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


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.


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!