Miscellaneous Thoughts & Musings

Languages and folklore are a constant source of amazement – and amusement – for many of us.

This obscure Japanese saying, in a southern regional dialect (Kyushu-ben), is a perfect example.



The literal meaning is “never lend money to a man who doesn’t have an erection in the morning.”

The implication is, he isn’t healthy and would likely die before repaying.

My First Instrument Making Experience, August,1963

With Chuck Young, a friend from the Folk-Song Society at San Diego State College, I built my first musical instrument: an Appalachian dulcimer, along with a fretless banjo neck which I put on a banjo-mandolin pot I had. Chuck, who I often called Charles Thomas because I envied the Early American aspect of his name – Chas. Thos. Young – had access to his father’s workshop in the garage and we each decided to build an instrument. Recently, Chuck, now Charles T. Young, Professor Emeritus of Geophysical Engineering at Michigan Tech, sent me these pictures. Wow.

In the wilds of suburbia
Yep. Looks like a bastard, all right.
Does this look straight to you?
The tailpiece connected to the fingerboard, the fingerboard connected to the...
Wouldn't you rather build a boat?
Might be easier to play without the blocks
Do as I say, not as I do
The music went 'round and 'round and it came out Here - even 60 years later.

Preston Sturges on the Banjo

[From the autobiography “Preston Sturges on Preston Sturges.”]
(Thanks to Adam Miller for this.)

Mother took a rotten little apartment for us on Twelfth Street, the only banal apartment I have ever known her to take, and one afternoon I arrived home with a big smile on my face and a peculiarly shaped package under my arm.
“What’s that?” asked my mother looking at the package apprehensively. Then in a pale gray voice, she added, “That wouldn’t happen to be a banjo by some remote chance, would it?”
“How did you guess?” I cried enthusiastically. “Just wait till you see it! The pawnbroker practically gave it to me for only three dollars, including the case, and it has real mother-of-pearl between the frets and around the scroll!”
“It’s a curse,” said my mother, putting her hand to her forehead, “a taint.”
“A what?” I asked, thinking I had misunderstood her.
“A pollution of the blood,” said my mother, “like leprosy. It has to be from the blood, there is no other possible explanation. With the utmost care and during your entire life, I have refrained from giving you even a hint about this vice of your father’s.
“I never let your Grandmother Biden or anyone else mention it to you for fear that it might awaken a dormant strain and encourage you to emulate him. But it has all been in vain. You may as well know now. Your father was considered, in banjo circles, to be one of the very best banjo players in America. Such was his talent that manufacturers would actually send him new models for nothing, just to get his opinion and endorsement of them.
“Your father always enjoyed playing a piece on the banjo for me, always a long one, and at the beginning of our marriage, I could stand it. Then as time passed, he was no longer satisfied with just plunking out a piece once, but immediately after finishing it, he would plunk it again in several different keys.
“Then I would get it with variations and countermelodies woven in – but still the same piece. He would wind up by plunking it behind his back in a sort of contortionist’s grip. One night he actually gave the finale while swinging by his knees from a trapeze he had strung up between the sliding doors.
“If any more loathsome instrument than the five-string banjo has ever been invented during the entire history of music, I have yet to hear of it. I thought I had suffered from that miserable thing for the last time in my life, but you can’t get away from heredity! So tune up your banjo, then go down to the corner and get me some poison.”

Bureaucracy & Chocolate


Anyone who has ever worked in a large organization – education, business, the military, or government – has encountered the occasional satisfactions and overwhelming frustrations of bureaucracy. It is the modern, literate antithesis of the traditional, oral way of handling interactions. In traditional societies everything is based upon personal relationships. Your status is based on your family, clan, village. When you seek a new relationship – marriage, employment, advancement – you turn to friends and relations. Arranged marriages, nepotism, old-boy networks, letters of recommendation, all sorts of go-betweens, extend this personal network. If you come from the wrong side of the tracks, the wrong clan, tribe, race, or other out-of-favor group, your personal achievements can be trumped by your inferior personal connections.

Bureaucracy, on the other hand, was developed to supersede these limitations. An action was to be judged on its merits, not on who desired it. All applicants, transactions, decisions were to be treated impartially. An individual no longer had the personal ability to decide: the “rules” were the final arbiter. The new era of equality was to ushered in on wings of logic and fact. However, deals could no longer be sealed with a handshake.

In reality, of course, the old system never died. A friend from Indonesia, after waiting for six months to have a visa to the U.S. processed, finally drove across town to have high-ranking relative expedite the process. In some countries nothing gets accomplished without a gratuity, a personal recognition of the transaction.

In the U.S. it may not be quite as obvious but there are still, as Tolstoy observed, circles within circles. When I worked for the Welfare Department the situation was infinitely worse than anything I had experience in business, education, or even the military. As in all organizations, the people in the trenches knew what was going on because they did the work. Their supervisors had different priorities currying favor with their bosses. And the policy makers, even when they had risen through the ranks, were living in a different world, breathing different air. No one familiar with this world was surprised when the FBI and CIA were caught flat-footed on 9-11; the field agents knew what was going on but no one cared what “the little people” thought. This is the (non-fictional) world of Dilbert.

In San Diego County, the Welfare Department is overseen by the Board of Supervisors who have been routinely re-elected for over twenty years by a somnambulant public. The members of the Board constantly complained about the aid programs we oversaw. Their feeling was that those on aid had somehow betrayed the American dream by failing and we were complicit by assisting (enabling) them. Case sizes grew, wages were idled, additional programs and requirements proliferated, reorganizations and redefinitions became a parlor game. Good supervisors were transferred and promoted while mediocrity, indifference, and corruption ruled. CYA was the mantra.

I enjoyed helping my clients, most of whom were genuine casualties of the failures of our educational and economic systems. And I liked most of my coworkers, mutually trying to fend off collapse with inadequate time and resources. I reported a coworker to Internal Security who was running an illicit business out of his office and carrying a .45, while ignoring his actual job. Nothing happened to him; I was threatened. After I was transferred I reported continuing unsafe working conditions to our Safety Office (including mold and non-functioning thermostats) on behalf of most of the workers who feared retribution. When I put up a makeshift deflector above an aged coworker who had continually complained about frigid air blowing down her neck, I was disciplined. Nothing else changed. During my last year at that office I wrote the following story; it was a big hit among my fellow workers. When I left, I reassured them any resemblance was fictional.


Once upon a time Lucy and Ethel were hired at the chocolate factory to take candies from the conveyor belt and place them in boxes. All went well at first and their customers were satisfied.
After a while the white-haired old lady who owned the company was persuaded by her nephew to sell out to an international consortium of politicians and lawyers. The politicians believed that sweets were bad for you and tried to discourage people from buying the candy and eat fruit instead. They also told the workers they were to blame for producing the evil chocolates and must attend nutrition counseling. The lawyers, on the other hand, wanted to maximize production to increase profits so they sped up the conveyor belts. They also hired investigators to see if Lucy, Ethel, and the other workers ever ate any of the candies themselves. Eventually the workers improved their skills so they could keep up with the increased speed and few were caught snacking. So the company said, “Since you were able to increase production so successfully we will raise the speed by 2% each month, thus further improving efficiency.” Then the company decided that they could save money by having the workers also perform routine maintenance on the conveyor belt. The workers’ union agreed.
Over the next few years the public’s taste for chocolates remained high so the politicians decided the workers weren’t trying hard enough to get people to eat fruit. They asked the workers to voluntarily give up their vacations to make public service announcements encouraging apple and banana consumption. The company saved so much money from unused vacations they were able to give the entire consortium large bonuses but the “bad” workers who still made chocolates got none. Then the lawyers told the workers to weigh each candy and, if the gross weight were over the National Average as reflected by the Dow-Jones (on even-numbered days), or the London FTSE (on odd-numbered days), or the Tokyo NIKKEI (in months that end in “r”), then they should wrap the candy in a special foil wrapper and place it in a blue box located on the other side of the conveyor.
The politicians, not to be outdone, decided to have the workers analyze the ratio of nuts to nougat in each batch, enter the results in a red binder kept in their supervisor’s office, submit reports to the stockholders monthly, and be available during lunch hours to answer questions from the public on a special email system installed in the employee’s lounge. Eventually, the system had so many problems that each worker was sent to technical training to learn to repair the circuit boards when necessary. While the system did work most of the time it was deemed “insufficiently responsive proactively in a real-time, point-of-delivery context” by management and a supplementary phone system was installed: workers had a headset so inquiries could be taken while they worked.
The most common questions – as reflected in the quarterly status reports submitted by each worker – concerned:
1. The chemical composition of chocolate: milk, dark, and white.
2. The history of chocolate use in the Americas, Asia, and Africa.
3. The social etiquette of candies in formal and home entertaining
4. Long-term effects of saturated vs. non-saturated fats, fructose vs. sucrose, whole vs. skim milk on chocolate storage, factored for humidity
5. Whether certain immuno-suppression ailments, especially in Asian- and African-American children, could be negatively impacted by simultaneous ingestion of chocolate (Theobromides) and caffeine drinks
6. and assorted inquiries about the futures and commodity market trends, especially in the Colombian cocoa exchange.
Employees were sent to bi-weekly mandatory trainings by representatives from Pfizer, DuPont, the Library of Congress, Johns Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic (some conflicting opinions there), Solomon Smith Barney, the Army Language School at Monterrey, and Wolfgang Puck. Periodic reviews pointed out weaknesses, both personal and global, which employees were expected to remedy by taking weekend trips, at their own expense, to the relevant world capitals. (Epidemics and revolutions were held by an appeals board to be insufficient justification for missing work on Monday morning.) Meanwhile, back on the assembly line, a chemist-consultant was hired to evaluate the monthly nutritional analysis reports produced by each worker at five-minute intervals – except, of course, during months when time-and-motion studies and stress reports were submitted on alternate half hours. When Lucy complained that the temperature in the packing room was unpredictable, management allowed her to maintain an Internal Temperature Log for every tenth chocolate, to be submitted to her supervisor on the 3rd floor every two hours (of an eight-hour shift) or two and a half hours (of a ten-hour shift). When Ethel brought in a room thermometer of her own, the Health and Safety Committee gave her the honor of maintaining an Ambient Temperature Log and faxing the results to OSHA on the hour. Eventually, Lucy slugged Ethel for some imagined slight and was given both logs to maintain but she retained her optimistic belief in the inherent goodness of chocolates, much to the disgust of the consortium.
Ethel began having panic attacks and rapidly used up her sick leave but was allowed to stay on for several weeks, sweeping floors, repairing the fax machines, replumbing the drains in the executive bathrooms, teaching English to new employees from Mexico, India, and China, and filling out disability papers for those whose repetitive stress disorders made it impossible for them to do so.
The day that Ethel finally left for the nursing home, Lucy walked in through the employees’ entrance, past the sign reading, “If You Don’t Like Chocolates, Find Another Job.” She was wearing a jumpsuit in a very attractive camouflage print, carrying an AK-47.

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