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17 July 2017 @ 04:47 pm
Celebrity Death Watch: Ilya Glazunov was a Russian painter. Liu Xiaobo was a Chinese writer and dissident. More significantly, he was on my ghoul pool list, since I saw a newspaper article that said his organs were failing in time to use him for my one-time trade. (Tommy Tune should now live until next year.) Fresh Kid Ice was a rapper. Mahi Beamer was a Hawaiian singer. George Romero was a director, best known for the movie Night of the Living Dead. Martin Landau was an actor, notable for starring in Mission: Impossible.

I want to especially highlight Maryam Mirzakhani. She was the first woman to win the Fields Medal, which is the top honor for a mathematician. I will refrain from commenting on the spelling of her first name.

What I Left Out of the NPL Con Write-up: I completely forgot to include my appreciation for all the hard work that Hathor and B-side did as Con hosts. Mea maxima culpa.

The Hotel Rant: I spend a lot of time at hotels. Therefore, I feel qualified to state that most hotels suck. I have already mentioned slow elevators. But there are many many many ways that hotels can make my life miserable.

My chief complaint is hotels that hide their light switches. This was one of the sins of the Hotel Revere, where the NPL con was. There was one dim light near the door, which was not adequate for finding the black on black switches that turned on both the desk lamp and the lamp between the two beds. The latter was especially annoying as there was a switch nearby that did not, so far as I could tell, control anything. At least there was a nearly adequate amount of light once I located those switches. There is one hotel I used to sometimes stay at on business trips (The Boulder Broker) where I learned to pack my own light bulbs, since there wasn’t anything brighter than 25 watts within their guest rooms.

Next on the list is the near impossibility of getting mattresses and pillows right. Most hotel mattresses are too soft. Except for the ones that appear to have been hewn out of granite. It is one thing to have had a super-hard surface when I stayed at the Ice Hotel in Quebec. And, actually, that had several layers of reindeer skins, which made it softer than the mattress at a particularly dreadful hotel in Benin that I have mercifully forgotten the name of. Pillows are even more of a problem, as there are usually too many of them and no good place to leave the extra 20 or so they pile on the bed. The worst offenders in this category are bolsters. I have never met a person who actually uses those bolsters. All hotel managers and designers need to read "The Princess and the Pea" and/or watch the musical, Once Upon a Mattress. Or at least try to sleep in the beds at their hotels.

Speaking of useless things on beds, I have never understood those ridiculous shawl-like pieces of fabrics hotels like to drape across the foot of the bed.

Drapes are often a problem. I tend to bring some duct tape so I can get them to close all the way and blot out light. I have probably ranted before on the subject of hotels that locate their drapes in places that require you to climb over or rearrange furniture in order to close them.

Sound is an even more annoying thing than light. I will note that the Hotel Revere had good sound-proofing. But many hotels do not. I particularly despise atrium hotels, i.e. ones where the rooms are arranged around a tall, sound-reflecting open area. This is an especially common design for Hyatts, which is a reason why I usually prefer Marriotts if I am going to stay at chain hotels.

Bathrooms pose a number of issues. If there is going to be a tub, it should be deep enough to soak in. Bonus points if the hotel provides bath salts or bubble bath. But a shower alone is acceptable, as long as: a) you don’t have to spend a half hour figuring out how the fuck to turn it on and adjust the temperature, b) the shower head is not so far away from where a person would stand to allow the shower water to cool too much by the time it reaches the body, and c) there is some sort of closure that prevents the shower from flooding the entire bathroom when it is used. (I am speaking to every hotel in France here.) Good things include heated floors (ah, Norway) and heated towel racks. However, hot water remains more important. I think it was Ulan Ude where I first encountered the notion that a hotel might have heated towel racks without having hot water, but I’ve run into it once or twice since. And I hope never to have that happen again.

I am not particularly fussy with respect to toiletries, with the proviso that they shouldn’t smell weird. I prefer individual bottles rather than the current eco-trend of large squeezy bottles that: a) you can’t take home with you and b) I don’t trust not to be contaminated with something disgusting. If worst comes to worst, my standard toiletries bag includes a small bottle of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap, which is also useable as shampoo, laundry detergent, and reading material.

Finally, there is temperature control. It goes without saying that the thermostat should be easily visible when you enter the room and should not require rearranging furniture to reach. The thermostat should be digital and it should be possible to set the controls for either Fahrenheit (i.e. real temperature) or Celsius. The thermostat should be easily visible and not require an advanced degree in engineering to operate. Come to think of it, I have an advanced degree in engineering and half the time I can’t figure out how to get the bloody temperature to something I can tolerate. (Admittedly, I have about a 1.5 degree comfort range.) The default temperature setting should not be 90F in winter and 60F in summer. If I ruled the world, it would be 76F everywhere all the time.

Hotels that don’t suck include half the hotels in Italy (though the other half are amongst the noisiest places on the planet, so one must seek expert advice) and exactly two hotels in New York (The Algonquin and The Library Hotel). The former is bookable using Marriott points. But one needn’t spend a fortune to stay at one of the rare tolerable hotels in the world. The Albergo Atlantic in Bologna can be had for under 60 bucks a night, including breakfast.

Mr. Taken: The first show I saw at this year’s Capital Fringe was Mr. Taken. Ward Kay, who wrote it, is a Style Invitational devotee. And Valerie Holt, daughter of Empress Pat Myers, was part of the six person cast. The story involves a group of friends and their relationships. At the beginning, Jen is living with Marcus, though they don’t treat each other very well. Eric and Liz have just gotten engaged. And then there is Patty, who is crazy about a guy who has a girlfriend (hence, nicknamed "Mr. Taken") but who Jen is sort of trying to fix up with nerdy Charles. Marcus confronts Jen about her behavior, in front of the others (at a pre-Christmas get-together) and then moves out. Some months later, Patty has spent the night with Eric, whose engagement ended because Liz slept with someone else, when Liz suddenly walks in... All of the performances were good, especially those of Jamel Lewis as Charles, Brooke Bangston as Patty, and, of course, Valerie as Liz. But the show didn’t completely work for me. I had a hard time figuring out why these people were even friends in the first place, never mind sleeping together in various combinations. Then again, this is mostly farce, which is a form of theatre I don’t much care for.

The Originalist: On Saturday, I went to see The Originalist at Arena Stage. This is a play about Antonin Scalia, who was very convincingly played by Edward Gero. His foil throughout is a young African-American lesbian law clerk, Cat, played by Jade Wheeler. There is another clerk, Brad (played by Brett Mack) helping out, but he’s mostly there as sort of the anti-Cat and plays a much smaller role. Why does a flaming liberal want to clerk for a justice like Scalia? Well, she explains, she needs to understand monsters to know how to fight them. Scalia is only partly monstrous in this. He is capable of learning some things from Cat, as well as influencing her. At any rate, I thought this was an excellent play. It was often genuinely funny, while carrying a serious message about whether it is even possible to find a political middle. That’s a question I find even more relevant now than when this play was first produced in 2015. (And, remember, I am a charter member of the Dead Armadillo Party.) I also thought that the use of music – mostly opera excerpts – to delineate scenes was very effective. Overall, I highly recommend seeing this. If one could, it would be ideal to see the evening performance on 22 July, when Ruth Bader Ginsburg is going to be doing the talkback (along with Arena’s artistic director, Molly Smith.)

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14 July 2017 @ 03:46 pm
So last week was the annual National Puzzlers’ League (NPL) convention. This year’s was in Boston, so it was a quick flight up and an easy trip from the airport via the Silver Line to South Station and shank’s mare to the hotel. The Hotel Revere is well-located, near the Boston Common. It is, however, a remarkably ugly building and triggered a number of my hotel peeves. But my rant on how much I hate pretty much all hotels is off topic here.

At any rate, I wasn’t at Con to spend time whining about my hotel room. First there was a picnic of sorts. It was on the rooftop terrace of the hotel, which turned out to be the rooftop of the parking garage (so, one took the elevator down to it). The food offerings consisted of a few different types of flatbread pizza. That was okay, albeit not what I think of as picnic fare. The drinks were pricy. But that is pretty much to be expected at big city hotels and, really, I was there to socialize. I’m fairly sure I didn’t see everybody I wanted to. I should probably note for those who are unfamiliar with NPL that we go by noms, not our real names, so I will refer to people that way.

Right after that, it turned out that Tortoise and Songlian were running It Takes Two and Donimo and I paired up for that. This was originally invented by Maso as Doubles Jeopardy and there are some special rounds where, say, one partner is blindfolded and has to identify plastic fruit handed to solve a clue that the other partner can see. Other clues have two parts and each partner has to answer one. Things can get fairly silly. I will keep things nebulous for obvious reasons, but I will note that the final round was particularly clever, with the two people having to guess the answers to each other’s clues. All in all, this was a very fun game – and a fine tribute to Maso’s memory.

After that, I did a miniganza by Kryptogram called Exquisite Inheritance, which was based on Exquisite Fruit questions from last year. I don’t remember who I solved it with, but will note that two of us (myself being one) had never heard of the answer.

My friend, Ron, had asked me if I had time to get together when I was in Boston and we settled on doing a couple of walk-around puzzles together, which also allowed him a taste of what NPL is about. Walk-arounds are one of the things I particularly appreciate about the NPL con, since they provide a fun way of seeing the city the con is in. We started with A Walk in the Park with /dev/joe, which consisted of several flats (i.e. cryptic clues in verse form) that led around the Public Garden. Fortunately, I’d been tipped off to an error in the instructions, so we went around clockwise. The flats were, in general, straightforward types – things like changing a letter or finding a homonym – versus some of the more recent types that are harder to figure out what to do with. At any rate, it was, indeed, a pleasant walk in the park and covered some of the more interesting sites in the park like the monument to ether.

We took a break with Rubrick’s Movie Remakes puzzle, which required changing one letter in a movie title to match a description of the “remade” movie. The results were often had us laughing out loud. We did get hung up on a few of the clues (in one case, because it was out of order) so I had a few to finish later on with a couple of other people.

Then we headed further afield via the T to do A Lazy Somerville Puzzle Stroll by Capital R and Ryma. This had 4 stops, with a puzzle at each. The only one that really caused us any hesitation was at the bike store, where we were confused about which direction the wheels turned to get from one letter to the next. At any rate, this was another pleasant walk with reasonably interesting and straightforward puzzles to solve along the way. We celebrated finishing it with ice cream at J. P. Licks. Since we were near Ron’s apartment at that point, he headed home, while I returned to the hotel.

I had a bit of a rest before meeting up with a group to go to dinner at Teranga, a Senegalese restaurant in the South End. I had never eaten Senegalese food before, so was especially looking forward to this. The food was delicious. I shared in an appetizer of acara, which was a fried black-eyed pea batter, and had a chicken dish called yassa guinaar for the main course. We had a largish group – 13 people – which made it impossible to talk to the people at the other end of the table, but everybody at the end I was at seemed happy.

Back at the hotel, it was time for the official program. I am sure I am not the only person who is relieved that intros are now limited to first timers. There’s still something of an icebreaker game. In this case, that was Shifting Gears by Shrdlu. The table was divided into walkers and sitters. Each round, the walkers moved to a new partner. The game itself involved finding a word to fit a given category using letters from both partners’ game sheets. The catch was that we hadn’t noticed that there were different sheets for walkers and sitters until a few people ended up with the same pair of letters repeated. It was still a good concept for a game, despite that bit of a setback.

Then came included by Murdoch, which involved extracting answers that fit a category from a series of sentences. You were also supposed to write your own sentence, but we didn’t have enough time to get to that part.

The biggest challenge of the evening was Cryptictionary by 530nm330Hz and Tortoise. This had teams coming up with cryptic clues, which had to be drawn in Pictionary style. Some of them were more challenging than others – and it was pretty clear that there was a wide range of artistic skill among the players. The clues were put up on two walls later on and we got to solve a cryptic puzzle with them, which was a lot of fun.

Then the over-the-weekend cryptics for pairs solving got handed out and it was time for more unofficial games. I joined a team for Slick’s GenCon Hunt. This was somewhat frustrating as parts of it involved some specific board game related knowledge and, while I do play board games, I don’t play a lot of them and am not really up to date. The lighting in the room (or lack thereof) was also a problem for a couple of the puzzles because it was hard to distinguish some colors. Mostly this served to convince me not to go to GenCon.

I’d intended to go to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on Friday. But I had slept reasonably late (and would actually have slept a bit later had it not been for a spam call on my mobile) and the weather was kind of crappy. So there was time for more puzzles and games. That included solving the Cryptictionary clues (with a large enough group that I won’t attempt to list everyone), pair solving two of the con cryptics (I did Boston Garden with Neendy and Outside the Box with Lyric), and playing Capital R’s Mystery Jeopardy, which was excellent. The mystery aspect came in with the categories not being identified and being something else that was guessable.

The Friday night official program started with Entry Points by T McAy and Trick, which involved identifying four-letter words from words in their dictionary entries. This was pretty clever and there were lots of aha moments along the way. Then came Consonant Conundrum by Bluff. This involved guessing words in given categories and choosing them in a way to avoid being blocked by using the most common consonants. The concept was reasonably good, but the execution failed for me because the pacing was uneven and confusing. Finally, there was On the Rack by Hot, which involved seven members of each large team becoming human Scrabble tiles and spelling out words suggested by the rest of the team. This was pretty funny as people scrambled to rearrange themselves on stage. However, the scoring depended only on the number of words spelled and not their lengths, which might have added another level of challenge.

After hours, I played Bluff’s Trios, which is a trivia game. Elf, Adam, and I made a pretty good team, though we blew it in the final round. Then I played part of Game Showdown by Zair. This had rounds based on different game shows (e.g. Password). Unfortunately, there were several technical glitches and we were only able to play a couple of rounds. Somewhere in there, it was after 2 a.m. and I decided that I had been up late enough, though I still managed to stay up later once I got to my room.

Saturday always starts with the business meeting. The main question is always where the con is going to be in two years. (We already know the next year – 2018 will be Milwaukee.) The result is that 2019 will be in Boulder, Colorado. I know Boulder well, having spent more time there than any other place I’ve not actually lived in. This gives me incentive to write a walk-around puzzle for it. In fact, I know what the final answer will be based on. I also know of an interesting connection between Milwaukee and Boulder that could provide a puzzle for next year. (I have a well-formed concept, but am not sure how hard it will be to execute.) The other topic that got some discussion was an anti-harassment policy, and I am pleased that the major issue had to do with how much to spend on legal advice. Though I will admit that when I saw the excellence policy distributed this year, my first thought was to wonder exactly what incident had triggered it.

Somewhere in between the business meeting and the afternoon session, I did the third con cryptic (Make Way for Ducklings by Trazom) with Shrdlu. We zoomed through it particularly quickly, by the way, not that it matters. I also played Noam’s Jeopardy, which is always a pleasure. (Come to think of it, that might have been later in the day. Things get blurry.)

As for the official puzzles for the afternoon, those started with Time Test from Willz, which consisted of seven puzzles, some of which I did well at and others of which I completely failed to get in the allotted time. Then came Cartoon Rebuses by Toonhead! I am not a particularly visual thinker and I am pop culture illiterate so had a hard time with this one, though I thought it was done well. In retrospect, I might have done well to team up with somebody else on it. Finally, there was the annual flat-solving competition, edited by Saxifrage. I don’t even bother with this, though I do go up to my room and flip through it to see if there are any I can do easily. There are too many types of flats for me to keep up with, for one thing. I will note that I was able to do more than I expected, including two enigmatic rebuses (rebi?)

I vaguely intended to get back down for the con photo, but instead got in an interminable wait for the elevator. Slow elevators are on my hotel peeve list, but this was particularly ridiculous – nearly 20 minutes (and there were people in the foyer on my floor before I got there).

The big deal of con is, of course, always the Extravaganza. This year was by Navin, Shaggy, Spelvin, and Zebraboy. It turns out that the title Bar Exam referred not to law, but to chocolate bars. The key thing for me is that I like to have a team where everyone is contributing. We had one person who clearly felt that he was not. I would have liked to have seen more of the puzzles and was irritated by another person whose priority was doing things fast. If you want to be that competitive, I think you shouldn’t sign up for a casual team. You might also try listening to other people. (Hint: if you are given a sharpie, there is probably a reason.) I was probably more snappish than I should have been. Perhaps there might be a better way of describing the two categories of teams? Maybe in terms of how much people want to emphasize solo solving versus cooperation? Or maybe I was just too sleep deprived – a state which has been known to induce more than the usual bitchiness.

I didn’t do anything after hours on Saturday night. I could even have gone to bed at a sane hour, but I got into an interesting conversation (NPL has a lot of interesting people) and there went another hour.

As for Sunday, no awards for me this year, which is just as well as I need to be getting rid of things. And no particular travel hassles afterwards, though I flew back into IAD and had the inevitable delays getting home from there.

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12 July 2017 @ 03:02 pm
The NPL Con will get its own write-up, but I did some other things before that.

Celebrity Death Watch: First, a quick note about someone I mentioned last time. My friend, Megan, reminded me that Michael Bond not only wrote about Paddington Bear, but also wrote the Monsieur Pamplemousse series of mysteries. I’m not sure I’d ever connected up the name before.

Since then we’ve lost a number of people. Anthony Young was one of the losingest pitchers in baseball, losing 27 consecutive decisions for the Mets. Ketumile Masire was the second president of Botswana. Gary DeCarlo was responsible for "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye." Simone Veil survived Auschwitz and went on to a prominent role dealing with women’s issues in France. Heathcote Williams was a poet and actor. Gene Conley pitched for the Braves (including a World Series championship in 1957) and won three NBA titles with the Celtics during the off-season. While Otto Graham also won championships in two major professional sports (football and basketball in his case), unlike Conley he didn’t play both during the same years. Sheila Michaels popularized the title "Ms." Spencer Johnson wrote Who Moved My Cheese, which, of course, became the biggest best-seller ever in Wisconsin. Neil Welch was behind the Abscam sting. Jon Underwood founded the Death Café movement. Interestingly, he apparently died suddenly (related to undiagnosed leukemia) at only 44. Shlomo Helbrans was the founder of the Chasidic cult Lev Tahor. Nelsan Ellis was an actor, best known for True Blood.

Non-celebrity Death Watch: John McLaughlin was a storyteller and baseball enthusiast in Florida.

Terry Duncan had filled several government leadership roles involving satellite communications. I had the privilege of working with him in two of his jobs and was always impressed by his calmness and ability to listen to his staff. He was only 46 and died within a few weeks of his cancer diagnosis.

Karl Hedrick had been a professor at MIT in my undergrad days and later went to Berkeley. I took a couple of classes from him at MIT. I will not remember the exact titles of because it was a long time ago, but one involved Linear Dynamic Systems and Estimation (i.e. Kalman filter type stuff) and the other had to do with Nonlinear Dynamics and Control. He was an excellent teacher and I appreciated his mentorship.

Geostock: This is a big party that friends in Colorado give every year. It’s mostly an event for hanging out, talking, eating, and drinking. In the food category, a definite highlight was the ice cream truck they’d hired for a couple of hours. We also drank a toast to a dear departed friend, which included a skype connection to another absent friend. Beyond that, lots of talk about aging parents and estate issues and how we need to clear out our own crap. And there are conversations you can have with people you’ve known for ages that you can’t have with other people. Also, noting children, there is something wrong with the rotation of the earth.

Hotel Note: I stayed at the Residence Inn in Louisville this time, because it was somewhat cheaper than the Hampton Inn. This was a mistake as they had a basketball court. That appeared to be immediately underneath my room and they let kids play basketball until after 11 at night. Sheesh. (It also hit another of my hotel peeves in that one had to practically climb over the built-in desk to close the drapes for the dining room window.)

Vegas: For complex frequent flyer reasons, it made sense to detour from Denver back to DC via Las Vegas. Vegas remains a great city for people watching, though I did have one somewhat annoying encounter this time.

30ish guy: Come on, say hi to me.

Me: you're drunk.

Him: no, I'm just a total asshole.

I guess there is something to be said for self-awareness, but he was still obnoxious. Beyond that, I spent my entertainment (i.e. gambling) budget for the night, but it took me long enough to do so that I was content.

Brine: I was back for Independence Day, which I spent trying to get caught up at home. I did also go out to lunch with a group of friends. We went to Brine, a seafood place in the Mosaic District. We all went for the simply grilled fish (trout, swordfish, soft-shell crabs among the six of us), which were served over arugula. We also sampled pretty much the entire dessert menu. I think the crème caramel (which had espresso and chocolate, so was not the traditional version) was the definite winner there. At any rate, the bottom line is good food, good service, and going on a quiet day at lunchtime made it quiet enough to be able to hear one another.

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12 July 2017 @ 11:24 am
Yes, yes, I know I have actual catching up to do on what I've been doing, but I don't want to fall behind on routine things in the meantime.

Baobab & Raspberry Clusters (reformulated): This is not technically a new snack, but it has been reformulated, so it no longer has coconut chips. The baobab and raspberry clusters still have coconut in them, however. There are also pumpkin seeds and dried apple pieces. Overall, this has 130 calories. It’s a tasty mixture and I especially like that it is only a little bit sweet. I think the reformulation is an improvement, as I prefer coconut to be in smaller quantities than it had been. I’m not necessarily convinced by superfood claims for baobab, but I don’t really care.

Lemon Drizzle Flapjack: This is a rolled oat flapjack (i.e. soft granola bar) drizzled with a lemon and yogurt topping. It has 240 calories. I love Graze flapjacks and this one is nicely lemony. Very tasty and quite satisfying.

Twist of Black Pepper Popcorn: This is 130 calories worth of microwave popcorn with black pepper. I get this fairly frequently and really like it. The pepper just makes the popcorn that much more interesting.

Peanut Butter Dipper with Pretzel Sticks: This consists of creamy peanut butter and dry plain pretzels and has 130 calories. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but it isn’t particularly interesting. Overall, there are a lot of other Graze snacks I prefer.

Vanilla Almond Granola Topper: This contains oat and barley granola, vanilla pumpkin seeds, soy protein crispies, and almond slivers. It has 150 calories and 6 grams of protein. It’s reasonably tasty and has lots of crunch, making it a tasty topping for a cup of plain yogurt.

Louisiana Wild Rice & Beans (new): This is a mixture of wild rice sticks and broad beans with chili seasoning. It has 140 calories. I thought this was surprisingly good, with just the right touch of heat and lots of crunch. In fact, I upgraded it to "love."

Sweet Rhubarb Jam: This mixture of rhubarb slices, dried apple slices, and dried cranberries has 110 calories. It is one of my favorite Graze fruit snacks, largely due to the mixture of sweetness and tanginess.

Thai Tom Yum: This is a spicy broth with zucchini, red pepper, and rice noodles. It has 45 calories. It’s got a good level of spice for me – not incendiary, but definitely tasty, with sweet and sour undertones. Having something hot is helpful on the days that the air conditioning in my office is excessive and this is a nice option.

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11 July 2017 @ 08:50 am
I have much catching up to do, but let's start with the quarterly things.

Quarterly Goals: I have been working on both household organizing and crafting projects, but am nowhere near completing anything. I have not really paid any attention to writing projects, nor have I been reading anything from my life list. (However, I have been making progress on my goal of learning a story from every country in the world.) I’ve contacted a few "lost" family members, with quite interesting results. And I am good at self-indulgence. So maybe a score of just under 50% for the first half of the year?

Movies – Second Quarter 2017:
Film festivals and airplanes affect my movie-watching pace.

  1. Moos: This is a Dutch movie I saw at the Washington Jewish Film Festival. Moos is a young woman who has been spending her time caring for her father. A childhood friend, Sam, returns from Israel and encourages her to follow her dreams, so she auditions for a performing arts school. Her failure to actually get accepted doesn’t stop her. Some of it was pretty predictable romantic comedy fare, but the characters were interesting and Jip Smit was likeable in the title role. There’s also a guest performance by Asaf Hertz. Overall, I thought this was sweet and enjoyable, if not as funny as I’d been led to expect.

  2. OMG, I’m a Robot: This is the other movie I saw at the Washington Jewish Film Festival and I have to admit I chose it largely because of the title. The story involves Danny, whose girlfriend leaves him because he is too sensitive. In attempting to commit suicide, he discovers he is actually a robot. It turns out his girlfriend didn’t actually leave, but was kidnapped and sets out to rescue her, with the help of his boss and an Orthodox Jewish robot named Robo-Joseph. There is plenty of absurdity, so watching this requires a lot of suspension of disbelief. But it is also very funny. If you can deal with a fairly high level of violence and like silly science fiction, I recommend it.

  3. Lion: Based on a true story, this involves a young boy, Saroo, who gets on a train and ends up in Calcutta. He wants to go home, but nobody can figure out where that is. He gets adopted by a family in Australia. As an adult, Saroo tells some friends his story, gets the suggestion of using Google Earth to help find where he came from. This is really an extraordinary film. I was particularly pleased with the way that Saroo interacts with his adoptive family, making it clear that he’s not rejecting them. The story is the sort of thing that could be played up as mawkish inspiration. That it isn’t is a true tribute to the art that can happen on film. I highly recommend watching this – but do have a box of tissues at your side when doing so.

  4. La La Land I like musicals, I like jazz, and I own a book of Ryan Gosling paper dolls. So I was set to enjoy this movie. Unfortunately, I found it dull, predictable, and slow-paced. Very disappointing.

  5. Arrival: I liked the concept of this movie, in which a linguist has to figure out how to communicate with aliens. But the execution annoyed me for a number of reasons. It may just be that I was tired (and, in fact, had to go back and rewatch some sections a few times), but the non-linear storytelling was sometimes hard to follow. Mostly, though, it seemed that nothing changed at the end for anybody but the main character. In which case, why bother?

  6. The Lobster: This is one of the weirdest movies I’ve seen in ages. The premise is that people have to be coupled up, so single people (including the main character, who is recently divorced) are sent to a hotel where they have to find a suitable mate or be turned into an animal. The matchmaking is based on superficial things, e.g. both partners limping or both getting nosebleeds. They also go on hunts for loners. The whole thing takes a very dark and twisted turn. While this held my attention, I can’t say it was pleasant to watch. It was provocative enough to be worth seeing, but one would have to be in the right mood.

  7. Loving: Richard and Mildred Loving were quiet people, but their arrest for interracial marriage led to a multi-year battle, culminating in a Supreme Court decision in their favor. The thing that was most powerful in this movie was how understated it was. They were just a couple who loved each other and wanted to live a quiet country life. I was particularly impressed by Ruth Negga’s performance as Mildred. The one thing missing is a bit more of the backstory of how they met and got involved in the first place. This is a well-done and important movie and was well worth seeing.

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28 June 2017 @ 11:35 am
Celebrity Death Watch: Vin Garbutt was a British folk singer, best known for protest songs. Sam Panopoulos invented Hawaiian pizza, which should be protested. Adam West was Batman. Andimba Toivo ya Toivo was a cofounder of SWAPO and more or less relegated to minor ministries within the Namibian government after independence. Samuel V. Wilson directed (and reorganized) the Defense Intelligence Agency in the 1970’s. Rosalie Sorrels was a singer-songwriter. A. R. Gurney was a playwright, best known for The Cocktail Hour. Bill Dana was a comedian, best known for his Jose Jiminez character, which seems horribly dated and racist nowadays. Helmut Kohl was the Chancellor of Germany, including 8 years prior to and 8 years after the 1990 reunification. Stephen Furst was an actor, best known for playing Flounder in Animal House. Baldwin Lonsdale was the president of Vanuatu. Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz was the founder of ArtScroll publications, an influential publisher of Jewish texts. Frederick Leboyer popularized a natural childbirth approach. Gabe Pressman was a television reporter in New York. Michael Nyqvist was a Swedish actor. Michael Bond created Paddington Bear.

Business Trip #1: I got back from New York in time to unpack and pack for the first of two back-to-back business trips. That one was to Colorado Springs for an annual meeting. I flew out from DCA via ORD, which wouldn’t be my first choice, but it worked okay. I was even able to have a sit-down dinner at a Chili’s in the airport. I waited forever (about 7 minutes) before being given water. Fortunately, once I called the server out on that, she was efficient. That was not the case a couple of nights later at a diner in Colorado Springs, where I was tempted to leave, citing the need to go to the police station and file a missing persons report for my server. There is something of a stereotype about women eating alone being bad tippers. Self-fulfilling prophecy at work.

Anyway, the work stuff was reasonably productive, though, as is typical of this sort of thing, most of the value was the conversations in the hallway between presentations. Connections are, as always, everything.

The Weekend In-Between – Awesome Con: I had made plans to go with a friend to Awesome Con, which is a comic con type of thing at the D.C. Convention Center. I am not a science fiction / comic book type for the most part and am fairly pop-culture illiterate. My primary interest was people watching and I do find it intriguing how much effort people put into cosplay and such. We spent most of our time on the sales floor, though didn’t manage to cover all of it. I bought a fairly spectacular hat because the friend I was with is an evil person who refused to talk me out of it. I also bought a couple of gifts which I won’t talk about until they are given. We did also go to a panel on women in geekdom, which was less focused than I was hoping for, but still reasonably interesting. I later found out that another friend of mine was there (i.e. at that same panel) but I didn’t see her.

Overall, the event was overwhelmingly huge, which I found something of an energy drain. They also did a terrible job of signage and a pretty egregious set-up for food, with most of the food stands having no nearby seating. If I go again in the future, I might try to do more planning and focus on panels more. And maybe get more sleep in the week beforehand.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch: The next day, I had tickets to see Hedwig and the Angry Inch at The Kennedy Center. I had heard good things about this show, but never seen it (or heard the music) before. The premise is a concert by Hedwig, the victim of a botched (and not really voluntary) sex change operation. There are various references to (and sort-of glimpses into) a much larger concert being given at the same time by Tommy Gnosis, who turns out to have an interesting history with Hedwig. That relationship drives some of the transformation behind the story.

Unfortunately, the story is pretty thin. There is an interesting mix of music and some mildly funny lines. And there is no doubt that Euan Morton (who played the lead) is very talented. But I thought the whole thing was heavy handed and not well pulled together. I also want to note that the lighting was completely irritating. Incidentally, I ran into a couple of friends, who were puzzled by the whole thing. We concluded we are just too old and clearly not the target demographic for this material.

Business Trip #2: Unpack, do laundry, pack. Such is my life at times. I was off to the Bay Area for a one day meeting. It was actually pretty interesting and included a high bay tour, which is always one of my favorite things to do. But quick trips like this are always pretty exhausting. I should note that I had originally been scheduled to fly out on American through DFW, but weather delays let me persuade them to put me on a non-stop on United to SFO. I did come back on American (via CLT), which featured just as much service as is typical of them (i.e. next to none). The highlight of CLT was spotting a plane painted in PSA livery. I used to fly PSA quite a bit between L.A. and the Bay Area, but they were bought by USAir a lot a lot of years ago.

Book Club: I got back in time to make it to book club. This meeting's topic was A Man Called Ove. I believe it was the first time that everybody liked a book. If you haven't read it, do. It's quirky and funny and touching in equal measures.

Jesus Christ Superstar: The only thing on my calendar this past weekend (well, aside from catching up on sleep) was seeing Jesus Christ Superstar at Signature Theatre. I really know this show from its original cast recording of over 45 years ago – and will admit that it is not one I particularly like. I remain unimpressed by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score, but, then, it was an early experiment with rock opera and the form hadn’t really been figured out. (ALW, of course, never did figure it out, but others have.)

Signature is always a good place to see musicals for several reasons. Among those are a number of performers, including Nastascia Diaz as Mary Magdalene and Bobby Smith as Pontius Pilate. I was also impressed with Karma Camp’s choreography and thought the lighting and projections were used in interesting ways to create the sets. Overall, I’d say this was a good production of a flawed show.

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This was the weekend of June 9th through 11th. Yes, I am behind. Live with it.

Part 1 - 31 Chambers Street: I decided to leverage off a flyertalk-related trip to New York and took a vacation day, enabling me to get up to the city early enough to spend some time at the Municipal Archives. The main thing I was looking for was the death certificate for my great-grandfather, Henry Schwarzbord. I also obtained the death certificate for Rose Lebofsky, my great-uncle Nathan’s first wife, and the marriage certificate for another great-uncle,Willi Lubowsky (aka Wulf Chlebiocky). None of those actually told me much that I didn’t already know, but did confirm some transcription errors on Family Search. And I am somewhat of a completist regarding documentation.

Part 2 - Soup Do: Soup Do is an annual flyertalk dinner event, held the Friday night before the Brooklyn Reality Tour. It’s basically a lot of people in the back room of La Bonne Soup, eating dinner, and talking about travel and frequent flyer miles and such. There’s a prix fixe dinner available (though only 2 of us at the table I was at did it). I thought it was a good deal – salad, soup, dessert, and a glass of wine for about 30 bucks once you add in tax and tip. The wine was so-so, but the salad, onion soup, and crème caramel were all quite nice. And, of course, the point is the conversation, which was lively and entertaining.

Part 3 - the Brooklyn Reality Tour: This is an annual flyertalk event, focused largely on food and conversation. We started with Smorgasburg, which provided an early lunch stop. It was hard to choose among all the options, but I went with a Peking duck bao (a bit messy) at someone’s recommendation and the very trendy (and delicious) halo-halo, which consists of ube ice cream with dragon fruit, jackfruit, tapioca pearls, blackberries, red mung beans, coconut, mango, and a little almond milk. Then we drove over to an overlook of the Verrazano Narrows, before going on to Coney Island. We drove around various neighborhoods, including Brighton Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Sheepshead Bay. We attempted to go to Floyd Bennett Field, but the hangar with the display of historic aircraft had closed early, so were foiled in the sightseeing attempt. More driving around included Crown Heights, Prospect Park, Grand Army Plaza, and, of course, Dan’s childhood home and elementary school, because you do that sort of thing when you run the tour. We had a bakery stop at Butter and Scotch, which had excellent pecan pie. I bailed at L&B Spumoni Gardens, since I had theatre tickets, but the rest of the tour included a pizza dinner there and the traditional sunset over Manhattan from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade.

Part 4 - Pacific Overtures: Pacific Overtures is my favorite Sondheim score, so I would have been interested in this revival at Classic Stage Company even if it didn’t have George Takei playing the Reciter. He does have a nicely resonant voice, but the real highlight of the performances for me was Megan Masako Haley, playing Tamate and, later on, a girl mistaken for a geisha. Much of her role was silent, but she was very expressive and elegant, highlighting the simplicity of the production. I thought that the overall aesthetic felt essentially Japanese, which is pretty much the point. I was disappointed in them having cut "Chrysanthemum Tea," which has one of Sondheim’s absolute best internal rhymes ("it’s an herb that’s superb for disturbances at sea") but they did an excellent job with the other songs. "Please Hello" is proof that Sondheim’s talents at pastiche, for example. And "A Bowler Hat," is my single favorite Sondheim song of all time, as it reveals character so effectively by showing Kayama’s transformation as he absorbs Western culture. This was a lovely production, with fine voices and was well worth seeing.

Part 5 - Welsh brunch at Sunken Hundred: Sunday morning had me back in Brooklyn for brunch at Sunken Hundred, a Welsh restaurant. This was part of the "around the world in 5 boroughs" project that one flyertalker started. I had crampog, which are oatmeal and buckwheat pancakes, which came with a blueberry and fenugreek compote and rosemary butter. I also tasted a small piece of a scone. The food was fabulous and I would happily eat there again.

Part 7 - Ernest Shackleton Loves Me: I am not sure where I first saw this show advertised, but the name itself was enough to sell me, given my interest in polar exploration. (Though, for the record, I think Douglas Mawson was even more impressive than Ernest Shackleton.) And it’s a musical – well, just take my money! The premise is interestingly bizarre – a 45 year old woman seeking a relationship finds love with the long-dead explorer via a dating website. It’s probably just a fantasy from her single-parenthood induced sleep deprivation, but they act out various parts of the Endurance expedition and Kat learns about optimism and standing up for herself. Both Val Vigoda as Kat and Wade McCollum as Shackleton (and other male roles) were clearly having fun in this very quirky show. Overall, there was a lot of laugh-out-loud humor and lively music (sea chanteys! Yes!) And they even used Frank Hurley’s actual photos and footage. I could quibble about the script making Shackleton’s journey to South Georgia too much of a solo effort, but, then, this wasn’t titled Frank Worsley Was the Best Navigator Ever. I thought this was a lot of fun and am very glad I had the opportunity to see it.

Part 8 – Ben’s I grew up going to Ben’s Kosher Deli in Baldwin. The one in the city is not as good (and, definitely, not up to the 2nd Avenue Deli) but it is conveniently located close to Penn Station for pre-train dining. I got a tongue sandwich and stuffed derma. The former was good, but the latter was quite disappointing, with overly salted gravy. The service was also decidedly mediocre. It wasn’t a horrible meal, but it didn’t fully satisfy my Jewish deli needs. Fortunately, I have at least one more trip to New York planned this summer.

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26 June 2017 @ 03:54 pm
Yes, I have lots of catching up to do. Here's something I am only about a week behind on. All repeats, alas.

The Cheese Board: This consists of cheese-flavored cashews, cheddar cheese bruschetta and baked herb bites. It has 120 calories. It’s okay, but I’m not really a big cheese person, so I don’t find it particularly exciting.

Apple and Cinnamon Flapjack: This is a flapjack (i.e. soft granola bar) with apple and cinnamon (duh). It has 240 calories. I like cinnamon quite a lot, so I found this enjoyable. But I wish it were lower in sugar and fat and higher in fiber.

Strawberries and Cream Protein Granola Topper: This contains oat and barley granola, yogurt-coated strawberry pieces, soy protein crispies, and freeze-dried strawberry pieces. It has 130 calories. I think it’s a good breakfast option, eaten with the plain yogurt I get at the farmer’s market. My only issue with it is that it just isn’t as good as fresh strawberries, which are plentiful here this time of year.

Sesame Garlic Crunch: This is a mixture of garlic sesame sticks, oat bran sesame sticks, and multigrain soy rice crackers. It has 140 calories. Crunch, sesame, crunch, sesame – what more do I need to be happy?

Snickerdoodle Dip: This consists of a snickerdoodle cookie dip with cinnamon pretzel sticks. It has 150 calories. This is one of my favorite sweet snacks, largely because I like cinnamon a lot. I’m always glad to get this.

Kettlecorn Kern Pops: This consists of half-popped corn kernels with sweet and salty seasoning. It has 130 calories. I prefer my crunchy snacks to be savory rather than sweet. This is okay, but there are other snacks I like better.

Fantastic Forest Fruits: This consists of soft apple pieces, cherry-flavored raisins, blueberries, and lingonberries. It has 80 calories. I find the lingonberries too tart, which is surprising, since I like lingonberries on things like Swedish pancakes. And the cherry-flavored raisins don’t work all that well for me. This isn’t terrible, but there are other Graze fruit snacks I like a lot better.

Booster Seeds: This consists of sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and golden flaxseeds. It has 200 calories and 9 grams of protein. I like this, though it isn’t really very exciting. I do, however, find the small size of the flaxseeds to be a bit of an annoyance. But, overall, this is a satisfying source of mid-afternoon protein.

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08 June 2017 @ 04:39 pm
I have a bunch of travel (some work, some fun) coming up over the next month or so. I am hoping to find time to post here despite that, but I am also hoping (as always) to attain total world domination.

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05 June 2017 @ 04:39 pm
Celebrity Death Watch: Ian Brady was the perpetrator of the Moors murders in England in the early 1960’s. Beatrice Trum Hunter wrote one of the first cookbooks focused on natural foods. Chris Cornell was the lead singer of Soundgarden. Chana Bloch was a poet, an academic (largely at Mills College), and a translator of Hebrew literature. Jean Sammet was a co-designer of COBOL and became the first woman to become president of the Association for Computing Machinery. Dina Merrill was an actress and the daughter of Marjorie Merriweather Post and E. F. Hutton. Denis Johnson was a writer, as was Ann Birstein. Jim Bunning was a pitcher, notably for the Tigers and the Phillies, and later became a politician. John Noakes was a presenter on the British children’s show Blue Peter. Frank Deford was the sports commentator on NPR’s Morning Edition. David Lewiston was an ethnomusicologist, whose work focused largely on Asian music (e.g. gamelan recordings), though he also recorded in Morocco and Peru. Elena Verdugo was an actress, best known for playing the nurse on Marcus Welby, M.D., a show which I was sometimes allowed to stay up late to watch. Frances Sliwa was the mother and publicist for Curtis Sliwa and his Guardian Angels. E. L. Woody was a paparazzo, whose antics included helicopters and high speed car chases. Nora Mae Lyng collaborated on and starred in Forbidden Broadway. Jimmy Piersall played for the Red Sox (and, later on, the Mets) but is notable largely for his struggles with bipolar disorder which he wrote about in his memoir. Fear Strikes Out. Peter Sallis voiced Wallace in Wallace and Gromit.

Roger Ailes was the CEO of Fox News until he was forced to resign amid reports of harassing female colleagues. One is not supposed to speak ill of the dead, but I’d make an exception for the case of this racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic jerk. Similar sentiments apply to Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, although his evils were more along the lines of murder and drug trafficking.

Roxcy Bolton was a civil rights activist, focused on crimes against women. In addition to organizing a shelter for homeless women in Florida and founding the first rape treatment center in the U.S., she is credited with having persuaded NOAA to change the names of hurricanes to include the names of men. That, of course, destroyed our childhood joke that hurricanes were named after women because they weren’t himmicanes.

Sir Roger Moore was an actor, best known as playing James Bond in several movies, though I think his work in The Saint is better, probably because my preferred Bond is Sean Connery.

Zbigniew Brzezinski was the National Security Advisor under Jimmy Carter. His political positions were difficult enough to assess, but I can never forgive him for having a name that is difficult to use in light verse.

Gregg Allman was a pioneer of Southern rock, best known for the band he formed with his brother Duane, who was killed in a motorcycle crash. You might want to eat a peach in his memory.

Carrot Cake: I was asked for the recipe. I vaguely recall pulling it from the recipe box a few months ago to make it. Apparently, I did not put it back in the recipe box. Or, if I did, I badly misfiled it. So it will take a little longer.

The Indie 500: Saturday was the Indie 500, D.C.’s local crossword tournament. There were quite a lot of out-of-towners and a surprising number of first timers.

I usually say that one can blame jet lag for any mental lapses for at least a full week after getting back from overseas. That is my excuse for having had a few errors on Puzzle #1, which should have been a simple one from Angela Olson Halsted. Apparently, I was looking at down clues only, because I had crossings that made no sense at all. And I was also pretty oblivious to the theme. So much for a day of clean solving.

In the case of Puzzle #2 by Paolo Pasco, I was just slowish, though I did solve cleanly. I grasped the theme quickly – and it is the type of theme I am usually good at. But there was a certain amount of fill I found weird and some fairly unsatisfying clues. I attribute that to Paolo being a high school junior. I should also note that he was not present, or he would almost certainly have been the recipient of the ritual pie in the face. By the way, the miniature pies arrived between puzzles 2 and 3 and the chocolate cream pie I ate was quite tasty.

Puzzle #3 was by Tracy Bennett. I solved it cleanly and in decent time. I can’t really say much more than that because, looking at the scan, I have only a vague recollection of what the theme was and it wasn’t really the sort of thing that made a difference in solving. I do remember there was a bonus companion puzzle that got handed out afterwards.

I think the lunch break was next, with another visit to Beefsteak and a lunch of gazpacho.

Then came Puzzle #4 by Erik Agard featuring Allegra Kuney. This had a complex theme, which took me some time to figure out, largely because there was quite a lot going on. I’m not surprised that Erik won the honor of being pied at the end of the day. My time was okay, but I flaked out on looking at one crossing, which coupled with a bit of pop culture ignorance led me to have one error.

I redeemed myself with Puzzle #5 by Neville Fogarty. The theme involved the sort of wordplay I enjoy, making this my favorite of the tournament.

There was a break with a reasonably entertaining trivia game, before the finals. As for the finals, Puzzle #6 was by Andy Kravis and had an interesting twist in that not all the clues were given to the contestants at the beginning. Eric Cockayne won the outside track final and Katie Hamill won the inside track.

My final standing was 64 out of 128, so dead center (i.e. 50th percentile). Comparing to previous years, this is not quite as pathetic as it sounds. At least I improved, even with jet lag in the way:
2017 – 64 / 128 (50th percentile)
2016 – 60 / 117 (49th percentile)
2015 – 61 / 100 (39th percentile)

Washington Folk Festival: The Washington Folk Festival was this past weekend. I pulled out a small bit of my project to learn a story from every country in the world. The five stories I told were:

  1. The Lion Who Could Not Write – Afghanistan
  2. The Man Who Was Used as a Ball – Fiji
  3. How Bill Greenfield’s Wife Taught Him to Tell a Story – United States
  4. Two Foolish People – Mongolia
  5. Hare’s Medicine Bag – Zimbabwe

This was the first time I’d told the last story in public and it wasn’t quite as polished as it should be, but I think it works for the most part. I stayed for Margaret’s set of mermaid stories after I was done, then listened to a little bit of Armenian music. (I’d gone through the crafts exhibit and watched some Morris dancing earlier.)
As far as the story project itself goes, I am looking for an Albanian story I like. The key words in that are the last two. I have looked at several so far, but nothing has really jumped out at me yet.

Please Don’t Analyze This Dream: I was leaving Sidney Harmon Hall (home of the Shakespeare Theatre Company) after watching a musical and then seeing an advertisement for all the musicals they had next season. I was concerned about it being late and missing the last metro train home, but it turned out to be only 8:30 at night. For some reason, I exited a door that did not lead me to F Street – or any other street I recognized. I went into a hotel, thinking I could walk through it to F Street, but the lobby didn’t go anywhere, so I had to exit again. I walked back in the direction I’d come in and went into an unmarked door, which led to what seemed to be a construction site. Again, things did not seem to lead anywhere. There were various scary looking (possibly homeless) people around, but as I walked back towards where I had come in, I saw more parents with children and it looked like the place was supposed to be some sort of construction-themed playground. I went out a door marked as an exit, which put me on a sort of jetty-like construction, next to a river. There were a polar bear and a wolf and maybe some other animal in the river, but everybody just seemed to be ignoring them and sloshing down into the river to leave. I managed to roll up my pants and get into the river further down from the animals, which quickly took me to dry land. I asked a man I saw if the street I was on would go through to the next block and he said, "yes, but it is always on fire because of the Latvians."

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