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22 April 2019 @ 02:56 pm
I am still feeling stressed and overwhelmed. That is partly due to having a lot to do at work, including one project that is: 1) being run by somebody who isn’t qualified to shine my shoes and 2) for which the two of us doing all the real work will not get the credit for political reasons. There is also a big meeting I’ll be at next week, which will end too late on Friday for me to fly home that day, making it impossible for me to get to an event I’d really like to go to on Saturday. On top of the work stress, I am still scrambling around to find some paperwork I need to file this week (because I won’t be around next week). And at least three of my friends have had recent mental health crises, with two of those involving hospitalization. I am functioning reasonably well, but I am exhausted. The net result is that I spent most of the past weekend In a state of suspended animation, i.e. do a few household things, take a nap, lather, rinse, repeat.

Corporate News: I’d be a bit more convinced about my company placing fairly high on a list of best employers of our size if the listing didn’t show our CEO as the one who retired over 2 years ago.

Don’t Analyze This Dream: The first half of this dream involved watching an hour-long romance musical on television, possibly on youtube. The plot had something to do with a woman looking for love and attending the wedding of her friends. Later on, she was kissing their child and I decided she was waiting for the kid to grow up to be her partner. Then, somehow the scene switched to me looking out a window in Philadelphia at a Chasidic family leaving a synagogue.

Pesach: My father has been gone for well over 30 years, but I particularly miss him when it comes to the Passover seder. He didn’t let his lack of a good singing voice stop him from singing every verse of every song, and it’s only as an adult that I think that Grandpa (who had an excellent voice) must have turned off his hearing aid in order to deal with that. And, who knew? It turns out to be possible to hide the afikomen somewhere other than on top of the refrigerator.

I should also note a break from personal tradition this year. I bring string cheese, matzoh, and fruit to work for lunch. But this year I am eating clementines instead of grapes. (And, by the way, clementine has 4 syllables. It sort of rhymes with ballerina.)

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17 April 2019 @ 01:51 pm
Celebrity Death Watch: Charles Van Doren was a contestant on the quiz show Twenty-One in the 1950’s and was caught up in the cheating scandal, as he had been given answers by the producers. Earl Thomas Conley was a country music singer-songwriter. Scott Sanderson pitched for several baseball teams, including the Expos and the Cubs. Ian Cognito did standup comedy in Britain. Georgia Engel was an actress, best known for appearing as Georgette on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but she also performed in several musicals, including Hello, Dolly and The Drowsy Chaperone. Tony Buzan wrote several books popularizing mind mapping. Gene Wolfe was a science fiction writer. Bibi Andersson was an actress who appeared in several Ingmar Bergman movies. Les Reed was a songwriter whose works included "It’s Not Unusual."

Whew!:I had a very busy week at work last week, accompanied by a busy week at home. The latter was largely due to taxes. Almost all of the effort of doing taxes is in finding all of the paperwork. Every year it seems that one or more pieces of paper (a 1099 interest statement or a receipt for a charitable donation, typically) goes missing, resulting in much scrambling to find it or search for a replacement source of the relevant info. And every year I swear I will do a better job of filing. At any rate, it did get done. Only to get into the other annual whirlwind known as cleaning for Passover. If it weren’t for that, I’d probably never discover that my pantry has a jar of marshmallow fluff and a can of water chestnuts, not to mention an absurd number of bottles of vinegar. (Presumably each of those was bought with a different recipe in mind.) I still have to clean the oven, vacuum, and achieve total world domination.

But that doesn’t mean I didn’t also have a busy weekend.

Grand Hotel: I went to see Grand Hotel at Signature Theatre on Saturday afternoon. I saw the movie long ago and, as far as I remember it, the musical is reasonably true to it. The plot revolves around several people staying in the hotel in Berlin during one day in the late 1920’s. Elizaveta Grushinskaya is an aging ballerina, accompanied by her companion, Raffaela, who secretly yearns for her. Flammchen is a secretary who wants to be a Hollywood actress. Otto Kringelein is a dying Jewish man who is trying to experience some of what has passed him by before the end. Baron Felix von Gaigern is an impoverished nobleman – and thief. The most passionate moment in the whole thing involves the romance that develops between Grushinskaya and the Baron. The Baron is easily the most appealing character in the ensemble, raising the hopes of several of the others, while ending up doomed himself.

The performers included a number of familiar faces. Natascia Diaz was excellent as Grushinskaya and Nkrumah Gatling, as the Baron, made a fine romantic foil for her. But the most striking performance was by Bobby Smith as Otto Klingelein.

Overall, this isn’t one of my favorite musicals, largely because I think it is rather shallow. Maury Yeston seems to have gotten involved with too many of these shows that try to follow too many characters at a superficial level. (I have the same issue with Titanic, for example.) Still, I liked it well enough to find it a diverting couple of hours.

Story Swap: Saturday night was a story swap. We had a small group, but it was still enjoyable. Eve had a long pourquoi story, which I think was from Guatemala. I told my father’s version of the crossing of the Red Sea. And there was a lot of general schmoozing.

One Day University: Sunday was One Day University. I was a bit annoyed that they did not include coffee this time out – unlike all the other times I’ve attended. I wasn’t going to pay four bucks just for a caffeine fix. (Instead, I went over to the nearby CVS and got a coke zero for 2 bucks.) Still, this really seemed pretty chintzy to me.

There were three lectures this time. The first talk was by William Burke-White of the University of Pennsylvania Law School on America and the World 2019: Where Are We Now (And where are we going?. His basic message was that, since World War II, the U.S. has led the global order with four pillars: 1) sovereignty (nation state as basic actor), 2) security (territorial integrity), 3) economic liberalization (currency convertibility, financial stability), and 4) open, rules-based system. What is changing now is the rise of China, leading to a trade war, along with a rise of populist nationalism, due partly to economic disparities. Information transparency and manipulation has led to a lack of secrecy in diplomacy. He also mentioned artificial intelligence and climate change as influencers, though he was less clear about their effects. I can’t say he really said anything I found startlingly new and original, but he was a reasonably interesting speaker.

The best lecture of the day was by Jennifer Keene of Chapman University on World War I: What Really Happened and Why It Matters. She emphasized the importance of the decision for conscription, which included public draft registration on particular days. Despite the public nature of registration, there was an almost 11% rate of draft evasion, which is higher than for Vietnam. While 95% of the men in the Civil War were combatants, only 40% were combatants in World War I. The work of those support troops was not as recognized and respected, which had a disproportionate impact on African Americans, who were overwhelmingly (89%) assigned to non-combatant roles like lading ships.

As for the importance of WWI, she noted that the German threat to the U.S. was real, including both the threat to shipping and sabotage within the U.S. But a more lasting impact was the rise of interest in Civil Rights, partly in response to the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act (which made it illegal to oppose the government and led to the founding of the ACLU). She had several stories related to issues like women suffrage, rights of African-Americans, rights of immigrants, and the peace movement that grew in the 1930’s, which made the U.S. reluctant to enter WWII. Overall, she was a dynamic speaker and held my interest.

I had expected to enjoy the final talk, by Mark Mazullo of Macalester College on Mozart and Beethoven: The Lives and Legacies of History’s Most Famous Composers. But I just didn’t buy his key premise that both composers were inherently tied to the revolutions of the era (both political and industrial) and to empathy as a road to democracy and human rights. Yes, they were entrepreneurial compared to, say, Haydn, who worked for Count Esterhazy, but I’d argue that gave them more freedom to write what they wanted, while also adding greater insecurity. Mazzullo brought up the point as the reason why Beethoven wrote only 9 symphonies while Mozart wrote 41 and Haydn wrote 104. But Haydn lived to 77 and Mozart died at 35, so you could argue they were roughly equally productive. (Beethoven is a bit more complicated – he never really composed quickly and modern scholarship suggests his lifelong poor health was due to chronic lead poisoning. But he also had plenty of patronage during his earlier years.) Overall, I don’t think I really learned anything new from this talk.

Notre Dame: I went to Notre Dame with Robert (the gentleman with whom I conducted the world’s longest running brief meaningless fling) during a weekend in Paris In 2009. It took some effort (and Berthillon ice cream) for me to persuade him to wait in line to get in, but we were both suitably impressed with its grandeur. I believe that grand works of art and architecture are proof of the value of divine inspiration. However, as I read about the large donations to restore the building, I can’t help wondering how much else could be accomplished with that money – education, job creation, etc.

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09 April 2019 @ 02:58 pm
Celebrity Death Watch: Joe Bellino was the first Navy football player to win the Heisman trophy. David White was a doo-wop singer and songwriter, whose hits included At the Hop." Nipsey Hussle was a rapper. Dan Robbins invented paint-by-number. Vonda McIntyre was a science fiction writer. Philip George Furia wrote books about Tin Pan Alley, with a focus on lyricists. John Quamby played the Health Insprector on Fawlty Towers. Marilynn Smith was one of the women who founded the LPGA

Ernest "Fritz" Hollings served as a Senator from South Carolina for almost 40 years, after having been governor of South Carolina before that. He started out as a segregationist but came to support at least some civil rights issues. He championed food stamps. He also created NOAA. On the minus side, he voted against the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 and supported the interests of the media industry with respect to emerging telecommunications issues. Overall, he was relatively liberal for a Southern Democrat. I should also note that he earned me 24 ghoul pool points.

Trip to El Paso: I went to El Paso for the weekend. Getting there was not too bad and I even had time to grab dinner at IAH during my layover. I walked over to the Downtown Artists and Farmers Market on Saturday morning, where I discovered that most of what is farmed in El Paso appears to be jams, baked goods, and the like, with the only produce for sale at the market being microgreens. The artist goods ran heavily towards fancy soaps and fiber things I could make myself, though I did happen to see (and buy)something that will be a perfect gift for a friend. It was still pleasant walking around and talking with the merchants.

Then I followed part of a walking tour of historical architecture. Much of the central part of the city was designed by one architect, Henry Trost, during the early 20th century, leading to a distinctive look for the city. Then I went to the Art Museum, where the most notable works include a collection of retablos (Mexican devotional paintings, sort of a Catholic folk art equivalent of an icon) and a rather disturbing exhibit of pieces by Julie Speed. At that point I was ready for a late lunch and went to a place called Elemi that sounded interesting. I wasn’t super hungry, as I’d had a largish breakfast at my hotel, so I just got two tacos – one chicharron de pescado (cod, slaw, grapefruit, and lime aioli) and one coliflor almendrado (cauliflower, almond mole, almond "cojita," and cashew crema). Both were on blue corn tortillas and both were delicious. The cauliflower one, in particular, may be the best vegan dish I have ever had. I also had strawberry lemonade to drink, which was quite tasty. I would definitely be happy to eat there again.

I had contemplated going to the El Paso History Museum, but I decided I needed a nap more, so went back to my hotel for a couple of hours. In the early evening, I walked over to Southwest University Park for a minor league baseball game – the El Paso Chihuahuas vs. the Las Vegas Aviators. The ballpark felt pretty average to me, but I may have been negatively biased because I had a really uncomfortable seat on a metal chair in the last row, vs. one of the plastic ones in any of the other rows. On the plus side, the food offerings had a lot of local flavor. The fans didn’t seem super enthusiastic, but that may have also been because the Chihuahuas didn’t play well. Cal Quantrill’s pitching was inadequate and he was out by the 4th inning. There were also a couple of errors by third baseman Ty France. In the end, Las Vegas won 12 to 5.

Speaking of Baseball: I am hoping that being at home will restore my Red Sox to what they should be.

Travel Hell: Getting home from El Paso on Sunday was, er, challenging. There were severe thunderstorms around Houston, leading to a ground hold on everything coming into IAH. Seeing that the 8:18 flight was delayed and figuring my 10:05 flight would also be delayed, I switched to the 8:18, hoping that would give me time to get my 2:30 connection from IAH to IAD. That would have worked – except that IAH closed and the plane I was on got diverted to DFW. We needed to refuel at that point, by the way. We ended up being on the ground at DFW for about 5 hours, if I recall correctly. I changed my IAH to IAD flight to a significantly later IAH to DCA one. I also discovered that my original flight from ELP was delayed almost 4 hours so, yes, changing planes had been the right thing to do. In the end, I got home about 7 hours late. But I did get home safely, which is what counts.

Tonic at Quigley’s: I went to a play with a friend last night (about which, more below) and we had dinner before at Tonic at Quigley’s. This place has a reputation as being largely a hangout for GW students, but French President Emmanuel Macron had dinner with Congressman John Lewis there last year. My friend got a burger and tater tots, which is pretty much what Macron had eaten. I went for the ahi tuna salad, which was quite good. I also had a G&T because how could I not at a place named Tonic?

Ada and the Engine: What we went to was a staged reading of Lauren Gunderson’s play Ada and the Engine, about Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage. This was art of the Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences, in collaboration with the Shakespeare Theatre Company. The director, Samantha Wyer Bello, introduced the program, noting that they’d had a whopping five hours of rehearsal. Obviously, that meant that the actors were reading from scripts, with another performer reading the stage directions. The short prep time did lead to a few flubs here and there, but, overall, I was impressed by the readings. Chelsea Mayo was a very charming Ada Byron Lovelace, David Bishins was passionate as Charles Babbage, and Jonathan Uffleman was surprisingly likeable as Lord Lovelace, who didn’t understand his wife, but sincerely wanted her to be happy, while Nicole Brewer was up to the challenge of being the unlikeable Lady Anabella Byron. There were a lot of interesting ideas in the script, touching on visions of the future from Industrial Revolution England to how the arts and science interact to the role of women in society. The stage directions were quite detailed and seemed to me to present some serious challenges for a full-up prpduction. What none of that tells you is how funny the script was. This was a delightful presentation and I would love to see a fully-staged version.

There was also a short talk-back with the playwright after the reading, which came about somewhat by chance. Gunderson had just flown in (she lives in San Francisco) because of a commission at the Kennedy Center. She talked about her interest in women in science and mathematics and about the research she did in writing the play. She also noted that doing the reading at NAS was interesting because there was such a nerdy audience, with people laughing at lines that don’t usually get such a strong reaction.

I have probably said this before, but I truly appreciate living somewhere with such amazing cultural opportunities.

Yawn: Two nights in a row of under 6 hours of sleep is definitely sub-optimal. It also didn’t help that we had a power outage at my complex this morning. I plan to collapse right after supper tonight.

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05 April 2019 @ 01:41 pm
I have been crazy busy at work and trying to get caught up on some household things. Hence, my relative silence. Which is not, alas, likely to change this month. Anyway, here is a quick catch-up of last weekend’s entertainment, before I head out of town for this weekend.

Don’t Analyze This Dream: I don’t remember any of the context, but I was wearing a jacket with teal and purple horizontal stripes.

Hexagon 2019 – Romp in the Swamp: Hexagon puts on an annual political satirical musical comedy revue, with the money going to charity. I know two people involved in it. One writes music and lyrics and performs in the show. The other mostly writes lyrics. Some of the funnier bits involved a perfect candidate who is undone by using a plastic straw for her water, a song in praise of athleisure, and a relook at the Golden Girls in the age of #metoo. There are also Newsbreak segments, with late breaking topical jokes. My favorite was about the Georgetown tennis coach being arrested for racketeering. Overall, it was a fun evening. But the venue (a high school auditorium in Tenleytown) had seriously uncomfortable seating. I felt sorry for students who have to sit through assemblies there.

Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity: I saw this play at Signature Theatre on Saturday afternoon. It starts with a lecture by an art historian, during which members of the audience are asked to write down what they would consider a masterpiece that needs to be preserved when the rest of the world is destroyed. Then the scene shifted to the ruins of a museum, with the art historian shackled to the wall. She is tortured by a young woman soldier, while a third woman nurses her. The idea is to force her to restore a Rembrandt painting. There is a fair amount of absurdity in the script, ranging from a choice of music to listen to while she works on the painting to the rhinoceros that has taken up residence in 17th Century Dutch Paintings. That leads to plenty of humor, but, ultimately, the story is about the destruction of a civilization and is very dark. I found it interesting, though more violent than I’d prefer. It was also well-acted by all three women – Holly Twyford (the art historian), Felicia Curry (the soldier) and Yesenia Iglesias (the nurse). I will probably look for other plays by Heather McDonald in the future, as I did find it provocative.

Lost and Found: Saturday night was a Better Said Than Done show on the theme of Lost and Found. I had thought about developing a story about my non-existent sense of direction, but decided I didn’t have the time to flesh it out. So I went with a story I’ve done before about a hiking experience in South Africa nearly 20 years ago. It went over reasonably well, though I did forget a moderately funny line I’ve used in the past. On the plus side, something I added (largely because of a mistake I made during rehearsal) worked well. Overall, it was a nice evening.

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02 April 2019 @ 08:52 am
Goals: I am on track with 4 of my 9 goals. As you will see below, I’ve read 13 books over the first quarter. I entered the Style Invitational twice. I’ve done reasonably well at bringing lunch to work and at eating fruit daily, with a few weeks of slip=ups. Everything else, alas ….

Quarterly Movies: My quarterly movie list is easy this time, as I appear to have not seen a single movie over the past three months. I might have watched a couple on my flights to and from El Salvador, but the earbuds I had with me broke.

Quarterly Books: I did, however, read a bit. I wrote about the 8 books I read in January already, so here is my list for February and March.

  1. Tom Hodgkinson, How To Be Idle. This was a surprisingly humorless volume about the virtues of things like sleeping, slacking off at work, smoking, alcohol, etc. I suppose one could add reading this dull a book to the list of time wasters.

  2. Kathryn Lilley, Dying To Be Thin. This mystery, set at a weight-loss clinic, wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great either. I could have lived without the diet tips thrown in, though they did make sense in context (as the heroine is focused on losing weight). Even more so, I could have lived without the romantic subplot, which has her being pursued by two different men. And I could have really lived without her being enough of an idiot to end up in a confrontation with the murderer that results in her being poisoned.

  3. Danielle Steele, Silent Honor. At last, a book I really enjoyed. This traces the story of a young woman from Japan, whose progressive father sends her to live with relatives and go to school in California. She gets stuck in the U.S. when World War II breaks out – and ends up in an internment camp with the family. There’s a romance with a (white) American man and a lot of complications before they end up living happily ever after post-war. I felt like I knew a lot more about the indignities suffered by Japanese Americans – and the differing reactions to them – after reading this. Recommended.

  4. Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, The Nest. This was a book club selection, though I ended up missing our meeting because I was sick. The story involves 4 siblings who are waiting to receive their nest egg from their father’s estate on the 40th birthday of the youngest. Then, one of them has a drunk driving incident and their mother uses the money to pay off the woman he’s injured. Unfortunately, all of them need money and try to find ways to manipulate him into paying them back. This was interesting enough, but the siblings were all unlikeable enough that I wanted them to just grow up already.

  5. Helen Van Slyke, No Love Lost. This is the story of a woman who grows up rich, marries the man of her dreams, and loses everything when her daughter dies in childbirth. There’s plenty of infidelity plus betrayal by a one-time best friend. Then there’s a most unsuitable second marriage… Despite all the trauma, most of the bad behavior of the various characters is understandable. So, while I wanted to tell them to grow up and/or go to therapy, I didn’t cringe at all of their behavior. Reasonably entertaining, but could have used some trimming.

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29 March 2019 @ 03:45 pm
Celebrity Death Watch: Randy Jackson was the last player to hit a home run for the Dodgers before they moved to Los Angeles. Scott Walker was a pop singer with the Walker Brothers and on his own. Rafi Eitan was an Israeli spymaster who captured Adolf Eichmann, but (on the minus side) ran Jonathan Pollard as one of his informants. Larry Cohen directed horror movies. Andrew Marshall directed the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment. Gabriel Okara was a pioneer in English language literature (poetry and novels) in Nigeria. Fred Malek was an advisor to Richard Nixon and is particularly notorious for giving Nixon a list of Jews at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. W. H. Pugmire wrote horror fiction. Ranking Roger was a ska singer, who headed up The (English) Beat. Michel Bacos was the Air France pilot who stayed with the Jewish and Israeli hostages when his plane was hijacked to Entebbe. Valery Bykovsky was a cosmonaut.

Don’t Analyze This Dream: I was stranded somewhere, possibly England, with all planes grounded, possibly after 9/11. Finally, they (not that I have any idea who "they" were) decided to bus everyone where they were going. Somehow, I ended up on a bus with only 3 other people. The driver got lost and we ended up going back to where we had been waiting. Apparently, everyone else had left. We had to wait for our bus to be repaired before we could go. I wondered how we were going to drive across the ocean, but it seemed we only had to drive to a ferry to cross the Atlantic.

MIT Intern Reception: Monday night was the annual reception for MIT students in the policy internship program. There weren’t any students interested in space policy this year, so I could just focus on giving general advice, aka corrupting young minds. One young woman told me I’d reassured her a lot when I told her it was okay not to know what she wanted to do, so I feel like I accomplished what I wanted to.

By the way, they changed venues this year. They've used a room in one of the House office buildings in the past. This time, they rented an event space next to the Shakespeare Theatre. The space looked attractive, but they didn't have as wide a variety of food. And it was very noisy.

Proper 21: A friend and I went out to dinner before theatre-going last night. This place was chosen entirely for a convenient location. The food was pretty good – or, at least, the roasted chicken with chimichurri sauce I had was good. But the service was mediocre (e.g. we had to ask a few times before getting our bill) and the noise level was outrageously loud. I won’t be going back unless I am with someone I really don’t want to converse with.

A Bronx Tale: The show we were going to see was A Bronx Tale at The National Theatre. I had seen neither Chazz Palminteri’s one man show nor the movie based on it, so I really had no idea what to expect. The basic story involves a boy named Calogero who witnesses a Mafia-related murder and, as a result of keeping quiet about it, gets involved with Sonny, the Mafioso, who treats him like a combination good-luck charm and son. That leads to conflict with Calogero’s parents. As Calogero grows up, race becomes a big issue, since he falls for a black girl in high school. His friends are ready to set off Molotov cocktails at a nightclub in the black neighborhood and Sonny keeps him from going along with them – which is fortunate, as they get blown up in their car. But Sonny gets killed by the son of the guy he’d killed at the beginning.

This is supposedly based on Palminteri’s life story, but I found parts of it rather implausible. Sonny’s lack of racism, for example, did not ring true. Nor did his encouraging Calogero to get out of the mob life. But, hey, I am a firm believer in emotional truths over facts, so I can suspend some disbelief.

This is a musical and I thought the music (by Alan Menken) worked reasonably well in pushing the story along. The most notable song is "Nicky Machiavelli," sung by Sonny to Calogero explaining his philosophy. And, while I like doo-wop, I do wish there had been a bit more of an ethnic flavor to the score.

I also wish there were local performers in it, but that is too much to ask for a short-run touring production of a Broadway musical. And several of the performers had been in the show on Broadway. I’ll particularly note Brianna-Marie Bell, who played Jane, and whose voice was particularly powerful in the song, "Webster Avenue," which opened the second act.

Overall, I enjoyed seeing this, but I wouldn’t put it into the essential musicals category.

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27 March 2019 @ 05:05 pm
The 42nd American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was this past weekend. I spent Friday morning at my office, trying to get through a couple of annoying tasks, but left in plenty of time to take an afternoon train up to Stamford, Connecticut. The travel went smoothly and I had a pleasant but windy walk from the train station to the Stamford Marriott. Last year, they’d left a decorated sugar cookie in my room. This year, it was a black and white cookie, which is even better. I suppose a ginger-lemon cookie would be too much to hope for next year.

Friday night’s puzzles started with a fun group game called "Hear Here" by Mike Shenk. The idea was that each team got a crossword grid and Mike read clues in random order. The trick was that the clues was auditorily ambiguous. For example, did he mean "seas" or "cease" or "seize?" Due to the random order, we sometimes had to wait a while to find crossings to resolve which of several possible answers to fill in. This was a lot of fun and we had reasonable teamwork. That was followed by the usual "Pick Your Poison," in which you chose which variety puzzles to do. The first round offered Cryptic, Puns and Anagrams, or Acrostic. I went with the Puns and Anagrams, largely because I figured more people would do the Cryptic. The second round had Marching Bands, Spiral, and Split Decisions. I’m not a big fan of the latter, and figured the Marching Bands would be my best bet. I did finish both puzzles I chose, though not fast enough to win a prize.

Then came the wine and cheese reception. It was very crowded and loud, so I settled for one glass of rose, said hello to several people (including meeting some who were new to me), but went up to my room earlyish.

The main event started Saturday at 11 in the morning. With a record attendance of 741 competitors, there were two ballrooms in use. I went to the downstairs one, which has better lighting and slightly more elbow room. Note that I will refrain from spoilers here, though I did put one in rot13 in the comments.

Puzzle 1 was by Kathy Weinberg, who was a new ACPT constructor. The first puzzle is, basically, a warm-up and I solved it easily enough in just about a typical time for me. The theme was straightforward and, frankly, I think one could easily have solved it without paying any attention to the theme. But that is also typical of Puzzle 1. As a couch potato of my acquaintance says, "Sofa, so good."

Puzzle 2 was by Joel Fagliano. As it was handed out, Will Shortz said something suggesting it would be particularly difficult. I know Joel is capable of diabolical puzzles (he wrote last year’s Puzzle 5, which killed me), so I was concerned. As it happened, there was fill in the northwest corner that was easy for me and, once I had the first few letters of 25A, I immediately knew what the revealer was. So I grasped the theme fairly quickly and zoomed through the puzzle. Zoomed is, of course, relative, as I was a good 9 minutes slower than Dan Feyer and Joon Park. Still, I was happy with how it went.

Puzzle 3 was by Patrick Berry. The theme was straightforward – at least for a human solver, as Dr. Fill stumbled with it. I did have some hesitation over 37D, which I had never heard of before, but I was confident in the crossings. As we broke for lunch, I felt good about how the tournament was going.

I felt less good about the long wait for the elevator, but I wasn’t up to walking to the 14th floor to get my jacket. Warm clothing retrieved, [personal profile] bugsybanana and I walked over to the mall food court and caught up on both puzzles and life in general over lunch. I should probably note that they’ve closed off half the food court (presumably for renovation) which did make things a bit slower. But there was still more than enough time.

Puzzle 4 by Jeff Stillman was interesting. There was some difficult fill. A lot of people had trouble with 23A. I’d seen that word before, at least – unlike 44A. I will admit to not having completely understood one aspect of the theme, but I was confident in the crossings. I thought this was a good challenge, but admit I didn’t love this puzzle, largely because I didn’t think 3 of the 4 theme answers were all that interesting. Still, I was glad to have solved cleanly – and psyching myself up for the dreaded Puzzle 5.

I was rather relieved to see that Puzzle 5 was by Evan Birnholz. He writes the puzzle for the Sunday Washington Post, so I do his puzzles a lot. While he is capable of being diabolical and this puzzle was tricky, I thought it was the easiest Puzzle 5 in my ACPT experience. I finished it with a little over 5 minutes to spare. I didn’t completely grasp the theme until after I had completely filled it in, but I had an "aha" moment, sussed it out, and successfully double checked my answers. I was past the worst of it and solving cleanly, so I felt good. I was in 162nd place (out of 741) at that point.

I should also note that the clock stopped working some time during Puzzle 5. They had a clock display on the screen that they’d used to project the main ballroom, but it was a lot harder to read. It was a minor glitch, but an annoying one.

And then I blew it with a dumb error on Puzzle 6. That was a straightforward puzzle by Lynn Lempel. I didn’t have a problem with knowing the answers – I just couldn’t write! Imagine writing a four letter word. Let’s make this more interesting and use FUCK as an example (which was not, of course, the actual word in question). If you are me, it is all too easy to get ahead of yourself and accidentally write FUKK. I should have caught that via the crossings – especially since I had caught myself doing more or less the same thing a couple of rows above. But, no. Maybe I was just tired. Maybe it was my frustration over not being able to see the clock easily. Maybe it was gremlins or the New York Yankees (more or less the same thing in my book). But, whatever, I ended up with an incorrect square. I blew the clean solving and dropped 60 or so places in the standings.

I was, in fact, very tired and opted for resting versus eating dinner (though I did chitchat with some folks before going up to my room to collapse). I made it downstairs for the Saturday evening program, which started with the MEmoRiaL award, which is given for lifetime achievement in puzzle construction. (It is spelled that way in memory of Merl Reagle.) This year it went to the highly deserving Mike Shenk. Not only is he prolific, but he has invented excellent forms of variety puzzles.

That was followed by Matt Ginsberg’s annual report on his AI program, Dr. Fill. I lost interest in the subject after maybe a couple of years attending the ACPT, so I was glad that Matt had a much snappier (and shorter) presentation this year.

The final Saturday night event was a live version of HQ Trivia. There were several rounds with people standing if they knew the correct answer to a question (and sitting down when they were out) until under 10 people were left. Those people went up to the front of the room and held up cards with a number to indicate their answer choice, until only one was left. The winner of each round got $50. I never made it to the final rounds, alas, but I did have fun.

After basking in glory the previous evening, Mike Shenk was the constructor of Sunday’s Puzzle 7. I figured out the theme reasonably quickly, but was a bit slower than I’d have liked to be. Still, I did solve cleanly, which was a relief.

The rest of the day involved the talent show, which was preceded by a brief taping of a get well wish for Alex Trebek. (There are a lot of folks at the ACPT who’ve been on Jeopardy, myself included.) Then came awards and the finals. Dan Feyer set a new record with his 8th victory. An interesting footnote is that the B Division finals were vacated because of an earlier scoring error, which hadn’t been caught in time.

As for how I did, I was (obviously) disappointed in my error on Puzzle 6. But I did do better than last year – and every year except 2017. I’ll also note that even if I had solved Puzzle 6 cleanly, I wasn’t fast enough to have made it up to the B Division. More importantly, I saw lots of friends and had a good time. Which is really what it’s about.

2009 – 265 / 654 (55th percentile)
2012 – 241 / 594 (59th percentile)
2014 – 202 / 580 (65th percentile)
2016 – 171 / 576 (70th percentile)
2017 – 141 / 619 (77th percentile)
2018 – 254 / 674 (62nd percentile)
2019 – 220 / 741 ((70th percentile)

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18 March 2019 @ 04:27 pm
Celebrity Death Watch: Jim Raman was one of the Married Dentists on The Amazing Race. Joffre Stewart was a beat poet. W. S. Merwin was an off-beat poet. No, actually, he wrote about nature and won the Pulitzer, but I couldn’t resist. Marjorie Weinman Sharmat wrote children’s books, notably the Nate the Great series. Frank Cali was the head of the Gambino crime family. Tom Hatten acted in numerous movies but is more famous for hosting children’s television shows in Los Angeles. Richard Erdman acted in over 160 movies. Dick Dale was a guitarist, known primarily for surf music.

Birch Bayh was a senator from Indiana, who ran for President in 1976. He was responsible for two constitutional amendments (the 25th, dealing with Presidential disability and succession, and the 26th, which lowered the voting age to 18). But what was probably even more of an achievement was Title IX, which bans gender discrimination in higher education. He also worked on the Equal Rights Amendment and on an attempt to eliminate the Electoral College. In short, he was one of the good guys in my political reckoning. And he had a really cool name.

Weather: We had a day or two of lovely warmth, but it is now chilly again. The warmth inspired the trees to get ready for public sex and Thursday supposedly had the highest recorded tree pollen levels for March in the D.C. metro area. Sigh.

Hands on a Hardbody: I went to see Hands on a Hardbody at Keegan Theatre on Friday night. This is a musical that was only on Broadway for about a month, so is not well-known, but it sounded interesting. The premise is that 10 people are competing to win a truck from an East Texas dealership by lasting the longest at a contest, in which they have to stand with one hand on the truck at all times. They get only a 15 minute break every six hours. (This is, by the way, a real thing. The musical is based on a documentary about it.) The real story is, of course, who the people are and why they are willing to do this. Some of the stories are more compelling than others, of course. I particularly liked Jesus, who was saving up to go to veterinary school, and JD, who had been injured at work – and fired, as a result. The villain of the piece is Benny, who had won before. He’s trying again because his wife ran off with the truck he won the last time. In the end, he turns out to have a more sympathetic story than it seems at first. The other villain is Heather, who the dealership owner, Mike, has fixed to win. I had no sympathy for her.

The music was written by Amanda Green (who also did the lyrics) and Trey Anastasio (of the rock band, Phish) and is an interesting mix of styles. There wasn’t anything that was memorable, but it was an enjoyable enough score and fit the story well. I should also mention that the book was written by Doug Wright, who is probably best known for his Tony Award for I Am My Own Wife.

As for the performances, I particularly liked Shayla Lowe as Norma, John Loughney as Benny, and Duane Richards III as Chris. All of the performers were good, but some have fewer opportunities to be noticed as dramatically.

Overall, I thought this was worth seeing. I would also like to see the documentary it was based on.

Travel Show: I went to the Travel Show at the Convention Center on Saturday with a friend. I was pretty disappointed in it this year, though it may have been because I was tired after being out on Friday night. Plus, I had been to the much larger New York Travel Show in late January. I didn’t talk with people at any booth who made me excited about a destination I wasn’t already aware of. And none of the talks I went to were all that inspirational. I thought Peter Greenberg was particularly bad. While he was amusing, much of his advice was incorrect or irrelevant for most people. For example, he suggested that one should either carry-on or FedEx their baggage to their destination. Fine if you are going cross-country and staying in one place, but not feasible for a trip involving camping in the developing world. One person asked for suggestions about car rentals and he recommended either relying completely on Uber or using a European car company’s overseas purchase program. Oy.

I heard a little bit of Ian Brownlee from the State Department offering security tips, but he didn’t say anything I didn’t already know. And he was a less than engaging speaker. And then there was a talk by TV host Kellee Edwards on "How to Travel Safely and Explore More." I wouldn’t take advice on that subject from someone who got on the back of a motorcycle driven by a complete stranger when she got lost twice trying to find a waterfall near her hotel. She might have done better to have learned more than three words of the local language and to have found out how far a kilometer is.

Unconventional Diner: Because we were at the Convention Center, we got dinner at Unconventional Diner, right around the corner. I got a drink called Beast of Burden, which was, essentially, a glorified Moscow Mule – and quite tasty. As for food, I tried their chicken noodle soup, which was delicious. The broth was meaty tasting and slightly spicy, and was filled with chicken, alphabet noodles, carrots, mushrooms, and had two fluffy scallion matzoh balls. My friend was happy with her meatloaf, too. I got a scoop of raspberry-lychee sorbet for dessert, which was tasty, although, frankly, it would have been even better without the lychee.

Sunday: I had lots of household stuff I intended to get done. But I was out of the house for a few hours for a rehearsal for an upcoming storytelling show and did a couple of errands (e.g. grocery shopping) in the way back. Not nearly as much got done as should have. Oh, well.

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15 March 2019 @ 01:32 pm
First, re: the Christchurch attacks, about all I can say is that it proves that it can happen anywhere. Nobody is safe. Some (white, Christian, cis-gendered men) are relatively safer, but they run the risk of believing they’re in danger and perpetrating horrible acts out of that. To quote Jonathan Richman (in a somewhat different context), "people are disgusting."

On a broader note, the whole idea of entitlement is also a lot of what was behind that college cheating scandal. I didn’t grow up in an environment where anybody had enough money to think that way – or, frankly, to believe that there was any hope of finding their way to an elite university. Except, some of us did. I mean, I’m the daughter of a refugee and I ended up at MIT. A guy I grew up with was the son of a conductor on the railroad and went to Harvard (and, later on, Columbia Law School). We did have a community ethos that led to relatively high taxes that funded good public schools, with the complexity that my home town was too small to have its own high school and, in retrospect, there was probably some racism involved in the choice of which school we did end up contracting with. An interesting thing about school budgets is that, since our school district had its own, there were years when we got schoolbooks and the kids from the district where the school was located, which had not approved their budget and was on austerity, did not.

But there were also people who went into the military or got apprenticed to trades or took over the family business. And the majority of the ones who went to college went to local schools (including community college) or state schools. Sure, parents would boast about kids who were at more prestigious places, but that just wasn’t the be all and end all of their lives. What a difference 40-something years makes!

Is our culture really that screwed up or is it just the celebrity news mill at work? Can we still think about the good of the community instead of individual greed? Or am I just a hopeless dreamer?

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13 March 2019 @ 04:32 pm
Celebrity Death Watch: Boro Maa was the matriarch of Matu Mahasangha, a Hindu reformist sect in West Bengal. Carolee Schneemann was an artist. Charlie Panigoniak was an Inuit singer, best known for his version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" in the Inuktitut language. Carmine Persico was the head of the Colombo crime family. Ralph Hall was the oldest person ever to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. Dan Jenkins was a sportswriter, as is his daughter, Sally, who wrote a particularly excellent obituary of him in the Washington Post. Jed Allen was a soap opera actor. Raven Grimassi wrote books promoting an Italian form of Wicca. Asa Brebner was a guitarist who, among other things, performed with The Modern Lovers on a couple of their albums. Hal Blaine was a prolific session drummer.

Jerry Merryman was one of the inventors of the handheld electric calculator. I am old enough to remember when calculators were not ubiquitous. If I recall correctly, it wasn’t until 11th grade physics that we were allowed to use them for exams. And those early calculators just did addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, and – if you had a really fancy one – exponents. That fancy one was, in my case, the Bowmar Brain, which cost $75. It was only a couple of years later, when I started college, that I got a Texas Instruments scientific calculator. I think it may have been a programmable one. It cost over $100 and had terrible battery life. By the time I graduated, I could buy a Sharp scientific calculator for about $20. That used AA batteries and lasted a couple of decades.

Non-celebrity Death Watch: Another former colleague, Sy Horowitz, died last week. He was a really nice guy, always interesting to talk with during a lunchtime walk on business trips. I wasn’t completely surprised, given that he was over 90, but having lost so many colleagues over the years makes me feel old.

Mostly Better: However, the cold viruses grabbed my vocal chords with them on their way out. Sigh.

Daylight Savings Time: I think I have found all the clocks that need to be reset. I cannot, however, figure out how to reset the owl that is nesting in our courtyard.

For the record, I would favor staying on DST year round. I love lots of light late in the afternoon. Please don’t remind me I said that if you should happen to be in the car with me at sunset, when I am likely to be whining about glare.

Social Media Annoyance: I can’t update my facebook status for some reason. Nor can I see my timeline. So, of course, I have all sorts of clever things I want to say.

That College Admissions Scandal: What I really want to know is how much the students involved were told about what was going on. I don’t think that, in general, students care as much about the alleged prestige of various schools as their parents do. (And, by the way, there are only two schools on the list that I would consider actual elite colleges, but that’s probably my academic snobbery at work.) I know there are students who have unrealistic views of what their dream school is, but it isn’t doing them any favors to get them into somewhere that isn’t a good fit for their abilities and interests. Of course, It appears that in some cases, their interests are partying and skiing, so I can understand why parents might not want to finance their little darling's dream education.

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