Paul And Ringo, Together Again

On February 9, 1964, the British musical group The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. The buzz about the four lads from Liverpool was tremendous, and a record TV audience — 73 million people — tuned in to watch. For many people, watching that show, and then going out to buy their first Beatles album the next day, is something they’ll never forget. Some people think “the ’60s” really began with that one broadcast.

On Sunday, February 9, CBS will air a show commemorating the 50th anniversary of that broadcast. The show will feature a bunch of performances of Beatles songs by other artists — including Stevie Wonder, a reunited Eurythmics, Joe Walsh, Imagine Dragons, Maroon 5, Katy Perry, and George Harrison’s son Dhani Harrison, among others — followed by performances by the two surviving Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. The show closes with the two on stage together, performing A Little Help From My Friends from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album and finally Hey Jude. I’ll be watching — in fact, I’d watch just to hear those two songs performed live by those two musicians.

When I read about the show, and noticed that the family members of John Lennon and George Harrison were in attendance, I found myself wondering what kinds of memories were reawakened in Starr and McCartney as they performed. A lot of water has passed under the bridge in the past 50 years. What was it like to remember that show half a century ago, when you were one of the four young men from England who suddenly and amazingly took America by storm?

Assignment in Punxsutawney

Here’s something cool: Richard, who is in the midst of an internship at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, will be covering the annual Groundhog Day ceremony in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for the newspaper. He’s already tweeted about getting ready for the assignment by watching the classic film Groundhog Day for the 200th time.

It will be hard for Richard to rise to the level of deeply moving rhetorical brilliance displayed by Bill Murray’s weatherman Phil in his last live broadcast after he lived through Groundhog Day, over and over and over again, for countless years. (The initial script for the movie had Phil trapped in the Groundhog Day time loop for 10,000 years, and Phil spent enough time reliving the day to learn how to play some killer piano, speak fluent French, and mature from a selfish, self-absorbed jerk into a sensitive guy who really cared about the citizens of Punxsutawney.)

However, the movie does offer some helpful tips about surviving Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney. Be on guard for an insurance sales pitch from Needle Nose Ned Ryerson. Watch out that a kid in a tree doesn’t fall on you. And when you walk across the main street next to the Punxsutawney town square, be sure not to step into the puddle — it’s a doozy!

The Biology Of Conscience

Scientists at Oxford have made a fascinating discovery about the human brain. They have identified an area called the lateral frontal pole that focuses on considering alternative courses of action and comparing them to what we’ve actually done. Even more intriguing, their work shows that there is no similar area in the brains of monkeys.

The study used MRI scanning techniques to map neural pathways within the brain and determine which areas are connected to the ventrolateral frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain involved with language and cognitive flexibility. The studies allowed the scientists to identify the location and function of the lateral frontal pole, a bundle of neurons described as the size and shape of a Brussels sprout.

What really makes us human? One essential characteristic is comparing what we actually did to what we could have done — and then pondering endlessly about what we should have done. The concept of choice, and the identification, evaluation, and comparison of choices by the lateral frontal pole, lies at the root of many of the higher attributes of humans, because the concept of choice and causation leads inevitably to the concept of right and wrong. Philosophy, morals, ethics, and religious beliefs all argue about which choices are right and which are wrong and what considerations should go into how we make those choices. Should we pursue individual pleasure? Should we always try to act in furtherance of the greatest societal good?

These notions are all wrapped up in what we broadly call a conscience — which apparently lurks in the lateral frontal pole. It’s what makes us feel guilty and second-guess ourselves. It’s why Scrooge dreamed of Marley’s ghost. And it’s fascinating that monkeys, which have brains that are generally similar to the human brain, lack the section of the brain that engages in such activity. They apparently can steal a piece of fruit, happily gobble it down, and sleep soundly that night without a second thought or pang of guilt.

The next time you toss and turn at night, unable to sleep because you wonder whether you did the right thing, you can be sure the neurons in your lateral frontal pole are firing and churning away. We’ve got choice, and the lateral frontal pole ensures that we must live with the consequences.

SOTU, So What

Last night was the State of the Union address. We didn’t watch it, because we just can’t bear the pomp and scripted ovations. The trappings of the State of the Union address seem as phony and forced as the broadcasts of the Oscars, the Grammys, or the Golden Globes.

The Constitution, in Article II, section 3, requires the President to “give to the Congress information on the State of the Union.” It’s a worthwhile concept as well as a constitutional requirement, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be done in person. In fact, after the first two Presidents gave their reports on the State of the Union in person, Thomas Jefferson decided to send a written report instead — and no President gave a State of the Union speech in person again for more than 100 years, until Woodrow Wilson did so in 1913. That means that colossal American historical figures like Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt never gave a live State of the Union speech. The country survived nevertheless.

Now Presidents give the speech in person as a matter of course. It’s a chance for some free air time and an opportunity to display the majesty of the presidency and its role in our system of government. And supposedly it allows the President to set the agenda, although that really isn’t the case any more and hasn’t been so for a long time. If you were to review the legislative initiatives, policy proposals, and promises made in the SOTU speeches given over the last 25 years, you would find that only a tiny fraction ever are realized. President Obama undoubtedly added to that list with his speech last night.

What is the State of the Union? I don’t need a speech to know: divided, and troubled. The economy remains a source of deep concern for most Americans. Our administrative state seems to be too large, too intrusive, and too uncontrolled. The President’s popularity has fallen dramatically, and neither political party is trusted to change things for the better. It tells you something about the splintered State of the Union when the opposition party has three different representatives, representing three different factions, give responses.

Comma In The Snow

IMG_5817We had several days of heavy snow, then strong winds that created some interesting snow formations, then frigid conditions that froze those formations in place. And, because only those foolhardy souls with cabin fever — like yours truly — are venturing outside into the subzero world, the formations have been left largely undisturbed and pristine.

They are beautiful, gleaming and ghostly in the early morning hours, with the frozen snow crystals shimmering and glowing in the light of a street lamp. This one reminded me of a comma writ large.

Fourteen Below

Today the outside thermometer on my car registered 14 below zero. It’s a ridiculous temperature — so ridiculous, in fact, that prose cannot capture how ludicrous it is to try to walk several blocks to work under such conditions. Only a very bad attempt at Dr. Suess-like rhyming can suffice:

Fourteen Below

IMG_1744How low is low?
I think I know
‘Cause I’ve lived through
Fourteen below.

Your legs don’t go
Your blood won’t flow
When outside it’s
Fourteen below.

Please! No more snow!
And wind, don’t blow!
Winter sucks at
Fourteen below.

Bitcoins, Bubbles, And Beanie Babies

Yesterday the U.S. Department of Justice announced the arrest of two individuals affiliated with “bitcoin” exchanges. The two men are charged with using the bitcoin exchanges — which allow people to trade bitcoins for currency like U.S. dollars — to obtain bitcoins that could then be sold to users of another on-line exchange, called Silk Road, where the bitcoins could be used to buy drugs anonymously, in violation of the Bank Secrecy Act.

Bitcoins are a kind of token to which some people have assigned value. Each bitcoin is represented by a supposedly unique online registration number, created when a computer solves a difficult mathematical problem with a 64-digit solution. There are supposed to be a finite number of such 64-digit solutions and therefore a finite number of bitcoins, which is why bitcoin investors believe they will only appreciate in value. Users receive bitcoins at unregistered, anonymous addresses, which means the bitcoins themselves can be used to conduct anonymous transactions, as a kind of on-line currency. And, as the announcement yesterday reflects, bitcoins can be traded for real money.

I don’t pretend to fully understand bitcoins and how they are supposed to work — but I wonder how many people who have them and use them really do, either. It’s hard to understand how real value could be created simply because a random computer solves a complex math problem, and I expect that many bitcoin investors don’t have the mathematical and computer capabilities to really understand whether bitcoins are truly unique and just how limited their supply really is. And the anonymity of bitcoins means there is plenty of opportunity for mischief in how they may be used.

People who trade in bitcoins and are banking on their appreciation in value are taking a lot on faith. Of course, at a certain level you can argue that every form of currency involves a similar act of faith, but at least there are public, functioning markets for U.S. dollars, Treasury bills, stocks, and bonds and they are backed by functioning, publicly known entities. Bitcoins remind me of subprime mortgage bundles, or for that matter Beanie Babies. For a time, each of them was a hot commodity. Everyone seemed to be buying them and the word on the street was that their value was only going up. Then one day the frenzy ended, people stopped buying, and the investors were left with pieces of paper or a pile of children’s toys — and a big hole in their balance sheets and bank accounts.

Maybe bitcoins will be different . . . or maybe they won’t.

Free To Play

A New Zealand school has come up with a “novel” way to increase student focus, reduce bullying, and decrease vandalism: it has eliminated all of the silly rules and restrictions governing behavior during school recess. Because kids now get to do things like ride scooters and skateboards, they develop a better appreciation of risky behavior, too. And, the school has been able to reduce the number of teachers monitoring the playground and get rid of the dreaded “timeout” area.

This result shouldn’t be surprising — it’s just a return to the way things used to be in every American school. Kids are full of energy and need to burn it off. If they don’t get to do it during recess, they’ll find some other, probably less positive, outlet for release. I’m guessing that the New Zealand school will see other benefits that become apparent over time as well. Because kids can do what they want, they are more likely to be active and therefore less likely to join the ranks of the morbidly obese. Because kids won’t be constrained by adult notions of proper recess behavior, they’ll be more creative and more willing to work with their classmates in coming up with new games and contests to fill their recess time.

When I was young, recess was fun precisely because it was entirely unstructured: you got to do what you wanted, without having to follow dumb rules or sit quietly at a desk. We made up games, hung upside-down from monkey bars, swung on the swings as high as we could and jumped off, and ran around yelling for the sheer fun of it. We survived, and our playground chaos didn’t have any effect on our classroom performance. I wish more American schools would adopt the Kiwi’s “hands-off” approach to recess and let kids be kids.

Drifting Into Old Fartdom

Justin Bieber was arrested last week for drunken driving and resisting arrest. It was one of those pop cultural stories that dominate the headlines even though, in the grand scheme of things, Justin Bieber’s difficulties are of no significance whatsoever.

I’ve never listened to one of Justin Bieber’s songs or seen him perform. I know he is, or was, one of those child stars who had a carefully cultivated squeaky clean image. Now he seems to be rebelling against it and, like other child stars before him, wants desperately to establish an adult persona. It’s a familiar, downward path that typically includes public drunkenness, arrests, and an “edgy,” embarrassing, hypersexualized public performance. Before they know it, they are universally viewed as jackasses and their squeaky clean images are gone forever.

But I digress . . . or actually, I don’t. The kind of outburst above is a sure sign that I am sliding into Old Fartdom. For some reason, the Grammys seem to bring this out every year. Because I long ago stopped listening to on-air radio stations I don’t know most of the popular artists, and I’m fed up with the self-absorption and conspicuous consumption of many of those I do know. I don’t need to see people sticking their tongues out at me or “twerking,” thank you very much.

I think the long drift into Old Fartdom begins with music. You eagerly listen to new music through your college years, try to keep up with it when you start working, then finally quit listening to insipid on-air radio in disgust and really focus on music that you like. After a decade or two, the current hits and artists like Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus and interchangeable hip-hoppers are as alien to you as Rudy Vallee.

When that happens, you’ve taken your first step onto Old Fart Avenue, and you may as well embrace it. You’re not going back.

The Penny Chronicles

My name is Penny.

I don’t understand the old boring guy. He’s always doing things that make no sense.

IMG_1742I know he doesn’t like snow. That’s for sure!

Everyone knows that when it snows you do two things — play in the snow, or stay inside. I like to do both. I like to play in the snow, but when it gets too cold I like to go back inside and sit with the Leader, and wait for her to give us some food. Kasey does, too.

The old boring guy doesn’t do that. When it snows, he goes outside and tries to move the snow around. He throws the snow in the air. Why? I bark at him through the window. That bugs him! But I’m trying to tell him that throwing the snow makes no sense during the winter.

He throws the snow one way, and then the other, then he comes inside. Then it starts snowing again, and he goes outside and does it all over again, day after day. What’s the point? It’s winter! But the old boring guy never learns.

What Was The Point Of The Ice Fishing Story?

In one of the early scenes of American Hustle, Bradley Cooper’s eager FBI agent tries to convince his stodgy boss, played by comedian Louis C.K., to authorize an audacious sting operation. The boss resists, and to explain his opposition he begins to tell a “life lesson” story about an ice fishing experience with his brother when they were kids.

The story gets interrupted . . . but the hook has been set firmly with Bradley Cooper’s character, who asks his boss about the unfinished ice fishing story every time he sees him thereafter. The story comes out in dribs and drabs as the movie progresses. We learn that the boys went out on the ice in October, earlier than they should have. We learn that their father finds out. But we never hear the end of the story, or the point it is supposed to convey. Bradley Cooper guesses that the younger brother falls through the ice and dies, and the point of the story is that you shouldn’t take unnecessary risks, but the boss says that’s not it.

American Hustle is one of those movies you want to watch again; after you see the ending you want to know when you could first figure what would ultimately happen. It’s like The Sixth Sense, where you want to determine when you could reasonably have concluded – from his clothing, from his lack of actual interaction with living people except for Haley Joel Osment, and other clues — that the Bruce Willis character was a ghost. I’d like to try to put together the elements of the unfinished ice fishing story, to figure out what it was really meant to convey.

Incidentally, Louis C.K. has revealed what he says was the actual ending of the ice fishing story. It’s a crappy ending and I don’t buy it, because it doesn’t fit with the character of the conservative FBI boss or the scenario when he first began to tell the tale. Maybe it’s best that the resolution of the ice fishing story should forever be left untold.

Fake Tube Signs

London’s Underground, like other subways systems in the world, is a sign lover’s paradise. Some enterprising individual has developed a bunch of fake signs that are both hilarious and sufficiently plausible to make you wonder whether they just might be legitimate.

My favorite: “We apologise that all apologies for the chronic overcrowding on this train are shallow and meaningless.”

Snow Saturday

IMG_5782It has been snowing all day, at times heavily. They haven’t gotten around to plowing our street, either, and it looks like any unnecessary trip would run the risk of our getting stuck. Fortunately, it’s Saturday, and Kish and I have used our snow day to tackle a few indoor projects, do some house cleaning, and compose some bad doggerel:

Snow Saturday

The white stuff falls, and falls, and falls,
Sledding children are at play.
But we’ll not shirk, we’re going to work
On our Snow Saturday.

We’ve changed the beds and washed the sheets,
Clean clothes are put away.
We’ve folded togs and fed our dogs
On our Snow Saturday.

The vacuum’s run, the socks are sorted,
And polish we will spray.
It feels constructive to be productive
On our Snow Saturday.

The last job waits, and it’s outside,
I’ll shovel our driveway,
I’ve had to wait for snow to abate
On our Snow Saturday!

The Farmer’s Almanac Nails It

Back in the summer, when there was still a shred of warmth in the world, the Old Farmer’s Almanac published their long-range forecast for the winter of 2013-14, as they have done every year since time immemorial.

I remember news reports chuckling at the dire content of the forecast and pieces like this one, saying that no one should pay attention to the Farmer’s Almanac‘s “outrageous” forecast, because no one can reliably predict whether months in advance. You get the sense that such scorn is due, in part, to the view that the Farmer’s Almanac is the antiquated remnant of a bygone era that can’t possibly compete with modern weather forecasters.

Well, I’m here to say that the Farmer’s Almanac nailed it. I mean, absolutely nailed it. They said the Midwest, including Ohio, would be “biting cold and snowy,” and that phrase aptly summarizes the ridiculously bad weather we’ve experienced this winter. We got pounded with lots of snow in December, and in January we’ve seen a prolonged spell of extraordinarily cold weather — as well as more snow. It’s 20 degrees, snowing, again, and windy as I write this, and the weather app on my iPhone says the weather on Monday will feature snow, a high of 14, and a low of -17. Minus 17 degrees! It’s like we’re living on the Hudson Bay!

I don’t know how they did it — and I’m sorry it’s the case — but the Farmer’s Almanac was right on the money in their weather prediction for this winter. Incidentally, that should cause concern for those of you who hold tickets to the Super Bowl in New York City next week — the first outdoor, cold-weather Super Bowl. The Farmer’s Almanac predicts a winter storm over the New York City area come game time.