Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Morning Thoughts

Just took a walk around the neighborhood with my wife. I liked it. The temps a tad chilly, and I didn't feel like walking quickly, but it was a pleasant experience. Before she moved here, my wife lived near a state park in Delaware which had a large walking oval -- probably two or three miles around. Walking there was nice -- surrounded by trees, hearing the occasional bird, and no cars. Probably long since paved over.

Yesterday wasn't much fun at work. As things go, it wasn't terrible, but it wasn't fun. I had to spend a great deal of time dealing with audit stuff. As Toby in West Wing is wont to say, there's three hours of my life I'll never get back. Something about myself that I don't understand is why I get so tense when I have anything to do with my company's system for tracking audit issues. Even the phrase -- 'audit issues' -- strikes me like fingernails raked across a blackboard. Its not as if I'm 'better than that' (though that is how I think of myself, I know that objectively I'm not - I'm just a grunt scum). I just don't like it. I don't like the idea that people take action not because they think it would make things better, but because 'otherwise the auditors won't like it'. I rationalize that by thinking that they should be acting because their professional judgment says its the right thing to do, but truth is, I know that most people, including most certainly me, would act in a way that objectively might not be the best but which makes their own lives easier. We won't cut big corners... but we will cut corners. And the people we work for know this. So we outsource our conscience to a bunch of hired gunslingers, and we do what will make the auditors happy... even though thats a moving and malleable target.

Reading Michael Ruhlman's Walk on Water . Its a very good book. I am always impressed and deeply envious when people get to hang out with people of the caliber of the doctors in that book (not to mention, and write so incredibly well about it.) I have long since given up on the thought that I might ever actually work in a place like that -- not necessarily a hospital, but a place of intellectual achievement (and how presumptuous does that sound?) but I still find lingering hope of at least being able to be in their vicinity. I know that I don't like stupid people, and I suspect that part of that is because I might realize how much like them I actually am. I prefer to think that I'm like the bright, accomplished people, which of course I am -- if only at the biological level.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Pharmacist Pfun

I understand that there are some pharmacists who object to handing over drugs of whose function they disapprove -- for example, birth control pills. Further, they object to allowing anyone else to hand them over, either -- calling over another pharmacist, or sending the prescription to another pharmacy. They say that doing so is a contravention of their rights.

What a novel concept.

Next, I assume, we can expect to see policemen choosing which laws to enforce... meter readers choosing which meters they wish to read.... librarians choosing which books are overdue, and which are not.


Sunday, March 27, 2005


My daughter asked what I knew about the Terry Schiavo case, and what I thought should be done.

I explained to her what I know about it, what relevant terms such as 'Persistant Vegetative State' mean, and how it can be difficult to determine if one exists. I told her that a person without legs is still alive...and if you assumed that everything south of the neck was gone -- I drew comparisons between her condition and that of Christopher Reeve, after his accident -- the person could still be alive. Then I told her how you evaluate whether a brain is functional (what I know of the subject). After all of that, I told her what my assumptions and beliefs are, and, based on those assumptions and beliefs, what I think should be done. She nodded and started to walk away. I asked her if that was really more than she wanted to know, and she nodded again. "A bit more", she said.

Got to remember, she's still a kid.


Here's a couple of things I made lately that weren't too shabby.

Chocolate - Covered Berry Truffles
¼ cup heavy cream 7 ounces good bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 ½ T Grand Marnier or similar liqueur 6 ounces berries

1. Line a tray with waxed paper.2. Simmer the cream, remove from heat.3. Add chocolate, stir until smooth, add liqueur4. Dip each berry, shake off excess, place on waxed paper5. Chill until firm.6. Put cocoa into sealable bag, add chilled truffles, shake to coat.
Black Bread
3.5 cups whole wheat flour 1/2 cup all-purpose flour 1 Tablespoon cocoa powder 2 teaspoons salt 1.5 pkgs active dry yeast 2 Tablespoons molasses2 cups lukewarm water

1. In large bowl, sift together 3.5 cups whole wheat flour, 1/4 cup all-purpose flour, 1 Tablespoon cocoa, and 2 teaspoons salt. 2. In small bowl, combine 1.5 packages yeast, 2 Tablespoons molasses, and 1/2 cup of lukewarm water. Let sit until creamy - 5 to 10 minutes. 3. Combine dry ingredients, yeast mixture, and 1.5 cups lukewarm water until mixture forms a sticky dough. 4. Grease loaf pan(s) 5. Form dough into a ball and place in loaf pan(s). . Cover lightly with a clean dish towel and let rise 20 -30 minutes, or until doubled in size. 6. Heat oven to 450 degrees. 7. Bake in middle of oven to 10 minutes, then REDUCE HEAT to 425 degrees and bake for 35 - 40 minutes, until top is brown and loaf sounds hollow when tapped. 8. Turn out onto a wire cooling rack; let cool completely.
Sweet Rolls
2 cups milk, scalded 3 tablespoons sugar ¼ cup butter 1 teaspoon salt
1 envelope (2 ¼ tsp) yeast 1/3 cup lukewarm water2 beaten eggs 5 cups all-purpose flour Powdered cinnamon

1. Combine milk, sugar, butter, and salt. 2. Cool to lukewarm.3. Activate yeast in water and add to milk mixture. 4. Beat in the eggs. Gradually add flour. 5. Turn out on lightly floured board; knead until smooth. 6. Butter bowl; place dough in bowl. Brush with melted butter. 7. Cover with towel8. Place in warm location until doubled or 2 hours. 9. Roll dough into long 2 inch wide strip(s). 10. Make 9:1 sugar/cinnamon mixture; sprinkle on strips. 11. Roll up from long edge; cut into 1 inch wide slices. 12. Butter muffin pan cups. 13. Sprinkle cups with light brown sugar. 14. Put sliced dough in cups. 15. Let dough rise for 30 minutes. 16. Bake at 350 for 20 minutes.

Saturday, March 26, 2005


Last night I read most of one book (short one) and started another. Both got me to thinking.

The short one: The Five People You Meet in Heaven. I'd heard about it, mostly comments of the dreamy nature that I tend not to trust, and just about exactly the kind that I made when my wife asked me, last night, what I thought of the book thus far. I was about halfway through it at the time, and I thought for a couple of seconds, then came up with the best that I could: "Its one of those books just have to believe in " And now, having finished it, I still think thats a good summary. I had heard that the last chapter was on the emotional side, and it was. I can be a sentimental person at times, so it came as not too much surprise to me to find that my eyes were getting a bit damp at the Grand Finale. Because (and skip here if you don't want to know the ending) what the book is saying is: When you die, you get to meet five people from your life who will help you understand what it had all been about; when you're done with the last of them, you will be completely at peace and happy.

Well, shucks, who wouldn't want that?

The other book, the one that I just started, is Walk on Water: Inside an Elite Pediatric Surgical Unit. I went to sleep after having just read a harrowing description of a surgery prep on a forty-hour-old child which has just gone badly wrong. Blood is gushing out, the surgical field is flooded, the kids blood pressure is in his socks, his oxygen saturation is dropping equally fast, and efforts to plug the hole are like trying to sew tofu.

And then the kid goes into cardiac arrest.

Its going to be a great book, I can tell already. The guy who wrote it, Michael Ruhlman, has written three that I've read, and two of the three were remarkably good -- one, about the making of a professional chef, and the other, about men who make wooden sailing vessels almost entirely by hand, each captivated me. Even the one that wasn't that good was still better than most of the genre, but when this fellow gets moving, you can smell the sauce pots bubbling, feel the smooth curve of the keel as its being laid, and feel the heat of the lights in the surgical suite glaring down onto you. You're there.

He says that he chooses to write about people who do their craft as well as it can be done, astoundingly better than most in their field, better than anyone has a reasonable right to expect -- people who do it by expecting so much of themselves, so often, at such an intense level of excellence that most people can't even imagine it, let alone attain it. And they do it every day.

Well, shucks, who wouldn't want that, either?

Could I do it? Well... put it this way. I'm reminded of the woman doing a comedy routine who said, remarking on a thin friend, "I'd do anything to look like that....except, you know, diet and exercise."

In Sherlock's Neighborhood

I just finished reading a book that delighted me. How much, you ask? This much: its about two hundred pages, and I read seventy percent of it the first night I had it home.

There are two reasons why this book -- The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes, by Adrian Conan Doyle and John Dickenson Carr -- delights me.

First, it's well written. The style and plots are virtually indistinguishable from original Holmes. Unlike many other derivative Holmes novels and collections, this one sounds right almost all the time - - to the point that on the rare occasion that it doesn't, I wonder if I'm being too picky. As they said in the Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy, when there was a discrepency between the Guide and reality, it was almost always reality that had got it wrong. Same thing here.

Second, it mentions things like Regents Park as being a short walk from 221-B Baker Street. And Marylebone Road. And the Baker Street - Waterloo omnibus. Each time, I tingle just a bit, thinking: I know that place. I've walked up Baker Street to Regents Park ! Our hotel was on Marylebone Road ! I' ve ridden the Baker Street - Waterloo omnibus! (Okay, maybe not the omnibus. But I rode the Bakerloo line of the tube, surely that counts?) .

There's also the usual surfeit of quick trains from Paddington station, massive old English homes with swords and battle axes too easily to hand, traps clattering through the streets, midnight callers seeking succor from a dour raciocinator sunk into the depths of his chair, and weeping young women convinced of the innocence of their beloved. No towering mastiffs with glowing eyes, though.

I'd be delighted with this book for reason one. But both reasons had this result: I borrowed this copy from the library. And now I'm buying a copy for myself.

Friday, March 25, 2005


Occasionally, I think about homeschooling our daughter.

Usually, that thought is prompted by thinking of how rigid/hidebound our local school district is. That thought doesn't occur too often, so neither does the first one. But sometimes other things bring it to mind. I was reading a blog by a woman who is apparently brilliant, and who was home schooled. I know, thats a chicken and egg kind of thing, but it made me wonder: as I approach the time when I am thinking about retirement, could I/should I profitably spend some of the time home schooling my daughter?

One woman I know, who is herself quite bright (MIT, Harvard Med), told me in no uncertain terms that homeschooling is a terrible idea for many reasons, all of which could be summed by this: if you think you can manifest the abilities of a dozen teachers, all year long, you're fooling yourself.

Maybe so. Probably so. And I know that the most common reason for home-schooling -- ie, religion -- wouldn't be mine. I'd do it because I love to learn things, and I want to pass that on to my daughter. Not all things, true. And undoubtedly she's picked up some of that from me and her mother already. Also, its not a given that she won't get this from school -- though it does seem more likely than not.

Plus, when she has on occasion said she'd like to be homeschooled -- usually for the same reason as I use -- she quits when I mention that among other things that means that snow days are school days. Hum, she says, thoughtfully....

Still....its a shimmeringly attractive thought.


One of the things that my company, The Biggest Software Company in the World, does which I think is nice is: they support mentoring efforts for girls in the sciences. I like that.

Ever since I had a daughter, I've been aware of the disparity in the way that girls progress through the science curricula. When I see articles about programs that aim to address the imbalance, or even the ones that just talk about it (such as the squib in Time Magazine not too long ago about the level of girls' achievement versus boys in, I believe, Iceland), I look into them. I don't know if my daughter will want to pursue the sciences (at the moment she's more interested in being an artist and sculptor, like her uncle), but I want her to have the option, and the encouragement to do so if she wants it.

Thus, when I heard that TBSCW supported the Mentornet project, I was delighted. I don't know if I'm smart enough to help in this, or if I have the right background, but I'm going to try.

Because a child's mind -- any child , but especially mine -- is a terrible thing to waste.

Thursday, March 24, 2005


Space...the, wait...

Something something ... a galaxy far, far -- no, thats not it...

Ducts. Why do there always have to be ducts ?

Yeah, that's it.


/Insert Snappy Title Here/

Okay, I couldn't think of a snappy title for it, but I think this is interesting anyway.

It's a series of diagnostic flowcharts, on the Academy of Family Physicians page, relative to common ailments -- symptoms, possible diagnosis, and self-care.

Usual caveats apply, but it's worth a look.

Because your health is too important to be left just to doctors.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005


Every so often, you see an ad that's memorable -- and I'm not necessarily talking about a Bud Lite one, either. While standing at the kitchen stove a few minutes ago, prepping some French toast, I remembered an ad for Memorex cassette tapes with a crudely written label and the caption: Save The Wails.

Which reminded me of one of my favorite tag lines.

Save the Whales. Collect the whole set.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Norton's System...Works. Kind of.

I just reinstalled Norton System Works for the second time. It wasn't fun the first time, and the second, even less. In each case, it was because I tried to uninstall and reinstall the product due to errors, and in each case, it proved as easy to uninstall as to untangle coagulated spaghetti. I spent forty minutes waiting for them to answer the phone, and another hour on the line with them, going through removal steps. Here, for your viewing pleasure, are my scribbled notes. I don't guarantee that they're all there, but I think they are.

Go to add/remove programs, remove any Symantec or Norton products
Remove Live Update, say yes to proceed past warning
Restart pc
Start browser, go to ;download Windows Install Cleanup
Start Windows Install Cleanup
Delete all Norton or Symantec files, plus symnet,cccommon, and msredist
Go to Start/Run/Regedit Back up the registry
Go to Hkey_Current user/Software ;delete the Symantec subfolder
Go to Hkey_Classes_Root; delete all Symantec references (must be full 'Symantec' word)
Go to Hkey_Local Machine/Software ;delete the Symantec subfolder
Go to Hkey_User/Software;delete the Symantec subfolder;
Under Hkey_User, go to the S-1-5-18, S-1-5-19, and S-1-5-20 folders; in each, delete the Symantec subfolder Close the registry
Go to My Computer; Programs;delete the Symantec folder
Go to Start/Run/MSConfig; Services Tab;Disable All; Apply;
General Tab;Selective Startup; check only Load System Services and Load Startup Items;click Apply
Close MSConfig and restart the PC
Go to Start/Run; enter '%temp%', run, delete all entries shown
Empty the recycle bin
Restart the PC
Go to Start/Run/MSConfig; choose Normal Startup; close MSConfig
Restart the PC
Start browser
Go to; execute the Norton registry stuffer program
Go to; execute the Scripten.exe program

..and then reinstall the product. Gee, wasn't that fun?

Show of Hands

How many people think that Saudi Arabia in particular, and OPEC in general, have a real sense of distress over the current level of sweet crude oil prices? Could I see some hands?

And how many people think that when those same folks think 'sweet crude prices', they're actually thinking 'Sweeeeeeeet.....'?

The Existential Pleasures of Blogging

I've seen a couple of articles lately about blogging that seem to touch both ends of the spectrum about why people do it.

One article said that blogging is a form of social popularity contest wherein the hot interesting blogs gather advocates and adherents, and the dull ones wither and die. Sort of a genetic algorithm or an evolutionary thing. I think that article actually used the phrase 'Nobody goes to them', which reminds me of the (apocryphal?) story about Yogi Berra and restaurants. I have visions of some blogs with bright lights, throbbing music, and people lined up at the door --'No, man, I'm on the list! Here, let me see that th-- hey, man, let go of me!' -- and others where a single person is sitting in a darkened room, quietly reading the Daily Summary of Grain Digests.

The other said that people just do it to do it, and that most people don't particularly want to be well known -- 'don't want to be instapundit', is how I think they put it. Thats where I fall. Its nice when people respond, and even better when there's a little dialogue as a result, but if nobody does, its not a big deal. There's something nice about just writing.

So if I don't use some of the nifty tools, like the BlogMe linker, or the site meter that tells me how many people came today, and how long they stayed...well, thats just me. I'm not a competive guy. And sometimes, I like it simple.

Now, where did I put that Grain Digests Summary?

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Evening Thoughts

I really do like this laptop. It's a nice weight, and it boots quickly -- not quickly enough when I just want to write something, dammit, but more quickly than the desktop PC, even though we leave the desktop in Standby (which this laptop does not have as a power option; something to do with having re-installed the operating system. I don't understand why). I like being able to use it anywhere -- right now, I'm in the living room, in the corner chair, listening to a CD of Yo Yo Ma. Not to say that the laptop works perfectly -- it has an annoying tendency for the cursor to flip somewhere else in what I've written and start inserting letters there. Its something to do with the touch pad, which this has as a pointing device. Whether it’s the pad sensitivity, or the gods of teknologie, I have no idea. I suppose I could call Mike Dell or Bill Gates up and ask them. Or I could just whistle into the wind, which would be as likely to produce a useful result, and get me outdoors, too.

The laptop came with Word Perfect, which I'm using to write this -- a better interface than Blogger's, not to mention, wider. Perhaps it’s the novelty of the interface, but I find that I like it a bit more than Word. It seems to have had more thought put into the options. Not to say that there aren’t way too many options – there are; for one, that was supposed to be two dashes, which WP sucked back into one, and I don’t know how to make it stop doing that – but the interface just has a nicer feel to it. In a weird way, it reminds me of something that I had read about Quicken, back when it was just a feisty little software package, and not the megadeath package it wants to be now - - the people supporting it would go out to see how people actually used it, and then they would optimize the package to work that way. Ah, nostalgia.

I had put that CD on as encouragement for our daughter, who has announced that she wants to quit cello and go back to piano. We think that it bugs her that she really can't play anything more advanced than Mary Had A Little Lamb. She wants musical proficiency on the cello equal to what she had on the piano, and right now, too. I can't give that to her (future generations might be able to handle that via direct RNA drip. Maybe someday soon, but not yet) so I'm hoping the sounds of a well played cello might inspire her. Of course, they might also confirm her in her opinion that she will never be that good, so she might as well knock it off now. Not that she wanted excellence in the piano, either; what she wants is the ability to do something. The same reason well designed software has a 'quick start' feature.

Saw an article on the guy who designed The Sims. I never got into Sim City, but I admire it nonetheless.

I'm reading To Rule The Waves again, finally. At the moment, Spain is in deep trouble because the cost of having that huge military is outpacing the ability to fund it via the swag from the New World; the depredations of the English and others isn’t helping the matter. The English politicians are saying that they need to build a bigger, stronger, more robust military so that they can get out there and grab, too, just as the Spanish have done; the effect of the military on the Spanish economy seems to have evaded them. The largest warship in the world – at the moment - is English, with one hundred guns on three decks – the mighty Sovereign of the Seas. I wonder if the English miss those days, and what if they were to come again? I was reading a novel, several years ago, wherein the young woman who has somewhat unexpectedly become Queen of England is attempting to learn the realities of the nuclear weaponry that the United States has in her country. She is being aided, reluctantly, by her ministers, who don’t think it entirely appropriate that a woman, even the Queen, should be concerned with such matters. It made me wonder: if the King or Queen of England were determined to return the throne to its ancient position of power, how might they go about it? And how would the English feel about it?

Take The A Train

I was just telling my daughter a story about the tune 'Take The A Train' and came across this. I thought it was nicely done.

Rainy Sunday

It's a rainy Sunday, but that's okay.

We went to church this morning 'as a family', as my wife likes to say. Normally, its just me and the offspring, but today my mother wasn't up to going out, so we three went together. I wonder sometimes why my mother even thinks about going to church -- she's gone for so many years, I'd expect that she should have a lifetime achievement pass from the Vatican -- and, of course, she watches a lot of masses on television -- two or three a day, I think. All Church, All The Time, I like to call it. She's probably seen or attended more masses than most practicing priests. Of course, its true that my own view of what church attendance ought to be like isn't quite mainstream -- for one, I think that seriously popular ones, like Easter and Christmas, ought to be attendable -- is that a word? -- via the web (Click here to put money in the collection plate). Come to think of it, I remember reading a few years ago about a church that started taking credit cards, and would take recurring donations that way. That makes a lot of sense to me. But as yet the pope hasn't seen fit to incorporate any of this into the liturgy, or the way that religion is practiced, so we still do it The Old Way.

After church, we had waffles a la daughter, which is to say, we had waffles the way that they were written up in the American Girl magazine she just got. I don't think that pudding on waffles, with slices of banana, will be on my menu very often, but she seemed to like it. Her enthusiasms for things like that are intense, and intensely transitory. Halfway through eating, she seemed to hit a 'okay, thats enough' point, and left the rest of it.

I was dialed into work last night, and this morning, the work laptop was still out, but I resisted the urge to dial in again and poke around. I've been giving recurring thought to leaving this company come the end of the year, right about when I'll be vested in their retirement plan. I like working there, but the work itself is not to my liking. Still many reasons to stay -- more than to go -- but if I can't leave just because I want to, when it might be the last full time job I ever hold, when can I?

I am still reading the book on terrorism. Its a small book, but it is painful to read, and I find that I can only read two or three pages at a time before a feeling of dread comes over me, and I just don't want to think about it any more. I suppose that means that I am intellectually lazy, and maybe I am. But I am getting out of it what I wanted. I've learned that the concept of terrorism has been around a long time, and that it started with the assumption that specific actions aimed at specific people would engage the state in a futile attempt to stop the terrorist, so that the general populace, seeing the inability of the state to stop what was, objectively, a very small threat, would conclude that the state was inept and worthless, and therefore get rid of it. When that consistently didn't happen, the terrorists began to conclude that it must mean that the people needed more direct involvement, and then began the practice of general purpose terrorism -- still aimed at specific people, but with less regard to whether the population as a whole was affected directly. Even that proved ineffectual in engaging the supportive sympathies of the public (usually-sometimes it did), so the concept of terrorism as a general act, without a specific target, began to come into practice. (There's a line in one of Tom Clancy's books where a terrorist, who has a 'day job' working for the power company, is ruminating over his knowledge of how to shut down the power grid; he thinks that once people see that the government can't even keep the lights on, they'll conclude that the government is corrupt and inept. Sound familiar?) And thats as far as I've gotten.

I feel like for whatever reason,my reading has stalled, lately, and I don't like that. I have a book on architecture that I want to read, and a collection of short stories. And theres that book about the origins of the British navy, I do want to get back to that. Some decent science fiction would be nice, too.

Maybe a run to the bookstore is in order.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Laid Off Dad

I learned this morning of a blog named Laid Off Dad. It's funny, nicely-written, and well worth your time.

Hot Stuff

I have always enjoyed hot chocolate.

One of my favorite jokes is about the fellow who is on a business trip to Switzerland. He asks the waiter at the hotel's restaurant if he would bring him hot chocolate for breakfast, explaining that he has never been in Switzerland before, likely would never be again, and while there wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to indulge in some fine Swiss chocolate. The waiter nods, and in a little while comes from the kitchen with a tall gleaming silver carafe, a silver spoon, and a china cup with a delicate blue pattern on its side. He sets the cup in front of the fellow, placing the silver spoon next to it just so on the crisp linen napkin, lifts the carafe -- and pours steaming water into the cup. Puzzled, the diner looks up just in time to see the waiter pull a familiar packet from the tray, tear it open, and dump the powdered contents into the cup, stirring it briskly with the silver spoon. The diner sighs. He had forgotten.

Nestle is a Swiss corporation.

What brings this to mind is an article in the December Gourmet magazine. We don't receive this magazine, and have this issue courtesy of my dentist, who had it out when I was there last. ( I really did intend to return it! ) This was the issue which contained the excellent article 'Camping Confidential' by Perri Klass, an writer and pediatrician, about her efforts to teach her son how to cook, as a survival trait for his upcoming nature trek. If I hadn't liked her style and down-to-earth insight before reading it, this would have done the trick, adding the concept to Things I Have To Make Sure My Daughter Knows. As for the issue itself, I acquired it because they had an article about Christmas cookies. I’m a sucker for articles like that. I always want to make something different, and every so often find one that is easy to make, different from the usual round of stuff, and tasty.

But another article caught my eye, too -- 'The Perfect Cup', about the availability at the Philadelphia Ritz-Carlton (and now others, I understand), of a 'Chocolate Sommelier' who would 'custom-design a rich, steaming mug featuring high-end chocolate... frothy cream or whole milk, homemade marshmallows (chocolate, berry, lavender citrus), and such toppings as whipped cream, toasted nuts, fresh fruit, and chocolate shavings.'

My goodness.

I don't use the phrase 'luxuriously decadent', but in this case...

Talent Shows

I've decided that I don't like kids' talent shows.

They're a fine spectacle in many ways, and though none of the kids locally is particularly talented (well, perhaps one or two), its a chance for them to strut their stuff. They enjoy it, and, of course, the relatives do, too. Last night, when I was attending my daughter's talent show, I was astonished to hear a relatively sedate grandmother hooting and shouting when her child was on stage.

Last year, my daughter and two friends did a musical piece. They weren't very good. Okay, they were terrible. Possibly the worst of the show.

Still, they wanted to do something this year. What they chose was a low-key comedy routine based on the Who's On First classic. That was probably a mistake -- in retrospect, the acts that get applause have either a) a lot of people or b) a lot of hard-driving recorded music. Car-Wash Divas was a hit, as was a funny routine done to the thumping sounds of 'Funky Town'. There was one other act where two kids did a stand-up comedy routine, and they were pretty good -- they spoke clearly, slowly, and loud, and they had decent material - but mostly, People, and Sound, seemed to be the key. The audience liked either, and loved both.

They were doing okay -- not great, but occasional laughter -- when they came to a point where they were supposed to hold up a sign and then go on for about another minute. They stood to get the sign, and the audience applauded. The person announcing acts took the applause to mean that their act was over, and he started announcing the next one. Still holding the sign, they looked up in surprise as they and their props got hustled off the stage by the assistants.

I spoke to one of the stage managers later, but of course, that was way too late. And truth to tell, I was more irritated than she was. The performers all got big helium filled balloons, and she liked that a lot. Played with it all the way home, singing a tune about it to the rhythm of 'Funky Town'.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see why I feel as I do. Or that I'd feel differently if the audience had cheered and stomped their feet for my child. And I know that, all things considered, its not that big of a deal.


I don't like kids' talent shows.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005


I've just been reading the latest issue of The Economist, which includes a general review of nifty uses for technology. Along with the usually collection of things which do sound interesting but are not quite ready for prime time -- such as a system from Sun that allows an economics-based methodology, called Tycoon, for the allocation of computer resources -- there are some that grab the eye and make you -- or at least me -- say Damn, thats nifty.

One is a company based in Los Angeles, called Semacode, that allows the use of a two-dimensional bar code on a route sign for a bus to be used to tell when the next bus is coming. The way it works is this: you take a picture of the bar code with your camera phone, call the service, which reads the code (and thus knows where you are), determines when the next bus servicing that location is scheduled to arrive, and sends a message back to you.


Sunday, March 13, 2005

Getting to know....

1. IF YOU COULD BUILD A SECOND HOUSE ANYWHERE, WHERE WOULD IT BE? North Carolina. I have a wonderful image of that place.

2. WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE ARTICLES OF CLOTHING? A faded red T Shirt and dark green work pants that have seen better days, and not recently, either.

3. THE LAST CDs YOU BOUGHT? Harmony Grove.


5. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE KITCHEN APPLIANCE? Kitchen Aid mixer. I like to bake.


7. FAVORITE COLOR? Blue. Preferably dark blue.


9. DO YOU BELIEVE IN THE AFTERLIFE? Kind of. I grew up Catholic.

10. FAVORITE CHILDREN'S BOOK? None come to mind.

11. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE SEASON? Fall. Warm enough to be comfortable, a bite in the air to give it an edge.


13. IF YOU COULD HAVE ONE SUPERPOWER, WHAT WOULD IT BE? Invisibility. Not just to people, but sensors of any kind.

14. CAN YOU JUGGLE? A little bit.

15. ONE PERSON/PEOPLE FROM YOUR PAST YOU WISH YOU COULD GO BACK AND TALK TO? My friend Marion, who died two years ago. We weren't really close, but I miss her.

16. WHAT IS UNDER YOUR BED? The supports for the canopy, some storage boxes.


18. WHICH DO YOU PREFER, SUSHI OR HAMBURGER? Hamburger-- and I have a great, if complicated, recipe for when I'm in the mood to make the effort.

19. FROM THE PEOPLE WHO NORMALLY READ YOUR BLOG, WHO IS THE MOST LIKELY TO RESPOND FIRST? Don't get frequent responses, though I treasure the ones I do. Well, most of them.



23. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE MEAL? Well-made meatloaf, french fries, apple pie. Home made stromboli is a close second.

24. DESCRIBE YOUR PJS. Baggy shorts, sometimes with a T shirt.

25. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE BREAKFAST? Sausage and home made waffles, or sausage and french toast. Coffee, Ghiradelli or Starbucks Morning Blend.

26. DO YOU LIKE YOUR JOB? Like? Yes. Love? No.

27. WHAT IS YOUR DREAM JOB? Several. If I'm feeling creative, portrait photographer specializing in families and kids. If I'm feeling smart, designing and implementing advanced computer-based support systems. If I'm feeling ambititious, doctor.

28. WHAT AGE DO YOU PLAN TO RETIRE? Somewhere between 57 and 60.

29. WHERE DID YOU MEET YOUR SPOUSE OR SIGNIFICANT OTHER? We were in a technical class together and she sat right next to me. She couldn't figure out how someone could look so staid and say such funny things.

30. SOMETHING YOU WOULD LIKE TO DO THAT YOU HAVE NEVER DONE BEFORE. Fly a helicopter. I've flown in a fighter, tanker, glider, biplane, and light plane (the last as pilot). A helicopter just sounds like fun, once you get used to handling three controls at once. Let's see, does the cyclic turn you or change your altitude?

...Or Maybe Not

As is my wont, once I get an interesting idea, I spend a great deal of time looking around for information on it. So, now, I know a lot more about residential elevators than I did three hours ago.

It can be done. Its expensive.

The going rate seems to be around twenty-five to thirty thousand dollars for installation of the elevator and its associated equipment. Probably more if it's being done external to the house.

Since this would be part of a significant remodeling, involving addition of a bedroom, conversion of the existing master bedroom to a entry way for the elevator, as well as closets, and an extension of one of the upstairs baths into part of the space currently used by the master bedroom, the overall cost could easily approach one hundred thousand dollars.

In a saner world, this would be enough for me to say Okay, thats it, thanks for coming. But in a saner world, new houses don't sell for three hundred thousand dollars, and climbing. (Some townhouses not too far from here are selling for four hundred thousand!) So, spending one hundred thousand so that we can stay in a house we like for a good long time might be worth while.

Justifying that cost, though: years ago, I had Michelin tires put on my car. I won't say what kind of car it was, but it wasn't a speed machine. (Well, unless you happen to be driving through Sundance, Wyoming, which at the time had a quite nifty little town revenue generator running out there on the highway.) A friend asked if my car handled better now. I told him, truthfully, that I had just spent a lot of money on tires -- of course I'd say that it handled better now!

Quantifying the value received for that much money will be significantly more difficult. Heck, we spent months thinking about whether we should spend one percent of that number.

This is not going to be a casual decision.

Home Renovation

We've been collecting occasional ideas about a 'retirement house'. Mostly, its been me, salivating over thoughts of the perfect house, even while I know that when it is built, there would be things that we didn't even consider, and should have. As when we had the kitchen addition here built, and I said I wanted substantial window sills, so what we got were sills about three inches deep -- only I meant six or seven inches, because I wanted to put plants on them. Definitely, a problem of the idle rich, but its a microcosm of what could happen when you go to build the perfect house and didn't nail down every detail.

I recall reading with some amazement that when Bill Gates had had his mansion built, he spent something on the order of forty five million dollars on it == and it still had to have spaces left in the conduits and such for the technologies and concepts that hadn't been invented when the house was designed. An article in Fine Homebuilding, years ago, spoke of Skywalker Ranch, with an awesome central building, that was later found to be inadequate for the evolving needs of the occupants. I'll take it, George! Even our house has wiring running through the walls because we didn't know about the coming usefulness of wireless connections for the PC and stereo.

And then there's the van that I have been seeing lately as I come down the hill toward my home. I come to a stop at a T intersection, and I sit there for a few seconds, just looking at it. Its owned by a local handy man doing work on a house, and on the side of the van, it says 'Don't Move...Improve!' Perhaps thats been merging with the thought of 'there is no such thing as a perfect house', too, along with the current cost of houses and land, which startles and dismays me. Whatever the source, a new thought has occurred to me. Perhaps, instead of sinking money into a new house, we ought to consider making substantial renovations to this house.

After all, think about it. Why exactly would we want to move from this house? Primarily, steps. We live in a bilevel, with two bedrooms and the den and garage downstairs, and the other bedrooms and all, upstairs. We expect that as we age there will come a time when we do not want to climb the stairs routinely. I watch my mother doing it, and it can wipe her out.

So what if we didn't have to do it routinely?

What if we put in an elevator?

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Chocolate and Money

Not necessarily in that order.

The chocolate first.

I was at a local store called Ten Thousand Villages (which I persist in referring to as Ten Thousand Maniacs), buying something that my daughter had asked me to pick up, and saw some chocolate for sale. The name on the bar was Dagoba, and of course the first thing I thought was 'Does George Lucas know about this? Or Yoda?' But according to the wrapper, Dagoba refers to a temple, and below that information is this: "Chocolate is Sacred."

And here I thought it was only in Hershey that they thought that.

Now the money.

We get mailings from the GM Card offering to let us use earnings to buy a new car (or at least to put toward a new car). Well, thats very nice of them, but we don't buy a new car all that often, and at the moment, we're thinking that when the Regal gives up the ghost, we're going to look at the Accord hybrid. If GM comes out with one in the meantime,we'll check it out -- we're not fanatical Buy Americans, but we're aware of it, and if we can, we do. Either way, though, its at least a year away.

So we tend to ignore their mailings. Fortunately for us, my wife is better about reading the material than I am -- because it turns out that they also say, if you don't want to put your earnings toward the purchase of a new vehicle, you can get some of it back in cash.


So, as a result of my wife's efforts, we're getting a check for two hundred dollars -- just for calling the toll-free number and saying "Sure, send it."

How about that?

Friday, March 11, 2005

Bright People, Redux

The other day, I wrote a quick entry for this blog on the subject of bright people in general and the Ideo Corporation in particular. I said that I was impressed by bright people. That's true; I am. But that wasn't actually what I meant to say. Somehow, in writing the piece, I wandered completely off the reservation and into the weeds. So, let me try it again.

What impressed me about the Ideo people, as well as people like them, is what they do with their intelligence, and the way that they do it.

I am mightily impressed by people who do not accept the world as it is, and work to improve it. I admit that when I say that, I am not talking about the social scientists and humanitarians, who seek to improve the condition of the people of the world. They're pretty amazing, too, because they plug on and plug on in spite of all of the travails that the world and its people can throw at them. When humanitarian agencies announced that they were restricting or terminating operations in Iraq because their people were getting killed, I thought 'But how can they do that? Can they do that? They can't do that!' When of course they can. Being a humanitarian may mean being a special kind of stupid -- the kind of stupidity that soldiers on when others would have just given up, and by soldiering on achieves an improvement in life, even if just for one person, one town, one people -- but it doesn't mean being dumb, throwing yourself into the fire when there isn't a good reason for it. Of course they can withdraw when they see the need to do so. If anyone has earned the right, they have.

But the improvement that I am thinking about in relationship to the Ideo people is improvement in the way that things work and processes function. It is improvement in the design of the things, the execution of the processes, so that when they are put together what you end up with is a transition from a series of disjointed, not-quite-focused efforts to one of fluid grace and maximal impact. (I know: they don't do it because in childhood they swore a mighty oath to rid the world of graceless systems and malformed products. They do it because someone is paying them to do it. So they're intellectual mercenaries. Fine. I can live with that. )

Who do they do it for?

Come help us see if our method for delivery of medical services can be improved, one group said. Sure. Lets start with the easy question: what does improvement mean, there? Cheaper? Faster? Better documented? More likely to result in payment from insurers? More pleasant for the participants? Less likely to result in litigation? You can see the heads in the meeting room nodding. Yes, yes, all of that. Okay, what one is most important? Or what two, or three? If you have to make a tradeoff, what goes up and what comes down? And that’s just the first part of the process that you go through in the improvement of a function, of a process. And you've got to got to got to get that part right, else when you are done, and you stand smiling next to the result -- see? we gave you what you asked for! -- and notice that the customers' smiles are a little bit forced, a little bit off, and you start to get that oh-no feeling in the pit of your stomach -- you realize that the first part wasn't done well enough. And you've just spent a whole bunch of effort for nothing. Maybe its because you didn't ask the right questions, or didn't listen hard enough, or the customer misled you, or the customer changed their mind along the way, but for whatever reason, the improvement process failed.

Those don't get written up in the glossy brochure, of course.

But say you get through that phase unscathed. You've got a reasonably good lock on what the customer wants. Then the real fun starts, because then you get to do the analysis of where they are now, and what it would take to get them to where they want to be. What has to go; what has to change; what has to be created. How will the new state look, how will it feel. What will the effect be of the changes to the systems that interact with the changed ones (thats a killer; sometimes you know all of them, but usually, you don't. And either does the customer) and what do you have to do to make that connection seamless? This is a tedious and agonizing process, a blend of rigorous analysis and whimsical fancy. It can be exhilarating, and it can drain your brain. Sometimes, at the same time.

It's particularly helpful, I would think, if you can see the process flow. But that's just a guess.

And if you are successful, giving the customer not only what they wanted, but possibly more than that, possibly you give them what they need, even if they didn't know that they needed it, then you become a successful innovator, a successful process improver. And that’s what I think Ideo is. They do it with bright people, and -- I'd like to think -- they do it with good internal systems, good methods of wringing out the good ideas from one project and recycling them, extracting the core concepts, the ones that are needed for every successful project. And they marry them to the unique concepts for this project, so that they have good structure and good nuances, and when you put them together, you get a good project.

It doesn't always happen this way. Why? Because its hard.

I know of one effort that an organization made to try to create a process to successfully move work from customer sites into their own site. This means that when the customer hands over the check and says Okay, you guys run our computer systems from now on, that you can not only do it, but do it better and cheaper than they could (else they won't see it as a benefit, and you won't make any money on the deal). So this effort, the Standard Transition, was supposed to put together all of the questions that people ask -- sometimes, much later, slapping themselves on the head and saying Damn, we shoulda asked...-- about how the systems run now. Who runs them, how, when, why, under what conditions, with what output, and what do they do now when it doesn't work, and should we do the same thing. They spent a great deal of time, trying to come up with this Standard Method, and to their credit, they documented a hell of a lot of things, many of which were things that you probably would have thought of, and some were things that you might only think of if you got burned by it, last time you did a transition. And they put them in, as Dilbert would put it, a big honkin' binder.

Is it slim, slender, graceful? Is it easily used, adapts easy to different environments, adds noticeable value to the process? That’s a lot to ask of a big honkin' binder. But its better than nothing. And that’s where most efforts stop, because it takes a hell of a lot of effort to get even to that point. But then to take that output, that painfully created and documented output, and use it for the next project, and not only do that next project but along the way smooth out the rough edges of the standard method...and to do that again and again .... well, that’s pretty impressive.

Heard a story years ago, and though I don't know if it is true, I'd like to think it is. The story is that Bill Bradley, when he was a professional basketball player, would go to the court at night and practice taking shots from every part of the court. Again, and again, and again -- until he could reliably, almost without thinking, sink the ball from any spot on the court. That’s taking that big honkin' binder out for every project, walking through it for every project, and smoothing it with every project. Sometimes adding things back in that were taken out. Sometimes adding new material in. But always improving, always getting better.

Is that Ideo? I hope so. Because I do dearly love that image -- the idea that somewhere, there are people who do that.

Bright people.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Bright People

I am biased toward bright people. I cut them more slack, I listen more to what they say, I think that they are just more interesting than most people. I know that they can be arrogant, overbearing, pretentious, and all of that. But I like them anyway.

A good example of the kind of people that I like is in the current issue of Time magazine, in an article titled School of Bright Ideas, about the work done by the bright people at the Ideo Corporation, a design firm which has done both practical hands-on work and theoretical process design work. The article is more than a little glib-- its like reading about Apple, way back when all of the people were smart, motivated, and given to wearing sandals and playing Foosball in the office -- and it doesn't give much of a suggestion about how they achieve their results (indeed, the article focuses on the gee-whiz accomplishments, which I sort-of doubt is the meat-and-potatoes of what they do), but its a fine writeup for all of that. Why?

Because its about bright people. And you know how I feel about them.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Social Security Stance Risky, Democrats Told

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2005; Page A03

The party's situation was posed most provocatively by two veteran Democratic strategists, Stan Greenberg and James Carville. In a memo issued last week, the two wrote: "We ask progressives to consider, why have the Republicans not crashed and burned?"

"Why has the public not taken out their anger on the congressional Republicans and the president?" they added. "We think the answer lies with voters' deeper feelings about the Democrats who appear to lack direction, conviction, values, advocacy or a larger public purpose."

Couldn't have put it better myself.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Lori's Experience

Identity theft is the use of someone else's identity to rob them. I convince a seller that I'm you, they give me stuff, and they send the bills to you.

It can happen to anyone. You don't need money to be the victim. You just need an identity.

There is an excellent, short, easily-read article in the current issue of Corporate Security Officer - Online, located here, about the experience of a woman named Lori Lee-Savage with identity theft.

Here's the last thing it says:

"You want to feel that all these institutions (banks, credit card companies, stores) have your back; they don't. You want to think they can prevent this; they can't."

CIA - Cancelled in America

So what's the furor over the CIA sending prisoners overseas to be handled in accordance with their local customs?

Isn't that just another instance of offshoring ?

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Chocolate Cake

Several weeks ago, I installed Yahoo Messenger on all of the PCs we have -- this new one, the desktop, and our two work laptops -- so that for the first time since we started working at different places, my partner and I can send each other instant messages -- usually of the 'do you want me to cook tonight' or 'I'm going to be late, can you pick up the offspring at day care' genre. One of the recurring notes has been me saying 'Thanks for making lunch for me...but, you know, I didn't find any chocolate cake in there'.

It comes from a joke I heard years ago about the young guy who starts off for his first job working as an assistant at a house builder. His wife kisses him goodbye, hands him a brown paper lunch bag, and he's off. When the time comes, he retrieves it from the common storage locker, and is delighted to find a thick roast beef sandwich, a stash of cookies, an apple, and a big slice of chocolate cake. He's just about to have at the cake when he hears one of the other workers bellow HEY! Who stole my lunch and left me this lousy PB&J sandwich?

When I send that, the response is usually a reminder that its been a while since I've baked, and if I bake it, she'll see that it gets into my lunch. Well, this weekend, my partner decided to give this a try. She took the recipe I use, eyed it, and in just a short while, we had a chocolate sheet cake, iced and cooling on the counter. My daughter is delighted, and we've promised her first slice.

I might even have some.

Life Ownership

One of the very good ideas that I've never been able to apply in my own life is this one: you own your career, and you can control where it goes. I'm sure that its possible, but I don't know of anyone who has actually done it.

I first heard this concept back when I was enlisted and in the Air Force. The idea was that you could tell the Air Force what you wanted to do, and if they wanted to keep you around, they would figure out a way to do it. Want to go to a specific school? Tell your career advisor, and they would tell you what you would have to do in order to qualify. When I became an officer, that song was even stronger: officers had specific people who you were encouraged to talk to, by name, who would help you arrange your career. They wouldn't guarantee anything, but they would give you a sense of control of what you were doing and where you were going.

Never worked for me. Tried it twice, and it didn't work either time. Only much later did it occur to me that perhaps the problem was that I believed those articles, which were written not about the people who'd made mild or moderate changes in their career but really astonishing ones (they make a better story, after all). I thought that if it was possible for them, then it must be possible for me, too, and when that didn't appear to be the case, I stopped trying.

Later, I went to work for a company that stressed that all things were possible, that if you worked hard you would succeed handsomely -- in fact, the company founder was fond of saying that if you worked hard, in twenty years you'd be working as a hobby, not because you needed to. Okay, he was a renowned salesman, but the possibility was enticing, nonetheless. As it happened, it did happen there, for some people, but not many, and not me.

What brings this to mind is an article in today's Post about deciding whether it is time to leave a bad job -- one where you aren't using your potential, one where you aren't happy, one where you don't see yourself doing something great. Okay, the article doesn't use these phrases, and in fact they use as an example a woman who really should leave what she does. She loves her job, finds it fascinating and challenging, a job thats better than she could have hoped -- but she hasn't been paid in several months. She knows she should leave, she just doesn't want to.

The article makes several interesting and thoughtful analogies between job situations and relationships, as well as this general observation: "When people feel like they're in charge of their lives, they're much more likely to be proactive, realize they have choices and to make good choices for themselves."

It took me years just to figure out that my working stule was that I needed to take challenging things and break them down into really small pieces before I could get the gumption to do them, and almost as much time to figure out that I perfer to work early in the morning and late at night, and that I'm most likely to solve a problem after I've gotten up and walked around for a while. I'm not kidding: years. I once went to a couple of sessions with a psychologist because I was getting angry at work (not postal, but pretty damn touchy), and she told me something that I'd never realized: I have no idea how to relax. None. I just sit quietly and hope it happens. Weird, huh?

And even though its just about a moot point for me now, I still don't know how I'd get the courage to bail on a job I really didn't like.

Cleaning Out Files

I have a folder titled Interesting Articles, where I throw things that catch my interest. Every so often, when I see the folder, I think "I really should toss that thing", because I don't look at it that often, and so I start to go through it....and I keep it. Most of it.

Here's some of it:

A Wall Street Journal article about retired workers: Older Workers in the Lurch

A Washington Magazine article: Another Rich Doctor...or Just A Hard Working Doctor?

A cutout of Alfred E. Neuman's grinning face

A photocopy of a Dilbert strip about the nature of time

A photocopy of a Calvin and Hobbes strip about men, women, and Einstein's Theory of Relativity

A photocopy of a Harris cartoon, wherein the bartender is saying" Its not worth worrying about. There's nothing you can do about it. No two quarks in a small region can occupy the same quantum-mechanical state."

A clipped Harris cartoon of two scientists looking at a board full of formulae. One points to the phrase "Then a miracle occurs" and says "I think you should be more explicit here in step two."

A Mission: Impossible cartoon that's hard to describe.

A cartoon of a guy arguing office sexual mores with a woman, who gets the last dig.

A drawing from the Atlantic Monthly of a bridge with the center span missing. The road sign says "Minimum Speed 95 MPH"

An article from Mensa magazine on the subjective nature of time when you're half awake.

An article from Time on Italian lotharios: The Giovanni Smile. On the same page, an article about the first women to go to West Point: Beauties and the Beast.

An article on a sailing academy for women only.

A picture of a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader who's not entirely covered.

A cartoon of a glum man holding a sign: Will Work For Medical Insurance

A cartoon of several doctors looking down at a fellow in a hospital bed: "We're willing to cut a deal. Drop the malpractice suit and we'll re-connect your respirator."

An article from the Washington Post: Driving Us Crazy: Anatomy of a Traffic Jam.

I forgot I even had some of that stuff. Guess I'll keep it.

Telling the Boss

I don't much enjoy going to Mass, but I go anyway. Partially, that's a result of growing up Catholic, but most its because I bring my daughter -- the classic Setting A Good Example. How much of a Good Example is, I suppose, problematical, as she knows perfectly well that I don't like going, but I could make the case that the example is, sometimes you do what you don't want to do because you know you should. At least, thats what I hope.

Every so often, when the pastor says the Mass, he tosses in irrelevant asides as he's talking. The assistant doesn't do it very much -- though one time he did let it slip that when the Red Sox won the Series, he wondered if this was a sign of the apocalypse -- but the pastor does, because he's a very down to earth person.

This morning, he mentioned that it had been a year since the former bishop had died. I was talking to a Jewish friend once and told him that I didn't know what the Jewish equivalent of a Catholic bishop would be, or cardinal, or even Pope, for that matter; he told me that there wasn't any equivalent, and that Jews tended to be pretty locally defined, without a hierarchical structure. I liked the sound of that.

When the pastor made that comment, he said that when the former bishop was told that he'd been selected, he asked if the Pope (who does the picking) knew of his ill-health. The messenger said yes, he did, and the bishop-designate demurred again, saying that he wasn't sure this was a good idea. The messenger said, with some exasperation, that 'The Holy Father Does Not Like Being Told No' -- whereupon he took the job.

Not liking being told No, or indeed getting bad news at all, is a trait of senior managers. I think that they shape a vision in their mind of what the world is like, and what they want it to be, and selectively accept the pieces that suggest that the changes they want really are happening, while ignoring or downplaying the ones that say otherwise. When Bush believed the word he got from the CIA, it was most likely because he wanted to believe it. I happen to think that he was overwhelmed by the concerted desires of those who were his titular deputies, but he was likely predisposed to do so, anyway. It takes an intellectually strong person to be able to doubt what he or she really wanted to hear.

Remember the story that Patton tells of the slave riding in the chariot, whispering that all glory is fleeting? P erhaps we need some more of them, these days.... and whispering " You really believe that?" every so often, too.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Going, part two

We didn't go Italian last night -- at least, not as I thought. What happened was tht we had take out pizza, and wolfed down one of the two french loaves that I'd made. Tonight, we're having spaghetti, meatballs, and the garlic bread.

Don't know how it will taste, but it sure does smell good.

Spent the day running errands, including going to a small, crammed, used book shop where I found a copy of the novel from which the Dirty Dozen film was made. As thats one of the three or four films I think of fondly, I got it.

A good day, so far.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Going Italian

If all goes according to plan, tonight I'll be making garlic bread.

The dough is going through its initial rise in the oven now. ( One of the things that I love about being able to work from home, working in my pajamas aside, is that I can bake while I work. I like messing around in the kitchen, though I'm not all that good at it.) The dough came out a little sloppy, so I'm going to let it rise for longer than normal, which means I have about three hours from now to when its ready for slicing.

I found this recipe for the garlic part. I never thought about what goes into garlic bread (uh, go buy garlic butter, spread it, nuke it?), but based on about five minutes research (hey, it uses the word caramelize, so it must be good), this is what I'm going to try:

1 loaf french bread
1/2 cup butter or margerine
1 clove garlic
1 Tbs. rosemary
1 Tbs. oregano
1 Tbs. thyme
1 tsp. marjoram
1/3 cup Parmesan (grated)
Prep time: 30 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
Preheat oven to 375º.

Slice the garlic as thinly as possibly (using a razor blade works well). Add the garlic and the butter to a small frying pan and sauté lightly. As the garlic begins to caramelize add the other spices and sauté for a minute more. Remove from heat.

Slice the bread lengthwise (so you have a top and a bottom). Using a small brush, stir the butter mixture and apply evenly to the cut surfaces of the bread. Sprinkle the cheese over the bottom half of the bread. Place the top half of the bread back on the bottom half. Lightly brush some more of the butter mixture over the top of the bread. Wrap the bread in foil.

Bake for 10 minutes. Open the foil so the top of the bread is partially uncovered. Bake for 5 minutes more. Remove from the oven and slice.

Tonight, we go Italian.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Notes, Noted

A few days ago, I wrote an entry on this blog to the effect that I wanted to instruct my daughter on the value and methodology of taking notes. Last night, she came home with a relatively decent method, consisting of printed sheets where she's supposed to list the concept being described, then the major facts, and finally details for each of the facts.

Of course, since I didn't build it, the method's not perfect (g). It assumes some basic methodological knowledge that she doesn't have (no comment on whether the instructor presented that material in class; she probably did, though). Consequently, last night all three of us spent some quality time together, reorganizing her notes into something useful. The good news was, once that was done, she was able to immediately write an outline based on the notes. The bad news was, we're not convinced that she can do it on her own, yet.

But its a start.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Buck Fifty Rule

Some years ago, when we were in the habit of taking occasional weekend vacations down to Washington, or up to Boston, or over to Philadelphia, my partner and I formulated a rule based on what we found out about hotel prices. We didn't really come up with a name for it, but a good one would be The Buck Fifty Rule.

It goes like this. Most hotels will give you about the same kind of service for about the same charge. A dollars worth of cost buys a pretty standard dollars worth of value. Sometimes a little less, sometimes a little more. Fifty percent more -- another fifty cents on every dollar -- will get you about fifty cents more value. Sometimes a little less, sometimes a little more. If you went up another fifty cents, though, you wouldn't get another fifty cents or so increase in value. You'd get something in the neighborhood of forty cents worth. And if you went still another fifty cents, you'd be lucky to get twenty five cents worth of value.

We never drove that to the limit, but within the range that we could afford to spend, it seemed consistant. It could be that the additional high-end dollars were buying value that we were simply not geared to accept as value at all, or at least, not worth spending money on, but our take was that whatever the reason, we would not push it. We'd edge up another fifty percent when the occasion called for it, and even another hundred percent on rare, very special occasions, but that was about it. No mas, no matter what you got in return.

We found that this rule of thumb was applicable in a number of different areas -- in the cost of the meal at the neighborhood restaurant versus an expensive one, in the cost of a new car -- and now we find, in the cost of houses. Because we've started thinking about building a house to use as a retirement home, and from the looks of things, the Buck Fifty rule lives there, too.

In looking at the current assessed value of our home, we find that it is worth about half of the cost of a new town home in one of the developments going up near us. These are not elegant, ten foot ceiling, granite-everywhere town homes; they're just nice, small, common-wall houses. And ours is, by our standards, a big house -- nine rooms, three baths, attached two car garage, elegantly redesigned kitchen. We thought that if we wanted to get an equivilently nice, smaller home, that we could essentially take the money out of this house, buy the new one, and have a fair amount of money left over. Not so. Rather, we'd have to take all of the value of this house -- and then some. So, for each of the dollars we spent, we'd get a dollars worth... ninety cents worth...seventy five... and all the way down. That last dollar would buy us hardly anything.

This is not an end of the world observation. In fact, thinking about the levels of cost involved, its pretty close to what we like to call a Problem of the Idle Rich. Most people could not afford to have this problem. They simply don't have anywhere near the discretionary cash to do it. And that leads me to another point. Since people are doing it, where's that money coming from, and would it be fair to say that they aren't so much buying a house as paying a large rental each month? In other words, is the bulk of the house's value (I hesitate to say its worth) really not with the 'homeowner', but with the bank? Yet the bank can't really do anything with it, as it could with cash. It can sell the value of the mortgage, and if things got desperate for the owners, it could foreclose, but barring those two fairly major actions, thats it. The value of the house would just sit there, not really giving value, until someone, at the end of a long line of pseudo-renters, finally got to the point where the current value of the house dropped down to the point where they could really buy it. And only then would the value of the house be trackable as worth to the owner.

Could the Buck Fifty Rule be a fundamental and previously unstated rule of economics?