Log in

No account? Create an account
Ken Umbach's Journal [entries|friends|calendar]
Ken Umbach

[ website | Umbach Consulting & Publishing ]
[ userinfo | livejournal userinfo ]
[ calendar | livejournal calendar ]

"Debates" [27 Sep 2016|10:57am]
Is there any greater waste of time than the so-called "debates"?
post comment

Hello again! [22 Sep 2016|02:23pm]
I've logged off Facebook ... too much of a time sink. So, after nearly a year, back to Live Journal. I am paying for it. Might as well use it.

More later.
post comment

[31 Oct 2015|10:25am]
A Modest Proposal for a Presidential Candidates Debate Format

I propose that the debate actually be structured more like a debate, not like a free-for-all.

Here is my suggestion for the first in a new series:

1. Publically announce the question at least two weeks before the event, and be sure to communicate the question to each candidate as well as to the general public.
2. No opening statements.
3. Each candidate to be given five full minutes (and not a second more – cut off microphone at five minutes) to answer the following:
The national debt and annual deficits have been a frequently discussed issue for years. Take up to five minutes to (1) explain to the viewers the difference between the budget deficit and the national debt and (2) outline in as much detail as you can exactly what policy actions you propose to reduce or eliminate the annual deficit and to cap or reduce the national debt. Be specific.
4. Do NOT allow cross-talk, but rather proceed from one candidate to the next until all have had their five-minutes.
5. Have a clock prominently displayed to candidates and viewers and moderator counting down the time.
6. After all have responded, repeat the process so that each can respond to ideas raised by the other candidates, with no cross-talk allowed. In this way, the event does become, at least relatively speaking, a debate.
7. Conclude with a one-minute closing statement from each, with no cross-talk allowed.

Thus only ONE question (although one with multiple parts) is posed, and every viewer who wishes to do so can know the question in advance. The candidates could come in with prepared remarks, and then would have to respond on the fly in the second round to what the others have said.

8. For the next debate event, choose and likewise disseminate another question of comparable weight – on, say, trade policy, defense, or criminal justice reform.

That’s it. No loaded questions. No candidate-to-candidate or moderator-to-candidate interruptions. Enough time for each candidate to demonstrate knowledge of the issue and to offer meaningful responses, not simply sound-bites or platitudes.
post comment

From the archives ... [12 Nov 2014|10:14am]

Spectrum: Ken’s Corner for November 16, 2010 [edted for posting 11/13/2014]

Ken Umbach

Well, how about that. I always pictured the Dark Ages (say, 400 – 800 A.D.) as, you know, DARK. That really seems only to have been the case from the point of view of the Romans, who were displeased about being booted off the top of the hill. (Or in Rome’s case, seven hills.)

This, of course, comes very late to be a news flash. But, according to a 2008 book titled Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered, by Peter S. Wells, things actually went on pretty much the same for most people. The Romans were not running things any more after a point, and they were no longer collecting the taxes. But commerce went on – and there was a lot of it covering a lot of territory – people built buildings, made interesting and decorative things, and went on their way. They just did not write as much as the Romans or the Greeks did, nor as much as the folks in later periods did (High Middle Ages, Renaissance, and so on).

It turns out that archeology – digging things up, basically – shows a lot that is missing if you are only looking in the written record.

Nothing I learned in school ever quite stays the same. Sooner or later they’ll tell me that electrons don’t really fly in circles around atomic nuclei. (Wait a minute . . . didn’t I read something about that already?)


In more recent news, I read in the New York Times’ “World Briefing” section about a Russian fellow, president of the World Chess Federation (Kirsan N. Ilyumzhinov, by name, and don’t ask me to pronounce that). “Mr. Ilyumzhinov,” reported the Times, “has said he met with extraterrestrials in yellow suits at his Moscow apartment and that chess comes from outer space.”

Well, I’ve never BEEN in Mr. Ilyumzhinov’s apartment – nor even to Moscow or anywhere else in Russia – and cannot say one way or the other whether he was accosted there by aliens in yellow suits. (Frankly, though, I wonder whether they were pest-control workers fumigating for bats in his belfry.)

As for where chess comes from, I always thought it was home grown right here on Earth. But I can’t prove that the gentleman is mistaken. Maybe space aliens delivered it during the Dark Ages, and no one wrote anything down about their space ship.


In case you need a good insult, but don’t want the target to know he or she has been insulted, here is a handy word: graveolent (pronounced gruhv EE oh luhnt). Graveolent means “rank-smelling, fetid.” It is a handy substitute for “stinky.” The word is so obscure that Microsoft Word’s annoying spell-checker flags it as wrong. I can’t blame it. It is not in either of the two Oxford dictionaries on my Kindle, either, nor in any of the printed dictionaries I have in reach (including a bulky bargain-bin “unabridged” dictionary). I do find it on the Web, though.


A time machine might be nice. Useful, anyway.

I’m looking at the January 1897 issue of The Land of Sunshine: A Magazine of California and the Southwest (10 cents a copy, $1 a year). On a page up front, below the table of contents, I see “50,000 ACRES OF LAND FOR SALE subdivided to suit IN SAN LUIS OBISPO AND SANTA BARBARA COUNTIES” Oh, the price is $15 to $100 per acre. The Pacific Land Company (owner) offers up that acreage as “Suitable for Dairying, Fruit and Vegetable Growing. Climate perfect. Soil fertile. Water abundant.” Ah, yes, and eventually suitable for expensive homes, resorts, golf courses, and more.

Two pages farther along in that issue, the reader finds, “A TOUR TO CALIFORNIA IS NOT COMPLETE WITHOUT SEEING The Ostrich Farm at South Pasadena . . . THE OLDEST AND LARGEST in America.” Not convinced yet? Consider that “An Ostrich Feather Boa or Collarette, made from the local product, makes a pleasing and useful souvenir of the Golden State. Take the Pasadena and Los Angeles Electric cars, or Terminal Ry. [Railway] cars.”

Somehow I doubt that the Ostrich Farm is still there. A quick look on the Web, though (thanks to Google) finds a reference to “Ostrich Farm neighborhood in South Pasadena, California (CA), 90042, 91030.” The farm is gone, but the “neighborhood” lives on in its memory.

A little further on in the magazine the reader finds an advertisement for “HOTEL GREEN, Pasadena, Cal., THE LARGEST MOST MODERN AND BEST APPOINTED Hotel in Los Angeles County.” It is easily reached, as “Electric Cars pass the door every fifteen minutes.”

Hotel Green lives on, at least in a form, in connection with the Castle Green. You can visit www.castlegreen.com/history.html and learn, “One of Pasadena's most unique buildings, the Castle Green was built in 1898 as the annex for the famous Hotel Green. The Castle Green is an imposing seven story Moorish Colonial and Spanish style building sitting next to Central Park in Old Pasadena at Raymond and Green Street. The Castle Green was built by Col. George G. Green of the Patent Medicine Business.”

post comment

Ken's Corner for November 4, 2014 [04 Nov 2014|02:22pm]

Ken’s Corner, November 4, 2014
Ken Umbach

Well, here it is Election Day. That is something to celebrate, because it means for a while a stop to the torrent of deceptive and often hateful mailings and an end for a while to political phone calls and TV ads. Ok, my call blocker has stopped the phone calls (other than two quick rings before they go off into la-la land), and I’ve gotten pretty good at tossing the mailers straight into the recycle bin, and we mute or fast-forward though the ads.

Anyway, around 8 a.m. we went to our polling place (in the local Friends church, the only time we go to a church other than for weddings and funerals), and found no line and some slightly underprepared poll workers. They probably got their confusions sorted out after we left, little things like providing pens to the voters so they can mark the ballots and coordinating better between the sign-in person and the hand-the-ballot-to-the-voter person.

Now to await the results tonight. I decided that a proper election-night meal would consist of green salad (we almost always have a green salad), pizza (fine, fine, fine, frozen bake-at-home), and chicken wings (those at least I am preparing in the slow-cooker, with barbeque sauce, cream sherry, and a lime-infused Mexican seasoning, plus a sprinkling of dried onion flakes. It will be a surprise how the wings turn out, but seven or eight hours simmering should do the trick.

Oh, and wine. I figure that the election is mostly not going to go my preferred direction, so a lot of wine might be called for. The currently open bottle is a nice but inexpensive Grenache from Spain. Might need a jug of Carlo Rossi Paisano when it’s all said and done, though. It comes in the handy 1.5 liter jug, a 3.0 liter size, and the jumbo 4.0 liter mega-jug. No, you cannot buy it in standard-size 750 ml bottles. That would be silly.

Of course, even after the jug is empty, the electioneering won’t all be said. Or done. They’ll keep on blathering, and the 2016 Presidential contest will pretty much officially be on as of tomorrow. Not that Hillary has not been running since November of 2012, when I got my first email from her campaign. (Ok, not an “official” campaign committee, but come on folks, did anyone really believe she was not committed to the campaign by then?)

It’s going to be a long, dismal run-up to November 2016. Those jugs may look more and more attractive as time goes on.


The catnip plant in the tub near our front door is drying and turning dormant for the winter. I am not sure if it is a perennial or an annual, technically, but last winter it survived, even through some serious cold snaps, and grew out again nicely in the spring. Now and then I’ve seen a kitty curled up in the midst of the plant, and other times, have seen evidence that one had been using it as a bed.

As for turning dormant, our oak tree has been a bit late to the leaf-dropping party, although for the last week or so it has been in full swing. After last spring’s major pruning the load on the lawn is not as overwhelming as it had gotten to be, but the piles still fill the green waste bin and more. No sooner do we rake up the leaves and stuff them into the cans than a new set has dropped.

The Tupelo tree is just about to start dropping its leaves (it always starts about the time the oak tree is all done, or nearly so), so we have the fun and exercise of raking leaves for a couple months running.


In the Department of Felinity, for a couple of years now we’ve had a long-haired white cat hanging around the neighborhood (too dirty sometimes to be sure it IS white, but it is), often scaring away and beating up on our cats (and the friendlier neighborhood wanderers). For a long time we tried chasing it away. But we finally gave in and started deliberately feeding it some distance from where we feed the other outside cats. After a lot of square meals, it’s filled out, taken to cleaning itself, and calmed down. We only refer to it generically as “the white cat,” as if we name it then it’s ours. Now it shows up early in the morning, and sometimes late in the evening, looking for another meal. We don’t chase it away unless it is stalking one of the other cats, and it’s not moving so far away (only a few feet) when we set out a plate of canned food.

One of these days, we have to get it into a cage and take it to the vet to be neutered and to get its shots (probably one set will be all it will ever get). Not sure how we’ll manage it. But if we do, then it’s on the record as our cat. We need another cat like we need a Styrofoam automobile.


November 4, 1914, was a Wednesday, the day after Election Day. Here is an excerpt from a lead story in the New York Times, reporting on the outcome: "Woodrow Wilson will have a Democratic Congress to sustain him to the end of his term. It will be Democratic by a greatly reduced plurality, but the House has enough of a majority to work with, and there is no change in the Senate."

Other tidbits include that woman suffrage lost in North Dakota, Missouri, and Ohio, and that the “wets” (opponents of prohibition) won big in Ohio, but the vote on prohibition was too close to call yet in Colorado. The city of Princeton, New Jersey, went “Dry” by a margin of 800 votes.

Copyright © 2014, Kenneth W. Umbach.


post comment

Ken's Corner for October 28, 2014 [27 Oct 2014|10:33am]

Ken’s Corner, October 28, 2014
Ken Umbach

I guess there are worse problems than homemade chili without enough beans. In fact, that is probably the least important problem I can imagine. Nonetheless, I made chili without enough beans, and with (comparatively) too much other stuff – sliced bell pepper, sliced onion, cut-up tomatoes, and browned ground beef (organic, grass-fed, I’ll have you know).

The problems were that I used (1) only one cup of dried beans and (2) black beans, which do not swell much when they rehydrate. The result was actually pretty tasty, rating a solid B-, anyway (by old-school pre-grade-inflation standards), but lacked that beaniness that Rosa (my lovely wife, for readers new to Ken’s Corner) prefers.

Yes, yes, chili purists disdain any beans at all in chili. Not in this household. Beans are supposed to be the star attraction.

So, I took another shot at chili yesterday, and this time turned to my old vegetarian chili recipe, posted on my website for many years. It can be adapted in many ways, of course, and need not be vegetarian, but this time I went to Bel Air market and bought some Morningstar Farms “Grillers Recipe Crumbles,” www.morningstarfarms.com/products/meal-starters/meal-starters-grillers-recipe-crumbles. That product has gone by other names in past years, but that’s what it is now. It is a textured soy protein product. Frankly, it does not have the taste or texture of nicely browned ground beef. BUT it takes no time to prepare (open package and pour) and it produces no cloud or residue of grease, as even the leanest hamburger does.

Now . . . beans. This time I used “Good Mother Stallard” beans, from Chili Smith, a local grower of heritage beans. Quality products, by the way. Anyway, those beans, which are something like pinto beans, really soak up a lot of water and grow accordingly. (I saved some time by — after carefully sorting and rinsing — dousing the beans, two cups this time, in boiling water to soak for an hour.)

That was the ticket. I rinsed the soaked, enlarged beans, and poured them into slow-cooker pot, and added a 28-ounce can of finely diced tomatoes, one finely chopped mild, sweet onion, one small chopped jalapeño (with seeds), one package of the recipe crumbles, a few cups of water, two envelopes of chili seasoning mix, and a sprinkling of dried parsley flakes and turmeric, plus a little black pepper. Beans! Lots of plump beans! A couple of hours on medium, to get the pot to a full boil for a while, and a few hours on low, to simmer, and it was done. It was not spicy enough for me, so I sprinkled some crushed, dried hot peppers on my serving.

Here’s the problem: that recipe, especially with beans that swell up that much, makes a LOT of chili. So we’ll be having leftover chili for a couple of days. The good news is that the flavor improves with a day or two in the fridge. Maybe when we revisit the chili I’ll top mine with some chopped fresh jalapeños.


What are the odds? A couple of times a year I spend five minutes or so at our storage unit in Roseville, where I keep . . . well, books that mostly don’t need anymore, family memorabilia we have no place for in the house but cannot get rid of, various things I should give away (microfiche reader, anyone?), and excess inventory from my publishing business. Five stinking minutes.

Yesterday was one of those days. I parked near the entrance to the stairway, ran up to my unit, and retrieved one box of Wyla the Witch. (It’s a lovely fantasy novel. You want a copy? Let me know. No new copies are being printed, and I still have nearly 200 copies.) After I put the box in my back seat, dropped the key into the console between the front seats, and was about to get in the car and leave, a woman comes stomping in and demands, “You’ll have to move that car closer to the wall!”

WTF? It was about as close as I could get it while still being able to comfortably exit the car. And I was just about to leave anyway.

I fantasized afterwards of how I might have responded. I pictured myself saying, “Madam, the one time in six months that I am here for five lousy minutes to retrieve one lousy box and all of a sudden you show up and demand that I move my car too close to the wall to open the door? Seriously?” Or maybe, a blank stare and “Are you always this rude?” Or maybe, “Have you considered simply asking if I could move the car a little rather than flouncing in here and demanding that I move it?”

No, I just gave her a puzzled look, with head tilted, and said, “I’m on my way out.” (I could have added that I’d already be driving away if she were not blocking my exit.) Meanwhile, a moving truck lumbered in from behind, while other folks maybe in the same party strutted in from the exit end, toward which my car was pointed.

I suppose I could have moved the car closer, climbed out the passenger side door, and asked, “Is this close enough?” And then, climbed right back in through the passenger side door and driven away immediately. Or course, I would have had to explain, before moving closer to the wall, that I do not have depth perception (which is true), and would need her help navigating the car close enough.


Make of this what you will. The front page of the New York Times, October 28, 1914, reported that a John F. O’Brien, an ex-convict, had assumed the name and claimed the record of Frank X. O’Brien, an attorney from St. Louis, and under the assumed name and record gotten himself “nominated on the Democratic ticket for Judge of the Marion County Juvenile Court.” A judge removed the imposter from the ticket and replaced him with the incumbent, Newton M. Taylor.

Copyright © 2014, Kenneth W. Umbach.


post comment

From the archives ... [20 Oct 2014|03:18pm]

Spectrum: Ken’s Corner for October 20, 2009

Ken Umbach

Recently my lovely wife and I visited the expanded and relocated Midway Antique Mall, on Madison Avenue, near Auburn Boulevard, Sacramento. In a sign of the times, it is in a former furniture store building. Furniture stores are suffering, judging from the number that have recently closed or that are in the process of liquidating.

The Antique Mall is huge, with corridor after corridor leading to room after room of every sort of household item. Much of the merchandise displayed does not meet the definition of “antique” (not old enough), but that does not keep it from being interesting. One room featured state-of-the-art kitchen appliances – state of the art in the 1950s, that is. Another displayed an art deco style dining room set – table and chairs – complete with original invoice from the 1930s, showing the down payment ($70) and monthly payments adding up to something over $800. You can buy that set, still in excellent condition, for a few thousand dollars, not bad after you account for inflation.

Around a corner I found long-time stamp dealer Vince Izdepski still at his trade. I used to visit Vince’s shop in Fair Oaks, but a few years ago he relocated to the Midway Antique Mall, and then he moved with it. Vince and his business symbolize a bygone era when postage stamp collecting was a widespread hobby. Department stores had stamp departments and dime stores like Woolworth’s featured inexpensive stamp albums and collectors’ packets.

When I moved to Sacramento in 1973, Macy’s on L Street, downtown, still had a stamp department. Stamp stores could be found near downtown and in the suburbs. One by one, stamp stores have disappeared, replaced by dealers who use mail order and the World Wide Web. The hobby lives, but you have to look for it.

Among my recent leisure reading has been a series of crime novels by the late Lawrence Block. The protagonist, a man named Keller, is a stamp collector. Keller is professional hit man, but at least he has a nice old-fashioned hobby! Keller visits local stamp dealers in his travels around the country. His thoughts about the pleasures of working on his collection bring back memories of my own visits to long-gone local stamp dealers, and my own modest collection. It is good to see Vince Izdepski still carrying on the tradition.

It is hard to believe now, but in the 1920s and 1930s there were even radio shows devoted to stamp collecting. School children learned much about geography and history, and about little-known countries and remote colonies through their stamp collections. Even President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an avid stamp collector.

The annual Sacramento stamp show, called SACAPEX, is coming the weekend of November 7 and 8, 2009. (SACAPEX is short for Sacramento Philatelic Exposition.) The show is put on by the Sacramento Philatelic Society and takes place at Scottish Rite Temple 6151 H St. (H at Carlson), in Sacramento. On Saturday, November 7, the show is open from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., and on Sunday, November 8, it is open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. You can find more information at http://sps.nfshost.com/. [NOTE: for 2014, the event is scheduled for weekend of November 1 & 2, at Scottish Rite.]

Even if you are not a stamp collector, the show has much to offer. Aisle after aisle of mounted exhibits illustrate history and culture through stamps. Exhibitors invest countless hours, and often considerable expense, in creating and displaying stamps, covers (addressed envelopes with stamps and cancellations), and narrative.

You might be inspired to revisit an old interest if you were a stamp collector in the past, or to take up the hobby now if you are looking for a new interest. The beauty of stamp collecting is that there are as many ways to approach it as there are collectors. You can focus on a country, a period of history, or on a topic such as railroad trains, cats, or authors on stamps. The hobby does not have to be expensive, as you can buy packets of stamps for a few dollars or pick through trays of stamps and select the ones you wish at a few cents each. Add a stamp album (even just one with blank pages for your custom collection), stamp tongs, and hinges for mounting the stamps, and you are on your way.


I had not looked forward to our recent plane trip to New York State, but was pleasantly surprised at the efficiency of the screening process at Sacramento International Airport. The process is much streamlined in comparison to several years ago. Most travelers now are aware of the rules and resigned to such inconveniences as removing shoes to put them on the X-ray belt, and of the various prohibitions affecting airline passengers. Awareness and preparation help.

However, a passenger overheard in the Philadelphia airport (a pleasant middle-aged lady) complained of having been required to take off her pants behind a partition as part of the screening process. She had no idea why, and certainly did not look even slightly threatening. One of our own checked suitcases got home with a note inside it, advising us that it had been opened and inspected by TSA. The inspectors found nothing more alarming than various clothing, some cell phone chargers, and a plastic bag holding underwear awaiting a trip to the washing machine.


On October 20, 1930, the Sherlock Holmes show debuted on NBC radio. The show ran (with some interruptions) until 1956, with various actors starring as Holmes and his sidekick Dr. Watson.

On October 20, 1947, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities began a high-profile investigation of communists in the Hollywood entertainment industry.

On October 20, 1968, Olympic high jumper Dick Fosbury won the gold medal, setting an Olympic record of 7 feet 4-1/4 inches at the Mexico City Olympic Games. In so doing, Fosbury demonstrated for a worldwide audience his unique high-jumping style that came to be called “the Fosbury Flop.” Rather than the traditional scissors kick over the bar, Fosbury turned rotated to clear the bar by arching his back while facing up. His technique soon became the standard method for the event.

post comment

Ken's Corner for October 14, 2014 [13 Oct 2014|10:03am]

Ken’s Corner, October 14, 2014
Ken Umbach

For years the first four volumes (in the Folio Society edition) of Edward Gibbons’ vast The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire have been lurking on a shelf always in view in my living room. At last, I decided that I’d start reading the books. So far, a couple of weeks into the project, I’m midway through the third of the eight (in total) volumes. (The boxed set of volumes 5 – 8 is elsewhere in the house.)

Gibbon was an Englishman, writing in the latter part of the Eighteenth Century (around the time of the American Revolution and creation of the Constitution, 1770s – 1780s). That alone makes for a different style of writing, and many differences in word meanings and usages, from our time. But Gibbon also had a roundabout way of saying things, often used indirection or delicate choice of words to obscure occasionally alarming facts, and had the leisure and resources to explore a great deal of detail. In short, it’s not the easiest reading. Nonetheless, it’s hard to put down, even if I often find I have to read a sentence or paragraph two or three times (and even them am sometimes left wondering just what he was saying).

Be that as it may, Gibbon paints a grim picture. Emperors (styled Augustus, for the top dog, or Caesar, for a sort of second in command) came and went as fast as flavors revolve at Baskin Robbins, but with more fatal results. One of the most dangerous conditions for centuries was to be named Augustus by the troops, a condition often soon followed by murder, or to be thought of as a potential Augustus or Caesar, and hence a threat to the incumbent, a condition also often followed by murder.

Readers can get an overview at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Roman_emperors notice such headings as “Year of the Five Emperors and Severan dynasty” and “Year of the Four Emperors and Flavian dynasty.” It is difficult to keep track of who is who, a task made even more difficult by often-similar names and complicated family relationships. (The roman emperors were not real big on “family values,” by the way.) The third and fourth centuries A.D. (or C.E., for Common Era, as is the style used now), saw especially rapid and perplexing turnover at the top.

Here are a couple of excerpts to give the flavor of Gibbon’s style:


The Extent And Military Force Of The Empire In The Age Of The Antonines.

In the second century of the Christian Aera, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this, and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and after wards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth.

[From Chapter XXIII: Reign Of Julian. — Part I]

In every age, the absence of genuine inspiration is supplied by the strong illusions of enthusiasm, and the mimic arts of imposture. If, in the time of Julian, these arts had been practised only by the pagan priests, for the support of an expiring cause, some indulgence might perhaps be allowed to the interest and habits of the sacerdotal character. But it may appear a subject of surprise and scandal, that the philosophers themselves should have contributed to abuse the superstitious credulity of mankind, and that the Grecian mysteries should have been supported by the magic or theurgy of the modern Platonists. They arrogantly pretended to control the order of nature, to explore the secrets of futurity, to command the service of the inferior dæmons, to enjoy the view and conversation of the superior gods, and by disengaging the soul from her material bands, to reunite that immortal particle with the Infinite and Divine Spirit.

Some readers will recognize Julian as Julian the Apostate, the emperor who followed Constantine the Great (who was not all that great in the eyes of Gibbon) and reversed, for a time, his policy of Christianity as the official religion.

Despite the dry and wry style and the plethora of detail, the narrative of the rise of Christianity is pretty hot stuff, incendiary, even. I’ve done enough background reading that I recognize many names and theological terms that figure in the story, and some of which Gibbon thoroughly ridicules. Who would have thought that a slight difference between two words (one letter in English) would have ignited cascades of torture, murder, and revolution? Readers not at all versed in that history will be greatly perplexed, and very much surprised.


Again, of course, the first pages of the New York Times of one century ago, October 14, 1914, were dominated by news of war in Europe. But this, also, appeared above the fold on the first page, a reminder that random violence is not a new thing in our time:


Attempt to Wreck Cathedral Is Followed by Another at St. Alphonsus's. PRIEST AND A BOY INJURED Fifth Avenue Edifice Suffers Little

- $1,000 Damage to West Broadway Rectory. I.W.W. [International Workers of the World, radical labor group] ARRESTS RECALLED Tannenbaum Was Seized at Downtown Sanctuary

- Two Infernal Machines Identical. BOMBS IN CHURCHES, ONE IN CATHEDRAL

A dynamite bomb was exploded in the nave of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Fifth Avenue and Fiftieth Street, a few minutes past 5 o'clock yesterday afternoon, and another of similar nature was exploded at ten minutes after 12 o'clock this morning in front of the rectory, adjoining the Roman Catholic Church of St. Alphonsus in West Broadway near Canal Street.

Copyright © 2014, Kenneth W. Umbach.


post comment

Ken's Corner for October 7, 2014 [06 Oct 2014|09:32am]

Ken’s Corner, October 7, 2014
Ken Umbach

Well, here’s irony for you.

On impulse, I bought a bag of fortune cookies. Is there any other reason except impulse for buying a bag of fortune cookies unless you run a Chinese restaurant? In any event, fortune cookies are a tasty treat with only about 17 or 18 calories each, so why not?

One of the cookies contained two fortunes:

“You are original and creative,” read the first. “You are original and creative,” read the second. Ok, maybe I am original and creative, but the fortune-cookie, not so much. And there’s your irony: two identical fortunes, both advising of originality.

Be that as it may, the next fortune found at random in the bag advised, “Good news from afar can bring you a welcome visitor.” Ok, well, I can think of several visitors who would be welcome and who might come this way as a result of good news. But it says “can,” not “will.” The fortunemeisters are hedging their bets there.

The next one (yes, the cookies were crunchy and delicious) informed me, “You have great physical powers and an iron constitution.” Ok, now I know they are bullshitting me. Or someone thinks that flattery will sell more fortune cookies. Let’s be frank here. I have ordinary physical powers, at least for someone my age (they’d be great for someone 110), and more like an aluminum constitution. Regular aluminum, not that aircraft-strong stuff.


I know that coincidences happen, but this one was just weird.

For a few years, my street has been plagued by a very troubled house. The owner, to put it as politely as I can, developed serious problems (the kind that involve visits from the police and trips to rehab clinics), and his house was taken over by squatters (sometimes requiring visits from as many as seven police cars at a time). Finally the house was boarded up by the city, and not too long after, foreclosed. So there it stands, lawn and shrubbery dying from lack of water, still boarded up. On at least one occasion, squatters with a very heavily loaded RV had to be removed by the police, the unlicensed vehicle being towed away. But for a while, the situation has been quiet.

Well, what should appear on the street this past week, parked across from the boarded-up house, but a different RV, with license tag four years expired and stuffed with all manner of junk, and a pickup truck heavily loaded with more junk, including boards and carpet.

I took a picture of the vehicles and posted them on my Facebook page, mostly as a way-station to get a copy of the picture attached to an email to the police code enforcement officer. Well, what are the odds of this? A friend of mine who works for a local mini-storage business saw the photo and thought he recognized the RV. After some quick back-and-forth, it turned out that he was right. A storage client had skipped, owing the business $4,000, and leaving behind some personal items (paperwork and the like) that the owner could not simply dispose of, and wanted to return to the person who’d been using that RV. The business’s photo of the license plate, expired tag and all, matched the one parked across from the boarded-up house on my street.

My friend (I’ll call him Jimmy) hustled over to my street, with the box of stuff to return in hand, and found the deadbeat with the vehicle. He returned the box of paperwork. Mission accomplished.

Jimmy advised me that the individual’s M.O. was to skip from one boarded-up house to another, squatting until found. Jimmy and his boss had been trying to find her to return her personal stuff (they’d sold the rest) for some time. I don’t know where the bearded man with the overloaded pickup truck fits into the picture, but apparently they work as a team.

The police came by and chatted with the RV driver. She claimed she had a house one street over, but was moving and had no room on that street for the RV and truck. She also claimed that her license tag had been stolen.

Sure. If they believed that, which they apparently did, I’d like to show them the pixies that live in my rose garden. No, she does not have a house nearby. And someone stole the renewal tag for 2011, 2012, 2013, AND 2014? Riiiiiight.

After another message or two to the police (long on alert over that troubled house) reiterating the background facts, they visited again, and the vehicles had vanished by the next morning.

So, what are the odds that one of my friends who is also on Facebook actually reads my posts AND knew the pictured vehicle AND had an urgent need to contact the driver AND had a photograph showing the same license plate and expired tags AND that that vehicle happened to park across from a foreclosed, boarded-up house on my street?

I don’t know where she went, but if you see an RV stuffed with junk and with a license tag that expired in July of 2010, and especially if it is near a house that squatters might want to get into (abandoned, boarded), call the police. If nothing else, the vehicle can be tagged for 72-hour removal, or for towing by the police after that time.


One hundred years ago today, the New York Times front page and pages beyond were entirely dominated by news of war in Europe.

Page 6, however, had news of more local relevance (local to New York), including this:

Sister of Man Killed by Policeman Brings Charges.

Charges that John Corbett of 2,476 Third Avenue was killed by Policeman McIvers of the Morrisania Police Station without provocation have been lodged with District Attorney Francis Martin of the Bronx by Mrs. Mary Callan of 695 East 137th Street, the dead man's sister.

The rest of the brief story suggests a more complicated picture, as the incident took place during a “disturbance” in a crowd and the shot in question was intended to be a warning shot in the air. I’ve not found how the story turned out, or the result, if any, of the prosecution. But regardless of the details, the 1914 story is echoed in 2014 stories of shootings by police.

Copyright © 2014, Kenneth W. Umbach.


post comment

Ken's Corner for September 30, 2014 [29 Sep 2014|03:20pm]

Ken’s Corner, September 30, 2014

Ken Umbach

“No added sweeteners,” boasts the label on a package of plump Medjool dates.

Well, that’s nice, that those dates have no added sweeteners. And I should hope to Hannah that they don’t, since two dates have 25 grams of sugar already. Dates are one of the sweetest, most sugar-laden natural products on the planet. But I suppose if it makes one feel better about ingesting five teaspoons of sugar in a pair of dates, then the notice of “No added sweeteners” is just fine. But it’s rather like advising, “No added fats” on a block of cheddar cheese, which is nearly solid fat to begin with. Not a knock on cheddar cheese or on dates. I like ’em both. Might even be great together.


One of the small traumas of life today is the occasional need to buy a new personal computer. A couple dozen years ago personal computers were still pretty exotic, and a dozen years before that, they did not exist at all. Now most of us can’t live without them. Certainly those of you reading Ken’s Corner at LiveJournal.com can’t live without them, or at least choose not to.

Anyway, Rosa’s laptop, a five-and-a-half-year-old Toshiba Satellite, was crapping out, randomly shutting down while she was working. (For folks new to Ken’s Corner, Rosa is my lovely wife of 32 years.) I had to replace my same-model Toshiba several months ago, for pretty much the same reason. An efficient trip to Best Buy left us with a shiny new Toshiba Satellite.

You can’t just turn one of those things on and be in business. Nope. Even though Windows 8.1 (cue the booing and hissing) is pretty good at getting going right out of the box, the user still has to register an account, or connect to one already set up, install new versions of software, or port over older ones, and deal with all the nuisances of user IDs and passwords. Oh, let’s not overlook getting the hang of all the different ways that Microsoft has the newer version of the operating system do things. (Who besides professional programmers, computer scientists, and the like had to worry about operating systems when I was in school? No one.)

Anyway, Rosa was sounding like me when I go through that process, practically swearing like a sailor (well, by her vulgarity-averse standards). “What’s THAT blotting out the bottom of my screen? How do I get rid of it?”

“Uhhh, that’s just how this version of Windows shows you your programs and the files you have open. It’s supposed to look like that,” I explained.

“Well I don’t like it. And what’s that giant arrow that I can’t get rid of doing on the screen?”

That was an intrusive program that came with the computer, pre-installed. Goodness only knows why it was jumping onto the screen demanding to be updated (she had bought the computer that same day), or what it was supposed to do, anyway. Something called “Digital Pass.” Ok, at least we did not have to call upon a computer support expert to clear that up. I deleted the program. Twice, actually, as the first time did not take.

Thanks to the miracle that is Google, I later found information on Toshiba’s trademark application for “Digital Pass,” which explained at one point what it is for: “online retail store services featuring digital entertainment content, namely, films, movies, television programming, videos, music videos, music, books, magazines, and publications.

Rosa is not going to miss that. Maybe if “Digital Pass” had not been so rude she might have looked at it. Maybe. I guess she’ll just settle for all the TV we can watch via satellite TV rather than a Satellite laptop, and via a roomful of DVDs and (gasp!) VHS tapes, and our old standby entertainment: printed, bound paper books. (Ok, and hundreds of books on our Kindle e-book readers.)

Anyway, early on in her set-up travails, she called Microsoft for help. The support people — she ended up talking with two of them, one after the other — asked a lot of nosy questions, including about her job (they thought she sounded too young to be retired) and whether she had children (although that fellow realized and admitted that he should not have asked that). After a long go-round and a lot of disputing from the Microsoft support people (the first one had to escalate to a second one), who insisted that she had to have a firewall and who tried desperately to sell her one, it turned out that she had to install the Norton 360 virus protection, firewall, et cetera., program, which we’ve used for years, before she could even download Microsoft Office. She told the Microsoft techs about that. They refused to believe it included a firewall, even though we were looking at Norton’s firewall display on my laptop while she was on the phone with them. And, really strangely, they wanted to know how much we paid for it. (She did not tell them.)

Sheesh. “Firewalls” used to mean, well, firewalls, walls designed to stop fires from spreading in a building or from one building to the next. And virus protection used to mean things like washing your hands frequently, staying away from people with a cold or flu, and drinking your orange juice. But then, not that long ago “Amazon” was just a river in South America, your “laptop” was where the cat sat in the evening, and “Google” meant nothing in particular.


One hundred years ago today, September 30, 1914, the New York Times was again stuffed with war news, page after page. It’s even more depressing today, when we know that the war would go on for years, at astonishing cost in lives and treasure. (Boy does THAT sound familiar.)

On a lighter note, page 4 carried an advertisement for an automobile, the Chandler Light-Weight Six, at $1,595. It was a product of Brady-Murray Motors Corporation. The description: “Weighs only 2885 pounds completely equipped. Runs 16 miles or more per gallon of gasoline, 700 miles per gallon of oil [huh?], 7000 miles per set of tires [ack!].” By the way, that price is the equivalent of over $36,500 today, adjusting for inflation. I wonder how much oil and tires cost.

Copyright © 2014, Kenneth W. Umbach.


post comment

Ken's Corner for September 23, 2014 [23 Sep 2014|06:58am]

Ken’s Corner
September 23, 2014

Ken Umbach

The Department of Agriculture in Ken’s Corner has fallen into disarray. Ok, fine, it was never in array, so to speak. This year we have two lemons on the dwarf lemon tree (a more promising set of blossoms having blown off in the spring) and some fading catnip in a tub near the front door. The roses don’t count as “agriculture.” Those are floriculture, and they are not all that terrific, either.

The other day I was sitting in a chair out front, near the catnip tub (a wooden half-barrel), and Lucy the Cat came to visit. I rubbed my fingers on a catnip leaf and got her to sniff my fingers. Hmmm, interesting, she thought. She noodled around the edges of the catnip plant, taking a nibble here and there, and after a while climbed into the tub and lay down, surrounded by the stems and leaves. She randomly nibbled and licked leaves, and then dozed off.

Rosa pulled into the driveway, and Lucy, startled awake, hopped down. I let her into the house (we like her to enjoy the outdoors so that Boo the Cat can rest comfortably, as the two do not get along), and she went to a food bowl to satisfy a case of the munchies. That seemed to be the extent of her catnip response: lethargy followed by hunger. She’s not one to run around all crazy-like in response to catnip, unlike me in response to, say, pecan pie.


Sometimes it is the principle of the thing, not the money.

I drove to our nearby Valero gas station, to fill the tank and get a carwash. Like all the other gas stations these days, that one charges an extra ten cents a gallon for use of a credit card, or even a debit card, to pay for gas. So I went into the station and plopped down more than enough cash to pay for a fill-up. When I went back for my change, I told the clerk that I also wanted a wash.

Now, every pump is clearly labeled that carwashes are discounted one dollar with ANY purchase from the station. Nonetheless, the clerk was going to charge me the full five dollars for the low-end wash, taking the fee out of my change. That is, until I pointed out that I was due a discount. She disputed that, saying that the discount only applied when paying at the pump. After I carped that I’d have to pay an extra dime a gallon (more than $1.30 for that fill-up) if I paid at the pump, she relented and condescended to give me the discount.

Good thing, as if she hadn’t, the manager would be hearing from the Department of Consumer Affairs. According to the clearly posted policy, I could have bought a muffin or a cup of coffee at that station, and no gas at all, and been entitled to the dollar discount on a car wash. It’s the principle of the thing. If you post a policy, then follow it.


Well, well, well, the giant drug-store chain CVS has, as a nod toward health, removed cigarettes and other tobacco products from its stores. That’s a good thing. But, I ask myself, what is the health message of aisles and cold-cases filled with beer, wine, and hard liquor? I don’t object to alcoholic beverages, or to CVS selling them, but the inconsistency seems odd. Maybe alcohol is simply far more profitable, or more effective as a marketing tool, than tobacco, and profit trumps principle.


Maybe the more things change, the more they don’t always stay the same.

One hundred years ago, September 23, 1914, as Europe was mired in war (well, war after war, that does not change), this headline appeared on page 5 of the New York Times: “NEW WAR TAX BILL WILL BE RUSHED. House Democrats Plan to Limit Debate and Jam the Measure Through Tomorrow. REPUBLICANS DECRY ‘PANIC.’”

Where to begin? These days, would Congress think of a new tax to support war efforts? Bear in mind that in 1914 the U.S. was not yet anywhere near any direct involvement in the burgeoning war in Europe. But the war was expected to slash revenues from customs duties, and those had to be made up somehow. And of course, these days the Democrats do not have a large majority (or any majority) in the House of Representatives that would enable it to rush through a measure virtually without debate.

Oddly, sixteen years earlier, 1898, it was the Republicans who pushed through a war tax to cope with the Spanish-American War’s expenses, as the Democrats were solidly opposed.

Meanwhile, the front page of that issue of the Times headlined reports of atrocities committed by the Germans, and the sinking by German submarines of three British cruisers with 1,500 men aboard. Eight hundred of the British sailors died in the event. The next page reported that the Germans were killing Belgians for merely selling British and French newspapers.

It was a ferocious war, and it became even more ferocious, with consequences beyond anyone’s ability to foresee. Sadly, these look-back-a-century segments are going to draw on, or have to consciously avoid, World War I for the next few years. Else, I’ll have to change the time frame to 110 or 120 years ago.

One closing irony for the moment, loosely echoed in our times. President Woodrow Wilson was re-elected in 1916 on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” The next year he inserted us into that war.

Copyright © 2014, Kenneth W. Umbach.


post comment

"Ken's Corner" is back . . . [16 Sep 2014|10:50am]

Ken’s Corner, September 16, 2014

Ken Umbach

Well, folks, it’s back. Senior Spectrum, the home to my “Ken’s Corner” column for nearly five and a half years is gone (final issue March 23, 2014), but after a layoff of nearly six months, the column is back, now to appear on my Live Journal blog site.

My Senior Spectrum audience was, not surprisingly, seniors. I wrote with older folks in mind, ones to whom nostalgia and historical tidbits, along with observations about daily life in the neighborhood, might especially appeal. I avoided current politics, sex, religion, and anything at all off-color. Even when posting columns to my own blog, I see no reason to change those choices.

Even when writing for an older audience, I also wrote with an eye to offering something of interest to younger readers, a squint-eyed view of daily dilemmas and look-backs at historical people and events, often those long-since forgotten. A conversational tone worked, as I typically write the way I speak anyway. One of my favorite compliments was that my column was like having a conversation over the back yard fence. Just writing what’s on my mind, and doing riffs on old newspaper and magazine articles, saves me from the pretense of committing an act of literature. Nope, this is just me, thinking into the keyboard.


One of life’s unpleasantries is telemarketers, those people who call, sometimes several times a day, and often fronted by recorded messages or automated voice-recognition systems (telephone robots) to sell everything from window replacement to home security systems, solar energy systems, debt consolidation, and health insurance.

The National Do Not Call Registry is supposed to stop those calls. It doesn’t. Far from all of them, anyway. The most relentless violators show up on my caller ID again and again and again, from strange area codes or via toll-free numbers. Some, stupidly, begin (once the telebot has recognized “hello”) with “DON’T HANG UP.” What better reason is there than that TO hang up? One of the most annoying and repetitive callers opens with, “Hello there, seniors!” in a big, professional, old-guy voice. “Well, hello back, skank,” I think to myself as I hang up.

I finally got tired of getting a Real Person™ on the line and playing one of my Telemarketer Repellant recordings. (A favorite has been, “North American Air Defense Center, Sargent Marone speaking. What is your emergency?”) Having had it up to *here* I finally dialed 611 and asked the telephone company service consultant if there was a way to block phone calls. Oh happy day, with a Consolidated Communications (formerly SureWest) digital phone line, the answer was “yes.”

It was not a simple procedure, as I had to set up an online account via the company’s website, pick an ID and password, and enter various information. Once I’d done that, I could enter up to ten phone numbers to block. Voila! The most egregious repeat offenders disappeared from my phone. Well, they did after I figured out which buttons to click on the web page to put the list into action. With that done, I happily contemplated those calls resulting in a buzz or dead air or some sort of rejection notice to the robotic caller.

Unfortunately, more calls came in. Happily, the system also allows me to forward up to ten more numbers to a phone number I specify. Ha! The first forwarded telemarketer got forwarded to itself! And until I fill the available slots, newly added numbers will also be forwarded to that same telemarketer’s number. To this point, it’s probably all robots bouncing to robots. But one of these days, I’ll be forwarding live telemarketers (those too backwards to have robocallers) to a different telemarketer.

With only a handful of numbers I can do that to, I can’t make much of a dent. But just think of the possibilities if hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of fed-up folks followed suit. How long would the telemarketing plague last if thousands upon thousands of their calls bounced to other telemarketers, or right back to themselves? If you have a digital phone line, you might be able to jump on this bandwagon.

For folks who don’t have call-blocking through their phone companies, there are dandy little devices like the “Sentry Call Blocker.” At only $39.99, that sounds like a bargain. A little Googling finds many similar devices. Plainly, I’m very far from the first person to be sick and tired of the junk callers.


The front page, and for that matter several pages following, of the New York Times, September 16, 1914, just a century ago, were consumed by news of the war in Europe. It came to be known as The Great War, and eventually, when there was a new war, World War I. The U.S. was not involved (not directly, at least) as of that early date in the war. But the left-side column of the front page reported on America’s involvement in Mexico. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson agreed to withdraw American troops from Vera Cruz (more or less, as some ships would remain). These days we have mostly forgotten how deeply the U.S. marched into Mexico.

On a happier note, page 7 of the same paper featured a full-page advertisement by Ruppert’s Knickerbocker, “the Beer that Satisfies.” The headline read, “Food-Temperance-and Beer” (punctuated just that way), followed by “The purpose of this advertisement is not to induce people to drink more beer, but to influence more people to drink beer.”

The ad continued, “Good beer, properly brewed, is the greatest aid to true temperance.” The brand, once a best-selling beer, has been gone for decades, but the New York Times reported on March 26, 2014, “Like a beer drinker’s Brigadoon, a red-brick vestige of the enormous Jacob Ruppert & Company brewery in Yorkville emerged for a few hours this week before disappearing, this time forever.” Excavation unearthed what remained of the long-closed brewery building.

“Suddenly,” the article reported, “Yorkville had a newly visible — if modest — link to its German heritage, and an era in which the neighborhood abounded in breweries. And the city had a small reminder of the larger-than-life Col. Jacob Ruppert, the founder’s son, who was active in the business until shortly before his death in 1939.”

These days, I find that a nice glass of wine satisfies more than any beer. But it would be good to reach back through time and bring up a frosty glass of Ruppert’s Knickerbocker.

Copyright © 2014, Kenneth W. Umbach.


post comment

Ken's Corner -- Memory Lane, April 20, 2010 [22 Apr 2014|10:29am]
Excerpted from a previous column:

Spectrum: Ken’s Corner for April 20, 2010
Ken Umbach

I managed to get to the ice cream man before he got away today. That was the first time this season. Until now, he’s raced away from our cul-de-sac too quickly, before I could grab money and race out the door. I need ice cream like I need a hole in my head, but it is SPRING and nothing says spring and warming weather like the ice cream man and a treat right out of his freezer on wheels.
The ice cream man, with his loud-speaker jingle brings back a lot of years of memories. Prices have gone up and I’d swear that the goodies have shrunk, but still, it’s the ICE CREAM MAN! Once upon a time they were all Good Humor men, but that brand does not seem to dominate the mobile ice-cream-treat trade now.

It is a short hop in memory from the ice cream man to home-delivered dairy products – the milk man – and to bakery trucks, and then to the Fuller Brush Man. He’s gone, but the Avon Lady still thrives.

These days door-to-door selling is pretty much a thing of the past. When I was very young, the Fuller Brush Man was a welcome visitor. For that matter, encyclopedia sales people sometimes went door-to-door. More often, they were working from leads provided by cards people had mailed in to inquire about, say Encyclopedia Britannica or World Book, but still, they went to the doorstep to pitch the product. Cold calling for a relatively expensive product like that was a tough business.

For a while when I was in graduate school and between other jobs, I sold Encyclopedia Britannica. That is a business that has changed almost entirely. You can still buy a print edition, although few families do these days. More are likely to buy the product on CD-ROM disks, or DVDs, or to subscribe via the World Wide Web, for a fraction of the cost of a print edition, and without needing the shelf space for 30 large volumes plus a growing accumulation of yearbooks. These days, I buy an annual EB yearbook, at an ever-increasing price, but settle for a DVD version of the main set that I can use on my computer.

Can’t anyone keep a secret? I overheard conversation recently. The man was talking about a visit to the Department of Motor Vehicles. He had heard about the “secret” DMV office in Rocklin. Well, not secret, exactly, but nothing like the one on Harding Boulevard in Roseville that is always packed. Oops. Someone had spilled the beans already. The man reported that when he got to the office the line stretched out the front door and down the block. If that office gets much more popular it will be so crowded that no one will go there anymore.

It is a conundrum. If you find a great new restaurant, you want to tell other people about it. After all, the restaurant needs customers to stay in business. You are also doing your friends a favor by sending them there. But if the restaurant gets too many customers, maybe you can’t get a table when you want one. Telling people about a great new book you read is a whole different thing. The publisher can always print more copies.

By the way, have you read Michael Lewis’s newest book, The Big Short? Whew! It is funny in a grim way. (Lewis is the author of Liar’s Poker, about financial shenanigans of the 1980s.) Another that will make you slap yourself in amazement has one of the best titles I have ever seen: A Colossal Failure of Common Sense: The Inside Story of the Collapse of Lehman Brothers, by Lawrence McDonald and Patrick Robinson. (I mentioned that one in February.) McDonald was the guy inside the company. His co-author Robinson is a novelist. The result is a business book that reads like a novel about incredibly stupid decisions made by people with access to WAY too much of other people’s money.

post comment

For the Ken's Corner deprived, from April 2009 [15 Apr 2014|09:31am]
Ok, folks, I've heard that some of you are suffering withdrawal pains from the closing of Spectrum and the end of my Ken's Corner column. So, to tide you over this week, You are getting the original version. As published, the then-editor made an arbitrary change that screwed up one of my most carefully crafted bits.

Ok, now I am worried. Let me explain that I take expert recommendations seriously, and maybe that is the source of my worries.
Recently I was at the local Barnes and Noble bookstore, talking with a group of writers, at the invitation of Spectrum reader Margaret Bell. Margaret’s poetry group meets there to share readings and updates on writing and publishing. Nice folks.

Anyway, we met in a corner of the store near the magazines and next to a set of shelves featuring “staff picks” – books recommended by bookstore staff members. Now, I figure that bookstore staff read a lot and certainly see a lot of books and know what customers are buying and recommending. So a “staff pick” probably deserves a close look.

One of the books on that shelf, titled The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, I know to be wonderful, the memoir of a man who spent most of his life in the book business, from publishing to bookstore operator. The book has been around a while, so it is a good sign that a staff member noticed the spiffy new paperback edition and recommended it.

None of that is the alarming part. The alarming part is the prominently placed, staff-recommended, Zombie Survival Guide. Next to that I saw World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.

Oh, my. Did I miss the memo? What do Barnes and Noble bookstore staff know that I don’t? Is this zombie threat real and immediate? Have I been oblivious to it, too preoccupied with the local squirrels, the economic situation, and the demands of my cat Boo?

I think back to movies I watched on TV in the 1950s. I vaguely recall at least one black-and-white (they were mostly B/W then, of course) horror movie about zombies, low in production values and high in fascination for a pre-adolescent boy. But that was just a movie, right? Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, and even the Devil Girl from Mars were only figments of moviemakers’ imaginations, right?

By the way, Devil Girl from Mars was a “Million Dollar Movie” on a Los Angeles TV station in 1959. I watched all nine showings over the course of its featured week. Now I have learned that it is a “cult classic” that you can buy on video. For that matter, so is Attack of the Giant Leeches, a truly abysmal example of the filmmaker’s art, in which two giant leeches attacked five people in one swamp. The zippers showed on the giant leech suits.

But I digress. Back to zombies.

In the next day or two, I saw an article in the sober, dignified New York Times about zombies. (Well, ok, it was a review of a video game featuring zombies, but that is close enough.) Worse – and here it really gets interesting – have been the many recent news mentions of “zombie banks.” The famous politico James Baker was quoted in London, England’s Financial Times, of all places, calling for swift action against zombie banks!

Oh, my. You might recall that I wrote a few weeks ago about “bad banks.” And now the worry is escalating to banks run by zombies? Or are those banks that serve zombies? The spoilsport would claim that the phrase is a metaphor for banks running on an empty money tank, not a literal warning about the evil “undead” infesting our financial institutions.

But I am not so sure. Let’s add it up. B&N staff is recommending The Zombie Survival Guide and a book about a zombie war that somehow I completely missed. (Maybe the press was too busy reporting on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?) Zombies get ink in the New York Times. James Baker, a very serious fellow, warns of zombie banks and urges the Obama administration to action in the Financial Times, about as deadly serious a newspaper as there is anywhere on the planet.

I don’t know. Maybe a zombie population explosion would explain the service at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Meanwhile, California’s fiscal situation goes on swirling down the drain. Every time we turn around, the deficit jumps again and the politicos want to tax something else. More taxes on booze, on tobacco, on – well, on pretty much everything. More fees, fewer services, and everyone in a tangle over the mess.

I have a solution. TAX THE ZOMBIES.

On a more festive note, my lovely wife and I and some companions were in Auburn on St. Patrick’s Day. At lunch time, we walked from the historic courthouse building to the old Auburn downtown, and into Mary Belle’s Restaurant. The featured lunch special of the day was, not surprisingly, corned beef and cabbage with carrots and potatoes.

That is one of those family restaurants I especially like. It has been run for eight years by Tom and Gail Stout. Tom explained that they cook the corned beef right there, to be sure they get it right. I’ll be back next year for St. Paddy’s day lunch, since every part of the lunch special was perfection, from the arrangement on the plate to the seasoning sprinkled on the veggies. Well, maybe except for the parsley. It was nice, bright green, crisp parsley, a festive touch. But does anyone really EAT parsley?

On April 14, 1865, actor John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln, while Lincoln and his wife attended a play at Ford’s Theater. The fatal shot made Lincoln the first American President to be assassinated. The assassination had been carefully plotted, the result of a conspiracy by supporters of the Confederacy.

On April 14, 1818, Noah Webster published his American Dictionary of the English Language. Webster established principles that endured. His name has become synonymous for “dictionary” in the U.S. One of Webster’s key accomplishments was to help standardize American spelling, including many changes from British spelling.

post comment

Farewell to Senior Spectrum [31 Mar 2014|10:15am]
If Senior Spectrum had lasted an additional week, this would have been my column for tomorrow's issue:

Spectrum: Ken’s Corner for April 1, 2014 [unpublished]
Ken Umbach

Let’s start with a little look back in history, shall we?

We probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the Middle Ages. Well, our own middle age, maybe, but not the period of history between the last days of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. Those were not easy times, considering diseases, limited transportation, difficult communications, primitive state of medicine, and the struggles to put enough food on the table.

You might remember hearing about Herbert Hoover’s 1928 presidential campaign promise of a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage. We take chickens, and for that matter cars, pretty much for granted now, but back then, chicken was relatively expensive, so it was a big promise. (It was a promise that did not work out well under President Hoover, but that is another story.)

Chicken dinners were at least as scarce for a typical European peasant of, say, the year 1300, deep in the Middle Ages. Yet, farmers did what they could to provide a supply, and this time of year typically saw the start of bringing frying and roasting chickens to local markets. After a long and often harsh winter, as spring was showing itself and brightening spirits, the arrival of the new season’s chickens, scarce and expensive as they might be, was a time for celebration.

Chicken, like turkeys, geese, and ducks, are all considered “fowl.” You’ve heard the phrase “neither fish nor fowl,” Meaning something that does not fit neatly into a regular category. I don’t know much about the fish situation in those years, but peasants might have had the choice of fish, fowl, or something that was neither (whether beef or grains and vegetables). Chickens, and their cousins geese and ducks, were eagerly purchased when they came to market (essential for folks who could not go out and bag their own game to feed the family).

The opening of the spring market season typically was right at the start of April, and the opening day itself, marking the newly arrived fowl for the dining table, was called “April Fowls Day.” Much like the term “flutter by,” referring to an insect we now know as the “butterfly,” as the words were reversed over time, April Fowls Day got crossed up with the fun spirit launched by longer days and warmer temperatures. Eventually it lost the original connection to the arriving chickens and other fowl, and it became known as April Fools’ Day, a time for celebrating jokes, not chickens.

So, let me wish you a happy April Fools’ Day. And if you believe that story, I have a George Washington Bridge traffic study I want to sell you.

Of course we are all familiar with the phonograph (“record player”), and with its earlier version, the gramophone. When I was young, they were sometimes still called “phonographs,” a term that has largely faded into history, as has “gramophone.” These days we play our music on MP3 players, or maybe still on CD players. I still have seldom-used cassette tapes and players, and even some 8-track tapes and a device or two that might still play those. I got a laugh and a surprised look from a car salesman the other day when I mentioned my old (long since sold) 1970 Plymouth Fury III with an aftermarket 8-track player.

What sets me off on this tangent is an advertisement on page 5 of the New York Times, April 1, 1914. The display advertisement, placed by Gimbels department store, featured the Keen-O-Phone “talking machine,” on sale at half price. The top model was selling for $100, half of the $200 regular retail price, and the cheapest was selling for only $25, with several models priced in between.

According to the advertisement, “The Keen-O-Phone will play any disc record.” A video posted on YouTube shows a Keen-O-Phone in operation, playing a lively jazz record. What is surprising is that it is the turntable that moves, not the tone arm and needle. The tone arm stays still as the turntable rotates AND slides slowly across the base so that the needle stays in the groove. I don’t even know how that could work, but sure enough, there is a slender channel in the base that allows the turntable itself to slide across. I can’t say much for the sound quality, but what the heck, the device was made a century ago.

For perspective, according to an online inflation calculator, that $100 sale price in 1914 is equivalent to about $2,300 today, and the low-end $25 sale price is equivalent to about $573 today, not a casual expenditure.
Newspaper readers not in the market for a Keen-O-Phone could turn the page and find an advertisement for another nice option for music in the home: player pianos. The player piano uses rolls of paper with holes punched to indicate notes. As the roll moves through a mechanism, keys are automatically pressed and strings struck, perfectly reproducing a piano performance. Sometimes those punched-hole recordings were made by famous pianists. The result might not have been the same as a live performance, but it would have been pretty good.

When I was young, a friend’s family (they lived a block away from my house) had a player piano. It was a highlight of many visits to see and hear it in action. That was more than 50 years ago, and for all I know that piano was the very same model advertised 50 years earlier than that, at $345 (nearly $8,000 at today’s prices). For folks who wanted just to play their own music, the same advertisement featured regular pianos “of Reliable Make” for $165, at $5 down and $5 per month.

What music might you have played on your piano or listened to on your Keen-O-Phone in 1914? Here are a few songs that were new that year: “The Aba Daba Honeymoon,” “After The Roses Have Faded Away,” “Along Came Ruth,” “Always Treat Her Like A Baby” (the last two were by Irving Berlin), “Back To The Carolina You Love,” “Burlington Bertie From Bow,” “By Heck,” “By The Beautiful Sea,” “By The Waters Of Minnetonka,” “California And You,” and (from a much longer list), “I Was A Good Little Girl Till I Met You.” Debbie Reynolds and Carleton Carpenter performed the first song in that abbreviated list, “The Aba Daba Honeymoon,” in the 1951 film “Two Weeks with Love.”
post comment

Scam! [26 Mar 2014|09:28am]
Last evening, a man called me at home (caller ID claimed the call was from a Sacramento number), asking for me by name, and then demanded (the only word that fits) that I tell him the manufacturer and installation year of my home's A/C system. I told him I had no interest in discussing that, and hung up on him. On reflection, it might have been more fun to say, "It's a Fenortner, installed last fall." I wonder where that might have gone. Could have strung him out for a half hour with a line of B.S. I'm guessing the call was some sort of scam, probably targeting homeowners of a certain age.

Oh, other fun options . . . say, "I'll have to go out the garage to look at the unit, hold on a minute." Then carry the portable phone out, clearly making door-opening noises, and then shout something like, "Hey! What the hell are you doing in my garage! Get the hell out of here . . . AAAArrrrgh" crash . . . garage door opening and closing, then silence.

Bummer to think of the good stuff a half a day later . . .

post comment

A calculating commenatary [13 Feb 2014|01:34pm]
Someone I'll call "Jim" here (not his given name), posted this on Facebook:

"Come on, Mythbusters. Two plus two times three is most certainly NOT twelve. Letter forthcoming. . . . The scene in question was in relation to testing whether men or women were better at multitasking. (Women by far.) They asked one of the ladies this question, she replied with 12, and they gave her credit for a right answer."

Jim's argument is that 2 + 2 x 3 = 8 because the order of operations in a mathematical expression requires doing multiplication before addition (assuming nothing is enclosed in parentheses to change the order of operations). That is, by default, the expression is the same as 2 + (2 x 3).

True enough, the lady's answer (12) would have been incorrect IF she had been presented with the equation on paper or on a screen. Someone "doing the math" would have multiplied 2 by 3, and then added 2 to the resulting quantity.

But she was NOT given the problem on paper or on a screen. She heard it spoken aloud: "What is two plus two times three?"

I have not heard the episode in question, and so have to speculate here that the question was read as written above, without inflection or pauses. If so, the speaker GAVE her the order of operations (add and then multiply) rather than interpreting the mathematical expression to get the proper mathematical order of operations ("What is two times three [pause] plus two?" or, conceivably, "What is two [pause] plus quantity two times three?"). So the woman was fully justified in interpreting the question as, "What is two plus two, quantity, times three?"

If you enter the following into your calculator, the answer will be 12: 2 + 2 * 3 = . (There may be specialized calculators that will give a different result or that require the operations to be entered in a different order. Reverse Polish Notation comes to mind. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reverse_Polish_notation -- but that is wandering afield.)

This, in essence, is how most people, I believe, would perform the calculation: Two plus two (quantity [that is, the mental = key)], times three.

If you enter =2+2*3 into a cell in Excel and press the return key, you get the result 8, as Excel knows to do the operations in proper mathematical order.

I just tested this with two intelligent women, both of whom have taken mathematics in school and have much experience with numbers, but neither of whom is a mathematician or scientist. I recited the question aloud without pauses or inflection. Both answered 12, using just the reasoning I outlined above.

So, my advice to Jim: relax. No letter to Mythbusters required. The correct answer WAS 12. However, had the woman answered 8, that, too, could reasonably have been scored as a correct answer, as she might have pictured the expression as if on paper or a screen and done the order of operations accordingly.
post comment

Is Social Security being "stolen"? [07 Feb 2014|11:02am]
No, “THEY” Have Not “stolen” Your Social Security

One of the memes going around Facebook lately is a graphic asserting that your Social Security funds have been “stolen” or “pirated.” The claim is that the money you paid into Social Security via payroll withholding (FICA) has been spent for other purposes, leaving the system underfunded and unable to pay promised benefits.

This is nonsense on so many levels as almost to defy refutation. Nonetheless, I’ll give it a try.

FICA taxes (euphemized as “contributions”) are used to purchase special-issue interest-bearing U.S. Treasury bonds, which become assets of the Social Security Trust Fund. The proceeds from sale of those bonds is then used in the normal course of Federal Government business. That is, it is spent on the whole range of things that the government buys and does and funds. That is precisely what is done with income and corporations tax revenues, import duties, and the proceeds of sale of other treasury securities (bonds, notes, bills). Money is fungible (one dollar is just like another one), and you cannot distinguish one from another in the spending.

Treasury securities, whether sold to a hedge fund, a Chinese investor, or an average American, are guaranteed by the full faith and credit of the United States Government. They are generally considered to be the safest investment in the world. That applies to the special issues held in the Social Security Trust Fund just as much as it does to U.S. savings bonds or to treasury securities purchased by American or foreign investors and savers. And every dime is accounted for.

Those raising alarms about “stolen” funds do not offer alternatives for investment of the revenues. Other, that is, than the Heritage Foundation types who have proposed channeling some or all of the funds into stock market accounts earmarked in names of individual taxpayers. For the sake of discussion, let’s say that the funds are invested in the stock market. The companies that are selling stock then use the proceeds to buy goods and services. Have they “stolen” the proceeds? Unlike treasury securities, the principal of stock market investments is not guaranteed, and as we have seen over the years, value can be cut in half across the market, and of course can grow. Nor are dividends or other returns guaranteed, as also has been seen over the years.

No one appears to argue that FICA revenues should be placed in cash under a national mattress, used to purchase gold bullion, or invested in foreign bonds, real estate, or other investment vehicles, all of which, by the way, are subject to sometimes-wide fluctuations in value.

Now, one can reasonably argue that poor long-term fiscal management, resulting in year after year, decade after decade, of deficit spending (borrowing in order to spend more than the government takes in) has impaired the long-term ability of the U.S. Government to repay obligations as they come due, let alone to continue funding ongoing activities, from highway-building to defense and warmaking to government payrolls. Those who worry that we are, in essence, borrowing on a Mastercard and Discover Card in order to pay the American Express and Visa bills (plus extra for current expenses) have a point. That, however, has nothing to do with an alleged “stealing” of FICA revenues. It’s a legitimate issue, but quite a different one. This, however, is not the place to get into that discussion. But bear in mind: if full faith and credit of the U.S. Government is at risk, it is at risk for ALL obligations issued with that condition, whether special-issue securities in the Trust Fund or savings bonds or TIPS or bonds or bills. This is not a Social Security issue. It is a general issue affecting all of the Federal Government.

Any pirating there? No.

Next topic.

The Social Security Trust Fund holds the excess of revenues over expenditures (monies paid out to beneficiaries). The system was designed to build up a large excess that could then be drawn down when outgoes began to exceed inflows. As the number of beneficiaries (primarily, retirees) grows, and the number of salaried workers paying into the system dwindles (or at least shrinks in proportion to beneficiaries), current income to the system at some point ceases to cover current outflow, and Trust Fund securities must be cashed out to make up the difference.

Social Security’s trustees publish predictions of the ebb and flow of funds, with an estimated date when the funds will be drawn down and payments must be reduced to no more than revenues into the system. The predictions have moved over the years to reflect employment and salary levels, number of beneficiaries, and their benefits. In a booming economy, with many workers and growing salaries, the trust fund will last longer. In a weak economy, with more workers unemployed and salaries stagnant, the trust fund will run out sooner. This is a matter of arithmetic and of the health of the economy, not theft.

Has the trust fund run out of funds in the past? Yes, as reported by Social Security itself:

"The assets of the larger trust fund (OASI), from which retirement benefits are paid, were nearly depleted in 1982. No beneficiary was shortchanged because the Congress enacted temporary emergency legislation that permitted borrowing from other Federal trust funds and then later enacted legislation to strengthen OASI Trust Fund financing. The borrowed amounts were repaid with interest within 4 years."

Changes (increases) in FICA “contribution” (tax) rates and in the maximum income on which FICA must be paid returned the system to solvency and extended the horizon for the trust fund. But it was an extension, not a guarantee of an endless trust fund cushion. Unless something changes (significant improvement in employment, salaries, or both, for example, or reductions in upward adjustments of benefits, or a declining population – at least in relative terms – of beneficiaries), the trust fund will again run out of funds and will have to cut benefit payments to come in line with incoming revenues.

In our current economy, wage stagnation is contributing to a shortening of the trust fund solvency horizon. Salaries, and therefore FICA revenues based on those salaries, are growing insufficiently, or not at all, with the obvious result of a squeeze between revenues and expenditures of the Social Security system. That is a macroeconomic problem that requires a macroeconomic solution.

No theft or piracy there, either. Arithmetic. Just arithmetic. And a challenging environment for workers.

Now, is the “they are stealing our Social Security” panic the result of misunderstanding the nature of the trust fund? Or is it the result of misunderstanding the reality of employment and retirement arithmetic? Or both? Is it a reflection of discomfort with the arithmetical mandate that something must change, and that if the something is not the economy (employment, salaries) then it must be FICA tax rates, benefit levels (including escalation provisions), or both?

Whatever it is, it has nothing to do with “theft” or “piracy” of Social Security revenues (FICA “contributions”), which is not happening and is an illogical concept in any event, given how the system works. But it is an easy and gut-based alternative to a thoughtful, and frankly difficult, discussion of Social Security revenues and benefits, and of policies that might help to remedy the squeeze on employment and salaries.
post comment

Creation vs. Evolution [06 Feb 2014|11:00am]
There has been much discussion of a "debate" between Bill Nye, the Science Guy, and a biblical literalist named Ham.

Here is my alternate-universe view of what could have taken place had Mr. Nye not been Mr. Nice Guy:

A Creation versus Evolution Debate

Today’s topic is Creation vs. Evolution: a Debate.

Our participants are

• John Science, arguing for evolution
• Bob Biblethumper, arguing for creation

Mr. Science you may begin.

John Science. Thank you Mr. Moderator.

Let’s begin by turning to Genesis, the creation myths of which are of course well known, but often misunderstood. I say myths, plural, because Genesis is an edited compilation of many stories, some of which are directly in conflict, and all of which are derived in whole or in part from earlier myths and legends. I say misunderstood because countless believers in the Bible stories do not even recognize that Genesis includes different and contradictory myths, simply making a vague conflation of the different stories, and many do not understand that mythology was what ancient mankind had in lieu of science that lay thousands of years in the future.

To cut to some essentials, the first of the Genesis creation myths begins at Gen. 1:1 (“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters . . .”). The second begins at Genesis 2:4 (“These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens . . ..”). The order of events is very different in the two myths, and even their substance is different.

There is no need here to repeat the entire stories, as they are easily found in many translations and in many media, printed and online.

As any student of ancient history and cultures knows, the Genesis myths were preceded by Sumerian creation myths, largely unknown for many centuries, but rediscovered through archeology. The Epic of Gilgamesh is well known as a precursor of the Genesis myths, although not the only source. The Egyptians, too, well known to the ancient Hebrews who wrote and compiled the books of the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible), had their own vast mythology, pantheon of gods, and creation stories.
Moderator. Your turn, Mr. Biblethumper.

Bob Biblethumper. But Mr. Science, you have said nothing about evolution. This is supposed to be a debate between evolution and Creation, not your literary criticism of Genesis.

John Science. Of course, Mr. Biblethumper. There IS no debate about evolution. It is settled science, the core concept and organizing principle of biology. Consider: “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.” That is the title of a 1973 essay by evolutionary biologist and Russian Orthodox Christian Theodosius Dobzhansky.” That statement helps to make clear why evolution is settled science. Nothing in biology contradicts the fact of evolution, and evolution is essential to understanding biology. As it is a matter of science, naturally specific aspects (such as differing views over “punctuated equilibrium” and the precise dating and relationships of numerous humanoid skeletal remains) are open to continuing discussion and ongoing discovery. But the basic fact of evolution? There is nothing to debate, and I won’t pretend otherwise. Now, unless you wish to get into the weeds of the science of evolution, the workings of DNA, RNA, and all, for which I doubt you have any preparation, that leaves us with the discussion of creation mythologies and their role in pre-scientific societies. That ball is in your court now, Mr. Biblethumper.

[And on it goes . . .]
post comment

Garage cleaning . . . [05 Aug 2013|08:45am]
We (and by we, I mean mostly my wife Rosa) have been on a garage-cleaning binge. Yesterday Rosa hauled to Goodwill a carful of odds and ends (small electronics, knicknacks, books, and lots more), and I broke down as many old boxes as I could fit into the recycle bin. (That was emptied this morning, so we have a new 90 gallons to work with.)

At long last I again found Harry S. Truman's two-volume memoirs, in a 1960s paperback edition that I've been meaning to read at long last. Of course the box those books were in got closed up and placed on a stack, so I'll need to find that box again.

I hauled several boxes of family memorabilia, photos, documents, and whatnot to a storage unit for later revisiting. At least they are out of the garage and out of harm's way. We found my father's high school diploma rolled up in a cardboard tube (a tube that was originally for something very different, so the diploma was a surprise -- seen years ago but put back in the tube and stored in a box and forgotten).

We found some items that are probably collectables with some value, including two glass "Hamburglar"  mugs from a long-ago McDonald's promotion, and a box of my files from a job held 35 years ago. Also found, two copies of a short background piece I wrote about the (now long forgotten) regulatory program I worked in. Those were the days when bureaucrat grunts were anonymous, so my name is not on it. We never gave a copy to the State Library (although we were supposed to do that), so I'll pass one or both along for their documents collection. Better late (decades late, in this case) than never.

We'll have to revisit various boxes and dispose of more items, but it was a useful start.

For variety, I also took a hedge trimmer to a grossly overgrown grass patch that had grown up around and over an English Daisy plant I'd started many years ago from a seed in a tiny peat pot under a sunlamp indoors. The daisy blooms annually, but has to struggle out of the grass. The mound is much smaller now, and I am hopeful that a selective grass killer spray will spare the daisy plant and let it show itself off late next spring. Meanwhile, we need to find some sort of small yard decorations -- maybe a small picket fence and some sturdy, large plastic flowers or spinners on metal rods -- to decorate the remaining mound of English Daisy plant and embedded (but dead) grass. I wanted to put some plastic pink flamingos on it, but Rosa was not enthusiastic about that. We'll see what the antiques shop with an outdoors section in Roseville has on offer that might do the job: http://www.antiquetrove.com/visit_garden_terrace.php.
post comment

[ viewing | most recent entries ]
[ go | earlier ]