Saturday, February 28, 2009

When you gotta go . . .

According to the BBC News, Ryanair, the Irish absolutely-no-frills airline, is considering a new way to squeeze pennies out of passengers: coin-operated in-flight toilets.

All the more reason to travel by rail when one can.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Of wolves, walruses and the Porcupines

Part of the bailiwick of my mystery hero Steve Martinez makes a big splash in the New York Times today.

A story in the Escapes section tells of a family's winter camping in the snowy Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in Michigan's western Upper Peninsula. (In the novels, the area is called the Wolverine Mountains, so that I can take liberties with locale when the plot requires it.)

Samples from the Times article:

"The only thing missing was the tent, which on this trip would be replaced by the 20-by-22-foot log cabin with eight bunks and a wood stove — shelter and warmth being two crucial elements for keeping families happy in a place where winter storms are common and annual snowfall ranges from 150 to 300 inches."


" . . . All four of us snowshoed out to the shore of Lake Superior, where mounds of frozen waves created an Arctic-looking landscape of snow dunes. Wolf tracks perforated the snow atop some of the dunes’ summits; two wolf packs live within the park. Farther out on the lake, an ice pack of frozen chunks heaved with the undercurrents of Superior below. [Five-year-old] Anders agreed that the scene looked more Hudson Bay than Michigan. 'Are there walruses out there?' he asked.

I've got to spend some time up there in the winter for the novels.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

More Kindling for the fire

David Pogue, the New York Times technocolumnist who never met a piece of electronics he didn't like, has this to say today about's new Kindle II e-book reader:

"The point everyone is missing is that in Technoland, nothing ever replaces anything. E-book readers won’t replace books. The iPhone won’t replace e-book readers. Everything just splinters. They will all thrive, serving their respective audiences."

One might nitpick. What happened to the Betamax? Diskettes? Zip drives? And so on.

Yet Pogue is on to something. It seems very likely that the Kindle and its progeny will capture a goodly segment of the reading market, but by no means all of it and maybe not even most of it. The consumer simply has another choice.

To that it might be added that the Kindle, or something down the road very like it, may be the way many if not most of us read the papers and pay for it, allowing news organizations to open another revenue stream and survive. charges for transmitting news via wireless to Kindles, and shares that money with the news sources it provides.

Is it impossible that, say, the New York Times would stop giving the news away for free if it can also make money this way as well as printing and selling papers to those who prefer to consume their news in that form? I have no idea exactly how this can be done, but it seems awfully plausible to me.

The rest of Pogue's enthusiastic review of the Kindle II is here.

P.S. Still not gonna buy a Kindle II just yet. That $359 price has to come down to $199 before I'll bite.

FEB. 25: Roy Blount, the writer and president of the Authors Guild, weighs in today with a slam at Kindle II's audio capability -- where, he asks, are the audiobook royalties for the authors? He's got a point.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Going to the movies

I used to go to the movies -- a lot.

Of course, growing up totally deaf meant I was unable to appreciate the sound track, let alone understand most of the dialogue. Much of that takes place out of camera range, and what is visible is often difficult if not impossible to lipread.

But I enjoyed the movies anyway. As a teenager I could neck with my girl friend in the balcony and pay no attention to the movie. Later on I could provide my own imaginary scenario and dialogue to fit the action and moving lips on the screen. (Sometimes, it turned out, my inventions were better than the real thing.)

I enjoyed subtitled foreign films, too, but there's one drawback to those: Subtitles only reproduce spoken lines -- they do not describe tone of voice, offstage sound and the like, all of which are important to a moviegoer's understanding. Still, subtitles were better than nothing.

When closed captions arrived on DVD movies as well as broadcast films, I could finally appreciate everything a hearing person does. Closed captions provide a great deal of information besides spoken dialogue -- they indicate who's speaking and what their tone might be, as well as offstage and onstage sounds. They even provide the lyrics to theme songs.

Small wonder that I stopped going to the movies for almost 30 years, except for one instance in which I reported for the Chicago Sun-Times on an experimental theatrical closed-caption scheme called "Rear Window." The viewer plants a transparent plastic panel on a gooseneck into his seat's cup holder. The captions are displayed backwards on the back wall of the theater, and the plastic panel picks up the reflection of that the right way around, but is invisible to patrons in adjoining seats.

Only a couple of theaters in the Chicago area had Rear Window, and they lay both more than an hour's drive from my home. The technology was promising, but it never caught on widely.

So lately I have been waiting for movies to be released as captioned DVDs, and that satisfies me. Of course the DVDs usually appear long after the films' runs in the theaters, which has kept me a step behind everyone else in water-cooler chat about popular culture.

The Lady Friend likes the movies, and if I won't go, she goes alone. Last weekend, however, she prevailed upon me to attend a local showing of "The Class," a nominee for this year's best-foreign-film Oscar.

Mere subtitles notwithstanding, I enjoyed myself immensely. "The Class" is an excellent French film, shrewdly and beautifully photographed. The art of subtitling seems to have advanced in the last 30 years -- the timing seems better, for one thing.

Much of my appreciation lay in the larger theater experience. The big screen gives far more immediacy and intimacy than even a big high-def television set. Modern movie cineplexes (this was the Century in Evanston, Illinois) are far superior to the cavernous old ones I grew up with. The rooms are smaller and seat pitch is much steeper, meaning viewers don't have to crane around heads in front of them.

And the same glorious aroma of buttered popcorn still wafts through the theater. It was as if I'd shed half a century of inaction and returned to fond memories of youth.

No, I didn't neck with the Lady Friend. Maybe next time.

Monday, February 16, 2009


There's one -- at least one -- at every grassroots airport I've ever visited: The rotting hulk of a dead or dying airplane, tires flat, paint peeling and fading, windshield crazed by sunlight and spattered with birdshit, engine intakes choked by animal nests.

What's the story? Did its owner tire of flying and just let his airplane sit and decay at its tiedown? Maybe he died and the estate never got around to selling the airplane. If the tiedown rent isn't paid, airport management can sue to sell the airplane and recover the costs. Maybe the cost of doing so -- hiring a lawyer to see the case through the courts -- far exceeds the salvage value of a corroded old wreck. It may just be easier to let the airplane molder for years until some natural disaster, like a housing tract developer, overwhelms the airport.

I have no idea how long that Cessna 172 has been sitting idle at Westosha Airport in Wilmot, Wisconsin. It has been there at least since 1993 when I started flight lessons, and it hasn't moved an inch. Neither has the equally bedraggled old Cessna 150 slumped at at a nearby tiedown.

They're awful eyesores, but after a while you just stop seeing them.

Their histories probably have been lost. What a pity. The tools and toys of men and women have stories to tell.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Parlez-vous francais? Pourquoi?

We Americans are notorious for our arrogant monolinguality, for expecting everybody else to speak English with us when we go abroad. We rarely learn more than the smattering of a foreign tongue required in high school. Since the rest of the world is learning English at an increasing pace, we reason, why bother?

Now, according to an interesting opinion piece by "Charlemagne" in this week's Economist (it's online only to subscribers), the Brits are following us into the mud of linguistic ignorance. As Europeans become bilingual, those in the United Kingdom are becoming monolingual.

What's more, even though an increasing number of newspapers and magazines throughout Europe are mounting English websites, enabling native speakers of French, German, Dutch, Polish and other languages to exchange ideas and information in a universal language, the average Briton cares little for the intellectual and social treasures of these sites.

According to Charlemagne, British papers have closed foreign bureaus, partly because of the economic doldrums but also lack of interest. "Britain's daily newspapers are less and less interested in European politics and policy. Light, sensational stuff is what editors choose for publication, plus tales of British tourists and expatriates in trouble (a genre known as 'Brits in the shit.')"

Sounds very American, doesn't it?

The trouble, Charlemagne continues, began in 2003 when Britain dropped the foreign language requirement for pupils over 14. Instruction in foreign tongues plummeted, and "that robs [the pupils] of such benefits as the humility and respect for others that come from learning another language."

Of course, Charlemagne cites a Belgian academic as saying, "given the rise of English, [this development] is rational."

European Union meetings, he said, almost always are held "in a language that is understood, at least minimally, by all," and "this is almost always English."

And so, Charlemagne concludes, Brits are finding it harder to justify the effort to learn another language.

Doesn't make it right, of course. As the globe grows smaller, the riches of other cultures -- as expressed in their languages -- help rejuvenate a nation. One of the resulting problems we have as Americans who do not speak a foreign tongue is our extreme cultural parochialism, often manifested in aggressive ignorance toward "hot-button" social issues.

Now, it seems, Brits are becoming know-nothing yobbos like all too many of us Yanks.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy 50th birthday to the Cessna 150

The author's 1959 Cessna 150 touches down near Los Angeles in October, 1995, after a six-week-long aerial odyssey that began over New York Harbor. (Photo by Bob Locher.)

The other day I sang "Happy Birthday" to the Boeing 747, whose maiden flight occurred 40 years ago Monday. Now I must do the same for the little Cessna 150, the 100-horsepower two-seat trainer that, beginning in 1959 and ending in 1975, launched the careers of many thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of amateur and professional pilots. The type is now officially half a century old.

Habitues of this blog know that I keep a 1959 model "Buck-and-a-Half" at a little airport in southern Wisconsin. She was one of the first of an eventual 23,839 150s to roll out of Cessna's plants at Wichita in Kansas and Reims in France beginning 50 years ago, and she is now a certified antique, like me.

She no longer cruises at 120 miles per hour, the optimistic "book" speed she supposedly enjoyed when new. On a good day she'll do 105. She can fly 300-mile-long hops with plenty of fuel to spare. On them she can carry about 500 pounds of avgas, oil and passengers, which means the Lady Friend and I can take a weekend trip if we pack just our toothbrushes.

Cramped Cessna 150s are not exactly the most comfortable touring airplanes; a two-hour flight is about all this arthritic geezer can endure before he has to land and get the kinks out of his legs and back.

They are, however, responsive, reliable and durable airplanes, famously easy to fly although difficult to fly well. They won't tolerate woolgathering at the controls but will quickly drift off course and altitude if attention isn't paid. This is what made them superb trainers.

My 150 is officially known as N5859E, her FAA registration number. Before she was refurbished in 1994-5, her previous owner's dyspeptic wife dubbed her "Shitty Little Fucking Airplane," and the owner liked that so much he painted the letters "SLFA" on her cowling.

For a while she was known as "Gin Fizz," a play on "Vin Fiz," the Wright Brothers airplane that was the first to make it across the United States, in 1911. In her I retraced Cal Rodgers's route for my 1997 book Flight of the Gin Fizz: Midlife at 4,500 Feet.

This weekend, weather willing, I'm hoping to throw a very private 50th birthday party for old Five Niner Echo. She and I will climb to 3,000 feet and enjoy a little cake and exercise after her two-and-a-half-month layoff in a snowbound hangar.

We'll be a happy pair, she and I.

FRIDAY: We were, for an hour of touch-and-goes this morning. Every one of my five landings was perfect, a greaser. (This always happens after a long layoff. After that first day I always go back to involuntary tail-waggling crow-hops and teeth-rattling drop-ins. This causes the old-timers whittling in front of the hangars to slap their knees and cackle in glee.)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The audacity of Obamicon

Facebookers probably already know all about Obamicon, a website that allows one to take a photo -- any photo -- and convert it into a picture mimicking the iconic Obama "Hope" poster of the campaign.

Yes, that's the same one currently at the center of a copyright flap. The Associated Press claims it owns the image, and the artist Shepard Fairey claims his was fair use of the image, and the photographer who sold the picture to the AP claims he is the copyright holder.

While all this plays out in the courts, you can go to and upload a photo of yourself, or anything else (keep it clean) and convert it into a Faireyesque poster. That's what I did with the photograph above that the Lady Friend took in Alberta a year ago. Cool, eh?

You can create a poster without having to register, but you do have to register in order to download the poster. There's a bit of a delay before Obamicon responds to your registration request, so be patient.

There's also a Valentine-themed variation on the same site called Luvicon.

It's all mindless fun, and nobody gets ripped off.

(With thanks to Conan Kisor.)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Happy 40th birthday to the Whale

One of my favorite airplanes, the Boeing 747, first flew 40 years ago yesterday, when I was all of 28 years old -- and it's still being built. More than 1,400 747s have rolled out of the assembly hangar, and 100 more are on order.

What memories the airplane evokes! Over the decades 747s have carried me to Britain, France, Germany, Greece, Denmark, Norway, Israel, Japan and Malaysia. I once flew one first class (avec champagne et tournedos de la Foret) aboard Air France, thanks to a travel junket for the old Chicago Daily News, and that is the closest I have ever come to heaven.

For coach-class flying, no other airplane in existence brought travel costs down to affordable levels the way the 747 did. We may have complained about the cattle-car ambience of the airplane, but it got us there for low prices, and still does.

Few other airliners have been developed and redeveloped as much as the Whale, as airline pilots affectionally call the beast. This year the 747-8, a lengthened version meant to compete with the even bigger Airbus 380, will enter service.

Happy birthday, Whale.

(There's a nice story about the 747 at the BBC News magazine.)

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Slumdog office makeover

John Thain, the morally clueless former Merrill Lynch CEO, famously spent $1.2 million to redecorate his office last year. He shelled out $800,000 for a celebrity designer, $87,000 for an area rug, $28,000 for window curtains, $87,000 for a pair of guest chairs, $25,000 for a mahogany pedestal table, $68,000 for a 19th century credenza, $16,000 for a coffee table, and $1,400 for a parchment wastebasket -- among other things.

Let them eat cake, eh?

Now let me show you, Mr. Thain, how it's done in the grimy realms of lower-middle-class retiree spendthriftiness. I have just thrown around staggering (to me, anyway) sums, and expended many hours of labor, to turn my little home office into the geezer ex-journo version of a plutocratic palace.

It's not exactly boardroom huge, measuring just eight cubits by ten, whatever those are (some people call them "feet"), and it hadn't been redone for 30 years. It took three days of Augean labor to gut it of accumulated crap. Some of it was thrown out but most was consigned to our sumptuous Public Storage warehouse for later sifting and disposal. (Maybe some university somewhere wants to buy my papers? Hello? Anyone?)

Pulling up the worn old carpet was easy enough (although I had to go to the doctor for a tetanus shot owing to a hostile carpet anchor spike) and so was removing the ancient, yellowed fabric-backed wallcovering. Scrubbing off the wallcovering paste cost nothing but buckets of water and hours of sweat.

The three-and-a-half-bedroom suburban mansion containing my home office turned a century old this year. You know what 100 years of foundation settling does to lath-and-plaster walls, and how difficult it is to fix them without their looking like scale models depicting World War I trench warfare.

I should have hired a plasterer, but I did not want to spend more than Mr. Thain did, so performed the task myself, with lots of fiberglass tape, a large bucket of patching plaster and a few dozen sheets of sandpaper. It took a week and a lot of swearing and coughing and itching, but the walls now look as if they had been restored by an expensive Swiss master craftsman, although with the help of a few swigs of schnapps.

At least the walls were smooth enough so that I didn't have to hire another pro to hang new wallcovering that would hide shell craters. That would have added up to at least a thousand bucks. (I'm too old and arthritic to do it myself.)

The plaster job was followed by two coats of primer on the ceiling, walls and me. Next came a quart of white Valspar semigloss latex ($12) on the woodwork (mostly), followed by two applications of Home Depot's most decadently luxurious Behr flat latex ($20 the gallon, but just one gallon) in a light yellow hue called Lemon Souffle.

Then came the wall-to-wall carpet, a sumptuous commercial tweed from the neighborhood Armenian rugman, $550 installed, including shipping. (The pad and the anchor strips were good enough to be reused. Thrift, thrift, thrift.)

This was topped off with a new window shade, a fancy gossamer top-down, bottom-up affair that cost $320 but looks worth half that.

Finally, new furniture: A Craftsman-style oak veneer desk for $500 and a matching six-drawer filing cabinet (I have to store much of that crap where I can get at it) for $600. They came completely unassembled and I had to put them together.

And now for the piece de resistance: An elegant but workmanlike Bed, Bath & Beyond wicker wastebasket, $10.39 after a 20 per cent off coupon.

My labor: 20 hours at a not-quite-master-craftsman $40 per hour, or $800.

The Lady Friend's designer acumen (I have no color sense): priceless.

In all, $2,314.20. (Not including labor.) Henry Thoreau would have been proud.

Let Thain and his fellow banksters eat Twinkies!

And now you know what I have been doing instead of working on Hang Fire.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Just the facts, ma'am. (The correct ones, that is.)

John McPhee, long one of the brightest stars in the New Yorker's firmament, has a reputation for not only writing it right but also getting it right. His long, complex and astonishingly readable articles, which usually make it into book form, are almost always factually impeccable. You just don't catch this guy making mistakes.

That is not entirely because of his own considerable diligence. In the current (February 9 & 16, 2009) issue of the New Yorker, he sings a lovely paean to the doughty fact-checkers of the magazine, editors who closely examine every "a," "and" and "the" of every manuscript that comes under their scrutiny. They spend many hours, even weeks, checking every fact in every article that goes into the magazine. Upon them lies the New Yorker's vaunted credibility.

One example: In a 2005 piece on coal trains, McPhee wrote that the extremely long air brake system of a train "was like the air sac of an American eel."

The New Yorker fact-checkers phoned a bunch of ichthyologists and discovered that the eel's air sac actually is shorter than that of most ordinary fish. The simile just would not work. A new one was needed.

McPhee called a noted ichthyologist he knew, but the fellow just could not come up with a species having a long enough air sac. In desperation the scientist called Harvard, which came through. "The train's very long integral air tube was like the air sac of a rope fish."

McPhee takes great pride in getting his facts right before submitting an article, but knows the fact-checkers will (almost!) always save his ass if he's wrong. And so he sometimes submits a piece containing a few "TKs" ("TK" is journalese for "to come"), denoting mostly minor facts, usually names or numbers, he hasn't yet checked thoroughly but knows the professionals will, saving time for everybody.

I used to be a fact-checker of sorts, as a copy editor for the old Chicago Daily News and as a book editor for the Chicago Sun-Times. The chief difference, however, lay in the deadlines. When I was working, newspaper copy editors had only minutes, let alone hours or days or weeks, to check the accuracy of the stories they edited. Time is of the essence in creating the first draft of history.

These days, overworked newspaper copy editors barely have a chance to "railroad" the copy they edit into print. They've also got to design pages and scare up art and write captions as well as headlines. There's just no time to check more than a fact or two in this era of downsized newspaper staffs.

As we move from daily print journalism to instant digital news, the problem grows more acute. Getting it online first trumps getting it online right.

And so it falls upon the reporter and his first line of defense, the city desk, to fix the facts before the stories are shoveled at the copy editor/page designers. It's a miracle that more mistakes aren't made.

Is it any wonder that we newsies are jealous of magazine writers who enjoy the luxury of having their stuff fact-checked? (Not all magazines employ fact checkers. Besides the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly does, and McPhee also cites Time and the National Geographic.)

Book publishers don't do fact-checking, which helps explain why so much bullshit gets enshrined between covers. The authors are responsible for that job. On the rare occasion that the New Yorker rejects a McPhee piece and he still gets it out as a book, he has to do all his own fact-checking. This, McPhee writes, risks "analogy with the attorney who defends himself and has a fool for a client."

It's happened to me, too. Every now and then I get a letter from a reader of one of my novels pointing out a factual error. So far the mistakes have been minor, but I live in dread of getting caught the way the New Yorker did when it described a reader in a nursing home as "the late" although he was very much alive. He wrote in and complained.

Quickly, McPhee writes, the New Yorker got into print a note regretting the error. Unfortunately, during the weekend while the magazine was going to press, the formerly late reader died, compounding the magazine's original mistake.

(You need a subscription to the New Yorker (or a newsstand copy) to read the entire piece, but an abstract of the article is here.)

Friday, February 6, 2009

Living with birds (and other critters) at airports

Yesterday the National Transportation Safety Board released preliminary findings that pieces of birds indeed had been found in the engines of Cactus 1549, the Airbus that landed in the Hudson last month. But this should not drive timorous passengers to conclude that birds are winning the battle for the skies.

In an interesting piece in today, Katharine Mieszowski interviews the wildlife agent in charge of keeping critters off the runway at San Francisco International Airport. He uses devices like the "Phoenix wailer," a solar-powered electronic noisemaker that "periodically emits the predatory call of a red-tailed hawk, along with other alarming sounds, such as a helicopter followed by machine-gun fire."

In the very last paragraph, the bird shooer concludes that right now birds may be getting a bad rap, but they don't present a terrible danger to aviation so long as airports keep on shooing.

That's been my experience as a private pilot at airports too small to afford wildlife control. Many times I've sat on the runway waiting for formations of geese or clouds of starlings to clear the area. They go away eventually. All we grassroots pilots need is patience and a sharp eye, and sometimes quick reflexes.

We have to share our airports with four-footed critters, too. I once nearly had to do a go-round at a Wisconsin airport when a family of coyotes trotted across the runway just before my Cessna touched down, and I had to tap the brakes briskly. The airport manager said he used to send riflemen out to dispatch the animals, but coyotes are smarter than hunters and easily eluded them in the tall grass. "We just live with 'em," he said with a shrug.

Same thing at a northern Arizona airstrip while I tried to will an enormous bull elk that weighed more than my little airplane off the runway where he was preventing my takeoff with a belligerent glare. Finally I taxied back to the office and consulted with the manager, who hopped in his Jeep and charged the elk, honking all the way, while I followed at a close but safe distance, lifting off just after elk and jeep departed the blacktop.

A northern Illinois airfield tried to solve its deer problem by building a fence with a single electrified wire around the runway perimeter. It slathered the wire with peanut butter, reasoning that the deer, once shocked in the tasting, would depart. They found the peanut butter worth the zapping and kept coming back, bringing all their friends with them.

Yes, we just live with 'em. We have to.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Captain Sully's missing library book

Sometimes cable television smarm stories carry genuine punch.

In this one, Captain Chesley Sullenberger called the Fresno State Library to report that he'd lost one of its books in an unanticipated event. The library, according to the story, responded that it not only would forgive the lost book fee but also dedicate the replacement to the pilot.

The kicker, the report declares: The book was about ethics.

But what was the title of the book? If Extra TV went to the trouble to check out the story, why didn't it obtain the title? This raises warning flags in my mind: bogus Internet stories tend to be vague about specific details.

Hmm. Maybe needs to get to the bottom of this tale. I hope it's true.

LATER: A reporter for the New York Daily News did ask about the title, and he says the Fresno State librarian refused to give it, citing privacy issues. (Librarians, said the Lady Friend -- herself a librarian -- do not tell the press, or nosy cops, what books their patrons check out.) That's good enough for me. I believe the story now.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Verlyn Klinkenborg

This is how to look at animal tracks in the snow:

"I never see a truly straight track. There is always a bend in it, as if curiosity was a kind of lateral gravity, always pulling the creature off course. But then I remember that “off course” is a human conceit. Judging by the tracks I see, there is no going so hard that one has to go straight. I can’t begin to guess what was gathered in the meander of a 'foxprint' along the river ice. The fox knows, and that’s enough."

That is Verlyn Klinkenborg at work in the New York Times today, in his periodic "The Rural Life" mini-column that always runs underneath the paper's unsigned lead editorials. Now isn't that a shapely piece of writing as well as a startling insight?

Klinkenborg is celebrated among his fellow writers not only for his singular prose but also his memorable name and enviable lifestyle. He may be a sophisticated Timesman (he's on the paper's editorial board) but he's also a farmer, commuting into Manhattan three times a week from his spread in upper New York State.

There is nothing cracker-barrel or gallus-snapping about his observations from the country. They are remarkably complex and sophisticated, the product of a gifted mind trained both to observe and to contemplate.

In many ways Klinkenborg's literate letters from the country remind me of E. B. White's humane "casuals" in the New Yorker all those years ago. They also remind me of two of Klinkenborg's literary equals, John McPhee at his most observant and Edward Hoagland at his most unsentimental.

I live in the country, too, five months out of the year, and write about it in my mystery novels. If those 300-pagers could show half the talent and skill Verlyn Klinkenborg displays in his 350-worders, I'd be a happy man.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Still more good words and phrases

Here's some more of the Good Stuff of writing, gleaned from the Web in the last week. [Italics are mine.]

"The state-mandated moment of classroom silence the Illinois Legislature inflicted upon us was always idiotic, proof positive that the bowl haircuts down in Springfield would happily add another straw to the crushing burden on the backs of our already overwhelmed teachers if it meant a symbolic victory for their faith."

Neil Steinberg, Chicago Sun-Times, Jan. 23, 2009

"And it's scary that [Chicago Tribune boss] Sam Zell's company bugler [Lee Abrams], assigned to stir legions of old-school journalists out of their sloth, doesn't bother with fact-checking . . . "

Mike Miner, Chicago Reader blog, Jan, 27, 2009

"Watching the Illinois State Senate judge Gov. Nosferatu at his impeachment trial is like watching a swarm of flies condemn a brother fly for having dirty feet."

John Kass, Chicago Tribune, Jan. 28, 2009

" . . .Writing about air travel, especially after the mass media gets hold of an issue, has a way of drawing out one's inner crank."

Patrick Smith, Ask the Pilot,, Jan. 30, 2009

"What other writers, young and old, prized most about Mr. Updike was his prose — that amazing instrument, like a jeweler’s loupe; so precise, exquisitely attentive and seemingly effortless. If there were a pill you could take to write like that, who wouldn’t swallow a handful?"

Charles McGrath, New York Times, Feb. 1, 2009

As [Republican congressman Phil] Gingrey abjectly apologized to talk radio’s commandant [Rush Limbaugh] for his “stupid comments” and “foot-in-mouth disease,” he sounded like the inmate in a B-prison-movie cowering before the warden after a failed jailbreak."

Frank Rich, New York Times, Feb. 1, 2009

Meanwhile, the last-minute bonus depredations of John Thain and his ilk spurred Harold Evans in the BBC News online magazine to revive that good old word from the 1930s, "bankster" (banker plus gangster).

Finally, the speustic nature of this blog seems to have spurred a fellow named Anonymous to send in a tip about, a Web site created by the Malaysian subsidiary of Oxford University Press to preserve words that have run low on rubber but deserve retreading for further generations.

What wants us to do is pick a word, any word, from its commodious lexical hat and use it as much as possible online. Webcrawling software will take note of it and keep its parent dictionaries from dumping it from lack of use. Brilliant!

You can "adopt" a word, promising to use it as much as possible, and savethewords will email you a formal certificate like the one below. There is also a T-shirt offer, but enough is enough.

(Speustic, by the way, is not how Inspector Clouseau would describe someone prone to pratfalls. It means half-done, half-baked, incomplete. Look it up on

Can you spot the syntactical blooper on the certificate? Chalk it up to speustic proofreading.