Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Kitchen God—A Chinese Elf on the Shelf

Recently, at an auction, I bought a box of delightful Chinese prints—including various Chinese gods and posters for oolong tea—all colorfully printed on thin rice paper and block-printed in bright colors.

I was charmed by the jolly fellow pictured above and started poking around on Google to learn more about him.

Turns out he is the Kitchen God, who is tacked up behind the stove in every Chinese kitchen along with a small altar to hold incense burners, candles and offerings.

The Kitchen God observes the behavior of the family all year long and, seven days before the beginning of the Lunar New Year celebration, his image is taken off the wall and burned.  This releases his spirit  so that he can go to make his annual ascent to the Jade Emperor to report on the way the family has behaved during the past year.  After hearing his report, the Jade Emperor decides how much prosperity and abundance he will give to each family in the New Year.

But before burning the Kitchen God, the family will attempt to bribe him into making a good report by bestowing on him sweets, like fruits, honey and lotus cakes as well as candies and rice wine and especially sticky rice—perhaps as rice balls served in a sugar soup.  The plan is that, if the Kitchen God’s mouth is full of sweet sticky rice, he won’t be able (or inclined) to report on any bad behavior by the family.

Seven days after the old Kitchen God is burned, a new image is installed above the stove to keep an eye on things during the coming year.

This year the Chinese New Year of 4712—the year of the wooden horse—begins on January 31, so you’d better start making sticky rice balls right now, because the day to make sweet offerings and send the kitchen god on his way is —Friday Jan. 24!

When I read this, I immediately thought of the Elf On the Shelf—a not-as-antique tradition familiar to nearly every parent and grandparent in the U. S.  Based on a book written by the mother/daughter team of Carol Aebersold and daughter Chanda Bell in 2005, the Elf is a little bendable doll who comes in a box along with the book (cost: about $30) and, beginning in December until Christmas, he sits around somewhere in the house and observes the behavior of the children (naughty or nice) then, after the children are asleep, he flies back to report to Santa every night.  The Elf reappears every morning in a different spot.  Finding him makes it a game.  But no child must ever touch the Elf or he will lose his magic powers.

When I first heard about the Elf on the Shelf, it all sounded rather sinister and scary—like Big Brother watching you from the TV set in “1984”.  This past season, the Elf seemed to be the most controversial thing about the holidays, discussed even more than the  elimination of the word “Christmas” from “Happy Holidays “ and “Holiday tree.”  It seems some A-type parents were one-upping each other by creating elaborate scenes of mischief or magic created by their personal Elf overnight—inventing yet another laborious task for moms during the holidays.   Others complained that the Elf was a means of terrorizing children into good behavior out of fear of what Santa would hear.

At Thanksgiving, when her family came to our house in Massachusetts,  someone (not me!) gave 2 ½ -year-old granddaughter Amalia an Elf on the Shelf which she promptly named David for no observable reason.   She loved the whole idea—especially after seeing a TV special based on the Elf.   She didn’t seem frightened of him, although I did see her freeze with surprise when, back in her New York apartment, she realized that David had followed her from Massachusetts and was perched near the top of her family’s, uh, holiday tree. 

No one created elaborate scenes for David in the ensuing days—it was all we could do to remember to move him, but when Amalia found him on the window ledge in the kitchen, I did imply that he had bitten the head off of one of the tiny gingerbread men I bought at Trader Joe’s.

When I came to Manhattan to see Amalia after Christmas, she confided to me rather sadly, “My little friend David has gone away.”

I promised her he’d be back next Christmas.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The 10 Most Stressful and 10 Least Stressful Jobs in 2014

In today's (Jan. 19) Worcester Telegram and Gazette, in a column called  "Careers Now" by Joyce Lain Kennedy, I read the lists of the ten most stressful and the ten least stressful jobs--as compiled by Tony Lee, publisher of

I was surprised to find that near the top of the "Least Stressful" list--the most non-threatening, most pleasant careers in the country-- is "hair stylist".   What if the client hates what you did to her hair?  Number one for the most non-stressful careers is "audiologist"--the person who tests hearing and communication skills in everyone from babies to adults.  Come to think of it, most of the least stressful jobs involve helping people or making them feel better.  (But the drill press operator might end up needing the audiologist if he operates a noisy drill.)

The "Most Stressful" list is not surprising--starting with the military, firefighters and airline pilots.  Most of these jobs--if you mess up--could cost people's lives (or their reputations), including your own.

If you want to know the median salary in each of these jobs categories, click here.

Least Stressful Jobs

1. Audiologist
2. Hair stylist
3. Jeweler
4. Tenured university professor
5. Seamstress/tailor
6. Dietician
7. Medical records technician
8. Librarian
9. Multimedia artist
10. Drill press operator

Most Stressful Jobs

1. Enlisted military
2. Military general
3. Firefighter
4. Airline Pilot
5. Event coordinator
6. Public Relations executive
7. Senior corporate executive
8. Newspaper reporter
9. Police officer
10. Taxi driver

Where does your job rank?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Smiley's 50 Years Old and Starring in a Book

In today's Worcester Telegram was this article by Laura Porter.  It includes a preview of the book I wrote for the Worcester History Museum--"The Saga of Smiley"-- which will be available at the end of this month.  (I'll keep you posted.)

Half Century of Smiley--
Historical Museum, new book
mark 50th birthday of the happy
icon created by Harvey Ball
A Sept. 9, 1971, photo shows Harvey Ball and Joy P. Young of the Worcester Mutual Fire Insurance Company with the 'smile' button designed by Ball in 1963 for a campaign developed by Young to increase cheerfulness and helpfulness among employees of the company, which had recently merged with State Mutual.
(T&G File Photo)
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On Oct. 5, 2002, people gathered behind Worcester City Hall to create a human Smiley Face for World Smile Day. Charlie Ball, the son the Smiley Face creator Harvey Ball, started the practice. (T&G File Photo/BETTY JENEWIN)
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The Worcester Historical Museum has several Smiley-themed items on display, including an original pin from the 1964 campaign.
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Items on exhibit at the Worcester Historical Society. (T&G Staff/TOM RETTIG)
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In a 1999 photo, Harvey Ball stands next to the U.S. Postal Service commemorative stamp at the Worcester Common Outlets. On Oct. 5, 2002, people gathered behind Worcester City Hall to create a human Smiley Face for World Smile Day. Charlie Ball, the son the Smiley Face creator Harvey Ball, started the practice. (T&G File Photo)
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Smiley-adorned objects at the Historical Museum.
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By Laura Porter
Fifty years ago, Worcester freelance commercial artist Harvey Ball doodled two black eyes, the right a little bigger than the other, and an off-center smile on a bright yellow circle — and created an image for generations to come.

Ball wasn't paid much for the project, which he took on for a campaign to boost morale for Worcester's State Mutual Life Insurance — now Hanover Insurance — it went through a corporate reorganization. Nor did it take him very long.

But after the Smiley Face first appeared on Jan. 3, 1964, in "The Mutualite," the insurance company's newsletter, it took off, adopted widely as a symbol of happiness and good humor — both actual and ideal.

By 1966, the Smiley button was the second most popular button nationally, next to Avis' "We Try Harder." It morphed into the American counterculture and psychedelic art in the 1970s. In 1988, it became the symbol of the rave scene during the Second Summer of Love in Great Britain. The United States Post Office added the "America Smiles" Smiley stamp in 1999.

From lapel buttons to the emoticon and everything in between, the Smiley has been a universal image for decades. So much so, in fact, that, in the United States at least, it is legally defined as within the public domain and cannot be trademarked.

"It rises and falls in terms of style and cachet," notes Harvey Ball's son, local attorney Charlie Ball, describing the commercial appropriation of the Smiley over the past five decades. Despite the ebb and flow, his father, who died in 2001, lived long enough to understand that "it has legs" and to receive "the recognition that he was the guy" who created it.

"It's a quirky kind of legacy, but fundamentally good," he says. "He was pleased and proud."

His father fully appreciated the power of that fundamental goodness. In 1999, it was he who started The World Smile Corporation and World Smile Day.

Celebrated every year on the first Friday of October, World Smile Day is intended "to devote one day each year to smiles and kind acts throughout the world," notes the website

The Harvey Ball World Smile Foundation, created in 2001 in Ball's memory and run by Charlie Ball, now sponsors World Smile Day activities in Worcester and around the world.

The Worcester Historical Museum has long been involved in showcasing Worcester's ties to the Smiley Face, beginning with the first Smiley exhibit at the museum in 1996, mounted with help from Harvey Ball himself.

A more extensive exhibit in 2006 coincided with the first Harvey Ball, held that fall at the newly restored Union Station.

That year also marked the first awarding of the Harvey Smile Award, given to "the person, group or institution that has helped Worcester smile," says the museum's executive director, William D. Wallace.

Nominations are accepted in January every year and the winner is announced in the spring; the award is presented at the annual ball in September. Previous recipients include Mary and Warner Fletcher, former City Manager Mike O'Brien for his work on City Plaza, and the late Miles McDonough and his wife, Jean.

"Everyone loves Smiley," says writer Joan Paulson Gage, who has just written "The Saga of Smiley: How a Cheerful Icon Changed the World."

Commissioned by the Worcester Historical Museum, the book marks the centerpiece of the museum's celebration of the 50th anniversary this year.

A book launch is planned for January, and the hope is that the book, now published by the museum and privately printed, will be picked up by a publisher and distributed internationally.

"When I started two years ago, I had no idea that there was enough research for a book on it," says Gage, who did the publicity for the museum's 2006 Smiley exhibit and has written extensively about the icon.

"At first, it was still part of pop culture for me. Now it's become my big thrill — I take a picture or notice every time I see a Smiley Face."

And she sees them everywhere.

The book is a bright and informative compendium of all things Smiley, from its inception through the contemporary competition to beat the Guinness record for world's largest human Smiley. (Charlie Ball started the practice in 2002 as part of World Smile Day with a crowd of 200 in front of City Hall. The current record was set in February 2012 in India with 3,737 participants.)

Along the way, Gage explores fashion comics, music — and even crime. The killers who committed the Smiley Face Murders from 1997-2007 left Smiley graffiti near many of the crime scenes; OJ Simpson added a Smiley to his signature in a suicide note in 1994 as he fled in the aftermath of his wife's murder.

More benign are the pop artists who incorporate the well-known yellow figure, Stan Lowman, Ron English and Takashi Murakami among them. Banksy, the anonymous British graffiti artist, creates surprise Smileys in public venues.

Given the explosion of technology, it should come as no surprise that Smiley has made its way into a new form of language: the emoticon and the emoji.

"It's contributed to the death of the English language," says Gage wryly, observing that we have returned to the pictograph 5,000 years after Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Gage's research — and the detailed timeline she created as an appendix to the book — firmly establishes the direct line between Harvey Ball's original sketch and Smiley's explosion.

In the 1960s and 1970s, there were plenty of variants on the Smiley Face, acknowledges Bill Wallace. "It isn't that there were not similar things going on — the Sunkist Kool-Aid pitcher, for example. There will always be people who will say that other things came before it."

In fact, two principal competitors, who purported to be inventors of the Smiley, were important in the popularization of the symbol.

In 1967, advertising executive David Stern from Seattle visited New York with his wife, purchased a Smiley button on the street, and took it home with him to create a multinational campaign for an investment bank with ties to the Asian/Pacific market.

In early 1970, Murray and Bernard Spain, who owned a Philadelphia card shop, first showed Smiley products through their company, Traffic Stoppers, at a trade show. They soon modified the original Ball drawing, splashed it across scores of products and, in 1971, had their slogan, "Smile Face — Have a Happy Day," copywritten.

"They had an empire," says Wallace. One of the brothers even appeared on "What's My Line" as the creator of the Smiley, though they eventually acknowledged Harvey Ball's preeminence.

"The Spains and Stern made millions," says Wallace. "Harvey Ball made $45."

Over time, notes Charlie Ball, the controversy about who created Smiley "would come and go." Nonetheless, no matter who does the research, the "pretenders to the throne" are always revealed as imposters, underscoring the reality that Ball's drawing came before anything else.

"Yellow, with one eye bigger, and that funny little smile," says Wallace. "It's the iconic all-American Smiley Face that came out of Worcester. And Joan's book sets the record straight."

To that end, he says, in this 50ths year, it is high time that Worcester steps forward to claim its Smiley heritage once and for all.

"If you look at a history of Philadelphia, they take credit for the Smiley Face. If you look at a history of Washington State, they take credit for the Smiley Face. It's time for Worcester to take credit for it."

The museum is issuing an invitation to Worcester residents, past and present, to come up with a multitude of ways to participation in Smiley's big birthday.

Wallace is also asking people "to share their pictures, memories and artifacts" related to the Smiley Face for a new exhibit to augment the current collection.

"I hope people will go into their attics and find memorabilia and loan or donate it to the museum. Maybe they worked at State Mutual and have memories."

"We're kicking off the year and have lots of plans, starting with the book's publication," he says. The September Harvey Ball will be a prime opportunity to celebrate. Nominations for the Harvey Smile Award are being accepted this month.

"Let's put Worcester's Smiley Face on the map," urges Wallace. "Harvey Ball created it, but it belongs to all of us."

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Amalia Cooks Up a Storm

Although she's not quite two and a half yet, Amalia already has a favorite hobby -- cooking.  She loves pouring ingredients into bowls and then "misking" them all together--a word she created out of "mixing" and "whisking".
Her first culinary triumph was making confetti cupcakes for Mommy's birthday back in October, when Yiayia Joanie was her sous chef.  Amalia's job was putting the sprinkles on top of the frosting and eating any that spilled.
When she went to Massachusetts for Thanksgiving, she helped make a raspberry swirl cheesecake pie and a pumpkin pie--including the delicate task of decorating the latter with candy corn (and eating the leftover candy corn.)
After Thanksgiving she and Yiayia made gingerbread cookies--she watched them bake.
And the next day she decorated the cookies with her friends Natasha and Sophie.
For Christmas, Amalia went with Mommy and Papi to Abuela Carmen's house in Managua, Nicaragua. There, at a restaurant called "Italianissimo", she learned to make her favorite food--pizza!  The restaurant even provided her with a pint-sized apron for the cooking lesson, and let her take it home with her.
Step one is to spread exactly the right amount of tomato sauce on your pizza.
The waiter showed her how to top it with extra cheese, since she didn't want pepperoni.
After the pizza was baked in a brick oven, Amalia got to eat it.  Bon appetit!
For New Year's Day in Nicaragua, Amalia and her Mommy baked a fusion version of their traditional Greek vassilopita--the sweet orange-flavored bread with a coin hidden in it which is cut on New Year's Day to see who will find the coin in their piece and have a year of good luck.  Instead of the usual Greek Metaxa brandy, they substituted Flor de Caña, a Nicaraguan rum.
Inspired by her latest culinary triumphs, Amalia, back in Manhattan, insisted on making cupcakes for her Papi's birthday in early January.  Her assistant was Julia, her favorite cooking, playtime and yoga companion.   Here's Amalia "misking" the dough.

The proper balance of sprinkles to frosting is critical.
Now for the tense moment--the taste test…


Amalia has agreed to share with you her recipe for Vasilopita, which she originally learned from her  Greek Yiayia Neney.  You can use the brandy (or rum) of your choice.

Vasilopita (from Eleni Nikolaides)

5 cups flour
6 eggs
2 cups sugar
1 pound sweet butter
1 demitasse cup brandy
3 teaspoons baking powder
juice from one orange
shavings from one grated orange peel

Mix together the softened butter, eggs and sugar.  Beat it so that it's a soft cream.  Then add the brandy and little by little beat in the flour (which has the baking powder in it.) Also add the orange juice and the grated orange peel.

This recipe will make one large or two smaller cakes.

Bake it at 370 degrees for about 40 minutes.

Don't forget to put in the coin and to make the number of the New Year on top
with toasted almonds before you bake it!

Happy New Year 2014!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Watch Out—The Robots Are Coming!

Paro, an interactive robot that calms people with dementia--Beck- Agence France Press

I have seen the future, and it is robots.

Because I am old and did not grow up gazing at electronic screens or playing with high-tech toys like I-pods and I-pads, I may be among the last to come to this realization-- that the human race is seriously threatened by the creation of ever more sophisticated robots.  But I want to warn my fellow senior citizens, those who still don’t know how to text or to hook an attachment onto an e-mail.

Last May I wrote a blog post called “Do You Want to End your Days Talking to a Robot?”    This was inspired by an article in The New York Times  detailing new kinds of robots being created to care for weak and confused old folks.  The robots included “Cody” who was “gentle enough to bathe elderly patients”, HERB who can fetch household objects, Hector, who reminds patients to take their medicines, Paro, who looks like a baby seal and calms patients with dementia, and PR2 who can blink, giggle and interact.  The article quoted a professor at MIT who said she was troubled when she saw a 76-year-old woman telling her life story to the baby seal robot.  I was troubled too.

My post elicited a number of e-mails from around the world describing devices which truly do improve elder care—the “Betty” tablet that caregivers use to inform each other and family members of a patient’s daily activities and condition, video games that increase cognitive ability, and devices—a wristwatch and something called Trax, which both use GPS, Wi-Fi and smart phones to track pets, children and demented elders who wander out of a pre-set digital area.

I began to think I was being paranoid about robots.  But I wasn’t.

As 2013 continued, Amazon announced that they were working on a delivery system that would fill the air with drones able to drop a package on your doorstep a half hour after you ordered something on line. This inspired a newspaper cartoon showing a discouraged Santa trying to sell his sled and reindeer while the sky overhead buzzed with package-carrying Amazon drones.

And we’ve all heard that in the near future we will have automobiles that drive themselves and are too smart to collide with each other.  That left me wondering—what if the self-driving car encounters an old-fashioned car, driven by an imperfect human, who is texting or adjusting the radio?

Delivery drones and self-driving cars don’t sound so bad, but then on Dec. 26, The New York Times told me that you can now have sex with your computer. 

The article, “’Interactive’ Gets a New Meaning” by Alex Hawgood,  began by describing the sex scene from the movie “Her” which stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, an insecure, rather nerdy man who falls in love with Samantha—who is a voice in his computer—an app, I guess you’d call it.  She clearly resembles Siri, the female voice in my husband’s I-phone who can answer questions like “What is the population of Seattle” but gets evasive when you ask her things like “What is the meaning of life?”

But Samantha—the voice in “Her” is smarter than Siri because she is interactive--she can change and evolve to please Theodore.  According to the NYTimes, there is a sex scene in which  “after returning home from a failed blind date …it shows Theodore gently edging Samantha into arousal by telling her what he wishes to do to her body.  As things become increasingly explicit, the screen turns black, leaving the audience lingering in darkness as the characters reach their aural climax.”

That strikes me as very sad—falling in love with a computer app that has no body. 

The Times article goes on to list many computer sex toys already available—one, called “Real Touch” allows two people to have sex over the internet, no matter how physically far apart they are.  Designed by a former NASA engineer, “It comes in two parts, one modeled after a woman’s lower anatomy and one modeled after a man’s.”

There is a list of interactive computer sex toys already on the market, some meant for two people to use, some to use on your own.  A report by a trend-forecasting firm in New York, according to The Times, “makes the case that forward leaps in augmented intelligence and video-game interactivity will let people ‘get attached to and develop real relationships with their hardware and software.’”

But can they take them to the office Christmas party?

LovePlus, a dating simulation game for the portable Nintendo DS console, “allows a player to caress another’s hair using a touch pad…these virtual sweethearts modify their personas in real time based on the player’s likes and dislikes.”

So you don’t have to spend time and money searching for Mr. or Ms. Right—you can create and train one all by yourself.

And on December  29, on the front page of The New York Times, there was the scariest article yet, titled “Brainlike Computers, Learning from Experience” by John Markoff.   Here’s the first sentence:  “Computers have entered the age when they are able to learn from their own mistakes, a development that is about to turn the digital world on its head.”

In 2014, according to the article, a new kind of computer chip is scheduled to be released that can learn from its errors to evolve and increase its skill at a task.  This computer is based on the biological nervous system.  This will create a new generation of artificial intelligences that can “see, speak, listen, navigate, manipulate and control. That can hold enormous consequences for tasks like facial and speech recognition, navigation and planning.”

The article went on to elaborate on how this works, using words like “algorithm” , “neural network” and “biological synapses” which cause my aging eyes to glaze over, but while the explanation is over my head, I’ve seen enough science fiction movies to know what happens after computers and robots  can imitate and even improve on the functions of the human brain and body.  Which is why I’ve concluded that in 2014, in addition to worrying about global warming, our environmental footstep and terrorism, we should also watch out for the new generation of  robots that is being born.