Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Glowing Granite Counterops

Right after we moved to our new apartment with granite countertops, bathroom floors, and bathroom tiles, we noticed a spot on the kitchen counter that glowed in the dark. We thought it was a little strange but weren't too worried until we read "What’s Lurking in Your Countertop?" by Kate Murphy in yesterday's New York Times.

The granite shown in the article looks exactly like ours. One of the salesgirls in the rental office checked and told me that our granite came from China. After the pet food problem, that didn't make me feel any better!

I realize its unlikely we have dangerous levels of radon or uranium in our counters but I have asked maintenance to check anyway. They tried to tell me that:

1. The glow is not due to a finish or anything they put on the counter (I realize that)
2. They can't see any glow (That's because we only see it at night; closing the blinds during the day doesn't make it dark enough to see the glow)
3. Granite has a natural sparkle (I know that)
4. Granite is natural and comes from the ground (I know that -- that's also where radiation and radon come from!)

I don't care if it makes me look paranoid, I asked them to test it anyway if only because I have an old, sick cat and it would give me peace of mind knowing that I'm not exposing her to anything bad. At least I'll sleep better after its been tested!

Click here to read the article.

Since you have to log in to the NY Times to read it, I've pasted the story here. I have omitted internal links to the NY Times.

What’s Lurking in Your Countertop?
Published: July 24, 2008

SHORTLY before Lynn Sugarman of Teaneck, N.J., bought her summer home in Lake George, N.Y., two years ago, a routine inspection revealed it had elevated levels of radon, a radioactive gas that can cause lung cancer. So she called a radon measurement and mitigation technician to find the source.

Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
TESTING Reports of granite emitting high levels of radon and radiation are increasing.

Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times
DETECTION Using devices like the Geiger counter and the radiation detection instrument Stanley Liebert measures the radiation and radon emanating from granite like that in Lynn Sugarman’s kitchen counters.

“He went from room to room,” said Dr. Sugarman, a pediatrician. But he stopped in his tracks in the kitchen, which had richly grained cream, brown and burgundy granite countertops. His Geiger counter indicated that the granite was emitting radiation at levels 10 times higher than those he had measured elsewhere in the house.

“My first thought was, my pregnant daughter was coming for the weekend,” Dr. Sugarman said. When the technician told her to keep her daughter several feet from the countertops just to be safe, she said, “I had them ripped out that very day,” and sent to the state Department of Health for analysis. The granite, it turned out, contained high levels of uranium, which is not only radioactive but releases radon gas as it decays. “The health risk to me and my family was probably small,” Dr. Sugarman said, “but I felt it was an unnecessary risk.”

As the popularity of granite countertops has grown in the last decade — demand for them has increased tenfold, according to the Marble Institute of America, a trade group representing granite fabricators — so have the types of granite available. For example, one source, Graniteland (graniteland.com) offers more than 900 kinds of granite from 63 countries. And with increased sales volume and variety, there have been more reports of “hot” or potentially hazardous countertops, particularly among the more exotic and striated varieties from Brazil and Namibia.

“It’s not that all granite is dangerous,” said Stanley Liebert, the quality assurance director at CMT Laboratories in Clifton Park, N.Y., who took radiation measurements at Dr. Sugarman’s house. “But I’ve seen a few that might heat up your Cheerios a little.”

Allegations that granite countertops may emit dangerous levels of radon and radiation have been raised periodically over the past decade, mostly by makers and distributors of competing countertop materials. The Marble Institute of America has said such claims are “ludicrous” because although granite is known to contain uranium and other radioactive materials like thorium and potassium, the amounts in countertops are not enough to pose a health threat.

Indeed, health physicists and radiation experts agree that most granite countertops emit radiation and radon at extremely low levels. They say these emissions are insignificant compared with so-called background radiation that is constantly raining down from outer space or seeping up from the earth’s crust, not to mention emanating from manmade sources like X-rays, luminous watches and smoke detectors.

But with increasing regularity in recent months, the Environmental Protection Agency has been receiving calls from radon inspectors as well as from concerned homeowners about granite countertops with radiation measurements several times above background levels. “We’ve been hearing from people all over the country concerned about high readings,” said Lou Witt, a program analyst with the agency’s Indoor Environments Division.

Last month, Suzanne Zick, who lives in Magnolia, Tex., a small town northwest of Houston, called the E.P.A. and her state’s health department to find out what she should do about the salmon-colored granite she had installed in her foyer a year and a half ago. A geology instructor at a community college, she realized belatedly that it could contain radioactive material and had it tested. The technician sent her a report indicating that the granite was emitting low to moderately high levels of both radon and radiation, depending on where along the stone the measurement was taken.

“I don’t really know what the numbers are telling me about my risk,” Ms. Zick said. “I don’t want to tear it out, but I don’t want cancer either.”

The E.P.A. recommends taking action if radon gas levels in the home exceeds 4 picocuries per liter of air (a measure of radioactive emission); about the same risk for cancer as smoking a half a pack of cigarettes per day. In Dr. Sugarman’s kitchen, the readings were 100 picocuries per liter. In her basement, where radon readings are expected to be higher because the gas usually seeps into homes from decaying uranium underground, the readings were 6 picocuries per liter.

The average person is subjected to radiation from natural and manmade sources at an annual level of 360 millirem (a measure of energy absorbed by the body), according to government agencies like the E.P.A. and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The limit of additional exposure set by the commission for people living near nuclear reactors is 100 millirem per year. To put this in perspective, passengers get 3 millirem of cosmic radiation on a flight from New York to Los Angeles.

A “hot” granite countertop like Dr. Sugarman’s might add a fraction of a millirem per hour and that is if you were a few inches from it or touching it the entire time.

Nevertheless, Mr. Witt said, “There is no known safe level of radon or radiation.” Moreover, he said, scientists agree that “any exposure increases your health risk.” A granite countertop that emits an extremely high level of radiation, as a small number of commercially available samples have in recent tests, could conceivably expose body parts that were in close proximity to it for two hours a day to a localized dose of 100 millirem over just a few months.

Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times
A radiation detection instrument.

Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times
A Geiger counter.

David J. Brenner, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University in New York, said the cancer risk from granite countertops, even those emitting radiation above background levels, is “on the order of one in a million.” Being struck by lightning is more likely. Nonetheless, Dr. Brenner said, “It makes sense. If you can choose another counter that doesn’t elevate your risk, however slightly, why wouldn’t you?”

Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking and is considered especially dangerous to smokers, whose lungs are already compromised. Children and developing fetuses are vulnerable to radiation, which can cause other forms of cancer. Mr. Witt said the E.P.A. is not studying health risks associated with granite countertops because of a “lack of resources.”

The Marble Institute of America plans to develop a testing protocol for granite. “We want to reassure the public that their granite countertops are safe,” Jim Hogan, the group’s president, said earlier this month “We know the vast majority of granites are safe, but there are some new exotic varieties coming in now that we’ve never seen before, and we need to use sound science to evaluate them.”

Research scientists at Rice University in Houston and at the New York State Department of Health are currently conducting studies of granite widely used in kitchen counters. William J. Llope, a professor of physics at Rice, said his preliminary results show that of the 55 samples he has collected from nearby fabricators and wholesalers, all of which emit radiation at higher-than-background levels, a handful have tested at levels 100 times or more above background.

Personal injury lawyers are already advertising on the Web for clients who think they may have been injured by countertops. “I think it will be like the mold litigation a few years back, where some cases were legitimate and a whole lot were not,” said Ernest P. Chiodo, a physician and lawyer in Detroit who specializes in toxic tort law. His kitchen counters are granite, he said, “but I don’t spend much time in the kitchen.”

As for Dr. Sugarman, the contractor of the house she bought in Lake George paid for the removal of her “hot” countertops. She replaced them with another type of granite. “But I had them tested first,” she said.

Where to Find Tests and Testers

TO find a certified technician to determine whether radiation or radon is emanating from a granite countertop, homeowners can contact the American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists (aarst.org). Testing costs between $100 and $300.

Information on certified technicians and do-it-yourself radon testing kits is available from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site at epa.gov/radon, as well as from state or regional indoor air environment offices, which can be found at epa.gov/iaq/whereyoulive.html. Kits test for radon, not radiation, and cost $20 to $30. They are sold at hardware stores and online.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Cul de Sac

If you aren't reading Cul de Sac by Richard Thompson you are missing one of the best and funniest current comics. Here's an example from yesterday (transcript follows):

Ernesto: Ah, Peter! Checking out some summer reading?
Peter: Hi, um, Ernesto. Yeah, I've got this book -

Ernesto: Let's see. "Dirk Dragonslapper Vol. 1: The Trolls Revolt."
Peter: It's about a boy who rides around on a dragon -

Ernesto: Yes. I reviewed it on my blog.
Peter: You have a blog?

Ernesto: Yes. I found the book derivative and thin, like a watered-down version of Tolkien. You do like Tolkien?
Peter: I've never been tolking.

Ernesto: LOL! Always the quotable Peter! May I use that?
Peter: Yeah. Okay.

Ernesto: Good-bye! Enjoy your little book!

Mom: Let's check out, Petey. Where's your book?
Peter: I put it back. It's derivative, watered-down tolking.

Mom: Okay, Petey.
Alice: I'm getting the Big Pop-Up Book of Giant Squids! See?
Peter: Gaaah!


It's not always about blogging and/or Tolkien, but it is always funny. I read Cul de Sac every day on GoComics. You can read it free at The Seattle Times.

Friday, July 25, 2008

RIP Randy Pausch

Today's sad news: 'Last Lecture' professor dies at 47.

Randy Pausch's The Last Lecture is one of the most uplifting books I've ever read. The theme of the book and his famous video lecture is achieving your childhood dreams. Most "last lectures" are by professors who are much older and ready to retire. Randy wrote his for his children when he learned he was dying of pancreatic cancer. He inspired millions around the world when his book and lecture were published outside of academia.

Needless to say, Carnegie Mellon's Last Lecture page and Randy Pausch's web site are overwhelmed by traffic today by people who want to pay their respects to this brave, modest, funny, and inspiring man who lived every day to its fullest and enjoyed life to its early end.

Rest in peace, Randy. I'm sorry you had to leave your family so soon. Thank you for inspiring us with every day of your life since your diagnosis. You will continue to inspire us through the loving legacy you left for your children, which you were kind enough to share with the rest of the world. The readers/viewers who have never met you mourn with your family, friends, and colleagues because you made such a difference in their lives. Godspeed, professor.

More Physical Therapy

Although I was very careful during our recent move, moving aggravated my tendonitis. I've seen the sports doc, been resting my arm as much as possible, and start physical therapy again Monday.

I had my evaluation with the Physical Therapist this morning. He says the inflammation is mild (which I knew) and there is some scar tissue (which I also knew). The therapy will help both. Over the weekend I am to continue resting my arm, ice it three times a day whether it hurts or not, and wear my brace. I love it when their advice is easy to follow. :)

Working on the computer a lot (like my work load when school is in session) also aggravates the tendonitis, even though I've changed many of my work habits. My goal for Physical Therapy is to make it was well as possible before school starts. Since classes start at the end of August, I'll have to start preparing soon (updating my online classes, etc.). SIGH. I'm not even ready to think about the new school year yet!

Now it's time to curl up with a murder mystery, ice my arm, and not think about school...

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Skinny Dippers

This ad appeared on the weather page of today's Flint Journal:

SKINNY DIPPERS -- Co-ed nude
recreation. Visit the Flint
area's finest nude resort;
tennis, volleyball, swimming,
whirlpool, camping. Legal,
no tan line. www.woresort.com.
2 for 1 pass for first
time visitors.

While I respect the freedom of consenting adults to do whatever they want, this ad did not create a pretty picture in my mind. First, 99% of the population does not look like super-models. That means almost all of us look better in clothes. Think about it: imagine any ten people you know. How many are look like super-models? How many would look betting in clothes? See what I mean?

Second, while it seems like every nude beach features volleyball (another scary image, refer to point one), I can't imagine camping in the nude. Have these people ever been camping in Michigan? Even wearing clothes and using Deet you get eaten alive by mosquitoes! Lest you think I'm mistaken about the accommodations, their web site shows tent camping. It boggles the mind.

Finally, the web site (Woresort.com = Whispering Oaks Nudist Resort, near Oxford, MI which is not near Flint, by the way) says it's family-oriented. ICK! Do you want your parents or your kids to see you naked? Do you want to see your parents or grandparents naked?

I wish these people well, but it's safe to say I won't be visiting any time soon. I know that I'm part of that 99% who look better with clothes. Beside, just imagine the sunburn and mosquitoes...

Harry Potter Park at Disney World -- and new HP Short Story

Woo Hoo! Disney is adding The Wizarding World of Harry Potter to its Universal Studios park.

Based on books and movies, with J.K. Rowling's approval (of course), the park will open late 2009. Follow link above for photos, more info, and to sign up for e-mail updates.

My dear friend Denise is a Disney travel agent (you can reach her through Magical Journeys) and she can confirm The Wizarding World will include Hogwarts castle, the village of Hogsmeade, and Diagon Alley.

I can hardly wait! I'm getting my witch's hat and heading for Platform 9 3/4...

UPDATE July 25: I just learned that J. K. Rowling has written a short story featuring Sirius Black and James Potter. Read why on Jason Fisher's blog Lingwë - Musings of a Fish. He also has a link directly to the story.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Festival of Flags 2008

Davison's Festival of Flags 2008 started tonight. Don't bother looking for details online. The new Davison Index doesn't have the schedule on their web site and neither do the Chamber of Commerce or City of Davison web sites. (I did find a nice Shop Downtown Davison website though!) Pure Michigan, the state's travel web site, has the same minimal info as teh Chamber of Commerce site, but it's more than the Index or City web sites. I guess if you want the schedule you have to read the printed copy of the Davison Index!

The festival started tonight with a parade (usually a good one -- about 1.5 hours), an ice cream social at the firehall, and fireworks in the park. After a day in the park with four of my great-nieces and -nephews, I was so tired I skipped the parade. We live behind the part and I had hoped to watch the fireworks from home but they weren't above the trees. How disappointing. By the time I realized that, I was far too tired to drive over to the football field (since we no longer live close enough to walk) and try to find a place to park before it was over. How disappointing!

Activities for the rest of the weekend include:
  • A carnival at Hahn Middle School Wednesday night - Sunday
  • Karoke at Davison House (formerly known as the Davison Hotel) Thusday night and Sunday night
  • A car cruise downtown Friday night
  • Family Movie Night at Colonial Square Friday night (showing Open Season starting at dusk)
  • A beer tent at Madden's (local pub) on Friday and Saturday nights
  • Art in the Park on Saturday and Sunday
  • A quilt show at First Batist Church Saturday
  • Miss Davison Tea Party at Trinity Lutheran Church Saturday
  • A chicken dinner at the Masonic Temple Sunday

I always enjoy the Festival, especially the Art in the Park. If you are looking for something to do this weekend, come to Davison and join the fun.

Why I Love My Car Dealership

Despite GM's recent benefit cuts for retirees and omitting Flint from its 100 year celebration (as blogged by my buddy Mitch Gann), I love my GM car and I especially love my car dealership, Hank Graff Chevrolet in Davison, MI.

I recently took my car in for routine maintenance and asked them to look at the driver's window, which recently started screeching when I put it down. They fixed it but it turns out the window was not under warranty. I didn't mind paying $30 until I realized it still screeched after it was fixed!

When I took it back Kody, a nice young man in the service department, investigated further and even called GM. Seems this is happening in some cars and it has to do with the insulation strip in the door scratching the class. GM would replace the faulty part -- for $50 per window. I wasn't happy with that but Kody and his Service Manager offered me a good deal: they would do both front windows for $50 (including the $30 I'd already paid), give me a free loaner, and add an extra oil change to my service plan. I was much happier with this deal made an appointment to drop it off next Tues.

I was even happier when Kody called me at home a short while later. He talked to GM again and they agreed to fix both windows, free, and Hang Graff will give me $30 back! It will only take about an hour, so I won't even need a loaner.

Kody, you're the best. Needless to say, I'll be a Hank Graff customer for the rest of my life!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Saffron Update

This is Saffron, sleeping on her favorite pillow. Doesn't she look happy and sleepy? It's been a while since I've written about her, so here's an update.

She was doing really well, until the beginning of July. Since then she's been having lots of digestive problems and really fighting dehydration. According the blood test results we got today, her liver is about the same as it was last Dec. (and not too bad for a 12-year-old cat with liver disease), her kidneys are great, she's slightly anemic, and her red- and white-bloodcell counts are off, indicating an infection (probably parasitic). The infection is probably an overgrowth of something that's naturally in the digestive tract, but her little immune system just isn't as effective as it used to be. She's still getting fluids twice a week at the vet's to help prevent dehydration. I'm giving her two antibiotics for the infection and she's much better now.

I can't tell you how relieved I was to learn her recent problems are something that can be treated and will go away. I was terrified that her liver and/or kidneys were starting to fail. She's a spunky little thing (and I do mean little: 5 lbs. 4 oz. now) and the vet says that her attitude, plus the loads of love and care we give her, are why she's in such good shape. Her appetite is good, her coat looks healthy, and she purrs a lot. I just want to her to stay happy and comfortable for as long as possible. I'm so glad she's doing so well!

UPDATE Thurs, July 24: Tonight she rubbed her face all over my husband’s dress shoes when he got home from work. We haven’t seen her do that in ages! It’s nice to see her acting more like her old self. Whew!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Needle Felting Scultpure Class

Yesterday Laurie, Sue, and I attended Deb Koch's Needle Felting Scultpure Class. Deb doesn't have room for classes in her store, Stitches 'n' Things, so the class was held at the Senior Center in Fenton. Residents were welcome to attend the first portion of the class (free) and about 6, including Deb's mom, did!

We learned the basic techniques by making a Santa/gnome ornament. Pictured above, left to right: my ornament, Sue's, and Laurie's.

After that we made more complex sculptures. The class was designed to teach Waldorf (faceless) dolls, which several of us made, but you could make any kind of sculpture you wished. At least two ladies, including Sue, make miniature dogs.

Laurie made a Mother Earth doll, with animals on her skirt. I made a mermaid, embellished with mini-sea shells and seed beads.

Sue's dog is not yet completed, but she has her lovely little dog, Bubbles, to use as a model:

When she's done I will add photos of Bubbles and the completed project.

Needle Felting Sculpture turned out to be much easier than I expected! I consider myself primarily a cross-stitcher but I really enjoyed sculpting my Santa and my mermaid (especially her hair and jewelry!). Since my Sophie, my Siamese Snowshoe, is attracted to wool, I can't easily work on needle felting at home. That's one reason I really enjoy taking Deb's classes. Other reasons: she funny, an excellent teacher, and she always brings chocolate. :) After this class I feel comfortable enough with needle felting to look forward to the next sculpting class: sculpting faces.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Have You Tried Skype?

Skype is a free Internet phone service -- and it really works! Just download the software, sign up for your account, then call anyone else with a Skype account, all free.

I tried it and was very surprised at how well it works. It works just like a telephone but you make the calls via the computer software. I called some friends in Maine and, since they have a built-in camera on their laptop, I could even see them while we talked! There were only two problems. First, the calls are transferred via satellite, so there's a delay (just like when you see the newspeople on TV talking to the astronauts). Second, the connection isn't always perfect; sometimes there is static or dead air, just like some cell phone providers. Overall, though, I am impressed with this free service and will continue to use it to talk to my friends in Maine.

BTW, you can even use Skype to call a regular phone, but you have to pay for that. If you've tried Skype, please leave me a comment and let me know what you think.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

An Exercise in Futility (or Why I Hate the Cable Company)

Today I made an incredibly frustrating phone call that reminds me why we all hate our cable company. (It doesn’t matter which one you have since they are all so similar.) I’m sure in the future this will be funny. Right now I want to reach out and slap my cable/Internet/phone provider!

This one is pretty long! Click here to read the whole thing.

Me: Hi, I don’t have my statement handy but I’d like to get my account balance, make sure both my name and my husband’s name are on our account, and learn how to check my account online.

Cable Rep. #1 (with some kind of foreign accent): What’s your home phone number, please? (I give it.) I’m sorry, we don’t have that number in our system.

Me: Oh, that’s the phone I get from you as part of my cable/Internet/phone package. I must have set up the account using my cell phone. (I give her that number.)

CR1: I see you have a business account.

Me: What? No, it’s a residential account. All I want to do is get my account balance, make sure both our names are on the account, and learn how to check our account online -- and switch my phone number on your records to my home phone.

CR1: I’m sorry, ma’am, I can only change residential accounts. I’ll have to transfer you to Business Accounts.

Me: (Sigh with exasperation and wait while my call is transferred.)

Cable Rep #1 (with an American accent – thank God!): How may help you ma’am?

Me: The first rep I talked to said I have a business account but I don’t. My account is residential. I don’t have my statement handy but all I want to do is get my account balance, make sure both my name and my husband’s name are on the account, learn how to check our account online, and switch my phone number on your records to my home phone.

CR2: You don’t have a business account. You have a residential account. I have no idea what the other person thought it was a business account.

Me: Can you help me?

CR2: I can confirm that both your name and your husband’s name are on the account, and I can change the phone number.

Me: Oh, thank you! (I give him our home phone number.)

CR2: For everything else, I’ll have to transfer you back to Residential Accounts.

Me: (Sigh with exasperation and wait while my call is transferred.)

Cable Rep #3 (with some kind of foreign accent): May I help you?

Me: Hi, I don’t have my statement handy but I’d like to get my account balance and learn how to do that online.

CR3: What is your phone number?

Me (Wondering about the accent): Did I just talk to you a few minutes ago?

CR3: No.

Me: Oh, sorry. (I give her the phone number.)

CR3: What is your account number?

Me: I don’t have statement handy, so I don’t know my account number. I just want to get the balance.

CR3: You can do that online.

Me: That would be great.

CR3: Since you don’t have your account number you’ll have to check your balance by phone.

Me: OK.

CR3: I need you to confirm the last four digits of your Social Security Number.

Me (I do, she gives me the balance, and I pay via credit card): I have $83 in credit in my old account. Can I transfer that to my new account?

CR3: No ma’am but I can send you a refund check.

Me: (I had to ask for this?!) OK. Thanks.

CR3: Remember, in the future you can check your account balance and pay online.

Me: I’m at your web site now and I don’t see where to do that.

CR3: Click “Register.”

Me: It doesn’t say “Register”; it says “Log in.”

CR3: Enter your account number.

Me (enunciation slowly and carefully): I. Don’t. Know. My. Account. Number. If. I. Did. I. Would. Have. Given. It. To. You. The. First. Time. You. Asked.

CR3: You can’t log in without your account number.

Me: Do you mean my “username” is my account number? Then what is my “password”?

CR3: Those numbers are on the top of your statement.

Me (Sighing): I guess I’ll do that after I get my next statement! Thanks.

I hung up and flung my phone across the couch.

To top things off, my own cable company called twice this week trying to try to sell me cable/Internet/phone service. Talk about the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing! 29 more days until the Do Not Call Registration kicks in…

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Godspeed, Tony Snow

Tony Snow
1955 - 2008

Bio * Photos * Video

Tony Snow, Former White House Press Secretary and FOX News Anchor, Dies at 53.

This news made me so sad. I always enjoyed watching Tony on Fox News and as Press Secretary. He was an inspiring man who personified integrity, honesty, and politeness. It's sad to lose such a good person any time but his relative youth makes his death tragic. I truly hoped that he would beat the odds and overcome his cancer.

I love this photo of him leaving the White House after resigning as Press Secretary:

This is not a man beaten by cancer. Despite the signs of his illness and chemotherapy, this is a man still believing and fighting. Notice, too, his yellow Live Strong bracelet.

Godspeed, Tony. God bless your family, colleagues, and admirers. We'll miss your courage, integrity, and grace.

Photos courtesy of Fox News. The first is from May 12, 2006, his first press briefing as Press Secretary. The second is from Sept. 14, 2007, his last day at the White House.

Friday, July 11, 2008

A New Blogger Trick: Expandable Posts

I've seen expandable posts on other blogs and always wondered how it was done. An expandable post means that the intro is in the blog entry but you can click the link to read the full text. It's used for long posts, stories, etc. Read more.

This was not nearly as easy as Blogger Help made it sound in "How can I create expandable post summaries?"! To make it work with my Blogger template, Denim designed by Darren Delaye, I had to turn to Google for help. I found it on a blog called Hash Out.

Even with help from Hash Out, it took some trial and error to make it work. Now that I have it set up it will be easy to use in the future, but my posts are usually so short that I can't imagine using it very often. At least I learned something!

Cool Source: Science Daily

I've started reading a new web site called Science Daily. It has current articles on all aspects of science (health, medicine, astronomy, archaeology, technology, etc.). At the end of each article is the original source, usually a scholarly journal, and it shows you how to correctly site the Science Daily article (in MLA or APA format). Wow! What a fabulous site for science and research geeks (like me :).

How did I find this wonderful site? My buddy, Mitch Gann, frequently links to it in his Boomer Blog. Thanks, Mitch!

Here's an example of the neat articles in Science Daily:
Evidence Of Water Found Deep Within The Moon: Dampens Moon-formation Theory

ScienceDaily (July 10, 2008) — A Brown University-led research team has for the first time discovered evidence of water that came from deep within the Moon, a revelation that strongly suggests water has been a part of the Moon since its early existence – and perhaps ever since it was created by a cataclysmic collision between the early Earth and a Mars-sized object about 4.5 billion years ago.

Read the whole thing
Be sure to scroll to the end to see how to cite the article in MLA or APA format. Cool, eh?

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Great Lakes Trivia

According to Mark Torregrossa's "Weather Watch" column in yesterday's Flint Journal:
The Great Lakes water levels have rebounded some after this snowy winter. The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers reported lake levels last week. All of the Great Lakes are higher than this time last year. Lakes Huron and Michigan (which are the same lake for lake-level purposes) are 7 inches higher than this time last year. I find the most amazing fact of the Great Lakes pertains to the size of Lake Superior. The water of Lake Superior is equal to the water of all the other Great Lakes and five additional Lake Eries. That's a lot of water!
Amazing, eh?

Map courtesy of Great Lakes Circle Tour.

Related Sites:
Michigan Facts and Trivia
Michigan Trivia
Great Lakes Trivia

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The End of The Cat Who...?

This summer I am listening to the audio books of one my favorite mystery series: The Cat Who... by Lilian Jackson Braun. For those who aren't familiar with the series, each title begins with the words "The Cat Who" as you can see by following the link to a list of the books.

Braun doesn't have her own web site. There are several devoted to her works but most are not up-to-date. I also noticed that no two sites have the same birth year for her; estimates range from 1912-1916, making her at least 92.

Braun wrote the first three books in her series in 1966-68, then took a break until 1986 when she began writing a book or two each year until 2007 for a total of 29 books, making this one of the most prolific and longest-running modern mystery series. I think it was also the first cozy series to feature cats among the main characters. Regardless, she is the Queen of the Cat Cozies.

The series follows the adventures of journalist Jim Qwilleran (called Qwill) and his two Siamese cats, Kao K'o Kung (Koko) and Yum Yum. The cats are just as important to each story and as realistically three-dimensional as Qwill. Braun skillfully walks a fine line in her portrayal of Koko. Is he a super-smart, psychic cat who can solve crimes, or is Qwilleran projecting his own subconscious ideas onto Koko's neurotic antics and interpreting them as clues to help him solve crimes? Is it just a coincidence that the apparently psychic Koko has an unusual abundance of whiskers (60 instead of the usual 24)? And what about the tingle in his magnificent mustache that Qwill gets when he has a hunch -- is he identifying with Koko or is it all just coincidence?

One of the things I enjoy about the series is all the places Qwill and the Siamese visit and all the people they meet. At the beginning of the series they live in the city but eventually settle in the country after Qwill inherits a fortune from his mom's best friend, "Aunt" Fanny. The state is never identified but is clearly the upper-Midwest. Since Braun is from Michigan, I like to think it's Michigan because some of the names sounds very familiar: Pickax sounds Bad Axe, MI and Ittybittywassee River sounds like Titabawasee River. She's never specific and drops enough hints that it could be anywhere in northern Michigan, Minnesota, or Wisconsin

This is a very cozy series with an emphasis on descriptions of people, places, customs, food, and Koko and Yum Yum's antics (of course). There's a host of recurring supporting characters we get to know and love almost as much as Qwill and the Siamese including Polly, Qwill's long-time girlfriend; Arch Riker, Qwill's friend since childhood and fellow journalist; Junior Goodwinter
(and the extended Goodwinter clan), a newspaperman from Moose County, and many, many others. Qwill enjoys collecting folk stories so the almost every book contains a quaint historical or personal story from a minor character that greatly adds to the flavor of the series.

Cat lovers will enjoy the playful and sometimes neurotic behavior of Koko and Yum Yum and the way Qwill spoils them. Qwill doesn't cook for himself and lives on restaurant food but cooks or purchases gourmet food for the cats. In each book Koko and Yum Yum's antics relate to the title of the book and the current mystery (of course). I love the fact that they act like real cats! You can tell the author loves cats and has been owned by several Siamese. As the "owner" of a half-Siamese I can verify that Braun portrays their quirky personalities accurately and affectionately.

After settling down in Moose County (400 miles north of everywhere), Qwill and the Siamese sometimes visit his cottage at the lake, presumably one of the Great Lakes. Qwill is always skeptical of the lake residents' obsession with the UFOs said to appear over the lake in the summer. This becomes a running theme/joke in all the books set at the lake, my favorite of which is The Cat Who Saw Stars. (I won't give away the ending but it's perfect!)

Settling down with one of The Cat Who... books is like a pleasant visit with comfortable old friends. Although
the plots are interesting, there are seldom any surprises and you love them anyway because you get to visit the people and cats you love.

The series changed noticeably in 2002 with The Cat Who Went Up the Creek. It wasn't quite as focused as the previous books, but given the author's age (probably 90 at that time), it was understandable. The next couple books were better but the last few were shorter and had a lot less plot. Most disappointing was the last book, The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers.

SPOILER ALERT! I'm about to give away important plot elements of The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers -- stop reading now if you don't want to know. The first problem in this book is the lack of a puzzle, an essential element in even a cozy mystery; there is no crime of any kind and, hence, no plot. Other troublesome problems are that a likable minor character is tragically and pointlessly killed in an auto accident; Polly unexpected leaves Qwill for a job in France, apparently permanently; Qwill, nonplussed, simply decides to date someone else; Qwill's home burns down; the cats are hardly in the story; and we never learn the significance of Koko's extra whiskers (which is what the title refers to). Most frustrating are Qwill and Polly's actions which are completely out of character. Although they never marry, Qwill and Polly are devotedly attached to each other and in The Cat Who Came to Breakfast he realizes he can't imagine life without her. These horrible events left me wondering if Braun simply wanted to end the series and decided to do so in a dramatic and unexpected way, however disappointing to her readers. When I heard she was working on a new book, The Cat Who Smelled Smoke, I hoped that she would fix or undo everything that happened in The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers, or a least explain it. Sadly, the most recent news is that The Cat Who Smelled Smoke has been canceled by the publisher; no reason is given and I can't find any news about the author. I fear the worst. Apparently The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers was the last of the series and am very sad to have it end with such a disappointing and uncharacteristic book.

Despite the unfortunate last book, I still strongly recommend this series for anyone who likes cozies, cats, or light, fun mysteries. I also recommend the unabridged audio books read by George
Guidall. If you don't want to buy them, you can probably find them in your local library. (I know the Flint Public Library and Genesee District Library have them.)

Related Web Sites:
Stop You're Killing Me
Fantastic Fiction (a UK site)
Ronald Frobnitz and Family (not up-to-date; site name is a reference to one of Qwill's aliases)
The Unofficial Lilian Jackson Braun Site
(not up-to-date)

Monday, July 07, 2008

Surprise! Girl Scout Cookies

How long do Girl Scout Cookies stay fresh? I'm still unpacking and just found several boxes I forgot I had stashed away: two boxes of Peanut Butter Sandwich cookies and two boxes low-fat Lemon Pastry cookies. They don't even make Lemon Pastry cookies any more, so I have no idea how old these are! Not that that has stopped me from eating them...

All four boxes were made by ABC Bakers, so they are the best. I just checked the FAQs on the Girl Scout web site, which says "Girl Scout Cookies do not contain preservatives. They are all made with pure vegetable shortening, are kosher, and freeze well to extend their shelf life." I'm amazed they still taste so good!

If you really bored, read all about Girl Scout Cookies and the two licensed bakeries that make them. Read up so you'll be ready to shop wisely next year. Oh, and don't bother freezing them. They apparently stay just as fresh when shoved to the back of the pantry for a couple of years.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Is the Internet Changing the Way We Think?

I read an interesting article in The Flint Journal today: “Is the Internet Shortening Our Attention Spans?” by Allan Hoffman, Newhouse News Service. It refers to “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” by Nicholas Carr, July/August 2008 Atlantic Monthly. (You can also read it on Digg.com, with readers’ comments.)

Carr’s article is especially interesting, comparing the Internet to previous changes in the way we write (i.e., writing itself which Plato feared would destroy memory, the Gutenberg press, the typewriter, etc.). As a college writing instructor I'm always interested in things that influence the way we think and write, especially the tools we use. I’m sure the Internet is changing the way we think, and I imagine the life-long exposure of our younger students means they think about things in a way we older folks (i.e., over 40) can't imagine.

I'm still pondering Carr's argument that Google has made our attention span shorter; for example, he can no longer concentrate on long articles, let alone heavy-going literature like War and Peace. I wonder if he's read any of the Harry Potter books, or if he gave up after book three when they got -- gasp! -- lengthy and literary.

Maybe the Internet has made me a little impatient, but it hasn't hurt my attention span or my love of reading. I'd write more, but my summer booklist awaits!

My Summer Reading List:

J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment (Hardcover)
by Michael D. C. Drout (Editor)

Titanic - The Ship Magnificent Vol I: Design & Construction (Hardcover)
by Bruce Beveridge, Scott Andrews, Steve Hall, and Daniel Klistorner

Titanic - The Ship Magnificent Vol II: Interior Design & Fitting Out (Hardcover)
by by Bruce Beveridge, Scott Andrews, Steve Hall, and Daniel Klistorner

The History of the Hobbit
(Hardcover) by John D. Rateliff

Robin Pagie's Victorian/Edwardian Murder Mysteries

Friday, July 04, 2008

Happy Independence Day!

Happy Birthday, America!

Photo courtesy of Fireworks by Grucci.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Indy 4

We've been so busy moving and unpacking that I didn't have a chance to see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull until yesterday. It was wonderful! (Don't worry, I'm not about to give anything away.)

Most of the reviews I've read said the film has more action and less plot than the previous films, and I agree but that doesn't make this a bad film. Despite the emphasis on action, there are still lots of visual treats that are reminiscent of the previous films, which are a homage to classic B-movies: our first glimpse of Indy's shadow as he puts on his famous hat, the light focused on Indy's eyes in an otherwise dark scene, and several shots of Indy's famous silhouette. My favorite is at the end of the unforgettable opening sequence. You'll see what I mean! Speaking of the opening sequence, I doubt we'll ever see another movie that starts off with such a bang. Wow!

The cast was especially good. Harrison Ford looked great and was the same old Indy but with a little more sarcasm thrown in. Just think of it as a touch of Han Solo. (Speaking of Star Wars, look for the references to Star Wars and Young Indiana Jones in this film. :) Marian Ravenwood, played by Karen Allen, was the same Marian we all know and love from Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was wonderful to see the two of them together again (characters and actors) and see that their magnificent chemistry is still there.

The rest of the cast was also outstanding. This was the first time I've seen Shia LaBeouf and I was impressed by the fact that he wasn't overshadowed by Harrison Ford. As an actor he is nowhere near Ford's caliber yet but he can hold his own. Cate Blanchette was amazing, as she always is, and very convincing as the leader of the evil Ruskies. (I didn't think of Galadriel or Elizabeth except to marvel at her acting ability.) I didn't recognize John Hurt as Professor Harold "Ox" Oxley, a colleague of Marian's dad, but that's probably because he's so convincing in any role he plays!

I was sorry to hear that Denholm Elliott, who played Indy's boss Dr. Marcus Brody, had died. There are nice tributes to him throughout the sequences at Marshall College. I found three. How many can you find? Jim Broadbent was a perfect choice for Indy's new boss and old friend, Dean Charles Stanforth. I can't figure out where I've seen him before but he kind of reminds me of Jack Coleman who plays Claire's dad (aka HRG or "Horn Rimmed Glasses") on Heroes, but maybe it's just the glasses.

I was also hoping, despite the producers' denial, that Sean Connery might put in a surprise appearance at the end, a la Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Sadly, the film made it clear that like Dr. Marcus Brody, Dr. Henry Jones Sr. had died since the the last film. Crap! I also missed John Rhys-Davies as Indy's friend Sallah (from Raiders and Last Crusade) and am sorry he wasn't in this film.

Those rumors you've heard about the plot involving aliens? Don't believe everything you hear. The supernatural element isn't quite up to par with Raiders or Last Crusade, but it's less disappointing than you might expect if you listen to rumors.

For those worried about spiders, snakes, etc.: arachnophobes have nothing to worry about. There is one big snake (Of course! What's an Indy film without Indy confronting a snake?), large scorpions, and ants. No bugs, spiders, or other disgusting things, probably because they overdid those in Temple of Doom.

For soundtrack fans, this one is a must. It combines motifs from all three movies, of course. I don't own it yet but even after only seeing the movie once I clearly heard famliar themes throughout the film (music we associate with Marian, Dr. Henry Jones Sr./the Grail, the Ark, etc.) as well as music for the new characters and adventures. Best of all, of course, is the familiar, rousing Indiana Jones theme. Will I buy the soundtrack? Most likely. Will I see the film again? You bet! And I want the DVD. Thank goodness Indy is back!

Related Web Sites:
Indiana Jones (official site)
The Raider (unofficial fan site. WARNING: contains spoliers!)