Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"I like to sing in the shower." "Oh yes, what do you like to sing?*"

I suppose that with the vile excrescences and exudations of male adolescence fast approaching, the fact that at least 67% of the young scions spend far too long in the shower is better than the alternatives. But there is the nation's fresh water supply to consider.

So I bought a nifty little device -- or so it seemed -- called a "shower timer." It times showers. Showers. Got that? Trying to train the yoots to keep it to five minutes.

Anyway, you'd think that the boffins at the pompously and clumsily named "Digiventions" (the trick with those portmanteau names, guys, is to find at least one letter than overlaps both words in the right place) would have thought it through, maybe? Otherwise, why market something to be used in . . . remember . . . showers that (a) isn't waterproof, (b) doesn't come with a suction cup but an adhesive pad that rapidly loses its stick** in a steamy environment, and (c) has an alarm that's inaudible because of the competing noise of water coming out of a shower.

Some companies were never meant to leave the garage. That's $5.99 I won't see again.

Okay, now I've brought the limitless power of the blogosphere down onto their stooped shoulders and posted a snippy review on Amazon, I feel better.

*"Duets." Sorry, I'm new to these pick-up lines. Which is more than can be said for the lines themselves.

**As opposed to losing its shtick. See previous footnote.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The wolf's at the door. Make that inside the door.

Good article by Evan Ratlif in February's National Geographic about the DNA of dogs.

Our domestication of the dog has, of course, gone on for millennia, gradually creating and refining breeds for their skills in, say, herding and hunting. But in the space of the last hundred years or so, there's been an explosion of selective breeding, sometimes for specialized behavior, but largely for appearance, which has rapidly brought us to 350 to 400 different breeds of dog around the world, the greatest diversity of any species.*

That artificial evolution had the effect of isolating genes with a large impact. So all that superficial variety of shape, size, coat, snout length, etc., comes down to just a few genetic factors. For example, "the difference between the Dachshund's diminutive body and the Rottweiler's massive one hangs on the sequence of a single gene." (By contrast, height in humans is determined by up to 200 genes.)

The National Institutes of Health has analyzed the DNA of 85 dog breeds to see if genetic similarities of the entire genome - -- not just those affecting morphology -- reveal the patterns of earlier selectivity in the long journey from wolf to Chihuahua. Not surprisingly, the broad groupings that emerge include herders, hunters, and the mastiff-like dogs that would have been bred for protection. (And some oddities -- the classic sheepdog-trial dog, the Border Collie, has very little of the DNA that suffuses the other traditional herding breeds, including the Rough Collie.) But a few breeds -- less than a dozen -- have a profile that is still substantially wolflike "suggesting that they are the oldest domesticated breeds."

When we had Leila's DNA tested to see what was in her mutt mix, the test came back with strong hints of Chow Chow and Akita (presumably the Japanese variety, from her appearance), with a soupcon of Chinese Shar-pei.

Ahem. These three breeds are, respectively, number two, three, and six on the "wolflike" list, with scores well over 90%. Most of the other breeds tested have less than 10% wolf in their mix.

She's already a menace to squirrels and rabbits. We'd better add little pigs, small girls dressed in red, and Daleks** to that list.

*A recent New York Times magazine article discussed the downside of forcing cosmetic adaptations onto Fido that would be ruthlessly expunged in the wild

**Pop culture reference there for the terminally nerdy.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Neither snow nor out-of-control tweens with no steering stays these morons from Facebook . . .


(Not really that much of it, but enough to postpone the hockey and tae-kwon-do lessons.) The descendants and I hunker in for the morning and enjoy guiltless television* and Jurassic Park. Then off to the rolling foothills of Rye Town Park for some post-prandial sledding.

What, then, was the greatest danger in this precarious activity?

Well, today it was the mother who stood in the middle of the crowded slope and produced an iPhone so she could photograph her plummeting toddler, only to stay rooted in the target zone while she then obliviously checked her messages.

*I'm convinced that Miranda Cosgrove, Selena Gomez, Victoria Justice, and Vanessa Hudgens are the same person, or at least that it hardly matters if they aren't.

E.T. phone homo-.

Tertius is studying homophones in third grade.

Now it always amazes me that the English language puts up with so many common words that sound the same, when we have an abundance of great nonsense syllables going spare.

Confused between a "symbol" and a "cymbal"? Then let's give the percussion instrument a suitably onomatopoeic name instead -- a "blash" or a "tsissss."

Muddled over "popery" versus "potpourri"?  Then drop the pretentious French and stick a bowl of Anglo-Saxon "flergle" or "sneffering" in the bathroom. ("I'll take flergle for $300, Alex.")

We had a timely encounter with a homophone the other day. I mention that some of my forbears were living in Whitechapel at the time of the Jack the Ripper murders, which throws up the phrase "serial killer." From the back seat of the minivan, Tertius questions why anyone wants to stab Cheerios to death.*

(This may not be the time, then, to repeat my rather good joke about the body found wearing a bowler hat with an apple nailed to its face and a melting watch stuffed down its throat -- the work of a surreal killer. Sorry.)

Similar confusions from the past couple of weeks. What were they fighting for in the Silver War? (Silver . . . ? Oh, Civil War. Mind you, explaining to a child why any war is called "civil" has its own issues.)

And this morning, dealing with the very acute observation that we don't speak of one pant, one slack, one short, one tight, one britch, etc., Tertius notes that "pants" is a "puerile" word.

Yes. Yes, it is. "Trousers" is much more grown-up.

*Because they was looking at me well funny, innit.

Friday, January 20, 2012

In real life, they're in bed by nine o'clock.

A switch for this year's official Beechey holiday card. Having done the better Beatles album covers -- the ones we could actually recreate rather than just superimpose faces on the existing artwork -- we opted for the fine arts. (See Don't step on it, it might be Ringo and Won't you please, please have a Merry Christmas.

And so the young gentlemen and gentlebitch went the way of many good parodies before them and populated Edward Hopper's corner coffee shop* from his 1942 masterpiece "Nighthawks."

We gave up on trying to connect it to the season -- my suggestion of "Hoppery New Year" eliciting winces even from the dog -- and just let it stand. But despite this, we still got quite a few generous compliments from recipients, which is the whole point of spending time on these customized greetings: to swagger back into my friends' good graces and completely expunge their awareness that I do a lousy job of keeping in touch at other times during the year.

A lot of people asked how it was done. Answer: Photoshop, of course.

Start with photographs of the boys and Leila in the same poses as the people in Hopper's original, and with comparable overhead lighting. (That's Leila in my kitchen.) Cut out their silhouettes, then run them through Photoshop's dry brush filter until the resolution and "painterliness" matches Hopper's brushwork. Then eliminate those original characters, like the server in the middle picture. Finally, drop the interlopers into the gaps, with extra background if necessary. The server's reflection in the counter's surface actually works for the beast, whose name now graces the outside of the establishment.

Next year, Veronese's massive canvas "Wedding at Cana," featuring the entire eighth grade of Rye Middle School.

(And all this work, just because I didn't want to take on "Sergeant Pepper.")

*Despite getting snapped up by the Chicago Art Institute almost immediately after it first appeared, the picture shows a coffee shop on the corner of Greenwich Avenue, Manhattan, the boys' borough of birth.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

See Spot. Run.

A scare this morning.

I stumble into the bathroom this morning at about 6:00 a.m., without my reading glasses. Now I've reached the point in my middle-aged presbyopia that it's not just restaurant menus that are out of focus -- I live in a sphere of blurriness with a radius of about six feet. Even so, I still recoil from the fuzzy reflection of myself in just my shorts. These days, anything less revealing than a diving suit is pretty repulsive.

But hang on, what's that large, circular black spot to the left of my navel?

See, another sign of advancing age is the number of seborrheic keratoses that speckle my torso: brown mole-like patches that are completely harmless but result in calls to the fire department whenever I go swimming to inquire if they've lost a dalmatian.

However, this is not a keratosis. Too dark, too regular in shape. Time to panic?

I poke gingerly at the spot. It falls off with a metallic clank on the bathroom floor.

Somehow, I got a penny stuck on my skin during the night.

Relieved, I tell the tale to Secundus, who's unimpressed, but still manages to pocket the penny on the way out.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Can a dog do what a cat did?

Many years ago, I mentioned to my mother that my cat, the Mighty Boswell, had a habit of climbing into my lap when I was working on my novels. A charming image -- except Boz was nearly twenty pounds at his maximum fighting weight and had an irritating habit of hijacking my computer to write letters to the New York Times. Mainly complaining that I didn't feed him enough. (I wouldn't mind, but they published three of them.)

Mother had this original porcelain sculpture made of us at work, by Andrew Bull of Sittingbourne, in Kent.

Alas, Boswell took the Great Nap a few years ago, and has now been replaced by the Divine Leila, the Overbeast (aka Gretl Kibbles Sherlock Bones Indiana Bones, Mistress of Squirrels) also a rescue animal, but of the canine orientation, a regular visitor to this blog.

(She's doing quite well in her typing lessons, but she keeps spelling "necessary" with two c's.)

The author at work, about 1995

Friday, January 13, 2012

Thanks, Reginald.

Friday 13 does its stuff.

News today of yesterday's passing of Reginald Hill, creator of (among others) the Dalziel and Pascoe series, which as far as I'm concerned produced at least two of the best mysteries ever written: On Beulah Height and Dialogues of the Dead.

(I'm sure that "best" list will be crammed with more Hills in due course -- I haven't read them all yet.)

A prolific, deep, humane, and hugely entertaining craftsman, who at 75 had so much still to give us. To say he'll be missed is much more than a form of words.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Does it count as preventive care?

From the warnings in a radio ad for Viagra:

"Ask your doctor if your heart is healthy enough for sex."

 (Because falling in love can be a serious side effect.)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Sometimes, they just don't heal, do they?

A rather moving report of a Coroner's inquest, from the English newspaper The Standard, January 7, 1892.
"Mr. G.P. Wyatt held an inquest last night at Peckham, on the body of Richard Sheldon Chadwick, 64, a phrenologist . . .  He was well known as Professor Sheldon Chadwick, the phrenological lecturer, and in 1861 had the honour of receiving from the Queen the Royal bounty of fifty shillings for the merit of his poetical works, on the recommendation of Lord Palmerston, the then Prime Minister.

"Mary Ann Jackson said that she had lived in the same house as the deceased [and was likely the mother of his youngest child]. He had latterly been unwell and complained of spasmodic pains in the chest . . . She called his son, who entered the apartment and found him in an unconscious state. Some brandy was procured, but he was unable to swallow.

"A medical man was immediately summoned . . . but on his arrival found life extinct. He made a post-mortem examination, which showed both ventricles of the heart were ruptured, possible caused by an abscess burrowing round it.

"Death was virtually due to a 'broken heart' . . ."
Richard Sheldon Chadwick. A "professor" who had never been to any university, execrable poet, phrenologist, former stage "mesmerist" (hypnotist), traveling lecturer whose meetings may have included conducting seances during the Victorian craze for spiritualism. In other words, very likely the essence of the flim-flam artist that Houdini was so keen to expose.

And my great-great-great grandfather.

Don't bother, it's here.

From the Department of Coinages We Don't Need . . .

Title of a link to one of the seven million websites devoted to the body mass indexes, arrest records, and visible underwear of people who are famous for no discernible reason:

"13 Celebritastic Signs of the Apocalypse"

(Make that fourteen.)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Why don't you learn to speak English? No, the other English.

We have a large traffic circle in Rye, the almost tautological Daniel Balls Circle. And of course,unlike the English, who spend their lives driving curvaceously, nobody in America knows the rules for precedence. So screeching to a halt with a smug blare of the horn is almost a daily pastime in the leafy suburbs.

It happened the other day, and this time I caught up with the offender, a lady of my years, at the next traffic signal. Pulling up beside her I signaled that she should wind down the window.

"You know you went through two yield signs," I accuse.

"But I didn't see a thing," she replies. (Last time I accosted a different female driver in the same situation, she excused herself by saying that although the word "YIELD" was painted in large letters on the road, she thought she could ignore it because "she had the straight through.")

Oy. "You have to yield to traffic already on the circle," I inform her in exasperated tones, and wind up my window, rather majestically.

Or rather, that's what I should have said. But when I get short-tempered, I lapse back into my native tongue.

So I wonder what she made of the grumpy old git with the English accent who spluttered mysteriously that she needed to "give way to traffic on the roundabout"?

Wheels within wheels: Swindon's notorious Magic Roundabout.

Monday, January 9, 2012

That Beechey touch.

Dedicated followers of this blog may remember this picture from Christmas 2010. That's me and Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York. (In case it isn't clear, the Archbishop is the one on the right.)

Now, just a year later, it's been announced that Archbishop Dolan is shortly to be made a Cardinal.

Just a year. A year after a moment or two with his arm around my shoulder.

I'm just saying . . .

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Sometimes I think they say things just to see if I'm paying attention.

Secundus (from behind me in the car): "Dad, I want to get a hamster and name it 'Gerbil.'"

Me: "What, Gerbil the Hamster?"

Secundus: "Yeah." (Pause.) "Or I might call it 'Cow.'"