Monday, July 18, 2011

Don't Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth

At least until you know that the horse is actually a gift.

This year I thought I would surprise my wife with an anniversary/birthday gift she's been wanting for quite a while.  After first consulting with my nineteen year-old daughter that it was appropriate for the occasions, I placed my order with Amazon on Thursday.  With free Prime shipping I knew it would arrive on Saturday, but would it arrive before she, Liz, Michelle and Daniel left for camping for the weekend?  No matter - with Katherine's birthday on Tuesday, it would still be here in plenty of time, even if it didn't arrive in time to give it to her on Saturday.

Thursday evening while we were discussing the upcoming fall's finances - two kids in college, two at IHC, etc - I jokingly said that if she was so concerned about money I could return her gift I ordered.  "Oh, you didn't have to get me anything.  I didn't get anything for you," she exclaimed.  "Don't worry about it," I replied. "You let me get those new golf clubs last month."  With that, nothing more was said about her present.

Saturday morning was spent packing the van with every camping accoutrement known to mankind - tents, air mattresses, cots, cooking gear, sports equipment, fans (it gets HOT out there!), electric griddle, chairs - all for ONE night of camping!  Anyhow, everyone was too busy to think about Katherine's gift.  Just as they were about to leave, though, the Fedex truck showed up with her package.  Rather than waiting until they got back, I decided to give it to her then and there.  When she saw the outside of the box said "Kitchenaid" the expression on her face was priceless; you'd think I had just presented her with the Hope Diamond!  She then explained why she was so pleasantly surprised to get a mixer (not exactly the most romantic gift) as her present:

When she went into the garage the other day to start going through the camping gear, she saw an unopened box semi-hidden under a workbench, and when she noticed that it was a new hedge trimmer she was sure that was what I bought her.  A hedge trimmer?  Is that really what she thought I got her for our anniversary and her birthday?  Yup.  She has mentioned hedge trimmers in passing a couple of times, especially since we now actually have some hedges that could use a clip, but it never even crossed my mind to give one as a gift.  Instead I bought this one at Sears a couple months ago, but hadn't broken it out yet.  Katherine was suspicious about me getting down all the camping stuff for her (even though she asked me to) because she believed I was trying to keep her out of the garage where her lovely present was hidden!

The really funny part is that she spent the better part of two days thinking about how she should react to her "surprise."  Treat it as a joke, or act like it's something she really wanted?  It guess it's not too hard to figure who knows their spouse better in this relationship!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Reading and More Reading

After recently reading two fiction books I have shifted my emphasis back to non-fiction.  On the fiction side, I first read Mary Pat Hyland's third novel, 3/17, which is the humorous story of a traditional Irish band fumbling their way through parts of upstate New York, enduring their own version of Dante's nine circles of Hell. Only this time the circles consist mainly of clueless Americans who have no real concept of Irish culture and think of St. Patrick's Day as only a bacchanal drunk-fest.  3/17 is a very funny book and I swear Mary Pat created her American characters from people I know here in Northern New York.

I have also been making good use of the free classics available for the Kindle. While on vacation I read Oscar Wilde's The Canterbury Ghost, a farcical ghost tale of an American family moving into an old mansion that has been haunted for 300 years by a ghost named Sir Simon.  At first the family denies the existence of the ghost, but when confronted with his reality, display mostly ambivalence towards him, with the exception of a few tricks played on the ghost by the boys of the family.  Sir Simon's utter inability to frighten the family angers and then later depresses him, so he closes himself off in a deserted room in despair. Eventually, the daughter in the family stumbles upon Simon and takes pity on him, as he is so miserable.  Simon proclaims his sorrow at all he's done over the years as a ghost and asks the girl to help him finally get to rest.  With the girl's help, Simon is finally accepted by the angel of death and allowed to have his peace.

The first non-fiction book I've read recently is Stephen Hawking's latest, The Grand Design, which looks at the scientific history of the cosmos, beginning with the Ionian Greeks and ending with M-Theory, a theory of multiple universes, of which ours is only one of many.  The book is controversial in that it posits that God is not necessary to explain the origins of the universe.  While Hawking does not explicitly state that modern science has disproved the existence of a god or gods, he does go so far to say that gods are unnecessary to explain all the phenomena of the universe.

My next reading was The Moral Landscape, by Sam Harris. This book is Harris' promotion of a science of morality, which uses only objective facts to determine morality and not the use of authority.  However, this all depends on Harris' definition of "morality," which many may not agree with: increases in the well-being of conscious creatures.  For example, how do you define "well-being"?  Physical well-being? Mental well-being? Emotional well-being? Spiritual well-being?  All of the above?  On a very basic level I agree with Harris - many human practices and behaviors cause net harm to other sentient beings without being illegal - religious practices of ritual genital mutilation and the subordination of women for starters.  These practices should be stopped for humankind's benefit.  Many other issues are not so clear-cut though: is capital punishment a net good, or bad?  What about abortion?  Nationalized healthcare?  Or any number of other points of dispute.  Harris is careful to point out that solving these issues will be very difficult, but he insists that there are facts to be brought to bear on all such questions and that they are therefore not completely intractable.

After years of putting it off, I finally read Alfred Russel Wallace's The Malay Archipelago, a chronicle of Wallace's years as a naturalist in Malaysia, Singapore, New Guinea and Indonesia.  Wallace was a contemporary of Darwin and co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection.  As Wallace collected new species across all the islands of the archipelago, he began to take note of the many differences and similarities, which got him thinking about why they occurred the way they did. He eventually concluded that similar species had been the same at some point in the past and then diverged as parts of the original population migrated to other islands.  Wallace was also to distinguish which islands had fauna more closely related to Asia and which were more closely aligned with Australia.  This division came to be known as the Wallace Line.  Wallace also became a student of the division of the human groups in the islands and had many opinions as to the history of those divisions.

Different Seasons, by Stephen King, is a collection of short stories, three of which have been made into films: Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, which became the acclaimed The Shawshank Redemption; Apt Pupil, which was made into a movie of and same name; and The Body, which was adapted into Stand by Me.  The fourth story is an interesting one called The Breathing Method.  Shawshank is one of my favorite movies, so I was interested in seeing how it differed from the book.  To my surprise, I found very little difference, except in a few details.  Much of the movie's dialog comes directly from the novella, especially much of Red's narration.  Stand by Me also very closely follows King's story, as does Apt Pupil.  This group of stories is different from most of King's other works, in that there is little to no supernatural involved, and most of what happens in the stories could occur in real life.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Eagle of the Ninth

The Eagle of the Ninth is a 1954 novel by Rosemary Sutcliff, about a Roman family in Britain in the second century, that was recently made into a film called The Eagle.   Marcus Flavius Aquila is a young Roman Centurion who has asked to be posted to Britain so that he may find out what happened to his father's legion, the Ninth, that famously disappeared north of Hadrian's Wall.

Shortly after arriving at his fort in Britain, Marcus becomes seriously injured in a battle with native British, and the injury ends his military career.  While recuperating from his injuries, Marcus hears that the bronze eagle standard of his father's legion has been seen in the north and is in the possession of an unknown tribe.

Upon his recovery Marcus, along with Esca, a slave he has freed, heads to the north, in the guise of an Greek eye doctor to move among the tribes and find the eagle.  Marcus is well received by the tribes, as he has received some rudimentary training in eye care and successfully provides some treatment to the natives.  While there, Marcus and Esca learn more about the location of the standard and follow it to a remote coastal village that is a religious center among the tribes.  During a religious ceremony, Marcus and Esca see the eagle displayed and decide that night to sneak into the nave where it is kept and recover it.

After taking the standard, the two flee to Hadrian's Wall with the villagers in hot pursuit.  After a tumultuous chase, with several close calls, Marcus and Esca finally make it safely to south Britain with their prize.  Due to the circumstances of the loss of the standard a Roman official recommends that the eagle be buried and tells Marcus that there is no way the Ninth Legion will be re-formed, but he is successful in petitioning Rome for a land award and a pension for Marcus for the services he has provided.  The book ends with Marcus, Esca and Marcus' beau deciding to take the awarded land in Britain and to farm it, as Marcus comes from a long line of farmers.

If not for the recent film I would have never heard of this little book.  As usual, the book is better than the movie.  In this case, the movie was over dramatized and much less believable than the book.  In the film, the natives are little more than bloodthirsty savages, in an Indiana Jones way, whereas in the book they are much more sophisticated, more human and less cartoonish.  Likewise, the book presents the Romans as more realistic and not in a "Rome Rules!" kind of way.

Overall, a pleasant book to read: a good story, light reading but informative about that era in British history. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

Urban Myths

Ugh. Yet another urban myth spam email ended up in my inbox today. This one is a protest of a (supposed) upcoming film called Corpus Christi, based on a theater production of the same name in which Christ and his disciples are portrayed as being gay.

A very quick Google search of "Corpus Christi film" turns up a page exposing the spam-mail as a hoax, one that has been around since at least 2001.  Yes, there is such a theater production, but no, there is no film based on it. There is a documentary film out there about the making of the theater production, and perhaps there is where some of the confusion lies.

I typically react to these urban legend spams in a couple of ways, delete and forget, or find the reference in one of the urban myth sites and reply with it, taking into account the personality of the person who forwarded the email to me. 

There needs to be some sort of an email filter that looks for repetitive subject lines, based on an updated urban legends database, and automatically returns the email with a new "Hey Gullible" subject line.  Either that or have it automatically reply with one of those Nigerian prince scams, sort of a Rickrolling for the Internet noobs.

Friday, March 18, 2011

March Madness

Why do I bother entering NCAA Tournament pools?  I end up rooting against teams I like in favor of teams that will help my pool.  I'm sitting here watching Villanova beating George Mason, hoping GM comes back to win so I can get those valuable two points.  Oh well, it will be worth it if I end up in the money. Heh.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Twisted Logic

"Do what we want or we'll shut down the government and it will be YOUR fault!"

Sometimes it's embarrassing to be a Republican.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Why is Defense Spending So Untouchable?

Over the weekend I read some interesting statistics about the United States' defense spending:

  • Our defense spending is close to seven times higher than the next highest country's - China
  • Only the UAE spends more per capita on defense than we do.
  • We are responsible for between 40 and 50 percent of the entire world's defense spending. In other words, we spend almost as much on defense as the rest of the world combined.

And this does not even count what we spend on the Department of Homeland Security.

But we have to cut social programs instead?

The deficit for 2011 is projected to be over $1 trillion, so I agree that spending needs to be cut - deeply - but why should Defense be inviolate?  And how much of the expected deficit is due to two unwinnable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?