Friday, March 26, 2010

Stay on the High Road

The "Go for it" taunt made me wince. Sorry to see that it was apparently part of the prepared remarks as well. It's a needless bit of dancing in the end zone, if you ask me, and out of character for Obama.

You never want to provide headlines for the other team to put on the locker-room bulletin board. Also, his credibility with independents is too fragile yet to act so cocky.

Obama does this sort of thing from time to time -- cutting remarks like "You're likable enough" to Hillary Clinton and "I won" when in a Roosevelt Room meeting with Dem and GOP leaders last year on the stimulus.

When I saw this, my mind went immediately to the image of President Bush's callow challenge to insurgents in Iraq to "bring it on." Which they did.

Color Theory

Two caps, same plate, same lighting, same settings on the camera.

P.J. Woods & Co. Insurance Calendar Weather Forecast Report Card: March 22-25, 2010

Forecast for March 22 - 25
“Windy and wet – rain and a few thunderstorms.”

Observations at Logan Airport (via Weather Underground)

Date Avg. Wind Speed (mph) Conditions Rainfall
March 22 8 Overcast0.08"
March 23 16 Rain2.22"
March 24 17 Overcast0.02"
March 25 12 Mostly CloudyT

The forecast was fairly accurate, except for the “thunderstorms” part, and it was not especially windy for this time of year. We did receive at least a trace of rain all four days, however, with March 23 seeing a record rainfall of 2.22".


Cumulative GPA

What Is This?
A periodic check-up on the weather forecasts printed at the bottom of a nice big calendar from the P.J. Woods and Co. Insurance Agency, Peabody, Massachusetts.

Book Review: Rendezvous with Rama

Arthur C. Clarke
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

This is one of two Nebula-winning novels I have read so far that involve a totally neat-o, unusually-shaped, artificially-created world (the other is Ringworld).

In this story, Earth is innocently spinning along through space when suddenly our scientists see a blip on the radar and discover that something is coming towards us at tremendous speed from the edge of the solar system. As the object gets nearer they are able to see that it is a cylinder, made of metal and so exactly proportioned that it must have been made by an intelligent life form. At first they are afraid that it is going to hit us, but it slows down when it gets close to Earth. A crack scientific and military team is quickly assembled to intercept it.

When the team links up in space with the oncoming object, it does indeed turn out to be an absolutely enormous cylindrical spaceship. And when the team is able to get inside, they discover that inside the cylinder is actually a complete world, complete with seas and mountains and prairies. The catch is that the world is inside out, with the seas and mountains and prairies covering the entire inside skin of the cylinder. The cylinder revolves to create gravity, so that the seas stay in place, and so that when a human stands on the “ground” on the inside of the cylinder, they feel like they’re standing on a regular planet – even though the other side of the “world” is not under their feet but over their head.

The humans’ exploration of the new world is detailed and entertaining. Clarke not only thinks of the big things, like how the world gets heat and light, but also the little things, like that people might get a little queasy when they crawl down the stairway from the center of the cylinder (where there is hardly any gravity) to the ground on the inside edge of the cylinder (where there is Earthlike gravity).

The book is not overtly scary, but there are definitely moments when it is quite tense and suspenseful. Especially when you realize that the Earth team might not be alone…

This is actually just the first book in what eventually became a Rama series. The next books are also pretty good, exploring more of the spaceship and eventually letting you meet its builders. But Rendezvous with Rama is definitely the best of them all.

The only things that rang a bit false to me in this book were the characters. Clarke doesn’t seem to be able to write most of them so they seem like real people. However, if you can ignore that and the often stilted conversations and instead focus on the exploration of the really cool world-in-a-cylinder, you’re home free.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Quick Health Care Reform Post-game Show

I grieved the loss of the public option last year. My fear over the past month was more political: that the Democrats would once again get scared of offending someone rather than realize that people respect parties and politicians who disagree with them if one knows where they stand. So winning this vote, as weak as the actual legislation is, should work as a confidence-builder.

Most of the Democrats in Congress have spent their entire careers cowering in fear of someone calling them a “liberal.” It took new blood, someone like Al Franken who hadn't had time to get into the DLC-Frum-Carville defensive crouch, to get impatient and demand that Obama do some spadework on this. And then Pelosi's sharp-elbowed personality, which I hadn't ever found endearing before, was put to good use.

As for the legislation itself, I'm persuaded by the analysis that it's a foot in the door, and an important re-definition of the federal role in health care. We’re closer to a single-payer system now.

Also, back to the politics, I think Obama’s detachment during 2009 was part of a longer-term plan to establish his bona fides as a post-partisan. The country doesn't blame him for his failure to get GOP votes, and the next two issues, immigration and financial reform, are going to be trickier for the Tea Partiers to oppose.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Two Kinds

Lucas firmly believes that there are two kinds of people: leaders and backlers.

Which kind are you?

Monday, March 22, 2010

P.J. Woods & Co. Insurance Calendar Weather Forecast Report Card: March 17-21, 2010

Forecast for March 17 - 21
“Dry, rather quiet, with plenty of sun and light winds.”

Observations at Logan Airport (via Weather Underground)

Date Rainfall Conditions Avg. Wind Speed (mph)
March 17 0" Clear8
March 18 0" Scattered Clouds11
March 19 0" Partly Cloudy6
March 20 0" Mostly Cloudy8
March 21 0" Mostly Cloudy10

The forecast was fairly accurate, except for the “plenty of sun” part. There was zero precipitation and very light winds all five days.


Cumulative GPA

What Is This?
A periodic check-up on the weather forecasts printed at the bottom of a nice big calendar from the P.J. Woods and Co. Insurance Agency, Peabody, Massachusetts.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Mission Church

Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Mission Hill, Boston, Massachusetts.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


From my 2005 journal entry in
I had read about Zorb in various guide books and had to try it. Basically you haul yourself inside a giant inflatable ball and roll down a hill. There are several configurations you can choose from; I selected the "Hydro Zig Zag." This entails several litres of warm water inside the Zorb with you and a zig-zag course down the hill instead of a straight shot down the fall line.

The water allows you to slosh around in there as the ball rolls. Without water, you have to strap yourself in a harness, which sounds less Xtreme but probably offers more stomach-churning action because you'd spend a fair amount of time upside down. With the water, you stay in the bottom half of the ball and it sort of rotates around you.

The expert Zorbers try to run inside the ball down the entire mountain. I was happy to just sit on my rear end and get wet.

That's me, by the way, in the lower-most ball.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Book Review: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

John LeCarré
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

On the back of my 1977 paperback edition of this book there is a quote from one of my favorite authors, Graham Greene. His quote says, “The best spy story I have ever read.” Below that is a quote from the New York Times that says, “It may be the best spy story anybody has ever read.”

I don’t usually go by what the reviewers say on the back of books, but in this case they’re right. This book is awesome from beginning to end.

The main character, Alec Leamas, is a British intelligence agent. He works in Berlin at the height of the cold war. He’s fed up and tired. All of his best East German agents have been exposed and murdered, one by one. He wants to quit. But his superiors in London give him one more assignment before he can come in from the cold – a chance to kill his nemesis in the East German Abteilung. He agrees to the mission and it turns out to be the hardest one he’s ever had.

The first time I read this book, way back in the ‘90s, it was the first book I had ever read by LeCarré (who was himself a British agent). It started me on a tear of reading everything he ever wrote and then seeing all of the movies based on his books.

I just love the way he writes. Spare, matter-of-fact, with great descriptive details that it seems like only someone who had actually done this job would think of. And the atmosphere is perfect. He shows you that spycraft can be dingy and cold and often requires months of careful research, uninteresting waiting, and tedious attention to detail. It is lonely – you can’t have a real connection to anyone. And it also is incredibly tense – waiting for your opportunity, never knowing if you’ve been found out. You always have to keep up your cover even when you are alone. And then there are rare moments of fast action, times when the spotlight is on you and you’d better play your part right or you’re dead.

I like that the people who Leamas is most impatient with are the people who try to understand why he does what he does. The people who think there must be some kind of religion or political philosophy that makes spies live this kind of a life. LeCarré seems to be saying that the best spies – on both sides – are the ones who are lost; the ones who aren’t sure what they believe in.

The always-disheveled Richard Burton is perfect as Leamas in the 1965 movie version of this book. This book also introduces the character of master spy George Smiley, who reappears in several of LeCarré’s other books including the awesome Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (which was made into a spot-on TV movie starring Alec Guinness).

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Oreilles Gauloises (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Edition) - Fun House (The Stooges)

Three days ago, on March 15, 2010, The Stooges were officially inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and all I can say about that is: it's about time!!!

If one was to ask me who I thought the greatest rock writers, performers, or musicians were, my answers would probably vary from day to day, as many in my book would fit these descriptions. If one was to ask me who the single, greatest American rock and roll band was, on the other hand, my answer would be unique, quick and decisive: Ann Arbor's The Stooges. No if's or but's, no debate, and no question. Game over. Next. Go ahead, and try to think of one. I dare you. No one even comes close! So the fact that it took so long for the Hall of Fame to induct them is evidence that the people in charge of that institution really don't know what they're talking about.

The Stooges have only put out four albums, three of them more than 35 years ago. They're all very good, but one stands out for me: Fun House. Recorded and released in 1970, it is in my opinion one of the most important rock albums ever recorded.

Some people would argue that the innocence and Flower Power-vibe of the Sixties ended with the murder of Meredith Hunter at the Altamont Speedway concert on Dec. 6, 1969. Some would say that era ended with the acrimonious breakup of the Beatles. Still others would make a case that it all ended with the violent murder of Fred Hampton, or the Kent State student massacre by the Ohio National Guard. Personally, I don't think there was one particular point in time where the general spirit of the Sixties perished. But what I will say is that musically, there is no doubt in my mind that The Stooges put the last nail in that coffin when they released Fun House in July of 1970. As Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong said when he inducted them in the Hall of Fame ceremony, The Stooges "symbolize the destruction of flower power and the creation of raw power".

Mind you, there was nothing wrong with the psychedelic music scene represented by bands like the Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane, but musically, it kind of ran its course (it's hard to drop acid for years on end!). By 1970, the Beatles were gone; the Stones, while on a successful US tour, weren't playing that well as they struggled with their chemical consumption, and many artists and bands that had made interesting music in that past decade had either stopped playing, or just died from their personal excesses. And from the smoldering ashes of that dying fire came hard-rocking bands like The MC5 and The Stooges. These guys didn't sing about peace, love and understanding. They sang about revolution, sexual debauchery, drugs, and the challenges of being a bored 20 year-old working class kid from Detroit, Michigan.

The Stooges really embodied that new generation of musicians who were coming of age during the Vietnam War and who just wanted to enjoy life on their own terms. Listen to songs like "Loose," "1970," and "Down On The Street," and you'll hear the hunger for excitement and fun. This is a raw, unpolished, and brutal record, but to me, it feels like it couldn't have sounded any other way, really. This wild and uncontrollable energy HAD to come out, or the whole thing was simply going to blow! Once that pressure valve was opened, Iggy Pop and The Stooges used that power to make a few heads explode, and a few faces melt.

It's amazing to me that this record really sounds as fresh and exciting today as it must have 40 years ago. A timeless, essential, and revolutionary album that almost single-handedly changed everything that came after it on the musical landscape! Thank you Iggy, and long live The Stooges!
(RIP, Ron Asheton)

The Healthcare Elephant in the Room

Since my home in the 8th Dimension has been without electricity for five days now (and still counting), it's given me lots of time to think up a new post.

Apparently there's some sort of discussion going on about healthcare reform, so I figured that would be a good topic.

But I don't want to comment on the proposed reform(s) in Congress. For sure, my political philosophy gives me a point of view. But I think most of the arguments over these bills are really fueled by philosophy rather than an actual disagreement over facts that can be ascertained. There's plenty of blogging already on that, I'm sure.

Nor did I want to blog about whether conceptually we have a systemic cost crisis on our hands. For the record, I don't understand why everyone gets so freaked out about a rising percentage of GDP going to healthcare. For individuals on the margin, this is a legitimate issue. But as a country, where else do people think that money should be spent by individuals? More entertainment? Travel? Bigger (or second) houses? More food? More technological gadgets? Defense?

I personally think that Americans generally have the type of healthcare system we want already. We want to have hospitals be somewhat local even if they're half full, we want lots of extra tests to make sure no one misses even a low-probability terrible outcome, we want to be seen by specialists even if the outcome isn't better, we want lots of intensive end-of-life care rather than be told it's time to give up, etc. We have more disposable income per capita than other countries, so this is how we spend it. I'm not too worried about healthcare eventually becoming 100% of GDP-- I'm a strong believer in Herbert Stein's Law. ("If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.") How it would stop and what Americans would agree to live without, no one knows.

Wait, I guess I did want to blog about that part a little bit.

Here's the part I had in mind -- a simple math exercise to analyze how to cut healthcare costs if that is one's goal.

The first place most people would look are medical devices, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology products. The prices are more visible to most healthcare consumers and often have a sticker-shock effect. Not to mention all the political rhetoric. Unfortunately, it turns out that these products comprise only about 10% of healthcare spending.

These industries have average after-tax profits of about 15%. So, in other words, of that 10% contribution to healthcare spending about 1.5% is pure profit. This means that even if all those industries were nationalized and run permanently on a breakeven basis, healthcare spending would drop only 1.5% in the first year. Then presumably, the cost trend would resume.

Where does the real money go? This is the elephant in the room that everyone seems to be avoiding but must be obvious to anyone who has studied the issue. About 35% of healthcare spending goes directly to physicians - the largest single slice of the pie. How do other countries keep costs down? This is where.

In Canada, physicians make 40% less than their U.S. counterparts. In Germany, the average physician annual income is $80,000. This is less than electricians and plumbers make in Germany.

If you want to take 5% or 10% off of healthcare spending, this is how you can do it. Cutting physician salaries by 20% would take seven hundred basis points out of healthcare spending. (The other way to do it would essentially be to ban end-of-life procedures but this is very difficult to imagine happening. About 25% of the Medicare budget is spent on the last four weeks of 5% of enrollees' lives. But you never know going in which ones will pull through.)

Some people argue that physicians in those countries haven't accumulated huge debts as medical schools are heavily subsidized. This is a true point, but the math doesn't work. If the average doctor enters the field with $200,000 in debt, that's only 18 months of average salary to pay off. It's not enough of an argument (on its own) to justify the high salaries compared to the rest of the world.

Why does no one want to acknowledge this when the math is so obvious? I believe it is because doctors are well respected both as a profession and (almost always) when it comes to one's personal physicians, and because everyone in Congress knows this is a lobby that cannot be defeated politically.

Image: State Library of New South Wales via Flickr.

Europe to JFK

Five contrails heading southwest over Boston, likely all afternoon flights from Europe converging on JFK airport in New York. The cross-cutting contrail may be from a plane heading for the West Coast.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Postmodernism Is...


P. J. Woods & Co. Insurance Calendar Weather Forecast Report Card: March 14-16, 2010

Forecast for March 14 - 16
“Cloudy and wet - mainly lots of rain.”

Observations at Logan Airport (via Weather Underground)

Date Conditions Rainfall
March 14 Rain 3.40"
March 15 Rain 2.11"
March 16 Partly Cloudy 0

The forecast was quite accurate, especially for the first two days. Both March 14 and 15 saw record rainfall amounts.


Cumulative GPA

What Is This?
A periodic check-up on the weather forecasts printed at the bottom of a nice big calendar from the P.J. Woods and Co. Insurance Agency, Peabody, Massachusetts.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Sunday, March 14, 2010

P.J. Woods & Co. Insurance Calendar Weather Forecast Report Card: March 11-13, 2010

Forecast for March 11 - 13
“Quiet time but windy - plenty of sunshine.”

Observations at Logan Airport (via Weather Underground)

Date Mean Wind Speed Conditions
March 11 6 mph Overcast
March 12 12 mph Overcast
March 13 23 mph Rain

The forecast was wrong for the most part. It was unusually windy only on March 13. Also, there was not “plenty of sunshine.” All three days were cloudy.


Cumulative GPA

What Is This?
A periodic check-up on the weather forecasts printed at the bottom of a nice big calendar from the P.J. Woods and Co. Insurance Agency, Peabody, Massachusetts.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Friday, March 12, 2010

Book Review: A Cold Red Sunrise

Stuart M. Kaminsky
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

I really liked most of the characters and the setting of this book. But the main murder plot just wasn’t very gripping.

The story is set in the tiny town of Tumsk, Siberia. Police detective Rostnikov is sent from Moscow to investigate the murder of another detective who was killed while investigating the death of a little girl – the daughter of a dissident who is about to get deported to the west.

Rostnikov is extremely appealing; gruff and plainspoken. He is honest and works very hard but has run afoul of the KGB a couple times back in Moscow, so this is sort of a test for him. He has a very tall, unemotional, doggedly loyal assistant, Karpo, who is a little like Lurch from the Addams Family. The Party watchdogs are, of course, totally incompetent and full of bluster. I felt like all the townspeople were well-defined, down to the nervous old woman who serves the visiting policemen their food. The conversation was spare and direct.

Siberia itself also plays a great part in the book. Rostnikov is sent to Tumsk during the winter, so it is always ridiculously cold and the sun barely rises at all in the sky in the daytime. Snow is piled everywhere, several feet high. A snowplow (run by the Navy personnel manning the town’s weather station) clears the streets at 6:00 am every morning and serves as the town alarm clock. Most of the town’s residents are dissidents or skeptics or (like the incompetent Party watchdogs) rejects from Moscow of some kind. Everyone seems very much alone.

The problem was that the murder story itself was a little simple and maybe a little tired. Rostnikov keeps all his information close to the vest, including from the reader, which is frustrating because you aren’t really able to make your own guesses (and thereby build up your suspense) from the evidence he uncovers. I do appreciate last-minute surprise revelations but in this book practically all the information you need comes out in the last ten pages.

It turned out that I did correctly guess who the murderer was, but mainly I just guessed that person because he/she seemed like the least likely suspect, and that’s what Agatha Christie teaches you to look out for. I still am not sure I really understand his/her motive.

Because of the plot issues, I was a bit surprised that this book won the Edgar. But the book did come out at the perfect time – the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union was in its final crumble. Kaminsky’s detective and his assistant both have integrity and are just trying to do their jobs, and yet – or maybe because of that – they both end up struggling in their own ways against the oppressive system they live in. They are very sympathetic characters for the end of the Cold War.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Failed Beer Concepts: Lipton Instant Beer (1969)

The growing popularity of General Foods’ Tang instant orange drink in the late 1960s - fueled in part by its link with NASA's space program - had marketers at Monolever, owners of the Lipton Tea brand, scrambling to respond. Aiming to develop a new beverage to compete with Tang, Lipton chemists embarked on a crash R&D program. After months of false starts, they finally synthesized a powdered beer mix made from malted barley, chicory, beetroot, toasted rice, rye, and tricalcium phosphate (to prevent caking).

Following the Apollo 11 moon landing in July of 1969, Tang sales skyrocketed, cutting further into Lipton’s U.S. market. Frantic, top brass at Monolever HQ in Rotterdam demanded that Lipton rush the instant beer to consumers. Unfortunately, the formula had not yet been perfected, and it smelled and tasted awful. After a disastrous test-market in Syracuse, New York and Little Rock, Arkansas, Lipton Instant Beer Mix was quietly killed.

Thanks to N.B. Sanders for the pointer.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

P.J. Woods & Co. Insurance Calendar Weather Forecast Report Card: March 5-10, 2010

Forecast for March 5 - 10
"Waves of wind, rain, and some wet snow."

Observations at Logan Airport (via Weather Underground)

Date Mean Wind Speed Rain Snow
March 5 12 mph 0 T
March 6 10 mph 0 0
March 7 12 mph 0 0
March 8 12 mph 0 0
March 9 9 mph 0 0
March 10 6 mph 0 0

The forecast was wrong on all four counts. The skies were quite settled all six days; no "waves" of anything except warm sunshine. Winds were below average for this period. We had zero rainfall, and only a trace of snow on March 5.


Cumulative GPA

What is This
A periodic check-up on the weather forecasts printed at the bottom of a nice big calendar from the P.J. Woods and Co. Insurance Agency, Peabody, Massachusetts.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Oreilles Gauloises (Mid-life Crisis Edition) - Goat (The Jesus Lizard)

If you're like me - 40ish very happily-married straight white male who's been with the same partner for close to two decades - then you know how deliciously pleasant it is to once in a (very great) while capture the attention of an attractive, sometimes younger, woman, and practice the lost art of flirting for an hour or two. I find these rare instances to be particularly pleasant precisely because they're...well...rare, and because I have absolutely no ulterior motives or intention to act on anything, other than to be able to tell myself at the end of the encounter that I "still got it". I realize this is very likely completely delusional on my part, and quite comical to most of my female friends (including the missus), but indulge me for a minute, if you please.

 The last time this happened was this past fall when I went to see The Jesus Lizard at the Music Box in Hollywood with my friend Joe. He opted to stay back to avoid hearing damage, and I ended up by the front of the stage, next to this nerdy-but-supercute, book-ish-looking woman who was, granted, slightly inebriated, and who proceeded to get friendly with me.

She was quite charming, and I was feeling that rejuvenating burst of energy of knowing that, while I was a somewhat older concert-goer, I had tons of musical street-cred, and at that moment, I looked relatively cool with my Mission of Burma t-shirt, and maybe even younger than I actually was. I decided to go into full flirt-mode, and off I went. I, of course, managed to mention - with great subtlety I might add - that I had "seen these guys way back in the 90's", when they were first touring, and "nobody knew who they were". You have to be careful when you play that card because it can easily backfire: on the one hand, you will likely impress the younger lass and score coolness points, but you will also loudly announce that you're way past your early thirties, and that could be a deal-breaker for some. In any case, we talked for a while, and I was having a great time. She kept dropping obvious hints in the conversation about her being single, and needing a ride home after the show. I was enjoying myself a great deal, feeling like I was 25 again. But then, some drunken idiot decided to butt-in and see if he could get in on the flirting action! While I was no match for his youthfulness and goods looks, he was really quite drunk, and completely incoherent, which played in my favor. Still, the intruder decided to stand between me and the target of my charm offensive, despite my body language conveying quite clearly that I was there first, that he was ruining the moment, and that he should get another Bud Light while he still could before the band begins their set. Alas, I lost that battle, and my cute English Lit major concert companion eventually got bored, and moved away from us.

But it was fantastic while it lasted!

Oh, and yeah: the Jesus Lizard have this awesome album called Goat. It is their second, and best record. They played through the 90's, and split up at the end of the decade. Like many bands from that period, they reunited last year, and a small group of married nerds like me got to go see them play live again for the first time in 15 years, and a yet-even-smaller subset of us even got to flirt with a younger and attractive member of the opposite sex for a brief moment in time while watching the band tear through their set...and we felt not so old, bald, or out of shape.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Failed Beer Concepts: Brussels Sprout Vegeta-Bel-gian Ale (2007)

You have to hand it to the Belgians; they could see a beer tsunami as well as the next person. The problem was in the execution.

The year 2007 was a red-letter year for premium-priced specialty beers from Belgium: Stella Artois, Hoegaarden, Chimay, Duvel, the list goes on and on. In November 2007, in what can only be described as a Flemish flight of flancy, the Belgian brewing giant InterBier introduced Brussels Sprout Vegeta-Bel-Gian Ale, a beer in which the hops were replaced by a collection of organic green vegetables such as sweet peas, broccoli, spinach, asparagus, and, yes, brussels sprouts.

The roll-out was framed as an effort to capture, simultaneously, the two burgeoning markets for Belgian ale and organic beers. Unfortunately, InterBier failed to adequately taste-test the new formula. It was a hit among organic farmers, but the broader beer-drinking market was not interested in giving up that traditional hops taste. B.S. -  V.B.G. Ale was quickly yanked from shelves during the fall of 2008 during the general confusion caused by the blockbuster InBev-Anheuser-Busch merger.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Book Review: The Man in the High Castle

Philip K. Dick
Awards: Hugo
★ ★ ★ ★ -


I am a big Philip K. Dick fan anyway but this book is a particularly good one of his.

It is an alternate history set in 1962 in which the Axis won World War II. The western states of the U.S. have become the Pacific States of America (PSA), which are run by Japan, and the east coast and Midwest states are run by Germany.

In between, the Rocky Mountain States (RMS) are a tenuous neutral zone that neither Germany nor Japan has yet moved to take over, but relations between the two powers are strained because each suspects the other of wanting to do so. (Italy has been relegated to a second-class power.)

In the RMS lives an author who has written a novel that is an alternate history in which Germany and Japan lost the war. The novel is wildly popular because it makes the former Americans think about What Might Have Been. It has been banned by Germany but is, for the time being, tolerated by Japan.

Dick’s book has several separate story lines that sometimes intertwine - American artisans in the PSA trying to introduce a new line of jewelry that does not appeal to the dominant Japanese aesthetic; spies playing on the hostility between Germany and Japan; and a woman who accidentally gets involved with an assassin bent on killing the author of the alternate history novel. My favorite character was Mr. Tagomi, a well-meaning businessman in the PSA who unknowingly coordinates a meeting between a German double-agent and a Japanese general and gets involved in foreign intrigue way over his head.

I enjoyed all the stories in this book but the best parts, for me, were the little details of life in the occupied USA. The takeover by the Axis powers affects everything in the occupied regions of America including speech patterns, religion, style, and sometimes even thought.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

P.J. Woods & Co. Insurance Calendar Weather Forecast Report Card: March 1-4, 2010

Forecast for March 1 - 4
"A cold start and then a little bit of a warm-up."

Observations at Logan Airport (via Weather Underground)

Date Max F° Avg F° Min F° Avg F°
March 1 48 42 34 27
March 2 43 42 36 28
March 3 38 42 34 28
March 4 36 43 33 28

The forecast was wrong on both counts. March 1 was actually unseasonably warm, and it has gotten steadily colder since then.


Cumulative GPA

What Is This?
A periodic check-up on the weather forecasts printed at the bottom of this nice big calendar from the P.J. Woods and Co. Insurance Agency, Peabody, Massachusetts.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Failed Beer Concepts: Max Headroom's All-Foam Pilsner (1987)

In March 1987, hoping to capitalize on the Max Headroom craze, Fillmore Brewers of San Francisco introduced a pilsner beer that was 95% sudsy foam "head," with just a small amount of liquid beer at the bottom. Several rounds of focus groups indicated that there might be a ready market for an all-foam beer among weight-conscious college students, but the Fillmore team failed to account for the fact that all the beer used in taste-testing was drafted from a keg into glass mugs. The nationwide roll-out of A.F.P. quickly ran into difficulty when consumers realized how difficult it was to get the foam out of a bottle or can.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Dishrag (Detail)

Inspired by the lovely handmade dishrags I saw in the eponymous book from the good folks at the Mason-Dixon Knitting blog, I recently made a simple garter-stitch cloth from a small stash of cotton yarn I've had in my hoard for more than a decade. The yarn is Classic Elite Provence, made in Greece for a company based in Lowell, Massachusetts, where a fair amount of spinning was done, back in the day. The color is called Lapis.

The idea behind the dishrags in the book is to teach beginners that it's okay to actually use hand-knit items – they don't all have to be kept in acid-free tissue paper as heirlooms. I've never had a problem using the things I make, but I do sometimes tend to hold on to things for a long time, waiting for the perfect project to use a piece of raw material (be it a hank of yarn or a writing idea). So for me this dishrag is a little reminder that sometimes it's best to find the most useful thing we can do now with what we have on hand, rather than waiting for perfect to come along.

It's also nice to have this beautiful, soft, drapey piece of cloth that I made myself, with great pleasure, to use on more mundane tasks like getting pureed spaghetti and cheese off of Dahlia's plate.

Monday, March 01, 2010

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