Archive for May, 2011

Packing It In

May 30, 2011

Here at the Fountain, we are currently over-run with boxes. We are packing for the big move to the Pacific Northwest, which should take place later this summer. We have given up on Boston, or rather, it has given up on us, and when things aren’t going well, at some point you have to take the bull by the horns, scramble those eggs, and mix up every metaphor you can.

We will rent our condo and move in very briefly with in-laws here in Massachusetts. Then I will fly to Seattle and grovel for gainful employment at the biggest and best companies found in the Emerald City. This will make the third time — in about 32 years — that I have moved to Washington State without a firm offer waiting for me. What does bring a bit of cheerfulness is that on each previous occasion, I had a job within two weeks.

What brings even more cheerfulness is that I have dozens of great friends there and in California, and I am old enough (or is it young enough?) to know how important one’s friends are. My happiness index goes way up when I am around them, and the East Coast is entirely too far away from them.

Another item on my ‘Why I Am Moving’ list is the weather. Look at this table. It shows you that the average high temperature in Seattle, in July and August, is 75 degrees. The average high temperature in Seattle, in December and January, is 47 degrees. It is mild, neither too hot nor too cold. Now, if you have spent any time at all on the East Coast — and I spent the first half of my life there — you know that it gets brutally hot and humid in summer, pushing 100 degrees regularly; and in winter, well, let’s just say that this past winter in Boston we received enough snow, sometimes twice a week, to fill the Grand Canyon and have enough left over to cover Islamabad.

Today an unusual map appeared, showing how hot it was going to be for Memorial Day. Instead of displaying the forecast, it showed the “departure from normal,” the differences between the average temperature and what was expected for the day. If you construct a somewhat diagonal line from Lake Superior to New Mexico, you see that the eastern part will experience temperatures as high as 18 degrees above average, with Boston at seventeen degrees. On the other hand, the western part shows slight decreases, with the Seattle forecast for about four degrees lower than average.

My DNA comes from Northern Europe, where it’s cool and pleasant, not from the Equator, where it’s hot hot hot and awful. My father’s side comes from Scotland, and my mother’s side comes from Switzerland, so I am most comfortable where it’s cooler, and there are opportunities for drinking good malt whisky and then yodeling. Besides, watching the sun set over the Puget Sound is nicer than watching the sun come up over the park across the street, where Hispanic men loiter, drink and urinate all day, so the Left Coast wins again.

At the moment there are 30 boxes (12x12x16 inches) of books. That’s 40 cubic feet of just books, with quite a few more downstairs in storage. This morning my mother asked, “How much do you need to keep those books?” and I told her, enough to pack them and to take them with us. Others have counselled that we should buy a Kindle, and maybe that will happen one day, but viewing the value and pleasure of books through the lens of utility does not do them justice.

There is so much pleasure, harmony, comfort, well-being, mental stimulation and more in a book, so much to please the senses from the feel and smell of the leather, turning the pages, reading and adding marginalia, and appreciating the art and craft that went into not just the writing  but the making of the book. Books are precious. If Michelle and I own the last library on Earth, then we will be there, wizened bibliophiles, in our chairs reading books.

There are another 15 or so boxes, some of a larger size, containing everything but books. Ready to accept content are yet another dozen boxes, their flaps open like so many hungry rectangular creatures. Tackling the storage room in the basement frightens me, since I have the sneaking impression that everything down there will expand after it sees the light of day. If all goes well, the pod that will land here on Friday will have room enough for it all, our lives compressed into so many objects.

There is much left to pack and to do, a frightening and daunting list of tasks on paper and in 3D. The Fountain will spout only sporadically for the next week or so, so please be patient with us.

There will be lots more to tell in the coming weeks and months, of life, love, the pursuit of happiness and more.

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A Salt and Cutlery

May 24, 2011

A Seattle man was recently attacked by another diner with a fork at a restaurant in the International District. When speaking of Seattle, for “international district” read “Asian, mostly Chinese,” as opposed to Hispanic, Pakistani or Luxembourgian. Seattle’s close proximity to Asia explains easily the high proportion of immigrants from that part of the world. If only we could explain why one diner felt compelled to stab another.

Evidently the stabber was unhappy that the stabbee had been dancing earlier with a woman at a nightclub. The four or five online articles culled for this piece pretty much repeated each other without adding much clarification. We don’t know anything about the relationship between the stabber and the mysterious woman, for example, or the woman and the stabbee, except for the suggestion that they danced together at some point. I want to know more.

Like a knife, fork and spoon, had the stabber, the victim and the woman been a threesome? Had the woman and the would-be Zorro been an item who broke up? Did the sight of the woman with her new beau dancing together anger the jilted guy, who was pushed over the edge when the couple later appeared at the same restaurant where the old boyfriend was?

Did the victim try to defend himself with a spoon, or maybe a smaller fork? And were there no knives around? Was the fork three-tined or four? Was it a left-handed or a right-handed fork? Could it have been a walk-by forking? Was it spontaneous or was it a premeditated forking?

A UK woman, perhaps motivated by a TV commercial, stabbed her live-in partner with a piece of cutlery for stealing her pork chop. Had the perforated person in Seattle taken the “I’ll have what he’s having” a bit too far, and stolen the perforator’s Mu Shu Pork?

In chess, a fork is a clever maneuver of aggression, since two pieces are attacked at the same time. This guarantees that the opponent will lose at least one piece. Did the Seattle forker recently lose a game of chess to the victim? Did this make a juxtaposition of forker, fork and forked?

Was the attacker a bad dancer who that evening lost a jitterbug contest to the person he jabbed? To atone for his two left feet, did he use his left hand to stab the better hoofer?

Was the stabber a vegetarian or a carnivore? Was he dissatisfied with his meal and need more protein, turning his hunger to the victim as a next course? Was the stabber a proponent of cannibalism? Did he season his victim with salt and pepper?

These are all questions that bother me, and I hunger for answers. Maybe linguistics can help us with our detective work.

When one studies foreign languages, like French and German, for example, the student becomes dismayed over the nuances of nouns. In English — or perhaps more precisely, American English — we don’t attach much complication to “the ball” or “your nose hairs.” But in French and German, nouns have genders. An object, like a ball, has a sex!

In French, “the ball” is “la balle,” so a ball is feminine. “Le nez” is French for “the nose,” so a nose is masculine. (The ‘le’ and ‘la’ are referred to as articles, and you probably get the drift by now as to which one is masculine and which is feminine.) So not only do you have to learn all new vocabulary for nouns, you have to remember if they are masculine or feminine, and use the proper articles.

German takes it up a notch, since nouns are either masculine, feminine, or — get this — neuter. (Yeah, that usually takes a while to sink in.) In German the articles that correspond to masculine, feminine and neuter are: der, die and das. Like with French, there is mostly arbitrariness instead of rhyme or reason when considering a link between the noun and its gender. It turns out that ball and nose are both feminine in German: die Kugel and die Nase. (Nouns in German are capitalized, by the way.) One bizarre example of gender assignment is the translation into German of “a young girl.” In German it’s “das Mädchen,” which is of neuter gender. So a young girl is not technically feminine or even masculine, but is actually neuter! Hmm.

Cutlery is a very weird subject to put on our linguistic plate.

In German, for the knife, the spoon and the fork, it’s das Messer, der Löffel, and die Gabel; the knife is neuter, the spoon is masculine and the fork is feminine. With this in mind, did the fork stabber add insult to injury by stabbing him with a feminine piece of cutlery?

Another angle is through the lens of cultural differences. Are Chinese unfamiliar with the proper use of American/Western eating utensils? Unfortunately, literature on the symbolism of chopsticks and their use, along with more modern Chinese views of Western cutlery confuses me more than Confucius.

I am no closer to understanding the situation even after reviewing the ancient writings of the great American philosopher, Yogi Berra, who counseled, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

If there’s one thing I do know, it’s that the next time you eat out you should be keenly aware of the diners around you, even your own dining partner. You never know who might wish to stab you with a fork, and let’s face it, there are plenty of them laying around.

Eggs-postulation in China

May 23, 2011

The Great Firewall has egg on its face, the result of a brazen protest attack against the chief computer strategist behind it. The expostulation took place last Thursday at Wuhan University in Hubei province, during a lecture on Internet security. Fang Binxing, known as “the father of the Great Firewall,” the highly censored Chinese version of the Internet, had eggs and shoes thrown at him.

Mr Fang’s more precise title is President of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, and he is the architect of the vast and sophisticated system of censorship that prevents Chinese citizens from accessing such dangerously subversive Web sites as Facebook and YouTube videos of “Days of Our Lives.”

Little is known of the attacker eggs-ept his Twitter name, @hanunyi. The police have remained tight-lipped, and Fang’s office denied that the incident took place, but there is no doubt that a young man hurled non-fatal eggs and footwear, and that afterwards, a Twitter user named @hanunyi took responsibility for the bombardment. Even though police and security personnel scrambled, they could not capture the shoe soldier, who after the attack tweeted, “The egg missed the target. The first shoe hit the target.”

Apparently Fang is now in the hospital, suffering from a mild case of post-omelet syndrome. Some Chinese netizens said that he got eggs-actly what he deserved, and that he was bacon for it. Many Chinese Internet users, both business and private users, feel that restrictions placed upon their access constitute a form of pun-ishment.

Reports have circulated that prior to the assault, @hanunyi had practiced his egg-throwing in Hubei province, using the Three Gorges Dam as a target. It has been widely published that there are problems with the dam, which is showing cracks and other signs of strain, even though the dam is only 5 years old. (Officially the dam cost in the neighborhood of $23 billion, although some eggs-perts have estimated the cost to be possibly as much as twice that figure.) Chinese police records of cell phone location show that in recent weeks @hanunyi traveled often to the dam, only about 200 miles away from Wuhan.

It is not known how many eggs had been thrown at the dam, but given the Chinese penchant for shoddy construction and corruption in the inspection process, physicists agree that a lot of eggs crashing against the dam could seriously weaken it.

Eggs-haustive laboratory analysis has not been completed yet on the sizable egg deposits, which are clearly visible on NSA photographs of the dam. (I may have mentioned before that having so many relatives in the NSA, CIA and FBI gives me access to a lot of really cool data.) Preliminary reports suggest that the target practice eggs may not have been organic. Some analysts even believe that the practice eggs were the same kind of chemically produced cackle fruit described in an eggs-posé here on corruption in the Chinese food industry. If this is true, it is possible that in addition to the Fang Binxing offensive, a sabotage plot might have been in the works. Since the chemically altered eggs contained paraffin, a flammable hydrocarbon, the perpetrators may have been trying to set the dam on fire. Trust me, I am not trying to make a yolk.

A reasonable response might be that a plan to set fire to a dam is all wet, since the water set free from its damned prison would simply put the fire out. But the water held back by the Three Gorges Dam is so polluted, that I am reminded of the David Bowie song lyrics, about putting out the fire with gasoline.

A biblical-proportion catastrophe such as that might have pleased the rapturers, rabid Christians who were blindly convinced that the world was coming to an end on May 21st.

But back to reality.

Some Chinese pundits eggs-plain that the reason that egg producers have turned to artificial ovoids is a shortage of chickens. Recently Shanghai enacted a one-dog policy, mimicking a four-legged version of China’s one-child policy. The one-dog policy, designed to decrease the dog population, went into effect today, and required owners to register their pets, or hefty fines would be eggs-acted. What did not make the international press is that China also passed a one-chicken policy, limiting both rural and urban households to one chicken.

According to Fling Dung, propaganda chief of the Peoples Bullying Party, if there are fewer eggs, then there will be fewer egg-throwing protests against government officials.

If I may draw my story to a close by offering some eggs-piation, I will point out that China, in a rare eggs-ample of amazing timing, is giving Pakistan 50 jet fighters. It was just three weeks ago that an eggs-treme team of US Navy SEALs flew advanced helicopters as quiet as Swiss wrist watches into Pakistan, and in a daring raid found and killed Osama bin Laden. The international terrorist had been hiding, in plain view, in an upscale neighborhood about a three-wood shot away from a prestigious military academy, Pakistan’s version of West Point.

Why is China giving them jet fighters? To take the edge off their embarrassment from the news that bin Laden had been hiding in a country that had pledged to help find him?  To buy loyalty for a country that is in serious danger of losing same from the US?

At any rate, some military insiders intimate that for Pakistan to engage modern Western jet fighters with the hardware China is providing will be like bringing a knife to a gunfight. As noted in a previous article, some of China’s current inventory of fighter aircraft is, um, better suited to carnival rides. Employing outdated avionics and powered by inbred Russian vacuum cleaners — I mean jet engines — the JF-17’s may soon be seen outside Islamabad converted into roadside food carts and cooking up kebabs.

The raison d’être of any fighter aircraft is the weaponry it brings, and while the jury is out on how lethal and effective those on board the gifted jets will be, industrial spies think the most likely weapon to come out of China’s nest will be the HMPTDMPT-5000, a gun capable of firing a dozen eggs a minute.

Cherry Milk Dreams

May 18, 2011

Rod Serling never saw this coming. My wife Michelle woke me up in the middle of the night, demanding to know what thirty times thirty equals. Welcome to my middle of the night zone.

Some guys have more predictably mainstream nights, and get to, you know, sleep. Night-time fare here is more exotic and colorful, with plenty of creative, sci-fi flavor. I told her the answer, 900, and that seemed to satisfy her.

As I tucked her back in, before she drifted back to sleep, she explained that she had had a dream, involving Somali pirates and Julia Child. This dream, which she told me about later, didn’t even come close to some of her more complex night-time entertainments. The plot of this one, and this is so predictable, centered on the re-enactment of a 17th century naval battle. In her dream, after the theatrical battle was over, Julia Child, on board the flag ship, was going to cook historically accurate dishes from that era. She was going to make biscuits from dough which had been soaked very carefully in cherry milk. (I had her repeat that part to me several times.) This is where the 30 x 30 came in, I think, but we’ll get to that later.

As with all battle re-enactments, actors were used, as opposed to real Nazis, real Confederates, or real redcoats. But, in her dream, the fake Somali pirates somehow became real Somali pirates, and the light-hearted feel of a fake battle suddenly changed and became scary, as newly predatory pirates fired real projectiles at the magnificent sailing ship, with real cannon balls exploding on deck and real bullets kicking out flying splinters of wood.

I would not recommend to anyone — not even an expert — to try to bake biscuits under these conditions, even in a dream.

My lawyer tells me that at this point I must mention that a person’s dreams have nothing to do with the dreamer’s sanity or lack thereof, and are not indicative of anything else that one might want to make fun of.

OK, time to get back to Julia, who we left all alone in the ship’s galley, where the whistling of a tea kettle had been replaced by the whistling of bullets. As we noted before, the dough for the biscuits she was going to bake had to be soaked in cherry milk, which sounds odd but good. (Heck, I’d like a glass of cherry milk right now.) Here’s where things get dodgy. Since some of the dough had sunk down into the milk, and some remained floating on top, a crucial calculation pertaining to baking times had to be performed, to ensure the success of the biscuits. Again, I had to get my wife to repeat this to me several times. I must also point out that it is not possible to make this stuff up.

Sometimes the ancient art of cooking requires advanced mathematical calculations, such as: converting cups to centiliters (24); determining the optimal number of twists from a lemon (14); or multiplying 30 times 30 (900). In times like this, quantitative skills can complement the artistic skills of a chef.

So for those of you food scientists, like Nathan Myhrvold, it was vitally important to Julia, and therefore my wife, that we figured out what thirty times thirty was. One day this might all make sense. Maybe by then I will have made a fortune by marketing cherry milk to 68 countries.

Stranger things have occured in the Twilight Zone.

Hope and Inspiration

May 16, 2011

Preparations for moving to the Pacific Northwest have begun in earnest, and stacks of filled boxes reach for the ceiling. All is in a structured disarray, and the cat is not amused.

With no prospects for teaching in the greater Boston region this summer or even fall — colleges are either cutting back on hiring, or hiring only tenure-track faculty with PhD’s instead of adjunct instructors like me — and a wife who hates her toxic job, we have decided to look for work in a more friendly climate. We don’t have jobs waiting for us, although we feel that Seattle has very rich soil, and after we plant ourselves there we will grow very nicely and blossom. Amazon.com, Microsoft, Boeing and other big firms are hiring, so it’s a good time to change fields.

This makes the third time I will be moving to the Northwest without a job waiting for me. I will point out that the first two times I was employed within weeks, which tends to make one optimistic. Adding to the current employment situation is the fact that I am not happy here. If given enough time I could give you a very long list explaining why I don’t like the East Coast; me, I love the West Coast, and in particular the Pacific Northwest, having lived there for some 25 years. The second time I moved there from the Washington DC area it was like going back home, and I needed some kleenex when I passed the ‘Welcome to Washington State’ sign on interstate highway 90. My wife is taking a wait-and-see approach, and all I can do is try to reassure her that it’s going to be OK.

We are both, however, somewhere between apprehensive and terrified, given the less than hearty state of the economy, and must place our trust in our own skills, marketability and devotion to hard work. I myself will not be praying, but will be pounding the pavement and sending out résumés.

Those who know me are aware that I am not religious, and that I see no rational, causal relationship between prayer and receiving that which is prayed for. That does not mean that I am not spiritual, which I am. It’s just that I trust and believe in different things than a Big Guy in the sky watching and interceding when plaintive broadcasts from Earthlings are received.

There is a source that I use for inspiration, a quote from the great German poet pictured above, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. (Don’t even try to pronounce it.) Way back in college, I studied German literature and philosophy, and as you may imagine, we spent quite a lot of time and effort studying Germany’s greatest literary figure.

This quote (see below) really helped me when I began to plan my move to Scotland. That was big. For about half my life I had lived and taught happily in the Puget Sound area, mostly in Bellingham and Seattle, which had been as comfortable as an old sweater. I lived in one of the most beautiful parts of the country, and was lucky enough to have a good teaching job and lots of great friends. Then, in the winter of 2005-2006, I began to formulate a plan to challenge myself and move to Scotland, where I would pursue post-graduate work, and then settle down.

It’s important to shake things up now and then, so my ambition was to go back to grad school, earn a PhD, and get a scholarly position in Scotland. Then I could spend the rest of my days teaching, playing golf, munching on haggis and downing the occasional wee dram of good single malt scotch. Plus there’s that hard to explain sensation of having fresh air swirl around one’s private parts while wearing a kilt

It was a huge undertaking, quitting my job, selling my house and car, and saying goodbye to all my friends. (They threw me a goodbye party, which took the form of a golf tournament and barbecue with 75+ people. At the end, when we were toasting and cutting a cake, Leroy the ringleader stood up, made an uncharacteristically short speech, and announced that a tidy sum of cash had been raised to assist me with moving expenses; it was almost $2000. I could not speak for fully ten minutes, and was so overcome with emotion I had to hide in the bathroom.) This was not a move across town, rather, it meant uprooting myself and moving around the world.

It was damn scary.

But as time went on, and more items were crossed off the list, I began to see that Goethe’s quote, his prognostication, was coming true. Little things began to fall into place, and new friends turned up out of nowhere to help me, as if the cosmos was giving me a friendly little shove in the small of the back. It was amazing.

Maybe his words will come true again, as we make arrangements to pack, and to transport ourselves, our stuff and our cat Hamish to Seattle, where hopefully good jobs and a bright future await us.

It’s time to get back to packing, so I will leave you with his quote, which I hope you will read and reflect upon.

**********
The moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decisions, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.

Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

Begin it now.”
**********
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

Your Cheatin’ Chinese Heart

May 10, 2011

Eating and drinking in China has recently become a very dodgy proposition. You can’t trust that the food in your bowl or the wine in your glass is safe. (“Safe” being a relative term.) People there are wary and growing nervous, suspecting not only street food, but also restaurants and packaged foods from grocery stores. Some are even getting angry, and sharing their anger online.

Moved by cut-throat competition and greed for profits, many Chinese farmers, dairies, food manufacturers and participants of the enormous food supply chain are finding creative and dangerous ways to cut corners and reduce costs. There are far too few food inspectors to cover the immense territory and overwhelming number of food industry players, and these comestible cops are ill-trained, ill-equipped and peppered with bribes. In this pressure cooker of a business environment, those food companies compelled to cheat feel that the risks of being caught are totally outweighed by the chance to make huge piles of money.

Something to keep in mind is that many of the largest companies are directly or indirectly controlled by the Peoples Bullying Party, and exist in order to benefit the government.

You might remember the food scandal a couple years ago, when some Chinese firms were caught mixing melamine — the plastic stuff used to make your spatula — into powdered baby milk. My high school chemistry teacher thought enough of me to call me “gourd head,” so keep in mind that my analysis and explanation may be a bit iffy. Apparently the chemicals in melamine ‘fooled’ instruments used to measure nutritional value, the test results suggesting that the milk powder was better for you than it really was. Hundreds of thousands of kids became sick, and some died.

The public backlash pressured the government into forcing the guilty milk powder producers to relabel the product as industrial glue. This glue was then sold to Chinese construction companies, who used it to build schools and hospitals. Sadly, these schools and hospitals collapsed shortly after they were filled with low-cost, low-quality desks and beds, which themselves had originally been waffles fortified with cardboard.

The government named a task force populated entirely by Chinese food industry executives to police the food industry. The head of this blue ribbon group, Wee Spanq-Yu, promised to be “the new sheriff in town.” The sheen is off his badge, however, since 26 tons of melamine-laced milk powder, supposedly outlawed and destroyed by now, were discovered a couple weeks ago in a Chongqing dairy company.

One horror story after another has turned up in the Chinese media, which in itself is a minor miracle, given the government’s paranoia about keeping bad news out of the public eye. The foods affected are common, everyday foods like pork and eggs, not exotica like lobster mac and cheese. Pork, for example leads all other meats in China, representing about two thirds of all meat consumed. As noted in the linked article in the first paragraph, there have been reports of pork found to be tainted with the drug clenbuterol, a steroid used in weight loss pills which can cause tremors and excessive sweating. Some pork had been sold as beef, after being braised in borax, a detergent additive handy for washing 20-mule teams. (“Beef with a clean aftertaste!”) Authorities found rice laced with cadmium, a heavy metal element that is spelled much like “calcium” but is not nearly as good for you.

The list goes on, with soy sauce spiced with arsenic, which should prove popular for families in small apartments eager to rid themselves of elderly relatives. And for those who want a tasty snack while enjoying a movie, food detectives have discovered popcorn and mushrooms enhanced with fluorescent bleach. Not only is your popcorn clean, but you can see it in the dark! How convenient for theatre-goers who drop their popcorn on the floor. Even eggs have been compromised. Yes, eggs, that most virginal of foods, protected by a shell as white as a wedding dress, have been despoiled. Rather than getting them the old fashioned way by catching them as they come out the business end of a chicken, Chinese authorities have found companies doing things Betty Crocker would never do. These fake eggs are made from a chemistry set, including such non-egg-istent ingredients as gelatin and paraffin. Now, I don’t remember what Mr Fawley may have taught us about paraffin, but I know it’s a hydrocarbon, and depending on its mood, it can be a solid, a liquid, or a gas — and it’s flammable. Your egg can be an omelet, AND a candle!

I don’t wish to sound insensitive, but even food from the irradiated parts of northeastern Japan sounds better than this.

Chinese wine drinkers are also in trouble. Wine drinking is relatively new in China, but growing fast. Hong Kong has become a hotbed of wine activity. Traditionally, Chinese mostly drink beer and baijiu, a white liquor distilled from frog sweat and mixed with rice vinegar, which sounds delicious. (To “skate on a lilly pad” is to be really tipsy on baijiu.) The growing middle class and exploding economy has allowed and encouraged greater discretionary spending, but now I sound like an economics professor.

Deep in the Chinese psyche — and I know a lot about the Chinese psyche because I prop up my laptop with Sun Tzu — is the need to display one’s status and prestige; appearance is everything. Often that prestige is propped up like a house of cards from parading imitations of brands like Gucci, Chanel and Rolex. So whenever middle managers host a banquet for family, friends, bosses and subordinates, they make sure that bottles of famous, expensive wines like Château Lafite and Pétrus are on the tables.

Now here’s the funny part: a Chinese wine drinker will pour himself a hefty glass of sensuous Bordeaux, and then … add Coke to it. (?) This is hard to wrap one’s mind around, and I am by no means a wine snob. Wine is wonderful because of its complexity, its variety of enticing flavors, and its unique ability to gain in complexity as it ages. All those delectable smells and flavors and nuances will be pretty much spoiled, lost in that sugary soda invented by a Georgia pharmacist in the 1880’s. (Coca-Cola is currently celebrating its 125th birthday.)

In a November, 2009 New Yorker article, Evan Osnos tells how Chinese wine drinkers were fond of mixing wine with soft drinks, and relates a popular saying, “Red wine and Sprite — the more you drink, the sweeter you’ll be.” Other observers note that “some Chinese consumers are said to dilute even the most expensive clarets with lemonade.” (“Claret” is actually a British term for red Bordeaux. Interesting that the famous ‘claret jug’ that is the prize — along with cash — for the British Open golf tournament is a beautiful silver jug for French wine.)

Rocketing demand for the elite wines not only propels the prices into outer space, but causes shortages; unfortunately those pesky principles of demand and pricing obey the laws of economics, not physics. Wine lovers are peeved that prices of the good stuff are climbing out of reach, while the hyperyummy vintages are getting really hard to find. (“Hyperyummy” is a technical wine-tasting term.)

On the one hand, selling mountains of cases of wine is what every winery and distributor wishes. But on the other hand, the winemakers want their products to be appreciated and cherished. Wine that has taken years if not decades to produce, requires grape vines to be planted and allowed to mature, if Mother Nature is on your side. Each year the grapes grow and once again plenty of luck is involved, since the combination of sun, rain and temperature must be just right. The grapes get picked and then the juice ferments into wine, which is then aged in costly wood barrels for years before the wine is finally bottled. Most reputable wineries age the bottled wine on site to ensure that it is well looked after during its adolescence. It is a time-consuming, hands-on process involving luck, skill, passion and patience. To turn the contents of an exquisite bottle into the prime ingredient for a wine cooler causes chafing in sensitive emotional areas.

There are a variety of shady techniques used to cheat Chinese wine drinkers. Similar to a common ruse in the Old West, when bar owners watered down whiskey to make more money, some Chinese wine merchants will buy big quantities of wine, and then dilute it with water, and add sugar and various chemicals to ‘improve’ the taste. Another strategy used by unscrupulous wine salesmen in China is to buy empty bottles of famous vintages, the big name stuff that is sought after the most. They are forthright in asking that the bottles be in pristine condition with perfectly clean labels. They then fill the bottles with lesser wine — or “plonk” to use one of my favorite British words — and sell it as the real stuff for exhorbitant prices. Unbelievable.

Respectable people in the China wine trade, such as Westerners there to teach the Chinese about wine, insist that empty bottles be thoroughly smashed after use, to ensure they won’t go into this perfidious pipeline.

In the latest Chinese wine scandal, evidence of corruption and conspicuously luxurious consumption at Sinopec has fueled an angry outpouring from regular citizens. Sinopec is an oil refiner and China’s largest company, if measured by revenue and not by the number of employees or the sharpness of their pencils. It is 75% owned by the Communist Party, and top officials are appointed not by a board of directors, as in corporate America, but by the secretive Chinese government. Top-level Sinopec managers bought nearly 100 cases of exquisite wine for around $250,000. Some bottles cost more than $2,000 each.

Helping to light the fuse of popular anger was the fact that gas prices had just hit new highs, and Sinopec’s profits were 25% higher than the previous quarter’s. One seething blogger asked, “is Sinopec an oil company or a wine merchant?” It is not clear if the wine was consumed with Coke — some of the wine has been quaffed — or if it was intended for gifts or bribes. Evidently the Guangdong district manager on whom the spotlight fell has been demoted but not fired.

My sources reveal that he has an interesting new function at Sinopec. One of my deep-cover intelligence gatherers, disguised as a window cleaner, sent a Morse code message by tapping his squeegee. He was cleaning windows outside a conference room, and he overheard the executives hammering out a plan for a new wine to be marketed by Sinopec. It’s to be made by mixing gasoline, paraffin and other chemicals, red food color and Coke.

The disgraced manager is to be the chief taste tester.

“Your cheatin’ heart will make you weep
You’ll cry and cry and try to sleep
But sleep won’t come the whole night through
Your cheatin’ heart will tell on you.”
~Hank Williams

Coming Clean

May 5, 2011

The history of toilet paper is (insert your own joke here). Now, don’t you feel better? I have no doubt that you took the opportunity to make a dirty joke. While you were thinking up your joke you probably went to the bathroom, and so now you’re relaxed and paying attention. It’s what every writer wants: the most desirable reader is one who is relaxed and paying attention.

We don’t really pay much attention to toilet paper. It’s not something we think about very often. We buy it once a week or so, we use it every day, and we take it for granted. We experiment until we find one we like, and then we settle into that comfortable mindset of reaching out and finding the kind that handles our particular needs. If we are of an economic bent, we have also calculated some sort of cost/benefit ratio that fits our budget goals.

Measuring high on our calculus of well-being is sitting down on the throne and seeing a full roll in front of us; an annoyingly low score is when one perches on porcelain and notices that there are only a few squares left. Everyone knows the Seinfeld episode where Elaine gets caught in a movie theatre bathroom stall, one which suffers from a paucity of TP. Much to her chagrin, the occupant of the next stall cannot “spare a square” and won’t give her any. This leads to a tale of vengeance, which in the wrong hands could have been a very naughty pun indeed.

According to some sources, the Chinese, while searching for democracy, invented the early progenitor to toilet paper. Yan Zhitui, a 6th century “scholar/official,” wrote that any paper documents devoted to furthering human rights should be used instead to “wipe the bum clean of any such impurities.” In the picture above we see that this early toilet paper was little more than flat sticks. In a precursor to Communist Party privilege, high ranking officials enjoyed toilet paper sticks that had first been polished and perfumed by young girls, while commoners, intellectuals and other detritus were forced to use prickly rose stems.

Modern toilet paper comes in all sorts of patterns and colors, and in a variety of thicknesses. The good stuff is generally thicker and softer, while the cheap stuff is thin and scratchy. Back in the 1970’s, I was a young man back-packing through Europe. I travelled in a country that shall not be named, and had the misfortune to discover that the toilet paper used there was more like wax paper. Without going into too much detail let’s just say that its absorption parameters were less than desirable.

There are all sorts of novelty toilet papers on the market, some looking like money, disreputable newspapers or printed with the faces of out of favor politicians. In France the Union Jack is a popular toilet paper, while in the UK, the French blue/red/white “Tricolore” is a big seller. Someone I know wants to produce toilet paper imprinted with the face of her boss.

Commonly, one obtains a satisfactory length of toilet paper, and then, before it is put to use, the enthroned either wads it into a bunch or folds it into a square or a rectangle. A philosophical friend and I once engaged in an energetic discussion of people who were either “wadders” or “folders,” the former emerging as impatient types who were irrational and wasteful, while the latter were logical, organized and successful. The wadded mass of TP was a “one-time use only” solution, while a neat rectangle lended itself to refolding, and could be used for more than one pass; clearly folding is more advantageous.

I will make two more points, and then I will, as it were, put the matter behind me. First is the matter of orientation, or the question of ‘over’ or ‘under.’ According to statistics that I have just made up, 96.3% of all toilet paper in the US is mounted horizontally; the rest of the rolls are mounted vertically (?) or just left sitting on the floor. The decision regarding how the new roll will be mounted is not a random one; one is either an ‘over’ or ‘under’ person. If you install the roll so that the first new square comes down next to the wall (‘under’), then you do whatever your mother tells you to do, and you haven’t yet learned to think for yourself. If, on the other hand, you place the new roll on the roller so that the first new square comes down over and out towards you and is in plain view, you are a rational person who uses evidence and logic to make decisions.

If you follow the first method, you cannot see the next square, since it is hidden from view. You have to rotate the roll away from you so that the needed square moves down until it comes into your line of sight, some distance below the roll, and is almost always in shadow. In fact, you may have to rotate the roll quite a bit until the first square becomes visible, which wastes time. Next, in order to grab it, you must pinch one of the sheets against the wall, which is entirely unsatisfactory. Finally, you must hope that when you rip off a length it is what you want, because the rip line is out of sight and you don’t know what’s going on. Will it rip at the line I wish? Will it rip in an uneven manner, leaving me not only with tattered bits of TP in my hand, but also tattered bits left behind on the roll? This is just sad.

If you follow the second method, the ‘over’ method, then you can see the next square because it is clearly in plain view, in the light, and you can directly grab it. If the first square is not visible, then you make the positive motion of rolling it towards you instead of away from you; don’t you want the toilet paper to come to you? Then, when one has pulled out the desired length, one simply rips along the visible line, and voila! the defecator is ready to go.

It is plain to the meanest intelligence that the first method is negative while the second is positive. The former method is the embodiment of inefficiency and uncertainty, while the second method is the epitome of rationality, efficiency and control.

It should be clear which method I use.

The second and last item of importance to discuss is the matter of value and risk. As mentioned earlier, the toilet paper purchaser has much to choose from, and the rational purchaser takes cost into consideration. There are those who feel that the prudent choice is for single-ply TP, since it is the cheapest. This is a false economy.

My wife studied art history at college, earning a bachelor’s degree from Boston University, and she also did post-graduate work at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Art history students bear the greatest burden because they have to carry the largest and heaviest books. Over the years she purchased and wore out a variety of bags. Finally she invested in a high quality leather bag by Coach. Yes, this cost more than the others, but it has outlasted all the cheaper bags by far.

When you prepare your wad or folded rectangle of toilet paper to plunge into battle, you decide, in essence, what caliber of weapon to use. If you use single-ply, it may require a half dozen or more sheets, sometimes many more. Indeed, some single-ply TP is so thin and delicate, an ephemeral gossamer, that the tiniest puff of air would blast it to bits. The tiniest molecule of moisture turns it to watery mush. Is this what you want? Or would you rather have the equivalent of Kevlar, a mighty and impenetrable shield to protect you and your loved ones from harm?

Here I will introduce the distasteful but crucial concept of Toilet Paper Failure (TPF). This is the unspeakably horrible situation when the toilet paper rips apart, and one’s finger passes from the neutral zone into the danger zone, contacting that which the toilet paper is to remove. This is too awful, too heinous to imagine, but it has happened to me. (It took a solid half hour of washing my hands over and over with very hot water and soap before I felt ready to rejoin the company of humankind.) By god, it will never happen to me again.

At our house we use a triple-ply TP, and three sheets are enough to provide a buttress of protection. I will not bore you with statistical details, like sheets per month, or cost per bathroom visit, but trust me when I say that I have calculated all that and more. It is cheaper to buy thicker TP, since the number of squares of thin single-ply needed to equal the stopping power of the thick stuff and prevent TPF is many times higher than the number of multi-ply squares required. It even takes more time and trouble to roll out those extra sheets of flimsy single-ply, so we are saving time and reducing both frustration and risk by using the thick stuff.

In the end, single-ply is simply a bad choice.

Much of my essay is aimed at those who buy toilet paper for chains of hotels or restaurants, or public places like airports, athletic stadiums or parks. So, if you do institutional purchasing of toilet paper, and you are one of the boneheads, the morons who buy the cheap, single-ply crap, think about what you’ve learned today. Buy instead the good stuff, the multi-ply stuff, to use in the bathrooms of your domain. Then I won’t have to assemble my elite squad (Toilet Paper Team 6),  and wrap your house with 4-ply.

The Death of Osama bin Laden

May 3, 2011

In a dramatic and heroic example of American and British teamwork, Navy SEAL‘s and British commandos invaded Osama bin Laden’s walled compound near Abbottabad — brazenly located barely a three-wood shot away from Pakistan’s version of West Point — and killed al-Qaeda’s hated and demonic leader.

Originally, the American commando team was thought to be composed of SEAL’s and CIA operatives, but I have a huge surprise to reveal. Two more personnel were added at the last minute, people with very posh accents. On the Friday morning before the late Sunday raid, Prince William and Kate Middleton were married in a fabulous royal wedding in London. (No, I was not invited, either.) On Saturday they headed north to Scotland, to enjoy a quiet honeymoon away from the press on the Queen’s estate at Balmoral Castle.

Everyone knows that Prince William served in the British armed forces, where he trained to fly helicopters and to eat pâté under truly deplorable conditions. What was not previously well-known is that Kate is far more dangerous than her slendor good looks would lead one to believe. She had been instructed in advanced combat skills since childhood by her uncle, a highly decorated British commando famous for his weapons mastery, and for strangling people from 25 feet away.

Kate and William are a dynamic duo (or is it dynastic duo?) for the modern age, a married and heterosexual version of Batman and Robin who will fight against evil wherever they find it. They had been contacted by an old friend, Admiral William McRaven, the highly decorated commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the unit in charge of the attack. Admiral McRaven, who is to Navy SEAL’s what Roger Clemens is to Little League pitchers, once killed twenty men armed only with a golf tee, saving the life of Kate’s uncle.

McRaven had been invited to the royal wedding, and knew that the royal couple, now known officially as Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (along with 20 or 30 other titles), would be bored out of their skulls, and craved a little action. It was McRaven who arranged for secret transport from Scotland to Afghanistan.

A crack shot, it was Kate who fired the fatal shot from her pink custom Walther P99 pistol. Once back on board the helicopter, it was William at the controls who flew them to safety. Eyewitnesses claim that on the return journey, after passing back into Afghani airspace, the royal couple enjoyed a chilled glass of 2006 Ridgeview Estate, a prize-winning British sparkling wine. Word is that they toasted the end of terrorism.