Michael Ubaldi, November 19, 2007.
Discover magazine offered in its March issue "20 Things You Didn't Know about Bees," and I, library copy in hand, read through the list before yesterday afternoon's showing of Indoctrinate U at the Cleveland Institute of Art's Cinematheque.
Number 14 stood out: "After he had pioneered the laws of genetics with pea plants, Austrian monk Gregor Mendel bred a strain of hybrid bees. Unfortunately, they were so vicious he had to kill them."
That claim struck me as apocryphal. I searched online and learned three things. First, Gregor Mendel did in fact keep bees. Second, an online source from 2001, apparently the oldest, describes the successfully hybrid hive as violent, using the same descriptor in not only Discover but, too, a Wikipedia article — "vicious" — which raises the possibility of uncritical duplication, since while bee behavior can be classified as aggressive, biologists don't impute it to malice. Third, the book Gregor Mendel's Experiments on Plant Hybrids: A Guided Study states that "Despite extreme care in his breeding methods and keeping the beehouse in perfect condition, he was unsuccessful in producing new varieties because, as we know, reproduction in bees is highly complex."
There are two explanations for the contradiction: either preoccupation with the dangerous African honeybee was, at some point, interpolated into the historical record; or, concealed in the order's shame, Gregor Mendel really descended on what he called "my dearest little animals" like Saturn himself. The burden of proof rests on the supposed tragedy. Forensicists should target the beehouse at the Abbey of Saint Thomas and look for signs of a desperate, Catholic-Apoidean struggle.
Michael Ubaldi, November 12, 2007.
That men are only grown-up little boys was clear in John Derbyshire's telling of hijinks last Sunday evening. Brought to the union of middle school football players' fathers: Resolved, that an empty beer bottle will melt in a log fire. The shaped glass was deposited and observed, the resolution passing in the sight of a silicate blob — but not before somebody's wife noticed and returned with a disapproving cohort. Asked Derbyshire, of National Review and its readers, why the primordial is "so fascinating for [men], so incomprehensible to women?"
My father, more genial than adventurous, looks fondly to the old days, when a teenager could pick up sulfur and saltpeter at a New York City drugstore, then mix them with shavings from a charcoal briquette to make gunpowder. I am hardly adventurous, and yet once escalated from the use of a magnifying glass on leaves and bugs to stamping out a gasoline fire next to the house, all in the space of three hours on a school afternoon. For me and neighborhood friends, the salinization of slugs — dissolving the garden pests with a shaker from the kitchen — was a common diversion in the summertime. Earthworms could be plucked from under rocks and cut in half, insects tossed into spider webs, all manner of crawling things dropped into a jar in hopes of a struggle.
Nature is orchestrated by brute agencies, and man was either conferred dominion or an indelible preoccupation. To the first question, affinity is in the blood.
To the second question, the fascination might be less incomprehensible than obscured. I know of the manner of a few women: my great-grandmother's stricture of the domestic feline population, her daughter's sinewy confidence with matter and creature, my mother's nonchalance in handling a snake when her peers blanched and declined. Today, though we have the lady who isn't one, to be crass isn't to be rugged. Of course, these three women would understand the attraction of the melting bottle, the spectacle; but maybe disapprove of the frivolity, men's own misdirection in modern life.
Michael Ubaldi, October 24, 2007.
Michael Ubaldi, July 4, 2007.
From six years of dilettante's work with computers, I have learned more about contingencies and options than hardware or software. Nothing ever goes right at first, and I am wiser for the trial.
Late last Thursday night, my combination modem-router died in an ataxic flutter of LEDs. This was the second model sold to me by SBC in four years, a replacement that cost $150, which — considering retail prices of these little transmission boxes and their presumed longevity — was about ten times too expensive. When the previous loss occurred, however, I hadn't asked SBC if its house brand were indispensable to connecting my computer to the internet, and SBC hadn't disclosed. Payment was justified, thinly, by convenience.
This time, telephoning SBC's acquirers, AT&T, I inquired about store-bought equipment. Could a third party modem and router be used? The answer was Yes, my sentiment was Good Riddance. I ordered the necessary items, good quality pieces for less than their predecessor. They arrived yesterday, and immediately after work I began building a new link to broadband.
As per several laws of project management, the activation — all of twenty minutes — gave me 90 percent of what I wanted. Extracting, from the modem and router, that remaining tenth of performance took me the rest of last night and, leisurely, from about nine in the morning to four-thirty this afternoon. Amid a lot of desultory flipping of switches there was some education, some of it simply interesting and one part directly applicable. "If you set MTU to 1492 bytes," someone had written to another in a corner of the web, "you will solve most router problems." What on earth is MTU? Maximum Transmission Unit, and I didn't know that five hours before now. My router had MTU set, by default, to 1500. I changed the parameter and all problems were solved.
What makes the difference? In an analogy of a man collecting items from a conveyor — should the rate of the belt be too high, the man can't work fast enough and, paradoxically, slows down production. But now, an assembly line brought down by a motor deviation of one-half of one percent?
Jaron Lanier, writing in Discover magazine, cites the limitations of traditional programming as "explicitly defined protocols, a very precise but rigid approach," wherein "flipping just one bit in a program might cause it to crash." Both the modem and the router identified AT&T's service and adjusted settings to allow my computer to access it, but the disparity of a single variable denied me full use of my product. Lanier muses that "approximate pattern recognition...can become very reliable at understanding a complex system." We enthusiasts can have our electronics, and tough lessons, on better terms. Can a less logical order be one that is more rational?
Michael Ubaldi, June 8, 2007.
John Derbyshire, on National Review's Corner, reacted to a bit of a paralogism crafted by the New York Post. Because four hundred vacancies are expected over as many years in an apparently munificent police department, thirty thousand men and women have applied. That proportion meant, to the Post, "a better chance of getting into Harvard."
Derbyshire writes, "This is one of those cases that make you wonder what happened to market economics. Wouldn't a market solution be, to lower salaries until the applicant-to-job ratio falls from this current 75-to-1 to something more reasonable — perhaps 10-to-1? I suppose you could argue that the bigger the pool you're choosing from, the higher the quality of your final picks is likely to be. Still, 75-to-1 seems over the top to this country taxpayer."
I am the chairman of my city's civil service commission. Market economics, for good or ill, aren't pertinent to civil service laws, rules and regulations. The balance of contravening interests — individual and municipal — is, instead. Competitive testing on an entry level eventuates open admission, usually for a written examination, from which a list of valid candidates with passing scores (an "eligible list") is created. Potential hires are customarily certified by a civil service commission to an appointing authority in order of list ranking. Candidates, unless otherwise disqualified, may be considered by the authority for several open positions until removed from the eligible list.
To have seventy-five candidates for every vacancy isn't unheard of. My city's police department currently has one position open — and the commission recently established an eligible list of 105 candidates.
As Derbyshire adduced, a greater number of candidates should yield better choices than a lesser number. Attrition, unfortunately, is also a concern: three score of the aforementioned candidates have neglected to submit a particular certification, a requirement about which applicants and candidates received half a dozen notices, reminders and, finally, warnings. Before the month is over, it may be that only a balance of the list remains, all because candidates couldn't follow simple and repeated directions. Remember what they say about government work.
Michael Ubaldi, May 26, 2007.
The Wall Street Journal article my father read aloud to me after breakfast at my parents' house was opportune. Its author had chosen words thoughtfully — for the purpose of warning moviegoers away from the third Pirates of the Caribbean. When watching a film to settle one's own opinion is expressed by a reviewer as something that the Lord should forfend, the value of the dollar, especially in clutches of eight to ten, rises precipitously.
Still, there are those who must say "One, please" on a Friday night, and won't request another picture simply because a newspaper critic told them to. From conversation I know half a dozen of them and wonder, as I did when my father had finished the article, whether modern cinema's thrill of sound and light is what they are after; and that the movie itself need not be a great one to be worth the time and expense.
A cup of coffee later, my father mentioned that one of several DVDs that he had borrowed from the library was the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera. Was I interested? Yes, I said, although maybe only briefly, to sample the humor and performances and consider their longevity. The Marx Brothers I knew through quotation and transcription, hearing and seeing parts of their work. Why a Duck?, a collection of the comic act's screenplays and film stills — Al Hirschfeld's piquant caricatures of Groucho, Chico and Harpo on its mustard cover — sat on the family bookshelf immemorially, and I had occasionally taken it down to skim through. The Brothers were clever enough, yet I had not watched a movie recently, and never one in its entirety.
Would this be entertaining or quaint? Minutes after opening titles, I was roaring.
Groucho was as strong ironic, snubbing a steward ("Do you have two fives? Well, then, you don't need the ten cents I was going to give you"); as he was absurd, mocking a costumed primo ("How do you sleep on your stomach with such big buttons on your pajamas?"). Chico and Harpo, tramps as ever, played buffoons one moment and graceful musicians the next, their technique articulate extensions of slapstick. Harpo closed the obligatory interlude by reaching from behind his namesake instrument to merrily tap the nose of one of the applauding children surrounding him.
Plot? Aptly unelaborate. The Brothers turned a sedate impresario into an exasperated revenger, and but finally aided the exhausted German aristocrat by making stars out of a lovestruck tenor and soprano — though not before humiliating an imperious lead with Harpo's dash up and down a stage during Il Trovatore, releasing a backdrop of trolley cars, then one of a fruit stand, then sixteen-inch guns of a battleship. Earlier, for a sidesplitting ten seconds, the pit orchestra switched from Verdi to Chico's intercalation of "Take Me out to the Ballgame."
A Night at the Opera showed in 1935, but the stars' presence and delivery is sempiternal, leaving me unable to match to them a contemporary troupe. However few of us may be diverted from this summer's features, the legacy of the Marx Brothers is but a concern of the archivist's.
Michael Ubaldi, May 4, 2007.
"Oh, very nice. You know," said the UPS deliveryman, moments ago, pointing at the poster for the aviation centennial Cleveland National Air Show that is framed on the south office wall, "we just lost one of them, one of the Blue Angels." A week, two weeks ago? He had glanced at an article about the fatal crash and couldn't remember the date, or the precise circumstances — one jet's wing clipping another, or a bird caught by the intake, or an unfortunate commission of error in the cockpit? What was gleaned in the quick reading was salient. The pilot was Lieutenant Commander Kevin Davis, Navy, sophomore team member and rookie performer. Cause of crash unknown, extent of loss surmised but unmeasurable.
That risk goes with the job, I said, makes it no less of a bereavement. The man in brown approved as he turned to leave. "That's what makes it great to be an American." What regret to need to study the man's timbre and expression, to rule the comment as eloquent or ironic — I looked and, oh, the driver meant it — but how inspiriting to have heard what I did, even in this latter age.
Michael Ubaldi, February 7, 2007.
John Derbyshire's son Danny, entering middle school this fall, may at his advanced level enroll in a foreign language course and has Spanish, French and Italian from which to choose. I began in sixth grade, too; and took French. Eighteen years ago, things Gallic were regarded by teenagers as intended for girls and the epicene, and I doubt that such a stigma has since gone.
John made the suggestion of Italian; a good one. My grandfather, who ran a butcher shop on Jones Street, in Greenwich Village, emigrated from Bevagna in 1918; my grandmother, first-generation American of a Neapolitan family, learned Italian along the way. Their eldest child, however, was averse to lessons — so neither she nor her siblings, my uncle and my father, ever learned. My father, ever the raconteur, did, however, pick up a little of the vernacular from Grandpa: a few apothegms and one tongue-twister.
Apelle, figlio di Apollo
Here Apelle, son of Apollo, makes balls of chicken skin, attracting nearby fish who come to see him work. My father added his own touch. Asked What does it mean? he smiles and says, All right for you, Yank.
Michael Ubaldi, February 1, 2007.
As I reached for honey, down an aisle at Giant Eagle yesterday, I saw ten choices instead of three. I could only, once, buy clover honey associated with a bear, or a bee, or an Indian — but that was at Tops Friendly Market, the grocery store chain which recently sold a number of stores in northeastern Ohio to Giant Eagle, one of them in the building closest to my apartment. So there on the right side of the shelf were, in order, bottles of Dutch Gold honey gathered from bees frequenting orange blossoms, wildflowers, alfalfa, safflowers, buckwheat, sage and clovers.
The melted cheddar cheese sandwich has been a lunchtime meal of mine for years and honey, I discovered, is a fine condiment for it; so the stuff goes quickly. Six dollars for Dutch Gold seemed, in a moment's calculation, fair. Which one? This was a chance for excursion. With seven flavors in front of me, I decided that buckwheat honey, as dark as lager, would taste the least like regular honey. And: I was at least partially correct. Viscosity is no different between cultivations, but one won't confuse buckwheat with clover. There is a hint of molasses in buckwheat — Dutch Gold states that "it can be easily substituted for molasses in your favorite recipes."
Apparent here is Giant Eagle's better use of space than Tops'. No shelving was added between the change of ownership, and yet Giant Eagle provides variety out on the floor that Tops never did. At least seven other local and regional chains purchased stores from Tops, so competition in the area continues, but unless Tops was particularly below standard, one chain has an advantage.
Michael Ubaldi, January 18, 2007.
How, I catch myself wondering, did I endear myself to these cats of mine? The daily fresh servings of water, canned meat and kibble? The cuddles? The cooed gibberish which I relate only to those whose pets are addressed in similarly soft and inscrutable tongues?
Mac and Mitsubishi, for most of their eight months of age, have been found waiting at the front of my apartment just about every time I open the door. Some of the duo's learned behavior is as darling as it is incredible — Mac occasionally curls up in my bathroom sink and Mitsubishi plays "fetch" with those plastic, ring-like articles of feline desiderata, the "Cat Crazy." The cats' response to my departure, however, resembles that of certain children unwilling to let Mother leave them alone at preschool.
At my slightest movement towards the apartment's entrance, Mac will stop whatever it is he is doing, trot past me and lay himself across the threshold of the door, as if to stage a protest. He has been doing this for a few months at least.
When the antic first began I could inveigle Mac by calling his name from the other side of the room, and confusing him long enough to exit by walking swiftly from the calling spot to the door. Then, after the cat gained some resolve, I called him with the added enticement of wiggling a Cat Crazy between my thumb and index finger; and, eventually, threw a Cat Crazy in such a way that its elastic properties were worth some investigation, my calls to Mac, in this instance, finally ignored. Now I gently pick the cat up and drop him at a place where his feline mind no longer perceives "My source of food and attention is going away" but instead "I think I will play, perhaps with a toy" — the new cognition encouraged by a flung Cat Crazy. Even once the cat has been distracted, I still need to hurry.
While this goes on, Mitsubishi will have tiptoed forward, flush to the apartment's interior wall. Mac need only glance at her to realize that he's been tricked, whereupon he turns around and prepares to again play Doorstop. If lucky, I have the door open wide enough to escape, turn and delicately nudge probing muzzles away from the outer hallway. Door closed; locked.
Until last week the ritual would end there. Mac, however, has become interested in the operation of the door — but with only the incomplete comprehension of a lesser animal. The chain lock, he seems to have deduced, has something to do with the wooden monolith. His evident understanding is that it is material, rather than secondary, to the opening and closing of the door; and that it is a pull-string. As I walk down the hall, there is a recurring sound from the inside of my apartment: the clap of brass on oak, the metrical scrape of a chain swinging as a pendulum.