Gone Too Soon

Everyone has a list of TV shows that–in their view at least–were inexplicably cancelled, or ceased production, just as the shows were hitting their stride and you were fully and firmly hooked. Kish and I spent the last few weeks binge-watching The Knick, which was broadcast for only two seasons and which ended with a cliff-hanger and numerous plot lines dangling, and we put it firmly into our pantheon of shows that we wish had continued.

The Knick tells the story of the Knickerbocker Hospital in turn of the century New York City. Led by the brilliant but hopelessly addicted and self-destructive Dr. John Thackery and trailblazing surgeon Dr. Algernon Edwards, the Knick deals with all kind of issues of the day: racism, mass immigration, rampant public health problems, addiction, appalling medical quackery, the eugenics movement, abortion, corrupt city government and skimming hospital employees, and just about every other problem you could imagine in an American city at the dawn of the modern era. It’s fascinating, and the rich historical setting itself adds to the fascination: it was an era when the early motor cars mixed with horse and carriage on Manhattan streets, travel by steamship brought a flood of rich travelers and impoverished immigrants to the City, electric lights were being installed, the x-ray was introduced as a diagnostic tool, and new approaches and inventions were found around every corner.

I am partial to historical dramas and period pieces, and The Knick does an excellent job of presenting the era. The sense of historical reality–from the street scenes, to the interior of houses, to the hospital’s surgical amphitheater and scrub room, to the pitch-perfect nurse outfits, the ambulance driver’s uniform, the fancy dresses, and the hats worn by seemingly every character–is total. And The Knick doesn’t downplay the primitive (by our standards, at least) medical and surgical techniques, either: Dr. Thackery is happy to try newly devised techniques on living patients (including, notably, himself) in the name of advancement of medical science, and total charlatans mingled easily with legitimate doctors. You’ll find some of the surgical scenes to be bloody and hard to watch, but also presented with the definite ring of authenticity.

Alas, The Knick ended in 2015, and we’ll never know what happened to Dr. Thackery, Dr. Edwards, hard-charging nurse Lucy Elkins, contemptible and corrupt hospital manager Herman Barrow, ambulance driver Tom Clancy, or the many other interesting characters on the shows whose tales must be left untold. But at least we got to enjoy two seasons of this very engrossing show. The Knick is right up there with Deadwood in our list of shows that were gone too soon.

The Ceaseless Quest For Rankings

If you want some tangible evidence of how rankings have affected the activities of colleges, universities, and other institutions of higher education, you need look no farther than Philadelphia, Pennsylvania– where a federal court jury recently convicted Moshe Porat, the long-time dean of the Temple University Richard J. Fox School of Business and Management, of mail and wire fraud in connection with a scheme to boost that school’s U.S. News and World Report ranking.

According to a statement released by the U.S. Attorney’s office for Eastern Pennsylvania, Porat, who served as the dean of the business management school from 1996 to 2018, was convicted after the jury found that he had “conspired and schemed to deceive the school’s applicants, students, and donors into believing that the school offered top-ranked business degree programs, so that they would pay tuition and make donations to Temple.” The statement explains that Porat and two other conspirators “agreed to provide false information to U.S. News about the number of Fox’s [on-line MBA (“OMBA”) and part-time MBA (“PMBA”)] students who had taken the Graduate Management Admission Test (“GMAT”); the average work experience of Fox’s PMBA students; and the percentage of Fox students who were enrolled part-time, all because it was believed that better numbers for these metrics would result in better rankings for the programs.”

The scheme to goose the school’s rankings evidently worked, too. The U.S. Attorney statement explains: “Relying on the false information it had received from Fox, U.S. News ranked Fox’s OMBA program Number One in the country four years in a row (2015 – 2018). U.S. News also moved Fox’s PMBA program up its rankings from No. 53 in 2014 to No. 20 in 2015, to No. 16 in 2016, and to No. 7 in 2017.” Porat then touted the rankings in “marketing materials directed at potential Fox students and donors,” and “[e]nrollment in Fox’s OMBA and PMBA programs grew dramatically in a few short years, which led to millions of dollars a year in increased tuition revenues.”

The “rankings” established by publications like U.S. News and World Report have had a profound–and in my view, negative–impact on the world of higher education. Parents and students use them to help in making application decisions, and schools reorient their admissions standards and processes and make other important decisions in an endless quest to better their rankings. The notion that you can boil down the whole college experience, or a law school education, to a ranking based on metrics is absurd on its face, but the rankings give schools something to boast about, or goals to achieve. Never mind the distorting and pernicious effect the zeal for higher rankings might have on a school’s educational mission–or the fact that the rankings have become such a dominant force that they caused one school administrator to apparently engaged in fraudulent conduct.

We’re past the point where our kids are making school decisions, but this incident really makes you wonder how meaningful those rankings really are.

Kinks In The Supply Chain

We’ve been reading a lot about supply chain issues. Yesterday I had my first direct experience with the problem when I went to do grocery shopping for my holiday baking–as reflected in the above photo of yellow sprinkles and cream cheese.

Normally, I would buy Philadelphia Cream Cheese for my baking. It’s the brand that we had in the house when I was a kid, and I figure if it was good enough for Mom, it’s good enough for me. But yesterday our grocer had no original Philadelphia Cream Cheese. Instead, in the cream cheese cooler there was a little sign explaining that due to supply issues, they didn’t have some of the offerings you would normally find. There was a Philadelphia brand substitute, that promised one-third of the fat of normal cream cheese, but who wants to try a low-fat alternative in a Christmas cookie recipe? So I bought the Yoder’s cream cheese, which was only standard cream cheese that was available, and I am hoping that it measures up to Philadelphia standards.

The same thing was true in the baking aisle. To my surprise, there were no green and red sprinkles available, which are the sprinkles I typically buy for Christmas baking. The only sprinkles available were these yellow sprinkles, and the shelves for most of the other festive toppings, like chocolate sprinkles or tiny balls, were empty, too. So I opted for the yellow sprinkles, figuring yellow sprinkles are better than none at all.

I had similar experiences elsewhere in the store. It’s not like the shelves were barren; there was lots of stuff for sale. But if you were looking for specific things, like a particular brand of cream cheese, or flour, or sprinkles, you might encounter a void, and an explanatory sign, and have to find a substitute. It’s not what we are used to here in the land of plenty.

Of course, I can make do with yellow sprinkles, and a different brand of cream cheese or flour; Christmas cookies are not a life-or-death thing. But the little signs and the shortages made me wonder what else has been affected by the kinks in the supply chain–like necessary parts, or crucial medicines or ingredients for medicines, or other essential items and materials.

The supply chain problems are concerning. Let’s hope they get this issue figured out, and soon, so that we don’t experience some really significant disruptions.

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2021 (II)

The first step in holiday baking, for me, is taking stock of what I’ve got, figuring out what I need, and then preparing my shopping list to ensure that I’ve got all of your ingredients and don’t get caught short and need to make an emergency run to the store for a missing item. (Of course, that typically happens, anyway.) That means pulling out what’s in the cupboard, in terms of spices and other essentials, then going through my stack of recipes to determine which cookies I’l be baking this year, and then matching up what’s on hand with what’s needed as I assemble my shopping list. It takes some time, so I’ve decided to get an early start this Saturday morning and, I hope, beat the rush at our neighborhood grocer.

I always like to try baking some new cookies, and this year one of new efforts will be White Velvet Cookies, using a recipe suggested by Webnerhouse reader Betty. Thanks, Betty! It’s her grandmother’s recipe, and the cookies get Betty’s highest recommendation. You can find the recipe, in her grandmother’s excellent handwriting, at the link above, along with a photo of Betty’s grandma and the cookies, too.

As a general rule, handwritten recipes are good recipes. I’m an admitted exception to that rule, however: my handwriting is illegible to everyone except me, and sometimes even I can’t read it. Fortunately, Betty’s grandmother has excellent penmanship.

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2021

A Winter Etching

Russell and Betty are back up in Stonington. Winter comes early up there.

Stonington is located on the far eastern edge of the Eastern Time Zone, so the sun sets much earlier there than it does in Columbus, which is on the western edge of the same time zone. Once Daylight Savings Time ends, total darkness comes to Stonington during the afternoon hours. For example, my weather app says the sun will set over Stonington at 3:56 p.m. today, whereas the sunset in Columbus won’t come until more than an hour later, at 5:06 p.m. During the winter months the sun’s daily path through the sky also nudges closer to the horizon, which makes for longer shadows and less direct overhead sunlight.

That means conditions are just about perfect for the natural ice art shown in the picture above, which Russell took after he arrived. That’s a photograph of ice covering some of the rocks in our down yard. Accumulated rainwater froze over, and then the water under the ice layer evaporated while the ice remained, unmelted by direct sunlight. The result looks like an etched, frosted pane of glass that you might see in a doorway during the Victorian era.

If I recall my childhood winters accurately, that ice is just waiting for a bundled up kid in a stocking cap to step through and shatter with a satisfying crunch. I kind of wish I was there to do it.

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2021

This year I’ve decided to resume baking, and sending out, Christmas cookies to family, friends, and clients. Last year I reluctantly took a year off, breaking a long-running tradition, because of the COVID pandemic. Although the coronavirus is still with us, the CDC says–after more than a year of experience and testing–that there is no evidence that COVID can be transmitted through food or food containers, so long as basic precautions like washing your hands are followed. So, this year I’ve decided to get back to normal and return to my holiday baking efforts.

If you’ve got some good cookie recipes that you don’t mind sharing in the comments, I’m all ears. And I’ve reprinted, below, links to blog entries from prior years that provide links to some of the recipes for the cookies I’ve baked and posted in the past, if you’re on a recipe hunt yourself. The links below will take you to blog entries with recipes I tried in the prior years and, at the bottom of the entry, links to other new recipes I tried that year.

So far I’ve taken the initial steps to prepare for the holiday baking frenzy: finding my old recipes, and (thanks to Kish and The Container Store) laying in a supply of very festive looking silver cookie tins, some of which are shown in the photo above, that I’ll be filling with the baked goodies. The next step will be to figure out which specific cookies I’ll be baking, and then preparing my shopping lists to pick up the ingredients. I haven’t quite decided for sure, but I think this year I’ll get back into the swing of things by focusing on some tried-and-true favorites, like iced sugar cookies, Dutch spice cookies, and cranberry hootycreeks. I’ll probably try a few new ones, too, because experimentation is good for the baker’s soul.

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2019

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2018

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2017

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2016

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2015

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2014

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2013

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2012

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2011

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2010

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2009

Inching Back To The Norm At The North

Yesterday it was a brisk but bright day in Columbus. The B.A. Jersey Girl and I both had a hankering for some Momo Ghar dumplings and their killer sauce, so we decided to brave the stiff fall breeze and hike up to the North Market for lunch. It’s the first time we’ve been there since some distant time in the P.P. (Pre-Pandemic) Period.

I’m pleased to report that the North Market was bustling when we got there and decked out in its holiday finery. There were lots of shoppers downstairs, and diners like us looking for our lunches, and when we had purchased our dumplings and went upstairs to eat most of the tables in the large dining area were occupied. We grabbed one of the few open tables and proceeded to dig into our dumplings (which were exceptionally delicious, as always) and enjoy our lunch. Even when we left at about 1 p.m., and I snapped the above photo, there were still latecomers upstairs eating and lingering at their tables, and some shoppers downstairs, too.

I wouldn’t say the North Market is back to its normal, P.P. traffic and trade–yet–but I was heartened by the cars in the parking lot and the number of customers in the building. Of course, we wore masks when we were downstairs buying our lunch, in compliance with the order issued by Columbus’ mayor, but it was still great to see so many people out and about–Delta, Omicron, or other COVID-19 variants be damned. The North Market is a civic treasure and its businesses, like other Columbus small businesses, deserve our support. Yesterday’s experience suggests that other people share that feeling.

We’re gradually getting closer to the P.P. normal. And as more people get out and get back to their old habits like going to the North Market for lunch–and rediscover delights like Momo Ghar dumplings–the trend will grow stronger. It has been, and will be, a prolonged process, but we’re definitely getting closer.

Swept Out

On Sunday I was in a house project mood. On long weekends that’s not an uncommon impulse for me; after a few days relaxing at home I get antsy and want to do something productive. When the urge struck on Sunday, I replaced some burnt-out light bulbs and generally straightened up, but my big project was sweeping out our screened-in back porch.

The back porch is our gateway to the back yard. During the breezy late autumn weeks, when we open the screen door to take out the trash or let Betty out to answer the call of nature, brittle brown leaves are blown into the porch. The leaves swirl and tumble and accumulate against the inner wall, get stuck in the cracks of the wooden floor, and find every imaginable nook and cranny. After a few weeks, the porch looks pretty ramshackle and in clear need of a good sweeping.

Sunday I took on the job and quickly discovered that the elements were working against me. The wind was blowing from the west, which meant that a good percentage of the leaves I tried to sweep out of the porch were immediately blown back in. Such minor setbacks only increased my resolve to see that the job was done right, however. I moved the furniture around, used the bristles of the broom to get at the leaves in the corners, and bent down to pick out the leaves that had become devilishly lodged between the slats or in the crevices between the screen and the porch floor.

By the end of the project I was on a fervent search and remove mission, striving to get every last leaf, stem, and crunched brown remnant out of the porch. I took the rug out to the patio and gave it a good shaking, to set free the little bits of crumbled leaves, and swept off the back steps for good measure.

When I was done, I surveyed the little porch, saw that it was clean, and gave an approving nod for a job well done. With my impulse thus sated, I went back inside, enjoyed the warmth, and settled down to read my book.

A Spread-Out Shopping Season

“Black Friday” has come and gone, without a lot of the reports of shoppers pummeling each other or trampling security guards in a rush to get the special deals being offered on big-screen TVs or the hottest new toy. That’s because American shopping patterns appear to be changing, again and probably for good, and “Black Friday”–the day after Thanksgiving that had become the traditional madhouse start to the holiday shopping season–is becoming less of a focus.

CNBC is reporting that while shopping on Black Friday increased over last year, when many retailers operated on reduced hours due to COVID, in-store shopping was down 28 percent from 2019’s pre-pandemic levels. There was even a decline in on-line shopping on Black Friday, with retailers ringing up $8.9 billion in sales compared to $9 billion in 2020. And shopping traffic on Thanksgiving itself, when some retailers opened their doors, was down 90.4 percent from 2019 levels.

Analysts cited by CNBC believes that shoppers are spreading out their holiday shopping more than ever before and identified two reasons for the trend and the related drop-off in Black Friday traffic: continuing concerns about COVID and worries about the supply chain. A survey conducted by the National Retail Federation supports the “spread out” hypothesis. It found that 61 percent of American began their holiday shopping before Thanksgiving.

There’s no doubt that some people are still quite worried about the virus, and media reports on supply chain issues and potential shortages have likely had an impact, too, but I think the reason for the shift away from Black Friday madness has two other causes as well. One is earlier than ever holiday-themed commercials and retailer special deals (and holiday programming on outlets like The Hallmark Channel) that have served to remind people that Christmas is coming, and the other is a more fundamental shift in how to shop. During the height of the COVID pandemic shutdowns, even the most hardened in-person shoppers learned that they could basically do all their shopping on-line. When you see a special deal on TV in the weeks before Thanksgiving that you think would make a good gift and your computer is at your elbow, why wait to make your purchase?

I think the new approach might be something like this: start your shopping on your computer before Thanksgiving, take stock of the status of your shopping list when the boxes start hitting your doorstep, and then venture out to the brick-and-mortar stores in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the Black Friday madness has petered out, to fill in the gaps, get the stocking stuffers, and take advantage of any last-minute sales. Whether that scenario is borne out or not, we know one thing: the American consumer is flexible and always willing to try a new approach.

Another Month, Another Variant

The world is up in arms about the latest COVID-19 variant. The new variant, named “Omicron” by the World Health Organization, emerged in South Africa and in only a few days has traveled across the world. Dr. Anthony Fauci says he wouldn’t be surprised if the Omicron variant is already in the United States.

“Omicron” seems like an odd name for a virus, at least to me. It sounds like one of those anonymous planets visited by the Starship Enterprise where one or two guys in red shirts met an untimely death, or the name of one of the Transformers. But there is a rational basis for the choice. The WHO started naming the variants after letters in the Greek alphabet, and “omicron” is the 15th letter. That means we’ve cycled through 13 prior named variants. (The WHO skipped “nu” and “xi,” purportedly because “nu” could be confused with “new” and “xi” is a common last name–which just happens to be the name of the Chinese president). Of the 13 variants, the WHO has designated five as “variants of concern”: alpha, beta, gamma, delta, and omicron.

The emergence of the new variant has produced the by-now-familiar scenes of government officials scrambling to determine their responses, because “Omicron” is seen as having the “potential” to be more resistant to vaccination protection. Some governments, including the U.S., have imposed travel restrictions in an effort to allow time to determine whether the new variant is more transmissible than the “delta” variant that we’ve heard so much about. The U.S. has restricted entry by non-U.S. citizens traveling from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. Other countries have gone farther; Israel, for example, has closed its borders to all foreign travelers.

Brace yourself, folks: we may be in for another round of government-mandated restrictions, closures, and mandates. This time, however, the surrounding circumstances are likely to be different: regulators will be dealing with a population that includes a lot of mask-weary, restriction-fatigued people that might not be as willing to comply with new edicts. In addition, the legality of the prior COVID-related orders, such as President Biden’s vaccination mandate, are working their way through our court systems, and some state courts have struck down such orders on state constitutional grounds. The legal challenges and prior court rulings are likely to complicate the issuance of new, sweeping mandates by federal, state, and local governments.

So now we’ve got “Omicron” to deal with. In case you’re interested, the upcoming letters in the Greek alphabet that could become the names of newly emerging COVID variants are pi, rho, and sigma. I guess we should all be grateful that the “pi” variant didn’t show up before Thanksgiving, our greatest pie holiday.

The Year Of The UFO

Some people have dubbed 2021 “The Year Of The UFO.” A Forbes article published this week recounts some of the UFO-related event that have occurred this year. They include a spike in UFO sightings, as well as the release of UFO-related reports and documents by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Forbes summarizes the latter report as addressing “144 UFO sightings by Navy pilots since 2004, with intelligence officials unable to explain 143 of the sightings, but concluding they are likely real objects that could pose a threat to national security.”

The most recent milestone in “The Year Of The UFO” came just a few days ago, when the Pentagon issued a press release announcing the creation of a new program called the Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group. The AOIMSG will collect and review reports of UFOs in special use airspace, like the areas around military bases, to “assess and mitigate any associated threats to safety of flight and national security.” The new initiative suggests that the U.S. military is taking the issue of UFOs seriously–which is quite a difference from the days when UFO sightings were routinely dismissed as reflections from “swamp gas” or other figments of overactive imaginations.

Of course, UFOs don’t necessarily mean we’ve been visited by technologically advanced extraterrestrial beings. But if other life out there wanted to visit Earth, it’s worth noting that our little planet wouldn’t be especially hard to find–as an interesting article published earlier this year points out. An Austrian astrophysicist considered whether other nearby star systems would be in a position to see our planet transiting the Sun, which is one of the techniques that our scientists currently use to identify planets in other star systems. She concluded that hundreds of star systems could have used that method to spot Earth since the dawn of recorded human history, and hundreds more could do so in the future.

Who knows? If there is life in those other star systems, maybe they’ve decided to pay us a visit. Let’s face it: as weird as 2021 has been, nothing is beyond the realm of possibility.

Post-Pie Remorse

After a terrific Thanksgiving, with lots of family time, football, food, amber ale, thorough analysis of The Game, and a few friendly hands of euchre, today I’m dealing with the traditional bout of post-Thanksgiving remorse. Specifically, I’m feeling guilty that, when we returned home last night, I was unable to resist scarfing down a piece of pumpkin pie, followed immediately by a piece of pecan pie.

At that point, sated by my late-night pie intake, I went to bed and slept soundly. But the morning’s light always seems to bring second thoughts, and there is no doubt that the two-piece-of-pie nightcap drove my overall caloric intake into the red zone, setting the stage for the equally traditional winter weight gain that typically occurs over the next few months.

But this year, I vow to resist the norm. There was only one response, therefore, to my post-pie guilt: leash up Betty and take a few laps around Schiller Park on a cold, gray morning with snowflakes drifting down, hoping that the prompt walkabout will burn the calories before they find the waistline.

In reality, if I hope to make a meaningful dent in yesterday’s calorie count, multiple walks will be in my future, and maybe a short jog, too.

Sportsgiving

We’re celebrating Thanksgiving with a pot-luck family gathering at JT’s Pizza, which is closed for the day. That means we get to watch football on JT’s bank of TVs.

It’s not a bad way to celebrate the classic American holiday. My Dad, my Uncle Tony, and my Aunt Bebe would have loved this. Mom and Grandma Webner, on the other hand, would have hated it.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! I’m a big believer in specifically identifying at least some of the many things I’ve got to be thankful for, and then reflecting on them when Thanksgiving Day rolls around. Here’s this year’s list:

  • I’m thankful that I and the other members of my family made it through the last, star-crossed year in good health.
  • I’m thankful for the family, friends, colleagues, and clients who have added color and dash and interest to every one of the 365 days that have passed since last Thanksgiving.
  • I’m thankful that I have happy memories of Thanksgiving days gone by that I can recall with pleasure, like the little wax turkey candles (like the ones shown above) that Mom put out on the dinner table when we sat down for our big meal.
  • I’m thankful that, this year, our extended family will be able to get together to celebrate Thanksgiving as families ought to do, after skipping last year due to the COVID pandemic.
  • I’m thankful for the fact that the apparent supply chain problems won’t keep us from enjoying turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and a slice or two of pie today.
  • I’m thankful for living in a free country where my friends and I can agree to disagree, even about crucially important things like appropriate Thanksgiving pies.
  • I’m thankful for the people who laughed at my jokes, for those who gave me the benefit of the doubt from time to time, and for the kind words, the compliments, the encouragement, and the attaboys that helped me make it through every day.
  • I’m thankful for the people who take a few moments from their day to read my random thoughts on this blog, post likes, and leave comments.

Happy Thanksgiving, folks!