Jan 31, 2010

Department of Worthless Stock: Big City Bagels

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Big City Bagels stock certificate Back in a previous life when I had more disposable income (and a more reckless attitude toward risk), I engaged in some stock market daytrading. I enjoyed some successes, experienced some losses, and on the whole I am sure I did not do as well as if I simply invested the money with a professional manager.

Anyways, as the CEO of a small firm, I was an ideal client for cold call stock brokers, some of whom were with reputable brokerages and some of whom worked for boiler rooms. I purchased 1000 shares of stock in Big City Bagels at about $2.00 a share in 1996, and shortly thereafter the company went into a one-for-five reverse split, meaning I then had 200 shares. Meanwhile, the price of the stock plummeted, and then Big City Bagels merged with VillageWorld.com (VILW) after news of a stock scheme broke.

I came across the VILW stock certificate this morning while cleaning. It did not bring back fond memories of the sleazy tele-broker who pumped this worthless investment.

The last time I checked, my 200 shares of VILW stock were now worth $0.00195 a share, meaning that I have in my hands a stock certificate about $0.04. Of course, since the SEC suspended trading on VILW after the company failed to file required reports every year since 2004, finding a buyer to collect my $0.04 will be difficult indeed.

Caveat emptor and so forth.

Jan 30, 2010

Toasty Puggles

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My Puggles Eddie Haskell and Chauncey Gardiner know exactly where to go after a few minutes in the single-digit January cold, and that is directly to our peninsula fireplace. The dogs soon fall into a comfortable slumber in the radiated gas heat, and when you try to roust them from their warm reverie, the Puggles have the almost-drugged look of hibernating bears.

This behavior is cute in dogs, but when one of my children decides to plop down in front of the fireplace, I get annoyed. This blocks passage between rooms, and one is forced to either step over the supine dozer or go the long way around the house, through the kitchen and two hallways.

Kids: you are not dogs. Put on a sweater and a pair of slippers and move out of the way.

Jan 29, 2010

The Odd Couple - Grantland Street Players

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Detroit-area readers, listen up: I am pleased to plug for my good friend Jim Wyatt the Grantland Street Players and their production of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple next month. Show times are as follows:

8:00 PM February 5, 6, 12, 13
2:00 PM February 7, 14


All seats are $12 and are reserved. You can call 313-535-8962 for reservations for the shows, which are being held at the Grantland Street Playhouse (27555 Grantland Street, Livonia, MI 48150).

The proceeds of the shows benefit the Motor City Youth Theatre, a a 501(c)(3) charitable organization dedicated to bringing the excitement and magic of live theatre to young people and their families as performers and audience participants.

Jan 28, 2010

The Story of a Pair of Boots

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My wife has owned the pair of leather boots pictured on the left for over 20 years, and the boots have always been one of her favorites. The boots fit well, the leather has molded itself to her feet, and she simply enjoys these boots. I also became her boot-polisher, and perhaps my regular application of shoe polish has contributed a bit to their longevity.

She paid about $100 for the boots several decades ago, and she would have gladly paid more for another pair of similar quality. Unfortunately, over the years my wife has not been able to find a pair that matches these boots in comfort and quality.

Alas, the soles of the boots did not stand up to the years as well as the leather uppers, and my wife grumbled a few weeks ago about her inability to find a pair of boots that could match her old friends. My ears perked up, and I recalled that near my house is an artisan of some contemporary rarity: a shoe repair store called Mancino and Sons Shoe Services.

The problem for me was certainly not the cost of repairing the boots, which amounted to only $48 and some change for new soles, reconditioning, and new laces. No, my difficulty was the fact that my wife wears these boots rather frequently in colder weather, and the week that Mancino and Sons quoted me was going to be an exercise in trickiness.

At least in terms of secret-keeping.

There were a few close calls along the way, like the day my wife was convinced that one of the dogs had stolen her boots. I also managed to avoid my wife seeing the debit card charge, which is probably miraculous, as she does the banking online, and somehow the stars aligned to keep hidden the repair bill.

I knew that the refurbished boots would bring my wife a measure of happiness, which is of course why I acted on the impulse (no, I have been a model of righteous behavior lately, so I didn't need the brownie points). Yet the sheer joy and glee that my wife expressed when I surprised her with the boots cannot be given justice in this post, and I was overwhelmed with hugs and kisses for my relatively simple errand.

So take a look around, fellas, and if your significant other has favored footwear that has seen better days, you might buy this person an impressive dose of unmitigated delight for what amounts to the price of a few expensive cigars.

Worked for me.

Jan 27, 2010

A Dissertation on Prester John

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Woodcut image of mythical priest-king Prester John from Hartmann Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)

Readers with an interest in European expansion and/or the mythical figure of Prester John (or those folks who have far too much time on their hands) can feel free to peruse my dissertation online:

Prester John: A Reexamination and Compendium of the Mythical Figure Who Helped Spark European Expansion

The document may or may not require an OhioLink account to access - I cannot remember the option I chose. I will probably upload a copy to Google Documents if the OhioLink version is limited to people with connections to a participating university or library.

I cannot promise that you will be entertained by my dissertation, or that you will even find it readable, but this is how I spent most of the past 18 months as a scholar. Moreover, as one advisor put it: "You just have to get done - a dissertation is a diamond in the rough, and you can make your work perfect when you get it published as a monograph."

Thus I am done, and I am ready to move on to other research topics - this one needs to rest for a few months while I decompress.

Jan 26, 2010

Academic Goodies in the Mail

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The mail carrier brought a few reminders of my recent walk across the commencement stage at the University of Toledo in the acquisition of my doctoral degree. The first of these academic packages contained my PhD diploma, and I have to admit I had some trepidation in placing the document in its new framed home: what if I accidentally stabbed the diploma with the frame nails or something?

It might be weeks before a replacement diploma would arrive.

The diploma is of course the traditional symbol of degree completion, though as I mentioned in a previous post it is really the academic transcripts that open the metaphorical doors for graduates. No one really sees the diploma, at least for those who do not create specially-lit shrines for the world to admire. My own diplomas hang on a wall above my desk, mostly for my own amusement. However, with my wife well on her way to a second MA in mathematics, we will soon have six degrees between us, and we could probably outfit a goodly-sized room with our academic mementos.

Left: more bling

Yet the mailman also brought me another academic trinket the other day: my very own fresh-from-the-printer University of Toledo Alumni Association card. The folks at the Alumni Association (no doubt in a cynical appeal to my vanity) typed the following boldfaced and centered salutation: "Dr. Michael E. Brooks."

Sweet!

The card also indicates that I am "entitled to all the rights and privileges thereof" as a member of the Association. Why, I'll just bet that this card could assist me in getting out of traffic tickets, usher me backstage at concerts, and whisk me right through the security checkpoints at international airports.

After all: I am a doctor now, and I have a card to prove it. Of course, it is kind of a thin and flimsy plastic, but if I laminate it with a tougher coating, the card would be even more awe-inspiring. I'll bet the card works even better than Obi-Wan Kenobi and his hand-wave Jedi mind tricks: just wave the card in front of a recalcitrant restaurant hostess or traffic cop, and you get whatever you want.

It's that easy.

Jan 25, 2010

Recommendation for Kodak P850 Digital Camera Repair

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My favorite camera - a Kodak P850 point-and-click machine with lots of cool features - took a calamitous drop of three feet onto concrete a few weeks ago, and I spent another week or so debating what to do about the non-functional camera. The device was four years old, and it had long served me well, so I was reluctant to march out and spend another $400-$500 on a digital camera that met my primary needs: professional quality images and ease of use.

But at the same time my other camera options were not sufficient for my needs, and let's face it: learning a new piece of technology is a royal pain in the derriere.

After searching the Web for simple solutions (hint: there are none), I found myself at the Kodak troubleshooting pages. This interactive guide eventually sent me to the homepage of the authorized Kodak digital camera service center, a company called United Camera in Chicago. I grumbled at first, thinking this would be a multi-week odyssey in slow parcel post shipments and/or finding out that the camera could not be repaired at a reasonable price.

Alas, my fears were unfounded. It took a mere six days from leaving Toledo via Priority Mail ($5.82) to reach United Camera to be shipped via UPS back to me. That is all - a round trip of less than 150 hours, and the $165 to repair my camera was well worth the cost. United Camera cleaned the entire device, made sure all functions worked as designed, and even tested the camera's image-making capabilities in a variety of indoor and outdoor settings.

So I wholeheartedly endorse the fine work and helpful personnel at United Camera. I am simply amazed that I can ship a broken machine hundreds of miles away and get it repaired so quickly.

Jan 24, 2010

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.

The newspapers came and made Jody a national hero
Walter and Eric said they'd put him on a network T.V. show
The White House said "Put the thing in the Blue Room"
The Vatican said "No, it belongs to Rome"
Jody said "It's mine but you can have it for seventeen million."


-- Creedence Clearwater Revival, "It Came Out Of The Sky"

Winter and Thunder

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A warm front passing through the region created an unusual (for Ohio) weather pattern this morning that caused me to put on a pair of shoes at 5:50 am and step outside to investigate. The rumbling I heard was indeed thunder, even though the outside temperature was still 38 degrees.

We should wind up somewhere in the mid-40s for the next day or so, at least until the cold returns and brings with it some snow. But for the moment it looks and sounds like a springtime thunderstorm.

CRASH! BOOM! CRACK! RUMBLE!

You know the drill.

The novelty of a thunderstorm while snow remains on the ground makes me yearn even more intensely for the formal arrival of spring. That being said, it has been a relatively mild winter so far in Northwest Ohio, with light snowfall and few super-cold days. If it must stay winter for 2-3 more months, at least let it be like this.

Jan 23, 2010

On Saturday Morning College Classes

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I am teaching a Saturday morning course this semester in Ohio History that is geared toward: a) people seeking a teaching certificate in secondary social studies; and b) people who work during the week. The class runs from 8:00 am to noon on alternate Saturdays, and this accelerated pace means that we meet only eight times.

This is the first time I ever taught on Saturday mornings, and I have to admit I went into the class with some assumptions about the sorts of people who would be inclined to sign up for such a class. In my (mistaken) mind, I thought I would have a class full of slackers who would roll in two hours late and sleep the rest of the allotted time.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

In actuality I have almost a dream class, at least based on the first day. Of the 33 students at least 30 were in the room by 8:03 or so, and almost everyone was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Lots of folks came in already wired on coffee, and the intelligence level was quite high, as I was peppered with quite a few smart questions (and zero not-so-smart questions).

I also found that this time slot attracted quite a few non-traditional adult students, the kind who take excellent notes and contribute lively and thoughtful conversation at the discussions. In fact, while I did not plan to coast through this class (I take seriously my role in college teaching), I think I will have to prepare a bit more thoroughly than I would for a class heavier on young adult undergraduates: the vast majority of these students work full-time, and they are the kind of students who demand excellence during every minute of lecture.

I had better make sure my coffee pot is plugged in and fired up on Saturday mornings.

Jan 21, 2010

Phone Harassment

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Over the past few hours come local nutjob has been making profanity-laden calls to my private residence. I was originally going to simply ignore the tele-stalker, but instead I am going to publish the numbers from which the idiot called me.

Both numbers showed up on the caller ID as "Pay Phone," but it is not difficult to create a fake caller ID signature. Moreover, both numbers switch over to what sounds like a fax machine after a few rings, leading me to believe that my stalker has access to multiple fax machines and is using the fax machines to hide his activity.

Phone number 1: 419-865-4979

Phone number 2: 419-729-2593

I have my suspicions about who would be calling me from Holland, OH and then somewhere near the Point Place neighborhood 30 minutes apart, but I will keep them to myself for the moment. Local news junkies probably know of a disturbed individual with such a stalking history who has a residence and a business that match these descriptions, but we will refrain from making accusations at this point. I am just documenting the lunatic's behavior at this point, filing the necessary reports with corporate and police agencies. Besides, if others are receiving harassing or threatening phone calls, it will be useful for the recipients if these numbers show up on a future Internet search.

And if by chance Mr. Stalker reads this? Get a life, dude: there are much better ways to spend your time than making harassing phone calls.

Jan 20, 2010

Wintertime and Weight Gain Blues

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Stepping on the scale the last few weeks has been discouraging, as between my heavy holiday eating and lower physical activity the last few months my weight has climbed almost 15 pounds. This means the 25 pounds I lost last summer have been reduced to a mere 10 pounds, mostly due to eating less-than-healthy foods.

The temptation, of course, is to turn to quick weight loss solutions instead of working on the lifestyle basics: healthy eating and proper exercise. This week has been much better, as I have walked outdoors at least 30 minutes every day since Sunday and I have avoided eating like it is my full-time job.

Yet even though I can rationalize some of my weight gain by recognizing I was chained to my chair cranking out my dissertation for a large chunk of the period in which my weight climbed, this is no consolation. I know that I could have maintained my exercise regimen and at least avoided gaining weight, and it is through daily exercise that I accomplished the 25-pound drop over the four-month period.

Though this post was largely a self-reflective piece of navel-gazing (literally and figuratively), thanks for reading!

Jan 19, 2010

On Buckeye Express Outages, CMTS Failures, and Dark Internets

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Left: How a CMTS is supposed to work

According to the customer service representative I just spoke with, the lengthy service outage with Buckeye Express this evening was due to a faulty cable modem termination system (CMTS) at the company's main facility. In my neighborhood the outage lasted about three hours. I know this because I tried to piggyback some of the wireless signals of my neighbors, but all of them had the yellow caution triangle over the graphic.

Hey - I teach online, so I was a bit desperate to link up with my students.

There is always a surreal, almost absurdist aspect to being without Internet service these days. I first struggled to find the number to Buckeye Express, since the phone book never gets used any longer except for a door stop. I normally just Google any phone number queries, since a Google search is dozens of times faster than locating and flipping through the Yellow Pages like a diet-obsessed person seeking the best weight loss pills.

I finally called Sprint 411 and received the number, but I spent over an hour just trying to get through to a live human being. The first few dozen calls never even made it to the switchboard system, and were simply booted out with a message along the lines of "Your call cannot be completed as dialed. Please try your call later [then in Spanish] El numero que ha marcado no puede ser procesado. Por favor, intente de llamar mas tarde."

Perhaps 15 minutes after I finally spoke with a customer service representative, Internet service was restored and life began to return to normal. I think my life is disrupted much more by an Internet outage than by a telephone service problems (admittedly I despise the phone, so this is probably a poor comparison). Yet an unimaginable amount of communication flows through the Internet these days, and even a few dark hours can seem like an isolated eternity.

Quirky Websites: The Big Red Button

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The Quirky Website of the Week is a semi-regular feature on this site. Feel free to recommend other quirky websites in the Comments section.

Those readers with far too much time on their hands might check out The Big Red Button website. There really is not much on the site besides a Big Red Button (and some derivatives of the device), but the interactivity and accompanying text are a way to kill a few minutes in a manner slightly more interesting than unfolding the paper clips in your drawer.

That was a literal statement, and not some form of demented euphemism for self-gratification.

Anyways, stick with The Big Red Button long enough and important life lessons shall be revealed, or at least some thoughtful commentary shall appear on the screen. Maybe even a laugh or two will come your way, and Strivectin SD will be the least of your worries.

Jan 18, 2010

Meet Ashley, a Rescue Dachshund

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Pictured on your left is Ashley, a female, 16-pound Dachshund who is about five years old. Ashley's owner surrendered her to a local dog pound when she determined she could no longer care for her dogs.

Ashley is a sweet little girl who is rather timid at times, but she is gentle and loving. If Ashley had her way she would be curled up on someone's lap 24 hours a day. After a week we have not noticed any negative behaviors, though she is a picky eater. Her new owners will also need to work on housebreaking, as Ashley has been reluctant to travel outside. This is improving, but undoubtedly there will be a several day adjustment period for this doggie.

Ashley is also easily excitable and gets a bit nervous when there is a lot of activity, so she would probably thrive better in a quieter setting (i.e., not one with a lot of children running around and getting her agitated). This is not to suggest that Ashley dislikes children (she loves anyone who snuggles with her) but only to point out that high levels of activity cause her to bark and hide. Ashley is not a biter, does not chew household items, and only barks when she is nervous.

To learn more about adopting Ashley, or if you want to help financially support Planned Pethood's mission to rescue dogs and cats in Northwest Ohio, visit the Planned Pethood website for more information.

Using an Online Permutations Calculator

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In one of my online classes I discouraged students from using the same pair of primary sources in their essay that another student already used. I wanted to point out the possible number of combinations from a choice of 15 sources, but I could not remember the formula for calculating permutations.

Hey - it has been 26 years since I last attended a math course of any kind, and frankly mathematics began to stop making sense to me at the calculus level.

My first effort was to query my math-genius wife, who has an engineering degree and a Master's in mathematics curriculum and instruction, and who is working on a second Master's in mathematics. Unfortunately, she always uses her calculator, which is programmed for such high-falutin' mathemagicery.

I next went to Google, and after a few searches I found a permutations calculator that computes the combinations for you after you enter the relevant data (number of items, numbers of choices, whether order matters, and if repetition is permitted). Voila! The answer was 105 combinations, meaning that my 32 students should have no difficulty whatsoever avoiding duplication of efforts.

However, at least six students will ignore my detailed instructions and post duplicate material anyways that bears a suspicious similarity to the work of earlier respondents (this is an online course where students read and respond to the essays of other classmates). Yes, there will always be people who cannot follow clear instructions, even something as clear as a link that says to click here to learn more about Quick Trim.

Oh, and the formula is P(n, r) = n!/(n-r)! , where n is the number of elements available for selection, and r is the number of elements to be selected (0 ≤ r ≤ n).

In case you were wondering, Bubba.

Jan 17, 2010

On the Limitations of Online Translation Tools

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Left: Han Han might well be a literary genius, but you will never know by relying on virtual translation tools

I came across a news article on Han Han, a rally driver who is also China's most popular blogger, and I decided to visit Han Han's website, which has the title Two Cold So Warm. At least I think this is the title of the blog, as I do not read the Mandarin script and I am trusting online translation tools.

Which is to say I may not have a clue as to the real title of Han Han's blog.

The translation tool provided by Google also offered up the following results of recent blog post titles Han Han created:

* "Pat the soil body" - a film critique with the following translated section that reflects the post title, but which leaves me even more perplexed: "I guess the birth of this movie is because the mountain of the media found a Zhang Yimou Zhao Benshan, the two pat the soil body, sitting on the kang, said Yimou, a film shot us in chanting, you see, they are so popular small Shenyang You also have a box office with his assurance that I could go down to the arts actor here, the direction of the whole a whole."

* "Give him something to eat pickles" - a post calling for reform of a body translated by Google as the "National Standards Board."

* "City, let the people die early" - an article that described an accident between a cement mixer and the driver of a scooter, and ostensibly one that faults the city of Shanghai for poor traffic management.

Thus, I leave Han Han's blog only slightly more knowledgeable about contemporary China than I had been before visiting the site, though the blog contains ads for products as diverse as acne scar removal cream. I suppose that I would need to learn Mandarin to really understand Han Han's website and to glean some insights into why this 27-year-old multimedia phenomenon is so popular, although an outsider trying to do the same for, say, Paris Hilton might still be perplexed about the popularity of this talentless heiress after mastering English.

Jan 16, 2010

On Used Auto Parts and Buying on eBay

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I have used the Internet marketplace known as eBay for many purchases over the years, but I recently engaged in a different (for me) form of e-commerce: buying used automobile parts. My son's 1991 Toyota Corolla experienced a small engine fire recently after he and his brother rigged up a battery mounting device consisting of a pair of metal coat hangers, which inevitably made contact with the battery posts and shorted against the hood of the car.

Anyways, the resulting sparking caused some wiring to catch fire, and he spent a few hundred dollars replacing the battery, electrical wires, and the coolant fan. However, the repair shop could not find a coolant overflow jug around town, even a used one, so the mechanic plugged the radiator and advised us to search online.

Sure enough, a vendor on eBay from New Orleans Louisiana listed a used coolant overflow receptacle for a mere $21, less than a third of the price of a new jug. A few days later and the grimy-but-serviceable part arrived in the mail, and the car will now be ready for the hottest summer days with its new-to-you overflow container.

Jan 14, 2010

Local Business Profile: J-Cups Pizza

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Living as I do in the middle of the American Rust Belt, whenever possible I like to patronize and promote local businesses. "Local Business Profile" is an occasional feature on this site in which I use this blog to highlight quality Toledo-area businesses. Have a suggestion for a future profile? Email me at mebrook@bgsu.edu .

If there is one industry I know well, it would be the pizza business, and I spent over two decades managing and owning pizza restaurants. A colleague from my pizza days recently opened a new venture called J-Cups Pizza at 5406 N. Summit Street in the Point Place neighborhood of Toledo.

Jim Jacob is the proprietor, and he managed several of my restaurants in the 1990s. He brought with him some seasoned veterans, and off the top of my head I think his management team has something like 50 years of combined experience making pizzas.

In short, Jim knows his pizza.

The emphasis at J-Cups Pizza is quick carryout service and competitive prices. One way the restaurant keeps its costs low is by passing up on the delivery business, which I know from personal experience to be a ton of extra overhead in labor and insurance costs. A medium one-item pizza is only $4.25, while a large one-item pizza is a mere $5.00.

However, unlike some of the larger chains, lower prices does not mean skimpy toppings or a paper-thin layer of cheese. This is an excellent-tasting pizza with a spicy-sweet sauce and freshly made dough, and the quality stacks up with any competitor.

J-Cups Pizza offers a wide variety of other menu items, including oven-baked subs, cheese breads, chicken wings, salads, and baked dessert items. Also noteworthy is the Ready-to-Go menu, and J-Cups Pizza keeps cooking pepperoni pizzas all day long when you need a quick meal and are short on time.

Give J-Cups Pizza a call today at (419)-720-8669 for fast carryout and great-tasting pizza. Chances are Jim will be making your pizza himself, as he is the kind of owner who is hands-on and dedicated to building a successful business. I remember that whenever I moved Jim to a new store, sales always increased, as he made sure every customer was happy and he motivated his crew to produce the best possible quality.

I suspect his dedication will only double now that he is on his own.

Quirky Websites: Lolcat (and Loldog) Generator

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The Quirky Website of the Week is a semi-regular feature on this site. Feel free to recommend other quirky websites in the Comments section.

At some point everyone succumbs to the need to engage in wanton stupidity, and the Internet memes of locats and loldogs are a prime example of such buffoonery (the Schrodinger's Lolcat meme excepted). Thus, when lolpet mania strikes your fancy, I suggest the lolcat and loldog generator as an outlet for your creative idiocy.

An example of the possibilities is on the left, featuring the one and only Eddie Haskell - Puggle Extraordinaire - surrounded by clothing items he pilfered from my wife. Eddie, you see, likes to keep reminders of his Loving Mama with him when she goes to work. Occasionally he will curl up with one of my shoes or a pair of socks (always the washed ones), but I am alas a distant second place in terms of Favorite Humans.

He does not, however, exhibit a desire to learn more about cosmetics - Eddie is already naturally handsome.

Jan 13, 2010

Profiting from the Haitian Earthquake Disaster

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While surfing eBay a few minutes ago, I had the idea to check and see if any vendors were offering merchandise related to the deadly Haitian earthquake. Sure enough, a seller with the screen name of togowidget is offering commemorative T-shirts for the low, low price of $34.95 USD.

These 100% polyester white T-shirts feature prints of a ribbon version of the Haitian flag on the front along with arm prints of the Haitian flag and a map of the Caribbean. The seller does not currently list any charities associated with the sale of the shirts, so I assume that all T-shirt profits go to the seller.

Of course, there is no law that says a merchant cannot profit from the sale of commemorative merchandise, even in the midst of a disaster that might claim the lives of 100,000 Haitian citizens. Still, one wonders how such a person sleeps at night.

Also, in case the link gets yanked by eBay, I saved a screen shot for posterity:

Left: eBay offer of Haitian earthquake T-shirts for $34.95; click for larger image

I also have another reason for posting this screen shot - should togowidget decide to change the offer and donate a few dollars to relief efforts, I have a degree of protection against an idiotic defamation lawsuit. Anyone who would profit from tragedy probably would not hesitate to sue a blogger who writes about said profiteering.

Funny: I was just mentioning to a friend how little in the news these days made me fired up enough to write a blog post. Thanks, togowidget, for restoring my faith in the sickening greed that a few human beings can exhibit in times of turmoil and chaos.

Some Initial Thoughts on the Killer Haitian Eathquake

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Earthquake damage to a shanty town on the outskirts of Port au Prince; photo by Matt Marek/American Red Cross/AP

I sat riveted to the television this morning watching images of the deadly earthquake in Haiti, time I probably should have spent on work, but I simply could not turn away from the horror in Port-au-Prince. Striking such a densely populated capital city, the earthquake's death toll will likely be in the tens of thousands, and already there are reports trickling out that more than 100 UN personnel are missing.

Haiti is a nation already struggling with high rates of poverty, disease, and mortality, and the devastation to Port-au-Prince will set the nation back a decade or more in development. Of immediate concern will be the need to provide food and potable water to the citizens of the area, and Haiti's already limited infrastructure will pose problems for disaster relief efforts.

I also think that President Obama is facing a Katrina moment: even though Haiti is a sovereign nation, the eyes of the world will be on the United States, since the island nation lies only hundreds of miles from its large hemispheric neighbor. If the U.S. fails to provide timely relief to Haiti, this will be interpreted as ineffectiveness on the part of American regional credibility. Imagine too the public relations quagmire that would result if Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez outperforms the United States in providing aid to the Haitian people.

Left: Be like Mike

Yet politics inevitably enter every natural disaster, and the immediate need is for people around the world to contribute to relief efforts. Consider a donation to the American Red Cross International Response Fund, the United Nations World Food Program, or a disaster relief fund established by Mercy Corps for the earthquake victims. Readers in Northwest Ohio can contribute bottled water, clothing, canned goods, and other vital items through local non-profit ISOH/IMPACT, and the group is also accepting online donations to help Haitian quake victims.

Just do not sit there on the computer and play World of Warcraft all day, dude.

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.

The thought that life could be better is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains.

-- Paul Simon, "Train in the Distance"

Jan 12, 2010

When Luck Appears, Disappears, and Reappears

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As I arrived at my BGSU office this morning, I paused and could not remember turning off my headlights. Rather than risk the draining of the battery on my trusty 1995 Hyundai Accent, I walked back to my car to double check. Unlocking the door and reaching in, I found that indeed I remembered to shut off the lights.

Good luck.

While in the process of shutting the door, I noticed my key ring sitting on the passenger seat, and I cast a horrified glance at the door lock. Ever vigilant about reducing my crime risk, I locked the door but left my keys in plain view, glistening in the emerging winter sun and taunting me with their "near-but-so-far-away" state, like a video clip of a cross country moving truck.

Luck left me.

I tried the other door handle, knowing full well that its locked status had not miraculously changed, and I began to think through my options. I could call AAA, but it would probably be a few hours for them to arrive, and there would be no guarantee that they could actually enter the vehicle. I could call a locksmith, but this would probably run me $75-$100. I happened to be near the rear of the vehicle, and the hatch looked...different. Sure enough, I drove all the way from Toledo to Bowling Green with an unlatched hatch, and sixty seconds later I retrieved my keys after a short crawl through a subcompact car.

Luck returns.

Jan 10, 2010

On Ballroom Dancing Lessons

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We are a long, long ways from this photo

Many years ago I made my wife a promise that after I finished my doctorate I would accompany her in ballroom dancing lessons. At the time I made the agreement I figured my PhD would be a long ways off, perhaps so far in the future that she would forget. Alas, I finished said academic degree, and the bill came due on the pledge to trip the proverbial light fantastic, so today we embarked on our first lesson.

The class took place at the Summit YMCA, and the instructors were affiliated with a local group called Mind, Body, and Spirit. There were about 30 people at various levels of skill, and this week at least six other people joined us in the "first time" category. The instructors also grouped participants into beginner, intermediate, and advanced groups, which meant that my gawky initial attempts at ballroom dancing would only be witnessed by fellow newbies.

I should add that my skill level on the dance floor has traditionally been rather limited. I can usually avoid looking like a total idiot, at least when I am not in full-on tourist mode at an Outer Banks vacation rental, but I know very few moves as a dancer, and I have never approached dancing with any sort of logic.

This is to say that I pretty much learned to dance after much drinking when I was younger, and I have progressed little since then, save for the fact that I now dance sober.

Anyways, my wife and I got the hang of some of the rudimentary steps after a few minutes, and I was surprised how quickly we could move from "clueless" to "awkward-but-organized." We mastered the basic four-count step, the half-turn, and several combination steps in relatively rapid fashion, though both of us were stymied by the full-turn and the cha-cha.

I was also limited after throwing out my back shoveling snow the other day, although I feel better standing up than sitting down. My back only gave me grief during turns and spins, but I suppose the best sacroiliac therapies always involve some form of repetitive motion to keep the muscles from binding up. Yet we will be back the next few weeks as we elevate our ballroom game to a level resembling "competent."

Look out, Jean-Marc Généreux.

Jan 8, 2010

Random Wikiness

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When I am looking for inspiration in my writing - or during those moments when I am utterly at a loss for entertainment - I visit Wikipedia and use the Random Article function. Located on the left sidebar of the main Wikipedia page, a click on the Random Article link is a journey into the millions of always-evolving Wiki articles that Wikipedians have created and edited.

I began my randomized journey with a visit to a page dedicated to Baba Budangiri, which is a mountain in the Western Ghats of India. With a height of 6317 feet, Baba Budangiri is the tallest peak between the Himalaya Range and the Nilgiris. The mountain is also home to a sacred shrine to Baba Budan, a 17th century Sufi saint revered by both Muslims and Hindus.

My next random click sent me to a page about the Monastery of Jesus of Setúbal, a national landmark in the Portuguese city of Setúbal. My wife and I briefly with the idea of a tour along the southern Portuguese Atlantic coastline in our trip to Portugal last year, but we opted instead to get our fill of religious tourist destinations by visiting the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fátima. The monastery is also exemplary of the architectural school known as the Manueline style, a nod to Manuel I of Portugal.

Continuing my virtual tour I next encountered a page describing the Fletcher Covered Bridge, a structure built in 1891 that is now on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. The Fletcher Covered Bridge is noted for being "one of only two covered bridges still standing in Harrison County," with the other structure being the Simpson Creek Covered Bridge. Attractive bridges, both, though I personally would not drive even a bicycle across them due to their rather rickety-looking status; that is, unless I want to start long-term thinking about a disability appeal.

I ended my unpremeditated sojourn with a stop at an unusual page devoted to aircraft graffiti. I think the article could be further expanded, but I was intrigued to find out that there labor disputes often result in pro-union and anti-management graffiti adorning airplanes. I had previously only been familiar with military aircraft graffiti, like when pilots list enemy kills or when fighter crews decorate explosives with messages for enemy recipients of airborne presents.

Jan 7, 2010

Things I Have Learned After Six Weeks of Using a CPAP Machine

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Left: The ResMed Mirage Quattro CPAP mask: my connection to restful sleep

After completing my recent sleep studies and learning the significant extent of my sleep apnea, I received a CPAP machine in late November to help control this potentially deadly condition. This morning I had my first post-CPAP visit with my excellent sleep disorder physician, Dr. Louis Tartaglia, and we went over the data collected on the machine's digital memory card. We met at the offices of the group that specializes in sleep disorders, Pulmonary & Critical Care Specialists, which by the way has an excellent setup. All facets of the treatments are available at the same site: physicians' offices, sleep study center, and the medical supplies company.

One-stop shopping, this place.

Dr. Tartaglia, by the way, has quite a dry sense of humor, and he reminds me of Al Pacino in his mannerisms. Today he discussed my pre-CPAP apnea and its severity, noting that my Apnea-Hypopnea Index scores were "enough to kill two healthy adult men. But did you share? No sir. You kept all those apnea episodes to yourself."

Hey: you have to laugh at this stuff, or you will drive yourself nuts with the worrying. A score of 30 is considered "severe," and my averages have been over 50 episodes per hour. This rose to as high as 60 per hour during REM sleep.

Anyways, since starting the machine my apnea episodes have dropped to 3.4 per hour over the last six weeks, and I have noticed a significant improvement in feeling rested when I wake up. Gradually my energy levels have started to rise, and I usually make it until the late afternoon before feeling tired. By comparison, I used to wake up tired, and by 1:00 in the afternoon it was a real fight to keep from dozing off. My wife says that I am less cranky, that my snoring is all but gone, and that I am more pleasant these days, although the face mask sometimes shifts when I turn over and causes squeaky noises from escaping air.

Dr. Tartaglia also adjusted the initial titrated pressure on my machine from 10.00 cm H2O to 15 cm H2O. I experienced a bit of difficulty getting enough air when I first put on the mask, and it always felt like I was working hard to draw enough air until the machine gradually raised the pressure. Other than this minor adjustment, my transition to a CPAP machine has been fairly smooth, and I have been averaging 6-7 hours each night with the device, not missing a single evening so far.

Now, if I could just get my adult children to quit making so much late-night noise, I might regain even more energy.

Jan 6, 2010

Tips on Writing a Biographical Paper for a College History Class

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I scoured the Internet the other day looking for tips on writing biographies for a college history class. In actuality I was just looking for a decent web page that I could link for my students, but most of what I found was either of poor quality or designed for elementary and junior high school students.

Thus, I decided to compose my own tips page and fill a glaring gap on the Internet. Feel free to offer your own criticisms or suggestions in the Comments section.

Read books, articles, and websites about your subject before beginning the writing process. Writing a biography, just like all forms of writing, is much easier if you are fully knowledgeable about the subject. Crack open a few books and absorb the life of your subject - not only will you write a better paper, but you might add to your knowledge base.

Develop a meaningful thesis statement. After thoroughly reading about your subject, you should begin to have some ideas about the arguments you will make. Here is an example of a strong thesis statement on Mao Zedong: “Though Chinese Marxist historians still venerate the historical legacy of Mao Zedong, millions of Chinese citizens died as a result of his failed policies and his brutal attacks on political dissenters.”

Recognize what is absolutely essential for inclusion in the paper. Avoid unnecessary details that do not reflect your thesis statement, and refrain from cluttering your paper with unimportant filler like “Josef Stalin loved to eat beef tripe” or "Jesse Jackson sometimes uses shoe polish to cover up scratches on his dining room table."

Follow a logical outline. Biographies generally use a chronological ordering of events, but if you choose another format, such as a thematic or topical approach, be sure that this will make sense to readers. If necessary, use transitions or subheadings that clue the reader into section changes.

Develop arguments about your subject. The best biographies place a subject in a historical context and make arguments about the person’s relevance, importance, or representativeness. Avoid simply presenting a collection of unrelated facts.

Maintain the interest of readers. Provide compelling events, interesting anecdotes, and insightful details that help readers understand the importance of your subject.

Create an initial splash. Begin the biography with a particularly intriguing sentence. Think about a little known fact or describe a pivotal moment in the person’s life. Avoid beginning the paper with a dull and predictable sentence such as “Susanna Somebody was born in Paris in 1917.”

Avoid using a clichéd quote to begin your paper. I have yawned through many papers that began with a lofty-sounding but overused passage such as this: "Winston Churchill once said: 'The price of greatness is responsibility.'" Create your own memorable prose and avoid relying on famous people to cover up your lack of content.

Refrain from using dictionary definitions in your paper. One of the most annoying and trite rhetorical techniques is to include sentences like this: "Webster’s Dictionary defines a leader as 'a person who has commanding authority or influence.'" Assume what is known as the “informed reader” when writing an academic paper.

Develop an interesting title that reflects your main argument. Avoid generic titles such as “Biography Paper” or “A Biography of Sam Significant” in favor of a title more appealing, like this one: “Egomaniacal Blunderer: An Assessment of the Military Career of Napoleon Bonaparte.”

Jan 5, 2010

A Degree is Never Official Until the Updating of Transcripts

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I have been compulsively checking the university website for the past 17 days to check if the registrar got around to updating my transcripts. Yes, I defended my dissertation and walked across the stage last month to collect my fake PhD, but my "official" recognition of doctoral status finally showed up on my transcripts today.

NOW is the time I can breathe a sigh of relief and know that all of the proverbial loose ends have been tied up. I can also order official transcripts now that indicate all of my earned degrees, and no longer will I have to include Post-It notes that explain the unfinished business of a degree-in-progress.

I think that this will be the last of my crowing about finishing my PhD, although I reserve the right to jump up and down when the official diploma arrives in the mail soon. Yes, I know that posting about personal accomplishments borders on the boastful or egomaniacal, but this degree has been almost a decade in the works, and I am still getting used to the idea that I am FINALLY FINISHED.

Phew!

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.

A lengthier quote today that jumped out at me while listening to an old song - a short vignette depicting a pair of small-time thugs with pathetically small dreams, Jersey versions of would-be wiseguys:

Well Cherry says she's gonna walk
'Cause she found out I took her radio and hocked it
But Eddie, man, she don't understand
That two grand's practically sitting here in my pocket

And tonight's gonna be everything that I said
And when I walk through that door
I'm just gonna throw that money on the bed
She'll see this time I wasn't just talking
Then I'm gonna go out walking


-- Bruce Springsteen, "Meeting Across The River"

Jan 4, 2010

On Designing College Courses While Avoiding Expensive Textbooks

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Left: current version of one of my online courses that minimizes the use of textbooks; click graphic for a larger image

Over the past decade I believe I personally shelled out over $10,000 in textbooks as I worked my way from an undergraduate to the recent completion of my PhD. Thus, as I design my own courses I have increasingly been striving to keep costs down for my students where possible. A recent study showed that college textbooks have increased 240 percent since 1986, which is more than three times the rate of inflation.

Last semester I created a course on American labor history that used four historical novels and narratives, all of which are easily obtainable through used retailers or libraries. These were Lucy Larcom's A New England Girlhood, the book by Frederick Douglass entitled A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, and a radical novel by Grace Lumpkin entitled To Make My Bread. My thinking was to use the literature to provide students with an understanding of the social milieu of different time periods, while using the lectures and PowerPoints to provide the factual history of the evolving American labor movement.

My only self-criticism was that this course could have benefited from a general labor history, as many of my students were not history majors and thus lacked a basic background of the American labor movement. Still, savvy students could have borrowed all four books from the library, and used copies could have been purchased for well under $30.

This semester I am experimenting in one of my online classes with the concept of providing most of the textual material as hyperlinked Web documents. For example, I find relevant articles on certain topics and sometimes use Google Documents to upload the content and link it to the course website. For other documents (especially open source material) I simply provide the link to the material. Since I do not provide public access to the material and I limit the amount of each linked work, I maintain my responsibility to stay within best practices for fair use in the classroom.

What most intrigues me is the possibility of designing a course that is entirely built upon open source and fair use documents. There have already been quite a few educators willing to consider teaching without a textbook, and my suspicion is that the number of educators who embrace this concept will only increase in the next decade. On a related note, the following linked website offers quite a few useful resources for teaching without textbooks.

Another reason for challenging the established traditions - besides the high costs of college textbooks - is the evolving nature of information retrieval and knowledge retention. Many students, despite their seeming technological literacy, have a significant amount of trouble discerning a quality Internet source from Web-based intellectual garbage. For example, several of my students in a historical methods class last year unintentionally cited Holocaust denial websites in their papers on the Holocaust. I am of the opinion that educators should be spending more time on teaching Internet search skills and less time on the traditional assessment method of testing students on their ability to memorize facts from a textbook, especially when one can easily access most of general human knowledge by turning on the Acer Aspire and surfing the Internet.

Furthermore, as technological change continues to offer educators innovative opportunities to improve content delivery, we should be rethinking the very nature of how we go about teaching students in a digital age. It is quite possible that the use of paper-based books might soon become as antiquated as the dial telephone and black-and-white televisions, and our desire to hang on to outmoded forms of media might represent a sort of academic Luddism.

Finally, I should add that I am but a recent convert to the possibilities of digital teaching methods. My own experiences in the two online courses I took as a college undergraduate were less than ideal, and I personally prefer learning in a face-to-face environment. However, given the phenomenal growth of online education, it is the height of folly to expect a return to the good old days when the only classroom tools were textbooks, chalk, and a blackboard.

By the way - I am very desirous of hearing other ideas and comments on this topic. Please join in on the conversation by responding in the Comments section.

Jan 3, 2010

On Holiday Events and Being Normal Again

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For many years I worked in the restaurant and entertainment industries, and I found it difficult to attend all the various holiday gatherings each year. After all, restaurants and arenas tend to be busiest when the rest of the world is out having a good time, and I worked far more than my share of nights, weekends, and holidays in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s.

For example, I spent almost a decade running food and beverage operations at Joe Louis and Cobo Arenas, and I worked every New Year's Eve from 1982 to 1990 at the Joe, as the Red Wings always play a home game on that night. When I owned my restaurants, finding time off during the holidays was a challenge, as I was always covering shifts for sick employees or bailing out the kitchens when unexpected business inevitably overwhelmed the staff.

I even spent quite a few late nights on the holidays delivering pizzas when one of my drivers called off. There is nothing less thrilling than driving with a car full of pizza on a snowy Christmas Eve when you would rather be spending time with your family. Well, perhaps attending a week-long seminar on choosing a home insurance provider might top this, but you get the point.

However, my life changed in the last few years as I shifted careers and started teaching at the university level. My routines became more than normal: I began to enjoy a few weeks in between semesters with a much lower workload, and I have been able to enjoy as many holiday gatherings as I could possibly stand.

In the past few weeks our house has been a veritable beehive of activity, with scarcely two days going by without guests over. Now hosting so many gatherings can be a source of weariness and stress in themselves, but I managed to visit with many of my close friends and family members. However,this seems like a completely new way of life for me, as in my food service days I would be lucky to make even half of the scheduled gatherings around the holidays.

I like normal, and I look forward to another few decades of normalcy.

Jan 2, 2010

Rapid Rhetoric - GADROON

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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.

gadroon (gah-DRUNE) n. a form of decorative fluting; a type of notched architectural molding; oval-shaped or egg-shaped beadings or reedings used to adorn such items as molding or silverware; a convex band of short lengths of reeding that curve in a spiral pattern either to the left or to the right.

The word gadroon is derived from the French word godron ("rounded plait"), which itself comes from the Latin word guttus ("flask"). I think it is easier to present a visual depiction of a gadroon pattern than it is to verbally describe the concept of gadroon, perhaps in keeping with Elvis Costello's observation that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture." Anyways, here is a picture of gadroon molding to help you get the idea:

I came across the term gadroon while perusing an 1814 edition of Niles' Weekly Register on an unrelated search (no, the patent medicines of the day did not include precursors to phentermine).

Gadroon forms were much more common in Elizabethan and Italian Renaissance architecture, though the style has a certain timelessness to it. Some scholars suggest that gadrooning has its origins in medieval Islamic architecture, and that European architects absorbed the style after contacts with Islamic cultures. The following link has an image of the 12th century shrine of Zayn al-Din Yusuf, which features a gadrooned dome over the sheik's tomb.

Jan 1, 2010

New Year Resolutions

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I fall into the camp of those who create and attempt to keep resolutions each New Year, and I figured that the start of the new decade was no time to break tradition. My track record in living up to my resolutions leaves something to be desired, though I did lose 25 pounds in 2009 (though I added about six of those back while chained to my laptop in full-out dissertation mode this fall).

Here, then, are my principal resolutions for the New Year; I reserve the right to completely disregard my resolutions and to deny I ever made them in the first place:

1. Get under and stay under 200 pounds for the first time since the late 1990s.
2. Exercise every day.
3. Get two articles published in peer-reviewed journals.
4. Get my dissertation accepted for publication as a monograph.
5. Have fun.

Feel free to leave any resolutions in the Comments section - I promise not to hold them against you if you do not succeed in keeping your 2010 resolutions.