Thursday, December 11, 2008

Report from Houston - "It's snowing like a pig down here"

Well, you just never know. It snowed in Houston last night. Not just a little, but plenty. We had an inch in our NE suburb. There were 2" or more in other eastern areas. Of course, most of the area just saw flakes in the air for a little while. But we had some big-flake, wet-packing, snowman-rolling snow last night.

Key quotes:

"Put on a sweater and your Crocs and come outside - it's snowing. "
"Can you find the remote and turn on the fireplace?"
"The hot chocolate is too rich."

A story from the past - "It's snowing like a pig out there".

My freshman year in college was spent at the Honors College at Louisiana State University. How I got there from Chicago and why I turned down several Ivy League offers cannot be easily explained. Regardless, at winter break, one of my new good fraternity friends came to visit me in Chicago.

His name was Jim Marvin, but we knew him as Chaulkie. At the time and to this day I don't know how he got that nickname. He was born and raised in New Orleans and had never been north or seen snow. I remember he had a great love for Elton John (? - OK, whatever).

So Chaulkie came up to Chicago, and on the first night, made a dozen trips outside to scan the sky for snow. I explained that it doesn't snow all the time. In fact, even if snow is forecast, it didn't necessarily mean we'd for certain get snow.

But Chaulkie was persistent. He continued to diligently check for snow. Forlorn, he saw no snow on his first night in town. Nor his second. He was getting impatient. So, when on the third night the slightest flurry was seen, he came running into the house to report it. I dutifully went out to observe an occasional, miniscule flake.

Undeterred by the lack of magnitude, Chaulkie stayed outside, ever vigilant. I returned in to watch an old movie. About an hour later, Chaulk blew the door open, and breathlessly exclaimed, "Guff, Guff. It's snowing.......". He was at a loss for description. I took it that the flurries intensified a bit.

"Guff, Guff. It's snowing like a PIG out there.".

The phrase has liven in infamy ever since.

Chaulkie never could explain the pig reference. It's ironic, as a pig reference was totally out of character for him. He wasn't a bumpkin from the bayous. He was a New Orleans city kid. Pretty darn sophisticated.

Sadly, for me, the story doesn't end there. Seeing the light dusting of white powder on our black tarmac driveway, Chaulkie expected a soft, downy landing place for me as he tackled me to the pavement. Such behavior was typical male bonding. Kind of a fraternity boy gesture of endearment. Little did he yet know that it would have taken about half a foot or more or the white stuff to ensure a painless fall.

Nonetheless, Chualkie's excitement lives on. The phrase "snowing like a pig out there" is now well known to a couple dozen of my friends who have heard this story over the years, and as of last night, to my kids.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

13 Degrees of Dorkness - or – Triskaidorkaphilia

My 13 Degrees of Dorkness
- or –
A Multidimensional Proof of Personal Dork Behavior
A dork resume, if you will

Dimension 1: This description, byitsownself.
Including use of the phrase "If you will".

Dimension 2: Dorkness in the Workplace

The technical people in my department consider me not technical enough. Too managerial. There are 500 of these people.
Everyone else in my company consider me a techie. There are 49,
500 of these people.

Dimension 3: Community Dorkness

I oversee the largest summer youth swim team in Houston. How did I get this volunteer job? I started by running the computer systems. Now I’m in charge. Bummer.

Dimension 4: More Community Dorkness

I’m on the board of a terrific charity started at my golf club, Golfers Against Cancer. We’ve raised $16 million dollars that has been donated directly to innovative cancer research. All volunteer. Virtually no expenses. It’s awesome. All the high rollers in my town and many across Houston and beyond participate. What is my role? Website, audio visual (at the
1000 person gala dinner), documentation, PowerPoint. Oh, a few insightful ideas that have been beneficial. Half my strategic plan has been implemented. Plenty of hard partying, networking, brainstorming, and arm-twisting for big donations. But deep down, I’m the computer guy.

Dimension 5: CrossDork
I live for the NYT crossword puzzle, shirking significant daily responsibilities in order to do the puzzle. Fortunately this takes well less then 10 minutes Monday to Thursday.
Yet I only complete about 1 in 5 Saturday’s. Actually, closer to 1 in 10. I consider Rex Parker my personal savior and lord.

Dimension 5: Let your Dork Flag Fly

Finalist in the M5K Oregon flag redesign contest.

I mentioned my entry to the Oregon flag contest to a golf buddy, who spends a few weeks in Oregon every summer because his wife is from there. He asks how it went.

“Well, I think I won. Kind of. Anyway, my flag was submitted to the governor. I don’t think anything’s going to happen with it though”.

Months later, golf buddy asks “Whatever happened to that Oregon flag thing?”

Me: “Well, I don’t think the governor took it seriously. He might not even really have known
about it”.

Golf Buddy: “What do you mean? Wasn’t it an official contest?”.

Me: “Well, it was more an internet blog thing. This guy who has a blog ran it.”

GB: “Oh, an internet thing.”

Nonetheless, now that the contest has gone mainstream, I expect to win Oregon and begin my career as the worlds foremost flag designer, splitting my time each year between summers in the villa in Tuscany and wintering in Palm Beach. Yes, I think it’s still the 1950’s.

Oh yeah. Consider that I mentioned the flag contest to a golf buddy. Serious dorkness. Don’t do this. Possibly a dimension of its own.

Dimension 6: The Heart of Dorkness

I have purposely withheld reading other blog entries for Dorkfest 2008 in order to ensure that my entry is unadulterated and uninfluenced by any other entry. No derivatives. No embellishments. No one-upmanship.
My sense of sportsmanship is unrivalled and unrealistic, as demonstrated by the following diatribe. Due to this naiveté, I will be taken advantage of repeatedly in my lifetime.

Dimension 7: Perfect Preparation Makes for Perfect Dorkness

Morgan? Ha!. Let’s roll back the clock to May. The M5K Decathlon Afterparty.

Phineas’ comment on May 17, 2008: “Initial entry for Dorkfest 2008: I actually studied for the M5K Decathlon.”

Reply from M5K: @Phineas: “Second entry for Dorkfest 2008: You are already planning for Dorkfest 2008.”

I continue to study. For the M5K Decathlon 2009.

Dimension 8: Published Dorkness
I write articles for an adoption magazine that no one reads. I’m hoping they still publish it, though I’m not sure. And I’m a subscriber.

Dimension 9: Dork Reading Material – My Current or Recently Completed Reading List
A combination of topics so diverse as to be schizophrenic. Where are those pills, anyway? I frequently ask myself – why would I want to read THAT? And the answer is always the same. THAT is so cool.

I used to read a lot related to my profession, whatever that is. I recently learned that when I transferred to Houston a number of years ago, my new boss and a coworker entered my office while I was out of town and asked each other, “Do you think he really read all those books?”. The coworker (my boss last year), now admits, “Yes, he certainly did.”

  • Pnin, Nabokov
  • Lolita, Nabokov. Actually, The Annotated Lolita. I read all the annotations. Twice.
  • God Is Not Great, How Religion Poisons Everytihng, Hitchens. Not original (see Betrand Russell), but interesting. Especially if you personally know (knew) more than 10 Catholic priests who are currently serving time.
  • Silk Road Journeys, Colin Thubron. Highbrow travel writing. Serious. Grab-your- dictionary level highbrow writing. Poetic too. I wouldn’t believe me if I were reading this description. You really ought to check him out.
  • Beyond the Great Wall, Colin Thubron
  • Chances Are: Adventures in Probability. Kaplan and Kaplan. ‘Adventures’ was not the best word choice for the subtitle.
  • The Match, The Day the Game of Golf Changed Forever, Frost. An entire book about a single golf match that took place in 1956. Got it in July. I’m reading it for a second time now.
  • 5 books on poker. OK. I didn’t read them this year, but they’re still there next to the others on this list.
  • Ulysses. Yes that one. Read it for the 11th time since 1983. How do I know this? Because I keep a log inside the front cover.
  • Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell. Solid. Enjoyable. Cleverish.
  • Rightful Resistance In Rural China (Cambridge Studies in Contentious Politics), O’Brien and Li. A sociology /political science textbook. Bought for my birthday off my amazon wishlist. This is not my field of study.
  • Never Let me Go, Ishiguro
  • Clasics of Western Thought: The Twentieth Century, Gochberg. Textbook from college. Twentieth century only 4/5’s over at the time. Cool to know now what happened next.
  • The Mysterious Montague, A True Tale of Hollywood, Golf, and Armed Robbery, Montville. It is a true story.
  • A Free Life, Ha Jin. Notice the China theme. Notice that once you make a name for yourself you can make a living writing most anything. Publishers. A mildly loyal following. Tenure. Got it made for life. Maybe not free, but made.
  • The Return of the Player, Tolkin. OK – only read it because I kind of liked the movie The Player. OK. I liked Greta Scaachi a lot (who was in the NYT puzzle recently). REALLY liked the gag in the movie where Tim Robbins’ character ordered a different brand of bottled water by name, complex, long winded name, in every restaurant he entered. Never repeated a name. No waiter ever questioned his order. Classic.
  • Bradbury Stories: 100 of his most Celebrated Tales.
  • National Gallery of Art. With 315 Illustrations. It doesn’t help as much on the TMQ as you would think.
  • The Alaska Reader: Voices from the North, Kremers and Hanley, eds.
  • The Collected Stories, Amy Hempel
  • Extreme Weather, A Guide and Record Book, Burt
  • Pale Fire, Nabokov. Need Nabokov bookends on this list, seeing as how he’s the greatest writer of the latter 20th century and all.
All these books reside in, and have been read nearly in their entirety, in the water closet in my master bathroom.

Dimension 10: Dork Testimonials.

I have requested that several people write testimonials to my dorkness. None of them even remotely questioned the mission and purpose. They’ll be posted shortly. My wife and daughter squealed with glee upon being asked.

Dimension 11: Dork in the Kitchen

Despite the senseless diversity of the items described above, all I really care about is food and cooking. I write a blog that has received 2 comments lifetime. I obsess over the blog and it’s potential entries, dream of it’s popularity, envision it’s utility and purpose serving home cooks of all ilks, despite the dearth of posts and the neglect I s
hower upon it.

But really you ought to try the Fennel and Coriander crusted grilled tuna. And these cucumbers. And Albuquerque butter. And………….

Dimension 12: I Lied.
All I really care about is alcohol. I’m going to fix myself another Vodka Tonic. That would be an Absolut Kurrant and diet tonic, no lime.

Dimension 13: That’s Not All, Dorks
The essence of my dorkness is diversity. I’ve specialized in diversity to the extant that I’m not a specialist in anything but. Pretty darn good in a few things. Maybe.

But shouldn’t one direct their talents in a manner that provides contributions to the chosen field? Shouldn’t one advance the cause? Isn’t it madness (dorkness) to obsessively commit oneself to so many disparate endeavors as to wreak identify confusion? Not among others, among me. All of the me’s.

But the dimensions described above are not all. Other things I do, with a modicum of proficiency, include the following. And in some cases, these are the things I’m spending time the majority of my time on.
  • Classical Guitar playing
  • Cabinet Making
  • Children (making them and caring for them).
  • Friendships.
  • Exercise
  • Music (thankfully you’ve been spared the musical diversity list).
  • The Arts (outside the home).
  • The anti-Arts – as in, watching crap TV. Though Iron Chef America is awesome.
  • Sports – especially college football (go Hawkeyes), the Cubs, Bears, Olympics, Tour de France, and on and on.
  • Golf. Oh yeah, I got this far without discussing THE MOST IMPORTANT ACTIVITY IN MY LIFE.
Enough is enough. As one twisted individual, I submit my dorkness to you.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Post Backlog

1. Evacuation from Hurricane Ike (or, How to have a hurricane party every day for a month).
2. Weekend in Austin with the Day Family
3. Wisconsin Boys Golf Weekend 2008
4. Our Family Vacation To Washington DC. It was a BLAST. Really.
5. Lolita Followup - don't wait for this post. Just read Nabokov. Anything. Now. He's unbelievable.
6. The History of the World As Told to a 10 year old boy Project

Since there are no readers of this blog, I hope an apology for laxness is not needed. If anyone (M5K) happens to stumble across this rare post, I'll promise that the Hurricane Evacuation story should prove enjoyable and is already partly composed.

Phin /Tom

Friday, June 20, 2008

360 Feedback and 360 Participation – Part 1

As I’ll reference briefly in my write up about Taos, I’ve been part of an exciting but demanding project at work known as a PLT - Performance Leadership Team. The project is being run in parallel with 3 other projects, all of which have similar dual objectives: substantial improvement in our department’s effectiveness, and personal leadership development.

The projects were chartered by the senior management team in our department, and are following a facilitated approach as laid out by a consulting partner. The partner firm has used this approach at our company over the past few years with tremendous results.

The specifics of the project are not relevant to my blog, but the personal development aspect and the techniques we’ve learned are what prompt me to jot down the following thoughts.

360 Participation

In the course of getting our project off the ground, our team of 10 people had specific planning tasks to perform in a 3 day workshop. Most of the “real work” was initiated with the following technique, which I’ve labeled “360 Participation”. This technique can be used to analyze or plan nearly anything.

  • 5 to 15 minutes of individual analysis / idea generation, with each idea or comment written on to a post it note. Sometimes the notes were color coded for various purposes.
  • As a group, each person supplies one post-it comment at a time to a facilitator, who collates them into groups of related items (on a flip chart, white board, window, etc.). Exact duplicate comments are often just passed forward en-masse.
  • As each item is presented, it is explained, but not judged or discussed, along the lines of the traditional “brainstorming rules”.
  • Work around the table / room collecting one comment per person until all comments are aired.

Once the groups of ideas /comment are assembled, the analysis phase begins. This might be selecting the top N ideas, prioritizing all ideas or mapping out interdependencies – at this point it’s based on the topic and intent of the exercise.

The value obtained by this technique is powerful for multiple reasons:

  • Using written comments allows for more ideas, criticism and wild-ass fliers to be put forward without judgment
  • Everyone’s voice is heard. A strong personality cannot dominate the discussion.
  • No analysis is done until all comments are presented (classic brainstorming)
  • Duplicate submissions of the same idea create a kind of built in voting / prioritization system (in most cases)
  • The process is so simple it requires almost no explanation or preparation
  • And also – it’s FAST.
  • And it’s really (REALLY) effective

Right away I used this approach with one of my teams to analyze our first use of a new process - what went right, wrong, and so on. I can guarantee that the quality of the content produced was above and beyond what we normally produce in free form group discussions. Besides causing me to shut up, it brought the ideas out in an orderly fashion. We spent exactly 10 minutes to get comments written and organized, then spent 15 minute planning next steps. Very, very efficient, with much higher quality in our ideas.

I’ve since used it in other team settings, including in an executive level session related to hurricane response planning.

Summary - this is an interesting and effective technique that can be applied in many situations. All you need are a few sticky notes.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Sara Lee - my sister in law

We've spent the week in Chicago, owing to the sudden passing of my sister in law Sara. Sara was diagnosed with a non-specific neuro-endocrine cancer in March of this year. An initial attempt of chemo was ineffective, yet no one expected that she would succumb so quickly.

Last Saturday Margie flew up to Chicago to visit, but again, there was no expectation that Sara was close to the end. On Sunday night Margie reported that Sara looked quite good; yet she took a downward turn that night and only made it to Monday afternoon.

Sara was the lone in-law to the Lee family for many years, until Margie and I were married. Sara and I bonded quickly and reveled in our mutual roles as outside family observers. Given how passionately Sara took to her avocations, we were always close, especially in our shared love of cooking.

For someone close to die young and unexpectedly is a shock, and causes one to take stock of family, friends and self. The process and thoughts will continue to roll through our consciousness for some time, and there will surely be no adequate conclusions reached. The primary thing I have been considering is the dedication Sara showed for her children, and how well prepared they are to make their way in the world as adults (the youngest currently being in college). To follow her example and achieve a portion of her results would be an accomplishment for anyone.

And what was her example? While it was not likely an explicit plan, I think Sara's approach to securing her children in the world was to establish them in a safe and productive environment. Normally that would imply her household and that which was close at hand to her family. But the environment that Sara protected and improved was much larger. It was her community at large that she nurtured, clearly with the intent to providing a healthy and productive environment for her children. As she connected with the causes that struck her, she increased her involvement and leadership, to the point that she had integrated herself deeply into the community. She involved herself in the schools, strategic planning and village government.

In this manner, she taught her children about leadership and activism, by her own example and actions - a powerful method indeed.

Yesterday at her memorial service, the lines stretched outside the funeral home, into the parking lot and wound around rows of parked cars. The 100 seats planned for the formal service were inadequate and an impromptu move the church next door was enacted. By my estimation 250 people or more attended the fitting tribute to Sara.

Her obituary from the Chicago Tribune follows.

Sara Stassel Lee 1957 ~ 2008

Glen Ellyn trustee and civic leader

Volunteer was active in numerous village organizations

| Special to the Tribune
May 29, 2008

Sara Stassel Lee, 50, whose passion and vision for Glen Ellyn led her on a civic path from school volunteer to village trustee, died Monday, May 26, in her home after a three-month battle with cancer.

"Sara's a great example of a mom who stayed at home to raise her children but still found ways to serve and become a very vital part of her community," said her husband, Peter "Chip" Lee.

Elected a Glen Ellyn trustee in 2005, Mrs. Lee previously was as a member of the Planning Commission and Comprehensive Plan Committee.

"Sara's passing is a tremendous loss to our community," said Curt Barrett, Glen Ellyn's acting village manager. "She was a wonderful, warm and vibrant woman who brought a wide mix of talents to her role as a civic leader. Her contributions were well-rounded and many and included schools, churches and recreational activities. She had a true love for our village and reveled in serving it in any way she could."

An Indiana native, Mrs. Lee was born and raised in La Porte and attended local schools.

She graduated in 1979 from Purdue University, where she majored in consumer and family services.

In 1980, Mrs. Lee married her husband, with whom she had three children.

The couple lived in Wheaton before moving to Glen Ellyn in 1995.

While raising her children, Mrs. Lee was a member of the St. Petronille School Parent Organization and the Glenbard High School District 87 Strategic Plan Committee, for which she was named Volunteer of the Year. She was a member of the Citizens Advisory Council for Glenbard South High School and the DuPage County Regional Office of Education's Advisory Board.

"She found time and energy to invest in our children's schools," her husband said. "Whether you agreed with her or not, she always did her homework and came prepared to any meeting she ever attended."

Mrs. Lee was a member of other civic groups, including Keeping Educational Excellence a Priority, the Community in the Park Committee and the Glen Ellyn Vision 2000 Youth Committee. She was a longtime member of the League of Women Voters and a volunteer voter registrar for DuPage County.

"So often, people figure out their interests, find their niche and then volunteer their time and energies accordingly," Barrett said. "With Sara, there were no limits to her contributions. She stepped up for just about everything."

Other survivors include two sons, Peter and Jonathan; a daughter, Jennifer; her mother, Lucille Stassel; and a brother, David.

A memorial visitation will be at noon Thursday in Williams-Kampp Funeral Home, 430 E. Roosevelt Rd., Wheaton, immediately followed by a 2 p.m. service at the funeral home.

Sunday, May 18, 2008


Still woefully lax about blogging lately. But I just sent this note out to the 220 families on our local swim team, and would like to snag it for posterity by throwing it in to this post.


Sorry for a second message tonight. But I'd like to touch on the important subject of sportsmanship, which is especially relevant this week. Our meets each year with the Greentree and Sand Creek teams are always strongly contested. This strong spirit of competition is one of the great dimensions of participation in the summer swim program.

Please encourage your kids to live up to the challenge of great competition by also showing great sportsmanship at our meet this week - and for the entire season.

We all know that some of the fiercest competitors are also among the greatest sportsmen on and off the field of play. My background is golf, not swimming - so I point to Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus. These great athletes were known for significant achievements; accomplished through a relentless personal drive to achieve greatness and to dominate their opponents. Yet at the end of every competition - and it's worth repeating - every competition - they were gentlemen who respected the challenges presented by their opponents.

Will you indulge me in two stories from yesterday's meet that bear repeating? Thanks.

A young Wahoo swimmer was mouthing off a bit on the ready bench, taunting the Waves swimmers nearby. One of our Waves was trying to respond, but couldn't get much past "Oh yeah, well...., well....". A board member quietly spoke to the Waves swimmer and said "How about if we are more polite today than they are?". His eyes lit up and he nodded his head. In part, he seemed relieved that he didn't need to find a way to trash talk back to his opponent. When he started his race, he took off on a tear and from 4th seed in his heat, he won handily. The trash talker followed in the next heat, and not surprisingly, finished last.

Another exchange was between two girls from the Wahoos. One teammate looked to the other at the start of the race and quietly whispered "good luck". Her teammate was a little surprised, and asked her to repeat what she said, then understood. The first girl swam hard, but didn't finish ahead of her teammate. As she got out of the pool, she looked at me and said "I really wanted to beat her today, but at least I improved my time.".

Good sportsmanship already abounds at our meets. But in the heat of our strongest battles it is easy for kids, or even parents, to lose sight of this. So - talk to your kids about how awesome it is to face a challenge, try their hardest and then see what the results bring. But most importantly, share with them that how they behave during and after the battle is what will make them a great person.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Where are the blog updates?

Simple. In mid-February for the second year in a row, we had a significant re-organization in my department. As a result I picked up responsibility for managing our two data centers in Houston and Austin. This is in addition to the other teams I oversee, and no, there was not a substantial raise associated with the additional work. The beatings will continue until morale improves.

I've enjoyed the new work immensely, in part because it's an area of IT that I've not had much exposure to in the past, and also because there are some great opportunities for improvement in several areas. In fact, we're undertaking an ambitious program surrounding "green" activities related to power consumption and emissions, so there's an exciting new thread to weave into routine data center work (if only we could eliminate the sense of simply being on the latest bandwagon).

Another key factor keeping me from the enjoyment of blogging - and it is a pleasure to me - is the start up of the swim season. This is my first year as president of the FMKP Waves Swim Team, so there's quite a bit new on my plate. The team is doing well, with 246 kids enrolled during the first Saturday of registration.

Plans for this blog

Earlier this year I resolved to focus this blog on family-related updates - and not so much of a personal journal. However, not having a structured approach could allow it to fall into disrepair. So I plan a monthly update, centered mostly around family news, targeted at the Chicago, DC and Houston relatives and friends.

Plans for my other blog

My other blog, What Tom Cooked, has also suffered from the hectic activities in the past month and a half. However, I am firmly committed to that effort. The pattern I fell into was one or two updates per week, describing the more involved meals that I cooked either for Ms. Finn, the family or parties. This will continue.

There are two purposes behind that blog: to provide critical review of the recipes I choose to cook, and to serve as a searchable index of past recipes. I'm forever paging through old copies of Gourmet or some cookbook trying to find some dish that we remembered as a hit in prior years.

To the (few) readers of this blog and WTC:
  • If you've linked to this blog, considered linking to the cooking blog - it's more applicable to a wide audience, and I'm far more passionate about it than this blog. .
  • If you have enjoyed either blog - please leave more comments. I think folks new to blogs who have heard about my sites are not familiar with the comments feature.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Great Films: Ecstacy

In the Phineas household we maintain a carefully negotiated balance of power in which Ms. Finn controls all meaningful decisions. This is particularly true of movie selection. And while she’s drawn me into her net with The American President and Notting Hill (both of which I openly enjoy and even admire in a way), my attempts at reciprocation continue to fail. The most recent salvo, “You’ll like THIS Woody Allen movie for sure” barely made it past the first 15 minutes.

So while she was out camping with our oldest daughter last weekend, I broke out an unopened copy of Ecstacy, the famous 1933 film starring Hedy Keisler, later known as Hedy Lamar. This movie is known most for its open nudity and sensual eroticism. But beyond that I didn’t know anything about it – not actors, director nor plot.

This is a wonderful movie that you should definitely seek out. There are a few flaws, but they are minor compared to the compelling story that is told almost wordlessly. The “famous” scenes are beautifully filmed, and central to both the plot and tone of the movie. The director Gustav Machaty alludes to the impending passion of the protagonists with an extended scene showing the animal magnetism of two horses – and while one run-away horse is central to the plot, the heavy handed imagery is clumsy. He uses this device – extended scenes using animals or insects – several times, only once to great effect.

Not remembering Hedy Lamarr from any notable films, yet knowing her from constant reference in Bob Hope's 1960's TV specials, I wasn't sure what to expect. What you'll find is a slightly plump, somewhat flatchested teenager, not a voluptuous pin up. She woudn't be cast today as a fat friend, but she sure wouldn't be the leading lady either. I also can't stop thinking of Hedly Lamarr from Blazing Saddles, the producers of which were theatened with lawsuit by Hedy's people.

The Plot: Young Eva marries an older, successful businessman who spurns her on their wedding night. After a divorce and return to her father’s mansion (she certainly wasn’t attempting to marry up) she encounters the swarthy young supervisor of a road crew. After discovering his sensitive nature, shown in brilliant counterpoint to her husband in parallel scenes involving insects, she falls for him. This leads to a love scene that would be considered racy up through the 1960’s, let alone 1933. Since the plot is not complex, but highly engaging, to reveal more would spoil the remainder of the film.

Dialogue: While this film was made just a few years after “talking pictures” were introduced, it seems closer to a silent film and uses the sparse dialogue to powerful effect. The first words weren’t spoken until almost 20 minutes into the film, and weren’t needed until then either. There is effectively no dialogue between characters. Rather, one speaks and the reaction of the other is expressed without words. Wonderfully performed and filmed.

Visuals: I’m anything but a film student, but suspect that the camera work and editing were greatly advanced for their time.

Prognosis: This is a movie you should definitely seek out. Chuckle over the symbolic scenes from a distance while you refill your glass of wine.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Rat


No - not a post about the Year of the Rat - of which I am proud to claim as my birth year. Rather something quite different.

Last week, infamous blogger Michael 5000 posted a
moral puzzle, in which he somewhat satirically posed an ethical dilemma. Four people escaping a sinking ship with a lifeboat that only holds three, who do you save? He didn't just describe who the people involved were, rather he painted a detailed and at times hilarious picture of what impact their lives would have had if they were to survive. It generated a lot of discussion.

The situation I describe below is far from hypothetical and I propose that there were some significant real life choices, including the potential for long-term emotional damage to my children. Well, if not emotional damage, at least long term phobias or really unpleasant memories.

Given the readership of my blog being nearly no one, I don't expect much discussion. But who knows - as this ain't no "black box" problem at all.

What Would You Do If You Observed a Rat Being Bludgeoned Next to Your Dinner Table?

You'd get up and leave immediately, right? Well, maybe it's not as simple as you might first think - depending on who is at the table with you.

The Scenario

Here's what happened, as expressed in my recent communication to the restaurant involved.

Ocean Palace Restaurant
11215 Bellaire Blvd.
Houston, TX 77072

Dear Sir or Madam,

On Saturday, February 2, I brought my family to your restaurant for a dinner celebrating the adoption of one of my daughters from China. We have enjoyed your authentic Chinese cuisine many times in the past and expected a similar experience.

While dining, we noticed a commotion among wait staff and bus staff immediately next to us. Moments later I observed a bus boy beating a large rat to death with a broom. The rat was approximately 6 inches long, with an 8 inch tail. After stunning the rodent, the bus boy swept it into an enclosed dustpan and exited past my table toward the front entrance of the restaurant.

We were seated on the lower level, right side, at a table next to the bus area in the center of the room. Our table was next to the divider between the seating and bus areas. From the seat I was in, I could look straight into the bus area where I observed this incident.

Because I was dining with four children, ranging in age from 4 to 12, I chose not to alarm them by immediately leaving the restaurant, or telling them about what I saw. Neither did I want to give my two adopted daughters from China a negative, if not horrifying, impression of Chinatown and it’s restaurants. However, my wife and I now bear that discomfort.

I am deeply distressed over this incident, and must respectfully request that you refund the cost of my meal, which totaled $105 plus a $15 tip for a total of $120. I have provided my contact information below, and trust that you will handle this matter promptly and to my satisfaction.



Additional Information
  1. At dinner were my wife - to be known on this blog henceforth as Ms. Finn, my three children, ages 4 (4 and 5/6 if you ask her), 10 and 12, along with a 12 year old friend.
  2. My oldest and youngest are girls who were adopted as infants from China.
  3. We are a middle-class family with Irish, Scottish, Dutch and Lithuanian roots.
  4. We have few inherent connections to Chinese culture, other than what we've experienced traveling, reading (albeit extensively) and limited interactions with coworkers and neighbors.
  5. We hold as valuable that some exposure to Chinese culture is an important facet of raising our daughters.
  6. The restaurant is one of the largest and best known in Houston. It seats 1800 people. It is beloved by the large Chinese community, and when we dine there, there are very few non-Chinese customers.
  7. Of the 300+ people in the restaurant at the time, the only customers aware of this situation were me and Ms. Finn.
  8. The presence of rodents is probably an unavoidable occurrence in many restaurants. In all likelihood, their mere presence would not affect the meal you are served on any given day. But it is a possible sign of cost savings on extermination services.

What I Did

To start, as I watched this happen, I was informing Ms. Finn, who fortunately was not able to witness the details, though she heard the broom repeatedly hitting the floor/rat. The kids were busy tormenting each other in innumerable ways, so they were blissfully unaware of what was going on.

Consideration 1: Whether to leave immediately.

If we did that, we would either have to explain why, or lie to the kids. I don't mind a little creative diversion now and then, but after going well out of our way to BE at this specific authentic Chinese restaurant for a celebration, it would have been highly suspect to leave. The older kids would want an answer, and we'd not be able to give a legitimate one.

Worse, we could leave and refuse to give the kids an explanation - and probably scare them equally as well.

Consideration 2: If you stay, you'll be eating food shortly thereafter.

We were within seconds of having our appetizers served. While this lead to some squeamish feelings as we barely nibbled on BBQ pork and sesame jellyfish, I had trouble convincing myself that this one rat would have any affect on the meal we were about to eat. If the restaurant has a rat today, it probably has had them before and will have them again. The kitchen is in a different area than where the rat was. The restaurant serves 1000's of meals per week, and if there were rampant food-borne illnesses, they would already have been shut down.

Consideration 3: Our girls impressions of "authentic" Chinese restaurants, Chinatown and the local Chinese community.

We've balanced a healthy respect for Chinese culture against artificially trying to force it upon our girls. Eating authentic Chinese dishes in Chinatown is one of our few mainstream connections to China. OK - this isn't a deep cultural connection. But at least we're surrounded by Chinese speakers, eating traditional dishes (e.g., ordering a whole live fish) and traveling in an area populated by many Asian peoples. And we're not forcing surface-level activities onto the girls, somewhat pretending we're Chinese. It's a reasonable integration activity.

But what if the rat incident makes it impossible for us to bring them to such a restaurant again? Or to bring them to Chinatown again? Could this incident implant an impression of Chinese people - here and in China - as slovenly people living in rodent infested conditions?

So we considered that potential damage, and decided to stay for the meal.

Consideration 4: Would you pay for the meal?

I'm on shakiest ground here. I was thinking that a confrontation with a manager would send the same signal to the kids that I was trying to avoid by staying. "Why is Daddy over there arguing with that manager?" In fact, I should have spoken to a manager immediately, in private, indicated that we'd stay, but not be paying for our meal. On the other hand, I just watched a rat get beaten with a broom, so I wasn't on my best game. Thus, the after the fact letter.

Lastly: Of course, I reported the incident to the Department of Health. I also plan to never eat there again - despite this being contradictory to why we stayed instead of leaving immediately.......I know.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Oregon State Flag

Cyber friend Michael 5000 is a bit of a flag geek - well, not really just a bit. After recognizing the extreme suckitudiness of the flag from his beloved home state of Oregon, he's issued a challenge to redesign it. Here's a great way to kill an hour on a Saturday morning. My entry:

Obvious choices of natural green and blue, with the blue signifying the ocean more so than the sky. The stand of evergreens is intended to also evoke a sense of a skyline in the Western portion of the state, recognizing growth and sophistication integrating with natural beauty.

The outline of Mt. Hood represents my dominant first thought of Oregon. I first call up natural beauty, with mountains and dense stands of trees; that is followed by images of meandering streams, which might also be hinted at in the silhouette line drawing. Then I think of Nike and Tiger Woods and how they systematically created a major presence in the golf industry, but that doesn't really matter.

Also, by way of flag design principles, it looks pretty good in reverse, too.

So there it is. Now if only Michael will forgive me and d for doubting that the Estonian consul replied to his notification that Estonia won M5K's award for Best Flag.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Pinewood Derby over the Years

An exceedingly busy week and a half eliminated any chance of a blog entry here, with a huge project at the office, annual start up for the Waves swim team, and another annual activity that is a highlight in our house - the Cub Scout Pinewood Derby.

This year Alex and I made an ice cream sandwich car. This design was first considered two years ago, and I'm glad we finally built it. In fact, it would have been far easier that what we built those years, with more steps in which Alex could safely use power tools back then. Even though Alex will never win the "most likely made entirely by a scout" award, this year he did more power tool work than ever before, did some of the hand work (which was almost non-existent) and he did 100% of the painting. My contributions fell to a little band saw work (but Alex did half), routing the edges and installing wheels.

Not that this blog is going to ever be a source for Pinewood Derby tips, but we did something this year based on experience, that would help lots of people. We used purple painters tape (the lightest hold, lighter than the ubiquitous blue tape) to wrap the white parts of the car while graphite was being applied to the wheel areas and while wheels were installed.

To those not familiar with Pinewood Derby, it's a model car race, primarily conducted by Cub Scouts. It began in the early 50's in California, when a dad with a young son didn't want to wait until his kids was old enough to build a full size Soap Box Derby car (those are the ones that kids sit in and ride down a hill). He invented a small model - 6" long - and a track, to allow younger kids to get the racing bug. It took off and was quickly adopted by the Scouts. Some other organizations such as YMCA and Awana conduct similar races.

Though I was only a scout for one or two years, I recall attempting to whittle a car with a dull pocket knife. Not only is this not going to lead to much of a car, it also is dangerous for a kid. The majority of cars constructed rely on sandpaper and elbow grease, with maybe a few hand tools. The top cars from a design standpoint are closer to mini sculptures.

[ Note to those who don't know me - I've built furniture as a hobby for 15 years, and have a complete woodworking shop in the garage. Building / sculpting a small car is not too tough in our house. ]

Nearly every kid and the majority adults think that air resistance ought to be a factor in obtaining speed. Mais non, mon amis. The surface area is too small and the tops speed is too slow for this to really matter much. What does matter in Pinewood is friction and weight, not in that order.

Since the cars are started on a downward sloping incline, gravity has a say in the proceedings. Thus the heavy car develops (faulty scientific claims here - beware) the greatest initial momentum since the forces of friction are minimal among these objects heading down a steep hill. The typical weight limit for Scouts is 5.0 ounces. So it's in your best interest to get your car to the maximum limit.

But once the car reache
s the flat of the track, the forces of friction take over. This is where races are won and lost. It is not uncommon to see a lead car get passed on the flats by car that has less friction in play. Especially if the lead car is heavy with poor friction control, and the surging car has excellent friction reduction.

How to reduce friction? It's all in the wheels, axles and where the wheel hub touches the body of the car. First - the axle is a nail, which has a small burr left on the inner surface. This burr needs to be removed by sanding. Using a drill in a vise or drill press, one uses sandpaper to grind off the burr. Most people do this, but for a truly fast car, it needs to go further. I like to us
e the expression "sand it down until it shines like machine tool". Using progressively finer sand paper, keep sanding the axle until it has a mirror finish. This year we used sandpaper in the following grits: 80, 100, 180, 400, 1200, 1500. For best results, those highest grits are used wet.

Next step - and this is a secret step I've not read about anywhere else. since the wheel's hub touches the exterior of the car, we place a dab of cryano acrylic glue right next to where the axle will be inserted into the body. While it's still wet, spray graphite
dust onto the glue spot. As it dries, continue to spray graphite. This will create a surface of hardened glue and graphite flakes - much less friction for the hub to rub against than, say, painted wood, which is what everyone else has.

Final steps include some touch ups to the plastic wheels, but mostly it's about installing the wheels true to each other, not too much play, and a really excessive amount of graphite.

Prior year results:

2007 - "The Texas Penny" - 2nd place overall (about of 70 cars).

2006 - "Banana" - 4th place overall (about 100 cars). As a young up and comer, Alex's car was a surprise. Potential controversy when at the end of the night the car slowed down dramatically in the finals, and I found what appeared to be a small smudge of chewing gum on our tire. No lie.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Five Intoxications

While listening this morning to Bach's Sonatas (BWV 1001, 1003, 1005) transcribed for classical guitar, I ran across this snippet that I saved a few months ago. I don't remember where I ran across it.

According to the thinkers of the East, there are five different intoxications:
  • Of beauty, youth and strength
  • Then the intoxication of wealth
  • The third is power, command, the power of ruling
  • And there is the fourth intoxication, which is the intoxication of learning, of knowledge.

But all these four intoxications fade away just like stars before the sun in the presence of the intoxication of music. The reason is that it touches that deepest part of man’s being. Music reaches farther than any other impression from the external world can reach. And the beauty of music is that it is both the source of creation and the means of absorbing it. In other words, by music was the world created, and by music it is withdrawn again into the source which has created it.

Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927) Founder of the Sufi Order in the West

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

2007 In Review - Part 2

5. A couple good and a couple memorable rounds of golf. Father in law Pete spent much of the month of February with us. We played several rounds together, as well as Pete getting a few weekday rounds in with Paul S. I think I played well - around 80 at my home course, Deerwood - as I remember saving a card for posterity. Same with my dad in December. 39 on the front side of Deerwood in 40 degree weather, soft fairways, fast greens and a double on #1.

Other top rounds of the year: Birdied 18 for a 76 at Redstone with Paul C the day before going to Alaska (also a nice surprise getaway that day). 80 at Erin Hills, beating JN - who admittedly was still recovering from a wrist injury - but that score on a tough track in high wind was great. 79 at Deerwood just after Christmas in same cold, wet conditions - birdied 10, 11 and 15, tap in par on 18 for 36 on the back.

6. NY Times crossword - moved from Mon-Thur caliber to Mon-Fri, with some Saturdays. All Sundays are now in range too. This was aided greatly by NYT providing access to premium puzzles to regular paper subscribers, and the discovery of Rex Parker. Without the analysis from Rex, I would probably stumble more often on recurring obscure words, and would not have the insight into the difficult Sat puzzles. Now getting about 1/2 of Saturday done most weeks, and have finished a few without help.

7. Classical Guitar. Got hold of a beautiful Giambattista G6b this summer, and
realized that waiting until retirement to pick up classical guitar was foolish - why wait? Using the 30 minutes or so in the late evening when M. gets ready for bed, I no longer watch the news, or whatever, and play instead. Add to that are some early weekday evening time, including bedtime songs for Amy. This holiday break I had a couple long sessions (1 to 1.5 hours) which were very enjoyable.

Working through studies assembled by Ben Bolt which include Carcassi, Sor, Guiliani, and others. Also have gotten hold of 4 tablature transcriptions of Sor's Opus 35, 25 studies for guitar. These are among my favorites. Last night while playing #1, Amy made up words to her own Opus 35 #1 song and sang along.

8. Blogs, the Thursday Quiz and some cool bloggers. I was lead to other blogs by links from the Rex Parker blog. I fell instantly for the Thursday Quiz in the Life & Times of Michael 5000. Wish I could do the Monday quiz, but the images don't render onto my office PC. From there launched into the blogs of many others around the country. Most of the more conscientious bloggers seem to be academics or artists, and many of the blogs are somewhat angst-driven by younger bloggers. But to glimpse into these people's lives is intriguing, and leads to various personal reflections: "I remember.....", "Thank god I'm past.....", "What if I had done.....". Mostly good thoughts.

9. What Tom Cooked. This here blog, Notes from the 3DBB, serves a only couple simplistic purposes. Specifically, it's an easy way to post the China Adoption articles to share them with others. Secondly, it's an outlet for a few mildly amusing stories, reportage and introspection. A few minutes at lunchtime in the office, or at home the in evening, and voila - there's a simple post for my own posterity.

What has really gotten me jazzed up about blogs is What Tom Cooked. I've always regretted not keeping a cooking journal, and can't even put my finger on why I've not done so. However, to quickly dash off a post to the cooking blog seems effortless.

The benefits:
- Capturing the non-recipe stuff - some are pretty good, but all are easily forgotten. Especially if a creation is based more on leftover ingredients, or pantry items - it's easy to never think through the same process again.
- Provide original sources for menus and recipes - too often I lose track of where a dish came from. Even if I know it was from a Gourmet issue, it may be monumental to determine which issue if I want it several years later. Though I create menus for big parties and holiday meals, I don't always note the source. This is a key purpose of my WTC

Future benefits:
- I've always wanted a forum for reviewing the recipes in Gourmet each month, and same for the limited number of cookbooks worth using. Doing a monthly review of Gourmet's offerings may be beneficial to many. And an archive with cookbook reviews may be good too.
- The day-to-day messages I've composed in my head for years on how to cook now have a home. Maybe the "Everyday Cooking" idea can take better root, by first capturing my many lessons and observations on cooking via the blog first.