Thursday, November 29, 2007

So Long Houston Nutt

As a Razorback, I can't help but comment on what I suppose happened between the University and Houston Nutt, former football coach. After months of saying he was staying at Arkansas and enduring fan and media criticism, Nutt abruptly resigned as head coach then, less than four hours later, accepted a new job with rival Mississippi.

Not having been privy to any communications between the U of A and Nutt, and not knowing the man personally, I can only speculate what may have transpired. So here's my take on the whole thing.

Let's go back to last year, the epicenter of all the disruption. Nutt had recruited a top rated quarterback, Mitch Mustain, from a local high school. Along with Mustain came his high school coach, Gus Malzahn, who became the offensive coordinator. It looked like Arkansas was gearing up for a strong pass oriented offense.

Then along came Darren McFadden. This guy could run like nobody's business, was a passing threat himself when in the Wild Hog formation and became a pass receiver, too. In short, he could do it all. When Nutt decided to build the offense around McFadden instead of Mustain, egos were bruised. Mustain asked for a transfer and ended up at Southern Cal. Malzahn booked it for Tulsa. And both men left a wake of media frenzy behind.

But think about it. Didn't Coach Nutt do exactly what he was paid to do by the University? He saw a good thing and wanted to build an offensive scheme with that good thing, McFadden, at the center. That's what coaches are supposed to do. Find talent and go with it. Neither Mustain nor Malzahn were going to be left out, it's just that their roles were going to change.

So the M&M boys depart and the media whips up story after story, emails are scrutinized and cell phone records are publicized. The fans react to the controversy and two camps emerge - those that want Nutt to stay and those that demand he leave. Nutt and the rest of the team have to put up with constant attention to the developing mess off the field. Quite a distraction for a team poised to do well in 2007.

We knock off the number one team in the country - LSU - but we lose four games during the regular season, two of those by a total of only five points. Planes fly over Razorback Stadium with banners calling for Nutt's dismissal, bleachers are peppered with the same message. Everyone, it seems, has joined the second camp and want his head on a platter. And the team has to try to ignore all that controversy and play ball in one of the toughest divisions in the NCAA.

All that leads up to Nutt finally deciding he had had enough and it is time for him to go. No matter what you think about the man, you have to realize he is a shrewed businessman. He timed the resignation when his stock was higher than it had been for over a year - after beating arch rival LSU. Although it was officially a resignation, the University dropped the repayments Nutt would had to have made under his contract. And the coach took a job at Ole Miss hours later, which means he had to have been talking to that school for a while, which also means the U of A had to have given Mississippi permission to court their man.

I think Nutt knew for a long time that this would be his final season at Arkansas. So he talked with University officials and made his plans clear some time ago. After beating LSU, he goes out on top despite the controversy and he has enough leverage to work out a sweet deal with Arkansas while negotiating an even sweeter deal with Mississippi.

Plus, if Arkansas wins its bowl game this year, part of the glory goes to the departed coach because he recruited and taught this team. If they lose, he shoulders none of the blame as he is no longer coaching. Smart man.

Too bad so much of the Arkansas press and so many of the Arkansas fans were down on this guy. Looks to me like he is the smart one and came out on top of the entire heap. And good for Houston Nutt.

A lot will be said about Nutt's style not fitting at the U of A and his coaching will be criticized, maybe even vilified. But he still had one of the best winning records at Arkansas, led the team to numerous bowl games in the decade he coached there and raised some fine football players in the process.

The poor start of the 2007 team has to be borne in part by the team itself and by the coaching staff. But I think it is in larger part due to the maelstrom of rumors and busted egos that set the fans and press about the business of tearing apart a good coach that really ended up costing Arkansas the season.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Al Quixote

The world is getting warmer. Probably. It's difficult to verify that empirically since we are talking about fractions of a degree and measuring the very accurate information we can assimilate today against a set of data that was eyeballed and closely estimated in decades past. But the world probably is getting warmer.

And we as a race are trying to stop that from happening. With an Emmy and a Nobel Prize to his credit, Al Gore has become the personification of the world's efforts to educate everyone and push for changes aimed at stopping global warming.

But let's stop to consider something for a moment. This is not the first time in the history of the Earth that the globe has warmed. In the days before factories and pollution, in the days of the dinosaurs, the world was warm. Very warm. Then it cooled - severely - then warmed again. In fact, I can recall many scientists in the 70's predicting the world was headed for another Ice Age. And that prediction came from the same sets of data comparisons we use today that tell us the climate is becoming hotter, not colder.

The chart at right from shows the cycle of heating and cooling the Earth has routinely followed throughout its history. It places us near the bottom of a cool trough that was preceded by a warm spell and shows our climate taking another upturn in temperatures as the cycle continues.

So the world does seem to be getting warmer and the climate does appear to be changing. Did pollution, carbon gasses and a hole in the ozone layer cause all this warming? For certain, none of that helped. Tons of gasses and particles spewed into the atmosphere just can't be a good thing. But the world was warming before all that happened and it will continue to warm even if we stop all pollution from now on.

It's just the way the Earth works.

Climate change, global warming, whatever moniker we want to put on it, I'm not sure we can stop it any more than we can stop the rain from falling. As humans, we tend to rush in and fix what we perceive is wrong without stopping to consider that there may be worse consequences to our actions and more terrible outcomes if we make the repair.

For example, a recent suggestion by some scientists was to fill the upper layers of the atmosphere with sulfur dioxide to simulate conditions caused by massive volcanic eruptions. At times in the past, major volcanic eruptions produced clouds of sulfur dioxide that acted as an insulator and cooled the Earth. But one can imagine all the things that could go wrong if we try to do the same thing, not to mention filling the air with toxic chemicals. Isn't that what we are trying to avoid?

Another example is a rush to build an automobile powered by hydrogen. Sounds like a good idea since we could avoid burning fossil fuels. Problem is, it takes so much energy to separate water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen that we actually burn more fossil fuels (coal fired generators to make the electricity to separate out hydrogen) than the gasoline engine we are trying to replace.

Should we cut back on carbon emissions and all the monoxides, dioxides, acid and junk we pour into the air we count on to survive? Absolutely. But we may just be jousting at windmills if we think we have the ability to stop the Earth from going about its business.

Would it not be more prudent for us to put our energies into discovering how we as a race will adapt to a warmer world than in how we can stop it from happening in the first place? That might be a better use of time, resources, and Mr. Gore's sizable clout than trying to stop the rain.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Web Design Replaced Wordsmithing ... Just for a While

Oh no! It's been over a month since my last post to Amblin Cafe. But if you think I've been loafing all this time, well, I guess you're mistaken. Once again, I've let my creative writing slip while pursuing writing of a different kind - web design.

It was time for a complete makeover of our flagship product and the task of doing that fell to me.

Slow and deliberate in my web site design skills, I try, tweak, try again and tweak once more before I get the page to look on the screen the way it appears in my mind. Sometimes I never get the two to meet, but the design process is fun anyway. And frustrating sometimes, too. But I think we ended up with a pretty good looking result. See if you agree:

That said, I am ready for my life to return to normal and go back to writing prose once more.

Friday, September 21, 2007


Even when his arthritis got so bad he could hardly walk, he still liked to pilot the jon boat we used to fish the White River for rainbow trout. Strength had left him, so he could not help much when putting the boat into the water or hauling it back out again. In recent years, my father-in-law also gave up driving his truck to the river since backing the trailer onto the landing proved too difficult. Still, Arlis did like to run the motor and put the boat where he wanted it.

My job in that old, faded green craft was to be the anchor man. When we found the right spot, I pitched the anchor overboard in hopes it would catch a rock or a snag and hold us in place while we caught our limit.

The middle seat belonged to Damion, my son-in-law, who spent a noticeable part of his fishing time starting the motor, taking fish off Arlis' line or stringing them up, or untangling lines that got twisted together in the current.

Now things will never be quite the same in that boat on the river. Arlis passed on a week ago tomorrow. He lived a good life, and made it to the remarkable age of ninety. Throughout most of that time, he was able to do the things he really enjoyed like fishing, or hunting, or just poking around outdoors.

During the thirty years that I knew him, he taught me the majority of what I know about trout fishing: where to find them, how the rise and fall of the river affects their feeding, where the river channel creates deep holes and makes it easier to navigate.

And I learned patience. I'm not nearly as good at it as Arlis was, but I try.

Probably the majority of what I know about deer and quail, squirrels and rabbits, wildlife in general, I learned from Arlis. Their movements, their habits, how to answer a bob-white's call, how to wait out a jumped rabbit who will most always make a big circle and return right to the same place again.

And I learned to appreciate the outdoors. Actually, more than appreciate, I learned to love the outdoors.

We didn't usually talk a lot. Mostly we discussed whether the river was up or down, which hunting season was approaching, what the weather was going to do next, what we might expect to have for dinner. He typically wore a smile that could twist into a sly grin when he was up to something. In his early years, his nickname was Happy. It fit him well.

He could be inconsiderate, like always positioning the boat so he got the best angle. He could be funny, like the time he amused himself (and me) trying to lure a wild duck toward the boat using the bait on his fishing pole. He could be concerned, like the time we saw a heavy rain shower coming and he uncharacteristically laid open the throttle to escape that pursuing wall of water. But he was always Arlis.

Nothing in this life is meant to last forever and changes are inevitable. The seasons, the depth of the river, how deaths and births alter our own lives. The next time I head out to the river to rainbow fish, I'll be in that old jon boat. But the seat assignments will change. I'll be running the motor and piloting, Damion gets my old seat as anchor man. In six months, my first grandbaby will arrive. And the middle seat of the boat will pass to him or her.

I'll do my best in the driver's seat, just as Arlis did his best. And someday, hopefully a long time from now, the seat assignments will change again.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007


There is not much about playing golf that I dislike. Except, of course, for double-bogeys, water hazards and sand. I like sand on the beach, but not in my socks, shorts or as a landing area for my golf ball.

Other than those few curses, I like the game a lot. But for many more reasons than just for the sport itself.

I'll admit it does feel good when I strike the ball so well I can feel it in my swing. It's almost an effortless movement as I contact the ball, and I know exactly where it will be once my motion tilts my head so that I can finally look up. That doesn't happen very often for me, which is probably why I savor the moments so.

But there are also the sounds of the game that richen the sport. Like the swoosh of a well swung club or the soft purr of a ball landing safely on the green. My all time favorite golf sound is the ball as it finally reaches its destination, bouncing on the bottom of the cup.

Smell adds an extra dimension to the sport. As in baseball, there's the remarkably athletic scent of my left hand laced with the aroma of leather from my glove. And a field of aromatic wild sage that grows along the side of the fourteenth hole on my favorite course. Newly mowed grass, algae in the pond, mud along the riverbank and cattle in the adjacent field all contribute layers of olfactory sensations unique to the sport.

I would not consider myself a slow player despite my attraction to nature as well as the game of golf. But I feel sorry for those who only enjoy the sport for the game. The ones who race around the links, pedal to the metal, moving from shot to shot as quickly as the cart will allow. Sometimes faster than it will allow. They, sadly, miss an awful lot of good things.

Not that I never ride or play just to finish the game sometimes, but I prefer to carry my bag and walk the course rather than ride a cart. The exercise is only a side benefit. I get to think through my next shot before I grip the club again, and spend a little quality time enjoying the sounds, the scents, the beauty of the game, the simplicity of nature.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Orange Badge of Honor

A long time ago, when I was in grade school, the greatest honor that could be bestowed upon a fifth grade male was to become a patrol boy. I don't mean to sound sexist. There may have been a patrol girl, too, but this was before glass ceilings were broken and patrol duties were, rather unfortunately, a predominately male occupation at the time.

Patrol boys got to wear a one piece bright orange strap sort of thing that signified their status as a leader among all boys. The strap was worn around the waist like a belt and over one shoulder like a military insignia. And when it came to children crossing at street corners, we were the authority on the matter.

As a mere second or third grader, that belt held an allure that was insatiable, especially with the way it was rolled into a neat little ball when not in use. I lusted for the day when my time would come and I would be allowed late for class and was justified in leaving just a bit early so that I could serve, protect and direct the incessant flow of elementary students as they passed in and out of that school building. Only fifth and sixth graders could hold such a great honor.

At particularly busy intersections, we patrol boys deferred our omnipresent authority to crossing guards. But we still did most of the dirty work, keeping kids corralled within the prescribed lines while the crossing guard held up a stop sign and one hand to keep automobile traffic at bay.

There were two choice assignments that each patrol boy craved. The first was in front of a drug store at a busy interchange in town.

That was a great spot because of Margaret, a retired lady who was the crossing guard and who treated us like gold. On cold, rainy or snowy days, she would insist we go inside the drug store to warm up in between packs of wild kids on their way to or from school. She would also bring us treats on occasion, like candy bars or cookies. Plus, she was just the nicest person anyone would ever want to meet. She talked to us like we were equals, and she was always interested in what we had to say. I sure miss Margaret.

The other choice assignment was due east from Margaret's post, but on a less busy corner. There was no crossing guard there, but two boys were assigned to the location because it was a high traffic area (kid traffic more than car traffic).

What made this location so great was that it was right in front of a bakery. The smell of fresh donuts, hot bread and delicate pastries wafted through the air with enough potency to make our stomachs growl in eager anticipation. The owner of the place liked us boys a lot, too. He would always treat us to whatever we wanted from his showcase of wares. We always chose the cinnamon rolls, warm from the ovens with thick, white frosting covering the entire top of the delicious delight. I can still taste them now.

I don't suppose there are patrol boys anymore. I never see any around schools or at busy interchanges. Not too many crossing guards around, either. My guess is that liability issues hastened the demise of this once wonderful and revered occupation. Or maybe patrol boys just faded into obsolescence like fins on cars, clunky cell phones and 15 inch computer monitors. And that's too bad. A whole generation missing out on the finer things of the elementary life.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Stale Bread and Other Mysteries

There are some things I will probably never understand no matter how much information I have on the matter. Like which button is supposed to make what special feature work on my overly sophisticated alarm clock. Or why my dog hates to get a bath but loves to play in the sprinkler.

And some things are interesting to think about, but I am no closer to discovering the truth. Like why you never see a pair of shoes on the side of the road, only one. Or why I can’t fly but an airplane that weighs hundreds of times more than I do can.

But there are some things that simply do not make sense any way you look at them. Here’s a few examples of what I mean:

Why does something soft, like bread, get hard and crumbly when it goes stale, but something hard and crumbly, like crackers, gets soft and mushy?

Why do people often mean what they say, but seldom say what they mean?

Why do wasps seem to spend half their lives trying to get into something and the other half trying to get back out again?

Why do we spend good money to buy underwear that doesn’t ride up, then turn around and spend good money for thongs designed to do just that?

Why do we sometimes cry when we’re happy and laugh when we’re sad?

If someone tickles our funny bone, we laugh but if we strike our funny bone, we get the most unusual kind of pain.

If we have a cold, we often have a fever … which makes us hot.

We light the candles, sing happy birthday then let the honoree spray spittle all over the cake we’re about to eat.

A sub-par performance is only acceptable in the game of golf, which is where the concept of par originated in the first place.

Why do we call it “politics” from the root word “poly” meaning many and the word “tick” meaning blood-sucking insect?

Oh, OK, never mind. I think I just answered that last one.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Summer Passings

Just playing with thoughts in today's post. Simply a memory, a recollection returning vividly. A picture in my mind.....

A young boy, maybe ten, twelve at the oldest sitting on his swing in the backyard. The sun feels good on my arms and there's the uniquely personal scent of skin warmed by the sun.

The swing creaks lightly as I slowly sway and I am suddenly aware of the metallic smell of the chains, and of rust. I can hardly detect the orange hue on some of the chain links. It's on my hands, too, just a little but it doesn't bother me.

A slight summer breeze pushes through the yard and makes the leaves on the apple tree turn to greet it. Green apples, sweet fragrance belies the sour taste. Some have fallen to the ground. Many have, actually. Picking them up, a summer's chore. But that's for later, not for now.

Beyond the apple is the lone cherry tree in our yard, it's fruit now more fit for the birds than for the rest of us. A gentle call, not too loud. The tree is several feet away. I don't know how many. I'm young, it's hard to guess. The same tones repeated. A lilt, a fall, a lilt. A cardinal. Claiming his tree, no doubt. Plenty of cherries for all, I'm certain.

A screen door protests being opened. My aunt, who lives next door, spies me and waves. "What you doing, Bobby?"

One of the very few who got away with calling me that. A quick smile, "nothing." I hang my head. Very shy. No, very shy. She goes inside and I am alone with my thoughts once more.

A car passes slowly on the street behind me. It's a short stretch of road between stop signs. The sun has baked the asphalt and the tires seem to stick to it. The sound it makes is just like when you pull apart hands that got sticky from sweat and candy.

"Largo. Largo," I hear from the other direction. Auntie's myna bird calling out his own name. He knows how to wolf whistle, too. It's kind of funny.

Mom's face appears in the window near the back porch. She's washing dishes, I suppose. Not looking my way, she seems to be staring toward the rock garden over by the garage. I look over that way but I don't see what she does, I guess.

Two young girls walk the road where the car with the sticky tires just travelled. They look pretty. And happy. I hope Largo doesn't wolf whistle. He does. They look over, see me. I turn red. They giggle.

I glance at my watch. Two minutes have expired since the swing creaked. A long summer awaits.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Claw

This weekend I discovered that spiders really can get caught in their own webs.

Apparently, they produce several different kinds of silk. Some are sticky and others are not. Once they’ve built their intricate fly-catchers, they know where to tread. Each one of their legs has a couple of claws on the end that spiders use to grasp fine web threads and maneuver along their willowy highways.

Should they take a miscalculated misstep, another claw quickly saws through the sticky material and the spider is free to move about the cabin once more.

Some spiders, like the orb spider, like to get out and stretch those legs a bit. Check things out at the neighbors. Despite having eight eyes, they are as blind as bats, and that can lead to problems in spiderdom.

Once in a while, whether they mean to or not, one spider might just wander into another spider’s web. Not knowing the layout of the new domicile, visiting spiders end up in the sticky stuff.

But before the uninvited house guest gets a chance to whip out the old saw claw, the owner of the place is on him. In no time at all, the visitor is wrapped up like a cookie in a two-year old’s fist.

Then the owner of the web has a decision to make. He’ll either eat his guest or pull out his own little saw claw and cut the offender loose, letting the silky package fall to the ground and ignoring it. Either way, its curtains for the wandering araneae.

That special saw spiders carry seems quite handy to me, and something I wish I could get a hold of, somehow. Imagine: any problem that wanders into my little space and I’m on it! Grab it, package it, cut it loose and it falls away without causing any harm or damage. And my world is quickly returned to normal.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Loafing on Father's Day

I usually write an entry to this blog every Sunday. But last Sunday was Father's Day and I decided to take the day off. I played golf instead. Eighteen holes. Had a blast. Then I just got lazy for the rest of the day, especially after a double serving of lasagna and a huge piece of coconut cake.

Anyway, I will get back to my regular schedule this week. Even if the weather's nice and I play golf again. I'll still write.

Sydnee, our editor at freshare, is a photographer, and a good one. She said it just amazes her to be able to see life in action and have the ability to freeze that image for all time.

For me, it's in the words. Always has been. I like being able to take a mass of letters, cajole them into words and combine them into a meaningful piece. And with those humble little letters, arranged just so, a writer can tweak an emotion, draw a tear or caress a smile.

How could I not love to write?

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Changing and Choosing

What did you want to be when you grew up? Do you remember? I do. With every fiber of my young boyhood, I wanted to be an astronaut. Sail the stars in a high-tech tin can, watch the sun rise and set every twenty minutes or so, speed around the globe at 17,000 miles an hour! I knew I would probably miss being the first man on the moon, seeing as I would end up being just thirteen when it happened, but I thought I would certainly be the guy NASA tapped to lay the first tracks on the Martian surface.

What a passion I had for the space program in those days. I knew the names of every astronaut, what branch of service they were in and which ones were on which missions. I watched every launch and each splashdown that didn't interfere with my school attendance. And I wrote the NASA information center in Cleveland about every month or so and they would send me reams of interesting materials that I would absorb every chance I got. Astronaut bios, flight medical records, detailed spacecraft data and tons of photos - I had it all and read it all.

I was going to be one of those magnificent men in their flying machines.

Then came the carnival in town. Hot dogs, cotton candy, sweet soft drinks. And rides. A visit to the Tilt-A-Whirl changed everything for me that day. One spin on that contraption and I experienced a rerun of all the stuff I had just eaten. If I couldn't take the spinning of a mere Tilt-A-Whirl, how could I expect to survive the rigors of space flight? The realization almost made me experience a re-rerun, but I managed to hold it back.

Life was not the same for after that little encounter. But that's not the point of this essay. Dreams sometimes crumble and fiery passions turn to embers. That's just the way things are. I'm not sorry I didn't become an astronaut in those heady days of fly boys in space, and I'll take my ride sometime after space flights become commercialized. The only thing we can count on is that things are going to change. Ambitions falter, doors close, opportunities pass us by. And we have to choose. Hang on to something we may never have had or follow a new path.

Sometimes it takes a Tilt-A-Whirl to get you to see the next opportunity.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Debating the Debate

Thanks to Dick Cheney, this is one of the most unusual presidential election seasons we have ever witnessed. It isn’t often a sitting vice-president leaves office with no ambition to run for the top job.

So we end up with eighteen or twenty Democrats and Republicans tossing their political hats into the ring nearly two years before the presidential election will even be held. I mean, think about it, we are in the spring of 2007 and the debate season has already kicked off. Are you looking forward to seventeen more months of televised debates?

And aren’t debates sort of old news anyway? Since the presidential elections of the 19th century, debates have changed very little in substance. Sure, we have the media frenzy, cameras pointed at the candidates to record every raised eyebrow and each head shake, the morning after criticism of every word uttered. But it’s still a sales job, same as it always has been.

Each candidate uses all the rhetoric and puffery necessary to convince us they are the right person for the job while simultaneously staying as close as possible to their core beliefs, and while convincing us that their counterparts are mere show ponies.

I can’t argue that being president doesn’t require a certain amount of finesse and salesmanship, but wouldn’t it be better to see that than to just hear about it? Besides, what kind of debate can we really be having by lining up eight or ten candidates on a stage?

I think it’s time for something completely different.

Why not have two envelopes for each candidate. One is labeled “Domestic Policy” and the other, “Foreign Policy.” No one knows the contents of any envelope except for the handful of people who devised them (and they are locked away in a sound-proof room until Election Day – sorry guys).

Live and televised on the air, a candidate is handed one of the two envelopes. He or she unseals the package and reads the contents. Now realize, neither the candidates nor any of us in the audience knows what the message says until the moment it is opened. Inside is a weighty, real life problem scenario of immense importance. Like, Iran blasts a nuclear missile into the Mediterranean, or gasoline prices surge and the economy is at risk of a meltdown.

The candidate now has twenty-four hours to solve the issue at hand, or at least come up with a workable action plan to get the problem resolved.

The candidate can bring in any advisor he or she would normally have appointed if that candidate were actually the president. Consult, debate, use charts – whatever. Just solve the problem.

Oh, and the entire twenty-four hour period is televised so we get to see everything.

Kind of a cross between “Survivor” and “24” except without jungles, Jack Bauer or commercial interruptions. Each person who wants to be elected president has to work through one critical domestic issue and one equally critical foreign policy issue. What better way to see the candidates acting as president than to let them, well, act as presidents. For a couple of days anyway. Then we decide who gets the job for real. After all, it’s a four year commitment we voters are making. Shouldn’t we get a chance to take our pres for a test drive? I wouldn’t mind kicking the tires of a few candidates.

Go ahead and have a debate or two so voters can determine if a favorite candidate has the chops to hang in there with political savvy. After that, it’s the ultimate in reality television.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Set Phasers to Stun

Dr. Theodore Maiman passed away on May 5 of this year. I learned of his passing from an article I discovered while reading an online news site. Dr. Maiman’s name was, perhaps, not widely known and certainly could not be called a household word.

But his invention is one that we all see in use at sometime during the week, and the same invention actually struck fear in the hearts of many a few decades ago. Dr. Maiman was credited with developing the first operable laser, the same sort of device found in every CD player and many once believed would be harnessed as a kind of “death ray.”

Dr. Maiman built his laser back in 1960 with a pink ruby rod as a medium for focusing light. He worked for Hughes Research at the time. By 1962, Dr. Maiman had started his own laser company with backing from Union Carbide Corporation.

Which brings me to the reason why Dr. Maiman’s work is important to me. My father worked for Union Carbide pretty much all his adult life. By the early 60’s, Dad was celebrating his tenth anniversary with the company and he happened to be working for Carbide’s Linde division, which produced oxygen and other gasses as well as synthetic rubies.

Dad was employed in a small plant filled with ovens, powder delivery systems and annealers that manufactured Linde star sapphires and ruby rods. Most of the sapphires went to exquisite jewelry pieces and many of the rubies were used in lasers of one kind or another.

It is possible that Dad may have met Dr. Maiman along the way. I remember him talking about a very intelligent engineer who came through the plant at one time. The details of that memory are fuzzy but I recall Dad saying the gentleman headed up a division that was developing lasers.

At any rate, I will never forget an open house held at the plant when I was a young boy. I was in awe as I watched powdered crystals drop in super hot ovens, turn to liquid and grow into what was called a “boule.” Later, these boules were hardened, then cut into whatever shape was desired.

But what held my fascination even more was the laser Union Carbide had set up near the end of the tour to show how one of their products could be used. I was small then, so my proportions may be off, but I felt like that laser was big enough to fill an average sized room.

When the operator turned the machine on, it whined like a turbine as it powered up. What happened next was nothing short of amazing.

Light sped through the ruby rod producing a barely perceptible beam that was concentrated in the center of a one inch thick steel plate. Beyond the plate were two balloons – a black one inside of a white one.

Almost immediately, the steel plate began to glow red hot at the point where it met the laser beam. Soon, chunks of glowing steel fell to the ground.

In an instant, the beam finished cutting through the plate and a loud pop could be heard as the operator shut down the laser. The pop was the black balloon bursting inside of the white one. The white balloon remained in tact as if nothing had happened.

My twelve year old jaw must have hit the ground. I could scarcely breathe. It was the best show I had ever seen up to that point in my life. I could not help but recount what I had just seen. The same single beam of light that cut right through solid steel went harmlessly past a white balloon only to burst a black one.

I didn’t want the tour to be over. I know I must have made Dad take me to the laser at least half a dozen times that day. Each time I was just as thrilled to watch the awesome power and selective gentleness of that red beam.

Lasers are much smaller today. They can fit into a store’s scanner to ring up the price of food items and, with the aid of a computer, track inventory and trigger purchasing points. We’ve used them to measure the distance from the earth to the moon, accurate to less than an inch. They can repair eyes and perform other medical miracles. They can be used as pointers in presentations and to produce annoying dots on people’s foreheads courtesy of sophomoric humorists. I even have a green one I can use to point out stars and other objects in the night sky.

But one thing they have never become is anything close to a death ray. Dr. Maiman predicted as much. He said he did not think it likely the laser could ever be developed as a weapon despite the fears of his time.

In a name recognition competition, he may not be able to hold his own with the likes of Alexander Graham Bell, Louis Pasteur or Ron Popeill, but as far as a meaningful contribution to society with far reaching applications, Dr. Theodore Maiman has to be a top vote getter.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Can't Beat 'Em? Blog 'Em!

Springfieldians are some of the nicest, friendliest people you'll ever want to meet. Until they get behind the wheel of an automobile.

Case in point: last week, while driving home from work, I came up behind a lady going fifty while driving in the left lane. She had a small child in the front seat and one in the back as well. Since the speed limit in this particular stretch of highway was sixty and this driver made no effort to move into the right lane, I did. I signaled, checked my side view, and eased my truck to the right.

As I sped up to pass, she inexplicably increased her speed. I tried going a little faster, but she kept pace. Since we were quickly approaching a slow moving vehicle in my lane, I decided to slow down, move back to the left lane and pass that vehicle.I signaled, and scooted over.

Now behind this lady who felt the sudden urge to accelerate past the posted speed limit, I was both shocked and miffed when she pulled up even to the slow moving right lane vehicle and decelerated to match its speed. The only apparent purpose in this maneuver was to irritate me and any drivers behind me.

There is a little bypass I like to take around Republic when the traffic gets too thick to make the drive enjoyable. It's not really a time saver as much as it is a sanity saver. I decided this was a good time to take that road.

As I entered the turn lane, I looked up to see the lady flip a cigarette out the window and give me a long-lasted, one-fingered salute in the process. I couldn't believe it. My anger turned to hurt. I didn't do anything wrong, but I got flipped off anyway. And that while she had two small children aboard. A fine example for those tykes.

The problem is, this is not any isolated incident in Springfield. I see it happen to others all the time and I have had it happen to me before. Usually, it results when someone else is doing some incredibly stupid driving and they lash out at you when you simply try to avoid them.

Springfield is noted for an unusually high incidence of road rage. I wonder why? These are people who'll strike up a conversation with a stranger in the mall and act as if they've been friends for years. Do motorized chunks of steel and vinyl have some kind of mystical powers over our residents?

I think it's a power thing. Traffic in Springfield is awful and traffic lights hinder the process more than help it. There is a stretch of road near I-44 and in front of a Wal-Mart superstore that has - count 'em - three stop lights in a span of about one city block. And none of them are coordinated with one another. You should try getting through there on a Friday night about 5:00 pm.

I digress. There is little any of us can do about the traffic or the lights for which our burg is noted. So we tend to take out our frustrations on one another. When someone has control over little else, they exercise control on whatever they can. Like somebody who tries to pass them on the highway. It's a reaction to a perceived threat to one's dignity, I presume.

So lady in the beat up, paint-peeling Chevy Cavalier headed to Republic at 5:15pm last Thursday night, I forgive you. I understand your need to have control over some small part of your life. I just wish you hadn't dragged your kids into all this.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Pretzel Logic

I understand the theory of supply and demand. Pretty much all of us do. I used to teach it to fifth and sixth graders when my daughters were in school. I brought in donuts, gave each class member an envelope stuffed with Monopoly money and auctioned off the donuts.

To simulate real life conditions, not everyone had the same amount of Monopoly money in their envelope. Some students were relatively rich, others were relatively poor. There also were not enough donuts available for all the students. That illustrated too many people chasing too few goods and services.

The first donut auctioned off for a measly sum – maybe five dollars. I’d hand over the iced confection to one smiling student while the others salivated. Invariably, everyone wanted the next donut for the same price the first sold for. But alas, there were even fewer goods now, so I said I wanted more money for the next one. That made a lot of the “poorer” students drop out of the bidding. I’d sell the second donut for a princely sum and thereby demonstrate the forces of supply and demand. As the supply of donuts dwindled, prices rose.

I would eat a donut myself and watch the student’s eyes widen as they understood the impact on supply. I gave one to the teacher as “payment” to my supplier for use of her classroom. The students got creative. One group, working as a team, pooled their funds, bid for and won a donut then shared it, each taking one bite. Another time, I auctioned off the empty box just for the crumbs it contained.

But now I’m getting off track. My point is this: while supply and demand pressures are simple with donuts in a classroom full of hungry elementary students, it’s not quite so easy with gasoline prices and thirsty vehicles.

I just spent $75 to fill up my truck with gasoline valued at $3.14 a gallon (should have done that three days ago when it was “only” $2.99). As gasoline prices rose for the summer driving season, I also read that oil prices decreased about three bucks a barrel.
I was confused. How could that be? Raw material prices fall, finished product prices increase. Oil prices go up, gas goes up. Oil prices go down, gas goes up. Heads I win, tails you lose.

Since oil prices are speculative of future demand, it seemed that a drop in oil should equal an automatic and noticeable drop in gasoline prices. But, not so.

That’s where the complications arise. Oil is not gasoline. It has to be refined. Apparently, several refineries are offline as a result of fires and other problems. And that during the start of peak driving time for vacations. In fact, raw oil prices could be dropping because of the shutdown refineries since speculation may be that less convertible oil will be needed in the next several weeks.

So, we have a diminished supply of gasoline at a time when the demand for the precious fluid is on the rise. And prices rise. Just like they did for my donuts.

The thing is, I didn’t really have just one box of donuts. I brought in enough for everybody. I just chose not to disclose that or my supply and demand illustration would have been useless.

So, oil companies: we get it. Now bring out the donuts for all of us.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Block

Whether it's the yips, the jitters, a slump or the shanks, we've all experienced something like it. You're off your game, out of the zone. You have to pull out of it or give up. A bad case of writer's block is no different. And when matters get complicated by spending time writing html code instead of stories, well, it just doesn't help.

While I needed to spend time with a web site redesign (thus the html bogey in this story), I do admit it was a convenient way to avoid having to assemble words. Bad thing was, once I completed my web project, I found I was plagued with the block. I couldn't think of anything to say. I stared at my blog and nothing came to mind.

When I quit smoking eighteen years ago, I didn't cut down, didn't use the patch or chew nicotine gum, and I didn't get hypnotized either. I quit cold turkey. Threw it all away and never looked back. And, as a very wise person recently reminded me, sometimes the only way around a problem is through it.

So through it I went. Gimme the ball coach, head down, follow my blockers, into the end zone. I had forgotten that some of my most productive writing time is when I am not writing at all. I know that doesn't make sense at first, but it's like this: I walk most evenings. Three miles. It is a great time to let my mind wander where it will, associate freely and see what happens. Generally, about two-thirds of the way through my jaunt, I come up with a story. Or two. Three if I'm very lucky that night.

Last night I was very lucky. Up until last night, I had forgotten to relax. Forgotten to focus. I had my mind on business too much and that stifled my creativity. So I quit thinking business and started to wander, to associate. And I got through the yips. The writer's block is gone for now and I'm ready to take up the keyboard once more. It may not make me a better writer, but at least I'll write.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A Star No More

Sometimes nouns can become so popular and recognizable we can hardly resist the urge to give them wings by adding a couple of extra letters and turning them into verbs. For example, you can be easily be punk'd or spammed and, even without the extra letters, you can Google something or email someone.

We could probably assemble a lot more of them, but that's not where I was going with this post. I wanted to mention just one such noun-to-verb transformation that entered the vernacular in 2006: you can now be "plutoed." In fact, the American Dialect Society (who would have thunk there was such a social organization) selected "plutoed" as its 2006 Word of the Year.

To be "plutoed" is "to demote or devalue someone or something." And that is exactly what the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union did to the ex-planet, Pluto, when they decided the puny sphere failed to meet its definition of a planet.

It was not disclosed how tight the balloting ended up, but plutoed did squeeze out a victory in a runoff against "climate canary," which was defined as "an organism or species whose poor health or declining numbers hint at a larger environmental catastrophe on the horizon." Interestingly, the American Dialect Society also considered: murse (man's purse) and flog (a fake blog that promotes products). Try using all those in a sentence.

It kind of gives you a warm feeling to see a demoted planet rise from its own ashes to become a Word of the Year, doesn't it? Looks like it was the Astronomical Union that ended up getting plutoed.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

A Bank for the Frugal

I came across some news on the wire about the Tightwad Bank closing in Tightwad, Missouri, population 63. You can read more about the closing here in an article I wrote for YourPanorama. Granted, most of the accounts at that branch were probably small and only set up for the novelty of having checks that read: Tightwad Bank. It's like something you would expect to find in a game of Monopoly. In fact, I can picture the bank president with a white mustache, top hat and cane.

After I wrote the article, I started to wonder how many of those Tightwad checks were actually cashed. Especially if they were written for smaller sums. Bank patrons were sure to have saved money just by issuing Tightwad checks to individuals because the novelty was certainly passed along. I once recall reading an article stating that Pablo Picasso always paid his bills with checks. Why? They bore his signature, which meant the savvy investor would never cash the instrument, preferring instead to keep it for the value of the signature alone.

So why not the same thing for a Tightwad check? I'm not naive enough to think the value of such a document would equal that of a famous painter's signature, but there has to be some level of value there. The test is whether it is enough to outweigh the amount of the check. Something to consider if you are in possession of a Tightwad check.

UMB, current owner of Tightwad Bank, cited economic reasons for the closure and went on to say they were corralling costs. That may be the case if UMB accountants and auditors looked only at the raw data: number of accounts, value of deposits, average deposited per customer. Accountants and auditors tend to look at the world that way - very dryly.

But take a look beyond that initial dry set of stats. Try to see what describes the number, not just states it. What I mean is considering how long a deposit stays at the bank. If checks aren't being cashed, a specific deposit should sit there a longer time. And that means, well, money in the bank.

Banks like deposits that sit there a while. That's because the money doesn't really just sit there. It gets invested, or it gets loaned to other customers. Either way, the bank makes its money from interest earned on the loans and investments. So, if a banker doesn't have to pay out a sum because a check is not cashed, the result is dollars that stay out there collecting more interest.

Seems to me UMB had a golden opportunity in the Tightwad Bank. One that should have been celebrated and promoted instead of shut down. Accounts were established at the bank from all over America, so the marketing efforts could have been nationwide. Tightwad t-shirts and coffee mugs could have fetched additional revenue along with the well known checks. Maybe even a bronzed figure of a hand gingerly rubbing two pennies together would have adorned fireplace mantles and office desks all across our country. Who cares if each customer only had a small deposit on hand. Isn't a million one dollar deposits the same as a single one million dollar deposit?

Instead, the Tightwad Bank will be no more come January 31. Another missed opportunity based on static numbers trying to describe a dynamic world.