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When I was a child, we lived in Queens, New York. My favorite memory of spending time with my mom was when she took me to museums in Manhattan, and in particular, to the American Museum of Natural History. (I was unaware, at the time, that Roy Chapman Andrews, the author of my favorite book—All About Dinosaurs—had once worked at the museum and had even been its director!)

Those were good times.

I miss you, mom.
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I don't know if it falls into the category of "delicacy," but I'm not at all sure I would ever want to consume kiviak, which consists of whole birds that are fermented inside a seal's carcass and is a traditional food of Greenlandic Inuits.

Then again, I may be letting my mind get in the way of my taste buds, who knows? (One thing is for sure, though: if I were visiting Greenland and were offered a taste, I'd accept.)

* * *
What haven't I had a chance to try? There's quite a list, but the thousand-day-old egg (a duck, chicken or quail egg preserved in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, lime, and rice hulls for about 3 months) is probably the most memorable item on my list (only because several months ago, I deliberately went out of my way to track down and patronize a restaurant that had this item on the menu, only to learn there were no more left that day!).

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If, by "it," you mean the major itself (or its embodiment, the diploma), then the answer would have to be "not all that often," because aside from wielding my diploma as a credential to jump through a given hoop, what was of real use to me in my careers—I've had four or five of them, depending on how you look at things—was putting to use the skills I developed in college in learning how to learn.

I left school as a double major, in Engineering Science and Russian Language and Literature. And while there were courses you had to attend to pass, and courses you wanted to attend because the professor had a certain knack for explanation, most courses could easily be passed by keeping track of handouts, doing the homework, writing the papers, and taking the tests. Developing efficient study habits reduced the drag of class attendance and increased time available for other pursuits. I came out reasonably well, with GPAs of around 3.4 in both majors.

During my first trip to the Soviet Union, though, I could barely express myself in Russian and my knowledge of Russian culture and literature was rudimentary at best. I was blind-luck fortunate with my Russian, as I got a job that planted me in Moscow during the era of détente, where I lived as an expatriate whose only real contact with other Westerners took place once a week at the Marine Bar in the U.S. Embassy.

In all other respects, it was either learn Russian, or hide in my hotel room and become a troglodyte.

So I learned Russian, by immersion and by trial and error. Did my degree help? A little. Knowing that "Russia" was not the same thing as the "Soviet Union" and having haltingly read a few chapters of Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago in the original Russian put me ahead of most other Americans, but far behind my Moscow acquaintances, who were listening to bootleg tapes of Vladimir Vysotsky, attending underground art exhibits, and buying editions of Sergey Yesenin's poetry not with rubles (as I tried to do, once, to the horror of the bookstore clerk), but with the prescribed coupons received in exchange for recycled newspapers.

Some time later, once I finally did get a job as a junior engineer, the first couple of years were spent basically learning the ropes of the business, as opposed to applying any design or technical skills. Did my degree help? A little. I was drafted to participate in a project because I had taken a course in BASIC programming in college, but I learned to program in C on my own, and exhibited initiative in using a computer to generate documents and build spreadsheets.

Over the years, I've come to understand that learning how to learn—on my own, if necessary—was the most important skill I acquired in college, and I use "it" every day of my life.

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That we take the time throughout the year to cherish the people who are most important in our lives.
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Without trying to sound Clintonesque, I suppose that depends on what the definition of "met" is.

Is meeting the eyes of and exchanging a small nod with a recognizable movie actor sitting two rows away on the same airplane flight count as having "met" the actor? I don't think so.

Does shaking the hand of, say, a prominent politician count as having "met" that person? Probably not.

What about going to junior high school with (and sitting in the same class for three grades with) someone who later became Attorney General of the United States? That'd be a toss-up, even if we had been good buddies in 9th grade, but hadn't exchanged words since.

How about walking into a room in the White House with a group of astronauts and cosmonauts and having the First Lady glare at you from the next room with a who-the-hell-let-you-in-here look? Getting warmer, I think, but still no cigar.

And yes, all of these things actually happened to me.

Talking about astronauts makes me wonder about the definition of "famous," as well.

Are astronauts famous? Some are, no doubt. John Glenn. Yuri Gagarin. Neil Armstrong. Some others. The rest share a certain renown, but are not "famous" in the sense of "everyone knows who they are." (Do you know the name of the first woman to fly in space? or the first American woman to fly in space? I happen to, but many people I know don't and don't feel themselves cheated by it. Are these women "famous"?)

I've met a number of astronauts (and Russian cosmonauts), and have worked with them during various phases before, during, and after their flights in space. I even was present when a combined Russian and American group of spacemen visited semi-retired-astronaut then-Senator John Glenn at his office in Washington, DC ("semi-retired," because Glenn flew in space again several years after that visit).

The same thing goes for world chess champions. Do you remember who Bobby Fischer was, or Boris Spassky? I once played an ex-world champion to a draw in an event called a "simultaneous exhibition," where the expert player takes on 30 or more amateurs and generally wins all but one or two games. And even that might not count as having "met" him, except for the fact that we broke bread and carried on a correspondence for a couple of years after our game.

What about Silicon Valley movers and shakers? Some, like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, are undoubtedly in the "famous" class. Others, such as Phillipe Kahn—well, I think he's famous, but altogether too many people I've mentioned him to either have no idea who he is, or remember only after I talk about Turbo Pascal and Borland.

And authors? Wow, now that's a real quagmire if you want to tell who's "famous" and who isn't. Why? Well, to start with, I'm a published author (two books, several hundred magazine articles). Am I famous? If so, I guarantee it's not for writing any of that stuff.

So, have I ever met anyone famous?

The short answer is yes.


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The specific "assignment" for this edition of "Writer's Block" reads: "List three books that have changed your life." The subject supplied suggests an answer to the rather overworked "What three books would you want to have with you on a desert island?"

In my case, at least, the two sets of books do not intersect.

As concerns the top three books that have changed my life, these might be, in no particular order:

How To Win Friends and Influence People - Dale Carnegie
Today often maligned as a handbook on manipulating others, this book was valuable to me because it hammered home the idea that (a) people are more interested in what they want that in what I want, and that (b) consequently, the path to my fulfillment is to aid and abet in the fulfillment of others. What's difficult about the technique is that taking an interest in others is, initially, rarely a natural act (it's sort of like parachuting out of an airplane, just not as dramatic or blood-pumpingly dangerous), and just as with any skill, first steps feel awkward and forced, making it easy to abandon the effort. This book helped me maintain that effort, which has made quite a difference in my life.

The 10 Natural Laws of Successful Time and Life Management - Hyrum Smith
Other self-improvement books I've read merely emphasize the importance of setting goals as a means of accomplishment, and then go on to explain how to set and achieve those goals. This book made me rethink my priorities, so that my goal-setting activities reflect the results I want to achieve. As a result, I no longer feel obligated to get 16 hours of work done in 8 hours; I will be satisfied to work in a manner that addresses what is most important to me in life, be it in an 8, 10, 12, or 2 hour period.

A Guide to the Good Life, The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy - William B. Irvine
I recall how, during a discussion of Greek philosophy in high school, the Stoics received about thirty seconds of attention that could be summarized as "nothing to see here," and left one with a fairly cold attitude toward what is popularly understood as stoicism. My interest in Stoicism was kindled by reading Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot, by James B. Stockdale, whose personal philosophy—drawn from the Stoics—helped him survive captivity in a North Vietnamese POW camp, but it wasn't until I picked up this book that I ran across a text that (a) advocated the adoption of a philosophy of life (a term I hadn't hears since college) that is not centered around the worship of a deity, per se, and (b) nevertheless laid out fairly ecumenical recommendations for Stoicism as a philosophy of life that leads to tranquility and happiness.

As concerns the books I'd like to have with me if I were marooned on a desert island, I think I'd choose Chapman's Piloting, Seamanship and Small Boat Handling, Practical Navigation: A Simplified Handbook of Chart-and-Compass, Electronic, and Celestial Navigation for Boatmen, and a good book on small boat construction with limited tools.

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Read what I had to say at the time.

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Demolition specialist, moonlighting as a security guard and occasional comedian.

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The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is a but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.
—Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory
This is my favorite because besides highlighting a basic fact, this line is poetry in what, at first glance, does not appear to be a poem. Read it out loud! The words soar!

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A long time ago, in a universe far away, back when telephone modems
reigned and the Internet was still mostly the private realm of
colleges, universities, the government, and defense contractors, we
moved to Colorado. The year was 1993.

Among other achievements, I was the first person in Archuleta County
(pop. ~5,000) to offer free email accounts on a dial-up BBS (The
SpringsBoard) that connected to the Internet a half-dozen times a day
to send and receive emails and make parts of Usenet available to my
neighbors. I was also a big fan of Pretty Good Privacy, a
controversial program that was useful for encryption and
authentication. In fact, for several years, I used PGP to "sign" all
of my online posts in an attempt to "raise consciousness" about
privacy and secure communications.

Then, during the 1997 American Translators Association conference in
San Francisco, I got involved in a discussion where there was another
participant named Alex, whereupon one of the discussion
leaders—who was a member of a mailing list where I had posted
countless PGP-signed messages—decided she needed names to
distinguish us, so I ended up being referred to as "Alex PGP."

The name stuck.

If I could change it, I might consider using my full name, but what
fun would that be?

Version: GnuPG v1.4.9 (MingW32)
Comment: Using GnuPG with Mozilla -

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Two separate questions. I shall address the first.

I don't think there can be any doubt that media promotes what it communicates. Just as violent media promotes violence, inspirational media promotes inspired behavior, and appeasing media promotes appeasement.

The tricky word here is "promotes." A medical study done a few years ago concluded that some incredible percentage of patients who were told of an unquestioned need to change their lifestyle in order to prolong their life (can you think of anything more important?) will not make that change. (I don't have the figure in front of me, but it was something like 90%-95%.)

I think this example is easily extended to media in general, which is to say that while media promotes what it communicates, the effectiveness of such promotion is very, very low.

Need more proof? Consider advertising. A bulk mailing that results in a 1% response is considered successful. Manufacturers spend millions of dollars to achieve "name recognition," and then spend millions more to maintain it. Marketers face an ongoing struggle to establish a recognized "position" for their product inside your head.

If media was effective at promoting what it communicates, you'd expect early birds in any market to have little trouble repelling attempts by latecomers to capture market share, but that simply isn't the case.

Does violent media cause some people to become violent in real life? Undoubtedly, and it's easy enough to find correlations, especially if one relies on anecdotal evidence. But here's another question: Can violent media smother violent tendencies in other people, serving the same function as a safety valve on an overheated boiler? The correlation is harder to identify, but I think the answer to the second question is also in the affirmative.

So the answer to the first question is "Yes." To which one must add: "So what?"

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Rick, Renauld, Lazlo, and Ilsa at the Cafe Americain. The movie I've seen the most times in my life is Casablanca.

Okay, so shoot me. I like this film. I do not tire of it, and have lost track of the number of times I've seen it. If I had to estimate the number, I'd put it at more than 100 over the years. I enjoy watching it and manage to glean some new nuance from the screenplay every time I do. I know people who have memorized large sections of dialog, and am proud to count them among my friends.

There are a number of memorable scenes and lines in this movie. Have you ever heard anyone say something along the lines of: "I'm shocked - shocked! - to find <such-and-so> going on in this establishment!" Well, that's one of Captain Louis Renault's lines in the movie. Another of Renault's lines - "Round up the usual suspects!" - should be familiar to many.

Among my earliest memorable recollections of this movie is an exchange between Rick (played by Humphrey Bogart) and German Major Heinrich Strasser (played by Conrad Veidt). Strasser, who has been needling Blaine about the Germans occupying Paris and possibly London presses on and asks how Rick would feel about the Germans being in New York. "Well," quips Rick with mock seriousness, "there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn't advise you to try to invade." How true.

Another exchange that struck a chord within me early on in my acquaintance with this film occurs as Renault (played by Claude Rains) and Rick sit outside Rick's nightclub:
Renault: What in Heaven's name brought you to Casablanca?
Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
Renault: The waters? What waters? We're in the desert.
Rick: I was misinformed.
Renault: Hmph.
That "Hmph" is very slight, but it speaks volumes (at least to me)!

If I'm not busy, I can always make time to watch this movie, and if I haven't grown tired of it by now, I probably never will.

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In the dedication of his famous book on Russian grammar, Mikhail Lomonosov wrote:
Карл пятый, римский император, говаривал, что ишпанским с богом, французским — с друзьями, немецким — с неприятельми, итальянским — с женским полом говорить прилично. Но если бы он российскому языку был искусен, то, конечно, к тому присовокупил бы, что им со всеми оными говорить пристойно, ибо нашел бы в нем великолепие ишпанского, живость французского, крепость немецкого, нежность италиянского, сверх того богатство и сильную в изображениях краткость греческого и латинского языка. (cite)

Carl V, the Roman emperor, used to say it was proper to speak Spanish with God, French with one's friends, German with one's enemies, and Italian with the fairer sex. But if he had been skilled in the Russian language, then of course he would have added that it could properly be used to speak with all of them, as he would have found in it the splendor of Spanish, the liveliness of French, the firmness of German, the tenderness of Italian, and in addition to that, the richness and vigorous imagery of Greek and Latin. (My translation)
I am not quite at Carl's level (or Lomonosov's, for that matter). :)

Currently, I speak English, Russian, and French well enough to earn a living. I can express myself stumblingly in Spanish and have been known to sputter occasional phrases in German, Italian, and Latin. Esperanto fascinates me, as does Japanese. Finnish and Hungarian intimidate me.

If I had the time, I would undertake the acquisition of Mandarin Chinese, as it would appear that China will emerge as a major power in this century, especially when juxtaposed against what appears to be the self-inflicted and likely irreversible decline of "the West."

This view, of course, reflects more of a mercenary bent with respect to language than any other, but I am also fascinated by the prospect of tackling a language whose structure and underlying principles seem, to borrow from Monty Python, "completely different."

We'll see what happens.

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Yes, I have "reconnected" with old aquaintances, both over the Internet and in 'real life.' On the flip side, however, I am of that demographic where a certain number of such searches reveal that the object of my inquiry is dead. Recently, for example, the Internet brought me news of the death, back in 1987, of an individual - George was his name - who was my least favorite counselor at summer camp during one otherwise excellent adolescent year.

I hadn't given George a thought, per se, since shortly after that summer ended. It was the summer I had the misfortune to stumble, literally, across a half-hidden milk carton that contained contraband cigarettes belonging to the camp's "big guys." The aftermath was unpleasant for me, as I was forced to chain-smoke about a pack of cancer sticks under George's watchful eye (and those of his cohort) as a "lesson," presumably not to poke my nose where it didn't belong, even if by accident.

I've recalled that cigarette episode several times over the years, but had completely forgotten my tormentors until I heard the news of George's death. I recall my first reaction upon putting a face to his name and realizing who he was and where he stood in relation to me at that camp was that little pit-of-the-gut thump I've experienced whenever I learn that yet someone else I've known of roughly my age group has died.

My second reaction was to ignore the past and hope that he had lived a happy life. There's enough bad feeling in the world, and hanging on to any part of it can't possibly be healthy.

Of searches that have uncovered living, breathing people, none have resulted in a rekindling of any ongoing relations. Perhaps something like that is possible after a short time interval, I don't know. In my case, however, too much time had gone by between then and now. Both parties had changed significantly, with both also aware - perhaps on some subconscious level - that the remaining relevance of the other to one's own life lies only in a set of early and long-unfired synapses that may trigger a pleasant sensation upon reactivation, but nothing more.

To be fair, the exercise has not been completely without reward. A few years ago, a Google search tossed up a result (complete with telephone number) in response to a search, performed on a whim, for the name of my first serious girlfriend. I eventually screwed up the courage to get in touch, which ultimately answered a nagging question I did not have the common sense to ask a long time ago, when we parted ways. In other cases, I've found it curious to listen to people - the fellow who was my roommate during junior year comes to mind - recount what it is they remember of me from back in the day. I, in turn, wonder if my recollection of them strikes them the same way.

Is the game worth the candle? I don't know. Every once in a while, though, I allow myself to be tempted and go fishing in the Internet for people that I knew long ago.



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