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Look out, it’s evil!
Helping to drag America, kicking & screaming, into the Age of Enlightenment
Over the summer I heard about a really nifty retro bowling alley in town, but it’s on the west side, which makes it about as convenient and enjoyable to travel to as Dar es Salaam. I reckoned it could be years before I ever had occasion to visit that part of the city; but as it happened I recently had a board-game meetup in the library right across the street.*

Visiting Mahall’s Twenty Lanes was essentially stepping through a window into my early childhood. The sign on the side of the building recalls the golden age of bowling—1950s, maybe early 60s. You can bet the “Mahall’s” is backlit at night, too:

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Shortly before we moved from Salt Lake City to Seattle, circa 1997, we, the brother and his girlfriend paid a farewell visit to the 49th Street Galleria, a teenager’s paradise encased in a futuristic glass building. Under its roof were a bowling alley, huge Chuck E. Cheese-style video arcade with Skee Ball and other ticket-dispensing games as well as a vast array of video games, two miniature golf courses and a Laser Tag arena. It also had the largest parking lot in the state. Part of the excitement of going to the Galleria was the approach: a special drive looped around from the main road, and you’d enter the vast expanse of parking lot from below, and as you drove nearer, the majesty of the Galleria’s sparkling towers would slowly rise above the earth’s curvature.

As it happened, we didn’t see the last part, because an attendant met us at the parking lot entrance, bearing effusive apologies and coupons. Apparently, some rich kid had rented the entire place out for the night. Curses!

When we got home we actually looked at the coupons we’d been handed. Wow—they were good. Free round of miniature golf, free video game tokens, and even free laser tag! If I’d known about this before, I’d have tried to find a way to determine when the place was rented out, and deliberately visit right then just to reap the wizard coupon deal.

A week or two later we visited again, actually got in, and cashed in all our free games. I wouldn’t pay money to play laser tag, but it was surprisingly fun—even if we were by fifteen years the oldest people on either team.

But the most memorable part of the evening, by far, was our encounter with a ticket arcade game I haven’t seen before or since. It was basically roulette for kids: a wheel, divided unequally into five colored wedges, spun like mad and a rubber ball gradually spun down from the edge and came to rest on one of the colors. It had an incredibly mesmerizing attract mode. We just watched and grooved out for at least fifteen minutes. We don't actually know how long for sure, because we lost all sense of time. Here's what it did: when the wheel spun up for a new round the game played a frenetic melody, rich in counterpoint and semi-percussive lines, while the machine entreated, “Pick your color! Pick your color!” Traces of light chased each other around the perimeter. The buttons flashed hypnotically. This sensory overload continued until the ball rolled came to rest. Then everything stopped as the machine announced which color won. “Tickets for Green!” It sounded so goshdarn earnest. I could never be as happy about winning tickets as the game was about awarding them.

Green, occupying about a third of the wheel, won a lot: say, about a third of the time. Less often, we heard about tickets for red, blue or yellow. One time the ball miraculously landed in the hair-thin strip of white, and for some reason it said, “Tickets for Blank!

We never actually played the game. It was fun enough just watching it spin and announce the (theoretical) winner. We all went home with that phenomenally catchy music running through our heads on repeat mode. For about two weeks afterwards, I would spontaneously break out with “Dun, dun, dun, da-gah-da-gah, dun, ga-da-gah-dun, dun, dun…” every couple of hours. I suspect my company was not appreciated by my friends and coworkers.

In the fifteen years since, I have seen the color roulette game only once, and the sound didn’t seem to be working. Sigh. Recently, I got to thinking about it again, and I reached that particular threshold of nostalgia that finally spurred me to try and find out, once and for all, what the damn game was called. That proved harder than I expected. I had no success at all until I discovered the term “ticket redemption game.” After that, it was straightforward: two clicks brought me to a distributor who had a vast, alphabetical list of every such device imaginable. I started in at A and systematically plowed through the list. Got lucky—the game is called Colorama. (If it were named Zzizzarama I’d still be looking.)

A couple more clicks and I found this video of the attract mode in action. (This unit is the two-player version. The one at the 49th Street Galleria had four or five stations completely encircling the wheel.)

The sound here completely fails to do justice to the frenetic harmonies. In fact, that’s probably a good thing.

In the September 2000 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction there appeared a two-page article, called “comp.basilisk FAQ”, from an imaginary Usenet newsgroup (anybody else remember those?) about “basilisk images”, “unthinkable” graphical designs that can lock up the viewer’s mind, with deadly results. Only 800 words long, it’s one of the most thought-provoking science fiction stories I’ve read, and one of the very best from the eight years I subscribed to Asimov’s and Analog. I’m delighted to report that it is available on the Web, here.

Apparently, some basilisk images, when sufficiently distorted, can be viewed safely—kind of like the German version of the world’s funniest joke. In the same vein, the poor sound quality of the Colorama video attenuates the game’s weapons-grade earworm, so you can safely watch it and not be singing the tune in your mind for the next five weeks. (It didn’t work for me because I’d already been sensitized by the 49th Street Galleria unit. Again, I have the feeling that my coworkers are annoyed with me.)

Something else I forgot about: when the music starts up again, the first two beats sound rushed. Not sure why. Perhaps the first note is late.

Another Colorama video features Tickets for Blue and Red, plus tickets being dispensed for far too long. It didn’t occur to me how much the Colorama wheel looks like a washing machine until I read the second comment.

Colorama may have started life as a real roulette wheel. Here, we see an ancient, five-player Colorama that pays out real money. And it costs only 2p a whirl. From the fonts I’d guess that this machine dates back to the early 1980s.


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Odd how some things that once absorbed a lot of our personal CPU cycles can lie there in our unconscious memory for decades, until some random happenstance brings them back, front and center.

Continuum was one of my favorite games for the auld Macintosh Plus—but I’d completely forgotten about until I found it by accident in the game archives the brother kindly sent me along with the Mini vMac emulator. If it hadn’t been on the same (virtual) floppy disk as Cap’n Magneto1, I’d probably have never found it, because the name had also totally slipped my mind. I launched Continuum out of curiosity—to see whether it was something I’d recognize. And of course, within the last three months I’ve played enough to have gained back most of my formaer skill.2

Continuum is credited to “the Wilson Brothers.” One of the authors, Brian Wilson (no, not that one), has written a Web page about the game’s history. Continuum is clearly inspired by the 1982 Atari game Gravitar (you can play it and several other classic Atari games on line, via the link), but is superior to Gravitar in every respect. The graphics are far better (for which Atari can’t really be faulted) and the difficulty ramps up at just about the right pace.

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[Crossposted to exmormon]

It’s been quite a while since I last posted a Playelder story, and I hadn’t thought of him in ages, but a friend’s picture on Facebook, of her dressed up like a sexy missionary(!), reminded me of my ongoing Playelder restoration project. Playelder, a onetime Mormon missionary and all-around hilarious storyteller, rocked the “Recovery from Mormonism” message board with his tales of life in the capital-C Church. (More background on Playelder may be found here.)

In tonight’s episode, Player recalls his first encounter with “Satanic” music, in the early 1980s.

(As before, I have cleaned up the formatting and spelling, and have added footnotes for the benefit of those who’ve had little exposure to Mormondom, but have left the essence untouched.)

Apples, Onions and Iron Maiden

Posted by Playelder on December 15, 1998 at 14:17:00

I have nothing constructive, intelligent, or well thought out to add here. Just a stupid story.

As a child it was always a source of extreme embarrassment that I was an expert on music. And not the cool kind that my ultra-chic and -hip friends listened to. No, unfortunately I was an expert on the Golden Oldies and all that Happy Days sock-hop stuff that makes your parents get that wistful look in their eyes as they long to recapture the days of their carefree youth before you ever came along, a twisted wretched result of one night at Inspiration Point in their dad’s ’57 Chevy. And he wasn’t pissed at them so much as because of what they did together, but what they did to the shocks in the Chevy as they did what they did together. Whenever they got that look, I knew that it was time to jet that joint lest I see the dancing, snuggling, necking, petting, and conception of yet another sibling.

My parents had an extremely large collection of their “real music” and I was subjected to it at such a regular basis that I might as well have been raised at Arnold’s. Except there was no cool guy like The Fonz there to teach me how to score on chicks. I knew every song from the golden age of rock and roll and who sung it. I could, and did, sing along to every one of those K-Tel and Ronco Records Presents ads. Buddy Holly, Chubby Checker, Elvis the King, and the older stuff like Patti Paige and Jerry Vail. Let’s not even get into Glenn Miller and Spike and his orchestra. I’m having wicked flashbacks that would rival those of any Vietnam vet.

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Risk is just about the perfect example of a board game made vastly more enjoyable on the computer. Now, I enjoy rolling dice—games like Can’t Stop are among my favorites—but until I acquire a vast amount of free time I don’t know what to do with, I’d rather not invest the couple of days needed to play a full game of Risk in vivo. I’ve only played one real game of Risk, and got bored so quickly that I amused myself by concentrating all my forces in a single country, and then in one turn blazing a merry path of destruction across most of Asia, killing off every single one of my armies along the way. Naturally, I was eliminated before my next turn came ’round, but since that was my exact goal in the first place, I didn’t exactly mind.

I learned to appreciate Risk by playing the game on my Macintosh Plus, yonks ago, while I was trying to stay sane in medical school. The implementation for the Mac was written by Tone Engel in 1986, and can still be played (with a slight modification by Richard Loxley) under the Mini vMac emulator.

This version could play up to six live or computerized players. Three types of computer players were available: aggressive (marked by the male symbol, ♂), neutral (+, presumably representing Switzerland) and inconsistent (*!?, randomly alternating between aggressive and neutral). Aggressive opponents were pretty easy to beat: they tended to overextend themselves, going for more territory rather than fortifying gains against a counterattack, and they didn’t seem to understand the advantage of conquering whole continents. The neutral opponents, on the other hand, were deceptively tough to beat. They calmly built up their forces until attacked; then they threw everything they had at their aggressor until they’d recovered their lost territory. That might not sound too bad, but two or more neutrals appeared to form temporary alliances against a human player: neutrals could capture each other’s territory, on the way to punishing the human, without provoking a retaliatory strike.

In my prime I could beat five neutrals simultaneously, but only if I could capture Australia or South America right away, and built up my forces while my opponents expended their armies on each other trying to get to me.

But the most fun I had playing Risk—and the reason I’m writing this down—was a little game I called “Armageddon Risk”: Good against Evil, with the entire world at stake. Armageddon Risk began with two aggressive computer players, called (of course) Good and Evil.

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I haven’t done one of these in a long time. The following vignettes go back all the way to April.

There are lots of people who consider themselves “old” who yet were born in the age of microwave popcorn. I maintain you can’t really consider yourself old unless you’ve cooked Jiffy Pop on the stove. It was a solemn ritual: the parents would deploy a pie-pan-shaped container of Jiffy Pop, give it to us kids, and leave us to it. Gleefully we cranked up the nearest heating element to “Nuclear,” and started shuffling the Jiffy Pop back and forth on top of it so that it would warm evenly, using the metal (!!) handle provided for this purpose. But this was forty years ago, so the stove took forever to heat up, and we invariably got bored waiting for it; we’d leave the Jiffy Pop on the stove and walk off to watch TV, vowing to be back “in just a minute.” And without fail, the black smoke pouring out of the kitchen would call us back to the kitchen. In this respect, Jiffy Pop is exactly the same as today’s microwave popcorn.

Only after we’d controlled the blaze would the grownups show up to find out what was going on. (And yet we survived.)

What impressed me about Jiffy Pop, though, was that foil top that billowed outward as the kernels popped. Pretty ingenious technology for the 1960s. I like to think it was a spinoff of the Apollo project.

My local 7-Eleven has a big sign in the window reading “Check Out Our Low Tobacco Prices!” Do they really think it’ll change anything? About 97% of people who get close enough to read the sign are going there to get tobacco in the first place. It’s about as big a game-changer as the DMV advertising “Check Out Our Long Lines!” That store makes about 60% of its non-lottery revenue from tobacco—the other 40% coming from malt liquor and Wild Irish Rose.

Whenever I go to a picnic I make sure to bring two kinds of snacks: a longtime favorite and something I’ve never had before that looks intriguing. That way, if I don’t like the second one I can just “forget” it and leave it there. My trial snack for Memorial Day was this month’s weird, experimental Doritos: Pizza Supreme. They were okay, but oregano and corn chip are two flavors that will never feel quite comfortable in each other’s presence.

What’s up with that ultra-stinky mulch that people make flowerbeds out of? It must be fantastic at encouraging plants to grow if expert gardeners are willing to put up with that stench. I just hope that before I retire, and am obliged to take up gardening as a hobby, some genius develops a substitute that has all the beneficial properties without smelling like lion shit.

A while back we received an invitation to a wedding that began “We request the honor of your presence….” At first glance I though it read “We request the honor of your pancreas….” As it happened, I was able to provide both. But I wouldn’t for just anybody.

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I used to think that Las Vegas was the seat of materialism in America. But I just spent a couple of days in Orlando, and I was enlightened.

Every one of the 157 children on my flight out of Orlando carried on a pink or lavender roller bag chock full of Disney crap. Consequently, we took about 20 min longer than usual to board, and the last couple of dozen poor suckers on the airplane had to check their carry-ons.

The theme parks loom large over everything in the city. My hotel was pretty close to Universal, so that place managed to out-shout Disney in the local area, but of course most everywhere else it was Disney, Disney, Disney. Better be good—Mickey Mouse is watching you. And, occasionally, Donald Duck.

Strangely, I could see no fewer than four amusement parks from my hotel window, not one of which I’d ever heard of, except for the Wet ’n’ Wild (which was open despite daytime temperatures barely reaching 70 °F). The others all looked like fly-by-night operations, fairground carnivals taken root under the benevolent Florida sun.

Also I could count six cheap-ass steakhouses within a mile of my hotel, just in one direction. They outnumbered the family restaurants, in a legendarily family-friendly town.

If I hear anyone complain about the way Southwest handles boarding, I can now point them to how USAir does it, which is even weirder. They board by “zones,” which at first made sense to me, since I assumed that each zone was a range of row numbers, and they filled the cabin from the back forward, as usual. But when I stepped on I had to stand around while a big mass of people seated ahead of me got all their stuff sorted out and sat down. The previous “zones” were a patchwork of seats on alternate sides of the airplane from front to back. Now perhaps there is some statistical justification for this; I can imagine how seating one side only at a time makes stowing bags easier. But if there is, it certainly didn’t work the way it was supposed to on this flight: for half an hour, the entire cabin was a maelstrom of grunting, flailing passengers trying to get around each other and wedge their bags into the overhead compartments. That may not have been the seating plan’s fault, though, because exactly the same thing happened on arrival.

A major paradox of giving presentations at scientific meetings is that a seven-minute talk requires considerably more effort to prepare than a 45-minute talk. The big challenge is to compact enough material into seven minutes to actually convey a significant amount of information—and that means making every spoken word count. I’m still not good enough at public speaking to do this on the fly, and the only way I can achieve it is to memorize my speech, word for word.

This weekend’s talk was even worse because I was speaking to an audience of ophthalmologists who knew (a) nothing about genetics and (b) far, far more than I about the eye diseases we’re studying. Hence, I was almost guaranteed to flub any question they tossed at me; but here I was spared somewhat because the acoustics in the room were so bad I couldn’t understand a single word said by anyone from the audience. And of course the first one (after the moderator kindly interpreted for me) was: “What are we, as clinicians, supposed to take away from this?” Well, if I knew that, we’d have a patent on it by now. Nobody else got sweeping, general questions like that; it was always a clarification on a minor issue with the procedure, or some rambling commentary that took up the entire Q & A portion of the presentation. Lucky everyone else, sigh.

The reception after the day’s symposium was worse, in a way. Of several hundred conventioneers, I knew one other person there—my semi-boss. In the brother’s terminology, I was the Bakesesh Dude—a name whose derivation won’t be made any clearer if I tried to explain, so I won’t. The Bakesesh Dude is the one person at a party who knows exactly one other person there. There is always one, and only one, Bakesesh Dude at any given celebration, and this reception was no exception. But the wonderful sesame-and-caraway-seed crackers and the brilliantly sunny, 65 °F afternoon out by the swimming pool made the reception worthwhile. You can see where my priorities lie; nobody who knows me well would ever mistake me for a “people person.” However, I do very well in a group of two*. I guess you could call me a “person person.”


*To be precise, my ability to deal well with crowds decreases in proportion to the factorial of the number of other people present.


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When I was little we had an old children’s book called The Bumper Book. I hadn’t thought of it in ages, but recently I was looking through Kathy’s impressive collection of children’s literature from the 1960s and before, and it occurred to me that The Bumper Book would make a fine addition. It properly belonged to kayigo—it was her third birthday present—but she kindly agreed to donate it to our library.

I read it for the first time in over 30 years. All I remembered about it was that it was aimed at little kids: Dr. Seuss age or just a bit older. Otherwise, I didn’t know what to expect—but even if I had, I would have been wrong. Surprised, and amused, I wrote the following review.

The Bumper Book, a collection of poems, songs and fables, is a wonderful example of mid-20th-century Americana. (Our copy was printed in 1961, and by then it was already touted as a “classic.”) I remember enjoying these stories as a child, and not thinking that anything was unusual about them, but as a 21st-century adult, I find the anachronisms more entertaining than the vignettes themselves.

The first thing a modern reader will notice, to quote Mystery Science Theater 3000, is that “America sure was a lot whiter back then.” Dozens of all-American boys and girls are pictured here, and they all look like they’ve just hopped off a boat from Sweden. (They dress like they’re from Sweden, too.) Nothing but rosy cheeks and transparent skin as far as they eye can see. Good thing all the scenes are set in the Midwest—the Arizona sun would have burnt these youngsters to a crisp in about thirty sizzling seconds.

Let's look closer at a few of the tales. In “We Won’t Tell,” we read how a budding farmer fails to get the message that if you plant a cabbage patch next door to a huge rabbit colony, you’d better set a 24-hour guard on that thing.

We can watch Edward Lear rhyme himself into a corner in “A Nonsense Alphabet”. The verse structure for each letter is like this:
F was once a little fish,
Fishy, Wishy, Swishy, Fishy,
In a dishy, Little fish!
All goes well right up until the letter Z. (In case you’re wondering, X was once a great King Xerxes—Xerxy, Perxy, Turxy, Xerxy.) Now the obvious thing for the letter Z to have once been was a zebra; but you can’t go rhyming zebra in the same manner without sounding all Russian—and Good Little American Boys and Girls never imitiate filthy Commies. Thus, we must resort to “Z was once a piece of zinc….” Of course, it’s impossible to draw a cute piece of zinc, so the illustrator added an adorable little mouse hiding behind it—perhaps he’s using it as a lean-to. I’ll give Mr. Lear a break on this one: in those post-Sputnik days, it was never to early to begin teaching your future rocket scientists about metallurgy.

Next, we listen to Christopher Robin saying his prayers, blessing his family, the servants and himself—because, it goes without saying, all Good Little American Boys and Girls are also Christian (real Christians, and not those idolatrous Papists). And rich enough to bestow their second-tier blessings on “the help.”

But the story that made the biggest impression on “grownup” me told the valuable lesson of “Little-Boy-Who-Was-Too-Thin.” This poor, sticklike child was “ten pounds underweight,” and so lacked the essential fat reserves all kids need to climb trees and “throw a ball fast and high.” You see, in those days, it was believed that muscle couldn’t work properly unless it was sheathed within a two-inch layer of Crisco.

Ostracized by the school nurse and all his classmates, LBWWTT takes a straw poll of all the animals in the farmyard to find out how he can fatten up and once again be accepted into polite society. Bunny Rabbit and Pudgy Pig and Dumpy Duck all provide a grocery list of their favorite meals, provided early and often by their benefactor, Farmer Brown (yes, that’s really his name). Alas, neither LBWWTT nor his plump advisors ever think to wonder why Farmer Brown was so generous with the slops.

LBWWTT has one more interview, with Dimply Dot, the girl next door. "How did you get so delectably obese?", he asks. Inexplicably, instead of slapping LBWWTT hard enough to send him into orbit,
Dimply Dot smiled a dimply smile at him. She ran a little race with herself, and she danced a little dance with herself, and then she stopped with a hop and a jump in front of Little-Boy-Who-Was-Too-Thin. “Bread and butter and cereal, and soup, and cocoa,” said Dimply Dot, “and I run and play in the sunshine every day.”
Somebody better check Dot’s cocoa—sounds like she’s spiking her hot chocolate with a quadruple shot of espresso. Or perhaps a little nose candy.

Armed with a literal cornucopia of nutritional advice, LBWWTT (we never learn his real name) marches home and goes on a binge that would land any modern child in a program for eating disorders. A few days later—behold! Little-Boy-Who-Was-Too-Thin is not only was the heftiest kid in class, but somehow also the strongest and fastest. Take-home message: Fat is simply a more easily acquired form of muscle.*

In summary, I have an odd fondness for products that show off the innocence of ages past, and this one’s a beaut. I’m giving The Bumper Book a mere three stars because I don’t recommend it for modern-day children; my actual enjoyment of the work measures closer to four stars.


*I suspect the real subtext here was that obesity was still considered a status symbol—a holdover from the bad old days when being rich meant having enough to eat. Perhaps extreme slenderness was also shunned because really skinny children were particularly apt to die off of tuberculosis and heart defects and other nasty diseases.

The great irony here is that according to the pictures, even the properly “fat” children are all of perfectly healthy weight. Compared to today’s corpulent youngsters, they would look like the stick men LBWWTT was accused of resembling. But those poor, backwards 20th-century folk knew nothing about how to properly pack on the pounds. Since the nearest McDonald’s was probably four counties away, the best that Little-Boy-Who-Was-Too-Thin could manage was milk and cocoa, bread and butter, cornmeal mush, fruit and vegetables, and playing in the sunshine.

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Just before I started medical school, I bought a Macintosh Plus. It was the best possession I’ve ever owned, including all my other computers to date (I’m on my fifth, 23 years later). Each new computer I’ve bought was more than ten times powerful than the last, but somehow less amazingly cool and magical. The Mac Plus kept me sane through my one year of medical school.

While I was visiting my family in Utah a couple months ago, the brother gave me a Macintosh Plus emulator, called Mini vMac, and a whole raft of games, and since then I’ve been floating neck-deep in a sea of nostalgia.

Here’s a semi-pictorial essay about Toxic Ravine—one of my very favorite games for the Mac Plus. (Warning: I may also cover one or two other notable games later on, just for posterity.) The game has a perfunctory Wikipedia entry, and a couple Mac reference sites mention it, but nowhere on the Web could I find a review that does justice to the game’s wonderfulness.

Your goal in Toxic Ravine is to clean out a canyon full of toxic waste, including discarded genetic experiments, and save the little genetically-engineered people trapped there. The people are called PANG Clones because they carry a recombinant Politeness And Niceness Gene, and they’re the most annoying creatures in the universe. Cloyingly cute and friendly, they’re like the biotech equivalent of Anne Geddes photos.

You pilot a dirigible, as an employee of Orlando Poon, Jr.’s Cleanup and Rescue Service, from which you destroy toxic objects and rescue the PANG Clones. You are armed with a rescue robot, an endless supply of bombs, and a few airborne “smart bombs” you can control.

I really like this guy’s smirk on the title screen. Is he Orlando Poon, or the player? Also chuckleworthy is the “Poon” menu—an unhelpful and vaguely suggestive name.

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It’s bowling season again!

Still smarting from our misadventure with the evil hippopotamuses, we made a pact during the summer that our continuing in our previous league would depend on that team’s absence. (They claimed last spring that they were leaving the league.) We showed up the first night of the new season, and—nobody else was there. Our start had been postponed by two weeks, and for some reason, every team in the league had been notified except us. Incensed, I was ready to quit right there, but agreed to give the officers one more chance.

I drove in on the real first night and saw my teammates huddled in the parking lot. Not good, I thought. The reason soon became apparent: in the doorway, puffing away as if his life depended on it, slouched the most evil of the evil hippos, wreathed in clouds of cigarette smoke. (He has the skinny, sallow look of a lifelong chain smoker who hasn’t actually tasted food since the Carter administration.)

Luckily, we found another league that had an opening and that would let us make up the first week. Our new bowling alley is much closer to our “center of gravity”—my drive is a bit longer, but everyone else’s is much shorter—so we’re already better off, before we even start.

This afternoon we bowled our makeup games. We’d been warned that Saturday afternoon was birthday-party time, but I didn’t think much of it: I grew up bowling in junior leagues full of crazy-ass kids tripping on sugared cereals and Sunday morning cartoons, so as long as we had a couple of empty lanes of buffer, I figured we’d be okay.

I was unprepared for the reality.

The kids themselves were not the problem. They were out there somewhere, but I didn’t notice them. Couldn’t notice them. Because they were bowling in a cheap disco. At the far end of the lanes wes a series of huge TV screens, one right after the other, each three lanes (about 15 feet) wide. They alternated between some football game and fluff-pop music videos. And the music was deafening.1 Have you ever been in a bowling alley with more than half the lanes going and couldn’t hear the pins fall? Fortunately the bass wasn’t pumped as much as usual, else the concussion would have knocked us back into the parking lot.

The house lights were down, and everyone’s white clothing was glowing blue-violet. In two hours, the ubiquitous black lights finally did what two months of Midwest sunshine never could manage: they gave me a suntan on my freshly shaved scalp. Each lane had a ghostly blue runway pattern superimposed upon the wood. That was actually kind of cool, but it made seeing the arrows nearly impossible. (I originally thought the runway was shone on the lanes by UV light shining through a cutout, but on closer inspection it turned out it was painted on the lane with some fluorescent chemical. I’ll be interested to see whether it’s visible when the regular lights are on.)

Here’s what gets me. Two things, really. If you’re going to fork over a huge wad of cash to go bowling, wouldn’t you want to, you know, experience it? The rumble of the ball traveling down the lane, and the crash of a perfect pocket hit? The suspense as the ball teeters at the edge of the gutter as it approaches the 10-pin? Forget about hearing the pins—even watching the pins took incredible effort, what with all the adolescent video going on four feet above in ADHD-TV. How could you even pick out what was happening to the pins against this sensory onslaught?

Or have today’s Americans become so inured to the presence of music and television that they instinctively block it from hearing and view, respectively? And if so, why have it in the first place? Especially at such in-your-face intensity?

Second: An entire generation of people may be learning to expect that this is what bowling is. I certainly hope not, because it’s not the way to get anyone interested in leagues, or real bowling in general. It's bad enough that hardly anyone knows how to score anymore—don't even get me started on that.

Anyway—to my great surprise, I averaged 195 for the series, bowling by radar—well above my average from last year. Perhaps the complete lack of visual and auditory cues made me use the Force. As Obi-wan Kenobi said, “Your senses deceive you—don’t trust them.”

Despite this start, I’m eagerly anticipating the league proper. The sister-in-law assured me that it is written into the league’s contract that the music will be off while we’re bowling. And that makes me happy, cool blue runways notwithstanding.


1For the first time, I actually heard a Justin Bieber song and realized that’s what it was. I now understand why Auto-Tune is so widely despised (though I had already suspected it, courtesy of Rebecca Black).

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Congratulations to my friend Jenn for finding a full-time job with actual benefits and everything! Alas, her last day of work with us was Friday. I am truly singing a sad song, for at last I’d found someone I could act silly with at work, and now she’s left us.

Case in point: Our boss—the department chair, and a VIP indeed—decided that we needed a space in which we could congregate informally and generally be social. His big idea was to have us sit around there and drink tea in the afternoons (he’s British), have fun and maybe occasionally brainstorm about new research ideas. A great idea—we don’t interact with each other nearly enough, socially—but we have no useable space at all. The boss, nevertheless, is someone who Gets Things Done, and he had a plan: to convert the very small open area outside the kitchen into a gathering place simply by closing the doors that open into it, making two passageways into two walls. He had a large dry-erase (“squeaky”) board installed along one of the other walls, so that people could write formulae and illustrations whilst discussing their “cutting-edge” (oh, how I hate that term) research. The squeaky board is about ten feet wide, but the space is only about eight feet deep, so looking at different parts of the board involves a lot of head-turning, like watching a movie from the very front row of the theater.1

Closing those doors nicely converted the open area into a cozy little meeting room, all right, but since this tiny space happened to be the junction of the two busiest hallways in the whole department, his commandment to keep the doors closed at all times has run into serious resistance from just about everyone. The door opposite the kitchen has remained open more than not, despite its being locked from one side, and the huge PLEASE KEEP THIS DOOR CLOSED! sign posted on it. When it’s open, it obscures the leftmost two feet of the squeaky board. I can imagine the workmen rolling their eyes when they discovered where they were expected to install the board; but perhaps they knew better to question an order handed down from such a lofty station.

Nobody really used the squeaky board after it was installed. The big boss kept talking about having an unofficial tea hour on Friday afternoon, but was always too busy to actually convene one. So the white board just sat there, gleaming and unsullied. Finally I drew a small cat head, maybe six inches high, in the top corner. The next day it was gone. I replaced it, and again it was quickly erased. I kept drawing new cat heads in the corner until whoever was erasing them gave up and let one stay. Then, in the other top corner, I drew a small rectangle, and underneath wrote “For Official Use Only—Do Not Write in This Space”, and then drew a tiny square inside of it with the label “Except Here”. That stayed up for a long time—months, I think—and in the meantime, my friend Jenn and I added a whole menagerie of animal heads around the cat’s. The powers that be eventually got disgusted and wiped off the lot, but we got some good laughs out of it.

After a while I went back to the simple cat head, but this time I placed it in the corner where it would be hidden when the door to the main office area was open. I labeled it QAT (after B. Kliban’s alternate spelling). Later that day, Jenn sketched a cute St. Bernard head next to it, with the title DAWG. Both remained undisturbed for a few days, so, right after a Slurpee bender one Saturday, I drew an approximation of this classic bit of stoner art complete with the caption: BAKED GOODS. I didn’t expect anything that controversial to stay up even overnight, but it remained for weeks, in full view of everyone passing by.

Soon after I perpetrated this bit of mischief, some even more mischievous soul removed the S from BAKED GOODS, highlighting the picture’s double meaning:

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I first noticed I was seriously going bald my second year of graduate school. My Ph.D.-level applied statistics professor alone gave thirty hours’ worth of brutal homework every week; that class alone cost me about an inch of hairline from the sides of my forehead—partly from having to think so hard that my frontal lobes heated up and burned out the hair roots, and partly from pulling my hair out over the homework assignments. In this way, my widow’s peak became a widow’s peninsula; and a couple years ago my remaining bang officially parted company with the rest of my hair and thus became a widow’s island. Since then, the Straits of Cueball have been widening relentlessly, and have now pushed the widow’s island right off the continental shelf.

I wouldn’t have minded so much if my hairline had made an orderly retreat, like my father’s did. (Conventional wisdom says that male pattern baldness is a Mendelian X-lined trait, which is consistent with my own situation; but in fact its inheritance is more complex, with autosomal as well as X-linked genetic factors.) Even as it was, I would not have been concerned about it, but for two fateful, horrible photographs.

The first was a random picture taken during a poster session in the genetics meeting I attended last October. Some sneaky photographer had snapped a telephoto picture, from a balcony a couple hundred yards away, of me studiously examining a poster and taking notes in my program. The back of my head was in full view. I discovered that I’d started to go bald at my topknot, as well, but instead of doing it the dignified way with an expanding circle of missing hair, I had a small patch of hair surrounded by a ring of bare scalp, a bit larger than a quarter. Great. I had a bullseye on the top of my head, and now it was available for the entire population of the world to see on the meeting’s Facebook site. I wondered whether I’d wind up looking like the tough guy who received a disastrous mechanical haircut at the carnival in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

That was bad, but even worse was yet to come. A few weeks ago, during our board-game night, a friend took a profile shot of me pondering a move in the game Rage. My remaining hair looked like a helmet with the visor lifted all the way back. Forward of that was a broad, gleaming expanse of bare scalp, across which a lonely vein meandered. It was as if my head, divided front and back, was a before/after advertisement for Rogaine. Worst of all, my widow’s island stuck about an inch straight out from my forehead before curling to the left like a breaking wave.

I saw this and said to myself, Nope! I refuse to look like that anymore.

Soon thereafter, I talked Kathy into buzzing my hair down to about 1/16 of an inch, and I finished the job using an ordinary, disposable razor. Miraculously, I didn’t cut myself once, though it took a long time to figure out how to shave all the bits I couldn’t see. It turned out that shaving scalp hair is much easier than beard hair: mine is finer and denser, and my scalp doesn’t have all those sharp corners and folds like my face.

When I was all done and got the extra shaving cream rinsed off, I almost didn’t dare look at the finished product. I was very happily surprised: I have a pretty normal looking head, and my ears don’t stick out and look stupid or anything. I almost look—dare I say it?—hip.

Maintenance isn’t too bad, though it takes longer than I want to spend more than about twice a week. I inadvertently discovered the perfect razor for head shaving: the Schick Xtreme3 women’s disposable razor. The blades bend to conform to the shape of my head. Perfect for negotiating the seams and corners where I can’t see them. The handle is even colored in lurid lavender and magenta, so that if the power goes out you can keep right on shaving. And you women have been hogging these wonderful razors all for yourselves!

One problem is that my scalp, having been coiffed for several decades, is still pumping out the oil as if I had a full mop on top, and so my scalp tends to get greasier than I’d like, especially when I’ve been wearing my bicycle helmet. Of course, this means that when I’m freshly shaved, my head is really shiny: all the little facets of my skull glint and flash in the sun. If I stood under a bright spotlight and spun around slowly—human disco ball!

Whenever I let my beard grow way too long, I’m compelled to scrape my pokey, wiry whiskers against Kathy’s cheek, and ask, “How’s that spouse?” After mopping up the rivulets of blood from her face with a tissue, she replies, “Hairy!”, with a heavy, breathy emphasis on the H. It’s a kind of ritual, which grew out of a story too long and stupid to relate here.

Since I went bald I’ve initiated a new ritual: instead of my grizzled facial hair, I rub my pristine, gleaming head against her cheek, and ask, “How’s that spouse?” The correct response: “Scalpy!”


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How dedicated a sliver-moon observer am I? Dedicated enough to set my alarm for 6:00 AM on a Saturday, and actually wake up to it? Mais oui!

Kathy was not amused at the time, though when I asked her about it later she didn’t remember hearing my alarm at all. But it was well worth it, to see a most slivery one-and-a-half-day sliver moon riding the eastern horizon, almost at its Cheshire Cattiest.

(The Saturday was 27 August. I’m nearly two weeks late writing this sliver moon update. At least it’s not past full moon yet.)

Incredibly at this time of year, I also saw an evening sliver moon, on 30 August. The only way I have a hope of viewing a sliver moon after sunset this close to the fall equinox is if it’s just about a three-day crescent, and indeed, at sundown Tuesday the moon was nearly 69 hours past new. By the time it got dark enough on the American West Coast to view sliver moons, it wouldn’t have been a sliver moon any more. Even so, the tips of the crescent were lost in the hazy murk of late summer, and what I saw was a thin elbow macaroni standing on end, only a degree or two (of arc) above the silhouetted trees to the west-southwest.

My streak now stands at six consecutive lunar months of sliver moon sightings. I’ll be astonished if I can extend it to seven: with the end of summer, the clouds have moved in, and they look like they won’t budge until April. We haven’t seen the sun’s disk in almost a week. Sigh.


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You’re probably familiar with those “Which states have you been to?” quizzes, and variations thereon, that generate a map that you can post on LJ or Facebook to show off your worldliness. Unfortunately, such maps don’t reflect very accurately how well-traveled you are: I can claim Minnesota and Missouri simply from having had layovers in the Minneapolis and St. Louis airports, respectively.1 Air travel seems like cheating, anyway: you haven’t really made a journey from one place to another unless you’ve seen every mile (kilometer) of it, by land or by sea.

Perhaps a better measure of how much you've discovered America is to plot where you’ve been on the Interstate Highway System. Here is a pictorial summary of my Interstate expertise, as shown by heavy magenta lines:

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(As usual, I’m several days late with this post—sorry 'bout that.)

We’re well into that time of year when evening sliver moons are most difficult to see, on account of the angle of the Ecliptic with the horizon, and so I didn’t have much hope of extending my sliver-moon-sighting streak to five months, even though we’ve recently had pretty clear weather around sunrise and sunset. (It’s just the other 22 hours that are all cloudy and nasty.)

This Monday was typical: clear in the early morning, rapidly clouding up with ferocious thunderstorms in the mid-afternoon that somehow pushed the humidity even higher while completely failing to banish the oppressive heat, and finally clearing back up around dinnertime. The sky was cloud-free by sunset, and therefore “clear” by meteorological standards, but still a far cry from actually transparent: the atmosphere was water slightly diluted by air, and the vast layer of haze began to turn the sky yellow a good hour before sunset. About 20 minutes after sunset I strolled out to the street to see whether the two-day sliver moon was yet able to shine through the brilliant band of Creamsicle sky at the horizon. It looked way too early, but just in case, I walked across the street to get clear of the neighbor’s maple tree, and caught the sliver moon only a few minutes shy of setting. Though well over two days old (and, at magnitude –6.8, far brighter than any star or planet), it could barely punch through that murky blaze of sunset. The tips of the sliver were lost completely; I saw a faint, paper-thin elbow macarono (singular of macaroni) hovering just over the horizon.

The next two evening sliver moons will be the most difficult so see of the whole year. I won’t have a chance of extending my lucky streak unless I get up before dawn for some reason. Even when we lived in Seattle, at no time of the year was I willing to be awake before dawn. I’m tempted to set my alarm for 45 min before sunset two days before each of the next two new moons, but that almost seems like cheating.

The last six weeks have been scorching, of course, but the locals would be amazed to find out that overall temperatures in May and June were well over average, as well—partly because we’ve had double the usual precipitation, but mostly because most of the unusual warmth occurred during the night. Recently I’ve read several articles reporting that increasing cloud cover at night has indeed raised nighttime temperatures in North America. And, incidentally, mucking up the stargazing even more than usual. Sigh.


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I didn’t take any AP science classes in high school. Dad suggested (wisely, I think) that I concentrate my AP efforts on subjects that I wouldn’t have to college classes in to get into medical school. Consequently, I missed out on the excellent AP chemistry class in which everyone got to synthesize “barf acids,” carboxylic acid compounds that smelled just like vomit. A friend of mine and a couple accomplices spotted the barf acids on to pieces of paper and hid them behind every radiator in the school, because that’s what high school is all about: making people smell vomit (against their will).

Fast forward to organic chemistry lab, sophomore year of college. We were each assigned a unknown organic compound, with a mission to discover what it was. I received a small cube of a brown, waxy solid that smelled just like vanilla. (In was not, in fact, vanillin, but was quite similar: it had three methoxy (–OCH3) groups instead of one.) I had lots of fun with it: it melted at about 28 °C, so I had to take special precautions not to warm it up too much with my hands getting a sample of it into the melting-point apparatus.

My good friend Mary got a vial containing a milliliter of clear liquid. She opened it and a moment later we were both gagging as the acrid odor of fresh puke enveloped us. My poor vanilla compound vaporized in disgust. Was this the elusive barf acid of AP chemistry? Nope—it was 4-heptanone, a simple molecule easily identified—if you don’t pass out first from holding your breath.

As unpleasant as that particular lab exercise was, it advanced, in one huge bound, my appreciation of organic chemistry. Some vomit-smelling compounds were not carboxylic acids! After much research it was impressed on me that any class of organic molecules, suitably modified, could emit the distinct odor of spew. Not only were there barf acids—there were barf ketones, barf esters and barf aldehydes. (The existence of barfohols is predicted by current theory, but none has been discovered.)

I haven’t thought about either of these incidents in ages—until I reread this Onion article from 2009 about people misusing ketchup in fast-food stores. It’s one of their better articles, actually: I sympathize with restaurant employees who have to clean that glop off the floors and the furniture, and I personally detest the cloying, fructose-laden crap that serves for ketchup these days*. But I didn’t notice an important detail until I came back to it recently.
"Our scientists don't spend countless hours manufacturing the food we serve just to have it dunked and drowned in obscene amounts of ketchup," said J. David Karam, president of Wendy's International. "Can customers even taste the dipropyl ketone or amyl acetate in our food anymore? It makes me sick."
I subconsciously expected that the author wasn’t a chemist, and probably chose two random compounds to put into the second-to-last sentence, so I glossed over the chemical names the first time: “Can customers even taste the [chemical #1] and [chemical #2] in our food anymore?” On second reading I actually read the names of the additive molecules, and to my delight saw “dipropyl ketone”—the same thing as 4-heptanone! Fast-food ketchup contains a barf ketone! My suspicions confirmed!**

That’s what happens when you cross science with adolescent humor. In recent years all sorts of non-fiction books have been published about feces and other disgusting things, and I definitely approve.


*Ketchup has probably always been like that; I’ve just grown out of liking condiments that shouldn’t be sweet that are nevertheless jam packed with corn syrup.
**Amyl acetate could be a barf ester, but I’d guess it isn’t. Amyl alcohol, an organic solvent used in extracting DNA from blood samples, has a pleasant, fruity aroma.


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All right—my sliver-moon streak now stands at four consecutive lunar months. Hope I don’t jinx it.

I’m kind of embarrassed to take credit for this one; the sliver moon last Sunday evening (3 July) was only eight hours from 3-day-crescenthood, and set fully an hour and a half after the sun. And I still almost didn’t see it. Sunday evening, the sky was lovely and clear, except for a T-shaped mass of heavy cirrus clouds, perhaps the tip of an anvil top of an unseen thunderhead, blocking exactly that piece of sky where the sliver moon was scheduled to hang out. I had to pop out to the street every ten minutes, in hopes that the clouds would move along. They eventually did, and I spied a vague, ghostly sickle shining through the murk, just a few minutes before moonset.

Just now I discovered that Mercury had been keeping station a few degrees to the right (north) of the sliver moon that evening. No chance it was visible, though. By the way, Mercury is still pretty high in the western sky at sunset, so if you look, say, 20-30 min after sunset, when it’s just starting to get nice and dark, you might find the planet low to the west-northwest. I just did, but those stupid cirrus clouds are back; and Mercury just doesn’t pack the lumens to punch through even the barest wisps of cloud as close to sunset as you have to look to see it.

In vaguely relevant news, an amazing coincidence: I checked Facebook late Friday morning and saw that a friend had posted a link to streaming live coverage of the historic shuttle launch. I tuned in—exactly two seconds before main engine start! A closeup of the engines throttling up to full, and then a panorama showing two tongues of flame and smoke jetting across the launchpad in opposite directions, the fury of the boosters directed out and away from the spacecraft—and liftoff! I thought, This can’t be the real launch—I couldn’t possibly have been that lucky. Must be a replay. At that moment a colleague rudely interrupted my voyeuristic shuttle watching with a work-related question, and I wasn’t able to return my attention to the launch until shortly before external fuel tank separation. I stopped the feed and started it up again, hoping for another replay. Nope—it was the real deal.

I haven’t yet really decided how I feel about the discontinuation of the shuttle program, but I definitely regret not having seen a launch in person. Someday, hopefully.


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(Edited 7/10/2011 to correct an embarrassing gaffe—thanks, jedibl, for catching it.)

Welcome to the conclusion of our recent European vacation.

[Recap: We started off in Berlin, where we saw some World War II and Cold War historical sites (Part I), museums and other stuff (Part II), and had some misadventures (Part III). We spent one day in Heidelberg, mostly at the castle (Part IV), and continued south to the Bernese (Swiss) Alps, where we had a lovely time sightseeing in and above the Lauterbrunnen Valley (Part V). From München, our last headquarters, we explored Salzburg (Part VI).]

Friday: Königsschlösser.

On our last vacation day, we finished our mini-tour of Bavarian castles. (And perhaps started it, since Salzburg may not qualify as Bavaria.)

I’d heard the name Neuschwanstein before, and I was vaguely aware that it was the picturesque castle cast as the Vulgarian stronghold in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but that pretty much summed up my knowledge of it. Even if you don’t know the name, you’ll almost certainly recognize the castle, especially from an aerial view like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (the car, not the movie) had on final approach to Benny Hill’s village.

Schloß Neuschwanstein was built in the mid-19th century by “mad” King Ludwig II, on the ruins of a medieval castle (named appropriately, Schloß Schwanstein). He really wasn’t crazy, though he was quite eccentric; and he had a brother who was genuinely schizophrenic, so that when Ludwig (who hated the pomp of the court, and society in general) retreated to his castles and refused to do his required kinging, his subordinates found a claim of insanity a ready excuse to remove him from power. The castle isn’t “real” in the sense that it was never intended for defense, although it did serve as a seat of power during the six months or so the Ludwig lived in it. Neuschwanstein is a tribute to the works of Richard Wagner, the king’s close friend, and so is a fairy-tale castle in the literal sense.

The drive to the town of Füssen, gateway to the Königsschlösser (King’s Castles), was quite pleasant and hardly ever exceeded the speed of sound. I even briefly abandoned my study of my shoelaces to drink in the Bavarian countryside. After we left the Autobahn we drove along a narrow two-lane road through a broad, serene valley in which a small stream wound along a labyrinthine course, taking its good old time going anywhere. A lovely bicycle path followed our road for a few kilometers, and then darted over to parallel the stream for a while, and then back to tag along with us, as if it were a dog trying to figure out which of its owners was more likely to offer it a treat. If we’d had a day with nothing on the schedule I’d definitely have rented a bike for a long, leisurely riding tour, with no clear destination, the only purpose to enjoy the pastures and woods sliding past while the distant Alps brood on the horizon.

Up to this point, we hadn’t visited anything in Germany or Switzerland that attracted huge crowds of people, at least in mid-May. We knew we were going to break our perfect record at Neuschwanstein, so we made sure to arrive early and buy our tickets promptly. We set a second precedent, as well: for the first time we parked in a parking lot that didn’t require (1) negotiating a maze of concrete buttresses to reach an available spot and (2) laser-guided driving accuracy to get between the lines delimiting the parking space. There were vast reaches of pavement on both sides of us—we could barely see, off in the haze of distance, the lines on either side of the car—and nothing above but blue sky. I felt like I was in Las Vegas.

I also discovered, around this time, that there were two castles here. While Neuschwanstein was being built, Ludwig II lived in the “old” family manor, the relatively plain Schloß Hohenschwangau. We splurged for the Königsticket—admission to both castles, and all the rights and privileges thereunto appertaining.

The folks who run tours through the Königsschlösser had clearly learned their crowd-control techniques from Disney World. Our Königstickets bore the start times of both tours in 60-point print, along with an official tour number for each, just in case we forgot how to tell time during our walk up to either castle. The tours began two hours apart. I wondered whether that would be enough time, as a good country kilometer and two steep hills separated the two castles, but I’d neglected to figure in the deadly combination of German efficiency and Disney-World-style forced people moving. Our travel guide had warned us that delays of five hours were not unheard of during peak season; but as we had shown up both bright and early that morning, and a month early for summer, we scored a first tour time just a half hour hence—and that long only because enough time was allowed for an emphysemic sloth to scale the hill on which each castle was perched.

As we began the march up to Hohenschwangau, we caught through the trees a glimpse of Schloß Neuschwanstein (Plate 1). Though a half-hour’s walk distant, it seemed to loom over us from atop its wooded rampart. In fact, it didn’t even look real, way up there, backlit by the sun. I was tempted to say “Camelot! Camelot!” “[It’s only a model.]” “Shh!”

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Welcome to Part VI of my travelogue from our recent European vacation.

(Recap: We started off in Berlin, where we saw some World War II and Cold War historical sites (Part I), museums and other stuff (Part II), and had some misadventures (Part III). We spent one day in Heidelberg, mostly at the castle (Part IV), and continued south to the Bernese (Swiss) Alps, where we had a lovely time sightseeing in and above the Lauterbrunnen Valley (Part V).)

Thursday: Salzburg.

We had our base of operations in München (Munich) the last two days of our vacation, but we didn’t really do anything there, besides dinner. Loads of people expected us to drink German beer whilst in Germany and especially in München. I expected to get screamed at, back at home, for not doing so, and also for not eating local food for every meal. But to us, food was more of an annoyance than something to be sought out specifically—hence our gigantic breakfast every morning and no lunch. Thursday was the exception.

It was a fair piece of driving to get to Salzburg, just over the Austrian border, from München; but we were old hands at it by now. Kathy was driving just like a native, which meant that I spent most of our time on the highway with my eyes closed and my head between my knees. I never did learn to deal with the Autobahnen very well. Because of this, I missed our crossing into Austria, and the famous sign outsize Salzburg warning that anyone caught singing a tune from The Sound of Music would be stoned to death with stale Brötchen.

In actuality, The Sound of Music wasn’t played up much at all, even though it would have made a fantastic draw for the senior-citizen tourist set. On the other hand, Salzburgers made much of the fact that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born there (more about that later).

We circled around Salzburg’s Altstadt a couple times before we realized that the parking for Fortress Hohensalzburg was underneath the fortress, quarried into the base of the rocky bluff on which it was perched.

Even our walk up to the entrance of the fortress was steeped in history. We strolled along cobblestone paths through a monastery that predated Columbus (Plate 1), and passed through a long arcade of alcoves, each containing the statue of a saint. With typical Germanic thoroughness, the saints were numbered (using Roman numerals, natch), and were also caged behind iron bars to keep them from roaming the streets at night and scrawling Latin graffiti all over everything.

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Dad has a number of friends whom he hangs out with periodically. (Sorry—that should read “out with whom he hangs periodically.”) They’re lovely, nice people, but this being Utah, their politics lie just to the right of Mussolini’s; and like the majority of Utahns, they have quaint—and incorrect—notions about things like science, history and the divinity of Ronald Reagan. Things that can easily be refuted by means of a little research.

I suspect that Dad is highly skilled at suppressing his response when one of his friends voices an opinion he disagrees with. But like me, he feels an obligation to correct someone if what they say is factually wrong. He’ll march out a list of evidence to the contrary, and if pressed, can invariably produce articles from the Web to back him up. His companions are actually quite impressed with this show of expertise on a variety of subjects. They ask him, “How do you know all this stuff?”

He replies, “I spend my time reading instead of watching Dancin’ with the Stars.

His friends then look sheepish and shuffle about as if embarrassed by their smug ignorance.

That’s just how I’d like to spend my retirement. Not educating ignorant Utahns, but learning new stuff. A major hassle of having a job is that it cuts so heavily into my reading time; and a major source of enjoyment I derive from my job is expanding my knowledge of science and medicine.

When I was little we kept a tree frog and a bullfrog in an aquarium. Their names were Archy & Mehitabel. The original Archy and Mehitabel were a free-verse poet reincarnated as a cockroach, and a feline friend of his (when she wasn’t trying to eat him). Archy typed out poetry and other things, usually complaints about his wretched life as a cockroach, by jumping on a (manual) typewriter’s keys.

I haven’t thought about the frogs or their namesakes for ages, until the brother posted this verse from one of Archy’s poems, “the song of mehitabel.” Mehitabel is speaking in first person:
i have had my ups and downs
but wotthehell wotthehell
yesterday sceptres and crowns
fried oysters and velvet gowns
and today i herd with bums
but wotthehell wotthehell
i wake the world from sleep
as i caper and sing and leap
when i sing my wild free tune
wotthehell wotthehell
under the blear eyed moon
i am pelted with cast off shoon
but wotthehell wotthehell
The second-to-last line got my attention, because Dad used to call shoes “shoon” when we were kids. I thought he’d borrowed it from the German, but this was a more likely source. (Also, German for shoes is Schuhe.) I asked him about it last Sunday, and he told me he’d actually derived it from the name of a class of creature from Li’l Abner called the shmoo—plural, shmoon.

Reading the Song of Mehitabel also inspired me to finally read the lives and times of archy & mehitabel, which I could only find at my university’s library. I went in expecting something humorous and light-hearted. But although Archy gets in a few wry jokes, it’s dark, very dark, and I loathed irresponsible, nihilistic Mehitabel. I feel the loss of a particularly cherished childhood fantasy being dispelled by cold-hearted reality.

It is appropriate, then, that the last we saw of Archy the tree frog was his feet disappearing down Mehitabel the bullfrog’s gullet, following the rest of him.


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Here we go again, with the fifth installment of our recent European vacation. (The story so far: We started off in Berlin, where we saw some World War II and Cold War historical sites (Part I), museums and other stuff (Part II). We had a rough last day in Berlin (Part III). After Berlin, we spent one day in Heidelberg, mostly at the castle (Part IV), after which we drove to Bern, Switzerland, our jumpoff point for the Swiss Alps.)

Wednesday: Lauterbrunnen Valley.

When we planned our trip to Europe, a year and a half ago,1 we all weighed in on what each of us wanted to do. I only had one requirement, but it was practically non-negotiable: to see the Lauterbrunnen Valley in Switzerland.

In the 1960s Time-Life Books published a series of books under the title LIFE Nature Library. I grew up reading them, starting so young that at first I mostly just looked at the pictures. By the end of kindergarten I had my favorites; one of the very top ones was The Mountains. The Life Nature Library format was as rigid as a sonnet’s: each book contained eight chapters and exactly 192 pages (including the index). Every chapter began with a text section, usually with side notes and drawings in the margins, and concluded with a photographic section, alternating pairs of facing pages in color and black and white. Chapter 1, the introductory chapter, generally had the most impressive photos, and The Mountains is no exception: my favorite picture in the book is a two-page spread of the Lauterbrunnen Valley and surrounding Alps. Alas, I don’t have access to a scanner capable of doing justice to the original, but Plate 1 is a reasonable approximation (ganked from here).

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Welcome to Part IV of the travelogue of our recent European vacation. (Review materials, in case you need them: Part I. Part II. Part III.) This one will be heavy on pictures and (relatively) light on words.

Tuesday: Heidelberg.

We had to drive a ways to get to the Heidelberg’s Altstadt (Old City), since our hôtel was just off the Autobahn on the outskirts of town (a location that served us very well the previous night, as wiped out as we’d been). The moment we observed what driving in the Altstadt was like, we made a pact to drop the car off in the very next open parking space we found, and hoof it up to our first destination, Schloß Heidelberg (Heidelberg Castle). It wasn’t that strenuous a haul by our standards, and we found numerous really nifty, tiny parks hidden all over the hillside. (One of them had the main path incorporated into a tube slide in place of a staircase! How cool is that?) We didn’t meet any touristy-looking folks during the trudge up the hill, but there was no shortage of vaguely lost-looking people at the castle entrance.

Schloß Heidelberg, during its prime, must have been an imposing sight from the city below. Now it’s only about 3/4 imposing and 1/4 sad. It has seen better centuries—about two and a half of them, to be precise. Dating back to the 12th century, the castle suffered heavy damage during the Thirty Years’ War. In 1688, French troops bombarded the four-meter-thick walls in vain; and when they took the city by other means, they tried bombarding the towers from the inside for a change. That worked much better. Efforts to restore Schloß Heidelberg followed, and continued until 1764, when Mother Nature decided she wanted a turn, as well, in the form of a lightning bolt to the bell tower. To this day, most of the castle remains a ruin, except for the central hall and chapel, which has been completely reconstructed.

The first thing we discovered, on arriving at the castle, was that Kathy and I had neglected to bring the camera. And neither of us felt particularly inclined to repeat the climb. Consequently, we thank Eric for lending us his photographs of our tour; all home-grown pictures below are his.

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Welcome to the third installment of our recent European vacation. If you haven’t read them already, best to start with Part I and Part II.

Monday: The Day of Highly Concentrated Ævil.

In retrospect, we did well to pack most of our misadventures into one day. The fun began even before we properly got started. We were paying €12/day for a parking space in the hôtel’s garage, when we could have parked for free on the street right in front. No, we weren’t stupid—we just never saw an available parking space on the street. Until Monday morning. We were expecting a long day, what with the last of our Berlin touring and a drive to Heidelberg in the afternoon, so we started breakfast the moment the restaurant opened (I forget the time, as my mind was not yet on line that early, but we’re talking 6:30 AM or so—i.e., 12:30 AM EDT.) When we emerged from the hôtel, we found, to our astonishment, that about half the parking spaces were empty. “Hot shit! We’d better grab one and save ourselves some bux!”, we thought in unison. Eric and I were dispatched to reserve one of the spaces, should the others disappear, whilst Kathy and Stephanie fetched the car.

Eric and I waited. For quite a while. As the sun cleared the trees in the little park across the street, the parking spots began to disappear fast. I went to find out what the hell was up with the others. The parking lot was in a little courtyard surrounded by the hôtel on three sides, and separated from the street by a key-card-activated metal gate. I found Kathy and Stephanie trying to coax the gate into letting them out. Apparently our second day’s worth of parking had expired, as the gate wouldn’t budge, despite Stephanie’s ingenious tema con variazioni on sliding the keycard into the reader. What’s worse, unbeknownst to me, all of the regular doors into the hôtel were also secured: I had just finished locking myself into this Venus’ flytrap of a parking lot. We carefully tried every door—no luck. Pounded on every door—no luck. And we couldn’t use the elevator in the basement because for some reason our room keys wouldn’t call it anymore. If the building had caught on fire at that moment, we might just as well have checked straight into a cemetery.

While I was searching for signal flares, something I’d read down by the elevator stirred in my memory. “Bitte Klingen Sie something something something.” (“Please ring etwas etwas etwas.”) Perhaps we could ring for help? Kathy did, and we arranged for someone from the hôtel registration to liberate us. Outside, Eric still had a space reserved for us. We found him blockading it against three cars simultaneously trying to wedge their way in. So it ended well—but we were now almost an hour behind schedule on our busiest day.

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Wow—my recent good sliver-moon luck continues!

I don’t make any effort to catch early-morning sliver moons, least of all on a Monday. But on this particular Monday, our cat Yuki-chan had other ideas. At 5:30 in the morning:

“Brrrp?” [purr, purr]
“Go away.”
“Squeak!” [stomp, stomp, with much kneading of sternal area]
“No, you stupid cat!”
“Squeak!” [stomps three circles on my stomach, and then rubs her head against my face, packing both my nostrils with stray cat hairs]
“Okay, I give.”

I got up, fished around in my bedside table for my glasses (I have to keep them in a drawer, or the cats will carry them off), and reluctantly opened my eyes. Just outside the window was a bright 2 1/2-day sliver moon, almost riding the horizon, in a pinkish predawn glow. Alas, none of the four planets that have been hanging around the moon lately was visible. It was too bright to see Mars and Mercury, anyway, and Venus was likely behind the neighbor’s tree. Nevertheless, a morning sliver moon is a rare treat, regardless of how many planets I’m supposed to be able to see with it.

The latter half of the workweek was absolutely delightful: perfect riding weather, with high temps just below 70 °F, and crystal-clear skies. The sunlight on the roads early in the morning turned them into blindingly bright, shimmering bands of silver to the east. (Fortunately, I’m pointing west most of the way in.) That’s normally a desert thing; I never see that here. It was no challenge at all to see Friday evening’s two-day sliver moon. Some high cirrus clouds drifting in late in the afternoon threatened to obscure the view, but they obligingly dissipated around sunset.

Yowza—that’s four sliver moons in the last two lunar months!


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Welcome to the second installment of our recent vacation to Germany and points south. Part I, here, is a bit of a slog but deals with most of my general observations about traveling in Europe.

Sunday: Pergamonmuseum and Schloß Charlottenburg.

Kathy, in a stroke of genius, had arranged to include breakfast every morning with our hôtel rooms. That saved us much inconvenience (and, probably, money) having to stop for lunch while sightseeing. It also meant, unfortunately, that we’d eaten our daily quota of bread and then some before we even left for the day, and so were never tempted by a quintessential Berlin custom: buying pastries from one of the ubiquitous Bäckereien to munch on as we strolled between sights. Too bad, because I was really hoping to try a Berliner in situ.1

We returned to East Berlin to visit the Pergamonmuseum. Much like the London Museum, the Pergamonmuseum is a repository of antiquities filched from their places of origin all over the world and carted back to Europe. In the entrance queue we noticed the only obvious holdover from the bad old East Berlin days we saw in our whole visit: the buildings on either side of us had wire mesh draped over their dirty, pitted walls so that the bits that crumbled off wouldn’t menace the museum patrons.

As its name implies, the museum’s main attraction is a reconstruction of the Pergamon Altar, build in the 2nd century BCE in Asia Minor near the modern city of Bergama, Turkey. Plate 1 shows a model of the entire temple at approximately HO scale.

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