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

Thursday, March 29, 2018


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


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


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.


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


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


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.


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.)