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, February 27, 2009

Group writing project: “This is Awkward”

A couple of days ago, my brother Jerry posted a short-short story titled "Visitor in the Night" on his blog, Muddled Ramblings and Half Baked Ideas. It's a sweetly ironic little bit of fiction that ends with the line, "This is awkward."

One of the responses to that post was another nifty short-short, also with the same concluding line.

During the second half of 2008, the venerable Tillerman ran a series of group writing projects on his blog, Proper Course. He challenged his readers to write a blog post about a particular topic, and then he summarized and indexed the responses for everybody to share.

In that spirit, I have decided to start my own group writing project. Write a short-short story that ends with the line "This is awkward." Post it on your blog and then put a link to it in the comments here. Periodically, I'll index the results. You can see my entry for the project below.

This is Awkward

Stay tuned for the writing challenge related to this post … in case you're wondering, this is fiction.

Bernard Fish was broke.

It certainly wasn't his choice to be broke, and nothing that he had done had contributed to his being broke, but nevertheless, he was broke.

By training and trade, he was an accountant. He had graduated near the top of his class, from one of the top business schools in the country. Early in his career, he had been hailed as one of the bright new stars in accounting, sure to revolutionize the practices in whatever firm he landed in.

But he didn't want to be an accountant – he wanted to be an actor. He knew this dream was totally unrealistic, but he wanted to be close to the film industry anyway, so upon graduation he passed up far more lucrative job offers and instead chose to take a position in the Hollywood accounting firm of Cheatham and Spike.

Fish's work for Cheatham and Spike was dull and unrewarding. He was little more than an office assistant. He wasn't permitted to use the high-powered accounting skills that he had. He was stifled, and he was punished for coming up with more efficient or more cost-effective ways of doing things.

So Fish found a second home in Hollywood's film industry. He began signing on as an extra in whatever films he could. He recognized that being a movie extra would never pay the bills, but he came to regard the occupation as an enjoyable hobby that also happened to bring in some extra income. He got a charge from participating in the production of movies, and he even got himself a name change, of sorts – while his parents had called him "Ber-NARD," with the accent on the second syllable, Fish chose for his movie name to be "BER-nard," with the accent on the first syllable, because the British pronunciation made his name sound much more sophisticated.

Fish got a great deal of enjoyment from his movie-extra hobby, and he also learned a lot. He found that he had a special affinity with the makeup people – he was awed that they could alter a person's appearance to great extremes, and when he asked, they shared their secrets. They even gave him pointers about specific products to use, and specific techniques to produce a particular effect. With his sharp mind, he was able to understand quickly, and the makeup people were impressed with his understanding.

Then all hell broke loose. Cheatham and Spike was convicted of gross malfeasance that had led to some big banks and, more important, some big movie stars, losing everything they owned. Fish hadn't had anything to do with that, as the company's principals hadn't even trusted him to brew coffee for them. But when the company went down, so did Fish.

No matter what he did, Fish couldn't get a job. His name was intertwined with Cheatham and Spike. He couldn't even get a job as a carhop at a drive-in restaurant, because the restaurant franchisee wouldn't trust him to get back to the kitchen with the customers' change. He applied for the maximum degradation, being a contestant on some reality shows. He figured that having to wrestle nude in a vat of caramel pudding while eating maggots was preferable to going on public assistance – he had his pride.

But after several months of such feelers, he still had no promise of work.

He decided to start robbing banks.

He had seen the television coverage, and he knew that the vast majority of bank robbers do get caught, and that when they get caught, they're subject to Federal laws rather than state or local laws. But he knew he was much smarter than the run-of-the-mill bank robber. He had his innate intelligence, his accounting acumen, and his Hollywood knowledge, especially the makeup skills. One robbery, he would be an elderly guy with thinning hair and a sagging gut; the next, he could be tan and fit. He could be a high-yellow African American one day, and a recently-arrived Latin American the next.

Fish had pulled off his third robbery, and he was feeling confident. For this robbery, he had become a lower-middle-class white guy with a gimme cap advertising a brand of farm equipment. He pulled into the parking lot of his apartment complex, and as soon as he got out of his car, he was accosted by a girl – she seemed barely out of her teens, with red hair that appeared plastic-coated and a smile that consisted of nothing but very large, very white teeth.

"Congratulations, Mr. Fish!" the girl exclaimed. "You have been selected as a contestant on A Day in the Life, the new reality show that follows people around in their day-to-day lives. We've been filming you for three days now – that was the final audition. You've made the cut. We're now going to be filming everything you do for the next six months."

All Fish could think was, "This is awkward."

I’m famous!

… at least south of the border …

Today I noticed an interesting trend in visitors to this blog. First, the number of daily visits has increased. Second, where before I had only the occasional visitor from south of the border, now nearly a quarter of my visitors come from Mexico.

I tracked the surge in visits to a link that has been posted on the website of an organization called Los Foros de la Pesca Deportiva, which appears to be a non-profit agency promoting sport fishing in Mexico. In a thread about ludicrous boat-trailer-towing-vehicle configurations (Pat knows more Spanish than I do, so he'd presumably be able to tell more exactly what people are saying), Y a mi me da flojera botar me lancha…, a commenter seems to be saying something like, "Check out these crazy pictures!" The comment then links to my archives from October 2007, when I ran a series of posts about launching and retrieving deep-keel sailboats on a boat ramp.

So I guess I'm now an internationally recognized authority on the subject.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Spam, bloody spam

People may deride such entities as Facebook and Twitter as wastes of time – but at least those activities are voluntary!

I commence to compose this blog post at 1:08 a.m. I would have liked to have begun recreating in the blogosphere at a much earlier hour, but the fact is that I have been a victim, albeit an extremely peripheral victim, of spam, albeit a relatively harmless variety of spam, and I was not done dealing with that spam until 1:07 a.m.

The story begins with my office hours this evening – pardon me, yesterday evening, that is, Wednesday. I make promises to my students regarding my office hours: that I will always be available for them to come see me during my office hours, that I will answer my phone during my office hours, that I will check my voice mail and my email during my office hours, so if they leave me a message I will get it, no matter what.

I consider my office hours a sacred obligation to my students. Just as I expect a lot from them, they should be able to count on me. That means that I am present when I am supposed to be, and I always respond to messages.

There are other things that I do for my students, again, because I feel I owe it to them. For example, the community college where I teach has a unified computer system that combines information and registration and email and lots of other functions, and one feature of that system is that each class has a course homepage. I make all class handouts and assignments available on the course homepage, so students who miss class can sign on, find out what the assignments are, and get the handouts. It's good for the students, and it's also good for me – there's now no excuse for not doing the homework, even if the student missed the previous class.

So Wednesday evening, I came to my office hours prepared to check my voice-mail and email and respond as necessary, and to post assignments and handouts to the computer system.

I checked my voice-mail … there were no messages. Then I went to sign onto the unified data system, and I got no response – the little Windows flag in the corner of the IE window just waved and waved and waved, and nothing happened. I was able to sign onto my non-college email account – I've given my students both my college and my non-college email addresses – and I was able to read and respond to a couple of students' concerns. But when I clicked on the tab for the college's data system, all I got was a blank screen and that flag waving in the corner.

I went and did some copying that I needed to do, in order to give the page time to load. Even though I had to spend extra time at the copier dealing with a toner problem, when I came back to the computer, it still had not loaded the page.

I decided there were two likely scenarios. One, because of construction near the building where my office cubicle is, that building's communication lines with the rest of the college had been cut – that's happened before. Two, the unified data-information system was down. If the building's communications had been cut, I could go home and complete the tasks I needed to complete, although my home dial-up connection is frustratingly slow. If the data-information system was down, I couldn't perform the information tasks, but the students wouldn't be able to sign on either, so they wouldn't be disappointed by not finding the material that they would be counting on being there.

So I went home, tried to sign on, and discovered that Scenario Two was in force. The unified data-information system was down. I could have a clear conscience about not getting class materials online for my students – it wasn't my fault.

But I couldn't leave well-enough alone. I signed on again around midnight. The unified data-information system was sluggish, but it was responding. I checked my email.

The email was mostly routine, a couple of announcements from administrators, a message from the union, nothing urgent from any students, so it was all right that I was four hours late reading the email. (I had had an urgent message from a student earlier, but her message had arrived at the non-college email address, so I had taken care of it.)

There was, however, one email that caused me great grief. It was, at least in theory, sent by someone in the community college. It was addressed to everyone in the college. Because the recipient list included every single valid email address at the college, it took more than ten minutes, over a dial-up connection, for just the recipient list to come through.

And then, when the email itself finally came through, it was a multiply-forwarded urban myth – after going through seventeen layers of forwarding, the message was "I'm a poor police officer, and my sweet little daughter has cancer, and we don't have insurance, but every time you forward this message, (well known ISP) and (not so well known ISP) will donate 32 cents toward the operation she needs."

I would hope that the person from whose address these emails stem is innocent, and somebody has committed some sort of identity theft. If the person has been such a sap as to believe the line about the poor little girl dying of cancer, he's in trouble. He's in even more trouble if he found a way to find all of the college's legitimate email addresses (perhaps those efforts caused a "denial of service" situation that led to my inability to sign on Wednesday) and then publish all of said addresses in the "To:" field of the email, violating the privacy of every single employee and student of the college.

I reported this email to the IT folks at the college, although I'm sure that when they come in to work in the morning, they're going to have a lot of complaints to deal with. Depending on how early they get in, they may be able to delete this nasty email from most people's inboxes before the recipients even get it. I'm also sure, since the IT help desk was on the mailing list of the spam, that the IT people are going to be aware of this nasty email as soon as the first of them arrives at work.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Academic Dishonesty

You may think you can get away with it, but in the long run, crime does NOT pay

I was just going through the statistics on recent visits to my blog, and I saw that one visit came via a search for a lengthy phrase, with quote marks around it, that came verbatim from one of my posts from a while back.

I've made that sort of search myself. It happens when a student turns in a paper that was clearly not written by that student. If a student has trouble even putting together a complete sentence, and relies on the spelling checker to choose words (resulting in the wrong word 80% of the time), and then I get a paper full of compound-complex sentences, sophisticated vocabulary, and not a single misspelled or misused word, I know that paper has been lifted from somewhere. I will take a particularly distinctive sentence from the paper and put it into a search engine with quote marks around it. Presto! Immediately, I know where the student stole the work.

Some people might argue that I should be flattered that some student somewhere considered my work worth stealing. Maybe I should be, but also, my work is my own intellectual property. Any profit to be gained from my work should go to me, not to somebody else.

There are other issues involved. If you are in my class, you are here to learn how to write. You are not going to learn how to write by copying stuff off the Internet. In order to pass my class, you have to demonstrate that you can write, not that you can steal something somebody else wrote.

That's not to say the Internet is totally off limits. You may certainly use the Internet as a source of research material, but you must use that material sparingly, as supporting evidence for your own arguments, and when you use such material, you must be sure to cite it properly so the reader knows where it comes from.

Over the past couple of years, the community college where I teach has become increasingly serious about punishing academic dishonesty. If one of my students turns in a plagiarized paper, I am not permitted to ignore it. I can't simply tell the student, "OK, now turn in something you actually did write, and I'll give you the grade it's worth." The rules say I must report that infraction to the Dean of Students.

As I tell my students at the beginning of every term, don't even THINK about it. You WILL get caught. It's not just the struggling student turning in a seriously academic paper – if you take a paper somebody else wrote and submit it as yours, your instructor will know it. You have your own individual style, your own favorite ways of putting sentences together, your own favorite words and phrases, your own favorite grammar mistakes. Your instructor is going to know if you turn in something that isn't in your own voice.

Don't risk your academic future. And don't shortchange your own education. Do all of your work.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Valentine’s Chute-Out Aftermath

Rough days always have casualties


Our adventures Saturday didn't end when the racing did. We headed for harbor, and we prepared to drop the sails.

We had a bit of a glitch dropping the jib – when Pat had rigged the boat, he had run the jib halyard afoul of the boom vang line, something that isn't a problem when the boom vang is slack, but that was a problem this time, since Applegal had put on a lot of vang to keep the mainsail under control in the rough conditions. Once we slacked the vang, we were able to get the jib down.

The mainsail, however, proved to be another problem altogether. On most Etchells, there's a clip at the top of the mast, and on the main halyard, there's a T-bar that's designed to go into that clip. The idea is that the clip holds up the sail, so there doesn't have to be tension on the halyard within the mast that interferes with the ability of the mast to bend according to conditions. In practice, that clip causes a lot of difficulty, because it often jams, making it hard to unlatch the T-bar and drop the sail.

Black Magic has such a clip at the top of the mast, although it had never given us trouble unlatching when we wanted it to unlatch. However, with the mainsail that we have been using lately, the clip hasn't been an issue – we had never been able to haul the sail up to where the clip was. So we had quit thinking about it.

Then Saturday, Applegal had insisted on getting that sail hauled up high enough that the trim looked right to her. As it turns out, that height is the exact height that a sail is supposed to be on an Etchells – that is, the height at which the T-bar is the same level as the clip. We didn't latch the T-bar in the clip. However, with other sails, Pat and I have had the experience of being unable to make the latch click when we raised sail, giving up on it, and then finding out at the end of the day that the clip had at some point clipped itself. Apparently, that's what happened Saturday.

Only this time, we couldn't get the latch to unlatch. We went head-to-wind many times, but no matter what we did to reduce strain on the latch, it just wouldn't let go. We went upwind into a slip, tied the boat up, and tried to snag the end of the T-bar with the backstay to make it unlatch. Meanwhile, the sail, our best one, was flogging itself to death. Eventually, we got the trailer and hauled the boat out to the mast-raising pole, where a fellow sailor (he's from Georgia, so that's what we'll call him for now) went up in a bosun's chair to straighten things out. Georgia reported that the latch was in perfect condition, but the T-bar had gone into it crooked, so that's why it wouldn't unlatch.

So today, to avoid future grief, we made a modification to the main halyard: we removed the T-bar. From now on, we're just going to cleat the halyard the way most other sailors do, and not worry about the compression on the mast that a tensioned halyard is going to cause. I have a strong suspicion that we're not at the high-performance level where such tension will make a noticeable difference in the performance of our boat.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Valentine’s Chute-Out

Pity the individual races didn't officially count


This year, Zorro came up with a different format for the Chute-Out. Instead of a basic race in which all of the boats race as individuals, there were two teams, with matched pairs of boats, one representing each team. There were two pairs of J/24s, and one pair of Etchells, sailing around-the-buoys races, plus a couple of pairs of cruising boats sailing a distance course.

The originally scheduled pairing of Etchells was going to be Zorro on his boat versus Applegal and Appleguy on their boat. However, as circumstances worked out, I invited Applegal and Appleguy to sail Black Magic, with me as crew, and at the last minute we got Seymour as well. Zorro, meanwhile, had Pat and Twinkle Toes as crew on Constellation.

Conditions were stiff – winds were in the mid-teens to low 20s, with higher gusts. Even before the racing began, we were all getting wet. Seymour put on his wetsuit, neoprene gloves, and dinghy boots, the perfect attire for foredeck duty in such conditions.

We also worked out some major adjustments in sail trim. Before leaving the dock, we made a decision to use a high-performance moderate-to-medium air mainsail, rather than the super-heavy main that could take a lot of punishment but would also be very slow if the wind were to come in lighter than the predictions. This higher-performance main had caused us some problems before – it was a San Diego sail, and our mast is a Connecticut mast. When we had sailed before with Zorro using this sail, we had never succeeded in pulling it all the way up to the top of the mast, and Zorro had said it might not be possible to get it up all the way. He had advised us to use cunningham and outhaul to tighten it to make it work right.

That wasn't good enough for Applegal. During the maneuvering before the first race, she went head to wind several times in order for Appleguy and Seymour to haul on the halyard and get the sail up high enough that the trim looked pretty to Applegal. Even though I am relatively new to performance sailing, I could both see and feel a difference. Black Magic was really flying now.

We got a spectacularly good start on the first race – because of the high winds, the race committee selected long courses, what the British know as a "double sausage": a half-leg upwind to the windward mark, downwind to a downwind mark, upwind to the upwind mark, downwind to the downwind mark, and then a half-leg upwind to the finish. We led Constellation for the whole race. Because of the stiff conditions, and because the crew, while experienced sailors, weren't experienced sailing with each other (Seymour had never before been on the same boat as Applegal and Appleguy), we chose not to run a spinnaker on the downwind legs. Constellation did run a spinnaker, and did gain some on us, but not enough to make us worry. She spent a lot of time on her side while the chute was up.

The second race was another story. Because a cruising boat that was not racing got in our way at the start, we were 30 seconds late to the line and 20 seconds behind Constellation. We gained some ground on the first upwind half-leg, but we were still behind rounding the mark. We knew that because we were behind, we would have to use the spinnaker, and we had prepared ahead. We executed a near-perfect jibe set, and when everything was said and done, we found ourselves ahead of Constellation, by a significant margin.

Downwind, Black Magic is the fastest boat in the RGSC Etchells fleet. Seymour and Appleguy were working together trimming the chute as if they had always been together, and we just kept flying along smoothly. Meanwhile, behind us, Constellation broached again and again.

I notice here that I haven't mentioned one of the greatest factors in our success: Applegal. Seymour and Appleguy (and sometimes I) were doing great things, but Applegal was directing the show, and she made some great decisions. She spotted wind shifts on the upwind legs, and she made commands that helped our spinnaker operations to be a success. Thanks to her direction, we really stretched out our lead in the downwind leg, and we had a great takedown and mark rounding at the end of that leg.

Zorro brags about how fast Constellation is upwind, and we were looking forward to making an effort to preserve our lead. But halfway up the upwind leg, Zorro quit. I was surprised – we weren't really all that far ahead of him, and Black Magic is not a good upwind boat. I really thought he had a good chance of catching us.

So we sailed the rest of the course, and we racked up two victories against Zorro.

In the end, though, Zorro can save face. The scoring of this regatta was based on team performance. In the Etchells, the northern fleet (Black Magic) won two races to the southern fleet's zero. In the J/24s, the first pairing went both to the southern fleet, while the second pairing was split one race each. In the cruisers, one pair didn't race, and in the other, the northern fleet boat suffered a major equipment failure and didn't finish.

So overall, the southern fleet won, even if the northern fleet boat beat Zorro twice.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Smashing misconceptions

Television programming decisions you don't expect


This weekend, I was feeling sick (based on the number of students who called in sick Monday, there's something going around), so I stayed home and rested while Pat went south to take care of some boat stuff.

I was crashed in my easy chair in the living room, munching on saltine crackers, and channel surfing. That activity has become more interesting since we got a digital TV converter box. While the newspaper listings give only one programming lineup for each channel, DTV allows channels to have sub-channels that aren't listed in the newspaper. So, for example, one of the major network channels has its regular channel (4.1 on the digital box) and also a 24/7 weather channel (4.2). The evangelical channels seem especially to have discovered the potential for sub-channels; one in the area has five: a regular televangelism channel, a Spanish-language televangelism channel, a movie channel playing classic films with uplifting content (such as Going My Way with Bing Crosby as a Catholic priest), a channel playing Christian rock videos, and a children's channel.

So I was surfing, primarily looking for sports content, while waiting for the American football game to begin. I found hockey, golf, soccer (well, actually, futbol), basketball (lots of basketball), skiing, and sailing.

Sailing? Sailing?!

Yes, sailing. A Spanish-language sub-channel was carrying the Volvo Ocean Race. It was originally in English and had been dubbed into Spanish, but the original English was muted enough that I couldn't catch it. Still, I enjoyed the action footage (including things breaking dramatically, such as booms and spinnaker poles, and the resultant shredded sails), and I found the New Year's celebration in Shanghai interesting. Pat's Spanish is much better than mine, so he would probably have been better able to catch what was going on. (I ran through the settings on the DTV box to see whether there was an English-language alternate audio program or English-language closed captioning – there wasn't.)

Now, here are a couple of notions that are widespread: One, sailing is an upper-class, lah-di-dah sport, and therefore only people of a higher economic status will be interested in it. Two, Spanish-language television programming in the U.S. is focused primarily on recent immigrants, most of whom have very little income and who are completely uncaring about elite sports like sailing.

Apparently, whoever is in charge of programming at that particular sub-channel is either unaware of the conventional wisdom, or he or she is willing to defy it. I'll take it. Even if my Spanish is rudimentary, I'd rather get sailing coverage in Spanish than not at all. And if seeing exciting coverage of sailing encourages Spanish-speaking people to get interested in the sport – no matter what their income level – I'm all for it. I can see it now … the South Valley Vatos sailing team.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Adventures in music

Serendipity in restoration

I've been working on restoring my iTunes library. About a third of it was saved on the external hard drive and I was able simply to copy it over to the computer after restoring the system. But the rest was mostly imported from CDs, so I've been re-importing those, and along the way also importing some CDs that I hadn't imported before, especially some classic country (Hank Williams), jazz (Duke Ellington), and world music.

One of the more interesting discs in that last category is one that wasn't in the online CD database, so I had to type in the song names by hand – and I had to leave out a lot of diacritical marks. It's Czech, Na Mělnickén Vinobraní, by Orchestr Tancovačka řídí Milan Baginský.

I'm guessing it's more from the Moravian side of things than the Bohemian, since the picture on the cover is a castle on a hill covered with vineyards, and about half the songs contain vino or cognates of that word in their titles, while pivo is not mentioned. The dominant song types are polkas and valčiks, which seem to be what a waltz is when it's played with a strong tuba line. One of my favorite tracks is "Na Zdraví," which is the standard Czech toast and translates roughly as "To Life."

All in all, it's a great party soundtrack, if you're celebrating a Central European harvest festival.

Labels: ,