Friday, September 30, 2005

Striking out on the way to first base

First, this administrative update: The long-promoted NPR story on (cable shopping network) QVC and entrepreneurship aired yesterday on NPR's Day to Day. the archived audio can be found here.


The traffic meters on this site (not to be confused with the Traf-O-Teria traffic meters mentioned yesterday) indicate that Saturday is by far the slowest day for this feature. So we'll jump the gun on the monthly posting of our humor column from Northern Arizona's Mountain Living Magazine, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Longest Magazine Title for a Free Magazine. Also, the Red Sox-Yankees series this weekend is a good excuse to post a column on baseball, if for no other reason than it'll get my mind off whether the Red Sox pitching staff is actually the reincarnation of the group that pitched for my Wheaton Boys Club team in 1981. If Jason Varitek signals for David Wells to throw a "straight ball" this evening, I'll know for sure.

While we're at it, commentator Susan Orlean's NPR piece on the mystery of why "Sweet Caroline" is played during the 8th inning of every ballgame at Fenway Park was a great piece of radio, and worth checking out (after you've listened to my story on entrepreneurship, of course).

Anyway, here's this month's column:


It’s October, which means we baseball fans have only a precious few days left to discuss the importance of batting lefty against a right-handed pitcher, the unsung heroics of veteran second basemen, the evils of the designated hitter, the endless cycles of renewal with the advent of each baseball season, the – HEY! COME BACK HERE!

You’ll have to excuse me – avid baseball fans like me are a little paranoid that our game has fallen from the mantle of America’s pasttime in recent years. That’s partly the fault of inflation – steroid-inflated muscles, inflated statistics, grossly inflated salaries, inflated ticket prices. But there are also far more distractions today (arena football, televised skateboarding, Supreme Court nomination hearings) than there were when our grandparents were busy throwing away our parents’ baseball cards.

Casual baseball fans often complain that baseball is kind of boring. I’ll concede they sometimes have a point. My second year of college included a class on the literature of baseball (demonstrating just what Maryland taxpayers were willing to support in the ‘80s), in which our professor insisted that one of the appeals of the sport lies in its relationship to “anthropological vegetation myths.” He might be right, though to prove it, I’d need to learn exactly what an anthropological vegetation myth is. But it seems unlikely that a NASCAR fan would connect stock car racing with say, the fertility cycle, or Fermat’s Last Theorem, or evolutionary biology. (Come to think of it, stock car racing and evolutionary biology may be mutually exclusive concepts.)

If you don’t know exactly what’s going on, watching baseball can seem less exciting than watching televised Scrabble (“Ooooh! A double-word score! That’s gotta hurt the challenger’s chances, Bob.” “Boy, you’ve got that right, Ralph. But look! He’s spelled ‘zygote’! What an amazing comeback we’re witnessing…”).

But the experience of going to a football, or a basketball game is a pretty one-dimensional exercise: You go, watch the game, drink a beer or ten, shout at the referee, get stuck in postgame traffic, and go home. During the game, the crowd makes so much noise, you can hardly hear the PA system, let alone have a conversation with the person next to you.

Baseball, on the other hand, plays out over three or four hours, allowing you the opportunity to sample a variety of cuisines (tubular, liquid, frozen) through the course of a sun-drenched afternoon, while missing a minimum of game action. You can study the game and anticipate the manager’s next move. And during lulls in the action, the atmosphere of the ballpark is such that you can contemplate the game, or consider its connection to anthropological vegetation myths, or even have a meaningful conversation.

To this day, I can remember an afternoon in the Lower Reserved section of Veterans’ Stadium in Philadelphia one Spring day in 1988. The Phillies were changing pitchers, and I finally had a quiet moment alone with a girl on whom I’d had a life-threatening crush for months. The late afternoon sun cast her face in the loveliest of glows. It was now or never. I turned to her and said… “You know, the Phillies really ought to bring in a left-hander.”

You know, maybe the end of baseball season isn’t such a bad thing after all.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

What's the penalty for improper use of fabric softener?

It's been pointed out that in my most recent post to this feature, I made the wrong observation about the ticket stub I discovered in the windbreaker I was wearing the other day. I thought it was vaguely interesting that I was wearing a jacket that first graced my hall closet 13 years ago.

A more careful reader of this column(thanks, Mom) thought it was more interesting that I apparently haven't washed the windbreaker in question in more than a decade.

It is a bit frightening that it may, in fact, be the case that this jacket hasn't seen a washing machine since it inadvertently left the equipment stash of the Cornell College track team. (I, of course, was never a member of any track team - several of the jackets made their way to the baseball team's bullpen on a particularly chilly night.)

On the other hand, I am just strange enough that I can easily envision a scenario in which I removed all the contents of the jacket pockets, washed the jacket, then duly returned the contents to the original locale, figuring Hey, I might need something to look at while I'm in line for a movie.

If that was, in fact, the case, it means this other vintage artifact has been in and out of my pocket a few times. Officer 872 of the Lisbon (Iowa) Police Department apparently issued me this ticket at 3:15 one January morning in 1992.

And it elicits a few more vaguely interesting observations:

First, it leads one to wonder how the City of Lisbon determines police officer badge numbers. With a population in those days that hovered around 1,000, it seems unlikely there were 872 officers on the force. On the other hand, having Badge #3 would seem pretty podunk. Also, what must Officer #872 have done to tick off his superiors that led him to be on duty in Lisbon, Iowa at 3:15 a.m.?

Second, the bottom of the ticket notes that as of 1992, the City of Lisbon's tickets were, in fact, Copyright 1953. I imagine the $5.00 fine for parking on Main Street between 2:00 and 6:00 am was a stronger slap on the wrist in the '50s. "Traf-O-Teria" does still seem to exist as a unit of something called Butler County Printing. It would also be a good name for a parking-themed restaurant. So would "Yellow Curb Bistro".

Finally, the 19 Minutes staff would like to note that the $5.00 fine was due to be paid within 48 hours, which seems a mite harsh. It also means that the fine is either 4,994 days late, in which case a warrant on the 19 Minutes staff has been out for more than a decade -- or, I paid the fine 13 years ago, but hung onto the ticket just in case a good use for it ever came along, such as the thentofore not-yet-invented weblog concept.

And it's 19 miunutes past the hour.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Pledge drives and Chrysler products

It’s getting close to pledge drive season here in Public Radioland. An odd concept in the 21st century media, to be certain. Despite the fact that public radio has resurrected Edward R. Murrow’s seminal “This I Believe” series, it’s difficult to imagine Murrow taking to the airwaves and saying, “Because you’re listening, we know you value the programming we bring you each day…”

On the other hand, it’s the ultimate in accountability. If we’re not doing things right, people won’t contribute. Commercial broadcasters get feedback in the form of people boycotting their advertisers, an indirect pressure at most, since you never know whether consumers would have just stopped buying "Axe Body Spray", anyway. Not that they should have started.

But the public broadcasting paradigm is weird, too, because people not only get high-quality radio in return for their investment, they also get… stuff. Coffee mugs. T-shirts. DVDs. And yeah, tote bags. If you think about it, it’s like the Crest people saying if you buy our toothpaste, not only do you get an effective dentifrice, but we’ll throw in a mitre box. Or if you buy two tubes of toothpaste, you’ll also get a bikini. (A pretty good deal, and an big opening for floss jokes.)

You do have to wonder what happened in the development of public broadcasting in the United States that led someone to hit on the idea of offering tote bags as an incentive for people to contribute to their local TV or radio station. As a news director, I’ve been privy to plenty of audience research data, but strangely, none of it indicates whether public radio listeners, as a group, have more stuff to tote around than the rest of the public at large.

At 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters, one of the most popular thank you gifts in our recent pledge drives has been a crank-powered AM/FM/short wave radio. This may be because it’s a pretty cool device, but it may also be because as a demographic group, northern Arizonans have a staggering number of backpacks per capita, and therefore require few tote bags. (In northern Arizona, babies simply aren’t cool unless they sleep in a Gore-Tex bassinet.)

Still, whether we’re talking tote bags, or crank radios, or Nalgene bottles, the goal is never to obscure the central message of a pledge drive – namely, that the public is the key factor in keeping public radio strong.

It’s a lesson other sectors could stand to learn. Real estate agents tout the re-sellability of houses, rather than whether the house is someplace you’d want to live. People choose a dentist based on whether he or she offers DVD movies as a distraction while a tooth is being filled (whatever happened to music by the 101 Strings?).

Baseball stadiums are increasingly judged on the strength of their non-baseball amenities: Is there a play area for the kids? Can you buy sushi? Does it have a swimming pool? (Then it'd be a good place to wear that bikini you got from Crest.)

Still, I’d have to concede that going to a baseball stadium in 2005 is often a more entertaining (if not necessarily cheaper) experience than it was in years. This observation came to mind after I discovered a ticket stub from a 1992 minor league game in a windbreaker I was wearing the other day. And it was a more remarkable observation than the fact that I was wearing a 13-year old windbreaker.

The ticket stub was from a Hagerstown Suns (who were then a AA-level team) game hyped for the fact they were giving away a car. It wasn’t a skill contest and we didn't have to buy a raffle ticket – they were simply going to draw the name of a fan in attendance and give that person a car. The ticket featured a drawing of a shiny sports car. The innings went by until it was time for the drawing – at which point it was revealed that the night’s grand prize was, in fact, a 1984 Plymouth Reliant K. Yes, a K-car! I was at the game with a friend, and we agreed that if either of us won the car, we’d draw straws and the loser would have to drive it home.

The point here is, the Hagerstown Suns obscured the central point of a night at the ballpark – the baseball game itself. Thirteen years later, I can still remember the stupid K-car giveaway, but I can’t remember which players were using steroids.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Entering Liechtenstein: Passports, please - and an audio alert

First, the Bummer Of The Day. Maxwell Smart, nee Don Adams (nee Donald James Yarmy), after surviving countless attempts on his life on "Get Smart" - "Destructo, the toy manufacturers' ultimate weapon", an exploding ping-pong ball, The Craw ("not the Craw -- the CRAW!!"), and even one of the worst movies of all time in "The Nude Bomb", didn't make it through illness in his 82nd year. Would you believe he'll be missed? The rest of us will continue to see that the forces of niceness triumph over the forces of rottenness. There's a nice rememberance on the Get Smart Page.

[Pause for a moment in the Cone of Silence.]


Regular readers of this feature will remember we produced a feature story on the QVC cable shopping channel and its impact on entrepreneurship, after said cable channel produced a live remote broadcast from our neck of the woods.

That feature has apparently survived both Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and is now slated to air on NPR tomorrow morning. (That's subject to change, based on whether any other breaking news bumps it from the schedule.) There's a somewhat longer local version available in podcast form here.

Check your local listings for the showtime in your area.

The listings missing from your TV Guide

And now, this useful new rule of thumb: At ten p.m., when you’ve retrieved a root beer float popsicle from the freezer, popped a movie in the VCR, and gotten the laptop fired up, your 15-month old – who had been sleeping soundly since she went to bed – will wake up and require you to sing Sandra Boynton’s “Snuggle Puppy”. (Interestingly, this was a tactic that was considered and discarded by FEMA in response to Hurricane Rita.)

And a corollary to that rule of thumb: When this situation happens, don't forget to put that root beer float popsicle back in the freezer.

I have the VCR going - the classic 1998 indie film “Chillicothe”, because you were wondering -- in part because the new TV season had little to offer on a Sunday evening. Actually, the one new series I caught last week (“My Name Is Earl”, as you’ll no doubt recall from a previous posting) was the first real-live new series I’ve caught in a couple of years.

It was a fine half-hour of television, but otherwise, the network TV landscape is postively Saskatchewan-like – flat and lacking in landmarks that make you want to return.

Especially upsetting was the news that the sitcom about a hapless terrorist cell trying to adjust to life in America never made it out of development. But there are several other globular clusters that will be missing again this season from the television universe, and whose absence should be noted:

I especially miss television stations that go off the air late at night. I mean, writing as an insomniac, it’s generally a good thing that there’s TV to be seen at three in the morning – it’s better than watching the helicopters go by on the way to the hospital, and it’s often fun to try to discern the hidden meanings in “Hawaii Five-O” reruns, or at least try to catch the episode where Jack Lord’s hair moves slightly.

But being able to watch Five-O, or QVC, or 1966 boxing matches on ESPN “Classic” at 3:45 a.m. lacks the sense of accomplishment earned by staying up late enough to watch a grainy film rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, followed by an reading of John Gillespie Magee's aviation poem, “High Flight” accompanied by the 1970s-version of new age music. (Just why someone decided that particular poem was an appropriate note to end a broadcast day is still a mystery.) Even more remarkable was being up late enough to watch the station sign on the air.

With the advent of six broadcast networks and hundreds of cable channels, the other big void in the television universe is the phenomenon of truly independent TV stations. It’s what brought the Twin Cities Mystery Science Theater 3000” before it made it to Comedy Central, and its what inflicted “Captain 20” on the Washington, DC area and “Captain Chesapeake” on the Baltimore area. Both characters provided vital continuity between kids features on weekday afternoons. Captain 20 also produced a vital PSA urging children nto to attempt the supernatural feats performed in the cartoons they had just witnessed. And either character, I’m sure, would help me find the hidden meanings in those “Hawaii Five-O” reruns.

On a related note, professional hockey has returned, but no doubt without “Peter Puck”, the animated character that explained the “icing” rule in between periods on Washington Capitals telecasts in the 1980s. A cartoom character that is routinely slapped by a large wooden stick is something that’s sorely lacking on the Phoenix Coyotes broadcasts I now get to watch.

And though the high production values in TV commercials and on television retailers like QVC make them eminently watchable, none of them accomplish the same train wreck-style ‘you-can’t-help-but-watch-it’ weirdness of Carvel ice cream commercials, or the long-departed “Television Auction”, which predated QVC and the Home Shopping Network, and which featured one slime-coated guy describing the items up for sale, and his sidekick (“Wayne”, I believe it was) twirling next to him and showing off the merchandise.

So there will be some blanks on my own personal TV listings. But my movie has ended. And the TV Guide channel tells me I currently have a choice between “Killer Ants”, “Killer Jellyfish”, and “Born With Two Heads”. So things are looking up.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Some notes from the world of customer service

Here at 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters, I've long had a retailing pet-peeve. Imagine, if you will: Walking up to the counter of a coffee shop, or restaurant, or the customer service desk at a department store. Or a tire shop. You're the only one in line. The person behind the counter, engrossed in the find-a-word puzzle, looks up, comes to attention, and then says, to anyone who's interested:

"May I help someone?"

As though the use of the term "you" would be too personal, too intimate for a setting as clinical as Kohl's.

(A corollary to this pet peeve involves a similar setting, only the person behind the counter asks: "May I help the next in line?" I always look around, behind me, under tables and such before pretending to only then realize I'm the next in line.)

So the policy at one of the local Starbucks establishments (where, believe it or not, I occasionally buy iced tea) of referring to customers by their name seemed, on its surface, to be a good thing. Yet on one of those recent iced tea runs, the downside of the policy was exposed - as soon as my iced tea order (and thus, my name) was taken, it was apparently open season on the use of the word "Mitch" - starting with "Here's your change, Mitch", and running straight through, "Whoops - don't drop that straw, Mitch."

I had gone from just being the next in line to becoming a character in an uninteresing iced tea-buying narrative.

My other major pet peeve recently has been related to Volkswagen, and the company's inability to make a car window that remains in the up position. This doesn't seem like an especially difficult task. Ford manages it. Hyundai pulls it off. Even Yugo managed to accomplish it. And VW used to manage - my '87 Golf, in fact, has one window that's up so well, it won't even go down.

But my wife and I watched as three of the windows on our 2000 Jetta mysteriously went crashing down into the door, never to reappear. And a few years ago, as we drove 150 miles to our nearest VW dealer to get the third one repaired, we thought it was time to trade up to a 2003 Jetta, supposedly made with new, non-crashing window technology. And yet, I arrived home from a non-iced tea-related errand last week and of course the front passenger window went crashing into the door, never to reappear.

So a roll of duct tape and a 150-mile drive to Phoenix later, not only did the dealer honor VW's non-publicized warranty extension on its windows, but it replaced the faulty part in the driver's side window, even though it wasn't yet broken. And as far as I know, they weren't even aware of my name.

I'll tell you, it was such a shock that it almost made me want to lie down and drink a nice, cold iced tea.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Karma the Magnificent

The 19 Minutes staff has been thinking about Karma lately. Primarily, that's because we caught the premiere of "My Name is Earl" on NBC Tuesday night. We were a little leery of watching it, mainly because we were worried about all the glowing reviews of it in Public Radioland. In our mind, this associated it too closely with "Arrested Development", "Sex and the City" and "The Sopranos", all shows that apparently sail right over our heads in terms of understanding what the appeal is. Nevertheless, we caught "Earl" last night and found it to be about the most refreshing half-hour of TV we've caught since the "Odd Couple" episode when Felix tries to cure Howard Cosell's nasal congestion. But I digress. Anyway, the aforementioned "Earl" revolves around a class-less guy (Earl), who becomes a convert to Karma (though he believes it to have originated in the mind of Carson Daly) and sets about righting all his past wrongs. Best of all, no laugh track.

But we've also been thinking about Karma because we feel a little bad about using the Washington Post's website to get hits on our blog. The Post has a feature on many of its articles called "Who's Blogging?", which lists all the blogs that supposedly comment on those particular articles. I've linked to a variety of Post articles when making gratuitous pop culture references - basically, because I have no independent knowledge of Britney Spears's baby. And therefore, I get all sorts of hits from random web surfers looking for actual "information" about Britney Spears's baby.

So as noted, we feel a little bad, because the Post describes this feature as "Read what bloggers are saying about this article," and well, we're not really saying anything about the article, but merely linking to it.

So today, we'll actually say some things about articles in the Washington Post:

Let's start with the Post's exposé on spaghetti sauce, in which we learn that whole grain pasta is having a hard time catching on with some people - especially school kids:

When the Montgomery County school system tried whole-wheat spaghetti on its students, officials struck out. "It's not that they were turned off by the color of the pasta, or even the flavor," says Kathleen C. Lazor, director of the schools' division of food and nutrition services. "It was the texture that really bothered them."
Writing as a proud graduate of the Montgomery County school system, I can assure Lazor that in the 1980s, texture was one of several key problems with the food originating the in the cafeteria at Glenallan Elementary School. "Shape" was another, especially when linked to the "pizza" served on Fridays. Humans are simply not used to pizza shaped like rectangles, with the tensile strength of a wet paper bag. And we won't even begin to discuss the texture of the "sausage" that topped these pizza slices.

Onward now to the news that the New Orleans Hornets basketball team will play 35 of its "home" games in Oklahoma City as a result of Hurricane Katrina and its water damage to the New Orleans Arena: The New Orleans Hornets? Also, we fear the impact the NBA could have on the fan base for Oklahoma City's other major sports franchise, by which we naturally mean the Oklahoma City Yard Dawgz, who finished 2nd in the Arena Football 2 league.

Finally, the 19 Minutes staff is happy to comment on the, um, flap over men wearing underwear (too skimpy) and women wearing chadors (not skimpy enough) at the beach in Istanbul. It seems that both traditions have offended the delicate sensibilities of some Turks, who think everyone ought to just wear normal swimsuits - to the extent that the city actually sold normal swimsuits at a discount price. Frankly, we'd like to see similar rules posted on the beaches in San Diego. But to quote a classic song, we tend to think this is nobody's business but the Turks.

Thanks, and we now promise not to mention Britney Spears's baby, or Pamela Anderson, or Trent Lott, faulty levees, Barry Bonds any more than absolutely necessary.

Oh boy, a podcasting update

Hey all you crazy podcasting fanatics (pause as everyone hits the "next blog" button on their browsers):

The two podcasts the 19 Minutes staff is responsible for have been updated with "new" and "exciting" material - 19 Minutes: The Podcast features a September 2004 interview with Finnish ethnomusicologist Tuomas Laurinen about ritualistic songs from extinct northern European cultures, and "KNAU to go" (the Arizona Public Radio podcast) now features last week's hour-long show on Arizona and the response to Hurricane Katrina, featuring an interview with former FEMA National Flood Insurance program director Jo Ann Howard.

We also have a spiffy non-podcast related posting scheduled for later today, so check back in when you get a chance. It'll be "more" interesting, I promise.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Obscuring the spirit of college sports

The nights have turned cold here in Flagstaff, Arizona (29 degrees early yesterday morning), but not so cold that a trip to Baskin-Robbins wasn’t in order this evening. It has to be a few degrees below frozen tundra/near-white out conditions/1967 Green Bay Packers highlight reel levels for me to pass up a run for mint chocolate chip ice cream. We’re a little deprived here when it comes to gourmet ice cream, but Baskin-Robbins stands in admirably when it comes to mint chocolate chip.

I was having at my single scoop in a sugar cone, and my 15-month old daughter was busy stalking my wife’s scoop of something called “Bananas for Coconuts”, when my glance turned towards a somewhat glassy-eyed group of four college women. They didn’t look miserable – but for a group of college women at an ice cream place, they were decidedly unenthusiastic about their predicament.

I noticed their attire, and then felt a sympathetic twinge of familiarity.

Their collective wardrobe indicated that the group comprised the Utah Valley State College women's golf team, and they were in northern Arizona for a tournament. I haven’t been a women’s golfer, but I have been an athlete from an obscure college team, looking for ways to spend a meager meal allowance on the road.

Playing baseball in Division III’s Midwest Conference meant a lot of trips to restaurants where you ordered at the counter. With an admittedly mediocre team, the mood was usually lighter on the ride outbound than it was on the trip home. It was the trip out that sometimes included a stop at a pizza/ice cream parlour chain at which we’d declare it was an unsuspecting freshman player’s birthday, meaning a sundae with candles and an embarassing serenade from the wait staff.

But mostly, it was trips to McDonald’s in strange towns, the rain-delayed double-header or the blown save still fresh in our minds, deciding how to spend $12 in meal money, contemplating the long van ride home and the midterms that awaited us.

We read and hear a lot about the breaks given to some high-profile college athletes – breaks like special dorms for football players, lenient grading policies, outrageous recruiting tactics for prospective players. And sometimes – especially around NCAA basketball tournament time, we hear heartwarming stories about the lesser-known athletes, toiling in the “obscurity” of a program that rarely makes it to the Sweet 16.

But we almost never consider the athletes on the teams that have more modest aspirations. Winning ten baseball games in a season. Shooting two birdies on the back nine in the conference tournament. Beating their 100-year rival this season, even if their rival is also 1-and-8. (UVSC's golfers may well have their sights set on an NCAA championship, but probably not this year, which some quick research reveals is the team's first year of existence.)

What do you get out of playing baseball at Cornell College, or golf at Utah Valley State, or soccer at Guilford?

It’s a chance to do something in your college years besides studying political philosophy, drinking cheap beer, and having relationship crises. It’s feeling like a professional when the equipment ladies set out your crisply folded uniform in front of your locker on game days – even though you change into your uniform as the locker room is being shared by junior high school wrestlers trying to, um, reduce their weight before a meet. It’s getting an honest-to-god letter jacket that might – just might – still fit 13 years later. And in my case, it’s going out to the field to stretch two hours before a Saturday afternoon game, when the dew is still dampening the infield grass and the baselines aren’t even drawn yet, and thinking – this might not be Fenway Park, but I’ll take it.

Of course the other motivation is spending that meal allowance. And in 1992, $12 bought a lot of McNuggets. I never made it through more than 18 in one sitting – which at least means my letter jacket still fits.

So good luck to those Utah Valley State women golfers – may your next trip to Baskin-Robbins include a sundae with a candle.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Getting extrospective for a moment

The 19 Minutes staff has interviewed a few authors in our day who have admitted a certain fascination with watching their Amazon rankings rise and fall -- in the days after doing an interview, when something relevants happens in the news, etc.

We're still working on our own first book (estimated publishing date at this rate: 2017), and thus, we have no Amazon rankings to watch. So instead we must be content with checking out the Sitemeter on our blog. It's one of the little buttons over on the sidebar on the right, and it tells me how many hits this humble feature has received in a given hour, day, week, month, and year. As our budget for large billboards is rather low, so typically is the number of hits in any one hour. But we get a few.

And while we'd be happy to delude ourselves with the notion that there are hundreds of loyal readers out there, anticipating every morsel of wisdom to emanate from the computer keyboards here at the 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters, the data (and, well, common sense) dictates that plenty of folks have found their way here through various means other than a burning desire to learn what's on our minds.

A few readers make their way here via a link from [sudden use of first person ahead] my bio page in Public Radioland. We don't know what kind of impact that has on fundraising during pledge drive season, or on the high esteem our news department is held in otherwise. We do know, however, that we had more hair when the picture for our bio was taken, so we're happy that people are still visiting that page.

We get plenty of random hits, thanks to the "next blog" feature at the top of many Blogger-hosted sites (such as this one). For those of you who haven't tried that yet, go ahead and do that, but don't forget to hit the "back" button on your browser so you can keep reading this compelling prose. (We just tried it and came up with this piece of Canadiana.) I'm not sure we've converted a lot of blog-browsing readers, but it's entertaining to imagine the reactions of people coming here after reading a porn blog.

And so then, there are the hits from the people that have come across 19 Minutes HQ via the world of search engines, which gives us a nice opportunity to try to remember which blog posting mentioned "The Electric Orgasm". (And then an opportunity to cringe when we re-read the old posting.)

But this is actually the kind of hit that pleases us (What? Pleases us more than a random event caused by hitting a button on someone else's site?), because it means that we're not the only ones thinking about odd uses for Underarmour, where the heck Yilida is, and above all, Spudnik the Space Potato. (Okay, we'll stop before this turns into one of those sitcom episodes that are really just a bunch of highlights from old shows. I mean, do you believe they paid Jennifer Aniston a zillion dollars to look pensive for two seconds before "Friends" went to a flashback?)

And someday, we'll blog about those great-but-bizarre old Carvel Ice Cream commercials that were ubiquitous on east coast televisions through the 1970s and '80s. Someone's gotta be thinking about Fudgie the Whale. (Come on, we plan to write. Even the Carvel people have to know they were weird - why else would they post a whole bunch of them on the Carvel website?) We'll get hits from people Googling "Carvel+commercials". And that'll please us.

But hey, at least our sense of self-worth isn't tied to the hit counter. Not much, anyway.

(Fudgie the Whale? And what was the deal with that "Cookie Puss" guy?)

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Rushin plus one

In this week’s Sports Illustrated, columnist Steve Rushin reels off a pretty humorous list of sports imponderables – the sports version of questions like, “How come we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway?” His list included conundrums such as: “Pinocchio lied and his nose grew. So what grows when ex-Viagra spokesman Rafael Palmeiro tells a lie?”

Rushin’s is a pretty exhaustive list. But it missed a few long-time questions the 19 Minutes has had about sports, largely as a result of watching too many Air Force vs. Hawaii football games at 12:45 am on ESPN2. So rather than terming this a rip-off of Steve Rushin’s good idea, we’ll call it an addendum:

Why doesn’t Busch Stadium emit a plume of white smoke when the St. Louis Cardinals select a new pitcher?

If yachting is a sport, and driving a car very fast is a sport, and riding a motorcycle is a sport, why aren’t there any sports that involve driving a train?

Why do sports commentators and baseball’s leadership wring their hands when baseball games – which have no clocks attached to them – last for three hours, but no one seems to notice when football games last for three hours, even though they’re only supposed to last an hour?

And when will the NFL outlaw pre-game shows that last three hours?

Why do umpires and referees wear numbers on their uniforms? And if it’s so that we can identify them more easily, why don’t they just have their names on the uniforms? (And which replica referee uniforms are the best-sellers?)

and bass fishing are now popular televised sports. So when will ESPN begin showing televised paint drying? I hear OLN is planning to show “This Week in Grass Growing”.

Major-league baseball managers have been required to do it for decades. So isn’t it time we require basketball and football coaches to wear game uniforms? I can’t imagine anything would send Phil Jackson back into retirement faster than having him wear the basketball tank top-and-shorts combo on the bench.

How does NFL Films manage to make last week’s highlights look like they were shot in 1967?

Barry Bonds is surly, uncommunicative with his teammates, quite possibly doesn’t play fair, and in general has done all he could to destroy any sense of goodwill between athletes and the fans and media. Yet you see any number of people wearing Barry Bonds replica jerseys and no one thinks anything of it. Meanwhile, Brandi Chastain is the epitome of what’s good about sports – competitive, a team player, and an ambassador to her sport. Yet it’s a source of high amusement when I wear a Chastain replica game jersey. (It turns out that I wear a women’s size L.)

Why does the media think people around the country care about the fate of Notre Dame sports teams? If it’s really a way for Catholics around the country to connect with each other, why isn’t there a network showing all the games of Yeshiva University? (Or Luther College, for that matter.)

And finally, with the seven thousand coaches NFL teams have on the sidelines, you’d think one of them could keep close enough track of the game clock that they wouldn’t need a two-minute “warning”.

Tune in next time as we borrow the literary technique of James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Dave Barry, or the guy that draws Zippy the Pinhead.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

I get press releases, Vol. 22: Waggling my way towards Friday

The 19 Minutes staff spent much of this morning talking to the Flagstaff campus of something called "Senior Summer School", a program to keep retirees off the streets and out of trouble (or something). They did manage to ask far more questions than a typical high school or college class (and I've talked to plenty of them, as well). And fewer of them seemed to have a compelling interest in Britney Spears's baby than some audiences I've spoken to. And those who did, had the good sense not to bring it up in a lecture about public radio.

When the group asked me to speak -- three months ago -- I told them my talk would be along the lines of "Public Radio: Behind the Scenes" - sort of a sneak peak into the always glamorous world of public radio reporting (The tote bags! Diane Rehm! Sylvia Poggioli!). But as the three months passed, and I largely forgot about my commitment, and then remembered again, "Public Radio: Behind the Scenes" sounded even less interesting than those non-shows they insist on running on the top half of the TV Guide cable channel.

So I settled on an "Anatomy of a Feature Story" concept, in which I walked the class members through the making of a feature story -- from its genesis to conceptualizing the scenes, deciding who to interview, what natural sounds to include, and finally, what it sounds like when it's written and mixed together (yes, I thought that would be more interesting than the other idea). I used a piece I produced for NPR's Day to Day some weeks ago about the doctor gap in Arizona.

The hour-long talk went pretty well - as noted, the class asked a lot of questions. But one element got far more attention than I expected - the fact that the idea for the story originated with a press release from Arizona State University (where the doctor gap study was conducted). Some of the participants were floored that I would actually let a humble press release dictate the news I cover.

Frankly, I used this press release-initiated story because it was easier to bring the release along as a handout than it would have been to bring a contact with the US Forest Service, or the expertise developed from the rich body of work performed by our reporters. But it made for a good way to illustrate the difference between what's written in a press release and the broader, more contextual (and more interesting) material that comes across in a produced feature story.

Plus, without press releases like the one the 19 Minutes inbox just received, the world would never know that: Unveils a New Golf Club Specification to Help Golfers

GLENDALE HEIGHTS, Ill., Sept. 15, 2005 -- A modernization of swingweight, which has literally gone unchanged since the 1930s, has disclosed an advanced golf club specification, aptly named Waggle Weight. This long-overdue betterment will help promote improved swinging for players through a procedure previously unavailable.
This was especially interesting to me, since I'm playing in a charity golf tournament tomorrow. The release's details include this illuminating paragraph:
In a report issued by founder Bill Kostuj, the golf professional reveals that while swingweighting can indeed affect one's entire golf swing, including its overall rhythm and timing, the parameter's foundation is in fact traced back to a golfer's waggling motion during the pre-swing. "This is where swingweight's 14-inch fulcrum balance comes into play," notes Kostuj, adding, "Nearly a century of puzzlement concerning the application of that proven, yet mysterious golf club parameter is finally put to rest. Consistent sensations of any golf club's 'heft' from the fullest, hardest of swings down to the smallest, most subtle chips (and everything in between) are crucial toward successful play, and such a specification can only be achieved within one's swing preparation." With this knowledge comes the realization that far too many golfers cannot adequately exploit the present system. As can be noted by observing players' pre-swing movements, swingweight's configuration may actually be hurting more golf swings than it is helping. No level of playing ability is immune from adverse effects if the parameter is poorly fit.
These details (fulcrum balance? golf club parameters?) are so far beyond the golfing comprehension of the 19 Minutes staff that we're going to do what we normally do at charity golf tournaments: Hope the official scorer is in a charitable mood.

Now, this administrative note

19 Minutes: The Podcast is updated for this week, and features a swell archival interview with Flagstaff singer-songwriter Nolan McKelvey.

For those of you who are still trying to figure out the podcasting phenomenon, there's a good FAQ here.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Audio alert: Because you were going to ask

The feature about cable shopping giant QVC and its impact on entrepreneurship mentioned in a previous post is now online. The build-out also includes swell pictures like this (though not, specifically, this picture):

The story itself is here. (There's a national version that'll air sometime down the road, too.)

Incidentally, the peanut butter that drives the story is, truth be told, pretty darn good.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Talking shop

The 19 minutes staff is up with the birds and the earthworms and the 15-month olds today, wrapping up a draft of a story we’re working on about the QVC network’s impact on entrepreneurship.

It’s actually been a nice story to cover on several levels – it was a relatively rare opportunity to interview some really articulate people; and it again reinforces the notion that the stories that come together well are the ones that address the questions that – as a reporter – I’m interested in the answers to. (Such as, “Could that last sentence be constructed any worse?”)

In this case, it addresses the question that comes to mind whenever I surf through Channel 51 on my local cable system: Why - in a time when just about anyone can set up a store on the internet, and when most people have ready access to Target, Wal-Mart, and shopping malls - are entrepreneurs clamoring to sell their products on TV? And why do consumers buy so much on TV when they have access to these other outlets? (I mean, QVC took 192 million phone calls last year.) My story should be out in the next few days, and hopefully will answer those questions. If nothing else, it'll have entertaining sound.

The other interesting aspect to covering this story was hearing the degree of reverence that many in the business community (or at least the business school community) hold the cable network. Cable shopping tends to take a fair number of hits from other parts of the popular media – the somewhat condescending portrayal of a British shopping channel in “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and a dismissive blurb in the “Complete Directory of Primetime TV Shows” come immediately to mind.

But the various business school experts I spoke to talk about QVC from a different perspective – speaking in terms of building trust among its customers and its ability to find entrepreneurs who are developing products that will connect with viewers. Their opinions, of course, but it was informative to discuss television and shopping habits in an academic sense.

As I’ve noted before, as a long-time broadcast journalist, the most impressive feat I see on QVC is the ability of its hosts to speak, unscripted, about digital cameras, followed by perfume, followed by scrapbooking supplies -- for three or four hours.

My story is slated to run about three minutes and 45 seconds. And very much scripted.

Monday, September 12, 2005

I'd rather be driving a Dauphine

The highway sign reads:

Flagstaff’s a mighty small town sometimes. Most of the time, actually. Granted, it’s not as small as the previously-mentioned Ash Fork, Arizona, but it’s no New York City. Or even York, Pennsylvania. Around 60,000 people call Flagstaff home, either including or not including students at Northern Arizona University, depending on which set of boring statistical analyses you read.

Um, anyway, I was reminded of how small Flagstaff is on the ride to work this morning, and then again on the ride to an appointment with the pediatrician a little later in the morning.

I’m what you might call an East Coast Driver. I don’t necessarily confuse the horn with the brake pedal, but nor do I hesitate to use the horn in appropriate circumstances, like when someone is experimenting with the concept of creating a two-way street where only a one-way street exists, or when a driver is holding a cell phone in one hand, a Big Mac in the other, and is paying more attention to both those objects than the fact the light has changed. Or when the Red Sox win the World Series.

So I was pulling up to a light in a right turn lane this morning, and there ensued an East Coast Driver’s appropriate horn-blowing circumstance: The green arrow was lit and shining boldly down on Butler Avenue, but alas, the pick-up in front of me appeared unfamiliar with the driver’s responsibility when he is in a right turn lane, signaling a right turn, and the green arrow is lit – namely, to turn right. The situation was just approaching the cusp of a horn blast (the arrow had been green for a mere five seconds or so), and truth be told, I was only getting ready to issue the mandatory horn blast. But the steering wheel on my ’87 Golf was feeling especially touchy this morning, and my horn broke the stillness of the morning (a stillness that was only previously broken by the sound of the traffic at this five-way intersection, the nearby train tracks, and the toilet paper factory just down the road).

I felt a little sheepish about issuing the horn treatment so early on a Monday morning, a situation exacerbated when I passed the pick-up and it turned out to have been driven by someone I know – and who happens to be one of the nicest people in town.

The best solution, of course, would be to trade in my ’87 Volkswagen for a 1960 Renault Dauphine. The Dauphine had the disadvantage of not being able to start if the conditions were too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry, or too pleasant. But it had the advantage of possessing a two-tone horn (a so-called “city horn” and a so-called “country horn”), which would have enabled me to make more of a “friendly suggestion-style” honk the next time such a situation arises.

I’d still employ the city horn, however, for the woman driving the pick-up that cut me off at two separate intersections later in the morning, by employing the Clueless Flagstaff Driver technique of using her imaginary turn signal. She then proceeded up the street in front of me at 5 mph below the posted speed. So after following her for more than a mile, naturally it turned out she was heading for the same pediatric office that I was. And naturally, that meant my 15-month old wandered straight up to her in the waiting room, which for the sake of setting a good example, meant that I couldn’t employ my East Coast Conversation Skills.

A brief audio alert

For those of you near your computers between 6-7:00 MST (that's west coast time during this half of the year), the 19 Minutes staff is producing a Hurricane Katrina call-in program. The focus will be on the connection to Arizona, but we'll also speak with a former National Flood Insurance administrator for FEMA.

The archived audio should be available on the Arizona Public Radio website tomorrow, and we might even podcast it at our sister site on Wednesday.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Big light in skies slated to appear in East

Interesting – as the Weather Channel (oh, I’m sorry – it’s The Weather Channel) has been wall-to-wall with Hurricane Katrina coverage, most of us here in northern Arizona have probably overlooked a new feature the network has added to our local forecast (they still call it “Local on the 8’s”, even though as often as not, it seems like the forecast starts at 10 past the hour).

Regardless, amidst the temperatures from around the state and the 36-hour forecast, and the sunrise and sunset times, TWC has added the “AM and PM commute” forecast for a variety of cities in the region.

This is a pretty amusing concept in northern Arizona. Living in the “largest” city in this half of the state, Flagstaff, my daily commute is approximately 8 minutes each way – less if I catch a bunch of green lights; more if I have to wait for a train to go by. Particularly bad weather would indicate I should leave 15 minutes for the ride in to work.

But TWC also gives the commuter forecast for places including Ash Fork, Arizona, whose labor workforce population is estimated at 255 people. Most of their commutes can be measured in feet. (Besides that, Ash Fork gets all of 12 inches of rain per year, which makes the commuter forecast just a mite bit predictable.) And we’re given the commuter forecast for Wupatki National Monument, which affects all 15 or 20 National Park Service employees who work there.

All this is not to say that there aren’t interesting elements to a northern Arizona commute. Here in Flagstaff, I typically drive home on San Francisco Street, one of the “major” arteries through the historic downtown. This affords an excellent opportunity to observe the behavior of tourists, who apparently believe downtown Flagstaff is actually Disneyworld’s Mainstreet USA, and thus their only concern about casually stepping into the street is the fear of bumping into a large costumed character, as opposed to say, a Volkswagen.

The drive also takes me past the location of a Phoenix TV station’s Flagstaff bureau. Typically, the Flagstaff reporter will be set up on the busy street corner to do a stand-up introducing whatever vital story he’s uncovered for the day. Despite a general disdain for local TV stations’ live shots, I’m always vaguely curious as to whether my humble little car is in the background of their shot as I drive by. And thus, I wonder whether I should honk.

Back in my college days, several of us would watch one of the TV stations in eastern Iowa, as meteorologist Denny Frary would scroll through the various live pictures from “weather cams” around the region. One of those, for some reason, was always trained on the street in front of the Collins Plaza Hotel in Cedar Rapids, as though the best way to illustrate that it was partly cloudy in Cedar Rapids was to demonstrate that the street was, in fact, dry.

Finally, after months of watching the same shot of street lights shining down on the street, we decided to liven up the weather broadcast. Briefly, we considered staging an armed robbery as the forecast was going on, but instead settled on the idea of holding up signs reading “FREE DENNY FRARY”.

It didn’t dawn on us that the signs would probably have to be billboard-sized to be legible. But then again, it didn’t matter, because it also didn’t dawn on us to have someone videotape the newscast that night. So we have no idea whether we livened up anyone’s PM commuter forecast.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Little Blogger/Columnist Who Could

The rescue and recovery from Hurricane Katrina continues, even as attention in Washington slowly gets refocused to the upcoming hearings for the nomination of John Roberts to be Supreme Court Chief Justice (all this while he's still reporting for CBS! Wow!).

State and national legislators around the country are deliving into price gouging investigations related to the sudden spike in gas prices. (Here in Arizona, gas is suddenly more expensive than in California, despite the fact that California has higher gas taxes, and despite the fact that Arizona's gas doesn't come from the Gulf Coast.

So it goes without saying that I'm currently working on a business feature on the QVC cable shopping network and its impact on entrepreneurship (pegged to a recent broadcast they did in our neck of the woods).

So as the deadline for that story, and preparation for an upcoming hour-long Katrina-related broadcast looms, let's set the Way-back Machine for last November, before the 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters was online. Here's a "Last Laugh" column (from Northern Arizona's Mountain Living Magazine) that until now, has never seen the light of the Internet:

Little kids dig trains. I should know. I’m seven years old.

Okay, that’s not technically accurate, but writing as someone who has met several little kids, I can report with some accuracy that trains have become a pretty big deal for the kind of people who aren’t directly affected by a 10-minute wait at a railroad crossing.

I know what you’re saying: “But little kids have always been into trains. I, myself, remember placing pennies on the tracks before the Santa Fe rolled through town. And I own a copy of ‘Chattanooga Choo-Choo.’” You poor, poor deluded soul.

Actually, I thought my own history with trains was pretty robust. After all, when I was a 5-year old living in Endwell, New York (which, if you believe the lead paragraph, was a mere two years ago), my dad and I would walk the mile from our house—stopping only to buy a pretzel rod at Kent Drug and to watch any red cars that went by—to the closest railroad crossing. We’d watch whatever trains happened to be passing through Endwell, New York, and then walk home, after which I’d continue to bounce off the walls.

That was pretty much the extent of my interest in trains. Since then, my connection with the railroad industry has consisted of one Flagstaff-to-Albuquerque round-trip on Amtrak, including a seven-hour delay on the return, and last year's science experiment involving my blood pressure, a crying four-month old, and the lowering gates of the San Francisco Street railroad crossing.

I’ve done a little checking, actually, and you’ll be interested to learn that the railroad industry is now employing special sensors. These sensors detect whether you have melting ice cream in your car – at which point they can deploy a train to barrel through downtown. The only exception is when you have the aforementioned small child in your car, in which case, they send two trains out to run interference.

But with a now 15-month old around the house, I have a feeling trains are likely to become a larger part of my life, thanks to the miracle of Licensed Characters, DVDs, and model trains. “Thomas the Tank Engine” has yet to rust, despite being over 50 years old and hailing from the traditionally damp British Isles. Sylvi already owns several Thomas-related trains, including something called "Skarloey", which would be an excellent name for a future child, or a dog, or perhaps a pet rock. lists more than 50 DVDs on train subjects, ranging from “I Love Toy Trains, Parts 1-3” to “I Love Toy Trains, Parts 10-12” (including, “Part 11: Lionel’s Revenge”).

And model trains, once confined to the basements of middle-aged guys, have found their way into unlikely places like zoos and even restaurants. I know one parent who claims that when her son was little, she knew the name and location of every restaurant in the Washington, DC area with a model train slaloming around the dining room.

So I have reason to be concerned. Of course, Sylvi is a girl... which means I may have to learn about a completely different set of licensed characters. What, exactly, is a “Care Bear?”

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

19 Minutes - Now podcasting, for some reason

Here at 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters, we have spiffy radio studios, digital editing equipment, and a relatively large audio archive. So now we have a podcast, too.

19 Minutes: The Podcast is now live. Even with my limited technical proficiency, it seems to be functional, as the Feedburner link seems to work, at least on iTunes.

We're planning on updating weekly, at least until our vast storehouse of interesting material depletes, and we're forced to revisit our interview about high altitude baking, or are forced into dramatic readings of "The Happy Lion".

This week's podcast features a 2003 interview with musician Alison Brown.

I'm a Lumberjack, and so far, that's okay

ESPN's "Outside the Lines" this evening featured an remarkable discussion on the NCAA's vaguely psychotic attempts to end the use of Native American mascots in college sports. Remarkable, for a number of reasons: First, it represented the first time I'd witnessed ESPN using an NPR correspondent (Juan Williams) as an expert. (We're not including the all-sports cable network's occasional use of NPR sports commentator Stefan Fatsis as a play-by-play guy for their televised Scrabble coverage.)

Remarkable, too, since ESPN is hardly shy when it comes to using Native American imagery in their footage of sports events, whether it's the mascot at Florida State Seminoles games or the war paint worn by Washington Redskins fans.

The NCAA is clearly (ahem) sending some mixed signals with their decision to ban the use of Native American team names and mascots, from its championship playoffs. The message here is that, well, using Native American mascots is demeaning to a group of people who have been trodden upon for centuries -- unless you're a lousy team, in which case it doesn't really matter all that much. This would have been great news for my college baseball team, except we were called the Rams (though we played a brand of baseball that could have been deemed insulting to all members of the Ovis canadensis family).

Here at the university which hosts the 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters, we're watching the debate with some interest, the feeling being that if the effort to quash demeaning mascots is successful, the NCAA could come after idiotic mascots next.

Northern Arizona University's sports teams are called the Lumberjacks. Not the most terrific naming concept in the world, but not as bad as say, the University of Tulsa Golden Hurricane, whatever that is. Until recently, the NAU athletic department carried an equally innocuous logo. The Skydome, the stadium where the football and basketball teams play, was guarded by a cheerful-looking lumberjack guy who was modified from his original use as a Muffler Man mascot. Louie the Lumberjack is still there, but the teams he represents now feature an all-new logo best described as "Frightening Zombie Lumberjack":

The powers that be here at 19 Minutes University say the new logo "preserves the tradition of using Louie the Lumberjack" while incorporating the new school colors of sage green, blue, and gold.

Our main complaint, aside from the fact that we're a little reluctant to bring our 15-month old to football games, is that the new Louie is clearly not from northern Arizona. With 300+ days of sunshine a year, his complexion should definitely not have that adipocere look the new logo sports. Also, the logo designers should have been aware that "murdering your opponent" is merely a colorful figure of speech in the sports world, and that opposing teams shouldn't upon viewing the logo, actually fear for their lives.

The sage green, on the other hand, is okay.

Friday, September 02, 2005

WANTED: For Chicken Poaching

Here at the 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters, we're pleased to diverge from our team coverage of the "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" issue and bring you my September column from Northern Arizona's Mountain Living Magazine. As you read this, keep in mind that I did successfully concoct a batch of "hot dish" earlier this week. (Those of you without Minnesota or Wisconsin connections and who thus have no grasp of the "hot dish" concept will want to consult this website, from Australia.)

Anyway, this month's 'Last Laugh' column:

There comes a day in every adult’s life when your tastes change. Specificially, it’s when you can no longer eat an entire Twinkie without a) taking a 45-minute break halfway through, and b) reading the ‘Nutrition Facts’ section of the label (“Four thousand grams of fat? That can’t be right…”). For me, that day will forever be known as “last Tuesday”.

Recently – by which I mean for the past 12 years – I’ve been telling myself that it’s time to eat healthier. Flagstaff is a tricky eating town, though. It’s the kind of place where you can buy organic dental floss, but the supermarkets place the Krispy Kreme display right inside the front door. The big natural food store is located within easy walking distance of Baskin Robbins Ice Cream.

The solution is to grasp the reins and start cooking for myself and my wife and daughter. But like many guys, my abilities when it comes to gourmet cooking are pretty much limited to making the macaroni and cheese that requires boiling water, as opposed to the stuff that goes right in the microwave. The most influential chef in my life is Mr. Entenmann.

I blame cookbooks. The authors of most cookbooks assume their readers have at least some small modicum of culinary skill before they head into the kitchen. For example, my first-ever attempt at cooking came when I was seven years old, working with a cookbook especially written for kids. The recipe: Jelly cinnamon toast. A can’t-miss proposition. Four ingredients – bread, butter, cinnamon, and jelly. But what the recipe didn’t point out was when to put the jelly on the toast. Why? Because the author of the cookbook figured, “No one’s stupid enough to put the jelly on before they put the bread in the toaster.” Thank god it was a toaster oven and not one of those pop-up machines. (Today's kids, of course, can explode the whole thing in their microwave in far less time than it took me using a conventional toaster oven.)

To this day, I’ll periodically rifle through our cookbook collection at home and come up with a recipe that sounds promising. I’ll run around the kitchen, pulling ingredients off shelves, chopping vegetables, spilling cumin, wondering if baking soda and baking powder are the same thing, and then I’ll get to the part where the recipe calls for me to “poach” the chicken. As a law-abiding citizen, I had always thought animal poaching was a felony. Of course, if I actually attempted to poach the chicken, the result would be criminal.

So I end up following the Guy Tradition, and throw it all on the barbeque grill. Guys, myself included, like barbequing, because it allows us to combine a variety of ingredients in the simplest way possible. There’s no poaching, or sauteeing or using something called a “dutch oven” (Wooden shoes? Windmills?). Basically, your food preparation concepts are limited to “sprinkling”, “slathering”, or “rubbing”, all techniques that can easily be undone by a fourth concept, called “scraping the seasonings off with a knife”.

The other nice thing about barbequing is that you can prepare most any food on a grill – steak, chicken, vegetables, frozen waffles, etc. But I’m holding out for Grilled Twinkies.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Twinkle, twinkle, little shred bank

And now, this short-but-informative break:

After spending the entire day today (or at least the better part of 10 minutes), we've learned that, indeed, the melody shared by "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star", "The Alphabet Song", and "Baa Baa Black Sheep" is not, in fact, original to any of these Grammy winners.

There's still no proof of a Pink Floyd connection, or even a J. Geils Band connection, but it turns out that "Twinkle et al", "Baa et al", and "Alpha et al" all owe a debt of service to "Ah! Vous Dirai-Je, Maman", a French country song dating back to the mid 18th century. Some 12 variations on the theme were also written by Mozart a couple decades later, but he did not write the first lyrics to the tune, which reportedly are:

Ah! vous dirai-je, maman,
Ce qui cause mon tourment
Depuis que j'ai vu Silvandre
Me regarder d'un air tendre,
Mon coeur dit a tout moment:
Peut-on vivre sans amant?
The first English lyrics to the tune apparently came as part of a composition called "Mark My Alford", written by someone named James Hewitt. We've been unable to locate any of the lyrics, but our best guess is the go like this:
Mark My Alford is this song,
But then again I might be wrong;
This Mark Alford I don't know
But that's how the lyrics go;
Mark My Alford is so trite,
Next time let us get it right.
We think this is the James Hewitt who was an early 19th century composer, and not the one reputed to have had an affair with Princess Diana, or the James Hewitt who wrote a yoga book.

None of these songs has as catchy a title as a popular German children's song with the same melody, "Ist das nicht ein Schnitzelbank?", which Altavista's Babelfish translation service translates to "Isn't that shred bank?", a song whose lyrics we would love to hear.

Heaven help you if you're still interested, but there's even more twinkling material on a website called The Straight Dope.