Monday, October 31, 2011

Candy Collection Completed

After a Novemberish day of rain and wind on Sunday, Halloween was clear, nearly windless, and cool, about 50° F. Not a bad day to roam a suburban neighborhood. Beats the snowy havoc on the East Coast.

Like last year and the year before, this Halloween I took Ann to visit her friend Elizabeth, who counts as an old friend, I guess, since they go back to preschool, though they attend different elementary schools. The two of them set out in her neighborhood, with Elizabeth's dad and I not far away. Then we did the same in my neighborhood. Ann wore black and was a "vampire queen," though she decided false vampire teeth were too much trouble. Elizabeth wore black and was a bat.

Ann collected a few pounds of candy, which now sits in a pillow case (Lilly has one too). Mostly they're products of the candy cartels. In no special order, the contents of the bag include Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, M&Ms, Skittles, Tootsie Rolls, Snickers, Twizzlers, Laffy Taffy, Reese's Peanut Butter Pumpkins, Nestle Crunch, Dots, Tootsie Pops, Nerds, Whoppers, Wonka Bottle Caps, Dum Dums, Air Heads, M&M Minis, Twix, Milky Way, 3 Musketeers, Reese's Pieces, Smarties, KitKat, Jolly Rancher, jawbreakers, peppermints, SweetTarts, Hershey bars, 100 Grand, PayDay, Snickers Almond, Butterfinger, Starburst, Skittles, Baby Ruth, Junior Mints, Peanut Butter M&Ms, and Starbursts.

Plus a few oddities, such as Market Pantry brand Halloween fruit snacks (no, that isn't more healthful than candy), Hi-Chew Green Apple fruit chews (ditto), a small bag of pretzels, Soft 'n Chewy Now and Later, and a thing called Snickers Peanut Butter Squared, which I understand is new this year.

As a longstanding fan of the Snickers bar, I wonder about this hybrid. If it says Snickers, it shouldn't have peanut butter, which is the bailiwick of other brands. If it says peanut butter, it shouldn't say Snickers. Somewhere in the realm of Forms is the Snickers Bar, which material Snickers bars mimic. It doesn't include peanut butter.

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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Item From the Past: Lilly's First Jack o' Lantern

We got around to creating a jack o' lantern this evening. Ann drew a design on the pumpkin, then I carved the top off. I insisted that she remove most of the pumpkin seeds and slimy orange entrails. I'm tired of that task, and I also wanted a visceral Halloween memory for her. Then I cut some more holes.

I would put it outside tonight with a candle, but it's an intensely windy and wet night out there, so it can go out on Halloween itself.

Lilly said that she wanted to help with this year's carving, but when the time came, she didn't bother. When Lilly was just a few weeks short of her first birthday in 1998, I took a picture of her examining a curious orange orb.

Later, I put the jack o' lantern on our front porch.

Later still, squirrels -- or very small minions of Beelzebub -- feasted on it, making it more frightful.

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Day of the Flapper

The chain inside the upstairs toilet broke this morning, so after everyone else had left for school or work, I made my way to the hardware store formerly known as Ace (now it just says the generic "Hardware"). Toilet chains are sold only in combination with toilet flappers, and I got one.

It made my day just to learn that name. I've seen the part in operation over the years, of course, but never thought about its name. I also today learned even toilet flappers have a web page, as everything seems to: "All the flap on THE FLAPPER." Read and learn.

It didn't take long to replace to flapper-chain combo. The old flapper, with its bulbous front end and two prongs sticking backward, could be a small model for a Romulan or Klingon ship or the like. That is, a sinister-looking Enterprise sort of model.

For all my grousing about Halloween, I am looking forward to some parts of it, such as accompanying Ann and her friend on their rounds. It won't be many more years before I won't do that any more, as Ann wanders in a pack with her friends, just as Lilly does (even though I chide her that she's too old for trick or treating -- but we both know that attitudes have changed since I was in junior high).

Lilly never wore the costume to the right for Halloween activities, but she did pose for a picture. I think I took it 10 years ago. The costume came as a special section to some Japanese magazine. We unfolded the section and did some re-folding and presto, some child-sized space armor and a helmet emerged, ready to wear.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Grumbling About Halloween

Against my better judgment, I went with my family to a big box retailer on Sunday that has a lot of Halloween merchandise right now. The store was crowded. The store was noisy. The store was stocked with overpriced faux-macabre trappings for a holiday that doesn't need many trappings. Some of the made-for-dollar-in-China adult costumes were $40 or $50, but even the flimsiest, cheapest item wasn't cheap.

I managed to get out without spending anything, but only because we could go to another big box nearby, one with a different array of normal merchandise that hadn't gone over so heavily toward Halloween. But it was advertising Halloween items at a significant discount, and it turned out to be true. We managed to outfit the girls with some costume items -- things they actually wanted -- for a little less than $15.

Halloween, bah. Or rather, the ridiculous trappings of the day. It's gotten even more annoying since Beldar Conehead complained about it.

Beldar: Oh, Connie, I want no knowledge of this human activity. Halloween, a miserable Earth festival. It is regrettable that the High Master demanded that we return to this planet. On our home planet, Remulak, at this moment, all cones are celebrating the Harvest Under the Moons of Meepzor. Now, that's a party! All the gellato spirots will be harvested and smoked.

Connie: So what? Big deal!

Prymaat: The Harvest of Meepzor, long ago, was when I first saw Beldar's cone. How young and strong he looked as he pursued and captured the greased garfok, which was roasted for all to consume.

Beldar: This miserable Earth festival is nothing but a ritual costume fantasy for the young ones, who move through the night demanding small consumables.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Those Few, Those Happy Few

I suspect that today was the last warm day of 2011. Warm, windy, cloudy. I eked out a short while to sit on the deck and read.

I picked up Ann from her school this afternoon to take her to the dentist (no cavities, glad to report) and noticed that a white board in the school office said: Today is Denim Day. I don't think they meant this. Maybe it was this, but that's off a few weeks. I didn't ask the staff. Later, I asked Ann about it. She had no idea.

Never mind. It's St. Crispin's Day. I've posted about it before, but here's another rousing performance of the St. Crispin's Day speech, this one by a young Richard Burton.

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Monday, October 24, 2011

More Cantigny Tanks

Lilly and Ann climbed on four or five of the 11 tanks at the Cantigny Tank Park yesterday. One of the smaller ones is the M5 Stuart, a mere 16.5 tons. Cantigny's web site says, "The M5 Stuart was the Army’s standard light tank at the beginning of World War II. It was primarily used in reconnaissance, flank security and infantry support roles... Originally designed as a light battle tank, its role was limited because its 37mm main gun and thin armor could not stand up to German tanks in direct combat. The tank did prove effective in an infantry support role, where it knocked out machine gun nests and other enemy strong points, supporting soldiers as they advanced."

Below is the M41A3 Walker Bulldog, during a rare moment when no one was climbing on it. A Cold War-era tank, Cantigny notes that "the M41 tank series never saw combat with the US Army, but was exported to over 18 countries."

Finally, this is the turret of an M24 Chaffee, with daughters no. 1 and 2 perched on top. It replaced the M5 Stuart as the Army's light tank in World War II. "Along with mechanized infantry support and reconnaissance missions, the M24 was also able to destroy enemy bunkers, buildings, and other strong points," Cantigny explains.

More on the Tank Park is here.

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Sunday, October 23, 2011

An Afternoon Among the Flowers and Tanks

Today was one of those increasingly rare warm days -- clear and nearly 70° F. during the afternoon -- so we decided to visit Cantigny Park. The last time we were there was during the full blaze of summer, more than a year ago.

Fall coloration is far along, as it is everywhere else, but the gardens are still lush with flowers. We haven't had a hard freeze yet, and the Cantigny horticulturists must see to it that the gardens feature plenty of late-season bloomers.

Besides the flowers, we also went to Cantigny to see 11 tanks permanently parked on the property, such as this one.

All of them belong to the First Division Museum at Cantigny and are exhibited on the grounds outside the museum building. According to the sign, that's a 48.5-ton M46 Patton. On a day like today, kids (and some adults) were all over the tanks.

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Another One Bites the Dust

On days like today, I find my way to Wiki lists such as "List of longest ruling non-royal national leaders." According to that list, the late and not lamented Col. Gaddafi came in at number four, behind such other tyrannic notables as Castro, Chiang Kai-shek and Kim Il-sung. As usual with Wiki, grains of salt are in order. For instance, it counts Castro as "out of office," and while that might be true in some technical sense, it's hard to believe he still isn't boss.

Number five on the list is the amusingly named (to our ears) Omar Bongo of Gabon (died 2009). The name probably isn't so amusing if you live there, especially since the strongman's son, Ali Bongo, is now president.

Coloration and leaf-drop is pretty far along here in northern Illinois. Not long ago I caught some trees in transition.

And one far along yellow.

Others are completely bare, here in the full flush of fall. The mood of the season inspires me to look for sentimental poetry with an autumnal theme. I didn't know until today that Iggy Pop did a version of "Les Feuilles mortes," and a pretty one at that.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Peanut Butter of the Argentine

Drizzle came down today, wind blew and leaves fell. My thoughts turned to Argentine peanut butter.

My preferred discount supermarket set up a Dollar Aisle recently. Or as the store probably should call it, the Near-the-Expiration-Date Aisle. Anyway, I took a look around the aisle today and found Pampa brand peanut butter. I know that brand. (I Googled "Pampa Frosted Flakes" and my posting was on the first page.)

Argentine peanut butter? Does Argentina have a major peanut crop? Yes it does: "Every year more than 200,000 hectares of well selected farmland is used for the cultivation of peanuts," asserts a web site maintained by the B&F Trade Agency, a Dutch specialist in groundnuts and cocoa beans. "The total yield of raw shelled peanuts is more than 550,000 metric tons and the total export of shelled and processed peanuts comes around 400,000 tons."

That's a big mess of goobers. The site continues: "The major exporters of peanuts are the United States, Argentina, China, Sudan, Senegal, and Brazil. In recent years Argentina has become the leading exporter. China will soon convert from principal exporter to principal importer as the domestic consumption will rise (double by 2020) and loss of arable lands."

Clearly this 12-oz. jar of peanut butter that has come so far has something to teach me, in a roundabout way. I didn't know that the Chinese will double their peanut consumption by the end of the decade, for instance. They need a slogan for that: Let a Thousand Jars of Jiff Open!

Checking the ingredient label, I see that Pampa peanut butter contains exactly the same things as standard peanut butter in North America, including peanuts, sugar, "totally or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (palm)," salt and molasses. The only difference between Pampa and the domestic jar I compared it to is that the domestic product includes rapeseed, cottonseed and/or soybean oils -- whatever was a penny a gallon cheaper the day the peanut butter was processed, I guess. I also see on the Pampa jar: Best if Used by Dec. 3, 2011. Yep. Thought so.

Pampa isn't a hippie peanut butter than promises no sugar or vegetable oils to keep the peanut oil from separating out. I'm always amused to see that kind called "natural" peanut butter. Of course it's natural -- straight from the mines near Dothan, Alabama, which has been the main U.S. producer since the discovery of the Great Nut-Butter Lode in 1838.

I opened the jar to find out how Pampa compares to the peanut butter I'm accustomed to. Smell: same. Consistency: same. Taste: same. The jar is obviously for export to Estados Unidos de América, and it seems that the Argentine peanut-butter makers know their market.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Winter is Nigh, Maude Drove a Truck, and Braces Are Gone

Got a short note from Winter today. Seems he'll be coming soon for a considerable stay. But there's been no freezing temps just yet. We need to harvest those Lilliputian tomatoes still on the vine in the back yard.

I wasn't able to go out among the falling leaves today, but the day wasn't a total loss. I learned (sketchily) the difference between admitted and non-admitted insurance for an article I wrote. Who knows, that factoid might come in handy some other time. Also, I learned mostly by chance -- chance favors the idly curious on the Internet -- that the late Bea Arthur was a truck-driving marine. Who would have guessed that Maude did more time in the service than John Wayne?

Also, Lilly's braces are finally off and she's been fitted with a retainer. The ortho did a fine job. More importantly (for me), I don't have to pay him any more.

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Monday, October 17, 2011

Retro Moment

I was in line at the post office today -- something that might be remembered as retro someday -- when I heard a phone ring from ahead of me in the line. Nothing odd in that, except it was a real telephone ring.

That is, a Western Electric ring that anyone my age or even somewhat younger would remember as very common during the period before the breakup of the Phone Company. I was a little startled. Other than at my mother's house (and on old TV shows), that's a ring I never hear any more. I guess the guy with the phone, who probably about 30, was going for a retro-cool ringtone.

Occasionally I toy with the idea of making a list of things most of us never see or hear any more, but I've never gotten around to it. One thing comes to mind is the way -- to give a visual example -- television sets used to power down after they were switched turned off (using a knob). When I was small, I was fascinated by the way the picture compressed quickly into a small, bluish dot that lingered for a while, sometimes drifting away from the center of the screen before it faded completely.

That's as gone as TV station signoffs complete with the National Anthem. Except that online, everything lives on. This is a 1978 Dallas-Fort Worth station signoff, which is close enough to what I saw in San Antonio.

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Sunday, October 16, 2011

FDR, Dewey and the Election of 1944

FDR, Dewey and the Election of 1944 by David M. Jordan focuses on the neglected story of that election, and Jordan does a fine job of telling it, from the pre-primary maneuvering among both parties, but especially the Republicans, through to the surprisingly energetic campaign, both on the part of ailing FDR and his remarkably young opponent. Dewey was only 42 at the time, the youngest-ever Republican nominee for the top job and the first major-party presidential candidate born in the 20th century.

This particular election is generally glossed over in histories of the period, probably because hindsight considers it a foregone conclusion. In the event, it wasn't that close: FDR-Truman took 432 electoral votes and 53.4 percent of the popular vote vs. Dewey-Bricker's 99 electoral votes and 45.9 percent of the popular vote. Still, before the election, pollsters weren't quite so sure of the outcome, with some even predicting Dewey's election. That and '48 might tell us that pollsters weren't very good at predicting national elections in the 1940s, but that's with the benefit of hindsight. A Dewey upset was considered plausible at the time, even if not very likely, and in point of fact '44 was the closest presidential election in which FDR participated. As Jordan makes clear, Dewey ran a spirited campaign in the face of the odds.

But at a curious distance from the electorate. Apparently Dewey and his men thought it best, at least at first, to focus on radio speeches more than personal appearances. During an early campaign trip by train to the West Coast, for example, Dewey only made a handful of rear-platform speeches, the kind so effective for President Truman four years later. No doubt the strategy reflected Dewey's personality. "The man had one of the coldest personalities of anyone who ever contemplated a run for the American presidency," notes Jordan. "David Brinkley wrote, 'In public, Dewey came across as pompous and cold. And for good reason. He was both.' He was generally conceded to be intelligent, efficient, a master of detail, 'serious-minded to the point of severity' as one contemporary noted. 'He is as humorless as a man can be,' noted another."

Balancing the Republican ticket that year, at least in one respect, was Gov. John W. Bricker of Ohio. "The governor of Ohio... was an almost complete opposite of Thomas E. Dewey," says Jordan. "John William Bricker, it was said, was 'excellent company.' People liked being around Bricker, and he enjoyed being around others... Big, jovial John Bricker, one author wrote, 'had the essential of popularity, a real and lively interest in people.' " Bricker also represented the conservative wing of the Republican Party, as opposed to the more moderate Dewey, and had the endorsement of Sen. Robert A. Taft ("Mr. Republican") in the early '44 primaries. Bricker didn't fare well in those contests, however, but well enough to be an acceptable choice for the number-two slot.

No one is forgotten faster than a failed vice presidential candidate (e.g., William Miller, who did a "Do you know me?" Amex ad after the '64 election), and Gov. Bricker certainly falls into that category, though some lingering memory of him might remain in Ohio. Bricker did, however, offer the ticket a rhyming slogan, an example of which the book shows in a photo of Republican campaign memorabilia: "Win the War Quicker With Dewey and Bricker." Apparently the slogan wasn't that commonly used, and not destined for the fame of "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too." Dewey and Bricker lost, after all, but even before that the Republican ticket probably didn't want to emphasize that their victory would indeed mean a change in the management of the war effort, since that was in fact what the Democrats were emphasizing as a negative ("don't change horses in mid-stream").

As for the Democrats, the Roosevelt campaign didn't show much zing until the "Fala Speech" in late September, during which the president had some amusingly choice words for the Republicans, much to the delight of the audience, who were mainly Teamsters leadership. Late in the campaign, and thus late in the book, FDR went on an open-car motorcade through four of the five boroughs of New York City, which Jordan describes in fascinating detail. The president began at an Army base in Brooklyn, went through downtown Brooklyn, then on to Ebbets Field, then through Queens, then across to the Bronx, then down through Harlem and finally on down Broadway and into Times Square. "Through it all, the rain kept coming down, the wind blew, and Franklin Roosevelt kept smiling and waving to the thousands watching for him, with Fala by his side," Jordan says. "After all was over, the police estimated the total crowds at 3,050,000, though it may have been, as Ray Brandt of the St. Louis Post Dispatch put it, "a mere million or two."

The book spends an entire chapter and more on the central mystery of the 1944 election, namely how and why Harry Truman was chosen as the Democratic vice presidential candidate. No account of that event that I've ever read quite spells it out clearly, probably because it isn't quite possible to do so, but Jordan takes a good whack at it. Vice President Henry Wallace wanted to keep the job, but boll weevils and other conservatives in the party wanted him out. President Roosevelt seemed to prefer James Byrnes, but he also seemed to accept the judgment of other party leaders that as a Southerner, Byrnes would cost more votes (Northern blacks, labor) than he would win -- something FDR never told Byrnes he believed. Other names were bandied about, such as Sam Rayburn, Alben Barkley, William O. Douglas, Truman and even John G. Winant (American ambassador to the Court of St. James's at the time), though he wasn't very seriously considered.

Eventually, Democratic Party leaders held an informal but important meeting with the president at the White House before the convention that seemed to settle matters in favor of Truman -- except that it didn't quite, and Truman wasn't really told about it anyway, going to the convention supporting Byrnes for vice president, and even planning to put his name in nomination. When FDR's men told Truman, at first he said he didn't want it, but was famously persuaded by a brusk phone call from President Roosevelt to a room that Democratic leadership had rented in the Blackstone Hotel (not the first time the Blackstone made a president). Even then, Henry Wallace might have been re-nominated by his supporters at the convention, but FDR's men put a stop to it using hasty parliamentary maneuvers, and almost resorted to cutting an electric cable to stop the convention organist from playing "Iowa, Iowa, That's Where the Tall Corn Grows," a song associated with Wallace at the time.

The book also offers interesting sketches of some of the lesser figures in the election. The Republicans' 1940 surprise candidate, Wendell Willkie, wanted another shot and entered the early '44 primaries, only to lose to Dewey. Even more interesting for us (though not for him) was the fact that Willkie died unexpectedly about a month before the election, without endorsing Dewey -- or Roosevelt either, and while it seems hard to believe he might have, it was considered possible because he didn't believe Dewey was internationalist enough, or at least was bowing too much the isolationist elements in the Republican Party (presumably those isolationists would have finished the war and then rejected American participation in the likes of the UN, the Marshall Plan and NATO).

Another supporting character is Harold Stassen. Good old Harold Stassen, always running. That's how we remember him now, but 1944 was before all that. That year, Lt. Comdr. Stassen was off in the Pacific theater as Adm. Halsey's flag secretary, having resigned the governorship of Minnesota to do his part. He wasn't really a contender in '44, but his star was rising (he'd given the keynote at the Republican national convention in 1940), and he later had an important part in nominating Dewey again in '48 and Eisenhower in '52, after which he settled into his recurring-candidate mode. That's another story.

The book also provides some food for speculative thought. After all, we know that FDR was near the end of the line in November 1944, even if at time the electorate didn't. What if he had died six months sooner -- a few weeks ahead of the voting? Who would the Democratic National Committee have picked to take his place? Would Dewey have won against that person, and if so, how would have he deployed the atomic bomb? Assuming that FDR dies in 1945, as he did, what kind of president would Wallace have made, had he been allowed to stay on the ticket? Would he have used the bomb? And what kind of president would John G. Winant made, anyway? In history as it happened, the three-time Republican governor of New Hampshire, first chairman of the Social Security Board, head of the International Labor Organization and ambassador to the United Kingdom through much of World War II, retired to private life after the war and put a bullet through his head in 1947.

That's just my digression, but it only goes to show how many fascinating stories there are in a good work of political history, such as FDR, Dewey and the Election of 1944. Well worth reading.

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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Rajaratnam, Roddenberry & Redshirts

I can't say that I've been following the case of Raj Rajaratnam very closely, but I did note that he was sentenced today for insider trading -- 11 years. I read a NYT article about the sentencing, and it said: "Prosecutors accused Mr. Rajaratnam of using a corrupt network of well-placed tipsters — including former executives of Intel, IBM and the consulting firm McKinsey & Company — to illicitly gain about $70 million."

Rajaratnam is a hedge-fund billionaire, as recently as 2009 the 559th richest person in the world or some such. His elaborate scheme netted him all of $70 million, vast money to almost anyone else, but only about 5 percent of his net worth. What's the psychology of that? He did it for sport? Because he was bored? Because he was absolutely sure the government would never make an example of him? Guess he miscalculated on that score.

He didn't testify, but I doubt that his thinking involved anything as grand as shaping the future (how could it?), as the rich villain Noah Cross told Jake Gittes in Chinatown, when Jake was able to ask him why he'd perpetrated his land grab.

Jake Gittes: How much are you worth?

Noah Cross: I have no idea. How much do you want?

Jake Gittes: I just wanna know what you're worth. More than 10 million?

Noah Cross: Oh my, yes!

Jake Gittes: Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can't already afford?

Noah Cross: The future, Mr. Gittes! The future.

I didn't have much time to waste today, but what little I did I spent watching a trio of videos on YouTube posted by one "led4acs." They're fun watching for anyone familiar with the original Star Trek. The videos keep a running track of all the deaths on the show, and illustrate them with well-edited clips and occasional funny comments. The dead include crew members, guest stars, assorted extras, aliens and even the sentient computers that Capt. Kirk manages to destroy.

Some 26 redshirts bite the dust, in case you're wondering. Joining Star Fleet is clearly going to be a lot like shipping out with the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century -- a third or a half of the recruits aren't coming back. Sure, Gene Roddenberry imagined a more rational future for mankind, but Star Trek is also a carnival of death.

This is Part One, followed by Part Two and then Part Three.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

No More Gumby for Me

Cool rain ahead, they say. Today seemed to be the last day I could eat lunch on my back-yard deck in some comfort, so I did. A leaf fell into my drink. But that's better than attracting bees, as al fresco summertime lunches sometimes do.

The last lawn mowing of the year was recently as well. Maybe. Part of the function this time of the year is to deal with leaves without raking them.

Gumby gets a Google doodle? Really? Or rather, Art Clokey, the creator of Gumby, is the honoree. His claymation artistry should be acknowledged, I guess, but Gumby the character? Gumby was shown on weekday afternoon kid shows when I was a kid, but I never could get that excited about it.

Yet I'm (sometimes) willing to revise my opinions in the light of new experience, so I looked up an episode of Gumby easily available on YouTube, an early '60s one called "Scrooge Loose," and watched it. Obviously a lot of work on the part of Clokey and his staff, but otherwise I'm still not that impressed, though I did chuckle once.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Least of Holidays

Leif Erikson Day has come and gone, and are we better for it? No, wait, that was Columbus Day (Observed). Lilly and Ann weren't in school yesterday, and we didn't get any mail. Except for those things, Columbus Day around here might as well be Leif Erikson Day.

The first U.S. president to proclaim a Columbus Day holiday was Benjamin Harrison, who did so for the 400th anniversary of the landing on San Salvador. Not, as you would think, on October 12, 1892, but instead on October 21, 1892. Columbus and his crew might have landed on October 12, but that was using the Julian calendar -- the Gregorian correction wasn't introduced to Catholic Europe until 1582, after all. In the 15th century, the difference between Julian and Gregorian would have been about nine days, so to be mathematically correct about the anniversary, you'd have to mark it on the 21st.

How learned of the Harrison administration. Or pedantic, take your pick.

The difference is still nine days, but clearly Congress wasn't interested in such subtleties when it created the federal holiday in 1937, so October 12 it is, at least until the holiday completely withers away, which we might live to see. But we still need some kind of holiday in October, to bridge Labor Day with Veteran's Day and Thanksgiving. Maybe Towel Day can be moved to October 12, since that's the anniversary of the publication of the first of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy book in the series in 1979.

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Monday, October 10, 2011


The main event for us at the recent fire department open house were the room burns. I'll bet a lot of other people at the event felt the same way. Firefighters set up two three-sided "rooms" built of plywood and furnished with (no doubt) donated items. One room had an automatic sprinkler system installed. But I didn't take any pictures of that one, since the efficient dowsing of a room fire isn't nearly as photogenic as an out-of-control fire.

So without further ado, up goes the unprotected room. It burned for about three minutes.

The demonstration also completely demolished the dangerous Hollywood myth that you can see what you're doing in a burning building without special equipment. A pair of firemen in full turnout gear and SCBAs (self-contained breathing apparatuses) then put the raging fire out in about two minutes.

Ann left the open house with some public safety tchotchkes.

Her favorite was a police backscratcher, pictured here.

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Sunday, October 09, 2011

Rollover Test Dummies in Action

This is National Fire Prevention Week, per presidential proclamation, as the week including October 9 has been since the Coolidge administration, though President Wilson inked a National Fire Prevention Day proclamation in 1920. But fire's serious business, so it soon got a whole week.

Driving by a local fire station recently, I spotted "Open House" on its marquis. The hours indicated right then. I had to see that, so I turned around. Ann was the only other person with me at that moment, and she whined about the prospect of not getting home for a while, but eventually she decided to humor her dad. Later, she admitted that she'd had a great time.

"Don't say I told you so," she said. So I didn't. But I'd known she would like it, and I had told her so.

State and local police were participating in the open house too. Before the fire department did its demonstration, more about which later, we saw this device in action.

It resembles a state police truck and simulates rollover accidents. The passenger cabin rotates, as if on a spit. Dummy passengers without seatbelts spill out and suffer gross bodily harm or death. Dummies with belts stay put.

It's a fine demonstration that only dummies don't wear seatbelts.

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Thursday, October 06, 2011

Norma Jeane and the Robot King

In the summer of 1978, I took some summer school classes and one day happened to be at the school library after class when two fellows I knew, Lester and Trey, brought in an odd-looking piece of equipment and took it to one of the library's audio-visual rooms, where they fooled around with the thing, connecting it to a television. It was an Apple II.

Whose machine it was or where they got the money for it, I don't know. I joined them for a while, but soon decided it wasn't my kind of hobby. A lot of other people felt differently and, eventually, I also came around to an admiration for Apple products. RIP, Mr. Jobs.

After poking around the Lurie Garden downtown on Sunday, we walked northward on Michigan Ave. until we reached the giant statue of Marilyn Monroe near the Tribune Tower. It's the work of J. Seward Johnson, the same fellow who did the play on "American Gothic" a couple of years ago. That statue, I liked. Johnson added a fillip to the icon, the suitcase with the travel stickers. By contrast, the 26-foot "Forever Marilyn" statue had no extra touches to make it interesting. It's a straightforward reproduction of the publicity images for The Seven Year Itch, and shows exactly zero imagination on the artist's part.

Marilyn Monroe needs to be left to rest in peace anyway. Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly and James Dean; enough already. Next summer's going to be the 50th anniversary of her death, and I'm sure we'll hear all about it for days.

How about a giant statue of Jane Russell and a pistol, if the subject is to be a mid-20th-century sex symbol? But if the statute must be Marilyn Monroe, what about a giant figure based on this photo? A fetching brunette holding a propeller. Call it "Norma Jeane and the Propeller." Now that would be different. People might be shocked to see her brown hair.

At the southeast corner of Michigan Ave. and Wacker Dr., we saw the "Robot King" doing some busking.

He did his robot dance. A nearby sign said that he's from Miami, but other than that, I haven't found out anything else about him. This little-watched video gives some idea of his act. I thought he was more interesting than the overblown pop icon not far away on Michigan Ave.

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Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Urbs in Horto at the Lurie Garden

It's warm again. Today's small pleasure was lunch on the deck. Only a few more of those kinds of days left in '11.

Even in early October, the Lurie Garden in Millennium Park is still fairly verdant. But late in the afternoon on Sunday, it was hard to capture that lushness with a basic digital camera.

Measuring about five acres, the garden is sandwiched between the Pritzker Pavilion and the Art Institute, but hidden by a 15-foot hedge. The Lurie Garden web site claims that the hedge is a symbolic "shoulder," as in the City of Big Shoulders, but that seems like a contorted effort to squeeze a symbol out of a physical presence.

The garden, designed by Gustafson Guthrie Nichols Ltd., Piet Oudolf and Robert Israel, features perennials and bulbs, grasses, shrubs and trees in great profusion. The web site lists them, and I was glad to see that the designers weren't native-plant purists, though the majority are from some part of North America. Species from Europe and Asia seem to be well represented as well. If you insisted on native plants only, what would that be -- a vacant lot with weeds?

The Lurie Garden is also noteworthy because it's essentially a rooftop garden, since parking garages are below. It's been called the largest green roof in the world, though you'd never know that just walking around.

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Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The Special Envoy Selects His Ice Cream

I attended a day-long conference at a hotel in downtown Chicago today and listened to a number of speakers, some talking about commercial real estate, others about the wider economy. Some were more interesting than others, as usual for these events.

After the lunchtime program, I took the opportunity to shake George Mitchell's hand. As in former Senator and Special Envoy George Mitchell, who was one of the luncheon speakers, and an intensely interesting one at that. He managed, for example, to describe the Arab-Israeli conflict in a way that was worth listening to, rather than being the same retreads about that situation that you hear ad nauseum.

At the moment I approached him, he was considering which kind of ice cream bar he wanted for dessert. Rather than serve dessert at the tables, the event provided it outside the ballroom, a selection of pastries, cookies and Dove Bars.

I didn't interrupt him for long. Just long enough to express some admiration for some of the work he's done for his country (and baseball, though I didn't mention it). He thanked me and that was that. Unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to take his picture.

I did, however, take pictures of the other lunchtime speakers, former Secretary of Defense William Cohen (Republican) and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (Democrat). Daschle, obviously used to such attention, assumed that I would want to pose with him as well as taking his picture, so I did. The pic was taken by another journalist I know who was also attending the event.

That's more former federal government officials than I've ever met in one day.


Monday, October 03, 2011

Chinatown Details

It's been a while since we visited Chicago's Chinatown. Lately we've had an urge for the kind of dim sum that Chinatown provides, but rain and other things delayed our visit for a few weeks. Sunday was clear and not very cold, so we drove to Oak Park, stashed the car in a conveniently free parking garage (free Sundays only) and rode the El to Chinatown -- Green Line to Roosevelt, transfer to Red Line for Chinatown.

On the sidewalk near the corner of Archer Ave. and Cermak Road, which is near the edge of Chinatown, Ann spotted a face on the sidewalk and pointed it out to me. Maybe the work of a guerrilla graphic designer. Not a Toynbee Tile, but it'll do.

We ate at Phoenix on Archer Ave., which serves up pretty good dim sum, though mysteriously at first the dim sum wagon ladies only would offer us "chicken feet with homemade sauce" and other items we didn't want. Actually, I would have gone for the chicken feet, but no one else wanted any. Eventually we obtained shrimp rolls, barbecue port turnovers, noh mai gai (sticky rice in lotus leaves), ha gao (shrimp dumpling), chui chow dumpling, pan fried vegetable & meat bun, mango pudding and sesame balls.

Then we wandered around the neighborhood. Mostly I was interested in talking pictures of details. Such as a dragon lamp.

And wall details on Wentworth Ave.

I noticed a lot more RPC flags hanging from buildings in Chinatown than even a few years ago, for whatever it's worth. But I also noticed that there will be a parade in Chinatown this Saturday to celebrate the 100th anniversary of overthrow of the Qing Dynasty -- Double 10 Day (even though Saturday is the 8th) -- which I understand is celebrated in Taiwan rather than the mainland.

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Sunday, October 02, 2011

The Woman in the Propeller Beanie

At about 5:30 this afternoon, we were riding the CTA Green Line westbound from downtown Chicago, headed for the Oak Park station in Oak Park, Illinois, an inner western suburb. Yuriko and I were sitting together; behind us was a young woman we'd noticed getting on at the State Street station, as we did. Behind her were Lilly and Ann.

The woman was noticeable because she was wearing a Bears jersey, sported face paint in Bears colors, and had probably been wearing a propeller beanie at some point during the day -- I think Bears colors, but I'm not sure only a few hours later. The propeller beanie hung on the back of her neck when we saw her.

Are propeller beanies the new thing at football games? Or a not-so-new thing? I wouldn't know, but I'm also fairly sure I'd never actually seen anyone wearing a propeller beanie. Otherwise her Bears getup wasn't so strange. The Bears played the Panthers today at Soldier Field, and during the late afternoon in Millennium Park, we'd seen a lot of people in Bears jerseys and t-shirts and so on (but no other propeller beanies).

The propeller-beanie woman was on her phone, and mostly I wasn't paying attention. But then she said, "My flight is at 7. I think this train will get me to O'Hare by 6."

Odd. I thought about that for a moment or two, and then I heard her say, "I didn't know you felt that way." She was quiet for a while, and then she said it again. She must have hung up after that, but in any case the next thing I knew, I heard her crying. Did someone dump her over the phone? It sounded that way, but you can't quite be sure.

It's useful to know at this point that the Green Line doesn't go to O'Hare. Not even close. So I wondered whether I should say something to her about that -- or did I misunderstand her? But before I'd decided anything, she asked me, "Excuse me, does this train go to O'Hare?"

I turned and saw her face. The Bears face paint was tear-streaked. I told her no, the Blue Line goes to O'Hare. This is a Green Line train to Oak Park.

She asked if I was sure, and I said I was, pointing to the Green Line map in the car. "You need to go back downtown and catch a Blue Line train," I explained. I didn't much like bearing more bad news, but Oak Park is no place to be if you want to catch a plane.

She got off at the next stop. She had no luggage. Maybe she'd flown in just to see the game. Maybe she'd been expecting to see some now-former boyfriend at her destination. Impossible to know. All I knew for sure was she still had a propeller beanie hanging on the back of her neck.

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