Saturday, December 27, 2008

Bah humbug

I think I must be turning into a curmudgeon.  Is 35 old enough to be a curmudgeon?  How old do you need to be to qualify for a license?

The way I know I've become a curmudgeon is that my thoughts on Christmas, rather than focusing on peace on earth and goodwill to man, are along these lines:

  • If children got fewer presents each Christmas, they might appreciate the ones they got more.  My nephew, in particular, barely looked at each gift after tearing the wrapping off.  Then he declared, "I want to open another one!"
  • Children's toys should not make noise without the active participation of the child.  A drum that makes noise when the kid hits it is one thing.  An Elmo electric guitar that produces a different riff for each button pushed is quite another.  It takes very little effort to keep pushing buttons.
  • It is a grave tactical error to give a child under the age of five a recorder.
  • Of the four types of cookies we make every year, the "Chocolate Delights" are always the first to disappear, yet for some reason everyone seems to think that they're the one kind we could get away with skipping.
  • If you give a child a launcher that shoots foam darts, you should not be surprised at being asked to retrieve foam darts from behind the television set.
  • A man (or a troll) who can get four children under the age of five to focus on any task (such as decorating gingerbread men) for half an hour at a time is obviously some sort of genius.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Where Have All the Bread Makers Gone?

My dad mentioned that he was thinking of replacing their old bread machine, which was the very earliest model made. It's large, cumbersome, and noisy, and it makes weird cylindrical loaves that are awkward to slice. So my sister and I decided to give them a new bread maker as a Hanukkah present. Simple, right?

Not so much. The Troll and I visited four different stores that one would expect to carry this kind of small appliance: Sears, Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, and PC Richard, a big electronics/home appliance store. We saw all manner of microwaves, coffeemakers, convection overs, rice cookers, and "portable wine cellars," but not one single bread machine. It was like being in an episode of the Twilight Zone--every bread machine on earth had suddenly ceased to exist, and we were the only ones alive who knew that there ever was such a thing. We could find any other type of electrical appliance imaginable, including some that we'd never imagined (an electric wine-uncorker?) but not the one we were looking for.

I called up my sister and she started searching the Web for stores that would have it in her area. Since she lives in the big city, she ought to have more shopping options, right? Well, not exactly. She found exactly one store that carried a bread machine--Williams-Sonoma--and they only had the fancy $200 model, not the modest $60 one we had in mind.

So then I figured I'd have to order the bread machine online. My parents wouldn't get to unwrap the machine itself, but we could at least present them with a description, printed out from the Web, of the new toy that would eventually show up on their doorstep. A quick Google search turned up several sites that had the right model listed for around $40 (plus shipping, of course). Unfortunately, every site I tried to order it from said the item was out of stock or on back order. One of them initially claimed to have the machine in stock and allowed me to place an order, only to e-mail me back two hours later informing me that the item was out of stock and apologizing for any inconvenience.

At last, I came to realize that, if I was ever going to succeed in my mission, I was going to have to resort to truly desperate measures. It chilled me to the core, but I knew I had no choice.

I would have to go to Wal-Mart.

Please understand, I had never set foot in a Wal-Mart before, and I had more or less sworn that I never would. I hate just about everything about that company, from its labor practices to its predatory pricing to its insistence on selling bowdlerized versions of popular music. (The list goes on and on and on... PBS made a whole documentary about it, and Brave New Films did the same.) So I had always viewed the Big Blue Box as a symbol of everything that's wrong with American capitalism, and while I was willing to admit that the other big boxes where I shopped (Target, Home Despot, etc.) were probably far from virtuous, I had always considered Wal-Mart the one place where I absolutely drew the line. And now that line was about to be crossed.

I must admit, once I gritted my teeth and stepped across the threshold, the whole trip was quick and really quite painless. It took us probably ten minutes to find what we wanted on the shelf, take it up to the checkout, and walk out again. In fact, after all the rigmarole I'd gone through trying to find this machine elsewhere, it was almost laughable how easy the trip turned out to be. All the same, I still felt kind of dirty afterward. I consoled myself with the thought that I really hadn't given Wal-Mart my business in preference to any other retailer--there simply was no other retailer willing to sell it to me.

I can't help wondering, though: if this bread machine is so popular that all of the online stores have it backordered, then why was Wal-Mart the only bricks-and-mortar store that carried it?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

And ten percent of nothing is, let's see...

According to this article in the New York Times, people are now willing to buy up Treasury securities at zero percent yield. That's zero as in nothing. Nada. Zilch. The same amount you get putting your money under the mattress.

Now, I realize times are bad and the markets are unstable and people are afraid of losing money, but--can't you still earn four percent or so putting your money in a plain-vanilla CD? And isn't that equal to, let's see, roughly four percent more than zero? I mean, what, are the investors afraid that all the banks are going to collapse at once, bankrupting the FDIC and leaving them with nothing?

Hey, maybe the government can raise the money needed for the bailout by persuading investors to buy Treasuries at negative interest. "Here, we'll store your money in a nice safe place for just a nominal fee, and when this trouble's all over, you'll get the rest of it back."

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Stamp Act

So, you know how charities, when they write to ask you for money, will enclose an envelope for your contribution? Most of them use postpaid envelopes, marked "postage to be paid by addressee." A few of them don't provide postage at all: they write in the spot where the stamp is supposed to go, "Your first-class stamp will help us devote more funds to our programs!" (as if that 42 cents was going to make all the difference to them). But a few of them enclose envelopes with actual stamps on them. Maybe they're hoping that you'll figure, "Gee, I guess I might as well send them a check rather than throw away a perfectly good stamp."

I never fell for that, but I did hate throwing away the stamped envelopes. I used to return them to the post office for a credit, but the last time I tried this, they told me they wouldn't accept them anymore. So then I got a brilliant idea: instead of returning the stamp, I would reuse the whole envelope, by just pasting a blank label over the address of the organization and re-addressing it. I figured there was nothing dishonest about this: after all, I couldn't be stealing from the organization, because they had already paid for the stamp whether I returned the envelope or not--right? And I couldn't be stealing from the postal service, because they were still getting one stamp to deliver one letter--right? All I was doing was frugally putting to use a stamp that would otherwise be wasted--right?

Apparently the postal service didn't see it that way, because the envelope bounced. So, in a fit of pique, I grabbed all the remaining stamped envelopes I'd been saving in hopes that I'd be able to use them and just stuffed them into the mailbox. If they won't accept a perfectly good stamped envelope that's never been through the mail before, then they can go to the trouble of delivering a whole bunch of empty envelopes. That'll show 'em.

Actually, I have no idea what I meant to accomplish by this act of pointless protest, but it did make me feel better somehow.

Monday, November 24, 2008


At Thanksgiving dinner, my family doesn't "say grace" as such. Instead, we go around the table and each person there tells what he or she is thankful for at that particular point in time. Here's a list I've been working on:

I'm thankful that we took over a year shopping for a house because we absolutely insisted on staying within our price range, rather than taking advantage of low interest rates to buy a bigger house with a fancy adjustable-rate mortgage. I'm thankful that our house isn't among the 1 in 410 in our state that's currently in foreclosure.

I'm thankful that last year we kept so much money in our boring old bank account, earning a trivial rate of interest, instead of putting it all in the stock market to maximize our return.

I'm thankful that my being without work for the past couple of months hasn't really hurt us financially, because we live frugally enough to get by easily on one income. I'm thankful that we're not among the millions of people scrambling for minimum-wage jobs at federal employment centers. I'm thankful that this year we are still giving money to our local food pantry rather than relying on its services.

I'm thankful that I don't live in the Congo or the West Bank. I'm thankful that, if my country is involved in a war, it's all happening far away from me and my family--and I'm thankful that we will soon have a president who is prepared to set a date for ending the war altogether and bringing the troops home.

I'm thankful that my best friend, who was in the hospital for over a month with a dangerous heart arrhythmia, is now recovering, able to work again if not yet able to go dancing. I'm also thankful that he had a job waiting for him when he got out of the hospital after going for nearly a year without work. I'm thankful that he is engaged to a sweet woman who is taking good care of him during his recovery.

I'm thankful that my sister has found both a good man and a good house to share with him--and that she was able to sell her condo, even in a down market.

I'm thankful to have a wonderful, supportive (if goofy) husband, and a warm, fuzzy little cat to keep me company around the house (even if she does loudly request that we get up and feed her earlier than we might consider reasonable).

I'm thankful that we were able to get our attic insulated before the really cold weather hit.

I'm thankful that gas prices have come down (just in time for our annual cross-country drive next month to visit the Troll family). I'm also thankful that, despite the lower prices, Americans are continuing to drive less and pump less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

And I'll be very thankful to spend just one day focusing on all the things I have to be thankful for, rather than on the things that bug me.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

On Wealth

Last year, my father-in-law gave us a bunch of old glass-top canning jars found at a yard sale.  Since we don't have a canner, we decided to use them to store a variety of dry beans and seeds we had in our pantry.  They're now lined up in a colorful row on the shelf next to our basement stairs--white beans, red lentils, chick peas, kidney beans, brown lentils, black beans, sunflower seeds.  Every time I pass by that row of jars on the way up or down the stairs, the word that pops into my head is "wealth."

The jars themselves, with their contents, probably aren't worth more than 30 dollars.  But when I look at them, I don't just see the beans themselves: I see curried red lentil soup, chick peas in broth with crisp bread crumbs, pasta fagioli, chili, white bean stew with dumplings.  I see a dozen hearty, savory meals, right there at our fingertips.  I see the means to make it through a week-long blizzard, if we ever have to, safe and well-fed.  Those are not just seven jars of beans; those are seven jars of security.

Sometimes I think Jack in the fairy tale was perfectly sensible to trade away his old cow for a handful of beans.  What could be a better investment than that?

Parallel Evolution

In my regular perambulations about the Web, I often dwell on various sites devoted to upcoming movies.  I'm watching fewer movies these days (especially in theaters - waaay too expensive) than I have at any other time in my life (barring infancy, I suppose), but I just can't seem to stay away from reviews and trailers and all the other goodies that the movie studios put out in an attempt to distract us from our Internet long enough that we might wander into a theater and give them money.

Today, I ran across a poster for a movie called "The Tale of Desperaux."  I'd seen the trailer a little while back when we made our annual trip to the local cinema (to see "Wall-E") and had liked it pretty well - the movie looked cute and it had been the only trailer they'd shown that hadn't made me want to crawl under my seat and retch.  But I did a double-take when I saw the poster.  Here's why:

On the left is a picture I drew in March of 2000.  You can find it here along with comments left by various viewers going back over eight years.  On the right is the aforementioned movie poster.  Interesting, eh?  

And here's another one that I discovered a few years ago:

On the left is a sketch I made of a kobold, drawn in either early 2000 or late 1999.  It's been posted online here since early 2000 also (along with this companion piece, which is actually explicitly identified as a kobold in its description).  On the right is a picture of a kobold from the game World of Warcraft, which was announced in late 2001 and was not released until late 2004 (which was when I first saw it).

Ever get that feeling someone's been rummaging around in your brain?

No one has, of course.  These are coincidences, the results of a few people (out of the over six billion on this planet) having similar ideas and writing them down.  With both of these drawings, the "creative process" I used was fairly straightforward.  If you want to draw a picture of a tiny warrior, you give him a little sword to show that he's a warrior and a great big helmet to show that he's tiny (and to give the whole thing a humorous tinge).  If you want to draw a picture of a kobold as a sort of a faerie/goblin miner (as kobolds are in some German folklore), you give him a mining pick and a candle (it's dark underground).  If you want to make it a little more interesting, you sit the lit candle on top of his head so he has both his hands free to mine.

In both cases, even if the odds are a billion-to-one of someone else having the same idea and drawing a picture of it, the odds are pretty good that at least a couple folks have done it.

But it's still pretty eerie when it happens.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Vote and Get Coffee

I've voted! Have you?

If you have, you can get yourself a free brewed coffee at Starbucks. Seriously! All you have to do is go in, say you've voted, and get a 12-ounce cup o' joe. It's right here on their website:

Oh, and you get to participate in our democracy, too.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Internet Dependence

I never realized how much of my time I was frittering away on the Internet until my cable got taken out by high winds this past Tuesday. All of a sudden I found I was getting around to all those little projects I'd been putting off for weeks because I could never quite find the time for them.

Unfortunately, that advantage didn't really outweigh the disadvantage of being unable to run to the computer and take care of all those little things that pop up a dozen times over the course of a day. E-mails piled up in my inbox, and I could only attend to the urgent ones in half-hour blocks on the public computers at the library. Worse than that, in the final week before the election, I was cut off from, my source of the up-to-the minute polling data that I required in order to obsess over minute day-to-day changes in the electoral map. And, in what may be the highest irony of all, I had to pay my cable bill by mail, rather than using my online bill payment service, because I was afraid that I wouldn't get it paid on time if I had to wait for the company to get the cable fixed.

So I am forced at last to acknowledge that, without reliable Internet access, my life is not complete. For better or worse, I am now a cyborg.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Preparing to hibernate

The Troll and I have been busy preparing our cave for winter.  We spent much of last weekend transferring about 700 cubic feet of insulation from the basement (where it sat in tightly wrapped bundles) to the attic (where it now lies in a nice solid pink blanket).  The in-between stages of this process weren't nearly as neat; at the end of the day, I vacuumed up so much fiberglass from the hallway that the brush attachment looked like a wad of cotton candy.  But the effort was well worth it; we got the insulation in place just in time for the first frost of the season, and as the outdoor temperature dropped into the 20s, our house stayed a cozy 60 degrees.  Tonight's projects will include lubricating the boiler pump so we can fire up the heating system, wrapping up the air conditioner in its winter blanket, and attempting to salvage whatever fruits are left on our tomato plants.

I'm actually quite enjoying this whole process of settling in for winter.  It makes me feel all cozy and domestic.  Once the cold weather arrives in earnest, I'll probably be much grumpier about it, but right now it's, "Yeah, hot soup, wool sweaters, football games!  Bring it on!"

Monday, October 13, 2008

On Being Sick

Despite my best efforts to ward off the infection with Zicam, I seem to have caught the cold that the Troll had a couple of days ago.  As I mope around the house blowing my nose repeatedly, I have to admit that there is one upside to being sick: it's the perfect excuse for not doing whatever you really didn't want to do anyway.  For instance:

"I can't exercise today; I'm sick.  I can't do laundry or clean the bathroom or run errands, either.  I need to rest, which means lying on the couch in my comfiest, slouchiest clothes, watching Jane Austen movies on tape.  I'm too sick to eat salad and whole-grain bread; that stuff's only good for you when you're healthy.  Right now I need soft, comforting food like matzo ball soup and ice cream.  And I'm only going to read fluffy novels today, because serious books full of useful information are just too tiring."  And so on.

Not that this is really enough to make up for the raw throat and dripping nose and general ickiness, but it's something.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Gnome Redux

He's not nearly as pretty in profile, is he?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Gnome

Here's a (relatively) recent drawing that is only now making its way online:

In one of the later Harry Potter books, an unfortunate garden gnome is captured by some of the Weasley children and transformed into a very grumpy Christmas tree ornament.  This was a request from a friend of mine and the first drawing I've done in pencil in a rather long time.  

Monday, September 29, 2008

And so it begins....

Well crud.  Now I have a blog.

Can't say that I ever really wanted a blog, though I'm sure that if you'd offered me one when I was a child (long ago in the days before flying cars and subcutaneous answering machines), I'm sure that I would have wanted one desperately, believing a blog to be some sort of exotic creature along the lines of a dragon or hedgehog....

But now I know better.

And yet here I am.

My old website is going to be disappearing soon, so I'm going to be trying out alternative content publishing methods, i.e., finding different places to put stuff like this:

The idea is that I'll be putting new stuff here along with whatever earthshaking opinions or observations I can't keep to myself. 

Older drawings I'll be moving HERE.

And, as always, a lot of my good stuff can be found HERE.

If you should happen to stumble upon this page, let me know what you think.  Constructive criticism and commentary are always welcome.