Monthly Archives: January 2013

Guess Again, Groundhog

Hey, nobody's right all the time.

Hey, nobody’s right all the time.

As an excuse for misbehaving, Groundhog Day might be the worst holiday on the calendar.  Why would anyone want to roll out of a warm bed before dawn on February 2nd to get drunk and unruly?

Maybe I’m not giving it a fair shake, because I’ve never actually participated in a Groundhog Day celebration.  There are a couple of reasons for that:  One is that groundhogs don’t live on my side of the country.  Another is that I don’t need a rodent to tell me when spring will arrive; when stores start having sales on their winter merchandise, it’s a sure sign that spring is on its way.

As you know, that’s the folklore associated with Groundhog Day.  Supposedly if the groundhog emerges on February 2nd and it’s cloudy, that means spring will come early.  On the other hand, if it’s a sunny day — enabling the groundhog to see its shadow — it dives back into its burrow, signaling that winter will last six more weeks.

That tradition has been going on for quite a while now, with communities throughout the U.S. and Canada holding ceremonies.  The best-known is in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, which is roughly 80 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.  The citizens of Punxsutawney have been coaxing a groundhog out of his hole on February 2nd every year since 1887.

Record keeping was spotty in the early years, but through 2012, Punxsutawney Phil, as the rodent is known, has seen his shadow 100 times.  Presumably the guys in top hats who preside over the ceremony could also see their own shadows.  I don’t get why they need to bother the little guy — let him sleep in, I say.  But then, I’m sort of a bah-humbug guy on St. Swithin’s Day, too.

Actually, the job of being Punxsutawney Phil (the occupant of that position changes every few years, for the inevitable reason) is pretty cushy.  Most of the year he lives in the town’s library and is well fed.  Your typical groundhog in the wild weighs less than 10 pounds, but the current Phil tips the scales at around 15, soaking wet.

It’s the early wake-up call on February 2nd that kind of takes the fun out of being Phil.  How would you like to be hauled out of bed on a cold morning to realize that thousands of people have gathered to stare at you?

So, you’re probably wondering, how are groundhogs’ skills at forecasting the future?  Well, slightly better than the guys who write predictions in Chinese fortune cookies, I suppose, but frankly — not great.

Encyclopædia Britannica says, “Convincing statistical evidence does not support this tradition.”  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is similarly unimpressed.  After reviewing a chart of groundhog predictions vs. subsequent weather patterns, NOAA bluntly states on its website:  “The table shows no predictive skill in the groundhog.”  Stormfax pegs Phil’s accuracy rate at 39%, which is about as reliable as flipping a coin.

But don’t let me be a wet blanket if you want to get out there and party at 8 a.m. in 30° weather.  I just know that if I did that, there’s a high degree of statistical probability that it would mean six more weeks of a bad cold.

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Unscheduled Stop

The gift shop probably had good stuff, but they wouldn't let us see it.

The gift shop probably had good stuff, but they wouldn’t let us see it.

After airline passengers have boarded the plane and stowed their washing machines in the overhead bins, an interesting phenomenon occurs.  The purser asks for everyone’s attention during the safety instructions, but almost everyone ignores them.  While flight attendants are pointing out the over-wing exits, passengers practically put their fingers in their ears and chant “La-la-la-la”.

Apparently the idea is that if you don’t hear the safety instructions, you won’t need them.  Which, I’ll admit, proves to be true almost every time.  Once in a while, though, something doesn’t quite go according to plan.  That’s how we wound up in Labrador.

The American Airlines flight was conveying us from Rome to Chicago; the first indication that something might be amiss was when a flight attendant made an announcement, in Italian, that included the word medico.  My Italian vocabulary isn’t extensive, but I knew that meant doctor, and inferred that they were hoping one was on board.

It turned out that a passenger was having a miscarriage, and the doctor determined that due to dangerous complications, she needed to be in a hospital as soon as possible.  Not long thereafter, the plane’s captain announced that we had a medical emergency and our flight was being diverted.

Since we were over the Atlantic Ocean,  the closest place that could handle a commercial aircraft was Happy Valley-Goose Bay.  As mentioned earlier, it is located in Newfoundland and Labrador, the easternmost province of Canada.

If the name Happy Valley conjures up images of blue skies and sunflowers and picnics on the grass, well… you’re thinking of a different Happy Valley.  This one was a bleak landscape of ice and snow as far as the eye could see.

It’s possible the Canadian Happy Valley-Goose Bay is lovely during its few weeks of summer, but this was April, when the average high temperature is 38° F.  It did not seem like a place I’d like to live, but then, I’m not in a witness relocation program.

Anyway, moments after the plane touched down, a pickup truck came out to meet us with a sign reading “Follow Me” (see photo).  Eventually we came to a stop while still on the runway, where an ambulance met the plane.

The woman who was having the emergency happened to be traveling with two children.  Without hesitation, a flight attendant grabbed her overnight bag and escorted them off the plane.  Bless her heart, she was going to spend the night taking care of those kids while their mommy was in the hospital.

Meanwhile, the pilot had to get a new flight plan, refuel, and have the wings de-iced.  None of the passengers were allowed to get off the plane due to a health emergency of a different kind:  Crew members who briefly disembarked had to stand on a pad with disinfectant on it.  It seems that Canadian officials were concerned about an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease, and they didn’t want the local caribou to catch it.  No, really.

While preparations were being made for our departure, Sally and I chatted for a few minutes with the captain.  He said unscheduled stops like this happen more often than one might think.

Unless it’s your choice, I hope you never have to go to Happy Valley-Goose Bay.  But it’s nice to know that it’s there if you need it.

The Big Picture on Popcorn

At the movies, this much popcorn will cost at least six dollars.

At the movies, this much popcorn will cost at least six dollars.

It’s a question that has occurred to me several times in my adult life, but I’ve never had the chance to ask it.  That’s partly because “farmer” is the occupation of only 1% of the U.S. work force, so there aren’t many opportunities to encounter one.  When I do, though, I’ll dispense with the pleasantries and get right to it:  “How do you decide what crops to grow?”

“Betting the farm” is an expression gamblers use, meaning “to take a big risk.”  Farmers literally bet the farm every year, and I’d be fascinated to find out how one figures out that the best use of his land and resources is, say, popcorn.

Presumably the soil type and weather conditions are part of the equation, but when his neighbor is able to grow sweet corn, what makes a farmer think, “Nope.  I’m going with popcorn.”

Most of the world’s popcorn production is in the United States, and there are at least 6 cities that claim to be “The Popcorn Capital of the World”.  All are in the Midwest, far from Hollywood, where popcorn’s constant companion — movies — are made.

Popcorn has actually been around a lot longer than movies; Smithsonian scientists have found evidence in Peru of popcorn that dates back over 6,000 years.  It wasn’t until the late 19th century that commercial popcorn poppers were invented, though, and someone thought, “Hey, you know what would go great with this stuff — moving pictures!”

Well, the connection between popcorn and movies was a little more complicated than that, but one of the factors is what the popcorn producers call “expansion ratio”.  That refers to the increase in volume that occurs when those little kernels are popped; a good expansion ratio is in the neighborhood of 40 to 1.

Why does that matter to movie theater owners?  Because they buy popcorn by weight and sell it by volume, so the higher the expansion ratio, the higher the profit.  And popcorn is a more important income source to theaters than ticket sales.

Ticket revenues have to be split with the films’ distributors, but exhibitors pocket 100% of concessions.  According to the Stanford Graduate School of Business, concessions account for about 20% of movie theater gross revenues — but 40% of profits.

By the way, the stuff that makes movie popcorn taste so good — the butter-flavored motor oil they drizzle on it, for instance — adds so much fat that a good-sized tub of it is said to be comparable in fat grams to several Big Macs.

On the other hand, pure unadulterated popcorn — the less tasty version — is actually good for your health.  A study completed in 2012 showed that in addition to its high dietary fiber, popcorn has levels of antioxidants that are greater than some fruits and vegetables.  However, the study’s author, Dr. Joe Vinson, warned that adding too much butter and/or oil could negate the health benefits.

Here’s what occurred to me, though.  A previous scientific study found that there are health benefits associated with chocolate (see my blog post “Rx: Chocolate”, 10/26/11).  Just go with me on this.  If popcorn and chocolate were combined… huh?  Sounds good, right?  Maybe Harry and David’s Moose Munch will prove to be about the healthiest thing we can eat!

Enjoying a Symphony

In this arrangement, the conductor has to be very careful when he bows.

In this arrangement, the conductor has to be very careful when he bows.

People who know that James Brown was the “Godfather of Soul” might not know that Franz Joseph Haydn was the “Father of the Symphony”.  And vice versa.

In the mid-18th century, “Papa” Haydn began writing symphonies, which the Harvard Dictionary of Music calls “the most important form of orchestral music.”  It borrowed from earlier styles, but Haydn’s music inspired composers like Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky to write majestic pieces that helped some audience members sleep off the big meals they had just eaten.

Ironically, modern audiences occasionally have difficulty appreciating classical music concerts because these performances require us to a) sit still, and b) listen.  This can be torture when one has just gulped down three energy drinks and can feel their iPhone throbbing in their pocket.

In the right frame of mind, though, a symphony performance can be soul-satisfying in ways James Brown couldn’t touch.  To enhance your next concert experience, here are a few reminders of things you probably already know…

The size of orchestras has grown since the 18th century, when they were performing in some rich guy’s living room or garden.  In today’s expansive venues, a full symphony orchestra typically has 75-90 instruments, most of which are strings.

The usual seating arrangement for the musicians has the first violins to the conductor’s left and the cellos to his or her right.  Second violins and violas are inside the semicircle, which is closed by the woodwinds — flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons.  Behind the woodwinds are the brass instruments; the percussion section is in back.

The photo above gives the general idea; this display was mounted on the wall of the Italy pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010.  To my knowledge, no musicians were compelled to climb into those chairs.

But let’s get back to our hypothetical upcoming concert.

A few minutes before the performance is to begin, the Concertmaster enters; he is the first-chair violinist and is therefore despised by all the other violinists.  Oh, they’re nice to his face, but the minute his back is turned, well…

Anyway, the Concertmaster gets the orchestra tuned up — the musicians all play an “A” note.  Audience applause is not expected for that accomplishment.  Moments later, the conductor strides in and gets the program underway.

Most symphonies have four movements.  The first is allegro (fast), the second is adagio (slow).  The third movement is often something like a dance number — a minuet or a waltz, maybe, but sometimes it’s scherzo (very fast).  The final movement, allegro, is fast and energetic, has several false endings, and eventually results in boisterous applause from the audience.

By the way, it is considered a breach of classical-music etiquette to applaud between movements.  If you have any doubts about when to clap, you can wait until at least ten other people have done so.

If they’re waiting for you to lead, though, all you have to do is watch the conductor.  He’ll hold his baton above his shoulders until the last note has faded away, and then he’ll lower his hands to his sides.  When he does that, go crazy.  The conductor will turn and take a deep bow, the sweat dripping off him like he’s James Brown.

Looking Glass

Hall of Mirrors, Versailles

Hall of Mirrors, Versailles

There probably wouldn’t be as many New Year’s resolutions if there weren’t so many mirrors.  Hundreds of years ago, the average person did not frequently see his or her reflection, so had little motivation to lose 10 pounds by Valentine’s Day.

Oh, mirrors have existed for many millennia, but they were made of polished stone or metal, gave relatively dim reflections, weren’t widely available, and  were small.  A hand mirror didn’t give the whole picture, so to speak.  It didn’t obviate the need for a woman in Roman times to ask, “Be honest, Marcellus — does this toga make my pyga look big?”

It was sometime in the 1300s when someone figured out how to apply a metal backing to a piece of glass, which provided a better reflection.  Within a couple of centuries, Venice and Nuremberg had become the major manufacturing centers for mirrors.

Venetian mirrors — made on the island of Murano — were especially prized by the people who could afford them.  That pretty much meant kings and queens, because mirrors were ridiculously expensive.  They were almost literally worth their weight in gold back then, which may partly explain the superstition about breaking a mirror bringing seven years of bad luck.  Ha — like the king would even let you live that long if you accidentally broke one of his mirrors.

Europe’s greatest monument to royal extravagance is the palace of Versailles; it was the pet project of King Louis XIV, who ruled France from 1643 to 1715.  He seems to have had a high opinion of himself, since Louis encouraged his subjects to call him the Sun King.  The most notable feature of his palace is the Hall of Mirrors (see photo).

It’s something like 250 feet long and extravagantly decorated with mirrors that were made in France by artisans who had stolen the secrets of Venetian glassmaking.  There are hundreds of mirrors in the Galerie des Glaces, and the panels were the largest that could be manufactured at that time.  I have no doubt that Louis XIV’s visitors to Versailles were impressed, and that they were extremely careful about touching those mirrors.

It wasn’t until the 19th century — 1835, to be specific — that a German chemist named Justus von Liebig came up with the process called silvering.  It was a way of putting a thin metallic coat onto glass, and led to the production of mass-produced, high-quality mirrors that would fling the truth in your face at an affordable price.

By the 20th century, mirrors had become very popular in decorating the homes of people who were not of royal lineage.  They also became ubiquitous in hotels and restaurants and other public places.

The extensive use of mirrors in bars allowed patrons to sneak a look at themselves and wonder what the heck they were doing sitting here listening to this unattractive windbag.  That, in turn, led to a different, non-New Year’s kind of resolution:  “Bartender, I think I’ll have another.”