Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Time for Another Birthday

This time it is Frederick, and he is four today. Fef is a lovely little guy, who can spend hours playing by himself. It was wonderful to have him here right before Easter and we look forward to seeing him again soon.

Happy Birthday, Fef.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

After Danger of Last Spring Frost is Past

That has always struck me as a stupid phrase. It’s like telling someone who asks if the bus on which you are both riding goes to a certain location and answering, “Get off at the stop before I do.” But I do understand the importance of waiting to plant annuals. I am always cautious: I can’t afford to be otherwise and I still have vivid memories of the year when a late frost decimated trays of flowers and herbs in the local nurseries.

Yesterday as we sat basking in the sunshine, Lucy asked me when I was going to plant flowers. She was flabbergasted when I said not for a couple of weeks. She spent seven years in DC and by now the city is in bloom. So I was delighted when the gardening column today rapped the knuckles of the early planters and warned that the average date of the last frost in metro Detroit is May 15.

Then there’s this.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Almost Finished

Over a dozen bags of garden debris on the kerb: a few were put out last week, and I estimate three or four bags more will do it.

What next? Why, the first hamburger of summer, the first gin tonic of summer and the first picnic of summer.

Anecdote For Today

If I am interested in a topic, I read all I can. I am about to read my third book on the exploration of the Tsangpo Gorge, even though vivid descriptions of giant leeches and yak butter-laced tea have not put it on my list of top ten places to visit. I have just finished yet another book on the Enigma code, the “unbreakable” system devised by the Germans in World War II. The machine used, together with its rotors, indicator keys, ciphers and bigrams has been to subject of many books, and even a movie which attempted to make the whole subject commercial by starring Kate Winslett. This last book, by David Kahn, is the most technical (i.e. incomprehensible) I have read, but the hard-to-follow bits were interspersed by interesting stories, one of which I am passing on.

The British assembled a team at Bletchley Park to decipher the code. This was a daunting task: the Germans estimated that if 1,000 cryptanalysts, each with a captured or copied Enigma (device), each tested four keys a minute, all day, every day, the team would take 1.8 billion years to try them all. The team of linguists and mathematicians made some headway, often helped by human error on the part of the Germans. Sometimes a cryptographer would encode a message in the naval version of Enigma and then send out the identical message to ships which did not have the Enigma machine using a code which the Allies had already broken, forming a kind of cryptographic Rosetta Stone. The best help came from captured ciphers and rotors which were recovered from torpedoed u-boats and other vessels, though German standing orders called for all such material to be thrown overboard in case of attack. The British began to consider ways of capturing keys, and the first concrete proposal came from a civilian who was the assistant to the director of naval intelligence. “I suggest”, he wrote, “we obtain the loot by the following means.

  1. Obtain from the Air Ministry an air-worthy German bomber.
  2. Pick a tough crew of five, including a pilot, a radio transmitter operator and word-perfect German speaker. Dress them in German Air Force uniform, add blood and bandages to suit.
  3. Crash plane in the Channel after making SOS to rescue service in plain language.
  4. Once aboard rescue boat, shoot German crew, dump overboard, bring rescue boat back to English port."
Initially there was a problem finding a volunteer crew, since most people agreed it was the quickest way to a posthumous Victoria Cross. But eventually a “love-sick pilot” volunteered for the kamikaze project, codenamed RUTHLESS. In the end a boat suitable for boarding never materialized and the plan was scrapped.

But the civilian who conceived this act of derringdo found other outlets for his imagination.

His name? Ian Fleming.

Friday, April 18, 2008

About that Cup of Joe. . .

So you still want a caffeine fix, but my last post convinced you that some coffee is a four-letter word. Allow me to introduce you to Mystic Monk Coffee. I first saw this product mentioned in print and the advertisement caught my eye, because the combination of poor copy placement and my faltering eyesight made me think it read "Roasted Carmelite Monks." That concept conjured up images of some kind of gastronomic auto-da-fé, designed to help the monks with a bit of fund raising while weeding out the brothers who sing their Gregorian chant flat. (And the good brothers will sell you a CD of their Mystical Chants of Carmel to play while you sip your brew—Visa and Master Card accepted.)

What a splendid idea and what a change from the typical monastic candy makers. Let's face it, more people have been known to invoke the name of the Almighty as they take their first gulp of coffee in the morning than ever did when they slurped on a caramel. It's a tad pricey, but someone needs to give Starbucks a run for their money. I wonder if you can write it off on your Income Tax.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Continuing My Mission

One of the stated objectives of this blog is to celebrate the absurd, and there is never a shortage of absurd to celebrate. Newspapers are usually good sources of risible tidbits. I regret to say I found some humor recently in a couple of articles from the BBC.

It appears that :

The UK Treasury is facing a £3.5m bill, because of VAT wrongly imposed on a Marks and Spencer teacake, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled.
Some background: VAT = value added tax, Marks and Spencer is a venerable English (originally Dutch?) store which always had the reputation for selling the Queen her underwear, but now does a roaring trade in food, and teacakes are, well, teacakes. The problem is, are teacakes cakes (and not subject to VAT) or biscuits, on which VAT must be levied? I leave aside the whole question of “cookies” and refer you to the article on the BBC website. It isn’t so much the question of the tax that boggles the mind, it is the fact that the question could not be settled without the participation of the House of Lords and the European Court of Justice.

Should you wish to read the article while nibbling on a teacake, you may want to accompany it with a cup of coffee. That’s if you have a spare £50. I warned you about this disgusting brew last July, but it appears to be catching on. I can’t tell if it has gone up in price as I am totally unable to convert the £600 a pound in the article I quoted to the £324 a kilo in the BBC piece. I certainly believe that £50 a cup is more than I want to pay. Does anyone drink it?

Finally, we move on to another of those ideas on which I heap scorn, but secretly wish I had thought of so that I could be raking in the cash. Remember the taco holders? According to an article from the Cox News Service, the newest accoutrement for a divorce is a “wedding ring coffin.”
Lined with black velvet and covered with a smooth mahogany finish, the miniature wedding ring coffin is just big enough for a wedding band, diamond engagement ring and perhaps a few dried rose petals, tears -- or cheers depending on where you're at on your closure time line.
There’s a metal tag for an appropriate engraving. To quote the president of a divorce support organization, "There's a legal closure to the marriage, and it takes a while for our hearts and souls to catch up. Rituals like these can be very powerful."

And a dumb idea like this can make someone rich.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Two More Birthdays

Grandchild number two reached double digits during my blog blackout when Patrick celebrated his tenth birthday. Since the big day came the week before Easter while Al and his family were here, Patrick has some Washington cousins on hand for the celebration. I don’t seem to have the customary blowing out the candle photo, but here are Emmanuel and Patrick in the back row and Daniel and Alex in front looking pretty happy to be together.

Today is Henry’s third birthday and his dad and at least one of his grandfathers celebrated by doing their income tax. His party took place on Saturday, and he was having such a good time with his cousins that he skipped his nap. He was pretty grouchy when Jeff woke him up, but cake and ice cream soon worked their magic. Happy Birthday, Henry.

Monday, April 14, 2008

I Did it Again

Another big gap between posts. Let’s just say the last few weeks have been eventful. We had two lovely weeks with three sets of visitors—and then a little recuperation period. I couldn’t tell you the details of what we did even if I wanted to: even as I organized the photos, I was having trouble remembering the patterns of those busy days. I do know that in the course of two weeks I got to see all our seventeen grandchildren. I miss the Washington bunch. All I have left to show from their visit is some happy memories and a refrigerator stocked with Dora the Explorer yoghurt!