Monday, December 27, 2010

Dateline Beverly Hills

Biggest Story in 2010? The Gulf Oil Spill. That was big. But the second biggest story was this one.

Dateline Beverly Hills, California, July 29, 2010. This just in:

Bowing to public pressures and the call to action by irate California officials, the Board of the Beverly Hills-headquartered Campett Corp has just announced that Jed will be replaced as head of the Clampett clan effective immediately. Multi-millionaire Jed and the OK Oil Company he leads have been under fire from many fronts since it came to light that his reckless marksmanship back in Tennessee caused an uncontrolled and unprecedented oil spill there.

“What it was, was an unmitigated unnatural disaster for residents, wildlife and our town’s fragile tourist economy,” claims the Mayor of Gooberville, Will Chasen. "We done ran Jed and his kind right out of town here because of those reckless actions – I don’t know where the cussed varmint fled to, to tell you the truth,” mused the Mayor. The Federal agency that issued the huntin’ license to Clampett and his oil company could not be reached for comment at the time of the incident, or anytime thereafter. Officials have since renamed that government division the “Black Gold Ladies Aid Society” in an attempt to revamp its image with the public.

Reportedly, the Clampett Board will be meeting tomorrow to select a new clan leader and that the Board is hungry for new blood from the outside to help re-polish the tarnished Clampett brand. Sources indicate that among the individuals under serious consideration are Tony Blair and Tony Hayward from “away,” or possibly Beverly Hills' own Tony Awards. The family spokesperson would neither confirm nor deny those rumors.
Related story: Interview here with Gooberville resident Skeeter McCoy who lost his squirrel farming business because of the Clampett disaster and hasn’t worked a day since.

Christmas Spirits

While shaving and dressing on Christmas Eve morning, the radio was broadcasting some dramatic readings excerpted from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Thinking of Ebenezer and his business partner Jacob Marley, I mused that my wife and I had our own three spirits of Christmas visit us this year.

Christmas Past. December 23rd marked the 44th anniversary of my wife and I meeting for the first time. It was while Christmas caroling with a church group in Needham, Massachusetts when were both in high school. The Methodist church in town held a street caroling event, maybe annually, I’m not really sure. This was not my family’s church but a number of my friends attended. One of those friends, Chris Ryder, asked if I wanted to accompany him to a Christmas party one coming evening. A girl from his church invited him and did not mind if he brought along some friends. But the catch was we had to attend the caroling event that preceded the party at her house – just showing up at the party would have been tacky (What class my friend Chris had! He could separate tacky behavior from “we’re just dumb teens”). So we committed to the caroling and caught up to the crowd of adults, teens and kids in front of the Needham Fire Station. There was a wider group of friends from the church there and one introduced me to my future spouse that evening, on the sidewalk, under a dark and crisp sky, in the midst of Methodists’ caroling.

Christmas Present. We’ve been without a formal church home for sometime – about two years I calculate. When the gas prices shot up in mid 2008 the church we had been attending several towns and 45 minutes away just didn’t seem like the right home for us any longer. Because we were not part of that geographic community, it was difficult to connect with folks at times other than Sunday mornings. For those of you who know New England, finding a suitable church can be easier said than done. Plus, we were a bit burned out from past church involvement and just welcomed an opportunity to be attendees for a while instead of roll-up-your-shirtsleeves members. So we’ve “visited” a number of churches within a closer radius to our home. One church we attended on a Sunday last Spring didn’t seem like a good fit for us at the time; but we gave it a second chance before Thanksgiving and after several Sundays it’s beginning to feels more like a fit. We’re certainly happy that we have regained an enthusiasm to get up each Sunday morning and attend church. It has been a real blessing, and especially nice during this Advent season.

Christmas Future.  In August of 2010 we were blessed with a grandson from our youngest daughter and her husband.  Our first grandchild, so naturally these new grandparents can’t help thinking about new life and specifically of Caleb’s future.  Just anticipating next Christmas and seeing it through a young child’s joy keeps us wondering out loud.      

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve

I’m reading Primal – A Quest for the Lost Soul of Christianity by Mark Batterson. Some of his reflections that seem appropriate to me on Christmas Eve:

“I’m afraid we’ve lost our holy curiosity. We’ve settled for thoughtless theologies and mindless theologies. Why? Because it’s much easier to give answers than it is to ask questions. But Jesus didn’t just give answers. Have you ever noticed how often Jesus answered a question with a question? It seems to me we’re afraid of questions. We’re afraid of asking them, and we’re afraid of answering them.

The quest for the lost soul of Christianity is a quest driven by questions. Any question. Every question. But especially those most difficult and most important questions: Who is God? Who am I? And what is the true purpose of life? Holy curiosity isn’t satisfied with easy answers. It doesn’t settle for the platitudes we’ve picked up along the way. Holy curiosity asks the tough questions, the honest questions, the questions everyone else is afraid to ask. God isn’t threatened by those questions.

Maybe it’s time to admit that we don’t know all the answers. But we know the One who does. Maybe we’ve been offering the wrong thing. We offer answers. God offers a relationship through Jesus Christ. His answer to our question isn’t knowledge. It’s a relationship. And that relationship is the answer to every question.”

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Charlie Brown Triumph

A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired in December 1965. Commissioned by Coca-Cola, Charles Schulz and the production company finished the show just barely one week before the broadcast date. When it was pre-screened by two top executives at CBS they were underwhelmed at the final product. “Well, you gave it a good shot,” said one. “It seems a little flat…a little slow,” said the other. “Well,” said the first, “we will, of course, air it next week, but I’m afraid we won’t be ordering any more.”

The rest, as they say, is history as the special knocked the socks off a pre-Woodstock, pre-Superbowl America and has aired on TV every Christmas since 1965. Even though we have the special on VHS and DVD at my house, my tradition is to try to watch it “live” every Christmas season. I’ve been known to watch it by myself in a hotel room in some far-flung city while I was traveling in December on business. There is something different about the “live experience.”

I feel sorry for those who think of Schulz’s animated classic as only a “cartoon.” In the Newark Star Ledger on December 1, 1995, columnist Matt Zoller Seitz hit the target when he wrote:

“Television today favors fast, frequent, exaggerated bursts of action and confrontation. In comparison, A Charlie Brown Christmas is almost unnervingly reflective, dependent on words, emotions and small grace notes rather than speed, glitz and noise.

Charlie Brown… is America’s most-beloved loser, forever falling short of his goals, endlessly stung by failure. Yet he keeps striving in his own mopey, block-headed way, to become a better person and to make the rest of us better, too.

In the process, he gives his friends, his dog, himself and us an invaluable Christmas gift: the gift of introspection. As we watch the Peanuts gang singing songs around a little tree nobody wanted, we realize that unless we’re willing to look inward, to recognize our own selfishness and conquer it, we remain incapable of bringing lasting happiness to others. We remain boxed inside our own preconceptions like beautiful unwrapped presents.”

And regarding the highlight of the classic special, a scene Charles Schulz insisted be kept in the production, Gene Edward Veith wrote a number of years ago:

A Charlie Brown Christmas deals precisely with the misunderstandings of Christmas—the commercialism, the frustrations, the frenetic efforts to attain a perfect holiday. But the story is resolved when Linus on the stage simply recites the account of Christ's birth from the second chapter of Luke. ‘For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.’ That is the best moment in Christmas TV.”

Amen to that.

Let It Snow

Lots of weather-related travel disruptions across Europe this holiday season. I feel bad for those stuck in airports trying to get somewhere for Christmas. So it’s not a funny situation by any means, but then there’s this gem buried in an article on Yahoo! News:

"I am extremely concerned about the level of disruption to travel across Europe caused by severe snow. It is unacceptable and should not happen again," European transport commissioner Siim Kallas said.

Hear that snow gods? You’ve been forewarned by a European official no less!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

In Praise of Alvin

No, we’re not talking about the animated musical group, Alvin and the Chipmunks created by Ross Bagdasarian (stage name David Seville) in 1958. A classic novelty record act, the Chipmunks themselves were named after the executives at their original record label. But hey, I digress (you distracted me, didn’t you?).

Alvin is a 16-ton, manned deep-ocean research submersible owned by the United States Navy and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). The submersible was named to honor the prime mover and creative inspiration for the project, Allyn Vine, a scientist at WHOI. Alvin was put into service in mid 1964 (5 months after the Beatles stormed the Ed Sullivan show and 5 years before man walked on the moon). This was a time when French oceanographer and SCUBA inventor Jacques Cousteau was all over our black & white TV sets showing us how to explore our watery planet. The oceans were spoken of as man’s salvation for their mineral wealth, aquaculture potential and maybe future human habitats. High School guidance counselors assumed that a large percent of their graduating classes would be employed in some facet of ocean-related careers. As it turned out, not-so-much.

But Alvin has had a stellar run and this month will be sidelined for 18 months of refurbishing – not its first make-over in its long career. The three-person vessel allows for two scientists and one pilot to dive for up to nine hours at 15,000 ft. The submersible features two robotic arms and can be fitted with mission-specific sampling and experimental gear. Alvin has taken 12,000 people on over 4,000 dives to observe the life forms that must cope with super-pressures and move about in total darkness. Some claim that research conducted by Alvin has been featured in nearly 2,000 scientific papers. Talk about publish-or-perish!

On 17 March 1966, Alvin was used to locate a submerged 1.45-megaton hydrogen bomb lost in a United States Air Force midair crash between a B-52 bomber and a KC-135 tanker during mid-air refueling over Palomares, Spain. Three of four unarmed hydrogen bombs carried by the B-52 landed on Palomares while a forth fell into the sea. After much searching Alvin found the missing bomb found resting nearly 3000 ft deep.

A year later Alvin encounter a somewhat less dangerous situation as it was attacked by a swordfish during a dive at 2,000 ft. The swordfish became trapped in Alvin's skin, and the submersible made an emergency return to the surface – where the swordfish was recovered and cooked for dinner.

Another Alvin accomplishment was locating the wreckage of the USS Scorpion (SSN-589), a nuclear armed Skipjack class submarine which sank for unknown reasons off the coast of the Azores in 1968. The Alvin was able to obtain photographic and other environmental monitoring data from the remains of the Scorpion.

Late in 1968 Alvin, was lost as it was being transported aboard the NOAA tender ship Lulu and two steel cables snapped when it was being lowered into the water for a planned dive. The three crewmembers escaped, but Alvin flooded and sank in 5000 ft of water. Severe weather prevented the immediate recovery of but it was photographed on the bottom in June 1969 and found to be upright and apparently intact. It was decided to attempt recovery of Alvin; although no object of that size had ever been recovered from a depth of 5,000 feet. In late August 1969, another submersible was able to secure a line and safety slings on the Alvin allowing it to be hauled up to near the surface where it was slowly towed back to Woods Hole.

Alvin continued to serve marine science as its months under water at those depths and cold temperatures provided a real-life experiment. Alvin was so intact that lunches left on board were soggy but edible. This incident led to a more comprehensive understanding that near-freezing temperatures and the lack of decaying bacteria at increased depths prevented biological decay. Researchers found a cheese sandwich which exhibited no visible signs of decomposition, and was in fact eaten. But the submersible itself required a major overhaul by WHOI. Earlier in my career I worked with an electronics technician who had been responsible for replacing all of the wiring and electronics on Alvin during this overhaul.

Certainly from a popular events perspective, Alvin’s most famous efforts may have come from its involvement in the exploration of the wreckage of RMS Titanic south of Newfoundland in 1986. She carried Dr. Robert Ballard and two companions to the wreckage of the great liner. Many of the photographs of the expedition have been published in the magazine of the National Geographic Society which was a major sponsor of the expedition.

WHOI has a detailed history of Alvin for those who care to delve further and NPR recently ran a story about this most-famous submersible and the 18 month refurbishing it will undergo.

A Great "Fella"

I usually leave the baseball stories and statistics to AVI who knows far more about the game than I. But I did want to note this week’s passing of Hall of Famer, Bob Feller at 92 years of age. In 1936, as a high school junior, Mr. Feller signed with the Cleveland Indians for $1 and an autographed baseball (he never pitched in the minor leagues). By 1940, he was one of the highest-paid players in the game. Before he turned 23 in 1941, Feller - nicknamed "Rapid Robert" - had 107 victories and was well on his way to being one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball history.

But two days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Feller gave up his lucrative baseball career to join the war effort. He enlisted in the Navy and missed three full seasons and most of a fourth while serving as the chief of a gunnery crew aboard the battleship USS Alabama. He returned to baseball late in 1945, then recorded his finest all-around season in 1946, with 26 wins and his 36 complete games that year remain the highest total in baseball since 1916.

Throughout the ’40s, the Indians were a powerhouse, battling the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Detroit Tigers for the American League pennant. Ted Williams once referred to Feller as “the fastest and best pitcher I ever saw during my career.” Red Sox Nation members today could no doubt identify with Feller’s “I would rather beat the Yankees regularly than pitch a no-hit game.’’

Feller retired in 1956 and some say he could have attained even greater prominence in the game if he hadn’t made the detour for military service. But ever grounded, Feller’s only response to that conjecture, "You'll never hear me complain about my time in the service.” Baseball is insignificant when it comes to war."

Occasionally, in the chat leading up to launching their “Who’s on First” comedy routine, Abbott and Costello would drop Bob Feller’s name into the dialogue. But here, they performed a variation of the routine just focusing on Feller. A comedic, but great tribute to a notable American.

These Things Happen...

After several months of test driving this blog thing (or in the South, "thang") I decided to switch my blog title and descriptor around; especially since I blog about topics other than science.  “These things happen.”  Why do these things happen?  I don’t wonder any longer because my favorite movie cleared everything up for me. Thanks to Ethel Merman, Milton Berle, and Dorothy Provine in “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”  Or “4M” for short. "We gotta have control over what happends to us!"

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

States' Rights

At the Dollar rental car counter in Phoenix, the counter attendant looks at my driver’s license and asks: “New Hampshire – is that still a state?” “Yeah, I don’t think states can get demoted” was my terse reply.

But Canada, with 10 provinces and 3 territories has more creative options than the U.S. Heck, they only had two territories until 1999 when the powers that be carved up the Northwest Territories and created Nuavut - home to a grand total of 33,000 folks. When my wife and I lived in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador for a time, Labrador was anticipating huge revenues from off shore natural gas reserves. Always feeling like a poor cousin to those Provincial Bureaucrats in St. Johns (pronounced “sinjohns” there), Labrador considered petitioning the federal government (that’d be Ottawa for you States people), to let it default to the status of a territory. That “demotion” made a lot of sense to some at the time. But no matter, it turns out that the natural gas revenues weren’t about to start gushing after all and the whole idea was dropped.

But back in the U.S., I think I like the idea of being able to demote a state. I can think of a few choice candidates right now based on their past voting record….

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Annoying Christmas Songs

One feature that Scott Simon does periodically on his weekend NPR show is to invite Jim Nayder from Chicago on as a guest. Nayder compiles annoying songs, usually with an event or holiday theme to his compilation. If you care about novelty songs, one-hit wonders, and what-were-they-thinking music (and I do), Nayder’s compilations are a treasure.  His Christmastime collection from last year includes such gems as Bob Dylan singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and ‘Hanukkah Rocks” by Gefilte Joe and the Fish. Now where do I go to apply for a dream job like Nayder’s?

Everyone's Small Town

Seemingly, New England has no shortage of small towns, some thriving, some dying. Stand-alone towns, those that are not merely bedroom satellites of larger cluster cities, have the best opportunity to uniquely define themselves and to avoid being part of bland suburbia. It helps if the town has a celebrity or two, some charming architecture, some arts connection and a scenic location. The Town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts has all that and more going for it.

Cradled in the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts, almost on the border with New York State, it’s a destination location for those among us scouting out a feel-good New England scene at any of the four seasons. But add in the fact that Stockbridge is Norman Rockwell’s town, and you’ve also got the celebrity and artsy angles well covered. Rockwell lived and worked in Stockbridge during the last 25 years of his life. His studio on the outskirts of town complements the official Norman Rockwell Museum close by.

With Rockwell already well-known for his Christmas themed magazine covers, in 1956 McCall’s gave him the assignment to illustrate their next year's holiday edition. But that deadline was missed by a mile. It took him more than a decade to complete the works, which didn’t see print until December 1967 in a section called simply, "Home for Christmas." Rockwell’s painting of "Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas" became a large pull-out section of the magazine. The artist reportedly worked from a series of more than a hundred photographs that depicted the scenes along one side of Main Street in the days before Christmas. The original oil painting now hangs in the Rockwell museum (and a fine framed copy hangs over my fireplace!). Here is just a section of the elongated painting:

The lasting attraction of the painting is that it well captures our imaginations of an idealized New England small town at an emotion-rich time of the year. We read a lot into the images of people walking along a snowy sidewalk, kids playing in the street, and vintage cars parked while their occupants visit the no-malls-in-sight Main Street shops. The Rockwell Museum’s chief curator, Stephanie Plunkett, was filmed in an ABC news segment saying the painting "was meant to evoke the quintessential American holiday, to evoke a sense of warmth and peace ... that would make people all over the country, possibly all over the world, feel as though they had come home from Christmas."

Every year in December, Stockbridge recreates the street scene so familiar from the artist’s painting. For a few hours Main Street is blocked off and becomes the sole domain of vintage cars, horse-pulled wagons, and mingling folks. This year, my wife and I were two of those characters, poking in shops, admiring the well-restored cars and trucks, and slurping down hot clam chowder while standing in front of the Red Lion Inn enjoying the Christmas carols being sung from its porch. It was very cold, why didn’t we bring a warmer coat – we’re New Englanders – we know better? And then there was the arrive-on-cue snow showers – a gift from lake-effect snow of neighboring New York. We first hit the snow traveling east on the Mass Pike about half an hour outside of the Stockbridge area and the light snow obliged all day long. No accumulation on the roads, just the welcomed boost to the mood effect. Not all may agree I realize, but I’ll choose places like Stockbridge over South Beach any Christmas – no contest.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Mulberry Street

We know Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss) as a renowned teller of wild children’s tales, especially this time of year when The Grinch That Stole Christmas is all over the TV tube. But his first book was much tamer, and it is a small miracle it ever got into print at all.

He was born in Springfield, Massachusetts March 2, 1904, the son of German immigrants. Schooled in Springfield, and later at Dartmouth College, Geisel was drawn to writing, either under his own name or a fanciful pen name. But he struggled to get his first children’s book published. Originally titled "A Story That No One Can Beat," his manuscript was rejected by 20 to 30 publishers. In fact, Geisel nearly burned the manuscript at one point after being rejected by so many publishers. The manuscript finally found a willing publisher and was released on December 21, 1937 under its final title, “To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street!”

The story follows a boy named Marco, who describes the sights and sounds of imaginary people and vehicles traveling along Mulberry Street in an elaborate fantasy story he dreams up to tell to his father at the end of his walk home from school. The real life sights and sounds just seemed to plain, too ordinary to him. Boring! But in the end Marco sheepishly decides instead to simply tell his father just what he actually saw, no embellishments. Geisel reportedly wrote the story as a commentary about how he felt adults stifled children's imaginations.

It turns out that Mulberry Street is an actual street in Springfield, approximately a mile south of Geisel’s boyhood home. Mulberry runs off of a larger street, Maple, in the Maple Hill historic district of Springfield. Many of the stately homes here were built between the 1820s and 1920s and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Mulberry Street is my favorite Seuss story, in fact, once my two daughters outgrew their childhood years; I found that most of Seuss’ more popular (sillier?) work just didn’t hold much interest for me. It also turns out that this is a very special father-daughter story in our family. Mulberry Street was part of a children’s anthology book that my wife had since her childhood. Our oldest daughter loved to be read to at bedtime, as did our second daughter as a matter of fact. So bedtime rituals included either outloud reading or making up stories. Mulberry Street from the anthology was a constant read-outloud favorite. I couldn’t estimate the number of times it was requested (Ummm, or maybe it was Dad’s choice!). Anyway, our daughters grew up with a love of reading and the oldest became a high school English teacher.

I love history and sense of place, so when my oldest daughter took a teaching position about an hour from Springfield, AND her husband has relatives in the Springfield area, you would think a simple request to get a Mulberry Street photo would be acknowledged chop-chop, wouldn’t you? After polite waiting and repeated renewal of requests, I took matters into my own hands this past weekend when my spouse and I were passing close to Springfield on a day trip. Thanks to the GPS on our Smart Phones, finding the legendary Mulberry Street was pretty easy. Nice enough street, but not exactly a friendly neighborhood. “No Parking” signs on both sides of the street, “No Trucking” and a one-way-the-other-way switch about half way up the length of the street. No matter, the wife helped with me with my anger management and we found a place to park and catch a few quick pix before heading on our way.

I’ve been to Mulberry Street! THE Mulberry Street. Cool.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Chinese Menu

I received an attractive flyer in the mail announcing a new restaurant opened in town offering Chinese-Japanese cuisine. Most of the dishes listed on the menu I could recognize and within my family I’m know for being reasonably adventuresome when it comes to trying new things. But a couple of the menu items would cause even me to pause before ordering:

Strange Flavored Chicken
Dry Cooked Fresh Green Beans with Pickles
Crispy Duck with Bones

Friday, November 26, 2010

Triumph or Troubles are Coming to South Sudan – and Soon

Sudan is the largest country in Africa – but it may be on its way to getting smaller – or more accurately, splitting in two. The North and South have battled each other for two decades over various issues, including resources, religion and ideology. Northern Sudan is primarily Muslim, while the south is largely Christian or animist. The North is dry with a largely Arabic culture and a history tied to Egypt - much of the land was considered part of Egypt at one time. South Sudan is primarily black African.

While the conflict that ended in a peace agreement in January 2005 is often referred to as a civil war, it could be characterized more accurately as the attempt of the North to subdue and dominate the South. All the military might is held by the North and controlled through the government capital of Khartoum. Two million died in the conflicts, through systematic slaughter, starvation and disease. A full generation of Southern Sudanese has known nothing but war and suffering.

As part of a peace agreement the U.S. and other nations helped broker in 2005, South Sudan will have the opportunity to vote on January 9, 2011 whether to break away from the North or to remain as one country. Voter registration began on November 15th at more than 2,600 registration centers around the country and will last for 17 days, after which an objections and appeals process begins. A final list of voters will be published on January 4th.

The registration process had been delayed by political disputes between Sudan's ruling party in the north, the National Congress Party, and the south's Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM).

All indications are that the South is hungry for independence and especially to be free from Khartoum. Most observers expect the South to vote for independence, an outcome even the U.S. government has labeled "inevitable." But it is not clear to the SPLM, or to the rest of the world for that matter, that the North will accept a separate South. There is real fear that a vote for separation will reignite the long-running state of war.

Why does the North want to hold on to the South? Military might, regime pride, and then there’s the small matter of oil. Most of Sudan’s oil reserves are found in the South. Since the 2005 peace accord, the Khartoum government has been tapping into that oil – with the help of their close friend – China. Sudan is China's largest overseas oil project. China is Sudan's largest supplier of arms. Cozy. Chinese-made tanks, fighter planes, bombers, helicopters, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades fed Sudan's two-decade-old war.

With separation of the South, Khartoum would be forced to give up the majority of those oil reserves.

Belatedly, the looming crisis has finally caught the attention of Washington and some discussions with Khartoum to assure a smooth and peaceful transition to a two-country resolution have been held.

For its part, the government claims it wants a normal political and economic relationship with the United States. Khartoum is especially seeking ways to relieve its $39 billion debt and also lifting the standing indictment of President Omar al-Bashir. Last year, the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for the arrest of al-Bashir on charges of war crimes related to the killings in Western Sudan's Darfur region by the government-backed Janjaweed militias. The separate region of Darfur, in Sudan's west, would remain a part of the Khartoum-based north even if the South does separate.

Southern Sudan is one of the poorest regions of the world. Some 85 percent of southerners cannot read or write. Even if it achieves independence from the North, South Sudan has no shortage of challenges.

I have more than a passing interest in the future of South Sudan. In 2006 I co-founded a non-profit organization to help Sudanese, both those who immigrated to the U.S. during the years of war, and those who remain in their homeland. My co-founder, Peter, is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan who spent nearly 12 years in refugee camps before coming to the U.S. On Christmas Eve he will make his fourth trip back to South Sudan to be with his family in the Bor area during the January 9th vote, and to assist some of the primary schools that our organization supports there. If anyone is interested in learning more, or lending support to our efforts, I invite you to our website,

Nov. 28 P.S. This news piece talks about the ability of Sudanese in the U.S. to register for the the coming vote in South Sudan.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Shortest Number 1 Hit

Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs were an American doo wop/R&B vocal group, active during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Originally The (Royal) Charms, the band changed its name to The Gladiolas in 1957 and The Excellos in 1958, before finally settling on "The Zodiacs" in 1959.

In early summer of 1959, Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs recorded a number of tracks in Columbia, SC. One of the last tracks that they recorded that day was "Stay," a song that Williams had written a couple of weeks before.

The demo of "Stay" was sent to Herald Records in New York City where it was pressed and released in early 1960 as a 45 rpm single. "Stay" is the shortest recording ever to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the United States (Billboard cites it as 1:37). The inclusion of "Stay" on the soundtrack to the film Dirty Dancing in 1987 led to the song selling more records than it had during its original release.

Williams has continued to record and tour, and currently resides in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The Gods of Mt Merapi

As of today, news reports indicate that Indonesia's Mount Merapi volcano has killed at least 283 people since it began erupting in October. Reportedly, more than 270,000 people are still living in makeshift camps to escape the lava flows and hot ash falls. Merapi killed some 1,300 in 1930, but experts say the current eruptions are the most severe since 1872. Merapi is the most active Indonesia volcano in a vast archipelago of 235 million people spread along the well-known “Ring of Fire”. About 90% of the world's earthquakes, and 80% of the world's largest earthquakes, occur along this ring. The Ring of Fire is a direct result of plate tectonics and the movement and collisions of crustal plates.

Life for those living near Indonesia's Mt. Merapi remains dangerous and difficult. Volcano scientists (volcanologists) believe that the eruptions are lessening, but they certainly can't guarantee the area won’t experience additional eruptions. Like earthquake predictions, volcanology involves lots of educated guessing. And like a lot of lessons in life, it matters who does the “guessing.”

One news report from a week ago interviewed Subandriyo, an Indonesian government volcanologist. At that time he estimated that the eruptions had disgorged approximately 4.6 billion cubic feet of rocks, sand, dust and gas. The thick ash fall has been destroying crops or even structures from its sheer weight. Pyroclastic flows of gas at hundreds of degrees F often follow river beds or depressions and hit communities that are adjacent to those waterways.

Subandriyo and his team actually predicted Mt. Merapi's eruption, including which way the searing gases and rocks would flow. "Our modeling was good, and the preparations for evacuation were good," he says, pointing to detailed maps. "The problem was with communication — in other words, disseminating the information to the people."

Actually, it appears that communication was not the primary problem, at least in some areas. It’s what people did with the knowledge available to them.

Subandriyo claimed that a man named Marijan, the spiritual guardian of the mountain, is partly to blame. Subandriyo notified Marijan that an eruption was coming, but Marijan's contacts in the spirit world told him otherwise. So, many villagers took no precautions. Marijan was found burned to death in his home, as were other villagers. Now the sultan of the region must select a new guardian for Mt. Merapi.

I’m not necessarily casting stones. I’ve seen too many U.S. Christians claim they had good reason for not following common sense advice or lines of evidence supported by at least reasonably sound science. I’m just saying…

Friday, November 19, 2010

Pejuta Sapa

Coffee is a serious subject. The Lakota Sioux word for coffee is pejuta sapa, which means “black medicine.”  (Ian Frazier, On the Rez).  I second that description.

Mac & Cheese Rehab

I ended up with both married daughters who love to cook. How did that happen? They were such picky eaters growing up I thought they’d need to go to mac & cheese rehab as adults. But not so. The oldest married into an Italian family, so that may explain some of the conversion to dedicated cook on her part.

Today I picked up a used cookbook for my youngest daughter because it fits her style, and it was only 25 cents. OK, I confess, I got it at the Swap Shop at the town dump (err, Recycling Center). Always the Yankee – what a Dad, huh?

So the book is a 1996 release called: Wild Women in the Kitchen: 101 Rambunctious Recipes & 99 Tasty Tales by The Wild Women Association (of course). Peppered (groan) with not only great recipes, but gender-basted (more groans) anecdotes and humor, its well-worth the price! If you don’t believe me, here’s a tasty sampling:

A Rose by Any Other Name. Ever notice how many of the pet names and metaphors for women are based on food? … honey, honey-bun, cream puff, cheesecake, muffin, dumpling, pumpkin, sweetie, sweetie pie, cutie pie, cookie, cupcake, baby cakes, sugar, sugar buns, a chick, a peach, a hot tomato, a hot tamale, a tart, a dish, etc. Concocted by men, says feminist Brinlee Kramer disapprovingly, they “exemplify the oral fixation men are all subject to.” Take that you guys!

My response: The book is still in print and men are still around. So something must be going OK.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Yankee Boomers

From USA Today:

I'm not sure what the deal is with Montana.  They should come over a join us.  Maybe take the place of Massachusetts. Hmmm.

But the story behind the story must be a combination of the New England economy and the continuing exodus of young people to more exciting places - like? See for yourself in this detailed USA Today map .

Pelosi Slayer?

Representative Heath Shuler just announced he will challenge Nancy Pelosi for Minority Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. One of the Blue Dogs to survive this month’s national drubbing of Democrats by voters, Shuler has a reputation for many conservative values that are reflective of the Western North Carolina population that he serves (Blue Ridge, Asheville) ( He also speaks well and is blessed with good looks (never hurts in Hollywood or in politics) and holds an NFL pedigree of sorts. He was the Washington Redskin’s first round draft pick in 1994 – although he performed terribly, throwing five interceptions in one game alone. So you couldn’t call him an NFL star by any stretch. He did much better in his follow-up career of real estate.

I do have family in the Tar Heel State, but not in Shuler’s district, and have taken note when his name pops up in the national press from time to time. I take note in part because I was there at his election headquarters when Shuler first won his seat to the House back in November 2005. How odd? Yes, pure chance. I was in North Carolina on an assignment with a federal client of mine who hails from DC but went to college at Western Carolina University. We were staying one night at a prominent Asheville hotel and when we pulled up saw there were lights blazing, a too-full parking lot (grumble, grumble) and all kinds of well dressed people milling around. It was election night and it turns out this hotel was Shuler’s campaign base for the evening. When my client realized that he recognized the Shuler name from the Redskins connection he was immediately intrigued. So we spent some time milling around with the faithful, drinking their liquid refreshments and, well, essentially having our supper there since it was 8:00 PM or so and we didn’t feel like finding a sit-down restaurant. The man serves good food, I’ll say that much. I didn’t stay around long enough for Shuler’s victory speech that evening since I was beat from our travels. But my client did and got a kick out of the whole event.

Can Shuler slay the San Fran dragon? Odds are long I suspect, but it will provide some interesting drama. And I imagine this isn’t the last we’ll hear from Heath Shuler.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

LL, We Hardly Knew Ye

I’ll apologize in advance to all my friends who are fans of LL Bean. I’m not. At least not the LL Bean of the past 30 years. I am aware they lead the retail world in customer satisfaction, their merchandise return policy is second to none, and their stuff is all top notch. So, what’s not to like, Grumpy??

Well, they no longer look or feel like Maine should look and feel. At one time (pre-1980) LL Bean defined (the real) Maine. Nowadays, they’re a well-run JC Penny. A modern $2 billion a year US corporation with stores as far flung as Tokyo. For all his emphasis on continual improvement and customer satisfaction, I’m not at all sure that LL would claim success if he were still with us.

Leon Leonwood Bean founded the company in 1912 based on his famous invention, the waterproof Bean Boot. By 1917 he opened his flagship second floor retail location on Maine Street in Freeport.  LL never missed an opportunity to improve service. While the bulk of sales were generated by the catalog, hunters and visitors frequently dropped by Freeport. A night bell allowed the late-night visitor to call a watchman or even LL himself. In 1951, LL opened the store 365 days a year, 24 hours a day proclaiming, "We have thrown away the keys to the place."

The original store. I had the good fortune to visit it in the mid 1960s when my father and a few uncles and cousins trouped up to Maine for a canoe trip and we made the required pilgrimage to the Freeport house of worship. An experience. The original Freeport store had the appearance of an antique factory, with the business on the second floor, reached only by climbing a long central flight of stairs. While there, customers or tourists could watch hand sewing of moccasins and repairs being made to the original hunting boots. For many years, the hallway of the staircase was a virtual bulletin board used by hunters "from away" to communicate with fellow hunters. Regulars would have a niche in the stairway where their friends would put notes, and the custom lasted many years. Old codgers would shuffle around the worn wooden floors on the second story waiting on you with peak efficiency, in spite of their age. Plus, they knew anything and everything you ever needed to know about the Maine experience. If they didn’t know it, you didn’t NEED to know it. Case closed.

The new main street showrooms (all 200,000 sq ft) removed the old space and there is now a "campus" layout with different departments in separate buildings. Very Yuppie, very depressing as a recent visit to the campus reminded me. Still good stuff, no doubt about it, but can you tell it apart from JC Penny? I can’t.

Something has been lost. Bring back LL.

The South's Rebuttal

A few weeks back I posted my Top 10 reasons why I remain a New England Yankee and promised that I would publish my southern brother's response.

Poor, poor brother. Have those cold, long winters frozen your brain? Even though it is late at night, I just cannot go to bed without setting you on the right path. Thus, I submit my rebuttal as a Southerner (with a capital S). Y’all take care now, ya hear!

The Yankee/The Southerner (my original item followed by my brother's response).

10. Can delay cutting my lawn until May, sometimes June! - Do not have to shovel snow from October until April.
9. Don't have to eat grits, or explain why. - Don’t get those stupid instant grits with your breakfast. Also, no quahogs to deal with.
8. Can never remember if your president is Jefferson Davis or Davis Jefferson. - Neither Ted Kennedy nor Mike Dukakis are from the South.
7. Close to the source of that true heavenly sustenance - maple syrup. - Home of real BBQ.
6. Tried, but just can't pronounce "dog" using three syllables. - That is because you people just talk too darned fast (and funny). Say it slowly, “DA-WWW-GH.”
5. One hour from mountains, one hour from ocean, one hour from Boston. - Two hours from the mountains, three from the ocean and at least 12 hours from Boston.
4. Can hone my driving skills to NASCAR level by dodging potholes and frost heaves. - Frost heaves? Never heard of them. Plus, here cars don’t rust out in two years.
3. Air conditioning supplied by nature all summer long.  - Wow, two whole months of summer. Just two words: “black flies.”
2. Experience snow falling in dark woods on a crisp night, just like Robert Frost did.  - Drinking Mint Juleps while watching the Kentucky Derby.
1. Somebody has to do it; I was one of the fortunate few selected among the many who applied.  - The South – many are called but few are chosen.

It's All Relative

My wife and I lived in Newfoundland, Canada for a period in the mid 1970s while I was engaged in coastal environmental research. I had the opportunity to meet and work with many local fisherman, including a wonderful character named Captain “Mac” Masters from Placentia Bay.  Mac related that during the 1930s depression, when Newfoundland was still a British protectorate and times were tough (people were "on the dole"), children from poor families brought lobster sandwiches to school, while the children of the better off families could afford peanut butter sandwiches. Lobster was an abundant local staple while peanut butter had to be imported to the island, making it costly.  Alas, even by the 1970s lobster and peanut butter had swapped positions.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dialect Discussions

Continuing the exploration of regional and local dialects, Assistant Village Idiot has a new post on a recently revised U.S. dialect map.  I'll have to read into the original research further to see if it explains why one of my southeastern Massachusetts cousins scared me when we were kids by saying, "I'll have to axe my mother."  I just wanted to know if we could go to an afternoon movie, I wasn't trying to incite violence!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

This Means...

I get this monthly professional geologist magazine – because I am one. Not the bang on rocks type of geologist, but the water resources/water quality kind. At least I used to be way back when. But I still have some certifications and still get the magazine.

So in this month’s issue it listed other members of this professional association who had passed away – I guess since the last issue came out – it didn’t say. Twelve members were deceased and they represented the following states: Texas – 5; South Carolina – 2; Colorado, Oregon, Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania – one each.

So what should I conclude from this data set?

1) Whoa man, I’m glad I don’t live in Texas. Geologists are dropping like flies there!
2) People in the Northeast seem to live longer.
3) I knew I should have gone into accounting instead of geology.
4) I have no idea, send me more information that I can analyze.
5) Drop this certification – it’s depressing. Plus I’ll save some money on dues and save the planet because the association can print one less copy of the magazine.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Your Inner Writer

If you didn't catch this site this past summer when it first appeared, try it now and discover your inner writer.

I submitted five very different examples of my writing to the analyzer and it claims that my style mimics:

Kurt Vonnegut (twice)
James Joyce (I can barely spell Ulysses)
Margret Atwood (Canadian feminist)
Stephen King (well, at least we both attended U. Maine)

Science and Coffee

A few posts back we asked the question about the link between scientists and coffee.  It turns out that the Ask Dr. Science column provided the spot-on answer years ago.

Q. Why do scientists drink so much coffee? I just got my PhD and I don't like coffee. Will I have to learn to drink it now?

A. Unfortunately, yes. Coffee is essential to any scientist - pots and pots of it. One cup simply won't do it, nor will decaffeinated brands. In order to function as a true scientist (or computer programmer for that matter), you must possess what the lay person calls "coffee nerves." Science calls this "hyper synaptic calculosis." What most people think of as the jitters is actually a state of creativity. The scientist or computer analyst who is not "jittery" is merely thinking. Thinking is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. You must make those great intuitive leaps, from the lowly atom to the mighty stars and back again, in split-seconds. Coffee lets you do this. Of course, your hand is usually shaking so uncontrollably you cannot even read your own notes, but that's part of the price you pay. And, pal, if you can't pay that price, you'd better get out now.

There you have it. Sound advice.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

15 Minutes of Fame

Well, 15 seconds really. I fly frequently on business, usually at least twice a month on Southwest Airlines. Their in-flight magazine Spirit is very well produced and their editor lives in smalltown New Hampshire. So when the magazine published an article on the humble sandwich I sent off a letter to the editor and lo and behold it was published last month:

"Great article on sandwiches but are you aware that 1960’s Boston radio DJ Dick Summer claimed that it was really the Earl of Shrewsbury who invented meat between two pieces of bread? So in our favorite deli, we should be ordering a ham and cheese shrewsbury on rye!"

Now I have a daughter who teaches at Shrewsbury High School in Massachusetts, but do you think I could get her to rally to the cause and speak out about this sandwich injustice? Not on your life.

For those interest souls, you can listen to a near 10 minute long 1964 segment of Dick Summer’s antics on YouTube that includes his shrewsbury plea

Summer does a few radio or TV voiceovers nowadays, including the Binder & Binder ad on cable TV. A very distinctive voice, reminding me somewhat of Jean Shepherd or Rod Serling.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Real People

I met some real people yesterday. On impulse mostly, my wife and I stopped at a yard sale on a busy street while driving to a Saturday morning errand. Walking from the car we heard a call, “Hey, don’t we know you?” and turned to see a couple in our age group (Boomers) that looked familiar to us but we couldn’t immediately place them. In the name exchange that followed we realized that our children had attended the same Christian elementary school in another town and we would see each other at school functions. In the great fall morning air we chatted and the topic came around to churches. This couple admitted they were “between churches” – funny so are we! They had recently left their church rather disillusioned over issues such as governance and leadership (the Pastor-as-CEO dilemma). Both had been highly involved and active church participants for years but were now seeking that new fit – that oftentimes hard-to-define mix of congregational community, fellowship, commitment, purpose, leadership, worship style, spirit and doctrine.

Ours was a similar story but with also a travel distance component involved. When you travel 45 minutes one-way to church, say what you want, but it gets hard to be involved in more than just Sunday morning services. Aside from the obvious cost of distant multi-trip travel, it is difficult to feel part of a spiritual community on a weekly basis. In New England, we aren’t bound together by a county or township orientation – we are made up of very individualistic cities and small towns that shape our activities and our identity. I saw this effect in the contrast between the township school system I attended in Pennsylvania and the single town-based school where I finished out my high school years in Massachusetts. At the church we attended that was 45 minutes from our home and effectively three communities away, most everyone there was local to the area. Their sense of community was their town (small city in this case). The congregants see each other around town during the week and can easily pop by the church for a mid-week committee meeting or a before-work men’s prayer session. Overtime, it makes a difference. (I fully realize that my friends and colleagues in the Southwest will chuckle at this since in places like West Texas they think nothing of driving an hour one-day to pick up some groceries or go to a movie).

Back to our chance meeting with the couple. They admitted that in seeking a new church home, they had visited some 15 area churches. Now these are committed, well-grounded and mature Christ-followers, not flighty or fickled teens trying to figure out if their next stop should be the Gap or Old Navy. We could absolutely relate to their situation – and that’s why we ended up talking extensively on the sidewalk in front of that yard sale and exchanged phone numbers when we parted.

An isolated incident? A case of bored Christians habitually church-shopping? No, Boomer Christians are having a difficult time these days wresting with the essence of their faith vs. the practice and program component. This restlessness is a wide-spread issue, at least here in the northern half of New England with our small towns, small churches and generally secular community atmospheres. Emergent Church, Simple Church, Missional Church, Return-to-Liturgy Church. Lots of discussions, lots of choices. Sort of.

It was heartening to unexpectedly meet and converse with some real people yesterday. Christ-followers on a journey, trying to be faithful to their faith. I can relate.

Friday, October 29, 2010

A Maine Puzzler

I’m a big fan of the radio talk show, Car Talk, but not so much Click & Clack’s weekly puzzler when it’s math-based (they are MIT alums after all). Math puzzlers just don’t hold my interest very much. So a few years back I submitted a suggested puzzler based on a true event. Hard to believe, but they never used my contribution on the air. So I recycle it here for any readers to mull over.

I was a graduate student at the University of Maine performing water quality studies with my faculty advisor one late fall day in a rural area. We completed our day's work and were just heading back to the university when we were involved in a minor traffic accident with another vehicle. (Fortunately for me, my advisor was driving the university station wagon at the time and the collegiate fathers could not later seek retribution on a lowly graduate student!).

We all drove to the town's police department to dutifully report the minor accident for insurance purposes. While waiting for the necessary paperwork to be filled out by the desk Sargent, I noticed a large wall map of the town with color-coded pins stuck into the paper map at various locations. The Sargent saw my interest and informed me that each color signified a type of accident or incident that had occurred within the town's borders. I noted that one pin was black and was located in what appeared to be the middle of a field, so I asked about it. Black, I was told, represented a fatality. Naturally curious, I asked the Sargent what had happened. He gave me a funny look and said:

"As near as we could tell from the scene, the deceased was alone, was the operator of two vehicles and was a pedestrian at the time of the accident."

How could that be??

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

New England Shark Attacks

Just this past week a California surfer was fatally attacked by a 14 to 20 ft long shark, assumed to be a Great White. Worldwide, shark attacks (fatal or otherwise) are often concentrated in warm water areas. In the United States, such attacks tend to be concentrated in the states of Hawaii, California, and Florida. Of course these are also areas of long swimming/surfing seasons and maximum enjoyment of water activities by we humans. Fatal shark attacks in northern waters are a bit rare, though not unknown. The most northerly documented fatal shark attack on the east coast of the US occurred about 10 miles from where I was born.

In 1936 Joseph Troy Jr. was 16 years old and living in the Dorchester section of Boston. He went to visit his uncle who had a summer home in Mattapoisett on Buzzards Bay (the SE Massachusetts coast). On July 25th Troy and a friend were swimming off an area called Hollywood Beach in Mattapoisett about 150 yards offshore in perhaps 10 to 15 feet of water when a shark grabbed Troy by the left leg and pulled him underwater. Troy’s friend was about 10 feet away and went to his assistance. Ultimately he was able to get hold of Troy when the unconscious boy surfaced in a pool of blood. Other rescuers rowing out to assist got a good look at the 10 to 12 ft shark still milling around in the area. Once on shore, Troy was driven to St. Lukes Hospital in New Bedford (that would be my hospital). The boy’s femoral artery had not been severed, but his left leg was severely mangled and was being amputated when Troy passed away. From the eye witness accounts, scientist later concluded that the attacker was very likely a Great White.

Now there are some sketchy accounts of two shark fatalities closer to Boston in Massachusetts Bay in 1830 and in 1730+ but expectedly the records from those events in the 19th and 18th centuries aren’t as clear as the Buzzards Bay attack. But if true, New England has experienced a fatal shark attack every 100 years. I think I’ll be staying out of the water starting in 2030 – maybe even a year before – just to be safe.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Coffee in Brazil

Why do scientists like coffee so much?  I'll explore that question later in the week.  But first, let's set the tone with Sinatra and his rendition of the 1946 classic by Bob Hilliard and Dick Miles.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


This Spring I read Navajo Weapon (by Sally McClain) about the Navajo code talkers in World War II.  I have visited a small museum in Gallup, NM dedicated to the code talkers while I was there performing some environmental studies on the 17.5 million acre Navajo Nation.  Here’s my favorite anecdote from McClain’s book about one of the Navajo servicemen:

Pfc Carl Gorman was assigned to serve during the battle on Tinian. A concussion from a mortar shell explosion combined with a bout of malaria sent him to the hospital unconscious, away from the battle zone. When he awoke he found himself in a white gown tucked into white sheets in a bed.  He thought he had died and gone to heaven.

“There was a pitcher of water by the bed and I thought, people drink water in heaven,” Gorman recalled. “Then I saw a window and thought, there are windows in heaven.  On the opposite wall was a picture of a battleship firing a cannon and I knew that this was not heaven. There are no battleships in heaven.”

Gorman lived until the age of 90, dying in 1998.

Maynard G. Krebs

Before there were Hippies, there were Beatniks. And before there was Gilligan, there was Maynard, a central character on the TV sitcom, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959-63) .

Maynard G. Krebs was cool before cool. He coined the use of the conversational insert “like” before the Valley Girls did.  “Like, I'm getting all misty.”  One of his other frequent phrases was “You rang?” in response to calling, or mentioning his name.

Maynard's middle name was Walter. Named for his aunt, the "G" was silent.

Ice Cream

Over at Assistant Village Idiot ( we were speculating on why New Englanders consume so much ice cream per capita.  I wondered whether the good stuff reminds us (fondly?) of winter.  Maybe because it is considered a comfort food it reflects that we Yankees like our comfort and solace.  Gringo also thought maybe the winter angle made sense while both he and AVI speculated that perhaps it reflects the traditionally strong dairy industry in these parts. I think they may be on to something there. When New Englanders think cows they automatically think Vermont. Oh yeah, and where is Ben & Jerry’s headquartered?  Can’t be a coincidence.

But now I had always heard that per capita consumption of ice cream was highest in New England.  A little research told me not so. Its high here to be sure, but the Northern Central states top all of the regions in this country (think Wisconsin).

But then again, maybe ice cream is just a mass religious experience – reportedly, more ice cream is sold on Sunday than any other day of the week.

Flavors – we all know that there are more flavors out there these days than when Howard Johnson wowed us with his 31. Lots of off-beat flavors too; especially from the independent stands and ice cream parlors.  On the AVI site I mentioned that just this week I had tried Indian Pudding ice cream at a little shop in Bar Harbor, Maine (Indian Pudding – a traditional New England concoction of corn meal and molasses).  But around the corner from that shop was one that offered up Lobster Ice Cream to its patrons. No, we did not indulge, but we did observe them making the stuff so we can attest to the accuracy of the proprietor’s claims.

But my most memorable flavor by far is Moxie. As far as I am aware, there is only a single source on the face of this earth for commercially-made Moxie ice cream.  That would be  Kennebec’s House of Moxie  store in Lisbon Falls, Maine. Not coincidentally, downtown Lisbon Falls is also the site of the annual Moxie festival and parade every July (more on that in a future post).