Archive | March, 2012

I knew Hemingway’s friend!

31 Mar

Where Irv met Ernest

In the post below I casually mention Ernest Hemingway, almost as if I had known him. I didn’t, of course. But I did know someone he drank with.

The man’s name was Irv Lippe, and he was nothing at all like Hemingway. Irv was short, slight and polite. He was a diplomat – literally — posted to Cuba when Hemingway was living and writing there.

When Irv retired, he took a part-time job stateside with the newspaper where I worked. We spoke a lot and he told me of his days in Cuba. Irv loved martinis and it was not unusual for him to drink three at lunch.

On one of his first ventures into an island bar for lunch, he noticed Hemingway. He asked the fellow next to him if that indeed was the famous writing. The chap said, “It is. But don’t dare talk to him. He’ll bite your head off.”

Irv followed the advice. He did, however, observe the man and thought it odd that such a tough guy would order a daiquiri.

“At the time, a daiquiri was considered a lady’s drink,” Irv said. “I’m surprised he wasn’t laughed out of that bar.”

(Hemingway would go on to make the daiquiri famous, for both sexes.)

One day, while Irv downed a martini at the same place, Hemingway came in and sat next to him. Irv said nothing. This happened several times. Two mute drinkers. The day finally came when Hemingway gruffly turned toward Irv and said, “Do you have the time?”

Irv gave him the time but said nothing else.

The next day Papa again sat next to Irv and said something like, “Nice day for fishing.” Irv said that indeed it was.

Before long, the two were having full and fast conversations.

“We actually, I guess, became friends,” Irv told me.

I loved Irv and speaking with him was always a pleasure, but I didn’t believe this story. I figured anyone who spent more than two minutes in Cuba during those years would claim Hemingway as a friend.

As Irv and I grew closer, he invited me to his home for lunch. He took me into his office and on the wall was a 2 foot-by-3 foot photo of a smiling, bear-like man with his arms tight around Irv, almost lifting the little guy off the ground.

It was signed: “To my good friend Irv — Ernest”

 

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Writing is easy; truth is hard (you have to get naked)

30 Mar

Truth is one of the rarest commodities on Earth.

The reason may be that it’s actually an abstract concept, a moralistic illusion. Or maybe truth is just relative, with multiple versions floating about.

Hemingway was always barking about how hard it was to write a true sentence. Harry Crews, a writer of note who died this week, once said:

“If you’re gonna write, for God in heaven’s sake, try to get naked. Try to write the truth. Try to get underneath all the sham, all the excuses, all the lies that you’ve been told.”

That’s in his obit.

No ... that's not true, either.

In honor of Harry, I challenge everyone visiting this blog to go to the comment section below and write something true.

 

I’ll start:

“Digital communications has devolved into a lucrative confidence game where users knowingly or unknowingly reveal the most private pieces of information so that others can more easily sell them goods and services.”

Now you go ……..

More popular than the Beatles: A 19th Century Swede

28 Mar

 

These guys were nothing, compared to ...

There were superstar performers long before mass media and one of them was named Jenny Lind.

Jenny was known as the “Swedish Nightingale.” She came to the U.S. on a whirlwind tour in 1850 after retiring from European opera at age 29. Her American promoter was P.T. Barnum, who created such a stir that 30,000 people went to New York harbor to greet Jenny’s ship.

... the Swedish Nightingale

Because of the great demand for tickets, Barnum would auction them off. They would go for as high as $20 – an incredible price in 1850. By comparison, a ticket to see the Beatles in 1964 on the main floor at the Atlantic City Convention Center cost $3.90.

At some Lind concerts, a few very rich music lovers (or perhaps speculators) would offer to buy up every seat in the house. Barnum wouldn’t sell, claiming all should get a chance.

On her American tour, Jenny personally earned $350,000. She gave it all to charity. The Beatles never did that. Neither did Barnum.

Because of the illogical and unreasonable American response to Jenny, the term “Lind mania” was coined, and a songwriter named W.H.C. West composed a satirical piece entitled, “The Jenny Lind Mania.” Today there would be Internet memes and YouTube parodies about Jenny.

I learned about Jenny last Sunday when some of the songs she did on her American tour were performed by three-time Tony nominee Judy Kuhn, who appeared in Pennsylvania at a pops concert with the Bucks County Symphony.

Maestro Gary S. Fagin told stories about Jenny and the sensation she caused.

History tells us that P.T. Barnum was a master showman and probably could sell $20 tickets to watch of piece of stale cake. Still, it is hard to believe he could do what he did without the tools of TV or radio or even photographs in newspapers. It must be that people, with or without technology, on occasion enter into fits of collective madness. We clearly have a weakness for it. It must satisfy something in our nature.

There was no harm, I don’t think, when people went to see Jenny Lind. There was harm, however, when nearly everyone in American, rich and poor, wise and stupid, went out and bought homes they could not afford. That weakened a nation. An entire species was weakened when in the last century much of Europe, the rich and the poor, the wise and the stupid, embraced fascism, war and the lethal scapegoating of Jews.

Clearly, things can get horridly bad.

Hearing about Jenny Lind at the concert, I wondered what humans are capable of. I thought about the relativity of good sense, the fragile veneer of morality and the protean quality of religion. I should have just enjoyed the music. Instead I thought about the monster within me.

Not a good evening.

Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.

Machines are smart, but can they think about thinking?

20 Mar

Computers can play chess, Jeopardy and now they can do crossword puzzles. In a competition last weekend with 600 of the country’s top puzzlers, a machine named Dr. Fill came in 141.

The term “artificial intelligence” is usually associated with computers that do such things. I have my doubts. I suspect smart humans are simply slipping their own knowledge into code which then exits a box that does not think. When IBM’s Big Blue was losing at chess, a small army of programmers quickly updated the code.

That’s almost like cheating at cards.

I believe a box is capable of thinking, but before it can someone will have to unlock a secret … uncover a currently unknown approach that will allow a human process to be trans-synthesized by something nonhuman. When this happens, machine intelligence really won’t be artificial. The will have to change the term.

In AI there is debate over whether a machine designed to think should do so like a person or like a machine. The former, once popular, is losing out to the latter. It’s because the former didn’t work very well.

I say it has got to be both. Consider this:

A human – me, for example – is asked a question. The question is: “How many rhymes are in the song Moonlight in Vermont?” The human, me, chooses not to answer immediately but to think: Why such a silly, out-of-context question?

Would the machine do that? Doubtful.

After mulling it over, I would agree with myself that the person asking the question did not do so to delight in telling me that my answer of eight is wrong and instead the correct answer is 10. There would be no satisfaction in that. No, the questioner wants me to say eight and then find joy in telling me the answer is either really high – say 500 – or really low – say one. Maybe it is zero.

In other words, I would use my intelligence to determine that “How many rhymes are in the song Moonlight in Vermont?” is a trick question. Does a computer know what a trick question is?

Only if it can think like a human.

Of course, it doesn’t have to think at all if it has access to every song ever written. All it has to do then is get the song and count. That is not AI.

So what is AI?

And how many rhymes really ARE in Moonlight in Vermont?

A musical legacy: Black, proud, loud and wet

18 Mar

Hard work is to be admired, as is James Brown, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

There’s a new biography out on Brown, who was also known as the Godfather of Soul. The book is by RJ Smith and called, “The One: The Life and Music of James Brown.”

Dan DeLuca, in a review that appears today in the Philadelphia Inquirer, repeats an anecdote from the book illustrating the intensity of Brown’s performances. The story had the entertainer playing in Tbilisi, Georgia, in the former Soviet Union, where a swimming pool separated the audience from the stage. As the show peaked with the number, “Sex Machine,” Brown – at age 73 – leaped into the water. He sank, and band members jumped in after him.

Wet, the entire ensemble finished the show.

According to DeLuca, Brown would sweat so much on stage that band members couldn’t avoid sliding on the drippings. After shows, Brown was rehydrated with an intravenous hook up.

Brown was a perfectionist and very tough on his musicians. He’d fine them for playing the wrong notes, DeLuca reports. He wanted to be the best. After Elvis died, Brown was given a private viewing of The King and was heard to have said, “Elvis, you rat. You’re not number one anymore.”

The book apparently paints James Brown as self-centered (his hair was done three times a day) and non-empathetic. But he rose from poverty, took nothing and – from what I understand – gave a lot of money away to help children, lectured to school kids on the importance of education (he had little) and was a social activist credited with preventing riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King. (He agreed to a rare television concert the quelled anger and took people off the streets.)

He was patriotic, but bitter. Once asked to give advice to a rising Tiger Woods, Brown said, “Get him to understand how vicious this world is. Everything in this world disappears and vacates.”

Add to his many credits: Philosopher.

Where $350 gets you $19,000 — and it ain’t Wall Street

16 Mar

Image

He was short, wore a hoodie and was happy. A student at Penn, he had come in second at a World Series of Poker Tournament in Atlantic City this past week. His investment was about $350. After beating all but one of the 268 contestants, his prize was a little more than $12,000.

He was fun to watch because he smiled all the time.

The winner, a young man from Ohio, never smiled. He seemed sour and unhappy. For his efforts he received a little more than $19,000 and a huge gold ring.

Unlike most professional sports, poker is free to watch. The competition is keen and intense. Spectators can learn, and they can walk into the next room, sit at a table and apply what they’ve learned. You can’t do that at a hockey match.

The final table I watched represented a fairly low level of play. Play level rises when you pay more to get into the game. The winner of the main event, the top level, took home a ring and $191,194. I believe it cost about $1,500 to get into that game.

Some observations:

  • Watching poker in person is much better than watching it on TV, where there is selective editing, you can’t see all that is happening, and you don’t get a full grasp of the dynamics. Unlike TV, you can’t see the hole cards, so you don’t know what a person had when he folds after several raises. But that adds to the mystique.
  • I said when “he” folds. The sport is mostly male. Young and male. Mostly white, young and male, although the Asian presence is notable. At the table where I watched, however, a black guy was the chip leader most of the time.
  • Endurance is critical. There are breaks, but the tournament lasts three days. While you play, you can drink booze or coffee or orange juice or Red Bull. Whatever works. But if you don’t stay sharp, you lose. The chip leader I spoke of got tired, made bad plays in the last couple of hours and was knocked out (although he still won prize money). The Penn kid was alert and rallied back from a short stack.

The poker culture is interesting to follow; the language, the different ways to wear hoodies (almost a uniform), the ways to play with your chips, the various attitudes and poses. At Caesar’s, where the competition was held, a few players hired women to massage their backs while they played.

I’m convinced many life lessons can be learned in a poker match. I’m half tempted to start practicing and invest $350 the next time the WSOP comes around. It seems like a small price to pay for the experience.

Are there any tournament players who can share some of their thoughts here?

Don’t pull on Superman’s cape, and don’t mess with Bill Shatner

11 Mar

William Shatner is funny, very funny. But there is a tendency to laugh at him, not with him.

This happens to some people. With Shatner, it somehow is related to his role as Captain James T. Kirk on Star Trek. So many people loved that show, but with time it and the Kirk character became the butt of jokes.

The post-Trek work of Shatner, a one-time Shakespearean actor, has consistently stood out, winning top awards. I especially liked him in the TV show “Boston Legal” in the character of Denny Crane. But he remains haunted by Star Trek and appears quite sensitive about it.

Shatner has a one-person show that was on Broadway and is now on a national tour. It’s called “Shatner’s World,” and he wrote it. He recently went on the Colbert Report to plug it. Colbert opened the show saying Shatner would appear, mentioned the Kirk character and made a lame joke about Star Trek. Shatner came out later and was hostile. Really hostile.

Watching performers, I often wonder what is real and what is show business. The audience loved it when Shatner, in defensive mode, ripped apart Colbert, blunting all the attempted humor of the normally agile comedian. So it was a good bit; good for business. Maybe Colbert and Shatner worked it out ahead of time, but I doubt it.

Shatner so much as said he did not like Colbert, came on the show only for a plug, and wanted to get off as soon as possible. It was great theater. Colbert, unfortunately, came off looking like an amateur.

Shatner’s message was clear: It’s time to stop laughing at him and take him seriously.

I’d like to hear what people think of the Colbert-Shatner interview, if they agree the host was indeed an unwitting victim. Please watch the episode (linked above) and comment.

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