Monday, December 31, 2012

Reading Matter--Part ll

Since childhood, after being taught to read by my elder sister when I was four, I've enjoyed the work of many authors. Because I was reading well above the level of my contemporaries at my first school, I was privileged to read aloud The Water Babies, by Charles Kingsley, to the Head Mistress in her study. (I didn't really like the story!) At home, having graduated from Beatrix Potter, I really loved the animal stories of the Canadian writer, Thornton W. Burgess, and the series of books by Arthur Ransome, beginning with Swallows & Amazons. (These stories have also been enjoyed by one of my sons and his daughters.) I was lucky enough to move to a (British-style) boarding prep school at the age of 8, and it featured a well-stocked library. I enjoyed the adventure tales of Percy F. Westerman; The Saint stories by Leslie Charteris; and the novels of John Buchan, to whom we were introduced by Harold Elbourne, our wonderful Math teacher. (At the end of one term in 1938, he read The Thirty-Nine Steps aloud to us.) I also enjoyed C.S Forester's Horatio Hornblower Naval novels. I'm a bit ashamed to report that I haven't read most of Dickens, preferring Jane Austen, Trollope, and Thackeray. I keep a record of the books I read, and I am hooked on anything by my fellow Lincoln College alum (David Cornwell), who uses the pen name of John Le Carré. Also Laurie R. King, Patrick O'Brian, and Patricia Cornwell.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Guest Blog

This week I am yielding this space for my weekly blog to my wife, Barbara Renton. Here is a letter she sent to a local paper, which is unlikely to publish it: In the late 1950s, I was living with my children in Ann Arbor, Michigan. One day I walked out of the front of our house and was greeted by our next door neighbor. She said “Barbara, I feel so much safer now that Harold has gotten me a gun for when he is gone.” My immediate reply, aware of my young children and her baby and two year old daughter was “Marge, don’t have a gun around the house!” She became angry and went into her home. I was sorry that I had spoken so forcefully. Six months later, Marge, her nine month old baby and her two and a half year old daughter were shot by her husband. Harold then phoned the police, and told them what he had done. Two and a half months later, he committed suicide in prison. Previously, I had learned when I lived briefly in Texas that a police officer’s teenage son was killed because he had shown his friend his father’s gun, and his friend had shot him accidentally. At that time, I made the decision never to have a gun around the house. There have been a couple of times in our long marriage when I’ve gotten angry with my husband that I’ve wondered, if I kept a gun in the house would I use it? We’re both very thankful that I don’t own a gun. The Sandy Hook tragedy brings to light how imperative is the need for gun control. These tragedies happen every day. We cannot let more time pass. The time is now.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Reading Matter--Part 1

Son-in-law Chuck takes the N Y Times, and daughter Kristin subscribes to the New Yorker. The latter brought seven recent issues of the latter magazine to us during our last visit to the house in Colorado that she designed for us some twenty years ago. It was an embarrassment of riches. Most of those issues will have to await our return early in 2013. Barbara loves the Science pages in the N. Y. Times, and a dear friend clips them for her. She skims, and I devour, the San Francisco Chronicle or the Boulder Daily Camera every day of the year. She also reads a Norwegian English language weekly newspaper. Yes, we are all committed readers of magazines. Barbara and I almost fight over the Saturday arrival of The Week, our current favorite. Last week, she hid it, I found it, and then I re-hid it, waiting for the inevitable cries of frustration. Perhaps I gave in too easily, but she skims it rapidly, while I read it from cover to cover. I start the crossword, which emphasizes current affairs. (When I become stuck, usually on something like a sitcom or other commercial TV program which we never watch, I "cheat", by using Google to finish the puzzle. I didn't need to do that on the latest isue) Barbara began a subscription to Newsweek some years ago, and earlier this year I began reading it, from cover to cover. Alas, economics are forcing it to go digital-only, and we have decided to pass on that. I read the U.C. Monthly (California), four seminary magazines, the Commonwealth Club magazine, Oxford English, the Lincoln College Record and IMPrint, the CLU (California Lutheran University) magazine, The Living Church, and the Royal Overseas league quarterly. I proofread our parish monthly, and I read much more that comes in the mail. I know: I'm an unrepentant, omnivorous, "print junkie". Some notes about books in a future blog.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Soflee, soflee, catchee monkee

Fifty years ago, Pidgin English had a bad reputation. Nowadays, the value of any pidgin--essentially a simplified language to permit two or more folk without a common language to communicate--is widely recognized . I shall never forget becoming aware of this, when my ship (H.M.S. Black Swan) first visited Shanghai in 1947. I was accustomed to the cooks, stewards, and "supernumerary" laundrymen chattering away in Cantonese, but that's not the Mandarin dialect spoken in Shanghai. I watched, fascinated, as the Chief Steward used pidgin English when negotiating for fresh vegetables with the occupants of the various sampans that swarmed alongside.. So I am not embarrassed to use pidgin to write the aphorism that heads this blog, just as I learned it. It is useful in a benign, not hostile, sense, with no thought of trapping and caging an animal. I consider it good advice: that sometimes patience, perhaps with a streak of guile, is often the wisest way to accomplish an objective. .

Monday, December 3, 2012

"How are you today?"

The flood of political solicitations - thankfully, primarily by email, has come to a welcome end. In its place, we receive a lot of charitable solicitations at this time of year. We take advantage of the system to prevent commercial solicitations by email or voice. Whenever I hear the call from a stranger which begins "How are you today?", I know it's another pitch. I have recently learned a polite brush-off, so that I do not have to listen to this unwelcome interruption. I guess that telephone solicitors are taught to begin their pitch with this question, which virtually demands a response, unless one is willing to respond politely but firmly to end the conversation. I have my own list of charities that I choose to support. I am slightly more likely to respond positively to an email "pitch". If this is a telephone "pitch", the caller should identify herself or himself, and explain briefly the reason for the call. If I hear "How are you today?", I try to "bite my tongue" and not give one of several possible dusty answers.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Select Your Gender

I nowadays have the leisure to undertake online surveys. A frequent question asks the participant "Select your Gender" No, this is not another rant about my dislike of the use of a grammatical term to avoid mentioning "sex". It is the giggle factor in the idea that one can actually select ones sexual orientation. There are just two options: M or F. No opportunity to be L,G,B,T, or Q. Since I am just a straight M, my dismay is second-hand, for those not so straightforwardly identified. That being the case, I am left wondering why the designer didn't just display two boxes, one for M and one for F. Come to think of it, that would at least give the opportunity for bisexuals to mark both boxes. Not that this would work: the participants are limited to choose one orientation if they want to respond to the survey.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Bacon Cheeseburger

I normally adhere to a sensible diet when at home. Fresh fruit (or a smoothie) at breakfast precedes an egg, or some sausage, or smoked salmon. Lunch is half a sandwich, an apple, three prunes, and a bite of plain chocolate. You get the point. We enjoy train journeys, mostly limited in recent years to the California Zephyr, from Emeryville to Denver. We travel "First Class", which gives us a sleeper and meals in the diner. The menu is, properly, very much Main Street America. Nothing exotic or spicy. Frozen vegetables are microwaved and (in our opinion) inedible. Iceberg lettuce highlights the dinner salads There are choices at each meal. AMTRAK knows its customers, and there are limitations in what they can do. Dinner rolls are served at the main meals;, unappetizing "croissants" or biscuits at breakfast. One very popular lunch offering, always on the menu, is the "Angus Burger", with optional bacon and/or cheese. On our recent trip, I chose this: it comes with lettuce, sliced onion, and tomato, There are packets of mayonnaise, mustard, and ketchup..I happily ate everything, and actually felt "stuffed". I enjoyed it, in a forgiving mood--but once a year is about my limit.

Monday, November 12, 2012


This was a new one to me. Each year, colleges have a certain date when they are allowed to recruit high school graduates to make a commitment to attend their choice of an institution, to "continue their education". Football players are the most highly sought after. Apart from being awarded full "scholarships" (itself a ridiculous misuse of an award made without any evidence of academic worthiness), there are often "under the counter" payments to the youth or his (or her) family, to induce him or her to "study" and play football or other sport at that institution. There is pressure on the young persons to "commit" to a certain college. In my vocabulary, a "commitment" is a promise to take a certain action. I always thought that a commitment was a binding promise, in this case to attend a certain college. Apparently not so. I don't know what constraints are place on those who "commit"--or on the selected college--but I recently read of two students "decommitting". (Presumably, some other college made a better offer.) Although I have long realized that some college sports are heavily commercialized, I am dismayed at this news--but I can't say I am exactly shocked.

Monday, November 5, 2012


Despite my longing for this drawn-out electoral season to be over, I must report my pride in a family member who is volunteering, despite having a busy full-time job. Those who register voters and make phone calls are maintaining our democratic heritage. This brings back memories of sixty years ago, when I was active in the U.K. at the time of national elections. As an undergraduate, I went to work (over time) in at least three different constituencies. We received free board and lodging, and were under the direction of local leaders. Two of my forays were in marginal constituencies in the Midlands, one being Hucknall. One was in a safe Tory seat (Salisbury), where I was put up at the beautiful home of a wealthy surgeon and his charming wife, in the Cathedral Close. Happy memories! We would speak at "town hall" meetings, make calls on homes, and engage in stump-type speeches, using a loudspeaker in various neighborhoods. Fortunately for our fellow-citizens, campaigns lasted only six weeks, after the Prime Minister had called for new elections. Constituencies in England were quite compact. It was very important to identify your supporters, and make sure that they voted. We had lists of all eligible voters by streets, and we would knock on every door for a short inquiry. We would mark up our list to identify those who favored our candidate, those opposed, and "uncertain". (Experience taught us that almost all of those in the latter category were also opposed.) We would also ask our supporters if the needed transportation to the polls, and (if so) we would make arrangements to get them ther as early as convenient. On election day, we would have workers at the polling place, who would do their best to learn who had come to vote, and we would mark them off on our lists. With about two hours until the polls closed, we would send a car to the address of the missing voter, and offer a ride to the precinct. Nowadays we vote by mail. This year, our ballots were in the mailbox more than three weeks prior to November 6

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The "Serious"

I think it was the late Herb Caen who first called baseball's annual October rites by this name.The top teams in the two "Major Leagues" engage in a 'best-of-seven contest to find the "World Champions"..The two leagues have slightly different rules, because the American League allows a "designated hitter" to bat in place of the pitcher, who can return to stay in the game. I'm not going to take sides on this issue here: interested people can prefer the classic game, or the possibility of more 'hits' and maybe higher scores. No, I and many others, especially fellow immigrants, have long chafed at what is seen in other countries as an egregious example of American arrogance. How dare they call it the "World Series", when no other nation is allowed to compete? Excellent baseball may be encountered in Japan and Cuba, among other countries. Some of the finest players come from other nations, and are eagerly sought out to play for American teams. The names of players from Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and other nations tells its own story: Rodriguez, Sanchez, Scutaro, Cabrero, Marichal, Hernandez, and other Hispanic names. I'm old enough to remember when black athletes weren't allowed to play in the all-white leagues. They played excellent games in the Negro Leagues. I'm glad to have been able to watch Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Sammy Sosa, and many other outstanding players born with a black skin. I don't expect to see an open international competition in my lifetime. More feasible would be a contest pitting the best players from their native countries against teams representing other lands, whether or not the players were also performing for American teams. I just don't see the owners of Major League teams allowing their hired hands to participate in such a contest. Late note: the San Francisco Giants "swept" the Detroit Tigers by 4--0. Huzzah!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Single names

A few of the country's most famous people are known by single names, such as Madonna, Cher, or Sting. For the most part, "mere mortals" need at least two names. We have just had several solar panels put on our house. A neighbor whom we had met briefly, but did not really know, called on us to find out what was going on, and introduced himself as "Arend Boer". After confirming that he was from the Netherlands, I mentioned that his last name meant "farmer" in English. He confirmed this, and mentioned that many Dutch people 200 years ago had no second name. He told us that when the area we now know as the Low Countries was occupied by Napoleonic forces, there was an edict that all the people have at least one other name. He told us that his ancestor had decided to use his occupation as a second name. This reminded me that such last names as "Carpenter" and "Cooper" in English came about for similar reasons. However, most English folk several hundred years ago simply added "son" to the parent's name: Johnson, Robertson, Watson, etc, are just a few examples of this. There was also a time in Germany when Jewish people were also forced to adopt a second name. Many of them chose precious objects, such as gold, silver, and diamonds to form this second name, and variants of names using these objects remain as clues to Jewish ancestry to this day. I have noticed a pleasant tendency nowadays for introductions to be limited to first names On a recent evening , I was introduced to a "Mike" and his wife, "Teri" (although she may have spelled that name in some other way). I have no idea what their last name is--or names are, if they follow the modern fashion of a woman choosing not to adopt her spouse's name

Monday, October 15, 2012

Disrespecting other nations

I am sometimes a little miffed at what is now being called "American Exceptionalism". Proud though I am of my adopted country's many successes, especially in science, I am turned off by excessive bragging. It's certainly OK to shout "USA! USA!" after an Olympic gold medal is won, but I have never agreed with Patrick Henry's famous comment "My country, right or wrong". I usually keep my opinions about this to myself, conscious that my country of birth has long been one of the major offenders in this regard. It is understandable how the British felt 120 years ago, with the UK's commercial success and empire-building. "Jingoism" began when Rudyard Kipling was flourishing. This has led me to note the disparaging names the English have used for other nations. "Welshing" is an example of giving a bad name to another part of the UK, as is to describe an event as a "Scotch treat". Folk who walk away from their duties take "French leave". "Dutch courage" is not a generous term. "Russian roulette" is far from being sensible behavior. There are also other combinations that are descriptive of origin rather than complimentary, such as a "Swiss roll", "German measles", "Chinese checkers", and "Spanish flu". In Colorado, we do our best to eliminate that noxious species, the "Russian Olive". There are some other neutral terms: I have no objection to Danish Blue, although I don't associate the breakfast pastry known as a "Danish" with Denmark. I never eat "Turkish Delight". "Scotch Eggs" are good, as are the descriptive terms "Canadian Bacon", "Greek Salads", "Irish Stew", "French Mustard" and even "Welsh Rarebit". Italy seems to have escaped being linked by name to any familiar objects or foods, although it was originally the home of pizza, pasta, and risotto.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Bubbly trouble

This is the time of year when baseball teams completing a championship season have the time and opportunity to celebrate their success. They choose a traditional way of celebrating: they pop champagne corks. I really enjoy a glass or two of champagne, although I am also happy with some of the alternative sparkling wines, such as Cava. Some producers here in California offer an excellent product, notably Domaine Chandon. For casual celebration, I also enjoy "frizzante" wines. However, I must admit to deploring those shots of happy athletes dousing each other with expensive champagne. When I saw a recent photograph, there was no doubt in my mind that the successful team was using real champagne, not a less expensive substitute: I could see the name Moet clearly, and that is a classic brand of authentic champagne. The one good thing I note about such celebrations is that the cork comes out, unlike the way in which some princess or movie star breaks a bottle of champagne on the bows of a ship being launched. I am in full support of the ongoing campaign of champagne producers to protect the use of the word "champagne" for its wonderful product, although in casual usage there's no way they can prevent airlines and others from calling the substitute product by the hallowed name of "champagne". Despite the efforts to control usage of the name, the true champagne producers are doing very well, thank you. Check out the prices the next time you are visiting your friendly local wine merchant.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Nickels and Dimes

In 2008, the Obama campaign benefited from numerous small donations, making use of the internet to rake in these contributions. It is understandable why Democratic fundraisers are using the same technique this year. Perhaps this is a significant reason why the Obama fundraising for a recent month was a little higher than that of Romney. We do believe in "putting our money where our mouth is", but we prefer to make more significant gifts after discussion. We learned many years ago, before the days of the internet, that the first thing that happens when anyone sends money to a political party is that the recipient promptly sends out another request. They do this, because it works. I sometimes think that the "delete" key is the most important one on my computer's keyboard, and I don't usually give a second thought when using it. Alas, we receive multiple solicitations from different political organizations. Perhaps I should be readier to "unsubscribe", but I don't want to cut off all messages from the political parties we support. As I write this, it is still many weeks until the November elections, we are still being inundated with requests to "chip in"$3, $5, or whatever. I guess that the only way to look at this is that it comes with the "freedom of speech" and other aspects of American life which we admire.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Berkeley Politics Again

Last week, I wrote about the criticism of the man expected to be named as Berkeley's School Superintendent. A few days ago, Edmond Heatley withdrew his application, leaving him in limbo, unless he is re-hired by the system in Georgia from which he resigned, expecting to be hired in Berkeley. The School Board announced that the two administrators who have been acting jointly as the interim Superintendent will continue to function in that capacity for the near future. Our city has already spent $85,000 on consultant fees in its two failed attempts to find a new Superintendent. It occurs to me that the School Board has not felt sufficiently confident in the abilities of the Deputy Superintendent to advance the holder of that position to be the permanent Superintendent. Perhaps the Assistant Superintendent would have done an adequate job, but you do not promote an Assistant to the permanent position and expect the Deputy Superintendent, who has been passed over, to take kindly to such a decision. Nor is it practical to continue indefinitely under shared leadership. I also think that it will be difficult to persuade qualified candidates to vie for the appointment, once they learn the recent history of the position. I just hope that a qualified candidate with the courage to walk into this situation can be found. How much more can we afford to pay for a consultant? However, it is certainly worthwhile to seek out the right "headhunter" to persuade the right person to apply for the job.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Berkeley Politics

I have lived in this city for over fifty years, and hope to end my days here. Years ago, I quipped that we had two political parties here: the Left--and the Far Left. Barbara & I have always supported the Berkeley Democratic Club, a moderate group which has been out of power in recent years. We are happy to be friends of a former Mayor, Shirley Dean, who lives near us. The School Board recently conducted a search for a new Superintendent, to begin work next month. The sole candidate, who is clearly well qualified and experienced, has left his previous employment, pending hiring by Berkeley. Someone picked up the fact that, several years ago, he had assisted in the preparation of a document opposing same-sex marriage (SSM). (However, he did not express any personal views on the issue). Our local newspaper has reported that this may result in the School Board rejecting his application for the position. Several years ago, I felt that a "civil union", with all the benefits of marriage, should satisfy the proponents of SSM. My position "evolved" when I understood how marriage was so important to many same-sex couples. (The issue is still somewhat in limbo in California, after "Proposition 8" has been declared unconstitutional, but SSM has not yet been restored in our state.) However, in supporting SSM, I certainly do not feel that it is appropriate for us to refuse to hire the successful candidate on suspicion that he may hold unexpressed contrary views.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Dutch Auction

The Dutch may not have invented it, but this type of auction is usually called by that name. Instead of the bidding beginning at a low level, requiring higher bids until the bidding stops, at which time the last bid is successful, this procedure is reversed. In other words, the auctioneer starts with a high figure, and reduces this by successive small amounts until a bidder decides that the price is right. When I last heard, this system was in use in the leading flower market in the Netherlands. I was reminded of this after viewing a TV special narrated by Candice Bergen. This was about the many Nazi criminals who had successfully evaded justice. Many of these found their way to the United States. They can't be accused of genocide, or even abetting murder, because of the Statute of Limitations or insufficient evidence. However, they can be deported if it can be shown that they made false statements when applying for entry visas. Most of these criminals are now deceased, but we were shown one elderly man, long slated for deportation. We were told that no country would take him. This gave me a totally impractical (but entertaining) idea. Most of us remember the use of the phrase "extraordinary rendition", to describe the forcible removal of captured prisoners of war, to countries less scrupulous about torturing them to obtain information. In my imagination, there would be a number of impoverished countries (Haiti, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, etc) that need money. I imagined a Dutch auction, because the USA could afford to pay sums which might be attractive to these countries, to accept "rendition" of criminals subject to deportation orders. (I am not suggesting that these folk be tortured or starved). This reversal of normal practice reminds me of a childhood game. Typically, with two teams picking sides, the best players were chosen first, and then the next choice went to the other team. (In a fairer version of this, the second team chose the next two players, the original team the following two, and so on). In reverse, we imagined that we were in a sled being chased by a pack of wolves. We would choose one person as the first to be sacrificed to the wolves, and then the remaining "passengers" would select the next "victim", and so forth. The end result is that only one "survivor" remains. What happens if two or more bidders choose the same price at which to buy? Either the first one to speak is the successful bidder, or one could draw lots to determine the outcome.

Monday, September 3, 2012


I recently read that Graham Spanier, the former president of Penn State, who was terminated by the board because of his part in the cover-up of Coach Sandusky's misbehavior, will retain his tenured professorship at the college. Many people might think that his dismissal from the presidency should also result in termination of tenure, but it doesn't work that way. This news reminded me that I have often felt that "lifetime" tenure is undesirable. As our expectation of life continues to increase, we may be left with some very elderly Supreme Court justices. I do not suggest a mandatory retirement age, as there are clearly many competent minds capable of excellent work after (say) the age of 80. We can only hope that those who are in the early stages of Alzheimer's (or other forms of dementia) will be encouraged to resign. Perhaps regular medical examinations would be practical, but at present there is no way of forcing involuntary resignation. Perhaps it is more realistic to hope for a change in the tenure arrangements for schoolteachers. I have often discussed this with my wife, herself a retired teacher. Perhaps the best suggestion is a "rolling 3 year tenure". This would work by granting two further years of tenure to those worthy of it, while giving a couple of years to those not given such an extension, in order for them to find other employment. In the Episcopal Church, a Rector has unlimited tenure, unless he or she agrees contractually to a more limited arrangement. A major problem with this system is that when there is dissension between a Rector and the Lay leadership of the parish, it is often extraordinarily difficult for the Bishop to find some other suitable Church employment for the cleric. Perhaps the most practical solution is to arrange for early retirement or some employment for which the clerics skills and experience can be applied. I'm not suggesting this is easy!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Gentlemen Lift The Seat

Most of us have seen this comment--or at least heard it said, if you are a male. IMHO, good manners also requires those who raise the seat to lower it before leaving--at least, in a facility shared with women. A famous story has Winston Churchill admonishing the Foreign Office, saying: "In this dispatch you have used every cliche known to the English language, except 'God is love' and 'Please adjust your dress before leaving." I have been observing different customs about the lid that typically fits over the toilet seat. In my family, this lid is only closed when the toilet bowl is used as a place on which to sit. (I often sit there when I am using my electric shaver.) After a flush, it is our practice to leave the lid up. Others close the lid after use of the facility. We have a different practice when there is a water shortage, increasingly frequent in California. When we have no visitors (durinng the day as well as overnight) we don't routinely flush after urination, we just lower the lid. This little ditty describes our system: "Yellow is mellow, but brown goes down".

Monday, August 20, 2012


Sometimes adult males can behave like stupid children. There is a "tradition" in baseball that if a player is plunked (deliberately or accidentally) it is the duty of the pitcher on the other side to retaliate, by deliberately throwing a ball at one of the members of the team responsible for the first "hit by pitcher". Of course, such thrown balls may permanently injure the player receiving one. I recently read of an egregious case. The team at bat had already placed runners at first and second base. No sensible pitcher would deliberately hit another batter, because that would load the bases, and make it much more likely that the batting team would score at least one run. The fact that this was obviously an accidental "HBP" didn't make any difference. The stupid tradition had to be followed, so that the next time the team that had caused the accidental hit came up to bat, one of the players had a ball deliberately thrown at his ribs. Sometimes the result of such retaliatory action is that the offending pitcher will be fined, hardly causing a blip on his bloated salary. In my opinion, the person who should be heavily fined is the manager of the retaliating team, who not only permits but often encourages such infantile behavior. Perhaps the only way to end this childish practice is to deduct one or more victories from the offending team's winning column.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Second thoughts

I have been working to edit and update some of my earlier blogs. One in particular caught my eye. It was called "Polyphony - and dissonance - in church". What I wrote was acurate as to my personal feelings, but in poor taste to share with anyone else. I mentioned three of my fellow parishoners - not by name, but that's not the point. Two of those people are evidently suffering from mental problems. My aural discomfort pales into pathetic insignifigance compared to the problems they are having. I regret my own insensitivity.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Second Amendment

I find the Gun Lobby's distortion of the Second Amendment's original purpose one of the most damaging aspects of our country's history. Two centuries ago, when there could well have been a need for a militia, it made good sense that citizens had the right to "bear arms". To use this to justify AK 47s and the like is shameful. Many conservative jurists believe that we should consider the intent of the framers of our laws when interpreting them. This mantra is trotted out every time a court uses a "stretched" interpretation to accomplish the purpose intended by Congress. For once, I do look for a narrow interpretation. I believe that the second amendment justifies the possession of pistols and muskets by our citizenry, just in case we ever do need to call out a militia. The right to "bear arms" should not of itself permit the firing of pistols and muskets, of course, unless the user is serving in a the time. I see no justification for rifles, revolvers, or automatic weapons of any sort. Come on, you conservative justices, sitting for life on the benches of the highest court in the land! Be true to the intent of the framers of the second amendment! Muskets and pistols only, please!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Polyphony--and dissonance--in church

I love plainsong, but I also love polyphony. In fact, almost any form of choral singing. I attend an Episcopal church in Berkeley (St. Mark's), which has for many years enjoyed a choir of some 50 men and women, and it is excellent. There is a regular churchgoer who clearly has some mental problems, although he is in no way dangerous. He does not seem to understand why we sing and pray in unison. He certainly knows the words--and speaks them loudly. He doesn't wait to join in with others, but rushes ahead, a habit which I find quite bothersome. On the other hand, I realize that church is not confined to those who are mentally and physically healthy. Unfortunately for me, another regular, who often sits in the same pew, and thinks that he is word-perfect with the prayers, has the unfortunate habit of adding additional words that don't belong - usually simple words like "and". I find this almost equally disconcerting, as this fellow parishioner also likes to speak very loudly, so I'm constantly hearing his personal version of standard prayers. Then there is the widow of a male Epicopal priest, a retired MD, who has some form of mild dementia, which from time to manifests itself by her returning from the Communion rail and forgetting where she was sitting. I have limited vision and mobility, but I gladly accept these signs of aging in return for (so far!) "having all my marbles". That's thanks to good genes, not to any virtue on my part. I admit to an unfortunate trait: I do think to myself "There but for the grace of God go I". I hereby confess to a lack of compassionate feeling, alas.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Incredibly unbelievable!

I am dismayed by the current usage of these essentially synonymous words to comment on something that is clearly believable. There are various adequate terms that convey positive surprise, such as "amazing", and a current favorite "awesome". Another word that has come to be interpreted in a very different sense than its original meaning is "fabulous".

Monday, July 16, 2012

"Sine Die"

These words were spoken (in the usual butchered Latin) at the recent conclusion of the 77th triennial General Convention of the Episcopal Church. They are normally pronounced by the President of the House of Deputies as "Syney Dye", as "PHoD" (the President of the House of Deputies) adjourns the Convention, and most folk probably think that the words terminate the Convention. Isn't "adjournment" a fancy word for the end of the meeting? Not exactly! Let's first get the pronunciation right. Well, no-one really knows how the Romans pronounced their words. When I was studying Latin, we were informed that there were two main streams of opinion on how to pronounce that language, and we would learn the modern system. Since this was over three-quarters of a century ago, teaching may have changed, but my guess is that the words are probably still pronounced by most Latinists "sinnay dayie". Of one thing you can be certain: "die" is a word of two syllables. ("Dies irae" means "Day of Wrath", and that should confirm the point.) The literal meaning is clear: "without a day". This means that adjournment takes place without a set date for continuation: it doesn't mean termination, although that is normally the reality. In theory, Deputies and Bishops could be recalled, and their work would technically be considered a continuation of the same Convention. "Adjournment" actually implies an interval, usually to a "time certain". The Latin roots of the word imply "to another day". This "teaching moment" is hereby adjourned...

Monday, July 9, 2012


Most males in the USA have a nickname, which they prefer to use in place of their given name. There are several types of these. Many are just abbreviations of standard first names: Arch, Art, Bart, Ben, Cal, Chris, Dave, Don, Doug, Fred, Gil, Jed, Jon, Ken, Les, Lou, Matt, Nick, Pete, Phil, Ray, Rich, Ron, Rob, Sam, Stu, Tim, Vic, Walt, Will, etc. Then there are traditional variants: Chuck, Dick, Hank, Harry, Jake, Jim, Joe, Larry, Mike, Ned, Ray, Rick, Steve, Tom, etc. Sometimes, the initial letter is changed: Bob, Bill, Gene, Tony. Sometimes the full name is uncertain: Al (Alan, Alfred, Albert?), Bert (Albert, Bertram?), Ed (Edward, Edwin, Edgar?), Frank (Francis, Franklin?), Jerry (Gerald, Jerome?), Jack (John, James, Jackson?), Jeff (Jeffery, Jeffrey, Geoffrey?), There are nicknames that ignore the given name: Slim, Kid, Skip. Some names end in -y or -ie: Andy, Archie, Artie, Benny, Bernie, Bertie, Billy, Bobby, Charlie, Connie, Denny, Eddie, Jimmy, Johnnie, Gordy, Huey (or Hughie), Kenny, Marty, Ollie, Randy, Teddy, Tommy, Vinny, Willie, Woody . Sometimes only initials are used: JB, JC, OJ, TJ, Then there are some names which defy abbreviation or other easy choices of nickname: Adam, Brian, Bruce, Byron, Eli, Eric, George, Godfrey, Grant, Hugo, Jeremy, Luke, Mark, Paul, Saul, etc.. Especially in the US, one cannot assume from the nickname that the bearer has the traditional given name: it is a common practice (especially in the South) to make one or two nicknames the given name or names I dislike being called "Nige", but granddaughter Justine is "grandfathered in" to use that . It sure beats "Grampa" . "Granddad" is acceptable! My dear wife has some unprintable names for me, but often I answer to "Jerk".

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


"Philately" is a fancy word for stamp collecting. As a small boy, I noted that King George V was a stamp collector, as was FDR. I began the usual way, with a commercial packet of 500 "Assorted Foreign" stamps, and began to look forward to mail from my uncle, an electrical engineer who designed the original power system at Abadan in what was then Persia, as well as the system in Basra, Iraq. He was for many years employed by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, later Anglo-Iranian, predecessor to BP (British Petroleum). My uncle sent many stamps, and I still have a concentration of Iranian stamps from before WWll. Stamp collecting greatly helped my interest in Geography and History, supplementing my studies in those subjects, which formed part of the academic curriculum at my primary and secondary schools. Ideally, stamps should be steamed off envelopes, but I wasn't very successful at that. I learned that one could put the stamps, face up, in a bowl of warm water, and that would loosen the stamps. Next, one put the stamps on a towel to dry. On a few occasions, I would buy some unused stamps, purportedly from some small state, such as Brunei or Nauru, probably printed in the UK and never leaving its shower but for most of my life I have just collected used stamps from anywhere, including those issued while I lived in the UK, and later those (especially "commemoratives") issued by he US Postal Service. For some forty years or longer, I have done nothing except accumulate stamps. The plan was that when I couldn't get around as much, I would attend to my stamp collection. It would give me something to do! (I also had the illusion that at least one of my sons would become a philatelist. It didn't happen.) Well, I no longer get around much, but television and the Internet have come into our lives. I have finally decided to stop collecting stamps, and see if I can sell my albums from pre-war days and my large number of stamps not yet detached from the scrap of envelopes.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Hot and Cold

Water temperature is part of our idiomatic language. When we're in trouble, we say we're in "hot water". When some folk are critical of our plans, they may "pour cold water on them". if we are dubious about something, our reaction may be "lukewarm' or "tepid". Our ancestors in temperate zones didn't have to face a water shortage. We have become quite prodigal with our water supply, and have been proud of our ability to turn a desert into lush pasture by intensive irrigation. "Fracking", to release natural gas from rocky subsurface land, requires millions of gallons of water, which may become so contaminated that it is unsuitable for recycling. Barbara & I have faced droughts at our homes in both California and Colorado. We have played our part in conserving water, taking shorter or "Navy" showers, asking for water in a restaurant only if we needed it to drink, and limiting our use for landscaping. We have also installed low-flow toilets. I hate waste of any sort, particularly of food and water. I instituted a practice, no longer insisted upon, of not flushing after every urination, and enjoyed the aphorism "Yellow is mellow, but brown goes down". We use solar power as our primary method of heating water, but I remain concerned about the wastage of domestic water when it has to travel many feet from the basement to the upstairs bathroom. Years ago. in a drought year, I learned to wash my hands in cold water. I feel the same way now, and I turn on the cold tap to wash my hands to this day. I don't ask or expect Barbara to follow my example, so she runs the hot water in the bathroom we share. If she has recently washed her hands, and I need a mug of water to drink, the cold tap will run lukewarm for a few seconds. Yes, I'm not fond of drinking tepid liquid, but as a man of principle--or stubborn ass, your call--I drink it, happily self-righteous at my noble efforts to save water.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Paper Problems

Until his death in 1940, my father would find his copy of The Times on the table when he came down to breakfast. Woe betide anyone who opened it up before he did. If it were not in its pristine shape when he sat down, he would complain that it must have been "woman handled". (I can only remember that happening once: i and my sisters wouldn't have dared to disturb the newspaper, and my mother would have been content with her copy of the Daily Express. ) I'm sure the butler (when we had one) and parlourmaid were innocent: perhaps it was an aunt visiting us. I also like a paper whose pages can be kept neat. The number of pages in the "old days" could always be divided by four. I dislike it when the paper includes two sides of a single sheet, which tends to fall out. Worse still is when a half-sheet is included. But recently I have noticed a new gimmick: an extra wide page, usually with an advertising message on the part that sticks out. One simply can't fold that neatly. I'm writing this in Colorado, where our newspaper is the Boulder Daily Camera. The wider pages haven't started appearing here yet. I suppose I should be grateful that we can still buy a print edition, but the paper disappoints me in several ways, apart from the paucity of international news. Today, one headline mis-spelled the location of Nik Wallenda's tightrope walking as "Niagra". Another headline referred to a "lein", instead of a"lien". I'm not an ardent sports fan, but I do follow our Northern California baseball and football teams. I can understand it when in a different time zone the paper goes to press before the details of a night game can be printed, but better papers publish the box scores the following day. When Matt Cain pitched his historic "perfect game", San Francisco's first ever, the news of it was printed in the next day's paper, but the box score wasn't, then or on the following day.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


This euphemism was a favorite of a stepdaughter when she was a teenager, when I might have used "Rubbish!". I thought of it on Friday when the news that the favorite for the Belmont Stakes had been scratched. First, a little background about horse racing. I was born a few miles from Epsom Downs, where Britain's most famous flat race takes place, the Derby. It is for three-year old horses--mainly colts, but fillies are eligible. It is the second of the three biggest races of the season. The first takes place at Newmarket, the racehorse capital of the nation: the 2,000 Guineas. This is for colts: in the U.K.'s sexist society the fillies race in the 1,000 Guineas. The third race is the St. Leger, run at Doncaster, if I recall correctly. It is rare for the same horse to win all three races. Likewise, in the US, the three races are the Preakness, run at Aqueduct in Baltimore; the Kentucky Derby, at Churchill Downs in Kentucky; and the Belmont Stakes, at Pimlico, near New York City. It is rare for a horse to win the "Triple Crown", by coming in fist at all three races. In fact, the last time this happened was in 1978, when the appropriately-named Affirmed triumphed. This year, the first two races were won by another well-named colt, I'll Have Another. There was great excitement, and that horse became a 4-5 favorite for the Belmont by Thursday. I'm not a betting man, but I know that means that to win $400 and get your stake back, you have to put down $500. Then, on Friday morning came the disappointing news: the favorite had been scratched. After the early morning workout, it had been noticed that the horse had incipient tendinitis in the left foreleg. We were told that the horse could have run, but might have been handicapped, and the condition made more severe. So, once again, no Triple Crown this year. The horse will be "retired to stud". When the mating season begins next year, stud fees will be quite substantial. I'll Have Another will never race again. Trainer and Owners have received much sympathy and praise for this sad decision. They tell us convincingly that they really love that horse, and always will, and that they had to act "in the best interests" of the horse. I don't doubt that, but left unsaid is the strong economic reason to support the decision. Which would be more valuable, a horse which had won two big races, but failed at the next attempt; or a horse which had won two races, was an odds-on favorite for the next race, but didn't run? We're talking about huge amounts of stud fees at risk here. So scratching the horse was not just a sentimental choice by animal lovers, it was a sound financial decision by two business-like members of the notorious "1%". A harsher cynic than your faithful correspondent might say they are "crying all the way to the bank".

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Having trouble reading this?

I often receive email that starts with this seemingly inane question. Probably you see this, too. I am tempted to reply: "Buster, if I'm really having trouble reading your email, I probably wouldn't be able to read your stupid question"... If I know the sender, and am glad to receive her/his emails, of course I'd never do that. Unsolicited commercial messages, however, do tempt me, but it's better to hit the "Delete" button--or even report it as spam. It reminds me of the classic photo of a sign that says: $50 fine for damage to this sign. And no other message. Aargh! Duh!

Monday, May 28, 2012


An amusing article "Candy Cabinet" in the latest issue of my parish's magazine, telling readers about the place where Holden Clifford (201months old) stored the candy he gleaned over Eastertide, brought back memories of "tuck". That's another English word with multiple meanings. "Tuck in" is a variant of "Eat up". Perhaps it is developed from the act of tucking in a bib before eating. The idiom "best bib and tucker" now just means "best clothes", but in the 18th Century they were actually items of women's clothing, not then just used to prevent spilling food on clothing. The British people are very fond of candy, both chocolate and "sweets". These items were still rationed for some years after the end of WWII, and I remember the tremendous buying binge that took place when rationing finally ended. The term "tuck shop", for a store which sold these items, has largely fallen out of use. But "tuck" was still a word widely used when I was a schoolboy. I remember with pride the time when I convinced the headmaster of my prep school (boys aged 8 to 13 ) that we should discontinue the practice of giving each boy a paper bag of sweets.just before the weekly movie show. I suggested that it would be more civilized to place containers of candy on the lunch tables, so that we might eat one or two pieces of candy every day, instead of gorging ourselves on the entire packet of sweets once a week. Each boy at that school had his own "tuck-box", a large wooden container, but these were no longer used to store candy. We were allowed to keep our personal toys, books, and games there, but it was strictly forbidden to retain supplies of candy in those boxes. Nevertheless, the name "tuck-box" survived.

Monday, May 21, 2012


On one of my two visits to Cuba, I drove past the fenced-in exterior of the base at Guantanamo Bay, abbreviated by generations of U.S service personnel to "Gitmo". It is in the news again, because after two previous changes of mind, several of those accused of complicity in the attacks on the USS Cole and the "9/11" attacks are now being tried at the base we maintain in Cuba. Recently, Ozzie Guillen of the Florida Marlins was suspended for five games because he had the gall to say that he admired Fidel Castro, not a wise admission in Miami! There is much about Fidel that I deplore, but I must agree: there is much in his life to respect. My own feelings about Cuba and its people are complex and mixed, from feeling that the Cuban brand of Socialism is right for most of that nation's present inhabitants, to dismay at the imprisonment of dissidents. I can understand why we originally wanted a naval base in Cuba, but those days have long passed. There is no need at present for us to occupy this piece of foreign soil. To use it as an offshore prison is an abuse of the original purpose. I believe that we should long ago have withdrawn from Guantanamo Bay. I believe that we retain it more out of spite and dislike of the Castro regime than because of any good reason.

Monday, May 14, 2012

An evolving attitude

I grew up in a culture which was hostile to homosexuality. We would pass along anecdotes which belittled homosexuals in many ways. As time passed, I realized that it was "unchristian" to sneer at or put down persons born with a sexual orientation which differed than that of the majority. Although I had become more tolerant of those who were "different", I was still uncomfortable with them. About half a lifetime ago, I began hearing the requests for equal treatment. I accepted the concept of civil unions, but I firmly believed that "marriage" was (by definition) a union of one person of each sex. As the years passed, I began hearing the reasoning behind the calls of gay and lesbian people to be permitted to marry. For some years now, I have been in favor of same-sex marriage. However, I never expected to hear a national political figure speak out in favor of such unions. When I heard reports of the Vice President's approval of "gay marriage", my first reaction was that Joe Biden's big mouth had done it again, creating a problem for our President's re-election hopes. I suppose that the pollsters will soon be telling us whether the president's endorsement on this issue will make a difference to the electorate. It seems likely that Obama's comments will affect some voters negatively, and maybe bring some hesitant supporters back into the fold. Meantime, I am proud of Obama and Biden, for their integrity and willingness to speak out openly and clearly on this issue. After all, the evolution of the President's position at least partially mirrors my own.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Merry Month of May

May is my favorite month. In Paris, April may be the ideal month, but in Northern California, as well as in my native south of England, it is May that normally marks the end of cold weather and heavy rain. (April showers bring May flowers.) It is the month for green shoots to appear, and for Vidalia onions and locally-grown asparagus to come on sale. Barbara & I celebrate our 1970 wedding each May 2. Golf, tennis, baseball, horse-racing are in full swing, and (in England) County cricket season opens. May Day itself is International Workers' Day, and there's a tradition at Oxford of taking out a punt to witness singing at Magdalen Bridge. Sixty years ago, I learned a little ditty. I'll clean it up a bit, but here goes: Hooray! Hooray! The First of May! Outdoor bonking begins today!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Manifest Destiny

I always used to liked this phrase, as it seemed to celebrate the pioneering spirit which built this country. Apparently, it was originally used in support of westward expansion in the 19th century. Having lived through the Depression years and WWll, and seen the USSR disintegrate, leaving the USA as the only "superpower", I later felt that this was the country's "manifest destiny". Lately, however, I have become more conscious of those who see the USA in less favorable terms. To me, it is still the best country in the world, all things considered--and that's not meant as a put-down of Norway, Switzerland, the U.K, Canada, New Zealand, and other wonderful countries. After all, I made a decision to move here, become a citizen, and have been able to thrive. But I no longer think of it being the USA's manifest destiny to lead the world, when it is seen as a bully in many parts of the globe. The U.N. has been an imperfect instrument to achieve the World Peace we so ardently desire, but I have hopes that its day will come. I am also convinced that it is not our country's manifest destiny to be the world's policeman.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Secret Service secrets

Eleven members of the Secret Service were sent back to the US from Colombia recently, where they were working in advance of a presidential visit. Apparently, before the President's arrival in Cartagena, there was a party at what ha been described as a "bordello". (Prostitution is legal in Colombia.) Those attending included military personnel as well as Secret Service agents. Following the party, which involved a considerable amount of alcohol, a number of the participants engaged in sexual activity with women "sex workers". The story allegedly came out because one participant initially refused to pay for "services rendered". We were told that the Secret Service group was not part of the special team that directly protects the President. This story has "legs": there have already been some firings, and at least one "early retirement". Investigation continues, and we shall probably learn more later. Meanwhile, I have some thoughts and questions. How many Secret Service agents are employed? If we can afford to send an advance party of 11, and replace all of them, none of whom is part of the protective team, it seems unlikely that there are less than 40 Secret Service agents: probably more. Was the affair in Colombia typical? I can hardly believe that this was an isolated example of behavior. Are the agents trained to understand that they represent their country, and are always on duty when deployed abroad? Are there any female agents? One columnist has suggested just what I had in mind: the presence of women agents would probably have lessened the likelihood of such wholesale lubricity. How much does each agent cost? Training, salary, benefits, pension obligation, guess would be well over $100k annually per agent. How are the agents recruited and selected? And by whom? Will the Cartagena affair change anything? Will we ever know?

Monday, April 16, 2012

House Concerts

As a small child, the word "chamber" was associated in my mind only with "chamber pots", those now seldom seen containers kept under a bed, or in a small cupboard at bedside.

Then I heard the word used for lawyers' offices. Also, of course, in the expression "chamber music". When I heard quartets or trios on the radio, I found it rather boring, frankly. I enjoyed jazz and swing music, and even some "top twenty" popular dance band music. Next, I began to appreciate symphonic music: orchestral works by Beethoven, Mozart, Handel, and Vivaldi, in particular. But not that dull chamber music!

As time passed, I learned to appreciate folk and Bluegrass--I am after all, the stepfather of Grammy-winning star Laurie Lewis! For many years now, I have appreciated baroque music, and have enjoyed performances of the PBO (Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra), and other Early Music groups. The San Francisco Early Music Society soon joined PBO, and the Berkeley Symphony as groups to which we subscribe, as we also do to Voices of Music. We also love Mahler, so our tastes are quite eclectic now. But chamber music? It wasn't "my thing".

That is, until four musicians we knew from PBO started playing Haydn quartets, in a group they named the New Esterhazy Quartet (with the blessing of the founder of the original Esterhazy Quartet). The NEQ plays chamber music, of course--and we love it. Mostly they play in churches, as do many other musical groups. But the ideal place to hear chamber music is in a smaller space, a room or "chamber".

For several years now, we have hosted "house concerts" for family and friends, and on various occasions we have been guests at other homes. Listening to the NEQ playing in a pleasant home is a sublime experience. We are very grateful for the music, the company, and the friendship of the members of the NEQ.

I should add that, after playing all of Haydn's quartets over the first two seasons, our friends have introduced works of students and admirers of Haydn, etc. We recently heard the NEQ play a fine quartet by Anton Wranitzky, as well as a fascinating quartet by Beethoven, written when he was already very deaf.

So, now i enjoy chamber music--especially when played in a "chamber".

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


There was a time in history when paper money was mistrusted. Coins made of precious metal (gold and silver were the best); one could travel in a foreign land where one's coins were welcome, for their intrinsic worth.

When I was growing up in the U.K, we had farthings (becoming rare), ha'pennies, threepenny bits (tickeys, in South Africa), tanners (sixpenny coins), bobs (shillings), florins (two shillings), and half-crowns (two shillings and sixpence). Sovereigns and half-sovereigns were rare, because the gold was worth more than the face value.

The main paper money was the "quid" (one pound note, greenish in color) and the "ten bob note" (ten shillings.) These were the highest denominations in general use, and weer similar in size to US currency. There were higher denomination notes, but most people never saw one higher than the "fiver", a beautiful white banknote, larger than the "quid", that crackled when folded.

I still remember the occasion in the early 1940s when I lost a five-pound note, and really grieved over the loss. It felt much like losing a hundred dolllar bill would feel today.

As in most developed countries, we kept a supply of change in our pockets or coin purses. Paper money belonged in a wallet. In countries where sterling, the Euro, or the Canadian
"looney" rule, this logical pattern is followed: coins for small amounts, notes for larger amounts.

Not in the USA.

Within the memory of most of us, we have largely limited the metal dollar to casinos, and stashed away large amounts of 50 cent pieces, requiring us to keep quantities of quarters for meters. etc. Twice we have introduced dollar coins, which are not widely circulated, and are quite unpopular. Most of these are held by banks, So we continue to spend millions of dollars printing up one dollar bills, which have a much shorter life than the metal equivalents. The penny may be on its way out; many don't think it worthwhile to pick up a penny fallen on a sidewalk..The greenback is welcomed abroad, and many travelers like to carry wads around to use as tips.

And to think that paper money was once despised...

Monday, April 2, 2012


Toenails grow much more slowly, as we all know, than fingernails. They need far less attention. Nevertheless, from time to time they need to be trimmed. I imagine that my nanny took care of this when I was very young, and perhaps my mother took over when I began attending kindergarten. When I left for boarding school at age 8, the terms were never more than 14 weeks, so my mother may have continued to do the trimming. By the time I became a Naval Cadet at 13, I had probably learned to cut my own toenails "as needed".

As I entered my eighties, cutting my own toenails became more difficult. I don't think I ever tried to con Barbara into the job, because at that time I decided to try a pedicure instead. Since then, I have always patronized a nail salon,usually about once every three months. When I stretched out this interval, after my first pedicure, the assistant at the nail shop remonstrated with me, suggesting that I should go there more often. As my toenails had begun causing holes in my socks, I knew she was right.

I don't really require the full treatment--the foot washing, toe cleaning, etc., but that comes as part of the pedicure. The price I pay ($17) is quite reasonable. (I have recently been nudged by a friend into increasing the tip from $3 to $5. I'd happily pay five bucks just to have my nails clipped, but I go with the flow.)

In our part of Northern California, the operation of nail salons seems to be the monopoly of Vietnamese. I do wonder who did the work before these immigrants arrived in the US, and I also wonder if Vietnamese monopolize this work in areas far from the Left Coast, such as in the states of Kansas, Maine, and Alabama..

I can still cut my own fingernails, although I prefer it when my assistant (Jane) graciously undertakes this chore.

Some years ago, Dr. Iishi (my Kaiser podiatrist) offered to operate to remove my toenails. I set a date, but then chickened out. The idea, of being able to forget about trimming toenails, appealed to me, but the prospect of the initial discomfort and pain did not...

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


"Bounty" is an ambiguous term. "Nature's Bounty" makes me think of delicious fruits and vegetables. In Patrick O'Brian's novels about the Royal Navy of the late 18th Century, we learn that there was an elaborate system for a ship's crew to share in a bounty awarded for the capture of an enemy ship. Fair enough!

"Bounty Hunters" aren't exactly lovable characters, but we understand why society may well decide to reward those who bring about the arrest of persons on a Wanted list.

Now we learn of suspensions and fines assessed on those involved in a bounty scheme for professional football players and coaches. For example, a cornerback whose aggressive play knocks an opponent out of a game would be rewarded by a "bonus" of (say) $1,000.

I find the crocodile tears of the NFL officials somewhat unconvincing. They are presiding over a "contact sport" which results in frequent injury. It is a big moneymaker for owners and players alike. So the hypocritical fiction is maintained that no serious injury results from "good clean football". We are just learning about the effects of repeated concussions, caused by blows to the head. Running backs, in particular, inevitably take a lot of physical punishment. Their average career duration is just five years, I read somewhere.

In my lifetime I have seen foxhunting and staghunting banned in most of the U.K. The League Against Cruel Sports has been quite successful, and on the day I wrote this I read of the prosecution in Colorado of two college students for beating a pigeon to death. The actions against the perpetrators of the bounty scheme is good, but it is really window-dressing. Professional football will continue to reward those who are "tough tacklers", but not so blatantly.

The reality is that many people--mainly, but by no means exclusively--men will pay high prices to watch "contact sport", in which performers do their best to injure their opponents. That will always limit the efforts of those who try to reform such "sport".

What about professional boxing? Two persons (usually, but not always, male) earn huge "purses", trying to injure each other. Shouldn't that be banned?

I'm not holding my breath...

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Eating at the counter

I have very seldom eaten at a restaurant counter. When I was working in an office, I either brown-bagged it, or occasionally was taken out to lunch by a company representative, or possibly a vendor. Once or twice Barbara and I would go to a restaurant for dinner, and be given the choice of waiting for a free table, or sitting at the counter. I can only remember one occasion on which we chose the latter course.

However, there is one counter at which I more frequently eat: our kitchen counter. I do this when I am alone within the house, and prepare my own lunch. It seems too much of a drag to take a plate of food into the dining room, pull out a place-mat, and sit down there, all alone. I'm really happier standing up in the kitchen, where I can reach the food that I choose to eat, and pour myself half a glass of orange juice.

When I do stand up to eat at our kitchen counter, I tend not to try to read something, or even listen to NPR. I don't bolt down my food, but I do tend to eat somewhat more rapidly than usual. I guess this is because of a lingering sense of guilt, a way to limit my chance of being "caught"--as by Barbara--who has been disapproving on the couple of occasions when she has observed me eating this way.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


This word is difficult to pronounce, but a useful concept. A mnemonic is a learning device to aid memory. For example, many of us use a simple mnemonic to help us remember the names of the five Great Lakes: HOMES, for Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior.

60 years ago, I was studying at Oxford for my final exams, leading to my BA degree . I still have the workbook that I used to assist my final preparation, which succeeded in bringing me what I believe I actually deserved: a safe entry into the upper half of a Second class honors degree. Almost all students took courses to lead (if successful!) to an Honors degree.There were a few Firsts, many Seconds (informally divided into upper and lower levels), a similar number of Thirds--and for a few folk, some Fourths. This might be the reward for brilliant answers that didn't respond to the actual questions...

(Apart from total failure, there was the possibility of "Sections". This meant that a little more study, etc., could bring you a Pass degree. You could still add "B.A.(Oxon)" after your name--but not "B.A.(Hons.) (Oxon)".

My "major" was English Language and Literature. For most students, this involved just two university-wide exams: "Prelims" and Finals .As an ex-serviceman, I was exempt from Prelims. So, in the summer of 1952, I needed to pass about a dozen separate exams over less than a week--or have no degree.

My system was to choose words to start my mnemonics, including an initial letter, which I memorized. Usually, the initial letters of the key phrases would form a word. I found that "off color" phrases were easier to remember, but one mnemonic was more seemly: "THE BIBLE AMEN". On other occasions I would try to remember a whole sentence.

Of course, we were not given the questions in advance of sitting down to take the exam. I managed to commit to memory some generic facts likely to feature in the exam questions.

When I began my studies, I was astonished to learn that the course involved nothing written after 1820--except there was a voluntary exam on "modern" literature of the 19th Century. (Few took this extra exam, as one was not excused one of the other papers.) So, no Dickens, Wordsworth, or Thackeray. Even the "modern" paper omitted T.S.Eliot and Rupert Brooke. I could, however, enjoy Jane Austen and consider that "work".

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


Most of us think of anticipation in favorable terms.We look forward to something pleasurable or even exciting in the future. This could be anything from a family outing to a lovers' tryst. In time, our pleasures change: we look forward to a year-end bonus at work, a vacation cruise, or watching an important sporting event, such as the Super Bowl--although the latter may be more like a "stupor bowl" for some...

There comes a time when many look forward to retirement. Other anticipate the first drink of the day--and perhaps to "tying one on". As we age, we may look forward to going to bed--unaccompanied! I know that I am blessed with a healthy appetite, and look forward to almost all my meals, usually accompanied at dinner by a couple of modest glasses of wine...

Negative anticipation can have many forms. A British schoolboy may suffer between "sentencing" and punishment--especially if the punishment to be inflicted is still (in some places) a caning--as it was in my day, but never my fate. Driver and passengers in a car, skidding to an inevitable crash, may anticipate at least the expense and inconvenience, and often the expectation of bodily injury. I remember the V ! "flying bombs" from the end of WW!!, and the fear when the "buzzing" stopped, meaning that the bomb was falling to close for comfort..

There's also what I would call "neutral" anticipation. This occurs when one is aware that something is going to happen at some future date, known or unknown, but is indifferent to it. For example, England's (soccer) FA Cup Final will produce a winner, but I really don't care about the result--since the team I used to follow (West Bromwich Albion) won't make it this year, and maybe never in my remaining years.

I "anticipate" my death occurring, and this is also in that neutral category. It's inevitable; I'm in no hurry, nor do i want to try struggle and stay. past my "sell by date".

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


No, I don't mean the gentlemen jewel thief created by E. W. Hornung, the brother-in-law of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Nor am I referring to the historic Raffles Hotel in Singapore, which I once had the pleasure of visiting, and enjoying the famous rum-based Singapore Sling, invented there almost 100 years ago.

Instead, I want to talk about raffles as a fundraising device. I don't like these, partly on principle, although I have often cheerfully contributed to a neighborhood child's plea to support his school library or sports team.

I have always felt that gambling against the House is a mug's game. I very seldom make any kind of a monetary bet, although I have no objection to the concept of an even-chance bet with a friend. Accordingly, my pockets were not emptied recently when a couple of muffed punts kept the San Francisco 49ers out of the 2012 Superbowl.

Every year, the local PBS station (KQED) sends out a request for me to enter a raffle. It is illegal for the organizers to make the purchase of a ticket a condition of entry, so it is always stated in the fine print on the back page that you do not need to make a contribution to collect one of over a hundred prizes. For the price of a postage stamp, one can return all the numbers randomly assigned. I usually do this. (Barbara and I prefer to support the public television stations in our area (and near our Colorado "second home") with a tax-deductible donation.)

The return envelope has boxes at the back: one puts words on paper, telling How Cheerful the sender feels about contributing to KQED. The other box, in a smaller font, asks for a check if one is "not making a contribution at this time."

All the mailing is artfully designed to make the entrant suspicious that no prize will actually be awarded, unless a contribution is made. I trust that this is not true, but certainly I have never seen any publicity for a lucky winner who was "too cheap" to donate.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Sex and Gender

Recently, the ACLU sent me a copy of the complete US Constitution, with all the amendments. I was glancing idly through this booklet, when I noticed the language of Amendment XIX. The first of two paragraphs reads as follows "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."

I was reminded of the first time that I attended the Episcopal Church's General Convention, as an alternate deputy from the Diocese of California. Some speaker used the term "gender", meaning "sex". A woman deputy who came from Seal Harbor, Maine - named Charity Waymouth, got up to protest the use of the word "gender". "That is a grammatical term", she said, and urged us to use the correct word in the future.

I thought of Charity's vain efforts, because now 30 years later, it is rare to hear the term "sex" used, except with respect to the sexual activity of persons or animals. I think this is a pity, and I always try to use these two important words (sex and gender) correctly.

At least, the mealy-mouthed killjoys didn't manage to amend the title of a certain TV program. I doubt that "Gender and the City" would have had much success...

Monday, February 13, 2012

Trains - Part Two

Due to my error, we posted Part 3 before Part 2, so this is chronologically misplaced.

In the thirties, British mainline trains had been consolidated into four separate private companies: LMS (London, Midland & Scottish), LNER (London & North-Eastern), GWR (Great Western), and SR (Southern). Our convenient stations were on the SR, which had been electrified. This was convenient for fast trips to London's Victoria Station and the West End, but for me, familiarity bred contempt for this rather "boring" line.

My favorite was the GWR, which still used powerful steam engines. I enjoyed doing jigsaw puzzles, featuring the "Castle" and "King" classes of locomotive. I enjoyed the history of the company, headed in early days by the famous engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. I mourned the passing (many years earlier) of the "Broad Gauge" tracks, which allowed passenger trains to offer a more comfortable ride than the "Narrow Gauge" lines; I felt that it was tragic that the GWR eventually had to convert to Narrow Gauge to conform to the majority choice.

Early in 1936, I was recovering from 'flu shortly before my 9th birthday, and I couldn't return to my boarding school during convalescence. I'll never know if my father had to "pull strings" but, to celebrate my birthday, my mother drove me to the GWR Works at Swindon, not normally open to visitors, and we were given a personally conducted tour. Not until many years later did I learn that I had been shown around by the General Manager, as if I were a young prince of the royal blood!

The LMS was probably the biggest and most profitable line, as it served the cities of Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester. as well as Scotland. There was a rivalry between the two northbound companies. The LNER's "Flying Scotsman" was matched by the LMS "Flying Scot". In 1936 came the "Coronation" (LNER) and the "Coronation Scot" (LMS), to celebrate the new reign of King George VI.. In London, the main LMS station was Euston, but also St. Pancras was an LMS terminus. In those days, no trains ran through London from North to South (or vice-versa). LNER used King's Cross for its main line, as well as Liverpool Street and Fenchurch Street, mainly used by commuters.. To this day, (on PBS) the initials "LNER" can be seen on the opening credits of the Poirot programs, which feature a fast steam train moving from left to right.

I'm not certain why I preferred the LNER to the LMS. It was a logical choice, since the LNER took the East Coast route, and was the line to take to reach Hull, Grimsby, and Immingham, the ports which received the imports of most of the timber brought in to the UK for G.H. Renton & Co, which my father controlled. As a small boy, I was probably more affected by the LNER's sleeker, silvery rolling stock, than by any family loyalty. To reach Scotland, one could take the overnight sleeper on either line, and the LNER coach for northern Scotland was at some point joined (probably at Perth) to the LMS train.

In 1938, our family enjoyed a summer seaside vacation at Nairn a few miles east of Inverness. The chauffeur (Frank Coles) drove my father there, while the rest of the family went by train. I was able to persuade my mother to take us on the LNER train north.There was a dining car on the train, and we enjoyed our evening meal there, but the dining car was taken off (also probably at Perth) during the night. To my delight, breakfast trays were brought aboard at Kingussie. It was there that I first enjoyed a "bannock", the Scottish version of a breakfast bread roll. Six years later, I took the same route to join my ship (H.M.S. "Norfolk") at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands. I remember looking forward to the breakfast tray at Kingussie, but in 1944 it seemed greasy and unappetizing. Perhaps my tastes had become more discriminating, but I really think that wartime had brought lower standards. Remember, north of Perth, we were in the care of the LMS. I'm glad I can't blame it on the LNER!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Trains, part three

I clearly remember the joy I felt in 1949, soon after I had returned from naval service in the Far East. I was lucky to have spent time in Ceylon, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaya, Sarawak, China, and Japan. Now I would be able to return to the Continent of Europe, off limits since 1939, due to the German occupation.

My elder sister and I, with two friends, took a train from Calais to Paris, where we entered a train that took us to Austria, a wonderful journey. In Zurich, we changed into a train that took us almost all the way to Obergurgl, for our first skiing holiday. (We had to walk the last leg of the journey, while our baggage was brought up by road, but it was all part of a thrilling journey.)

A few years later, I remember the excitement of a train journey to meet my fiancée in Venice, my first visit to that romantic city. Then there was the trip awarded me by business friends on the reconstituted Orient Express. Three memorable train trips in Europe. But for sheer luxury, I have to choose the Blue Train journey Barbara and I made from Pretoria to Cape Town. We also loved the train ride to the Copper Canyon in Mexico.

We still love long distance train travel, although the many journeys we have made on AMTRAK from the Bay Area to Denver lack the luxury of those in Europe or South Africa. In fact, we are scheduled to take the overnight journey again next month. We start at 9:10 one morning, and arrive on the following evening in Colorado. Alas, AMTRAK has to yield to freight trains, so arrival time is not up to Mussolini's standards!

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Trains (part one)

As a small boy in England, I always loved model trains. I had a set of Hornby Gauge O equipment, which I steadily built up with gifts on my birthdays and at Christmas. I began setting up the track in the billiard room at our family home in Surrey, using the space under the billiard table. I didn't care much about the station buildings and other scenic embellishments: I just wanted an oval track and "points", where trains could be sent onto a different set of rails.

After a time, I was allowed to move everything into the loft over the stable buildings, which had become a three-car garage. I began with clockwork trains, and later converted to an electric system, which allowed me to start, stop, and make adjustments to the speed of the engine. My elder sister had little interest in trains, but in time my younger sister enjoyed her set of Hornby "dublo" (00 gauge) trains, which took up a lot less space.

My enthusiasm waned when I went to my (British style) boarding prep school at the age of 8. I can't even remember what happened to my toy trains when I grew out of them. My love of trains continued, but it was transferred to scale models in which one could actually ride. I particularly remember the Romney, Hythe, and Dymchurch railway, which ran along the south coast between Kent and Sussex. It is a one-third scale model of a main line train. My prep school was at Broadstairs, a short drive away from the Hythe terminus of the line, and from time to time my parents would take me there when they visited me at the school.

I am glad to report that the line is still in operation, 75 years after I first knew of it. Hythe can easily be reached from the M20 motorway, which was not even dreamed of during my childhood.

More about my "romance" with trains will be featured in future blogs.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Red - another ambiguous color

Red can be a very positive color. From red wine to red roses, I have nothing but good things to point out. Hearts are red, a red-letter day is to be treasured, Major Feasts in Anglican Prayer Books are printed in red--as were "rubrics" originally. "Red-blooded" folk--usually male!--are prized for their courage. Newly-minted cardinals are given a "red hat".

Yet red is also the color of danger, as in a red flag and red alert. We stop our cars at a red light. A "red light district" holds houses of "ill repute". When we are ashamed or embarrassed, our flushed cheeks betray a red face. Red is the color of Communism, not usually welcome in the circles most of us move in. "Red Ink" refers to a loss in business, etc. We should try to avoid going past the red line on instruments, such as a speedometer. "Rednecks" is not a positive description. We avoid "red-eye" flights if we can.

There is ambiguity, even if sound advice, in the old proverb: "Red sky at night, shepherd's delight; red sky at morning, shepherd's warning". In the Bay Area, Stanford supporters love red--but don't wear that color to a Cal game!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Blue, an ambiguous color

Blue--particularly medium-dark blue--is my favorite color. It is Oxford blue, the color of my university, and star athletes are awarded a "blue". (Rumor has it that "blues" are also awarded at the Other Place, but in the Fens the folk use that insipid light blue.) Blue is also one of the two colors of my local favorite, the University of California's main campus in Berkeley. It is the color of the St. Andrew's Cross, to be seen on the Scottish flag. Being of half Scottish heritage, I support Scotland in sporting events, but I am happy that dark blue is also found on the Stars and Stripes - and on the Union Jack also, for good measure. As a former Naval Officer, I like "Navy Blue".

In many respects, blue is a happy color. My father kept a pedigree Jersey herd, and our cow barn at my first home was decorated with a lot of blue First Place prize certificates. As a Bow Group left-of-center Tory in England, i was glad to wear a blue rosette on Election day. We enjoy blue skies, and prefer sailing in blue water. A trustworthy ally may be considered "true blue". In a hierarchical society, the aristocracy is alleged to have "blue blood". Ships are made to sail, so it is positive when the Blue Peter flag is flying, indicating the vessel's imminent departure. Bluebells and Texas Blue Bonnets are attractive flowers. The Blue Grotto and a blue lagoon are renowned for their beauty. Blueberries are delicious. A Blue Ribbon committee normally commands respect. A possibly glorious future is "beyond the blue horizon".

Then there is the other side of the coin: If you are unhappy, you have the "the blues". Melancholy music is described as having blue notes. In freezing weather, we can turn blue. If you're afraid, you may be in a blue funk. A blue baby will die if not treated promptly. A censor uses a blue pencil to delete unacceptable text. Obscene humor is "blue". Some folk curse a "blue streak" Most of us dislike the insect known as a "bluebottle". Spoilsports may be "bluenoses". Blue Sky laws help limit fraud. A "Blue Norther" in Texas brings unwanted cold weather.

Sometimes the word emphasizes rarity, as in the phrase "once in a blue moon". Another neutral usage is the "blue plate special", our version of the plat du jour.

Indeed, this is a very ambiguous color....

Monday, January 9, 2012

More Google grief

I had just posted last week's blog when something even more egregious showed up on my monitor.

I have three friends, who don't know each other, and live in three widely separated states. Let's call them Tom, Dick, and Harry. Over time each has sent me an amusing email, and so we have built up a pattern. One of them sends me an item, and I forward it to the others. (I don't forward everything: Tom sends the occasional somewhat raunchy story, and I prefer to delete such offerings than to risk offending Dick and Harry.)

Tom sends more items than the other two, and I seldom originate such emails. However, on this occasion Dick sends an amusing item, which I start to forward to Tom and Harry. Immediately, in a red font, there appears a message from Big Brother Google, suggesting that I would also like to send it to Dick! No way: he just sent it to me... The system isn't sophisticated enough to realize that.

I think there should be a way for me to opt out of this annoying kibitzing of my personal correspondence. Just because I know that Big Brother is reviewing every keystroke doesn't mean that I want to be verbally accosted by Google's asinine comments--in red, yet, as if I'm in danger.

I also noticed a message, presumably added by Google when I composed a email, to the effect that an invitation would accompany my outgoing email. I'm used to the incessant entreaties when I'm writing to someone not on Gmail, to "invite" them to join. Are automatic messages to that effect now being sent without my specific approval?

I'm not in any peril: I'm just seriously ticked off.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Google grief

Don't get me wrong: I'm a fan of Google, particularly of its search engine and Gmail. But...

I'm not into secrets, and I have nothing to hide. I also understand why the system notes the names of those to whom I write. I can't prevent that. I often send emails to several addressees, and even more often send items to just one or two people. For some time now, Google has put a note on my draft of an email to (say) Tom, asking me if I also want to send it to Dick and Harry. I find this very irritating. I have no way of responding "Listen, Buttinsky, if I'd wanted to send it to them as well, I'd have added their names, already!" Also, I'm not enough of a techie to know whether I can eliminate this unwanted "feature", and (if so) how to do it. On only one occasion, after scores of emails, did I actually decide that I might as well add a cc. to "Dick", although this was far from vital.

I suppose I average about five emails a day from a very active church listserv. This has several hundred subscribers. Recently, all these emails have been prefaced by an unwanted message in a red font, warning me that maybe the message didn't actually come from the purported sender. I have yet to receive a message with that warning that wasn't from the named sender. I can usually spot a message from some hacker--including those ingenious ones that tell me a good friend has had all his money and his passport stolen in London, and begs me to send money to a "trusted" intermediary!

Why can't Google's clever programmers design an algorithm that picks up the fact that these are genuine contributions to the listserv?