Sunday, February 28, 2010

Item From the Past: The Day I Drank With Herb Kelleher

On February 25, 1986, I went to the Vanderbilt Plaza Hotel on West End Ave. in Nashville and received lunch, some whiskey and an airplane ticket, all at no charge. It was a pretty good day.

I wasn't alone in getting such largesse, since very many members of the Nashville media had been invited to the main ballroom at the hotel that day for a lunchtime announcement by Southwest Airlines that it was starting service in and out of Nashville International Airport (BNA). All I remember about the presentation was that it included clips from old Southwest commercials, early '70s items that looked dated even in 1986. In its earliest days, Southwest was a businessman's airline that flew the triangle between Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. It sold passage between those places, of course, but the commercials also emphasized stewardesses in hotpants.

Toward the end of the lunch, everyone attending was given an envelope containing a voucher for a round-trip anywhere Southwest flew. (That spring, I used the voucher to fly to Austin to attend a friend's wedding.) There are news organizations that frown on their employees accepting that sort of gift, but I didn't work for a media company inclined to frown in that way. Southwest did not, in fact, ask anything in return from me, and I, in fact, never wrote anything much about the airline (until now). It was just the company's way of making itself memorable among those who, in the fullness of time, might tell a lot of other people about this unusual new airline.

A couple of years later, I traveled with some friends between Chicago and Nashville on Southwest, including one who had never flown on the airline before. Right after we received our numbered plastic boarding passes at the gate, rather than seat assignments, he commented, "This isn't like any other airline, is it?" he asked rhetorically.

It wasn't in those days, anyway. One time in the late '80s, I remember a Southwest flight attendant singing to us passengers a few bars of a song to the tune of "The Ballad of Jed Clampett."

Either before or after the lunch, I went to one of the hotel's hospitality suites for a short appointment with Herb Kelleher, co-founder and chairman of the airline (maybe CEO too, at the time; he's since retired). An affable sort, he poured me some whiskey and we talked about Texas and I can't remember what else, but it wasn't much of a formal interview. Kelleher had probably knocked back a few himself by that time, but not enough to embarrass himself. Fun airline, fun interview.


Thursday, February 25, 2010

Big Barrel of Apples

I wrote briefly about Apple Stores recently. The hook was that Apple plans to open 25 new stores in China in the next two years, though that's really no surprise. But I was a little surprised to learn that the most recent tally for Apple Stores worldwide is 280 or so in 41 states and 10 countries.

There are no Apple Stores in Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Montana, either Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming, in case you were wondering.

Growed like Topsy, Apple did. Not really; it's been methodical; I just haven't been paying attention. I keep up with a fair amount of retail business, but for some reason not Apple, maybe because my mind was stuck in the days -- way back when, ca. 2003 -- when there were only a few stores, in iconic locations, such as the one on North Michigan Ave.

Turns out the Michigan Ave. store was the 59th location, while the iconic glass cube on Fifth Avenue near Central Park came even later as the 147th store, according to this alarmingly detailed chronology of Apple Store openings. Really, now -- can you image anyone compiling such a list of new openings for, say, Subway?

I also ran across this piece in Caribbean Travel News while looking into Apple and its empire. The mind boggles: "The Celebrity Cruise Line Celebrity Eclipse, which will travel to European and Caribbean destinations, sets sail in April with an Apple Store on board.

"Celebrity Cruise Lines, like Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, realize that for some guests, technology is a must have. That’s why the new Celebrity Eclipse features an Apple Store and Internet Café called the iLounge. While enjoying a relaxing Europe- or Caribbean-bound cruise, guests can sharpen their Mac skills. Visitors to the iLounge can purchase Apple products, and they also have the option to sign up for courses in iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD and iWeb."


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Don't Weep, Mr. Toyoda, Seppuku is Still an Option

Here's an explanation for why the automaker family is named Toyoda while the car company is called Toyota, courtesy today's Washington Post. I could have looked into this before, but I never have. The question's in the news now for all too obvious reasons.

"The company started by [Akio] Toyoda's grandfather did indeed have his name -- Tokyo Toyoda Motor Sales -- until 1936, when a stroke of the brush changed it to Toyota.

"Writing 'Toyoda' in Japanese requires 10 brush strokes, explains John R. Malott, president of the Japan-America Society of Washington DC, but writing 'Toyota' requires eight.

"While eight is considered an auspicious number, 10 is not, said Malott, who visited with the company during his years as a State Department official. Ten consists of two strokes crossed against each other and resembles the 'plus' symbol, or even a crossroads or an uncertain path. Not a good omen for a company."

I checked the Toyota recall list the other day. Not rushing out to buy the latest models, it turns out, can have its advantages. Neither of our cars is new enough to be affected by poor quality control on the part of the automaker in the mid- to late 2000s.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Wildfruit Bugs, Chicken Bones & NB Power

Except for preventing scurvy, Wildfruit Bugs are nutritionally worthless, like most other fruit snacks. Take sugar, add corn syrup and corn starch, and a dash of fruit juice and other flavors; then glaze with mineral oil and carnauba wax; and color it up with various dyes, my favorite of which is Tartrazine Yellow 5 (Wiki asserts that Inca Cola wouldn't be yellow without it; now where can I get some Inca Cola?).

Nutrition isn't why we bought the box. Lilly wanted it because she's partial to fruit snakes from time to time; I wanted it because it's a third-string brand make by a company I'd never heard of, Ganong Bros. Ltd. of St. Stephen, New Brunswick. That and because of the demented cartoon bug on the box.

Maybe I should have known about Ganong, a confectioner of some renown in Canada, it seems. Or at least in the Maritimes. Or maybe just in New Brunswick. I know and admire confections from a lot further away than that -- Yorkie, Ritter Sport, Toblerone, Lotte -- so there's no reason I shouldn't have heard of something with a fun name like Ganong Chicken Bones, one of the company's products. It might sound like something you'd see on a dim sum cart, but it's actually a candy formed by a pink cinnamon shell over chocolate, and apparently beloved in Canada, or the Maritimes, or at least New Brunswick, especially around Christmas.

I suppose if we'd stayed longer in New England, we would have visited New Brunswick by now, but as it is, NB and the rest of the Maritimes are a stretch of a destination from the Midwest. But if we ever get it in our heads to see the Bay of Fundy, we'll have to drop by the old Ganong factory en route.

Lately Ganong has been in the news for something other than its candies. Something about the chairman of the company participating in a formal report to recommend the sale of NB Power of Hydro-Québec, and how that's drawn the ire of some New Brunswickians -- Brunswickers? Brunswickis? I'm in no position to comment on the merits of that transaction, but it strikes me as an odd kerfuffle for a candy company executive to find himself in.

Labels: ,

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Snows of This Year

Wet, heavy snow was on the ground this morning, and a lot of other places as well. Awnings, tree branches, bushes, fences, gates, utility wires, light poles, lawn ornaments, fire hydrants, parked cars -- anything it could stick to, because it was sticky stuff.

For a few minutes, it was like early winter, when the white coating is pretty to look at. But that wears off when you take shovel to hand to clear away inconveniently placed snow.

The snow coating also inspired Lilly and I to try to invent rules for snowball fighting as a medal sport, but we didn't get that far. More sophisticated sports thinkers need to take that idea and run with it.


Sunday, February 21, 2010


I didn't look into it until today, but I did recognize the logo of the Winter Games as soon as I saw it. That's because of a curio I bought at the airport in Toronto a couple of years ago:

Among a selection of key chains, coffee mugs and t-shirts, this bit of glass sculpture stood out. Made, the label took pains to assure buyers, by a genuine First Nation artisan, not a chap who speaks Cantonese. It's supposed to be reminiscent of the cairns (inukshuk) built by the First Nations of the Arctic, or at least one kind of the cairns, the man-like variety.

The Games logo, known as Ilanaaq, is likewise supposed to evoke the cairns, though the one built in Whistler is a good bit larger than my two-inch curio. Naturally, not everyone is happy with the design, since there's no pleasing everyone. I'm curious why the logo wasn't more British Columbia-specific, though I'm not sure what that would be.

The cartoon mascots of the Winter Games -- based on native mythology and called Miga, Quatchi, Sumi and Mukmuk -- are more forgettable than Ilanaaq, and about as pre-school as Olympic mascots usually are, but at least they're supposed to be British Columbian (I think). Still, something's missing from this group of mascots. A cross-dressing lumberjack, maybe?

Labels: ,

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Endless Winter

February stasis is here. It's hard to remember when the trees weren't bare or the ground didn't sport snow or coats weren't constant outdoor necessities. All that must have true six months ago, but it doesn't feel like it was ever possible. We've slipped into Endless Winter. (But no; April, come she will.)

Google "endless winter" and you'll see, among other things, an imdb item about a documentary ski movie so obscure it has only two external reviews, and no trivia, goofs or crazy credits. It's probably a fun movie to watch, though, if the cinematography is worthwhile -- good clean kinetic fun.

Something like the men's half-pipe competition I was persuaded to watch last night. I've asked this rhetorically before, but I'm going to ask again, as an expression of wonder: How is it possible to do that? How? The everyday physics I've lived with for nearly 50 years, and which provides clumsy moments from time to time, tells me human beings experiencing normal gravity on Earth can't half-pipe. And yet Shaun White does a Double McCheese with Extra Onions on live TV.

Still, physics demands a toll, like the troll under the bridge. This from "Already, this Olympic competition was marked by who was not here. American star Kevin Pearce is still in a brain-rehab hospital after a traumatic head injury on a half-pipe in December. Finland's Antti Autti, a medal contender, broke three ribs and punctured a lung in a crash earlier in December."

Labels: ,

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate

A direct-mail solicitation from Big Auto Insurance Co. arrived recently. I was poised to throw it away, unopened, when I noticed the following printed on the envelope under the red letters IMPORTANT:

"Do not deliver to the wrong addressee... Do not fold, spindle or mutilate..." followed by other, increasingly gag-line warnings (e.g., do not wear brown shoes with a navy suit), ending with an injunction against paying too much for car insurance.

Do not fold, spindle or mutilate? Wow, there's a copywriter who remembers punch cards. Or maybe a younger one who heard the phrase somewhere or other, and thought it funny even without a sense of context.

I spent the golden age of punch cards being a child, and so didn't interact with them much, but I am old enough to remember receiving phone bills (from the Phone Company) in the form of punch cards. That stopped sometime in the very early '80s. As far as I remember, Vanderbilt had quit using them by the time I was a student.

I don't think I ever had a spindle on any of my desks at any of my offices, either. With air conditioning in just about every office, the spindle was redundant, besides being more of a hazard than the equally obsolete but more decorative paperweight.

I'm not sure I have anything around here to properly spindle my junk mail from Big Auto Insurance, so I guess I'll have to fold and then mutilate it before throwing it away, unopened.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Big Burn

"On the afternoon of August 20, 1910, a battering ram of wind moved through the drought-stricken national forests of Washington, Idaho and Montana, whipping hundreds of small blazes burning across the forest floor into a roaring inferno that jumped from treetop to ridge as it raged, destroying towns and timber in the blink of an eye. Forest rangers had assembled nearly ten thousand men -- college boys, day workers, immigrants from mining camps -- to fight the fire. But no living person had ever seen anything like those flames, and neither the rangers nor anyone else knew how to subdue them."

That's pretty good blurb writing. The blurb belongs to The Big Burn (Timothy Egan, 2009), which I just picked up. Even more interesting detail is found in an interview with the author, published at

"The fire moved faster than a horse at full gallop," Egan explained. "It's been estimated that it consumed enough trees to build a city the size of Chicago. And it burned at nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit in spots, incinerating the ground down to bedrock. No army of bedraggled men with shovels and picks could stop that."

I will start reading it as soon as possible. The days, as usual, don't have all the hours I need to read everything I want to read.

Labels: ,

Monday, February 15, 2010

Up Vancouver Way

What, no flying acrobats or 2,010 Dancing Mounties in the opening ceremony of the Winter Games? Lilly said she was a little disappointed with Friday's ceremonies, compared with the big-do that Beijing put on. I pointed out that dictatorships are fond of mass spectacle. I'm not sure what she made of my geopolitical soapboxing, but she's young yet, and hasn't seen the likes of this or this.

I skipped most of the opening ceremonies myself, but did sit down with the rest of the family to watch the parade of nations, which always gives me a chance to field geographic questions from the girls. Every other answer to their questions this time around seemed to be, "It was a part of the former Soviet Union."

Lilly had heard about Jamaica being in the Winter Games, and we paid special attention as its team paraded by. No bobsledding this time around, it seems. But the island nation did send a fellow named Errol Kerr to do some freestyle skiing. I hope he does well. That might encourage more people (at least more Jamaicans) to name their baby boys "Errol."

I'm not planning to watch all that much of the Games this year, but I might take the time to learn the difference between luge and skeleton. It was hard to miss coverage of luge, considering what happened to Nodar Kumaritashvili. Skeleton gets less attention, but seems just as insanely dangerous.

Labels: ,

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Item From the Past: St. Louis 1990

Twenty years ago, I broke my life in half; into before I moved to Japan and after I did so. In February 1990, I was still on the ragged edge of the break. February 2 was my last day at work in Chicago, and shortly afterward I headed for Dallas with a load of possessions, to store them at my brother and sister-in-law's house.

On the 13th, I headed back toward Chicago to pick up the rest of my possessions, making it as far as a cheap, independent motel in Rolla, Missouri. I must have paid no attention to TV weather forecasts that night, since the next day I didn't try to beat the winter storm that was headed for central Illinois.

Instead, I decided to spend a few hours in St. Louis. I'd never been to the Gateway Arch, so I wanted to do that. The view from the base of the thing, curving up as it does impossibly into the sky, struck me as more impressive than the view through small windows at the top, or at least it did on that gray winter day. But I was amused by oddity of the enclosed tram pods that take you upward inside the Arch and to the top. Mork came to Earth in a pod something like that.

Afterward I visited the Basilica of St. Louis, King of France (the Old Cathedral), which is practically underneath the Arch -- or rather, the Arch was built a stone's throw away from the church. It's a fine Greek Revival church building, dating from the 1830s, and well worth seeing inside and outside. As I was leaving, one of the staff (I think) said, "If you liked this, you should see the New Cathedral." New in that it had been completed in 1914. He gave me directions.

The New Cathedral is actually the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis (just the Cathedral of St. Louis in 1990). I didn't know anything about it, but I took the tip and I'm glad I did. It's one of the most astonishingly beautiful churches I've ever seen. I'm a sucker for mosaics.

A few years later I wrote a squib about the New Cathedral for a newsletter, which I'm quoting here in its entirety: "It isn't necessary to cross oceans to savor the majesty of large-scale mosaic art, vaultingly expressed in a cathedral. You only need to visit the Cathedral of Saint Louis, about 10 minutes west of that city's well-known Arch. Composed of millions of tesserae -- tiles of stone or glass -- the mosaics of the cathedral dome and walls offer visitors a pageantry of Christian saints, symbols and stories rendered in hundreds of subtle hues. The architecture is deeply reminiscent of the great Byzantine cathedrals of Italy and points East."

After seeing the New Cathedral, I drove northward toward to Chicago and hit an ice storm. But I'm not sorry I tarried in St. Louis that day.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Ülker Halley

I've read that the University of California once tracked 30,000 purchases made by 4,200 U.S. customers over a short period and calculated that 68 percent of their purchases were unplanned. Impulse buys, in other words. I haven't see the original research, and I don't even have a citation for that figure, but it sounds all too likely. Impulse is an essential part of the shopping experience.

It also explains the presence in my house of a bright golden package of Ülker Halley "Milk Chocolate Covered Sandwich Biscuit Filled With Mallow," which were on sale at Valli Foods the other day. Ten pieces weighing a total of 300g ("10,58 oz"). Turns out they are much like Moon Pies, though smaller in diameter, and made in Turkey.

Turkish Moon Pies! Who among us doesn't smile at the thought of that? They're pretty good, too. If you like Moon Pies, you'll like Ülker Halley.

One thing leads to another for the idly curious, and before long I found out that Ülker is a major Turkish food manufacturer. Even more interesting, its Cola Turka brand soft drink has gone toe-to-toe with Coca-Cola in recent years. The new drink has been making inroads into Coke's market share in Turkey with the help of Chevy Chase, playing in Cola Turka commercials the character he plays best, the befuddled householder.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Lilliputian Earthquake

So that's what that was. This morning the AP reported: "A small earthquake has hit northern Illinois, waking up scores of residents before dawn but causing no major damage. The 4.3-magnitude earthquake hit near Virgil, about 50 miles northwest of Chicago, at 4 a.m. Wednesday, according to the U.S. Geological Survey."

I woke up for it. As far as I could tell, no one else in the house did. The bed shook and I thought Huuuuh? (In as much as I can express it in a word.) I don't think "earthquake" came to mind. I concluded that a salt truck had driven by and given the house a rattle. Very large trucks have done that before.

But no. Gaia herself shook my residence. Just because she can. Disaster isn't just for distant people. You know that foot of snow on your roof? It could be on your head, instantly. And don't forget, tornado season is coming soon.


Tuesday, February 09, 2010

"Not Blind Like Stevie Wonder"

Can one scrap of writing provide insight into a stranger's soul? Maybe.

In early 1992, I saw the following classified ad in Kansai Time Out, the English-language magazine of metro Osaka. The only reason I still have it is because I had an article in the same issue.

"I am an ex-NASA Computer Electronic Systems Test Engineer," the ad began. "In 1971 I was taken on board a UFO, and many strange experiences including 'out of body' and 'time travel' have happen [sic] to me. I want to make friends with a Japanese girl who has had similar experiences or who is not afraid to talk about this kind of thing. I have a message to bring to the Japanese people. Can somebody please help me? I am an American born in Utah. Please write..."

Draw your own conclusions about that fellow, though I hope he found a girl of similar cast of mind. In any case, dashing off a bit of soul-baring verbage is easier these days. Just put it in the comment section.

One jumped out at me yesterday. Semiliterate, completely wrong in its facts, borderline unhinged and including a gratuitous use of a blind singer's name. What more can you ask of a comment-section posting on a financial news web site? You can say that I take false comfort in feeling superior to such posters, which is why I point them out. And you'd be right about the feeling superior part, though it isn't much comfort.

The only change I've made is to remove the company name, which is that of a retail property landlord. Everything else, including punctuation, is exactly as I found it yesterday.

"Since march lows the shares of ______ have gone up 300% .Who will convince me this is not a fake stock .Eversince march lows ,commercial real estate has lost a substantial vallue .Even if the stock has remained the same I would have been doubtful ,but to go 300% UP, GIVE ME A BREAK!! People who a not blind like Stevie Wonder can not be fooled arround cause they see the empty malls and commercial plazas .So this only could be artifficially prompted like the banks are -a total manipulation ,or the accountants are defrauding the public ! The whole system became a FRAUD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"


Monday, February 08, 2010

Illinois Knows How to Pick 'Em

Sometimes -- usually -- it takes a while to clear away the junk mail accumulation on our former dining table. Today in the pile I noticed an oversized postcard with a picture of hands exchanging cash, captioned by the words: "If You're Tired of Politics as Usual..."

On the other side of the card is the message: "Then Vote for Scott Lee Cohen. NOT a Career Politician."

And, I should add at this point, NEVER to be one. Instead he will be a punch line on late-night television for a short while.

The Tribune wrote this morning: "Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Scott Lee Cohen, a Chicago pawnbroker whose surprise primary win last week was followed by scandalous revelations about his troubled past with a prostitute ex-girlfriend, said Sunday night he would quit as nominee...

"In a steady torrent following the Tuesday primary, leading Democrats called for Cohen to step aside as new details were revealed about his relationships with his now-ex-wife while using anabolic steroids and his ex-girlfriend, convicted as a prostitute, whom he met at a massage therapy spa. Other revelations showed that as he pumped millions into his campaign, his ex-wife filed a mid-December lawsuit seeking $54,000 in back-due child support."


Sunday, February 07, 2010

The Snowballs of Yesteryear

Until this weekend, putting "snowball fight" into Google News might not have yielded that many results. But the one in Dupont Circle over the weekend got some attention.

That's what we need in winter, more spontaneous mass snowball fights. Nothing like that would ever happen around here, maybe because we're too inured with snowfall, but more likely because gathering en masse in the dead of winter isn't so easy in the suburbs.

Our snowball actions will probably never involve more than a few people. Pictured above is one from four or five years ago. There's no date on the photo, but Lilly hasn't been that short, or able to wear that silver coat, in several years.


Thursday, February 04, 2010

Zhu Zhu Pets

Time to write about Zhu Zhu Pets, a creation of St. Louis-based Cepia LLC. Apparently they were The Toy for Christmas 2009, but that fact passed me by at the time. No one here asked for one anyway, maybe because my daughters know that asking for a toy because it's The Toy of the season isn't going to make me go out to find one. Especially if the toys are difficult to find or inspire a ludicrous black market.

Now they're easy to find. Ann's birthday party was last Saturday, and one of her friends gave her a Zhu Zhu Pet; "Scoodles," according to the box. It's a (simple) robot hamster, which has the advantages of not needing food and not producing droppings. "Each Zhu Zhu Hamster has its own unique personality & whimsical sounds!" exclaims the box. "Let them scott, scamper, bump n' boogie across the floor or through their Hamster Habitat."

I hardly have to add that the Habitat is sold separately, as are eight other models (Patches, Nugget, Winkie, Jilly, Pip Squeak, Mr. Squiggles, Chunk and Num Nums), plus a bunch of additional extruded-plastic, made-in-China accessories. The toy itself uses its battery power to make tweeting and human-voice noise and travel across the floor unpredictably. That is, it backs up or changes direction without warning, but it will also turn around if it comes to an obstacle, after pretending to inspect it.

I was happy to see "two AAA batteries included" on the box. They turned out to be two Brand X batteries that were able to power the wheels for about a day. This caused consternation, since at first we thought the toy had broken after only a day. Fresh batteries revived Scoodles' exploring spirit, however.

Ann thinks it's the greatest toy ever. She might even think that for a few more weeks. I'd say Cepia hit that the sweet spot of that tricky market, early grade-schoolers, as surely as Robin Hood split the arrow.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Cryobot Day

Long, busy day. I stepped on a small Burger King bobblehead too. No damage to the bobblehead, since I missed the head itself, and only slight pain for me. But where did it come from? I haven't visited a Burger King in a while, and as mascots go, he's one of my least favorites, so I wouldn't have picked it up elsewhere. I suspect small hands brought it here somehow.

But at least I had the satisfaction of writing about cryobots today, in a short squib for a magazine client of mine. It wasn't anything I knew about before -- a probe that penetrates serious ice by using heating elements in its nose, or jets of hot water.

By serious ice, I mean the sort that Antarctica has on top of a feature called Lake Ellsworth, a subglacial lake. In a couple of years, scientists will be melting a small hole down to that lake, to found out what they can find out. Lake Vostok is a more famous stygian pool, but Ellsworth's probably just as interesting. Cryobots may one day go to the Jovian moon Europa as well. All I can say about that is I hope to live long enough to hear about it.


Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Voting in Cook County Ain't What it Used to Be

The election judges at my polling place today looked a little bored. It's a mid-winter primary for an off-year election, after all, and snow fell most of the morning to boot, which probably didn't inspire turnout. So I guess things were a little slow.

In fact I was the only voter there in the mid-morning. It was all on the up-and-up too. No one offered to buy my vote -- no offers of beer or doughnuts or anything. Doesn't anyone value my vote? Where's the respect for the political heritage of Cook County?

Labels: ,

Monday, February 01, 2010

A Small Fast Fire to Greet Short Slow February

Today I decided to see just how fast a dry Christmas tree would burn. We've all been warned about the dangers of Christmas tree fires, and while the numbers are small, there are such fires.

The National Fire Protection Association provided me a handy pdf that says that "U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated 250 home structure fires that began with Christmas trees in 2003-2007. These fires caused an annual average of 14 civilian deaths; 26 civilian fire injuries; and $13.8 million in direct property damage."

Nearly half of home Christmas tree structure fires (45 percent) were caused by electrical problems, while over a quarter (26 percent) involved "a heat source too close to the Christmas tree." Candles, the time-honored way that your great-grandparents accidentally torched their tree, accounted for only 14 percent of ignition sources.

The NFPA also noted that "an average of 460 outside or unclassified Christmas tree fires occurred on home properties." That is, let's take the tree outside and burn it! Over at that spot behind the garage, after we have a few more beers! Oops, the garage caught fire.

Instead of having Waste Management haul away our spent tree this year, I put it out next to our woodpile, anticipating a not-too-cold, windless day like today. It hasn't been snowing much in the last week, so I figured it was dry enough to make a nice fire to greet February this year.

But I wasn't about to be a future NFPA statistic, so I cut off the top two feet of the tree and positioned it in our ovoid grill well away from anything else likely to burn, like this:

It took a little doing to get the tree alight. I needed to use a piece of paper as a starter. But once it got going, it created a fast-burning needle fire with some cool popping and crackling sounds to go with it, plus the unmistakable smell of burning evergreen.

In only a few seconds, it was over. The branches themselves didn't really burn that much, but most of the needles did.