Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas!

Muley by the Christmas tree, 1962. Those were the days of Tinkertoys and tricycles.

Merry Christmas to you and yours, and may you be close to family and friends.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Thingmaker: Make Toys or Grilled Cheese Sandwiches!

This is the third in a series of trips down memory lane featuring Muley's favorite childhood Christmas toys.

This toy was a big favorite with me and my brothers. The foundation of the toy was Thingmaker, basically a heated metal plate that would take metal molds filled with liquid plastic and cook the plastic until the resulting shapes became hard and rubbery. But the product is commonly referred to as "Creepy Crawlers," which was the name given to the products of one of the most popular series of themed molds you could buy to work with Thingmaker.

If you go into a toy store nowadays, I believe they sell something under the Creepy Crawlers name. The idea is the same, but from what I have seen it is a pale imitation of the original Thingmaker system. The new one looks like a modified Easy Bake oven, with plastic parts and using the equivalent of a light bulb to bake the plastic. The original Thingmaker, by contrast, was like a little metal foundry in your home. The molds were made of thick metal, and the Thingmaker was able to heat that metal up so hot that you would burn the dickens out of your tiny, tender hands if you didn't remove the molds just right.

I would guess that Creepy Crawlers were probably the most popular things you could make with Thingmaker, but as you can see from the clipped advertisement here, you could also make other stuff like scary makeup items. I also remember that at our house we had molds that allowed us to create toy soldiers. One mold would make the front part of the soldier's body, a second mold would make the back half, and I guess you were supposed to fit the two halves together while the thing was still warm and sticky so that they'd dry into one figure. A third mold let you make rifles and grenades and such. The idea was that you could eventually create enough of the little guys to form your own army. But, unlike G.I. Joes, Thingmaker soldiers were as rubbery as the fake snakes and vampire teeth it also cooked up. It's as though some alien from space swooped down and removed all of the bones from a U.S. Army battalion.

Besides providing me hours of enjoyment being my own Dr. Frankenstein, I loved the sheer utilitarianism of the names Mattel gave to this toy and its components. The thing you made stuff in was called...the thing maker. The liquid goop you poured into the molds was called...goop.

When it comes to summing up Thingmaker, I believe radarmagazine does it best: "Nothing says safety like an open hot plate. And nothing says fun like using that open hot plate to create molten, rubbery insects you can throw at your sister while narrowly avoiding setting the house ablaze."

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Major Matt Mason: Muy Molded Machismo!

In Part Two of what I guess is now a series of looks back at my favorite toys from childhood 1960s Christmases, I want to introduce you to Major Matt Mason (surprisingly, not a product of the 3M Corporation).

I think it was a bit unusual, even back in the groovy Sixties, to have television ad copy read in rhyme. I believe this poem, titled "The Misbegotten Moon of Major Matt Mason," was actually one of the lesser-known works of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Penn Warren, based on a short story by Chekhov.

My little brother and I spent many hours of pleasure taking Major Matt and Sergeant Storm (as an enlisted man, he didn't rate a first name) on adventures across the floor in our dad's study. We would have been green with envy, though, if we'd seen the swanky fantasy play area the boys in the TV commercial have their space station set up in. Not many parents would let their children bring in beach sand and move boulders into the living room, even if they did look like those cardboard imitation boulders used on the original Star Trek episodes.

I don't remember the Captain Laser character at all. Being a battery operated giant, he probably had a giant price tag, which might explain why my parents never saw fit to bring him home to join our crew. Besides, being raised on Mars and all, could you really trust him? Would Major Matt wake up one day in the space station to find one of his rubberized legs chewed off up to his hips, with Captain Laser just licking his lips, his red eyes pulsing rapidly?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

It Wasn't Called "Vrroom!" for Nothing

If you were a red-blooded American boy in the 1960s, not old enough to drive and forced to settle for riding a bicycle or tricycle, this was something you wanted from Santa. I finally got one as a Christmas gift, and I can still remember our neighborhood in the days following, with me and other boys riding their bikes down the street, sounding like an invading army of locusts ready for a motocross race.

You just knew this was the coolest because you had your own special key to start the engine. It weren't no toy, you understand.

I love the commercial! Am I wrong, or can no kid have that many huge freckles on his nose? Do you think they painted them on with some sort of dye? And why do all little boys in 1960s commercials look as though their fathers cut their hair with a pair of pruning shears while drunk? Probably because, in many cases, they did.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Smattering of Quotes

"The trouble with specialists is that they tend to think in grooves."

--Elaine Morgan


"In the first place we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the man's becoming in very fact an American, and nothing but an American...There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag, and this excludes the red flag, which symbolizes all wars against liberty and civilization, just as much as it excludes any foreign flag of a nation to which we are hostile...We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language...and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people."

--Theodore Roosevelt


"English was good enough for Jesus Christ and it's good enough for the children of Texas."

--Miriam "Ma" Ferguson, Texas governor 1925-1927


"In the final analysis, it's true that fame is unimportant. No matter how great a man is, the size of his funeral usually depends on the weather."

--Rosemary Clooney


"Haydn's sense of humor often came into play during his thirty-year tenure with Prince Esterhazy. The prince had become complacent when listening to Haydn's symphonies, even falling asleep at the performances. This was something that seared the feelings of the diligent composer, especially when the prince emitted a loud snore during a part of the symphony over which Haydn had especially labored. Haydn decided to create a new symphony for the prince, a symphony that he hoped would 'get Prince Esterhazy's attention.' This particular symphony was written with a long slow movement, designed to be so soothing that the prince would surely fall asleep. On the evening of the performance, the prince did indeed drift off. Then, suddenly, a loud chord shattered the serenity of the murmuring movement. The prince awoke with a start and almost fell off his chair! Haydn adeptly gave the piece the name 'Surprise Symphony.'"

--from the Haydn biography on essortment.com

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Friday, December 14, 2007

Random Observations and Trivial Events


Here's what kind of strange guy I am. Last night, walking the dogs in the neighborhood with my wife, we noticed a reindeer lawn ornament in someone's yard that had all of the lights in the reindeer's neck burned out. Seconds later, out of the blue, the following phrase was born in my brain:

"You can't wear a necklace if you're neck-less"


To continue the ever-increasing proofs of my weirdness, walking in the cold with my wife and the dogs last night I got to wondering about molecules. Heat is when molecules in the atmosphere move more quickly, cold is when molecules move more slowly, right? Theoretically then, would it be possible for it to get so incredibly cold that all of those molecules would slow to an atomic crawl and eventually stop moving altogether? At that point, would the Earth's atmosphere just fall down to the ground like a dead weight? And would my insurance cover this?


Do you ever really listen to the lyrics of the Christmas songs that play endlessly this time of year? If so, do some of the lyrics ever puzzle you? They do me. For example, in "Winter Wonderland," why do they sound so darn glad singing to announce that "Gone away is the bluebird/Here to stay is a new bird"? Why are people so tickled pink that the bluebird has hightailed it out of town? Aren't they the birds that are supposed to bring us happiness? It's not as if a grackle has left town -- now that I would gladly celebrate in song.

And what about that line in "Deck the Halls" where they say "Strike the harp and join the chorus"? What kind of choir is it that requires you to damage an expensive piece of musical equipment before joining? Not any that I'd want to be associated with.


I guess my mind's been in the toilet lately, seeing as how this is the second restroom-related posting in the past week. You know those new automatic flushing toilets and urinals? Why do they each have that little slowly blinking red light? When I see that red light silently turning on and off, it reminds me of HAL, the evil supercomputer in the movie "2001." I'm half expecting the urinal to start talking to me in a soothing but menacing voice: "Is that all, Muley? Are you suuure you don't have anything more? You don't want to be coming back here in a few minutes, do you? Did you aim well, Muley? If not, I am programmed to spray water on you when I flush..."

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Secret of "P"

Having not read this classic Raymond Chandler mystery, I am quite confused. Just why do you brand an otherwise attractive woman with the letter "P"? What descriptive personality or physical trait is it supposed to warn others away from? Preppiness? Persnicketyness? Phoniness? Pettiness? Permissiveness? Prissiness? Pit odor?

Or does it refer to some sort of unwanted or controversial medical condition? Psoriasis? Psychotic episodes? Periodontal disease? Plantar's warts? Pigeon toes? Perforated ear drums? Plastic surgery?

Could it refer to her somewhat unorthodox choice of career? Podiatrist? Pundit? Parking lot attendant? Pit boss? Pearl diver? Praline maker?

Just maybe, considering my discussion here, it identifies the wearer as one of the new century's most scorned home improvement show characters: popcorn ceiling owner!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Random Observations and Trivial Events


I passed by a display in my local grocery store the other day which I assume was meant to suggest possible Christmas gift ideas. On a table there were all sorts of objects that had been "personalized" with a photograph. A photo of an attractive woman was used in each example, her smiling face wrapped around coffee mugs and pencil holders and placed atop calendars and mouse pads. The idea, I guess, is that anyone can take a picture of a loved one and get that picture put on the object of their choice.

This is not anything new, of course, but I was a bit taken aback when I saw what one of the items available for personalization was. At first I thought it might be a super-sized mouse pad, but on closer inspection I discovered that the woman's face was now smiling from the surface of a cutting board. You know, like the ones you cut meat or chop carrots on.

I still have not been able to figure this one out. Why in the world would someone want to personalize a cutting board? And if they do, what kind of message is that sending? I love my kids and would never want to see them hurt, but if I send their grandmothers cutting boards with their cute little faces on them, am I not, in effect, asking them to stab and hack their darling little sweeties every time they chop celery for the soup? Could someone do this in good conscience?

And, if I send someone a cutting board with their own photo on it, am I not asking them to regularly simulate hari-kiri? Will they they get the idea that I want them to commit suicide?

I guess that if you had a bad breakup, you could order one of these adorned with the photo of your ex-spouse or ex-partner (chop, chop, HACK, HACK), but is there a huge market for that? Maybe so.


Content alert: the following paragraphs will be discussing toilets and their functions. You have been warned.

I have not done the scientific testing on this (and I never will), but I have come up with a theory involving toilets and their relative flushing power, based on elevation above sea level. This comes as a result of many years of personal experience in the field.

Can you relate to this? If I am in an office building of multiple stories, and if I go to a restroom on an upper floor and ask a toilet to do just what it is designed to do, more often than not, it fails. A toilet needs a certain, shall we say, hydraulic power to carry away what it is designed to carry away, but when I'm in a fifth floor restroom and flush a toilet, it disappoints. A toilet on a high floor seems to think it is a washing machine, content to just swirl water around the bowl a bit in an effort to clean its contents instead of carrying them far away.

By contrast, if I go down to the ground floor of that very same building and flush a toilet in a restroom there, I am met with a sound like that made by a 1962 model TWA jet. The toilet water will circle around and around with the ferocity of a whirlpool at the bottom of Niagra Falls, and if I make the mistake of covering every square inch of surface around the seat with my posterior, creating a seal of sorts, I will be in danger of getting sucked down into the churning bowl like a bird sucked into a jet engine. When the titanic suction ends, I will then be lodged somewhere down into the pipes until a janitor hears my frantic cries for help and rescues me.

Why does this happen? Can physics account for the difference? I will leave this for future scientific researchers to figure out.

Monday, December 10, 2007

What I Learned from HGTV

I have a confession to make, a confession that probably tells you more about my age and social status than I care to admit. I don't get the chance to watch much television these days, but when I do watch, there's a good chance that the show I'm watching is one of the many home improvement shows on HGTV or The Learning Channel.

I'm not sure why I end up watching so many of these shows. I tell myself, of course, that I am picking up ideas for future projects around my own house, but after years of passive viewing I have yet to transfer one project from the TV screen to the inside of my home. Maybe I watch because, as television shows go, the do-it-yourself programs on HGTV and TLC are relatively family friendly, and I can watch one with my daughters sitting nearby and not worry that the host will begin cursing or initiate a discussion of home design for deviant sexual practictioners featuring a lot of whips and torture equipment hanging from the walls.

Even though I don't seem to be practicing what they're preaching at me, my many hours of home improvement TV watching over the years has built up an impressive trove of remodeling wisdom in my brain. The tips and tactics given out by the hosts of these shows tend to revolve around the same dos and don'ts. As a public service for those of you who don't want to devote the same amount of time to watching home improvement shows as I have, I offer these lessons I have learned.


1. The most exciting and satisfying part of remodeling a home is not dreaming about possible changes, or buying new furnishings and fixtures, or watching new things being built and installed, or surveying the completed remodel with the satisfaction of a job well done. The most exciting and satisfying part, by far, is being able to take a sledgehammer and viciously pound all of that old, tacky wood and plaster and tile and laminates and sheetrock to a dusty pulp as part of the initial demolition progress (the “demo,” in HGTV-speak). It never fails – when mild-mannered homeowners are handed a sledgehammer and told to go to town, their eyes begin to glow and their resulting cheek-to-cheek Joker grins make them look as if they were being given the keys to Fort Knox. Their utter delight in completely demolishing everything in their path is palpable.

2. Textured ceilings, known derisively on home improvement shows as “popcorn” or “cottage cheese” ceilings, are considered the spawn of the devil, and must be removed immediately by any homeowner with a mite of good taste. If Joan Crawford was still alive, her maniacal admonition to her terrified children would no longer be “No wire hangers!,” but instead, “No popcorn ceilings!” If you are unlucky enough to still have popcorn ceilings in your home (as I am), you might as well also have red shag carpeting, inflatable furniture and a disco ball hanging in the living room, since nothing apparently identifies you as a taste-deficient 1970s holdout loser as those little pebbles on your ceilings.

3. Wallpaper is so 70s and 80s. The textured and mirrored kind is the tackiest, but even the more benign stuff is now patterned poison. You must rip it off the walls wherever it exists or risk social ruin.

4. Once looked upon as the flooring of poor people who couldn’t afford wall-to-wall carpeting, hardwood floors are now tres chic. If you don’t already have hardwood floors or can’t afford to install them, you must at least install cheaper modern laminates that mimic hardwood flooring. Carpet, while not totally out of style, must be used very sparingly, in back rooms only if possible, and must never be in any color brighter than beige or tan. Carpet in any colors used by an NFL team on their jerseys or by the Wiggles are definitely out.

5. Countertops must either be made of rock, or be cleverly designed to resemble rock. Granite or marble is preferred, quartz or even concrete is okay, but formica and wood are definitely out. Your kitchen and bathroom counters should be as hard and cold as those slabs in the morgue you put dead bodies on, as a general rule.

6. If you are to have any chance to sell your current house in this tough housing market (it’s always a tough housing market, no matter where or in what price range you are), you must “stage” your house first to make it attractive to potential buyers. In a nutshell, staging a house involves removing enough of the stuff inside as possible to make it look as if no one actually lives there. Any hints of personality (dismissed as “clutter” by house stagers) must be removed and either thrown away or stored temporarily somewhere off-site. What items must go? Any personal photos or mementoes, books and magazines, souvenirs, collectibles, DVD or CD collections, toys and games, excess or out-of-season clothing, pet feeders, pet beds and chew toys, wall hangings and anything else that looks as if someone might actually pick it up and use it. This will leave furniture (which will be weeded out as well) and possibly a potted fern or two. The goal should be to make the public rooms of your house look like the lobby of a nice hotel that isn’t visited very much.

7. When it comes to fixtures, shiny polished brass and aluminum are out. The preferred finishes are pewter or nickel, with bronze or antique brass running a distant second.

8. Wall-to-wall paneling is great, if your goal is to emulate the lifestyle of Archie Bunker. Otherwise, it is the second generation to popcorn ceilings as spawn of the devil. You must either remove it (preferable), or, if that is impractical, you must paint over it to hide its wood-panel-ness. The only type of paneling ever allowed is that very expensive stuff found in the libraries of big castles in Europe. If you can’t afford that, then don’t even consider buying or keeping paneling.

9. It might force you to sell one of your children to slave traders, but if you haven't already you must switch out all of your current kitchen appliances for stainless steel ones. Kitchens and bathrooms sell a house, we are told over and over again, and nothing will make a potential buyer begin drooling (or make your friends begin drooling in envy) than to spy a kitchen that looks somewhat like an industrial meat locker. If you can’t afford stainless steel, then your appliances must be either black (the preferred second choice) or white (just barely an acceptable wild card). Appliances must never, ever, ever be any other color, or you might as well move to Hooterville.

There's one final thing these TV shows have taught me, and it concerns either selling your house or buying another one. If you live in many parts of the Midwest or the South, you can still buy a fairly nice home with a reasonable amount of room for a reasonable price, say, under $200,000. If you live in New England, a big city on the East Coast or anywhere on the West Coast, even a two-bedroom, one-bath shack with termites, a bad foundation and a backyard that looks like a trash heap will cost at least half a million dollars – or more, if the popcorn ceilings have already been removed.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Technology Quotes to Eat Crow By

"Man will never reach the moon regardless of all future scientific advances."

--Dr. Lee DeForest, "Father of radio and grandfather of television"

"The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?"

--Broadcasting mogul David Sarnoff's associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s

"Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons."

--Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949

"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."

--Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

"I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won't last out the year."

--The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957

"But what is it good for?"

--Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, commenting on the microchip, 1968

"640K ought to be enough for anybody."

--Bill Gates, 1981

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

May I Borrow a Battery? My Book is Dead

I went on Amazon.com one day recently to check out something or other, and the opening page, instead of giving me the usual recommendations by categories, was almost completely given over to introducing me to a new product called the Amazon.com "Kindle." It's basically the company's version of an electronic book reader, which they say they've been working on for three years to perfect.

Explaining the genesis of his company's new product, Amazon.com CEO and founder Jeff Bezos said, "The booklover in me often has asked the nerd in me, 'Is there a way to get the emotions and experiences I love from books, but combined with the possibilities of advanced technology? Can something as evolved as the book be improved?"

Now, maybe I'm just hopelessly mired in the technological mud, but when I sit down in a nice chair with a good book (the pulpy-paged type), one thing I surely never think about is how to transform the book in my hands into another electronic gizmo, which I must pamper and recharge and repair when it gets broken. I'm quite happy, thank you, to just let The Brothers Karamazov be The Brothers Karamazov, and not lament the fact that any book I flip the pages of can't also get me stock quotes, show YouTube videos or allow me to spend more money with Amazon.com. This ability may represent an "improvement" to Mr. Bezos, but I beg to differ.

I'm glad that books have not really "evolved" since their invention, despite Mr. Bezos's claim. Yes, they're a bit smaller and made of different materials than they were in Gutenberg's day, and we no longer have to fashion them entirely by hand or crank them out one at a time on a crude press, but the essence of a book is still the same -- pages of text between two covers, pages turned one at a time and enjoyed at the leisure and pace of the reader.

I don't know how many times I've seen people come out with these "electronic book" gizmos, announcing (or implying) that the printed book is on its long-overdue deathbed, only to have the gizmo, and not books, soon bite the dust.

Then again, maybe an electronic book is inevitable. Maybe there's so many people these days whose attention spans have been worn down to the nub by a steady dose of TV and DVDs and video games that they won't -- or can't -- read a book without some sort of electronic diversion handy. But then again, I don't think those people are the ones truly longing for a good book to savor. Let's face it, the target audience for any new electronic book is not likely to go out and download Dostoevsky or Dickens or Joyce to read on it.

I am content to get drenched as I leave my finger in the dike. Invent what you will, and while I applaud your technical genius and even let out a "hey, cool!" every now and then, I'm happy to keep my books just as they've always been.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Hail to the Elf

Since the Western White House down in Crawford is just a few miles away from my home, I end up getting invited over there whenever George W. is in town. I'll be sitting at home spending quality time with the wife and kids when the special red phone in our living room begins to blink and blares like an air raid siren. I will pick up the line, where each time I only hear these three words: "He wants you." This is the signal for me to get in the car and drive down to the ranch, where the Secret Service agents just wave me through without a second glance.

When I arrive in the house (where I invariably forget the "no shoes on the carpet" rule), I never know what the President will require of me. Sometimes he wants us to bake Tollhouse cookies, other times we share laughs watching DVDs of old SCTV episodes, and one time I even found myself playing "Risk" into the wee hours with the President and Vladamir Putin (I won,by the way, with my sneaky takeover of Europe). But even I was a bit nonplussed by the request made of me on my last visit to Crawford just a few weeks ago.

When I arrived, the President asked me, his wife Laura and Condoleeza Rice to put on special costumes provided for us and head outside, where a rare Texas snowfall had left the landscape covered in white. As the White House videographer taped away, we were asked to frolic for the camera. To see the result, click here to watch the video, recently declassified for public viewing.

(Note: if you use Safari as your browser, for some reason this probably won't play)

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Random Observations and Trivial Events


I was reading an article in the Nov. 30, 2007, edition of the New York Times, a review of the new SciFi Network miniseries "Tin Man," described as a modern-day "high-tech refashioning" of L. Frank Baum's book The Wizard of Oz. About midway into the article, I ran across this paragraph:
Baum said that he sought simply to produce a modern fairy tale, but his symbolism was hardly subtle. The novel came to be understood as an allegory for debates about turn-of-the-century monetary policy stemming from outrage over the subjugation of agricultural interests to the imperialism of bankers on the East Coast. (In the book, unlike in the 1939 film, Dorothy's shoes are made of silver, not rubies. The notion of silver shoes ambling on a yellow brick road is thought to stand for Baum's advocacy of bimetallism, a shift from the gold standard that would have given farmers access to cheaper money).
At first I though the writer of the piece was joking, but then I realized he was dead serious. Do you mean that L. Frank Baum sat down and dreamed up Dorothy and Toto and tornadoes and munchkins and flying monkeys because his heart was aching to cry out about bimetallism?

Maybe this is true, but it only served to remind me of all those cruel, horrific English literature classes I endured in high school and college where every seemingly straightforward sentence had to be analyzed for its "deeper meaning." The old man in the sea wasn't really after a fish, he was after fame, or youth, or whatever the heck that astronaut in 2001 was looking for. I was asked to believe that authors NEVER wrote simply because they wanted to tell a good story, or wanted to make a pile of money and become famous. They always fashioned some piece of fiction as just a tricky smokescreen to hide their real messages about the alienation of man, the search for significance and their own repressed sexual desires.

Speaking of sex, I once made the mistake of taking an English class in college which combined study of Shakespeare with a study of Freud (I would kill two bards -- I mean birds -- with one stone, I thought). Boy, talk about digging up innuendo and hidden messages. All things in the text that were pointed or straight (like swords, castle towers or trees) were supposedly "male symbols," while all things rounded, or at least not pointed (like pillows, bowls and heads of cabbage) were "female symbols." Everything any character did in any Shakespeare play, according to this professor, had to do in some way with S-E-X. Sheesh, what a load of psychobabbling rubbish. I felt both angry and slimy after each class, and I considered thwacking my professsor on his rounded head with my Bic pen to relieve my frustration, but I was afraid he would interpret this act as some sort of a bisexual assault, or possibly an attempt at conception.


I think the feeling of being so busy as to be almost overwhelmed is a universal one in today's world. I guess we're just on the same wavelength, or at the same place in our lives, but If I was ever forced to accuse someone of sneaking into my brain and stealing my own thoughts about the issue, it would be Rod Dreher in this spot-on post on his Crunchy Con blog.