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Divide and conquer. September 29, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben grew up with the understanding that the Roman Empire lived by the motto “divide and conquer.” So I was more than a bit embarrassed to discover yesterday that the actual Latin was divide et impera, which is to say, “divide and rule.” (Note that our word “divide” comes directly from the Latin, though they would have pronounced it “dee-VEE-day.”)

Obviously, Roman history isn’t our friend Ben’s strong suit, despite something of an obsession with Roman Britain. (When I was 19, I spent the summer helping to excavate a Roman villa at Verulamium, modern-day St. Albans.)

To our friend Ben, this is yet another demonstration of the power of words, the importance of finding the right word. Both “divide and conquer” and “divide and rule” point to the same strategy. But “conquer” implies subjugation, while “rule” suggests wise leadership. It shifts the focus from the military might of Rome and places it on the Emperor. The phrase originated with the great military strategist and general Julius Caesar, but it clearly shows Caesar’s imperial ambitions as well: It was Caesar who changed Rome from a Republic to an Empire, though because of his murder, the first Emperor was his nephew and heir, Augustus Caesar.

Divide and conquer, or divide and rule? Choose your words carefully; as Marc Antony notes in Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar,” they may live after you.


Moonstruck. September 28, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.

Our friend Ben just saw in a news item on Yahoo!’s homepage that a British police officer saw the moon and called in a report of a “suspicious light” to his department, bringing more officers to the scene to investigate. Now, I realize that most of us spend our days indoors and log more time in front of our computers than we spend looking at the world around us. But I’d say this was taking things to an extreme! What’s next, someone reporting seeing a tall, ominous figure (aka a tree) lurking outside his home? Sheesh.

Working dogs. September 27, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I read a feature this morning about 18 dog breeds that were trying to get official sanction from the American Kennel Club, in other words, to get official acknowledgment that they exist and are real breeds. And yet some of these breeds date back to ancient Egypt, Phoenicia, and even Sumeria.

As a dog lover, I was fascinated to read about them. Many were sighthounds (like greyhounds), valued for speed. Many were shepherds. Many were vermin-hunters. And some were guard dogs. Every single one was a working dog, bred to do a job.

I’ve grown up with dogs: cocker spaniels, springer spaniels, poodles, golden retrievers. Not one had the least idea about doing a job. They were happy, carefree, lovable, taking life as they found it and enjoying each moment as it came. I adored them all.

But it wasn’t until our friend Ben and I got our beloved black German shepherd Shiloh that I saw what breeding could actually accomplish. Shiloh, like all German shepherds, comes from a breed line developed to herd sheep. And her herding instinct is astonishing.

Today, people tend to think of German shepherds as ferocious guard dogs or steadfast police dogs. They forget about sheep herding, since not many people raise sheep, and sheep-raising doesn’t get a lot of press.

But Shiloh hasn’t forgotten. She herds her toys. She herds our cats. And she herds us. She’s really only happy if OFB and I are in the same room so she can keep an eye on both of us at once. If I’m in my office and OFB is in another room, Shiloh will split the difference and lie exactly in the space between us, watching and waiting.

I’ve never seen anything like it. But I’ve read about it, in a wonderful book about Border collies called Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men by Donald McCaig. The book tells the true story of how the author went to Scotland to find Border collies for his farm back in Virginia, and in the process discovered as much about the men who bred them as about the dogs themselves. In Scotland, the appearance of the dog matters not at all; everything depends on its sheep-herding instinct and ability.

I think Shiloh would be popular there.

                 ‘Til next time,


Rotten tomatoes. September 26, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Why are people so bizarre? Our friend Ben was staggered to read in this morning’s Wall Street Journal that adults by the thousands are now lining up in parking lots across America and paying $50 for the privilege of hurling rotten (the article euphemistically refers to them as “overripe”) tomatoes at each other. (Find the article, “Messy Business: Now You Can Pay to Get Hit by a Tomato,” at www.wsj.com.)

These are adults, mind you, people in their 20s and 30s. Several who were interviewed for the article were schoolteachers, who presumably wouldn’t find it amusing if they were pelted with rotten tomatoes by their students. Yet there they were, many of the participants in wild costumes, in a parking lot with a semi truckload worth of rotten tomatoes, hurling and mashing them onto each other. What on earth were they thinking?!

Mind you, we Americans aren’t the only ones who’ve lost our minds. The entrepreneur who came up with the idea of our Tomato Battles was inspired by an annual festival of tomato-tossing in Spain that draws an estimated 10,000 participants. I guess it beats running with the bulls.

In case you’re wondering why they use rotten rather than ripe tomatoes, they’re softer and squishier, not to mention cheaper. Getting hit in the head with a firm tomato (or a few dozen) could do some serious damage. Having a rotten tomato mashed into your face is apparently hilariously entertaining.

There’s one useful lesson we can all take from the insanity: People are willing to pay for this. The entrepreneur who launched these events is raking in something like $100,000 per event. Perhaps you, our friend Ben, and other enterprising types could start our own series of events where people toss grapes, rotten eggs, popcorn, or raw bacon at each other. No doubt we’d have crowds of idiots lining up.

They’re baaaack. September 24, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Yesterday, I was tending the plants on our deck when something on the railing caught my eye. It looked horrifically familiar. It couldn’t be…. but it was. The stinkbugs have come back! Later on, I saw another one. My arch-enemies have returned with the onset of cold weather, and they’re making for the house.

There are plenty of native stinkbugs in America, and they’re perfectly harmless, staying mostly out of sight and, more to the point, outdoors. But not the inadvertently imported brown marmorated stinkbug. The only good thing about this evil stinkbug is its name. During the growing season, they attack gardens and orchards. Then, when it gets cold, they move into people’s houses. How they get in I have no idea, but they do. And then they attack me.

For those who are blissfully unfamiliar with them, brown marmorated stinkbugs look like prehistoric monsters in miniature. They are ugly, unlike some native stinkbugs that are a beautiful shade of green. And, admittedly, I have about zero tolerance for bugs in the house, with the exception of spiders (as long as they keep away from me), though I do try to follow a live and let live policy, unless what’s managed to get in is a wasp. (Our friend Cole will actually trap wasps that get into his house under an upside-down glass, slide a sheet of paper under the glass, then take it outside and release the wasp. I’m not that tender-hearted. I just shart shouting for our friend Ben to come deal with it.)

Anyway, what makes stinkbugs so evil is that it’s not enough for them to simply invade the house. Because they’re brown, they can lurk unobtrusively on woodwork or curtains, waiting for their chance. Then, with an explosive roar, they blast off, inevitably landing on my shirt if I’m sitting at the computer, or even worse, on my pillow if I’m trying to sleep. GAAAAAAHHHHH!!!!! Talk about a test of my cardiac fitness, between the shock of the sudden noise of take-off and the even worse shock of the little monsters landing on me. (Of course, OFB finds my shrieks of fright hilarious. Somehow the stinkbugs never go for him.)  

I guess we’ll find out if my heart is up to it this season, because they’re definitely back.

                ‘Til next time,


Don’t get sick. September 23, 2012

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You never know what you’re going to discover in the paper. That’s why our friend Ben enjoys reading our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call, and for national coverage, The Wall Street Journal. But sometimes the news is both startling and horrific, as in this weekend’s edition of The Wall Street Journal, which featured an article with the bold and attention-grabbing headline “How to Stop Hospitals from Killing Us.”  

Yikes. The article pointed out that 25% of patients were actually harmed during their hospital stays, that 98,000 people died in hospitals every year through medical errors, that each month, enough people died from hospital malpractice to fill four jumbo jets. And that’s just in the U.S. (Head over to www.wsj.com to read the article in its entirety.)

Our friend Ben understands that hospitals are, at heart, corporations, and that like all corporations, they drive their employees too hard, give them impossible schedules, wear them out. When corporations are run like this, by the modern business model, mistakes happen, mistakes are inevitable, because people are people and simply can’t do what the modern business model is asking of them: more and more in less and less time. So I’m not trying to blame the hospital employees for this horrific body count.

Instead, since I doubt that we as individuals can revise the prevailing business model into something that’s actually humane and doable, I suggest that we do everything possible to stay or get healthy and keep out of the hospital. Let’s try not to become a statistic of our delightful system’s effort to continually do more and more with less and less. Those poor, overworked doctors and nurses! Let’s reach out to them in fellow feeling, knowing how desperately overworked and overburdened we all are in our own jobs, and not blame them for this nightmare. The blame lies squarely on the business model of corporate America: too few employees, too much pressure. Shame, shame, shame on them!!!

The Hobbit turns 75. September 22, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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This year, J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Hobbit, turns 75. Admittedly, that’s still pretty young compared to Bilbo Baggins’s 111 or Gandalf’s many centuries (if memory serves, Sir Ian McKellen, the actor who plays Gandalf in the movie series, believes him to be 700 years old). But it’s still a pretty good run. And now we Hobbit fans have not one but two things to look forward to: the release of the first part of “The Hobbit” movie series in December, and a new book, Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit by Corey Olsen.

I discovered Mr. Olsen’s book in an article in this morning’s Wall Street Journal, “The Grown-Up Pleasures of ‘The Hobbit’.” (Find it at www.wsj.com.) In the article, Mr. Olsen makes the point that The Hobbit is not just a children’s book, that it has a great deal to offer adults. Our friend Ben couldn’t agree more. I’ve loved The Hobbit since I first read it in sixth grade, and it’s still my favorite of Tolkien’s works. It’s complex, driven by Professor Tolkien’s vast knowledge of Nordic, Celtic and Saxon mythology and literature, yet it’s also playful. It never takes itself too seriously, unlike his other and darker works.

But there is one point on which I disagree with Mr. Olsen: He praises Tolkien’s songs and poems in his article as the highlights of The Hobbit, decrying the fact that many readers dismiss them as irrelevant or don’t even bother to read them. Our friend Ben is a lifelong poet and lover of songs, but Tolkien’s just don’t do it for me. I understand why he included them—again, homage to the ancient literature he loved—but while he was a great prose writer, he was no poet. Mr. Olsen quotes the song of the goblins (“Grip, grab! Pinch, nab!”) as an example of why Professor Tolkien’s songs were so great. Uh, excuse me?

Our friend Ben prefers Tolkien’s love of maps, geography, and walking (as expressed by Bilbo and lovingly illustrated by his creator). Professor Tolkien spends as much time on the places he creates for his Middle Earth as on his characters, and I think it’s time well spent: Middle Earth comes alive for us, from the Shire to Rivendell to Mirkwood to the Misty Mountains to Gondor to the fiery heart of Mordor itself.

Professor Tolkien was a great storyteller and a great creator of character. But he also understood the importance of creating a compelling context in which his story can unfold, a world that we as readers can picture and lose ourselves in.

Reading The Hobbit, we can see ourselves in Bilbo’s home, Bag End, with its numerous pantries (and wish we, like the dwarves, could enjoy one of Bilbo’s freshly baked seed-cakes); we can see ourselves creeping like Bilbo into Smaug’s lair; we can see ourselves in Beorn’s home, lying terrified as we hear the roaring outside and praying that we’ll survive the night; we can see ourselves in Laketown when the dragon rises and comes to set us all on fire.

Point being that, even as we can see Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin and the rest in these situations, we can also see ourselves there. This is the secret of great storytelling: to make us not just want to read but to be part of the story.

Silence Dogood, reading over my shoulder, reminds me that this is also the secret of the unlikely success of a writer like Jane Austen, whose modest domestic period pieces should have gone the way of her contemporaries into obscurity when that period was past, but instead not only have endured as literary classics but have spawned a highly successful film industry and an entire category of fiction, the Regency romance. Like Professor Tolkien, Miss Austen was able to make her readers want to be part of the world she created, to be courted by Mr. Darcy or Mr. Knightley, to live happily ever after.

It is a great gift to be able to imagine a world and bring that world to life. J.R.R. Tolkien drew on his enormous erudition and, taking the best from it, did exactly that. Even 75 years later, The Hobbit is timeless, as enjoyable to read today as when it was first published. Our friend Ben can’t wait to see the movie and read Mr. Olsen’s book. But those songs and poems? Oh, please.

Oh la la! September 21, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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It’s time for another “best of the spammers” roundup here at Poor Richard’s Almanac. They’ve come up with some real gems lately, and of course we have to share them with you. As always, spam comments in bold, our friend Ben’s response following. Enjoy!

Oh la la! Hmmm… did someone discover that Silence Dogood was a French major as an undergraduate? For all the good it did her!

Your writing is fastidious. Fast, or tedious?

I’m wondering why the opposite specialists of this sector don’t understand this. I’m sorry, we don’t speak Klingon here.

And our favorite:

I’ll continue to look for brussels. It was still in Belgium last time I checked.

The most bizarre thing about spam comments is that they bear absolutely no relation to the posts they’re attempting to appear on, which makes the comments even funnier than when you read them as stand-alones. The Klingon-like comment could have appeared on a post about pizza. I guess I just don’t get spam.



The call of the wild. September 20, 2012

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Our friend Ben always knows that fall has truly arrived, whatever the calendar says, when I hear the geese calling overhead as they head South. I was sitting at the computer this morning and heard the cries, the most primitive, the most rousing sound I know. The geese are here! The geese are passing overhead!

We seem to be living in such bizarre climatic times. After an unbearably hot spring and summer, it’s really cold here in my part of scenic PA, even though it’s just September. Yet the great Arctic ice caps are melting at unprecedented rates and Greenland’s ice is breaking up. Drought has ravaged most of our country this year; I read just yesterday that India will be facing a desperate water shortage in the near future. The oceans are warming and rising, threatening to swamp our coasts and turn us into the Panem of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games.

The sound of the geese so early in the year makes me wonder what lies ahead for us this winter. And what, if anything, we can do about it.

Darker and darker. September 19, 2012

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How do you know when to get up? Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I have an appropriately named vintage “Big Ben” wind-up clock in our bedroom, but I use it to check the time if I’m having a sleepless night, not to decide when it’s time to get up. Instead, I gauge when it’s time to rise by a picture on our bedroom wall.

The picture is a beautiful photograph of birch trees with a spray of red maple leaves spilling across them. It’s a masterpiece. But it’s also a timepiece. When I can see the trunks of the trees, I know that it will soon be time to get up. But it’s when I can see the red leaves, see that they’re red, that I know it’s time to get up.

In summer, this can happen as early as 5 a.m. In mid-September, it doesn’t happen until almost 7. I could set the alarm and get up in pitch dark at 5, but I feel it’s more natural, more healthy, to wait for the red leaves and get up then.

Our friend Ben isn’t so lucky. Typically, our beloved black German shepherd Shiloh gets up at 5:30 year-round and lets OFB know in no uncertain terms that he’d better take her out for a bathroom break or else, light, dark, or whatever. I guess it’s a good thing we love her so much! 

How do you know when to get up?

           ‘Til next time,