Thursday, February 26, 2009

Goodbye to 2 old friends

Relax, nobody died. I'm just lamenting the departure of two online tools that are both on the brink of disappearing this month. One is Yahoo Briefcase and the other is Google Notebook.

Briefcase became obsolete for me some time ago; I hadn't added anything to it in at least 3 years, but figured I'd better clear my stuff out before they pull the plug. I've long since discovered that simply e-mailing documents to yourself is a perfectly good way to keep them safe in case your hard drive crashes.

As for Notebook, that one really did serve a good purpose. Things I might otherwise have printed out and stored in binders could be kept handy for later reference. NY Times articles have a tendency to disappear off their archives sooner than later, so I copied and pasted the text rather than trust that a link would remain viable.

I did some research and came up with* - they make it quite simple to import your Google Notebook files, which I did last night, even under the influence of overtiredness. I've grown increasingly fond of tools that allow you to instantly "clip" something, be it to Live Journal, Facebook or Ubernote.

It's a pain to have to exit one site you're fond of and get to know a new one, but it's worth it to ensure that my favorite passionate moments (including the "Michael Pollan for Secretary of Agriculture" campaign) can always be revisited.

*That's "Uber" with an umlaut. Click Here to Read More..

Monday, February 23, 2009

Any brilliant folks here?

I figured it couldn't hurt to ask:

My son Wally the college freshman is having a hell of a time with math. Specifically, advanced algebra / linear equations and such. When it comes to practical math, he's fine -- inherited that from his father. But his befuddlement at the more abstract concepts comes, alas, straight down the maternal line. He is taking the course for the second time, having bowed out with an incomplete last semester. He's even considered changing majors to avoid it, but every field he's looked into seems to have math lurking in the wings.

He's doing well enough with homework because it's all online and the program encourages students to keep looking for the answer until they get it right. But when a test is on paper, in front of him, and he has no other resources, he's lost. I don't think this is a "test anxiety" thing, since he's doing fine in all his other classes.

Anybody out there know any good secrets for fooling your brain into playing along with the course material and avoid the "oh, this is that stupid math that makes no sense and will never be used ever again after this" mindset? I'd love to hear from people who consider themselves major math-phobes but who found a way to chop through it and pass.

Any and all suggestions will be cut/pasted and e-mailed.


Wally's Mom Click Here to Read More..

Saturday, February 21, 2009

An Even Better Reason to Admire Christopher Hitchens

Warning: This post contains a plague of run-on sentences.

As one of those "quiet types," I harbor a not-so-secret admiration for the biped bull in a china shop who WON'T put up and shut up until a lot of people are listening closely. While the rest of us little angels modestly hide our opinions or diffuse them with diplomacy, people like Christopher Hitchens are on the front lines, writing and acting simultaneously before a live audience, knowing that cheers and jeers are likely to follow in equal measure, but reasonably confident that one day, their truth will become so universal that they will no longer have to hammer at it, because a comfortable majority will have finally adopted it and convinced the rest.

So Hitchens may shock and irritate when he suggests that Mother Theresa was, at heart, an incurably unmarried woman who was willing to do a lot of hard work mainly because she liked the publicity, rather than some ethereal symbol of supernaturally imposed ideals. He slices through the philosophical theories of religious belief by asserting that religion "poisons everything," daring those who disagree to show him where he's wrong. Hitchens, to use a terribly overworked phrase, never declines to "walk the talk."

Last summer, Hitchens took a break from grousing about religion to sharpening the debate over torture, and the US's proper role in conducting it. Is waterboarding torture, or isn't it? he asked himself. And rather than sift through other people's answers, he decided to find out first-hand. He contacted the military unit that originally taught American soldiers how to survive "enhanced interrogation" at the hands of enemy captors, then shifted to teaching them how to perform such tasks.

In his Vanity Fair article, Hitchens describes the secret location, the indemnification agreement (releasing the military from liability in the event that Hitchens didn't survive the experience), the prearranged signal or safe word that would tell his obliging hosts to cease and desist (not unlike the technique used in consensual S&M activities), and finally, the main event.

As he relates it, Hitchens probably lasted less than half a minute before panic set in at having water poured into his face and all breathing blocked.

He was terrified.

And then, when his breathing and heartbeat were getting back into the normal range, he said he wanted to try it a second time.

Hitchens is 9 years my senior and some of his descriptions struck a sympathetic chord. Like me, he suffers from chronic, disruptive "acid reflux and mild sleep apnea," as well as the memory of a near-drowning incident in youth. He is overweight, non-athletic, and a heavy smoker. Other than the smoking and childhood trauma, his age, physical circumstances and sedentary lifestyle could easily describe me. It could also, realistically, describe a nameless, faceless "foreigner" swept up in an ambush and flown 7000 miles to a prison where journalists and lawyers are barred. Or an American soldier, seemingly in top condition, but possessed of all the human characteristics that make prolonged survival under drowning conditions impossible.

Christopher Hitchens' purpose in chronicling his experience with waterboarding was to offer a first-hand, non-simulated look at this highly controversial practice. My purpose in posting this is to express my respect for the courage it took to subject himself to his voluntarily, at the risk of his very life. Click Here to Read More..

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Clark Howard - Our Guy's in Trouble

Clark Howard is an Atlanta-based nationally syndicated consumer advocate, who has been delivering a fresh, unpretentious radio and TV broadcast for over 15 years.

He's 53 but could easily pass for 40. However, today he announced that he has been diagnosed with early-stage prostate cancer. The condition did not sneak up on him -- his doctor found an abnormality in his bloodwork a few years ago and it's been carefully monitored. Prognosis is extremely good. However, Howard is now on the verge of becoming a health advocate, urging men to suck it up, go to the doctor and get checked, rather than ignoring something that can kill you.

I'm hoping Clark sails safely through this bit of turbulence and lives happily into old age. Click Here to Read More..

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Pardon the dust...

I suddenly decided to redecorate MSHP. The colors got changed about 14 times; anyone who stumbled in when I was going through my Chartreuse & Bright Yellow phase will be glad I went to more of a vaguely "varsity" look. Sort of like the colors of the New York City Police Department in the mid-1960s.

My most significant contribution is using a larger type font. Hope you find it easier on the eyes.

Still not completely satisfied, but I'll rest for now.

Do you ever somehow think there must be colors out there that haven't been invented yet? Click Here to Read More..

Saturday, February 14, 2009

10 Things My Mother Taught Me About Sex

Note: Okay, this really is meant as humor, though everything listed here actually was said to me by my mother, either directly or by implication. This, in the midst of bragging about how open-minded and "hip" she was compared to HER mother.

Not sure why I feel the need to warn that some may find this offensive, but in any case, consider yourself warned.

Oh, and Happy Valentine's Day!

1. All men have a "thing."
2. If a man is in your bedroom but doesn't see a bed -- just a studio couch -- he won't think about sex.
3. French kissing? That's when a man tries to kiss you, but then he goes and STICKS HIS TONGUE in your mouth!
4. If you're about to have a romantic moment and then one partner gets distracted for even a second, it will kill the entire mood, and you might as well just forget it.
5. It is the height of rudeness for the man to ask the woman if she enjoyed it.
6. If you're holding hands with a boy and he scratches his finger against your palm, that's a signal that he wants to have sex, so you should avoid him.
7. I've heard that there are some guys who actually want you to put your mouth on "it." Or they want you to let them stick it in your butt.
8. I understand that sex can actually be quite pleasant.
9. Don't sit with your legs apart. Someone will come along and try to stick something in there.
10. One day, if you're not careful, some man will come along and force you to lie down and "connect" with him. ["connect" was the term I invented for intercourse when I first learned about it] Click Here to Read More..

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Plagiarizing Myself

Currently suffering from writer's block compounded by apathy, I submit (with some editing) the following, which I originally posted elsewhere a couple of weeks ago. I'm rather proud of it...
During the past 2-3 weeks my usual lunch routine has been knocked off course. Because I live exactly 1.8 miles from my place of employment, it's easy to run home for lunch. I can take care of minor tasks, eat what I want, have a little time to decompress, and save money.

However, the last few weeks have involved activities that took me away from the office for an hour or two -- physical therapy (6x in 2 weeks), MD appointment, and getting an emission inspection for my car. All of those precluded any home-time.

Last week it became something of a joke between Carl and me:
Q. "What did you do for lunch today?"
A. "McDonald's."
Q. "AGAIN???!"

I lost count along the way, but believe that for the 9 days I had to change my routine, at least 5 were under the watchful eye of Sir Ronald.

There are several factors that led me back to the Golden Arches again and again.

1. Location - There are 3 McDonald's restaurants along the routes I traveled to and from my errands.
2. Hours - Sometimes it was morning, other times lunch, but again, McD's was open for both.
3. Drive-through service with ease of access. There's a popular deli near the clinic that I thought about trying -- even drove past -- but by the time I figured out where to park, I'd gone past with no opportunity to turn around. The next most convenient place was, well, you know...
4. Variety. Not GREAT variety, but acceptable.
5. Price. In a pinch, there's always the dollar menu.

Well, today was my last day of running around, and I was dayum'd if I was going to have McDonald's AGAIN. Besides, I had a hankering for something they don't serve there, even if it isn't terribly healthy -- fried chicken. There are almost as many fried-chicken places around town as there are McDonald's, so I figured it was a fairly safe option, in terms of finding one easily and getting my food quickly enough to arrive back at work without running over.

Bojangles on East 23rd Street. I'd gone past it a number of times but never stopped in. I'd noticed that the restaurant and its property looked clean and well-kept with pleasant landscaping, so I pulled in this afternoon.

The first thing I noticed was that the drive-through lane was separated from the parking lot by concrete curbing. Once you pulled in, it was difficult, if not impossible to change your mind and opt to park and go in, unless you were at the back of the line with no one behind you.

Then I noticed how nothing was moving. One of the things that annoy me about McDonald's is, you don't have time to sit and listen to NPR, because before you know it, you're at the speaker, then at the first window, then the second, and minutes later you're back at work. Not much time to lollygag with the radio.

But this afternoon, I listened to in-depth interviews with correspondents in Afghanistan and Pakistan for about 10 minutes while waiting for the drive-thru traffic to move. I now know more about the Taliban than Colin Powell, probably.

But when they took a break to tell me that support for NPR comes from DeCosimo, I realized that I'd been sitting there motionless for an alarmingly long time. I'd even shifted into neutral so I could lighten the pressure on the brake pedal a little bit. In the rear-view mirror, I saw a pickup truck pull in behind me. Ahead of me, I counted: one, two, three, four, five, six... Possibly more than half a dozen cars in front of me (my view was blocked by the building), and nobody was moving.

I was vastly relieved when the pickup truck backed up and left the drive-thru lane. I was already feeling vaguely claustrophobic and welcomed the opportunity to extricate myself. As I followed the arrows back to the road, I vetoed the idea of parking and ordering at the counter. Every fast-food joint I've ever visited gives priority to customers on wheels. If that group was being put on hold for so long, I shuddered to think what would happen if I had to lounge in the lobby. By the time I got back to work, it would be time to start taking retirement distributions out of my 401K.

By this time, the hourglass was almost empty and I still didn't have lunch. I headed up past the zoo, turned onto East Third Street and was almost thinking about Central Park ... but they were doing some sort of work that involved those little orange sawhorses and I didn't feel like getting stuck in yet another narrow driveway.

There is but one other major eatery along that road. The one that does a crushing business with employees from the adjacent hospital running in for lunch. The lobby is a sea of cheerily patterned nurse uniforms and rubber-soled shoes.

And so, for the sixth? seventh? eighth? time in two weeks, I pulled into the parking lot and settled in for a quick sojourn in the drive-through lane. No sooner had my car come to a halt in front of the speaker, when a rapid-fire voice welcomed me and inquired as to my dining preferences. In case you're not familiar, that goes something like:


With one eye on my diet and another on my wallet, I ordered a grilled chicken sandwich and small fries.


Zoom! On to the window. Slam! Opens the window. Whoosh! Out pops a hand to receive my money.


Zoom! At warp speed my car covered the ten feet or so to the next window.


"Wait a second!" I interrupted as I was handed a bag and a drink. "I didn't order 'Sprite,' I ordered 'fries.'" [This because I already had a bottle of water with me and didn't need a drink. Just some good old fashioned, sodium-laced, factory-processed spuds.]


And it really was "just a moment." Those fries were literally within arm's reach for the young man, because he had barely finished that sentence when Whoosh! Out came the bag again, this time with a holster of fries inside, keeping the boxed sandwich company.


And zoom! again, getting me back to the office before my hour was up.

Did I want a grilled chicken sandwich today? No.

Did I want McDonald's today? Most emphatically not.

Did I have other options? Yes, but none of them would have gotten me back to work on time.

Now, here's the point of my ramblings. Other fast-food restaurants (and various social critics) denigrate McDonald's because they're a mammoth corporation that has influenced the culinary culture of nearly every civilization on earth. They are expensive to set up as a franchisee; they have rather draconian ways of protecting their intellectual property and brand identity. The food's not all that great, and if you saw the movie Super Size Me, you'd be justified fearing for your continued good health if you made a really serious habit of eating there.

And, like me, it's possible to set out with every good intention to eat SOMEWHERE ELSE, and still end up at McDonald's.

I'm sure the guy who owns Bojangles on East 23rd would be disappointed if I wrote to him and described my journey and ultimate destination today.

But would he be disappointed enough? Have any of Mickey D's fast-food competitors REALLY, TRULY gotten the wake-up call?

Here's the bottom line: McDonald's makes SPEED their number one priority.

If you want it fast, you will GET it fast.

And if you can't get it fast enough to suit whoever sets their standards for speed, they will compensate you. Many a time, I have stood at the counter, or in the drive-thru just a bit longer than usual, arrived home and found an extra burger, extra fries, or an extra apple pie in the bag. This was not a mistake. This was McDonald's saying "Sorry we kept you waiting."

This location does it. The one near the high school does it. The one near my office does it. They ALL do it.

The competitors probably cringe when they hear about that. "I'd go broke if I gave away apple pies every time somebody had to wait more than 5 minutes!"

McDonald's doesn't go broke with giveaways because they have developed scientific routines that minimize wait time, AND, because this pays off, MORE PEOPLE automatically choose McDonald's when they're in a hurry. They KNOW they won't have to wait there the way they would at, say, Bojangles.

I'm sure it's not easy working for McDonald's. I'm sure there are managers breathing down your neck every second, because I've watched them -- perpetual motion. But at the same time, smiles are not unknown on the faces of the employees, so there must be something that gets them through the day.

So the competitors should ask themselves if they have extremely high standards that are communicated clearly to the employees? Or do employees know that as long as they show up and have a pulse, they can keep their jobs even if 35% of the customers vow never to return there ever again because the service is so slow and indifferent?

I'm glad my calendar is clear for the time being, so I can start eating at home again. I'm also glad McDonald's was there when I (sadly for its competitors) had no better choice. Click Here to Read More..

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Some People I'm Glad Not to be Related To

Picked up this story via Google Reader. It has sort of a "Rashomon" quality -- I can picture different readers having completely different reactions to it. My mother would have certainly related to the mother profiled here. A younger person would identify with the son.

The church itself sounds quite a bit like one I was attending 12 years or so ago ... a startup without a permanent home. A cult? Probably not Jim Jones, as the mother is alleging, but any serious Christian church -- make that ANY religion -- is going to do whatever it can to hang onto followers. It's what they do.

And I find it ironic that the mother talks about Catholic doctrine in which parents are compelled to raise their children Catholic. Seems to me the main difference between the church and the mother is, the church people want Tom to stay with them for some perceived need on their part to save his soul, while the mother wants Tom to stay with her in order to save her soul.

Without religion in the mix, Tom and his mother would still be struggling because she's overbearing and controlling (hello? the young man is 18!), but it would be about something more concrete and objective, and nobody would be worrying about eternal damnation. Click Here to Read More..

Saturday, February 07, 2009

No title comes to mind for this post.

Earlier today I was out at "the stores," as we used to call them. Preparing to leave, I started the car, reversed out of my parking spot, put it into Drive and then stopped. Farther down the aisle was an elderly man. From his body language I could see he was waiting for his wife to get out of their car to walk with him. He was standing behind the next car; his feet were pointed straight forward so I figured that once the Mrs. caught up with him, they'd walk directly across my path, so it was better to hang back.

But right about then, the driver of the car he was standing behind began moving backward. Because of the distance, I couldn't tell exactly what I was seeing. It looked like the man was directly behind the car backing up, but I was thinking, no, he must be off to the side a bit.

But no, he was indeed just behind the car, and she backed up and struck him on the hip! He staggered, but didn't fall. Then she stopped, opened her door, and I saw her speaking to him, and smiling. Then they walked on, she closed her door and got ready to back out again. I drove behind her and stopped next to the couple. I rolled down my window and said "I cannot believe she did that!" They just shook their heads; the wife said "Yeah, she did...wasn't looking when she backed up." As I left the parking lot, the woman who had hit him was behind me. Her car was a new red one. I was able to breathe more easily when she turned in a different direction.

The thought of someone getting hit by a car just terrifies me. My classmate Charlene was hit when I was about 9 and I never forgot it. She recovered, but a person is so helpless when faced with a large, moving metal object. That poor man. His life seemed to flash before my eyes more than it did his -- 70-some years, retired, kids grown, just out to pick up a few things on an ordinary Saturday and it could have ended right then and there.

Carl sometimes laughs at my caution behind the wheel. I don't like to drive or park too close to anyone; I hate making left turns when there's no arrow; I swivel my head like Linda Blair in The Exorcist when I'm backing out of a parking spot and can't see. There are times I'll back up an inch and stop suddenly if I even hear voices near the car or see some unidentified motion out the corner of my eye. I'm astonished at how many parents allow their small kids to just bound ahead of them in a parking lot, when people are backing up all over the place. In the case of this man, he was simply standing there. He didn't dart out behind this woman -- she never bothered to check her mirror! At least she stopped. I've heard stories of people who didn't even stop after they'd hit something. Another factor here was how close she had parked to the store, and the crosswalk. She impressed me as the sort of person who will hover like a vulture to grab the closest parking spot she can. If you're that close to the store, you should be doubly cautious, since there's going to be a greater ratio of pedestrians.

I hope she's more careful after today. Click Here to Read More..