Thursday, January 29, 2009

Comic Governors

Yesterday's posting should have been, "auf Wiedershen, Gov. Putz." I didn't think the Illinois Senate would act quite as fast as it did, but something about convicting an impeached governor unanimously says all you need to know about the proceedings.

It made me wonder whatever happened to Evan Mecham, who counts as a footnote character of the 1980s as the governor of Arizona. He too was impeached, convicted and tossed out of office. Turns out he died almost a year ago; I must have missed his obit at the time.

Before Blago, Mecham was the most recent governor to lose his job to traditional impeachment and conviction, and provided the nation with some comic relief. Come to think of it, Blago has provided the same service for us in our troubled times.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Gov. Putz

Sometimes Yiddish is just the thing. As in the case of Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a putz with an oversupply of chutzpah. Unfortunately, we're likely to hear more about him and from him in the months and years ahead, since impeachment and removal from office is only Part One. A criminal trial is next, and there's certainly a book deal for Blago after he does his minimum-security time, and probably a career for him on daytime TV too. Maybe that's what he should have done all along.

During my Japanese days, a Jewish acquaintance of mine once explained to us the difference between "schmuck" and "putz," which have the same literal meaning. If you were kidding around with a close friend, he said, you could call him a schmuck. But never a putz, if you wanted to remain friends.

It occurs to me that I'm a stone-cold philistine when it comes to American literature written after a certain time. Roughly, say, within my lifetime. I knew a girl in college who was fond of John Updike, or at least the Rabbit books. I saw the film version of The Witches of Eastwick years ago, but only recall bits and pieces now, such as what Jack Nicholson liked after lunch. But otherwise Mr. Updike's opus has made a light impression on me.

But it's not too late to buckle down and read the mid- to late-20th century titans of American literature that I've neglected, whose achievements will surely, uh, illuminate the centuries ahead. Maybe they'll will change my worldview! Spark my own personal intellectual renaissance!


I speak from ignorance, of course, but something about gushing posthumous praise for an artist, or anyone really, makes me skeptical. I felt the same way with the passing of David Foster Wallace. A regrettable suicide in his case, but somehow praise for him as a literature god makes me think that he was only lucky enough to be fashionable, and fashion passes. Fame isn't only fleeting, it has a half-life whose span isn't clear to contemporaries.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Lilly's off to camp in southeast Wisconsin, not far over the border, on Wednesday morning with a Friday afternoon return. It's some kind of deal between the camp and the school district so that it counts as school, and they'll be staying in dorms rather than tents, which seems only right for the nadir of winter. It would be nice if it were subsidized as much as her summer retreat last year (a cost of $25 to me), but I had to pay a bit more this time, though the cost was defrayed some by Lilly's sales of fundraising cookie dough a few months ago, not all of which we bought.

Camp in winter. Who would have thought? I think tobogganing and horseback riding are on the menu, among other things, and she's looking forward to it eagerly. I wouldn't mind getting out of town myself. Wisconsin, as much as I like it, wouldn't be my first choice in January. But I would take it.

The best part, which she says is the worst part, is that no electronics are allowed during the stay. That's a long list of things not allowed. No televisions, radios, cell phones, digital cameras, laptops, iPods, hand-held video games or Van de Graaf generators.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

For the Dogs, All Right

Looks the like the latest big ice 'n' snow event slid by northeastern Illinois. It seems a little soon for winter stasis, but maybe it's here -- that flat period of constant cold, snow cover without meltage and gray skies, but not much in the way of blizzard or ice-storm drama. Usually these conditions settle in here sometime in early to mid-February.

Over the weekend I did a spot of parental duty by taking both girls to see Hotel for Dogs, a movie that flitted from one implausibility to another, all the way to an embarrassingly implausible happy ending. There was a moment, about 20 minutes before said embarrassingly implausible happy ending, when the main human characters -- an older sister and a younger brother, both orphaned by their back-story -- were separated by Social Services and condemned to live in group homes, the modern equivalent of orphanages. The dogs of the title, following their temporarily happy lives in the hotel of the title, had all been rounded up by Animal Control and were slated for death. That's where I wanted the movie to end.

It would have tested well with me, but probably not the target audience. Ann, on the verge of turning six, proclaimed the movie "great," so she's definitely in the target audience. Lilly, now 11, said it was "pretty good," so I figure she's edging away from kiddie movies, as she should. After all, she's busy reading Twilight right now.

I'll say Hotel for Dogs was "tolerable." Fortunately, the large number of dogs in the movie, of various breeds, did not talk in voiceovers or read or write or drive cars. They occasionally did funny things, and occasionally veered toward the anthropomorphic, but not too much. At the very beginning of the movie, a dog is depicted as seeking out food by his sense of smell, which was a moderately artful and certainly unusual bit of moviemaking -- and which the director didn't much use again.

I was also able to entertain myself guessing exactly where the movie was supposed to be set. The kids and their dogs lived in a distinctly urban environment that I took for Manhattan for a short while, though occasionally California license plates were visible.

Turns out the movie was set in that all-purpose place, "Center City," a hoary movie convention that could well go back to Mack Sennett. Maybe the real reason it isn't any particular place is to avoid insulting the animal control authorities of that jurisdiction, because Center City's animal control men were goons who seemed to relish the prospect of offing the dogs. Maybe the movie should have been called Hotel Rwanda for Dogs.


Sunday, January 25, 2009

Item from the Past: The Bluebird Cafe, Nashville

Back in the '80s, every time I moved it seemed to be in the dead of winter. In January 1987, I left Nashville for a new job in Chicago. On the last day at my old job, a number of coworkers plus a few other hangers-on took me to the Bluebird Cafe for a lingering lunch, always the best kind.

Afterwards, I took a picture of my companions. The Bluebird is visible to the left of the image as a window with faint curtains inside and a bit of awning. Patio Coiffure must have been the Bluebird's next-door neighbor, literally, and both were located at a fairly ordinary strip center on Hillsboro road.

In those days, the Bluebird was merely a pleasant place to eat and watch live music, though not at lunchtime. More than two decades later, it's a Nashville institution. I'm glad to know that it's still around. (So is Patio Coiffure, according to Google.)

January 16, 1987.

I finished all the work I needed to do in the morning, and then had a splendid lunch at the Bluebird Cafe: Italian sausage on French bread. Followed by cheesecake, of course. Lindsay, Susan, Steph, Bob, Wendy, Barb and Debbie M. went with me. Lots of small talk, things like the death of Gram Parsons, various movies, previous visits to the BB Cafe. Over the years, it's been a good place to take first dates, see talented Nashville musicians up close and, of course, eat the chocolate-chunk cheese cake, one of my favorite desserts anywhere.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

No More About the Presidency After This (For a While)

One more comment about the Tribune's coverage of the inauguration. Or rather, the advertisers that used the occasion to bolster their products, a few with full-page ads in the special inauguration section. Bet the ad sales staff wishes there were an inauguration every month or so.

"CHANGE for the nation & your home" says one; it's the Tile Shop, offering an "inauguration special, now through Jan. 25." In another ad, TIAA-CREF, the pension fund behemoth, refers indirectly to current events: "The only term we planned for was the long term." (Why is that in past tense?)

Best of all is the vodka ad, which offers the toast, "to celebrating history on January 20th." Makes sense. And if things don't change for the better, you can always get plastered.

Somewhere in my mother's house is a collection of political campaign buttons accumulated over the years. It's not a vast collection, nor probably very valuable, but has some interesting items. My favorite when I was younger was an aluminum disk with the name of a candidate for some local office in Texas some decades ago. His name was Silber. The disk was called a "Silber Dollar."

Many of the other buttons were presidential, maybe going back to 1964 (I seem to remember a Goldwater button in there somewhere). Here at my house, there are only two presidential campaign buttons. One I got in Wisconsin in October from another conference participant, who had enough buttons for everyone:

The other I bought some time ago, on a lark, for a quarter at an antique shop. I couldn't resist:

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The 44th Ever-Green Pine of the United States

In high school, a friend of mine once told us that "Hail to the Chief" had lyrics, but no one ever sung them for good reason, like the theme to Bonanza. He wasn't quite sure what the words were, however, and actually looking them up wasn't anything any of us bothered to do. I think he told us that the first line was, "Hail to the Chief we've elected for our country," which does scan.

Now it's easy to look up the lyrics. He was close, but no cigar: "Hail to the Chief we have chosen for the nation," is the first line. The rest of it is found here, along with a discussion of the song's origin, and why it's just another thing we have to thank President Polk for (actually Mrs. Polk.), besides the fact that we can use dollars in places like Phoenix and Santa Fe.

If you really want to stretch all the way back, the song started as Sir Walter Scott's "The Lady of the Lake" (1810), which goes in part like this:

Hail to the chief who in triumph advances!
Honoured and blessed be the ever-green pine!
Long may the tree in his banner that glances,
Flourish the shelter and grace of our line!

The Tribune had a special inauguration section on Wednesday, heavy with photos, including a remarkable image on a two-page spread, an image better on a large square of paper than it could ever be on a computer screen. The photographer's vantage was above the swearing-in platform, right before the oath of office or right after (including one detail not shown by TV cameras: seven-year-old Sasha Obama is standing on a block to boost her height by about a foot). Mainly the shot captures the long view from there at the Capitol out to the Washington Monument -- with every bit of open space in between full with people.

A million is a good guess at the number of people in the picture, whether the image actually caught the light reflected off a million human heads or not. Certainly the idea of a million people captures the imagination. But, as I pointed out to Lilly, if you were to capture every American in this kind of image, you'd need 300 or so photos. If you wanted every human being alive, you'd need well more than 6,000.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inaugurations Past & Present

Lilly tells me she and her class watched the inauguration at school today, and that the introduction of Gabriela Montero, one of the quartet playing the John Williams piece, got some giggles from her peers. And from her. The word "pianist" makes preteens giggle, it seems.

I don't remember if I watched Richard Nixon's second inauguration in 1973. I was about Lilly's age then, and January 20 was a Saturday that year, so I would have been home. January 20, 1977 was a Thursday, and I remember being in second-year high school algebra class at 11 that morning -- but no mention was made of Jimmy Carter's inauguration, or his surprise stroll. When Ronald Reagan was inaugurated the first time, I was on the way somewhere on the VU campus, and stopped at one of the dorms to watch the swearing-in on a common-room TV set. So much for the inaugurations of my youth.

The public inauguration of Ronald Reagan in 1985 was on Monday the 21st, coincident with a near-nationwide blast of cold weather something like last week's. It was snowing so hard in Nashville that day that my company sent us home, and I spent the afternoon at a co-worker's house, where we listened to the event on the radio.

Ann finishes kindergarten just after 11 most mornings, and I walk about five minutes to pick her up. I figured I would go right after the oath of office, though that had to wait until John William's music was over. When the oath came, who was it that flubbed his lines? This posting deals wryly with the question ("The good news is that fisticuffs between the Harvard grads did not ensue.") It was an odd moment, and likely to agitate the nation's minuscule cadre of Hawaiian birth-certificate deniers.

I missed most of the inaugural address, but of course heard it later on the radio. Later still, I saw it, and other inaugural addresses, made into cool word clouds.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Know Your Presidents

A couple of months ago, I was on the verge of canceling my subscription to the Tribune all together, or maybe everything but the Sunday edition. Not because the quality is down under its new ownership -- even though it is, considering how much talent has been fired lately -- but because the paper edition, sad to say, just seemed like an unnecessary expense.

Canceling isn't something you can do via the paper's web site or automated phone system. You have to talk to a human being for that, probably so the customer service rep can have a go at talking you out of it. Which she did in my case. As soon as I broached the idea of going newspaper-free, she immediately offered a serious discount on the four-times-a-week delivery we've been getting for years, about half the former price. So I let myself be talked into it.

Yesterday the Tribune had a special section about the inauguration, the first page of which is mostly taken up of a graphic by one Ed Lam. Barack Obama stands at the podium at the capitol, as he will tomorrow, giving his inaugural address. His forty-two predecessors are seated behind him, as they will be tomorrow only in spirit, though I suppose the two Bushes, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter will be around in the flesh. Forty-two because, as we all should know, Grover Cleveland counts as 22nd and 24th president.

I haven't been able to find the artwork on line, except here. But I have it front of me. Some of the mini-portraits are clearly based on famous photographs or paintings of the various presidents. I recognize some of the images, such as that of Franklin Pierce -- making photos was hard in those days, so there aren't very many of him. Lam obviously used this image, down to the somewhat disheveled hair. Jefferson looks like he does on the $2 bill, in case anyone remembers that, and Jackson looks like he did on the old "small head" $20 bill.

The presidents don't seem to be arrayed in any particular order: chronological, by party or even by historical reputation, though I have to note that Kennedy is close to Obama, and likewise Washington, FDR and Lincoln are close by. But so are Bush the younger, William Howard Taft and Martin Van Buren.

A few of the presidents have odd expressions. Jimmy Carter has a demented smile. George Bush the elder looks like he really, really has to pee. Bill Clinton is awfully thoughtful-looking, with his hand on his chin, the only president to do so. James Buchanan's visage, also based on a well-known photo, is as dour as his term of office, and Ronald Reagan almost looks cocky. Ike looks determined. Woodrow Wilson, who usually showed a stern old school-master face, seems to be looking right at Obama in disdain. Which, from what I understand, would have been his reaction at the prospect of a black president.

The presidents aren't identified on the first page, so as a true presidential buff, I sat down and noted how many of them I could name without checking the key on another page. The result: 41 out of 43. I have to brag about that. The hardest ones, of course, were late 19th-century graybeard presidents, and indeed I mixed up Garfield and Hayes, though I'm glad to report that I got Benjamin Harrison right.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Item From the Past: The Snows of '06

In early 2006, we saw snow sculptures on a plot of land near the Schaumburg Ikea. The Swedish retailer itself contributed one fairly simple one:

The rest of the more complicated figures had no commercial message.

And now for something completely different.

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

I Yam What I Yam

In case anyone's forgotten, today is the 80th anniversary of the first appearance of Popeye. His endurance spans the continents -- I've seen his face in public places in Japan -- and the decades. During the tainted spinach scare not that long ago, for example, Dave Letterman could joke that "it's a good time to pick a fight with Popeye" with complete assurance that the audience would get the joke.


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Bob-Like Weather Under Cruel, Crystalline Skies

Finally, we got some Xtreme! Weather.™ At least Xtreme! for northern Illinois. Nanavut, we're not. Nor the Yukon nor the Northwest Territory of Bob, either. Probably this would be picnic weather in those front-line Arctic places. Still, Internet-based weather sources tell me that today's metro Chicago low was around -15° F., which is -26 or so C., and the lowest temp here in more than 10 years.

"Thursday's bitter cold is a fluke of a jet stream, a twist in the howling atmospheric winds around the North Pole," notes Tribune reporter James Janega, who then goes on to practice to be some other kind of writer than a newspaperman, since there will be none in the future: "[The winds] buckled overnight, slashed across the Canadian prairie and aimed straight at Chicago, drawing in their wake subzero temperatures and cruel, crystalline skies.

" 'Nothing good,' National Weather Service meteorologist Gino Izzi said. 'It's coming almost literally from the North Pole.' "

I'll say it is. Just open the door and a wind of frosty gusts from those cruel, crystalline skies threaten to freeze your face off.

This morning just before dawn, the phone rang. It was an automated call, so a machine spoke to a machine. But I was eavesdropping, since the ring had woken me up. The message from the school district said that school had been called off due to "wind chill" -- this was a first.

Since similar weather is predicted for Friday, we got another call at 6 p.m. or so to say that school was again off for that day, "due to the weather." Counting next Monday, which is MLK Day, that amounts to a small vacation here in the middle of Bob-like weather, which will be made up for during those hard-to-imagine days of early June.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

He's No D. B. Cooper

I was able to include the following in a story I filed recently: "Only last week, Marcus Schrenker was just an obscure Indiana financial industry businessman up to his eyeballs in legal trouble. Now his 15 minutes of fame have arrived after he allegedly did a variation on the D. B. Cooper maneuver by parachuting out of an airplane in a vain attempt to fake his own death..."

It's the first time in all the thousands of articles I've written (counting five-graph shorts) that I ever remember referring to D. B. Cooper. It was a bit of a stretch, comparing Mr. Schrenker's efforts to the one and only D. B. Cooper. About all they had in common was a willingness to parachute out of an airplane in order to disappear. I guess Schrenker expected the plane to crash into the Gulf of Mexico, which might have avoided the embarrassment of having the authorities find empty wreckage. That would pretty much give the whole thing away, and in fact did.

D.B. Cooper, on the other hand, is still on the lam after nearly 40 years, provided he's still alive. Even if he's not, he belongs in the Vanished Without a Trace Hall of Fame, members of which include Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa and Judge Crater. It's certainly one way to be famous, if you do it right. How many other noted pre-WW II aviatrix, crooked '50s labor bosses or minor New York state judges in office nearly 80 years ago immediately come to mind?

(Wiki notes that even the least known of those three -- Judge Crater -- still gets pop-culture references: In the episode of The Sopranos entitled "House Arrest," the doorbell rings at Uncle Junior's house. When Bobby asks who it could be, Junior responds, "Judge Crater. How should I know?" A puzzled Bobby asks, "The one who ordered the house arrest?")

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Dreaming of the Opposite Part of the Year

The blizzard was a bust. When I'm promised a blizzard, I want raging wind and snowfall thick as a million feather pillows exploding. We didn't get that during the wee hours this morning. All we got a little snow and then a follow-up of bitter cold. Later this week, maybe even early tomorrow, subzero is expected. I'd say we've slid into the Pit of Winter.

Time, then, for idle thoughts about warmer days. I was looking for a new image for the desktop of the fastest of our computers today, something to replace an image from Chowder that Lilly picked up somewhere or other. (If you don't know that cartoon, your life is no poorer for it.) I picked this image:

It's a small ruin on the Fabyan estate near the banks of the Fox River, which we visited last summer (see June 17-19, 2008). It certainly looks like early summer, especially since it was after days of heavy rain. Besides its quiet lushness, I also liked the place because there was nothing anywhere to explain what it was, or why Fabyan built it, assuming he did.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Tree Toss

Blizzard. The weathermen and -women have been tossing that word around today, to their clear delight. The mess that blew threw the Dakotas yesterday, in other words: metro Chicago dead ahead tonight.

Tomorrow is garbage collection day in my minuscule corner of the world, and we will see how the garbagemen hold up. My guess is that they'll be delayed but not stopped by the weather. After all, "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these refuse collectors from the eventual completion of their appointed rounds."

Actually, only one garbageman collects. He drives a spell, swings out of the garbage truck, tosses the garbage in, swings back into the vehicle, drives more, and repeats. Here in the unionized North, he's probably got better health insurance than most people, but I wouldn't want his job anyway.

Out waiting for him will be our former Christmas tree. Today was the end of the line for it, involving the usual reverse ritual of removing and packing ornaments, dragging the desiccated tree to and through the front door, and then cleaning up the large number of pine needles it left behind. Most of them, that is. I expect to find a few in queer corners and odd spots as late as July.

All the usual de-treeing events happened. One ornament fell and broke -- luckily, a glass ball no one, especially me, cared about. At least one ornament went undiscovered and un-removed until the tree was on its way outside (one year, I found a wooden toy-solider ornament on the ground where the tree had been before it was hauled away). My fingers also have the usual small, bloodless stab points where the dried-up tree attacked me.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Chocolate Novelties

Much snow over the weekend, whitening everything in sight outside. For now things are quiet, but really cold air is predicted to blow a hole in this week. No doubt we'll get some leftover Canadian weather.

This evening, says, "A new storm, a classic Alberta Clipper, will race into the northern Plains overnight. A blizzard warning is posted for extreme northeast Montana, most of North Dakota, northern South Dakota and extreme western Minnesota. Blizzard watches extend southeastward into Iowa."

Montana, the Dakotas and Minnesota would hardly be worth their salt as states if they weren't targets for Alberta Clippers in January. Or maybe a few Saskatchewan Screamers, though I expect those would be a little too far east to affect Montana much.

I scanned these three chocolate pellets a little while ago. Then I ate them.

Somehow, personalized M&Ms had escaped my attention until Yuriko visited a friend of hers recently and brought some home. Her friend had a baby last fall, and memorialized the event through personalized M&Ms in four styles: image of the child, birth weight, birth date and name. Turns out you can have pretty much anything you want etched on the side of an M&M, and new baby names seem like a good choice, though if you name your kid after Hitler, maybe not his full name. (Yuriko's friend's daughter is not named after any dictators, living or dead.)

Thursday, January 08, 2009

In Vino Veritas

It isn't news any more that the economy is bad, though news organizations eke out their living by dwelling on the details, and necessarily so. But there's still a lot of wealth out there, or at least a certain Argentine winery hopes so.

I got a press release not long ago from the winery, which is a little odd since I'm on no one's wine beat. "Whether it's Valentine's Day, a wedding, anniversary, company gift or simply because, the gift of one's very own barrel of wine is hard to beat," the release starts. "And now it is much simpler than one might think."

It's true, I would have thought that buying a whole barrel of wine would be a complicated task. Maybe you can get one at Costco -- I've never seen one there, but those stores are like whole other continents, with unexplored byways and nooks, so who knows. But even so, that would only be the beginning of your task, since you'd have to have it transported to your dwelling and then installed. Could be some McMansions have room for wine-barrel storage, but the rest of us would have to rearrange our laundry rooms in inconvenient ways.

No need for such logistical pains-in-the-ass with this program, however. The release further states that "via [the winery's] website, customers can craft their very own wine brand. The customer gets to choose the type of barrel (French or American oak), has complete creative control of the design and name of the label -- perhaps one's own name or a company name? -- and, once bottled and labeled, the wine is shipped to the customer's preferred location. Each barrel provides approximately 300 bottles of wine and can be filled up to three times, and the program also includes a two-night stay at the lodge located on the estates."

You have to go to the winery web site to get the low-down on pricing. The top-end barrel is a French oak Seguin Moreau for $6,200*, while the more budget-minded can have an American oak Victoria for $5,500*.

True to most pricing in brochures, however, there's that pesky asterisk: "Price does not include U.S. tax + shipping which is estimated to be $1,500. Price includes the barrel, wine, labor, bottling, and labeling. Must be 21 or older to order." That last part is a reasonable precaution; you wouldn't want high schoolers running up a wine-barrel charge on mom and dad's Platinum Amex.

I wish them well, even though the whole idea seems so pre-2008. Still, I hope they sell some barrels, despite the fact that the market's probably off just a bit.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

RIP, Steven L. Good

Mostly gray today, some snow, fairly cold. We've hit typical January. But it's not too late for a blizzard.

This was a surprise. I met Steven Good in person a time or two, and spoke with him on the phone a few other times over the years as well, when he was a source for an article of mine. Once about 10 years ago he was the main source for a press release I wrote about an auction that his company held -- an unusual bit of business involving the sale of seven church properties.

Good ran the company that his father had founded, Sheldon Good & Co., which specialized in auctioning real estate, and he authored a book about that subject. He seemed like an affable fellow who ran his business well. RIP, Mr. Good.

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Bin Scavenger

Snow again, but only enough to dust the ground. Grass still sticks through like beard stubble. But it's enough to obscure the underfoot ice patches.

This morning a dark blue minivan parked in front of my house briefly. Trailing behind it was a man on foot, poking through all of the recycle bins on the street, removing aluminum cans from them and putting them in his own plastic bag. As he walked up the street, the minivan crawled further along the street as well.

I'll take this as a sign of the times, since it's the first time I've ever seen anyone scavenging our bin like that in five-plus years, though by night pickup trucks sometimes quietly pick up discarded furniture or appliances. At least the bin scavenger was careful not to knock over the bins or scatter anything else around, which might haven drawn unwanted attention.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Smoking on a Rubber Cigar

We saw a llama eating a Christmas tree on January 2. On that day we went to the small Cosley Zoo in Wheaton, which I've mentioned before (October 11, 2005 and September 18, 2006). Mainly it was a cheap way to get out of the house, and fortunately it was warm enough for it, though not exactly warm, being in the low 30s and windless.

Cosley has a resident llama, and there in his pen was a discarded pine tree, about Christmas-tree sized. He was calling it lunch, or would have in some dialect of llama-ese. Wouldn't it be good if we, too, could eat our Christmas trees after they've done their decorative duty? Say as a fine Epiphany dinner? This is something that genetic engineering could make a reality.

Word is that Dora the Explorer is going to "save Three Kings Day." I have to wonder how that pans out, but will not spoil things by finding out. Does Swiper steal the gold, frankincense and myrrh? Then do the intrepid Dora and her loyal sidekick Boots lead the Magi on a quest to beat the daylights out of Swiper and recover the gifts for baby Jesus?

I never heard January 6 called "Three Kings" growing up, but Epiphany, and it wasn't much more than a mark on the liturgical calendar; secular calendars rarely bothered with it. It wasn't until I lived in Chicago that heard the day called Three Kings by a few acquaintances of Central European ancestry.

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Sunday, January 04, 2009

Bottle Caps & Pull Tabs

We marked the New Year with the consumption of Martinelli's Gold Medal Sparkling Cider, "the non-alcoholic version of our founder's original Champagne Cider," notes the bottle. It also boasts of a history of awards, Sacramento (1890), San Francisco (1894), Atlanta (1895), Buffalo (1901), Seattle (1909) and San Francisco again (1914). It's a fine drink and we all enjoyed it. But why hasn't it won anything since the Kaiser got into that unfortunate dustup?

The bottle has a wrap around its neck, in the champagne style, but a metal cap instead of a cork. A non-twist cap was revealed when you unwrapped the neck. "I can't get it off," Lilly said, baffled as to why it didn't twist.

Opening a bottle with a bottle opener. Who of my generation would have ever thought that that would be a declining skill in the early years of the 21st century? We have a manual can opener with a seldom-used bottle opener appendage, so I gave to her and insisted she learn how to open it. She did. A new skill for the new year. A minor skill, maybe, but minor skills are better than no skills.

Speaking of relics of the past, I saw about 15 minutes of WarGames recently. At some point in the fairly distant past, I'd seen a different 15 minutes or so, making it one of those movies you experience only in short segments. For some movies, that's enough, which is true for WarGames as well. Not that it's bad. But we're asked to believe that, in a world of Apple Lisas and Commodore 64s, a teenager can hack into a NORAD mainframe with ease.

In the scene that I saw, young Matthew Broderick finds himself at a gas station in the middle of nowhere in the Pacific Northwest, in urgent need of making a phone call. This being 1983, he has no cell phone, so he finds a pay phone. But he has no change for a call (at this point, he should have broken into a Coke machine for change, just for the homage value, but no). So he decides to do a bit of phone phreking. And what tool facilitates his free phone calls? He spends a moment or two outside the phone booth, stoops over, and picks up a discarded pull-tab.

The remarkable part isn't gaming the phone system with a removable pull-tab. That's actually believable, whether it was strictly possible or not. Someday I might write about the couple of days I spent at an MIT dormitory in 1982 ("If you get an operator on the line, hang up!").

The remarkable part is the pull-tab itself. Anyone looking for one of those on the ground any more would be pretty much out of luck. They were on their way out even in 1983, but I'm not sure when the transition to tabs that don't come off ("stay tabs," Wiki calls them) was completed in the United States. Even so, when I arrived in Japan in 1990 and found that pull-tabs were still in use, I considered it quaint.

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