Tuesday, July 31, 2007

What will the next incarnation of the blog be?

Who's asking: Tom Ehrenfeld, Cambridge, MA; Moira McLaughlin, Los Angeles, CA

Wow, it's the end of July already -- and the end of this version of the blog. As usual, some questions remain unanswered (literally and figuratively), but isn't that always the way?

The next incarnation of the blog, starting September 1, will be "The Books I Kept."

On the back wall of my living room is a massive bookcase, inherited from my parents' house, filled with books I've carried with me through close to a dozen moves over the past 25 years. These 200 or so books represent the distillation of a lifetime of reading. They're books signed to me or for me, books that thank me in their acknowledgments, books I worked on, gifts from parents and friends and old boyfriends, books that changed my life and books I -- in some cases -- haven't even read. In most cases, they're books I'll never read again, but I keep them, and God willing I'll leave them to my own children.

So I'm thinking that once a day, I'll take one off the shelf and write about it: what it is, how I acquired it, why I kept it.

Now, the idea of this seems overwhelmingly personal -- much more revealing than anything I've ever done -- and it may take me a while to find the right balance of information about the books vs. information about myself. I'm also going to ask people to submit their own books, just to lighten the load.

This year's been a lot of fun, and thanks to everyone who submitted questions. If you know me personally, you know that the question-answering never stops -- so feel free to keep sending them, and I'll respond by e-mail when I have time.

Although I take August off from blogging, I don't take August off, and it's going to be a busy month. Joseph Finder's next book, POWER PLAY, launches on August 21, and I'll be doing a lot of online promotion for the book over the next three weeks. If you're in the Boston area, come out for the launch party: Borders-Back Bay, 7:00 p.m., August 21.

And of course, if you're in central Maine, come see Crimes of the Heart at Gaslight Theater, Hallowell City Hall, August 16-18 and 23-25. It's shaping up to be a great show, if I do say so myself.

Thank you all for reading and commenting, and for being my friends and my endlessly tolerant family. Have a great summer, and I'll see you in September.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Why don't you ever see the headline "Psychic Wins Lottery"?

Who's asking: James and Sara, Virginia Beach, VA

My brother James and his girlfriend Sara sent me a list of silly questions for the last week of the blog -- I almost chose to answer "What color do bald men put on their drivers' licenses?", but wasn't brave enough to ask any of my bald friends. (I believe that "none" is an option, but I also used to date a man whose hair was almost completely white, but still listed "brown" on his license because he could find a few dark brown strands if he looked hard enough. My own license lists my hair color as "blond," which is, to put it kindly, whimsical.)

Anyway, the obvious answer to this question is that all psychics are frauds, and that's why they don't win the lottery. Obvious, but too simple for me. The thing is, while most professional psychics are frauds, I'm perfectly willing to accept the possibility of extrasensory perception, telepathy, precognition and clairvoyance.

I think humans have all kinds of powers we no longer use, as our everyday lives no longer require them. These powers are perfectly natural, for the most part -- observations, intuitions, and deductions that happen below our consciousness. My mother was uncanny in her perceptions, but whether that was psychic power or just a combination of hyperintelligence and hawklike attention, I couldn't say. Does it matter? People don't pay enough attention to each other, as a rule; anyone who makes a concerted effort to pay attention to what people are saying and not saying could probably make a living as a psychic.

But that's telepathy, and telepathy is no help with lottery numbers. The lottery would require precognition, and even the most ardent defenders of psychics will admit that precognition is a low-percentage activity. Even people who claim powers of precognition don't pretend to be able to control it, and one of its prerequisites seems to be that it can't be used for one's own gain. A psychic might have a premonition that someone will win the lottery, but still wouldn't be able to see the numbers on the winning ticket.

I will go out on a limb and fearlessly predict that I will not win the lottery this week. The fact that I don't plan to buy a lottery ticket this week probably has something to do with this.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

What does it mean when a girl asks you to buy her a wristwatch?

Who's asking: Gautham, India

Without more information, it's hard for me to say -- but I've never been shy about speculating in absence of the facts.

First, if your girlfriend has asked you for a gift without prompting (e.g., "What do you want for your birthday?"), that's a bad sign. What you have in that situation is a business transaction, not a relationship. Asking for gifts is bad manners at best, genteel prostitution at worst.

But if you did say, "What would you like for your birthday/Christmas/our anniversary?" and she asked for a wristwatch, that's another story.

Traditionally, a wristwatch was considered a rather intimate gift, as they tended to be expensive. A young man courting a young woman might start by giving her a charm bracelet or an ID bracelet; might then, if he was getting more serious, give her a pin, either his fraternity pin or something else associated with one of his affiliations; and then, as the last gift before an engagement ring, give the young lady a wristwatch, so their hearts might keep time together.

Our courtship rituals have evolved -- well, disappeared might be a better word -- and now, if a girl says that she would like a wristwatch, it might just mean that she needs to know what time it is.

I own three watches, and none of them has worked in months. I should probably do something about that.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Have you ever fired a gun?

Who's asking: Richard Bostwick, Hallowell, ME

Indeed I have. I first fired a gun in March 1990, when the man I was dating took me out to a skeet shooting range. His gun was a 12-gauge shotgun, and I was not strong enough to control it. I was nervous about handling the gun and did not pull the stock against my shoulder hard enough; it kicked up and hit me in the face, where I'd cracked my cheekbone on a New York street curb two weeks earlier (long story for another time). It was loud, it was painful, I didn't hit anything, and it put me off guns for years.

Last summer, I had a very different experience at a gun club in Worcester, MA. I spent the day at a gun safety program sponsored by Sisters in Crime/New England, and fired seven different weapons at a variety of targets (nothing living). I had a great time, and it turns out I'm a pretty good shot. I'd like to go back to a firing range one of these days, though I don't see myself becoming a serious gun hobbyist.

As producer of Lucky Stiff -- in which a character fires a cap gun randomly throughout the show -- I bought my first-ever cap pistol, as a prop. At the end of the production, rather than submit my $5.87 (gun and ammo) receipt for reimbursement, I decided to keep the gun. I'm not sure whether or when I'll ever fire it again -- the noise would scare Dizzy -- but it's such an out-of-character thing for me to own that I'm glad to have it.

What I Read This Week

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. No spoilers here; I'll just say that I started reading around 9:00 a.m. last Saturday and finished just after midnight, with only short breaks to walk the dog and switch over laundry. Sometime before the end of the book I was crying so hard that Dizzy came over to check on me, but seldom have I felt so completely satisfied with the end of a book or a series.

Gillian Flynn, Sharp Objects. I'm late to this book, which many hailed as one of the best debuts -- one of the best crime novels, period -- of 2006. The hype is justified, and while I would never use such a stupid phrase as "transcend the genre," I would say that people who might not otherwise read crime novels should consider reading this book. Camille Preaker returns to her hometown to investigate the murders of two young girls who are found with teeth missing from their mouths, and winds up plunged into the worst dysfunctions of her childhood. What's stunning about this book is how unflinchingly honest it is about girls and women, and the terrible things we do to ourselves and each other.

Chris Grabenstein, Whack-a-Mole. After the darkness of Sharp Objects, I needed a little reassurance about human nature. The answer: the third adventure of John Ceepak, a New Jersey police officer who does not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do. Ceepak and his partner (and narrator) Danny Boyle discover evidence of a serial killer at work in the resort town of Sea Haven. Dormant for years, the killer has returned to his work, and wants people to know what he's doing. Ceepak and Boyle are good deeds shining in a naughty world; Boyle, standing in for the reader, is appropriately upset by the violence he encounters. This remains one of my favorite series.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Who would win in a fight: Jason Bourne or James Bond?

Who's asking: Steven Dean, Mechanicsville, VA

The answer to this question would depend on the circumstances. If Jason Bourne and James Bond met by chance in a dark alley, Jason Bourne would win: he's more cunning and more ruthless. If they met under work-related circumstances, James Bond would win, because he has Q and all those cool gadgets.

In related questions, Superman would beat Batman, Donald Duck would kick Mickey's butt, and Dirty Harry would blow Rambo away.

Please leave your own fantasy grudge matches, with their projected winners, in the comments section.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Are rats ticklish?

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

Gary saw an article in the New York Times that made passing reference to the fact that rats are ticklish, so he asks: is this true? Tell me more!

And I'd just like to offer this question as an example of the peculiar dynamics of a long friendship. Gary knows how much I hate rats. He knows this. Spiders, snakes, other bugs don't bother me ... rats bother me. A lot.

Still, because we are friends, I looked this up. Sure enough, rats are ticklish. Rats make high-pitched chirping whistles when their bellies are tickled, similar to the sounds they make when they're playing with each other. Rat laughter is ultrasonic, and inaudible to human ears. Young rats laugh more than adults do.

It's one more characteristic that rats share with humans. Rats are also, according to scientists, curious, affectionate, sensual, liable to addictions and capable of solving fairly complex problems.

All these things may be true, but I still don't want one at my cocktail party.

Five Random Songs

"Ascension Day," Elvis Costello & Alvin Toussaint. From The River in Reverse, the album they made in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

"Ballerina," Van Morrison. From Astral Weeks, a song that seems to recreate the feeling of intoxication. I'm serious -- put it on, close your eyes and turn to the music. It's the same as a shot of whiskey.

"Rub Me Raw," Warren Zevon. From The Wind, his last album; this song makes it clear exactly what a nasty son-of-a-bitch the man could be, no matter how talented, no matter how sad his premature death.

"Shy Boy," Katie Melua. The latest addition to my music collection, courtesy of the aforementioned Mr. Fleder. Impossible to describe; I could say she sounds like a funkier Eva Cassidy or a poppier Madeleine Peyroux, but neither would do her justice. She sounds great.

"Moonlight," Bob Dylan. A warm and friendly torch song that owes a lot to the standard "That Lucky Old Sun." I love the brush work on the drums on this cut.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

What should the Atlanta Falcons do with Michael Vick?

Who's asking: Sportscasters

Nike, the Atlanta Falcons and the NFL should all release Michael Vick, today. I can't believe anyone's even having this conversation.

Yes, under our legal system, Michael Vick is innocent until proven guilty. Charges in an indictment must be proven in front of a jury who decides their truth and their illegality.

But leave aside the legal issues for a moment, and look at the undisputed facts. Michael Vick owns a piece of land in Smithfield, Virginia, where law enforcement officials found mangled bodies of dogs and other evidence of dog-fighting. In the weeks since these facts became known, Michael Vick has said not one word to acknowledge that dog-fighting is a terrible crime and that he is horrified to think anyone might associate him with the practice.

The right against self-incrimination is a legal construct. It doesn't exist in the court of public opinion. Michael Vick is a symbol of a major professional sports league, and by virtue of his position, an authority on issues of sportsmanship. It is the responsibility of everyone in the NFL, starting with Michael Vick, to say, "We believe in fair play and the joy of sport. Dog-fighting is the opposite of everything we stand for."

The fact that Michael Vick hasn't said anything like this makes him, at the very least, guilty by association. If the Atlanta Falcons organization remains silent on the issue, they are, too.

Hey, I just looked at the calendar and realized that this incarnation of the blog has one short week left to go. Anything you want to ask me between now and July 31? E-mail it to lambletters -at- gmail.com.

Monday, July 23, 2007

What will be the next "Harry Potter?"

Who's asking: Tom Ehrenfeld, Cambridge, MA

Tom was in Harvard Square on Friday night to celebrate the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows with hundreds, even thousands of other fans and parents of fans.

Whatever you think of the series, it's damn cool that a woman who writes books is responsible for this kind of global celebration, and we all have reason to be grateful for anything that brings people together for happy reasons instead of sad or angry ones.

So what, Tom wants to know, will be the next overwhelming cultural phenomenon, the next thing that captures people's imaginations in this way? What's the next Harry Potter?

The answer to this, of course, is that there will never be another Harry Potter -- in the same way that there will never be another Beatles, there will never be another Hula Hoop, there will never be another Star Wars, and there will never be another dot-com boom. The nature of these phenomena is that they can't be predicted and they can't be duplicated.

How can anyone know what will capture people's imaginations? Dozens of agents and publishers turned down Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. I myself would have turned down The Da Vinci Code, and would cut it to the bone if an author brought me that manuscript today.

So no, we'll never see another Harry Potter. Lots of people will try -- are already trying -- and in that process, will subject us to countless mediocre fantasy novels and self-conscious would-be epics. Some of them might even be readable.

But it won't be until the next author or singer or filmmaker has his or her own unique story to tell -- a story we haven't thought of -- that anything will catch our imaginations in the way that J.K. Rowling's world has.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Do you have the new Harry Potter book?

Who's asking: Various people

Yes. Go away now.

I'll talk to you on Monday.

Friday, July 20, 2007

What is fire?

Who's asking: Diane Lawlis, Amarillo, TX

Diane says that she had a high school science teacher who couldn't answer this question. It is more complicated than it seems, once you think about it; how would you describe fire to someone who'd never seen it? The Greeks considered it one of the four basic elements (earth, air, fire, water) for a reason.

The dictionary says that fire is a rapid, persistent chemical change that releases heat and light and is accompanied by flame.

Fire proves the laws of thermodynamics. The first of these says, in layman's terms, that energy is neither created nor destroyed, but converted from one form to another. The second says that nature favors disorder, and that transfers of energy are never 100% efficient -- some always gets dispersed.

When we strike a match, we use pressure to create friction that speeds up the movement of molecules, which we see in a spark of flame; the energy compressed into the sulfur on a match head is released (not produced) by the heat of the spark, and the whole thing burns.

Flames are a visible exothermic oxidation reaction -- the rapid combination of any other substance with oxygen in a manner that releases heat. The color of a flame depends on what's being burned, but a discussion of flame colors goes way beyond my expertise.

We had a kitchen fire when I was five or six years old, and for many years after that I was terrified of open flame. Now I have a not-entirely-healthy fascination with it. What we fear the most meets us halfway...

What I Read This Week

Will Thomas, The Hellfire Conspiracy. In their fourth adventure, Victorian enquiry agent Cyrus Barker and his assistant, Thomas Llewellyn, track down a serial killer of young girls who taunts his pursuers with limerick-style verse. I like these characters so much that I found myself impatient with the plot, which felt a little clunky and obvious. Still, this is among the best Sherlockian series going, and the end of this book makes me hopeful about the next one.

Laura Benedict, Isabella Moon. This first novel is a true old-fashioned Southern gothic, and it had been much too long since I'd read one. Kate Russell, a young woman with an obscure past, sees the ghost of a murdered girl who tells Kate where to find her body, which has been missing for two years. Kate brings this information to the sheriff of her small Kentucky town, setting in motion a series of events that ultimately reveals everyone's deadly secrets, including Kate's own. The book will be out in late September, just in time for a long night by the fire.

Karen Olson, Dead of the Day. Full disclosure: not only was this advance copy a gift from the author, but I was present at the book's christening. Karen and I were having drinks at last year's New England Crime Bake with Reed Coleman when she threw out the phrase and Reed said, "That's your title." Nevertheless, the third Annie Seymour novel is the best one yet, a complex tale of murder, immigration fraud, and bees. People write in to Karen to complain about Annie's language; Annie's a crime reporter for the New Haven paper, and talks like most other reporters I've met. If you're offended, skip those words. This book will be out in November.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Can you give an example of the use of "w" as a vowel?

Who's asking: Larry Willis, St. Louis, MO

Every first-grader knows -- or should know -- that English vowels are a,e,i,o,u and sometimes y. Conscientious English teachers may add, "and sometimes y and w." Larry wants to know when "w" is a vowel.

Although Welsh uses "w" as a vowel in words such as cwm (which means "valley," and is transliterated into English as "coombe"), English uses w as a vowel only in diphthongs. "W" acts as a vowel in combination with "e" and "o," in words such as new and how. It gives the letters e and o sounds those letters would never have, standing alone, and is phonetically equivalent to the true vowel "u." (It may also stand in for the silent "e," in words such as tow and show.)

In these cases, w's role as a vowel is a linguistic detail, and not something first-graders really need to worry about.

W is an interesting letter. Latin didn't have it, and it's still rare to find it in any Romance language; English adopted it from Germanic languages sometime in the Middle Ages, and it doesn't show up in manuscripts until after the Norman Conquest of 1066. What, I wonder, did we call wiggly worms before then?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Why is it called a green room?

Who's asking: Joseph Finder, Boston, MA

The green room, for you non-theater types, is the room where actors hang out when they're waiting to go on stage. It is not necessarily green. The term first appeared in print in 1701, but it seems to date from at least Shakespearian times.

This question is actually about a year old. Joe asked it on his travel blog, and I squirreled it away until yesterday, when someone sent in a reply.

The reason I hadn't responded to the question here is that it has no answer, only a bunch of theories. Yesterday's correspondent had the most popular theory, which is that the green room was originally painted green, to soothe actors' eyes and to provide a suitable environment for actors to apply their makeup, as limelight throws a green cast.

I have also seen suggestions that "green" is a corruption of "agreeing," in the same way that "drawing room" is short for "withdrawing room," and that the green room was literally the patch of grass where actors waited before going on stage in an outdoor theater.

At Gaslight, we don't have a separate green room; the dressing room serves that function. Its walls are yellow.

Five Random Songs

"Lookout Mountain," Drive-By Truckers. Southern-fried despair, and great driving music. Put the pedal down.

"Similar to Rain," Warren Zevon. And today's a rainy day, too. "Sometimes love is wet and cold/Similar to rain, and just as hard to hold..."

"Round the World," The Weavers. A medley that starts with the union song "Because All Men are Brothers," segues into "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore," and concludes with a song you'd recognize as the tune to "Pay Me My Money Down."

"This Letter," Material Issue. Another great 1990s rock band destroyed by its lead singer's addictions (see also: Nirvana, Sublime, Soul Asylum, Gin Blossoms, Blind Melon...). This song is shamelessly sentimental, but you can't deny the soaring harmonies of its chorus.

"Trouble on the Line," Loretta Lynn. I saw Loretta Lynn live at the Grand Ole Opry in 1998, and she was magical. The woman is beautiful and ageless, a mountain angel.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

be right back...

Sorry, the day's gotten away from me. Trying to get a few things out the door before 5:00 p.m., dragging with allergies. I'll post later tonight.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Why are taxi cabs called hacks?

Who's asking: Larry Willis, St. Louis, MO

Larry wondered whether it was only in New York that cabdrivers were called hacks, but this term is pretty common, and comes from British English. It's short for "hackney cab," which referred to a carriage for hire drawn by a hackney, or an ordinary horse. The term dates back to middle English.

The word "hackney" evolved to mean "horse for hire," and then to mean "drudge" or even "prostitute" -- leading to the use of "hack" to mean "writer for hire," and the word "hackneyed," which means cliche-ridden. The use of "hacker" to refer to a computer user dates back to the mid-1970s.

Home again today, after a good time in New York. Joe Finder won the Thriller Award for Best Novel for his book Killer Instinct, hurrah! And I got to meet some people I'd never seen before but already think of as friends, including my client Daniel Palmer and the radiant Laura Benedict, whose debut novel Isabella Moon comes out this fall.

Thanks to Matt for the hospitality and especially to Karen Olson and her family, for a great summer afternoon in New Haven.

Friday, July 13, 2007

What is the Greek term for being torn limb from limb?

Who's asking: Matt Prager, Brooklyn, NY

Not only do I have friends with whom questions like this come up in conversation, but I have friends who can actually remember the term before I get a chance to look it up -- as Matt did. The word is sparagmos, a Dionysian ritual in which a goat or other living animal -- or even a human -- would be killed by tearing its limbs off. Sometimes sparagmos would be followed by omophagia, the eating of freshly-killed raw flesh. Those Dionysians knew how to party.

In Brooklyn this morning, about to wander into Manhattan in search of people who'll hang out with me. I can call it networking, but if I'm honest it'll be a mixture of playing hooky and tourism. Even freelancers get a day off once in a while.

What I Read This Week

Stephen L. Carter, New England White. I got to interview Professor Carter for a Mystery Bookstore podcast earlier this week (it should be posted sometime over the weekend), and what a pleasure that was. Although I tend more and more to avoid long books because I'm afraid to commit that much time and be disappointed, I long for that experience of reading a really good long book, one that takes you out of yourself to another universe. This is one of those books. The shooting death of a controversial black economics professor is declared an unsolved robbery too quickly, and Julia Carlyle, the wife of the university's president (and the victim's ex-lover) becomes obsessed with digging up the truth. Carter serves as Edith Wharton to African America's upper class, showing us a society that exists not only separate from but above what his characters call "the paler nation."

Kevin Wignall, Who is Conrad Hirst? This much-anticipated (by me) novel, just over 200 pages long, felt like a shot of iced vodka after the banquet of New England White. Conrad Hirst, after spending 10 years as a hitman for a German mobster, decides to reclaim his life -- but soon discovers that almost nothing he thought he knew about himself is true. Who is Conrad Hirst?, in its own way, is just as old-fashioned a book as New England White -- wildly romantic, desperately sad -- but feels brisk and fresh, too. It'll be out in November.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

What does "pandiculate" mean?

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

I am pleased to report that my team won the pub quiz on Tuesday night, even though we didn't know the answer to this question.

"Pandiculate" is the medical term for stretching and yawning.

I am stretching and yawning, before getting in the car to take the bus to catch the train to go to New York... where I will not be registered at Thrillerfest, but might be seen in the general vicinity.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Was Edna St. Vincent Millay from Maine?

Who's asking: Jason Hersom, Kents Hill, ME

Yes. Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) was born in Rockland, spent much of her childhood in Camden, and spent summers in adulthood on Ragged Island in Casco Bay. Her poem "Renascence" is supposed to have been inspired by the view from Mt. Battie, in Camden: "All I could see from where I stood/Was three long mountains and a wood..."

Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem "Travel" was the first adult poem I ever learned by heart, when I was seven or eight years old.

The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn't a train goes by all day,
But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn't a train goes by
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming
But I see its cinders red on the sky
And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with the friends I make
And better friends I'll not be knowing;
Yet there isn't a train I wouldn't take,
No matter where it's going.

Five Random Songs

"Candylion," Gruff Rhys. Solo work from the lead singer of Super Furry Animals. A little precious and jingly, but I like it.

"Wouldn't It Be Nice," Beach Boys. Brian Wilson met his first wife when she was 14 and he was 21; they married only a couple of years later.

"Wonder," Natalie Merchant. I associate this CD (Tigerlily) with my former employer's old satellite office in Dallas, which was where I first heard it.

"Dead King," Espers. This version of the song comes from Into the Dark, the companion CD to the UK edition of The Unquiet by John Connolly. A longer version is on Espers II, which could almost be a soundtrack for Connolly's Book of Lost Things.

"Online," Gnarls Barkley. This CD (St. Elsewhere) will always remind me of the summer of 2006. I never got tired of it, not even the single "Crazy."

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

What is a pawpaw?

Who's asking: The cast of Crimes of the Heart, Hallowell, ME

Characters in Crimes of the Heart, which is set in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, go out back to pick up pawpaws. Someone asked what these were, and I said (from my ignorance) that they were papayas; Tim, who plays Doc, said he thought they were something closer to bananas.

Turns out, we're both right and we're both wrong. Although papayas are called pawpaws in Australia, the fruit called pawpaw in North America is also known as a Hoosier banana -- though it isn't a banana.

Asimina triloba, the pawpaw, is a deciduous (leaf-dropping) tree native to North America. It grows all over the temperate zones of the middle United States, from Indiana to Mississippi. It bears green fruit that look vaguely like small, stubby bananas -- these are actually berries, and their closest relatives are not bananas but custard apples or soursops. Pawpaws are the largest edible fruit native to North America.

I've never tried one, and am not sure I've ever seen one in the market -- but then, I've never lived in the center of the country. What do they taste like? Post your pawpaw experiences in the comments section, and let me know how I can get some in central Maine.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Why would anyone want to steal a 2000 Dodge Intrepid?

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

My brother James asks this question on behalf of our brother Ed, whose 2000 Dodge Intrepid was stolen this weekend in Washington, DC. Sorry, Ed.

Automobile thefts are crimes of opportunity, and the number of auto thefts in the U.S. actually dropped between 2005 and 2006 -- presumably because it's just getting harder and harder to steal new cars. My own Beetle, for example, has a built-in alarm and a computer chip in the ignition key; the alarm doesn't work any more (I probably shouldn't admit that), but you can't start the car without that computer chip. A 2000 Dodge Intrepid, unfortunately, is an old-fashioned car that's relatively easy to break into and hot-wire.

Overall, the rate of car theft in the U.S. was 1 in 190 in 2003, the most recent year available. Pretty high odds, compared to winning the lottery or getting struck by lightning.

Auto thefts are becoming more common in the western states than on the East coast, and port and border cities are among the highest-crime areas. Central California is a particularly bad region, too; of the top 10 cities on the auto theft rate, five are in central California: Stockton, Visalia/Porterville, Modesto, Sacramento, Fresno. (John Schramm, if you stop by, care to comment on why this would be?) Washington, DC doesn't even make the top ten list any more. Neither does New York City.

For the criminal, auto theft is low-risk work. Only 13% of car theft cases were cleared by arrests in 2004. Recovery rate on stolen cars is somewhere around two-thirds -- 65% of cars stolen in 2002 were eventually recovered -- and if a stolen car's recovered, it's most likely (for obvious reasons) to be found on a Monday.

So maybe you'll get lucky, Ed. I'll buy you a Club for your next birthday. (And before you ask, yes -- the Club is easy to get around for a professional car thief, but because most car thefts are crimes of opportunity, anything that slows down the process acts as a deterrent.)

Saturday, July 07, 2007

What does "(sic)" mean, and why is it used?

Who's asking: Larry Willis, St. Louis, MO

Larry writes, "I often see something written like, 'I was preparing my character for a roll (sic) in a movie...'"

Sic is the Latin word for "thus," as in the Virginia state motto, Sic semper tyrannis (thus always to tyrants). Editors and typographers use it to show that they have chosen to reproduce an error in an original text. You see it frequently in academic works, especially when authors are quoting archaic spellings or constructions.

I don't like it, and rarely use it. At best, it's pedantic; at worst, it's smug, and in the example Larry gives, its purpose is to embarrass the actor being quoted. We saw the word sic a lot when the gossip media were reporting Lindsay Lohan's incoherent e-mail tribute to the late Robert Altman ("be adequite").

Then again, publications have become so rife with errors that conscientious copy editors may feel the need to defend themselves by making sure that readers know the errors aren't theirs. I recently received a broadcast e-mail from a professional association I belong to, announcing a series of "exiting meetings" with various important people. From the context I assumed they meant "exciting," but I had fun for a few minutes imagining a string of elaborate leave-takings.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Will you watch "Live Earth"?

Who's asking: Various people

Hell, no.

Here's what Vice President Gore told the Associated Press:

"This is going to be the greenest event of its kind, ever. The carbon offsets and the innovative practices that are being used to make this a green event, I think, will set the standard for years to come."

This is like saying this will be the least sinful orgy in history, and the purchases of indulgences and Masses will save everyone's souls for eternity.

If you're really concerned about the environment, do what I plan to do tomorrow: leave the car at home. Take a long walk. Pick up some trash. Water some plants. Turn off your air-conditioner, and unplug appliances you aren't using.

Whether or not one believes in global warming -- and I'm not sure I do, although it's obvious that we're going through some climate changes -- being a responsible resident of the planet is the right thing to do. Jetting thousands of miles, or driving hundreds, to be part of a giant energy-sucking orgy of self-congratulation does not meet my standards for responsible stewardship.

I'm having a bad day, and it's not even 10:00 yet.

What I Read This Week

Jeffery Deaver, The Sleeping Doll. I burned out on Deaver's Lincoln Rhyme series a few books back, but really liked his standalone, The Garden of Beasts, and admire his short fiction very much. I had high hopes for this book, which gives center stage to kinesics expert Kathryn Dance, who is a sort of human lie detector. Dance leads the chase when a vicious killer and cult leader escapes from prison, and seeks help from the killer's victims -- the women who'd lived under his spell and the girl who survived his last murder scene. The problem is that the villain of this book, Daniel Pell, is so much more interesting than the good guys that the book feels ponderous whenever it shifts away from Pell's point of view.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

How many people are killed by lightning every year?

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

James's question was more specific than this, but I've mislaid it -- James, if you remember it, leave it in the comments section.

It seems appropriate, anyway, because they had to evacuate the national Mall last night for a severe thunderstorm warning, and last week was National Lightning Safety Week. (I ask everyone who believes that the United States has God on its side to consider the theological implications of lightning striking the Mall on the 4th of July.)

The NOAA website says that 400 people a year get struck by lightning, but doesn't make it clear whether that's worldwide or nationwide. Between 1997 and 2006, 437 people in the United States died from lightning strikes. Wyoming is the most dangerous state for lightning, and no one died of lightning strikes in Alaska, Delaware, D.C., Hawaii, New Hampshire or Washington state.

More frightening to me than the thought of being killed by lightning is the idea of being permanently injured by it. Electrocution can cause a horrifying basket of permanent neurological injuries: memory loss, inability to process information and store new information, inability to focus and concentrate.

You can protect yourself by going inside when you see lightning. If you hear thunder within 30 seconds of seeing a lightning strike, the storm's too close to you: take cover immediately, and NOT under a tree. Caves are okay. Buildings are best. Contrary to myth, the rubber tires on an automobile offer no insulation from lightning. Once you've taken cover, it's not safe to go out again until 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder you hear.

Your lifetime risk of being struck by lightning, if you live to be 80, is one in 5,000. Better odds than the lottery, that's for sure.

Five Random Songs

"Something to Say," The Connells. I've been listening to this CD (Fun & Games) a lot over the past several days. This song starts the album, and sets the tone for a series of songs with sad lyrics set to cheerful tunes. This is one of several songs on the CD I suspect of being set in a mental hospital.

"Virginia," Gin Blossoms. The Gin Blossoms' second CD, Congratulations... I'm Sorry, disappointed some people who loved their first record (New Miserable Experience). I think it's just as good a record, but it didn't have the force of surprise that their debut did.

"Ain't No Sunshine," Bill Withers. Appropriate for this gray, rainy day. One of the first R&B songs I ever remember hearing on the radio, in my first-grade carpool in Fairfax, Virginia. The year was 1971, and this song won the Grammy for Best R&B Song.

"True Faith - ('94)," New Order. Broken hearts on the dance floor.

"That Old Sweet Roll," Dusty Springfield. From Dusty in Memphis, a song that makes me want to drink bourbon and laze around for the rest of the day. Most of the country's on vacation today, I think, and as a freelancer, I resent that.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

What is the first word of the Declaration of Independence?

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

I'd been away from pub trivia for quite a while, but returned for last night's Independence Day-themed quiz. (No, we didn't win.) I'm using this question because I wanted to post the Declaration of Independence today, anyway.

The first word of the Declaration of Independence is "When."

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. --Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former systems of government.

The document goes on to list the crimes of the King of England against the American people. These include a few we might do well to remember today:

He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has obstructed the administration of justice, by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers.

He has made judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies without the consent of our legislature.

He has affected to render the military independent of and superior to civil power.

Our current government represents the voting wishes of a free people, and I don't mean to suggest that it's committing any of these crimes -- but I think it's worth remembering what our Founding Fathers objected to in the first place, and what they were hoping to achieve.

The document concludes by declaring the colonies' independence from Great Britain: "And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor."

It is worth asking, as the 2008 campaigns hit full swing: whose lives, fortunes and sacred honor are at stake now? Of the people looking to lead our country, whom would we trust with our lives, fortunes and sacred honor?

Because that's what it's still about. These things are on the line right now, today and every day, and we're getting the government we deserve. God save us.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Why does putting Mentos into a bottle of diet Pepsi cause an explosion?

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

Today's deliberately silly post is willful denial of many bad things that have happened in the last couple of days, and are happening even as I type this. In a rotten world -- a world where leaders are cowards, doctors are terrorists, good people get sick and Beverly Sills is dead -- you can still put a handful of Mentos into a bottle of soda and make magic. Do try this at home. And get well soon, Mary.

Okay, you're asking, why is this Independence Day-related? Because it is a great American tradition to blow stuff up on the 4th of July, and this is a safe way to do it, with no risk of anyone losing a finger or anything catching fire.

If you haven't seen it, go watch the phenomenon here. (The video's a little long, but it's funny and makes an important point: you must use original Mentos mints, the white ones. Mentos gum doesn't work.)

Anyway, how it works is that you open a two-liter bottle of Diet Pepsi, and with a paper funnel, pour in a handful of Mentos mints (I have had the best results with five). Step back and watch the soda shoot into the sky in a spectacular fountain. Theoretically, this will work with any type of soda -- but I've never tried it with sugared soda, because it would get too sticky, and Diet Coke did not produce as big a geyser as Diet Pepsi.

So what makes this happen? Theories abound, but no one knows for sure. In fact, scientists don't agree on whether it's a physical reaction or a chemical one. The theory that makes the most sense to me (an educated layperson) is that the surface of original Mentos are covered with microscopic pits that form "nucleation sites" for carbon dioxide to form bubbles. Dropping Mentos into the soda creates so many bubbles that the gas forces the liquid out of the bottle, and it all goes straight up. (The liquid left in the bottle is flat.) The phenomenon works with bottles smaller than two liters, but the two-liter bottle seems to provide the right amount of air to maximize pressure within the bottle.

James asks the obvious follow-up question, which is whether eating Mentos and drinking Diet Pepsi will cause a similar eruption in your own stomach. The answer to that is no. You chew Mentos before you swallow them, which breaks up the surface tension (getting rid of those nucleation sites) and mixes the Mentos with your own digestive acids. The acids in your stomach break down the carbon dioxide in the soda, too, so there's never an opportunity for the chemical or physical reaction to occur.

That said, I wouldn't pop a handful of Mentos and then swig a Diet Pepsi. I just wouldn't.

Monday, July 02, 2007

What is a rill?

Who's asking: Jennifer Lechner, Freeport, ME

The closing hymn at Wyatt Bragdon's baby-dedication ceremony yesterday was "America," more commonly known (and in fact listed in the hymnal) as "My Country, 'Tis of Thee."

Most Americans can sing this verse by heart without giving a thought to what the words mean:

My native country, thee,
land of the noble free, thy name I love;
I love thy rocks and rills,
thy woods and templed hills;
my heart with rapture thrills, like that above.

So what, Jen wanted to know, is a rill?

A rill is a brook, small river or rivulet. The Cobbosseecontee, across from my apartment, is big to be called a "rill," but you could stretch the word to include it.

The Reverend Samuel Francis Smith wrote the lyrics to the American version of the song in 1832, before moving up to Waterville, Maine -- so the song has special resonance in this part of the country. I'm not sure that Smith even knew, when he wrote the words, that the tune belonged to the British first, as "God Save the King/Queen." He found it in a book of German songs a friend had brought back from Europe, and was inspired to write his lyrics after translating the German poem that had been set to the tune.

This entire week, I think, will be Independence Day-related questions. It was one of my favorite holidays as a child, and I still love it, despite -- well, despite. G.K. Chesterton put it better than I could:

"My country, right or wrong" is a thing no patriot would ever think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying "My mother, drunk or sober."

My mother, drunk or sober.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Picture of the week

In case you were wondering, dogs do laugh.