Thursday, November 22, 2007

Kindle-ing a Buzz

Amazon's new Kindle "wireless reading device" generated a "Yecch!" reaction in my gut when I first heard about it. I love books made of ink on paper. Old ones show the tatters of loving use. Books from my childhood share shelf space with those from my mother's early life. Christmas would not be complete without pulling out my copies of Miss Flora McFlimsey's Christmas Eve, or Big Susan. The content is not the issue - it's the memories that are held between their covers. No electronic device could ever replace them.

Some of my favorite books have underlines and highlights. There is sensual pleasure in the texture of a fine binding and the promise of something new and wonderful as you turn each page. There's a feeling of discovery even with a new mass market paperback. What's waiting there for me? The lyrical writing of Julie Zickefoose would still be beautiful, but her watercolor illustrations add so much to Letters From Eden, and they need paper.

So the Kindle started out as a "no way, no thanks, not for me" device. The name alone turns me off. Why did Bezos choose a name that conjures images of fire? Does this man who's made millions on selling real books believe his new toy will make ink and paper obsolete, leading to bonfires a la Fahrenheit 451?

Then I went to the Amazon site and saw the image - not as bad as I thought. If the screen truly is as easy to read as promised, then it might be a good solution for people who have limited mobility. If you have one arm in a cast, for instance. People with poor eyesight can adjust the type size which will give them access to many books without having to wait for a "large print" edition. Those who commute on public transportation could read the newspaper without flapping it in their neighbor's faces and ending up with blackened fingers. Except if they happen to ride the DC Metro, in which case they'd be out of luck when the trains go underground.

The thing is, though, that you still need to have access to the network in order to read a book. I don't know anything about Sprint's data network, but I do question whether you'd be able to read everywhere. Backwoods of Maine? On a cruise ship in the Caribbean? For $400 plus $10 for each volume I can buy a lot of real books that I can read anywhere in the world without charging a battery or finding a network. And the ones that I love I can pass around to friends, who can pass them on to their friends. Who can pass them on to people who perhaps cannot afford to buy a book at all.

Lest I sound too curmudgeonly, I'm not against the thing - though I really dislike its name. I'm just a very long way from adding it to my wish list. If I see someone using it, of course I'll ask them about it and even try to get my hands on it. But to own one? No thanks.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Sideling Up to Geology

A couple of weeks ago we were in Western Maryland where the hills roll from one into the other, and roads do the best they can going up, over, and through. It's all beautiful country, but there's one brief section that makes you say, "Wow, look at that!"

Just beyond Hancock, I-70 turns north into Pennsylvania, and I-68 begins its westward track. Old U. S. 40 follows the same route but then veers sharply south to climb the side of a hill, and then does a switchback down the other side. It's clear that when the old National Pike was built, it was no match for Sideling Hill.

Fast forward a few decades to the building of I-68. Engineers blasted through and created an easy, curvy run for the new interstate highway. And in the process, exposed a remarkable geologic formation that clearly illustrates the immense powers that formed our Appalachians. Thanks to the construction, you can see how the rock layers were lifted, curved, and eroded away over the millenia to the gentle mountains we know today.
Thank goodness they didn't just blast through and leave it at that. In the visitor's center there is an informative display that explains how Sideling Hill was formed as well as a three story-high timeline of the earth's formation. Outside, stairs let you walk up to the rock formations, and a pedestrian bridge across the interstate - complete with "camera ports" that let you photograph without having to thread your lens through the protective wire fence - gives you a remarkable view.

This is one example of your highway taxes not only at work, but doing something very worthwhile.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Move-In Condition Haunted House

Our recent drive through western Maryland was a lovely respite from the megalopolis of Baltimore/Washington. Here, buildings nudge each other for space, and anything that is more than 25 years old seems at risk of razing. Buildings rarely become charming derelicts. Their land is too valuable as the future site of a mega-store that I'll never go to.

So it was a delightful discovery we made on a road just a few feet north of Interstate 68. Visible from the highway, this lovely old place seemed to want just a few ghostly moans and flickering lights to be the perfect haunted house. There are no neighbors to complain - the nearest building is an old barn. Property values don't suffer because the value is in the land. It's clearly not safe for any but the spirits of the departed, but isn't it nice to know that such a place still exists on Halloween?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Learn Something Good

One of the frustrations of being very busy is that I don't always make the time to give back in meaningful ways. For now, my business requires the attention of an infant. That limits my ability to get involved as I might like in causes that matter to me. I write checks at the end of the year, but wish I could do something more often.

Now I've found a way I can. Thanks to The Publicity Hound, Joan Stewart, I learned about Good Search. Whenever you use their search engine, GoodSearch donates money to the nonprofits and charities of your choosing. Just go to GoodSearch, choose your charity, and enter your search terms. It's based on Yahoo! Search, and you can even add a local charity or school of your choice to the list.

As an info-packrat I do a lot of searching. Now that I've added GoodSearch to my Firefox toolbar (they make it easy), each of those searches will generate a donation for my choice, Heifer International. True, it's only pennies a day, but they will add up. GoodSearch is a great idea – give it a try and know that your searching will help a cause that matters to you.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Of Leaf Peeping and Barn Art

It's the end of October. In Maryland that means brisk days, cool nights, and breezy cascades of gold, terracotta, and scarlet as the trees shed their leaves.

Except this year. Like too much of the country, we are unseasonably warm and very dry. Usually we have some nice colors in the trees even here in the Baltimore area, but this year the trees seem just tired of it all and are dropping leaves of pale yellow-ish tan, brown, and only an occasional peachy orange.

In need of a long weekend away, and celebrating our anniversary, we headed for the hills. Western Maryland and that bumped up part of West Virginia that threatens to crush the panhandle right up to the Mason and Dixon line - that was where we hoped to find some proper leaf peeping.
The C&O Canal

In three days of wandering around Berkeley Springs, WV, and the area between Hancock and Cumberland, MD, we did finally find some good fall color. Even better, we found peaceful vistas, twisty roads that crawl sideways up a hill and then switch back for the downward run, and a few quirky buildings. One of my favorites was this barn that stood right up against the road. Clearly abandoned and weathered to a stately gray, it boasted three paintings hung on its sides. Long ago weathered and with the paint worn off in streaks, the painted wood panels spoke of an artist whose work seemed to foretell the fate of the building and its farm.

Interstates 70 and 68 allow for a quick trip from Baltimore to Western Maryland. But for a better ride, I recommend getting off the highway and taking good old U.S. 40. In many areas it parallels the interstate, but allows for those spur of the moment side trips that make your day.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Tonight! The 17th First Annual Ig Nobel Awards

Do you remember Rowan & Martin's "Laugh-In"? Yes, that dates me, too. And do you remember Jo Anne Worley asking, "Is that a chicken joke?" Well, tonight, the mere speaking of the word "chicken" is drawing a roar from the crowd in Cambridge, MA. That's right, in staid old Harvard's hallowed halls, the world (in)famous Ig Nobel awards are being conferred this very night. For reasons not entirely clear - I haven't had time to do an in-depth study - the theme of tonight's event is Chicken. This unique, hand-crafted prize will be given to this year's lucky(?) honorees.

Now these are serious scientists, not just a bunch of sophomoric intellectuals, and winning an Ig Nobel confers a certain cachet. The following is taken directly from the web site of Improbable Research, and they can say it so much better than I:

"The Annals of Improbable Research (AIR) is a magazine printed on genuine paper, and also in digital form on the web. Subscribe, and you'll find our very best stuff -- genuine, improbable research culled from more than 20,000 science, medical, and technical, and academic journals.

We administer the Ig Nobel Prizes, given each year for achievements that make people laugh, and then make them think.

Our goal is to make people laugh, then make them think. We also hope to spur people's curiosity, and to raise the question: How do you decide what's important and what's not, and what's real and what's not -- in science and everywhere else?

"The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but, 'That's funny..." --Isaac Asimov

"Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth." --Sherlock Holmes"

So what qualifies for an Ig Nobel honor? In 2006, winning research included an exploration of why woodpeckers don't get headaches, a study of the different odors emitted by frogs under stress, and my personal favorite, the discovery that herring communicate with others of their kind to put this delicately...passing gas.

All of these research projects had a serious purpose. Really, they did. And tonight, the ten newest Ig Nobel winners have traveled from all over the world, at their own expense, to accept their honors. According to the web site, "The Prizes will be handed to them by a group of genuine, genuinely bemused Nobel Laureates, all before a standing-room only audience of 1200 people."

Isn't it good to know that there's still room for such silliness in the world?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


This brilliant, crisp, promise-of-fall day brought with it a gift. Concentrating on spiffing up a photo my favorite client had taken for her blog, I almost missed it. First, it stopped me cold. Then sent me scrambling upstairs for my camera and wishing I had the lenses and skill of fine nature photographers like Julie and Mary.

Just beyond the support for my tiny deck, right by my neighbor's hydrangea bush, there he was. And I recognized him from last spring! Sadly, it wasn't his gentle eyes or fine young antlers but his lame right foreleg that gave him away. Last time he wandered through our puny excuse for woods his antlers were furry and rounded, but now he has a couple of points on each side. When I first saw him last spring I didn't expect he would survive since walking was so difficult for him. When he touched his right front hoof to the ground, it was as if he was permanently en pointe. It looked painful and awkward and I just wanted to run out and hug him or somehow make it right.

So today when he wandered by again, I was delighted to see he is still here. I drew the curtains back from the sliding door and then stood still - he was looking right at me, measuring the threat. Soon enough he went back to eating low-hanging leaves from the trees and even wandered in and out of sunlight for my enjoyment.

This is one of the delights of working at home, looking out a window. With townhouses all around I'm amazed at how much wildlife comes through the few feet of trees and tiny stream that separate one group from another. Usually it's robins, blue jays, squirrels, and Scamp, the resident rabbit. Today it was the gift of seeing a special fellow again.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

What I Did On My (Not Long Enough) Summer Vacation

If this blog had smell-o-rama you would be able to enjoy the scent of sun-washed pine. With sound-o-rama you could hear the soft splish of mini-waves washing over the rocks on the shore, and the wispering of birch leaves trembling in the breeze. And enviro-true would help you feel the warm sun, then as the light ebbed, you would feel the cool come down from the hills.Now multiply that by about 6 days and you have a perfect vacation in New Hampshire.

Wish I were there.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Nature Next Door

The press of obligations has smooshed blogging off to the side in recent weeks; here's my attempt to loosen up and post just because something neat happens, even though small.

Case in point: my next-door neighbors have kindly done a wonderful job of landscaping around their town house's postage stamp back yard. This includes a butterfly bush that is easily 10' tall and that lives up to its name. A few days ago it was a particularly beautiful warm, non-humid summer's day. Looking out the window beyond my desk I kept seeing drifting waves of butterflies headed next door. So for a few moments I put the computer on standby and took my camera out for some fresh air.

We were obviously no threat to the beautiful yellow and black butterflies since they posed nicely before drifting away. I was amazed at how many of them had ragged wings. Some were missing whole chunks but it didn't keep them from flying and feeding on the brilliant purple flowers. After about 10 minutes of butterfly therapy the day went much better.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

She's Got a Baton and Knows How to Use It

She walks out in front of the crowd with assurance, bows briefly, steps up...and the magic begins. Marin Alsop has not even officially begun her tenure as the Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, but she's clearly not letting that stand in the way of showing what a woman with a baton can accomplish.

Today's BSO concert validated the decision to hire her that was controversial at the time, even - if you can believe the news stories - unpopular with some of the musicians in the orchestra. I never could understand why anyone would lament the departure of Yuri Temirkanov who spent as little time as possible in Baltimore, who never spoke to the audience, rarely spoke English for heaven's sake. Now we have this dynamic woman who is proving she can pull the orchestra together and get them bounding in her direction, making magnificent music the like of which the Meyerhoff hasn't heard since David Zinman left.

Elgar's Cello Concerto and Dvorak's symphony From the New World were today's offerings, the latter being recorded for a CD of Alsop leading the BSO. Watching her draw the music out with energy and emotion, and working without a score, was as much a pleasure as the glorious sounds themselves. I challenge any other symphony orchestra, anywhere, to better today's reading of the Dvorak. The standing, cheering audience would have given Alsop a fifth bow had she not drawn the Concert Master off with her on her fourth exit.

If anyone from the BSO is listening, you have finally regained the support of long-time season ticket holders who quit in disgust during Temirkanov's time. Thanks for having the guts to appoint the first woman to lead a major American orchestra. She's already proving you made a great choice.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

An Antidote to What's-His-Name

I have an antidote to the Imuses and Sharptons and Coulters and other sewage-spewers of the world. For every spotlight seeker going for the cheap quick headline, there are dozens of beautiful examples of writers and speakers who caress words into glowing images.

I commend to you Julie Zickefoose. With an 80-acre back yard in the Appalachians, and an encyclopedic knowledge of nature, she writes about her world and paints it with appreciation for the company of birds and bullfrogs. Her lyrical style first caught me in a brief article in the Nature Conservancy magazine, and that same day her new book went on my Amazon wish list. Fortunately, my birthday was just weeks away. As my day arrived, so did Zickefoose's Letters from Eden: A Year at Home, in the Woods.

It's clear from the Preface that a treat awaits. She talks about her "…neighbors: coyotes, copperheads, gnatcatchers, and bluebirds. I walk through their woods, and I'm lucky enough to come to know some of them." She sees the goings on in her bit of forest as nothing much extraordinary. Creatures go about their affairs. "Bullfrogs leap from the water to snap up birds. Bluebirds and
Carolina wrens sometimes have threesomes. These things are extraordinary only if we know they happen. My work is to notice them."

She is a master of her craft. Enjoy.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

She May Know Fashion, But ...

In today's Baltimore Sun there's an article that got my goat. First of all, they are running a series called "The Middle Ages." This is not about that dark period just before the brilliance of thought and art that flowered in the Rennaisance. No, they are talking about the booming generation of people that the rest of society doesn't quite know what to do about. Boomers. Middle aged. Semi-senior. No one has come up with a good name yet - for there is none - but plenty of people have advice.

Now there's a fashion manual for the boomers from someone who, by age at least, is one of their own. But if you believe the Sun article, mostly she has disdain for the clothes choices of her group. She focuses on "unflattering, frumpy and dated looks" and offers advice on transforming them into hip, with it styles.

Some of her advice is good but obvious and unrelated to age: tennis shoes with a skirt suit for women never look good. Frumpy is rarely flattering.

What I take issue with is her handed-down-from-on-high statements. Teal is a nursing-home color. White shoes say old. Pastel jogging suits are out. A colorful pullover sweater for a man is a no-no.

What if you have spent your working life in black or navy suits, looking forward to the day when you could live in pastel jogging suits? What if you happen to love teal and look especially good in it (says she with the red hair)? Where is comfort in her plan? Where is the familiarity and ease of a favorite sweater or less-than-hip jean skirt - another item on her "don't" list?

Early in the article the author points out that boomers are spending billions on clothing. Somehow, all I got from this article was another "expert" doing what "experts" have done all our lives...tell us what we are doing wrong and how we can fix it by simply buying something else, including their books.

I suspect a lot of boomers are too busy writing their own books to worry about whether a "style expert" approves.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

How To Get Rid Of a Customer

What's the fastest way to get rid of a customer? Without saying a word?

You got it. The answer is not saying a word. Being unresponsive. Showing that you really don't care what their experience was, even if they go to the trouble of pointing out - politely - that there might be a problem with your quality or service.

Two big names in women's apparel have recently provided me with an up close and personal example. Delta Burke - the clothing line that bears her name - has some nice designs. A few months ago I started swimming in the local indoor therapy pool (great for creaky knees!), and I bought a Delta Burke bathing suit at Lord & Taylor. Between the two I expect good quality and excellent service.

Right. My dismay quickly turned to ire when, after barely a dozen wearings, the suit began to disintegrate. The fabric lost all its oomph. Tiny gray ends of broken elastic fibers covered the surface. When wet, the skirt hung below my knees! Now my knees are not a great sight, but I don't want to have to fight with fabric when I'm swimming.

Yes, I rinsed the suit carefully and repeatedly after each wearing. The pool is state of the art and uses salts and very little - if any - chlorine. Clearly, there was a quality problem with the fabric.

So I wrote to Delta Burke Fashions describing the problem and my suggestion that they have a problem with quality, and I sent a copy to the Women's Buyer at Lord & Taylor at their headquarters store. (I would have written to a specific person, but the very helpful department manager at the local L&T couldn't give me a name.)

The result? Resounding silence.
My response? Two new swimsuits purchased - neither of them a Delta Burke, neither of them from Lord & Taylor. And one blog article.

In a dentist's office once I saw a sign: Ignore your teeth and they'll go away. The same goes for customers. The fact that I won't buy anything else from Delta Burke or L&T probably won't even register on their radar. Or maybe it will.

Addendum: Thanks to Alex for reminding me of the Demotivators to be found at Herewith a pertinent example: