Archive for the ‘Current Affairs’ Category

The Missing Wallet

September 6, 2014

 

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September, 2014 

Some of my relatives have posted some Douglass Family stories recently, in anticipation of the clan gathering to take place soon in Maryland. I love stories. Stories form the basis of history and learning. It’s the first thing you do with a very young child: you do them a favor and read them (or tell them) a story. Stories teach us language and life lessons, and sometimes we learn a moral or two. We learn about love and bravery, and form opinions about who we want to be. The best of these Douglass Stories were written by my brother Dave, the one with the well-deserved English degree. I’d like to add a story of my own.

It was a summer back in the 70’s, and I think it was during our years at Washington College. (Really good years.) Dave was earning some money working on a Virginia ranch managed at the time by my cousin’s husband, Mitch. I drove down from Rockville, planning to spend a few days there, and looking forward to some time with my brother and our cousin Donna Susan.

One of the first things that happened after I arrived was a horseback ride with Dave. I think I was just stepping out of the car when they attacked me. It was, “Hi JD. Wanna ride a horse?” And before I could say, “What about insurance?” they had me in the saddle. Back then I carried a wallet like most men did, in the back pocket of my jeans. It struck me that the jarring of butt against hard leather might cause my wallet to be ejected from its haven in the pocket. Mitch said that in all his time in the saddle that had never happened to him. It would have taken less time than a golf swing to take my wallet out and put it in the car or Donna’s hand, but I decided not to. Heck, Mitch was an old hand at this, what’s the big deal?

So Dave and I set out on a cruise, just the two of us. We went through trees, by a meadow and a creek, alongside a nudist camp (just kidding!) and all over the place. It was great. The only times I had been on a horse had been at carnivals, when I was just knee-high to a cricket, and was led in a circle on a pony. This was a full-grown, adult horse putting out more horsepower than I was used to. We trotted, cantered, galloped and all those things one did on a horse. I was having the time of my life.

At one point we came out of a stand of trees into a clearing, and my brother looked over at me with that characteristic sparkle of trouble in his eyes. He said, “My horse is faster than yours” and downshifted. He took off, his horse kicking up dust right in my in my face. I thought, “To hell with that!” and took off after him. I don’t know where we went, or even how far we went. I didn’t know the territory and just tried to do my greenhorn best to not fall off the horse and hopefully keep him in view. We started going faster.

Dave looked good on a horse, that natural look that movie stars with big chins have. I looked more like someone sitting on top of an old VW bus used for drivers ed in the Swiss Alps. After a while we wound up back at the house, tired but happy. It had been great. Then I reached for my wallet and found nothing but a sore bottom. I panicked. “My wallet’s gone!” Plenty of bad words that I might have heard for the first time at Tom and Tillie’s came spilling out.

We organized a search party like someone had been lost on Mt Rainier, and began retracing our horses’ steps. Nothing. My heart pounded harder — money, ID, credit cards, an ancient, unused condom — all of it was gone. Donna Susan was a model of stoicism and a steadying presence, insistent that I calm down and eat dinner. The wallet wasn’t going anywhere, and it was getting dark soon. We could look for it tomorrow.

In the comfortable house, beers were produced without delay, and there may have been whiskey shots too; the memory can play tricks under duress and after a year or two. Dave, Mitch and I were in the living room, while Donna was in the kitchen preparing dinner. Then came the question I will never forget: “JD, can you eat a whole steak?”

What does that mean? What is a “whole steak”? A naïve boy from the suburbs, I said “sure.” We moved into the dining room and sat. Donna took my plate and shot me a glance I classified as ‘enigmatic.’ She returned moments later with a thick steak that was bigger than my plate in all directions. I stared. Someone scooped mashed potatoes onto a side dish for me while I was paralyzed; there was no room for anything else on the plate except for that large slab of cow. I found my knife and fork.

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I had been angry, frustrated and frightened by the unnecessary loss of my wallet; I had been hungry. I lost myself in that steak, chewing and cutting and stabbing and chewing. I tossed down large gulps of beer, and tore into the steak, as if chewing more furiously and eating faster would bring my wallet back.

After eating, and then sitting on the couch in a meat-induced stupor, I couldn’t shake the idea that my wallet was gone. It grated on me. I pleaded with Donna Susan and Mitch to let me look for it some more. (I must have been a bigger whiner than George Costanza ever could be.) We enlisted some of the men who worked on the farm to go with us, and soon we had a posse, armed with small trucks with racks of high-intensity lights on top. We drove through trees and trails, turning night into day and trying to reconstruct our route on the afternoon’s ride. Now and then we saw the illuminated eyes of deer, but saw nothing else. They must have thought I was nuts. Dejected and exhausted, I returned to the house and tried to sleep.

The next morning brought contradiction, in that I really was capable of eating again. Cousin Donna served a large and delicious breakfast — she was my sainted angel, and kept my coffee cup full; I was sure she felt my pain. (I am so thankful for family.) Without the advantage of using cranes to stand up, Dave and I found horses, saddled up, and started out, the obvious plan being to once again retrace our tracks. We trotted slowly, eyes on the ground looking for a sign.

We covered a lot of ground, going through fields, meadows, and lots of other kinds of Mother Nature I have no words for. We came across one area that was a hay field, but we recognized it as a particularly bumpy part of our horseback ride the previous day. We dismounted — that was new for me, to ‘dismount’ from a horse — and started combing the area. I was frustrated and angry — I was NEVER going to find my wallet. I started going through all the steps I would have to take, cancelling credit cards, trying to resurrect my life, finding phone numbers and the other crucial detritus one couldn’t live without. I was dreich and lost in thought.

Dave was about 30 yards away and called out, interrupting my thought. “JD, what does your wallet look like?” I didn’t even look up. “Oh, it’s black leather like every other wallet.” “Does it look like this?” 

What?

I looked over, and Dave was holding up a wallet. It looked like MY wallet. I ran over for a closer look.

It was a miracle, a needle found in a haystack, a wallet lost on a miles-long horseback ride out in the country. I gave him a hug. We had a big steak again that night, and for some reason it tasted better than the one the evening before.

A few years later I lost my wallet again, this time in the wilds of Washington DC, and once more it was found by someone else when common sense declared that such an event would be impossible. But that story will be told another day, and it still won’t be as special to me as this one.

J.D. Douglass

 

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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?

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.

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.

Shedding Tears and Dissidents

November 1, 2011

Can tears be put to work? Are they a plentiful and renewable resource? This intrepid reporter has uncovered a startling new plan by the Chinese government to harvest large volumes of tears. But to what end?

A recent New York Times article reveals that China wants to become a global leader in desalination, the process of removing salt from water. Supplying fresh water to the world would surely be a hugely profitable venture, placing the producers in what James Thurber would call the catbird seat.

Fresh water is required by each of the planet’s 7 billion souls, and the quantity of fresh water needed will keep increasing. How many farm animals and non-farm animals are there in the world, and how much water do they need? What about farms that grow crops? Stop and think of how much fresh water could be sold to vast and arid nations such as Egypt and Australia, or nations bordering salt water lakes and oceans; it becomes more staggering.  China, with roughly 1/5 of the world’s population, soon will need more than any other country. People, animals, crops, and many sorts of heavy industries need water. Hey, all this talk is making me thirsty!

The Communist Party has given Code Brue status to achieving technological superiority in producing fresh water cheaply. This is partly to satisfy Chinese needs, and partly to export.

China’s water demands are most dire in its western provinces, far from sources of both fresh and salt water. In recent months, however, a source has presented itself.

All across China, dissension and protest have risen due the public’s disfavor with government corruption and many other contentious issues. The Internet-fueled civil resistance of the Arab Spring scares the daylights out of the Central Committee, who fear that it might spread to China. The attempted cover-up of the fatal high-speed train wreck in eastern China was promulgated with lightning speed by Internet-based social media, a new force in China. Forced evacuation no longer applies to just the lowly and powerless, but has spread to the well-to-do, helping to spread the feeling that corrupt government officials hoping to profit from increased land values are behind it.

The Chinese food industry is in disarray from nationwide food scandals, and ordinary citizens are frightened about food safety. A hugely popular TV show has been cancelled, for the only plausible reason that TV viewers chose the winner, and this smacked too much of democracy. Recently, the tenth Tibetan monk set himself on fire to protest the forced occupation — is any occupation unforced? — of Tibet by Chinese nationals.

Prior to all this, the Communist Party has been ominously expert in quashing any and all protests, calling such outbursts threats to “harmony and stability.” Recently the government has begun cracking down even more severely on those dissident netizens who spread potentially embarrassing “false rumors” and “wrong information” suggesting that the government is fallible or corrupt.

The paranoid old men who run China are scared to death of anything that might lessen their absolute grip on power. This is why so many bold and critical Chinese are whisked away at night and not seen or heard from again. There are costs, however, to separating Chinese citizens from their freedom: China is suffering from a shortage of prisons.

Since it would cost too much to build prisons in remote areas, the Chinese government plans to “construct” prisons made from prisoners. Not made “by” prisoners; made “from” prisoners. These new prisons are to be called Harmonious Bamboo Gardens.

Detailed plans smuggled out of Ganzi in the alimentary canal of a goat show that prisoners will stand close together, mimicking the bars of a jail cell. The incarcerated must use the honor system and stay within the confines of their cells, or they will face severe punishment. Likewise any prison bar personnel will be cruelly punished if they “bend” and allow the escape of a prisoner.

Those who are given the duty of standing in place for excruciatingly long periods of time, and playing the role of a steel bar, are to be called “vertebrates.” Those who are imprisoned in the flesh and blood jail cells are referred to as “the guilty.”

Since their plight is expected to be awful, government authorities predict that both the vertebrates and the guilty will spend most of their time crying. Their tears will be collected by drains in the flooring, leading to a clever piping system and pumped to desalination plants close by. In an irony of Chinese marketing, the bottled water is to be called Freedom Water.

It is not known if any of the Freedom Water will be used to extinguish the flames of the Tibetan monks who set themselves on fire.

Occupy a Dictionary

October 17, 2011

I love to read. There are few pleasures that can surpass that of sitting quietly in a comfortable chair, and imbibing one good sentence after another from a good book. Or a good magazine like the New Yorker, the Atlantic or the Economist. Reading is one of the purest forms of thinking, and I believe that thinking is fun.

Life is short, and we all deserve more fun.

When one has devoured a fair number of books — there are still so many left! — one starts to read more carefully. The more one reads, the more clearly one sees the differences between good writing and the rest. Something that is well written is a pleasure to be around, like a good conversationalist. Really good writing is so much more than just proper grammar and correct spelling. You know what I’m talking about: someone you enjoy hearing speak probably has a nice voice and a sense of humor, tells compelling stories, and uses interesting and imaginative language; you want them to keep talking. On the other hand, someone who speaks only of himself or herself, has a monotonic voice, and uses bad grammar and dull language will not be able to hold an audience for very long.

So it is with writing: combine the on-paper attributes of a good speaker (has a sense of humor, tells a compelling story, and uses interesting language) with correct spelling and proper grammar and punctuation, and it’s hard to put down. But sprinkle the piece you are reading with poor spelling and wretched grammar — like wrong notes in a symphony or ill-matched parts of a piece of furniture — and the quality and enjoyment plummets. Flaws like bad spelling and grammar can damage the story and break the magic spell. Low quality writing grates on the careful reader, which means that he or she might not wish to claw their way to the end.

One of my teachers used to say that the aim of a writer was to engage the reader so that he or she wants to continue turning the pages.

When confronted with flawed writing, a tiny growling sound begins to form in the base of my throat, and the need to point out the error to the author is nearly overwhelming. Is it out of a need for punishment or vengeance? Is it to feel superior? I don’t think so; I see it as more of a desire to help the author to improve.

Our country is populated by adults who ostensibly went to high school, and maybe even college, yet a quick review of the writing skills of some of them often suggests otherwise. These adults often post things in Facebook, where they find new and inventive ways to mangle the English language. (Here I must remind my readers that my wife is dyslexic, and that I am keenly aware of and sensitive to their impairments; my comments are directed at those who do not suffer from that sort of reading disorder and therefore may not use that excuse when defending their writing.) The profusion of errors seems to prove that either the writer missed quite a lot of English classes, or else their teachers were incompetent or indifferent to their students’ mastery of elementary skills, or some combination of all of those. In addition, I believe that many people do not read much; one who does not read is not likely to become a very good writer.

Do these Facebook perpetrators want their audiences to enjoy what they have written? Or are they narcissistic and clueless like many of the “Occupiers”? Don’t writers want to be liked and respected? Or do they not mind being mistaken for a small child or perhaps a Chinese writer of English-language instruction manuals?

Like many other devoted readers, I have a small handful of pet peeves about spelling. Is it really so hard to tell which version of “your” or “you’re” is correct? What about there/their/they’re? Maddeningly, it seems as if people flip coins when it comes to choosing between enormously complicated words like to/two/too or “its” versus “it’s”. (And by the way, [its’] is not a word.) There is this wonderful invention called the “dictionary” and there might even be one on your shelf. It is a tool that can help you if you are not sure.  I often use it, because nobody can remember how to spell every word, and to me it’s worth the time to look up words and get them right.

Over the course of twenty years I have tried to inculcate in my students a respect for language and for getting things right. Let’s assume for a moment that one of them graduated and got hired. If that student were to write memos filled with errors, with all sorts of sloppy grammar and misspellings, their boss would begin to question their credibility, and to doubt their ability to perform their job properly. Employees are representatives of their companies, and their work, and their writing, reflects upon the company. From a business customer’s point of view, if a contact person at a vendor’s company could not do something as simple as spelling a short word correctly — perhaps the name of a product — could they be counted on to correctly fill a customer’s order? To send the right number of the right items? Little things matter, and as a very wise friend from Texas likes to say, “The devil’s in the details.”

Write poorly, misspell things, and people will think less of you. (Isn’t it similar to not being able to do the simplest math? If someone cannot do a very simple calculation, like make correct change from a cash register, don’t you think somewhat less of them?) If someone points out a mistake you made, like a misspelled word or a grammatical error, don’t assume that the person is trying to punish you or make fun of you; maybe that person is trying to help you out so that you’ll get it right next time, and maybe avoid worse treatment by others.

Next time we will test a new 3-D graphics interface, and evaluate how well you throw virtual tomatoes at me.

Droning On and On

October 15, 2011

Unmanned aerial drones — also called ‘unmanned aerial vehicles‘ or UAV’s — have become the weapon of choice in today’s theatre of modern warfare. Why send soldiers into battle and risk loss of life when a highly-trained technologist can sit safely hundreds or thousands of miles from danger, and demolish a target as easily as zapping aliens in a video game? Furthermore, the precision allowed by a drone attack means that concentrated force can be applied to very small targets with surgical accuracy.

Instead of blowing up an area the size of a city block or small village — approximately the same area taken up by most of today’s SUV’s — a military officer can choose and hit much smaller targets, such as a pool table or Smart car. (Common sense says that we should avoid both; we were all warned about the dangers of playing pool in “The Music Man” and elementary physics tells us that Smart cars will lose in any collision contest with a vehicle bigger than a Volkswagen, and become tiny airborne coffins.) Almost like a sniper, a drone can destroy a selected, small bull’s-eye while leaving surrounding objects unharmed.

Early success has led to rapid growth in the industry, and as history teaches us, superior weaponry leads to big dollar business, which tends to fuel more research and development. While currently the drone business is aimed, so to speak, at nations doing battle with other nations, and the elimination of terrorists, I predict that the personal drone industry will soon eclipse that of the big boys of the multinational scene.

As imagined by the New Yorker cartoonist Mick Stevens in the drawing above, we will soon be able to purchase personal drones to fulfill our needs. Your spouse is cheating? Send in a drone. Your boss is harrassing you? Send in a drone. There’s a bully at your school? Send in two or three drones and kill him slowly. Is the second bassoonist a little flat in the Beethoven concerto? Send in a microdrone.

The “Occupy Wall Street” protests have become a more global phenomenon recently, but many participants seem unable to articulate reasons why they are doing what they are doing. Personal drones could circle the area of interest, and listen to conversations on the ground. If, during a televised interview with, say Geraldo Rivera, the protester uttered something like, “Corporations aren’t fair!” or “Capitalism is greedy and the devil’s playground!” a drone could plummet like an angry coconut and take the offender out. Audience participation software could decide if Rivera would also be eliminated.

The Well and the Bucket

October 9, 2011

Here at the Fountain we would like you to know that the well has not gone dry; rather, we have temporarily misplaced our bucket.

More soon.