Tuesday, November 30, 2010

His mother's crotch?

I have a great deal of admiration for the people who provide instant closed captions for television news programs. Captioning on the fly with any amount of accuracy is difficult, even with the assistance of powerful computers. The job has to be done immediately; there's no time to look up things. But there's plenty of time to screw up things.

Sometimes a captioner has to render an unfamiliar name, word, or phrase phonetically and just hope the viewer gets it. The name of a long-dead economist, for example, might appear as "John May Nard Canes." When you think about that a little, it's clear, sort of.

The other night I was stunned when a local NBC newsreader seemingly reported that a police officer had cornered a suspect "in his mother's crotch."

Huh? Then I got it. We Chicagoans pronounce "garage" as "grotch."

Clearly the captioner wasn't from our neck of the woods.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Olive Logan

Olive Logan (Wikipedia Commons)
If you think that the media creature of unearned distinction (such as Britney, Paris, Snooki or any of the Palins) is a late 20th century phenomenon, consider one Olive Logan, a writer, actress and lecturer of the 1870s whose manufactured celebrity bemused Mark Twain.

Logan "did write and publish little things in newspapers and obscure periodicals," Twain wrote in his Autobiography (newly edited and reissued by the University of California Press), "but there was no talent in them, and nothing resembling it."

Rather, her husband, a third-rate journalist, salted paragraphs about her throughout the newspapers of the Northeast.

"It is said that Olive Logan has taken a cottage at Nahant, and will spend the summer there."

And: "Olive Logan has set her face decidedly against the adoption of the short skirt for afternoon wear."

Moreover: "Olive Logan has so far recovered from her alarming illness that if she continues to improve her physicians will cease from issuing bulletins tomorrow."

The result, Twain wrote, was that the "simple public" talked about her all the time, but had no idea who she actually "was or what she had done -- if anything."

"Well, then, how does she come to be celebrated?" a credulous listener asked.

"Oh," another said. "it's about something, I don't know what. I never inquired, but I supposed everybody knew."

"On the strength of this oddly created notoriety Olive Logan went on the platform, and for at least two seasons the United States flocked to the lecture halls to look at her," Twain marveled. "She was merely a name and some rich and costly clothes, and neither of these properties had any lasting quality, though for a while they were able to command a fee of $100 a night. She dropped out of the memories of men a quarter of a century ago."

Not entirely. She lives on in a brief and remarkably colorless Wikipedia entry, whose facts seem to be taken from an ancient and forgotten encyclopedia as well as Twain's memory.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Random and unconnected thoughts

* If John Boehner, incoming Republican Speaker of the House, thinks he's going to stick a finger in Nancy Pelosi's eye by flying commercial, he had goddam well better go through Airport Peep-and-Grope like the rest of us. Every single time he flies.

* Why do so many know-nothings deny the human impact on global warming despite the huge, huge preponderance of scientific opinion on the other side? Are they thinking only of short-term profits rather than taking the long view? Or are they just aggressively anti-intellectual?

* John Buchan's 1915 novel The Thirty-Nine Steps, one of the prototypes of the spy thriller, is still remarkably readable -- and free for the downloading on one's Kindle. There's a little too much Scots dialect wha hae muckle glee, and the hero Richard Hannay is a chip off the old Empire, but the action is crisply modern.

* The year's best book is Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns, about the great African-American migration north and west away from Jim Crow in the South between World War I and the 1970s. Bigoted whites who think civil rights are over won't read it, but they should. I thought I was enlightened, but Wilkerson astonished me.

* What am I reading on the Kindle now? A surprise best-seller, the new edition of The Autobiography of Mark Twain from the University of California Press. Before getting to the meat, one has to plow through chapters and chapters about the multiple abortive attempts Twain made to write his memoirs. This is only intermittently interesting to a non-academic like me, but it is a scholarly work. (The tree-book, the first of three volumes, is $35 list; $19.22 on Amazon.com, and the e-book is $9.99.)

* I am going to miss Christopher Hitchens, the world's most likable intellectual bomb-thrower.

* Roger Ebert writes the best blog anywhere, and it's not about the movies. He has a generous and expansive mind, and always displays a graceful humility.

* I crave the new Pentax K-5 camera but not its $1500 street price, which for me is about $300 too high.

* I have at long last become interested in local politics because of the city of Evanston's misguided and maladroit attempt to kill its local branch libraries. The rise of the Evanston Library Friends to save them from a shortsighted city manager and council has been an object lesson in the power of grassroots anger in this liberal community.

* I think I'll get out my G scale garden train set -- a loop of track, a locomotive and two passenger cars -- and lay it out on the basement floor to play with between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Let people laugh at me -- what do I care?

* Even I am a better dancer than Bristol Palin, and I've got a bad knee and a bad back. Let's face it: the fix is in.

* Joy is a big yellow dog who just wants a little loving.

* Consternation is learning that a red squirrel has broken into your summer cabin on Lake Superior, 420 miles away.

* Despair is realizing that May 1 (when we can go back up to the summer cabin) is still five long months away.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Boon for Amtrak?

"If you touch my junk I'll have you arrested!"

That latest airport catchphrase is unlikely to echo throughout an American railroad station, at least today and maybe forever. Why?

Even though detonating a bomb on a concourse of Chicago Union Station during rush hour could kill hundreds of people, today's terrorists have rarely been interested in going after railroad passengers, notwithstanding a few terrible incidents in Europe.

Disaster aloft is psychologically more devastating than disaster on the ground, and Al Qaeda terrorists want to make the boldest statement possible -- to kill people in the thousands and disrupt air travel. Let's face it: they have done just that last.

For the time being, the average commuter train or Amtrak passenger will rarely if ever see evidence of Homeland Security on the job. From time to time and just for show, agents will spot-check luggage and patrol platforms with dogs, but most TSA efforts on the rails are modest and take place behind the scenes.

This has not gone unnoticed among travelers. It goes almost without saying that the increasing tension and bother of flying commercial is going to be good for Amtrak's numbers. Riders between Chicago and Washington and Chicago and New York, for instance, are going to think about choosing eighteen relaxed hours aboard an overnight train rather than four agitated hours in an airport and aboard a packed airplane.

Aboard a train they can carry what they want (within reason, of course) in their luggage without worrying about setting off X-ray machines, alerting checked baggage searchers or running up overweight charges. They can get up from roomy seats and move around and interact with their fellow passengers rather than submit themselves to full frontal video viewing or the indignity of genital groping.

When they consider the choices, many passengers will very likely choose train time over airplane rage.

There would, however, be a downside to increased popularity: a huge jump in the numbers of railroad passengers is bound to strain Amtrak's limited capabilities. It barely has enough cars and locomotives to handle its present loads. Increased demand for already expensive sleeping car accommodations could well result in sharply higher prices for roomettes and bedrooms. Amtrak may be a government entity, but it follows the laws of supply and demand when setting fares.

Retirees, vacationers, foreign tourists, the obese and/or disabled, those fearful of flying -- all of which make up most of Amtrak's clientele -- might find themselves priced out of a mode of travel that has been both comfortable and affordable.

I hope that doesn't happen but worry that it will.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Overnight to Washington

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As Amtrak's Capitol Limited ghosted into Washington Union Station yesterday, it occurred to me that this Chicago-to-Washington overnight train is the perfect one to introduce small children to the joys of traveling in a sleeping car.

The fellow in the next roomette had brought along his seven-year-old lad, who was so wide-eyed with wonder in his compartment, in the dining car and in the lounge car that his behavior was remarkably subdued for his age. The trip is just long enough (17 hours 25 minutes, half of it abed) for a kid to appreciate the newness of sleeper travel without becoming overly antsy.

As regulars to this blog well know, this 70-year-old small boy never gets tired of the train.

My latest trip began Wednesday afternoon in the Metropolitan Lounge for Amtrak sleeper passengers at Chicago Union Station, where I fortified myself with free Pepsi and munchies and caught up on e-mail (the free wi-fi was working, for a change).

The two Amtrak lounge personnel on duty were friendly and efficient and made sure their deaf passenger moved to the departure door without worriedly hovering, as some of them do. On boarding at 6:15 p.m. Cliff, the burly sleeper attendant, was also cheery and after our departure six minutes late told me the dining car was running half an hour late and my 7 p.m. call would be made at 7:30.

In the meantime I took stock of my surroundings. The sleeping car is one of the original Superliners built in the late 1970s that had been very recently rebuilt from the trucks up. Room clean, bathrooms clean, all furnishings in tiptop shape.

My two-person compartment, Roomette 13, lay on the on lower level. I don't mind these ground-level rooms in the two-story cars, because the swaying at speed tends to be much less at a low center of gravity.

The dining car was a newish "Cross-Country Cafe," with the long end serving dinner to passengers and the short end meals to crews. Many rail buffs dislike this kind of diner, but it was fine by me.

My roast chicken arrived 20 minutes after the rest of the meal, because the chef's timing of her needs was a little off. I did not mind, because my dinner companions were interesting conversationalists. Both were Orange County, California, landscape architects. One was from Costa Rica and the other Peru. Their season had ended and they were traveling for a month before returning to spend the winter drawing up designs for the next spring's work.

Once it arrived, the chicken, so often a bit dry, was perfect.

The steward was jolly and apologetic for the delay in the main course, but the South Americans made the time fly. I could not lipread their Spanish-accented English, but we communicated with a pen and notebook that the Costa Rican quickly pulled out when he realized why his speech baffled me.

On my return to the compartment the bed had been made up for the night, as I had asked. For eight solid hours I slept, untroubled by rough track. I probably sleep better in a berth than I do at home.

I awoke to a foggy morning shortly after the train left Connellsville in southwestern Pennsylvania, and after morning ablutions set off to breakfast. Alas, my table partners, a young couple from Milwaukee, were dour and painfully shy, rebuffing my attempts to engage them in conversation. Probably they were just not morning people.

The French toast I had would never be mistaken for the railroad classic, but it was sufficiently tasty and attractively plated, arranged around a cup of blueberry preserves and dusted with powdered sugar. What Amtrak meals have lost in finesse over the years they have gained in American Road Food reliability.

Across the aisle, the seven-year-old lad eagerly scarfed his French toast and bacon while the two elderly ladies on the other side of the table complimented his father on the boy's polite demeanor.

The small dining car crew was, as before, quick, cheery and efficient -- and busy. They had time just for one refill pass with the coffeepot, and they handled demanding diners with aplomb. Reports are that Amtrak has been sending its on-board crews to the railroad's equivalent of charm school, and it shows.

On return to my compartment Cliff had made up the room neatly, and the ubiquitous hotel copy of USA Today was waiting. I much preferred the old tradition of placing a local newspaper under the compartment door; even the fusty right-wing Omaha World-Herald (on the route of the California Zephyr) has more personality than McPaper.

For the rest of the morning I rode in the lounge car while the Capitol followed the historic Baltimore & Ohio line along the Monongahela, Yougiogheny and upper Potomac Rivers to Washington. The hilly West Virginia and Maryland scenery is very pretty, and Harper's Ferry, W. Va., is absolutely picturesque. One expects to spot wild-eyed John Brown tearing on horseback down to the old armory.

The train tied up at Washington Union Station just 20 minutes past the 1:10 p.m. scheduled arrival, close enough to be On Time in my book.

The Capitol Limited has been one of the better long-distance Amtrak trains, if you don't count on-time performance, which can be spotty. It makes a relaxing respite from the TSA-fueled tension of flying between Chicago and Washington.

I'm sure that boy and his dad would agree.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Edward Abbey lives!

The unhappy results of our latest election, driven in large part by the greed of corporocracy, set me to thinking about war against the forces of lucre. Sadly, I would make a poor bomb-thrower, but there was once a fellow who was a great one: the late Edward Abbey, author (Desert Solitaire) and wild-eyed eco-radical (The Monkey Wrench Gang). This morning I dug out a 20-year-old review of one of his books written for the Chicago Sun-Times. (It is reprinted without permission. Come get me, corporate legal punks. Bring it on.)

By Henry Kisor
Chicago Sun-Times, January 27, 1990

As with movies, sequels to celebrated novels rarely measure up to the originals. Their newness has long since worn off: we've already encountered the premise and met the characters. Anything further the author may have to say about them is likely to be anticlimactic.

The late Edward Abbey's Hayduke Lives! (Little, Brown, $18.95) is no exception to that rule, but it's jolly great fun nonetheless. It's a sequel to The Monkey Wrench Gang of 1975, Abbey's wonderfully subversive comic tale about a ragtag bunch of environmental guerrillas. Their mission: Chainsawing down roadside billboards and sugaring the gas tanks of earthmoving machinery, all the while plotting the destruction of Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona.

Edward Abbey
The Monkey Wrench Gang was both extraordinarily funny and extremely angry, and it has never gone out of print, to date selling more than half a million copies. "Monkeywrenching" is now in the permanent lexicon of environmentalism. Some critics even declared the novel the Walden of the movement.

Others likened it to Mein Kampf, but they missed the point: Abbey was indulging in hyperbolic satire in the service of a noble cause. He wasn't necessarily advocating criminal destruction of property - just kicking a few shins in order to focus environmentalist anger on a clear and immediate target.

If you harbor the slightest heartbeat of sympathy for monkeywrenching, you'll enjoy Hayduke Lives!, the further adventures of George Washington Hayduke, ex-Green Beret, ex-Viet Cong medic, lover, brawler, saboteur, all-around troublemaker and spiritual head of the Monkey Wrench Gang. Last seen clinging to a cliff at the end of the first novel as a posse and a helicopter closed in, Hayduke returns from the apparent dead in the new novel, ready for more.

For a new monster in the service of evil against the Earth has appeared: G O L I A T H the G.E.M. of Arizona, 22 stories tall, 120 feet wide, 13,500 tons of giant earthmover from Bucyrus-Erie, the world's largest mobile land machine. With it, Syn-Fuels Limited, a conglomerate of politicians, Mormon moneymen and Bureau of Land Management mountebanks, will carve an uranium strip mine half a mile wide and 400 feet deep out of the gloriously beautiful mile-high tablelands of Lost Eden Canyon near the Utah-Arizona border.

For Hayduke's cause, almost too much time has passed. The rest of the Gang is spiritually moribund, comfortable in its post-protest existence. Doc Sarvis, onetime heart surgeon, is now a contented pediatrician. Bonnie Abbzug, Brooklyn feminist and Hayduke's ex-lover, has become Doc's wife, with one child and one on the way. And Seldom Seen Smith, jack Mormon and triple polygamist, is a dude wrangler and merry womanizer.

Can Hayduke light their fires again? Will they plunge anew into his gallant battle against mechanized greed? Upon that question the novel hangs.

On the way to its resolution the author delivers himself of several splendidly Abbeyian set pieces, Cactus Ed at his finest. In one, much of his scorn is heaped upon his own followers, notably those belonging to Earth First! (a trademarked name). To Abbey, Earth First!ers and other organized environmentalists would rather publicize and speechify than risk their lives and reputations for their cause. ("There was a time when men loved ideas; now they get by with slogans.")

There's a splendid clash, like rutting elk, between two mighty 'dozers (Hayduke astride a Cat D-7), a hilarious disruption of a Syn-Fuels board meeting by a crazed charlady (Hayduke in drag), and a gigantic trashing of a Syn-Fuels computer room (Hayduke with nerd specs and clipboard).

There are bawdy scenes and funny scenes (Bonnie and Hayduke suddenly bare-naked together in a mountain waterhole, against her wishes but not his, and with interesting consequences). There is a mighty climactic battle between the Monkey Wrench Gang and G O L I A T H, with Hayduke in the driver's seat.

As in any Abbey work, there are achingly beautiful stretches of praise for the divine, unspoiled wilderness, prose offered upon a wild altar ad majorem Terra gloriam. And the novel ends on a note of hope, as if Abbey believed there is still time to save the wilderness. Nature can bounce back if we only give it a chance.

But much of Abbey's less attractive side is also here. He was always an excessive writer, flailing a large and knobby cudgel at a host of irrelevant bystanders. He never liked feminism, for instance, believing it led to androgynous horrors. In this new novel he sticks it to an old straw woman of his, yuppie working mothers "with their children abandoned all day five days a week in pink and blue Day-Glo Tee-Vee Jailhouse Kiddie Kare storage centers." That wasn't convincing then and it isn't convincing now.

Nor are his fulminations against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. In the main, Mormons are not a pack of inbred, moronic right-wing eco-brutalists, even if (as Abbey complains unnecessarily) they drink rivers of caffeine-laden Pepsi-Cola, coffee being forbidden to them.

Ultimately, too, this novel feels unfinished, unpolished, its loose threads a little too abruptly gathered into a lumpy knot. Presumably Abbey had not completed it before his death at the early age of 62. Whether it would have been a better novel had he lived is impossible to say.

But enough - more than enough - of Abbey's cantankerous old genius remains in this merry eco-caper to show us what we lost when he was laid to rest last March at a secret and unspoiled spot in his beloved Sonoran Desert.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Reconstruction, continued

In rebuilding my web site, I'm experimenting with variations on the "nameplate" -- the herald at the top of the home page -- and perhaps you will help me settle on a new one.

This is today's:

This was yesterday's:

And this was used the day before:

Of course, there will be a new one tomorrow. Maybe even the next day.

Which of these three do you like best? Please leave a comment with your thoughts. (It's OK, you can be anonymous. No need to register and reveal your identity.)

Thank you.

Friday, November 5, 2010


Every so often a web site, like an old house, needs ground-up rebuilding. Links get broken, design ages, code crumbles, dust blankets everything and squirrels take up residence in the attic.

And so I've been working on my web site, trying with inadequate knowledge and limited skills to spiff up the place. It looks better, I think, but has a long way to go before anyone would call it slick and professional.

Tell me what you think.

Thank you.