A R C H I V E S   O F
The Reluctant Blogger

© 2008 Henry Kisor



F E B R U A R Y,   2 0 0 8


[NOTE: Some of the links to newspaper stories may be broken, thanks to the sources archiving their articles under new links. Also, all comments from readers unfortunately have been lost.]

Feb. 29: Hell hasn't yet frozen over

Last Sunday, Feb. 24, the weather over the Midwest was largely what pilots call “severe clear” — ceiling and visibility unlimited — as a NASA satellite soared over the western Great Lakes and captured this photo, released last night. 

Temperatures in Ontario were below zero F and in the single digits south of the border. Even though it has been a hellacious winter, Lake Superior has not frozen over. Lakes Michigan and Huron are nearly clear, except for drift ice around their southern edges.

What this all means is that Punxsutawney Phil was badly frightened by his icy shadow and winter is going to be with us for some time yet. Damn.

A larger version of the photo is here.

[LATER FRIDAY: Today’s Houghton Mining Gazette published an article explaining why there’s little ice on Lake Superior this winter. Thanks to Superiorgirl for the tip.]

Feb. 28: This rates a special-lake-effects Oscar

We’ve all heard the term “lake effect snow,” and some of us have enjoyed (or suffered from) it, but have you ever seen one from afar? This NOAA satellite photo from 2004 shows a hellacious blizzard sweeping across Lake Superior and picking up a boost from Lake Michigan. It dumped many feet of white on the U.P. and especially Lower Michigan and points east. That year Lake Superior did not freeze over, allowing northwest winds to scoop up gazillions of gallons of moisture and turn it into snow. (A larger version is here.)

Feb. 27: More of the Good Stuff

Shapely prose spotted while surfing the columnists this morning:

“The English language is closing in on a million-word vocabulary, far outstripping such slack argots as French, which squeaks by on 100,000 words, and half of those are names of cheeses.”

Neil Steinberg, Chicago Sun-Times, Feb. 27. Pinking cheese-eaters is a nice bit of mock xenophobia, but did you catch the sly dig at snails? (Perhaps that was an accidental pun.)

“The fact that Obama is exceptionally easy in his skin has made Hillary almost jump out of hers.”

Maureen Dowd, New York Times, Feb. 27. This summing up of Tuesday night’s debate came in the middle of the column but might have been better as its last thumping sentence.

“I have seen the future of evangelical Christianity, and it is pierced. And sometimes tattooed. And often has one of those annoying, wispy chin beards.”

Michael Gerson, Washington Post, Feb. 27. This was his lead on a column about the generational sea change that seems to be sweeping evangelical Christianity.

“I want my kid to grow up in a society that values knowledge and hard work and public spirit over owning stuff and looking cool. That’s why I live in Minnesota. It isn’t for the climate.”

Garrison Keillor, Salon.com, Feb. 27. He was writing about the issues raised by an election featuring “Papa vs. the Whiz Kid” — McCain and Obama. As always, his literary tools are the simple, the direct and the familiar.

“In a pinched economy, consumers are embracing their inner skinflint.”

Daniel Gross, Slate.com, Feb. 26. Note the clever internal rhyme in this business-section essay about Wal-Mart’s thriving as other stores tank.

Feb. 26: Plaint of a snowbound airman

I have not flown my airplane since last November 4, thanks mostly to the wretched weather that has staggered the Midwest all this winter.

That is almost seventeen weeks of ground-pounding. Of course my flying skills are bound to have rusted during the long layoff and will have to be spruced up, but more important, I hope that the innards of my airplane’s engine won’t have corroded. Long idleness is not good for machined steel surfaces that should be bathed regularly in oil.

Last Sunday being a nice day, I drove up to my airport in Wilmot, Wis., hard by the Illinois state line, hoping that the airport authorities had plowed the aprons in front of the long hangar where my little two-seater lives, and that the airplane’s battery would still be live and the tires still inflated.

But plowing had not been done during the first snowfalls in November, because the soft ground between the concrete aprons needs to be frozen hard if the turf is not to be damaged. And it hadn’t been plowed even once since then, because the snow-thaw-freeze, snow-thaw-freeze cycle had been repeated so many times that the two-foot-deep drifts in front of the hangars had turned almost entirely to ice. There was no way to clear that without damaging the turf and probably the hangars themselves.

Inside my hangar, old N5859E, a k a “Gin Fizz,” seemed to be in good shape still. Her battery had held its charge and her tires were still fat and round. The constant cold, I hoped, had kept her molecules in a state of suspended animation. But I couldn’t tell for sure, because she couldn’t be rolled out onto the ramp over a huge berm of ice in front of the hangar door.

I closed up, then stopped by the airport office and encountered Tom, the flying club president. “Any plans for the airport to plow the aprons?” I asked.

Tom stared at me blankly. So did the other pilots, most of them also ground-bound, in the room.

“Stupid question?” I said.

Tom nodded slowly. “You wanted to fly today?”

“That’s why I drove all the way up here.” (It takes an hour.)

Tom shrugged with the weariness of an existentialist.

“I guess I’ll wait until the end of May,” I said, only half jocularly, “and hope for the best.”

Tom chuckled mournfully. So did all the other pilots.

At least driving up to the airport got me out of the house for a brief while. Now I’m hoping the spring thaw will arrive by mid-March, but suspecting it will be closer to April 1 before I get into the air again.

Winter sucks. Especially this one.

Feb. 24: One more Mention in Dispatches

Cache of Corpses picked up another review yesterday with a notice by Dick Adler, the distinguished former mystery columnist for the Chicago Tribune, in that paper’s Book World section.The best part was the last sentence — the sort of thing that makes a writer’s weekend. Much obliged, Mr. Adler!

Feb. 23: Zorch

Andy Ihnatko, the nonpareil computer columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, reviewed Apple’s newest laptop the other day. Among the things he had to say:

“I don’t think the Air’s limitations are showstoppers. Faster would have been better, but it’s still nimble enough for most users. My only big area of concern is its spartan collection of ports and the lack of DVD. That zorches my options if the Air stops working while I’m on the road.”

Zorches! That rang a long-forgotten bell. When I was a teen-age summer camp counselor in 1957 or 1958, some of the staff assembled themselves into a mock organization they called the Zorches. I was too young and unlettered to ask what the word meant or where it came from. Perhaps I simply thought it was nonsensical, plucked from the air.

From the context Andy’s meaning is clear, but what’s the etymology of this thing?

I went to work with Google and discovered 175,000 hits for “zorch.” Those are a lot for a mere piece of computer jargon.

The Free On-line Dictionary of Computing, in an entry dated July 9, 1999, offered:

“/zorch/

“1. [TMRC] To attack with an inverse heat sink.

“2. [TMRC] To travel with velocity approaching lightspeed.

“3. [MIT] To propel something very quickly. ‘The new comm software is very fast; it really zorches files through the network.’

“4. [MIT] Influence. Brownie points. Good karma. The intangible and fuzzy currency in which favours are measured. ‘I’d rather not ask him for that just yet; I think I’ve used
up my quota of zorch with him for the week.’

“5. [MIT] Energy, drive, or ability. ‘I think I’ll punt that change for now; I’ve been up for 30 hours and I’ve run out of zorch.’

“6. [MIT] To flunk an exam or course.

“7. Computing power.”

None of these quite equals Andy’s meaning, although Item 6 comes close.

Next I tried the Urban Dictionary. It gives 17 definitions, too many to list here (and most of them are of questionable taste), but No. 5 seems to be the meaning Andy used:

“A verb: To mess something up to the point of unusability, or even to destroy it.

“‘I hadn’t saved my file, and my computer crash totally zorched the term paper that I was writing.’”

A trip to Wikipedia yielded a 1970s British electronic rock group by that name.

But that postdated my first experience with the word in the late 1950s. A little more searching brought me to another list of computer jargon that contained the following information:

“A track called Zorch was the B-side of a single called Captain Hideous, released by novelty artist Nervous Norvous [sic] in 1955. Norvous was heavily influemced [sic] by a radio comedian named Red Blanchard; the word “zorch” appears to have been coined on Blanchard’s show in the early 1950s. The word itself had no meaning, but there where [sic] compounds using it that did — “zorch cow”, for example, was a variant of the Chicago-area slang “black cow” for a root beer float.”

There I stopped. I remember my older brother (who was also on that summer camp staff at the same time) talking at the dinner table (to my father’s distaste) about Nervous Norvus, and the dates jibe. That’s enough for me.

Now what does all this word-searching signify? Mainly nothing, but it is also an example of what a retired newspaper editor does for jollies in the winter when he’s housebound and prostrate with cabin fever.

Still, if you can come up with an earlier citation for “zorch,” please feel free to leave a comment. And then we can go out to a soda fountain for a zorch cow to celebrate.

Feb. 22: Never finished, only abandoned

Is it permissible for a blogger to alter the original text of a blog entry without any indication of having done so?

On Feb. 18 I wrote:

“Ah, the semicolon; is there a more elegant — or less common — item of furniture in the living room of English as it is written in America?”

If you read that and surfed back a few hours later, you’d have found that the sentence now read:

“Ah, the semicolon; is there a more elegant — or less common — item of furniture in the living room of American English?”

Was that okay?

I think so. It isn’t as if I were altering a fact or correcting an error without acknowledging that I had made one. Owning up to mistakes or crediting new ideas, either in follow-up comments or in brackets at the end of the blog entry, is the right thing to do.

But burnishing one’s own prose behind the scenes, in my view, is not only harmless but also ought to be encouraged. It’s just devotion to the ideal that one’s words should be presented in the simplest, clearest and shiniest form one can manage.

“American English” saves five words and is punchier than the original. I wish I hadn’t been so windy the first time around, but when I saw my chance to spruce up the sentence, I took it.

On a blog that’s simple and easy to do, and costs nothing.

It wasn’t always so.

In the days of hot type decades ago, a mentor of mine at the old Chicago Daily News, M. W. (”Bill”) Newman, drove editors crazy with his last-minute polishing of his stories. Often they had already been set in long columns of type and even were all inserted and made up in the chase, the metal form that surrounded a newspaper page. Even just one new word, or an added phrase, sometimes required several minutes of work by a Linotype compositor and more by a makeup printer.

But Bill’s fussing made his prose sing. He was one of the finest newspaper stylists in an age that was famous for them. In fact, he may have been the best writer who never won a Pulitzer Prize.

When Bill became the editor of Panorama, the Daily News’ prizewinning weekend arts and books supplement, it was like turning the whole chicken ranch over to the fox. Bill’s copy editors — I was one of them — had to expend a lot of sweat harrying weary printers resentful over having to change whole pages two minutes before lockup time. There wasn’t a page in the entire section that Bill didn’t rework at the last minute.

A couple of times we blew the deadline and the first edition of the weekend paper missed the late-evening train downstate. That was not good.

Otherwise the result was always worth the frantic labor, and Bill’s demands for perfection percolated down to the rest of us. He made us care.

The late novelist Bernard Malamud was a literary brother to Bill Newman. A publicist at his publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, once told me that dealing with Malamud’s work was often a nightmare, for he made thousands of last-minute corrections and rewrites on galley proof after galley proof, often forcing the publisher to delay the publication dates of his novels.

In an interview I asked Malamud about this, and he admitted his transgressions against publishing efficiency. Sometimes, he said, the costs of the post-proof corrections — which the writer, not the publisher, has to bear — added up to more than his advances against royalties. But he thought the result always was a better novel.

“All I can say,” Malamud argued, “is what Paul Valery said: ‘A poem is never finished. It is only abandoned.’”

Not that blog entries are works of art. But maybe the best of them are never finished — only abandoned. We really should care that much.

Feb. 21: Eclipse of the February moon



Last night’s full eclipse of the moon over North America sent me into the freezing outdoors (5 degrees F, wind-chill somewhere around absolute zero) with the Pentax and a long lens. I managed to stay enthusiastic only one-third of the way into the eclipse before rushing back into the house to thaw my trigger finger. But one of the shots did make me happy, and here it is, considerably cropped.

Feb. 20: Last year, bees; this year, bats?

We’re all familiar with the sudden and mysterious disappearance of the honeybee in 2007 and the powerful impact on the crops they help fertilize. Now disaster may be striking another creature important to humanity: the bat.

Large numbers of little brown bats and their cousins, Indiana bats, are turning up dead in many places in the Northeast, and they are being found hibernating in caves with a white fungus covering their noses. No one seems to know if the fungus is killing them, or if it’s a symptom of something else. And “white-nose syndrome” may be spreading west and south into other states.

Relax. Human beings don’t seem to catch the disease. But the authorities have just begun to investigate the problem.

The story is here.

Bats may be annoying and scary, but they hold an important link in what Arthur O. Lovejoy once called the “Great Chain of Being” and what we know today as the biosphere. Bats eat insects, especially moths, that threaten crops. They help hold down the mosquito population. Without bats, we’d be knee-deep in bugs.

So next time bats flit by you in the woods at dusk, thank your stars they’re still around.

(Thanks to Tina Davidson for the heads-up.)

[Later: Yesterday’s Pittsburgh Tribune-Review published an extended story on the problem.]

Feb. 19: Tickets, please. Hands up, please.

Those who would give up ESSENTIAL LIBERTY to purchase a little TEMPORARY SAFETY, deserve neither LIBERTY nor SAFETY. Benjamin Franklin, 1759 (attributed).

Armed security is at last coming to Amtrak, which has been blessedly free of it even six and a half years after 9/11. Yesterday the national passenger railroad announced that it will randomly screen carry-on luggage and deploy armed guards and bomb-sniffing dogs on trains and platforms.

Why?

There has been no railroad incident or threat in this country, even after the Madrid train bombings in 2004 and the London subway blasts in 2005. True, Amtrak has quietly tightened security for ticketing and boarding and employed other, more random, behind-the-scenes measures.

But the ambience of freely riding our country’s trains has not changed: You buy a ticket, you board the train, and that’s it; you’re enjoying the American experience. Or what used to be.

There are those who think easy access to trains and the sprawling railroad infrastructure is a serious security vulnerability. They worry that it is growing as Amtrak ridership zooms, fueled by high gas prices and irritation over security clogs at airport gates.

But the same could be said of just about anyplace where Americans gather in large numbers: commuter rail stations at rush hour, big-city downtowns, suburban malls, football games. Short of turning our law enforcement agencies into sprawling Gestapo outposts, there is no way to keep all of us safe all of the time.

What Amtrak is doing is a simple exercise in what has been called “security theater.” This is just mounting an illusory measure, giving people a feeling of security while actually providing little or none. The Transportation Security Administration’s airport ballet is a good example. Passengers may think it keeps them safe, but the professionals know airport screening is full of holes a battalion of terrorists could creep through.

Somebody might argue that terrorists will think twice about pulling something now that Amtrak is screening bags and riders randomly. Others may say terrorists will look at the measures as an interesting challenge to overcome.

Which is correct? Maybe neither or both. That ambivalence is part of the price of modern liberty: We have to learn to live with danger while at the same time safeguarding our rights of privacy.

All this reminds me of the old joke about the suburbanite who went out into his back yard every night, beat the ground with a broom, screamed wildly and fired his shotgun willy-nilly into the air.

“Whatever are you doing that for?” asked his neighbor.

“Keeps the elephants away,” the man replied.

“There’s never been an elephant here,” said the neighbor.

Replied the man: “Works, doesn’t it?”

Feb. 18: Hooray for the ;

Ah, the semicolon; is there a more elegant — or less common — item of furniture in the living room of American English?

Language mavens will tell you the semicolon is suitable when used in formal writing; it slows the reader slightly as it sets off one independent thought from a related one, but does not stop him dead.

To casual prose, however, the semicolon seems to be a stranger, except as a winking emoticon. Use periods instead, writing instructors say. Separate your sentences and keep them short. This makes sense. The idea is to communicate with as many people as you can. Readers of casual prose tend to be unsophisticated. So keep it simple and snappy, like subway-placard prose.

But there exists a writer of subway placards who believes in the semicolon, and Sam Roberts of The New York Times found him for today’s paper. Three cheers for Neil Neches; he’s a gentleman and scholar.

[February 20: Two days after it was published, Roberts’ article is the most e-mailed on the Times’ web site. Looks as if the semicolon has a great many fans, at least among New York Times readers.]

Feb. 17: Aachener Printen

It must be a complication of ongoing and acute, maybe even terminal, cabin fever — but this morning I awoke with a terrible craving for a long-forgotten childhood snack: Aachener Printen.

A bit of backstory: One of my great-grandmothers was a German from Aachen. (She was daughter to a Heinrich, whose name was handed down to me through the generations.) When she married my great-grandfather, an American diplomat, and moved to this country, Oma brought along with her a love for a certain kind of lebkuchen, or Christmas pastry, known as Printen and baked only in Aachen.

Printen are the size and shape of Hershey bars, but are hard and chewy, with a distinct molasses-based flavor. They can be covered with nuts and chocolate or sugar glazing or marzipan, or baked plain and unadorned.

These things have an interesting history. Printen originally came from the city of Dinant in nearby Belgium, and used to be soft and sweetened with a delicate taste of American honey that came to Germany through England. When Napoleon blockaded the British Isles in 1806 Aachen’s bakers turned to molasses and beet sugar instead, and the Aacheners liked the resultant chewiness so much they stayed with the new recipe even after the blockade was lifted.

In my family Printen were really special, special treats. Around Christmastime for some years after World War II, a two-pound box would arrive from a cousin in Aachen, who kept alive my great-grandmother’s prewar tradition of giving a holiday package of Printen to every one of her offspring. After supper every evening for two or so weeks after Christmas Day Mother would solemnly hand each of us a single holy Printen, like a priest proffering the Host.

I don’t know what my older brother, who remembers them with distaste, did with his — he either turned it back or fed it to the dog — but for a brief while I was in heaven. I had no idea what made the Printen taste so good — not for years did I learn they were variously flavored with cinnamon, aniseed, clove, cardamom, coriander, allspice and ginger. One bar kept me occupied for twenty minutes to half an hour — I tried to make it last, unlike most foods, which I unfortunately tend to appreciate by their scarfability.

The best, rarest and most expensive were the Schokolade-Printen, dipped in dark and bitter chocolate, and the Schokolade-Nuss-Printen, covered with nuts. Only once each Christmas did we have them.

My sister loves them just as much as I do. She remembers that in the 1970s an exchange student from Aachen who lived with my parents for a year revived the tradition, which had died out some time in the 1950s when our German cousins faded into memory.

Printen would be the perfect survival ration for a harsh winter, and I’m getting my order in today, from a baker whose products look exactly like those Oma had sent over from Aachen all those decades ago.

Hmm. Maybe I could give Steve Martinez a German great-grandmother and sneak some Printen into the novels along with the Finnish nisu? That way I could expense the order from Aachen . . . naw, never mind, the IRS would never buy it, and neither would Upper Peninsula readers. Printen are sufficiently glorious for their own sake.

Feb. 14: Happy Valentine's Day, snowbunnies

It’s OK to be touchy-feely today, but let’s not watch either Oprah or Dr. Phil. That would be obscene.

This (to change the subject brutally) has been the harshest winter in Chicago since the late 1970s. Easily four times the snow we had last year, twice the number of subzero days. It’s February 14, and we’ve still got a snowpack of two feet or better, and more snow is forecast for this weekend. The streets department of Evanston, the suburb where I live, has run out of salt and the roadways have been superslick for days. The potholes are so large and deep that people who fall into them are never heard from again. My case of cabin fever has grown ever more severe, partly because aging gimps find it difficult to get around lumpy ice and frozen snowbanks, let alone potholes.

What is really fanning the flames of my ire is the dismaying number of people who poke my chest and say, “See? This winter proves there’s no global warming. I told you it was sunspots on the rinse cycle.” Or some other absurd cause.

It’s bad enough that they’re poster children for logical fallacies, but what’s worse is that they seem to have learned nothing — that climate change is measured in averages, with occasional chilly spikes from year to year, as legions of worried climatologists have been telling us.

As a nation we are so obsessed with the here and now that we cannot look into the future — or remember the past.

Feb. 12: News you can use

Important news I did not know yesterday but do today:

1. Hamsters are China’s favorite stand-ins for the Year of the Rat.

2. Some British shops use high-frequency noise emitters to solve the problem of misbehaving children.

3. India’s Supreme Court has come to the aid of handlebar mustaches.

4. A Romanian who complained to authorities that his rubber sex doll had lost its moan has won his case.

5. Prostitutes are sorry that it’s the Democratic, not Republican, national convention in Denver. With Republicans “we get a lot more business,” said one sex worker. “I don’t know if they’re just frustrated because of the family values agenda.”

6. Dolly Parton has nicknamed her breasts “Shock” and “Awe.”

I apologize for the bottom-feeding nature of this entry, but the combination of weather-induced cabin fever and wall-to-wall politics is making me crazy.

Feb. 11: Furthermore . . .

An addendum to yesterday’s blog item about the lack of captioning in news podcasts:

For some time one has been able to upload video reviews of books and other items for sale on Amazon.com.

Of course the audio in these reviews is not captioned so that the deaf have equal access to the content.

This captioning business may have far greater ramifications than I first had thought.

Stay tuned, as they say.

[LATER MONDAY: Ramifications? Did I say ramifications? Today a (presumably; I can’t tell) hearing blogger named Mike McConnell, who goes by the name “Kokonut Pundit,” had some interesting things to say on his captioned video blog (or “vlog”). It seems that some American Sign Language-using deaf vloggers refuse to caption their vlogs because they consider having to subtitle them in English an “act of oppression.” McConnell thinks they’re missing a great chance to expand their audiences — just as I think news organizations are short-shrifting potential users by failing to caption their podcasts.]

[Still later. McConnell is hard of hearing, I am told, and speaks on both voice phone and radio in his job as a forest hydrologist.]

Feb. 10: Not ready for prime time

This morning I attempted to “watch” two video stories (called “podcasts”), one on the New York Times and one on Salon.com. The former had interesting footage of New York City’s Pakistani newspapers and the latter was Joan Walsh’s take on “Which Democrat can beat McCain”?

But I could make head nor tail of either — because there was no captioning or text to help me or other deaf people follow the audio.

Every broadcast television news operation in the country uses closed captions. It’s the law. Sooner or later the law probably will extend to Internet news operations, at least domestic ones, but I’ve seen not one glimmering of a voluntary step on the part of Internet news and opinion providers — even the liberal ones you’d think would be in the forefront of the movement.

Deaf people take captioning seriously. So much so, in fact, that the grassroots of deaf culture are rumbling with anger over less than half the Super Bowl commercials being closed captioned. It’s a matter of equal access to information, say those who feel strongly about it. The more practical, like me, wonder why energy should be expended to make it easier for salesmen to get inside our houses and huckster stuff we don’t need.

Perhaps proper access to news, however, is something we can all agree on. And until Salon and Slate and the Times and everybody else start providing captions for their news and opinion podcasts, the Internet is not yet serving everyone fairly.

Feb. 6: A taste of the good stuff

Like a geezer in a squeaky rocker, I may have been a tad irritating in my comments about the writing trade lately. So, to take a lesson from James J. Kilpatrick, a conservative political columnist who found a second childhood as a word maven (and still writes “The Writer’s Art” at age 88), I’ll strive to mention, now and again, the “Good Stuff.”

Here is some felicitous phrasing I found while surfing the news sites today:

On a newspaper staff shrunken by layoffs and haunted by internal turmoil, Mike Miner of the Chicago Reader wrote:

“The Sun-Times . . . looks like it’s eight weeks into a hunger strike and has begun to hallucinate.”

Of a Democratic presidential dropout, Garrison Keillor of Salon.com wrote:

“Goodbye, John Edwards, whom friends of mine liked and who ran against the Current Occupant, which is a forlorn and fruitless endeavor, like yelling at a horse.”

After casting his ballot yesterday, Neil Steinberg of the Chicago Sun-Times reached back for a recent summer memory to offer:

“Voting booths are rickety affairs. Side panels of the thinnest beige plastic, barely supported by long, spindly aluminum legs, the metal suitcase it folds into hanging off the back like the half-shucked shell of a locust.”

The editorial page of the Washington Post succinctly summed up Super Tuesday in this fashion:

“The Democratic contests were a Rubik’s Cube of results whose final meaning will become clear only when the delegates are tallied.”

Maureen Dowd of the New York Times came up with a nice metaphor for Barack Obama’s rise:

“For much of the campaign, when matched against Hillary in debates, the Illinois senator seemed out of his weight class. But he has moved up to heavyweight, even while losing five pounds as he has raced around the country.”

John Kass of the Chicago Tribune coined a killer metaphor:

“So I easily heard trouble on the right, with Ingraham and Limbaugh fuming about former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Viagra) daring to endorse McCain . . . ”

Hey, dear readers, won’t you send me some Good Stuff when you spot it? Shapely writing should be celebrated regularly, like a holiday.

Feb. 5: where the hell are the caps, madam?

Yesterday I read the following on the blog of a mystery writer who mercifully shall not be named:

“but in this blog we remember margaret truman as a mystery novel writer. as i count them, she wrote 23 murder mysteries between 1980 and 2007. that’s one prolific writer. her first novel is murder in the white house. the last that i know of is murder on k street. if you haven’t read the books,you can guess from these two titles that almost all of her novels are set in and around washington d.c. and that’s the fun of them. the plots are not complex; the characters (sorry) not memorable: but the view of d.c. that we readers get from an insider is great. to have the first daughter as tour guide and a light mystery to go along with it is a privilege for all of us mystery-loving fans. we will greatly miss margaret truman.”

Those are nice enough sentiments about Truman, ma’am, but where in the name of God are the capital letters? Did you lose them on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial?

Some bloggers claim their precious streams of consciousness are upset by having to hit the Shift key. Oh, bullshit. That’s an obnoxious affectation. The blogger in question thinks enough of book titles to italicize them, and doing so takes keystrokes that require conscious fingerwork.

Everyone who paid attention in eighth grade knows that the purpose of mixing capital and lower case letters is to ease the task of reading, to signal when sentences begin and to set off proper names and the like. ALL CAPS, SUCH AS THOSE THE ROMANS USED, WERE HARD TO READ, TOO. (And now yelling in all caps is a sure sign of an unlettered yokel.)

These things are not merely a mark of ignorance, but also show a lack of respect and concern for the reader one is trying to reach.

While I’m on this rant, I’d like to include th msrbl wrtchs who unnccsrly cndnse thr wrtg, esp in email. Why are they making me struggle to figure out what they’re trying to say? Saves time, they say, and there are never enough milliseconds in the day. For you maybe, I say, but not for me. Fk ths sht.

Then there are the tEeNaGeRs wHo InDiScRiMiNaTeLy aLtErNaTe bEtWeEn (I can’t stand it!) caps and lower case in their text messages and Facebook entries, as if they were so many latter-day H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N*s. Who do they think they’re impressing?

Even careful writers are bound to commit solecisms and typos in their writing. This does not make them bad people. Sometimes one is rushed and doesn’t always reread what he’s written, dotting his i’s and crossing his t’s. (Or recasting his sentences in genderless prose.)

What is important is the conscientious effort we make to connect with our interlocutors. Respect them, and they’ll respect your writing.

Feb. 4: Cache sets off on a journey

Cache of Corpses, my novel about murder and geocaching, has itself become an object of geocaching.

Geocaching is the outdoor sport in which people hide treasures, mark their locations with GPS receivers, then post the coordinates on the Internet — and other players read the postings and hunt the treasures with their own GPSes. (It’s really a lot more involved than that, but that’s the basic idea.)

Last Saturday TeamObbie1, a husband-and-wife pair in Northern Virginia, stashed Cache of Corpses at the geographic location N 39 02.700 W 077 30.115, which happens to be a public library in Loudoun County. It was an “event cache,” a meeting of the Northern Virginia Geocaching Organization, at which TeamObbie1 “released” the book into the wild.

At the event another cacher found the book and took it home, then posted his discovery on Geocaching.com. When he’s finished reading it, he’ll take the book to another event cache for someone else to read and pass on, posting the coordinates of the event. The new reader in turn will pass the book on and post new coordinates.

Doesn’t sound very Indiana Jonesish, does it? No sweaty rappelling to the bottoms of cliffs, no hacking one’s way through jungles to find a hidden treasure. Nope, the book isn’t buried under a scree of rocks somewhere in the boonies.

The nature of a cache depends on the intention of the cachers. TeamObbie1 wanted Cache of Corpses to be read and enjoyed, then passed along in good shape to the next reader-geocacher. So they made it as easy as possible for other cachers to find the book by attaching to it a “travel bug,” a little dog tag with a unique tracking code and requesting that each successive cacher hand-carry the book and its tag from one event cache to another.

The travel bug’s code is used as proof by the finder that the item was found. The code is also a way for others to find the web page for the particular item.

A FAQ on Geocaching.com explains travel bugs in detail.

Conceivably the copy of Cache with the travel bug could eventually find its circuitous way to, say, a event of the Upper Samarkand Geocaching and Chowder Society in the mountains of Central Asia. And anyone interested could follow the book’s circuitous trail by calling up the URL of its travel bug on Geocaching.com.

There are other kinds of caches for books, TeamObbie1 said. One might be a big green ammunition can full of dog-eared paperbacks; the idea is for the finder to take one and stash another in its place after making an entry in a journal tucked into the can. Other book-sharing cachers have used big plastic pretzel jars.

Next summer I plan to cache a copy of Cache somewhere in the wilds of Upper Michigan. It’ll be sealed in a Ziploc bag and tucked in a Tupperware container with a tight-fitting lid. And it’ll contain a travel bug with an accompanying request that after the book has been read, it and its container be re-cached somewhere in the U.P. Maybe I’ll also include my email address so that the finders and I can meet and have a beer.

Of course, I’ll post the coordinates and the travel bug code on Geocaching.com.

My geocaching name, by the way, is TwoCrow. Surprise!

[Later in the day Feb. 4: TeamObbie1 pointed out a problem with the foregoing plan to cache Cache in Upper Michigan. According to geocaching rules, a cache must remain in place for a certain time, and during that time it must be maintained — checked regularly to see that it’s still where the posted coordinates say it is, and that there’s a treasure of some kind inside. In other words, the book is not the cache — the container holding the book is the cache.

[So what I’ll do instead is release the book with a travel bug attached at an existing book cache like the ones described above — or, if there isn’t already one in the U.P., try to talk either the local public library or a local U.P. geocacher into founding and maintaining a cache designed for books.]

Feb. 2: The answer to our prayers