Monday, December 21, 2009

Cable chaos controlled

Hooray for the Troll! He dug around under my desk and got all those cables sorted. As I suspected, putting them all together in a single bundle wasn't possible, but he got most of them contained in two bundles--bound together with twist ties, and then covered up with some pipe insulation we had left over. He also made handy labels for the cords so that I can tell what each one is, should I ever have to unplug them. Did I mention that he was wonderful?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Cable chaos

In some ways, my computer makes my life a lot more organized. My work can be done almost entirely with electronic files sent back and forth between me and my client, so my desk doesn't get buried under stacks of paper. I can receive and pay most of my bills online, do my taxes electronically, and use the Internet to find articles on just about any subject. And storing it all in little folders on my hard drive takes up a lot less space than storing it all in real, paper folders, and makes it easier to search, as well.

However, in order to keep everything on my computer organized, I need to have it connected to a monitor, a printer, an external hard drive, a cable modem, a set of speakers, and probably some other things I don't even know about. As a result, the space under my computer is a mess, as you can see from the attached photo. I've done my best to coil up the excess lengths of cable and keep them out of the way, so now instead of a mass of tangled-up cables, I have a mass of coiled-up blobs of cable. But I can't help thinking there has to be a better way.

I have seen products for organizing cables, but none of them seems like quite the right thing for me. For example, IKEA sells a little basket that attaches to the underside of a desk, but that's only useful if all your cables are going from the same place to the same place. I have cables from point A to point B, from B to C, from C to D, from B to seems like I'd need one basket for each direction. This doohickey called the WireMate looks a little better, but can it really send all the wires in every direction I need them to go in? And can it handle the multitude of different cables, of all different thicknesses? And even if it can do all that, is it really worth 20 bucks? It seems like there ought to be a cheaper, more elegant way to accomplish the same thing--but I must confess, my creativity is failing me.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Chosen people my foot

Settlers in the West Bank just burned a mosque. It is generally assumed that they did this to strike back, not against Palestinians for any act of violence on their part, but against their own government for having declared a temporary moratorium on the building of new settlements in the West Bank. The Israeli government's response has been to add several West Bank settlements to its "map of national priorities," thereby making them eligible for additional government financing, in what is widely interpreted as an attempt to appease the settlers.

In other news, Joe Lieberman, the only Jew in the Senate and an alleged Democrat, has publicly stated that he will not support the current health care bill or any other bill that either adds or expands any government health plan. Without his vote, the bill--already a seriously watered-down compromise--is unlikely to get the 60 votes needed to get it through the Senate. (Side note: it appears that the issue with any Senate bill is no longer whether it can muster the 51 votes needed to pass, but whether it can get the 60 votes needed for cloture. It's simply assumed that the Republicans will automatically filibuster everything.)

At this point, I feel like just putting away my menorah and casting aside those vestiges of Jewish identity that I still retain. If this is what modern Jews stand for, I don't want to be one.

EDIT: I stand corrected. Joe Lieberman is not the only Jew in the Senate, but one of thirteen (Boxer, Cardin, Feingold, Feinstein, Franken, Kohl, Lautenberg, Levin, Lieberman, Sanders, Schumer, Specter, Weiden). And he's not technically an "alleged Democrat," but an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. Still, he is an alleged ally of the Democrats in the Senate. Sanders is also an independent, but you can generally count on him to vote with the Democrats on those rare occasions when the Democrats are actually united on an issue. Like herding cats, I tell you.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

How about that?

When Daniel asked me to draw this, I never dreamed that the editors of the journal could be whimsical enough to put it on the cover. But then again, what do I know?

Monday, December 7, 2009

'Tis the season to buy plastic stuff

The Troll and I have finished most of our holiday shopping, but we still don't have any idea what to get for our two-year-old nephews. With adults or older kids, you can always ask, "What are their interests?", but in the case of these two little guys, their main interests are climbing on things and hitting things. Hard to translate those into something that will fit under the tree.

So, searching for inspiration, yesterday we wandered through the toy aisles at Target and BJs. We both had the same reaction to this experience, one that can best be summed up in a single word: ick.

It's hard to explain exactly what was so off-putting about it. Maybe it was the fact that there were just so many mass-produced plastic objects crammed into that one space, row on row, box on box, until they all kind of blurred together. Most of the gifts we're giving to our family members were accumulated over the course of the year, as we came across them at sales and stores and concerts and thought, "Oh, this would make a good gift for so-and-so." Picking a gift off those shelves would have felt like the exact opposite of that: "Oh, we need to get something for so-and-so. Here, this will do." It would be like hanging an empty pizza box above your sofa because it's about the right size for the space. It would so obviously show no creativity, no real thought for the recipient, that it felt like more of an insult than giving nothing at all. As we emerged from the toy section at BJ's into the grocery section, the Troll grabbed a butternut squash off a rack and declared, "I would rather give each of them a butternut squash than give them one of those toys." (Well, why not? They'd probably have just as much fun with it.)

Now, it is of course possible--even probable--that we're overthinking this. After all, these kids are two years old. It's unlikely that they would be offended at being given a gift that was obviously selected at random off a shelf in the toy aisle. As long as they have a box to unwrap, they probably won't even care what's inside it. But in that case, why not just wrap up an empty box for each of them? They could climb on them, sit in them, hit each other with them and not do too much damage--hmm, I think I might have something here.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

11/11 11:11

It is now the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year. Everybody make a wish!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Reward and punishment

What's orange and sounds like a parrot?
A carrot.

What's brown and sticky?
A stick.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Drawing of the Three

Anyone who's never played an MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game - how's that for a mouthful?) probably won't appreciate this drawing very much. Anyone who has will likely recognize the holy trinity of DPS, tank, and healer - a necessity in fantasy worlds where exploration and adventure invariably end up taking a back seat to game mechanics and the acquisition of stuff.

On occasion, I try to rationalize this trio of healer, tank, and DPS (damage per second, if you care) by drawing a parallel between it and the classic villain combo of brains, brawn, and gun (Vizzini, Fezzik, and Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride are a good example), but after some contemplation, the reasoning always breaks down. It's just that I have so much difficulty trying to figure out where the brains are....

Thursday, October 22, 2009

But I don't *want* to vote by mail

This year, everyone who lives in New Jersey will be allowed to vote by mail. You don't need to show that you'll be out of the state on Election Day or that it would be a hardship for you to get to the polls; you don't need a reason at all, in fact. Anyone, for any reason, can vote by mail.

Now, I'm all for making voting more accessible. And I'm sure for some people it is a lot more convenient to vote in the comfort of their own home than to get themselves to a polling place. But me, I like to go to the polls. To me, it doesn't really feel like I've voted unless I've gone into the little booth and pushed the buttons. (I liked it even better when we had the old mechanical machines where you could twist the lever and it made a nice satisfying clunk. But even the electronic machines are more satisfying, to me, than writing out my vote on a piece of paper and dropping it in the mail.)

So, fine. If others want to vote from home, they can vote from home; if I want to go to the polls, I can go to the polls. The only problem is, New Jersey's Democratic party seems to be doing everything in its power to stop me.

First, I got a vote-by-mail application in the mail. (You have to fill out the application first, and then you get the actual ballot sent to you.) I was mildly surprised that the state seemed to be going to such lengths to make people aware of this new voting option, but I figured it didn't matter to me. I just tossed it in the bin.

Then I got a second application. And I also started getting phone calls--dozens of them. A recorded message on the other end informs me that this is the Democratic Party calling, and warns me urgently that TIME IS RUNNING OUT to send in my vote-by-mail application, and urges me to mail it in without delay. It started to sound like they were trying to convince me that this was the only way to vote, and that if I didn't mail in this application, I would never get the chance to vote at all. And I realized that someone less familiar with the voting process would probably get just that impression. I mean, you get this official-looking document in the mail, and it says, "Fill this out to get your vote-by-mail ballot," and nowhere on it does it say, "If you do not get a vote-by-mail ballot you may still cast your vote at your local polling place," and you think, "Oh my God, we all have to vote by mail now? I didn't know that!"

Well, look, making voting more accessible is one thing. But why on earth are New Jersey's Democrats trying to convince everyone to vote from home, whether they want to or not? Why are they going so far as to send misleading messages implying that voting from home is the only option? Why in God's name does my party want to stop people from going to the polls?

I don't know for sure if there's anything that could convince me to stop voting for Democrats. But this is definitely testing my limits.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Warning: Middle Age Ahead

In case I needed further confirmation that I'm now a grown-up, yesterday the Troll and I did the most grown-up-sounding thing I can imagine: we refinanced our house. More than that: we refinanced to take advantage of lower interest rates. I mean, honestly, how middle-aged and bourgeois can you get? The next thing you know, he'll be wearing a tie to work, and I'll be making people take their shoes off in our house so they don't scuff our hardwood floors.

Here's a funny thing about the refinance, though: our new monthly mortgage payment is an exact multiple of $100. The principal and interest together add up to a number ending in 79 cents, and the property taxes add on a number ending in 21 cents, and when you add them together, boom, perfect round number. How weird is that? Real-world numbers don't ever seem to come out perfectly round like that unless you force them.

Oh well, we can be pretty sure it won't stay that way, since property taxes go up every year without fail. And isn't that a grown-up thing to complain about.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Happy New Yearrrrrr

Isn't it disconcerting when two festive occasions fall on the same day?

Today, for instance—at least until sundown—is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, traditionally celebrated with prayer, the eating of apples and honey, and the sounding of a ram's horn. But it's also International Talk Like a Pirate Day, traditionally celebrated by—well, I'm sure you can figure it out.

It makes things confusing. You get conversations like, "Pass them thar apples and honey, matey" and "Avast, I hear the sound of the shofarrrrrr." And how is the rabbi likely to react if she says, "May you be inscribed and sealed in the book of life," and you respond with "Yarrr!"?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

First day of school

Today, as the Troll and I sat at breakfast, we heard the voices of children traipsing up our street on their way to start a new year of school. (It pleases me that the schools in our town don't start until the day after Labor Day. It seems cruel and unusual to drag the kiddies back to school while it's still officially summertime.)

This time of year always makes me a bit pensive. For more than ten years after I graduated from college, I would always find myself growing restless as August started drawing to a close. Something about the shortening days would trigger some deep-seated drive in me, and like a swallow returning to Capistrano, I would feel the urge to go out and buy new notebooks and pencils and go decorate my dorm room and get my schedule and start my new classes. Which, of course, was a profoundly frustrating urge to have when I had no new classes to start. All I could really do about it was go buy some new pencils for which I had no real use.

This went on until two years ago, when we bought a house. That year, September came and went without stirring in me the longing to go "back" to a place that, for me, no longer existed. All the urges for change that fall had always brought got channeled into the process of fixing up the house, which at that time had only been our home for a little over a month and was still very much a work in progress. So I might have expected the migratory urge to return in full force the next year--but it didn't happen. In September 2008, I was so focused on insulating the attic and wondering whether we'd have a chance to build some permanent garden beds before the frost hit that the start of school passed right by me.

So this year, as the kids head off to another year of learning, I find myself musing about what this all means. Why did I feel the urge to go back to school each fall for so long after I had a school to go back to? And why did becoming a homeowner deflect that urge?

The best answer I can come up with so far is that because I spent the first 22 years of my life as a student (minus a couple right at the beginning), I came to think of fall as a beginning--a time for starting new things. So whenever fall came around, I would have that urge to start something new--but there was never anything new in my life to start on. So the whole urge just took the form of a helpless longing to start a new school year, to be given an assignment, to be told what to work on next. But one thing I've learned about being a homeowner is this: in a house, there's always something to work on. There's always a new project to be started. So now, when that fall restlessness hits me, it just makes me want to be up and doing whatever project is next on the list (usually something that I've been putting off all through the hot, lazy summer). I no longer need to go back to school and be given an assignment; I can come up with plenty on my own.

Or, to put it another way--I've become a grownup.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Neat site

For those of you who like The Hunger Site, I've discovered another site that's similar, only better. It's First of all, it's a lot more interesting than just a button you can click; it's a game, or a quiz, depending on how you look at it. When you go to the site, you'll be presented with a multiple-choice vocabulary question. Get it right, and you donate 10 grains of rice to a hungry person somewhere in the world. That may not sound like much, but the nice thing is that unlike the Hunger Site, which limits you to one click per day, lets you keep playing as long as you like. The questions get harder as you go until you miss one, and then it bumps you down a level or two. So you get to learn new words and help the hungry at the same time. How neat is that? (And if you aren't that into learning fancy words, you can try one of the other subjects, such as geography, chemical symbols, or famous paintings.)

So far, the best I've ever done with the vocabulary quiz is level 53 (out of a possible 60). I usually get to somewhere around level 50 and then I start running into words I don't recognize. For someone who doesn't encounter unfamiliar words that often, it's a rather humbling experience. So I guess I just have to keep playing until I've learned them all. :-)

Friday, August 14, 2009

Monsoon time

You know that old expression, "It never rains but it pours?"

Well, my work life, after a prolonged drought, is now going through a monsoon. See, there was this health book I was supposed to start working on way back in November. When Thanksgiving came and went, they told me the project would be delayed until the new year. Come January, they told me it would probably start up in March... and so on, with the start date being pushed up by two months each time I asked.

Until now. Last month they got back to me and announced that they were now ready to get started--and oh yeah, they wanted me to write the entire book. All 21 chapters. Including second and third drafts. In six months. Because after eight months of delays on their end, there obviously wasn't a minute to waste.

So after spending the better part of the past year doing no work at all for money, I can expect to spend the next six months doing pretty much nothing else.

So, to anyone who actually reads this blog: I hope you'll understand if I don't get around to posting here too often.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009



New words, never before seen on the Internet, available in all colors of the alphabet while supplies last! Guaranteed meaningless! Yours to define if you act now!


Moderntroll is not responsible for injury or ridicule resulting from use of meaningless words offered at End user assumes all risk associated with definition of meaningless words. No animals or particularly interesting plants were harmed in the production of these meaningless words. Meaningless words have not been approved by the USDA, FDA, or SPECTRE and should not be considered to have any nutritional, medicinal, or sinister properties.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


I see that my last entry, about two weeks ago, described the "teeny-weeny" zucchini that I had just spotted in the garden. Ha, it is to laugh. Take a look at this monster zucchini I harvested today. By the time August 8 rolls around, I may be all set to celebrate Zucchini-Sneaking Day.

And the pumpkin also shows signs of getting out of hand. Yesterday the Troll had to rig up a little sling from a piece of panty hose to to hold the largest of the pumpkins so that its weight wouldn't pull down the whole trellis.

I think perhaps I cucurbit off more than I can chew.

Monday, June 29, 2009

How Does Your Garden Grow, part 2

Two, three, four, tell us what the garden bore...

It was an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, yellow-flowered green zucchini that I saw for the first time today! (Well, yesterday, actually.) First one of the season, and there are more blossoms where that came from.

The string beans are also flowering, and I can detect the first tiny beans forming. There are also tiny, incipient fruits on one of the Sun Gold tomato vines. There was one tiny pepper on the Yellow Cheese plant, but it has unfortunately split open while it was still fingernail-sized. Not sure what caused that--all the rain we've been having, perhaps?

The snow peas are still producing, which throws out all my calculations, since my plan was to plant the winter squash in the same spot after I'd finished harvesting the peas. But since it means more snow peas, I can't really complain. We've already had two meals' worth, plus the ones that got eaten raw right off the vine.

We finally got the trellis on our fourth bed put up yesterday, so I was able to string up the pumpkin vine that had been intruding on my onions. The corn is also growing rapidly--well past my knees already--so I have hopes of having fresh sweet corn to feed to the in-laws when they come to visit in a month.

The one crop that's nearing its end is the lettuce. It's interesting how I can now clearly distinguish the heads that I actually planted this year from the ones that reseeded themselves from last year. Last year I planted a generic Bibb variety from the rack at the drugstore, and those plants are now starting to bolt. But this year's plants are a bolt-resistant variety called Tom Thumb, and they still look like proper round heads of lettuce. So we should get a few more salads out of this garden before the dog days arrive.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Third Place? I Don't Know

On my recent trip to Pittsburgh, I read an article in Acela, the Amtrak on-board magazine, called "The Race for Third Place." (It appears to have been picked up from the airline magazine Arrive, because I found a copy of it here.) It was about how the recession is posing a special challenge for businesses that have been trying to market themselves as "third places"--that is, places where people spend significant amounts of time other than home and work. A "third place" could be a bar, a library, a coffee shop, a health club, a church, or a shopping mall--anyplace where people go just to "hang out," rather than going in, conducting their business, and leaving.

The existence of places like this is one of the things that holds communities together. That's why I like living in a town that has both bars and churches, even though I never spend any time at either type of place. It's why I mourned the passing of the local sweetshop, with its bona fide old-fashioned soda fountain, even though I only actually went there a few times a year. And it's why I was disappointed when the "comic cafe" across the river, once a great hangout where you could enjoy an ice cream or browse through comics or both (just so long as you didn't actually handle food and comics at the same time), moved to a new venue, where the comic shop was upstairs and the cafe downstairs, with no seating at all in the comic area (presumably because they didn't want to encourage folks to sit down and look at the merchandise) and so little in the cafe that you would feel guilty about lingering for even a minute after finishing your food. (I lost all interest in going there after that, and the Troll switched to buying his comics from another store, one that sold games as well as comics and actually encouraged hanging out.)

But it occurred to me as I read the article that, although I recognize the importance of places like these, I don't really have a "third place" myself. Sure, I like to go to a coffeehouse once in a while, but I'm not a regular at any particular coffeehouse. I take ample advantage of our local library, but I don't really hang out there--I mostly just go in, browse through the books and videos, choose one or don't choose one, and leave. I don't sit down with the book I've found and read it right there. In fact, because I work at home, I really don't even have a second place, let alone a third one.

So why, if I understand the value of having a place to hang out, don't I have one? I think it's because for me a "third place" would have to be someplace I could spend significant amounts of time without spending significant amounts of money. That lets out the coffeehouses, because $3 or $4 a drink starts running into money when you make a daily habit of it. And it lets out the library, because you can't eat or drink at all in there, and I like to have something to sip while I read. So the closest thing I have to a "third place" is the local park, where I like to go for walks in the summer, and where I can sometimes perch on a park bench and work on a crossword and drink my own coffee that I made at home, without having to pay $4 for it. But the thing is, when I go and hang out at the park, I'm hanging out by myself. I might see a few joggers passing through, or a mom with her kids, but I don't usually interact with anybody. It isn't really a place where I could go to meet people, or even just to be around people.

I wonder why in a town like mine, which does such a good job in so many ways of maintaining strong community ties, there are no real public spaces for people to connect with their neighbors?

Monday, June 15, 2009


Something makes me think I'm not doing these correctly.

Just a hunch, that's all.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

I luv werds.

In my experience, there are two general reactions to things that we don't understand:  fear or fascination.  From this stems my fascination with words. 

And my fear of plastic furniture.  But this is beside the point.

Imagine an adjective like "small."  To make the comparative form, we add "-er" to make the word "smaller."  To make the superlative form, we add "-est" to get "smallest."

Now it is perhaps reasonable to argue that I have chosen a bad example, in that "smaller" is longer than "small" and "smallest" is longest of all, but you get the general idea.

My question is:  how many sets of three words are there where the trio takes the form of a base adjective, its comparative form, and its superlative form without being any of those things?  We've come up with two sets so far:



I was wondering if anyone could come up with any more of these.  Or at least make fun of me for devoting so much of my dwindling mental energies to questions such as these.

Even more/disturbing

More disturbing news on the slash front:

I'm a big fan of the show "Stargate Atlantis," and especially of the character Rodney McKay, the über-brilliant, über-obnoxious scientist who always comes through for his team when the chips are down. So one day, out of idle curiosity, I punched a query into Google about McKay's romantic history. I knew the character had a big following, so I thought this was the sort of information that might be out there somewhere in the tangle of the Web.

Well, maybe it was the wording of my query, but I didn't find what I was looking for. What I found instead was something I could hardly believe existed: a Rodney McKay/Sam Seaborn crossover slash fanfic. I mean, what?!?

Sam Seaborn, of course, is the bright, idealistic, and extremely good-looking deputy communications director in the Bartlet administration during the first three seasons of "The West Wing," played with éclat by Rob Lowe. Who is, indisputably, pretty hot. And David Hewlett, who plays McKay, isn't so bad either. But there is nothing--I mean, nothing--about these two characters that would make me want to see them together. There's nothing about the way either of them is portrayed to suggest they'd have any chemistry together on any level--nor, for that matter, to suggest that either one of them swings that way, even slightly.

Out of a sort of perverse curiosity, I read a bit of it to see how it was. Bizarre, is how it was. The setup is basically that Rodney is sent to Washington to ask the Bartlet administration for more money for the Atlantis mission, and when Sam rejects his request, Rodney decides to offer him--an additional incentive. This just does not work on so many levels. For starters, only an idiot would send Rodney on any kind of diplomatic mission. And it's not remotely plausible that Sam would have the authority to approve funding--he's not even involved with budget decisions, and he probably doesn't have high enough security clearance to even know about the Stargate program. (In the second-season episode "Somebody's Going to Emergency, Somebody's Going to Jail," Sam reveals that he doesn't have code-word clearance, which he would need to view an NSA file.) The idea that Rodney would think to use sex as a bribe is not at all consistent with his character, and the idea that Sam would accept a bribe of any kind is even less consistent with his. But it was really the idea of those two characters together that was just...too...weird.

The whole experience was so odd and vaguely disturbing that I can't even bring myself to post a link to the story. But I have to admit, the nature of my objections to it goes a long way to show just how big a fangirl nerd I am.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


It occurred to me that there ought to be a term--"ecofrugal"--for people who routinely do things that both save money and help the environment. Some folks may be doing these things primarily to be green, while others want chiefly to keep more green stuff in their pockets, but the result is the same in both cases: a healthier planet and a healthier bank balance.

I Googled the term to see if anyone else was using it this way, and I got a few hits, but they seemed kind of scattered. For example, Frugal Village has an article on "Eco Frugality" (two words), which cites some well-known thrifty practices that "run parallel with green living." An article on reusing household items from a site called Gomestic uses the term "eco-frugal" with a hyphen, and someone calling herself grrlscout224 has posted a photo set on Flickr with the title "ecofrugal." And there is also a recently created blog titled "The EcoFrugal," which as yet has a grand total of one entry. But so far, the use of the term seems fairly haphazard. It doesn't seem to have gained much popular currency.

The only source I found that offered anything like a definition of the term was an article on "Eco-Bounty" at, which noted that many manufacturers are seeking to shift the image of their products "from ‘worthy but expensive’ to ‘cheap and, oh yes, worthy’" in order to attract both "cash-strapped consumers...going out of their way to save money" and "consumers [who] are still primarily interested in sustainable consumption, but no longer willing or able to pay the usual premiums." It cited as examples the new Zoe and Zac line at Payless and the Mini, which is now being marketed as a planet-friendly car that's cheap to run.

Which is all well and good, but a bit incomplete as a philosophy. The products you buy can be a part of an ecofrugal lifestyle, but they're not the only part, nor even necessarily the most important part. In fact, I'd venture to suggest that ecofrugality has more to do with not buying stuff. It's about thinking before you make a purchase: "Do I need this? Will it really make me happier? Could I repair the old one instead of replacing it? Could I make do with something else I already have? Could I borrow it from a friend, take it out of the library, get a secondhand one on Freecyle or Craigslist?" Only after thinking through these questions do the ecofrugal start balancing considerations of price and pollution.

The point I'd like to make about ecofrugality is that it's really a single ideal, not just two unrelated ideals that sometimes go together. A sustainable lifestyle isn't really sustainable if you have to go into debt to maintain it; a frugal lifestyle isn't really frugal if it wastes natural resources. And in most cases, the eco-conscious choice is also the wallet-conscious one. Most of the money-saving trends I cited in my April 11 entry are green trends as well. More people may be adopting these measures now as a way to save money, but as they become more mindful about how they live, they may discover they value the environmental benefits just as much as the financial ones. In the end, this recession might just turn out to be the dawning of the age of ecofrugality.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Credit Crackdown?

This week the New York Times ran two contradictory articles about the current crackdown on credit card issuers. Monday's article, "Credit Card Industry Aims to Profit From Sterling Payers," suggests that since Congress intends to limit the ways in which card issuers have long made money off high-risk cardholders (e.g., slapping them with massive late fees and jacking interest rates way up after a single late payment), the poor banks will have no choice but to start going after "deadbeats"--that is, the 40 percent of cardholders who pay their balances in full and on time every month. According to the article, people like me who have been getting a free ride should expect to start paying annual fees or maybe being charged interest on each purchase immediately after it's made, with no grace period for paying off the bill. But Tuesday's "Your Money" column, "Consumers Are Dealt a New Hand in Credit Cards," dismisses these ideas as "just so much saber-rattling," since credit card issuers don't want to lose customers--even "deadbeat" customers--if they can help it. After all, the card issuer does make money from the merchants on every transaction, so it's definitely in the banks' interest for people to continue charging as much as possible to their cards, even if they don't do the issuer the additional favor of carrying an interest-laden balance.

The second idea seems more plausible to me. After all, card issuers have to realize that if they start making their terms too onerous, people like me will simply jump ship. Ten years ago, it might have been difficult to get by without at least one credit card, but nowadays there are more options--PayPal for online transactions, debit cards for in-store purchases, reloadable prepaid cards, gift cards. And moreover, if there's even one card out there that still has no annual fee and a reasonable grace period, then all the deadbeats can switch to that card, and whoever issues it will get a whole 40 percent of the market overnight. So unless all the banks get together and make a deal not to make such a card available (which I'm pretty sure would be illegal), I don't see how there wouldn't be at least one of them eager to be the only no-fee card on the block.

I'm willing to live with having my rewards dialed back. The main reason I used the card was for convenience, anyway; the rewards were just a nice bonus. And if they want to lower my credit limit, oh well, it's not like I was using it all anyway. But the minute they try to stick me with an annual fee, it's au revoir, Visa.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A new drug

Okay, here's a reason it's actually a good thing that I've been out of work for a while: because it gives me more time to devote to my latest addiction, online cryptograms. The Puzzle Baron's site,, makes the mechanics of solving them much simpler and more straightforward than it is with a pencil and paper. If you fill in one letter substitution, it automatically changes every occurrence of that letter to match. If you decide you've made a mistake, you just change or delete the letter you and the same change appears throughout the entire puzzle. If you decide you've messed the whole thing up entirely, you can just hit "reset" and it will delete everything and give you a blank slate again. You can even set it to show letter frequencies (so that if you aren't sure where to begin, you can just try guessing that the most commonly occurring letter is "E" and see where that gets you) and to advance the cursor automatically (moving ahead to each new unassigned letter as you type).

All this makes it possible to solve a single medium-length quotation in roughly one minute. And since that was so quick, you feel perfectly justified in clicking "Try another cryptogram" to move on to another. And another. And another. And before you know it the entire bag of Oreos is empty.

I'm going to have to figure out some way to ration my use of this site once I actually have paid work to do again. Otherwise, I'll keep logging on for a five-minute work break and emerging again two hours later.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Haphazardly, in our case. So far, we've planted five crops, with extremely mixed results:
  • The snap peas are coming up splendidly--in fact, they're growing so fast that I'm a little concerned we won't have time to erect a trellis for them before they climb past the tops of the beds.
  • The spring onions, which never grew at all last year, seem to be coming up as well, though it's hard to be sure at this stage that they're not weeds posing as onions.
  • Three out of four parsley plants didn't survive transplanting, and I ended up buying new seedlings at the annual plant sale at the university to supplement them.
  • The spinach, just like last year's shows no signs of sprouting at all.
  • The lettuce is the oddest of all: there's no sign of it in any of the squares where I actually planted it, yet in other parts of the beds, little lettuces seem to be popping their heads up more or less at random. I can't figure out whether the seeds I planted somehow got washed out of their places in a heavy rain, or whether the lettuce I planted last year, which bolted in the summer, has re-seeded itself and is somehow coming up through all that dirt we turned over in the new raised beds and the compost we piled in on top of that.
I'm a bit nervous to see how our tomato, pepper, and basil seedlings survive the move, which is scheduled for next week. They all grew all right last year, but things are so weird this year, I don't know what to expect.

Monday, April 20, 2009

iMix, you Mix, we all Mix for iMix

Okay, I hope I'm doing this right....

One of my favorite bands on earth, if not my absolute favorite band, is Broadside Electric. If you're not familiar with them, well, I could tell you that they once described themselves by the phrase "eclectic electric Celtic acoustic," but actually the band has evolved quite a bit since then, so that phrase doesn't really begin to cover it. Put it this way: if you go to one of their concerts, you should not be surprised to hear to hear, in quick succession, gory Child ballads, Klezmer tunes, Bob Dylan, Gilbert and Sullivan, and a few rollicking reels, played by five musicians on at least a dozen instruments. And that would be just the first set. Oh, and they're all really nifty people offstage, as well.

So, I love these folks, and in a recent mailing they sent out, they suggested that one way for their fans to promote their music would be to make an iMix on the iTunes store containing some of their songs and maybe 10 others by "popular artists." So I looked up the directions and it didn't seem too difficult--in fact, I already had several playlists on iTunes containing one or more Broadside songs, and I figured I could just publish one of those. Upon consideration, I decided that to get a good sampling of music I should combine two playlists, which I had entitled "Light" and "Darkness," into a single playlist called "Chiaroscuro," and publish that. So I spent a happy hour or so selecting songs from these two playlists and arranging them in a pleasing order, interspersing the lighter and darker material. Then I tried to publish it to iTunes and hit a snag: many of the songs in my collection were not available on the iTunes store. So a little more pondering ensued as I looked for alternate versions of these songs on iTunes. (Example: the entire Beatles catalogue is unavailable on iTunes, so I ended up with a live George Harrison version of "Here Comes the Sun" and the King's Singers' version of "Blackbird," which is actually quite nice. The Califone version of "The Orchids," by contrast, isn't nearly as cool as the Genesis P-Orridge version, but what can you do?) A few songs had to be cut completely because iTunes didn't have any version available at all, or at least not any that I found acceptable. So after considerable tweaking, I arrived at a finished iMix that I was reasonably happy with.

Now, here's the part I hope I'm doing right. ITunes provided a link labeled "Publish to the Web" that is supposed to make my iMix available via my blog. (I assume that you can't actually listen to the songs unless you own them, but you can listen to a short clip from each song to see how you like it, and if you're interested, you can buy it.) So I'm going to give this a try. Here's the link (I think):

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Driving the bandwagon

According to an article in yesterday's New York Times, frugality is actually a hot new trend. Here are a few of the radical steps the article mentions that people are taking to save money:

• borrowing movies from the library
• planting gardens
• canceling cable service
• composting (to avoid trash disposal fees)
• having clothing swaps with friends
• trash picking
• darning socks
• drying clothes on a line

In short, people across the country have started doing all the stuff I've been doing for years. How about that--I'm trendy. Who knew?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


Saturday's New York Times featured a column on puns by op-ed contributor Joseph Tartakovsky. His basic premise seemed to be that all puns are bad and that writers with any talent invariably eschew them. (Of course, he couldn't help admitting that Shakespeare was a notable exception, and he cited several other examples of extremely clever puns made by extremely clever people, but for some reason he didn't seem to feel that these counterexamples in any way undermined his central argument.)

Well, I suppose that I, though a dedicated lover of puns, shouldn't have bothered to take umbrage at this. After all, this guy isn't exactly a noted literary critic (in fact, he's a law student at Fordham, so I'm not sure what makes him fancy himself an expert). He's obviously just a grouch who starts off every morning by sucking half a lemon and then taking a brisk sneer around the block. In fact, the very fact that a person like him hates puns seems like a better argument than any other for making them. But I couldn't help being a bit nettled by his supercilious sneering at puns as "low" humor, especially since he didn't bother to get his facts straight. He cited the fact that "The 20th century’s finest humorist, P. G. Wodehouse, doesn’t use" puns as evidence that puns are inherently unfunny. Well, as it happens, we're still on our Wodehouse kick at home, and the very same day I read this article, I happened on this passage in Thank You, Jeeves:
"Mr. Stoker, sir. He is inquiring about Miss Stoker's whereabouts."

Well, of course, there's always that old one about them being at the wash, but this seemed to me neither the time nor the place.

Now if that isn't an example of how a well-aimed pun can strike directly on the funny bone, what is?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Oh, I Say, What?

One of our favorite diversions in our household is the all-but-lost art of reading aloud. Typically, this takes the form of my reading aloud to the Troll while he does some work around the cave. Since I'm better at reading than I am at fixing things and he's the other way round, this seems to work out pretty well for all parties.

Anyway, recently I was reading to him from the chronicles of Jeeves and Wooster, by P.G. Wodehouse. If you're not familiar with these stories, they're a series of lighthearted confections dating from the 1920s about a bumbling British gentleman, Bertie Wooster, and his supremely competent manservant, Jeeves, who not only keeps Bertie impeccably dressed but also exerts his considerable brainpower to extricate his young master, and his young master's equally bumbling friends, from a variety of scrapes. What makes the series so particularly charming is the way the characters talk. Bertie is always saying things like "Hallo, hallo, hallo, what?" while Jeeves's lines are more along the lines of "I endeavor to give satisfaction, sir," and the distinctive speaking styles of these two characters are sort of a hallmark of the stories.

Anyway, after reading a few of these, it occurred to me to wonder if anyone had ever written any Jeeves/Wooster slash fiction. After all, both characters do seem to be more or less confirmed bachelors, and in fact, one of Jeeves's most common challenges is helping Bertie escape from unwanted marriage engagements. However, I was inclined to dismiss the thought almost as soon as it popped up, because the idea of writing anything remotely smutty in the voice of either of these characters seemed inconceivable.

Not, it would appear, to all. A quick Google search turned up several hits, including one particular site that listed and provided summary reviews of several J/W stories. So I read a few, and I must say, the mind boggles. One problem with writing this sort of thing, as the author of the site pointed out, is maintaining the proper voice. As she put it, "How can you put these two into an awkward, sweaty, and not ironic position without losing the style? You don’t just say “his hard length” unless you can make it sound good in Bertie’s or Jeeves’s voice." And I must admit, it's not the sort of thing either of them really seems likely to say.

Even more than the style, though, the problem seems to lie in the characters themselves. It's all but inconceivable to imagine these characters having sex, not just with each other, but really, with anyone at all. Bertie isn't too absurd, I suppose; though clueless, he's thoroughly good-hearted, and it isn't impossible to imagine him showing a fair degree of enthusiasm once someone managed to explain the whole concept to him in terms he could understand. But it's nearly impossible to imagine Jeeves being swept away by passion under any circumstances. One of his most salient character traits, in fact, seems to be his imperturbability--that and his utter competence at dealing with any situation. So of course, there's every reason to think he would be extremely competent between the sheets as well--but that alone just doesn't make for terribly interesting reading, don't you know, what?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Living La Vida Local

Lately I've become fascinated with stories about people who, for whatever reason, challenge themselves to spend some period of time--typically a year--doing something that most Americans would never think of doing. The most recent work I've read in this genre was Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver (the primary author's husband and older daughter, respectively). The "Hoppsolver" family resolved to spend one full year eating locally. With a few exceptions (such as grains, olive oil, coffee, and spices), everything they ate came from their own county in rural Virginia. Much of it was grown on their own small "farm," which, though zoned for agricultural use, offered less than 4,000 square feet of tillable space thanks to the steepness of the surrounding hills. Over the course of a year, the family grew everything from early spring chard to enormous blue pumpkins, not to mention more zucchini than any four people could eat or give away. They also raised their own free-range turkeys for meat, and Lily, the younger daughter of the family, raised a flock of chickens and started her own business selling multicolored, free-range eggs at $2.50 a dozen. Everything they couldn't grow themselves came from their local farmers' market or from other area growers they knew personally.

I can relate to the reasons that inspired the Hoppsolvers to move across the country from Tuscon to Virginia just so that they could live off their own land (or at least the land of their immediate area). I've been known to shake my head bitterly in supermarket produce sections over bins of nectarines on sale for $1.99 a pound in the middle of February. Nectarines are a summer fruit, and to me, it seems just plain wrong that it's possible to buy them so cheaply in the middle of winter--shipped all the way up from the southern hemisphere, burning up petroleum and belching out greenhouse gases every mile of the journey. It's probably akin to the frustration I feel when stores start putting out their Christmas decorations before Halloween has even come. It feels disrespectful to the season to push it out of the way to make room for something else that's supposed to be more important. I like to honor the cycle of the seasons, enjoying each thing in its proper time--like strawberries, which around here come in around May. I appreciate strawberries more when I have to wait for May to enjoy them--and conversely, I appreciate May that much more because it brings the strawberries.

So I can see the benefits of eating the way Barbara Kingsolver and her family did (and, to a large extent, still do). Yet at the same time, I can't really imagine myself ever undertaking this challenge. I'm too fond of too many foods that the Garden State just can't provide. Sure, I could do as the Hoppsolvers did and make exceptions for bread flour, pasta, olive oil, chocolate, raisins...but how long could this list get before I'd have to draw the line, or else admit that I wasn't truly eating locally?

The thing is, before I read this book, I thought I was actually doing pretty well in the areas of buy-local and do-it-yourself. Maybe I don't routinely make my own cheese like Barbara Kingsolver (we tried it once, but it's a messy process, and it ends up costing more per pound than the supermarket stuff), but we do bake our own bread, grow our own tomatoes, hang out our wash on the line. We're certainly doing better than the majority of Americans at treading lightly on the earth, and also at living with appreciation for what the earth gives us. We don't buy the $1.99 nectarines in February; we wait until they show up at the farmers' market in July. So do I really need to feel guilty about the fact that, while waiting for the fruits of summer, I enjoy winter oranges shipped up from Florida?

Truthfully, naah. I don't really need my life to be 99 and 44/100 percent pure. If I can even get the percentage above 50, I'll be fairly pleased with myself. After all, if the perfect really is the enemy of the good, then I need to allow myself some imperfections if I hope to succeed in approaching my ideals. I can accept that I'll never truly reach them, but at the same time, I can admit that it's getting better, a little better all the time.

Monday, March 2, 2009

How Do I Love Thee, Trader Joe?

Let me count the ways:

1. Organic raisins at $2.79 a pound.
2. Crumpets in both plain and cinnamon.
3. Humanely farmed bacon.
3. Pesto-filled tortellini.
4. Free samples of excellent coffee and whatever unusual treat has been cooked up for the day (yesterday's was macaroni and cheese with fresh edamame).
5. Bunches of daffodils for a buck fifty.
6. Honey-oatmeal soap.
7. A toothpaste with natural peppermint, baking soda, and fluoride, and without sodium lauryl sulfate, which gives the Troll canker sores.
8. Chocolate sold by the half kilo.
9. The Fearless Flier, which, with its purple prose and vintage artwork, presents the month's specials with style.
10. Lots of perfectly unremarkable staples--like toilet paper and frozen peas--at far better prices than the big supermarkets can offer.

The only part I hate is the crowds. We've given up on trying to park in the store parking lot--you can spend fifteen minutes trying to get to a spot ten feet away. So now we go only on Sundays, when parking is free in town, and park in the lot next door. But there's no way to avoid the crowds in the store itself--people and carts clogging the aisles like the arteries of a middle-aged couch potato who lives on McDonald's fries. If anything, the crowds seem to have grown worse since the recession came down on us in earnest--which seems odd, since most of the stuff you buy at Trader Joe's strikes me as the sort of luxury items that consumers are reported to be cutting back on. Could it be that all the folks we keep bumping into (literally) in the aisles at Trader Joe's used to shop at Whole Foods and have changed their allegiance in search of better bargains? Or are these folks still piling their carts with Joe's merchandise because it's the one luxury they still can afford?

The Perfect Storm

The snowdrops and crocuses have been out this past week, poking their little white and yellow heads out into the brownish desolation of late February as if to assure us that spring is indeed on its way. On my daily walks, I gathered fallen twigs with their little red leaf-buds showing, swelling with the tiny green leaves inside ready to uncurl. And then suddenly, last night, winter came back down on us with a vengeance, dumping seven inches of snow on us before daybreak.

The ironic part is, this is the sort of perfect snowfall that we haven't had all winter long. It's mostly been a dull sort of winter, with plenty of raw cold and biting wind, but very little snow to brighten up the bleak grey landscape. The few significant snowfalls we've had were of the nasty, wet variety that clings grimly to the shovel and leaves behind a slick film on the sidewalk that congeals almost immediately into ice, making you wonder whether you haven't made matters worse by attempting to shovel it at all. And now, just as spring seemed to be just around the corner, we get more than half a foot of clean, fluffy white snow, completely covering up the dead grass and leaves and turning the whole neighborhood into a winter wonderland. We never seem to get this sort of beautiful snow at Christmas time, or in the grimness of late January and early February when it seems like there's nothing good to be said for winter. A month ago, I'd much have preferred a blanket of beautiful white snow to the mucky brown of bare ground with nothing growing out of it, but now, when things were just starting to bloom, it all feels somehow wrong.

Of course, this is most likely just winter's last hurrah--although the weather here in New Jersey is unpredictable enough that you can't be truly sure of anything. Back in kindergarten, I learned the old saw about March coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb, and I expect this March will do just that. By this weekend, according to the weather report, the temperatures will climb back up into the 40s and 50s; a more seasonable rain will come in and wash away the snow. The remaining crocuses will come up, followed by daffodils, violets, forsythias. The little buds on the trees will uncurl their leaves, and by the time April arrives, we'll have springtime for real, instead of just the teasing glimpse of it we got last week before winter reasserted itself. So perhaps it's just as well to have this one (probably) last snowfall to give us a chance to appreciate winter at its best--winter as it should be--before it melts away into nothing for another year.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Sneak Preview

Last week, we had a sort of sneak preview of spring--temperatures in the 40s and 50s, with brisk winds and just a little bit of drizzly rain. It felt like we'd skipped the whole month of February and gone straight into March. Well, now we're back to winter again--25 degrees out and with a wind chill that makes it feel more like 13 degrees. Oh well. At least after our little preview, it's possible to believe that spring will come. I'm keeping my eyes peeled for crocuses.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Things I still need to get used to

The year is now 2009. That means this decade is almost over and we still haven't figured out what to call it. (The "oughties"? The "noughties"?)

I am 36 years old. It's time to accept that, by most definitions, I can no longer be described as "young."

We have a garden to plant this year. That means that right now, January, is the time when I should be planning it and buying my seeds. I am so not on top of this.

I do not hate the President. It's been so long.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

So Crazy It Might Work

The Troll and I are in the process of refinishing our basement. Actually, we've been in the process more or less ever since we bought the house 18 months ago--tearing out paneling, repairing walls and ceilings, installing new lighting. But the current stumbling block is the floor. The floor's not quite level, so carpet, tile, or laminate would require the installation of a subfloor. In addition to the expense, this would eat up about half an inch of space from an already low-ceilinged room, and there might not even be room for it under the baseboard heaters. So my idea was to stain the concrete--until we got around to ripping up the old vinyl floor and saw what the concrete looked like underneath. Not pretty.

So my next thought was to paint the concrete, but I was uncertain about what type of paint to use and how to apply it. I wanted something environmentally benign, not too expensive, and easy to use--and of course, I wanted it to look nice too. Then yesterday I came across this bizarre yet intriguing idea: paper-bag decoupage. Basically, you tear paper bags (or brown kraft paper) into irregular pieces, apply them in overlapping layers to the floor (various sources have suggested using wallpaper paste, water-based polyurethane, or a 50-50 dilution of Elmer's white glue), and seal the whole thing with five or six coats of poly. The finished product has been described as looking like natural stone (but much softer underfoot) or distressed leather. You can apply a stain, too, if you want a color other than the natural brown paper-bag finish.

It sounds crazy, but the more I think about it, the more it seems like exactly what we need. Of course, our grocery store doesn't have paper bags, so we would actually have to buy the paper. But it seems like, for an investment of a day's labor and the cost of a gallon of poly and a roll or two of kraft paper, we could have an attractive floor finish that would also make a great conversation piece. And the beauty part is, if we didn't like it, we could always paint over it, which is what we were planning to do anyway.

So where is the glaring flaw in this plan that I'm overlooking?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

An ending less Horrible

OK, this has been bothering me for months now, and it's time to get it off my chest.

I hated, absolutely hated, the ending of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog.  I realize I'm in the minority on this.  When I visited the official fan site to hear others' reactions, the overwhelming majority were positive.  Many argued that the dark, bitter conclusion was the only truly fitting end for the characters as they had been drawn.  Those who suggested that perhaps such a dark, bitter conclusion was a little inappropriate for what had been billed as a lighthearted comedy were almost universally derided as fluffybunny wimps who like all their stories to be nothing but sweetness and light and the good guys living happily ever after.  One fan even ventured to suggest that the ending wasn't dark and bitter enough, because Dr. Horrible never intentionally killed anyone or overtly embraced his true, evil nature.

Well, bollocks to them all.  I didn't like it, but that doesn't mean I wanted a sweet, fluffy ending in which Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer both realize they should be nice from now on and decide to be friends and team up to save homeless kittens.  After some thought, I've concluded that the ending I wanted would have looked something like this:

Everything is the same up until the point when Captain Hammer pulls the trigger and the Death Ray explodes in his hand.  Then:
[CAPTAIN HAMMER runs from the room crying like a little girl. BILLY lies on the ground, his body pierced through by the shrapnel of his failed weapon. PENNY runs to him.]

PENNY: Billy!

BILLY: (weakly) I'm sorry, Penny. I didn't want you to see...who I really was...

PENNY: But Billy, I knew that all along.

BILLY: You did?

PENNY: Yeah, those goggles really aren't as good a disguise as you think they are.

BILLY: Then why...why didn't you leave...if you knew who I was...underneath?

PENNY: (crying) Because I knew there was another layer under that. Like pie.

BILLY: (understanding) Pie.... (dies)

PENNY: (sings)

I always thought that I knew what a hero was
I always thought I knew the way
That I could change the world someday
I thought I knew

What do you do when the hero pulls the trigger
When the villain takes the blow
Changing the whole world that you know
What do you do

What if the bad guys are the good guys after all?
The ones who make a change for real
Who care about how people feel
How can it be?

I think at last I see a meaning in it all
At last the way is clear to me
The hero that I was meant to be
At last I see
My destiny...

(Slowly, gently, she removes the goggles from Billy's head. Slowly, deliberately, she puts them on. Looks directly into the camera.)

(laughing fiendishly) Ha ha ha ha! (pause) I'm gonna have to work on that. (Fade to black.)
There.  That's what I call an ending.  A bit of a rip-off of V for Vendetta, maybe, but hey, it works.