I before E except when it’s “me”.

I haven’t gone on a grammar rant in a while so….

I find that I’m changing from a grammar snob to a grammar warrior, probably a reaction to the slow demise of the English language due to text messaging, Twitter, etc.  Though I know the war can’t be won there’s at least some hope to win the occasional battle.  The one I’ve been fighting recently has to do with pronouns.

In short, people have trouble using “I” and “me” correctly.  This is also true for he/him and she/her, though to a lesser extent.  Surprisingly I haven’t run into anyone who has problems with you/you. (At least not any English speakers.)

It seems that people believe that in some cases “I” and “me” are interchangeable and that “I” is somehow a more acceptable choice than “me”.  I have to admit that I probably wouldn’t know or care much about this if I hadn’t studied French where I learned grammar much more extensively than I ever did for English.  If I heard someone say “Elle va au restaurant avec Bill et je.” it would immediately sound wrong.  (Should be “… avec Bill et moi.” for you non-francophones.) but hearing “She’s going to the restaurant with Bill and I.” doesn’t sound wrong, although it is.

(As an aside, I’ll give a little leeway to songwriters who use “you and I” instead of “you and me” for rhyming.  An old example of this is the Doors “Touch Me” with the line: “Till the stars fall from the sky, for you and I”.  I guess that’s better than:  ”Till the whales rise from the sea, for you and me.”)

Fortunately there’s an easy way to know whether “I” or “me” is correct and it doesn’t involve learning about nominative and accusative cases (though I recommend you do that anyway…).

I very seldom hear people confusing “we” and “us”.  I guess that for some reason “we” doesn’t sound better than “us” to our inner grammarians.  So the trick is to think whether you’d say “we” or “us” and use “I” or “me” accordingly.  Some examples:

  • You wouldn’t say “Give that ball to we.”, but rather “Give that ball to us.”  That means you should say “Give that ball to Pete and me.” instead of “Give that ball to Pete and I.”
  • You wouldn’t say “It’s been a long time since us went to the zoo.” but rather “It’s been a long time since we went to the zoo.”  That means you should say “It’s been a long time since Ellen and I went to the zoo.” instead of “It’s been a long time since Ellen and me went to the zoo.”
  • You wouldn’t say “… just between we…” but rather “… just between us…” so say “…just between you and me…” instead of “…just between you and I…”.

So go forth and speak correctly.  Or at least a little gooder than before…

Is it live or Memorex?

To start off, a history lesson for the youngsters.  Music, video and other forms of data used to be stored on actual physical media!  Not the media that’s the longitudinal vein in the middle portion of the wing of an insect but honest to goodness magnetic tape.  (And no, it wasn’t made from dinosaur skin…)  Back in them days one of the best makers of magnetic tape was Memorex and they’d tout the fidelity of recordings made with their tape with the question:  ”Is it live, or Memorex?”

What I’m writing about today has absolutely nothing to do with that, but I am pondering the difference between two other things that have more similarities than you might think:  Efficiency and laziness.

Both of these are concerned with minimizing effort, though efficiency usually has the goal of achieving something while accomplishment with laziness is often just a coincidence.  Despite that difference I think there’s an awful lot in common between them and that an efficient person is just a bad night’s sleep, a couple drinks, or a big lunch away from being lazy.  And conversely a lazy person can be just a triple-shot latte away from being highly efficient.

(As an aside, sometimes I really miss caffeine.  Thankfully decaf coffee tastes a whole lot better than it used to and sometimes it’s good enough to trick me into believing it’s the real thing.  On the whole I’m better off without caffeine in my life, but on some mornings it’s harder to believe than on others…)

I’d like to think of myself as an efficient person and I suppose that much of the time I am.  But sometimes I can’t avoid the realization that my motivation is not to do more but to do less.  (Thankfully this manifests itself mainly on weekends.)

There’s also a thin line between madness and genius.  I’m not sure I straddle that line as much as I do the one between efficiency and laziness, but on some mornings it’s harder to believe than on others, especially if I’ve snuck a bit of caffeine…


Everything for a buck-buck-buck

For some reason I’ve had this line from Toy Story 2 stuck in my head for the past week or so.  Usually this happens with songs, and once they get in there it’s just about impossible to get them back out.  For example this morning it was “Dedicated to the One I Love” by the Mamas and the Papas.  I got it blasted out (permanently, I thought) by 7 or 8 minutes of rambling about Peyton Manning on Mike and Mike (@MikeAndMike) this morning. Unfortunately it was back by the afternoon and is still lurking just under the surface.

(As an aside, a short, simple song is a ditty.  It’s not the same thing as a diddy…)

Anywho, I haven’t been able to figure out why this thing from Toy Story is hanging around, popping up from time to time.  The only thing I can think of is that when I shaved my beard off last week I left a goatee there for a couple minutes before deciding that it wasn’t especially flattering.  (Not that it makes much of a difference with me — nothing a paper bag can’t help…) .  I guess that behind the scenes in my massive and powerful brain I must have realized that I looked a bit like Al McWhiggin from Toy Story and this was the line from his ads in the movie.

He dressed as a chicken in those ads and this is, after a bit of meandering, where I wanted to get to:  A set-up for introducing one of my favorite recipes…

Penne with Artichokes, Capers and Chicken

3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
16 oz box of penne
1 can artichoke hearts
1/4 - 1/3 cup capers
olive oil
summer savory (rubbed, not ground)
freshly-ground pepper
1 tsp lemon juice (optional)
grated parmigiano cheese (1/2 C or more)

Cut the chicken breasts into ~3/4 inch cubes and sauté
in olive oil over medium heat.  Begin heating water for
the penne and add them to the water it's boiling.

Add the artichoke hearts to the chicken and use a spoon
to break them apart.  Add capers, season with rosemary,
summer savory and ground pepper and continue to sauté.
For a more tangy taste add lemon juice (but try once
without the lemon to see how you like it).

When the penne is cooked al dente, drain them and then
toss in a bowl (or the pot you cooked them in) with more
olive oil.  Add the chicken/artichoke/caper mixture and
then add the parmigiano cheese.  Season with a little
pepper and serve.

A lot of times I’ll find a recipe and tweak it a bit, but this one was just a sudden inspiration and I claim it for my own. It’s delicious and I recommend it highly.  And as for enjoying a good meal, well  ”… it’s something, that everybody needs.”

Gaaaaaaaaaaaaaack — it’s back!

Conspiracy uncovered– read before THEY remove this note!!!!!!

Hopefully this post will be seen by at least a few people before THEY eradicate it. I’ve discovered a tremendous conspiracy! Tracking daily values of my 403b mutual funds (think 401k if you’re not in education) for the past 10 years, and looking at the number of cents, I’ve never had any of my funds end in 12 cents. That’s in almost 15,000 entries! The odds against that are about 100 bazillion to 1. (OK, it’s actually 3.98E64 to 1, but that’s pretty close to 100 bazillion.)

Could it be the 12 units on the side of the Masonic square and compass? Or multiplying the 3, 2 and 2 in the Skull and Bones logo? I don’t know, but it has me scared…

You’re thore? I’m tho thore I can hardly pith!

When it comes to communication I’m really of two minds. I appreciate a lengthy communication if it’s entertaining and well written. Sadly I’ve seldom been able to get both of these characteristics into my writing or speaking simultaneously. What I appreciate more, however, is someone who can make their point in a tight and compact communication. (It’s even better as a double (or n-tuple) entendre and you can hear the “whoosh” as the more subtle points fly over some people’s heads.)

This comes to mind because you’d think I’d be all over Twitter, just drooling over the chance to demonstrate my pithy wit multiple times each day, in 140 characters or less.  The problem with Twitter is that you need to initiate the remark and I’m much more comfortable in a response mode.  I try to avoid the obvious hanging curve balls that people throw me but am positively tickled when I can show off my cleverness by responding with something so witty that even I don’t understand it.

As an aside, the biggest problem with Twitter is that I can’t imagine why people would want to know what I had for breakfast or the other mundane activities that make up my day, but this seems to be the bulk of what’s out there.  Except, of course, for athletes and celebrities generating publicity, making fools of themselves, or often both simultaneously.  Beyond that there are certainly exceptions where you can find some profound thoughts, but by and large I think we should just rename “Twitter” to be “drivel” and be done with it.

That said, I do, of course, have a Twitter account (@AlanFerrenberg) because everybody who’s anybody has to have one and while I’m not just anybody I’m at least somebody.  Just don’t expect to see much there…

In case you don’t get the reference in the title, and  I’d expect that most respectable people won’t, here’s the entire joke:

The god Thor was in the mood to sample some mortal booty so he disguised himself and came down from Valhalla. He found a willing partner and they had passionate sex all night long – 23 times. In the morning, Thor felt the woman should know just who it was she had spent the night with so he said in a slow, majestic voice, “I am Thor!”. The woman looked at him blearily and said “You’re thore? I’m tho thore I can hardly pith!”

Truth or Consequences

So you don’t get your hopes up, I’m not writing about the old radio/TV game show, even though watching people make fools of themselves and feel good about it would be a good subject. OTOH, with Jerry, Maury and about a thousand Judge Wapner wannabes out there it wouldn’t be especially original…

No, I’m writing about consequences (and that’s the truth!). What I have to say is painfully obvious, but if you ask anyone I work with they’ll tell you that I excel at making the painfully obvious even more painful (and sometimes more obvious).

If you also ask them what I actually do when working, after some puzzled looks and head scratching you’ll hear something about planning. Ah, planning! Don’t you just love the sweet, sweet smell of it? Use facts, judgement, experience, counsel, intuition, WAGs (Wild Ass Guesses, for the uninitiated) and whatever else you have to set goals and then find a way to achieve them. Yum, yum, who doesn’t enjoy the rich, creamy taste of planning?

The thing is I’ve come to realize is that planning ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. If you understand The Nature of Things as I’ve come to understand them, you’ll realize that you can’t be a planner and remain sane. (I’ve clearly made my choice in this matter, a fact many of you will attest to…)

So what do I understand about The Nature of Things? Well… If I had a mathematical bent I’d say something like “life is non-linear”. And since I do have a mathematical bent (drum roll….) life is non-linear.

What this means to me is that as you stroll down the path of life, a small perturbation may or may not have a small impact. Think about a walk along a forest path. If you move a little left or right not much happens because you have the forest hemming you in. But if you come to a fork in the path all of a sudden a little left or right can have a big impact on where you end up. I imagine that you’re not impressed at this point, saying something like: “Duuuude, everybody knows this! You have big decision points in your life and of course your choices at these times have major consequences for the direction your life goes in. This is mundane crap even for you and I don’t know why I’m wasting time reading this.”

The thing is that I’m not talking about those kinds of decisions, so pbltpbltpbltpblt to you if that’s what you thought. (‘pbltpbltpbltpblt’ is the sound of a raspberry, and not the fruit kind.). I’ll “mundane crap” you…

Your life’s path isn’t set by those big decisions that you make with deliberation, it’s the small choices you make with hardly a moment’s thought (or things you can’t control) that can have unpredictable consequences. What do I mean by that? Well, for example…

  • You have to wait for a train on your way to work, or you try a shortcut. It might just make you a few minutes late, or it might keep you from a horrific accident. (Or get you into one.)
  • You stop by the Qwik-E-Mart to get some milk and it gets robbed, or you catch the flu from the guy at the counter and miss a big meeting. Or you don’t stop and your wife’s boss drops by unexpectedly and there’s no milk for his coffee. (Bye bye promotion!)
  • The person interviewing you for a job is allergic to your after shave. (Bye bye job!) So maybe you end up living in a box under a bridge as a result, or maybe your next interview yields the job of your life.
  • A kind word keeps someone from jumping off that bridge. Or the lack of a kind word doesn’t. (This may have sort of happened to me and uncertainty about it has tormented me for years. Perhaps the subject of a future entry…)

The point is that none of these are what you’d call monumental decisions, but the consequences are tremendous. If these made-up (except for the last one) examples don’t float your boat, how about a real one?

Sometime in late April or early May 1984 (yes, it’s ancient history so don’t ask me which) I was nearing the end of my junior year studying in Switzerland. Being a clever chap (it *was* a long time ago, remember) I occasionally had an evening free from studying or homework, and the evening in question was one of those times. I had a few options for the evening including hanging around the dorm or going uptown for a drink. (Ah, the ‘Lapin Vert’ had a great selection…) I made that latter choice many an evening and would enjoy a leisurely stagger back home.

(As an aside, if you’ve never been to Lausanne Switzerland you won’t appreciate just how ‘up’ uptown is if you live by the lake. About 1500 feet in elevation difference between the lake and the ‘Green Rabbit’ — that’s a bigger elevation difference than in the entire state of Ohio!)

So you’re thinking to yourself, “Another ‘I learned my lesson about alcohol’ story. Whoop dee doo”. Well, not quite. I actually decided to do something else and went halfway uptown (near the train station) to play some ping pong with friends. When we were done I walked back down, completely sober (unlike some other nights I sort of remember…).

The suspense is growing, isn’t it my friend? What gruesome fate awaited me? I’m sure you’re just itching to find out, so…

Not too far from home, actually almost at lake level but still a few minutes away, I was walking down a sidewalk on a poorly-lit street. What I didn’t realize is that a street crew had been working on the sidewalk and a big chunk of it was missing (and not marked). I stepped on the unexpected edge and tore up my left ankle. (For those of you who know me, it’s the one that occasionally makes that loud popping noise.) To spare you the unnecessary details of the rest of the evening, I ended up in a cast for six weeks as a result.

“Ho, hum” you say? Well now for the rest of the story (and since I’m sure I’ve tried your patience I’ll pick up the pace…)

Being in a cast made it inconvenient to walk very far so instead of going over to the lake in the evenings with the rest of my friends, I stayed around the dorm. In doing so I got to know a young Swiss lass who was spending time studying for her exams, and the rest is history. (She didn’t pass, but I don’t think it was my fault.)

So I look at my daughters and realize that they wouldn’t exist at all if I hadn’t decided to play ping pong one evening. Now that’s what I call non-linear…

The lesson is that even the best conceived plans are surrounded by a sea of chaos, populated by trains, shortcuts, convenience stores, after shave, kind words, and even ping pong games, all just itching to manifest themselves (or not) at unexpected times and with unpredictable consequences.

So how do you stay sane knowing that the most insignificant decision you make has as much potential to shape your life as your best-laid plans? When you find out, let me know…

How Green is Green?

This is an article I wrote about power consumption in the office.  Nothing especially witty or charming about it (unlike my regular posts — ha!), but at least it’s something, and it might help you save the environment, or at least a few bucks…

How green is green?  Saving money and the environment from your office
At the end of the day you make sure the coffee maker and computer speakers are turned off, you shut down your computer and printer, and then off your lights when you leave the office. You’ve done your part to help the environment and save the University some money, right?
The answer is “Sort of”.
Most electronic devices continue to draw power even when they’re turned off. The energy used by devices that are turned off is their Standby Power Consumption, and it’s estimated that over 10 percent of the electricity consumed in developed countries goes to feed devices that aren’t in use.

As an example, consider the kinds of devices that might be in use in a typical Miami office. Things like cell phone chargers, radios, desktop computers, printers, speakers, coffee makers, even surge protectors and power strips consume electricity when they’re plugged in even if they’re turned off. The typical standby power consumption for these devices is about 10 Watts per person.

While this seems like a small amount, consider that these devices are drawing power the entire 119 hours each week that we’re not in our offices and that there are over 5000 employees at Miami. Over the course of a year, this amounts to more than 330,000 kW-h of electricity used for absolutely nothing! With electricity costing Miami $0.081/kW-h this means that we’re wasting over $27,000 and causing the release of about two tons of greenhouse gases each year.

So what can each of us do to chip away this waste? The easiest thing is, where practical, to completely unplug these devices at the end of the day. You can also be deliberate in purchasing office appliances that have a low standby consumption. This is presently difficult because few manufacturers provide this information, but as green awareness increases it should be easier to do in the future.

And don’t forget that you can reduce your home energy consumption by doing the same thing. Since you likely have more devices at home than in your office, you can probably see some significant savings by pulling the plug when you can.
The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has a website dedicated to providing information on standby power consumption (http://standby.lbl.gov/standby.html) including tips on reducing this wasted energy consumption as well as data on how much power various types of devices consume.

The Ugly Duckling

No, I’m not going to write about some stupid duck, but I will write about a swan, or more correctly a Swann. Lynn Swann to be precise. Unless you’re very young, mentally challenged, have lived under a rock for many years, or some combination of these, you know that he was a Hall of Fame wide receiver for my beloved Pittsburgh Steelers.

For a few years back in the late 70s and early 80s, I worked at the cafeteria at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, PA. It was an evening/weekend job during the school year, but over the summer it was almost full time.

(As an aside, back in those days I wore a blue denim hat for some reason. It looked something like this

Snoop Dogg in a purple hat

except that it was blue and not purple, and it was me and not Snoop Dogg. I don’t have any pictures of myself in that hat. Probably a good thing…)

Anywho, for those in the know, St. Vincent College is where my beloved Pittsburgh Steelers hold their training camp and I had the distinct honor of bussing tables for the section of the dining hall where the Steelers ate. These were simpler times when the only protection the Steelers needed from the unwashed horde of students was a simple sliding partition. No armed guards or anything.

Actually, that’s not entirely true.  There were nuns working in the cafeteria and if you think they’re dangerous with rulers, you should see them with large, wooden spoons.  (As an aside, second one in this post — a new record, one of the nuns was named Atilla.  That’s right ATILLA THE NUN.  I’m not making this up!)

Back to the main story (since I really seem distracted today). One day I was in their section of the dining room, moving trays from one cart to another to wheel them over to the dishroom. I was on my knees and when I turned toward the the cart I bumped a tray into a player’s shin. It turned out to be Lynn Swann and he looked down, sort of smiled, and said “The cockroaches sure are getting bigger around here.” I didn’t really know what to say so I finished my job and shuffled out quietly.

If the story ended there, it would still have been an honor to have been insulted by such a great player, but later that week I had a real honor. I was out with some friends (yes, unlike now, back in those days I actually had friends) at an arcade playing some pinball (link for you youngsters) when in walks Lynn Swann. (Again, these were simpler times when a Superbowl MVP and future Hall of Famer could walk into an arcade without bodyguards or a posse.) While everyone was going absolutely gaga, Lynn walked over to me, patted me on the back, said “Hi” and asked me how I was doing. (Since I wasn’t on the floor bumping his shin with a lunch tray I guess he recognized me by my Snoop Dogg hat. Of course, Snoop Dogg was only 9 years old at the time, though he could have been wearing a hat like that…) Needless to say, I was on cloud nine and the envy of my friends for quite some time.

It goes without saying (even though I’m saying it) that I have a lot of respect and admiration for Lynn Swann. If I lived in Pennsylvania I’d have voted for him for Governor in 2006.And if I’d been able to convince another 832,772 people to vote for him, he’d have won…

My Cousin Vinnie (Pie)

As I mentioned several postings ago, I love Vinnie Pie. For the uninitiated, Vinnie Pie is pizza from Vincent’s Pizza Park in Forest Hills, PA — about 10 miles from downtown Pittsburgh. If you didn’t know that it’s the heart of the pizza universe, it’s the kind of place you’d drive by and never think of stopping at.  (Actually it’s the kind of place that you’d drive away from as quickly as possible.) Here’s a picture of it:

It looks like a dive from the outside. At this point you might be expecting me to say that it’s different inside, but the interior isn’t any better (actually worse, if you can imagine that). You don’t go to Vincent’s for the ambiance or good service; you go for the best pizza in the world. A large (12-cut 19″) pizza costs $12.75 with $3.75 toppings. So for $20.25 you can get a mushroom and pepperoni monstrosity that can easily feed 4 people. Add $3.75 for extra cheese if your life insurance is paid up.

Here’s a photo of a Vinnie Pie to tantalize you — it appears to be a medium pepperoni and sausage (with one piece of green pepper that somehow managed to sneak on):

As you can see, this is not a pizza for the weak of heart (seriously). When you order toppings on a Vinnie Pie, you get TOPPINGS. And you don’t get a miserly portion of a topping, placed on the pie with surgical precision, you get handfuls thrown there. If you order half a topping, what you get is the full amount dumped on (approximately) half the pizza. This can easily lead to a quarter to half inch of solid pepperoni and should probably be avoided unless you’re dining with an EMT or carry a defibrillator with you.

Once, almost 30 years ago, I actually managed to eat half of a large Vinnie Pie in a single sitting. Witnessing (and equaling) the feat was Jim Collins (no, not the “Good to Great” Jim Collins, but one of my college housemates). I don’t know where Jim is now (somewhere in Virginia, perhaps), but maybe someday he’ll get nostalgic for Vinnie Pie, search the internet and stumble across this. If you do, Jim, “Howdy!”.  I’ve never been able to repeat this feat.  (Probably explains why I’m still alive…)

Vincent’s was founded in 1950 by Vincent Chianese. (You can see an old, old picture of it on page 290 of the book Lincoln Highway by Brian Butko. Search for it on Google and you might be lucky enough to get page 290 in the Google book search.) Sadly, since 2010 Vince only tosses pies in the celestial pizzeria, but hist family continues the tradition on earth. About the only thing missing are the occasional ashes from the cigarettes that Vince used to smoke.

I was introduced to Vinnie Pie in 1982 and I was hooked immediately. I’ve got plenty of good memories of Vincent’s. One of the fondest was ordering a pitcher of beer (while underage, of course), getting carded, but being served anyway.  I’d like to think it was because we were regular customers and never got rowdy. (After a slice or two it’s impossible to be rowdy — almost impossible to move, in fact.)  I’ve even had a Vinnie Pie delivered to me in Switzerland in 1984 (a long story, but thanks, Larry!). That might be a first, though with all of the fans of Vincent’s out there, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone did it before I did.

(As an aside, despite loving beer with my pizza, I’ve recently stopped ordering beer when I go to Vincent’s. Beer fills me up, and since trips to get Vinnie Pie are pretty rare, I’d rather cram one more slice in. I can always get beer somewhere else.)

I had the pleasure of heading to Vincent’s back in December to pick up my daughters who stayed in PA for a few days after Christmas. (And no, I didn’t leave them there just to have an excuse to get another dose of Vinnie Pie, though now that you mention it…) I left home a little after 7 AM, drove to Latrobe, and made it back before 7 PM. Now that I know that a Vinnie Pie road trip can be made in less than 12 hours, I might have to think about another one. Perhaps next year when the Steelers make it to the Super Bowl…

Some guys have all the luck…

I learned recently that my nephew has a teacher who works as a coach for the Baltimore Ravens cheerleaders.  And in case you didn’t click the link (and if you have a Y chromosome you should) when I say “coach”, I’m not talking about a pot-bellied person with a megaphone, I’m talking about “Miss January” in the Ravens Cheerleader Calendar. (Seriously!)

(As an aside, I’d normally consider anyone from Latrobe who works for the Ravens a traitor, but seeing as my beloved Pittsburgh Steelers don’t have cheerleaders — one of 6 NFL teams that don’t — I suppose I can’t complain too much.)

Now when I think back to my jr. high school teachers, back when wooly mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers roamed the planet, I really can’t remember much. What comes to mind is basically a bunch of faceless folks who sounded like the the teachers from Charlie Brown. As for the few I can recall, the most charitable thing I can say is that they certainly weren’t cheerleader caliber. (So few of us are…)