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Celebrity Death Watch: Linda Hopkins was a blues singer and actress. Dorothy Mengering was David Letterman’s mother and appeared on his show. J. Geils led an eponymous band. To paraphrase their most famous song, Death Stinks. Charlie Murphy was a comedian and actor – and less famous than his brother, Eddie. Bob Taylor was an internet pioneer, including playing major roles at ARPA, Xerox PARC, and DEC. Bruce Langhorne was a folk musician and, allegedly, the inspiration for Bob Dylan’s "Mr. Tambourine Man." Sylvia Moy was a songwriter, who wrote a number of Motown songs. Clifton James was an actor who played a lot of Southern sheriffs, despite being a native New Yorker. Dan Rooney chaired the Pittsburgh Steelers and later became U.S. ambassador to Ireland. Patricia McKissak wrote children’s books, including several biographies of African Americans. Sheila Abdus-Salaam was the first black woman to serve on the New York Court of Appeals. Apparently, she committed suicide, and there is a family history that may have played a role in that.

Sniffle, Cough: I thought it was just the absurdly high pollen count of this time of year, but actually succumbed to a cold. That meant that: a) I ended up skipping the second Passover seder, and b) I got nothing done at home. Except using a ridiculous number of tissues. Sigh. (I am mostly over it now. Well, except for my annual wish for the trees to have sex indoors.)

MIT Better World Event: This involved a reception and talks at the Newseum on Thursday night. Due to it being during Passover, I had to stick to drinking sparkling water and eating raw veggies (and some fruit for dessert), which was a bit disappointing. But the talks were interesting, particularly one by John Urshel, a math grad student who is probably better known for being a linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens. And I saw some people I have not seen in years – literally, as one of those was someone I lived on the same floor as when I was a freshman, over 40 years ago. And I worked on a research project with her husband around 1978.

Taxes: I use Turbo Tax, which is not, in general, too painful. I did a pretty good job of putting all of the relevant paperwork in one place. But I still had to mail in one paper form, due to having sold some stock. Reminder: even mild annoyances are annoying.

You May Interpret These Dreams: In one recent dream, I was moving stacks of books around in my living room. In another (this one, during Passover), I was licking the chocolate glaze off a donut.
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Celebrity Death Watch: Chuck Barris was a TV producer, responsible for The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and The Gong Show. Dallas Green played for several baseball teams (mostly the Phillies) and managed a few, including some success with the Phillies and remarkable lack thereof with the Mets. Lola Albright was an actress, best known for her role in the TV show, Peter Gunn. Pete Shotton played the washboard, but is better known for his friendship with John Lennon and for founding the Fatty Arbuckle’s chain of diners in England. Sir Cuthbert Sebastian was the Governor-General of St. Kitts and Nevis, but I wouldn’t have heard of him were it not for a couple of my ghoul pool rivals having him on their lists. (My picks are thriving, alas.) David Storey was, appropriately, a writer, and won the Booker Prize for his 1976 novel, Saville. Bernie Wrightson drew horror comics and is best known as the creator of Swamp Thing. Ahmed Kathrada was an anti-apartheid activist. Darlene Cates played the mother in the movie What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. William Powell wrote The Anarchist Cookbook, though he later tried to have it removed from circulation. Roland Schmitt was an executive at GE and president of RPI. Gilbert Baker created the rainbow flag as a symbol of gay activism. Richard Bolles wrote What Color is Your Parachute?, a frequently recommended book on job-hunting, though I never found it particularly useful. Lonnie Brooks was a blues singer. Gary Austin created the improv theatre troupe, The Groundlings. Yevgeny Yevtushenko was a Russian poet, best known for his work Babi Yar, which was set to music by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Quarterly Goals: I have been working on various projects, but haven’t finished any. I have not been reading things from the goals on my life list, alas. I treated myself to a pedicure, perfume, and a couple of extravagant meals out. And I have gotten in touch with the daughter-in-law of a cousin twice removed (in Israel) and a couple of the descendants of my great-grandfather’s brother.

MIT Reception: Monday night was the reception for MIT student in their policy internship program. It is always good to corrupt young minds, er, try to persuade students to: a) get involved with space policy and b) take advantage of all the non-work things to do in the D.C. area. Overall, it was a pleasant evening of decent food (heavy hors d’oeuvres) and intelligent conversation.

Loren Niemi House Concert: Storyteller Loren Niemi did a house concert in an apartment in Adams Morgan on Tuesday night. It was a nice intimate setting and he is always interesting to listen to. I particularly liked his story about re-encountering a woman he once knew under unexpected circumstances, which evoked a lot of memories for me about how life circumstances change. He also told an excellent ghost story.

Book Club: Wednesday night was book club. It was interesting because the person leading the discussion really disliked the book (Someone Will Be With You Shortly by Lisa Kogan, which is not really a typical book club type of book). I didn’t think it was a brilliant book, but it was typical women’s magazine humor and an entertaining enough read. The other news is that the person in the group who has annoyed me (because of not so hidden racism) is gone. I knew she was moving but it has happened a bit faster than I expected. I’m sure somebody else will grate on me – and that I irritate some people, too, but I’m still pleased.

Rasika: This modern Indian restaurant is generally considered one of the best restaurants in D.C. and, therefore, it is next to impossible to get a reservation there. A friend had managed to get a reservation for Friday night, with the catch being that it was on the decidedly early side. Alas, she got ill and couldn’t make it, but I decided it was worth taking advantage of the opportunity, even alone. The famous dish there is palak chaat, which is crispy spinach with yogurt and date and tamarind chutney. It is amazingly good and lived up to its reputation. That was followed by lamb achari, which was decently spicy and very tender, but felt a bit heavy. It came with rice and a mint paratha, which was good, but the flavor of the mint was kind of drowned out by the spices of the lamb. I also had a champagne cocktail, which was okay, but did not have as much ginger flavor as the menu had led me to believe. For dessert, there was excellent gulab jamun with amazing cardamom ice cream. Overall, it was a good meal, though I would order a different main course if I went again.

Out of This World: I had never actually been to the Ringling Brothers / Barnum & Bailey Circus and, this being their final tour, suggested this to the group of friends for whom I am Chief Entertainment Officer. So Friday night (after Rasika) found me with a couple of friends at the Verizon Center for the circus. The show is space-themed, which was a nice plus. There were impressive aerialists and superb horseback riding, but my favorite act was the guys riding motorbikes in a metal orb, with seven of them at one time. The lowlights were the clowns, who were mostly at the far end of the arena, so I couldn’t see what they were doing, and the big cats, who just looked too unhappy. I found myself wondering what has to go wrong in somebody’s life for them to think that a career yelling at lions and tigers is a good life choice. (Yes, I do know most circus performers are born to the life. Still…) I’m glad I went, but, overall, I’m not really sad that it’s ending.

Midwestern Gothic: This is a new musical at Signature Theatre. The book is by Royce Vavrek, who I was unfamiliar with, and Josh Schmidt, who wrote Adding Machine, a show I didn’t know quite what to make of. And that was more or less my reaction to this show. The plot centers around a sociopathic teenage girl named Stina, ably played by Morgan Keene. She sets up her friend to be St. Sebastian, tying him to a tree and shooting him with an arrow. She flirts with her creepy stepfather, Red, who takes semi-pornographic photos of her. Her mother is mostly absent, running a bar. Red picks up a woman, who Stina kills. So she and Red run off to an old, condemned house, where there is more blood shed. The music is a mixed bag, some of it operatic and some of it livelier. Overall, the show just didn’t work for me – and I like dark humor. I think the problem is that the likeable characters are nothing more than victims. Oh, well, it’s always worth seeing something new.

Knitting Group: And Sunday was knitting group. I am finally past the part of an afghan square that I'd had to tink because I'd forgotten the border on the sides.

Whew! What a hectic week. (And things had been busy at work, too, with a couple of big meetings to deal with.)
fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
Celebrity Death Watch: Joe Fleishaker appeared in several Troma films, e.g. Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead. Mell Lazarus drew Miss Peach and Momma. Actress Beth Howland actually died in December, but her death was only announced on May 24. She was best known for her role in the sitcom Alice, but I think she was more significant for being the original Amy in the musical Company, singing the patter song "Getting Married Today." Dave Swarbrick played the fiddle with Fairport Convention. Theresa Saldana was an actress, who is probably most famous for surviving being stabbed by an obsessed stalker. Peter Shaffer was a playwright, whose work included Amadeus and Equus. Gordie Howe was a hockey player. Muhammed Ali was a boxer and a poet. You didn’t really need me to tell you that, but what you might not know is that I won a bet on the first Ali-Frazier fight when I was in junior high. I bet on Frazier only on the grounds that Ali had been out of the game for so long.

JGSJW: The Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Washington had their annual potluck luncheon on Sunday. The event started with an interesting talk on Jews in China, covering both historical and modern communities. Then there was a brief business meeting, before lunch. I had been assigned to the dessert group and baked blondies, with a new recipe that I found disappointing. There was an after-lunch game show, but I couldn’t stay for it, since I had another commitment. Anyway, it was a nice event, with plenty of good conversation.

Washington Folk Festival: That commitment was to tell stories at the Washington Folk Festival, in Glen Echo Park. My set was titled "Calculating Women," and I advertised it as stories of real, imaginary, and complex women who face the world with cleverness, with, and a touch of mathematics. I told mostly folk tales (including Maltese, Jewish, German, and American ones), plus the story of Sophie Germaine. I realized afterwards that I had completely forgotten about one of the stories I intended to tell. No wonder I finished a few minutes early. Anyway, it went reasonably well.

SafeTrack: The metro hell that started Saturday was tolerable during the work week, largely because the Fairfax Connector added on a temporary express bus from the Vienna Metro to the Pentagon. So far the bus has not been absurdly crowded, i.e. nobody has been forced to stand on it. It’s fairly chaotic at the Pentagon station at the end of the day, however. And they don’t actually appear to adhere to their schedule very accurately, though it’s still better than the metrobus I used to ride.

MIT Club Annual Meeting: Wednesday night, I braved the metro to go the MIT Club of DC Annual Meeting, which was at Maggiano’s. It’s not a restaurant I care for – large quantities of mediocre food – but the conversation was good, and I even made a potentially useful work-related connection. The featured speaker was Dava Newman, the Deputy Director of NASA. She emphasized Mars, but did speak a fair amount about uncrewed missions and even mentioned some of their work on aviation. The questions were, alas, too focused on Mars, but I’m not surprised about that.

By the way, I had very good Metro luck getting home, with just a four minute wait at Friendship Heights and a two minute wait at Metro Center.
fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
This is one of those catch-up posts. What can I say? I do a lot of stuff.

Celebrity Death Watch: Arthur Anderson was the voice of Lucky the Leprechaun, telling us about cereal being magically delicious. Doris Roberts was a character actress, who I first took notice of when she played a guest role on St. Elsewhere. Ben-Zion Gold was the rabbi at Harvard Hillel during my years at the superior institution up the street.

You don’t need me to tell you about Prince. And you’d be better off asking somebody else about him, anyway, since his music wasn’t really my thing. Billy Paul, who sang "Me and Mrs. Jones," was more to my taste. But the musician whose death I really want to highlight is Papa Wemba. He was a major figure in the world of Afropop, which is very much my thing. If you can listen to his music without dancing, you may want to consult a doctor to make sure you aren't dead yourself.

Made in Space: As I mentioned previously, the theme of this year’s MIT Club of Washington seminar series was space. This talk was not actually part of the series, but many of the same people were there. The speaker was Andrew Rush, the President of Made in Space, which has demonstrated (in a very limited way) additive manufacturing in space. For example, they used a 3-D printer to produce a tool on the International Space Station. Their plans are a lot more ambitious. I grasp the benefit of not needing things to survive the launch environment, but he didn’t address having the manufacturing equipment survive the space environment. For example, what are the impacts to electronics of energetic charged particles? And he didn’t really talk about the economics at all, since certain components (mostly electronics) would need to be stockpiled in the manufacturing facility. Still, it was an interesting talk. And, as a bonus, one of the people there was someone I was very friendly with as an undergrad and hadn’t seen in close to 36 years!

Book Club: The major reason to belong to a book club is to force yourself to read books you might not choose otherwise. This session’s book was Minaret by Leila Aboulela. It was an interesting book, with a somewhat unsatisfying ending. It would have been helpful to know a little more about Sudanese culture – and clothing, as I had to google what a "tobe" is. (It turns out to be more like a sari than like a burka, which is what I had been envisioning. One thing I continue to find amazing is other people’s limited views of the world. That is, except for the Tajik woman in the group. Of course, they probably think my view of the world is weird - e.g. my scale of how much a country is likely to be a basket case based on what colonial power dominated it.

Speaking of the Basket Case Scale: The worst colonialists were the Belgians. It isn’t clear that there’s an adequate sample size, but I wouldn’t want more countries to be as screwed up as the Congo is.

The Dutch were horrible colonialists, but, fortunately, were usually kicked out by the French or British before they could do too much damage. There are, however, no excuses for the basket cases they made of Indonesia and New York City.

Former Portuguese colonies are, in general, doomed to an eternity of civil war. The only mitigation is that they tend to have great music.

Former French colonies are also doomed to be basket cases. On the plus side, the French are sometimes willing to come back in and help them out. And they tend to have good bread and good coffee.

Former English colonies are a mixed bag. They tend to have some level of democratic government, but may have lasting ethnic tensions. Quality of food and music is more variable.

Former German colonies seem to end up with suspiciously long serving leaders, but, again, it isn’t clear if the sample size is adequate to judge. On the plus side, they tend to have good roads.

Surprisingly, former Spanish colonies may be the most functional. Admittedly, the lifetime of a President for Life may be measured in days, but the periods between junta rule are often reasonably free politically.

Innovation Reception: I had an MIT-related reception to go to on Monday night, which was kind of a pain in the neck since, being Passover, I couldn’t eat much of the food. (They did have some raw veggies.) The talk was fairly interesting, with an emphasis on nano-technology. I have to admit to a certain level of skepticism about the emphasis on nano, largely because of my experience with the technology valley of death. That is, the overwhelming majority of technologies fail to make it from research to operations (or, in this case, commercial viability). Academics are always way too optimistic about this, but it affects the riskiness of technology investments.

Pierre Bensusan: My very favorite musician on the planet playing at a place just a couple of miles from my home? Of course, I was going to be there. I’ve seen Pierre perform live numerous times and I continue to be blown away by his guitar virtuosity.

Passover: I have been somewhat unenthusiastic about Passover this year. The only significant cooking achievement was a frittata with asparagus and mushrooms from the farmer’s market. And, frankly, that is as much a shopping achievement as a cooking one.
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I am still jet-lagged, so that probably limits how interesting I am. Or am not.

Celebrity Death Watch: Bob Ebeling was a NASA engineer whose warning prior to the Challenger disaster was, alas, ignored. Rob Ford was the mayor of Toronto and followed in the mayoral path so clearly set by Marion Barry of Washington, DC. Andy Grove was the leading force behind the dominance of Intel. (He was also, by the way, a Shoah survivor.)

Day Without Metro: Metro welcomed me home from vacation by shutting down the rail system completely for a day in order to inspect cables that should really have been inspected during the weekend shutdowns we’ve had damn near every weekend for the past decade or so. I could get to work by bus if I were willing to spend enough time at it, but I opted to drive. And, really, it didn’t seem much worse than normal, perhaps because I timed things well. My only real complaint about the shutdown is that they waited until 4:30 in the afternoon to announce it, which is well within normal rush hour. And, indeed, I heard that a number of people had not gotten the message.

By the way, the real winner on public transit that day was apparently Capital Bikeshare. Too bad there are no bike sharing stations within 10 miles of my house.

Travel Planning: I have figured out plans for short breaks over Thanksgiving and Christmas . One is a trip to Martinique, based on a ridiculously low airfare from BWI. The other is a reasonably priced trip to Key West. In both cases, I expect hotel costs will balance the air deals, but so be it.

I am also thinking that my birthday will require a national park trip, but I’ve only gotten as far as narrowing it down to four possibilities for that. (The Key West trip will include an excursion to Dry Tortugas N.P.)

Oh, and before someone asks why the short breaks? I have, um, negative 60 something hours of vacation after the South Pacific excursion. I have commitments for at least 5 more days before the end of the calendar year.

MIT Summer Interns: Monday night was the annual reception for MIT’s DC summer intern program. Unfortunately, there weren’t any candidates looking for space policy related positions this year. It’s still good to mingle with students and other alumni.

Android Question: This isn’t something really important, but it’s been bugging me. When I go to my task manager and click "end all," my tablet will sometimes tell me it is closing 20-30+ applications. Those are apps I never actually opened. The weirdest part is that clearing the memory will sometimes increase memory usage, rather than decreasing it. None of this has any big impact on functionality, beyond sometimes needing to clear memory to get mail or webpages to load. But I would still like to understand it.
fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
Celebrity Death Watch: Mervin Field founded a polling company. Elizabeth Peet McIntosh was a spy, both with OSS and its successor, the CIA, and wrote a couple of books about women spies. Ornette Coleman was a major jazz composer and saxophonist. Christopher Lee was an actor, noted particularly for horror movies. It wasn’t his fault that the film adaptation of Dracula so completely mangles the book. Ron Moody was also an actor, best known for playing Faigin in the movie version of Oliver!. Jack King was the voice of the Apollo space missions.

Puzzle People Deaths: I met Leslie Billig only in passing at a couple of crossword tournaments, but it is clear from what other people have said that she was well-liked and a significant loss to the tribe of puzzlers. The loss that has hit me harder is that of Thomas Gazzola, known within the NPL as Maso. He was a brilliant man, the creator of numerous puzzles, including a late-night game that I still think of as Doubles Jeopardy, even though he later changed that to It Takes Two. I was always astonished (and excessively proud of myself) when I could beat him at any sort of trivia. His death is particularly tragic, as he was the victim of a drunk driver, who struck him while he was jogging near his home. This year’s con will not be the same without him.

Leading Jewish Minds: Tuesday night was the first Washington area edition of the Leading Jewish Minds at MIT series, sponsored by MIT Hillel. Traffic going to McLean was a mess, but I made it in plenty of the time to the home of our gracious hosts. I hadn’t expected to know anybody (other than the Hillel staff) but, in fact, the attendees included someone I met a while back via a mutual friend and another person whose cousin was a good friend some 30+ years ago. The event was advertised as having "light kosher dairy refreshments." Ignoring the kashrut question, at a non-Jewish event, that would mean wine and cheese and maybe crudites. At a Jewish event, light refreshments means a groaning board, including noodle kugel, spanakopita, lox, salads, etc.

The speaker was Dr. Gerald D. Cohen '88, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Macroeconomic Analysis at the US Department of the Treasury, who spoke about the outlook for the US economy. I thought the most interesting part of his talk had to do with metrics, i.e. how we actually measure how the economy is doing.

Food Pornography – Pizza Edition: There was a flyertalk dinner at Fireworks Pizza in the Courthouse area on Wednesday night. The place was quite noisy, which is an issue, but the food was well worth it. The beer list offered too many choices, so I went with a cocktail, instead – The Calm Before the Storm, which was their version of a Dark and Stormy. It was quite good, with strong ginger flavor. (One of the reasons I rarely order these is that most American ginger beer is unimpressive.) As for food, the tartufo pizza had lots of tasty mushrooms (shitake, cremini, maitake) and an excellent thin crust. It is probably the best pizza I’ve had in the area and I would certainly try some of their other offerings.

The evening also solved a bit of a mystery. A couple of weeks ago I ran into somebody at a bookstore, who clearly knew me as he called me by name. He looked vaguely familiar, and I was pretty sure there was a work connection, but I could not place him at all. Well, he was at that dinner and it turns out that he works with our software team. But he is based in Seattle, so it’s not like he’s around all the time. We had never actually worked together but had had a conversation re: flyertalk once on the way into the building (since I had a backpack with a flyertalk tag on it).

Everybody Knows: I thought that everybody knows that there are stalactites underneath the Lincoln Memorial, formed by the limestone of the carving dripping down into the cavernous understructure. I have, in fact, been there and seen them, though it is some years ago. Nobody in my office knew about this. Alas, it appears that they’ve closed off public access, so they will remain unconvinced.
fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
Celebrity Death Watch: Morris Wilkins invented the heart-shaped bathtub. Jim Bailey was a female impersonator. Beau Biden appeared to be a worthy successor to his father’s political legacy. Hermann Zapf designed typefaces. Will Holt wrote the song "Lemon Tree."

There were also two huge losses in the folk music world. Jean Ritchie was a major folk musician in the Appalachian tradition. I remember listening to her on records about as far back as I can remember. And Ronnie Gilbert was part of The Weavers, as well as having performed solo and with other musicians, notably Holly Near. She had a powerful voice and a powerful presence. Her song, "The Death of Stephen Biko," was one that reminded me that protest songs continued to be relevant after the 1960’s.

Washington Folk Festival: The last weekend in May was the Washington Folk Festival. Because I was doing the Indie 500 on Saturday, I was only able to attend on Sunday. My performance was at the end of the day, which meant a pretty thin audience. I did a couple of experiments in my telling, one of which worked, and one of which failed badly. The one that worked was to have a vote on "The Farmer and His Animals" about which of his animals (the rooster, the pig, or the cow) the farmer should kill. The one that didn’t work involved the idea that Henny Penny was the victim of auto-correct, having intended to tweet "the sky’s appalling" as part of her job as a weather observer. I had not entirely thought through what I was going to have other characters doing, so it fizzled. I also told a Bill Greenfield story and was amused to see someone in the audience aping my motions as Bill reached inside the mouth of the bear who was about to eat him, grabbed hold, and turned that bear inside out. For my own records, the other two stories I told were "Seeking Destiny" (with a little adjustment to get a chicken into it) and "Prince Rooster."

35th MIT Reunion: This weekend was my 35th MIT Reunion. Wow, do I feel old. But I also feel incentive to survive another 15 years, so I can get my red jacket. I flew up to Boston on Friday morning and got to campus in time to drop off my bags at Baker House (where I was staying in a room that had surprisingly few walls) before going first to the Hillel reception. I had a nice long conversation with someone I hadn’t seen since I graduated. Then I went over to the McCormick reception (the dorm I’d lived in as an undergrad), where the most interesting conversation I had was with a woman from the class of 1965 about her experiences trying to find a job with a chemistry degree in those days. The short version is that people told her she should be a secretary and her degree would be useful because she could spell the names of chemicals correctly!

As for Class of 1980 events, we had a talk on hacks and pranks, which was quite entertaining. Then we walked up to the MIT Museum for dinner. I saw many of the people I was most looking forward to seeing and had lots of interesting conversation. Apparently there was some confusion with the caterer which also meant we had an open bar. That may have enhanced some of the conversation, but I like to think my classmates are interesting enough even without a couple of glasses of white wine. I was astonished to discover that the museum shop had absolutely nothing I felt a deep need for. I guess I’ve bought it all on previous visits.

Unfortunately, the people in the room next to mine at Baker appeared to be a family who had never taught their children the concept of an inside voice. And, in fact, it appeared that the adults were themselves unaware of this concept. Between that, traffic noise from Memorial Drive, and doors slamming, I got way too little sleep. Fortunately, the Technology Day program was interesting enough that I didn’t drift off too much. The topic was "Private Lives in an Interconnected World" and the speakers covered topics ranging from nanophotonics (pretty marginally connected to the theme) to cybersecurity policy to use of data for urban planning. I wish there had been more time in the program for the Q&A. And I could make several snide comments about the presentation skills of academics. But, overall, it was worth a few hours of my time.

Then came lunch, which was followed by the presentations of the class gifts. My class raised over $2.3 million, which is pretty impressive for a year that isn’t a major reunion. (For major reunions - namely the 25th, 40th, and 50th - they count all gifts over the previous 5 years, as well as pledges for the next 5. For everyone else, it’s just the single year.)

We had a significant disadvantage at the Tech Challenge Games, because our class had only about 25 people there. The classes where people bring a bunch of young children can do more with some of the events. We were also disadvantaged in the trivia bowl part by being at the far end of the field, which highlighted the limits of the audio system. I have probably said this before, but I will note that: a) I suck at paper plane construction and b) I can redeem myself by writing haiku. Though the poetry contest topics this time out were definitely not very inspiring – red blazers, the 1916 move of Boston Tech to Cambridge, MIT football, and snowpocalypse. I think my best effort was on the first of those:

Cardinal jackets
make perfect accessories
to go with grey hair.

I took a break from crowds of people to call a friend who is recovering from surgery and to work logistics for getting together with another friend the next day. Then it was off to the new Ashdown House (way the hell over on Vassar Street) for a barbecue dinner. The food was about what you would expect of barbecue in Massachusetts, but there was plenty more good conversation. I skipped the later night activities for several reasons and was able to get some sleep before the feral family next door woke me up.

The Shrine of the Green Monster: I skipped the Sunday brunch because I just wasn’t feeling enthusiastic about it. Instead, I had a large and tasty late breakfast at The Friendly Toast, a place in Kendall Square that is more of less one of my regular Boston breakfast spots. (I had one of the daily specials – a breakfast burrito with scrambled eggs, black beans, veggie sausage, and jalapeno-jack cheese.)

Then I went over to the Hampton Inn near the airport to leave my bags. Back to the city, it was time to meet up with my friend, Penny, to go to Fenway Park! The timing on coordinating meeting up worked amazingly well, as I had just about stepped out of the Kenmore Square T stop when she called, telling me she was right outside the souvenir shop across from Boston Beer Works.

So, Fenway. No matter how many times I go there, I never tire of the energy of the ballpark. There is really no other place like it. We were up in the Pavilion Box seats, which meant a bit of a stair climb to get there, but the view was great and, because of the intimacy of the ballpark, it didn’t feel like we were away from the action. Things started badly, with Clay Buchholz gave up 3 runs in the top of the 2nd (and another run in the 4th), and the Sox were not doing anything offensively for ages. But when they did open up, they did so explosively. Starting with a home run by Rusney Castillo, they ended up scoring 7 runs in the bottom of the 8th. You may have heard us screaming ourselves hoarse if you were anywhere within, say, a couple of thousand miles. What an exciting half an inning and what a game!

Penny and I got some coffee afterwards. Then she went off to get her train to deep suburbia, while I decided it made sense to walk at least part of the way across town. In the end, I walked all the way down to South Station, because walking in Boston is just so pleasing. Thanks to the T and the hotel shuttle, I got to the hotel in time to try to get a semi-decent amount of sleep. Which means that, yes, I completely forgot about the Tony awards. That’s just as well since getting up for a 6 a.m. flight was challenging enough.

And now I am all caught up, at least until tomorrow.
fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
Before I get into the main subject of this entry, I have a quick celebrity death watch note. Farley Mowat wrote about the Arctic. I associate him with the title Far North but Amazon indicates that I must have hallucinated that association.

I promised a while back to write more about my MIT experience. I was surprised that most of the comments had to do with teaching. Note that I can really only speak to having been Course 2 (mechanical engineering) in the late 1970’s, so I have an inherently limited perspective. I had mixed experiences with the teaching skills of various professors. The problem is, of course, that research is more important than teaching in promotions and, especially, tenure. That said, I think MIT does care more about teaching than a lot of other research universities do. And I found that my professors were generally willing to provide extra help.

So what were the barriers?

  1. In some cases, professors were not particularly interested in teaching introductory classes. This wasn’t a huge problem, but I did have some times when I felt a lack of enthusiasm. I suspect some may have been a lack of enthusiasm for teaching, in general. I remember this for Linear Algebra, in particular.

  2. If you are an expert on a subject, it is very often difficult to tell what is and isn’t hard for people to understand about that subject. I find that is true outside of academia, too, as a large part of my job is "geek to English translation."

  3. MIT students are used to grasping things quickly and are, hence, reluctant to admit they might need extra help. I think this is often a particular problem for women, by the way, because women saying, "help me with this" often gets men responding with, "here, let me do it for you." I’ll also note that I found it a huge relief to realize that some of the men in my lab classes were just as intimidated by big power machines as I was.

  4. In technical fields, there are a lot of things that build on prior knowledge. You can take six literature classes at once and only your eyesight will suffer. But you really can’t learn, say, fluid mechanics without having learned vector calculus. I found that the prerequisites for some classes were not realistic and I think there was some pressure on professors to minimize the number of prerequisites for a given class. My best example of this was a (graduate-level) acoustics class (I think this was 2.06J), which would have been a lot easier had I had some previous exposure to continuum mechanics, for familiarity with notation if nothing else.

    I should also note that this can be the downside of freshman year having been entirely pass-fail. I certainly had to do a certain amount of catching up to learn things (especially math) that I should have learned better then. But I think part of that was also that I learn math better in the context of using it rather than as an abstract subject.

  5. In terms of real world skills, there wasn’t enough emphasis on communication skills. We did have some (randomly selected) lab reports reviewed by a professor from the writing program. But I never had to give an oral presentation. I’ll also note that in many years of conference attendance, I’m not convinced that a lot of professors have these communication skills. I continue to believe that it is a bad idea for people to be professors of engineering without ever having worked as engineers. And, no, consulting gigs don’t count. Alas, I do not rule the world.

I think that most of these are problems across the board, rather than specific to MIT. My grad school experience suggests that Berkeley was somewhat more realistic about prerequisites than MIT was. But there was the same variability of teaching ability. The two most egregious examples I experienced there were a compressible fluid flow class where the key to success was memorizing the derivations for a dozen or so problems and a class on digital control systems that was being taught by a professor who wanted to learn the material himself. The latter, however, had some fun aspects to it. We figured out that the professor in question loved it if we stuck LEDs on our circuits to show what was going on. My lab partner and I also had a great division of labor. I went to class on Tuesdays, he went on Thursdays. For reports, he did the writing and I did the drawings (mostly circuit diagrams). Both of us thought we got the better deal out of that.
fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
I’ll apologize up front for the length of this, but I have lots of things to catch up on. As I have said before, if you have more than two interests in life, you are doomed.

Celebrity Death Watch: Reubin Askew was a progressive governor of Florida, back in the days when such a thing was possible. Fred Phelps headed the Westboro Baptist Church, known for anti-gay bigotry. James R. Schlesinger held a number of government positions throughout his career, most notably as CIA director and as Secretary of Defense (and, later, Secretary of Energy.) After his government career, he was chairman of the board of Mitre. From my personal standpoint, his most notable position was as chair of the Position, Navigation and Timing board (which oversees GPS) and I have drafted at least a few white papers dealing with his recommendations.

Gene Feist founded the Roundabout Theatre Company, which has produced many notable performances, particularly revivals of musicals. David Brenner was a Canadian comedian. And Mitch Leigh wrote Man of La Mancha. His musical failures include Home Sweet Homer. He also wrote the Sara Lee jingle. Nobody doesn’t like Mitch Leigh. (Whose birth name was, by the way, Irwin Michnick, but that scans even worse.)

Non-celebrity Obituary: Kevin Brooks passed away last week. He was a storyteller who had a Ph.D. from MIT (via the Media lab) and worked at Motorola. I only met him briefly,, but I saw his dedication to storytelling and to Laura Packer, his widow. He was a bright, creative, and kind man and his loss will be sorely felt in both Boston and Kansas City.

Loveland: Loveland is Ann Randolph’s one-woman (plus an off-stage male voice) show, currently at Arena Stage. She plays Frannie Potts, whose talent is facial gesturing to sounds. Frannie is on a plane trip from California to her home town in Ohio and the story is a mixture of incidents on the plane with flashbacks involving Frannie’s relationship with her mother. This was billed as a comedy and it did have some funny moments. Unfortunately, most of the humor was a lot cruder than I’d prefer and I suspect thinner-skinned people would find a lot of the show remarkably offensive. I am sure Randolph knows this and is doing it deliberately. Or, at least, I hope anybody who would include a bit in which someone plays the harmonium to nursing home residents while singing, "listen to the drone, it will help you die," is being shocking intentionally. (I will admit I laughed at that bit. Then I went home and took three consecutive showers.) I didn’t stay for Randolph’s brief writing workshop after the show because her material was too far from anything I’d ever want to do.

House of Blue Leaves: I saw tickets on Goldstar for a production by the Providence Players of House of Blue Leaves, a play I remembered enjoying the previous time I saw it. They did a good job, with notable performances by Adam Downs as Artie and (especially) by Jayne Victor as Bunny. The play is a bit dated in some ways, but it is still an interesting dark comedy. I’m uncomfortable with the treatment of mental illness in it, but I recognize that one is supposed to be uncomfortable with that.

Chavurah Movie and Dinner Night: My chavurah had an outing to the Northern Virginia Jewish Film Festival. We saw a movie called Under the Same Sun, which I will write about as part of a movie wrap-up in a day or so. Afterwards we had dinner at Noodles and Company, which isn’t really the most congenial atmosphere for mingling and conversation, though I do like their Indonesian peanut noodle sauté (which I get with tofu).

MIT Summer Intern Reception: The annual reception for MIT summer interns who are interested in the blend of technology and policy is always interesting. Unfortunately, none of this year’s crop of interns was interested in space, so I don’t think I was very helpful to them. There were a couple who expressed an interest in energy, but the overwhelming majority this year were interested in health care. That’s not surprising, but it is disappointing. Still, there was a lot of intelligent conversation (including some with fellow alumni) so was worth going to.

Corcoran Tour and Reception: The MIT Club of Washington had a reception at the Corcoran Gallery and a tour of the collection. The reception was quite lush, with things like smoked salmon and chocolate truffles. Interestingly, they serve only white wine to minimize risk of damage to the artwork. The museum highlights tour was excellent. Our docent was both informative and entertaining. My favorite piece was a sort of pastiche of Van Gogh painted by Robert Colescott. That probably says more about my tastes (dark humor and modernism) than it does about the collection, which is heavy on 19th century American art.

Minor Yarn Frenzy: A friend cleared out her stash and gave me 15 pounds of yarn she didn’t want. In exchange, I gave her old towels to donate to the animal shelter she sometimes volunteers at. About half of the yarn was stuff I could use. The rest of the yarn included rather more novelty yarns (ribbon yarn, pompon, muppet fur, etc.) than I would do anything with, but I know other yarnoholics and most of it has been distributed to grateful crafters. I have someone to send the rest to, but need time to package it and mail it off.

Baltimore Rock Opera Society: Friday night, I went to see the Baltimore Rock Opera Society production of Grundelhammer at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria. Because it is easy (and free) to get to Old Town from my office, I had some time to shop beforehand. Shops along King Street include both a used bookstore and a yarn store, so you can imagine what happened. I also stopped at Mischa’s, because I had been running low on coffee. I am now restocked with some of Sulawesi’s finest. I also had time for dinner at Eammon’s, which has excellent fish and chips.

As for the show, it was somewhat over the top, but quite entertaining. The premise was a sort of medieval society where battle is fought with guitar riffs. The young son of the true king, Benedon, has to defeat the evil king, Lothario, who secures his power by feeding enemies to a monster (The Grundle). That way Benedon can save the kingdom (and, of course, get the girl). I’ll note the performance of Christopher Krysztifiak as Benedon, who showed a surprisingly wide range for this type of thing. This was also a complicated show technically, with elaborate puppetry (including some very amusing shadow puppets). The downside is that the scene changes took forever. Since they started almost a half hour late and the scene changes probably added up to an hour total, it made for a very late night.

Better Said Than Done – Into the Woods: I was part of a storytelling show on Saturday night. I told a story about our annual summer camp raft trip down the Delaware River. While I had told the story before, I reworked it a lot, which ate up a lot of my mental energy for a couple of weeks. One of the people I used to work on stories with used the phrase "kill your darlings" to refer to the need to cut out material that may be good but just doesn’t belong in that story. It was good advice to keep in mind and I was reasonably happy with how the story turned out. The audience reacted well, too.

I should also note that it was an excellent show, overall. It’s always interesting to me how many different ways a general theme can be interpreted and what a wide range of material and styles there are.
fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
This is partly a reaction to this post by [livejournal.com profile] jim_p about his feelings towards MIT. Given that we’re now into college acceptance season, I thought it would be timely. I’m hoping a few of the things I have to say may be of some use to people trying to deal with the college decision.

My experience at MIT was rather different than Jim's. I certainly shared the shock of having to actually study to get decent grades and I particularly remember the low grade on my very first exam in that context. But I think a few things made a difference in how I handled that:

1) I had had previous exposure to being around other smart people, primarily thanks to the National Science Foundation. I went to Columbia University’s NSF-sponsored Science Honors Program on Saturdays for three years in high school. While SHP did not have exams or grades, it provided both an opportunity to feel lost with material that was over my head and an opportunity to learn that other students felt that way. The summer before my senior year, I went to another NSF program, the Program in Biochemistry at the Loomis-Chaffee School. That was an intense summer of learning biochemistry techniques, killing rats and pureeing their livers for our research, and having to make a reservation to take a nap on the lab couch. But more than pipetting or the ability to tie a knot one-handed, it taught me I could keep up in a competitive environment.

2) I also had the advantage of knowing that there was a fair chance that I’d change my mind about what I wanted to do. I entered MIT thinking I would major in chemistry and do biochemistry, specifically neurochemistry. But my brother was busy setting the Michigan State University record for changing majors. And I knew that there were a lot of other things I was interested in. In fact, one of the reasons I went to MIT was the idea that if I changed my mind, there would be other strong math / science departments to go to, which was potentially an issue at Yale or Dartmouth. A large number of the people I know who had problems at MIT had always known exactly what they wanted to do and didn’t know how to handle it when that didn’t work for them. (For those who don’t know, my degrees are in mechanical engineering.)

3) I grew up in a small town and had the sort of suburban childhood that involved lots of extracurricular activities. The small town aspect is important because one of the ironies of that sort of environment is that you’re forced to be exposed to things you might not realize you’d be interested in. When something was happening in town, everybody went, because there weren’t so many things to choose from. (I suspect this is no longer the case, given the internet.) And the extracurricular activities mattered because it never occurred to me not to get involved in things at MIT, which gave me both balance and community. Freshman year being all pass / fail definitely helped with that. I think that having other things to do forced me to be somewhat more organized about my time and gave me a chance to get some perspective when I was stressed out about school.

Along those lines, I once went to a movie with some friends the night before a final and ran into the TA for that class. He made some snide comment about my going to a movie instead of studying and I pointed out that, if I didn’t know the material then, I wasn’t going to know it much better the next morning. I felt it was more important to be relaxed for the final. (And, yes, I got a good grade in the class.)

4) Somewhere around the middle of my sophomore year, I decided on the consumerist approach to my education. MIT is not exactly a cheap place, so I figured the way to get my (well, my father’s) money’s worth was to take advantage of the resources that were available. It was that attitude that let me get over my psychological barriers to asking for help when I didn’t understand something. I found that professors (at least in the mechanical engineering department) were willing to spend time (either their office hours or an appointment) to help me understand the material.

I do feel lucky that I stumbled into something I liked and was good at fairly early in my college career. Part of 2.02 (Introduction to System Dynamics) clicked with me. People told me that if I liked that, I should take the introductory controls class, 2.14. Control Theory just worked with the way my mind works, so that’s what I ended up doing and what eventually led me to my career (which is much broader). Not everybody does find something that resonates with them the same way, so I appreciate that there is no particular advice I can give on how to do that, beyond being open to it happening.

I’m somewhat hesitant to write this, because it sounds arrogant, but by the time I was a senior, I felt pretty much like I could do anything I wanted. What I hadn’t learned was how to structure my time when I didn’t have anything external to impose structure on me. That became an issue in grad school after I had finished classes and was in the pure research mode. But that’s another story. As are at least three other things I will write about education sooner or later (which, alas, generally means later).
fauxklore: (travel)
I will do other catching up soon, but I wanted to write up some recent short travels.

Embassy of Lithuania: Technically, embassies are foreign territory, so my evening at the Embassy of Lithuania counts as travel, despite just requiring a trip to the border of Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights. The building is actually one of the oldest embassies in the District, since it was opened in the 1920's. This was a typical MIT Club of Washington event, with an entertaining talk by the Deputy Chief of Mission, who focused largely on economics. I am, of course, interested in Lithuania since my father's family is from there. I am sad to say that the food was not very impressive and the beer was definitely not to my taste.

Frequent Traveler University: This edition of FTU was in Tampa, which is an easy flight from Washington. I'm not going to write up what got said in any detail, but I will note that this is the first time that there was actually any material on actual travel, rather than frequent flyer programs. There was still a lot about credit cards and various ways of using them to get lots of points and miles. But there were a couple of sessions by Stefan Krasowski (of Rapid Travel Chai which talked about finding flights and hotels in less traveled parts of the world and so on. I am well-traveled, but I learned a few things I hadn't already known. There was also a session on getting what you're entitled to without being a jerk. I like to think I didn't need that one, but ...

My favorite quote of the weekend was from Seth Miller. To wit (in the context of stretching the rules for transit visas in China and why not to), "there is no real upside to being detained, deported or arrested." I thoroughly agree.

I was also able to take advantage of being down that way to have dinner with an old friend, who I hadn't seen in 20+ years. Tracy took me to dinner at an excellent sushi place in Clearwater (known as Charlie's, though it has a more sushi-ish real name). And we had a lovely wide-ranging conversation, including topics as far afield as home schooling and Maltese fireworks.

McCormick 50th Anniversary: Finally, I went up to Boston this past weekend for the 50th anniversary of McCormick Hall, the dorm I lived in at MIT. The weekend included two brunches, a symposium (in which I learned a lot about Katherine Dexter McCormick, whose donation was responsible for the building, which, in turn, enabled MIT to admit more women by having somewhere to house them), a reception, and dinner. There were also tours of the building, which still looks quite good after all these years. By my day, there were several co-ed dorms and I will admit having chosen to live in McCormick largely because of it being physically nicer than many of the others. I only realized later on that, had I not lived there, I would have known maybe three other women.

But the real highlight was, of course, seeing people. Other attendees included one of my suitemates and a friend from Hillel, as well as the housemasters from throughout the years and Norma, the house manager who all of us who worked desk at the dorm were terrified of. It was also great meeting other women from throughout the years. And what do bright intellingent women talk about? Knitting, of course! (Actually, there was lots of conversation about what we studied, what we did now, and how we got from there to here.) All in all, it was a fun event and definitely worth the trip.
fauxklore: (Default)
This is intended to get me completely caught up here, a state that may last, oh, 15 minutes or so.

Frequent flyer meets business travel: I had a quick business trip to Denver a few weeks ago. I managed to arrange my flight out to be on a plane that Captain Denny Flanagan was piloting. It’s always good to be reminded that there are people working for the airlines who care about customer service. (And it was nice to chat with him before the flight.) I also used the trip as an opportunity to have dinner with friends who live out there, which is always nice. The work part was pretty intense, however.

Michael Chertoff: The former Director of Homeland Security gave a talk at an MIT-related reception I was at recently. I didn’t find anything he said particularly surprising, but I did think he completely dodged a question someone asked about the balance between security and privacy.

Domestic politics: Romney’s selection of Paul "Privatizing" Ryan as his running mate pretty much confirms my theory that the Republican Party no longer welcomes its former moderates. However, I doubt that the selection of a vice presidential candidate has much, if any, impact on who people vote for.

International politics: The first American company to open a franchise location in Libya is Cinnabon. This makes perfect sense if you think about local tastes. That is, of course, what makes it all the more surprising.

Women and the Olympics: There have been lots of stories this year about women and the Olympics. It was not until I read an article by Sally Jenkins in today’s Washington Post, however, that I learned a particularly appalling bit of history. In 1976 Margaret Thompson Murdock was the first woman shooter to make the American team. She tied with her team captain, Lanny Bassham. The rules prohibited a shoot-off, so Bassham was given the gold and Murdock the silver. To his credit, he pulled her up on the podium with him, but sheesh!

Story swap: There was a bonus story swap at Eve’s house Saturday night. We started outside around the fire pit, but moved inside when it began to rain. (The rain also prevented viewing the Perseids.) There were several travel related stories and lots of interesting conversation. This reminds me that I should someday put together a piece about places not to eat Chinese food, starting with Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. A particular highlight for me was Jake’s impassioned explanation of why donkeys might be chickens, which made his lawyer father proud of him and has the rest of us laughing hysterically.

Not laughing over traffic:: The Virginia Department of Transportation was doing their usual weekend work, otherwise known as how to screw up my drive home on the Beltway. What annoyed me the most is that the sign indicating that 3 of the 4 lanes were closed was after the exit I could have taken to avoid the mess. Of course, being Virginia, if they actually put up a useful highway sign, they would have to plant a tree immediately in front of it.

Pearl yarn: I got a notice from one of m local yarn shops that they had some of the Zealana pearl yarn, a limited edition created for the 30th anniversary of Vogue knitting. This is 50% crushed pearls, embedded in tencel, and only 500 skeins were made. Each skein is numbered and comes in a presentation box. If you think I could pass this up, you don’t know me very well. I was over there right when they opened. That was a good thing as they only had 20 skeins and I was number 18 in line. It is gorgeous and I think it was worth the 40 bucks. Not that I know what I am going to do with it. The best idea I heard from one of the other lucky purchasers was a bridal veil, but I am not exactly in need of one of those, alas.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels: I’ve wanted to see this musical for some time, so took advantage of a production at Elden Street Players in Herndon. I found this very enjoyable. David Yazbek’s score suited the plot (based on the movie) well. In an earlier era, "Like Zis, Like Zat" would have gotten some radio play and "What Was a Woman to Do" would have had some life as a novelty piece. While the early set-up introducing the two con men is a bit longer than it needs to be, the book is funny, with several fairly subtle jokes. The performances were good, too, especially by Tom Flatt as Lawrence and Janette Moman as Muriel.

Travel planning, part 1: Helsinki: My annual birthday excursion this year is a long weekend in Helsinki. In the course of researching what to do, I have discovered a number of bizarre possibilities, some of them related to the city being the World Design Capital for 2012. Those include a walking map highlighting fonts on various signs (and, yes, I am enough of a geek to have downloaded the map), an exhibit titled "Flush: Design of Public Toilets," and an iron age market. There is also an event described as "urban festival brings together design and traditional Finnish rug washing piers." Even without the special events, Helsinki has some oddities, like a Hotel and Restaurant Museum. As someone who has driven out of my way to see things like the world’s largest towel (at the Cannon Towel Visitor Center in Kannapolis, North Carolina) and the water tower of the town of Joe, Montana, I expect to be in my element. (I’ve also downloaded walking tour brochures and directions to the largest yarn shop in town.)

Travel planning – part 2: Israel You may have read about the cheap fares that were available for a little while last week, due to a contractor failing to load fuel surcharges into an on-line system. Since I had already been looking at fares to Israel, I snagged a ticket. I have lots of planning yet to do, of course.

Travel planning – part 3: I also got frequent flyer tickets for Ozfest next year. This was fairly complex because I wanted to do a few things on the way to Perth and back. I’ve got one ticket (using United miles) to Singapore and back from Hong Kong. And I have another ticket (using American miles) from Singapore to Perth and Adelaide to Hong Kong. I’ll have almost a week in Singapore, which should allow me an excursion to Malaysia, too. I plan to take the Indian Pacific train from Perth to Adelaide. Finally, I will have a few days in Hong Kong, which should be enough time to eat lots of dim sum. Or maybe look for traditional Hong Kong rug washing piers.
fauxklore: (Default)
The meme runs like this:
Comment to this post and say you want a set, and I will pick seven things I would like you to talk about. They might make sense or be totally random. Then post that list, with your commentary, to your journal. Other people can get lists from you, and the meme merrily perpetuates itself.

[livejournal.com profile] cellio gave me Musical perception (you have a singleton LJ interest there), a place not on Earth you would like to travel to, nalbinding, decadent food, MIT, a superpower, a favorite board game.

Musical Perception: Actually, I have a broad interest in perception. I mentioned musical perception, specifically, for two reasons. One is that I went to many of the lectures at the Music and the Brain series that the Library of Congress had a couple of years ago. The other is that music is a particularly complicated art form.

The type of questions that intrigue me can be talked about in other contexts. For example, why do we like what we like? I can just as easily ask why Caravaggio's paintings blow me away as I can ask why I was drawn to Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps" the first time I heard it. As another example, I've pondered the question of what defines Jewish music. I can ask that question just as well of, say, Jewish food.

But the most fundamental question that intrigues me has to do with my inner experience. I can never know that somebody else actually hears the same things I do when listening to a piece of music. By the same token, I can't know that somebody else's experience of a given color is the same as mine. Because music has so many aspects (pitch, rhythm, timbre, etc.) it seems like a particularly fruitful area to explore.

A Place Not on Earth I'd Like to Travel To: I expect that the question was intended to bring up space exploration, but I think that the deep sea would be as intriguing. I've been on a couple of tourist submarine rides and both were awesome.

Nalbinding: This is one of the most obscure crafts I pursue. I usually describe it as what the Vikings did because they didn't know how to knit, but the same technique is used in a lot of places, including Papua New Guinea. It is, essentially, a detached buttonhole stitch, worked with a single needle and short lengths of yarn or thread. I learned it because I saw a class being offered at the Montpelier Fall Fiber Festival a few years ago and couldn't resist learning something I knew nothing about.

Decadent food: There is nothing more decadent than perfectly ripe fresh berries, but there is a lot to be said for good chocolate. Good chocolate is the major argument in favor of the continued existence of Belgium.

MIT: I chose MIT for a simple reason. I intended to major in chemistry, but I also knew there was a good chance I would change my mind. I figured that anything I did would still be in the math / science arena and MIT is universally strong in those domains while the other school I seriously considered (Yale) is less so. The Boston area was also a big draw. (I was very attracted to Dartmouth, but worried about the lack of Jewish community in the local area, for example.)

It was a good choice for me. For one thing, I did change my mind about what I wanted to do and ended up majoring in mechanical engineering. For another, I think I did a good job of taking advantage of the cultural environment in Boston. I'd also say that I fit well into the campus environment. What I appreciate most about MIT is that people there are passionate about what they're doing (which isn't necessarily what they're studying). From what I've seen via the MIT Club of Washington and encounters with a handful of current students, that's still true.

A Superpower: My first thought was, "but, wait, isn't the U.S. the only superpower left?" Then I realized what the probable intent of the topic was. I think the superpower I would most like to have would be the ability to instantly understand and communicate in any language.

A Favorite Board Game: While I love all the modern games, there is still something about backgammon that tops anything else for me. Part of it is memories of many hours spent playing it with particular people, some of whom are, alas, no longer with us. But mostly it's the simple fact that it is a game of skill when I win and a game of luck when I lose.
fauxklore: (Default)
Between Pesach and tax season I am behind on everything. So this is another of those catch-all bits of rambling.

First, there are several celebrity deaths to note. Earl Scruggs was a bluegrass musician. Thomas Kinkade was a commercial artist. Mike Wallace had a huge influence on the nature of television journalism. Adrienne Rich was a feminist poet. And Reed Whittemore was one of my favorite modern poets, whose work was filled with grace and wit. If you are not familiar with his work, let me offer this short example.

I also want to note that my first boss at the Circle-A Ranch passed away recently. Wayne retired and moved to Oregon back in the 1990’s and I had a few years in line management as his replacement. That gave me the opportunity to try out management in a safe environment and was a good way to find out it was not really what I wanted to do.

While I am on death and news, Bingu wa Mutharika, the president of Malawi died recently. The interesting thing there is that the Vice President, Joyce Banda, is now the second woman to become a head of state in Africa, after Ellen Johnson SIrleaf of Liberia. In other African news, the coup in Mali looks to be heating up, so it looks like having gone to the Festival Au Desert last year was good timing on my part.

Among the things I never got around to writing about were several receptions, three of them MIT related. A dinner at the Embassy of New Zealand provided an opportunity to see some interesting architecture, with a roof shaped to resemble the hull of a ship. That was enhanced by my conversation over dinner with an architecture professor and critic. A few nights after that, I was at an event with departing MIT President Susan Hockfield. The most interesting part of her remarks had to do with the cost of an education. My alma mater has made real strides in financial aid and she said the average debt of graduating seniors is just $14,000, which I find quite remarkable. The final MIT related reception I went to was the annual one for summer interns. I brought along a friend who works at NASA and has potential openings. It is always good to see the enthusiasm of students and to reconnect with fellow alumni. The non-MIT event I went to was a friend’s promotion ceremony. Aside from the usual military ceremony, which I always enjoy, the setting was particularly interesting. Roosevelt Hall, the site of the National War College, is a spectacular Beaux Arts building overlooking the Potomac, with a particularly dramatic rotunda. We got there early so had time to look around at the display cases, which included several having to do with General Colin Powell, including his diplomas. And the honoree was someone who particularly deserved his promotion, making the whole thing a lovely occasion.

The only other significant thing I did recently without having written about it was go to the most recent Pro Musica Hebraica concert, which involved Marc-Andre Hamelin playing works by Chopin and Alkan. Chopin was not, of course, Jewish, but Alkan was and the link was their friendship, based on both of them being outsiders in Paris. It was an excellent evening of solo piano. The highlight was definitely Alkan’s four-movement "Symphony for Solo Piano." However, I will note that, if one had not been told that the composer was an Orthodox Jew, there is nothing in the music itself that would suggest that.

The other main thing I failed to write about was doing the Month of Letters project, which involved writing a letter every day in February (except Sundays and postal holidays, i.e. President’s Day). That let me get a few things I’d been meaning to send to people on their way, as well as using some of my vast supply of note cards. I am, alas, now behind in answering letters (and emails) that I got in return.

Finally, the clippings file offered up a couple of amusing advertisements. One is for a razor that "hydrates your skin like no other razor." Personally, I’ve always found that drinking water and using lotion were more effective ways to hydrate my skin than shaving my legs is ever likely to be. The other is for a cheese and breadcrumb mix. Because, you know, it is just too hard to sprinkle cheese and breadcrumbs separately on the top of a casserole.
fauxklore: (Default)
Let's see, I was halfway through the weekend before last. On Sunday, I went to see Really Really at Signature Theatre. This is a new play, written by a 26 year old wunderkind. It deals with the aftermath of a very drunken college party and is, essentially, a "he said, she said" date rape scenario, punctuated by the reactions of his and her friends. (More precisely, it was "she said, he was too drunk to remember what happened.") There are reasons not to trust any of the people involved, as well as implications that a difference in social class is a contributing factor. That was all pretty interesting, but the play didn't quite work for me for two reasons. One problem was that the ending removed the ambiguity and seemed to be done that way entirely for shock value. My bigger issue was that there was nobody to like.

Monday night, I went over to Looped Yarn Works in Dupont Circle. Along with The Phillips Collection, they were yarn bombing the area. We knitted and crocheted hearts (I crocheted four) and hung them around the area. You can see a little of the result at the Phillips blog entry. (I have some pictures but still need to upload them. And I am having internet issues at home, so it may be a while.)

And Thursday night was an MIT Club of Washington event at the Turkish embassy residence. The building is truly spectacular. It was built for Edward H. Everett, who made a fortune by inventing a machine to make crimped bottle caps for soda bottles. He gave free reign to the architect, George Oakley Totten, Jr. The result has lots of polished wood, marble, stained glass, original art, and pretty much everything you associate with rich people. There were the usual talks (one by the Deputy Chief of Mission, who was quite entertaining, and one by an MIT professor, who was less so) followed by a dinner of finger foods (miniature kebabs, domades, cheesy things, etc.) And, of course, the opportunity for conversation with intelligent people, which is the main reason I go to these things.

I went away for the weekend (to Las Vegas) but that will be a separate entry.
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Walking: I took an out of town trip (by car for a change) last weekend. I wanted to knock off a few Volksmarch events. I am now just two events away from finishing the America's Gardens programs and one event away from the second Historic Churches book. The events I did were in New Castle, Delaware and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The latter is also qualifies for three other programs (State Capital, Hooray for Hollywood, and Baseball Walks). Both walks were very enjoyable, although the New Castle walk reminded me that uneven brick sidewalks are inherently slow to walk on. The stretch along the Delaware River was a lot faster, though I'm not fond of out and back routing. The Harrisburg walk was slow, too, largely because I am such a compulsive reader of historic signs. I also made time to stop inside the Capitol, which is domed and has a spectacular rotunda. All in all, it was a pleasant weekend and a good way to take advantage of lovely fall weather.

The Week: In addition to work, I had an AMITA Happy Hour to go to on Tuesday night. It is always good to converse with intelligent people, but the place where it was held was annoyingly loud and I left with a mild headache. \

Anne Sheldon was telling stories and reading poems in Friendship Heights on Wednesday night. I like to support these events when I can. I particlarly liked her poem about Rumpelstiltskin.

I also did a lot of work. Some of it was the sort of stuff I am even good at, namely learning rapidly enough about a subject to explain it to senior leadership.

Public service announcement: I had to bite my tongue and not correct someone very senior on this, but I can write it here. The word "ephemerides," which is the plural of "ephemeris" has 5 syllables. That is, it is "eff em err i deez" not "eff em e rides." Yes, really. Blame the Greeks.

Assassins: I saw Assassins at St. Mark's Church on Friday night. I've come to the conclusion that the major problem with community theatre is sound systems with excessive bass. Once again, several of the performers could not be heard over the orchestra. But it is a musical I know well, so not being able to hear every word was not as critical as it might be. I was impressed by Chad Wheeler as Charles Guiteau and Justin latus as John Hinkley. The weakest performance was WIll Emory's as the Balladeer (and Lee Harvey Oswald). I thought that some of the other performances were a bit overdone, but am not sure whether to blame the actor or director in those csses. At any rate, it was worth seeing but I'm not sure that it would sell somebody on the show if they were not already familiar with it.

Tellebration: Last night was Tellebration. This is an evening of storytelling (for adults) all over the world. Voices in the Glen put on our event at Kensington Row Bookshop and had six tellers. I thought the highlight was Geraldine Buckley's personal story about scattering her father's ashes. There was an interesting mix of stories (whcih I might have arranged ina different order, but that is the MC's privilege) and a good turnout. I can't ask for more than that.

A Second Chance: I saw A Second Chance at Signature Theatre this afternoon. This is a new show and I'd call it more of a song cycle than a musical. It's about two people - Jenna and Daniel - who meet and fall in love. Jenna is divorced and looking for her ideal man, while Daniel is recently widowed and not sure he is ready for a new relationship. The book is witty enough (in a very New York way) and the music was pleasant enough, but not a lot really happens. Obviously, a two person show like this does a lot to balance the budget. The chemistry between the performers was helpful, by the way, probably because Brian Sutherland and Diane Sutherland are an actual married couple. I don't think I'd call this essential, but it is nice to have a chance to see new musical works. (This did have a previous concert version in New York, so it doesn't completely qualify as new, but close enough.)
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I had my usual sort of hectic week, though I was reasonably productive (both at work and home).

Stories on Wednesday: I had a VASA board meeting (by conference call) on Wednesday evening. The logistics meant I ended up using my cell phone from the lobby of the Chevy Chase Pavilion (a shopping center next to the Embassy Suites), which worked okay. We got through the business we needed to. The main thing is that there will be a Gathering in 2012.

The reason I was over in that part of town for the call was that Willa Brigham was performing at the Friendship Heights Village Center. It made sense for me to call from somewhere near that venue. It also meant it was one of those evening when I end up eating a Power Bar for supper, which is annoying but survivable as long as it isn't too frequent. The highlights of Willa's show were some of her travel stories, in which she managed to get into interesting trouble. She also had a wonderful wooden hat, with a story about how she got it. I thought a lot of her material was entertaining and I liked her performance style, but I felt that what she told worked better as anecdotes within speeches, versus as stories themselves.

A Very Washington Thursday: Thursday evening featured an MIT Club of Washington event. MIT President Susan Hockfield was giving a talk at the Grand Hyatt. An email a few days beforehand warned of extra security due to "a distinguished visitor." It turned out that President Obama was speaking at the Women's Leadership Forum, behind held across the hall. The security was not actually all that onerous - just a walk through metal detector and bag x-rays. I thought Hockfield's speech was interesting, even if she had less cheering (and none of the press coverage) that Obama got. And conversing with intelligent people is always a good thing.

Speaking of Obama: His Middle East speech did not actually say anything. The term "based on" is a very useful out for almost anything. (That said, I think Jerusalem is a thorny and likely unsolveable problem. Not that anybody asked for my opinion.)

Conversation with my Mother: There were several police cars in her neighborhood the other day. Apparently. somebody drowned a cat in the swimming pool of a house on the next block. Describing the house, Mom said, "nobody lives there, since they're mostly all dead." Apparently, the police also found bones buried in the yard. My guess is that the bones will prove to be connected to the pig roasts that the people who used to live there had, though it would be more interesting if that weren't the case.

Bad Taste Department: One of my colleagues has taken to describing the Mark Center (the building we are moving to thanks to BRAC) as Auschwitz II. The other day, he was pointing out that the building will have showers. I found the comments offensive, but beyond saying, "that's not funny" I'm not sure about whether or not to pursue it with him.
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So much for getting my next entry up more quickly. My excuse is that I've been busy, both at work and play. The play part is, of course, more interesting to write about.

Actually the two worlds intersected a bit on the night of the 21st when I went to the annual reception for MIT's Washington summer intern program. I had known that the person who is leading one of the projects I'm working on right now is an MIT alum,so I wasn't surprised to see her there. But I hadn't known she had been in that internship program. I also ran into somebody who used to work for my company. Aside from that, I saw several people I see infrequently, had reasonably intelligent conversation (including that with some of the students) and enjoyed the free food and drink. Well, not completely free, as I did leave with one resume.

The rest of that week was spent mostly trying to catch up on things at home, including sleep. I went to an actual movie in a movie theatre on Friday evening. I do see a fair number of movies, but they are usually either on airplanes or at film festivals. In this case, I wanted to see Win Win because Tom McCarthy wrote and directed it. (He was also the writer and director of The Station Agent and The Visitor. The latter is, in my opinion, a near perfect movie.) The story involves a lawyer who, under stress of a midlife crisis with both his practice and the high school wrestling team he coaches failing, makes an unethical move. As a result, he ends up meeting a sullen teenager, who proves to be an excellent wrestler. The movie is really about what it takes for people to feel in control of their lives. It was interesting and humorous, with fine acting by Paul Giamatti in the leading role. Overall, this is a small movie with no big surprises, but still charming.

The weekend also featured a crafts day at a friend's house and a story swap, which gave me a chance to try out a piece about making chicken soup that I am thinking of using as an introduction to a Chelm story which also involves chicken soup. On Sunday, I went to a storytelling house concert. Bernadette Nason was visiting from Austin, Texas. She told two stories about living in Libya and encounters with chickens. She was entertaining, though I'd have liked a bit more on what she was doing in Libya. (She told me afterwards that she was working for an oil company.)

Monday evening saw me driving to Maryland to see The Yankles at the Baltimore Jewish Film Festival. This movie involves Charlie Jones, a disgraced baseball player who, as part of a community service requirement for his parole after a jail term for drunk driving, ends up coaching a Yeshiva baseball team. The team's leader and star player, Elliot, is a former minor leaguer who went to Israel after his mother's death, got religion, and decided to become a rabbi. Elliot's sister had been Charlie's girlfriend before his arrest, but is now exploring her Jewish commitment enough to question her involvement with him. And their father, a former ball player himself, is hostile to religion and believes Elliot's rabbinic studies are a waste. So, again, this is less a movie about sports than about relationships. I thought the film handled both baseball and Orthodox Judaism well, with just a couple of minor slips on the latter. (There was a Q&A afterwards with the brothers who made the movie and it was very interesting to learn which of the people in it were and weren't Jewish. Let's just note that the filming was done in Utah to save money.) Overall, it was pretty funny and reasonably worth dealing with the long drive on a weeknight.

Finally, I went to see Green Sneakers last night. This is either a short opera or a song cycle and my sole reason for going to it was that it was written by Ricky Ian Gordon, who is from my home town. The piece, for baritone, string quartet, and empty chair, is about the 1996 AIDS-related death of Ricky's lover. I can understand why the opera world likes this work, which has plenty of emotional resonance. I had some qualms with this production, however. The Adelphi String Quartet did not seem entirely up to the task and, in particular, the violins were rather screechy. (I listened to CD excerpts on Youtube, so believe the fault was the performance, not the score.) I know this is nitpicky but I was also distracted by the costuming, as the sweater that baritone Ian Greenlaw was wearing clashed with his shirt, tie and jacket and did not really fit correctly. (Other aspects of the staging were also distractions and I don't know whether those are the fault of Urban Arias or of stage directions in the work itself. It is undignified for a baritone to have to move an armchair around the stage.) I will note some pieces in the song cycle did make a strong impression on me. "Sportswear" is amusing, a glimpse at how trivial matters can frustrate us during stressful times. "Provincetown" struck me as a good summary of what those times were like for a lot of people. And the finale, "Epilogue: Sleep," was an effective closing. Overall, this was an interesting work, though not really my sort of thing.

There's other stuff to catch-up on but I need to get out of the house if I'm going to get into the city (to do a Volksmarch) before the tourists are out in force.
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My 30th MIT reunion was my nominal reason for the trip, so I should write something about it.

There were fewer tours to choose from this time than there had been at my 25th. I decided to do the Super Duck tour since I had heard good things about it. I was rather disappointed. I had expected something funny and kind of cheesy, with everyone being instructed to blow duck whistles periodically. Instead, the driver / guide focused on two things - the Zakim bridge (which is architecturally interesting and which we passed several times) and celebrity gossip. I really don't care where Johnny Depp had his yacht two summers ago and where Ben Affleck was filming a few months ago and so on. They didn't even give out duck whistles until after we got off.

The tour ended about an hour later than it was advertised to, which meant I had just a short time to stop by the Hillel reception. I'd met the new rabbi in December when she was visiting down here and it was nice to see her again. I also met a few graduating students and a new professor (an Israeli woman who will be teaching Computer Science.)

My class had our Friday night dinner in the Barker Engineering Library, which is kind of an odd venue. The area we were in had been where the magazines were back in the day and is, apparently, now just a lounge area. (They took the sofas out for our event.) The point of these things is, however, the mingling and conversation. My class seems to be reasonably free of people who have overachieved to the point of making the rest of us feel inadequate. In fact, I was a bit surprised by how many of my classmates are looking for work. I had several interesting conversations, but won't write much here since they involve other people's stories. (Some conversations are likely topics for future entries, however.)

Saturday morning was Tech Day. This year's topic was "Against the Grain: The Power of Thinking Differently." Susan Hockfield (MIT's president) kicked thngs off, talking mostly about how MIT is doing. She had interesting statistics about the success of students at finding jobs after graduation - numbers which are a pretty good counter to the people who say that brand name universities aren't worth it. Then came Ann Graybiel, speaking on "Our Habitual Lives: How the brain makes and breaks habits." The topic was interesting, but she had some vocal traits that made it hard for me to focus on what she was saying. Anantha Chandrakasan spoke on "Next Generation Energy Efficient Systems" and pretty much said that the key was to think about systems, not just components. The final speaker was the best. Donald Sadoway's topic was "Innovation in Energy Storage: What I learned in 3.091 was all I needed to know," but he talked as much about his philosophy of education as about materials science. He was a dynamic, passionate and entertaining speaker. I was very impressed and I hope freshmen who take his class appreciate the opportunity.

The Tech Day luncheon followed, with the accompanying announcements of class donations. Having been on my class reunion gift committee, I think we did okay, but we did fall a bit short of the goal we had set for ourselves.

After that was the Tech Challenge games. These were moved indoors, due to threatening weather, which eliminated a couple of the competitions. We had an interesting approach for the design competition but needed a bit more time to have tested and adjusted our concept. We suffered at trivia from the acoustics of the room, with at least a few times when other teams were called on even though we had shouted out "Beaver!" sooner. But we did win the poetry contest. (That involves limericks and haikus on specific subjects. I will post my haikus in a separate entry, when I find the slip of paper I had scribbled them down on.) Overall, we finished solidly in the middle of the pack (3rd out of 6 teams).

There were two other class events (a dinner at the Stata Center and a brunch in the Student Center). There was also time for meandering around campus and seeing what had changed. The main difference is that a lot of things are locked up that hadn't been back then. There is also the deplorable trend towards glass everywhere in the corridors, putting students in labs on display. I commented to one of the people I was with that I supposed that prepares people for working in cubicles.

After brunch, I went up to the MIT Museum with a couple of folks. There was nothing particularly notable about any of the exhibits I saw, but I could not resist a purchase in the gift shop. We could all use a brain cell, no?

Then I raced off to bring my bag over to the Hilton at Logan Airport and, from there, to South Station to catch a train to Wellesley. My friend, Penny, met me there and we went to a potluck dinner and story swap in Framingham. We had to stop along the way for an intense storm, but it passed over quickly. The story swap was excellent, with a wide mix of personal stories and folk tales (and even one historic story). I told "Berel the Baker" which went over well. It is always nice telling to a responsive audience.

After the story swap, Penny was going to drive me to the T, but had an inspiration and remembered the Logan Express bus from Framingham. This was an excellent idea - much faster and still reasonable value. I pretty much collapsed as soon as I got to my room, but still didn't get quite as much sleep as I'd have liked before having to get up for my flight home. All in all, it was a great trip and I am glad I went.
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One of the great things about living in the D.C. area is the opportunity to go to events at various embassies. Last night was an MIT Club of Washington reception at the Israeli Embassy. I had not known that this was the first embassy to purchase a plot on International Drive (where several others are located - in fact, the new Chinese embassy is across the street and I'd been over there before twice when I got my visa to go to Ghana).

The building is modernistic and rather plain, at least judging from the hall we were in. They had the reception catered by Kosher Mart in Maryland, so it was not particularly exotic, but the food was tasty and plentiful. It does raise the question of what the proper wine to have with a pastrami sandwich might be. (I waited until after the talk and had a glass of merlot.)

The talk was given by a representative from the trade ministry and was titled "From the Land of Milk and Honey to the Land of Tech and Money." The most interesting chart was probably the one on citrus vs. software, highlighting the transformation of the Israeli economy. It also reminded me of how much the socialist Zionists have declined in influence. Another interesting point had to do with the relatively low labor participation in Israeli society, which was attributed to cultural values of Orthodox Jewish men and Arabic women.

By the way, the ambassador and his wife came in briefly at the end of the talk. (They'd been at a reception at the Russian embassy.) All in all, it was a very nice event.

The trip home was a bit less pleasant. I walked back over to the Van Ness metro station and, while waiting for the Red Line, heard an announcement that there was "an incident" on the Orange Line to Vienna and all trains were holding. When the Red Line train came, the driver announced that there was single tracking on the Blue Line between Federal Triangle and Farragut West due to reports of someone struck by a train at McPherson Square. At Metro Center, there was no indication of any Blue or Orange Line trains running and an announcement that trains were turning back at Federal Triangle and at Farragut West. There was a claim that there were shuttle buses, but no indication of from where. (The Metro Center station has at least 4 exits, so this is significant.) I figured that the best bet was for me to take the Red Line back a stop to Farragut North, exit, and walk the one block to Farragut West. This did, indeed, prove to be a good approach.

Not that there was any more information at Farragut West, beyond confirmation that somebody had been hit by a train at McPherson Square. I waited on the Vienna platform with several other people griping about the loack of information. A train pulled in on the opposite platform and, when people got off, they announced it was going out of service. Then they announced it was going to Vienna, so I went across to that platform and got on. Then they announced it was going out of service and we all had to get off. But, before we did, they announced it really was going to Vienna. Which it did. (It switched back to the correct track between Farragut West and Foggy Bottom, by the way, so the ride home was quick enough.)

No metro issue can go by without my writing haiku about it, of course. Hence, these offerings:

Nearly once a month
some jerk commits suicide
using the metro.

This is really most
inconsiderate to do.
Please use gas instead.

(By the way, there was an article not long ago in the Post re: the psychological impact of metro suicides on the drivers of the trains which have struck and killed people. So it's not just the inconvenience to think about.)

is the hallmark of metro's
info to riders.


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