Mets vs. Tiggers


The matchup of New York and Detroit that should have occurred 4 months ago finally took place today in Port St. Lucie. The Tigers won 5-4 despite a late Mets rally. Absolutely nothing happened according to Greg, but Mike says it signifies winter’s retreat. He’s right too as it is significantly warmer in the Northeast (although it’s not unlike March to periodically trip things up and come in like a lamb and leave like a lion…or a Tiger). Anyhow it’s time to countdown to what’s really important which is 32 days, 3 hours by my calculation.

What do you do if you’re a meat-eater living with a vegetarian?


A lovely article in The Guardian has great suggestions for meat-eaters on how to relate with vegetarians. Lucky for me I live with a conscinetious omnivore, but the article is useful for anyone you know and may take a meal with. I wish I had this article twelve years ago. I could have given it to all the people in college who told me I could pick the pepperoni off the pizza (heck, I once had someone tell me I could pick the meat out of a soup!).

Fun & Games


Easy: From Ironic Sans, see how many US States you can name in ten minutes. I got all 50 in 3:23.

Hard: The Impossible Quiz Deluxe from DeviantArt (takes a while to load).

Potentially Addictive: Vox Imperium, a web-based civilization-type game. I haven’t tried it yet. I’m not sure if I should but here are instructions how to start.

Metametaanalysis


Q: What’s worse than the media wasting a lot of time and space with endless coverage of celebrity fluff?

A: Media wasting time and space writing about how bad it is that the media wastes a lot of time and space with endless coverage of celebrity fluff?

Q: What’s worse than the media wasting time and space writing about how bad it is that the media wastes a lot of time and space with endless coverage of celebrity fluff?

A: A snarky blogger wasting time and space to write about how bad it is that the media is wasting time and space writing about how bad it is that the media wastes a lot of time and space with endless coverage of celebrity fluff!

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Equine Scatology


The Infoplease Editor’s Blog contains an entry about the popular misconception that the number of hooves in the air on an equestrian statue indicates how the rider met his death. I remember my father telling of this urban legend when I was a child (incidentally when describing the George Washington statue in Boston’s Public Garden that illustrates the blog post). Dad added that if all four hooves of the horse are off the ground that the rider died from falling off his horse.

Sullivan humor. You can laugh or groan but you cannot ignore it.

White Airborne Objects


In Boston, it’s snow.

In Port St. Lucie it’s baseballs.

I’m not the kind of baseball fan who eagerly follows Spring Training from the moment pitchers and catchers report. Generally I tune in to the first couple of Grapefruit League games and the realize that non-competitive games are pretty dull and go back into hibernation until Opening Day (that most glorious of days!).

So I was a bit caught off guard to find out that the Mets first Spring Training game is Wednesday 1:1o pm. At least I found out in funny – albeit bittersweet – way from Jason’s post at Faith and Fear in Flushing “The Limits of Prophecy.” At least this Spring Training game is not likely to lead to marital strife, unlike the World-Series-that-never-was (thanks to Yadier Bleeping Molina).

Virginia Apologizes for Slavery


Some interesting news from my former home commonwealth Virginia. Both houses of the General Assembly unanimously approved a resolution to apologize for slavery and exploitation of Native Americans. The measure of course is merely symbolic. The crimes occurred a century and more ago committed by people long since deceased. Due to the liquidity of the American population it’s not even likely that these elected representatives nor their constituents include a great number of descendants of slave holders. But in another sense it is very appropriate. Slavery in England’s colonies began in Virginia when the first black indentured servants arrived in Jamestown in 1619. Virginia has a long history of leading the nation and inspiring revolutionary change, and I think this may be another case. I’ve read some other bloggers commentary about the resolution and it’s largely negative along the lines of “too little, too late” and “hypocrisy.” I think a commenter at the Busted Halo blog puts it best though when s/he states that it is a good thing to acknowledge our shameful past in the same way that we patriotically celebrate our more commendable moments. Whitewashing history generally is ineffective compared to simply letting it all hang out.

Rite of Election


The first Sunday of Lent is one of those occasions that reminds me of the catholic (small “c”) nature of the Catholic (big “C”) Church.  The Rite of Election is the beginning of the home stretch for people who are becoming Catholic: the Catechumens (individuals who will receive the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and first Eucharist at the Easter Vigil) and the Candidates (individuals baptized in another Christian faith who will join in Full Communion of the Catholic Church through the sacraments of Confirmation and Eucharist).  As a sponsor for a candidate I participated in this ceremony today.

We began with the Rite of Sending, a simple ceremony during the Mass at the chapel that allowed the community to get to know the Catechumens and Candidates in a more intimate setting.  Then we piled onto the Silver Line and rode to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross where we joined Catechumens, Candidates, sponsors, godparents, family and other well-wishers from all the parishes of the Archdiocese of Boston.  Thousands of people filled the cathedral, which is quite a beautiful building with carved wooden buttresses and stained-glass windows.  The Catechumens were called forward and presented before Cardinal Sean at which point they became the Elect (hence Rite of Election) and the Candidates followed for a similar celebration.

I tend to like ceremony and ritual, apparently more than your typical progressive Catholic.  So I enjoyed the processions, the presentations, the intercessions, the contrast between Cardinal Sean’s basso profondo and cantor Phillis Baker’s ceiling-scraping soprano.  The thing that got me most though is that this same ceremony occurred in each and every cathedral throughout the world.  According to the cardinal there are about 3,000 total.  It’s pretty awe-inspiring to be part of something that big.

Movie Review: The Twelfth Annual Bugs Bunny Film Festival!


Every February, The Brattle Theatre presents the Bugs Bunny Film Festival and last night I took in their All Bugs Review. Bugs Bunny is not my favorite Looney Tunes character — that would be Pepe Le Pew — but he was featured in these 11 classic comedy capers (dig that alliteration).

The Rabbit of Seville (1950) — Bugs and Elmer Fudd face off on stage in the classic opera with Bugs continually forcing Elmer into the barber’s chair for abuse. Probably the highlight of the night, so why did they show it first?

A Star is Bored (1956) — Daffy Duck gets a job as Bugs Bunny’s stunt double, meaning basically anytime something too dangerous for Bugs is about to happen, Daffy is inserted into the scene to suffer from the disaster. It’s funny for it’s parody of Hollywood divaism, but I’ve never really been into the Bugs-Daffy rivalry, and the jokes get repetitive.

Bugsy and Mugsy (1957) — Two hoods are hiding out upstairs from Bugs and Bugs plays tricks on them to make the little smart guy (Mugsy) mistrust the big dumb guy (Rocky). Some classic physical humor including Bugs putting skates on Rocky and then dragging him across the room with a giant magnet to repeatedly smash into Mugsy.

Forward March Hare (1953) — Bugs is accidentally drafted into the army and although he tries to serve his country, he repeatedly messes things up and causes his drill sergeant to be repeatedly demoted. Lots of sight gags with Bugs in oversized fatigues among big, beefy army guys. This cartoon is an oddity in that Bugs is the dupe who keeps goofing up instead of his typical wiseguy role.

Hare Lift (1952) — In typical nonsensical fashion, Bugs Bunny is checking out the world’s largest airplane (which parked over his hole) when bank robber Yosemite Sam arrives and forces Bugs to fly it. The best part is when Sam pushes the robotic pilot button, the robot runs out, grabs a parachute and jumps from the plane.

My Bunny Lies Over the Sea (1948) — Bugs ends up in Scotland where he falls into a series of sterotypic ethnic jokes. Actually, it’s pretty funny when he attacks a Scotsman with bagpipes because he thinks it’s a little old lady being attacked by a monster. The Scotsman of course challenges him to golf, and a series of golf jokes ensue.

Knights Must Fall (1949) — In a medieval romp, Bugs and his tiny burro take on Sir Pantsalot of Drop Seat Manor in a jousting match.

Hillbilly Hare (1950) — This time Bugs ends up in the Ozarks for some more stereotypic humor. The funniest sequence is when Bugs becomes a square dance caller and forces the hillbilly brothers into a series of slapstick dance moves.

Big House Bunny (1950) — Bugs Bunny tunnels into the Sing Song Prison and battles it out with warden Yosemite Sam who keeps getting in trouble with his boss for all his apparent screwups. Cabinboy at Wuzzon? writes in everyone loves a hanging about discomfort with a joke on the gallows which leads into a discussion of which forms of capital punishment you can laugh at.

Rabbit Every Monday (1951) — Bugs versus Yosemite Sam again, this time in a hunting caper (was Elmer Fudd on vacation). Funny bits include Sam getting caught up in a chewing gum bubble which doesn’t wipe off right away in typical cartoon fashion.

Devil May Hare (1954) — The Tasmanian Devil makes his debut and Bugs tries to help him find something to eat (so that he doesn’t eat Bugs). I never got much into the Tasmanian Devil although his grunts and dimwittedness are at their best here. Perhaps this explains how Taz despite appearing in just a half-a-dozen films appeared on all those t-shirts, posters, and Warner Bros. marketing materials in the 1980’s & 90’s.

Some classics, some not, but all funny stuff including several cartoons I don’t recall from my many childhood years of cartoon watching.

Boston Athenaeum Lecture Series: Libraries and Copyright


Last night I attended a lecture called Libraries and Copyright: Hands Off, That’s Mine! Who Owns What And For How Long? at Boston Public Library’s Raab Lecture Hall. The lecture is part of a series Current and Back Issues: Persistent Themes in the Library, part of the bicentennial events of the Boston Athenaeum (despite this, all the lectures take place at the BPL). Speaking last night were Meredith McGill of Rutgers University and Dr. Siva Vaidhyanathan of New York University. The Boston Athenaeum’s William Strong moderated the discussion.

I don’t have much to write about the lecture, because:

  • A. I didn’t take notes (it was too dark).
  • B. I have a mind like a sieve and can’t remember anything.
  • C. I nodded off for a bit of the lecture (this is NO REFLECTION ON THE QUALITY OF THE SPEAKERS, it was just dark and I was sleepy).

McGill spoke first offering an historic perspective of copyright in the 19th Century. Apparently for the first century or so after the ratification of the Constitution, the United States did not recognize international copyright. As a result, books published in Europe were reprinted in the United States off in densely-printed, two-column per page format much like a magazine. The idea was to sell cheap copies of great European writing to encourage the ideal of civic republicanism. As Vaidhyanathan stated later, US legal views on international copyright didn’t change until the economic shift where US publishers became the primary source of printed materials for export.

Vaidhyanathan focused more on contemporary issues in copyright. Specifically, he talked about how copyright changed from protecting the consumer (providing quality literature for readers to help create Madison’s civic republicanism) to protecting the author and corporations. In the question and answer period after the lecture a lot of the audience were concerned with Google Books. Specifically what does Google owe to the public (answer: nothing, they just provide things that will drive people to their site to create revenue). Also there’s a lot of concern that institutions like University of Michigan Libraries just gave away a lot of their resources to Google, did not incorporate library ethics and scholarly concerns into the contracts, and pretty much bargained from a position of weakness when they did not have to.

And that’s about all that I remember. I’ll be looking around to see if anyone else who attend this lecture writes about it and post some links.

Four Quick Movie Reviews


The movies were of average length, but the reviews are quick.

Here’s what I’ve been watching on DVD the past week or so.

Thank You For Smoking (2005)

First off, I spent most of the movie wanting to slap Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) across the face for being smarmy non-stop. Second, this is one of those Hollywood movies that tries too hard to let you know how clever and outrageous it is (see In & Out for another example). There are some humorous bits, but most of the jokes just fall flat due to the wink-wink check-me-out nature of the film making. J.K. Simmons is pretty funny as Naylor’s boss and Rob Lowe does a good job in what is basically a cameo. The rest of the movie gets a big “eh?” from me.

Gimme Shelter (1970)

Intended as a concert film of the end of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 US tour, Gimme Shelter turned into a document of a tragedy. The Altamont Speedway music festival has been hyperbolically described as everything from the antithesis of Woodstock to death-knell of the Sixties counterculture. The documentary has dramatic cinematography and clever editing. In scenes filmed in the studio, we see the Rolling Stones simply sitting and listening to their newly recorded songs for the first time. In our MTV era of quick-cut editing, the contemplative film making used here captures perhaps not personal but musical introspection. There’s also a meta element to the film as members of the Rolling Stones watch scenes from the film and offer their commentary.

Two more reflections: One, the Rolling Stones in 1969 simply ROCKED, especially in full-song performances from their Thanksgiving concert at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. I’ve never seen the Rolling Stones in concert but the difference between these songs and say their 2006 Super Bowl performance is a reflection on the loss of a band’s joy in performance of great music. Second, even as things go horribly wrong at Altamont you can see in the faces of the spectators a certain level of hope, as if they feel that the scuffle has ended and maybe now they can just have fun. It’s said to see those hopes dashed again and again.

Running With Scissors (2006)

Based on the allegedly true-life stories of Augusten Burroughs, it details the story of a boy sent by his mother to live with her eccentric (at best) psychiatrist. The movie attempts to be a coming-of-age story in bizzare circumstances but gets bogged down in just how crazy everyone is that most of the actors end up playing caricatures. The movie is sad and shocking but in a manipulative way. Since the film is set in the 70’s, in typical Hollywood fashion every character is dressed in the most outlandish 70’s-era clothing and the film is drowned in a period soundtrack that detract more than add to the film. There are exceptions. Annette Bening puts in a brilliant performance as Augusten’s mother Deirdre Burroughs capturing her many mood shifts and descent into madness. In one scene she dances in a hallucination of a snowstorm accompanied by Manfred Mann’s “Blinded By The Light,” the one great scene where acting, music, and cinematography are choreographed together. The rest of the movie? Bleh!

Sideways (2004)

A much more depressing film than I’d been lead to believe, especially by the DVD liner notes which cast it as a laugh riot. The only laugh-out-loud scenes involve a supporting character chasing a golf cart and a naked man (well he’s wearing a hat) chasing a car. The rest of the movie is rather more reflective and often depressing. That does not mean it’s bad, it’s very good. Paul Giamatti puts on an excellent performance of acting as Miles, the confused wine-snob/author in the midst of a mid-life crisis attempting to show his friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) a good time in his last week before marriage. Miles is a bit of a jerk but benefits from the fact that Jack is a class-A jackass. The story avoids predictable cliches and really explores character in a satisfying way.

Ash Wednesday


And so Lent begins. It doesn’t feel like it’s started for me yet, because I’ve not yet been to church. I meant to get up early and go to Mass before work, but it didn’t happen. To paraphrase Neil Sedaka, “Waking Up Is Hard To Do.”

I’m a bit peeved about it. Going to church and receiving ashes in the evening seems somehow un-penitential. I kind of miss out on the aspects of Ash Wednesday that are both a reflection on one’s sinfulness and well, just plain funny. Such as the fact that the ashes inevitably resemble a thumb print more than a cross. The strange looks you get from people who don’t know what Ash Wednesday is and having to explain it to them. The knowing nods and glances from fellow Christians marked with ash. And while I imagine it being nowhere near as uncomfortable as wearing a hairshirt, there is that ticklish feeling on the forehead intensified by the knowledge that you just can’t wipe it off.


People wiser than I have written extensively about Ash Wednesday and Lent so here is a compendium of Ash Wednesday thought:

Last year Busted Halo put together a helpful list of 25 Things You Can Do For Lent. This year they offer the Practical Guide to Lent.

Whispers in the Loggia writes about Jesuit Father James Martin, author of My Life With the Saints, who has an annual tradition of receiving a Lenten penance from his Jewish friends.

Theologiene collects a mosaic of photographs of people marked with ash.

Fr. John Duffy of the Paulist Fathers sees Lent as the Season of Reconciliation.

Diana Butler Bass writes about Giving Up Lent For Lent.

If that’s not outside the box enough for you, Dirty Catholic offers commonly over-looked possibilities of what to give up for Lent.

Finally, there is T.S. Eliot’s famous poem, Ash Wednesday.


For my own Lenten practice I’ve long ago decided that giving something up (for example, chocolate) is too superficial for me. I remember a friend in college who gave up raisins for Lent which is funny because raisins are actually good for you. Then again she had a strong fondness for raisins so there was a personal sacrifice involved. Instead of (or in addition to giving things up) I like to take things on for Lent. I also consider things that I may try to do permanently beyond Lent. Sometimes I’m successful, like 13 years ago when I gave up eating meat for Lent, decided I didn’t miss it, and have been vegetarian since. Sometimes not, like the time I tried to attend Mass daily and failed miserably early on in Lent.

So this year for Lent I will:

  • Volunteer — There may be 40 days in Lent, but I counted up 48 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Monday and I hope to volunteer 1 hour for each of these days, that is two full days of volunteerism in total.
  • Read spiritual books – I have a list of books on faith, spirituality, and theology that I will read throughout Lent.
  • Give up my favorite Mets forum — I spend a lot of time reading and writing online at my favorite Mets forum, but not during Lent.

There we have it.  A good Ash Wednesday and Lent to all who observe them.

Beer Review: La Fin Du Monde, brewed by Unibroue


I used to be in the habit of tasting and rating a variety of beers. Now that I have this blog I want to revive that habit and share my beer reviews for the world.

I wanted to drink a fancy beer for Mardi Gras. I couldn’t find a New Orleans beer like Dixie or Abita so I settled on a beer with a French name.

Beer: La Fin Du Monde
Brewer: Unibroue
Source: 750 ml bottle with cork
Rating: ** (6.2 of 10)
Comments: The beer has an acidic smell and loses it’s fizz rather quickly. The taste of the beer is better with a slight fruity but bitter taste. There’s a nice slight but lingering aftertaste. The beer is very yeasty making it cloudy in appearance and adding a country-style flavor.

Happy Mardi Gras


“”I think there should be a national carnival, much the same as Mardi Gras in Rio. There should be a week of national hilarity . . . a cessation of all work, all business, all discrimination, all authority. A week of total freedom. That’d be a start. Of course, the power structure wouldn’t really alter. It would just last for a week and then go back to the way it was. I think we need it.” – Jim Morrison.

Mardi Gras, or Carnival, is one of my favorite events of the year, a celebrartion that is uniquely both wickedness and debauchery and a joyous celebration of Catholic faith. Obviously it is not commemorated much in New England. Instead it is celebrated in places where the Catholic church is strong such as places throughout Europe, Latin America, and most famously in New Orleans. That hurricane-ravaged city is celebrating its second Mardi Gras since Katrina an occasion today that is both an escape from reality and hope for the future.

I was lucky enough to attend Mardi Gras in New Orleans 11 years ago, with mixed feelings. I enjoyed the city and the (usually) friendly comradery that arose among strangers. I especially liked walking along the parade route and seeing how the same parade took on a different feel in each neighborhood. Downtown is dominated by tourists and college kids, the African-American areas featured poorer children lining the streets to watch and participate, and in the wealthier part of the city small children were propped up on top of ladders to catch the best loot.

On the downside, the whole experience was a bit overwhelming for someone like me with crowd anxiety and I got a bit cranky from overstimulation. The scene on Bourbon Street was unpleasant as the requests for mammary display were done in a manner akin to the crass capitalism of the stock exchange accompanied by nasty, insulting language. Overall I think Jim Morrison is on to something though, and the whole Mardi Gras thing is beneficial for the community. Even the strict Christians who came to demonstrate against Mardi Gras and make people repent seemed to be enjoying their role in the whole event.

I should probably scan and add some photos from that trip, but in the meantime one can never cease to be amused by this photo of Mr. Met and Bordeaux D. Nutria tossing beads in the French Quarter.

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Update:

First, a funny reflection on Fat Tuesday from Dirty Catholic.

Second, as promised, photographs from my 1996 trip to Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

That’s me swinging from a lamp post on my very first day in New Orleans. I love this photo especially because I actually know everyone in the picture even though half the people look like passersby.

I acquired a bit of loot including beads and a spear at the Mandeville parade.

A couple of blues men played in the middle of the street to an appreciative crowd.

A baby on a ladder scored lots of loot due to advantages in vertically and cuteness.

Christian protesters/evangelizers came in great numbers to help the revelers repent.

Hmm…Lent is but an hour away!

My Favorite Podcasts


Not so long ago, I was under the impression that I would never need a mp3 player. After all, who needs to have 1000+ songs at once? After I received an iPod as a gift my opinion swiftly changed, and found that listening to a shuffle of a 1000+ songs was a good way to discover the depth of my music collection and make new discoveries. Another thing I never thought I’d like is podcasts, but once I tried them I was hooked. So with no further ado…

My Favorite Podcasts

Battlestar Galactica — show producer Ron Moore offers commentary for each episode. It’s meant to be listened to synchronized with watching the episode but I can’t listen to someone talking over people talking so I generally listen to the podcast after watching the episode (usually while watching the dishes).
Busted Halo — A (usually) weekly show answering questions from young adults on Catholicism as well as Church Search and Day By Day an intriguing almanac. The show has lost some of it’s luster now that Fr. Dave is not a regular, but it’s still a fun listen.
Colonial Williamsburg Past & Present — Lloyd Dobyns (who I used to watch on the NBC Overnight news show with Linda Ellerbee) interviews historical interpreters for the behind the scenes story from Colonial Williamsburg.
Folkways Collection — This series of 24 one-hour programs explores the remarkable collection of music, spoken word, and sound recordings that make up Folkways Records (now at the Smithsonian as Smithsonian Folkways Recordings).
Pray As You Go — a daily prayer session, designed for use on portable MP3 players, to help you pray whilst travelling to and from work, study, etc.
Provoke Radio — a social justice show from a faith perspective.

Rare Frequency
— — a radio show, podcast, and website devoted to experimental, electronic, improv, noise, and quasi-pop music, with the occasional non sequitur thrown in for good measure.
Science Talk — Join host Steve Mirsky each week as he explores the latest developments in science and technology through interviews with leading scientists and journalists.
Soccer Shout — Phil and Tony talk about English football several days a week. Like Car Talk it is fun to listen to even if you’re not really interested in the topic just because the host are so funny.


Public Radio Broadcasts on Podcast

Most of the podcasts I listen to regularly are actually public radio shows that I never have the presence of mind to listen to on the radio.

All Songs Considered
Global Hit
NPR Shuffle

Only a Game
Present at the Creation
This American Life
Travel With Rick Steves
Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me
WBUR Here and Now
World Cafe

Writer’s Almanac

New Blogs

Since I’m already in metapost mode, here are some new additions to the blogroll.

Commute By Bike is another resource for folks like myself who go to work on two wheels.
Information about volunteering in Greater Boston is available from BostonCares.
Reviews of movies, especially those on screen at the Brattle Theatre at Wuzzon?
Cool articles for the independent traveler on Brave New Traveler.
Finally, two new Catholic blogs: LAMLand and Martha, Martha

Favorite Search Terms

Here are more of my favorite search terms which somehow led to Panorama of the Mountains.

why dogs lick human toes
primal thumb fear
who was killed in the movie the departed (I posted the answer in a comment)
pictures of ancient eygyptian glass (4 times!)
mets search engine cultural artifacts

Boo Librarians! Yay Librarians!


A censorship scandal has arisen over Newbury Medal-winning children’s book The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron because the book includes the name of a body part, specifically “scrotum.” What’s shocking about this is that librarians are actually pulling the book off the shelves themselves whereas librarians are generally defenders against such ludicrous attempts at censorship. The story is covered at librarian.net and The New York Times. LISNews also has a roundup of commentary on the controversy.

Luckily we have some good librarian news to balance things out here in a letter to the editor of the Boston Globe in praise of local libraries. I haven’t said it here before but I’m in total agreement with Wendy Ahlborg. The Minuteman Library Network is awesome in every way.

Book Reviews: Mrs. Pollifax and Brother Cadfael


I tend not to read genre fiction (and by that I mean things like romance, sci fi, mystery, fantasy, etc.) but when I find a series I like I get hooked. Things like character, good writing, and drama tend to trump all other things regardless of genre. My book club introduced me to two different mystery series a few years back and now I’ve completed reading all the novels.

Here are my series reviews:

Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman

Premise:
A widow named Emily Pollifax grows bored with her solitary existence in suburban New Jersey and decides that she would like to join the CIA to inject some purpose and adventure in her life. Starting with a simple job as a courier, Mrs. Pollifax begings a career as the Company’s most unliklely operative.
Supporting Characters:
Carstairs — Mrs. Pollifax’s CIA supervisor who selects her for missions due to her appearing to be innocent and unthreatening. He tends to worry about her while she’s away.
Bishop — Carstairs’ assistant who generally briefs Mrs. Pollifax on her assignments.
John Sebastian Farrell — An agent who freelances for the CIA whom Mrs. Pollifax meets on her first mission, and who she adopts as a sort of surrogate son. Farrell returns in several of the latter novels working as a team with Mrs. Pollifax.
Cyrus Reed — A retired judge and widower whom Mrs. Pollifax meets on safari. They fall in love and are married.
Themes:
Mrs. Pollifax is usually sent on a simple mission that goes awry. Almost always Mrs. Pollifax is captured by the bad guys and/or doublecrossed. Despite this, Mrs. Pollifax is triumphant by the end often accomplishing much more than initially expected. Her unlikely appearance as a spy along with her wit and charm often help her out. She also is good at forming friendships with the people she meets and organizing them to achieve her mission. The people she befriends tend to be ethnic characters of the country she’s in, often children. She also encounters young, troubled Americans and acts as kind of a grandmother figure/mentor to them. Much of the series is light-hearted and played more for laughs than suspense, although the novels also include more serious issues. For instance, in Mrs. Pollifax and the Hong Kong Buddha Mrs. Pollifax suffers torture at the hands of her opponents, which continues to haunt her in future stories.
Continuing Stories:
In the early novels, the formula is generally that Mrs. Pollifax is sent on a simple courier missions which goes wrong but she uses her wits, charm, and friends to get herself out of the mess. She meets Cyrus Reed in Mrs. Pollifax on Safari and the two marry and go on jobs for the CIA together for a few novels. In later novels the formula reverts back to the original premise and Cyrus becomes a more minor character, however Mrs. Pollifax’s old friend John Sebastian Farrell becomes more prominent. There are two examples of sequels within the series. Mrs. Pollifax on the China Station/Mrs. Pollifax and the Hong Kong Buddha are both adventures involving a Chinese dissedent. Mrs. Pollifax Pursued/Mrs. Pollifax and the Lion Killer involve the young woman Kadi and her friend Sammy who becomes king of the fictional African nation of Ubangiba. The novels were published between 1966-2000 and tend to reflect current events at the time they were published (Cold War communism in the early novels, the Mid-East conflict and terrorism in the more recent novels). Despite the story being current Mrs. Pollifax and the other recurring characters do not age 30 years and the continuity appears to take place over a more condensed period of maybe a decade or so.
Favorite Novel:
The Elusive Mrs. Pollifax — The early novels are more fun and this one has one of my favorite scenes of Mrs. Pollifax and her colleagues actually staging a daring raid of a Communist prison in Bulgaria involving geese.
Least Favorite Novel:
Mrs. Pollifax Pursued — I must have something against carnies because I never enjoy stories set at carnivals. This novel also has far too many elements that push the boundaries of suspension of disbelief.
The End?: At the conclusion of Mrs. Pollifax Unveiled published in 2000, Mrs. Pollifax shows no sign of retiring. Dorothy Gilman although elderly is still alive and could add further insallments to this series.

The Chronicles of Brother Cadfael by Ellis Peters.

Premise:
Brother Cadfael is a former crusader who took his vows at the Benedictine abbey in Shrewsbury and serves as the communities herbalists. His familiarity with the ways of the world, a scientific mind developed by working with herbs and medicine, and an eye for seeing what everyone else misses helps him solve mysterious crimes.
Supporting Characters:
Hugh Beringar — the deputy sheriff and eventual sheriff of Shrewsbury. Cadfael and Beringar start off on opposite sides in an early mystery but soon they work together and frequently advise one another problems and mysteries. They also form a close friendship with Cadfael acting as godfather to Hugh’s son.
Heribert/Radulfus — The two abbots of the abbey who both are able to recognize Cadfael’s unusual talents, call upon him for advice, and keep down jealousy and gossip among the monks.
Olivier de Bretagne — Cadfael’s son from a liaison in the Near East whom Cadfael discovers in an adventure about a third of the way through the series. A brave and honorable warrior, Olivier is the spitting image of a young Cadfael and central to the final novel.
Themes:
Almost all the books feature a murder, usually with the wrong man being accused and Cadfael’s sleuthing bailing him out. Since the likelihood of 20+ murders in a decade in a small medieval town are unlikely, many of the murderers and/or victims are visitors from out of town. Cadfael usually confers with Hugh and the abbot about the mysteries in long, expository (and redundant) conversations which often can be the weakness of this series. Cadfael often acts as mentor/advisor to younger men, and very frequently ends up acting as matchmaker between a brave young man and a fair young maiden (a bit hokey but fun). Relations with Wales are an ongoing theme as Shrewsbury is near the border and Cadfael is a Welshman who often acts as intermediary.
Continuing Stories:
The novels cover about a decade from 1135-1145 including a lot of historical detail and some real life characters in fictionalized form.
The relics of Saint Winefride, patroness of the abbey, transfered from Winefride’s native Wales in the first novel (or were they?). The spirit of Winefride continues throughout the series. She is credited with a miracle in The Pilgrim of Hate, her relics are stolen in The Holy Thief, and Cadfael holds a special devotion to her.
From the second novel on, the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maud is central to the ongoing story and important to the plot of several mysteries.
Favorite Novel:
An Excellent Mystery — The plot twists should be obvious to the average reader, but I was left hanging to the very end. This also is the rare mystery with no murder.
Least Favorite Novel:
The Sanctuary Sparrow — Far too much of the Peters’ formula and exposition makes for a weak entry.
The End?:
The final book Brother Cadfael’s Penance makes a great finale for several running stories and specifically is a big moment where Cadfael puts his vows on the line. Edith Pargeter died in 1995 so the series is at an end.

Urban Transit Round-Up


Suggestions are floating around the blogosphere that public transit systems should be free. Environmentalist Theodore W. Kheel made the suggestion at a conference in New York as documented by Streetsblog.

Why make the subway free? First, Kheel said it would save the city money overall. (He didn’t elaborate on how, but I imagine that savings would come in terms of reduced costs for road maintenance, fewer vehicle accidents and hence emergency services, reduced asthma cases, etc.) Second, the city is in the habit of offering public goods for free. Fire and police protection come at no cost to their beneficiaries, for example. Why should safe, efficient transportation?

Phillip Greenspun makes a similar suggestion for the MBTA in Boston on his blog (albeit with a snarky comment about MBTA bus driver salaries. Why shouldn’t bus drivers be paid well and have good benefits? If private industry offers less, shame on them).

The deeper question for me is why the subway and bus system in congested Boston charges riders at all. Anyone who rides the subway instead of driving is doing the rest of society a huge favor by reducing pollution, global warming, and traffic congestion.

Free public transit makes sense to me. Both public transit and roads for motor vehicles are both heavily subsidized by the government, but except for some toll roads, one rarely pays to drive. Tolls seem to be coming fewer and fewer and are a source of outrage where they persist. Yet paying fares for subways, trains, and buses are rarely questioned.

In my experience the only place I know of that has free public transit is Portland, OR where part of downtown is known as the Fareless Square. In Munich, there is a fare on the U-Bahn, trams and buses, but they’ve cut costs by not having any turnstiles and pretty much operating on the honor system. This being Germany people value their public transit highly and comply with paying even though no one may every check. I remember buying a week long Isar Card, sticking it in my wallet, and enjoying the satisfaction of boarding the subways and trains all week.

On the other end of the problem, as suggested by both Kheel and Greenspun there is the idea of charging motorists to drive in dense cities. This is already occurring in places like London where drivers must pay a congestion fee to drive in the center city at certain times of day. Manhattan would be a good place to try this both due to the benefits of limiting congestion as well as the bridges and tunnels that serve as natural access points. Boston would be harder, but what a great benefit it would be to America’s walking city.

The way to make things work best for everyone — public transit, pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists — is through good urban design and planning. Newton Streets and Sidewalks recently published this great quote from Allen Jacobs as a thought for the day:

The reason great intersections work is because of the creation of a pedestrian realm where the cars know this. When streets become unsafe, it is almost always when the pedestrian realm does not exist.

In the history of urban planning New York City’s Robert Moses is everyone’s favorite villain for his emphasis on highways over aesthetics and dense, historic neighborhoods. Alex Marshall writes an article in rebutal to an exhibit of Moses’ models currently touring New York. Two interesting segments:

f Moses had had his way, Manhattan would be crisscrossed with freeways and studded with new parking lots and garages. Which not only would have destroyed many people’s homes and businesses, it would have made the city less prosperous, and ultimately put less money in both private and public pocketbooks.

It all comes down to capacity. Like many people of his generation, I’m convinced, Moses essentially didn’t understand the different capabilities of different modes of transportation, despite his learning and education. A freeway at top capacity can move only a few thousand vehicles per hour, and all those vehicles have to be put somewhere once they arrive where they’re going. That means many lanes of freeways and many parking lots and garages chewing up prime real estate.

By comparison, a subway or commuter train can move tens of thousands of people per hour, and they all arrive without the need to store a vehicle. This essential fact is why Manhattan can have dozens of skyscrapers, which not incidentally produce millions in salaries, profits and taxes, crammed right next to each other without any parking lots.

and

Moses thought he was modernizing Manhattan and the boroughs by adjusting them to accommodate the car and the highway. It’s true that on a conceptual level, he was acting similarly to those of the 19th century, who had put in train lines into New York and other cities, adjusting them to that then new mode of transportation.

But what Moses apparently didn’t see is that the car and the highway operate by different rules than modes of transportation past. Despite its behemoth-like size, a highway is actually a low-capacity mode of transportation, particularly when compared to trains.

Moses can’t be forgiven his intellectual errors by the observation that “everyone was doing it.” For one thing, everyone wasn’t. Lewis Mumford, who in the 1950s was a prominent and respected critic, laid out in painstaking fashion just exactly why plowing freeways into cities would not improve overall transportation, even while destroying so much of what was worthwhile in urban centers.

Secondly, Moses was not just part of the pack; he led the pack. Before World War II, the general plan was to put freeways beside major cities, not through them. Moses helped convince the federal government otherwise.

Finally, an effort to reduce driving fatalities. Not by making stricter safety standards for cars, but by addressing the root cause of most crashes: the drivers. The effort to improve driver behavior originated in the Netherlands and is now spreading to the United States.

The “traffic justice” initiative in the US, which is fueled by local groups, aims to shift the national discussion from “car accidents” to “car crashes,” says Mr. Chauncey. Americans accept limitations on personal freedoms in exchange for airplane safety, he says. “Now we expect just conduct from all players in the road transportation system: the planners, the engineers, the drivers, and the car companies.”

Safe travels everyone!

Advertising Gone Wrong


In my daily travels about town, I’ve noticed a couple of advertisements that are really sending the wrong message.

First there’s this storefront in Union Square. Apparently this is the place to go when you are lucky enough to have a Nigerian general who needs to put large sums of money into your account.

Scam

I mean really, who would think to name their business Scam? Yes, I realize that the store is actually called Sc@m with that trendy @ symbol, but on first glance that name is telling me that they cannot be trusted with my money.

Meanwhile, Kelloggs has taken over Harvard Square station with an ad campaign to let us know that their product is unsatisfying.

Unsatisfying

I’m guessing their intention is to have the Special K Protein Drink (yuck!) washing away the “Un” and leaving “satisfying” but to me I just see “Unsatisfying.” Perhaps it’s a subliminal message to lower expectations so that if one in their effort to “lose up to six pounds” finds Special K products to actually be not so bad, one will be pleasantly surprised.

A Parade in Olde Cambridge


Keeping with my resolve to participate more in the cultural events of the greater Boston area, I attended the Woman of the Year Parade presented by Hasty Pudding Theatricals. Somehow I have missed this event in my previous eight years. That the easy-on-the-eyes Scarlett Johansson was the guest of honor made a motivating factor to see the parade this year.

You do have give some credit to Johansson for coming out in cold, ice and snow only to be roasted by cross-dressers who also are (eek!) Harvard undergrads. After a long wait which paid no respect to hardworking people on their lunch breaks, the parade began with the Harvard band.

Stilt walker

Students dressed as Batman and Superman braved the icey streets on these bouncy stilts.

Banana

Giant walking fruit followed. I think this banana is named Jorge.

Scarlett Johansson

With an entourage of glamorous men and many fawning onlookers, Scarlett Johansson braved the cold with no hat.

Miss Massachusetts

Another car carried Miss Massachusetts. No one was paying much attention to her so out of pity I decided to take her picture but she chose to look away from me.

And that was it. The whole parade was less than five minutes. For all the media attention it gets, it is pretty much a non-event. Now I know. In the future I’ll skip the event unless they do something like offer free foot massage for the spectators.

Local coverage of the event from the Boston Globe and Harvard University Gazette.

Update: I’m ashamed that this groaner of a pun did not even occur to me.
Another Update: The Bostonist covers the event and includes yours truly as a source!


On the way back to work I took these cool (no pun intended) photos of the Charles River iced over.

Charles River

Charles River 2