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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Now I hate Quicken and I hate Intuit. Eat dirt and die!

Long ago, I liked Intuit's money-management software Quicken Basic. It came at a reasonable price and helped me control my peculiar financial situation.

I "upgraded" to Quicken 2005 when I got it practically for free at tax-time and was disappointed: it was buggier than my previous version and bloated with many features I didn't want, while things that had previously worked well worked less well than in the earlier version.

Intuit has a diabolical Planned Obsolescence program for its software: all users of Quicken 2005 are being forced, as of April 30 (today), to "upgrade" to Quicken 2008 if they want to continue using its online features.

Intuit does not allow any penetration of its corporation. Unlike almost any other company, according to (fabulous website, by the way): Intuit does not support inbound calls. Go to and request a callback. 5 AM to 5 PM PT, M-F only. 800-811-8766.

I did call this number, I wanted to ask: "Isn't there any way I can pay to continue my on-line access per se and not have to "upgrade" to a new version of your product, which, I expect, will be even slower and more bloated than the last?"

I tried twice on two different days. Nobody at Intuit ever called back.

As it turns out, one cannot buy Quicken Basic 2008, because there is no such thing. The cheapest program one can now buy is Quicken Deluxe 2008. This surely must be to justify the gigantic jump in price. (The tag on the box I bought says $64.99. I got it cheaper but not by enough.)

So here it comes in the mail, and it overwhelms me with its excessive packaging (no doubt to justify its huge price and huge shipping/handling fee).

I put a nice little Netflix mailer in the picture for comparison.

The two packages - (1) the Netflix paper mailer and (2) the Quicken box, plastic tray, advertising, huge cardboard box, and huge plastic bag - each contain precisely the same thing: one cd.

Another win to institutional greed in all its glory. Another unnecessary conglomeration of egregious detritus.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

See what Fruit Loops can accomplish!

Most of my donkey projects have a very long time line. Including this one...

Back in September the gentleman farmer offered me this free trailer for Jethro.

It took a month to find and then order and receive, by mail, the right tow bar for my old van, and then to get the correct size ball hitch.

Then I drove out to Greensboro to pick up the trailer and managed to get it home by going only forwards -- I figured I'd learn how to back up some other time.

The trailer is illegal, it doesn't have tags and its electrical harness isn't connected yet. But a more urgent problem was that Jethro would have nothing to do with it. I spent hours trying to lure him into it and then gave up for a while.

Wise donkey owners told me the best way to obliterate his phobia would be to dump his dinners in the trailer.

All his pastures were considerably downhill of any location I could tow the trailer to without getting stuck in the mud, so I started work on a new area to be enclosed by an electric fence.

That entailed trenching an electric line quite a long distance and wiring outlets at the far end. And then figuring out how to hook up the fence. That took until mid-April. I immediately put Jethro in his new area and he immediately ate all the grass down to within 1/32" of the ground.

Then I tried backing the trailer up to the fence. Going forward and backward a little bit at a time (there is a knack to this I mostly don't understand) after about twenty minutes I heard hissing and looked up to see smoke and steam pouring out from under the van's hood. Yikes! I turned off the van and left the whole mess.

Before rehearsal next morning, Bob reassured me I hadn't cracked the engine block. He backed the trailer up to the fence lickety-split. What a guy.

It turns out, just putting breakfast and dinner in the trailer didn't do the trick - Jethro went on a hunger strike.

I couldn't give up, though - this project has gained code-red priority because Hannah wants to go hiking this summer with Jethro carrying the gear, and if he won't get in the trailer, we'll have to hike in our own neighborhood, which won't be very exciting.

So after some reconsideration, I started using her cat Lydia's clicker-trainer and a bag of fruit loops (plus a lot of reassurance and random legitimate treats) to convince Jethro the trailer will not eat him.

(It's been pointed out that since the penultimate time Jethro was in a trailer he ended up gelded his caution is not completely irrational.)

So, half a year after the project began ...




Monday, April 28, 2008

Order your own Jethro merchandise! Donkeys for fun! "Don't Tread on Me!"

This is the design (photoshopped version of my donkey Jethro) I just uploaded to a print-on-demand tshirt/totebag company. You can buy Jethro things here at The prices of these online places are kind of expensive but when you consider how much trouble it would be to set up your own silkscreening operation... anyway, there you have it.

FYI I just get $1 per item. I'm doing this for fun only. Heh.

UPDATE: Here it is on a mug and also on a postcard!

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Mark does Illustration Friday: "Wrinkles."

Wrinkled Dog in the Sun
The web has some very cute photos of shar-pei puppies. I found one I liked, then modified the color scheme a bit.

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Melinama does Illustration Friday: "Wrinkles."

I started this picture a long time ago, on a very flimsy cheap piece of paper which ripped when I took it off the board. Today I taped up the rip and worked on it some more...

Below, see the photographic original.

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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Locavores vs. year-round kiwi fruit

Extracts from
The Food Chain: Movable Feast Carries a Pollution Price Tag
By Elisabeth Rosenthal for the New York Times, April 26, 2008

Cod caught off Norway is shipped to China to be turned into filets, then shipped back to Norway for sale. Argentine lemons fill supermarket shelves on the Citrus Coast of Spain, as local lemons rot on the ground. Half of Europe’s peas are grown and packaged in Kenya.

The movable feast comes at a cost: pollution — especially carbon dioxide, the main global warming gas — from transporting the food.

Under longstanding trade agreements, fuel for international freight carried by sea and air is not taxed. Now, many economists, environmental advocates and politicians say it is time to make shippers and shoppers pay for the pollution, through taxes or other measures.

"We're shifting goods around the world in a way that looks really bizarre," said an Oxford University economist ... [who] noted that Britain imports — and exports — 15,000 tons of waffles a year, and similarly exchanges 20 tons of bottled water with Australia.

This year the European Commission in Brussels announced that all freight-carrying flights into and out of the European Union would be included in the trading bloc's emissions-trading program by 2012, meaning permits will have to be purchased for the pollution they generate.

Under a little-known international treaty called the Convention on International Civil Aviation, signed in Chicago in 1944 to help the fledgling airline industry, fuel for international travel and transport of goods, including food, is exempt from taxes, unlike trucks, cars and buses. There is also no tax on fuel used by ocean freighters.

Proponents say ending these breaks could help ensure that producers and consumers pay the environmental cost of increasingly well-traveled food.

Some foods that travel long distances may actually have an environmental advantage over local products, like flowers grown in the tropics instead of in energy-hungry European greenhouses.

Better transportation networks have sharply reduced the time required to ship food abroad. For instance, improved roads in Africa have helped cut the time it takes for goods to go from farms on that continent to stores in Europe to 4 days, compared with 10 days not too many years ago.

And with far cheaper labor costs in African nations, Morocco and Egypt have displaced Spain in just a few seasons as important suppliers of tomatoes and salad greens to central Europe.

The economics are compelling. For example, Norwegian cod costs a manufacturer $1.36 a pound to process in Europe, but only 23 cents a pound in Asia.

"Food is traveling because transport has become so cheap in a world of globalization," said Frederic Hague, head of Norway's environmental group Bellona. "If it was just a matter of processing fish cheaper in China, I'd be happy with it traveling there. The problem is pollution."

Box Fresh Organics, a popular British brand, advertises that 85 percent of its vegetables come from the British Midlands. But in winter, in its standard basket, only the potatoes and carrots are from Britain. The grapes are South African, the fennel is from Spain and the squash is Italian.

Today's retailers could not survive if they failed to offer such variety, Mr. Moorehouse, the British food consultant, said.

"Unfortunately," he said, "we've educated our customers to expect cheap food, that they can go to the market to get whatever they want, whenever they want it. All year. 24/7."


Thursday, April 24, 2008

Fifth question: why am I eating LAST YEAR's matzah?

It's Soviet Think.

I went into my local grocery store (Harris Teeter at Timberlyne North) on the third day of Passover to buy more matzoh after our second-night seder wiped out the only box I'd managed to score this year.

There was not one square of matzoh in the house. I sought out the manager, Jim Vurnavakis - the same man who, when I recently asked him, "Where are the little shopping carts you used to have?" said, "They broke."

Understanding his Soviet mindset, I found his reply this time irritating but not surprising. "You're out of matzoh, are you getting more?" "I ordered three pallets of matzoh this year, no, I think that'll do us." "But there are many more days of passover." "Sorry, ma'am."

Cultural comparison: they NEVER run out of chocolate Easter Bunnies!!!

Long ago my ex- complained at the local Food Lion: "Why are you always running out of plain yogurt?" "Oh, we just can't keep that stuff on the shelves."

Soviet Think.

When Hannah and the Companionable Atheist came to town for Passover, the Companionable Atheist got a comfort-food hankering for chopped liver. It was out of stock everywhere, of course, because it was Passover and teeming hordes of Jews were suddenly craving chopped liver.

OK, no chopped liver to be had, he decided he'd learn to make his own.

He has a fancy phone that can find grocery stores and call them. He set his phone to calling around for chicken livers and we got no, no, no, yes. YES! We dashed off to that store.

There were no chicken livers. The manager stared at the empty spot. "This is where we usually have chicken livers." "But we just called you and you said you had them in stock." "They're usually here."

Setting aside the fancy phone for a minute, I cogitated in the old-fashioned manner, triangulating for a grocery store that (1) was not too far away; (2) catered to old-fashioned folks (i.e. was likely to stock chicken livers); (3) was not within typical Jewish stomping grounds (i.e. sudden Passover cravings wouldn't have cleaned out the stock). We zoomed over to a bedraggled Food Lion in the boonies near my home and there they were, $1.37 for a bucket. The chopped liver turned out just fine.


How to life longer: drink more mugwort.

This article made me laugh out loud this morning. I tried the test myself. It promised (!) me many more healthy years, but said I should be less depressed, eat more vegetables, start drinking, and get married.

What I'm eating this morning: last year's matzah.

Extracts from
How to Live Longer Without Really Trying
by Michelle Slatalla for the New York Times, April 24, 2008

My neighbor Bruce has the healthiest lifestyle on the block. He eats small portions and skips dessert. He walks to work. His hobbies — coaching Little League, riding his bike and taking his dog on hikes — all involve getting wholesome, fresh air.

This behavior drives my husband, who has the least healthy lifestyle on the block, crazy. "You're going to be so lonely living forever," he yells at Bruce from our balcony, where we drink beer. "All the interesting people will be dead."

"Yeah, good luck with that," I chime in to show support for my husband (and Anchor Steam).

According to a new book ["The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest"] ... all I need to do to extend my life is follow a few of their simple secrets.

Eat less. Make family a priority. Banish stress. I figured it should be no problem ... Of course, I was not going to be able to work a nightly glass of mugwort sake into my diet as easily as an Okinawan. Or spend the whole day hiking uphill like a Sardinian shepherd.

Mr. Buettner recommends getting started by visiting to take a test called the Vitality Compass. Answer 35 questions, and voilà, it calculates your life expectancy. I felt healthier already. Two minutes later, I received (sort of) good news.

"You are in the Blue Zone!" the Web site told me, adding that my biological age is 40, which is better than both my real age (46) and my Wii Fit age (49), but not nearly as young as the age I would like to look (23).

But then the results took a dark turn.

My life expectancy: 95.2. My healthy life expectancy: 83.9.

While 12 years of decline was bad news for me, it would be even more of a blow to my children, who already have been warned that they won't inherit my jewelry if they put me in a nursing home.

"The challenge now is to try to get people to use [Blue Zone information] to change behavior. Most of us know what we ought to do, but have a hard time doing it."

I suffered an immediate setback. Two suggestions — get more rigorous exercise and eat less — made me hungry.

A few Mint Milano cookies later, I returned to my desk determined to improve. I e-mailed my tennis doubles partner ...

She wrote back, with suggested training sessions and gossip about the latest team scandals, which sidetracked me until my fingers had gotten such a rigorous typing "workout" that I was ready to move on to the next suggestion: avoid salt.

To accomplish this, I sat at my desk awhile, eating nothing, until I figured enough time had passed to allow me to check off the no-salt suggestion.

Next: eat more fruit. A Google search for salty fruit yielded 456,000 results. I settled quickly on something delicious called Sweet-n-Salty Fruit-n-Nut Honey Lace Brittle. Was that so hard?

After printing out the recipe, I moved on to the next suggestion: drink red wine. "When it comes to drinking any spirits, a woman should have a drink a day and maybe two, unless pregnant ... those who drink a little outlive those who don't."

"I am thinking of trying to be more likable, as page 259 of your book suggests," I said. "But how does that help?"

"If you're likable, you're likely to have a better social network, and even get better health care at the doctor's office because the people who take your blood pressure will do a better job," he said.

Pray tell, how to become more likable? "Be interested, not just interesting," he said. "Likable people tend to ask you a question about yourself instead of just talking about themselves."

Taking his advice, I changed my Facebook status to say, "Michelle is wondering what YOU are thinking."

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

[New York]: Dell: Pay us extra to solve the problems we caused you

Wow, this is a good one:

Would you like to contact the same "dedicated" team of customer service reps every time you call? Would you like those reps to be "empowered to address a comprehensive range of issues?" Would you like those reps to be "based in North America?" All this can be yours, if you're willing to pay extra for it.

From Dell's press release:
Dell's new premium support service is to provide a dedicated team of technical professionals which customers can contact directly for support of any Dell-branded product. This new fee-based offering is designed specifically for those customers who want to engage with the same dedicated team each time they have an issue with any of their in-warranty Dell-branded products.

The premium service offer provides household support by an advanced support team in North America for one year. The technicians are empowered to address a comprehensive range of issues across the breadth of Dell's product line.

"Our commitment to a great customer experience has never been stronger," said Ray Roman, vice president Dell global consumer services and support. . "This premium service is all about making the tech support experience more personal; users who want high-touch support can now receive it. We're excited to bring them to the market."

I work in PR right now, and I totally cannot believe how they managed to sell this with such shameless enthusiasm. Like you should be excited to pay them to get good service solving the problems that Dell itself caused with its faulty products. They are totally admitting that the normal standard for service is incredibly low - and they have the nerve to say that you should pay extra for something a little better. Wow!

Friday, April 18, 2008

So many are wondering: can oatmeal be eaten during Passover? How about beans, rice, and corn?

More than a few people found their way to Pratie Place today wondering whether it's ok to eat oatmeal during Passover. Google points them to this excellent email interchange among some of my daughter's friends.

Since John Friedman, rabbi of Judea Reform congregation, addressed this indirectly in our newsletter this month, I'm including part of his piece below.

If you don't want to read the whole thing, short answer: no, no oatmeal.

On the other hand, popcorn (which I always thought was ok) is now ok.

I also opine that puffed wheat and puffed rice, which as everybody knows touch no water but are, instead, cooked by being "shot from guns," make perfectly acceptable Passover breakfast foods.

Last year a few congregants asked me about a change the Conservative movement had made in its understanding of Jewish Law concerning what may be eaten on Passover. Are corn, peas, beans, and rice still prohibited during the holiday?

First, a little vocabulary:

Chametz: There are two major mitzvot which we are obligated to observe on Passover. One is to eat matzah on the first night. The other is not to eat chametz. Matzah may be made from five types of grain: wheat, barley, rice, oats and spelt. On Passover, they may only be eaten in the form of matzah, which by definition has not leavened. Had it leavened (risen) we would call it chametz and prohibit it during the festival. Nothing else can be chametz.

Kitniyot: These are rice, corn, beans, peas and other pod vegetables which are not chametz (that is, they do not leaven) but were nevertheless prohibited on Passover by Ashkenazic Jewish authorities. There is little basis for this prohibition. Some say these vegetables have the appearance of a grain and therefore should be prohibited... Sephardic tradition permits these vegetables.

As you can see the basis for excluding beans and rice and corn on Passover is pretty flimsy. That is why the Va'ad Halakah, the Jewish legal authorities of the Conservative Movement in Israel, recently decided it is permissible to do away with this "mistaken or foolish custom". (They did not equivocate about their decision!)

Thursday, April 17, 2008

When you just can't travel light.

My daughter Hannah proposed that we might go packing late this summer with Jethro. Why not bring all one's creature comforts along?

(By the way, this is NOT Jethro. This is some other, far more cooperative donkey.)

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Beam me up, Scotty.

As seen in Newsweek and at BoingBoing! A plastic surgeon has written this book for his patients (it is self-published):

"My Beautiful Mommy" is aimed at kids ages four to seven and features a plastic surgeon named Dr. Michael (a musclebound superhero type) and a girl whose mother gets a tummy tuck, a nose job and breast implants. Before her surgery the mom explains that she is getting a smaller tummy: "You see, as I got older, my body stretched and I couldn't fit into my clothes anymore. Dr. Michael is going to help fix that and make me feel better." Mom comes home looking like a slightly bruised Barbie doll with demure bandages on her nose and around her waist.

The text doesn't mention the breast augmentation, but the illustrations intentionally show Mom's breasts to be fuller and higher. "I tried to skirt that issue in the text itself," says Salzhauer. "The tummy lends itself to an easy explanation to the children: extra skin and can't fit into your clothes. The breasts might be a stretch for a six-year-old."


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The dumbest thing I've read this morning. "Let them eat cake."

I can't believe it's people like this who are running our country.

By the way, there is a lot of research to suggest that many green things, like switchgrass and jatropha, convert far more efficiently to biofuel than corn. But corn is big business and switchgrass is a weed.

Extract from
Fuel Choices, Food Crises and Finger-Pointing
by Andrew Martin for the New York Times, April 15, 2008

The idea of turning farms into fuel plants seemed, for a time, like one of the answers to high global oil prices and supply worries. That strategy seemed to reach a high point last year when Congress mandated a fivefold increase in the use of biofuels.

But now a reaction is building against policies in the United States and Europe to promote ethanol and similar fuels, with political leaders from poor countries contending that these fuels are driving up food prices and starving poor people.

Work by the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington suggests that biofuel production accounts for a quarter to a third of the recent increase in global commodity prices.

Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, called the recent criticism of ethanol by foreign officials "a big joke."

"You make ethanol out of corn," he said. "I bet if I set a bushel of corn in front of any of those delegates, not one of them would eat it."

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Monday, April 14, 2008

John Desiderio.

I met John Desiderio a couple years ago when he answered one of my Craig's List lunch ads. We saw each other regular as clockwork every week for a long time. A Jersey boy, he was the only guy I ever knew personally who talked like people on The Sopranos. He died in early March of this year.

John had a hard life. As he told the story, his parents died unpeaceful deaths when he was very young; he ended up in a home for wayward boys because nobody knew what to do with him. He ran away, washed dishes (in a town he selected by closing his eyes and putting a pin in a map), joined the armed forces way too young, drank way too much, became an excavator, married three times (the third marriage lasted only three months), discovered life was better when he stopped drinking, became an IT professional.

His computer job took him around the world. When he was about to be posted to some remote, hospital-poor country, his boss suggested he get a full physical work-up. It turned out he had metastasized liver cancer and would by rights die within half a year, even though at the time he had no symptoms and felt perfectly well.

Years later, he was still "lunching" and even kayaking; doctors could only attribute this unexpected survival to his body's stubborn ability to take the punishment of continual, highly toxic chemotherapy. This addendum to a life which was supposed to have ended left him completely perplexed; three weeks out of four he felt well enough to do almost anything, but the fourth week was spent in a darkness of pain and exhaustion. His illness prevented him from committing to a job, but his mind was lively and restless and needed problems and projects to gnaw on. He had never been a guy for hobbies, he wanted to work.

It's lucky he had fixed upon kayaking as something he could do for as long as he felt able, it was his most enduring joy and the center of his social life.

John and my son hit it off, both being members of the mysterious, dark Cancer Club. (Those of us who have not felt the near miss of death's scythe don't get to join.) It was John who took pictures of Tucker the unexpected visitor one night when Zed and I invited him (John, not Tucker) to dinner. How tickled I was that he brought "perfect presents - safety goggles (so juicy bits of poison ivy don't fly into my eyes when I'm weedwhacking), work gloves, and chocolate. This is a friend who understands me."

John was a bit vain (when we first met he apologized again and again for an angry rash visited on him by chemo - he intimated he was usually a handsome devil). Therefore, as he finally started to fail in earnest, toward the middle of last year, he withdrew from his friends - he didn't want to be seen showing the effects of his illness.

The last time I saw John Desiderio was August; the next week Zed and I were supposed to have lunch with him but he called and cancelled. He stopped answering my emails and phone calls. This had happened once before and when I'd intruded I'd ended up feeling like a moron, so I was too hesitant to barge into his life and insist that he let me help him, or even just sit with him, or bring him treats, or read to him...

He texted me a happy birthday wish this past December and I called him back a minute later. It turned out to be our last conversation, because though he promised to call again soon, he never did.

I got, instead, a sad call from his long-time friend Barb. Barb had taken care of John through the years, sharing her home with him, bailing him out of various disasters. He'd had no children of his own, but for good long stretches of time he'd been like a father to hers. They'd been one of those created families, a family with a salty, down-to-earth New Jersey gusto.

So anyway, Barb told me John had surprised her and her daughters by eating a hearty lunch - after he'd complained about the wretched hospital food, she'd fetched something more to his liking - and then dying quite suddenly. She knew it wasn't, actually, sudden, but he'd fooled her into thinking he'd be living for years to come.

This past Sunday, Barb and the kayakers put on a memorial service for John at Jordan Lake. It was breezy and cold, but a brilliantly sunny day. Barb had taken the last turkey out of his freezer and it was fried in his honor (she said, "he was always the one who fried our turkeys"). His ashes were there, in a box, and his paddle was propped up in the pavilion, and a print of the cheerful picture you see at the top of this post was scotch-taped to a 4x4. After the pot-luck dinner a bunch of kayakers put their boats in the lake and took the ashes with them for a final expedition.

I offended a sweetheart once when I said "If I ever get really sick I'm not going to let you come visit me in the hospital." Now I see that was vanity talking; I hope when the time comes I'll have the courage - or humility - to Be Here Now for the people I love even when pieces of me are flaking and falling off.

Thanks to Karen for sending me these pictures.


Sunday, April 13, 2008

Melinama does Illustration Friday: "Fail."

This is a study for a future painting of one of my favorite pieces of advice ("If you don't chew bones your teeth won't hurt"). Click for larger view.

I liked mixing the original Yiddish with motifs from the Mexican Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The skeletons are not uncheerful. The advice, even though it is most useful when one has FAILED at some risky endeavor, is not dismal.

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Valentino, the continuing saga...

Valentino has more fans on the internet than he does in real life. For their sake, I present these emails, all sent today by the nice young real estate agent to whom I sold my rooster yesterday.

It started auspiciously this morning, when I received an email from the buyer. Of course I feared he would be telling me Valentino had been eaten on his first night away from home. But no!

Sent: Sunday, April 13, 2008 9:18 AM

Valentino is settling in nicely.

My kids (5 and 3) love him and surprisingly he is very approachable - my wife (who had chickens growing up) thinks it is because he is out of sorts and misses his hens.

Anyway, could you tell me where to find the chicken coop automatic door you mentioned? Thanks.

I replied with the link to spectacular German-made electronic door opener I built into my coop, then left for a memorial service. When I got back, there was another message from a less gruntled owner ...

Sent: Sunday, April 13, 2008 2:09 PM

Thanks for the door info, but Valentino may get eaten yet.

My wife can easily pick him up - in fact he comes to her.

Unfortunately, he has decided that our front porch is his roost.

During the day he stakes out the porch and today he went after both the kids - not his fault we completely understand - but it's going to make life tough until we could fence a chicken yard.

Unless you want him back (keep the $6 as a rental fee), I'm going to put him back on CraigsList.

My sympathetic but firm reply: thanks but NO BACKS. Three hours later ...

Sent: Sunday, April 13, 2008 5:36 PM

Thanks - we found a place for him.

Lots of folks out here in the country!



Saturday, April 12, 2008

Mark does Illustration Friday: "Fail."

Blue-tailed Skink with Flowers.

The connection between the black and the blue part of the tail is designed to fail, so saving the skink from a predator.


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Menticia does Illustration Friday: "Fail."

Menticia says: It shows that animals really do care about their water supply. The desert animals failed to get water.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

[New York]: Backstage at the New York City Opera

The Urban Caballero has a friend who just got her big break playing the Top Main Important Ingenue Soprano in Candide at the New York City Opera. She was great in the show, of course, but the coolest part was that she took us backstage at the opera. After getting past the prison guard standing at the entrance, we got to go up to her dressing room (which, very impressively, said "Miss Worsham" on the door!). She hollered hello in her very high soprano voice, showed us her makeup table and her personal shower (!) and, when she wasn't looking, we all sneakily petted her fantastic costumes.

Then we went back out to the hallway, and while we were meeting some of the other stars of the show the Urban Caballero had a tremendous New York City Opera cockroach fall off the wall onto his shoulder, so that was exciting.

In which Valentino the Rooster goes to a better place.

Valentino has been increasingly irksome as he has grown into full testosterone-infused glory.

He defines his job broadly. Defending the flock includes attacking people who come to pat Jethro. Defending the food supply includes attacking ME when I have his FOOD RIGHT IN MY HANDS and I'm about to GIVE IT TO HIM! You can imagine how stupid and exasperating this has been.

In addition, (1) none of my friends like him; (2) he is noisy all day long - which makes recording at home somewhat frustrating.

On the plus side: he is utterly gorgeous, with a scarab-like green sheen to his black black feathers, and he lets me rock him in the rocking chair.

Realizing that I will soon need a donkey sitter, and that the previous donkey sitter let me know she would not tussle with Valentino again -- well, I advertised him for sale on Craigs List.

I thought this was hopeless. Everybody who has chickens has roosters they want to get rid of.

However, today a cheerful young real estate agent contacted me and was all excited to have Valentino and came and paid me and took him away in a box.

It was fun to meet somebody who knows less about poultry than I do. The cheerful young real estate agent is PLANNING to build a chicken coop, but hasn't done it yet, and he is PLANNING to have hens, but doesn't have any yet. So he will be surprising his wife and children with Valentino tonight.

Valentino, of course, will be surprised too: he'll have no hens to boss around and, more ominously, no place to roost when night falls. And, therefore, there's a good chance he'll will be gone by the time they get their coop up, because a chicken is everybody's favorite meal...

As part of my recent series of searing personal retrospectives, I mulled over the Java chicken debacle. One desperate night, I ordered fifteen eggs. They were shipped next day air (not cheap) carefully packaged (also not cheap) and they cost more than $50 all told. Then there was the incubator, bought new, with optional fan. That was substantially more than $100. Of the fifteen eggs, three hatched. All three were roosters. I rid myself of the first two hooligans a few weeks ago (don't ask, don't tell) and now Valentino is gone, I was paid $6 for him. Therefore, a loss of more than $150.

Oh well! Not sure what the lesson to be learned from this was. Meanwhile the hens continue with their scratching. They don't appear to miss their lord and master one bit.

UPDATE (posted the next morning): It's very, very quiet out there. I can hear the songbirds. Heh.



[New York]: Ciabatta recipe (from Rose Beranbaum, modified for the lazy)

Combine 1/2 cup all purpose flour, 1/16 teaspoon instant yeast, 1/4 cup room temperature water. Stir and let sit for 6 hours or, in the fridge, up to 3 days.

Add: 1 cup all purpose flour, 1/4 teaspoon instant yeast, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 cup water.

Mix in electric mixer (or just stir with a wooden spoon) until it forms a wet glutinous ball (eventually it should mostly hold together, though it will be way too sticky to knead), maybe 10 minutes.

Oil and let rise 2 hours.

Coat your countertop with flour. dump dough onto countertop and stretch into a rectangle/oval maybe 10" x 8". put more flour on top. Gently push your fingers into the dough and scrunch the dough towards itself somewhat, which will create wrinkles on the bottom of the dough and dimples on the top.

Move dough carefully to baking sheet (dusted with flour) and let rise another 1.5-2 hours.

Bake at 475 for 5 min, then turn down to 450 for another 20 minutes or until lightly browned.


Thursday, April 10, 2008

More lawn-mowing solutions.

Lately Jethro the donkey has been spot-trimming my yard. The damp spots already have lush, tall grass. In the old days I would have grabbed the weedwhacker. Now, on our way out to the neighborhood for our walks, I point him to the tall spots and use the special command: "EAT!" and he mows down the offending patches lickety-split. He's very good at edging - especially where grass grows out between rocks.

Down-side, I never get to use the weed-whacker any more. I mowed more than an acre of grass and weeds with a string trimmer for years, and loved it. I console myself by marveling over the efficiency of donkeys as composting mechanisms.

From Treehugger:

Sheep Replace Lawnmowers In Italy

About 700 sheep have now been employed by Turin officials to keep the grass verges and lawns in city parks neatly trimmed.

Manager of the project, Federico Tombolato, said: "Using sheep is not only cheaper and more environmentally friendly, but we also get to sell them at the end of the process to raise more money."

Here is a smaller scale solution, also four-legged, from New Zealand.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

[New York]: Sourdough and Ciabatta

The trick to ciabatta is a dough so wet you can't knead it - you have to stir it in a bowl.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

[New York]: Technology Thinks You Are Dumb

The Urban Caballero is tonight grappling with the following (from a real university website):

Your password or pass phrase must conform to the following rules:

* It must be 7-40 characters long. It is recommended that passwords be a minimum of nine characters.
* It must not be a word that appears in any dictionary of English or non-English words or names.
* It must be composed only of characters in the Roman alphabet or symbols on the U.S. keyboard.
Note: no Chinese, Korean, Cyrillic, or Japanese characters are allowed.

What the System Looks For

Dictionary Words
The password-checking system screens all passwords against its own large dictionary of 2.7 million English and non-English common words. The words in most major languages are represented, spelled forward and backward. This dictionary is regularly updated to cover all words peculiar to the University community (such as "stanford"). Any words found in this dictionary are rejected as passwords.

Random Suffixes and Prefixes
Many people attempt to disguise a dictionary word by adding random characters at the beginning or end of the word. The system automatically screens for this technique. For example, the passwords below would not be allowed:






(No matter what X or XX is.)

Non-Letters As Letters
Many people try to use certain non-letters as letters within their passwords. The system automatically translates all of the following non-letters into letters before looking up words in its dictionary:

$ = s 4 = h 2 = a 3 = e 0 = o 1 = l 1 = i

Passwords like $tanford would therefore be rejected.

SUNet ID passwords are case-sensitive: uppercase and lowercase letters are considered to be separate letters (except at the beginning of a word). Capitalizing random letters in a dictionary word (caRpoRTS) will not, however, fool the screening program. The point is to capitalize letters in a non-word password, in order to provide another layer of complexity against other password-cracking programs.

Obvious Tricks
The system automatically screens out passwords set in the following manner:

* Passwords based on a dictionary word spelled backward (drofnats).
* Passwords based on two dictionary words in a row (dogdog).
* Passwords based on the person's login name.
* Passwords that are all white space.
* Passwords that contain control characters.
* Passwords that are all numbers.
* Passwords followed and/or preceded by 1 or 2 characters (9cheval, cheval9, 99cheval, cheval99, 99cheval99 etc.)
* Passwords with several repeating characters (aaaaaaaa or aaaabbbb or abababab).
* Passwords that do not have more than four characters that differ from the previous character by one (1234abcd).
* Passwords with license plate patterns (daaaddd).
* Passwords with social security patterns (dddssdddd).
* Passwords with phone number patterns (dddsdddd or dddsdddsdddd).

Obviously, I won't tell you what password the Urban Caballero finally managed to choose (I'd have to kill you, and besides, I don't know it) - but the real problem is, by tomorrow, I don't think even he will remember!

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Mark does Illustration Friday: "Save"

Considering the constant urge to spend, spend, and spend some more to save the economy, "save" has become a dirty word.


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Melinama does Illustration Friday: "Save."

This prompt gave me a "Perils of Pauline" vibe, but since I never saw the perils of Pauline I just pretended to rescue her from dreamlike peril.

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Friday, April 04, 2008

What I see out the bedroom window.

When my aunt first came to visit here in Chapel Hill she was so enchanted with the redbud trees - we didn't have them up north. This time of year I think of her, and miss her to pieces, when the sides of the road are lit up by wild redbuds.

There are fewer than there used to be: deer eat redbud saplings down to the ground.

I've posted pictures of this, my own personal redbud, in earlier years. (Click for larger view.) I remember bringing it back from Home Depot in the back of my van, it was in a three-gallon pot.

Deducing redbuds must like moisture -- since the biggest, oldest redbud in the neighborhood was thriving halfway down the bank of a creek -- I planted it where two of my drainage ditches come together.

That turned out to be a perfect spot. See how it towers, now, over my second story balcony?

It's about as tall as the house - guess I've been living here a long time.

Climate destabilization (was Global Warming)

A member of my college listserv put together a page of links to cute (if you can imagine such a thing) videos on global warming - he's put them all in one place, in a logical order, easy to follow. - you can find it here. He says, This might well be the most important issue of our time. Please, at least see the first video.

At one point in the video, the cheerful narrator/science teacher who produced the series shuffles tin cans labeled
resource wars
economic collapse
and muses:

...even though it's not likely, if the worst of global warming does happen we'll be so busy dealing with the fallout that most all other human concerns may seem like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. After all, who cares if some protestor wants to burn a flag on the courthouse lawn when the whole city is flooded?

But why all the hysteria? What's the big deal about a degree or two?

It turns out it's not the warming that gets you, it's the way such a quick change throws a monkey wrench in the whole system. That's why "global warming" is such a misleading name and "global climate change" is only a little better. Really what we're talking about is "global climate destabilization."

It gets worse because just in the last five years we've learned that this may happen very abruptly, within the span of a decade, so it may turn out to be like pushing on a light switch. Small pushes in the past have produced small results. Until you hit an unexpected tipping point...

What can you do? Spread the word, because the only way we really get [progress toward change] is by policy changes, and those only happen if enough people demand it.

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Thursday, April 03, 2008

In which I discover that Jethro is becoming infamous; also, I need advice.

Every week before Yiddish class on Thursday evenings I stop in at Taqueria Lopez, over in Durham, for a taco and a diet coke.

I do my last-minute Yiddish homework there, which makes for fairly drastic cognitive dissonance, Univision blaring in the corner and all; often I'm tongue-tied when the staff and owner talk to me, which they do because the place is not busy at that hour and I seem to amuse them.

So anyway, I had my head buried in my dictionary, trying to figure out how to translate "marrowbones" into Yiddish, when I gradually notice a guy is standing by my table talking to me. Something jolted in my head (it sort of feels changing the channel) and I realized he was asking, "Aren't you the lady with the donkey?"

This taqueria is nowhere near my house so I was astonished, and so were the manager and waitress standing behind the counter. The guy explained to them, he works in my neighborhood and sees me walking the burro all the time. They stared at me with expressions halfway between grinning and eye-rolling. All I could think of to say was: my donkey is not well-behaved and he needs a lot of walking. Everything else I could think of at the moment was in Yiddish.

The guy introduced himself to me and asked, don't I know that lady on the corner down the road from me, the one he works for, but unfortunately I don't know her, so the conversation didn't go anywhere. He stood there a bit longer and then went off to sit by himself and I went back to my homework. Now I feel bad I didn't invite him to sit with me.

And now for the advice. In early May I'm going to visit Zed at college, he wants me to hear him wail on his baritone horn in the last klezmer concert of the year. That means I need a donkey sitter to feed Jethro, morning and night, for a few days.

I had quite a few volunteers last time I went out of town, but the woman who did the job complained, gently but bitterly, that Valentino, the rooster nobody likes, attacked her every time she came with the hay.

As I've mentioned before, Valentino considers Jethro to be part of his flock and defends him (Jethro) vigorously against all outsiders.

Valentino doesn't hassle me much because when he does I pick him up and stroke him and coo sweet nothings into his ear, sometimes I even rock him in the rocking chair and remind him I knew him when he was an egg; it really embarrasses him. But anybody else shows up, he makes his neck feathers stand up like some Dr. Seuss bird and jumps up and down and strikes at the intruder with his pointy little beak.

Short of putting him in a stew pot, how can I solve this problem: he won't let anybody but me feed the donkey?

Thanks for any suggestions, sensible or otherwise.

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I never knew there were rooster jokes.

From the "Rare Chicken" group. I'm posting this for Bob.

Tom the farmer was in the fertilized egg business. He had several hundred hens and ten roosters, whose job it was to fertilize the eggs.

The farmer kept records -- any rooster that didn't perform went into the soup pot and was replaced. He bought tiny bells and attached them to his roosters. Each bell had a different tone, so Tom could tell which rooster was performing: he could sit on the porch and fill out an efficiency report by listening to the bells.

The farmer's favorite rooster was old Butch. On this particular morning Tom noticed old Butch's bell hadn't rung at all! Tom went to investigate.

The other roosters were chasing pullets, bells-a-ringing. The pullets, hearing the roosters coming, would run for cover.

But old Butch had his bell in his beak so it couldn't ring. He'd sneak up on a pullet, do his job and go on to the next one. Tom was so proud of old Butch, he entered him in the County Fair. The judges not only awarded old Butch the No Bell Piece Prize but the Pulletsurprise as well.

Clearly old Butch was a politician in the making: who else but a politician could figure out how to win two of the most highly coveted awards on our planet by being the best at sneaking up on the populace and screwing them when they weren't paying attention.

Vote carefully this year...the bells are not always audible.



Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Code of the Boys

Found at Found Magazine. Posted here as part of the never-ending quest to understand the opposite sex.

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[New York]: The Mind of the Internet

The most commonly asked questions on's "tag cloud". Fascinating!

become a travel agent become an actress build a deck buy stocks charm a man flirt ge universal remote get pregnant get rid of ants get rid of fleas house train a puppy housing grants kiss lose weight queen size sofa beds student loans bad credit swim sympathy cards wedding programs write a letter of resignation

Will power gets stronger with use.

This fascinated me. Zed: note need for FOOD and SLEEP!

Extracts from
Tighten Your Belt, Strengthen Your Mind
By Sandra Aamodt And Sam Wang for the New York Times, April 2, 2008

The brain has a limited capacity for self-regulation, so exerting willpower in one area often leads to backsliding in others.

The good news, however, is that practice increases willpower capacity.

The brain’s store of willpower is depleted when people control their thoughts, feelings or impulses, or when they modify their behavior in pursuit of goals.

In one pioneering study, some people were asked to eat radishes while others received freshly baked chocolate chip cookies before trying to solve an impossible puzzle. The radish-eaters abandoned the puzzle in eight minutes on average, working less than half as long as people who got cookies or those who were excused from eating radishes.

Other activities that deplete willpower include resisting food or drink, suppressing emotional responses, restraining aggressive or sexual impulses, taking exams and trying to impress someone.

Task persistence is also reduced when people are stressed or tired from exertion or lack of sleep.

What limits willpower? Some have suggested that it is blood sugar... Exerting self-control lowers blood sugar, which reduces the capacity for further self-control. People who drink a glass of lemonade between completing one task requiring self-control and beginning a second one perform equally well on both tasks.

In the short term, you should spend your limited willpower budget wisely. For example, if you do not want to drink too much at a party, then on the way to the festivities, you should not deplete your willpower by window shopping for items you cannot afford.

Similarly, it can be counterproductive to work toward multiple goals at the same time if your willpower cannot cover all the efforts that are required.

Like a muscle, willpower seems to become stronger with use. The idea of exercising willpower is seen in military boot camp, where recruits are trained to overcome one challenge after another.

In psychological studies, even something as simple as using your nondominant hand to brush your teeth for two weeks can increase willpower capacity. People who stick to an exercise program for two months report reducing their impulsive spending, junk food intake, alcohol use and smoking. They also study more, watch less television and do more housework.

Whatever the explanation, consistently doing any activity that requires self-control seems to increase willpower.


Tuesday, April 01, 2008

For my kids: see how your nieces and nephews have grown!

I told Hannah and Zed I would post pictures of the graceless way the downy little chicks are turning into squawking, half-feathered runamoks. They still treat me, when I approach, as if I were Godzilla threatening Tokyo.


Why the chicken coop was invented, and thoughts on brooding.

Yesterday hen #3 was still brooding. She sat all day and all night thinking private thoughts. She didn't get off the nest at all unless I carefully lifted her off (there were eggs tucked right up in her armpits under her wings) and placed her in front of food and water.

She sat in the rain, she sat in the dark, she sat in the wind.

I am sure it was a lost cause, because during the time she was laying these eggs our rooster Valentino, liked by nobody, was limping and unable to do a rooster's job. Still, here she was with about fifteen hoarded eggs and she sat on them for at least two weeks, getting thinner and thinner but no less devoted.

Some time last night the raccoons got to her hideout and smashed or carried away 11 of her fifteen eggs.

I told her it wasn't safe out there, but she didn't listen.

However, on the bright side, this brutal act has broken her brooding. She's now out scratching around for worms as if none of this ever happened.

There are excellent lessons to be learned here.
  • Being plucked off the nest to eat and drink is a good thing.
  • When the eggs are broken, move on.
  • Brooding over your precious eggs may be good, but eating bugs is even better.

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Duped! Happy April Fools' Day

My mom was an unsalvageable font of narcissism and social obliviousness; all my life I've tried to avoid her faults. I'm certainly no paragon, but I know how to confess, how to apologize, how to try and make things right when I screw up. I don't drink, I don't smoke, I don't tell lies, I try to take my fair share of the blame for whatever happens to me, and I obsessively do what I say I'm going to do -- this is how I try to save myself from her hell.

It's put me into another hell, though, in which I am often duped because I forget other people aren't trying as hard as I am. Then, after taking a fall, I spend endless hours analyzing: what did I do to bring this on? At what point could I have escaped it? Those are not happy hours.

An earlier post on how a donkey pulls one on a human: "I Been Sulled!"

Extracts from
April Fool! The Purpose of Pranks
By Benedict Carey for the New York Times, April 1, 2008

In a paper published last year, three psychologists argued that the sensation of being duped (anger, self-blame, bitterness) was such a singular cocktail that it forced an uncomfortable kind of self-awareness. How much of a dupe am I? Where are my blind spots?

"As humans, we develop this notion of fairness as a part of our self-concept, and of course it's extremely important in exchange relationships"

The fear of being had is a trait that varies from near-obliviousness in some people to hypervigilance in others.

The researchers had men and women play a computerized cooperation game and demonstrated that participants who felt they had been burned would go over the experience in their heads, playing out alternative versions of how they might have behaved.

"Being duped holds up a mirror," Dr. Vohs said, "and may in fact show [people] where they are on the scale" -- too trusting or too vigilant. Paranoia, too, has its costs, and it can sour relationships.

Running back the tape mentally, in this case meditating on how an embarrassing event might have turned out otherwise, is known to psychologists as counterfactual thinking. "The feeling of 'I should have known better' is the sort of counterfactual that serves to highlight your own shortcomings," said Neal Roese, a psychologist at the University of Illinois. "A good deal of research has shown that these counterfactual insights can kick-start new behaviors, new self-exploration and, ultimately, self-improvement."

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