Core Dynamics

I freely admit that I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the Earth’s core. Living as I do on the thin outer crust of our planetary home, my focus is on the surface I inhabit and the atmosphere beyond, not on what’s happening miles below my feet.

That’s too bad, because the Earth’s inner core seems to be an interesting, and apparently somewhat quixotic, place. (It’s also the subject of some pretty cool science book-type graphics, like the one above.)

We don’t really know a lot about the Earth’s inner core, because of course no one has visited it. Based on a 1930s study of seismic waves and later confirming data, scientists believe that the inner core is a solid ball of iron and nickel. That solid core is covered by a sheath of liquid iron and other elements, and the interaction between the solid center and its liquid shell creates our planet’s magnetic field. But here’s the weird part: Because the solid inner core is separated from the rest of Earth by that liquid coating, the inner core can spin at its own pace, like a ball bearing covered by a thick layer of hot oil–without regard for what the rest of the planet is doing.

Some scientists have believed for years that the inner core rotates at a faster rate than the rest of the planet (called super-rotation), but there is a lively, ongoing debate about that. The debate has been spurred by some recent findings that the super-rotation has stopped, and that the core might now be spinning at a pace slower than the rest of the planet. If the pace of inner core spin has in fact changed, no one knows exactly why, or what causes the core rotation to slow down or speed up. Only the curious physical forces influencing that inner planet of solid metal and its interaction with its superheated liquid iron coating know for sure.

And there’s another cool element to all of this: the preferred scientific method for studying the inner core is . . . earthquakes. When earthquakes occur, seismic waves pass through the planet and, the data acquired about their variations in speed and direction can equip scientists to draw inferences about what’s happening deep inside our planet. One article described the seismic waves as serving like a kind of geological x-ray. So you can be sure that, the next time an earthquake rattles the cupboards out in California or outer Mongolia, some scientists will be eagerly monitoring the seismic waves that result, looking for more clues about Earth’s quixotic inner core.

Longevity Advice

Recently a new individual was officially recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the “oldest person in the world.” The prior title holder, a French woman named Lucille Randon who was 118, died, and the second place senior moved up to the top slot.

The new world’s oldest person is Maria Branyas Morera of Spain, pictured above, who is a mere 115. As is usually the case when a new title holder is named, there have been news stories about Ms. Branyas in which she offers her views on living a long life. Typically these news articles focus on lifestyle issues, and if you’ve read them in the past you may have noted there is one obvious problem: the eating, drinking, and exercise habits of the super-old seniors who have lived well into the triple digits often are conflicting. One person will say the key is to live a Puritan lifestyle, while the next will admit they enjoyed a rasher of bacon every day, smoked for years, and happily downed a slug of whiskey before bed. The only consistency between the prior title holders seems to be that they somehow didn’t die.

Ms. Branyas’ thoughts are a bit different, and perhaps more useful as a result. According to Guinness, she says that luck and good genes have a lot to do with it, but otherwise she attributes her longevity to “order, tranquility, good connection with family and friends, contact with nature, emotional stability, no worries, no regrets, lots of positivity and staying away from toxic people.”

This seems like good advice–especially the part about toxic people. Being around toxic people not only can get you into trouble, and maybe cause your longevity luck to change for the worse, but the stress involved in interacting with them clearly could have adverse health repercussions. And keeping a positive attitude as you deal with the inevitable issues associated with aging is bound to help, too.

We’ll probably never know for sure what, specifically, allows some people to live past 110. But even if we don’t make it that far, avoiding toxic people is bound to make whatever years we have left much more pleasant ones.

A Sad Case Of Bengals Envy

Today the Cincinnati Bengals will play the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game. I’m trying to decide whether to watch.

If the Bengals win, they will go to the Super Bowl for second year in a row and for the fourth time overall. That’s four more times, incidentally, than my team, the Cleveland Browns. The poor Browns are one of the tiny fraction of NFL teams that have never made it to the big game in the 50-year history of the Super Bowl.

The Bengals have a great team, led by an admirable, franchise quarterback who happens to be an Ohio boy: Joe Burrow. They have a complete offense and a good defense, and are well coached. And yet, only a few years ago, the Bengals stunk. Somehow, they managed to completely turn things around, accumulate talented players, hire a good coach, and become a dominant team. I can’t look at them without thinking: why, oh why, can’t that happen to the Browns? What weird issue seems to leave the Cleveland Browns seemingly permanently mired in mediocrity–or worse?

So, will I watch the game? Probably, since I’m an American guy and it is what American guys do on Sundays during football season. I’ll probably even find myself casually rooting for the Bengals, knowing that a Cincinnati victory would make friends who are Bengals fans happy. The Bengals are supposed to be the Browns’ AFC North rivals, but the sad reality is that the Browns aren’t really anyone’s rivals these days: we’re just too pathetic and pitiful to be a hated foe. And don’t tell me that I should switch my allegiance, either. I’m not and will never be a fair-weather fan; being a Browns fan is as much part of me as my left arm.

So I guess I’ll watch–knowing it will be a painful reminder of my own team’s record of absolute, mind-boggling, seemingly impossible futility. I’m bracing myself.

Tom Verlaine

It seems like every week of 2023 brings news of the passing of some rock music icon. This week we learned of the death of Tom Verlaine. Verlaine was the guitarist and motivating force of the ’70s band Television, which produced one of the greatest rock albums in history: the urgent, brooding, melodic, magnificent Marquee Moon.

I first learned of the album from the pages of Rolling Stone. In those days, I regularly read that magazine because it seemed important to try to stay abreast of what was going on in the music world and learn about new albums that I might want to add to my collection. I had never heard of Television or Tom Verlaine, but the Rolling Stone review of Marquee Moon was a positive one, and I had some money in my pocket–this was in pre-credit card days–so I went down to one of the OSU campus record stores and promptly bought it, took it back to my apartment, and put it on the turntable.

About an hour later, singularly struck by what I had just heard, I listened to the album all over again. The lyrics were weird and funny, and made every song worth a very careful listen (a personal favorite that still makes me laugh to this day, from the song Friction: “If I ever catch .(pause) that ventriloquist, I’ll squeeze his head right into my fist”) and the music was fantastic. The songs frequently built to a crescendo, like you were listening to a guitar-heavy, rock version of a Rossini overturn or Ravel’s Bolero. From that day forward, it was a favorite. When I got home from classes and was trying to decide what to listen to, I turned to Marquee Moon again and again.

It’s hard to describe Television’s music on Marquee Moon. Some of the obituaries for Tom Verlaine say it was an “art punk” band like Blondie or the Talking Heads, but I always thought Television’s music was unique, and not so easily captured. The rough-edge vocals definitely had a punkish sound, to be sure, but the band’s musical abilities were far above what you would expect from a punk band. Tom Verlaine’s guitar playing had a lot to do with that. It was ever-changing in sound, but always beautiful, with a beat, and soaring, and sinuous. The epic song Marquee Moon, stretching to more than 10 minutes in length, most of which is devoted to Verlaine’s guitar leading an extended instrumental interlude in which the whole band is totally tight and focused, is one of those mood-altering songs where you just say an inner “Wow!” when it is finally, regrettably over.

This morning I decided to to remember Tom Verlaine by listening to Marquee Moon again, and it is as if I am 20 and listening to the album before heading to a 9 a.m. class. To quote a lyric from the Television song Guiding Light: “I woke up . . . and it’s yesterday.” Thank you, Tom Verlaine and your Television bandmates, for creating something that can have that kind of lasting impact.

Making Pasta Alla Carne Di Cervo

Last night I finally cooked up the venison that Russell brought to our apartment. I toyed with the idea of making venison burgers, but ultimately took the advice of some experienced venison chefs, who recommended spaghetti as a good, and safe, introduction to the world of cooking deer meat. I decided that some pasta alla carne di cervo (“cervo” being the Italian word for venison) sounded pretty good for a Friday night.

I began by browning the ground meat in my smaller cast iron skillet. I followed some on-line cooking site advice, which noted that venison is very lean meat and can dry out if overcooked, and made sure to slowly brown the meat with a lot of butter to keep it juicy and maintain the flavor. There was a lot of meat in the packet that Russell brought, and it basically filled the skillet. I liberally flavored it with some garlic and paprika, and a bit of salt.

Unlike hamburger meat, which would have been spitting all over the stove top as it browned, the venison cooked very easily and cleanly and, as predicted, didn’t produce much fat run off. (Those deer obviously stay in pretty good shape.) I kept a close eye on it to make sure the meat stayed tender. Because there wasn’t a lot of fat, the cooking meat didn’t reduce in the same way hamburger would, and the skillet stayed full. And here’s another nice feature of cooking venison–because the meat is leaner, you don’t have the greasy clean-up challenge that you get with browning hamburger.

By the time the meat was cooked there was so much browned meat I had to use two jars of tomato sauce to make sure there would be plenty of sauce to cover the pasta. Between the two jars of sauce and the venison, the sauce pretty much filled a three-quart pot. I slow-cooked the sauce, too, and added a bit more garlic and a healthy dose of parmesan cheese, and then let the sauce simmer while I prepared the pasta.

The sauce smelled great, and by the time the pasta was cooked I was starving. (The opportunity to really build and sharpen your appetite is one of the advantages of a slow cooking approach, in my humble opinion.) When everything was done I got out a big dish, drained the pasta, and prepared a sizeable portion that my grandmother would have said was “big enough for a truck driver.” I added some more parmesan cheese on the top, because I am a big parmesan lover. The dish definitely passed the visual appeal test.

With everything done, I sat down to sample my efforts and took a tentative first bite, wondering how the venison would affect the taste of this very familiar dish. I am happy to report that the spaghetti was, in a word, excellent. The venison was both lean and flavorful and went very well with the tomato sauce and cheese. I ate every bit, relishing the meaty sauce, and was grateful that I made a lot of it, because I’ll look forward to having another serving of pasta alla carne di cervo tonight.

I enjoyed my first foray into cooking venison, and will definitely try it again. It makes me wonder about potentially trying other types of meats, just to see what I’ve been missing.

3.2 Days

The Columbus Dispatch published an article earlier this week reporting that the Bier Stube, a bar at the south end of the Ohio State campus area, may be torn down to make way for another development project. The story had some personal resonance for me, and probably for many other people of a certain age who grew up in Columbus, because the Bier Stube–one of the oldest taverns in the University area–is where I had my first legal adult beverage. That beverage was a glass of watery 3.2 beer.

In those days, Ohio allowed 18-year-olds to drink beer that was 3.2 percent alcohol. “3.2 beer” began in the 1930s, after the end of Prohibition, and continued to be produced in many states, including Ohio, for decades. If you were 18 and wanted to have a legal drink–as opposed to going the fake ID route–3.2 beer was your only option. (3.2 beer hung on in Ohio until 1982, when the drinking age was raised to 19 for 6 percent “high” beer, and stayed around even longer in other states.)

So it was that, after we had all passed our 18th birthdays, a group of high school friends and I decided to head to the Bier Stube to celebrate. We had heard through the grapevine that it was a good, no-hassle place to quaff some brew. We went to the bar, presented our licenses to a bored bartender, ordered a pitcher of 3.2 Stroh’s, carried our glasses and the pitcher to a booth, and sat down. The Stube was a pretty rustic place, as bars go, but we didn’t care. The 3.2 beer was watery, but we didn’t mind that either. We saw our visit as a kind of rite of passage and first step on the road to adulthood. Weak beer in a bar that had sticky tables and floors wasn’t going to affect our ebullient mood at finally being legal, as we drank our beer, chattered away, and decided to get a second pitcher, just for the heck of it.

I haven’t thought of that trip to the Bier Stube and my first exposure to 3.2 beer for years. I’ll be sorry to see “the Stube” go.

The Cryptoqueen’s Gambit

The curious world of cryptocurrency continues to be a valuable source of insight into the human condition. Regrettably, that world arena seems to regularly expose two of our least attractive qualities: gullibility and greed.

CNN recently carried a fascinating story about a woman named Ruja Ignatova, who presented herself as the “Cryptoqueen.” It’s a tale of glitzy presentations by Ignatova back in 2014, 2015, and 2016 about her cryptocurrency company, called OneCoin, that was supposed to square off with Bitcoin and take over the crypto market. Credulous investors were allegedly promised outlandish returns of as much as five and ten times the value of their initial investment and put huge amounts of money into OneCoin, only to see it all vanish–along with Ignatova herself. The Cryptoqueen boarded a plane in Sofia, Bulgaria in October 2017 and disappeared. According to federal authorities, OneCoin was nothing but a gigantic Ponzi scheme, designed to bilk suckers out of their hard-earned cash.

Since then, the Cryptoqueen has been an international fugitive who can now be found only on the FBI’s 10 most wanted list. Her brother and a business colleague who were also involved in OneCoin, on the other hand, were arrested, have pleaded guilty to financial-related crimes, and are awaiting sentencing. The CNN story linked above describes the magnitude of the OneCoin scam as follows:

“Authorities say OneCoin was a pyramid scheme that defrauded people out of more than $4 billion as Ignatova convinced investors in the US and around the globe to throw fistfuls of cash at her company. Federal prosecutors describe OneCoin as one of the largest international fraud schemes ever perpetrated.”

U.S. investors chipped in about $50 million of that $4 billion, and the FBI is offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to the Cryptoqueen’s arrest. If you want to be on the lookout for her on your next international trip, be aware that Ignatova’s “most wanted” poster notes: “Ignatova is believed to travel with armed guards and/or associates. Ignatova may have had plastic surgery or otherwise altered her appearance.”

The Cryptoqueen’s gambit evidently allowed her to flee with lots of other people’s money. The ultimate lesson her gambit teaches is to beware of alleged “investments” that rely on flamboyant presentations and promise to somehow produce multiples of your buy-in through processes you don’t quite understand. The people who lost the money they put into OneCoin wish they had learned that lesson earlier, and been less gullible–and greedy.

Bursting Bubbles

In case you haven’t been paying attention, the economic news in the tech field isn’t exactly great. Recently, Microsoft announced plans to lay off 10,000 workers, and Alphabet, the parent of Google, disclosed that it would be handing the pink slip to 12,000 of its employees. Amazon also has announced sweeping job cuts. By some accounts, almost 50,000 people have been laid off from their jobs in the tech industry already in 2023–and we aren’t even through the first month of the year. That follows a 2022 in which about 100,000 employees of private and public tech-related companies are estimated to have lost their jobs.

This shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone with some seasoning. The tech industry grew exponentially during the early days of the pandemic, as the world shifted more to on-line commerce, and it was predictable that, as conditions changed and economic cycles occurred, there would be some retrenchment. What’s interesting, though, is that some of the tech leaders apparently didn’t see this entirely predictable result coming: they were confidently predicting that there had been a permanent paradigm change and the growth would continue, as one recent article notes.

And the company bigwigs weren’t alone in this view. Some young tech workers reportedly are shocked that their cutting-edge companies could–and would–lay them off; they thought they were set for years to come. Interestingly, however, their older and more experienced colleagues aren’t surprised, because many of them have been laid off before in prior tech boom-and-bust cycles.

It’s a valuable tutorial for everyone, although people seem to quickly forget the teaching: economic cycles are inevitable, retrenchment typically follows rapid growth, it’s wise to build some bad news into your business and personal planning, and confident predictions of impending future success frequently turn to ashes in the mouths of the know-it-alls who voiced them. A dose of humility and rationality isn’t a bad thing for tech company leaders–and those shocked young workers have just received a valuable life lesson that they probably will never forget.

Pre-Dawn Cacti

I had to get up super-early today to catch a flight, and stopped on my way to my rental car to take this photo of some cacti around our hotel.

Marana, Arizona is, intentionally, a “dark” community with minimal lighting to avoid light pollution and facilitate better viewing of stars. Desert darkness is about as absolutely dark as it gets. The stars stand out in sharp relief, to be sure, while the giant saguaros are ghostly figures in the gloom, unless you use a flash as I did here.

The night and early morning hours are apparently a favorite time for gangs of Javelina to prowl the neighborhood, although I didn’t see any on my way to the parking lot. I was happy about that, because I’m not sure I would know how to deal with a nighttime encounter with a herd of wild, pig-like creatures.

Making The Bed

A stay in a hotel reminds you that there are different approaches to making a bed. At home, you might simply do a few quick tugs here and there to make sure that the sheets and blankets are reasonably straightened, and return the pillows to their position at the head of the bed—but hotel bed-making is a much more rigorous exercise.

The maid in our hotel in Tucson apparently belongs to the precise, Army basic training/a quarter must bounce off the sheets school of bed-making. The sheets are stretched so taut and have been cinched so tightly under the mattress that it takes a few good heaves just to loosen the sheets enough to actually get into bed. It looks neat, but is kind of a pain in the keister—although you’ve got to give the maid an A for effort.

Have you ever wondered why the act of arranging the sheets is called “making” the bed?

Imaginary Voyages

The Austin airport is pretty darned cool, with some little touches that bored travelers who are walking around while waiting for their flights will appreciate–like this mock “Interimaginary Departures” board found at Gate 14. It changes just like your standard departures board, only the destinations are fictional locations from literature, film, TV, comic books, video games, and other elements of popular culture. The airlines are fictional too, of course, but very cleverly named. And all flights leave from Gate Infinity.

For example, you could catch a flight to Gotham City on DystopiAir, or head to Hogwarts on Spellbound Airlines, or visit the Hundred-Acre Wood on Wistful. I’d avoid the flight to Isla Nublar on GossAmerica, myself. On the other hand, I admit to being tempted by the chance to experience the most wretched hive of scum and villainy in the known universe, so I would probably grab a seat on the 11:07 to Tattoine in order to check out the Mos Eisley spaceport.

I’ve included photos of two of the many boards with this post. Somebody obviously had a lot of fun with this great idea.

The destinations on the “Interimaginary Departures” board are a kind of litmus test of your awareness of different elements of popular culture, and I am sad to say that I am not aware of many of them. How many of the references do you recognize? And, like me, if you see a destination you haven’t experienced through books or movies or comics, are you motivated to check them out?

Froot Loops

Our hotel in Austin had a great breakfast bar that included an omelet-to-order option, freshly baked biscuits, and lots of other tasty breakfast options—including two gigantic containers of Froot Loops. The cereal must be popular in Texas, because two of the three dry cereal options were Froot Loops. The other was Raisin Bran.

I successfully resisted the temptation to chow down on a bowl of Froot Loops, but it was a challenge, because one of my childhood memories involves that cereal. In the early’60s Grandma and Grandpa Neal took UJ and me on a trip to Battle Creek, Michigan, where we took a tour of the Kellogg’s cereal factory. At the end of the tour Kellogg’s served every visitor with a little dish of vanilla ice cream topped with Froot Loops, which had just been introduced. I liked my Froot Loops sundae very much and asked Mom to buy the cereal when we got home—which I’m sure is what Kellogg’s was hoping for. (I liked Toucan Sam, too.)

Froot Loops remains a favorite cereal to this day, although my metabolism doesn’t permit me to eat it anymore.

A Very Big Place

Yesterday we went for a ramble around Austin and ended up at a favorite place–a stone map of Texas inlaid into a plaza atop a small hill just across the river from the downtown area. The map gives distances between different Texas cities and Austin, which is indicated on the map by the star in the east-central part of the state. The distances show just how enormous Texas actually is.

For example, the map indicates that El Paso, at the far western edge of the Lone Star State, is 580 miles from Austin. The journey from Austin to Texarkana, at the northeastern corner of the state, is another 375 miles. Add them together and you’ve got a trip of close to 1,000 miles. That’s a lot of Texas! A further sense of the scale of this place is that the distance from Cincinnati to Cleveland, south to north, is about 250 miles. You therefore could flip all of Ohio sideways and wedge it into the 250 miles between Austin and Beaumont, just in the eastern half of Texas. Ohio ranks 35th among the states with 40,953 square miles; Texas, coming in at number 2, is six times larger, encompassing 261,914 square miles.

That’s a huge amount of territory for one state–but of course Alaska dwarfs everyone else, covering a total of 570,641 square miles. That’s bigger than Texas, California, and Montana, which rank 2, 3, and 4, combined, and 14 times the size of Ohio.

They grow states big west of the Mississippi!

Dinner With The Killer Bs

Years ago, I went to dinner with a business associate who knew a lot about Italian wines. He took control of the crucial wine-ordering responsibilities at our meal, studied the wine list carefully before ordering a bottle, inspected the bottle when the waiter delivered it, instructed the waiter to decant the wine, and then noted that we would let it breathe for 15 minutes or so. When I remarked on his impressive command of the wine-ordering function, he shrugged and responded: “In reality, all you really need to know about Italian wines is the three Bs — Brunello, Barolo, and Barbaresco.”

I’ve always remembered that lesson in fine wines, although I quickly realized that “The Killer Bs”–as those three wines are known among at least some wine lovers–must regrettably be reserved for very special occasions, because they are pricey. Last night was just such a special occasion, as we celebrated the new year and a wonderful performance by the Austin Symphony Orchestra and, especially, its principal oboist. We went to a terrific restaurant called It’s Italian Cucina, had a very fine meal, and the sommelier selected two bottles–a Brunello followed by the Barolo above–to accompany our dinner. (There were only four of us at dinner, so we couldn’t reasonably complete the Killer B trifecta with a Barbaresco.)

I don’t have an educated wine palate, but it wasn’t hard to conclude that we were enjoying some pretty spectacular wines. The taste of the Brunello changed and ripened and became even more delectable as it continued to breathe in the decanter, and the Barolo was simply wonderful and went perfectly with our main courses. It was great to be able to enjoy a fun celebration with the Killer Bs. I definitely look forward to the next opportunity to implement my friend’s wise advice.

Don’t Let Them Eat Cake

In Great Britain, the chairwoman of the Food Standards Agency, Professor Susan Jebb of the University of Oxford, is mightily concerned about the nation’s health and the obesity epidemic affecting many Brits. Among the targets of her ire are people who bring cake into the office–something she considers to be harmful as exposing your co-workers to secondhand smoke.

Professor Jebb’s basic point is that you simply can’t rely on the personal willpower of people who are exposed to the tantalizing prospect of free cake. The Times article linked above quotes her as follows: “’We all like to think we’re rational, intelligent, educated people who make informed choices the whole time and we undervalue the impact of the environment,’ she said. ‘If nobody brought in cakes into the office, I would not eat cakes in the day, but because people do bring cakes in, I eat them. Now, OK, I have made a choice, but people were making a choice to go into a smoky pub.’” She raised the smoking issue because passive smoking harms others, and “exactly the same is true of food.” The upshot, in her view, is that Great Britain needs to provide a “supportive environment” to help individuals avoid bad choices that lead to weight gain.

Although Professor Jebb specifically singled out cake at the office as an example of the prevalence of bad food options at every turn, the bottom line for her is that Great Britain needs to regulate food advertising. She notes: “At the moment we allow advertising for commercial gain with no health controls on it whatsoever and we’ve ended up with a complete market failure because what you get advertised is chocolate and not cauliflower.”

If Professor Jebb is hoping to get to a a society where cauliflower is vigorously advertised, I predict her efforts are doomed to failure. I also predict that her fellow Brits won’t look kindly on any potential restrictions on a co-worker’s ability to bring cake into the office.

Putting aside time-honored employee birthday cake events, people who bring leftover cake to the office want to get it out of their homes so they won’t be tempted by it, and people who eat cake at the office like to have a treat now and then. I’m not sure that trying to regulate cake offerings is going to prevent obesity, if that cake is then consumed at home rather than at the office. I don’t think regulating TV or billboard or radio advertising is going to get there, either, so long as cake mix is sold in stores and candy and snacks are available at the point of purchase to tempt people into taking the road to perdition.

The bottom line on obesity is that we need to build up the willpower of individuals, and incentivize them to watch their weight. Restricting cake at the office isn’t really getting at the root cause.