Friday, August 28, 2009


Someone at work used the expression "We'll do" yesterday. It's supposed to be "Will do," as in, "Could you open that account for me?" -- "Will do." No big deal, just interesting how people misunderstand things.

Another one, which bothers me a lot more for some reason, is "kitty-corner." It was originally "cater-corner," but is now usually "catty-corner" ( The expression has nothing to do with cats or kittens of course -- apparently it bears some relation to the French "quatre," four, but I don't know how this led to the sense of "diagonal" -- but some people can't hear "catty" without thinking "kitty."

I think the phrase "can't win for losing" is a Southernism; in any case, my parents both used it, and I don't hear it much elsewhere. The one time that stands out to me was in Ann Arbor, when I heard a University of Michigan student say, "I can't win for trying." That attempt to use an unfamiliar expression fell flat -- it made no sense, and sounded kind of pathetic. "For" means "because" in this sense; you can't win because you're losing -- not you can't win because you're trying! Of course, it's kind of a silly phrase to begin with -- losing is not a reason for failing to win -- but it does express a meaningful sentiment: a sense of hopelessness, with no idea why one can't succeed.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


I found out this week that the ticker symbol for Crocs, Inc. is CROX. I like that, for some reason.

I have to speak out in support of Hilary Clinton, of all people, regarding her "outburst" in the Congo a few weeks ago. I don't actually think what she said was all that much of an outburst, and not a serious problem. I think anybody can understand why she was annoyed at the question -- what a weird question, in any case -- and why she answered it as she did. She could have given a better answer, of course. The best would have been to pass quickly over the reference to Bill and state her opinion, rather than making that the center of her answer (and not answering). But she didn't yell or attack the questioner.

I think similarly about Barbara Boxer's comments to the general who called her "ma'am" instead of "senator." I don't view her comments as favourably, chiefly because there is nothing wrong with being called "ma'am," and nothing in the title "ma'am" that conflicts with the title of senator. The speaker was using a normal form of polite address. I don't know the finer points of etiquette, but I'm not aware that there's anything unusual about calling someone sir or ma'am if they have another title. After all, people in the army frequently call their superiors "sir" rather than using their ranks, and I'm pretty sure I've heard people call the president "sir" instead of "President" or "Mr. President." Her words were not, however, really harsh. In fact, they were quite polite, as written. What I don't know about Boxer's incident is the tone of voice that she spoke in. It's easy to imagine the same words being spoken with bitterness, which would be totally uncalled for in the circumstances. Just reading them, however, they didn't strike me as especially rough.

I wish I had something interesting to add on the Obama as joker posters and all the brouhaha over town halls recently. Most of it seems pretty clear to me. I don't particularly like the poster -- I just don't like images like that -- but liberals have no ground to stand on in criticizing it unless they criticized the image of Bush as joker that came out a few years ago -- and I doubt a single one of them did. Democratic hypocrisy over the town hall protests is rife, obvious, and predictable. Anyone on the right could have guessed that Democrats would suddenly turn against opposition and protests once they controlled the government, and they have. It's galling, because apparently they are completely unaware of what they are doing, or else perhaps they are just unrepentant hypocrites who don't mind changing their values when their interests change. Also, of course, one doesn't read the sort of outraged accounts in the news that one would if it were Republicans talking. I suppose it would bother me even more if the Democrats were only now taking a popular stance that got the American populace behind them. Instead, however, they are railing pointlessly at American citizens and making fools of themselves, so the fact that their comments are also hypocritical does not contribute much additional frustration.

Monday, August 24, 2009


Medicine names often come in two parts, the main name and a second word that I suppose indicates the class of chemical, such as hydrochloride (Prozac, for example, is fluoxetine hydrochloride). I recently discovered a medicine with an unusual second word, "malate," which prompted me to look it up. Malate is a form of malic acid, a chemical that gives sour fruits their flavour. The name is derived from the Latin "malum," apple, because of its presence in green apples. Apparently it is an important substance in biochemistry, although I don't understand any of the technical reasons. But it is interesting that food manufacturers often add malate to foods to give them a sour or tart flavour.

Malate is also found in grapes, some of which my wife grew this year in our yard. You don't realize just how tasteless store-bought grapes are until you taste home-grown grapes. Store-bought grapes are also big and juicy, but they hardly have any flavour. My wife's grapes are small and have seeds in them, but they have a strong grape flavour. The seeds are a bit of a pain, as they adhere to the fleshy part of the grape, making it hard to separate them so you can enjoy the flavour. But, what a flavour! You have not tasted grapes until you have tried some like these. I can only assume that wine grapes are more like these, or else wines would taste like water.

Today is St. Bartholmew's Day (St. Bart to his friends), and therefore the anniversary of the massacre of that name that occurred 437 years ago in Paris. It not only led Henry of Navarre, later Henry IV, to convert to Catholicism to save himself, but it was also one of the decisive events in French history. Considering the rate at which Protestantism had been growing to that time, absent some decisive action it might have become the dominant religion; or else France might have been plunged into civil wars even more serious than the ones they actually experienced in the second half of the 16th century.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


Medicines almost always have two names: the brand name, and the generic name. Tylenol is the brand name for a medicine containing acetaminophen, and Motrin is a brand name for a medicine containing ibuprofen. I always try to learn the generic name, because the same active ingredient can often be found in different brands, and I like to know what exactly I'm getting. I started learning generic names so I could identify whether store brands contain the same medicine as the more expensive brands, but I have found it useful in other cases as well. For example, there are various kinds of pain medications, most of which contain some combination of acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and aspirin; by looking at the exact contents, I can tell what I am actually getting.

Another type of medication with a confusing variety of choices are antihistamines and decongestants (which are often combined in the same pill). The only one that ever seemed to work for me was Actifed, but one of its active ingredients, pseudophedrine, was placed under restriction a few years ago because people were converting it into methamphetamine. Actifed was unavailable for a while, and then, when it came back, it didn't have the same effect on me. I discovered that, contrary to what one would expect, they had done away not only with the pseudophedrine (the decongestant), but also with the triprolidine (the antihistamine), and were marketing a completely different medicine under the same name. It didn't take long to figure out that pseudophedrine was not the drug that was helping me, but I couldn't find triprolidine anywhere until a kind pharmacist special ordered some. It's marketed under a couple of different names, and it's actually very cheap, but you won't find it in any store that I've seen.

As a side note, I would like to say that this is a perfect example of unwanted government interference. I am ambivalent about the war on drugs, but I am clear on one thing: I don't want my right to an effective medicine to be curtailed because some people are turning a beneficial chemical into something that they can get high on.

“Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?” --Barack Obama (link)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Daisy was out standing in her field. It wasn't actually her field -- it belonged to Farmer Fred -- but she lived in it, and she thought of it as hers. She had risen early, as usual, to do her cowesthenics. Now she was done, and the other cows were starting to wander out onto the field. "Bullcrap!" muttered Elsie as she stepped in something on her way over to Daisy.

"Actually, it's cow crap," Daisy said. "They don't allow bulls in here."

They both turned to look across the field toward where Ferdinand, the farm's bull, stood grazing. "He's quite a stud," Daisy muttered dreamily.

"Well, today's your lucky day," answered Elsie, "although I don't know what you see in him. He's kind of wimpy."

Elsie had come from another farm, and she was always finding things to criticize about Daisy's farm. Daisy just ignored her. She pitied Elsie and her complaining. Not only had it turned all the other cows against her, but Daisy knew that Elsie could not possibly be happy if she had that much to complain about.

Later that afternoon, Daisy waddled jauntily through the gate and into Ferdinand's field. She gave him a big cow-lipped smile and turned away from him, waiting. Ferdinand walked around to face her. Daisy smiled again, a little embarrassed this time, and turned around once more. Ferdinand sidled up next to her and stood there for a time in embarrassed silence. "What's the matter?" asked Daisy, who was beginning to think he no longer found her attractive.

"Nothing, nothing," said Ferdinand dismissively. "I was just wondering..."

"Yes?" asked Daisy anxiously.

"Don't you want to talk a little bit first?"

Daisy stopped chewing her cud and stared at him.

Ferdinand, clearly embarrassed, tried to explain himself. "You know, just sort of get to know each other. Warm up before getting too intimate."

Daisy backed up slowly to check whether Ferdinand had become a steer. No, that wasn't it.

"What exactly do you mean, 'Warm up'?" she asked in a slow, dignified drawl.

"Well, I just meant, you know, there's no need to be too hasty about things. We've got plenty of time."

"Ferdinand," Daisy replied, "I did not come over here to engage you in conversation."

"Well, it doesn't have to be a conversation," Ferdinand answered. "Just some small talk, maybe some nuzzling. Doesn't it seem a little beastly just to jump into the act right away? It makes me feel like an animal."

Daisy was thoroughly disgusted by now. "You are an animal," she spat at him. "And it does not seem in the least beastly to do what comes perfectly naturally. I'm going to leave here now with what little dignity I have left. I will give you one more chance next time, but I will not be humiliated like this again." With that she strutted out of Ferdinand's pen, moving her tail ostentatiously back and forth as she went.

Ferdinand lay down frustrated in the grass. He had never felt so worthless. He had glimpsed that the union of a cow and a bull could be so much more than a simple animal pairing; it could be a trascendent experience, a chance to be more than just a bovine. But what good was that vision when everyone else still thought of it in such base terms?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Peggy Noonan

Peggy Noonan is a very smart woman. She has figured out that Barack Obama is, in her words, "brilliant at becoming president but not being president." She goes on to add, "Actually a lot of them are like that these days." Here's the thing, Mrs. Noonan. A person running for president can say virtually anything. He can oppose every policy of the man sitting in office, assure the electorate that he will correct every public ill, swear up and down that he will bring a new spirit of bipartisanship to the office. He can do this because he has no record as president to demonstrate what he will actually do. Once he becomes president, it is an entirely different matter. Suddenly, shutting down Guantanamo prison isn't so simple; suddenly, withdrawing our troops from Iraq involves complications. Whether the candidate willfully ignored these problems, or was honestly ignorant of them, doesn't matter. The point is that his promises run up against reality, and he has to change his course. I'll give one example: his promise to go through the budget, "line by line," and eliminate earmarks. This is a noble goal, and, if he actually does it, I will praise Barack Obama as a true visionary. Given, however, that not even members of Congress read the budget all the way through, and given how entrenched earmarks are in our system, I will be astounded if this actually happens. It's easy to say, and everyone likes it, but it is very, very hard to do.

Ideally, no one would get elected running on impossible promises; unfortunately, no one gets elected running on reasonable ones. If you want to know how someone will behave in office, your best guide is not what he says he will do, but what he has done in the past. That's why it's helpful if the person has actually been in politics for awhile, and has a record that one can look at. Peggy Noonan asserts that there are certain "things one always wants people currently rising in government to know deep in their heads and hearts." How is one to judge whether they know these things deeply, or if they are just saying them? Electing a one-term senator whose term isn't half over when he begins running for president deprives you of any way of knowing what he will do as president. Those who, like Peggy Noonan, listen to the rhetoric of presidential candidates over their actual record are doomed to elect people who are brilliant at becoming, rather than being, president. They know all the right buttons to press to get in office, but they don't necessarily know what to do once the hard decisions come up. Some of us already had an idea of this last year, when Noonan was telling us how wonderful Obama was.

I've heard some people advocate changing our current laws so that a president could only serve for one six-year term. Instead of that, I wonder if they shouldn't be limited to one four-year term at a time. They could still run again, just not consecutively. If you were choosing a president among two candidates, both of whom had served before, there would be less of the mystery of what they would do when in office. There truly is nothing like being president; no one knows how someone will handle the job. One supposes that there are certain things that only a president and a few top advisors even know; who can guess what national security secrets constrain a president's actions in ways that he can't tell the electorate? Having two former presidents running for office would have a lot of advantages in giving the electorate more information about what it was voting for. I would even suggest that a two- or three-year term might be better. The Romans made do with one-year terms for their consuls. That might be too little considering the size of the United States (even granted all the communications advantages we have now), but I don't see anything fundamentally implausible about two-year terms. The president would have plenty of time to act, and the people would have an early enough occasion to turn him out of office if it saw fit.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


I'm back in Georgia, and adjusting once again to the Deep South. For me, this mostly means getting used to the brutal summer heat -- over 100 degrees and humid on many days. Other people seem to have the idea that the Deep South is a foreign country. One friend of mine, otherwise intelligent, asked me, "Are they all Neanderthals down there?" No, they are human down here, and mostly not that much different from what you'd find in other parts of America; the days of the South being really distinctive are over. Apart from more subtle cultural differences -- attitudes and assumptions -- there are some differences that anyone would notice right away:
  • the Deep South accent. I never get tired of hearing it, but not everyone is equally receptive.
  • "Yes, sir." You feel like a gentleman (or lady) down here because everyone says "sir" and "ma'am." It's a good feeling, and easy to get into the habit of speaking the same way to other people. (They are generally nice as well, but that's a more subtle point, unless you come from New Haven or somewhere with especially rude inhabitants.)
  • You might think they have a lot of country music stations down here, but what they really have are a lot of Christian stations. When I was scanning through the dial to find the stations that I used to listen to, the first four stations I heard were Christian.
  • Of course, there are some country stations, though not as much as you would think. But you hear more Hank Williams, Jr. on them.
  • Georgia vehicles only require license plates on the rear. As far as I know, there is no law that pickup trucks have to a plate with the old Georgia flag on the front, but it is amazing how many do. (Mine included.)
  • Georgia grows a lot of peanuts, but have you ever heard of boiled peanuts? I discovered these at my kids' soccer games being sold at the concession stand. They taste kind of like what you would expect, like mushy peanuts. I didn't particularly like them, but my wife assures me that she has had some that are much better, so I'm looking forward to trying them from a different source.
Everyone associates Georgia with peaches, and for good reason. However, you will not find store-bought peaches to be noticeably cheaper or tastier here than elsewhere; you have to find some sold at a stand. What I did not associate so much with Georgia, before moving here, was pecans. I do now, especially since my neighbourhood was built on a pecan orchard. Most yards still have several pecan trees in them -- thankfully not mine, because they drop enormous numbers of pecans on the ground, which have to be gathered up if they are not to lay there and rot. We can gather all the pecans we want from the common areas in the neighbourhood, then take them up the road to a small operation that has a machine to shell them automatically, for a reasonable fee. I have yet to eat a real Georgia pecan pie, and have not tried to make one, but I love spiced pecans made from a recipe like this one.

I live in Centerville, which is sort of a suburb of Warner Robins, which is sort of a suburb of Macon -- anyway, it's close to Macon, and they kind of run in to each other. Centerville is not much more than a residential community. Warner Robins is where most of the action is. It was called Wellston until it was renamed after Robins Air Force Base, the biggest employer around here. The sucking up didn't stop there: the town's official motto is EDIMGIAFAD, which is an acronym for "Every Day In Middle Georgia Is Armed Forces Appreciation Day." Yes, it's nauseating, but otherwise it's a nice place to live, so I try to pretend it doesn't exist. (It's harder to ignore the name of the town, however.)

We live in Houston County. That's pronounced "How-ston," not like the little town in Texas. Sports are big here and in the surrounding counties. Young kids play soccer, just like they do elsewhere -- in fact, there's a huge youth soccer complex in town. The big sports, however, are baseball and football. Just two years ago, the Warner Robins All-Stars won the Little League World Series. College football coaches frequently visit the area to look at top recruits.

Everyone here is a Georgia Bulldogs fan. Most of them actually attended, but they are all fans. Unlike in Virginia, where there was a big rivalry between UVa and Virginia Tech, I find no such rivalry between Georgia and Georgia Tech. I see maybe one Tech bumper sticker for every 20 Georgia bumper stickers. The big rivals are Auburn and Florida, especially Florida. The football teams play in Jacksonville, a neutral site, at "the world's largest outdoor cocktail party." The rivalry has not been good to Georgia in recent years, but there is reason to believe that is changing. Anyway, Georgia fans are used to suffering: their pro team, the Atlanta Falcons, had only won one division championship prior to 1998, and have never won a Super Bowl. I will close with one of my favourite jokes ever, told to me by a Falcons fan (and native of middle Georgia, not far from where I live now) in 1998, the first (and only, as of this writing) time the Falcons played in the Super Bowl:

A new arrival in Hell was brought before the devil. The devil told his demon to put the man to work on a rock pile with a 20-pound sledge hammer in 95 degree heat with 95% humidity.

At the end of the day, the devil went to see how the man was doing, only to find him smiling and singing as he pounded rocks. The man explained that the heat and hard labor were very similar to those on his beloved farm back in Georgia.

The devil told his demon to turn up the heat to 120 degrees, with 100% humidity. At the end of the next day, the devil again checked on the new man,and found him still happy to be sweating and straining. The man explained that it felt like the old days, when he had to clean out his silo in the middle of August on his beloved farm back in Georgia.

At that, the devil told his demon to lower the temperature for this man to -20 degrees with a 40 mph wind. At the end of the next day, the devil was confident that he would find the man miserable. But, the man was instead singing louder than ever,twirling the sledge hammer like a baton. When the devil asked him why, he was so happy, the man answered,

"Cold day in hell, the Falcons must be in the SuperBowl!"

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Y words

Recently I got to wondering about words with the letter "y" in them. Not words that begin with y -- those are fairly common -- or words that end with y -- those are really common -- but words that have a y somewhere in the middle. Naturally, I excluded multi-part words in which the y was at the beginning or end of one part of the word; thus, "shyness" would not qualify.

The first words that occurred to me were names: Clytemnestra and Odysseus, from Greek myth. That turned out to be a good hint, because almost all of the other words I could think of also derived from Greek. This is a little ironic because, as far as I know, the Greek character for y, upsilon, is pronounced more like "u" than our long "i" sound. I did manage to find 6 English words with y in the middle, but I'll save those for the end of this post (see how many you can get -- I'm sure I missed plenty of others).

Most of the Greek-derived words used prefixes that contained the letter y. Some obvious ones include "hyper-" (above), "hypo-" (below), "sym-" or "sy-" (together), "psycho-" (soul), "physi-" (nature), "cycl-" (circle), and "hydro-" (water). Here are some less common ones that you might see:

cryo-icecrystal, cryogenics
myo-musclemyocardial infarction (heard attack)
gyro-ringgyrate, gyroscope
cyan-bluecyan, cyanide

"Thyme," which looks Anglo-Saxon, is actually derived from Greek. But "rhyme," which looks Greek, is genuinely English. It was originally spelled "rime," but apparently adopted its modern spelling in imitation of the Greek word "rhythm."

Another y word not derived from Greek is wyvern, a sort of dragon. The other English words containing y that I was able to come up with all follow the same pattern: dye, lye, rye, and eye.

In addition to my own brainstorming, I found a wonderful site that actually allows one to search on words containing y. I'm sure that anyone who searches that list is bound to discover more y words without Greek origin. Several that I see come to English through Spanish: arroyo, canyon, coyote. Another foreign word that we have come to hear a lot in the past 30 years is ayatollah. Somehow, it doesn't bother me to have missed those words, but I am aghast that I didn't think of crayon.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Some years ago -- nearly 10 by now, I think -- I had a Sony Vaio laptop. It was the thinnest, lightest laptop I had ever seen, and everyone who saw it stopped to gawk. It had one major drawback, which was that it didn't have a cd-rom drive (and we didn't buy the external one), which made it hard to install software. Oh, one other drawback: it broke several times, and eventually BestBuy replaced it with a new one of a different kind.

I always liked that laptop, and now I have one much like it: the Asus EeePC 1000. The 1000 has a 10" screen, which means it is quite a bit bigger than earlier versions of the EeePC. I chose this size not for the screen, however, but for the keyboard: I wanted a computer that I could type at with ease, and those smaller versions just didn't work for me. Although the keyboard on the 1000 is still not 100% the size of a regular keyboard, it is close enough that I can type easily with few mistakes.

The screen came as a bit of a shock to me. I knew it was smaller, but somehow it didn't sink in just how much smaller until I actually started using it. I don't have too much trouble viewing it, but sometimes I wish things were bigger. Unfortunately, changing screen resolutions from the native 1264 x 600 or whatever it is to 800 x 600 makes everything look distorted. You can still zoom in on many applications (web browser, word processor), so it's not that big a deal.

I do have one confession to make. I'm ashamed to admit this, but I bought my EeePC with Windows pre-installed. It's not that I wanted Windows -- I quickly installed Ubuntu Netbook Remix on it as my standard OS -- but I was concerned that our 3G wireless internet wouldn't work on Linux (it hasn't worked on any of our other Linux computers), and I thought that might be an important feature on such a portable computer. Not only that, but we actually don't have any Windows computers any more, and sometimes we need access to one (for example, for the cheat that my son bought for his DS, which I can't get to work with Linux). I really hate spending my money on a Windows computer -- the last couple I bought have had Linux pre-installed -- but I thought it was the best option on this occasion. But only with a heavy heart.

Ubuntu looks really, really slick on the EeePC. The interface is not only stylish, but also significantly easier to use with a touchpad and small screen that the same old tired interface that Windows provides. Wireless did not work right away, but I didn't have too much trouble installing ndiswrapper and an updated kernel. The hardest part was figuring out where to find the right packages, since the wired NIC also didn't work, so I couldn't use the good old apt-get interface (or Synaptic); I had to download the debs to a usb drive and copy them over manually. Now, however, it is working fine. I haven't had any problems with Adobe Flash, either, as some users apparently do (although I was annoyed to find that my whole Firefox profile was wiped out when I installed it! -- thankfully there wasn't much to wipe out at that early stage). The camera also appears to work fine. The one current issue is the microphone, which none of the fixes I have tried actually works. Linux has always given me a heck of a time with microphones. Normally I wouldn't care so much, but I was hoping to use the Eee for video Skype calls, so I may be restricted to Windows for that.

Battery life is not extraordinary -- 3 to 4 hours -- but the battery seems to outperform the estimated time remaining consistently, which is nice. I can pretty much use it all day, sleeping when I'm not using it, and not have any problems. Interestingly, Windows doesn't provide a hibernate option (suspend to disk, using no power), whereas Ubuntu does -- and it is the only time hibernate has ever worked for me under Linux.

The Eee is light and thin, no doubt about that. It is actually sort of wedge-shaped, with the larger side toward the back. For some reason, this annoys me, but I don't think there's any serious practical disadvantage.

Boot up times are a little faster than for desktops, but nothing super-fast. I'm looking forward to installing a version of Puppy Linux on it to see how snappy that will run.

I managed to stretch the life on my old laptop a little by running Puppy Linux from the cd drive after the hard drive ceased to work, but that only lasted until the cd also broke. I haven't had a really functional laptop in several years, and I'm excited now to have one that is smaller, lighter, and faster than any I have had before. Although Asus makes a point of saying that netbooks are useful for lighter tasks like email and web surfing, in fact the Eee has more ram and as much speed as my current desktop, so I'm not sacrificing anything by using it.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


My family lived in the metropolis of Tappahannock (pop.: 2068) for the last few months. It may seem an odd place for people looking for work, but there was a good reason. My dad grew up there, and some years ago bought a small house (my wife insists that it is a "cottage") there where we could live rent-free until we get permanent jobs. This gave me a chance to explore Tappahannock in a way that I never did when I was growing up (in spite of our frequent visits).

Tappahannock lies, appropriately, along the Rappahannock River, on Virginia's "Middle Penninsula." There are four major rivers that empty into the Chesapeake Bay through Virginia: from north to south, the Potomac, Rappahannock, York, and James. They divide tidewater Virginia into three penninsulas: again starting in the north, the Northern Neck, the Middle Penninsula, and the Virginia Penninsula. (Except for the Northern Neck, which is very old, I'm not sure how long these names have been around; my dad did not grow up referring to his region as the "Middle Penninsula.") The Virginia Penninsula is where the action is: Hampton, Newport News, Jamestown, Yorktown, and Williamsburg are all on it, and Richmond is just a little upriver.

One phone book (and not an especially thick one) covers the other two penninsulas put together, including 10 counties. The Northern Neck is sparsely populated, but it is noted as the home of gentleman farmers, and as the birthplace of some famous Americans: George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, Robert E. Lee, Francis Lightfoot Lee, and Richard Henry Lee. The Middle Penninsula, by contrast, is not really noted for much of anything. Tappahannock is a small town in the middle of nowhere. When I went to find a Pokemon league for my kids, the closest three were all one hour away: one in Richmond, one in Fredericksburg, and one down the penninsula in Gloucester. Our house, in the middle of the largest neighbourhood and only a five minute walk from the town hall (pictured here), does not even get mail delivered -- we have to have a P.O. box. That's not too bad, however, as the post office is just a few minutes further away than the town hall. Ditches by the roadside catch runoff water, but it just sits there for days, as no drainage is provided. There is one high school in the county, one middle school, and one elementary school.

It's not exactly true that everyone in Tappahannock knows everyone else, but it's pretty close; I doubt any inhabitants are more than two degrees of separation apart. The people are friendly, even by Southern standards, but you might have trouble understanding them. They speak with a peculiar Southern accent, probably shared with the rest of the penninsula, that even baffles me sometimes. I will always remember the time when I was young, maybe about 12, and my parents left me with my cousin and her dad for a while. We were having a conservation when the question came up whether I liked cone. I was confused, because I had never seen "cone" by itself like that. I though they were referring to an icecream cone, but they emphatically denied that. We went around and around for a few minutes, becoming a little exasperated with one another, before one of them finally hit on a way to explain it: "you know, like cone on the cob." Ah, good old cone on the cob. I joke about the accent, but I really like to listen to them speak this way. Other peculiarities include calling a dog a "duhg,", and the pronunciation of the most noted restaurant in town, Lowery's, which everyone calls "Larry's."

Tappahannock has its own style of naming people, too. The only two people I've ever known with the first name of "Tallie" were from Tappahannock. One of the big entrepreneurs in town for the last 50 years has been a man named June Parker. And these are real names. Then there are what I presume to be nicknames, such as our next-door neighbour, Pinky; my cousin two streets over, Binky; and one of my kids' friends, Dinky.

Given this penchant for nicknames, one might have expected a more flamboyant name for the town. Tappahannock was originally known as Hobbs' Hole, but the inhabitants changed the name to something more palatable. I'm not sure they did much for their reputation by calling it Tappahannock, which is long and yet too similar to the river on which it sits (both Tappahannock and Rappahannock are variants of the same Algonquin word meaning "where the water rises and falls"). It is definitely a river town, heavily dependent on fishing and shipping. In the spring they now have a town festival with the affected name of "Rivahfest." It's true that people in Tappahannock drop their r's (this is called "non-rhotic" speech and is common along the Atlantic seaboard), but I don't like adopting the dialect into the title; "Riverfest" would have done fine.

Tappahannock is an old town, though not quite as old as the 1608 they claim on their seal (the site was visited by John Smith that year, but no town was founded). It is not, as I thought it might be, a time warp to the past. Its population has been growing rapidly (25% in the 1990's) and recent immigrants have brought typical American accents and attitudes. It is not so much different from elsewhere as simply smaller. There is less of everything, but there is a Wal-Mart and a Lowe's and high-speed internet access and a tiny little public library. Still, if you're not in too much of a hurry, you can catch the slower pace of Tappahannock. It's not the same as the town in the stories from my father's youth, but the people still like fishing and having long talks with neighbours (which is very easy with the small back yards and lack of privacy fences). If you're suffering from the rat race, you would do well to spend some time in Tappahannock.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


"If a job is worth doing, it's worth doing poorly." I have always lived by these words of wisdom from G.K.Chesterton. You probably think he has it backwards, but I understand exactly what he means: it's better to do a job halfway than not at all. Imagine your car is covered in mud, and you rinse it off with a hose. That would be considered a poor excuse for a wash by most people, but you will have improved the appearance of your car drastically. If you go on to wash it carefully by hand, you will spend much more time and energy -- maybe 30 minutes instead of the 5 minutes to hose it down -- and your car will look only a little better. Some people probably won't notice the difference unless they look closely, but everyone will notice that you got the mud off.

If this seems illogical to you, it might make more sense if you think of the 80/20 rule. This "rule" (more like a rule of thumb) states that 20% of the work on a project accomplishes 80% of the task, and the remaining 80% of the work will go into the final 20% of the job. There is no guarantee that this exact proportion will apply to any specific task, of course, but basic economic theory tells you that the marginal utility will decrease the more work you do.

(I've always wondered if this law of decreasing marginal utility might only apply after a certain point. It's it possible that the first chocolate bar gets you excited for a second, so that the second actually tastes better? Eventually, the utility must go down, but I don't think it always begins at the first unit. Moreover, there must be some cases where the next amount of work completes a unit, and therefore has more value than the rest. Imagine if you are building a car, and in the last stage you attach the drive train and engine. Surely that makes the car worth far more than the prior step? Arguably the car should be worth the final value minus the drive train, engine, and the labour to install it. But could you really get that value for it? You can sell a whole car on a dealer's lot and take advantage of the brand name, warranty, existing networks, and so forth; but a shell of a car would have none of that benefit, and adding them in later by a third party would decidedly not make it a "Ford car" or whatever manufacturer we're talking about.)

So I never "let the perfect be the enemy of the good": I always like to jump into a project that needs doing, even if I know I'm going to do a lousy job. But there is a limitation to this logic. Having a project 80% done might make it worth a good deal to you, but it would be a disaster to try to sell it as an example of your work. Everyone would think you did a sloppy job, and they would be right; and they wouldn't buy from you again. You would want to get it at least 95% complete (assuming 100% = perfect and therefore not attainable). In fact, if you produce individual works that your reputation rides on -- paintings or symphonies, for example -- it might well be worth your trouble to get it 99.9% complete, even if it means you have to spend years on the final 0.9%. People will remember you as the person who produced a nearly perfect work, and your reputation will benefit you, including in financial terms.

Since I began this blog entry with Chesterton, I thought I would close it with him, as well. If you have not read any of his Father Brown mysteries, you really should. He is an extraordinary writer, one of the most evocative I have ever read. The first 2/3rds of "The Man Who Was Thursday" is brilliant, although by the end it gets a little weird for me. Since he wrote short stories, however, you can easily read one and see if you like him. I'm convinced you will.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Marxism revisited

I watched "Animal Crackers" this weekend, and I found it a mixed bag. It seemed to have more good lines than "A Night At The Opera," but I still didn't find myself doubled up with laughter. At one point, Harpo dealt cards for pinochle, in what may be the only funny thing I've seen him do. Best line: "One morning, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know."

Did you know that Groucho's moustache was painted on? I never realized that. Now that I know, I can see it, but I'm surprised it's not more obvious. Probably the poor video quality makes it easier to hide; Groucho's blond wig is supposed to be red. Groucho did grow a moustache for his television show, "You Bet Your Life."

And now for that other kind of Marxism, historical materialism. I was attending a history conference once when a professor (Henry Heller) began his paper by pompously declaring that Marxism provides a more "sophisticated" basis for analysis than other theories. Apparently, it didn't strike him as ironic that he was calling a monocausal philosophy "sophisticated." Explaining all of history by reference to man's quest for material goods may be many things, but one thing it cannot be is sophisticated. To the contrary, it is reductionist. I happen to agree with Marxists that people are extraordinarily self-interested actors; I just think they have motivations other than the acquisition of wealth.

The beautiful magnolia tree apparently evolved before bees, so it is adapted to pollination by beetles. I wish I knew what specific adaptations would be conducive to beetle-borne pollination.

Yesterday, I was treated to a tuba accompanying the usual assortment of instruments in the church service. My assessment is that it did not work well. First Baptist: bringing you the sounds of the beer hall in church.

There is no safety for honest men except by believing all possible evil of evil men.
Edmund Burke