Monday, April 30, 2007

You know you're not from around here when...

you're watching Saturday Night Live and you are puzzled as to why the show has a note at the bottom of the screen indicating it is taped version of a show that was broadcast live.

The butterfly lady turned to me and said, "but it is supposed to be live!"

Between that and my new Bob's Clam Hut (Kittery, Maine) T-shirt, I'm thinking I'm probably not really from around here yet. I'm not convinced I ever will be.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

A piece of the days of yore

One of the zillion annual traditions at the alma mater is a choral contest, this year's version of which was Friday night.

If you think this sounds lame or outdated, you're not alone. A singer from Nashville, who played at a coffeehouse later that evening on campus, did a couple of songs before the contest kicked off. He told the crowd that when he heard he'd be playing before choral contest, he thought that meant about seven people. I think the number was closer to 700 (about half the student body), but it could easily have been higher.

So, my alma mater is typical in a lot of ways of small, private, highly selective liberal arts colleges, with the possible exception being that although it is secular, it is a pretty conservative place, the sort of college you went to in the 1960s if you wanted to avoid all that Vietnam protesty stuff.

Anyway, when the butterfly lady and I attended, choral contest was a really big deal. My fraternity (The Singing Fraternity), like most others, participated every year, and we took it damn seriously. I'm surprised in retrospect that our choral contest officer wasn't on the chapter's executive council.

Unlike some of my other studies, I was diligent in choir practice and we met nightly to rehearse such gems as "There is Nothing Like a Dame" and other "contemporary" tunes. In four-part harmony, of course... Other fraternities, notably Beta Theta Pi, were slackers to varying degrees, usually sending a minimal number of "singers" to belt out, in a loud monotone, some rubbishy version of "Drunken Sailor." Another fraternity, reputedly racist scumbags, did passably well. We were all just in the running for second place, though, because the non-affiliated men's choir always seemed to win. At least we took it seriously back then.

I think you can probably guess where I'm headed here, but I'll say it anyway. Much to my disgust Friday night, none of the three participating men's choirs (Phi Delta Theta, Tau Kappa Epsilon and the Betas) bothered to give a serious effort. The TKEs were at least amusing, doing a parody of Don Giovanni and a fake-o second song. The Betas did their usual crap and my chapter stole a page from old Beta-dom and delivered a crap version of "Drunken Sailor."

As luck would have it, the Sigs were DQ'd for some politically incorrect mumbo jumbo before they even took the stage, and the TKEs and Betas were so awful that the old Azure and Argent won. I couldn't bring myself to applaud.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Places worth going

  • Chris Jordan has a cool and somewhat illuminating art project, here. No doubt this would be impressive in person. Reminds me of a guy in New Hampshire who collected 1 million pennies with his kids (I think they donated the $10k to charity), just so he could show them what a million is. That's a cool project, too.
  • Not yet depressed about the state of math education in this country? Well, check out a quick comparison of British and Chinese math education in this BBC story. The contrast between problems at the bottom of the story is, alas, stark.
  • The Onion's stories are usually obviously bogus, but this one, about RadioShack, seems a little too plausible. One of my friends (the only person I know who extends pronouncing wolf, the animal, as "woof" to what you can do with food, as in "woof down burgers") worked at RadioShack during the 1980s in, I believe, a Lynn, Mass., strip mall. What a godawful dump. Anyway, he said they were paid minimum wage, plus commission, and were instructed to try to upsell every customer. An example: "If a guy comes in looking to buy an LED, steer him toward the three-pack. That'll get you a better commission!"

Regina, live

Regina Spektor played Tuesday night at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, and the butterfly lady and I flitted into town for the show. The ballroom is just that, a funky standing-room-only venue on an upper floor of a building near Powell's Books. We got lucky: Only about 120 people were in line in front of us (I think about 1,200 or so were at the show), so we got really good "seats" about 15 feet from the stage.

The show was great - she played alone, with a piano, a guitar and some improvised percussion. I think the best single-word summary for her is adorable. She's got wicked ridiculous skills as a musician, but she also seems to possess a Mitch Hedberg-style bashfulness, which is pretty endearing, and made up for the unreasonable break between her opening act and her set. We were in line at 7:30 and she came on about 10:05 or 10:10... that's a fair amount of time standing around. But hey, what can you do. She was well worth the wait, one of the better shows I've been to. And fortunately for me, I'm taller than a lot of Regina Spektor's fans.

This was one of the few shows I've gone to without a notebook or a deadline. I think I like just going to the show better than covering it.

Here's a little taste of the show:

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Forward progress

I don't write much about swimming here because I have another blog for that... But I'm short on ideas and feel like blogging, so...

Since about February or March of 2006, I've had this injured wing, my left shoulder. I think the trouble started with some technical malfunction in my stroke, but who can say for sure? Anyway, I've fixed whatever I was doing wrong, been through the wringer with a massage lady and an acupuncturist and spent a fair amount of time on the shelf. That last part is a real drag. I can't stand being out of commission.

Anyway, all appears to be well at last - I can go hard without hurting, and I can swim when I like without worrying. Thank god.

If only I could sort out the allergy to pool chemicals...

Monday, April 23, 2007

The free market

An Associated Press analysis piece on the closure of a Freightliner factory in Portland (Oregon, not Maine), I'm struck by a couple of details:
  • 84 percent of Americans work in service jobs (I guess we have to take that figure on faith; the story didn't cite a source). I like being in the oddball sixth. I'm not saying parts of my business couldn't be outsourced (they already are, if you count wire-service copy, imported software for page composition and that kind of thing), but I'm pretty sure operations that gather local news will always need to have at least a few local people on the payroll.
  • "Free trade" is a misnomer. Until I edited it out, "free trade" was used twice in the story to describe certain policies of the current administration. If the trade was truly free (I'm thinking of NAFTA here), I wouldn't have to pay duties to bring textiles in from Guatemala now, would I. Color me a cynic here, but I think "free trade" means about as much as "free market."

Saturday, April 21, 2007

An elegant drink that can't be bate

The butterfly lady and I stopped off at a local watering hole for a celebratory drink (she just made the last big move in getting her Ph.D.; it is all over now but formalities and ceremonies), where I had a glass of Woodford Reserve bourbon. If it isn't the best of the premium bourbons, I don't know what is. Maybe I need to try more of them...

Anyway, while I was sipping my glass of bourbon, it occurred to me - yet again - that a plausible explanation for the similarity between Scotch and bourbon would be the land of origin for Appalachia's early non-native inhabitants. I recollect Scots-Irish types flowed into the area, perhaps bringing their dark arts with them.

Whatever. It would be fun to do a Scotch/golf tour of Scotland and follow it up with a bourbon/golf tour of Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm not sure why I include golf here, but it seems a natural pairing...

Thursday, April 19, 2007

News coverage: The 9/11 effect

I work at a small daily newspaper, one that enjoys high market penetration and little competition. We're not the only local news source, but we're pretty damn close. Our attitude is: If it is local, it's us. If it's not, we're not going to do a whole lot of worrying about it.

Thus, our front pages this week have had some, but not a lot, on the Virginia Tech shooting. We had front-page wire stories Monday and Tuesday and a local story today (I don't anticipate more). I think that's about appropriate. I am in the minority.

A quick scan today of front pages at the Newseum shows a lot of above-the-fold and centerpiece treatments for the shooter-manifesto story. I find it hard to believe that the Contra Costa Times (Torrance, Calif.), the Pensacola News Journal (duh, Florida), West Hawaii Today (Kailua Kona, Hawaii), etcetera, can really claim this is a local story, but they act like it is anyway.

I think this is a 9/11 effect, in more than one regard. 9/11 was for most papers a true local story, not just through tenuous local connections to the "national tragedy," but because the significant changes to daily life were - and continue to be - everywhere. The response from newspapers was to behave pretty much like TV: All 9/11 all the time. For a long spell, that made sense. Not a lot was going on, news-wise, that wasn't related to the attacks, the subsequent war, the onslaught of legislation and quieter rule changes.

Like everyone else in this business, what I learned from 9/11 was how much a news staff can do in a time of crisis. A hell of a lot, as it turns out. At some newspapers, this has become a problem, similar to what faces a nation that has a standing army in peacetime. You've got this kickass gun, so now you need a place to shoot it.

9/11 also liberated designers and editors from a perceived restriction on using the whole front page for big news. When I walked into the afternoon planning meeting that day (a few minutes late; I went swimming before work) at my former employer's paper, I found editors talking about how many stories should be above the fold. "Zero," I said, "just a headline and a photo." After a lengthy debate, I won, and we used the whole page for a big headline (Terror, in all caps about three inches high), a big photo (horizontal, full width of the page) and three blurbs with smaller photos referring people to the stories we had inside the paper. We still ran the god damned lottery results and other useless shit at the bottom of the page, but on all the important points, I got my way. Which was great then, but contributed to today's problem.

Today's problem is that every time something big happens (a tsunami, a hurricane, a dead pope, a new pope), the 9/11 treatment gets rolled out, even at small daily papers that can't make a credible claim to be national news outlets. I'm not saying the stories shouldn't be covered, but that coverage should not overshadow legitimately important local news except in the most unusual of circumstances. Since 9/11, I'd say those circumstances haven't happened.

I back my claim by pointing again to the the Newseum's front-page gallery archive. Since 9/11, the entries are:
  • Space shuttle Columbia burns up
  • The war in Iraq
  • Terrorism in Madrid
  • Ronald Reagan dies
  • Red Sox win the World Series
  • Tsunami hits South Asia
  • Pope dies; new pope chosen
  • Deep Throat revealed
  • Space shuttle Discovery lifts off
  • Hurricane Katrina
  • Rosa Parks dies
  • Democrats take House
  • Ford dies; Hussein killed
  • Virginia Tech shooting
If you're looking for something that matches 9/11 in scale, I think you're down to the tsunami and the war.

But no matter the scale, the tsunami wasn't local, just like the genocide in Rwanda wasn't local. People cared, but only for a little while. 9/11 wasn't like that (of course, I lived near Boston then, so my perspective may be skewed).

And the war? Well, it's not like that came as a big surprise. If you look at the front pages related to the war, it's hard to find a Holy Cow News Day in the lot.

It seems to me that the upshot of the 9/11-ification of papers' coverage of major news is a dumbing down of the industry, maybe not the level of television news, but in that general direction. At least for papers that stick to the tired old model of trying to provide all things to all the people...

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Somewhat belated tag fun: Six strange things

And by somewhat, I mean I was tagged in December, but somehow missed the boat. Anyway, Technorati kindly alerted me to Johnny Yen's tag.

Six strange things about myself:

When I talk in my sleep, it's not in English.
I like to learn foreign languages - German, French, Japanese, Arabic, Spanish, ancient Greek (yeah, that's handy) - and I seem to have a knack for it. It just seems easy, apparently especially when I'm not awake. I used to speak only German on the rare occasion I'd talk in my sleep, but I'm told I've branched out a bit. When I'm dreaming, I rarely perceive myself to be speaking a foreign language, but who knows?

I can write with my foot.
By which I mean, I can use my foot to hold a pen, not "I can drag my foot in the sand to form letters,'' which I can also do. I'm sure this, too, will come in handy. Especially when I have to communicate with ancient Greeks while my hands are tied.

I like to read the Federal Register.
So should you. Federal rule making can be boring and/or arcane, but this is the semi-hidden way that things actually get done in this country, and there are some true gems tucked away in the pages of this publication, which is published on non-holiday weekdays. When I covered environmental news, the Register was a daily must-read. This is an acquired taste, I suspect.

I can't talk politics with you.
Or anybody else, really, besides my family and others who are sworn to secrecy. A vagary of my job, but also a fabulous way to dodge boring conversations I didn't want to have anyway. I am hyper-interested in politics, just not in public.

I can't stand iceberg lettuce.
I think I am allergic to it. It makes my tongue swell up, but not too badly. Just enough to be annoying. WTF.

My other job is weaving.
Maybe that's not really super strange. But I'm not sure how many people can say they work in *two* rag trades.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Tax time

According to an AP story I read today, the IRS has already issued 73.6 million refunds to the tune of $174 billion ($2,366 per refund, the story says). That's a pretty nice loan program the government has going for itself.

Let's assume that Joe and Mary Taxpayer invested that $2,366 conservatively, in a 12-month CD (rates listed today at suggest they'd get a 4.8 percent return). That'd be a nice little pile of ice-cream money, about $115.

Let's assume the federales had the same idea. Of course, they can't save up for a year and then invest the money, so let's say they put half the money in a six-month CD (I'd love to see that document), for a return of 4.5 percent. That'd be a nice little pile of ice cream money, too, about $3.9 billion.

As I've written previously, the national taxpayer advocate has the annual job of coming up with the top 20 (or more) problems facing the American taxpayer. I notice she (her name is Nina E. Olson) has nothing to say about this business.

Maybe this is all for the best - overpayment ensures the bill will be covered, whereas given our country's deplorable savings rates underpayment might simply lead to nonpayment. Still, I'm not that fond of having Big Brother playing parent with my money.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Pork satay experiment

I had a couple of pieces of pork but no brilliant ideas until the butterfly lady suggested satay. Okey-dokey. I fished around and found some ideas that resulted in this "recipe." I was surprised to find I had all the ingredients.

Pork satay with spicy peanut sauce

Before you do anything else, get
  • a can of unsweetened coconut milk
and pour it into a smallish bowl. In about an hour (so they say, I left mine overnight in the fridge), the milk will separate into a thick, creamy part at the top and a thin liquid at the bottom. You will need to skim about a half-cup of the thick part off the top for later. You can mix the remainder in with the thin part to use in the peanut sauce.

Now, cut into 3-inch-by-1-inch, quarter-inch thick strips
  • Pork for grilling (12-16 ounces)
and marinate for about a half-hour in:
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce (nuoc nam, nam pla, whatever you wish to call it)
  • 2 tablespoons lime juice
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne (or more, if you like)
  • 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
  • 1 tablespoon sugar (I would omit this next time)
Skewer so as to have a flat set of meat on the bamboo (soaked an hour in water) or metal skewer. I made U-shapes, skewering each piece twice. My pound or so of meat made four very generous skewers.

Brush skewered meat on one side with creamy coconut goop and place this side face down over coals on your grill (or toward the hot part of your broiler) and sear for a couple of minutes. Then brush the uncooked side, flip the skewers and grill until done, about 5-10 minutes (I did about 10).

Serve with peanut sauce:
  • The rest of the can of coconut milk
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup crunchy peanut butter
  • chili paste, to taste (I used a tablespoon of sambal oelek)
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon sugar (I would omit this the next time, too, but maybe you will like it sweet)
Combine ingredients in a saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring, until as thick as heavy cream. Makes way more than you need, but I'm sure you can find other uses for this sauce...

This is very tasty, but as I made it, a bit too sweet. As noted above, I'd just ditch the sugar. I also used less peanut butter in the sauce when I made it, and wound up adding some at the table. More is better, I think.

Friday, April 13, 2007

A music meme

Hey, every day is a good day to post about music.

What was the first recorded music you bought?
"Business as Usual" by Men at Work. That album kicked ass, even if nobody remembers anything but that dumb song about vegemite sandwiches.

What was the most recent?
"Big Wheel," the prerelease single off Tori Amos's new album, American Doll Posse. I don't have everything she's ever done, especially now that she's kicking out DVDs and compilations. But I've got all her albums, plus some other covers and assorted this & that. Except "To Venus and Back," which I haven't gotten around to buying.

What was the first professional music show you ever went to?
Oh, I have no idea. Probably some operetta that my sister and I got in trouble for squabbling in the midst of. Hmm. Do Gilbert & Sullivan shows count? Maybe I should just say, a Willie Nelson concert.

The most recent show?
Man, I haven't been to a show in quite a while. Joe Purdy and some outfit I've forgotten the name of, in the fall in Virginia.

What's your desert island album?
Thank god I remembered to bring my iPod when I was marooned. I hope my solar battery charger holds up. Too bad it only had "Live at the Old Quarter" by Townes Van Zandt on it, but so it goes. At least it wasn't Iron Butterfly.

What's your favorite album/song title (not the actual album or song)?
Lulu's friend's band, 7,000 Dying Rats, has outstanding song titles ("The Thought Bubble Above My Head is Filled with Golden Rotating Shotguns"), but I guess I have to come up with something I knew before I read her post. I dunno. "Tecumseh Valley" - it has a loaded meaning.

What's your favorite album art (include an image of it if you can)?

What’s your ideal choice for a karaoke song?
For karaoke, maybe Mozart's Piano Concerto in G major, K. 453. But only if it is performed by a starling.

You hate that song … but it won’t leave your head if you hear it.
Fortunately for me, I don't have this problem. I usually just get fragments of songs I like but barely know. That's pretty annoying, too.

Which is cooler — vinyl? CD? cassette? 8-track?
Cooler? I guess vinyl, because I find its manufacturing process more interesting than the others'. But I think for coolness, downloads are the way to go. Anything else seems like a needless waste of resources (and more potential landfill when you get sick of listening to that Enrique Iglesias disc).

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Blogosphere civility code

After reading (and, I'm afraid to say, adding to) the Blogger Code of Conduct that Tim O'Reilly and others are formulating, I am reminded of a column I wrote a few years ago, about beaked whales. Not a whole hell of a lot is know about beaked whales, ironic considering their size (up to 15 tons, I believe) but not at all ironic considering their habitat, which is the deep, open oceans of the world.

My column - written after a species was described in more detail than is common for beaked whales - was a small mourning for the demise of the ocean - or at least that small part of it - as a great unkown. I like the unmapped and uncharted places just because of what they represent: a great frontier.

In the same way, the Web is a place for exploration, a world that isn't fully known and that has many odd corners. Most of the time I spend online, I spend at mainstream sites or at blogs that are written by typical, but interesting, people.


Although I prefer to carry on civil conversations, such as they are, online, and I prefer to spend my time in places that wouldn't raise anybody's eyebrows, I do not think my predilections should be codified for others to fall in line with.

What am I talking about? Well, here's part of O'Reilly's draft of a code of conduct:
Don't say anything online that you wouldn't say in person.
The next time you're tempted to vent your anger or frustration online, imagine you're talking to your mother. Or if you have no respect for your mother, imagine you're talking to a big, mean dude that you met on the street. Or simply imagine the person you're speaking to as a real person, standing in front of you. Would you say what you're saying to them if you were in the same room?
Is he kidding? That's almost as good as "If you didn't bring enough for everyone, you can't share with anyone." What the fuck. Is the Web a fucking grade school?

I understand the serious nature of what has spurred all this talk of codes of conduct, but give me a break. Or better yet, don't. Go ahead, fuckers, spend your time cooking up your little book of rules, and let's just see how many people bother to read it.

Monday, April 09, 2007

One song, two versions

If you are into the folk music scene and Joe Purdy shows up in your town, you should go to his show. He's certainly worth a detour, and probably a special journey. I guess that would make him 2.75 stars. He's also very funny, and he likes bourbon, should you wish to buy him a drink.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Cookie time

I once worked with a woman who could be a world-class grouch. On a bad day, rays of evil radiated from her, turning anyone within about 15 feet into a) a whimpering mess; or b) a similarly grouchy grumpo.

She also happened to be my friend, and after I learned the key to her heart (which up to that point seemed likely to be a very small collection of gravel), she became Janus-like, Mr. Hyde-ing the hell out of the populace but always Dr. Jekyll to me, but only if I was armed with:

Peanut butter chip cookies
  • 1 cup (two sticks) butter
  • 1 and 3/4 cups brown sugar
cream these in a large mixing bowl and add:
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tablespoons milk
  • 1 and 1/2 tablespoons vanilla extract (yes, tablespoons)
make sure this mixture is homogenous (your hands are the best mixing tool here).
In a separate bowl, sift together:
  • 1 and 3/4 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
and stir into the liquid portion. (I use my hands for this, too) Now stir in:
  • 1 and 1/2 cup old-fashioned (rolled) oats
  • One bag (10 or 12 ounces) peanut butter chips (I use Sunspire, but Reese's are OK, too)
I drop these in about 1-and-1/2-inch blops onto cookie sheets and bake at 375 for 10-12 minutes, until nicely suntanned. Makes about three dozen...

Cautionary notes: The cookie "dough" is very undough-like, and may seem to be too runny, but do not attempt to thicken it; it is supposed to be that way. And beware of overbaking.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A to Z

A - Available or Single - Neither.

B - Best Friends - The butterfly lady, my dad, sister and mom, Chris... I don't know very many people, but I tend to give freely of my friendship.

C - Cake or Pie - Apple crisp and blackberry cobbler.

D - Drink of Choice - Yegods, the list is endless. Coffee, black.

E - Essential Item - Diamond earring.

F - Favorite Color - Red. That's kind of a bullshit choice. Cinnabar.

G - Gummi Bears or Worms - Bears. But I prefer gummy frogs (There ain't no frog-attack prevention manual. Do not look the amphibian in the eye. This will incite him.).

H - Hometown - I didn't grow up in town.

I - Indulgence - Whiling away the day in the kitchen, or ice cream sundaes with marshmallows, peanuts and maple syrup.

J - January or February - January – it contains my birthday (and my father's, and Robert Burns's, and a bunch of other cool people, too!). February's got its plusses, too.

K - Kids and Names - We don't own any goats, but we do have two dogs, Max (aka Pig or Gristle) and Katy (the Baroness von Roughenhausen).

L - Life is incomplete without - Curiosity. When I stop caring enough to ask questions, I’m done. (I have copied the person whose blog I found this meme at).

M - Marriage Date - Hmm. Not the sort of information I typically divulge. Going on 1o years...

N - Number of Siblings - One sister, plus three sisters-in-law I have known long enough to count without the in-law.

O - Oranges or Apples - Depends. Blood oranges & galas, mikan & Fujis: All of these make me happy. Navels and Granny Smiths? OK, but in a recipe.

P - Phobias/Fears - I'm leery of yellow jackets, wasps and hornets. I worry about things, but I have very little fear.

Q - Favorite Quote - "Let's fix bayonets." - attributed by Michael Shaara to Col. Joshua "Lawrence" Chamberlain during the Battle of Gettysburg, uttered as Chamberlain decided to lead his out-of-ammunition regiment in a (successful) charge down Little Round Top.

R - Reasons to smile - A zillion: The butterfly lady, the weather, our dogs, our home, my interesting job, my other interesting job, a good swim, a good meal...

S - Season - Yes, for sure, with coriander, cumin, ginger, pepper, cayenne, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, turmeric and a bit of salt. I love all the parts of the year, by the way.

T - Tag 3 People - I was untagged for this, and I'm sure the people whose fancy it strikes will tag themselves.

U - Unknown Fact About Me - Oh, which one to choose? I can prove the Pythagorean theorem with only a piece of paper and a pair of scissors.

V - Vegetable You Hate - I hold them harmless for the villainous cooking techniques inflicted on them, so I hate no vegetable. That weird bamboo-like crap in Chinese food can be annoying, though.

W - Worst Habit - I have a very hard time doing certain tasks out of order. If there are dishes in the sink, I can rarely bring myself to cook anything before they are clean. Why not wait until the cooking is in some phase that takes little supervision? I don't know.

X - X-rays You've Had - Ankle, hand, teeth (routine) and a fabulous head CT (which came back negative, har-de-har-har). I am not always accident-prone, but I have many scars that suggest I am.

Y - Your Favorite Foods - We're talking premium versions here: Bacon, olives, peanut butter, licorice, chocolate, waffles, bananas, tomatoes, cheese... I will stop there because this list will never end otherwise.

Z - Zodiac - Aquarius/rat.

Monday, April 02, 2007

That kid needs a record deal

so says the butterfly lady, and I agree. It takes him a little bit to get rolling, but he is pretty damn good.

Hey, remember that time?

Coincidentally, I am, today, wearing pink and green.