"Madame, bear in mind That princes govern all things--save the wind." -Victor Hugo, The Infanta's Rose

Monday, April 30, 2007

My good buds in the Senate

I took my own advice a while back, and wrote to my representatives in the House and Senate about the recent disastrous ruling by the Copyright Royalty Board which will most likely result in the extinction of internet radio. Somewhat to my surprise, last week I received the following reply from Republican Senator John Cornyn:
Thank you for contacting me about the important issue of music performance rights. I appreciate having the benefit of your comments on this important matter.As you are aware, rapid advances in communications technology have led to the development of digital television and radio, as well as subscription satellite television and radio services. These new capabilities expand the range of choices available to consumers; subscription satellite radio is one of the most successful examples of quickly advancing technology. I welcome such consumer-driven innovation and enjoy a personal satellite radio subscription.

As expected, technological innovation also brings with it the threat of copyright infringement. While recent technology advances represent important achievements, we must, on principle, protect the intellectual property rights of those responsible for such innovation. You may be certain that I will continue working with my Senate colleagues to strike a balance between copyright protection and technological advance and that I will keep your concerns in mind should the Senate consider relevant legislation during the 110th Congress.

I appreciate having the opportunity to represent the interests of Texans in the United States Senate. Thank you for taking the time to contact me.


United States Senator
517 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
OK. And then, just today I got this message from Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison:
Thank you for contacting me regarding copyright protection. I welcome your thoughts and comments on this issue.

Copyright protection has been central to America's prosperity and job creation. Movies, books, computer software, television, photography and music are among our unique American products and some of our most successful exports. United States industries depending on copyright protection employ nearly 4 million workers and produce over $65 billion of our exports ( more than agriculture and automobile manufacturing.

Protecting content in a high-technology age is a new and daunting problem, and copyright protection is an important challenge as the broadband revolution offers even more far-reaching possibilities and opportunities. With new speed and interactivity, the entire store of movies, music, books, television and raw knowledge can be made widely available. I believe copyright protection is a foundation of innovation, and copyright law should work to ultimately protect the best interests of consumers. Intellectual property is the creative core of the information age, and I agree this is a pivotal issue for Congress to address.

I appreciate hearing from you and hope you will not hesitate to keep in touch on any issue of concern to you.

Kay Bailey Hutchison
There are two ways to interpret these replies. The first is that they're the typical Washington Waffle; you'll note that neither response is especially committal one way or the other, nor do they exactly address the subject. In all probability, some lowly staff member reads all incoming mail and tries to determine its general topic and whether the writer is "fer" it or "agin" it (whatever "it" is). You can almost hear them thinking, "Hmmmm. Internet radio? Well lemme see, it's not exactly commerce, but it's sort of telecommunications. Maybe science and technology? No, it doesn't really fit any of those. Wait, how about Music Performance Rights? Yeah, that's it. Close enough." Senator Hutchison's office tagged the issue as "copyright protection". In either case, the staffer fired off a boiler-plate form reply and the Senator never actually read the message.

On the other hand, perhaps lawmakers do indeed personally and carefully read every word of letters they receive from their constituents, giving thoughtful consideration to their concerns. Hey, it could happen. So just in case I actually do have an ear in Washington, I sent them the following message to reinforce my points. Note my persuasive yet diplomatic style:

Dear Senator:

Thank you very much for your reply to my recent contact to your office concerning music performance rights (copyright protection). I appreciate that you are cognizant of this issue and working to strike a balance between the interested parties.

I am a lifelong broadcaster, and a fan of Internet radio. Since my initial message to you, the Copyright Royalty Board met on April 16th and refused to reconsider their initial action to raise royalty fees paid by Internet broadcasters to stratospheric levels which would force many of them to shut down. As I am sure you are aware, National Public Radio led this drive for a rehearing, arguing that the CRB's decision was an "abuse of discretion".

Unfortunately, the Judges did not appear to fully consider the ramifications of the new royalty structure, and that avenue of appeal has now been closed. I am therefore urgently asking for your help.

In addition to being a former broadcaster, I am also a musician and understand that those who create the music we all enjoy deserve to be fairly compensated for their efforts. I am not opposed to reasonable royalty payments for musicians and songwriters. But the key word here is "fairly", and the CRB's new rates are simply unrealistic and unreasonable, with markups of 300 to 1200 percent from the previous payment structure. Even though the director of Sound Exchange, Mr. John Stimson, said he "look(s) forward to working with the Internet radio industry", there will be no "industry" left to work with if these disastrous fees go into effect. Few Internet broadcasters will have the financial capacity to pay these exorbitant rates which in many cases exceed their incoming revenue, and will simply be forced out of existence.

In the last week since the CRB refused to consider a rehearing, the news media has been full of dire stories from Internet broadcasters facing imminent extinction. Here is but one example: AccuRadio founder and CEO Kurt Hanson says he makes money by selling advertising time, but the new royalty rate increase would far exceed the revenue that ads bring in. "This rate hike would absolutely shut us down if it's put into effect," he said. "Our revenues last year were about $400,000. We thought our royalty obligation under the previous deal would have been about $48,000. Our royalty obligation under this new deal would be $600,000."

Mr. Hanson's story is typical of many, many Internet broadcasters who now face the prospect of crippling royalty payments. Even more appalling, noncommercial webcasters who do not sell advertising and have no income whatsoever would still be forced to pay huge fees under the CRB-mandated royalty structure. This makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

I am not speaking in hyperbole when I say that I am very concerned that this action is the death knell for Internet radio, a medium that has brought unprecedented choice and diversity of entertainment to myself and countless other Americans. Webcasting also serves as a valuable conduit for many independent artists who have a difficult time breaking through on other forms of radio.

There is one last chance to save Internet radio, and that is intervention by the House and Senate to demand that the CRB determine fair and reasonable royalty rates that will not bankrupt web broadcasters. However, time is of the essence as these fees go into effect on May 15th.

I implore you and your colleagues to take whatever steps are necessary to keep this date from being forever known in the future as "the day the music died".

Thank you very much for your time and interest in this matter.

"Mr. Toast"

In case you were wondering, yes I did use my real name. It will be interesting to see if I get anything but another form letter in reply, but at least I've done what I can do. As I mentioned to the good Senators, time is growing short and a groundswell of public outcry over this travesty of justice might actually prevent these rates from going into effect on May 15th. Want to help? If you're interested, find out more about the issue here, then write your representative and let your voice be heard. Feel free to copy and paste any part of the above if you like, or visit this Live365 page for more specific suggestions.

Stay tuned for more news on this topic.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Random grocerocity

An otherwise ordinary trip to the grocery store can be a fascinating experience in cultural awareness, or at very least the power of marketing in our lives. Two quick examples:

1. Based on the success of Unilever's "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter", several grocery chains have come up with their own "house brand" versions of the product. Kroger has their "Butter, It's Not", and the HEB stores here in Texas have something called "You'd Think It's Butter". I don't know why they don't just stop beating around the bush and call their product "I Can't Believe It's Not I Can't Believe It's Not Butter". Also, "You've Got To Be Shitting Me, Whaddaya Mean This Ain't Butter?", or "If This Is Butter, Then I'm Freaking Tony Orlando And Dawn" might be good alternate names as well.

2. This whole celebrity product naming thing is getting out of hand. This weekend Mrs. Toast picked up a package of Nolan Ryan Steaks. Would someone please tell me what the hell a former professional baseball player has to do with USDA choice meat? So let me get this straight: I can buy Nolan Ryan beef, marinade it in some Paul Newman dressing, cook it on my George Forman grill, cut it with an Emeril knife, and then eat it on Martha Stewart table ware? What's next? To complete the cycle, Sheryl Crow Brand Toilet Paper? ("So strong, you only need one square!")

Please, stop the madness.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Be sure to pack your bathing suit

One thing you can say about the folks at Google, they're about as wild n' crazy as a bunch of software engineers can be. For example, they're well known for their annual April Fool's jokes like this one.

The guffaws continue at their mapping portal, where you can create a trip route to your chosen destination complete with the usual turn-by-turn driving instructions. Click on the "Get Directions" tab, enter Houston to Chicago: 1078 miles in 17 hours and 40 minutes. OK, typical stuff; any number of sites will do that. But on Google Maps, create a route between two locations not directly connected by roads -- say, Houston to Frankfurt, Germany -- and you'll get this:

This is nerd humor at its finest, people.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

"To those who saved the world"

Try to imagine the following scenario:

Tonight, you and your family go to bed at the usual time, and at around 2 AM you are fast asleep when the sound of a distant rumble wakes you. At first you try to ignore it and go back to sleep but soon there is another louder "boom" and you know with certainty that something is not right. The wail of far-away sirens filters through your bedroom window, and as you look outside from your front porch you see an eerie yet strangely beautiful pinkish-blue glow on the horizon. You try to call the authorities to get some information about what is going on, but no one seems to know, or be willing to tell you, anything. Meanwhile, the sirens grow louder, and closer.

Anxious hours pass with no word until just before dawn, when a man in a military uniform appears at your doorway. He tells you that you and your family must evacuate immediately. He will not explain why. The only thing you will be allowed to bring with you is one suitcase containing whatever important papers you have: deeds, bank notes, birth certificates, etc. You can bring nothing else: no food, clothing or other possessions. Even your beloved pets must stay behind. You are given only 10 minutes to gather your papers, and you leave your home without even the slightest idea of where you are going or when you will be back.

You will never return.

This may sound like the plot of a bad science-fiction "alien invasion" movie, but this would have been the reality of your life exactly 21 years ago tonight if you were one of the 50,000 residents of Prypiat, in the Ukraine area of the former Soviet Union. And the single word that was the source of your calamity that night has since become synonymous with the dark side of "the peaceful atom" the world over: Chernobyl.

Today, Prypiat is a ghost town, a slice of mid-80's Soviet life frozen in time; in some places, laundry still hangs on frayed lines. Prypiat was a modern city at the time of the 1986 disaster, built in high style by the government to house plant workers. If you have Google Earth, you can "visit" it and roam its deserted streets; just set the coordinates to 51 24 20N, 30 03 25E in the input box, and you'll be plopped right in the city center. (Tip: simply copy and paste the coordinate string from this post, or if you already have Google Earth installed, just click here to open the site automatically.) The nuclear power plant itself is located just two miles to the southeast, and if you zoom in, you can clearly see with considerable detail the sarcophagus of the doomed reactor #4. The hastily-built structure has not aged well, and is leaky and unstable. A massive construction project to replace it with the world's largest dome, called the Shelter Implementation Plan, has been envisioned for years, but government red tape and difficulty funding the enormous cost of the project (estimates range from $750 million up to $2.5 billion USD) have resulted in numerous delays. However, the present contractor, the German firm GRS, claims that the sarcophagus will be enclosed and the site made "ecologically safe" by the end of 2008. It remains to be seen if this goal will be met.

Even in the virtual world of Google Earth, it is a strange feeling to look around and imagine the scene of disaster: the panic, fear, and also the bravery that occurred that night and in the days that followed. If you really want a close-up look, it's possible to actually go there; the government issues tightly-controlled permits to visit the site for about $150 per person, although much paperwork (including, one would assume, multiple waivers of liability for any future physical effects) and a portable dosimeter is required for entry. If this interests you at all, click here for details; frankly, for my money Google Earth is a lot cheaper, and safer too.

Another fascinating web site that lets you explore the area on the back of a motorcycle is called Kidd Of Speed. It is the story of Elena Filatova, a native resident whose father is a nuclear physicist researching the accident, and her journeys through and around Chernobyl on her big-ass Kawasaki Ninja motor bike. Her pictures and narrative will let you see the site through her eyes, and give you goose bumps.

Another slide show of photos can be found here.

The twenty-first anniversary of the disaster is being commemorated in various ways today; many are remembering those who died, particularly the workers and firefighters at the plant who raced into the shattered reactor trying to contain the damage, knowing full well that such action meant their certain death. A memorial to those men (right) is erected not far from the site, funded and built by their comrades. An inscription on it reads, "To those who saved the world."

Area dignitaries have also marked the occasion by visiting the site, and some, including Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, have even talked about re-developing the 20-mile circle around the plant known as the "zone of exclusion". While visiting a school near Kiev today, Mr. Yushchenko told reporters, "I am convinced that the Chernobyl zone is coming alive, and step by step, we will begin to develop the possibilities of this territory." Even though the city will not officially be suitable for human habitation for another 300 to 600 years, a few people still live not far away (roughly 10 km), and other parts of the zone where radiation contamination has not been as great may be safe for farming certain types of crops (such as those for bio-fuels), or forestry. Projects also being considered include a nature preserve that would take advantage of a wildlife resurgence in the area (mainly due to the absence of human impact), and a proposal to build an international science center at the site to study the lingering effects of the accident.

In addition to the memorial services, many activists are marking this day, as they have every other anniversary of the disaster, by calling attention to the dangers of nuclear power. A large demonstration in Washington, DC, today led to the arrest of at least 24 individuals who put ashes and red liquid on the steps of the Pentagon; other anti-nuke protest rallies were held in cities worldwide.

Moreover, a growing chorus of concern is being heard from those who draw a dark parallel between the development of nuclear technology to produce energy and the development of nuclear weapons. Dr. Joan Russow of Canada's Global Compliance Research Project, writes:
"It is clear that nuclear energy with its continued risk of accidents, with its unresolved waste disposal problem, is not a solution to the issue of climate change ... The designation of "peaceful use" has eclipsed the inextricable link between civil nuclear energy and the development of nuclear arms. Uranium mining states such as Canada have used the "peaceful use" clause [in the Global Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty] to justify the continued export of uranium to India and Pakistan in the 1960s, and to nuclear arms states with the proviso that Canadian uranium must only be used for peaceful purpose [however,] there is a little bit of Canadian uranium throughout the US nuclear arsenal."
In her book "Nuclear Madness", Helen Caldicott sounds a similar warning about the hazardous byproducts of nuclear development for "peaceful" use:
"As a physician, I contend that nuclear technology threatens life on our planet with extinction. If present trends continue, the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink will soon be contaminated with enough radioactive pollutants to pose a potential health hazard far greater than any plague humanity has ever experienced."
With the world in general, and the USA in particular, continuing to demand cheap, reliable energy, there will be no easy answers. Is nuclear power our friend, a clean and reasonably safe way to reduce our dependency on imported oil? Or is it the unseen monster, hiding in our bedroom closets until we fall asleep, waiting to wake us up to a radioactive nightmare?

I think I know what the residents of Prypiat would have thought on this night, exactly twenty-one years ago.

But it couldn't happen here.

Could it?

by Mr. Toast. Photos © Waclaw Gudowski

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

It's new to me

Turning to a lighter topic today: wandering hither, tither, and yon on the Internet, I stumbled across a wacky web site called "Will It Blend?" containing a series of videos where in each exciting 2-minute episode, a dorky middle-aged host in a white lab coat inserts various objects into a standard-issue kitchen blender and grinds them to a pulp. Isn't the web a wonderful thing?

Among other things, he's blended cell phones, CDs, metal tape measures, a bathroom plunger (left), stuffed animals, cassette tapes, and my favorite: a baseball. At the end of each segment, the pureed contents of the blender are dumped ceremoniously onto the table to the bouncy beat of 50's game show music while the words, "Yes, it blends!" flashes on the screen. I thought it was hilarious and figured I'd uncovered a hidden treasure. I mean, who the hell inserts a live video camera and a beer (still in the can!) into a blender until it turns into a mushy powder, besides a 19-year old drunken redneck? This has to be how "Mythbusters" got started, right?

But upon further investigation I discovered I'm a Johnny-Come-Lately to the Mixfest. It turns out that WIB is a viral marketing campaign for the Blendtec company, who not-so-coincidentally manufactures the implement of destruction used on the program. The show has been around for a while; it originated as a gag on YouTube, and became so wildly popular there that the company decided to produce videos for their own web site. Host Tom Dickson (who is also, again not-so-coincidentally, the company's CEO) and his Blender of Doom have appeared on The Today Show with Meredith Viera, been interviewed by Katie Couric on CBS, and the show has been seen by millions. Who knew? Apparently, not I.

My other discovery, which so far as I know has not (yet, at least) become a worldwide phenomenon is a quirky little show called "Cube News". It's hosted by the adorably goofy Kim, a spunky lil' ol' Southern gal (right) who talks a mile a minute on subjects that all office cubicle-dwellers can relate to, like the etiquette of invisible walls, the perils of body odor in the shared workspace, how to handle those photos of you having sex with a co-worker posted on the company web site, and coping with the dreaded "chair-butt syndrome". It's sort of like "Dilbert" on acid.

This stuff is the latest wave of video known as "User-Generated-Content" (UGC). One of the first big shows of this genre was "Rocketboom", which started from nothing and took off after it was picked up by Tivo, making an instant media darling of host Amanda Congdon. She went on to host a similar video podcast on ABC, and is currently developing a new program for HBO. Lots of people are now hoping to duplicate her success with low-budget productions like "Will It Blend" and "Cube News", and quite a few people -- mostly college students -- indeed watch YouTube to the exclusion of "real" TV. Video equipment and editing software has become so affordable that nearly anyone can produce a technically decent-looking show, but the key factor, as has always been true with any performance, is that it still takes creativity and talent to make something people will want to watch and be entertained by.

Which fails to explain either Rosie O'Donnell or Sanjaya Malakar.

In any case, I'm late to the party -- again -- on this whole UGC thing, so please leave a comment if you've got a favorite YouTube video or podcast you'd like to share. You might also want to send me your kipper ties, calico brocade shirts, and alpaca flares. Yeah, I wanna be so hip it hurts.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Return to "normal"

Classes resumed today at Virginia Tech, and students will be attempting to go on with their academic and personal lives after last week's shooting rampage. Frankly, I think many of them will find this very difficult if not impossible. How do you get back into the routine of classes, study, term papers, tests, and grades, not to mention the social scene that is such a large part of college life, after a tragedy of this magnitude? However, VT is being extremely understanding about this and allowing students to base their grade for the semester solely on work completed prior to April 16 if they so choose. While the administration feels that it is beneficial to the student's emotional well-being to finish the semester, they are also nevertheless offering them the option to withdraw from classes and "remove themselves from campus" until next fall without penalty. Those interested can find further information at the University's web site.

This was a very sad weekend, as memorial services and funerals for many of the slain students and faculty took place on Saturday and Sunday. Other services will be held nationwide this week, including a candlelight vigil tonight in the main hall of the University of Texas. On Friday, hundreds of students and faculty at our school came together at our football stadium to form a "Living VT Logo"; a framed photo of the human logo, together with thousands of dollars collected at the event to benefit the families of the victims, has been sent to the VT administration to show our sympathy and solidarity. A low-res screen grab from the local TV news report is shown here; I'll try to post a better copy of the photo if I can find one.

As incongruous as it may at first seem, this tragedy makes me appreciate living in the USA. Stop and think for just a moment what life is like for ordinary citizens in countries like Iraq, where the massacre of innocent civilians is a daily affair. Imagine not being able to leave your home on any day of the week without the real and warranted fear that you or a loved one will be killed or maimed in a senseless, random act of violence. On the same day as the VT shooting, at least 65 Iraqis died in four separate attacks; 85 the next day, 50 the next ... and still it goes on. Total civilian casualties in Iraq number, by some estimates, more than 100,000 over the last four years. I don't mention this to diminish the events at Tech in any way, and I realize there's a danger of appearing callous by comparing the misfortunes of others in an attempt to somehow make one feel "better". I am also aware that in the last week many people seem to be using this tragedy to further their own particular political agenda: for example, the gun control lobby claims that if stronger laws were in effect, the shooting might have never happened, while the pro-gun crowd argues that had any of the students or faculty in Norris Hall that day been in possession of a firearm, they might have been able to stop Cho before the carnage escalated. The Korean-American community and mental-health advocates have also weighed in, along with everyone else who has an axe to grind. This is not a crowd I want to join. But let me just say that I am thankful to live in a country where events such as those last week are still a rare occurrence, and not a fact of everyday life. I pray that someday they don't happen at all, anywhere.

UPDATE: Click here for a higher-resolution image of our VT memorial photo.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

My comic life

Man, I seem to have a thing for comic strips lately, so apparently I have the intellectual capacity of a 14-year old. Hah! But as a former (and occasionally current) radio disk jockey, I got a particular laugh out of today's "For Better or Worse" strip; here's an abbreviated version with just the setup and the punch line:

Like yesterday, click the image above for a larger version -- or better yet, go to creator Lynn Johnston's web site for the full strip.

Speaking of disk jockeys, I suppose I should weigh in on the Don Imus affair, as he was one of my idols when I was a struggling young jock many years ago. While I think his remark was tasteless, insulting, and stupid -- that's what he does. Why do you think they're called "shock jocks", for heaven's sake? The man is not a racist, and had the sense to realize he'd stepped over the line and sincerely apologized for it. The good that the I-man has done for disabled and disadvantaged kids over the years, as well as his thoughtful public discourse (admittedly weaved in with a liberal dose of offensive comments as well) on significant issues has been virtually overlooked in the headlong rush to condemn him. But look for Imus to resurface sooner or later on satellite radio alongside Howard Stern, yet another sign that traditional terrestrial broadcasting is continuing it's inexorable march toward becoming a bland, boring, politically-correct, over-regulated vast wasteland.

You may also know that legendary Hawaiian crooner Don Ho passed away last week. (This may seem like a radical shift in subject, but bear with me here.) Although unmistakably hokey, the entertainer will always be special to Mrs. Toast and myself. We spent our honeymoon in the Islands at the legendary CoCo Palms Hotel on Kauai (later destroyed in 1992 by Hurricane Iniki) where he was the resident performer. We'll never forget attending his dinner show at the resort; as he strolled through the crowd singing his signature tune "Tiny Bubbles", he stopped at our table and sang directly to us for a brief period. At that exact moment, thousands of little tiny bubbles erupted from some sprinkler-type system in the showroom's ceiling, filling the air to provide a special effect for the tune. Many of them landed on our dinner table, and for years afterwards we jokingly sang "Tiny bubbles/in the salad" to each other.

Later in his career, he would make fun of the song's swaying, silly lyrics. "I hate that song," he often joked to his audience. He said he saved it for the end of his show because "people my age can't remember if we did it or not."

Anyway, we were sorry to hear of his passing at the age of 77 due to heart disease. Mr. Ho had ten children, and some of them are curly-haired. Therefore, could it have been possible that Don Imus was merely comparing the Rutger's women's basketball team to the offspring of the legendary Hawaiian performer?

Nah, I didn't think so either.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Then and now

Click comic for a larger version. Credit: ©2007 by Dan Perkins

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Tragic irony

Like the rest of the world, we are shocked and saddened by the recent events at Virginia Tech. It has hit our small community especially hard, as our college town has much in common with Blacksburg, VA; the population is roughly the same, and the local State University is an important fixture in the area. There is a palpable sense on campus today that this tragedy could have easily happened here.

Virginia Tech's web site has been converted to a memorial page, with links to information and resources to help folks there cope with this senseless tragedy. In a sad twist of irony, there is also a link on the site that leads to an "All About Blacksburg" page, which contains the following paragraph under "Quick Facts":

The Town of Blacksburg and the Virginia Tech campus experience very little crime. In a recent National Citizens Survey, 91 percent of Blacksburg’s residents reported that they feel safe in their neighborhoods.

Somehow I expect that figure has declined this week. Our hearts go out to the victims and their families.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The death of internet radio

There's a few things that set me off on a rant, and today's topic is one of them. It's pretty lightweight compared to truly serious issues like global warming and Iraq, but as a former broadcaster it hits close to home for me. I love listening to music over the internet, and recent government actions will likely doom internet radio to extinction.

In a nutshell, internet broadcasters (like all other radio stations) pay royalty fees to the copyright holders of music they play. Previously, this fee was based on a percentage of the station's income from advertising. This is a logical method of doing business; a station making, say, $1,000 a month can afford to pay more than a station making $100 a month, or zero in the case of many so-called "hobby" broadcasters who run stations out of their homes strictly for fun instead of for profit. This has resulted in a wide and eclectic variety of streaming choices for the listener. Now, our good friends at the RIAA want all internet stations to pay PER SONG, PER LISTENER, regardless if the station doesn't make a dime. Please read the details below, and if you feel strongly enough, click the link to send an email to your congressional representative requesting reasonable royalty rates for internet broadcasters. Thanks.

Who, What, and When

Corporate interests are hard at working making sure you don't have a choice, because they make more money when you have no choices. On March 2, 2007, The CRB (Copyright Royalty Board, a division of the US Copyright Office) approved new royalty rates that will bury any small webcaster, and create a heavy burden even for big broadcasters like Yahoo, AOL Music and Pandora. How high will these rates be? In most cases, around 100% of a small webcaster's revenue! Yesterday (4/16), the Copyright Royalty Judges caved in to the RIAA and issued an order denying a rehearing which had been requested by numerous parties including National Public Radio, who objected to the new provisions requiring that noncommercial stations must pay the same royalty rates as commercial broadcasters. (Latest stories here.)

How did this happen?

The RIAA told the CRB that's what they wanted, and the CRB just gave it to them. The RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) is a lobbying group formed by the five largest record labels. They are embedded in Washington D.C., and make sure laws are written to keep them rich, no matter what. They made headlines by filing lawsuits against elderly people, stroke victims, single mothers and children for trading music online, even though some of them didn't even have computers. They are currently involved in a massive campaign of extortion targeting college students, sending thousands of letters threatening them with lawsuits unless they part with four and five figure sums of money (conveniently payable via "MasterCard, Visa, and Discover") to avoid being taken to court. Check out the latest RIAA headlines.

The CRB is charged with setting the royalty rates that would be determined by a willing buyer and a willing seller in a marketplace transaction. They decided to jack up the rates far beyond a webcaster's ability to pay, despite decades of royalty rates being between one and two percent of broadcaster revenue. The new rates would force webcasters to pay outrageous fees even if they have no revenue whatsoever! Raise your right hand if you want to take away consumer choice, hurt working artists, damage small record labels and put small webcasters out of business!

This determined campaign of extinction is supported by most licensed broadcast stations, who see internet radio (along with satellite radio, personal mp3 music players, podcasts, and virtually all other alternate forms of content delivery) as a threat to their business. While commercial stations who stream audio over the web would also be required to pay higher fees under the new scheme, they have sufficient sources of income to offset or subsidize increased royalty fees. It's the "little guy" who will be forced to shut down, and that suits commercial stations just fine. Radio listenership has been declining steadily for years, and corporate broadcasters and the RIAA would rather litigate the competition out of business than admit that people are tired of hearing stupid commercials, inane DJ's, and the same tired old musical crap, picked by "programming consultants" and duplicated on cookie-cutter formatted stations nationwide.

Take Action Now:

Protect your right to hear eclectic independent radio and discover new artists. Your continued support and action is needed; for example, consider not purchasing new CD's (only used), and pass the word to anyone you know that loves or makes music.

You can help save internet radio with less than five minutes of your time by writing your congressional representative and telling them:

I do not support The Copyright Royalty Board's (CRB) March 2nd decision to substantially increase royalty rates. Not only will it impact my choices, but the Recording Industry Association of America's (RIAA) manipulation of these rates, and the CRB's indifference will hurt working artists, damage small record labels and force law abiding small webcasters, already paying a large portion of their revenue per month in royalties, out of business. This decision will also damage hundreds of small businesses providing goods and services to working artists, small record labels and small webcasters.

I respectfully ask that you evaluate the CRB decision and do whatever is necessary to establish a reasonable royalty rate for all the parties involved.

Stay Current on the Issues:

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Wrapping up the weekend

We made it safely back from San Antonio yesterday, fortunately with no speeding tickets; thanks to Chandira for the good karma. Included in our Saturday travel was a lengthy stop at the San Marcos Outlet Mall and Prime Outlets, which together rank as "the third best place to shop in the world" by ABC-TV's "The View". With architecture designed after the Piazza San Marco, it seemed like a fitting place for Mrs. Toast to shop for chic clothing and comfy shoes in preparation for her Venice trip -- now only four weeks away (I was content to browse through Pottery Barn myself).

Following this shopping marathon, we ate dinner at an authentic Irish Pub that we serendipitously discovered in downtown San Marcos. I had originally thought of having an ordinary steak, but after checking out the fare I just had to try the local specialty instead. Really, it's not every restaurant on this side of the pond that features bangers and mash on the menu. It was delicious, served with rich onion gravy and a traditional pint o' dark Guinness Stout. Maybe next time I'll order the Shepherd's Pie.

Today's been spent unpacking, and joining millions of other Americans who have been putting off a particularly unpleasant task until the last moment: "And it came to pass that in those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed." --Luke 2.1

This guy has been dead for 2,000 years and we're still being taxed. No wonder he was such a great leader: when he gives an order, it sticks. With that in mind, I dedicate today's episode of "The Buckets" comic strip to those of you who will be joining me in rendering, according to the IRS, approximately $2.7 trillion this year to Caesar's successor, Uncle Sam.

Happy rendering!

Credit: by Greg Cravens and Scott Stantis, ©2007 United Features Syndicate

Friday, April 13, 2007

You know the drinks are good...

...when after you've had two of them, you can no longer feel your face. Such were the excellent Margaritas at Casa Rio, where we had dinner on the Riverwalk tonight. And check out this giganormous Mai Tai they brought Mrs. Toast:

This is not a trick of camera perspective folks, that glass is actually bigger than her head. But in her defense, she needed it after a hard day of pounding the show floor, picking up all the swag that's given away at librarian conventions such as tote bags, pens, various stuffed tschotkes, and of course books. Lots and lots of books. Most of these books are in the pre-publication stage, with big "proof copy" labels on the outside requesting anyone who finds spelling mistakes and/or errors of fact to please contact the author before it's released to the public and said author is embarrassed to death because they claimed in their book that Fidel Castro once played shortstop for the Washington Senators baseball team, or mention that thing with Richard Gere and the gerbil, or whatever.

It's also a fact that book-pushers are not shy about pandering to librarians at these events because they dearly want to get their writing into public collections. They will therefore come up with titles like this (honest):

Catalogue of Death! (A Miss Zukas mystery) by Jo Dereske. Jacket blurb: A diligent Dewey Decimilast, Miss Wilhelmina Zukas believes in doing everything by the book. But one night something sinister transpires outside her library window. While inspecting the site he's generously set aside for the town's new public library, local billionaire Franklin Harrington is mysteriously blown to bits! Since the surviving heirs are more inclined to build pricey condos on the designated land, Miss Zukas must defy her boss, library despot May Apple Moon, and delve into the Harrington's affairs, because a murderer may be hanging off the family tree!

Think they're counting on the fact that many of the convention attendees may be acquainted with a "library despot" or two of their own?

Anyway, we've had a great time but today wraps up our adventures and we'll be homeward bound in the morning. Hope y'all have enjoyed my travelogue; I'll have a bunch more pictures to post next week after I download them from the camera ... and my hangover wears off.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

More adventures in Margaritaville

Today was the day of Mrs. Toast's big TLA presentation, and I'm happy to report that all went exceedingly well. Leading up to her big dog-and-pony show, she had been very nervous about the idea of standing up in front of several hundred professional librarians, all of whom would be eyeballing her skeptically while thinking, "who is this person, and what can they possibly tell me about Collaborative Wikis that I might find remotely useful?" As you may be aware, most librarians are possessed with a vast amount of wisdom about everything in the universe, their brains full of knowledge to the very limit of human capacity. It can be difficult to squeeze in new facts without the danger of information they have already learned popping out from the opposite side of their brains to make room for them (aka "The Kelly Bundy Syndrome"); this makes them a very tough crowd to play to.

But as the lights in the conference room went down, the first of her PowerPoint slides appeared on the screen to audible oohs and ahhs from the audience, who were simply blown away by the awesomeness of her font selection, background imaging, and tasteful use of bullet points. By the end of her show, she had them on their feet applauding and cheering, and library groupies came up to her afterwards to ask for her autograph and to find out where they might catch her next presentation.

You think I'm making this up, don't you?

Anyway, while Mrs. Toast was knocking 'em dead at her convention, I decided to head back over to the Riverwalk. It's kind of odd when I stop to think about it; the first time I came here was well over 20 years ago, and although it's changed and grown over the years, it still hasn't lost the casual charm and wonderful ambiance that I love so much about this place. With its unique combination of dining, lodging and entertainment concentrated in a spectacular riverfront setting, I don't think there's another place in America quite like it. It's small wonder that the International Travel Association recently rated San Antonio as the #12 most popular city in the USA for convention and seminar travelers, one of the smallest cities on ITA's list, even beating out major destinations like New York and Los Angeles.

However, on my way from our hotel, I again passed by the Alamo and was struck at the difference in the scene from when we had been there the previous evening. Gone was the respectful reverence displayed by the few people who were present last night; in its place was something like a circus sideshow carnival. Groups of small kids ran around screaming, oblivious to the solemnity of the location, their parents nowhere to be seen. Tourists mugged for the camera in front of the mission doors, some mocking the siege of 1836 by pretending to "shoot" each other. Across the street from Alamo Plaza, barkers attempted to cajole passing tourists to enter the Wax Museum, Ripley's Believe it Or Not, House of Mirrors, and some other unknown attraction that featured a ten-foot-tall 3-D animated cartoon caricature of "Davy Crockett" clutching a rifle and wearing an oversize coonskin cap. I thought it was rather appalling, and couldn't help but wonder what Crockett, Travis, Bowie and the others might think if they could be here to see it now. Growth and popularity does have its negative side.

After a little bit I came to the Rivercenter Mall, which seemed like a much more appropriate place for commerce, and I think anyone who plans to visit San Antonio needs to spend a little time here. Now, I would not normally recommend something like this as tour highlight; after all, I'm not really a retail sort of guy. But how many shopping malls in America look like this?

For anyone visiting from out of state, this is definitely the one-stop shopping spot for all your tacky Lone Star souvenirs: cowboy hats, belt buckles, stuffed armadillos, fake longhorn antlers, giant coffee mugs and shot glasses, mini oil derricks, A&M T-Shirts, and other, er, items. I mean seriously, folks, what better captures the essence of "Texas" than shellacked petrified cow poop? No home should be without one.

The mall has a lovely outdoor foot court, where you'll enjoy being serenaded by live music as you watch the cruise boats full of tourists go by. However, ornithophobics beware: the avian life here, including ducks, sparrows,
big fat black grackles, mockingbirds, and pigeons -- oh yes, most definitely the pigeons -- are so used to handouts from humans that you will be mobbed if a crumb so much as falls out of your mouth onto the ground. At one point a woman stood up and offered a nearby coven of pigeons some sort of food item, and they swooped in and dive-bombed her like a squadron of fighter jets. Alfred Hitchcock immediately came to mind.

But I pressed on, looking for a place to hang out and consume all those margaritas you nice readers have been asking me to have for you; after all, I take my responsibilities seriously and wouldn't want to let anyone down. Finally I found it: the Ibiza Bar (left), a funky little restaurant and watering hole that's part of the Hilton Paseo Del Rio complex. I've always wanted to visit the Balearic paradise, and this Ibiza will probably be as close as I'll ever get. The beverage that subsequently appeared on my table nearly brought tears to my eyes, it was a truly magnificent frozen concoction. And as I lifted it in symbolic toast, I honestly wished all of y'all could be here to enjoy one with me. We'd have us one hell of a fine time.

Oh, and don't forget to pick up a souvenir on your way home; that petrified meadow muffin ought to look great in your den.

Photos from San Antonio

We're staying at the Menger Hotel during our visit to San Antonio, which is located right next door to the Alamo. The Menger is quite famous in Texas history; past guests have featured such notable personalities as Teddy Roosevelt (who recruited his legendary "Rough Riders" in the hotel's bar), Babe Ruth, Mae West, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (although presumably not at the same time), just to mention a few. Much of the original hotel's furnishings and artwork have been preserved, and staying here is a lot like being a guest in a museum.

The hotel is allegedly haunted as well, and many guests have reported sighting various ghosts and apparitions on the property, including "kitchen utensils that transport themselves," according to the hotel's PR staff. We haven't seen any ghosts so far ourselves, but one vaguely spooky sighting did occur this evening while we were walking around the hallowed ground of the Alamo. Several blocks away is the Crockett Hotel, which features a large green neon sign on its roof. From a certain angle, the name "Crockett" seems to float over the Alamo, giving Davy somewhat of an enhanced presence here at the spot where he died.

There's a picture of this phenomenon along with a few other photos I took today around the hotel; just click on the thumbnail below to view the album. Hope you enjoy them.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The need for speed

We made it to San Antonio in near record time today, covering about 350 miles in about five and a half hours. I could have done even better than that, except for encountering road construction while going through Houston (which is a little like saying "encountering water while swimming").

I confess that I can be a bit of a lead-foot at times; many years ago, I formulated a theory which I call "The 15-mile-per-hour rule". It postulates the following:

1. Highway design engineers plan for roads to be traveled at a certain normal, safe speed, taking into consideration such things as sight distance, curve radius, road width and bank, pavement texture and smoothness, natural terrain, and a multitude of other factors;

2. Once the engineers design and build a section of road, they turn it over (along with their statistics for what normal speed of travel the road was designed for) to the policymakers who set speed limits for it;

3. Those lawmakers arbitrarily deduct 15 miles per hour from whatever figure the engineers give them. For example, if the engineers say "this road, being straight and wide with limited access, can be traveled safely by a normally competent driver at 85 miles per hour", then the lawmakers set the speed limit at 70. If the engineers tell them the road is designed for 50 mile per hour travel, they set the speed limit at 35, etc. etc. They do this because they realize that -- incredibly -- not everyone in the country is as good a driver as I am. They must compensate for those less-than-outstanding, sub-average drivers who lack my precise control ability, lightening-quick reflexes, and advanced situational awareness. For example, there might be some damn old fool who will get all flustered going at 55 miles per hour down a perfectly straight, level, dry road because he's afraid he can't control his own bowels let alone a two-ton automobile, and the powers that be better de-rate that speed limit down to 40 so a tree doesn't jump out in the middle of the road and bite his car, boy howdy!

Therefore the conclusion: since I am not only an accomplished but may I say (ahem) excellent driver, EVERY STRETCH OF ROAD, ANYWHERE IN IN THE UNITED STATES, CAN BE SAFELY (if not legally) TRAVELED AT 15 MILES PER HOUR ABOVE THE POSTED SPEED LIMIT. This is the speed that the designers of this highway -- and dare I say, God himself -- intended for me to go.

Now, I fully realize that my little theory is not going to be very persuasive when I am staring down the muzzle of a radar gun wielded by some tired state trooper, sitting in his black-and-white, just waiting to nail his last speeder of the night so he can make quota, stop for some coffee and donuts, finish his shift and go home. No siree.

The last ticket I got was nearly ten years ago, heading back to Texas from visiting relatives in Pagosa Springs Colorado. We were heading down Highway 285 out of Sante Fe, on our way to intersect I-40 at Clines Corners ("Worth Stopping For!"). If you've ever been on this piece of road, you know it's about 45 miles of perfectly smooth, level highway that cuts straight as an arrow through some pretty barren countryside. The only thing you're liable to encounter out there is a tumbleweed. So at two in the morning, with not another vehicle in sight for miles, I was proceeding at what I thought was a perfectly reasonable 80 mph, trying to make some time on the long drive home. (OK, it might have been 90. Whatever.) Suddenly, a pair of headlights topped a little rise coming at me and my radar detector simultaneously began squealing. I quickly braked down to legal speed (55? WTF?) but it was too late - I was busted, and I felt that sickening feeling of my heart jumping into my throat as he turned on his flashers, did a U and pulled me over. The nice patrolman gave me a "break" in that he only wrote the ticket for 70; if I had been tagged at more than 16 miles over the limit, the fine would have doubled. Still, as there was no way I could appear in court, that trip wound up costing an additional $140 mailed to the Great State of New Mexico after we got back.

Since then, I haven't had another ticket -- perhaps due to being more careful, maybe a little more lucky as well. I don't take as many road trips as I used to, and I've learned to slow down and enjoy the scenery a bit more too. Sure the Bluebonnets, Indian Paintbrush, and other wildflowers along the road are pretty to look at, but then there are times like today when you just want to freakin' get there.

I did have one sort of close call on the way; we took Beltway 8, also known as the Sam Houston Tollway, around the outskirts of Houston. Coming up on the first toll plaza, traffic seemed lighter in the left hand lane, so I moved over. Suddenly I saw a sign and realized why - it was the EZ-Tag lane, but I was blocked in by traffic and couldn't move back over in time. As I whipped past the toll booth, I was sure the automated camera had snapped a photo of my license plate, and I would be getting a notice in the mail to pay a heavy fine. At the second toll plaza near our exit, however, I mentioned it to the attendant and asked if I could pay the missed toll there in order to avoid a ticket. "Is it your first time?", he asked, and when I said "yes", he laughed. "Don't worry about it, they won't bother you."

So I have learned (at least) two things today:

1. There are a certain number of "freebies" that you can get away with on toll roads within a certain period of time. The exact number and the exact time frame is probably not publicly available information.

2. Somewhere in a database on a computer at the Harris County Toll Road Authority, there is a record of my license plate number, noting its exact location at a certain time today. I have no doubt that this information would be readily available to any federal government investigator with sufficient clearance and/or reason to want to view it, say if someone thought I might be (gasp!) a suspected Toasterist Terrorist.

Don't you just love domestic surveillance?

But as I said at the beginning, we got here safe and sound (Amen!), and San Antonio is as beautiful as ever. The margaritas are, if anything, even stronger than I remember them being from our last trip, as you may be able to tell from this post. I'll have more to write about that later in the week.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Headin' for Alamotown

Hope everyone had a nice Easter weekend. After our unexpected snow storm on Saturday, the weather warmed up a bit and we were able to enjoy the festivities with the family yesterday. The only problem was our grand-niece and nephew, who became so irritably cute while playing with their pet Easter Bunny (named "Winston") that we just couldn't stand it any more and were forced to lock the children in a pen for the rest of the day:

Ha ha! I'm kidding - please don't call the DFPS on my ass. But seriously, they were really adorable, and I hope that this photo of rabbity cuteness brings me oodles of comments. After all, it seems to work for Schnozz. Oh what the hell, here's another pic:

Hey, if we're going to pander, we might as well go all the way! I would actually consider getting a rabbit ourselves, if we didn't already have three highly territorial cats who would no doubt be less than pleased at the obvious competition for the petting and ear-scratching. So, I guess whenever we need a bunny-fix we'll go visit the relatives. ("Hi, we just came over to see Winston. Oh, and how are you guys, by the way?")

In other news, we're about to depart here tomorrow morning to spend a few days in beautiful San Antonio. Mrs. Toast is making a presentation at the annual meeting of the Texas Library Association, so I've decided to tag along, seeing as how no air travel will be involved.* She will also attend various meetings and seminars as she learns all about the latest hoop-de-doo in Libraryland. (Pardon me; I'm using this technical jargon because I know that occasionally Actual Librarians may read this blog.) Those of you who have been following this journal for a while now may remember our previous trip to the Alamo City last year for ALA, when many margaritas were consumed and general hilarity ensued as we hung out with a bunch of other wild 'n crazy liberrians, er librarians, from all over the country. We're hoping that this visit will be equally exciting, although this gathering will be strictly Texas librarians ... only a small subset of the greater information-resource culture that included the party animals from Boston we were with last year. We'll do our best, however, and depending on Internet availability at our hotel, I'll hopefully have some further adventures and photos to post later in the week.

*Honestly, since her presentation also involves a laptop and digital projector, I suspect she is bringing me along mainly for the technical support.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

One for the record books

I don't often blog about that most mundane of topics -- the weather -- but today was unusual. We've had nice spring-like temperatures during most of the past week, with highs in the 70's and low 80's, which is pretty typical for this time of year in East Texas. So imagine my surprise when I glanced out the window to see this:

The local TV weatherman confirmed it - this is a first, ever. In the entire history of meteorological record-keeping, it has never snowed before in April here. We might occasionally see a flurry once every five or six years or so, but it's always been during the coldest months of December, January, or February.

Today's mini-blizzard is just bizarre, and could perhaps be seen as further evidence of a disruption of global weather patterns. While the popularly-used phrase "global warming" makes most people think of climate change as a uniform temperature increase all over the planet, the reality is much more complex. Coincidentally, just this Friday the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, meeting in Brussels, released its report detailing how species, water supplies, polar ice sheets, and regional climate conditions were already responding to human emissions in the atmosphere. The panel's co-chairman, Dr. Martin Parry, said that widespread effects were already measurable, with much more to come.

“We’re no longer arm-waving with models,” he stated. “This is empirical information on the ground.”

And today, the information on the ground here in Texas was about an inch deep.

PS: This post also marks another historic milestone -- my very first video appearance on the blog. Now you will clearly understand why I got into radio instead of TV.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

You'll want to be sitting down for this news

Have you heard?

Google is offering FREE broadband wireless service!

Friday, April 06, 2007

Camera Conundrum

Calling all shutterbugs!

I'm about to buy a new camera; I've narrowed the field of choices down to two, and could use some help deciding between them. I've had an early-generation 2-megapixel Canon Powershot for the last couple of years, and while it takes decent photos in good light, it doesn't do very well under less-than-optimal conditions, especially when the lighting is poor or there's motion in the shot. For this reason I'm leaning towards the Canon S3-IS, mainly due to its image stabilization feature -- not to mention the fact that it's almost half the price of the Nikon. However, the Nikon D-40 is a true through-the-lens digital SLR (the Canon's lens is fixed) and has received rave reviews. Take a look at this table which compares the major features of the two:

ModelCanon S3-ISNikon D-40
TypeDigital Point & ShootDigital SLR
LensFixed, 12X optical zoom (equiv. to 36-432 mm)Interchangeable, pkg. lens equiv. to 27-82.5 mm
Digital Zoom4XNo
Image StabilizationYesNo
Records VideoYesNo
Records AudioYesNo
Auto-ISO settingNoYes
Viewfinder2.0" tilt 'n swivel LCD2.5" fixed LCD
Max Resolution2816 x 21123008 x 2000
Battery TypeAA (x4)Proprietary Li-Io battery pack
MemorySD CardSD Card
Price (delivered)$323.70$547.70

Nikon's prior models in the D-line (the D-50, D-80, and high-end D-100) with their legendary Nikkor lenses have set the bar for digital photography, and the D-40 is their entry into the lower end of the DSLR market. It's intended for people exactly like me, who have used a point & shoot camera up till now and might be ready to move up, but aren't keen to drop the really big bucks ($700-$1200+) that these models have been selling for in the past. Nikon's real competition to the D-40 has been Canon's Digital Rebel line, which revolutionized the market as the first sub-$1000 DSLR when it came out a couple of years ago. But at $599 for the 6-mP Digital Rebel XT and $799 for the upgraded 10-mP XTi, these models are just out of my price range. If I were a "pro" or even "semi-pro" photographer, I'd probably get the Nikon in a heartbeat -- but the measly photos I take (both in quality and quantity) just don't justify spending that kind of money.

So that's why I keep coming back to the S3-IS. Even though it's still technically a point-and-shooter, it's received excellent user reviews and is quite "SLR-like" in its look, feel, and operation. In addition to the image stabilizer, it also has a much higher zoom level, and will shoot video and stereo audio -- which the D-40 does not. Not only that, but the main advantage of a DSLR is its interchangeable lenses, and to be honest, the chances that I will be wanting to spend a couple of hundred extra bucks on more glass for the Nikon are not that great.

Well I seem to have talked myself out of the D-40, but damn, it's still awfully appealing. It's kinda like buying a Chevy will get you where you want to go just fine, but wouldn't you really rather have a Porsche? Anyone with thoughts, opinions or -- hopefully -- actual experience as an owner of either of these two models, please leave a comment. Thanks.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Rolling Stone gathers no ash

Perhaps you've heard the (latest) bizarre story regarding Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards?

Richards was recently quoted in an interview with the pop music magazine NME as claiming that he had snorted the ashes of his father, Bert, who died in 2002. In response to the question "what's the strangest thing you've ever tried to snort?", Richards replied:

"My father. I snorted my father. He was cremated and I couldn't resist grinding him up with a little bit of blow. My dad wouldn't have cared, he didn't give a shit. It went down pretty well, and I'm still alive."

But the real story here is that it was later claimed the comments were an April Fools' joke. Frankly, I'm not so sure; would anyone seriously be that surprised if it were true?

Meanwhile, executives at Walt Disney Studios have decided that Richards is apparently too unpredictable to promote the movie "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End", in which the rocker makes a cameo appearance alongside Johnny Depp as the father of Captain Jack Sparrow. A Disney vice president said, "When I heard the ashes story, I thought, 'How are we going to spin this?'"

"Keith won't be doing a lot of publicity for this movie."

God, I love show biz.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Benvenuto a Venezia bella

Here's the view Mrs. Toast will be enjoying in about six weeks:

We had waited until my doctor appointment last week to be sure I would be "in the clear", so now that we know that I won't be going under the knife for a while yet, it's safe to announce that she is proceeding with her plan to visit beautiful Venice.

The way this trip came about is sort of interesting. Mrs. Toast has a very close friend who is like a sister to her. (Since her friend has -- more or less -- successfully raised two teenage daughters, we will henceforth refer to her as "Psycho-Mom". Any parents reading this will readily understand.) Mrs. Toast and Psycho-Mom are close to the same age and both sets of their parents were best friends long before they were born, so it was only natural that they grew up together. Even though P-Mom now lives over 500 miles away, they still stay in close touch and see each other regularly.

Last Christmas, Psycho-Mom received an unusual present from her husband ("Psycho-Dad"). You first need to understand that P-Dad is a big honcho in the Texas oil bidness; indeed, I suspect that at minimum, at least two cents of every single gallon of gas you and I buy goes directly into his pocket. With the booming price surge experienced by the industry during the last few years, P-Dad has therefore reportedly had to rent secure storage space in order to keep the huge bags of cash that have been piling up around their house. In fact, he can barely walk down the street without leaving a trail of money behind him, hundred-dollar bills falling out of his pockets like leaves blowing in the wind from an uncovered lawn trailer as it's being towed down the street.

OK, I'm exaggerating -- a bit -- but the point is that P-Dad did have a pretty good year in 2006, and in a spirit of largesse gave his wife this present: a one-week all-expense-paid trip anywhere in the world for herself and three friends of her choosing. Fortunately, all those years of friendship paid off, as Mrs. Toast was invited to the party. We don't know the other two women who will be going, but I suspect they will all become good friends very quickly as much Grappa is consumed. It's gonna be one hell of a ladies night out.

I am, naturally, somewhat jealous that I won't be able to go along, but this is tempered by the fact that I visited Venice by myself during my Great European Train Tour of 2002. I'm using the knowledge of the city I gained during that trip to help Mrs. Toast plan her visit; I have maps, travel guides, and personal recommendations on sights to see and fun things to do, and will experience the city again vicariously through her. We're all very excited, and I'll post updates and perhaps photos of my previous adventures (if I can find and scan them - this was before I had a digital camera). In the meantime, when you next fill up your gas tank keep in mind that in some very small way, you're helping to buy my wife a tasty gelato as she strolls through the Plaza San Marco. We sure do thank you.

P-Mom tells us that the decision to select Venice as her destination didn't require a lot of thought, as she has always wanted to go there. There's no question that it's a lovely, fascinating place that everyone should visit once in their lifetime -- but what about you? If someone offered you a week anywhere in the world, where would you choose, and why?