Monday, December 13, 2010

Translation Troubles

As usual, I had further thoughts about something after I posted, in this case the notion that live-action movies based on comics tend to come off looking more cartoonish that the cartoon. I first said this...

Perhaps the producers equated cartoons with childish silliness, and felt they must incorporate that into the movie, resulting in an over-the-top feel that is an insult to the creativity of the makers of the original material who often tried to avoid doing such things in order to aim for a wide audience.

Later on, a more likely possibility occurred to me: it may be simply a matter of incompatibility. Certain ideas only work in cartoon form, with the attendant natural unreality. Removing that by translating it into live-action form makes the entire plot look silly. The Grinch is a cartoon character living in a cartoon world in which he is just another creature and can go about his business. Putting him into a real-world context turns him into a freak and a distraction from the plot.

The Flintstones is another example. Imagine trying to sell the live-action concept to a studio without the crutch of the successful cartoon - "It's The Honeymooners, but as cavemen, in a Stone Age version of suburban life, with primitive takes on modern conveniences." Most of the response would concern your ability to manage your own affairs. That plot requires the suspension of belief that cames with animation. Without it, you get John Goodman and Rick Moranis running around in fake fur.

Of course some cartoons can translate fairly well, such as Superman, Batman and other characters that are human-based. The key is to make sure the entire world in which the character exists is translated properly. Otherwise you end up with a movie-length equivalent of the brief scene from a past Simpsons Halloween special in which a 3-D Homer is walking down a city street being stared at by everyone.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Scrooge Done Right

Busy,busy,busy....or perhaps busy, busy, lazy is more accurate. When I have had the time to attend to this humble blog, I haven't had the energy. 'Tis the season for for stress and lethargy. I have long shared Charlie Brown's feelings about this time of year as expressed in A Charlie Brown Christmas, one of the better holiday specials ever made, although it's expression of the commercialization of Christmas is increasingly looking like quaint understatement compared to current reality. If those specials were done today the commercialization theme would be part of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving; Peppermint Patty would be dragging Charlie out at midnight to go shopping.

Speaking of holiday specials, a friend and I were discussing the plethora of viewing options, and she said she avoids almost all of them, as most are basically the same - sappy domestic distress solved by holiday-inspired reconciliation. I tend to limit myself to a few classics, such as the aforementioned Charlie Brown and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the cartoon, not the Jim Carrey movie).

That last sentence forces me to digress. Why is it that so many live-actor movies based on cartoons/comics seem more cartoonish than their source material? Perhaps the producers equated cartoons with childish silliness, and felt they must incorporate that into the movie, resulting in an over-the-top feel that is an insult to the creativity of the makers of the original material who often tried to avoid doing such things in order to aim for a wide audience.

I have also watched many versions of A Christmas Carol. (Is there a more frequently redone story? I see Carrey is appearing in one just out now.). Here again I prefer the classic story, not the various modern adaptations. George C. Scott did a nice job, and the musical version with Albert Finney works surprisingly well, which is a tribute to the then 34yo Finney's acting skill. Mickey's Christmas Carol also has it's clever moments for a light Disney version.

But the two versions I enjoy the most both star the same person: Alastair Sim. His 1951 performance captures the combination of hard edge and pathos that makes up Scrooge, and in 1971 he partially reprised the role as Scrooge's voice in an Academy Award winning cartoon that, remarkably, I saw shortly after it came out as part of a special movie day at the Legion hall in my hometown, and can't recall having seen anywhere since until the above friend did a search and found it at Google video.

I watched it again and was glad to see it still held up after 39 years, although with Sim involved and the great Chuck Jones as executive producer I shouldn't have been surprised. The animation has a sparse colored-pencil look that distinguishes it from the more typical heavily-colored animations, and parts of it have an intensity that other versions lack. I had recalled being particularly struck by Marley and the two children Ignorance and Want at my first viewing, and watching it again did nothing to dispel that.

It was made for TV and is less than 30 min long, so it lacks certain elements seen in movie-length versions, but it gets the story across quite well. I think some TV network should do what it takes to get this on in place of some of the holiday dreck. For that matter,TBS likes to run the Grinch cartoon multiple times during the holiday season. I like the Grinch, but I wouldn't mind if they replaced one or two of those with this.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Just Don't Do It

Once again, James Lileks says it.

Also grateful I’m not flying this weekend, but I would not refuse the scanners. This I do not understand. If everyone was having their groinal departments mauled I would be annoyed, but if you only get the blue-glove love after you’ve turned down the scanners, well, go through the scanners. Underlying the anger – of course – is the idea that everyone has to suffer indignities and suspicion because the TSA refuses to consider some people more likely to kaboom a Boeing than others. Add to that the suspicion that so much of the security check-through is just make-believe, and you have people who view the process of flying with fury and dread – the former because it TAKES SO FARGIN’ LONG, and the latter because you don’t think it works.

From what I've seen, I think that, like many "stories", this one said more about the media herd instinct than anything else. Somehow a reporter somewhere picked up on some one's whining, and through the magic of modern communication, it became something worth reporting on national news, despite the fact that they often mentioned in those reports that there really wasn't anything to it.

This makes me sympathize with the editor of Charles Kane's Inquirer when he said in response to Kane asking about a questionable "murder" story that there wasn't any proof, and they don't report that type of thing. Perhaps it wouldn't be bad to bring back a bit of that editorial discretion.

Urine In, Tobacco Out

I don't know why things like this come to me. I seem capable of developing trains of thought usually only made possible by ingesting chemicals.

Last week I was given the task of delivering a large jug containing urine (not mine) collected over 24 hours to a local clinic to be used for some sort of testing. I had been told that since the container had a properly coded label and accompanying paperwork I would merely have to drop it off with a certain nurse. Instead I got to sit for 20 minutes waiting for a lab tech to come out, and even then I couldn't give it to her; I had to carry it into the lab myself and put it on a table. The joys of bureaucracy. I sat waiting and contemplating the turns my life takes, I thought about a man who was standing outside smoking a cigarette as I came into the building. It occurred to me that, under recently enacted state law supported by public referendum, if the two of us were to go to almost any business open to the public, I and my cargo could go right in, probably without question, while he would have to dispose of his tobacco before being granted entry.

I'm not sure there's an actual point to this, other than to provide another indication of why idle thinking often gets me into trouble.

Monday, November 22, 2010

We've Grown Apart

In his latest blog post, James Lileks makes a reference to something I had not known: he is writing for National Review Online. I haven't been to that website for a long time, and I still don't plan on going back. Something about it makes me itch. I will continue to visit his personal site and read his Star-Tribune column, though, because I like his style and because he rarely mentions politics in those.

That revelation,and my reaction, did bring something about me to mind that I hadn't given much thought. I try to wander a wide spectrum of the web, but my blog's list of sites does have a slightly liberal lean to it. I only consider South Dakota War College, Andrew Sullivan and perhaps Megan McCardle conservative. I'm not really sure how that has come to be, since I've always had a hardheaded, unromantic view of life that would seem more in keeping with conservative traditions. I was raised a Missouri Synod Lutheran, and I went to an engineering college, where a roommate described me as very conservative. I'm even still registered as a Republican, although that's more a function of sloth and a general indifference to party politics that has kept me from changing something I did 30 years ago, when Ronald Reagan was just taking office and billion-dollar federal deficits were horrifying.

It may simply be a matter of taste. Internet exploration is a strictly hobby for me. I don't intentionally seek out subjects and sites with a certain ideology in mind; I simply seek entertainment and compelling thoughts. It just happens that the people I have found enjoyable tend to be on the left side of the the political spectrum, which is hardly surprising in a way, since the people who make a living in entertainment tend to frequent that side.

The more I think about it, though, the more I think it's a result of a parting of ways since I filed that party registration. The conservative movement has gotten more and more reactionary, at least to me. I recall Larry Pressler saying more or less the same thing two years ago when he said he voted for Obama - the Republican Party he once knew is gone. I can't say I've ever been a big supporter of any party or ideology, but it would seem that either my philosophical boat has drifted left, the political waters have flowed further right, or both. I'm inclined to think it's the last one.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The First Time

As I clicked by the latest season of Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders: Making the Team on CMT, it occurred to me that, not surprisingly, this season looks pretty much like the others. They have their formula, and they're sticking to it. Besides, the testing has to stay pretty much the same as long as the desired results stay the same. Speaking of those desired results, I realized that what they're trying to create with all the various little skills they test for and/or teach (formal dinner etiquette, eloquence, being a good party guest and host) isn't just a cheerleader, but an American Geisha.

No big election surprises. Some people I know were a bit surprised that Kristi Noem beat Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin, but being a Democrat here means fighting uphill at the best of times, and these are far from the best. One interesting outcome is that Republicans have unassailable majorities in both houses on the legislature to go with the Governor's office, which means they can pretty much do what they want, but they also don't have anyone else to blame, a fact several legislators acknowledged after the election.

One election-related item did escape my attention until right after my previous post; this was the first election for which my daughter was eligible to vote. She took quite a while to cast her ballot, and told me later that she left a few blank because she really had no idea what/who to pick. I told her that's OK; I often feel that too many elections are decided by people who have no clue but think they have to choose something. Ideally, of course, everyone would carefully research the candidates and issues. But if you don't know what you want, let the people who do know (or least think they do) decide. It's at least honest.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Get a Sugar Buzz and Vote

November....time to be sure the winter utensils are handy, because it's a-comin'. The weather may still be fairly decent, but it's a rearguard action. Best get the grill into the shed before it gets buried in snow.

We didn't get a single non-family trick-or-treater this Halloween, which means I get to finish off the leftover candy. I know what you're thinking, and I did actually have the porch light on to signal availability. (Hmmm....something about that seems a bit off-color.) Our court just doesn't have many kids, and it's so easy to load up at the various sugarfests put on by local organizations. (Including churches, which intrigues me. I know that the original meaning of Halloween has dissolved, but the idea of churches joining in somehow doesn't seem right.) Add in the every one's-a-potential-molester paranoia all too prevalent these days, and the old door-to-door tradition seems doomed.

I noticed that Wal-Mart this year had far more candy types and bag sizes than ever before, as well as a greater variety of Halloween-themed items. Lights and display items in particular have grown massively over the last few years, ever since someone who makes Christmas lights figured out that putting a plastic pumpkin or skull over the bulbs opened up a new market. At least it seemed to keep the Christmas displays in the back rooms a little longer, which gets kudos from me.

Now to the next event, the one hyped longer and louder than Christmas and the passing of which is greeted with even greater relief by most people....Election Day. It says a lot about this state that the incumbent Republican Senator is running unopposed and the Democratic incumbent House member is in a tight race with someone I had never heard of before she ran for office. The Republican Lt. Governor also seems to be cruising to the Governor's office, continuing a tradition since 1978.

There also a number of interesting propositions on the ballot, such as the legalization of medical marijuana (not happening, according to what I've seen. It's a sign of the relative ease with which something can get put to a public vote here that this is even on the ballot.) and expansion of the ban on smoking (apparently going to pass).

I'll be picking up the daughter after work and going to vote. As Jon Carroll says....

If you stay home and mutter that the Democrats and the Republicans are the same and they're all crooks paid off by special interests and things are so bad they can't get any worse, don't worry: They can get worse.

Maybe if you vote, they'll get less worse.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Old News

A couple of local "news" stories have caught my eye. First, a KELO/Argus-Leader poll that says Obama has a 53% unfavorable rating in South Dakota. This would seem to be bad, but a look back at the 2008 election results shows that 55.3% of South Dakota voters did not vote for Obama. In other words, whatever beating he may be taking around the country, Obama is pretty much holding steady here. Unfortunately for him, it's a steady disapproval.

Then, there's this, which I hadn't heard about in a long time.

Tribal leaders in South Dakota, Nebraska and Montana continue to work on a proposal to get back part of their sacred Black Hills, convinced that President Obama is willing to discuss it with them.

Ultimately, they want to present a proposal to the president about the potential return of some of their Black Hills - a possibility that candidate Obama fueled during a campaign stop in Sioux Falls.

The current obstacle is actually deciding what they want.

The real stumbling block might be the unified voice. Along with the Sioux Nation tribes, the Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association is trying to blend in varying treaty councils and other tribal entities that don't recognize the authority of the existing tribal governments formed under the Indian Reorganization Act.

Personally, I think getting that done won't be much easier than negotiating Middle East peace. I also can't see it doing any better in Congress than it ever has, especially if Republicans get back some control, and it's hard to imagine Obama using any political capital fighting for it when he has so many other problems, particularly when the South Dakota members of Congress don't want to touch it. On the other hand, as those poll results show, Obama doesn't have anything to lose here by listening.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Dustin and Lepers

I hadn't been to James Lileks' site for a while, so I took a quick cruise down the blog page. It didn't take too long to find something I had long thought.

I’d been watching “The Graduate,” but it annoys me; never did, and really cannot now, identify with Dustin Hoffman. Plus, “Plastics” is excellent career advice, at least at the time.

I think of Hoffman's character as a spoiled innocent, someone who had gone through the motions, who had let others make decisions about his life without really thinking, who then proceeded to demonstrate why that may not have been a bad thing. On the other hand, the "OK you idiot, you've spent most of the movie thinking with body parts not designed for that purpose; now what?" ending just about saves the movie by hinting that somehow he's going to pay for this.

Then there's this....

Also, there’s the Apple iBookstore, which is like a combination of Fort Knox and a nudist leper colony: you can’t figure out how to get in, and you’re pretty sure you don’t want to anyway.

I have no opinion about the Apple iBookstore. I just like that description.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Mouse in the House, Among Other Things

A minor crisis recently developed in the household; the wife discovered mouse droppings under the kitchen sink. Her slightly disturbingly thorough follow-up seemed to indicate that it was isolated to that location and that it was a recent occurrence. We purchased mouse traps (the old-fashioned type, thank you; it just wouldn’t be the same without the threat of snapping one on your fingers, or in my wife’s case, on her stomach) and poison and steel wool for sealing the possible entrances, and emptied and washed out the area, including the drawers.

I must note that all of this activity was at her command, simply because I have had almost no experience with this. I do not recall ever having to deal with a rodent invasion of any place I have lived as an adult, perhaps because I haven’t lived anywhere long enough for the cracks and crevasses necessary for their entrance to develop. It’s also possible that they were there and I was blissfully ignorant, since I had to take her word that what she found was in fact mouse feces, even after I saw it for myself; it looked like dirt to me.

She was proven correct that very night, as one of the traps – baited with peanut butter - snagged a little critter. I was given the task of disposing of the carcass. I first considered just throwing it into a nearby ravine so something could eat it, but since there were signs it had partaken of the D-Con before it stuck its nose into the trap, I decided to put it in a plastic bag and send it out with the trash. We are hoping that this was the only one, and that our preventative measures have put an end to further encroachment, but the traps are still set.

Emptying the drawers reminded me of something slightly unusual about my life. When I moved to Vermillion from Rapid City in 1994, I was able to use my mobile home (not as mobile as they used to be, but still equipped with the necessary hardware) as a shipping container, which eliminated a lot of the sorting and packing normally associated with moving. When I moved up to a larger mobile home, it was just behind and to the left of my old one, so a lot of stuff I could just grab and haul. Only the larger furniture required assistance. The move to Pierre was essentially a repeat of the the move to Vermillion – I even used the same mover to tow the house. The result of that convenience, and the fact that I kept the house after my two divorces, is that a lot of things that would probably have been thrown out had I had to pack them got to come along, and many of the smaller ones ended up in these drawers.

There were a number of kitchen utensils I didn’t know I owned, and that my wife had never seen. A couple of cheese cutters, two paring knives that looked as if they would be prime tetanus carriers, and various other kitchen tools that I had never used. Old rolls of tape, small candles, pens and pencils, batteries of unknown vintage, various pieces of household hardware, and an ancient pocket knife also took up space along with roughly 200 twist ties that came with long-gone garbage bags.

I threw away quite a few of these things. Others I relocated to the appropriate storage area. But many of the items went right back into the same drawer, some because they actually belong there, others based on the old that-may-come-in-handy excuse that clogs up space worldwide. I figure I need to leave something behind for my family to throw away after I die, assuming they doesn’t just leave the place “as is”, which would be in keeping with family tradition.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Wide World

Geez, it seems like last week that I was noting that August is almost over. September just seemed to disappear without much of a trace. Nothing terribly noteworthy, good or bad, happened in my life to break up the passage of time. As usual, I’m not sure what to make of that. Is it a sign of a smooth, idyllic life, or a numbing treadmill of an existence? The former certainly doesn’t fit my situation, and I don’t think I’ve sunk into the latter. Perhaps something in between; a smooth treadmill with entertainment, room for the spouse and occasional stops for a nice meal.

It is a good time of year for fans of major sports. Almost all of them are in action to some degree.

I tend to prefer the NFL to college football, but I’ve seen some fairly entertaining college games this year. Of course shortly that will all get squished by the BCS into a top-two-and-everyone- else slog that loses me before the regular season is over. At least the other college divisions can provide some meaningful late-season games – and actual playoffs.

In the past I’ve regarded any attempt to judge the quality of an NFL team as folly until at least four games have been played. (Speaking of folly, some of the first-week games that left me wondering just what the teams actually did during the numerous off-season workouts and the interminable preseason.) This season has been no different; if anything, such analysis is still looking pointless. As Peter King said, picking the order of the top teams could be done with darts. It’s probably best to wait until the halfway point before trying to discern any patterns, and I’m not certain anything will have developed even then, at least at the top. The bottom seems to be settling in, although even there things are far from cut-and-dried.

Perhaps the NFL will be sorted out by the time baseball finishes its just-starting playoffs. This is Twins country, and my wife and a couple of co-workers are fans, now no doubt joined by many others from the anyone-but-the-Yankees group. I personally have no allegiances, but I do like to see a team from outside the usual suspects contend once in a while, just to force the broadcasters to learn a few new names.

I also see the NHL is starting its regular season shortly. Good for them. I don’t know why, considering my proximity to hockey hotbed Minnesota, but I’ve never been interested. When it comes to ice-related activities, I would rather use it to cool a drink while I watch curling.

With all that going on, sports gasbags are talking about NBA pre-season games, of all things. I know the league has its publicity machine cranked up around the renovated Miami Heat, but in the most predictable of the major professional sports, where the contenders spend most of the season just trying to stay healthy, these games are rivaled only by the major political party conventions as useless gatherings. I’ll start paying attention when/if it gets interesting, which coincidentally is about the time the NFL finishes.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


I guess it's a sign that I've been doing this a while; I'm starting to come across things that remind me of past blog posts. First, this from James Lileks, who recently did something that I did and mentioned here a few months ago. Naturally, he is more eloquent.

It’s the Parade of Homes, if you can describe driving all over hell and back to look at large, stationary objects. If they all floated past down the street with the occasional elephant, that would be different. But no. You go somewhere, take off your shoes, wander around and think “relative to these people, I have failed.” All the things one would like in life – incredible views, big living rooms with comfortable appointments, perfect offices, tubs built for a sumo wrestler – here they are, and this is as close as you’ll get, pal.

Then the other day a co-worker asked me how I thought Obama was doing in a tone that suggested (a) that she is not an Obama supporter and (b) she thought that I am, as opposed to my actual stance since before the election, which has been that competence was badly needed in the office after 8 years of buffoonery, and that only an Obama victory would guarantee the necessary housecleaning. I told her that I have never had terribly high expectations for his administration. When he took office Obama was handed a burning bag of gasoline-soaked manure. Stomping on it would only do so much; he would have to let it burn out and accept the fact that he was going to smell bad in the process. I also said that I wondered if a small part of John McCain is glad he lost.

This conversation brought back a memory of some posts back in September 2008. One was an offshoot of my thoughts on political ads of 1976.

.....when I remember what the country was like at the time, I can't help but think that whoever won that election was probably screwed. When Harold Macmillan was asked what represented the greatest challenge for a statesman, he replied "Events, my dear boy, events." Events of the time were overtaking the ability of just about anyone to deal with them. They were going to have to run their course, and the President overseeing it was going to take a beating. Part of me wonders if that's going to be the case in 2008.

Then a few days later....

In a post last Sunday I mentioned the possibility that the next President is in for trouble. Gerard Baker agrees.

When the votes are counted his people might ruefully conclude that the victor is not Barack Obama or John McCain. The real winner will be Hillary Clinton, or Mitt Romney, or Mike Huckabee, or some now happily anonymous figure whose star will rise in the next four turbulent years.

2008 may be the best year there has been to lose an election.

I wonder if Herbert Hoover - at one time one of the most admired men in American history - ever wished he had lost in 1928?

The short answer I should have given my colleague was, "So far, sadly, about as well as I expected."

Monday, September 20, 2010

Frank, Glenn, John and Ludwig

VH1 recently put together another of their "list shows", this one being "Top 100 Artists of All Time". That rather ambiguous title leaves a lot of room for interpretation, although a quick glance at the top 5 pretty well clarifies how the participants defined it.

The Beatles
Michael Jackson
Bob Dylan
Led Zeppelin
The Rolling Stones

Overall, it's mostly pop/rock/rap performers who were big in America in the last 60 years. It seems to me that many of the people polled confused "great" with "people who really influenced me personally". I also get the impression not many music historians were included in the poll. Of course, the main purpose of these lists - besides giving VH1 a reason to exist - is to stimulate argument, and this one has done it.

As I scanned the list, I thought of a few people I thought deserved places, based on my own interpretation of who should be on it.

- Frank Sinatra. His absence surprised me a bit, since quite a few of the people interviewed in the show have expressed admiration for him in the past. He may have been the first big teen idol. The girls who screamed for Elvis got the idea from the bobby soxers who screamed for Frank 15 years earlier. His overall image became part of American culture, and he and the Rat Pack gave Las Vegas the cache that helped make it what it is. It's also important to remember that he really could sing, especially in that bobby soxer era before he hurt his vocal cords. And to expand the term "artist" a bit, I don't see anyone else on that list with an acting Oscar.

- Glenn Miller. A recent classic Casey Kasem broadcast provided a bit of trivia. Billboard started publishing its charts in 1940. In the first 3 years of that chart, the Glenn Miller Orchestra had 36 top-10 songs. No one else has had so much chart success in such a short time. As Casey noted, had the charts been in existence sooner, and had Miller not disappeared in 1944 in a presumed plane crash in the English Channel, it would have been greater. In The Mood might be the biggest song of the Big Band era, and one of the greatest American songs of any type. Grandbaby likes to shake her rump to it.

- John Philip Sousa. 100 years ago, he was as big as anyone has ever been. He wrote official songs for the Army and Marines, as well as several universities. His work is used in the credits of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Almost every marching band in a parade will at some point play something he wrote. The Stars and Stripes Forever could join In The Mood on that list of great American songs.

I could add others as well. Beethoven immediately comes to mind, based on the presence of his work in modern culture (the Ode To Joy and the Fifth Symphony are both regularly used in various forms and venues). A good case could also be made for the Carter Family, given their influence on many forms of American music. Others, I'm sure, could add to the list. Expanding the inputs worldwide would provide yet more nominations, and material for bloggers like me, who can always use it.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


Ah, a day off with little to do, other than laundry and taking the wife out for supper for her birthday. No plans to attend any Koran (Quran?) burnings this weekend, if any such thing is happening around here. (I don't think you could find enough Korans in this town to make a decent fire; you would have to import them.) I assume I'm not the only one who thinks of that as another adult equivalent of Grandbaby's temper tantrums. Unfortunately it seems to be having the desired effect of getting attention, and no doubt (he says cynically) raising money.

What I really need to do is go through my list of website links. I have been embarrassed in the past to check a listed blog and find that it had died months before. I noticed the other day that Blog Net News disappeared. 2 Blowhards...done back in July! One of its creators, Ray Sawhill, has his own site. It looks interesting, so I'll give it a try. I also saw that nothing new has been posted at Incertus since June, but I won't give up on them quite yet. As I recall ,Brian and Amy are teachers, so it could be a summer break. I added Calculated Risk because I saw it recommended by commenters at Balloon Juice, and I've had good luck with those.

OK, down the list. Amused Cynicism....I never seem to get there, but I like the Englishness of it, so it may as well stay. Andrew Sullivan...again, I don't get there as often as I would like, but I tend to get caught up when I do. As for Arts and Letters Daily, it's still the same. I could probably get by with just it and perhaps two or three other sites. Balloon Juice and Crooked Timber are both fine. Dakota Today....I don't have enough South Dakota sites, and I like Doug Wiken.

Dave Barry, still funny. Dale at Faith In Honest Doubt, well...he's one of those two or three other sites I mentioned earlier. An anchor of the list, as is James Lileks. Live News Cameras...a cute idea, but I never use it, so it's gone. As for the rest, all are still worth keeping, at least for anyone who may stumble across my site and want to go somewhere better. Hopefully I can keep them that way.

Monday, August 30, 2010


I’m glad to see Jim Parsons get some much-deserved recognition for his fine performance as Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory. I first put his style into the Leslie Nielsen deadpan-silliness category, but now I’m seeing some John Cleese.

I see ESPN is showing (I almost said broadcasting, but since they’re a cable network that’s not technically true. I know, picky, picky. I’m just an old TV guy at heart.) high school football games, probably because some highly rated recruit plays on one or both of the teams. I sure it makes sense to them, but I find it a bit distasteful. I don’t like the idea of bringing the national spotlight, with its unseemly underbelly, to the local level. A lot of these places take football too seriously as it is; the last thing the kids (and the enabling adults) need is ESPN-level pressure and ego-stroking to distort their perspectives even more.

When I see a large motor home stopped for the night in the Wal-mart parking lot
I can’t help but wonder if it bothers the occupants that, after spending a large sum on such an ultra-luxury conveyance, they have to park it at the home of low prices. It must be noted, however, that most of the campgrounds with hookups here would be a nightmare to navigate, or even get to, in one of those bus-based behemoths. It’s also possible that having spent all their money on the camper they can’t afford to stay at campgrounds all the time. Personally, I can’t imagine owning one of those, mostly because I would be scared to death to drive it. My wife (who has a Class B CDL and has driven school buses in big-city traffic) would have to do the driving while I lounged in the back. Hmmm….

A co-worker and I were discussing a recent rash of cattle getting out onto the roads, when the usual jokes about free meat for the taking segued into a discussion of how we would store and consume it now that our shopping habits are changing due to our empty nests. My wife and I have had to revise how we look at groceries, and it’s taking some getting used to. We frequently have to remind ourselves that foodstuffs aren’t disappearing as quickly as they used to, then rethink the wisdom of buying the family pack of something which may go bad before we finish it. If we do buy in bulk, we have to remember to break it down into packages suitable for two rather than three, four or more. It’s not a bad problem to have, and I have noticed that our grocery bills are declining, at least for our major shopping trips. The smaller trips, usually to assist the new households in the family, seem to be making up the difference, but at least the kids are footing part of the bill now.

Friday, August 27, 2010

I Blog Alone

Another August almost gone, which means football is on the way. Real football, that is, as opposed to NFL preseason games, which are either dress rehearsals for the players who will make the team or paid fantasy camps for the guys with no chance (and except for the last few spots the team pretty much knows who they will be).

A lot of people in my family have birthdays in August: me (48 creaky years old), my oldest brother (45), his daughter (22...Sigh… I can still vividly recall the time she crawled out of an insufficiently-attached diaper and peed on my living room carpet. Should she ever get married, I can guarantee that tidbit will be mentioned at the reception. It’s an uncle’s duty.), another brother’s wife, my late paternal Grandmother and a few others. Perhaps it’s the fact that the first truly cold weather usually arrives in November. It’s also time for school to start again, getting my wife back to work full time, which not only brings in another paycheck after a lean summer, but allows me to increase my internet time, and thus my blog time.

Why, you may ask, did her presence at home make a difference in my web wandering? We didn’t have to share the computer; her work laptop served her needs, which left the old desktop for me. She knows I do this, so there’s no subterfuge involved, and if I were worried about her seeing something I write then putting it into a publicly available blog would be a bit stupid, wouldn’t it? (Although as far as I know she doesn’t read this, perhaps because she gets enough of my ramblings live.)

One reason is, although our newly empty nest has increased our ability to be a spontaneous couple, our chaotic work schedules mean sometimes we hardly see each other, so I don’t like to waste any time we have together, which is usually spent in the living room, and in order to blog I have to use the desktop computer in a separate room. I know, a laptop would eliminate this problem, and someday I plan to get one. But there would still be another difficulty.

My wife can sit and crochet in the living room while we watch TV together (or, ironically, play the card games that come with her work laptop), but although I would have no problem wandering the web, I’m not sure I could comfortably blog that way. As George Thorogood said about drinking, when I blog alone I prefer to be by myself.

It’s the closest thing I have to a hobby, and somehow having someone watching, or readily able to observe, makes me feel like I should be trying to explain what I’m doing instead of just amusing myself, which is the main function of a hobby. I guess it’s similar to the painter who goes off to paint in solitude, or the guy who goes into his workshop to build things or carve wood or work on a car.

When I’m being observed I also begin to feel self-conscious about my typing (which is barely functional at my best) and my personal editing process, as well as how much effort I sometimes put into producing so little, especially compared to her crocheting, which actually results in something useful (and popular; her blankets are always hits as gifts.)

Perhaps once I acquire and put that laptop to use those anxieties will all disappear. Until then, blogging will have to continue to take a back seat to better things. Happily, spending time with my wife still qualifies.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Not Good, But Good Enough

After recently spouting off in response to one of Dale’s fine posts at Faith In Honest Doubt, which was in turn a response to comments about one of his previous posts (got that?), I realized that the commenter - who went by the name Bible Study Boy, which gives a pretty good idea of his philosophical leanings – had hit on something that I had long thought was a slightly uncomfortable aspect of Christianity. First, his comment.

I realize that many professing Christians teach that one must live by certain rules in the flesh in order to be saved. However, all that is required for salvation is faith alone in Jesus Christ. I also realize this is an atheist website, or at least it appears to be, but there is a great bible study website that shows why many professing Christians don't really represent true Christianity. Many profess to know God, but they are full of evil and hate trying to get people to live according to their rules. This is contrary to the bible which teaches that faith alone in Jesus is sufficient for salvation, not our own works of righteousness in the flesh.

Actually, as I read that again, I have to admire his ability to hit sore spots so succinctly. The classic theme “my Christianity is true, yours is false” is practically a founding principle (Paul spent a lot of the Old Testament trying to settle arguments within and among various groups, and from what I’ve seen he wasn’t always eye-to-eye with Peter’s Roman crew), and the role, if any, of good works has been debated for almost as long.

But this also got me to thinking about a commonly-used phrase: “good Christian”, as in “He’s a good Christian person”. Grammatically it can have a couple of meanings.

“A good person who is also a Christian”.
“A person who is a devout follower of Christianity.”

Most Christians want to think of those as essentially the same thing, that a person who is a devout follower of Christianity is also automatically a good person. But – as Bible Study Boy inadvertently points out – that is not necessarily true. There have been far too many really bad people who considered themselves good Christians. The uncomfortable fact for Christians like Bible Study Boy is that – by the definition he presents – those people were right. No matter how awful they were as human beings, as long as they had faith in Jesus Christ they were as worthy of salvation as anyone.

Which means that Bible Study Boy would wind up spending eternity with the evil-and-hate-filled people he mentions, along with some other pretty unsavory characters. Perhaps this is why some people want to have a few more conditions. They’d like to think it keeps the riffraff out. It also allows them to sidestep an aspect of their religion that they’d rather not advertise; that you don’t have to be a good person to be a good Christian.

Monday, August 23, 2010

One or the Other

My wife recently read to me one of those political junk e-mails that get sent to her despite her complete lack of partisan political interest. (How some of these mailing lists get set up still remains a mystery to me.) This one was from the Government Sucks, So Shut It Down category, with two basic themes. (She deleted it, so I can’t quote it directly.)

One was that since certain government programs haven’t solved the problems they were created to combat (I recall poverty being mentioned among other things) they should be shut down, and that because of this “failure” government should not be trusted to do anything. To me this is like saying that since medical research hasn’t cured cancer it should be stopped, or that since Nyquil and the like don’t actually cure a cold they should be discontinued. Certain maladies like poverty are probably never going to be wiped out; the best anyone can do is alleviate some of the symptoms. But that in itself is a worthy undertaking.

The writer also seemed to suggest that Big Government has been an eternal problem despite the best efforts of right-thinking people like him (in the generic sense; recent events have shown that women are just as capable of this) to cut it. Even a casual study of American history shows that our system started out so small it almost fell apart (the Articles of Confederation era was little short of anarchy), and that most increases in size or scope were (1) hotly contested, (2) compromised by the process (often by cutting a deal with people who think like the writer) and (3) in response to either a failure of the existing system or some type of catastrophe (it took a Great Depression to foster a New Deal). There’s no doubt that accountability and efficiency could be better and that beneficial cuts could be made. But the notion that Big Government has always been the enemy is silly.

The other message was a bit more curious, because it read like a Wal-Mart press release, extolling the company’s success while listing various corporate statistics regarding employment and profitability. Overall I got the sense that the writer thought government would be much more efficient and successful if it were run like Wal-Mart, which tells me that he doesn’t know a lot about that company.

Wal-Mart has a level of centralization that would bring tears to the eyes of an old Soviet bureaucrat. Corporate headquarters in Arkansas directly controls not just all the inventory decisions, but employee work schedules, with local managers only able to make last-minute changes as needed. If someone gets sick, that person calls headquarters to report it, then gets transferred to the store. Even the environmental systems of every store are centrally controlled. If you’ve ever been in a store and wondered why the lights suddenly changed, it’s because HQ in Bentonville changed them.

This system doesn’t necessarily eliminate waste; in fact, it occasionally requires it. I often see perishable items on the shelves that the local employees and I know won’t sell here, at least not before they have to be thrown away. Apparently it is more cost-effective to haul them in, sell what they can, then toss the rest rather than sort for local tastes.

This isn’t meant as a critique of Wal-Mart. Their system obviously works for them. And perhaps I’m misjudging the e-mail writer. Maybe he would be OK with a government run that way as long as it was relatively efficient and cost-effective. It wouldn’t be consistent with his other message, but that tends to not be a big concern to such people. I just wish he would make up his mind before spamming my wife.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

No Cooking Required

I see that Walgreen's is selling flu shot gift cards. Just the thing to hand out this Halloween.

From the Office of Odd Coincidences….The other day my wife and I watched an episode of House Hunters in which the couple was looking for housing near Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia, a place heretofore unknown to either of us. That evening at a restaurant in Sioux Falls I saw a young woman wearing a t-shirt advertising that same locale. It’s the kind of what-are-the-odds thing that keeps lottery ticket sales going.

There have been big doings on the home front: my daughter has gotten a place of her own. The impetus was her best friend’s need to acquire lodging due to her family’s loss of their home to foreclosure and their imminent move to Missouri. My daughter’s friend is enrolled in the nursing program here and wished to finish here, so she decided to remain. She wanted a roommate, and my daughter’s recent acquisition of sufficiently gainful employment gave her the means to fill the role, though not without understandable anxiety. I assured her that it wouldn’t be much different from her frequent stays with her sister, and that both her friend’s grandparents and we will be nearby if needed. So far the transition seems to have been quite easy for them, with the usual adjustments for having to acquire the various little items necessary for a household (cups, utensils, can opener, etc.)

The apartment itself is part of a motel complex, so they get some similar services, including a telephone that eventually rings through to the front desk for messages, cable TV, wireless internet and weekly laundry for the bedding. It’s made up of three connected rooms, so the living room and bedrooms each have a bathroom. It’s sufficiently furnished, with recliners, a microwave oven, a two-burner hot plate and a kitchen-style sink in addition to standard motel furniture. It’s even within easy walking distance of a supermarket. All in all, it’s a good place for two first-timers, the only major drawback being its proximity to railroad tracks, which they say hasn’t been a big deal.

This has naturally led me to recall my first relatively independent non-dorm residence. My roommate and I had planned on continuing to stay in the dorms, but high pre-registration numbers caused the administration to panic and kick upperclassmen out to make room for what they thought was going to be a huge freshman class. It didn’t materialize, but by then most juniors and seniors had found other housing.

For us that housing was a three-bedroom mobile home owned by my roommate’s family, and shared by the two of us and two other students. It was typical of its time and type: metal roof and siding outside, wood paneling and shag carpet inside. It did have a washer and dryer, though, which was not just real luxury but a considerable factor in keeping the filth level below the average for a place inhabited by four male college students. We also had a classic wooden-console TV/Radio/turntable with a picture tube that took longer to warm up each time it was turned on, but which put out a nice imitation stereo TV sound.

Easily the biggest source of adventure for us was food preparation. Each person took a turn cooking (until a revolt against one roommate’s reliance on macaroni and cheese led to each person being responsible for his own sustenance, which allowed everyone to cook to his own taste but in my view was much less fun.) One night a roommate decided to cook spaghetti, without informing the rest of us that he had never before attempted such an undertaking or asking for advice from those of us who had. He proceeded to make most of the mistakes possible with pasta preparation, resulting in a spaghetti brick requiring a knife with a serrate edge to penetrate. There was a great deal of experimentation, usually with the electric skillet, resulting in some unique casseroles.

Today most of what we did wouldn’t even be attempted by many young people, simply because it isn’t necessary. The microwave oven and the foodstuffs designed for it allow someone to eat quite well (at least by college standards) with very little risk, or even effort. The number, variety and overall quality of microwavable items have truly revolutionized low-skill cooking. The development of techniques for using the microwave oven for traditional food preparation has also been beneficial, at least to an avid user like me. (My wife, on the other hand, didn’t have one until we got together.) I have found that I can cook many dishes just as well in a microwave oven as I can conventionally, with advantages in speed and cookware usage. But the biggest advantage for me – someone who rarely decides what to cook until the last minute - is the ability to defrost meat quickly.

Of course this is a mixed blessing. Young people who might find out they enjoy the art of cooking may never try. The increased packaging necessary for microwavable products has been decried for adding to solid waste. Above all, there’s the fact that most prepackaged food doesn’t taste as good as the freshly-cooked version. But that last statement comes with the old caveat: it depends on the skill of the cook. Banquet microwavable spaghetti and meatballs would probably have been preferable to my roommate’s effort. But he learned from the experience, as did we all, which usually doesn’t happen when you microwave a frozen dinner.

Friday, July 23, 2010

A Tale of Two Celebrations

Once again I have shamefully neglected this humble blog. It’s been mostly the usual suspects – lethargy, lack of web-wandering time – but also that life has seemed to slog along without inspiration since my last post. The oil leak disaster has only recently been brought under some type of temporary limited control. Politics? Ugh. I was glad to see the soccer-picking octopus is doing well. I also came across part of a Lawrence Welk rerun that was, well, attention-getting. How to describe it… was an old-time tap dancing number, complete with barbershop-style clothes, done to an up-tempo, mostly instrumental (only the title line was sung) version of Sonny and Cher’s “And the Beat Goes On”. My wife and I both stared slack-jawed at the TV for about 15 seconds before the pending onset of stomach cramps induced me to change the channel. But nothing motivated me to apply fingers to keyboard.

Grandbaby, of course, finally did it. Her age can now be expressed in years, and she spent her birthday doing just that, informing everyone who looked at her, “I two!” There were festivities at a local park, where she promptly elevated everyone’s heart rate by climbing (unnoticed until halfway, but to her credit cautiously) up the steps of a 12-foot-high slide, gleefully sliding down, then repeating. Cake, grilled meat and cheap “fruit drink” (the stuff kids like but which has always seemed to me to lack only glycol to duplicate antifreeze) were consumed and presents proffered to the Birthday Girl, who seemed to get the biggest thrill from the bubble-blowing kits.

Two days later I was sitting at another picnic table, this time with roughly a dozen high school classmates on a flatbed trailer pulled by a pickup in a parade. The reunion to celebrate the 30th anniversary of our graduation coincided with a summer celebration in my hometown, so the organizers put together a parade entry, which brought home second prize in a field of about twenty (including a pickup driven by my wife, in the back of which four members of my Mom’s class rode) which we attributed to our distinguished good looks but which may possibly have been related to the kids in the back of our tow vehicle playing musical instruments and providing the kind of cuteness that would appeal to the judges, one of whom happened to be a classmate’s mother.

That same flatbed, now pulled by an antique tractor and further burdened by coolers full of beverages, was part of an afternoon poker run punctuated by random water balloon attacks from other entries, which given the heat of the day were quite tolerable. This eventually became a tour of the town, with lots of comments along the lines of “so they tore that down”, returnees noting the few areas of growth (a classmate and I recalled that there were no houses between ours when we were growing up; now it would be hard to see one from the other) and asking the residents “who lives there now?” Cities have many advantages, but try this in one and see how long you avoid a conversation with the local constabulary. Of course, we weren’t yelling or throwing things or causing any real disturbance, and the presence of farm machinery in those streets isn’t exactly uncommon. Still, small towns have a tolerance for at least certain behavior that belies the general perception of narrow conformity.

That evening we had a class supper with the usual goings-on associated with such functions, including a showing of videos of past reunions, now dubbed to a DVD with some difficulty, since at least one of the older ones had deteriorated. (I really could have lived comfortably without knowing that a tape of video in which I appear as an adult has begun disintegrating due to age.) The gathering was a great source of entertainment for spouses and families from elsewhere, who got background for those stories they had been told, and no doubt heard a few that had been forgotten, perhaps intentionally. My wife enjoyed herself immensely.

Eighteen of our class of thirty (a number that flummoxed a co-worker of a classmate who lives in suburban Atlanta; apparently he couldn’t comprehend a school that small) attended at least some of the activities. One has died, and one has been untraceable. I heard someone wonder why the no-shows who live nearby couldn’t at least drop in for a little bit. I think that, besides the many other possible reasons, the fact that it was potentially easy to do – no travel plans or other arrangements to make - meant it was also easy to forget.

I was able to recognize, at least after a second or so, all but two classmates; one due to his bushy beard, the other….well, no one who hadn’t seen him lately was able to recognize him. Most of us show appropriate signs of wear. One woman is in even better shape than 30 years ago, while her brother – also in our class – is in a nursing home. A wide variety of occupations was represented – farmers, mail carriers, computer technicians, corporate consultants – although, interestingly, no doctors or lawyers.

The people who organized the reunion had compiled a booklet from information provided by everyone, and copies were distributed, along with a list of contact numbers/addresses. There was already talk about the next one, but I didn’t really want to think ahead right then. I preferred just looking back a bit and enjoying the moment. That’s what those gatherings are all about.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Ten Years After

As I was pondering a past personal milestone, it occurred to me that a fair number of the celebrated “events” in our lives - birthdays after the first one, wedding anniversaries, class reunions and many of the holidays - are not actual occurrences but commemorations of past happenings. I suppose there aren’t really that many truly significant occasions, so we get as much mileage out of them as we can.

The event in my life that led to that incredibly obvious observation isn’t one I care to celebrate. At the end of this month it will be ten years since my first wife left me. Hmmm….as I look at that last phrase I realize that it’s not commonly used in polite conversation. When people talk about such things they’re usually less specific; they say “since my first divorce” or “since my first wife and I split up”, perhaps because those phrases sound less accusatory and emotional, and divorcees don’t want to make others uncomfortable by sounding too bitter, especially after a certain amount of time has passed. In my case no such negativity is intended; that’s simply what happened. To paraphrase Jimmy Buffet, I could claim it’s the woman to blame, but I know it’s (partly) my own damn fault.

(I must digress momentarily to note that I can’t help but be a little impressed that Buffet has managed to create a very successful business empire as well as a laid-back, generally positive vibe from a song about a man drinking himself to death. I often scoffed at marketing while I was at KEVN, but sometimes it can do amazing things.)

Looking back at the ensuing months, I realize I definitely bit off far more than I could chew emotionally, resulting in a series of very bad decisions, some of the results of which I will probably live with for the rest of my life. On the other hand, some of those decisions put me in a position to meet my current wife, so I guess I should say all’s well that ends well. Overall, I can pretty easily divide my life into before and after Divorce 1.

Coincidentally, it was at this same time six years ago that my second wife left. What to say about that? Well, while some people can completely mess up their lives with one divorce, I needed two. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. I do know that while there were certainly other problems, a fair amount of what led to Divorce 2 was collateral damage from Divorce 1.

This has been on my mind for another reason: a co-worker is currently going through the same thing. His wife left him earlier this year, and his anger and bitterness would peg meters if such existed. Yet he has already begun pursuing a new and fairly serious relationship. Beyond the general skepticism, the fact that I did the same thing and paid a high price gives me special pause. Yes, it’s entirely possible he found the right woman, and you can’t control the timing. But I can say from experience that the situation is fragile and fraught with peril. I hope in ten years he’ll be looking back at a smaller mess than I am now.

The idea of “getting over it” and “moving on” naturally comes up at a point in time such as this. It could even be said that noting the date is itself evidence of lingering emotional soreness. If so, well, I have heard it said that for every year of marriage it takes a year to get over its end, which means I have four years to go. But I think anyone who has been through a divorce will agree that getting over it and moving on are separate and distinct yet interrelated processes, each with its own pace dictated by the individual’s emotional makeup and personal circumstances (kids’ needs don’t go away while the parent curls up on the couch and cries). The big hazard comes from trying to move on too quickly while still too far from getting over it to make good decisions. That was my failing.

The Other Football

I’ve been watching the World Cup and idly pondering big-time soccer’s lack of success in this country. The games haven’t been too bad. While there hasn’t been a lot of scoring even by World Cup standards, most of the games I’ve seen have had fairly aggressive offense and ball movement; there hasn’t been much standing around at midfield kicking the ball back and forth waiting for someone on the other side to fall asleep. Much has been made of Americans simply not liking certain aspects of the game, but I think that is changing as more kids who have played it grow up (I just saw an ad for the local soccer association for kids from grades 7-12).

The big problem is, as always, how to make money at it, which in this country means TV, which (unless someone can figure out how make pay-per-view work) means advertising, to which the nonstop nature of soccer has always been unfriendly. The electronic billboards along the edge of the field seem like a good idea, although I don’t know how effective they actually are. I have noticed a number of points in a game where a billboard-type ad (the company logo accompanied by a quick “this game is brought to you by….”) or an audio-only ad, either recorded or by the announcer, might be squeezed in, although the audio-only ad may not work too well during this World Cup, where I would guess many people are, like me, watching with the sound as low as possible due to the vuvuzelas.

The basic structure of the game actually has one very TV-friendly feature: the predictable length. The constantly running clock, even with some extra time added for injuries, etc., makes it possible to assign a fairly precise time slot with some confidence. For this the willingness to end in a tie, which is one of the aspects frequently derided, is actually an advantage. As someone who frequently had to make on-the-fly programming decisions based on when a sporting event might end and how the network was going to handle it (NBC used to send lengthy teletype messages in advance listing various scenarios and how they would deal with them), I can say that this isn’t a trivial consideration for a broadcaster.

Soccer’s larger problem might simply be finding space. While there are many TV channels out there, only a few offer the ability to attract the large number of viewers necessary to bring in the ad dollars required to support a big-time league, and many of those channels and advertisers already have established relationships with other sports. Advertisers only have so much money to spend, so anything soccer can get would have to come out of another sport’s pocket.

Perhaps the best strategy might be to stay small for now and take the long view, supporting soccer at lower levels to build future fans and players as demographics bring more soccer-raised immigrants into the U.S. sporting scene. Of course, people have been trying that plan for a long time. They just haven’t been able to hang on long enough to see it through.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


I heard the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin” on the radio again, and I still marvel that the lead singer was a white English teenager. I may have to get out my Blind Faith cassette (recorded from an original vinyl LP back when I had a turntable, and now carefully stored along with the album in the depressingly large “Wow, is he old!” section of my closet) for some more vintage Steve Winwood, who is still doing fine.

The recent coincidence of Rue McClanahan’s death and the release of Sex and the City 2 brought to mind an idea for a future movie; put the Sex and the City women in the Golden Girls’ situation. They’re not that far from being in the same age group: Kim Cattrall is actually older than McClanahan was when The Golden Girls started. It wouldn’t be hard to contrive the appropriate circumstances without being outlandish. Death, divorce and/or financial setbacks would do, and would be more believable than a lot of what has passed for plot in that franchise.

I saw a ghost at a stoplight the other day: an unrestored white Vega 2-door, GM’s second attempt at an import-fighting small car (assuming you count the Corvair as the first) apparently being used as a daily driver by some poor unfortunate soul I couldn’t see. Its condition didn’t look to be too bad, and I can’t help but wonder about its history. A long-time owner who has seen no need to change? Hand-me-down teenage transportation? One of those that just got made right and has held up from owner to owner? Possibly a combination of all three; it’s been around long enough.

I’ve been trying to tune out the “political angle” of the Gulf oil disaster because I find it irritating. I keep reminding myself that most of it comes from people who never supported Obama anyway, and that he’s far from the first politician to take heat for things he can’t control, but it still bugs me. I have never been able to understand the idea that the President has some kind of supernatural power to fix incredibly difficult and complex problems or stop disasters. As far as I can tell, he’s done about all he can so far; he’s making sure BP is going to pay for the mess, and he’s trying to see to it that resources are in place to start clean up once the oil flow stops. I have a hard time imagining anyone else doing better. This thing is simply really bad, and it’s going to be bad for a long time. Ask the people who are still dealing with the Exxon Valdez.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Sex and Oil

And now, two completely different topics.

I have recently had reason to be thankful for one of my wife’s many good characteristics; she is not a fan of the show Sex and the City. This means I have not had to see the first movie and likely will not be going to the second one. I myself occasionally watched the series on TBS, usually with the same mindset applied to America’s Funniest Videos, marvelling at the stupidity that can be conjured up by people. Perhaps if/when the movies come to TV I’ll take a peek. But I’m certainly not paying for the privilege.

As I watch the ongoing oil tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico, I can’t help but feel sorry for the engineers at BP. I went to school with people like them (I haven’t checked , but I wouldn’t be surprised if some fellow alumni are involved in the current situation), and I know they would have thought about the possibility of something like that happening, and what to do if it did happen. I’m willing to bet that there’s a fair amount of “I knew this would happen someday” running through their minds as they scramble to figure out what to do.

Although the oil industry has considerable experience with this sort of thing - oil well “gushers” go as far back as drilling – none of it has been in deep water, so they’re having to make it up as they go. I’m also inclined to agree with Jon Stewart’s observation that the corporate resources devoted to such research have likely been considerably less than those dedicated to getting the oil. So now the bean counters who ignored them in the past scream for an immediate answer to a problem that should have been extensively studied in advance.

If only this wasn’t a common pattern.

Monday, May 10, 2010

You Can't Stay Here

KELO recently did a story about repeat drunk drivers and why they do it. It's adequate for what it is - you can't expect deep reporting in a minute and a half - but it seemed to concentrate on the drunk part of the situation, while driving was only mentioned as a consequence of the impaired decision-making induced by booze. Alcohol is admittedly the root cause of the problem, but I think the driving part deserves some attention.

Why do these people need to drive? I don't mean why do they think they can, but why do they put themselves in a position where driving must be considered? Usually it's like this: they drive to a bar or some other setting where they're not allowed to stay, so they have to go home or somewhere else. The alcohol-induced poor decision-making kicks in, and the trouble starts. But what interests me is the thought process at the beginning, when they’re presumably still sober.

Assuming it’s not an event that requires attendance, such as a wedding, why go out at all when it would be much safer – and cheaper - to stay home and drink? Use the money saved to get a computer and a good internet connection and wander the web. (Admittedly this is not without its hazards. A friend of mine who regularly did this had to be careful around eBay after a few beers, lest he buy something he’d regret. Also, some of the material I come across seems to have been posted by people under the influence. At least I hope they were.)

I think drinking in the company of others who are doing the same (if not to the same degree), besides providing a more convivial atmosphere, makes them feel less like they have a problem. It’s easier for them to think of themselves as "social drinkers", of which society is much more tolerant. A group of people drinking is portrayed relatively positively in media, especially commercials (with the obligatory “please drink responsibly” in miniscule print, of course). It’s usually the lone drinker who is featured in the ads for treatment centers.

Why do they drive to where they’re going to drink? That’s fairly simple; driving is usually the most convenient way to get there. As for getting back, as many times as some of these people have been caught, they’ve probably made it home many more times, so they always think they can make it again.

There are various ways to deal with this, each with drawbacks that, while usually not major, can serve as excuses for someone who doesn’t really want to change. Having parties at home may be not possible or convenient; there may not be establishments within walking distance; public transportation may not be readily available. Law enforcement can only do so much. The serial offenders have been through all that: many are driving without valid licenses, and some have already done time.

Given all that, the KELO story is probably correct in emphasizing the drinking. Controlling that is really the only single consistent – if not easy - way to handle the problem. But finding ways to get them to voluntarily refrain from driving is worth trying. Then - whatever other problems they may have - at least they’d be less dangerous.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Not Likeable, But Plausible

It really shouldn’t irritate me as much as it does. After all, it’s a pretty generic question, and one of the most basic, even if the follow-up tends to ruffle feathers. “Do you believe in God?” she asked. She considered it to be answerable with a basic yes-no-don’t know, and I suppose it is for most people. So I guess what bothers me is my own unhappiness with those options, which leads to the question of why I don’t like them.

I think a good part of it is my hard-headed, engineering-school mindset. I’m not comfortable giving answers without justification, and since proving the negative is probably impossible, and God hasn’t seen fit to settle the issue definitively to the positive (which to me is the best argument for negative, but it relies on the assumption that God would tell us of His existence), I’m left with intuition, and I’m not an intuitive person. As for “don’t know”, that is the bane of scientific minds. But in the end I fell back on the old Spock/Data answer: insufficient information.

After that conversation I tried to conjure up a variation of the question with which I could be comfortable. Eventually I came up with this:

“Is there a concept of God that you feel is compatible with the overall state of mankind and the universe?”

Yes, I know the idea that God doesn’t exist would also work. I guess that conversation just put me in the mood for a stroll down Deity Drive. (Large estates on that street. Some remind me of the movie Sunset Boulevard; slowly decaying as they cling to the past. Others look as though they were abandoned during the mortgage crisis; impressive but unoccupied. And what’s with all the plastic flamingos? But I digress.)

As you can see, it’s both more theoretical (not asking for firm belief) and more tangible (actually trying to relate God to our existence). Most importantly for this humble blog, though, is that I can actually answer it. There have been many Gods in human history that did this to some degree - Greek, Roman and Norse mythologies as well as any number of so-called pagan deities. But the more I’ve mulled it over, the better the God of Abraham as described in the Old Testament fits.

This is the God Lewis Black has described as “kind of a prick”, the God of whom David Plotz - after finishing a series in which he read the entire Old Testament, blogging as he went – said:

After reading about the genocides, the plagues, the murders, the mass enslavements, the ruthless vengeance for minor sins (or none at all), and all that smiting—every bit of it directly performed, authorized, or approved by God—I can only conclude that the God of the Hebrew Bible, if He existed, was awful, cruel, and capricious. He gives us moments of beauty—such sublime beauty and grace!—but taken as a whole, He is no God I want to obey and no God I can love.

I find that reaction interesting because it speaks to the human desire that God should adhere to our concepts of morality and justice, and basically be nice. Christians hold this especially dear, to the point of glossing over the explicit examples to the contrary both in their own texts and in the world around them. Lewis Black has noted that the New Testament Christian God seems to be generally nicer than the Old Testament Jewish version, which Christians attribute to Jesus, of course. Personally, I can’t help but connect that to the fact that God is much less directly involved with earthly affairs in the New Testament.

(Explaining God’s apparent decision to adopt a hands-off approach has long been a source of vexation to believers. My completely fabricated speculation that would account for it: God decided “OK, I’ve gotten things going and forgiven your sins; now I’m done. Fix your world yourselves.” Some explicit intervention would definitely settle a lot of things, though.)

I think that conceding the possibility that God may not always be a sweet wonderful being makes Him more believable. It certainly makes it easier to answer another version of my question. When someone considers the sorry state of the world and asks, “What God would allow this?” it’s not hard to point at old Jehovah and say “Look at His record. I wouldn’t put it past Him.”

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Adding Them All Up

My wife and I recently celebrated our third wedding anniversary with a day of delusion, starting with our own episode of House Hunters. While wandering a craft show at the mall feigning interest in a variety of items we couldn’t afford, we found a flyer for a local Parade of Homes, which was nothing like what the title suggested (an actual parade of homes down the street would have been entertaining) but did allow us to wander through six area houses - three that were actually for sale and three that were serving as demos for the builders - pretending we could afford to buy if we found one to our liking. They all had pros and cons as expected, but the house we liked best wasn’t part of the event, but a modular home we looked at on the way home. It was almost exactly what we would want if we were seriously in the market.

We finished off the fantasy day by eating at a local restaurant we normally wouldn’t patronize because we couldn’t afford it. I had lamb chops, mostly because I don’t recall ever having them. The verdict? Well, now I can say I’ve tried them. Actually they were perfectly fine, but somehow the whole experience was a bit of a letdown. I can’t say why; I have no specific complaints about any particular aspect. It is a very nice place, easily the classiest in town. The service was good, the prices a bit high but not unexpectedly so, and we both ate well. Perhaps I’m just not cut out for fine dining.

As the anniversary approached, it occurred to me that I was reaching another personal milestone; twenty years of marriage, in segments of 14, 3, and 3 years. I wasn’t sure what to make of that. Is it something of which to be proud? Are we talking about perseverance, or a learning disorder? The fact that I eventually got it right leads me to flatter myself that it’s the former in my case, but there are a lot of people for whom it seems to be the latter; they never seem to consider the possibility that they’re not the marrying kind. Those people rarely reach a large total of years, either because they can’t stay married to anyone long enough (it’s tough to get there a year or two at a time) or their history eventually makes potential partners leery. Four divorces seems to be the point after which people start to really wonder about someone.

What intrigued me was that I couldn’t recall anyone else ever bringing up that type of statistic, and none of the remarried people to whom I’ve mentioned this had thought about it, which upon further reflection isn’t too surprising. For most people a new relationship brings with it a desire to start as fresh as possible; a running total creates a connection to the past that may not be comfortable. In addition, culturally marriage is treated like a winning streak; it’s the current consecutive number that matters. When someone asks how long you’ve been married they mean to your current spouse; if you gave a total rundown you would be regarded suspiciously. There simply isn’t a context in which total married years is meaningful to anyone.

The long unbroken strings will always get the accolades, which is fine given their continued rarity, with increased divorce offsetting increased life spans. Still, the general dismissal of reaching big numbers in smaller chunks is something that may be worth reconsidering as more people who have done it recall its unique aspects. Flying non-stop is generally preferred, but having to change planes, while usually inconvenient and sometimes worse, doesn’t make the trip less worthwhile.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Some Things Just Can't Break

I've been pondering the recent Toyota woes, but once again had to be motivated by someone else to actually type something up. In this case it was a column by Matt DeLorenzo in the latest issue of Road and Track, in which he cites both Toyota's growth and a slight flaw in the Deming quality control philosophy Toyota follows.

He believed that it was better to establish an acceptable level of quality variation rather than waste resources on trying to reach zero-defect levels. While this concept works well when manufacturers are building hundreds of thousands of vehicles, it works less well when those numbers reach into the millions. Even if a manufacturer hits 99.9-percent effectiveness, that 0.1 percent translates into 1 car per thousand. Multiply that by millions and pretty soon it adds up to a large number.

This isn't really a flaw, just an acceptance of reality. No manufacturing process is perfect. Matt is quite right to note that quality gets harder to maintain at mass-production levels; ask anyone who has to cook for large numbers of people. He also makes a valid point that given today's increased demands and pressures perhaps trying for perfection is worth considering. But he leaves out something I believe is important, which is the need for different standards for different parts.

The reasons Toyota's troubles have been such a big deal are which component is failing and the nature of that failure. Accepting a small failure rate for power window motors or air conditioning compressors is fine. But throttle control is mission-critical. Not only should the goal be zero failures, but more importantly, given the ultimate inability to achieve that goal, allowances for failure need to be actively designed into the system to deal with as many potential consequences as possible In this case, the throttle needs to be designed to not stick open no matter what.

I also can't help but notice that this is part of an electronic throttle system, which is something relatively new to cars, especially at the large-volume lower-priced portion of the market. Companies test parts obsessively, but it's tough to duplicate the ravages of time and varying conditions, and difficult to spot impending trouble with inscrutable electronics. We may start seeing new and unexpected failures as the more recent automotive innovations begin to age.

Matt's mention of schadenfreude at other car companies over Toyota's troubles also interested me. I would hope there's also a a feeling of "there but for the grace of God go I." After all, most parts suppliers, like the company that made those throttle controls, make parts for many companies. There's always the chance that one of them could get that next batch of statistical inevitability.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Relax and Watch the Show

If you struggled through my previous post (I apologize for not being able to give you back that portion of your life) you probably noticed, as I did, that my contemplation of church attendance was limited to childhood, which is probably insufficient. It has been 30 years since then, and while my churchgoing frequency as an adult classifies me somewhere between (as described by Williams and Ree) a "C and E Christian" (Christmas and Easter) and a "sprinkle Christian" (when sprinkled with water, rice, or dirt), my consideration of philosophical and religious matters has increased considerably. As it should; any such subject considered settled by childhood’s end probably wasn’t decided by the child.

I would describe my relationship with churchgoing as an adult as largely purpose-driven; I rarely go unless I have a reason. Most frequently the reason is domestic tranquility; someone in my family wants to go, so I tag along. My daughter also had to attend as part of her confirmation classes (I figured I’d get her the background and let her decide what to do with it). I’ve been married in a church twice, and there has been the usual assortment of baptisms, funerals, and other people’s weddings. A church building is a nice facility for such ceremonies, even if you don’t care much about the theology that built it.

How I behave depends on the context. If it’s a service with which I’m familiar I tend to treat it as performance art with audience participation and not pay that much attention, although I do keep an ear open during the sermon for a good anecdote or the occasional thoughtful nugget to ponder. Ceremonies I see less frequently (most recently a Catholic wedding) I treat as a learning experience. I didn’t actually attend the most novel and entertaining one I’ve seen. When my brother got married to a Korean Buddhist they had two ceremonies; a Buddhist one in Korea and a Lutheran one here. We saw a tape of the Buddhist ceremony, which of course was in Korean. My brother confessed that he didn’t know what was going on any more than we did; he just bowed when he was told, which is actually a pretty good rehearsal for marriage.

My wife’s statement that we should start going to church is itself a bit intriguing. So often I hear that phrase uttered in a tone similar to someone discussing getting a prostate exam or cleaning gutters. The feeling seems to be irritation and guilt at not fulfilling a disagreeable obligation rather than pleasure, which I guess isn’t too surprising; I suppose if they considered it enjoyable they wouldn’t have stopped. Still, I can’t help but wonder why they want to start again. I imagine it’s that ingrained belief that church attendance is necessary for salvation, even if you get nothing from it. Fortunately I usually manage to derive some benefit, even if it isn't what the church intends.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Not a Big Deal

The wife said it again. She used that phrase. No, not the dreaded “we need to talk”, thankfully; that one -especially when uttered by ex-1 - has caused me more stomach trouble than flu and cheap burritos combined. (Hmmm…flu combined with cheap burritos. Now that would be a rough day.) This was more benign – “we should start going to church again”.

I know to some people that would be far from a benign suggestion, possibly leading to a rude reply and, depending on who said it, perhaps fisticuffs. In this case both my daughter and I just emitted non-committal but agreeable-sounding hums and kept eating. It wasn’t until later that I wondered why, given how little I usually get out of it, the idea didn’t and still doesn’t bother me more. This led me to ponder my lifelong experiences with churchgoing (Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod to be specific).

I know this sounds odd, but looking back at my childhood I can’t say I thought of going to church in religious terms. It was just a part of domestic life, something the family did. Once there I acted like I think many “heathens” do when missionaries preach to them; I listened, said “that’s nice to know” and got on with life. It simply had no impact on me beyond the practical applications (the non-religious Commandments aren’t a bad guide to living). As for the confirmation classes, I kicked butt. I memorized all the material and could rattle it off like a recording. But here again, it didn’t move me. I observed and understood what it meant to other people, but I was unaffected.

I did derive tangible benefits. I attended some statewide church youth gatherings and had a great time. Those gatherings tended to have many more girls than boys, which was a boon to me; I rarely sat down at the dances, and it was at one of these that I had my first make-out session.

It was at church that I first got some responsibility and a bit of freedom, albeit due to extenuating circumstances. High school boys traditionally served as ushers, but due to a population gap at our very small church I started ushering when I was in sixth grade. (Incidentally, shouldn’t the term be “ushing” ? Drivers drive, players play, why do ushers usher instead of ush? More language mystery.) This meant not only escorting people to and from pews and taking the collection, but getting to sit in a back pew separate from my family; big stuff for an 11yo. As a high-schooler I had my girlfriend sit with me occasionally.

You have no doubt noticed that the benefits were mostly secular, and some were unintended from the church’s perspective. Nevertheless, they were real, and still bring back some fond memories. I also can’t say I was scarred in any way by the religious part of my upbringing, or that its absence would have made my life obviously better. Perhaps that's why I don't get any more annoyed about church than I do about, say, going to a craft show. Church was never a huge bother;It was just part of growing up.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Really Big Deal in Many Small Ways

John Holbo at Crooked Timber has a post that I appreciate in a couple of ways. First physically.....

I’m a lefty, which means I now occasionally Google up things to do with left-handed guitar.

I never tried to learn guitar, but as a fellow lefty (the only one in my family; now my daughter is right-handed despite both her parents being left-handed; I continue to wonder about that), I can sympathize with the struggle to learn to do just about anything. My southpaw status was a source of great consternation to my Kindergarten teacher; her attempt to convert me was only slightly less enthusiastic than that of a new missionary in Africa. My brief foray into golf as a teen was with right-handed clubs, because that was what I happened to buy at a rummage sale; I didn't know left-handed clubs existed. I was given permission to "cheat" in the 10-key adding machine (yes, I know.... once again I date myself) portion of a class in high school by looking at the keys more than usually allowed because neither the teacher nor I knew how to handle my incompatibility with the right-handed layout.

Then there's John's larger point.....

I think about the things that interested me, growing up – like science fiction novels, for example. And comics. And I realize that almost everything I knew about these things that mattered a great deal to me (did you notice?) I learned by talking to about six people, four of whom were kids like me, and going to four different stores in my hometown. (And sex. Did I mention that, as a young teen, I was quite intrigued by the topic of sex, but – sadly – lacked reliable sources of information and reportage on the subject.) I suspect you could provide your own examples, if you grew up pre-internet. And I feel it’s pretty important, somehow, that those of you who grew up post-internet probably can’t provide your own examples. Or rather fewer.

Of course, this is a flagrantly obvious thought: the internet = important!

Commenter Emma added this. was also limited to a much smaller slice of cultural achievement—that which was current in one’s social circle and popular culture. Which led to strange knowledges and huge gaps. I could sing all of Oklahoma, because my parents had the record, but could only listen to the pop music of the actual year I was in, because that was all that was on the radio station I could get on my transistor. You might see West Side Story on the telly, late one Saturday night, and have to wait years to see it again. No culture on demand. No way to know who was the third spear carrier in the back row of the black and white movie who looked strangely familiar. I’m so much less tolerant of those gaps now.

Just recently I said to my wife that I can only imagine how different my very-small-town childhood would have been if the internet had existed. I was recreational reader of reference books when I wasn't wandering around outside daydreaming; my parents would probably have had to throw me outside if I'd had the internet to peruse. I can also only guess what effect the lessening of small-town isolation would have had; as it was TV (non-cable) was my prime source of information about the wider world.

Of course, I see the downside to the internet regularly when I help my daughter search for information for a school report; the huge amount of junk that has to be winnowed. But even this has the benefit of cultivating useful skills such as the ability to corroborate and recognize reliability in sources.

Commenter magistra had this to say.

I think there are a couple of particularly interesting wider issues. One is that the concept of what is ‘normal’ is getting redefined. If you are into China bluegrass or believe in alien abductions, you are no longer an isolated freak (though you may still be a freak); you have support for your interests or views.

As someone who wasn't exactly "normal" growing up (and probably still isn't), I can relate to that.

The other is the increasing significance of partially-reliable sources. If you wanted to know about Blake’s Seven or George III twenty years ago, you could go and find a reference book (which would probably have been edited very carefully) or you could rely on what you and your friends could remember (probably very inaccurate). Now you can go to Wikipedia or other online sites and get information which is probably mostly right, but not as rigorously checked as a book would have been. All this is anathema to proper reference librarians, but for many things, probably/partially right information is enough. I look up several dozen trivial queries a day: not worth going to the library (or even digging out a reference book) for, but nice to know.

Those last few words are a pretty good summary of what the internet has done for me as a generally curious person; it has provided easy access to things (and people) that are nice to know.