Monday, January 31, 2005

Different Dr. Phil blog.

Last Thursday I got something over the transom, again, a misdirected message from some weird planet orbiting that pointlessly effervescent supergiant of a star, celebrity journalism.

“Dear Mr. Stribling:

”Jury selection for the Michael Jackson trial begins Monday, and this case is certain to be quite a spectacle, requiring acute legal interpretation of all the proceedings.

”DecisionQuest's Dr. Philip Anthony is available for commentary on all aspects of the Jackson trial.

• What's the ideal profile for a pro-Jackson jurist? A pro-prosecution
• What's the jury pool likely to look like?
• What sorts of questions will the potential jurors be asked?
• How can this case be tried fairly by a jury given the extensive coverage given to this case?”

A little later, DecisionQuest is called “the nation's leading trial consulting firm,” so I suppose I’ve on a computerized list used by flacks who’re in the pay of DecisionQuest. Someone there might even think I care about the trial, but I doubt it’s anything so personal.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Ann at two blog.

Ann turned two over the weekend, and while not really aware of the occasion, she did appreciate the cupcake with toddler gusto. We gave her one last year, and she pushed it into her face while eating it (I have pictures). This year, as a measure of her development, she used a fork, and except for a smidgen of crumbs, left no part of it on her face.

I’m also fairly sure I heard her make a sentence the other day, “I draw a doggie!” Probably that’s what she said. That’s what I heard. Anyway, it wasn’t representational drawing, but abstract caninism.

I was barely paying attention to any news from the wider world when she was born, of course, but I remember all too well seeing the news bulletins about the Columbia accident on the hospital room TV the morning of February 1, the day Yuriko and Ann checked out and we all went home. I wonder if Ann will ever read an account of that event and think, that’s about when I was born.

Not a deep thought, particularly, but it came to me while reading part of An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy recently, a few pages about the summit he had with Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961. Sizable news at the time, and just another note in the chronicles of the Cold War now, but coinciding with my appearance.


Friday, January 28, 2005

McD’s blog.

This has turned into Australia week, and I might as well continue on with that theme today, even if in a small way. Today I listened to McDonald’s fourth quarter earnings conference call—a little more interesting than it sounds, but only a little—and of course the late Charlie Bell was mentioned. He became president and CEO of the hamburger behemoth in 2002, but quit late last year, ill with colorectal cancer. He died about 10 days ago.

I wanted to add a sentence of background on Mr. Bell, so I looked for information. I found out he was only 44—young for a CEO, young to die, and the latter is especially disquieting when you’re 43. I also found out he was an Australian. Funny that such a quintessentially American restaurant chain came to be run by an Australian.

The other bit of news from the McDonald’s call that piqued my interest was the chain’s growth in Europe. The current president alluded to factors impeding the growth of the chain on the Continent, but didn’t spell them out. I suspect that he was thinking of noisy Frenchmen, upset that their countrymen are compelled by American cultural imperialism to eat le Big Macs, and the more laid-back Italian advocates of the slow-food movement.

Despite those impediments, McDonald’s will be opening about 130 new restaurants in Europe this year (compared with 220 in the United States and about as many in Asia), the majority in France and Russia. If I took a quick trip in the way-back machine to, say, 1980, to tell people living then that in 25 years McDonald’s would be growing in a big way in France and behind the Iron Curtain, they would treat me like a lunatic who claimed he was a time traveler. Anyway, I found the news mildly astonishing, even in 2005.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Woop Woop blog blog.

Crummy day yesterday, cold with snow flurries, but I went out for a walk anyway, to visit the Haymarket Station post office. I was well rewarded on the way back with a chance encounter with a new retail establishment: Just Grapes. A wine store.

I can’t say I’m a wine aficionado. It always seemed that that would involve studying the subject too hard, and spending too much money. Still, periodically I’ll seek out a decent glass of white or red, selected mostly because of its country of origin; an interesting label; and a modest price. Just Grapes has an enormous selection, wall-to-wall racks of bottles, in a well-lit setting backed by blonde-wood walls. So I looked around.

I also had a talk with the proprietor, since I was the only customer. Fittingly, he was a wine aficionado, and said that he’d worked in vineyards in various parts of the world. I equivocated when he asked what kind of wine I liked, since “I like wines with cool labels” isn’t going to pass muster in a sophisticated wine shop. But I did acknowledge that I often bought wines by country. It being Australia Day and all (see yesterday’s entry), I took a long look at the Oz selection, and mentioned that I’d visited a Margaret River winery in Western Australia once upon a time; he said he’d worked at some wineries near there, and in South Australia.

After all that, I couldn’t just walk out, so I made my impulse purchase for the day: a bottle of Woop Woop ’04 verdelho, a white wine. It had all my requirements: imported from an interesting country, sporting a good label—featuring a reproduction of a photo of a sunset in the Australian bush—and at $10, not especially expensive.

From “Verdelho is one of Australia's niche white wine varieties. Its flavoursome palate and full-bodied nature makes it a good alternative to the market-dominant Chardonnay. Verdelho is native to Portugal. Although grown on the mainland, it’s most recognised for its vinification into fortified wine on the island of Madeira, producing a medium-dry style with high acidity, high alcohol and a citrus tang. This is how the world knew Verdelho, until Australia adopted the variety and produced a unique style of table wine.”

As for the name, the label says: “In Australia Woop Woop means not nearby, remote even. In sourcing fruit for this well-balanced South Australian white wine, we went outside our normal territory… we went to Woop Woop to bring Woop Woop to you. Enjoy enjoy.”

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Oz Day blog.

It’s Australia Day, anniversary of the First Fleet’s landfall at Botany Bay in 1788, a fact little-noted up here in North America. But I’ll mention it, because I like Australia. I’ve always been fond of the place, even before I visited, and before I met anyone from there.

Why? During my few idle moments today, I thought of some reasons.

It’s far away. Say “Australia” and see if the very name doesn’t sound beyond the beyond, at the remote edge of human civilization.

And yet, they speak English. Across the vast Pacific, a dozen or more time zones away, in a place where January is summer and July is winter, I can still order a beer effortlessly. Which is just the thing to do when you get there.

A right colorful English, at that. Whose ear is so tin that they don’t smile at the lilt and vigor of Australian English? That, and some fun vocabulary. I won’t make a list, mate, you know a lot of them already.

Interesting flora and fauna. I hardly need to make a list of them, either.

The shape of the continent. If I sat down and drew the outline of a really cool landmass, it might look like Australia. Broad lobes on either side, a variety of irregular bays and inlets, a periscope of a peninsula up top (Cape York) and an island dangling at the bottom (Tasmania).

Excellent place names, both aboriginal and English. For this, I will make a list, picked more-or-less at random: Darranbandi, Coonabarabran, Murwillumbah, Kalgoorie, Fremantle, Southern Cross, Broken Hill and Brisbane.

They’re on our side. Australia’s been consistently at our side in all the important wars of the last 100 years.

Australian books and movies. For a country with a small population, it’s produced some exceptional literature and cinema. I only have a passing knowledge, but I know first-class works when I read or see them: On the Beach, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Schindler’s Ark (List), Breaker Morant, Gallipoli and Mad Max.

Australian stereotypes. What fun. I think the National Lampoon said that an Australian was someone who’s idea of a good time was throwing up on your car.

Real Australians I’ve met. Fine people, the lot of them. With one or two exceptions.

Of course, there’s a whole vein of self-loathing criticism within Australia that damns the country because, essentially, ogres embarked from those ships in the 18th and 19th centuries to settle the country, and Australians since then have been lazy, narrow-minded ockers. Public loudmouths like Germaine Greer have badmouthed Oz (her native country) along these lines, to which I reply by applying thumb to nose, Germ.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Clutter blog.

Some claptrap over the transom today:

“25 Tips to Help Readers Get Organized At Work and Beyond
*Free Article for Your Publication

“Just because it's nearly the end of January, doesn't mean it's too late to get organized or give up on those New Year's resolutions. Any time is a great time to increase productivity, effectiveness and profits, and one of the easiest ways to do it is by managing one's paperwork, digital files and time better.

“A clean desk can say a lot, according to business organizing expert Barbara Hemphill. An organized desk can help your readers move up in the corporate world, or simply manage their business and profits more effectively.”

Oh, yeah? Any studies to back this up? Has anybody measured the productivity of a worker in a cluttered office vs. one in a tidy office, assuming useful definitions of each could be established and agreed upon? (Puzzled silence.) I thought so. A cluttered office is a less productive place to work because, well, everybody knows that. You spend time looking for things that you’d otherwise spend organizing the place.

So we have to fall back on anecdotal evidence. I won’t disparage anecdotes, since I spend a lot of time writing them down, and think they can be very useful in understanding the world. So, anecdotally, I’ve seen ’em cluttered, and I’ve seen ’em tidy. I haven’t, however, noticed a difference in that regard between a successful company and a failing one. The president of a failing company I once worked for used to keep his beautiful wooden desk spotless. It was a marvel, that desk, wonderfully empty and cleaned to a high gloss, till the day the repo men came and took it away. True anecdote, though for a while the president floated the story that burglars had nicked it.

Still, in my visits into corporate America, I’ve noticed that CEOs and the like do tend to keep their desks free of papers and other clutterish items. Is this because their innate organization skills have assisted their rise to be captains of industry? Or is it fashion, like wearing expensive suits? Or does it mean that other people in the company are doing the day-to-day paper-intensive work that the boss doesn’t need to bother with anymore?

Monday, January 24, 2005

Beverly blogs.

Twenty episodes for five dollars, or one measly quarter per episode. That was today’s impulse purchase at Walgreens, a cheap collection of the Beverly Hillbillies on DVD. My DVD collection is burgeoning. I must have about ten disks all together.

The BH first disk includes the first episode of the show, and while it’s asking too much for comic hillbillies to be anything much like real hillbillies, even for that show it’s quite a stretch to suggest that anyone, anywhere in North America in 1962, had never seen or heard of airplanes. Still, it’s a necessary device to get Granny out of the house with a shotgun to shoot at a helicopter.

Minor quibble. The shows hold up well, and I bought the DVDs as much for Lilly as me. Her education in comedy has to grow beyond the Three Stooges. A few weeks ago, I checked some compilations of The Dick Van Dyke Show out of the library, and she watched some of those with me, and even once when I was doing something else.

Two brief observations on the DVD show (which was on videotape). I’d forgotten, or never appreciated, Dick Van Dyke’s remarkable range of gestures, from facial ticks to pratfalls, that liven up the show. Also, at least in most of the episodes I saw, Laura Petrie comes across as a terrific worrywart. Rob just wants to have some fun, while she’s positive that something bad will come of it, which it always does—but not bad enough to go beyond the realm of comedy. There’s probably a subtext here I’m not plugged into, but I’ll leave that to more astute pop-culture critics.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Light & crumbly blog.

As predicted, the big snow came Friday night, thoughtfully after most of the evening commute was over. I arrived home just as the snowfall was hitting full cascade, just enough to coat the streets. Driving on snow isn’t that hard, really. The trick is to not drive like a moron. Which is why it must seem so hard for some people.

By Saturday afternoon, a foot of new white powder covered the ground. Later, as Lilly and I were working on an anthropomorphic snow figure, I noticed that unlike the last big fall, which left wet and heavy, this snow was light and crumbly. Not very good material for a snowman, but we improvised by using a former popcorn drum as a thorax. That’s the spirit: adapt, reuse, make do. This drum, brought to our apartment as a party offering about nine years ago, has been a popcorn container (briefly), all-purpose container, trash can, water bucket, and now snowman part. It may have other uses, till it’s completely rusted out.

For someone I never met, Johnny Carson had a curious resonance, which only shows the reach of television in its network heyday, before fragmentation set in. I think I started paying attention to him when I was 10 or 11, largely because I wanted to see him do Carnac the Magnificent. I was always delighted when I was able to catch that bit. Later, ca. 1974 to 1977, I watched regularly, but usually only the monologue and the gags between the first set of commercials and the second. Then as now (on Letterman or Leno), the celebrity guests didn’t have much appeal. I lost interest in Johnny long before he retired, but I’m not sorry I spent those hours watching.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Globalization blog.

Some wisdom for the day: Time flies, things change. Yesterday after one of the tech contractors that my company occasionally hires to work on our computers called me up to say that he couldn’t come to the office today as scheduled “because it’s a holiday.” I knew at once he meant Eid al Ahda, which I’d noted on my new DayMinder brand calendar. Considering his Semitic name and swart appearance, that seemed like a reasonable assumption. He didn’t spell it out for me, however, perhaps because he didn’t feel like explaining it again to someone who’d never heard of it.

I’m no authority on Muslim holidays, but I did look it up when I noticed it on my DayMinder. A British web site had a succinct definition, complete with the usual transliteration variations you get between English and Arabic: “Eid-ul-Adha (the Festival of Sacrifice) is celebrated throughout the Muslim world as a commemoration of Prophet Ibrahim's (Abraham’s) willingness to sacrifice his son for God. Eid-ul-Adha is celebrated on the tenth day of the month of Zul-Hijja.”

Currently my company (for example) allows employees to take certain Christian or Jewish holidays as part of their schedules (but not, alas, both). In the future, no doubt, American companies will also start to include Muslim holidays in a similar fashion. Maybe some already do. So who says that globalization only goes one way, that is, American culture forced on otherwise happy peoples around the world? Wankers, that’s who.

No time for a screed on “cultural imperialism,” but I will say this: it’s terrible how Americans force people worldwide to watch our movies—surely the greatest agents of cultural imperialism. That’s what all those marines we dispatch overseas are doing, I think. Herding natives into movie theaters at gunpoint.

More globalization: Some Fellowes brand screen cleaning wipes came to my desk today, inside a plastic jug that’s about as yellow as anything can possibly be. Made in the UK, but it’s a true EU product: instructions written on the jug come in nine languages (in order): English, German, Swedish, French, Italian, Polish, Spanish, Dutch and Russian. Various terms for the UK in other languages include Angleterre, Ingloterra, Grossbritannien (I don’t have the German double s symbol), R.U., Engeland, Storbritannien and best of all, Zjednoczonym Krolestwie.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Visible assets blog.

Attending a real estate function today, I met an employee of a certain well-known real estate company hereabouts, and I noted that she—for she was a she—fit the physical profile of female employees of this particular company. At least in my experience. I’ve visited company HQ a number of times over the years, and interviewed or met with its executives too (all men). Regarding the female employees there, every jill one of them that I ever saw, from the receptionist on up, was a blondish woman with… upfront assets. Funny what you notice, even if you’re not especially partial toward blondes.

Light snow all day today. More is promised, though by some stroke of luck a really big downfall isn’t supposed to be until tomorrow night, when we householders will be safe at home, and not worrying about going anywhere Saturday morning. Cartoons with the kids, even the animated dreck now offered in the kid-vid ghetto, look pretty good with a foot of snow on the ground outside. Lilly will also insist on sledding on the slopes of a catchment we know, but that won’t be until later in the day.

A couple of weeks ago, we put Ann on a little platform and sent her down the gentlest of those slopes. Her first experience with the winter sports that her parents, warm-climate people, never knew. But toddlers don’t have the practicalities of snow fixed in their minds yet, so as soon as she reached the bottom of the catchment, she put her bare hands directly into the powder. Cold hands resulted, followed by cries of pain and incomprehension. Snow = cold. Even the most elementary things must be learned sometime.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Farooq’s blog.

There was enough wind last night to herald a blizzard, but in the morning only a piddly amount of snow to show for it. All sound and little fury, but the snow did drift in odd ways. Parts of my driveway were completely bare, while other places had six inches piled up like a little mountain ridge.

As I said yesterday, small posting for now. A daily curiosity, perhaps. Here’s today’s: In writing a short about the New England furniture maker and retailer Ethan Allen, I learned that the bossman there -- president, CEO and chairman of the board -- is named Farooq Kathwari. (By separate message, I advised the editor that this was correct, since I knew he might ask.) This could be an occasion to wax clichéd about this immigrant nation of ours, or joke about how all the CEO jobs are being outsourced, but I think I’ll just leave it at that.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Unfinished blog.

Meager blogging for a while to come. My for-pay work is gripping like a vise at the moment; there’s always the white noise of domesticity at home, especially when you can’t turn the kids loose in the back yard; the ice-covered, wind-swept, mostly dark month of January doesn’t offer that much to write about, especially since it discourages walking around, which is a good way to see things; and I’d rather be reading anyway, especially now that I’ve got a compelling book in hand.

An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy by Robert Dallek was well lauded when it was published a few years ago, and after a few hundred pages I can see why. There’s the detailed research, of course. And there’s the solid prose style, without which a 711-page book would be a waste of pulp. But more than that, Dallek writes about President Kennedy as a human being, rather than a repository for his large body of myth.

Also, though I knew this going in, I’m still astonished by how sickly he really was, which I understand was one of the real revelations of the book. Bowel troubles, spinal problems, Addison’s disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcers, malaria and more. It’s a wonder he lived long enough to be assassinated. It’s almost as if the Devil came to make a deal with an overeager teenage JFK: “Besides your family’s wealth, you can have great fame and vast power—and all the girls you want. But you can’t have good health.” “Did you say all the girls I want?”

Monday, January 17, 2005

The persistent blog.

About nine degrees above zero Fahrenheit out there at sunset today, with the promise of a deeper freeze in the wee hours. Orion dominated the southeast of an absolutely clear sky when I took the trash out. January rolls on. At least the streets and sidewalks are more or less free of ice. For now.

Someone, somewhere, is sponsoring billboards that promote various virtues. Or what they intend to promote as virtues. It’s hard to know what they're thinking, since the billboards are unsigned. Anyway, I remember seeing one or two on I-94 to Detroit last spring, and last week I saw another on I-80/94 in the southern reaches of metro Chicago. The advertised virtue was “Persistence.” Illustrated by one of the famed portraits of the presidential (that is, bearded) Lincoln, the text was something like this: “He failed, and failed, and failed, and failed… and then…. PERSISTENCE. Pass it on.”

Well… persistence definitely amounts to a virtue. Unless it doesn’t. Ask anyone who’s been stalked. And, while one should use Hitler as an example sparingly, since there are so few in his league, the exact same billboard, with the same text, could be illustrated with his picture.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Harbour blog.

I haven’t posted any notes from the past recently, and since my most recent trip was barely worth a mention, I might as well.

January 10, 1992.

Up late, out of the house at about 1:30. We are decadent. Went down to Circular Quay and caught the ferry to Manly. Nice ride in a stiff wind. Good panoramic view of the harbor. Returned by the same ferry after lunch in Manly—another gyro—and proceeded to the Sydney Harbour Bridge and walked across it, south to north, fulfilling one ambition of this trip. Matt pointed out the places he’d once climbed on the outside of the bridge as many young fools in high school do, occasionally taking a final plunge into Sydney Harbour.

We rode a tram back across the bridge to Sydney’s diminutive Chinatown and from there walked over to Darling Harbour, site of extensive waterside redevelopment. Formerly a shipping quay, it’s becoming a conference center, shopping and entertainment district. We did no conferencing and no shopping, but we did entertain ourselves at a pub, sitting outdoors. A 10-man bicycle went by. A bicycle complex, really, with all the riders wearing barbershop quartet duds, except for the bicycle helmets. But they weren’t singing. Instead, they formed a small brass band, playing as they tooled around Darling Harbour.

Left Darling by monorail, which took us to the “World Trade Centre” station. As yet, there’s no World Trade Centre there, just an enormous construction site—a big hole in the ground, a whole city block of a hole—with nothing to fill it due to hard times in Australian real estate development. We met Gill at the _______ Hotel and caught two comedy shows. Many fine jokes were told. Occasionally Matt or Gill had to explain something to me, such as that a “ute” (u-tee) was a utility truck, so I could understand the punchline of a mother-in-law joke. Also, one of the comedians was something I hadn’t seen in years, something out of fashion in the States: a comic drunk.

After the comedy, we had some fine pizza, including a bacon and egg pizza. A new thing for me, but good.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Bahama blog.

I had one novel experience in Indianapolis earlier this week, a fairly minor one, but better than nothing. On a previous visit to that city, when wandering around and in need of a phone—my co-worker’s cell had run out of power, and mine at the time didn’t include Indy as part of its service area—we stopped in at a place on the north side called Bahama Breeze to make a phone call. If we’d had time for lunch there that day, we might have actually eaten there, but no.

It’s a small chain. There are about 30 of them scattered across the country, though Florida seems to have more than anywhere else. The theme is Island—Bahamas, Cuba and Jamaica, rather than Ellesmere, Baffin or Greenland—with warm-color island paintings on most walls and a ceiling designed to look like a tin-shed roof, but supported by sturdy wooden beams. It was fairly busy for a weekday night, but not especially noisy. While I was waiting for my table, a fellow in tropical prints with a guitar and harmonica established himself at a corner near the bar, and started imitating Jimmy Buffett (see Nov. 14, 2004). He did a creditable set.

A decent but not stellar selection of beer. That may be unintentionally authentic island atmosphere, where most beer has to be imported. A house brew called “Aruba Red” was promoted on the menu and on a little tent on the table, but closer inspection revealed it was brewed for Bahama Breeze by Anheuser-Busch. I ordered a Pacifico Clara.

The menu had its island charms. Appetizers to choose from included “island onion rings,” “West Indian paties,” “Creole bake goat cheese,” “jerk shrimp,” and “calamari sofrito,” which I had. For people who don’t like seafood (go figure), pizza, salads, chicken and beef appeared on the menu, but I’m not going to go to a joint called Bahama Breeze and not eat something from the sea. Four of the five specials of the day were seafood: grilled Atlantic salmon tostada, bronzed tilapia, jerk painted Atlantic salmon, and pan-seared mahi-mahi. For me, the salmon, since I was intrigued by the idea of jerk salmon. It came with rice and black beans, sweet plantains, and “citrus apple mango salsa.” Nice and spicy jerk, sweet plantains, and tart salsa. A fine tasty plate all around.

When I asked, the waiter wasn’t sure how many Bahama Breezes there were, but he said that this one was the only one in Indiana. He asked where I was from, and when I told him, he said that he was sure there was one near Chicago (in fact in Schaumburg, about three miles from my home). “I’ve only been to Chicago once,” he added, “and I ate pizza when I was there.”

“Only once, ever?” I asked. That was a little surprising, since Chicago’s an easy three hours up the road from Indianapolis. He explained that he was from Evansville, Indiana, near the toe of the state, and when he had time he went that direction instead of north. Just speculation on my part, but I suppose moving to the big city for him meant Indianapolis, and why not?

Friday, January 14, 2005

Indiana wash blog.

As trips go, my recent 30-hour visit to Indianapolis was a wash. I got my business done, but that was about all. I covered very little new territory, unless you count a pleasant chain restaurant that I’d never eaten at before, or a hotel I’d never stayed at before. Nice, but I don’t really count such things as new sites, unless there’s something unusual about them.

It was also literally a wash for large areas of Indiana that I passed through, especially Thursday around the Wabash River, which had been swollen by constant rain on top of melting snow. But that was still in the future when I drove down on Wednesday, leaving in the early afternoon in a rented Chevy Blazer, under partly cloudy skies and temps in the 50s in metro Chicago. By the time I reached Indianapolis, just after dark, it was about 65 F. (!) I enjoyed that. A rare gift in January. It was like leaving the Ft. Lauderdale airport a year ago (see Jan. 19, 2004), when I couldn’t quite believe the warmth of the air upon arrival.

But the radio was a killjoy, all the way down I-65. A mass of arctic air was behind my back, ready, so the weather reporters said, to slap Illinois and Indiana and Ohio the next morning, bringing a lot of rain, then snow, then an arctic blow vicious enough to freeze your kippers off. (No one on the radio actually said that, but they should have.)

Wonderful. I should have continued onward to downtown Indy, to walk around while the walking was good, but I was too tired for it, and ate dinner at a place near the hotel, which was on the north side of the city.

The next morning, my job complete, I started back a little before noon, earlier than strictly necessary, because I wanted to be ahead of any ice storm on the way home. It was a real possibility. In February 1990, an ice storm caught me on the road from St. Louis to Chicago, forcing me to overnight in Normal, Illinois. Not a bad thing, really, but you can’t count on being near Normal in abnormal weather.

It had been raining on Thursday since before I woke, and a steady pour continued as I drove north toward Chicago. Most of the land alongside I-65 is flat farmland, and in nearly every stretch of land were puddles, some enormous. Little creeks were big, and big creeks had been promoted to river by the snowmelt and rainfall. The radio carried reports of flooding, especially in Howard County, whose seat is Kokomo, along the Wildcat River 30 miles or so (50 km) east of I-65. At one point, the National Weather Service’s computer-generated voice of warning, which sounds like it has a slight East Indian accent to me, announced floods along the Wabash River too, the highest in some places, it said, since the flood of 1985. The last time I heard that voice was on a highway near Atlanta in late 1999, when tornadoes were striking the county just north of that city.

I-65 crosses the Wabash near Lafayette, Indiana. At that point in the trip, I came to a greater appreciation for the engineering work that went into the Interstate system. The Wabash was clearly out of its banks. Acres and acres of land on both sides of the road were submerged, with countless trees sticking only halfway out of the water. But the road was clear. The water would have to have been a lot higher to submerge the Interstate.

Around Rensselaer, Indiana, the rain turned to snow, but even what was gone by Gary. Traffic was molasses thick through metro Chicago, but it always is, regardless of the weather. By Friday morning, temps were just above zero F. I was lucky, there was no ice storm. Still, it’s supposed to be this cold for several days. The pit of winter is here.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Zip blog.

No blogging till Friday. A full report to follow.

I was wrong about the conclusion of Christmas yesterday, since a little piece of it came in the mail today--a seasonal lagniappe from an architectural firm I’ve never heard of, a copy of the Zagat Survey for Chicago and Milwaukee. The postmark was illegible, but the note that came with it was dated December 20, and it full of holiday cheer. The zip code was wrong, however, so I suspect the package had been in the bowels of the USPS for a few weeks now.

Considering that it was created by anonymous committee in an enormous impersonal organization, the old U.S. Post Office of the early 1960s, the term “zip code” is pretty cool, if you think about. I’ve read that it’s a fortuitous contraction of “zoning improvement” code, which sounds much more like the creation of a committee. The British are stuck with the pedestrian “postcode”--which incidentally look like the alphanumeric strings my toddler makes with magnetic letters, W34 8TX or some such. Had the UK invented the term “zoning improvement code,” I wonder what they would actually call it. Maybe the Zed-Eye Code. Or “bony movements” in some parts of London. Language is fun.

Which reminds me of an excellent presentation on mathematics and memory I heard once. It was so good that I remember a few of the points made more than a quarter century later, since it was during the national meeting of Mu Alpha Theta, the high school math honorary, in the summer of 1978 in Steven’s Point, Wisconsin. I wasn’t all that active in Mu Alpha Theta, but I was a member, and the national meeting offered a chance to ride a bus from Texas to Wisconsin, so I took it.

It was a fine bus epic of my youth, but that’s another story. I actually attended a couple of the presentations, and the one I remember was given--I think, a little logical reconstruction is involved here--by one of the math professors at the University of Wisconsin at Steven’s Point, a native Canadian. He said that memory studies had been done on recalling strings of numbers and letters, and that for the purposes of remembering a string, five or six numbers was the easiest. A string of letters wasn’t quite as easy, and a random mixture of letters and numbers wasn’t easy to remember at all.

He also, I believe, had some comments to make about the efficiencies in terms of sorting mail using the respective code systems. Anyway, he said that postal codes like that of the United States (and I believe of the Soviet Union, which used six numbers) were much easier to use and remember than the British alphanumeric system. “My native Canada,” he said, “had to choice of imitating the United States, with its easy code, but instead it imitated the worst system, the British.”

I’m not sure I’d be that hard on the British and their codes. After all, they need some little daily complication to replace the penny-shilling-pound system they so casually tossed away in a fit of rationalization.

Monday, January 10, 2005

O Tannenblog.

On Sunday, Christmas was laid to rest around our house. The tree, dry as a treatise on offshore reinsurance, had to go, and so it went. As usual, it wanted to stay, which I know because it left so much of itself on the carpet, and some other places that I’m certain it never went. Pine needles have a way of traveling, especially when little feet are active nearby.

To do the needle-vacuuming job, I had to bring in the wet/dry vac—the Big Suck, it ought to be called. Our other vacuums are ill. The Hoover upright is far past prime, and noisy as an aircraft carrier deck must be. The smaller Hepa-Shark Euro-Pro sounds fine, but it doesn’t suck squat. I spent some time with it over the weekend, and the problem seems to be in the vacuum attachment, which has that fine Euro-style, but also seems completely impossible to open up and remove obstructions from. That’s Euro-style for you: it looks marvelous! You literal-minded Americans, worrying about how a thing works. So unsophisticated.

Then again, I suspect that the damn thing was built in the Orient anyway, so neither European nor American strawman sensibilities come into play.

The tree’s decorations returned to the garage, and Lilly’s little collection of presents left the living room, which will seem empty for a little while. The outdoor lights are still up, because they’re covered with snow. I haven’t lit them in a few days, and every day that passes fewer and fewer other light strings are aglow in the neighborhood. I think I saw only two last night. Tempus fugit.

A brief visit to Target yesterday provided the season’s final holiday purchase: four boxes of tolerable Christmas cards at a 90% discount, for a grand total of about $1.50. Christmas has evaporated. Valentine’s cards and candies are now front and center in seasonal merchandising.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Double-O blog.

(This was supposed to be last Friday’s entry, but we have been experiencing technical difficulties here at the Stribling Hut, because SBC is run by a pack of incompetents. No point in dwelling on it right now, but I will say this: someday, we won’t need a land line. Then it will be payback time for the former phone monopoly; or rather, never pay again time.)

My writing on Mission Impossible on Wednesday inspired me to pull out the copy of Casino Royale I read last year, one of three of Ian Fleming’s Bond books that I picked up for free at my commute rail station (see July 19 & 20, 2004). MI isn’t exactly about spies, since the IM Force doesn’t seem to be an information-gathering organization, but they are fictional operatives, and so is Bond.

The Bond books were entertaining, and very fast reads. I was also impressed by the differences between the movie Bonds and Fleming’s character, who’s considerably darker than the version pioneered by Sean Connery. Also, some of 007’s well-known tastes are explored in some detail in the novels, with Bond himself (in Casino Royale) saying: “I take a ridiculous pleasure in what I eat and drink. It comes partly from being a bachelor, but mostly from a habit of taking a lot of trouble over details. It’s very persnickety and old-maidish really, but then when I’m working I generally eat alone and it makes them more interesting when one takes trouble.”

CR was the first of the series. Among other things, I learned practically everything I know about baccarat—except that it’s a way to lose a lot of money fast, which I already knew—from the book, since a key scene has Bond trying to clean out one of the villains at the baccarat table. A deftly handled scene, especially when it’s all but certain that Bond is going to lose, only to be saved by a timely cash infusion from Felix Leiter, CIA (from Texas!). “Bond reflected that good Americans were fine people, and that most of them seemed to come from Texas.” Hear, hear.

Bond’s misogyny is well known, and probably off-putting for sensitive souls who demand that everyone in the past live up to contemporary standards. Yet there’s no denying it, either, even by 1953 standards, when CR was first published. When he finds out that headquarters is going to send a female operative to assist him, “Bond was not amused. ‘What the hell do they want to send me a woman for,’ he said bitterly. ‘Do they think this is a bloody picnic?’ ”

Later, a woman named Vesper (agent 3030) shows up, and Bond remains unconvinced of her usefulness. “And then there was this pest of a girl. He sighed. Women were for recreation. On a job, they got in the way and fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried around.”

With a set-up like that, a lesser writer would have had Vesper, toward the end of the story, save Bond’s life, or at least be of invaluable aid. Fleming does no such thing. Vesper turns out to be a traitor, working for the Soviets because she fears for the life of her Polish lover, who’s been chucked in the gulag. She nearly gets Bond killed.

Eventually, she dies. The last line of the novel is this: “ ‘This is 007 speaking. Pass this on at once: 3030 was a double, working for Redland. Yes, I said “was.” The bitch is dead.’ ”

Thursday, January 06, 2005

A devil of a blog.

The snow slacked off this morning, but at one point it was still snowing while the sun was out. What to call that? The Devil’s beating his wife… in a meat locker?

It occurred to me that referring to rain while the sun shines as “the Devil beating his wife” might be old fashioned, but I’m not sure. Anyway, it’s a strange way to talk about the weather, and raises some other odd questions too. Surely the Devil’s wife knew that he might pose a risk of domestic violence, so why did she marry him? Because she just wuved him, and wanted to help change him? Because she’s a she-devil who can give as much abuse as she receives?

Other effects of the 36-hour snowstorm were buildings downtown spitting ice. After the snow stopped, it wasn’t quite cold enough to freeze everything in place—unusual, something to do with the jet stream—and the building across from mine, called One North Wacker, was so loose with ice that building management roped off the sidewalks around most of the structure.

The part-meltage also spawned enormous icy puddles near crosswalks, big enough for polar bears to hide in, it seemed. Which inspired pedestrians to hop from the curb to the street, only sometimes avoiding a big, cold splash. It was a perfect day for boots.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Snow blog.

Big snow tonight. Not quite in the same league as the blizzard of January 2, 1999, or January 6, 1996, but the biggest in a while. And long lasting. It’s been snowing for about 24 hours now, steadily piling up, rather than dumping in a few hours. It’s predicted to last until morning. Shoveling is in my future.

Had a physical exam today, including my first-ever EKG, “to check the old ticker,” as my new doctor put it. Soon, he said that the EKG was “normal,” which means that my likelihood of dropping dead while shoveling snow tomorrow is fairly low. But this being the first big, heavy snow of the winter, there are a handful of older men out there that will probably meet that fate in the morning. It’s a fixture of Northern conurbation winters, and snow blowers are no guarantee against injury, either: a few digits might be lost tomorrow, too.

Not to dwell on the ill effects of big snow. Except when I’m driving, I don’t mind. Growing up without snow—it snowed twice when I was in elementary school, both times in early 1973—means that it still has a slight edge of novelty for me. Snow! Cold, fluffy white stuff from the sky! Piles up big, makes balls for throwing. I did that when I was 12, but other snow activities had to wait: sledding, till I was 22; snow angels, till I was 27; shoveling, till I was 37 and had my own property; downhill skiing, till never.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

IM Force blog.

With the New Year, my mind gravitates to thoughts and reflections on mortality, the passage of time, and Mission: Impossible. That last one’s maybe a little idiosyncratic, but it happens that in the last few weeks I’ve been watching episodes of that TV show—not the dim Tom Cruise vehicles of the same name, but the late ’60s, early ’70s series that had one of the greatest introductions in television, if nothing else.

The Schaumburg Township Public Library has a fairly large collection of videos and DVDs to lend, for free, and periodically I access something. Among them, MI caught my eye because it was at the edge of my memory. I probably haven’t seen an episode in 30 years. Sometimes, such shows are better left there at memory’s edge, peering over into the abyss of Before I Was Born. I don’t think I would bother with Clutch Cargo if I saw it on the shelf, for instance. Other shows are worth another look. Around this time last year, I checked some Dobie Gillis tapes out of the same library, and on whole enjoyed them, especially the beatnik spoof of Maynard G. Krebs that I couldn’t have understood at five years old (I saw reruns, not the prime-time airings), and a surprise visit by guest star Francis X. Bushman in one episode.

The video MI collection is only a selection, not an encyclopedic DVD (a library couldn’t afford that), but I only need a selection. So far I’ve seen about five episodes, all dating from 1965 to 1967, none of which I had any specific memory of. Some passing observations:

Man, do they smoke.

Mr. Phelps did not in fact lead the IM Force during the first season, but a different character whose name I forget did—one played by Steven Hill, who was the DA on Law & Order in the 1990s. I had to look hard at the younger man to realize that it was, in fact, the same actor. Thirty years aren’t kind to anyone’s face, I suppose.

Instructions weren’t always relayed by tape recorder. One time it was a record player, another time a cassette. These items usually self-destructed, but one time the voice asked Phelps to “dispose of it in the usual way,” after which he threw it in a vat of acid.

I recognized at least one of the spots Phelps went to for his instructions: the Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles (I’ve been there). Actually, several of the opening locales looked suspiciously like industrial districts in LA.

The IM Force thwarted some astonishingly ahead-of-their-time threats to the United States. Nuclear and biological terrorism were well represented.

Per cinematic convention, pretty much everyone in every country speaks English, which saved the IM Force the trouble of being polyglots as well as disguise artists, electronics experts, and so on. In some of the countries in which they operated, however, there were signs in other languages—and in at least two cases, mixtures of a Cyrillic-looking script and some German-like words. Maybe in the MI universe, the Germans and the Russians never fought each other in the 1940s, and 20 years later they’re both enemies of ours.

Then again, the show is quite coy about naming any real countries as enemies, though it does refer to the Communist bloc. This too was cinematic convention, though I’m not sure why. It wasn’t as if the Soviets were going to take them to court for defamation, or even pay attention.

Often enough, the story—and the fate of the characters—hinged on some improbabilities, sometimes remarkable ones. No matter. The stories were built well enough, sometimes brilliantly so, for me to ignore that.

Extralegal activities on American soil were par for the course for the IM Force, and indeed the show would have been no fun at all without them. And why was the show cancelled in 1973? An embarrassing investigation into IM Force abuses by Sen. Frank Church, I reckon.

Finally, Wally Cox was in the pilot. He played a safecracker. Underdog did not make an appearance.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Kids today blog.

Some child-rearing notes. Lilly brought home a certificate today from her school PTA, a “Certificate of Achievement,” “for your creativity and excellence in the National PTA Reflections Program, 2004-2005.” Without overloading on detail, I’ll say that the Reflections Program has students submit artwork on a particular theme for judging, with awards given at district, state and national levels. It’s voluntary, but Lilly entered something both this year and last.

I suspect that everyone got this kind of certificate, since self-esteem is probably dogma at the PTA, and no child’s certificate must be left behind. Lilly did a good job in kindergarten with Reflections, dictating sentences to me and then drawing nice color pictures to illustrate them, all of which then went in a notebook for display. In fact, her entry last year advanced to the district level.

This year, however, she phoned it in. We encouraged her to do more than a pencil drawing on a torn piece of spiral notebook paper, but we didn’t push her very much since, after all, this isn’t an especially important project. Nevertheless, she gets a certificate. I wouldn’t have given her one.

Next child. Had a conversation with Ann this evening. It involved a certain confection, and went like this:

Ann: “Want.”

Me: “No more.”

Ann: “More.”

Me: “No more.”

Ann: “Want more.”

Me: “No.”

Ann: “Plesse.”

Me: “No.”

Ann: “Plesse.”

After which, she gave up. But she’s young yet. Soon she’ll learn to get the best of me.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

The blogs of 05.

Happy New Year to all. 2005? A new number always seems a little strange, especially now that the turn of the century is quite a ways past. How did this happen? Where did all the 19-years go, anyway?

A stomach virus blew through the family over the extended weekend, but I’ll spare any readers any unpleasant details. It made for a crummy start of the year, but mostly we've recovered.

We were so tired on New Year’s Eve that we went to bed at around 10:30, all of us, but at least I woke when some neighbors—the high school girl across the street and some of her friends, I think—made some noise when midnight passed. I didn’t mind. It was a more satisfying way to mark the occasion than watching one’s own clock or TV, and I feel past the need to gather socially for the change in calendar, though I did that for years, in various time zones, and enjoyed it too.