Monday, January 20, 2014

Guilty pleasure: the English cozy Midsomer Murders on DVD

Each episode of the Midsomer Murders series is a delicious chocolate truffle of English "cozy" against the background of the idyllic English countryside and the placid domesticity of the Barnaby household. The actual mystery takes a back seat to the superb, nuanced acting and the droll interactions between Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby (John Nettles) and his sidekick, Detective Sergeant Gavin Troy (Daniel Casey), DS Dan Scott (John Hopkins) and later, DS Ben Jones (Jason Hughes). In one of my favorites, Picture of Innocence, the tongue-in-cheek humor abounded; for instance, hilariously, the slow-motion approach of the three leather-clad toughs swinging their point-and-shoot digital cameras as if they were nunchakus, a scene reminiscent of the approach of the Jets in Shark territory in West Side Story. The special treat in this episode: the Dustin Hoffman-esque facial expressions and body language of Eddie Carfax (Adrian Scarborough)  when he was in a scene, but not in a speaking role. Also, John Barnaby and his wife, Joyce (Jane Wymark), are entirely believable as a married couple. Joyce Barnaby's staid sensibility is the perfect foil to her sometimes stubborn husband.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Quaint, archaic technology

In the late 1970s, journalism professor Bert Bostrom at Northern Arizona University stood at his podium and lectured that in the near future, we would read our newspapers on an television screen, and print out only the articles we wanted. (He was most likely hinting the the impending demise of print journalism.) Were my classmates as incredulous as I was? And it has all come to pass, and much more.

Those who have reached the half-century mark: imaging handing a smart phone to your 30-year-old self and telling him/her that the device was (1) a telephone! and (2) would almost entirely supplant landlines (a word nonexistent back then) within our lifetimes.
Remember when we could guess the decade in which a movie or television show was set by the telltale fashion, say, the 1980s by the big hair on women, the feathered hair style (men and women), leg warmers, Members Only Jackets, and high-tops? 

Now it's the technology by which a viewer can almost pinpoint the year: the gallumphing off-white/off-gray CRT displays, in all their trapezoidal ungainliness. Ha! Or those hilariously unsophisticated non-GUI (graphical user interface) displays. Remember the black or green screen with white text? Oh, the dial-up modem?

Does anyone remember the Star Trek movie in which Scotty mistook the mouse for a voice recognition microphone?

(Note: I do miss my beloved DOS dot prompt, and, no, the DOS shell does not do it for me. And yeah, I worked hard to become proficient at dBase III Plus and worked on a team that developed a time, deliverable, goal, and money tracking application for a $3 million contract just before dBase III Plus became obsolete. For you young Turks, dBase III Plus was a relational database management system, superseded by the SQL products, such as Oracle.)

And, don't forget the boxy (to accommodate a large battery) first-generation mobile phones with the telescoping antenna. 

As the geeky friend predicted to Peggy Sue in the movie Peggy Sue Got Married, I think I'm going to love living in the future. I do.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

All distilling down to the seven-year-old essence

Back to the highly recommended Up series, and the latest iteration, 56 Up. As a recap, the Up series is the perspective on the lives of 20 Britons; World in Action interviewed children at age seven, and every seven years thereafter, asking about their dreams and goals and their takes on love and romance and their perception of their worlds. The voiceover at start of every documentary concept was the Jesuit maxim: “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.”

You know what? The maxim rings true.

Also apparent, although not noted by reviewers and critics, was how similar they all were to each other at age 14. Sullen and shy, avoiding questions and the camera, they were all in the grip of awkward, sullen adolescence. Even the extroverted Tony would not make eye contact with the interviewer, the now-famous director Michael Apted. Nicholas Hichon, the shepherd’s son destined to study physics at Oxford and become a professor of electrical engineering, drew his knees up and buried his head in his forearms. The patrician Suzy faces away from the camera, as does Tony. The three East End girls, always grouped as a trio by the producers, were giggly and fidgety, but engaged with each other in response to the interviewer’s question, maybe due to a respect for authority as well as a feeling of safety in numbers.

The pugnacious Tony from London’s East End morphed into a “hands-on” grandfather, never losing his ebullience and lust for life. The shy, uncertain Paul from the orphanage finds a happy adulthood in Australia with the likable Susan and a happy family, but still admits to self-esteem problems. The elegant, refined Suzy remains so, an upper-class mother in her country home. Even Neil, despite battling mental health problems his entire life, seems to have found himself by serving in public office and in the church.

Some at 21, some at 28, some much later, but as they reached adulthood, the essence of their seven-year-old selves.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Daylight Savings Time, entertaining and informative

Looking forward to springing forward, this essay was written last March.

My home state, Arizona, declines to participate in spring forward, fall back exercises in sleep deprivation/confusion each year. The convention of sliding around the clock to accommodate...what? harvest schedules? military operations? has long outlived its usefulness. Still, I love the fact that, staring last Monday, I can now bicycle home from work in—what's this?—sunlight. By summer, of course, we'll be cursing the sun, but now basking in sunlight after a full day of work indoors is a veritable tonic of nature, not to mention a boon for those suffering from seasonal affective disorder, appropriately acronymed SAD.

What better way to celebrate the start of this phenomenon than the humorous, yet startlingly informative, animation by the inventive C.G.P. Gray.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Dating advice (tongue-in-cheek) to gals in the 50-plus crowd: Pitch a tent, attract a handsome fellow or three

Twice whilst I was engaged in pitching a tent, three handsome, strong, virile young men came running over, unbidden, to help.

First time at the beach in Galveston: as my friend, Pam (an engineer, by the way) and I, set upon setting up her beach shelter, three young thirty-something men appeared to help. We were indeed struggling a little due to the breeze off the gulf. Mission accomplished, and they returned to their camp, with our profuse thanks.

The shelter, by the way, was unlike a tent. The "roof" was a separate structure from the side poles. The shelter walls were gauze-like screens that could be tied to the poles out of the way. Due to the constant breeze from the gulf, we double guyed the front poles and did not guy the rear. Heavenly, enjoying the ocean breeze from the comfort of that shelter. (Coincidence that the stabilizing ropes are called "guys"? I think not.)

Second time was at my favorite campground, Oakdale Park, in Glen Rose, Texas. Although I've set up my tent many times solo, I was delighted when three fellows in their mid-30s from a neighboring campsite ran over to my campsite to help. "Don't even try to talk us out of it," one said.

The tent went up in less than five minutes. Thanks, guys, and they returned to their site. I offered to return the favor as they were striking their own camp the next day, but they demurred.

In neither case were we damsels in distress, but, hey, it worked for a moment.

Friday, February 22, 2013

King Corn: Review of the documentary

Two Yale University graduates, sustainable agriculture advocates and filmmakers, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, discovered that they share common ancestral roots in the same agricultural town, Greene, Iowa. They set out from Connecticut to Iowa to lease an acre of cornfield to experience the process of corn sowing, growing, harvesting, and bringing-to-market process as an analog to the ubiquitous role corn plays in our lives. Filmmaker Aaron Woolf directed.

King Corn

The documentary encompasses several layered stories. First the use of corn and corn-based products in prepared food products in virtually everything we eat, including the relatively inexpensive cattle corn feed. (The piece on high fructose corn syrup was especially well done, with the voiceover of the earnest food chemist patiently and protractedly droning instructions of the involved process of cook up a batch of HFCS.)

Lyndon Johnson-era subsidy policies paid farmers to grow an overabundance of corn. The two young men suited up to visit the aged former Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz, who championed in the 1960s, and continues to support subsidies enabling the “age of plenty.”

Another theme is the industrialization of agriculture. Using a borrowed tractor, the young farmers planted an acre of corn, more than 30,000 seeds, in a bit over one-quarter hour. Later, they enlist the help of a patient farmer to drive a tractor depositing fertilizer, with Curt appearing a bit frightened by the required speed of the tractor. Interviews with farmers showed them as contemptuous of the product the government paid them handsomely to grow. The corn grown by almost every farmer here was not for human consumption, but for cattle feed, and presumably, ethanol.

The sympathetic portrayal of the hard-working and genial people of this this Midwest farm community draws in the audience from on a personal level. I choked up at the proud parade of high school bands and baton twirlers followed by enormous John Deere tractors with 10-foot-diameter tires. The family of the young farmer who helped fertilize the field was shown enjoying the parade.

And speaking of choking up, a man raised in Greene returned after retirement. He is shown diving into the 6-foot-high corn rows with the filmmakers, and then getting misty-eyed talking about his dreams of flying over cornfields. The farmer who rented an acre to the young filmmakers progressed from skeptical and incredulous over the rental request, to an outspoken critic of the agriculture that has been foisted upon them. Ellis and Cheney illustrated the development of corn with a bit of meticulous and clever frame-by-frame photography.

A serendipitous sighting of a license plate, CORNFED, in a fast-food drive-through led to a meeting with a sketchy guy who revealed more dark secrets about corn as cattle feed. The film-makers followed up with a trip to a grim and desolate confined feed lot, where cattle are “finished” before slaughter. It was, to me, the saddest and most disturbing moment of the film. I was a bit surprised the filmmakers did not touch on ethanol production.

In retrospect, ethanol would warrant and entire feature-length documentary itself. King Corn won the prestigious Peabody Award, and all three man have gone on to produce other documentaries. The documentary was Independent Lens production on PBS.

Particularly interesting are the
Behind the Scenes and Filmmaker statement.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Just doing what an editor does

One of my colleagues called me obsessive-compulsive. It hurt then, and it still hurts a few months later.

For the majority of my working life, and even in high school and college, I worked an editor, and I'm still an editor.

The colleague asked me to review a piece of correspondence. It was full of punctuation errors, including extraneous quotation marks, the period outside the quotation marks (and single instead of double quotation marks at that), missing commas before the conjugation in two independent clauses, and numerous other errors.

I corrected some, although I left the quotation marks.

Her response? She told me I was obsessive-compulsive.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Metal Men

The local iron and metal scrap yard is like something out of Mad Max: on a typical day, a long line of flat-bed 18-wheelers and old pickup trucks wait patiently in line to be weighed before and after dumping a load of twisted metal, chatarra in Spanish. Beyond the scales and office, spindly cranes literally fling huge pieces of metal across the junk pile. Amazing!

Some of the steel becomes raw material for a steel mill about 45 miles away. It is melted down in a powerful electric arc. A student in my program, a metallurgist for that plant, said each "heat" uses more electricity than the entire one-day consumption of the city of College Station, population about 76,000.

Metal salvage is an entire underground economy of which I was ignorant.

On a smaller scale, men in beat-up pickup trucks troll through the neighborhoods in my community looking for scrap metal. A few months ago, I gave a lawnmower, old grill, and other scrap metal I'd been saving to a grandfather with his two grandsons. He said the local metal scrapyard paid $10/100 pounds. Two grandsons helped out as apprentices. I remember thinking this hard-working man was spending time with his grandsons, the most valuable commodity one can give a child, and teaching the value of a good worth ethic.

A few weekends ago, some nonworking rice cookers, box fans, and some other metal that I set out at the curb were picked up in less than one hour.

On a dog walk recently, I found a broken pantograph-style car jack and some other metal, which I carried home and set out behind a bush until I could accumulate enough to make it "worthwile" to pick up. A man on a bicycle spotted the metal, then knocked on the door to ask if he could take it. Of course! Now I actively look for metal to set out for the metal men to recycle and to help them make a few bucks. This scrapper said that since the economy tanked, a lot more people are turning to scrapping, which decreased the value of his daily collections by almost half.

The cleaner the purer the metal, the higher the price the salvers will pay, with bright copper fetching the highest price.

When recycling some aluminum cans, I saw the metal man there, disassembling what appears to be old electronic equipment. I returned with a tub of mixed metal for him. He carefully separated the pieces, including some brass hose bibbs.

It's a hard way to eke out a living: he works sun up to sundown. Sometimes he finds a job tearing apart an old mobile home: he is paid for his labor, then he can recycle the metal from the mobile home.

I respected this man for finding a way to make a living, difficult as it was.

Sunday, September 30, 2012


[First published in the Brazos Valley Farmers' Market newsletter, September 15, 2012. The prose in The Lost Crops of Africa is sublime.]

A member of the mallow family, okra, inspires a perhaps muted allegience from vegetable lovers, and usually general disdain from vegetable nonlovers; however, it redeems itself in its potential for an astonishing array of uses beyond soups and stews: from its seeds can be extracted an oil comparable to olive oil or be processed into a protein source, and the stems and leaves could be animal feed.

But its uses don’t stop with edible products: the mucilage offers benefits of laxatives (owing to the soluble fat, and ranking with psyllium and flaxseed); the gums and pectin can lower serum cholesterol, and can be used as a substitute for aloe vera. Like its relative, kenaf, fibers from okra can be fashioned into high-quality paper. Jokingly, it has been said, “okra: a vegetable so slimy you don’t notice how hairy it is.” Indeed, the Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables leads off its surprisingly entertaining chapter on okra on a 1974 survey of least-liked vegetables.

In African dialects, the word for okra sounds similar to gumbo (, and indeed, it is regarded with reference in New Orleans, where it forms the basis of signature dishes, such as…gumbo.

Published by the National Academies Press, Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables offers a transcendent literary homage to okra. The sheer delightfulness of the language in this scientific volume will bring a smile to even the most mucilage-averse persons. For instance—

“In reality okra could have a future that will make people puzzle over why earlier generations failed to seize the opportunity before their eyes. In the Botanical Kingdom it may actually be a Cinderella, though still living on the hearth of neglect amid the ashes of scorn.” (National Research Council (2006-10-27). "Okra". Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables. Lost Crops of Africa. 2. National Academies Press. ISBN 978-0-309-10333-6)

And later—

“In America, where it appears almost exclusively in stews and soups, okra is usually seen in cross section, cut into disks that look like little cartwheels with a seed nestled between each pair of spokes. Okra is also the key ingredient in gumbo, the famous dish of the American South.”

A study in robustness, okra grows easily in tropical, subtropical, and temperate climates, but can adapt to dry climates also.

Okra and tomatoes
Southern Living’s 10 best okra recipes
Curried okra

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Water dogs

Two or three times per week, Oliver and Canela go for a swim in a pond about a mile from my home. Adjacent to the railroad track, this pond boasts a notable history. My historian friend, Texas native Jimmy Klechka, said that pond was first impounded in the early 20th century to provide steam engines with water. Later, the pond provided once-through cooling water for a small-ish electrical power plant. More recently, this beleaguered body of water and its downstream neighbors were badly polluted with arsenic by an adjacent pesticide manufacturer. Remediation has been ongoing for more than a decade.

Oliver, a yellow Lab mix and natural swimmer, flings himself into the water with abandon. On cue, using a modern plastic atl-atl (curved throwing stick), I launch rocks into the pond while standing on the railroad tracks. At the sound of the plunk, Oliver swims so fast to the ripple that he leaves a wake.

Canela, a little red hound mix, at first kept right behind Oliver. When he turned, she turned. Now that she has gained more confidence, she swims her own swim with her tail sticking out of the water like a flag. Today she jumped in before I was able to remove her leash. While about 40 feet from shore, Oliver grabbed the leash in his mouth, and led Canela back to shore.
Rarely, a freight train chugs by, and I have to scramble out of the way down a talus slope to the shoreline.