Sunday, February 28, 2010

Thank you, Olympians, for Helping to Kill off February

As I think pretty much anybody reading this blog knows, I have only one good thing to say about February while I'm living in northern climes: it's only 28 days long. Everybody agrees it's just a good idea to get me out of Michigan for a couple weeks in the wintertime, and late February is one of the best times to ship me off to visit the sun.

However, that didn't happen this year, so as long as I had a February to endure, it was quite lovely to have the Winter Olympics on the tube to help me kill the last couple weeks of this frozen month. Monique, Katie the Beagle, and I have spent an awful lot of time the last couple of weeks on the couch watching people from all over the world slip, slide, and fling themselves through the air in a variety of unlikely ways. They landed on their feet surprisingly often.

This year's Olympics watching has especially benefitted from both the HDTV and the DVR. This is the first year we've had a Winter Olympics since we bought the HDTV a few years ago, and it was an especially notable improvement for the cross-country skiing and biathlon. The snow on the pines of Whistler was beautiful and as I watched all those elite athletes gliding elegantly through that winter wonderland, I wasn't at all inspired to dig my own cross-country skis out of the garage. But on several occasions I was inspired to make grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, 'cause it looked cold out there.

The DVR is the greatest thing ever for watching the Olympics. Essentially we could record the most of the daytime events and watch both them and the nighttime broadcast by fast-forwarding through all of the ads, profiles, and endless hours of figure-skating previews.

Here are my 2010 Winter Olympics awards:

Greatest Bronze Medal of All Time: Won by in the women's individual classic sprint by Slovenian cross-country skier Petra Majdic, who was injured in a pre-race crash when she slid off the course, fell into a ravine, and struck a large rock. She went on to race a qualifier, then four heats and win the bronze with four broken ribs and a punctured lung.

Seriously. That's no typo. Four freaking broken ribs and -- as if that wasn't bad enough -- a punctured lung. She had x-rays after the crash and before the race, so she had to know before she started. Kinda puts Lindsey Vonn's bruised shin into perspective, doesn't it?

Best Four-Legged Couch Companion: Katie the Beagle! (Especially after Monique gave her a bath.)

Most Welcome Gold Medal: Four-Man Bobsled for the USA, the first gold in bobsled since 1948! Seriously, I first saw bobsledding in person more than thirty years ago, and they were already on a losing streak of more than 30 years then. Rooting for the US has been like rooting for the Chicago Cubs ever since. Really, I was beginning to fear that Jamaica was going to win a gold in this event before the US.

The worst heartbreak came in Calgary in '88 when the Swiss sled went right between Buckner's legs. Just sad.

And in closing, my final word on the closing ceremonies?


Now my Winter Olympics experience is truly complete!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Book Review: Murder by the Book by Rex Stout (1951)

Murder by the Book (1951) is an especially fun entry in Rex Stout's long-running Nero Wolfe mystery series. Its MacGuffin is an unpublished manuscript by a law clerk, and somebody is killing everybody who has read it. If you've never read a Nero Wolfe mystery, this is a good one to start with, as the whole cast is in good form and Stout is on top of his game.

Amazon: Murder by the Book by Rex Stout.

How acquired: Picked it up from a used book store for $2.95, probably in the time since I've moved out to Michigan.

Book Review: Pleasure Model by Christopher Rowley, illustrations by Justin Norman

Pleasure Model by Christopher Rowley with interior illustrations by Justin Norman is the first book in the new Heavy Metal Pulp series from Tor. According to the book flap the line promises, "novels combining noir fiction with fantastic art featuring the themes, story lines, and graphic styles of Heavy Metal magazine."

In Pleasure Model, veteran sci-fi and fantasy author Christopher Rowley and interior artist Justin Norman deliver the goods with a story of murder, sex, and violence in a near-future American dystopia where the denizens of the underworld are known as "the uninsured."

The title character is Pleasur, a genetically engineered pleasure model designed to serve the sexual whims of her owner with a combination of maximum sex appeal and minimum intelligence. The rest of the characters are an assortment straight from sci-fi noir casting central: the hard-boiled honest police detective, the dominatrix with a heart of gold, the helpful madam, and the friendly master of the underground. But they're brought to life nicely by Rowley and prove to be a compelling cast.

The book itself is a quick, breezy read that ends in a cliffhanger. This is supposed to be Book One of The Netherworld Trilogy, and indeed it reads like the first act of a full-sized novel. This is sci-fi noir with some of the best features of the genre: adventure and suspense blended with an interesting mix of speculation about the future. Rowley's makes some interesting observations about where America has been recently, and where it might be going, and that gives this whole thing a bit more substance than might be expected.

An interesting feature of this book is that as part of this new Heavy Metal Pulp line it is heavily illustrated with black-and-white interior drawings by Norman, usually one-to-three drawings on every two-page spread of the book. Here's how this looks in print:

The illustrations add a nice cheesecake n' cleavage frosting to this gritty confection. A few of them -- especially one series illustrating the death of one of the characters -- are powerful enough to stay with you after you've set down the book. The sum total of text plus images is somewhere between novel and graphic novel, and it proves to be a pretty effective combination.

I can't say it ever feels like the illustrations are an integral part of the text. They feel as if they were added on after the manuscript was written, but they're a fun addition. I can see how a closely integrated creative team might take more complete advantage of this format.

Despite the decidedly adult content, it often feels like a heavily illustrated young-adult novel. Outside of we middle-aged fanboys, I wouldn't be surprised at all if it finds a niche among the 13-18 year-old boys who have always formed a core demographic of the Heavy Metal illustrated magazine's readership. (And hey, let he who didn't first come across Heavy Metal when he was 13 or 14 throw the first stone on this account!)

Summary: A fun read and an interesting look at what might be the start of an interesting new line. Well worth the quick read.

How acquired: I ordered it through the Science Fiction Book Club. The cover image caught my eye in the catalog and the description plus my curiosity about this new Heavy Metal Pulp imprint made me decide to give it a whirl.

Amazon (paperback): Pleasure Model by Christopher Rowley.

Science-Fiction Book Club (hardcover): Pleasure Model by Christopher Rowley.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Twitter Experiment Continues: Weeding the Feed

I'm now about six weeks into my Twitter experiment. I've thrown myself into this thing with enthusiasm because I would really like to better understand why some social media works for folks, and why others do not. But I haven't exercised much intellectual rigor here. Instead I've chosen to generally kinda bumble around as time permits to get the lay of the land while I try to figure it all out. For the most part, I continue to find myself less impressed by Twitter than I expected to be. I still expect that this may be a matter of working out better following lists and better mastering the tools. We shall see.

As near as I can tell as a six-week Twitter veteran, sheer volume is the king on this platform. Tweeters who tweet 30 times a day far outdraw once-a-day Tweeters. In part this is probably because the odds that they spit out something worth retweeting in those 30 posts is pretty decent, and that's a good way to eventually build a following.

Celebrity outside of Twitter is certainly a big currency here, too. In fact, that was my biggest worry, that I would just find a bunch of feeds with celebrities tweeting about how ridiculous it was that they had to stand in line at the rental-car counter. There's some of that, but it hasn't been as bad as I expected. Perhaps because I have consciously avoided most of those from the start.

News feeds are also big. I can really see why Twitter seems to be much more beloved among journalists and information specialists than the rest of the world. It does make it easy to follow a lot of sheer volume on a particular topic. That sort of unfiltered flow is irresistable to the news media. But unless it's your job to follow the news full time, the noise-to-news ratio that I have so far discovered is pretty discouraging.

As an information professional, I can assure you that obtaining a huge quantity of information on nearly anything is pretty easy these days. Distilling the raw data to a concise and informative format is the real trick. As a consumer of information, I don't always want filters. But I don't want to be blasted by a huge fire hose of information every day, either.

So with all that in mind, I took it upon myself to spend my lunchtime weeding out my Twitter garden. Here's what I thought about some of the flowers and weeds that I found.

The Best: The crown jewel of the Tweeters that I've picked up in the last month or so.

Astro_Soichi (Japanese space station astronaut Soichi Noguchi) -- He mostly tweets pictures that he's taken from the space station, and most of them are truly fantastic. If you're on Twitter and aren't following this guy, you should. Even if half of his tweets are in Japanese.

Keep: These Tweet monkeys were all keepers for me. Don't feel discriminated against if you don't find yourself here. I was mostly judging the high-volume Tweeters today, and these are a few that I made a conscious decision to keep.

Comics and fantasy/SF writers
catvalente (Catherine Valente) -- Usually interesting comments on the writers life. Plus she lives on an island in Maine and has the occasional interesting tweet on that, too.

tobiasbuckell (Tobias Buckell) -- had especially interesting things to say about publishing during the Amazon/Macmillan kerfluffle.

scalzi (John Scalzi) -- A reasonable volume of interesting and original Tweets.

NSAuthors (Night Shade Books) -- Retweets for lots of their authors. Generally an interesting assortment of links to blogs.

Local comics guys
elephanteater (Ryan Claytor), DeanStahl (Dean Stahl) -- Well worth following if you're interested in the Michigan comics scene or indy comics in general.

Mavericks_Surf (Maverick's Surf alerts for -- Okay, so it's probably only useful once a year to let us know when the annual big-wave contest has been called. Watching this year's contest live via Internet on my plasma TV made it all worthwhile.

Cut: Bad Tweet monkey. No banana.

Most of these Tweeters were victimized by having a noise-to-news ratio that was waaaaaaay too low. If I have to wallow through 20 or 30 of your tweets per day to dig out the one or two that might amuse or inform me, it's time for you to go. It's possible that I may go back and try to redeem a few of these who do occasionally Tweet some nuggets by putting them in a list, but not "following" them. That way they won't clog my usual feed, but I can see whether they might amuse me if I pull them up once a month or so.

OGOchoCinco -- It was fun to follow the strange, frequent and occasionally funny self-centered tweetings of Chad "OchoCinqo" Johnson (or is it Chad "Johnson" OchoCinqo ... I've kinda lost track) for a day or two. But really, a little bit went a long way.

SI_PeterKing (Sports Illustrated's Peter King) -- A sentence or two in the Monday Morning QB column about attending a hockey game or being stuck at the airport adds flavor. Fifteen tweets about these things just clogs up my Twitter feed.

Celebrities and Entertainment
neilhimself (writer Neil Gaiman), ThatKevinSmith (director Kevin Smith), and rainnwilson (actor Rainn Wilson) -- I picked them up when I first signed up because they were under some category (presumably "lots of followers" or somesuch) and I figured I'd give them a whirl. They're all occasionally interesting and funny, but I think I'll stick to their creative work that gets some editing first.

Editing. Our friend!

DailyShowClips -- I love the Daily Show. But I don't need five tweets a day telling me where to find clips from the show on the Internet.

Comics and fantasy/SF writers
neilhimself (writer Neil Gaiman) -- Naw, I only cut him once, not twice. However, although I lumped him in with "Celebrities" because that's how his tweets read. He supposedly belongs in this "writers" category. Based on his tweeting, that could be shocking news for him, so I hope somebody breaks it to him gently.

mattfraction (comics writer Matt Fraction) -- I've concluded that he's speaking a language in which I am not conversant. I give you an example Tweet from today in its entirety: "psychocrat herculeez b. pussyfiend". Farewell for now, Matt. Editors are your friend.

globalenergywar -- Sort of a central exchange for an odd variety of news posts, some of which are related to the energy industry. Whoever's running it seems to be more interested in building sheer traffic than in a coherent point of view. It seemed like literally 50 retweets and web links a day, 49 of which left me thinking, "Why did you retweet that?" Oh, it's because you're building a spam service. I get it.

GStephanopoulos (George Stephanopolous) -- mostly seems to be plugging interviews that I'm not interested in watching because they generally come across as platforms for unchallenged blather. Reminder to George: I know you started your career as a PR flack, but if you're supposed to be committing journalism, it's okay to let your viewers know when somebody on your show is spewing factually incorrect bilgewater.

On the Bubble: Dance for me Tweet monkeys! Dance! Did I mention that your jobs are on the line?! These tweeters and feeds are in danger of feeling the cold cut of the garden hoe.

mortreport (ESPN's Chris Mortenson) MoveTheSticks (former pro football scout Daniel Jeremiah) -- Both of these guys provide really good, detailed pro football information. But I'm not sure I need that much information during the NFL offseason. They may eventually get bumped from "following" to some sort of "good football reads if I have the time to kill" list. Their bubbleness is not through any inherent fault of their own, and I may find their volume easier to take after I've weeded out the worst of the noise-to-news offenders.

nprnews (National Public Radio news) and MichiganRadio (Michigan Radio news) -- Lots of interesting stuff, but they seem to repeat themselves an awful lot. I'm not sure what following them on Twitter is getting me that's better than visiting their web site on occasion. And I'm not sure that shortening the news cycle to minute-by-minute tweets is all that good for my general state of mind.

I'm beginning to think that this is not the most efficient way to get my public radio news, but am willing to hang on a bit longer with them to see what I think in a few more weeks.

NYTimeskrugman (economist and columnist Paul Krugman) -- The Chad OchoCinqo of Nobel-Prize-winning economists. I think I'm finding that I'm really only interested in his pronouncements about once a week or so, when I read his column in the Sunday New York Times.

Celebrity and Entertainment
StephenAtHome (Stephen Colbert) -- Not quite making it right now. But I'll hang on another week or two, to see how I feel he does in the weeded-out feed.

Comics and Fantasy/SF writers
TomBrevoort (Tom Brevoort, from Marvel) -- I haven't yet concluded if he's just shilling, or putting out genuinely interesting and insightful nuggets. Shilling seems to have the upper hand for now.

And that's today's tweet-weeding report. Stay tuned to the Patio Boat blog for all your 140-paragraph bloviations about 140-character tweeters.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Watching Too Much Olympics

If you're wondering why Mr. Crankypants didn't blog over the weekend, it was because he was sitting mesmerized in front of his big, honkin' plasma TV. I'm not sure exactly why, but I have been flat-out addicted to the Olympics this year. I've always has a soft spot for the Olympics, especially the Winter Olympics. Undoubtedly fond memories of attending the games in Lake Placid in 1980 play their part, and I've always loved to watch the sheer drama of years of training coming down to sometimes as little as mere seconds of competition decided by hundredths of a second of difference. But something has sent me into the realm of vast overkill this time around.

The cause of the extreme addiction this time around could be the long winter that has worn on me, or it could be a backlash spurred by my growing disgust at the news. But in truth, my primary suspect is the deadly combination of HDTV and the DVR. Monique and I have been recording the daytime competitions and the primetime competitions, then fast-forwarding through all the dreck -- the ads, the spotlights, the studio interviews, etc. -- and just watching competition after competition. The recording-and-fast-forwarding of Olympics is nothing new for us. We started doing that back in our VCR days with the 2004 Summer games. However, the DVR makes it especially easy to program the recording and to fast-forward through the dreck. Plus, the HD visuals of Vancouver and its environs have been as mesmerizing as a good nature show.

Add it all together, and ... well, I'm hooked.

Fortunately for all of us, I'll have to go cold turkey in a week, but even now, as I type this brief message, curlers are sweeping in full high-def plasma glory. I can't look away ... must watch stones sliding on ice.

(Thank goodness I was able to touch typo this post!)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Naughtful Naughties: What Went Wrong - The Growth of Ignorance in Public Policy

No poetry today. In fact, what I have for you today is more of a rant than anything else because I'm still flabbergasted by the results of the CBS News / NY Times Poll released Feb. 11, 2010, on the Tea Party Movement.

In particular, I'm flat-out astonished by two statistics. Only 2% of self-identified "Tea Partiers" know that tax rates have gone down since Obama took office. This means that 98% of them are flat-out factually ignorant about the tax rates that are allegedly their primary point of protest.* Is it any wonder that Sarah Palin is their queen? **

Nearly as astonishing is that only 12% of all Americans know that tax rates have gone down since Obama took office, but at least they have the excuse of not being so obsessed with taxes that they are running around waving tea bags at TV cameras. I would at this point pull out some comparative poll statistics on how many people know who won the last season of American Idol or Survivor, but why make this post any more depressing than it has to be?

I probably wouldn't be so irked if I didn't believe that public ignorance of the basic facts of our governance has grown significantly over the last decade. I truly believe this is one of the most important factors that has led to the disastrous partisanship we see these days in Washington, in our state capitals, and even in county governments.

Having abandoned their responsibility to be informed citizens, it seems that far too many people have decided to choose their positions based on a concept of politics as a sporting event in which the only thing that matters is that their side wins. And in this win-at-all-costs view of politics, lying and cheating are perfectly okay if it leads to electoral victory.

I would at this point like to lay the blame at the feet of convenient whipping boys like "the media" or "pundits" or "the blogosphere" or "those lying politicians" but I that is the attitude among too many citizens that has led us down this disastrous path. Because ultimately the media, the pundits, or even the polticians are not responsible for educating us.

We are responsible for educating ourselves. This is a democracy, and too many people in the last decade have abandoned that basic responsibility of citizenship. They think that somehow relying on Glenn Beck or Keith Olberman or some other entertainer for their "news" makes them educated. Listen up folks. It doesn't make you educated. It makes you ignorant. And the saddest part is that you are so ignorant that you don't even see the bars and walls of the prison that you have chosen.

In the last decade there was a phrase that was thrown around with quite a bit of disdain among the punditry, especially by some in the Bush Administration: "Fact-based politics."

Count me as a big fan of fact-based politics. Because I'm really, really, really tired of what ignorance-based politics has done to my country, and I would very much like to see a return to fact-based politics. I think it's our best chance to get out of this hole.

*Yeah, I know. Their primary purpose seems generally to be opposition to Obama being the president under any and all circumstances, but I'm willing to cut them some slack and credit them with taxes as their rallying point.

**How's that "hopey-changey" thing working out for me, Sarah? A lot better than electing an ignorant quitter as our vice-president would've worked out.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Book Review - The Stolen Village: Baltimore and the Barbary Pirates by Des Ekin

A true history: a great power ignores the signs of the small attacks of Islamic terrorists whose power is growing. Then a nation is shocked by a daring, well-planned attack on a much larger scale. The U.S., Al Qaeda, and 9/11? Nope, this story takes place nearly 400 years earlier when Barbary pirates from Algiers seize more than 100 men, women, and children from the Irish fishing village of Baltimore and cart them off to slavery in the Ottoman Empire.

In The Stolen Village: Baltimore and the Barbary Pirates, Des Elkin takes upon himself the task of tracking down the facts of the long-ago Sack of Baltimore in 1631, and it's a fascinating history. Although little is known of the fate of most of the individual villagers who were carried into slavery, Ekin expands his story to include accounts from a wide assortment of Europeans who were carried into slavery during the 400 years when the pirates of the Barbary Coast roamed the seas.

Before I read this book, all I had known of this was a bit of the history of the Barbary War during Thomas Jefferson's administration and the later outbreak just after the War of 1812. So I was especially grateful to gain a broader appreciation for just how long the pirates of the Barbary states -- especially Algiers -- had been a thorn in the side of Europe.

Ekin does a good job of incorporating the original stories of many Europeans who were carried into slavery in Algiers, and also mixes in a few captive stories from North America. Some of the accounts make for truly gripping reads. And beyond the broad scope of history, there's a fascinating history to just why pirate captain Morat Rais may have chosen the Baltimore for his raid. I recommend reading this one right to the final sentence.

Summary: A fascinating history of an incident that I hadn't heard of before, and a well-written history that gave me great insight into a really interesting period.

Amazon: The Stolen Village: Baltimore and the Barbary Pirates by Des Ekin.

How acquired: Picked it up on a whim in the bookstore at the Dublin, Ireland, airport a couple of years ago when I saw the title and subtitle, then the back-cover blurb sucked me in. (However, I didn't get around to reading it on the plane, and then it languished unjustly in my to-read pile until now.)

In February

In February
Lawn and garden displays mysteriously sprout
In the aisles of stores in Michigan,
But we don't know why they appeared,
Since the ground is still frozen solid.
We wonder why the salt and snow shovels
Were replaced by fertilizer and hand spades
Because after month after month of snow,
Our salt bags are empty and our shovels are worn
but the ice and snow keeps coming.
We assume that retail chains must all be based
In Atlanta or Dallas, Orlando or Los Angeles
Or some other damn place
Where they can see Spring coming
In February

In February
We let cabin fever push us outdoors
On snowshoes and cross-country skies,
Snowmobiles, snowboards, and skates.
We perch on lawn chairs
In fish houses atop frozen lakes.
There we drop thin lines through the ice,
Reaching out as we try to capture
The ones that got away before Winter came.

In February
We exchange Valentines,
Or we rue the lack
And so instead sit in smoky bars,
Nursing drinks and feeling alone,
Wishing to share our pallid winter skin
With another February refugee.

In February
We watch the Daytona 500 on television,
And as boxy stock cars speed by palm trees,
Tank tops, shorts, sunburns, and suntans,
We envy the snowbirds
In February.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

In January

In January
Everything is frozen:
The lake, the lawn,
The shrubs, the grass,
The very roots and branches of the trees.
January freezes the sun and the sunlight,
The moon and the stars.
Even time itself is frozen
In January.

In January
Snow and ice covers it all.
Snow covers ice, ice covers more snow,
Snow and ice, ice and snow,
Layer upon frozen layer,
Until all is frozen and still
In the January dark.

In January
We live inside in little heated bubbles
Of light and warmth.
We pump them full of the heat and the light
That keeps January at bay,
That keeps each bubble from collapsing
Under the pressure of all those layers
Of January's ice and snow,
January's snow and ice.

And though time itself is frozen solid
Outside of our little heated bubbles,
Inside, the days pass.
Inside, we live and we love,
We grow up, we grow old,
We grow together,
Inside our little heated bubbles
In January.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Romeo and the Rice Cooker: A Valentine's Day Love Story in Facebook Comments

Today, on the Patio Boat, we present Romeo and the Rice Cooker: A Valentine's Day Love Story in Facebook Comments.

John Magee did not buy Monique flowers, candy, or even a card for Valentine's Day. I did, however, buy her a rice cooker because love means never having to say you're sorry (that you made gloppy rice.) Yesterday at 10:16am

Angela Makowski How sweet! (the rice cooker, not the gloppy rice) Yesterday at 10:19am

Terri Lee Marion SUCH a romantic! Yesterday at 10:21am

Raymond Brace You, sir, have a truly twisted mind (lmao). Yesterday at 10:30am

Terri Lee Marion Love means never having to say, "Make your OWN DAMN rice!" LOL Yesterday at 10:35am

Carissa Wilkins Are we surprised by John's logic??? Yesterday at 11:04am

John Magee The romance lies not in giving your wife what any woman might want. The romance lies in knowing what your wife really wants. Yesterday at 11:21am

Gary Alampi and that is fluffy rice. Yesterday at 11:24am

John Magee Exactly, Gary! Yesterday at 12:02pm

Carissa Wilkins Ok John - did Monique fall head over heels when presented with that "gift of love"? I stand for the crowd and say "let's hear it from Monique" Yesterday at 3:26pm

Steve Johnston Rice is kind of a flower isn't it? Yesterday at 5:19pm

John Magee Hah, Cari! You'd need to get her *on* Facebook, first. Until then she's unable to rebut my assertion of the sheer romance to be found in a rice cooker.

I did up the romance ante a bit this afternoon though, by taking her out ... to the neighbor's house to watch the Daytona 500. (Granted, this year it was more like watching four hours of pothole repair. Whatever. The point is that we went out on Valentine's Day, too. So, there!) Yesterday at 7:58pm

Carissa Wilkins :-) Yesterday at 9:38pm

Phil Gaven Well played, Grasshopper, well played. Yesterday at 10:25pm

Coda: We conclude our love story with this breaking update: I'm still waiting for my fluffy rice.

Friday, February 12, 2010

In Which We Continue Our Musings On the Googling of Finns

Yes, gentle reader. I fear we have more shenanigans to report from the front lines of Google Earth's attempt to give us all a street-level view of Finland. The trouble has moved beyond Viking frogmen.

From: Tim Kardos
Subject: Re: The Dangers of Google Earth

And, just so you know the Viking frogmen have something to gripe about, here's another spot of privacy invasion.

Street View catches Finn with his pants down
Authorities investigate privacy cock-up

(Yes, I'm afraid I'm going to once again recommend you follow the link to see the pictures. I apologize in advance to this now-famous Finnish nude dude.)

Needless to say, appalling poetry followed:

From: Campbell-Droze, Mary

Endangled Girth: Endowment Spied

Although it is an unusual pose,
We should have the right to expose
Various parts in our own places
Without showing up in public spaces.
I can't imagine what he was doing,
That Google offered up for viewing---
But since Finns rarely see the sun,
(The source for any growing done)
It could be he hoped to grow
Something bigger down below.

From: John Magee

What I would have preferred to see was a bit more Finnish propriety

Sunbathing Finns with naked shins,
And nudie knees out in the breeze,
Get a surprise when Google spies
The pale skin of a naked Finn.

Please, don't arise! We see your thighs!
And more we fear. (We shan't zoom near.)
A Lapland tan is rare to scan.

The Finnish winter is long and bitter,
So sun it's true, might lure us too,
But, the world you greeted. No! Please. Stay. Seated.

And thus we close this spot of prose
With this advice, please read it twice.
It's no surprise. Should again arise

On behalf of the Patio Boat blog, I would like to apologize to denuded Danes, naked Norwegians, sunbathing Swedes, full-frontal Finns, and most especially -- yet again -- to you, gentle reader.

We've very, very sorry. Really.

P.S. A rebuttal from MC-D favoring ... well, I guess her rebuttal favors more bare butts.

Since the 'net is rife with shots
Of women with uncovered spots,
Gals cheer the chance to see some gents
Sans any type of men's garments.
It's only right; it's only fair
For the GUYS to now be bare!
But though our Finn lacks underwears,
I deplore his full-on unawares.

--Mary Campbell-Droze

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Of Viking Frogmen, Internet Giants, and Radioactive Lizards

As usual, the trouble started with an interesting little news tidbit:

From: Kardos, Tim
Subject: How to greet Google

Viking frogmen chase Street View spymobile:
Google enjoys a traditional Norwegian welcome.

Check out the photos, they're worth the click.

... then resident Patio Boat NFL-canine haikuist Mary Campbell-Droze saw the poetry inherent in the story:

From: Campbell-Droze, Mary
Subject: Kowtow: greet Google!

One cannot remain oblivious
To threats from fighters amphibious.
Should Google next try Japan
(We all assume that it can),
And deploy the Spy-Mobile---a
True battle: Google vs. Godzilla!!

Alas, one wee bite of doggerel inevitably led to tragedy:

From: Magee, John
Subject: RE: Kowtow: greet Google! (And crush it beneath your giant reptilian feet)

Norwegian frogmen spear guns fire,
Huge lizards prefer high-voltage wire.
Godzilla is, as we know,
An electro-phile. So he’ll go
To server farms where he will romp,
On Google’s chips he’ll gladly stomp,
Computers crushed into the ground,
Metallic screeches all around.
This scene the Google van will spy,
“We’re now offline!” execs will cry!
The lesson here my friends is true.
When Google spies it sees into
The deepest darkest dreams of poet:
A Godzilla-fest, you had to know it.

P.S. When it comes to radioactive breath
Katie the Beagle’s is more like death.

Rest assured, we're all properly ashamed of ourselves. On behalf of the Patio Boat, I'd like to offer our sincerest apology to Google, most of Silicon Valley, Toho Films, radioactive Japanese reptiles, Barry's Temple of Godzilla, and most especially to Viking frogmen around the world.

We're sorry.

(Drag the image slightly, so that you can see our inspirational friends to the left!)

View Larger Map

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Mr. Crankypants Looks at a February Wednesday, AND HE IS NOT PLEASED.

While Miss Crankypants uses her powers of crankiness for good in Paris (An Early Morning Visit from Miss Crankypants; More Good News from France : Fighting like Pirates; What Max Said) Mr. Crankypants is on the loose here in Detroit and he is neither good nor noble. He is cranky.

You'll be relieved to know that in his munifence today, Mr. Crankypants has deleted a long, long whiny post and will instead condense that bit of cranking to this single, extremely whiny paragraph:

My back hurts. I'm tired of winter. I miss the sun. I'm behind schedule on *everything* and starting to let some things slip that should not slip. We're not going anywhere warm this winter. Television sucks, and what passes for television journalism these days is worse. My salary is stagnant. I've made a mess out of both my cubicle and my space at home. And did I mention that I'm freaking tired of my lower back hurting and that it's making me feel worse that Monique's had to do all the shoveling for the last six weeks? All I did was ride the exercise bike for fifteen minutes at the gym on Monday and it was Back-Spasm City all over again yesterday. Bah! Humbug!!

Yeah, Mr. Crankypants is REALLY, REALLY sorry he tweaked his back last month.

I even wrote up most of a sonnet titled How Do I Crank Thee? (with apologies Elizabeth Barrett Browning) but by the tenth line or so I found that it was making me too damn cranky. Plus, I was having a hard time finding an appropriate rhyme for "tighty whities." So I scrapped the whole project, much to the relief of poetry critics around the world.

Oh, sweet crankiness, how do I crank thee? Let me count the ways.

Instead of a sonnet, I present a Top Five list:

5) I am now officially so cranky that crabbiness would be an upgrade!
4) Crankcases come to me for advice!
3) Another foot of snow might actually improve my mood!
2) The DEA is investigating me because they heard I was "the Midwest's biggest supplier of crank!"
1) Oscar the Grouch was recently heard to say of me, "Sheesh, what's that guy's problem?!"

Be warned world. You mess with me today and I will be *very* whiny about it.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Final MC-D Colts/Beagle Haiku of the 2009 NFL Season

Katie Beagle barks
And the Colts shall hark: "Laissez
le bon
team rouler!"

--Mary Campbell-Droze

My thanks to Mary for a Super Season of Colts/Beagle haiku, even if the Colts did fall just a wee bit short at the end of the final game. The haiku have been a lot of fun, and without a doubt Mary has cornered the niche-iest beagle-haiku niche of them all.

As for the rest of you, now that the football season is over I need you all to start providing more beagle haiku. This blog's global beagle-haiku dominance is built on the exciting 21st Century business model of other people providing me with content for the exciting price-point of "free."

Quite frankly, not all of you are holding up your end of that bargain. Get to work, haiku slackers.

Monday, February 8, 2010

February Snow in Michigan

Tomorrow's forecast calls for 6"-10" of snow in Southeast Michigan. In Washington, D.C., it seems they've taken to giving their recent snowstorm forecasts catchy nicknames like "Snowmaggedon" or "The Snowpocalypse."

So, in Southeast Michigan what do we call the forecast of up to a foot of snow on Feb. 9?


Saturday, February 6, 2010

Re-creating the Dubious Foundation of The House of Cards

I will try not to let this become an arcane post on arcane points of financial regulation. But among an assortment of news items this morning that made me believe the Democratic Congress is well on its way to botching financial reform every bit as badly as it has so far botched health care reform, was a story on securitization in this morning's New York Times: Seeking a Safer Way To Securitization.

I suppose before I dip in to the article, I should explain a few basic items about securitization of loans. Securitization is the process through which a lender takes a bundle of loans, packages them together, and then sells that package to investors in the form of market securities, similar to bonds. The investors recoup their money as the loans are paid back. You may also occasionally hear about "tranches." Those are different parts of a securitized bundle of loans. The safest loans within the bundle can be sub-bundled and sold as one sort of security with one rate of return and guarantees, while the riskier loans can be sold as a different tranche with a different rate of return.

The process of securitization is not necessarily an inherently bad thing. It lets a lender spread a bit of the risk of its loan portfolio, and in return investors get something to invest in -- presumably with a rate of return that corresponds with the riskiness of the loans.

However, the way that securitization of loans worked in our economy for at least the last decade is that lenders would generate large batches of loans, securitize them, provide their own estimate of risk for the various tranches, and either sell the entire loan on the market or sell all but a tranche whose repayment was guaranteed at the expense of the higher-risk tranches. The rates of risk for the various tranches presented to investors were often grossly misrepresented. The lender's profit no longer came from the repayment of loans with interest; the lender's profit came from selling off bundles of securitized loans.

This means that a lender could generate loans with the profit guaranteed, regardless of how ill-conceived the loans themselves were or whether they were ever paid back. Loan risk was divorced from lending profit, and available credit mushroomed as lenders generated loans with nary a thought as to whether they could or would ever be repaid. Borrowers took this cheap credit and invested in homes, often basing their lending decisions on the assumption that housing prices would always rise at a rate that outpaced their interest rate. Many of them didn't just invest in a home for themselves to live in. They leveraged the easy credit into a series of home purchases well beyond their means as they tried to "flip" their way to wealth.

Even ordinary mortgage borrowers, who just wanted a place to live, found themselves forced to take on far more debt than they might have wanted to incur because housing prices had risen so high, so quickly. They could at least reassure themselves with the rationalization that the bank wouldn't loan them the money if the bank didn't think they could repay the loan, little knowing that the bank no longer cared whether or not they could repay the loan.

Thus a bubble in housing prices was created.

But remember this. The problem was not that home prices eventually fell. The problem is that borrowers were given loans that they could not repay. And the heart of the problem is that those borrowers were able to borrow money that they could not repay because securitization now fully insulated lenders from any risk that the loan would not be repaid. Those bad loans could have inflated a bubble in anything: airline stocks in the 1920s, dot-coms in the 1990s, or tulip bulbs in Holland in the 1630s. In the Naughts, it was housing.

These dubious securitized loans formed the foundation of the house of cards that was our financial system in the Naughts: easy credit for bad loans. Several more layers of unregulated risk in the form of assorted derivatives and credit default swaps were built atop this shaky foundation. I won't get into them today. Suffice it to say that the home loans defaults couldn't have wrecked our financial system without help from those other things.

Okay, so I may have tip-toed towards financial system arcana there, but hopefully you found it useful. Back to this morning's New York Times article: Seeking a Safer Way To Securitization. The article features remarks to a meeting of the American Securitization Forum by John C. Dugan, the U.S. Comptroller of the Currency, the official whose department is charged with maintaining the safety and security of our banking system.

Here's what he said that has me bothered today:

“A requirement intended to improve the securitization market by improving the quality and trustworthiness of underwriting could significantly curtail the number of securitizations that are actually done,” he said. “And that, of course, could materially reduce the amount of credit available for housing or any of the other sectors that have traditionally benefited from securitizations.”

In other words, he's worried that regulating the securitization process in a way that discourages lenders from dumping bad loans onto investors would keep lenders from generating the sorts of bad loans that created the housing bubble in the first place.

And this is what worries me today. I don't see any willingness in Washington to fix the basic regulatory failures that brought our nation to the brink of utter ruin in 2008 and that caused The Great Recession. Instead, I see Democrats who are unwilling to engage in serious reform, and Republicans who are so unable to take accountability for any of their actions when they ran the country for eight years that it's impossible to take anything they say seriously.

Oh, and let me add to that a Comptroller of the Currency who apparently seems to think that we shouldn't create regulations for securitization if the regulations discourage banks from lending money to people who can't repay it.

Yeah, I got a feeling the upcoming bout of "financial reform" is going to make the health-care debacle look like a shining city on the hill before Congress is done with it.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Book Review: Peril at End House by Agatha Christie

Hastings narrates another solid Hercule Poirot outing in Peril at End House by Agatha Christie. This time, instead of trying to solve a murder, Poirot is trying to prevent the murder of a young heiress after a series of attempts on her life. Needless to say, a wide variety of quirky suspects complicates his task. The ongoing sense of danger to our heroine ratchets up the sense of danger, and Christie does a good job of hiding the ultimate villain until the very end.

Summary: A peril-ous stay at End House, indeed. Perhaps not an all-time great Poirot, but it's still a good, solid entry in the series and a fun read.

Amazon: Peril at End House.

Where and How Acquired: Used, from John K. King Books.

Baaaa-lzebub on the Loose in California Politics

Today we have yet another example of why I don't write much satire any more. I simply can't compete with reality. Or surreality in the case of this bizarre and hilarious political attack ad from U.S. Senate wannabe Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, which still has me giggling, eighteen hours after I first saw it.

Before we go any further, you must watch the ad. In fact, even if you don't read any more of this blog post, you must watch the ad. Even if you never, never, never click on anything that somebody tells you to watch, YOU MUST WATCH THIS AD:

... yeah, I know, I know. You're thinking that you can't possibly have seen that. Go back, watch it again if you must. I'll wait. I assure you that it gets funnier and stranger every time you see it.

Many of the jokes seem to write themselves. And they seem to do so quickly both on the rapidly growing list of YouTube comments and in the Twitter topic: #Demonsheep.

So I'll try to take you through a few of my thoughts on this thing without repeating too many of the obvious points made elsewhere. With a hundred-thousand Twitter monkeys texting away as I speak, I'm not sure I can do that. But I'll try.

My initial thought when I saw this was that it was a satire, though I wasn't sure of what. Political ads? Tom Campbell? Carly Fiorina? Old-style Ceylons disguised as sheep? The next Terminator flick: Terminator V: The Ovine Invasion?

My next thought was that this must have been produced by one of the other candidates in the campaign, as an attempt to discredit both. I've gone so far as to browse the Carly Fiorina for Senate web site, where they are indeed trumpeting their new ad.

My third thought was that perhaps Carly Fiorina is running on a platform that promises full containment of Ceylon/Terminator sheep beasts. I've been away from California for quite a few years, so maybe Ceylon/Terminator sheep beasts have proliferated in the wilds and suburbs. I'd sure want any politician asking for my vote to promise to keep them from eating me or my flock of sheep.

The last of my initial thoughts upon seeing this thing was to wonder if Terry Gilliam so badly need between-movie work to pay the bills that he had signed on to make political ads. I honestly couldn't think of another director who could create something so bizarre. As I type, David Lynch is looking at this ad, and saying, "I don't know ... it seems a bit too strange and incomprehensible."

And then, yes, I began to think about what this said about the candidates themselves. As I said, it's been a while since I lived in California, so all I remember of Campbell is that he was a Republican Congressman at some point. From what the ad said, it sounded to me as if he had been trying to deal with the fiscal woes of that state in an adult manner. The list of accusations in here actually made me more inclined to vote for him. This is an epic point of failure for an attempted attack ad.

All I remember about Fiorina is that after she was appointed its CEO she pretty much wrecked HP in just a couple of years and cashed in a $20-million buyout, making her an outstanding example of everything that is wrong with this nation's corporate culture these days. But hey, lots of incompetent company-wrecking CEOs go on to successful political careers. Heck, we just had one as President for eight years.

After seeing this ad, I think I can now add to my knowledge of Carly Fiorino this. If she approved this ad, she's obviously incompetent and quite possibly mentally disturbed. Oh, and she doesn't understand what a "fiscal conservative" is either. She also doesn't understand the meaning of the word "proven." I will, however, grant the accuracy of the statement that says she "has accomplished enormous things in life." Wrecking a Fortune 500 firm in a couple of years and getting paid $20 million to stop doing so is indeed an enormous thing.

I could pile on further, but I think the best way to express this is that on further reflection my reactions to this ad resembled nothing more than the Seven Stages of Grief:

1. SHOCK & DENIAL - I did not just see that, did I? No, that can't possibly have been a demonic Terminator pseudo-sheep crawling on its hands and knees? Could it? And why did it have banker shoes?

2. PAIN & GUILT - I can't believe I lost three and a half minutes of my life to watching that. I have to watch it again. Oooohhhh, I feel so bad about wasting the precious minutes of my life that way. Must watch again!

3. ANGER & BARGAINING - Is this crap what our political system has come to?! What am I going to do once the corporate money for political ads really starts to flow this year?!! How much will a pair of glowing red eyes cost me for my Halloween costume? Can I get a bargain price if I buy now?

4. "DEPRESSION", REFLECTION, LONELINESS - I am so depressed that this is what passes for political discourse in our society. And what of the demon sheep himself? He seems to be one of a kind. I wonder if he's lonely, too? (Note to self: best at this point to stop speculating about sheep, loneliness, and California politicians.)

5. THE UPWARD TURN - We have now reached the absolute low point in political advertising. The course of our Democracy must trend upwards from here. Mustn't it?

6. RECONSTRUCTION & WORKING THROUGH - Did that ad really have have a giant phallic column topped by a sheep that rose to the sky as the announcer intoned, "Men!" Oh, no, wait ... that would be "regression" not "reconstruction." Let's try some "working through": I must work my way through a blog post about this at lunchtime today without giggling so much that my coworkers ask me to call the mental-health hotline.

7. ACCEPTANCE & HOPE - Yes, I accept that I really did see that god-awful ad. And I hope that it gets nominated for "Best Short Film" in next year's Academy Awards. I know I have never seen anything funnier and more surreal, and I've watched a lot of Acadamy-Award-nominated short films recently.

And in closing, I'd like to say that we can all be glad that at least Fiorina didn't scape-goat her opponent.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

In Which We Pontoon Cruise Lightly Over Deep Waters

For reasons unknown my thoughts traveled philosophical paths lately as I drove to work this morning. This turn of thought may have been spurred by the general wintertime ennui that sets in around Michigan this time of year. The unending grey of the snow, the clouds, and the ice sets a young man's fancy towards thoughts of Ragnarok and a never-ending frozen doom of the gods.

Or perhaps the driving force was an interesting Science Friday podcast I heard yesterday on time and cosmology. (Time, Space, and Other Big Questions) Modern physics offers much to ponder about the "How" of the universe, but precious little about the "Why."

It may be that the turn of the new year and the new decade has made me a bit more aware of possible crossroads and options in the future. A man reviewing the road behind him and thinking about the road ahead will also give thought to his navigational tools.

A couple of recent pleasant stopovers by one of my old college roommates -- who drove from Portland, Maine, to Chicago and then back -- may have also inspired a bit of the philosophical mood. There's nothing like seeing one of your old friends from collegiate days to get you thinking about the path your life has taken, the surprises along the way, and the surprises that may be in store for the future.

Maybe the source of my philosophical ponderings was musical. I've come across the fabulous song lyric "What's it all about, Alfie?" several times in the last couple of weeks.

Alfie remains silent as to his answer.

Also on the musical front, the Grateful Dead channel played a long concert version of "Death Don't Have No Mercy" during this morning's drive. That's a song title that'll bring you up short.

Speaking of death and mercy, the morning paper may have put me on path of philosophical ponderance, too. I read an interesting article in this morning's New York Times about an obscure species of tiny African spray toads, Nectophrynoides asperginis, whose waterfall home in Tanzania had been wiped out by a dam. (Saving Tiny Toads Without a Home) These tiny golden toads are now extinct in the wild, though zoologists and conservationists are working to re-establish a natural environment in which they can survive.

The last 4,000 of them in all the world live in the Bronx and Toledo Zoos, and nobody knows if the effort to bring them back in the wild will succeed. The article ends with this question from the director of the Bronx Zoo, "What would be the point of maintaining these toads if there was no hope of restoring them to the wild?"

What point indeed in maintaining any of us if we can't be restored to the wild? I suspect a spray toad might wish to chime in on that topic.

But whatever the reason, my morning drive turned to the big philosophical questions today. In matters of philosophy my tastes have always tended toward the practical, and I have often guided myself with a simple six-word philosphy I honed back in my unemployed-and-homeless days:

High Goals.
Low Expectations.
Watch Sunsets.

... in other words, aim high, take pleasure in what you do manage to achieve, and be sure to enjoy the ride. Not, perhaps up there with "Je pense, donc je suis," in the pantheon of deep thoughts, but I find it to be a good practical traveling philosophy for the day-to-day on the road. However, it's not so hot in guiding you as to which road to choose.

In matters theological I've always tended to the practical, too, with my own slightly heretical preference for the Covenant of Works over the Covenant of Faith. I believe that what we do here on Earth and how we treat one another while we're here is the thing that matters most. But I also recognize that a Covenant of Works without the guidance and forgiveness of Faith is a hard bargain, indeed.

So yes, today's drive to work found me pondering the big questions and those sorts of philosophical concepts.

Then I arrived at work, parked the car, went to my cube, and started pondering the smaller questions of indexing, databases, requirements, and schedules that usually occupy me during the day.

In Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy terms, I suppose that means that this morning I pondered the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, and progressed about this far:

ULTIMATE QUESTION: "What's it all about, Pontoon-ie?"

Nope, doesn't work. I reckon I'd better keep honing that Ultimate Question.

It's possible I need a considerably longer commute before I figure it all out.