Thursday, September 30, 2004

Planning to blow your stack?

Do it right: do it live on a web cam. Just like the Mount St. Helens VolcanoCam.

Well, perhaps not precisely live, but pretty close. They claim that the image is updated every five minutes. So I suppose you won't get to see the action shots of villagers screaming in terror as they run away from the flowing lava.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

The last hurricane report of the year.

Well, we can always hope.

In any event, this will be the very last of the Gaston updates. I promise. Most of the folks I work with who lost their cars in the flood have gotten replacements. One in particular, though, was interesting: He evidently paid cash, as a week and and half after he picked up his new car, he was overheard, laughing at himself and shaking his head bemusedly. “I can’t believe it. I’ve had the car for ten days and driven over 800 miles already, and I still don’t have insurance.” Much eye-rolling on the part of everyone within earshot. One would have thought that since he just got his car replaced due to having insurance, his first phone call after signing the contract for the replacement vehicle would have been to the insurance company. (One would have been wrong, however.) And yes, he’s licensed to represent you in state courts across the Commonwealth and in all federal courts.

This past Sunday, driving home from from Durham, I heard a Public Service Announcement on the radio, exhorting Richmond residents to shop and dine in those stores and restaurants in Shockoe Bottom that were closed by the flood and have since reopened. “C’mon, Richmonders! It’s your Bottom! Get in touch with it!” Perhaps not the tagline I would have chosen.

Also on that drive up I-85 from Durham to Richmond, I passed a convoy of tree-trimming trucks, presumably heading home (to Dayton, Ohio) after helping out with some of the tree-clearing tasks from the first few hurricanes of the season to hit the southeast. I wanted to stop them to ask whether they were aware that Hurricane Jeanne was in Florida, creating more work for them and their tree-cutting brethren. They probably knew that, though, and (a) had already been in Florida (and away from home) for a month, and (b) were getting out while the getting was good.

And, speaking of Hurricane Jeanne, my father reports that his retirement complex lost power for 8 hours on Sunday. Excitement enough for him. Jeanne pretty much passed Richmond by, dropping about an inch and a half to two inches last night and today. But there's more ahead: lots and lots of rain out to the west, and it'll all drain down into the James. They're predicting a flood crest at the recording station about a mile from me for Thursday afternoon, and it'll be 3.5 feet above flood stage. Luckily, my home is much higher above the river than that: enough higher that if there's a flood up here, then most of downtown Richmond will be under water, and there will be far worse things to worry about than my deck furniture washing away.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Is there anyone from Kerry's debate staff out there?

Because here are a bunch of lines I wish he'd use in the upcoming debates.

Among them:

"When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?"

"Vietnam was the
defining issue of our generation. I chose to go there and fight, and when I came
to the realization that the war was wrong I tried to stop the killing. Those
were my priorities, what were yours?"

"If you'd been on that boat with me, Mr. Bush, we could have all this confusion cleared up by now."

"FDR told us the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Your administration tells us time and time again that the only thing we have is fear."

Sunday, September 19, 2004

An indoor wedding, we presume.

You'll recall the California-style wedding noted here a month or so ago, and the wedding announcement published in the Richmond paper? There seems to have been a small backlash: this happy couple made a point of making it clear in their announcement that they consider themselves to be normal.

As they put it:
There were no frolicking elves or dancing fairies at the wedding.

I'm guessing they're also substantially less fun than the couple married in California.

Leaflets three, leave it be.

I have long been under the impression that, as a result of passing through puberty, my body exchanged one allergy for another - that I stopped being allergic to poison ivy and started having hay fever. Not the best of possible choices, as presumably I could avoid poison ivy a whole lot more easily than I could avoid the pollen that causes hay fever, especially in this part of the country that includes both the southernmost reach of northern hay-fever-causing plants and the northernmost expanse of southern plants.

It turns out that's not the case: I'm still allergic to poison ivy, as I've discovered from a run-in with a large stand of it in my back yard. It's gotten all over the inside of my left arm, such that whenever I bend the arm, it starts itching. No fun at all.

I'm rather hoping it'll be another 35 years before I rub up against poison ivy again.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

So where's the flipping rainbow?

Here it is, Thursday night, and the National Weather Service has announced a Flash Flood Watch. It covers the entire state of Virginia. And it lasts until Sunday.

That's how much rain they think we'll get. Here in the Richmond area, they're calling for maybe 3 to 6 inches. Or maybe 10.

Not as though we especially need the rain. For the month of September, we've already gotten 4 inches of rain. And that's after August's 16.3 inches, a monthly record for Richmond. Needless to say, we've already gotten more rain this year than the average yearly total for Richmond, and we've got 3 1/2 months to go.

And Hurricane Jeanne is set to get here in the middle of next week. Maybe the rain will let up enough that I can go out and mow the moss that is now my front yard.

Vote early, vote often.

Possibly a more interesting election than the other one facing us in November.

And you can call the candidate a snake, and he won't mind.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Email jollies.

So I've got this email account on Yahoo!. I've had it for a long, long time - long enough that the email address is some combination of my initials and last name, and without numbers at the end or bizarre spellings. The oldest email I still have in it dates back to 1999, and I'm sure the account is somewhat older than that.

I use this account mainly for subscribing to newsletters that I'm vaguely interested in, but am afraid that the sender may eventually sell my address to someone else, and that way lies mountains of spam. (Indeed, I get over 300 spams each day on this account, and Yahoo!'s filter gets over 98% of them, without ever getting an email I intentionally signed up for.) As a result, I generally don't read the mail that accumulates more often than twice a week.

Sometimes, though, instead of spam or mildly interesting newsletters, I get emails that are intentionally addressed to this account, but aren't to me: either the person gave out the wrong email address or the sender misremembered or mistyped the address. I'll usually read those emails, and will usually respond to them, telling the sender that whoever they meant to get the email didn't receive it, and the probably should check to see what the correct email address should have been. Half the time, I don't hear from the sender again, but that's a good result. A quarter of the time, the sender will write back and apologize for the error and thank me for telling them; again, a good result.

It's the other results that are entertaining. One person was convinced that I really was her niece ("Judy Stone" or somesuch), and that I was unjustifiably mad at her and was hiding out behind a false identity. One or two more rounds of explanatory emails didn't seem to help. Poor Judy is going to be surprised when she next encounters her aunt.

Today's email is too good to keep to myself, though. Here's someone who thinks she's writing to "Jeff" at my email account, despite the fact that I've told her at least 3 times that she's sending her mail to the wrong address. I suppose that she only sends email, but doesn't ever read the ones she receives. Today, she says:

Hi Jeff, We are going to Loyalton. I am still not 100 percent. I was in the ladies room and things are not normal. I will talk to you a little later. Love, Lynnette

I don't think I'll tell her to stop sending these emails.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Not gonna let those pesky "meek" inherit the earth!

California: Land of opportunity.

Well, perhaps not so much, any more. California now has a law banning necrophilia.

It does make you wonder what new recreational pastime the folks at UCLA will have to take up, now.

Aside: The spell-check suggests that I might want to replace "necrophila" with "microfilms." Mighty odd spell-check, that.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Wine. Baseball. Where do these terms go together? In California, of course.

If you live long enough, you'll think you've seen everything. But here's a new one on me: a comparison of the Oakland A's and the San Francisco Giants, comparing the wine served at their ballparks. Since, after all, now that going to a baseball game is so expensive, fans expect a luxury experience.

A description I never thought I'd see:
Indeed, the Sauvignon Blanc, a 2003 vintage, is a superb ballpark wine. Its
simple, straightforward green-apple flavor and clean aroma is a fine palate
cleanser for heavy food like garlic fries or linguisa sausage with peppers and onions.
The review gives a slight nod to the Giants' ballpark, but it's close. I'm taken by the concept that they're serving wines costing between $4.50 and $12 per bottle in stores, and charging $7.25 for a 4- to 5-ounce pour.

The review ends up with some classic ballpark pairings: hot dogs and white zinfandel, garlic fries and pinot noir, and nachos and merlot.

I can't wait to see what wine gets served at Senators' games.

Friday, September 03, 2004

My last Gaston update.

It's getting back to normal. Well, normal, except for those who were directly affected by the floods. Cleaning up is going on, with damage estimates soaring. The City of Richmond is estimating a final toll of twice as much as it suffered when Isabel blew through last year. Not surprising, I suppose: the intense, focused flooding destroyed buildings and roads, where Isabel's damage was more wide-spread and less intense in any given location: uprooted trees downing power lines isn't as costly to repair as a flood propelling pickup trucks into restaurants.

And while the streets are looking more normal, it doesn't take much to notice that there are still problems. If you figure all the garbage and debris and raw sewage left in Shockoe Bottom from the flooding, and all the meat and seafood and vegetables in the Farmer's Market area warehouses and in the restaurants in the bottom that are now rotting because there's no electricity going to the refrigerators and freezers - well, perhaps you can imagine what it smells like. (You can't? Well, let's be polite and say that it smells like vomit that's been marinating in the warm August air.)

Yummers. Think I'll head the other direction to find a restaurant for lunch, thank you so very much.

The folks at the office are coping, mostly. Getting new cars, or at least looking for them. Griping that the insurance companies aren't giving them "enough" for the personal property lost when their cars flooded (mostly CDs - lots and lots of CDs). And tomorrow, I'm off to help the person with the flooded basement sanitize her now-drained basement. (We're calling it a Bleach Party, and will play music by the Bleach Boys.)

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Comets: do they really foretell evil times ahead?

Here's a link to a photo of Comet C 2003 K4 LINEAR, which may be visible to the naked eye by October. Or maybe not, as the prediction of future comet brightness is almost as difficult as predicting the course of hurricanes.

MMMmmmMMM, chocolate. And in a good cause, to boot.

So I received an email from a friend last night; or perhaps I should say, I received a successfully propogated viral marketing email from a friend, on behalf of the makers of M&Ms and the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, explaining the new product containing pink and white M&Ms, and how 50 cents from the sale of each bag will be donated to the Komen Foundation, so you should go out and buy a lot of these special pink and white M&Ms.

OOooh, looky! There's the small print: They'll contribute 50 cents per bag sold, up to a maximum donation of $650,000. That is, they'll contribute, but only for the first 1.3 million bags they sell.

Don't get me wrong: over half a million bucks is certainly more than I'm likely to donate to charity this year, even if you combine all my charitable contributions. And 1.3 million bags of M&Ms is likely more than I could eat during the three months this promotion will be going on.

And this is a legit promotion; no doubt about that. But what's the catch? Just this: they'll donate 50 cents per unit sold, up to a sales level of 1.3 million bags. So, presumably, they're raising the wholesale price by some amount - possibly 50 cents per unit, possibly 33 cents, to allow a 50 % markup and thus a 50 cent retail increase. (Or they're keeping the price the same, and reducing the size of the package; perhaps from 10 or 12 ounces to 8 ounces, to the same effect. And, of course, just possibly they're keeping the wholesale price and the package size the same, and it's completely a corporate contribution.) Anything they sell over 1.3 million, they keep the extra proceeds. Just how many units are they going to make, and how many are they expecting to sell? I don't know, of course, but my feeling is that selling only 1.3 million units - nationwide - in a 3-month period - with a big advertising push, and a lot of free P.R. and viral marketing (e.g., this email) - even plus-or-minus 100,000 - would actually constitute a marketing failure, and if this were a regular product with those results, they'd pull it from the market and never sell it again. With no hard data to back up my guess, I'd have thought they'd sell 1.3 million units in either New York or California alone.

True, the Susan G Komen Foundation gets free publicity from this promotion, and each unit sold might lead to someone asking for more information or making a separate, additional contribution. And certainly the pink-and-white combination of M&Ms can be a conversation-starter, the way that the Lance Armstrong yellow bracelets are. But that should be counterbalanced by the fact that anyone who buys a bag beyond the first 1.3 million sold will be misled into believing that her purchase is actually contributing to the Foundation, and thus she doesn't need to contribute anything more.

That's what I don't like about "cause-related marketing": when there's an artificial cap on the contribution, the company expects you to buy into the hype and the PR and not realize that they've gotten you to pay more for a product when the excess price is just going into their pockets. In October of the past few years (October being Breast Cancer Awareness month), the SG Komen Foundation has been the recipient of a $100,000 donation "funded" by people clicking on a link on the sponsor's page, each click yielding an additional $1 contribution, up to a $100,000 cap. The year the NFL sponsored it, it was a month-long promotion - but 1.75 million people clicked on the funding link on the first day it was active, so the limit was quickly passed and additional clicking was unnecessary and useless.

I much prefer an open-ended contribution - "for every unit sold - each and every unit - we'll contribute X amount ..." And that's what Nike did with the "Live Strong" yellow bracelets, contributing (to the Lance Armstrong Foundation) something from each individual bracelet sale. (They even took it a couple of steps farther by completely underwriting the manufacture, distribution, and marketing of the bracelets, and by contributing the entire purchase price - not just a portion - to the Foundation.)

My bottom line: Buy M&Ms because you want to, always a good choice. Buy the pink-and-white ones because they stand out, and will be conversation starters. And if you want to ensure that your donation makes it to the Susan G Komen Foundation - another good choice - go to the website and contribute there.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

And would you like your change in Fifteen-dollar bills? Or Thirties?

Someone in Philadelphia purchased a $99 item, and paid cash. To be precise, she paid with a fake $200 bill, complete with George Bush's picture on it. And she gave change.

The article doesn't say whether the hapless store clerk still works at that store.

Well, it's not Spam, exactly.

But in the unlikely event that you want to email a link to one of these posts to someone, you can do so by clicking on the little envelope icon at the end of the post. (It doesn't mail the post itself, just a link.)

The mighty unlikely event.

More on Gaston.

Here's a day-after slide show of the aftermath of the floods Monday. And another.

Further details on my mostly vicarious experiences with the flood: It turns out that six of my twenty co-workers parked their cars down under the I-95 overpass, and only one of them still has his car. The others have been hearing sympathetic and mostly positive things from their insurance companies, but have not been able to go down and look for their cars (or the belongings which may or may not still be in them). It really wasn't until this afternoon that the police were letting insurance agents into the area where the cars are piled atop one another or buried in the silt, in hopes that the agents could identify the cars. One of my co-workers has seen his SUV, on TV, upside-down and on top of another vehicle, but still hasn't seen it in person (which he'd like to do, to get the 75 CDs he has in the car).

Someone else from the office got home to find five feet of water in her basement. It's drained, by now, but I can't imagine it did much good to her washer, dryer, or furnace. Or, for that matter, the house's fuse box, mounted about 4 1/2 feet off the floor. (Needless to say, she also has no electricity.)

Dominion Power is doing its usual fine job in reconnecting people's electricty: Tuesday morning, there were about 35,000 people without power in the Richmond area. By Wednesday morning, that number had decreased to 39,000. Yeah, I don't know, either. Fifteen or twenty thousand of them were serviced by substations that were destroyed in the flood, so that much is understandable.

My commute to the office has gotten back to normal, although Tuesday's drive in was still exciting: a couple of ponds were still overflowing their banks onto the road, although by that hour, it was only 4 - 6 inches deep. Still a bunch of tree limbs down in or near the road; a mudslide had covered up half a lane, slowing traffic. And a couple of dozen cars abandoned on the expressway downtown, where clearly they had run out of gas the night before, trapped in the traffic jam. (They'd been retrieved - or towed away - by this morning.)