When I am King: Card Blanch

When I am King...

There will be greeting cards for more likely occasions.

Statistically speaking, there are nearly as many divorces as marriages. Just like death is the only certainty in life, divorce is almost guaranteed as soon as you tie the knot. It is, after all, just a knot, which you can usually pick apart with your teeth and fingernails. Or failing that, a rusty cleaver always does the job.

It is strange, then, to consider the world of greeting cards in this relationship reality. We have wedding cards and anniversary cards. And a myriad of beautiful friendship-oriented cards that sing out, “I just wanted to spend $4.95 on a piece of folded cardstock and an envelope so that you know that I was thinking of you when I was in the grocery store today.” But there is no stock of cards that address the most fundamental fact of most marriages: termination. Where are the divorce cards?

When I am King, there will be a new genre of cards that address this important phase of life. It is guaranteed that these cards will sell nearly as many as the marriage cards, since they are nearly equal in numbers. In fact, the cards targeted at celebrity divorces in particular should outsell celebrity marriage cards, since celebrities seem to get divorced at a far greater rate than they marry. (It’s not clear how the math of this works out - I have my best scientists on the problem now, plotting multi-dimensional graphs of time vs. beauty vs. IQ vs. child stardom vs. wealth vs. drug rehab. I expect to see an aswer soon in the tabloids).

We have worked out some preliminary attempts to share with you. Artists are still working on the visuals, but expect elements such as faded roses, cobwebs, knives, and pictures of lawyers.

I want to spend the rest of my life with you

far away

A marriage is the gift of a lifetime

Where’s the gift receipt, because I need to return it.

Our love is like a beautiful flower arrangement

Cut short, cooped up in a small space, and dead

Remember that part in our vows that went, “I promise to honor and obey?”

Obey this: Get the Hell out.


When I am King: Operation: Diet

When I am King...

Losing weight will be an easy operation.

I had surgery recently and lost ten pounds in the following week. This is not even including the weight of the appendix that the surgeons removed. So we’ll round it off and call it an even 50 pounds.

All I had to do to lose the weight was sleep peacefully while surgeons gave my insides a manicure with a buzz saw. Then I took some prescription drugs for a few days.

Meanwhile, traditional dieting is difficult. Who wants to eat fiber when there’s ice cream in the fridge? Why wouldn’t you have a beer if all you need to do is open the fridge, see there’s none left, get in the car, drive around to find a store that’s still open, realize they don’t sell beer, drive around some more, finally buy a 6 pack, drive home and open up a bottle? And who in their right mind orders a salad with light dressing at a restaurant that also serves anything else?

But give someone drugs with instructions like, “Do not drink alcohol while taking this drug or YOU WILL DIE” and, “Consumption of dairy products or anything similarly tasty will inhibit the effects of this drug and YOU WILL DIE” and a diet becomes somehow easier and more palatable. Add to that the fact that, for reasons I don’t fully understand and are probably highly complicated and explained by Latin words, you really have no appetite after surgeries like this. Apparently your insides feel rather petulant and sulky after someone has been in there exploring with a camera and a swiss army knife. So even when you find a food that won’t kill you but that you think you can muscle down past your taste buds, you realize that you’re not really hungry after all.

When I am King, diets will become much easier. Instead of depending on complicated and completely undependable factors like motivation and willpower, dieters will have an operation and drug regimen to help enforce the rules. Having problems controlling the sugar intake? Maybe a procedure that messes with your blood-sugar ratio will help. Can’t resist the double-fudge sundaes? Try an operation and antibiotics that prohibit dairy. Too difficult to keep your hand from picking up another bottle of beer? Try amputating the hand.

This approach has the added benefit of immediately removing items from your body, freeing you from the weight they take up immediately. An appendix is small potatoes, but consider what you could lose overnight through removing larger organs, or whole limbs. A hand may not be worth the trouble for its weight, but consider the 10-20 pounds an arm would bring. Or double that for a leg. The head is quite dense and gives great immediate results, although you should consider this option carefully while you still have a brain because you won’t live long enough to enjoy the benefits.

So next time you want to lose weight, consider surgery ... if you have the guts.


Christmas Mourning

The presents are opened,
All gifts are unwrapped.
But something inside the children
Has snapped.

Paper and tape fill
The air like confetti
And cover all surfaces
Like shredded spaghetti.

Junior’s tied up with
Ribbons and bows.
How it all happened
Nobody knows.

Brother Jim is
Playing with dolls.
Amputated limbs
Line the doorways and halls.

Sister Patricia
Sings like a choir
When someone unknown
Sets her hair on fire.

The boys must have loved
All the presents they got
‘Cause they haven’t been heard from
After that shot.

The little kids
Are in the upstairs hall
Seeing if their gerbil
Survives a big fall.

Dad is passed out
And fell off the couch.
He drank too much brandied
Eggnog  again (ouch!).

Mom is nowhere at all
To be seen.
She escaped early on
In a sweat-covered sheen.

Uncle Bob is curled up,
Softly weeping
Hoping that his
Wounds will soon stop seeping.

Auntie Jane
Just sits and rocks
And hums and chews
Her red Christmas socks.

For hours, Grandma hasn’t
Moved her head.
For all we know,
She could be dead.

Some friends stopped by
To visit a spell,
But ran away screaming
From our little Hell.

We’ve locked ourselves
In the basement with care
With hopes that tomorrow
The house will be there.

We’ll hide here all day and
Shiver with fear,
Then do it again
This same time next year.


If Santa Used FaceBook

This is an excerpt from our 2011 family holiday haasecard.

Happy holidays!


The Santa Letters: Jenny

I've been fortunate enough to receive some correspondence from Santa this year, letters that he's written to some of the many children around the world who wrote to him. I'll post some of the more thoughtful pieces to spread the warmth and happiness of Santa throughout this holiday season.
- Chet

Dear Jenny,

Thank you for your letter last week. It arrived without an envelope, and addressee, or even a single correctly spelled word. But I got it. The post office always sends the “looney letters” to me. You might even call me the Head Looney! Ha, just joking; I’m sure there are crazier people than me. If so, I should hire them, because you don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it sure helps! Ha!

By the way, have you noticed the sky lately? It just seems, I don’t know, closer than it used to. Or maybe I’m just getting taller, but I don’t think so, because my coat still fits. I think it’s scientists, harnessing the powers of the ozone to control us. Watch out for them.

Don't worry, I’ll be okay. I have enough firepower here at the pole to take out everyone in this hemisphere. I’m just itching for them to try something.

Gotta go, I think I hear them at the door now.

Ho ho ho,


The Santa Letters: Henry and Simon

I've been fortunate enough to receive some correspondence from Santa this year, letters that he's written to some of the many children around the world who wrote to him. I'll post some of the more thoughtful pieces to spread the warmth and happiness of Santa throughout this holiday season.
- Chet

Dear Henry,

Thank you for your letter. The one last week. The one you sent. Last week. I got it. It.

I’m reading it now. I’ve also got a scottle of botch in front in front of me. I don’t know which one I enjoy more, although the scotch does go down smoothlyer.


To the Parents of Simon,

Thank you for your (and I mean your, not Simon’s, letter of last week):

“Simon would like a stuffed bear, an electric train, and a savings bond worth $100.”

Isn’t it about time you let Simon make his own way in the world? Let him fight his own battles, win his own victories, die in his own defeats. He’s been too long tied down by the apron strings and should be cast off to make his own path. Like Oedipus, let him find his way and return triumphant one day to kill his father and … okay you don’t have to let it get that far. But you know what I mean.

Let him write his own letters, ask for his own toys for Christmas. He’s two, for Christ’s sake. Leave him alone.



The Santa Letters: Sheila

I've been fortunate enough to receive some correspondence from Santa this year, letters that he's written to some of the many children around the world who wrote to him. I'll post some of the more thoughtful pieces to spread the warmth and happiness of Santa throughout this holiday season.
- Chet


I’m not sure who you think you’re dealing with, but I am not a “Customer Service Department”, nor are we an “Organization.” And what’s more, you cannot “exchange or return for a refund” anything that I gave you. Gave. That’s the key word here. Gave. I didn’t sell you anything, and I’m not about to give you anything in exchange for it. It was a gift. If you don’t like it, don’t use it. Better yet, give it to someone else with better taste. Or wait - how about if you take it and smash your hand with it repeatedly until it can never again write such thoughtless and bureaucratic drivel.

Don’t look for me this year, sister. I won’t be coming to your town. You are now officially on my naughty list.



The Appendix

It was a quiet day at the office. A cup of coffee, a little coding, a little snack, some more coding, more coffee, then into a meeting. At which point my appendix decided that 46 years cooped up inside my body was more than enough.

I don't know if it was a coffee overdose or the tedium of another meeting, but the organ had had it; it wanted out. And it was going to get out, one way or the other. I believe its strategy was based on the plan used in Alien - find the quickest way out of the body. I decided to give it another route and had it forcibly removed instead.

The process of getting to the removal stage was, of course, not quite so easy. First we had to figure out what the problem was. All I knew was that I had severe nausea and pain in that whole gut area. I've seen enough movies to know what the problem was: I was about to go into labor. As I told my wife on the way to the hospital, "The contractions are about 10 seconds apart."

My second thought was that it might be appendicitis. This came from my general approach to medical problems, where I just assume the worst possible scenario. A reasonable diagnosis would instead be that I simply had some kind of flu, and that I should go to bed and sleep it off. And in fact that's what the first doctor came up with. He gave me some really nice drugs, including a shot that took me about five minutes to go from pain-wracked to happy, drunken stupor and then knocked me out for 16 hours.

This was great, of course. I haven't had that much sleep in one session since, well, since ever. I should have life-threatening organ failures more often. Unfortunately, the drugs and flu diagnosis didn't change what was going on inside. When they finally saw the results of the blood tests, they sent me in for a CT scan to make sure nothing was wrong. I waited patiently (the painkillers were still swimming in a happy narcotic haze around my system) to hear that everything was normal. Instead, they came and told me that I needed to go to the Emergency Room. Stat. Apparently, they saw the little bugger trying to execute its cunning plan for exit. If only they'd had a CT scanner on the Alien ship. But then we wouldn't have gotten to see Sigourney Weaver blasting alien carcass in the sequel. Life is a tradeoff.

So off to the ER we go. First, I get to sit through triage, going through the same questions that I've answered many times before so that the nurse can decide whether to admit me. Apparently the hospital doesn't trust the word of the clinics. Perhaps I should have groaned louder. Or threw up on her desk.

I finally get admitted, get put in a bed in ER and … wait. Here's this organic time bomb in my gut, just waiting to explode, and I'm sitting there for four hours while a long parade of nurses, technicians, administrators, and surgeons come trooping through my room, most of them asking the same questions, like "When was the last time you ate?" I must have said, "One Saltine cracker at 8:30 this morning" about 15 times. I think they didn't believe me. I mean, who eats Saltines anymore?

Most of the visitors also drew blood. I think this is what medical professionals do when they don't know what else to do. I wasn't on the operating table, so they couldn't actually cut me open. So they drew blood. Over and over and over. Now I'm not a medical professional, so I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure that they only need a little tiny bit of blood for each of those many tests they ran on my blood. So why did they need so many different vials of it? Were they trying to starve the appendix into submission? Or is it easier to cut me open if I'm not going to be spraying the docs and the room with gallons of blood? Maybe if they can just whittle it down to a trickle, it makes everything that much more pleasant.

Whatever the reason, by the time they were done I'd been stuck at least 10 different times, between the blood draws, the IV drip, and the several "Oh, that vein doesn't seem to want to cooperate" mishaps. In the end, I felt like my arms had lost several games of mumblety-peg. Though it still wasn't as bad as five minutes outside with the mosquitos on an early Minnesota evening in July. I miss Minnesota.

Finally, everyone seemed satisfied; I had informed the entire hospital staff about the single Saltine I'd had that day, and there was nothing more they needed to know. So they moved me into the Operating Room wing. Not into an actual Operating Room, because those rooms were still occupied. Maybe they didn't bleed those patients enough and were still scrubbing down the results.

No, they moved me into a corridor in the OR wing. There I was, sitting next to shelves piled high with plastic medical devices (the one closest to me held "intubation tubes", which I recall from early seasons on House is the main device used by every doctor for every patient). And there I lay, on my gurney. Just me in the corridor, next to the shelves. I was afraid they'd find me there years hence, when someone went looking for another stash of intubation tubes. "Hey, there's a guy here!," he'd call out. They'd answer quickly, "Ask him whether he ate anything this morning. And draw some blood!

But after a half hour of me observing the complete lack of anything interesting, someone new came by, hooked up the good drugs, wheeled me into the operating room and … I woke up two hours later.

So here I am "recovering" this week. It's a weird thing, recovering from this kind of surgery. If I'd had an amputation, I could see the evidence. If I were on serious mind-altering drugs, then I wouldn't feel like doing anything. But after this kind of operation, you feel nearly normal. The main thing you're supposed to do to recover is not actually act normal. Don't exercise, don't lift anything bigger than a fruitcake, and definitely don't go skydiving, or you'll find yourself back in the OR corridor. I think they just want to bore you to health.

I'm not sure why I wrote about this, except that it was something different I did recently, so it seemed worth recording. Like winning the Nobel prize, or traveling to Portugal; it's not something you do every day. Well, unless your Portuguese. And maybe I wanted to pass along this advice to anyone that has a similar experience: always assume the worst outcome from anything you feel. Then you won't be surprised when it comes true, plus you'll have the added benefit of feeling good about yourself because you were right. And if it's not true (which it generally isn't), you'll feel better about whatever the real problem actually is.

Oh, and don't eat that Saltine in the morning before your surgery. They just won't shut up about it.


The Santa Letters: Suzie

I've been fortunate enough to receive some correspondence from Santa this year, letters that he's written to some of the many children around the world who wrote to him. I'll post some of the more thoughtful pieces to spread the warmth and happiness of Santa throughout this holiday season.
- Chet

Dear Suzie,

Thanks for your letter last week. It meant so much to me to hear what you want me to give you.

Meanwhile, the reindeer are on strike again, as usual. They’re just fine all year long: no responsibilities, just out playing their reindeer games day in, day out. Then when we get into the season, they know they’ve got me over a barrel and they go for it: higher wages, more food, bigger troughs, early stud plans, higher 401k matching: the works.

They’ll come around. It usually just takes some Christmas charm and good old-fashioned threats to make them see the reason for the season. Occasionally I have to follow through on my threats, but I haven't had to do that since Schlitzen in '78.

And Mrs. Claus, well, she’s on strike too, I guess you could say.

Ho ho ho,


The Santa Letters: Timmy

I've been fortunate enough to receive some correspondence from Santa this year, letters that he's written to some of the many children around the world who wrote to him. I'll post some of the more thoughtful pieces to spread the warmth and happiness of Santa throughout this holiday season.
- Chet

Dear Timmy,

Thank you so much for your letter dated “Novmenbr 32th”.

First of all, I’d like to say: ask your Mom for a little help with the spelling next time. I had a hard time getting through your letter trying to figure out what in the Hell you were trying to say. And I’ve seen a lot of bad spellers over the years, believe me.But since it was mostly just a list of the crap you want for Christmas, I struggled through it alright.

In the future, you probably want to sanity-check (or as my Head Elf likes to say, “Santy-check”, the miserable punning bastard) the contents with someone familiar with our language. For example, I assume you wanted “a horse” and not “whores”. It’s not an unusual Christmas wish, but I don’t get that request much from four year olds.

In any case, I can’t fit either option on my sleigh, much less down your chimney. How about a nice football instead?

Ho ho ho,


The Santa Letters: Johnny

I've been fortunate enough to receive some correspondence from Santa this year, letters that he's written to some of the many children around the world who wrote to him. I'll post some of the more thoughtful pieces to spread the warmth and happiness of Santa throughout this holiday season.
- Chet

Dear Johnny,

Thanks for your recent letter in which you so thoughtfully just listed everything you wanted without asking anything about me. I’m sure you meant to, but just didn’t get to it, right? Right.

Things here at the North Pole are, well, they’re cold and miserable. Not like it’s any surprise to anyone; we knew what we were getting into when we moved here. But I never get used to it. It’s just so damn cold this time of year. It’s colder than a freezer on the Mars rover. For all they’re talking about global warming, you think it’d make it nicer up here, but not as far as I can tell. Maybe the glaciers are melting, but I’m not.

I guess we just lied to ourselves when we settled here. For one thing, we went house shopping in the summertime, which is always a mistake. Everything looks better on a summer’s day. What you really want to do is see a place at it’s worst. If you could tour a house during a blizzard in mid-winter, or during a hurricane evacuation, then you’d really know the downsides. But no, we saw something that looked almost nice, and convinced ourselves that it’d be fine. And now we’re stuck, so far underwater on the mortgage that we couldn't dig ourselves out with all the snow shovels I make every year.

And at first we loved the isolation. If there was one thing I couldn’t stand it was all the people around in our old neighborhood. Always stopping by, putting in a good word for themselves, trying to see what List they were on, asking what they were going to get for Christmas. Bah! We had to move up here just to keep from strangling the next neighbor that just happened to drop by unannounced.

But after a few decades, the silence really gets to you. You start to have conversations with icicles. And you don’t want to know what happens with the reindeer on a cold night. Good thing they can’t talk.

Still, it’s better than some places. At least the crime rate’s low here. Anyone stupid enough to be skulking about outside at night dies of exposure before the morning anyway. There’s always a couple each year. Keeps the price of feeding the herd down.

Ho ho ho,


When I am King: End-dorsements

When I am King...

All products will use unknown actors in their advertising.

There’s something sad about the use of famous people to pitch products. I should buy a watch just because a sports star is paid to wear one during an ad? Or I should buy some insurance just because an actor I know is paid to talk about it? Or I should wear a certain kind of bra just because an actress I like is paid to say that she wears it (which, by the way, didn't fit me at all)?

Unfortunately, the system works: we recognize these people, pay more attention to the ads and, for some reason, feel better about buying the products just because these people got paid to endorse them. It’s a sad statement on society that we look to others to make our product decisions for us, even when these other people are not friends and were simply pocketing a check for the odious chore of selling out.

But there’s something even more pathetic about a company that hires unknown actors to do the job. Take, for example, the ad banner below that I ran across recently. You know when they say the name of the actor that (a) they’re not famous enough for you to recognize by sight, but (b) they hope that you’ll at least recognize their name. But sometimes, when the company doesn’t have enough money or sense, neither one is true and we end up with ads like this one. I don’t recognize the face and I’ve never heard her name before.

This situation drew me in further than any famous face would have; I wanted to know more. It turns out that she’s some kind of finance person, famous (I suppose) in circles where people give a crap. This didn’t make me any more interested in the product, but at least I noticed it just because the situation was so ridiculous.

When I am King, all products will use complete unknowns for their advertisements. Products will be chosen based on the curiosity of people to find out more about the people pitching the product: Who are they? Why were they chosen? What does that have to do with anything? Why am I wasting my time finding out?

It’s also possible that consumers will then make choices based on the merits of the products themselves instead of unhealthy interest in someone paid to fake their interest in it. Alright, maybe not.


When I am King: Time to Go

When I am King...

There will be no time like the present.

Tick, tick, tick...

We have an atomic clock. Or, rather, as Wikipedia corrects me, a radio clock, receiving radio signals from an atomic clock system somewhere else. This is a comforting distinction, as I’d rather not have an atomic device directly in my house. Much better to have it in the neighbors’ house, where we can derive benefits such as accurate time while foisting the potential for a core meltdown on them. They’re nice people, I’m sure, but they’re not us.

Centrally located in our kitchen, the clock is in the perfect place for a timepiece that always shows the correct time. Even amidst the uncertainties of as many as two (2) time changes per year, due to the incomprehensible and hopelessly outdated “Daylight Savings Time” tradition, our clock will always tell us what time it is right … now.

Or at least that was the theory when we bought it.

In practice, our atomic clock is just a clock. It either doesn’t talk to the atomic clock server, or it doesn’t bother to listen to the conversation. I think that it must be a teenage clock, knowing with deadly certainty in its acne-covered head that it is right, and that the atomic time server is an old fool.

So when the Daylight Savings Time change occurred a few weeks ago, we gave it a couple of days to get its act together. After that waiting period, we took the thing down and changed the time manually, as usual. Honestly, I don’t know how we manage it twice a year: reaching up, taking it down, spinning the little minute-hand wheel, and then hanging it back up on the wall. It’s all a bit too much and we have to take the next several months to recoup the energy to do it again in reverse. It’s a good thing that the time change doesn’t occur more often.

My wife called me yesterday to inform me that the clock had just adjusted itself. So now it’s an hour early, since we’d already, at great personal energy expense, set it back an hour. Again, I detect adolescent behavior at work, with a petulant, “You want me to change my time, Fine! There, I did it! Happy?!?!” [followed by the slamming of a virtual bedroom door and the boosting of heavy metal stereo volume to tsunami levels somewhere in the house of time]

I liked the idea of the atomic clock - no more worry about whether the time was incorrect; it would just work. But between its relationship difficulties with the time pulse, the draining of its batteries, and the fact that it doesn’t actually keep time that well to begin with, it’s worse than a normal clock without the fancy atomic-clock feature.

With a normal clock, I’d know to keep an eye on it and would never completely trust its information without checking some backup source. But with this kind of device, you feel like it must be right, making its mistakes a continuous surprise. It’s like having an untrained dog versus one that is mostly trained. With the untrained dog, you keep him confined to areas he can’t destroy and can mostly keep things from going off the rails. But with a dog that is mostly trained, you trust him enough to have the run of the house, and eventually come home to find your leather shoes in his mouth and a steaming pile on your bed.

Even a broken clock would be more dependable - at least it would be correct twice a day. The atomic clock runs constantly slower than the real time, guaranteeing that it will only be correct when we bother to reset it, which happens twice a year.

I thought the clock on my phone would serve the same purpose - it’s talking to some time server out in the ether (probably costing me serious airtime minutes in the process - after all, time is money). So its time is always correct. Until you go out of service, like on a plane or in a sub under the Antarctic, or in a great coverage area when the mobile network is feeling despondent. Then you look at this dependable time piece and it says nothing, because you told it to get the time from some service that it’s not on speaking terms with at the moment. So now you have to set the time manually, but the only time you know is the one from your phone, which isn’t very helpful at the moment.

When I am King, there will be no more time. It’s so difficult, never quite knowing what the real time is, or whether your clocks are lying to you. Moreover, it’s stressful having appointments scheduled at exact times, trying to figure out what time it really is, being late because you had to get a coffee on the way and then had to go to the bathroom because of the coffee and then you met someone outside the restroom that you hadn’t talked to for a while and grabbed a coffee with them, and had to go to the restroom again where you met someone else and had a conversation with them. By the time you get to the meeting, it’s over and everyone is upset just because your clocks weren’t giving you the correct time. So no more: time will be a thing of the past.

That’s all for now - it's time to go.


Things I Believe: Thoughts for Friday

Don't cry over spilled milk. Cry over the bleeding wound caused by its container.

A rolling stone gathers no moss, so there's nothing to cushion the blow when it hits.

A stitch in time saves nine, so doing no stitches at all saves ten.

A thing of beauty is a joy forever, or until the beauty fades and they become bitter, tragic parodies of their former selves. Whichever comes first.


A Thanksgiving Poem

Today is the day when we gather together
And digest as much as we can.
We eat way too much and we drink even more
With our friends and our family clan.

We celebrate something of pilgrims and Indians
Sharing their meat and their bread,
Taking a break from gathering harvest and
Beating each other till dead.

But mostly we gorge ourselves over and over
On everything we see before us,
Like turkey, potatoes, and stuffing and gravy;
A greasy, masticating chorus.

So I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving today;
May you eat till your stomach is puffed.
Inhale all you can of the food that you see.
In short, I wish you’d get stuffed.


Things I Believe: Thoughts for Friday

All journeys begin with a single step, as do falls from great heights.

All things come to he who waits, except the time wasted waiting around for things.

Don't burn your bridges behind you. But if you have to choose, it's probably better than burning them in front of you.

Don't change your horse in midstream, unless it's drowned. Then it's probably a pretty good time to find a different ride.


For Goodness Sake

As is probably obvious by now, this blog is all about educating you, the innocent bystander that just happened to click on a link that took you here instead of to that site with cat videos that you were actually searching for.

In pursuit of that higher goal of learning, today's article is about the ancient Japanese art of making Sake, the rice wine traditionally consumed when you're in a Japanese restaurant feeling culturally open and guilty about the micro brew you really wanted instead.

I visited the Takara Sake plant in Berkeley yesterday, in an effort to understand more about this important element of alcoholism, and because it seemed like something to do on a Saturday afternoon. I highly recommend the visit as well as the tasting. But in case you can't make it there yourself, I thought I'd teach you a little about how Sake is made, gleaned from long minutes spent in the Museum of Wooden Things and from the video they showed (a very professional affair, interleaving scenes of serious artisans carrying bags of rice and windswept ponds).

First, it's important to realize that Sake is a true wine. You can tell this in the illustration on the right, from a diagram showing the steps of traditional sake making. In this step, we see the men stirring the rice with their feet. Despite access to the abundant wooden stirring implements that we'll see below and these things called "hands" (which the men in the picture clearly own), they chose to use their feet, realizing that this is what makes a real wine.

The next thing that struck me as I wandered through the large Room of Wooden Things was how many different types of buckets and sticks Sake making entails. There were placards and different names for all of them, but although my knowledge of Japanese is somewhat minimal (I can pronounce the word "Japanese", but after that it gets a bit sketchy), I'm fairly certain the translations of the placards would have said things like "large stick", "small bucket", "stick with handle", and "large, misshapen bucket".

Of course, the previous display was just an initial sampling of the vast array of sticks and buckets they used. To the right was another set of sticks leaning casually up against another wall, as if after a long day of stirring.

There were also smaller sticks used, as seen to the left.

There were also sticks seen mingling with buckets,  foreshadowing the more complex tools seen below.

At this point, the tools got far more interesting as they started combining functions. For example, in this piece we see the powerful discovery of putting a stick into a bucket.

And in this exhibit, we see a fundamental leap in thinking as sticks and buckets got combined into wholly new stick-bucket tools.

The advances seen in the stick-bucket prototypes above were refined into these more advanced, and quite substantially longer production versions.

Perhaps the most important advancement in sake tooling came when another stick/bucket combination resulted in this triple combination of a long stick and two buckets.

The final, and quite startling, piece on display was this altogether new tool, neither a stick, nor a bucket, nor a stick-bucket combination. You can see it next to the flat sticks to the left. It is, obviously, a hedgehog.

 That's all for today's lesson about sake making. I hope you learned as much as I did.


Things I Believe: Little Thoughts for Friday

Those who live in glass houses shouldn't.

Time waits for no man. It waits, instead, for a woman named Irene, who's very, very late.

Absinthe makes the hearth grow flounder.

Beauty is only skin deep, which explains why someone's so ugly when you cut their skin away.


Sunday Comics: Sound Logic

I've always wondered at the difference between people like me ("music snobs", according to my wife), and people who care deeply not about the music itself, but rather the quality with which the music is reproduced (heretofore referred to as "audio snobs"). 

I've done some research and have created the following Venn Diagram to help others understand the important distinctions in these demographics.


When I am King: Buy the Way

When I am King...

We will buy only what we can actually use.

What is our fascination with Costco? Do we really need that much of anything?

I was there the other day, pacing the aisles, and came across some scissors. “Great!,” I thought, because we had only one pair at home and they were broken. Clearly we needed new scissors. Perfect timing.

I ignored the fact that I was buying a pack of scissors - not a pair. And not just two of the things - this pack had three pairs. But I was fine with that, happy in fact, because this meant we’d have back up pairs. So when one breaks, you can just reach in the drawer and pull out another one. No need to rush to the drug store in the middle of the night to replace the scissors - just root around in the junk drawer and pull out the next pair. And I had proof at home that the things do break, so this was obviously a good thing.

This rationalization completely ignored the fact that we’ve had that broken pair at home for the last two years. At no point did the situation escalate into a scissors emergency. The only time it ever occurred to me to replace them was in that aisle in Costco. There is no “emergency” with scissors - just situations that might require a bit more time and care in cutting. Or the use of, say, a knife. Or teeth.

But somehow, we’re brainwashed in that massive store into thinking that we need these huge things. And lots of them. Potato chips? Love ‘em - gimme that 10 pound bag. That taquito tasted pretty good - I’ll have a bushel. And my, isn’t that a great deal on a steamer trunk full of car batteries?

One of the reasons for the overabundance of things in each package is the currency that Costco uses. It’s based on the U.S. system, but works a bit differently. In the U.S., we’re debating whether the penny should still be in circulation; it costs more to produce than it’s actually worth, and rounding off to the nearest nickle seems like a fine workaround (tragically unfair to President Lincoln, but then he probably won’t know). But in the sovereign state of Costco, they have done away with the penny entirely. And the nickel, and the dime, and all coinage for that matter. They’ve also eliminated the one and the five dollar bills. They have made the ten dollar bill the minimum denomination; everything in that store costs at least $10.

They obviously want to sell items that actually cost less than $10 in the real world, so they make it work by just throwing as many of them in as it takes to get to that minimum price and then shrink-wrapping the whole ugly bundle together. That’s why I have enough disposable razors and Q-tips to last me until the zombie apocalypse. I’ll have the cleanest brains those zombies will ever slurp.

Meanwhile, we all need larger and larger cars and houses just to transport and store these items. SUV owners might claim that they buy their cars for their wild, off-roading lifestyles, but we know better. I’ve seen Expeditions slow to a crawl just to cross a speed bump in the grocery store parking lot, truly an exciting expedition for that family.

No, we all need these monster vehicles just to fit our purchases from Costco. We also need bigger houses to keep the stuff. This explains why in California, where we don’t have basements, nobody parks their car in their garage. Instead, it’s where we keep the stacks of napkins, and boxes of diced tomato cans, and pasta packs that cannot fit in the house.

It shouldn’t be called Costco, it should be called Bomb Shelter Depot. Why else would we need so much damned toilet paper? Only when the Big One hits are we going to justify all our stockpiling efforts. Of course, that’s when we’ll realize that we were really good at storing shipping containers full of ramen noodles, but didn’t happen to set aside any drinking water.

When I am King, we’ll all buy just what we need. More like the Native Americans. When they hunted, they killed just what they needed and they consumed it all. They didn’t buy a herd of buffalo and stick them in the bench freezer. Heck, they didn’t have basements either, or even garages; where would they have put the things?

We need to return to that model: figure out what we need, and buy that. Simplify, scale it down: purchase, consume, repeat. Except for those potato chips, because they look really good. And I know I might to need a second stapler one day, so I’ll just get that two-pack now.


When I am King: Age-Old Solutions

When I am King...

There will be no more mid-life crises.

The mid-life crisis is one of the most significant moments of our lives. It is the turning point where we go from thinking that anything could happen to knowing that nothing did.

It’s the out-of-fuel part of the journey, that time on the highway where the gas tank Empty light goes on, and you see nothing but prairie and tumbleweeds for miles around. All you can do is to ease off the accelerator, turn off the air conditioning, and turn up the hope as you coast toward your fate.

It’s also a time to take up new hobbies, like heavy drinking and visiting the doctor. It is the time of life for which television shows like Jerry Springer were invented, to help you realize that no matter how bad things are for you, they could be a lot worse.

But all of this is such a waste of energy and drain on our society. There are so many other things that we could not quite achieve in our lives, if only we could continue to make the pointless effort.

When I am King, the mid-life crisis will be a thing of the past. Or, rather, it will be a thing of the future. Medical advances will greatly extend the human lifespan, using everything from robotics to formaldehyde. Mid-life will, necessarily, be extended by years as well, allowing us decades more of productivity before we recognize our inherent uselessness and insignificance.

The best part is that medical advances will extend how long we live, but not the aging process, so we will still be getting senile in our 80s and 90s. This means that if we can manage to hold off our mid-life crisis until the same time, then we’ll have the added advantage of combining these maladies. So while a mid-life crisis may be just as torturous and meaningless as it always was, our senility will ensure that nobody will notice, remember, or care.


When I am King: Filling You In

When I am King...

We won't need dentists.

I went to the dentist recently and was told I’d need fillings. That’s pretty normal - my teeth attract cavities like nerds attract bullies. It’s just the natural order of things.

The annoying part was that I needed fillings … to replace my fillings. The dentist said, “You have some older silver fillings. We have to replace those because you can get cavities under them.”

Hold on - they want to fill teeth that have already been filled? Why is that fair? I’m pretty sure the dentist manual says that they’re supposed to fill cavities. Moreover, once those cavities are filled they’re supposed to go rooting around to find more cavities to fill. They are definitely not allowed to go looking back at filled teeth to see about re-filling them. They’ve been there, done that - my filled teeth have done their part and sacrificed themselves for the greater good of my mouth. Now get the hell away from them and go find something real to charge me for.

The problem could be that there’s not much enamel left in my mouth for them to poke and prod. My set of teeth simply don’t provide a fertile soil upon which the dentist can plant future profits. So she’s looking for other ways to ply her trade. If your only tool is a little metal pointy thing, everything looks like a cavity. Even a filling.

When I am King, everyone will have artificial teeth. I’m pretty sure it’s the only way to keep the dentists and their sadistic ways away from our mouths. People think that Jaws, the James Bond villain, had those metal teeth for some nefarious purpose. Not true; he just hated dentists. And if they tried to fill his teeth anyway, he’d bite them.


Things I Believe: Little Thoughts for Friday

 Life: If it's so great, why are people dying to leave it?

Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. So answer your damn phone and put it on vibrate already.

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. And massive debt.

A picture is worth a thousand words. Words like, "Is that oatmeal on her chin?" and "Does your camera know how to focus?" and "Was this picture really worth the cost of the frame?"


Joke Like a Pirate Day

In honor of Talk Like a Pirate Day:

What's the letter between T and V?
Arrrrrr! (pirates don't know their alphabet)

What does a cat say?
Arrrrr! (pirates don't have pets)

What does a parrot say?
Arrrrr! (He thought you said 'pirate')

Describe the inherent conflict between the Ego and the Id in modern society
Arrrrr! (pirates like one-word answers)


Things I Believe: Thoughts for Friday

Two heads are better than one, unless we're talking about acne.

The longest journey starts with a single step toward the car.

Too many cooks spoil the broth, unless you're making human broth.

Diamonds are forever, like styrofoam and nuclear waste.


When I am King: Statistical Significance

When I am King...

Statistics will be .3% more productive.

I read the following on a news site recently: “The productivity of U.S. workers slipped 0.3% during the second quarter, after falling 0.6% the prior quarter.” And I thought, what am I supposed to do with this information? Should I type faster? Think more cleverer? Stop visiting the bathroom so much and use the jar in my office instead?

Where do these statistics come from? (Don’t answer that, economists. I guarantee I won’t be interested in the real answer.) More importantly, what should we do with such abstract information? It’s like someone knocking on my door in the middle of the night to tell me the iron content of my drinking water - am I supposed to care?

I think the real reason that they tell us these things is so that we can worry more.

We have so many truly scary things to worry about in this world: terrorism, natural disasters, employment, our health, more reality TV shows - the list goes on and on. Each of these things is real and could affect us at any time. If we really thought hard about them, we’d die of stress long before any of them could actually do us in.

That’s where these other worries come in: they make us think about completely intangible ideas, complete with meaningless numbers and data. We’re so busy worrying about all of these things that we can’t possibly understand, much less do anything about, that we spend less time worrying about the ones that will actually kill us. In so doing, we live happier lives. It’s not that we’re less stressed or have less worries; in fact these things give us far more to worry about. But it’s a less focused and reasonable worry, and therefore a safer one.

When I am King, I’ll have my ministry issue statistics on many more things for people to think about. Why limit ourselves to economic growth and productivity data? What about body fat density averages? Number of donuts consumed per capita, per day? Number of tweets per hour, as a national average and per region? Tubes of toothpaste capped, with charts? Beers consumed per day: weekend vs. weekday?

We’ll be so busy trying to understand the data that we won’t even have time to worry and will lead .7% more productive lives.


Things I Believe: Thoughts for Friday

As ye rip, so shall ye sew.

Putting lipstick on a pig isn't so bad. It's kissing the pig that's the problem.

Don't put the cart before the horse, unless it has a motor with more than one horsepower.

Don't upset the apple-cart - it can be a real bastard when it's mad.


When I am King: O Canada

When I am King...

Everything we own will proudly display our flag.

Way back before the dawn of time, when I was a student traveling around Europe, I noticed the Canadian travelers. It wasn’t that I noticed those people more than others, but I noticed that they were Canadian. It’s not that they looked any different than other travelers, or dressed differently, or acted any less “I’m a student tourist” than anyone else on the circuit. And it wasn’t because of their cute accents, eh? It was for the simple fact that they all had, to a person, Canadian flags pasted very visibly and obviously on their backpacks.

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago while traveling in Washington, D.C. There, the embassies litter the city like gum on a sidewalk. You can’t walk ten paces without passing the embassy of some country (probably one you’ve never heard of - there are a lot of those).

Most embassies are subtle; they are generally nice buildings with a small plaque near the front door telling you what it is. If you’re lucky, there might be a flag, but generally nothing so obtrusive.

The Canadian embassy, meanwhile, was awash with flags, flying in the breeze like so many towels after a big day at the beach.

These grand showings of national pride confused me because I didn’t associate major nationalistic behavior with our neighbor to the north. After all, this is the country whose national anthem has a title that reads more like someone just remembering what it was they were going to sing about, “O.... Canada”. Or maybe they’re wondering how to pronounce it, or if it’s really worth all the bother, “Ohhhhh, Canada?”

The great Canadian hero Dudley Do-Right didn’t do much to sway my opinion of their nationalistic fervor.

Meanwhile, I’ve met Canadians over the years and of the words that come to mind, “nationalistic” is not one of them. “Humble”, maybe. Or “pale”. But not “nationalistic”. I mean, this is the country that still has the Queen of England's face on their money. It’s like their still living in their parents’ basement (even though they’re really in our attic).

So what gives with the flags on all of the backpacks?

Well, I spoke to one of them. I hired a local interpreter to translate between our dialects of English (translation apparently consists of added an “eh?” to the end of each of my sentences. So Canadian English is actually a variant of Pig Latin, eh?). It turns out that the backpack flag is not so much a statement about Canada as it is against the U.S. That is, the Canadians that I asked said that they mainly didn’t want to get mistaken for Americans, so they put the Canadian flags on their backpacks to make sure that didn’t happen.( As if: they look totally different from Americans, eh?)

So they weren’t proud to be Canadian, just proud to not be Americans. I suppose this is an extreme form of humility, where you define yourself not by your own characteristics, but by those of people near you.

In any case, it got me thinking: I think it’s a great thing to make a clear national statement with your clothing, your buildings, and your camping accessories. Let these accessories say a little about who you are. Or, in the case of Canadians, who you aren’t.

When I am King, we will take the approach of our friends to the north (i.e., Canada. Unless you live in Alaska, then they’re your neighbors to the East. Or if you’re Hawaiian, they’re not really your neighbors at all, just some people from a colder place. Much colder. Like a whole country made out of shave ice.). We will fly our flag proudly. But it’s not enough to fly it on our embassies; we will put it on everything we own. Babies will be tattooed with the flag, teenagers will fly flags from their piercings, clothing will be patterned only in the flag’s colors and styles.

I even have the flag already designed. Sure, it’s early days, but you can never be too careful with something as important as your nation’s flag. Here it is:


The Greatest Disappointment

I watched the original Star Wars movie this weekend with the kids, and relived the greatest disappointment of my childhood: the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Actually, the death scene itself was lovely. You got to see him evaporate as Darth’s light saber hit him, like the witch in the Wizard of Oz. Darth was left alone, kicking the robes and wondering what just happened. “[shhhhhck] Hey! [shhhhhck] Come back here, old man! [shhhhhck] That is not fair, I totally cut you in half. [shhhhhck]”

No, the disappointing part was the aftermath of this battle. Before he died, Obi-Wan told Darth, “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.” Then he waited until he saw Luke was watching (which is more than a little creepy), raised his weapon and let himself be popped like a piñata.

This was an awesome lead-up into something wonderful. Would he become a god and smite Darth? Would he become Luke’s protector? Would he add power to the light side of the force, like some human turbo-booster? Or was he just screwing with Darth and wasn’t going to die at all? I couldn’t wait - it was going to be fantastic.

And then.... nothing. Zilch. Except for a couple of “Use the force, Luke” and “Hey, Luke, listen to me, you young whippersnapper!” Obi-Wan became a total non-force in the story. He returned for a couple of lame cameos in episodes V and VI, but didn’t do much besides play a supporting role as a low-res hologram, mumbling on about the force and how kids these days should listen to their elders more.

This awesome warrior let himself be killed just to end up as a minor cameo character spouting soundbites; that was the greatest disappointment of my childhood.

The greatest disappointment of my adulthood was years away and would come in several installments: Star Wars episodes I, II, and III.


Thank You, United Airlines

Thank you, United Airlines, for the stunning customer service available exclusively on your awesome website. I haven’t been provided such prolific up-selling since the last time I went to McDonald’s. But fast food joints only offer me more fries and soda, whereas your site allowed me to choose from a myriad of ways to spend hundreds of dollars.

Thank you for starting out the experience with an ad in the middle of your home page for luxurious travel packages completely unrelated to the reason that I came to your site.

Thank you for putting up an ad instead of a progress bar while you searched for flights, so that I could read about how I can now pay you $349/year so that I can check my bags for free. Imagine, only $350 to get back to the good old times a decade ago when bags were always free. Wouldn’t you pay $350 to spin back the clock hands and do it over? Wouldn’t you?

Thank you for posting a price that didn’t happen to mention the extra fees of another 10% on top of the price you quote. If there’s one thing I don’t want to be bothered with when I’m shopping, it’s those pesky details about how much things actually cost. I don’t know how many times I’ve used a Sharpie on the Denny’s menu so that I can choose my breakfast Slam with flagrant disregard to the price.

Thank you for putting up an ad for your mileage program after I chose my flights, because I know it was time-consuming for your servers to take me from the page with the flight choices to the page with just the ones I chose. Why, it probably takes a supercomputer to calculate all of those extra fees that you didn’t bother me with on the previous page.

Thank you for the sidebar ad for your credit card, which I was eager to read to take a break from all of those details about how much my $408 flight actually cost. And how convenient that you gave me the opportunity to get a credit card; I was wondering how I’d pay for these tickets.

Thank you for the offer to join your Red Carpet Club during the lengthy transition from the page that asked for my name to the page that offered me seats. If there’s one thing I want to spend money on, it’s an entry fee to a room in which I can spend my time luxuriously while waiting in airports when you've canceled my flight or made me so late that I miss my next leg.

Thank you for the opportunity to upgrade from your standard sarcophagus seats to your more roomy caged-veal seats. And for only $39 a leg, that’s less than $80 each way. Why, that’s quite a deal when you think about what a square foot of rental space costs in a good neighborhood these days. Of course, that money only buys me the space for the four hours of flying time, but I'm sure it's worth it.

Thank you for the multiple other opportunities to rent more legroom; I enjoyed getting to read the same offer on every single seat selection page. As I like to tell my kids over and over, “Anything worth saying is worth saying again.” Or even four times, as in this case.

And finally, thank you for putting up a beautiful, dedicated page of offers before I could actually purchase tickets in a last attempt to sweet-talk me into the same upgrade options that you presented me with several times already. And there's nothing more enjoyable to me than having my decisions questioned by people that don’t know me. And the best part? You conveniently selected all of the “I really want to give United more money” options, so that I could easily find myself buying those wonderful upgrades for a couple hundred bucks. It was sweet of you to offer, but fantastic for you to assume.

All in all, it was wonderful to see how such a successful company (the largest airline company in the world, according to a rousing speech by the CEO that we all enjoyed listening to on the airplane televisions before every flight) can, through the wonders of the web and a brilliant advertising strategy, prostitute itself every bit as well as those kiosks that sell mobile phone cases in the local mall.

Thank you, United, for helping me to consider using any other airline next time around. Or maybe I’ll drive.