Wednesday, February 28, 2007

To all of you who've left comments
and sent me emails in recent days:
Thank you.
You've provided me with tremendous comfort...
and more than a few smiles.

Monday, February 26, 2007

A book becomes real

When I resumed blogging with this "Second Effort," I began by noodling around the Blogosphere for blogs by and about writers and writing. One of the first ones I found, and one that I've gone back to time and again, is Patry Francis' Simply Wait. You may have seen Patry's comments on some of my essays here -- but not lately.

Lately, Patry is out promoting her first novel, The Liar's Diary.

I think this is pretty exciting stuff: Somebody I know -- well... sorta kinda know... in a very small way from reading her blog -- has published a novel. (Even this is a step up: Before this, the only author that I've read with whom I can claim any sort of personal connection is Fr. Andrew Greeley -- and that was only because he baptized me during the course of his very brief career as a working parish priest. And he's never commented on this blog.)

I bought The Liar's Diary Saturday -- I had to lay in a fresh supply of books for my upcoming convalescence, didn't I? -- and I'm enjoying it so far. I hope to do a review later.

But today let me explain, if I can, just how amazing this was for me: I went to a bookstore and looked for a book by a fellow blogger. I couldn't find it -- but I asked at the help desk where it might be. The thin man with the goatee and the bulky cardigan who fielded my question seemed doubtful that there was such a book; at least that was my impression. Maybe I was projecting my own uncertainty on him.

But when he entered the information on his computer the book cover that you see above popped right up on his screen. Even with my eyesight, I could see the words "In Stock" -- they were larger than everything else that was provided on that screen.

He turned to me and said, "We don't have it" -- but, before I could challenge him on this, he added, "but we can get it for you in three or four business days."

That would not be convenient, I told him. Was there some other store that did have the book in stock?

"Yes," he said, grudgingly I thought. "They may have it at our Evanston, Old Orchard or Lake Forest stores."

Old Orchard was close enough for me to make the side trip. I thanked him and went up front to make my other purchases.

I didn't find the book in the Old Orchard store immediately either. I could barely find the store: I don't do well in malls and the directory maps did more to confuse than enlighten me.

But eventually, I found it: On the shelves in the Mystery section, alphabetized by author. After Dick Francis, Patry Francis. Two copies of the book.

I could have ordered on Amazon, I know. But I needed to find this book outside the Internet -- to find it in a real store, on solid shelves, to make it real.

The young girl who rang up the sale said, "Oh, I've been interested in this book myself." She probably is trained to say that about every book. Still, I wanted to tell her about how I knew about the book and why I was interested in it, all because of reading Patry's blog -- but, of course, I didn't. I was sure she would not be at all interested in any of that, even if she was genuinely interested in the book. "I have reason to think it'll be very good," was all I said.

So far, so good.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Weekend update -- a Southern drawl isn't what it used to be... fake fake-furs... and chimps

It's been a busy week, trying to get ready for the week ahead, and I'll probably talk about that soon enough. But, in the meantime, just a couple of quick observations about things I couldn't help but notice in the days just past.

I've managed not to mention Anna Nicole Smith here (until now) showing I have some standards, however minimal. I mention her now only because of this man, Judge Seidlin: I thought Southerners had a different accent.

Here's a story that only Cruella De Vil could love: The AP reports today how some retailers are scrambling to pull their "fake fur" coats -- because the coats turn out to be made from dog fur instead.

According to Kasie Hunt's story for the AP, The Humane Society of the United States purchased 25 coats from stores like Nordstrom. The coats carried fancy designer labels; Ms. Hunt identifies Andrew Marc and Tommy Hilfiger as examples and I'll have to take her word for it. Most of the coats were imported from China.

The AP story says that three of the coats — "one from Tommy Hilfiger's Web site, one from and one from Andrew Marc's MARC New York line sold on — contained fur from domesticated dogs. The others had fur from raccoon dogs — a canine species native to Asia — or, in one case, wolves. The single correctly labeled coat was trimmed with coyote fur, but it was advertised as fake."

There is no truth, however, to the rumor that Disney is now storyboarding another 101 Dalmatians sequel, Cruella in Cathay.

The Chinese are fortunate indeed that they're using dogs for their fake fake-fur coats; they might have had a fight on their hands if they'd tried using chimpanzees instead.

At least, according to Rick Weiss' story in this morning's Chicago Tribune, chimps in the West African nation of Senegal have learned to fashion rudimentary spears and are using them to hunt bush babies.

Weiss, summarizing an article that is now online in Current Biology, reports, "Using their hands and teeth, the chimpanzees were repeatedly seen tearing the side branches off long straight sticks, peeling back the bark and sharpening one end" and then violently thrusting these weapons into the tree hollows where the unsuspecting bush babies sleep.

And it's female chimps that are the toolmakers, according to the story. The story suggests that these observations provide support for the "long-debated proposition that females... tend to be the innovators and creative problem solvers in primate culture."

I think I've just been insulted?

Monday, February 19, 2007

Plan of attack

We were to discuss our plan of attack with regard to this unexpected cancer diagnosis at an appointment with the surgeon at 3:10 pm on Friday afternoon. Long Suffering Spouse and I were early.

The surgeon was late. (He'd been doing 'procedures' all day -- and he had inevitably fallen behind.)

Eventually we were ushered inside. Dr. P. wasn't there just yet, but you can only sit in a waiting room for so long. Especially with daytime TV blaring.

To fill the time, the nurse decided to take my blood pressure.

When it ran up to about 210 over 100-something, the nurse said, "This doesn't look right." She took it again. This time it was much better -- 195 over 100-something. "Do you drink coffee?" the nurse asked. Long Suffering Spouse and I both laughed at that one.

"I think the blood pressure is high more because of why we're here than any amount of coffee I drink," I told her.

"Well," the nurse tried again, "why are you here today?"

"We're here to discuss the results of my February 2 colonoscopy," I answered.

"Do you know what the results are?" I wasn't supposed to know; my internist had spilled the beans not realizing I'd not been otherwise informed. At this point, the nurse was flipping through the chart.

"We have a pretty fair idea," I answered.

"Oh, it's not that bad," she said, scanning the page in front of her, but she did not wish to discuss the bases of that observation. Long Suffering Spouse and I were shown to an examination room where we eventually met the doctor.


Dr. P. was very upbeat. The only thing he was upset about was that I'd heard about my diagnosis from the internist. I felt obliged to defend the other doctor: "He didn't know you hadn't told me yet," I said.

"I wouldn't tell someone this over the phone," Dr. P. said. "I always bring them in to discuss it in person. You're a professional man; you can handle this information. But some people throw themselves on the floor, cry hysterically, pull their hair out."

Well, just because I didn't do any of these things doesn't mean I didn't think about them....

But, given the unavoidable lapse in time between the colonscopy and our meeting, I was grateful for the 'heads up.' Bad as it was to get the news over the phone, I told him, the advance notice gave me time to prepare to deal with the consequences.

And that's what we discussed next: The cancer is in a very early stage -- it was only in one of the three polyps -- it's 95% or more curable at this point.

But those gently swaying fields of polyps? There are too many to harvest via repeat colonoscopies. And because the body has to heal up from each procedure... the chances of something bad happening during the wait were just too great. "If you were 80," he told me, "we might evaluate it differently. But you're not." (I just look like I am. But that's another story.)

So rather than harvest the polyps, Dr. P. recommended we remove the entire field: The whole colon must come out.

This took Long Suffering Spouse by surprise. "Isn't that like removing the entire arm because of repeat hangnails?" she asked. But the logic is persuasive: I have a very dubious personal history and an ominous family history. The alternative to doing something drastic now when it will do the most good may be doing something drastic later... when it may do no good at all.

If you think I'm scared, you're right. But, even though it sounds radical, this course of action makes sense to me. And Dr. P. got me through the problems I had in my late 20's without incident for 17 years -- whereas I'd had a miserable time, and recurring problems, with the doctors I'd gone to before. I have confidence in Dr. P.

And he was surprised that the cancer was found in the smallest of the three polyps. It's the big ones that are supposed to go bad. He promised he would go to the hospital and review the path slides himself... but, based on what we know, if it were him in my shoes, he'd have his colon taken out.

My wife's questions went to quality of life: To be delicate, will I be able to leave the house for any extended period of time?

Most people can, Dr. P. said, and if there are problems, there are medications to help maintain, uh, control. He said there are no guarantees -- but it seems to me there's a guarantee of what will happen if we do nothing or do too little.

The surgery is set for February 28.

I've got a CT scan set for tomorrow (just to make sure there's nothing else out of place) and I have a pre-op physical and blood work-up scheduled for tomorrow as well.

I'll not be blogging much -- if at all -- between now and the surgery; I expect to be confined to the hospital for as long as a week after the surgery. After that, I'll be at home for a couple of weeks while I learn to live with my newly configured insides. But I'm hoping to be back on line again before the Ides of March.


After we got home Friday night, I had to call the kids and explain what was going on. Older Daughter didn't know about the cancer diagnosis; it was her birthday when we found out. Would you tell your daughter something like that on her birthday? I didn't think so.

Oldest Son was the most logical about it. "We don't need a colon to live?" he asked. I told him that the surgeon says we don't. "And you've had this problem and so did Grandma and Grandpa?" Yes, I told him. "So why," he asked, "don't we all have our colons out, just to be on the safe side?"

Sure, I told him, we can get them all plasticized and string them on the Christmas tree next year instead of the strings of beads. The immediate death glare from Long Suffering Spouse made me realize this attempt at lightening the mood had failed utterly so far as she was concerned.

Middle Son is leaving for Arizona and Spring Training right after the scheduled surgery date. "There's nothing to worry about," I told him. "I'm just trying to get svelte like I used to be. It's just a weight loss program. I'll keep removing non-vital body parts until I'm skinny like you."

Younger Daughter wasn't home when we returned from the doctor. We were just sitting down to schedule the surgery with Dr. P.'s assistant when my cell phone rang. "You're still not done yet?" Younger Daughter asked. "No, not just yet," I said. "Oh," she said. "Can I go to Karen's house?"

We let her go.

When she finally came home she did ask what the doctor told me: It's all good news, I told her, with one little caveat. The cancer is in it's earliest stages. It's very curable. It may even have been removed entirely. But the doctor is recommending that I have my colon removed.

The tests I'm taking this week may change things, for better or worse. Dr. P. may change his recommendation. Someone may yet talk me out of this. But that's where we're at right now.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Sergeant Manhart stripped... of rank... the first true sign of Spring... and voices from beyond... the realm of common sense

Headline writers must live for stories like this: Yesterday came word that Sgt. Michelle Manhart had received her punishment from the military for posing in the altogether in a recent issue of Playboy magazine. The link is to an AP story by Elizabeth White. White reports that Manhart has been, uh, busted in rank from staff sergeant to senior airman. She's also been "removed from 'extended active duty.'"

Manhart is quoted as saying she's "disappointed in our system." The Air Force, in her view, "went too far with" her punishment.

And the saga may not be over: Manhart was a member of the Iowa Air National Guard before going on extended active duty. Termination of that duty status means she reverts back to the Air National Guard. Oscar Balladares, a spokesman for Lackland Air Force Base, is quoted in White's article as saying, "It is not up to the Air Force -- it is not our jurisdiction to discharge her."

So Manhart has tendered her resignation to the Iowa Air National Guard. But Lt. Col. Greg Hapgood, a spokesman for the Iowa National Guard quoted in the AP story, said that because the Guard did not have "documentation of her separation" from the Air Force, it did not have her on duty status.

Sounds like the Iowa Air National Guard wants to conduct its own investigation. And I'll just bet that the necessary "documentation" will include the magazine in question... and all the outtakes... and the negatives....

Meanwhile, pitchers and catchers are reporting to major league training camps in Arizona and Florida. And the Chicago Cubs have opened camp, too.

This is a tough week for White Sox fans like myself: Our pitchers and catchers do not have to report to Tuscon until tomorrow; Cub camp opened Tuesday. So for days now we've been bombarded with Cub bombast by the Chicago media.

But there is one sure sign of Spring in all of this: The first injury to a Cub pitcher. That's Kerry Wood pictured above (You were expecting ex-Sgt. Manhart?). The photo is from the Bloomington Pantagraph; this is a link to the AP story in that paper this morning: It seems that Mr. Wood managed to injure himself getting out of a hot tub in his home. He'll be out of action for the better part of a week.

If you're not from Chicago, that may not be the funniest story of the day -- so how about this story, from New Mexico? Proving once again that there is virtually no idea so idiotic that a government will not waste money on it, the State of New Mexico is spending over $10,000 on talking urinal cakes.

The link is to an Albuquerque TV station; there's a video of this story available there.

The urinal cakes (500 of them at $21 apiece) are being distributed to bars in New Mexico. When a patron steps up to use the urinal for its intended purpose, the cake declaims, "Make the smart choice tonight don't drink and drive remember your future is in your hands."

Your what is in your hands? (And don't blame me for the total lack of punctuation in the foregoing quote; I cribbed that from the KSDK NewsChannel 5 site without change. In television, no one can tell that you failed fifth grade English.)

There may be other pre-recorded messages as well: In clicking around this morning, I've seen several messages; I heard some others on the radio this morning. I am certain that these messages can't all be for real.

This might be one of the actual messages: "Hey, big guy. Having a few drinks? Think you had one too many? Then it's time to call a cab or call a sober friend for a ride home." However, I have my doubts about whether this is an actual message: "Heh. No wonder you drink."

Oh, and did I mentioned that the disembodied voice rising from the urinal is female? That is so wrong on so many levels I can't begin to list them all.

Let's settle for the safest: Women sometimes go to the powder room in groups. Presumably conversations ensue. But there are places and times when a male does not need or want conversation.... The State of New Mexico hopes that men will hear these messages and avoid driving drunk. What I'm afraid will happen is that even more accidents will occur, as drunks with full bladders race home rather than face a talking toilet.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

A real benefit of anonymity -- and -- Why I wasn't allowed to watch the Movies of the Week

Yesterday's announcement (and, no, thank you, not the announcement of my daughter's 23rd birthday, although that's difficult enough in its own way) shows one of the unquestioned benefits of anonymous blogging: It was cathartic for me to say what I said and I was grateful for the nice, supportive messages in the Comments. Thank you.

I certainly can't go around broadcasting that I'm experiencing any technical difficulties to people in the real world: I'm self-employed. Why would you trust your business to someone who is facing a serious health issue -- someone who may become incapacitated and will almost certainly be distracted? No, excessive candor in real life could be very problematic for a guy like me.

Long Suffering Spouse knows. My children still at home know. I've told one friend. And Tuesday afternoon, as it happened, my pastor finally came by the Undisclosed Location to look at the boxes of books that were found among my late colleague's stored files. I'd only just gotten the news from my internist and Long Suffering Spouse wasn't done with school yet and I just had to tell someone -- so my poor pastor knows too.

(Don't let anyone tell you it's easy being a priest; I've come to realize they get saddled with these things -- from out of nowhere -- all too often.)

But there is one funny aspect of this that I've noticed already, and it goes back to my TV-watching childhood.

Back in the day, when there were only three networks, there were a flurry of "Movies of the Week" -- made for TV efforts, never intended for theatrical release. Many of these focused on some loathsome disease.

I couldn't watch these movies.

If the protagonist broke out in green spots, I would feel the green spots in my own skin, ready to erupt to the surface at any moment... probably by the second commercial break. If it was a purple rash, I could feel that too. Shooting pains where? I had those as well, and in the same places. For my own good, I had to stop watching this stuff.

I was reminded of this Tuesday night when, for the first time, I began to feel a dull ache in my stomach. Sort of like the stomachaches Charlie Brown always complained of on the playground. It has nothing to do with my medical condition; I'm quite sure of that, although I'll mention it to the doctor when I see him.

I'm pretty sure this new sensation has much more to do with the old TV Movies of the Week: I know there's a problem, and now I feel it too.

Well, I never said I wasn't a practicing coward....

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Happy Birthday Older Daughter

Today, Older Daughter turns 23. (Now, she's as old as I am).

In honor of Older Daughter's birthday, please dip into this post from the archives.

A rough day

I missed an eye doctor's appointment yesterday; I forgot about it entirely, but I wouldn't have gone even if I'd known about it.

It was that kind of day.

It wasn't the snow. Not that we didn't have a problem here with the weather yesterday: Younger Daughter had a Snow Day and traffic looked unusually miserable from the window of my overcrowded train.

No, I got a phone call from my internist shortly after lunch. I'd just cancelled an appointment with him too, but he wasn't calling to protest.

I'd had a colonoscopy on Groundhog's Day -- and there'd been a problem. The doctor performing the scope had encountered a virtual field of gently swaying polyps. He took a few of the more ominous looking ones -- he couldn't get them all, he said, so he had to make a selection -- and I'd been waiting for the pathology report. I was supposed to get that on Friday... but the report wasn't ready.

No problem, I thought, since I'd scheduled a follow up appointment with the colon doc, Dr. P., for Monday. He'd surely have the results by then... and, if not, he'd probably be able to get them in the course of our appointment. Sunday, however, I got a call at home: Dr. P. had an emergency and would be unable to keep our appointment. I had since rescheduled it to this Friday. But when I asked, Monday, for the pathology results, I was told that I'd have to speak to the doctor directly.

So that's why I'd skipped out on yesterday's appointment with the internist: We were to discuss the outcome of the colonoscopy, and I didn't know all of the outcome yet.

The internist had set me on the road for this latest colonoscopy. Yes, my age suggests that it was pretty near time to get this done in any event. And colon cancer doesn't just run in my family, it fairly gallops: I lost both my parents to the disease.

And I'd had my own bout with polyps 21 years ago, the problems recurring for a few years thereafter before we got everything all straightened out. Or so we'd thought. It took me changing doctors -- to Dr. P. -- to get the condition under control. And my last scope, six years back, was clean as a whistle. Clean as these things get, anyway. It was because of my history that my mother claimed she got her cancer from me: We're not scientists in our family.

The polyps I'd had two decades ago were big -- but they were benign. And I had experienced no recurrence of the symptoms that had prompted me to seek help 21 years ago. Thus, the colonoscopy was on the list of Things to Be Done -- but that's a long and varied list. But late last Fall, just before the Holidays, my internist told me I had blood in my stool -- no anemia, he said, but I'd better move the colonoscopy up on the priority scale. I did. I got it scheduled for mid-January, but Dr. P. was called away... and now you're caught up with me as I took the call yesterday afternoon from my internist.

I hadn't seen the pathology results; my internist assumed that I had. He was calling to discuss the options... because one of the polyps turned out to be cancerous.

Cancer. That's a hard word to write in the first person, as in "I have cancer." But, apparently, I do. Or at least I did.

There's no indication at present that the cancer has spread from the one polyp on which it was discovered. The scope results suggest nothing, at this point, embedded in the walls of my internal tubing. But there's still that gently swaying field of polyps that needs harvesting. Soon.

Long Suffering Spouse was not happy with me. We had a chance to talk privately as she drove me home from the train. "You thought you were so clever," she told me, fighting to keep the emotions tamped down, "twenty-three years ago when you gave me a daughter for Valentine's Day. You said you'd never have to give me another Valentine's Day present again. And now... you've given me this."

If I could figure out how to return this "gift," I would.

I was so optimistic coming into this year. There was a large class of Associate Judges to be selected... I had even begun to entertain hopes that I might be among the finalists. I was not chosen (the announcement having also been made on Groundhog's Day). I answered an ad for a legal management position with a large insurer and received an interview in January. It would have meant leaving courtroom work behind, but I know that must happen sometime unless I became a judge. And the interview went well... but I was not offered the position. I found that out last week.

And now this. I have a really bad attitude at present which is probably not entirely helpful. And if I am a tad introspective in the next few weeks, I hope you'll forgive me.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

From the mailbag -- farmer jokes, little blue pills and phishing expeditions

This first item wasn't sent to me through the mail link with this blog; I got it through one of the Illinois State Bar Association listservs to which I subscribe.

Yes, it's rural humor. People forget that, in terms of area, Illinois is largely an agricultural state. You'd remember it pretty quick if you had to drive from Chicago to Champaign-Urbana, home of the University of Illinois.

And, yes, this is Southern humor as well. In Illinois, once you're south of I-80, you might as well be in the South... and that becomes more and more evident with each passing mile. I don't have a source for this piece; it was posted by a Downstate lawyer without attribution:
TO: Honorable Secretary of Agriculture
Washington, D.C.

Dear Sir:

My friend, Ed Johnson, over in Hawkinsville, Georgia, received a check for $1,000 from the government for not raising hogs. So, since the covenants on the property I recently purchased restrict the raising of any farm animals for commercial purposes and specifically prohibits the raising of any hogs, I figured my place is the best farm in Georgia for not raising hogs on. Therefore I decided that I definitely want to go into the "not raising hogs" business next year.

What I want to know is, in your opinion, what is the best kind of farm not to raise hogs on, and what is the best breed of hogs not to raise? I want to be sure that I approach this endeavor in keeping with all governmental policies. I would prefer not to raise razorbacks, but if that is not a good breed not to raise, then I will just as gladly not raise Yorkshires or Durocs.

As I see it, the hardest part of this program will be in keeping an accurate inventory of how many hogs I haven't raised.

My friend, Johnson, is very joyful about the future of the business. He has been raising hogs for twenty years or so, and the best he ever made on them was $422 in 1998, until this year when he got your check for $1000 for not raising hogs.

If I get $1000 for not raising 50 hogs, will I get $2000 for not raising 100 hogs? I plan to operate on a small scale at first, holding myself down to about 4000 hogs not raised, which will mean about $80,000 the first year. Then I can afford an airplane.

Now another thing, these hogs I will not raise will not eat 100,000 bushels of corn. I understand that you also pay farmers for not raising corn and wheat. Will I qualify for payments for not raising wheat and corn not to feed the 4000 hogs I am not going to raise?

Also, I am considering the "not milking cows" business, so send me any information you have on that, too. By the way, I don't think I will plant any cotton, soybeans, or rice this year either, so if you have any applications for them please be so kind as to slip them into the envelope so I can look them over if it isn't too much trouble.

In view of these circumstances, you understand that I will be totally unemployed and plan to file for unemployment and food stamps. Be assured your party will have my vote in the coming election.

Patriotically Yours,


P.S. Would you please notify me when you plan to distribute more free cheese?
The mailbox here at Second Effort hasn't had anything that funny in it yet. I thought it amusing that "Liz Quintero" and "Rory Burnett" both wrote to tell me about the great prices for "soft tabs" of Viagra. It was certainly considerate of them to let me know about this, but I think these poor folks must have me confused with someone else.

More frightening were the messages I got from "" telling me there's been some unauthorized use of my Paypal account. The email stated, "We recently noticed more [more?] attempts to log in to your PayPal account from a foreign IP address."

Forget about how many attempts have been made. There's foreigners involved. What should I do?

The email offered some helpful advice: I should click on the thoughtfully provided link and "verify" my account.

And there was a warning, too: "If you choose to ignore our request, you leave us no choise but to temporaly suspend your account."

Choise? Temporaly?

Hmmmmm, I thought. Those misspelled words might be a hint that this email was not entirely on the up and up. That and the fact that I do not have a Paypal account. I didn't click on the link. "eBay" was also very concerned about the unauthorized use of my account recently. I do have an eBay name... I can't remember it right now because I've not used it since I got it... but I have one. But it isn't linked to the email account to which the warning was sent.

And this week I had not one but two solicitations from the widows of slain Zimbabwean farmers who want me to help them get their money into America. I've never seen this scam use a Zimbabwean backdrop before. I begin to believe that, eventually, I will receive emails from "grieving widows" like these from every country in the entire world.

Could it be that someone is trying to obtain my personal financial information? Could my identity be at risk?

Actually, I've never been afraid of identity theft. First, who would want to steal a nom de blog? But even with my real identity, I'm not worried: Whoever takes it can't make much more of hash of it than I have.

But the sophistication of these schemes is improving: I received an email from "Bank of America" that was so convincing that, when I go into the bank later this week to pay my charge account, I'll give them the email. If it's for real, they can tell me in person; if not, they need to alert their corporate security.

In the meantime, if you'd like to submit something for the next Mailbag, or if you'd simply like to try and steal my identity along with everyone else, send me an email using the link in the Sidebar. Until then, I'll leave you with this one question:

I have a couple of Yahoo! Mail accounts. As I switch between them during the day, I often get this ad (at left) for Yahoo! Music.

The girl in the ad has headphones on and I assume her arms are raised and her eyes are closed to suggest that she is swaying in blissed out happiness to the music she legally downloaded from Yahoo! Music.

I'm sure that must have been the intention.

But I've looked at this picture a number of times a day now for sometime; it's just something that's there while I'm changing mail accounts. Look at it with me now:

Meaning no offense to the model personally, doesn't it look more like she's in a deodorant commercial than a music ad? I can almost see the thought balloon above her head: "Do I offend?"

Have you had this same thought, too?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Incoherent techno-rant -- or -- Curse you, Windows Media Player 11

OK, so maybe this isn't actually my picture, but it expresses how I feel at just this moment.

This has been building for some time, actually, but the final straws were piled on the camel's back this afternoon as I tried to catch up on my time sheets.

I wanted to listen to music while working.

The music is on my hard drive. My computer is just a little over three years old, ancient I realize by contemporary standards.

But no visitor to these postings can be long unaware that I am not overly enamored of contemporary standards. That which works is fine by me, even if it is not the newest or the coolest. I do not apologize for this.

And my computer was not the coolest kid on the block even when new: It was an off the shelf generic. The only things I look for in a new computer are a generous allotment of RAM according to standards extant on date of purchase and a generous hard drive according to those same standards. That way, I used to think, I'd get full service from the machine until software "improvements" made it necessary to upgrade.

Thank you, Mr. Gates.

I have since learned that I must also look for generous video memory, but I'm not playing games on this poor machine and I don't want to get off the subject here. Indeed, I want to go home.

I have listened to the music on my computer with Windows Media Player 10 for some time. Recently, I had occasion to download Windows Media Player 11.

And I've known no peace since.

The music is no better, and certainly no louder (which no doubt is a consolation to my office mates). But the program takes f....o....r....e....v....e....r to load and it s.....l.....o.....w.....s everything else on the machine down to a snail's pace.

For what?

Now, I can understand that some new programs do new things and require more memory and more storage space. But this program plays music. Just as did its predecessor.

So why in tarnation does it eat up so much of my poor old computer's memory, thus destroying any semblance of performance?

Please answer me, O technogeeks in cyberspace: Why isn't this program more compact, more condensed, more efficient? Wouldn't that constitute progress?

But this is only one of my technical complaints at present: You may have noticed I've added a couple of geegaws to this page. A "Page Rank" button, for example. I read Susan's February 4 post and followed all the links and learned about the evils of "sandboxing" and blogrolling and all sorts of things I didn't know were problematic. One linked article suggested that, if you must link to someone's blog, make sure they're at least a page rank 4 (PR 4). Sounded rather snobby to me... but insecure sort that I am, I had to find out where I stood.

And I was so relieved! I, too, was a PR 4. So I installed the button. To show off, I guess.

And this weekend, when I was checking my email I looked at my blog... and now I was a PR 0.

It was a devastating rejection. What had I done? Who had I offended? (Today, it seems to be a PR 4... but my confidence is shot....)

And then I put in a "subscribe in a reader button" because I read somewhere that this is a way to boost readership. But I have no idea what it does or what subscription means in this context. I visit blogs that visit me -- the ones that link to me first, either in a sidebar or as identified through Technorati. But that involves using a blogroll that makes me "look like a linkfarm." This, apparently is bad. I also visit the blogs of people that leave comments. I haven't been told exactly why this is wrong yet, but I'm sure I'll find an article soon that says this also is right out.

I know I claim to be a dinosaur -- and I prove it from time to time -- but I'm trying to evolve... and this technology, hardware and software alike, seems determined to keep me from keeping up.

Aaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrgggghhhhhh! (*Swinging club now*)

Somebody should tell Al Gore about this

I've just finished reading 1491 by Charles C. Mann. I recommend it to anyone who is concerned about the environment. That should mean everyone.

Mann is not a scientist; he is a journalist reporting about scientific findings. The scientific findings he writes about are not widely known -- indeed, they contradict many of the things we were taught in school.

The basic, overarching theme of Mr. Mann's book is that American Indians did not 'live in harmony' with nature, they engineered it -- and often in ways we (for all our technical sophistication) can only dream of doing.

If Mann is right, Indians were far more numerous, and were in the Americas far longer, than we were taught in school. There may well have been settlers who came across a land bridge in what is now the Bering Strait, but they may have been only one of several waves of immigrants to these shores.

Mann cites the accounts of early explorers who report huge populations in many places in the Americas -- in Mexico, along the Amazon, along the California coast, and in what is now New England. But 130 years after Columbus, when the Pilgrims land at Plymouth Rock, the landscape has changed. It is largely deserted. The native population had already crashed, victims of diseases spread by the earliest explorers for which the natives had no immunities. (Diseases that may have been spread not just by explorers but by the livestock they brought with to support their expeditions.)

What later colonists saw as a pristine wilderness was, in effect, an untended garden. The gardeners were mostly dead. Mann quotes historian Stephen Pyne, "The virgin forest was not encountered in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries... it was invented in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries."

The passenger pigeon, famous symbol of American abundance, whose incredibly large populations were remarked upon by Audobon and so many others, may really have been a sign of severe ecological disruption: It's numbers soared unchecked because of the collapse of a keystone species in the ecology -- homo sapiens.

Mann writes about scientific research which shows that Indians genetically engineered maize (corn) and spread the cultivation of the crop throughout the Americas; that Indians supported huge populations with terrace farming in the Andes; and that Indians created a new soil, terra preta, to replace the naturally poor soils of the Amazon jungle. (The 'slash and burn' agricultural tactics now favored by indigenous peoples in Amazonia may be the product of the introduction of Western steel axes, not a survival of an ancient practice at all.)

It is not that the Indians changed their environments, so much as they improved them -- and improvement in this sense means that the Indians made the environment more useful for themselves. As Mann puts it, "Faced with an ecological problem, the Indians fixed it. Rather than adapt to Nature, they created it." Thus, early American settlers in Ohio were amazed to find forests in which they could drive their carriages -- but, if Mann is right, these were managed forests and the undergrowth had been kept at bay by the original inhabitants. The Amazon jungle was also a managed forest. The Plains Indians managed the Plains -- using deliberately set fires, among other things.

Actually, fire is essential to the life cycle of many prairie plants. Maybe it's because of the Indians' encouragement of these species; maybe it's not. But when the local forest preserve district here in Chicago proposes a controlled burn in a forest preserve to encourage the growth of native plants and eliminate the invasive species that have escaped our gardens and threaten to take over the woods -- the local environmentalists howl.

Not every feat of American Indian engineering was a resounding success.

The Cahokia Mounds in Southern Illinois may be proof of a spectacular environmental failure -- a cautionary tale for those who would bend Nature too far.

And Mann warns against the 'dialog of the deaf.' Writing about the Amazon basin, Mann says, "European and U.S. environmentalists insist that the forest should never be cut down or used -- it should remain, as far as possible, a land without people. In an ecological version of therapeutic nihilism, they want to leave the river basin to its own devices." Mann finds, however, that Brazilians seem less than enthused by this plan: Summarizing the Brazilian position, Mann writes, "To develop your economy, you leveled your forests and carpeted the land with strip malls. Why can't we do the same?" When the Brazilians talk of the need to help their own poor, environmentalists respond by insisting that cutting down the trees will not create wealth but will "only destroy the soil. Turning Amazonia into a wasteland will help no one."

Maybe both sides should be quiet and listen for the voices of the past. If the Amazon basin really supported teeming millions in the past, how was it done? The forest was there; if people were there, too, doesn't that offer us hope that both people and forest can survive there today as well? And what fate befell the Maya? Did they collapse because they overstretched their environment -- or were they victims of climate change? Getting answers to these questions may be critical to our own futures.

Consider adding 1491 to your reading list.

Friday, February 09, 2007

A trend that does not surprise me and a related rant

In an AP story by Jim Ellis posted Wednesday on Yahoo! News we learn that teachers are beginning to see a whole new type of spelling error: The computer/IM/text message abbreviation. The article reports that an increasing number of Orlando, Florida middle school teacher Julia Austin's students are turning in papers using 'words' like "b4," "ur," "2" and "wata" -- words, the article suggests, which "may confuse adults but are part of the teens' everyday lives."

According to Ellis' article, one of Ms. Austin's students, 14 year old Brandi Concepcion, acknowledged that "wit, da and dat — used in place of with, the and that — sometimes creep into her homework." She says she uses these shortcuts in her rough draft -- but tries to "catch" the errors before they creep into her final paper. My Long Suffering Spouse is a teacher; she has had experiences similar to those of Ms. Austin. So when the AP says there's a trend, in this instance, at least, I am inclined to agree.

Other teachers are not so quick to condemn IM-speak: Ellis' article cites David Warlick, 54, of Raleigh, N.C., as suggesting that this trend should instead be celebrated. Warlick has written three books on technology in the classroom -- presumably without using "wit, da and dat" -- but says teachers should credit their students with inventing "a new language ideal for communicating in a high-tech world."

I respectfully dissent.

I use IM's. These provide a very handy way to stay in touch with kids in college. I read the kids' away messages and learn a lot about how they're doing. Of course, the away messages are usually for their peers, not for me -- but too bad for them. And when the kids are on line, I will "talk" to them using IM's. My kids laugh at me because I use complete sentences in IM conversations. But I'm not trying to be funny (necessarily) when I send them IM's. I am merely trying to communicate effectively and accurately.

Anyone reading this blog will be familiar with IM-speak. Many of you sometimes or even regularly use abbreviations or emoticons (those are the smiley faces) in your comments.

You may have noticed that I don't.

It's not that these are bad things: Emoticons are particularly useful. In conversation how words are said are often as important as what words are said. Depending on how they're said, the same words can convey devastating insult or deep affection. It's the tone of voice or the twinkle in the eye or the underlying warm chuckle that helps us evaluate whether to respond to the speaker with an appreciative laugh... or a punch in the nose. And since we can't reproduce those things here -- and plain text can be misleading -- emoticons are used. Sometimes I write stage directions to try and better convey my meaning -- to show I'm not really being mean-spirited.

I am more troubled by the abbreviations so many of us use here in the Blogosphere. It's not that I object to your leaving comments with abbreviations. I'm very needy and will take almost any comment. And, besides, I know what you mean when you leave an abbreviation. Or I think I do. I just don't think that these abbreviations are really very accurate.

It's late Friday now. But on Monday, when you go to work, take the Curmudgeon challenge: Let's find out together how accurate these abbreviations are. When you do your normal blogging routine and you are inclined to leave a comment "LOL," be sure to really laugh out loud. Laugh so the folks can hear you in the adjacent cubicles.

(Heads will being to peer tentatively over the tops of your neighbors' work spaces as you do this. But do not let that stop you. Continue on.)

Now you've found a really funny post. I wish you'd find it here -- but you're probably somewhere else at this point. No matter. You would write "LMAO" in response in the ordinary course. Do so now -- and also really laugh your a** off.

Well, don't physically injure yourself. You have to sit down on something after all. But give out a big, sustained belly laugh for all to hear.

(The heads that had begun to peer tentatively over the tops of your neighbors' work spaces, or around the corner of your office door, may quickly withdraw. You may hear some excited whispering in the background. But we are doing an experiment here, people. Do not be deterred by the buzzing of the Philistines. Keep going.)

Now you've found a truly funny blog. A picture, a story, something that really tickles you. What would you write in this circumstance? Of course! Go ahead and write "ROTFL."

Now do it.

Go on: Roll on the floor and laugh and laugh and laugh.

And, when you get email privileges at the home, drop me a line and let me know how you're doing.

An idea

This is not a roll-out of a new feature; it's more of a trial balloon. Chicago is world-famous for improv comedy. Chicago is the home of the famous improvisational troupe, Second City. Years ago, at the conclusion of performances, members of the cast would return to the stage and request topics from the audience. They would then try and improvise skits then and there on the topics provided. The best of these were often refined and saved and put into the company's next show. For all I know, this is still how they build their shows.

Now we don't interact in real time here. And shouting at your computer will do you no good; you'd have to leave a comment.

But... care to leave a topic? I'll try and take some (as in one or more) of your topics and turn it into a post. It may not be (OK, it almost certainly won't be) as funny as what the improv masters of Second City would come up with... but we might all have some fun with it.

If it doesn't work -- no loss. Regular programming, such as it is, will resume later today anyway because I have to get ready for court now.

And -- if by some happy chance it does work, maybe this can become a regular feature.

Suggestions, anyone?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

More on Lisa Nowak, NASA's fallen star, and on our fall

It was inevitable, I suppose, that America's space bureaucracy would launch a study into the agency's psychological screening processes for astronaut selection after this week's arrest of Astronaut Lisa Nowak on charges of attempted murder. A story reported by AFP quotes NASA deputy administrator Shana Dale as saying the director of NASA's Johnson Space Center, Michael Coats, had been ordered to "initiate a review of existing psychological screening for admittance into the astronaut corps."

The article adds that Dale promised that NASA would also launch an investigation "into the existing process for carrying out psychological assessments during an astronaut's career."

If only NASA could launch spaceships with the same predictability and frequency.

The Lisa Nowak case is another illustration of the "Mom is Always Right" Rule. Your mother and my mother -- everyone's mother -- warned us: Idle hands are the Devil's playground.

Oh, Ms. Nowak surely had plenty of work to do: Committees and meetings and training and testing... for... what, exactly? To go into orbit on the obsolete Shuttle, the space truck, ferrying supplies to the International Space Station? It was work -- but it was not enough to keep Ms. Nowak occupied. She found other things to do.

Here's a news flash: Astronauts are volunteers. They signed up to take risks, not to take meetings. When astronauts are selected to lead America's space effort and then given jobs as bureaucrats -- even as bureaucrats who fly jet trainers in their spare time -- some of them will become frustrated. Some will leave the program. One, now, has apparently cracked under the strain of the contradiction.

I am not a risk taker. I wouldn't even ride a roller coaster on a bet. If I didn't blog so much, I might even make an acceptable bureaucrat. But I say to each their own. Let the astronauts take their risks; let me cringe under my desk every time I hear a siren.

NASA was supposed to get us into space. The agency seems more adept at keeping us out. Frankly, by this time in my life, having grown up with Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, I had hoped that some parts of outer space would already be safe enough for non-risk takers like me. I thought I might someday be a tourist. And I thought it would happen because of the willingness of the Captain Nowaks of the world to blaze the trails for the rest of us.

NASA perhaps is just reflective of our culture: We have become so risk averse, we can't take risks for ourselves -- and we can't let anyone else take risks either. Any risks.

Some illustrations: Many people use cell phones while driving. Certainly we've all seen driving cell phone users who pose a menace to navigation. Because they overuse them. Because they become... distracted. So instead of cracking down on distracted drivers, many cities -- Chicago among them -- have banned everyone from using cell phones while driving.

Now, State Sen. Carl Kruger of Brooklyn, New York, proposes a ban on using cell phones, BlackBerries, iPods, or other electronic devices while crossing a street in New York City because a few people -- in the throes of so-called "iPod oblivion" -- have been injured or killed, walking into a street without paying attention.

Zay N. Smith, in this morning's Quick Takes column in the Chicago Sun-Times reports today that, "Organizers of the annual festival in Hartlepool, England, citing risk assessments, will no longer allow sack races, three-legged races or egg-and-spoon races." Our grandparents were lucky to survive!

And speaking of survival, did your kids survive their rides in grocery carts? Didn't you? Does your family take sick each and every week because of those pesky bacteria lurking from the last unclean users of your shopping cart? Nevertheless, Arkansas is poised to enact a law that will, according to the linked ABC News story, "push grocery stores to provide sanitation wipes at the door so customers don't have to wrap their hands around the last shopper's bacteria."

Let us not pause to assess the actual danger posed: No, researchers at the University of Arizona "found that shopping carts were loaded with more saliva, bacteria and even fecal matter than escalators, public telephones, and even public bathrooms." So let's all say "eeeeeeeeeewwwwwww" and do something about it, no matter how stupid or unnecessary -- or even dangerous.

Last June I did a piece on a news report about a couple of studies which demonstrated that clean living is making us sicker; that our society's unreasoning germ phobia "may be partly to blame for soaring rates of human allergy and asthma cases and some autoimmune diseases, such as Type I diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis." (The link is to my post; the Yahoo! News link therein has since expired.) When we try and cut ourselves off from contact with germs and bacteria we make ourselves weaker and more susceptible to illness in the process.

Just this week I did a post about the recall of nearly a million Easy Bake Ovens because five careless or unsupervised kids got burned.

One final example. Here is a picture of one of the 'devices' that shut down Boston on January 31:

Doesn't 'device' sound like a dangerous word? Oooooooooh. Scary.

I am also informed, from reading several articles, that the extended finger is believed to be a middle finger. Without that information, I might not have recognized that as a finger at all. Nevertheless, younger and more sensitive viewers are cautioned to avert their eyes as necessary.

Apparently someone in Boston thought that, if terrorists were going to plant bombs around a city, they would use bombs in a brightly lighted case depicting someone with middle finger pointed skyward.

Lest you think I've made this up, herewith a picture of the removal of one of the 'suspected terrorist devices':

As a society, we can assess risk to several decimal places -- but, as these illustrations show, we can't evaluate risk worth beans. NASA reflects that societal failing -- and it shouldn't. We need to let the smart people that NASA hires as astronauts determine levels of acceptable risk in space projects... and then really go where no one has gone before... so that we don't wind up, in wig and diaper, going to Orlando.

We'll be waiting for Skittles' message....

One of my favorite comic strips today mentions (if inadvertantly) one of my favorite bloggers.

So -- Barb, leave your message in the comments.


Coming later: More on the sad Lisa Nowak story and an idea for a format makeover and a new feature. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Lisa Nowak's fall -- and NASA's -- and our own

Zay N. Smith, in the Quick Takes column in this morning's Sun-Times, made a joke out of it:
News Item: Judge allows bail for astronaut charged with attempted murder in Florida.

All together now: An astronaut who isn't a flight risk?
And it's a good line, which I wish I'd made up all by myself.

But the tawdry story of Lisa Nowak's love triangle and apparent disintegration provides a kind of metaphor for NASA and our space program in general.

President Kennedy set this nation on course for the Moon in 1961.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin got there in July 1969.

But we didn't stay.

In December 1972 -- nearly 35 years ago -- the Lunar Module Challenger lifted off from the southeastern rim of Mare Serenitatis with Harrison Schmitt, Eugene Cernan, and 243.6 pounds of moon rocks aboard. It was man's last trip beyond low Earth orbit.

Low Earth orbit: That's where the Shuttle goes. That's where the International Space Station flies -- at an altitude of around 191 nautical miles -- about 220 standard issue land miles. That's not much more than the distance between Chicago and Indianapolis (pulling two city names out of the air entirely at random). By comparison, the distance between Earth and the Moon is about 240,000 miles.

The human race got to go clear cross town once (actually, eight times, including six Moon landings) -- but we've been stuck in our backyard ever since.

We have this amazing astronaut corps -- stars among stars -- overachievers among overachievers -- each of them whip smart, brilliant. Use any superlative you want to use and you'll be understating the case.

And we're letting these wonderful people languish. We're letting them go to seed. We fly a Shuttle with 1970's technology. It goes nowhere special. We send our best and our brightest to install plumbing and electric on the space condo.

I suppose it was only a matter of time before the deterioration showed through: Bad things will happen if you keep a race horse hitched to a plow for too long.

The astronauts are the risk takers, the ones who would lead us to the stars if we would only let them. But we hold them back and hold them down and fret about every little thing. We live in a world so timid and fearful that we recall a million Easy Bake Ovens because five careless kids got burned.

So I'm sad today for Lisa Nowak. I'm sad for NASA. And I'm sad for all of us. We're all stuck here in our backyard with no likelihood of kicking open the gate any time soon.

Looking at statistics -- or -- Fun with a pie chart

Here's a pie chart from my Sitemeter page taken yesterday. It shows the countries of origin for people visiting this blog.

Now it's not surprising that most of the 'hits' come from the U.S. This is a big country. I was actually surprised to see that only 6% of my 'hits' come from the U.K. because so many of my repeat offenders are from England or Scotland.

But the pie chart doesn't show how long people stay. Some 9% of my hits come from China -- and never a single comment. So I'm guessing my Chinese visitors are arriving mostly via the "Next Blog" button and departing by the same route. Perhaps my brand of humor doesn't translate well into Chinese.

I was actually surprised to see that 1% of my visitors came from Australia and another 1% from New Zealand. I've never had an Australian or New Zealander leave a comment either and, unlike China, there's no language barrier involved with these countries.

Well, not as much of a language barrier.

But the number that jumped off the page at me was that 3% of my visitors are from an "unknown country." Three per cent is a significant number; that's how many visitors I get from Canada, too.

So it wasn't just an error. I got all excited when I saw that 3% unknown country slice, thinking maybe that I was getting supernatural visitors.

Then I checked my Shakespeare: Hamelet spoke of "the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns."

So that wasn't it. Even if we count Picard as posting from an unknown country (even though I have it on good authority his posts are routed from the 24th Century to England) -- he alone doesn't the entire 3% make. So maybe... maybe the visitors from the unknown countries really are from waaaaaaaaay out of town.

I just wish they'd leave a comment. I wish you would, too.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Who needs comedy with real news stories like this?

According to the AP, Hasbro has recalled nearly one million Easy Bake Ovens "because a girl can burn her hands on them."


On an oven?

Who would have guessed?

Now, back in the day, Easy Bake Ovens came equipped with a socket into which a small light bulb could be inserted. That small bulb provided sufficient heat to... eventually... cook a teeny-tiny cake. The model illustrated here -- apparently the killer appliance in question -- does not appear to be fundamentally different.

Isn't it obvious that one can be burned grabbing a light bulb? Insert your own dim bulb joke here....

Another reason why the Curmudgeon doesn't do politics -- or Blogthings

But just this one time I weakened. I saw one of those "Blogthing" quizzes at Star8278's blog about "Which Muppet Are You?" And I love the Muppets.

Star says she saw the quiz at Skittles' Place. The last Blogthing I saw over there was something about "What Kind of Soul Are You?" But maybe I missed it. And I've gotten in trouble answering these on Barb's blog before. But, as I said, I really like the Muppets... so I took the test... and I was Kermit.


While taking the test, another Blogthing caught my eye. The title? "What Kind of Democrat Are You?" Just for fun I took the test:

You Are 12% Democrat

If you have anything in common with the Democrat party, it's by sheer chance.
You're a staunch conservative, and nothing is going to change that!

Ah, just as you'd expect, you say: Curmudgeon is nothing but a knuckle-dragging, Neanderthal reactionary. (Not, mind you, what I'd expect... but I've been called this and similar names.)

And in taking the test, I saw that an "equal time" test was offered: "How Republican Are You?" I took that test, too. Herewith those results:

You Are 16% Republican

If you have anything in common with the Republican party, it's by sheer chance.
You're a staunch liberal, and nothing is going to change that!

Ah ha! According to this, if I'm not actually a Commie Pinko subversive I'm probably a Fellow Traveller -- or at least a quiche-eating, card-carrying member of the ACLU.


Someone's confused here and I know it's not me. I think it's Blogthings... and both political parties.

We're all Basques here?

My Long Suffering Spouse is of Basque descent, on her father's side, her maiden name having all sorts of z's and u's and i's typical of Basque surnames. Maybe this is why this article so intrigued me.

The link is to an article in the October 2006 issue of Prospect, a British magazine, but I read about it first in the current issue of the Wilson Quarterly.

The thesis of the article is that DNA testing shows that the predominant ethnic group in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales are the Basques.

Apparently the Celts and the Angles and the Saxons and the Romans and the Vikings and the Jutes were all relatively small immigrant groups. They took over in various places -- but eventually intermingled with the local population and, in a genetic sense, were overwhelmed by the natives. The native Basques -- who arrived between 7,500 and 15,000 years ago.

Apparently the Basques were not confined just to the Pyrenees regions of Spain and France, as we think today, but were much more widely spread at one time. Only 12% of the modern population of Ireland (quoting the Wilson Quarterly summary) "descends from migrants who came after the Basques." And that would mean all the English and Scots-Irish and Irish who settled these shores... we're probably all Basques, too.

St. Patrick's Day is just not going to be the same for me this year.

Sure now, does this fella look Basque to you?

Monday, February 05, 2007

Marketing 101 -- How a Super Bowl advertiser turned likely disaster into anticipation

This is a picture of Kevin Federline, copied this morning from the website of Nationwide Insurance Co.

Mr. Federline was briefly famous under his married name, Mr. Britney Spears. He leapt at the chance to become Mr. Britney Spears when the opportunity presented itself, forsaking a woman with whom he had already sired two children without bothering with the niceties of matrimony. If memory serves, he dumped the mother of his two children while his erstwhile lover was carrying the second. He then went on to sire two more children with Ms. Spears.

Not surprisingly, the clock ran out on Federline's 15 minutes of fame as soon as Spears dumped him. His debut rap album sank into oblivion immediately upon release. A celebrity-hungry public that was intrigued by photographs of Ms. Britney Spears with, and then without, Mr. Britney Spears forgot all about him when Ms. Britney Spears was photographed without something else.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, look it up.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, Federline hooked up with Nationwide Insurance. Creative timelines being what they are, the insurance company may not have known that Federline and Spears would be divorced by the time of this year's Super Bowl. Even if the insurer did know of the marital difficulties, it probably didn't figure on Federline so quickly and thoroughly being dropped from the public's imagination. But as the Super Bowl neared, the insurer was stuck with a huge investment in commercial air time and a "star" whose star power was entirely extinguished.

So the insurer and the insurer's ad agency cobbled together a creative concept: They would have their star shoot a rap video... with a "surprise" ending as the manager of a fast food restaurant exhorts fry cook Federline to stop daydreaming and return to his duties.

Cute but forgettable concept -- and any chinless twenty-something with wispy facial hair would have sufficed for the role. And that was all Federline had become, a generic, chinless twenty-something.

So the ad agency had to remind us -- the gullible American public -- who Federline was so that we would "get" the joke behind the joke, that being that the formerly famous Mr. Federline may soon have to secure employment in a fast food establishment unless he able to resurrect his former career... as a pizza delivery person.

So the commercial was "leaked" before the game. And a restaurant association was found -- or invented -- or induced -- to protest that the commercial would "insult the 12.8 million Americans who work in the restaurant industry" by implying "that working in a restaurant is demeaning and unpleasant."

Oooooooh. Controversy. The papers fell right into it -- reporting it just as if were actual news -- so by the third quarter of the Super Bowl, when the ad finally aired, even frumpy middle-aged people such as myself were "in" on the concept.

Now, I'm speculating about what Nationwide knew and when it knew it. However, although there's no telling if Nationwide will sell more insurance because of it, there is no question that this marketing ploy worked brilliantly -- and certainly with less disruption and public panic than the marketing strategy employed on behalf of these three desperate characters. These are the stars of the "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" whose movie ad campaign somehow managed to shut down Boston last week:
But that's a story for a different day.

(And thank goodness for the Super Bowl commercials. There's something to talk about today besides the game.)

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Waiting for the pre-game shows to end

Sr. Jean Kenny predicts the Bears will beat the Colts this evening 30 to 27. She predicted the Bears' victory over the Saints. She only predicted a three point margin there, too. And the Bears won by a lot more than that.

All I know for certain is that two weeks of pre-game programming will finally end in another eight hours.

It is impossible to go anywhere in Chicago and environs today without seeing people dressed in Bears paraphernalia. Bears flags are flying from cars, from front porches. The HDTV vendors have done a land office business these past couple weeks in Chicago, too. From what Older Daughter reports, it is no different in Indianapolis. And Oldest Son was essentially asked by the public authorities to leave the State of Indiana for the weekend. He was here last night, watching hours of documentary features on the '85 Bears on a cable network that he can't get in South Bend. "And we don't get NFL Network or ESPN News," he reports, with the shocked tone a normal person might use on discovering that the rented vacation home does not have running water). Imagine the horrors of not having two more channels with all pre-Super Bowl coverage all the time!

And people wonder why the game seldom lives up to the hype. Nothing could live up to this hype.

But I need to excuse myself and start getting on my game face.

Photos taken from the Chicago Tribune web site.

Friday, February 02, 2007

"Global warming" strikes again -- in Punxsutawney

Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow this morning, meaning winter is just about over.

Climate scientists immediately cited Punxsutawney Phil's prediction as providing further confirmation of their own dire predictions of climate change.

According to the AP story linked above, the scientists who've issued this latest doomsday report believe that "global warming is 'unequivocal,' 'very likely' man-made and will 'continue for centuries' — findings bleaker than its last report in 2001."

I'd believe the weather predictions for the centuries ahead if the weather predictions for this weekend were more reliable. But that's just me.

Cruise ship on the rocks

ANorwegian cruise ship carrying 300 passengers, including 119 Americans, "ran aground near Deception Island in Antarctica on Tuesday."

Maybe they should have watched where they were going instead of looking for the dancing penguins.

No one was hurt in the incident, although the ship's hull was damaged and the passengers had to be transferred to a sister ship, the M/S Nordnorge, making the transfer in small boats usually used for sightseeing. The cruise passengers should be have arrived safely in Ushuaia, Argentina by the time this posts.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

A stunning lunch time incident in a high school cafeteria

High school students in Westerville, Ohio must need more homework. Or maybe streaking is coming back. Consider this story reported by the AP on January 29 concerning an incident in the Westerville North High School Cafeteria. (The link is to the CNN website.)

A Westerville student, Taylor Killian, stripped off his clothes, greased himself up, and ran through the school cafeteria "screaming and flailing his arms."

The story says that Killian was also sporting long hair and a full beard; it does not say whether these were his own, or whether he was disguising his more usually visible parts.

Either way, the police officer assigned to the cafeteria didn't recognize him as a student.

Is this the norm now? That police officers are assigned to school cafeterias? If you eat your peas with a knife are you at risk of arrest?

But I digress: The story continues that police officer didn't recognize the hairy, naked, greased up student because the police officer was usually assigned to a middle school.

I don't know why that's relevant. I mean, if the regular police officer had been there, would he have looked up and said, "Oh, that's just crazy Taylor again," and gone back to his crossword puzzle?

Substitute cop or not, when young Taylor failed to heed an administrator's call to stop (apparently by making "a sexual gesture"), the police officer intervened and tasered the kid. (The AP story says only that the police used a stun gun; that the stun gun was in fact a Taser is ascertained from a UPI story on the incident. Lest you think that the Curmudgeon does not exhaustively research these stories.)

Stun gun or Taser, the kid was not stopped by the first jolt. He got up and kept running, and had to be stunned again. The second jolt did the trick; Taylor's run was terminated. The UPI story quotes Police Lt. John Petrozzi as saying "His exposure, no pun intended, was very limited once he was gotten under control."

The policemen in Westerville have Tasers and a sense of humor. Although they did put Taylor in jail, charging him with "inducing panic, public indecency, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct."

Well, actually, they'd already 'charged' him with the stun gun. So these would be additional charges.

The AP story also says that school officials said there was no indication, in Taylor's case, of a medical problem or substance abuse. Other, of course, than his stripping naked, greasing himself up, flailing his way through the cafeteria, and not staying down the first time he got hit with the stun gun. Unless that's just the way those kooky, nutty kids in Westerville usually let off steam.

Is there some way to blame this on trans-fats or something?

An age of change, or changing my age

I know so many of you are busy with your Groundhog's Day preparations, so I'll keep this short.

Short for me, anyway.

This February, Older Daughter will turn 23. That's fine for her -- but that's the age I've been using for... well, for a long time.

So at my next birthday, if I turn 23 again, it may seem strange (to some) that I have a child who's my age.

I admit, it has been getting harder and harder to persuade people that I really am 23. People used to ask, "What about the gray hair?" And I would say, well, I'm one of the Black Irish; we tend to gray early.

Now, though, they just laugh.

And when I explain that I went to grade school in the '60's and learned the New Math, and, using that, and Set Theory, I can prove that I'm 23, they laugh all the harder. Especially the ones who went to grade school in the 80's. Of course, they didn't have New Math, so what do they know?

People thought, when Older Daughter was 17 or 18, that I must be claiming to have been six or five when she was born. "New Math!" I say -- but they laugh again and I admit that, well, I was a child bride.

"Uh, weren't you the groom?" they retort.

Everyone's so picky.

So I suppose I'll have to start thinking about choosing a different age, although I don't see why. My mother claimed to be 21 until she died, many years after I stopped at 23. She didn't even have the benefit of the New Math.

But now when I get carded, people ask if I want the Senior Discount.

Once, when I was out with Older Daughter, a kid in a fast food restaurant applied the Senior Discount to my tab. He just assumed I was of age; he didn't ask. Older Daughter said I should complain. "Why?" I asked. "I just saved $1.42."

I could agree to turn 50 on my next birthday -- but that seems too old for me. It would be like admitting that the first third of my life was over.

So I'm thinking: Should I agree to turn 24 next time around? Or go all the way to 29?