Capturing COVID On The Cusp

Over the weekend I finished Michael Connelly’s The Law Of Innocence. It’s the latest in his series of books about Mickey Haller, the “Lincoln Lawyer” who represents all manner of criminal defendants and manages his law practice from the back seat of his Lincoln automobile.

It’s a good read. I like Connelly’s spare, reportorial writing style and plotting and could probably be entertained reading a grocery list so long as he wrote it. But what’s really interesting about this book, which is set in late 2019 and early 2020 and was published at the end of 2020, is how Connelly skillfully, and realistically, weaves in references to the looming COVID crisis. The reader, and the book’s characters, catch occasional glimpses of the coming pandemic in the far background of the main story, which involves Haller defending himself against a phony murder rap. Every once in a while there will be a reference to what was happening with sick people in China, or Seattle–and the reader remembers their own initial, occasional awareness of the COVID virus during that pre-lockdown period, and knows in the pit of their stomach what is coming, even if Mickey Haller and the book’s other characters don’t.

I don’t know how many other works of fiction have been published where the COVID pandemic plays a role; I suspect that with The Law Of Innocence Michael Connelly, who writes produces books regularly to the delight of his grateful fans, has published one of the first ones. I’m confident it won’t be the last. Fiction is shaped by what’s going on in the world, and the COVID pandemic is bound to produce a lot of books. Who knows? Perhaps one day literature professors will be debating which book should be viewed as the great COVID pandemic novel.

Larry McMurtry

I was very saddened to learn yesterday of the death of Larry McMurtry, the prolific Texan who wrote many great books, as well as screenplays. His works were a favorite of Hollywood and were turned into a number of great films, like Hud, The Last Picture Show, and Terms of Endearment.

In my view, McMurtry’s greatest work was Lonesome Dove, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986. I think Lonesome Dove is one of the greatest works of fiction by an American writer, ever. It is a huge, sprawling novel that was later made into the masterpiece television TV mini-series of the same name, starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones as Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call. The book follows those two legendary former Texas Rangers who lead their band of ranch hands and a herd of stolen cattle on a long drive up to Montana and encounter adventure, death, and a host of memorable and often terrifying characters along the way. Every character in that book, from Call to McCrae to Newt, Deets, Lorena, Pea Eye, Jake Spoon, Clara, Blue Duck, and many others, was so finely drawn that you felt as if their personalities were etched into the pages of the novel.

I remember reading Lonesome Dove on a beach vacation shortly after it was published in paperback. Reading that book defined the vacation, because I could not put it down and, when I did, I looked forward to picking it up again and reading on to find out what happened next. As I continued with my reading, I remember feeling horribly conflicted, I desperately wanted to know what happened to all of these extraordinary people moving through this extraordinary landscape, but I also didn’t want the book to end, ever. Of course, it did, and the ending had an enormous impact. I’ve reread it at least once since then, and also have read many of the McMurtry books that looked at the Lonesome Dove characters at different times in their lives.

Reading Lonesome Dove made me chase down the meaning of the motto Gus McCrae adopted for the Hat Creek Cattle Company: “Uva uvam vivendo varia fit.” It was pretty clear in the book that Gus didn’t know precisely what it meant, but he liked the classy association of their dusty Texas ranch with Latin. Finding out the meaning of a Latin phrase was a challenge back in those days, before the internet allowed us to discover stuff like that with a few taps of the keyboard. It turned out that the phrase is bastardized Latin–which seems about right for old Gus–and it means something like “a grape changes color and ripens when it is around another grape.”

In other words, we affect the lives of those around us. That seems like a pretty good epitaph for Larry McMurtry, who managed to affect the lives of grapes like me that he didn’t even know.

The Power Of Positive Thinking (II)

Tonight the Ohio State University Buckeyes play the Alabama Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. If you paid attention to the pundits, or the Las Vegas oddsmakers, you would conclude that Ohio State has no realistic chance in this game. In fact, some of the talking heads are saying that Alabama is so unstoppable, so overwhelming, and so unbeatable that the Buckeyes will have to play a perfect game just to avoid getting humiliatingly blown off the field.

Medieval historians might say that the game tonight is as much of an apparent mismatch as the Battle of Agincourt. Fought in 1415, during the 100 Years’ War, the Battle of Agincourt pitted a tiny English army against a much larger host of French knights in a battle fought on the French army’s home turf. If ESPN had existed in those days, the commentators would all have predicted that the Franch would overwhelm the outmanned English. But King Henry V had a weapon on his side: a positive attitude. As Shakespeare envisioned it, rather than despairing in the face of the overwhelming Franch force on the eve of battle, Henry told his gallant group of men that they should feel lucky to be at that spot in that moment. Henry’s stirring speech famously concludes with this passage:

This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words—
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and TalbotSalisbury and Gloucester
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Henry was right. Against all odds, the English won a decisive victory at the Battle of Agincourt, using the power of positive thinking — and, not incidentally, a new weapon, the English longbow — to crush the haughty, overconfident French and rout their army.

If the English could do it, so can the Buckeyes. No foe is unbeatable, and no ESPN commentator is infallible.

What do you say, Buckeye Nation? Let’s stay positive and root like crazy for the Men of the Scarlet and Gray to stand toe-to-toe with Alabama and win this game!

The Power Of Positive Thinking

The Power Of Positive Thinking

In 1952, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale wrote a book called The Power of Positive Thinking. The book used anecdotes to argue that maintaining a positive, optimistic attitude actually helps people to achieve their goals and feel better about themselves. One of the core messages of the book was that if you are pessimistic about what you can do, you’re heading for defeat before the contest has even started. Critics were dubious of the notion that a simple change in mental attitude could have a big impact on anyone’s life, but the book was a hit and resonated with people who thought there was a lot of common sense in what Dr. Peale was saying. I remember seeing it on Grandma and Grandpa Neal’s bookshelf.

It’s a huge step from believing that your own attitude can affect what happens in your own life to believing that your attitude can influence what other people are doing. Of course, that’s exactly what many committed sports fans do believe — deep down in their hearts, even if they wouldn’t admit it to others. They may not be sitting in the stadium or arena cheering on their team, but they believe that what they wear, what they eat, where they sit, and what they say and do on Game Day can have a crucial, outcome-determinative impact. The Dr. Pepper Fansville commercials definitely nail that aspect of the whole sports fan experience.

Can fans sitting in their living rooms watching on TV affect a game played far away? Can their thoughts and actions create eddies in the prevailing karma that can ripple out to the players and coaches and give them extra energy and mental focus and make a difference in their performance? Given life’s many mysteries, we’ll never know for sure — but we all believe it does, in some mysterious way, so why not be positive about it?t

Today, once again, I’m going to be positive about the prospects for the Cleveland Browns, and I’m hoping to enlist other fans in my positive thinking crusade. The Browns will be going on the road to Pittsburgh to play in their first playoff game in 18 years. They’re lacking a number of their coaches, including their head coach and ultimate play-caller, and some of their best players thanks to the coronavirus. For that same reason, they only got to practice once before their most important game in two decades. These aren’t the things you want to have happen when you’re the underdog in the first place.

Clearly, the odds are powerfully stacked against the outmanned Cleveland squad. They need all the help they can get. Who knows? Positive thinking by the legions of Browns Backers could well tip the balance in some inexplicable yet meaningful way.

Whatever happens tonight, I’m going to stay positive about this team and its chances for an astonishing victory, and concentrate on sending positive, optimistic vibes through the cosmic ether to the Browns’ players and coaches. Will you join me?

Lincoln On The Verge

I’ve had a chance to do some real leisure reading over the holidays, which is a wonderful way to spend a few days away from work. The first book I tackled was terrific: Lincoln On The Verge: Thirteen Days To Washington, by Ted Widmer. I highly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in American history generally, and Abraham Lincoln specifically. (And a hat tip to JV, who recommended it to me in the first place.)

You might call Lincoln On The Verge a microhistory. It focuses specifically on the thirteen-day train trip Lincoln took from his home in Springfield, Illinois to Washington, D.C. They were thirteen momentous days, as the South was moving from secession to a full-blown Confederacy, with a government, a President of its own, and ongoing seizures of federal facilities as the do-nothing Buchanan Administration sat idly by, twiddling its thumbs and utterly failing to uphold, preserve, and protect the Union or the Constitution. It’s hard to read this book and not come away with the distinct view that James Buchanan was the most worthless holder of the Presidency ever: corrupt, inept, helpless, and presiding over an Administration thoroughly infused with southerners who were actively undermining the Union they were supposed to be serving.

For Lincoln, it was a dangerous time on a personal level. As the country was coming apart, he was the subject of countless assassination threats — and, on the trip itself, actual assassination attempts and other dangers as he went out among the people. He also faced a different kind of risk. As was traditional during that time period, Lincoln had remained silent during the campaign for the Presidency, letting his surrogates and many campaign biographies work for his election. But as the train trip began, Lincoln began to speak, and ended up giving dozens of speeches as his special train followed a zig-zag course through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio (including Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus), Pennsylvania, and New York. Some of his speeches were clinkers, but others were brilliant reflections on the American experience. Lincoln’s speeches to the masses that came out to greet him on his winding journey set a marked contrast with President Buchanan, who never spoke in public, and helped to build essential public support for the Union cause and for the Civil War that lay just over the horizon. The journey was capped by a run though the dangerous slave state of Maryland, where the threat of an assassination attempt loomed large, to finally reach Washington, D.C., the capital city nestled between two slave states.

Along the way, the formerly clean-shaven Lincoln continued to grow the beard that we now associate with him, and was seen and distinctly remembered by hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans — including some who went on to become famed poets, sculptors, advocates for the abolitionist movement, and future Presidents. As the journey progresses, the reader also gets glimpses of a very different, rapidly growing America on the cusp of earth-shaking conflict and change.

It’s a fascinating story, and one that strongly resonates today. The subtext of the entire book is pretty clear — good leaders can make a profound difference and bring people together in a common cause even in the face of incredible divisiveness And the ultimate message is clear, too: where would we be if Abraham Lincoln had not been there to accept the greatest challenge in American history?

Lincoln, Lincoln, And More Lincoln

I’m hoping to do some significant reading for pleasure over the holidays, and two of the books on the holiday reading list feature my favorite historical figure: Abraham Lincoln. Richard got me Abe, by David S. Reynolds, for Christmas, and I’ve also picked up Lincoln on the Verge, by Ted Widmer, on the recommendation of a friend.

I’m not quite how many books about Lincoln I’ve read. It’s easily dozens. I’ve read fiction about Lincoln, like Gore Vidal’s excellent Lincoln, and fine biographies like David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln, and histories in which Lincoln is the star of the show, like Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. I’ve read books about Lincoln’s early days, books about his melancholy, and books of his speeches. I’ve read the classic Carl Sandburg biography. And even so, I eagerly look forward to reading still more about America’s 16th President, that towering, yet somehow still elusive, historical figure and political genius who guided America through its worst conflict with decency, fortitude, and self-deprecating humor and whose writings capture the real essence of the American concept better than anyone else, before or since. Perhaps these new books will provide some additional insight into the man who has been shrouded in myth since his assassination at the moment the Civil War was ending.

In my view, Lincoln is easily the greatest of America’s presidents. The only bad thing that comes out of reading about him is this: I always end up wishing that the qualities he brought to the office and to his political career were shared by more of our current political class.

Some Independence Day Thoughts

It’s Independence Day.  As we recognize our oldest national holiday, dating back to before the country was even formally founded, no doubt many people are thinking that these are strange, difficult times, and are wondering just what the future may bring.  We’ve experienced significant protests across the country — with “Black Lives Matter” signs being seen even on a small road in this remote corner of Maine — and in this presidential election year political passions are running high.  

The spirit of unbridled protest has always run deep in this land.  We’ve fought two civil wars in an effort to define and structure concepts of liberty and freedom, and we’ve experienced other periods where the vein of protest pulsed strongly.  The country has seen the mass civil rights marches and Vietnam War protests of the ’60s, the women’s suffrage movement, the Prohibition and anti-Prohibition movements, and the organized labor movements in the late 1800s — and that’s just scratching the surface.  Each of these protests has changed the country in some meaningful way, and there is no doubt that the current protests will, too.  The spirit of protest is so important to this country that we have codified our right to protest in the very first provision of the Bill of Rights and specifically stripped Congress of the ability to make any law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  People who wring their hands about protests simply don’t understand our history, or our institutions.  In reality, protest is as American as apple pie.  

We often think of the “Founding Fathers” as gentlemen with powdered hair in fancy dress who secured freedom just by signing the Declaration of Independence — the execution of which gives rise to the holiday that we celebrate today.  From our vantage point, more than 240 years later, we tend to forget that country’s first civil war, which we now know as the Revolutionary War, was a harsh, bloody fight that occurred in a bitterly divided land — and the Founding Fathers in their silk stockings were the rebels

Courtesy of a present from Richard, I’m reading an excellent book about the first part of the revolutionary period by Rick Atkinson, called The British Are Coming.  One passage had particular resonance with me, in view of the period we are currently living through:

“John Adams, never taciturn, later would be quoted as saying, ‘I would have hanged my own brother had he taken part with our enemy in the contest.’

“Few were hanged, at least not yet; incivility rarely turned to bestiality.  But no one could say how brutal the war would become.  Conformity, censorship, and zealotry now flourished.  Even small sins, such as ‘speaking diminutively of the country congress,’ might be punished with forced public apologies, boycotts, ostracism, or property confiscation.  A mild word of praise for the British government–or simply being suspected of thinking loyal thoughts–could provoke a beating.  Militias served as a political constabulary, bolstered by the Continental Army.  When Queens County, a loyalist stronghold on Long Island, voted 788 to 221 against sending representatives to the provincial congress, the names of those in the majority were published in the newspaper; they were forbidden to travel, hire a lawyer, or practice a trade.  More than a thousand militiamen and Continentals then swept through Queens, arresting opposition leaders, seizing weapons and extracting allegiance oaths–except from the 250 obdurate men who fled into the swamps to await General Howe’s arrival.

Such measures spread.”

In short, there is nothing new under the sun, and we’ve been through these kinds of challenging periods–in fact, much more challenging periods–before.  Reading accurate histories of America would provide reassurance on that point.  Unfortunately, airbrushing history has also been a tradition in this country.  How many of us who went through the American school system were taught of the horrendous Tulsa, Oklahoma race massacre of 1921, or of lynchings, or the role of the Ku Klux Klan in subjugating African Americans — or for that matter the egregious history of lies, broken promises and mistreatment of indigenous Americans, Chinese immigrants, or other ethnic groups, or the Japanese internment camps that were created during World War II?  Those terrible racist episodes are as much a part of American history, and our ability to gain a true and complete understanding of our country, as the lofty pronouncements in the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Emancipation Proclamation.  Those of us who were taught that America’s history is an unbroken story of freedom, liberty, and fairness in service to the world were not told the whole story.  We deserved the truth, but we didn’t get it.

I hope that that will be one of the positive impacts of these current protests.  We can only fully grasp the meaning and complexity of American history, and the true importance of crucial historical figures, if we take an unvarnished view of their lives and understand their faults, flaws, and failings as well as their successes.  I hope that the exercise of First Amendment freedoms that we are seeing in these protests ensures that American history is never sanitized again and the full story — good, bad, and ugly — is told from here on out.

The exercise of our freedoms is something worth celebrating.  Happy Fourth of July, everyone!  

The Red Badge Of Gardening

Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge Of Courage, a great story about a boy who comes of age and makes some discoveries about himself while serving in the Union Army during the Civil War.  The “red badge” refers to a bullet wound received during a battle.

63df9dab3e7af1dc1379ec62f02a86ebI’ve got a few red badges of my own — from gardening.  Except my red badges don’t reflect bullet wounds, thank goodness!  Instead, they spring from bug bites, nicks, rashes, scratches, welts, thorn punctures, and other minor wounds inflicted while digging in the dirt, pulling weeds, clipping off and carting off dead branches, levering out and lugging off rocks, roots, and tree stumps to clear the ground, and doing the other things that gardeners do.  Oh, yeah . . . and a decent sunburn, too.

I think gardening is fun, but it isn’t the bucolic, pastoral experience you might suppose.  Plants have defense mechanisms, and so do the insects that live on and around them.  Pesky weeds and overgrown wild rose bushes and raspberry bushes are happy to give you a scratch or two while you are removing them from their patch of ground, and Maine is home to some ferocious biting insects.  During this time of year, the biting insect brigade is led by the Maine black fly, as well as the mosquito and horse fly.  The black flies apparently can bite through the hide of a moose, so I’m an easy target.  And after suffering the indignity of a bite, you’ve got several days of itchiness to remind you that you’ve invaded the black fly’s territory.

I look at my arms and survey my backyard battle scars, and realize I’ve probably got more marks than I’ve had at any time since I was a kid and summertime was spent outside all day long.  My red badges of gardening are just the price you pay for a little outdoor activity, but boy — I could do without those maddening black flies.

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.