Sunday, March 30, 2008

Jumpin' Jack Flash

There's a popular mass email about gasoline prices and boycotting Exxon Mobil to force them to lower gas prices that regularly circulates around the Internet. (Sometimes it advocates a national day of boycotting all gas stations.)
Unfortunately, what sounds like a nice idea doesn't work mathematically.

Let's say a barrel of crude oil is $100. It's actually a bit more than that right now on the spot market, but let's stick with a nice, round number. There are 42 gallons in a barrel of crude, so the crude oil, unprocessed in any way, is $2.38 a gallon.

Now, only about half the oil in a barrel ultimately becomes gasoline — the average yield from a barrel is 20 gallons of gasoline, seven gallons of diesel fuel and then a variety of other petroleum products — but let's not worry about that for now.

In Maryland, the combined state and federal taxes are 41.9 cents per gallon, right at the national average (which is 42 cents). Add that to the $2.38 "pumped from the ground" price and we get $2.80 a gallon. That's before the crude oil is refined (which both costs money and wastes some oil when impurities are removed), before detergents and other chemicals are added, before it's transported to a distribution center, then to a gas station, and finally pumped into your gas tank. I don't like paying $3.30 (give or take) for a gallon of gas, but given crude oil prices right now it's hard to see how Exxon Mobil (or anyone else) could sell it for much less.

What if Exxon Mobil said "Okay, we're going to make no profits, and sell our gasoline at cost." What if the gas station owner said the same. (By the by, a friend of mine who owned several Mobil stations told me he makes 3-4 cents a gallon. If not for auto service work an sales from his convenience store, he couldn't make enough profit to stay open.)

What do you think this profit-free gas would cost, if crude oil plus taxes is $2.80 before we've refined or transported the oil? Ten cents less than we pay now? Twenty cents? I'm not defending Exxon Mobil, though we happen to own some Exxon Mobil stock. But the reason the company makes such huge profits is because of the billions of gallons of gasoline it pumps, refines and sells, not the profit it makes on each gallon. Gasoline is a low margin business.

One man's opinion, for what it's worth.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Spring Break

Spring Break, at least for us, began today (Good Friday indeed), and I'll be taking a break from blogging for the week. I'll be back here March 30. Don't eat too many marshmallow peeps.

Moon The Loon

Five minutes into “The Kids Are Alright,” an excellent film made by Who fans for Who fans — though the sound quality suffers from the producers' decision to speed up several songs —Keith Moon invents and defines modern rock drumming. During the two minutes of a live performance of “I Can’t Explain,” Moon plays behind the beat, in front of the beat and smashes, bashes and crashes his way through what, in lesser hands, would be a trifling love song worth no more than a single listen.

 Pete Townshend, with his windmilling power chords and brilliant writing, might have driven The Who. Roger Daltry, all thunder and fire, may have been its tour guide. John Entwhistle, with his mad runs up and down the fretboard of one of his many custom basses, was the anchor that kept The Who from flying off the road.

 But it was Moon who was the engine. Eschewing drum solos, which he thought were boring, Moon instead soloed throughout every song, following an internal metronome that no one else heard.

 Thirty years later, he still has not been equaled.

 Dubbed “Moon the Loon” for his exploits, which included destroying hotel rooms and driving cars into swimming pools, Moon delighted in tweaking society’s nose whenever possible. Far from a timekeeper who marked the backbeat, Moon played rhythmically and melodically simultaneously, frenetically freewheeling behind a Townshend solo, then adding color to a Daltry vocal with delicate — yes, delicate — cymbal work.

Moon once explained his drum philosophy (though philosophy was a word he would probably never use) this way: fearing that The Who’s sound would be thin without a rhythm guitarist, he felt that if he made enough of a racket, especially when Townshend was soloing, no one would notice the lack of a fourth instrument.

 And what a racket it was. In a long-ago issue of Downbeat, the premier magazine for jazz musicians, a number of leading jazz drummers of the day were asked about the state of jazz drumming. When the talk turned to rock, they agreed that all rock drummers fell short except one: Keith Moon. He, they all said, understood how to play the drums.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Four-legged philosophy

Do dogs have souls?

When I was at a funeral home talking to a Catholic priest in 1996 during the viewing for my mother in law, I asked him that question and he said no. Of course, his was the learned, Scriptural view.

My view, based on a much lower level of Biblical knowledge, is this: How can a creature with so much love in its heart not have a soul? I am quite sure that if someone attacked one of us, particularly one of our children, our dog, Bo, would sacrifice himself to save them without a second's thought about his own self preservation. How many human beings could say the same thing?

There have been a number of songs and sayings written about the possibility of dogs in heaven (most favor the idea), and even a few about folks not anting to go to heaven if there are no dogs there. I don't know if heaven includes such earthly pleasures as dogs (and chocolate) — maybe in heaven, if there is such a place, we transcend such pleasures of the flesh — but if any creature has earned the right to eternal salvation, I believe man's best friend has.

Cats? Not so much.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Humbler

Every music fan has his or her list of obscure or semi-obscure musicians who deserved to be big stars but never were: You’ll find Richard Thompson, R. Stevie Moore, Giant Sand, NRBQ, The Chills, Ian Dury, The Elvis Brothers, The Feelies, Eugenius, The Good Rats and a whole bunch of others on mine.

 But none less deserved a lack of success more than Marylander Danny Gatton.

 Gatton was once featured on the cover of Guitar Player magazine with the headline “The World’s Greatest Unknown Guitarist.” In a business known more for hype than reality, the headline was dead accurate. No less a judge than Les Paul, who pioneered both modern recording techniques and modern electric guitars — his namesake six-string still sets the standard — named Danny one of the two finest  guitarists he had ever seen. (Hendrix was the other one.) “Danny Gatton can play like anybody,” he noted. “No one can play like Danny Gatton.”

 Equally at home with blues, jazz, rock and rockabilly, Gatton toiled for years in area bar bands. His one trip to hang with the studio superstars in LA was met with suspicion by them because of his drug habits (he didn’t do any). During his rare national tours, often part of a backing band (Robert Gordon’s band was one), local hotshot guitarists would crowd the first few rows to watch him play. They knew what was going on, and nicknamed Gatton “The Humbler” because he could outplay every one of them.

 The first time I saw Danny was in some dive bar in Georgetown, long since gone, in 1977. New to the area, I saw an article in the Washington Post recommending him, and went to check him out.

 He was overweight with greasy Elvis sideburns, a cigarette hanging from his lip, and no stage presence whatsoever. The band started playing “Mystery Train,” the old Elvis tune, and when it got to the solo Gatton took off.

 He played every lick Scotty Moore, Elvis’ old guitarist, had ever played, twice as fast as Scotty played them,  a Wes Montgomery chord solo (though three times as fast as Wes could have done it), a double-time cycle of fifths in the relative minor, pieces of “Strangers in the Night” and Zorba the Greek,” and half a dozen other things that flew by so fast I never had a chance to recognize them.

 And that was the first song. Three songs later, I realized my beer, no longer cold, was sitting untouched in front of me. I saw him many times after that until he committed suicide.

 Recommended albums: every single one of them. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Silent Cal

In my never-ending quest to be ignored by celebrities — see Tony Kornheiser, below — I recently wrote a letter to Cal Ripken.

Unlike my letter to Tony the K, I had a legitimate business reason for writing Cal: I wanted to ask if he'd consider writing the forward for a book I edited about playing fantasy baseball. (The agent suggested that a forward by a well-known athlete would make it easier to interest a publisher.)

The first issue was finding Cal. He has a number of business interests, and each has its own address. Which one would most likely reach him? I eventually decided to try Ripken Baseball in downtown Baltimore, thinking that was probably his main office.

I'm sure a request for Cal to lend his name to an unknown author, sent by an unknown person, went right to the top of the Show This to Cal Immediately list. Did I mention there's no money in it for Cal?

Should Cal's reply be what I expect — that is to say, none — he will join the ranks of my other favorite Cal, Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States (and the only president born on the 4th of July). Known as Silent Cal for his economic use of words, Coolidge was once approached at a party by a woman who confided that she had bet someone she could get the president to say three words. His reply: "You lose."

That would be two words more than I expect to receive.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Sleepy time time

Recently we hosted seven 10-year-olds for a sleepover birthday party, though if you have children you know the word “sleep” doesn’t belong in that sentence.

Actually, two out of the seven did fall asleep. At 4:30 a.m. For a couple of hours.

I suspect there were several households with grumpy children come early afternoon, when the sugar and excitement wore off. (There was at least one grumpy adult, yours truly, even after a rare afternoon cup of coffee.)

What was most amazing to me — though it shouldn’t have been, since all of the participants were girls — is that even after being up all night the girls were still talking nonstop. All seven of them. At once.

I don’t mean to generalize or sound sexist, but we’ve driven to and from the beach many times and I realize at the end that our son, Adam, hasn’t said a word for the entire trip. His three sisters, on the other hand…

Anyway, I went to bed at midnight, came downstairs at 3 a.m. to ask the girls to think about going to sleep or, at the very least, drop the noise level (all of the girls were in sleeping bags in our family room; well, sitting on their sleeping bags in the family room), and woke up at 7 a.m. I think the girls were having the same conversation every time though, to be fair, I could only partially understand what they were talking about.

This is very different from our son’s birthday parties where, one friend observed, reminded her of a group of puppies playfully tumbling over each other again and again. In fact, if puppies ate pizza it might be almost exactly the same.

In our house the deal is that you get a big birthday party until the age of 10. After that it’s you, a parent and a couple of friends going out for dinner and a movie. This means we have only one child left who qualifies for big birthday celebrations.

Next year I’m encouraging a bowling party.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Gourmet Club

Four other couples and my lovely wife Sarah and I have been part of a Gourmet Club for over 15 years. Have you ever done this? We take turns hosting a dinner, with the hosts choosing the theme and each couple bringing a course that matches that theme. Each couple gets a different course each time for five meals, then we go out to dinner the sixth month and start the cycle again.

 My former boss was in a similar group, but “similar” is a tricky word: his group chose themes such as French Countryside, Northern Italian, Louisiana Low Country. Our group chooses theme such as Favorite Foods of Elvis, Food You Can Eat With Dentures (not that any of us wear them), Woodstock Generation, Foods That Begin With The Letter C.

 I’m pretty sure I know which group has more fun.

 Of course, there was the night the theme was the Holy See, during the days of Pope John Paul II, which would mean Polish and Italian food (for you non-Catholics), and the appetizers were dips and Communion wafers. Another meal featured a chocolate cake that included the lid from a can of Hershey’s syrup, inadvertently baked into the cake. (“I wondered where that lid went.”) A third, also a dessert, was, shall we say, a touch dry when someone misread tsp. (teaspoon) as TB (tablespoon) and put in triple the amount of baking powder listed in the recipe.

 Our other favorite activity, though it began inadvertently, was driving restaurants out of business. The list of restaurants that went under shortly after we ate there as a group is growing: Baron’s 2000, a Mexican place on Cold Spring Lane, two Spanish restaurants downtown (though one reopened later in a different location, so we can only claim partial credit), Rudy’s, a few others I can’t recall. We talked about going to Haussner’s and they promptly announced they were closing. We ate at the restaurant at Route 40 and Rolling Road, which I think is now a mattress store, twice, when it was a Mexican restaurant and when it was King Farouk’s.

 In fact, we’re thinking of hiring ourselves out, so restaurant owners who want to drive a competitor out of business should contact me.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Tony, Tony, Tony

In a world of celebrity look-alikes, I have the great fortune of being a dead ringer for Tony Kornheiser (though shorter and younger). I fact, I can trace his career by how often people stop me and ask, "Do you know who you look like?" (Yes, I do.) A couple of years ago I spoke at a career day at a local all boys Catholic high school, and afterwards one student approached me and asked if his friend could take a picture of the two of us together "So I can tell people I met Tony Kornheiser."

So I wrote Tony Kornheiser, Washington Post columnist and ESPN show host (Pardon the Interruption), to tell him how often people tell me I look just like him. I also sent him a photo.

 No reply as of yet.

 Does he get letters like this all the time? Is there an army of Tony Kornheiser clones poised to do his evil bidding? Did he look at my photo and fail to see the resemblance? Did the letter get lost in the mailroom of the Washington Post? Or — and this is the most likely — did he think it was a letter from some nut?

 Stay tuned for further developments, should there be any.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Email schmemail

Not to be boastful, but my email is much more interesting than yours.

 You get spam. I get invited to interview an Italian actress who claims to have been possessed by an Italian priest so he can become a saint. (It’s complicated, but I understand sex, money and power are involved. Hot dog!)

 You get invitations to refinance your mortgage or virtually cavort with nubile blondes. (Seems to me someone is missing the boat on a package deal here.) I’m offered the opportunity to meet with an author who calls himself a hair care activist. (The email doesn’t say, but I think I could get a free copy of his book, too.) If I were to interview him I’d ask some math questions, since he claims "I'm on a hard core mission [to clean up the country from weaving over damaged hair]. The men are 140 percent behind me."

 I weep for his teachers.

 You’re offered the opportunity to receive millions in ill-gotten gains from Nigeria, while I’m offered time with a former sheriff who wants to communicate his “insights and expertise” about high profile cases (kidnappings, mostly), even though his only knowledge is the same newspaper stories I’ve read.

 Yes, I still get the same spam and jokes you do, as well as regular updates from my mother (she’s fine, thanks for asking) and one of my step-brothers, who pops up on TV every now and again (he’s been on Letterman, had a very minor role during the Branch Davidian standoff and cruises Austin, Texas in a boat he turned into a car).

 Why was the Internet invented? My email inbox is why.

Cleveland Rocks

Went to Cleveland for a weekend (no jokes please) to spend two days in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame and a third day in the Cleveland Art Museum.

First, let me say that the people in Cleveland are among the friendliest I’ve ever met. Everyone, from the train engineers (Cleveland has a combination subway/above ground rail system) to people on the street to the coat check woman at the museum couldn’t have been nicer. Second, let me add that there isn’t a whole lot of nightlife in Cleveland.

 I loved the hall of fame, though as a museum it’s pretty lousy. If you already know a lot about the history of rock, it’s five floors of eye candy (and one floor of hideously overpriced souvenirs and other stuff). If you don’t, you won’t know much more after you leave: some sections have lots of historical context, some have none, some music is given too much importance while some is barely mentioned. Oh, and there’s even a section of battery-operated music devices, from transistor radios to iPods, because a battery manufacturer is a major corporate sponsor. (No doubt a shoe company is next.)


It was, however, lovely to see a section devoted to Les Paul, the pioneering musician and inventor, father of the modern solid-body electric guitar and multi-track recording. And the section of Ohio musicians was much larger than I expected. I had no idea Art Tatum and Dean Martin were from Ohio.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Karma Car

Our family has a little game we like to play at toll booths: we pay for the car behind us. There are several reasons for this:


     There’s nothing wrong with a random act of kindness

     You never know when someone is having a bad day and this could change that person’s attitude instantly

     It teaches our children something about doing good deeds for strangers

     There’s always the possibility that the person behind us will pass the kindness along

     It’s cheap entertainment


People will sometimes go nuts trying to catch up to us to see if they know us (they don’t) and find out who would do such a thing. Our children eagerly watch out the back window as we pull away from the toll booth and have names for all the actions the person behind us takes with his or her now unneeded toll money (the Hesitation, the Snatch Back, etc.).


Our hope is always that the person behind us will think “What a nice thing to do. I’ll do it for the person behind me.” In several years and probably a hundred toll booths, we’ve seen the person behind us pay for the person behind him/her three times.


Once was Christmas, going over the Bay Bridge, so we sort of don’t count that since it was Christmas. Once was going over the Bay Bridge last summer, which we considered a great triumph. And the third was going over the Key Bridge to a soccer game on Saturday, October 16, of this year. (This last one was in dispute: two children and I believe the person behind us paid, one child doesn’t, one wasn’t sure.)


The real success, we believe, will come when someone does it to us. So far that’s never happened. And, yes, if it ever does happen, we’ll pay for the car behind us.


It never hurts to put a deposit in the karma bank.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


So how many new prescription drugs can you match with the ailments they treat? Me neither. From the TV commercials I have no idea who might use any given drug, except for the ones that treat sexual problems (those are pretty obvious). I know what the pills look like, and I know that the people in the commercials, whom I presume are taking said medications, look about as happy and peaceful as a person could. They also seem to stand on mountains a lot.


Maybe the pills treat acrophobia (fear of heights).

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Miles Smiles

Two quotes from the late Miles Davis that sum it all up:

Miles, of course, was not only a great trumpeter, but helped lay the foundations for bebop, cool jazz and fusion. An outspoken opponent of racism and other injustices, he did not suffer fools gladly; nor was he reticent about voicing his opinions.

The first quote comes from Herb Alpert, bandleader and cofounder of A&M Records, during his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006 (I was at the simulcast of that event in Cleveland).

Alpert was breaking in a new trumpet player and he asked Miles to come to the recording studio and help. After a take Miles asked the new trumpeter, "Hey man, you know the notes you were playing?" "Yeah," said the player. "Well," said Miles, "play the other ones."

The second story wads when Miles was rehearsing a tune in the studio, and one of the other, younger musicians was struggling to play it correctly. He made mistake after mistake, ruining take after take. Finally he said to Miles, "What note should I play here?" Miles snapped, "The right one."

If you're looking for a philosophy of life, you could do worse.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Tearful Tunes

Although there are many pieces of music that have made me cry — the caterwauling of Yoko Ono and the vocal “stylings” of William Shatner come to mind — there are two whose emotional power moved me to tears the first time I heard them.

The first was Aaron Neville singing “Ave Maria,” my late mother-in-law’s favorite song. Like Ray Charles, Aaron Neville just opens his mouth and music comes out. Give it a listen and see if you don’t agree.

The second was Vladimir Horowitz’s historic return to Moscow in 1986, three years before the then 82-year-old pianist’s death. While his technical prowess may not have been as sharp as it once was, the emotion of Horowitz returning to his homeland after 60 years away is awe inspiring.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

School For Fools

There are as many definitions of hell as there are people who believe in its existence, but I’m pretty sure one universal component of every concept of the nether world would include school projects.

Big school projects.

Big science, math or reading projects that are assigned weeks in advance, with the obvious expectation that the child (and one or more parents) will work on the project every day and complete something spectacular.

In some homes, the “do a little work on the project every day” — that would be the mature, organized approach — probably happens. No doubt the fresh-faced child, cheeks rosy from an afternoon spent playing outdoors, helping old ladies cross streets, and other Norman Rockwellish pursuits, knows exactly what he/she wants to do from day one. The child makes a list of supplies, the parent and child procure the supplies, and every evening after dinner, while the rest of the family plays Scrabble and works on a jigsaw puzzle, the child and a parent inch inexorably toward completion.

I’m fully prepared to one day live in that world. Until then, here’s what I learned from our latest math project:

Popsicle sticks can be inserted in places where Popsicle sticks shouldn’t go.

Young children and glue don’t mix.

Dogs and glue don’t mix.

Very few adults remember what a rhombus or parallelogram looks like. (It rarely comes up at work.)

No hardware store, hobby shop or crafts store has everything you need.

Items that look perfect in the store mysteriously become too large or too small when they get home.

Children are fascinated by the potential mischief of spray paint.

The more delicate the construction or painting operation, the more young children want to stand right on top of you to see what you’re doing.

Being frustrated when a rickety structure topples over for the third time is twice as frustrating when you can’t use bad language to express how you really feel.

Elementary school-age children are so fascinated by the spectacle of an adult carrying a large project into school that they must stand right in front of you, impeding your progress, while they gawk at you and the project. The heavier the project, the longer they can remain still.

Now, we’re actually pleased by the way our latest project turned out, and overall it was a lot of fun. Should Baltimore County Recreation and Parks decide to construct a park made entirely of polygons, the plans and 3-D model are ready.

However, if they want dodecahedrons, they’re extra.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Finder's fee

Once I was on vacation and I stopped at a little local barbershop for a haircut. The place had a sign on the wall (which many places do) that said, "Long hair slightly extra." So I asked the barber, who also seemed to be the owner, "Since you charge extra for people with more hair, can I get a discount since I have less hair?"

He was so taken aback by my request that he stammered, "Uh, uh, okay."

A couple of months later I decided to try the Catonsville Hair Company, a local place. I tried the same tactic on Glenn, the owner. "Oh no, no discount," he said. "Finder's fee."

I've been getting haircuts there ever since.

(For those who don't know, I have a few little wisps of hair on top, just enough so I can't say I'm completely bald. It is a very wide part, and cutting my hair can b done in as litle as 10 minutes.)