Schiller, The Poet

I walk around Schiller Park every day.  I’ve gazed in appreciation at the heroic statue in the middle of the park, and know that Schiller was a poet who was so admired by the German immigrants who initially settled in the German Village section of Columbus that they chose to erect a statue to him in the park.

But that’s about the extent of my knowledge, regrettably.  And since I think we should always be interested in broadening our horizons and learning a bit more about the places where we live and work, I set out to learn a bit more about Herr Schiller.  And with the aid of Google, it wasn’t difficult.

Friedrich von Schiller, who lived from 1759 to 1805, was a poet, playwright and philosopher who was a major figure in the European Romantic movement.  He was immensely popular during his life and has been described by a biographer as a “pop star of his time.”  He was passionate, apparently personally unkempt, and had a tumultuous love life that saw him fall in love with two sisters.

But here’s the most impressive thing I learned about Schiller:  he actually inspired Ludwig von Beethoven.  One of Schiller’s most famous poems was Ode to Joy, which Beethoven set to music, in modified form, in the final, chorale movement of his Ninth Symphony.  That’s a pretty impressive testament.  No wonder our predecessor German Village residents erected a statue to this guy!

You can read the entire, translated Ode to Joy here.  Here’s the first verse:

Joy! A spark of fire from heaven,
Daughter from Elysium,
Drunk with fire we dare to enter,
Holy One, inside your shrine.
Your magic power binds together,
What we by custom wrench apart,
All men will emerge as brothers,
Where you rest your gentle wings.

All-In Stew

This seems like a good time to use up stuff that has been taking up space in the cupboard, rather than going to already stressed grocery stores. So, tonight we’re experimenting with what we’ll call “all-in stew.” That’s where you take a look at what’s in the cupboard and pick something that’s been there for a while, add in some random flavors like mustard, horseradish, and sriracha, chop up some leftover chicken and sausage, throw in some spinach and onion, and toss it all into the crockpot to cook down for a few hours.

It’s like the plot of the classic children’s book Stone Soup. Savvy soldiers come into a town where the wary villagers have hidden all the food and, under the pretense of making “stone soup” with just water and a few rocks, ultimately convince everyone to contribute some of their hidden stores, and allowing the villagers — and the soldiers— to enjoy quite a feast.

So, we’ll use up the last of that bag of quinoa, and that can of garbanzo beans. Do they go together? Beats me! We won’t know until the crockpot works its magic.

Harbingers Of Doom

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about how Hush Puppies became must-have footwear in the ’90s, and attributed it to the decisions of influential “mavens” and “connectors” whose involvement helped make Hush Puppies a fashion trend.

But, what if the reverse were true?  What if there are people out there who have the opposite effect — whose tastes are so perverse, and whose decision-making is so out of line with the mainstream, that their decision to purchase a product almost guarantees that the product will crash and burn?

grim-reaper-1-622x415-1Researchers now think they have inadvertently found that such people exist.  As the New York Times reports, the identification of these Typhoid Marys of consumerism came out of patterns shown by six years of purchases by loyalty card customers at a national convenience store chain.  When analysts looked at the data, they found that about 25 percent of the people whose purchases were logged had a special affinity for buying products that ultimately turned out to be duds.  And if those particular consumers bought a product more than once, the product’s chances of success grew even smaller.  One of the researchers calls these people “harbingers of failure,” but that doesn’t seem strong enough to me:  these are harbingers of doom, so powerful in their wrong-headed buying decisions that their simple attraction for a product heralds its demise.

What’s more, when researchers started looking at this phenomenon more closely, they found that these harbingers of doom tend to cluster together, and that there are entire zip codes that can reliably be expected to reveal ill-advised products through their purchases.  The data also shows that harbingers who move also tend to move to other harbinger zip codes — where the property values tend to be lower, incidentally, than in neighboring zip codes.  What’s more, the data indicated that the harbinger of doom effect isn’t limited to consumer products.  When researchers tied the harbinger zip codes to political contributions, they also determined that the harbingers prefer to make campaign donations to failed congressional candidates.

And here’s the thing:  I think I might be one of these Grim Reaper consumers.  As a kid, I loved Quisp and Quake cereal, which were promptly pulled from the market.  In the early ’80s, when confronted with a choice between a VHS and a Beta video player, I listened to the salesman’s explanation and bought the Beta — just before the Beta product failed, they stopped producing Beta versions of videos, and I was forced to go out and buy a VHS machine.  I regularly like TV shows that are abruptly and mysteriously cancelled mid-stream, like Deadwood or The Borgias.

I’m a Harbinger of Doom, and I didn’t even know it!

What’s In A Bad Review?

Creative people who put their creativity out before the public have to deal with one thing that the rest of us don’t:  reviews of their work.  Whether it’s an artist overhearing comments about their paintings at a gallery, or a novelist, playwright, movie director, or musician reading newspaper reviews of their efforts, creative people have to get used to the idea that some people, at least, won’t like what they are doing.  And if the creative people can’t get past that issue, they probably aren’t in the right line of work.

Part of developing an artistic thick skin about bad reviews is realizing that the opinions of a critic are just that — one person’s opinion — and that critics are often just wrong.  In fact, sometimes a critic is so wrong about a particular piece of work that their opinions, read years later, seem comically and historically misguided.

beatles-abbey-road-album-label-appleI thought about this when I read about the New York Times review of the Beatles’ album Abbey Road, published right after it was released in 1969.  To his credit, the reviewer, Nik Cohn, found that the nine-song medley on side two was the most impressive music the Beatles had recorded since Rubber Soul — even though he thought the individual songs within the medley were “nothing special” and, for the most part, “pretty average stuff.”  In fact, he thought “some of the lyrics are quite painful,” and “most of the lines here are steals.”

Continuing his critique of the lyrics on side two, Cohn wrote:

“The great drawback is the words. There was a time when the Beatles’s lyrics were one of their greatest attractions. Not any more. On “Abbey Road,” you get only marshmallow.  * * *  On “Abbey Road” the words are limp-wristed, pompous and fake. Clearly, the Beatles have now heard so many tales of their own genius that they’ve come to believe them, and everything here is swamped in Instant Art. ”

And remember that side two of Abbey Road is the side Cohn sort of liked.  The rest of the album, he wrote, was an “unmitigated disaster.”  Come Together, he concluded, “is intriguing only as a sign of just how low Lennon can sink these days.”  Cohn also got it wrong that John Lennon, and not Paul McCartney, sang Oh! Darling.  Cohn thought the two songs by George Harrison — those would be Something and Here Comes the Sun — were “mediocrity incarnate.”  Cohn opined that “[t]he badness ranges from mere gentle tedium to cringing embarrassment.”

I doubt that the Beatles, firmly atop the rock god firmament at the time, paid much attention to Nik Cohn’s views, and of course his opinions have been disproved by the test of time.  Abbey Road is generally regarded as one of the greatest rock albums of all time, and songs like Something, Here Comes the Sun, and Come Together are viewed as all-time classics beloved by millions for more than 50 years.

I guess I would say that Nik Cohn got it wrong.  When creative people are putting themselves out there for critics to chew on, it’s something they should keep in mind.

Deciphering Alien Communications

Astronomers have discovered an intriguing fact:  an object in a galaxy 500 million light years away is sending us regular, repeating radio signals.

602x338_cmsv2_c88622f3-b54d-5980-a3e0-35b6c127b70c-3573104Fast radio bursts are not uncommon in the universe — observatories have recorded more than 100 in recent years — but repeating fast radio bursts are rare.  And this particular radio burst, which was first recorded in 2017, is the only one that is sending out fast radio bursts in a regular repeating pattern.  The bursts come in 16.35-day cycles, with 1-2 bursts per hour over a four- day period and then 12 days of silence before starting up again.

In short, the source is like the Old Faithful of fast radio signals.  And, intriguingly, at a distance of 500 million light years it’s the closest fast radio burst we’ve detected.

So, what’s causing this regular pattern of radio bursts?  Scientists have come up with several hypotheses:  it could be a natural radio signal-emitting object, like a neutron star or a binary system, where the frequency of the bursts is caused by the object’s wobbling or orbit or rotation.

Or, it could be aliens.  There’s no way to know for sure.

It raises a serious question:  if there are aliens out there, how do we know if they are trying to communicate with us, and what they are trying to say?  The 16-day cycle of radio bursts could be sending a clear, friendly greeting, or an important warning, using the alien version of Morse code, with the initial bursts being the dot-dot-dashes and the 12-day interval the method of letting us know that the message is repeating.  But without knowing the code, we can’t decipher the meaning — or even recognize the radio bursts as a message in the first place.  It’s similar to the inability to decipher ancient hieroglyphics until the Rosetta Stone was discovered.

It reminds me of a passage from Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions:

“As for the story itself, it was entitled “The Dancing Fool.” Like so many Trout stories, it was about a tragic failure to communicate. Here was the plot: A flying saucer creature named Zog arrived on Earth to explain how wars could be prevented and how cancer could be cured. He brought the information from Margo, a planet where the natives conversed by means of farts and tap dancing. Zog landed at night in Connecticut. He had no sooner touched down than he saw a house on fire. He rushed into the house, farting and tap dancing, warning the people about the terrible danger they were in. The head of the house brained Zog with a golfclub.”

Unfortunately, a mysterious repeating radio signal is no more understandable than the farting, tap-dancing Zog.

Sherlock Holmes And The Ring Drop

There was some excitement on my flight to Houston last night, but it all ended well — thanks to Sherlock Holmes.

I was seated in the aisle seat in row 21.  Next to me was a friendly young woman who was traveling through Houston to catch a flight to Orange County.  As I did some work on the flight I heard a metallic clink, and then the young woman suddenly became frantic.  It turns out that she had been fiddling with a ring on her finger, and the ring dropped off and fell into the area between the seat and the window and plane’s fuselage.

sherlockholmesThat area of the plane promptly went into full search mode.  Led by the young woman and using our cellphone flashlights, we scoured the plane’s floor all the way back to the rear restrooms, looked under the seat cushions, and checked that the ring hadn’t gotten snagged on someone’s carry-on luggage.  Everyone in that section of the plane was cooperative and helpful during the search — which tells you that there are still a lot of nice people out there.  But after 15 minutes of fruitless searching, the ring was nowhere to be found.  The flight attendant said they would do a search after the plane landed and everyone had cleared out, and the young woman could fill out a form so that she would get the ring if it was found.

That was small consolation for the distraught and tearful young woman, however.  She explained that the ring that dropped was her sister’s wedding ring, and the young woman had been tasked with delivering the ring from a Columbus jeweler to her sister.  She was supposed to be the trusted messenger, and she was dreading the prospect of confessing to her sister that the ring was lost.

I wasn’t ready to give up, however.  “I don’t know if you’ve read any Sherlock Holmes,” I told her, “but in one of the original stories he explained that when you’re trying to solve a problem and you eliminate all of the possible outcomes, whatever is left, however improbable, must be the answer.  Since the ring isn’t on the floor of the plane or in the other places we’ve looked, I think it’s got to be somewhere in the slot between your armrest and the outer wall of the plane, — probably near a piece of metal since we heard a metallic sound when the ring dropped.  Let’s try again, just in that area.”

She looked dubious, but the logic of the suggestion seemed to persuade her.  She used her hand to grope around carefully in the nook, and sure enough the ring was there in the depths, next to an orphaned Lego piece.  She was overjoyed, and I was happy that I had helped her find her ring and avoid an unwelcome conversation with her sister.

“You know, you really should read the Sherlock Holmes stories,” I said.  “I will,” she promised.

The Lego piece can be retrieved through an inquiry to United Air Lines.

Mystery Flavor

Some Dum-Dums appeared by the fifth floor coffee station on Friday. I don’t like candy so I wasn’t tempted, but as I was waiting for my coffee I idly noted that some of the suckers were described as a “mystery flavor,” with a bunch of question marks on the wrapper.

That seemed weird to me. When I mentioned it to Kish that night, she patiently explained that Dum-Dums always have a mystery flavor, and that trying one is part of the fun.

Well, I guess you learn something every day. As for me, “mystery flavor” sounds uncomfortably close to the gray, formless “mystery meat” that we used to complain about at the high school cafeteria. I didn’t eat it because I didn’t know what it was. Similarly, not knowing what flavor you’re going to be tasting until you put a sucker in your mouth doesn’t seem very enticing to me.

Who knows? Maybe, like Dumbledore as he tried a Bertie Botts Every Flavor Bean, I might draw earwax.