Great minds, lazy butts.

No one can say we Americans are not using our heads. We’re just doing it in a way that requires little or no physical movement.

Sure, we’ve got a moribund auto industry, sieve-like leakage of jobs to China, rocketing unemployment. But when it comes to selling domain names, we’re hot-hot-hot.

Searching online for a new iPad at a discount, I couldn’t find any cheap Apples in the Ebay barrel…but I did discover the many enterprising souls already auctioning and selling the likes of “www.TheIPadShoppe” and of course, “www.TheAppleIPadSucks.”

The worst part about this kind of armchair sales world is how contagious it is. It was a certainty that I would then spend the morning glued to my computer, searching for domain names that might yield big bucks in the future.

Bad news: is taken.

New math.

Remember math-class word problems? One train leaves Chicago traveling east at 40 mph, another leaves Boston an hour later at 60 mph, which one arrives first?..and so on. I’d put that painful curriculum behind me. Until yesterday.

That’s when I learned that when two cups of frozen strawberries and a mashed banana are placed in an uncovered blender and the PUREE button is hit, the berries will arrive at the kitchen ceiling a full 5 seconds before the banana.

Holsters and health care.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has answered a question that’s been nagging at me: What’s really behind the strong opposition to the health care plan?

I know that some people worry that changes in insurance regulations will erode the coverage they already have. I’m convinced that out-and-out racism plays a role and that some opponents are more interested in seeing President Obama fail than taking care of their neighbors.

But these things don’t explain the fiery anger, the bold willingness to stand up in front of the entire world and say NO to better care for more Americans, including millions of children, hardworking adults and folks with chronic conditions that can be labeled “preexisting.”

Barbour’s now much-quoted remark about guns turned the light bulb on over my head:

“I do not believe the United States government has a right, it has the authority or power to force us to purchase health insurance any more than, in the name of homeland security, they can force every American to have to buy a gun,” the governor said.”

Setting aside for the moment that this statement is historically inaccurate (look up the Second Militia Act of 1792 in which folks were indeed required to go forth and get guns), Barbour’s sound byte speaks volumes. On some level these opponents simply do not believe that decent health care is something every person needs, therefore they see no reason to create laws that ensure its delivery. They see health care as an option, a luxury; something that people elect to have, like the premium cable package.

Here’s what I’d like to see: A running ticker like the ones in Times Square that report stock prices. Only this one would chart each visit to a doctor or medical facility by an elected official who votes on health care measures, state or federal.

Consider this: rental credits = coverage

The kneecapping may be over between enemies fighting over health care reform, but lesser shin-kicking will continue.

We’ve got some miles to go before these changes to our health care system and insurance industry are really “historic” as is being said. For now, it’s a live battle.

There’s plenty of good news, however. Reform that gets more kids covered or keeps folks with preexisting conditions in the fold is long overdue. Somewhere, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy can be proud.

One big worry, it seems to me, is the continued reliance on the workplace as the host for insurance.

Obviously it makes sense for most people to get coverage through employers, but alternative models would put new safety nets in place. We’ll have the infrastructure to do this. The new reform package includes a plan for health-coverage exchanges/marketplaces where consumers not covered by employers can “shop” for their insurance. Why not expand this plan?

One way to do that: Create small renter tax credits and allow taxpayers to cash ‘em in for coverage plans in those new marketplaces.

My neighbors down the street are a case in point. Yes, they will be helped by the new reforms–with a chronically ill adult, a young-adult employed part-time and a child, they have several vulnerabilities addressed by the plan just passed. But they aren’t out of the woods yet. The head of the household is retired, so traditional employer-based coverage is not in place. He is not old enough for Medicare yet.

Because the family rents a house, they don’t get the tax break that we get for paying interest on a mortgage. Now that the American dream of homeownership at any cost has proven to be something of a nightmare, perhaps it’s the ideal time to revisit a structure that rewards only “owners” versus reliable renters–and to do so in a way that allows people like my neighbors to have a real stake in their health care coverage.

The Old Rugged (tasty) Cross

A few years into freelancing, I have to say I don’t miss meetings. But I’d have paid real money to sit in on the one where some marketing person made a pitch for an item I saw in the grocery store yesterday:

Just in time for Easter: chocolate crosses.

As the late George Carlin might have asked: What, no chocolate electric chairs?

I did some Googling, and apparently these treats have been on the market for a couple of years. But since I don’t buy Easter goodies, I missed this breakthrough.

Somewhere, sometime in the not-so-distant past, a confident person stood up in a conference room, flicked on a PowerPoint presentation and said: “Look, we’re getting our asses kicked on the hollow bunnies. Jelly beans have not been the same since the Reagan years. The animal-rights people think the marshmallow chicks are disrespectful. We’ve got to think outside the box, dudes.”

Maybe they kicked around an Easter-season idea of a big chocolate stone that could be rolled away to reveal…well, nothing. Okay, forget that one.

(This whole thing reminded me of a headline written by a fellow newsroom occupant in New Hampshire years ago. Two schools, Bishop Brady High School and Calvary Christian faced off in some game, football probably. When Bishop Brady trounced its opponent, the sports copy editor couldn’t resist: “Bishop Brady Climbs Calvary.” It got yanked after one edition and he edited nothing but box scores for a long time.)

But, hey, it’s possible that the idea of selling confectionery torture devices isn’t all bad. Maybe it means people are lightening up about religious matters, hardly a bad thing for the world, right?

Maybe we should all pitch in and go buy these things. It’s really not going to look good when any unsold crosses go on sale for half-off the day after Easter.

Hero with a camera.

Photographer Charles Moore did as much to move civil rights ahead in this country as almost any other individual. He died last week, at age 79.

(See the obituary by Douglas Martin of The New York Times here.)

Moore’s famous photos of lawman Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor are iconic proof of a shameful side of American history. The swaggering Connor unleashed dogs and fire hoses on demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama, who were seeking to end segregation. The action boomeranged, bringing the movement into nearly every home via television, newspaper and Life magazine coverage. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. penned his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on Connor’s turf.

The New York Times obit for Moore quotes Hank Klibanoff, one of the authors of an outstanding book, The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation saying that the photographer was known for getting right in the middle of the action, regardless of the personal danger.

Moore, says Klibanoff, often used a short lens.

Who could have imagined how long his view would be?

Consumer: Get thee to a credit union.

Today I read that Bank of America is touting its decision to quit dunning customers with those overdraft fees. You know, the ones that multiply at warp-rabbit speed.

More good news: Soon your ATM will tell you when you’re about to step in a big, expensive pile of bank fee.

Bragging about this service is akin to taking pride in your decision to quit beating your kid. Bank of America, heroic you ain’t.

I should be at least somewhat relieved by this news. I’d been thinking that B of A had it in just for my friends and family. Hardly a month goes by that I don’t hear from someone that they’ve been caught in the maw of the bank machine. If it isn’t a hidden fee, it’s the game of float that means the bank manages to hang onto funds in ways that screw you and benefit them.

A friend told me earlier this week about a flock of $35 insufficient-funds charges that landed on her checking account after someone used her debit card. That’s how she discovered that the card had been hijacked; suddenly her checks for mortgage payment, car loan and babysitter were bouncing.

When she raced over to her local branch, she was told she had to call the Fraud Line. It was not possible to cancel the card in the actual bank. Right there she knew things were going to get a lot worse before they got better. She was right. In the end, she had to close the card AND eat $140 in charges. (The babysitter may someday forgive her for the fact that her rent check subsequently bounced as well.)

There is not a credit union in the land that treats customers like this. When they brag about a new service, it’s actually good news.

The shabbos timer. Who knew?

I’ve seen one other thing that resembles our oven’s infuriating control panel. It was in the cockpit of an an FB111A fighter jet that I sat in for a few minutes at Pease Air Force Base about 30 years ago.

After spending 20 minutes trying to sort out the way to set the ridiculous bake-and-hold feature on the timer, I finally gave in and climbed to the highest cupboard to retrieve the user’s manual for the thing.

Imagine my surprise on discovering the page headlined, “To Set the Sabbath Feature (for use on the Jewish Sabbath & Holidays).” I can’t wait to tell my rabbi.

Once upon a time, this service came in the form of a Shabbos goy, the non-Jewish person, often a kid, who’d show up on Fridays to turn appliances and lights on or off for a small payment, allowing the observant Jew to honor the “no work on Shabbat” behavior.

Well, okay. I guess it would be downright churlish of me to stay mad at the stove’s timer now.

Vote YES for BookTithe

I can’t be the only lover contemplating sneaking out on my beloved.

Some of you other book-lovers share my guilty fantasizing about getting a Kindle. Right?

Like you, I’m sold on the technology, which I could get either as the Kindle proper or as an iPhone ap. What could be cooler than deciding I want a book and being able to get it instantly?

I’m hesitating only because of Powell’s Books–the country’s best bookstore which has its huge mothership on the edge of downtown Portland, and is the destination for a significant chunk of my disposable income. Anything that could wound or shorten the life of this great company worries me.

Sooner or later, though, I’m going to give in. I’ll be just like my friends who so proudly declared “I don’t own a cellphone,” only to find themselves late for something important while stuck behind one of Portland’s raised bridges during its leisurely upppppp and downnnnnnn to let a ship pass under.

Technology has a way of twining itself around your legs like kudzu, no matter how determinedly you swing the scythe.

So, here’s my idea: Create a BookTithe option on each digital book purchase. It can work just like that Presidential election campaign question on the 1040 tax form. Do you want to contribute to your favorite independent bookstore? Check this box.

Now, true, this contribution is real, out-of-the-wallet dough, not the seemingly abstract money to the Presidential election fund.  And also true that the ten percent I send to Powell’s is not going to make up for the $10 or $25 I didn’t spend on a book there. But it’s better than nothing. And if I spend the usual $9.99 for the Kindle book (typically a lower price than a new actual book)  I can surely afford kicking in some of the savings to a bricks-and-mortar store of my choosing. Plus, it’s no threat to Amazon, B&N and the other giants of the electronic-book world.

No matter how many bells and whistles they put on electronic readers, we still need real stores. Browsing, buying and selling old books is vital activity. How else can I find that treasure of a new, unknown author? No amount of clicking through lists is every going to have the soothing properties of wandering Powell’s aisles. I’d love to be able to buy a book in the middle of some insomniac night…but the ability to do so shouldn’t replace the bookstore.

It can’t be too hard to set this up. The person who built the Kindle must be looking for work by now, surely.

--Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett,

But, enough about you…

I noticed that the stars who stood on stage at the Oscars last night and delivered their allegedly original and personal thoughts about the nominees for best actors were almost all talking more about themselves than the nominated person.

Now, that puzzled me. I would never selfishly commandeer a moment like that. In fact, all during the Oscar pre-season I kept quiet about the fact that I was way ahead of this sudden Hollywood interest in explosives. The makers of The Hurt Locker (winner for Best Picture; Directing, Film Editing; Sound Editing; Sound Mixing and Original Screenplay) are not the only people who know from bomb squads. But did I rub anyone’s nose in that? No, I did not.

Did I use my influence and power as a blogger to remind everyone that I spent quality time with the Bomb & Arson squad of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department four years ago, and wrote 8,151 words on the experience for the San Diego Reader? No, I did not.

Did I post any sample paragraphs from my story? No, I did not. If you read the following you will notice that it has never before appeared on this blog:

This is the first absolute truth of being a good bomb tech: You must have an abiding respect for every device you face down. There is nothing static about this respectfulness; it is fed by obsessive training, reading, tinkering, and shop-talking. That’s where the second absolute truth comes in: You can have surgeon-steady hands and a pair of solid-brass cojones, but without a brain crammed full of the chemistry, physics, history, sociology, and weaponry specs that make up bomb-smarts, you’re just a guy leaning over a pile of antsy gunpowder, hoping for a spell of good luck. -

-excerpted from “Things that go BOOM,” by Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett, San Diego Reader, April 2006.

Last night wasn’t about me; it was the big night for the folks who brought you The Hurt Locker, and I respected that.

A gift.

Patricia Travers was a violin prodigy who disappeared in her twenties, leaving behind a distinguished recording and performance history.

I’d never heard of Travers until I read her obituary in The New York Times.  (Given that a month went by between Travers’ death and the Times obit, I’m apparently not the only one ignorant of her existence.) She died at age 82, nearly 60 years since she quietly left the concert stage without explanation, returned home to live with her parents in New Jersey, and rarely mentioned her musical past, even to friends.

Travers began playing the violin before age 4 and was performing with world-class orchestras by age 10. She appeared in at least one Hollywood film, and I found this wonderful YouTube clip of her as a young girl, performing in that long-forgotten comedy about a music camp for kids. (It can take a second to start rolling, be patient.)

Experts who study the lives of musical prodigies have theorized that Travers cut her career short when reviews became less than stellar. Apparently there is a very predictable curve in the life of such a young musical genius, which takes a downturn as the performer grows into young adulthood. Very few continue on as performers.

The obituaries written about Travers are cloaked in sadness, as if she had just died a second time; the first being the day she retreated from the concert stage.

For some reason, I doubt that was so. There is no way to know, of course, but I wonder if that young woman might have had two gifts: her musical genius and her innate sense of self-preservation.

Front window: the Mustang

Every weekday morning my street fills up with cars. Most of the drivers who park here work inside a large, beige Art Deco building a couple of blocks away. I’m not sure of the nature of the work there; something combining consulting-advertising-financial advising. I’ve not bothered to find out anything more.

I usually start my day with a cup of coffee and something to read in front of the big second-story window that gives me a wide-angle view of the street. Several regulars park right in front, a pristine white 1964-1/2 Mustang (yes, there is such a thing); green Subaru wagon; bronze-metallic Jeep; a very battered bright-blue Toyota with its entire nose ripped off, leaving the headlights poking out like frightened bug-eyes.  I don’t often see the people themselves; they swoop in, park, and hurry off.

This morning, though, the baritone growl of the Mustang pulled me away from my reading. Good, I thought, I’ll finally get to see who drives that car.  I love those V-8 ‘Stangs because they were everything, good and bad, that cars can’t be anymore. Big engine in an absurdly small package; the cockpit bristling with dangerously pointy stuff, like that Boy-am-I-hot-shit floor shifter. Motown blasting on AM radio in one of these cars is pretty much what heaven will be like.

I watched while the driver climbed out, and even before I saw her face, I knew she was young, in her 20s. She slid out of the low-slung bucket seat and stood in one smooth motion. She didn’t heft herself up with a hand or hold onto the door. In fact, both hands were full: silver thermal coffee mug in one, canvas tote bag in the other.  Her long brown hair was still wet.

As I watch, she locks the Mustang’s door—the old-fashioned way, by pushing the button down and slamming the door–hefts the tote bag higher on her shoulder, and heads down the street.

I take in the details of her outfit. She’s wearing an above-the-knee green-print skirt, sheer stockings, black shoes with a high, but not perilous heel.  Her tan trench coat (brand-new, looks like) is shorter than the skirt by a few inches, a fashion trend that decisively separates her generation from mine. She looks nice.

It reminds me of how long it’s been since I worked in an office; a place where things like new coat lengths were filed in my brain without my even realizing it.

I wonder how many of her co-workers know she drives that cool car.

Reviewing the reviewer.

Michiko Kakutani is a powerful book reviewer, whose work in The New York Times can kill book sales or torpedo an author’s career in a few column inches. I’ve been reading Kakutani’s reviews more closely these days, considering the pieces’ success as essays rather than endorsements or rejections of new books.

I now picture Kakutani sitting alone in a small office, a room that no editor ever dares enter. I imagine that the critic’s copy goes directly from keyboard to the newspaper’s website or printed page with nary a word questioned or touched. (She provides no end of speculation along these lines. See her Wikipedia entry and a good piece by Ben Yagoda for Slate.) Salman Rushdie supposedly called her “a weird woman who seems to feel the need to alternately praise and spank,” a description that hits uncomfortably close to home for just about any critic, truth be told.

Few reviewers can match Kakutani’s heat-seeking-missile style:

“Unfortunately for the reader, “Fun With Problems” is a grab-bag collection that’s full of Mr. Stone’s liabilities as a writer, with only a glimpse here and there of his strengths.”

And even fewer get away with so many overly chewy phrases:

“This description might suggest that Ms. Shriver has constructed a didactic or lugubrious novel, willfully topical and laboriously relevant. She hasn’t.” (From a review of “So Much for That” by Lionel Shriver.)

And probably no one else writing for a large audience wrote seven such reviews in a month, as Kakutani did in January.