Saturday, February 23, 2008

And Now For Something Completely Silly

I'm just going to cram the last couple of days in NYC into one post (because I'm writing it long after the fact).

Thursday, and off to the Museum of Natural History again. This time we wanted to make sure to see two things. One is a special exhibit on water, and the other is the Hall of Human Origins.

Ultimately, the water exhibit is a bit disappointing. They have some good displays, but it didn't seem very compelling to me. Perhaps it's because I already know a lot about water and water issues, in part because of my background in Environmental Science, and in part because living in California, we confront water issues All The Time. If it isn't about too much or too little, it's about who gets it from whom, and what it will cost.

The Hall of Human Origins, however, is quite magnificent. They do a terrific job of showing lots of fossils and what they might mean, how they've been interpreted at different times, and so on. Since my daughter has dome some reading and watched several documentaries on the subject, she found it all quite fascinating, and we took a lot of pictures so she could do a presentation to her class. It's great fun to watch her thinking about the science, sometimes suggesting alternative interpretations of data and theories. Don't know whether she'll actually become a scientist, but it's nice to see that she's understanding they way they approach things.

Thursday evening we had one more set of theater tickets, to a show I've wanted to see since I first heard it was going to happen, Monty Python's Spamalot. If I have to explain it, you wouldn't appreciate it, anyway. Suffice it to say it's a riff off the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I guess for a lot of people, it was meaningful that Sir Robin was played by Clay Aiken, but since I'd never seen or heard of him before, it didn't mean much to me. He was fine, though. As we were entering the theater, we'd noticed a large number of sailors in full dress uniforms coming in another door. I gather they were up in the balcony, and the cast made a couple of nods to them (such as the Knights who now say "Ecky-ecky-ecky-anchors aweigh," which cracked up King Arthur and got a huge cheer from the balcony). Anyway, great fun for those who know and love the Pythons and their work.

Friday was to be departure day (in the evening), but we woke to considerable snowfall, and weather warnings that included dire predictions of flight delays and cancellations. Attempts to get further information from our airline were futile: the phone got a recording saying they were overwhelmed, doing the best they could, and please call back later. The website just timed out. Great. After some deliberation, we decided to check out of the hotel anyway, and take our chances. Ultimately, this proved wise. Apparently flights within the northeast were having trouble, and LaGuardia Airport was a mess, but our non-stop flight across the country from JFK was unaffected.

So we had an afternoon to spend in NYC. I decided to make use of the extremely useful site I'd found recently, ChocoMap. Mostly this showed that midtown Manhattan is full of outlets for European chocolate companies, which I'm sure are fine. But I stumbled across a real little chocolate factory, right in midtown, called Vere Chocolate. They are quite adamant about the fact that they make chocolate, not candy. All dark, at least 70% cacao. Oh, and on Friday afternoons, they have tours and tastings. Bingo!

As it turns out, the tour isn't really. You basically get to step in the front door, where they've set up a tasting table. You can look into the factory, but can't go inside. Oh, well. At least they have tasty samples, and you can buy some to take home. I particularly liked something they call Pumpkorn, which is chocolate-covered caramel corn with spicy pumpkin seeds. Really quite interesting, and like nothing I've had elsewhere. So that was worth the trip.

Since we weren't far away at that point, we decided to visit the Macy's mother ship. I don't know how many times I've seen the movie Miracle on 34th Street, but I still love it*, and I've always kind of wanted to go see that Macy's. So we did. I was rather disappointed to learn that they don't have a toy department except during the Christmas season. Alas. On the other hand, I did find that they still have some very old, wooden escalators on the upper floors of the main building. I can't remember ever seeing such a thing, though my mother insists that I must have in my younger days. I guess there were some in this part of the world in my youth.

Anyway, it was still a treat to go there. My wife was quite pleased to do a bit of shopping, as their petites department is several times larger that those at our nearby Macy's stores, and even our daughter got in the act, uncharacteristically. She decided that she wanted to do some dress shopping, and happily tried on quite a number before choosing two that she had to have. I got to shuttle between the 5th and 7th floors, which meant I got to observe (and use) the wooden escalators, so I was happy.

All in all, a fine finish to a fine trip to New York.

* Original 1947 version only, and definitely not the colorized version. Boy, was I surprised a few years ago to learn that Maureen O'Hara has brilliant red hair!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Baa, Baa, Black Sheep

[Yikes! Way behind on the blogging. I will back-date a few entries I've been meaning to post...]

As noted last year when we went to New York, we love riding the subway system. It's easy, it's fast, and it always costs the same amount, regardless of where you are going. This makes the whole thing very useful.

So last night we were riding the subway home across town after going to dinner and the theater and then out for a nightcap (more about all that below), so it was shortly after midnight. Standing on the subway platform, I became aware that people were looking at us. Not in a threatening or weird way, just in a kind of "What are you doing here?" way.

Now, it occurred to me that we were about the whitest people around on the subway at that hour. Unlike the evening rush hour when I headed over to dinner surrounded by yuppies, this was a working-class and largely non-white crowd. But that wasn't it. They weren't looking at our faces.

Then it dawned on me: Everyone but us was wearing black. No, really...Everyone. Black is the color of winter in New York, apparently. Black overcoats, black parkas, black jackets, and mostly black pants or jeans. I wasn't too far off with my blue-and-black rain/snow jacket, but my wife was wearing her very favorite pink ski parka with the fake fur ruff around the hood. So she, in particular, stood out like a sore thumb. We got a good chuckle out of that.

OK, other highlights of the day: Dinner was at a location recommended by my wife's coworker who used to live in NYC: Trattoria Dell'arte. The food was wonderful, and the decor was pretty casual and funky (the theme is noses), right across the street from Carnegie Hall. (So I taught my daughter this joke: "How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Take the subway and walk a couple of blocks up Seventh Avenue....") I had the Tordelli Bolognese, which was quite good, but the big hit was my wife's Lobster Carbonara, one of their signature dishes. Sadly, it was too big a portion for her to finish, so I had to share some. Absolutely fabulous.

The show for the night was the real reason we'd come to New York, Tom Stoppard's latest, Rock 'n' Roll. It's very good, though I wouldn't call it one of his best. Well worth seeing, of course. Quite different from just reading it. My wife and I both read the play in advance, which was probably good, but we both had a different impression of the play from reading it than from seeing it. The character who seems to be the focus in the text ("Jan") was much less of a presence on stage. The actor seemed to be losing his voice, which might have contributed to this impression, but all in all, his character seemed much more meek and less consequential than the way I'd read him. All very interesting, as Stoppard always is.

After the show, a little stroll up Broadway. The lighted sign said it was 24F. Chilly, but not unpleasant. We decided to stop in for a quick drink at a bar/restaurant called Serafina, under the Dream Hotel, where I once stayed on business. The woman tending the bar was a bit clueless, but she did make an excellent Manhattan (seemed like the right thing to drink in Manhattan).

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

New York State of Mind

Yes, it's a Billy Joel song, and it always gets stuck in my head when I visit here.

Lots of good things here, like the bagels for breakfast, theater, and museums.

This morning, two of the staff at the bagel shop were vying for the favors of my daughter. The first guy refused to take her order until she went with him to get a free cookie at the other end of the counter. He promised that every time she comes in, if she remembers his name, she gets another cookie. She has a great memory anyway, but with a cookie at stake, I imagine that information is well ingrained now!

Last night we went to an off-Broadway show called "Speech & Debate" at a new theater starting up under the auspices of the Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout Underground's Black Box Theatre is literally that, a box-shaped room, four stories below ground level. It seats 62 people in regular chairs, so it's a pretty intimate experience.

Anyway, for those who know my family, you know that the title alone was enough to hook us in. My wife and I met in high school as members of the speech and debate team, and her mother was one of our coaches. So all three of us went to the play last night with high expectations.

The play is the first effort of Stephen Karam, a young writer who really gets the sound of his youthful characters. You feel like you're listening to real high school students, rather than just scripted characters. Not sure how well that would translate to a bigger theater/audience, but it this setting it worked well. The show has its rough edges and slow parts, but all in all, it worked well. We got luck with this one, as the run ends this coming weekend after being extended twice. We just happened to be in town this week (because it's school vacation, and we wanted to see another play here), so when I saw this play listed, I knew we had to see it.

And we've already spent one full day at the American Museum of Natural History, of course. Mostly we were on the fourth floor again, looking at the dinosaur fossils and tracing the course of vertebrate evolution. Next visit we plan to spend more time in the hall of human origins, which is another point of interest for us.

Yesterday found us walking down Broadway through Times Square during daylight hours, ducking into various stores to keep warm. Asa result, my wife has a stylish new purse, and my daughter has some new toys (and we rode the indoor ferris wheel at the big Toys R Us). Oh, and we have some M&Ms from M&Ms World. Perhaps the most intriguing thing to me was that as we got to the top of the ferris wheel, I could see into the meeting room or boardroom at the top of the front corner of the store. About two dozen people in business dress were having a meeting or conference call or something in a big fishbowl, all glass, all around, with a huge flat-panel TV facing away from me, so I couldn't see their PowerPoint presentation. It all seemed rather incongruous in a toy store, but it's a reminder that this is business. Big business, at that.

And lastly, although it is generally a good thing that they seem to have gotten the crack dealers off the streets of New York, it concerns me that they've just moved inside into some of the stores. For example, there's an outfit called Dale and Thomas Popcorn that is definitely selling addictive substances from their storefront. Luckily, it does not have to be purchased in the 6.5-gallon tub, although that would greatly reduce the price per dose. Darned tasty, that.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Legacy of Torture

I'm on vacation, but stumbled across this tonight:
...torture always comes home. And the techniques of this war are likely to show up in a neighborhood near you.
Just something to look forward to.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Useful and Important Web Site

I just stumbled across a link to this site on another blog.

I plan to use it soon and often!

Thursday, February 07, 2008

My Government Tortures People

I'm not proud of this fact. And for those of us who've been paying attention, it's not news, either. Anyone who saw the pictures from Abu Ghraib and read some of the other accounts of people who have been detained over the last six or seven years knew, even if they didn't want to admit it, that the United States government has been torturing people.

The news this week is that now they've basically admitted it, though they still try to couch it in terms that suggest they aren't doing it anymore (unless they feel like they need to). And I should point out that the discussion/admission pertains almost exclusively to a particular technique known as waterboarding. There are plenty of things, short of waterboarding, that constitute torture, and it's pretty clear that many are in current use.

So, this week both the U.S. Attorney General and the Director of the C.I.A. have acknowledged past uses of waterboarding by the C.I.A. We tortured three people. The excuse given is basically that they thought it was a good idea.

Dan Froomkin of the Washington Post writes in his excellent column today:

Putting aside for a moment the question of whether the ends did in fact justify the means -- and there is considerable evidence that the waterboarding of those three men miserably failed that test as well -- the White House argument is deeply perverse and goes against core American values.

Waterboarding is undeniably cruel. It is undeniably an assault on human dignity. The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution -- the one banning cruel and unusual punishment -- doesn't come with an asterisk indicating: Except when you think it's really, really important.

I guess it's been a while since I wrote on this topic (for a while, it felt like all torture, all the time), but this is undeniably awful. Whatever moral standing the U.S. still had left is quickly evaporating.

No wonder all the presidential candidates keep running around saying they are in favor of change (even the ones who support the current policies). There's not much in this current stand to like.

Torture is wrong. It's always wrong. And any government official who condones it belongs in prison, not in office. As a friend e-mailed me tonight: "Impeachment: It's not just for sex anymore!"

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

I Touched the Future

Election day today, so I voted (of course!). Because we were not allowed to use the touch-screen voting machines, we used...PAPER ballots! Easy, quick, and reliable. And I got to personally place my ballot into the reader, saw that it counted the vote, and got a physical receipt torn from the ballot.

Apparently there is a downside to this sudden reemergence of paper ballots: Election officials actually have to provide enough of them:
An Alameda County Superior Court judge made the decision after several cities in the county - including Berkeley - had no real ballots for voters to use. Some voters used ballots that were paper copies of real ballots.
Oops. But it wasn't just my home county. There were plenty of others:

There were problems elsewhere during the region because of heavy turnouts.

In Santa Clara, one polling station ran out of ballots, forcing voters to use sample ballots from their election packets. ...

In Contra Costa County, so many independent voters showed up at the polls to vote Democratic that the county registrar of voters had to deliver stacks of extra Democratic ballots to polling stations. Eight precincts reported they were running short of ballots. In lieu of actual ballots, the county registrar was prepared to let voters use sample ballots.
Anyway, I was just remembering the little "I touched the future" stickers they gave us several years ago when we first used the new touch-screen voting machines. Now I wish I'd kept mine. Because the future is looking a lot like the past, as we manually submitted our votes. I particularly liked the "privacy shields" they gave us to put our ballots in between the booths and the reader. They seemed suspiciously like manila file folders!

All in all, par for the course. Democracy marches on, in a sort of wobbly, uncertain path.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Good Discussion of E-Voting

Over at slashdot. The head of the discussion is about using open-source software to get around some of the issues with proprietary voting systems.

I sort of like the commenter who says voting machines ought to meet the standards set up for gaming machines in Nevada, but ultimately, I fall on the side of the paper-and-pencil crowd:
You can't trust what you don't understand, so any voting system needs to be Universally Comprehensible. An electronic system based on Open Source principles -- where the blueprints for the hardware and the listings of the software are available for all to examine -- is still really only comprehensible to a minority of the population. It doesn't satisfy the goal. (In the worst case, you could conceal a deliberate design defect by a combination of hardware and software techniques: anybody examining the hardware and not the software, or vice versa, will miss it.)

Just forget the whole thing as a failed experiment, and go back to pencil and paper and manual counting. Everybody knows what all the possible failure modes are, and how to minimise their effects.
Tomorrow is "Super Tuesday," which means lots of voting around the U.S. (including here in my neighborhood). I hope it goes well.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Welcome, Giant Elephant Shrew!

It's always cool when someone discovers a "new" species (although it's obviously been around a long time).

Today, we welcome a new kind of elephant shrew to the party:
Despite its name, the creature, along with the 15 other known species of elephant shrew, is not actually related to shrews.
In fact, the creature is more closely related to a group of African mammals, which includes elephants, sea cows, aardvarks and hyraxes, having shared a common ancestor with them about 100 million years ago.
The odd family relations of these and other creatures is one of the wonders of science to me. I recall hearing an interview with Richard Dawkins on NPR several years ago, when he was promoting his book, "The Ancestor's Tale." He was asked what the most remarkable thing was he'd learned in writing the book. His reply was that he found it amazing that the hippopotamus, which he'd always supposed was closely related to pigs, was in fact only very distantly so. The closest evolutionary relative of the hippo turns out to be the whale.