Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Never Ending Story

A nice email again from Mario in Northern Italy. The magazine is now in print featuring the story my father-in-law, WW2 veteran who published his war memoirs and memories, which culminated in the villages near Torino and Racconigi.

I remember when I first saw some of Bud's photos from the war. He showed a picture of a road where every tree had every branch splintered and stripped bare of leaves. The devastation of the war had been vividly captured.

But Mario's letter this morning shares the brighter side of this war, the warmth and hope that had been inspired by the arrival of the Americans.

Dear Ed. Since our first mail, I have never spent so much time without writing. The fact is that we have been so busy organizing things... But my main difficulty was (is) how to express the feelings and the consequences of the article about Bud. All people were touched, and we had been waiting for such a reaction. But now, all people have begun remembering, also the younger ones: my grandfather used to tell me… My aunt… My father in law…

One surprising meeting I had was with a young man from Murello. It’s a small town seven km from Racconigi, were Bud used to go dancing and having dates. This man told me that an old aunt of his always used to remember those young Americans; there was one who reached Murello by jeep and offered “caramelle”; those sweeties were inside a tobacco can. One evening the soldier wasn’t near the jeep and the children opened the can so as to give a look inside, being prepared to receive “caramelle” later. The can was full of tobacco!

Maybe the man wasn’t Bud but I listened to the story and it was just like if Bud was there speaking to me.

Today and tomorrow we’ll have all magazines in kiosks and libraries; then we’ll be able to collect bookings of And There Shall Be Wars and organize orders and shipping. Our Mayor wants us to have another public presentation on the main square, during our summer feasts. A never ending story! But a beautiful story.

Now I’m busy preparing the second issue, but no longer stressed: I’ll write you again soon, so as to go on keeping in touch. A town-wide kiss to Bud and your whole family. Mario


If you are interested in seeing this feature story, in the new historical magazine "Terre di seta", I have uploaded it to my personal website and it can be viewed here: articolo_bud.pdf

According to Mario, “Terre di seta”, that means “a silky country”: a very original part of their agricultural past was bound to silkworm breeding and in the pre-industrial production of threads. The magazine will deal with all aspects of everyday life in their past, mainly based on personal memories and private archives, hence Bud's story was a natural fit for their leadoff issue. The magazine is the product of a non-profit cultural Association supported by local private sponsors with no public help. It is a product of volunteers, although they are all professionals, headed up by Prof. Bartolo Gariglio, deputy director of the History Department of the University of Turin.

May we all remember our histories, and pass their lessons on to future generations.

Monday, June 29, 2009

For One Night of Love

SHORT STORY MONDAY

Part one of a never ending story. A work of fiction in the classic style.

For One Night of Love

Helmsboro, Minnesota, is a town undergoing change... rural, yet slowly being transfigured by the spread of housing developments and zoning regulations. The farming has always been difficult in these parts, due to the short growing season and the hardscrabble land, hence after scratching out a living for as long as sensible most of the area's farmers have sold out, subdividing their properties and encouraging their sons and daughters to pursue more promising careers in other fields. Many have migrated to the Twin Cities, though others have stayed behind, uncertain what to make of the changes taking place all around them. Because of its low crime and good schools, the area has developed a good reputation, attracting many new families into the community.

Jeremy Tanner lived in a farmhouse on the right-hand side of the Helmsboro Road, often called Old County Two, an old asphalt road that sweeps up and away from the city below. Situated on forty acres, nearly all of it once cleared, his grandfather built the house shortly after the Great War, saying, "First you build the cage, then you catch the bird." His father grew up on the site and imagined that Jeremy would raise a family of his own here one day as well. Since his father's death nine years ago the land has remained neglected, for Jeremy never took an interest in gardening, nor in any other kind of farm labor for that matter.

In the old days, Jeremy's great-grandfather harvested hay for hops for a local brewery. The160 acres the Tanners then owned were some of the best in Helmsboro. His grandparents met at the farmer's market, as did his parents. But it was hard work, and the Tanners were hard on their women.

Jeremy's mother hanged herself in the barn when he was too young to remember so that it has been more than thirty years since the house enjoyed the attentive care of a woman's touch. After his father passed away, Jeremy found employment as a pot washer and kitchen help at the Northview Country Club. The house and land were paid for so that his modest wages suited him fine. He had no career ambitions, preferring instead the cloistered solitude with which he surrounded himself at home.

Jeremy had not been been a bad looking youth and became what some would consider a modestly handsome man. What hindered him socially, and disturbed him deeply, was a nervous condition over which he had virtually no control and which made him quite self-conscious and socially reserved to an extreme. He was plagued with muscle twitches and tics that manifest themselves in a variety of ways that included eye blinking, head jerking and facial grimaces. They had first appeared in his early teens, and no matter how he tried, he could never entirely control them. First it would be a tightness in his shoulder blades and he would roll the blade, and then do it again and, like a persistent itch, would continue the motion until it became a strange elastic jerking movement which took all of his concentration to restrain. Once successful overcoming that tic, the discomfort would show up in his neck, and for several weeks he would jerk his head, or roll his eyes, or make a sniffing noise or clear his throat. The variations on this theme were maddening and made him a victim of cruel jokes in school so that he could hardly bear having to return each day to the ridicule and insults of his peers. Feeling himself a freak, he learned to find comfort in solitude.

Over time the severity of these multiple tics diminished and often he showed no unusual signs at all. However, whenever he experienced stress, the tics would return. They were especially troublesome in his relations with the opposite sex, to an extent that he was embarrassed by them. The facial twitches and grimaces especially shamed him so that he even considered taking his life because of his inability to control them in the presence of a girl whom he wanted to please. Many times he wept bitterly because of his condition until at last, having come to believe that no girl would ever love him as he was, he resigned himself to living alone for the rest of his life. When his father died, it relieved him of the burden of having to find a wife to please his father. He could travel his solitary road in peace.

At thirty-one, he had settled into a routine which more than satisfied him. Life was no longer a burden for him. In fact, he was quite contented with the life he now lived, a life of routines and small pleasures. Though his workday began at noon, he liked to rise early, usually before dawn, to take long walks, weather permitting, and then to return to his home to draw. He spent hours walking, observing the evolving countryside, and even more hours in his room making pictures. Other than his employment, and the few mundane tasks which all single people must attend -- sleeping, bathing, washing clothes, paying bills, etc. -- this was the whole of his life.

On the other hand, he never read the papers, nor listened to the radio, nor did he own a television. (He took his father's TV to the Goodwill two weeks after the funeral.) He never went out to restaurants, shows or bars, and only went to the store when it was an absolute necessity. He was neighborly to his neighbors, but mostly kept to himself and they, knowing well his preference for solitude, left him to himself, an unspoken contract.

But for his walking, the hours he spent with pen and paper were the hours he lived for. So absorbed by his picture making was he that he would set an alarm clock to alert him that it was time to get ready for work. Otherwise he might easily spend an entire day making tiny, hatch markings for a shaded background and forget to report to his job altogether. What might seem boring and tedious to others, Jeremy found relaxing and even stimulating. He was amazed by his own pictures and by the wondrous spatial illusions that could be created by the stroke of a pen.

Jeremy did have other distractions. He enjoyed a good book now and then. And he liked to play a harmonica, especially in the late evening after dusk. Sometimes he would go out behind the barn and sit on some old crates playing lonesome sounding melodies that slid away into the vastness of the night. At one time, too, Jeremy had a dog of which he had been fond, but the dog had been hit by a car and killed and Jeremy could not bring himself to replace her.

CONTINUED

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Returning to Earth

"It's the stupid hope of getting something for nothing that corrupts people." ~ Donald Burkett, in Jim Harrison's Returning to Earth, commenting on gambling.

This weekend I started reading Jim Harrison's compelling sequel to True North called Returning to Earth. It's the story of a half breed Chippewa-Finnish man dying of Lou Gehrig's disease, told in first person by both himself and his wife.

All the great novelists aspire to writing something with a timeless significance that expresses something more than the pedantic day-to-day. You can tell from the start that Harrison has succeeded in creating a story that will compel us to face the big picture questions that torment the private spaces of human hearts. That's the real achievement of the great books, to create a context for exploration of these deeper life issues.

Harrison's earlier novellas include the silver screen achievement Legends of the Fall, starring Anthony Hopkins and Brad Pitt, a story bigger than life and revealing of both its expanse and depth.

While listening to the unabridged audio version of the book this quote about gambling jumped out at me. I would say it "jumped from the page" if I were reading a regular book, and upon hearing it I pulled over to write it on a scrap of paper as a start point to this sequence of thoughts.

Gambling is a great deception. Donald Burkett learned this early in life, after a significant losing hand. It is not a central theme in the book, mentioned only in passing, but it is a sharp insight. How is it that our tax dollars, then, are being used to promote this deceptive tactic by advertising lotto, Powerball games, state lotteries and the like? Should not the government be on the side of truth and virtue? It's shameful and sad that our own tax dollars are being devoted to studying human behavior to determine which games of chance will most successfully pull greenbacks out of poor peoples' wallets, for it is the poor and ignorant who are most vulnerable to these enticements.

Where is the outrage? Why do our leaders claim to be on the side of the poor while simultaneously supporting an activity that preys on their false hopes and is mathematically arranged to insure that they lose?

Have you ever met anyone who bought a house with winnings from gambling? I have known two who lost their homes from gambling losses. One was through a Saturday night bingo habit which led to bankruptcy.

I have a friend who says the purpose of Powerball is to make poor people less hateful of the rich, because if they win the Powerball they will be rich at some point. The notion strikes me a bizarre, but maybe there’s something to it. No one likes being hated, and that probably applies to the rich and powerful as much as anyone. Giving a poor man the hope that he might be a peer someday, even if it’s a false hope, just might be the ticket.

As for Jim Harrison, the setup is good and I look forward to finishing my read.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Fine Arts

I was recently contacted on Facebook by an artist I went to school with at Ohio University, Kim Abeles. Kim was a fellow art student at Siegfried Hall whose innovative work showed that she clearly had a future in the arts. My recollection was of a number of very talented young people who seemed exceedingly committed to new visions, not simply getting a grade. It was a fertile time for releasing the powers of imagination. The energy was such that I believed a movement was being germinated. But alas, upon graduation we splintered in an array of directions. Ultimately, art remained important to all of us.

Kim ended up in California and somehow, undoubtedly by means of the emerging Internet, I contacted her again in 1996. She responded by sending a book titled Enciclopedia Persona, which had been published in conjunction with the Museo de Arte de Santa Monica. Kim's work was being exhibited throughout South America.

I visited Kim during my first business trip to California in 1998 or thereabouts, and had the privilege of seeing her studio. Impressive! Some of her work included etchings made solely by placing glass on the roof and allowing the L.A. smog to do the etch. One of these was a collection of dinner plates that had portraits of U.S. presidents from McKinley to Bush in the center of the plate with historical quotes declaring a commitment to the environment on the rim of each. The power of this collection was that each image had been created with about a week's worth of Los Angeles smog. I kid you not.

During our visit I lamented privately that I was somewhat envious of her output and her life of ongoing creative expression. She encouraged me to re-connect with my roots in the arts and not give up.

After more than twenty years in advertising, I have always been grateful at the opportunity to make a living and provide for my family by means of applied creativity. There are, however, other creative disciplines that have value as well. To some extent making art -- painting, drawing, sculpture, etc. -- is therapeutic, and to some extent it is an exploration of possibilities. While I am reluctant to call our visit "the" trigger event to push me back toward a more earnest commitment to the fine arts, it was certainly one such prod.

This past week I have been in the process of framing drawings and paintings, preparing work for a first show, at The Venue in Duluth's West End. It's an adventure, and if you are in the vicinity I invite you to partake of it. I will keep you posted of the details.

Of Kim Abeles, her newest adventure will be a show in China. I'm confident it will be a thought provoking experience for anyone who takes it in.

Friday, June 26, 2009

If You Want To Play Baseball...

Recently I heard someone use the expression "If you want to play baseball then organize a game." It's one of those pithy expressions that rolls off the tongue but contains a nice seed truth. Examples are legion but off the top of my head these come to mind:

"If you want to make an omelet you're going to have to break a few eggs."

"Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive."

"The butler who folds his hands spills no tea."

This last, which I frequently quote, actually makes a nice bookend for the first. Both are directed to the idea of action, of initiative. U.S. Grant is listed amongst my heroes because he was such a man. He did not wait for marching orders from his generals in order to figure out what to do. He made observations, understood the larger objectives and relentless pursued courses of action which he believed would lead to the fulfillment of these aims.

Returning to baseball, if you want to play then organize a game. When we were kids we played every day. Whether whiffle ball in Dennis Kappos' back yard or sandlot up behind Stafford school, we were ever at the ready. But we didn't just sit around on our hands and wait for it to happen. We made it happen. We'd ride our bikes down to Rubertinos to get Louie and Joey. We'd run across the street to get Johnny and Gary Vosco, whom we unkindly taunted with the phrase, "Vosco de Gama where's your mama?"

Once your had a core group, gathering other players developed its own momentum. We had had a vision (there's going to be a game) and we took initiative to make it happen. Others who came along also recognized it was going to happen and they participated.

Job hunting or building a new business can follow the same path. You can't be passive. It requires a commitment to do whatever it takes to make it happen. And that's the test. How badly do you want it? If you go for it only half-heartedly, you'll probably give up after hitting the first or second wall. But if you're seriously committed, despite the obstacles, the process of relentless pursuit will teach you much.

And maybe, ultimately, you won't end up in the port you we're first heading toward, you will have learned some valuable lessons about seamanship, qualities of leadership, and how to take control of your life. Or as they say, it's easier to steer a boat when it's moving.

Don't wait for your dreams to come true. It's up to you to make them happen.
In the meantime, seize the day!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Astroturfing

My father was a chemist involved with the development of latex paints. Some people would call this “artificial paint” way back when. He used to take business trips now and then with quite a few of them to Texas, I recall. On one of these trips in 1966 he had gone to the Houston Astrodome, the first indoor stadium, and the first baseball stadium with artificial grass. I remember him describing how plush the seat were. And I also remember him mentioning the Astroturf, the new name for this artificial grass which had been developed by Monsanto.

It’s interesting how slang gets developed. For example, Dr. Kevorkian made a name for himself by his commitment to doctor-assisted-suicide. In the computer world, “to Kevork” became shorthand for killing a program.

So it is that Astroturf has morphed into unanticipated new applications. Astroturfing now means to create the impression of being spontaneous “grassroots” behavior. According to Wikipedia Senator Lloyd Bentsen coined the term.

Astroturfing would be a propaganda technique to give the impression of a spontaneous movement which has actually been purposely orchestrated.

Many businesses have attempted to create "viral marketing" campaigns that appear to be naturally viral when in fact they have been orchestrated with this aim in mind. Certain popular YouTube videos were originally failures in their earlier generations before appearing to spontaneously "catch on."

In the age of media sound bytes, all kinds of efforts have been made by political parties to give appearances, but which backfire when handled too transparently. Michael Dukakis riding in a tank to give the appearance of foreign policy resoluteness was almost comical during his presidential bid. Sadly, I witnessed a Republican experience of the same nature during my involvement in that party in 1984. I was at a 5th district meeting in St. Paul in which someone was seeking 17 volunteers to help paint an old person's house on the upcoming Saturday morning. All three television stations would be present to capture this act of compassion for the weekend news. The aim was to show that Republicans care about the poor. I received an icy glare when I raised my hand and asked why we don't just explain how our platform and policies will help the poor. I clearly didn't "get it."

Many antiwar protesters in the Viet Nam era were lured to Washington D.C. by rumors that famous rock groups would be performing. I expected to see and hear the Jefferson Airplane in MayDay 1971, as well as the Beach Boys. The latter did indeed put on a show around two in the afternoon.

In the famous Halloween Blizzard of 1991 here in Duluth, I ventured out on Sunday morning to see what condition the Hillside roads were in. As I stood outside the Twins Bar on fourth street I saw three people walking up the road. One was then-Mayor Doty, along with a news camera from channel 3 and Mr. Doty's handler. They were looking (fairly unsuccessfully) for cars stuck in the snow that needed a push. The aim was to create the impression that the mayor was helping people and cared about the problems we were experiencing. I was the only one out on the street so they walked over to me and I saw he was wearing make-up. They wanted to make sure he did not get any glare off the snow to distract from his honest and helpful appearance.

What mystifies me is that politicians continue to create sound bytes in this manner and for this purpose. Is the public really so naive and gullible? Am I missing something here?

Wikipedia has quite a few examples of astroturfing, though the Wiki has itself become a form of AstroTurf to some extent. No matter the issue, power brokers on both sides are shoring up their positions by using the same techniques.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

This Month's Cover Stories

News stand sales for magazines are down about 20% in the past 18 months, which can be directly attributed to the reduced discretionary income we're carrying around in our collective wallets. Nevertheless, these magazines work very hard to keep people flipping through the pages. One way is to carry enticing story ideas on the cover, any one of which might be the hook that pulls a couple more dollars from a pocket or purse.

This July 2009 Popular Science announces that the following stories can be found within its pages.

DR. ROBOTO A Gallery of Amazing Medical Machines

10 SECRETS of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing

POWER PLAN The Future of Energy

HOW TO BUILD A GREEN HOME

EXTRAORDINARY SOLUTIONS FOR A CLEAN-ENERGY CENTURY

ICELAND'S GEOTHERMAL BAILOUT

and at the very bottom of the page, left, in a large black dot: THIS IS A 3-D COVER! Go to POPSCI.COM/IMAGINATION to make it work.

Well, one thing I really like about this cover is that every one of these feature stories has a page number next to it. P. 62, p. 84, p. 39, etc. Don't you hate it when a magazine has a cover announcing all these great features and you search in vain for the actual article inside? Or even worse! They change the name of the article, but supposedly the content is the same but you can't tell without reading every meme of fine print between the covers.

Another observation about this cover... You can tell that the magazine's stance regarding the future is optimistic and upbeat. Technology and science are going to save the world's problems, you can be sure of that. There are no concerns about scientists pushing the earth into a different orbit and destroying all human life as we know it, or accidentally changing weather patterns so to permanently end the Summer Olympics.

Oh, oh. I stopped typing to peek at the story about the 10 things I did not know about Apollo 11, and almost couldn't get back to finishing this. Did you know that the Apollo computers had less processing power than a cell phone? Or that the American flag was made by Sears?

Now I have to decide whether to keep reading or get dressed and go to work. Life is full of hard choices. I think I better slip into something less comfortable.

Make someone smile today... and may the sun keep shining in your eyes.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Car Quotes

"Two wrongs don't make a right, but three lefts do." ~Jason Love

Last night the AMSOIL Street Rodder Road Tour was in town, passing through on the third leg of its eight scheduled week-long road tours for 2009. More than 300 local folks brought their classic cars as well to make it the second annual event at the AMSOIL Center in Superior, Wisconsin.

In honor of the occasion I thought a few car quotes would be in order. Funny thing is that when you look up Hemingway Quotes in Google, you get quotes by Hemingway, and when you look up Quotes Suffering you get proverbial wisdom about suffering. But when you type in Car Quotes, you get pages of sites dedicated to pricing your ride, or someone else's vehicle. It takes a little more work to pull up quotes about cars.

Nevertheless, I achieved my aim and thought a few of these worth sharing.

"The best car safety device is a rear-view mirror with a cop in it." ~Dudley Moore

"Never drive faster than your guardian angel can fly." ~Author Unknown

"Car sickness is the feeling you get when the monthly payment is due." ~Author Unknown

"The shortest distance between two points is under construction." ~Noelie Altito

"I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered." ~George Best

"When buying a used car, punch the buttons on the radio. If all the stations are rock and roll, there's a good chance the transmission is shot." ~Larry Lujack

"In less enlightened times, the best way to impress women was to own a hot car. But women wised up and realized it was better to buy their own hot cars so they wouldn't have to ride around with jerks." ~Scott Adams

"The best way to keep children at home is to make the home atmosphere pleasant, and let the air out of the tires." ~Dorothy Parker

Enjoy your day, and and joy your ride.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Unnecessary War

I've begun reading a fascinating book by Patrick Buchanan called Churchill, Hitler and "the Unnecessary War". Its theme, spelled out in the subtitle, is how Britain lost its empire and the West lost the world.

Buchanan's thesis is that World War I was a total fiasco caused by poor judgment by Britain's leaders in general and Winston Churchill in particular.

On the threshold of the 20th century, Britain's empire was at its peak in influence and power. Who could have foreseen that the Britain could stumble so badly so as to become a shell of its former self. Who could have predicted the devastation in Europe wrought by two global wars, and the horrors wrought by Hitler and Stalin?

I am reminded of the venerated Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy's hero/general in its time of greatest need. For a hundred years Lee was on the receiving end of much adulation. He was a "great man." But, he was also flawed like many, and did not always make wise decisions. In the past thirty years or so Lee's life and leadership have been re-examined. The critics are finally having their say.

So with Churchill, it appears. A great statesman or a blundering bulldog?

I enter the book with a certain level of background about Pat Buchanan, a Nixon insider and speech writer who coined the phrase "the Silent Majority." As part of the Nixon "dirty tricks brigade" Buchanan's rap sheet carries baggage that might cause some to dismiss him outright. His foreign policy stance has resulted in him being labelled an isolationist. But there's some substance behind this stance or attitude that may be worth a deeper examination. For this reason I believe his arguments are worth a hearing.

One of the themes of the Viet Nam War era protesters was, "Who appointed America to be the policeman of the world?" Buchanan's position these past many years has been identical. In the preface to this book he castigates the 78 days of bombing which we inflicted on Kosovo as well as the military incursion into Iraq. The war with Iraq may have been a cakewalk at the start, but the mess afterwards is a very serious problem which will continue to have consequences. Buchanan states that we may be witnessing first hand the irreversible decline of the West.

This book shows the destructive power of certain mindsets. Entangling alliances and foreign military adventurism created that first Great War and, according to Buchanan, the vengefulness of the Treaty of Versailles is what catapulted Hitler to power in the 20s. WWI thus gave birth to WWII... and consequently much suffering.

In one of his previous books, Buchanan chastened America's leadership for following the same paths. “(T)oday, America's leaders are reenacting every folly that brought these great powers [Russia, Germany, and Japan] to ruin -- from arrogance and hubris, to assertions of global hegemony, to imperial overstretch, to trumpeting new 'crusades,' to handing out war guarantees to regions and countries where Americans have never fought before. We are piling up the kind of commitments that produced the greatest disasters of the twentieth century." Pat Buchanan, A Republic, Not an Empire

Is Buchanan being alarmist? True, Buchanan has been controversial during the course of his very public political career. And having not yet waded too deeply into this volume, I can't say where I will line up with all his assessments. One thing is certain, if I may paraphrase Robert Burns: Man's inhumanity to man has made countless millions mourn.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

East and West

Somewhat busy today. We finally have a hot one. Summertime's here and it does create a pair of feelings. First, the desire to get things done outside because it's a weekend, and the weather is nice rather than crappy. Simultaneously, it makes one wish to just kick back and take it easy. So, what's a fella to do?

This month's Wired magazine has an extensive article about Facebook's battle to dominate Google. Personally, I'm tired of Facebook. It's interesting, however, that no company can rest on its laurels, and Google is no exception. The same can be said for countries, I suppose. All the great empires have come and gone and we're kidding ourselves if we think our nation is going to be the exception.

But I'm talking Facebook and Google here, so I'll try to stay on task. In 1996 I wrote an article about search engines in my Screen Net column for Screen Graphics magazine. I listed 25 search engines and described how they were different. Google did not even exist yet, its birth date arriving in 1998.

According to Wired, Facebook has a four step plan for online domination.

1) Build critical mass by creating a cybernation within cyberspace. (In the past eight months their membership has grown from 100 million to 200 million.)

2) Redefine search. In the Facebook worldview, people will look to their friends for information rather than Google's algorithms.

3) Colonize the Web... utilizing thousands of partner sites or apps which somehow become part of the Facebook realm.

4) Sell ads everywhere, utilizing everyone's personal data so that advertising can be targeted with pinpoint relevancy.

The rest of the story is how a new Berlin Wall will be built to keep Google out. My personal opinion? Why can't we all just get along?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Bananas

Woody Allen's films have always been distinctive. His early films reveal a clever eccentric whose unexpected juxtapositions make it impossible not to laugh. In his 1971 film Bananas, the early scene with Howard Cosell announcing a presidential assassination in a Latin American banana republic, as if it were an Ali fight, is so over the top... it works. I'm smiling as I write this because it's still hilarious as I replay it in my mind.

There are, of course, many memorable scenes with favorites including the courtroom spoofs and the guerillas in training. But this blog note wants to draw attention to an unforgettable scene late in the film where the revolutionaries have overthrown the arbitrary rule of the dictators and now have all the peoples lined up to announce the new rules. One of these new rules is the requirement that everyone must regularly change their underwear. "To enforce this rule everyone will be required to wear their underwear on the outside."

So it was with great amusement that I read an Associated Press story last night about a new law passed in Brooksville, Fla.... Workers Must Wear Underwear. Evidently when this story crossed the wire it turned many others' heads as well because a quick Google search shows more than 300 newspaper editors have picked up the account.

I understand dress codes in the work place. But this story underscores the problems that ensue when legislators attempt to turn common sense into laws, regulations or codes. In this instance, city workers are required to use deoderant. How, might we ask, will this be enforced? If you are digging ditches and it's ninety degrees in the shade with 100% humidity, is there a sweat-meter that will measure if you are sufficently schlocked with Right Guard. I can see a great PR campaign here... "Right Guard keeps city employees out of jail with a free Xtreme Clear Power Gel Arctic Refresh."

But that underwear clause is what has me confused. Who will be the enforcer? Will all men have to keep their flies open so we can see that they are properly suited for work?

Apparently Bananas was more relevant than we realized.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Sun Worship and Solar Powered Cars

The Indy 500 it's not, but my guess is that the winners achieve a fair measure of prestige amongst their peers. And isn't that what counts? Danica Patrick is making a lot of money these days, I'm sure, but what she really desires -- and has earned now -- is respect.

It's not a race the Joe Sixpack is eager to see on the Speed channel, but for sheer bottom-line satisfaction, a race by solar-powered vehicles has a certain level of Star Trek aura about it. The fastest car averaged almost 44 miles per hour. I'd be interested in hearing what it sounded like. A golf cart? A hum? Or just wind?

The story unfolded like this:

MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (06/08/2009) — The University of Minnesota Solar Vehicle Project team came away this past weekend with a decisive first-place finish in the 2009 Formula Sun Grand Prix, a closed-track race at MotorSport Ranch in Cresson, Texas.

With its latest solar-powered car, named Centaurus, the team of engineering students from the university’s Institute of Technology completed 487 laps on the 1.7-mile, road-style track (827.9 miles total) throughout the three-day race. This was 94 more laps than the second-place finisher University of Kentucky. Northwestern University placed third. The University of Minnesota team also ran the fastest lap at two minutes and 20 seconds. Eleven solar car teams from across the country participated in the event this year.

“The team did a great job, helped others and pulled off a very clean race,” said Adem Rudin, the student crew chief of the University of Minnesota Solar Vehicle Project team. This is the second consecutive Formula Sun Grand Prix victory for the University of Minnesota team. The race was last held in 2005 at the Heartland Park Raceway in Topeka, Kan., where the University of Minnesota solar car Borealis III took first place.

If you would like to support the team and its solar power research, here are some contacts that would love to hear from you.

Notice that they had the event in Texas. Odds are that Duluth MN was not a consideration. For back pocket trivia, did you know that Duluth has more overcast weather than London? I always thought London was synonymous with fog and dark, damp weather.
A theme song for Duluthians on a typical day: Waiting for the Sun. The lyrics go something like this. "Waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting..."

While we're thinking of suns and solar energy, here's the opening poem from a chapbook titled Helping the Sun Grow, by Elizabeth Sandy.

An Incipient Sun Worshiper
In the morning I look to the east,
To the pearly, luminescent glow,
And, like an ancient priest
I try to help the sun to grow.
"A warm day, a fair day," I softly cry.
And nature helps me as I strive.
Everything seems so timid and shy,
But warm, soft, pulsing and alive.
Then dark fog and uncertainty is dispersed
As Sun goes swinging gloriously high --
The underworld once more is cursed --
Our God giving light and warmth to the sky.
How easy to worship the wonderful sun,
If your mind is so unscientific.
So let's drift back five thousand years
And our days will all be terrific.


If you don't have sunshine today.... make your own! And share it brightly.
e.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

15 Random Thoughts

A short list of topics off the top of my head on Wednesday, June 17.

1. Interesting that Twitter postponed its maintenance in order to keep communication channels open for Iran protesters.

2. What will be the net-net of the apparently stolen Iranian elections?

3. Friends of ours were in Iran as missionaries when Khomeini overthrew the Shah. They sold their house and their possessions and exchanged all they owned for 3 Persian rugs and a gold belt which she wore out of the country as they escaped by night through Turkey.

4. When Susie and I lived in Mexico for a year we visited an orphanage in Cuernavaca which was very near to where the Shah of Iran owned an estate. The world's richest lived on this street that we had to walk past in order to get to the orphanage, which was in a poor area a stone's throw away. Richard Nixon had a place next door to the Shah, or a few estates down. They were all gated homes.

5. Cuernavaca is nicknamed The Land of Eternal Spring because of its beautiful year round weather. It is on the south side of the mountain upon which Mexico City sits, but elevated enough to avoid the tropical heat further down the mountainside below.

6. On one occasion, while driving home from Cuernavaca, we took an alternate route to the west and as we climbed an intolerably steep road to the top of the mountain, we found that the car had overheated. We were in the middle of nowhere, so I put the car in neutral and we coasted down the other side of the mountain. There was a small lake (large pond) on that other side and I refilled the radiator with water from this pool.

7. That particular landscape, was like the rolling hills of Wisconsin, lush, green, beautiful... Never saw anything like that in all our other travels south o' the border.

8. I remember a farm there which had made a fence entirely of the hoods of Volkswagen Beetles. They were all different colors, side by side.

9. Many people do not know that in 1863 the French took over Mexico. It was during our Civil War. The U.S. was too pre-occupied to enforce its "Monroe Doctrine."

10. The trigger event for Mexico being taken over was the death of seven or eight French soldiers on the beach at Vera Cruz. France used these lost lives to stimulate war fever. Because their "honor" was besmirched, they sent armies across the ocean and took over the whole country.

11. Maximilian, of Austria, was installed on the throne of Mexico, an ill-fated plan that resulted in his death by firing squad a few years afterwards.

12. Imagine that.

13. Last night I measured and priced out more than eighty paintings and drawings for an art show I am considering in July at The Venue.

14. Drudge Report must be on the ascendancy because it is in the Top 20 searches today on Yahoo, #12... up from 28.

15. Six Flags is bankrupt. Makes me curious about the theme park business in general. What happens to the rides when people no longer want to pay to play?

Well, it's time to start my day. Make sure you make the most of yours.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

My Best Friend’s Funeral

A Personal Reflection

September 1968. The night before our first day of school, junior year. I’d been driving around with Joe LaGreca, a friend with a car. We stopped at Frank Capelli’s to laugh and chat and shoot the bull. My last words to Frank, my best friend in the world at that time, were, “See you tomorrow.” He rode off on his bike, we drove off in the car.

The day of the funeral, for which six of his friends had been selected as pall bearers, my mom (bless her heart) said, “Don’t be afraid to cry.” I was too numb inside to hear this sage advice. It was a hard reality we were all dealing with. It wasn’t till 1991, 23 years later, I woke one morning and bawled like a baby. It felt so good to finally get it out.

The trigger event was a boy on a bicycle at dusk the evening beforehand.

That was how Frank had been killed in 1968, hit by a motorist while on his bicycle, 20 minutes after I’d been with him looking forward to the new school year. He’d been with Ian Crosley and Randy Freytag. The three were riding the bikes through an unlit stretch of road to the next neighborhood, and evidently Frank was too far out in the road. The horror of that scene, not only for Randy and Ian but also for the driver, must have been unspeakable as the car came up over a small rise and mauled him with the grill.

The next morning it seemed strange to not see Frank at the start of the day. The strangeness continued through several hours where our shared classes found him absent. At some point I began to hear the rumors that he’d been struck, but no one knew any details. Throughout the afternoon my fears increased and when the school bus dropped me off at school day’s end I bolted home with one aim, to call the hospital.

This was a very difficult moment. I asked if Frank were there, and she said no. I was incredibly relieved and asked when he’d been released. The nurse knew the truth, but was not permitted to tell me. An awkward moment fell over us and then she said, very solemnly, to call the family.

I called the Capellis and when the phone was lifted from the receiver all I could hear was wailing. Whether it was Nancy or her mother I do not know, because both were in a swoon of incomparable anguish. Through incoherent sobs I understood that I should call back later, a gesture that let me know I was still a friend of the family. And why the hospital could not tell me anything more than that "he was not there."

The day of the funeral we were dressed in suits, the six of us, my first time in a Catholic church. The sanctuary was filled, a very large contingent on hand, one of the largest funeral gatherings I have attended from that day to this. Who were all these people? The priest came down the aisle with incense, dressed in vestments like I’d never seen before. We knelt, sat, knelt again… I followed in unison as the others did… all meaningless for me, and I an empty shell. I remember not a word.

Next, we were in a large black limousine, following a train of vehicles to the grave site. It seemed forever and when we arrived the solemn contingent was waiting for us because our vehicle was a little too far from the front. We were hastened to the hearse to lift the casket and place it in the grave.

Like a series of scenes in a strange film or a dream, the next was at a Howard Johnsons. Several adult men in suits ushered us to an ice cream counter. Evidently they sought to soothe us through this kindness because they knew we loved him. They bought us ice cream cones. We sat and ate in silence. No one knew what to say. It was a very strange moment, and the strongest memory I have from my best friend’s funeral.

Monday, June 15, 2009

SHORT STORY MONDAY



Lu Lee & the Magic Cat

"To live into the future means to leap into the unknown."
Rollo May





Once upon a time there was a lonely man named Lu Lee. He was a poor man. He lived in a small one room house by himself, and he was often sad because he had no friends. He had no friends because he was different from other people and he lived in a land where people who are different are often made to feel unwelcome.

One day, as Lu Lee lay dreaming on his bed, he was visited by a Siamese cat, the most beautiful Siamese he had ever seen. The cat had come in through an open window and leaped up onto the bed with him.

As he stroked her silky cinnamon fur, she purred deeply so that Lu Lee closed his eyes and began to dream. He dreamed about the many girls he had loved from afar, and the many ways his heart had been broken because in the end he was different from others and he lived in a country where people who are different are made to feel unwelcome.

When he opened his eyes, he couldn't believe what he saw. A beautiful Oriental girl curled beside him, wrapped in a white towel, his hand gently gliding over the silkiness of her bare shoulder.

"Now this is a very beautiful dream," Lu Lee thought to himself, and he closed his eyes once more as she nestled beside him.

When he opened his eyes again, his hand was stroking the soft fur of the cat, whose dark eyes glistened brightly as she purred.

"Would you like some milk little kitten?" Lu Lee asked.

The cat stood and stretched and seemed to nod.

Lu Lee found a container of milk and a bowl and brought them to the cat. In his excitement, he spilled some of the milk onto the floor.

"Do you have a name?" he asked as the cat lapped up the spilt milk. Then he said, "I'm going to call you Cinnamon." He said this because her silk fur was cinnamon colored, except for her black face.

After that, Cinnamon became Lu Lee's very special friend. For a whole summer, she visited him every single day.

But then one day, Cinnamon failed to appear at his window as she always had each morning leaving Lu Lee's heart broken anew.

"How can it be," Lu Lee said to himself, "that I have so loved this cat who brings me dreams? I am so lonely I could die. If only I were rich, I could buy gifts and I would have many friends. But I have nothing to give. I am just a poor man with nothing."

For many months he did not see the Siamese cat whom he had named Cinnamon. And while he longed with all his heart to see her again, he knew that cats have a mind of their own and must be left free to come and go as they please.

It was a lonely, cold winter for Lu Lee, yet he comforted himself by remembering the magic dreams she had given him.

To Lu Lee's great surprise, when spring came the magical cat returned. He wasn't thinking of her at all when, suddenly, there she was standing silently on his window sill. She looked different to him somehow. Tears of joy moistened his eyes. But there was a different look in Cinnamon's eyes this day. When he stroked her fur, she purred differently than before and when she became the beautiful woman of his dreams, she looked different, too, because she was now heavy with child, her tummy round and full.

Lu Lee said, "What's this?" He was quite astonished.

"This is your child, Lu Lee."

"But how can it be? You are only a dream," he replied.

"Ah, but not really. This is a magic dream, Lu Lee, and I am as real as your are. And so are your children."

"My children!" Lu Lee cried out.

"You will have many children," said the girl.

"But how can that be?" asked Lu Lee.

"You will see." And with these words she became a Siamese cat once more, only this time Lu Lee could see she was quite pregnant.

For half a morning Lu Lee watched the cat as she paced about the room, sticking her nose into every conceivable corner and cranny. At last, she sprawled out upon a thin, frayed cushion and patiently gave birth to seven tiny kittens. Lu Lee leaned over to watch as she nursed her
wriggling, mewing kits, his eyes aglow with amazement and awe.

For several weeks Cinnamon stayed with Lu Lee, nursing her litter, until one night when he returned from a walk the cat was gone, leaving Lu Lee to take care of her seven babies. All that night he lay awake thinking what he should do. He even asked God what he should do, because he did not know what to do.

Now Lu Lee had an old overcoat with big pockets, and when the sun came up he took the seven kittens and placed them in the great pockets of his coat. He had determined that day to find homes for these kittens. He decided he would find seven children who had no fathers and present each with the gift of a kitten. In this way, he believed he should bring a moment of happiness to seven lives in the same way that his magic friend Cinnamon had brought
a moment of happiness to his own lonely life.

As he walked through the town, he was surprised by how many lonely children he found, children who seemed misfit like him. He knew the world was full of fatherless children, but how many he had no idea! As he began giving away his kittens, he soon realized that there were more children than gifts, and he almost began to be sad.

Then a strange thing happened. As Lu Lee was pulling the last kitten from his pocket, he felt something wriggle in his other pocket. "That's funny," he thought, for he was sure he had given away seven kittens. When another small boy with large dark eyes came up to him, he shared a kitten with this boy, too. And as he turned, he felt still more wriggling and felt down inside the pocket to discover yet another lively little furball. For that whole day, his pockets yielded an endless supply of kittens.

Word quickly spread of the miracle of the kittens and of Lu Lee's generosity.

The next day many of the children came to see him, to thank him. (Of course, a few came only to see more miracles or to see what else he might give them, because some people always like to get something for nothing.)

To each one that came, Lu Lee gave a story or a riddle or a game or told a joke. And it seemed there was no end to the stories, riddles and games, and no matter how often the children came, his imagination produced as much good cheer as his pockets had previously yielded kittens.

Lu Lee's happiness was great because he recognized that this was what the magical Cinnamon had meant when she said he would have many children.

In time, Lu Lee became the happiest man in all that country, for all the children who knew him loved him. And he loved them as well. He envisioned himself as father of them all.

When he was very old and full of years, it was said that Lu Lee had thousands of children, for the town had grown to be a big city which over time produced multitudes of children who had no fathers. Nevertheless, Lu Lee managed to find nearly every one, and to each he had given something special which could never be taken.

A few of us were with him the day he left this world for the next. To the end he lived simply in his modest one room house. He had often encouraged us to be dreamers and even on this last day he told us to hold onto our dreams. Yet it wasn't until the last pulses of sunset were being massaged into the horizon that he shared with us the secret of his joy. The room had become so still you could hear the petals closing on the tulips that lined his bedstead, and as day finally yielded to night, Lu Lee whispered, "There is no greater joy than giving." Then, smiling, he breathed his last.

copyright 1994 ed newman

PERMISSION TO REPRINT GRANTED if attribution is cited.

an original story by ed newman

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Few Things You Might Not Have Known About The Flag

Today is Flag Day, June 14, commemorating the adoption of the flag of the United States in 1777. Evidently you can't be a country without a flag, because every nation seems to have one.

The official proclamation that this would be called Flag Day was made by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. Our doughboys were heading off to war on foreign soil and our flag would fly with them. It wasn't until after WWII that the U.S. Congress voted to establish it as a National Flag Day. Ironically, Pennsylvania is the only state to officially celebrate it as a holiday. Perhaps because that Second Continental Congress in 1777 met in Philadelphia?

Here are a few details about our U.S. flag that some might not know.

~ The first time our flag flew over foreign soil was in what country? Libya, over Fort Deme on the shores of Tripoli. (And now you know where that line from the U.S. Marines hymn came from.) But when was this and why? It was 1803. The Barbary Coast pirates had been perpetually interfering with shipping routes and the U.S. decided to do something about it. In fact, it was because of these pirates that George Washington created the U.S. Navy in 1794. North Africa was under the control of Ottoman Turks, but with the aid of Croatian fighters (probably from Venice), 8 U.S. marines took the fort and flew the flag to ensure afe commerce on the high seas.

~ Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner on the back of an envelope. Where did the tune come from? Actually, the music came from an English drinking song called "To Anacreon in Heaven."

~A vexillologist is an expert in the history of flags. Something I am not, though with the help of Google you can probably become an expert in anything.

~ The first 50-star American flag was raised over Fort McHenry near Baltimore in 1960, where Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner.

~ The reason the first flag had all the stars in a circle was so that no one "state" would be above another.

~ In 2004 Cornell University researchers etched the world's smallest full color American flag onto a silicon chip. The Bush administration was seeking to implant these chips into all natural born U.S. citizens. (That last sentence was a joke to see if you're still reading. ;-)

Today is my father-in-law's 90th birthday, a somewhat momentous milestone. It's true that many people are living longer these days, but I know few at his age who are still so active. As a veteran soldier from what many are calling "The Greatest Generation" he saw many of his friends killed during the war. He still mows our lawn, keeps a large garden, digs ditches, and loves to drive, a habit which he picked up during the war as a company agent, carrying messages to and from the front, and site seeing in that beautiful Italian countryside.

The images on the page today are from the National World War Two Memorial in Washington, D.C. It is a very special memorial, a good place to reflect on the price of freedom. The soldiers from each state our acknowledged here as well as the theaters in which they served. Be sure to click on each image to enlarge. Thank you, Bud, and to all who sacrificed so much.

This bottom photo depicts the major campaigns which were fought in Southern Europe, all of which are depicted in day-to-day first hand detail in Bud Wagner's diaries and memoir And There Shall Be Wars. For information about Bud's WWII memoirs visit Savage Press at SavPress.com.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

From Italy With Love

There are more than six billion people in the world. Each person's life is a collection of stories. What's fascinating is how these stories intersect, diverge and re-connect.

Followers of this blog have been no doubt aware of the ongoing story unfolding here. My father-in-law, who served more than 3 and a half years in the army during WWII wrote a book ten years ago called And There Shall Be Wars. Tomorrow he will be 90, a milestone for sure. He served in North Africa and Italy where his Red Bull 34th division scrapped and slogged for every inch, pushing back the Nazis from 1943 till the war's end.

In April 1945 Cpl. Wagner and the 34th were in Milan when Benito Mussolini and his mistress were slain, their bodies hung upside down and stoned by the peoples. Wagner was within a mile and could have gone to witness this historic event, but it did not suit him. He had already seen enough violence. But of this day he wrote it was one he would not forget. The roads were lined with Italians all waving and cheering.There many in Italy who remember that day.

What's also fascinating to me is how the sharing of Bud's book with my own family lead to my discovering that one of my uncles had been at Normandy on D-Day and another great uncle had been wounded by shrapnel at the Battle of the Bulge. Now we have had the privilege of sharing some of Bud's stories in Italy. This week a new magazine is going to print about the history of Northern Italy. Mario, our new friend over there, helped with its formation. In the process, I think they've all fallen in love with the story teller from Minnesota, Wilmer A. "Bud" Wagner.

Here is an email I received this morning from Mario followed by a YouTube video Birthday Greeting to Bud. Two of the people in this little video remember when the Americans were there in Racconigi. Bud remembers these days in Italy with fondness.

Thank you Ed! Today is Saturday: generally, a busy day for me. Well: busy is not the right world, it's better say: full of strange events, very "normal" in this old-odd country inside old Europe. I just arrived from a small city not far from here (Cherasco) where I was invited to attend the presentation of a Cycling Team (all babies under 10) going to attend the Italian Junior Championship next week. Now I'm leaving, to attend the inauguration of a new Restaurant in an ex aristocratic estate here (!!!). But tomorrow is Sunday!!! And the very important fact is that our magazine will be printed beginning from Thursday.

Our young art director (Pier) is very interested in fine arts and graphics; he already knows your blog! Good idea, a show in Italy! We only need to begin breathing again!

Carla is 83! A very active woman, a very, very good friend. She is helping us gather people to collect memoirs. Beppe is 84: at 18 he became a partisan! And one thing I forgot to tell while introducing him, is that he is our former mayor (the "first citizen", as we used to say).
When I was in Cherasco two hours ago, I had a touching meeting with a man (about 69, but he looks 50) who was one of my neighbours when I was young. I told him about Bud; he started telling me of his father, who was in the Army in Sardinia at the end of the war; he was some months old when his father had to join the Army so he only knew him as a face on a photo; in 1945, his mother was informed that maybe his husband was dead. When Bud was in Racconigi, the young boy used to reach the railway station every evening, 'cause the only one train arriving from Torino was full of soldiers coming home from all sorts of places. One evening his father arrived and had such a long beard, was so thin and bad looking, that he didn't recognize him. He had reached Naples on an English ship, and had walked (!) from Naples to Turin: look at a map, Ed!

This is the very meaning of "discovering" Bud: there are so many people here, who are astonished in listening to his story. He has opened a sort of "Pandora vase" of memoirs and feelings, that had never been told or written. I've so many stories to tell you!

"Domani è un altro giorno": tomorrow is another day. Bud will be "officially" 90: tell him we are all with you in Minnesota. Ciao, Mario

Thank you Mario, Beppe, Pier, Carla... each of you and all of you.


Friday, June 12, 2009

Lincoln's Farewell to Springfield

Two weeks ago I posted an interview with Ann Tracy Mueller (a.k.a. Lincoln Buff 2 on Twitter) whose blogspot is, to me, an impressive achievement dedicated to Lincoln's life, speeches and memory. During that interview I asked which Lincoln speech was her favorite, and why. This was her reply.

"Lincoln has so many great speeches, but I have to say that his farewell speech to Springfield is my most favorite. It shows such a strong sense of place, an appreciation for the people who nurtured, inspired and supported him, and a depth of emotion that touches hearts still today."

I've been working on a new Lincoln portrait the past couple weeks (above) and thought this Springfield Farewell speech a suitable accompaniment. We see here a very human prescient man driven not by grasping ambition but by a desire to serve the people he loved.

Currently I have begun reading again Nothing Like It In The World by Stephen Ambrose. It could be argued that the two most significant achievements of the 19th century in this country were the building of the transcontinental railroad and the maintaining of the Union, despite its disparity of philosophies, economic structures and belief systems. Most recognize Lincoln's role in the latter of these. Despite a bloody Civil War, the divided house did not fall. Most do not realize he played a pivotal role in the other achievement, a strong proponent of the railroads.

Early in his career as a lawyer he fought to defend the right of a railroad to build a bridge across a river. It's comical to think that this legal battle went all the way to the Supreme Court. That is, what if riverboats had always gotten the right of way and bridges were outlawed as dangerous because a boat might hit it?

In the 1830's Lincoln met a man named Dodge who would be instrumental in the implementation of this vision. Dodge knew all the routes from East to West better than any man, and Lincoln later found him ... but wait, I am getting ahead of myself. Let's just sit back and enjoy the speech, Lincoln's farewell.

My friends, no one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of the Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him who can go with me, and remain with you, and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.

If you're a Lincoln buff yourself, or just want to plug in to some good historical writing that is both satisfying and illuminating, check out the Lincoln Buff 2 blogspot.
EdNote: As always, to appreciate paintings best, please click to enlarge.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Twitter Stats: How Do You Measure Up?

It's self-evident that if you actually have a real life you can't possibly live in all these virtual networks simultaneously, though there are some who have been making a pretty good effort of it. Yesterday I read an article about as woman who killed a motorcyclist because she was doing her nails while driving her car. I'm sure that it won't be long before we have a similar incident with a Tweeter. "Heading to BB to pick up // OMG / just hit a motorcycle" from Twitterberry

In the Web 2.0 world, Twitter has been the hot topic this past six months or more. Do you Tweet?

HubSpot, an Internet marketing firm, did a study of Twitter users to see who we were.


- 55 percent have never posted a message, or tweet
- 56 percent aren't following anyone
- 53 percent have no followers

Supposedly these are surprising numbers. But heck, it's what I've said about the CB Radio craze. Some folks just jump in to see what the buzz is all about. And either (a) they don't stick around to "get it" or (b) it wasn't for them in the first place.

Fads come and go. The difference between eating goldfish and Twitter is that swallowing goldfish serves no real purpose. (It could be argued that "Carrying my laundry downstairs" from Twitterfeed serves no purpose, too.)

Here are a few other stats from the article so that you can see how you stack up against the rest of us.
- Average number of tweets per day: 1
- Average number of posts (total) per user: 119

I myself enjoy the randomness of the quotes. A lot of upbeat people, interesting quotes and links shared, etc. I also like that it takes less time than Facebook... easy in and easy out. If you are not part of the Twitter scene, don't feel bad about it. You really can't be everywhere.

But... if you wish to follow me on Twitter, I'm right here. Though my next note might be from the Twilight Zone.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Little Red-Haired Girl

Due to dense cloud cover I had trouble with my satellite internet connection this a.m. Is this what they mean by "cloud computing"? I doubt it.

Few there are who've never read the comics in a Sunday newspaper. And fewer still who have never seen the Charles Schultz classic Peanuts. For some it is a "fix" and for others a habit.

Schultz created more than 18,000 strips and Charlie Brown even made it to television.

Most of us know the main characters, with Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus and Snoopy being the head of that pack. What's interesting is that we not only know all these characters -- and some really are characters -- but that we've even gotten to know those characters who are not ever seen in the strip. A short list of these would have to include the Great Pumpkin, Red Baron and the Little Red-Haired Girl.

Over the years much has been made about who these characters are. That is, what are the meanings these characters symbolize. Whole books have been written about this, though like other great art, maybe all this defining goes far beyond what Charles Schultz envisioned. But art allows for this. The non-specificity lets readers take it into their own spheres.

Is the Great Pumpkin a myth like Santa Claus? A benevolent hope founded on wishful thinking? Or can it be a reference to something more, something senses beyond the senses?

The Little Red-Haired Girl whom we never see is... well, we all know who she is. Like the other symbols, she may have a different name, but we remember her. How could we forget that unrequited longing? Who hasn't been in Charlie Brown's shoes, noticing her but not knowing what to say. The moment comes, it goes, is gone. Anything touched by her, or remotely associated with her, becomes sacred. On one occasion he finds her pencil dropped in the hall. The little teeth marks are a reminder that this is no ordinary pencil.

According to Wikipedia, she first appeared in 1961 in a lunch room scene. We never saw her, but we know she was special because Charlie Brown said, "I'd give anything in the world if that little girl with the red hair would come over and sit with me." We've probably all been there at one time or another.

I guess the Little Red-Haired Girl came mind because of convergence of sorts. When I read Eric Clapton's autobiography a couple weeks ago I learned that his album Derek & the Dominoes was written entirely as an ode to Patty Boyd, George Harrison's wife. He invited her over to hear the album before its release. She rejected his overtures, but the album is a great one, conveying much of Charlie Brown's unreserved, tragicomic stoicism.

Layla was one of the great songs on the album. This link takes you to the lyrics of Bell Bottom Blues, Clapton's Ode to Patty Boyd. To her credit, she remained with George. He wasn't ready for a mature relationship yet.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

One More Thing To Worry About

"My definition of an expert in any field is a person who knows enough about what's really going on to be scared." ~ P. J. Plauger

In late May North Korea tested a nuclear device.

A May 31 story by Time journalist Robert Baer began, "It's not what we know about rogue states and their nuclear bombs that should scare us — it's what we don't know. North Korea's test of a nuclear device on Monday may not have come as a surprise to Washington, but only in the sense that Washington knew Pyongyang was defiant enough to set one off. Beyond that, truth be told, Washington is completely in the dark about North Korea's intentions. It can only expect the worse and hope for the better."

Then there's the nuclear activity in Iran. In recent speeches President Obama has defended the right of Iran to have nuclear power, despite fears in some camps that they are simultaneously developing nuclear weapons. Some paint this picture with very dark pigments as if it were something new, but remember that it was the U.S. that helped the Shah develop nuclear power during its "Atoms For Peace" program in the 1950's. This was long before the Ayatollah threw out the Western blasphemers during the Carter era.

I do not know what to think about the North Korea news. The news that did scare me last week was that the Taliban army was approaching Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. It's hard, from this distance to know what these news accounts mean. Pakistan's President, Mr Asif Ali Zardari states that it is a real threat only if the West does not help Pakistan keep democracy stable over there.*

In other words, send money. Are we being extorted? Is this a bribe? "Help our country and you will be able to sleep better at night." That's what it sounds like to me.

Then there are those Pakistanis who are still bitter that they lost their three wars with India. Most Americans don't even remember those wars because two (1965 and 1971) were during our own Viet Nam distraction. Today both nations are armed with nukes. And with the Taliban army apparently eyeballing the Pakistan arsenal, there really might be something here to worry about.

For now, I have plenty of other things on my plate, and there's nothing I can do about it anyways. It kind of makes you wonder how many other threats there are out there that we don't have a clue about.

* "Nukes could fall into hands of Taliban if democracy fails" HinduTimes Online

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Bet

SHORT STORY MONDAY

"Don't tell me the moon was shining; show me the glint of light on the broken glass." ~Anton Chekhov

This week, instead of sharing more of my own fiction, I wanted to introduce you to one of my own favorite short story writers. One of the great writers of all time, especially noted for his plays, was the short story writer Anton Chekhov. In addition to being a master wordsmith, he was a keen observer of the daily drama of being human. Hence his stories overflow with insight, pathos and the comic.

Chekhov made his living as a doctor, so I can't figure out how he could have been so prolific, producing countless volumes of short stories, in addition to the several major plays, all which must have been enormously time consuming to rehearse and produce. He died at age 44.

I myself went through a "Chekhov period" in which I sought to put my hands on as many volumes of stories as I could find. I remember laughing out loud at some of these.

For the record, literary critics mark him as one of the most significant writers of the 19th century, and certainly on the "top ten" of any list of short story writers.

This story, The Bet, is one of my all time personal favorites. I have often said that if I ever assembled an anthology of short stories, this would be included in that book.

The Bet
It was a dark autumn night. The old banker was walking up and down his study and remembering how, fifteen years before, he had given a party one autumn evening. There had been many clever men there, and there had been interesting conversations. Among other things they had talked of capital punishment. The majority of the guests, among whom were many journalists and intellectual men, disapproved of the death penalty. They considered that form of punishment out of date, immoral, and unsuitable for Christian States. In the opinion of some of them the death penalty ought to be replaced everywhere by imprisonment for life. "I don't agree with you," said their host the banker. "I have not tried either the death penalty or imprisonment for life, but if one may judge a priori, the death penalty is more moral and more humane than imprisonment for life. Capital punishment kills a man at once, but lifelong imprisonment kills him slowly. Which executioner is the more humane, he who kills you in a few minutes or he who drags the life out of you in the course of many years?"

"Both are equally immoral," observed one of the guests, "for they both have the same object - to take away life. The State is not God. It has not the right to take away what it cannot restore when it wants to."

Among the guests was a young lawyer, a young man of five-and-twenty. When he was asked his opinion, he said: "The death sentence and the life sentence are equally immoral, but if I had to choose between the death penalty and imprisonment for life, I would certainly choose the second. To live anyhow is better than not at all."

A lively discussion arose. The banker, who was younger and more nervous in those days, was suddenly carried away by excitement; he struck the table with his fist and shouted at the young man: "It's not true! I'll bet you two million you wouldn't stay in solitary confinement for five years."

"If you mean that in earnest," said the young man, "I'll take the bet, but I would stay not five but fifteen years."

"Fifteen? Done!" cried the banker. "Gentlemen, I stake two million!"

"Agreed! You stake your millions and I stake my freedom!" said the young man.

I urge you to finish the story here. It's a quick read with a wonderful payoff.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

An Inexpensive Car That Gets 50 MPG

“Question the unquestionable.” ~ Ratan Tata

One of my biggest complaints with the direction the U.S. auto industry has gone these past many decades is that they just don’t seem focused on one thing that really matters to a lot of people: reduced cost. Not only are the cars expensive, but they are enormously expensive to fix. Poor people can’t even afford the insurance, let alone the car payments.

The new initiatives to produce vehicles which have a lesser environmental impact (environmental cost) still don't address this consumer need. It appears to be a basic assumption that people ought to be willing to shell out more for greener vehicles, as if the two goals are mutually exclusive.

It frustrates me to hear about a proposed battery powered car that requires a $6,000 replacement battery at 60,000 miles. This is just too outrageous. Of course when the executives who make auto manufacturing decision get multi-million dollar bonuses, it’s no small wonder they are out of touch with what the average Wal-Mart employee can afford.

That is why Ratan Tata’s dream was such a breath of fresh air. If you think poor Americans have a hard time being able to afford a car, think about what poor Chinese or Indians or Egyptians can afford. So it was that Ratan Tata in 2003 declared he would build a car for the masses. For this 2008 achievement, Time magazine made Tata one the Top 100 men of the year.

Ratan Tata’s dream, a small car for the teeming millions, has been unveiled. Tata Motors wheeled out the world's cheapest car, priced at 100,000 rupees (2,500 dollars).

A two cylinder 623 cc, 33 horsepower rear mounted, all aluminum, multi-point fuel injection petrol engine can power the car to top speeds of 105 kilometres per hour (65 miles per hour).

The snub-nosed car keeps in the tradition of the Fiat 500, Nissan Micra and the Smart with 3.1 metres (10.23 feet) long, 1.5 metres wide and 1.6 metres high. Tata Nano can seat four to five people and still give you a fuel efficiency of somewhere close to 20 kilometres per litre, or 50 miles per gallon.

Tata Nano Exceeds Indian regulatory requirements on pollution and can meet strict Euro IV emission standards. In terms of overall pollutants, Tata says the car is better than two-wheelers manufactured in India currently.

Tata Nano also exceeds current regulatory requirements with a strong passenger compartment, crumple zones, intrusion resistant doors, seat belts, strong seats and anchorage.
Story source here

This latter requirement, that the car be safe in addition to low cost/high mpg, is the real feature, since it really is possible to improve miles per gallon by removing the car's body altogether. Not very practical. As E.F. Schumacher noted, small really can be beautiful.

According to one mechanic I recently spoke with, Detroit automakers have dug in their heels against foreign imports like the Nano and China's Chery, a $5,000 car which also gets 50 miles to the gallon. He said politics has been the barrier to inexpensive cars in America. We've been pushed by power brokers, not possibility thinkers, into the position we're in.

The cover story of this month's Wired magazine details changes that are needed in Detroit in order for the next generation of automobiles to get traction. The top down "control" mindset stifles competition and creative solutions for many of the problems automakers have made for themselves. You can read Charles C. Mann’s piece, “Beyond Detroit: On the Road to Recovery, Let the Little Guys Drive,” here.

Much more can be said, but for now there's plenty here to chew on.