Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Toy Store Story

The missuz and I went shopping for Christmas gifts for our grandchildren yesterday morning. We have a 5-year-old granddaughter and an almost-one-year-old grandson. (We also have an almost-born granddaughter, but she'll have to wait another year.) Since toys and other things to play with seemed to be at the top of the list, we headed for the toy store.

The toy store is the one that used to advertise with a giraffe, and whose middle initial is Yah. When our own kids were of toy-buying age, this was one of our family's favorite stores. As grandma and I were wandering the aisles yesterday, I made several observations.

1. We have barely set foot in the toy store - in any toy store - for about 8 years. Those 8 years represent the gap between when we stopped needing to buy toys for our own children and when we started needing to buy toys for our grandchildren. Seriously: can you imagine not going to a toy store, especially one of the largest toy-store chains in the nation, for eight years?

2. The classics never die. And I happily blame this on the baby boomers. Seriously, there was a time when I wanted desperately to buy Lincoln Logs for my own kids, and I couldn't find them anywhere. There was a "progressive" faction during the 1980s and 1990s, that insisted that all children's toys had to have one or more of the following characteristics:
  • plastic
  • educational
  • electronic
  • covered with stickers, which parents had to apply from a sticker sheet the size of a gas-station road map (and this was scarier than "some assembly required")
  • so utterly safe as to suck all the fun out of them
Thanks to the baby boomers who want their grandchildren to enjoy the same toys they enjoyed as tykes (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth), much of this "progressive" silliness has been rolled back and replaced with common sense. You can now buy a giant barrel of wood Lincoln Logs or Tinkertoys again. And metal Tonka vehicles. And do you remember that Fisher-Price telephone with the four wheels, wobbly eyes, and little yellow leash so the rugrats could pull it around the house and make the eyes wobble as it rolled along? It's still there.

The classic plastic ones are still around, like Easy Bake Ovens, Legos, and Frisbees.

3. Some old classics have been improved or redesigned for the new century. That Fisher-Price telephone is now available with a dial or touch-tone buttons. Some Easy Bake Oven alternatives use the family's microwave oven instead.

4. Not everything needs batteries anymore. For a while, it seemed like every toy in the store came with a limited set of features, all of which required batteries to power blinking lights, sounds, or moving parts. It's gratifying to see the toy world going retro. Not relying on electricity or electronics can free a child's imagination.

5. Some of the new toys are stupendous and will join the classics in the hall of fame. The wooden Brio train sets that came over from Europe ten years ago have been imitated over and over, so they're now affordable to everyone. Most of the imitations are compatible with Brio.

6. The Thomas the Tank Engine franchise and the Disney's Cars franchise are merrily going head-to-head. I wish them luck and hope they both win, because that means the children will win, too.

7. There's still a lot of garbage on the toy store shelves. I can't believe some of the junk that toymakers try to shove off on consumers, nor can I (sometimes) believe that people actually buy this junk. Oh well, the marketing department has never overestimated the gullibility of the American (or Canadian, or ...) consumer.

(Well, there have been a few massive failures, such as Baby Uh-Oh and the Stinkor action figure, but only a few.)

8. Red rubber balls will never go out of style.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

I Like Life, Life Likes Me

Last night some friends treated us to Scrooge: The Musical at a local dinner theatre. I'd never seen the play before. Somehow I missed the 1970 movie upon which the stage play was based.

(Let me insert a plug for the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse here. Candlelight is one of several excellent dinner theatres in northern Colorado. Candlelight is managed by a talented team who have assembled a core of dedicated and talented actors/employees/staff. Their repertoire and their menu are both top-notch. Their food portions may be smaller than I would like, but that's because I'm used to eating at Carino's Italian Grill, just up the road. Their performances are professional in every way, and when a show is over, you want to hang around for a few extra minutes until the last echoes fade away.

Candlelight's version of Scrooge is a Christmas delight. If I were to highlight anybody, I would shortchange the rest of the cast - and crew, and orchestra, and kitchen staff - so I won't do it. Besides, I'm tired of talking in italics and superlatives.

Scrooge is playing through December 27 at the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse. See their website for location and showtimes. Now, back to the blog entry.)

At a certain point in the show, the Ghost of Christmas Present appeared, and after some friendly, albeit one-sided, banter with the still-grouchy title character, the G of C P broke into song:

I like life,
Life likes me
Life and I very fully agree ...

My jaw dropped in amazement, and for an instant I traveled back in time 33 years, to the streets of Alessandria, Italy, where I was listening to someone else sing that song as we walked along. We were young Mormon missionaries, doing the good things that missionaries do, and my companion had an indomitable spirit and a song constantly running through his head. Sometimes the song couldn't stay in his head and it burst out through his lips.

He didn't sing much MoTab; it was usually something from Neil Diamond, the Beach Boys, the Guess Who, or other popular singers/bands. But this little jewel was in the Top Ten of his personal Hit Parade, and I never tired of it, although I didn't know where it had come from. We became close friends, and we have been fortunate to run into each other repeatedly (and live close to each other, a couple of times) in the years since.

So while everyone else in the theatre was enjoying the show, I was savoring memories of good friends and good times in Italy.

Later in the story, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come showed Scrooge his own funeral, with a chorus of (former) debtors dancing on his casket and singing

Thank you very much
Thank you very much
It's the nicest thing you've ever done for me ...

and I was swept back to Italy again. This time it wasn't my companion singing, but the sister missionaries. Once again, I sat there and savored the memories while the rest of the audience only saw singing and dancing.

As usual, I left the theatre gustatorily and emotionally satisfied, but I got a little bonus as well. I woke up this morning smiling and humming I Like Life, and I can't stop. That's why I sat down to write about it, and to tip my hat in the general direction of Jim and Laura.

(Coincidentally, the award-winning Leslie Bricusse wrote those songs, and Jim's middle name is Leslie. Sometimes in life, the jigsaw puzzle pieces just fit.)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Yet Another Modest Proposal: A Flat Income Tax

The two best books Tom Clancy ever wrote were The Hunt For Red October and Red Storm Rising. Okay, so the latter of the two was a collaborative work between Tom Clancy and Larry Bonds, but Bonds has written some pretty good stuff himself, and so it's no surprise that the collaboration bore good fruit.

Clancy's fiction post-Red October fell more and more into the "potboiler" category: something the author wrote to keep the fire going under the pot in the kitchen so he could keep eating. Even then, some nuggets of value kept appearing in his product line, and as he established a solid reputation as a writer of the techno-thriller, he acquired an amazing - even fantastic, even unbelievable - amount of credibility. Not bad for a fiction writer.

Even so, his novels kept growing. I mean, they got longer. His publisher had to go to thinner paper and smaller fonts (no, I'm not kidding) to keep the books to a manageable size, and reading them became somewhat of a chore, as Clancy's text devolved into Dickensian (or maybe Dumasesque) exposition. However, this penchant for lengthy exposition, combined with his fantastically acquired credibility, allowed his characters to stand in for Clancy - to stand on his soapbox for him and preach his gospel to the world.

Where am I going with all this, you ask? What does all this have to do with a flat income tax? Ah.

In Executive Orders, Clancy begins with the premise that nearly the entire federal government - all three branches - have been demolished in one terrible stroke, leaving an unelected (think Gerald Ford) President in charge of guiding the country safely through a constitutional crisis and rebuilding the federal government. It's Clancy's chance to write an essay beginning with the sentence, "If I could start with a clean slate and rebuild the U.S. government, I would ..." and thus a would-be potboiler becomes a political treatise.

One of the things Clancy advocates for in his book, very strongly, is a "flat tax." The idea isn't new, and it didn't originate with Tom Clancy. It's an idea I've toyed around with for a long, long time. Politicians bring it up once in a while, but they usually get laughed at for their simplistic views or shouted down by all the special interests who benefit from the status quo. In Executive Orders, Tom Clancy gives his character (and therefore himself) a bully pulpit from which to argue for a "flat tax."

There are many other names for it, but a "flat tax" is basically this: figure out how much money you made last year, and send your share of it to the IRS. There are no deductions, no exemptions, no credits, no shelters or dodges. Everybody pays the same share, a fixed percentage of their income, and the percentage is the same for everybody.

Let's say the percentage is 8 percent. Then a day laborer who makes $10 per hour, or about $10,000 per year, pays $800 in taxes, while the ousted president of Hewlett Packard, with a severance package of $28 million, pays $2,240,000.

Every penny of it. No hiding it in other investments, in charitable contributions, or elsewhere.

Having a flat tax will make it easier for the federal government to figure out a budget, because they will know more accurately how much money they will collect in a given year. It will make it easier for the American taxpayer to figure out how much tax they owe, since the work can be done with a handful of 1099s and W-4s and a pocket calculator, in about an hour, without the aid of accountants, tax lawyers or investment advisers. It will make it easier for taxpayers to be honest, as it will simply be harder to cheat. And it will also make it easier for politicians and bureaucrats to be honest, as taxpayers will have a clearer idea of how much of their money Uncle Sam really wants, and what he wants to do with their money.

It will not penalize the low-income worker for making too little, and it will not penalize the high-income worker for his success. At the same time, it will ease the current burden on the middle-class worker, the poor sucker who is called upon to pay increasingly more than his fair share of the tax bill.

Finally, simplifying the tax code like this takes the power out of the hands of the politicians, the special interests that they serve, and the thousands of bureaucrats tasked with enforcing the current tax code - bureaucrats who are not accountable to the American taxpayer in any way and are nothing more than overhead, a hidden and increasingly unbearable burden on the back of the American taxpayer - and puts the power back where it belongs, in the hands of the people, the American taxpayers.

Executed correctly, a flat tax will be revenue-neutral as far as the federal government is concerned, meaning that the IRS will collect no more and no less than it would have collected under the old tax code. But it will be a boon for American workers and businesses alike, as they will spend less time and money worrying about their taxes and paying people to figure their taxes for them.

Executive Orders was written in 1996, and like Debt of Honor which preceded it, EO appears to have predicted some of the events and crises of the early 21st Century. Much has been written about the flat tax since 1996, and much was written about it before 1996. The flat tax seems like an idea whose time has come, even if it's still not politically palatable. If you want a summary of all the issues facing adoption of a flat tax, EO is a good place to start.

Another Modest Proposal: Drunken Drivers

This is another great idea that I had: how to handle drunken drivers. Coming on the heels of my proposal regarding prison overcrowding, you may at first think that I'm proposing capital punishment for drunks.

I have considered it, from time to time. In a posting to an online community a few years ago, I asserted that more people are killed every year by drunk drivers than by terrorists. I had the numbers to support that assertion, too. Even though I have many friends who drive when they've had too much to drink, I think that drunken drivers should be apprehended immediately and handled severely. I've known of too many lives that were ruined by drunken drivers to feel sympathy for anybody who drives while drunk -- even my friends.

Okay, now that I got that off my chest, here's my proposal:

1) First, give every police officer the authority -- no, the mandate -- to pass immediate judgement on a person suspected of drunk driving. The laws on the books today allow an officer to cite someone based on their failure to pass a sobriety test, their failure to pass a breathalyzer test, or their refusal to take a breathalyzer test. Let's keep those three criteria -- they'll do just fine for what I have in mind.

2) Second, when a police officer determines that a driver is drunk, using the three criteria currently on the books, the police officer is to get on the radio and call in The Crusher (dun dun dunnnnn...).

The Crusher is just what its name implies: a giant hydraulic ram, mounted on the back of a flatbed semi trailer, big enough to hold a Dodge Ram 4WD or a Ford F99950 with oversized tires, a lift kit, and a roll bar with an array of fog lamps, plus a crew cab and an extended bed. The Crusher is also strong enough to convert said oversized excuse for male anatomical deficiency into an 8-inch-thick steel pancake. The Crusher is accompanied by another truck, a flatbed semi with a crane at one end, the kind you see hauling bricks or roofing supplies or sod.

The number of Crushers required for a given state will depend in large part on the estimated number of drunks on the road on a representative Friday night. It'll vary from state to state, and from legislature to legislature.

3) When the police call it in, The Crusher arrives with its traveling companion. The drunk is given five minutes to remove incidental personal items from the vehicle (but nothing semi-permanently attached, like radio or wheels). Then, while the drunk watches from a safe distance, in the custody of the arresting officer, the crane picks up the vehicle and deposits it in The Crusher. In five minutes or less, The Crusher has reduced the vehicle to scrap metal. The crane then picks up the crushed car and deposits it on the second flatbed, where the operator secures it in place and eventually hauls it away to a smelter.

4) The operator of The Crusher gives the drunk two pieces of paper: one is a receipt for the scrap metal, complete with the former vehicle's VIN and license number; the other is a bill for the cost of crushing the car and transporting it to the smelter. If, after the numbers are crunched, the state owes the drunk money, he has 30 days to show up at the courthouse to collect. On the other hand, if the drunk owes the state money, he has 30 days to show up at the courthouse to pay up.

Either way, it soon becomes too expensive for the drunk to continue driving drunk. If that was his own car, then he has to go buy another one. His insurance won't cover it -- and if his insurance does cover it, then you can bet his premiums will go way, way up, and quickly. If that was a car he'd borrowed from a friend, his friend will take it out of his hide, because the same state law that authorizes The Crusher will indemnify the state from claims in cases where the drunk was driving someone else's car. If the car was stolen, then fine: the owner's insurance will handle the case much as it does today.

But if the car was stolen from, um, let's say, someone who belongs to a fraternal organization whose members take acts like this very personally and act swiftly and unitedly to serve up their own brand of justice upon the offender, well, let's hope that drunk can run really fast.

Either way (as I said), it soon becomes too expensive for the drunk to continue driving drunk. And that solves one of the biggest problems with today's drunk-driving laws: they're ineffective as a deterrent to driving drunk. The statistics vary, but even the most conservative statistic says that 1 out of 10 drivers on the road on a Friday or Saturday night is legally intoxicated. Maybe the prospect of punishment that is a swift (say "immediate"), certain, and tangible blow to the pocketbook will do a better job as a deterrent.

A Modest Proposal: Solving the Twin Problems of Capital Punishment and Prison Overcrowding

This is an idea that has bouncing around in my mind for several years. I am certain that it will not be palatable to either political conservatives or political liberals. Both sides would lose too many friends (not to mention constituents) should this idea become reality. It's just too far-fetched for anybody to take it seriously.

Having said that, let me beg your indulgence for a few minutes - for as long as it takes you to read this entry, scratch your head and say "Whaaat?", and then reread it to make sure you weren't mistaken.

For decades now, the individual states that make up the United States of America have been struggling with the issue of capital punishment. The debate will continue for decades more. I do not wish to discuss its merits or drawbacks here, nor the rationale for its continuation or its abolition. Wiser people than I have written entire books about the issue. For now, I want to carve out a little, tiny piece of the argument in favor, the part that says that execution of criminals allows us to rid society of these dangerous and damaging elements. (Reword that any way you like, and be happy with it. Then let's move on.)

Other nations have also struggled with this issue. Period. Let's not step into those waters, okay?

The U.S. and other countries have also struggled with the issue of prison overcrowding. The local county sheriff has at times had to free some of the more lightweight criminals who have been tried and convicted by the courts in order to make room for the ones who really do need to be removed from society, for society's own safety. The fact is that this nation's courts are putting people behind bars faster than the nation can build prison beds to accommodate them. The nation's taxpayers and their representatives are demanding tougher sentences for criminal offenders, but somebody forgot to make a place for them all.

According to the monthly report available at our state Department of Corrections website (find your own!), our state prisons had almost 15,000 beds in November 2009, with a total state population of around 5,000,000 residents. That's 3 beds (or inmates, if you prefer) for every 1000 residents.

But the state Dept. of C. was in charge of 22,000 convicted criminals in that same month, meaning that 7000 of them had to go elsewhere or go free.

Here's how my proposal works.

1) First, you set a maximum inmate-to-resident ratio. That ratio of 3 to 1000 sounds like a good place to start. Ignore the question of "legal" vs. "illegal" residents. Just use whatever number the U.S. Census gives you.

2) Second, you only build the number of prison beds allowed by the inmate ratio. If your state population grows, then you can expand the prison capacity -- and if your state shrinks (Hello Michigan, anybody home? Helloooooooo...), then you demolish or inactivate some prison capacity.

3) Now, you have a panel of judges review the sentences of all the existing prisoners and rank them in order, from who deserves the most to live (litterbugs and parking-ticket scofflaws, for example ) to who deserves the least to live (serial killers, abusers of the innocent, people who drive less than 65 mi/hr in the fast lane on I-25 and won't move over, people who never use their turn signals, and people who talk too loudly on their cellphones in inappropriate places, for example -- okay, maybe only the first two).

Everybody gets a rank number. Currently, according to our state Department of Corrections website, there are currently over 22,000 offenders in a system designed to handle just under 15,000.

4) Once everybody gets a rank number, you take everybody with a number greater than 15,000 and you execute them.

Congratulations! This takes care of today's overcrowding problem, and it reduces the question of capital punishment to one of space utilization, nothing more. I'll leave the details and the logistics of the body disposal for the bureaucrats to figure out.

5) Now you have 15,000 beds and 15,000 inmates with numbers of merit, or rank numbers, from 1 to 15,000. The next time somebody is convicted of a crime, the judge has to decide where to put the convicted criminal in the list of 15,000. Say it's someone who ran a chop shop in Aurora and was convicted on 178 counts of grand theft auto and interstate transportation of stolen property. That's pretty serious, so the judge assigns him the number 12,000. That means that everybody with a number of 12,000 or more has a new number, one number higher. What do you do with the poor guy who's now 15,001? Bang! Bye-bye!

The beauty of this system is it always gets rid of the ones who have done the least to merit society's forgiveness, or who would do the most damage to society if they were released to walk the streets again. Eventually you've killed off all the really bad guys, and your 15,000 beds are full of petty thieves and crooked politicians. Whenever a new really bad guy hits the court system, he's almost automatically guaranteed the 15,001st slot, and so out the door he goes. So in the end, society has rid itself of all the terribly bad guys, and all that's left are 15,000 beds full of jaywalkers and pencil embezzlers.

I dunno; I think it's a good idea. But it will never fly.

Note to would-be commenters: all comments on this blog are moderated. If you are a raving loon, forget about it and move along.

Note to would-be plagiarizers and copycats: everybody knows they read it here first. If you insist on copying this without attribution, or representing it as your own work, you're well on your way to occupying bed #15,000.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Phineas and Ferb have done it again

Actually, Swampy and Dan have done it again.

Since I posted my first paean to the boys with the geometric heads, three great things have happened in the P&F universe: first, new episodes have been created; second, the soundtrack CD that I had wished for has been released; and third, the Disney Channel hosted a P&F singalong to promote both the CD and the new episodes.

I'm not suggesting that the CD came about because of my posting. The Disney folks have always been shrewd marketers, and Swampy and Dan have obviously had a lot of fun while riding this gravy train. Hey, more power to them. P&F is a great show and a great brand, and it will be a great franchise, if it isn't already.

You know, 25 years ago I used to race home from work at 4:30 so I could watch Inspector Gadget with my older son. P&F has the same draw for me as Inspector Gadget did, only now I can enjoy P&F just about any time of the day, with my younger (17 year old) son.

Anyway, about the CD: it features 26 selections from the series. I understand how difficult it was to choose the songs. They had a lot of good material to pick from. Only a couple of my favorites ("Evil Love" and "Swinter," actually) are missing.

Several of the songs have been re-orchestrated, or perhaps the TV versions are the re-orked versions and these are the real things. Rest easy: the ones on the CD are just as good as the ones on TV -- if not better.

The Emmy-nominated theme song, "It's Going to Be a Great Day," is the full 3-minute version, not the 60-second TV version, sung (as on TV) by the very listenable band Bowling For Soup. (I don't know which version got the 2008 Emmy nomination.) "Gitchee Gitchee Goo" has been expanded and enhanced, and although the original is fun to sing along with, this one's even better -- well, once I learn all the new parts, that is.

All of your favorites are on there. I can't get enough of "Truck Drivin' Girl" and the pizzicato stylings of "Let's Take a Rocket Ship to Space."

And I'm sure I expose myself to charges of not being a true P&F aficionado when I confess that I hadn't realized that the gravelly blues solo in "Chains on Me" was the same voice as the one in "E.V.I.L. B.O.Y.S." Oh, and it's definitely not Ashley Tisdale - not even if she gargled with alum water for an hour, let alone being exposed to wild parsnips. According to the CD jacket, it's Dan Povenmire. I tried singing with a gravelly voice like that once. I can't do it for more than 40 or 50 seconds before I start gagging. I wonder how many times Dan had to stop and gag while recording these two masterpieces.

Dr. Doofenshmirtz, also voiced by Povenmire, got his "My Goody Two-Shoes Brother" on the CD, with all of its very carefully fashioned lyrics.

The normally taciturn Ferb gets his moment in the spotlight with "Backyard Beach" and "Phinedroids and Ferbots."

Other special favorites of mine include the clever "My Undead Mummy," the Abba tribute "Disco Miniature Golfing Queen," and the Love Händel suite, including the Emmy-nominated "I Ain't Got Rhythm."

I tip my hat to, wave my Bic lighter in the air for, and applaud in the general direction of:
  • the real voices of Love Händel (including Steve Zahn, one of my favorite actors)
  • the P&F actors who lend not just their acting talents, but also their singing voices, to their characters
  • the composers and lyricists who created these little gems
  • Dan and Swampy, of course
  • everybody else who sang and played on the series and the CD
Props to all of you.

(I bought the CD only a couple of days after it was released. It wasn't for me, though: I gave the CD to our son for his 18th birthday. I'm hoping to get one of my own next week, for my birthday.)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Is Dex Online Turning Into Crap?

(First of all, my apologies to those who are offended by my use of the word "crap." I figured it was better than some of the alternatives, and I used it deliberately because it comes closest to what I'm trying to say.)

Most of my American and Canadian readers will remember the Yellow Pages, the part of the phone book that came after the alphabetical listings in the (non-capitalized) white pages. The Yellow Pages were a listing, arranged alphabetically by category, of businesses and services. The Yellow Pages were a great source of income for the telephone company and, in later years, for the independent publishers of telephone directories.

(The term "Yellow Pages" should be capitalized and marked with an (R) symbol, because it is a registered trademark of somebody. Let's pretend it is, in this posting. There, that ought to keep the corporate lawyers off my back.)

In recent years, the Yellow Pages went online. Both the paper and electronic versions changed their names to "Dex." The electronic version was known as "Dex Online," and then as "Dex Knows."

For a long time, Dex Online / Dex Knows was really useful. But this morning I became concerned that "Dex Knows" is being replaced by "Dex Blows." Let me illustrate by example:

I needed to find an address for Frontline Medical Laboratory in our town. I went to Dex Knows and typed in "Frontline Medical." Dex couldn't find it, told me so, and suggested some alternative search terms. That's good programming. I would expect a human being to do the same thing for me.

So I tried "Frontline Lab" instead. This one got results, all right: five advertisements from companies with the word "frontline" or the word "lab" in either the name of the company, their one-line advertising text, or their website URL.

In fact, that's all the information that was given on each company: the name, the spiel, and the URL. That's not what I wanted. I go to Dex Online to look up the address and phone number of a business, not this other crap. In fact, if what I need is an address or phone number, all this other information is useless crap.

I must be fair, and not overreact here. This behavior may be a simple aberration.

I decided to test it further. I entered the name of my favorite local auto body shop, and Dex gave me a name, address, phone number and map. Then I entered "Auto Body and Paint," and Dex gave me a listing of body shops, with phone number and address.

I entered "Old Cars," and Dex gave me a listing of auto shops that work on "antique vehicles." (Yeah, I guess a '67 Mustang is an antique. I still miss that car.)

So far, so good.

There used to be a wholesale beef outlet around here, so I searched for it using the term "meatmasters." Whoops - Dex served up the lousy, useless advertising again. Then I broke the term into two words, "meat masters." That worked: Dex didn't find "Meat Masters," but it did offer me a selection of delis and wholesale outlets.

I decided to try "Frontline Medical" again. This time, it didn't give me the friendly "We can't find ..." screen. Instead, it gave me the useless crap. I got suspicious. It had worked before; why not now? I clicked the "Search" button several times, to see what would happen. Sometimes Dex would come back with the "We can't find ..." screen, but often it would come back with the advertising junk. Moreover, the advertising junk changed every time I clicked "Search."

So it's not an aberration. Dex is programmed to be helpful to the consumer some of the time, and to be helpful to the advertiser all of the time.

Now, I'm not naïve. Dex makes their money by selling advertising; that's how they can afford to offer this service for free to customers like me. I understand that. I have a high opinion of the programming that makes Dex work so well -- except for this crappy "default to advertising and URL" branch. I think it's a mistake, and it makes Dex much less useful to me.

In fact, I ended up finding the address and phone number for Frontline Medical Lab by leaving Dex and going to Google instead.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

On Keeping a Journal

I think that writing in a journal or a diary is becoming a lost art. It seems like the secrets we used to record on the pages of our diaries, the most intimate details of our lives, are now broadcast for all the world to see -- on blogs, on social networking pages, on tweets, and on chats. I'm not willing to bare my soul to that extent.

My own journal contains two entries for 2006, nothing for 2007, and three entries for 2008. This is because, in 2005, I made a conscious decision to stop writing in my journal and devote that energy to writing letters to my children instead, as my four grown-up offspring found themselves literally in the four corners of the world. I rationalized that my mails and emails contained enough information for a biographer to reconstruct my life, if anybody really wanted to.

I stubbornly ignored the fact that, while my family letters contained news and the occasional patriarchal expostulation, they concealed my feelings and some of the more private events in my life. In fact, the past six years have been a brain-rattling, roller-coaster sequence of ups and downs: financially, spiritually, and emotionally. I don't want to commit the ascending parts or the high points to paper, fearing that although the words will remain, the hopes and the joys will be replaced again by disappointment and discouragement. I don't want to record the descents or the low points because, honestly, there are some details about this journey that I do not want to remember.

My online persona is carefully edited and managed, so that the rest of the world does not see the roller-coaster trajectory of my life or the framework that it is built upon.

But it's time for me to write in my journal again. Call it a declaration of hope, if you will.


I have a friend who keeps his journal on his computer. He stores a backup copy of his journal online, somewhere in "the cloud." Good for him. I can't do that.

Corporations and government agencies have thousands, billions, of records, stored on old computer tapes in climate-controlled storage. As long as the climate control keeps working, those magnetic tapes will last for a long time. However, the machines to read those tapes wore out a decade ago, and nobody is making any new ones. For all the good it did to store those records so carefully, nobody will ever be able to read them.

Today, with our "modern" computers, we face other risks with anything we commit to the computer: power failure, battery failure, OS failure, hard disk failure, CD/DVD damage, and Internet shutdown.

On the other hand, another piece of the Codex Sinaiticus was recently discovered in the binding of an old book at the Monastery of St. Catherine, at the bottom of the Sinai peninsula. The Codex Sinaiticus is one of the oldest copies of the Bible, having been written between 325 and 360 A.D. It was written in ink on sheets of parchment. The largest portion of the Codex Siniaticus is in the British Library; however, the monks liked to reuse old parchment, and so pieces of it keep showing up in other old books. It's practically indestructible.

I have been observing this "ancient vs. modern" trend for several years now. Technologists keep trying to come up with new archival document formats, to replace ink on parchment, but so far they have not been very successful. Nothing has proven to last even one tenth as long as ink on parchment, except maybe ink on paper. Since parchment is rather scarce and expensive these days, I'm going to write my journal by hand, in ink, on paper.

Friday, August 21, 2009

"Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them"

Can I just say how much I love my children?

This morning, as my youngest child headed out the door for school, I stood at the open window and barked goodbye to him. Yes, really. It's a family tradition, which started when our dog was just a puppy and would bark like crazy whenever anybody entered, exited, or walked past our home. It's a way of saying "Goodbye, I love you, have a good day, I'll miss you, come home safe."

As he opened the car door, my son looked up, grinned, and barked back at me. We kept it going for a good 30 seconds. In those 30 seconds, my mind flashed back 12 years, to when I had a similar conversation with my oldest son, and then in an instant I remembered all the fun morning rituals I have shared with my daughters as well.

I've been especially blessed in this life to be a father, not only to my five biological offspring, but also to their friends, their classmates and teammates, and now their spouses; to my nieces and nephews; and to many of my Boy Scouts and my students over the years. I treasure these relationships more than any Italian villa or stock portfolio. And the ones I treasure the most are the ones I share with my own sons and daughters.

The psalmist said, "Children are an heritage of the Lord ... happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them." If that's the measure of happiness, then I'm happy.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Here's a great way to lay someone off

Okay, all you CEOs, HR types, and managerial types out there, pay attention. Here's a great new way to lay somebody off or fire them. It's really cool.

Near the end of the workday, say around 4:30 p.m., send them an email saying "You're out." The closer to 5 p.m. you send the message, the better.

Cancel their email account sometime between 5:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m. the next day.

This works best if they have no idea it's coming.

It's sneaky, it's clever, and if they complain, you can always ask them, "Well, why didn't you check your email between 4:30 and 5:00? Did you knock off early or something?"

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

On Removing Brake Drums

Our first car, a 1969 Plymouth Satellite, had drum brakes all around. I got to be an expert at working on drum brakes.

Our second car, a 1974 Chevy Impala station wagon, had drum brakes on the back, and I think it had disk brakes on the front. I don't remember. But because of my experience with the Satellite, the Chevy's brakes were no big deal.

A succession of minivans and small commuter cars followed, most of them with disks in front and drums in back. (Disk brakes, by the way, are a cinch.)

Today, in an effort to save money, I decided to do all four brakes on our 1990 Geo Prizm myself. Disks up front, both finished in about an hour. Drums in back, a different story. I pried one drum off with two large screwdrivers and some lucky hits from a rubber mallet. The other drum refused to give itself up. It was frozen to the axle, and it wasn't about to move.

I thought I was an expert. Phooey on my expertise.

Herewith, some advice gleaned from personal experience and from the Internet.

1. If it doesn't simply slide off, then try the following steps in the order given.

2. If it's a rear brake, then block the front tires and release the parking brake. (Duh.)

3. Check the lugs for retaining clips. Many new cars and some VWs have retaining clips on two of the lugs, used to hold the drum on during assembly. Remove the clips. Don't worry if you break them; you won't need them again. (Not on my Geo.)

4. Check the face of the drum for small bolts or a Philips head screw. Some cars use these to hold the drum on during assembly and maintenance -- sounds like a good idea. If you remove them, the drum should magically fall off. (Not on my Geo.)

5. Check the face of the drum for two threaded bolt holes. If you find them, you're in luck. Screw in a couple of bolts of the correct length, and as soon as they contact the backing plate, they will gently but firmly push the drum off the axle/hub. This is an elegant solution, as the drum becomes its own extraction tool. (Not on my Geo.)

6. If it's still not coming off, then you really do need to remove the rubber plug from the slot on the backing plate, reach in with two screwdrivers, hold the ratchet up and spin the star wheel all the way closed. (Read the manual; you'll understand.) If the drums are very old and have never been turned, then the shoes may have worn down the drum, leaving a lip on the edge, and the only way to get that lip past the shoes is to back the shoes off, all the way. You want the wheel/drum to spin freely, with absolutely no rubbing. (This applies mostly to old cars, but pretend it applies to your car, too.)

7. Still not coming off? Okay, the next step lets you take out your frustrations on the wheel. WARNING! WEAR GOGGLES OR SAFETY GLASSES WHEN YOU DO THIS! Long sleeves, long pants, closed toe shoes and work gloves might be a good idea, too. But at the very least, PROTECT YOUR EYES.

Apply PB Blaster, WD-40, or some other penetrating oil to the seam between the drum and the axle/hub, and to the lug nuts where they pass through the drum. Do this several times. Wait an hour or more -- be patient. Then, take a regular old metal hammer and give the drum an enthusiastic whack, right on the shoulder -- where the face curves around and becomes the side of the drum.

Hit it straight on, perpendicular to the face, not at an angle. The harder you hit it, the better. The drum is built to withstand stronger impacts than a human-powered hammer.

One whack should be enough to break the drum loose. If not, rotate the drum a half turn and hit it again. Do this repeatedly on different areas around the shoulder of the drum. Eventually, you will see the drum pop loose. Then you can wiggle it off. (Works every time. Almost.)

8. If that didn't work, then you can use a spreader bar, a gear puller, or some other tension tool to yank off the drum. Work slowly and carefully if you want to save the drum and reuse it. Working too fast, or using an impact tool to tighten the puller, may ruin the drum. If you don't see any action, leave the drum under tension overnight. That clanging sound you hear at 3:30 a.m. will be the drum finally giving up.

(Thanks to Nathan McCullough and Expert Village ( for the hammer tip. That did the trick for me.)

(The discussion at also suggests heating the drum with a torch to break it loose from the hub. Apparently it works very well, but it's not something I'd be willing to try in an enclosed space.)

Friday, July 31, 2009

Fiction: "Transported"

I wrote this short story in 2007, when I was working at a computer company in Fort Collins. I hope you like it. If you do, vote for it at the end of the story, and forward the link to your friends.

Longs Peak is a 14,256-foot mountain, located on the eastern edge of the Front Range in Northern Colorado. It's a regional landmark, and a popular climbing destination during late summer and early fall. On busy days, the summit trail is an endless, multi-colored pilgrimage of nylon parkas and windbreakers. Now, for the story:

Jeff stood at the window and looked out of the office. This was the fun part of living in Colorado: the Rocky Mountains were always outside your window, just a few miles away. The not-fun part was that he spent 40 hours a week working in an office in the city, wasting the best daylight hours working for The Man, instead of climbing around in the mountains.

It wasn't the best day for looking at the mountains, either. Low, grey clouds hung over the city, which was unusual -- and depressing -- for a summer day. Fortunately, the clouds thinned towards the west, and he could see the summit of Longs Peak in the distance, the snow mostly melted from its flanks. It looked like a good day to be on Longs, except that he was stuck here in the office.

He sipped his coffee and tried to focus on the flanks of the mountain, where he knew the trail wound around. He said to himself, "Boy, what would it be like to be up there right now, instead of here in the office?" He took another sip of his coffee. His heart ached for a moment, longing to be on the mountaintop.

Suddenly, with the cup of coffee still to his lips, the view changed. In an instant, the window had disappeared. The office was now a six-foot granite boulder, and he was perched on top of it. He started coughing on his coffee, as the stuffy indoor air he had been breathing was instantly replaced with cold, dry, mountain air. His shoes slipped as they found purchase on the new surface under his feet, and he looked around him, first with curiosity and then with increasing unbelief and amazement.

He recognized the terrain, and the panoramic view. He was on top of the mountain! Only seconds before, he had been in the office, and somehow he had wished himself here!

He looked at the coffee cup in his hand, and then at the khaki pants and polo shirt he was wearing. He felt a moment of nausea. If this wasn't cognitive dissonance, then nothing was. He shivered as the wind brushed his bare arms and cut through his thin shirt. "Maybe I should have wished for a parka, too."

"Wait a minute, this has to be a hallucination. I'm still in the office." Reaching out with his coffee-free hand, he slowly turned in a circle and tried to feel for the office walls. As he came back around, he noticed two people puffing their way towards him. They were outfitted the way he thought he should have been for this fantasy. Both wore black nylon pants. One had a red North Face windbreaker, and the other had a yellow Columbia parka. They carried backpacks, obviously full of whatever you need to complete the pilgrimage from the parking lot to the summit.

Even behind their mirrored sunglasses, he could tell that they were as confused as he was. As they came to the boulder and dumped their packs on the ground, one of them looked at him and asked, "Dude, how do you get up there?"

"I dunno." What else could he say?

The other asked, "Where's yer coat and yer gear?"

"I don't have any."

"You mean you walked all the way up here, dressed like that, with nothin' but a cup of coffee?"


"Whaddaya mean, 'no'? Where's your stuff? Seriously, howdja get up here?"

"Honestly, I dunno. I'm an accountant at a computer company in Fort Collins. Two minutes ago I was sipping this coffee in the office and --"

He was interrupted with a wave and a dismissive "Whatever." Both the gesture and the word indicated a combination of bewilderment, disbelief and impatience. North Face and Columbia hunkered down on the lee side of a small rock wall, to get out of the wind and celebrate with Gatorade and granola bars.

Still holding onto his coffee, he scrambled down from the boulder and started walking across the summit. The summit of Longs Peak is a plateau, about the size of a football field, strewn with boulders and broken rocks. Cairns, small piles of rock built up by climbers, mark the spots where trails end at the edge of the summit plateau. He started heading south, towards the cairn that marked the incline known as the Home Stretch.

"Hey!" It was the red North Face. "Where're you goin'?"

"Down," he replied without looking back.

"Waitaminnit! You can't go down like that!"

"Why not?"

The yellow Columbia chimed in, "Yeah, why not? That's how he got up here."

"What time this morning did you start?" That was North Face again.

"I told you, five minutes ago I was in my office in Fort Collins."

North Face muttered an obscene expression of disbelief.

Jeff stopped. With his free hand, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his cellular phone. He was not surprised to find that he had good reception up here. More than once, he had reached the summit of a mountain, only to observe a fellow climber pull out a cellphone, speed-dial someone, and announce, "Hi. Hey, we made it. Yeah, I'm calling from the top." It was the 21st-century climbing ritual. Even Everest climbers did it.

Instead of calling home, he called the office. "Hey, Jackie? It's Jeff. Yeah. Do me a favor, will you? Go into the back and look in my office. See if I'm there. Yeah, I'll wait."

He stopped and looked at the two climbers. He wasn't sure whether to grin or not. Besides, it was cold and he was shivering, and the others were still catching their breath. Jackie was back on the phone.

"Yeah, I'm still here. Not in my office, huh? Hey, did you see me there this morning? That's what I thought. How long ago? Okay, good. Look, would you mind sending me an email saying that you saw me at that time? Yeah, I know it's a weird request. Humor me."

There was a pause, as Jeff's co-worker wrote a note to herself. Then she asked him the question most often asked of people on cellular phones. He chuckled nervously as he formulated his answer.

"Well, I don't know, but it looks like the summit of Longs Peak. No. I have no idea. One minute I was standing at the window, sipping my coffee, and the next thing I know, I'm on top of this mountain."

Three other hikers had climbed over the edge of the summit plateau. The one in the lead had already dumped her pack, and was gasping noisily as she rocked her body slowly back and forth, trying to get more oxygen into her lungs and thence to her muscles. She was close enough to him, and her gasping had quieted down enough, that she had heard this last exchange from Jeff.

"You don't know how you got here?" she asked him.

He held up a finger, begging her to pause while he finished the conversation. "Okay, Jackie, look. I'm gonna take a picture with this phone and send it to you, okay? I'm wearing the same clothes you saw me in this morning, and you should be able to recognize the coffee cup in my hand. I'll see you in a few hours, I guess. Bye."

He pressed the disconnect button, set the cup down, and fumbled with the phone until he got the camera going. To his latest interrogator, he said, "I think I wished myself up here, but I don't know how to wish myself back down."

She looked at the crepe-soled shoes on his feet. "It looks like you forgot your ruby slippers."

If he hadn't been feeling so confused, and she so oxygen-starved, they might have laughed at the joke. As things were, it did get a snort and a couple of smiles.

Jeff asked her and her companions, and North Face and Columbia, to pose with him at the summit boulder. Without a photograph, nobody was going to believe this story. He balanced the phone on another rock, set the self-timer and ran around to get into the picture.

It was a strange photo. It showed the summit boulder, with the USGS benchmark glinting in the morning sun. Seated in front of the rock were five climbers in cold-weather gear, with their packs at their feet. Behind them, the ridges of the Front Range stretched northward. To the northeast, peeking through holes in the low clouds, could be seen the lakes and reservoirs, and some of the streets, of the city of Fort Collins. And seated in the front of the group of climbers was a middle-aged man in tan pants and a green polo shirt, clutching an empty coffee cup, with a confused smile on his face.

Jeff crouched behind a low rock wall, and fumbled with the buttons on the phone to send the photograph to his co-worker. By now, a dozen climbers were on the summit, most of them having started around midnight. It would be another three hours before it got crowded up here, as the 3:00 a.m. pilgrims finally made their way to the top.

He borrowed a fleece vest from one well-equipped climber, and a windbreaker from another, in exchange for his business card and a promise to return the gear if they called him at work and asked for them. His shoes would have to do for footwear. He'd read of someone doing the climb in cowboy boots once. Then he walked over the edge of the summit plateau and started down the Home Stretch, still holding his coffee cup.

The other climbers, hiding from the wind and sunning themselves on the southeast side of a long granite shelf, watched him go.

North Face said, "Dude. I saw a guy playing a French horn up here once. He'd rigged straps to the case, like a backpack. His friends videoed it. I'll bet you can find it on YouTube."

A girl climber one-upped him. "I saw a string quartet up here once. Two girls in long black dresses, two guys in tuxes. One of the guys had a cello. I don't know if they climbed up here or came up on pack mules. But they had a professional video crew with them."

Columbia answered, "Yeah, but I'll bet those people weren't up here at 8:30 in the morning. This dude was by far the freakin' weirdest thing I've ever seen up here."

"Freakin' A," said North Face, as he took a long, slow pull on his Gatorade.

Copyright 2007 Ray Depew. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Arriba, middle child

Our middle child went out into the world today to seek her fortune.

My sweet wife and I were blessed with five children.

The first, a boy, is protected by the might of the US military. In fact, he is part of the might of the US military. In school, his squadron's motto was "First takes care of its own." The US military does indeed take care of its own, and so we trust that he is both safe and successful. His future is also well in hand, whether in or out of the military.

The second, a girl, is married with two children. She has the luxury in today's world of being a stay-at-home mother. She and her husband have had an adventurous life so far, and their future is secure with a government job and all the associated benefits. They have successfully sold their first house, and will soon move to a new location.

The fourth, also a girl, is in the middle of an 18-month mission, after which she will return to her university studies. God holds her in the hollow of His hand, and angels guard her footsteps until her mission is completed.

The last, a boy, is in his final year of high school. He is on track to fulfill his lifelong ambition of becoming a doctor, an ambition that he is pursuing with the same singlemindedness that has taken his older brother to success in the military.

But the middle child -- ah. Tradition holds that the middle child is the bellwether of the family, and that the success or failure of the family can be judged by the success or failure of the middle child. Our middle child left this morning, in the pre-dawn darkness, to seek her fortune in the world.

She has been preparing for this date, consciously or unconsciously, for 25 years. Her preparations have taken her to Europe, to South America, and all over the United States, have placed her in the spotlight on countless stages, and have made her a Joan of Arc to hundreds -- no, thousands -- of eager youth and young adults. Now, as her preparations come to an end and the Rest of Her Life begins, she goes to make her mark in the world as a middle school teacher.

That doesn't sound like much. In fact, at first, it sounds rather anticlimactic. Believe me, the world won't know what hit it.

She will be taking over and reviving the vocal music and drama programs at a middle school in Colorado Springs. That wasn't her plan: her plan was to teach at a high school in Boston, Seattle, Austin, or someplace else with energy and ambitions to match her own. But, like tardy suitors, Boston, Seattle and Austin made their moves too late. She couldn't wait around for them, and she had already made a commitment to Colorado Springs before the others came calling. Perhaps in the future they will have their turn.

We acknowledge the hand of God in our middle child's life. Everything that has happened to her has happened because of Him. She followed her dreams, and she made her own choices, but the choices and the opportunities were put there by God, as were the challenges and the obstacles.

The financial problems that are afflicting the nation have reached all the way down into our family. As we struggle with our own future, we look with hope and anticipation to our middle child, as we watch her taillights disappear down the road.

And the thought that keeps passing through my mind? It isn't "As the middle child goes, so goes the family." No, it's "Watch out, world. Here she comes."

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Blogging for Dollars

It's recently become common knowledge (which means that before now, it was uncommon knowledge, also known as "duh, obvious to anyone with more brains than a turnip") that an increasing number of bloggers are shills. That is, they get paid to write blog entries promoting products or services that someone else is trying to sell.

(Go look it up: )

Personally, I see nothing wrong with that. However, I will never do that at Zyzmog Galactic Headquarters.

I would love to get paid to do product reviews for computer hardware and software, backpacking equipment, or books. When I get to that point, I'll set up another blog, and point to it from Zyzmog Galactic HQ, but this site will not change. I like this site just the way it is: independent, honest, unsolicited, and not for sale.

And eclectic.

I guess my readers like it, too. According to MapLoco, my readership is constantly increasing, and I have regular readers from all over the world. That's gratifying. I'm glad that you find my words worth reading. If you like what you read, please pass this site's URL on to your friends.

Okay, yes, I do have Google Adsense ads on my site. These ads are part of an experiment I'm trying. As far as I know, the ads contain nothing objectionable and are based solely on the content of my blog postings. I'm interested in seeing what they come up with. Please, feel free to click on the ads if they interest you.

Some of the matches Adsense comes up with are pretty funny. One time I posted about "clogging" and Adsense put up an ad for drain cleaner. Another time I wrote about the recent downfall of Detroit and the car companies, and how it's their own fault, and Adsense put up an ad for the Ford F-250 pickup truck.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Tesla Motors and Lightning Hybrids: Two New Car Companies Worth Keeping an Eye on

In 2006, a three-year-old startup called Tesla Motors ( introduced the world to the Tesla Roadster, an all-electric, two-seat sports car that could go 0-to-60 in under 4 seconds, had a range of 200 miles, and was powered by about a zillion lithium-ion batteries just like the ones in your digital video camera. The Tesla Roadster only costs $101,000, and they sell so fast you can't even find one on a showroom floor.

Tesla recently announced its second model, the Model S, a sedan with a 0-to-60 time of 5.9 seconds, still a breathtaking time, especially for a family car that seats 7. The Tesla Model S sells for about $50,000, half the cost of the Roadster. I wouldn't turn down either one of them.

Tesla Motors is unique in that it's not located anywhere near Detroit, St. Louis, or any of the other traditional automotive manufacturing locations in the U.S. Its headquarters is in San Carlos, California, in the northern borders of Silicon Valley. Tesla Motors is an American company, but its components come from Germany, Norway, and the UK, as well as the USA. If you see any similiarities between the Tesla Roadster and the Lotus Elise, that's intentional: Lotus won a competition to design and build the Roadster's chassis, among some other parts.

Tesla Motors has been around long enough that it has gone through its share of intrigues, shakeups, and lawsuits. The founders have been kicked out of the company and the current CEO is Elon Musk, the South African genius behind PayPal. Dealerships are popping up in big cities nationwide, in preparation for the release of the Model S.

We wish Tesla well, and we wish we owned a Tesla with its carbon fiber body, kick-a$ acceleration and all-electric drive train. Maybe one day. In the meantime, there's another new player in the game.

In January 2009, an "automotive research and manufacturing company" based in Loveland, Colorado, calling themselves Lightning Hybrids (, quietly announced that they were developing a hydraulic hybrid automobile. They showed their concept car at the Denver Auto Show in April 2009, and had their prototype driving around the streets of Loveland in June 2009.

Lightning Hybrids hosted an open house on Friday, June 26. It was an invitation-only event, but everyone was invited, and you had to RSVP in order to find out the location. Several hundred interested guests crowded into their "garage" in downtown Loveland, to get a look at the prototype and the facilities, and to listen to the founders and employees of Lightning Hybrids talk with excitement about their creation.

The prototype is a model called the LH4, the "4" meaning "four wheels." A second model, called the LH3, is already in prototyping as well. The LH3 is a unique design in that it only has one back wheel. It's a tricycle that runs backwards. (I assume that the front wheels will be for both steering and propulsion, as research at Stanford and MIT has shown that a configuration like this with rear-wheel steering is inherently unstable.) Both the LH3 and LH4 will be 4-seaters.

The hydraulic hybrid propulsion system is analogous to the more well-known (think "Toyota Prius") electric hybrid propulsion system, with a hydraulic motor/pump and 5000-psi reservoir taking the place of the electric motor/generator and battery bank. The hydro hybrid system is 50 percent more efficient than the Prius' electric hybrid system, and it delivers enough horsepower to give the car the same kick-a$$ acceleration as the Tesla vehicles have been posting.

The LH designers have been fanatical about keeping the gross vehicle weight below 1000 pounds -- that's right, only 1000 pounds. (Or was it 1800 pounds? Help!) Like the Teslas, the LH cars have carbon-fiber bodies. The LH designers went the extra mile (sorry) to tweak the aerodynamics of their cars. The LH4 has only three body parts: the hood, the canopy, and the pan. The carbon-fiber pan gives the car a smooth undercarriage to reduce turbulence and drag in the boundary layer between the car and the road. The hood is the entire front half of the car -- no fenders, and no seams. The clamshell canopy opens and closes on hydraulic lifts, like an aircraft canopy or some of the futuristic concept cars from Ford and GM in the 1960s, so there are no doors, doorknobs, or door seams. Digital cameras take the place of side-view mirrors, and windshield wipers and radio antenna are recessed, retractable, or molded-in.

The result is a very slippery car that gets 100 miles per gallon in both city and highway. In the city, the hydraulic motor does most of the work, with the German-made Audi biodiesel engine only turning on to assist with heavy acceleration. On the highway, the high mileage is thanks to the super-efficient Audi engine, the lightweight construction, and the low-drag design.

LH plans to keep manufacturing costs low by buying off-the-shelf parts wherever possible. In a dark corner of the garage is the shell of a Mazda Miata resting on four jack stands, looking like something that was abandoned on a New York City street and stripped by, um, entrepreneurs for anything of value. Its dashboard, airbags and climate control system are now part of the LH4, as are key components of its suspension and steering.

Every component of the hydraulic system came out of somebody's online catalog. The (bio)diesel engine, as I mentioned, is a crate engine from Audi. Other key automotive components will be stock parts, purchased from other automakers or their suppliers. The only full-custom parts may very well be the body panels, window glass, and headlamp/taillight lenses.

In 2010, LH will expand into a manufacturing facility in Loveland, Colorado, large enough to employ 300 people and turn out 10,000 vehicles in the first year.

But at $39,000 and $59,000 respectively, the LH3 and LH4 may end up being LH's loss leaders. The company may end up making their real money on a couple of other product lines. First, they will sell an LH hydraulic hybrid retrofit kit for existing fossil-fuel-only vehicles. It wasn't clear to me if they will sell directly to manufacturers or to aftermarket garages (like Shelby, for instance). Second, they have applied for a $74 million economic stimulus grant to commercialize a plug-in hybrid electric (PHEV) drivetrain developed at Colorado State University. Even though their market niche is hydro hybrids, they have the expertise to do PHEVs as well, and it's too good an opportunity -- a local university, partnering with a local company -- to pass up.

When the Big Three were the Big Three and gas was cheap, independent automakers didn't do very well. Nobody remembers the Bricklin anymore, and the DeLorean only lives on as a time machine driven by Michael J. Fox. But the world has changed. Today, the Big Three are the Struggling Two and a Half. Gasoline is no longer cheap and plentiful. Maybe the market is finally ready for something different.

Sign me up. I'll take one of each, please.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Homemade French Fries

When my kids started moving away from home, they used to call home and ask my sweet wife for certain family recipes. We loved having them call (hey, any excuse to talk with our kids!), but I thought they might want to have more reliable access to the family recipes. So I started an online recipe book. It's one of those projects that will get finished someday. You can see its current state at .

The latest addition is a recipe for homemade French fries.

When my older kids were little, we used to enjoy homemade, deep-fried French fries. That's because we had my Grandma French's awesome-possum Sunbeam deep fryer. After we finally wore out that deep fryer, we tried in vain to find another one that was as sturdy and robust as that Sunbeam. They really, truly don't make 'em like that anymore.

One day in June 2009, Mom and Chris and I wanted French fries for dinner. We didn't have the frozen kind in the freezer, but we did have a whole bag of real Idaho spuds. We didn't have enough oil for the deep fryer, but we did have a small bottle of oil. So I created what we thought was going to be a poor substitute for the real thing. They turned out to be just as good (and just as greasy!) as the real thing.

Here it is, adapted and edited for Zyzmog Galactic Headquarters.


1 large potato per person
1/4 C. vegetable oil (for up to 6 potatos)
salt or other seasonings

Preparation Instructions

Preheat the oven to 450° F. Put a metal baking sheet on the counter somewhere. You will need one baking sheet for every 3 to 4 potatoes.

Peel and wash the potatoes (or just wash them, if you prefer). Half-fill a large mixing bowl with cold water. Cut the potatoes into French-fry shapes. As you finish cutting each potato, put the raw fries in the bowl of water. Add extra water as needed, to keep the fries covered. After all the potatoes have been cut, pour off all the water. The water must be completely drained, but the fries must be wet still.

This next part is gooey! Pour the oil over the drained fries. Reach into the bowl with both hands, and tumble the fries in the oil until every square inch of every fry is slimy and disgusting. Your hands will also be slimy and disgusting. Rub those slimy, disgusting hands all over the surface of the metal baking sheet to coat it with oil. Now, wash your hands.

Pour the fries onto the baking sheet in a single layer. Don't let them overlap. Bake the fries at 450° F for approximately 40 minutes. Every 10 minutes, turn the fries over with a spatula, and if you're cooking more than one sheet of fries, swap the baking sheets on the oven racks.

When the fries have less than 10 minutes to go, sprinkle them with salt or the seasoning of your choice. Best served still sizzling from the oven, so the first one burns your tongue.


Yes, they do take a long time to cook. That's the only drawback.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Another automotive company bailout

They thought they could slide this one past us!

WASHINGTON (AP) - The House on Tuesday approved a "cash for clunkers" bill that aims to boost new auto sales by allowing consumers to turn in their gas-guzzling cars and trucks for vouchers worth up to $4,500 toward more fuel-efficient vehicles. ... Since the yearlong vehicle program is expected to cost $4 billion, lawmakers would attempt to find the additional money later this year.

This is a just plain bad idea. But the House of Representatives bought it, 298-119, and it will probably sail unopposed through the Senate as well.

Exactly what are Congress and the automakers trying to accomplish here? Reduce CO2 emissions? Stimulate auto sales (as they say)? Or give General Motors, Ford and Chrysler another handout?

Um, maybe buy votes in Michigan, Kentucky, New Jersey and every other state that stands to lose automobile-related jobs?

I don't know exactly what they're trying to do, but it's very clear what they're doing.

They're subsidizing people's poor decisions again.

They're rewarding past bad behavior and reinforcing current bad behavior.

And it's another bailout. A $4 billion bailout.

The Big Three pushed their gas-guzzling vehicles in past years. In fact, all three of them showed commercials touting their gas-guzzling pickup trucks last summer during the $4 per gallon gasoline mini-crisis, and in the fall and winter during the onset of the current financial crisis, and they're still doing it. American automakers have never been serious about selling more fuel-economical vehicles, and their advertising campaigns prove it.

So do their showrooms. Drive past any Chevrolet, Ford or Chrysler/Dodge dealer and compare the number of trucks, SUVs, and big cars with the number of small cars, hybrids and economy vehicles. That's right. They're pushing the big machines. It's as if nothing has changed in the last 12 months, as far as the Big Three automakers are concerned.

That's because that's where the big margins, and hence the big profits, can be found. It's all about money. For Detroit, it has always been all about money.

We must lay some blame on the consumers who bought these vehicles. They're the ones who had to suffer through the gasoline price crisis last summer, remember? I say, let 'em suffer. They chose to buy those big machines, now let them live with their choice.

But now the government wants to ease these buyers' remorse by subsidizing their purchase of more economical vehicles. These consumers are getting a government-subsidized $4500 discount, in addition to the trade-in value on their old cars, to buy new cars. (Okay, in some cases it's only $1500, but the article says "up to $4500," and that number shows up several times in the details. Live with it.)

Problem 1: Not everybody's gonna buy American.
Problem 2: Sellers are greedy.
Problem 3: Hey! What about the rest of us?!

Allow me to elaborate.

Problem 1: I predict that many people will dump their big American cars to buy smaller, lighter cars from Asia or Europe. I didn't read anything in the article that said the $4500 goes towards the purchase of an American car. So this won't help GM, Ford or Chrysler nearly as much as people think it will.

Problem 2: Car dealers won't be able to resist the temptation to jack up the price of the vehicles they're selling, to get their own piece of that $4500 pie. They won't be satisfied with just moving more vehicles through their lot. Don't be surprised to hear about salesmen negotiating with the buyer to "split the difference," so the buyer ends up paying $2,250 more than he should for a new car.

Problem 3: Once again, the good people of the United States are getting screwed. Let me explain that one in more detail.

First, it was home prices: those of us who bought houses within our means, who went responsibly through the traditional loan approval process, have seen our home values plummet because of the irresponsible actions of the borrowers, lenders, and investment entities who are really at fault for the current financial crisis.

Then, it was jobs: as the economy tanked and corporate profits fell, over 13 million hard-working Americans lost their jobs, while the executives who were truly responsible for the losses in corporate profits held onto their jobs, fired those 13 million, collected undeserved bonuses for their actions, and did absolutely nothing to relieve the suffering of their former employees. Do you know how many production workers you can keep employed if you replace an overpaid CEO with one who's willing to take a smaller bonus?

Then, it was tax dollars: while no politician has yet had the audacity to raise taxes on us, the politicians have been happily writing checks against our (future) taxes to pay for so-called "bailouts" for private industry: first the banks, and then the automakers.

(You may or may not remember, but when Congress said "no" to the Big Three the first time, General Motors tried to disguise itself as a bank (GMAC, its financing arm) and sneak in the side door, to get a piece of the bank "bailout" funds. Congress finally gave GM and Chrysler some money, but not as much as they wanted.)

Now, it's tax dollars again: this latest move by Congress is another attempt by somebody to give Detroit the rest of the money they wanted. If this plan works the way it's written, then every person who buys a new car under this plan will be shoveling more government money, $1500 to $4500 at a time, to the carmakers.

Hey! That's my money! Don't you go giving it to that Hummer driver! He's got more than enough money to replace that Hummer -- if he really wants to replace it.

Not only that, but: Hey! When are you going to reimburse me for my purchases? While so many other people have been buying trucks, SUVs, Caddys, Lincolns, and muscle cars, I've been driving economy vehicles since 1984! No government entity has ever given me a nickel for my good citizenship. Just like with the mortgages and everything else, the government is punishing good behavior and rewarding bad behavior.

GM is no longer "too big to fail." And Fiat almost gave up on their Chrysler acquisition because of meddling by the feds. I say, let 'em fail. Let the market sort it out. Enough with the government "intervention," already. You're making things worse, not better.

If you are as outraged as I am, please send this article's URL to your friends. Then print this article (yes, on paper) using Internet Explorer, and snail-mail a copy of it to your Senator, Representative and President. Make sure to include a cover letter expressing your outrage, and including your name and address so they know you're serious.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

For my Niece: Why I Love You, Part 2

She said she'd love some more. So here's some more.

I love you because of your goodness. I love you because of your example, the beacon you are for those around you. I love you because of your purity, and your desire to do what's right.

I love you because of your sense of humor. Sometimes it's rather highbrow humor (well, your version of highbrow), and sometimes it's little-kid silly fun, and you're comfortable with both.

I love you because you're no stick-in-the-mud. You like to have fun, and you're tenacious and dedicated in everything you set out to do. You are excited about life, and that excitement shines in your face and through your eyes.

I love you because of your love for (and your loyalty to) your family. I know that sometimes you get on each other's nerves, but I've seen the gentle way you treat your little sisters, and I know it's not just an act.

I love you because of your sincerity and your honesty -- no, wait, I admire you because of your sincerity and your honesty, and over time that admiration grows into love.

I love you because of your grace -- no, not the "grace of God" kind of grace, but that innate feminine quality that you possess. I can't describe it. I'll let Lord Byron take a shot at it:

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o'er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling place.

And on that cheek, and o'er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!

That comes close to what I was trying to say. Thanks, Lord Byron.

Even more love
Uncle Ray

For my Niece: Why I Love You

One of my teenage nieces is having a rough time right now. She wrote me, needing a confidence boost, and asked, "Why do you love me? I know it's silly, but it would just help me out a lot right now if you could answer it."

So I thought about it for a while, and here's what I came up with.

Why I Love You

Pick one or all of the following. I vote for all of them.

I love you because you're a blood relative and it's a family obligation.

(Don't worry, they get better.)

I love you because I love your mom, she's one of my favorite people, and you're her daughter so you must be rather lovable by association.

Or heredity. Or something.

I love you because you like me just the way I am, and although you make fun of me for it sometimes, you really don't want me to change. You accept me for who I am.

I love you because you have ALWAYS, from your youngest years, attacked me and hung around me and teased me and stuff -- even though we would go two or three years between seeing each other. And when we get back together, it's like we were never apart.

I love you because you love me. But even if you didn't love me, I would love you anyway.

I love you because, um, what's the word? Because I admire you. You are smart (thanks to your mom and dad and the Man Upstairs), you are talented in so many ways, you are clever, you are witty, you are personable (that means you're a lot of fun to be around), and ... nope. That's it. There's more, but it all relates to your brain and your personality.

If looks mattered, and if I were 35 years younger and not related to you, I could fall in love with you very quickly because you're pretty. Easy on the eyes, as they say. You have a cute smile, a cute nose, and VERY expressive eyes, and nice hair even though I get it wrong every time I try to tell you what color it is. You have nice-looking legs, I'm sure as a result of your years of dancing. And I'm going to end this paragraph now.

Did I mention your voice? No? Okay. I love your voice.

I love you because you're NOT a girly-girl. You like camping and backpacking and doing stuff in the mountains. You're not afraid to get dirty and a little bit stinky.

I love you because you have an independent mind. You want to figure things out for yourself and do things your own way. And yet, having said that, I also love you because you are trying so hard to choose the right, to be righteous, and to be obedient to a Higher Power. I love you for the force of your testimony, and for the spirituality which hangs around you like a perfume -- sweet, delicate, and lingering . I love you for choosing the right and for expecting others to do the same.

I get amused by your tough-girl act, and yet I see you opening your heart and trying so hard to reach out to your peers when they're in trouble, and I love you for your charity and your empathy.

And when your tough-girl act breaks down and you come to me for reassurance and comfort like this, I love you for giving me a chance to see who you are on the inside.

I love you for the sassy little girl you were, the young woman you are, and the woman you are becoming. And I love you because you can be all three at once.

Want more? I can give you more.

All my love
Uncle Ray

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy equinox, Happy Easter, and good Pasqua to you

Spring in Colorado is a finicky season. One minute it's so sunny and warm that lunchtime joggers take off their T-shirts (well, the men, anyway) to get some rays on their pasty-white skin; the next minute it's cloudy and windy, snow is falling sideways and the puddles on the road are icing over. If you can look beyond the wacky weather, though, you see undeniable signs of the approach of spring. The songbirds are back, and the geese have left (mostly). Trees and bushes are swollen with buds awaiting the signal to burst open, giving us new leaves and blossoms. Streaks of green are starting to show in the grass. If there's a morning frost, it's usually gone shortly after sunrise -- and the sun comes up earlier in the morning and goes down later at night.

Ancient people knew the course of the sun, and used its course to mark the seasons. They gave a special name to the day that had equal parts of daylight and dark night, calling it "equinox," or "equal night." (Remember the Harry Potter spell to make a room dark?) The vernal equinox marked the beginning of spring, or the reawakening of the world and its springing back to life after being dead and buried in the snows of winter. All cultures, around the world, celebrated equinox in one way or another, and adopted for their festivals symbols of renewal and of new life. In Europe, the festival was known as Eoster. You are most familiar with the symbols of eggs, baby birds, rabbits, and flowers and blossoms.

The Israelites, the ancestors of the Jews, had a different tradition, but one that happened only a week or two after the vernal equinox. This tradition was established by a decree from their God, when He freed them from 430 years of bondage in Egypt. On a spring night, the eve of the day of their deliverance from the Egyptians, according to the writings of Moses, an angel from God was sent to kill every firstborn male child and animal in Egypt. The only ones who were spared were those whose families sacrificed a firstborn lamb and painted their doorposts and lintel with the lamb's blood. This would serve as a sign to the destroying angel that the house so marked was protected by the God of their fathers, and that the angel should pass over the house without killing anybody therein. Because the angel "passed over" the houses marked with lamb's blood, the event became known as "the Passover." Every year since that first Passover, the people of Israel and their descendants held a solemn celebration to remember the day they were rescued from bondage, and saved by the blood of a lamb.

About 2000 years ago, give or take a couple of decades, was a Passover unlike any other. By then, the once proud and strong nation of Israel had dwindled to a few thousand people who called themselves "Jews," claiming as an ancestor Judah, one of the twelve sons of Israel. Over the centuries, they had forgotten the God who had delivered them from bondage to Egypt, and by forgetting their Deliverer they had made themselves into easy prey for other nations, whose armies swept into the land and carried them away captive, several thousand at a time, until these few Jews were all that were left. Their land, like all the surrounding lands, was a vassal territory, part of the great Roman Empire.

Their ruler wasn't even Jewish. Herod the Great was an Idumean, a native of Idumea (or Edom), a land to the south of their own Judaea. Herod himself, and his heirs, ruled them subject to the good will and pleasure of the Roman emperor, whose good will was enforced by Roman procurators and governors, and by the Roman troops that patrolled the land. A garrison of troops even occupied a Roman-built fortress adjacent to the temple in Jerusalem, the most sacred site in all of Judaea.

The Jews had lived for centuries with the prophetic promise of an "Anointed One," a divine warrior-king who would deliver them from bondage, as Moses had done in Egypt, centuries before. By this time, Passover had become a week-long celebration. One year, on the Friday of Passover, the day before the Jewish Sabbath, three men were executed by the Romans. Two of the men were thieves, and the third man was innocent of any crime -- but the Jews had called him a blasphemer and had talked the Roman governor into executing him anyway.

What had this man done wrong? Well, simply, he had told them he was the "Anointed One," the one who had come to fulfill the prophecies and to rescue them from bondage, and that he was their king. I guess they didn't want to be rescued that badly. They must have thought they were doing okay under Roman rule. Whatever the reason, they took the one who had promised to deliver them and to be their king, and they had him put to death.

They thought that was the end of the matter. Well, he had done some things in the last three years of his life that made the ruling council of the Jews rather nervous. He had performed some miraculous healings. He had brought some people back from the dead, including one man who had been dead for several days. He had been acclaimed as a king by the people, and had not denied the acclamation. He had forecast his own death, and promised to bring himself back from the dead after two days.

So they killed him in a cruel manner, one so cruel that nobody could be revived after dying that way, and then after his friends had taken his broken body and laid it in a tomb, the leaders of the Jews sealed the tomb and placed Roman guards in front of the entrance. Nobody was getting in or out.

Or so they thought.

Two days later, on the morning of the day after the Jewish Sabbath, the ground shook, the seal on the tomb entrance was broken, and the tomb was opened -- but not by earthly means. Those who inspected the tomb found it strangely empty. His friends were amazed and overjoyed when he appeared to them, showing them that he was indeed alive, with his body, although it was in considerably better shape than when they had laid him in the tomb.

He announced that his friends, and all the Jews, and indeed all mankind, were now free -- that he had rescued them and delivered them from bondage, just as the prophecies had foretold. Those who understood, accepted him as the Anointed One and as their Deliver. They honored him and revered him as their King.

But his kingdom was not an earthly Kingdom. Those who accepted his deliverance became members of a greater kingdom. They were freed from the bondage of death, of pain and sickness, of guilt and all the terrible things that men do to each other and to themselves.

This was the Lamb of God, who had been offered as a final sacrifice for all men, whose blood fulfilled the promise of the Passover one last time. It is fitting that his conquest of death, into new life, should happen at the time of the vernal equinox, when the whole world rises from the death of winter and celebrates a new season of life. And just as the equinox marks the return of sunny days, so his sacrifice and his triumph marks the return of mankind to the sunny embrace of their God, and the chance to return to him.

The man's first name means "Jehovah (or God) is my Savior." In Hebrew, it's Yeshua or Joshua; in Greek, it's Jesus. His last name, actually a title and not a name, means "The Anointed One." In Hebrew, it's Messiah; in Greek, it's Christos.

So it is that the renewal of life marked in the ancient rites now called Easter, and the commemoration of the ancient Jewish Passover, are wrapped up together in the celebration of the resurrection of the Son of God, the Messiah and Savior of the world, Jesus Christ. Celebrate whatever parts of it you wish, however you wish. And I wish a happy Easter to all of you.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Down at the Twist and Shout: Clogging Memories

Saturday night and the moon is out
I wanna head on over to the Twist and Shout
Find a two-step partner and a Cajun beat
When it lifts me up I'm gonna find my feet
Out in the middle of a big dance floor
When I hear that fiddle wanna beg for more
Gonna dance to a band from-a Lou'sian' tonight.

I heard this on a C&W radio channel the other day, and it brought a funny little grin to my face that didn't fade away until the music did.

When we moved back to Colorado in 1990, with our four children aged 10 and under, we cast about for something for Lori, our third child, to do. We wanted to find something that she could excel at, something where she would not be in the shadow of her older brother and sister. After finding several alternatives and talking it over with Lori, we enrolled her in Clog Colorado, a local clogging group founded and run by Cyndi Thalman.

It was while performing on stage that she discovered the pleasure of an audience's applause. That prompted her to excel at clogging, and it set the course for the rest of her life. The whole world admires Lori, and stands in awe of her skills on the stage, but that's a blog entry for another time. (For the record, I am her biggest fan.)

Eventually clogging became a family activity, as all of us became members of Clog Colorado. By then, Lori had enough of a head start that there was no danger of anyone overshadowing her, and we all took to it with enthusiasm. Even #5 Christopher, as a toddler, would stomp and clomp the rhythms as his four older siblings practiced in the kitchen.

But it wasn't just a family activity - at least, it wasn't just the six of us. Clog Colorado became our family, as we mixed with some of the finest young people (and their parents!) in Colorado. All of these kids grew up together, and we watched them clog through high school, graduate and go to college. Some of them came back to continue dancing as adults, or to teach.

Most of our dancing was to Country and Western music - not all, but most of it. The younger kids clogged to Animaniacs, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Mary Kate & Ashley Olsen, while the older kids created their own routines to music of their genre. But mostly we clogged to danceable tunes like The Watermelon Crawl,, Couldja Wouldja Ain'tcha Gonna If I Asked You Wouldja Wanna Be My Baby Tonight,, Whatcha Gonna Do With a Cowboy, Hillbilly Breakdown and so many others. Some of my favorite clogging memories come from watching Katrina, Paul, Abbey, and the rest of the older teens swirling and clicking to Down at the Twist and Shout.

We were in demand all over the region. We went on road trips to county fairs, to the state fair in Pueblo, to Cheyenne Frontier Days, and twice to an annual festival in Wray, Colorado. The group grew very close on those trips, this allowed us to give our best to the audience, and the audience always responded with equal enthusiasm.

Before we left on one trip, I was preparing to drive a vanload of kids. Cyndi came to the driver's side window, looked me in the eye, and told me: "Now Ray, I want you to repeat after me: 'I am a responsible, mature adult.'" I looked her in the eye and said, "I am a respuuuuuuuuuuh ... I am a r-r-r-rrisp ... I am aaaaaaaahhrrrr ..." As Cyndi rolled her eyes and walked away in mock disgust and my passengers shrieked with laughter, I called after her, "I'm trying Cyndi, I'm trying, but it won't come out!"

Of course, I was a responsible, mature adult. But it was fun to watch Lori Dawn and all of these kids have fun together, to grow and mature, to excel and to discover themselves through dance. The friendships we made with these kids and their families endure to this day. And the memories of Clog Colorado are so sweet that I still get a funny little grin on my face anytime I hear Mary Chapin Carpenter's 1990 anthem to Cajun country, a grin that doesn't fade away until the music does.