Monday, February 26, 2007

Get on the Bus...

...or Get Left at the Station.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Busy Busy Busy

In case you've missed reading new stuff, please understand that I'm heading in to my busy season. Job has lots of deadlines, I have a one hour online class that requires a lot more than one hour, my second job-advocating for teacher rights- has entered the meeting season, my basketball team is playing great ball lately, and it's tax season and I'm a procrastinator.

Add that incredibly annoying run-on sentence up and you get a neglected blog.

One day soon I need to tell you about the most ethical businessman I've ever met, Richard Barnes-owner of A-1 Carpet Cleaning.

VT destroyed Boston College on Wednesday night. I went to the game with my son who was on a weeknight pass from his corps. Tech plays Miami at home Saturday and then UVA next Wednesday. You may have seen the amazing Deron Washington dunk.

What you may not have seen unless you were at the game was an amazing play that happened right after another amazing play by Zabian Dowdell. Zabian had driven in to the lane as he often does. This time, however, he was caught in the air with no shot, so he tried to dump the ball low to Coleman Collins. Unfortunately, Coleman was covered and the ball was swatted away and onto a BC player. Zabian landed, dove for the ball, grabbed if from the BC player before falling to the ground dribbling the ball in Globetrotter fashion as he stepped through the BC player who had fallen to the floor(another amazing run-on sentence!). The referee, thinking the BC player had been hurt, stepped in and blew his whistle to protect the player.

That's the play the home viewers saw on TV. What you didn't see is what came next. While ESPN was replaying the hustle play by Dowdell, Zabian was busy readying himself for the inbounds play under his own basket. If you were to scout VT in such situations, you'd know that they like to run some interior screens and free up a player under the basket for an easy score. But BC obviously knew that tendency so they were guarding against that play. Realizing that they were not paying attention to him, Zabian fired the ball inbounds right in to the back of the BC defendser standing a few feet in front of him. The ball bounced off him and Zabian stepped in bounds, grabbed the ball, and laid it in. The TV announcers were busy yakking about the previous play and watching the replay, and they missed the whole play. In fact they never even knew what happened.

Oh well, I've already written more than I intended. Have a marvelous weekend.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Collected History

Collected History

Some, including my wife, claim I hoard things. I prefer to think of it as collecting history. I’ll admit that I have a collection of various odd things, but I don’t really hoard things...well, other than school stuff. When I retired from the classroom two years ago, I was faced with a very real problem. Where to store all of the junk I had collected over the years. My wife and I had a similar problem when we moved to Roanoke about ten years ago. We had rented the largest U-Haul for our entire home and school stuff. As it turned out, the entire home took half the truck and the other half was filled with school stuff. Since then, my wife has whittled down her collection of school stuff to one or two boxes, but I could never bring myself to do that. So my collection grew. It was loaded with lots of discarded library books and class rolls from my twenty plus years in the elementary classroom. When I left the classroom, that stuff had to go somewhere, and that somewhere ended up being one quarter of our basement. I think I’m almost ready to deal with all of it now. Perhaps this summer.

I really have some cool collections. In the school category, I have all kinds of old school equipment that various schools were getting rid of. The prizes of my collection are an old deluxe Cram globe from 1932 and a set of poster maps for the classroom from 1939. Perhaps the coolest contraption is a model of the Sun, Earth, and Moon.

The contraption operates with a complex system, of gears that allow you to crank the Earth around the sun while the Earth also rotates. The sun has a light inside that brightens a room. Apparently, it brightened a bit too much as it semi-melted the plastic sun once. My absolute favorite collectibles from school came from an ignored drawer in the Nathanael Greene Elementary Library about 15 years ago. The librarian was tossing out her whole collection of filmstrips since no one checked them out anymore, so I grabbed them along with an ancient, solid filmstrip projector. Most of the filmstrips were from the 1950’s and were stored in yellow painted steel cases. My favorite is one entitled “Space Travel A.D. 2000” which documents how men will travel from planet to planet in fancy fission spacecraft by the year 2000.

School libraries are also a great place to find old books. Every year, my school will discard a certain number of old, lonely books. So I play “Johnny on the spo" and scarf up as many as I can. I’m always looking for quirky titles and real steals. My all time favorites: Dust, Our Friend the Atom, and Horny (a book about a frog). Over the course of the years, I’ve found some excellent books like a collection of miniature Beatrix Potter Peter Rabbit books. I also came in to possession of a very old atlas from 1902 with excellent illustrated maps. I've got my eye on several soon to be discarded storytelling books from the 30's.

About twenty years ago, one of my wife’s family friends gifted us many of her old books from her private library. She gave us an old set of Compton’s Encyclopedias from 1921, a travelogue set from about the same time, and several really old books. The oldest is a first or second edition of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre which was published in 1847.

I collect many other things. In my basement are buckets filled with thousands of golf balls. Over the years, I’ve traipsed around many golf courses looking for lost balls. Once I find them, I toss them in buckets in the basement or give them away to family. I’ve separated out the balls that have business logos painted on them. The coolest ball I own is a plain white golf ball with a caricature of Spiro T. Agnew on it. I have a small collection of coins. My favorite is a VF set of 1943 Steel Pennies. They aren’t worth much, but they are quite a conversation piece. Over the years, I’ve managed to hold on to my collection of Boy Scout patches and mugs. The most valuable patch is a Powhatan Flap patch (456). These were extremely rare and became very collectible when the 456 order merged with the 161 order to create Tutelo Lodge. I’ve seen the patch on eBay going for well over $200.

Some of my other collections include Happy Meal toys. My favorite is a set of clapping hands. You can grip the pistol-styled handle and squeeze the trigger to make two plastic hands clap together. I've managed to collect several of these most wonderful toys. Cassette tapes, records, and CD’s are quite popular with me. I just finished entering all of them in a database and found that I have about 1000 unique titles. Two odd collections right now are empty Clementine boxes and empty tissue boxes. I use the wooden Clementine boxes to store other little stuff I collect, and I plan to use the tissue boxes to as boxes to ship my baby tomato plants to customers this Spring.

I learned about twenty years ago to never get rid of a collection. When I was growing up, My brothers, sister, and I collected all kinds of baseball cards. Together, we had amassed quite a collection of cards from players from the 60’s and 70’s. The prizes in the collection were the1963 Pete Rose Rookie Cards. One of them, a picture of Pete’s head and four other guys’ heads is selling on eBay for between $1000 and $15,000. The other card was from that year was a traditional card pose with Pete.

As all of my brothers and sisters grew up and moved out, they left behind all of the baseball cards, so I gathered them all in a shoebox and took care of them. When I moved away from home and moved in to my first apartment working my first job as a teacher, I took the cards with me. Every day after teaching school, I’d go outside my apartment and play basketball with the neighborhood teenagers. One kid, Keith Collins, and I played a lot of basketball. One day, Keith was showing off his card collection to me. I was impressed so I went to get the family collection to show him. He just went nuts over the old cards. Seeing his excitement and not really having a terribly strong attachment to the cards, I simply gave them all to Keith right there, right then. He was overjoyed and thanked me profusely. I felt great! Many years later, my brothers were asking about the cards, and I confessed that I had given them away. They were shocked and very disappointed. What was I thinking giving away that collection with those valuable Pete Rose Rookie cards? That’s one collection that I’d love to have back.

Collections for me are a way to mark my life. Instead of marking my life by ticking off calendar pages (although I do like to collect them, too), I choose to mark life by gathering evidence of everything I’ve experienced. Some might think that’s hoarding, but I think of it as the uncontrollable act of collecting history. It's as the character Jane describes in my edition of Bronte's Jane Eyre concerning matters of the subconscious, "It seemed as if my tongue pronounced words without my will consenting to their utterance: something spoke out of me over which I had no control."

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Listening to the Master

Deron Washington blocks UNC's last gasp shot to beat VT. Notice the photo-shopped scream face in the background.

Last night, Virginia Tech's men's basketball team defeated the highly ranked UNC Tarheels for the second time this season, 81-80 in overtime at the UNC home court in Chapel Hill, NC. As a result, I've had a hard time getting basketball off my mind today.

Listening to the Master

As I listened to the game last night both times, I was initially upset that Billy Packer, legendary basketball analyst, seemed to be writing off and missing out on an amazing Virginia Tech effort until it was almost too late. He was guilty of charging VT with various phantom infractions from illegal screens to flagrant fouls. I was most incensed by his assertion that Coleman Collins was shoving off inside to get free when it seemed obvious that he had staked out superior inside post position.

After the game though, I realized something that struck me in a very personal and profound way.

I'm about 47 years old and basketball has been a large part of my life since I was five years old. When I was 10 and until I was about 12, I played recreation ball in the Roanoke Catholic Saturday League (RCSL). I remember those days playing on my father's team and other teams as being so exciting. The level of competition was intense and the instruction was topnotch. My father is probably the greatest basketball teacher I've ever met. He came by his skill through years of playing and coaching experience. He starred for his high school basketball team back in the 30's and averaged about 6 points a game. He possessed sound ball fundamentals and a deadly two-hand set shot. Later, he coached many Roanoke area recreation teams (Northwest Rec and RCSL). When I played for his teams I learned all about defense and ball handling. Besides my father, I had other excellent coaches; Bob Canfield, Jack McKenna, and Charlie Moir-who would stop by once or twice a year for clinics.

A couple of my teams were dominant. One year I was the (non-shooting) shooting guard on a team with Herbert Jones, a local Roanoke Catholic High School star who went on to play football at UNC. At the time, Herbert was 5’8” tall playing as a giant against kids who hadn’t even thought of breaking 5’0”. My job was to play defense and feed Herbert with a steady diet of low post passes, although I did manage to score one point on a steal in the last seconds of my last game on that team. I was hacked on my way in for the left-handed lay-up and made one of two from the line. I think the only reasons I started all year was because I could do a left-handed lay-up in practice, I could feed Herbert, and I was an annoying defender. I was the kind of player that would always seem to be right in your face. I took pride in how I was able to take away an opposing team’s scorer. That’s probably why I like Jamon Gordon so much to this day. When opposing players come up against him, their whole game changes as he takes them away from their comfort zones.

About that time in my life, I fell in love with ACC basketball. Pilot Insurance began covering ACC basketball back in 1957, but it only captured me around 1970. Several times throughout the broadcast, I’d be treated to the Pilot Life Insurance commercial with seasoned, salty voices singing “Sail with the Pilot, all the way, And get on board the Pilot Ship, today!” ACC basketball for me came to be represented by that jingle and those stormy waves breaking over the bow of a clipper ship with the brave pilot standing strong at the helm.

As Jim Thacker with Billy Packer and Bones McKinney camped at the microphone, I listened to every scene during the Saturday afternoon games. Bones and Billy knew so much about the game. They really were teachers of the finer points and grand cheerleaders for the outstanding play. By 1972, UVA became my team. Since my sister went there, it was natural for me to root for those teams with Parkhill, Hobgood, Drummond, B. Stokes, Walker, and later Lamp, Raker, and Ralph.

Through it all, Billy Packer gifted me a very thorough knowledge of strategy and through repetition I had ingrained a complete set of rules along with a situational decision-making model. Packer was the best. He explained everything with a certain decisive passion that was unmatchable. He could give a listener a very clear and understandable reason why certain things happened or why certain things should happen. He was a Yoda of the Hardwood.

When my older brothers decided to go to Virginia Tech, I began to begin to pay attention to their basketball and over the course 1970’s my allegiance began to switch over. Players like Price, Bell, Robinson, and Ashford replaced all others. During that stretch, I first learned the magic of Cassell and what basketball passion sounds like.

So last night, as I was listening to an older Billy Packer chastise VT players for this play or that, I found myself having a conversation with my master. Quietly at first, then with strong voice out loud, I dared contradict him in the silence of my basement family room.

“No Billy, it wasn’t an illegal screen on VT; the UNC guard had impeded Zabian Dowdell’s progress through the lane by clutching onto him.”

“No Billy, it was not a flagrant foul on Jamon Gordon; it probably should have been called an intentional foul, but not a flagrant foul as you suggest.”

“No Billy, it wasn’t a push by Coleman. He simply established superior inside post position on Hansbrough.”

Master Billy may know that his time has passed. Yet despite that, he continues to sail with the Pilot through the storm.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Ice, Cold, and Steel

Ice, Cold, and Steel

In Virginia, the grim grey of winter can make for a dreary time, but in its icy cold can be found a certain beauty. Perched above the Roanoke Valley atop Mt. Chestnut Road at the entrance to Valhalla Vineyards is a small turnout on a steep, narrow mountainside road. With careful parking a person can stop there with the car groaning toward the bottom of the distant valley far below, held back only by well-maintained brakes. Spread before you is a magnificent vista where on a clear day you can easily see across Southwest Virginia’s commerce center and off about fifty miles beyond the Peaks of Otter, blue mountain ridge after ridge.

Today was such a beautiful day. When I awoke this morning, I was surprised by Venus hanging like a searchlight in the western predawn sky. I can’t recall her being so vibrant in the morning sky ever before. She was like a miniature full moon or a lantern hanging in the sky, and for a moment I thought I might have awakened on some alien planet. As I drove in to work, the sun threatened to peak over the eastern mountains casting a purple and red warning message on the high, ribbed clouds that were motionlessly floating by. The air was somehow more crisp and clean than usual. Every breath I took seemed to fill me with a certain intelligent burst of energy, a creative power.

Work held me hostage inside through the course of the day; I was anxious to venture out again, but chained to my desk. I bided my time until I could loose my bindings and finally break out. As is my custom every Monday, I found myself perched on the side of Mount Chestnut road on top of the world while my daughter spent her weekly time with her piano teacher.

Looking down on the valley below late in the day, I watched as the clouds lowered in anticipation of an ice storm to soon come. Gradually, the sky turned from a high, innocent grey to enveloping, suffocating dark steel. Lights winked on as the grey mask covered the remains of the day. Distant neon and fluorescent beckoned Venus to return. But Venus wouldn’t come back this night. The ice queen would keep her at bay. Pellets of sleet fell without effect on my car windshield. No doubt though, despite repelling the first wave attack, the land would lose the battle with the ice queen, and she would eventually win the night. Even the light of Venus could not rescue the land. Tomorrow will no doubt bring an inviting and deceptive gloss to everything along with new adventures. Tomorrow will be ruled by the queen of ice, cold, and steel.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

A Grave Matter

A Grave Matter

Gravity is working against me
And gravity wants to bring me down

John Mayer, Grammy nominated singer and songwriter, nails my sentiments these days. Indeed, Gravity is bringing my body down both physically and mentally. It’s gravity that causes my knee joints to ache, my shoulder to twinge every time I throw a ball, my stomach to give up and hang lifelessly over my belt, and my pectoral muscles to turn in to faux breasts.

Gravity gets me in my head, too. As I’ve grown older, serious issues gravitate to my mind and coalesce there. Seemingly comfortable with their warm, synoptic surroundings, these unwanted, disruptive neighbors do their best to ruin my thoughts and my life. Through the course of my life, I’ve invested in all manner of schemes and devices to move these grave neighbors from my mind, but they remain firmly rooted and tragically happy.

Combating gravity can be a full time job. Of late, I’ve attacked gravity physically by standing up to it, face to face; pushing through the physical pains. The gravity that attacks the mind is much harder to address though. I have tried to both reduce my stress levels by blowing off certain onerous tasks, staying busy with different challenging activities, writing almost every day, and tapping in to youth. It’s all a grand life experiment. That’s one reason why I wanted to go see John Mayer last night at the Roanoke Civic Center.

Two weeks ago, I had accompanied my daughter, her two friends, and my wife to Charlottesville to see Red Hot Chili Peppers. Late last year, I realized a dream in getting to see songwriting legend, Richard Thompson. Last summer, I managed tickets to Floyd Fest where I got to see my great big idol, David Bromberg. My opportunity to see John Mayer last night was not something I wanted to turn down.

My wife has been a John Mayer fan for some time now, and I really haven’t paid much attention to his career. He sort of existed in the periphery of my grave thoughts. When I found out that he was bringing his show to Roanoke, I snatched up tickets. I figured that even if I weren’t his greatest fan, my wife would certainly love the show. Yet over the past few months since I bought the tickets, I’ve studied his music and found that I very much appreciate and enjoy his work.

Mayer, first and foremost, is a gifted rock guitarist. He stylishly slides around the frets with the kind of ease that only masters exude. He reminds me of a combination of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Dave Matthews. Mayer has a unique, raspy voice somewhat in the Rod Stewart vein but much more melodic and soft. His compositions are well conceived, original, and personal. Seemingly, most important to the largely teenaged female crowd was the 29 year-old man, himself. Mayer is about six feet tall, rock star trim and toned with curly brown locks and a happy smile. The girls all scream in response to his every comment and move.

Mayer wowed the strong crowd last night with every move he made and word he uttered. His band was focused and tight. He seemed to play about every song his dedicated fans expected from him. Unlike the cold Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mayer stopped between songs and spoke with the crowd. His way was easy and unforced. I would say that everyone there last night felt that seeing John Mayer in Roanoke was a special event because John Mayer made us all feel that he was pleased to be there and that he was eager to perform for us. The Chili Peppers never spoke to the crowd at all; we seemed to be observers who were allowed the privilege of watching them play.

Unfortunately, I’ve never been one to remember names of songs, but I have the knack for understanding compositions at some different level. Mayer played for about 90 minutes. My main gripe about his playing was that he didn’t explore the compositions as much as he could have. Instead, he stuck closely to the popular recorded versions. I wish he would have ripped off on guitar explorations more frequently.

The one song that surpassed all others in my opinion was “Gravity.”


By John Mayer

Gravity is working against me
And gravity wants to bring me down

Oh I'll never know what makes this man
With all the love that his heart can stand
Dream of ways to throw it all away

Oh Gravity is working against me
And gravity wants to bring me down

Oh twice as much ain’t twice as good
And can't sustain like a one half could
It's wanting more
That's gonna send me to my knees

Oh gravity, stay the hell away from me
And gravity has taken better men than me (Now how can that be?)

Just keep me where the light is
Just keep me where the light is
Keep you all where the light is
Just keep us where the light is
Ohh.. where the light is! [repeat]

Mayer decided to end his pre-encore set with this song. He performed it with an intense passion and inspiring guitar breaks. When he finished it, I exhaled, so caught up was I in the power and emotion he transmitted through his voice and guitar.

Recent entertainment gossip news has John Mayer linked with America’s Idol, Jessica Simpson. After watching Mayer up close, my first impression of him suggests that he won’t be linked with her for very long. He has much too much going on upstairs, and I suspect he will soon tire of Jessica’s [rumor has it] enhanced breasts. It’s like he said at the concert when referring to the show American Idol, “I don’t need to watch that stuff, because I already got what they want.” (Yes, John was admittedly being arrogant last night).

John Mayer and his talented band gave concertgoers in Roanoke an excellent show last night. This Dave Matthews of his generation will no doubt continue to have a most successful career. For me, the question I grapple with every day is when will gravity finally bring me down?

“We can lick gravity, but sometimes the paperwork is overwhelming.”

~Wernher Von Braun

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


Back in the old days, I used to steal in to the penny arcade at Lakeside Amusement Park and use my "magic quarter" to play game after game of Asteroids. Atari created the game Asteroids shortly after it introduced Space Invaders and Pac-Man. I believe the unveiling year was 1978 or 1979. The object of the game was to fly a stark looking triangle (aka spaceship) around a thick black monitor screen and dodge irregular polygons (aka asteroids). By aiming and pushing a button repeatedly, you could break the large irregular polygons into small irregular polygons. Eventually, continuous repetition would cause the irregular polygons to disappear. To make things a bit more interesting, every now and then an annoying little circle (aka flying saucer) would march across the screen with its goal being your ship's destruction. I loved Asteroids, and while I no longer have Lakeside or a magic quarter, I still play that game on my home computer to this day.

Asteroids is not the best game ever in my opinion. That honor belongs to a rather simple, mindless game called, SNOOD! SNOOD is a shareware game. That means you can download it from the internet and play it for free as a demo (demonstration version), but for a small fee ($15) you can play an expanded, complete version forever.

I began playing SNOOD about seven years ago during down time at school. My two teaching friends, Andy and Tim, used to teach fifth grade at my school, and sometimes when I'd walk past their rooms, they'd be in there playing SNOOD. At first I was curious and just watched them play...then I gradually became immersed in the game myself and found it delightfully addicting.

These days, I don't play SNOOD at school anymore. It can wreck an otherwise fine career, but I do play it from time to time at home. Playing SNOOD is a rich experience.

The opening screen shows you the high scores in the difficulty level in which you will be participating. In the game I captured here, I was chasing a high score of 19,778.

At start up, you are given a set of Snoods to destroy with your cannon. In order to destroy a Snood, you must have at least three like Snoods clumped together. As the game progresses, Snoods advance down the screen and if they make it past your cannon, you lose the game.

Here's an example of me losing a game. I don't lose very often, and I only lost here for demonstration purposes.
Here's an example of me on a roll. I have already eliminated most of the Snoods on one side. I simply needed to mine a few more Snoods from the right side, and I would be home free with a big score.

It turns out that after I got rid of the last Snood and won the game, my score registered in the top ten.

In this final shot, you'll notice that I nabbed the second highest score at this difficulty level. That's a pretty good game.

While SNOOD owns my heart, I also have a stable of other interactive internet games that I like to try from time to time. Here's a list for you with a brief review of each one.

Fly the Helicopter

This is a classicly styled game. You use your left click mouse button to keep your helicopter from crashing in flames. The annoying sound will eventually grate on your last nerve, but you won't be able to stop playing.

Spaced Penguin

This is my absolute favorite game of all time other than SNOOD and Asteroids. Spaced Penguin is a challenging game where you try to send this poor penguin named Kevin through space and back into his spaceship. Unfortunately for him, you earn more points by making his trip back take a very long time. Kevin is launched through space by your special slingshot and celestial bodies interact with his progress to his ship. Master the gravitational effects of the heavenly bodies will boost your score. Interestingly, this game was created by the good people at the animated kids' show, Veggie Tales.


Pure addiction. Zap clusters of like colored marbles for big points. There is no glitz, no flash, and no sound...just beautifully colored marbles.

Penguin Baseball

Politically incorrect game where happy penguins are batted like baseballs across the snow by a yeti.

Penguin Toss

In this game the happy penguins are tossed high into the air by a yeti.

Spear Toss
An islander throws a spear over and over again. The music in the background drones on and on. After an hour or so, you will be left in a catatonic state.

Drunk Walk

Really politically incorrect...but very challenging. You must use your mouse to keep a drunk guy standing up as he staggers down an alley in Germany. Of course, all he wants to do is flop over. I do not advise mining the site further to play the "Hangover"'s rather gross.

Monkey Kick-off
This game is pretty fun. You get to have your monkey kick a ball and see how far it goes.

Trebuchet Challenge
You actually get to build a trebuchet and then test it. Fascinating and educational. Brought to you by engineers.

Hell of Sand Falling

Sometimes it’s just fun to watch colorful sand fall. You can divert its path creating beautiful sand streams.

Jui Chiant

Some crazy people have created a deceptively hard game. The object is to keep both balls on the board. It’s not quite as easy as it looks.

Magnetic Letters

Order out of Chaos. This interactive magnetic letter board invites users to move a screen of letters around. Since the number of letters is finite and the number of participants are variable, you may end up fighting someone else for letters you want to spell words you want to spell. Sometimes people spell bad words, so beware.

The Negotiation

On February 6, 2007-Ronald Reagan’s birthday- a surprise four-inch clipper snowstorm attacked my hometown of Roanoke, Virginia.

The Negotiation

First snow. I was returning home from a school board meeting at William Byrd High School last night at the height of the blizzard in Roanoke and managed to crawl down I-581 all the way to my Peter's Creek Road exit. Then I traversed the white, short stretch alone until I turned off onto North Lake Drive.

Looking ahead, I saw two cars struggling on the first and main hill into the subdivision. So I bided my time and waited at the bottom patiently. No one was behind me, so I just chilled. The car in front managed to back down enough to make it to a cross over and turned to head back down the hill. The van that was stuck mid-hill backed down and gave it another run.

What makes the hill especially difficult in snow is that it immediately starts steeply up and then about halfway up, the road bends sharply to the right and then goes up even steeper. At that point where the road bends, there is that cross-over where the other car had turned around. At that cross over, there is another less steep road that intersects the main drag and snakes around the side of the hill. In snow, most experienced residents know that it's smart to use this side road to skirt around the steepest parts of the hill.

So the van began its run up the hill and looked like it had the task firmly in hand, so foolishly I began my trek up in my 94 Honda Accord (good tires!). We were sailing up well. The van was cruising and at a very safe distance well in front of me when the driver of the van got to the bend. Smartly, the driver decided to take the side road. However, foolishly, the driver decided to stop on the hill before making the turn. So with me committed to the hill and following behind...I had to stop, too...on a steep grade. So the van spun a few tires after checking for oncoming traffic then spun his way across the median and onto the side road successfully. I, meanwhile, was stopped cold on the side of the hill and unable to regain traction. So I figured that I would just roll back down the hill. Unfortunately, I found that I now had a car a couple of lengths back right on my rear bumper. So I kept popping my car into reverse so the driver would get the idea that we both needed to roll back to the bottom of the hill, but he didn't seem to understand my signal language. So, growing a bit frustrated with people in general, I popped out of the car, walked back to the guy behind me, and said, "Hey, I think we'd be in better shape if we both rolled back down the hill." He replied, "Oh yeah... okay." So he rolled back then I rolled back and crossed over at a median cross over at the bottom of the hill. Then I looped back around behind the guy who was behind me and waited until he had successfully made it past the curve on the hill ahead. Then I got my run going and made it to the curve cross over, made my turn onto the side street and snaked around to my house a few blocks away with no further problems.

Monday, February 05, 2007



10 for x=1 to 10
20 print x
30 next x

It’s a rather simple program, really. Written in an archaic computer programming language known as BASIC (Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code), this most simple program’s only task is to tick off the numbers from one to ten in rapid succession across the computer screen. Back in my days as a classroom instructor, I’d use the program to demonstrate just exactly how big numbers can be. I’d rev up my trusty old Apple II GS and then have the kids try to race the computer in counting to ten. Invariably, the kids would loose to the super fast computer. It would take the computer less than a snap of the fingers to get to ten while the kids would come in at about two seconds. After that, I’d alter the game a bit and rewrite line 10 of the program to read “10 for x=1 to 100” . Then we’d play the game again. This time the computer would take about a second to get to a hundred while the fastest kids might come in at about 30 seconds.

With the kids amazed by the sheer speed of the computer, I’d alter the game once again and have the kids try to predict how long it would take for the computer to count to a thousand (about 18 seconds) then a million ( about two and a half hours). Every time I played this game with the kids, they would always guess that it would take the computer about 40 seconds to a minute to get to a million. Fourth graders really don’t have a fully developed concept of numerical value. For that matter, neither do adults.

For a final stunt, I would reprogram line ten to read “10 for x = 1 to 1000000000” (one billion). Predictions would be made. Of course, the kids all guessed about four hours or so, and then I’d start the computer on its way to that amazing sum. Fours hours would come and go but the computer wouldn’t even be close to the prize. I’d then use that opportunity to compare the number (2,000,000) with 1,000,000,000. I’d lead the kids to understand that a billion is really a thousand millions. Then day after day, we’d check in on the computer as it raced on toward a billion. In the end, it would usually take just over four months to attain that huge number. That’s right, four months of counting night and day at the super fast computing speed of an Apple II GS would be how long it would take to get to one billion.

The final lesson and mind stretching activity would come by comparing one billion to one trillion. A trillion is made of a thousand billions. Thus, if it took the computer four months to count to a billion, then it would take ________ to get to a trillion. Solution: Since twelve months brings you to 3 billion, take 1,000,000,000,000 and divide by 3,000,000,000 to get 333 years.

Whenever I go through these exercises with kids, I also supplement the discussion with a really cool website called Mega Penny. At this site, Alan Taylor, the site creator, has developed a really fascinating group of penny comparisons to large numbers. Taylor’s image generations show what it would look like if you stacked various numbers of pennies. For example, he shows what a million would look like.

Then he goes on to show what a trillion pennies might look like.

My favorite is the picture of 2,600,000,000,000 (2.6 trillion).

Of course, that's the Sear's Tower in Chicago.

As I contemplate such large numbers, it rarely escapes me of how callously and nonchalantly we toss around our trillion dollar budgets and trillions of dollars in national debt. Across the internet you can find several National Debt Clocks that tryvaliently to catch anyone's attention. The most recent calculations, based on the government's own forecasts, have our country being in debt to the tune of about 8.67 trillion dollars. If my Apple II GS computer were to try to count that high, it would take the computer about 2940.4 years. That’s right, 2,940.4 years and 867 trillion pennies.

It’s all rather BASIC, really.

Thursday, February 01, 2007



The email subject from my friend, Brent, was stark and dangerous looking, “Cosmo.” Wasting no time, I opened the message, allowing myself no time to ponder the possible reasons why Brent would be addressing such an email in that manner. I suppose I already knew what it would say. I almost remember the exact words after reading it just one time,

“This is very sad - Cosmo passed away at 7:30 am from a heart attack. He was coming back from a workout and was driving near his home when it happened. Arrangements are being made in Charlottesville later in the week. E-mail me later and I'll know more about the arrangements.”

I can only imagine what pain Brent was experiencing as he wrote those words. Cosmo Mirra, was Brent’s best friend. They had been through so much together from their younger days in Charlottesville. By chance, Jackie and I moved in to a house that Debbie, Brent’s wife, lived in. Her father had built it. Within a couple of years, Debbie’s father built a house for Debbie and Brent right next door to us. With them living beside us, a friendship developed. We gradually had more and more contact with Cosmo and his wife, Jan. It turned out that Cosmo and Jan, Brent and Debbie, as well as Jackie and I all ended up having children at about the same time. Together with their other friends, especially Bill and Patty, we shared many great times. As our children grew up, we’d spend hours together. Cosmo became a great friend; someone we always looked forward to seeing.

Years ago, Brent and I would get the urge for a RISK game, and we’d call Cosmo. He’d always come over. Together we’d spend hours playing into the quiet hours of the night, laughing and watching basketball with a Heineken or two as we conquered the world. Cosmo always had something pointed and funny to say, always delivered with a twinkle in his eye. Those were such innocent times.

I never knew exactly what Cosmo did for a living. I knew that he worked for years with General Electric in Charlottesville and spend a great deal of time jetting from one city or country to another. He would sometimes try to explain, but I could never quite grasp the complexity of it. That didn’t really matter to him; he enjoyed our friendship nonetheless. Later, GE treated him exactly how they treated my father. He was laid off and faced the prospect of finding a new job at the age of 50. Eventually, he found a great job in the New River Valley and moved to Blacksburg with his family.

Moving to Blacksburg must have been very hard on Cosmo. He was a dedicated UVA sports fan. I remember the pride he and his son, Lucian, took in being two of the 250 UVA fans to trek to Boise, Idaho for the Smurf Bowl one year in the recent past. He used to love to tease me about the latest Virginia Tech athletic program snafu, but in the end our team rivalry was friendly and good-spirited, at least it was on my end.

Over the last few years, Cosmo and I have remained friends. We’d sometimes trade emails and other times we’d meet up with Brent and Debbie for this occasion or that. When I last saw him this past summer as we helped Brent and Debbie move to a new place, we caught up on everything. He was so proud of his son who was attending Christopher Newport or is that Carson-Newman…He gave me a hard time for getting that mixed up. He was proud of his wife, Jan, for opening up an antique store. This was a huge undertaking for her and Cosmo supported her in that even though the work could be difficult.

What I loved most about Cosmo was that he could talk to you about anything. He was knowledgeable and if there was a subject that he didn’t know a whole lot about, he wanted to learn more. He was one of the best listeners I’ve ever met. If, in conversation, he asked a question, he darned well wanted to fully understand your answer in detail. As our friendship grew, it became obvious that Cosmo and I shared similar political beliefs. It was always a blast challenging Brent, whose politics veered in a different direction from ours.

Over the summer, Brent and Debbie decided to downsize their life and make a short move in to a condo in Albemarle County. Cosmo, Jackie and I drove up to assist them in the move. Our trip up gave us an opportunity to catch up on everything and we found that Cosmo was very much enjoying his life. Once we got all of the furniture loaded onto the truck,Brent and Cosmo took the U-Haul and I followed in the van while Debbie, Jackie, and Patty went on to the condo. Along the way, the U-Haul broke down alongside of busy Rt.250 bypass in Charlottesville. Although it was rather stressful waiting beside the road for a tow truck to come, I wouldn’t trade that time for anything. Later, after the tow truck operator dropped the truck’s drive shaft so he could tow it to the condo for us, we unloaded the furniture and then collapsed on the floor. I remember all of us just sitting down on the furniture less floor and leaning up against the wall. Cosmo was at such peace at that moment. He had a way of existing in that time and place that was somehow more content. Cosmo Mirra was a fine man, excellent father, and great friend. I am much richer from having known him.

Cosmo is gone now, and I miss him.

I wrote those words shortly after I heard of Cosmo’s passing as tears streamed down my face. Today, February 1, 2007, Cosmo was laid to rest. The service was simple, but moving. Thankfully the snow held off until after the service. The Reverend shared several verses from New Testament that I hadn’t considered lately, but that I think are quite appropriate for this situation. One such verse says this. “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will also bring with Him through Jesus those who have fallen asleep.” {1 Thessalonians 4:14 (Whole Chapter)} Cosmo fell asleep Monday, and while I miss him, I know that he is awake with the Lord.