Monday, July 31, 2006

Spam Scams

Treat your password like your toothbrush. Don't let anybody else use it, and get a new one every six months. ~Clifford Stoll

As a network administrator, I find that the most common questions I get all revolve around spam, viruses, and malware. Basically, the questions fall into a few categories:
  1. Why do I get so much spam?
  2. Why do people send out spam?
  3. Why do people create viruses, trojans, spyware, and adware?
  4. What is the physical length of a bit?
Well, actually, I don't get asked that last one at all, but I'm ready for it when it comes.

As to the others, the answers are regrettably easy.

You get a lot of spam because you either a) register at every web site that asks you to; b) got a little spam and tried to “opt out” using the links in the spam; c) downloaded adware that's happily sending your address to every spammer on the planet -- and possibly to other planets as well.

People send out spam because it's a really cheap thing to do. They can send out millions of messages, and all they need is a minuscule return to make money.

People USED to create viruses and the like because it gave them a feeling of power to screw up other people's lives. The image of the pimply-faced kid living in Mon and Dad's basement who sat a computer all day creating viruses and hacking sites so he could spread the stuff more easily wasn't far from the truth. Nowadays, though, there's a new factor.

The same wonderful folks who send out spam are also proliferating viruses and trojans that will turn your machine in a spamming robot, sending out junk to everyone in creation without your being aware of it, until your ISP threatens to cancel your account. So the answer to question three is the same as the answer to number 2: Money.

But, I am often asked, who would be silly enough to respond to these spam messages? Obviously, the same people who are buying those diet pills, hair restorers, ginsu knives and get-rich-quick-schemes from TV ads are going to be fertile ground for people selling cheap drugs, male enhancement products, stock tips, and get-rich-quick schemes via e-mail.

I think the only honest business people on the Internet are the ones running porn sites. At least with them, they're up front about the product. And, since porn has been the most consistently profitable web business almost since day one, somebody is buying into this business model.

It's easy enough to avoid this stuff. For starters, never use your main e-mail address to register anywhere if you can avoid it. Tighten your “cookie” security, because these can contain your e-mail info. Even Internet Explorer lets you approve each cookie that comes by, and you can say “no” to all the cookies from a given site, if you want. Only accept cookies that you absolutely have to. If you must register at some legitimate site, beware of little “opt-in” or “opt-out” check boxes. Make sure you read whether checking the box or clearing the box tells the site not to sell your name.

Get a free alternative e-mail address from one of the many legitimate web sites that provide them. Use that when you must register somewhere. If you start getting tons of spam, cancel the account and start another one, and consider yourself lucky that you had such an easy way out.

“Phishing” scams have become extremely popular. Basically, you get a letter from your bank, stockbroker, PayPal, or similar outlet saying your account has been messed up in some manner, and you need to click on the link below to straighten things out. This will take you to a site that looks exactly like the site you usually use, but it isn't. It's a fake site that will ask you for all your personal information and passwords. After providing this information, you will be able to appear on one of those ads on TV about identity theft.

I mention phishing because it can entrap innocent folks. Banks are doing a much better job of educating online users about what phishing spams look like. Check out your bank's site, and you'll probably find a good section explaining how to recognize these.

What amazes me is that people are falling for blatant con jobs that arrive in their inboxes. Many of these are what are known are “419” or “Nigerian” scams. They were started by some enterprising Nigerian crooks (419 refers to the portion of the Nigerian legal code these crooks are violating). Basically, the scam goes like this: An e-mail arrives from somebody you've never heard of claiming, in stilted but awful English, to be a relative of some former powerful political figure now deceased. It seems that this individual left a lot of dough behind, but the relative can't get it out of the country. So, in return for your help fronting for them, you'll get a percentage of the very large take.

Of course, to do this, they'll need your bank account information and may go so far as to ask for a few thousand bucks of expense money up front to get the machinery rolling. Some people have lost their entire life savings to these thieves.

The thing is that the whole activity, even if it was on the up and up, would be illegal. Yet people jump at the chance, knowing that they're doing something that is at least unethical and probably against the law. As someone (I think it was W.C. Fields) once said, “You can't cheat an honest man.”

Of course, these people may be terminally naive. To them, I offer this bit of advice paraphrased from a story by Harry Anderson, talking about advice he received from his father.

“My son, someday a man will come up to you carrying a sealed deck of cards. He will bet you $10 that he can make the queen of spades jump out of this deck of cards and squirt cider into your ear. Do not bet with this man, my son, for if you do, you will be $10 poorer and have an earful of cider.”

Words to live by.

Friday, July 28, 2006

This Old Hypocrisy – PBS Style

All television is educational television. The question is: what is it teaching? ~Nicholas Johnson
I recall when PBS and its sibling, NPR, were bastions of tolerance, who weren't swayed by ratings, didn't talk about target audiences, didn't change their programs to fit the latest fad, and didn't fear knee-jerk criticism. How times have changed.

It's been going downhill for a while. A couple of years ago, NPR kicked Bob Edwards off “Morning Edition”, a program he had hosted since its inception. What made this firing egregious was that within about four months, the program was going to celebrate a major anniversary (25 or 30 years on the air, I forget the exact number), and here was NPR wanting to “meet their listeners' needs” by firing the host of one of their most popular programs. They met these needs by going to the usual two-host, ping-pong style of news program, using generic voices that could be replaced any old time ratings (which NPR supposedly doesn't care about) dipped.

PBS started airing “reality shows” disguised as historical recreations of living conditions. Prior to that, they had blood-and-guts emergency room shows. The network that was supposed to provide something different seemed to be determined to look just like everyone else.

Now they've fired Melanie Martinez, host of “The Good Night Show” on PBS Kids Sprout network. Before I get to that, I must vent a bit about TV programming for pre-schoolers and infants.

Apparently thanks to their crowded schedules, modern young adults have given up parenting altogether. Sprout is aimed at children 3 and under. My satellite TV provider has introduced “The Baby Channel”, a subscription channel, if you can believe this, for infants. For 10 bucks a month, you can roll the crib in front of a television and never worry about singing, reading, or even talking to your kid. Sprout will save you the trouble of telling bedtime stories, at least as soon as they hire a new storyteller.

This is ridiculous. If people can't cope with raising children, then they shouldn't have any. I wonder what the folks who complained about parents in the seventies letting their kids watch a couple of hours a day of Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers, and the Electric Company, will think about even younger children being raised by the boob tube. I wonder what the modern absentee parents will think when these channels start slipping in subtle commercials so the babies know which cereal to cry for at the market.

At any rate, back to Ms. Martinez. It seems that PBS discovered that the woman in question had appeared in videos called “Technical Virgin.” They were alerted to this by none other than Melanie Martinez herself. From the brief description of the videos in the article, it doesn't sound like she took any clothing off, but she did present mock public service announcements on how women could retain their virginity.

Whooee, that's pretty heavy stuff!

So, for appearing as an actress in a couple of probably R-rated videos before she ever worked for PBS, and for having the temerity to tell PBS about them so they wouldn't be embarrassed when they made the rounds on the Internet, she got unceremoniously canned. According Sandy Wax, network president, “PBS Kids Sprout has determined that the dialogue in this video is inappropriate for her role as a preschool program host and may undermine her character's credibility with our audience (my italics).”

Say, what? Okay, lemme see if I've got this. According to Ms. Wax, her audience, made up of 2 and 3 year olds, are watching adult videos. She has to be talking about the kids, because their parents clearly aren't watching some woman tell preschool bedtime stories.. No, the parents are in the living room watching some tart on the Playboy Channel tell an entirely different level of bedtime story.

So how can Ms. Martinez's “credibility” be affected? Are the few parents who watch the program going to tell their kids that Miss Melanie talked about doing naughty-naughty? If they do, then they have no right to complain about Ms. Martinez, who am I reasonably sure, did not tell her toddler viewers about “Technical Virgin”. So what's really going on here?

Let's go back, waaaaay back, to the sixties. Ivory Snow, a laundry product that I guess is still around (when I do the shopping, I buy what my wife tells me to), had a lovely picture on the box of an angelic blonde woman holding an infant. Come to find out that the woman was Marilyn Chambers, who had not much of a career as a model, but had a pretty notorious one as a star in adult films. In fact, prior to her Ivory Snow gig, she starred in a legendary flick, Behind the Green Door. Now, I can say in all honesty that I've never seen this particular work of art (well, they used to show this sort of thing in “art houses”), but it was apparently pretty raunchy even by the standards of adult movies of the day.

Now, most people didn't have a clue who she was, but the press had a field day, and, of course, prudes were aghast that Ivory Snow would use a picture of this harlot, who very tastefully clothed and in no way suggested anything prurient on this box. Nonetheless, Ivory apologized to the world and removed the boxes from circulation.

Marilyn Chambers, on the other hand, rode the notoriety to more roles in adult films, at much higher pay, along with interviews and a book (I'm pretty sure there was a book; there usually is). For a time, she was better known than Linda Lovelace.

So, I hope that something similar happens to Ms. Martinez. She should parlay this firing into some primetime gigs. Definitely she should hit the talk show route and get started on the book.

Meanwhile, PBS will have to search for a new host who will not offend whoever it is they think Ms. Martinez is offending. Perhaps one of the Teletubbies could fill in.

If Jerry Falwell doesn't mind, that is.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Beard And I

It always seemed to me that men wore their beards, like they wear their neckties, for show. ~D.H. Lawrence

I grew my first beard back in college, around 40 years ago. For more than half of that time I've kept a beard, so I think I have a good idea about what beards are about.

For some people, beards are a fashion; for others, a beard is a mark of independence or rebellion; for others, like me, a beard is all about not having to shave every day. Some of us are more sensible about this whole business.

No one makes much fuss about beards these days, which is okay by me. Back in the sixties, though, we were coming out of a long beardless era in America. In the olden days, we had some presidents with beards or colossal muttonchops hooked on to massive mustachios. But around the turn of the twentieth century, we went all clean-shaved. Perhaps the razors got better. I suspect some of it had to do with the idea that farmers and bumpkins wore beards, so the mark of sophistication was to be naked faced. The mustache, though, never really went out of style, for reasons any shaving man can understand.

You get the best shave from a razor blade. Electric razors, no matter how expensive, always have trouble spots. So a man can either have patchy stubble, or he can grind that electric over and over the offending area to get a modicum of smoothness. With his face on fire, he then splashes raw alcohol disguised as “after shave lotion” on the wound. This is called “refreshing” by the makers of the lotion. If they did this to prisoners of war, it would be outlawed by the Geneva Convention.

The trouble with a blade, on the other hand, is that you are scraping a sharpened piece of metal across your face. Oh, they can encase the blade in all kinds of plastic or a (ha-ha) safety razor, but, sooner or later, you are going to cut yourself. The irony of blade manufacture is that they try to protect you by showing less of the blade, but they keep adding blades to ensure that one is always on your face.

The upper lip is particularly vulnerable area. Ironically, it is the first area where the youthful male actually needs to shave. The first time you nearly remove your upper lip as you emulate the guys in the ads on TV, you begin to think that a mustache isn't a bad idea.

In the 1950's, facial hair was out. A mustache was tolerated in general, but many organizations didn't allow them. My father wore one, but since he was European and spoke with a cosmopolitan sort of accent, most people regarded it as very continental. In high school, facial hair was verboten; even some companies banned any sort of facial adornment. When some baseball players began to grow mustaches, it was regarded as positively scandalous, although it did generate a lot of comparisons with the turn-of-the-century House of David all-Jewish team.

By the end of the fifties, the only people who wore beards were professors (but only if they had the requisite tweed jacket with the leather patch elbows), revolutionaries (preferably with scraggly beards, wearing grungy fatigues), and beatniks (mostly goatees, but occasionally an artistic-looking vandyke). Oh, there were mountain-man types who wore huge bushy beards, and elderly guys who played Santa every year, but otherwise it was Gillette's dream era.

I grew my beard solely out of self-defense and laziness. I would save the time wasted shaving, and I wouldn't bleed so much. Shaving can be dangerous. One evening during my college days, I was playing some rousing operetta music that had a march beat to it. My room was near our shared bathroom. Suddenly, I heard a voice saying, “You know, I like that song, but I wish you wouldn't play it while I'm shaving.” I looked up, and there was a roommate with about a pound of toilet paper stuck to the wounds on his kisser. Seemed that he had started shaving in time to "Stout-hearted Men".

I would remove a beard for any number of reasons. If I was trying to get a summer job, the beard had to go, because interviewers were still pretty square. Later, the usual reason was that the beard had gotten scruffy and my attempt to trim it up had led to rather disastrous results. So off with the beard and start again.

You learn a lot about the human condition when you remove a beard. If you've had the beard for any length of time, your children will not be happy. When I shaved one off, my kids avoided me for a week. But at least the kids notice. Your coworkers are quite another matter. You will learn that no one ever really looks at anyone. One coworker, who had never seen me without a beard, walked up to me a couple of days after I had shaved everything but my upper lip (still thinking defensively, you see) and said, “Hey! You're growing a mustache!”

On other occasions, when I began to regrow a beard soon after removing one, a colleague pproached me and said, “Hey! You're growing a beard!” When I pointed out that I was growing it back, she said, “You had a beard?”

But the unkindest cut of all came from the woman I would one day marry. We had been going together for a couple of months when she said, “Why don't you shave off your beard?”

“Why? Don't you like it?”

“It's fine, but I'd sort of like to see what you really look like, you know, to see what I'm getting into.”

Well, that didn't seem unreasonable, so I shaved off beard and mustache (love will even make you risk your upper lip). I came over to see her the next day. When she opened the door, she didn't say “hello” or “my goodness” or even “did you get a haircut?” No. The first words out of her mouth were:

“Grow it back!”

Now I don't know about your ego, but that's the sort of thing that stomps mine flat. I mean, I have no awful scars or acne. I have the requisite number of noses, eyes, and lips. I even have a dimple in my chin that would make Kirk Douglas envious. But, here was this woman I really liked looking at me in horror! I finally found my voice and said, “What's wrong?!”

“You look five years younger than me!!!”

Well, being that I'm a month older than she is, that was the most unpardonable sin I could commit. I assured her that I would immediately commence to growing the beard back. Of course, when I went out into the business world, I had to shave it again, but I kept the mustache, which helped ease her mind. But, I've kept the beard on for quite a few years now and probably will for the foreseeable future.

Anything to keep the wife happy.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Harry and Tom

In cultural news, bookstores around the country are swamped with orders for the fourth Harry Potter book, "Buy This Book Or Your Children Will Hate You". ~ Dave Barry

Maintaining my usual record of being the last to jump on any hot trend, I just read my first Harry Potter book, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone”. Hey, I only bought my first hula hoop a couple of months ago, and, trust me, that hasn't worked out at all.

I had thus far managed to watch all the hoopla about J. K. Rowling just slide past my consciousness. By the way, did you know Rowling is a woman? Oh, you did. Well, I told you I'm a little behind on these things. At any rate, I realized that not checking out this series would seriously demean my standing as a reader of fantasy. I've read “The Sword of Shanarra”, “The Gormenghast Trilogy”, and C.S. Lewis' space trilogy. I've read the “Lord of the Rings”, including “The Hobbit”. I've even read Tolkein's “Silmarillion”, which is the absolutely dullest fantasy book ever written. Well, it may not be, but if it isn't, I don't ever want to be tasked with reading number one.

I'll also admit to having a certain amount of curiosity as to why some Christians seem to be so affronted by the Potter books. According to some it has to do with the portrayal of magic, witches, and sorcerers in a positive light. To my way of thinking, though, the Potter stories are good old allegories on the battle between good and evil. When C. S. Lewis writes about this, Christians like it; when J. K. Rowling writes about it, some of them hate it. It's difficult to understand, unless one figures that most of the critics of Rowling have never read Lewis or Tolkein.

So Ms. Rowling's alternate universe is one where magic is real. Her characters are still dealing with the same sort of cosmic issues that writers and philosophers have been wrangling over since the first human wrote the first story. Here we have books that teenagers actually want to read, and some of their parents are trying to keep them out of libraries because of some misguided idea that magic is inherently bad. I presume these same people won't let their kids watch David Copperfield (the magician, not the movie) because the little tykes won't understand that he isn't doing real magic.

Enough of that. Let's just say that some people are idiots and leave it at that.

So I read about Harry and that strange stone. I have to say I was impressed. Ms. Rowling has a great writing style. The plot moves along at a spritely pace, the characters are engaging, and the story has a nifty twist. In fact, as others have noted, Ms. Rowling has a mystery writer's touch, which was just a nice extra dimension to a basically entertaining novel.

That being said, I'll probably never read another one.

It's not that the books are written for teenagers; Ms. Rowling isn't writing down to anyone. It's certainly not the magic stuff. In fact, the more of that I got, the more I wanted. No, it's that Tom Sawyer thing all over again.

You see, I enjoy much of Mark Twain's writing, but there were two books I've never cared for: “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn”. It's that Sawyer kid. He is the most annoying character in American literature. He keeps getting his friends into trouble; he's a con artist; he's a sneak. I got sick of that kid. In “Huckleberry Finn”, definitely not the best book Twain ever wrote (and there are a great many literary scholars in American lit who agree with me), at least you see Huck Finn making it on his own. But, Twain writes himself into a corner with no way to end the rambling mess. So what does he do? He drags Tom Sawyer into the story to save the day.

Ugh.

So here I am, reading a book about magic by an Englishwoman, and all I can see is Tom, Becky, and Huck in the guise of Harry, Hermione, and Ron. Now, Harry is more like Tom Swift (loyal, trustworthy, true blue, and clever) than that sneaky bugger Tom Sawyer, so I was able to get through the book. But, try as I might, I couldn't rid myself of the expectation that these kids were going to turn up at their own funeral.

It's a shame, really. Other characters are so entertaining. I'd love to sit down and have a little philosophical chat with Dumbledore. Professor McGonagall, for some reason I am completely unable to fathom, immediately brought to mind my high school chemistry and physics teacher, Mrs. Klamer, who managed to forgive my attempt to burn down the lab.

Hey, it was an accident.

But, I just can't bring myself, at least right now, to read another episode. With every turn of the page, I'd expect to find Harry have to whitewash some fence and conning Hermione and Huck, er, Ron into doing the job for him.

I just couldn't take that.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Again With The Random Ruminations

Anyway, no drug, not even alcohol, causes the fundamental ills of society. If we're looking for the source of our troubles, we shouldn't test people for drugs, we should test them for stupidity, ignorance, greed and love of power. ~P.J. O'Rourke

Some days there is no shortage of inspiration.

Missing the point - I should have been thrilled about this story concerning Tesla Motors. What we have here is a guy who approached the problem from the battery side, borrowing the best technology to make a better battery. This meant ignoring everything Detroit was doing and looking at what the computer guys were doing, because those computer guys really needed small, fast charging, long lasting bateries. So, Tesla develops a car capable of freeway cruising speeds that has a 250 mile range.

Unfortunately, that's not sufficient for company mastermind, Ron Eberhard. He's got to make an electric version of a Ferrari capable of 130 MPH, costing $80,000. Just what we need: Another rich guy's toy. You can't legally go 130 MPH anywhere. At 80 grand, the average person who could actually benefit from an electric vehicle can't afford it. But, of course, the Google boys, Brin and Page (the party plane fellows) who are major investors along with a PayPal founder and an ex-eBay boss, aren't interested in what you and I can afford. They want a trophy to show off to their fellow millionaires.

Think about it. If Eberhard cuts the weight to a mid-size car and limits top speed to, say, 90 MPH, you can probably increase range to 400 miles at a cost per mile that would remind us of buying gas in the 1950's. Instead, he thinks Silicon Valley and Hollywood types are going to dump their roaring Lamborghinis for his silent wonder. Oh, well, maybe someone will buy the place at the bankruptcy sale and do it right next time.

Spaced Out - How stupid does any kid need to be to mess with MySpace? These days, I suspect that half of the MySpace pages belong to equal measures of predators and undercover cops. As if giving your personal information to strangers isn't bad enough, some of these kids post pictures of themselves engaging in illegal activities, while their teachers are posting nude photos of themselves.

It should come as no surprise, given the apparent intelligence deficiency of many MySpace posters, that MySpace placed a banner ad at the top of their main page that will load adware and/or spyware on your system. After all, if these folks are spilling their life histories and personal information or trying to lure someone posting their personal information into illicit activities, they would be unlikely to have anti-spyware or anti-virus programs on their systems.

Sort of like going to a hooker and getting VD, isn't it?

And Now, from the Department-of-the-blindingly-obvious - Evidently, the folks at St. Thomas' Hospital in London, England, got a government grant from the Ministry of Unnecessary Studies. They have discovered that people in the lower social classes age faster than those who aren't. Specifically, doing menial labor (translation: hard work) will age you faster than sitting on your butt being waited on by someone doing menial labor. Mind you, they used DNA analysis to figure this out. Evidently, simply looking at work-worn people compared to those who aren't wasn't sufficiently sophisticated enough to justify their grant.

What next? Let's see, they could determine that people who live in famine areas have less body fat than people who live in Beverly Hills. Or they might check out the possibility that people who can't read have trouble getting jobs as CEO's. I tell you, the possibilities are endless.

FEMA has competition - How's this for an opening line to an article: "The Homeland Security Department wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars last year on iPods, dog booties, beer-making equipment and designer jackets, congressional investigators have concluded." Yes, those people who are guarding our lives by perusing our phone records, in a department that was created to eliminate duplication and waste while improving cooperation between law enforcement agencies, appear to have spent most of their time making the wasting of money more efficient instead.

Ten thousand of these people have government-issue American Express cards with a spending limit of --and it's in the article, so I am not making this up -- $250,000. This is like locking a kid in a candy store and expecting him not to stuff himself sick.

Not to be completely outdone, FEMA was also mentioned in the investigation for, among other things, losing 12 of 20 boats they bought for $200,000. To think that people allowed themselves to be conned into voting the Republicans into power based on their promises to cut waste and reduce government bureaucracy.

Finally, an appropriate medium for ads - Just in case you're ready to barf after that last section, US Airways is going to start putting advertising on their vomit bags, so you'll have something to peruse while you're ... well, you know. There's something wonderfully appropriate about this particular ad placement. It's a little hard to understand, though, exactly when the victim, er, US Airways customer is going to find time to read the cleverly place intelligence.

I mean, let's face it. When you're ready to use the bag, you're not going to stop, read the Dramamine plug, and think, "Gee, I wish I'd taken some of that." If you do, you're liable to make your fellow victims, er, passengers very upset with you for having delayed using the bag. And if you wait until after making your deposit, you're really not likely to spend a lot of time examining the stupid bag then.

Oh, you say, the vic-er, passenger will read the bag before taking off. Right. I know the airline magazine they put in the seat pocket is insipid, but are you really going to read the sicky bag as an alternative?

What next? An ad stuck to the oxygen mask dropping from the ceiling that says, "Next time -- if there is a next time -- take the train."

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Independent Studies

Education should be exercise; it has become massage. ~Martin H. Fischer

Auburn University is in trouble. Just how much trouble depends on whether you think an educational institution should actually worry about educational matters or whether everything that happens at a college revolves around athletics.

For the rest of the world, allow me to explain how Auburn fits in the great scheme of things down here. Auburn is Alabama's other football factory, living in the shadow of the University of Alabama. Even with the recent problems of the Crimson Tide coupled with the success of the Tiger's program, Auburn is “the other school” to the majority of Alabamians. To put things in perspective, Montgomery is just slightly farther from Auburn than Birmingham is from Tuscaloosa. Yet you will find many more Bama fans in Montgomery than you will Auburn fans.

When I first came down here, I was led to believe that Auburn was the superior educational institution, even if the football team wasn't up to snuff. Strangely, as the football team has gotten better, it seems that the educational program has gone down the tubes. A couple of years ago, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) put the school on probation because of mismanagement and micromanagement by the trustees, who seemed to insinuate themselves into every little detail of the school, particularly the sports programs. All of this bad management was not helping educational efforts at the school.

As a result of the nationally embarrassing attempt by the president of the university to fire coach Tommy Tuberville, for, horror of horrors, having a mediocre season, both the president and the athletic director were invited to take their services elsewhere. It seems that this pair of geniuses didn't see any potential problems with interviewing a coach still under contract to another school without said school's permission.

Enter interim president Ed Richardson, former State Superintendent of Schools. His priorities were clear from the start: Improve the athletic programs. He went about ensuring that Coach Tuberville (who went 11-0 the next season) got a big raise and contract extension, firing the basketball coach (who had time remaining on his contract), and firing the baseball coach.

Oh, I know. Supposedly these things were done by the new AD. But if you think he made moves without direction from the university president, you don't know much about big-time college athletics.

So Auburn athletics looked happy (aside from the amount they were paying to ex-coaches fired with time left on their contracts). Meanwhile, the educational side was imploding.

The other day a story broke about a sociology instructor or professor named, I think, Gundlach. I say, “I think”, because for reasons I will explain as we go along, he has disappeared from this story. It seems that Prof. G, we'll call him, was unhappy because a criminology professor by the name of Peete, who happens to the the interim (seems everyone at Auburn these days is “interim”) chair of Prof. G's department, supposedly gave a couple of hundred “independent study” courses. Independent study courses, where a student gets a reading list and prepares some work based on that on his/her own, are common enough. For one professor to have 152 of these courses in a given semester, though, is not common.

Prof. G felt that Prof. Peete was demeaning the sociology department by his actions.

By the way, the “sociology” department is my term; the department actually includes criminology, sociology, anthropology, and social work. Most schools have one of these catch-all departments, which fill out a curriculum but are not currently highly supported. Different schools have different areas in their catch-all; this set is Auburn's.

At any rate, because no one seemed to be listening to him, Prof. G decided to perform an analysis which showed that 20% of the students taking Prof. Peete's “courses” were athletes. Then, conveniently enough, this report got leaked to the New York Times. Of course, Prof. G claims he has no idea how they got hold of the information. Suddenly, instead of a boring academic squabble, we've got an athletic scandal!

Bullpuckey. Look at it this way. Eighty percent of the students in these courses were non-athletes. The athletes didn't get particularly high grades in the courses. In other words, the word got out that Prof. Peete was giving “cake” coursework, and some of the athletes jumped on the bandwagon. What gets lost in making this an athletic scandal is that Prof. G's statistics also showed a number of these courses in other departments, again not just offered for athletes. Seems like there is a lot of independent studying going on at Auburn.

What we've got here is an educational problem, not an athletic one. The intermim adinistration's focus on athletics may have allowed this sort of hanky panky to go unnoticed by the powers that be, but athletes didn't benefit to any obvious extent based on Prof. G's own data, evidently. I say “evidently” because I can only go on a summary of his statistics given by a Birmingham reporter who interviewed him.

The funny bit comes now. It seems that things got a little out of hand. The sports pages in Montgomery and Birmingham are full of the story; the New York Times is reporting it; everyone is up in arms one way or the other. It also turns out that the school, according to interim-President Richardson was already investigating the matter.

Oddly, Prof. G seems to have disappeared from the story. According to the reporter, Prof. G has declined to participate in the ongoing investigation of Prof. Peete's courses, saying he's provided his data and sees no reason to explain it further. His name no longer appears in articles on the subject.

I don't know what Prof. G's motives were, and I don't care. What he did was take a genuinely questionable academic situation, having little or nothing to do with providing favors to athletes, and blew the athletics part completely out of proportion in order to get attention. He has set the stage for the school to announce that there are no NCAA violations (of course there aren't; the courses were available to everyone and the athletes didn't get favorable treatment). Therefore, case closed.

And once that dust has settled, what will become of Prof. G and interim department chair Peete? If I were to hazard a guess based on what I know of academic politics, Prof. G, who was reported to have personal differences with Prof. Peete prior to making his concerns public, will be teaching sociology somewhere else. Prof. Peete, after scaling back his activities for a while, will return to giving his “independent study” courses by the boatload.

I hope it doesn't go down like that. It would be much better for Auburn to remember that they are an educational institution and that they should clean up their educational house with the same gusto with which they approached improving athletics. Perhaps, they will, but given the behavior of large universities in recent years, I doubt it. Worrying about academics would interfere with school presidents worrying over making the BCS bowl games and raking in enough athletic revenues to pay for their egregious athletic outlays.

After all, they've got to pay all those ex-coaches somehow.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Stupidity: Corporate Division

At some time in the life cycle of virtually every organization, its ability to succeed in spite of itself runs out. ~ Richard H. Brien

How stupid are corporations? Plenty stupid. Now, you probably want to say, “Oh yeah? Well, if they're so stupid how do they get so rich and powerful?” How about through connivance, unethical behavior, purchasing politicians to pass favorable legislation, and so on? Sure, most companies that succeed do so initially by providing good products and/or services at a reasonable price. But, sooner or later, they all seem to slip, getting lazy and short-sighted, resorting to the tricks and games mentioned above to dominate a market and keep going. Even the ones that do the right things to get successful frequently treat their employees badly on the way up, prior to firing most of them on the way down.

The dot-com bust was a laboratory that demonstrated the process over and over again. Because things happened so quickly, companies came from nowhere, dissipated themselves, screwed their employees while making their executives rich, and disappeared into the night. A few like Intel, Microsoft, and Dell crushed their competitors through illegal tactics (like Microsoft) or by incredible marketing tactics (like Dell), acquiring then dismantling competitors (Microsoft), or some combination thereof (Intel, although AMD spoiled their party by making better, cheaper products, then suing Intel's brains out to stay in business).

Or, away from Silicon Valley, there's Enron which had to be the biggest scam ever perpetrated on this country. Despite trying to purchase every politician they could, their excesses and illegal tactics ultimately grew so egregious that they the whole rotten structure collapsed.

Because corporations are so powerful, their leaders are arrogant to a remarkable degree. Sometimes this catches up with them, although the executives seldom suffer. Even companies in bankruptcy have the gall to go to bankruptcy court begging for huge bonuses for top managers so they can prevent them from leaving. Think about that. The corporate bosses think that it's a good idea to pay huge bucks to the very people who got them into this mess. Now that's chutzpah, brother.

We get evidence all the time, it seems, about corporate stupidity, but lately there seems to be a bit of an epidemic. Here are some examples.

National Semiconductor recently gave all their employees video iPods. Employees were led to believe that these were given as a reward for its best fiscal year ever. However, when, after their best fiscal year ever, they laid off 35 workers at one plant, the company demanded the return of the iPods. They had been given solely for employees to be able to enjoy words of wisdom from company execs in the form of podcasts.

So, let's see if we've got this straight. You give everyone a gift and don't make clear that it's no more “theirs” than their phones or desks. Then, after a record-setting year, you're laying off people and taking back the toys you gave them. That should certainly help employee morale.

Mastercard has decided to change their logo. This is not a cheap process, probably costing the company millions between paying consultants to come up the new logo, replacing all the stationary, reprinting company literature, and sending out new materials to merchants to replace their old logo. And what is the change? They added a third circle that is transparent and overlaps the two existing circles. Mastercard's reasoning for the change is as follows:

The three circles of the new corporate logo build on the familiar interlocking red and yellow circles of the MasterCard consumer brand, and reflect the company's unique, three-tiered business model as a franchisor, processor and advisor.
Unique business model? I guess they've never heard of Visa and American Express. And, of course, people looking at this new logo (those that actually notice the change) will immediately say to themselves, “Gee, I didn't realize Mastercard had a three-tiered business model.”

Then, there's Apple, who is being sued in two separate suits by shareholders for playing fast and loose with stock options. Apparently having learned nothing from the dot-com fiascoes involving stock options, Apple executives decided to turn back the clock and reward themselves in a manner that did some sort of violence to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. The company has already admitted that perhaps they engaged in some hanky-panky and is conducting an internal investigation. The stockholders, though, who aren't being rewarded with guaranteed instant capital gains, have decided to take matters into their own hands.

And McAfee, the anti-virus people, is being investigated by the SEC for doing the same sort of thing.

And then there's Google. Google, whose slogan is supposed to be “Do no evil” or some such malarkey, has already come under fire for knuckling under to China's censorship demands, so that Chinese citizens can't spend their time looking up such prurient terms as “democracy.” But, recently it came to light that the founders got into a hair-pulling argument (figuratively speaking) over what sort of beds should be in the corporate jet. The corporate jet is a Boeing 767. CEO Eric Schmidt, last seen running Novell into the ground, settled the argument by saying the spoiled brats could each have whatever kind of bed they wanted in their individual bedrooms.

A 767 with individual bedrooms for each executive? No wonder Schmidt referred to the thing as a “party plane.” A few years from now, Microsoft will engage in whatever predatory practice is necessary to cut Google down to size. Or, thanks to the U.S. Congress pandering to the telcos and squelching the concept of Internet neutrality, Google will have to shell out millions to have sufficient bandwidth to operate. Or, maybe they'll have shady financial dealings of their own that will bring down the wrath of the SEC and their stockholders. In any event, that 767 is going to look pretty silly gathering dust on some runway. Oh, well, maybe they'll be able to peddle it to some oil company.

Of course, the greed of the oil companies may finally push people over the edge, and the demand for alternative energy sources could reach critical mass. All-electric vehicles and homes getting their electricity from fuel cells would make for a lot of excess petroleum looking for a buyer.

Like I said, corporations are stupid.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Illiteracy

If you think education is expensive, try ignorance. ~Attributed to both Andy McIntyre and Derek Bok

Many years ago, I read a science fiction story about a future where the world was made up of a small number of intelligent people secretly controlling a population of morons. The morons thought they were the corporate chiefs, government heads, and, generally, speaking, the people in charge. The intelligent types acted as secretaries and underlings but actually kept the morons from hurting themselves too badly, all while plotting to leave the planet altogether and leave the idiots to fend for themselves.

Looking back at that story, which was written in the 1930's, I came to realize it was essentially a racist story, since the population of morons came about because the intelligent people stopped having many children while the poor (who would be mostly made up of minorities) bred like rabbits. It's not that the author was an overt racist; he did not, for example, characterize the dummies as being primarily black, Hispanic, or central European. I think he had an attitude typical of the time, a sort of remnant of the "white man's burden" line of thought fostered by colonial powers. There were simply people who were superior, who happened to be primarily Anglo-Saxon types.

I wonder if the author lived long enough to see an America where stupidity seems to be an equal opportunity enterprise, crossing all boundaries of race, creed, or political belief. And it's not getting any better.

One of the hooks of the story were signs, newspapers, and books written in phonetic spelling, like "Kan u imajin a werld wher peepl kan't spel?" The author knew that if he wanted to portray a magnificently stupid society, showing that they couldn't even master the grammar and spelling of their own language would do the trick.

Well, kiddies, there are people who think that ignorance is a good thing. Of course, it is not called "ignorance". It's dignified by the term "simplified spelling." Unbelievably, a group calling itself the "American Literacy Council" favors the so-called "simplified spelling" because it will somehow make people more literate. How a person who spells "requires" as "reqierz" is going to be able to read, say, Moby Dick is rather hard for me to comprehend.

This spelling scheme was created by that well-known expert on education, Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie, who made his money in steel, got very philanthropic in his late life, in an attempt to atone for his egregious business policies, which included hiring goons to shoot at his own workers when they struck for better pay and working conditions. It is indicative of those times (as was the story I mentioned above) that a man with the intelligence of Theodore Roosevelt actually tried to get government agencies to issue reports using this idiotic scheme.

You know, I'm running out of synonyms for "stupid".

There is no such thing as a simple language. English is somewhat worse than some of the others, primarily because it has borrowed words and constructs from so many other languages. But, that borrowing also gives it power. In many languages, a word's usage can determine its meaning. Context becomes very critical, and clarity can be difficult. English has many alternative words that can be used to make sure that the meaning is precise. The fact that "comb" and "tomb" are spelled alike but pronounced differently is a small price to pay for that kind of precision.

Unbelievably, the supporters of this nonsense maintain that languages like Spanish and German are simply phonetic. I presume that they have never actually spoken or read these languages. German, in particular, with its artificially constructed words is not a simple language. The Spanish I learned in the eighth grade seemed to have a lot of variation in the way certain letters were pronounced. If they really want to look at "La Jolla" (pronounced "La Hoya") and tell me that Spanish spelling is purely phonetic, they need their heads examined.

To say that it takes American children months or years to learn to spell when it takes Spanish or German children weeks is ludicrous. American children come into kindergarten now knowing their alphabet and simple phonics just from watching Sesame Street. Has our educational system fallen so far that it can't take it from there?

For hundreds of years, children have managed to learn to read and speak the language properly despite these difficulties. Yet, according to the "simplified spelling" loons, they are now not smart enough to learn what a child in a one-room schoolhouse could master. They extol spellings like "nite" (for "night") and "donut" (for "Krispy Kreme") as major advances. In most cases, those sorts of spellings were created to fit headlines and billboards better, not because they were any sort of "improved" spelling. They ignore the fact that, while spelling evolves over time, that doesn't mean that changing all of spelling at once is a good thing.

Remember the Ebonics nonsense of the Oakland, California, school system? Rather than realize the importance of teaching inner city kids to communicate with clarity, they wanted to teach them using street slang, which changes on a daily basis and is frequently unclear even to those who use it. There's nothing wrong with slang; kids, in particular, have always used it as a way to talk in code around adults. But day-to-day slang is ill-equipped to convey complex ideas. Moreover, limiting the student's horizon to slang or some idiotic spelling scheme virtually closes the door to tens of thousands of great works.

What next? Big numbers are tough. So what say we only teach kids to count to ten. And we don't really need to learn addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division because we have computers to do that stuff. Of course, someday no one will no how to design and build computers, but, by golly, they'll be able to count to ten!

I hope they implement the math changes soon. I'll make a killing at the store "helping" the clerk figure out how much change to give me. I'd pay for a candy bar with a twenty dollar bill.

"Let's see, it says on the screen that your change is $18.75. Ummm...."

"No problem. Just give me eight of those five dollar bills and we'll call it square."

Hay, a gie's gaht too dew wot it tayks too get ahed.

Monday, July 10, 2006

A Yankee Amongst the Magnolias – 3

The only gracious way to accept an insult is to ignore it; if you can't ignore it, top it; if you can't top it, laugh at it; if you can't laugh at it, it's probably deserved. ~J. Russel Lynes

There are three things Northerners don't understand about the South. First, they don't understand barbecue; second, they don't understand the terms hillbilly and redneck. Third, they don't understand how to use “y'all”. Well, I tell a lie. Actually there are a lot of things Northerners don't understand about the South, but these are the only three I'm going to talk about. Barbecue first.

The Food Channel has worked hard to educate people about barbecue, but even that source complicates the issue at times. Barbecue up North is a dismal affair. Most often, it's some sort of overcooked meat soaking in a ketchup sauce served on a bun. It's a kind of sloppy joe without character. I'm no expert on the preparation of barbecue, but I know what I like. And what I like is only available when you go South.


Barbecue is served in Alabama with no sauce. The sauce is on the table, and, in my humble opinion, the non-sweet sauces with serious bite are the best, the hotter the better. Some of the best barbecue I've had was found at a gas station in Union Springs, Alabama. I don't know how they prepared it, but it had more flavor in the meat than I've ever come across. Their idea of sauce was a bottle of Tabasco on the side.

Good barbecue places will never insult you by putting their sauce on the 'cue without asking first. Generally, it'll be served in a styrofoam cup on the side so you can determine how much you want. Good barbecue places are simple, but they pride themselves on their side dishes. Great cole slaw, brunswick stew, and other goodies can fill out the meal. But, for me, just bring on the meat, and I'll be happy. I've had wonderful ribs in Montgomery and fantastic chopped pork in Selma, but the most unusual place was in Oneonta.

Evidently, this place had been a Dairy Queen or some such in the past. When they folded, a barbecue place moved in. You paid for a sandwich or a meal then went to the buffet and served up yourself. You could stuff yourself silly there, and it was good 'cue. I don't recall the name of the place (I was only there once), but if you're ever in Oneonta, just ask someone.

Now about rednecks and hillbillies. When I lived in Virginia, I learned that the ultimate insult you could deliver was to call someone a redneck. Virginians are a reasonably genteel group, although there are areas up in the mountains where folks are liable to shoot first and ask questions later. But while some of their compatriots may not be as gentrified as they, most Virginians will never stoop to calling them rednecks. This insult is normally reserved for West Virginians, who have never been forgiven for choosing to remain in the Union when the rest of the state seceded at the start of the Civil War (or, as it is known in some parts of the South, “The Recent Unpleasantness”). So, in Virginia, redneck is a fightin' word.

In Alabama, on the other hand, redneck is taken altogether differently. I discovered this fairly quickly. On my first trip to the state, I was listening to a Montgomery rock 'n' roll radio station on a Friday afternoon. Suddenly, the DJ came on and hollered, “All right, you rednecks! It's Friday!” Definitely not an insult down here.

It seems that if you want to look down your nose at someone here, you call him (or her) a hillbilly. Now, my wife is from Kentucky, where there are a lot of hillbillies. True hillbillies have one leg shorter than the other so they can keep level while running around the mountains. Well, that's not true, but I can't use that line when my wife can hear me, so I had to get it out of my system. I'm not sure what Kentuckians call someone when they're mad at them, but I don't think you can hear it over the shooting.

To Northerners, though, everyone is a redneck, thanks mostly to Jeff Foxworthy, who is funny guy, but, to be truthful, by his descriptions, a lot of people in Minnesota could be considered rednecks. A Yankee visiting south of, say, Columbus, Ohio, could get himself into a lot of unnecessary trouble by incorrect use of terms. I mean, there you are, in White Hall, Alabama, just stopped in their notorious speed trap, so you try to ingratiate yourself to the local constable by telling him you're just love the hillbilly folks around here.

You'd be amazed how many things you can be fined for in the average traffic stop.

Or you could be cruising through Mt. Sidney, Virginia, when a Sheriff's deputy pulls you over to tell you your license plate light is out. Telling him you're proud to meet a redneck like him in this fine state is not a good thing to do.

Do you know there are hundreds of reasons they can confiscate your car?

Oh, and if you think you can fake a good Southern accent in an attempt to ingratiate yourself, let me tell you right now that Northerners will always trip on “y'all”. Don't use it because you'll screw up and give yourself away in a New York minute.

“Y'all” is used when referring to more than one person. A Southerner talking to a single person will never say, “Will y'all have some more tea?” If however, he wishes to ask after you and your family, he'll say, “How y'all doing?” And Southerners never, ever say “You all”. It's “y'all”, period. Northerners seem to get their understanding of Southern argot from Bugs Bunny cartoons. Now I love Bugs Bunny like a fuzzy brother, but his Southern accent is a tragedy. The Bronx Bunny is at his best when he sticks to his native slang.

If y'all insist on coming to visit us down here, just smile and eat your barbecue. And mind the speed limit, because those signs that say “Speed Limit Strictly Enforced” apply specifically to cars with license plates from states north of the Mason-Dixon line.

Jes' some advice from a l'il ole country boy in Alabama.

Friday, July 7, 2006

A Yankee Amongst the Magnolias – 2

Progress is man's ability to complicate simplicity. ~Thor Heyerdahl

I lived in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia for four years. At least, I think I did. The term “Shenandoah Valley” has a rather loose definition in Virginia. If you ask anyone from the Shenandoah River to Roanoke whether they live in the Valley, most will say, “Well, sure, Bo” (“Bo” is what the reg'lar folks in the Valley say). Living halfway between Staunton and Harrisonburg, I think we were pretty much in the Valley, even though the Shenandoah River was nowhere in sight.

It was there (in the Valley) that I met the Mennonites. Mennonites are a religious group that believes in living in the simple ways of the past. They live in communities together, avoid the use of new machines, electricity, and telephones, and ride around in horse-and-buggy rigs. One lesson one learns early in Virginia is to be very careful when driving at night. Many of the roads in the Valley twist and turn around the foothills of the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains. One could come around a corner and be confronted by an optic-orange triangle mounted on the back of a horse-drawn carriage at any moment.

To people who don't know, Mennonites seem to be a lot like the Amish. Well, there were a fair number of Amish folks in Ohio not too far from where I grew up. I thought they lead an austere existence until I met Mennonites; these people made the Amish look like party animals.

Now before you get all uptight, I'm not mocking either group. In fact, I admire their sense of family and community and respect their intense faith. In fact, in many way, these groups are the models for the virtues I admire in the South. Unfortunately, what with the encroachment of big business, television, and other outside influences, those values are even starting to slip down here. But, a lot of folks are gamely hanging on, so when the nation does go to hell in a handbasket, the South will be the last to go.

But, I really wanted to tell a story about the Mennonites. To outsiders, they seem utterly serious, contemplative, and withdrawn into themselves. Of course, the truth is different, and I'm sure the Mennonites don't care what we unwashed heathens think, but I still want to set the record straight.

One evening, I had to get some sort of household item, so I did what anyone else would do in our neck of the woods; I headed over to the Nichols store. You've probably never heard of Nichols unless you live in Ashtabula (Ohio), Harrisonburg (Virginia), someplace in New Jersey (I forget the town, but it might have been Trenton), or Walla Walla (Washington). Nichols was an early K-Mart-style store, with four conveniently located locations, one near each of the aforementioned cities. How they got there and why they put two of them near towns with populations around 10,000 people (Ashtabula and Harrisonburg), I'll never know, but there it was, so there I went.

As I drove into the parking lot, I glanced over at the hitching posts. Just about every aggregated parking area between Staunton and Harrisonburg had hitching posts for the Mennonite buggies. I always wondered what they'd be doing at Nichols, with its modern clothes, toys, and electrical gadgets. That night I would find out.

I had just wandered into the store and was looking at some stuff in a rack when the family came in. They were led by the patriarch, a tall man with the typical Lincoln-style beard. He and three sons were dressed in black suits with white collarless shirts buttoned to the neck, topped off with their traditional flat brimmed black hats. Five women were with them, led by the matriarch, all dressed in a bluish gray dress with a white apron and the tiny white bonnet on their heads. The youngsters ranged in age from around 11 to perhaps 20, with the girls and boys evenly dispersed by age. And they were indeed a somber group.

Father turned and said something quietly to Mother and gestured in a way that clearly meant, “You womenfolk stay right here.” He then turned and led his sons toward the hardware department. No sooner had he cleared the corner than the women broke for the women's clothing section, which was nearby. One stayed back a little to keep watch while the others zoomed in on the racks of colorful and outrageous styles (hey, this was the '80's). Now, I would have expected a little sighing and quiet longing for the bright fashions, but I was wrong. All of them, including Mother, were giggling like, well, little girls.

They were having a jolly old time, presumably imagining how Aunt Sissy would look in this garish blouse or how scandalous it would be to be seen wearing slacks. Whatever it was, they were having a gay time of it for several minutes, when the lookout went, “SHHH! SHHH! SHHH!” In a thrice, they had gotten back to about where they were when Father left them.

Father appeared, holding an ax handle, which I was sure he had inspected thoroughly, since he had taken an inordinately long time just to pick up a single item. Trailed by the boys, he stopped in front of the women. He said nothing but seemed to take note of the fact that they were not exactly in the same position that he had left them. He looked over their heads in the general direction of the women's clothing, looked for a moment at Mother, turned and headed for the checkout counter.

As they left, I realized that these are happy people! Oh, they may look all sober and serious, and I was sure then as I am now that they are reverent and not frivolous. But, tediously somber people do not giggle. They may sigh longingly and wish they could have the fineries, but they don't snicker and laugh and have a good old time at the expense of Nichols fashion buyers.

Now I'm not saying I'm ready to return to the land, give up electricity and indoor plumbing, and work the farm from dawn to dusk. What I am saying is we don't need to think these folks are somehow humorless and tortured just because they maintain a serious attitude in the face of strangers. Obviously, many, perhaps most, of them are happy and content with their lives, which is more than a lot of people can say. There's always been one thing I would have liked to have known, though.

As I said, Father was gone for quite a while. I've always wondered if, while the womenfolk were giggling about the bright colors and short skirts, he and the boys were ogling the power tools.

You know how it is with men. Always lusting over something.

Wednesday, July 5, 2006

A Yankee Amongst the Magnolias - 1

Then, there's the “We're from Cleveland,” people who never get to see rivers burn any more. What they do is rent a raft and float down Atlanta's scenic Chattahoochee River. At lunch time they pour gasoline on the water and roast wienies. ~ Lewis Grizzard

At the earliest opportunity, I left the land of the burning river (yes, the river in Cleveland really caught fire) to move south. I eventually landed in Alabama after a four-year sojourn in Virginia. I liked Virginia, and I like Alabama. I am not going back to Cleveland. Ever.
There are Northerners who cannot cope with the fact that it's nicer down South. People are nicer, the weather is nicer, the roads are nicer. Let's take those one at a time.

Yes, we have hurricanes, which are not fun. In Ohio, though, they have blizzards, which have high winds and last longer. Our roads are nicer because without the extremes of heat and cold during the year and without snow plows gouging into them, we have fewer potholes. Without salt on the roads, our cars last longer, too. And the people are friendlier, easier to get along with, and willing to give you the shirt off their back. I don't know why Northerners are so surly, but I suspect it has something to do with saying good-bye to the sun in November and not seeing it again until May.

Yes, the river really did catch on fire. Honest.

Each southern state has its own personality. Take Virginia, for instance. Virginia is steeped in history, almost to the point of obsession. Remember the Bicentennial where communities in the Eastern half of the country put up historical markers identifying every rock and stump that had anything to with the American Revolution? Well, Virginia already had those in abundance, plus they raise the ante with Civil War memorials everywhere you turn.

The week I arrived in Staunton, they were re-enacting the “Flight of the Virginia Legislature” at the start of the Revolution. The re-enactment consisted of two guys dressed 1776-style on horseback who rode from Richmond to Staunton to someplace else, spending the night at the local Holiday Inn at each stop, an amenity denied to the original Legislature during their flight.

Virginia does have its share of idiosyncrasies. For starters, they have a strange relationship between counties and cities. It stops just short of armed warfare but not by much. The entire time I lived in Virginia, there was always some county in court to prevent some city from taking its land. Basically, a city can annex county land by simply saying it wants to. They do this because the cities are old and cramped, so if they want to add industry (and the attendant tax revenue), they have to put the grab on county land, preferably some that already has tax-paying industry on it. The counties, of course, don't like this so they go to court. Everyone files briefs for a couple of years, then a judge says they've got to have a vote on alternative land grab options.

One would think that they would simply have a law that says this and cut out the lawyers, but the county state legislators and the city state legislators can't agree on how the law should work. This disagreement has been going on for over two hundred years, so it's unlikely to change anytime soon.

Virginians also can't seem to spell their towns like they pronounce them. Staunton, for example, is prounced “stanton” not “stawnton” as one might expect. Swoope is pronounced “swope” with a long “o”, not “swoop”. But the award winner was McGaheysville, pronounced “mcgackeysville”. How an “h” got transformed into a “ck” sound is completely beyond me.

Yes, the river caught fire as in “it burned and had to be put out.”

But, Shenandoah Valley folks may be the friendliest in the entire country. For instance, I once was considering camping out for a couple of days during a vacation so I wouldn't have a long drive to go fishing. Somehow I had managed to land myself in an area of the state that was at least an hour from any major lakes, so I decided to rough it, which I didn't look forward to doing because I am not a “rough it” kind of person. Fortunately, Hal, a co-worker, heard about this and gave me a call to tell me I could use his trailer down at the lake. He was sorry to say I would have to pay a fee for its use because the campground only allowed family to use it for the basic fee. The cost? One dollar a day. I told him I thought I could manage it.

At any rate, I had a great week in his camper. On Saturday he came down to spend the weekend and got very peeved at me because I had brought my own food. I said, “Well, I couldn't go eating up your stuff and leave you with nothing.” Nonsense, he said, he had plenty of food and besides, he had invited me to stay as a guest. Guests don't have to bring their own food. Maybe a little desert, but not a week's worth of groceries.

That's a Virginian for you.

Okay, okay, you really want to know about the river. The Cuyahoga River winds its way through the industrial section of Cleveland. By the 1960's, it was phenomenally polluted with industrial waste, sewage, and whatever other runoff material you care to name. It was orange and stunk, and mutant fish were appearing. In the summer of 1967, I believe it was, it caught fire. No one really knows how it caught fire, but flames rose high enough to mangle a railroad trestle about 200 feet above the river. The weird thing was watching them trying to put it out. They had fire boats on the river pumping river water on the fire. Somehow that didn't seem like the method most likely to work, but I guess the junk that was burning was floating on top of the slightly less gunky water underneath.

I don't know of anyone else's river catching fire, but I wish to heaven someone's would because I'm sick and tired of people asking me if it's true that the river caught fire. I mean, would you make up something like that about where you came from?