Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

Friday, September 30, 2005

If he’s “man’s best friend,” shouldn’t we be his best friend?

How should pets be treated during disasters?

Before Hurricane Katrina struck, many people who should have evacuated didn’t. In many cases, it was because those people didn’t have the means to evacuate; they didn’t have cars or the money to buy plane or bus tickets, and the disaster planners didn’t provide transportation. But some people who could have evacuated chose not to. A major reason many people chose not to evacuate was that they couldn’t take their pets with them.

A student of mine, whose entire family comes from the Gulfport/Biloxi area, lost an in-law whom she also regarded as a close friend. The woman wanted to evacuate, but if she evacuated, she would have had to leave her cats behind. There was no provision for pets in the evacuation shelter. She chose to stay with her cats, and she died.

Yes, I know that animals aren’t as important as humans, and that any disaster plan should emphasize saving human lives. But animals aren’t so unimportant as, say, furniture. A sofa can be left behind, with little remorse. A cat or dog is a member of the family, an individual, irreplaceable.

Also, we must take into account the faithfulness of our animal companions. I know many dogs, and also a few cats, who are so dedicated to their humans that they would give their lives to protect those humans. Don’t we owe those animals the same devotion?

I think about what I would do, if I were in the path of a hurricane, and I had a choice of evacuating safely while leaving Dulce and Tres behind, or staying with the cats and taking my chances with the storm. If I evacuated, and then the cats died, I probably couldn’t live with myself.

Here in New Mexico, we’ve been lucky. In the first place, we don’t have a lot of natural disasters. The biggest threat is wildfires, and when a big one erupts, there’s a lot of refuge, not just for humans but also for animals. During the Cerro Grande Fire a few years back, there were shelters for human evacuees, and there were shelters for livestock, provided by the Rio Arriba County, Santa Fe County, and New Mexico State fairgrounds, and for pets, dozens of shelters provided space. Why wasn’t such shelter provided for animals during Hurricane Katrina?

Our animal companions aren’t just lifestyle accessories. We must give them the same devotion that they give us.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

WCMIK's first concert of the year

It wasn’t exactly a big concert, but it was a concert.

This evening, I attended an orchestra concert at the World’s Cutest and Most Intelligent Kid’s high school. Often in the past, I haven’t been able to get to such concerts, since I teach evening classes. But this year, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I have an early-evening class, but not a late-evening class. And most of WCMIK’s concerts will be on Tuesdays and Thursdays. So I can actually get to many of the concerts.

This evening’s concert was fairly short – four movements from Purcell’s Fairy Queen, the Scherzo from one of Mendelssohn’s early sinfoniettas, and an early arrangement of “Scarborough Fair.” The Purcell was good, and the Mendelssohn was very good.

Next Tuesday, WCMIK has another concert, with the citywide Youth Orchestra. I’m hoping my students will let me end class early (they didn’t this evening) so I can get there in time.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

How to make your English teacher happy

All that formatting stuff is more important than you think.

In one of my classes this evening, I returned essays to students with my comments. But half of them got zeros. Yes, that’s right, I gave failing grades to half the class – actually, more than half, because a couple  of students didn’t turn in essays at all.

Why, I hear you say, would you do such a thing?

The answer is simple. The students failed to follow directions. I gave the class instructions on how to format their essays on three separate occasions. First, on the first day of class, I went through the syllabus, which included instructions on how essays were to be formatted. Second, in the computer lab when I was explaining how to use the word processor, I went through the steps to produce the desired formatting. Third, during the class session before the essay was due, I noticed that many of the drafts that had been brought for peer review didn’t meet the standards, so I gave a quick rehash of how essays were to be formatted.

In spite of all of this instruction, half of the essays that this class turned in didn’t even come close.

I hear a number of cries in protest: Isn’t all of this silly and pointless window-dressing? Doesn’t it matter more what’s in the essay than that it meets standards of formatting?

Perhaps. But if the formatting shortcomings prevent the reading of the essay, the best content in the world won’t count for anything. If a student wants to get a good grade on an essay, it is in the student’s best interest to make the essay readable. As I put it when I explain to my students: If I have a hard time reading something, I get eyestrain. When I get eyestrain, I get a headache. When I get a headache, I get mean. And you don’t want me to get mean when I’m grading your papers.

So here I will set forth the standards I expect in essays from my students. You will find that most English teachers have similar standards. I do have a few personal quirks, and I will point them out, but any recommendation I make that I don’t set apart as just my own preference should be taken as universal, and therefore to be done for all English teachers everywhere in the United States.

First, all essays must be typed on a word processor, not handwritten. Essays must be double-spaced, with the first line of each paragraph indented ½ inch, and no extra space between paragraphs – the indent is sufficient to indicate the beginning of a new paragraph. Font size should be 12 points; smaller is hard to read, and larger smacks of essay padding (more on that later). Fonts should be free of special effects such as italics or boldface, and they should be plain and easy to read – no Olde English gothic, wedding-invitation flourishes, or fonts that look like someone’s sloppy handwriting.

The text of the essay should have left alignment. This means that the left margin of the text lines up straight, but the right margin is ragged. You may think it’s prettier to have the text justified so both edges are straight, but that makes your essay harder to read. The word processor makes the right edge line up by putting extra space in between the words, so words are unevenly spaced. Also, if every line ends at the same place, the eye has trouble tracking to the next line.

You should also avoid essay padding. These are tricks that you might use to make your essay look longer than it really is. Don’t even think about them. All they do is make me think you think I’m too stupid to notice, which makes me angry. Do NOT use a font larger than 12 points. Do NOT use boldface to make your words fatter. Do NOT use a wacky font that takes up a lot of room. Do NOT triple space your text or put extra blank lines in between paragraphs. Do NOT use margins wider than 1 inch top and bottom and 1¼ inch right and left.

I have learned not to assign a minimum number of pages, because if I do, students will use those padding techniques. I have also learned not to assign a minimum word count, because if I do, students spend all of their time saying the same thing over and over again 17 different ways, or they fill their essays with meaningless wordy phrases, such as, “in my own humble opinion, but then again, I may be wrong, but maybe I’m right.” These techniques lead to really lousy essays.

If you want your English teacher to take you seriously, follow these standards when you turn in work. You will present yourself as a conscientious worker who cares about the details. Your teacher will be able to read your work and evaluate it upon its merits, and whatever grade you get, you will know that you have earned it honestly.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Poetry Corner: Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Shelley is more famous for being married to Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley, who is famous for writing the novel Frankenstein. However, he was an excellent poet in his own right. Here, in honor of the beginning of fall, is one of my favorites of his poems. Even if here in New Mexico we haven’t really had fall weather yet, we can always hope. And then, in many places, there have been some fierce winds of late.

In this poem, each canto is a sonnet, broken into four three-line terza rima stanzas and a couplet at the end for extra emphasis. I especially like the final couplet of the poem – there is a certain optimism that even at the worst of times, things will get better: “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”

Ode to the West Wind

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The wingèd seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear!

Thou on whose stream, mid the steep sky’s commotion,
Loose clouds like earth’s decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,

Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine aëry surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head

Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith’s height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge

Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,
Vaulted with all thy congregated might

Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh hear!

Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lull’d by the coil of his crystàlline streams,

Beside a pumice isle in Baiae’s bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave’s intenser day,

All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic’s level powers

Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know

Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: oh hear!

If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seem’d a vision; I would ne'er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

A heavy weight of hours has chain’d and bow’d
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Oh, so somebody had a birthday!

I was reading my morning newspaper. It has a regular feature, “This Day in History,” that lists important events that have happened on that date in the past. I noticed an entry: “In 1989, Hurricane Hugo came ashore …” Wait a minute, Hugo, that one was happening when Gerald was born – Oh, my, it’s his birthday!

Wow. WMICK is 16. We’ll be having a big birthday dinner Sunday with grandparents and probably one of his uncles. So what does he want for his birthday? An iPod and a gift card for the biggest thrift shop in town!

Grammar Moment: Finding subjects and verbs

One problem a lot of people have with the English language is that it has just been taught to them willy-nilly, without much of a system. Thus, run-on sentences and fragments, misplaced commas, subject-verb agreement problems, and misplaced modifiers are treated as separate issues. However, all of these different problems can be addressed by looking at one specific concept: finding subjects and verbs.

The subject and verb form the core of the sentence, the framework from which all of the rest of the sentence hangs. If you can find that core, you have the power to solve all sorts of problems.

To find the subject and verb, it is easiest to look for the verb first. The verb will show an action or a state of being. There will always be a main verb, and it may be accompanied by one or more helping verbs. What you’re looking for is the main verb, plus any helping verbs that go with it. Here’s an example:

Sammy Sosa hit another home run.

OK, we look for an action or a state of being. In this sentence, it’s an action:

Sammy Sosa hit another home run.

Here’s another example:

Muriel had been unhappy all day.

This time, we don’t have an action, but we have a state of being. We also have a helping verb along with the main verb:

Muriel had been unhappy all day.

Once you find the verb, finding the subject is easy. You just ask, “Who or what is doing the verb?” In the first example above, you ask, “Who or what hit another home run?” The answer is “Sammy Sosa”:

Sammy Sosa hit another home run.

In the second example, you ask, “Who or what had been unhappy all day?” The answer is “Muriel”:

Muriel had been unhappy all day.

You may note a pattern in how I’m showing subjects and verbs: I’m underlining subjects and bold-facing verbs. I will be continuing to use this pattern in order to show these elements.

Now, sometimes, there will be extra words in the way to make finding the subject and verb trickier:

The plate of cookies is on the table.

First we look for the verb. It’s as simple as verbs come:

The plate of cookies is on the table.

Now we ask, “Who or what is on the table?” At first glance, we might think the answer is “cookies,” since that’s the word right before the verb. But look again. Cookies is attached to the word plate by the preposition of. The two words together, of cookies, is just a phrase that tells more about the plate. Prepositional phrases like this are never subjects or verbs, and if they give you trouble, you might even put parentheses around them to remind you they’re off-limits when you’re looking for the subject.

The plate (of cookies) is on the table.

Sentences like this, by the way, are likely to confuse a computer grammar checker. The grammar checker sees the plural cookies right before the verb is and thinks that cookies is the subject, so the grammar checker will flag that as an error. This is one example of why you should never, EVER, trust the computer grammar checker. All it can tell you is where it thinks there MIGHT be an error. It’s up to you to look carefully and see whether there is, in fact, an error.

Sometimes you get extra words that come between parts of the verb. Adverbs are particularly slippery and can show up all over the place:

The cookies were definitely being eaten quickly.

You want to be sure to find the verb, the whole verb, and nothing but the verb. This verb has multiple words, and there’s an adverb you want to make sure to watch out for:

The cookies were definitely being eaten quickly.

Other tricky situations arise when the subject and verb aren’t in the usual order. Usually, the subject comes before the verb, but in some sentence constructions, that isn’t the case:

There are more than 20,000 students at TVI.

This is where finding the verb first is especially useful. First, we find the verb:

There are more than 20,000 students at TVI.

Now, we ask the question, “Who or what are at TVI?” No, it can’t be there, because there isn’t even a noun – it’s another one of those sneaky adverbs. Who or what are at TVI? Students!

There are more than 20,000 students at TVI.

Another situation that can be confusing is questions, in which at least part of the verb comes before the subject. Again, if you find the verb first, you can find the subject:

Did you see the new action movie?

OK, I hear you saying, this seems like an awful lot of esoteric theory. Subject, verb, schmubject, schmerb. Isn’t this a lot of work on a whole lot of abstract ideas?

Well, not really. As I mentioned earlier, if you can get a good handle on subjects and verbs, you will really get a good handle on dozens of other grammar issues. The entire English language will make more sense than it ever did before. We may have the most inconsistent language on the planet, but underneath it all, there is a logical foundation, and that’s subjects and verbs.

By the way, this system of underlining and bold-facing is only one way to show sentence structure. Another system, called diagramming, does much the same thing, but it draws a picture of a sentence. Diagramming focuses on the core of the sentence, the subject and verb, and shows the rest of the sentence as attachments to that core. If you want to learn more about diagramming, here’s a good link:

Diagramming used to be really popular, but about 30 years ago it fell into disfavor, about when a whole lot of grammar teaching became less organized. I like diagramming, and I find it useful in my own writing. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Good news from Socorro

Some months back, before I started this blog, I had posted on another blog a bit about the Socorro Springs Brewing Company, probably the best microbrewery in New Mexico.

Back then, the restaurant had just moved into a new location, and, while things looked promising, there were still some kinks to work out. For example, the new facility had more than twice the brewing capacity of the old, but demand had quadrupled, so the restaurant had run out of some of the more popular brews.

We returned this weekend, and are delighted to report that the glitches are fixed, and the Socorro Springs Brewing Company is better than ever. And the improvements go well beyond the beer, which is in itself excellent.

The old location was in the historic adobe Baca Mercantile building, and it had tons of atmosphere. But it was also cramped. The new location is larger and more airy, but it still has atmosphere with distressed-concrete floors and curving, stucco-coated walls that echo the fluidity of adobe. The furniture and fixtures are modern, simple, and something of a continuation of the décor in the old place, especially in the restrooms, which were and once again are among the best restrooms anywhere.

In the old location, there was only one way to cook food: a wood-fired brick oven. The new location has a larger brick oven, and it also has a wood-fired grill, for steaks, burgers, and other grilled items, and a stove, to cook pasta and sauté vegetables. The pizzas and calzones are as good as ever, and the expanded menu means more choices for people who watch what they eat.

And the beer is just as good as it ever was. My favorite is the Pickaxe IPA, an award-winning brew. The Good Morning Golden, Isopod Amber, and Park City Porter are excellent. The seasonal brews are always interesting and usually very good. And if you are the designated driver or have some other reason for abstaining, the root beer is rich and creamy, with complex sarsaparilla notes that bring one to a state of bliss.

So if you’re ever in central New Mexico, the one place you absolutely must not miss is the Socorro Springs Brewing Company.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Visitor #500

Yep, I got visitor #500, and its ... nbk again! Next important milestone: I'm no longer counting hundreds, so it will be #1000.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Life is short ... so what are we to do?

I’m right now dealing with a couple of events that, while not necessarily earth-shaking, are still at the very least thought provoking.

First, some background. Pat and I come from very different backgrounds, especially in the way we regard money. In my family, any sort of debt other than a home mortgage was an absolute no-no. Cars were paid for in cash, not on a loan. Credit cards were paid off in full every month. To make sure the credit cards got paid off, any time my parents used a credit card to make a purchase, that charge was entered into the checkbook just as if it were a check. That way, when the credit card bill came, there was always money in the checking account to cover it.

Pat, on the other hand, came from a family in which money wasn’t such an issue. His father ran a lucrative family business, and frugality wasn’t necessary. No matter how much Pat or his mother charged up on their credit cards, there was always sufficient money to cover it.

Now, over the past twenty-some years, I’ve been able to teach Pat some frugality. Up until recently, we’ve never carried a credit-card balance. The problem arose when we were building Five O’Clock Somewhere – there were major cost overruns, such as when the septic system that was supposed to cost about $5000 ended up well over $10,000, and when the provision of electricity to the lot was supposed to be about $2000, and it came in at more than $8000. Not having any other ready source of short-notice cash to cover the overruns, we put them on the credit cards, with the idea that we could pay them off in a few months.

Alas, the paying-off has been more difficult. It seems that no matter what we do, the balance owed remains the same. We keep promising ourselves that each month we’ll pay off more than we charge. But that’s not happening.

The good news is that if we didn’t have any credit balance, we would never have a credit balance. Every month, we do pay at least as much as we charge. If the existing balance owed were to disappear, we would never again be in debt. The bad news is that we do have that existing debt, and it’s not going away.

Because of that debt, I have been extremely critical of things Pat wants to do that cost money. My anti-debt upbringing makes me want to forbid any major expenditures until we’re not in debt any more. But Pat is accustomed to being able to do whatever he wants without worrying about costs and debt. When he chose to buy airline tickets and take a trip to California to join the sailing club on an excursion to Catalina, I was most upset. I really did feel that such a junket wasn’t appropriate until we got the credit cards paid off. Even if the excursion is immensely fun, fun is not a reason to continue to keep the ruinous credit-card debt.

When I confront Pat with such arguments, he generally counters with something to the effect that he wants to be able to do these things and experience these adventures before he dies. Before he dies? He’s only 46! He’s got plenty of time!

But two events within the past week have at least a bit altered my perception. First was when a colleague of mine died. She went home from work Thursday with what seemed to be a bad cold. Monday morning, she was dead. She was 36. She’d been fighting cancer, and after a long battle the doctors said there was nothing more they could do. She’d decided to stay at work, on a job that for her was truly a calling, for as long as she could. She remained on the job, in a groundbreaking adult-literacy program that she had helped to create. But last week, her number was up.

Then this weekend I heard about a couple who are members of one of the sailing clubs we belong to. They were planning their perfect retirement – because they had managed money well, they were going to retire early, in their mid-50s. They were going to move to Corpus Christi, where they’d already arranged to have a nice, big boat in a great location, and they were working on the finishing touches of the retirement plan. Then he died. Suddenly, unexpectedly, apparently from a heart attack, he went to sleep one night and then didn’t wake up the next morning.

So while I’m still plagued by worries about continuing to carry that credit-card debt, now I also get that guilt trip – what if I deny this particular pleasure until later, and then something happens so that later never comes?

Imagine the MasterCard commercial: “Eating, drinking, and being merry in case you die: Priceless.”

Thursday, September 15, 2005

What does a sports agate clerk make?

I just checked out what has been bringing people to the blog lately, and I find that a recent arrival was looking up the starting salary for a sports agate clerk.

Well, let me start by saying that being a sports agate clerk doesn’t pay all that well in terms of money, but it’s a really fun job.

What I got, ten years ago, was $7.50 an hour plus benefits. But those benefits were really good – health insurance, a bit of life insurance, and once I’d been on the job for a year, a 401(k) retirement account in which, for every dollar I put in, the employer put in an extra half-dollar. That’s an instant 50% return on investment, not shabby. And the investment company holding the 401(k) was one of the best, and I had a choice of about a dozen investment funds, all of which were very good.

Of course, at $7.50 an hour, after the insurance and retirement-fund contributions were taken out, the take-home pay was pretty skimpy. But the immediate boost to my bank balance was not the main reason I kept the job.

Working on the sports desk of a newspaper is just plain a whole lot of fun. At the newspaper I worked for, the sports desk was known as the “toy department,” for good reason. Sports is mostly about fun and games. The people I worked with were all, to some extent, children having fun. Jokes and laughter were a constant part of the daily routine. And even when the action got the most hectic (for example, when the school year was drawing to a close, and multiple high-school sports were in state tournaments, so box scores were coming in at an avalanche pace), everybody kept up a sense of humor. We were all working together, and that feeling of teamwork just can’t be duplicated in an ordinary office environment.

Yes, there were some lows. I remember the time a promising young athlete died in a freak pole-vaulting accident, and one of our reporters had to call the kid’s grieving family to get information to put into the article. That was a heart-wrenching day. But we leaned on each other, and we got through it.

So, if you want to be a sports agate clerk, I can highly recommend the job, in particular if you’re a young adult just starting out and you don’t need a whole lot of money. Take the job, enjoy the company of your coworkers, and just plain have fun.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The Psychic Cat

We have always known that Tres is something of a "special" cat. He's especially good at empathy; he can catch on to a person's feelings long before that person even knows the feelings exist. If I get up to go to the bathroom, or to go to the kitchen for a snack, Tres knows where I am going and leads me there. I always figured that he had some sort of sense for subconscious signals, so he could detect a full bladder or a hunger signal, and anticipate what I was going to do.

But yesterday evening, he went totally beyond that. He pressed the keys on the computer keyboard to shut the system down. There was no way he could have picked up subconscious vibes to tell him that pressing those three keys in that order would do something that would get him attention from his humans. But those three keys, in that order, were what he pressed.

I have always taken pride in not believing in "unscientific" phenomena. I have fun with horoscopes and such, but more as an entertaining look at coincidences than as anything that really has an effect on people's lives. Still, I wonder, why DID Tres hit those three keys, instead of any others?

Sunday, September 11, 2005

A Few Jerks, part 2

It’s not just the advertisers dumping unwanted messages on me that get my goat. I also get angry when others break the law, and the measures taken to control those criminals have a more serious effect on me than on the criminals.

I suffer from allergies. To alleviate the allergy symptoms, I take diphenhydramine (aka Benadryl), an antihistamine. If the allergy symptoms are particularly severe, or if I have a cold, for which antihistamines do little good, I take pseudoephedrine (aka Sudafed), a decongestant.

The problem is that pseudoephedrine is also one of the major ingredients of methamphetamine, a seriously dangerous illegal drug. In an effort to reduce the production of methamphetamine, many government agencies, including the state of New Mexico, have put restrictions on the sale of pseudoephedrine, with each store left to make its own policy on how the restrictions will be enforced. In some cases, all that means is that medications containing that drug are on a shelf behind the cash register with the cigarettes, or in a locked cabinet, and people can still get the medication by asking a store employee to get it for them. But in other places, such as Wal-Mart, someone buying pseudoephedrine has to show a photo ID and fill out a form that is entered into a computer database. Ironically, that same Wal-Mart will sell a gallon can of acetone, another key ingredient for meth, without any restrictions at all.

I find this really scary. Just to get a medication that provides effective relief for my allergy symptoms (and that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg the way prescription medications do), I have to give up a chunk of privacy. I would guess that many of the methamphetamine producers already have sources other than retail stores, so I don’t even know that all these restrictions do any good. What I do know is that I’m being penalized for the criminal activity of others.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

When a Few Jerks Ruin Things for the Rest of Us

This blog was recently hit by an annoying piece of spam sent out by an automated system. I will not censor comments except in the event of content that I deem to be utterly inappropriate, such as obscene language. In this case, a comment was planted by an automated system, and it was an advertisement that made no reference to the post that it was supposedly commenting upon. I consider that to be as inappropriate as obscene language.

As I was going through the steps to delete that comment, I found a setting that I could apply to my blog to prevent automated systems from posting comments. Unfortunately, that method includes a verification step that I consider to be unduly burdensome upon people who are making comments, and might actually deter them from making comments. So for now, I’m not adding that shield. However, if the automated spam comments become too pervasive, I may have to. And that will be one more instance in which the antisocial behavior of a few people forces the rest of us to go through some additional, annoying hassle.

Telephone solicitors have also caused a similar effect. I no longer answer the telephone. I let the answering machine pick up (the first thing the machine’s outgoing message says is, “If you are soliciting, please add this number to your do-not-call list”), and then, if the caller isn’t a telemarketer, I will get on the line. Since the advent of the “do not call” registry, the number of telemarketing calls I get has gone down, but not enough for me to answer the telephone unless I’m expecting an important call. Even then, two thirds of the calls I get are from telemarketers. People who try to call me don’t like having to talk to a machine before they can talk to me (and some refuse to talk to a machine and hang up), but it’s purely self-defense. If I answered every single incoming call, I wouldn’t have enough time in the day to get anything done, because I’d be spending all my time and energy fending off salespeople. The telephone company, for a price, will allow me to block incoming calls from unidentified numbers – but why should I have to pay anything? I subscribe to telephone service in order to be in touch with the world, not to become a victim of high-pressure sales pitches.

So the score at the moment is Advertisers 1, Me 1. The advertisers won in the telephone issue; they’ve succeeded in making me change the way I use the telephone, so people who want to communicate with me have an extra hoop to jump through. (Funny thing is, probably the advertisers don’t consider it a win, since I’ve become less accessible to them!)

So far, however, they haven’t made me run for cover with the blog. And I hope they never do.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Grammar Moment: more about quote marks

In an earlier post, I discussed how to use quote marks in conjunction with other punctuation. This time, I’ll say more about a more fundamental issue – when should quote marks be used, anyway?

The short answer is that quote marks are to be used to show what somebody else says.

If you’re telling what someone said, and you’re giving the exact words that other person used, you use quote marks to indicate what the person said.

“I don’t know about you guys,” Amy said, “but I’m in a groove, and I’m not going home yet.”

All of the words inside the quote marks are exactly what Amy said. If you tell about what Amy said, but you don’t use the exact words she used, you don’t use quote marks.

Amy said she wasn’t tired yet, so she wasn’t going home.

One of the most frequent abuses of quote marks is the attempt to use them for emphasis. The result is usually the exact opposite of what the writer intends. When you put quote marks around a word or phrase, you’re indicating that somebody else believes or says something, but you don’t.

The “help” provided to the flood victims included makeup tips from a major cosmetic company and seasoning packets for preparing freshly-caught catfish.

When you attempt to use quote marks to show emphasis, your meaning can be seriously compromised. Here’s a sign I saw over the Labor Day weekend:


This merchant is telling you that the sale pretends to be big, but it isn’t really. In fact, it isn’t really a sale, either. All the prices are the same as usual; the merchant is just pretending they aren’t.

Here’s another example in which the writer of the sign probably didn’t realize the meaning would be changed by the misuse of quote marks:


If you have a real dog, such as a Great Dane or German Shepherd, it doesn’t have to be on a leash. But if you have a small creature that pretends to be a dog, you have to keep it tied up. My guess is that the writer of this sign really wanted all canines of all sizes to be restrained, but the unfortunate misuse of quote marks completely changed the meaning.

And Visitor Number 400 is ...


Congratulations, you now have an open invitation to come and visit Five O’Clock Somewhere any time you get tired of flat, hot, humid, mountainless places like Florida!

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Poetry Corner: Here's to the Grog

Well, actually I was looking for a different ballad, but I came across a website that has a vast quantity of folk songs, including a whole lot of sea chanties. One in particular had much significance.

I've got a coat and a nobby, nobby coat
I've got a coat a-seen a lot of rough weather
For the sides are near wore out and the back is flying about
And the lining's looking out for better weather
Here's to the grog, boys, the jolly, jolly grog
Here's to the rum and tobacco
I've a-spent all my tin with the lassies drinking gin
And to cross the briny ocean I must wander

I've got me breeches, me nobby, nobby breeches
I've got breeches a-seen a lot of rough weather
For the pouch is near wore out and the seat's all flying about
And me knees are looking out for better weather

Here's to the grog, boys, the jolly, jolly grog
Here's to the rum and tobacco
I've a-spent all my tin with the lassies drinking gin
And to cross the briny ocean I must wander

I've got a shirt and a nobby, nobby shirt
I've got a shirt a-seen a lot of rough weather
For the collar's near wore out and the sleeves are flying about
And me tail's looking out for better weather

Here's to the grog, boys, the jolly, jolly grog
Here's to the rum and tobacco
I've a-spent all my tin with the lassies drinking gin
And to cross the briny ocean I must wander

I've got me boots, me nobby, nobby boots
I've got boots a-seen a lot of rough weather
For the bottoms' near wore out and the heels flying about
And me toes are looking out for better weather

Here's to the grog, boys, the jolly, jolly grog
Here's to the rum and tobacco
I've a-spent all my tin with the lassies drinking gin
And to cross the briny ocean I must wander

I've got a tile, a nobby, nobby tile
I've got a tile a-seen a lot of rough weather
For the brim it is wore out and the crown is flying about
And the lining's looking out for better weather
Here's to the grog, boys, the jolly, jolly grog
Here's to the rum and tobacco
I've a-spent all my tin with the lassies drinking gin
And to cross the briny ocean I must wander

So it’s not Victorian. And it certainly isn’t romantic. But it’s a lot of fun. If you want to hear it, and even download a MIDI file of it, here’s the link:

Since it’s in 2/4 time, it’s easily adapted to a punk rock form, which is what happened on the soundtrack of Pirates of the White Sands. Check Jer’s and pL’s blogs for when there might be a showing near you.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

When is a cat not a cat?

You look up at the high bookshelf, and you see a feline form reclining there. No, it’s not a cat on a bookshelf; it’s a leopard in a tree, snoozing by day to rest up for the upcoming night’s hunt. But she’s not completely asleep; a leopard never is. She has an ear cocked and an eye barely cracked open, just in case some desirable prey wanders past.

Whoosh, a white streak zips past, from one end of the house to the other and then back. No, it’s not a cat with a lot of energy; it’s a cheetah out after high-speed prey. He has to maintain his sprint speed in order to keep up with zebras and gazelles.

One morning, I get up and go to the living room on the way to the kitchen. There, it may look like a couple of cats have gotten their claws into a packet of cat treats. But that’s not really what it is; it really is a pride of lions who have disemboweled a zebra and who are feasting on the kill.

Friday, September 02, 2005

What a hurricane can do

Gradually, we’re learning more about how totally devastating Hurricane Katrina has been. We’re seeing images on the television, and we’re getting reports in the newspaper. We’re hearing scary statistics, such as that there are a half-million people who have been left homeless in New Orleans alone, and even more in Gulfport and Biloxi and many other places.

Many of us may be directly affected, or know someone who is. Two of my students in my Thursday evening class have family in the affected areas; one has been able to communicate via cell-phone text-messaging and has found out that all of her relatives are alive, but they have all lost their homes; the other hasn’t been able to make contact and doesn’t know whether her family is dead or alive.

New Orleans itself is especially hard-hit. There’s almost no way to get food and water and other important supplies in, and there’s almost no way to get people out. And once the people get out, there’s the question of where to put them. Texas and Texans, bless them, have been as generous as only Texans can be, providing refuge for the refugees and help for the helpless. And many people from many other states and all over the world have been providing help. But the needs are so overwhelming.

I have a link here that shows a whole lot about the devastation in New Orleans.

Yes, I lived through a hurricane, but Alicia was a mere Category 3, and by the time it got to where I lived in Houston, it was Category 2. It was scary, and at the time, it was the hurricane that caused the most dollar-value damage ever – the first hurricane to exceed a billion dollars. Alicia wasn’t anything like Katrina. After Alicia, there was a week or two of repairs, and Houston was up and running again.

Katrina’s effects will be around forever.