A Curious Celestial Phenomenon, Revisited

Residents of central Ohio were relieved today when the mysterious flaming ball that appeared in the skies yesterday vanished.  In its place is familiar, comforting gray skies, dull clouds, and rain.

IMG_3453The blazing brightness that the strange golden orb brought with it was too odd and unsettling.  It gave rise to strange urges to remove shoes and walk barefoot in the grass, to dance a little jig on the lawn, to show some bare skin to the world, to smile at the brilliance, and to engage in other forms of unseemly conduct.

No, far better to listen to the patter of the rain against the windowpane, to gaze at a landscape that has been washed clean of vivid color, and to return to the grim perseverance that characterizes the stolid residents of central Ohio.  Far better to remove the source of those curious impulses that we might not have been able to resist for long.  One day, perhaps, that shining source of light and heat in the firmament may return to tempt us . . . but not today.

A New Game To Enjoy

The Buckeyes’ loss to Wichita State still stings, but at least we’ve got a new Game to command our attention and analysis:  HBO’s Game of Thrones returns tonight.  You can see the extended trailer for Season Three here.

I’ve written before about Game of Thrones — both the HBO series and the epic-length books.  It’s a fantastic show, rich in themes and plots and production values, one that convincingly captures the curious medieval world where seasons can last for decades, dragons fly, and magic is real.  I’m looking forward to the return of characters that I love, and even more to the return of the awful characters that I love to hate.

I’ll relish reigniting my intense loathing for the detestable Joffrey Baratheon, the sadistic, cowardly punk who sits uneasily on the Iron Throne, and his duplicitous, manipulative mother Cersei.  I’ll be interested to see what happens to Jon Snow and the tiny yet hardy band of misfits and castoffs manning The Wall in the far north, working to meet the challenge of the wildlings and the White Walkers.   I’ll root for the honest, loyal Brienne of Tarth, the gigantic female knight who displays more knightly virtues than the men who ridicule her.  And I’ll enjoy becoming reacquainted with Arya, and Bran, and Tyrion, and the complex, interwoven storylines that characterize this series and meeting the new characters that will be introduced this season.

Having read the books, I suppose I could announce “spoilers,” but that’s not fair Game.  I’ll say only that big things, and terrible things, will be happening to the characters we’ve come to know.  Of course, loyal watchers of the show knew that already.  Any show that kills off its main character by public beheading before Season One even ends is not afraid to spin the world of Westeros on its axis.

Tough To Take

The Buckeyes lost to a gutty, hard-working Wichita State team tonight.  It’s a tough loss to take.

It’s tough because the Buckeyes looked lost in the first half of this game.  They settled for three-pointers, couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean, and played listlessly as Wichita State went out to a big lead.  The lead got even bigger in the second half, as the Shockers built a 20-point lead.  20 points!  But this loss also is tough because Ohio State didn’t quit and kept coming back.  It made me proud, but it also made me wonder how the game might have gone if Ohio State had played with that kind of effort for the full 40-minute game.

It’s tough to end the season on the cusp of the Final Four, losing to a lower-seeded team.  It’s tough because I’ve enjoyed watching this team this year, and I hope their journey would last just a little longer, and I could watch Deshaun Thomas, and Aaron Craft, and LaQuinton Ross, and the other Buckeyes who wouldn’t throw in the towel during the season or during this game.

All credit to the Wichita State Shockers for playing a fine game . . . but this loss is tough to take.

A Curious Celestial Phenomenon

Residents of central Ohio were astonished today when our accustomed cloud cover vanished and a large, flaming orb unexpectedly appeared in the sky.

IMG_3450The object is so bright that it is creating sharp, dark outlines of objects, like tree limbs, mailboxes, and even people, on the ground.  It is so dazzling that mortal man cannot look at it directly without being blinded.  If you wish to walk around in the brilliance, you must shield your eyes to avoid being stupefied.

It is unclear whether the object is dangerous, but there are warning signs that it may be hazardous.  It appears to radiate some kind of energy, because exposure to the object leaves the back of your neck feeling warm and tingly.  It also exerts a curious attraction.  People seem to want to go outside and bask in the object’s brightness.  Neighbors who have long remained indoors are outside and have discarded their coats.  Have the authorities been notified?

The Dreaded Driver’s License Renewal

This morning I’m going to go to get my driver’s license renewed.  I’ll go to a place that attempts to make the experience as tolerable as possible, but we all know that, no matter how hard the proprietor may try, the process of getting your driver’s license renewed is infused with an inevitable, intrinsic suckiness.

IMG_3448You’ll wait in line with a bunch of strangers.  You’ll take the tests, and try to see all of the flashing dots and hear all of the sounds, and then . . . you’ll get your picture taken.  And let’s face it, no one over the age of 50 looks as old, lined, and enfeebled as they do on their driver’s license or passport photo.  There must be something about the automatic, slightly out of focus cameras used as such places that is geared to producing a photo that goes beyond unflattering and ventures into the realm of horror film fare, shipped out to Hollywood makeup artists who are searching for new and creative ways to depict the Living Dead.

I’ve liked this particular license, as much as you can like any scrap of plastic that tells someone in a position of authority that you are who you claim to be.  It was issued on March 30, 2009, when “Mike Rankin” was Registrar of the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.  It’s filled with messages purportedly detectable only under scanners and other security devices that tell people that I’m not an underaged kid trying to buy alcohol with a fake ID.  It includes a hopeful but nevertheless egregious misstatement of my weight and slight exaggeration of my height and tells people I’ll donate my organs and that I need corrective lenses.  It has allowed me to board countless planes, vote at every election, and make credit card purchases.  It has served me well, but today I’ll get a new one.

Wish me luck.

Violating The Vacation Rule

This year I’ve inexplicably violated one of my time-honored work-life balance rules, and now I’m paying the price.

IMG_2666I call it the Vacation Rule.  Basically, it stipulates that a vacation — not an out-of-town conference, or a long weekend getaway, but an honest-to-God, more than a week in duration vacation — must be on the calendar at all times.  In my experience, the humdrum elements of the workaday world are much easier to accept if there is a vacation shining brightly in the not-too-distant future.  The idea is to always have a trip to someplace warm, or someplace interesting, or someplace new, written down and blocked out, concrete and committed to, so that you see it when you look at your work calendar to schedule meetings and other work events and smile a secret inner smile.  It helps to break the work year into manageable bite-sized chunks.

This year, though, I’ve stupidly violated the rule.  When we returned from our trip in December, I didn’t immediately schedule the next trip.  That’s a problem because, if you let time pass and the calendar fills up with other work commitments, it gets harder and harder to arrange a vacation in the near future.  There are too many other things that have to be moved, so you end up just picking a free time period that is months away . . . and that’s vaguely depressing.

The only solution is to get that vacation on the calendar, whenever it may be.  You’ll feel better.  Then, put your head down and keep working until the vacation appears dead ahead on the workplace horizon — and be sure never to violate the Vacation Rule again.

Survive, Advance, and LaQuinton

The Buckeyes don’t make it easy on their fans.  But they are still dancing!

The win tonight against Arizona was a tough, hard-fought battle — just what you would expect from two great programs and two deep teams.  Arizona looked very good for most of the game and built a big lead in the first half.  But the Buckeyes rode Sam Thompson and Deshaun Thomas — whose icy shots kept Ohio State within range — and stayed close in the first half.  The Buckeyes then played nails defense to start the second half, Aaron Craft made some great plays, the Buckeyes got out to a lead, built it, and then held on as their latest clutch shooter, LaQuinton Ross, made bucket after bucket to keep the Buckeyes ahead.  Ross eventually made the game winner that advanced the Buckeyes to the Elite 8.

I give lots of credit to Arizona, which played a tremendous, gutty game — as befits a gutty team with a gutty coach.  But the Buckeyes made the shots and now get the chance to move on, and the Wildcats have to go home.

LaQuinton Ross is my new hero . . . but boy, watching these games is tough duty.

On The Edge Of A Cold

It started, oh, maybe a day ago, after Kish had been fighting a cold for a few days.  The germs, like the Borg, are trying to tell me that resistance is futile.

IMG_3443That unwanted scratchiness in the back of your throat.  Mucus pouring down the esophagus like the sluggish River Styx.  The occasional, unexpected cough.  And just feeling a little bit . . . off.

Not a full-blown cold, though.  No fever.  No hacking fits that wake me up at night.  No light-headedness.  No uncontrollable sneezing.

I’m treating my condition with the basic patent remedies and folk nostrums.  Aspirin.  Juice.  Ricola Natural Herb cough drops.  I’m staying inside and keeping warm.  And, at night, I’m imbibing a glass or two of wine to dry out the sinuses and help with getting a good night’s sleep.

I think I’m on the brink, teetering between ruddy good health and the alternative.  I may have come through the worst of it already, or I may be ready to plunge.

One Man’s Hell

A court recently ordered the Disney Company to pay $8,000 to a patron after he was stranded on a ride at Disneyland.

The man uses a wheelchair, and the ride in question was “It’s a Small World.”  The man, who suffers from panic attacks and high blood pressure, was stuck for a half hour after the ride broke down and non-disabled patrons got up and left.  The story linked above notes — and this is, I think, the most crucial fact of all — that the “It’s a Small World” theme song played throughout the time the man was stranded.  Oh, and did I mention that the man also had a full bladder?

If you’ve visited Disneyland and been on the “It’s a Small World” ride, you know that the ride’s theme song is one of the most insipid, saccharine songs ever written and recorded.  It’s a small world after all . . . .  Once you’ve heard it, it burrows deep into the recesses of your brain and is never successfully forgotten no matter how hard you try.  It’s a small world after all . . . .  Even worse, it is sung by high-pitched, piping, aggressively chipper child voices on a continuous loop as the ride progresses.  It’s a small, small world!  After having to listen to the music for the few minutes of the ride, any reasonably sane adult is ready to run screaming from the building.

Part of the $8,000 award was for “pain and suffering.”  I’ll say!  To be left, alone, in the ride, among the mindlessly smiling, doll-faced depictions of children from around the world, desperately needing to answer the call of nature while enduring the cloying onslaught of the banal song playing over and over and over again, sounds like a particularly awful form of personal hell.

Shockers, Wildcats, And Explorers

Tomorrow night Ohio State will continue the NCAA Tournament by playing in the West regionals in Los Angeles.  Four teams — the Wildcats, the Shockers, the Explorers, and the Buckeyes — will vie for one coveted spot in the Final Four.  So, the regional features ferocious felines, hard-working wheat harvesters, intrepid adventurers, . . . and poisonous nuts.  I’m rooting for the nuts, of course.

We’re to the point in the season where every team still playing is very good, and very scary.  The Buckeyes’ first opponent, Arizona, certainly fits that bill.  For years, Arizona has been one of the premier programs in college basketball.  This year the Wildcats, seeded sixth in the West, are 27-7 and crushed their first two opponents in the NCAA Tournament.  They are led by three players averaging more than 10 points a game —  guards Mark Lyons and Nick Johnson and forward Solomon Hill — and have lots of size on the inside.  Equally important during high-drama tournament games, Arizona has a number of seniors on its roster who can be expected to provide steady leadership during the high-stress moments.  Arizona’s talented and deep roster appears to present a number of match-up problems for Ohio State.  To top things off, the Wildcats’ coach, Sean Miller, is a Thad Matta protege who knows Ohio State’s coach well, and Arizona will have a home court advantage of sorts by playing in neighboring California.  All told, I think Arizona will pose an enormous challenge for the Buckeyes.

The other game pits two teams that have nothing to lose, because no one expected them to get this far.  LaSalle, which had a “play-in” game, has already won three games in the Tournament, including squeakers over Kansas State and Ole Miss.  Wichita State, on the other hand, pulverized Pitt and then upset top-ranked Gonzaga.  Expect both teams to be playing loose and with reckless abandon; their game should be fun to watch.

The Buckeyes’ game, on the other hand, won’t be fun to watch for those of us who are true fans.  We’ll be seriously into it, with every Buckeye bucket a cause for celebration and every Arizona score like a hard punch to the gut.  I’ll watch with angst and adrenalin because I’ve truly enjoyed this season of OSU basketball, and I don’t want it to end just yet.  Let’s go, Bucks!

The Robotic Incursion

There’s a new robot out there called Baxter.  Created by Rethink Robotics, Baxter has a humanoid torso, two robotic arms, and a face-like display screen.

None of that is especially ground-breaking, but Baxter offers more.  According to his website, Baxter is designed to work cheek-by-jowl with humans, cheerfully doing the endlessly repetitive jobs that used to drive former assembly-line workers nuts.  Baxter’s “head” is equipped with 360-degree sonar and a camera to allow him to detect humans.  Baxter also has “behavior-based intelligence” and gizmos in his arms that “feel” when he bumps into objects — or people.  The website also says Baxter is easily programmed and integrated into the workforce.

Oh, and here’s the kicker:  Baxter costs only $22,000.  That’s less than the salaries of most industrial workers.  And Baxter doesn’t require employers to worry about absenteeism or tardiness, he doesn’t take sick days or file workers compensation lawsuits, he doesn’t need to be insured or provided with a pension or vacation days, and he won’t steal from the supply room, grouse about the boss at the break table, or try to unionize the workplace.  Is it any wonder that Baxter has been greeted by great sales to the manufacturing industry?

Baxter is marketed as “a compelling alternative to low-cost offshoring for manufacturers of all sizes.”   That is, you can buy Baxter and keep your plant in Dayton, Joliet, or Scranton rather than moving production capacity to China, because when you factor in shipping costs, customs duties, and other offshore expenses — to say nothing of bad PR — Baxter is competitive with those low-cost alternatives.  Of course, Baxter also will be taking away American assembly line jobs, but they were likely gone, anyway.  At least the jobs of providing maintenance for a workforce of Baxters, and the white-collar jobs related to selling and shipping the goods Baxter manufactures, will stay in the U.S.A.

Baxter is just one example of the robotic incursion into the American workforce that is already here and that will become more apparent with each passing year.  Robotics has long been part of the manufacturing world, and now it is primed to move into the service industry.  One day soon you’ll walk into a fast-food restaurant and be surprised when a Baxter-like bot takes your order, prepares your cheeseburger and fries, and hands it to you with a touch-screen smile.

I Can’t Bring Myself To Watch Bates Motel

There’s a new TV show that’s being advertised constantly.  Call me a wuss if you will, but I can’t bring myself to watch it.

It’s Bates Motel — the back story, apparently, of Norman Bates and his mother, Norma.  Of course, Norman figured prominently in the Hitchcock thriller Psycho, where he donned his mother’s dress and ruthlessly stabbed to death a young woman taking a shower in the motel that Norman managed.  I think Psycho is one of the creepiest, most unsettling movies ever made, and Norman Bates is one of the creepiest, most unsettling movie characters ever conceived.  In view of that, why in the world would I want to see even more of young Norm and his unbalanced mother?  Is there really a big audience for a TV that tells their disturbing story?

Of course, if Bates Motel is successful it might start a trend.  Why stop at telling the bloody tale of only one horror movie icon?  No doubt other TV producers will begin searching for frightening film characters whose earlier days remain unexplored.  Some possibilities:  Little White, the moving, coming-of-age tale of an awkward young shark striving to become an unstoppable killing machine off the beaches of Amity in New England; Hockey Boy, the whimsical tale of Jason Voorhees, an uncoordinated youngster whose dreams of career in the NHL are foiled but who discovers he experiences strange new urges when he dons a hockey mask; and Vlad Ain’t Bad, a comedy about a white-skinned, cape-wearing exchange student from eastern Europe who fits right in with the Goth crowd then discovers an insatiable craving for corpuscles.

Sequestration And The Federal Courts

How foolish is managing the federal budget through the across-the-board “sequestration” process?  The federal judicial system provides a good illustration of the chaotic lunacy that prevails when the President and Members of Congress fail to do their jobs and enact thoughtful, considered budgets.

From a budgeting standpoint, the judiciary is unique.  Unlike other agencies and entities, it doesn’t operate grant programs or distribute benefit checks or buy advertising to discourage drunk driving or promulgate regulations.  Instead, it exists solely to resolve disputes and try those accused of federal crimes.  Its budget is spent largely on people — on judges and their law clerks, bailiffs and court reporters, docket clerks and security personnel — who make the system function smoothly.

Sequestration will require $350 million in cuts to the federal judicial system.  Because federal judges are appointed for life and will be paid regardless of how fiscally irresponsible the President and Congress may be, the cuts that sequestration brings will fall disproportionately on the other people who are part of the process.  As a result, court security operations will be impaired, federal oversight of those free on bond prior to trial and those paroled from federal prisons will be reduced, and jury trials and bankruptcy proceedings will be delayed due to lack of funds — among other consequences.

A capable court system is one of the bedrock requirements of a free, well-ordered society.  The role of federal courts has become increasingly important as new regulations are produced and challenged, as new federal crimes are created, and as courts are increasingly viewed as the ultimate arbiter of all manner of disputes.  Why, then, should federal courts be subject to the same across-the-board budgeting treatment as federal agencies and programs whose purpose is much less fundamental to the proper functioning of government and society?

The President and Congress need to start doing their jobs.

Disturbing Bowling Alley Artwork

IMG_3408Don’t get me wrong — I love bowling.  I’ve bowled for as long as I can remember, starting when UJ and I, as kids, bowled with Grandma and Grandpa Neal.  I like bowling alleys and bowlers, too.

Still, there was something vaguely disturbing about this bit of bowling alley wall art found in the locker area at Wayne Webb’s Columbus Bowl.  It’s not exactly calculated to dispel the common myths about kegling and encourage occasional bowlers to become regulars.