Chimps in charge


The day after my post on how to find healthy veggies, Mary and I decided to grab some burgers for lunch.

As we sat down, I noticed “Heart of Stone,” from the Rolling Stones’s first album, playing in the background.  I was contemplating impermanence – how quickly the songs of youth wind up on the oldies station – when the song ended, and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” came on.

I looked at Mary.  I muttered an expletive and said, “I thought we were done with all that!”

Our food came, and the music shifted to “Chain of Fools,” a good old Motown classic.  I sighed with relief.  Life was good.  January was good.  January means months and months without “holiday music.”

Or so I thought…

Until “Holly Jolly Christmas” began to play…

More than any other song, “Holly Jolly Christmas” reminds me of pre-transformation Scrooge and the wisdom of his comments concerning boiling certain people in their own Christmas puddings.

“Maybe they just want to hurry us out the door,” Mary said.

I slugged down the rest of my drink.  “It’s working,” I said.

The question I’m left with is, who put together that playlist?  I’m ruling out computer generation, since in my experience, the algorithms, (like iTunes’s “Genius” function) are too sophisticated to create such a mishmash.  I’m left with two theories:

  1. In an effort to save money, satellite radio stations now use institutionalized sociopaths to assemble their playlists.
  2. In an effort to save money, satellite radio stations now use chimps.

I kind of hope it’s the latter, although chimps-in-charge is not a trend that bodes well for things like TV schedules or mid-term election advertising, which will probably start up next week.

If you have any other ideas on who is to blame for Burl Ives in January, please let us know so we can free the poor chimpanzees from blame!

photo by Will Brenner, CC BY-ND 2.0

photo by Will Brenner, CC BY-ND 2.0

Chicken Wrangling.

Here’s an inspirational post in which Doug goes windmill tilting instead of tending the chickens. If this doesn’t get you singing a rousing chorus of “Man of La Mancha,” nothing will!

Doug Does Life

Thou hast seen nothing yet. ― Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

Another Saturday out and about. Saturdays are our busy days and our fun days. As I mentioned before, we keep some hens on our property. They don’t take much work and they provide lots of good yard eggs…

Doug stayed home today, so I asked him to take care of the chickens. By take care of, I meant feed them and give them some water…

I knew something was wrong when I saw the gate to the chicken coop standing open.

I found Doug heading across the yard on his chicken mount.

He wouldn’t tell me what he was doing but I think the chicken said something about windmills… It’s hard to understand chickens though.

I’m left to clean up after Doug once again.

At least the damage was confined to our yard this time, and didn’t…

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The 2013 Ig Nobel Prizes

2013 Ig Nobel

Though I reported on last year’s Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, I missed the 2013 edition of this annual Harvard laugh fest, which was held in September.  I only heard the details yesterday, on NPR’s “Science Friday.”  Much better late than never for this look at the work of international scientists whose “research makes people laugh and then think,” according to Marc Abrahams, editor and co-founder of “The Annals of Improbable Research.”

The ten 2013 winners Ig Nobel winners, who received their prizes from (real) Nobel Laureates, include:

The Prize in Psychology, which went to a multinational team that confirmed empirically that “people who think they are drunk also think they are attractive.”  Their article, “Beauty is in the Eye of the Beer Holder,” was published in the May 15, 2012 issue of The British Journal of Psychology.

A Joint Prize in Astronomy and Biology, awarded to Marie Dacke, Emily Baird, Marcus Byrne, Eric Warrant, and Clarke Scholtz, proves that dung beetles use the Milky Way for navigation; they can push their balls in a straight line when the night sky is clear, but not when it is overcast.

A Probability Prize was given for two related findings: “First, that the longer a cow has been lying down, the more likely that cow will soon stand up; and Second, that once a cow stands up, you cannot easily predict how soon that cow will lie down again.”  Bert Tolkamp of the Netherlands accepted the award and expressed his team’s gratitude for the honor, noting that they need the laughs, since researching cows can be “really boring.”

The Prize in Medicine went to a joint team from China and Japan for proving that post-heart transplant mice survive longer when listening to the Verdi opera, La Traviata, than to the music of Enya. (1)  These findings were chronicled in The Journal of Cardiothoracic Surgery.

The Operatic Heart Transplant team

The Operatic Heart Transplant team

This year’s prize ceremony, like those in the past, sold out early. As South African entomologist, Marcus Byrne, who took part in the dung beetle study, said, “It shows how much people appreciate good science. It doesn’t have to make money. It doesn’t have to save lives. It’s just part of the human condition to be curious.” 

And, I would add, to enjoy a good laugh!

The season begins…

While strolling through Petco this morning to pick up some dog food, I decided to get a new rope toy for Kit, the older of two our two rescue dogs.  She never tires of chewing these things and nagging humans to throw it so she can play fetch.  I rounded a corner and stopped.  Dead in my tracks.  Stunned by the horror spread out before me.  On the dog Halloween costume aisle.

Let’s be clear – I don’t mean all canine Halloween outfits.  Some are funny, and some dogs seem to enjoy the attention.

Courtesy, CC By 2.0

Courtesy, CC By 2.0

What I came upon were princess and ballerina outfits.  I suffered an  instant flashback to the two hour wait I once endured at O’Hare Airport, sitting across from a woman whose poor little dog was dressed in a pink tutu.  I’m serious.  This really happened. I’ve never seen an animal look more miserable outside a vet’s waiting room.

Let’s face it, very few dogs can pull off a tutu with any kind of style and grace:

Courtesy, CC By 2.0

Courtesy, CC By 2.0

Our dogs are both females.  While they appreciate small accessories,  like an understated pumpkin scarf, they know that canine traditions at this time of year go deep – far deeper than any Disney concoction.


They’re both working hard to release their inner wolves on October 31.

Okay, so maybe there’s more work to be done, but credit where it’s deserved.  I think they’re progressing nicely.

Homer in Iceland


Readers of this blog know I am a fan of things Icelandic and a fan of The Simpsons.  I was delighted last night to discover a little known saga on the final show of season 24 of our longest running television show.

If I’d only been more active last week on Facebook, where I follow The Simpsons, I would have been able to pass along advanced notice, but sooner or later, “The Saga of Carl Carlson” will show up on Hulu, so here is a brief description to whet your appetite.

When the gang at Moe’s tavern wins the lottery, Carl mysteriously disappears with the loot.  Lenny, Moe and Homer track him to Iceland, his native country since he was adopted by the Carlson clan as a child.  His pursuers learn that his goal is to clear the family name from a stain in a thousand year old saga.

Greed hangs in the balance with male bonding, but at last Homer speaks up in defense of Carl.  There are some great scenes of volcanoes, tiny horses, and northern lights, as well as appearances by Sigur Ros, the internationally known Icelandic band.  They provide the soundtrack as well, and their own take on the theme song.

Reunited at last back at Moe’s, Homer reflects on the strength of male friendship: “We don’t get together to share our feelings, we come here to escape them!”

“The Saga of Carl Carlson.”  Remember that if you are a Simpson’s fan and missed the show.  Check back on Hulu.  This episode is a lot of fun.

Secondhand Lions: a movie review

“If you want to believe in something, believe in it. Doesn’t matter if it isn’t true.  You believe in it anyway.” Hub McCann (Robert Duvall) in Secondhand Lions

The recent death of country music star George Jones, reminded me of Robert Duvall’s Oscar winning performance in Tender Mercies (1983), the story of an alcoholic country singer who finds redemption with the help of a woman, as Jones did toward the end of his life.

The truth is, I never much cared for Jone’s music, but Robert Duvall is one of my favorite actors.  I started thinking of Secondhand Lions (2003) which also stars Duvall and is one of funniest and most satisfying movies I’ve ever seen.  I have the DVD and watched it again yesterday.  Now I’m wondering why it took me so long to write a review.

*** Spoiler Alert ***

It’s the summer of 1962 when Walter Caldwell, on the cusp of adolescence, is dumped by his irresponsible mother, Mae, at the remote Texas ranch of his two great uncles, Hub (Robert Duvall) and Garth McCann (Michael Caine).

secondhandlions - mom

“The last thing we need is some little sissy boy hanging around all summer,” Garth tells Mae.  Hearing this, Walter’s misery is palpable.  The first part of the movie shows how the trio eventually bonds.

The McCann brothers are rumored to have a hidden fortune, which brings a stream of salesmen and conniving relatives to their door. Hub and Garth spend their days shooting at salesmen, until Walter suggests they listen to one to see what he’s selling.


After listening to a seed salesmen, the trio plants a garden, only to learn they’ve been duped and sold nothing but corn seed.  The result is a huge cornfield they never really wanted.  The uncles also order a lion from a circus supply dealer.  They plan to hunt and kill it to hang its head over the fireplace, though Walter reminds them they don’t have a fireplace.  The lion turns out to be an aged female who is too sick to crawl out of her crate.  It wouldn’t be sporting to shoot her, Garth observes.

Secondhand lions - lion

Walter names the lion Jasmine, after a mysterious woman whose fading photo he finds in an attic trunk.  He nurses Jasmine back to health, and she takes up residence in the cornfield, the closest thing to a jungle in west Texas.  The lioness proves her worth by scaring away a family of greedy relatives, who campaign to have Walter shipped to an orphanage.

The movie would be pleasant enough – and forgettable enough – if it simply dealt with two lonely old men and a fatherless boy filling a void in each other’s lives, but deeper themes comes into play, notably the tension between ideals and what’s real, between story and truth and memory.

At the time Walter found the photo of Jasmine, he spied Hub sleepwalking down to the pond each night, where he brandished a toilet plunger like a sword, challenging invisible enemies.  Garth begins a long story of Hub and Jasmine, that’s like something from the Arabian Nights or a Douglas Fairbanks movie.  Hub rescued Jasmine, a desert princess, from a rich sheik in the Sahara after the two brothers were shanghaied into the French Foreign Legion at the start of World War I.

Garth continues the story in several segments, and Walter finally persuades his uncle Hub to finish it.  He tells Walter how he ran off with Jasmine.  How her jilted suitor, the sheik, sent assassins after the pair until Hub tricked him out of a hundred pounds of gold and defeated him in a duel.  Jasmine died in childbirth a few years later , and Hub never loved another woman.

Just then Walter’s mother returns in the dead of night with her latest boyfriend who claims to be a detective on the trail of the McCann brothers, a pair of infamous bank robbers who left an accomplice named Jasmine to die by the side of the road after she was wounded during a robbery.  When Walter challenges the story, the “detective” hits him.  His time with the uncles has changed Walter, who fights back, and with the last of her strength, Jasmine the lion, rushes to defend her “cub.”

Jasmine’s heart gives out in the struggle – “She died with her boots on,” says Garth.  Mae still wants Walter to come with her, but he’s learning to stand up for himself.  “I want to stay here,” he says.  “For once in your life, do something for me.”

Seventeen years later, Walter is a successful cartoonist, who draws a strip called “Walter and Jasmine,” the adventures of a boy and his lion.  The sheriff calls with bad news – his uncles, both 90 years old, have died in a hair-brained accident – with their boots on.  Walter both weeps and laughs when he learns the details.  The sheriff hands Walter the brothers will, which reads, “The kid gets it all.  Just plant us in the damn garden, next to the stupid lion.”

In the final scene, an oil company helicopter lands, and the son of the sheik from Jasmine’s story steps out.  “I was in Houston on business when I read the news,” he says.  “My father always talked about your uncles.  He called them his most worthy opponents, but I thought they were only stories.  So they really lived?”

“Yeah,” says Walter.  “They really lived.

There are many levels to this seemingly simple movie.  On one hand, some of the antics are hilarious.  It’s also a sensitive coming of age tale.  With the notable exception of Harry Potter, most such stories and movies over the last decade have centered on girls’ awakening.  Unlike Potter, however, Secondhand Lions reflects some of the features we know belonged to classic men’s initiation rites, such as “leaving the house of the mothers to join the fathers.”

But finally, what makes this movie great, and of universal interest to me, is its take on what is real and valuable in the stories we tell.  As Hub says to Walter:

“Sometimes, the things that may or may not be true are the things that a man needs to believe in the most: that people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power, mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love, true love, never dies.  You remember that, boy.  Doesn’t matter if they are true or not.  A man should believe in those things because those are the things worth believing in.”

A solid five stars for this movie.  I haven’t counted lately, but I’m sure it’s still up in my ten best for all time.

Eccentrics, Those Very Peculiar People

Here’s another good one – a thoughtful essay generated by the British sport of extreme ironing.

Malcolm's Corner

Extreme Ironing

Extreme ironing is a peculiarly British activity involving ironing clothes in remote and strange locations. That this activity originated in Britain should be no surprise, as the British have a reputation for producing world class eccentrics such as Oscar Wilde, who was known for taking his pet lobster for a walk on a leash, and Sir George Sitwell, (father of the famous writer Dame Edith Sitwell) who invented a pistol for shooting wasps and painted his cows with a blue willow pattern to make them look better. Unfortunately we live in a world that no longer welcomes non-conformity. Instead we are told what to do, regulated, indoctrinated, sermonized, censored, counted, and under constant surveillance. Budding eccentrics have probably been diagnosed early on as having ADHD and medicated with Ritalin. Gone are the days when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors welcomed eccentrics such his Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I

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