Archive for December, 2010

Auriga Leader Spotted

December 28, 2010

We have scaled back here on productivity recently, partly due to the holidays and partly due to our chronic illnesses, ranging from bronchitis and a lung infection, to a cold featuring 24/7 coughing. This kind of constant coughing means that neither of us has slept much in the last two weeks. I’m sure our usual output will resume in a few days.

But what I must mention is the gigantic ship that glided past our East Boston window this morning, on its way into port. The Auriga Leader is a Japanese car transport ship that derives part of its energy needs from solar power.

The ship is squat and chunky, like the former Washington Redskins full-back John Riggins. (It’s 650 feet long with a 100-foot beam.) When it came into view cruising north in the Boston Harbor channel, it was on a course parallel to Meridian Street. From initial perceptions, I had expected a much bigger vessel like the tankers we see occasionally, and expected to watch its progress for much longer. But soon the blue brick of a ship was out of view and gone.

Its name was unusual, to I had to look it up, and discovered the ship itself is unusual. Launched in 2008 the ship, built by a partnership of Nippon Yusen, a huge Japanese shipping company, and Nippon Oil, set the marine world alight by the revelation that it is, at least nominally, a solar ship.

Approximately 300 deck-mounted solar cells produce 40 kilowatts, or only about 0.3% of the energy needed for engine-based devices and roughly 7% of the electricity needed for lighting and other purposes, but green pundits contend that this is significant nonetheless.

A blogger named John wrote: “This is probably not for propulsion so much as for electrical power when in port. Things like diesel power generators on board ships, and trains and trucks transporting cargo to/from the ships, cause big pollution problems in and around ports. With major ports such as Los Angeles charging ever-higher fees for supplying electricity and hefty fines for excess emissions from on-board diesel generators I can see why shipbuilders are responding with equipment like this.”

This makes plenty of sense. If a large ship can produce clean power at least part of the time, say while anchored in a dirty port city, that would be an important contribution to the health of the planet’s atmosphere. If, on the other hand, that green contribution is outweighed by the pollution produced by the extra cars being delivered by such giant freight ships, that’s another question.

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Christmas Dinner

December 25, 2010

Christmas dinner in Boston was a grand success: roast duck with Madeira; gravy made from home-made duck stock; Julia Child’s scalloped potatoes with about 2/3 cheese and butter and about 1/3 potatoes; and stuffing with plums, apples, ground lamb, duck livers and walnuts; all washed down with a lovely Rhone.

Yum!

May have to pat myself on the back once or twice. And then have seconds.

Merry Christmas, every one!

The Cough That Stole Christmas

December 24, 2010

Not as much Christmas cheer at our house as we would like. We are both still sick: Michelle with a cold that features a 24/7 cough as nasty as you’ve ever heard; and my bronchitis and lung infection symptoms are on the way out but are taking their sweet time to fade away.

Ick! And duck!

My corporeal woes started right around my birthday, and prevented any sort of normal life, any sort of normal sleeping. Then of course there was the end of the term at Framingham State, which meant lots of exams to grade, and, oh yeah, Christmas.

Life is complex enough without sickness setbacks.

So we are running a little behind schedule, because the constant nose-blowing slows us down, and navigating around the mountain of soggy, used Kleenex eats up precious time. Our brains are not at present Olympic-quality, but sludge along in a molasses and petroleum jelly sort of way.

Those of you on the short list will receive cards a bit late this year, but just because we are ill does not mean we are not thinking of our friends and family. We hope your holiday celebrations are warm, safe and  happy.

Merry Christmas from JD and Michelle!

Resistance is Futile

December 19, 2010

What’s the worst part about having a cold, sore throat and lung infection? I’d say it’s a tie: all of them are lousy.

Modern colds have evolved to a point that they are smarter than you are, and defeat humans by causing a pervasive and crippling stuffiness. This stuffy state mandates blowing the nose non-stop, and produces a mountain of soggy and crumpled Kleenex. This doesn’t even really do anything, since after blowing, your nose is still non-functioning. Let‘s face it, your head feels like a block of wood instead of a human head. You can’t breathe, so sleeping is impossible, or as Seven of Nine would say, futile.

Not being able to breathe is only one facet of a cold. There’re the aches and pains, mostly above the neck, where my more important parts are. There are the pounding headaches, the low burn of unhappy sinuses, and searing pain around the eyes. Why is it that my eyes hurt?

The French have a way with colorful expressions, and they got this one right. One of the first French phrases I learned was, “J’ai un rhume abominable.” It’s not, “I have a cold” or “I have a bad cold” but “I have a lousy, rotten, horrible, stinkin’ cold.”

Then there is the pile-driver coughing that occurs 24/7 and shakes the entire body. It feels like you have returned from a heroic mission in space, and your Mercury space capsule is about to crash on the flight deck of a nearby aircraft carrier. Imagine this crash-landing occurring twice a second ten to thirty times in a row: that’s what the coughing feels like. It turns the throat into raw meat, sore and sensitive. Talking above a whisper is about all you can do.

And, oh yeah, it makes sleeping impossible.

Don’t forget the sneezing. This can also be violent, and rips up the already delicate throat even more. My sneezes scare the cat so much he jumps three feet in the air. If he’s lucky he won’t land in the soggy Kleenex.

Lastly, let’s talk about the most unpleasant part, the lung infection. This involves painfully coughing up disgusting green stuff, which must be captured and disposed of in a civilized and expeditious manner. I’d post a photo but I would probably get arrested. If you wait long enough you might catch a hi-res photo on WikiLeaks or a video on YouTube.

When you cough up icky green stuff it’s something that involves the entire body, and of course, it prevents you from sleeping.

Sleeping is futile.

So what can you do? There’s chicken soup, tea, cough drops, and all sorts of pills marketed by big, unsympathetic companies making specious claims. Nothing helps. Nothing.

Resistance is futile.

A weaker man would fantasize about Jeri Ryan as a personal nurse. She could wear one of those little outfits that naughty girls buy for Halloween, bring me soup and tea, and say, “There, there“ in a reassuring way. As I said, only a weak man would think about that. But when you’re sick as a dog as I am right now, when you feel as lousy, and when you yearn for the ability to breathe and sleep — and you know it won’t happen for a while — it weakens even a strong man.

I hate being sick. Somebody shoot me.

Happy Beethoven’s Birthday!

December 16, 2010

Today is Dec 16th, the day we celebrate Ludwig von Beethoven’s birthday. It’s kind of strange that we don’t know for sure if he was born on the 16th or not; way back then newborns were usually baptized on the day they were born or the day after. Records show only that little Ludwig — his name means “Little Grumpy Face” — was baptized on the 17th, in 1770.

Back in 1973, when I had as much hair as Beethoven did, I decided to see if my young and wobbly flesh contained a spine, so precious funds were saved, a passport was obtained, and I found myself for the first time on a jet plane speeding eastward. It took me to Europe, where I spent a year traveling and growing up. Part of that year was passed in England, exploring and working behind a bar. The rest of the year found this intrepid reporter on the Continent.

The summer before, good fortune and thoughtful friends caused my life to intersect with that of a lovely German girl, Almut, in the Washington DC area where I grew up. Almut Schultze-Böing came from the farming village of Kamen, outside Dortmund, a major German industrial city. (My buddies from Seattle will be pleased to know that it was a relative of hers who came to Washington State and founded the Boeing Company; the spelling of her last name becoming anglicized.) Anyway, she was visiting friends of mine from high school.

Almut and I were reunited in Geneva, Switzerland, and after an incredible visit with friends of hers in Chamonix, France, knocking on the door of Mont Blanc, we returned to the farm at Kamen. There I was taught the intricacies of, as Mark Twain wrote, “That Awful German Language”. With assistance from knowledgeable locals, I purchased proper hiking boots and a backpack, and began outfitting myself for a journey.

My hitch-hiking expedition, which would take me all over Germany, Austria, Switzerland and beyond, started in Bonn, the birthplace of Beethoven. Back in 1974, Bonn was the capital of Germany, although Berlin took back that honor after reunification in 1990. After getting lost in the city a few times — and I recommend getting lost to any world traveler — I found myself at the door of the house where the great composer was born.

The entry fee was very modest, and soon my eyes were wide while walking through the same rooms and halls as little Ludwig did. There was his tiny bed, a diminutive desk, and best of all, a little piano. Cool.

Stop! Do NOT Drink This!

December 12, 2010

When you go to the post office, you see posters of people who did bad things. When you look closely at their faces, one thought in particular should come to you: stay away from them. If and when you should see the bottle on the right, you should do the same thing. Stay away. Do NOT buy a bottle of Fernet Branca. If someone, even a close friend, offers you a glass at a party, do NOT drink it.

If you must know, it’s Italian, and it has a relatively respectable history. Some drink it before a meal, some after. It is considered an amaro, also known as bitters, like Campari and Cynar. It’s over 150 years old, and like many other pedigreed beverages like Grand Marnier and Coca-Cola, was born in a laboratory. Some of the mad scientists were like John Pemberton, a 19th Century pharmacist in Georgia, who developed the early version of what became Coke. The corporate history of formulas, owners and names for Coca-Cola is so convoluted you’d think that huge quantities of cocaine were involved.

Fernet was the brainchild of Bernardino Branca, a spice trader looking for new products to drive his business in spices. (“It’s a floor wax AND a dessert topping!”) You should visit the company’s official website, which is wildly creative and entertaining. This still does not mean, however, that you should drink any.

There’s even a very funny book about it. But make no mistake: one mouthful and you will wish you were dead.

What does it taste like? Sort of like aged Armenian shellac, with a big splash of shoe polish and a dash of asphalt. Sound good? Boy do you need help.

Why am I talking about it? Because last night I finished off a bottle, a bottle we’ve had for years, so I felt like sharing the experience. Every few months I’d pour myself a wee dram, hoping that it would be better than the last time I tried it.

You know how this is, some foods we detest as kids we like as adults. I could never stand spinach, which either came out of a Popeye-style can or was frozen. Either way it was overcooked, wet and sloppy and a complete failure as a food product. Years later, when working in good restaurants, I discovered how wonderful fresh spinach could be, say, in salads, or even if cooked very slightly and thrown on top of pasta. Another one was Brussells sprouts, which are forced on children everywhere. Most kids think that they should be used as ammunition for large bore assault rifles. They too are now one of my favorites, when steamed with a bit of butter and sesame oil.

Fernet Branca, on the other hand, never got any better. Never. Last night I sipped on the last shot glass full of it while cooking, and it was awful. Why did I drink it? Heck if I know, but it reminded me of a story I read many years ago in the Wall Street Journal.

On an island in the South Pacific, the people produced a fermented beverage from gourds. Evidently it was awful. A masculine culture, the men would sit around a fire and eat, sometimes a barbecued horse. (That’s what it said in the WSJ article.) Then, the men would pass around this fermented drink, getting drunk and telling stories, and they would make jokes about how bad it tasted.

While they kept drinking it. I will never forget that.

So when I was forcing down this gawd-awful Fernet Branca, with its long-lasting, lingering, gawd-awful taste, I was really communing with my people, sitting with the guys around a roaring fire on the beach, chewing on a barbecued horse haunch, and laughing.

Oslo, We Have a Problem

December 9, 2010

China hit new public relations highs and lows recently. In their paranoid passion to keep anyone from enjoying the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremonies this month, much less the guy who won it, the Peoples Bullying Party has harrassed and harrangued 20 countries into not attending. These countries are hard to spell and not very important, like Kazakhstan, Sudan and Tunisia, but it still shows China’s determination to call the dance.

As a knee-jerk reaction to the prestigious prize ceremonies in Norway, China has with blinding speed created their own competing peace prize ceremony, to be held the day before the one in Oslo. The Confucious Peace Prize is to pay homage to the ancient Chinese philosopher and ping pong partner of Socrates. Confucious is famous for such sayings as: “Always eat fortune cookies BEFORE the meal,” and “It’s bad karma to throw innocent people into jail for espousing democracy,” and “Harrass not those parents who demand justice when their children die in faulty school buildings constructed and inspected by corrupt companies and government officials.”

Taking advantage of an opportunity to kick sand into the face of the world, and China is the globe’s biggest exporter of sandbags, Tan Changliu refered to Europe as “full of small countries that don’t understand peace.” Apparently Tan is the prize pupil of Fling Dung, the head of the Politburo Standing Committee’s propaganda division.

At the same time they are fighting off the brutal, idealic savagery of a Nobel Peace Prize, China is battling incursions on the religious front. The Catholic Church in China is due to elect new senior members of the organization, but the Peoples Bullying Party has instead installed their own puppets, I mean people, into the key posts. The Vatican threatened to send Bishop Thomas Paprocki, just back from his Baltimore refresher course, to exorcise the demons clearly evident in the Communist Party of China.

Members of the Vatican-sanctioned Catholic Church in China were ordered to attend instead a gathering choreographed by the Politburo. Rather than attend, many refused or went into hiding; they were rounded up and forced to appear in what was described as a Communist Party photo-op. Battalions of heavily-armed Chinese police were required to drag away Bishop Feng Xinmao, after a six-hour contretemps held entirely in Latin.

Beijing grows suspicions that Chinese intellectuals and supporters of Liu Xiaobo will attempt to escape government control and make it to Norway for the peace prize ceremonies, any way they can. This intrepid reporter reviewed secret documents made available by WikiLeaks that prove two dozen Chinese nationals paid to stow away on the Falcon 9 rocket that blasted off from Cape Canaveral today. The eighteen men and six women concealed themselves in a cargo compartment made in China, and then shipped to Florida where it was loaded onto the Falcon. The Falcon 9 rocket was built by Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, nicknamed SpaceX. SpaceX is a pioneering American firm that wants to provide cargo and passenger services in space, like the Planet Express Corporation in Futurama. The radar app on my Droid phone will alert me if the Falcon 9 descends towards Northern Europe instead of the Caribbean.

China is furious that dissenters slipped away from its grasp, and vowed retribution by shutting down access to MasterCard, Visa, and Sears credit cards. Fling Dung, his face purple with rage, told western reporters at a hastily arranged press conference that SpaceX was complicitous, and that “falcon” translated into Chinese means “instability” and “disharmony.”

Exorcising the Past

December 6, 2010

Diplomatic cables have been released to the public recently, bringing to light more than should be, like an off-the-shoulder top revealing a bra strap. These highly secret communications between governments and diplomats illuminate the distance between the elliptically vague language diplomats use, and the unreserved truthfulness that secret channels allow. Cables to and from the Vatican tell a particularly amazing story, one that must be shared by this investigative reporter.

Unless you’ve been living under a pew, you probably knew that a convention was held in Baltimore to train American members of the clergy in the ancient art of exorcism. (Maybe you had better read that again.) Sadly, there is a troubling paucity of those skilled in driving out demons, so a training program was arranged to address this deplorable shortage. It is not clear if the fees charged were in dollars or pasta.

Classes were held at the Baltimore Hilton, after Paris had given her permission, and each trainee was issued a cross, some rosary beads, and an inflatable Satan. This detailed, gruelling and extensive training took place over one entire weekend. A lovely and impressive diploma, in Latin, was given to those hearty Christian soldiers who passed the rigorous regimen. Some devil dumpers opted for a commemorative tattoo of Beelzebub on their forearms, to both impress and intimidate demons not on top of their game. Other Satan stompers were awarded gold tridents.

One attendant, “Leaky” Pipedaro, had been a plumber before he took his holy vows, and told reporters that the exorcism rites are much like those required to clear a drain, but with more swearing.

Cables intercepted and promulgated by WikiLeaks reveal that there was discord in the higher ranks of the Catholic Church, with some arguing that a more important city than Baltimore was needed, while others pleaded for a smaller and more secretive venue. One bishop, travelling incognito, tried to rent the football field of Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Maryland, but a football game had been scheduled.

The daily work of the devil is temptation, with social networking one of his most seductive charms. In Vatican cables Bishop Thomas Paprocki says that he battles his Facebook demons hourly, and finds it extremely difficult to fight off the urge to see what his friends are doing, and to post such communiqués as, “I got a new cassock today.” The Vatican’s leadership chose to hold the exorcism training in the USA, since they decided that the devil had been defeated in Europe.

According to the Vatican’s research arm, Standard Deviations of Decency, the Global Sin Index solidified their belief that America was the devil’s new playground.

A further examination of these diplomatic cables suggests that they are a Facebook for the State Department, providing a candid arena for opinion. Some US diplomats were jealous that the Catholic Church could openly perform exorcisms, while the CIA was prevented from interrogation techniques that were almost exactly like those in an exorcism rite. Other diplomats pointed to the discrepancies in pay, noting that Catholicism pays much better than democracy.

As many high ranking government officials are finding out, there are serious and unexpected consequences of having the contents of these diplomatic cables made public. Fling Dung, a member of China’s top ruling body, the Politburo Standing Committee, and the country’s senior propaganda official, decided to see if he was mentioned in any of these cables. He was angered to find that diplomats reported that he was “chubby, had bad breath and posture, was a terrible conversationalist and cheated at golf.” He became so furious that he directed the Peoples Bullying Party’s official computer hacking division to place bogus take-out orders at every Chinese restaurant in the USA.

This had the desired effect of forcing hapless American consumers to pay for food they had not ordered. And unknown to most American citizens, the Peoples Bullying Party owns majority stakes in every Chinese restaurant in the country.