When Technology Leads You Astray

In Some Places, You Just Can’t Trust GPS

In Some Places, You Just Can’t Trust GPS

This post is dedicated to two hilarious posts from The Iceland Review in which foreign tourists put explicit trust in their GPS systems and were led wildly astray.

In the first instance, reported on February 2 of this year, an American tourist was looking for the Hótel Frón on Laugavegur, the main shopping street in Reykjavík. The only problem is that the website he was relying on listed the address as Laugarvegur 22a. There was a Laugarvegur, as it turns out, in the remote herring fishing town of Siglufjörður in North Iceland, just a few klicks south of the Arctic Circle, some five hours of hard driving past Reykjavík.

No sooner did the Icelanders stop laughing about this incident than the following occurred, as reported in today’s Iceland Review posting:

The Suðurnes police today posted on their Facebook page the story of tourists who had little luck using their GPS. “Remember Noel?” the post begins, referring to the American tourist who accidentally drove to Siglufjörður, North Iceland, in search of a hotel in downtown Reykjavík, putting complete faith in his GPS.

This time, tourists were traveling in a rental car the short distance between Garður and Keflavík International Airport (normally a 15 minute drive) when their GPS convinced them to get off the beaten track, onto a gravel road and from there to a sidewalk. “Unfortunately, a garbage can stood where the gravel road meets the sidewalk; the car slid on an icy patch, hit the garbage can and ended up on top of it, completely stuck.”

Police were called out, but other travelers had already come to the aid of the unfortunate ones when police arrived, managing to get the car off the can. Reportedly, the tourists continued their travels, extremely relieved.

It’s not that I’m a technophobe—I’m not!—but I like to consult maps before driving in an unfamiliar place. I am particularly leery about renting cars at the airport in a strange city. When I have to, I try to fly to an airport in a smaller city in which my chances of getting lost are less. In 2012, I flew to Spokane rather than Seattle when Martine and I drove up to Jasper and Banff National Parks in Canada.

… And the Envelope Please …



This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me, but I have ignored the Oscars for the last thirty or forty years. For one thing, they have rarely honored the films I liked, and they primarily reflect the opinions of a lot of privileged old white men. Just as significant: I rarely see new films.

Los Angeles is something of a company town, so the media is full of “countdowns” to the Oscars. Do they really need a pre-game show?

Fortunately, a lot of people watch this and other awards shows. As with the Super Bowl, that clears the freeways of a lot of excess traffic. I plan to take advantage by going with Martine to visit my friends Bill and Kathy Korn in Altadena.

No offense to Chris Rock, who will probably be a lot more entertaining than the films being honored.

Get the H Out of There!

The Atacama-ization of Southern California

The Atacama-ization of Southern California

This was supposed to be a wet rainy season, courtesy of the strongest El Niño in years. Well, February is almost over; and we rarely get much, if any, rain in March and April. The El Niño has sent a lot of rain to Northern California, which is good, but now a high pressure ridge is setting up in the Rockies which will dry everything out and make the mercury rise. And it may result in the dwindling of the now respectable snowpack in the Sierras.

By the picture caption above, I mean that Southern California is becoming North America’s own equivalent of Chile’s Atacama Desert, where it almost never rains. I believe the last flood in the Atacama was witnessed by Noah.

In the meantime, Martine and I scoff more than ever at weather reporters. El Ninny strikes again!


Staunton Design Chess Pieces in Play

Staunton Design Chess Pieces in Play

Chess is for me a lifelong obsession. Not that I’m any good at it: I tend to be too unaggressive, too defensive. But I love to follow the game and even, from time to time, solve endgame problems.

Why am I drawn to chess? Is it because it approaches infinity in the number of possible chess games—a number that exceeds the number of atoms in the universe. According to Chess.Com:

The number of legal chess positions is 10^40 [that’s 10 to the 40th power], the number of different possible games, 10^120. Authors have attempted various ways to convey this immensity, usually based on one of the few fields to regularly employ such exponents, astronomy. In his book Chess Metaphors, Diego Rasskin-Gutman points out that a player looking eight moves ahead is already presented with as many possible games as there are stars in the galaxy. Another staple, a variation of which is also used by Rasskin-Gutman, is to say there are more possible chess games than the number of atoms in the universe. All of these comparisons impress upon the casual observer why brute-force computer calculation can’t solve this ancient board game. They are also handy, and I am not above doing this myself, for impressing people with how complicated chess is, if only in a largely irrelevant mathematical way.

After only a few moves, the chess player is staring at infinity. No doubt, many of the moves are atrocious, perhaps even borderline illegal; but the variety of possible moves is truly staggering.

Even if I am not a good player, I love the literature of chess. I have just finished re-reading Stefan Zweig’s Schachnovelle (translated as Chess Story). That short novel was itself turned into a great film directed by Gerd Oswald called Brainwashed (1960) starring Curd Jürgens.

Borges has written a great poem about chess, which I will post soon. Also, you can expect to see a short story by Lord Dunsany entitled “The Three Sailors’ Gambit.”

I will also tell you about some of my heroes, such as the Estonian Grandmaster Paul Keres, Former World Champion Mikhail Tal of Latvia, and. of course, the never-to-be-forgotten Bobby Fischer.


“A Poison Tree”

William Blake’s Original Art for “A Poison Tree”

William Blake’s Original Art for “A Poison Tree”

The following poem comes from William Blake’s Songs of Experience. In it, we see how repressed anger bears its own poison fruit, in this case, the death of an enemy.

A Poison Tree

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine.
And he knew that it was mine,

And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

I like Blake’s take on suppressed anger in this poem. The implication is that if the narrator had not “told his wrath” with his friend, it would have been his friend that suffered the dire consequences. Instead, he nurses his anger until it grows, has its dire effect on his foe, and leaves him gladdened at the results.

The Lion Dance

Lion Dancer at Chinese New Year Parade

Lion Dancer at Chinese New Year Parade

I have seen perhaps a dozen Chinese New Year parades, and I am quite used to seeing dragons and lion dancers. What I find interesting, however, is that there are no lions in China, nor have there been for about two thousand years. According to an article in China Highlights:

In traditional Chinese culture, the lion, like the Chinese dragon, was only an animal which existed in myth, and there were no actual lions in China. Before the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), only a few lions had reached the Central Plains from the western area of ancient China (now Xinjiang), due to Silk Road trade.

Stone lions can be seen, however, acting as guardians to Beijing’s Forbidden City (see below). And Chinese images and beliefs relating to the mythical strength of the lion have spread around the world with the Chinese diaspora.

Stone Lion at the Forbidden City in Beijing

Stone Lion at the Forbidden City in Beijing

There are two styles of lion dance, the Northern and the Southern. Although most Chinese-Americans originated in South China, all the lion dancers I have seen at New Years parades were of the Northern type, which is associated with Chinese martial arts organizations. In the Northern style, only one person manipulates the lion costume. According to the China Highlights website, “Northern lion dances are more gymnastic, involving rolling, wrestling, leaping, jumping, climbing, or kowtowing.” It’s quite entertaining to see the feats of gymnastics performed by Kung Fu practitioners.


Watch It! He’s After Your Brain!

Doctor Daniel Amen

Doctor Daniel Amen

Is he a zombie? Not exactly, but close enough.

Watch public television at certain times, and you are likely to see various health practitioners standing in front of an audience of middle-aged and retired persons who are afraid of (1) getting cancer, (2) losing their memory, (3) blowing up like a dirigible, or (4) outright dying.   All you have to do is listen to the good doctor, buy his DVD, and read his book—and you will be on your way to becoming one of the immortals.

There are inevitably a number of do’s and don’t’s, connected with diet, exercise, sleep habits, etc. It’s like New Years Resolutions all over again—and you know how well those work! Basically, like resolutions, it’s a self-directed program with no snarky degreed individual looking over your shoulder to tell you shape up fast.

I usually associate these medical salesmen with Doctor Daniel Gregory Amen, whose audience is frightened of getting Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia. So, there they sit, clapping on cue at all the good doctor’s talking points.

Perhaps his program is good: I am in no position to judge. But I am dismayed that so much of the Public Television audience has reached a point where health has merged with self-help. As for myself, I will continue to consult with my physician about any worrisome indicators. As for brain health, my readers are aware that I am past help. You might just pronounce the final Amen.

M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E!

Mousketeers with Jimmie Dodd

Mousketeers Around the 1950s

It all started in 1955. Not that it was the first TV show for kids—the Howdy Doodie Show beat it by eight years—but it was the first kids show featuring kids. I am referring, of course, to the Mousketeers of the Mickey Mouse Club.

After a morning doing tax returns at work, I acceded to Martine’s request to drop in at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. While Martine was watching some of her faves, I decided to see two episodes of the Mickey Mouse Club show, one from 1956 and one from 1957.

I saw at once why the show was a success. Not because I was entertained the way when I was a kid, but because Walt Disney had so much material lying around in film cans that there wasn’t as much of a burden to come up with new material for every show. Every show ended with a quarter hour cartoon segment from the vaults, and there were regularly repeating cartoon intros for the opening and many of the segment categories.

The live portions included the talents of the Mousketeers, including singing and dancing, and visiting a training center for firemen. They also featured local talent such as an archery champion and two yo-yo experts, all of whom were in their teens.

Of course, I watched the show religiously until I deemed myself too old and sophisticated and no longer in love with Annette Funicello with her dark hair and flashing eyes.

A 20-Year-Old Fan Letter


Harper Lee (1926-2016)

Harper Lee (1926-2016)

The author of everybody’s favorite book, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), died today at the age of 89. Most literate Americans revere her memory, even after the recent publication of Go Set a Watchman (2015), in which Atticus Finch is revealed to be a (gasp!) bigot. I take no position on it, however, as I have not read the book; and I find the first reaction to anything by the media is usually wrong.

But what I want to write about is a letter Ms. Lee wrote to cartoonist Berkeley Breathed twenty years ago, when he decided to voluntarily stop publishing “Bloom County,” “Outland,” and “Opus.” It was the character of Opus the Penguin that she would miss the most. Here is the text of the letter as it appeared in Breathed’s Facebook posting today:

Dear Mr. Breathed,

This is a plea from a dotty old lady, and from others not dotty at all: Please don’t shut down OPUS. Can’t you at least give him a reprieve? OPUS is simply the best comic strip there is….

The letter goes on, but that’s all that Breathed shares with us. Fortunately, Opus is back, along with his Bloom County buddies, on Facebook, where I religiously check it each day.

Opus the Penguin

Opus the Penguin

Commenting on her letter, the cartoonist writes:

Bloomers: Many, but not all of you, know that in the way that creative life can often surprise, Harper Lee was one of you. One of us. You might be as surprised as I am that she played a large role in my recent return to the streets of Bloom County—streets inspired by those of Maycomb. When I retired Opus from the Sunday comics some years ago, Harper let me know her displeasure, with all the southern, gracious elegance we knew her for. See the letter below. I’ve waited until her passing to show it. We came to exchange many similar notes… including one in which she grudgingly forgives me for my retirement (irony alert). Imagine my 14 year-old self—freshly savoring the first reading of Mockingbird and sending Miss Lee a fan letter in 1970—being told about another fan letter returning my way almost 40 years distant. Life is wonderful and strange and wistful and happy at the same time. And I’m happy to share this with all of you today.

To follow Opus and his buddies, click here.


Serendipity: Byron—Pessimism or Optimism?

Thunderstorm Spectator at Tofino on Vancouver Island

Thunderstorm Spectator at Tofino on Vancouver Island

I have been reading G. K. Chesterton’s early book, Twelve Types (1902), and found this fascinating discussion of Byron’s curious joy in … pessimism?

Now Byron had a sensational popularity, and that popularity was, as far as words and explanations go, founded upon his pessimism. He was adored by an overwhelming majority, almost every individual of which despised the majority of mankind. But when we come to regard the matter a little more deeply we tend in some degree to cease to believe in this popularity of the pessimist. The popularity of pure and unadulterated pessimism is an oddity; it is almost a contradiction in terms. Men would no more receive the news of the failure of existence or of the harmonious hostility of the stars with ardour or popular rejoicing than they would light bonfires for the arrival of cholera or dance a breakdown when they were condemned to be hanged. When the pessimist is popular it must always be not because he shows all things to be bad, but because he shows some things to be good. Men can only join in a chorus of praise even if it is the praise of denunciation. The man who is popular must be optimistic about something even if he is only optimistic about pessimism. And this was emphatically the case with Byron and the Byronists. Their real popularity was founded not upon the fact that they blamed everything, but upon the fact that they praised something. They heaped curses upon man, but they used man merely as a foil. The things they wished to praise by comparison were the energies of Nature. Man was to them what talk and fashion were to Carlyle, what philosophical and religious quarrels were to Omar, what the whole race after practical happiness was to Schopenhauer, the thing which must be censured in order that somebody else may be exalted. It was merely a recognition of the fact that one cannot write in white chalk except on a blackboard.

Surely it is ridiculous to maintain seriously that Byron’s love of the desolate and inhuman in nature was the mark of vital scepticism and depression. When a young man can elect deliberately to walk alone in winter by the side of the shattering sea, when he takes pleasure in storms and stricken peaks, and the lawless melancholy of the older earth, we may deduce with the certainty of logic that he is very young and very happy. There is a certain darkness which we see in wine when seen in shadow; we see it again in the night that has just buried a gorgeous sunset. The wine seems black, and yet at the same time powerfully and almost impossibly red; the sky seems black, and yet at the same time to be only too dense a blend of purple and green. Such was the darkness which lay around the Byronic school. Darkness with them was only too dense a purple. They would prefer the sullen hostility of the earth because amid all the cold and darkness their own hearts were flaming like their own firesides.

I am reminded of a curious form of tourism in Canada: winter storm watching, which reaches its peak at the Vancouver Island resort of Tofino.  When I am finished spending my winters working on tax preparation, I am tempted to take a room at Wickanninish Inn on Chesterman Beach some five miles south of Tofino and watch the storm and waves hurl themselves at me.

Chesterton got it right. I feel the same way.