30 March 2009

Averted vision

The crescent moon was about three days young last night, hanging up high in the western sky in the evening twilight. It was just a bit below the Pleiades, and I could see Orion looming to the left (south) and Taurus and the Hyades nearby as well. I love this time of year when the winter stars are setting, what better way to say spring is here? Friday night the moon was too low on the horizon--I've got a lousy view to the west what with the hills and the neighbors and the trees, and Saturday we had a thick, grey layer of clouds obscuring any celestial sights. I stepped out to see Luna when the sky was still blue and then later when it was inky-dark. I noted that if I looked directly at the moon the Pleaides would fade away, and then when I looked askance at the whole scene the cluster seemed to jump out into my field of view. This technique of averted vision is well-known to skygazers and astronomers, and takes advantage of the fact that the light-gathering capabilites of the eye are somewhat off-center. (Here's a couple of links that go into more detail.)

The Latin verb verto (principal parts: verto, vertere, verti, versum) means "turn," and the related compound averto (-tere, ti, -sum) is, obviously, "turn away." The past participle of verto is the familiar versus, which has come to mean "against," in the sense of "opposed to" in English. (WordMan™ strikes again!)

28 March 2009

Mossback & Guinness

You might have heard the expression "mossy back" or "mossback" to refer to a stubborn, old-fashioned person who is set in their ways. According to Webster, a mossback can also be a large, sluggish fish. Presumably the fish is large because it is OLD. The term is applied to turtles that have lived so long they've collected a colony of algae on their shells. Old-growth conifers are often much the same--their trunks are covered with a thick, mossy pelt. In the west, a mossback is a deer or other large game animal like an elk or moose that has a rack so big the withers are shaded and the hide there can support a small forest of mosses! Which brings me to Mossback IPA from the Etna Brewery. (How's that for a segue?) I've blogged about these fellows before and their wonderful beer. I had a couple of pints of Mossback IPA at my local pub last night. It is my beer of choice these days. Dark amber, intensely hopped, yet smooth and drinkable, this brew is a local treasure, and Dave the Barman knows we get cranky when he doesn't keep it stocked. Last week we had a St. Patrick's Day fest at the pub, lots of Guinness and Celtic music, and my pal Jon M. came up with a new combo. He's not a Guinness man, but he got into the spirit of things by asking for a half-pint of the black brew to be floated on top of a half-pint of Mossback IPA. We looked at this lovely creation and thought about what to call it. We barely started brainstorming when the obvious answer sprung forth--simultaneously--from our lips :


21 March 2009


England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland comprise the home nations of rugby (union) football. Their national squads have played each other in an annual tournament since the 1880s, and the team winning all their matches is said to have claimed the Triple Crown. This tournament--because it included France--was known for most of its history as The Five Nations. A team winning all four of its matches was said to have completed a Grand Slam. Italy joined the fun in 2000, and the competition is now called The Six Nations and, being sponsored by the Royal Bank of Scotland, can be found at RBS6Nations. Each team in the tournament plays five matches, one against each opponent. It is possible, then, to have more than one team claim the top spot on the leaderboard, with, say, identical 4-1 or 3-2 records. Points difference is then the decider, and that squad is named champion, and they are presented with the Official RBS 6 Nations Championship Trophy.

Often during the long history of this competition, teams have won a Triple Crown but failed to get a Grand Slam or a Championship. Or won the Championship without a Triple Crown or Grand Slam! In 1985, the Irish won the Triple Crown and the Championship (it was still Five Nations) but not a Grand Slam. Today, on the first full day of spring, Ireland won the whole salami by beating Wales 17-15 at Millenium Stadium in Cardiff. It is a three-in-one victory: Triple Crown, Grand Slam, 6 Nations Trophy. The Irish Rugby Football Union uses the shamrock--the three-leaf clover of Ireland--on its logo. Today the I.R.F.U., the team, and their fans get to celebrate a tenth Triple Crown, a second Grand Slam (first since 1948!) and a first-time-ever Six Nations title.

Three-in-one on 3/21.

20 March 2009

They say it's spring now

Picture if you will the earth's equator, that imaginary line circumnavigating the globe, stretched out into space. It describes a line across the heavenly dome running due east to due west in a great arc. That line is called the celestial equator. If you stood on the terrestrial equator, the zenith of the celestial equator would be overhead. At the poles, the celestial equator would be at the horizon. Now imagine the path the sun makes as it moves across the sky. The line thus described is known as the ecliptic. The earth's rotational axis is tilted about 23.5º from its orbital plane. That is, a line perpendicular to the orbital plane, drawn through the sphere of the planet, makes such an angle with the actual rotational axis. (See diagram.) These two lines, the ecliptic and the celestial equator, cross in two places. Those two places are the equinoctial points--one is the vernal point and the other is the autumnal point. Thus we have the astronomical definition of the equinox. According to the calculating types, the Vernal Equinox happened this morning at 11h 44m Universal Time. That's 04:44 for us PDT folks. Normally we are eight hours behind the Greenwich meridian, but with the switch from standard to daylight time, the difference is now seven hours. (British Summer Time does not go into effect until the end of the month.)

So it is SPRING. Happy Spring, everyone! (I'll try to ignore the thermometer outside telling me it is 32 ºF!)

18 March 2009

Hittin' the sauce

Jokers of the world, unite! MIKE NOMAD is here and lookin' out for ya! This particular panel is from a Sunday (7/4) in 1971. I was a mere lad of 11, but I really dug this comic. Poor Mike pounded some serious liquor in a seedy dive and woke up framed for murder. Naturally he enlisted his pal STEVE ROPER to help him. Steve "had his back" of course, and they managed to get it figured out. I blogged previously about acquiring a heap of actual strips, both dailies and Sundays, from my buddy Marcus. I plan to post an image of our blue-collar noir anti-hero now and again here at TPP so stay tuned. (Let's hope the legal eagles at King Features Syndicate don't come down on my ass for messing with their copyright. Like this blog has commercial potential!)

17 March 2009

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

The custom of eating corned beef and cabbage in honor of Ireland's patron saint is a strange one. They don't eat corned beef in Ireland and they seem to regard our across-the-Atlantic customs (like green beer) as a bit on the weird side. But Irish-Americans are a vociferous lot, and even a hint of Irish blood seems to make otherwise reasonable folks go nutty for the day. How else do you explain the green face paint, leprechaun hats and shamrock stickies? They say everyone gets to be Irish for a day, and I've certainly partied hardy with folks who couldn't sniff an Irish relative in 10 generations. Like Cinco de Mayo, St. Patrick's Day has become thoroughly American-ized. Sure we drink Guinness and Corona, but the rest of it is more like the Super Bowl or the Fourth of July than anything truly ethnic. That's cool with me, actually. George Carlin once remarked that being Irish was "fun" but not anything to be proud of. He felt proud of things that he actually accomplished, like being a father and writing books and making TV specials. He had nothing to do with his being Irish, that was decided well in advance of his coming into the world. I like that. Ethnic pride is fine if you are downtrodden and oppressed, and no Irish person in America today can claim that. I'd like to see a post-racial world, where we have fun with our various backgrounds but don't let them determine who we are or where we are headed. I know that's easy for me to say here in this mobile, polyglot culture of ours. But in the end we are all mutts, and in the end we are all brethren. I'm going to be chewing on that thought tonight while I'm quaffing pints and gnawing on fatty corned beef and overcooked cabbage.


15 March 2009

Happy Birthday, Lightnin' Hopkins!

Derral Campbell on KSOR's Rollin' the Blues reminded his listeners today that March 15th was the birthday of Sam Hopkins, aka Lightnin'. Mr. Campbell's program, on the Rhythm & News Service of Jefferson Public Radio, airs Sundays from 1400 to 1500 hours Pacific Time. We are incredibly lucky to have top-notch public radio here in our lonely little burg. We are "over the mountain" from Ashland, Oregon but the signal crosses the stateline and we get a translator at 89.3 MHz.

Lightnin' Hopkins was one of the giants of the blues. He lived to be almost 70, a feat in itself, and supposedly learned at the feet of Blind Lemon Jefferson. I'm fortunate to own a three-volume DVD collection called The American Folk Blues Festival from Reelin in the Years. Disc one features Lightnin' Hopkins performing "Mojo Hand." It is easily the slickest, coolest, rockinest cut in the collection, and that is saying a lot! He seems to do it all--play beautiful licks, sing with bluesy sass, stomp out a vigorous rhythm, and look good doing it. The guy wasn't just a great guitarist and singer. He was also a mature and confident showman, and he just dazzles you with his savoir faire. I can watch that clip over and over again.

Happy Birthday, Sam. Oh, and Beware the Ides of March!

12 March 2009

King of Swing

One of the many fascinating characters in the history of American music is Benny Goodman, dubbed "The King of Swing" by his bandmate Gene Krupa. My friend John B, who turns 87 next week, was the first person to properly introduce me to this music. The re-issued CD of Goodman's famous 1938 Carnegie Hall concert was the vehicle, and coupled with John's enthusiastic reminisces of his youth in the Swing Era, I was hooked. Last night my lovely bride and I watched the 1956 Hollywood biopic The Benny Goodman Story with Steve Allen in the title role. Goodman himself plays all the clarinet parts, but many of his old bandmates (like Krupa) make appearances, Harry James and Lionel Hampton in particular. These movies are generally uninspiring, but this one is helped along by the abundance of great jazz performances. It never hurts to cast the stunningly beautiful Donna Reed as the love interest. Goodman's career was helped, like many others, by the enterprising John H. Hammond (played in the film by Herbert Anderson). Ms. Reed plays Hammonds sister, Alice, who actually marries Benny Goodman in real life. Alice and John were the grandchildren of Cornelius Vanderbilt. (Hammonds' son, John P. Hammond, is well-known and accomplished contemporary blues guitarist and singer.) Only in America can the son of immigrants marry the grand-daughter of one of the wealthiest men in history!

06 March 2009

Red is the color of jazz

You don't think so? We got Red Norvo, Red Garland, Red Rodney, and Red Nichols. Ernest Loring Nichols was the first "Red" in this bunch, born in 1905 and a part of the early swing scene along with Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller and the rest. ("Red" Norvo was born only three years later than "Red" Nichols. Here's a clip of him and Goodman from 1960.) The first one of these guys I heard was William "Red" Garland, playing the 88s with the Miles Davis Quintet on Cookin'. Then I learned about Robert Roland Chudnick (aka "Red" Rodney) from Clint Eastwood's Charlie Parker biopic Bird. Kenneth Norville (aka "Red" Norvo) was next, his band backed Frank Sinatra in a 1959 tour of Australia. An album of this music was released in 1997 by Blue Note--it is easily the best Sinatra I have ever heard. (If you don't think he's a great jazz singer, buy this record and change your mind.) But this post got started because we just watched the 1959 (there it is again, my birth year) film The Five Pennies with Danny Kaye. It is a loose "biography" of Red Nichols, with Kaye in the title role and Red himself providing the cornet and trumpet work off-screen. Mr. Kaye is one of those extraordinary talents who seems able to do anything. He was side-splittingly funny in the movie, and his antics made me think of Jim Carrey--the facial contortions, the physical grace, the crazy sounds--but with the dancing and singing skills of Gene Kelly. Despite the schmaltz and Hollywood story-telling, the film was great entertainment due to the abundance of musical numbers and the brilliant acting of the star. Special guest Louis Armstrong did several routines with Kaye, and his appeal and astonishing talent never seems to dim. (Trivia note: a teenage Tuesday Weld played Nichols' daughter.)

05 March 2009

Whisky round-up

There's at least one place in the USA renowned for its Round-up, and that's Pendleton, Oregon. I've got two connections to Pendleton: 1) I love Pendleton wool shirts, and 2) I drink Pendleton whisky. Despite being from Hood River Distillers, the whisky is of Canadian origin. That's OK, I've come to appreciate the smoothness and sweetness of these multi-grain blends. Pendleton is crisp, spicy, aromatic, and a fine drink, though not a new discovery.

What's new, you ask? How about George Dickel Barrel Select? Wow--this stuff is rich and sumptuous. All the whisky coming from Cascade Hollow is high on my list, but this particular version is almost too good. They call it Tennessee Whisky but use the Scots/Canadian spelling. JD is the most famous of this type of spirit, but a side-by-side tasting with George will wean you off that slop for good.

The last stop on our round-up takes us across the Pacific. Japan produces some outstanding whiskies, the oldest being Yamazaki, first produced in 1924. Suntory has a range of ages and bottlings for Yamazaki, and we found one of their malts in our local liquor warehouse. It was excellent stuff. Sadly, I cannot remember which version we tasted--it was a birthday gift for my pal JCP--and I hope I can find it again. It was probably the 10-year old. Regardless, this is only the second time I've been able to taste a Japanese whisky and I hope to remedy that in the future.

That's it. Stay tuned for more!

04 March 2009

The Dead Man's Brother

Hard Case Crime isn't just about crime. Case in point: The Dead Man's Brother. Oh sure, there's crime--murder, embezzlement, kidnapping--but the novel is really an adventure story in the pulp tradition. Our hero is an art dealer, fer chrissakes, who is coerced into working for the CIA. He goes to Rome and thence to Brazil, where the climax takes place in the jungle amidst a tribe of indigenous people and their paramilitary oppressors. Roger Zelazny--yes, that Roger Zelazny--wrote the book some time ago, perhaps the 1970s, and it found its way into print only after his death. It's a good read. Zelazny was a pro, and the story is suspenseful and well-constructed. The hero is likeable enough without actually being likeable, but he's beset by so many villainous types that you are on his side the whole way. There's a dark and mysterious femme who softens his calloused heart, but only a bit, because we know our boy is the cynical, solitary sort, and long-term liasions just aren't in the cards. I can complain (a little) that the plot was a tad more convoluted than necessary, and the final chapter tied up so many loose ends by twisting them into new knots that I had to re-think the entire tale. The new March title is a reprint of Donald E. Westlake's first novel, The Mercenaries (1960), re-titled The Cutie. Mr. Westlake is, if not the best, one of the handful in the pantheon. Looking forward to that one. Stay tuned for a review.