Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Frost flowers

This is about something magical, something that I've never seen before.

While we read with concern about the ice storms and terrible weather in the Maritime Provinces and the northeastern U.S., here in Colorado we love the snow we received and we're enjoying our -20 degF (-29 degC) nights and our -5 degF (-20 degC) days. Truly.

Of course, we dress like polar explorers before we go outside to enjoy the weather.

The last couple of nights I've donned my polar-explorer garb, taken the dog out for his evening constitutional, and found something new and wonderful in the frosty night.

Scattered on the sidewalk were what looked like little blossoms of frost, about the size and shape of clover blossoms. They caught the light from the street lamps and sparkled in the dark. I stopped to get a closer look at them.

Each frost flower, or frost blossom, grew where there was some snow, or a light coating of frost, on the sidewalk. It appeared that the blossom needed the water molecules already on the ground to grow, because I didn't see any blossoms growing on bare concrete or asphalt. And each blossom needed a nucleation site, a place to start growing. Any bump or protrusion on the sidewalk would do, even a pebble of snow or ice left by the shoveling crew. The blossoms grew not from water freezing out of the air, but from water molecules migrating through the snow and ice into the crystal structure.

Wherever there was a supply of ice, and a place to start growing, a blossom would begin to take shape. First one petal would start, no bigger than a pencil eraser, but then quickly growing to the size of a quarter (or a euro or a loony) and looking, on close examination, like an arm of a snowflake. If the dog was patient enough, I could squat under a street lamp and watch the petal grow, the dendrites on the edge adding to themselves, lengthening and forming branches before my eyes. Eventually another petal would start, and then another, until the flower was fully formed, each petal like part of a giant snowflake, reflecting the light from the street lamp in a different direction.

The frost flowers covered the sidewalk like wildflowers in a mountain meadow. I didn't want to tread on them, for fear of breaking them and destroying the magic. I'll try to get pictures of them tonight and post them here.

UPDATE, DEC 17: Unfortunately, the warm weather (20 degrees above zero instead of 20 below) has returned, and the frost blossoms have disappeared. The next time they appear, I'll go home and get the camera for sure.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

American automakers think we're stupid

Okay, the American economy is in meltdown. After 12 months, the experts finally decided to call it a "recession." Maybe this time next year they will have decided that it's not a recession, it's a depression. Those of us who are out of work must be smarter than those experts, because we already know it.

Credit is hard to get right now, because most of it is tied up in those "toxic securities" -- secret code for "bad mortgages," which the lenders and investors might as well write off and forget about, and start over.

The domestic automobile industry, at least that overweight segment of it known as The Big Three, has been in Washington D.C. twice begging for money to "bail them out," because they're too incompetent to bail themselves out of the mess they created. For years now they've been ignoring the signs of the times, the writing on the wall, the metaphor of your choice for the consumers who abandoned the Big Three in favor of Toyota, Honda and other Japanese (and Korean!) brands.

Detroit ceded the market for medium, small and subcompact sedans to Japan without a fight, choosing instead to concentrate on "luxury" cars, muscle cars, SUVs and manly pickup trucks. When gasoline jumped to $4 per gallon this summer and Americans suddenly stopped buying all those thirsty Detroit products, the Big Three's collective income fell far below their outgo, and they started losing money fast.

What Detroit should have done is instantly change their product mix and convert factories from making trucks and SUVs to making the smaller, leaner cars that Americans wanted. They should have noticed all the Priuses and Civic hybrids on the road and rushed to get their own hybrids into production. But they didn't have any smaller, leaner cars, and they didn't have any domestic hybrid options.

Actually, that's not strictly true. They didn't have any smaller, leaner cars that Americans wanted. What they offered for smaller cars was ugly and poorly put together. What they offered for hybrids got worse gas mileage than the Japanese non-hybrid alternatives, and again, they were poorly put together.

Our senators and representatives in Congress, bless 'em, were persuaded that giving Detroit zero dollars, while it would have been a bold and courageous move, might not be the right thing to do, but they were able to see past the Big Three CEOs' self-serving arguments and pare down their request to something more, um, realistic. I'd still like to see Congress try something bold and courageous for a change. But at least they got it down from over $30 billion to under $15 billion before the proposal got snagged on a tree branch.

In the meantime, while the car companies are crying to the government about all the money they're losing, Dodge aired a TV commercial this evening that makes one slap one's forehead and cry, "What in the world are you thinking?"

This was an advertisement for what Dodge called a "luxury truck": a dual-cab monstrosity with leather seats, built-in WiFi, a backup camera, built-in toolboxes, a really thirsty engine and a suspension that would do the Army proud.

Hey! Dodge! Which Americans are you trying to sell these air haulers to? Haven't you been listening to the majority of the American public? We don't want luxury trucks! We want vehicles that take less gasoline (or diesel), or no gasoline (or diesel) at all! These ain't them!

Dodge wants to push this "luxury truck" for one reason only: because of the profit margin. They make more money per sale on "luxury trucks" than on more sensible vehicles. I guess they don't expect people who need car loans to buy these things, do they? Because, according to the news and the CEOs themselves, car loans are hard to come by right now, so the buyers of these beasts will need cash.

The commercial, naturally, emphasizes the manliness of the truck, and appeals to the buyer's need to feel manly. The commercial goes over the top in an attempt to get the buyer's insecurity (or need to compensate for perceived deficiencies elsewhere) to override his caution and the frugal attitude so vital in this economic climate.

This truck is the reason why the majority of Americans don't want to give the Big Three one red cent of their money. It's symbolic of everything that's wrong with Detroit right now.

The first thing the Car Czar should do, once he's appointed and the Big Three get their bailout money, is fire the sorry idiots at Chrysler who approved the design and construction of the "luxury truck," and the sorry idiots who approved this advertising campaign, and the sorry idiots who signed the contract with the advertising company, and the advertising company itself.

After that, it wouldn't be a bad idea to go after the associated idiots responsible for the Cadillac Escalade, the Ford Excursion and supertrucks, and the Hummer product family.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Where my teaching skills came from

My father turns 75 on December 21. My sister, Susan, is throwing a 75th birthday party for him, and we six kids are supposed to write a memory of Dad and read it aloud at his party. We're supposed to keep it to one page in length.

Hmm. I tried to think of the most significant memory of my father, something I can write a full page about. I decided to start by writing down all the significant memories I could think of, and ended up with a full page of ideas. I still don't know what to write about.
However, one thing stood out from the list. Check out these memories:
  • sitting in the car in the grocery store parking lot, waiting for my mother, and him teaching me how to to tie a square knot.
  • teaching me how to ride a bicycle - and a horse
  • teaching my brothers and me how to make scrambled eggs
  • teaching us how to make red onion sandwiches on toast
  • teaching me how to make bread pudding from the crusts we trimmed off the sacrament bread
  • teaching me how to drive a stick shift
  • taking advantage of everyday "teaching moments" to teach a wide variety of unforgettable lessons
  • lamenting, as I prepared to go to college, that he had spent 17 years trying to teach me to work hard, and that once I finally learned the principle, I left home
  • teaching me how to teach
Um, do you see a theme there? And then see how the theme wraps around on itself in that last point? Yeah. I always thought that I learned how to teach from Boyd K. Packer, one of the best professional teachers I've ever known. But as I squint and look at things more closely, I find that all of the skills and talents that have made me a great teacher originated with my father. Who knew?

Dan Fogelberg, a native Colorado musician, wrote a song about his father, also a musician. The chorus ends with these words:
My life has been a poor attempt
to imitate the man
I'm just a living legacy
to the leader of the band.
If you talk about teaching instead of music, that's me.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Dear Congressperson or Senator: Say NO to the Big Three

I just wrote to my senators and congresspeople. I also wrote to the Speaker of the House, but I don' t think that she will read or heed my letter. Here's what I told them:

I have been watching the hearings in the Senate and the House. I want to ask you again to vote AGAINST the automotive bailout. As you have seen from the polls, the majority of Americans feel the same way I do.

1. Product line revisions -- too late. 2012?2013? That's three and four years down the road. And all that will do is put the automakers where Toyota and Honda were two years ago. There's an entrepreneur in San Jose CA already building full-sized electric cars, today. Why not give him the money instead?

2. Continued emphasis on trucks. We don't want trucks anymore. The F-150 pickup, which Ford boasts as the top-selling vehicle in the U.S. today, sold fine until June, I think, and sales have dropped to near-zero since then. WE DON'T WANT TRUCKS, and they ALL keep trying to sell trucks.

3. If these companies are too big to fail, then they're too big. NO corporation should have that much power in this country. Congress has stood up to oil, railroads and telecommunications in the past. Now it's time to stand up to the automakers. If they want to stay in business, then PLEASE cut them up, and turn them from the Big Three into the Little Nine or whatever. If it worked for AT&T, it can work for GM.

4. Utter lack of humility. I saw arrogance from Mr. Gettelfinger, and "strictly business" attitudes from the three CEOs. What they said in front of the Congressional panels mirrors what they say to all Americans. If you watch the automobile commercials on TV, you will see that they're just as arrogant and superior, appealing to Americans' egos and greed, as they've always been.

5. Economic impact. I don't deny the economic impact of the Big 3 going out of business, HOWEVER: the parts mfrs. also make parts for Toyota, Honda and Nissan, so although the parts mfrs. might be downsized, they won't go out of business. As for economic impact, today is my last day on the job. I am currently underemployed, and on Monday I will be unemployed. That has nothing to do with the Big 3, and their going under will not affect me one whit.

Please stick to your guns, honor the will of the American people, and vote AGAINST the bailout.

Ray Depew

Thursday, December 4, 2008

In Praise of Civility (or, Just be Nice)

I called a wrong number this morning. It made my day.

The wrong number must have been someone's cellular phone. I didn't realize it was a wrong number, because their voicemail greeting was a canned message saying, "Please enjoy this on-hold music while you wait for your party to answer." I waited for about 30 seconds, then hung up, intending to call again later.

After 15 or 20 minutes, my phone rang, and a pleasant voice asked, "Did you just call this number?" I said I had, and asked for the person whom I'd been calling. The voice answered, rather apologetically, that this wasn't their number and that she didn't know anyone by that name.

I apologized myself, since it was my fault, and she gently assured me that it was no problem. I thanked her for her time, wished her a good day and told her to enjoy the snow. She responded in a similar fashion, and we hung up.

Now, that's the way to handle a wrong number. Somebody has taught their children well.

* * *

It seems like getting Americans to be civil in their interactions with each other is a constant battle, one that must be fought over and over again, not just from generation to generation, but from year to year. People who have been taught to be courteous seem to forget, and have to be reminded.

Here are three more typical wrong number scenarios:

1) You call a wrong number. The person at the other end has caller ID, doesn't recognize your name or number, and answers with a rude grunt: "Hello."

You immediately realize your mistake (because the person you intended to call is never that rude), and so you politely say, "I'm sorry, it sounds like I've reached a wrong number. Is this 555-1234?"

If it isn't 555-1234, then the respondent acts as if you've committed a crime worthy of death, or ruined their wedding, or something. You get a rude, and often profane, response. You start to say, "Oh, I'm so sorry," but the respondent hangs up before you can finish.

If it is 555-1234, then the respondent acts as though you have illegally hacked into their unlisted number at their hidden retreat. You say, "I'm sorry, I was trying to reach John Doe. Obviously I have the wrong number." The respondent's reply calls into question your IQ, your upbringing and your ancestry, usually with four-letter words delivered in an angry tone. Once again, the respondent hangs up before you can finish your apology.

2) This situation happens on the other end of the line: you're enjoying an evening at home, when the phone rings. You don't recognize the caller's name or number, but you take a chance and answer anyway. The caller, not recognizing your voice, pauses for a moment, and then barks, "Is John there?"

You say, politely, "No, I'm sorry, there's no John here. I'm afraid you've dialed a wrong number." The caller makes an angry comment -- as if it was your fault that he dialed the wrong number, maybe throws a four-letter word at you, and abruptly hangs up.

3) This last situation has only started happening since caller ID was invented. You dial a number, realize it's the wrong number, and hang up before the other person answers. A few minutes (or hours) later, your phone rings, and the voice on the other end demands, "Did you call this number?"

Whatever your response is, they then bark at you, "Why?"

No matter what your explanation is, they follow up with some sort of rude comment, and then hang up, leaving you to wonder, "Why did they waste their breath and a few seconds of their life to call me and say that? Why couldn't they just let it go?"

* * *
Indeed. Wrong numbers happen. We were all taught, either by our parents or our first-grade teachers, how to handle wrong numbers, from both ends. There's no need to be rude about it. All rudeness does is prove that the rude person is a jerk, and although the anonymity of a telephone line can hide your identity, it cannot hide your uncultured rudeness.

Just be nice, people. If you call a wrong number, apologize for disturbing the person on the other end. If you're the recipient of a call to a wrong number, recognize that the other person might be under pressure or confused, and be gentle with them. If someone calls you and hangs up before you can answer, let it go. If it's important, they'll call again, and then you can be gentle with them.

Thank you, Ashley, for a very pleasant conversation this morning. The snow is fresh and powdery today, and because of you, I really will enjoy it.