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November 30, 2005

Pencils Down!

Where I live, it’s almost midnight so it’s time for all of you writers in the Eastern time zone (GMT-5) working on your novel for National Novel Writing Month to put your novels to bed.


I said stop! Don’t make me come up there.

::mutters:: Overachievers.

Hey, if you wrote anything at all this month, I just want to say I salute you. You proved you had an idea, and you got started. Me? I didn’t do diddly. I don’t even have an idea for a novel. If I were to have an idea (it could happen), I did find some valuable advice: How to Write a Novel in 100 Days or Less. Um, shouldn’t that be 100 Days or Fewer?

What Makes a Place Feel Livable?

We just noticed a new custom-framing store in the neighborhood, a chain called Fast Frame. That makes four such establishments within easy walking distance of one another. How many do we need? How many can we support? I don’t know, but without having much need for framing, I have to admit I’ve patronized three of them.

This year also saw the opening of two art galleries in town, one of which replaced the only (used) book store, probably done in by its indifferent selection and the proximity of the Barnes and Chernobyl (what an independent bookstore owner in my old neighborhood called B&N). Culturally, when an art gallery replaces a bookstore, we’re still about even.

All that art and with its attendant framing is probably a good thing for our town. It made me wonder what businesses are indicators of peace and prosperity. Are frame stores a reliable barometer? Probably so. I used to think it was Starbucks that was an indicator of culture and civilization, or at least an excess of disposable income. We only have one, although there’s a terrific independent store that’s thriving as well. Maybe it’s just the availability of good coffee. I know I don’t feel very civilized without it.

Come to think of it, what really sets the tone for quality of life isn’t a certain type of store at all. It’s trees, especially street trees, and especially street trees in urban settings. Think of Delancey Street (in downtown Philadelphia). The lack of trees is also an indicator. I can’t help noticing that the developments of cheek-to-jowl McMansions in the suburbs are utterly lacking in trees, making these places feel barren and soulless. Clearly I treasure trees, but I feel that even those who don’t will have their spirits uplifted by the presence of trees—even if they can’t put their finger on why.

November 28, 2005

Time is Running Out

Only two more days until National Novel Writing Month is over. I gently kidded the program recently, quite frankly out of envy. I can barely keep this little blog going let alone write a novel.

So a novel is out, but still I crave stardom. What are my options? Perhaps my calling isn’t as novelist, but as musician. It just so happens there’s a program just for me! It’s called National Solo Album Month. Not coincidentally, Solo Album Month is also November, so I missed my chance this year. I wonder... Did anyone do both an album and a novel? Wow. On second thought, making an album in a month would probably provide enough material for a novel, so I guess that’s doable—by an unemployed hyperkinetic genius.

NaSoAlMo is a thousand times less popular than NaNoWriMo (65 versus 60,000 commitments). Sure, recording an album presents a much higher barrier to entry, or maybe it just hasn’t caught on yet. But, yeah, a solo album, that’s the ticket. That’s got to be easier than a novel. For one thing, it only has to be 29 minutes and 9 seconds long. If I had talent, I could do the whole album in one sitting as Van Morrison did in 1967, but I don’t. You’re allowed one cover, so if I did “Alice’s Restaurant,” well, um, that wouldn’t be very sporting of me. How about “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”? That would leave me with only 12 minutes to fill. I could probably get away with at least one silent track, inspired by these examples. At some point, though, I would need to actually write some music.


Maybe a novel wouldn’t be so hard after all.

November 27, 2005

The Exception That Proves the Rule And Other Links

The end of the Thanksgiving holiday is nigh, and I’ve been doing some random, senseless surfing (along with the usual purposeful, goal-oriented surfing). Check out “Tony! Toni! Tone! (a scientific theory)” [found on etherfarm]. Alex Blagg makes a case about guys named Tony. I was not part of his scientific study, otherwise things might have turned out differently.

A bit more entertaining is a short film starring four zombies called Zombie Interactive “Day of the Virus.” It’s very funny and there are a few surprises, but I will warn you that the film contains graphic footage of people using PowerPoint. You have been warned.

November 22, 2005

Don’t Forget to Breathe

I live in the past, music-wise. The distant past. Almost before I was born. After years of claiming that I “liked all kinds of music,” I came to admit to myself that what I really prefer is jazz made before 1969 (the year Miles Davis seminal Bitches Brew was recorded). I haven’t really kept up with popular music for the last, oh, twenty years. I kind of glaze over reading people’s Random Ten posts; I’ve heard of so few of the bands. I depend on friends to expose me to new music. For example, my brother-in-law John just burnt me some compilation CDs (shades of High Fidelity) that I am enjoying immensely. These kids today with their rock and roll are pretty creative, I must say.

One track that leaped up and bit me was “Hardware Store” by Al Yankovic. It’s not a parody (as far as I know), but a paean to the joys of the new hardware store in town. It unfolds at breakneck speed in the tradition of word-packed songs such as “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” (R.E.M.) or “One Week” (Barenaked Ladies), although it’s even faster. (The really fast parts aren’t included in the sample.) I ran out of breath just listening to it. How does he do it?

November 21, 2005

Maybe I Think Too Much

I discovered YouTube, a Flickr-esque site that lets you upload videos, when a friend sent me a link to a vintage concert video in the “drums” section. That led to exploring some of the other drum solos that weren't quite so professional. I kept clicking uncontrollably, watching one lame solo after another, helpless to turn away. I have to admire the candor of someone uploading a video called “Me Soloing Badly.” To paraphrase Mark Twain: “Better to not solo and be thought a fool than to solo and remove all doubt.” Yes sirree, my motto exactly.

I began to wonder what mad impulse makes people want to share their creative output—no matter how mediocre—with the world. Then I had an embarrassing realization: I might ask myself this very question. After all, I'm no Mark Twain. So many questions, so few answers. There's a lot to ponder here, but that's enough introspection for one day. Some aimless banging on the drums ought to clear my head. Now where did I put that video recorder?

November 20, 2005

Meet the Wolffish

When I was in New Jersey last week, I had dinner for the first time at Bonefish Grill, a chain restaurant created by the folks who brought you Outback Steakhouse and Carrabba’s Italian Grill. They had wolffish on the menu, which was described as “A medium to fine white fish that forages for lobster.” Hmm. The same could be said of me as well.

November 16, 2005

Calling All Cats

Well, I didn’t really expect to be able to post until later this week, but sometimes things just fall into your lap... I had dinner with my old friend Keith and just generally caught up on things. One thing about him: My obsession with lobster rolls is nothing compared to his interest in the Broadway show Cats. You would think that someone who likes cats as much as I do would like the show, too, but that’s one interest we don’t share. In any case, his interest has led to many interesting experiences over the years. For example, in 1993 he hosted a Halloween party and invited not only his own friends, but also the entire cast of Cats. I had completely forgotten about my contribution to the party, which was writing the invitation; Keith still had a copy of it. Since the show is based mainly on a collection of poems by T.S. Eliot, I wrote the invitation in verse.



We beg your pardon, Jellicle cat.
Forgot our manners, imagine that.
We swoon in the vicinity
Of such divine felinity.
So, risking fresh indignity
By gross familiarity,
We follow form, take off our hat,
We bow and re-address: O CAT!


We dare address you in this way
To give ourselves the chance to say
What any fool can plainly see,
That Jellicle cats we wish to be.


We long to dance under Jellicle moon,
But our best hour happens to be noon.
Three Hundred sixty nights and four
We toss and turn and loudly snore.
But once a year, Allhallows Eve,
What happens then, you won’t believe.
We sing and dance and caterwaul
In tribute to the Jellicle Ball.


Of course, such tribute cannot claim
The right to call you by your NAME.
We know before you’ll condescend
To treat us as a trusted friend,
“Some little token of esteem
Is needed, like a dish of cream.”


To pay our “evidences of respect”
(That Jellicles all, by right, expect),
At half-past six, when night’s begun,
The date, October thirty-one,
When the Jellicle moon is waning
(That’s even if it’s raining!),
Tout Vas Bien will host a feast
In honor of all Jellicle beasts.

Although writing the invitation slipped my mind, I did remember the party fondly. About ten or so members of the cast attended. They were easy to recognize because they were the only guests not in costume. So now I have two poems to my credit. It’s fitting that in both cases my muse was a mere cat or, ahem, Cats.

November 13, 2005

Moleskine Diaries

Although the Moleskine phenomenon fascinates me, I never actually bought one of their notebooks. I use a beat-up old thing called a Pocket Briefcase that works fine for my purposes and has street cred with the GTD crowd. What the PB lacks is a date-based way of working. Twenty years ago, I used to buy these nice little diaries from Leathersmith of London (I see they’re still around), but the local supply dried up.


Old diaries and Pocket Briefcase

Not quite as old as the Dead Sea Scrolls, but nevertheless ancient diaries, and my current Pocket Briefcase, which looks even older.

I was excited to learn that for 2006, Moleskine has introduced diaries (in both daily and weekly styles). Our local art-supply store carries the full line of Moleskine goodies, but I never saw the diaries offered. Finally I asked about them and was told they are perpetually back-ordered. I added my name to the waiting list...


After a week of nearly-daily posting, next week will be light. This blog is made possible by SEPTA (because I do most of my writing while commuting), but this week I won’t be taking the train at all. I’m trapped in north Jersey for a few days taking a course and later in the week have other engagements that require driving to work. To assuage the loss, I’m thinking of taking myself out to dinner in New York on Tuesday night, maybe even hit Pearl Oyster Bar for a lobster roll. Beats sitting around the hotel room.

November 11, 2005

Food Chains, Good and Bad

Part of what I like about living in our little town is that there are no chain restaurants (or chain anything, for that matter). When we weary of night after night of homemade gourmet meals (right...) and deign to dine out locally, we have a choice of five or six pretty decent places, most of which we can walk to. Still there are some chains we like. High on the list are Bertucci’s and Macaroni Grill. Lowest on the list is Applebee’s. Then there is that vast middle ground inhabited by the likes of TGI Friday’s. Cut from the same (table) cloth as Friday’s is Houlihan’s. There’s one not far from us, although I’ve never been there. I used to like Houlihan’s a lot; I just got out of the habit of going there. Bennigan’s, which on the surface seems like a clone of Houlihan’s, was always far worse mainly because the service was uniformly glacial at every location I visited. Being so much alike, perhaps the two should merge and create a new chain. I’m thinking a good name would be, um... Hooligans!

November 9, 2005

A Play in One Act

The other day, BeatnikPad pointed to a Dale Carnegie cheat sheet, a summary of techniques outlined in his 1936 book How to Win Friends and Influence People. I hadn’t thought of Dale Carnegie in years, but that page reminded me of my own Dale Carnegie experience years ago.

A friend urged me to try Dale Carnegie training back when I was free-lancing. He knew I was painfully shy, and he thought it would help me work more effectively with clients. The training is really meant for management types, not worker bees like myself; most of the people in my class were managers sent there by their companies. The class was very difficult for me—I even dropped out at one point—but I persevered. Eventually they worked their magic, which consists of getting students to do enough speaking in class that they finally relax and realize it’s not terrifying at all. By the end of the course, I was enjoying it.

As a team-building exercise, we had to put on a play based on a fragment of text we pulled out of a hat. The text was a little bit of nonsense about fleas, flies, flaws and flues. I volunteered to write the play and played one of the fleas. Here it is in its entirety (it’s very short).


Narrator: Valerie
Flea 1: Tony
Flea 2: Daniel
Fly 1: Carol
Fly 2: Dave


Narrator: (center stage) The Fleameister players are proud to present “Cooperation,” a play in one act.
(exit to offstage)
Once upon a time, there was a house.
And the owners of this house were very proud of their house.
And so they kept their house very, very, very clean.
But in spite of their diligence, this fortress of cleanliness was constantly under siege...

Flea 1: (enters jumping) Puhtoooi! Flea collars! I hate those things!

Flea 2: (enters jumping) Yecch! Me, too!

Flea 1: (still hopping) Why did we come here, anyway? We had it great at that house with the eighteen cats.

Flea 2: (still hopping) I was stifled there.

Flea 1: I know, I know. But I guess you’re right. It’s hard to stand out when you have 700 brothers and sisters. But Mom always liked you best.

Flea 2: Did not!

Flea 1: Did too!

Flea 2: Did not!

Flea 1: Did too! She was so impressed that you were always trying to improve yourself. Always taking courses. Anyway, we can’t stay here. Let’s get outta here.
(fleas hop over to the flue)

Flea 1: I see a flaw in the flue up there... (tries jumping as high as he can) ...but I can’t reach it.
(the fleas stand in the flue looking up at the flaw)

Narrator: The fleas were trapped in the clean house, and feeling sick from the flea collars. It looked hopeless. But this house was being invaded not only by disgruntled fleas. There were other intruders as well...
(both flies enter, flapping their wings)

Fly 1: I hate this place! Why did we come here?

Fly 2: Hey, I saw this house profiled in Martha Stewart Living. Who knew they were such good housekeepers.

Fly 1: You read Martha Stewart Living?

Fly 2: Nah, I can’t read. I’m a fly. I’ve got compound eyes. I just look at the pictures. And the food sure looked good!

Fly 1: Well, there’s no sign of any food around here. Not a crumb. Let’s get outta here.
(the flies fly over to the flue)

Fly 2: I’ll bet there’s a flaw in this flue somewhere. Every flue has a flaw, but I’ll be darned if I can see it. Curse these compound eyes.
(The fleas and flies are now together in the flue)

Flea 1: (looking up) Hey, look. Those flies are flying right past the flaw in the flue! I wish we could fly.

Flea 2: The flies can’t see the flaw in the flue. They have compound eyes.

Flea 1: I suppose you learned that in one of your courses. Now what do we do?

Narrator: The smart flea, who had taken Dale Carnegie training as one of his many courses, knew that teamwork would be their only hope.

Flea 2: Oh, flies! Excuse me! Hello! If we work together we can all escape this wretched place. We fleas can see that there’s a flaw in the flue, but it’s too high for us to jump to. If you will fly us up there, we can guide you through it.

Narrator: The flies quickly realized that they could all escape the clean house if they worked together with the fleas as a team. (flies look at each other, shrug shoulders and stop flapping their wings to land) So they took off with the fleas hanging onto their backs and flew through the flaw in the flue to freedom! (fleas hold onto flies’ shoulders and all exit through the flaw)
And they lived happily ever after. The End.

Yahoo Eating Google’s Lunch

Literally. A few companies have learned that one secret to encouraging workaholic employee behavior is never giving said employees an excuse to leave the building. Free lunch is a good example. The company doesn’t get that much extra work out of the employee; it’s mainly just a nice perk. Free dinner, however, is another story—it’s an insidious trap. For one thing, you won’t be hungry for that free dinner at quitting time, so you’ll probably work a little later anyway. (Cha-ching!) Finally you’re hungry enough to eat, and after that, well what the heck, what’s another hour or two back at your desk. (Cha-ching again! At the hourly rate these folks are making, a measly free dinner is nothing to trade for several extra hours of productivity.) Google is one company that’s serious about keeping employees at work; they offer both free lunch and dinner. The free food attracts non-employees as well. TechCrunch reports that Yahoo employees (who have to pay for food) are making a sport of crashing Google’s cafeteria at lunch time. I don’t know... That may be the only way Yahoo is ever going to eat Google’s lunch.

November 8, 2005

Where They’re Going, They Won’t Need Roads

Perhaps you’ve heard of the DARPA Grand Challenge, a race run by autonomous robotic vehicles over a 131-mile course in the Mojave Desert. Last year, 15 vehicles started the race and, um, none finished. This year things went much better. Amazingly five vehicles finished the course in less than the required ten-hour time limit, the winner being a Volkswagen Touareg from Stanford nicknamed “Stanley.” Kudos to the team! (A good account of the race is here.)

In spite of the fact that this competition is all about building better weapons systems, I can’t help being fascinated by the technical challenges. Now, I’m going to go all Mac vs. PC on you for a second. I was mildly distraught to learn that on Stanley, “all processing takes place on seven Pentium M computers.” The OS isn’t actually mentioned, although I doubt it’s Windows. If it were, though, that might explain why they needed seven computers—six to run Windows and one to run the car. Just kidding!

I was rooting for Team Banzai whose Volkswagen Touareg “Dora” was running OS X. OS X is a natural fit for such an application. Often it seems to have a mind of its own, plunging fearlessly off into uncharted territory all by itself, and, um, it already has a Dashboard. At the very least, I hope OS X doesn’t get the blame for losing. (Team Banzai’s Touareg didn’t finish. Ouch.)

I thought it appropriate that the Touareg was such a popular choice. While gasoline flows through its veins the same as the first cars, its brain and nervous system are unquestionably up-to-the-minute digital. I was in a friend’s new Touareg not too long ago, and I was astonished at the dash, which was festooned with so much high-tech gimcrackery I was nearly blinded by the rainbow of readouts, gauges and indicators, and that was just on the radio. Much of the display is devoted to what we used to call “idiot lights,” and you’d really have to be an idiot to need some of these. How about tire pressure, for example. How did I live without knowing that? I guess it’s all in the name of safety, but seriously, there’s so much competition for your attention that it’s almost a safety hazard itself.

November 6, 2005

National Novel Reading Month

I read my fair share of newspapers, magazines, and, of course, blogs and yet I felt like something was missing. What I needed was a real challenge, something to really exercise those flabby eye muscles. Then I heard about National Novel Reading Month, better known as NaNoReaMo. It's where ordinary people like you and me commit to reading a novel during the month of November. That's right, a whole novel! If that sounds impossible to you (and I'm sure it does), all they really ask is that you read 50,000 words. Sure, it's a daunting task, but it sounds like a great idea—and I wanted a challenge, didn't I? I only have one problem: an entire week has gone by, and I haven't selected my novel yet. Yikes!

Nice Weather for November

It was so warm, this kayaker was wearing shorts and flip-flops.

Right now it's windy and raining, but earlier today we enjoyed some glorious weather with temperatures in the seventies. The sun was shining and the trees were still wearing their brightest colors of the season as we headed out early this morning for an outing at a wetland near the Brandywine River. Everyone but me was equipped with sensible knee-high rubber boots. All I had were my hiking shoes which did nothing to keep the water out, but it wasn't so bad. The cool water was actually refreshing as I slogged through the muddy water.

For weeks now I've been thinking, This is the last nice weekend of the year, but each weekend seems better than the last; there seems to be no end to this warm weather.

November 5, 2005

“Backup” Worse Than No Backup?

Apple’s backup software, cleverly called “Backup” (I kid you not. Why not “iBackup”?) has come in for a lot of scorn lately here, here, and here. It’s only available as part of the .Mac package, which I don’t have, so I’ve never tried it. My point is that I’m surprised that an app that has reached version 3 could ever come in for criticism for failing to handle its basic mission, but apparently it has. Anyone trying to restore a file is in for some nasty surprises (see the links for the gruesome details). I say that Backup might be worse than no backup, because the restored file can stomp on your current version. That may—or may not—be what you want.

I used Retrospect when I was self-employed and making regular backups to a tape drive, and Anne has been using it regularly as well to back up to external USB drives. She’s been very disciplined about backing up so naturally she’s never needed to restore anything. I’ve never liked Retrospect (specifically its interface), but at least it was reliable. Anne recently discovered a new backup program called SuperDuper! which we are using with our new 200-gig backup drive.

In other news, I upgraded to 10.4.3 without incident. Unfortunately, my bug wasn’t fixed. When I wake the machine up, it’s in a different app than the one I was in when it went to sleep. Sure it’s trivial in the scheme of things, but annoying and perplexing nevertheless.

November 3, 2005

SEPTA Strike Notes

Even though I ride SEPTA every day, I haven’t commented on the strike. Frankly, I felt guilty for how little the strike has affected me personally. The trains are not only unaffected by the strike, but they are even less crowded than usual because they’ve added extra cars to every train. And because I take the train right through Center City, I’ve never had to stand in the long lines that queue up each evening to board the outbound trains. I’ve got it easy, I admit.

Tonight (day 4 of the strike) was different. I started writing this while trapped on a train just outside 30th Street Station because of “wire problems.” Whatever. We finally limped into the station where I got a first-hand look at what people have to deal with to take a train out of Center City. Pretty horrendous. The folks on our train (an R5) we’re somehow deemed “special,” and we were let through the incredibly long lines to meet another R5. Heck, we’d already waited over an hour. This just serves to remind me that even when the strike is settled, the regional rail system won’t be any better than it is now. We’ll still have plenty of wire problems and delays to look forward to.

As a union member myself, I naturally sympathize reflexively with my union brethren, but really I haven’t closely examined the issues. I have read that the major sticking point is the health insurance premium and co-pay. All I can say about that is I would love to have the deal that SEPTA is offering its workers—a 5% premium and a $10 co-pay. That would be great. But that’s not the point; I know it’s way more complicated than that.

November 2, 2005

The Pottstown What?

Reading Literal Barrage just now took me back to Sunday evening. We were tucking in to our Provençal stew, and our dinner music happened to be WHYY’s Sunday Showcase. I was only half paying attention; it sounded just like any other world-class orchestra you hear on the radio. After the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto ended, I practically lost my stew when I heard it was the Pottstown Symphony. Wha? Pottstown? Naw! I knew Reading had a symphony, but had never heard that Pottstown did. I mean, they were really good! I missed the Scheherazade; I’ll bet it was something. Here ye, you fine citizens of Pottstown, you do yourself proud.


Wow, I love your post not just because I am a part of the Posttstown Symphony (I've been playing with them on piccolo for a couple seasons), but because your reaction seems to be a shared one from those who had a chance to hear the broadcast in part or in its entirety. It makes me happy to hear that people tune in and take notice (even after the fact) that sometimes small orchestras can really create some fine music. Anyway, I love your blog...all parts of it and glad that I stumbled across it! If you ever get a chance to come out to Pottstown next season, please do or pass the enthusiasm along to friends. I believe we have Symphonie Fantastique programmed for our first concert. What fun! ~Lish