Friday, August 07, 2009

Stay Tuned

I am healing from a penguin-inflicted injury. Yes, I got close enough to a penguin that I could be injured, and in keeping with someone who sprained a foot knitting, I managed to sustain some beaking damage. Full story in a couple of days.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Something Else for the Health Care Debate

I don't see a lot of advertising, so I hope you will overlook that my astonishment is about seven months late. I was 15 seconds into a spot that I assumed was a new snake oil mascara when I heard "Latisse is the first and only FDA-approved treatment for inadequate or not enough lashes."

WTF? "Inadequate or not enough lashes?" Just because you name something "Eyelash hypotrichosis," that doesn't make it a medical condition (with all due respect for the--I'm guessing twelve--people in this country suffering from debilitating eyelash hypotrichosis). Turns out that Latisse was originally a glaucoma drug. Some enterprising person in R&D noticed that people taking the glaucoma eyedrops had lashes to die for. Thus, they figured out a way to deliver the drug directly to the lash folicles and went through the entire FDA approval system (which pharmaceutical companies happily remind us is fraking expensive when we ask why miracle eyelash-growing drugs cost $120 a month) so they could directly market the same drug, in lower concentrations with the promise of looking like Brooke Shields. I kid you not, Brooke Shields is the posterperson for a drug now.

There are a whole lot of things wrong with health care in America, and this may be an odd place for me to draw the outrage line. Seriously though, we rank 30th--dead last among developed nations--in the percentage of infants who make it to their first birthday. People are dying of actual diseases, and companies are putting their resources into curing "inadequate or not enough eyelashes." I really don't care that 90% of the drug's development was for glaucoma, which is, unlike inadequate eyelashes, something that harms people. The company still devoted resources to testing and getting approval of the drug as an eyelash growth serum.

Incidentally, the logo for the company that makes/markets Latisse, Allergan, looks an awful lot like the logo for Veridian Dynamics. That alone ought to tell you something (other than that, if you actually had to click the link for Veridian Dynamics, you really need to start watching Better off Ted).

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


When I die, please don't make my obituary as sappy as this one for the Taco Bell Chihuahua.

Monday, July 20, 2009

We Chose to Go to the Moon

Forty years ago today, the first human beings set foot on an extraterrestrial body. I, of course, don't remember it. We came, we saw, and we left 6 years before I was born. Think about that for a moment. People are constitutionally eligible to be President of the United States who have never lived in a time when humans have stood on another world.

We've had low-Earth orbit most of my life. NASA was testing Enterprise before I was born, and by the time I was 3, they had regular shuttle launches going. It wasn't watching humans walk on the moon, but I was excited nonetheless. When my grandparents got a VCR, they recorded all the shuttle launches for me to watch. There was something about watching the plume of fire and smoke push people into space that captivated my imagination. People went into space. Challenger put a stop to the televised launches.

People argue that the space program diverts funds that could be used here on Earth. I don't know the exact numbers, but I don't think there was less poverty, hunger and overall human misery to be ameliorated in 1962 than there is now. By 1969, there were wars on both nations (North Vietnam) and common nouns (poverty), domestic unrest and any number of other things that needed American attention and funds like they do now. Still, we chose to go to the Moon.

In an episode of Star Trek: Voyager, Seven of Nine makes a toast to an unborn baby, "May all her dreams come true except for one, so she might always have something to strive for." In 1962, putting a man on the moon must have seemed like a pipe dream. Forty years after the fact, our ambitious national goal might have been our undoing. Michael Griffin has an excellent op-ed explaining how that can be. We put a man on the moon and brought him safely home. Having met the ambitious goal, we had nothing left to strive for. Forty years hence, we've lost the will to reach for the stars.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

I Do Not Think that Book Means What You Think It Means

So, the internet is abuzz with outrage over Amazon rectifying a problem with some sales of unauthorized digital editions. To get the obvious out of the way, Amazon handled the situation poorly. First off, a distributor of digital books on the level of Amazon should have some kind of safeguard in place to prevent this sort of thing--and by that I mean someone posting a digital book for sale that they don't have distribution rights to sell in digital format. Second off, removing the book from people's Kindles without warning was probably not a good plan. Third, Amazon should have been way more proactive with the message that, yes, they disabled the content, but they refunded the purchase price and legitimate digital editions of the books in question are available.

Most of the buzz focuses on the (apparent) irony that one of the books in question was 1984 by George Orwell. I say apparent because, as I will get to in a moment, the outrage is an example of the Alanis Morissette definition of ironic. The news headlines are variations on the them of "Amazon puts Orwell down the Memory Hole." Blogosphere comments are typically running with the theme of "Amazon is doubleplusungood and broke into my house to steal my stuff and this is why I'll never buy a Kindle." I'm still trying to figure out how Amazon steals your "stuff" if you don't own the product with which you can read the stuff they "stole" with a complete refund, but this is the internet. Leave your logic at the router.

People--and I include both headline writers and the anonymous internet commenters in that category, although the quality of some of the comments leads me to think that the infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of keyboards may have learned hit "submit"--seem to think they're clever sprinkling Orwell references in their writing. They're not. This whole situation has reinforced my conviction that roughly 95% of people who use the word "Orwellian" have never actually read any of the works of Orwell. They heard somewhere that 1984 is about the government trying to control what the population thinks, and that, in the book, the government rewrites English so that words mean the opposite. They've heard Doubleplusungood, thoughtcrime, Big Brother and War is Peace, and they run with that. When I become head of the Party, no one gets to reference Orwell without proving they have, in fact, read the book. If you don't get that, go read 1984 and come back when you've finished. It's only 250-odd pages long.

You see, 1984 doesn't mean what people make it out to mean. Yes, the government revises the past and is rewriting English to avoid the possibility of dissent once the words for it no longer exist (gotta love the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis). However, at the core of it, the government control of people's thought works only because people believe what Big Brother tells them, unquestioningly.

This, not the deletion of bootleg copies of 1984, is the real irony of Amazon's situation. The internet is up in arms because they read that Amazon broke into people's Kindles and took away the books they bought legally. They don't need to go look for the facts of what really happened, which, unlike in 1984 have not been systematically deleted. These people have read what they read, and they're ready for the Two-Minute Hate against Amazon for it. Like the denziens of Oceania, blogophiles don't need to think for themselves. Someone has told them what happened, so that must be true.

1984 is hardly alone bearing the burden of popular misunderstanding as to its content. Somewhere in middle school or high school, kids get assigned to read Fahrenheit 451, and teachers drill in an anti-censorship message. I have it on good authority, specifically, straight from the mouth of Ray Bradbury at a Comic Con panel I attended, that Fahrenheit 451 was motivated by his distaste for television. Bradbury pointed out that the one vital thing that people miss when reading that book, and teaching it, is that people didn't start burning books until after they stopped reading them. Voluntarily. Once you're finished with 1984, go back and reread Fahrenheit 451. You'll notice that the author has a point.

As Emp. Peng. is detailing over on Intercontinental Ballistic Discourse, he is in the process of renovating our library. We're segueing from a temple of pop culture to the library of an autodidact. He has systematically made a list of the books that embody the high points of human knowledge, and is in the process of acquiring them. The next part of the plan is to actually read them. He's far ahead of me, having started in on the great ancient and modern philosophers. I'm thinking I'll start with the works that get referenced in pop culture. All too often, the books do not mean what people think they mean.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Do They Have Gardenholics Anonymous?

I think I may have a problem (you can stop laughing now) (no, really). It's probably perfectly normal to go to the garden center for some cilantro seeds, see the clearance rack and impulsively pick up a 4-pack of Super Chili Hot Pepper seedlings just because they're 88 cents for a 4-pack and the name is intriguing. I mean, that's what clearance racks are for, right? Buying stuff you don't really need because you already have 2 dozen hot pepper plants at home. It's a whole other breed of crazy to come home, look around the yard for somewhere to plant the 4 cute little seedlings, then spy the edge of the front walk and think, "Y'know, that would be the perfect place for these if I had eight more to fill out the bed."

I'm at the breed of crazy where I do all that, then turn around and actually drive back out to the nursery to get a dozen Super Chili Hot Peppers to convert a former hosta bed into a hot pepper hedge.

So, let this be a warning to anyone visiting the Rookery. I don't know what will be on the menu, but it will be spicy.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Unintentionally Funny

I present a transcript of an actual conversation that passed in the Rookery. We have preliminary harvest going on and I am blanching veggies for the freezer daily. The container of lettuce outside appreciates the daily dose of blanching water, so I leave the pan on the stove to cool.

Emp. Peng: Why are you boiling urine?
Me: That's not urine, that's pea water. (pause while I listen to what just came out of my mouth). That came out wrong.
Emp. Peng.: I think that came out just right.
Me: It's water from blanching peas.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Thoughts on Tax Day

The sun has set on another April 15, and here in the eastern time zone, folks have 2 hours and 12 minutes to get their returns to the post office.

Hating taxes seems like the American birthright. The colonies severed the bonds of the mother country in part because of unfair taxation policy that treated the colonies like an 18th century ATM. Apparently, in the intervening years, we have lost the distinction between fair and unfair taxes. The Revolutionaries' problem with things like the Stamp Act wasn't that it was a tax. It was that it was a tax levied by by the British Parliament. Colonists questioned Parliament's authority to levy taxes on colonists without consulting with the colonial governments who handled administrative issues in the colonies. It wasn't even a matter of a lack of Parliamentary representation. Parliamentary representatives at the time represented the good of the British Empire as a whole, including the colonies. In a way, everyone was represented, and no one was. Procedures existed for petitioning Parliament for colonists to sit in Parliament, but the logistics of actually having a colonial delegation were nightmarish, and besides, the colonies never asked.

We make the mistake of teaching this level of nuance in high school, at an age where students retain very little information about anything that does not have a cute butt. As a side note, this is why we need to teach American History using less of Gilbert Stuart's portrait and more of Horace Greenough's 1841 statue showing George Washington half naked and ripped. Since taxation policy isn't sexy no matter how you slice it, opposition to unfair taxes became opposition to any taxes. The annual national grumbling on April 15 doesn't help matters. Kids grow up hearing mom and dad moan about taxes in the middle of April, and the dislike of taxation transmits to another generation.

People hate taxes. You know what people don't hate? The stuff taxes gets them. They like Social Security and Pell Grants. They like food and drugs that don't kill them. They like roads (note to the department of transportation: they like roads that don't sprout the same potholes like clockwork every October even better). They like those military snipers who took out the Somali pirates. All of that costs money, and money comes from taxes. You really want to Support Our Troops? Stop bitching at the very mention of a tax increase, since taxes are how we pay our troops, and if we don't have enough tax money, we can't pay the Troops.

I actually don't mind paying my fair share of taxes. I get a lot in return. The police come when I call. The township keeps the road in front of my driveway from flooding. A taxpayer-funded program got me into college, and federal student aid kept me there. Without taxes, I'd probably still be in a job where I showered when I came home to get the nauseating combination of fryer fat and cigarette smoke out of my hair. So I'm OK with taxes. Not OK enough to pay more than I need to, but I don't mind paying for all the stuff government gives us.

Here's the kicker, though: I don't actually pay taxes. At least not this year. We paid the usual FICA stuff for Social Security and Medicare, but our income tax this year was $0, even with a gross income that places us solidly middle class for a family of two. We have an honest-to-goodness accountant (not the people at H&R Block) do our taxes and consult with us throughout the year on the tax consequences of major financial decisions. He advises us of ways we can reduce our taxes, but has never suggested anything more exotic than planning IRA contributions to maximize the available tax credit.

During the campaign, Obama talked about raising taxes on people earning more than $250,000. People oppose this, mostly because we want to believe that one day, we will be that person earning $250,000 a year. It's April 15, the time of year where our financial lives are slapped before us in black and white. It's a great time to assess the reality of your financial situation.

Take a look at Line 22 of your 1040 form. That's your total income. How close is it to $250,000? Be honest. If you need to, take a calculator, divide 250,000/total income and see just how many years it takes you to earn $250,000, gross. If that number is, say, four, can you envision a realistic scenario wherein your income will quadruple before you retire? If this scenario involves winning the lottery, factor in that any jackpot less than $5 million still leaves your 20-year annuity payments below the $250,000 threshold. For you hourly workers, can you envision a scenario where you are making $120.19 per hour, every hour? That's what it would take for 52 forty-hour workweeks to put you over the $250,000 mark. Even if you put in 80-hour workweeks and worked through Christmas, the family vacation and the worst case of stomach flu imaginable, you'd still need a job that paid a dollar a minute.

While you've got the calculator out, divide 3,500,000 by your total income. The result is how many years you would have to save every penny you make, not even buying a stick of gum or a kilowatt of electricity for light and heat, to have your estate subject to the estate tax. Life expectancy is around 78 years. Do you really have that many years and that much financial discipline left?

With bailout numbers in the trillions getting thrown around, it is easy to lose persepective on just how much $250,000 is compared to what we actually make now. With all the bubbles being burst in the economy, I almost hate to be the one to burst this one. Fact of the matter is, though, most of us are never going to make a quarter million a year, nor are we going to have $3.5 million to leave to the kids.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Bunny Thoughts

In another social media venue, my sister posed the question of why Easter, which is the more monumental Christian holiday, isn't as anticipated as Christmas. After much thought, here's what I came up with:

It all comes down to the date. It wasn’t until the fourth century that church leaders even decided that Jesus’ birth was something that ought to be celebrated, and by then, the exact date had been long lost (assuming anyone even took particular note of Jesus’ DOB in the first place). With only one easily overlooked temporal clue in the account of the nativity, basically, the entire calendar was the church’s oyster when it came to deciding a feast day for Christmas.

Pope Julius I (pope from 337-352) settled on December 25 for Christmas. Now, it wasn’t until 394 that non-Christian religions were actually outlawed in the Roman Empire, but the writing was on the wall by Pope Julius I’s time. Although the December 25 date runs contrary to the one textual clue for the time of Jesus’ birth, December 25 did have one thing going for it: Saturnalia, one of the big party days in ancient Rome. People don’t like to give up a good feast day.

Case in point: modern Christmas itself. In this multicultural, multi-religious society compounded by a legal mandate against state-supported religion, having a Christmas celebration in a government facility (e.g. public school) is legally untenable. Did people stop celebrating Christmas? No. They started calling it “Holiday” or “Winter Festival” or some religiously-neutral phrase, threw in a nod to Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, and carried right on as they did before. People grouse about a War on Christmas, of course, but when given a choice between not celebrating or celebrating while calling the celebration by the officially-approved name, even modern Christians choose Option B. Early Romans did the same thing; they kept Saturnalia, tossed in a Nativity scene and called it Christmas.

The other great thing about December 25 is that it is only a few days after the Winter Solstice, which is a big feast day in pretty much all of the cultures that Christianity spread into. As it had with Saturnalia, Christmas could basically absorb the solstice celebrations, even if they had to move a few days, and call it good.

Easter doesn’t have that advantage. The textual clues firmly tie it to Pesach. Of course, Christianity couldn’t really appropriate Passover traditions for the celebration of the event that marks the break between Judaism and Christianity. Once you establish ham as the traditional holiday meal, any ties to Passover are pretty much over, except for the date. Since Passover and Easter are tied to the lunar calendar, they are a moving target and can end up several weeks off from the vernal equinox. Thus, Easter didn’t have the same success co-opting the equinox festivities of pagan cultures they way Christmas overlaid itself on the solstice. They managed to get the Easter Bunny and colored eggs from Germanic tribes, but that was pretty much it. At least Easter picked up the bunny. Without the colored eggs and marshmallow chicks, Easter is a holiday about brutal torture. Not only is that not exactly greeting card material, if Easter were a video game instead of a religious holiday, states would be passing laws against selling it to children.

Friday, April 03, 2009

August Body, But August of What Year?

As with any episode of The Daily Show, the whole seven-odd minutes of this clip is worth watching, but the bit relevant to my commentary starts around 1:54.
The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
The Ever Spending Story
Daily Show Full EpisodesEconomic CrisisPolitical Humor

I'm about to type a sentence I never thought would come out of my fingers.
Can someone please hook these folks up with PowerPoint? Keynote? Open Office Impress? Something?
Now, I have never been a fan of presentation software, primarily because people tend to use it as a giant ass-backward teleprompter. In short, nothing any more useless than a giant blue placard that reads "$15,000,000,000,000" to impress upon us just how big 15 trillion is. The problem isn't that we don't know how many zeros are in a trillion and need it shown to us; the problem is that the human mind is only capable of comprehending numbers up to a certain point. After a while, more zeros are effectively meaningless, no matter what color the placard is.

As much as I loathe PowerPoint, this is the U.S. Senate in 2009. They should be using more advanced presentation technology than a middle school science fair circa 1992. Actually, circa 1992, we were already five years into the age of PowerPoint. My middle school was just a bit behind the curve. Why in the name of modern technology is our Most August Body still using easels and placards as visual aides?

I know we are in a budget crisis, but surely even an LCD projector, 100 thumb drives and the salary of a 14-year-old computer geek to run the projector--no, I don't expect senators to learn 20 year old technology--has to be less than the budgetary line item for printing all those giant placards. Those things don't come out of the inkjet by the receptionist's desk, after all.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Condom Comment

Let me add my voice to the noise in the blogosphere over this news item. To summarize for the non-clickers out there, the US Agency for International Development, the agency in charge of our international AIDS prevention efforts, has changed the suppliers they use for condoms for AIDS prevention programs in the developing world. The old supplier was in Alabama. The new suppliers are not American.

The article begins by asking the question:

At a time when the federal government is spending billions of stimulus dollars to stem the tide of U.S. layoffs, should that same government put even more Americans out of work by buying cheaper foreign products?

The answer implied by the rest of the article is, "No."

Wrong. Not only is the answer wrong. That's not even the right question.

The American jobs in question here are making condoms for AIDS prevention programs in developing nations. Believe it or not, there are places on this planet where AIDS is not something you deal with by taking some wildly expensive drugs; it is something you die from, painfully, alone and ostracized by the community (but possibly not before trying some of the local folk cures which tend to do more to spread the virus than cure it). These are places where it is a non-trivial accomplishment to get to adulthood HIV-negative, places where preventing HIV spread saves lives. Not jobs. Lives. Human lives.

The question we should be asking is how many people have died in years past because we insisted on using a more expensive (and, buried down in paragraph 8 of the article, less reliable) supplier? How many human lives is an American job worth?

Sure, the lives saved are not your own, or your neighbor's, or anyone on this continent. They are the lives of anonymous people in developing nations. Human decency doesn't put food on the table when you've lost your job. Still, there is something about human decency that suggests we ought to value life over a job.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Happy Pi Day

Today is Pi Day (unless you are in one of those countries that puts the dates lot don't get a Pi Day until someone redoes the calendar to include a fourteenth month in the year). Celebrate with all things circular, particularly pie. If you were planning ahead, you can even make pie in one of these. Me, I'm planning a blowout bash in 6 years, on 3/14/15. We'll start the festivities at 9:27, because we round fives up here at the Rookery.

And Happy Birthday, Einstein.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Breaking Wind

I took part of the afternoon to work outside on the dry creekbed I am digging and landscaping so that my basement will remain dry. I had intended to take more of the afternoon for that particular task, but gave up when reminded why, when the wind is just right, it really blows to live downwind of the sewage treatment plant. Mercifully, the wind is not just right that often.

I find it exceptionally humorous that we are four houses down from the sewage treatment facility, yet we are not connected to city sewers. Once every 3-4 years, we pay a guy a hundred bucks to pump the human effluvia out of our septic tank and drive it four houses down to dump it at the treatment plant. Kinda seems like there ought to be a more efficient process, there.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Whales and Space Rocks

The New York Times has an interesting set of essays from scientists on why people are so fascinated by killer asteroids. Two of my favorite astro-dudes, Seth Shostak and Neil deGrasse Tyson, throw their thoughts in.

Of course, internet commenting being what it is, some absolute idiots also throw their thoughts (and I used that loosely) in. I'll admire the restraint of taking 10 whole comments to get to "Let's just nuke the crap out the incoming killer rocks."

Well, for starters, this is what happens when you decide that you can blast your problems away:

The video report doesn't mention one of the unanticipated hitches in the plan: a half ton of TNT will not vaporize a whale, but it will scare the guano out of the seagulls and other scavengers, and they don't come back to eat the whale bits. At least ODOT has learned its lesson and is NOT considering TNT for the disposal of the whale that washed up this week. If blowing it up doesn't work for dead whale, what makes anyone think it works for a killer asteroid?

Attention, Parents!

Not that I think movie ratings are worth the digital bytes required to display them at the beginning of the movie, but if a movie is rated R, there is a better than even chance that it is not kid material. The odds go up considerably from there if the poster for that R-rated movie features a smiley face with a bullet hole in its forehead. There really isn't that much nuance in a brained smiley face.

I have not yet seen Watchmen. Emp. Peng. has read the book, and others we know have already seen the movie and can speak to the content. They can also speak to the fact that parents are bringing toddlers to see this movie. Now, nature has ensured that procreating isn't rocket science. The survival of any species pretty much depends on ensuring that the process of getting another generation is reasonably idiot-proof (indeed, the movie Idiocracy--another one not for kids--is a keen look at the results of the premise that the idiots are better at it). Getting a child to toddlerhood takes a little more effort, so one can assume that anyone who manages to get a child to school age has at least 6 functional synaptic connections. It shouldn't take more than that to realize that the movie with the brained smiley face poster is not appropriate for the small fry.

Watchmen is based on a graphic novel. Near as I can figure, these parents haven't paid attention to comics since Batman fought a giant telephone booth in the 1960's, and you knew they were fighting because "Pow!" "Biff!" and "Bam!" Much like how chapter books encompass both Pippi Longstocking and Lolita, there are gradients of age-appropriateness in comics and graphic novels. Parents who wouldn't assume that, because there are chapter books for kids, all chapter books are for kids, somehow are under the impression that everything in a comic format is kid-friendly. Not the case.

Most comics aren't for kids. A 1995 audience survey from DC comics found that 80% of comics readers are over 18. I doubt the percentage has dropped significantly since then. If anything, that other 20% has gotten older. There are some great comics out there that are kid friendly, just like there are movies that both kids and parents can enjoy together. However, the readership for comics is overwhelmingly grown-ups, and as a rule, grown-ups just aren't that in to the type of reading material that kids find interesting. Somewhere after the fighting telephone booth, comics grew up. They gained complex plots and characters with moral ambiguity. Some, like Watchmen, got to a level that, were it not for the art, would land them on lists of Great Literary Works. The kind of stuff that is age-appropriate for a 5-year-old just doesn't make those lists. Five-year-olds are simply not capable of processing the nuance that makes a literary work great.

They are, however, capable of processing the non-nuance of a smiley face with a bullet to the brain, even if that smiley face is a cartoon. Would that their parents were. Once and for all, format has little bearing on the age-appropriate level of the material. For example, Disney and porn companies both make direct-to-DVD movies. If anything, movies based on comic books (as opposed to comic strips like Garfield) are less likely to be kid-friendly than other movies.

Monday, March 02, 2009


Our (ha!) wonderful high-speed internet service crashed today, at the ISP's end (amazing what they can get away with as the only broadband option out here), leaving me without internet access most of the day. Now, it was bad enough that the lack of high speed internet meant I had an unanticipated day off work to do all those nagging chores like defrost the chest freezer and discover all the things I forgot were in there. Worse, I couldn't even complain about not having internet access, because everyone I would complain to is online. For a moment, I was thinking of calling PengSis, but we're so accustomed to video chatting through Skype that it didn't occur to me until today that I don't actually know her real phone number.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Attention, Hollywood!

You must immediately STOP casting voice over actors for their looks. I mean now.

I just finished watching Madagascar 2. Like Madagascar 1, there were not enough penguins in this movie. It ended up being a slog through my memory banks, trying to figure out who the voice of the pompadour lion was (Alec Baldwin, though for a while I was half sure it was William Shatner), punctuated by some well-voiced Penguin scenes. The penguins are the highest-billed characters in there voiced by actual voice actors. There were a couple of scenes in there where I actually found myself thinking, "You know, I bet this is really funny for people who know who is doing the voice of that hippo/giraffe/lion and are fans of their live action work."

You must start hiring real legitimate voice actors for animated movies. Starting now. Scratch that. Fire any face stars who are currently voicing animated movies and re-record their parts with voice actors. It's not enough to get a face actor who can do funny voices. The lemurs are the second funniest part of the Madagascar franchise, in no small part because of Sascha Baron Cohen. He did some funny stuff in Madagascar 1 that almost made me want to make an exception to my plea for face actors who can do funny impressions and voices, too. Then Madagascar became a franchise and not just a one-off movie. Even voiced by Sascha Baron Cohen both times, King Julien sounded different in the second installment, to the point that Emp. Peng. and I both thought that the directors must not have been able to get him back and hired a bad sound-alike. Now that animated movies are almost de facto franchises from the start, you need to hire people to voice them who can do a character consistently even if there are years between installments. Professional voice over actors can do that. Movie stars cannot.

While we're on that subject, since it is pretty much a given now that an animated movie is going to be a franchise with several direct-to-DVD installments that won't have the budgets for the big name actors from the first movie, why do you even start the roles off with the huge names? It just makes the direct-to-DVD movie sequels seem that much more cheaply done when all the major voices change between Part 1 and Part 2. Which is a shame, because you are probably hiring real voice actors for part 2, who are probably doing a much better voice acting job than the movie stars from part 1. If we weren't spending the whole movie noticing that someone didn't quite get the celebrity voice spot on, we would probably like the sequels better than the original.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Thank Goodness for the Generator

The Rookery has been on generator power for a couple of hours now. Fortunately for me, the first improvement we made to the Rookery was having a 15kw standby generator installed. Less fortunate for Emp. Peng., who is migratory tonight and roosting in a location that has neither standby generator nor power. Mine is the only house I can see with lights. Matter of fact, the only other light I can see is the glow from the Ohio Edison service facility out on the highway. I'm taking that as a good sign.

So I am cozy and still internet-enabled. We are having a doozy of a storm, with high winds on the heels of two feet of melting snow and a day's worth of thunderstorms. I expect to wake up to a lot of downed trees.

And, as I write this, we're back on grid power. For now. With the storm expected to rage until morning, I don't expect this to be the last of the power outages.

And there is the call from the electric company to verify that my power has been restored. Gotta give them credit for including the current time with the message, since odds are there are two dozen or so clocks that need reset. Ohio Edison now has a nifty service whereby you can report power outages via the internet. Which is great if you still have power to your computer and modem during the outage. Lucky for me, I do.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Gardenholics Anonymous

My name is Janet and I need to stop even looking at seed catalogs.

I was being really good this year. I glanced at the seed catalogs and threw them away without so much as being interested in the new cultivars. I inventoried my seeds, made a list of the stuff I wanted to plant, compared to my list and actually made a shopping list of the seeds I need for the garden this year. I went to three different garden centers and bought only what was on my list (well, except for the celosia, but I meant to put it on my list, really I did)(and the violas...those were in the plans, but I forgot to include the flowers when I made the list since those were the only flowers I was going to plant).

No one had yellow or orange bell peppers.

Emp. Peng. said I should just order the pepper seeds from Burpee.

I relapsed.

I dutifully only looked at the sweet peppers. Burpee's prices and shipping seemed a little excessive (as in, given my history with Burpee pepper seeds, it would be just as cost-effective and more efficient use of my time to buy the peppers), so I checked out Park Seeds, one of my other favorite dealers. Big mistake. They had yellow peppers, and a nifty type of orange pepper that supposedly does great in hanging baskets. That brought my order up to $4, including shipping.

Then I clicked on "shade-tolerant groundcovers." You see, I've been meaning to put some paths in around the house, and the flower beds out front really need some groundcover to choke out the weeds, and it was only $1.45 for a seed packet and didn't even up the shipping.

So I'm getting Mother of Thyme and Sagina. I was sooooo close to not having any impulse garden purchases. Soooooo close.

Forget blocking porn. I need a filter that blocks the seed websites.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Public Service Announcement

We here at Penguin Perspectives would like to take this Groundhog's Day to remind everyone--especially those who cringed at 8 years of fearing "nukular" weapons--that we are now two days into a month that contains 2 R's (thus, I suppose, making it safe to eat twice as many oysters) and no double-o combination.

"Feb-you-air-ee" is going on my list of Things That Get People's Larynx Privileges Revoked.

And for our UK reader(s), yes we have looked up element #13 on the periodic table, with pronunciation guide, and yes we are astounded.

More Marmota-y Goodness

Here's an interview with Staten Island Chuck's handler, discussing the nature of groundhogs and how to cope with a wife and a groundhog under the same roof. I'll link to Chuck's prognostication when I can find it online.

UPDATE: Staten Island Chuck, like the rest of us, is ready for winter to be over and has prognosticated accordingly. Looking at the news footage, I think I prefer Chuck's forecast method to Phil's. Chuck gets lured out by the mayor of New York City wielding peanuts and half a cob of corn (note to Mayor Bloomberg: try pears. Woodrow loves pears). Phil gets yanked out by a guy wearing the height of 1862 fashion and hoisted, one-handed, overhead by his little marmota abdomen, flailing paws all over the place looking for the ground. Chuck also gets to sleep in, making his prediction a half hour later than Phil.

This Just In

Punxsutawney Phil predicts winter will continue until the Vernal equinox. Safe bet, there. If anyone is wondering, here at the Rookery, Woodrow has more sense than to come out of hibernation when he would have to tunnel his way out of his den, only to have to tunnel down to food. Juding by the official pictures, Punxsutawney seems to feel the same way.

I am at the point in winter when I don't care when the marmota says it will end. I just want to know that the snow and meat-locker-cold temperatures to stop. I'm guessing that is why the Germans and the pagans they appropriated the tradition from slapped the rodential weather prognistication in early February. We are a good month and a half past the darkest days, but it is just when things start to get a little better that the sense of hopelessness sets in. We warmed up yesterday, and are down to somewhere around a foot and a half of snow on the ground. Down to. We topped out somewhere over 2 feet.

I try not to complain about the weather. It's hard when you have to bundle up in three layers just to take the trash out without getting frostbite, and by the way I'm not exaggerating there, but I try nonetheless. As my body aches from shoveling snow too deep and heavy for the snowblower, and my arms feel like gelatinous blobs because I have to heave each shovelful of snow above waist level to clear the ridges of accumulated prior snows on either side of the driveway, I keep my mind on perfectly ripe pears, warm blackberries, succulent fresh tomato salads and roasted yellow pear tomatoes (really, they are absolutely delicious, and just TRY finding yellow pear tomatoes for a price that makes you willing to fill a cake pan with them and bake them until they burst forth caramelized tomatoey goodness). The meat locker winters are why I can have apple cider on demand, or the sun-warmed peach that doesn't even make it to the house.

Back in the day, I took music appreciation from an orchestral conductor who personifies what one thinks of when one thinks of a conductor. He once lowered a refrigerator on stage to make a musical point. Oh, and he has the Conductor Hair that Emp. Peng., in spite of having a master's degree in conducting, never could quite pull off (not that he tried). It was intro-level music appreciation, meaning we went over things like Beethoven's Ninth. Maestro Sidlin observed that there must be something really great about the fourth movement that makes people willing to sit through the first three. That also applies to Ohio's climate.

As Emp. Peng. mentioned, a little more rant-ish than I prefer to go, there are those who think we must hate the winter weather here, and (and I will never understand this) people who say they could never move somewhere like here because of the climate. These people don't seem to think Ohio is such a bad place when they get Rookery-fresh produce or jam from home-grown fruit. So, no, I don't like the winters. You know what I do like: black raspberry ice cream. Being able to get that, fresh from the brambles, makes me willing to sit through the rest of Ohio's weather.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Mouseblogging Update

Nothing to see here, folks.

The mouse is still at large. I am beginning to suspect that the mouse has been in residence for a while. A few weeks back, I happened to look up at the top shelf of the pantry and found an open, half eaten quart of apple pie filling. I am now given to understand that what I took for insect larvae in the jar were, in fact, mouse scat. This means that the mouse has managed to a) climb to the top shelf of the pantry, b) pop the top of a mason jar of pie filling and c) eat approximately 12 times its volume of apples, sugar, spices and modified food starch. We may be dealing with a cleverer-than-average rodent here.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Live MouseBlogging

The first installment here will be on tape delay. About an hour ago, I saw an example of your standard issue field mouse scampering across the living room floor into the kitchen. I don't much blame it, since it is 22 degrees outside and we have roughly 2 feet of residual snow covering anything that would pass for a field around here.

About half an hour ago, Chakaal decided to get her 18 pounds, 14 ounces of inborn mousing ability trotting into the kitchen. She is now staring at a nook where, I assume, the mouse is hiding. The other two cats are taking the flanks.

More if it happens.

Cream of Mushroom Soup

The good news is that the writing has been taking off like a shot. It's not the sort of thing that would make my BFA professors proud (then again, I doubt that any of them except one would be proud of anything vaguely comprehensible). Mostly, I write short summaries of this, that and the other thing, chock full of keywords to make it Googleriffic.

Which brings me to why the blogging has been light lately. I'm writing all day, for pay. Good for me, bad for you all. I will try to keep this up as much as I can, but I hope you all will understand that the paying gigs have to come first, and there will be times when neither my brain nor my fingers can stand any more time putting letters in order.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

How Cold Is It?

The Rookery is currently enjoying--OK, not so much enjoying as experiencing--an ambient air temperature of -3 Fahrenheit. Just how cold is three below zero? I looked out my kitchen window this morning and my icicles have frost on them.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Finally, The Government Understands the Real Danger

The government appears to have unwittingly caught on to the truth: the common cold is far more dangerous than terrorism. How do I know? As of this afternoon, I have had to show my ID more times to get rid of this blasted cold than to fly across the country, and that was before the identification shakedown to get nasal decongestant.

Since airlines have cut back to what appears to be a national average of 2/3 of a ticket agent per airport, no one checks ID when you get your boarding pass anymore. Quietly, over the past few years, they have reduced the airport ID checks down to one flash with your boarding pass at the TSA checkpoint as the person makes sure that your driver's license name matches your ticket name. Emp. Peng. and I flew from Columbus to Seattle and back, showing our identification a total of twice.

Coincidentally, that is exactly how many times I had to show my ID to buy 8 ounces of cold remedy. Since I tend to treat symptoms as I get them, I eschew the gazillion-in-one cold syrups in favor of ones that do one thing. The thing I need. I don't need to take a fever reducer if I am not running a fever. During the course of this cold, I have had chest congestion and a nagging cough, so I separately bought a bottle of expectorant and a bottle of cough suppressant, carded both times to prove that I am not a teenager looking to get 'faced on dextromethophan.

With chest congestion and cough having already put me on par with cross-country travel in terms of ID checks (although, thankfully, I did not need to have my shoes x-rayed at the Kroger pharmacy counter), I decided that my head congestion had become intolerable. I could actually feel the snot backup from the outside of my face, and the combination of painful congestion and a general inability to breathe through the standard oxygen-intake portals was leading me to emit a pathetic puppy whimper in my sleep and keep Emp. Peng. up half the night.

Time was, the remedy for this was to go to a store, pick up a box of Sudafed, pay for it and leave. That time was before someone figured out that you could use Sudafed to make methamphetamine and the DEA turned it into a List I chemical (basically, harmless enough on its own, but can be used to make controlled substances). Now, to get the Sudafed that contains pseudoephedrine, you have to show ID and fill out a form with your name, address and DOB and time and date of purchase, which will be kept on record for 2 years. Plus, you can only buy 9 grams of the stuff in any given month. That last one is not too onerous for the average cold sufferer, since it represents 300 doses. If you are that congested, you may have bigger problems than maxing out your Sudafed allotment. Nonetheless, that does mean that a three-symptom cold requires more ID check than a round trip airline flight.

You can, of course, walk into a store and get the new pseudoephedrine-free formulation of Sudafed with no questions or ID required. However, I find it telling that retailers and manufacturers have chosen to keep the old decongestant on the market, even with the inventory controls and extra work for the pharmacist that stocking it entails. I have to assume that, from a purely business perspective, if the new stuff worked as well as the old, no one would bother with the added work and expense of keeping the old stuff on hand, and the manufacturers would simply stop making it. But they don't, seriously implying that the new stuff could be about as effective as the blister pack it comes in.

Which is how I found myself this afternoon handing over the details of my identity to a lady at the pharmacy counter in exchange for nasal decongestant. When I am sick enough to need a decongestant, I'm not fooling around with the namby-pamby stuff. There ought to be some provision in the control of pseudoephedrine that, if you have to dig through pockets with more than half a travel pack of used, snotty tissues to get your ID, the pharmacist can assume you need the drug for legitimate nasal decongesting purposes and you are exempt from the background check.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Dispatches from the War on Christian Holidays: The Holidays are Winning

On my voyage to buy cough syrup, I noticed something even more disturbing than the newfound fear that kids are managing to get toasted on tiny bottles of 3 proof liquor spike with guaifenesin: the Cadbury Cream Eggs are out already. Stores that have not finished moving their Christmas displays to the clearance bins are already putting out Easter merchandise.

The Christmas stuff started popping up November 1. Easter is on April 12 this year. To put it in perspective, we are getting the one-two punch of major Christian holidays for longer than we are on Standard Time this fall/winter/spring. If the Christian holidays are not winning this War on Christmas, they are certainly doing a good job of getting the advance scouts out there.

Bonus Tip for the Sickies

If you have a lamp connected to The Clapper, turn it off when you have a cold. The audio sensor doesn't know the difference between "Clap on" and "Hack on."

Warning: This Post Involves Mucus

As I alluded to before, Emp. Peng. and I have colds. Had, really. We are at the stage where we are just getting rid of residual phlegm. The human body's capacity for snot production is quite astounding, and seems to take its sweet time ramping down once the virus is cleared out. As a result, the Rookery is awash in used tissues and the sound of two people trying not to cough up a lung. I believe in working with my cold, not against it. I will take expectorant like candy to help clear out the congestion, but I don't take cough suppressant if I can help it. I figure the cough is doing something, so better to let it get its work done. Cough suppressant just drags things out.

However, a couple of nights ago, the coughing kept us both up most of the night, so I broke down and went out for a bottle of Robitussin. Some time between my last cold and now, the stores made a new rule that you have to be 18 to buy cough syrup. At the checkstand, I casually asked when it was decided that kids don't get sick. Apparently, the ID rule was put in place because teenagers were buying up cough syrup to get drunk.

As a service to these teenagers, I am going to do the math here. The bottle of cough syrup I bought was on sale for $5 for 4 ounces and contained 1.4% alcohol. A little bit of multiplication shows that the cough syrup bottle contains .05 ounces of alcohol, or approximately 1/10 of a tablespoon. A standard "drink" (12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces wine, or 1.5 ounces hard liquor) contains 1.2 tablespoons of alcohol. In order to get the alcohol equivalent of one drink, you would need 12 bottles of cough syrup. At $5 a pop, that is a $60 beer. I am a lightweight in the alcohol tolerance department, but even I would require more than one beer to get intoxicated once you factor in the calories from 4 cups or so of corn syrup that comes with that 1.2 tablespoons of alcohol. Either this is another example of adult paranoia over the activities of the young folks, or teenagers have an excessive level of disposable income. I tend to lean toward the former explanation, since any teenager with the brains required to earn enough money to develop cough syrup alcoholism has enough brains to figure out at least one of the 6 or 8 more efficient and cost-effective ways of coddling their budding drinking problem.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Holiday Moves Henceforth Referred to As Mistakes 1-8

Yes, yes, I know I haven't been blogging much. Between work and the migration, things at the Rookery have been getting quite busy. When the economy tanked back in September, a good chunk of our passive income evaporated, ending my days as a part-time housepenguin and throwing me into the workforce. I have managed to land in the You Can Do It In Your Jammies industry (self-employed working from home), but that is a blog post for another time, if I can squeeze it in between paying jobs.

This post is about the winter migration. A few months back, Emp. Peng. thought we might take advantage of the normal between-Christmas-and-New-Year's lull in his business to migrate out to the relatives for a visit. When we presented this idea to PengMom, she (cunning momma bird that she is) and I developed a plan by which PengSis would not know of the impending migration until we landed on her doorstep on Christmas Eve.

Mistake #1. We have a rule about not seeing relatives at the holidays. Let's just say that was a terrific idea on paper--paper that did not include such interesting developments as record snowfall between the airport and Casa de PengSis, contagious upper respiratory tract infections in the two migratory pengs, dispatchers that kept the PengParents (aka "our ride from the airport") in Salt Lake City up to the day we left Ohio for Seattle, or custody issues that left the itinerary of half of the fledglings up in the air where penguins have no business. Don't get me wrong, here. The look on my sister's face when it finally seeped through the first six layers of maternal sleep deprivation that, yes, her sister really was sitting in her house was priceless. Had we turned around right then, driven back to Seattle and hopped the next flight home, things would have been perfect. But no, I had to try to do laundry.

Mistake #2. We flew in on one of the most pleasant airline experiences I have ever had, and I am not sure if that was because of or in spite of being booked on two canceled flights and being 2 hours late out of O'Hare because of the snow and subsequent de-icing of the plane with what appeared to be The Incredible Hulk's urine. We flew American, one of the airlines that has started charging a fee for the first checked bag. Not wanting to pay for the privilege of letting an airline lose my luggage, I determined that we could manage for a week with just our carry-on allotment, since we could wash the clothes while we were there. The day after Christmas, having almost exhausted our underwear supply and coated the sweaters with yams, I determined it was laundry time. The washing machine had other ideas, and promptly barfed up a belt, leaving every bit of clothes we had packed, except for what we were wearing at the time, wallowing in soapy ice water.

I fished everything out and finished the wash and rinse cycles, grape-stomper-style, in the bathtub. Unfortunately, the bathtub does not have a spin cycle and I was washing some very absorbent clothes. Underwear could be squeezed out easily enough, but there was no chance that jeans, cable-knit sweaters and fluffy towels were going to get wrung out enough for the dryer any time soon. Giving the problem what Nimrod calls "a coat of looking at," I arrived at what seemed at the time to be a good idea: hang the laundry in front of the fire to start drying.

Mistake #3. Normal people would have gone to a laundromat. PengDad and I are not normal people. Not only is he the one who coined the phrase, "If there is an easy way and a hard way, Janet will find a third, yet-more-difficult way," he is probably where I inherited such tendencies. I thought we could rig up some rope between a couple of chairs. PengDad settled on bringing in the umbrella-style clothesline from outdoors, and since it was his house, we went with his idea. Umbrella clotheslines are great things, but they depend on a certain amount of in-ground mounting structure that is absent from the living room of a double-wide manufactured home (however, in a later and unrelated development, we did shoot a hole in the floor of the other side of the living room which would have worked nicely to stabilize the clothesline, but at the time, punching a hole in the floor seemed like a bad idea). In our first attempt, PengDad simply leaned the clothesline against the wall.

Mistake #4. Trying to maintain perfect balance while hanging clothes on an unsupported clothesline is a bit like trying to play Jenga with your feet. I am sure someone out there can do it, but that person is not me. I began looking around for some way to brace the base of the clothesline and settled on the kindling bin, figuring that the wood would keep the pole vertical.

Mistake #5. I was wrong, but at least the clothesline missed the fireplace, breakable hearth ornaments and the laptop computer as it came crashing down. PengDad decided to rig up a hook in the ceiling to suspend the clothesline from. This actually turned out to be quite a good idea. Less good idea: not checking for the cotter pin that held the umbrella clothesline open once the suspension rig was in place.

Mistake #6. Have you ever been eaten by a clothesline? I have. We got the pin problem fixed and finally got the laundry hanging and dripping all over the floor. Still unsure who won, me or the clothesline, I retreated to the kitchen for a brandy-spiked eggnog.

Mistake #7. Brandy may be good in many things. Eggnog is not one of them. Irish cream eggnog, however, is good. Enough fat, sugar and calories to kill a person, but it tastes good and manages to make life look less sucky (we at Penguin Perspectives do not condone drunkenness as a a cure for stress, except when that stress involves being prey for a rabid clothesline). Things started to look good after the first eggnog, but I still failed to see the humor in the situation that the others were seeing, so I mixed myself another.

Mistake #8. Always let the first spiked eggnog hit before going back for seconds. Just trust me on that one.