Monthly Archives: August 2010

Sesquipedality Can Be Fun!

Our nephews are still providing interesting insights into the contemporary educational system.  Today’s lesson was spelling.

With respect to spelling, each of them gets a word list on Monday and each day they are supposed to practice spelling the words.  There is a test on Friday to make sure they have committed the words to memory.

Up until this past week, the word lists were about what you would expect for 10 and 8 year olds. 

So you can imagine my surprise when Yazdy, the 10 year old, and I were going through his word list and right after ‘success’ came ‘trypanosome.’  And right after that came ‘anomy.’

“Where did these words come from?” I asked.

“From the dictionary.”

I knew that.  At least I knew that with respect to trypanosome.  To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t so sure about anomy.  As it turns out, it’s a word that, if it didn’t exist, would have to be invented in order to describe the education system.

Anyway, back to the conversation.  I countered with, “Yes, but why did the teacher pick them for spelling words.”

“She didn’t.  I did.”

Yes.  Apparently, outsourcing has come to education.  The teacher told the kids to go to the dictionary and pick out their own spelling words.  Yazdy claimed that he picked out some words that looked practical but he picked trypanosome and anomy because they “looked interesting.”

I was impressed that he’d found words interesting but sceptical of the whole process.  “What happens if some kid just picks out a, and, the and but?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you know what these words mean?”

“Not really.”  (Which really means “no.”)

“Well.  What do you think a trypanosome is?”

“Maybe something with three of something?”

I had to give him credit for thinking of that, but clearly it was time to consult the dictionary.  To the accompaniment of the customary groans and eye rolling I retrieved the Websters and we proceeded to look up the words in question.

In case your recollection is hazy, a trypanosome is the nasty bug that causes sleeping sickness and anomy, also sometimes spelled anomie, means a Lady Gaga concert.

It seemed like a good time to reinforce the learning process.

“So what are you going to do if the teacher asks you to use these words in a sentence?”

“She never does that.”

“Maybe, but this is the first time you’ve chosen your own words.  Maybe she’ll want to know if you know what they mean.”

“But she wouldn’t think I’d choose a word I didn’t know.”

“But she’d be wrong, wouldn’t she?”

“No.  I know what the words mean.  Now.”

I found myself wondering if embodying anomy was the same as knowing what it meant.  But I persevered.  “OK.  Use them in a sentence.”

After an indecently short interval he responded with “In the morning my brother acts like he has trypanosomes.  But when he wakes up, he causes anomy.”

I’m so glad I’m not a teacher.

When Green Isn’t Necessarily Clean

Have you noticed that nowadays, no matter who you are entertaining, one of your guests will inevitably ask, “Where is your compost bin?”

A nod toward the wastebasket or the kitchen sink waste disposer is no longer an acceptable response. 

“What?  You don’t compost?” 

This question is asked in the same way that one asks, “Oh, so you never bathe?”

So my wife and I decided to find out what this whole composting business is all about.  Short answer:  It’s complicated and there are lots of options.

A worm farm was out of the question.  You basically feed your garbage to the worms.  Apparently the worms interact with (i.e., eat) the garbage and produce something called “casts” (i.e., worm shit).  The advertisements show people running their hands through this stuff like it’s black gold or something.  No comment.

Not only that, a long time ago I saw this movie in which lightning strikes a worm farm and turns the worms into ravening man eaters.  It’s just not worth it.

A reasonable option appeared to be something called the Bokashi system.  It sounded promising.  It was invented in Japan for people who live in apartments and don’t have big back yards where they can have worm farms.  And let’s face it, the Japanese would never invent anything that wasn’t neat and clean and efficient.  How bad could it be?

But I’d forgotten that the Japanese are also the people who invented Godzilla and reality television.

Here’s how it works.  You get two buckets that fit inside each other.  One has holes in the bottom and a sealable lid.  The idea is that you put your food scraps in the bucket and the seal keeps all the smell and nastiness in.  You can put in anything you want.  And no worms are involved.

But that proves to be a mixed blessing.  Each time you dump something into the bucket, you sprinkle something called “Bokashi Zing Powder” over the scraps.  They don’t tell you what Bokashi powder is made of, and it’s probably just as well.  The “secret” ingredient is something called EM, which stands for “effective microorganisms.” 

It gets better.  EM is also known as a microbial innoculant.

I used to think worms were bad.  Now I have the Andromeda Strain incubating in the garage.

The idea is that after you fill the bucket, you let the EM go to work and ‘cure’ your food scraps for a couple of weeks.  You then bury what is left in the garden and in six weeks it turns into wonderful soil.  And you don’t have to do anything else.  The instructions assure you that if it smells bad you are doing something wrong. 

That’s a brilliant marketing idea.  And like a lot of marketing ideas, reality falls somewhere short of the claim.  I will admit that if you do it right, the system is largely odourless and relatively easy. 

But there is one very large but.

Remember those holes in the top bucket?  As result of the interaction of the food scraps with the Bokashi powder, and other natural processes I don’t want to know about (microbial innoculation, I guess), liquid condenses out of the mass in the bucket and drips through the holes into the bottom bucket.  The brochures and web site call this product “Bokashi Juice.”  In concentrated form it is one of the most powerful herbicides known to man.  Diluted 1 to 1000 it makes for an excellent fertilizer.  I can attest to the veracity of both claims.

Make no mistake.  Bokashi Juice is pure evil.  It looks like vomit and smells infinitely worse.  I have poured it on weed patches in the yard on a breezy day, come back hours later and the stench was still as strong as when I first poured it out.  Even the flies avoid it and the thought of getting some on me is now my number one primal fear. 

The other downside, minor in comparison, is the ritual burial process.  The stuff you bury, regardless of its original components, is a yellowish orange mass in which can be discerned the odd teabag, orange peel or eggshell.  It’s not appetizing, but nothing like the juice it produced.  And digging the holes is good exercise.


We’ve been doing it for quite a while now and it’s done wonders for our garden.  It’s greatly reduced the amount of garbage we throw out and prevents looks of horror from guests. 

But I keep worrying that the cops are going to think I’m a serial killer with all the freshly dug holes in the back yard!

Let’s Stop Talking and Start Doing

This past weekend, I heard an interview with a lady named Cindy Gallop who has had a highly successful career in advertising. 

If you’ve read some of my older posts you know that I don’t have a very high opinion of marketing and advertising, so I settled back to listen.  I prepared myself for the onslaught of sound bites and neologisms and consume-at-all-cost philosophies that usually come from the marketing world.  And when I heard that Ms. Gallop had worked in a high power ad agency in London, New York and Singapore I figured we were in for the deluxe treatment.

Wrong again.

Ms. Gallop has left the world of marketing and is now focusing on the antithesis of the typical advertising mantra.

Most of us know that we should take most advertising with a grain of salt the size of Mt. Everest.  I agree with the person who said “advertising does not aim to reach our better selves, but our inner idiot.”

 It’s gotten so bad that companies gleefully lie to us.  And we know it. Airlines tell us that they are whacking our frequent flyer miles “in order to serve us better.”  And companies lay off double-digit percentages of their employees while proclaiming “people are our most important asset.”

We’ve also heard a lot about branding and how important it is for businesses. 

So I was pleasantly surprised when she introduced the concept of “action marketing” in which companies (and people) brand themselves through their actions rather than their words. 

Now there’s a novel idea.

In a surprising twist on what we are used to hearing from marketing people, she said that what is important is “doing, not saying.”

That by itself would have made for an interesting interview, but she really got my attention when she went on to say that it’s about time that we “strip out everything not having to do with action.”

As a naturally slow moving person, I needed some time to process that, but it makes a lot of sense.  How many times do you hear an interview where everything the person says starts with “I think . . .” or “I want . . .” or “I suspect.” 

Not many people say “I will . . .” or even better, “I have done . . .”

And that’s where Ms. Gallop’s real contribution comes in.  She said that too many people, by spending time on things like Facebook and Twitter, end up “doing nothing in the virtual world,” and consequently doing nothing in the real world.

With that in mind, she has started a “crowdsourcing” project called “If We Ran the World.”  Her idea is that everyone has good intentions about how to make the world a better place, but few of them are ever acted on. 

For example, maybe you go to McDonalds and become shocked at the amount of packaging waste they produce.  You say to yourself “the world would be a better place if there was less packaging littering the landscape and ending up in landfills.” 

But you don’t do anything about it. 

For one thing, you rationally say to yourself that there is no way that little old you can go up against McDonalds and get them to change their evil ways.  For another, the minute you get back into your car and into your “real” life, every day activities will dissipate your passion about packaging.

Ms. Gallop’s view is that we are what we do, not what we say. is a place where you can register your good intentions and act on them. 

You can say “If I Ran the World . . . there would be no litter from McDonald’s packaging.”  If you are serious and join up, you are encouraged to break your intention down into “micro actions” which are things you can reasonably accomplish and you use the site to network with other people who have similar concerns and wishes.  That way you can share successes and build up momentum to achieve larger goals. The end result is that you are actually doing something constructive rather than just talking about it.

Who can say if this is just a feel good alternative to mindless social networking, but it certainly has more noble goals than meeting beautiful people. It will bring together people who are bonded by action, rather than a mouse click to be “friends.”  And it may bring about positive changes in our world through one micro action at a time.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go start ruling the world.

And you better watch out!

What Were They Thinking?

I guess at some level everyone who commits a crime thinks they are going to get away with it.  But what I don’t know is whether they think of the rationalizations before, during or after the deed.

The question is pertinent because of recent news from Tokyo.

As you know, Japan has a large number of centenarians.  Not only that, they still respect their elders over there and have something called “Respect for the Elderly Day.”

Ironically, that was the undoing of the plot in question.

The local authorities realized that, according to their records, a certain Sogen Kato was 111 years old, making him the oldest man in the prefecture.  They decided to go visit him, but on arriving, were told by his family that he wasn’t receiving visitors. 

The reason?  Apparently 30 years ago, (he would have been about 80 then) Kato-san announced to his family that he had decided to become a Living Buddha.  Accordingly, he was, effective immediately, giving up food, drink and contact with humanity.  With that, he went to his room and demanded to never be disturbed.

The family, showing due respect for the wishes of the elderly, complied and left him alone.  His wife also shrugged her shoulders and acceded to his demands.

She passed away six years ago, aged 101.

Everything was going along nicely until the authorities became more strident in their demands to see Mr. Kato.  The family insisted that as a monk, his wishes for solitude must be respected.  Ultimately, the local authorities called the cops who broke into the inner sanctum.  There they found Kato-san in “underwear and pyjamas”  and in a “mummified condition,” apparently dead for, coincidentally, 30 years.

So as the old ethics question goes, has something wrong been done or has something been done wrong?


 The Look They Were Going For?

If you follow the money, you learn that as “surviving” spouse, Mr. Kato had been collecting his wife’s pension checks since she died six years ago.  And as a pensioner, he’s been receiving payments, even though he was technically employed as a Living Buddha.  And technically dead.

Over the years, the family collected about NZ$150,000 in payments, which is about $5,000 per year.  I don’t know about you, but that seems like chump change to me, considering that this is Tokyo we’re talking about, and especially when you have to put up with a decomposing corpse in the bedroom.

The whole family is in on it.  One of the grandchildren is quoted as saying “Grandpa was a very scary man.  So we couldn’t open the door.  He shut himself in the room without food or water.”

My first mental picture was a little Japanese kid in a sailor suit gazing in fear at the closed door.  But then I realized that the grandchild of an 111 year old guy is probably old enough to ask some follow up questions.

Which brings us back to the initial question of excuses.  I have a hard time thinking that the family hatched this plot 30 years ago.  But then that requires us to believe that they really thought that Kato-san was really meditating on a low cal diet for all these years. 

The more I think of it, this is probably the best excuse they could have come up with under the circumstances.  As shaky as this one is, it’s a lot better than “We forgot you’re supposed to bury dead people.”  Or, “We thought that incense he was burning was pretty strong but didn’t want to disturb him.”  Or, “he was pretty quiet after the first year or so, but he told us to never bother him.”

Like a lot of these stories, this one will probably drop out of the news and we’ll never know what really happened.  But I’m looking forward to hearing more excuses. 

Which one is your favorite?