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.