Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Dr. Thunder Probably Went to Med School in the Caribbean

Never mind what they say about the autumnal equinox. Today was the first day of fall here in northeast Illinois. The air was a little chilly and wind blew puffy clouds around much of the day. I saw three separate irregular V formations of geese fly over during a ten-minute walk. Leaves are coloring up and falling down, though tired green is still in the majority. That will not be true in two weeks. The grass is still green, and I mowed some of it today, but with any luck that will be the last mowing of '08.

(Partial) product endorsement: Dr. Thunder. Strange as it sounds, this Dr. Pepper imitation created by Wal-Mart isn't bad. For 68¢ for two liters (actually diet Dr. Thunder) at the behemoth retailer, not bad at all. It isn't Dr. Pepper, of course, but what could be? Other members of my family drink Dr. Pepper much more than I do, but I appreciate its uniqueness in the wide realm of colas.

I like the name. Dr. Thunder sounds like the supervillain in some future, and really bad, sequel in the Spiderman movie series. It's better-named than Mr. Pibb, that Coca-Cola Co. imitation of Dr. Pepper created in the early 1970s, which sounds like the name of a junior high principal.

One more note about old sodas: This is wrong, at least in one particular. Like brand cola wasn't introduced in 1982. Maybe it was re-introduced that year, but I remember Like from ca. 1970. At school once, we were assigned to come up with sentences using "I like," and one boy (not me) came up with "I like Like."

That sentence mystified the teacher, who wasn't familiar with the drink. But the kids knew about it. No doubt we were more attuned to soft drinks and soft-drink commercials than she was, and we persuaded her that the sentence actually made sense. So Like does not date from the early '80s, as minor a point as that might be. I probably have a Like bottle cap at my mother's house even now, from the time when I collected bottle caps with enthusiasm, which was in grade school.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Astronauts, Cosmonauts & Taikonauts

Been raining here much of the day, and I've been writing about the financial debacle all day, so I'm tired of it. But it will go on tomorrow and so will I.

Question for today: Did Chinese astronaut Zhai Zhigang sing a bit of "The East is Red" during his spacewalk last week, the first ever for the People's Republic? Maybe not. That's an oldies song, after all. Maybe the Chinese need to come up with something new, like "Tainted Exports are Glorious."

The Communist Party is like the Sun,
Wherever it shines, we make some dough.
Wherever there is a Communist Party,
Huzzah, sweatshops make the nation rich!

That doesn't rhyme because insisting that it rhyme would represent interference in the internal affairs of China.

Actually, I've read that Chinese astronauts are sometimes called taikonauts, a hybrid of Chinese and Greek, but does every country have to call its astronauts something different? "Astronaut" and "cosmonaut" were fine back when there were only two space programs, but now we're at risk of many competing terms for the same thing.

There's other space news, too. The Messenger probe will fly by Mercury on October 6, and come back to orbit that inhospitable little planet in 2011. It's always a good thing when such a spaceship passes near a relatively unexplored planet. Coincidentally, I just read the chapter on Mercury in a book called The Planets by Dava Sobel, a fine book (so far) by a woman who not only knows her planetary science, but also the planets' attendant mythologies and the history of their exploration.

A page or so of the Mercury chapter was devoted to the elusive planet Vulcan, postulated to orbit even closer to the Sun than Mercury. I'd read of it before, but only in passing. It was thought in the 19th century that the gravitational presence of Vulcan would explain some oddities in Mercury's motion. These oddities were in fact later explained by non-Newtonian physics, so astronomers looking for Vulcan looked in vain, but at least Star Trek had some use for the name.

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Item From the Past: Sapporo, 1993

September 29, 1993

Up early & had the hotel breakfast, then to Hakodate M. Market, where Yuriko bought omiyage for shipment to Osaka. The train ride to Sapporo wasn't particularly picturesque. At Sapporo we first wandered through the campus of Hokkaido University, making the acquaintance of Dr. William Clark (or rather his statue), the gaijin expert hired to found an ag college on Hokkaido in the late 19th century, the ancestor of the modern university.

[As he was leaving his post, Clark told his students, "Boys, be ambitious." It's a well-known phrase in Japan. In 2000, I saw a commercial on Japanese TV for Lawson, a convenience store, that had a former sumo star say, "Boys, be ambitious. Onigiri, be delicious." (Onigiri are rice balls).]

Later, saw the old red-brick gov't building with its Old Clock Tower. It started raining about then.

After finding our hotel -- the Hotel Arthur -- we went out again, to the Sapporo Biergarten, which is part of the Sapporo Beer Museum, a fine 19th-century structure -- more brick! -- with the Sapporo Beer red star in various places. Stuffed ourselves with Korean barbecue and beer. Felt a little light-headed, but full-stomached, by the end of dinner.


Thursday, September 25, 2008

Onward Through the Fog, Investment Bankers!

The other day I suggested a theme (and probably a headline) for an article I'm writing to an editor of mine about the state of the financial markets: Onward Through the Fog. Naturally, I didn't make up such a fine headline, I had inspiration:

It's a bumper sticker I picked up during one of a number of visits I made to Austin in the '80s. In case it isn't legible, the person depicted on the left is Stephen Austin. The copyright says 1985, so it could have been any time between then and 1990. I learned later that sideoats grama is a short prairie grass that's the state grass of Texas. (Which has a state grass? So do other states.)

"Onward Thru the Fog" is motto is associated with Oat Willie's, a famed head shop in Austin. In fact, it seems to be a trademark of Oat Willie's Ltd. Inc. Which would lead me to think that Side Oats Grama was a branch of Oat Willie's that hasn't lasted to our time. Or maybe it has, but I can't find any trace of it, and it's too late to call my friends in Austin to ask. Oat Willie's, however, is definitely still around.

The odd thing is, I'm fairly sure I never visited either Oat Willie's or Side Oats Grama at any time, so I'm hard pressed to say exactly where I got the bumper sticker. And yet I still have it more than 20 years later. It isn't stuck to anything: it's merely propped up by a row of books.

I do remember buying bells (that I still own) on a couple of occasions in '80s Austin at a Wicca-Lesbian crystal shop. Of course, it wasn't called that, but that's how I remember it. One can find the most interesting retail deep in the heart of Texas. Anyway, one of them is a Noah bell, which is still around the house somewhere, though it lost its wooden clapper years ago. That probably makes it less effective in one of its purposes, scaring away evil spirits.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Herbert Hoover, Fisherman

Rain today, but not the tropical downpour of the recent past. Just a weak thunderstorm, conveniently timed such that everyone was already home when it started, and ending before bedtime. But not quite ideal. The best time for a weak, lulling thunderstorm is Friday or Saturday night, just as I'm drifting off to sleep.

The October issue of Field & Stream arrived today, the latest in my mysterious subscription. In it, I learn that in 1928, "F&S talk[ed] fishing and conservation with Republican candidate Herbert Hoover, who, according to the writer, was a bit of a trout snob: 'Mr. Hoover scorns the worm as bait, and uses the dry fly.' " Never know where you'll find an odd bit of presidential lore.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ann's First Tow Truck Ride

The high point of the day our the ride in the tow truck. At least Ann enjoyed it. She kept asking me what to call the thing we were riding in. "Tow truck," I said a few times. "Like my foot," she said. Close enough, I thought. "This is awesome! Awesome!" she also said about the ride. Guess so. Just when did that term become so popular? It wasn't something anyone I knew in school said much.

Our older Toyota woke up yesterday morning with a flat tire. I didn't have anywhere to go on Monday, so it wasn't until this morning that I replaced it with the emergency spare tire, that little doughnut of a tire that many cars have. Mine was original equipment. I intended to drive on it to the repair shop, but the doughnut had other ideas. After nearly 15 years, it didn't care to do the one thing I've ever asked of it, and soon it was flat too. But at least I could park it on a side street and walk back home, about five minutes away.

So a tow truck was called. Ann had to go with me, since no one else was at home. Later, at the shop, it turned out that the big-tire flat was unfixable, and a regular tire replacement that would fit my car is such an old style that a new one needed to be ordered from Vulcan's workshop. Actually, Ricky the helpful repair manager didn't quite put it that way, and they might get one as soon as tomorrow. We shall see.

If nothing else, it got me out of the house. The tinges of yellow and orange on the trees are advancing further every day.

Monday, September 22, 2008

How'd You Get So Funky?

I'm pleased to be of service to the wider world, at least when it comes to passing along non-proprietary information. Recently someone in Regina, Saskatchewan, googled + "vo do dee o" + "president coolidge say" and a single BTST 2&3 entry was the only hit for that inquiry. Makes me proud. Is there a term for a solo google hit? Seems like it must be rare.

Without warning today, Ann said, "Josh is real funky guy." Josh, it seems, is in her kindergarten class. I asked what made Josh so funky. She said he does a little dance, which she demonstrated -- a little -- and that he was funny. Already out to impress the girls at age five, I see, though if asked Josh would surely deny it.

Nothing should surprise me any more, and it wasn't really Ann's choice of words, which she could have heard on TV. It was more the matter-of-fact way she put it, as if she were saying, "Josh wore a blue shirt today."

Sunday, September 21, 2008

DIY Ark, $499 + Tax

The weekend was sunny and warm, a full contrast to last weekend, as previously described. Except that I forgot to mention the conversation that I had with Lilly during the rain.

"What if it never stops raining?" she had asked.

"Then we'll have to build an ark," I answered. She looked at me askance.

"But I'm not sure any ark I built would really float. Maybe we could get one at Home Depot." Puzzled look.

It might have been a week ago, but the effect of the Great Rain of '08 lingers. I was pretty such the branches piled in the back yard were dry enough by today to sustain a fire in the grill, but it wasn't so. The wood burned grudgingly, if at all, so the charcoal never became hot enough to fully cook the meat I heaped on the grill. So I finished cooking it on the stove inside. But at least the meat had some smoky flavor.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Panic of Oh-Eight

Fun day at the word factory. I managed to come up with such phrases as "A lot of the company's toxic real estate loans ..." and "... the onrush of grim news..." and "Subprime exposure has done as much damage across the pond as in the United States ..." and "It's part of a much bigger slide." Yes indeed, the times are entirely too interesting. We'll be going back a barter economy any time now.

My line of work takes me to many financial web sites, including those off the deep end occasionally. More than once I've run across pontifications on how the establishment of the Federal Reserve was a ghastly mistake. That's obvious, isn't it? How much more impoverished the nation is now than in 1913.

I'm not in favor of dismantling the central bank, but I am for bringing back "panic" to denote vast economic dislocations. So accurately descriptive. "Depression" was originally a euphemism, I think, but after the Panic of the 1930s, that had to be retired too. No matter how bad a recession is, there's been only one depression.

Don't want to end the week on a dismal note, though. So here's a birthday cake:

Yuriko's birthday was recently. This is actually an ice cream cake, and some of it is still in the freezer, awaiting its fate.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Yo Ho Ho

Out on my walk yesterday, I noticed a children's birthday party under way in a back yard. Maybe it had been delayed from last weekend or maybe the parents were sticklers for having the event on the day itself. In any case, the theme was pirates.

My brother Jim had an enthusiasm for pirates, once upon a time, so much so that one of his birthday cakes had a pirate theme, complete with pirate figures, a little sailing ship, a toy treasure chest, and maybe some plastic toy palms. Some kind of passably edible blue goo represented the ocean. I've never seen any other cake like it, before or since.

The romanticizing of pirates has been going on a long time, of course, long before electronic entertainment. But still I have to marvel at a list like this. Scrolling past the familiar and unfamiliar titles, I also noticed a fair number of them were made in Italy. So not only did the Italian film factories make Hercules movies and spaghetti westerns at one time, they churned out pirate movies. What could we call them? Pasta pirate movies?

One other thing: I was reminded by the party that Friday is Talk Like a Pirate Day. Just another thing we have to thank Dave Barry for. Now if he would only promote National Gorilla Suit Day.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

After the Deluge

Sunny day today. More pleasant to live through, less interesting to write about. I did see on a walk along a road (not Wise) that some of the high-water marks -- made mostly by dead leaves -- had been pretty high. A creek down the road about a quarter mile was still fairly vigorous, but not as high has it had been, if the nearby matted grass was any clue.

Rain or no rain, I've spent the last two days reading and writing and interviewing about stormy financial news, the details of which I don't need to relate here. Wasn't Merrill Lynch "bullish on America" once upon a time, according to their commercials? I have vague memories of commercials from the 1970s featuring running bulls, but I might be wrong about that. Still, a stampede seems like a useful metaphor for the financial markets.

Monday, September 15, 2008

All the Boards Did Shrink

As the rain slacked off on Saturday afternoon, I took a closer look at my back yard. As usual after a heavy rain, the low part of the yard near the wooden back fence was under water. The puddle was larger than usual, but nothing too unusual:

We've even gotten puddles there in winter, formed by snowmelt that later refreezes to form miniature ice rinks. But behind the fence, a little hard to see in detail, was a much larger collection of rainwater, beyond the playground next to my daughters' school and across the street, a five-lane arterial known as Wise Road. I couldn't tell exactly where the water began and ended, so I walked around the block to see.

Across Wise Road from the school is an undeveloped parcel of land measuring 5.7 acres. I don't know if any building has ever occupied the site, but for now it sports grass and weeds, and a For Sale sign. As I turned the corner onto Wise Road -- which had been closed to car traffic by the village at that point -- I could see that almost the entire five-plus acres was submerged, with the water nearly reaching the houses next to the parcel. A section of Wise Road was likewise completely underwater, and so was a part of the school's parking lot, which connects to Wise.

This is the view of Wise Road. The vacant parcel is to the left.

This is the parcel itself.

The water was deep enough -- a foot or two, I figure -- to support a rowboat. One person was in the boat when I took this pic, but later I saw four high school or college girls in it, and they not only rowed around the submerged land, but onto the submerged Wise Road. They waved and yelled, "We're boating on Wise Road!" One of the girls had to get out at one point on the road to move the boat along, and I could see that the water was no deeper than about a foot.

This is the view from the school parking lot (note the painted stripes). The aluminum light pole marks the side of Wise Road closest to me, the telephone pole the other side.

After taking in the view, I went home and rousted my family out for a look at the water. "Come on, I'll show you something you won't forget," I promised.

Ann's comment, when she saw the water: "I don't like this. Who's going to move it?" Drainage, child. By Sunday afternoon, the road was open and the water confined to the vacant land. Today, the land wasn't submerged anymore, though I suspect it's still pretty soggy.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head

This weekend, Hurricane Ike got the glory. It's an impressively big storm if commentators keep comparing it to the size of Texas, which it was pummeling at the time.

For some reason, I don't remember Camille (1969), maybe because it didn't hit Texas directly. But I clearly remember Celia, a storm that struck the Texas coast during the hurricane season of 1970. Celia wasn't one for the record lists, but it was powerful enough. Living in San Antonio at the time was like having a box-seat view, but without the danger of much more than strong rain. I remember listening to the coverage of the storm on our little black radio, rather than anything I saw about it on TV. Maybe the announcer had some special urgency in his voice as he told us that Celia was expected to make landfall at such-and-such time, which was soon, as it bore down on Corpus Christi.

On Friday afternoon here in metro Chicago, it started to rain. This had nothing to do with Ike, which was still thumping its chest as it approached the Gulf coast. As much as I understand these things, our rain was the result of cool air from the north meshing with warm air from the south like two cogwheels. The wheels got stuck in place for a while, because after a slack period Friday night, the rain picked up again (perhaps in the wee Saturday morning hours) and it rained until Saturday afternoon. Not drizzle, either, but a turd-floating downpour that went on and on.

Some 6.63 inches fell here on September 13, which seems to be a record for the rain-measurement station at O'Hare during a single calendar day, besting a total recorded one day in 1987 (I was in Chicago then, but don't remember it). Other spots probably got more. Then the residuum of Ike came our way today, dropping a few more inches. It's been a wet few days.

Weatherman Tom Skilling posted some pictures of the waters here, on his September 13 posting. We were fortunate on our block not to see any street flooding along these lines. Scary water accumulation wasn't far away, however: more on that tomorrow, maybe with my own pictures.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Lost View

Wherever I go, I look for a view from something tall. Late in the summer of 1983, I couldn't pass up the World Trade Center for a view of New York. I was impressed by the view all around, but of course my recollection is a little fuzzy after a quarter-century, and I took no pictures and made no notes. It was a sunny day, and there was a fair amount of wind. This amateur video, despite its technical flaws, captures a tourist's sense of the experience on a bright summer day pretty well.

More memorable, actually, was the view from the Empire State Building, which I saw at night both times. I also visited the site of the World Trade Center when the scar was still pretty fresh, in early June 2002. I attended a panel discussion at on a middle floor of Two World Financial Center, which had a view of the 16-acre pit that had once been the twin towers.

"It was hard to visualize that anything had been there," I wrote at the time. "It looks like a vast construction site -- broad & deep. Men & earthmovers set the scale: they were tiny, the hole in the ground was enormous. The panel discussion was about the cleanup of the site & redevelopment plans. Most interesting were the engineers who worked on the cleanup."

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Black Holes & September Flowers

Shucks, we weren't pulled into a black hole generated by the Large Hadron Collider. Then again, the thing won't really be racing particles until next month. How do you prepare for a journey into a singularity? What do you pack for a one-way trip past the event horizon? Even experienced travelers don't have a clue.

Meanwhile, back in the human-sized world, summer flowers are still with us in the northwestern suburbs:

Visiting a new cemetery wasn't enough for last weekend. I also had to stop and see the Ruth Macintyre Conservation Area, a 36-acre patch of wetlands and fields, along with a five-acre pond, that I'd also driven by many times, but never walked through. It's ablaze with yellow flowers now, of a kind I couldn't name. But naming is optional when appreciating such an array.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Vintage Vaughn

Rain nearly all day on Monday, and temps in the 50s. It was as if we'd fast-forwarded to October, even early November, except for the greenery. For some reason, Ann was taken with it, and went outside to stand on the deck under an umbrella several times. Sometimes I went out with her, at her request, which wasn't nearly as much fun for me.

Today I worked on an article about a mall that was built in the early 1960s, and which is being redeveloped in our time, and I wanted to write that the property is "as much a period piece as a Vaughn Meader record," but I restrained myself. Even if my editor got the reference -- and he might, come to think of it -- he'd cut it out. Rightly so, because the magazine's job is to inform, not show off knowledge of historical obscurities. That's what personal blogs are for.

Monday, September 08, 2008

A Small German Diaspora Necropolis: The Kind of Place I Like to Visit Sometimes

It was a cool weekend, but only relative to August heat. On Saturday, I went out to get some items from a couple of stores. Unusually, no one else wanted to come, so I decided to stretch the errand into something more. On impulse, I stopped for a look around the St. Peter Lutheran Church Cemetery on Schaumburg Road, which I've passed countless times but never seen up close.

The cemetery is tucked away next to the old St. Peter church, a Romanesque structure dating from 1863. (The new St. Peter, dating from the 1990s, is closer to Schaumburg Road.) "... [It] was decided in 1862, while the Civil War was still raging, to build a new church," notes the St. Peter web site. "The cornerstone was laid on May 12, 1863. Members hauled brick from Dundee and other materials from the surrounding community and furnished the labor for the building. When completed, they looked upon a beautiful edifice 85 feet long, 40 feet wide, and 22 feet high at the eaves with a 127-foot steeple."

And who built the church, and started burying their dead next to it? Germans, of course, many of whom had probably left Germany after 1848. The old church, now a museum, was locked. But I could wander around the small cemetery. Not the prettiest landscaping that I've ever seen, or the most interesting array of headstones, but not bad at all.

The last time I encountered so many dead Germans in one place might have been at the garden cemetery in Lüneburg, Germany. Whole families who lived in old-time, pre-suburban Schaumburg repose here, mostly under upright stones, many dating to the 19th century, though some are newer: Hattendorfs, Schoenbecks, Withaegers, Redekers, Rohlwings, Wieses, Nerges, Brendemuehls, Biesterfelds, Springinsguths, Pfingstens, Hartmanns and many others. Some of the stones were old enough to feature VATTER and MUTTER and "geb." and "geft." (born and died), but others had made the transition into English.

Those may just be German names, but if you live in this part of metro Chicago for long and you begin to see many of them as street names. Springinsguth and Wise (formerly Wiese) are both major streets around here, and so are Rohlwing, Nerge and Biesterfield. Not a bad little legacy, but difficult to arrange these days, now that all the streets have been named.

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Sunday, September 07, 2008

Item From the Past: Something I Stole From a Hungry Ghost

I arrived in Hong Kong for the first time in early September 1990, and on the first or maybe second evening, I found this on the sidewalk:

Without planning to, and without ever having heard of it before, I'd arrived at the climax of the Hungry Ghost Festival. Even now I have only the vaguest understanding of the festival -- sometimes simply called the Ghost Festival in English -- in its Chinese context. But it seemed to be fairly important, and involved giving gifts to roaming spirits, especially by burning offerings such as joss paper at spots on the sidewalk. I've read that paper houses and cars and other items are also burned; something about sharing your prosperity with ancestral spirits.

I saw more piles of ash than I did anything else, but somehow or another this note escaped the flames. I couldn't pass up a souvenir like that.

The object itself is in storage with other bits of paper, and I don't fell like digging it out right now, but if I remember right, the King of Hell or somesuch was on the other side. I have to wonder how far $50 million goes in Hell, but I don't doubt that they need money there. Interesting to note, too, that Hell uses dollars, but maybe that's because Hong Kong calls its currency that as well. Such notes printed in Canton might be yuan-denominated.

The upshot is that instead of $50M going to Hell, it went back to Japan with me, and later to North America. So far I haven't met a hungry ghost on a moonless night demanding his money back.

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Thursday, September 04, 2008

Loose Change

Rain all day and into the night. The grass and other plants will appreciate it. So do I.

Even on a rainy day, when your dentist tells you nothing else needs to be done to your teeth after a session of cleaning, that puts a spring in your step. Doubly so when the dentist says the same thing about your eldest daughter's teeth, or maybe triply so, since that eldest daughter often has holes that need filling.

Anyway, I dodged some uncomfortable and expensive dentistry again -- for now -- though I do grumble about the cost of cleaning and inspection. Insurance merely drops the price from astronomical to pretty high. But then again, on an annual basis such maintenance isn't so expensive, considering the use that my teeth get.

Later in the day, I noticed this in my pocket change:

A buffalo nickel! In my entire life of handling coins, I've never gotten one of these in pocket change. I was born too late. I am old enough to remember finding silver Roosevelt dimes (and one or two Mercury dimes), silver Washington quarters, silver Kennedy halves and lots of wheat pennies, including one or two 1943 steel cents, but no buffalo nickels.

Of course, as a collectible, it's garden-variety stuff -- a 1936 Denver strike, one of some 24.8 million nickels made at that mint that year, meaning it's not a rarity. Also, it's in Very Good condition at best. So maybe it would fetch $1.50, but I'll never find out, since I'm keeping it.

Remarkably (or maybe not so remarkably) there's a web site devoted just to buffalo nickels, and it tells me that fully 119 million buffaloes were minted at Philadelphia in '36, the most by far of any year and mint for the series. Why so many that year? The answer's somewhere deep in the archives of the Bureau of the Mint, probably.

A few weeks ago, I was at a store, and I noticed a yellowish coin next to the register's cash drawer. It wasn't anything made by the US mint, but I couldn't get close enough to see where it was from.

"What's that coin?" I asked.

"I don't know," the kid behind the counter said.

"Can I look at it?"

"Here, you can have it."

And so I do. It's a 20-centavo piece of recent (1999) vintage. These days, one peso trades for about 9.5¢, so I walked away from that store 1.9¢ richer, if in fact you could trade sums so small. I think I'll keep it, too.

According to Wiki, the reverse not only sports the value of the coin, but the leafage also represents, somehow, "Ácatl (13th day of the Aztec calendar)." I wonder how many Mexicans know that. I suspect that it's proportional to the number of Americans who know that Monticello is on the reverse of the Jefferson nickel, or what the Latin on the dollar bill means (besides E Pluribus Unum, which everyone knows. Right?)

Anyway, it made my day to go into a store and pick up an object unexpectedly that includes something Aztec. I suppose the snake and the eagle have Aztec roots, too, but not from the Aztec calendar.

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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Dispatch from Sukhbaatar Square

Noticeably cooler today: the first tug of fall. Soon summer and fall will be in that tug o' war that summer will lose.

This is the kind of envelope I like to see in the mail box (scanned a bit crookedly):

It's actually postmarked from Washington state, where my traveling friend Ed lives, but he picked up near Sukhbaatar Square earlier this year. I understand that a statue of Genghis Khan has been added since I saw the place in the 1990s. And, from the look of the photo at Wiki, it looks like some glasswork has been added to Mongolia's parliament building as well. I recall that it was drab and exceedingly Soviet-satellite style once upon a time. Good to see that Mongolia is making some aesthetic progress.

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Summer, the Short-Timer

Summer continues for the time being. The day was hot, and the night is full of cricketsong. The Summer Triangle is still high. But the days will cool, the crickets are singing about their doom, and Orion and his Dogs will replace the Swan, the Eagle and the Lyre before long.

"Pretentious" might not be the right adjective for Granta (see yesterday; just a throwaway comment). I'll have to read one of the issues I bought for pennies and reassess it, since it's been about 20 years since I read the magazine. Mostly I remember some of the travel writing from that time. The issues I picked up were from the mid-90s, one about "The Sea" and the other called "News."

This from the New York Times: "With five children, including an infant with Down syndrome and, as the country learned Monday, a pregnant 17-year-old, Ms. Palin has set off a fierce argument among women about whether there are enough hours in the day for her to take on the vice presidency, and whether she is right to try."

A fierce argument among women? Really? Or just some women down the hall from the writer? Anyway, the vice presidency would seem to be the perfect job for a busy mother, considering that it has but one requirement, presiding over the Senate, and that's only if the Vice President feels like it -- the President Pro Tem of the Senate does much of the day-to-day work, such as it is. Vice presidents may or may not do certain things on behalf of the president, but really the vice presidency per se has few responsibilities, unless something happens to the president.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Books and More Books

It's too bad when a used book store closes, but on the other hand closing sales have added to my stock of books here at home several times over the years. Last week I got word that a small used book store near where I used to live in the western suburbs was closing, and on Friday afternoon I went. I emerged from the store with a hand-basket full of books in three grocery-store sized plastic bags, all for $6.

I was looking for two categories of books among titles I hadn't read before: merely interesting and damn interesting. Serendipity is all you have in a search like that.

I found no fewer than three books about shipwrecks, and what former boy doesn't like to read about that? The Last Voyage of the Lusitania was apparently published (in 1956) to capitalize on the success of A Night to Remember, which was out the year before. Went Missing is about "ships that sailed the Great Lakes and were swallowed up without a trace." Shipwreck, subtitled "The Strange Fate of the Morro Castle," intrigued me because I'd never heard of the Morro Castle (it caught fire off New Jersey in 1934). The back of the book says, "What lay behind the mysterious death of the Captain before the fire? What was the truth about the mysterious cargo in the hold? What was the cause of the first mate's bizarre behavior? Was there really a Communist conspiracy among the crew?" I hope it lives up to its publisher's hype.

More mainstream popular history can be found in Benedict Arnold, Patriot and Traitor; A Bright Shining Lie; The Stakes of Power, 1845-1877; and No Man's Land, which promises an account of the final months of World War I. The Devil's Crown seems to be a companion volume to a BBC series about Henry II and his sons that I haven't seen (bring on the kings 'n' battles, I say).

Scandals, Vandals and DaVincis seems to be essays about various famed works of art, and the volume of Seabiscuit that I found looks like it was released around the time of the movie of the same name (which I didn't see). But I have to like the looks of a book that includes a chapter called, "The Dingbustingest Contest You Ever Clapped An Eye On." Into Thin Air should be highly readable, from what I've heard: it's interesting when people die. For the same reason, I picked up Black Hawk Down.

I might be one of the few to consider this damn interesting, but Longitude, "The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time," seems very promising to me.

Decent travel titles were pretty thin on the shelves, but I did manage to come away with Pecked to Death by Ducks, a collection by Tim Cahill, and A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. Fiction that I wanted to read -- this excluded the store's vast number of romance books, pounds of spy yarns, pecks of mysteries, and rows and rows of Star Trek titles -- was also fairly thin. I put The Flight of the Phoenix (air crash!), The Last Full Measure (war!) and The Remains of the Day (butlers?) in the basket.

I also found two of the three Space Trilogy books by C.S. Lewis. These were the only titles commented on by the clerk, who had absolutely nothing to do but read and ring up orders (I was one of two customers during the hour I spent there). "Interesting books, I read them last year," he said. "Science fiction sure was a different thing back then."

Also: a couple of back issues of that uniquely pretentious British magazine Granta, a late '80s Zippy collection, and one of the Straight Dope books. In a house with numerous interruptions, those last two are easy reading.

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