Letters: “Srimps”

“Srimps.” That’s all I remember now. Back in the day, there was a guy, a kid, maybe a girl, basically a young adult who didn’t know how to pronounce “shrimp.” We made fun of the person, to their face and behind their back, but it was always “srimp” and it’s a damn shame that after all the fun at someone else’s expense, I can’t remember anything other than “srimp.”

Funny now, how selective the memory can be. Maybe, after a time, most of a lifetime of real events that actually mean something and have lasting value, for the rest we just remember that one distinguishing characteristic we enjoyed the most.

In any event, our conversation on “shrimp” stuck, so today I was in Joey Franco’s old PW Market, a previously v. upscale market for our tony Castro Valley well-to-do. It was bought out by Safeway a few years back and has rapidly become JAS – just another Safeway.

Armed with that backgrounding, picture me now trying to figure out where I was going to locate their shrimp cocktail, if those little glass jars I used to buy as a college student even exist any more. I was near the meat counter, so wandered up to the display case and waited my turn for the meat person to help me.

“Hi, can you tell me if you stock shrimp cocktail?”

“What?”

“You know, those little glass jars of shrimp with the tomato cocktail sauce.”

“Oh, we don’t carry those no more.”

(pause)

“I see. Do you know if it’s stocked anywhere in the store?”

“We don’t carry those no more.” She waited for me to leave.

“Very well, then, what do you tell your customers who would like shrimp cocktail? Do you sell ingredients to make it?”

“You can buy shrimp.” She pointed vaguely to the glass case. I saw only meat in the case.

“Those.”

They had prepackaged cooked shrimp in various grades, in another case below where she’d pointed. She waited for me to leave.

“What about the sauce?”

Oh, those are over THERE.” She pointed to a display of bottled condiments. One brand said “Cocktail sauce.”

“These? These are for shrimp?”

“Yeah.”

I thanked her profusely for all her valuable time. At last, after all these years, another “srimp” mentality, a pudgy white girl with an unfocused expressionless squint who will lean on her glass case until they fire her, and then blame the world for our inability to recognize true quality when we see and hear it.

I picked out the medium grade size, looking fresh and in good condition. $8.99 for about a pound. I know from previous experience with the trots you want to avoid the small economy shrimp packages, because the meat is largely bits and pieces and you can’t tell the freshness or health of the specimens.

I took my shrimp and sauce to the checkout counter with the rest of my basket. The customer behind me said she always uses that sauce and she always adds lemon juice. She must have been an old PW Market customer. At least, a real human being. I thanked her.

As I wrote in a 1994 essay named “Lunch at Ten Fu:

“I believe that we should always try to find a positive in every experience, but it seems unavoidable that every once in a while in life we will stumble across a little vacuum bubble in life’s fabric, a nothingness nodule, as it were.”

At home, I prepared my shrimp cocktail exactly as noted earlier. Best damned shrimp cocktail I ever had. And there’s enough for tomorrow too.

Alex

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Most Admired: Richard Feynman

Oh the song of the future has been sung
All the battles have been won
On the mountain tops we stand
All the world at our command
We have opened up her soil
With our teardrops and our toil …

Gordon Lightfoot, Canadian Railroad Trilogy

click images for web links to biographical backgrounds

Richard Feynman, physicist

 

Richard Feynman was an extraordinarily talented physicist, lecturer, Cal Tech professor and Nobel prizewinner. He was popularly best known for his role in dissecting the 1986 Challenger Disaster. He had already long been a personal hero of mine for his Feynman Lectures on Physics, with which I became acquainted in college.

Not only was Feynman a world-class physicist, he inspired many with his leadership and investigative excellence. He was an inspirational human being with a reputation as a maverick, for whom they might have invented the phrase “think outside of the box.” As a public speaker, one could sit and listen to Feynman’s physics lectures without even the foggiest notion what he was talking about, yet figure enough of that out during the course of the lecture to walk away with a lifelong sense that physics was exciting, knowable and important.

Not content to isolate the physical cause of the Challenger Disaster, that being the flawed O-Ring design supplied by Morton Thiokol, Feynman interviewed NASA management in depth to lay bare the chain of reasoning that resulted in the disaster. He exposed NASA executives’ appalling failure to grasp the basic science of the Shuttle mission. As Feynman concluded in his findings in Appendix F – Personal observations on the reliability of the Shuttle,

Let us make recommendations to ensure that NASA officials deal in a
world of reality in understanding technological weaknesses and
imperfections well enough to be actively trying to eliminate
them. They must live in reality in comparing the costs and utility of
the Shuttle to other methods of entering space. And they must be
realistic in making contracts, in estimating costs, and the difficulty
of the projects. Only realistic flight schedules should be proposed,
schedules that have a reasonable chance of being met. If in this way
the government would not support them, then so be it. NASA owes it to
the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and
informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for
the use of their limited resources.

In this era of Deepwater Horizon and Fukishima Daiichi, I would give almost anything if we could have another mind physicist Richard Feynman’s to define a global approach to “low-probability, high-consequence” disasters like our Gulf Oil Spill and Japan’s horrendous earthquake, tsunami and TEPCO nuclear plant meltdown.

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Most Admired: Bob Hoover

Oh the song of the future has been sung
All the battles have been won
On the mountain tops we stand
All the world at our command
We have opened up her soil
With our teardrops and our toil …

Gordon Lightfoot, Canadian Railroad Trilogy

click images for web links to biographical backgrounds

Bob Hoover, aviator

Bob Hoover, aviator

Bob Hoover has often been called the “pilot’s pilot”. He was a test pilot in World War II, then joining a Spitfire fighter group. He was shot down on his 59th mission and spent the remainder of the war as a POW in Germany.

After the war Hoover teamed up with Chuck Yeager on the Bell X-1 program, for which Hoover was backup pilot. He saw action in Korea in the F-86 Sabre jet. He also flew test flights in the F-100 Super Sabre and other advanced fighters of the day.

Mention the legendary name “Bob Hoover” around a group of pilots, and no one else will get a word in edgewise all evening. Hoover flew a lot of different aircraft, and flew them all masterfully.

He is best-known for his years as a star performer in the civil air shows. I was fortunate to watch Hoover perform in his Aero Shrike Commander at the Reno Air Races, in about 1978. You can still find videos on YouTube, and you should. I still remember seeing those sequences. I still get the goose-bumps. Hoover was not only the consummate pilot, he was a real gentleman. He was one of my heroes.

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Most Admired: Alex Filippenko

Oh the song of the future has been sung
All the battles have been won
On the mountain tops we stand
All the world at our command
We have opened up her soil
With our teardrops and our toil …

Gordon Lightfoot, Canadian Railroad Trilogy

click images for web links to biographical backgrounds

Alexei Filippenko, astronomer

Alex Filippenko, astronomer

Dr. Alex Filippenko often co-hosts the popular PBS series NOVA.

Filippenko is an astronomer and astrophysicist. He specializes in supernovae, dark energy, advanced telescopes and supermassive black holes, among other interests. His own web page mentions that he spends a lot of time on the massive Keck telescope atop Mauna Kea.

Filippenko’s infectious enthusiasm for astronomy and physical cosmology make him a natural superstar on the PBS series. NOVA will often toggle the audience back and forth between Filippenko and Neil deGrasse Tyson (see below).

Both astronomers are master communicators with the ability to explain very complex topics in ways that make them both understandable and interesting to a lay audience.

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Most Admired: Frank Lloyd Wright

Oh the song of the future has been sung
All the battles have been won
On the mountain tops we stand
All the world at our command
We have opened up her soil
With our teardrops and our toil …

Gordon Lightfoot, Canadian Railroad Trilogy

click images for web links to biographical backgrounds

Frank Lloyd Wright, architect

Frank Lloyd Wright, architect

Frank Lloyd Wright is an American icon and a household name in architecture. Ask any American to name one architect, any architect, and chances are, Wright is the name that will come to mind.

Like many celebrity professionals, Wright’s personal life was turmoiled, but he is remembered for his stunningly original and practical architecture. With over 1,000 projects to his name, and 500 completed, it is likely that most Americans have seen a Wright home or building, even if they could not afford one … most-cited projects would certainly include the Fallingwater home, with its cascading waterfalls, and New York’s Guggenheim Museum.

To me, Wright’s innovative approach to architecture is best encapsulated in his famous personal home Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Arizona. He used natural local materials, natural lighting and solar heat, and an achitectural style suited, as always, to its environment. Wright was certainly at least 50 years ahead of his profession in designing and building eco-friendly structures.

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Most Admired: Neil deGrasse Tyson

Oh the song of the future has been sung
All the battles have been won
On the mountain tops we stand
All the world at our command
We have opened up her soil
With our teardrops and our toil …

Gordon Lightfoot, Canadian Railroad Trilogy

click images for web links to biographical backgrounds

Neil deGrasse Tyson, astronomer

Neil deGrasse Tyson, astronomer

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson often hosts the popular PBS series NOVA.

Tyson is an astrophysicist, astronomer, lecturer and noted science television celebrity. Noted science popularizer Carl Sagan tried to recruit him to undergrad studies at Cornell University, but Tyson instead went to Harvard, where he earned his BA in Physics, and then to Columbia for his doctorate in Astrophysics.

His profile lists interests in star formation, exploding stars, dwarf galaxies and our Milky Way. He uses some of the world’s largest telescopes in his research. He has served on government steering committees for future NASA space exploration, is the author of several books, and holds nine honorary doctorates.

Like frequent NOVA co-host Alex Filippenko, Tyson has an extraordinary ability to explain the most abstruse theoretical concepts of physics to the lay person while presenting solid factual and theoretical foundations. His enthusiasm is also contagious and instantly engages the listener.

3,500 total views, 2 views today

Most Admired: Randy Schilts

Oh the song of the future has been sung
All the battles have been won
On the mountain tops we stand
All the world at our command
We have opened up her soil
With our teardrops and our toil …

Gordon Lightfoot, Canadian Railroad Trilogy

click images for web links to biographical backgrounds

Randy Schilts, author, journalist

Randy Schilts, author, journalist

Randy Shilts was a pioneering gay author and journalist who wrote for both the Advocate and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Schilts warned about gay-related immuno-deficiency disease in the Chronicle in 1982, long before it would be called AIDS. He wrote three best-selling books on topics that were not even considered “acceptable” discussion in most circles: The Mayor of Castro Street (Harvey Milk), And The Band Played On (AIDS), and Conduct Unbecoming (gays in the military).

I read Conduct Unbecoming shortly after publication in 1993. That is, I read most of it. Schilts’s book is a massive compendium of carefully researched, documented and footnoted case histories “from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf War” (784 pages, paperback).

As a Vietnam veteran myself, I was only vaguely aware of the public side of the military posture on gays within its ranks before I started this book. I had no idea of the internal workings of Army Intelligence and the military command structure toward entrapment and discharge of suspect soliders and sailors. It is the only book, besides one other, that I found myself unable to continue with because it was staggeringly depressing. The other book was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.

Shilts himself died of AIDS, at the age of 42. He reportedly wrote, “HIV is certainly character-building. It’s made me see all of the shallow things we cling to, like ego and vanity. Of course, I’d rather have a few more T-cells and a little less character.”

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Most Admired: Rosa Parks

Oh the song of the future has been sung
All the battles have been won
On the mountain tops we stand
All the world at our command
We have opened up her soil
With our teardrops and our toil …

Gordon Lightfoot, Canadian Railroad Trilogy

click images for web links to biographical backgrounds

Rosa Parks, civil rights pioneer

Rosa Parks, civil rights pioneer

Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. The year was 1955. The city was Montgomery, Alabama. She had no history of civil disobedience. It wasn’t a civil rights protest. She was tired after a long day of work. On that particular day, Rosa Parks decided that the status quo was just not right, and I was tired of it.

Of the dozens or hundreds of brave civil rights pioneers who struggled in those early decades not only for black equality, but for the very idea of it, Rosa Parks remains dear to the hearts of millions of Americans. She showed in a direct, personal way how the politics of prejudice isn’t only class discrimination, as wrong as that is. Parks’ action dramatized how injustice strikes to the root existence of every American.

Parks had been and remained active in the NAACP and other positions related to civil rights. She later said, “If people think of me in that way, I just accept the honor and appreciate it” [grandtimes.com]. She was quoted as having written in her autobiography, Quiet Strength, “Four decades later I am still uncomfortable with the credit given to me for starting the bus boycott. I would like [people] to know I was not the only person involved. I was just one of many who fought for freedom.”

Thank you, Rosa.

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“Unfortunate” Semantics

The following mini-drama played itself out in the March 2009 pages of Sky & Telescope . It concerned an exchange of verbal pot-shots on the biblical subject of the “Star of Bethlehem”, found in S&T articles and letters to the editor going all the way back to December 2007.

The critique you are reading  here appears in Writing NOTES, rather than Summitlake’s Astronomy department, because the “Star of Bethlehem” subject was hijacked by the subtext. Those letters and columns were not primarily about stale rehashes of the perennially old debate. They were about a battle for intellectual dominance and crowd control. They were about “spin doctoring” in the Lee Atwater “Dirty Tricks” sense, scaled down to the palate of the Astronomy crowd.

Contributor: Unfortunately, I and my work on the Star have been maligned in what amounts to a personal attack. Since I am the injured party here, I get to substitute a fairness appeal for any substantive additions to my hypothesis.

Columnist: Others have misrepresented my research and ignored historical evidence. A book reviewed cited my work on the Star of Bethlehem as the “final word”. Unfortunately, others have ignored the historical evidence.

Was there really a Star of Bethlehem, or was it just invented out of whole cloth, or was it a misidentification of some other apparition, now understood, such as Venus or Halley’s Comet? Could it have been a supernova, even though we have neither a confirmed date nor independent observations from the courts of Chinese astronomers? Were there really Three Wise Men, and, if so, exactly how wise were they?

The fact seems to be that we simply can’t know. Except for the highly supercharged Biblical reference, such an alleged sighting wouldn’t even be remembered today.

Personal attacks are intolerable as a substitute for substantive argument. I dug into the Sky & Telescope articles and references with interest, looking for signs of slander. Finding no direct personal attacks, I found it interesting that the writer who came across as the pious psalm-singing defender of the faith was the one arguing that the Star of Bethlehem, historically, probably did not exist at all. The writer representing himself as the reasoned man of science was the one who concluded that the “Star” was, variously, either an astrological event, or just the “mundane Morning Star” [Venus].

Semantically, it’s worth noting that current popular usage of the word “unfortunately” has a different purpose than the mere confirmation of a regrettable fact. It’s used to hijack the conversation, to pre-empt it with a corrective change of context. And we need to be aware of that signal.

Old usage: Unfortunately, at that exact moment, Holmes dropped his pipe onto the doctor’s lap, setting Watson’s pants on fire.

New usage: Unfortunately, you don’t get to ask for an allowance this week, because you didn’t clean your room in 1957.

Or even: Unfortunately, you’re fired.

In other words, “unfortunately” isn’t used today so much to express regret, as to set you up for the show-stopper. It’s no accident that successful delivery of the catch-word is easily intoned to sound like a parent rebuking an unthinking child: you thought the conversation was about the allowance, but now you can see it’s really about who calls the shots here.

And what about the Star of Bethlehem?

In my personal opinion, when a conversation devolves into a verbal pissing match, it’s prima facie evidence that at least one party doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or has become bogged and befuddled in intellectual quicksand, and intends to derail the discussion. If possible, he intends to turn the situation around, from facts to appearances, so that an audience perceives the other side as the bad guy, and therefore, the loser. The spin artist becomes the default winner.

I watched “Boogie Man” on PBS last night, the Lee Atwater “Dirty Tricks” story of the small-town Southern boy who made it to the very top rungs of Washington society by smear and innuendo. Atwater was the one who cost Dukakis the election with the “Willie Horton” tactic. While Governor of Massachusetts, Dukakis signed a prison reform bill allowing furloughs for convicted felons. While out on furlough, Horton raped a woman after pistol-whipping and knifing her fiance. Atwater spun this to make Horton “a household name”, implying Dukakis pandered to rapists, even getting third parties to sponsor interviews with rape victims. Horton was also African-American, and it was no accident that his rise to national notoriety pandered to Southern racism too. America got the message this was what you could expect if they elected Dukakis instead of George H.W. Bush.

Dukakis explained retrospectively, in an interview near the end of the “Boogie Man” special, that he believed at the time the best defense against an unfair smear was to refuse to dignify it: to ignore it. In real life, this may sound like the high road, but, in politics, it’s suicide: Atwater hung him out to dry.

It turns out that this Massachusetts furlough program was modeled after a similar and seemingly successful progressive program in California, signed into law by then-Governor Ronald Reagan. But Dukakis never explained that to the press.

In retrospect, Dukakis admitted his best defense would have been to simply state the affirmative, and shut up.

In Astronomy, as in the greater and contentious world of academia and business, it seems the same ethics would apply. State the affirmative, shut up, skip the pissing matches, and get on with real business.

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