“We are a puny and fickle folk…”

“Avaritia” from the Seven Deadly Sins series by Pieter van der Heyden (1558)

Continuing the title quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “The Method of Nature,” originally in a speech to the Society of the Delphi at Waterville College, Maine, 11 August 1841:

Avarice, hesitation, and following are our diseases. The rapid wealth which hundreds in the community acquire in trade, or by the incessant expansions of our population and arts, enchants the eyes of all the rest; the luck of one is the hope of thousands, and the bribe acts like the neighborhood of a gold mine to impoverish the farm, the school, the church, the house, and the very body and feature of man.

It came to mind today as I wrote to a bookseller from whom I had ordered, last Monday, the one book by Ricky Jay that I don’t own. After I got the “shipped” email from Amazon, the third-party seller cancelled and refunded my order, claiming this: “We were in the process of packing and shipping out your order from the warehouse when we discovered significant damage.”

You would be wrong if you thought I believed that. You would be right if you think I’d be hopping mad if I then actually caught them in the lie. Just now, I did…and I am. I composed and sent this message to them only after counting to ten (see the clip below):

People are so predictable. Once you discovered Ricky Jay had died, you refunded my $54 order for this book, claiming you found the “Good” book was not even in acceptable condition when you went to ship it. I have to tell you that I didn’t believe a word of it. Now, a week later – exactly as I expected – you’ve re-listed the Good condition book at more than three times* your original price.

Did you really think, in these days filled with avarice, that I would accept your inexpert explanation and forget about it? That I wouldn’t think to check for you re-listing it on Amazon? That I wouldn’t also see it re-list in places like Abebooks? I mean, I am looking to buy the book, right? Frankly, your optimism surprises me.

Ricky Jay, for forty years one of my few heroes and a serious book collector himself, probably would have summarized this behavior with one word: despicable.

I can’t blame you too much for yielding to the temptation to cash in on Jay’s death as so many others are trying to do. I am, however, disappointed that you ended up fitting so precisely into the mold I imagined you would. My cynicism level remains unchanged.

*After I sent this, they of course sent no reply but did increase the price to four times their original, so no conscience at all. Wouldn’t it be amusing and immensely satisfying if they’ve priced themselves right out of the market?

52 assistants, no curator

Ricky Jay has left us – and left us bereft.

I have two recommendations for the uninitiated: The “Secrets of the Magus” profile of him that appeared in The New Yorker in 1993 – happily not behind their paywall – and the 90-minute documentary “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay” (2012). The latter also aired in a severely edited, half-length form on the PBS series “American Masters” in 2015. The full version is preferred and you can find it on several streaming services. It’s free if you’ve got Amazon Prime, here.

From The New Yorker article:

The playwright David Mamet and the theatre director Gregory Mosher affirm that some years ago, late one night in the bar of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Chicago, this happened:

Ricky Jay, who is perhaps the most gifted sleight-of-hand artist alive, was performing magic with a deck of cards. Also present was a friend of Mamet and Mosher’s named Christ Nogulich, the director of food and beverage at the hotel. After twenty minutes of disbelief-suspending manipulations, Jay spread the deck face up on the bar counter and asked Nogulich to concentrate on a specific card but not to reveal it. Jay then assembled the deck face down, shuffled, cut it into two piles, and asked Nogulich to point to one of the piles and name his card.

“Three of clubs,” Nogulich said, and he was then instructed to turn over the top card.

He turned over the three of clubs.

Mosher, in what could be interpreted as a passive-aggressive act, quietly announced, “Ricky, you know, I also concentrated on a card.”

After an interval of silence, Jay said, “That’s interesting, Gregory, but I only do this for one person at a time.”

Mosher persisted: “Well, Ricky, I really was thinking of a card.”

Jay paused, frowned, stared at Mosher, and said, “This is a distinct change of procedure.” A longer pause. “All right—what was the card?”

“Two of spades.”

Jay nodded, and gestured toward the other pile, and Mosher turned over its top card.

The deuce of spades.

A small riot ensued.

The trailer for “Deceptive Practice”:

HBO aired a somewhat trimmed version of his show “Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants” in 1996. As with all of his stage shows, he only performed “52 Assistants” in small venues. Given the speedy scarcity of tickets every time he performed, he could have easily done larger halls, but he wanted to make sure everyone got a good view. To him, the art was far more important than the money.

A fair-to-middling full copy of the HBO special is on YouTube and linked below, but if you search a little, you should be able to find a 558MB version that’s 640×480 and twice the quality of this version.

I first saw Jay perform on “Saturday Night Live” in early 1977. Several months later, an article about him in the December 1977 Playboy – part of it shown below – further piqued my interest. The article mentioned that his first book, Cards as Weapons, was coming out, and I bought it a few weeks later. It sits on the bookshelf behind me as I type, along with his Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women: Unique, Eccentric and Amazing Entertainers (1986), Jay’s Journal of Anomalies (2003), and others.

I’m leaving out the rest of the two-page spread due to boobs and such

I’ve traveled to see shows in New York City just twice – not Broadway shows, but off-Broadway masterpieces by Ricky Jay. The poster from “52 Assistants” is on my office wall and “On the Stem” is at home.

Old inkjet prints never die, they just fade away

While showing dinner guests around my place last week, I noticed that all the 8×12″ photos that I have up in the kitchen and bathroom had taken on a distinctly aqua/turquoise tint, meaning they had lost a fair amount of their original red component in the years since I printed them – around 2003, I think.

I took all of the originals with the first digital camera I owned, a Kodak DC280 with a measly 2 megapixel picture size, so they’re not ideal for enlarging, but they still look pretty good from a foot or two away. These days, I have some good quality coated 11×14″ presentation paper from Epson that I can trim down to the 8×12″ clip frame size, not to mention a better printer with hardier ink, so I reprinted them all yesterday and brought out the big paper slicer to make quick and accurate work of the trimming. I also added to the bathroom the panorama I stitched together with Hugin from a series of three photos I took of the Golden Gate Bridge with the DC280. You can click on the galleries below to see the original photos and the newly-printed copies in situ.

For those with enquiring minds, dinner was my fortified version of Comfort Diner meatloaf, Julia Child’s Purée de pommes de terre a l’ail from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1, and carrot coins slowly braised in butter, glazed with a touch of brown sugar, then garnished with their close cousin parsley. I hadn’t tried braising carrots in butter before, but I certainly will again. They retained good texture long after the same time simmering in water would have turned them to mush, and they were decadently rich.

For some reason, the thumbnail of the first shot here looks normal on my Galaxy Tab A but appears fuzzy in Firefox on my desktop, as if WordPress is using an inappropriate resize for the mosaic. In any case, the image looks okay if you click on it.

Freshly reprinted and back up on the walls:

Progress launch from ISS

Low earth orbit is not the most exciting place to be in space, but I’ll admit it is extraordinary at times. This is the launch of a Progress cargo ship taken from the ISS eight days ago, captured in a fashion Stanley Kubrick would have appreciated. Best viewed full-screen and in the dark. The Soyuz launch vehicle first appears about 6 seconds in.

Downloadable in MP4 form here. The “Source” link there is full HD.

  • Title Progress launch timelapse seen from space
  • Released: 22/11/2018
  • Length 00:01:10
  • Language English
  • Footage Type Music Clip
  • Copyright ESA/NASA
  • DescriptionTimelapse of the Russian Progress MS-10 cargo spacecraft launched on 16 November 2018 at 18:14 GMT from Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, taken by ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst from the International Space Station.The spacecraft was launched atop a Soyuz rocket with 2564 kg of cargo and supplies. Flying at 28 800 km/h, 400 km high, the International Space Station requires regular supplies from Earth such as this Progress launch. Spacecraft are launched after the Space Station flies overhead so they catch up with the orbital outpost to dock, in this case two days later on 18 November 2018.The images were taken from the European-built Cupola module with a camera set to take pictures at regular intervals. The pictures are then played quickly after each other at 8 to 16 times normal speed. The video shows around 15 minutes of the launch at normal speed.The Progress spacecraft delivered food, fuel and supplies, including about 750 kg of propellant, 75 kg of oxygen and air and 440 l of water.Some notable moments in this video are:

    00:07 Soyuz-FG rocket booster separation.

    00:19 Core stage separation.

    00:34:05 Core stage starts burning in the atmosphere as it returns to Earth after having spent all its fuel.

    00:34:19 Progress spacecraft separates from rocket and enters orbit to catch up with the International Space Station.

    Credits: ESA/NASA

Instant stock fine-tuning

Yesterday, the addition of fresh sage plus maybe 50% more carrots than usual to my instant turkey stock recipe helped it produce the finest turkey gravy I’ve ever had. The magic mix:

I also tried my hand at producing a sweet potato casserole, which I’d never made before, using the best ideas from a handful of recipes after reviewing a few dozen online. I measured nothing and decided on quantities by taste alone as I added each ingredient. Of course, when you combine sweet potatoes roasted at 400F/200C for 80 minutes, dark brown sugar, molasses, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, toasted pecans, oats, and double cream – now available in the Jersey cow variety near me – it really can’t help but taste good, but this, too, was the best example of the dish I’ve had. My visiting best mate said, “Oh, my. This is the only way I want sweet potatoes from now on.” I’m not one to argue with impeccable taste.

If I were to add an egg or two, I think I’d then call this sweet potato pie filling

James Martin’s Croissant Butter Pudding topped off the evening quite nicely.

“I take back any bad things I ever said about MIT — which I never have.”

The quotation is from Mike Collins, Command Module Pilot of Apollo 11, as their spacecraft entered lunar orbit. He was commenting on how well the computer had controlled their Lunar Orbit Insertion burn, adjusting their course to velocities accurate within a tenth of a foot per second in all three axes – essentially perfect. In full, from the onboard audio recording:

Minus 1, minus 1, plus 1. Jesus! I take back any bad things I ever said about MIT – which I never have.

Collins wrote the best of the astronaut biographies, Carrying the Fire, and he turned 88 today. He’s behind the moon in this crew photo, when all three of them, born in 1930, were 39:

MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics curriculum includes a graduate semester devoted to “Engineering Apollo” – where twenty-six class sessions barely scratch the surface, according to the professor in the first video below – itself one of those twenty-six classes. Collins was a guest there in 2015 and last year.

People are really telling Dingleface all this stuff?

Hackers gained access to “gender, locale/language, relationship status, religion, hometown, self-reported current city, birthdate, device types used to access Facebook, education, work, the last 10 places they checked into or were tagged in, website, people or Pages they follow, and the 15 most recent searches” for 14 million users…

I would like to meet some of these people.

“Let me hold your wallet for a minute.”

“Oh, sure. Here you go.”

“I’ll just be taking this photo, some of the cash, and one of your cards. Okay?”

“Um…okay, I guess?”

“Yes it is. Tell me, do you hold any sort of degree?”

“No, I only went to college for a year.”

“Okay. Dating anyone right now?”

“Not at the moment, no.”

“Got it. Now, what was the last thing you bought?”

“It’s kind of embarrassing, but if you must know, it was some Immodium and some toilet bowl cleaner.”

“I see. Well, thanks! Nice to meet ya!”

Sea life in the melting Himalaya

When two continental masses happen to move on a collision course, they gradually close out the sea between them – barging over trenches, shutting them off – and when they hit they drive their leading edges together as a high and sutured welt, resulting in a new and larger continental mass. The Urals are such a welt. So is the Himalaya. The Himalaya is the crowning achievement of the vigorous Australian Plate, of which India is the northernmost extremity. India in the Oligocene, completing its long northward journey, crashed head on into Tibet, hit so hard that it not only folded and buckled the plate boundaries but also plowed in under the newly created Tibetan plateau and drove the Himalaya five and a half miles into the sky. The mountains are in some trouble. India has not stopped pushing them, and they are still going up. Their height and volume are already so great they are beginning to melt in their own self-generated radioactive heat. When the climbers in 1953 planted their flags on the highest mountain, they set them in snow over the skeletons of creatures that had lived in the warm clear ocean that India, moving north, blanked out. Possibly as much as twenty thousand feet below the seafloor, the skeletal remains had formed into rock. This one fact is a treatise in itself on the movements of the surface of the earth. If by some fiat I had to restrict all this writing to one sentence, this is the one I would choose: The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone.

So wrote John McPhee in Basin and Range, one of five books collected in his Pulitzer Prize-winning geological history of North America, Annals of the Former World (1998), whose volumes are Basin and Range (1981), In Suspect Terrain (1983), Rising from the Plains (1986), Assembling California (1993), and Crossing the Craton (1998).

Apollo 17 documentary

I happened upon an excellent 104-minute documentary from 2015 I’d never heard of before, titled “The Apollo Experience: Apollo 17” and linked below. It’s among the best single-mission Apollo documentaries I’ve seen and I figured I should mention it here because it has to be pretty darned obscure for me to not know of it.

I have the complete lunar surface videos from the mission – the boxed set pictured at the end of this post – but this documentary puts EVA highlights in context with explanatory captions and follows the mission from training to splashdown. The archival footage throughout is of the highest quality I’ve seen and quite a treat on a fifty-inch television.

The overall quality is high enough that I forgive the engine noise the producers added to some radio transmissions, along with other low-key add-ons like electronic “beep-beep” effects. They did them in a fashion subtle enough that, while I knew immediately that they were their additions, I wasn’t compelled to say “Wut?” and put on my just-ate-a-lemon face.

Timeline’s YouTube channel is worth exploring as it has hundreds of other history documentaries. Some, like this one, come from obscure satellite channels, but it appears a large percentage of their content originally aired on Channel 4 in the UK.

“So Over the Moon” – a rebuttal by Frank Borman himself

From the fact that it featured prominently in last week’s The News Quiz on BBC Radio 4, I gather that the Frank Borman segment a few weeks ago on “This American Life” titled “So Over the Moon” has gained a fair amount of traction. The conclusion of the TAL segment was that the Apollo 8 mission he commanded bored him, wasn’t enjoyable or interesting at all, and was in the end just a battle in the Cold War to him.

Based on past talks he’s given, one in particular, I begged to differ and sent this to the “This American Life” folks:

Regarding the “So Over the Moon” segment of episode 655, please relay to David Kestenbaum the link below of Frank Borman giving a talk at the National Air & Space Museum on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Apollo 8 in 1998. I think Borman actually did have at least a little fun going to the moon and it held his interest a skosh more than he let on recently. Yes, he emphasizes in his 1998 talk the race against the Soviets as the most important part – as he’s always done – but he also tells great stories and cracks jokes left and right about the Apollo 8 mission during his 73-minute talk. He’s a funny guy – the opposite in some ways of the man I heard on TAL a few weeks ago.

My 2015 article linked below includes a 6-minute clip I placed on YouTube of a portion of Borman’s talk plus a link to the full-length 73-minute video on C-SPAN’s site.

We all get grumpy from time to time; perhaps it just wasn’t the best time to speak with him.

What he shared of his wife Susan’s condition on TAL would beat anybody right down to the ground. They married in 1950. I can’t even imagine what he’s going through.