New! Improved! And Exclusively Yours!

The things I do instead of Big Work That Matters often involve focusing on small details that I’ve been slow to learn the world at large cares much about. A case in point:

In the course of my freelance toils for the high-end household goods retailer that shall remain nameless, I came across this phrase, and variations thereon, used to describe a line of outdoor furniture: “rustproof aluminum.” I pointed out to the catalog editor that since aluminum doesn’t rust, and since most of the upper-income people expected to buy the furniture probably know that, it actually sounds kind of dumb to say “rustproof aluminum.” But it was explained to me that being rustproof is a selling point; thus it’s not enough to say something is aluminum — you need to say rustproof, too.

Another case: Asked to do a little historical research on the design antecedents for a reproduction lamp carried “exclusively” by the company in question, I quickly discovered at least a half-dozen other places carrying a lamp of identical design and so close in execution to the “exclusive” one that you’d almost need a forensic scientist to tell the difference. I wondered aloud whether, since so many examples of the lamp were so readily discoverable whether it really qualified as an exclusive. The answer, in a nutshell, is that the product is exclusive if the company says it is.

No lesson or moral, I guess. Just watching more words go the way of “new” and “improved” and “97.4 percent pure.”

Schlock Jock

To talk TV, if only for a night: Against my better judgment, as if that’s news, I’ve been watching this season’s new thrillfest from Fox: “Prison Break.” It starts out with the premise that a smart young engineer robs a bank so he can get into prison so that he can free his brother who’s about to be executed for killing the vice president’s brother except of course he (the condemned brother) was framed. Right there you have have at least three layers of scriptwriting magic, but that’s only enough to get you through the season’s opening credits.

It would be small-hearted and ridiculous to cry and cavil about implausibility in a prime-time dramatic TV script. Plausibility is an artifact of the “reality-based community.” It’s clearly not needed to run the country or start a war. So, yeah, it’s time to lay off the TV writers and their clumsy attempts at legerdemain.

What “Prison Break” has going for it: Lots of shots of Chicago and nearby locations. The prison depicted in the show, which is supposed to be new, is the old Joliet Correctional Center (which also got a cameo, I think, in “The Blues Brothers”). When a trio of clueless good guys escapes the city, they wind up in New Glarus, Wisconsin, where I had a bike riding adventure this past summer.

That’s on the plus side. On the minus side: Everything else (though I was informed today that the star, Wentworth Miller, is “hot.” Fine).

The season so far, 13 episodes, has been leading up to what the title promises, a prison break. Without going into the plot twists and character cartwheels, Fox built up Monday night’s show as the “fall finale”; I’m sure lots of viewers, especially gulls like me, thought the big breakout was going to happen.

Well, the network’s ploy worked. The show got its top ratings for the season. What the show actually delivered, though, was a feeble effort at an escape — one foiled by a quiet, conscientious and unusually quick-working janitor. The show ended with a “to be continued — in March” tag.

March? Hopefully, I’ll have found some other prime-time diversion to waste time on by then. Oh, yeah — “24,” which I’ve vowed never to watch again, is coming back.

Road Conditions

In the non-crucial news category, I note after my second California-Oregon-California trip of the last week that the Beaver State (motto: “She drives on her own wheels”) has a kick-ass highway conditions website, Tripcheck. Without returning to my past avocation as rapid web reviewer — hey, I got to help spend $10 million of someone else’s money doing that when the online world was young — I’ll simply say that the interactive maps and webcams and such on the Oregon site make California’s effort look lame (and totally textual).

On the Road Again


Thom and I drove back to Eugene yesterday, stopped by his dorm, went to dinner (a hippie-style burger enterprise called McMenamin’s), and since it was still fairly early (8:30), I started back south. The weather forecast said a big storm would move in overnight, so I wanted to get over the higher passes along Interstate 5 — especially Siskiyou Mountain Summit, just north of the Oregon-California border — before I stopped. I made it down to Yreka, about 210 miles or so from Eugene and 300 miles from Berkeley, by midnight, then found a motel room. When I got my 8 a.m. wakeup call, I casually looked outside, expecting to see rain. No — snow. I checked online and saw that a winter storm warning was calling for 8 to 12 inches of snow along the route I was traveling. I packed in a hurry, had a cup of Best Western coffee, heard from the desk clerk that chains were required on the highway north but not south, and drove out of the parking lot  at 8:26. This was the scene at Yreka’s traffic light (well, maybe there is more than one).

It snowed pretty heavily off and on for the first 30 miles or so. Then gradually, the snow turned to rain as I descended toward the Sacramento Valley. Drove out from under the storm and got back home just after 1. It finally started raining here in the last hour or so.

And Now, a Word from the Sponsored …

Or: What $300 Billion Buys

We know that as seen from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, things in Iraq are getting better every day. Fewer maimings, better manners and more democracy, and even a few hours a day of electricity thrown in. Now here’s a view from someone who, while admittedly having an ax to grind, is a little closer to the situation than the lotus eaters in the Oval Office. Britain’s Observer has an interview with Ayad Allawi, the strongman Bush & co. put in charge of Iraq once it was time for our own boss to leave and we had given up on the guy who wanted to run things, Ahmad Chalabi. Here’s how Allawi sees things today:

” ‘People are doing the same as [in] Saddam’s time and worse. … It is an appropriate comparison. People are remembering the days of Saddam. These were the precise reasons that we fought Saddam and now we are seeing the same things.’

“In a damning and wide-ranging indictment of Iraq’s escalating human rights catastrophe, Allawi accused fellow Shias in the government of being responsible for death squads and secret torture centres. The brutality of elements in the new security forces rivals that of Saddam’s secret police, he said. …

” ‘ …We are hearing about secret police, secret bunkers where people are being interrogated,’ he added. ‘A lot of Iraqis are being tortured or killed in the course of interrogations. We are even witnessing Sharia courts based on Islamic law that are trying people and executing them.’ ”

Near the End of the Ride


The natural destinations for cyclists in Berkeley often involve riding up into or crossing the hills that rise behind the city to the east. I went out for a kind of standard short ride late this afternoon: Up the west face of the hills on a gentle ascent (though not so gentle in my current state of fitness) called Spruce Street, through Tilden Park, a big regional open space that covers most of the top of the hills, then down to San Pablo Dam Road, which runs along the eastern base of the hills. It’s about nine and a half miles each way, and each way features a climb of seven hundred to eight hundred feet, a rolling section, then a long fast descent. Riding back into Berkeley, I came down into town on Euclid Avenue; near the top of the street, there’s a vacant lot — maybe it’s a park, though I haven’t seen any signs — with a clear view out to the west. Riding down Euclid near sunset, I often see people who have driven or walked or cycled to the spot to take in the vista. Tonight was the same. The weather has taken a cool turn (not to say cold, out of respect for those who live in places where it really does get cold), so people out in the twilight were kind of bundled up. The view here is across the bay to Mount Tamalpais. I’ll never get tired of seeing our mountains and ridges against the sky, especially against the evening sky.

George Best

The Chronicle has the obit: George Best: 1946-2005.

The handful of soccer players I heard about growing up — a very small group — included Pele and George Best. I remember reading something about Best in Sports Illustrated once. His exploits for Manchester United were described as little short of incredible. Nice article, but it didn’t mean much because soccer wasn’t a U.S. game and I never got to see him play. But following scraps of career news over the years — I took an interest from afar because he was Irish — I knew that alcoholism had cut short his brilliance.

Two bits from the obit worth noting:

” ‘I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars,’ he once said. ‘The rest I just squandered.’ ”


“Best had battled alcoholism for decades and was diagnosed with severe liver damage in 2000. He received a liver transplant in 2002 but later resumed drinking.”

The American sports star who comes immediately to mind is another preternaturally gifted athlete and helpless boozer whom the fans never stopped adoring: Mickey Mantle.

Consultant Warns of Stupidity

From MSNBC, by way of J.P. Brekke:

“DENVER – Former FEMA Director Michael Brown, heavily criticized for his agency’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina, is starting a disaster preparedness consulting firm to help clients avoid the sort of errors that cost him his job.

” ‘If I can help people focus on preparedness, how to be better prepared in their homes and better prepared in their businesses — because that goes straight to the bottom line — then I hope I can help the country in some way,’ Brown told the Rocky Mountain News. …

“Brown said officials need to ‘take inventory’ of what’s going on in a disaster to be able to answer questions to avoid appearing unaware of how serious a situation is.’

The guy’s his own straight man.

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Windshield Photography

An hour and a half ago, I finished an up-and-back drive to Eugene to pick up Thom for Thanksgiving festivities. On the way to Oregon yesterday, the sun set just as I got to Redding, 200 miles north of here along Interstate 5. Winding through the mountains, Mount Shasta occasionally appears, always bigger than you expect. as you speed up the highway. The mountain, with new snow from the first storms of the season, held the last light long after everything around it was dark.  I tried a through the windshield shot (hey — you have your cellphone, I have my camera) at a low shutter speed; it’s good enough for what it was.

The World of Tussie-Mussie

In the course of writing some copy about pleasantly scented household cleaning supplies — really — I wanted to check the exact meaning of nosegay. I remember reading the word in an American Heritage kids’ book that had a picture spread called “A Nosegay of Valentines.” When I was 8 or so — the same era when I thought misled was pronounced “mize-elled” — I got the sense that a nosegay was a collection of anything fancy. Decades later, when I had occasion to hunt for it in the dictionary, I got the more precise sense that it’s a bunch of flowers.

So back to the cleaning supplies. They smell good. They’re a bunch of things. Would nosegay work (the client I’m writing for sometimes seems to like obscure words)? Looking it up at the American Heritage Dictionary site brought back a short list of words: nosegay, naturally; bouquetier, a container for holding a nosegay; and … tussie-mussie:

SYLLABICATION: tus·sie-mus·sie

NOUN: 1. A small bouquet of flowers; a nosegay. 2. A cone-shaped holder for such a bouquet.

ETYMOLOGY: Middle English tussemose, perhaps reduplication of *tusse.

I don’t know from tussie-mussie. I can swear, almost, that I haven’t stumbled across it in my 19,000-plus days as me. I figured this must be like one of those obscure Scrabble words, like qanat or zobo, that we Standard American English people never use except when we’re looking for a killer play for a Q or a Z.

But no: the world of tussie-mussie is alive and well. The holders are all over eBay. And the Royal Horticultural Society posts a relatively recent explainer on the art and meaning of the tussie-mussie, complete with a sort of guide to different messages you can send through flowers (here’s a special George W. Bush tussie-mussie: tansy, columbine, rocket, and bugloss).