Saturday, November 20, 2010

Thanksgiving's alternative history can finally be told

 BANNED IN PASADENA. These days you have to be soooo careful.

Not a lot of people know there is a secret society dedicated to promoting the eating of pizza at Thanksgiving. It is headed by a group of Italian-Americans ("Paisan-ers") who espouse an alternative American origin story. They believe it was Italians who built the first colonies and whose feast of Thanksgiving with the natives involved not cranberries but cannoli.

In exchange for the knowledge of growing corn, the Europeans taught the natives how to whip up some mean gnocchi. There was turkey, sure. Tetrazzini. And pie. Pizza, that is.

When the Italians began tossing rounds of pizza dough high in the air, the natives reportedly cowered in fear of this dark magic. The collision of two cultures is never pretty (witness hot dog-stuffed pizza crust.)

The aforementioned secret society, code named "PapaDomino," is like that clandestine group in that "Da Vinci Code" book, except more sauce-splattered. Every year its influence is in evidence in TV ads, which promote an effort-free "alternative" to the traditional feast. "Let us do the work for you," they say, as if slaving all day in the kitchen isn't the entire point of Thanks giving.


The natives, so the story goes, gave the Italians stone-ground corn, and in return got stone-fired pizza. Entire native villages began to be renamed things like "Antipasti" and "Insalata."

Pantaloons were the rage for a season among chiefs until it was realized they were scaring away all the game. For their part, the Italians hit new heights of culinary fusion, with venison carbonara and zuppa di grouse.

Even the lore admits there was sometimes friction, but pizza, then as now, acted as an effective social lubricant. Long before there was such a thing as "New York Style," there was "Wampanoag Style," which was not only thin crust, but was rolled tightly around an arrow and shot into a friend's open mouth. This was also known jokingly as a "Plymouth tonsillectomy."

It might not have happened.

Historians are only now unearthing artifacts at the sites of original colonies which may confirm the legends. A garlic press carved from antelope horn is a strong indicator, however. Not to mention the porcupine skeleton pasta maker.

So a new history is, perhaps, in the making, and a modern fusion born. If CPK could just perfect a turkey, yam and stuffing pie, I for one would certainly be thankful.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A face only an algorithm could love

So I got the new version of iPhoto on my Mac recently, and one of its features is called Faces. Faces goes through your entire photo collection and zooms in on faces, then asks you to name them. This is a great help later on if you ever need to find a picture of someone fast.

(Click any photo to enlarge it)

Faces shows you three faces at a time. Because it picks faces out of large group shots and from various big events, a lot of times the faces are grainy or you don't even know who these people are. This process results in some funky trios. Like the two vampires and Mrs. Enthusiasm above.

Here's another winner.

The process can get a little creepy.

After you have entered some names to go with faces, Faces begins to use some kind of face-recognition voodoo and starts asking you whether the picture is so-and-so. Suggesting names. When it guesses right, it's frankly a little freaky, but just as often it's wrong, resulting in awkward moments like this:

Sorry, Pam.

Faces is set up to recognize certain characteristics which constitute a face, but it's not smart enough to ascertain if it's a living face. A cigar store Indian passes muster.

As does an artistic rendering on a Rose Parade float.

And a mannequin head.

And a statue.

And the clay Mary figure from our Christmas creche display.

Fair enough, you say. They are at least human-esque. But...

I don't quite know what Faces was thinking in the center here.

Maybe it thought this was an evergreen Ewok face?

Like an Almodovar movie, from here the "faces" get increasingly surreal.

Look at the two dark triangles at the center. They could be eyes.
I guess.

O.K., I wonder what that algorithm was smoking.

Or drinking.

Ah, remember the old put-down, "A face like a table leg"?

Pretty in its way, but tell me, iPhoto, how is it a face?

How is it a face?

How is it a face?

I'm hoping for a face. Anybody?

Couple of eyeballs, some lips, something?

As Shakespeare said, "God has given you one face, and you make yourself another." Or in this case, iPhoto has given you one face, and it's one that only a mother could love, if your mother happened to be a circus tent.

It's comforting to know that as amazing as technology is, it's not perfect.

If it were perfect, it would find a way to make me still look like I did when I was 25.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Best supermarket name ever

A sign not far from where I live. The name actually means "favorable distribution" (of wealth); avoiding fat isn't really involved, but the name "Favorable Distribution Supermarket" was taken already.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Russia to world: I bring you fluffy mascots in peace

George Waters column for Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014:

Friday night the Olympics in Russia began, as Peyton Manning would very much like you to remember. Sochi, Russia, is an unusual choice for the winter games, because it has a "subtropical" climate, and mild, cool winters with flurries of kickbacks to contractors and politicians. The cost is estimated at almost 10 times that of the 2010 Games, but this is probably because in Russia you have to buy winter from a guy who knows a guy.

The average winter temperature in Sochi is 43 degrees, which, I would have pointed out to the Olympic site-selection committee, is NOT FREEZING. Luckily, many Olympic events occur indoors, and the Russians have built lots of venues for them. Speed skating will occur in Adler Arena, which, in keeping with the tradition of cutting-edge Russian design, looks like a car's air filter.

A clean one. I am not trying to be critical.

But the Olympics are not about the buildings. They are, foremost, about the mascots which can be found on many souvenirs for sale online.

The mascots are a snow hare, a polar bear, and a snow leopard. Upon their unveiling, the designer of the 1980 Moscow Olympics mascot, Misha the bear, reportedly complained that the polar bear's face was borrowed from Misha wholesale, and constituted (my Russian is not too great here, I admit) a kind of "fluffy plagiarism."

In another controversy, one of Russian President Putin's opponents declared that the polar bear closely resembles the mascot of Putin's currently ruling political party, which he claims constitutes a kind of (apologies here, again) "fluffy propaganda."

Nevertheless, you may find these mascots on highly collectible souvenirs, like (I kid you not) a plush "house for cats," the doorway of which has snow hare ears poking up, in keeping with the timeless dignity of sport.

But what about the athletes, you ask? Having gained fame in 1988 as the Jamaican bobsled team, the Jamaican bobsleigh team is returning once again. Bobsleigh is very similar to bobsled except, critically, it involves three entirely new letters.

Idle thoughts:

If Austrians Anna Gasser and Wolfgang Linger married, she would be Anna Gasser-Linger, and nobody would want to spend much time in her vicinity.

I wonder if, as he performs his tricks, Chinese snowboarder Yi Hu yells his own name.

Regardless, welcome, Russian Olympics! Or as they say in the old country, "Dabro pozhalovat!" ("This way to the t-shirts!")

Leaving behind a year of sharks and tornados

George Waters column for Sunday, January 5, 2014:

There is a tendency at this time of year for publications to create "year in review" lists, so that its readers can be aware of the best books and movies they won't be getting around to next year either. As if we needed another reminder of just how much we didn't have time for as our lives drew ever shorter.

The frenetic pace and ginger-infused gluttony of the holidays are past, which is good because in stores it is already Valentine's Day. I call this retail effect "chocolate whiplash."

But any "year in review" list rarely has value, because it is so completely subjective. I have always felt value was overrated, however.

Best movie of 2013: "Sharknado."

A "perfect storm" of great writing, acting and special effects this movie is not. I loved it anyway, because, you see, up front you have the shark aspect, which is fantastic, because who doesn't fear sharks? O.K, the informed. But they did not make this movie for the informed. They made it for popcorn-chomping goobers like me.

Secondly, you have the "nado" aspect. "The Nado Aspect" would actually make a great Matt Damon title. But in this movie, sharks are sucked up into a hurricaney tornadoey thing (it's never clear) and then deposited like malevolent, razor-toothed rain on Beverly Hills or Van Nuys (it's never clear.)

The fact that the ultimate goal of the movie is to get to Van Nuys makes this a true horror film. The fact that a man dives into the mouth of a shark, chainsaw-first, on purpose, makes it a classic. I hear a sequel is due next summer, set in Manhattan. Pity the street pretzel vendors is all I can say.

Best book of 2013: Well, I finally read "Moby Dick" this year, and "Uncle Tom's Cabin." "Catcher in the Rye" too. Some Mark Twain. Willa Cather. It all sounds very high brow until I admit the one I most enjoyed was "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter." Harriet Beecher Stowe could have taken a page from that book. Vampires, like sharks, are a literary spice you can never over-use. (See? Totally subjective.)

A "best of" list containing only two items is uncommon, I admit, but brevity is the soul of wit, and the name of a vodka, I think. Or a comic strip. I get those two confused. Happy New Year anyway!

Bathroom commode replacement turns existential

George Waters column for Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014:

Like most things which start out as a nagging idea in the back of your mind, it has ended up as a royal mess in the front. Regular readers may remember I have an old house. We're talking Vin Scully old, but without the charm. Evidence suggests it was built by a guy who knew his way around a scrap yard.

Not to be too graphic, but our spare bathroom's commode has had horrible hard water deposit buildup for years, beyond any cleaner's capacity to remove, so I got the idea last week to surprise the wife and yank the sucker out of there and replace it with a shiny new one. (The aforementioned nagging idea.)

Bought the new one. Yanked the old one. Plopped it on the driveway. (You know, to provide local color.) It was then I was visited by a second nagging idea: in recent years, when one sat on the commode, one tended to list a little to the west. The floor was, much like my physical self-image, fundamentally unsound.

So I also yanked up the linoleum, revealing the rotted floorboards, which I yanked up, revealing the rotted subfloor boards. Water damage in some previous decade had resulted in weakened wood, which termites then decided to remove orally.

Visions of my wife sitting down on the facilities in the middle of the night, only to plummet to the core of the earth, flashed in my mind. Dodged a bullet there.

A reputable online fix-it Web site suggests that at this point the smart thing to do is stop and consult a professional. But that is for men who are wusses and who have money.

I went around to the side of the house and removed the varmint-repelling screen from the under-house access hole. Like the house, the hole in the house was made at a time when men were the size of modern prepubescent girls. I looked at the hole and tried to imagine not being claustrophobic and failed.

So I stuck just my hand in the hole, aimed up, and took pictures. Yup, the pictures confirmed, that is one freaky spidery under-house region.

I went back inside, got on my hands and knees and peeked down through the floor holes and confirmed the same from that angle. Then I had the thought that, probably, every man has when faced with adversity: We can probably do O.K. with one bathroom.

From aye-aye to zyzzyva: animals with funny names

George Waters column for March 2, 2014:

I have been fascinated with the animal kingdom ever since, as a kid, I learned there was a type of parrot in New Zealand named the kaka. My understanding that scientists have a sense of humor has only grown over the years, and today I join them with my own contributions. These are real animal names. Some traits have been "enhanced," however.

Aye-aye: a noctural lemur-like animal in Madagascar. Not nearly as dangerous as its cousin, the aye-aye-cap'n, easily distinguishable by its red-striped shirt.

Bulbul: a gregarious, Middle Eastern songbird. The running of these in Pamplona is neither dangerous nor highly publicized.

Chamois: a goatlike antelope native to the mountainous regions of Europe, and useful in hand-drying freshly washed cars, if you can manage to hold them still.

Coypu: a large South American rodent, very shy about its toilet activities being witnessed.

Dunnart: an insectivorous, narrow-footed marsupial with no patience at all for paintings.

Froghopper: a leaping and spitting insect. Also, a name absolutely ripe for use on an energy drink.

Hammerkop: an African heron with a distinctive head crest. Also, the guy in charge of enforcing "hammer time."

Hocco: South American bird resembling a turkey (see also: the lost Marx brother.)

Langur: a long-tailed Indian monkey renowned for its laziness.

Malbrouk: a small, tusked East Asian deer, malevolent cousin of the standard brouk.

Murre: a white-breasted northern sea bird, delicious basted with frankincense.

Potto: small, nocturnal, completely drunk West African monkey.

Puku: what happens to the Potto eventually.

Raad: a type of electric catfish. Yes, you read that right. Not to be confused with the very similar totalli raad.

Zyzzyva: a South American weevil. Look no further for proof that scientists are sometimes just messing with us.

Some people might point to rockets or satellites as the crowning achievement of humanity, but how about some love for the guy or gal who came up with naming the caracara, the tucutucu and the colocolo. They were, to critter naming, what Charlie Parker was to the sax.

We will never know who came up with the word junco or sitatunga, pichi or scanderoon. (A scanderoon sounds to me like a politician in a lot of trouble.) I picture those folks back in the misty eons of pre-history, standing around, when suddenly one spots the local amphibious opossum, rubs his chin and suggests, "Yapok?"

"Mmm. Yapok," another says, admiringly. And a critter is thereafter named.

I know what you are thinking: there are amphibious opossums?! Yes. Don't say I never taught you anything.

Every screwup has a silver lining...and a three hour line

George Waters column for Sunday, April 20, 2014:

They say when God closes a door, he opens a window, but if you are like me, you have always lived where the windows are pretty much painted shut. You can break the window and climb through, but that sort of makes God look bad. I am pretty sure it goes on your permanent record.

St. Peter: "So did God ever close a door on you?"

Me: "Yes, of course."

St. Peter: "But he opened a window, right?"

Me: "Um, yes, with a little help from me."

St. Peter: "Oh, God needed your help with that."

Me: "A little bit."

St. Peter: "Look, was the window open or not?"

Me: "I thought I felt a definite draft, yes."

St. Peter: "You were able to use the window for egress?"

Me: "Yes, after I put a towel over the broken glass."

St. Peter: "Enter."

Recently, I snagged tickets to hear author John Green speak at an event. My daughter has read his most famous book five or six times. She was excited.

Saturday we got to the fest, and my wife asked, "So you have the tickets?"

Do you know that sinking feeling? You go and check the car, but you already know you got out the front door without tickets.

I vaguely heard the sound of a door closing.

"God," I sighed under my breath.

Bad enough, except that my daughter had invited her school friend, also a fan, to meet us to hear John Green. So I was crushing her dream too.

It was 12. The talk was at 12:30. At 12:20 they were going to start giving empty seats away to people in the very long Standby line.

While the ladies tried to pull up our email on a smart phone, I ran over to a library on campus to try accessing it there. But we changed our password a few months back and I could not get in. I ran back.

No luck with the smart phone either.

At this point, we discovered there was a line forming to get books signed by John Green after the talk, so we jumped in that. John Green has a fan base. Did I mention that? It took almost three hours to get those books signed, but in the end, my wife, my daughter and her friend all got to meet Mr. Green face to face, something they never would have done if I had not screwed up totally.

Do you feel a draft? Because I do.

Another half-baked conspiracy is toast

George Waters column for Sunday, April 6, 2014:

In our technologically glutted age, there is a hunger to return to days of yore, when we tribes tattooed our loyalties on our skin, pierced our flesh to attract a mate, and savored simple food, like toast. Toast is humanity's touchstone, and so it was inevitable that toast would become an overpriced hipster trend.

Put a bone through your nose and don't forget the most important meal of the day.

Gourmet toast shops have sprung up all over, from San Francisco, where the fad understandably began, to London. Four dollar cinnamon toast. Seven dollar brioche, topped with 'house made ricotta," because god forbid you aren't able to track down the source of your cheese.

Some might say this is the middle class's way of buoying its spirits after the Great Recession, to reassure itself that as long as it can afford seven dollar toast it must be doing all right. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Toast is the canary in the coal mine. Toast is the test.

First, the corporate overlords convinced us four dollar coffee was nothing to rebel against, nothing to get our little wooden swizzle sticks in a swirl about. Then they got us used to pizza with cheese stuffed right inside the crust like some sort of gooey albino serpent.

(Biblical symbolism intended.)

There was a time when we knew, as a people, that cheese went ON pizza. That coffee was a buck with infinite refills. That toast was that thing we ate only if we were still hungry after the eggs and the slab of ham the size of Beyonce's Benz.

If they can convince us seven dollar toast is normal, how long until we don't even flinch as they start fracking our back yards?

This trend even has a name. They call it "artisanal" toast. This conjures up the image of an aproned, bewhiskered craftsman with muscled forearms hunched over a butcher block table, fiercely concentrating. A lock of curly hair teases his forehead. You would date him if he existed.

He does not. Your artisan is a 31 year old aspiring screenwriter, making minimum wage spreading butter and cinnamon sugar on bread. He is blameless. He cannot see the machine from within the gears.

Take a bite out of this, doubters: the letters in "artisanal" are an anagram for the phrase "liar Satan." Coincidence? Maybe. But I'm pretty sure at the bottom of this is some very sourdough.

Planning a trip to England is as entertaining as the trip

George Waters column for Sunday, April 13, 2014:

(The capitalized word DON'T in paragraph one is meant to be lower case in italics.)

Planning a major trip is like the flu—it quietly gains an unstoppable momentum all its own. We are heading to England this summer, so there is the predictable debate about rental car vs. train for traveling around, can't-miss sights vs. sights which DON'T involve "Benny Hill" history. The usual.

My son loves the "Doctor Who" TV show, so we have to go to Cardiff to see the "Doctor Who Experience," which, if it were anything like the real doctor's experience on the show, would involve living forever with a rotating succession of ever more beautiful 20 year old women. I do not think that experience can be had in Cardiff. At least not for the 15 pounds they are asking.

I am a native Californian, so I am leaning toward driving everywhere, whereas my wife is a native Coloradan, so she is leaning toward not wanting to deal with how cranky I get when I drive everywhere.

The train is expensive, but this is a vacation after all, and the relaxation which comes from sitting, and not driving, and enjoying the English countryside from a train window is probably worth it.

O.K., very funny. My wife just wrote that last paragraph while I was off in the kitchen.

I was making bangers and mash. My well-traveled friend told me they test your skill at making bangers and mash at the airport, and won't stamp your passport if you fail. He might just be messing with me, but he also figured out that 9/11 was a conspiracy between narco-traffickers and Coca-Cola. So I am not taking any chances.

We have a lot of ground to cover; a great loop of England, Wales and Scotland with possibly a short hop to Dublin for the waters. I hear the Guinness brewery is doing wonderful things with waters.

When you start searching online for interesting places to visit, you find things like the "tank museum" in Dorset, and you quickly learn to refine your search terms. You are often torn between the touristy tug of places like Stratford and less famous villages like Barton in the Beans and Pett Bottom.

We will make our plans, but we will also, I hope, discover things to explore along the way, on the fly. I anticipate conversations like this:

"There's a town called Weston-under-Lizard just five miles over. Do you want to go?"

"Oh, I think you know."

Readers may contact George at

Super Bowl quiz for the non-football fan

George Waters column for Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014:

Super Bowl XLVIII is this afternoon, but before the big game, I invite you to park your Hyundai, grab a bag of Fritos, and a Pepsi, a Coke or a Budweiser, and sit down to see how much you know about today's advertisers, er, I mean, teams.

1. A football team has 11 players, so in Seattle, the "12th man" refers to:

a) The guy who offers to wash your windshield in the stadium parking lot
b) A pretend man the players "talk" to in order to freak reporters out
c) The 13th man, but the Seahawks are superstitious
d) A mythical being, much like Sasquatch, only with Birkenstocks

2. You know you are a true Broncos fan when:

a) It's raining on you and snowing, and the sun is shining
b) You find orange and blue to be suitable sofa colors
c) You are aware there is official, NFL-sanctioned Broncos fingernail polish
d) You refer to the old "Orange Crush Defense" un-ironically

3. Other team names which the Seahawks originally considered were:

a) The Sea Jocks
b) The Precipitation
c) The Pugetmen
d) The Boeingers

4. True or false: You can buy toddler jammies covered with the logo of every NFL team.

a) True.
b) False. This is not America.

5. Seattle's city motto is:

a) "The city of flowers"
b) "The city of good will"
c) "Behind every 12th man, there is a 12th woman"
d) "Birthplace of Macklemore"

6. You know you are a true Seahawks fan if you:

a) can remember the name of the quarterback
b) know the "Legion of Boom" does not refer to a Steven Seagal movie
c) had heard of Richard Sherman before two weeks ago
d) know that Golden Tate is a wide receiver, not a variety of apple

7. Which Super Bowl team's mascot is embodied, on the road to their hometown's airport, by a giant, 32 foot tall, blue (as in "Blue Man Group" blue) mustang, rearing on its hind legs with crazed red eyes which glow after dark like two malevolent fireflies from the bowels of Hell?

a) That would be the Broncos

8. True or false: That’s messed up.

a) True

I would like to say I remember who won the Super Bowl last year, but sadly all I recall is something about Clydesdales and puppies. I think the puppies won. Oh, I certainly hope so.

Funny text auto-correct errors I would like to see

George Waters column for Sunday, January 12, 2014:

We live in an age when text auto-correct can deftly alter your relating of a supermarket parking lot mishap into something altogether more entertaining, like "My fart slipped away and dented a convertible." What a difference one letter makes.

Imagine the alternate spin the ad campaign would have had if auto-correct had turned it into "Virginia is for rovers." It might have worked even better.

Other notable ad slogans would be forever altered:

"Can you heal me now?" Hey, phones can do almost everything else.

I like to imagine Clara Peller crying out, "Where's the beer?"

"Sometimes you feel like a nun, sometimes you don't."

"Ivory soap: 99 and 44/100% puke."

"Just ho it."

"With a name like Smuckers, it has to be goop."

"Volkswagen: think smell."

"Put a tiger in your bank." (And watch ATM use skyrocket.)

"Wal-mart. Save money. Live bitter."

Thanks to auto-correct, famous sayings would take on equally dubious new meanings.

"Absence makes the heart grow yonder."

"A bird in the hand is worth two in the bust."

"Blood is thicker than tater."

"He suffered death by a thousand cats."

"Kodak. Share moments, share lice."

"Don't bite the hand that feels you."

"A rose by any otter name would smell as sweet." (Flippy? Finboy? Butch?)

"The early bird watches the worm." (He is too sleepy. He is my kind of bird.)

"Good things come to those who wail."

"Curiosity killed the cad."

"He is a jack of all trades and a master of nope."

"Give them an inch and they'll take a mime."

"A rind is a terrible thing to waste."

"It's a land of milk and hiney."

"His barf is worse than his bite."

I sense a whole dog sub-theme emerging here.

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of curs."

"It's as easy as falling off a dog."

"Every dog has his dad."

Some do not make any sense, but are just fun.

"A chain is only as strong as its weakest oink."

"Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn once in a whale." ("Ice Age 5 anybody"?)

Technology keeps advancing to improve our convenience. Unfortunately, it rarely asks us for final approval before we hit "Send." Humor is often the result. At least it is what I was going for today. Sorry if some of them were painful, but you know what they say: "The end justifies the moans."

A vintage brand is reborn! Can you believe this sheep?

George Waters column for 26, 2014:

If you are of a certain age, you know the phrase, "He doesn't know sheep from Shinola." I am using "sheep" here as a substitute for the actual word, so as not to offend, well, anybody who is still offendable these days.

The colloquial phrase above was once very popular. It spawned a movie scene in which a son is tested by his father, before heading out into the wide world, on whether he truly  knows sheep from Shinola. It also spawned songs by Dolly Parton and the rock band Ween.

You have to admit—the seductive power of the phrase's alliteration is hard to resist.

The Shinola company made shoe polish for decades, but the trademark was bought recently and reborn as a wristwatch brand. Yes, it's true. Watches. This puts a new twist on that other famous phrase, "He doesn't know whether to sheep or wind his Shinola."

This brave new world makes my head hurt.

The company wanted to manufacture watches in the U.S., watches which would carry American-made cachet, so they chose a classic all-American brand with retro weight to it. Trouble is, it's a brand associated with, well, sheep.

A bold choice, yes. Plus, they made their base in the historic Argonaut building in Detroit, former home of the General Motors Research Lab. Motor City, king of the postwar, like Shinola itself. More retro cachet. But still.

The brand is kind of a joke, isn't it? Can anyone over 40 hear the word Shinola and not think, instantly, reflexively, of sheep? The watches, like most watches, have crystal faces, but they don't exactly shine. Nor does the image of putting sheep on your wrist.

Why a shoe polish company for a watch brand? I mean, there are other stylish, defunct names available. Why not Victrola? Or Zenith? Woolworth? Studebaker?

A Studebaker watch. Powder blue. I can see it. Or Pullman, and the slogan, "Time to go."

Shinola, as it turns out, still makes Shinola. The kind you rub on your shoes. Black and brown, like the old days. They created a new logo with a retro/modern look too. The tins are gorgeous. So gorgeous they are out of stock.

Shinola also makes high-end, retro-looking bicycles ($2950) and handmade leather goods too. They will sell you a leather iPad cover for $295. This is not your father's Shinola. Nowadays, none of this sheep comes cheap.

I'm being followed by a moon salad; moon salad, moon salad

George Waters column for Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014:

NASA has announced plans to attempt to grow plants on the moon, and it is starting with turnips. When I was a kid, I would have been happy to hand mine over to NASA for a moon shot. Rather than orbiting Earth, my turnips tended to end up on the narrow ledge of wood underneath the dining room table.

I hope some day, if all goes well, NASA will expand their lunar ambitions to okra and rutabaga. Maybe Brussels sprouts. If we can send a man to the moon, we can certainly eradicate these scourges in our time.

Oh yeah. They are trying to GROW them. Well, to be fair, this is only experiment one, and they chose turnips, basil and cress as test subjects because, after polling astronauts about what they crave most after months in space, a T-bone did not even come up once.

So NASA is creating a little pod which will hold seeds in a nutrient sheath, and release water to them at the appropriate moment. The pod will then shoot a selfie after five days to determine if anything grew, and transmit the picture back to Earth.

Scientists are hoping for signs of "circumnutation" and "phototropism," but then again, aren't we all?

The trip is planned for late next year, and I look forward to the night when I can look up at the moon and know there is a tiny salad up there, and that humans have finally gone verifiably nuts.

True, growing mass quantities of produce on the moon would enable astronauts to live there without the need for constant resupply from Earth, freeing up the payload bays of incoming rockets for other crucial items, like DVDs of "Downton Abbey."

But I sort of wish instead of basil they would haul chia seeds to the moon, and the whole thing could be one giant chia head in space. Albert Einstein, say. Or Lincoln.

Of course, the conspiracy-theory part of me suspects that all this is just a cover for a very well-hidden pot farm, well out of reach of law enforcement. The truth is less entertaining. NASA is using a private space firm to deliver the seeds, a first step toward the eventual commercialization of the moon.

So it is possible that one day an astro-miner will drill amidst a field of corn as high as a Venutian's eye. That's one small step for man, one giant leap for titanium salesmen.

Humor is subjective, and so is this opinion

George Waters column for Sunday, March 9, 2014:

I judged a humor writing contest recently, and it reminded me just how hard it is to write humor if you are not in Congress. The entries were anonymous, but none of them proposed comically self-serving legislation, so I am pretty sure none was written by elected officials.

I have entered a few humor contests myself without winning, and I have learned two valuable lessons: 1) humor is very subjective and 2) humor contest judges are humorless hacks.

I do not have any evidence, but the vibe I get is that contest organizers are just happy to find anyone who is willing to sit and read several dozen essays, even if their humor credentials are limited to having once watched an episode of "Two and a Half Men." Or, for that matter, a funny show.

I once attended a conference at which humorist Dave Barry listed his three main rules for writing humor: 1) it should be funny, 2) it should contain the word "weasel" somewhere, and 3) if there were any real rules for humor, there would be no "Marmaduke."

I tried to hold this in mind while judging, and tried hard to keep my funny bone as limber as possible, and wow, I apologize for what a creepy visual that is.

Amateur humor writers tend to write about something which actually happened to them, and then embellish that into something funny. It is the second of those two tasks which usually gets lost in the effort.

Again, it is totally subjective, though. I may not think that a dog getting into the laundry basket and running down the street with grandma's bra dangling from his nose is funny. Someone else may, especially if someone else is grandpa, who never saw the value of a dog until this moment.

I have a friend who persistently enters humor writing contests, and when she loses, and I compare her entry to the winners, it is clear the judges must have come straight over from judging at their ice dancing gigs.

Mark Twain wrote, "Humor is the great thing, the saving thing after all. The minute it crops up, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations, and resentments flit away, and a sunny spirit takes their place." He was right. And for insurance, it never hurts to keep a weasel in your back pocket.

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A good pen, Watergate, pencils and Donna Summer

George Waters column for Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014:

Like many men who lived through both Watergate and disco, I have a favorite pen. I am not saying those events had anything to do with the pen, I was just curious to see if you are the kind of person who would read another sentence to find out what the first one meant.

A favorite pen, like a favorite dog or sibling, is subjective. Ask 10 people what brand their favorite pen is, or favorite brother, and you will get 10 different answers, because these people are not in the same family. So that's not a good poll sample for pens.

The brand of my favorite pen does not matter, and would impress no one, except maybe a guy with no pen. It is plastic, and it has one of those rubber grips they make now to coddle your forefinger.

Men of my father's generation would probably say the downfall of our republic is symbolized by finger-coddling, and I am not sure I would disagree. But I also remember the callous my index finger built up writing term papers with a pencil. A pencil had six sharp edges, each one designed by a team of school teachers to make learning hurt.

I say "had" because pencils are in my past. I write in ink now, because if I make a mistake I have enough life experience now to blame it on someone else. Erasing is for sissies and, as I recall, just as callous-inducing as writing. Something that pokes you coming and going should be avoided, unless you are a character in one of those "Fifty Shades" books. And if you are, you are probably too busy cringing at your dialogue to write anything yourself.

My favorite pen spools ink out evenly and doesn't dry up every five minutes. Andy Rooney probably already wrote a column about pens decades ago, but just because Rembrandt was heck on canvas doesn't mean everybody stopped painting.

A pen is a tool. A good tool makes your work easier, and deserves praise. Watergate and disco, in contrast, do not. Donna Summer was pretty cute, I admit. I hope she and Andy Rooney are dancing in a cloud somewhere, she in a silk disco gown and he with his eyebrows clipped now to a heavenly, distinguished trim. We forgive Donna for breaking into the Watergate. She swore she was only looking for a good pen. I believe her.

Origin of the universe stories, from wild to wacky

George Waters column for Sunday, April 27, 2014:

In the 17th Century, mathematician Johannes Kepler calculated that the universe was created on this day, April 27, in the year 4977 B.C. According to modern scientists, he was off by only about 13.7 billion years. A mere whisker, as they say. Kepler is best remembered, though, for his later theories of planetary motion, which just goes to show that the important thing is to finish strong.

Every culture has a creation story to explain the universe, and because cultures are made up of humans, and humans often think alike, there are a lot of similarities between stories. This also explains the popularity of Christina Aguilera.

Experts divide creation myths into several major common categories:

Creation "ex nihilo," or "out of nothing." This one suggests that the universe was created through the dream, breath, thoughts or even the bodily secretions of a divine being. "Bodily secretions" does not sound like "nothing" to me, but thankfully, the experts are not more specific.

Creation out of chaos. Any parent who has ever escaped from a kids' birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese knows this feeling.

Creation from the separation of two "world parents," who clutch each other so tightly that nothing else can form between them. They are pulled apart, probably by their grossed-out "world teen" children, and room is made for the universe.

Creation from the dismembered parts of a primordial being. This vague process is, I believe, the same way we ended up with something called "Buffalo wings."

Creation by the cracking of a cosmic egg. I expect that if the cultures which came up with this one had domesticated alligators instead of chickens, the myth would be much the same.

In the Hindu religion, Brahma, the god of creation, was born out of a lotus flower which grew from the god Vishnu's navel. This was reportedly witnessed by the goddess Lakshmi, who swears she was absolutely, positively not high at the time.

Another version has Brahma being born from a golden egg, and the egg then expanding to create the universe, which explains all the chickens.

Brahma then goes on to create, from his mind, 10 sons, who became the fathers of the human race. He only created one daughter, but Brahma supposedly had four heads, so he could certainly keep an eye on her.

Kepler is starting to look a little better right about now, isn't he?