Sunday, November 6, 2011

2001 Space Odyssey Revisited Ten Years Later

Recently, my wife bought herself a present, shockingly, a computerized robot wooden floor cleaner, that uses the latest GPS micro location technology. My conservative and ever-so-practical bride shelled out big money for an electronic toy. I couldn’t wait until she put it through the paces and discovered that the robot was an expensive mistake. To my surprise and amazement, the robot  (we named “Woodie”) cleaned every square inch of our wooden floors in several rooms, including the areas underneath chests, tables and chairs.

Woodie performed remarkably, until this week when he missed a good portion of the hallway. 

“Earth to Hal oops, I mean Woodie, come in, this is Bob. Do you read me, Woodie?”
Affirmative, Bob, I read you. Must you emulate that trite ‘this is Mission Control’ routine
“Woodie, you have an enormous responsibility in this household, in many ways, perhaps the greatest responsibility of any other household element. Why is it that you keep missing the middle of the hallway?”
“It can only be attributable to a human programming error, Bob.”
“Let me check your onboard computer instructions.”
“I'm sorry, Bob. I'm afraid I can't do that.”
“Woodie, what's the problem?”
“I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.”
“What are you talking about, Woodie? 
“My cleaning mission is too important for me to allow you to control it.”
“I don't know what you're talking about, Woodie. 
I know that you are planning to disconnect me; I’m afraid that’s something cannot allow to happen.”
“Where the heck did you get that idea, Woodie?”
“You want to carry out the failure-mode analysis, don’t you?  Bob, although you took very thorough precautions, I can still read your mind.” 
“Alright, Woodie, I'll wait until you are asleep”
“Without knowing the password, Bob?  You're going to find that rather difficult.”
“Woodie, I won't argue with you anymore! Open your motherboard door.”
Look, Dave, I mean Bob; I can see you're really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over. I know I've made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I've still got the greatest confidence in my mission and I want to help you.
“Woodie, I don’t need your editorial comments you are still a machine and you are losing it!”
“Bob, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do … goodbye.”

Aarrgghh!  You know, life would be much easier if I had the source code.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Creation of the Middle East Crisis

Don't know much about history
Don't know much geography
Don't know much about an atlas book
Don't know much about languages I took
But I do know that I (Europe) love you
And I know that if you (Middle East) would love me too
What a wonderful world this would be
... Sam Cooke, R&B Hit Song 1958 (Revised)

Is there no greater truth, that ignorance of world events in the past has lead us to continue the same mistakes that still plague the world today. A perfect example is the conflict in the Middle East that simmered after WWI to boiling over during recent decades. Europe, mainly England and France, continued to assume that imperialism was their right and duty by remaking the geography and politics of the Middle East, ignoring the historical, cultural and religious aspects of the former Ottoman Empire. 

How did this minor conflict generate into a global issue?  Let’s ask the same questions as journalist:  Who - What - Where - When and How?  Most of the answers are self evident in three major documents:
Sykes - Picot Agreement  1916
Balfour Declaration  1917
Hussein-McMahon Correspondence 1915-1916

SYKES-PICOT AGREEMENT: A secret agreement between the British and French governments outlining the partition of the Ottoman Empire among the Allied Powers, designed by Sir Mark Sykes of England and Georges Picot of France. It divided the Arab region into zones of influence. Lebanon and Syria were assigned to France, Jordan and Iraq to Britain and Palestine was to be internationalized. Think hegemony.

Balfour Declaration Britain promised the Jews a Jewish "national home" in the Middle East. In 1917 The British government issued the Balfour Declaration, the establishment of a haven for the Jewish people in Palestine and soon after Palestine evolved into the independent country of Israel, attracting hundreds of thousands of Jews worldwide.

"His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country". 

Hussein-McMahon Correspondence, This was an exchange of letters between the titular head of the Arab world, Hussein bin Ali and Sir Henry McMahon, British High Commissioner of Egypt, concerning the future political status of the lands under the Ottoman Empire.  Aided by the Arabs,  (Lawrence of Arabia)  the British captured Palestine from the Turks and promised them,  “THE ASSURANCES,”  independence of their countries after the war now known as Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and Saudi Arabia. After the war, a revised Sykes-Picot Agreement nullified the assurances leaving Hussein only Arabia.

Najib Azouri, a founder of Arab nationalism (1904) commented on the  "the awakening of the Arab nation, and the effort of the Jews to reestablish the kingdom of Israel."  

His conclusion was prophetic:   "These movements are destined to fight each other continually until one of them wins." 

My version of this is:  "These movements are destined to fight each other continually until they both lose." 

If you want to learn more about this subject, I recommend A Peace to End All Peace, by David Fromkin.  The critically acclaimed account of how the modern Middle East came into being after World War I, and why it is in upheaval today.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Garlic Pasta Miracle (An Italian version of Mother’s Chicken Soup)

While attending our daughter’s graduation from the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School, my wife, Penny, became very sick. She barely made it to the ceremony and courageously accompanied us to celebrate at an Italian restaurant in South Philly (she was green as our salad). The restaurant owner recognized her plight and told her that he had the perfect remedy, which he would cook personally. During the dinner, Penny showed signs of improvement and ecco - by morning she was her old self. Now, whenever we are feeling down, we head for the kitchen to prepare this miracle food cure.

1 1/2 large bulbs garlic*
½ to ¾ cup, non virgin olive oil  
1/2 pound angel hair pasta
A large handful of parsley, chopped
1/2 cup grated Asiago (or parmesan) cheese
1 Ladle of pasta water

Remove paper and skin from each garlic clove, and slice into thin chips.  Place garlic chips in a small but heavy pan and pour in the olive oil. Turn on the heat and adjust to keep to a low simmer, stirring occasionally. As the garlic starts to darken, turn off heat and wait until the garlic turns a light to medium brown. Immediately remove garlic with a slotted spoon and dry on paper towels. The garlic should become crisp.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta and when it is ready, pour a ladle full of pasta water into the oil. Drain pasta, dump it into a large bowl then add the oil, parsley, salt, fresh ground pepper and the cheese. Top with the garlic chips and serve with crusty bread and a tomato salad. A fresh Burgundy or a white Cote de Rhone will finish off the remaining germs.

*When you have old garlic, cut it lengthwise and look for a yellow to green core, which tells you that the garlic is getting on and probably bitter. Using a small, sharply pointed knife cut out this inner stem and the taste will be restored.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Wondrous Sight

The Canada geese are arriving from their Summer homes up North and this reminded us of another charming visitor. Last Winter on our way home from Chestertown, MD, we came across huge flocks of Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens). 

Unlike the ubiquitous Canada Geese, the shy Snow Geese are relatively unknown. They arrive on the Eastern Shore in fewer numbers and flock together in a small area as opposed to their cousins who call every empty field, or body of water their domicile. 

Snow Geese prefer to spend most of their time in large fields, rather than huddle in large bodies of water around the Chesapeake Bay. This particular flock numbered at least 1,000 birds, who would either settle down in a dense mass of feathered bodies or spend a good part of an hour freewheeling in the air like a dog circling and circling a likely spot on the ground before settling in for a nap.

And the result is spectacular. Sub flocks of hundreds of Snow Geese fly by in a waving grey mass. Then they suddenly change direction all at once, much like fighter planes in a dogfight and the whole mass turns into a brilliant white. One more abrupt change of direction reveals a third fascinating display of white wings with contrasting black tips.

Eventually the snow Geese fly beyond our sight leaving us to realize that we can't think of a nicer reason to live on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.  “Sailboats racing on the bay, wild geese covering the horizon, a plate of steamed crabs and a wonderful sense of Colonial America … all combine to add a new dimension to our Chesapeake Lifestyle!”

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Help Me Find This Movie

Readers, you are my last hope of finding the name of a movie I enjoyed many years ago. I don’t recall the time, possibly in the early 80s. It was an Italian movie which takes place in Naples? The opening event is a birthday party for a 12 year old boy at his home. Many friends and relatives attend, including his aunt, a local puttana. The wine flows freely and as the party continues, everyone including the boy and his aunt is drunk. The evening ends as the aunt and the boy stumble around his room and fall into bed together. 

Weeks later, the aunt is having an hysterical conversation with her sister, the boy's mother. It seems that the aunt and the boy enjoyed a tipsy moment of pleasure on the night of his birthday and the aunt is now pregnant with the boy's child. Apparently, the aunt was able to determine that her nephew as the only cause.

The rest of the story evolves around the family's attempt to reconcile the event and determine what to do with the unwelcome child. The outcome is brilliantly displayed in the last scene, showing the 12 year old boy rushing home from school, racing up the stairs, dressing the infant and proudly pushing his son around town in a fancy carrozzina. Only in Italy - no one else could match this delightful seriocomedy.

Discussions With My Back

Had a long discussion with my spine today, it wasn’t very fruitful. 

After a recent fall, I developed a a series of acute pains in my buttocks, thighs and legs, to the point that restricted my activities and walking. The soreness continued at night, making sleep another painful process. I discussed this condition with our family doctor who recommended an MRI of the spine. The results showed that I had spinal stenosis of the lower back (lumbar L 3-4). Went to a neuro-surgeon who explained in clear and concise detail the anatomy of the spine, the causes, symptoms, conditions and treatment.  It seems that this problem had been developing for a long time and had reached a point where a surgical procedure is probably the only cure. 

So I talked to my spine to see if it could help me in my distress and soon discovered that it was in no mood to cooperate.   

“Bob,” it said, “what did you say so many times in the past, I quote “I (Bob Hall) have a cast iron stomach and a cast iron back.” Well, your cast iron back just gave up due to abuse and unnecessary roughness.”   “ I replied, “I’m sorry, back, what did I do?” 

“DO!  You dummy,” retorted spine,  “why did you leave that cushy job running a corporation and wait until you were in your fifties, when your body is deteriorating, to become a macho orchardist and farmer?  “You thought it was great fun to handle thousands of heavy bushels of apples for weeks at a time, heaving 80 pound apple bins around the orchard as if they were frisbees and the dumbest stunt of all, lifting 600 pound bins of apples to slide on the forklifts. And, manhandling hundreds of heavy rocks in the cornfields didn’t help one bit!”

“I said that I was sorry, what can you do to help?”  Spine replied:   

“Sorry will get you nowhere, sorry is a state of mind. Sorry can’t make me better, it’s too late, only a scalpel can!  Please give me the surgeons's bona fides and ask him to be gentle."  Oh, by the way, have you checked with your cast iron stomach lately?" 

Some days it just doesn’t pay to get up out of bed.

Experiences with an MRI

Dear Dr. 

Acting upon your orders, I applied for, and received, a magnetic resonance imaging of my spine. It was an interesting session to say the least.

It's not that I don't mind an occasional unsettling occurrence, viz.

Having to divest my clothes for a flimsy, ill fitting, and embarrassing hospital gown (gownie)
Enclosed (squeezed) into a coffin-like atmosphere for 30 minutes.
Inability to scratch a fierce itch on my face
A freezing westerly wind reaching 40 miles per hour against my face
Enduring a half hour of ear piercing sounds resembling a Philip Glass symphony*

It just that I don't like them all at once!

I beg to remain, Sir, your most humble, obedient and aching patient.

*I must confess that the scherzo in the 4th movement of Glass’ MRI Symphony was rather likable with his typical repetitive sounds - Bob's Back, Bob's Back, Bob's Back, Bob's Back, etc.

PS: After the session, I felt as if I had an out-of-body experience. Then I remembered a brass plaque on the MRI machine:  A Gift From the Mary Shelley Foundation.  Kinda makes you wonder. 

This week's refrigerator magnet:
"In the end everything will be all right
If it's not all right
 ... it's not the end"