Feb 28, 2009

On the Qualities that Make a Day Great

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As I sit back and mull over this day - a day that I will savor as being as close to perfection as any in recent memory - I decided against simply recounting the various joys that elevated this particular Saturday over most of the rest of my days. Instead I am writing about the things that separate "great" days from ordinary ones.

For starters, I spent almost the entire day with my wife. Now for some folks in struggling marriages (and believe me, we had our tough years), spending time with your spouse is about the last component of a great day. Yet there are few things in life I enjoy as much as even the most ordinary day with my spouse, as we grew together rather than apart over the past 23 years.

I also managed to find the time to do little work today, aside from a dozen pages of editing earlier in the morning. So we instead spent the first half of the day in volunteer activities with Planned Pethood, went to a late lunch, and then traveled for an hour up to Michigan to visit my grandparents. We brought up an unused DVD player and a dozen movies to launch my grandparents into a more modern form of entertainment, since my frugal grandfather steadfastly refuses to spend $40 a month on cable when commercial TV is free.

To answer my implicit query above: the most important aspect of a "great" day is hanging out with people you love. The next step - at least for us - is to become involved in helping causes and people instead of pursuing self-centered goals.

Twenty-five years ago I would likely have defined a "great" day as one in which I attended a rock concert, went to Cedar Point, or (even worse) a day spent getting drunk and/or laid. Today my definition involves activities like walking hand-in-hand down the street with my wife, or helping eight rescue dogs find homes with loving families.

Today I spent little cash, consumed no alcohol, and did not engage in sexual activity (well, at least not yet - there are still 24 minutes before midnight :-}). In 1984 I would have found this to have been an utterly boring and pointless day, and a day a million light years from "great."

God, I used to be such an idiot.

Feb 26, 2009

Late Night, Emergency Lights

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It is always eerie seeing emergency vehicles pull up to a neighbor's house, but is especially strange when it has only been a few hours since you saw the same person unloading groceries from her car.

Flashing red lights interrupted my late night channel-surfing, and as the parent of teenagers, I have to admit that the first thought that entered my head was that one of my progeny got into trouble. I next took a look around to make sure that no nearby buildings were engulfed in flames before figuring out that this was a medical-related call.

I hope and pray my neighbor is feeling better, since she is way too young (and frankly, too close to my own age) to be called into the great beyond.

The Quote Shelf

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

Watch out for the fellow who talks about putting things in order! Putting things in order always means getting other people under your control. -- Denis Diderot

Feb 25, 2009

Searching for Signs of Spring

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Left: Hundreds of ducks enjoying the February sunshine

While shoveling some melting ice on my driveway this afternoon, I paused to chat with my neighbor, a woman in her seventies who probably walks 8-10 miles a day in her retired occupation as a dog walker. JoAnne knows everything about everything and everyone in a radius of a half-dozen blocks, and she informed me that she saw tulips sprouting two blocks over.

Now, I should interrupt and mention that I am as impatient for the arrival of spring as any proverbial kid at Christmas, and my desire for the balmy winds of spring is magnified by the fact that we planted over 200 bulbs last fall.

Anyways, I did not find the sprouts in question, so I decided to take a longer break from writing my dissertation and saunter to the local park to watch the ducks. I counted over 210 in the flock that calls my neighborhood park its home (call me neurotic, but I count the ducks every time I visit said public space).

Ondatra zibethicus, hard at work

Equally active this afternoon was the largest muskrat I have ever seen in my neighborhood. This slippery rodent was busy terraforming the bank of the creek, likely in an effort to construct a new home. The muskrat tore away about thirty square feet of dormant grass and wildflowers to open up a muddy patch.

I have seen as many as a dozen of these creatures - members of the Cricetidae family - in the half-mile stretch of Tifft Creek that runs through the park. Technically, Tifft Creek is Tifft Ditch, at least according to the local water drainage maps, but I find "creek" to be a more accurate term for a waterway that gets as much as six feet deep after the heaviest rains.

Besides, who wants to ponder urban wildlife settings next to a "ditch"? That word conjures up rusty pickup trucks and empty beer cans by the side of some light industrial highway, at least in my imagination.

Left: the first tulips break through the semi-frozen ground

I trudged home in the 44 degree late winter sunshine, disappointed that I did not locate the sprouting tulips of whose presence my neighbor testified. Just for grins I decided to survey my own one-third acre of an urban double lot to see if there were any visible signs that spring is approaching, and that I would need to fire up the dehumidifiers.

Lo and behold, at least two dozen irises in my yard have decided to test the weather, dispatching light-green waxy leaves upward like a person might dip toes in a pool to test the temperature. Evidence of spring, it turns out, was only ten yards away from my workspace in my home office, yet with nose to keyboard I was oblivious to the new life that emerged overnight.

I declare spring to be in session!

Idiotic Drudge Report Headline

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Click on image for larger display of this especially craven Drudgery

It is no surprise that Matt Drudge, he of Drudge Report fame, feels no love for new President Barack Obama. After all, Drudge is unapologetically right wing in his politics, and he frequently creates deceptive headlines that put Obama in a negative light.

Fair enough in this era of journalists-as-political-shills.

Yet I had to chuckle at Drudge's desperate efforts to tie today's stock market fluctuations with President Obama's speech to Congress last night. The major U.S. indices finished down about 1 percent today, but they recovered from much steeper losses earlier in the afternoon.

But look in the upper left hand corner at what Drudge linked: "HOME SALES SINK TO 12-YEAR LOW..." This was the financial news that really rattled Wall Street today, and I find it amusing that the pathetic Drudge and his staffers could be so willfully oblivious to their own front page.

Let alone - dare I dream? - that Matt Drudge should actually try to just report the news and participate in thoughtful analysis.

Feb 24, 2009

A Few Thoughts and Recommendations on Dissertation Writing

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I am pausing from an extended period of work on my dissertation to reflect on the process of writing such a document. I crossed the threshold of 150 pages a few minutes ago, and for the first time I can say that this project seems like it is making real progress, even to the point that I can allow myself to visualize its completion.

The final document will be well over 300 pages, perhaps as many as 400 by the time I finish. Some of this depends on the cuts or additions that my dissertation committee members suggest, while I may reach a point in some chapters that I simply decide to declare them "complete" and move on. There is only so much you can say about certain topics without creating literary overkill.

I have only a few pieces of advice for those just beginning this arduous journey, as I myself am still learning the unwritten rules and hidden expectations associated with churning out such a piece of literature. I can say that setting reasonable goals and sticking to them pays dividends; personally I force myself to write at least a page a day, seven days a week, without exceptions.

Some days this is limited to little ore than a weak paragraph, some bibliographical entries, and a few footnotes, but a page is a page, and my diligence in this simple goal should result in 45 pages of text in the 28-day month of February. I have also been completing more writing in the early morning, when my house is quieter. Trying to accomplish high-level thinking and writing is well nigh impossible when the noise of my rowdy teenagers reaches a fevered pitch.

I also recommend that dissertation writers avoid getting intimidated by the sheer enormity of the final project, especially when they are in the earliest stages of dissertation writing, with perhaps only an outline and one or two dozen pages of text. Break the paper down into ever-smaller chunks and focus on writing those 2-3 page mini-essays that begin to link together into a chapter.

Meanwhile, be sure to take care of your physical and mental health. There will be times when the muse strikes and you can crank out 10-15 pages in a day, but these are the exceptions rather than the rule. Avoid the trap I fell into this week, where I obsessively worked on my dissertation most of Sunday and Monday, perhaps 24 hours over the two days, reading and writing with such intensity that I could not remember if I ate lunch or dinner. Yes, I managed to generate my highest two-day page count to date (almost 20 pages), but today I am walking around like a zombie, and composing even simple paragraphs are a chore.

It is better to set a regular writing schedule of, say, four hours per day than it is to run the risk of burnout by pounding away on the keyboard for endless hours. The research and writing will still be there, but your health and outlook can quickly degenerate if you push yourself beyond reasonable limits. Also, avoid getting so wrapped up in your dissertation writing that you ignore the importance of human contact. I have found myself in an almost dissociative state a few times lately between the isolation of research and the fact that only 20 people on the planet might be able to actually engage in a lengthy, focused conversation on this narrow topic.

On a related note: learn to prepare a highly condensed version of an answer to this question: "So, what is your dissertation about?" Non-specialists and regular Joes ask this question out of curiosity and kindness, but they are usually not interested in a 15-minute lecture. Try to keep any responses under 30 seconds, and use only two-syllable words.

Dissertation writers might also consider some form of scorekeeping to keep themselves motivated. I have been posting page and word counts in the header of my blog to act as a visual reminder of my progress, and I find that it is an extra bonus to be able to broadcast to the world the completion of even a single page.

Kind of like chalk marks on a wall, or something like that.

Feel free to leave any comments on your own experiences with dissertation or thesis writing. I'm sure that there are many thousands of other people - especially those who have actually completed a dissertation - who are much more knowledgeable than me on the most important considerations of this academic genre of writing.

Feb 23, 2009

Seeking Laptop Advice

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My wife is in the market for a new laptop, and I am surfing the Internet to find a machine that she might consider as a viable option. She teaches at both the high school and college level, and uses some mathematics-specific test generation software, but other than this concern, she is a typical laptop user: some business, some personal, and no heavy memory usage for games or other applications that drain away RAM.

One laptop that is currently on sale that meets many of our needs is the Toshiba Satellite A215-S7472 Notebook, which I have seen priced as low as $699 and as high as $899. In addition to its 2.20GHz processor, the Satellite comes with a standard 2GB RAM chip. I made the mistake of buying a laptop with only 1GB of RAM last year, which is not quite enough to handle the RAM-sucking Microsoft Vista operating system.

While my current laptop is otherwise a solid machine, I get more than a few annoying occasions where the insufficient RAM locks up even relatively simple Word documents or Explorer browsers. There is no way I will overlook the importance of RAM on any future computer purchases.

Anyways, feel free to leave in the Comments section any laptop recommendations, or reasons why the Toshiba Satellite makes a quality or terrifying computer investment. I am always impressed with the collective knowledge that readers bring to discussions like this.

Meet Sophia, a Rescue Puggle

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Pictured on your left is Sophia, a 3-year-old, 22-pound female Puggle. This is a cross-breed between a Beagle and a Pug, and since we already have a pair of Puggles, there is no way I will be able to convince my wife that adding a third Puggle will make this a Puggle Triumvirate, a more natural balance in our Puggle world.

Anyways, Sophia is a warm and affectionate dog who will bring many years of companionship and laughter to the right home. She loves to run around the backyard and chew dog bones, and gets along well with our other dogs.

Sophie was an owner-surrender at an area dog pound due to family problems unrelated to her behavior. Personally, I would kick out the problem family members before I would give up a good dog like Sophie, but hey: every family is different. Sophie is a bit underweight, and 25-28 pounds would be around her ideal weight.

Sophie is not an aggressive dog, and gets a bit spooked when strangers come in, though she warms up pretty quickly. Her new owners will need to work on leash-walking, as she tends to pull, and we are also working with her to be less protective of her toys, as she is still learning to share with the other dogs.

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

Feb 21, 2009

On Fate, Guilt, and a Night of Horror that Never Happened

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While reading Mark Z. Danielewski's chilling 2000 novel House of Leaves, I came across a passage in which a character recalls a long-buried memory, and as I pondered this plot twist, my mind wandered back to an incident from 1973 when I was a 9-year-old kid in Detroit. To this moment I have never shared this incident with another human being, not because the memory brings pain and shame, but precisely because I suffered no lasting effects, and the incident just sort of faded from my mind.

No harm, no foul; move along folks, nothing to see here.

I had recently moved to a new neighborhood when my parents purchased their second home in an area known either as Warrendale or "Little Warsaw," depending on who you asked. This had long been an urban Polish enclave, but by the 1970s Warrendale was a melting pot of working class whites, Lebanese, Armenians, African Americans, and almost any other group that you could imagine. It was also something of a magnet for cops and fireman, given its lower crime rates and higher housing values.

At my new school I joined up with the Boy Scouts, in part to make friends and in part to appease my parents, who thought a kid should do more than read books and watch reruns of the Three Stooges on television. It was while walking home about 9:00 pm on a cool October evening that my path crossed with that of a pair of men driving around looking for a kid to... do stuff to.

A dark-colored muscle car, like one of those late sixties GM Malibus, Cutlasses, or GTOs, pulled up next to me as I walked the last of the four short blocks from my Boy Scout meeting to my house. A much older voice boomed through the still fall air and posed a wholly unexpected question to me.

"Hey: do you want a blow job?"

I could intellectually understand the concept of a "blow job," knowing that the proposed act involved certain body parts, but as a third grader, I was still several years away from the rush of hormones associated with puberty. But what I did pick up on was an imminent sense of danger, and the realization that a four-foot-something kid stood no chance of fighting off a pair of grown men.

I would like to say that I had the presence of mind to know that running as fast as I could was an excellent decision, but I acted on instinct. Without saying a word, I turned, ran through the nearest yard, and cut through someone's driveway to get to my street. I began considering houses I could approach if the car came closer, looking for lights or any signs of a human presence.

But what I really wanted was to get home. Fast. Now.

I looked back just before crossing the street to my house, and there was no car. There were no perverts, no monsters, no bogeymen, just the distant hum of traffic on the Southfield Freeway. There were not even any of the usual dogs barking, a time when I would probably have been thankful for the howl of what on any other night would be someone's annoying mutt.

It was almost as if the moment never happened.

I went in the house feeling a combination of guilt, embarrassment, and humiliation. My Mom asked me how the Scout meeting was, and I mumbled something like "fine," and I went up to my room, never telling my parents about the creepy men in the car who were cruising for a kid to abduct. This was 1973, of course, when parents were much less fearful of roaming pedophiles, and when social awareness of deviant sociopaths was rather limited.

Especially in "nice" neighborhoods, whatever those were.

As an adult, of course, I shake my head and shudder at the near-miss that might have forever altered my life, perhaps with me even winding up dead. It is puzzling to me that I lacked the willingness to tell my folks about what had just happened, but I have to try and remember what it is like to be a defenseless kid.

But what if I had spoken up? What if my Dad - the Detroit homicide detective and one of the most all-time righteous bad-asses to put on a badge, a guy who made Dirty Harry look like a mild-mannered traffic cop - what if my Dad had jumped up from the couch and hunted down these bastards? Maybe by keeping quiet I allowed these sick freaks to harm other children, and that is some serious guilt I carry, friends.

Sure I was just a kid, but Anne Frank was just a kid, and she was a hell of a lot more brave than I will ever be, and infinitely more brave than I was on that night in 1973.

Then there is the twinge of guilt I feel about cheating the death, or at least managing to avoid falling victim to the pedophiles who accosted me. Why did God see fit to let me dodge the sorts of horrors faced by the countless other unlucky children?

Or maybe life is completely random and chaotic, and there is no "plan" by God to decide which kids get snatched by pedophiles and which ones make it home to live otherwise normal lives. Maybe creepy bastards - like the pair of freaks who chose not to chase down my 9-year-old skinny ass in 1973 - are like unpredictable forces of nature, like rampaging chimpanzees or wintertime tornadoes. Maybe it was just sheer dumb luck that my would-be predators drove away that night, or maybe the Boy Scout uniform was less of a turn-on than would be a dress or a football uniform to my almost-assailants.

Who the hell knows.

Feb 20, 2009

Department of Lame Product Names: Cocoa Peanut Butter Spheres

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Whenever possible my wife and I purchase generic products to save money, and we generally receive a reasonable level of quality from off-brand labels like Millville, the cereal maker for Aldi Foods. Such is the case with the breakfast cereal pictured on your left, Millville's Cocoa Peanut Butter Spheres, which delivers a taste close enough to Reese's Peanut Butter Puffs to keep the kids and me happy.

But oy: What a name!

The word "spheres" conjures up images of geometry and engineering in my mind, rather than an edible products. I know that the Millville product development folks wanted to avoid any copyright problems with General Mills, but I suspect that there might have been rhetorical possibilities with greater aesthetic appeal than "spheres."

Perhaps "Cocoa Peanut Butter Treats" or "Cocoa Peanut Butter Bites" or "Cocoa Peanut Butter Tidbits" might have worked better. "Spheres" sounds more like a technical term, or as if someone for whom English is a second or third language was in charge of naming the cereal, and that person pulled the first word on the memory cards containing the Microsoft Word synonym list.

This reminds me of the 1984 film Repo Man, where products on store shelves had plain white labels and names like "Drink", "Dry Gin", "Food (Meat Flavored)", and "Beer." Sure, these are no-frills products, but why not spend two minutes thinking up a catchier name?

And by the way: what's with the cross-eyed octopus on the cereal box? The character looks more crazily drunk than playful, and if I were a small child, I might run screaming out of the kitchen if I had to stare at that box while munching my Cocoa Peanut Butter Spheres. I'd be afraid that the inebriated Octopoda might swat me with its flailing extremities, or reach out and drag me to the deep dark blue waters of its bathypelagic lair.

I'm just sayin'.

Feb 19, 2009

The Quote Shelf

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

I like these cold, gray winter days. Days like these let you savor a bad mood. -- Bill Watterson

Feb 18, 2009

On Mental Fogs and Sleep Deprivation

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One bleary eye

As I write this post I am borderline exhausted from a poor night's sleep, and I walk around in an almost hallucinatory state trying to stay upright and marginally coherent while I go about my business.

The source of the lack of sleep is multi-pronged. I stupidly drank a cup of coffee around 7:00 pm, which injected unnecessary caffeine into my brain and kept my kidneys busy until 3:00 am, though I managed to get a lot of late night work done. We also have a few new foster dogs, both of whom were quite restless in their new surroundings, and my Puggles were reluctant to concede even one square foot of bed space to the newcomers, adding to the late night sleep disruptions.

Luckily I did not have to lecture today, and had only a test to administer. I shudder to think what rambling and disconnected thoughts I would have uttered in my mental confusion. They probably would have been even more rambling and disconnected than my regular lectures, which occasionally take on a stream of consciousness feel in my extemporaneous efforts to make modern connections and parallels with historical topics.

What I most dislike about sleep deprivation is my tendency to be jumpy, especially by loud noises. A few minutes ago all was peaceful in the house, and then one of my dogs spotted a pedestrian in front of the house. One moment I had on some peaceful piano music (Vladimir Horowitz with Mozart's Sonata No. 11, K. 331: ii. Menuetto), and then the next was a sudden "BARK!BARK!BARK!BARK!" that just about sent me through the plaster above my head.

Surprisingly I found the writing muse this afternoon, at least after my boisterous 18-year-old went to work. I churned out four pages of dissertation text that seems intelligent and focused, but of course I plan to re-read the new material tomorrow when a night of catch-up sleep should put me closer to normal.

For all I know it might be unreadable drivel, even on the highest quality netbooks, which almost write your papers for you.

Feb 17, 2009

Meet Rusty, a Rescue Pomeranian

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I have to admit hat I knew little about Pomeranians before I began to foster this handsome dog, and that I had the mistaken impression that these were - for lack of a better term - "foo-foo" dogs for little old ladies.

Rusty is a 3-year-old, 10-pound male Pomeranian who somehow wound up at an area dog pound. Luckily a Planned Pethood volunteer happened to be visiting the facility in question, as most of the area agencies euthanize dogs who overstay their welcome. Rusty, however, is anything but a "foo-foo" dog, though he will gladly let you pamper him, I am sure.

This fine looking young man is quite the affectionate pooch, and he has a gentle, easygoing manner about him. He gets along well with our other dogs, and bonds quickly with people. He seems fine around children, and loves to romp around the yard, and he likes playing with the various dog supplies we have around. He seems to be housebroken, though most dogs go through a readjustment phase, so his new owners will need to be patient and positively reinforce the outdoor rituals.

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

Feb 16, 2009

Eerie 1666 Almanac Passages

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Forecast: Doom

I was working with some microfilm today on a collection of obscure 17th century English books when I came across a 1666 almanac published by Sir George Wharton, an English soldier and astrologer. Just for grins, I decided to peruse the book, as this was also the year of the Great Fire of London, not to mention that the year contained the Number of the Beast, 666.

"Ha!" I thought to myself. "Those crazy astrologers just make up stuff!"

Imagine my surprise when I came across the following creepy poem in the beginning of the Calendarium Carolinum: Or, A New Almanack. Especially strange is that many contemporaries claimed that the Great Fire was started by Catholics, a fiery precursor of the hysteria associated with the Popish Plot:

Now Sixtene Hundred Sixtie Six is come,
When (as some say) shall be the Day of Doom:
Or else the Pope and Hierarchy destroy'd
Presbytery advanc'd and Over-joy'd.

Here's Seven years Purchase offer'd for their Land,
Who thinks that Dredaful Day, so nigh at hand:
And (if His Holyness suspect His Chaire)
I'le take it My selfe, though but for this One yeare.
Even weirder were the weather forecasts for the period of September 2 through 5, which called for clear skies and easterly gales, just like the weather that helped spread the fire through the tens of thousands of wooden buildings that burned in the conflagration.

Gulp. Sure, it was just a lucky guess (or was it?) but at 8:30 in the pre-coffee morning, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

Feb 15, 2009

Odd Duck Out

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One of my favorite relaxation pastimes is to observe the flock of ducks that populate the park near my house. Due to some kind neighbors who provide corn and bird seed in the winter, we have as many as 150 ducks gathering at any given moment.

The vast majority of these ducks are Mallards, with a few hybrid ducks in the flock. This winter, though, there is a new arrival: a white-feathered Pekin duck, which is the most popular commercially-bred duck and one that provides most of the duck meat eaten by humans.

This duck must thus be on the lam, a regular fugitive from Anatidae justice. I suppose that any bird seed I toss his way will then make me an accessory to the crime, but I will deal with that problem later. For the moment I will simply enjoy watching the interaction between my aquatic friends.

Feb 13, 2009

Tough Times, Tough People

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I have passed Rhunai Rice many dozens of times in the past few months at his job on the corner of Secor and Sylvania in West Toledo. He is hard to miss, wearing as he does a turquoise Statue of Liberty costume and holding a sign promoting Liberty Tax Service.

What is especially noticeable, though, is the enthusiasm Rice displays, even in the worst weather.

"I consider myself to be a positive person by nature," Rice told me this afternoon. "Negative people bring you down, and in times like these it is even more important to surround yourself with people who are trying to achieve something positive."

Rice said that - while he would prefer more dignified work - he is grateful that he can at least find part-time employment in the tough economy.

"These folks [Liberty Tax Service] are great to work for, and the people who drive by keep me motivated with honks and cheers," he said. "But just because the economy is down doesn't mean I should give up."

Prior to working at what he called "street-level marketing," Rice worked in business management, most recently as an auditor.

"Look: I have a 5-year-old grandson I am raising, so there isn't much choice about working or not working," he said of his decision to accept his current costumed outdoor job. "It's not like the bills are going to disappear."

We had an interesting conversation about self-motivation in troubled times.

"The easiest thing in the world to do is to quit - any kind of fool can just give up," he said. "But getting up every day and pushing yourself to keep trying? That's what separates winners from losers, and it's what keeps me going when I might otherwise start thinking negative thoughts."

Of course, if your company is in need of a hardworking, enthusiastic, and self-motivated person like Rhunai Rice, be sure to stop by Secor and Sylvania some afternoon. Don't let the wacky costume mislead you: Mr. Rice is no fool, and he seems to have the kind of unsinkable spirit associated with people who always come out winners.

Feb 12, 2009

Looking for Printer Suggestions

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Yea? Nay? What say ye?

I am in the process of pricing and evaluating printers for my home office. We have a variety of clunkers about the house, testifying to the near-disposable nature of many of these "free" printers that get packaged with computers we have purchased over the years, and I would like to have a higher quality, heavier duty printer to handle my academic needs.

On the higher-priced end, I am intrigued by the Brother HL-4040CDN color laser printer, which has duplex printing and and built-in networking. It is currently on sale at a number of major retailers, and offers a lot of the features I would find useful.

This machine allows you to print PDF and JPEG files directly from a USB flash drive without connecting to a PC, which would be handy for those endless academic articles graduate students are expected to digest. This printer also has a printing rate of up to 21 pages per minute (color and monochrome), and that would come in handy on the days when university printers are on the fritz, which is far too often in this age of hyperactive cost-controls. At one local university which shall remain nameless, graduate students in a number of departments found that administrators were holding print cartridges hostage because of budget cutbacks.

Of course, since those same graduate students pay hundreds of dollars per term in "technology fees," one might wonder where the money is really going, but I suppose that is the subject of a future blog post.

Anyways, please feel free to offer your suggestions on a printer that you have found especially hardy and efficient, or post comments about any models you think I should stay away from.

Feb 11, 2009

Open Letter to a Black-Clad Pedestrian Walking on the Road at Night

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I passed under the railroad viaduct on Bancroft near the University of Toledo tonight, and perhaps two seconds before my vehicle met up with you, I noticed you in time to slightly swerve and avoid you. There was still some piled snow on the sidewalk, which is why I think you ventured out into the street.

Or maybe you just don't like sidewalks.

You were wearing a black coat, dark colored hat, and dark pants, and in the dim light under the bridge, you were indiscernible from the rest of the dark nighttime landscape. Fortunately for you and me, my eyes happened to be squarely on the road, and not fiddling with the car stereo or a cell phone.

But what if I had been momentarily distracted?

I would have plastered you all over the four-lane highway, traveling as I was at about 40 MPH. Perhaps you might have lived, but I suspect that you would have received serious injuries. Certainly your plans for the next few days would have been disrupted, if not those of the next few months.

The incident happened too quickly for me to have even gone into an adrenaline rush, as though I blinked and the moment passed. I am not angry, but rather puzzled and pensive. Our paths came eerily close to a tragic destiny, and yet neither of us suffered so much as a scratch.

But dude: if you plan to keep walking at night, consider wearing some clothes with greater visibility in the dark. You don't have to necessarily wrap yourself in reflective tape, but a brightly-colored cap and a white T-shirt might save your life some night.

Oh, and the walking-on-the-road thing: don't assume that motorists see you just because their headlights are starting to light you up. That assumption almost turned you into road pizza tonight, pal.

Feb 10, 2009

On the Restorative Powers of Warm Weather

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The view on the left is that of my office window, which looks out onto the one-third of an acre that is my urban double lot. It is February, and I am in the midst of an especially severe case of cabin fever, yet the 58-degree Fahrenheit day was warm enough to open some windows in my house and let in some fresh air.

Yes, "fresh" might be a rhetorical stretch coming from someone living in the middle of the American Rust Belt, but the outside air undoubtedly is fresher than the stale indoor air of a a family trading respiratory viruses back and forth this winter. Deeply inhaling this breezy outdoor air when I ventured outside, I could almost feel the stuff reinvigorating me, like a vaporized opiate coursing through my lungs and into bloodstream. I even churned out three new pages of dissertation material, my highest one-day total in months, and I might even get another page or two completed before the warm weather Muse disappears.

I hopped into my car in a short-sleeved shirt and ran some errands, rolling down the windows to force some of this aerosolized joy into the stuffy confines of my rusty metal box (a lyrical nod to Sting here). I even went so far as to get my hair cut, and used the open windows to stick out my newly-shorn head and blow away any stray clippings that might remain. While my mood hardly morphed into something like Maria von Trapp dancing in the Alpine countryside, it is light years removed from the glum winter blahs of the past few weeks.

True, this warm spell will not last, and only a fool would bet against further northern Ohio winter storms this season, but for an afternoon I could forget the 30 inches of snow that fell in January. Spring cannot be far away, and I long for the appearance of the first of our herbaceous perennials.

Thank you, southwest winds!

Feb 9, 2009

On Synesthesia and Normalcy

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Left: a rough approximation of colors I associate with certain numbers, which is limited by the 32-color palette on MS-Paint

As long as I can remember I have experienced a blending of sensory information. I associate certain sounds with particular colors and hues, while individual letters, numbers, and words possess a wide variety of brighter and darker colors and degrees of luminance. The technical term for this phenomenon is synesthesia, and it has been the subject of scientific inquiry for a few hundred years.

Here are just a few examples that come to mind as I scan the number line and the alphabet:

-- The numbers 1,2,5, and 8 are brighter colors, while 3,4,6,7 and 9 are darker. 6 and 7 are in the darker end of the blue-violet range, 1 is kind of bright yellow, 3 is sort of a forest green, and 5 has an orange tint.

-- The letters a, c, i, l, s, and y have the brightest luminance, while f, g, m, n, and t are the darkest. The letter o is a rather cool and icy blue, h is a dull yellow, f is a darker red-violet, and c is a brighter green color, almost a fiery brilliance.

I associate certain colors with individual notes, and I also connect particular emotions with notes and chords. This is more than a simple "major chord = happy" and "minor chord = sad" structure, though; if I hear a particular piece of instrumental music - especially single instrument recordings - definite colors and emotions appear, an effect that intensifies if I close my eyes and block out "normal" visual stimuli.

I never really thought much about the odd way I experience the world, and when I tried to explain my sensations to others, I assumed that their uncomprehending responses just meant that I possessed some sort of an artistic bent. I remember when I first bought a chorus pedal for my electric guitar, and my friend Jim Butler asked me what the device did to the sound.

Lacking a technical explanation, and drawing upon my sensory experience, all I could manage to say was this: "It adds... color."

I'm not sure if my friend understood, or if he thought I was hallucinating, but it was the best I could do for an elucidation.

In today's news I came across an article indicating that there might be a genetic link to synesthesia. What I found amusing was that the article's author described synesthesia as "a neurological condition," as if this unusual way of perceiving the world was somehow a disability.

Look: I know that I am not exactly the most "normal" person you might come across, and there are days when I might apply any one of a dozen DMS-IV diagnoses to myself, but I hardly think that synesthesia qualifies as "a neurological condition," at least not in the sense of some debilitating disorder. I also resist the desire to even label such a phenomenon as synesthesia. Should I now walk around with a defiant T-shirt that reads: "Synesthestics of the World - Mix it Up!"

If anything, I think people with synesthesia have a gift: the ability to experience sensory inputs on a multiplicity of levels. So back off with your diagnoses and white laboratory coats, you Aristotelian, category-obsessed technicians, and allow me to enjoy my colorful sounds and luminant numerals. I don't need a label, a diagnosis, or a cure, and I am content with my blended sensory weirdness.

Feb 7, 2009

On Icefishermen, Toledo, and 50 Degree Days

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Some news stories are just mind-numbingly bizarre, such as the 175 icefisherman rescued from an ice floe on Lake Erie today. Even after shaking my head and pouring another cup of coffee, I struggle to make sense of this mass stupidity.

Now, there is probably not a winter that goes by where a few fishing fools find themselves trapped on ice somewhere in the Great Lakes. The Coast Guard or local emergency personnel fly out or power up the rescue boats, plucking the hapless anglers from their icy desperation. Occasionally a few unlucky fishermen die.

But how do hundreds of idiots manage to get stranded on the same lengthy patch of ice on the same 51-degree day?

Admittedly, just because the outside temperature rises, there is no sudden mass melting of lake ice. However, we have been on a warming trend for several days now, and even mentally challenged folks can figure out that a few days above freezing - especially culminating in a balmy day 50-plus Fahrenheit day like today - means that one ought to exercise caution before stepping out on a frozen lake.

And why did so many from the Toledo area have to be the doofuses who make the national news. Toledo already has an image problem, ranging from our foot-in-mouth mayor to the North Toledo riot to the Toledo attorney who faked her own kidnapping to the simple fact that we languish in the middle of the American Rust Belt.

Some of these buffoons not only wandered onto the melting ice, but actually drove four wheelers and snowmobiles out there. I can just imagine the thought process: "Yeah, it's getting pretty warm, Bill, but I figure 50 degrees oughta be cold enough to support this the weight of this 600-pound Sea-Doo GTX, dontcha think?"

Thanks, oh brain dead icefishermen, for once again making Toledo the butt of national jokes. It is my fervent wish that each of you realize that you are of dangerously low intellectual capacities, and that you immediately contact your respective urologists and gynecologists for the necessary operations that prevent you from further reproducing.

Feb 6, 2009

Department of History Puns

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I was lecturing yesterday about eighteenth century Vietnam, and the discussion turned to the French and their early colonial aims in the region. I informed the class that the French made a wise move in their choice of noble families to back in the dynastic struggle.

"This was the classic Nguyen-win situation, " I intoned, mostly to a silent class.

Nguyen-win.

You see, the pronunciation of this famous Vietnamese last name is kind of like hwin, and I cleverly morphed it into...ahem...oh, never mind. Only a geek like me could find this wordplay funny.

Feb 4, 2009

Ten Overplayed Songs I Would Never Miss if They Suddenly Disappeared

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Go away. Please.

We all have songs that grate on our sonic sensibilities due to the rate at which they appear on the radio, on television, or in other cultural contexts. Listed below are the 10 tunes whose permanent disappearance would not cause me to shed a tear, and which I might applaud if they were erased from human memory.

Of course, if these songs indeed abruptly evaporated and mysteriously vanished, I wouldn't be able to remember them anyhow, but that is just idle semantics.

The potential status of an overplayed song, of course, is in part a function of the amount of time since it was recorded. There are plenty of songs recorded in the last year or two that get heavy airplay but which will soon fall to obscurity. In this post I am thinking of songs that have annoyed people for at least a decade, and preferably tunes that have tormented listeners for a lifetime.

Feel free to sing the praises of any song I unfairly placed on this list, or add your own least favorite songs that gain much more airplay than they deserve.

1. "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye," Steam. I never much cared for this song when it was only an AM radio staple, but now that it has entered the playlist of every PA system in sporting venues, this song needs to die. Soon.

2. "Build Me Up Buttercup," The Foundations. This is another AM radio special that has been resurrected, only this time for movie soundtracks and American Idol singers. Unfortunately, its popularity seems to live on, and I suspect that I will continue to be aurally assaulted by its unnaturally cheery melody for the foreseeable future.

3. "We Are The Champions / We Will Rock You," Queen. Stadium and arena operators feed us a steady diet of this Queen twofer, and it has also found its way into innumerable films. Too bad, because there are many other Queen songs worthy of immortality than this ho-hum pair.

4. "Mony Mony," Tommy James & The Shondells and Billy Idol. This song was pretty forgettable in its first go-around in 1968, but Billy Idol's annoying 1987 remake kills it for me. That, plus I wager that "Mony Mony" has been played at every wedding I've attended since 1980.

5. "Rock and Roll Part 2," Gary Glitter. Yet another stadium-and-arena musical cliché, but we should also wish a rapid death for the song because Gary Glitter is a flaming pedophile, and every time someone plays the song Glitter makes more royalties. No nickels for pedos, I say.

6. "Who Let The Dogs Out," The Baha Men. I thought that this one was dying, but I still hear it at sporting events, and Mitt Romney breathed new life into it during the 2008 primary by trying to look hip to some puzzled African American voters in Jacksonville.

7. "Bad to the Bone," George Thorogood and the Destroyers. Thorogood went downhill after his first two mildly listenable albums, but this ho-hum song somehow finds its way into more television shows, films, and video games than any other rock song I can recall.

8. "Back in Black," AC/DC. I admit that I never much cared for the musical stylings of Angus Young & Co., but this song is overplayed to the point at which it no longer seems like music. More like painful static or something, or at best like a bad case of vaginal dryness. So I am told, at least, possessing as I do a different set of reproductive organs.

9. "Radar Love," Golden Earring. One small caveat - you will likely only hear this song on a classic rock or oldies station, but the frequency of play in these two formats more than compensates for its infrequent appearance elsewhere. However, if pressed I will admit that I would rather listen to this song than Golden Earring's other idiotic hit, "When the Bullet Hits the Bone."

10. "Old Time Rock and Roll," Bob Seger. I recognized this as a piece of cheap sycophancy back in 1978 when Seger phoned this one in, but its place in musical banality was assured with the infamous underwear scene by Tom Cruise in Risky Business. This is another overplayed source of irritation at weddings, and now we also get to hear it every commercial for Guitar Hero on Tour: Decades and Guitar Hero World Tour. Blecch!

Feb 3, 2009

The Quote Shelf

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

I put forward formless and unresolved notions, as do those who publish doubtful questions to debate in the schools, not to establish the truth but to seek it. -- Michel de Montaigne

Feb 1, 2009

On Inheritances, Greed, and Ticking Clocks

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Old house, old folks

While visiting my grandparents yesterday, the subject turned to inheritances and wills. Now, I have to admit that I tend to avoid such discussions or to change the subject when they arise because, frankly, the thought of close relatives dying is unsettling. I have somehow managed to skate through life for 44 years without a single close relative dying.

Sure, my paternal grandparents passed away when I was young, but I was one of dozens of grandchildren, and "close" is not a word I use to describe people I saw two or three times a year in crowded gatherings of 25-40 Brooks family members. My dad's mom spent all of her time at family gatherings in the kitchen, and my dad's dad was glued to televised sporting events, and we grandkids spent our time either in the basement or outside.

So when my parents, my two siblings, or my maternal grandparents bring up the subject of estates and wills, I generally get uncomfortable. Yet I cannot postpone inheritance talk forever, as my grandparents are both in their early nineties and both my parents will soon be over 70.

I have also witnessed how disputes over estates can get nasty, bringing out the ugly sides of people you once respected. When my relatively impoverished mother-in-law's second husband died, his children all chimed in about how we should buy an expensive casket and have a lengthier showing, and they promised to help with the funeral expenses. Of course, once the life insurance checks went out to his children, the beneficiaries, not a dime went back to my mother-in-law, who ended up paying off the $4,000 funeral in monthly installments out of her meager weekly restaurant paychecks.

Then there was the fiasco when my dad's dad passed away. My paternal grandmother died in 1974, and my grandfather remarried, gradually becoming closer with his new wife's children and grandchildren. Unfortunately, while my grandfather no doubt experienced happiness late in life, his second wife of six years engineered a new will, completely shutting out leaving my dad and his siblings.

My dad was not angry about the monetary slight, but he was highly pissed that my grandfather's second wife wouldn't even allow the kids a few mementos. All my dad really wanted was my grandfather's old mechanic tools from the years he owned a gas station in Appalachia, Virginia.

Sorry - we had a garage sale and sold all that junk," was about how the conversation went.

Anyways, the purpose of our visit yesterday was to deliver a television set to my grandparents. We recently upgraded to a flat-screen, and our 36" cable-ready television was just collecting dust. Moreover, my grandparents had been watching a 21" antique with rabbit ears that probably dated from 1980, and my grandmother - who has macular degeneration - no longer could see much on the set.

My grandmother made a comment about how she would be sure to leave us in their will, which is kind of funny, since only my parents and siblings are left to bequeath anything to. But the more I think about wills and estates, the more I think I would trade anything they might leave me in exchange for my grandparents to live a few more years.

You see, there are few people in my life who have been more of an influence on me than these two wonderful folks. Some of my happiest childhood memories involve spending the weekend at their house, a place they have lived in for over sixty years. Moreover, my grandfather is easily the wisest person I know, and even in his nineties his dry wit and political insights would be the envy of any Sunday morning commentator.

You should have seen him in his prime!

My grandfather is fiercely proud, and I know that his initial reaction to the television set was probably that he had a perfectly good television. That's why I ran the idea past my grandmother first, so she could butter him up and make him know that this was not charity, but just a grandson who hated to see his PGA-loving grandfather have to watch his favorite sport on a television set that was probably manufactured when Jimmy Carter was President.

I also muse about the often distasteful process of dividing up the worldly goods and assets of people I love. It seems almost macabre to even think about items you might want to remember them by, and I would just as soon sign away any inheritance if it meant keeping the peace in the family.

Besides: how empty must it feel to be grieving the loss of a cherished family member the day a check arrives in the mail from an estate attorney? "Here you go, pal - how does twenty grand and a few Orient watches make you feel?"

This is also the ironic part: my wife and I are in perhaps the best financial shape of our married lives, and the appearance of an inheritance from a close relative would have little effect on our lives. We have no significant debt beyond our mortgage and some student loans, no stacks of unpaid bills, and anything we inherit would probably just get lumped into our own retirement savings.

But we would no longer have the generous people we love the most.

So on a day in which I should be watching four hours of pregame Super Bowl programming, I am instead feeling a bit glum about how rapidly time seems to travel as I get older. I regret the many times I passed up an opportunity to visit my loved ones in favor of working an extra shift or hanging out with friends, people I probably don't even speak with any more.

And I dread the day when all I will have to show of my parents and grandparents are a bunch of old pictures, some kick knacks, and a couple of inheritance checks.