Wednesday, February 28, 2007

How many times was Martin Scorsese nominated for a Best Director Oscar before he won?

Who's asking: Quizmaster Geoff at the Liberal Cup, Hallowell, ME

We didn't win last night. We came in second (by a single point), and this was one of the questions we didn't get. Before Martin Scorsese won the Oscar for The Departed, he was nominated for Best Director Oscars for Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York and The Aviator. He was also nominated for (but did not win) Best Screenplay from Another Medium for Goodfellas (with Nicholas Pileggi) and The Age of Innocence (with Jay Cocks).

Guessing The Departed would win Best Picture won me two passes to Railroad Square Cinema, so I can't complain too much about this year's Academy Awards. But I do wish Peter O'Toole had won; I haven't seen Venus, but that was his eighth nomination. The others were for Lawrence of Arabia, Becket, The Lion in Winter, Goodbye Mr. Chips, The Ruling Class, The Stunt Man and My Favorite Year -- which begs the question, what does it take to get a little recognition? (Yes, he won an honorary Oscar a couple of years ago. It's not the same.)

Five Random Songs

"Real Real," Nina Simone. Liking Nina Simone is a basic requirement of coolness.
"Listen to the Band," The Monkees. And listening to The Monkees is -- uh -- not. But they cheer me up, dammit.
"I Feel Lucky," Mary Chapin Carpenter. Another great cheering-up song. "Dwight Yoakam's in the corner/Trying to catch my eye/Lyle Lovett's right beside me/With his hand upon my thigh."
"Church," Lyle Lovett. Hey, what about that! This version is from the Live in Texas CD. I once saw Lyle Lovett and his band perform this at the Hollywood Bowl, and the audience sat in their seats like lumps. Los Angeles audiences are terrible.
"Warming Up to the Ice Age," John Hiatt. Rounding out our singer-songwriter set, this is off one of the earlier records. Fine stuff, but he didn't really hit his stride until Bring the Family.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

What is the difference between gasoline and diesel fuel?

Who's asking: Claire Bea, Montreal, Quebec

The nicer waiting area at O'Connor Volkswagen, where I got my Beetle fixed a couple of weeks ago, is in the sales showroom -- of course. So as I sat there, a nice salesman asked whether I was interested in buying a new car, given the fact that my own vehicle has now hit seven years and 75,000 miles.

I asked whether VW had any plans to manufacture a hybrid car. The salesman said he didn't think so; "VW has a very fuel-efficient diesel engine option," he said. "I think they're committed to that approach."

That raised this question, which Claire asked over the weekend. What's the difference between gas and diesel engines -- and (my question) -- why is diesel the more fuel-efficient option?

Gasoline and diesel fuel are both refined petroleum products. Gasoline is a mix of hydrocarbon chains that range from seven carbons/16 hydrogens to 11 carbons/24 hydrogens. Diesel chains are heavier, with chains of 14 carbons/30 hydrogens. Gasoline vaporizes at temperatures below the boiling point of water; diesel boils at temperatures higher than 212F.

It's an oversimplification, but gasoline engines burn mostly gasoline, and diesel engines burn mostly air. Cylinders in a gasoline engine fill with a mixture of gasoline and air, which ignites with a spark from a spark plug. In a diesel engine, cylinders compress air until it becomes very hot; fuel injectors then add a little bit of fuel, which ignites and drives the engine. Thus, diesel engines use considerably less fuel than gasoline engines, anywhere from 15 to 40 percent less.

Does this mean that diesel is a greener choice than gasoline, then? I'd have to be an econometrician to figure that out. Diesel engines burn less fuel than gasoline engines, but refining diesel is a lengthier process than refining gasoline. Does the energy put into refining diesel equal the energy saved when diesel fuel burns? I have no idea. If anyone knows, post a response below.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Why do paper cuts hurt so much?

Who's asking: Richard Brewer, Los Angeles, CA

I've broken a couple of bones, given birth to a couple of kids, ruptured a disc, had all four wisdom teeth extracted at once and concussed myself at least twice -- and the memory of none of those things makes me shudder as much as the thought of a paper cut.

Paper cuts hurt for a couple of reasons. First, we tend to get paper cuts in places where we have concentrations of nerve endings -- our hands and our tongues. (I stopped licking envelopes even before that "Seinfeld" episode.) Second, and perhaps counter-intuitively, paper cuts hurt more because they don't really bleed. They're usually not deep enough to bleed, which means they're not deep enough to scab. Because they don't scab, they remain open to the air while the skin heals itself from underneath, and every time the air hits the nerve, you feel pain again. To add insult to injury, if you get a paper cut on a knuckle, it can open itself up again every time the knuckle bends.

It may seem like a wimpy thing to do, but you can reduce the pain from paper cuts a lot by keeping Band-Aids on them until they heal. This is one reason I go through about a box of Band-Aids a month (and yes, have to restrain myself from buying the cartoon ones).

While I was in Freeport and Portland yesterday, Hallowell's legendary Slates Restaurant suffered a major fire. Thank God no one was hurt, but this is a terrible blow for Hallowell and for all of us who live within striking distance of Slates. I hope and expect there will be some kind of fundraiser to help the owners rebuild and the tenants relocate; when I hear any more, I'll post details and updates here.

This just in: St. Matthew's Church in Hallowell is organizing a relief effort for the tenants of the apartments above Slates and the 60+ employees who will be out of work for an indefinite period. Cash is what's needed; send donations to St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, 20 Union St., Hallowell, ME 04347, Attn: The Rev. Calvin Sanborn. Please make your check out to St. Matthew's and include "Emergency Fire Fund" on the memo line.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

What is dry gas?

Who's asking: Claire Bea, Montreal, Quebec

This is something I've wondered about ever since moving to New England; Claire asked yesterday when we stopped to fill up.

"Dry gas" is an ethanol-based fuel additive that is supposed to keep any water or condensation that's collected in your gas tank from freezing. It's not necessary in weather above freezing, or if you're using a gasoline that already contains 10% ethanol.

Claire and I made the 175-mile roundtrip to Sugarloaf last night to see John Hiatt, who's currently touring with a one-man retrospective of his career. It's worth driving 175 miles just to hear John Hiatt sing "Have a Little Faith in Me," but Sugarloaf's seating system was greedy and dumb, and those of us standing at the back (general admission) could barely hear the first few songs, before they got the sound straightened out.

I'll make this pronouncement: except in cabarets, live music shows should not have seats. If the musician is standing, the audience should be standing, too. If some members of audience need to sit, put them at the back of the house. As it was, a lone man worked his heart out last night to entertain a mostly-inert crowd, and the unwashed masses at the back felt like farm animals, herded behind metal barriers (I wish I were kidding; I'm not). I won't be going to another Sugarloaf show with reserved seating.

Now Claire's on her way back to Montreal, and Dizzy and I are sad our company couldn't stay longer.

Thursday, February 22, 2007


Rushing around today trying to get too many things done before company comes (hurray!). I will be scarce for the next several days, and probably won't post again till late Sunday. Once in a while, real life takes priority over my virtual existence.

In the meantime, here's one more snow photo, to tide you over...

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Is it true that Apple doesn't make any money from its iTunes store?

Who's asking: Tom Ehrenfeld, Cambridge, MA

If the Answer Girl blog were a genuine journalistic enterprise, I'd call the Apple PR office to ask this question. Since it's a hobby, I just clicked around for a while and found the latest Apple earnings press release, along with a few blogs and forums that gossip about Apple's corporate health as if it were a high school sports team. (One of the reasons I fought the switch from PC to Mac for so long was the awareness of this rabid Apple subculture... I have enough geeky subcultures of my own, thank you.)

Anyway, Apple doesn't split out iTunes revenues or profits from the rest of its earnings report. Apple's fiscal year runs from October 1 to September 30, so it reported its first quarter earnings last month. In the first quarter of the 2007 fiscal year, Apple took in $7 billion in revenue and made a profit of one billion dollars. That's "billion," with a b. That's a lot of money.

In slightly less than four years of operation, the iTunes store has sold more than two billion songs, at an exponential growth rate. It took two years and two months for the iTunes store to sell its first 500 million songs, but it sold another 1.5 billion between June 2005 and December 2006.

Whether or not the iTunes store is profitable as an independent enterprise seems irrelevant to the main story, which is that the iTunes store is an extremely popular, revenue-producing chunk of one of the most profitable companies in the world. The iTunes store is a crucial piece of Apple's iPod marketing, and trying to measure one piece of that success against another is like trying to figure out which part of the cookie has the most chocolate chips.

I love my iTunes, but don't buy much at the iTunes store -- mostly single songs that have stuck in my head, which I don't feel like buying the whole CD for. (Example: my latest purchase was "It's a Shame About Ray," by The Lemonheads. No idea why this song popped into my head, but the only version of the album I had was on an old cassette.)

Five Random Songs from the iPod Shuffle:

"Smarter," Maria McKee. My entire romantic history in one song.

"Call and Answer," Barenaked Ladies. One of the most honest love songs ever written; it's a tender song of devotion that ends with the promise that the singer will "crucify" his partner if she wigs out on him again.

"Mike Post Theme," The Who. From the most recent album, Endless Wire. This song amuses me for obscure reasons of my own.

"Life on a Chain," Pete Yorn. This CD (Music for the Morning After) never got old for me; it's a nearly-perfect pop album.

"Peace," Eurythmics. Annie Lennox does take herself too seriously sometimes, but this record is beautiful, and this song is one of the best things on it.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

What do pancakes have to do with the beginning of Lent?

Who's asking: Me

Sleep-walking through my local Hannaford the other day, I found myself putting a box of pancake mix in the cart without even thinking about what I was doing. Pancake mix? I never make pancakes. Why was I buying pancake mix?

Because it was February, and it was a week before Ash Wednesday, and it was time to make pancakes. I always make pancakes on the Tuesday before Lent, variously known as Mardi Gras, Fasching, Carnivale, Shrove Tuesday, and -- yes -- Pancake Tuesday.

"Carnivale" I get, because it means "farewell to meat," from the days when Lent meant abstaining from meat altogether. But why pancakes, other than the obvious fact that they go so well with bacon?

Apparently Lent, at one time, meant going without fat, eggs and sugar as well as without meat. Back in the day, using up all the fat, eggs and sugar in the house meant making pancakes, so the Tuesday before Lent was the day to do that. (Hence "Fat Tuesday" -- Mardi Gras -- refers to eating all the fat, not to trying to get fat before Lent began.)

So I'm making some pancakes, in honor of a tradition so entrenched I never even learned what it was about. I don't even like pancakes that much; I prefer waffles. If you want some, feel free to drop by.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Why does green mean go?

Who's asking: Henry Lavinder, Mechanicsville, VA

This will sound simple-minded, but as best I can tell, green means "go" because red means "stop."

Red has always been the color of danger. Red is the first color babies see, and the one color every language has a word for. When early railroad engineers needed to put up signal lights along the tracks, red was the obvious choice.

Red meant "stop," and when the light changed, the train could go again. The very first railway signal lights changed from red to clear -- but that didn't work, because the clear light was too hard to see in the daytime, and it was too easy to confuse the clear signal light with other lights at night.

It's an oversimplification to say that green is the opposite of red -- but, roughly and generally and in a non-scientific sense, green is the opposite of red. So when they decided to make the "go" signal a color instead of clear, green was an easy call.

The very first traffic light was installed in London, in 1868, to govern the buggy traffic in front of the British House of Commons. It used red and green lights for "stop" and "go."

The first red-and-green traffic light in the United States was put up in Salt Lake City, in 1912. Red-and-green traffic lights started to catch on by the end of that decade -- San Francisco installed the first traffic light system in 1917. The amber "caution" light was added in 1920 in Detroit, and the design we use now -- red on top, green on the bottom -- was patented in 1923.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Snow pictures

The old Gardiner train depot, which now stands vacant. If I won the lottery, I'd turn this building into a bookstore/cafe.

The State Library, my home away from home.

The State Capitol in the snow.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

How do I find an agent for my book?

Who's asking: Various clients, at various times

Once again, I'm giving away work for free, but only because this may be the professional question that makes me feel the most helpless and incompetent.

A good agent is advocate, therapist, editor, financial advisor, publicist and coach. The search for one is more difficult than looking for a job, and only slightly less difficult than looking for a spouse. Anyone who says otherwise is either very lucky or trying to sell you something.

That said, I have some feeble advice to offer, and if any of my author pals feel like expanding on the advice, please do.

First, don't approach an agent before your manuscript is finished. If you have three good chapters and an outline, great; finish the book. We've all heard stories about the authors who sold books based on a proposal scribbled on a napkin, or a great first chapter, or a five-minute pitch; we hear about these things because they're freaks. Advances for first novels are rarely enough to let you quit your day job to finish the book, so let that fantasy go.

In the real world, you're wasting your time and the agent's when you submit unfinished work. If an agent rejects the first three chapters of your unfinished work, he or she won't want to look at it again once it's finished. If they like the book and want to represent it, they won't want to wait three months, six months or however long it takes you to finish -- if you do finish.

You can, however, do some homework while you're writing. Professional associations are useful sources of names and contact information, especially in genre fiction. I'm skeptical about the value of pitching to agents at writers' conferences, but it always helps to meet potential agents in person.

Look for books and authors that appeal to the audience you're writing for, and check the acknowledgements. Most authors thank their agents, and if an agent likes a book that resembles yours, they might like your book, too.

Many reference books and websites provide information about the best way to approach individual agents. The book I use is The Writer's Market, but other directories have similar information, and you'll find several in any decent library. Before you send out your query, check the agent's website for updated information about whether they're accepting submissions, and how they prefer to receive them.

And don't put all your eggs in one basket. Identify as many potential agents for your work as possible, and submit your work to all of them. It's not like sending stories out for publication; if more than one expresses interest, terrific.

Finally, don't pay anyone any money up front. Agents earn their living by selling their clients' work; publishers pay advances and royalties to the agents, who take their percentage and send you the rest. Legitimate agents don't ask for money up front, and don't charge "editing fees." (They may suggest that you seek help from an independent editor, and may even recommend one -- I've had clients referred to me this way -- but those are independent arrangements between writer and editor, and the agent receives no compensation for these referrals.)

Finding a literary agent is hard, even for established authors. I know a few successful authors who have had to go through this process more than once, because their original agent retired, or because the relationship just wasn't working out.

If it was easy, everyone would be Dan Brown (and then Dan Brown wouldn't be Dan Brown...).

Friday, February 16, 2007

Why does asparagus make my urine smell funny?

Who's asking: Jennifer Lechner, Freeport, ME

Oh, you knew I'd get around to this question eventually. People have been wondering about it since at least Roman times, when they'd take cartloads of asparagus up to the Alps to freeze, just so the aristocracy could eat it at mid-winter festivals.

The distinctive odor created by asparagus comes from the interaction of digestive acids with a sulfur-sugar compound in the asparagus plant. The chemical reaction produces thioesters, and the one thing I remember from high school chemistry is that esters are strong scent producers.

According to some scientists, not everyone suffers the asparagus-urine smell -- but I read one article that suggests the chemical reaction is the same for everyone, but not everyone can smell it.

I am deep in the February doldrums, with little time for pleasure reading... I've read four manuscripts this week, but don't want to talk about any of them (although at least two already have publishing contracts), because of the likelihood that the final books will look different from the versions I read. Here's a short installment of

What I Read This Week

Robert Crais, The Watchman. Elvis Cole's mostly silent partner Joe Pike must pay off a favor by serving as bodyguard to an heiress who saw the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time. To say much more about the plot would make it sound cliched and maybe even corny, and that's exactly what this book is not. It's a masterful balance of plot and character, both entertaining and compassionate, and Crais' best work since L.A. Requiem.

T. Jefferson Parker, The Fallen. Parker creates a terrific protagonist -- Robbie Brownlaw, a San Diego cop who develops a peculiar form of synesthesia after surviving a fall from a hotel window -- but the plot, a city ethics investigator's murder, never takes full advantage of the character. It seemed almost as if Parker had written two different books, and combined them. The seams show. I hope we see more of Brownlaw, though.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

How much snow did you get?

Who's asking: Jim Lamb, Virginia Beach, VA

Hard to say. The total at Augusta Airport was 14 inches at 8:00 last night, but I think it snowed more after that. As the day wore on, it got hard to tell what was falling and what was just blowing; we had gusts of 40 miles an hour last night, and winds were even heavier along the coast.

I'll post photos later in the day, if I can get the camera's cable to work. I've just come in from 50 minutes of shoveling that cleared my front stairs and about 2/3 of the deck I share with my next door neighbor, and I'm behind on several projects. But the sun is shining, it feels warmer than it's been, and I must say it's all awfully pretty.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Weather... all anyone up here really has to talk about today. We're under a blizzard warning until tomorrow morning. These photos were taken about an hour ago.

Dizzy generally likes the snow, but seemed doubtful about this storm. We are well-stocked on the essentials (dog food, espresso, skim milk), so as long as the power doesn't go out, we'll be fine.

Happy Valentine's Day, everybody, and happy birthday to Eileen Consey-Heywood, in darkest Aberdeen.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Do you want us to go ahead and replace the timing belt while we're in there?

Who's asking: The service manager at O'Connor Volkswagen, Augusta, ME

It was a spectrum of things that could have been wrong with my car, I knew. Best-case scenario, just a loose hose; worst-case scenario, water pump.

Of course it was the water pump, plus an expensive oxygen sensor. Parts would run about $375, the service manager said, but what would really cost would be the labor, because they'd have to take the engine apart to fix things. Since my timing belt was due to be replaced in a couple thousand miles, would I want them to do that as well? It would only be another $150 or so, and I'd save on labor.

What the hell; it's only money. I managed not to cry, even when I signed the bill, which came to $867. Good thing the work's been rolling in lately.

Rushing off to Boston this morning; a client meeting, and then I'm hoping to see Chris Moore speak at Porter Square Books tonight. Whether I actually stay for the event depends on how the weather looks; things are supposed to get ugly tomorrow.

Happy, happy birthday to my brother James, who will always be the baby of the family.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Is it wrong to have girl hope for Valentine's Day? or are we sucked into commercialism?

Who's asking: Chandra Leister, somewhere in Maine

Most of my own romantic history could be filed somewhere between "ambiguous" and "imaginary," but if priests can be marriage counselors, I'm happy to tackle this question.

Valentine's Day represents the unified field theory of modern romance. If you've figured it out, I invite you to post your own solutions below.

Easy part of the question first: yes, we're sucked into commercialism. The fact that jewelry stores offer payment plans for Valentine's gifts is horrifying. Do women expect men to go into debt in order to prove their devotion? Obviously, some do. If you're one of those women, shame on you.

The "girl hope" part of this is more difficult. All any of us really wants, I think, is for someone we find amazing to find us amazing. This is "in love." It tends not to last very long, because familiarity does breed contempt. As we get to know the object of our affection better, the things that amazed us become ordinary or even annoying. It takes energy and desire to keep looking for amazement in one person, and to keep trying to be amazing for the person we love. The truth is that we can never know everything about any other person. If we remind ourselves that any long-term relationship is a never-ending process of getting to know each other (and ourselves), we will always find new things to amaze us.

Hope of any kind suggests a position of weakness. Men justifiably complain that women don't tell them what we want, then yell at them for not being able to figure it out on their own. If Valentine's Day is important to you, you need to let your husband or boyfriend know that well in advance. I don't believe in picking out one's own presents -- in fact, I think that's kind of tragic -- but you can certainly drop a few hints about the kind of things you'd like. (Some people are good at presents, and some aren't. Being a person who's good at presents, I'd like to consider the lack of this ability a character flaw, but it isn't.)

The other thing to remember is that Valentine's is one arbitrary day. What matters is every other day. If you're in a relationship, remind yourself every day to look, really look at your partner, and ask the only question that really matters:

How are things with you?

Oh, and before I forget: best birthday wishes to Adrienne Lakadat, my oldest friend (oldest in duration, not in age), and to Sarah Weinman, the Idiosyncratic Mind.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Why does one of my ears suddenly turn red for no reason?

Who's asking: James Lamb, Virginia Beach, VA

This is actually pretty common among fair-skinned people, and in most cases, it's not a symptom of anything at all. It's the same mechanism as blushing -- involuntary dilation of the blood vessels -- and it happens for much the same reasons: embarrassment, sudden changes in temperature, mild allergic reactions to food or medication, responses to alcohol or caffeine.

No one knows why some people blush more than others, or why some people's ears flush more than others. One theory suggests that it has to do with levels of serotonin in the blood stream, which would explain why facial and ear flushing can be a side effect of some anti-depressant medications. If it gets to the point of being painful, doctors can treat it with Botox, the same way they treat excessive sweating.

Ear flushing can also be a symptom of high blood pressure or acne rosacea, so it's something to mention to your doctor during a routine physical. Anna and I once had a boss whose ears would flush so badly when he was angry that they turned purple; he had learned to control his temper but couldn't control his ears, so they served as a barometer of the emotional weather in the corner office.

This morning I am scrambling to figure out what's wrong with my car. On the way to Newburyport last night, the thermostat indicator light started flashing bright red. The Volkswagen has a closed cooling system, so the fact that the coolant reservoir was low means there's a leak somewhere. I refilled the reservoir and headed for home, to my profound disappointment -- Chuck Hogan was signing The Killing Moon at Jabberwocky Books, and I missed it -- but by the time I got home, the thermostat light was flashing again, and the Check Engine light was on. I'm afraid this is going to be expensive.

Friday, February 09, 2007

What are the typical flaws of a first novel?

Who's asking: Me

This question came up recently when I left a comment on a friend's blog, dismissing a book's shortcomings as "first-novelitis." I knew exactly what I meant by that, and my friend, who is a writing instructor as well as an author, knew too. When I used the term with one of my clients, though, it struck me as a lazy shorthand for something that needed more explanation.

Helping people fix their books is a big chunk of how I make my living, so I'm giving work away for free here -- but it's useful for me to lay this out, for my own purposes.

Every novel has flaws (with the possible exception of The Great Gatsby), and most of those flaws originate in the writer's own weaknesses. First novels, however, tend to be both overwritten and underdeveloped.

You can't learn to write a novel except by writing it, and along the way you have to unlearn as much as you learn. One way or another, an author's entire life goes into the first novel. First novelists tend to cram in everything they know about their particular areas of interest or experience. The ones who come out of writing programs often think they need a theme or "motif" (those quotation marks are just for you, Tod), and wreak havoc with their story trying to lard in symbolism, metaphor, political agendas and cultural references.

At the same time, a first novelist may know what's supposed to happen in the book, but lack the skills necessary to make a sequence of events believable. Why does Character A do that? Well, it's necessary to the plot. But is Character A the kind of person who would do that? No, not the way he's written. That means going back to the beginning to reimagine the character, and that's a daunting process for anyone. As novelists learn their craft and develop their skills, the flow of character into plot becomes more natural. First novels, however, often have characters doing things that seem out-of-character or abrupt, simply because the novelist had outlined the plot that way.

For an object lesson in this, go read Robert Crais' The Monkey's Raincoat -- a highly entertaining first novel -- and then read L.A. Requiem, which takes the same characters to an entirely different level. (I'm halfway through Crais' latest, which is another step forward, but more about this next week.)

That said, I love first novels. Somewhere I once read that a first novel sets the agenda for everything the author wants to explore in his or her career, and I love that idea. One of the books I read this week is a first novel from an author who's given herself a lot to work on.

What I Read This Week
(I'm off my usual pace; too much other work, which I can hardly complain about.)

Sarah Langan, The Keeper. This first novel is a horror story set in a town very similar to Gardiner; Langan did her undergraduate work at Colby, just up the road. Gorgeous writing, truly scary in parts, a little unfocused. It reminded me a great deal of the early works of Peter Straub, and even more of John Connolly's "The Reflecting Eye."

Dorothy Herrmann, Helen Keller: A Life. More client research, but so enjoyable I feel bad about charging for it. Helen Keller was an icon of my childhood (no jokes, people; I'm looking at you, Scott P.). I've mentioned before that my grandmother taught kindergarten at a school for the blind, so I can't remember a time when I didn't know about her. What I knew, however, was the sanitized version. Herrmann gives us the whole woman -- a socialist, a woman who liked her martinis, a woman who might have gotten married if her Teacher and her mother hadn't interfered. Fascinating.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Does Canada still belong to the United Kingdom?

Who's asking: An anonymous Google searcher


If countries have personalities, Canada is careful and polite, while the U.S. is pushy and loud. When the U.S. decided to separate from England, we did it in five years of bloody warfare; when the Canadians decided to do it, it took 115 years of diplomacy, and the parting could not have been more amicable.

Canada Day, July 1, celebrates the British North America Act of 1867, which granted the Canadians home rule. The BNA Act created the Dominion of Canada by uniting the Province of Canada (modern Ontario and Quebec), the province of New Brunswick, and the province of Nova Scotia. Home rule was not absolute; the Dominion got its own Parliament, but its decisions still needed to be affirmed by the U.K. Parliament. Manitoba joined the Dominion in 1870, followed by British Columbia (1871), Prince Edward Island (1873), and Saskatchewan and Alberta (1905). Newfoundland and Labrador gave up its own claim to nationhood to join Canada in 1949. (The Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Yukon remain territories, not full provinces.)

The Statute of Westminster, in 1931, finally removed the U.K. Parliament from Canada's legislative process. It was not until the Canada Act of 1982, however, that the U.K. relinquished its authority to amend the British North America Act (then renamed the Canada Act). Theoretically, then, until 1982 the U.K. could have said, "Sorry, just kidding -- we're repealing the BNA, you have to go through us now."

Canada maintains strong ties to its mother country. Queen Elizabeth is still the Queen and head of state under Canada's constitution, and a Governor General (currently Michaelle Jean, a Haitian-born woman) represents the Crown in Canada. Canada is also still a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, a group of 53 countries with historical or constitutional ties to the former British Empire.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

What do dogs dream about?

Who's asking: Gary Fleder, Santa Monica, CA

Until dogs talk, I can only give you a theory. Dizzy dreams of chasing cats and squirrels, running with his old friends from Los Angeles, and bacon. He also has nightmares, but I don't like to think about what those might be. I got him from people who found him on the side of the road, after he'd fallen or been thrown from a moving vehicle. He was only five months old, and he'd been starved, so who knows what his puppyhood was like. He's afraid of teenaged boys and men with beards.

These days, his life is pretty good. He likes the snow, but misses grass in the wintertime. He is passionately devoted to Casey, a black Lab who lives up the hill; when we walk by Casey's house, he makes me stop to see whether Casey (who gets a lot of freedom) will come out to play. He loves the water, and considers anything that doesn't have ice on it suitable for wading.

My cousin Moira finds artistic inspiration in dogs' dreams; her collages, based on photographs of her clients' pets, imagine all the things a dog might dream about. (One of her prints might make a nice Valentine's Day present, don't you think?)

Five Random Songs

"I Don't Wanna Fight," Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. From Echo, a CD that's all about midlife and the death of relationships. Appropriate, maybe, not cheerful.

"Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six," The Pogues. The old and the new, more sorrow and more anger off the Pogues' magnum opus, If I Should Fall from Grace with God. Is is just me, or does everyone seem unusually angry and sad lately? I blame the weather -- or maybe it's just *@$#% February.

"Is This Love," Bob Marley. Oh, thank goodness. Spring break comes to the iPod.

"A Man in a Purple Dress," The Who. More anger and sadness from Pete Townshend (off Endless Wire), raging against the Catholic Church.

"Sister Europe," The Psychedelic Furs. Arrgh... more rage! I'm fast-forwarding. Where's my ELO? Where's my ABBA? Where's my Partridge Family, for Pete's sake?

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Why didn't Prince get electrocuted, playing an electric guitar in the pouring rain?

Who's asking: Me

Prince's Super Bowl halftime show is now up on YouTube, for anyone who might have missed it on Sunday night. Twelve minutes in the pouring rain, starting with "Let's Go Crazy" and ending with the glory that is "Purple Rain." That album is 23 years old, and still sounds as fresh as it did in 1984.

But the whole time I was watching, I couldn't help wondering: why aren't they getting electrocuted? As usual, I consulted an expert -- in this case, my cousin Sheila's husband, Greg Cameron, a professional sound and video engineer. Greg said that Prince and his dancers were all using wireless equipment, probably protected by plastic bags -- nothing was exposed to water. The danger would have come from electric cords on the stage, which can have small, nearly invisible cracks in their insulation.

Pure water is not that great a conductor of electricity; what makes rainwater conduct electricity so well are the particles of iron and other metals that fall with the rain. If you're standing in a puddle and have any contact with metal, an electrical current applied to the water will disperse itself through the water to make a circuit with the metal -- and if you're in the way, you become part of that circuit. Zap.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Who was the last cigarette smoker to be President of the United States?

Who's asking: Bill Walsh, Washington, D.C.

Bill asks this question in light of the recent revelation that Senator Barack Obama smokes. I admire Senator Obama a great deal, and must admit that news of his smoking came as a jolt; I had a hard time remembering the last time I saw a national political figure smoking a cigarette.

Bill Clinton notoriously had his cigars, and Gerald Ford was known to smoke at least half-a-dozen pipes a day -- but you have to go all the way back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt to find an active cigarette box in the Oval Office. Harry Truman, an opponent of smoking, banned cigarettes from the White House. Dwight Eisenhower had rolled his own during the Second World War, but quit cold turkey before taking office as President. Jackie Kennedy smoked cigarettes, but JFK smoked cigars, and LBJ quit his three-pack-a-day habit after a 1955 heart attack almost killed him. Richard Nixon smoked pipes and cigars, but not cigarettes. Jimmy Carter smoked the occasional cigar. Ronald Reagan quit smoking before becoming President, and I seem to remember that the famous jelly beans on his desk were supposed to be a substitute.

Hillary Rodham Clinton declared the White House a smoke-free zone in 1993. I'd be delighted to find out that she's a closet smoker; it would make her about 1000% more sympathetic, in my eyes. Give me scoundrels over self-righteousness any day.

Speaking of reformed scoundrels -- not that we were, but I needed some feeble segue -- did everyone see Prince on the Super Bowl halftime show last night? A religious experience. It gave me chills, and inspired my question for tomorrow.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Picture of the week

The interior of the Maine State Capitol dome, from below.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Is it true that crab rangoon doesn't have any crab in it?

Who's asking: An anonymous Google searcher

Anna told me this a while back, but I wasn't sure whether to believe it; sometimes my friends like to trick me into trying foods I wouldn't otherwise eat.

This would seem to be the case here, because the primary ingredient in crab rangoon is chopped crabmeat, or a crabmeat substitute. It's a simple recipe: one pound of chopped crabmeat, a package of cream cheese and some chopped green onions, seasoned with salt and sugar to taste, folded into wonton wrappers and deep-fried. It all sounds great, except for the crab part.

I'm spending the weekend in Portland, so won't be posting tomorrow. Happy birthday to Vikki Bea, and happy Groundhog Day.

What I Read This Week

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
, Mount Dragon. I've been a fan of Messrs. Preston and Child for a long time, and frequently recommend them as an alternative to certain other, more famous writers. This book, their second novel, is a far more convincing and compelling thriller about the dangers of genetic engineering than Michael Crichton's Next.

Martha Grimes, The Old Fox Deceiv'd. Martha Grimes was among the first American authors to make the traditional British mystery her own. In this, her second novel, Inspector Richard Jury must go to Yorkshire to investigate the murder of a shady young woman on Twelfth Night. Jury and his sidekick, the aristocratic Melrose Plant, are great characters, but the most memorable ones here are a 12-year-old boy and his faithful Staffordshire terrier, Arnold.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Is there any difference between pita, Syrian, Lebanese, or unleavened bread?

Who's asking: Richard Bostwick, Hallowell, ME

I had never heard the names "Syrian bread" or "Lebanese bread" before moving to New England, but both describe pita bread. Although pita bread is flat, it's not unleavened; it's made with yeast. Yeast-induced puffing is what creates the distinctive pita "pocket."

Naan, the Indian version of flatbread, is also leavened. Naan is sweeter and lighter than pita bread, but the concepts are similar. Chapatis, Indian unleavened bread, are more like tortillas; they don't have pockets.

If you haven't already subscribed to The Mystery Bookstore's podcasts, now would be a good time to do so. In the next week they'll be posting an interview I did last week with Megan Abbott, Charlie Huston and Theresa Schwegel, and the one I did last night with Martha Grimes. Megan, Charlie and Theresa are always entertaining, but Martha Grimes is fantastic. Each podcast is 15-20 minutes long. To subscribe, just go to the bookstore's website and click one of the options in the upper right-hand corner of the front page.