Friday, February 25, 2022

Star Trek: The Inner Light

Episode: "The Inner Light"
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 5, Episode 25
Original Air Date: June 1, 1992

The Enterprise discovers a mysterious alien probe.  The probe emits a particle beam which penetrates the ship's shields and zaps Captain Picard rendering him unconscious, at least from the crew's perspective...

Picard is transported to another life on another world.  He is Kamin on the relatively primitive Kataan.  He is married.  While he resists the new life at first, eventually he accepts it as his new reality.  For 40 years.  He has meaningful friendships, children, grandchildren.  He learns to play the flute.  He offers what scientific knowledge he has to help save a dying world.  Eventually, just before his adventure ends, this second family explains everything: before their world was destroyed by a supernova, the Kataanians sent out the probe to find someone like him with whom they could share their culture.

"The Inner Light" is named for a Beatles song written by George Harrison, in turn inspired by Laozi's Tao Te Ching, the most important book most people have never read.  Harrison's lyrics were based on the following passage:
Without going outside his door, one understands (all that takes place) under the sky; without looking out from his window, one sees the Tao of Heaven. The farther that one goes out (from himself), the less he knows. Therefore the sages got their knowledge without travelling; gave their (right) names to things without seeing them; and accomplished their ends without any purpose of doing so.
"The Inner Light" is a beautiful story.  It's a popular choice for best Trek episode, not just for NextGen but for the entire franchise.  Obtrusive though their approach certainly is, the gift the Kataanians grant Picard is profound.  As Star Trek continues to grow in the 2020s, I would love to see deeper exploration of alien cultures and this episode provides an avenue for how that could work.  The ex-pat perspective can be a meaningful one.  My one regret is that the Kataanians are, at least physically, human.

I might be willing to jump on the best ever bandwagon if not for this: while it is an outstanding stand-alone story in its own right, I believe that in order to fully appreciate what "The Inner Light" is truly about, you need broader context.  It is a glimpse of the other life Jean-Luc Picard could have lived.  It is, in many ways, a sequel to Season 4's "Family."  What if he'd stayed on the family farm instead of joining Starfleet?  All of his fussing about water and soil on Kataan - couldn't he just as easily have devoted that same energy to growing grapes for wine in France?  It's a nice life he has on Kataan.  A wonderful life.  As viewers, we are certainly grateful Picard made the choice he did.  But in "The Inner Light," we feel with him the cost of that choice.

Acting Notes

Margot Rose plays the role of Eline, Kamin's wife.  She was born July 17, 1956 in Pittsburgh.  She trained at Interlochen, Yale and North Carolina School of the Arts.  

In addition to extensive stage work, Rose has guest-starred on numerous TV series including Hill Street Blues, E/R and The West Wing.  "The Inner Light" is the first of her two Trek appearances.  Films have included 48 Hrs. (in scenes with Denise Crosby), A Civil Action and Brewster's Millions.  She's a composer, too, having written the score for the film Sordid Lives and the subsequent television series of the same name.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Squid Mixes: Cider Battles II

This week, two of our previous battle winners go head to head.  Woodchuck Barrel Select challenges our reigning Swizzle Champ, Shacksbury's Lo-Ball Barrel-Aged Highball Cider.

I noted an interesting molasses flavor in the Barrel Select this time but it wasn't enough to dethrone the champ.  The Lo-Ball is drier and, at least to this point, that seems to work better in the Swizzle as it allows the other ingredients more room to play.  My wife still doesn't find it appley enough.  So, it's good but not perfect.

Winner and Still Swizzle Champion: Shacksbury's Lo-Ball Barrel-Aged Highball Cider.

Friday, February 18, 2022

Star Trek: The Next Phase

Episode: "The Next Phase"
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 5, Episode 24
Original Air Date: May 18, 1992

Our heroes come to the rescue of a Romulan ship.  In a transporter snafu, La Forge and Ro are lost, believed dead.  In reality, they're stuck out of phase.  They wander the Enterprise watching their friends deal with the presumed loss while also struggling to communicate with them about how to fix the problem.

At first blush, I'm not a huge fan of the concept for this one.  However, as the story progresses, discussions about how we deal with death, both culturally and individually, grow deeply interesting.  The wrinkle of a Romulan officer being stuck out of phase with our friends adds excitement to the mix, too.

Though intended as a cost-saving bottle story, "The Next Phase" turned out to be the most expensive episode of the season due to the special effects required for the phasing.  But there was a payoff.  "The Next Phase" won an Emmy for Sound Mixing.

Acting Notes

Thomas Kopache played the role of Mirok, the science officer aboard the Romulan ship.  This is Kapache's first of five Star Trek appearances.  He was born October 17, 1945 in Manchester, New Hampshire.  He has also had guest appearances on Babylon 5, The West Wing and Malcolm in the Middle.  The big screen resume is relatively modest, though he did appear as a shoe salesman in No Country for Old Men.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

On the Coffee Table: Dale Carnegie

Title: How to Win Friends and Influence People
Author: Dale Carnegie

via Amazon

How to Win Friends and Influence People is a self-help classic.  First published in 1930, its advice still has merit nearly a century later.  What's more, many of the books I've read in the genre obviously mimic its structure and its persuasive elements.  Anecdotal evidence - as opposed to anything backed by data - abounds.  The style is conversational, engaging and, despite my skepticism going in, quite convincing.

Carnegie got his start in this biz teaching public speaking and eventually expanded to create a series of workshops to help people work more effectively with others.  In truth, his advice isn't complicated: listen to people, be positive rather than critical, prop people up rather than shooting them down, be sincere.  I can attest that at least some of it works because, even though I didn't learn it from Carnegie, I already use some of his principles.  One I use and and encourage others to use: if you can, when making a proposal to a superior/customer/client/spouse/whomever, always present it as a solution to their problem rather than your own.  People hear you differently when they feel you've considered their point of view.  Some of the advice can come across as manipulative but the sincerity is key to making it work.

So, since I know some of it works, I see no reason not to give his other ideas a shot.  My industry, education, is as political as ever and effectively advocating for yourself, your program, your students, your professional community, your right to exist is a vital skill for any teacher.  I have nothing to lose by trying new tactics.  So, I'm likely to keep the book around for a while.

Carnegie writes a lot about his inter-personal skill heroes.  Abe Lincoln's his favorite, though he also refers a lot to Andrew Carnegie (no relation), Ralph Waldo Emerson and Teddy Roosevelt.  Given the time of origin, it's not surprising that attitudes towards gender roles and mental illness are rather dated.  Somewhat jarringly, he includes an inspiring story about Stevie Wonder.  Dale Carnegie died in 1955.  How does he know about a pop star who was only five years old at that time?  Well, as his former wife explains in the forward, the book has been updated numerous times since, even after his death.

Anyway, it's a fun read - better than I was expecting.  And it might even prove useful.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Squid Mixes: Classic Champagne Cocktail

A Classic Champagne Cocktail combines Champagne (or sparkling wine; I used Prosecco), bitters and a sugar cube with a long, thin lemon twist.  My recipe, written by Rebekah Peppler, came from New York Times Cooking.  The drink was first mentioned in Jerry Thomas's How to Mix Drinks, published in 1862.  The standard bitters choice is Angostura but Peppler recommends splitting it with a lesser-used bitters.  We tried both grapefruit and cherry.

As previously discussed here, my wife doesn't like having sugar cubes around the house - too tempting for snacking.  So I was a little surprised when she suggested the recipe.

The drink is very nice.  Splitting the bitters is the right choice.  Neither the grapefruit nor the cherry competed exactly but straight Angostura would have been too much and the other presented a pleasant hint of something.  The final, bitters soaked sugar dregs are quite yummy either way.

Friday, February 11, 2022

Star Trek: I, Borg

Episode: "I, Borg"
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 5, Episode 23
Original Air Date: May 10, 1992

An away team discovers an injured Borg drone (Jonathan Del Arco) in a ship wreckage.  While Riker wishes to abandon him for the Borg to collect and Worf advises killing him outright, Dr. Crusher's compassion prevails.  The drone is brought aboard the Enterprise to heal.  Both Picard and Guinan must confront their traumatic histories with the Borg.  Meanwhile, in his effort to create a virus to implant in the prisoner, La Forge befriends the drone and even gives him a name: Hugh.  Hugh emerges as an individual and that changes everything.

Without question, this is one of the greats.  If "Darmok" is the entire Star Trek concept boiled down to a 42-minute vignette, "I, Borg" is the episode which affirms that concept's adherence to the most important Next Generation story.  After "The Best of Both Worlds," the writers weren't sure how to bring the Borg back.  What do you do with an adversary who is darn near invincible?  Writer RenĂ© Echevarria found the answer.  When conventional methods won't work, you find the Star Trek way to win.

And let's be clear, the original virus idea was neither conventional nor Star Trek.  It would have been a flat out war crime.  With all its tolerance preaching, Trek still tends to view alien species in monochromatic terms, especially the recurring antagonists.  The Klingons are all this way.  The Romulans are all that way.  It's human nature.  When all you know of a culture is its military, you tend to miss the nuances.  But surely there are peace-loving civilians on Klingon.  No doubt, there are artists and musicians on Romulus who have never touched a phaser.  To paraphrase Fareed Zakaria (I think), most intelligent beings want a better life for their children and for someone to pick up the trash and fix the potholes.  But Trek rarely digs that deep.

(Yes, DS9 will eventually try.  But even that series could have done more.)

The Borg are the ultimate expression of this unfortunate Star Trek tendency.  In the collective, the individual is irrelevant.  The genocidal impulse defines the entire existence of their culture.  As such, biological warfare briefly passes for a justifiable course of action.

The brilliance of "I, Borg" lies in its challenge to the narrative concept of the Borg.  Hugh learns from Geordi that not everyone wishes to be assimilated - a genuine surprise to him.  From Guinan, Hugh learns that resistance is, in fact, not always futile.  From Hugh, the others are able to see past the desire for vengeance.  As he softens, they soften.  

The friendship between Hugh and Geordi is genuinely touching.  Hugh turning his head to Geordi one last time as he and the other drones are transported away...  It's one of the most moving moments in the franchise.

Del Arco nailed it, one of the best guest star performances in the NextGen run.  We'll dig deeper into his story in a moment but this is worth sharing first because of its direct pertinence to the narrative.  Del Arco based his portrayal of Hugh on his first partner, Eddie, who had recently died of AIDS.  He channeled his own grief into the part as well.

Acting Notes

Jonathan Del Arco was born in Uruguay, March 7, 1966.  His family moved to Port Chester, New York when he was ten years old.  He entered the theatre world straight out of high school, winning a part in a touring production of Torch Song Trilogy.  He made his Broadway debut in 1988 in Spoils of War.  

Television work began in 1990.  In addition to Trek, he made guest appearances on Miami Vice, The Wonder Years and Blossom.  Later, he played the same principal role, Dr. Morales, in two separate series: The Closer and Major Crimes.  He has, to date, made five more Trek appearances, four times as Hugh - once in NextGen, three times in Picard.  Jeri Ryan (Seven of Nine) is one of his best friends.  He helped her prepare to reprise her own Voyager role in Picard.

Del Arco is a prominent political activist, particularly favoring both environmental and gay rights issues.  He has worked on numerous Presidential and Senatorial campaigns.  He is married to Kyle Fritz, a talent manager.

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Squid Mixes: Cider Battles

Our quest for the perfect D-Day Swizzle continues.  Next up in our cider battles, two Woodchuck products...

Barrel Select vs. Sangria

The Barrel Select is a barrel-aged cider marketed as a "fan favorite."  The Sangria includes grape skin extract for color.  Both in the cocktail and on their own, we preferred the Barrel Select.  The Sangria is simply too sweet.  To me, its flavor compares unfavorably to Emergen-C, raspberry flavor.

Winner, Swizzle and Sipper Categories: Woodchuck Barrel Select

Monday, February 7, 2022

On the Coffee Table: Hellraisers

Title: Hellraisers
Writer: Robert Sellers
Artist: JAKe

via Amazon

In a graphic novel Christmas Carol parody, spiraling alcoholic Martin is visited by four spirits (Ha - just got the double-entendre): Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed and Peter O'Toole, notorious Hollywood boozers all.  In turn, they regale him with tales of debauchery - not exactly tales of regret for any of them, interestingly.

Before we go on, a quick disclaimer: I know I write a lot about alcoholic beverages.  I enjoy drinking them and enjoy making them perhaps even more.  But folks, I am not advocating inebriation.  Let's be careful out there.  And if you or someone you love needs help, get it.

As I said to my wife the other night, Hellraisers makes me grateful that I am not an alcoholic womanizer.  At least one of the ghosts - Richard Harris, I think - says something along the lines of "people regret it when they don't live the wild life in their youth."  I won't play the saint.  There were times in my life when I bent further in those directions than I do now.  And it's not too late.  I could still get ripped every night and cheat on my wife but seriously, who has the energy?

Joking aside, when I think of the less responsible times in my life, I don't exactly miss them.  When I think wistfully of youth, I think of other things.  Might there have been ego satisfaction in more women?  I suppose.  But I'll take quality over quantity.  And once you start down that road, how many is enough?  Or is enough not the point?  And how much does betrayal become a permanent feature in all of your relationships?  Sex is great but love is better, no contest.  More booze?  Would have just meant more hangovers and blacking out on the highlights.  I'm always shocked by the sheer volume alcoholics consume.  How do you stay conscious long enough to drink that much?  Drugs?  I suppose there are experiences I missed out on.  But they're also addictions avoided.

Here's the truth I've learned: you can never be sure what you're going to regret later.  And that's why life is hard.  Whatever I might miss from younger days, I know with certainty that I'm happier now.  The predictability of middle age is delightfully comfortable.

Sorry, back to the book...

The tales of hard living are entertaining to a point but each of them ultimately sad.  Happy marriages do not mesh well with the way these men lived.  It's fun to visit the films they made: Lawrence of Arabia, Oliver, Becket, Harry Potter.  One certainly feels sympathy for the people who chose to work with them.  The book is well executed.  The art - black and white, bold lines, sharp angles - feeds the quasi-trippy, vaguely angry atmosphere.  The cautionary tale is effective.

Friday, February 4, 2022

Star Trek: Imaginary Friend

Episode: "Imaginary Friend"
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 5, Episode 22
Original Air Date: May 4, 1992

Clara Sutter is a young child adjusting to life aboard the Enterprise after loads of moving around - the lot of military kids the world over.  One day, her imaginary friend, Isabella, becomes real and she's bringing trouble.  Isabella and her fellow nebula-dwelling beings threaten to destroy the Enterprise.

It's a Star Trek story about children so, um, no thanks.  However, I will give credit to Shay Astar (Isabella) for pulling off the Stepford Child Gone Horribly Wrong act quite capably.  Always worth pointing out: it's not the kids' fault that the writing and the direction are inadequate to their needs.

Acting Notes

Noley Thornton (Clara) had a short but reasonably successful acting career over eight years, 1990-98.  She was nominated for two Young Artist Awards: one for the lead in a Heidi miniseries and one for her role in The Martin Short Show.  "Imaginary Friend" is her first of two Trek appearances.  She played Taya in DS9's "Shadowplay."

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Bitters of the Month: Brimstone

via Etsy

Arcana Botanica is based in Burlington, Vermont.  They produce, among other things, herbal infusion kits for cocktail bitters.  We recently tried their Brimstone Bitters.  Making the bitters is easy: all of the herbs come in a muslin bag which you steep in vodka for 24 hours.  Far more challenging, actually, was finding a dropper bottle for dispensing.  I work in a school so my first attempt was "borrowing" a dropper from one of my science teacher colleagues, though the one I tried was cracked (the dropper, not the teacher).  Fortunately, one of our local grocery chains has an extensive apothecary section - bingo!

First, we tried the bitters in an Old Fashioned per the producer's suggestion.  We did a taste test between the Brimstone and our usual Regan's Orange.  No preference.  The Brimstone definitely brings some spice to the party which was interesting.  But the Regan's is cheaper so, advantage Orange.

Trying the bitters on its own (with gin) was a bit of an adventure.  Truthfully, I had to water it down quite a lot before it was even drinkable.  So spicy!  Big picture, that makes the Brimstone a good find.  I've had several bitters which were a little disappointing in terms of heat delivered - the Aztec Chocolate and the Spiced Cherry come to mind.  The Brimstone would combine nicely with those, I think.

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

On the Coffee Table: The MVP Machine

Title: The MVP Machine: How Baseball's New Noncoformists Are Using Data to Build Better Players
Authors: Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik

via Amazon

Baseball's Moneyball era is over.  Billy Beane's revolutionary concepts for evaluating player talent and how various individual strengths contribute to runs and ultimately wins on the field are no longer the exclusive purview of a select few.  Every team is using data these days and in fact, quite a lot of them are using the information a lot more effectively than Beane's Oakland A's ever have.  The Tampa Bay Rays are probably setting the standard these days.

A new revolution is underway.  Technology allows for the minute examination of player performance - pitch spin, launch angle, etc. - in more exacting detail than ever before.  Pair this newly available data with a far more prevalent growth mindset and player development becomes the new frontier.  A player's capacities are no longer a fixed point, nor do the growth or degradation of such skills follow predictable patterns.  Teams and players who are open to new approaches have gained significant advantages.  Minor leaguers who were never even considered prospects are being elected to All-Star teams.  Seasoned veterans are finding new life late in their careers.  Teams like the Astros have transformed from eternal doormats into perennial powers.  Coaching, scouting and administrative staffs are being overhauled at all levels of the game - out with the old guard, in with the new, many of the new folks having never played even high school baseball.  Shocker: even a few women have made their way into the coaching ranks.  It's a new day and anyone stuck in the ways of the past is quickly being left in the dust.

In their book The MVP Machine, Lindbergh and Sawchik document the sport's new wave, offering anecdotal evidence from all over the baseball world.  In particular, they focus on the journeys of Trevor Bauer, a data-obsessed Cy Young-caliber pitcher, and Kyle Boddy, one of many independent coach-consultants from outside the professional ranks who have revolutionized player development.  Major League franchises are quickly finding that investing in player development is the most cost effective way to improve their teams.  In the more progressive systems, every player, even those not believed destined for The Show, is considered worthy of data-driven training.  And the philosophy goes beyond the physical athletic processes.  For the first time, teams are feeding their minor leaguers on a nutritious diet rather than expecting them to survive on a minimal salary and per diem.  My personal hero in the book is Doris Gonzalez who works with the Astros' many Spanish-speaking players to help them assimilate, learn the language and quite often, stick with baseball when the going gets tough.  Many of her former charges, now Major League superstars, call her "Mom."  In short, learning to play professional baseball has become a more thoughtful, methodical, healthy and humane process.

There are downsides.  The emphasis on technology has made baseball a more expensive sport to play, even at the youngest levels.  With the increased importance of travel teams, more economically challenged families have been gradually priced out of youth sports over the past few decades.  The expensive tech has only widened the gap.

A surprise gift for me: eleven pages of the afterword are devoted to my team, the Baltimore Orioles.  The Orioles now are where the Astros were ten years ago, scraping the bottom of the standings barrel, minimizing payrolls while stockpiling high draft picks in hopes of a brighter future.  Fortunately, they have former Astro executives leading the way: general manager Mike Elias and assistant general manager for analytics, Sig Mejdal.  Both men are quoted extensively earlier in the book, in fact, as pioneers in player development while they were in Houston.  

So far, despite the terrible win-loss records for the varsity team, the O's are headed in the right direction.  The Birds now have the top-ranked farm system in baseball, including both the highest-rated position player prospect - catcher Adley Rutschman, future face of the franchise - AND the highest-rated pitching prospect, righty Grayson Rodriguez.  Meanwhile, a couple of previously undervalued players have reinvented themselves.  Lindbergh and Sawchik write extensively about John Means, a lefty pitcher who learned to use his best pitch, a change-up, more often and more effectively.  Pitchers using their best pitches more often is a major theme of the book.  This past July, Means pitched a complete game no-hitter, the first for Baltimore since Jim Palmer did it in 1969.  2021's biggest surprise, too late to be included in the book, was Cedric Mullins, the Orioles' center fielder and lead off man.  Long a switch hitter, Mullins converted to batting left-handed exclusively and made adjustments to his swing.  The result: a journeyman struggling to stay at the major league level became a 30/30 man, hitting 30 homers and stealing 30 bases.  

Baseball season is drawing near.  I must decide whether or not I want to subscribe to this season which would allow me to watch all (or nearly all) of the Orioles' games.  I did it in 2020, the COVID-shortened season, and thoroughly enjoyed it.   I didn't in 2021 and didn't miss it too much.  But the next stage of the Orioles rebuild is set to begin this year.  Both Rutschman and Rodriguez should debut for the top flight this season.  It may still be a while before Baltimore is genuinely good but the seeds are being planted.  And who knows who this year's surprise might be?  The MVP Machine has provided new perspectives for watching baseball, from the best teams and players to the weakest.  I think I'm in.

Now we just need to get this lockout resolved.