that keep you riveted.

Before the age of movie stars, it was the British explorers who sought to expand out view of the world -- men like Richard Francis Burton, the first European to reach the headwaters of the Nile; Ernest Shackleton of the Endurance expedition; Robert Falcon Scott who died after reaching the South Pole Antarctic as part of the Terra Nova expedition; Henry Livingstone (he of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume"), and Colonel Percy Fawcett -- who were the rock stars of their day.

With the South Pole reached and Africa largely opened to the western world, Fawcett (an inspiration for both Professor Challenger in Conan Doyle's "The Lost World" and Indiana Jones) focused on the Amazon, one of the last great unexplored stretches on modern maps. In many cases, those entering the jungle did so to find what was there, to seek the headwaters of the great rivers, to find a way through it, or take advantage of its resources. However, it was the tales of lost cities and civilizations, of vanished treasures, of natives who coated themselves in gold dust because it was so plentiful, that drove so many of those who sought fame in the jungle and, in many cases, died there.

Fawcett was foremost among these Amazon explorers, a legend in his own right for his ability to survive where so many others fell as well as for his ability to coexist with Indians that otherwise were hostile to those entering their forest. Grann leads us through his repeated expeditions as he brought to light much that was previously unknown to western science -- giant anacondas, the double-nosed Andean tiger hounds, Indian tribes with little if any prior contact with westerners -- and mapped the previously impassable border of Brazil and Bolivia.

It is also clear from Grann's research and personal experience that the Amazon was and still is, in its own way, just as inhospitable a place for those not accustomed to it. The squeamish might want beware of those sections in which Grann details the various gruesome ways members of various expeditions became disease-infested (e.g., five simple words: "maggots growing in his elbows"), crippled or killed.

But it is Fawcett's growing fascination with the legendary lost city he designated as "Z", his final expedition in search of it, and the decades of fruitless searches, rumors, and deaths in efforts to find Fawcett and his companions, that are the engine for Grann's story. Grann's research into Fawcett's thinking, including access to letters and other materials that had not previously been made available by Fawcett's family, spur Grann himself to enter the Amazon rainforest in search of the truth of Fawcett's disappearance as well as a possible resolution to the legend of Z.

The result is the rediscovery of a tale that gripped the western world for decades before sliding into obscurity as well as an examination of how the Amazon of Fawcett's day is both changing and unchanged in a world of bulldozers and ripstop nylon tents. At times long-winded with details (Grann is up front about how this research became an obsession for him and it shows at times in the writing and not in a good way), it's not a book you want to put down once you begin.

While we know from the start that Fawcett was never found, the knowledge of that result doesn't detract from the tale of how Fawcett reached that point where he would risk his life at age 58, along with that of his eldest son, Jack, and Jack's best friend, in pursuit of his obsessive desire to find Z. Grann's own journey, abetted by GPS, trucks, roads, and motorboats, seems small in comparison but his tale of Fawcett's explorations as well as his own realizations about both the possible fate of Fawcett as well as the existence of Z make the journey worthwhile.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Can he be my congressman, too?

This may just be one of my favorite responses by a politician to a constituent's question EVER!



You go, Barney!

The 800 lb Gorilla of the Music Industry

According to a new research report, Apple's iTunes Store accounts for 25% of all music sold in the United States, more than 10% points more than prior leader, Wal-Mart. Wow. Does anyone remember the last time they bought an actual CD? I think the last one I bought was Paula Poundstone's "I (Heart) Jokes" as a gift for Jenn but only because it wasn't available digitally.

Monday, August 17, 2009

She Won

Right now, I'm absolutely drained, relieved, ecstatic. My eyes hurt from crying and it's all OK.

My mother called tonight. Seven months after being diagnosed with breast cancer, six months after starting an aggressive regimen of chemotherapy, and one week after her final infusion, she was told this afternoon by her surgeon and oncologist that they can find no trace of the cancer following a full body MRI.

Mom still needs surgery to remove and test the breast tissue and lymph nodes that had been affected followed by 6 weeks of radiation but, according to her surgeon and oncologist, today's news is the most spectacular result possible.

Of course it is.

She won.

She'll need to be vigilant for the rest of her life but now it looks to be a long and happy one alongside her family and friends, all of whom are in awe of her strength and courage. I know I am.

I love you, Mom.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

On the nature of friendship

It's a pretty extraordinary thing when you can see a old friend for the first time in 15 years and pick right up where you left off with no awkwardness, no embarrassment on either side for not necessarily having kept in as close touch as you might have wished, and no concerns about whether or not you're still friends. Instead there's simply an explosive joy at seeing someone who, in the space or probably less than 7 total days spread out across 22 years, became a dear friend for life.

Such was the case today when B and her husband pulled into our driveway, a brief pitstop on their way home from a wedding. B and I met during a New England Shakespeare Festival in 1987, my senior year of high school, and hit it right off. That accounted for maybe 48 hours. A few months later, before heading to college, I drove north to visit her. Chalk off 48 more hours. Then we went our separate ways, keeping in sporadic touch via letter and, even more rarely, phone. Then I moved back to RI and in 1994, after she moved to New York following an extended sojourn in Europe, she came to visit me in Jamestown, just to catch up. I don't remember -- maybe it was 24, maybe 48 hours. Let's go with 48 just to round up.

And then we didn't see each other for 15 years.

There was really no good reason for this. She was in New England, I was in New England, and while we both had our own lives, the letters kept being sent, perhaps one or two a year at most, sometimes a Christmas card. We kept up with the family news, about how I got engaged and married, about how she got engaged and married and then became a mom. Jenn and I were on a trip a year ago and were within 45 minutes of B's home and I didn't think to call and say, "hey, I want to meet your husband and your son and say hello for the first time in ages." B was in Newport for a conference a year or so ago but didn't have a chance to give me a shout.

And then B and her husband J showed up today to visit Jennifer and me and it was like no time passed. The four of us spent three hours trading stories, roaring with laughter, getting caught up, and just enjoying each others' company. We heard about their three-year old son, we brought them up to speed on our adoption journey, and it was so fluid and natural and pleasurable, B and I reenergizing our friendship, Jenn and J instantly becoming a part of it. When they left with waves and promises to stay in touch, Jenn turned to me and said, "I am so sad they don't live closer because we'd be seeing them a lot if they did."

You often think of friendships as things that must be built over time if they're to last. Not in this case. It was instant for B and me at that Shakespeare Festival and over the months and years and miles, that friendship never waned. While the thread of communication became pretty tenuous at times, it was never severed and for that, I am thankful.

Now, Jenn and I are already plotting how and when to invite ourselves to their place for a weekend sometime soon. After all, I squandered 15 years of a perfectly good friendship and Jenn just made two good new friends so there's no time to waste!

The southpaw challenge

I'm a southpaw, a lefty, one of the few, the proud, the 10% or so of people who drive the IT department nuts because our mouse is on the wrong side of the keyboard and the buttons are reversed. Of course, to make things easier, I adapted to a right-handed world. I didn't have much choice -- before the emergence of the Internet it was damn hard to find left-handed scissors, you know.

The one place I couldn't adapt was in sports. While I bat right for some reason, I throw left and, as a result, my options on the baseball field were limited (pitcher, first base, or outfield). The infield activities in baseball just are not designed for lefties. Put me at third base and it will look like I'm having spasms as I charge a bunt and then try to contort my body to allow me to throw to first base. Righties simply pick the ball up and throw across their bodies. Sure, I played shortstop during the summer when the camp counselors had pickup games on Sunday evenings but there was no way that would have happened if we were in any sort of league.

While it's been a while since I've played organized baseball or softball, it all came back to me this evening as I read this article in the New York Times about Benny Distefano, the last left-handed catcher the play in the major leagues. What's interesting is that unlike the legitimate issues facing a lefty at second, third, or shortstop, the issues facing lefty catchers seem to mostly be derived from that most annoying of rationales: it's just not something that's done. Distefano last caught 20 years ago and there isn't a single lefty catcher in the minor leagues. That doesn't seem quite fair.

On the other hand, three of the last four presidents (including our current commander in chief) are lefties so we southpaws are obviously doing something right...or left.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Avoiding the next addiction

About a year ago, I started blogging and came to enjoy it a great deal, so much so that I started another blog, 150 Steps, just to follow the trials, travails, and triumphs of our quest to adopt. I'm constantly looking for ideas to blog about, just to stay active, to put some thoughts out there for whoever might want to read them (and comment...please comment!).

Then, a month ago, I joined Facebook. It's definitely been worthwhile, reconnecting with old friends and posting the occasional status updates either from the computer or my iPhone. My most recent status, posted just a short time ago while standing in the vet's office: "Wow, who knew that cats could projectile vomit!" Gripping stuff, I'm telling you.

Still it's a challenge not to spend too much time blogging or Facebooking (has Facebook officially made the leap to verb status, like Googling or Xeroxing?).

Now I have a number of people suggesting I get hooked up with Twitter. I've resisted. While I may eventually have to do so for work, I've thus far avoided it for my personal life. I'm putting enough stuff that most people probably don't give a hoot about out there already. Reading this excellent commentary by Laurel Snyder helped reinforce that belief on my part. I'm hooked on blogging and (sort of) on Facebooking. I don't need to add another addiction.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to leave the virtual world and go clean the very real cat puke off my dashboard and floormats.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

On a lighter note

Well, at least Rod Blagojevich won't have to worry about what he'll do now that his political career is shot to hell.

Scary Stuff in the Face of Change

Despite my past commentary on political stuff, I've generally tried to stay away from this whole "birther" movement and the growing apocalyptic/paranoid/hysterical conspiracy stuff because it was just so ridiculous.

Unfortunately, I now think it's getting scary. I try not be alarmist about these things but I'm beginning to reach the point where I think that the fear, the misinformation, and the mob mentality unleashed by the rantings and ravings of people out there are threatening serious damage to rational conversation and any semblance of bipartisan governance in America.

If you want to get an idea of what I'm talking about, you only need to go so far as the racial eptithets directed at a black Congressman (as well as the swastika defacing his office), the mobs at town hall meetings intended to discuss health care, and an eye-opening two-part article in Esquire by John Richardson about what people are really willing to believe and how truly outrageous claims have become part of the national conversation (read Part 1 and Part 2).

Change is hard. There's uncertainty about what's going to happen as a result of the current efforts to recover from the damage done over the prior 8 years. People are scared of that change, worried about their jobs, their livelihoods, their future. Fear of change is a powerful force and sadly, there are many people who would take advantage of that fear in an effort to boost ratings or in a gambit to win an election.

Sometimes it doesn't work (look at the outlandish claims by some on the left that the Bush Administration deliberately failed to prevent or even actively participated in the events of 9/11 to gain greater power) because the media doesn't give those claims credence. However, many news organizations are carrying the "birther" stories, even if only to dismiss them, or in the case of FOX, giving a massive megaphone to those who spew outright lies under the guide of "commentary" and "opinion."

There's a difference between disagreeing with the other political party or an individual politician. Usually the types of claims we're hearing from "mainstream" commentators like Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, and Lou Dobbs are relegated to the lunatic fringe and the tin foil hat brigade. Sadly, either that fringe is getting bigger or more people are willing to accept that the lunatics are right.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Movie Review: "Julie & Julia" is a mouth-watering feast

We timed our trip to see "Julie & Julia" perfectly, leaving the movie theatre and immediately heading to dinner at a lovely restaurant called Red's on the River. This was a good thing because watching Amy Adams and Meryl Streep work their magic on plate after plate of French cooking for 2 hours left all of us drooling a bit and anxiously in need of dinner. It also left us awed again at Ms. Streep's chameleon-like qualities and wondering if there's anyone currently performing in film who is as delightful to watch as Ms. Adams.

"Julie & Julia", for those who don't know, presents two parallel tales, one of Julia Child before she became the Julia Child and Julie Powell, the blogger and low-level government employee who sets out to cook all 524 recipes found in Child's seminal work, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in 365 days. We see Child, the wife of a U.S. foreign service officer (the phenomenal Stanley Tucci), on her quest first to learn to cook true French cuisine while Paul is stationed in Paris starting in 1948 and then to get the cookbook she wrote with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle published in America. Meanwhile, in 2002, Julie Powell turns to blogging and Child's recipes as a means of breaking out of the rut and frustration of her job, achieving a goal, and in doing so reinvigorating her life and her marriage. Quite often laugh out loud funny, "Julie & Julia" examines the love affairs these two women have with French cooking as well as the men in their lives, a pleasant change from Nora Ephron movies in which the woman is in search of the right guy.

Towering over this movie much like the 6'2 Child herself is Meryl Streep's performance, which is jaw-droppingly good. Streep captures the mannerisms of Child without crossing over into imitation or caricature. She becomes Child in a truly remarkable and loving performance that is filled with verve and glee. She help us come to appreciate a larger than life woman who was somewhat goofy, committed to her craft, and dedicated to sharing her love of France and French cooking with fellow Americans. She flawless brings us along for the evolution of a woman who became not only a TV chef who most of us grew up watching but a cook taught us that cooking isn't perfect and everyone screws up an omelette flip sometimes ("You're alone in the kitchen. Who's to see?" Streep warbles, scooping the food back up and plopping it back in the pan).

However, it is her relationship with husband, Paul, that is the heart of Streep's half of the movie. Seeing Streep and Tucci together as Julia and Paul is to see a married couple deeply, madly, and passionately in love with one another, supportive of each other, and standing with each other at all times, for good or ill. Their performance together should be recognized as one of the great married couples on screen. It doesn't necessarily have the depth you find in a movie that focuses solely on a couple's marriage but it is so natural, so easy, so exquisitely sensitive that it took my breath away at times. The almost wordless scene in which Julia and Paul learn that her sister is pregnant while they themselves have not been able to conceive should be shown in drama classes as an examples of two masters of their craft at work. What's more amazing is that the whole time I watched them, so immersed in these roles, I never thought of Streep and Tucci's wonderful collaboration in "The Devil Wears Prada", which had memorable elements all of its own.

Adams does her best to stay step for step with Streep in her portrayal of Powell, alternately bubbly and full of joy and then melting down over spilled food, failed meals, and a sense that she might have bitten off more than she can chew. The food isn't the goal for her -- it's getting through the book, learning to cook, writing about, and doing it on a deadline that drives her. It becomes something of an obsession that drives away her husband Eric (Chris Messina) for a time, causes issues at her workplace, and forces her to get over various long-standing issues -- never eating eggs, de-boning a duck, and cooking live lobsters, among others. Adams carries these off with aplomb and if we don't feel quite as connected to Powell or as invested in her story, it's because Julia Child's side of the story is just that much more compelling. Even so, we celebrate along with Powell, Eric, and their friends when she serves the final recipe (the aforementioned duck).

And that, of course, is the other star of the film -- the food. Unlike the shows that spring up like weeds on Food Network and others, "Julie & Julia" will never be confused with food porn as such shows have been somewhat lovingly dubbed by my wife and mother-in-law. Instead, director Nora Ephron creates a movie that is a love affair with fine cooking as a means of stretching yourself, learning to expand your horizons, and appreciating a job well done. If the usually crisp and enthralling "Julie & Julia" is occasionally overdone or sometimes saggy, well it happens and it's still OK. Julia Child taught us that.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A good end to a long, miserable day

If there was one silver lining about today's miserable, failed attempt to get out of TF Green airport, it was that we were able to join my mother, the rest of our family, and some of our closest friends to celebrate her final chemo infusion. For the last 26 weeks, Mom has undergone various types of chemo on varying schedules. Now, she's done with that. While it's only "the first finish line", as our friend Patti described it, it's a huge one and Mom looked fantastic and was loving the fact that we were all together, even if she felt sorry for our failed travel plans.

Buy a tall ship and be your own Captain Bligh or Mr. Christian

From the Recreational Boating & Marine Industry Group on LinkedIn:

HMS Bounty, an authentic square rigged vessel is for sale.

A rare opportunity to own a prize possession- the legendary HMS Bounty is available. She was built by MGM Studios for the classic Mutiny on the Bounty starring Marlon Brando. When the movie was completed MGM was going to salvage the vessel but Marlon Brando fell in love with her and stopped that. Since that time she has had three owners including Ted Turner. Today she has been restored to original luster and is in mint condition. The current owner is reluctantly selling her due to personal circumstances. I can provide interested parties with a full prospectus and lots of additional information about ship construction, layout and expenses. The owner is willing to consider owner financing for qualified organizations and individuals. Let me know your thoughts on this unique opportunity.

All you need is some big $$$ and you too can go out in search of your very own breadfruit trees. Just be sure you can trust your crew.

Northworst

I'm too tired and frustrated to write about it in any depth now but today was the single worst airline experience of my entire life. Perhaps when my head isn't ready to explode I'll gather up sufficient self-control to rant without it turning into a profanity fest.

Then again, I might not be able to avoid it.

Day 2...the second attempt, different airline...tomorrow.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Marble of Doom

Thankfully, Mac users are usually spared the blue screen of death that so often afflicts PC users. Of course, back in the old days on the Mac, we dreaded the appearance of the sick Mac icon, a harbinger of very bad things (anyone out there have an image of that icon...the one that looks like an old Mac 512 with Xs for eyes and a wobbly mouth?).

Of course, nothing is ever perfect and even Mac OS X has its occasional issues, such as the icon I dubbed "the spinning beach ball of death." Everything is cruising along and suddenly whatever application you're working on decides that it really really really needs to think about what you're asking it to do. Does it violate the program's ethical code of conduct? Is there something else the application really wants to be doing right then? Is the application trying to pick up a hot utility and really can't be bothered at the moment?

Well, for those of you suffering this affliction, there is hope:

The Marble of Doom!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Well, now what do I do?

I'm conflicted.

I'm not sure what to do.

Or how to react.

David Ortiz, the beloved "Big Papi" of the Boston Red Sox, tested positive for steroids in 2003, according to the New York Times.

Papi's statement indicated surprise and a desire to find out what he's supposed to have tested positive for before he would comment further.

I hope it's false though in baseball's steroid era, I sadly lean toward accepting the NY Times report as correct.

If it is, it sucks big time, tarnishing two World Series titles and leaving me and millions of Red Sox fans confused. We roundly booed and loathed Barry Bonds, took great pleasure in chanting STEROIDS! and CHEATER! when Alex Rodriguez, and looked on with confusion and contempt as fans welcomed Manny "I need my female hormones" Ramirez was welcomed back to the Dodgers after serving his 50-game suspension for using banned substances. They cheated (in the case of the players) and ignored the cheating (the fans). How could anyone with a love and respect for the game support and encourage these guys?

But now it's Big Papi, not some guy I never liked or crowds on the other side of the country.

What the hell do I do?

Do I boo the next time I see him? Do I sit stoically? How do I react when the Fenway fans start to cheer him during the next homestand? Do I rationaize and say "this is different than the other situations somehow"?

If it's true, I'm disappointed and, I guess, not entirely surprised. But neither feeling helps me figure out what the hell I do now when I see Big Papi come up to bat.