Saturday, June 30, 2007

Fighting the clutter war

My late uncle, a lunatic packrat, kept his house full, and I do mean full, of mostly all junk.

A few treasures lurked in the shadows:

Here, a dust-drowned set of handcrafted elephants of increasing size from teeny to a few inches tall.

There, cordial glasses in the form of crystal thistles.

Everywhere, undiscarded junk mail, stultifying books, flimsy old tableware, empty hooch bottles.

I do not wish to dispute my uncle's title as Reigning Champion of Junk Retention, so I frequently visit upon my home a flurry of tidying, which usually results in a bag - or several - for the local charities to figure out. I enjoy the process, mostly because I like to rediscover all the stuff that I thought was worth keeping the last time I passed through.

I don't buy much stuff, and neither does the butterfly lady, which leaves me wondering about the ability of my belongings to multiply. I would prefer that when they do procreate, they make something useful that I want, like a table saw or a new motorcycle, instead of five cardboard mailing tubes, 35 pencils and a stack of plastic plates.

Friday, June 29, 2007

A promise that would be funny to keep

Shot by my father, in the Land of Ports.

Deus ex machina

I love to watch movies, even bad ones. Lucky me, because if I objected to watching movies that aren't any good, I would have way fewer choices.

For me, a good ending is the make-or-break element of most movies. I'm OK with nebulous endings, sometimes. But not very often. I'm more OK with those than with the miraculous Problem Solved ending. It seems as though the writers (I think of movies with poor endings as being the work of a committee) said, "Well, we've done everything we needed to do. Got the scene with Nicole Kidman naked. Got the trippy special effect with the electromagnetic pulse. Got the Michael Mann driving scene. OK, let's wrap this up."

Hey, I'm not saying I'd do better, but I'd be OK with fewer, better movies. On the bright side, the prevalance of deus ex machina endings means that a good wikipedia article has been written, or at least one that contains a good for-instance:
(e.g. the rope that binds the hero's hands is luckily chewed off by a rat.)

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

How much do you make?

A personal question!

But also a public question, if you work for the people. There's been some hue and cry about a Lansing State Journal's move to give readers access to a database of state employee salaries, and the Asbury Park Press has made a similar move, by posting a tool that lets you search for the salaries of most federal employees. I don't know whether they've caught any flak, though.

For your inconvenience

I've made two visits to post offices recently. One was on a Sunday, at Narita International Airport outside Tokyo and to the Walla Walla post office at Sumach Street and Second Avenue.

Although I don't speak much Japanese, I was able to mail a parcel from Narita for a reasonable cost with no hassle in about five minutes. That time included the two postal workers carefully packaging my item in a box, which they sealed, and for me to fill out the forms and pay.

My visit to the Walla Walla post office Monday afternoon didn't go quite so smoothly. One similarity: There were two postal workers in the office. As for me, I had a sealed priority mail flat-rate envelope to send. Twenty-five minutes after walking in, I had my receipt in hand and the envelope was off.

I don't think the postal workers were to blame, but who would ever know? It was lunchtime, so customers were plentiful, and some had what appeared to be bizarre needs: to have an individualized sales pitch about each of the available boxes the post office sells to ship items; to apparently have help filling out the whole! passport application at the counter; to negotiate for the release of a single piece of mail posted by the customer but also the subject of some arcane afterthought.

If ever a post office needed one of the self-service kiosks, it is this one.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Why, oh why

I spent an hour this morning walking laps at the scene of my former triumphs, the college track. This time, I was participating in a fund-raising walk for cancer research. Coolio.

But even though I had an early shift at the track (it was a teamwork thing) I still got the significant disadvantage of piped in music about halfway through my walk, followed by some fairly disturbing live music.

The piped-in stuff was annoying (You'll never know that you're my hero, YMCA, that kind of stuff), but the live music was creepy. The performer, a Christian blues guy, was singing about being ready to head for heaven. Um, no, you know, at a cancer research walk, I'm more interested in a long, healthy life, not a short one, for Christ's sake.

I have to say the creepy singing severely detracted from an otherwise inspirational and moving morning walk.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

"Documentary" comes up short

The History Channel had a show Wednesday evening about meat processing: "Modern Marvels: The Butcher."

The show description reads like you might expect from a legitimate documentary, but there was this little question of truth and lies.

The show included a segment on the cutting edge of U.S. meat packaging. And what, pray tell, is on that cutting edge? If you watched the show, you would think meat packagers are adding oxygen to packages to keep the meat looking fresh. Of course, carbon also is being added to the packaging at the same time, because what packagers are *really* adding is carbon monoxide.

The compound isn't supposed to be harmful at the levels being used in packaging, and it is credited with keeping meat looking fresh longer, which retailers and producers say is crucial to sales. But carbon monoxide use in packaging was banned by the European Commission, according to various wire reports, because its use could mask spoilage.

Is it safe? Is it dangerous?

Well, those are good questions, but they went unanswered, and worse, unasked in the History Channel's show. Feedback on other shows at the channel's message boards and the way the packaging segment was reported suggest this oversight was intentional. I'm not impressed.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Minor beef with book dealers

I found three kinds of product descriptions today while prowling the used book shelves at for Spanish grammar workbooks.

Exhibit A:
  • Comments: Some shelf wear to edges of cover, pages yellowed a bit, otherwise good.
  • Comments: Bought but never used. Shelf wear. Shipping from MA.
  • Comments: about half the book has writing
Exhibit B:
  • Comments: Go with the name you can trust: Thriftbooks has the HIGHEST star rating of ALL high-volume sellers! Read More. Spend Less. Your Satisfaction is Guaranteed!
Exhibit C:
  • Comments: minor shelfwear; clean pages Average used book, may have price sticker on front cover, shelfwear. BUY WITH CONFIDENCE: 99% Positive feedback. 100% Satisfaction Guaranteed!!!!! Compare our prices and service to the competition!
  • Comments: Book shows some use, cover is a bit worn, but pages are clean and book is solid. Some writing in first few pages. A great addition to your library!
It's pretty easy for me to ignore the books in Exhibit B, and some of the books in Exhibit A don't work for me (I prefer a workbook that hasn't already had someone write in answers). The listings in Exhibit C annoy me.

I already am comparing the prices. I think that's why Amazon puts them in order. Buy with confidence? Well, maybe now that this is in all caps, sure. A great addition to my library? How would you know? I just want pertinent information, damn it, but these listings leave me doubtful.

"Average used book, may have price sticker on front cover, shelfwear" and "Book shows some use, cover is a bit worn, but pages are clean and book is solid" look like boilerplate, so I am skeptical about "clean pages" and the second listing's bit about "Some writing in first few pages" makes me think "pages are clean" is maybe not accurate. Just possibly.


Monday, June 18, 2007

On my to-do list

I've long since abandoned learning to use a 10-key, but I still think it would be useful. Survivors on one of my get-more-skills lists:
  • Finish learning French. I can get by on the road, but that's about it.
  • Improve in Japanese and Arabic to the point that I can get by comfortably on the road (and translate my new Japanese-language field guide to Japanese birds).
  • Finish learning Spanish. I can get by one the road, if all the road demands is that I order a beer. Or another beer.
So that should be pretty easy, right? I have a plan, anyway, which involves French lessons that start today. Depending on how much time is left in my days, I hope to tackle Japanese through the translation project. It will be an interesting experiment anyway... And Arabic? Man, I need some more hours.

Spanish is kind of up in the air: My employer may offer some sort of kickback on tuition, which could mean actual classroom time starting in the fall. It isn't very expensive, about $1,300 for three quarters, plus books.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Water wise?

I got my utility bill today. Most of the costs are set:
  • $34.60 for sewer
  • $3.18 for storm water
  • $16.81 for trash
  • $1.90 for recycling
  • 67 cents in trash tax. Why they don't fold that into the $16.81 is a mystery.
  • $18.07 for water
So that's $75.26 of my $78.29 bill. The other $3.06 is the charge for our use of 300 cubic feet of water (about 2,250 gallons). That's lower than usual, but we were on the road a lot. We average about 500 cubic feet, so our bill is usually a couple bucks higher. In those monhts, 92 percent of my bill is set costs, and my choices work out to about six bucks.

On Friday in the paper, we published a small column the city is submitting each week to try to get people on board with water conservation.

I think you know where I'm headed here, but I'll just say it anyway.

Maybe it is time to ditch the set fee and switch to a sliding scale for use. I usually pay $24 for 600 cubic feet, so how about:
  • $4 per 100 cubic feet for the first 10 units.
  • $8 per unit for units 11-20.
  • $16 per unit for units 21-30.
  • $32 per unit for units 31 and up.
I'm sure a system can be worked out for non-residential users, too.

Friday, June 15, 2007

And furthermore...

I see the wire also carries a story today about how rental car companies, Hertz and Avis Budget at least, plan to add hybrids to their fleets to meet a demand for "green" vehicles.

I'll believe this when I am behind the wheel. My experience with rentals has been pretty heavy on the mandatory free upgrade to a larger car than I reserved. I have been upgrade so often to clunky gas-guzzlers that I question whether the rental companies are getting some kind of deal, either from fuel sellers or car companies that can't find customers for their crappier vehicles.

What's wealthy?

For that matter, what's wealth?

Those definitions surely depend on who's being asked, and how much money/property they have. I'd say wealthy starts pretty low: Maybe $100,000 a year if you live in a town such as mine, maybe $200,000 in a snazzier place, like Santa Monica. But you'd need assets, too, to meet my definition. I'm a little fuzzy on that; I guess if your expenses aren't high and you make $100,000 a year, you can get some assets pretty quickly.

How about $100k a year plus $250k-$500k in property/investments/gold bars under the mattress? Sounds good to me.

The Associated Press and I do not see eye to eye: An Anne D'Innocenzio story about spending on luxury items pegs wealthy at $350,000 and above. I think that's overkill. According to the comprehensive wikipedia entry on household income in the United States, about 1.5 percent of households have annual incomes above $250,000, and just under 16 percent are over $100,000.

Maybe the "real" number is somewhere in the middle.

Or maybe it's better to concoct a non-monetary definition of wealth, or one that combines dough with quality of life. And maybe *that* is just a strategy people who don't have a lot of cash use to keep up with the Joneses.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Another difference

One of Lulu's posts reminded me: In some places, everybody knows who you are. This is weird if you are usually unrecognized. But hey, a few autographs are a small price to pay for the adoration of some friendly school kids :)

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The national pastime

While in Japan, I find that the combination of starting the day early (to beat the crowds), not being able to read very well (this makes every non-English or non-Romaji sign a challenge in decoding) and the general onslaught of information conspire to putting a relatively early end to the day.

This is actually very cool, because it leaves plenty of time to enjoy Japanese television. This being my first visit during baseball season, I got my first dose of what appears to be the typical baseball coverage on TV.

Most nights, two or three games were broadcast live. On network TV. In primetime.

Besides the games, all of the nightly news programs had hefty baseball reports, from the Japanese leagues and highlights of hometown heroes in the majors. I think I saw more of Ichiro in the last two weeks than in the previous few years here.

Of course, there are other differences besides in TV exposure. For example, Japanese players show off less than major leaguers. Sure, there's the usual fist pumping after a home run, but there's none of the Albert Pujols/Barry Bonds crap of hitting a home run and standing around to watch the ball go out. Maybe that's because the Japanese players are in a hurry to get to home plate, where the tradition seems to be that they are handed a stuffed animal. Really.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Portion control

The butterfly lady, my father and I spent the past couple of weeks in Japan, mostly exploring in and around Tokyo and Kyoto (with side visits to Matsumoto and Hiroshima). During a short layover in Seattle on the way home, I bought a meal at one of the fish houses in the airport (for the lady and I: My father lives in another city and flew on a different route).

It does not take a food scientist to figure out why Japanese people and American people are not the same size. I ordered a combo meal of fish and chips, which came with clam chowder and a soda.

For $10.81, including tax, we received four hefty pieces of fried fish, french fries (about as much as a McDonald's medium, maybe a large), a large "cup" of chowder and a 20-ounce Diet Coke. The butterfly lady estimated that what we got would have been a nice meal for four Japanese women. She's right, I think.

I know that the first day back is always a huge shock, but this time seemed more shocking than usual. Maybe this is because I have been hungry (but also, thankfully, thinner) for most of the past two years, or maybe our country is just getting bigger...

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Happy aspect of long-distance travel

Besides not having to ride on a ship, I mean: The butterfly lady, on our return from Japan today, were expecting a *long* layover in Seattle, but two guys didn't show up for an earlier flight to our city, so we got a four-hour bonus, and their seats. A minor hooray, and a nice positive note for air travel, which seems to have less and less to recommend it (OK, yeah, except for the fact that it is fast) each time I fly.