Tampa’s Darwinian Dominator

August 23, 2012

Romney, Ryan, and the other Republican also-rans face new competition from Rebus the Rhesus. Polls show that the newest prehensile-tailed sensation to arrive in time for the Grand Old Primate party convention in Tampa has grabbed low-hanging votes. Pundits suggest that the only chance for the other Republican candidates to dislodge this Darwinian dominator from the electoral tree is if Rebus slips on a political banana peel.

Thank You, Mr Carrier

July 31, 2012

It got a little warm today, so I slunk into my favorite coffee shop, where the
manager, Phil, prefers having the air conditioning on. He’s my kind of guy.

Much of the rest of the country swelters in 90-100+ heat and humidity, while here in green Seattle it doesn’t get quite that hot; that doesn’t mean that it never gets uncomfortable. The average temperature in Seattle in July and August is in the mid- 70′s, but remember that Mother Nature throws her dice now and then, just to make it interesting. In summer of 2009, Michelle and I came to Seattle from Boston for a vacation, and it hit 104, making my promises of mild climate pretty untrustworthy.

Like many locals, we wanted desperately to find a nice, cool air-conditioned hotel room, since our hosts did not have it. We found out that only something like 16% of Seattle homes have a/c, simply because it does not get that hot very often.

But what about those places that regularly do get hot?

I was born and raised in the Washington DC area, and a/c is not a luxury — it’s a necessity. In summer you lead an air-conditioned life, going from home to car to office building; at the end of the day you reverse the order. Even brief exposure to the elements brings on perspiration galore, and then you get that weird combination of a damp chill when the a/c finally hits you and your icky, damp clothes.

Air conditioning takes up lots of electricity, and when the electricity is not flowing, there is no air conditioning, which makes for a lot of sweaty, unhappy people. I feel sorry for those hundreds of millions of people in India who are without power recently.

There are over 1.2 billion people in India, the world’s second most populous country after China, and those people need electricity. Maybe such luminaries as Edison and Tesla ought to take a posthumous bow for their crucial contributions to our welfare and comfort today. The power grid in India, however, is not as advanced or as reliable as in other countries. Massive power outages have caused cars to jam in a morass of molasses due to dead traffic lights; have stilled the overcrowded trains; and have led to outrageous heat in workplaces and homes.

Earlier this month, the 17th, was the 110th anniversary of the birth of modern air conditioning. We all know the Carrier brand of a/c, but what most do not know is that it was Willis Haviland Carrier (1876-1950), who brought us that air-chilling appliance we all love today. He was a mechanical engineer, and he solved the most important parts of the riddles concerning the temperature, humidity and cleansing of air.

To Willis Carrier, I would like to lift a toast, of a glass of very cold iced tea. I wonder how much I could get for it in India?

Beijing Bullies

May 1, 2012

China is a bully. OK, let’s separate the Chinese people from the Chinese government (the Peoples Bullying Party); it’s the government that is the bully.

The country of this particular bully has an area of 3.7 million square miles, a population close to 1.4 billion, and has an economy nearly as big as ours. Like any other ordinary bully, this one wants to throw its weight around and take whatever it wants. If someone gets in its way, or suggests that its actions are unfair and that it should be stopped, China will growl and grunt and make taunts and threats.

Bullies like to get their own way, and are used to getting their own way since they have learned that belligerence is a very effective tactic.

The only way to deal with bullies is with force, since that is the only thing they understand. The Chinese like to say that they should be allowed to “save face,” which is little more than a cultural veneer covering the fact that the bully winds up getting what he wants.

It’s time to disallow them from saving face, precisely by getting in their face and saying, “NO!”

In the talks with Secretary of State Clinton and Treasury Secretary Geithner, their Chinese counterparts (or any handy official from the China Film Group, since he would be a good actor) will say, “Give us back Chen Guangcheng.” We should ask why. They will say that he is a criminal. We should tell them, “No, he is not a criminal. You are the criminals for treating him the way you have. We fear for his safety, so we are taking him back to the US with us.”

At this point the Chinese official will turn purple, since he is not used to having someone tell him that he is a liar and a bully. His anger and his face color index should not however become a deterrent, since by now all Americans are well-versed in the concept of “standing your ground.”

We have become too frightened of losing access to China’s markets, and are too frightened of offending China. The US government is too receptive to pressure from American business interests, and in turn we become overly dependent on China.

If you were stranded on a desert isle, would you wish to share that watery prison with a bully? Or someone more disposed to reason and compromise? Don’t even get me started on the Chinese apparent lack of a sense of humor.

Oatmeal Cookies

March 16, 2012

You know how there are times when a craving hits you with such force that it’s futile to resist? I was hit with just such a craving yesterday — for oatmeal cookies. My mother makes really good oatmeal cookies, and if she lived next door, I would have walked fifty feet and nonchalantly asked her, like Ray Romano would have, and within a couple hours there would be a plate of oatmeal cookies in front of me.

But that is not the case, since my mother lives 3000 miles away.

So I went online and found a recipe for ‘chewy oatmeal cookies,’ because chewy is the operative word and the singular requirement. None of those crunchy, thin, crumbly dry ones for me. No, they must be huge and thick and chewy.

My wife is wedded, so to speak, to recipes. She must follow them to the letter. If we do not have the right kind of vinegar — and none of the eight other kinds of vinegar we do have in stock will suffice — then my job is to drop everything and go get her the kind she wants. If the recipe calls for a dozen exotic spices, and we have only eleven, then cooking screeches to halt, and she exits stage right waving her arms about.

The thing that gets me is that even if it is a new recipe, and she has no idea what the finished dish is supposed to taste like, the fact is that if she does not have the exact set of ingredients called for, the system breaks down. I do not understand this, as my approach would be that one of the eight vinegars on hand would do a fine job of substituting, and that the eleven spices on the shelf would be great; we would be none the wiser as to the omission of that pesky twelfth.

I mean really, if you hear a concert for the first time, and there are supposed to be 18 violins in the orchestra, but one guy doesn’t make it, will your evening be ruined? If the recipe calls for 1 1/2 cups of peas, and you are one or two peas short, will the sun explode and kill us all? Um, no.

I have always looked at recipes as initial blueprints, prototypes that can be reinterpreted and improved. A pasta dish might generate more pleasure units if it had a little more cheese, or more garlic, or that roast pork tenderloin might hit more buttons if one used cherries and plums instead of apricots and apples. Cooking is play time, the pantry a chemistry set for grownups.

So when I looked at the recipe for the ‘chewy’ oatmeal cookies, I saw an opportunity for improvement. It recommended a half teaspoon of cinnamon; I used about half that and about the same of ground cloves. Cloves is my catnip, and every time I pass down the spices aisle of a grocery store, I grab the cloves and give it a good sniff, since the aroma passes through the container just enough.

The cookie recipe said that chopped walnuts were optional, so I added more than called for, since I love walnuts, along with a handful of coconut, my other secret cookie ingredient. I didn’t want to overwhelm the other ingredients — we want a nice balance — so the amount of coconut was less than the raisins and walnuts.

Something interesting about the recipe, and by ‘interesting’ I mean ‘disappointing,’ is that it gave no yield. The preliminary notes said that it was a “half recipe,” which I suppose could mean that it gave only half the instructions necessary, but I took it to mean instead that the original recipe called for twice as much of everything. But it didn’t say how many cookies it was supposed to make, which meant that it did not give an indication as to how big the cookies ought to be.

(Yes, it’s true, cooking can involve math, the thumbtack on the comfortable chair of life. If the recipe says that it makes 12 cookies, then you can start with a rough plan to make each ball approximately 1/12 of the mix in the bowl, and then adjust at the end if the numbers don’t come out right.)

So in terms of size, that meant that I was at liberty to make the things as big as I damn well pleased. Cookies as big as a catcher’s mitt might be a trifle too big, and cookies as small as a silver dollar would be too small; they had to be just right — the Goldilocks conundrum.

So when it was time to scoop up blobs of cookie dough and plop them onto the baking sheet, I had to conceive how big they ought to be. I chose a ball somewhere between a tennis ball and a golf ball, pretty close to a billiard ball. After I was done, the bowl of cookie mix had produced ten oatmeal cookie blobs.

As insider information, the author of the recipe surrendered one last tip to enhance chewiness and thickness: chill the cookies before you actually bake them. The baker qua cookie monster has two options: 1) leave the cookie mix in the bowl and throw it in the fridge, where it will keep for about a week, allowing the cookie lover to take out as much as is desired when desired and baking the cookies then; or 2) divvy up the mix into the cookie balls on a cookie sheet, and throw that into the fridge. I chose the latter, and allowed the sheet of cookies to chill for a few hours, saving the culinary rush for the dessert hour.

At about 8:30 pm I told the oven to preheat to 350 degrees, and it complied, since it knew who was boss. Soon it dinged, and I took the sheet of cookie blobs directly from the fridge and shoved it into the oven. At that point, the cookie balls were just that, spheres of uncooked cookie dough. They did not yet have the shape or appearance of cookies. I had no idea if they would eventually flatten out just right, as cookies tend to do, or if I was supposed to first flatten them a bit with a spatula. The very nature of cooking is that of experimentation, the essence of the laboratory.

The recipe said to give them 10-12 minutes, so I set the timer for ten minutes, with the intention of checking on them at that time, and then deciding if they needed a bit more cooking time. The author said to bake them up to the point “… when golden at the edges but still a little undercooked-looking on top.” At ten minutes the cookie balls were still cookie balls, albeit hotter. Concluding they needed more baking time, I popped them back in. At twelve minutes they still looked ball-like, but they had sagged a bit, which gave them more of an impression that they intended to evolve into cookies.

Do baked goods believe in evolution? If they did, that might give them a slight edge over the Christian right. Perhaps they are existentialists, prefering to think that there is nothingness, which is what my stomach felt like it contained when I first started craving oatmeal cookies.

Thinking that they needed a little assistance, I grabbed the spatula and pressed them down ever so slightly, like a guy grilling burgers might. After one more minute, the edges had that “golden at the edges” look, and indeed they looked slightly underdone on top. I pulled them out and set the tray on top of the stove. Man oh man they smelled good, the mostly classic aroma of oatmeal cookies, plus the intoxicating fragrances of cloves and coconut. Oh, yeah.

Using up more will-power than I am known for, I waited an hour or so for them to cool. And then I dove in.

They were still warm, and were thick and soft and chewy, and heavenly. (Sorry, Mom — they were better than yours.) Couldn’t eat just one, so I ate three as slowly as I could, washed down with cold white cow juice. The ten cookies didn’t last long. Guess I should make a “full recipe” next time, which might be as soon as tomorrow.

The Nightmare Chair

February 22, 2012

In anticipation of a small gathering held recently at our new flat, Michelle and I decided to add one relatively nice chair to the living room inventory, so that the adults in attendance would not have to sit on the floor.

It goes without saying that when a certain age is reached – and many if not most of my friends are that age – sitting on a floor can be a one-way journey, one which does not come with a guarantee that the traveler can get back up.

We had chosen a chair and footstool from IKEA, and imagined a simple and straightforward trip. Instead it turned into an ordeal, a test of stamina and grit.

If I had been riding a snowboard, whooshing down an icy hill while balancing a hungry bear on my shoulders, in the dark blinded by sleet, approaching a cliff and being shot at by Daleks, it could not have been worse.

With any luck, it will be the last time for a while that we’ll be visiting the blue and yellow box store where, like Ft Knox, the nation’s supply of Swedish meatballs is stored.

If you had carefully measured the living room’s dimensions like I had, you knew that a chair with a small footprint was all that would fit. That was a good thing, since we don’t have one of those obscenely big SUV’s. I fully understand the paradox presented by the fact that one would have been handy in this case, but we all know that most of the time, these beastly behemoths carry a cargo consisting of nothing more than the driver. My own sensible sedan, an Audi, is currently under the weather, so the vehicle at our disposal for the task was my wife’s Honda Accord Coupe. This is an excellent and eminently reliable conveyance, but it is not made for carrying living room furniture.

Still, armed with our considerable experience with the assemble-it-yourself mantra of IKEA, we felt confident that the small, flat box it was certain to come it would fit in the car when the seats were folded just so. Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha.

The evening of the caper, we trusted our instincts and sped through the labyrinth of the store, ignoring the ubiquitous containers of handy crap begging to be bought. Soon we were face to face with the chair, a Björnibumme. (Most if not all the products are given unpronounceable Swedish names.) Legend has it that the chair was originally designed for an average, cross-country-ski-loving Swede with a tiny butt, measuring precisely one SSBW (Standard Swedish Butt Width). However, to better fit the American market, the chair’s butt width had to be expanded. This reporter will not reveal his own personal butt width, although Google probably knows it already.

We examined the chair, and determined that the box which the chair must come in would fit into the car. So we jotted down the sector, region, quadrant, aisle, shelf, zone and area numbers from the handy tag, as well as the product code, the color code, the description code, the country code, the demarcation code, the pricing code, the taxation code and the desperation code, and made our way to the pick-up area. There, using GPS technology, a bloodhound, a bat and a divining rod, we located the chair AND the accompanying footstool. We were in shopper heaven.

The chair was hiding inside a large box; not the flat accommodation we expected. Was the chair really in there? Was it actually in parts that would more easily fit into our car? Was it in fact the body of Harriet Vanger? Rather than waste time trying to find an IKEA employee to open the box, I whipped out my tool – relax, it was a Swiss Army Knife – and opened the box. Long ago I adopted the ethical stance that usually it’s more expedient to ask for forgiveness than permission. Instead of flattish parts, the chair was wrapped in an impressively voluminous cocoon of paper. It was time to get help.

I found a helpful young man who told me that the legs of that particular chair were indeed detached, and in a plastic bag inside the box. But he also said that the rest of the chair was already assembled into one large thing. Hmm.

Michelle and I studied the amorphous shape heavily wrapped in paper, and calculated that it would fit into the car. With the young man supplying most of the horsepower, Team Douglass loaded the chair and footstool onto our cart, and we headed towards the cashier.

The cashier section of IKEA is much like the Fire Swamp in “The Princess Bride”. To safely navigate it (nearly inconceivable) means you have to pass the equivalents of exploding fireballs coming out of the ground; rodents of unusual size; and lightning sand, or “snow sand” as it’s called in the book. When you exit you feel like you’ve really accomplished something.

Michelle stayed by the cart at the loading zone, while I braved the rain as I walked the thousand yards back to the car. Once the car was in the official loading position, we unwrapped the chair from the paper, and our hearts sank; it looked too big. But we were troopers, and tried turning it this way and that way, moving car seats and folding down interior sections, and having zero luck. I squinted into the middle distance, and saw what appeared to be an IKEA employee. Using a Blästeflär, an emergency flare I saw in a bin next to the Swedish meatballs, I flagged him down.

Julio sized up the situation, grabbed the chair like a toy, and then wrestled it into every position we had already tried. It wouldn’t go into the car. Finally, in heavily accented English, he said that we should “purchaso uno tarpo mucho grande.” I had no idea what this meant. He pointed to a door, and used International Gesture Association hand signs suggesting I go in. There I explained my predicament, and the fellow said, “Oh! Julio was saying that you need a tarp, which you can buy for $5. He must have meant that then you could transport the chair on top of the car.”

Great.

So I bought a tarp, and brought it back to the loading zone. There, Julio seized the chair, which was already protected to some degree by a plastic covering, and in moments he had used the tarp to encapsulate the chair like a cupcake with a New York Times. It looked perfectly shielded and protected, and I applauded his diligence. Now the chair needed to be protected from me.

IKEA supplies limitless string for tying down purchases, and I must have used several miles. To my credit, I engineered a combination of techniques, taking the best from sailing and Christmas present wrapping, along with some Uruguayan basket weaving blended with spider web management, and after a while the chair was secured to the top of Michelle’s Honda. We took off into the night.

The Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton began his epic 1830 novel with the trenchant line, “It was a dark and stormy night…” Bulwer-Lytton was not with us that night, but if he were, he would have agreed that the night was indeed dark and stormy. And as I mentioned before, rainy. It was awful, not the kind of driving conditions one wants when transporting a large, non-aerodynamic object tied to the top of a car. No way was I going to drive as fast as the speed limit; prudence lifted my foot from the accelerator, and we slowed down to the same velocity that a pregnant sheep can waddle. Lots of friends honked their approval behind us.

At one point, Michelle shrieked, my stomach vaulted, and I pulled over. She could see through the sunroof that the chair had shifted. This was not good. We did not wish to litter the highway with a living room chair. I got out of the car and, avoiding the cars and trucks that roared by several inches away, I examined the load. It had indeed shifted, the result of a poor tying job made worse by physics. I tried to tighten the cords and move the chair back into a more secure location. Somewhat satisfied, we took off.

Soon after that Michelle heard something, and was worried that maybe we had a flat tire. We’ve all had flat tires, and the feel is unmistakable. Her Honda is, of course, front-wheel drive, and so I thought the feel would be even more pronounced, but it didn’t strike me as a flat. In addition, I couldn’t hear that troublesome sound. Just to be sure, I pulled over anyway for a look. As Bulwer-Lytton noted previously, it was very dark and raining, and even with my little utility flashlight I couldn’t get a good look at the tires. So I dodged a few more cars and trucks, and got back in. At that point I had to take a minute to wipe my glasses and hands, since it had been coming down in buckets. I was pretty damn scared, and even though I’ve faced my fair share of danger – heck, quite a bit more than my fair share – my pulse was racing. I just wanted to get us home safe and put the damned chair in the living room.

My grip on the steering wheel tightened, my blood pressure went up up up, and I went from Nervous Wreck Class 4 to Nervous Wreck Class 5, the highest one. The rain made it hard to see; there was a surprising amount of traffic, and not only were the other cars, trucks and monster SUV’s going too fast, they were also too close to the vehicles in front of them; and thumping away at the back of my mind was the possibility that we really did have a flat tire.

Sensing that I was still going too fast, I slowed down even more, generating another chorus of honks behind us. Tough.

We kept on rolling. After an eternity of nerve-wracking driving on I-5, we took our exit, and soon after we were driving through downtown Seattle, the most direct route to our flat in Magnolia. In the reflection from a building’s large glass windows, I could see that the chair was still up there. Bless my soul.

A few minutes later we pulled up our street. Michelle suggested that instead of going into the basement parking lot where the car is kept, it might be better to park the car on the street, since the car with the chair on top might not fit under the automatic garage door. She’s from Boston, and she’s a wicked smaht girl.

We parked on the street, and hurried inside, carrying the other stuff we bought; cleverly, we had forgotten to buy the large bags available, since IKEA – inexplicably – does not supply them. From the junk drawer I grabbed a boxcutter, since my pocket-sized Swiss Army penknife was not up to the task of cutting so much heavy twine. Soon I had freed the chair from its bonds on top of the weary but unbroken Honda, and carried it to the building’s entrance.

There was no elevator to help us get it up three floors, so I chose the moment to develop a long and carefully constructed stream of curses directed at Mother Nature, IKEA, chairs in general, small cars, large SUV’s, diets lacking in fiber, and the Bush Administration. When I came back inside, I was astonished to discover that Michelle must have come back downstairs, found the chair, and carried it up all by herself. She is amazing, and one day I’ll tell you about the time we moved into a flat together in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Minutes later we had a fully functioning chair and footstool, and a fully functioning glass of single malt scotch, and my blood pressure began at last to decline.

But we’re not done yet.

It had taken only a few minutes to assemble the chair, plop it into place, and begin the admiration phase. Only it was too big. You gotta be kidding – we go to all this trouble, and I mean all this trouble, and the bloody chair turned out to be too big for where we wanted it. It looked crowded and wrong, and when your wife is an art history major, you learn that things have to look right.

We were exhausted, and while we agreed we liked the chair – we both got to test drive it – by far the best part of the chair-buying experience was the smoky, peaty 12-year old Bowmore, the reward for getting home alive with the chair.

That next morning, I got up late after sleeping horribly. My shoulders ached from the highly agitated drive home. I had had all sorts of bad dreams about snowboards and hungry bears riding on me piggy-back, and scary Daleks bearing down on me shouting “Exterminate! Exterminate!” By the time I zombied my way out to the kitchen to make some life-giving coffee, Michelle had already left for work. While preparing the brown juice I naturally glanced over into the living room. Holy cow. Was I in the wrong home?

The living room furniture had been completely rearranged. The couch and chairs, the Thai coffee table that looks like it’s running away, the end tables; everything was all herumgekehrt. (I’ve got to use my German now and then or I’ll lose it.) But when I walked in and gave it a closer look, and thought about it, I saw that it was much better. The spatial geometry was improved, it was more conducive to group conversations, and there was lots more space; it worked.

Michelle had made an executive decision, and before leaving for work, had cast a magic spell on the living room furniture.

Later that day, the plan was for me to pick up Michelle after work, and then we were going to do our Friday grocery shopping. About fifteen minutes before she got off work, I headed out the apartment and down to the parking garage. I started the car, backed out, and then headed towards the exit. But something was wrong. In the echo chamber of the basement garage, sounds are amplified, and as I crawled towards the garage door, I could hear the distinctive blart blart blart of a flat tire. I stopped the car and got out, and sure enough, the right front tire was flat. A chill flooded its way through all my warm parts, which are pretty much the only kind of parts I have.

Not only had I white-knuckled my way from IKEA back home in awful conditions, sick with worry about losing the chair or worse, we had made the perilous journey with a flat tire. A flat front tire, the more important of the two kinds of tires. Och.

As for an anticlimax, I took off the offending tire, which had a large broken snow chain link embedded in it, put on the donut spare, and took Michelle grocery shopping. The next day I drove to Les Schwab, where I waited in a long line, but they earned considerable customer loyalty because they repaired the flat for free. At last I went home, sat down comfortably in the new chair, and didn’t care a bit what my butt width was.

A Wall of Cheesecloth

February 16, 2012

The other day Michelle and I were at the Pike Place Market shopping for dinner stuff. We were going to try a Jamie Oliver fish dish, so we bought some very fresh snapper from one of the fishmongers, and leeks and fennel from a greengrocer. Then we needed some cheesecloth, so we headed to the kitchen supply shop.

I love to cook, and there’s always fun stuff to see there, the high-end pots and pans, gorgeous knives and all sorts of creative kitchen gadgetry — but it’s always crowded. And the aisles are only just wide enough for a Pekingese, one who has been dieting for the Westminster dog show. Doing anything there takes far longer than it should, precisely because the place is good and it’s popular.

(I am reminded of the Yogi Berra-ism, about a place that got so crowded nobody went there anymore.)

Before we reached the kitchen store, we had been steam-rolling our way through the market, finding what we needed and getting things done. And since we had a bus to catch, we were constantly looking at our watches. There was no time to waste, so instead of wandering around the store, getting lost in nooks and crannies and becoming distracted by all the cool stuff, I tackled a clerk like he was Tom Brady and asked where the cheesecloth was. By the time I found the right region, and then located another clerk to help zoom in, he told me that he had just helped someone else find cheesecloth.

“A little blonde?” I asked. He nodded yes, and I knew that Michelle had somehow beaten me to it, and was already taking her prize to the cashier. That’s where we hit the wall.

It was a wall of corporate policy, and this can often be a kind of wall you can’t go over, around or through.

While the little package had the bar code stuff on it, the item did not compute in the store’s cash register inventory system. The clerk asked for help, noting that the SKU number (stock-keeping unit) wasn’t coming up. We waited. But no help was forthcoming. So there we stood, money in hand, and neither the corporate software nor the company policy would let us buy it.

Or rather, the clerk wouldn’t let us buy it. He said it was about four or five dollars, and that was fine with us. Take our money and let’s go. But no such luck.

We had reached one of those situations where an employee, a relatively low-level employee, could not simply decide to enter a retail item as “miscellaneous” and proceed. He had to follow company protocol, which stipulated more or less that “all items have to have a valid SKU and be processed correctly, or the employee will be shot.”

At this point I started to get a little grouchy, and pointed out that now and then there will be things that are not in the system, and that the store has to have a way to deal with them. There has to be a way so that the item can be sold to a customer, and the transaction completed.

Why are retail employees brain-washed to follow this instruction so religiously? Part of it is because managers want reports, to know how things are going. What were the monthly sales from the pots and pans division? Was the big advertising campaign on gourmet knives successful? How did cheesecloth sales compare to last year? Designing product code categories and sub-categories allows managers to answer questions, and the better questions they can ask, the better chance they have to run the business successfully.

But now and then it’s going to happen, a customer is going to bring up something they want to buy, and it won’t have a price or an ID tag on it. (This drives me crazy; if I find something on a shelf with no price, I feel that it ought to be free.) I mean, c’mon! If you place a retail item in play, but don’t take the trouble to slap a price on it, how well are you doing your job? How is the company supposed to make money? And what about the inconvenience to the customer?

What then?

Maybe 99.9% of all items will be properly accounted for, and then along comes a phantom that shouldn’t exist. How much out of whack do you think this will knock the company’s accounting? Virtually zero. So why get all bent out of shape when it happens? What is more important: the happiness of the customer or the accountant?

(I know my answer.)

Allow the clerk, encourage the employee, to make a decision — estimate the price and hit the ‘Misc’ button — and let the customer get out of there. You owe it to the customer, and you build loyalty that way. And then I won’t get grouchy.

Someone eventually did help the clerk with a product code, but we had to wait a long time to pay for a $3.95 item. Jamie Oliver’s fish dish was delicious, but a Seattle retail clerk nearly found himself strained through a cheesecloth.

Supercomputations on Harassment

January 27, 2012

Recent articles attest to the huge progress made by China’s computer industry. They wish to be a dominant force in the future of supercomputing.

But what is all this computing power for?

From keeping dissidents under a booted heel, to squashing the legal electoral process, China has run out of ways to harrass its citizens when they go too far. Say for example a Chinese person dares to criticize a public official for corruption, that whistle-blower will be harassed in a variety of ways, from having his employer fire him. or having his kids ejected from a desirable school, to keeping the individual and his family under 24-hour watch and arms-length surveillance.

But Chinese members of the Paranoid Bullying Party, the ones who really run China, are low on original ideas for keeping the malcontents under wraps. The supercomputers will be used to come up with more imaginative and unusual methods for intimidating and harassing the public. Here are a few new harassment techniques from some supercomputer test runs:

Top 10 Harassment Techniques

10. forcing Chinese to eat with knife and fork
9.  prohibited from gambling for a year
8.  not allowed to eat dog for a month
7.  must practice Tibetan throat-singing in Tiananmen Square
6.  will have hair dyed blonde and styled like Donald Trump
5.  must address everyone as “Dragon”
4.  can have as many children as you want, as long as they’re girls
3.  mothers of the Standing Committee will come and live with you
2.  forced to breathe Beijing’s polluted air — no, wait, you already do

and the #1 harassment tactic:

1. made to work at Foxconn assembling iPhones.

Must-Haves from the App Store

January 20, 2012

Here at the Fountain, we are not dead, nor have we dried up. We have simply been overwhelmed by the effort required to move into a new apartment, and to transfer the expanding contents of the storage pod that some six months ago had been filled up with our stuff back in Boston. Och! It reminds me of the ‘I Love Lucy’ episode when Ricky tries to cook rice, and what started as a small pan becomes a white tsunami flooding the kitchen.

It’s been a brutal amount of work emptying out dozens of boxes, and finding places for things and thousands of books. Some important items have not yet turned up; I wish I could find my Merrill boots, which are badly needed to walk around in the snow and slush we have here in Seattle.

We hope that 2012 turns out to be better than 2011 by a huge margin, and to start it off right, we will parade in front of you some clever new smart phone apps available from our app store. Soon we will resume doing what we like best: writing about current events, and trying to both inform and to amuse.

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For now, here are some low-cost/high-utility apps you should add to your phone right away:

1. The WangBang, designed for Chinese dissidents. It tells you when you’ll be arrested, what charges you’ll confess to after being tortured, and the province in which your relatives will find your body.

2. The TattooYou, my new smartphone app tracks the people who are watching “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” in their cars, while they are driving.

3. Turn your phone into an air freshener! From my scent store, try “Ocean Breeze” or “Bacon”.

4. My newest app for winter not only displays a roaring fire on your phone, along with crackling sounds, but also puts out 20,000 BTU. (Caution: wear gloves!)

5. At the Detroit auto show, a new phone app is on display. NoGoBoZo detects when a driver is texting in a moving vehicle, then shuts down the car and glues itself to the user’s thumbs.

6. Are you always behind and playing catch-up? My latest app, SimulTasker, uses Bluetooth to secretly disseminate your to-do lists to other phones. People will perform tasks without knowing that they are doing your work for you.

7. My wife has very weird dreams, and I thought it was time to see these fantastic tales for myself. So I created iDream, which downloads dreams into your phone. Haven’t decided yet if they should automatically post onto Facebook.

8. Inspired by TV cooking shows, my newest app, iFlavor, is a must have! Choose flavors from my app store, like ‘Twinkie’ or ‘Bacon Surprise’ and then put your phone in your mouth for a taste explosion!.

9. My nostalgia-driven app, iShovel, shows a blizzard of flakes on your screen, while in the background, hear the haunting sound of snow shovels scraping on pavement. Users can tailor the loudness and frequency of wheezing and grunting noises.

10. My newest free app, iSled, is aimed at fellow Seattleites. Just press the ‘sled’ icon, and your phone will begin to expand, and then turn into either a flexible flyer-type sled, or a snow saucer. (The extra cost version turns your phone into a luge or bobsled.) Just run and jump onto it at the top of an icy hill for a real ethrillride! Don’t forget to shout woo-hoo.

Guest Star

November 29, 2011

Good day to you. Today I am pleased to announce that I have a guest blogger here in the newsroom, Mr John Cleese. I wish to make it perfectly clear that the article below is entirely his work, and not my own. Granted, I am sure that if given a few more decades I might be able to write something as funny as what he can knock out during a cup a tea, but that is possible only if a costly and slightly dangerous brain transplant is performed.

This was sent to me recently by yet someone else with a bigger brain than my own, who shall remain nameless.

Without further ado, I give you Mr John Cleese:

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“The English are feeling the pinch in relation to recent events in Libya and the announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden, and have therefore raised their security level from “Miffed” to “Peeved.”

Soon though, security levels may be raised yet again to “Irritated” or even “A Bit Cross.” The English have not been “A Bit Cross” since the blitz in 1940 when tea supplies nearly ran out. Terrorists have been re-categorized from “Tiresome” to “A Bloody Nuisance.” The last time the British issued a “Bloody Nuisance” warning level was in 1588, when threatened by the Spanish Armada.”

The Scots have raised their threat level from “Pissed Off” to “Let’s get the Bastards.” They don’t have any other levels. This is the reason they have been used on the front line of the British army for the last 300 years.

The French government announced yesterday that it has raised its terror alert level from “Run” to “Hide.” The only two higher levels in France are “Collaborate” and “Surrender.” The rise was precipitated by a recent fire that destroyed France’s white flag factory, effectively paralyzing the country’s military capability.

Italy has increased the alert level from “Shout Loudly and Excitedly” to “Elaborate Military Posturing.” Two more levels remain: “Ineffective Combat Operations” and “Change Sides.”

The Germans have increased their alert state from “Disdainful Arrogance” to “Dress in Uniform and Sing Marching Songs.” They also have two higher levels: “Invade a Neighbor” and “Lose.”

Belgians, on the other hand, are all on holiday as usual; the only threat they are worried about is NATO pulling out of Brussels.

The Spanish are all excited to see their new submarines ready to deploy. These beautifully designed subs have glass bottoms so the new Spanish navy can get a really good look at the old Spanish navy.

Australia, meanwhile, has raised its security level from “No worries” to “She’ll be alright, Mate.” Two more escalation levels remain: “Crikey! I think we’ll need to cancel the barbie this weekend!” and “The barbie is canceled.” So far no situation has ever warranted use of the final escalation level.”

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Thank you for visiting The Fountain, where we may once again one day feature a guest writer.

Where There’s Smoke

November 26, 2011

There has been much activity in the international press and the Chinese social media lately regarding the deteriorating quality of air in Dragonland. Chinese citizens are upset that they are forced to breathe very dirty air. On one day recently the official government body in charge of monitoring the air quality in Beijing classified it as “Not too bad, really.”  But according to an air quality measurement device mounted on top of the US Embassy in that ancient city, it was “Wow! This air sucks! I mean, run inside right now and find some oxygen as quick as you can!”

(Please see the footnote below for further clarification of these highly technical appraisals.)

Obviously, the two assessments do not agree. Part of this is due to the way the air quality is measured.

The Chinese air quality measurement device was made in North Korea, which has a special trade relationship with China; North Korea imports 99% of its food and all of its handcuffs from China, while North Korea exports to China kazoos and air quality measurement devices. This device, the SmogMaster5000, appears to be a whistle attached to a red balloon and a speedometer from a ’64 Chevy Impala. The SmogMaster5000 is available online for $1.98, plus $1,000 shipping fees, plus another $300 in unspecified handling and transaction-smoothing costs.

The Americans, in contrast, use a Swiss device of unsurpassed precision, the ZauberLuft1000, which is assembled by highly trained technicians in a clean room kept as taint free and pure as the air was in a Swiss meadow one thousand years ago. The ZL-1000 is very expensive, and if you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it.

The other main difference in air quality readings is that the Chinese results do not include particulates smaller than 2.5 micrometers, while the Americans do include them. (Many health professionals believe that the American measurement presents a fuller and more accurate picture of the air quality in China.) As far as these units of pollution badness go, the extra-fine, teeny-tiny bits can be inhaled and travel down into the lungs, where they can cause serious respiratory symptoms, heart disease, childhood illnesses and terminal halitosis. It’s like being born and raised in a coal mine.

Because Chinese authorities wish to avoid even the slightest appearance of trouble and embarrassment, and because they hope that ordinary citizens are really dumb, they have suggested new designations and guidelines for air pollution particles. NH-1 particles are too big to enter your nose or mouth, and so are considered “safe”; NH-2 particles are small enough to enter the nostrils but are big enough to be captured by nose hairs; and the NH-3 particles are so small as to evade nose hairs and pass all the way down into the lungs, where they can do great damage.  X-ray photographs of these beastly little NH-3 particles reveal them to be so awful, so horrific, that it would be irresponsible to publish them here; if you saw them they would make you sick and give you nightmares.

In another example of special privilege for China’s elite, expensive air purification equipment has been installed in offices, conference rooms and private homes used by the cream of the Communist Party crop, since they don’t want to breathe the dirty air, either. Currently one of the best jobs in Beijing is limo driver, since the highest-ranking officials are not only ferried to and fro in limousines, but they carry their own clean air in mobile air supply packs supplied by North Korea.

The limo drivers get to breathe residual clean air during the trip, and then retain as much as possible by keeping the windows up.

In a rare display of sensitivity to popular discontent, Hua Lei, vice director of Beijing’s environmental monitoring center, has announced that common citizens will be allowed to tour the monitoring facilities. (Among the party elite, common citizens are called “filters,” since they breathe in and absorb the dirty air.) There has not been any indication that the measuring standards or monitoring equipment will change, but Mr Hua is confident that allowing people to see the offices for themselves will “allay their fears”. Um, I don’t really believe that providing tours will do very much to mitigate fears regarding air pollution, especially if no changes are to be made either to measuring procedures or equipment, but I guess this is the way that Chinese bureaucrats think.

Part of the excessive air pollution is caused by the unregulated factories that belch and spew great gobs of airborne gunk into the environs. The lion’s share, or rather, the dragon’s share of factories relies upon coal to provide power, and coal burning technology in China is notoriously out-of-date and dirty. Coal is used to heat homes all across China, and even powers such common kitchen appliances as coffee pots, blenders and rice cookers, which have been modified to suit the Chinese market by using a few lumps of coal to make them function. (Three out of five Chinese now concede that they prefer their rice with a slightly smoky taste.)

But analysis suggests that in recent years the greatest contribution comes from the profusion of newly imported cars and trucks. China has emerged as the juiciest new market in the world for cars, and every manufacturer from Germany, France and Italy to the US and Japan is bringing home record profits by selling record numbers of vehicles there.

Contrary to long-standing norms of American car branding identity — Buicks are for really old guys, Corvettes for mature guys who want to look younger, Volvos for the granola-eating Birkenstock set, VW’s the choice of hip, young hot-rodders and so forth — Chinese consumers have taken foreign and domestic car brands and stamped their own set of stereotypes on them. Dairy executives who mix Melamine with milk powder prefer the Chinese-made Chery; thugs who beat up journalists and other supporters when they try to visit dissident Chen Guangcheng drive a BYD; and plain clothes police who drag protesters away from Tiananmen Square like the locally produced Geely.

But there’s a new source of air pollution in China, although the Communist Party doesn’t like to talk about it. International scientists have determined that much of the smoggy, unhealthy air in China is due to all the protesters lighting themselves on fire.  Human beings are not considered a green energy source, and the amount of smoke and toxic particulate matter they produce is considerable.

International journalists in China are convinced that the rampant corruption from the highest levels of the Communist Party down to its lowest strata prevents not only truthful assessments, but also any chances for ameliorating the air pollution problems. I was informed of an anti-corruption convention to be held in Beijing recently – was even hoping to attend — but found that the organizers were bribed to cancel it. Witnesses say they saw a man wearing a mask hand over a briefcase and then disappear into the smog.


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