Sunday, March 27, 2016

Happy Easter!

Had a pleasant morning. Slept in. The Easter Bunny came last night and left 22 eggs hidden about the house, along with two big baskets of candy. Went to 10:30 mass where I and Little One served. Once home the ladies made Breakfast Braids, which we all devoured while the wife and I drank mimosas. This afternoon we’ll continue a nearly-ten-year tradition of watching Charlton and Yul in The Ten Commandments.

I’ll also be doing laundry every commercial break. Working my way through yet another Civil War book, my latest Astronomy magazine, and the 2016 MLB Preview – can you believe Opening Day is a week away?!

Lots of action the next couple of days. I’ll post some interesting stuff when I get a chance.

(No hidden message with the image above. It’s NYC from 1956. Saw it on FB and it just struck me as so odd, that this something that was actually done in America [Snopes certified the photo as legit]. It’s sad to me to see how far we’re falling in less than a lifetime …)

Friday, March 25, 2016

Good Friday

The Crucifixion, by Gustave Dore (1832-1883), 
one of my favorite artists 
specializing in Biblical and Classical themes …

This morning Little One and I will watch The Passion of the Christ. At age 11 and a half, this will be her first viewing of this modern classic. The wife and I feel it’s okay for her to see it this year. Patch will be given plenty of snacks and sent to her room with plenty of books and an iPad loaded with innocent and fun games.

Later on the three of us will head over to our church to pay our respects. On Good Friday there are no masses. The church is dark and cool. A six-foot crucifix is placed centrally before the altar with a kneeler in front of it. I’ve seen lines of twenty or thirty people waiting to pray before it, and I’ve seen the church totally empty. We’ll head over around eleven, so I’m not sure how crowded it will be.

After that I’ll make the girls some pasta. I’m fasting, but they are exempt. That being said, it won’t be a day of hogging out with snacks. They have some chores to do later on, such as breaking down their Girl Scout cookie orders so we can have them ready to ship out and distribute tomorrow.

My Lenten practice this year was to read through the Psalms. When I read through the Bible way back in 1992 for the first time, I skipped the 150 psalms. Since then I have made numerous halting efforts to read through them, the last being Lent four years ago. This year I started the first three weeks reading four Psalms a day, then a few days went by where my focus was elsewhere, then I went back, then I went away. I read up to Psalm 129 last night, so I have 21 to read through by Easter. Eleven today, ten tomorrow. Doable.

Other than that, all quiet on the western front. No forward movement, just status quo. Battling minor depression and major existential crises. Not fun, and my biggest foe is myself. As always, have plenty of ideas to put to electronic pen, but finding time and energy is waging a Sisyphusean tactical war.

Something to pray about and for, today, along with all the Christian persecution in the Middle East, the victims of terrorism in Europe, and the husband of my wife’s coworker who just entered hospice with brain cancer.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Happiness is Just Around the Bend

A little jazz jam from way back in 1973 that stumbled across me whilst listening to WBGO one night last week. No agenda; no Big Picture editorializing. Just something I’m currently enjoying, especially that Hammond organ.

(Note: Disregard the first random 5 or 10 seconds on the track, Not sure what all that nonsense is about ...)

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Book Review: The Space Merchants

© 1952 by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth

I grabbed my phone and slammed a connection through to my special detail in Business Espionage. “Put tails on Jack O’Shea,” I snapped. “He’s leaving the building soon. Tail him and tail everybody he contacts. Night and day. If I hit paydirt on this you and your men get upgraded and bonused. But God help you if you pull a butch.”

- The Space Merchants, ultimate paragraph, chapter 16

If you were a movie-goer in the early 80s, particularly if you watched a Monty Python movie (or a movie starring a Monty Python alum, like, er, Time Bandits), you may recall seeing a pretty clever ten minute clip. It featured a bunch of stereotypical office workers whose company suddenly – and quite literally – decides to go to war. Or rather, fend off an attack. Skyscrapers become 18th-century warships, moving past each other, as grappling hooks are thrown out windows. Pirates in three-piece suits and casual Friday attire swing into battle. Cannons are fired, file cabinets explode, and the whole this become a surreal detour to something like Blackbeard meets The Office.

Well, this was the image that took up residence in my mind reading Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants – except with a science fiction space opera twist, of course. Say, Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute fighting the bugs in Starship Troopers. Or something like that. My imagination’s vivid.

Anyway, need I expound on how great a writer Frederik Pohl was / is? Don’t know much about his occasional literary partner Cyril Kornbluth except that he died tragically young (age 34 it turns out) of a heart attack. How much of what is who’s contribution, I can’t tell. I’ve never read anything else by Kornbluth but I have read other Pohl works (Man Plus and Gateway come immediately to mind). Together they make a great team. Space Merchants is gritty 50s noir meets action potboiler, where everyone talks like Bugs Bunny and dresses like the Jetsons. It’s that awesome.

There are too many twists, turns, and genuine surprises over the course of the tale to rehash or even hint at in this little review. It’s basically a sharp, eerily prescient satire of Big Advertising. Advertising so powerful and ravishing it controls just about every facet of human life on 21st century Earth, business so dominant that congressmen come directly from corporations, life so cheap that one can find oneself trapped in such a nasty occupation as a scum skimmer on the drop of a dime. It’s all tongue-in-cheek, witty, fast-paced, but it’s still dystopia. Big business, with advertising as its mace, its battleaxe, its Minuteman peacekeeper missile, is so ravenous its set its sights on the next open frontier: the virgin world of Venus.

Mitch Courtenay is a rising star at Fowler Schocken Associates, a Madison Avenue powerhouse locked in a fight to the death with its rival, Taunton Associates, for, well, literally everything, from daily fixes such as coffee, chips, and cigarettes, to where people should live and what they should do. He’s tasked with the job of stealing Venus – inhospitable, deadly Venus – from Taunton, and in the process, convincing the average Joe and Jane to move there. Where, of course, they’d eat Schocken-approved food and live in Schocken-approved dwellings wearing Schocken-approved clothing, etc.

And the fight is literally to the death as Mitch dodges a couple of creative assassination attempts and an unnerving date with a creepy torturer. While trying to come up with a creative angle for Venusian emigration via a dwarf with a chip on his shoulder. While trying to woo his strangely distant doctor wife who he’s madly in love with. He’s shanghaied, and has to fight back by infiltrating an underground ecological revolutionary movement. There’s office politics, presidential politics, a very hostile takeover attempt, all sprinkled deftly with lots of crass and clever humor. The plot moves, the pages turn, spiraling to an ending I didn’t anticipate.

It even had the tinge of sadness from unrequited love.

I liked it a lot.

Grade: solid A

[Now, the book’s entire premise satirizes and parodies the whole Big Advertising phenomenon, nascent in Pohl’s time and full-blown in ours (though not as hyper-realized as it is in The Space Merchants). But this is okay, because the authors don’t wage sloppy, heavyhanded war against it like, oh, a devout Bernie Sanders disciple might. We all know and understand that completely unfettered capitalism, like just about anything completely unfettered, is not a good thing. I like my capitalism just fine. It enabled me to earn the money to buy this book freely. After reading The Space Merchants, I feel certain Pohl and Kornbluth agree.]

Monday, March 14, 2016

I Can't Believe It's Pi Day Already!

My! How the weeks and months rush by when yer stuck in limbo.

It’s crazy, cuz just last night I was noodling around on a piece of paper while watching The Walking Dead:

Just a trying to figure out a good approximation for 1/π during commercial breaks.

Anyway ….

Today is also this guy’s birthday –

(By the way, he uses the same organizational system Hopper does.)

If he lived to this day, Einstein’d be 137 years old. 137 is also the fairly lose approximate reciprocal of something called the fine-structure constant, a quantum mechanical thingie needed to evaluate the electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles. Don’t know much about it (natch), but it did give several physicists over the years many sleepless nights, wondering the significance of Why 137?, for if it’s off by just a few tenths of a percent in either direction, stars, and hence life, would not form in the universe. Life as we know it, that is.


Sunday, March 13, 2016

Book Review: The Elegant Universe

© 1999 by Brian Greene

Or as I like to call it, The Incredibly Complex Super Convoluted Universe

This is my second go-through with this book. The first time, way back in 2001, I liked it. Understood probably around 75 percent of it. I was working IT at the time in NYC and my jerk desk supervisor saw me reading it one day in the cafeteria and he was impressed. I think his estimation of me inflated much like the early universe 10^-36 seconds after the Big Bang. Okay, bad physics reference. But I enjoyed it back then.

Being a keeper, The Elegant Universe was thrown in the physics stack of books. Boxed up. Moved 35 miles to a new home. Stored in an attic for ten years. Retrieved by me a few months ago. And now, fifteen years later, re-read.

This time around, much more rusty, I think I understood about 60 percent of it. The opening chapters on Relativity and Quantum Mechanics provided a good overview. Unfortunately, every pop sci book contains a Relativity and Quantum Mechanics overview, so I’m kinda Relativity and Quantum Mechanics overview’d out. But Greene does a good job here, as well as his introductory chapters on string theory.

What is string theory? I dunno. I don’t know if there’s a consensus out there either. Apparently, in order to reconcile Relativity with Quantum Mechanics, you need to do away with point particles (elementary particles such as quarks and leptons, which make up protons, neutrons, electrons, and a whole soup of others). Point particles lead to irrational infinities when one does the math behind singularities, such as those found at the center of a black hole or the thing that banged in the Big Bang. Or so I’ve read.

Strings, being one-dimensional entities, do away with these infinities. Problem is, you need about ten other dimensions to make them work. I felt Greene did a decent enough job juggling analogies to help the layman understand this. The Garden Hose Universe, for example. These ten extra dimensions are curled up in our universe and are too small to be detected, like viewing a garden hose a hundred yards away. It will look like a line. But actually, there’s another dimension, a curled one if you follow the circumference of the garden hose. Can’t see it at a hundred yards, but it’s there. So it is with the ten required dimensions of string theory.

From about two-thirds on, though, right after a big section on Calabi-Yau multidimensional spaces, he kinda lost me. The whole R and 1/R thing needs a dedicated re-reading. As does the whole “space tearing flop transitions” chapter. But I did dig some mind-tingling speculations that perhaps our three dimensions (length, width, height) are actually curled, too, the curling starting to happen 15 billion light years away (that’s the farthest we can currently see). Or that the singularity in a black hole is actually a newborn genetically mutated (the physical constants of that universe, that is) universe, unable to be seen by us. And this, in turn, leads us to wonder if our own universe is in a black hole. And the whole Calabi-Yau thing intrigued me, too. Picturing those crazy multidimensional shapes at every nanoscopic point in space, wheeling off into ten (sometimes eleven) dimensions, well, that might just be the koan for me to attain satori.

Like all pop sci books that don’t include equations, because publishers fear equations, The Elegant Universe seemed more a book about the “about” of string theory than actually string theory. That is, I learned a lot about the history of string theory, those who developed it, how the various theories interrelate (the mysterious M-theory), but no so much about what an actual string is and does. At least, on a simplified level for non-string theorists like myself.

Picture a starfish, only one with six limbs instead of five.

Each limb is labeled a different string theory:

Type I
Type IIA
Type IIB
Heterotic O
Heterotic E
11D Supergravity

And the starfish itself is labeled:


This is figure 12.11 in Greene’s book. I like it. It simplifies a complicated subject. I just wish there were something like seven hundred more illustrations. But then I guess it would be called The Elegant Universe Illustrated or The Comic Book Guide to the Elegant Universe for Dummies or something. And I would buy it, too.

Grade: B+

Oh, and I’m putting it back in the box in the attic to read sometime around 2031, and I also want to read Greene’s two follow-up physics books.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Great Wolf the Third

For the past three winters the wife, the little ones, and I do an overnighter at Great Wolf Lodge waterpark in Pennsylvania. As a teen and a young twentysomething, I went to a lot of these waterparks, particularly down the Jersey Shore, with various packs of friends in varying states of consciousness. Had a blast every time, and it seems like centuries ago.

Haven’t done much of that for twenty years, until these recent Great Wolf experiences. Oh, how a body ages!

If you’ve never been there, Great Wolf Lodge is nestled in the Poconos, a massive, three-story log cabin affair that must hold, I’d guess, three hundred rooms that look like your pretty standard hotel room. Except for the oppressive wolf theme. Attached to it is a pretty large indoor waterpark, consisting of something like a half-dozen water slides for single, double and no tubes, two “white water rapids” type slides, a heated pool, a rope ladder, a wave pool, a hot tub for adults, a bar, a kiddie pool and kiddie slides, and a lazy three-foot deep river that you can float along on in peace.

This is not, unfortunately, a paid endorsement of Great Wolf Lodge

We usually spend four hours in the water park the first day and four hours the second. This year we got there a little late and only spent three and a half hours swimming and sliding on Day One. But I made up for it staying a little bit later on Day Two. The wife had to leave early to attend a business / charity dinner in NYC (Police Commissioner Bratton was supposed to attend but didn’t for some reason), so I shepherded the little ones myself for an extra two hours.

I am today paying the price for that.

Also, I never get a good night’s sleep there. I don’t know why. Well, actually I do. Being, hmm, a tad bit overweight, and generally being dehydrated – whether through all the exercise, the chlorine, the pizza and soda or beer afterwards – I tend to snore somewhat loudly. The wife has developed a tolerance for this but my daughters, not so much. Every time Little One awakens me and every time I fail to get back to sleep for fear of keeping them up. This time she woke me at midnight, and I tossed and turned and tossed and turned and surfed the web on my cell phone until five in the morning. I got out of bed and laid on the couch. I pulled out the couch into a folding bed. Nothing helped, nothing worked. When dawn’s fingers gingerly parted heavy drapery, I finally nodded off.

To be awakened nearly immediately by the dark form of Little One at my side. “Daddy, you’re snoring again!”

“Deal with it,” I mumble, turning over for two more hours of blessed sleep. (Though perhaps I dreamed that last exchange.)

So I’m like a zombie on Day Two. Double-team insomnia with Day One muscular fatigue upon my late-forties semi-sedentary body and, well, you can get some idea of the wreck I am in today.

Other than that, though, mainly for the sake of the girls’ memories, it’s entirely worth it. Plus I get some quality reading done when the ladies go out for ice cream during Story Time. This year I read about the Peloponnesian War, Quantum Geometry, and the King James Psalms. In years past I explored mathematical series, Middle Eastern archaeology, and the history of the New York Mets. That middle time of evening when the little ones and the wife have passed out from all the day’s excitement is my favorite time at Great Wolf.

Thanks to those who make it possible!

Thursday, March 3, 2016

I Don’t Like Anyone Running for President

And I don’t like it.

After ten years a nominal liberal (thanks, Rutgers!), I had a couple of major deep-seated conversions in the 90s. One result is that I have never voted Democrat since. So, Hillary and Bernie are not even considerations.

Six months ago, I was very interested in hearing more of Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson. Well, Fiorina never gained traction, never made connections with potential voters. I liked her message, her strength, her delivery, but I could understand this disconnect. As far as Dr. Carson is concerned, well, over the first two or three debates he showed that, while a brilliant and honorable man, he does not have the temperament to be President.

Nor does Donald Trump, for diametrically opposing qualities. Watching the debate tonight I can’t but help see him as abhorrent and an embarrassment. Not strong, not sincere, neither principled nor dignified. And with that Middle School bully personality, God help us all if he ever gets access to our nuclear codes.

Cruz has a “practiced sincerity” that rubs me the wrong way. Yeah, I buy it that he’s the most conservative of the remaining Republicans. But I don’t like the dirty tricks his campaign uses and, with a wife attached to Goldman Sachs, I’m not so sure he’s the outsider he touts himself to be.

Rubio doesn’t seem trustworthy either. I don’t think the man presenting himself at these debates and in interviews and campaign appearances is the man who’s spent the past couple of years in the Senate. In other words, he’s squishy, RINO-ish, part of the dreaded “establishment”, or at least trying to become part of it. Originally I liked his speech and speaking style (how refreshing after eight years of George Bush to have a Republican who can speak naturally!), but now his robotic spewing of talking points annoys me.

Kasich is just too liberal, so he’s a non-consideration.

Before Chris Christie dropped out, I swore up and down to anyone who’d listen (mainly the Mrs.) that I’d never vote for him. Rightly or wrongly, I view him as the major factor Obama got re-elected in ’12, what with all the pal’in’ ’round and bearhugging between the two in the aftermath of Sandy right before the election. Sadly, I don’t get the satisfaction of not voting for him.

So I don’t like anyone running for president in 2016.

I haven’t decided what I plan to do come November. My vote statistically doesn’t matter. I could go third party protest vote (provided there is a third party out there that meets me at least halfway) or I could abstain from voting for the first time in 28 years. I dunno. Something I’ll have to keep on the backburner of my mind.

Well, hopefully I haven’t offended all my few but loyal readers out there. Politics truly is hyped more than it need be, and is used more often than not to divide us, rile us up, scare us and anger us. I find the occasional day that goes by where I don’t listen to the radio or watch TV or surf online is actually, honestly, a happier one for me. Remember, this November, we are voting for the person who occupies only one third of our government, and that for a maximum of eight years.

Now that the eleventh Republican Debate of 2016 is over I feel like I need to take a shower.