Tribute to the junk drawer

Junk drawer, as of 4/10/13

The undisturbed contents* of my kitchen junk drawer, as of 4/10/13 (click image to enlarge).

It’s the place to drop your to-be-sorted-later pocket debris.

The place to check for anything that isn’t where you thought you left it.

The place to look one last time before blaming your spouse or children for your frustration.

The junk drawer, that holding pen for stuff that doesn’t have a home of its own, is usually in the kitchen. Of course, the longer you live in the same house, the more you need auxiliary junk drawers. Eventually every room has one, and only if you’re lucky or the victim of a natural disaster does the proliferation end there.

It’s the last refuge of disappointment and the unfailing wellspring of minor surprise.

The junk drawer, where items that were once possessions before they vanished might–after you’ve given up all hope or even any remaining need–just might reappear, allowing you to celebrate their loss of usefulness.

Are you willing to show or confess what’s in your favorite junk drawer? Do you have a different name for this essential repository?

* Contents as of 4/10/13:
1 box strike-on-box kitchen matches
1 phone charger (only one!)
1 computer cord with two male mini-jacks
1 metal shoe horn
1 department store receipt
9 loose rubber bands, assorted sizes
2 emery boards
2 dead compact fluorescent bulbs
1 ziplock bag containing assorted rubber bands
4 pizza coupons
1 Chinese restaurant delivery menu
1 pair eyeglasses, old prescription
1 wooden pencil
1 tube lip balm
1 unopened pack chewing gum
1 book paper matches
4 packets cut-flower preservative
1 ziplock bag containing 4 mini-screwdrivers
4 unidentified house keys, one with leather tag labelled “Iowa Falls & Osceola Iowa”
1 mechanical pencil
3 small binder clips
1 sandwich shop gift card of unknown value
1 bottle auto touch-up paint
1 plastic harmonica in case
1 tape measure/key chain combo
3 wrapped anise-flavored candies
1 plastic potato chip bag clip
1 pair velcro fasteners, adhesive-backed
1 unidentified car key
1 halogen mini-bulb in box
1 three-prong outlet adapter plug
1 one-point Scrabble tile (U)
1 small metal snack-bag clip
2 Allen wrenches
2 paper clips
2 bobby pins
1 picture hanger hook without nail
1 Christmas tree ornament hook
1 “child-proof” electrical outlet plug

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Procrastination Tips Nos. 11-15

Procrastination Tip #11
Suppose local TV newsreaders spoke like that to their loved ones at home: “Thanks to you, honey…these kids…won’t go hungry…tonight.”

Procrastination Tip #12
Vampires. Werewolves. Zombies. Who’ll be the next horde to threaten the world with annihilation? (Did we forget to mention X and Y? And why is the list alphabetically back-loaded anyway?)

Procrastination Tip #13
Procrastination Tip #9 might not be true. It might be made up.

Procrastination Tip #14
Stretch a rubber band from your index finger to your little finger across the back of your hand behind your knuckles. See how long it takes to get it off using only that one hand, touching no other surfaces.

Procrastination Tip #15
Imagine the view of South Dakota from Geo. Washington’s left nostril. Can you see Old Abe a-tall?

Come on, what’s your favorite procrastination tip?

Railing against imperfection

For most of my editing career, I relied on typesetting professionals to copy fit and make text changes. Each round of editing generated a new proof, which often led to further changes.

Offending railing

The offending railing.

The artists and typesetters I worked with were unfailingly gracious with my repeated attempts to “perfect” a story with corrections I thought essential. However, they made it clear that three proofs should be enough to finish the job. My asking for Proof #4 was pushing our friendship. Proof #5 was stretching the social contract between us. And as for Proof #6, well, I better bring doughnuts.

As a result, far too many imperfect articles left my hands because I finally ran out of the nerve to beg an artist to provide one more missing comma.

Not so with self-publishing. If I were counting “proofs” for this post, I’d hit double digits trying to correct every last imperfection. Online, I could–and would–always be willing to make another change.

So it’s especially frustrating when, in regard to non-editorial projects, I’m prevented from fixing that “one more thing.”

Take the new kitchen railing I recently installed. I ordered the parts from a local custom builder, and spent the better part of a day putting it up. (Never having done this before, it was measure 10 times, drill once. Oh yeah, and go to the hardware store twice.)

After seven hours, I was worn out and willing to overlook a number of imperfections that I was sure no one else would notice. (Can you tell how the ends of those balusters aren’t perfectly flush with the floor?) So I didn’t pay as much attention to the final step as I wish I would have.

Twisted rosette

The twisted rosette, a mockery of perfection.

See where the railing attaches to the wall? In my haste to finish the job, I drove nails through that oval rosette without aligning its wood grain vertically. As you can plainly see, the rosette is 6 degrees from the perpendicular.

Big deal, you say. But it’s forever. I can’t fix it, not without risking major damage to the wall or the rosette, or both.

So now I’m reminded of the flaw every time I use the stairs. As many as a dozen times a day, I’m mocked by my failure and forced to face the truth that all that stands between the job as it is and perfection is the equivalent of a Proof #21. And alas, that ain’t gonna happen.

Such is the degraded life of an former editor, thwarted by reality.

Two axes to grind

Published chart

Fig. 1: “A Chart That Says the War on Drugs
Isn’t Working,” as published, with two y-axes.
(Click each image for a larger view.)

By any measure, the War on Drugs has been and continues to be a failure. Although an ever-increasing number of political figures is willing to admit this, the argument has not been presented to the public as clearly as it might.

Recently, for example, drew attention to a chart reproduced in  The graphic (Fig. 1), which I’ve recreated here for easier comparison*, purports to show how the 40-year-old “war” has been, according to, “an extremely expensive Huge Government boondoggle.” While annual federal spending to “control” drugs has increased 20-fold during that period, the national rate of addiction has remained largely unchanged at between 1% and 2% of the U.S. population.

Alarmist chart

Fig. 2: This chart exaggerates the disparity between the two sets of data and gives the impression of an even greater degree of waste.

Figure 1 shows that relationship, sort of, but it misleads the viewer. How? By distorting the relationship between the two sets of numbers, using different units of measurement. Instead of comparing percentages to percentages or dollars to dollars, the published chart “compares” percentages to dollars, each according to its own arbitrary scale, as shown on the left and right y-axes, respectively.

To see how pernicious a practice this is, consider how manipulating the chart’s two y-axes scales can reinforce contradictory conclusions.

An “Alarmist Version” of the original chart (Fig. 2) heightens the suggestion that the War on Drugs has been tremendously wasteful.

Dismissive chart

Fig. 3: This chart minimizes the relationship between the two sets of data, suggesting ineffectiveness perhaps, but negligible waste.

A “Dismissive Version” (Fig. 3), on the other hand, suggests that the War on Drugs has been hardly wasteful at all.

I’m sure the original chart was designed in good faith. The fact remains, however, that it distorts the data it supposedly illustrates, a inherent flaw of charts with two y-axes scales. What makes the published chart especially disappointing is that it carelessly assumes that its depiction is value-free.

Spending per Addict

Fig. 4: This chart shows a large increase in control dollars spent per addict over a time when the addiction rate remained essentially flat.

What would be a better way of expressing these facts, one without bias (inasmuch as this is possible)?

Consider “U.S. Drug Control Spending per Addict, 1970-2010” (Fig. 4). By converting the two sets of data to a common unit of measurement, control dollars spent per addict, this chart more accuratetly shows the growth in spending during a time when the rate of addiction remained roughly constant. Not as dramatic as the preceding versions certainly, but considerably more honest.

Can you design a different chart to show this information with minimal bias? What dual y-axes charts have you seen lately?
* Figures 1-4 are based on a close reading of the original chart instead of the actual numbers, which weren’t readily available. identifies the sources as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy by way of documentary filmmaker Matt Groff.


Eat, drink, and be merry, preschoolers, for tomorrow you die

Sometimes books raise questions. Sometimes books supply answers. A reader who pages through the picture book Mr. Reaper can be forgiven for asking: “Huh? What was the publisher thinking?” and arriving at the conclusion that allowing a popular and successful artist free rein is not always a good idea.

Mr. ReaperAt its most basic, Mr. Reaper tells the story of a wolf who sets out to nurse a sick piglet back to health so that the wolf can eat him. The ending implies that the sacrifices that the wolf makes for his patient transform them into the best of friends.

Unfortunately the bizarre decision to have Death narrate what should’ve been a simple and benign tale of empathy destroys whatever value and appeal it might have had. Instead of sweet and straightforward, the story is grim and garbled. Nearly every page shows Mr. Reaper spying on our characters while he repeatedly threatens them with imminent and capricious doom:

“The Reaper silently gazed at the two…In fact, you two will soon die.”

It’s not that death is an unsuitable subject for preschoolers. The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center lists several books about grief and loss for children as young as three. Books such as Robie H. Harris’ Goodbye Mousie reassure children that death, while profoundly different from sleep, is just as natural.

What’s wrong with Mr. Reaper is its overriding sense of foreboding and hopelessness. The black book jacket, die-cut to suggest two watching eyes, sets the harsh tone right from the bookshelf. Even though the final spread shows the former predator dancing with his erstwhile prey in a meadow, the flower heads that surround the dancers reinforce the reader’s feeling of being watched by an inescapable bully. It’s a confused and unearned “happy ending” that’s insufficient to undo the damaging message of the rest of the pages.

Mr. Reaper is the work of graphic designer and writer Tatsuya Miyanishi, who his many Japanese, French, Chinese, and Korean readers surely revere. Mr. Reaper, published in Miyanishi’s native Japan in 2010, was his first work to be released in English (in this  charmless, dull, and unattributed 2012 translation). Given his obvious skill as an artist, one hopes that the dismal Mr. Reaper doesn’t kill Miyanishi’s chances with a U.S. audience.


Forgotten books: The Adventures of Duc of Indochina

Echoes of a distant childhood and a lost war everlasting…

From 1958 to 1963 I attended the parish school of the Saint Robert Bellarmine1 Catholic Church in Merrill, Wis. Although I forgot most of the experience, a few memories endured. One involved a book with a half-remembered title and a vague sense of nobility.

A half-remembered title and sense of nobility…

Why did I hang onto that particular mental scrap for so long? And why did it carry a positive association?

St. Bellarmine’s was a typical small town parish, oppressive in its alligence to dogma. My 7th- and 8th-grade years passed under the eye of a raptorial nun who called herself Constance. Sister Constance’s reputation as a disciplinarian remained more vivid than her ability as a teacher. That’s because her tool of choice was an 18-inch wooden ruler applied sharply to the palm of the hand, a device and a technique that our school’s namesake inquisitor would’ve sneered at.

This isn’t say that those years were without joy, in between paddlings. One routine that I remember fondly a half century later is this: Sister Constance reading to us as a class, daily I think, in a brief but welcome respite from her rigid schedule. Her book selection must’ve been mostly uninspired because later I could recall only a single title, and that imperfectly. But I still thought of it and kept searching from time to time…

Decades later, it surfaced: The Adventures of Duc of Indochina. And I had to re-read it.

I admit that I was wary of Duc and his adventures, having been disappointed by other re-enacted memories. I feared that the book would turn out to be a clumsy and superficial capitalist or missionary screed. (After all, Sister Constance had a job to do in an era not far removed from “adopting pagan babies” and applauding Sen. Joe McCarthy.)

But after reading it, I’ve been amazed by the book’s many qualities. The story concerns teenage Duc’s attempt to save his family from the civil war waging around them in what is now called Vietnam. Failing that, he begins a two-year quest to reunite what remains of his family. Through it all, Duc is loyal to family and community and faithful to his ideals, which include a harmonious relationship between his own Christianity and his neighbors’ mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.

Duc of Indochina is a well-researched, largely even-handed tale of innocent people destroyed by a political conflict they didn’t choose. The consequences of Duc’s loyalty to his village and its modest way of life, though unfair, are real and unavoidable. As Nevins puts it:

There were long rows of graves in the cemetery, and each tomb had a concrete slab giving the man’s name, his unit, and the date of death. There was one Vietnamese name after another, and under each name was the legend, “Mort pour la France” (Died for France).

“That is false,” Duc thought to himself. “Those men died for Vietnam, not for France! They did not die so that their children would be tenants in a house owned by a foreigner.”


The consequences, though unfair, are real and unavoidable.

Sure, author Albert J. Nevins dumps explanations into the narrative like overpacked duffel bags, but it’s usually only a paragraph or two at a time and, with at least one good fact per paragraph, that’s a good trade. Nevins also speaks with a formality that sometimes sounds corny to the modern ear, but is driven by his desire as a journalist to get the details right.

The Catholic clergy in the story are secondary figures, generally decent men with modest ambitions for themselves and their followers. The Vietminh rebels (precursors of the Viet Cong) come up for more criticism than their French-led opponents, the Vietnamese army. The former are cast as brutal, unempathetic ideologs while the latter “were spick-and-span, determined to show their fellow nationals that their army was capable of protecting the country and the people.” (Of course, President Diem2 taught us otherwise.

After excaping the Vietminh, Duc fights with the French at Dienbienphu. Their defeat there led to the surrender that ended France’s long occupation of the region. It also paved the way for the U.S. to step into that quagmire of death and destruction on its own. (Let us never forget how that turned out.)

Nevins, a Catholic priest, was not unbiased. He made his opposition to the Communist Vietminh clear, calling them “Red hordes.” But as a journalist, he respected his title character and came down squarely on the side of ordinary Vietnamese who wanted only to live their lives unmolested by political theory.

The Adventures of Duc of Indochina ends with the teenage Duc reuniting with the few family members and friends who survived, and fleeing with them to what became South Vietnam. Despite his personal suffering and loss, Duc remained undaunted as he looked forward.

“I see the blood and glory of a thousand yesterdays.”

“Can you see tomorrow?”

“No, Sap. That I cannot see.” Duc straightened up and put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “We must make tomorrow.”


Duc’s lost world.

So that’s what I retained all these years: This fictitious stranger’s optimism made all the more poignant by the knowledge of what happened to his Vietnam after his story ends. Sister Constance might’ve intended to inspire us with a tale of Catholic fortitude, but what I got out of it was something simpler. Upon reflection, given my experience of a wooden ruler compared to weapons of war, I had a renewed appreciation of my own good fortune.

1 Among other duties, Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621) served Pope Clement VIII as a Cardinal Inquisitor. In that position, Bellarmine defended the faith against heretics up and including execution and helped persecute Galileo Galilei. We students were oblivious of this background. If we had known, of course, our budding adolescent sarcasm would surely have been merciless. Return

2 Nevins, writing in 1955, characterized South Vietnam’s first president, Ngo Dinh Diem, as “an honest Nationalist.” However, like Robert Bellarmine, Diem was not what he seemed. Also a Roman Catholic, the new president proved to be remarkably corrupt and went on to oppress followers of other religions, eventually making enough enemies to be deposed and assassinated. Return

More than a trillion ways to mingle

Fifteen strangers walk into a bar, each determined to meet everyone else before the evening is over. How many different ways might they accomplish this?

All joking aside, there are 1,307,674,368,000 ways that any one individual could meet the other 14 strangers, without encountering anyone twice.

That’s the same calculation behind my catalog story, You Will All Be Punished Unless the Guilty Party Confesses. As I explain elsewhere on this site, this tale for teenagers exists in 15 episodes that can be read in any order. As with the meet-and-greet scenario, there are more than 1.3 trillion different ways of doing this, called permutations*. Despite the size of that answer, it’s the result of simple arithmetic. The calculation is: 15 x 14 x 13 x 12 x 11 x 10 x 9 x 8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1

Four unique ways Mr. Pink could meet all 14 fellow party-goers. To show all 1,307,674,368,000 permutations would require making similar minimal changes one by one.

The figure to the right shows four of the huge number of unique ways that any of the 15 party-goers (such as Mr. Pink) could meet the other 14:

  1. a, b, c, d, e…
  2. a, c, b, d, e…
  3. a. c, d, b, e…
  4. a, c, d, e, b…

The figure also suggests similar unique variations in the way you could read 15 episodes of a story at random.

A spreadsheet program makes it easy to calculate permutations. Fortunately no math is necessary for real-life party-goers, or readers, and a mere 15 decisions is enough to eliminate the vast majority of possible choices.

* A mathematical permutation is an arrangement of objects (people, for example) in a specific order. In this case, no repetition is allowed within each set of 15 decisions because we assume that no two party guests meet more than once and no reader of You Will All Be Punished Unless the Guilty Party Confesses returns to an episode already read.

From toddler to teenager in three seconds flat

I'm com-ming.

Man at work.

Grandson O was vocal from the start. What we used to call a chatterbox. Although his babble had the familiar rhythm and intonation of speech, the vocabulary was all his own.

O was in no hurry to speechify regular English. There was no need for language reciprocity for most of his first two years, as if his world were fine as is. Although we adults must’ve seemed a bit dimwitted to him, the accommodations and service we provided were good enough not to require correcting.

Then at about 20 months something changed. Almost overnight O became a tour guide through the land of language acquisition. Each day he produced new words, then began stringing them together in twos and threes. And in the process, he reminded us that communication resides in more than words and their juxtaposition. There’s also meaning in attitude.

The other day, O’s mother called him to dinner. Once. Twice.

Unfortunately O was busy and not to be interrupted. After the third directive, he apparently realized that somebody needed to cool it. So without pausing in his play, O replied, “I’m com-ming.”

Which–as his tone made clear–he had no intention of doing.

The reluctant acknowledgment. The insincere commitment. The casual dismissal.The unassailable conviction that his schedule took precedence over all others–the attitude behind his response was a revelation and a revolution.

From toddler to teenager in three seconds flat. Waiting for the calendar to catch up is going to be fun.

Your graphic interpretation here

This chart recently appeared in the news. Supposedly it shows the destructive potential of a nuclear weapon as calculated by some nameless Iranian scientist.

Turns out it’s a crude copy of what’s called a “normal distribution curve,” commonly found in textbooks and online. In this case, the lines show the relationship of power and energy output over time.

However, the shapes of the two overlapping curves — one brief and limited and the other sustained and open-ended — suggest other associations. What additional relationships might this chart depict?

  • The payoff of sex versus love?
  • The heartfelt significance of a gift card versus a handmade present?
  • The pain of stepping barefoot on a Lego in the dark versus losing an adolescent to independence?

What interpretations can you assign to the chart above?

Procrastination Tips Nos. 6-10

Procrastination Tip #6
A pencil-sharpener app would be awesome.

Procrastination Tip #7
Is wool hair or fur?

Procrastination Tip #8
Arrange the fingers of one hand so that each of them simultaneously touches the other four. Don’t let anyone see you doing this.

Procrastination Tip #9
Seven of 10 people can think of more English words that contain “uu” than contain “aa” than contain “ii.”

Procrastination Tip #10
Suppose “the young man from Nantucket” were a haiku instead of a limerick.

Come on, what’s your favorite procrastination tip?