Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year!

Different cultures observe their New Years at different times of the year. Generally, the New Years dates are linked to seasons, solstices, or equinoxes.

The celebration of January 1st as the start of the new year for consular service was established by the Romans around 153 B.C. Julius Caesar kept January 1st as New Years day when he instituted his Julian calendar in 45 B.C. We in the West have adhered to this New Years date for over 2000 years, long after the Roman consular service ceased to exist. (Bureaucracies may die but their influence lives on.)

Jewish New Year

Rosh Hashanah (literally, head of the year) is a fall New Years and was observed on September 21, 2009.

Chinese New Year or Lunar New Year (also Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese New Year)

Chinese New Year usually falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice. For this year, the date is February 14, 2010 (year of the tiger).

Persian New Year

Nowruz marks the first day of spring and the beginning of the year in the Iranian calendar. It is celebrated on the day of the astronomical vernal equinox, which usually occurs on March 21.

Indian New Year (various)

Most parts of India observe a spring New Year around April 14th. Other parts (especially the Gujarati area in the northwest corner of India) observe a fall New Year in October/November.

Blogging Goal for 2010

For 2010 I plan to move my blogging emphasis toward journalism. The goal will be to favor longer, more formal articles instead of the offhand commentary and literary tidbits of 2009.

Too often this past year (including tonight) I have had to eke out topics in a frenzy to make my monthly quota of posts. This turned a pastime into a burden. I want to avoid late nights hunched over the keyboard to meet a self-imposed deadline.

The world is full of interesting things. I will be searching out my little corner of the world for meaty subjects. But I'll probably still indulge myself from time to time with quips and funny photographs and little stories as well. Onward!

Blogging during 2009

I have achieved my goal of averaging 16 blog posts per month during 2009. One can quibble that some of the posts were skimpy, but that is no matter: I did not specify a standard for length or quality.

I did a quick survey of the post titles during 2009 and found that the great majority of posts fell into the following categories.

Things that I observed on local walks, on vacations, and at concerts: 90 posts
Book extracts and news items that interested me: 50 posts
Posts relating to my own opinions, preferences, and quirks: 15 posts
My younger son's music career: 12 posts
Work-related topics: 11 posts
Religious subjects: 5 posts
Short fiction pieces: 4 posts

I had hoped for a great groundswell of attention and acclaim for my blog in 2009. This did not occur. However, I was pleased to garner one blog follower.

Two of my posts, both posted on July 19th, attracted minor notoriety. The first post (Domestic Engineering) showed a picture of a grocery sack taped to an air conditioning vent in my kitchen. The purpose of this jerryrig was to help cool off the old refrigerator's heat exchange coils during the hot summer days. A link to this post was given in an on-line engineering magazine.

The other post (Advice for General Motors) was my biggest hit of the year. The post compared Tom Swift's 1910 electric runabout to the new Chevrolet Volt. The post was first referenced in an automobile blog. From there the post was picked up in the daily topics column of an on-line automobile magazine called Then, for one day, the automobile section of Business Week's website carried a link to my post. It was the zenith of my blogging career.

I intentionally downplayed short fiction this year and only wrote 4 pieces:
The Man Who Spoke in Paragraphs 12/28
Tinker Bell takes a job 11/28
Dirty tricks in the health care biz 10/13
Fear Not 6/16/09

All in all, blogging during 2009 was pleasant and gave me a useful taste of writing discipline. I now have a heightened respect for columnists. If I myself had to meet unending weekly deadlines, I would soon be out of ideas and out of a job.

Social Cohesion and the News

From Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America (1840):

When men are no longer united among themselves by firm and lasting ties, it is impossible to obtain the co-operation of any great number of them unless you can persuade every man whose help you require that his private interest obliges him voluntarily to unite his exertions to the exertions of all the others. This can be habitually and conveniently effected only by means of a newspaper; nothing but a newspaper can drop the same thought into a thousand minds at the same moment. A newspaper is an adviser that does not require to be sought, but that comes of its own accord and talks to you briefly every day of the common weal, without distracting you from your private affairs.

Newspapers therefore become more necessary in proportion as men become more equal and individualism more to be feared. To suppose that they only serve to protect freedom would be to diminish their importance: they maintain civilization. I shall not deny that in democratic countries newspapers frequently lead the citizens to launch together into very ill-digested schemes; but if there were no newspapers there would be no common activity. The evil which they produce is therefore much less than that which they cure.


The more equal the conditions of men become and the less strong men individually are, the more easily they give way to the current of the multitude and the more difficult it is for them to adhere by themselves to an opinion which the multitude discard. A newspaper represents an association; it may be said to address each of its readers in the name of all the others and to exert its influence over them in proportion to their individual weakness. The power of the newspaper press must therefore increase as the social conditions of men become more equal.

I think that de Toqueville's assessment is fundamentally sound. Democracy requires social cohesion; social cohesion requires a shared national perspective among the citizenry.

Today there is no mass medium that speaks for the common weal. In most cities the major newspapers are nearly bankrupt and reduced to the level of USA Today in mainly reporting on sports, weather, and celebrity scandals. The handful of news magazines worth reading (U.S. News and World Report, for one) reach few households. Television news programming, to the extent that it can even be said to cover news in the form of fragmented segments, is partisan and untrustworthy. Worse yet is the lowbrow entertainment of talk radio.

As the old foundations of social cohesion -- religion, Western culture, and objective news reporting -- lose their influence, we should expect increasing divisiveness and volatility in politics and increasing disregard for civility in everyday life.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Goose stepping

Yesterday I was out for a walk in a nearby park and saw twenty geese with their heads all buried in the snow, scratching at the grass underneath for food. The scene would have made a perfect photograph for the old Grit farm newsletter of years past. The caption might have read:

Geese take a tip from the ostrich

Or perhaps:

A goose needs to keep a cool head

Or, in a macabre vein, alluding to recent reports of cattle mutilations:

Goose heads taken by strange visitors from space?

Unfortunately, I had left my digital camera at home yesterday and lost my chance to take the shot.

In hopes of a second chance, I took the camera with me to the park this afternoon. When I arrived, I was pleased to find a hundred geese assembled. I moved up the sidewalk slowly (to avoid disturbing the geese) and carefully (to avoid the abundant droppings). I took several practice photographs (one provided above) and then planned my move out into the field, to where the snow hadn't been trampled and the geese were still able to bury their heads in soft snow.

A middle-aged woman came power-walking up the sidewalk behind me. I turned, smiled, and said, "Watch your step."

She snapped, "I intend to." Then she shot past me -- head up, arms pumping, and hips rocking -- heedless of the goose poop. She instantly spooked the geese. They squawked, lifted white-feathered wings, and took flight. My photo shoot was ruined.

As I watched her march into the distance, I treasured the compensations of solitary bachelorhood.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Man Who Spoke in Paragraphs

The little hall was packed with fifty people, mostly weedy young men and badly dressed young women inclining to untidy hair. They were the city's artistic set, the college-educated paupers that stocked shelves and waited tables by day and then flocked nightly to dingy venues for experimental rock music or poetry readings. Tonight they had flocked to see a man who was creating a local sensation. He spoke in the old style: using complete paragraphs.

The lights dimmed. The man walked to center stage, sat on a chair, and began to speak. "A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me.' So he divided unto them his living."

Twenty cell phones lit up. Quick fingers tapped out tweets and posted them to the internet. The tweets were variations on "Early inheritance speeds the exchange of wealth between generations." The twenty people left the hall, happy to have received an insight without a burdensome investment of time and attention.

The man continued, "And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country and there wasted his substance with riotous living."

This provoked another twenty tweets. "Foreign travel and getting wasted can be a real riot." And these twenty additional people vacated the hall in favor of more lively amusements.

The man continued, "And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land, and he began to be in want. And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed his swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat."

Six more tweets were uploaded to the internet: "It's important to get outdoors and enjoy nature. Also, get plenty of fiber in your diet." The six twitterers slipped from the hall.

All that remained was a remnant of four people at the back. Evidently, these four were out of step with the pace of modern life. They stayed behind and listened to every paragraph.

* * * * *

The description of "weedy young men and badly dressed young women inclining to untidy hair" was lifted from Chapter 2 of Mr. Standfast, John Buchan's action novel published in 1919. The description is still apt, although now the attribute of untidy hair applies equally to both sexes.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Peripatetic Blogging

I have neglected my walking of late and have consequently fallen behind in my blogging. The walking and the blogging are tightly connected. If I don't get out and walk, I lack things to observe and comment upon and, more importantly, my mind has difficulty seizing upon ideas. When I sit quietly, my mind goes blank. But as I walk in the world, ideas mysteriously come to my consciousness like bubbles rising to the surface of a pond from the shadowy depths.

The relationship between perambulation and cogitation has a long history. In 335 B.C. Aristotle founded the peripatetic school of philosophy, so-called from the walkways or colonnades (peripatoi) of the Lyceum gymnasium in Athens. Aristotle, according to some later histories, would conduct his lectures while strolling with his students.

The dependence of thought on sensory impressions was recognized by St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. From the teachings of the peripatetic philosophers, Thomas Aquinas adopted the Peripatetic Axiom: "Nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses."

In the modern era, there have been divergent opinions about how walking affects thinking. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) saw the value of observing nature during a walk but discouraged deep thinking and mulling over ideas. Rather, he saw walking as a way to give the mind rest. He summarized his views in an 1785 letter:

"The object of walking is to relax the mind. You should therefore not permit yourself even to think while you walk. But divert your attention by the objects surrounding you. Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far. The Europeans value themselves on having subdued the horse to the uses of man. But I doubt whether we have not lost more than we have gained by the use of this animal. No one has occasioned so much the degeneracy of the human body. An Indian goes on foot nearly as far in a day, for a long journey, as an enfeebled white does on his horse, and he will tire the best horses. There is no habit you will value so much as that of walking far without fatigue."

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) held a differing opinion. He asserted, "All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking."

I fear that I have to depart from the great Jefferson and side with Nietzsche on this matter, although in general I find Nietzsche's philosophy distasteful and wish that he had done a great deal more walking before he put his thoughts to paper.

In my experience, walking awakens the mind and begets ideas. At least those are my thoughts right now after a short stroll to the post office. If I had walked farther, I would probably have better insights to share.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Puritan Christmas

This year my Christmas festivities were very modest, comparable to Puritan practice in seventeenth-century England.

Puritan political influence made Parliament pass the following law in June 1647:

Ordinance for Days of Recreation, in Lieu of Holidays.

“Forasmuch as the Feasts of The Nativity of Christ, Easter, Whitsuntide, and other Festivals, commonly called Holy-days, have been heretofore superstitiously used and observed: Be it Ordained, by the Lords and Commons in Parliament assembled, That the said Feasts of The Nativity of Christ, Easter, and Whitsuntide, and all other Festival-days commonly called Holy-days, be no longer observed as Festivals or Holidays, within this Kingdom of England and Dominion of Wales."

The Puritans sought to ban Christmas because of its Roman Catholic associations (as Christ's Mass) and because of the season's scandalous, carnival-like revelry that fostered drunkenness, gluttony, and fornication. For the Puritans, Merry Olde England had gotten a bit too merry under the reign of Charles I.

My own sedate Christmas observance was not a reaction against either Roman Catholicism or excessive partying. The day was cold and snowy, and it was simply more convenient to have a quiet dinner at home with my younger son. In keeping with the New Testament origins of the Christian Church, we dined on simple Jewish fare: lentil soup and Hebrew National hot dogs.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A slip on the ice

As I was crossing an icy street yesterday, my feet slipped and I went down hard, flopping on my right side. After I got my wind back, I carefully regained my feet. There was no damage done, but I found myself in the grip of the following phobias:

Agyrophobia : Fear of crossing the street
Ambulophobia : Fear of walking
Barophobia : Fear of gravity
Basophobia : Fear of inability to stand
Chionophobia : Fear of snow
Pagophobia : Fear of ice or frost
Traumatophobia : Fear of injury

Perhaps I'll take ski poles with me on my next walk.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Another dash of Ambrose Bierce

A little gem of a fable by Mr. Ambrose Bierce:

The Overlooked Factor

A Man that owned a fine Dog, and by a careful selection of its mate had bred a number of animals but a little lower than the angels, fell in love with his washerwoman, married her, and reared a family of dolts.

"Alas!" he exclaimed, contemplating the melancholy result, "had I but chosen a mate for myself with half the care that I did for my Dog I should now be a proud and happy father."

"I'm not so sure of that," said the Dog, overhearing the lament. "There's a difference, certainly, between your whelps and mine, but I venture to flatter myself that it is not due altogether to the mothers. You and I are not entirely alike ourselves."

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Fearful Symmetry

I have never been happy with William Blake's use of the word "symmetry" in his poem The Tyger from his 1794 Songs of Experience:

"TYGER, tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?"

I think that he means proportions instead of symmetry. The word "proportions" would louse up the meter, it is true; but even a mystic needs to observe accepted word definitions.

This symmetry/proportions confusion was perpetuated in the Doc Savage pulp fiction series (1933-1949) by Lester Dent, writing under the house name of Kenneth Robeson. Doc Savage was described in the first novel:

"The big bronze man was so well put together that the impression was not of size but of power! The bulk of his great body was forgotten in the smooth symmetry of a build incredibly powerful."

Or am I doing Lester Dent an injustice? Perhaps he was making a subtle literary reference to Blake's tyger in describing the Man of Bronze.

At any rate, mere bodily symmetry of man or beast is unlikely to provoke fear, as in: "Horrors, that man's right side is the mirror image of his left side!"

However, slavish pursuit of symmetry in architecture can produce, if not fear, at least a sense of coldness and sterility. I have been considering what new domicile I might purchase next year and am not inclined to choose one that looks like the architect designed half the building and then got lazy and did a cut-flip-paste using his computer software to finish the design. If I purchased one of the left-side townhouse units in the above complex, I worry that I would be expected to live like the person in the corresponding right-side unit. A fearful symmetry indeed!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A dash of Ambrose Bierce

The Oxford Book of Essays included a short comic essay by Ambrose Bierce that I had never encountered. The essay is called Disintroductions. I enjoy Bierce's style, which manages to be both highfalutin and peppery. Here is the first part of the essay:

The devil is a citizen of every country, but only in our own are we in constant peril of an introduction to him. That is democracy. All men are equal; the devil is a man; therefore, the devil is equal. If that is not a good and sufficient syllogism, I should be pleased to know what is the matter with it.

To write in riddles when one is not prophesying is too much trouble: what I am affirming is the horror of the characteristic American custom of promiscuous, unsought and unauthorized introductions.

You incautiously meet your friend Smith in the street; if you had been prudent you would have remained indoors. Your helplessness makes you desperate and you plunge into conversation with him, knowing entirely well the disaster that is in cold storage for you.

The expected occurs: another man comes along and is promptly halted by Smith and you are introduced! Now, you have not given to the Smith the right to enlarge your circle of acquaintance and select the addition himself; why did he do this thing? The person whom he has condemned you to shake hands with may be an admirable person, though there is a strong numerical presumption against it; but for all that the Smith knows he may be your bitterest enemy. The Smith has never thought of that. Or you may have evidence (independent of the fact of the introduction) that he is some kind of thief -- there are one thousand and fifty kinds of thieves. But the Smith has never thought of that. In short, the Smith has never thought. In a Smithocracy all men, as aforesaid, being equal, all are equally agreeable to one another.

That is a logical extension of the Declaration of American Independence. If it is erroneous, the assumption that a man will be pleasing to me because he is pleasing to another is erroneous too, and to introduce me to one that I have not asked nor consented to know is an invasion of my rights -- a denial and limitation of my liberty to a voice in my own affairs. It is like determining what kind of clothing I shall wear, what books I shall read, or what my dinner shall be.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Casino Night

My employer held the annual Year End Employee Recognition Event (aka Casino Night) last Friday. Apart from a few secular Christmas tunes such as "I'll be home for Christmas" from the combo playing light jazz background music, the yuletide spirit had been completely expunged from the central plaza at the Marriott and replaced by the Las Vegas spirit. The craps table was mobbed by my fellow workers and their spouses. Every seat was filled at the poker and blackjack tables. These merry gamblers were playing for points rather than cash, and whoever had the highest point total at the end of the night stood to win a cheap gift card. Despite the paltry payoff, gambling fever ran rampant, followed closely by intoxication. One colleague, already deep in his cups at the start of the festivities, reached over to give me a friendly pat on the back, missed me by a foot, and nearly toppled to the floor. He mumbled something about dark suits and optical illusions before wishing me well and drifting away into the crowd.

Here is a saying worthy of note: If you stick around long enough, you see everything there is to see. This is why I left the party at 9:30 p.m.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Early stages of house hunting

Mortgage rates are low and housing prices have sagged. It is a good time for me to shop for a house, but I am bewildered by all of the alternatives and considerations.

I tend to over-think the process. For me, a house is the stage scenery for my life, conducted as an ongoing amateur theatrical production (typically more comic than dramatic). I want my house to provide the right setting, the ideal being Sherlock Holmes's bachelor quarters with a few discreet modern enhancements such as central air. As an actor of limited range, even in my own autobiographical show, I depend on my surroundings to complete my image. Put me in an Italian villa, I can toss off bon mots like a young William Powell. Put me in a nondescript suburban townhouse (that is, right here) and I have trouble constructing complete sentences. With so much self image riding on the choice of the right house, it is no wonder that I get stagefright thinking about it.

I browse the internet realty sites and puzzle over whether I want a shack in the upscale zipcode area or a 3000 sq. ft. fixer-upper in the high-crime zipcode area. Given my longtime antipathy to yard work, do I really want a single-family house? On the other hand, given my experience with apartment neighbors that have been noisy or, even worse, obsessive about enforcing perfect silence, do I really want to share a common wall with another homeowner? I have no idea what to choose, and I can easily work myself into an existential crisis over it.

My younger son is lobbying for a house with vaulted ceilings. He says that a spacious living room with wall surfaces at irregular angles is the optimal space for recording music tracks with violin, guitar, or bass. He would be content living in an aircraft hangar, a medieval chapel, or a hall of mirrors.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


I attended yet another retirement party this evening. I stopped by a local restaurant to sample some buffet food (including jalapeno poppers with a bite that bordered on the radioactive) and to join my fellow employees in wishing a colleague a bonny departure from the company.

The occasion didn't have the gravity of an old-time retirement sendoff, which traditionally was an important milestone on the way to senescence and decline. The retiree, a relative youth of my own age, was taking early retirement to cash in on a lucrative pension lump sum (i.e., pension money distributed in the form of a single present-value amount rather than as a monthly annuity) before hopping back into the workforce as a consultant. Still, it was fitting to honor his years of service.

At my company, about two dozen workers my age have yanked the retirement ripcord during the past two months. This exodus was provoked by a lump sum calculation modification that goes into effect on January 1st and drops the payoff by about 15%. My own financial circumstances make early retirement unappetizing, so I hope to continue in my current job for another decade or so. I have run the numbers a hundred times and am convinced that is the best plan for me. All the same, when I see all these people my age leaving the company, I feel a bit like a student being held back to repeat a grade. The urge to conform with the behavior of one's age group is very powerful.

I will have to get used to being a corporate Methuselah.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Musical Expectations and Resolutions

I am writing the first part of this blog entry at 7:00 p.m., shortly before leaving for my younger son's concert at a local pizzeria/bar/music venue. He will be playing violin accompaniment to/with/for a singer/songwriter/guitarist friend of his. I have seen the friend sing and play his acoustic guitar before in an entertaining rock/blues/pop set.

I expect that sprinkling violin phrases on the songs will provide a noticeable, but not striking, improvement: say, an increase of 20% in aesthetic interest. If my son and the friend had restructured the songs to perform as equal partners instead of a lead performer and a sideman, a truly exciting breakout concert might have been possible.

I am leaving now. I anticipate a pleasant concert.


I'm back home at 11:00 p.m. My son's concert was better than anticipated. His long, soulful violin phrases on the slower songs were quite effective: I'd say that he provided a boost of 40% or so in aesthetic interest for these songs. (Take my percentages with a grain of salt, of course.) But pretty playing only gets you so far. It was on the faster, hard-edged rock songs that he really added some punch. For me, the highlight of the set was when he matched the bottleneck guitar growl for growl on one hot number. It was a very balanced and enjoyable set by two enthusiastic musicians.

I stayed to listen to the headliners, a London-based indie band called One eskimO, whose set was a tuneful soundtrack to an animated film. The film told the story of two young Eskimo lovers who were separated and then tormented by the wiles of an evil sorcerer. But by perseverance, hope, and the help of trusty friends, the young Eskimo man endured all trials and attacks and was reunited with his lost love.

The band's pop melodies -- by turns wistful or sunny, to complement the film action -- reminded me of Harry Nilsson's The Point.

I took my leave when the film ended and the band took a much needed break for water and oxygen. (London, after all, is only 80 feet above sea level.) My son no doubt will stay and hobnob with these musical comrades from across the Atlantic.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Preparing for a long winter's read

Winter is coming. In Iowa, the most typical winter scene is a field of ragged corn stalks. Corn stalks are hard to come by in the city, so I have substituted a photograph of ornamental grasses growing beside a nearby highway on-ramp.

I customarily prepare for the coming of winter by accumulating a list of books that I can read when the weather is particularly bad. This year my list begins with books by two of my younger son's favorite authors: Orhan Pamuk and Peter Hoeg. The list continues with Beowulf, the second part of Don Quixote, whatever Italo Calvino stories I haven't read yet, and the Amber sci-fi anthology by Roger Zelazny. Bring on the blizzards!

Nightingales and strumpets

I am reading The Oxford Book of Essays, a fat volume that starts with Francis Bacon writing loftily about Truth in 1625: 'What is Truth?' said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer. The book ends with Clive James sneering at the popular fiction of Judith Krantz in 1980: To be a really lousy writer takes energy. The average novelist remains unread not because he is bad but because he is flat.

In the early 1700s, the great essayist Joseph Addison set the standard for the casual English essay. The depth, precision, and humanity of Addison are represented in the book by four of his Spectator essays. My favorite of the four, Sir Roger at Vauxhall, tells of the writer of the Spectator essays accompanying his friend Sir Roger de Coverley to Spring-Garden. An excerpt:

We were now arrived at Spring-Garden, which is exquisitely pleasant at this time of year. When I considered the fragrancy of the walks and bowers, with the choirs of birds that sung upon the trees, and the loose tribe of people that walked under their shades, I could not but look upon the place as a kind of Mahometan paradise. Sir Roger told me it put him in mind of a little coppice by his house in the country, which his chaplain used to call an aviary of nightingales. 'You must understand (says the knight), there is nothing in the world that pleases a man in love so much as your nightingale. Ah, Mr. Spectator! the many moonlight nights that I have walked by myself, and thought on the widow by the music of the nightingale!' He here fetched a deep sigh, and was falling into a fit of musing, when a mask, who came behind him, gave him a gentle tap upon the shoulder, and asked him if he would drink a bottle of mead with her? But the knight being startled at so unexpected a familiarity, and displeased to be interrupted in his thoughts of the widow, told her, 'She was a wanton baggage,' and bid her go about her business.

We concluded our walk with a glass of Burton ale, and a slice of hung-beef. When we had done eating ourselves, the knight called a waiter to him, and bid him carry the remainder to a waterman that had but one leg. I perceived the fellow stared upon him at the oddness of the message, and was going to be saucy; upon which I ratified the knight's command with a peremptory look.

As we were going out of the garden my old friend, thinking himself obliged, as a member of the Quorum, to animadvert upon the morals of the place, told the mistress of the house, who sat at the bar, 'that he should be a better customer to her garden, if there were more nightingales and fewer strumpets.'

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Tinker Bell takes a job

Worsening unemployment had reached even Neverland. Tinker Bell and two of the Lost Boys were laid off. The Lost Boys moved to Florida and got work cleaning cruise ships. Tinker Bell moved to Denver to stay with her aunt and started searching the want ads and applying for jobs.

And so it was that Tinker Bell found herself interviewing for a job as a dental hygienist.

She arrived promptly at the dental office, darted through the doorway when a patient opened the door, and landed on the receptionist's counter. "Good morning, I'm here to see Dr. Sanderson," Tinker Bell announced.

"Hi, I'm Alice. I schedule appointments for Dr. Sanderson. He'll be out in a minute. He's extra busy because we're shorthanded right now. Would you like a cup of coffee?" The receptionist laughed and added, "I'm sorry. A drop of coffee is what I mean to say."

Tinker Bell smiled politely and said, "No, thank you. I'm already so nervous that I'm buzzing like a hummingbird."

"Relax, dear. Dr. Sanderson was very impressed with your resume. He considers you dependable. That's very important here. You'll be replacing a fairy girl from Whateverland who was always late to the work. The girl before her was a young Irish fairy from the leprechaun tribe – a sweet kid really, but the sight of gold made her crazy. She ended up prying loose a patient's gold filling and running off. Oh, here he comes now."

A cheerful dentist in his late fifties entered the reception area. "Good morning, I'm Dr. Sanderson. Please follow me, Miss Bell." He led her back to his office. She flew right behind him at shoulder level. He took his seat behind the desk and said, "Make yourself comfortable."

Tinker Bell landed on the polished desktop, skidded, and had to flap her wings hard to avoid a pratfall . She recovered her dignity and marched over to take a seat on a pad of post-it notes. She smoothed her skirt over her knees and then looked up at Dr. Sanderson expectantly.

"I'm happy to say that your references checked out fine, Miss Bell."

"Oh, please call me Tink. That's what my friends call me."

"Well, Tink, you got an especially favorable recommendation from this Mr. Pan. I'm convinced that you will be a valuable addition to our team and want to offer you a job as dental hygienist."

Tinker Bell kept a businesslike expression on her face but her wings flared up, giving away her elation. "Thank you, sir. I accept."

Dr. Sanderson, by reflex, started to extend his hand for a handshake but caught himself. "So, are you able to start work tomorrow?"

"Yes, I can be here tomorrow."

"Excellent. I'll have Alice schedule a morning session for you with Mary, our trainer. Mary's a wood nymph, a really great lady." Dr. Sanderson reached into a desk drawer and pulled out a tiny metal object shaped like a T. "Have you ever used this kind of dental pick, Tink?" He placed it, ever so carefully, into her hands.

"No, sir," she said as she examined it.

"It's like a miniature geologist's hammer. We have them specially made by gnomes in Switzerland. It has a knurled handle for a sure grip."

Tinker Bell, who was sensitive to language, had to suppress a giggle. "Knurled" reminded her of "gnarly", which reminded her of the slang that the Lost Boys used. "It's a beautiful tool," she said.

"You'll also be given galoshes for secure footing within the patient's mouth. Of course, in accordance with OSHA dental safety practices, you'll be on a tether attached to the patient's incisor whenever you are cleaning the back molars. Needless to say, we don't want you anywhere near the esophagus, do we?"

"No, sir."

"There is one other matter that I always take care to emphasize to our fairy hygienists, Tink."


"You must always be careful of your wings. If you should ever brush against the patient's palate, the patient might cough. That could be dangerous."

"I'll be careful."

"I'm sure you will, Tink. Oh, one more thing. We are putting a new sign out front and we want the community to know that we're on the cutting edge of dentistry and employing the best dental hygienists in the world. Therefore, it makes sense to put a picture of a fairy on the sign. Our other hygienist, Marie, is lady of mature years, quite matronly, and doesn't, um -- well, I'm sure you understand. What I'm trying to say is, would you consider letting us use your picture, Tink?"

Tinker Bell's wings flattened against her body. "Oh sir! I can't possibly –"

Dr. Sanderson raised his hands in a gesture of apology. "I don't want to distress you, Tink. If a picture is too much to ask, would you at least consider allowing us to use your silhouette?"

She put her head down, avoiding Dr. Sanderson's eyes. "I don't know, sir."

"Just think about it. That's all I ask. You can give me your answer later."

"Okay, I'll think about it."

Thanksgiving hospitality

My younger son and I were invited to the home of friends for Thanksgiving dinner. After a stressful period at work recently, it was a true blessing for me to enjoy their hospitality.

By the time that dinner was over and we were all enjoying cheesecake, pie, and ice cream, I felt refreshed and at peace. This should come as no surprise. After all, the word "stressed" spelled in reverse is "desserts".

Friday, November 27, 2009

Beached and becalmed

It was a perfect day for sailing at the reservoir except for two things: all of the boats had been pulled ashore (see above) and there was no breeze. The stillness of the air was demonstrated when a father fired off a model rocket to entertain his young children. The rocket went up a hundred feet, popped its parachute, and then gently descended, landing within five feet of the launching pad.

I walked past the Yacht Club. The word "yacht" has always bothered me. Derived from the Dutch "jacht" and its earlier form "jaghte" from a root related to hunt or pursuit, "yacht" has a pronunciation that has clearly been garbled somehow. It seems to me that the word should be pronounced "yockt". As far as I can determine, "yacht" is the only widely used English word with the silent "ch". (I don't count the word "chtonic", which is rarely used outside of literary or theological circles.)

Weed Sculpture

The photograph is of Christopher Weed's public artwork called Windswept, situated at the nearby light rail station. I don't think of wind when I view the work. Indeed, as the row of poles under the larger red spheres leans to the east and the other row leans to the west, it's hard to conceive of a wind pattern that would produce this result. Instead, I am reminded of the little wooden sticks for a child's xylophone. Weed received a $50,000 commision for this art.

In an earlier blog entry (May 30, 2009 – Giant Purple Bristle Heads), I noted a similar Weed public artwork that placed purple spheres atop long poles. Weed's press release states:

Christopher Weed's sculpture Serenity on the corner of S. Colorado Blvd. and Buchtel Blvd. consists of 18 bright purple spheres, set atop stainless steel "stems" varying in height up to 20 feet. Ten thousand thin steel rods jut out from the powder-coated, iridescent tops to create a thistle-like, or cosmic, appearance, depending on the viewer's interpretation.

Weed's goal was to create a bit of escapism at a very busy intersection. "When placed in a grouping, the sculpture creates a canopy effect, much like being in a forest," he said. "The idea was to create numerous, free-standing sculptural elements, where viewers can lose themselves, if only for a brief moment."

Weed grew up in Philadelphia, PA, earned a fine arts degree from the University of Maryland, studied in Europe for several years, and has installed 15 public art projects in the U.S. and abroad since 1998. His Colorado installations include "Opening Doors" at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, named "Best Public Art in Denver" in 2007 by 5280 magazine, and the popular Windswept sculpture at the RTD Dayton light rail station in 2006. He has also completed projects in Aurora, Lafayette, Boulder, and Superior. He is represented at A New Leaf Gallery in San Francisco, CA., and Shidoni Foundry,Shidoni Foundry, Gallery and Sculpture Gardens in Santa Fe, NM.

Weed has a curious notion of serenity. The bristle head artwork was anything but serene. I considered it ominous and disturbing. These xylophone sticks with their spiky purple heads would mar the xylophone plates.

For Weed's latest public artwork, he has progressed from giant xylophone sticks to a pair of giant paperclips. As stated in his blog ( "Christopher Weed's Red Paperclips, installed at the Plaza of the Rockies in downtown Colorado Springs, consists of 2 larger than life cherry red paperclips, standing 24’ high and weighing 3.5 tons."

I myself am thinking about pitching an idea to the Regional Transportation District. The work will be called Versatility. Imagine a a five-ton Swiss army knife.


To fully appreciate the Thanksgiving holiday, it's best to go back to the source.

Philippians 4.6,7: Be careful for nothing: but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

I have abridged how Martyn Lloyd-Jones expounded this in his book Spiritual Depression, Chapter 19.

Is the apostle just tumbling out one word after another, or is he speaking advisedly? I can show you that he is indeed speaking advisedly, as he shows us how to let our requests be made known unto God.

How are we to do that? First he tells us to pray. He differentiates between prayer and supplication and thanksgiving. What does he mean by prayer? This is the most general term and it means worship and adoration. If you have problems that seem insoluble, if you are liable to become anxious and overburdened, and somebody tells you to pray, do not rush to God with your petition. That is not the way. Before you make your requests known unto God, pray, worship, adore. That is the beginning.

But following prayer comes supplication. Now we are moving on. Having worshipped God because God is God, having offered this general worship and adoration, we come now to the particular, and the apostle here encourages us to make our supplications. He tells us that we can take particular things to God, that petition is a legitimate part of prayer. So we bring our petitions, the particular things that are now concerning us.

But wait, there is still one other thing -- 'by prayer and application, with thanksgiving'. This is one of the most vital of all these terms. And it is just here that so many of us go astray when we are in this condition with which the apostle is dealing. If, while we pray to God, we have a grudge against Him in our hearts, we have no right to expect that the peace of God will keep our heart and our mind. If we go on our knees feeling that God is against us, we may as well get up and go out. No, we must approach Him 'with thanksgiving'. There must be no doubt as to the goodness of God in our heart. There must be no question or query; we must have positive reasons for thanking God. We have our problems and troubles but there on our knees we must ask ourselves: 'What can I thank God for?' We have to do that deliberately and it is something that we can do. We must remind ourselves that He is our Father, that he loves us so much that the very hairs of our head are all numbered. And when we have reminded ourselves of these things we must pour out our heart in thanksgiving.

We have seen what we have to do, we have been instructed as to how we are to deal with it, and now comes the gracious promise to those who do what the apostle has just been telling us. Have you noticed the promise, have you noticed its character, have you noticed that it does not even mention the things that are worrying you? That is the peculiar thing about the Christian method of dealing with anxiety. 'In all things,' says the apostle -- these things that are worrying -- make your requests known and God will banish and remove them all?' But Paul does not say that. He does not mention them; he just says nothing about them. To me that is one of the most thrilling things about the Christian life. The glory of the gospel is this, that it is concerned about us and not about our circumstances. The final triumph of the gospel is seen in this, that whatever our circumstances, we ourselves can be put right and maintained. It does not mention our condition, it does not talk about these things that are harassing and perplexing, it does not say a single word about them. They may or may not happen, I do not know. Paul does not say that the thing feared is not going to take place, he says that we shall be kept whether it happens or whether it does not happen. Thank God, that is the victory. I am taken above circumstances, I am triumphant in spite of them.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving geese

See these elite sleepy sleek geese feed at the beach. (New World Dictionary definition #2 for sleek: well-fed or well-groomed appearance)

There were thirty geese at the reservoir. These three, larger and plumper than the rest, stood apart. There seems to be some sort of hierarchy principle at work here but I don't know what it is.

I fancy geese in their original packaging, walking about, rather than on a platter. Good luck to them all!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The use of fatigue

Lately, I often find myself working unpaid hours at the office. This stems from a faulty balance between duty and self. It is not that I am forced to work more hours than others to make up for being slow or inefficient. Rather, I voluntarily take on the extra work -- not for career advancement, but in order to be seen as a good team player. I donate hours in hope of gaining acceptance. And I persist in doing this even though little notice and even less reward has resulted from this behavior. Vanity of vanities! (I hope my older son is wiser than I am and strikes a healthy balance between work and family.)

But yesterday I found myself alone in the office at 8:00 p.m. for a different reason. I had been assigned to produce a cost estimate for an activity that I had no quantitative basis for estimating. I was in a jam. There was no time or budget to do the necessary research on how long this activity (checkout of computer security settings) had taken in the past, and I had no pertinent experience to rely upon. Gut feel was all that I had. And my gut wasn't cooperating.

Dismayed by the shoddiness of it all, I fretted for three hours, fruitlessly trying to spin straw into gold (or, more accurately, turn manure into a cost estimate). Finally, fatigue came over me and suppressed my nagging professional standards. I was set free to write crap. Within minutes I drafted a slapdash estimate.

My conclusion is that I have a functioning conscience, but I can wear it down and stupefy it by the use of sufficient fatigue.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Experiments in exhaustion

I just finished two strenuous weeks of proposal work. My workday steadily lengthened over this period until I was working 17 hours a day. My hours summed to 175 for the two weeks; I receive pay for only 80.

The work grew very tiring. At first I was successful in staving off exhaustion with caffeine. By the second week, caffeine by itself had no effect, and I began experimenting with consuming different proportions of caffeine, sugar, and fat. I discovered that a generous piece of pumpkin cheesecake, washed down with a diet Coke, gave me 45 minutes of lucidity, followed by a blood sugar dive that rendered me a blithering wreck. I used two successive pieces of pumpkin cheesecake to keep myself functioning until 1:00 a.m. on my final evening. I don't vouch for the accuracy or even the coherence of a single line that I wrote that night.

To find a comparable episode of exhaustion, I have to look back to the time of my graduate school qualifying exams at the University of Texas. Owing to a lack of motivation, I began studying for the three days of exams about 24 hours before the first exam. I devoted the day and night to memorizing engineering equations and working through sample questions.

Pulling an "all-nighter" was a deliberate strategy. I had read somewhere that knowledge remained in the brain's short-term memory until mental processes during sleep sorted knowledge into important knowledge and unimportant knowledge. The important knowledge was routed to long-term memory for retention; unimportant knowledge was flushed. As I needed every bit of knowledge I could muster to pass these qualifying exams, I couldn't afford to give my brain the opportunity to throw anything away. (I realize now that you should worry any time that you are trying to use your brain to outsmart your brain.)

I showed up for the first exam bleary-eyed and dizzy with fatigue. I finished the exam by noon and immediately went home to study for the second day's exam. Again I studied all night and showed up the next morning so wobbly that I could barely hold a pencil. I finished the second exam and went home to prepare for the third.

As dawn rose on the third day, I was sitting at my desk reading a chemical kinetics text. Empty king-sized Coke bottles littered the floor. A transcendent feeling came over me that I had achieved complete mastery of all of chemical engineering. In fact, the principles seemed so obvious to me that I marveled that I had spent four undergraduate years studying such childishly simple material.

Still in the grip of this grandiose mental state, I walked to the classroom to take the third exam. I remember stumbling several times along the way from fatigue. I arrived, took my copy of the exam from the proctor, and set to work. I finished in record time, an hour before the noon deadline.

The results? By all rights I should have botched all three qualifying exams because of my lack of preparation and my ridiculous strategy of pulling three consecutive all-nighters. But I ended up passing all of them handily. (Perhaps it would have been better for my character to have suffered bad consequences from my foolishness. At any rate, my lack of motivation proved to be an insurmountable obstacle. I left the university and returned to industry shortly thereafter.)

Sorry to say, I had no similar moment of faux transcendence from my exhaustion last week. All that I experienced was fatigue headaches and the occasional sour stomach from late night candy bars and cheesecake.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Decline of the West -- Santa Cruz edition

Despite my general fondness for the music of the Grateful Dead, I was taken aback when I stumbled upon this job posting today:

The University Library of the University of California, Santa Cruz, seeks an enterprising, creative, and service-oriented archivist to join the staff of Special Collections & Archives (SC&A) as Archivist for the Grateful Dead Archive. The Archivist will be part of a dynamic, collegial, and highly motivated department dedicated to building, preserving, promoting, and providing maximum access both physically and virtually to one of the Library's most exciting and unique collections, The Grateful Dead Archive (GDA). The UCSC University Library utilizes innovative approaches to allow the discovery, use, management, and sharing of information in support of research, teaching, and learning.

Grateful Dead Archive:

The Grateful Dead Archive documents the band's creative activity and influence in contemporary music history from 1965 to 1995, including the phenomena of the Deadheads, the band’s extensive network of devoted fans, and the band’s highly unusual and successful musical business ventures. The Archive contains original documents, clippings, artifacts, photography, posters, audio and video recordings, publications about the Dead and its individual members, its tours and performances, recordings and productions, and business. Correspondence and art contributed over the years by Deadheads are part of the Archive.

The Archive, which is approximately 600 linear feet, is physically housed in McHenry Library's Special Collections & Archives department. A dedicated area, "Dead Central" (soon to be opened in the newly renovated McHenry Library) will offer the public opportunities for listening and viewing material from the Archive. Material digitized from the Archive will be made in the Library’s CONTENTdm digital collections system and in a separate, Omeka-powered system will form the basis of Virtual Terrapin Station, a web-based digital collections system which will provide access to digitized materials from the collection while at the same time allowing social interaction and the exchange of data with and from the public. The Finding Aid for the GDA will be submitted to the CDL's Online Archive of California, and bibliographic records for all commercial GDA publications will appear in Library's local catalog, CruzCat, and in OCLC's WorldCat.

Under the general direction of the Head of Special Collections and Archives, the GDA Archivist will provide managerial and curatorial oversight of the GDA, plan for and supervise the physical and digital processing of all Archive related material, and promote the GDA to the public and facilitate its use by scholars, fans, and students.

Rank: Associate Librarian or Librarian

Salary: Appointment Salary Range: Associate Librarian III- Librarian I, with an approximate salary range of $52,860-$68,892, commensurate with qualifications and experience.

Position Available: March 1, 2010

A Grateful Dead archive that stretches for two football fields -- what a long, strange trip!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Notice of FTC Compliance

In October the Federal Trade Commission introduced guidelines to protect the public from deceptive endorsements and testimonials. The lowly amateur blogger is subject to these rules.

"The Commission acknowledges that bloggers may be subject to different disclosure requirements than reviewers in traditional media. In general, under usual circumstances, the Commission does not consider reviews published in traditional media to be sponsored advertising messages. [K]nowing whether the media entity that published the review paid for the item in question would not affect the weight consumers give to the reviewer’s statements….

In contrast, if a blogger’s statement on his personal blog or elsewhere (e.g., the site of an online retailer of electronic products) qualifies as an “endorsement” – i.e., as a sponsored message – due to the blogger’s relationship with the advertiser or the value of the merchandise he has received and has been asked to review by that advertiser, knowing these facts might affect the weight consumers give to his review."

Of especial concern to me are the guidelines on expert endorsements. As a literary poseur and dilettante, I often decorate my little blog entries with the wordcraft and sentiments of better writers and thereby attempt to impress the unwary with a semblance of expertise. This could land me in trouble with the FTC. Consider their guidelines for expert endorsements:

"(a) Whenever an advertisement represents, directly or by implication, that the endorser is an expert with respect to the endorsement message, then the endorser's qualifications must in fact give the endorser the expertise that he or she is represented as possessing with respect to the endorsement.

Example 1: An endorsement of a particular automobile by one described as an 'engineer' implies that the endorser's professional training and experience are such that he is well acquainted with the design and performance of automobiles. If the endorser's field is, for example, chemical engineering, the endorsement would be deceptive."

I am always expressing my likes and dislikes about things in this blog. And so, to avoid problems with the FTC and a possible $11,000 fine, I give notice that any opinions, endorsements, or testimonials recorded in this blog should be considered the inexpert thoughts of a mere "chemical engineer" and ignoramus.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

It's all their fault

Comes a time in a man's life when he must pause and take stock of his accomplishments. If fame and fortune have eluded him, he is apt to cast about for something or someone to blame. Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, I can attribute my lackluster achievement in life to my ancestors. It's all their fault.

Gladwell argues that a man's cultural background largely shapes his approach to life and his odds for success. As Cassius should have said: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars nor in ourselves, but in our ancestors, that we are underlings." Gladwell devotes one chapter, called Rice Paddies and Math Tests, to showing that Chinese perseverance and mental agility can be attributed to centuries of rice farming, which requires continual effort and attention to detail. In another chapter, one unlikely to endear him to the Appalachian backcountry, Gladwell explains that many Southerners are noisy and emotional and violent because of their descent from irascible 19th-century herdsmen in the English borderlands.

Gladwell could have used my father's lineage to support his cultural argument. My father's family chronicles extend back to a German ancestor born in 1641. This earliest recorded forefather was a cowherd who settled in the little northwest German town of Stockse as a Brinksitzer, that is, a cottager with a small garden. In modern terms, he was like a laborer living in a modest trailer park. He found himself a trailer park sweetie and married. They struggled along and had a daughter and a son.

The son was unable to improve upon his humble origins by industry or by currying favor with the town burghers. So, with an eye toward escaping the Brinksitzer life via matrimony, he made a match with an old maid (31 years old!) from a higher rung of society. The old maid's family owned a large shop, probably for knife sharpening. (Grosskotners, they were called in the Lutheran church records). This attempt at social climbing apparently failed, because the son remained a Brinksitzer until his death in 1701.

Throughout the 1700s my father's family remained poor but respectable Brinksitzers. Then in the early 1800s, owing to a family scandal, the family dropped to the lowest rung of society and showed up in the church records under the label of Anbauer, which signifies a planter with no property or social standing -- a squatter, in other words. In 1852, my great-great-grandfather, eager to leave all this poverty and stigma behind, emigrated with his wife and young children to America.

America was a wonderful place for the Brinksitzer. In spite of the Brinksitzer's cultural weaknesses in social graces and business savvy, the Brinksitzer strengths of frugality and hard work led to steady advancement.

So, how should I view my life? I am the product of a long line of Brinksitzers and it is appropriate to measure myself against the standards of my Brinksitzer culture. Well, all in all, I feel that I measure up okay. I'm a pretty good Brinksitzer. I am frugal and work hard. While I may lack property and prestige, I am far from being a squatter.

But being a Brinksitzer has its trials. I am continually outmaneuvered by glib and crafty people at work. And I face the usual Brinksitzer obstacles to improving my standing in society. Perhaps I could revive the old family tradition and find an affluent 31-year-old spinster to court. It's got to work eventually.

Monday, November 2, 2009

10,000 hours to mastery

I just read Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers. Gladwell is a talented explainer of scientific ideas. In this he joins a distinguished company of popularizers of science such as H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, James Burke (famed for his BBC television series Connections and The Day the Universe Changed), and Carl Sagan. If Gladwell hires a bigger research staff and publishes several more books, the media may begin to refer to him as a science historian instead of a mere best-selling science journalist.

I was intrigued by the second chapter of Outliers, called The 10,000-hour Rule. Gladwell wrote about research conducted in the early 1990s by K. Anders Ericsson while at the University of Colorado at Boulder. (After making a reputation for himself, Ericsson jumped to a position at Florida State University -- a noted football power.) Ericsson and two German colleagues had evaluated the skill of violinists at the Berlin Academy of Music and found that musical skill correlated closely with the student's total accumulation of practice hours. The elite students had put in about 10,000 hours (roughly 3 hours per day over 10 years); mediocre students had put in about 8000 hours; and students destined to be music teachers in the public schools had put in a paltry 4000 hours. Ericsson found very similar results with piano students. Other researchers found that the 10,000 hour rule was generally applicable to ice skating, chess, writing, and a variety of other physical and intellectual skills.

My own experience jibes with these findings. Both my sons started practicing violin at a young age, accumulated their 10,000 hours (at somewhat different rates), and have attained violin mastery. I myself watched a great deal of television in my youth -- easily more than 10,000 hours by the time I started college -- and thereby achieved a double mastery: television watching and sitting. My television mastery has given me a Zen-like ability to transcend time. I can watch television for an entire evening without fidgeting or losing concentration. My sitting mastery has proved to be the foundation of a long and stable career in the aerospace industry.

Future mastery is in store for me. By the end of the year, I will have devoted nearly 400 hours to writing blog entries. If I can keep up this torrid pace for another 25 years, I will achieve blog mastery in 2034. I invite my loyal readers to observe my progress over the next quarter century.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Decline of the West - Holiday Edition

I shopped at Wal-Mart this morning and walked past the Halloween costumes and decorations. A large bin of devilish walking sticks was placed in the main aisle. Right before I snapped the photo above, a cute little girl of kindergarten age snatched one the red pitchforks and happily dashed back to her father.

I have a premonition about how tonight will unfold. Things have changed from my era when young girls dressed up as cowgirls or princesses or butterflies or ballerinas. Let's raise the curtain on a little scenario.


(Dusk. The cluttered interior of the Wagman townhouse. The doorbell rings. Kindly old Mr. Wagman rises stiffly from the couch, takes a bowl of miniature Snickers bars in hand, and goes to the front door. The door opens to reveal two little girls in costume. The first girl appears to be wearing a bathing suit over a pink warm-up outfit. The other, a timid girl who remains behind her friend, is dressed in a black plastic gown and is carrying a red pitchfork.

Wagman: "Happy Halloween. (drops a few Snickers in the first girl's bag) And what are you, my dear? An Arabian princess?"

First Girl: (giggles) Wrong. I'm a rock-and-roll skank."

Wagman: (raises eyebrows) "Oh my." (He motions for the shy girl to come forward and drops Snickers in her bag.) "And what are you, miss?" (The timid girl smiles and then retreats behind her little friend.)

First Girl: "She's the bride of Satan, sir."

Wagman: "I see. Well, have a good evening, ladies. Be careful of the ice."


On a related note, yesterday at work I received a flyer for my company's annual December party.

When I first joined the company, the party was called the Christmas Party. This name was later deemed too religious and, worse yet, blatantly Christian. The name was changed to Holiday Party. But in some quarters this new name was still considered too suggestive of religious sentiments; and after several years, corporate headquarters renamed the party the End of Year Employee Recognition Event. What name could be more empty of holiday cheer? I will tell you what name. Yesterday's flyer announced that this year's party will be called Casino Night. Some sort of gambling casino (suitably sanitized by using tokens in place of cash, I presume) will be set up next to the dining hall at the Marriott for the after-dinner amusement of employees and their significant others.

By simple trend extrapolation, I predict that next year the company will host Prostitution Night. All in good fun and suitably sanitized, of course.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Tree Poetry

In the interest of promoting culture, the Regional Transportation District has posted poems in all of the city buses. The poems come from local poets and relate, at least loosely, to buses or transportation.

As I was riding the bus to work this morning (in lieu of a treacherous drive on a slick highway), I looked up at the posters above the windows and saw a high school girl's poem about waiting at a bus stop on a cold autumn day. Her poem's first line was "The trees hovered overhead like skeletons." I fear that the young lady has vaulted over the line separating the vivid from the grotesque. I have never seen trees or skeletons hovering. (If I ever do, I will run into my townhouse and barricade the doors.)

This incident caused me to remember back forty years to a newspaper column by Donald Kaul, a journalist who wrote for the Des Moines Register. Here is what he had to say about another poem about trees, Joyce Kilmer's well-known Trees.

"I think that I shall never see
A poem as lovely as a tree"

[What's been said here is that each and every tree on earth is lovelier than every poem. Overlooking the considerable difficulty of comparing the beauty of a poem with that of a tree, the statement ignores the fact that there are a great many ugly trees.]

"A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;"

[Either this tree is all crouched down and bent over or it's standing on its head.]

"A tree that looks at God all day
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;"

[Here's this remarkable tree, its mouth pressed to the ground, its eyes rolled back to look at God yet still able to throw up its arms in prayer. It's not a tree, it's a contortionist.]


"Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree."

[Which is fine, because if it were the other way round, we'd have some pretty strange looking trees.]

This was taken from Kaul's 1970 collection of columns called How to Light a Water Heater and Other War Stories. Funny stuff.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Swamp Fox Memories

This morning I turned on the television and heard the perky weather girl predict ten inches of snow for today. Rather than creep along the slushy highway in my car, I opted to make my commute via slow, safe public transportation. And so, I walked to the light rail station, took the light rail north to the city bus hub, and boarded a bus that wound through the suburban neighborhoods and finally dropped me off about a quarter mile from my office. The bus trip took about twice as much time as traveling by car, but produced much less wear on the nerves.

The bus is a perfect environment for idle thought. I found the following chorus running through my mind:

Swamp Fox! Swamp Fox!
Tail on his hat,
Nobody knows where The Swamp Fox's at.
Swamp Fox! Swamp Fox!
Hiding in the glen,
He runs away to fight again.

This is the chorus to the Swamp Fox theme song, from the Disney television show depicting the adventures of Revolutionary War hero, Francis Marion. According to Wikipedia, the show ran sporadically from October 1959 to January 1961 and amounted to a mere eight episodes. I watched several of the early episodes when I was but an urchin back in Iowa. Why would I recall the theme song from such an obscure television show after the passage of fifty years?

I used to think that memories would flicker to life one last time before they were extinguished. I saw the mind operating like a hotel clerk; the old memories were like visitors checking out. Some random memory from long ago would rouse itself, pay its respects to the conscious mind, and then take its leave.

I abandoned this notion after observing that I could repeatably trigger an old memory by repeating the appropriate stimulus. For instance, if I lean over the kitchen sink late in the afternoon when the sun is at just the right angle, I will recall viewing Fritz Lang's silent movie The Spiders ten years ago. (The movie was two episodes of a serial about a gang of criminals called the Spiders who schemed to dominate the world.) On many occasions I have leaned over my sink and found myself saying the word "Spiders" under my breath. This tells me something about the mind or, at least, my own peculiar mind.

Something about the bus ride or the passengers or the snow-packed suburban streets triggered a long-dormant memory about the Swamp Fox show. The snow storm will be continuing overnight and into tomorrow, and I plan to repeat my bus ride. What other childhood memories will be shaken loose?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Martinu, madrigals, and the mind

My younger son and I attended an excellent concert last night. Three musicians from the Colorado Symphony Orchestra – a flautist, a violinist, and a violist – performed a series of duos and trios. My favorite piece was Bohuslav Martinu's Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola, especially the lyrical second movement that gave the two players enough music to keep a string quartet busy.

After the concert, my son listened to me dilate on the beauty of the Three Madrigals and suggested that I buy a recording. While I will probably do this, what I really desired was to experience all the sights and sounds of the concert again. I wanted to once more watch the violinist concentrate as he played the difficult double stops. I wanted to watch the violist toss off some playful arpeggios. In short, I wanted to relive the concert.

A CD recording can faithfully reproduce the notes. A DVD video recording can give you all the notes plus the camera's view of the performers. But I wanted all this plus the freedom to look across the hall and see the reactions of other people in the audience. What does that plump lady think of the music? Are those shaggy-haired students affected by the playing? I wanted the complete human experience.

I suppose that modern science could record all that I saw and heard during the concert. A wide-field forehead camera controlled by two sensors that tracked my eye movements – all of this merely an application of electronics and geometry – could capture everything that I looked at. And microphones clipped to my ears could record the exact sound that I was hearing directly from the violin and viola and from their sound bouncing off the curved wooden panels behind the stage. Then it would be a straightforward matter to design a pair of wrap-around electronic goggles to project before my eyes what I had viewed during the concert, complete with images seen in peripheral vision. Put a good headset on my ears for the sound and presto! I would be essentially reliving the concert. (Sight and sound are sufficient for my enjoyment. I wouldn't care to relive the hall's chilly temperature, which caused me to pull my jacket close around my neck.)

In the distant future, electromagnetic fields might be used to excite neurons and allow us to directly replay concert memories as if they were CDs. We could watch the concert again in a trance state. Or perhaps we will avoid the bother of even attending the concert by having the concert directly downloaded onto our neurons, allowing us to relive an experience that we never actually lived before. Imagine the convenience. But there is no reason to restrict this scientific wizardry to musical concerts. I'm sure someday there will be a market for a futuristic Netflix that downloads nature walks, tourist visits to the Eiffel Tower, and honeymoon cruises straight to the mind. I hope that I live long enough to enjoy such a fancy, high-tech, neuron-stimulated life. For now, however, I'll try to make do with my own plain, simple, do-it-yourself life.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Jonathan apples

One of the joys of October is the arrival of Jonathan apples. Tonight I walked to my local supermarket and bought fourteen Jonathan apples.

I am no savant of apples - I barely know a pippin from a bowling pin - but I know what I like, and what I like is the Jonathan apple. It has the perfect balance of sweetness and tartness. The first bite gives a spicy tang of fresh cider.

From the fragmentary history that I found on the Internet, I understand that the Jonathan originated about 1826 in New York as a chance seedling from the Espopus Spitzenberg apple tree. The Esopus Spitzenberg was an American variety first found in Esopus, New York in the early 1700s and was reputed to be Thomas Jefferson's favorite apple. Assuming a strong family resemblance between the Esopus Spitzenberg and the Jonathan, I can attest that Mr. Jefferson knew his apples.

As Jefferson might say, Pursue happiness and eat a Jonathan apple for the good of your body and soul!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The opera Aida or "Where is the elephant?"

I took my younger son to see the Metropolitan Opera HD movie showing of Aida at the local movie theater. We arrived an hour early to get good seats and found that about a hundred old people were already there. My son and I took our places in line and were greeted by an elderly lady, who observed that my son was "out of the loop" for the opera. I took her misfire of modern slang to mean that my son was much younger than everyone else present. She could have made nearly the same statement to me: I was clearly in the youngest tenth of the opera crowd.

The opera Aida tells the story of the Ethiopian slave girl Aida, who as an aid to the plot was formerly the Princess of Ethiopia. Aida serves the Egyptian king's daughter, Princess Amneris, and is secretly in love with the noble warrior Ramades. Princess Amneris is also enamored of Ramades, thus completing the love triangle that provides the foundation for this weighty pyramid of an epic opera.

Unfortunately, the opera's romantic intrigues left me dozing in my seat for the most part. I didn't care whether Aida or Amneris snared the noble Ramades, who seemed more interested in leading the Egyptian army and slaughtering Ethiopians than in pitching woo. I catnapped through the love scenes and the jealous confrontations between Aida and Princess Amneris.

Then the grand music of the triumphal procession in Act 2 made me sit upright and take notice. Verdi's music swelled to a glorious accompaniment for the parade of foot soldiers, archers, spearmen, horses, and Ethiopian captives that passed before the royal grandstand. All that was lacking was an elephant. Then male and female dancers appeared and performed an energetic battle dance. I noted that the female dancers all looked identical -- narrow-faced brunettes with lithe bodies of the same height. Perhaps the Met Opera has secretly perfected a dancer cloning process.

After this stirring Act 2, the opera returned to the love triangle and I resumed my intermittent naps. The usual operatic complications ensued and it all finished unhappily. Ramades was tricked into betraying Egypt. Ramades and Aida were then buried alive. Princess Amneris ended up all alone and feeling blue as the curtain descended. But I, on the other hand, rose from my seat feeling rested and chipper. My son, who had remained conscious throughout the entirety of the opera's four long acts, was listless and grumbly.

To fully appreciate opera, the younger generation must learn how to pace themselves.

Prof. Albert Bartlett disturbs my complacency

I ran across an interesting YouTube video of a lecture by Albert Bartlett, emeritus professor of physics at the University of Colorado – Boulder. The title of the lecture is "Arithmetic, Population, and Energy." Bartlett's thesis is that any kind of growth in population and the exploitation of finite resources can be shown to be ultimately unsustainable by simple mathematics. He claims, "The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function."

Here is Prof. Bartlett's explanation of steady growth and the exponential function:

This is a mathematical function that you'd write down if you're going to describe the size of anything that was growing steadily. If you had something growing 5% per year, you'd write the exponential function to show how large that growing quantity was, year after year. And so we're talking about a situation where the time that's required for the growing quantity to increase by a fixed fraction is a constant: 5% per year, the 5% is a fixed fraction, the “per year” is a fixed length of time. So that's what we want to talk about: its just ordinary steady growth.

Well, if it takes a fixed length of time to grow 5%, it follows it takes a longer fixed length of time to grow 100%. That longer time's called the doubling time and we need to know how you calculate the doubling time. It's easy. You just take the number 70, divide it by the percent growth per unit time and that gives you the doubling time. So our example of 5% per year, you divide the 5 into 70, you find that growing quantity will double in size every 14 years.

Well, you might ask, where did the 70 come from? The answer is that it's approximately 100 multiplied by the natural logarithm of two. If you wanted the time to triple, you'd use the natural logarithm of three. So it's all very logical. But you don't have to remember where it came from, just remember 70.

I am accustomed to using the Rule of 70 (or the more familiar approximation called the Rule of 72) for interest calculations. Right now I am getting roughly 0.7% interest on my credit union CDs. At this rate I will double my money in 100 years. This is a miserable state of affairs. (What's worse is that during the past 100 years, inflation has reduced the purchasing power of the dollar by about 95%. It makes a man throw up his hands, say "to heck with it!" and dissipate his small hoardings on wine, women, and song. )

But enough about me and my financial and character deficiencies. Let's look at what Bartlett has to say about population growth:

A few years ago, one of the newspapers of my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, quizzed the nine members of the Boulder City Council and asked them, “What rate of growth of Boulder's population do you think it would be good to have in the coming years?” Well, the nine members of the Boulder City council gave answers ranging from a low of 1% per year. Now, that happens to match the present rate of growth of the population of the United States. We are not at zero population growth. Right now, the number of Americans increases every year by over three million people. No member of the council said Boulder should grow less rapidly than the United States is growing.

Now, the highest answer any council member gave was 5% per year. You know, I felt compelled, I had to write him a letter and say, “Did you know that 5% per year for just 70 years [...] means Boulder's population would increase by a factor of 32? That is, where today we have one overloaded sewer treatment plant, in 70 years, we'd need 32 overloaded sewer treatment plants."

Bartlett's thinking was greatly influenced by his University of Colorado colleague Kenneth Boulding, an economist and social philosopher (and poet and Quaker and peace activist and ...). Boulding expounded three theorems in 1971:

First Theorem: "The Dismal Theorem" If the ultimate check on the growth of population is misery, then the population will grow until it is miserable enough to stop its growth.

Second Theorem: "The Utterly Dismal Theorem" This theorem states that any technical improvement can only relieve misery for a while, for so long as misery is the only check on population, the [technical] improvement will enable population to grow, and will soon enable more people to live in misery than before. The final result of [technical] improvements, therefore, is to increase the equilibrium population which is to increase the total sum of human misery.

Third Theorem: "The moderately cheerful form of the Dismal Theorem" Fortunately, it is not too difficult to restate the Dismal Theorem in a moderately cheerful form, which states that if something else, other than misery and starvation, can be found which will keep a prosperous population in check, the population does not have to grow until it is miserable and starves, and it can be stably prosperous.

The First Theorem is nothing more than a restatement of the Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) analysis that societal improvements result in population growth which eventually gets checked by famine and disease. I think of this theorem as the "Welcome to Los Angeles" scenario.

I find the Second Theorem utterly dismal and depressing. It claims that heroic efforts to benefit the health and well-being of mankind (e.g., Norman Borlaug's Green Revolution that provided food for a billion people in India and its neighboring countries) will only delay and exacerbate the inevitable misery.

I find only faint cheer in the Third Theorem. No doubt the population trends in the coming century will be driven by both misery and changes in reproductive behavior.

Albert Bartlett assembled his own set of theorems and laws concerning growth, sustainability, and exponential use of finite resources. (See his website for his articles and lectures.) Here are his laws that I found most striking.

First Law: Population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.

Second Law: In a society with a growing population and/or growing rates of consumption of resources, the larger the population and/or the larger the rates of consumption of resources, the more difficult it will be to transform the society to the condition of sustainability.

Fifth Law: One cannot sustain a world in which some regions have high standards of living while others have low standards of living.

Seventh Law: A society that has to import people to do its daily work ("we can't find locals who will do the work") is not sustainable.

Ninth Law: The benefits of population growth and of growth in the rates of consumption of resources accrue to a few; the costs of population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources are borne by all of society.

Tenth Law: Growth in the rate of consumption of a non-renewable resource, such as a fossil fuel, causes a dramatic decrease in the life-expectancy of the resource.

Thirteen Law: The benefits of large efforts to preserve the environment are easily canceled by the added demands on the environment that result from small increases in human population.

Seventeen Law: If, for whatever reason, humans fail to stop population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources, Nature will stop these growths.

Albert Bartlett summed up his thinking with his Great Challenge: "Can you think of any problem in any area of human endeavor on any scale, from microscopic to global, whose long-term solution is in any demonstrable way aided, assisted, or advanced by further increases in population, locally, nationally, or globally?"

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The future ain't what it used to be

The evening news seems especially disheartening of late. The airways are full of predictions of worsening unemployment, a crippled economy, the crisis of global warming, and looming hyper-inflation. The future is painted as dark and threatening.

I often wonder if today's human beings are overburdened with thought about the future. There is a place for prudence and reasonable foresight, to be sure; but modern journalism tends to emphasize dire possibilities and extrapolations. The future - and especially fascination with future dangers - seems to be the major product marketed by the news media. It appears that anxiety is even more addictive to the general public than sex.

The mind becomes distracted with scenarios – inflation, deflation, nuclear proliferation, loss of job, loss of health care benefits, Type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer's, incontinence. For those of us that brood on worst-case scenarios, the result is often nervous exhaustion.

The first step to recovering one's peace of mind is a moratorium on the evening news, the front page of the newspaper, and the internet. Then I would advocate the following prescription: an invigorating stroll around the neighborhood, followed by relaxing with a good book, with some baroque music playing softly in the background.

One of Bertrand Russell's saucy quotations sums up the matter: "I saw a photograph of a large herd of wild elephants in Central Africa seeing an airplane for the first time, and all in state of wild collective terror... As, however, there were no journalists among them, the terror died down when the airplane was out of sight."

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Bring me a rock

"Bring me a rock" is a phrase often used in the aerospace industry. I have never heard it used anywhere else. The phrase commonly arises during the writing of a proposal. Here's how it works: sections of the proposal are parceled out to various authors, who write up their assigned sections and then bring them to a senior technical team for review. If the reviewers request a substantial rewrite, the author may complain, "They said, 'Bring me a rock.' I brought one, but they didn't like it. Now they want a different rock."

If the author does the rewrite, returns for a second review, and is told to make further changes, you can bet that he'll gripe, "I brought them a rock. They didn't like it. I brought them a second rock. They didn't like that one either. Now they're asking for a third rock. Who knows what they want!"

The reason for this frustrating situation is not that the reviewers are capricious or cruel -- in most cases, that is. The more common reason is that as the reviewers look at all sections of the proposal, they have a growing sense of how the overall themes and proportions of the proposal are taking shape. If the reviewers' vision of the whole proposal is evolving faster than the frequency of a particular author's revision cycle, the guidance given to that author may be outdated before the revisions can be made and brought back for review.

I am currently working on a proposal section that will be reviewed for the third time tomorrow morning. (Sundays are work days during a proposal effort.) The guidance from my first review was that I was too wordy and had introduced extraneous material. I trimmed my section to the bare essentials. The guidance from my second review was that I was too terse and needed to restore the "extraneous" material I had taken out earlier. I have no idea what tomorrow's guidance will be. I will bring them a brightly polished rock and hope for the best.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Indian Summer

It is Indian summer and the trees are losing their leaves. (I couldn't think of a good metaphor to describe how rapidly and completely the trees are shedding their leaves. The image of Hollywood starlets dropping their clothes for casting directors might be fitting. But this metaphor would detract from the tone of the blog.) It took me some searching until I found a colorful tree to photograph. Only a few short trees in sheltered spots escaped the hard frost.

Today was a fine day for an urban nature walk. While I was out looking for a tree to photograph, I saw a blue jay fly between two tall trees. Any day I get to see a blue jay is automatically a good day. Later I saw a garter snake disappear beneath a bush. Even in the midst of pavement and rows of sterile townhouses, Nature breaks in.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Frontage Road Game

Traffic was creeping along on the highway this morning during my drive to work. A mile from my usual turnoff I decided to play the frontage road game. The game is simple: pick a highway traffic marker, something large and easy to keep track of -- a moving van or a bus or a semi -- and then beat the marker by traveling along the frontage road instead.

The game owes more to luck than skill. The off ramp to the frontage road leads to a stoplight at a busy intersection. If my timing is off, I can lose a whole minute to a red light. And if the highway competition speeds up to 30 mph during that minute, I'm a hopeless half mile behind and the game is lost. However, if I happen to catch a green light and shoot the intersection, I can cruise along the frontage road at 45 mph and usually win.

Today my luck was average: the stoplight was already red as I came down the off ramp; I got nicked for ten or fifteen seconds. The light turned, my Volvo surged forward. My marker, a white moving van, was still creeping along at no more than 15 mph. And better yet, I saw a lot of red brakelights on the cars farther up the highway. My confidence was rising. I pulled hard around a bend and then sped up on the straightaway.

At this point in the game I tend to improve upon the speed limit slightly. What sportsman doesn't try to get an edge in the heat of competition? But I glanced to my right and discovered that I was looking down the barrel of a radar gun held by a motorcycle cop. And my speedometer needle was well over 45 on this 40-mph frontage road. My goose was cooked. I hit my brakes, giving up the game.

Time froze. During a long moment I observed the cop's facial expression beneath his dark sunglasses. He sized me up, wrinkled his nose, and then looked back up the frontage road. All that I could conclude was that he didn't want to give me a speeding ticket and have me show up in court with a picture of my old Volvo and tell the judge, "Your honor, look at this car. Does this really look like a car that can go more than 40 miles per hour?"

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Dirty tricks in the health care biz

The actors were already on stage. They milled about quietly mouthing their lines, trying out different angles and inflections.

A heavy, red-faced man rushed down from the back of the theater and bounded up the stairs to center stage. "Okay, people, listen up. We only have three hours before the evening news. You two, are you supposed to be the worried middle-class couple?" he said. They nodded. He waved them forward. "Wait a minute. Is this a joke?" he said. "How old are you, darling?"

"Twenty-three, but I can play forty-five," she stated with a tone of defiance. Her makeup made her look freshly embalmed.

"Oh, for Pete's sake. Joe!" shouted the red-faced man.

A thin, dapper man eased out from the shadows at the back of the stage. "What do you need, Mr. Bozigian?"

"What did I tell you about hiring your girlfriends?"

Joe smiled a small, guilty smile. "But Janice is a marvelous actress, Mr. Bozigian. She was an understudy at the Maltz Jupiter Theater last season. Great reviews."

"Joe, the girl looks like a cheerleader with a bad hangover." Bozigian turned to the indignant young woman. "Sorry, honey, you're out."

Janice looked daggers at Joe, who lifted his hands as if to say, I did all that any man could do. She stormed off the stage.

Bozigian turned back to Joe and snapped, "Joe, you put me in a jam here. I need a middle-aged woman – tired, anxious, not too pretty."

"May I suggest Ellen from Wardrobe?"

"Not a bad idea." Bozigian went to the side of the stage and yelled, "Hey, Ellen! C'mon up here."

A middle-aged woman – tired, anxious, not too pretty – appeared holding a monk's robe. "What do you want?"

"My dear, I need your help and I know that you're a trooper. Come stand next to this guy. Here, give me that," said Bozigian, taking the monk's robe from her and flinging it offstage. "What's your name, fella?"

"Ted, Mr. Bozigian. Ted Adkins."

"Right, I remember you from the Willie Horton gig. Glad to have you on board, Ted." Bozigian steered Ellen into position. "Okay, Ellen, here's the scene. You're Ted's wife. You've been through tough times together and are finally making a good life for yourselves and your four kids. But your health insurance premiums are going to skyrocket and wreck everything. We've arranged for a news girl, Dorothy from Channel 7 Fox News, to work with us when she's doing her Ask America interviews. It's all been greased. She'll happen to stroll up and ask Ted what he thinks of the Democrats' health care package. Ted will look sad and say, 'I don't know how we'll pay the higher medical premiums.' Go ahead and give it a try, Ted."

Ted cleared his throat, assumed a hangdog expression, and drawled, "Our medical premiums will be goin' up. Why, I just don't see how we'll pay them."

"Not really looking for Henry Fonda in the Grapes of Wrath, Ted. Just stick with the script."

"Yes, sir."

"Ellen, your line is 'How will we have the money to care for our children? It's not fair.' Go on, give it a try."

"How will we have the money to care for our children? It's not fair," said Ellen in a tired monotone.

"Brilliant, Ellen. You've got acting in your blood. You and Ted go backstage and polish your lines." Bozigian looked around, "Where's Joe?"

"Here I am, Mr. Bozigian," said Joe, once again slipping from the shadows.

"Where's my bum?"

"I have three of them. Okay, guys, step forward." Three slovenly dressed men – one black, one swarthy, and one Nordic – presented themselves to Bozigian.

Bozigian clapped his hand on his broad forehead in dismay. "Joe, you know I can't use a black guy for this. Sorry, sir, you're out. And you, what are you, an Arab?"

"Greek, sir."

"Can't use you for this gig. You're too ethnic. I need a deadbeat version of Joe the Plumber." Bozigian turned to the remaining candidate, a clean-cut man with blond hair. "Swedish?"

"Danish, sir. Tom Johnsen."

"You'll do, Tom. Joe, tell Ellen that he'll need a dirty blond wig. Don't spare the Crisco. And have Makeup give him a splash of blemishes and tattoos. All right, Tom, Dorothy the news girl will ask you if you have anything to say to Congress. Your line is 'Thanks for the cheap health insurance.' Let's hear what you can do."

"Thanks for the cheap health insurance."

Bozigian shook his head and scowled. "No, try again. More attitude. You're a punk, a parasite."

Tom slouched. His upper lip twisted into a sneer. "Dudes, thanks for the cheap health insurance."