Dazed and confused? Not me. I’m just Lost in the Cheese Aisle.

Friday, June 22, 2018

ON ATLANTA ROAD NOMENCLATURE

Everybody knows about Atlanta roads. All of their names include some variant of Peachtree.

Peachtree Street.
West Peachtree Street.
Peachtree Corners.
Peachtree Parkway.
Peachtree Battle...

... plus at least fifty others. (There are, in fact, seventy-one roads here with some mention of Peachtree in their names, according to Wikipedia.)

The number of roads bearing mention of some sort of bridge, ferry, or mill are also legion. This makes perfect sense given the both the geography and history of the area. You have numerous rivers, which historically were used to power mills for producing flour or cloth. And to get across those rivers, you needed bridges and ferries. (Tunnels, not so much.)

Another thing you learn about roads in these parts is that they’re often named for where they take you. For example, there are two different Roswell Roads: one in Sandy Springs that goes north-south, and one in Marietta that is mostly east-west. They’ll both take you to Roswell. And the same road that’s called Roswell Road in Marietta becomes - wait for it! - Marietta Highway when you get to Roswell. If you don’t know about this, you can get completely farblondjet (lost) when driving here.

But my favorites are the ones with the oddball names... names like Trickum Road, Hardscrabble Road, and (one of my personal favorites) Scufflegrit Road. All three are just a short drive from our new digs in Woodstock.

Trickum. That’s a great name for a road. It’s also a great name for a law firm: “Dewey, Trickum, and Howe.” I would love to know more about the history of that road and how it got that name.

Hardscrabble. Another great name. The word refers to a place that is barren, barely arable, and where one can barely eke out a meager living. Impoverished, piss-poor, miserable. You’d think a road by that name would be paved with gravel and turds. (This one is not, but may have been when it was first constructed.)

Scufflegrit. This word evokes images of the cloud of dirt surrounding Popeye and Bluto as they are engaged in beating the shit out of each other... or perhaps the crusty material on Tyler Durden’s face. It’s practically romantic.

Come to Atlanta! We have all kinds of fascinating roads for you to drive on.

TODAY’S EARWORM

Doctor where’s your remedy?
I’ve got enough to pay the fee
Can’t you see I’m awful sick?
I’ll pay you well to do the trick

Doctor, doctor
Doctor, doctor
Doctor, doctor
Doctor, doctor
Doctor, doctor
Doctor, doctor

Doctor where’s your magic box
There’s no one here to count the cost
Name your price and make the sale
There’s no-one here to tell the tale

Doctor, doctor...

Doctor please don’t lock your door
I’ve never troubled you before
Just a pinch to ease the pain
I’ll never trouble you again

Doctor, doctor...

Just a pinch to ease the pain
I’ll never trouble you again
Just a pinch to ease the pain
I’ll never trouble you again

- Procol Harum, “Robert’s Box”

Friday, June 15, 2018

ROAD RAGE, BROUGHT TO A WHOLE NEW LEVEL

Every once in a while, in these days of ever more appalling events, there comes along a little News-Tidbit that is so far beyond the pale that it causes even my jaw to drop. And my long-term Esteemed Readers - assuming any of you are still around - know that I am not easily astonished.

Let’s set the stage.

Many of us - probably all of us - have, at one time or another, been angered by the actions of other drivers on our public highways. (Let’s face it, pretty much everyone on the road is a douchebag except for you and me.) Many of us will react with a few Vile Oaths, shouted within the sealed cabin of our automobiles... or even an outstretched middle finger in especially provocative circumstances.

But there is always a certain amount of risk attached to an outward display of anger. When especially hot-tempered individuals are involved, anger can escalate into an actual Road Rage Incident. Such incidents can range from simple stoplight shouting matches through open windows, to fist fights on the side of the road, to people getting brained with tire irons or golf clubs, to drivers opening fire on one other.

None of this should be surprising in a well armed and increasingly contentious country. And yet a recent incident in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania brings Road Rage to an entirely new level. Kicks it up a notch, in the words of Emeril Lagasse. BAM!

Yes, Lehigh County, where two guys got out of their cars after one cut the other off in traffic. A roadside argument ensued, during which, according to the news reports, one of the drivers defecated on the other... presumably ending the argument. Mic drop? Hells, naw - Deuce drop!

So many questions beg to be answered.

Just how angry do you have to be for you to take a shit on someone else?

How does one manage the logistics? It’s unimaginable that one could convince a hot-headed driver to stay still long enough so that one could drop trou and let fly on him.

Did the incident take place on a busy interstate or a quiet country lane?

A couple of these questions are answered by follow-up news reports, which have the offending driver laying (heh) blame on his IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). (You’d think that he’d give the other guy a warning, but I suspect he took advantage of an opportunity.)

So: Now that the precedent has been established, be careful about calling another driver to whom you are party in a dispute an asshole. He just might choose to show you that he has one, and he knows how to use it.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

MISTER COFFEE

They call me Mister Coffee
‘Cause coffee helps me go
Whenever there’s a job to do
Mister Coffee makes it so

The first thing every morning
I have my cup of joe
Its effect upon my system
Is anything but slow

I take my coffee with me
In savanna or in bush
And when the morning sun comes up
It provides that needed push

My Go-Juice keeps my innards
A-ticking like a clock
I’m never, ever suffering
From any kind of block

Those times a Big Job must be done
Mister Coffee is your man
I’ll run (not limp) to drop or crimp
And keep you on your plan

They call me Mister Coffee
‘Cause coffee helps me go
Whenever there’s a job to do
Mister Coffee makes it so

Saturday, May 26, 2018

THERE ARE LIMITS... EVEN FOR ME

Despite my being old enough for Medicare, I am like most grown men in that there lurks inside me a prepubescent male with a prepubescent way of finding humor in Gross Things.

I have done my share of shitblogging. I have written sonnets - yes, sonnets - about bodily functions and fluids. I have gone so far as to write a post about my own earwax when said wax fell out of my ear in the form of a chunk the size of an English pea.

All of this is revolting, sure, but even I have my limits.

Dee - my beloved missus - had had occasion to use a public facility the other day. It was a one-holer, and a small queue had formed. Eventually, the lady in front of her went in, and as Dee waited outside, she could hear a veritable Hiroshima of hawking, hacking, and nose-blowing. Then it was Dee’s turn to use the rest room.

After the obligatory Positioning of the Paper Seat Protector, she sat down, whereupon her horrified attention was drawn to a pile of Rope-Snot on the floor, just out of range of her feet.

I dunno ’bout you, but to me, leaving a giant snot-wad on the floor is almost as revolting as dropping a deuce in the shower. As Mister Debonair would say, “It is the sort of thing that one simply does not do.” And Dee was unsure about the appropriate course of action. Should she pick it up in a paper towel and discard it? Photograph it?

As it turns out, she did neither. And that is fine with me. Going anywhere near it would have been nasty, and to photograph it would’ve been equivalent to photographing a turd on a dinner plate.

I have been guilty of many horrible things, but even I have my limits – and apparently Dee does too.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

SINFONIA MAGNETICA

Getting an MRI is unlike most people’s daily experiences... unless one’s day consists of lying uncomfortably supine while being shoved into a narrow tube and being subjected to an array of buzzing, clanging, and whanging sounds that would do Edgard Varèse proud.

It’s not much fun, but at least it doesn’t involve having objects inserted into various Bodily Orifices. So there’s that.

And it’s an opportunity to demonstrate one’s ability to take a nap under adverse conditions. If people can snooze on the New York subways, how hard can it be to sleep in what may be likened  to the bastard offspring of a casket and a giant metallic doughnut?

As for results, we’ll just have to wait, won’t we?

Postscriptum: As my friend Mr. Bogner points out in the comments, I may not have had an object inserted in me, but I was, rather, inserted into an object. I suppose one could think of it as the metaphysical inverse of a colonoscopy.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

ON PORRIDGE

Everyone has, buried deep in the crevices of his or her brain, a well of childhood Food-Memories... and for many of us, those memories involve some kind of hot cereal.

Whether you called it hot cereal, porridge, or mush - the latter having a decidedly negative connotation - it was (and is) a completely different experience than the typical cold cereal-with-milk breakfast. Cold cereal is quick and easy. Hot cereal is work-intensive - a morning meal more suited to lazy weekend mornings or snow days.

Oh, sure - there are plenty of “instant” hot cereals. Instant oatmeal. Instant grits. Tear open the packet and add hot water: Bingo! But those are beneath contempt. A proper bowl of porridge takes time.

So let’s take a look at some of these cerealic delights, shall we?

Grits. Grits are made from hominy, alkali-treated ground maize. I consider grits to be in their own category, more of a savory dish that can be served with breakfast than a breakfast by themselves. Grits can be doctored up with cheese and other tasty components, but sweetening a bowl of grits is an act that is committed only by Northerners who are inexperienced and ignorant of the Way of the Grit.

Farina. Farina is a form of milled wheat, popularly sold under the brand name Cream of Wheat. It has a mild, innocuous taste. In my Snot-Nose Days, I thought Cream of Wheat was pretty nondescript, but I actually learned to appreciate its mild, wheaty flavor as I grew older. Best augmented with a bit of butter and/or cream and your sweetener of choice.

Cream of Rice. This is a proprietary brand of coarsely ground rice. That’s it - just rice. It’s probably the only cereal I can think of that’s even more bland than Cream of Wheat... perfect for invalids. Add a little butter and milk and you have a hot breakfast even a toddler can appreciate. Throw in some scallions, a piece of fish, and maybe some chili oil, and you have a passable version of congee, AKA chuk, the ubiquitous Asian rice dish.

Oatmeal. Many of us in America grew up on rolled oats, which take all of fifteen minutes to cook. Quicker cooking versions are available, but the tradeoff is the loss of oatmeal’s characteristic texture. And - speaking of texture - steel-cut oats have a delightful nubbly mouthfeel, which comes at the expense of a longer cooking time. The Mistress of Sarcasm introduced me to the pleasure of steel-cut oats with a spoonful of peanut butter stirred in, and they’re also great when cooked with some Earl Grey tea.

Maltex. Now we head into the realm of the obscure, with this semi-superannuated cereal made of a blend of wheat and malted barley syrup. It’s still around, but not a common supermarket item. All I can say is that I liked it when I was a kid.

Maypo. Those of us of a certain age will remember the ads for this maple-flavored oat cereal, in which one Marky Maypo (voiced by an actual four-year-old) would insist, “I want my Maypo!” to the eternal consternation of his Dad. I was never a fan: The stuff was too sweet and mushy for my taste.

Wheatena. This one is also pretty obscure, but your local Superdupermarket might actually carry it. It’s a wheat-based cereal (as is obvious from the name) with an assertive flavor that is a million miles away from the bland Cream of Wheat style. A hot bowl of Wheatena transports me back sixty years in time like few other breakfasts can do.

So: What’s your favorite hot cereal?

Postscriptum: This morning I made myself a pot of Earl Grey steel-cut oats. First I steeped the tea in hot milk, then cooked the oats in the scented milk. A little Irish butter, some Demerara sugar, and Bob’s your uncle! Magnificent. Try it!

Monday, April 9, 2018

WILD WILD COUNTRY

I have written numerous times about my perverse ability to make up dopey songs - or dopey lyrics to actual songs - a talent that has, on occasion, caught my daughters flatfooted.

F’r example, there was the time Elder Daughter was attending a performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar” in Boston with a group of her college friends. It’s an outdoor performance on the Common, and ED and her buddies are all singing along:

Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ -
Who are you, what have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ, superstar -
Who in the hell do you think you are?

At this point all eyes swivel toward Elder Daughter. “Hey, those aren’t the right lyrics!” And she responds, “Yes, they are! I learned them from... (growing realization that she has been duped)... my Dad! Aaarrrrgggh!

And then there was the time Allison E., the daughter of family friends - roughly the same age as Elder Daughter - was playing French horn in a concert. The program included a selection from George Frederick Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabeus - “See, The Conqu’ring Hero Comes!” and as she began playing, she completely lost her shit. Wait, what?

Elder Daughter, back in her Snot-Nose Days, was learning Suzuki method violin, and when she began learning that particular little chunk of Judas Maccabeus, I made up some of my trademark Nutty Lyrics to go with the tune:

Zippy the Pinhead
Has a polka-dotted suit
And he thinks that he is cute
In his dotted suit.

Zippy has a friend named Shelf-Life
He’s got great big lips
Shelf-Life has a girlfriend, Vizeen
She’s got enormous hips...

I like to believe that my little tune kept ED interested in violin at least long enough to learn “See, The Conqu’ring Hero Comes!” - but who knows? She and her friends (including Allison E.) found it amusing enough. What I do know is that when Allison remembered it some twenty-odd years later, French horn in hand, mouthpiece to her lips, she lost both her composure and her embouchure.

Which brings me to today’s story.

Apparently, both Elder Daughter and the Mistress of Sarcasm have been watching a series on Netflix: Wild Wild Country, a documentary about one Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, an Indian guru, and the eponymous community he established in Oregon: Rajneeshpuram.

Both girls had the same reaction when the Bhagwan appeared on the small screen. Why is this dude’s name so strangely familiar?

And that, of course, is when they remembered... from early childhood, another of Daddy’s stupid songs:

Excuse me - I have to pish
Don’t you know I am a follower of

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh

He’ll satisfy your ev’ry wish
Just as long as you’re a follower of
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh...

(sung to the tune of “Forty-Second Street”)

Until they started watching Wild Wild Country, they had never known that the Bhagwan was an actual person - but they had known his name for three decades. How ’bout dat?

[Why do I do this? I blame Mad Magazine.]

INNER SPACE

As I was driving around the back roads of North Cobb County a few days ago, I decided to listen to some music. Old music. Music from my Semi-Degenerate College Years. And I didn’t have to lift a finger: I simply said, “Hey, Siri - play Chick Corea.” And Siri complied, pulling up one of my favorite Chick Corea compositions: “Guijira,” from the Inner Space album.

Inner Space was my first introduction to Corea’s work. I first discovered it in the spring of my sophomore year of college, back in 1972, when it was a newly released vinyl double album. Most of the tracks had actually been recorded six years earlier.

It was fascinating. Real jazz - modern jazz, but nothing like the jazz-rock fusion that was becoming popular among my age cohort. And the personnel! Hubert Laws, Woody Shaw, Joe Farrell - each one hugely talented individually, but together in the ensemble directed by Corea, greater than the sum of their parts.

“Guijira” was a particular favorite of mine, a track that featured Hubert Laws’s flute, Chick Corea’s masterful piano, and a soaring trumpet solo by Woody Shaw, all with a subtle Latin foundation. Forty-six years later, and it still gives me the shivers.

All those years ago, I would gently pull the LP from its sleeve, place it on my turntable, and carefully drop the tonearm onto the spinning vinyl - and music would soar forth from my speakers. But no more. My copy of Inner Space is gone, having been deep-sixed along with all my other vinyl LP’s earlier this year... a casualty of the Great Purge.

And yet I still have my Inner Space. Now it resides on my computer’s hard drive and in my mobile devices in the form of a string of ones and zeroes. And I can call it forth with the touch of a button... or with the simple command, “Hey, Siri.”

Thursday, March 29, 2018

IN WHICH ELISSON CONFLATES GOLF AND ATOMIC PHYSICS

Today I took special care to get up early (never an easy task given the best of conditions) so I could be on time for the morning minyan. Now that we’re farther north, I have to allow about twelve more minutes for travel... and of course I had to be there, on account of it being Mom’s Yahrzeit.

After services, following our local custom, those of us observing Yahrzeit bought breakfast for the other attendees: our way of thanking them for showing up. And, also following our local custom, we had our usual Post-Minyan Bullshit Session while enjoying said breakfast.

Sometimes we talk of religious matters, sometimes of the mundane, and even (more often than one might think) of the vulgar and even profane. But today I managed something that surprised even me. I managed to conflate two very different topics: golf and quantum mechanics.

It all started with my talking about my Mom, who was a three-day-a-week golfer.

Mom was not your typical hausfrau. She didn’t stay home and bake pies. (I had a friend whose mother baked a pie a day, and often two. To me, that seemed surreal. Hell, it still seems surreal.)

No, she got out and about. She frequented the library and the golf course. She had, as described by my next-door neighbor fifty years later, outside interests. That made her different from all the other moms on the block.

I inherited my mother’s love of golf, but alas, little of her skill or perserverance. That is a story for another time, but the point is, I still love golf despite my ineptitude.

Not everyone is a golfer, though, and many people despise the game... including several of my friends at the breakfast table. What was it, they asked, that I liked about golf, aside from it being the game my mother tried to teach me?

My answer, strangely enough, involves quantum mechanics and the structure of the atom.

Most of us, when asked to describe an atom, think of those drawings of a nucleus (protons and neutrons) with electrons spinning around it like planets orbiting the Sun. But that’s not how things work in the domain of the teeny-tiny where the rules of quantum physics take over. We can’t know where a given electron is at any moment: all we can do is figure out the probability that it will be in a particular place. If we make a diagram of that probability, it looks like a fuzzy cloud... and different electrons inhabit differently shaped clouds. These clouds are (confusingly) called orbitals.

This is not the place, Esteemed Reader, for a chemistry lesson (if you want that, go to the link above), but suffice it to say that the p orbital, with its Indian club-shaped probability distribution, is a good way to model a golf game.

When I stand at the tee, I see a world of possibilities. There is the extremely unlikely prospect of the ball somehow ending up behind me. There is a much greater probability that it will end up somewhere in front of me, but the chance of it going 300 yards in a straight line is almost nil. And these probabilities can be represented by a map that looks a lot like a lopsided p orbital.

Someone like Phil Mickelson will have a “golfy orbital” that looks more like a pencil than a big fluffy cloud, because he hits the ball pretty close to where he intends for it to go. Mine, of course, is all over the damn place... yet there’s always that small chance that I will hit a shot worthy of the Teevee. Kinda like hitting a flush in Texas Hold ’em: improbable but possible. It’s what keeps gamblers in their seats at the tables in Vegas. Hey, it could happen!

That’s my story, anyway. Golf and quantum mechanics... who knew?

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

THIRTY YEARS BEYOND THE VEIL

Bernice 1943
The Momma d’Elisson, in her Brooklyn College yearbook photo.

Today is Mom’s Yahrzeit - the anniversary of her death as reckoned by the Hebrew calendar.

It has been thirty years since she slipped beyond the veil that hides the World to Come from we who live. Thirty years! And still my heart aches for her.

I mourn for all the days she missed with us... and especially with her granddaughters. I mourn for the family occasions at which she was no longer here in physical form.

And like many adults, there is that part of me that mourns for my lost childhood, the days when my cares were the simple cares of children and when my mother and father were there to love, care for, and nurture me. We grow out of those childhood days in the natural course of things. If we are fortunate enough, we survive middle age, we grow old, we eventually become elderly. Yet no matter how long our years, no matter how raddled with forgetfulness our minds, we never lose that little bit of longing to recapture those sweet times when we were loved, cared for, and nurtured.

I cannot bring her back. But I can light a candle for her and remember how wonderful life was when she was with us in the World That Is.


Mom at age fifty-eight. Looka dat smile!

Monday, March 26, 2018

THE POKÉ PHENOMENON

Not Pokémon. Just Poké, mon.

Poké bars are popping up in Atlanta’s ’burbs like those proverbial post-spring-rain fungi.

Dee and I first discovered the Poké Bar Phenomenon a few weeks ago while casting about for a place to grab a quick lunch in Sandy Springs. Looking at one of my iPhone apps for something nearby, I saw something with which I was unfamiliar: a close-by place calling itself “Poké Bar.” A straightforward, simple, descriptive name, like a calling a beer “Beer.”

We gave it a try. It was set up a little like the old-school cafeterias, where you’d proceed along a counter and pile stuff on your tray. But here, the piling up was done on the other side of the counter. Into a bowl, the server would layer a base (rice, greens, or both); various additives (soybeans, scallions, ginger, seaweed, jalapeños, et al.); sauces; proteins (mostly various kinds of raw fish); toppings; and various sprinkly stuff. The result is something resembling an elaborate version of chirashi-zushi, the Japanese dish in which several kinds of raw fish are served as toppings on a bowl of sushi rice.

It was delightful.

On the way home, we saw that another poké shoppe was soon to open right in our neighborhood. And since then, we’ve not only checked that one out, but gone to yet another one a few miles up the road in Alpharetta.

Poké is something that - if I’m not mistaken - is a Hawai‘ian dish that became immensely popular in California before metastatizing to points east. And if it’s made it to Atlanta, you can be sure that it will be in a neighborhood near you before too long.

Give it a try! I know a few people who treat raw fish as though it were radioactive, but most everyone else just might enjoy it.

IF BY MAGA

My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about MAGA. All right, here is how I feel about MAGA:

If when you say MAGA you mean returning to an America in which systematic racism - both de facto and de jure - is embedded in the nation’s culture; an America in which the oppression of people of color is so prevalent as to be invisible to the oppressors; an America in which anti-Semitic attitudes are normative; an America in which a simple glance suffices as justification for a brutal death sentence administered by hateful mobs; an America that reviles rather than welcomes the stranger; an America in which the air and rivers are dark with industrial poisons; an America in which religious minorities are treated with contempt rather than the respect enshrined in the nation’s Constitution; an America in which tens of thousands of our youth are sacrificed needlessly on the altar of geopolitics in an unwinnable war; an America in which our industries and the world’s economy are hobbled by protectivism; an America in which great medical advances are used to enrich the few rather than cure the many; an America in which the high offices of the nation are occupied by kleptocrats who seek to enrich themselves by virtue of their positions; an America in which politicians exhibit a flagrant disregard for the truth; an America in which self-serving propaganda is lauded while the free press is excoriated; then certainly I am against it.

But, if when you say MAGA you mean an America in which members of all political persuasions value the Constitution and the nation’s interests over those of their own party; an America in which the spirit of compromise is alive and healthy; an America that speaks softly but carries a big stick; an America that is a steadfast friend to its allies and an implacable enemy to its foes; an America in which all citizens, regardless of color, national origin, religion, and sexual preference, are protected from discrimination; an America in which women control their own procreative capabilities; an America with clear air and clean water; an America that extends a helping hand to the poorest among us; an America in which all citizens possess equal opportunity to succeed to the best of their abilities; an America that is inclusive rather than exclusive; an America in which the press is valued as a guarantor of freedom; an America with an economy unfettered by trade restrictions and that stands astride the world as a Colossus; an America that inspires the globe by its values; an America that lifts its lamp beside the golden door; then certainly I am for it.

This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.

[Inspired by the famous 1952 “If By Whiskey” speech by Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat, Jr., of Mississippi.]

Monday, March 12, 2018

ANOTHER YEAR WITHOUT HIM

Eli, 1950
Eli (1925-2014) in his college graduation photo.

Today, the twenty-fifth of the Hebrew month Adar, is my father’s Yahrzeit - the anniversary of his death.

There are traditions to be observed. When the day begins, we light a memorial candle, a candle that will burn at least 24 hours. Watching it flicker on the mantel in the darkened family room always makes me think of the transience of life while simultaneously reminding me of the soul’s eternal nature.

At sunrise I attend the morning service. I recite the ancient words of the Kaddish, a doxology that, despite its association with mourning and bereavement, makes no mention of death. And I intone the mournful litany of the Memorial Prayer.

After services, I treat the minyan crowd to breakfast - my way of thanking them for ensuring that enough people are present at services. It’s a peculiar local custom, but one I enjoy. (We observe birthdays the same way.) Today is a bit different because we have an appointment which requires that we postpone our group breakfast, but them’s the breaks.

All this rigmarole is intended to keep alive the memory of our Departed Ones, and I therefore cherish it... but, strictly speaking, it is unnecessary. For I keep Dad’s memory alive in so many little ways.

I see traces of his hand in my signature. Traces of his wit in my shaggy dog stories, poems, and horrible puns. Marks of his creativity in our daughters. And certain tunes - the ones he would play on the grand piano that graced his home for as long as I can remember - always bring a tear to my eye and a lump to my throat.


The Memorial Prayer

Eil maley rachamim, shokhein bam’romin, ham’tzei m’nuchah n’khonah tachat kanfei ha-sh’khinah, b’ma-alot k’doshim u-t’horim k’zohar ha-rakia maz-hirim, et nishmat avi v’morati Eliyahu ben Ya’akov she-halakh l’olamo, b’gan eiden t’hei m’nuchato. Ana, ba’al ha-rachamim hastireihu b’seiter k’nafekha l’olamim, utz’ror bitz’ror ha-chayyim et nishmato, Hashem hu nachalato, v’yanuach b’shalom al mishkavo, v’nomar amen.

Exalted, compassionate God, grant perfect peace in Your sheltering Presence, among the holy and pure who shine with the splendor of the firmament, to the soul of my my father and teacher Eli, son of Jacob, who has gone to his eternal home. Master of mercy, remember all his worthy deeds in the land of the living. May his soul be bound up in the bond of life. The Lord is his portion. May he rest in peace. And let us say: Amen.


Thursday, March 8, 2018

ON THE OPERATION OF COMPLEX SYSTEMS: A REPRISE

As I was sorting through the amazing pile of Olde Crappe in my home office, I saw all kinds of businessy stuff that I had tucked away for Gawd knows what reason, there to moulder unlooked-at for decades. Major account plans, customer presentations, all kinds of charts and graphs and ancient company literature... all of it destined, finally, for the bin.

Among this mountain of bin-fodder was the documentation for something even older: a design basis memorandum for one of my engineering projects. Its exact nature is unimportant now. Suffice it to say that it was a minor (but environmentally critical) part of a very large operation, one that has by now been replaced at least twice by completely new technology. Sic transit gloria Elissoni.

Seeing all of this triggered some memories of that time over four decades ago when I actually earned my bread by doing chemical engineering work. Serious work... for it’s not a trivial discipline, chemical engineering. At college, ChE’s had to declare their major a year earlier than everyone else, and our first year attrition rate was 50%. Those of us that survived that first year called ourselves the Dirty Dozen, and I am proud, forty-four years later, to have been numbered amongst them.

Yes, I was an engineer; and engineers learn many things, both by formal university-level schooling and by compulsory attendance at the School of Hard Knocks.

The following is a story of one such Learning Experience. Read it, and be both amused and appalled. Afterward, there will be a short quiz.


ON THE OPERATION OF COMPLEX SYSTEMS

Many years ago, in my very first assignment with the Great Corporate Salt Mine, I helped debottleneck a plastics plant.

Debottleneck? Is dat de neck of de bottle?

Well, yes, Mr. Dialect Comedian, but at the GCSM, we used the term as both noun and verb.

To debottleneck a manufacturing process is to remove (you guessed it) bottlenecks. Narrow spots in the line. It is a way of expanding capacity by making a few, relatively inexpensive changes to an existing operation, rather than by simply throwing money at the problem and constructing a second production train. Debottlenecking makes the operation more efficient. And a “debottleneck” is a project that expands a plant’s capacity by (you guessed it again) debottlenecking it.

Got it? Good.

The GCSM had a plant, back then, that produced a certain amount of polypropylene plastic. We installed a bunch of new equipment and were able to increase capacity dramatically... by over 50%, if my recollection serves. My job (in case you’re curious) was figuring out just what to install, how much it would cost, and how much capacity improvement we would get from it... in an age of slide rules. No personal computers, no electronic spreadsheets.

Once the new equipment had been installed, it was time to start up the newly-expanded plant and let it flex its new muscles. To make sure it actually worked and that those millions of dollars we spent actually accomplished something. And that meant spending a lot of time at the plant, both in the control room and running around on the unit. Catching samples, measuring temperatures, that sort of thing.

If you have never been in the control room of a chemical plant, it’s an imposing sort of place. These days it’s a lot like being on the bridge of the USS Enterprise, with a lot of computer terminals... but 35 years ago, computer-controlled processes were still in their earliest, most primitive stages. Back then, the myriad operating controls were all manual, with many of the parameters recorded graphically on continuous plotters. Every few hours, the operators would record key settings and process parameters on a huge “horse blanket” spreadsheet the size of a tabletop... using pen and ink.

Running the process meant knowing the right settings for hundreds of temperature controllers and valves. And the “butterfly effect” - where small changes sometimes have large, unexpected results - was in full force.

There was one part of the process - a fractionation tower - that was misbehaving one morning. And so, as the resident Contact Engineer, I made a minor adjustment to a critical flow rate. It seemed trivial at the time, but it had an effect that was... not desired.

Correcting that effect created its own cascading series of changes... all of which needed their own corrections. And compounding everything was the fact that any change to a given setting took a certain amount of time - anywhere from minutes to hours - to work its effects. You could see the impact on the chart recordings, which would oscillate like a struck gong when a tweak was made, gradually settling back down to a new steady state. “Lining out,” we called it.

Getting that part of the process back under control was like wrestling a bear. In a vat of Jell-O. Dangerous, messy, and unrewarding. Eventually, I managed... but only after developing a serious respect for the sensitivities of Complex Processes.

As we watch our legislators and our new administration struggle to bring the economy under control, keep in mind that they are also trying to operate a complex system, one with mysterious lag times, uncertain cause-and-effect pathways, and that is subject to the vagaries of human behavior. The tiniest of tweaks - not to mention wholesale changes - will have unpredictable effects, effects that will manifest themselves on unpredictable timetables. And add to that the overall brokenness of the system... and the fact that it is being run not by Economic Engineers, but by Political Bumblefucks.

It’s enough to keep me awake at night, it is.

* * *

And now for the quiz: When did I originally post this? (No fair looking it up on Google, ya doof.)

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

VALENTINE

Antique Valentine
Valentine, circa 1938, from collection of Dee’s late Dad.

This business of Valentine’s Day - as I have often reflected on these Electronickal Pages - has always been a source of amusement for me, as well as an opportunity to make social observations.

It has, in this country at least, become a celebration of the restaurant, chocolate, flower, and greeting card industries - one of the occasions on which they can, almost assuredly, make bank. (There are no holidays unsullied by commercial interests these days, with the possible exception of Shavuos, which gets no respect.)

But that’s OK. It’s a day on which to celebrate love in all its forms: childhood affection, preteen crushes, teenage romance with all of its hormonal components, the love of family, and the mature love that grows out of long years.

Dee and I have been together, one way or another, for over forty-two years. We’ve brought two daughters from infancy (even from their embryonic existence!) unto full-fledged adulthood, and we have ridden the roller-coaster of marriage through relocations, job changes, peaks and valleys, challenges, fears, and delights. And we are, still, each other’s Valentines.



May you and your Valentines - whoever they may be - enjoy the day.

Monday, February 5, 2018

OH! THE HUGE MANATEE!


Manatee. [Photo: Wikipedia.]

I think that I shall never see
A thing as weird’s a Manatee.

In form, much like a giant worm
With skin so like a pachyderm;

A beast that makes God laugh all day,
Created, as it were, in play;

A Manatee whose back is marked
By prop of boat or tooth of shark;

With barnacle-encrusted bum;
Who lives in ponds with algae scum.

Poems are made by fools like me,
For fun, God made the Manatee.

Oh, those crazy manatees. Floridians love those suckers: sluggish, slothful aquatic mammals that are the direct opposites of the playful porpoise. In appearance, a manatee looks like a sort of mashup of a walrus, a seal, and a hippopotamus, but with far more docility than any of those species possesses. Maybe that’s the attraction for Sunshine Staters - hell, Jimmy Buffett is like a Tasmanian Devil compared to your average Sea-Cow.

It is said that mariners of bygone days would espy manatees floating lazily by and fantasize that what they were seeing were mermaids. This tells us a lot about the lack of qualified ophthalmologists amongst a typical ship’s crew, as well as providing us with a testament to what months of sexual deprivation at sea can do to the male imagination. Yeef on a reef.  

This week, thanks to my cousin Diane and her hubby Charles, I had an opportunity to see all the manatees I ever need to see, all assembled in one place: the cooling water discharge canal at Tampa Electric Company’s Big Bend Unit 4 power station. In wintertime, when the temperature of Tampa Bay falls below ~68°F, manatees are attracted to the relatively warm water in the power station’s discharge canal. It’s a rare instance of a process that both adds to the human carbon footprint and yet is a direct benefit to wildlife.

Most human-manatee interaction doesn’t do the manatee much good. Motorboat propellers inflict a characteristic series of slashes on those unfortunate manatees that happen to get in the way, a problem compounded by the sluggishness of the beasts as well as their near invisibility when submerged just below the surface. But at Tampa Electric, it’s just dandy: the manatees obviously like the warm water and the company can put on a good face for the environmentalists. Yes, there are humongous stacks and all kinds of scary looking power plant equipment there, but to be fair, most of the stuff coming out of those stacks is just steam. And yet, there’s a sort of Distraction Vibe going on. (“Pay no attention to those giant smokestacks over there! Look! Another gentle creature of the deep!”)

And let me tell you: There are a lot of manatees in that canal.


Just a small sample... a manateaser, if you will.

The water was absolutely thick with the bastards. You could almost imagine walking clear across that canal by hopping on the backs of them, like aquatic stepping stones: That’s how many of them there were. I had seen maybe one or two in all my previous sixty-five years of existence and never imagined such numbers even existed. It was a veritabobble manatee mosh pit. The place was manateeming with ’em. The photo above doesn’t begin to convey how many there were - it’s just a tiny corner of an edge of a piece of the whole canal - but it gives an idea of the sheer density of their population.

But I learned a lot. Including a bunch of stupid manatee-related jokes. Enjoy.

Q: What does a manatee drink?
A: A Martanateeni. Salt water, gin, and a hint of vermouth. Garnish with a skein of algae and a barnacle shell.

Q: When do manatees go to the movies?
A: In the afternoon, of course.

Q: What do manatees wear in the summer?
A: Manatee shirts.

Q: What do manatees wear in the winter?
A: Cardigans.

Q: What do manatees use to chew their food?
A: Manateeth.

Q: What’s a manatee’s favorite color?
A: Manateal.

Q: Who do manatees root for in the Big Game?
A: The home manateam.

Feel free to contribute your own dopey jokes in the comments!