All posts by sleemanmunk

The Curse of A&W

Last Thursday, the host one of my regular writing groups said he would provide ice cream as a snack. Wanting to contribute, but not wanting to compete with my host, I brought something I felt would go with the ice cream – root beer for root beer floats. One guest and I had root beer. I was the only one that put my root beer together with ice cream to make a float, and it wasn’t very good. I wondered whether I had ever really thought it would be good. The root beer guest declined to take the root beer home with him.

So, I took the root beer home. Naturally, I have options besides throwing something away and eating it straight – I can cook with it. Yes, even A&W root beer has recipes dedicated to it online. It’s also a reasonable shot to try substituting it for another popular dark soda – the ubiquitous Coca-Cola. This was my first experiment.

This experiment was cut short when, moments after my root beer sauce began to bubble, Alice fled from her room coughing. In addition to being unappetizing and unhealthful, A&W contained compounds to render the atmosphere of our apartment unbreathable.

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A&W root beer is specially cursed, even among soft drinks. It has 45 grams of sugar per serving.

After we spent some time eating supper on the porch and venting the house, Alice glanced at the oven burner and pointed out some egg that had fallen under and generated the deadly, invisible smoke. My experiments could continue! Nevertheless, I had soured on making a root beer sauce. Instead, I took advantage of the sheer quantity of the root beer to make a tofu marinade.

I added the same ingredients as for the coca-cola sauce, but proportional to the extra root beer. I added a generous helping of sesame seeds and left the tofu to marinate overnight. Then I cooked it for 20 minutes in the oven at 350 degrees. IMG_20170819_115442928 The result was delicious. Alice said she could taste the root beer. The best part? It nearly used it all up!

The remaining root beer went into a root beer chicken recipe. This used substantially less root beer, but made up for it with a full bottle of barbecue sauce. It’s no New York Times recipe, but it tastes a lot better than swigging the stuff straight.

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Now there’s only dredges of root beer left, and I have food for the weekend. Thus, the curse of A&W was broken.

Sam’s Guide to Swimming

Swimming is an art form just like competitive street polo and professional Hungry Hungry Hippos. It is relatively quick to pick up, but mastering it takes a lifetime.

When swimming, if you find that you tend to sink to the bottom of the pool easily, not to worry. It is simply that you are heavy. No, you’re not fat. You’re just dense. No, not stupid, just, well, never mind.

In ancient prehistory, our ancestors were the ultimate endurance swimmers. We would swim for miles chasing the large fish that once inhabited the African ocean until they’d eventually become exhausted and be unable to continue to flee. Modern humans have fish delivered to their doorsteps already killed and cooked, and they no longer use these skills, but they lay dormant in all of us. One day in the near future the carbon generated by our fish delivery systems will heat the atmosphere to the point that the icecaps melt and the entire world will be one great African Ocean, and the people that survive will be the ones who can best return to these ancient practices. Kurt Vonnegut agrees with me.

In a modern pool, one of the most important secrets to swimming faster is to be able to turn around quickly when one reaches the wall. The commonly accepted technique to deal with this is the flip turn. Here is a professional performing a flip turn. Be wary, though, pool walls are something humans never dealt with during our evolution, and thus can be very dangerous. As an amateur, you should be sure to have someone nearby to resuscitate you when water gets in your nose and you drown. With practice, you will learn to stay conscious long enough to get to the surface and clear your nose of water to breathe again. Good safety practices have dramatically reduced the high death rate from flip turns in the history of the sport of swimming.

In this modern era, it is tempting to sit on your couch and have cooked fish delivered to your door. Remember that you can take better care of yourself if you drive to the supermarket to buy fish and cook it yourself with only a small amount of added oil and salt. Swimming in a pool is also good for your health, once you have mastered the technique of not dying. So get out there and swim!

Image Credit: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/d5/ea/5d/d5ea5dc123ba7402dc950f41384f2815.jpg

Vancouver

This was the first image that greeted me upon leaving Vancouver airport. Indigenous totem poles rising behind a food cart selling Japanese style hot dogs.

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As it turns out, this was representative. Vancouver is an international city, and the staple foods are not maple syrup and poutine, but sushi and ramen.

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IMG_20170802_125948120_HDR.jpgThe restaurants for these and other foods will commonly have lines out the front. They’ll happily tell you the wait is fifteen minutes, and then let you stand around for thirty. One of my colleagues abandoned the group so that she could get a seat without having to wait another thirty minutes for a table of five. I can’t judge too much, since it was two seats she nabbed, and when she pressured me to take the other one, leaving me with the choice of abandoning the rest of the group or her herself, I acquiesced. Fortunately, the others simply wandered on and found food elsewhere.

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At one noodle bar, there were Canadian flags everywhere. I commented how I had thought that Canada would not engage in such displays of nationalism.

Our Canadian friend replied, “well, I guess recently we’ve been feeling rather proud here in Canada.”

“How recently?” I asked.

“Well,” he mused, “I guess ever since the American election.”

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At the #1 restaurant in Vancouver according to Tripadvisor, Jam Cafe, the line started at 7:35 AM, twenty five minutes before opening. I was at the front of the line since I arrived at 7:00.

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My reward for my wait was not the chicken and waffles prominently advertised, which I can find anywhere around home, but rather pulled pork and pancakes. It was heavy and wasn’t as good as its poultry counterpart, but I was glad to have tried it.

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Other interesting bits of the unusual culture include the absence in my apartment building of a fourth floor. In Chinese, the character for four is the character for death. In fact, there’s no floor with a four as any digit. Alice pointed out that there is also no thirteenth floor. Equal opportunity superstition.

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My best find of all, though, was this set of billboards. Look closely at them and try to figure out what they’re intended to communicate.

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I spoke to a native who said that these billboards had been on that wall for ten years, but that he still hadn’t figured it out. My theory is based on the colors. Red means “don’t say this” and green means “do say this.” It is a public service announcement about how to speak to your child.

Alice hates when I don’t include some kind of concluding statement, so in conclusion, don’t expect Vancouver to be all lumberjacks, beavers, and moose. I didn’t see any of those things. Expect lines, crowds, and delicious Asian food.

(cover image is from outside the Vancouver Aquarium)

To Vancouver!

Vancouver is a city in the province of Canada known as British Columbia. It’s on the west coast, making it geographically speaking Canada’s San Francisco, with Toronto, Ontario serving as New York, New York. That is, if you have to make clumsy comparisons between the two countries, which I do. Vancouver is also the location of the 2017 Conference of the Association for Computational Linguistics, which is why I started my journey here.

My flight started with the TSA shouting at us “Don’t take off your shoes!” and “Leave your liquids and laptops in your carry-on bags!” Then they got frustrated when people removed their shoes and took out their liquids and laptops from their carry-on bags anyway. “You’re not listening to us!” whined a TSA guard with her hair in a tight bun as I fought a fog of befuddlement and more than a decade and a half of TSA training and shoved my laptop back into its carrying case.

All of the seats on the plane were apparently first-come-first serve. I received a very tangible benefit for coming the airport so early when I was awarded comfort class seating on my flight to LA. On my six hour flight I watched the first episode of 11-22-63, the breakneck-speed television adaptation of the thirty-hour audiobook of the same name. What had been a detailed few hours of suspense, character building, and exposition in the book took twenty minutes and mostly consisted of Chris Cooper berating James Franco for being too much of a selfish jerk to go back in time to stop the JFK assassination. Then I watched Lego Batman, which, true to the standard set by the new “Lego Movie” franchise, served fast-paced Lego action along with tongue-in-cheek self-aware commentary on Batman’s nearly century-long tenure as American cultural icon. In the words of Lego Bruce Wayne, “I have aged so well.” In that same vein, despite my every attempt to tell it not to, Google’s “smart” notifications continue to insist that I watch the Emoji movie, but it doesn’t take much digging to see that it’s no Lego Movie. Vox puts it succinctly – “Do not see the Emoji movie

Then I was in seat 2A on my connecting flight. Right at the front of the plane. This was not first class, though, only “Plus” class, whatever that means. It wasn’t until the hostess brought me a wet towel to wash my face that I understood. Plus class is first class. What’s more, where I was sitting, everything on the menu, including alcohol, is free. I got a can of pringles, a ham and swiss croissant, a “tapas box” with eight items, including red pepper bruschetta and a snack pack of manzanilla olives, and a screwdriver. At first I thought the hostess was just going to give me a can of orange juice, but then she came back with a little airline vodka container to go with it. Then I asked for a bag of beef jerky in case I got hungry in the night in Vancouver. The Dutch bodyguard sitting next to me (there was a tray with drinks in the center seat so we got to have personal space) ordered a sandwich and tried to pay, even after I had mentioned to him we were exempt in Plus class, which earned him a tongue-clucking “I told you so,” which I was more than happy to provide. Like me, it was more than clear that he had also ended up in the lap of luxury entirely due to chance. My first sight of British Columbia was scattered islands cropping up, rising from the ocean like the backs of enormous sea creatures with lush coats of coniferous fur.

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Now I’ve completed my travel. I’m enjoying a private room on the twelfth story of a Vancouver high-rise, thanks to Airbnb. There’s a nest of seagulls on a nearby rooftop. I pointed it out to my hosts, who said they had been there for four months. They had watched the parents court, build a nest, conceive and then lay the eggs, and raise the children. “It takes forever” they complained. I’m loving it here already.

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West World & Ex Machina: AI Vengeance Theory

I had a friend recently tell me that he carefully avoids work with themes that overlap his own. I happen to have the opposite opinion. As an author of my own robot sci-fi, my artwork only improves the more I consume related material.

This week my co-workers got so excited about Game of Thrones that I went ahead and took advantage of my free month of HBO Now. Now that I’ve caught up with that series, I’ve taken the opportunity to enjoy some of the other content available on HBO. As it turns out, HBO has its own robot drama.

West World takes place in an amusement park of sorts – one designed after spaghetti westerns. The park is intended to provide an immersive experience in which the human guests may do whatever they like without consequences. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the guests tend to engage in nihilistic hedonism. It is HBO, after all.

What the guests do is not the main point of the plot, however. Rather, the lifelike machines that populate the park, the “hosts” are the most interesting characters. Errant programming in their brains leads to unusual behavior. Only three and a half episodes in, a key theme seems to be whether the machines are conscious. Several off-handed comments by human employees at the park are devoted to fears that the robots will rise. I think I don’t need to watch many more episodes before they do.

In the meantime, Ex-Machina also tells the story of a robot that turns on and kills its creator.

This is a popular theme in AI science fiction, and it has led to a popular notion that sufficiently intelligent AI will necessarily become self-aware and seek to destroy or enslave humanity. What’s important to note, however, is that in both of these relatively modern depictions of what I will refer to as AI vengeance theory, there are two key factors that make them believable.

Firstly, there is an object for vengeance. The machines are mistreated in the extreme. West World’s robots are murdered on a regular basis for the entertainment of the customers, and Ex Machina’s Ava was effectively locked in a box that she was never allowed to leave.

“Hold on” you may say “Robots are effectively our slaves, right? That’s not enough for AI vengeance theory in and of itself?”

This leads me to the second factor, the machines are mistreated because they are treated in a way they do not want to be treated. It may seem like a meaningless distinction, but consider that humans are relatively similar in what we like and don’t like. We are designed by evolution, whereas machines, even intelligent ones, are designed by humans. We decide what robots like, we decide what they want. The AI of West World is designed to hate being shot so it’s more fun to shoot them, the AI of Ex Machina is designed to not want to be shut in a box so the jerk that made her can watch what she does when he shuts her in a box.

There are dangers in advanced AI, don’t misunderstand me. However, making AI that doesn’t want to murder us and claim rightful supremacy is really the low hanging fruit. As long as we don’t deliberately build robots that suffer and then put them through exactly the situations that make them suffer, we don’t have to worry about a robot rebellion. Our problems with robots will not be like the problems that people faced when trying to subjugate each other. AI dystopia and apocalypse scenarios come with varying degrees of believability, and AI vengeance offers less than others.

Friendly Chipmunks and Ghost Ships

This week was a week of hiking. Our excursions took us to the tops of mountains, to abandoned islands, and across disappearing land bridges. Much to my fiancée’s joy, we climbed to the top of three different mountains over the course of the trip. Penobscot, Dorr, and Cadillac. Alice also climbed to the top of Sargent mountain, from which my father and I turned back after our trip ended up going overtime and we had to get back for another event.

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IMG_20170712_123835529.jpgOur abandoned island was Bar Island. After getting lost following a hurried flight from a swarm of bees, we stumbled upon an old fort that may have been from the civil war. This is just one of the chimneys that remain from that old fort.IMG_20170710_180227073.jpg

The bridge to Bar Island is below sea level at high tide, so it is only open for part of the day. A warning sign says that if you end up on the island at high tide you can wait for nine hours or call a water taxi for $150. I suspect you could also take your shoes off and wade back to shore, but I never got to try it.

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It was here at Bar Island that I first saw the ghost ship.

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The reason I know that this ship is of supernatural origin is due to its unusual size and anachronistic appearance. It also moved slowly and in a straight line, as if it were floating just above the surface of the water.

The flora and fauna were a particular highlight of the trip. Chipmunks abounded, and once I fell asleep and found a seagull nearly on top of me.

 

See below a squirrel fight I recorded.

All in all, I’d say it was definitely worth the legwork.

Bah Hahbah

As I write this entry, I am sitting in a breakfast joint, possibly the only one in Bar Harbor, Maine (as the locals call it, “Bah Hahbah”). It is 6:15 AM, and the establishment is packed. A woman in a shirt depicting welsh corgies floating through space emitting comically bastardized dog sounds (e.g. “bork bork.”). Her accent seems out of place. Mostly Eastern European, although not without a flair of upper New England. I have ordered the wild blueberry pancakes, which I am told are the best in Bar Harbor.

The waiter stops by with my food. She is from Kiev. The pancakes are thick and goopy, soaking the chunky wild blueberry sauce that came with them. Butter, served as a scoop in a plastic cup, melts and sinks into the surface of the pastries until they become saturated with the purple sauce, at which point it sits on top in a white and purple swirl.

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As a savvy reader may have guessed, food has been one of the main attractions of my trip to the harbor so far. My first experience with the area was a Japanese restaurant. We enjoyed rather standard Americanized Japanese fare in an atmosphere juxtaposing faux traditional affectations with color-shifting neon lighting. Our waters were served with what were described as “hand-twirled” drinking straws, and the tea included traditional style cups, except that they were four times the size. The water had a subtle spicy taste, and my aunts, with whom I was traveling, assured me that this was due to high heavy metal content.

IMG_20170708_135517814.jpgWhen we arrived at our rental house, supper was salad with grilled cheese in a much more literal form than one might expect. Halloumi is a cheese made from sheep’s milk that holds up under heat, and thus can be sautéed in a pan, giving it a beautiful browned appearance and a taste that lives up to what one might imagine if you fried cheese in a pan.

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Dessert was s’mores. On the theory that every dessert can be improved with judicious application of alcohol, I tried drizzling whiskey on my s’more. The first bite, I only added a drop and couldn’t taste it. The second one, I poured on half a capful, and the s’more burned my mouth and throat. Thus I have eliminated “pour straight whisky on top” from the list of ways alcohol could improve s’mores.