Thursday, March 20, 2008

Quasi-Spring Break

Time for spring break, as the schools call it, even though quasi- or proto-spring would be more like it around here. Actually, today was nearly warm, sunny and dry. Tomorrow's another story. This from the National Weather Service:



One more time (at least) around the track for Winter personified, that Old Man. Time to take the week and then some off -- from blogging, not work, at least until I attend my nephew's wedding late next week. Posting will continue around April Fool's Day.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


Spring? Not yet. The usual loose talk about the coming first "official" day of spring is in the air (what office?), but that air's still pretty cold around here. The trees are bare and the grass a dormant brown. There's even a crust of ice still clinging to existence near the fence in the back yard.

But there are signs of the emerging season. The chance of subzero temps is now vanishingly small, and the increasing daylight is easy to perceive, since the equinox really is on its way. Also, after sunset Orion is in his "so long, folks, see you next winter" position in the southwestern sky.

Recently I saw a parcel of robins, or maybe that was a flight or fleet or dissimulation. (I wondered about the collective term for robins, but I couldn't find one at this site -- though there were the aforementioned terms for birds, besides the pedestrian "flock" and a few others.) About the robins I saw: they were actually bob-bob-bobbing along.

Today I noticed the first hint of croci emerging from the mud.

During the warmish spell last week, I saw a fly outside. The very first scout of the many insects to come. To anthropomorphize: He was wondering, Where is everyone?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

So Long, Sir Arthur

Lately I've been looking things up on Google News with some regularity -- if I do the search correctly, I can even find articles of mine -- and sometimes I just bring up the page to see what Google considers news. That's how I found out about Arthur C. Clarke's death today.

2001 is a movie I see every few years, and I think I'm due again, so I might have to put in the queue. It would interest no one else in this house, but it has long interested me. I have wispy recollections of a involved discussion with other NFL members in high school about exactly what was going on in that movie. I had a bit of an edge, since I'd read Clarke's novel version of the story. (And why were they going to Saturn in the book, but Jupiter in the movie?) In college, I recommended the movie to a fellow on my freshman hall, since it was being screened at the student cinema. "The most boring movie I ever saw," he later told me. "What were those damn monkeys doing anyway?" But he was too literal-minded for it. HAL remains a great character from speculative fiction.

Clarke wrote a lot of other things as well, of course, and I might have been the only kid in my high school freshman class familiar with the '62 version of Clarke's Profiles of the Future, a collection of essays about the future of the mesh between humanity and its technology. We had a beat-up paperback of it around the house, most likely acquired by my father when it was new. I absorbed it in the summer of '75 and it impressed me greatly for a while. I'm glad to see that it's still around, in an updated form, though I probably couldn't muster much interest in reading it now. I'll settle for some of the remarkable things the future in fact ended up offering, here in the late '00s, such as Google News.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Adios, Bear Stearns, and Thanks for the Memory

By golly, we all have our own Bear Stearns stories, don't we? No? Well, I do. And I don't mean one along the lines of the poor sap I heard about on the radio today who bought more that $50,000 in Bear Sterns stock last week, just ahead of the implosion. Or the former CEO's taste for bridge, or odd talk from the Fed about "moral hazards" or suchlike.

Back in early 1999, I wrote: " 'How does this year's convention compare to last year's?' I asked a number of seasoned mortgage banking professionals at this year's gathering of the Mortgage Bankers Association of America in February.

" 'It's more sober.'

" 'Definitely more restrained.'

" 'You should have been at Nomura's party last year.'

"The sense [of the industry] I got was like the one you feel not long after you've nearly run your car off the road. Relief, but with a tinge of dread for what might have happened."

For those who've forgotten -- most everyone -- there was a brief but severe investor panic in the summer of 1998, precipitated by the sudden devaluation of the ruble. It blew over, but left the mortgage banking industry feeling a bit sober by the time MBA '99 in San Diego rolled around. (Ah, for those halcyon, pre-subprime meltdown days. Ruble crisis? Ha!)

That's not what I remember about attending MBA that year anyway, not really. I did my company business, memories of which bundle with other conventions in other places and other times. But in those days, you got a better airfare, at least according to the company's travel agent, if you stayed a Saturday night, and the convention started on a Sunday afternoon. (Company travel agent? Saturday night stays? This posting sure is taking me back to some lost way of life.)

I'd never been to San Diego before, and because of the overnight Saturday practice, I found myself with part of a weekend there with no work obligations. Among other things, I visited the San Diego Zoo and other parts of Balboa Park, and took a walk through the Gaslamp Quarter to a place that intrigued me: the US Grant Hotel.

After that, I had to attend the convention, but there was a surprise bonus, an evening function paid for by Bear Stearns. I wrote: "I did make it to a good party at MBA this year, thrown by Bear Stearns at the extraordinary Hotel del Coronado. The theme was Marti Gras (the party was indeed held on Fat Tuesday), and the food and band had a distinct New Orleans flavor." The party wasn't bad, but I spent more time wandering around the hotel. The Grant was dandy, but the Del was

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

RIP, Cindy Bischof

Things your learn without trying: Winstead "Doodles" Weaver is the uncle of actress Sigourney Weaver. Such are the small nuggets that get tucked away, maybe to be forgotten, or maybe to emerge in conversation someday. Though I have to admit, I can't count the number of times Doodles Weaver has come up in conversation, because it seems like it's been zero. Here's more on the man and his sad end.

Death was also on the front page of the Tribune today, as it often is, though not among faraway peoples fighting byzantine feuds, but in Elmhurst, Ill., a western suburb. The article mentions that the murdered woman, Cindy Bischof, was a real estate broker and leaves it at that. Many readers might assume she sold houses, but in fact she was a commercial real estate broker, more specifically of industrial properties, a field that doesn't have many women participants. I'm fairly sure I interviewed her on the phone at least once, some years ago, as I have so many others.

This is from the brief in Commercial Property News (which I didn't write), published about a week ago: "Cindy Bischof, a principal at Darwin Realty and Development Corp. in Elmhurst, Ill., was the victim of an apparent murder-suicide as she left her office Friday [March 7]. The... perpetrator was her ex-boyfriend... against whom she had filed restraining orders. Bischof entered the industrial real estate business in 1987 and became a recognized force in the industry as a nationally experienced property and tenant/buyer representative... Ms. Bischof joined the Darwin team in 1999 and, in addition to providing brokerage services, she held an important managerial role as Director of Brokerage Services."

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Houdini Week

It's been a good week, watching the snow melt. That could, along with those time-honored activities of watching paint dry and grass grow, be another cliché of boredom. (And yet there's an interesting article about paint drying and other things.) I was on the phone recently with someone in a slightly warmer climate, and he asked if there were any signs of spring here in northern Illinois. "The snow has almost melted," I said.

But not quite. For example, during the weeks of February snow, plows created three enormous snow-ice piles off a parking lot that I visit often. Each was taller than I am, and as broad as a compact car. Today I noticed that these same parking-lot massifs were about half as tall as I am.

Last week was Houdini Week here. That is, there was a fair amount of discussion of Houdini because Lilly was doing a report based on Escape! The Story of the Great Houdini (2006), a children's book by Sid Fleischman. She'd been assigned a report on a biography of her choice from the library. She asked for my help in picking something, and I told her the only ground rule for my participation would be that the book couldn't be about a movie star -- unless he or she was dead.

Together we came up with Houdini, someone she hadn't heard of before, and I figure that's probably true for most of her class. She had to write five paragraphs, and while I made a few suggestions, I had to hold back my full arsenal of professional editing skills. It wasn't, after all, supposed to be one of my articles.

I'm happy to say she got an A. Without further ado or changes by me, here it is in italics.

Harry Houdini

By Lilly Stribling

Harry Houdini did many things that other magicians couldn’t do. He could escape jail cells, chains, and could walk thought a brick wall without getting hurt. Houdini was born March 24, 1874 and was born in Budapest, Hungary. People thought he was born in Appleton, Wisconsin because he said he was born there. When he was younger, he was called Erik. When he was older, he ran away from home and he was a messenger. Houdini got married at 18 to a woman named Beatrice Rahner. He got married after his father died.

His dad got kicked out of his job because his father was too old school. After his father lost his job, they got poor. So Houdini ran away from home. When he planned to run away, he forgot to bring food or clothes. He met Mrs. Flitcroft, and gave him a place to sleep and fed him. Houdini wrote on a postcard to his mother, and it said he wanted to go to Galveston, Texas.

Houdini overcame his problems by first becoming an athlete and he got a job at a necktie factory. He saw live entertainment and that’s why he wanted to be a magician. He met another man, who was named Jacob Haymen, who was an amateur magician who helped Houdini a little.

Houdini was famous because he could do tricks that other magicians couldn’t do. One of Houdini’s main accomplishments were that he made up dangerous tricks, and he became popular because he did dangerous tricks that were interesting. Houdini had some other achievements too. He created the tricks on his own, and he became a very good magician.

I think my person is courageous because he did many dangerous things like hold his breath for more than three minutes in a box filled with water. The interesting thing about my person that I thought was, he died on Halloween, and not many people die on Halloween.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Timbuktu! (or Tombouctou!) (or Timbuctoo!) (or even Tumbutu!)

I got a postcard from Timbuktu today. It's the first and perhaps last one I'll ever receive from that city, with such a storied name. Naturally, it was from Ed, very likely the only person I know who will actually make it to Timbuktu, a journey that takes a concentrated mix of time, money and inclination.

“Tombouctou” is the spelling the card uses. It’s a simple card, a picture of tourists (and other people, many of whom are probably touts, buzzing nearby) at the Djigarey-ber, one of the city's golden-age mosques, which to me looks instead like the inspiration for the Foreign Legion fortifications in every Beau Geste knockoff since Gary Cooper played the part.

The postmark says “Postes Mali 26.02.08” and the colorful Republique du Mali stamps are of 20F and 385F, the former with a “Scene de thé dans le desert” and the later sporting a “Femme Peulh.” There was some damage in transit, so the tea in the desert scene was a bit torn away, but you can still see the tribesmen dismounted from their camels, enjoying a relaxing spot of tea on the sands. I had to look up the Peulh, and they are the west and central African people variously known as Fula or Fulani or Fulbe or Peul or Peulh or Peuhl, at least according to Wiki.

At the bottom of each stamp is “Imp. Poste Tunis” which I would think means that that Tunisia had something to do with the manufacture of these stamps. Just a guess.

Ed says: “I’ve been here & you haven’t. Ha.”

True enough. If I can get a card at the Ford Presidential Museum later this month, I will write exactly the same thing back – it’s a fairly safe bet.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

My Unwritten Memoir

Here I am, writing many thousands of words a year for piecemeal pay. Why didn't I think to write a memoir about the hard life I had growing up on the rough side of San Antonio? Tales of gangs, drugs and friends cut down in their prime. Run-ins with cops and an indifferent judicial system. An interestingly violent near-death. Then redemption with the help of Mama and Jesus.

Strictly speaking, none of that is true, but I'd be going for a deeper truth. (And an advance, and maybe a spot on what's-her-name's TV show.) But I suppose book publishers are going to be more suspicious of hardscrabble memoirs for a while -- maybe the rest of the year. Till then, I'll just have to keep grinding out words with some regard for accuracy.


Monday, March 10, 2008


Google "Spitzer own petard" and you get all kinds of hits. Where would we be without this handy Shakespearian phrasing? So useful that it has survived the atrophying of the original meaning of petard (a small bomb used against fortifications). I spent a few minutes wondering if it really applied to Gov. Spitzer, but then I figured the petard in this case would be wiretapping.

It's the wisdom of Shakespeare: "For 'tis the sport to have the enginer Hoist with his owne petar..." (Hamlet, Act III, Scene 4). A popular sport indeed. Spitzer later may take the time-tested tactic of blaming the media for his problems, but they're just pursuing a story people want to hear about.

I saw Spitzer referred to as the 58th governor of New York, and I wondered if that included royal governors of the colony. It doesn't. George Clinton, later Fourth Vice President of the United States, counts as the first governor of the State of New York, taking in office in 1777 -- while there still was a competing royal governor, the forgotten William Tryon. (Then again, how many people even in New York know George Clinton as anyone other than the boss of P-Funk?)

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Part of the Negligible Demographic, I Am

I gave over 83 minutes of my shortened day today to accompany Lilly and Ann to College Road Trip, a Disney confection now playing at theaters nationwide, soon to be a faint part of the enormous archive of Lower Mediocre. Or maybe Upper Bad.

The movie wasn't for me, anyway, but I will give it credit for presenting Donny Osmond (now pushing 50) as one of the more demented characters I've seen in a movie recently. Since it was a Disney G movie, however, his dementedness had no menace in it. He was happy wacky zany dad, about as believable as a pig that can use a computer, which the movie also featured.

There was also one line that make me laugh. Not because it was funny, but because it was strange. It involved a man wearing an eyepatch who claimed, "I got stabbed in the eye [pause] at Georgetown!" See, told you it wasn't funny. It wasn't even true in the context of the story. But when you're in the theater with a movie like this, you latch onto whatever you can. It was borderline absurd in a movie of the firmly ridiculous.

The imdb tells me that over the weekend, this movie was number two at the box office, which means that Disney has hit its demographic once again. I'm not in that demographic, but Lilly and Ann are, and they were both entertained by the movie. I was only useful as the source of funding for the target demographic.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

A New Style of Automatic Writing

First thing, as always, on March 6. Remember the Alamo!

Geof Huth is going in for open-heart surgery tomorrow. I wish him a successful operation and a speedy recovery, so that the world may continue to enjoy the word-fountain that he is, among many other good reasons.

With Geof in mind, this will be a wordy post. Yesterday I figured out a way to use Google's automatic translation feature to call up various versions of BTST. I suspect that the translations wouldn't be too elegant, and sometimes would be plainly bizarre, to native speakers of these languages, but I don't care. Just the thought of robo-translation for no special reason is enough for me. And that fact that in three of four cases, "cheapo" is still "cheapo" in the text.

The following are the first paragraphs of the March 4th posting, in automatic Spanish, German, Japanese and Arabic.

Sra Byrne's & I
No sólo es mi cheapo 1984 Edición rústica de la señora Byrne's Dictionary coloración amarillenta y agrietada con la edad en la columna vertebral, es bastante obsoleta, teniendo en cuenta las referencias en línea. ¿O es? Voy a seguir de todos modos, ya que no todo lo que habitan en el mundo de papel-masa ha emigrado a la esfera digital.

Frau Byrne's & I
Nicht nur ist mein cheapo 1984 Taschenbuchausgabe von Frau Byrne's Dictionary Gelbfärbung mit dem Alter und in der Wirbelsäule geknackt, es ist ziemlich gut überholt, da on-line Referenzen. Oder ist es? Ich werde es trotzdem zu halten, da die Wohnung nicht alles in der Welt Papier-Masse hat wanderten in die digitale Welt.

N安っぽいだけでなく、 1984年は私のペーパーバック版のミセス 黄変してバーンの辞書には、年齢やひびの入った棘は、時代遅れのことはかなりよく、ラインリファレンスを検討しています。 それとも? それを維持するつもりだとにかく、以後は、世界のすべての住居に移住して紙のように大量には、デジタル領域です。

السيدة بايرن 's& أنا
ليس فقط هو بلدي cheapo غلاف عادي طبعة 1984 من السيدة بايرن قاموس الاصفرار مع التقدم في السن ومتصدع في العمود الفقري ، وهو جيد الى حد ما فات أوانها ، والنظر في الاشارات على الانترنت. ام هو؟ انا ذاهب الى ابقائه على أي حال ، لأن ليس كل مسكن في العالم - ورقة الكتلة قد هاجروا الى المملكه الرقميه.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008


I'm not going to make a habit of embedding, but last month's Millard Fillmore soap-on-a-rope commercial deserves some recognition, just as President Fillmore does, and I will do my little part. It's funny even if you're not a presidential buff. I was especially amused to see that the Bathtub Hoax still has some legs.

Fillmore soap-on-a-rope has been cited as a reason for an executive shakeup at Kia's US subsidiary, though I suspect that the reasons were more involved than that. But if so, it only shows that humor doesn't travel well between speakers of different languages. Still, I'd rather see a dozen such ads than any more of the cliché-packed usual run of car commercials.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Mrs. Byrne's & I

Not only is my cheapo 1984 paperback edition of Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary yellowing with age and cracked in the spine, it's fairly well obsolete, considering on-line references. Or is it? I'm going to keep it anyway, since not everything dwelling in the world paper-mass has migrated to the digital realm.

I have more books than bookshelf space, and so some items have been tucked away for a while, Mrs. Byrne's among them. I was doing a little rearrangement work over the weekend on one of these hidden piles recently -- reorganizing, no, since that assumes a prior organization -- and unearthed the book for the first time in a few years. So naturally I had to stop moving books around and browse through it for a while. Its full title: "Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words" (1974) by Josefa Heifetz Byrne, daughter of the violinist Jascha Heifetz. (See the Groucho Marx quote in that entry, under "Career.")

I would share some of Mrs. Byrne's selections here, but no need. Someone has already done it, and better than I could, unless I wanted to take more time than I do to get it done.

Oddly enough, I also discovered a couple of fine word sites over the weekend: World Wide Words and the straightforwardly named A Collection of Word Oddities and Trivia. What better on a still-winter weekend?

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Monday, March 03, 2008

Down Northern South America Way

Much excitement in South America! Sylvania is rattling its sabers at Freedonia. Or was that Venezuela and Columbia? And how long has it been since we had a good old-fashioned nation-state war in South America?

I checked on that, and Ecuador and Peru had a dustup in 1995 that caused a few dozen casualties, and there was the Falklands War more than a quarter-century ago now, but for really bloody nation-on-nation fighting (and I don't mean assorted civil wars, revolutions, coups, or periods of oppression, unrest or various other shades of public violence), you have to go back further. Such as to the Chaco War of the 1930s, when Paraguay kicked Bolivia out of most of the Gran Chaco region, or the War of the Pacific in from 1879 to 1884, the result of which was that both Peru and Bolivia lost territory to Chile.

But for a really horrific South American war, consider the War of the Triple Alliance. Traveler Bernard Cloutier sums it up well on his web site: "Francisco Solano López... led the country into a war against an alliance of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. The war devastated Paraguay, and when López's death ended the conflict in 1870, more than half of the population had been killed [some estimates put the death toll among the male population as high as 90 percent], the economy had been destroyed, agricultural activity was at a standstill and the country had lost more than 142,500 sq km (55,000 sq mi). The country was occupied by a Brazilian army until 1876, and had to pay heavy war indemnities."

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Sunday, March 02, 2008

Mud Season is Here

Leap Day and then the first day of meteorological spring passed without too much trouble, and in fact things warmed up some during the day on March 1, with large puddles then refreezing for dramatic effect by night. Today, Texas Independence Day, was a lot warmer, maybe 50° F, and even now it's well above freezing. Large patches of ground will be visible tomorrow, and there might be rain. Mud season is here.

Letters from Iwo Jima came in the mail on the heels of Flags of Our Fathers, so we watched that on Saturday. Structurally it was a better movie, and interesting for portraying the other side of the battle. There were some stretchers, though, such as having Baron Nishi read a letter -- out loud and in Japanese for his men to hear, one that he found on an American who was captured but then died of his wounds -- a letter that happened to be from the boy's mother. Demonstrating to his men that even Americans had mothers who cared for them. It was a Hollywood moment.

After those two movies, I needed something lighter, and chanced on a showing of Airplane! on TV this afternoon. Just the thing. I saw it when it was new, in a movie theater -- I was 19 -- and again on tape 15 years ago or so. It holds remarkably well as a one-gag-after-another movie, or for any movie made in 1980 that matter. By "holding up," that is, it still made me laugh, and Lilly got a kick out of it too, though of course a good number of the jokes were beyond her.

But not running ones like this:

Rumack: (To Elaine) You'd better tell the captain we've got to land as soon as possible, we've got to get them to the hospital...

Elaine: A hospital -- what is it?

Rumack: It's a big building with patients, but that's not important right now. Tell the captain I must speak to him.

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