Last week, I saw a guy at CVS that I’d met at the Charles River Swim last summer. But he didn’t see me because he’s blind. I said hello to him at the store, realizing he would have had no knowledge of our close encounter had I not spoken up. I told the guy that a photograph of him, me, my wife, and daughter appeared in the Boston Globe twice. He didn’t know about the photo, which he couldn’t have seen, of course. Also, few people would have known it was him anyway, since the picture showed the four of us from behind as we jumped into the river. I’m glad I spoke up, as he’s a really nice guy. The exchange give me some appreciation as to what blind people miss out on, although I’m hoping there are things that he and others experience—on the positive side of the ledger—that I’m not aware of at all.
I just hit upon a great chapter title: “With duct tape and a prayer.” Now all I have to do is figure out a book that it fits into—and then write that book.
If you can’t do math, as the saying goes, teach math. If you can’t teach math, write about it. The same goes for physics. And these are the rules I live by.
One of my handball partners, Jim, retired earlier this week at the age of 71. I gave him these words of wisdom: “When a window closes, a door opens for handball.”
I took the first game because my partner, Jim, was not warmed up. I lost the second game because Jim got warmed up. I won the third game because Jim got tired, and once again, things went exactly according to the script.
Not to toot my own horn but, well, maybe I will just a little… I’ve just achieved something that many magazine freelancers dream about: having two cover stories on prominent magazines in the same month. I don’t think I’ll be topping that one anytime soon and may never achieve it again. But on this month—May 2014, to be exact—I have achieved the long-sought (and rarely realized) journalistic “twofer.” Kudos all around, as a good friend of mine is wont to say.
Last month, completely out of the blue, I received a copy of Latina magazine with, I believe, JLo on the cover. I thought it was a fluke and disregarded (as well as recycled) it, but this month I got another copy—this time with Shakira on the cover. I called Latina to cancel my “subscription”—as I never ordered the magazine or even knew it existed before—but they said they couldn’t cancel it, that I’d have to call some other company to try to do that. So far, I haven’t been able to get through to that other company. So I’m already wondering who will grace the cover of the May issue of Latina. Will it be Selena Gomez, perchance? Or perhaps Michelle Rodriguez?
An article I wrote about the search for the universe’s earliest stars appeared in an online version of Discover Magazine at the same time that Discover ran a blog entry about the “True Detective” TV show and what it had to say about the science of self. I found it odd to see my professional life intersect with my personal life, since I was busy watching “True Detective” at the time. That same intersection cropped up again when I saw the end of the program’s season finale. In his final speech, Russ Cole (played by Matthew McConaughey) talked about the struggle between light and dark, noting that light–having appeared out of the darkness and steadily increased since then–might ultimately prevail. That, in fact, was very close to the subject of my Discover article. I could have written Cole’s last speech, throwing in some language about the cosmic microwave background, the decoupling of light and matter, and the 21-centimeter hydrogen line.
I’ve only written a few book reviews in my life, although I have turned down many chances. Today I was made an offer that will be hard to turn down–a chance to review Bounty Basic paper towels for Staples. It looks like I’ve finally made it. Or, as Cagney once said, “Top o’ the world, ma!”
A friend of mine (and prominent Boston attorney) contacted CALL ME SNAKE with this late-breaking story, which he witnessed firsthand, with his own two eyes: A man driving a blue Prius and a woman driving a red Prius went head-to-head yesterday, vying for the same parking space in the lot for the Fresh Pond Whole Foods. The woman in red ultimately prevailed, but not without a bitter fight. “It got ugly out there,” my source reported. In fact, he said, the man in blue almost ran over the other Prius owner after she got out of her car to go shopping. “Those people must have really wanted their health food bad,” observed the attorney—a man about town and part-time stringer for the CMS news network who keeps tabs on strange goings on and is fond of saying: “And what seems to be the trouble here, officer?”
I like to keep a folder of puzzles (sudoku, kenken, numbrix, and crossword) around to work on when I’m watching sports and other things on TV. I’ve cut them from newspapers and magazines, and the items in this folder represent the ones I still haven’t gotten too. My family sometimes complains about this collection, saying it’s too big and I’ll never finish them. Last night I resolved to work through it during the ice dancing in the olympics, which was dragging out. One of the sudokus I knocked off was from the Globe, June 19, 2007. I’ve got my work cut out for me, as they say.
For quite a few years now, I’ve had relatively simple choices when it comes to dressing. I’d either wear a long-sleeve T-shirt or a short-sleeve T-shirt from the Cambridge YMCA (and sometimes both) along with Cambridge Y sweatpants or shorts. I bought in bulk and had a pretty good supply, but the Y stopped making these items several years ago, and some of mine are starting to wear thin. One of these days it looks like I’ll have to do my shopping elsewhere, and that is a worrisome thought.
My dad called yesterday while I was a little stressed out. I had been getting tech support for nearly two hours and was running up and down between my computer and router (“Airport Extreme”), which were downstairs, and the laptop, tablet, and “Airport Express,” which were upstairs. In the middle of all this shuttling back and forth, I lost my keys. When I got the phone call, I’d already spent the last hour looking for them, to no avail. That had me worried, because I wouldn’t be able to unlock my bike. Plus my library card and gym card were on the chain, along with about ten keys. My dad wasn’t too reassuring upon hearing that I’d misplaced my keys. “It only gets worse,” he said.
Ever since a friend told me that his daughter (a fourth grader, I think, or a very precocious third grader) said that he wasn’t tough enough to bicycle all winter—that he wasn’t like me, in other words—I’ve felt obliged to bicycle, even on the coldest, sub-zero days. I’ve bicycled when I probably wasn’t supposed to following minor surgery. (My philosophy on that is a version of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”) I even rode my bike during the biggest snowstorm we’ve had all winter. During that trip to Trader Joe’s, I was greeted by a pedestrian who said to me, in a caustic tone, “It’s a great day to ride a bike.” I was tempted to say: “Yeah, and it’s a great day to be a jerk.” But, instead, I kept my mouth shut and my eyes on the road, making a concerted effort—at the same time—to keep my vehicle upright.
Recently, I watched TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD with my family. I had not seen the movie since I was a kid, and it really is excellent. Gregory Peck won a well-deserved Oscar for his portrayal of Atticus Finch. My only complaint is that the Peck character strikes me as too good to be true–brave, strong, firm, compassionate, fair, just, etc… You name the adjective–it probably applies. The trouble is, Finch sets the bar too high. He’s even nice to that crabby neighbor who lives down the street. I have a crabby old bat of a neighbor too (don’t we all?), but I could not utter the pleasantries that Finch showers her with. I could tell my daughters that their dad is not the man that Atticus Finch is. I could tell them, but I don’t have to. Because they already know.
It’s possible that in my youth, I took a few humorous digs at Canada at one time or another. I’m not saying I did, but if that ever happened, I apologize profusely and promise never to make that mistake again. For our northern neighbors appear to have extraordinarily good taste. The book I recently coauthored, A HISTORY IN SUM, is selling better on amazon.ca than on amazon.com. In fact, right now it’s the #1 selling book in “educational history and theory”. I admit, that is a rather narrow category, but it’s still a bestseller in Canada, which is more than I can say for the country I call home. Wake up, America! You’re falling behind, once again, and this time I’m talking literature, not hockey.
I bicycled to Trader Joe’s at 10am or so, in the midst of heavy snow. At first the conditions (along Franklin St/) were a fine powder. But along the way — a couple of miles round trip — I also encountered some slush, crust, and slick conditions. Not ideal for cycling.
At midnite I put on my cross country skis and found the conditions much more to my liking. Putnam Avenue offered some great skiing–a nice smooth surface with 1.75″ of ultralight powder. Franklin Street was excellent too, right down the center to avoid the tread marks. In fact, every road I hit had good skiing as well, including Memorial Drive. The wind chill along the river was worrisome at times, but the side streets offered adequate wind cover. If anything, I was too warm.
Well, so much for my midnight report. Stayed tuned for my morning announcement sometime later, probably in the morning. Until then, signing off for now.
It’s embarrassing to admit but I’ve only received one holiday card so far this year. It was sent by a friend who is as dependable as he is adept at his trade. I’m talking about that special person who has had as intimate views of my home’s interior as anyone I know—views, perhaps, that have only been surpassed by my gastroenterologist. I’m talking, of course, about my friendly neighborhood Rooter-Man, who clears our drains once or twice a year and—unlike some of my other acquaintances—never forgets his friends when the holidays roll around.
Thanks Rooter-Man. I’m still rooting for you, though I hope you won’t be rooting around in my pipes anytime soon.
Last summer, I swam in the Charles with my wife and daughter. Our pictures appeared in the Boston Globe and the Cambridge Chronicle, mainly showing our back sides as we jumped into the river. I thought our 15 minutes had expired but last Friday—on a cold, slightly snowy day—the Globe unexpectedly printed our photo again. And again showing us from the back side, which is, by now, easily my most famous side. The drawback there is that when people think they recognize me but aren’t sure, they often say: “Can you please turn around?”
Last night, I started watching “Before Midnight”—the third installment of the Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy—and experienced a great sense of relief upon turning it off midway through. I was feeling like I’d invited some boring, self-important types over for dinner—your typical pretentious blowhard motor mouths—and kept wondering when they’d finally leave. Only in this case, I didn’t have to wait. I could just hit the “Eject” button.
Martin Luther King had a dream, and then there are dreams of the less inspirational and more prosaic variety. I have the latter. To show you where my head’s at—and how low I aim—last night I dreamt that three young handball players from southern New Hampshire had started playing at the Cambridge Y. One of the players told me that he was flat-footed as a kid but had managed to overcome his childhood infirmity. So maybe there was a bit of inspiration in there after all—though still no threat, of course, to MLK. Nor are schoolchildren likely to get the day off to celebrate southern New Hampshire handball players (whose already thin ranks might have been depleted by three).
You never know what you’ll get when you pick up the phone. Well, usually, you do. It’s some telemarketer or someone else asking for money or one of those interminable school messages. But today I got a call from a guy in Alabama who was looking for an abandoned mine in Tennessee that he could use as a warehouse. It seems weird that he called me, and I must confess, I never received a phone call like this before. But I did write an article on a similar topic a few years ago, so the guy thought I might be a good bet. I could not exactly set him up with a stake, but I did give him the name and numbers of a dozen or so mining companies in Tennessee. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll get some free storage out of the deal.
A friend has taken to task a local man, and recent city council candidate, for his creative use of punctuation—quotation marks, question marks, square brackets, and the like. I hope that I do not make a “run” for public office, lest this same individual will come after me—for my overly liberal use of ellipses [a notorious weak spot of mine???]; plus the intemperate use of semicolons and exclamation marks!!!!!!!!!!
I don’t actually need to apologize for the lapse referred to in the title—of which Toronto’s mayor was evidently guilty—but I did like that particular turn of phrase, so I couldn’t resist…
Some movies get no reviews and go straight to video. I’m pretty sure that “Price Check” is one of them, as I don’t recall ever seeing a review of it, and I follow these things pretty closely. Yet it’s a nice, original movie—about the little known world of grocery store chain price setting—and Parker Posey turns in a fabulous performance. It’s an Oscar worthy turn, though it will never be nominated because so few people have seen the film. But more should.
I heard from a friend today who has vowed to bicycle all winter. His nine-year-old daughter told him he was not up to it. “Steve rides his bike all year,” my friend countered. “Yeah, but he’s Steve,” the girl replied. “He does that. I don’t know if you can.” But my friend is going to give it the old college try. Fortunately (or not), global warming may be on his side.
Maybe my computer is getting old, but it is developing some undesirable features—features that in many ways resemble some of my own worst foibles: I have a hard time getting it to go to sleep, and it sometimes takes me several tries to get it done. And once it’s in a deep sleep, it is very hard to rouse. In other words, it’s becoming an increasingly quirky machine—and maybe a bit cranky too.
Yesterday, I interviewed a NASA scientist. I thought he would be annoyed by the government shutdown, but he said that he really enjoyed it. By staying home, rather than going into his NASA research center, he was getting more work done than ever. By the next day—today that is—the shutdown was over for now, and I guess his hiatus was over too.
It’s amazing to think that we may be facing the same ridiculous situation all over again in just a couple of months. And we may be forced to hear those same ridiculous windbags in Congress (i.e., Ted Cruz I am) making their same ridiculous arguments (“I don’t like Obamacare in a house. I don’t like Obamacare with a mouse..”). Which is why I chose the rather impolite heading for this missive: from shut-down to shut-up.
This just in from neuroscientists at Connecticut College: The Oreo, aka “America’s favorite cookie, is just as addictive as cocaine – at least for lab rats. And just like most humans, rats go for the middle first.” On some level, many of us knew this already. But we keep on eating Oreos–the archetypal sandwich cookie–just as Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud had their own questionable habits.
I don’t work for the government, although if I did, what I do would be classified as “extremely nonessential,” if not “quintessentially nonessential.” But I have seen signs of the government shutdown firsthand. On Tuesday–day one of the standoff–I bicycled past the USS Constitution on my way to a medical appointment and was saddened to see so few people milling about and no Duck Tour buses. Today I saw an astronomer that I know in the park across the street from my house. He was dressed in running gear in the middle of a workday, which struck me as odd. When I asked him what he was up to, he mentioned that–as a Smithsonian employee–he had been furloughed. At that moment, it dawned on me that a big project I’ve lined up, partly with the Smithsonian, must be on hold too. I’ve always been mad about this latest example of Republican lunacy but now it’s getting personal, hitting me where it counts.
Immediately after midnight on Tuesday, my birthday began. At the same time, nonessential services in the U.S. government were shut down. Once again, extreme Republicans (I’m talking about you, Tea Party Animals!) held my birthday hostage in an attempt to advance their own political agenda. And once again I am forced to say: “I hate green eggs and ham, Sam I am.”
A HISTORY IN SUM, the new book I’ve coauthored about the history of mathematics at Harvard (which is due to come out next month), has received some really enthusiastic praise from several mathematicians and physicists. But the reaction from the “man on the street”–i.e., my friends–has been somewhat more restrained. When I described the subject matter to one friend, he paused for a moment before saying: “Well, I guess somebody had to write it.” Another friend was even more perplexed by the topic to which I had devoted a couple of years of my life. “I don’t get it,” he said. “What do you mean by ‘history of mathematics’? 2 + 2 = 4, and that’s never going to change.”
There’s a guy who lives in our neighborhood who strikes me as a bit of a crank. He gets involved in a lot of local brouhahas and backs weird causes. He also speaks up a lot at city council meetings–taking some curious stances–and writes strange letters and online comments to the Cambridge paper. He yells at me, upon occasion, for going the wrong way on my bike down a half-block stretch where I like to cut corners. So you can imagine my surprise when I was watching a major motion picture, set in Boston, and saw this guy in a bar scene. He didn’t have a big role at all, but he still pulled it off well, looking the part. And he has, evidently, been an extra in a number of big movies. He may still be the crank I figured him for, but he also has an acting resume that I’d never suspected. One lesson, I suppose, is that there’s often more to people than meets the eye.
We got a note from our daughter’s middle school announcing the first meeting of the “Parent Caregiver Organization.” Oh good, I thought, after all those years of our taking care of the kids, someone is finally going to take care of us! But I was wrong. The group should, in fact, be called the “parents and caregivers organization,” my wife explained. The “parent caregivers” will come later in our lives, I suppose, and that thought–if I attended to it–would be slightly depressing, so let’s instead dwell on more jovial topics.
About 40 years ago, my Hollywood cousin spent a summer in Cambridge, working at Masse Hardware, an old-fashioned hardware store roughly between Harvard and Porter squares. That store is shutting down next month after being in business for 125 years. I sent my cousin some news articles about the store’s demise, and he wrote me a series of emails in response, going through all the stages of dealing with this sad event: denial, hostility, acceptance, and depression. I was sorry to have broken the news to him but figured it was better for him to hear it from a blood relative like me than from some random guy off the street (such as Santa Monica Boulevard).
A week or so ago I played handball with a friend who was visiting from Connecticut. He wore a T-shirt that speaks for itself, all too eloquently, as the saying goes: “It is better to have played handball and lost than to ever have played racquetball.”
Sorry, folks. It’s been a long hiatus. I was out of town for a little while. And then I experienced some technical problems while logging in. And then I just sort of forgot or, more accurately, didn’t get around to it. Last week I ran into the sister of a friend who asked about the blog, wondering why there hadn’t been anything on it of late. If she was missing it, maybe another person, somewhere, was missing it to. In the face of that pressure, how could I do anything but get back in the saddle and, in true cowboy fashion, start blogging again. Hence this humble missive…
I’m not an expert on World War II lore, but I just saw a short film clip that explained how Hitler’s demise was brought on by a “squadron” of flying squirrels. This fascinating tale appears on YouTube and, hence, has to be true. The filmmaker, in this case, is the noted blogger and author, Paul De Lancey (see link on this page), who has recently penned a fascinating treatise on Spam, which includes a top-secret recipe for the Hawaiian Spam Burger, a delicacy throughout that Pacific archipelago.
Serendipity plays an inordinately large role in science and in invention as well—the electric light bulb serving as a possible example? (I put a question mark there because I can’t remember how the light bulb was invented though I seem to recall that an idea went off in someone’s head and that idea took the form of a light bulb.) Serendipity played a role in my latest invention too. I had placed a ripe plum in our refrigerator, and it partially froze, making for an unusual—dare I say unique???—taste sensation, even better and more natural than a popsicle, if you can believe that. I’m not sure what to call my latest invention, but I have bought out the domain name, FrozFrut, just in case. (Please do not confuse my product with a dessert item produced by the Brazilian concern, Frozfrut. It would be like comparing frozen apples to frozen oranges.)
The Boston Globe recently ran a front-page story about Martha’s Vineyard and how it has become a favorite vacation destination for President Obama and his family. The paper presented a comprehensive tally of how the president spent his time on the island during his last visit, and it didn’t sound like my kind of vacation. He spent more than 18 hours in a car–on a small island that is tailor-made for bike transport. I prefer to spend zero hours in a car, and during my last visit to the Vineyard, that’s just how many I spent inside a motor vehicle. I suppose some would argue that a car affords more privacy than, say, a bicycle or pair of rollerblades. To which I reply: I somehow manage to fend off the media and publicity hounds during my time on the Vineyard. If the president followed my lead, maybe he could learn to do the same.
Ever since I purchased Charmin Basic toilet paper there, Staples has been after me to voice my opinion in order to “help other people make important buying decisions.” I put them off a couple of times, but Staples is a big company, and they’re wearing me down with their repeated entreaties. So what can I say about the product they so desperately want my “review” of?
For me, the issue is more charged than you might expect mainly because I started off my career as a freelance writer when I was asked to write a book review of a treatise on nuclear power. (I ended up writing a review of a book about nuclear weapons instead.) The decades have rolled by, and requests for book reviews have mysteriously dwindled. Perhaps as a sign of the times, I am now being asked to write a review of a 16-roll, single-ply pack of toilet paper. To dress up that request a little bit, Charmin calls their product “Bath Tissue.” Nevertheless, I’m aware that some people might view this as the trajectory of a writer/reviewer in serious decline.
I’ve been in the Boston Globe twice in the past ten days. First, my rapier wit was on display in a letter I wrote to the editor (which the editor, in turn, had the guts to publish on July 4). In today’s paper, there’s a picture of my back and bottom as I lept from a pier into the Charles River. It’s up to the readers, I suppose, to determine which side of me makes the more compelling case.
It’s nice to find a company that really cares about you—Staples. I just got an email from the office supply company (and much, much more!), inquiring about my recent purchase. They wanted to know whether it met my needs and performed to my full and complete satisfaction. I have not yet replied to their kind entreaties, but I can say that the product in question was Charmin Basic Bath Tissue (1-ply).
I just got an email notice unlike any I’ve received before, and I’ve received plenty. Evidently someone in the Boston area is trying to unload a 13-foot-diameter, antique copper astronomical observatory dome. I personally would have trouble putting this fetching dome (with patina finish) to proper use, but it’s still fun to think about. The auction will begin soon and, from what I gather, S&H Green Stamps will not be accepted.
You know you’re getting old when _____. This sentence can, of course, be finished in any number of ways, but I’ve added a new one to the list ever since last night when our next door neighbor invited me to their dear friend visiting from New York. “Cathy,” he said, “meet the patriarch.”
I recently sent a letter to the Boston Globe, which I’m now assuming will not be printed. One of the high points of writing that letter, for me, involved trying to find a good synonym for knucklehead—something I haven’t had to do very often. To make it a bit more challenging, I decided that the word I picked could not end in “head,” like bonehead, lunkhead, fathead, meathead, etc. After considerable deliberation, and serious mental exercise on my part, I came up with numskull—an accomplishment I’m still pretty proud of. Having those two words appear in the same paragraph is quite a literary feat, and I’ll be sad if my letter never sees the light of day.
Yesterday, after returning from shopping early in the morning, I told my 13-year-old daughter of something great that happened at the store. They were collecting all the Star Market/Shaws cards & ripping them up. You didn’t need them anymore to collect the discounts. I considered that a “great” occurrence because I had been holding cards for Stars/Shaw, CVS, Walgreens, and Rite-Aid, and frankly my keychain was getting a bit overextended. I thought that if Star Market could get rid of those cards, maybe the others would follow suit. The whole thing is a big waste of time and, frankly, I’m fed up with it. Which is why I was elated by the brave step that Star Market has taken. My daughter, of course, didn’t get it. She just laughed as if I were crazy. (And maybe I am, but not because of this. This truly is “great,” and I mean that in the truest sense of the word, great.)
I lead a pretty staid existence. I rarely leave the house and when I do, it’s usually to play handball, which is a very cleancut sport. So you can imagine my surprise–and to some extent excitement–when Google informed me that someone in Romania used my password to break into my Google account for reasons unknown. I’ve since changed my password, although I have no idea how they/he/she? got the last one. Still, for a boring guy like me, that’s pretty much the high point of my week.
When it comes down to it, I guess I just hate losing things. On Sunday, I came back from my gym and discovered that I’d lost my Speedo bathing suit. Those skimpy things cost a lot in my book, around 30 bucks, and I can’t let that slide too easily. Except that I left the gym around closing time (6pm) and probably couldn’t get back in. Plus it was very hot, over 90 degrees, and I didn’t feel like biking back there (almost 2 miles) right away. But an hour later, when things had cooled down a bit, I decided to give it a try, as I remembered that my flipflops had fallen out of my swimming bag, which made me wonder whether the swimsuit might have slipped out too.
When I got to the approximate area of the flipflop flop, I was disappointed to see no Speedo lying on the sidewalk. I walked downstairs to the gym, knowing it was closed, but hoping I might see something on the floor. An employee was still there, working out on his own. He could see me but I couldn’t communicate with him through the thick panes of glass. So I went upstairs to a coffee shop to try to write a note to the guy. All they had was a tiny slip of paper used for receipts, which I didn’t think was big enough to do the trick. So I went to the sporting goods store nearby and got a full sheet of paper, borrowing a pen from them too. I wrote a note explaining that I’d lost something. Fortunately, the guy was still there working out, so I held the note up to the pane of glass. He saw it and kindly met me at the entrance to the gym.
I told him I was looking for my black Speedo. He said he saw a bathing suit near the showers but didn’t think it was black. But I was welcome to look anyway. I thanked him and headed to the showers. Sure enough a Speedo was hanging up on the rack. And sure enough, it was no longer black—having faded to a dirty, pale gray. It was more worn than I’d realized. It wasn’t black anymore, and it wasn’t worth no 30 bucks either. But it was mine, so I took it back home with me, satisfied to have achieved some closure in at least one area of my life.
I innocently claimed to have picked up several PhDs in mathematics at Harvard. Somehow this claim was blown out of proportion and has come back to haunt me, even though I am, in fact, truly blameless in this case. Here’s what happened: I was doing some research for a book in the Harvard math (Birkhoff) library, where I looked through many PhD dissertations. I had to pick them up, move them here or there, and eventually replace them to their proper locations in the stacks. Someone heard about this and reported that I had boasted about “picking up several Harvard PhDs.” You can see how that might have happened, but it was clearly a big misunderstanding. And for the record: I do not have several Harvard PhDs, as I personally believe that would be excessive.