Jan 30, 2009

Update: Mistletoe, a Rescue Dog

Several regular readers have emailed and posted comments asking about Mistletoe, a spaniel-terrier mix who was rescued some weeks ago. You can read more about this dog's ordeal of abuse and neglect at the earlier post, but suffice to say Mistletoe had it pretty rough for a few weeks.

Anyways, Mistletoe is doing much, much better. All of her sores have healed, her itching is under control, her ear infections have cleared up, and she had her teeth cleaned. Even better, hair is slowly but surely growing back on the half of her body that was once hairless and raw, and Mistletoe no longer looks like she went through a chipper-shredder.

More importantly, a kind couple decided to adopt Mistletoe, and it looks like she will have a new home tomorrow. Of course, I will shed a few tears over this sweet dog, who is one of the gentlest and most affectionate dogs you could ever meet.

Thanks again to all who extended financial help for Mistletoe's care, especially regular visitor MadJack. About $400 was raised to help with Mistletoe's vet bills, and she will go to her new home with all of her medical issues either under control or fixed. Also, while discussing philanthropy, follow this link to donate to Planned Pethood if you have a few bucks you want to put to a worthy cause.

Super Bowl XLIII Prediction Post

In keeping with my blog tradition, I am now placing on my prognostication hat and doing my best to predict the outcome of Super Bowl XLIII. Despite the propensity I have for underdogs - and the magical narrative of Kurt Warner returning from oblivion to once again lead a Super Bowl team - I think that the stifling defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers will prove to be the difference-maker in their championship game with the Arizona Cardinals.

Now, lest any blog-surfing newcomers jump to conclusions, I have no horse in this race. I am a long-suffering Lions fan who simply hopes for a quality football game on Sunday.

I see Warner tossing three scores (only one to WR Larry Fitgerald), but the Steelers will snag two passes for interceptions. Troy Polamalu will pick off one pass, break up two more throws, record six tackles, scoop up a fumble, post a late-game sack, and will find a way to get in on another half-dozen important defensive plays. Polamalu will also become that rarest of beasts: a Super Bowl MVP who plays a defensive position.

The defense of the Cardinals - whose playoff surge owes much to a newly found ability to stop the run - will suddenly return to Earth, and the ground game of the Steelers will be good for 140 yards and two scores. Pittsburgh Qb Ben Roethlisberger will not have an MVP-caliber game, but he will be more than adequate in tossing a TD and 250 passing yards.

Final Score: Pittsburgh Steelers 27, Arizona Cardinals 21.

As usual, feel free to leave any comments, predictions, or reasons why any of the above thoughts are the obvious work of a drooling, feeble-minded imbecile. I have a thick skin.

Jan 29, 2009

On Problem Headlights and Dielectric Grease

My 1995 Hyundai developed an annoying flickering headlight problem recently, where the slightest bump would cause the lamp to shut off. I tried reinstalling it and repositioning it, but the problem did not correct itself.

I further read up on the phenomenon, and a few websites suggested coating the contacts and rubber seals with dielectric grease. This is a non-conductive lubricant that helps seal out water and ensures a better connection by creating a tighter connection.

Anyways, after slathering an abundant amount of dielectric grease on the seals, boot, and points of contact, the pesky headlight began to cooperate. On a 10-mile drive in the dark tonight, I generated nary a flicker, and the lamp stayed lit the entire trip.

Thus, I heartily endorse dielectric grease in the installation and replacement of automobile headlamps. Now, if I could just find a similarly inexpensive solution to a leaky house roof.

Jan 28, 2009

On Snowy Winters, Winter Blues, and Relative Misery

I deliberately angled my camera upward next to this four-foot pile of snow in front of my house to exaggerate the amount of frozen precipitation that has fallen so far this winter in Northwest Ohio. True, we are on pace to rack up the second-highest total in recorded history - second only to the year of the Great Blizzard of '78 - but the accumulated snowfall has been the result of many smaller storms, with the exception of the foot of snow that fell at the beginning of the month.

My photographic deception reflects my frustration at a winter that seems like it will never end.

I picked up a photograph my wife enlarged of our brilliant crabapple blossoms, which might not bloom for many more weeks of this miserable winter. She is happy today because the schools closed, and she is also an upbeat person who enjoys beauty of the fresh six-inch layer of snow that fell overnight.

Me? I am beyond the cabin fever phase; I long for springtime in the manner of a homesick traveler, like someone who must suffer an interminable wait for day that appears as though it will never arrive. The imagined smell of spring blossoms almost seems like a cruel activity that borders on self-torment.

Yet my own winter blues are also minor in comparison with people who live on the southern edge of the winter storm that hit my area. Many millions of folks received a deadly ice storm instead of the gentle fluffy snowflakes that landed in my area. Compared with death, power outages, and the likely days of frozen immobilization, my snowy inconvenience is a rather mundane affair.

Of course, I still pine away for the days when I can start digging in the dirt, and when my remaining teenagers will not be housebound, or at least when I would not feel guilty for theoretically pushing them outside and locking the doors to get thirty minutes of peace, as recorded on my Patek timepiece.

They can't whine about hypothermia and frozen fingers in May.

Jan 27, 2009

Ervin Anthony Lupoe: Employment Despair Leads to Murder-Suicide

Image of the Lupoe home courtesy of AP

A California man apparently upset over difficulties at his employer fatally shot his wife, his five children, and then himself at their Wilmington home today. CNN reported that a suicide letter found at the scene was signed by a man named Ervin Anthony Lupoe.

A revolver was found next to the dead man, and police said he was found in a second-story bedroom with his three daughters, 5-year-old twin girls and an 8-year-old girl. The two boys - 2-year old twins - were found with their mother in a different bedroom.

Lupoe wrote that he and his wife - who worked with him at - filed work grievances, but that their situation remained unchanged. Two days later the husband and wife were fired, according to local television station KABC.

"They did nothing to the manager who started such and did not attempt to assist us in the matter, knowing we have no job and five children under 8 years old with no place to go. So here we are," Lupoe wrote.

At the bottom of his note, Lupoe added: "Oh lord, my God, is there no hope for a widow's son?"

Picture of Lupoe family from their Facebook page

Wilmington is a middle class neighborhood in Los Angeles that is located north of Long Beach and the region's major port facilities. While the area is heavily industrial, the Lupoes lived in a fairly affluent subdivision. In the recent housing implosion, though, property values have fallen by approximately one-third, and houses that once sold for a half-million dollars now fetch something in the neighborhood of $300K. I am still digging into the Los Angeles County Assessor website for Ervin A. Lupoe, but as yet I have no specific home information.

I know all too well the struggles associated with financial insecurity and employment problems, but I simply cannot comprehend how someone could kill their spouse and children. I pray that my life circumstances and mental health never deteriorate to the point where mass killing would seem like anything but unspeakable horror.

What a shocking crime: I am at a loss for words to describe the sickening feeling in my stomach as I follow this horror.

Jan 26, 2009

On Jeopardy! and Inevitabilities

I have watched the television program Jeopardy! for the entirety of my years on the planet, as the show began the same year I was born and has been a sort of near-constant droning in the background in almost every phase of my life. Moreover, I tend to perform well during the episodes, as my well-rounded education in business and academia keeps me competitive in almost every category.

For many years people have encouraged me to go on the show, but I always found excuses to put off submitting a letter of interest. Yet I always joked that my real ambition in life is to get on the show and pocket as much cash as I could stuff in a couple of duffel bags.

I finally decided to fill out an online application, and tomorrow night I will join unknown hundreds - if not thousands - of online competitors in taking the Jeopardy! Adult Online Test tomorrow night. This is the first step in the weeding-out process of potential contestants, and it is my hope that I will move on to loftier Jeopardial heights, perhaps even joining such luminaries as Ken Jennings.

So I will clear my laptop's cache, boot all other users from my wireless signal, and make sure that I am properly caffeinated for my initial date with game show destiny. It is probably inevitable that I try to get on the show, given the fact that I have been prodded to try out since I was about 12, though I suspect my real purpose in applying now is that if I wait any longer, my memory might not keep pace with those sharp-minded 20-somethings.

Of course, I could always try out for Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? I trust that my still-sharp sensibilities could handle that program, though I suspect the stigma associated with failure on this show would be much more difficult to handle.

Jan 24, 2009

On Cabin Fever and the Slow, Creeping Descent into Seasonal Madness

The brilliant orange setting sun in the accompanying photo is a deceitful center of the scene in my late afternoon backyard, as the arrival of yet another blast of Arctic air in Northwest Ohio sent temperatures diving back toward the single digits. This is one of the colder and snowier winters in recent memory, and the combination of the two means that I have spent an inordinate amount of time inside the house this winter.

Cabin fever is setting in.

My son's screamo songs and my daughter's Disney Channel programs each claw on my nerves like the talons of a vulture on a freshly-snared rabbit, and I am sure that my own idiosyncrasies are also a source of irritation to the other people living in my house. Of course, with wind chill readings well below zero many days, even a few minutes outside increases the risk of hypothermia, so trips outside are limited in duration. However, if cabin fever continues, I may have to trade numbed fingers and toes for some sanity.

Yesterday's brief foray above freezing was short-lived, and I unfortunately had to spend much of the day indoors. Naturally, today was a day that just had to be bitterly cold, since I had some free time. I did make it out of the house for a few hours with my wife and a couple of dogs, but I suspect if I could develop a statistical model of my outdoor activity this winter, I would find that the total hours outdoors must be about half of my normal level.

And as I returned to the house and saw my son dozing on the couch - the same young man whose late-night clunking around kept me tossing and turning until 2:30 am - the cooped-up resentments returned, and I struggled to resist grabbing a pot and a metal spoon to dish out a sonic payback to him.

Like I did this morning about 9:00, when the same night-owl man-child was sleeping on the same couch. Of course, after I woke him up with a clanging pot this morning, I felt guilty for acting in such a juvenile fashion. After all, I am the adult here, and I should set the example instead of perpetuating the malevolent cycle of sleep disruption.

Right. I really should have blocked my cell number and called his phone a couple of dozen times, a device that has this amazingly loud and screechy metal guitar noise. That way payback would be mine, and he would have no clue as to who the hell would call him a dozen times at the ungodly hour of 9:00 am on a Saturday.

Jan 22, 2009

Toonces Without a Cause

I am not sure why I find so hilarious the recurrent Saturday Night Live skit of Toonces the Driving Cat. Likely the part of me that appreciates absurdist humor plays a part, but the the escapades of Toonces tap some hidden part of my psyche I cannot quite define.

Here is one of the better episodes, where the rebellious Toonces falls in with a tough crowd:

It did not surprise me to learn today that the Toonces concept was created by SNL writer Jack Handey, he of "Deep Thoughts" fame, a feature I also enjoyed during the near-decade Handey's work was a staple.

So laugh, groan, or cry along with Toonces and his various owners, but remember: TOONCES LIVES.

Jan 21, 2009

Book Review: My Lobotomy

Howard Dully with Charles Fleming

Three Rivers Press, 2007

Howard Dully's book is a first-person narrative of a life marred by the after-effects of an ice-pick transorbital lobotomy that was performed on him at the age of 12. The sheer horror of this barbaric operation was compounded by the fact that Dully's stepmother lied about his behaviors in order to convince noted lobotomist Dr. Walter Freeman to proceed. Moreover, Dully's father acquiesced to the lobotomy as a means of keeping peace in the house.

The book follows a chronological approach, recounting the death of the four-year-old Dully's birth mother and the life of abuse heaped on him by his father's second wife. While Dully was aware of the fact that a brain operation had been performed on him, he spent most of four decades in and out of mental institutions and jails, while never really understanding why he had such difficulty coping with the world.

Gaining access to Freeman's voluminous archives and detailed medical records helped Dully, as a man in his fifties, come to grips with the reasons why his traumatic life turned out the way that it did. Yet Dully avoids the temptation to heap scorn on his detestable stepmother, and the reader realizes that all Dully really wanted from this bitter, cold woman was love, an emotion she would never share with the child.

1960 photograph of 12-year-old Howard Dully receiving his "ice pick" lobotomy; image (c) 2008 Howard Dully

However, the years of foggy frustration never dampened Dully's spirit, and his archival work led to a critically-acclaimed series of interviews with Sound Portraits that aired on NPR. Dully's radio work undoubtedly assisted thousands of lobotomy patients and their families better understand the brutal magnitude of the bizarre psychosurgery performed by Freeman and other practitioners of lobotomies.

And as I closed the last page of this disturbing-though-triumphant book, I began to consider that there may indeed be psychiatric regimens that we today find perfectly acceptable, but which might some day be derided as equally savage and foolish. We always stand in danger of the fallacy of perpetual progress, or the assumption that humanity is somehow "past" the point at which it can engage in horrific, benighted behavior. Dully's book is an unsettling reminder that today's experts may one day turn out to be shockingly malevolent.

Jan 20, 2009

On Barack Obama and the Inauguration

President Barack Obama with First Lady Michelle departing the US Capitol Building; photo courtesy AFP.

As a small d democrat and someone who finds monarchy to be an absurd anachronism, I usually avoid watching the presidential inauguration, which to my eyes seems like a coronation and an almost cultlike exercise in leader worship. Moreover, the pre-inaugural hype and the fact that every U.S. news channel went live on the Mall by 8:00 am with a countdown caused me to grumble as I channel-surfed while drinking my coffee.

After all, the inauguration really was not my gala, right? I'm not a member of a political party, I voted for Obama in a lesser-of-two-weevils mindset, and I am not an African American. Or so I told myself in my best curmudgeonly voice.

Yet I finished my lecture on Atlantic revolutions at 11:56 this morning, choosing to turn on the inauguration for the students, since for many of these young folks this is an important event, a historic moment that they will think back to in later years. We switched from the PowerPoint to a live cable feed just in time to watch Joe Biden take the oath of office, and quite a few of my students were visibly moved by Barack Obama officially taking over the Oval Office.

For a moment, my cynicism waned, and I felt...something.

I left about five minutes into Obama's speech and hopped into my car, turning on the radio to listen to the rest. The only stations carrying the speech live were the ones that carry the Rush Limbaugh program, and Rush used pauses and audience cheers to get in snide comments during the lulls. More annoyed than offended, I found Limbaugh to be more in keeping with Beavis and Butthead critiquing MTV music videos, but that's Rush, right? By the way - local broadcaster Brian Wilson of WSPD deserves kudos for blasting the juvenile churlishness of Limbaugh in his segment this afternoon. There will be plenty of time to take shots at the policies of Obama, but let the guy and his supporters have their long-awaited day.

By the way: the folks in the crowd on the Mall booing and making catcalls were also in bad taste. There will also be plenty of time to critique the Bush and Cheney administration, but today was not the day.

After checking my email, I popped over to a local site called SwampBubbles to check on news posts. Not surprisingly, a handful of local extremists and racists were apoplectic over the inauguration, and it was only after getting a bit riled up by these idiots that I actually began to get enthused about the prospect of Obama's presidency.

Another barrier to equality has passed, a day that many people (myself included) thought would never happen. I think after reading the racist drivel I finally grasped the magnitude of the moment, and it did my heart good to see the pathetic racist kooks gnash their teeth and howl over the idea of a black man in the White House.

So to President Obama: You enter your term in office with the lofty hopes of hundreds of millions of Americans who want you to succeed. I wish you only the best, and I hope that you are up to the difficult challenges our nation faces. If you end up being only half as successful as compared with the dreams of your devoted supporters, the country should be in good hands.

To Rush Limbaugh: You exhibited a total lack of class today, and you could have at least waited until Obama finished his inaugural speech before launching into your commentary. Many is the time I've heard you complain about liberal treatment of President Bush, and here you are, perpetrating the same disrespect for which you previously whined.

And to the racist kooks and extremist nutjobs: Crawl back under the slimy rocks from which you slithered today. All your idiotic rhetoric managed to do today was drive otherwise ambivalent people like me to defend our new President, and maybe even to help extend his honeymoon period.

Oh, and racist Neanderthals, fuck off. I forgot that last important part.

Jan 19, 2009

Random Wikiness


When I am particularly bored with Net-surfing and cable-scanning, I occasionally visit Wikipedia and use the Random Article function. This button is located on the left sidebar of the main Wikipedia page, and clicking this link sends the visitor into unknown and often fascinating journeys into accumulated knowledge.

My first stop was on a page dedicated to Wonambi, is a genus that contains two species of very large but extinct snakes. These reptiles grew up to 20 feet long and killed their prey through constriction.

I next clicked to a page describing the group Christians for Biblical Equality. The CBE, which represents more than 80 typically evangelical denominations, argues that women should not be excluded from attaining ministry positions. The group split from the the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women's Caucus (EWCI) in 1986 after the latter body passed a resolution recognizing the lesbian minority in its membership and simultaneously affirming homosexual rights.

Wikipedia's random page algorithm next sent me to a page on Ann Fienup-Riordan, a cultural anthropologist known working with Yup'ik peoples of western Alaska. The bibliography included on the page lists seven books on the Yup'ik, and I must admit I was wholly oblivious to this ethnic group prior to reading the linked articles, but I'll bet Sarah Palin knows more than I do about the Yup'ik.

I ended my Wiki-trip with an article on Hyaluronidase, which is an enzyme that is often used in conjunction with other drugs to speed their dispersion and delivery throughout the body of a patient. Hyaluronidase is most frequently used in ophthalmic surgery, and the enzyme plays a role in mammalian conception, as it is released by sperm cell after it has reached the oocyte.

Thus ends another 25-minute journey through Wikipedia, a site with immense potential to revolutionize information access, but which is simultaneously plagued by vandalism and blatant disinformation. I both love and loathe the site: I find Wikipedia to be an excellent starting point for research, but the inherent weaknesses of many articles means that it is worthless in terms of reliability.

Jan 18, 2009

Rapid Rhetoric: NAVARIN

Raphael's depiction of Plato defining the difference between true and false rhetoric This is an irregular feature - both in frequency and oddness - dedicated to a word I came across that I have never previously used.

navarin (NAH-vah-rihn) n. a hot stew or ragoût, typically containing mutton and root vegetables such as onions and turnips.

The word navarin is of French origin, and the word likely has origins in the French word navet, which means "turnip." Another theory connects this lamb dish with the 1827 Battle of Navarino in the Ionian Sea, in which an Ottoman and Egyptian armada was crushed by a British, Russian, and French force.

A number of experts in French cuisine insist that a quality navarin is not a stew. I liked the explanation from the Everything French Gardening website:

A navarin is the ultimate spring-time delicacy and celebration of the garden. It is decidedly not a stew, but a nuanced medley of everything that is best of the season cooked to perfection: lamb and the first tiny vegetables from the garden.

Jan 16, 2009

How to Succeed in a Distance Learning Course

As a college instructor I have taught quite a few distance learning (DL) courses, and I have observed the successes and struggles of countless DL students. Given that distance learning is such a growing field in education, I decided to assemble a list of suggestions for prospective and future distance learning students that will help such folks achieve their academic goals in an online environment.

I should probably begin by pointing out the obvious: distance learning courses are quite a bit different from the traditional classroom experience. In many cases, students never meet the instructor face-to-face, and potentially students and instructors could be many thousands of miles away, connected only by a website. It is thus important for first-time DL students to prepare themselves for a different approach to education. Also, be sure to let the other people in the house know when you are working so that you do not end up getting disturbed.

One of the common misconceptions about distance learning is that these classes are somehow easier. In my personal experiences as both a DL student and a DL instructor, I must wholeheartedly disagree; if anything, there is a higher workload in DL classes than in traditional classroom settings. I know that I assign a higher level of written work in DL classes than in face-to-face courses for the simple fact that this is the surest way of assessing competence.

DL classes, of course, offer students the ability to work from home or any other place with an Internet connection, as well as to work at any time of day. Do not confuse convenience with simplicity, though: distance learning courses can progress at a rapid pace and with higher workloads than traditional classes.

As always, feel free to weigh in with your experiences, tips, or comments.

1. Develop a regular schedule for your DL course and stick to it. Unlike the traditional classroom, many DL classes do not have scheduled meeting times, although some make use of regular virtual chat rooms. DL students have to set aside dedicated times to read, complete assignments, and take the exams, and possessing self-motivation is an essential factor in Dl successes.

2. Get familiar with the software platform and the course website right away. Every reputable school with DL classes offers online tutorials and trained technicians to assist students. In many cases you can access some of these tools and services before the semester begins, making you ready for success once the course website is accessible to students.

3. Learn the preferred method of communication with the instructors, and stay in regular contact with them. I, for example, am an email person, and while I am happy to answer phone calls, I sometimes leave my cellular off for days at a time. In addition, some students are bashful about "bothering" their instructors with questions, but they need to get over their fears and get their questions answered. If an instructor gets snippy, too bad - it is your money paying for the class, and you should insist on receiving a quality education.

4. Thoroughly read the syllabus, keep it handy as a reference, and stay on top of all deadlines. One of the surest ways to fail a DL course is to forget about important assignments and exams. Moreover, an excuse like "I had the flu" probably will not meet with a sympathetic instructor, since the course website is available 24/7, and one could conceivably take an exam in a post-op recovery room. Also, be sure to ask questions of your instructor about even the slightest ambiguity in the syllabus. Sometimes directions that seem patently clear to the instructor might be confusing for any number of students, and you do not have the ability to raise a hand and get a face-to-face answer in a DL class.

5. Visit the course website regularly. I once studied the relationship between site visits and student grades, and the results were conclusive: students who visit the course site the most are also the ones who achieve the highest grades. I tell my students to visit at least five times a week, and to never let more than two days go by without visiting the site.

6. Thoroughly read any course announcements. This is the surest way to stay informed about any changes to the course, possible site downtimes, or any other pertinent information that could affect your studies. Once again, get pushy and ask your instructor for clarification when necessary - don't be a bashful wallflower.

7. Do not wait until the last few hours to complete an assignment or an exam. Inevitably, if your test is due at 11:59 pm and you start taking it at 11:22 pm, you will run out of time. In keeping with Murphy's Law, this will also be the time the college servers crash, or an overload of traffic causes the system to lock up on you. Your instructor or the support staff are much better able to help solve problems when you work well in advance of deadlines.

8. Remember: the assigned reading materials in a DL course are your lectures. Many college students in face-to-face classrooms like to boast how they never read the assigned textbook, and that they got by simply on lecture notes. Guess what - most DL courses do not use lectures, and DL students typically have to read a great deal more to succeed than they might in a traditional classroom. Yes, there are some DL instructors who make use of video and audio course supplements, but the bottom line in DL classes is that students have to possess solid reading skills and the willingness to discipline themselves.

9. Regularly evaluate your progress. Most Dl platforms include some form of gradebook that students can access to make sure that all of their work has been graded. Do not wait until the end of the semester for unpleasant surprises - you should know at any given moment what your grade is and what you need to do to achieve the grade you seek.

10. Make friends with other students in the class and help each other study. Every other DL student is a potential ally in learning the material, and some of them might live nearby. At the very least, you can offer to critique each other's written work, or develop study sessions with AIM or an off-site chat room.

11. Complete your DL work in a serious setting. A home office with a closed door is helpful, as is a quiet space in a public library. Avoid trying to work on your academic responsibilities while simultaneously watching television or talking on the telephone - the distractions will affect your work and ultimately your grade.

12. Never, ever procrastinate. Those students who like to put off assignments are typically the ones who struggle in a DL course. Attack your work with gusto, and you will be much more likely to succeed. If an assignment is due Sunday night, turn it in on the prior Tuesday, and make it a goal to beat all deadlines by three days or more.

13. Be sure you have the right hardware and software. Most reputable distance learning programs tell prospective students about the technical requirements necessary to complete the course. Have a reliable high-speed Internet connection, and use the most up-to-date computer you can access. If all you possess is your uncle's 1995 Compaq laptop with a 2MB RAM chip and a dialup connection, you will be better served by using a computer at a public library. Remember - it is not the instructor's job to provide you with appropriate technological tools. Also - while you might adore your customized open-source word processor, you should not expect that the instructor and the other students will share your zeal for files that can only be opened by other über-geeks. Use a universal file format like .RTF, or grit your teeth and use a PC or Mac version of MS-Word.

14. Take the course seriously. Just because you are in an online environment does not mean you should act like you are text-messaging your best friend. Be an adult and use appropriate language for a classroom setting, and never get into personal conflicts with other students in course chat rooms or discussion boards. And by all means - do not clutter up the course website with a bunch of "OMG," "LMAO," or "LOL" leet-speak silliness.

Jan 15, 2009

On Long Johns, Extreme Cold, and Textile Saunas

With temperatures in Northwest Ohio expected to drop to negative 10 degrees Fahrenheit tonight - and wind chill readings of perhaps 30 degrees below zero - I decided to dig up a pair of long johns this morning. Though I am sometimes a bit slow to learn life lessons, dressing appropriately for cold weather is one thing this Northerner knows well.

By the way: after looking at my long john-clad self in the mirror, I elected to use a generic long johns image in this post. My skinny legs and midsection girth do not translate well into a digital image, I am afraid, and such a sight might send legions of blog visitors scurrying for the nearest commode.

However, as soon as I reached my first lecture I knew that I was overdressed, and my 90-minute talk about the period of the Bourbon Reforms was one of extreme perspiration. The polypropylene fleece, double-layered thermal long johns quickly built up a layer of body heat that I could not vent, and I began sweating like a Saran-wrapped race horse in just minutes.

Of course, in these hermetically-sealed modern buildings, there is no simple solution like "open a window" to solve this problem. I had to suffer in silence, streams of sweat running down down my sides and forehead, and I probably looked like I swallowed a mouthful of Bhut Jolokia peppers.

After class I had to discreetly sequester myself in a lavatory and peel the soggy long johns from my body. If I become stranded this evening in a snowbank, I will put them back on, but these highly efficient fleece long johns are better suited for folks in Antarctica.

Jan 14, 2009

On Tea Drinking

By nature I am a coffee drinker, and by coffee drinker I do not mean the sort of latte-cappuccino-skinny-sprinkle-of-nutmeg kind. I mean the hardcore, high-caffeine, microwave the pot made yesterday kind of coffee drinker, the "69 cents beats 99 cents" consumer who eschews taste for effect.

A coffee drinker with one purpose, which is to ingest as much liquid caffeine as he can without alkaloid-overdose jitters.

Yet there are times when a hot cup of tea sounds especially inviting, like during my current bout of laryngitis. There is a soothing sensation with the consumption of tea that coffee cannot match, and I prepared my first cup of tea in many months this afternoon.

While the Lemon Earl Grey teabag steeped, I paused to inhale the steam from the boiling water, allowing the vapors to radiate throughout my sinuses. Earl Grey, for non-tea drinkers, contains oil of bergamot; while there are dubious pharmaceutical claims made about this citrus oil (including its use as fat burners), its aroma certainly perks up the senses and calms the mind. As I absorbed the tea vapors, my iPod changed to Pink Floyd's "Shine on You Crazy Diamond." At one point in my life I might have wowed by some perceived alignment of pan-dimensional forces, but for today I just enjoyed the moment.

I keep the teabag in the hot water as long as possible, preferring a strong and bitter tea over a languid, warmed over brew. Normally I avoid additives, but today I added a teaspoon of honey to soothe my irritated throat. A lecturer can lose most any appendage, but the inability to speak is a deal-breaker, unless you arrive prepared with a voice synthesizer. Tomorrow will be the true test of tea as a laryngitis palliative, as I am scheduled to deliver over four hours of lectures, though thankfully I have several hours between each class to allow my ravaged vocal cords to recuperate.

If not, I have a bottle of vile-but-effective Buckley's Cough Syrup as a backup.

The Quote Shelf

Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

The snow itself is lonely or, if you prefer, self-sufficient. There is no other time when the whole world seems composed of one thing and one thing only. -- Joseph Wood Krutch

Jan 12, 2009

Dangerous Nan McGrew - Helen Kane

While working on some lecture prep for an upcoming class on the Bourbon Reforms, I turned to the Internet radio site Live365.com to find some conducive background music. I decided upon Absinthe Radio, a station that describes itself as "a celebration of the classic sounds of the 20s and 30s, and their peculiar partnership with another perfect pastime, Absinthe."

Anyways, while listening I became acquainted with a quirky old song performed by Helen Kane called "Dangerous Nan McGrew." Naturally, YouTube offered a clip from the 1930 Paramount Pictures film of the same name. Here it is:

The strangest part of Helen Kane's career is that she was the human inspiration behind the cartoon character Betty Boop. Kane filed suit against Paramount and Max Fleischer, but she eventually lost her case. Boop-boop-be-doop, Kane's lawsuit was tossed, and thus began her sad decline into obscurity.

Kane's last fling with stardom occurred in 1950, when she dubbed the singing in "I Wanna Be Loved by You" for Debbie Reynolds, but as fate would demand, Kane's singing was uncredited. She died from breast cancer in 1966 at the age of 62, a hard-luck flapper girl whose life is a microcosm of the chew-'em-up-and-spit-'em-out world of Hollywood, where the best diet pills are a more valuable commodity than human beings.

Jan 11, 2009

Top Ten Falsettos in Pop and Rock History

Left: Frankie Valli, king of pop falsetto

I shlepped around in the 1970s and 1980s with a dream of trying to make a career out of music, but I lacked the willingness to completely immerse myself into music, and I liked money too much to ever adopt the poverty associated with being a struggling musician. Still, I had a lot of fun, and I can still play just about any stringed instrument.

One of my stronger abilities as a singer has always been my grasp of the falsetto voice, and while my lead singing voice is competent-but-unremarkable, I harmonize well and can cover a lot of range. Anyways, enough about my lackluster musical accomplishments - let's move on to a discussion of the greatest falsettos in pop and rock music.

The 1960s were perhaps the golden age of the falsetto in pop and rock, though artists like Justin Timberlake keep alive the tradition today.

As always, jump in and remind me of the singers I overlooked, or critique the way I ranked them.

1. Frankie Valli - Yes, Valli sometimes comes across a bit screechy, but no singer legitimized the falsetto to generations of male pop singers than Frankie. He showed that you could hit the high notes and still maintain your masculinity, especially in defiant songs like "Walk Like a Man," sometimes misunderstood as a sort of sexual double entendre. Songs like "Opus 17 (Don't You Worry 'bout Me)" and "Can't Take My Eyes off You" still move me despite hearing them thousands of times.

2. Eddie Kendricks - There would not have been a Temptations without Eddie Kendricks, and his falsetto leads on songs such as "The Way You Do the Things You Do," "Get Ready," and "Just My Imagination" elevated the group into superstardom. Chainsmoking eventually corroded his marvellous voice, but Eddie was one of a kind.

3. Lou Christie - Like Frankie Valli, Christie used the falsetto as a sly foundation of his masculinity, though there is an undercurrent of lust that runs deeper in the sexually-suggestive songs he recorded, like "Lightning Strikes" and "Rhapsody in the Rain" that the Four Seasons only hinted at. Christie was much more subversive than such sexually over-the-top singers like Mick Jagger, using his clean-cut image as a front. In reality, he was still going to nail your teenaged daughter, but you'd let Lou Christie take her on a date, while you'd call the cops on Mick Jagger.

4. Phillip Bailey - From his work with Earth, Wind, and Fire to his successful solo career, Bailey carried the falsetto torch into the 1970s and 1980s. Check out EW&F songs like "Reasons" and "Fantasy," as well as his biggest hit "Easy Lover," a duet with Phil Collins.

5. Del Shannon - One listen to Shannon's "Runaway" and its signature "wah-wah-wah-wah-wonder" falsetto should be enough to include Shannon on this list. Unfortunately, his career was derailed by bad management, heavy drinking, and ultimately the .22 caliber rifle with which he shot himself in the head.

6. Roy Orbison - I ranked Orbison lower only because his three-octave operatic voice meant that he rarely needed to switch to falsetto. Listen to the song "Crying" and hear how brilliantly Orbison mixed falsetto in the chorus ("cry-i-i-ing") with his natural chest voice at the end ("o-o-o-ver you-u-u-u").

7. Russell Thompkins, Jr. - As a kid I thought that this lead singer of the Stylistics was female, so smooth was his high-register falsetto. Of course, I was listening on a two-dollar AM radio, so please forgive the ignorance, but that didn't stop me from singing hits like "Betcha by Golly Wow" and "You Make Me Feel Brand New" in my ten-year-old falsetto upstairs in my Detroit bedroom.

8. Jeff Lynne - The vocal work and especially the falsetto of the Electric Light Orchestra founder and leader are often overshadowed by his songwriting and production skills. Consider "Strange Magic," "Telephone Line," or "Sweet Talkin' Woman" if you have nagging doubts about Lynne's falsetto abilities.

9. Michael Jackson - Even though I am not a fan of the Bad One, I must admit that he has demonstrated some impressive falsetto singing over the years. The song "Butterflies" annoys me, but this tune does include some of his best falsetto work.

10. Morton Harkett - The lead singer of the Norwegian band a-ha demonstrated an impressive vocal range complemented by a soaring falsetto in the band's 1985 hit "Take on Me." Harkett almost effortlessly shifts from his normal voice into a falsetto two octaves higher.

Honorable mentions: Prince, Chris Isaak, Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend.

Jan 10, 2009

Meet Vernal and Pippy, Rescue Affenpinschers

Pictured on your left are Vernal and Pippy, a pair of 10-pound
Affenpinschers. The breed designation is a German word for “monkey dog.” Their wiry black hair is simple to maintain and requires hardly any grooming, and a bath and a brush is all they need to keep that monkey hair tamed.

These dogs were litter mates, and they do everything together. Since they are so closely bonded, we would prefer that they get adopted together. They are quite the pair, and run around the house like a couple of Ewoks. Vernal, the male, is a bit more reserved, while Pippy, the female, is slightly more playful, but both appear to be happy, well-adjusted dogs.

Both dogs are quite affectionate and like to cuddle on the couch with people. They do not bark much, and their bark is kind of muffled and raspy, not like the whiny yippiness of some small breeds. In spite of their small size, both dogs gleefully romped around in the 10 inches of snow that fell in our yard today.

To learn more about adopting these Affenpinschers or any other Toledo-area rescue dogs, visit the Planned Pethood website for more details.

Jan 9, 2009

On Canine Emotions and Personalities

Pictured on your left is our three-year-old Puggle named Eddie Haskell, who is rather grumpy today. The reason for Eddie's glum face is the fact that my wife returned back to school the other day, and Eddie no longer has his favorite human being with him all day.

Eddie's coping method is to gather shoes and clothing items of my wife into a sort of fort, so that he is surrounded by the scent of my wife. If other dogs try to get into his Shrine of Mama, Eddie growls and bares his teeth, and the other dogs figure out quickly that Eddie simply is not in the mood to play.

Admittedly, as a dog aficionado I run the risk of anthropomorphization here, but I find interesting the emotions and personalities that dogs exhibit. While the IQ of the average canine probably does not rank with even the dullest humans, it is clear that dogs possess a fairly high degree of intelligence, memory, and self-awareness, at least in comparison with other non-human species.

As a person who has observed dozens of dogs in my home over the past year in my work in animal rescue, I can attest that each dog has a unique personality. Moreover, like humans dogs can be placed on basic personality spectrums, such as the "happy-sad," "aggressive-passive," or "social-antisocial." My Bischon-mix Candy, for example, is rather happy-go-lucky, while my Sheltie-mix Jimmy is much more reserved.

There also seems to be a significant variation with intelligence between individual dogs. Eddie is probably the smartest dog in the house, and he easily recognizes 20-30 words and commands. Yet all of the dogs with whom we coexist quickly recognize friendly guests, understand basic human emotions, and grasp simple commands like "sit" and "back" and "leave it."

My family laughed the other day when I suggested that I spend more time conversing with dogs than humans, but this is probably true. I spend 60 to 70 percent of my working time in my house, and my dogs are constant companions. We have running conversations throughout the day and - while they might not understand every word - my dogs patiently listen to what I have to say, and are generally supportive of what I as their pack leader decide we are going to do.

So laugh away, oh family skeptics, but realize this: uh...never mind. I really do need to get out more.

Jan 8, 2009

On Tractor Trailers and Self-Centered Truckers

I will be the first to recognize that the life of the over the road trucker is not an easy one, and we owe a debt of gratitude to the men and women who are willing to drive thousands of miles per week to deliver the millions of items needed to keep the economy chugging along. However, I grow irritated at the truckers who feel it is their right to park their rigs wherever they want.

Pictured is a private lot at a former Seven-11 near my house that regularly features anywhere from three to six trailers and cabs. Within weeks of the closing of the store, truckers began to use the lot for storing trailers and semis. In my experience, the arrival of the first semi-trailer on a lot turns into a free-for-all within weeks, as word gets out about the new parking opportunities.

The reason that these truckers use the property of other people is pretty simple: if they park their rigs in a designated spot, such as at the dispatch center, they might have to drive an inconvenient distance to get back to their trucks. If a driver can find a spot in a residential neighborhood where no one raises a fuss, it can save time in between shifts.

When I was in business as a retail operator with multiple units, I used to have ongoing battles with an arrogant trucker who parked his trailers and rig on my lot, blocking my visibility from the road and hogging 10-12 spaces. He once laughed at me when I threatened to have his vehicle towed, since the impound lot we worked with was only equipped to tow passenger vehicles.

"Good luck towing my shit with a light duty tow truck," he said, hopping into his rig.

Eventually he tired of my complaints and irritated notes, and moved on to a place with less hassle, but there was little I could do in the meantime. The city would not issue tickets on a private lot, and I was not about to spend $200 to hire a heavier duty tow truck.

Again - I have sympathy for the difficult job faced by truckers, but I am of the opinion that following zoning and parking regulations is a cost of doing business. If I wanted to live near an industrial zone with the view of semi-trailers in my neighborhood, I would make that move. However, a few truckers believe their desire for convenience outweighs the rights of homeowners in a residential neighborhood to enjoy the quality of life they paid for when they bought their houses.

Jan 7, 2009

Crikey's Original Australian Pies

I have been flu-ridden the last few days, and concurrent with my illness has been a craving for a good old-fashioned pasty. This is a dish of Cornish origin, and which spread into American mining areas like Michigan's Upper Peninsula in the nineteenth century. The pasty is sort of like stew in a pie crust, not dissimilar to pot pies, but more in the shape of a calzone.

My efforts to find a local purveyor of Yooper pasties led me to try out Crikey's Original Australian Pies, which coincidentally are produced here in Toledo. While not a match for the pasty, Crikey's makes an excellent pie with a flaky crust and delicious fillings.

Crikey's Pies retail for $3.99 here in Toledo at the local Kroger, and since they are quite a bit larger than a frozen pot pie, they are worth the price. Now, if I can only find a true-blue pasty, especially without winding up with a case of plantar fasciitis from pounding the proverbial pavement.

Jan 5, 2009

Andrea Bocelli - Santa Lucia Luntana

I recently heard Andrea Bocelli sing the beautiful song "Santa Lucia Luntana," and my dogs joined me in howling along with the famed tenor. It was a grand moment in canine-human camaradeire, though I am not sure that the dogs understod the Italian well, and our combined voices created a racket more akin to power air tools than a choir.

Actually, I struggled with the Italian as well, and I could not find a decent English translation of this song, which expresses the longing of a Neapolitan far removed from his treasured homeland. Here then are the original lyrics:

Partono 'e bastimente
p' 'e terre assaje luntane,
cantano a buordo e so' napulitane!
Cantano pe' tramente
'o golfo già scompare,
e 'a luna, 'a miez' 'o mare,
'nu poco 'e Napule
lle fa vede'...

Santa Lucia,
luntana 'a te
quanta malincunia!
Se gira 'o munno sano,
se va a cerca' furtuna,
ma quanno sponta 'a luna
luntana a Napule
nun se po' sta!

And here is my workmanlike translation:

The ships are leaving
For far away lands,
The Neapolitans sing on board,
They sing while in the sunset
The bay disappears
And the moon above the sea
Gives them a last look at Naples.

Santa Lucia,
Far away from you
What melancholy!
We circle the whole world,
We seek our fortunes,
But when the moon rises
Far away from Naples
You can't stay away.

Anyways, feel free to critique my Italian, or to finish the translation of the rest of the lyrics, or just enjoy Bocelli. Yeah, some stuffy opera critics think he's a sellout and overrated, but I like his version of "Santa Lucia Luntana," and the opera geeks can kiss my semi-cultured ass.

Jan 4, 2009

Toledoans Protest Israeli War on Gaza

I received an advance notice of a protest over Israel's war on Gaza at Central and Secor, and with the freezing rain that iced over area streets, I thought there would be a lower turnout. However, I counted over 150 people at the protest, far exceeding my expectations.

The crowd was quite diverse, with students and business persons, parents and children, and many folks who did not seem to be so readily identifiable - just average people outraged over the latest Israeli violence against the Palestinians.

I had a lengthy conversation with Ziad Hummos, a Palestinian who came to the United States after the First Intifada. He and I expressed our mutual frustration at the unwillingness of American political leaders to speak out against the wholesale slaughter of innocent Palestinian civilians.

"Our current President is unwilling to do anything in his last weeks, and [President-elect] Barack Obama has been completely quiet," he said. "Sure, Obama came out and condemned the violence in Mumbai, but why has he been so quiet about this war?"

Yet even the driving rain - which caused me to clean my eyeglasses every few minutes - could not stop this large crowd from voicing its anger and frustration.

"From the river to the sea, Palestine must be free!" chanted the crowd, and many dozens of cars honked in support. The only counter protester I heard was a pedestrian on the Westgate side, who hollered that the protesters "should go back home" if they "don't like America."

Uh, dude? America IS home to everyone who attended the rally today. Perhaps our unhappy friend might move to a state where fascist repression of protest is the norm. Like, say, Israel, where police and government forces regularly harass peaceful protesters like these.

Jan 3, 2009

Israel Begins Ground War

Left: Israeli tanks just prior to the invasion; photo courtesy AP

Israeli tanks and troops launched a ground invasion today to reoccupy parts of the Gaza Strip, with the Israeli military escalating its assault on the Palestinian territory. Ostensibly this is an effort to eliminate the sources of recent rocket attacks by Hamas forces, but one suspects this might simply be an excuse for the destruction of Palestinian radicals or even for territorial expansion.

The likely outcome of this ground campaign will be results similar to the 2006 Lebanon War, with Israel gaining minimal military objectives at an extremely heavy price, while civilians get slaughtered by the thousands. The Hamas fighters will wage unconventional strategies, moving from building to building as Israeli tanks and artillery destroy large sections of Gaza City in an effort to root out rocket sites.

However, the underlying cause of the conflict - Palestinian refugees and their land claims after the lousy deal the world foisted on them in 1948 - will not be addressed, and the ground campaign will have no lasting effects. That is, assuming that the Israelis are not embarrassed by the military forces of Hamas like they were by Hezbollah fighters in 2006.

And the U.S., with our declining credibility? We have little ability to bring about change at the moment, as the Israelis know that we do not have the means to force them into a position of negotiation. Moreover, despite our professed desire to spread freedom and democracy in the Middle East, the U.S. is seen as hypocritical, since our response to the democratically elected Hamas government was to denounce Hamas and to greenlight Israeli efforts to undermine the political will of the Palestinians.

And let's not forget that Hezbollah might just take the opportunity to strike at Israel in the north during this campaign. The IDF has called up all reserves in anticipation of other fronts opening up, but I suspect that a combined Hamas-Hezbollah initiative would be quite the losing proposition for the Israelis (setting aside ideological differences between the two groups).

In short, the invasion will only serve to breed a new generation of Palestinian radicals, while the U.S. loses even more legitimacy in the region. Meanwhile, the Israelis will back themselves into an even deeper hole of intransigent militancy, leaving dim the prospects that peace will be achieved in the foreseeable future.

My personal assessment is that this is just the latest conflict in what appears to be the gradual descent into a major regional war. We can only hope that such a wider Middle East war does not devolve into a global conflict featuring numerous nuclear players.

Jan 2, 2009

The Quote Shelf

Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

A writer doesn't solve problems. He allows them to emerge. -- Friedrich Dürrenmatt