Wednesday, June 28, 2006


Iced Coffee Wars


I loathe McDonald's.

To me, McDonald's epitomizes the worst of American capitalism. It is a shark-like, expand-or-die corporate juggernaut seeking relentlessly to create a world empire to sell an addictive product that promotes ill health and obesity, while pillaging the environment, undermining commercial and agricultural diversity, creating enormous waste with its excessive packaging, and appealing to lowest common denominator tastes. Plus the food sucks.

Okay, so maybe it tastes good in a flavor-engineered, can't -eat-just-one, corn-chip sort of way. But I haven't liked the food for years, and ate my last quarter pounder several years ago. I set foot in McDonald's occasionally, but only to use the bathrooms -- which are consistently clean, I'll give them that -- and if they seem to be enforcing a customer's only bathroom policy, I'll buy a small Coke or small fries.

So why did I go into a McDonald's today?

I stopped in McDonalds' while making the beautiful drive eastward from Albany through the Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts on my way to Northampton. I was stoked for this drive by a medium Dunkin Donuts iced coffee. For well over a year now, Dunkin Donuts has been my steady BARIC ("Best Available Road Iced Coffee"). Readers of this blog know how important iced coffee is to me. When I'm on the road, in unfamiliar surroundings, I can count on Dunkin's iced coffee to be consistently refreshing and tasty. It's now a standard offering in all Dunkin Donuts stores, and they've established a consistent quality, and trained their counter workers to make it reliably.

Dunkin's very good iced coffee will never be great, given that it's hot-brewed then chilled. The very best iced coffee -- such as the Grandma Moses iced coffee pictured in my avatar -- is cold-filtered. But Dunkin's is better than pretty much anything else that's widely available (including Caribou Coffee, whose purportedly cold-filtered iced coffee is mediocre).

The corporate people at Dunkin Donuts have finally realized that they have a real asset. Iced coffee is a popular item in the summer. It has (I'm guessing) a higher profit margin than hot coffee, since the drink, bulked up with ice, can fetch a higher retail price for less net liquid than hot brew. And with the right marketing, it could probably be turned into a year round drink. I drink it year round, and I'm no freak. Well, maybe at least a 3-season drink.

Anyway, Dunkin's marketing people are hitting the iced coffee hard. And ominously, for them, some other corporate people have taken notice.

Above: Dunkin Donuts populist iced coffee marketing strategy promotes a "do it yourself" culture, using Dunkin's own blend. The recipe? Hot brew at double strength, chill, then add an equal amount of water.

Below: Dunkin's broader coffee war includes attack ads aimed at the low-end competition.

* * * * *

When I drove past the first billboard, I thought I must have been hallucinating. When the same billboard ad came up further along the road, I slowed down to make sure I was reading it right.

It was true: McDonald's -- McDonald's! -- was pushing a new addition to its menu: iced coffee! But not just any iced coffee -- "Newman's Own" Organic iced coffee!

How could I not at least try it?

I pulled over at the very next McDonalds'. B insisted on waiting in the car, as I went inside. There was the familiar flourescent, tile-floored, formica-and-pleather interior with the backlit plastic menu, and the ketchup-and-yellow color scheme, all of which combine intoan ambience that is so consistently revolting, worldwide.

But I'll be damned -- the iced coffee was good. It was very good. Maybe better than Dunkins. Yep, probably better than Dunkins.

Is this anything less than a full blown iced coffee war? And a world war at that? Viewed as a titanic showdown between two fast food giants, McDonald's and Dunkin Donuts, it would be interesting enough. Dunkin could certainly have viewed coffee as its own turf: with coffee-and-donuts being such a natural pair, Dunkin has a lot at stake in in the widely held perception that its coffee is superior to that of McDonald's. Certainly, you can imagine a peaceful co-existence of the two chains -- dinner at Micky-D's followed by dessert at Dunkin's -- but McDonald's' unquenchable thirst for world domination won't let them be satisfied until an upstart chain like Dunkin's is reduced to a weak satellite state, if not wiped out entirely. McDonald's' coffee move is as much an invasion of Dunkin's territory as if Dunkin had undertaken to market the best french fries.

But, like a world war, other states are drawn in. By offering organic coffee, McDonald's not only tops Dunkins, but has also essentially crossed the customer border with the high-end coffee boutique chains whose customers would care about such high-end niceties as organic coffee. Yes, McDonald's has launched a surprise attack on Starbucks.

Like the United States when Pearl Harbor was attacked, Starbucks is woefully unprepared for entry into this war. They simply do not have a basic iced coffee weapon to deploy. Their exotic iced lattes lack the mass appeal, the clear, clean coffee taste and the competive prices of genuine iced coffee. For years, Starbucks has been trying to mollify us iced coffee drinkers with wretched americanos, a vile drink made by pouring hot espresso over ice on the sadly mistaken assumption that the added strength of the espresso brew somehow makes up for the diluting effect of the instant ice-cube melt. Now, Starbucks will have no choice but to escalate the conflict by offering iced coffee of its own.

To me the strangest aspect of this new iced coffee war is the McDonalds' - Newman's Own alliance. Like the Nazi-Soviet pact which shocked the world in 1939, the McDonalds'-Newman's joint venture links two corporate philosophies that seem completely at odds. The Newman's Own brand has been associated with the relatively modest, politically-correct organic niche market. They donate (or used to) their profits to charities. Doesn't Newman's Own oppose everything McDonalds' stands for? What was Newman's thinking when they made this bargain with the devil: do they think that they can somehow play McDonalds for a purpose the serves the greater good -- the promotion of organic coffee?

The Newman's people are playing a dangerous game. I suspect that, like Hitler, McDonalds is much smarter than everyone tends to think, and will themselves do the playing.

How many times can I hold my nose to actually go inside a McDonalds for this iced coffee?

And what about us consumers? Do I patronize McDonalds for the better coffee, or stick with Dunkin as the lesser of two corporate evils? Can we remain neutral in such a world crisis?

Monday, June 26, 2006



Is Amtrak Ruining Train Travel? For me, yes.

Until this weekend, I’ve always loved train travel. For years, I’ve nearly always taken trains when traveling anywhere not by car between Washington, DC and Boston. I’ve taken sleeper cars three times, including the 19-hour Chicago to New Orleans journey on the historic "City of New Orleans."

I'm the kind of person who likes the journey almost as much as the destination. I find transportation a fascinating process in itself, and I like it for the way it can build delicious anticipation of getting there. I love thumbing my nose at air travel, with its constant lining up and its surly or facetious TSA workers ordering you to take your shoes off. I love the rocking motion of trains. It relaxes me, helps put me to sleep, and ... well, let’s just say it adds to the romance of holing up in a small compartment with your sweetie.

So B and I were excited about booking a round trip sleeper on the Lakeshore Limited, from Chicago to Albany, New York. From there, we would be driving to Saratoga Springs, where I’m attending a conference. Sure, there would be a price compared to flying – 15 hours instead of 5 hours travel time and about 30% more in price. And since no car rental agency operates near a train station on weekends, we’d have to take a $30 cab ride to the Albany airport to pick up our rental car. But we thought the fun of train travel would be worth it.

It almost was. I could have lived with the two hour departure delay, and the additional two hour loss of time en route. Four hour delays aren't that uncommon in air travel. Nor was I particularly bothered by the fact that the promised free Wi-Fi in the First Class departure lounge simply did not work.

I was understanding about the slight seediness of the interiors of the train cars: It’s overly challenging for Amtrak, which doesn’t get nearly the levels of subsidy poured into air transportation, to keep its equipment sparkling and new.

I was more than willing to overlook the down side of the dining car experience – the food which tasted like reheated fare from yesterday at Denny’s and took unreasonably long to serve – since we had interesting conversations with the people we met at meals. (They seat you with strangers to fill up the 4-person booths).

I was not even particularly put out by the hassle of chasing down our sleeping car attendant to make up our beds so that we could lie down after we returned from two hours in the dining car at midnight, or chasing her down again next morning at 9:30 to convert the beds back to seats so we could sit up after returning from 90 minutes in the dining car at breakfast.

I’m not generally a whiner or the kind of person who demands being treated like an aristocrat. But I have to say, I was put out by what happened at the end of the trip.

We were on target to be well over four hours late into Albany – basically, killing half a day of touring around Saratoga Springs – and realized that we would save an hour if we were to get off the train one stop before Albany, in Schenectady. We could make our way to the Albany airport (for the car rental) from there. However, since we had luggage checked through to Albany, we asked our trusty sleeping car attendant if there was a way we could get our bags unloaded in Schenectady. She said she would check with the conductor, and returned shortly, saying this would be “no problem” – once the train stopped in Schenectady, we would just have to go down the platform to the baggage car to make sure the baggage attendant took off our luggage during the very brief stop there.

At the Schenectady station, the sleeping car attendant changed her mind about directions, pointed us up the platform to the front of the train, and changed her mind again, redirecting us to the back. B and I went off in two different directions. I went to the back of the train, where the conductor was closing the door about to signal the departure. I tried to explain about our luggage, but he kept cutting me off, insisting that I should pick up my bags inside the train station. But I could tell he thought I was scheduled to de-train in Schenectady and that he was unaware that my luggage was checked through to Albany. I kept saying, "no let me explain," in a rising tone of voice. By the time B joined me – upset at having been told by a conductor at the front of the train that “you’ll just have to pick up your bags in the Albany train station” – my conductor was screaming at me that the train was four hours late and he was “tired of taking shit from people.” He finally demanded my tickets, looked at them, got the point, and radioed our baggage claim numbers to the baggage car, telling us to go up front. When B asked if he would promise not to let the train leave until we got our bags – the train was very long and the slightly curved track made it impossible to see one end of the train from the other – he cursed at us and slammed the door.

We did finally get our luggage – though not before the baggage compartment guy berated us for not giving him advance notice that we needed off at Schenectady.

How bad was this, really? Bad food, rudeness, a four hour delay – this is nothing you can’t get over in an hour or two, after a good meal or a nice, stiff drink.

And yet, reflecting back on the whole trip, I realized that pretty much the entire crew of Amtrak passenger-service employees associated with this particular train had had a collective melt-down. If the train had derailed in some unpopulated area, with passengers seriously injured and the food supply running low while everyone awaited rescue, it would certainly be reasonable for the Amtrak personnel to get snappish with passengers whining about food service or luggage. But this was just a garden variety delay. And from the beginning, the Amtrak workers were treating us like we were the haughty aristocratic patron in the disaster movie who demands gold-plated service even while the Titanic is sinking.

This attitude -- which is, at bottom, a form of contempt -- started, subtly, during the two-hour delay in the departure lounge back in Chicago. It’s understandable that the Amtrak staff couldn’t tell us when the train would leave – it was one of those “please stand by” delays that drags on indefinitely – but they were unable or unwilling to tell us whether there would be food service on the train, as we had been counting on, or whether we’d have time to go forage for food in the train station without missing the train’s departure. And they seemed annoyed we even bothered them by asking.

Once the train was in motion, the personnel exuded a pervasive irritability – as though we passengers had dropped in like a bevy of unwanted guests. When we asked our sleeping car attendant to fold our beds down at midnight, she said, “Everyone wants everything at once!”

But all that was nothing to the feeling of having to plead for our luggage.

Last Thursday, I was a confirmed train lover, with future ideas about booking cross-country sleepers. Today, B and I are looking for a refund of our return train trip, and a one-way airfare. If this is in any way typical of Amtrak’s performance, they have a major employee morale problem that is also a major customer service problem. More expensive and slower than air travel may be a built-in feature of trains ... but more degrading than air travel?

I realize that all of this pales in comparison to the experience of being a refugee. Hey, maybe that should be Amtrak’s new advertizing slogan!

Sunday, June 25, 2006


And my horse naturally won

Did you hear that B and I went up to Saratoga?

Maybe this hat is dorky to wear around here,
but it will be less so back home.

Friday, June 23, 2006


Existential Friday: Love Memos on Seashells

I guess the inn we stayed at on Vancouver Island was the sort of place that attracts first and second honeymooners. The cozy, one-room cottages are tucked away with beautiful views. Outside, the cool rainy weather makes you want to curl up indoors, and there's not so much to do in the environs to distract you from the charms of your companion.

The fireplace mantel was stacked with driftwood and seashells serving as a sort of "guestbook." Each shell or piece of driftwood had a message from someone who had stayed in the cottage, and not surprisingly, there was a preponderance of moony love messages from former guests.

DSCN8159 DSCN8158

Here's one. I'm sure Jamie and Meghan won't mind my sharing it with you, just as they shared it with B and me:
To the love of my life; Jamie Scott!
Thank you for being the most beautiful person I have ever known! Thank you for your constant unconditional love. Thank you for our son Kozmo!!! Thank you for our dogs: Moochie & Kobe! Thank you for giving me the best life!!! I promise I will cherish you forever! Thank you for giving me life. I love you Spanky Tang!
[heart] Meghan

That's so sweet! !!! While I personally would not leave a written record in a B & B guestbook of any pet names B and I might use -- our "Spanky Tangs," if you will -- you have to admire the sentiments. I hope Meghan feels that way ten years from now. (For that matter, I hope Jamie feels that way now.)

The message written on a clamshell that B dropped on the floor and smashed into pieces was also very nice. It said: “Tara and Jay were here on our honeymoon and We have many memories as our love became one.”

Sorry, Tara and Jay. Nothing lasts forever -- not clamshells, not even love.

Why did all these people write these corny love messages and leave them behind for me and B to snicker at, and share with you on my blog so you could snicker at them? Jamie and Meghan, Tara and Jay had such intense feelings, but their effort to put that grandly into words fell flat. And why are we snickering? Maybe because we know that the love we feel, while special to us, is something so ordinary -- pretty much everyone has felt it for someone -- that the attempt to make it seem special to others comes off as grandiose. Even the grand gesture, like Romeo and Juliet's joint suicide, can't make love special.

This makes me think of Richard Brautigan's poem by that name, where he expresses that same idea:

Romeo and Juliet
If you will die for me,
I will die for you
and our graves will be like two lovers washing
their clothes together
in a laundromat
If you will bring the soap
I will bring the bleach.

Or did he mean something different? Write your love message on driftwood, sure. But don't just "rediscover" it in the romantic cottage with the spectacular views and the hot-tub. Love is mundane, everyday, ordinary. Feel it in your laundry room. Write it on the lint screen.

Thursday, June 22, 2006



Last night I watched Wimbledon on cable. Not the real tennis tournament, but the movie with Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst. It was a great demonstration of how, with the right script or director, a really good actor can come across as a really weak actor.

But that's not my point. My point is this. In his London hotel room, Bettany's character keeps playing his voice mail, and the computer-generated voicemail voice telling him the number of his messages had -- wait for it -- an English accent!

I was fascinated by this. An automated voicemail voice with an English accent. When you think about it, of course, it makes sense. I bet the automated wake-up call voice also had an English accent.

Do you think voice mail automated voices in Canada have a Canadian accent? E.g., "You have aboat half a dozen messages." And do the ones in Germany have a German accent? They probably do. ("You haff ten message-iss.")

I don't recall Professor Stephen Hawking's computer generated voice having an English accent. I'll have to watch A Brief History of Time again. I guess we've come a long way.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006


Why we went to Vancouver Island

[Travels in Canada]

Vancouver Island undoubtedly offers some rigorous hiking and backpacking opportunities, but I prefer it for its walks in the forest that feel like you've entered a fairy tale.


You drive past the occasional storybook house (this one reminded me Howl's Moving Castle) and down roads that wind through the forest.

howls moving castle DSCN8416

In the forest, the trees look like ones you've read about in Tolkein.


You want to leave breadcrumbs on the path to make sure you can find your way back.


There are magical mushrooms growing on trees...



... Tree Stumps of Unusual Size ...

DSCN8287 DSCN8286

... Unusual plants and flowers ...



... andfelled trees that were really old.

(I counted 150 rings before my mind blurred)

You cross a rickety "why don't you go first" suspension bridge...


... and this amazing log footbridge with hand-cut steps, that I'm pretty sure is one fallen tree trunk over 100 feet long.

log bridge

Inevitably, your path takes you down to a beach. It may be rocky or sandy, but it has huge driftwood logs and tree stumps and even the occasional piece of boat.

DSCN8079 DSCN8064



Don't get me wrong -- I love hot, sandy tropical and near-tropical beaches where you can swim and body surf and sleep in the sun. But I also love cool gray misty beaches.

DSCN8320 DSCN8323

If we had the technology to podcast smells, I would podcast the smell of this beach. It's a smell so fresh (with just a hint of salt brine) that it made me realize that the beaches I'm more used to -- in populous coastal areas -- are maybe not so nice. I had come to think of beach smell as a sweet, pungent "under the boardwalk" smell. But I eventually realized it's also a nasty-old-plumbing smell and a broken-sewer-line smell. Basically, beaches in populated areas of the U.S. -- Southern California, the San Francisco Bay Area, lots of the Atlantic coast -- smell like sewage. Undoubtedly because there is sewage and high levels of the kinds of bacteria that gather on sewage.

All the more reason to escape to the Island of Magical Trees.


Tuesday, June 20, 2006


Things I'm Glad I Won't Be Alive to See -- #23

When the bottled water bottlers, like Coke, Pepsi and Perrier, start selling bottled air. They will market it as "pure mountain air" but it will just be regular old suburban air with a subtle pine scented air freshener. People will think it's cool to carry their own PBAs -- Personal Breathing Apparatus -- which will include such extra features as video displays and text-messaging capability.

Monday, June 19, 2006


Oscar Madison, international man of mystery

You know those scenes in spy movies -- like The Bourne Identity -- where the protagonist opens up a safe or a drawer full of passports and currency from different countries? And the passports have all different names?

Note: none of the passports pictured here bear the name "Oscar Madison." How cool is that?

I got back from Canada last week, but still have lots of words and pictures about it. Better get that all done and posted before I leave for my next trip -- this Friday!


Are they insane, or just insanely greedy?

Congressional Republicans are still desparately trying to connive an inheritance tax cut after just barely failing to pass a full inheritance tax repeal in the Senate. Basically, the Dems had to filibuster to stop it, and the Republicans fell just three votes short of ending the filibuster.

If the point of the inheritance tax repeal is, as the rhetoric would have it, to prevent cash-strpped family farm heirs from having to sell the farm to pay taxes on the value of inherited land, you could create an inheritance tax exemption for that special case. But no, that's just a talking point to cut taxes for the rich people. Blah, blah, blah.

It's incredible to me that that tax cut argument has any traction at all. Reaping tax revenue by taking a modest cut from amassed fortunes before they go to trust fund babies who never lifted a finger to earn that money is an important source of federal revenue.

Let's review: federal revenue is important to pay for certain things provided by the federal government. Like, gee I dunno, the f*cking Iraq War. (Cost estimates: low end, $100-200 billion, but more like $1-2 trillion according to Nobel Laureate Joseph Stigletz).

Sunday, June 18, 2006


Upside down and backwards in Canada

[Travels in Canada]

I really like Canada and all, but things seem kind of backwards there, as though every day were opposite day. (In which case, paradoxically, no day would be opposite day. I think.)

To be sure, the flushing-water in the toilet swirls in a counterclockwise vortex, just like the rest of the Northern hemisphere, but many other truths seem to stand on their heads there.

Take this news story:


Excuse me, but don't people typically go missing from the U.S. and to Canada?

I found it very disorienting to travel to Vancouver on the west coast of Canada, and then get on a ferry heading even further west, and then drive west to the town of Sooke, and then walk out on the deck of our room and look out in a westerly direction over the water -- only to find that there were mountains on the horizon! Not just mountains, but mountains in the United States!

The view from Sooke.

That's right: the view is of Washington state's Olympic peninsula, over the Juan de Fuca strait, and those are the Olympic Mountains. Oh yeah, I almost forgot. On this trip, we headed up to Canada, but are actually south of the border of the "lower 48" United States.

Mystery solved.

Now can you understand why I've been so confused?

Saturday, June 17, 2006



News flash: Canadians love hockey.

DSCN7767 DSCN7766

Canadians really want the Stanley Cup to "return to Canada." So in Vancouver, hockey fans are rabidly rooting for the Edmunton Oilers to beat the Carolina Hurricaines with -- even though they have their own team, the Canucks, who were eliminated from contention long ago.

Such nationalist rooting interest is not typical of U.S. sports fans in Major League competition. True, U.S. fans get excited for U.S. athletes in specifically international competitions, like the Olympics and perhaps, increasingly, the world cup. But not when it comes to NHL or MLB championships.

I like to root against rivals of the Mets, such as the Atlanta Braves or the Philadelphia Phillies, so I was quite pleased when both those teams fell to the Toronto Blue Jays in successive World Series in 1992-93.

And I have this bias against southern expansion teams in Major League sports, so I'm rooting for the Oilers to take the Stanley Cup finals from the 'Canes. My "internationalist" rooting orientation is not unusual in the U.S. While many U.S. fans may root for the 'Canes (or Phillies or Braves) over the Canadian team on a purely nationalist basis, they'll tend not to root that strongly, since Americans' partiality to our particular city teams is so predominant.

Anyway, while in Vancouver, I happily joined these Vancouverites who packed a sports bar to root for the Edmunton Oilers.



Great moments in comment spam

Last May I wrote a post about visiting the former extermination camp at Auschwitz, in Poland. It was a difficult and moving experience for me, which I tried to reflect in the post. I had a small number of wonderful, reflective comments on that post.

I reread it the other day, and found a couple of spam emails, both of them quite priceless. I've deleted them from the post, but preserve them for posterity here.
I know Auschwitz is a somber place, but so is Dachau outside of Munich

posted by Oktoberfest Munich News : 12:58 PM, August 29, 2005
Translation: If you liked Auschwitz, you'll love Dachau! Visit Munich!!

The next one was even better:
Great post!

I did a search for gas station houston and found this site. I have put together an ebook I have titled, "Huge Gas Pump Savings."

Okay, so I changed the URL to preserve anonymity.

Friday, June 16, 2006


What is it about soccer and the Star of David?

Last spring, while traveling in Krakow, I kept seeing the same puzzling graffiti on walls around the city -- the word "Cracovia" with the V formed into a Star of David.

I eventually learned that Cracovia is Krakow's soccer team. Before WWII, it was one of the few, or perhaps the only, soccer team to allow Jews to play on it, and opposing clubs took to calling them the Cracovia Jews. Eventually Cracovia "supporters" adopted the name as their own in an act of civic pride (I wouldn't say religious tolerance). For a partial account, go here and scroll down. With Poland's Jewish population reduced from 3 million to about 5,000 by the Holocaust, I doubt Cracovia has any Jewish players today, but its fans still flaunt the Star of David.

Europe's more rabid football fans -- self styled "hooligans" -- make the most out-of-control American sports fans look dainty. They riot, stampede, assault one another. Every year, it seems, European soccer fans kill somebody.

"Cracovia hooligans" scrawled on a wall, Krakow, 2005
-- this one minus the Star of David

Earlier this week, Mexico played Iran in a World Cup match -- in Nuremberg! -- and about 1,200 people, waving Israeli flags, demonstrated outside the soccer stadium against Iranian President Ahmadinejad's recent statement asserting that the Holocaust was a "myth."

In the stadium itself, during the game, Mexico fans waved Israeli flags too. A show of solidarity with the demonstrators, or just hooligans flipping the bird to their opponents?


Thursday, June 15, 2006



[Existential Friday is on vacation.]

It seems that factual inaccuracies over here at CM have reached critical mass. Fortunately, my ever-alert commenters have unhesitatingly drawn them to my attention. Let's gather the facts.

1. "Two leagues"
CM said: "...our peaceful neighbor to the north, the country with whom we share the world’s largest undefended border as well as two major sports leagues..."

Jeremy said: "Even during the Stanley Cup finals, hockey apparently does not count as a major sports league. Or maybe you were thinking the NBA doesn't count since they only have the Raptors."

The Facts: I love hockey. And I know Canada loves hockey. And, off the top of my head: Vancouver Canucks, Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadians, Ottawa Senators and -- still hanging in the Stanley Cup Finals -- Edmunton Oilers. There may be more, for all I know, but so there and foresooth, Jeremy.

Okay, oops, I overlooked the Tornto Raptors in the NBA. There are three major U.S.-Canadian sports leagues. My bad.

2. "No worries"
CM said: "local idioms like 'no worries' " -- implying that the phrase is Canadian slang.

Psycgirl said: " 'No Worries' is CANADIAN? I didn't realize this...."

The Facts: Okay, I pulled this one out of my ass. But while Americans will use this phrase, it seems more omnipresent in Canada. Actually, a quick Google search suggests that the origins of the phrase may be Australian, and Wikipedia takes that position.

3. Esso -- Exxon
CM said: "[Canadians] still have the quaint "Esso," the brand that changed mean old Standard Oil into a friendly face. (Why exactly did they switch to Exxon in the U.S., anyway?)

Mike said: "Esso changed their name to Exxon in the United States because Standard Oil (a completely separate corporation) sued them here. Esso wasn't an abbreviatin [sic] for Standard Oil, but it sounded like one."

The Facts: Sorry, Mike, I don't usually correct my beloved commenters' spelling errors, but pedantry has its price. According to the Company History page on the Exxon-Mobil corporate website,
Both Exxon and Mobil trace their roots to the late 19th century, when .... John D. Rockefeller acquired a diversity of petroleum interests ... and, in 1882, organized them under the Standard Oil Trust.

[and next page] Jersey Standard changed its name to Exxon Corporation in 1972 and established Exxon as an uncontested trademark throughout the United States. In other parts of the world, Exxon and its affiliated companies continued to use its long-time Esso trademark and affiliate name. [Emphasis added.]
Sometimes when I make sh*t up it's actually right!

4. "Crunchie"
CM said: “Crunchie” is a type not available in the U.S. In Britain, it’s called 'Violet Crumble' and is chocolate-covered 'honeycomb' candy.”

Anonymous said: "i'm a brit living in the u.s., and miss the crunchies beyond belief! i've never, ever heard them called 'violet crumbles' though..."

The Facts: "Violet Crumble" is Nestle's version of this candy bar -- chocolate-covered "honeycomb" or "sponge" candy -- in Australia. (Those damned Aussies again.) I bought some in a U.S. shop that sold imported candy and assumed they were from Britain. Cadbury's company history page claims that they introduced the Crunchie in 1929. However, I find it suspicious that they don't have a circa-1929 candy wrapper to display. When I first tasted this candy in Britain in 1982 I could have sworn it was called "Honeycomb." But I can't find any proof of this. My theory is that Cadbury is engaging in revisionist history in support of its re-branding "Honeycomb" as "Crunchie" and that Anonymous Brit is 28 years old or younger. But I'm speculating...

5. Murder Crows, Inc.
CM said: I was surrounded by a gang of ravens.

Mariam said: "Ravens/crows travel in a murder. A murder of crows. Pretty much sums it up for me."

Madeline said: " i'm dating a guy who knows birds. he's pretty sure you were surrounded by northwestern crows."

The Facts: Well, I'll be damned. "A murder of crows." All I can say is, I'm glad I didn't know that I was being surrounded by a murder of crows while it was happening. Tell me, Mariam: if B and I had disappeared, would "a sleuth of bears" have tried to solve the crime?

Madeline, a friend of mine is dating a bird who knows guys. Maybe I should get you together.

UPDATE: Mike has the last word in a comments section smackdown!


Wednesday (Thursday) Word Verificationary: "Okay, I'll play your little game"

This week, for the second time, Word Verificationary sees the equivalent of a home run in the first major league at bat. Only Mr. Verb had previously achieved this feat of winning on the first try, which apparently so impressed and humbled him that he has never tried WV again. Let's hope such reticence doesn't overcome this week's winner. (For a list of major league baseball players who homered in their first at bat, see here.)

First Prize
ann althouse
dpvenm: "due process venom" -- an execution by lethal injection after plenty of habeas corpus.
I should note that Althouse had some verbal throat clearing and thinking aloud that I edited out. The full text:
okay, I'll play your little game... dp venom... but what is "dp"? In my notes, it's always "due process." But what is "due process venom"? I'm going to say an execution by lethal injection after plenty of habeas corpus.
Runner(s) Up
neel mehta
ucceh (you-cee-cee-eh): dismissive or Canadian feelings about the Uniform Commercial Code.

cdvmuoo (CD-va-moo): a request by another to kindly remove the CD you've been listening to over and over.

janelle renee
lzfny: A joke you make without much effort. It's not tofny either.

Special Awards!

This week's Neel Before Me(hta) Award for Sustained Excellence in Quantity and Quality goes, not to Neel Mehta, but to warren p.k. and Wendy:

warren p.k.
ydeqyeiu - wide "eq" -- a broad emotional quotient

fkmipdf - may i rewrite this one in a less vulgar form as lvmipdf for love my .pdf?

iizljhm - easel jam -- a crowded art studio

denyz - a rapper's song about denny's restaurants

pgotj == pee gotcha? (said one man to another as they stood at adjacent urinals)

ztuheh -- zut! uh... eh! (a quebecois confused over whether to be french or canadian)

wzfsph - (wuz-fuh-spah [1,2], wuh-ze-fus PH) [3]):
(1) A question mumbled by tourists looking for the jacuzzi at a resort.
(2) Music notation meaning "Play REALLY LOUDLY and then spit suddenly"
(3) Asking about the acidity of the jacuzzi

qblgtz - a list (or queue) of short blurbs enticing one to visit a blog (blog tease)

vpvqu - (vee-pee vee-kew) someone with a very heavy accent commiserating with your tears; they are "weepy with you"

annxpvk - annex pevek - a movement by dislexics to obtain an eastern Province of Canada for the United States.

lcdsyluh - someone that sells LCD displays south of the Mason-Dixon line

(a) "Jesus H Christ! (that's a) big U!"

(b) ya-hic-big-up (a really big hiccup)

(c) a hibiscus-eating iguana

obrgq - (o-brag-kew) Waiting for your turn to boast.

geggyn - (1) "get going" (in a lazy vernacular)
(2) a female gargoyle

zfaukr - Someone saying "the f*cker" with a really badly done French accent.

xlkskes (zulk-skeez): (1) a term to describe someone in a sulking mood; "He has the xlkskes"
(2) The Greek God of sulking.

fqnunj - do not sleep with anyoen in New Jersey

The Keep on Scratching and Clawing Award
One of these days you'll discover how much you like this game.
sleep goblin
uwtgu: UW toga party (drunk college students can't spell..)

eh, scratch that. this is a stupid game!

nmewgms: New Gems - what I'm searching for for my earring designs.

Actually, it said I typed it wrong.. so scratch that!

Honorable Mentions
janelle renee
ujstloqu (U jst loqu): Text message speak meaning "You jest loquaciously."

btoptri: A special bikini top designed to stay in place during rigorous triathlons.

khfujoaz (ka'fu jo' az): translation from street talk to English, "I kung-fu'd your ass."

joint tortfeasor
maoozr (Meoooow Zorro) : A modern-day feline Zorro

tszeebx: a small container for bloodsucking African flies of the genus Glossina (AKA tsetse flies)

phantom scribbler
cbuzzngm: the blogspot address of Celebrity Buzz 'n Games.

Oscar Madison
uvxqtcr ("u-v-x cute car") -- a sporty convertible the provides ultra-violet protection even with the top down.

kjgqzjtv -- "K-jag quiz-j TV": years from now, when rap and, especially, rapper names are a laughable cliche, some rappers will become game show hosts.

mtoscjdo ("mo tosca-judo"): the word shouted to call for an encore at the Martial Arts Opera Festival.

cafqu: 1) a surreal, paranoid sense of danger from drinking too much caffeine; 2) a coffeehouse Kafka

Wednesday, June 14, 2006


Wildlife on Vancouver Island: BC is "Bear Country"

Warning? But it's so cute!

In my mindset of scaled-down wildlife expectations, I was quite pleased to encounter this fascinating piece of driftwood. If you're like me, you see it as a kind of Picasso-cubist version of a bear. It's lying on its side with its legs thrashing the air.


Looked at one way, it's head points away from us; looked at another, it's a headless bear, with its neck pointing toward us.

Where it really goes off the rails is that there's a bear head coming out of its belly. Cool, huh?


Given the disappointment on the marine wildlife front, and my willingness to settle for abstract driftwood likenesses of animals, maybe it's ironic that less than an hour later we drove right past a black bear. It was standing in the other lane, as close to us as a passing car on that narrow road. I slowed, to give myself time to break in case the bear had squirrel-like instincts and darted in front of the car.

"Don't stop! DON'T STOP!!!" said B, to make sure of my intentions.

Now, the little conical black mounds we saw from time to time in the road took on new meaning. I had dismissed them as shredded bits of tire from logging trucks, but they were bear "scat."

"There must be something wrong with that bear," said B. "It wouldn't sh*t in the road if it were well. Poor bear!"

Well, when we got to the parking lot trail-head for our next hike, we saw that we were in "black bear country."

The nature advisories at the trailhead were very informative. Under a heading called "If an Attack Occurs," the poster advised:
Playing dead is not appropriate with black bears.
You might say that this warning explodes the old wives tale about playing dead to fool the bear into leaving you alone, except that no further explanation is given.

And what do they mean by "not appropriate"? Is offensive to their sensibilities? As in "nude bathing in streams and waterfalls is not appropriate with black bears. If young bears are present, adult bears will take offense and maul you to death." Or is it simply inappropriate to lie to nature's creatures?

With more explicit reasoning, they explain that dogs should be kept on a leash, or preferably off the trail entirely, since they can cause "wildlife conflicts," which is a polite way of saying that their presence can make a bear go ballistic and attack everyone in sight.

For this reason, we were a bit unnerved when the older German guy briskly walked up to the trailhead with his unleashed bloodhound. He was carrying a walking stick and wearing shorts and stout boots, looking very much like the cover photo for AARP's hiking issue. I could imagine side-by-side then-and-now photos of him kitted out in much the same way back when he was 8 or 9 in his boy scout uniform, or whatever the German equivalent was back in 1938 or so.

Meanwhile, B's head was very much in bear country. Not wanting German dude to enrage any black bears that might be in our path, B tried to broach the whole bear subject by pointing out that we just saw a bear in the road.
"Oh, there are lots of bears around here," German guy said jovially.
Rather than employing a direct approach, like "why don't you leash up that dog, you crazy old coot," B decided to wind around to it by first broaching her theory about the sick bear taking dumps in the road.
"I think the bear is unwell," she said. "It's been, er... defecating in the road."
"It's been vat?" said German dude.
"It's been defecating in the road."
"Vat's defecating?"
"Shitting," explained B.
"Oh!" he said. "Poopies!"
We all paused reflectively for a moment.
"Bears poops everywhere. This is normal," said German guy.
"Shouldn't you put your dog on a leash?," B blurted, suddenly deciding to go straight at him. "It could provoke a bear."
"Oh, no," said German guy, gesturing at the dog who had run some distance away, "he always stays near me."
At this point, B and I exchanged a high sign by which we essentially agreed to give this guy a ten minute head start down the path. We needed to kill time until he went off.
"Oh, cool," said B, pointing to the ground. "A banana slug."
I whipped out the camera and started taking pictures.
"Hafen't you efer seen one of those before? They're all over. Vere are you from, anyway?"
A few more exchanges of desultory conversation, and one "have a nice day," German dude set off down the trail, his blood hound running and sniffing well ahead of him. We ambled around the parking lot, checking my watch every couple of minutes -- the idea was to give German dude a 10 minute head start.
"Well, if he encounters a bear, hopefully we'll hear the noise way off in the distance," said B.
"This is like waiting for your tee-time while the foresome ahead of you slowly gets its butts on to the next hole," I said.
To pass the time, B decided to discuss her understanding of the reason for curling up and playing dead with a grizzly (as opposed to black) bear: to help protect your vital organs in the belly area.
"One swipe of its claws, and basically you're finished," explained B helpfully. "Your guts --"
"Well that's not appropriate for black bears," I said.


We then speculated about why not. I frankly could not understand how you could fool a bear into thinking that you're dead just by curling up on the ground and being still. The theory is that they don't eat dead meat. But if their sense of smell is so refined that they can whiff your scent from a great distance -- as is reputed -- why can't they smell that you're still alive instead of stinky, decomposing dead meat when they're right on top of you?

This question hung in the air. Then one of us -- I won't say who -- farted.
"Hey," said B. "Maybe that will keep the bears away."
"I'm not so sure. Aren't bears in the same family as dogs? And dogs are poopsnifferous animals. Maybe they'd be drawn to the smell."
Ten minutes were up, and we set out on our hike. We didn't encounter the German guy -- alive or dead -- on the trail. And the only other bear we saw was the next day, on the side of the road.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


Wildlife on Vancouver Island: Fowl


The eagle-sighting on our first day may well have been a harbinger for our most dramatic wildlife encounter. It started innocently enough over a basket of deep fried oysters and fries at Shakies Oyster Shack, a seaside takeout spot popular with surfers and lumberjacks.


Shakies, just across the road from the surfer's beach in Jordan River, BC.


I swear, on my family bible, it went down this way. B and I sat with our meal on the picnic table in front. A black bird, probably of the corvidae family (B said a "crow," I said a "raven," but maybe you could help us out from the pictures) flew into the yard and started ambling around a short distance away. Soon it was joined by a second.

When a third bird flew in a couple of minutes later, I said:
"If one more joins them, then I think we've got a situation."
Sure enough one did. While I didn't think four birds could take us, it did seem possible that two could distract us by, say, flapping around our faces, while the other two made off with the fried oyster basket. The bigger concern, of course, was that more would join, and things would really get ugly.
"Hey," I asked B, "where was The Birds supposed to have taken place?"
"I don't know," she said. "The X-Files was shot over in Vancouver, though."
Then there were five.

It was weird. The five black birds were sort of milling around expectantly. If they were squawking at us directly, I think maybe I could have handled that. But the way they self- consciously avoided looking at us unnerved me. I felt I was getting the bird eye, but every time I looked up at one of them, it would bob its head away and scratch at the dirt.

Five birds, a definite situation. Note the seemingly random, nonchalant gazes.

Then there were six.
"Are you almost done?" I said.
"I'm still working on these fries," said B.
Six. Count 'em -- six!

I looked nervously at the crowd of birds. What were they waiting for? How many did they need before they would make their move?
"You know about animals," I said to B. "Do ravens travel in, er... gangs?"
"They're crows," she said.
A seventh bird landed in the yard. And at this point, one of them -- the ringleader -- just started walking up to the table.

The ringleader approaches, lower left.

Was he dissing us? I think I knew what was coming. I've seen it before: he'll sort of toy with us while his buddies slowly formed a circle around us. Perhaps try to "bum" a couple of fries and then pretend to be offended whatever our response, to trump up a pretext for violence.

Abruptly, B snapped into action: standing up and facing the bird posse, she waved her arms wildly and shouted "scram!"

They scattered like ... like scared birds, I guess. But they didn't fly away. In fact, as soon as we finished our meal and left the table, they came back -- and took over the place.


It's a rough crowd at Shakies.

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