In Praise Of Rudolph

In the pantheon of annual must-see Christmas TV events, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is right up there with A Charlie Brown Christmas, It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.  (At the other end of the spectrum, of course, is the supremely annoying Frosty The Snowman.)

Of course, Rudolph combined great characters, like Yukon Cornelius and Hermey, the elf who desperately wanted to be a dentist, with great settings, like the Island of Misfit Toys, and great songs, like Holly Jolly Christmas.  But the crucial and underappreciated significance of Rudolph is that it provided many teachable moments for growing boys.  For example, it featured a female character who wore a pink bow — which obviously was how you knew instantly that she was a girl reindeer in the first place.  This was vitally important information for the young boy eager to grow into adulthood.

Of course, Rudolph did a lot more.  It not only put a lot of flesh on the bones of the song, by doing crucial things like explaining what the heck were the reindeer games, it also prepared young boys who were watching for the gentle attention of whistle-blowing coaches and taught them how to react in the unlikely event that a girl ever said you were cute — as shown in the classic scene shown above.

Sure, sure . . . I know that some people argue that the real message of Rudolph is that people should just accept themselves for who they are and not try to hide their glaring red nose with some soot.  They’re wrong, of course.  The young boys who watched Rudolph knew that what it really told you was that if you felt sorry for yourself because you were different, disobeyed your parents, and ran away from home, you were likely to meet a flying lion and an intrepid gold prospector, fight and defeat the Abominable Snowman, and return home in the nick of time to get the girl and save the day.

It’s a great holiday message.

100 Million Times Faster

Recently I tried to read an article about huge advances in computer technology that appear to be just over the horizon.

I say “tried,” because the article includes sentences like this one:  “Quantum annealing (QA) has been proposed as a quantum enhanced optimization heuristic exploiting tunneling.”  I recognize each of those words as being English, and capable of being understood on a word-by-word basis — but put them all together and my conscious mind explodes.  Rather than grasping the intended, core meaning, my brain diverts into cul-de-sacs like:  “Hey, shouldn’t there be a verb somewhere near the end of that sentence?”
black-screen-spinning-wheel-on-bootBut the key concept from the article is that a new form of computer design called a quantum annealer, that a joint project between Google and NASA is experimenting with, is proving to be as much as 100 million times faster at solving difficult, multi-variable problems than the “classical” computer design.  The article cautions that there are still lots of technological hurdles and challenges to be addressed before the quantum annealing approach can be turned into practical technology, but the test results are enormously promising.

It’s not hard to imagine what such a dramatically enhanced and powerful computer could accomplish for an entity like NASA, in calculating the trajectories needed to dodge asteroids, skirt gravitational fields, and safely land spacecraft on alien surfaces.  You could also see how new computers with such tremendously accelerated raw processing power could be used by governments — in decrypting encoded messages, for example — or by hackers looking to crack passwords.  And, of course, such advancements typically are followed by great leaps forward in miniaturization and new applications that weren’t even considered before the technology came on line.  Futurists and dreamers will have a field day considering how faster processing power could be used, for example, in diagnostic medical equipment or implants.

What would having a computer that processes 100 million times faster mean for the rest of us?  We’ll still be moving at standard human mental and physical speeds, of course, unless the new technology results in a trend toward creation of speeded-up cyborgs.  Nevertheless, there is one great promise for all PC users arising from development of inconceivably faster quantum annealing computers:  no more frustrated staring at the computer screen, watching the annoying spinning circle of death!

Ralphie And Flash

MCDCHST MG002Some of us just like to watch movies as they are released, and take the finished product for what it is — the version that ultimately was released to the public at large.  Others really like to get into the movies that they love.  They buy the director’s cut, and watch the outtakes and blooper reels, and even read the scripts to spot deleted scenes or places where the actors improvised.

I’m squarely in the first category, but I have to say that I was intrigued when I read this story about how The Christmas Story was written to include a scene featuring our hero, Ralphie, and his Red Ryder BB gun with Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless.  You’ll recall that Ralphie was a big day-dreamer, and his idle fantasies included a scene where his teacher concluded that Ralphie’s Red Ryder-obsessed theme deserved an A++++++ and another scene where Ralphie rescued the family from a gang of thugs crawling over the back fence.

Alas, the Flash Gordon scene hit the cutting room floor, but not before a space-suited Ralphie was featured in the photo above with one of the actors who was to play Flash, in very alien-looking surroundings.  From the looks of the planet Mongo set, that one scene probably accounted for 50 percent of the movie’s production budget.  How would Ralphie have used that Red Ryder BB gun to save the day?  We’ll never really know for sure.

But that reminds me:  it’s time to watch A Christmas Story again.

Graham Scram

Lindsay Graham has announced that he is suspending his campaign for the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2016.

It’s kind of a sad thing, when you think about it.  Graham has been a Senator for years, and he was somebody who seemed to have a nose for getting his face in the press.  He was featured regularly on the morning news shows and Sunday morning shows, and he tried to stake out a niche in the crowded Republican field as the guy who was tough on terrorism and hawkish on foreign policy but also willing to be bipartisan at times.

lindsey-graham2Unfortunately for Graham, his pitch just didn’t work.  He never made it to the stage with the big boy frontrunners in the Republican debates — although some observers said he won some of those undercard debates that almost nobody watched — and he never really registered as more than a blip in the polls.  Now his campaign is on the scrap heap, along with those of Rick Perry and Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal.

You could poke fun at Lindsay Graham, I suppose, and question his ego, and wonder why he ever thought he could possibly be elected President in the first place.  But sometimes politicians have an itch that they just need to scratch.  Graham obviously thought that his particular combination of message and personality and positions might strike a chord with the country as a whole.  He was wrong.

So let’s not make too much fun of Senator Graham.  Somebody’s got to want to be President, or our system wouldn’t work.  He took a stab at it, at least, and he fell short.  Now somebody else will be the nominee.

A few more departures of candidates, and we’ll be able to fit all of the Republican candidates on one stage, just in time for the first caucuses and primaries that are scheduled for the first months of 2016.

Batten down the hatches, folks — the campaign is about to start in earnest.

Invasion Of The Robot Lawyers

While the rest of us are working, the “futurists” and consultants among us are out there making predictions about what the world will look like one day.  Most of these predictions are dead wrong — I haven’t seen any flying cars around, have you? — but they are entertaining nonetheless.

20150102futurama-robot-lawyerOne consultant firm has issued a dire prediction about the future of lawyers.  It says that by the year 2030, robots and artificial intelligence will dominate the legal market, likely causing a “structural collapse” of law firms.  For young lawyers looking to break into the profession, the consultants forecast, the outlook will be especially bleak, because the robots will be untiring, uncomplaining, bill-4,000-hours-a-year competitors:  “Eventually each bot would be able to do the work of a dozen low-level associates. They would not get tired. They would not seek advancement. They would not ask for pay rises. Process legal work would rapidly descend in cost.”  Yikes!

For the lucky senior partners of 2030, however, the future is rosier, because the report envisions that while legal clients in the AI world will want the cheap labor the robots will bring, they will also crave the knowledgeable advice of experienced lawyers:  “Clients would instead greatly value the human input of the firm’s top partners, especially those that could empathise with the client’s needs and show real understanding and human insight into their problems.”

Of course, some might question the notion that senior partners at large law firms can properly be associated with characteristics such as “human input,” “human insight,” understanding, and empathy, but let’s not focus on that objection for now.

I’m skeptical that law firms and lawyers will be replaced by AI and robots, because I think a huge element of lawyering involves the exercise of judgment, shrewd assessment of the motivations and goals of the people and entities involved in a transaction or dispute, and other qualities that just aren’t well suited to robotic applications.  Of course, you never know.  In the time I’ve been practicing there has been a significant change in how lawyers work due to the development of legal search engines, law databases, email communications, and other technological developments.  Perhaps lawyers only kid themselves in thinking that they are different from assembly line workers and can’t be replaced by our metal friends.

So we’ll just have to wait until 2030 to see if robots invade law firms.  If it happens, at least we’ve got one thing to look forward to:  robot lawyer jokes.

Giving Pizza A Bad Name

1024x1024Richard has a good story in the San Antonio Express-News about a cheap scam that is plaguing San Antonio hotels.  It involves people sneaking into the establishments, slipping fliers for local pizza under the doors of hotel guest rooms, and then when hungry and unsuspecting visitors order a pie, they frequently get inedible crap.  Richard did some digging, found some people who were victimized by the scheme, and even got to try one of the awful pizzas — which look terrible — in the process.

Only a real crook would make a scam out of pizza.  Why, that’s unAmerican!

Cookies With Dope

IMG_7632No, not that kind of dope!

My grandmother on Dad’s side of the family, Bertha Webner, hailed from Uhrichsville, in eastern Ohio.  Her speech was littered with interesting words that you didn’t hear anybody else use, like calling a coat a “wrap.”  And she made a special kind of icing she called, simply, “dope.”

I’m not sure exactly what the recipe for dope was, but it was great icing.  I’m guessing it was made with brown sugar as an ingredient, because it had a certain thickness and coarseness to it.  Grandma used to lather it onto her specialty:  angel food cake, baked for everybody’s birthday.

So tonight I tried to make a little dope, experimenting with brown sugar, whole milk, and confectioner’s sugar, and used it for icing some Dutch spice cookies.  It turned out pretty well, but it’s really not a patch off of Grandma’s concoction.  Her dope wasn’t illegal, but it was addictive.

What A Federal Law Can Tell You About Your Society

Earlier this month Congress passed, and President Obama signed, the Every Student Succeeds Act, a massive piece of federal education legislation that replaces the No Child Left Behind Act.  Buried deep in the bill is a “free range kids” provision that reads:

“…nothing in this Act shall…prohibit a child from traveling to and from school on foot or by car, bus, or bike when the parents of the child have given permission; or expose parents to civil or criminal charges for allowing their child to responsibly and safely travel to and from school by a means the parents believe is age appropriate.”

istock_000000823936medium-e1359581892173I’m not sure that the provision means all that much, because it’s simply clarifying that the federal law itself doesn’t bar kids walking to school or support charges against parents who allow that to happen.  The law does not preempt state or local laws, however, so parents who let their kids walk or ride their bikes to school could still be subject to harassment and prosecution under local ordinances or state statutes.

Advocates for “free range” parenting, though, think the free range kids provision is a victory.  Color me skeptical.  Instead, the provision seems to say that we’ve reached the point that the federal government needs to specify that its enactments aren’t interfering with basic parenting decisions, like whether your kids are capable of walking to school by themselves, as UJ and Cath and I did for years, or playing outside alone, without hovering parents or social workers controlling everything they do.  Responsible parents — like my mother and father — can properly decide when their kids are self-sufficient enough to do so, and can reasonably conclude that allowing their children to play or walk or bicycle by themselves builds self-reliance and responsibility.  Yet parents who allow their kids to walk to school or play in a park are still being subjected to harassment by local authorities, who obviously think they know better than the parents do.

This is one of the moments, I think, when we should stop and consider what our government has become.  Are we at the point when we need to include a provision in every sweeping piece of federal legislation stating that it isn’t intended to criminalize basic parenting decisions?  That’s bizarre, and sad.

In The Holiday Spirit

IMG_7629America is the land of inclusiveness, and December is when people of many faiths and beliefs celebrate important holidays.  So when Kish and I walking down in the Short North today, it was nice to see that a shopkeeper remembered to recognize one holiday in particular.

That’s right:  Festivus . . . for the rest of us.

And to properly recognize Festivus, here’s a snippet from the Seinfeld script The Strike, when the Costanza household’s odd holiday traditions were first described:

FRANK: Welcome, new comers. The tradition of Festivus begins with the airing of grievances. I got a lot of problems with you people! And now you’re gonna hear

about it! You, Kruger. My son tells me your company stinks!

GEORGE: Oh, God.

FRANK: (To George) Quiet, you’ll get yours in a minute. Kruger, you couldn’t smooth a silk sheet if you had a hot date with a babe.. I lost my train of thought.

(Frank sits down, Jerry gives a face that says “That’s a shame”. Gwen walks in)

GWEN: Jerry!

JERRY: Gwen! How’d you know I was here?

GWEN: Kramer told me.

KRAMER: Another Festivus miracle!

And now, time for the feats of strength.

No Tannenbaum

IMG_7623This year, Kish and I have decided to go tree-free for the holidays.

It wasn’t a hard decision, really.  We considered getting a tree — briefly — but quickly concluded that it would be more of a pain to deal with than we really wanted.  It may come across as Grinchy behavior, but we figured that we certainly weren’t going to get a fake tree, and we didn’t want the sappy mess and falling needles and dog drinking out of tree holder and tree-falling-over-after-you’ve-totally-decorated-it-and-breaking-family-heirlooms issues with a real tree.

So we’ve gone in an alternative direction with our Christmas decorations this year, with some poinsettias and lots of pine cones and the really beautiful dining room table runner that Kish found at the Golden Hobby senior craft store just down the street, shown above, and the rockin’ Christmas tree op art plate that picked up a few years ago, shown below.  We like being tree-free!

O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum

We’ll do without thy branches!

Your needles fall, in constant flow

You topple o’er, and bulbs doth go

O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum

We’ll do without thy branches!

IMG_7627

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

When you think about it, the Star Wars movies are pretty much all about dysfunctional families.  Luke Skywalker’s relationship with his dear old Dad, Darth Vader, was a frenzied, arm-chopping, each-trying-to-control-the-other mess, and when we learned about Luke and Leia’s back story in the prequel movies, and saw that they were the disturbing product of an incredibly creepy and awkward romance, the broken familial bonds become even more pronounced.  We never learned anything about Han Solo’s family, or Chewbacca’s.  So far as we have seen, there is no happy family headed by Ward and June Cleaver in that galaxy far, far away.

Star Wars:  The Force Awakens continues that heart-warming trend, except that now the circle of family dysfunctionalism has broadened even more.  One of the new characters was apparently abandoned by her family and left to fend for herself; the other was stolen from his family when he was a little tyke and forced to become a soulless storm trooper.  And let’s just say that Han and Leia’s family, and relationship, aren’t exactly what you’d see featured on the cover of Reader’s Digest.  What’s worse, Luke’s latest failure to establish a warm and loving relationship with a close relative has sent him off the reservation and off the grid, making him the subject of a universal manhunt.  And the ultimate sign of some serious family issues comes when a kid would rather hang out with a colossal 3D image of an ugly guy with a grotesquely misshapen head than spend some quality time with old Mom and Dad.

star_wars_episode_vii_the_force_awakens-wideSo let’s say this for the Star Wars franchise — for all of the uplifting music and cute robots and aliens and successful missions to blow up colossal planet-killing weaponry, the films don’t exactly sugarcoat the trials and travails of the standard nuclear family.  If you’re a Dad who’s planning on seeing it, prepare yourself.  You’re probably going to walk out of the theatre after watching it and think, sadly, that being a Dad is a pretty tough job and even heroes aren’t all that great at it.

That said, I liked the movie very much.  I’m not going to drop spoilers on those of you who haven’t seen it, but I will say that I thought the new characters were very likable and the new bad guy is a pleasant surprise because he actually seems somewhat conflicted and human.  Daisy Ridley, as Rey, takes the self-sufficient female character action up about 10 notches above the supremely capable Princess Leia from the original movies, and John Boyega, as ex-storm trooper Finn, is both believable in action sequences and funny to boot.  The special effects are terrific, as usual, the rolling ball robot is very cool, and the new aliens — especially the near-sighted female who runs a raucous watering hole where rebels and fascists alike can hang out and somehow managed to get Luke’s and Darth Vader’s old lightsaber — are great.  And it’s especially wonderful to see Han Solo and Chewbacca back in action, with Han teaching the youngsters how to properly do that rebellion thing and Chewie kicking some serious storm trooper butt.

Sure, there’s a some very familiar — very familiar — plot threads at work in the film, like the evil First Order that seems like Empire Light, a bad guy dressed in black with a black helmet, a desert planet, X-wing fighters and tie fighters zipping around at impossible speeds, another planet-busting gizmo, and a bunch of people looking intently at a video display while an impossible race against time is occurring — but there was enough that was different to keep the movie unpredictable.  And, I particularly liked the ending.  I got the sense that the old storylines had finally been disposed of, the Death Star recycling was finally completed, and now it is time to move on to something really new and different.  I hope I’m right on that.

Go see it!

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2015 (IV)

The Savannah contingent of the Webner family — specifically, Aunt Corinne — recently sent along a sheaf of Christmas cookie recipes that looked interesting.  I picked this one as my last new Christmas cookie recipe for this year and made it last weekend when I was in my two-day baking frenzy.

I picked the recipe because I wanted to mix some fruit-based cookies in with the chocolate, lemon, and iced cookies and because it looked within the comfort zone of my limited baking skills.  It turned out to be easy and fun to make — I particularly liked rolling up the dough over the filling — and very tasty.   I’m going to make it again this weekend and mix up the fruit and nut combinations for the filling, just to do some experimenting.

Apple Butter Rugelach

apple-butter-rugelach-6Ingredients:  1 cup unsalted butter, slightly softened and cut into pieces; 1 8 ounce package of cream cheese, slightly softened and cut into pieces; 2 cups all purpose flour; 3 tablespoons white sugar; 1/4 teaspoon salt; 1 teaspoon cinnamon; 1/2 cup apple butter; 1/4 cup chopped pecans; milk to brush on top of cookies and cinnamon for sprinkling

In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, cinnamon, and salt, then add in butter and cream cheese and mix at low speed.  Dough will be crumbly then come together; mix until it is just combined.  Remove mixture from bowl, shape it into a large rectangle, then wrap it in plastic wrap and chill for two hours.

After removing dough from refrigerator, cut dough into four equally sized pieces.  On a floured surface, roll each piece into a 12 x 4 inch rectangle.  Spread apple butter onto rectangle, leaving space around the edges, then sprinkle pecans onto apple butter.  Working from the long end, carefully roll the dough into a 12-inch log, then wrap the dough in plastic wrap and put it in the freezer for 15 minutes to make it easier to cut.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and remove dough from freezer.  Brush the dough log with milk and sprinkle cinnamon on top, then cut the dough log into 12 equal pieces and place them upright on baking sheet.  Bake for 22-25 minutes until lightly golden, then let cool.

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2015

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes – 2015 (II)

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2015 (III)

Ready To Be Awakened

maxresdefaultI’m thinking that I might go see Star Wars:  The Force Awakens this weekend, so that I can enjoy the film without having to dodge too much spoiler-type information.  As more and more people see it, and talk about it, it’s going to be almost impossible to avoid hearing about the plot twists and surprises and cool special effects.  So why not see it before that happens?

I’m hoping that watching the movie might recreate the excitement I felt when I saw the original Star Wars (when it was just called Star Wars, before A New Hope was added to the title as sequels were made) as a college student back in the ’70s, and was stunned by the opening scene — and then everything else that followed.   That opening scene in particular made a huge impression on me.  It remains an indelible memory, and I wrote about it one of my earliest blog posts.

Holding The Force Awakens to that same once-in-a-lifetime standard of surprise and delight probably is unfair, but nevertheless I’m hoping, almost 40 years later, to recapture even just a tiny bit of that astonished and excited feeling that I had as a 20-year-old.

 

The Coveted Putin Endorsement

Aww, isn’t that sweet?  Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump like each other.  No, really — they really like each other.

The Donald started the courtship first, by extending an olive branch and saying that he would “work with” Putin and “get along” with him.  Then Vlad the Invader upped the ante, stating that Trump was “a bright and talented person without any doubt” and is “an outstanding and talented personality.”  Those Putin plaudits almost made Trumpelstiltskin go squeeee!  He responded by saying:  “It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.”  You almost expected Trump’s reaction to be followed by a little hand-drawn heart and a smiley face emoticon.

jbrsspbvThe Trump balloon and the leaden Clinton and Bush retread campaigns have made this a weird political year, but Vladimir Putin injecting himself into U.S. presidential politics, and a candidate responding positively to it, just makes the year even weirder.  I’m not sure who “highly respects” Putin — other than Trump, apparently — but it is surely not anyone who knows much about Putin’s record of duplicitousness, invasion, power plays, and support of murderous dictators like Assad on the international front, and his vile and appalling treatment of opponents, journalists, and gays in mother Russia.

I’ve got nothing against trying to “get along” with the leaders of other countries, or at least finding common ground on issues where our interests are aligned.  But Trump’s blushing reaction to Putin’s throwaway compliments is as naive as the Obama Administration’s embarrassing notion that relations with Russia could be changed simply by pushing a “reset” button.  Anyone who actually thought that, as President, Trump would be a tough guy should be under no illusions after the Putin-Trump lovefest.  Trump, like any narcissist, is a pretty easy target — shower him with praise, and he’ll follow you anywhere.  Does anyone really think that the Trumpster would stand up to Putin’s adventurism any more than the Obama Administration has after Putin threw a few more kudos his way?

Somewhere, Vlad the Invader is having a pretty good chuckle right about now.

 

Splashing Back Against Public Pissing

If you’ve ever walked past a wall, smelled the foul odor of urine, and realized that you are walking through an area where some drunken lout recently emptied his bladder, you’ll sympathize with the efforts of a city council in London, England.  They’ve put up with the disgusting nature of the offensive conduct, they’ve patrolled the problem areas and fined violators, but they’ve nevertheless had to spend thousands of dollars each year cleaning up urine-soaked areas around pubs and bars.

6707328All of which raises the question:  is there any way to get the jerks to stop marking their territory in public in the first place?

Enter the creation of an “anti-pee” wall that is being tested in Hackney, which is one of the problem areas .  The wall is treated with a liquid-repelling coating that is designed to splash the jackasses who engage in public urination.  The hope is that sloshed offenders who find themselves coated with their own urine might just stop hosing down the walls.  And, in further hopes of deterring public pissing, the city council has announced the “anti-pee” treatment of two walls but hasn’t told anyone where those walls are.

It will be interesting to see whether this works — but I have my doubts.  I’m guessing that most of the oafs who engage in the churlish behavior are so blitzed that they aren’t really paying careful attention to hygiene.  If you’re so drunk that you engage in public urination rather than finding a bathroom, aren’t you probably too drunk to notice that you’re getting sprayed?