Friday, October 28, 2011

Halloween Spending

The National Retail Federation estimates that Americans will spend the following for Halloween in 2011:

Total Halloween expenses—$6.9 billion (that's more than twice the amount Americans spent for Halloween in 2005)
Largest Halloween expense—$2.5 billion for costumes
Amount spent on candy—$2 billion

The research also shows that Halloween isn't just for kids anymore. In 2011 nearly 70 percent of adults plan to hold their own celebrations for Halloween.

Off the top of my head, I can think of at least three factors for this accelerating trend:

Lots of adults wanting to have a good time (less charitably put: another excuse to party and drink).

Aging Boomers not letting go of their youth.

Secular holidays and their celebrations/spending are replacing religious holidays. Christmas is, for all intense and purposes, a secular holiday in the minds of most Americans. Even Easter has been slowly taken over by the Marshmallow Peeps Brigade (Full disclosure: I love marshmallow peeps).

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Can’t Find My Way Home

I’m reading a short book I picked up called Facing the Lion, Growing up Maasai on the African Savanna by Joseph Lemasolai Lekuton. It relates Lemasolai’s boyhood growing up in northern Kenya and how he eventually came to attend St. Lawrence University where he received a BA and MA before getting another master’s degree at Harvard. The Maasai are nomadic people, moving their cattle to follow grazing opportunities. At least one child from each family was required to attend school and there were missionary-run schools in the region, some with even boarding capabilities. Lemasolai attended one of these but sometimes his family might be camped a few miles away and sometimes they might be 50 miles or more distance. Come the school vacation period, all the children had to make their own way back to their respective family camps, even though they did not know exactly where their families had settled at that point in time. They would start out walking in the general direction, often asking other Maasai families they encountered along the way for shelter, food, and directional help. Lemasolai once took two full weeks to locate his family’s camp.

I can relate. When I was in my second year of college here in the Northeast my family moved to the South due to my father’s job transfer. So one day my parents, younger brother and sister and any and all pets all trucked on southward with me staying back at college. After awhile, with some hefty tuition payments coming due, I set out to find where the family moved to. Now I was what you might call a “classic pain-in-the-butt teen” so I think my parents employed the services of some moonlighting folks who run the Federal witness protection program. It took my private investigators a month to find out their new address in the Atlanta suburbs. OK, I exaggerate – like Lemasolai, it was only two weeks.

I couldn’t resist this classic Blind Faith tune, originally from the short-lived Eric Clapton-Steve Winwood concoction.

Friday, October 21, 2011

I Was Working in the Lab Late One Night

Yes, you guess correctly, I do have a 45rpm copy of Monster Mash by Bobby “Boris” Pickett. It reached #1 on Billboard in September 1962, just in time for the Halloween season. And then it did something few singles releases have every done with the same recording by the same artist, it re-enter the Top 10 some eleven years later (some sources say Monster Mash re-entered the Top 10 TWICE - at 8 and 11 years, but the 8 year event seems to be in dispute). I don’t know the full record on re-release/re-entry into the Top 10, but I’m only aware of it occurring one other time – with Chubby Checker’s The Twist (August 1960 and November 1961 – hitting #1 BOTH times). I don’t believe that feat has ever been repeated.

Some sources report that Elvis Presley thought Monster Mash was the silliest record he’d ever heard. Anyway, MM’s success shows the popularity of novelty songs, especially those from the 1960s and 1970s. Vincent Price, The Beach Boys and many others recorded covers of this hit.

Bobby Pickett was born in Somerville, Massachusetts to a father who was a theater manager. As a youngster, Bobby would watch many horror films and later incorporated impressions of them in his 1959 Hollywood nightclub act.

Pickett co-wrote Monster Mash with Leonard Capizzi in May 1962. The song was a spoof on the dance crazes popular at the time, including the Twist and the Mashed Potato, which inspired the title. The song featured Pickett's impersonations of veteran horror stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. It was passed on by every major record label, but after hearing the song, producer Gary S. Paxton agreed to take it on. Rocker-to-be and George Harrison friend, Leon Russell, played piano on the studio track. The single was released as being by "Bobby 'Boris' Pickett & The Crypt-Kickers".

Pickett performed his song live at Halloween shows well into his 60s, but died in 2007 due to complications from leukemia.

I’m actually not a fan of most horror movies (except the campy ones) and not big on the recent attractive-vampire trend in books and films. So this clever Lego version of Monster Mash suits me fine. Some days I feel like a Lego scientist anyway. "Rrrrrrrrr, Mash good!"

Friday, October 14, 2011

Open the Pod Bay Doors, Hal

Researchers have discovered that today’s vehicle computers are reasonably susceptible to hacker attacks. Without any special knowledge about the cars, researchers were able to take control of the door locks, disable the brakes and even stop its engine, among other things.

This is thanks to cars’ increasing dependency on computers to perform basic functions. Computer can now do everything from wipe the windshield to maintain tire pressure. Researchers say the typical luxury sedan just rolling off the assembly line has about 100 megabytes of code to control 50 to 70 computers inside the car. Some luxury cars have 100 million lines of software code, compared to only 1.7 million lines on a U.S. Air Force jet fighter.

Using homemade hacking software they dubbed "CarShark," Washington-San Diego researchers in lab and road tests "demonstrate the ability to adversarially control a wide range of automotive functions and completely ignore driver input – including disabling the brakes, selectively braking individual wheels on demand, stopping the engine, and so on," the researchers wrote.

Wonderful. So car hacking could turn into car jacking in the wrong hands. Picture being inside your car at an intersection someday and Mr. Thug standing next to your car can turn off your engine and unlock your doors. You are not in control - Mr. Thug and Mr. Computer are.

“Open the pod bay doors please, Hal.”
“I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Greenpeace Gets a New Toy

The new 190-foot ship, with two A-frame masts soaring almost as high over deck, is equipped with a helicopter pad and rapid-action release system for its inflatable boats, which in the past have carried activists into confrontations at sea.

The name Rainbow Warrior is drawn from an apocalyptic Cree prophesy that in the days when the Earth faces man-made devastation, mankind will join together to heal it and will be known as warriors of the rainbow.” …the perfect ship with which to navigate the perfect storm" of ecological and economic crises, and vowed that it "will confront environmental criminals across the world."

Well, at least the new ship, helicopter and inflatable boats don’t use any of that nasty oil stuff that we’re protesting against. Oh, wait….

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Singing Scientists

Back in 1959 Tom Glazer teamed up with Dottie Evans to record a series of six albums called “Singing Science”. Their little ditties covered a wide range of topics from “Constellation Jig” to “A Thumbnail Sketch of Atomic Energy”. You probably even know Tom Glazer, but you don’t know you know. His peak of commercial success came with a parody he wrote and performed entitled “On Top Of Spaghetti”, the tale of a lost meatball.

In the Glazer tradition there are many Singing Scientists out there willing to pick up the torch – for better or worse. Here are two examples:

Matthew Barnett, an Auckland based Senior Research Scientist in AgResearch’s Food Metabolism & Microbiology Section and part-time rock band member, has written and recorded a music video about his research - Nutritional Epigenetics - which is about how food and genes inter-relate. “It’s great to be able to sing about your passion. New Zealand scientists are doing some amazing work. We’re passionate about what we do and it’s fun to start singing the praises of some of the research,” he says.

That's why I chose chemical engineering? The video, called "A Reactor for Your Future" was a project for Principles of Chemical Engineering and Process Modeling and the objective was to make an promotional video for Chemical Engineering at Yale. The film features a prospective engineering student encountering various illustrious scientists who made contributions to chemical engineering at Yale and singing along with them to a folky, indie song.

Oh these wacky scientists with time on their hands.

The Big Roads

The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways.  
I’ve written previous regarding interstate highways, the road trip experience, and small towns. So when I saw Earl Swift’s book in the recently received section of our library, I had to take it out, even though my reading table is already piled high.

The Big Roads starts at the beginning of cross country road concepts in the US, with the first gas or steam-driven carriages. The book is written from an engineer’s point of view, so it goes into a lot of minutiae that even I’m not too interested in, but overall it’s a decent read. One interesting myth that Swift quickly dispels (that I always believed) is that President Eisenhower was the driving force in getting the country behind building the massive interstate highway system we know today. Supposedly he patterned his ideas after the great German autobahns that he experienced in WWII and believed this country sorely needed to be able to move massive amounts of military troops and equipment in defense of the country. Those were reasonable considerations, but in fact the overall design and concepts for our interstate system were hatched in the 1930s and were much better thought out than Eisenhower’s own plans. Eisenhower assumed that interstate corridors needed to run through the countryside, avoiding major cities. Professional planners realized early on that the interstates needed to help relieve traffic pressure on the cities, not the sparsely populated Nebraska plains. Surprisingly, Eisenhower was not one to get involved with details of any federal initiatives and the construction of the interstate system was well underway before he actually came to realize that what was being constructed was not his plans!

But the parts of Swift’s book that most interest me is the launch of a new era in the US as far as personal mobility. Swift states:

No surprise, then, that the new highways couldn’t come fast enough. Americans loved everything about their cars, loved driving, loved that they could follow an impulse to go wherever they chose, without a thought to routes or timetables. They loved that they lorded over their surroundings while they did it. They were cocooned, protected from the world, even as they were free to explore it. They could ride in silence or with the radio blaring, need never surrender personal space to a sweaty, foul-mouthed stranger, need not suffer inane chatter.

What wasn’t to love about the car? Americans took to it not only willingly, but with gusto. They did not have an automotive life foisted on them …. The people chose their path. They wanted what they were getting. Now they wanted the barriers to their automotive pleasure lowered. They wanted interstates, and damn it, they wanted them pronto.

Road trip??

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Rocky Start for St. Augustine

Several weeks ago I wrote that I picked up a 1957 book, Giants of the Faith on a whim for $0.25. One of the chapters profiled the life of St. Augustine of Hippo, a pillar of the Christian faith that I knew relatively little about. As I hinted in that first post, Augustine wasn’t much of a saint in his youth – anthying but.

A large part of Augustine’s story and ultimate redemption is due directly to a persistent Christian mother, Monica. Born in Numidia in North Africa in 354 to Monica and a pagan father, Augustine was enrolled as a catechumen (one receiving preliminary spiritual instruction) and the sign of the cross made over him. But not baptism. It was then the custom of many Christian parents to postpone baptism until early adulthood so that the guilt attaching to the sins of youth might not be made greater and more dangerous by following upon baptism. In his later years, Augustine deplored the unfortunate custom. Comparing the reasoning underlying this practice to that of a sick man who wished to be made sicker in order that he might more quickly be healed.

But in his youth Augustine sowed many wild oats, even when he had his mother living under his roof (who never stopped praying patiently for her son). Augustine came to adopted the beliefs of Manichaeism, followers of Mani, a Persian who had founded a new creed in the middle of the previous century (“Mani” – doesn’t that sound like he could be in the cast of Jersey Shore?). The Manichaean doctrine (widely distributed and very popular) flattered the intelligence by maintaining that no doctrine should be accepted on faith. That good and evil existed for sure, but when a Manichaean fell into sin, they could simply claim that their better nature was overcome by the forces of evil. Wow, how 21st century this guy was. The young Augustine bought it hook, line and sinker and made the most of the good life, even as an intellectual and teacher.

Fast forward a number of years to where a little maturity and motherly prayers slowly began to kick in to Augustine’s reasoning and powers of observation. The Mani evidence wasn’t adding up and Augustine struggled with that realization. It became painfully clear to Augustine that the road block to his attainment of the divine truth and wisdom was not intellectual, but moral. Seeking out Christian leaders, he came to realize that to be wise, it is not sufficient to merely know the truth, but it is necessary to live justly and virtuously. This he learned not from Plato he said, but from the teaching of Jesus as recorded in the scriptures.

Still, even with the knowledge of the path he should take, he wrestled with the wild, enjoyable life he was leading. “Soon, in a little while, I shall make up my mind, but not right now.” His oft-repeated half-prayer was “Give me Chastity, O God, but not yet!”

Augustine's conversation to the Christian faith finally came in 387 at 33 years old in the agony of a garden experience, much like the ordeal of Christ in Gethsemane. Like the Apostle Paul before him, Augustine could honestly cry out, “The good which I will, I do not; the evil which I will not, that I do.” Augustine would later write on this chapter of his life:

“I still thought that it is not we who sin but some other nature that sins within us. It flattered my pride to think that I incurred no guilt and, when I did wrong, not to confess it... I preferred to excuse myself and blame this unknown thing which was in me but was not part of me. The truth, of course, was that it was all my own self, and my own impiety had divided me against myself. My sin was all the more incurable because I did not think myself a sinner.” (Confessions, Book V, Section 10)

Augustine’s moral conversion had been preceded by an intellectual one and the culmination of many discussions with “wise” men coupled with the prayers, sacrifices, and example of his mother, Monica. Sinner to saint.

Augustine went on to become that pillar of faith, certainly revered in the Catholic and Anglican churches. But many Protestants also consider him to be one of the theological fathers of Reformation due to his teaching on salvation and divine grace.