Saturday, December 28, 2013

Book Review: Alex Ferguson - My Autobiography

If Lord Wrigley's book were one of his teams, they would be a mid-table outfit with +1 goal difference and knocked out of all the cups by the quarter finals. A bit like his early MUFC teams in fact. His autobiography is middling, not a patch on the man himself or the type of performance we came to expect from Old Trafford.  His book does him and his achievements a disservice.

Now why is a die-hard lifetime fan of the Arsenal reading the words of an avowed competitor? Ah, to beat the enemy you must know him. I expect Wenger has read Fergie's book too - but he probably got even less out of it than me.

In fairness, parts of it are very good, particularly the chapters on Keane, Beckham and the two losses to Barcelona in the Champions League Finals. The sections on the media and other managers (Wenger, The Special One etc.) are interesting and reveal the side of Fergie we want to know more about.  But not nearly enough pages devoted to his early life, his playing career (he scored a lot of goals in Scotland), his success at Aberdeen, or the first few mediocre years at Man U.

He is  too effuse in praise for Giggs, Gary Neville and Scholes. Very little about the two Champions League wins. Some good parts on the way he managed certain players, especially van Nistlerooy and Rooney... but not enough on the earlier warriors like Robson, Ince, Paul McGrath. He totally glosses over the Cantona kung fu incident and gives Rio's failed drug test too many pages. Not nearly enough info on his relationship with the Glazers. Worse is the annoying habit of claiming to have spotted every talent imaginable at the age of eight... Please.

I have nothing but admiration for what he achieved. I remember when Man U were a joke: the Tommy Doherty and Ron Atkinson years. As old Rednose wrote, they only bought players who scored against them, like Alan Brazil and Gary Birtles and won nothing of note for decades. Then starting with his first Championship win in 1992, he transformed them into a world power and took them further than Busby. But his book does not bring that forth. It was rushed and too short. With a normal size font and the last 30 pages of meaningless statistics removed, it is barely 100 pages. He only retired in May, how could his autobiography be ready by October?

I would have him training with the reserves, based on this hardly definitive effort.   A grade of "C".

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Merry Christmas!

Like Fairytale of New York, "Twinkle Little Christmas Lights" will one day be a Christmas classic. Enjoy!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Like the night before Christmas, only better...

Our Beloved Redman Mascot -
torn away by the PC Nazi's
Excitement abounds on the online message boards as the 2013-14 college basketball season is about to tip off.  There are high hopes in St. John's Redmen, I mean Red Storm land (old habits die hard...).  The Big East conference has been reshaped and those nasties from UConn and Syracuse booted out.  What is left is largely the old Big East Catholic schools: SJU, Seton Hall, Gerogetown, Providence, Marquette, Seton Hall and DePaul.  Also coming in are two Jesuit centered schools Xavier and Creighton.  The tenth member is Butler, who are agnostic except when down by seven with less than a minute to play.  Fox Sports is carrying almost all of the games to a nationwide audience. These are truly exciting times for college basketball.

Compounding the eager anticipation is the fact that the Redmen, I mean Red Storm, look very good on paper.  Leading scorer from last year, D'Angelo Harrison is back and is vowing to keep his brittle temprament in check.  Our big blocker, Obekpa is back.  Big East Rookie of the Year, Jakaar Sampson is back.  We have recruited a blue chip point guard, Rasheed Jordan (yeah, like anyone named Jordan can be any good).  We have the great names of God'sGift and Sir'Dominic coming back.  The 24 year manchild (but not yet professional, really) Dominican Sanchez has been cleared to play.  And finally, we have a redshirt transfer from Harvard with the greatest name in all of basketball: Max Hooper.  His job is to shoot threes and threes only.  The headlines will write themselves!

SJU has two exhibition games this weekend before heading west to take on the Badgers of the University of Wisconsin (preseason rank # 20) on Friday Nov 8th.  We don't need no stinkin' Badgers...

Let's hope this talented group of Redmen Johnnies can emulate the past greats of Mullin, Berry, Jackson, et al.  LET'S GO ST. JOHN'S!!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Book Review: Ethan Frome

An oldie but a goodie. This one and was laying around the house practically begging to be read and being more novelette than book was quickly devoured.  Written by Edith Wharton and published in 1911, it is a dark unsentimental story almost Gothic in style and set in the snow covered hills of New England.  Here, one cold winter, the narrator comes across the protagonist, the quiet, unassuming and partially crippled, Ethan Frome.  Despite pressing the townsfolk about his past, they are generally tight-lipped about what brought the middle-aged Frome to this state, other than he has endured hardship and some sort of terrible accident in his youth.

The narrator, a visitor on a work assignment, needs a daily taxi (horse and carriage) to the next village and hires Frome,  gradually befriending him.  One night, during a bad snowstorm, Frome invites the narrator into his home and there inside are two older and worn women.  From this point on, the tale switches to the third person and the details of Frome's demise and present state are revealed.  Let's just say he had women (plural) problems.   And he was weak willed.  A poor combination, exacerbated by being housebound in a long Massachusetts winter...

Edith Wharton went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1920 for The Age of Innocence.  Based on her own chequered marital history, there may well be some basis for fact in Ethan Frome.

As mentioned, Ethan Frome is a quick read but a fine book and worth seeking out.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Movie Review: Gravity

The human stars of Gravity are Sandra Bullock and George Clooney; however the real star of the show is the special effects department.  It is hard to believe the action and effects are computer generated and the filming did not actually take place in space.  We watched it in 3D and for once the 3D effects actually enhanced the film.

While we hear the voices of mission control, there are really only two characters in the movie: Ryan Stone (Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (Clooney).  The story takes place almost entirely in space and the time frame is only a few hours.  Kowalski is leading his last space shuttle expedition and Stone is on her first.  While she is on a space walk, working on the Hubble telescope and Kowalski is clowning around with a jet pack, they get news that the Russians have purposefully destroyed one of their satellites and the debris is heading their way.

From this point on, all hell breaks loose.  The space shuttle is badly damaged by the debris.  Kowalski and Stone must defy the short odds and use their experience and training (and in Stone's case, lack thereof) to survive.  There is not much of a story / plot but the action sequences are terrific and as mentioned, the effects are first rate.  Both actors are tremendous and Bullock will probably get an Oscar nomination.

Overall it is not as good as Apollo 13 (1995) and it makes you realize how brilliant the effects were (for their time) in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

I rate Gravity an A-.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Theater Review: Thank You Jeeves

Our college fresh(wo)man had an assignment to see a local theater production and who would make a better date for the evening other than Pops?  We had been to Stage West in Fort Worth once before to see their rendition of The 39 Steps.  To say the venue is intimate would be an understatement.  It barely accommodates one hundred patrons but of course there is not a bad seat in the house.

Thank You Jeeves is one of the many PG Woodhouse novels featuring the travails and escapades of one Bertie Wooster and his loyal valet Jeeves.  It is perfect for stage, with limited action and lots of snappy and witty dialog.  Woodhouse's creations have been seen on film and maybe more famously on the small screen with Hugh Laurie playing Wooster and Stephen Fry as Jeeves.  These two are what I had mind when entering the theater. 

Mark Shum, who was also in The 39 Steps, was very good as the irrepressible Bertie Wooster.  He was lively, giddy and delivered his many lines in a good prep-school English accent.  Jeeves was played by Jim Covault, who was older than expected but that did not hold him back.  His many level-setting dry remarks back to Bertie garnered the most laughs.  The rest of the cast were forgetable, except Chuffy (who was over-bearing and loud) and Stoker, who looked like Hershel from The Walking Dead.  And we know know what a banjolele is...

It was a long production - almost two and a half hours - but overall very enjoyable.  Here's hoping for an A on the class paper.   Even better than the play was dinner at Torchy's Tacos.   What started in Austin is now in DFW - they have a new location in Southlake.  Can't wait to go again!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Saint Invincibles Day

All Arsenal fans / Gooners have come to love the annual rite of spring known as St. Totteringham's Day, that moving holiday when it is mathematically impossible for Sp*rs to finish above the Gunners in the Premiership.  Although Sp*rs scratch and claw, change managers and spend millions, it has been celebrated in each of the last 18 seasons.  In fairness, it has come late in the past couple of years (May) but has been known to happen as early as the second week of March.

Enough picking on the Totts, I prose another holiday, this one in the early part of the season.  It will commemorate the Invincibles of 2003-04, the only team of the modern era to go through an entire EPL season undefeated:  P38  W26  D12  L0

Saint Invincibles Day will be when the last undefeated team in the EPL suffers its first loss.  As of today, only Everton have yet to lose.

This year, Saint Invincibles Day will probably fall on Oct 5th when the Toffee's will likely succumb to Citeh. Gooners around the world will sing and rejoice and regale the young 'uns with tales of the 2003-04 INVINCIBLES... (Although should Everton win, we will also sing and rejoice).

The Invincibles: Brave Jens of the Rhine, Sir Robert of Pires, the bold knave Freddie, the majestic knight Dennis, his Lordship Thierry, gallant PV4, Cole (the Traitor), Reyes the Kicked, Sol the Saved & Unrepentant, The Brazilians Gilberto & Edu, etc.  All banded together under the watchful gaze of Good King Wenger to go unbeaten over nine months of battle!

St. Invincibles Day cometh soon!


Wednesday, September 11, 2013


Today marks the 12th anniversary of the day "our nation saw evil" and almost 3,000 innocent lives were extinguished.  Last October, on a beautiful fall morning with weather not unlike that fateful September day, we had the opportunity to visit the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan.  The site where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once proudly stood is now a shrine and in the national psyche stands alongside Gettysburg and Pearl Harbor.  The 9/11 Memorial is tremendous in its simplicity and leaves a profound sense of sadness but also resolve

The exact footprint of each tower has been transformed into two below ground pools with water cascading over each of the four sides.  In the center of the pool the water disappears into a square hole, symbolizing the disappeared and the lost.  The pools each measure about one acre and the surrounding walls are capped with bronze plates with the victims names.    The lost are grouped together: firefighters, those on the two doomed flights, the employees of Cantor Fitzgerald (658 of their 960 employees perished) and so on...even some pregnant mothers and their unborn children.

The two pools are set in a park which spans about eight acres and has hundreds of newly planted white oaks.  There is also the "Survivor Tree" which was originally planted near the WTC site in the 1970s and somehow, like NYC, survived the attacks.

Visitors maintain reverential silence and speak in hushed tones.  Mostly you just heard the cascading water and blink back tears as you watch families make etchings of the names of their loved ones.  The lingering effect is one of overwhelming sorrow but also determination to not let our guard down again.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Corporate Challenge 2013 - Bike Race

Team GE Before the Race
Conditions were perfect for the 15K (nine miles) sprint at 8am this morning.  Not too hot (low 80, slightly humid) and no wind.  We had about 20 cyclists on Team GE, loosely divided into hares, rabbits and lollygaggers.  I was in the second group, coming in at 25 minutes 29 seconds or about 21 MPH average. Our top guys did it in 20:46.  The overall best time was 19:45 or almost 28 MPH average!  That is some serious speed.

I was happy with my time (57th out of 133 in the 40-50 age bracket) and much improved over last year.  Unfortunately as a company we placed seventh out of nine in our division and out of the medals.  So far it has been a tough Corporate Challenge for GE - no top three finishes in any of the events.  That will change this week when our soccer campaign starts.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Breaking Bad

The AMC series described by many TV critics as being on par with (if not better than) The Soprano's has but four episodes left to run.  Breaking Bad is delicately poised.  DEA Agent Hank Schrader knows that his brother-in-law Walter White (aka "Heisenburg") is the former meth kingpin of Albuquerque.  Jesse Pinkman knows that Walt tried to poison his girlfriends son and would appear to have told the DEA everything.  Walters wife Skylar knows the her duplicitous husband is still hanging around with the greatest lawyer (Saul Goodman) since Jackie Childs.  And finally our protagonist and one time chemistry teacher Walter White knows that the noose is tightening.  Everybody now knows everything - question is, how will it end?

Yet, the flash-forward from Season 5, Episode 9 "Blood Money" indicates Walter is alive and kicking - with hair - well into the future.  It is fascinating trying to guess how it will unfold.  Most likely in violence.  So many major characters have already met their demise through the machinations of Heisenberg:
  • Gus Fring, smooth proprietor of Pollos Hermanos.  Next time you are in a fried chicken joint, check out the buckets of batter.  Gus died a memorable death, with half his face missing.
  • Hector, aside from Chief in Cuckoo's Nest, this has to be the greatest non-speaking character ever on screen.  Willingly died with Gus. Ding, ding, ding.
  • Mike, a badass protector and Fring henchman but no match for Heisenberg.
  • Gale, a promising chemist, put out to pasture by Jesse (corrupted by Heisenberg)
  • Jane, Jesse's drug addled girlfriend - Heisenberg could have resuscitated her...
  • Those two silent, pointy-booted, scary-ass assassins from Mexico... 
  • The guy in the bathtub of acid
  • The kid in the desert
  • Mike's guys in jail... and how many more?

The last four episodes will be historic.  The tension is building.  The finale is to be shown Sept 29th and is entitled "Felina".  On the Ticket this evening, the Hard Line were doing their weekly Breaking Bad analysis.  Danny is of the opinion that Felina is a reference to the Marty Robbins song where the cowboy (Walt) dies in the arms of Felina (Skylar) and she takes her own life.

That's all fine and dandy, I want to know if Badger and Skinny Pete get to make their psychedelic Star Trek episode.  And for the love of Pedro, give Saul Goodman his own show.  For now, we will have to do with Better Call Saul.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

A week is a long time in politics, football, etc.

Tiny Little Baby Cannons Practicing a 4-4-10 Formation
Wenger gets a reprieve of sorts after two decent performances on the road.  Fenerbache showed little resistance on Wednesday night and were dispatched 3-0 (Gibbs, Ramsey, Giroud).  Only downside: Koscielny was maimed and came off early after a Turkish boot to the head. This morning, in the early game, Arsenal prevailed 3-1 over Fulham (Giroud, Podolski 2) with Aaron Ramsey turning in another very steady performance in central midfield.  He has a great engine and runs tirelessly to help the cause.  He might not be as steady as Arteta but Aaron is proving to be a very valuable member of the team. 

Giroud continues with his goal-per-game form, somewhat fortunate with Arsenal's first but showing a deft touch when setting up Podolski for his second.  As for Lukas, he is an interesting cat.  He is either very good (today) or anonymous.  In typical Wenger fashion, Podolski is not playing in his best position - center forward - but then what to do with Giroud?  There is rumours that Podolski will go back to Germany - which would be ludicrous given how thin the sqaud is.  Which segues to...


At this stage it is almost irrelevant who comes in.  On the bench today:  Zelalem, Gnarby, Sanogo, Frimpong...  Exactly! Bunch of no name kids.  This is ridiculous.  Only Frimpong has a handful of senior games under his belt - or socks - since footballers do not really wear belts, or suspenders...

Thank goodness Sagna was not allowed to leave - he looked very solid alongside the BFG today and both fullbacks (Gibbs and Jenks) played well.


Bring in some size for goodness sake.  The other night there was a moment where Walcott, Wilshere and Cazorla were side by side (by side).  I wasn't sure if was watching a football game or if Snow White was going to make a cameo with four other pint-sized players.  It is hard enough to win with kids, damn near impossible with midgets.


Tuesdays game at home vs. Fenerbache should be a formality; however, we are always one crazy own goal, generous penalty, ridiculous red card, freak injury away from calamity (wait, wasn't that the Aston Villa game last week?).  The real test comes next Sunday, at home to the tiny Totts.  But by then Bale will be gone and we will have signed Benzema, Di Maria, Williams, Cabaye, another goalie, Flamini, Ray Parlour, Messi, Maradona and Pele... or more likey some four foot nothing 16 year Peruvian from the French League 4 - and he will not have a passport.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Arsene's Chickens Have Come Home To Roost

Busted Cannon
A new football season started today at The Emirates in North London and already the natives are beyond restless. I would say they are justifiably baying for blood.  A 3-1 home loss to Aston Villa was unacceptable and this is up there with the debacle at Old Trafford in 2011.

First to the game.  The Gunners started brightly and took the lead in the 6th minute through Giroud after some quick ball movement up the left side of the  field.  Things quickly deteriorated.  Gibbs - with blood streaming down his face - went off injured, meaning Sagna was shifted to left back. On came Jenks and the jury is still out on his abilities.  A dreadful mistake in midfield (not sure who - but it was not Arteta) allowed Gabby Agbonlahor gallop through the middle and Chesney was left to haul him down for a penno.  Note the ref played advantage but when Villa missed the chance, he blew for the foul...  Chesney was lucky only to see yellow...  And there our luck ended.

Chseney saved the penalty but Benteke scored on the rebound.  Then the Ox who was lively, went off injured at half time.   Cazorla came on but was not his usual self.  Walcott was piss-poor.  The Wilshere-Ramsey partnership did not click.  Neither provide adequate protection for the back four. 

The ref then gave an incredibly soft penalty - Koscielny got the ball first - and Benteke scored for his second.  More misery when Kos was later sent off for what seemed to be some acting by a Villa player.  With ten men we pushed forward for an equalizer but only succeeded in giving up a third goal in the 85th minute.  The scariest moment was yet to come - the sight of Sagna being flipped when trying to win a header and coming crashing down to the grass literally landing on his head.  How his neck was not broken, I do not know.

The Ensuing Debacle
Injuries left and right, suspensions (surely Kos's red card will be appealed?) and an already fragile and thin squad is looking very weak indeed.  The cupboards are bare:  the reserves have been annihilated in their pre-season games, there is nothing at the youth level.  Worse still, Wenger sent our only viable defensive midfielder and centerback out on loan (Coquelin and Miquel).  Unbelievable.  What goes through his head these days defies logic.

Wenger and Gazidis between them have conspired to totally bollix up the first team.  All summer they have dithered and dilly-dallied and done SFA to improve the team.  A blind man could see where the gaps are.  No depth, weaknesses at key positions and no strategy (other than moan) to fix the issues.   The ownership does not seem to care.  The fans need to revolt by not going to the games until the product and the field improves.

And it could get worse: Fenerbache could very easily dump this lot out of the Champions League.

I have been a fan for too long to think this a new low.  Some of the teams fielded in the early 1980's were dire (remember the John Hawley and Ray Hankin experiment?).  But to see how far we have fallen since the Invincibles of 2003-04 is tough to swallow.

Gazidis needs to stop palavering about how much money the club has.  Go quietly about your business - all that matters are results on the field.  It is a joke to see how little Fab and RvP were sold for and the money that is being mentioned for Bale and Suarez.   Very poor business acumen.

Everyone is accountable: the ownership, the manager, the coaches, the players, the scouts, the youth system.  The fans are being short-changed, big-time.  A sad day and one that has been all too common in the past several years.  This club needs a serious overhaul and a new regime. I hope it does not get worse but I would not be surprised if it did.

The once proud cannon is in serious disrepair.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Movie Review: Elysium (2013)

We went to see this based on the strength of District 9 (2009) - same director - Neill Blomkap.  And while Elysium explores similar themes, namely a future earth that is borderline destroyed and the controlling class live in the relative safety of space, the storyline behind Elysium is not nearly as original as District 9.  That being said, the performances of Matt Damon and Jodie Foster are worthy of praise and the movie's bad guy "Kruger" dominates every scene he is in.  Kruger is played by Sharlto Copley who was the main protagonist in District 9.  His South African accent is just terrific, the way he seems to chew up his words and then spit them out with venom.

As mentioned, the plot is a bit thin, kids needing cures, etc. Offsetting this are solid special effects, especially the great wheel in the sky contraption where the wealthy humans live.

Two bones of contention: how does the colony in space create an atmosphere hospitable for humans and where were their defense forces when the illegals landed?

Elysium had a budget of $115 million, big name casts will do that... and took in $30 million on its opening weekend.  Will it break-even?  District 9, a much better film, cost $30 million but made well in excess of $200 million. 

You could wait for the DVD, but Elysium is probably best viewed on the big screen; however, I would wait for the $2 matinee - or do they still have that?


After a couple of fruitless summers we found the right place for a vegetable garden.  In 2011 it got too much shade and not enough water.  Last year I constructed a dolly based mobile unit that was designed to be shifted around depending on the sun-shade-sprinkler combo.  It failed miserably.

This year, on the advice of a neighbor, we chose a spot that got morning sun and stood a good chance of benefiting from our sporadic summer rain.  Burned (literally) from last years debacle, we planted only a few tomato plants, some leftover strawberry plants and a solitary squash.  Well, the tomato plant has grown to amazon proportions with loads of flowers - although strangely no fruit yet.  The squash has turned rampant and has several nice looking yellow offspring.  Both the tomato and the squash contrived to crowd out the strawberry plants, they have disappeared.

The apple tree had its usual abundance of fruit, which I picked and unceremoniously threw away.  The apples are sweetish but seem to have a lot of, how do you say, tenants.  Unlike last year,  when I placed the large trash can full of apples out by the curb on garbage day, this time I situated the can a little further back from the street.  See last summer some-overserved yahoo in a pickup came barreling down the road at 3am in his pickup and sideswiped the harvest.  We spent about an hour cleaning up the mess by the light of the moon. It is amazing how far an apple will roll...

The peach tree had a bumper crop, we picked the best of the bunch and brought them inside to ripen.  The missus made an excellent peach pie.

So while the 2013 vegetable garden is small - it was an experiment after all - critically it is in a productive spot and can be expanded nicely next spring.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Thunderbird Watercolor

Thanks to PSYKO for this excellent rendition of the Thunderbird.  He actually completed three drawings. One is in my office at work, Kieran hijacked one for his bedroom and the fate of the third is to be determined.

PSYKO's other work can be viewed here:

Some very cool stuff and my thanks again to Steph for his work.  Merci beaucoup!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Dallas to Calgary

Another milestone on June 30th when the odometer on the Fuji bike passed 2,000 miles.   That is the equivalent of Dallas, TX to Calgary, Alberta.  That would be a fun ride: straight north up through the heartland of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, across the Canadian border and west through Saskatchewan and finally into Calgary.  Nice and flat, just the way I like it.

Ironically that is similar to the route of the proposed XL Pipeline, if numb nuts in the White House would ever get around to approving it.  He has better things to do, like eavesdrop on everyday Joe Civilian.  Let's not politicize this otherwise major milestone: 2,000 miles in about 9 months of weekend pedal-pushing. 

Of course, let's keep things in perspective, the Tour de France covers the same distance in three weeks.   But whereas they use ahem, enhancements, while this Tour de Geriatric has nothing more than water and a granola bar as fuel.  Hope to have the next 1000 done by Oct.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Tilting @ Windmills

A windmill is one of the most energy efficient and ingenious ways ever devised to pump water from the ground. A windmill harnesses the free and renewable power of the wind and uses that energy to lift underground water to the surface for agricultural and other uses.

So say the fine folks at Aermotor and who are we to argue?  Since 1888 they have been turning out windmills by the thousand.  The company that started in Chicago has moved its facilities south over the years from the Windy City to Conway, Arkansas, on to Broken Bow, Oklahoma and finally to San Angelo, Texas.  It is as if the company itself was seeking out the dry and parched land that could most benefit from a windmill.

Today when navigating that plains and prairie of Texas, towns can be identified miles ahead by the ubiquitous water tower.  Back in the day when travel was made by a good pony, the windmill was a welcome sight.  It meant a cool drink and likely a ranch house where a supper might be shared.

Is there a more aesthetically pleasing sight than a windmill, standing tall and proud, sentinel and servant, pumping away as long as the breeze holds up?

This fine example is located off Dove Road in Westlake.  I cycle by it every now and then and it looks particularly handsome in the evening when the western sun hits the blades.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Book Review: The Big Rich

The Big Rich, subtitled The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes by Bryan Burrough (2009) is a fascinating read and on my all time Top Ten.  Even if this was fiction, the tales of the Texas oil business would be engrossing, the fact it is true makes the book utterly compelling.

The author focuses in on a handful of the largest Texas oil families and their patriarchs:

Roy Cullen, who had an instinctive nose for where the oilfields lay and in the the 1920's pioneered drilling deeper than everyone else and discovered huge amounts of reserves in Humble, TX.  Cullen was one of the less flamboyant oilmen, amassing rather than squandering wealth, setting up a huge philanthropic trust and donating enormous amounts of money to Houston area hospitals, which to this day are among the world's finest.  Cullen was also an early backer of LBJ.

Clint Murchison Sr. was more the stereotypical Texas oilman.  In the 1930's he was leveraged to the hilt, always running from bank to bank, trying to borrow enough to bring in the next gusher.  Much of his early fortune was built around "hot oil" meaning that despite government caps on production, Murchison's wells kept flowing.  He bought large ranches, including Matagorda Island on the Gulf coast, built huge homes, had a private plane and in general, lived large.  His son, Clint Jr. went on to start the Dallas Cowboys.  Ultimately much of the Murchison wealth was lost and Jr. filed bankruptcy in 1985.

The Hunts took it to a whole other level.  The founder of Hunt Oil, H.L. Hunt was a bigamist (15 children, three wives!) and in the 1920's and 30's discovered oil in East Texas the old fashioned way - by spying on other wildcatters and buying up leases ahead of them.  The character of J.R. Ewing is definitely based on H.L.  Despite building a huge family fortune, the Hunts lost most of it - a combination of buying much of the worlds silver before that market collapsed and having Gadhafi kick them out of Libya.

Glenn McCarthy epitomizes rags-to-riches.  He had $1.50 to his name when he got married but a succession of oil strikes in the 1930s and 40's made him one of the wealthiest men in Texas.  Part of his undoing was the Shamrock Hotel in Houston, which cost him $21 million to build in 1949 but ultimately failed.  Much of the character played by James Dean in Giant is based on McCarthy.

Finally there is the Richardson / Bass empire and one of the few that survived, flourished and for the most part avoided scandal.  Sid Richardson was one of the pioneers to drill in West Texas in the 1930's, which to this day remains one of the centers of the US oil and gas business.   Richardson went on to be a major philanthropist and never married, leaving much of his wealth to his nephew Perry Bass.  Despite sibling infighting, the Bass fortune remains substantial and they have donated millions to Yale University, the World Wildlife Fund and more importantly to our area, Fort Worth.

The Big Rich is, in a word, terrific.  Every page has some event that makes you shake your head, whether it is the Machiavellian scheming, the wilful bankers, the huge bets, the influence of oil in politics (see LBJ and the Bushes), etc.

Burrough's previous work includes Barbarians at the Gate (1990), a chronicle of the RJR Nabisco takeover and for several years was required reading (and may well still be) for every MBA student.  The Big Rich should also be on the college syllabus for every business and petro-chemical major.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Van Cliburn 2013

Before Van Morrison, Van Halen and Uncle Rico's van, there was Van Cliburn.

Everyone in Fort Worth knows who Van Cliburn is.  Almost everyone in Texas knows who Van Cliburn is.  Anyone the US with a fondness for classical music has heard of Van C.  At the height of the Cold War in the 1950's the Russians knew and feared VC, and I am not talking the Viet Cong.

Harvey Lavan "Van" Cliburn, Jr. was a pianist of extraordinary talent who as a raw 23 year old went to Moscow in 1958 and won the International Tchaikovsky Competition.  Khrushchev was none to happy, grudgingly accepting that a Texan had kicked some Commie butt.  Technically, Van Cliburn was not from Texas (born in Louisiana) but like the rest of us, got here as fast as he could.

After Moscow fame and fortune followed and in 1962, Van Cliburn started an international piano competition in his own name which has gained global renown.  It is held every four years in Fort Worth and this year after seeing a couple of documentaries on the competition, we donned our Sunday best and headed to FW to see one of the preliminary rounds.

First off, it is held in the Bass Concert Hall, a magnificent edifice opened in 1998 as part of the renewal of Fort Worth and Sundance Square.  The Bass Family, Texas heirs to an oil empire not squandered (see review of The Big Rich to follow) own much of the real estate in Sundance Square and have perfected the blueprint for downtown renewal.  The took what was a derelict and dangerous section of old Fort Worth and transformed it into a vibrant center with offices, shops, restaurants, museums and the aforementioned concert hall.

Secondly, our seats were good, maybe too good.  We were almost under the imposing Steinway.  If one of the competitors got a little carried away and did some kind of wild Jerry Lee Lewis maneuver, we would be crushed... but at least the kids would be adopted by the Bass family and Great Balls of Fire would never sound the same...

We got to see two Italians and a Russian and it would be hard to pick a winner.  Where one was brash and loud, the other soft and melodic, etc. There were 30 invited entrants in all, three squaring off each session so the competition goes on over several weeks.  We joked that we should become a host family, just to see the face on the maestro when he / she got a glimpse of our out of tune battered old upright.

None of our three made it past the first round.  The eventual winner was Vadym Kholodenko from Kiev.  The Russians have exacted their revenge - in fact a Russian has won the competition four of the 13 times.

Sadly, VC was not at the 2013 competition.  He passed away in Feb 2013, aged 78.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

"Nothing Ever Happens to People Like Us...

... Except we miss the bus" - The Buzzcocks

This historical marker is on my bike route and a few weeks back I stopped to take a gander.  That is two minutes of my life I will never get back.  Buck T. King (great name, by the way, should have started a country band) built a house here in the 1920's and it burned down somewhere between then and 1942 when ol' Buck sold out.  That's it, end of story.  A plaque marking Pete Shelley missing a bus in Manchester would have been way more exciting.

In fairness, it is not an official State of Texas Historical Marker, which usually commemorate something of mild significance.  This one was put up by the City of Westlake - there is probably one outside the Jonas Bros. house as well.

For some real fun:

Mighty stuff.  Killer bass line.  Do you think they listened to Iggy and the Stooges much?
Oh and Green Day should be sued for blatant thievery, plagiarism and for being obnoxious.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Book Review: Ghost Ship - The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and Her Missing Crew (2004)

The Mary Celeste was a 100 foot brigantine that in December 1872 was found adrift in the North Atlantic with no crew aboard.  The ship was in relatively good shape with most of its equipment and cargo intact.  There was no signs of struggle, that it had been attacked or that it had suffered through a storm.  The lifeboat was gone but it was later disputed if the Mary Celeste even had a lifeboat.  And if the crew left in a lifeboat, why did they leave behind all of their personal belongings, including their smoke pipes and foul-weather gear?

The ship that found the Mary Celeste, the Dei Gratia sent over a crew of three to the "ghost ship" and over the course of a few weeks managed to sail it to Gibraltar where it became wrapped up in a legal tangle for months. Furthermore, there were dozens of theories put forth as to what happened.  There were suspicions that the crew of the Dei Gratia murdered all of those on the Mary Celeste and were claiming an undeserved salvage award.  Others thought it was an elaborate insurance scam.  It could have been a victim of the Bermuda Triangle, marauding pirates, or even the Kraken - a huge man-eating squid.

The two most interesting solutions put forth over the years are as follows:  Captain Briggs had his wife and young daughter aboard.  He had a small enclosed deck built especially for his child - a sort of play-pen that hung out over the side, keeping the girl out of harms way.  While Captain Briggs was by most accounts a level-headed and capable seaman, this version has him berating one of his crew for not saving a sailor who fell overboard on a previous voyage.  The sailor replied the seas were too rough and he too would have perished.  Briggs felt this was nonsense and declared he would show the young sailor how he himself could swim around the Mary Celeste.  He stripped down and jumped into the Atlantic.  Mrs. Briggs insisted two more of the crew follow the Captain in to ensure his safety.  That left only five crewmen on board. 

The story goes on to say how one of the sailors in the ocean with Briggs was attacked by a shark.  Those remaining on board heard him scream and rushed out on to young Miss Briggs little deck to see what the commotion was all about.  The small deck was unable to support their weight and all aboard tumbled into the ocean to become shark bait.  While this explanation is a little far-fetched, it would explain some of the markings on the deck and why everything aboard seemed intact when the Dei Gratia found the Mary Celeste.

The second theory is one that the author Brian Hicks supports and would seem to be more plausible.  The Mary Celeste was carrying in its hold hundreds of barrels of what was loosely classified as "alcohol", which in reality was not beer or whiskey but some form of industrial chemical taken on in New York and bound for Genoa.  When the crew of the Dei Gratia boarded the Mary Celeste, the cargo was intact, although a few barrels were found to cracked open - not unusual if there had been even moderately rough seas.  Hick feels that the alcohol was emitting vapors that made Briggs and the crew lightheaded.  In order to escape the dizzying effects, the Captain ordered everyone into the lifeboat for a few hours until the gas dissipated.  They lowered themselves down and trailed a few hundred feet behind the Mary Celeste, affixed by a long anchor line.  Then calamity struck.  The already frayed line broke and while the sailors in the lifeboat rowed frantically to catch the Mary Celeste, the wind kicked up and filled her sails, leaving the small lifeboat behind.  The crew with neither food or water would have quickly perished.

Ghost Ship is a good read - a lively mystery of the ocean which in all likelihood will never be solved.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

They Grow Up So Fast...

Rabbits are renowned for their ability to reproduce but you will never hear anyone say "He was as smart as a rabbit", unless of course they are referring to Bugs Bunny.  Case in point, Mrs. Wascally Wabbit who in the throes of motherhood decided that our front lawn would make an ideal home for her brood. We noticed one evening a small clearing in the grass and upon closer inspection what appeared to be a scraped hole smaller than a dinner plate and marginally covered with dead grass and fur. Intrigued, I gently pulled back the covering, ready for Mr Snake or Armadillo.

Instead, there were these black naked sausages, which for all we knew were moles or maybe nasty rats.  We covered them back up and Mrs B mentioned she had seen a rabbit around front the previous evening.

A few days later and after another inspection and a Google image search, we felt reasonably sure they were rabbits.

We pulled one little fellow out to pose with Fiona for her prom.

This evening, we decided to take another look and when I pulled back the covering, five little bunnies came scampering out and hopped off in every direction, while at least two more stayed in the "burrow". We managed to track the escapees down (they could not get too far in long grass) and literally shoved them back in their tiny hovel and covered them up again.  At this stage we are resolved to let nature take its course...

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Book Review: A Voyage Long and Strange

Written by Tony Horwitz in 2008, A Voyage Long and Strange examines the history of the lesser revered explorers who made their way to North America before the Pilgrims washed up on a Massachusetts beach and even before Columbus made his way to Cuba and Haiti (but not the continental US).  It is a fascinating read, not only because most of the early explorers discovered so much more than Columbus, but Horwitz actually goes to the trouble of retracing their routes while commenting on their impact and what the sites look like today.

Native Americans are descendants of Asians who crossed the land bridge between Alaska and Russia some 12,000 years ago.  The first Europeans showed up roughly 11,000 years later and were Vikings who had made their way first to Iceland, then Greenland and finally Newfoundland - there are stone settlements there attributed to Leif Eriksson, son of Eric the Red.  The Vikings did not stay for long - maybe only a few years - and unlike their Spanish successors, made no lasting impression.

1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue - but never landed on the mainland.

On the other hand, another Spaniard Ponce de Leon spent the years 1513-14 sailing around Florida and gave the state its name.  He was looking for the Fountain Of Youth but in 1521 met with something more tangible: an Arrow of Doom.  A poison tipped arrow of a Calusa Indian caused PdL's demise.  The very rocky relationship between explorer and Indian was on.

The next major explorer is my favorite.  Who could not love Head of a Cow, Cabeza de Vaca?  In 1527 he was part of an expedition to colonize La Florida.  They landed near present day Tampa with about 600 men and from then on, things deteriorated quickly.  Lack of food, tropical disease and skirmishes with Indians reduced their ranks quickly.  They wandered inland looking for gold but the swamps consumed them.  CdV and 40 men made it back to the coast of northern Florida after six months of futility and made rough rafts with a plan of sailing south towards Mexico.  Instead, they got blown west and wrecked near Galveston, Texas. 

For the next seven years, CdV and four others traipsed through Texas and New Mexico and finally in 1536 made his way south to Mexico City.  En route he traded with Indians and gained a reputation as a healer.  It was the most incredible journey, covering thousands of miles on foot with almost no resources only a will to get back to his own people.  He was empathetic to the natives and was not the typical gold hungry conquistador.

On the other hand, the Spanish explorers that came later, Coronado and particularly de Soto were exactly that: out to conquest.  De Soto was brutal,  He landed in Florida in 1539 and fought with Indians all thorough out the southeast.  He stole from them, enslaved them and his men spread European disease to those they came in contact with.  When you get to the part where de Soto dies in 1542, you will cheer.  He was a nasty piece of work.

The later and mostly English explorers are kind of lame by comparison.  Roanoke, John Smith, Plymouth Rock... yawn.  It is mouthwatering to think that Cabeza de Vaca wrote The Account, a chronicle of his travels and it has been translated into English...  That is on my Half Priced Books wish list.

All in, A Voyage Long and Strange is an excellent book.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013


We have some serious growth and an array of vivid colors on display in the back yard.  A mild spring coupled with occasional but timely rain has all the flowers and fruits coming out en masse.  We will enjoy the flowers while they last - not long now until the blast furnace of summer descends upon us.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Houmas House

Houmas House - Former Residence of Oliver Beirne

A Google search on steamboat Captain James Beirne, founder of the hamlet Beirne, AK,  brings back "Steamboat Oliver Beirne".  So who was Oliver Beirne?

Oliver Beirne was the son of Andrew Beirne (1771-1845) an Irish immigrant to the United States from Dangan Co. Roscommon.  Andrew sold lumber and farmed in Union, Monroe County, Va., during the early nineteenth century. He served in state and national politics, and during the War of 1812, he served as captain of a rifle company and as colonel of the Monroe County militia.   His son, Oliver, developed sugar plantations in Ascension Parish, Louisiana and his residence was Houmas House on the Houmas Plantation.

Oliver Beirne's daughter, Betty, married William Porcher Miles (1822-1899), a mayor of Charleston, S.C., and a Democratic member of the U. S. House of Representatives from 1857 until South Carolina seceded.  After the Civil war, Oliver Beirne made Miles manager of the Houmas Plantation Louisiana.  Oliver Beirne had inherited Houmas from his friend John Burnside (d. 1881). Miles managed these plantations until his death in 1899.

At its peak in 1857, the Houmas plantation has over 10,000 acres and 800 slaves.  The principal crop was sugar.  Following the death of Miles in 1899, the property began to be divided up and the house began to fall into disrepair.   It was restored to its present glory in 1940 and was the setting for "Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte" in 1963.

The magnificent house stands on the banks of the Mississippi about 60 miles west of New Orleans and is open for tours.  Add another site to the bucket list of "must visit".

When you own a place like this,
you get a steamboat named after you...

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Beirne, Arkansas

April is officially Beirne History Month.

R.D. settled in Texas in 1882 but two years earlier J.L. Beirne was making his mark about 200 miles east in Arkansas.  Per "The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture" (not an oxymoron):

The small community of Beirne is located twenty-one miles southwest of the Clark County seat of Arkadelphia. It was founded by Illinois native and steamboat captain James Lewis Beirne in 1880. Originally named York, the community was later renamed for Beirne. The community, like many surrounding it, grew out of the timber industry, and it was once considered one of the premier shipping locations along the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad. Like many of its neighboring communities, it too fell victim to waning timber production in the early 1900s. Today, Beirne is home to one of the largest producers of hardwood material in the world.

Quickly after the community’s establishment, Captain Beirne built a sawmill and Methodist church, which he pastored. By the end of 1880, a railroad depot was constructed, and Beirne’s sawmills and grist mills were in full operation. On May 7, 1880, Beirne established a post office under the name of York; on May 26, 1880, it was renamed Beirne. In 1881, Beirne’s daughter and son-in-law moved to the area, and the group established a store and planing mill on the 800 acres owned by Beirne. The community quickly gained the reputation as the best shipping point on the railroad for the citizens in the Okolona (Clark County) area. James Beirne died in 1908 and is buried in the town bearing his name.

Did R.D. and J.L. know each other?  Maybe - but probably not, 200 miles was another time zone in 1882.  Interesting that both became entrepreneurs, unwilling to toil under the glare of some tight-fisted robber baron.

What drove Cap'n Beirne to side with the Methodists?  Was there a Methodist to his madness? (I have waited years to use that one).  What happened to the steamboat? Is there a juicy Concordia-style steamboat grounding that no one will talk about?

A road trip to Beirne AR is in the planning phase.  For now we must be content with a photo of its post office, where stamps are still four cents and the mailman knows everyone by their first name, be it BobbieSue, BillyJoe, BessieMay, EddieLee, etc.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

R.D. Beirne, Part 2 of 2

So, after leaving Roscommon when he was 18, our man R.D. ended up in Denison, Texas in 1882.  There he opened a "dry goods" store in partnership with a Mr. Stenson.  Based on the advertisements of the time, "dry goods" seems to be clothing, textiles, fabric and the like.  Evidently they prospered and R.D. later bought out his partner.

In 1882 Texas was wild and wooly.  The Chishom Trail was still being used, with thousands of cattle plodding northwards just a few miles west of Denison.  Judge Roy Bean was in West Texas, holding court in Del Rio, where he once fined a dead man for vagrancy for an amount that just happened to equal the contents of the deceased's wallet.  Around this time, the JA Ranch in the Texas Panhandle peaked at 1.3 million acres and on April 3, 1882 Jesse James was assassinated by the coward Robert Ford (a great movie, BTW)...  Did Roderick Dermott Beirne live in interesting times or what?

Fast forward to 1908 and after 26 years of keeping up with the crazy fashions of the times*, not to mention enduring the haggling of old countrywomen, R.D. had made his fortune and was able to retire.

* Haute couture in north Texas in the early 1900's was whether to wear chaps with or without pants.

Below is the notice in the Denison Daily Herald that R.D. Beirne was set to "discontinue business" starting Nov 17, 1908.

Denison is about an hour from Southlake and a couple of years back we drove up there to see what was left of R.D. Beirne's Dry Goods Store. Not much, to be honest, although the building is still intact but the businesses appear to be closed. Not sure which of these two is 305 Main Street.

R.D. Beirne, Part 1 of 2

There were Beirne's in Texas long before yours truly
and there will be many more long after I am gone...

 A few weeks after moving back to Texas in 2009, I was in casual conversation with our neighbor Stanley.  I was giving him the high-level ancestry and I mentioned a great-great grand-uncle who lived in Denison and whose claim to fame was the above-mentioned clock on the high school.  Lo and behold, Stanley's mother went to Dension High and was a history buff and she was one of the contributors to a book about the school.  He produced a copy of the book and sure enough, there was a page given over to R.D. and his generous donation - see the excerpt copy above. 
Note that $2500 in 1913 is about $58,000 in todays money.
Thousands of graduates later, the high school and clock came down in 2007.  It was an impressive old structure and would have been 100 years old this year.
The clock was still around in 2009 and I suppose if I had acted faster, I could have laid claim to at least a piece of it...  I am unsure where it ended up but might make a few calls to the Denison City Council.


Saturday, March 30, 2013

Book Review: The Litigators - John Grisham

First off, this was a Christmas present from a co-worker in Iowa and when I see a gift horse, I put a saddle on it.  Waaaay back in the day, before he churned out his lawyer-legal themed books every other month, Grisham actually wrote decent novels - see A Time to Kill and The Firm.  Everything since has become formulaic and might well been outsourced to a college English major while John listens to the sound of the Brinks truck backing up his manicured driveway.  The Litigators is enjoyable but predictable and might make a good companion for a cross country or trans ocean flight - but only if the inflight magazine and Skymall are missing from the seatback. TV movie of the week material .