Thursday, December 18, 2008

What I Am Reading

When I was 19, I got the opportunity to tour a maraschino cherry packing plant. I was in my late twenties before I ate another maraschino cherry after that. Part of that was the thought of the women who spend eight hours a day tucking cherry stems into jars so they would not interfere with establishing a seal on the jar. Mostly, though, it was the dye room. Cherries start off, well, cherry-colored, a shade that bears no resemblance to the color of maraschino cherries. In order to turn them bright--dare I say "cherry"--red (or, fruitcake forbid, green...whose idea is that?) the original color has to be bleached out of them so it doesn't interfere with the food dye. So there we stood, above vats of pretty snow-white cherries, and the tour guide warned us not to breathe too deeply or linger too long in the room.
I'm sure that whatever we were not supposed to be breathing in at the cherry plant is long gone by the time the cherry gets to the top of your sundae or the bottom of your Shirley Temple glass, but still, I could not shake the idea that the pretty white cherries down there were wallowing in something I wasn't supposed to breathe. Pretty much ruined cherries for me for a long time. Given that experience, one would think I would know better than to read Twinkie, Deconstructed: My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods Are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated Into What America EatsTwinkie, Deconstructed is not an anti-Twinkie manifesto. The Twinkie is merely a narrative device because it embodies the essence of American snack food and includes most of the more common food additives.

The author's young child confronted him with the question every parent dreads: "Daddy, where does polysorbate 60 come from?" At least parents have some firsthand experience with "Where do babies come from?" if not a child-appropriate answer. But polysorbate 60? Other than being something with more than one sorbate, I've got nothing, and I consider myself savy with regard to ingredient lists. "Evaporated cane juice" doesn't fool me for a minute, and I even know what xanthan gum is and why it is in sour cream.

After reading the first section, I now know what goes into enriched bleached flour, and it's the maraschino cherries all over again. It is going to be a long time before I eat thiamine mononitrate, at least not without choking on the thought of what raw materials are used to synthesize it. Lucky for me, I have already switched to exclusively whole grain flours in my cooking, no enrichment needed.

I heartily recommend the book. When making dietary choices, I often ask myself, "What part of this is food?" With things like the deep fried cheesecake at the county fair, it is readily apparent that there isn't any real food there. Reading Twinkie, Deconstructed reminds us just how much non-food is in the stuff that we would normally recognize as food, like bread. Of course, one of the reasons I bake my own bread is that it's nigh on impossible to find a loaf that doesn't contain corn syrup, the subject of the next chapter up in my reading of Twinkie, Deconstructed. Fortunately, I already know it isn't food. I'm sure I will be in for a shock to find out just how non-food it is.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Five Stages of Unemployment

The economy is in the toilet. If only the job market were that good. Employment is somewhere between the septic tank and the leech field. If you haven't lost your job, chances are someone you know has. If not, you are either lucky or next in line for the pink slip yourself.

Jobs are important to people. If the jobs themselves are not important, the things the income provides--food, shelter, TP--are, and losing them can be every bit as traumatic as any other big loss. The five stages of grief have been exhaustively studied, so expect psychologists (the ones still employed, anyway) to move on to the Five Stages of Unemployment.

Stage 1: Panic
Don't listen to the people telling you not to panic. It is perfectly normal. All part of the process. Panic all weekend long--and it will be a weekend For some reason that is probably analyzed at length in MBA programs, Friday tends to be the day to get fired, right before anyone who could possible hire the newly-unemployed person head out for a weekend packed with not looking at resumes. Stage 1 is marked by a fear of what is going to happen, imagining of worst-case financial scenarios, a general sense that the world is falling apart, and mental tallying of all the purchases you have made recently that, in light of your new economic situation, seem downright stupid.

Stage 2: Obsessive Math
This stage is marked by a frantic tally of just how much income you need to keep the necessities going and how long your current liquid assets will allow you to keep a roof over your head. While this stage does not do much to alleviate the panic of Stage 1, it does hone your spreadsheet skills. Remember to insert "Excel proficiency" in the resume.

Stage 3: Throwing Yourself at the Job Market
Once the initial wave of "Holy Crap" subsides, it is replaced by irrational exuberance. Stage 3 is marked by sending updated resumes to any biped with a pulse. Careful here, or you may find yourself working for the emus. Working with the emus is fine. Working for the emus is just asking for trouble.

Stage 4: Assess the Skills You Did Not Realize You Got On The Current Job And Consider Changing Careers
Pretty self explanatory. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. Here, you can expect to remain irrationally exuberant, but with some direction, just as long as you didn't get trapped into a long-term contract with the emus.

Stage 5: Develop A Plan
This is the part where rational thought starts to creep back in to the process in earnest and you start to figure out a strategy for job prospecting, making ends meet until some of the prospecting pans out, and dealing with the realistic worst-case scenarios imagined in Phase I (amazing how many of them seem a bit overblown in retrospect).

In the spirit of bad qualitative sociology, the above is not backed up by any research more rigorous than my own experience and that of friends and family who have become economic roadkill.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Turkey Gets Its Revenge

Here at the Rookery, Thanksgiving is just the two of us. Be that as it may, the perverse price incentives of the supermarkets this time of year mean it costs me less to buy a whole turkey than a small chunk of turkey. I can't bring myself to spend $9 on a two-pound turkey breast roast when I can get a whole turkey for around five smackers, so we have lots of turkey leftovers. This situation is not helped by my logic of "At 29 cents a pound, if I'm going to have leftovers, I might as well have lots of leftovers." So I bought a 20 pound bird for something like $5.50. According to Butterball, that will feed a family of 15.

Thanksgiving leftovers are usually the second-best part of Thanksgiving (best part being the non-leftover stuffing). This year, though, we spent Thanksgiving on starch restriction, and as astute celebrators of Thanksgiving will no doubt know, starch is an integral part of the traditional menu. There are ways to work around mashed potatoes. Mashed cauliflower will never fool another potato, but it is not half bad, especially with plenty of cheese. Cranberry sauce can also be worked around with a crock pot, three pounds of apples and a pound and a half of cranberries (doesn't gel, but it still makes a decent condiment and dessert). The rest of the menu, though, is pretty much off the menu. I refuse to defile stuffing by making a carbless mock stuffing, and even if I could have the sweet potatoes, there is no sweetener-free workaround for the marshmallows. I did try something called "Quick and Easy Crustless Pumpkin Pie," slightly modified to use fruit juice instead of the water and sugar the recipe called for. That is a mistake that will not be repeated. Certain things are just not meant to be de-carbed. I can only hope the recipe turns out better when you follow it exactly.

All of that adds up to lots of leftover turkey, and no leftover anything else. I have spent the last several nights seeing how many ways I could integrate turkey into dinner without having "Turkey Dinner." I have discovered something. No matter what I make turkey into, leftover turkey insists on being one thing and one thing only: soup. Turkey marinara plated up as Italian Turkey Soup. Tonight's attempt at Salsa Turkey--turkey, tomatoes, hot peppers, garlic and onions baked in a casserole dish with no added liquid--came out of the oven as Mexi-Turkey Soup. No matter what I do to it, all I get out is variations on turkey soup, and that is without breaking into the five quarts of turkey broth that I made out of the carcass.

If the gobblers can't fly to freedom, they appear intent on drowning us posthumously.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Penguin Video of the Day

The video title calls him "One Lucky Penguin." I lean toward "Smart."

Tip of the beak to Emp. Peng. for his judicious use of emailing humorous video.

The Great Stuffing Debate

It has recently come to my attention that there is a debate about whether the tasty bread-based substance served alongside the turkey on Thanksgiving is "dressing" or "stuffing." Well, I'm here to settle that. It is quite simple. "Dressing" is what you put on a salad. "Stuffing" is what you put inside poultry. Just take a look at what you are eating. If it is beige, you have stuffing. If it is green, you either have dressing or the makings of a fun-filled afternoon of, as my family used to put it, offering sacrifices to the Porcelain God. End of debate. "Dressing" does not come out of the body cavity of poultry unless you have just slaughtered said poultry and need to extract the giblets, which I am told do not actually grow in the paper pouch.

Proper stuffing, however, does come out of the body cavity of poultry, no matter what those nay-sayers say about bacteria and raw poultry juices. Poultry juices are the secret to the best stuffing. Properly cooked to 165 degrees, in-bird stuffing is just fine to eat and one of the best things about Thanksgiving, right up there with the annual ability to get cranberries that haven't been bogged down in sugar. The one downfall of stuffing a bird is that it takes longer to cook, and the breast meat tends to dry out before the stuffing is thoroughly cooked. Never fear, though. I have a stuffing-based solution to that--amazing how many Thanksgiving problems can be cured by stuffing. Simply work your hand between the turkey breast meat and the breast skin, and give the turkey breast implants by shoving a few handfuls of stuffing between the meat and the skin. This gives the meat a layer of protection, so it cooks a bit slower than it otherwise would. The turkey isn't quite as pretty, but that really doesn't matter. Anyone who is crazy enough to actually carve a turkey at the table soon finds that the aesthetics of it are highly overrated.

The only reason to cook stuffing in a dish outside the bird is that turkey breeders and geneticists have not yet managed to engineer a turkey with the body cavity capacity necessary for an adequate amount of stuffing. The shortfalls of out-of-bird stuffing (wince) can be partially ameliorated by mixing in at least a full stick of melted butter along with the broth when moistening the stuffing, and covering the stuffing dish tightly with foil, pressed down to make contact with the stuffing surface so there is no head space in the stuffing dish.

And to clear up another stuffing misconception, Stove Top is neither stuffing nor dressing. It is the Velveeta of the stuffing world.

In case you need it: Best Stuffing Recipe Ever

Friday, November 14, 2008

For Your Consideration

I fully expect that not all of my readers will agree, but please consider it anyway. It's only six and a half minutes. If you have time for a Bugs Bunny cartoon, you have time for this.

Really consider the question: what is it to you?

Emp. Peng. and I lived together for two and a half years before we got legally married under the auspices of the State of Nebraska (and immediately adjacent to Traffic Court...I have photos). For all practical purposes during those two years, we lived as husband and wife. The only real clue to the outside world that we were not was that I still had my maiden name, but nowadays, that does not necessarily mean much.

Two and a half years in, having been booted off our parents' respective health insurance plans, there was no longer a reason not to legalize things, so we arranged for a judge and a vacant courtroom, and had a dozen family members watch as a guy whom we had never met before said a few words none of us remember and signed a form. After dinner at an all-you-can-eat buffet, we went back home to the same apartment we had shared before that afternoon, and continued life pretty much as it had been the week before.

Things felt different, though. Even though all that had changed was that we had a piece of paper on file in a courthouse in Nebraska and I traded out my surname for something phonetic but equally frequently misspelled, things felt different. We were married. For some reason, that seemed to slap a coat of respectability on our relationship that had been absent the day before, when we were living in sin.

Almost all of the legal rights of a married couple can be cobbled together with the expensive help of a good lawyer (by contrast, it cost us $40 to get them: $15 for the license including certified copy, and $25 for the judge to sign off on it). Certain ones, like survivor's benefits and being able to file a joint tax return, are hopeless outside of a marriage recognized by the federal government, but one can generally get inheritance, co-parentage of children (at least in most states), medical decision-making and the like through separate legal agreements between the parties.

What a lawyer cannot draw up, though, is anything that confers the status of being introduced to a stranger with "And this is my wife..." Socially, that is a powerful sentence fragment. No one ever asks me to prove it. I could, if I had to, dig out our copy of the marriage license from among the birth certificates and life insurance policies, but ever since I changed my ID, no one has ever asked me to. It is enough for me to say I am Mrs. Harriett.

I have long thought that the solution to the issue of same-sex marriage is to separate religious marriage and civil marriage. Remove "the power vested in me by the state of..." from the clergy. If someone wants a legally-recognized marriage for any of the legal benefits of being married, they fill out the license at the courthouse and get a clerk or judge or lawyer to sign off on it, not unlike a business partnership. If they also want to have a religious ceremony to mark the occasion and sanctify the union in the eyes of whatever religion they choose to follow, they can do that, too. It just would not carry any more legal weight than, say, a bris or a baptism.

This might actually cut divorce rates, too. Brides could throw weddings absent the legal binding of getting married. Another one of my long-held beliefs is that there is a not-inconsequential subset of women who get married so that they can have a wedding. These are the women who have been plotting every detail of Their Special Day since they could pronounce the word "tulle," until by age 16 or so, it is Just Add Groom. Any groom will do. They put a year or more's time, energy, and salary into a blowout bash, and once the dress is packed away, they realize they had been so obsessed, usually from a very young age, with getting married that they never stopped to consider being married. Without dress fittings, catering menus, bridal showers and seating arrangements, they are adrift and end up splitting sooner rather than later. These sorts of marriages are the type that some folks seem just fine with, because it involves one each of a bridezilla and groom.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Stupidest. Injury. Ever.

I am sitting here on the couch with my right foot propped up on a stack of pillows. It is not the most comfortable laptop-using position, since it gives one a bi-level lap, but it is what one is supposed to do for a sprained foot. A foot sprain is not, in itself, a notably stupid injury. Spraining one's foot while knitting is. Yes, I said "knitting." Take an activity whose primary equipment is a pair of foot-long pointy steel sticks, done by grannies and pregnant women for generations, and I sprain a foot doing it.

Last night, I passed a lovely evening curled on the couch downstairs watching Emp. Peng. play God of War and knitting away on the second installment of my Doctor Who scarf. As is likely to happen during a four-hour gaming session preceded by two cups of coffee and a cup of tea, I eventually required a bathroom break, so I untucked my legs from under me and stood up. Seems I failed to notice that I had curled up in such a manner that, at some point in the preceding hours, my right foot had fallen asleep--a failure my right foot rectified with the first step I tried to take on it. A memo would have sufficed, but my foot decided to get the message across by refusing to support my weight just as I was trying to navigate around the side of the sofa. A fall, crunch, and searing pain later, I ended up with what we like to call a Grooism, an action so stupid that all remaining brain cells want to commit suicide out of the embarassment of being associated with a cortex that would sprain a foot knitting.

This is not my first sprain, nor my worst, but I at least got the others in a dignified manner: playground tumbles, gym class injuries, taking out a Suzuki Sidekick with a Ford Pinto. But a knitting injury?

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


If you muster the will to do anything today, and I include getting dressed and breathing, go vote. Unless you already have or are not a US citizen. Then, you are excused. The rest of you, get your butts to your polling place, wait in line if you have to, and cast your ballot. Well, vote and get dressed. As far as I know, voting in the nude is only legal in Oregon.

Really, what are you doing today that is more important than selecting the leadership of the country?

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Sweet Mercy, That Was Stupid

With five and a half hours until the official kickoff of NaNoWriMo, I decided I should up and join Facebook. What was I thinking? It is now nine minutes into NNWM, and only one character even has a name. Meanwhile, I already have nine friends on Facebook, some of whom I even know from offline.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

NaNoWriMo-ing Again

Starting Saturday, I'm doing NaNoWriMo again. So far, I have a vague idea what I am going to write about. It is another sci-fi novel, set in a near-future universe where I place a lot of my stories. Other than that, I have only a vague idea of what the plot is going to be.

Anyone care to join me?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Todays Political Thought

I spent three years living in Holland, Ohio, home to this news cycle's Quintessential Everyman. I find it hard to believe there is $280,000 worth of leaky pipes in that township. It is not a big place. In fact, it is small enough that, were I still living there, I probably would have actually gotten door-knocked by Obama. That would have been seriously cool. Or not.

Looking at what sort of skewering Joe The Plumber has taken in the past 18 hours, though, I'm not sure I would want to have been Personally Pandered To By The Actual Candidate. As was so eloquently put on The Daily Show, "They tell you that everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame. What they don't tell you is that twelve of those minutes are a rectal exam." It is really not relevant to the discussion of tax policy that this one particular guy might be working under a questionable situation regarding his professional licensure, or that he owes back taxes to the state (maybe if it were an IRS lien, there would be an argument). I can just about guarantee he's not the only guy in Lucas County with a tax lien, and that should not disqualify him from taking the opportunity to ask about how tax policy will impact him and his plans for the future. Everyone has a few things about his life that he might prefer not get broadcast over CNN. I have a question in mind for the imaginary time when I would get to bend a candidate's ear for half a minute. However, I'm not sure that knowing what the candidate would do about the people who stand to lose their jobs if some of the health care reforms go through is worth the media proctoscope.

Full citizen participation is the heart of democracy. We can't have full participation if people are afraid that the mere act of asking a candidate a question will let loose all the skeletons from the closet. We can't have a functioning republic if only the squeaky-clean get their voices heard. Senator Amidala may have been wrong. Liberty doesn't die with thunderous applause. It dies with the squeal of schadenfreude.

Friday, October 10, 2008

AIG's "Executive Retreat": Due to Budget Cuts, The Light at the End of the Tunnel Has Been Shut Off Until Further Notice

Recently, America has been up in a lather over AIG spending $440,000 on what is widely being described as an "Executive retreat" a week after asking for a multimillion dollar bailout related to this financial crisis. The White House even went so far as to send out the head spokesperson to call the move "Despicable." As a PR move, the retreat at a posh resort on the heels of a bailout was not that great of an idea. However, as is often the case with news items, once you dig down below the headlines, reality is a little more complicated.

First off, if one reads descriptions of what actually went down, beyond the enumeration of $23,380 worth of spa treatments, it becomes apparent that this was not a junket for the executives. This was the annual sales convention for the top life insurance agents at the company. Those agents are under the auspices of the AIG American General insurance division, not the financial division that caused the need for the bailout. Company executives were present, because having a sales convention without at least a few executives is sort of pointless. It would be a bit like having the office Christmas party without the boss, but we'll get back to that in a bit.

So, what exactly is a sales convention? It is not the sort of convention you think of with a convention center hall full of vendor booths. A sales convention is a nice vacation that the company throws for its top producing agents, the small percentage of agents who bring in the most new business. The company puts those agents up at a nice hotel and plans a buffet of interesting group activities and treats. Gratis spa treatments and rounds of golf are fairly common on the activity buffet, because the stereotype of the tax bracket that the qualifying agents inhabit is that men relax playing golf and women relax getting pampered at the spa. The convention includes some meetings and banquets where the cream of the crop are recognized--those who brought in $1,000,000 or more of new business, for example--and where management psyches up the agents for another year of getting doors slammed in their faces, being called all sorts of nasty names, and occasionally having weeks or months with no paycheck. It gives the execs and agents a chance to meet face-to-face, probably the only time in a year that the agents will have in-person contact with the people who can best solve a problem with a client. The sucking up factor is not to be discounted here. In effect, the sales convention is the office Christmas party, except only the most profitable workers get invited.

Emp. Peng. is a life and health insurance broker, though he does not work with AIG, and we had some firsthand experience participating in the exact kind of "junket" that is at the heart of this kerfluffle with AIG. Last summer, one of the companies he contracts with sent us on a trip to Las Vegas. Entirely on the company's tab, we spent four nights at the Bellagio. We were wined and dined every one of those nights. Two nights we were treated to an upscale dinner and a show. One night they rented out Siegfried and Roy's Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat, where we got exclusive access to the animals, the animal keepers, a private dolphin show and a dolphinside buffet dinner with open bar. One night, we had a private banquet punctuated by Rat Pack impersonators. During the day, we had our choice of activities, including not only the spa treatments and golf outings that are getting AIG in trouble now, but also a tour of Hoover Dam and a cooking demonstration luncheon with the resort's head chef in their multimillion-dollar studio kitchen. Except for Hoover Dam, we were taken everywhere by stretch limousine. For all four days, all we had to pay for was breakfast and whatever we did on our free time.

With the activities enumerated like that, it is hard not to consider such an event extravagant. In the bigger picture of the company, though, this is essentially giving a bonus, but only to the two dozen or so of several hundred independent agents who are the most profitable to the company. While I don't know the final cost of the Las Vegas trip (renting out the dolphin habitat is not as costly as it seems: $3,500 flat fee, plus $100 per person for catering), it likely was not any more expensive than giving a pittance of a bonus to everyone, but unlike a universal bonus, the agents have to work harder to bring in enough business to qualify for it. The convention is a carrot that the company dangles out to get agents to bring in more money to the company. Incidentally, this sort of trip is not the reason for high premiums on insurance, any more than annual bonuses paid to supermarket checkers are the reason for the outlandish price of milk. This is keeping the bottom of the corporate food chain happy, and happy corporate plankton is profitable corporate plankton. In fact, by encouraging agents to write more new policies, the conventions help keep premiums down. The bigger the pool of insured people, the lower premiums can be for everyone since risk is spread out further.

Back to the AIG thing. The media reports that the tab for the event was $440,000. That is a lot of money. What they don't report is how many people that covered. The closest I have been able to find is some reports indicating that there were fewer than 10 executives present. Assume a 1:4 executive to agent ratio, which was about what our Las Vegas trip had, and factor in that it is customary that everyone on these trips is allowed to bring a Plus One, and let's call it 80 people. Our Vegas trip had around 50, and was with a smaller company, so 80 people is not an outlandish guess. That's $5,500 per person, not a lot for a high end vacation, especially at a place where the rooms are $600 a night. The $23,380 for spa treatments would get 126 of the spa's least expensive treatments and 65 of the most expensive. So, yes, they went to a posh resort, and that doesn't look all that great in the papers the next morning. On the other hand, a weekend at the Motel 6 and breakfast at Denney's just doesn't make being an insurance agent worth the bother. And it is a lot of bother. That four days in Las Vegas represented more hours I spent with my husband than I had gotten in the previous two months, including sleep time. It is not all that uncommon for him to come home at 10 p.m., exhausted, and have to be out of the house again at 7 o'clock the next morning for another 18 hour day that he will return from famished because he didn't have time for even a snack.

So, what were AIG's alternatives? These conventions are planned a year in advance. One highlight of the final banquet is finding out where next year's convention will be. I can't imagine the execs announce a location without getting a block of rooms booked first, so this St. Regis shindig was probably booked at least a year ago. The bailout became an option less than a month ago. The plane tickets would likely have already been purchased by the time the bailout was offered, and my experience with these conventions is that, however posh the resort is, the company flies you in on the cheap, which means coach, nonrefundable. Had they cancelled the convention, the accounts would still show the company "wasting" several thousand dollars on airfare for tickets not used, and whatever other nonrefundable deposits they had placed a year before the economy started going down in flames.

Even more than that, there is the impact on the workforce. The agents being feted at this wingding were not AIG employees (possibly explaining why media characterizes it as an executive retreat: the execs were the only actual AIG employees there). Most insurance companies work on the commission-only independent contractor system, so the agents are self-employed, not employees. The one and only perk of being an independent contractor with an insurance company is the prospect of going to convention. There is no health insurance--it may surprise you to find out that insurance agents don't get breaks on insurance--no 401(k), no sick days or paid vacation. Even though the conventions are most-expenses-paid, it still means taking time off, and in a commission-only job, if you don't sell (not just "don't work," but "don't sell") you are not getting paid. The agents who went on this "executive retreat" had worked their asses off to get that far, and for the company to pull the rug out from under them at the last minute would create an even worse environment for the agents than there is now. Emp. Peng. would probably have a colorful similie involving sexual frustration here, but he has his own blog if he wants to post those.

The insurance agents are already suffering from conditions beyond their control and not of their doing. Given the media coverage, people are simply not buying AIG insurance products now. The agents can't sell. Fortunately, AIG does not use a captive agent system, so the independent contractors who were selling AIG policies aren't completely screwed. In a captive agent system, the agent is only allowed to represent the products of one company, and if the company goes south, the agents have no prospects for income aside from going to another company and starting at the bottom. AIG used independent brokers who, if they were smart, had a variety of companies at their disposal and could switch to offering policies from other companies. Still, to make convention, an agent almost has to give preference to one company over another in assessing which policy would be most suitable. It is malfeasance for an agent to go with a preferred company to make convention when there is another company in their portfolio that better suits the client's needs, but if all else is equal, there is nothing unethical about an agent steering to a preferred provider. The agents who make convention are the ones who push the company's products the most, and are the best hope for ever making the company profitable again. It is not in the company's long term interest to piss these people off, and that is exactly what would happen if the carrot got snatched away at the last minute, after they had put in all the work. Pissed off insurance agents leave the companies that piss them off. If you like having the same agent for your insurance policies two years running, it is in your best interest to let the companies do what it takes to keep the agents happy and affiliated with them. They really do precious little in this area. That $440,000 was possibly the entire annual "keep the agents from quitting" budget.

Appearances matter, though, and AIG should definitely not be using any of the bailout money to finance the sales convention. Nonetheless, there was a very sound business reason for having this "executive retreat" go on in spite of the troubles with the company. The timing was bad, leaving AIG without any good options for handling the situation, but I think that they may have made a good call in pissing off taxpayers and keeping their agents happy, rather than pissing off taxpayers and the agents. Face it: this "junket" was planned way before the bailout became necessary or possible, so as soon as word leaked out of plans for it, taxpayers and the White House would have found it despicable whether it was allowed to go on or not. At least by allowing the convention to go forward, they have a shot at retaining some of the folks who can save the company in the long run.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

About this Financial Crisis...

I'm sure it is a complex mess of causes and solutions. I just have one question: if the banks are getting bailouts and the CEOs are getting golden parachutes, can I at least get a seat cushion that acts as a flotation device?

Sunday, October 05, 2008

John McCain Ads Using the Same Video Clips as Energy Shot Ads

Here's an ad for John McCain that ran (at least on Tuesday) in Ohio. Pay attention to the video clip in the lower left hand box right at the beginning:

And here is an ad for Five Hour Energy Drink. Pay attention from the 18 second mark to the 22 second mark

That is unmistakably the same lady in an apron and blue shirt. Not faulting them for using stock footage. I don't imagine most campaigns purpose-shoot all of the clips for their ads. Still, after the incident where the sleeping child in Hillary Clinton's 3 a.m. phone call ad turned out to be an Obama supporter and much older now, one would think the campaigns would double check where else the stock footage is being used.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Say What?

Emp. Peng. and I spent the day at Mid-Ohio Con, a lovely comic book convention in Columbus. Whatever the impression given by news coverage of a comic book convention, most congoers are not, in fact, in costume. However, some are, and Emp. Peng. and I found ourselves waiting in line for Alan Dean Foster in front of a mixed-gender pair of stormtroopers. Having some time to kill, we got to chatting with them. After we established that the way female stormtroopers go to the bathroom is to think about it before they leave home, the male component of the pair confessed to not knowing who Alan Dean Foster is. The stormtrooper was more of a movie guy, and despite writing the story for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Alan Dean Foster is decidedly a written-word guy. The next sentence out of the stormtrooper's mouth would have caused me to spit mango smoothie all over stormtrooper armor if I had been insane enough to pay $5.50 for pureed fruit at the stand 10 feet to our right:

I so do not fit in here.
Had he been anywhere else on the planet at that moment, he might have been right. There are a lot of places where a guy dressed as a stormtrooper will not fit in. As a matter of fact, a comic con is about the only place where a person can dress as a stormtrooper and fit in.

Friday, October 03, 2008


Here's a quick read from The Onion. I'll wait here while you go read it.

Are you back? Good. As with everything in The Onion (see prior post on the Alpha Yam that refused to be candied), that was satire. Still, as with most good satire, it brings up an interesting point. Why do we trust 17-year-olds with a two-ton chunk of steel (or whatever it is they make cars out of now), but not their own bodies?

I was not having sex at the age of 17. However, I was driving a car then, a red Volvo sedan. In one memorable instance, on my way to pick up a dozen eggs, I drove that car into the back end of a Ford Taurus with "Happiness is Being a Grandparent" license plate frames. Fortunately, no one was hurt and I didn't even get a ticket. Apparently, the responding officer considered my hysterical sobbing, situated in the Venn Diagram intersection of the sets "Just rear-ended a grandma" and "I just crashed the car...I am sooooooo dead," evidence that my lesson was well learned.

Even more fortunate, my parents were of the opinion that accidents happen, and it was more of a matter of when I would hit something, not if I would. Plus, I think they were just happy that this time, they did not get the news by way of an EMT who, fed up with the receptionist at my father's workplace parroting the company policy against personal phone calls, finally snapped at her, "This is the paramedics. His children have been in an accident. Get him on the phone." We were both fine, but needed some parental guidance regarding what to do about the Pinto we had just totaled. (Note to self: in retrospect, it seems I should avoid Fords).

Among my cohort in high school, car accidents were not unheard of. Neither was teen pregnancy. The accident rate was probably about the same for both. Now, while rear-ending a Taurus is not in the same league of life-altering events as getting pregnant, being involved in a fatal accident is, and I knew a couple of people near my age who were involved in those (only one as the fatality). Yet the grownups do not, for the most part, flip a gasket and insist that teenagers should not be taught to drive responsibly, simply because there is a chance that they could hurt or kill themselves or others. Driving is an essential skill for independent living as an adult unless you live in Manhattan, and best to have them learn and make mistakes while parents can help pick up the pieces when, as will inevitably happen with anything with a learning curve, accidents happen.

Sex is no less essential than driving in adult life. Why then, do we trust teenagers with the car, but not the driver?

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Dunkin Donuts Owes Me Some Trans Fats

Normally, I eat healthy foods. My default diet is mostly lacto-ovo-vegetarian since I like cheese way more than I like meat. Forget about having half of your grains be whole grains; I don't even buy non-whole grains or flours. I will often get my five servings of fruits and vegetables in before 2 p.m. Even when I don't eat healthy foods, I at least eat foods, not the processed corn-syrup laden stuff that some people try to pass off as food (word to the Velveeta fans: if the box has to tell you it is food, it isn't).

This is not to say I am a nutrition Nazi. When I am a guest somewhere, I will eat whatever is put in front of me, even if it violates my No Tentacles rule of food. More to the point, I understand that there are occasions where eating isn't about the nutrition. Sometimes, a person just needs something yummy.

Which brings me to the box of Dunkin Donuts Munchkins I bought today. Those are doughnut holes for the five of you who don't live within shouting distance of a Dunkin Donuts, or are boycotting them until they reinstate all of the letters in "Doughnut." My parents used to buy PengSis and me Munchkins on occasion when I was five or so, and the availability of the chocolate ones in the university cafeteria probably played no small part in how the Freshman 15 became the Sophomore 25. I hadn't had a Munchkin in probably close to 10 years, but today, after my 15th and final trip to the home store to pick up something I needed to fix the house up for our mortgage refinance appraisal--final only because I had three hours before the appraisal--I stopped by a Dunkin Donuts to get myself a little I Survived The Appraisal treat for afterward.

So, near as I can tell, the appraisal went well, and after all I put myself through trying to make sure everything was perfect so the appraisal value will come in high enough so that this eleventh attempt at refinancing will go through. Lest you think I am exaggerating, I am not; in the past year and a half, we have tried no fewer than 10 times to refinance our mortgage, but more on that in another post. At this moment, the next possible hitch is that the house doesn't appraise out high enough. We need it to appraise for about $5,000 more than we bought it for 3 years ago, when the bubble was still inflating. After the stress of this, I decided that I deserved to retreat into some of the comfort food of my youth. Since warm cinnamon pull-apart bread and Dad's coffee cake were not viable options, I went for the doughnut holes.

As mentioned, it has been most, if not all, of a decade since I have set tooth on a Munchkin. Last time I had one, people still thought trans fats were a miracle texture-producing ingredient. Now, the box that the Munchkins come in proudly proclaims "O Grams Trans Fats."

I want the trans fats back. Here is the ingredient list for chocolate glazed Munchkins, my eternal favorite:
Enriched Flour (Bleached Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Sugar, Water, Palm Oil, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil and Partially Hydrogenated Cottonseed Oil with TBHQ and Citric Acid Added to Help Protect Flavor, Cocoa (Processed With Alkali), Contains 2% Or Less Of The Following: Maltodextrin, Whey, Wheat Starch, Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate, Salt, Baking Soda, Soy Lecithin, Nonfat Milk, Xanthan Gum, Modified Food Starch, Polyglycerol Esters Of Fats & Fatty Acids, Propylene Glycol, Artificial Flavor, Mono- & Diglycerides, Sodium Aluminum Phosphate, Egg Albumen, Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose, Soy Flour, Monocalcium Phosphate, Sodium Caseinate, Potassium Sorbate (Preservative), L-Cysteine Hydrochloride, Agar, Citric Acid, Cellulose Gum.
Notice something? Except for the cocoa, and the baking soda, egg albumen and nonfat milk in the "Contains 2% or less of" section, there is not a dang thing on that list that is, strictly speaking, good for you. If you were wondering, Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose and Agar are both vegetarian substitutes for gelatin, and both Sodium Aluminum Phosphate and Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate are leaving agents. Propylene Glycol is used in foods as a solvent for flavorings or colorings. TBHQ, tertiary butylhydroquinone, is a preservative. While everything in the ingredient list is edible, I would not go so far as to say that this is indicative of it being, in aggregate, food. But that's OK. I don't buy chocolate glazed Munchkins for their fiber content (incidentally, .5 gram per doughnut hole). I buy them because I want to eat something yummy.

They were yummier when they had the trans fats. Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose is also an ingredient in stucco. Agar is used as a growth medium in petri dishes. Propylene Glycol is in shampoo and deodorant. Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate is part of what puts the Tartar Control in tartar control toothpaste. A little bit of trans fat isn't the worst thing in a Munchkin.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

December Inflation

Time again for the annual--I think it is annual, anyway, though I can't seem to find the others in the archives--rant about December encroaching on the rest of the year. I am almost tempted to give Wal-Mart a pat on the back for waiting until October to bring out the Santas, but when I stopped by today, the Christmas displays clearly had more than one day's work already completed. Still, I have come to expect that from retail outlets. It is only a matter of time before more stores follow Hallmark's lead and segue straight from Fourth of July merchandise into Christmas tree ornaments.

I know I think this every year, and I probably blog it every other year, but the December Inflation is getting worse. It is bleeding out of retail sales. Today's mail consisted of a bank statement, some coupons, business stuff for Elie, and the December issues of Analog and Asimov's.

It gets worse. I could deal with getting my magazines two months ahead of time, but that is not all they have done. When I went to put the magazines on my To Read stack, I discovered that both magazines are now half an inch taller and a quarter of an inch wider than they used to be. This disturbs me to an extent that suggests that professional help would not be amiss.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Spam, Spam, Cherry, Apples, and Spam

The past few weeks have been apple season here at the Rookery, with my two mature apple trees bearing their little heinies off. One of the cruel effects of apple processing is that for every gallon of apple juice I get, I end up with about 2 1/2 gallons of fiber-rich apple pulp, and that adds up fast. I have frozen it, baked it into bread and waffles, spread it on toast, and am considering patching a crack in the concrete slab out back with it. Mostly, though, I am dehydrating it. The great thing about apple pulp is that it is strong enough to make regular apple leather, and mild enough to use as a carrier pulp for making fruit leathers out of things that are normally too delicate or too expensive to make into fruit leather on their own. So far, I have mixed berry, strawberry, apple spice, mango and black raspberry all in an apple base, and they are absolutely delectible.

Then, there is the cherry. I don't know what went amiss with the bowl of cherry-apple puree, but something did. Gallons upon gallons of the other puree mixes dehydrated right up to and end product indistinguishable from commercial fruit leather, except by the absence of non-fruit crap ingredients. The cherry, on the other hand, has dehydrated into an end product nearly indistinguishable from a massaging gel shoe insole. Seriously, the texture is exactly the same. Only the flavor is different (I assume, considering I have not gnawed on my shoe insoles lately to test). The cherry is tasty enough, but the texture is hard to get past. Worse yet, I still have a loaf pan full of the raw cherry-apple mix. What dehydrates into something with the consistency of a Doctor Scholl's product starts off with a consistency of fruity Spam, and I am still working on a use for what is left.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Another Note About Hooters

As I discovered on my recent trip to Colonial Williamsburg, Hooters has the best steamed shrimp ever.

The Hooters is not actually in the Colonial part of Williamsburg. The only restaurants there are a few taverns, and of those, I must recommend the King's Arms Tavern, specifically the Game Pye, a combination of duck, rabbit and venison in a flaky crust. If you are going to Williamsburg with small children, I recommend not pointing out that it is the Disney Combo Platter, a gravy-soaked mix of Donald, Thumper and Bambi.

Who Approved This Ad Slogan?

Next week starts Breast Cancer Awareness Month, or as we call it at the Rookery, Hooter Consciousness Month. Advertising is already ramping up for the annual Assault of The Pink. Today, I passed a billboard urging women to get mammograms with the slogan:
Put the Squeeze on Breast Cancer

Interesting tactic. I'm still a decade off from my first appointment with the boob squisher, and I'm already dreading finding out what 3 to 20 decaNewtons feels like when clamped down on a body part. Reminding me of what is widely considered to be the worst part of a mammogram is not really likely to make me want to run out and make an appointment.

What's next? "Shove Prostate Cancer Where the Sun Don't Shine"?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Three Things That Should Get People's Larynx Privileges Revoked

3. "That's a great question." Listen to enough interviews--it does not matter with whom--and you will notice a trend. At least once in every interview--regardless of the subject, purpose or interviewee occupation--the interviewee begins an answer with, "That's a great question." You will also notice that it frequently comes in response to a question that is not "great" by any measure. This goes down as the longest verbal pause, as measured in syllables, in the English language.
Anticipated next sighting: Replacing "Better not tell you now" on the Magic 8 Ball.

2. Any formulation of "Wall Street/Main Street." Last winter, I actually waited in line for something like 3 hours, in 20-odd degree weather to hear Barack Obama speak in person. He can be a stunning, inspiring speaker and it would pain me to have that level of oratory silenced. Nonetheless, he has appropriated what was a clever turn of phrase the first 700 billion times we heard it last week, from politicians, news talking heads, and I think a sign language enabled chimp.
Anticipated next sighting: Dolls that talk when you pull the string on their backs (not to be confused with politicians).

1. "If I can do it, anyone can." This one is popular in weight loss advertisements, whether they are paid commercials on TV or unsolicited advertisements spewing forth from an actual person, possibly even a friend, physically in your vicinity. Let's think through this one for a moment. A person (paid or unpaid) is boasting about doing something supposedly so easy that anyone can do it. Doesn't seem like there is much to brag about there, now, does it?
Anticipated next sighting: If the universe has a shred of mercy, nowhere.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Laugh of the Day

A little early for Thanksgiving, the only time most Americans see a yam*, but funny nonetheless.

Alpha Yam Resists Being Candied

It's short. It's audio-only. Go take a bathroom break then give it a listen. You'll be glad of the bathroom break when you get to the part detailing the yam's defense against "aggressive marshmallow attacks."

*-sweet potato, really. The things sold in North American stores as "yams" are not yams at all. Good thing, too, since true yams can be up to 150 pounds. I doubt that there are many families whose Thanksgiving spread--or kitchen, for that matter--has room for a tuber that outweighs the entire population of the Kid's Table.


Ike blew through over the weekend. For some reason, hurricanes like to mosey through Ohio after they make landfall and cause all sorts of photogenic destruction along coastal areas. We got the remains of Katrina, which was just a really impressive rainstorm by the time it made it our way. That's how most hurricanes arrive here: they've blown themselves out hundreds of miles away, and are left dumping all the water. Ike got things backwards. Ike was dry, but still had close enough to hurricane force winds.

We are OK here. The wind blew down some twigs and tossed my neighbor's empty jars of pool chemicals into my yard, but we did not lose power for more than a couple of seconds during the whole ordeal. Judging by the incessant buzz of chainsaws and the local newspaper headlines promising power to 90% of people within a week, we came off this one unscathed

So far, the death toll from the storm is somewhere north of 50 people. To be fair to the hurricane, news media are reporting that many of those deaths are from carbon monoxide poisoning. I'm not sure it is fair to blame the hurricane for people who apparently fail to understand the concept of "Not for indoor use." I do not own a portable generator, but if my waffle iron has to carry the warning label, "Do not use in microwave" (really), I'm pretty sure every generator ever made has "USE THIS OUTSIDE, YOU IDIOT! IT CREATES TOXIC EXHAUST FUMES" plastered over it at least half a dozen times.

Almost as surprising as the number of people who cannot follow simple instructions to position a generator outdoors is the number of people who have had to shelter elsewhere because the power loss has rendered structurally sound homes uninhabitable. For a lot of people--especially city dwellers--the loss of power, even for a week, is an inconvenience. It means no hot water or hot meals, but with enough canned goods and beef jerky (not to mention all the stuff thawing out in the fridge), it is livable, temporarily. Then there are folks like me. I consider electricity an essential for everyday living because without it, not only will the laptop and coffeemaker not work, neither will the faucets. The Rookery is on well water, brought to the house with an electric pump. We lose power, we lose water. The toilets will empty, but won't fill again. Other folks have it even worse off, with septic systems that rely on electricity to move the effluvia from one stage of the system to the next.

Outside of municipal services, such setups are remarkably common. The Rookery is one of 15.4 million U.S households that relies on a private well. Even if we assume an average of only 2 people per household, that is still 10% of the population. One quarter of the population has private septic, and about a third of those are the type that relies on electric pumps. For those of us who rely on electricity to keep our hydration and sanitary facilities running, having a functional generator is the difference between habitable and non-habitable.

That is why I am surprised that permanent standby generators are not more common. Having one installed was the first big thing we did with the Rookery, and it has served us well. A permanent standby generator is a breed apart from the portable ones that get carted out in emergencies and disasters. These are hard-wired into the house and come on within 60 seconds of the generator sensing a power loss to the house, without the homeowner doing anything, including fueling it, since the standby generators hook in to either the natural gas or propane supply to the house. Ours is capable of running about 2/3 of our house as if nothing is wrong--the only things that don't work in a power outage are our laundry room, stove, barn and the lights and outlets in two of the 4 bedrooms. The Big 4 (water, heat, hot water and fridge) all keep humming through any outage, nice as you please.

The standby generators do not come cheap. Ours was about 20 times the cost of a little portable model. That is a small price to pay to know that, as long as our home is standing and not in water, we will always be able to hunker down in it. For us, that seemed like basic emergency preparedness.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Video Evidence of the Superiority of Real Minicopters

This is why actual remote controlled minicopters are superior to the video game (and, PengDad assures me, can be found for $10 less than the video game). Details are sketchy, but I don't think the helicopter sim has an "annoy the cat" mode.

That is my eldest cat, Chessie, and Emp. Peng.'s new Rapid Flight Top Toys R/C Helicopter, meshed into my first experiment with Apple's iMovie software and uploading videos to YouTube. For the record, it took me less than an hour, the bulk of which was trying to navigate YouTube's #@*%! interface since, when I tried to do the easy share from iMovie, YouTube did not want to recognize the password I had created fifteen seconds earlier. I am still looking for this alleged "Password" link on the accounts page.

And if anyone out there is still questioning our geekosity, yes, that is a rocket-shaped lava lamp and an R2-D2 cookie jar (Star Wars Episode III Kellogg promo) holding our Wii peripherals in the background.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Penguins Against Phone Phishing

Ever since we paid off our credit cards, the credit card companies can't seem to go 10 minutes without offering us new accounts, higher limits and lower rates. Discover Card has even forgiven me for that little unpleasantness with my first credit card about 10 years ago and is talking to me again (or at least sending me preapproved offers). The banks were none too keen on lowering my rates a few months ago when I asked because it would have been useful to me, but now that they aren't sucking money out of me on a monthly basis, we're on a race to the bottom of the APR.

They also want to sell me identity theft insurance on the accounts. If I actually answered the phone when these folks called me, I would feel compelled to inquire, "So, let me get this straight. You are offering to let me pay you folks more money so that, in the event that you folks just up and, oh, lose my personal information, I will be protected against fraudulent activity that you folks allow on my account because of your incompetent security?" Not that I have a whole mess of faith in whoever is supposedly regulating these credit card people, but if I had any less, I might think that their ID theft protection insurance sounded an awful lot like the baby sister of "Nice account you got there. Pretty credit rating. Shame if something were to happen to it."

ID theft insurance is still my favorite stupid offer. However, in a related occurrence, this voicemail I just received is right up there:
Don't be alarmed! [PP: Gotta love voicemails that open with that.] This is your final notice for lower rates on your account. Press 1 to speak to an account specialist and lower your rate today. Press 2 to discontinue further notices.
Oooookay then. If this is my Final Notice, does that not logically mean that there should be to be no further notices to discontinue? And wasn't the message last week supposedly my Final Notice For Lower Rates?

And, a word to the...I'm sure fine...folks at whatever phishy outlet is leaving me these messages: legitimate outlets wishing to lower our rates will usually mention which account they are discussing. Also, most people have caller ID these days, and anyone with 2/3 of a brain stem and a working knowledge of the U.S. telephone system knows that 062 is not a valid area code, and thus is most likely caller ID spoofing, which legitimate financial institutions do not do. Of course, I suspect you guys are looking to weed out anyone with 2/3 of a brain stem before you have to spend vital human-phisher resources on coaxing their identity and account information out of them.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

WTF of the Day

A while back, PengDad gave me one of these mini remote controlled helicopters. They are fun little toys, especially around cats. I wish I had video of the time one of our kitties decided she had been buzzed by the minicopter once too often and pulled a King Kong, batting it out of the sky. Trust me, hours of amusement, divided into neat 15-minute segments to accommodate battery life. Coincidentally, that is also my attention span with most playthings.

Today, while out and about browsing at purveyors of another one of my favorite diversions, I found this. Yes, someone has turned minicopters into a Nintendo Wii game.

Now, look closely at those two links. Notice something? Here's a hint: the MSRP is the same on both items. Yep, someone decided minicopters were so cool that they needed a virtual simulation game--an assessment I do not disagree with--and then decided to price it the same as an actual minicopter.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Two Years And Counting

It has been two years since I wrote this. Still sucks mackerel drippings. I don't expect it ever won't. But, time marches on.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Missed the Metaphor by That Much

Much Monday-morning political quarterbacking is being devoted to a forum over the weekend featuring Barack Obama and John McCain at Saddleback Church, mostly devoted to whether or not John McCain was or was not in a "Cone of Silence" while Barack Obama took the first shot at answering the questions. I did not watch the forum, so I can't assess it for myself, but apparently, the contention is that McCain was just a little too good at answering, like he knew the test questions in advance.

Get Smart, the TV show that introduced the world to the original Cone of Silence, was first on TV in 1965, and the first season has recently been released on DVD. Go ahead and pick up a copy. It is a hilarious show, and Barbara Feldon is worth $17 by herself. When you watch it, keep alert for one detail of a running gag that might be relevant to this news cycle:

The Cone of Silence never worked.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Do Not Heckle A Professional Comedian. You Will Not Win.

Last night, Emp. Peng. and I spent a mostly-lovely night out seeing Lewis Black's Let Them Eat Cake tour from the mezzanine of the Palace Theater in Columbus. If you have never heard of Lewis Black, here is a 5-minute sample that, while a few years old, is a fairly decent representation of his work. If you will be offended by f-bombs used as every part of speech except an adverb or use of other words that would be bleeped on basic cable, or are currently located in an environment that would not appreciate such things, please do us all a favor and do NOT start the clip playing.

So, last night, after doing about a half hour of material on how golfers are the second-biggest gamblers on the planet--behind people who lose their virginity on their wedding night--Lewis Black started in on some humorous commentary on current events, such as the headline in yesterday's USA Today, "TSA Considers Airport Gun Ban. He had much the same reaction as I did when I saw that, ("You mean they're not already banned, when I can't bring nail clippers?") only his was much funnier. The guy sitting two seats to my right, who had spent way too much on the $6 mixed drinks at the lobby concession stand, apparently had a different opinion on the overall hilarity. After the first segment, he started getting fidgety and complaining loudly to his date, the lady sitting immediately to my right. Five more minutes of material later, he pulled a cigarette from a pack, threw the rest of the pack at his date, proclaimed he did not need this (excrement), stood up and started storming off. He got almost all the way out before he decided to stop at the edge of the mezzanine railing and yell down to the stage, "I didn't pay to hear the (bleep) news. If I wanted the (bleeping) news, I would have stayed home and watched TV!"

As you can imagine, this brought the performance to a grinding halt, much to the annoyance of those of us who did not pay to hear a drunken heckler. Now, the other thing about Lewis Black is that he has been a touring stand-up comedian for at least 20 years now. In short, this is not his first day here. He calmly strode to the edge of the stage nearest Mr. Drunk Guy and asked if the guy was familiar with his body of work, because this is what he (bleeping) does. There was a too-lengthy back-and-forth between the main attraction, the heckler, and a couple of other people down in the pit who apparently decided that this had turned into Audience Participation Night, but the real show was in the seat next to me. While 99.8% of the audience (me included) was hoping that we could get back to what we paid to come see, I watch the reaction of the guy's date. When the heckler first started shouting, she had that familiar expression of "Why isn't the Earth opening up and swallowing me?" which morphed into "This is going to be a very uncomfortable conversation when we get home." As it became apparent that when you heckle a veteran comedian you will not win, and that the back-heckle was quite funny (though not as hilarious as his usual material), she started laughing right along with the rest of us. She even laughed a little at the bit he used to regain the long-lost audience control, about how one of the bad things about becoming more successful as a comedian is that he used to have an audience who knew what to expect at his performances, and now that audience is bringing their friends.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Skunk Saga, Addendum

Note to the North American native nocturnal marsupial population (and, yes, I believe opossums have internet access): when I said I do not find the odor of skunk offensive, I did not mean that I wanted it to be my new room freshener scent.

Man, that crap lingers.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Adipose Nation

We take a break from the odor to bring you the most useless piece of health "reporting" I have seen in a long time, courtesy of Reuters: All U.S. Adults Could be Overweight in 40 Years.
If the trends of the past three decades continue, it's possible that every American adult could be overweight 40 years from now, a government-funded study projects.
Actually, I shouldn't blame the reporting too much. This is actually some decent reporting on a stupid study. We'll gloss over the "Government-funded" part of the lede (although one wonders how much we paid for what is essentially a graphing and extrapolation problem that a reasonably competent eighth grader could handle) and get to the meat. Extrapolating the trends of the past 30 years out, in 40 more years, every single adult in the US will be overweight.

Kudos to the reporter for pressing the point that this will never actually happen. For one thing, as long as Hollywood is still in the U.S., there will be at least a handful of normal-weight or underweight people. For another, there is almost certainly a point at which anyone who is even slightly susceptible will be overweight. Data on childhood obesity show we may be hitting that point in the younger set, with childhood obesity levels plateauing. The methodology of this "study" is akin to a quote I heard some time ago (which appears to be Google-proof, so I can't source it), "At the rate the Mississippi River is growing, in 100 years, it will reach Brazil."

There is a batter-dipped nugget of truth hiding in the article, though. Overweight is becoming normal, something I have become particularly conscious of as my depenguification efforts get me closer to the clinically Healthy weight range.

It has been an interesting transformation, psychologically. When I started my depenguification last November, I was 45 pounds from "normal." That seemed like a LOT in raw numbers, and even more in the mirror. Having always been heavy, but with a frame that tends to wear extra pounds about as well as they can be worn, I had difficulty seeing where the 45 pounds could be hiding. In the supermarket dairy aisle, 45 boxes of butter seemed like a huge volume, and it didn't seem like there was room for that much excess fat anywhere on my body without evicting a spleen. And that was just to get to a BMI of 24.9, when the Healthy range is 18.5-25.

I have since found and lost 38 of those pounds. Believe me, they were there, and now that I am 7 pounds from the upper edge of the Healthy BMI range, I can definitely see where the rest are, too. Here is where the tale takes a turn to the shallow. For a while, I was going to be content with having lost around 20 pounds. That put me at about the weight I was at when I graduated high school, and 20 pounds is nothing to sneeze at. Sure, I was still clinically overweight, but no longer in the obese range. It seemed like nice progress. Then, Emp. Peng. and I rented The Transformers DVD. There is a scene where Megan Fox, wearing something that barely qualifies as a halter top, raises the hood of the Camero and leans in. In that moment, I decided I wanted that tummy. I told you it was shallow. I realize that I have about as much chance of achieving the physique of #16 on Maxim's Hot 100 list as my Mr. Potato Head has of achieving sentience and winning the Nobel Prize in Physics. Still, there was proof that such a tummy was possible for someone. There is an outside chance I could at least get close. If nothing else, there was a target to shoot for.

That is the danger, as much as the health concerns resulting from a 100% overweight population, if the trend line continues. Our perception of normal gets distorted (and yes, I see the irony here that my Dream Tummy is not normal either, being under the healthy weight range). When we re-normalize physiques so that overweight is the new average, we lose the ability to perceive what a healthy-weight body should look like. When I first started my depenguification efforts and declined offers of unhealthy foods with the comment that I was trying to lose some weight, the almost universal reaction was "You don't look like you need to lose weight." Mind you, at the time, I was clinically obese. I can't discount that such comments were mere politeness, but that does strike me as anecdotal evidence that, even at the current rates of overweight and obesity, we are getting to be terrible judges of what healthy builds look like.

Skunk Saga, Chapter III

OK, it seems there are some pros and cons to ignoring a skunk carcass in the hostas and hoping it goes away. On the plus side, it actually did go away. The prospect of having to inter the aft portion of a deceased skunk kept me up most of Saturday night, but by Sunday morning, there was naught but a tuft of black and white fur where the skunk had met its end. Relieved of the duty of skunk mortician, I went about my business until Monday night, when, in the middle of watching Friday night's episode of Stargate: Atlantis on the TiVo, Emp. Peng. and I noticed a certain unmistakable odor wafting through the living room, seemingly originating near the window air conditioner. The aroma also settled into his office, which has a window located carcass-adjacent. This was, to put it mildly, not good. However, there was nothing I was going to do about it at 10:30 p.m., so we set the Ionic Breeze up to try to clear the odor out of the office and once again resorted to the "Ignore it and hope it goes away" tactic.

Once again, the strategy worked. By morning, the odor was gone, as were any remaining skunk fragments. Life was good and fresh. Until about 10:30 p.m. that night, when the smell was back, bigger than before. This time, I hit the porch light to get a visual inspection, fully expecting to see that the skunk had a relative taking its revenge on us. It was a somewhat more distant relative than I expected. There, just off the stoop, was a fully three-dimensional and mobile opossum, apparently looking around for anything he had missed. Opossums being carrion-eaters, it is a reasonable conjecture that he is the one who extracted the skunk carcass for me. I suspect it is also reasonable that he did not take care to avoid the scent glands and is now roaming the area bathed in a full dose of skunk musk.

The thing I am learning about skunk musk (other than that I am in the minority of the population that doesn't find it an offensive odor): it lingers. After two nightly passes from the Bearer of The Skunk Musk, there is a persistent, faint skunkiness around the entire front of the house. I expect that at this point, it is a matter of waiting for it to dissipate naturally, since there is no fixed point-source of the problem.

It does give me a good idea for a home security system to deter the door-to-door religion salespeople and trick-or-treaters, though. You take an infrared detector and a vial...

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Nice run while it lasted

So much for Woodrow's friend. I'm not a wildlife expert, but that sure looks like a skunk carcass between the hostas and the dicentra. Not that I'm planning on getting up close to check for sure that he hasn't just found a really odd place for a skunk to take a nap. For that matter, it's a really odd place for a skunk to keel over.

This, of course, leaves me with an interesting problem--namely a skunk carcass about 10 feet from my front door--that is only going to get worse if scavengers don't find it soon. Suggestions?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Five Things Fast Food Restaurants and Strip Clubs Have In Common

  1. The product looks much better in the ads
  2. Stupid, yet practical (for the job) dress code for employees
  3. Both take care of basic biological needs in the most unsatisfying way possible
  4. In spite of bad reputations, they manage to stay in business
  5. Los Angeles is limiting where the establishments can be located.

The fast food restaurant folks are not any happier about #5 than the strip club owners are.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Marmota Brought A Friend

Woodrow has been making daily foraging runs to the orchard lately, and he seems to have found company. This morning, I looked out the window and saw a skunk wandering across the side yard.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Greetings, ICBD Readers

Since Emp. Peng. pointed the internet to me as the Rookery's resident expert on the Large Hadron Collider (and I would like to point out that, outside the Rookery, I am not much of an expert on the topic), I figured I should provide the rundown of the reasons that the LHC will not annihilate the planet. Actually, I will provide a link to an actual astronomer who has actually gone to the LHC, explaining why the LHC will not annihilate the planet. And a link to his followup post. While I am at it, I'll give a tip o' the beak to Phil Plait, my favorite blogger to whom I am not married. He has a marvelous way of making physics and astronomy comprehensible to those of us who decided not to take calculus.

There are two main reasons some people think the LHC may obliterate the planet. First, the collider may create little black holes, and having one of those on Earth is probably not a good idea, as far as the continued existence of the planet goes. For the second potential doomsday scenario, the collider might create theoretical particles called strangelets, and if too many strangelets get together, it will be like the Tribble episode of Star Trek, except that instead of William Shatner getting buried by Space Gerbils, all matter in the vicinity--including William Shatner, us, and any space- or Earth-based gerbils--gets converted into theoretical particles. Neither one of these is a cause for concern, though. The folks running the LHC, who would be right in the thick of any annihilation, aren't worried about it, and they understand the math behind why they are not. Since I do not understand the math, I will defer to them. The non-math-intensive reasons they are not concerned:

1. The physics that would allow for the creation of black holes in the LHC also require that the black holes evaporate. The physics that would allow for a black hole to not evaporate instantly do not allow for the creation of black holes under the circumstances that the LHC will provide. Either we get black holes that go poof! or no black holes at all. Whichever way it ends up, we are pretty much safe from finding out firsthand what spaghettification feels like. And, yes, "spaghettification" is the technical term for what happens when you are subjected to a massive gravity fields and your feet get attracted to the gravity well faster than your head.

2. No one is entirely certain strangelets are real. In the event that they are real, better circumstances than the LHC for creating them exist naturally on the Moon. Since the Moon has not been converted into Theoretical Space Gerbil Particles, odds are we won't be either when the LHC gets up to speed.

Now, Here's An Interesting Development

The key ingredient for my Scoop of Bliss grows wild at the fringes of my yard. I'm looking at taming some into a hedge, but that is not the point of this post. The point of this post is that I discovered recently that my primary black raspberry patch is conveniently located directly inside a patch of poison ivy. The strange thing is, I discovered this by identifying the vines running 25 feet up adjacent pine trees and noticing that the same stuff was growing in a much shorter form in the berry patch--the berry patch I have been wading knee-deep in for two weeks now, wearing shorts until a few days ago when I got tired of the thorn scratches. I have gotten scratches and mosquito bites aplenty picking the berries, but nary a hint of any sort of painful, blistering rash.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Random Conversations over Overpriced Gas

After filling my tummy with a soft pretzel at Sam's Club--for reasons yet to be determined, Sam's has the best soft pretzels this side of Philly--I headed over to fill up the car. I have no idea how people with huge cars deal with that task. My Prius has a 10 gallon tank. Any bigger than that, and I would have to bring along a sudoku to the filling station. Today, the job of alleviating my pump boredom fell to further observances of fuel cap placement as it relates to the automobile's country of origin. I am in a long-term observational project to determine a pattern to whether a gas cap is placed on the driver's or passenger's side. I was so engrossed in contemplating the Ford behind me that--contrary to most of my observations to date--had the gas cap on the passenger side, that I did not notice the man in his early 60s on the opposite side of the pump from me, staring at my chest.

Guys staring at my chest is not usually a blogworthy occurrence. I get that a lot (thanks, Mom, wink). This guy was different, though. Rather than trying to pretend he did not see me noticing what he was up to, he actually initiated conversation with, "I was just reading your shirt."

I had to look down to see which shirt he was talking about. After all, who remembers what shirt they put on? This morning, in my pre-coffee bleariness, I had pulled on my shirt advertising Austin Grossman's novel, Soon I Will Be Invincible. On the front, it has emblazoned in big letters, "This is what a supervillan looks like." Emp. Peng. has the other one in the set, "This is what an evil genius looks like." I borrow that one for Mensa meetings sometimes. The man in the Men's Garden Club baseball cap continued, "So that is what one looks like."

Yup. A gal pushing 30, leaning against an aqua Prius and shaking the last remnants of a brain freeze from the 4-berry milkshake that didn't taste half as good as the black raspberry ice cream. The quintessential supervillian. I answered with the only thing I could come up with on short notice. "Of course. If we looked like we look in the comics, people would find us."

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Scoop of Bliss

This works best (read: at all) if you have access to fresh or frozen blackcaps. They grow wild here at the Rookery. With fairly constant access to the main ingredient for several weeks, I am starting to resume my former penguinesque physique. I won't say it is necessarily worth it, but it is gooooood.

2 cups black raspberries (if using frozen, thaw and keep the juices)
1 squeeze lemon or key lime juice
3/4 cup + 3 tablespoons sugar
2 cups heavy whipping cream
2 eggs (or 1/2 cup pasteurized egg-in-a-carton if you're going to be a wuss about salmonella)
1 splash (about 1/4 cup) milk

Toss the raspberries with the lemon or lime juice and 3 tablespoons sugar and let sit for 1 hour. Raspberry juice will start to leak out. After an hour, stir the berries and run them through a blender for a few seconds to get berry puree. Set the puree aside for a moment. Run 2 eggs through the blender until well beaten, then add 3/4 cup sugar and pulse for a few seconds longer to combine. In a medium bowl, combine the egg/sugar mix, the whipping cream, and the splash of milk. Add the berry puree. Freeze in an ice cream freezer until the paddle stops spinning. Serve with a side of defibrillator paddles.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Marmota Watch Update

After an extended absence that made me wonder if he had succumbed to predation, Woodrow has shown his fuzzy snout again. Seems that he was just waiting for the midsummer buffet to start. Yesterday, he was perched under the apple tree nibbling the June drops. He even made a foray over to the pear tree, looking for his preferred foodstuff--when both trees are dropping fruit, he keeps the area under the pear trees clean enough to eat off--but seeing none, scampered back to his den. Lucky for me, Woodrow does not seem to have figured out that groundhogs can climb trees. That, or like so many of the varmints around here, he is just inherently lazy and figures he can wait for the fruit to come down to him. That is much the same strategy as I used when deciding whether I should bother to learn to walk.

Emp. Peng. Has a Blog

Check it out. Now I will definitely have to start posting more regularly. He is not instituting the PG-13 rule I have here at Penguin Perspectives, so be prepared for some occasional Language We All Use Yet Pretend People Are Too Delicate To Hear.

Monday, June 30, 2008

I Have Seen The Future, and it is Spoutless

The very day this article appears in the New York Times touting a new environmentally friendly redesign of the milk jug, I happened to be at Sam's Club--one of the early adopters of the new jug design--and in need of milk. Welcome to the future of your milk jug, folks:

Here at Penguin Perspectives, we strive to do all the awkward stuff first, so you don't have to wind up on the great cosmic blooper reel. In that spirit, here's a rundown of the new milk jug experience.

The new design eliminates the little plastic ring around the cap, replacing it with a foil under-seal. The difference is that I needed a fork to get the ring off and a knife to get the foil seal off. The pour experience, much maligned in the NYTimes article, is on par with a lemonade pitcher. As a matter of fact, if you can hit a glass pouring liquid out of a pitcher, the new jugs won't be much of a challenge. The milk aperture is a little on the wide side and there is not a lot of headspace, making flow control on the first pour or two somewhere between "dicey" and "nonexistent." I made my first experimental pour into a juice cup, and while I did not spill, I had filled the 8-ounce cup with my first slosh out of the carton. The flow control got better once there was about an inch and a half of space between the top of the jug and the milk level. In sum, don't try to add milk to your morning coffee out of a newly-opened jug if you would like the milk:coffee ratio to remain tilted in favor of coffee. In future jugs, I will check to see if merely punching a pour hole into the foil underseal fixes that problem.

With the new jug design lacking more than a vestigial spout, I had assumed that my days drinking straight from the carton were over. Not so. It takes considerably more lower lip dexterity, but still a manageable feat. And no, I don't drink from the carton when we have guests at the Rookery. Then, I get a glass.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Bucket Not Included

Polish and Canadian researchers have determined that 90% of people can carry a tune. The data were obviously not collected on Karaoke Night.

I really must stop being annoyed by this

So this afternoon, I'm at the sink draining a can of chunk light tuna in water (and as a side note, when did "chunk" tuna stop having chunks in it larger than individual tuna cells?) when I see the notice on the side of the can:
Allergy warning: contains tuna

If that is what it takes for a tuna-allergic customer to realize he or she is about to embark on a tunapalooza, rather than, say, the big letters on the front of the can that say "Tuna" or the big sign that says "Tuna" over the shelf display in the supermarket...well, there is a fine line between deserving a Darwin Award and asking for one.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Headline Sampler Platter--Because With Food Prices Like This, You Can't Afford the Entree

Honey bee crisis could lead to higher food prices

Midwest flood may cover nation in higher food prices

Costly corn creeping into grocery prices

Before the midwest went underwater, the news was abuzz with how much the skyrocketing cost of fuel was adding to the grocery bill. Maybe the media should save some time and energy, and tell me what isn't making my milk cost more every time I go to the store.

Either that, or we all take a lesson from this headline from KHNL in Honolulu, Hawaii: Rising Costs of Food Leave Some Looking for Other Options. Other options to food are starting to look better and better every week that I go grocery shopping. Oh, and note to Hawaiians: having eaten poi, I can confidently say that you guys have already found another option to food.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

I Am The Queen of Dorkopolis

Tonight, Emp. Peng. and I got invited to a wingding where, among other things, they were serving jello shots and pudding shots. I have a glancing familiarity with jello shots, although (as will become clear in a moment) I have never actually imbibed one. Pudding shots, though, were a new one on me. Apparently, they are sort of like a dollop of chocolate mousse spiked with Bailey's Irish Cream. I was curious, so I got one.

It was not for another three hours that I found out one is not supposed to eat them with a spoon.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Waddling in Memphis

Emp. Peng. and I were migratory again last weekend, this time to Memphis. It was not a destination of our choosing, and (with respect to any Memphibians out there) not really a place we would go back to. That does not mean it is completely without its charms. A few lessons learned:
  1. Elvis had, um, interesting tastes in interior decorating. While I do not intend to implement it in the Rookery, green shag carpet actually works surprisingly well as a ceiling cover.
  2. Tequilla bad. Very bad.
  3. Barbecue good. Very good.
  4. When the Purveyor of Barbecue offers a bib, take it.
  5. Do not ask the Purveyor of Barbecue for butter. You will not get it.

One night, we went to a place called Jim Neely's Interstate Barbecue for dinner. Emp. Peng. and I both had the Sampler Platter, described on the menu as "A Trip to Hog Heaven! Pork Ribs, Beef Ribs, Links, Beef Brisket, Pork Shoulder, B-B-Q Spaghetti, Beans, Slaw and Bread." One of our dining companions described it as "Almost as good as sex." The meat really is that good, and that messy. Having gnawed through approximately 1/3 of a mammal worth of meat, leaving a stack of bones in a puddle of grease and barbecue sauce, Emp. Peng. asked the waitress for a bit of butter to go with his bread, only to be told "We don't do butter here. It's bad for you."

"Bad for you" seems to be the guiding principle of Southern cuisine, where the Official Appliance is the Fry Daddy. I am not sure it is legal to serve something south of the Mason-Dixon line that does not contain lard, bacon grease, or both. The only vegetable I saw the whole time there was the dish of cole slaw served with the Sampler Platter, and even that was drowning in enough mayonnaise to cause a coronary event in a small whale. We did see some fruit, both at the continental breakfast and between two slices of Wonder Bread slathered in Skippy, coated in butter and grilled to a golden brown (BTW, yummy, but I can see how it would kill a man).

Given that, Emp. Peng. considered butter an odd place to draw the line.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Are Penguins an Aphrodesiac or Something?

News story from Reuters today is headlined, "Antarctica Base Gets 16,500 Condoms Before Darkness," and while that would seem like a fairly self-explanatory headline, the reporter does point out that this is a year's supply for McMurdo Base.

Let's do the math. 16,500 divided by 365 works out enough prophylactics for 132 encounters per day, every day, or 264 scientists not watching the penguins on a daily basis. In the winter, that is more than are actually at McMurdo. Even for the summer population of 1,000, that is a lot of pair bonding.

Apparently, being surrounded by an ice shelf and two penguin colonies is better than oysters or powdered rhino horn. I bet the oysters and the rhinos like it better, too.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Maybe It's the Lips?

I may be something of a city girl, inasmuch as I prefer to vacation in facilities where the walls are made of wall, but I am somewhat sanguine in the ways of the meat. While I have never personally slaughtered a chicken, I know where McNuggets come from. Bad example. I don't think anyone, including Ray Kroc, knows where McNuggets come from. Let's just say that I am under no delusions that boneless, skinless chicken breasts sprout in little styrofoam trays at the supermarket. While I promised Emp. Peng. that the Rookery would be a "no livestock" zone (the resident cat lumps often straining the definition of "live," let alone "stock"), I have no compunction about paying someone else to raise my livestock for me. No omnivore does, but in my case, I pay the person directly.

The farmer I get my beef from is branching out into poultry. Yesterday I put dibs on 4 chickens that Kathy tells me will be free range if they ever get up the bird cajones to leave the barn. As part of the dibs-calling process, Kathy walked me through the per-chicken costs ($1.75 to slaughter and de-entrail them, 10 cents for whatever "De-necking" means, etc.). Since these will be custom slaughtered per pre-order, I have options about whether I want my birds whole, split, quartered, or the seven-piece cut.

Hold the phone. Seven pieces? Chickens, like most birds, mastered bilateral symmetry ages ago. Draw a line down the middle of a chicken, and you end up with one of everything on each side. That should leave an even number of chicken parts. We can't figure out what that seventh piece is.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Get out the Ear Floss

Emp. Peng. is a member of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors--NAIFA for short. Tonight, the local group had a wingding at the local theater, with hors d'ouvres and a social hour in the basement of the local theater, then a night of live improv comedy. He had told the theater usher to direct anyone here for the NAIFA event downstairs. About a half hour after the social hour had started, we were wondering why more people were not there. Turns out the usher thought that downstairs was where the theater was holding the NAFTA event.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Waiting Room Observations

Things I noticed while the doctor's office staff sort of forgot I was there this morning:

  • The clock on the pencil holder was 11 minutes faster than the clock on the wall
  • The sign should have read, "Patients who are in for physicals should wait to provide a urine sample," not "Patients that..." Though it took much restraint, I did not grab one of their Lamasil pens and correct that sign.
  • A "healthy seating area" in a doctor's office is slightly less useful than a "non smoking section" in a restaurant. The germs don't know not to hop over two chairs.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Blooper Reel

I was video chatting with PengSis, PengBrotherInLaw (who needs a shorter nom de blog) and the fledglings tonight, sitting on my big inflatable exercise ball, when I got a graphic illustration of why it is inadvisable to own both inflatable furniture and cats. One minute, I was sitting there chatting, then Chessie walked behind me. One stealthy claw, a quiet pop! and a much less quiet expletive later, I was on the floor, atop what is now a giant floppy Pac-Man. Unfortunately, I do not have video of the event, but PengSis may be able to elaborate on the visuals. Such is the power of webcams, that they bring your bloopers 3,000 miles so that your siblings can share them, live.