fighting the lack of good ideas

1421 by gavin menzies

I enjoy histories – especially when delivered in the format that Gavin Menzies employed in “1421 – The Year China Discovered America”.

The only other history I have read in the past 5 years I can recall reading so fast was Gideon’s Spies.

Gavin makes a compelling presentation, interpretation, application, and conclusion of a host of evidence that seems to indicate that the title is what really happened ~600 years ago, and that it was due to a freak storm and fire in The Forbidden City that the records of the great expedition were destroyed by the emperor’s counterparts in society, the mandarins.

Mr Menzies spent his career as a submariner in the British Navy – a fact which comes up several times during the book, and helps to explain many of the connections he was able to draw when reviewing the historical maps, journals, reports, etc.

1421 is a veritable cornucopia of names and places – European and Chinese explorers, exotic locales (many of which are referenced by the names the various countries used for them), foreign potentates, trade routes, etc. It might behoove one to keep notes when reading this book – or at the very least get used to flipping back and forth to keep track of everyone’s names 🙂

When I bought 1421, I also bought Mr Menzies’ second book, “1434 – The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance”. I can’t wait to read that one to see where his research has led.

  • Quality of writing: 5/5
  • Quality of content: at least 4/5
  • Entertainment value: 4/5
  • Plausibility: 5/5
  • Historicity: likely 5/5
  • Overall: 4.5/5


the cuckoo’s egg by cliff stoll

Several years ago, Cliff Stoll’s amazing, true-life account of espionage and system administration in the 1980s was recommended to me.

Mr Stoll started his professional life in astronomy, but, due to budget cuts at Lawrence Berkeley Lab, he moved into systems administration.

Interspersed through the book are both political commentaries (he was after all at Berkeley), and helpful hints for even non-techies. For example, the chocolate chip cookie recipe or the helpful note that you should NEVER use a microwave to dry-out your wet sneakers. Ever. It is just Bad News™.

The title, “The Cuckoo’s Egg”, is a  reference to how the cuckoo bird goes about raising her young: she doesn’t hatch her own eggs, but rather lays them in other birds’ nests, and lets them do all the work for her. (Sounds like another bird of Dr Seuss fame, but that will have to wait for another day.)

From start to finish, Cliff’s tale of spotting an accounting error (apparently in the Bad Old Days™, departments were billed based on how much computer time they used – a singularly silly approach to computing looked-at from the mindset of a person living and working in 2011), to tracking this phantom user who utilized exploits in common applications, to finding out that he not only wasn’t at Berkeley, he wasn’t from the west coast, nor, ultimately, even from this country, is a grand tour of  both computing history and old-fashioned detective work.

Along with Without Remorse, The Cuckoo’s Egg is a novel I have reread a couple times. It has also been on my standard list of books all techies should read for more than a decade. Even though the story happened a quarter century ago, it is still a thrilling read (ok, so the bit about dial-up access seems outlandishly dated, but that’s OK, too).

  • Quality of writing: 4/5
  • Entertainment value: 5/5
  • Historicity: 5/5
  • Overall: 4/5

jeopardy tryouts

Jeopardy! has been a favorite of mine for years: it’s the reason I eat fast.

I’ve tried-out a couple times in the past – once in person at Southpoint Mall in Durham NC and once online. Tonight I did again – so here’s hoping I did well enough 🙂

melting pot

Normally I don’t like reviewing chains, but The Melting Pot is different. It’s a fondue place, and is a blast to eat at.

The first time I went was with my wife and parents-in-law the weekend before Thanksgiving. We were looking for a “fun” place to eat, and had been thinking about trying a fondue place for a while, so we went. We ordered a pair of their “Big Night Out France” dinners – two four-course fondue extravaganzas that allowed us to mix and match our “cooking styles” (in other words, the broths in which you cook your meat chunks).

So the cool thing about a fondue place is that you cook your own food at your table. The ingredients are brought out raw, and you spear them and set them in the near-boiling broth for 30-90 seconds (as done as you want). The four-course dinner started with a cheese appetizer round with chunks of bread and fruit to dip. Second was a selection of salads for each person at the table, and then came the coup de gras – the meat round! (My wife would say that the best part is the dessert, but she’s wrong 😉 )

The meat comes out raw and seasoned in a variety of marinades (we had duck l’orange, peppered sirloin, marinated fillet, chicken, shrimp, and lobster tail). There are also a host of sauces that can be added post-cooking to the different meats: far more than I could recall in detail 🙂

Our evening out was a blast – while we were worried that it would be hyper-formal or “too fancy”, it was fun. Fun enough that a couple weeks later I took my wife back for a smaller meal for just the two of us. The second time we went there was a small bit of excitement a few tables away from us: a couple on a date got engaged, and left with stars in their eyes.

Melting Pot is not a place I would recommend on a routine basis – full meals run in the neighborhood of $50 a person – but it is a lot of fun, and definitely worth going to for special events.

whose phone is it, anyway?

Several men are in the locker room of a golf club. A cell phone on a bench rings and a man engages the hands free speaker-function and begins to talk. Everyone else in the room stops to listen.

MAN: Hello?
WOMAN: Honey, it’s me. Are you at the club?
MAN: Yep, sure am…..
WOMAN: I’m at the mall now and found this beautiful leather coat. It’s only $1,000. Is it OK if I buy it?
MAN: Sure, ..go ahead if you like it that much…
WOMAN: I also stopped by the Mercedes dealership and saw the new 2010 models. I saw one I really liked.
MAN: How much?
WOMAN: $85,000
MAN: OK, but for that price I want it with all the options…
WOMAN: Great! Oh, and one more thing . The house we wanted last year is back on the market. They’re asking $950,000…down from $1.500,000
MAN: Well, then go ahead and give them an offer, but just offer $900,000.
WOMAN: OK. I’ll see you later! I love you!
MAN: Bye, I love you, too. The man hangs up.

The other men in the locker room are looking at him in astonishment.

Then he smiles and asks: Anyone know who this phone belongs to?”

ninja service

Saturday evening I took my fiancee to Cumberland Falls Park just a little way from where she grew up outside Corbin KY.

We decided to have a light dinner at the DuPont Lodge to enjoy the gorgeous view of the river on a picture-perfect spring evening.

The food was good – nothing amazing, but that’s not why you go to the Falls. You go for the views. The dinner buffet is a very reasonable price, and well-worth partaking-in to enjoy the trees budding-out.

What impressed me most about the restaurant was the completely unobtrusive service our waitress provided: she removed empty plates and refilled drinks with us barely noticing she had come by. Our glasses were never empty more than a minute, and plates sat on the table for what seemed like only seconds before they vanished.

If you have the chance to go, you absolutely should: not for the food, but for the view – and the service.

oompa loompas

Oompa Loompas:
Oompa loompa doopadee doo
I’ve got a perfect puzzle for you
Oompa loompa doopadee dee
If you are wise you’ll listen to me
What do you get when you guzzle down sweets?
Eating as much as an elephant eats
What are you at getting terribly fat?
What do you think will come of that?
I don’t like the look of it
Oompa loompa doopadee dah
If you’re not greedy, you will go far
You will live in happiness too
Like the Oompa Loompa doopadee doo
Doopadee doo

Oompa Loompas:
Oompa Loompa doopadee do
I’ve got another puzzle for you
Oompa loompa doopadee dee
If you are wise you’ll listen to me
Gum chewing’s fine when it’s once in a while
It stops you from smoking and brightens your smile
But it’s repulsive, revolting, and wrong
chewing and chewing all day long
The way that a cow does
Oompa Loompa doopadee dah
Given good manners, you will go far
You will live in happiness too
Like the Oompa Loompa doopadee doo

Oompa Loompas:
Oompa loompa doopadee do
I’ve got another puzzle for you
Oompa loompa doopadah dee
If you are wise you’ll listen to me
What do you get from a glut of TV?
A pain in the neck and an IQ of 3
Why don’t you try simply reading a book?
Or could you just not bear to look?
You’ll get no
You’ll get no
You’ll get no
You’ll get no
You’ll get no commercials
Oompa loompa doopadee dah
If you’re not greedy you will go far
You will live in happiness too
Like the
Oompa loompa doopadee do