Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Kodos

Who controls the British crown?
Who keeps the metric system down?
We do! We do!
Who leaves Atlantis off the maps?
Who keeps the martians under wraps?
We do! We do!
Who holds back the electric car?
Who made Steve Guttenberg a star?
We do! We do!
Who robs the cave fish of their sight?
Who rigs every Oscars night?
We do! We do!

“Treehouse of Horror VII”

Who? Well, it’s the Stonecutters Masons Illuminati Knights Templar Members of the Eulogean Club. In case you haven’t noticed, in the past overlord election both candates were members of Skull and Crossbones. I wonder what it was like to be freshly tapped bonesmen at the time of the election. There must have been no suspense: one way or the other there would be a bonesman president.

In my mind, as far as secret societies go, Skull and Bones is the coolest one. It found exactly the right balance of secrecy/publicity. What fun is it to be in a secret society that is so secret that nobody knows how cool it is? Bones have alway had a double standard: on one hand the members are sworn to absolute secrecy, on the other, the tapping process (invitation of new members) was almost always a very public act. Their meeting place is not a secret underground bunker, but a huge very well known, although mostly windowless clubhouse building, The Tomb. George Bush Presidential Library proudly shows a Bones yearbook photo, complete with a grandfather clock and (supposedly, but not likely) Geronimo’s skull stolen from the grave by Prescott Bush.

Yearbook photos like this show up in the stranges places, like this livejournal community post. I was almost expecting to see Montgomery Burns (who’s known to be a member) in those pictures.

The coolest amenity is not the Tomb or the loads of morally questionable and/or stolen stuff inside (there are reports that they stole and kept things like Elihu Yale’s tombstone and eat off of Hitler’s china). It’s their own fricking private island. It’s not in the most convinient or most secluded location – there are literally thousands of islands in Thousand Islands.

My favorite quote from “Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, the Ivy League, and the Hidden Paths of Power” is this:

Guests sleep in cots in cabins-granted, some of them are double-bedded cots — if they can slumber through the blare of the tour boat that sometimes circles the island with a guide shouting through a megaphone, “And there is the secret island that belongs to Skull and Bones!”

Yes, being “secret” like this, famously and loudly is probably the Bones’ greatest achievement. That, and the three Bonesman presidents of the United States. And the innumerable CIA directors, senators, judges and other notables.

Anyway, a lot of people own islands, most of which are cheaper than an average Manhattan 2-bedroom apartment. Computer scientist Ed Fredkin has one and so does denim fetishist inventor Dean Kamen. And a lot of societies, secret or otherwise have cool clubhouses (at Harvard, even The Harvard Lampoon has a cool castle). See, you don’t need to belong to free-world-ruling elite to enjoy cool stuff like that.

Fancy societies with awesome amenities seem to be a perogative of those with Ivy League education. I really don’t have that. It’s wasn’t Andover and Yale for me. It was Sheepshead Bay High School (one of the so-called dirty dozen, 13 worst schools in New York) and Brooklyn College.

I don’t agree with those pooh-poohing American educational system, as my experience with it was very positive. In the high school I was able to take many college level classes with many outstanding teachers. And Brooklyn College is not on Princeton Review’s top 10 best value colleges list for nothing.

Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age

“The computer world is like an intellectual Wild West, in which you can shoot anyone you wish with your ideas, if you’re willing to risk the consequences.” –from “Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age,” by Paul Graham We are living in the computer age, in a world increasingly designed and engineered by computer programmers and software designers, by people who call themselves hackers. Who are these people, what motivates them, and why should you care? Consider these facts: Everything around us is turning into computers. Your typewriter is gone, replaced by a computer. Your phone has turned into a computer. So has your camera. Soon your TV will. Your car was not only designed on computers, but has more processing power in it than a room-sized mainframe did in 1970. Letters, encyclopedias, newspapers, and even your local store are being replaced by the Internet. “Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age,” by Paul Graham, explains this world and the motivations of the people who occupy it. In clear, thoughtful prose that draws on illuminating historical examples, Graham takes readers on an unflinching exploration into what he calls “an intellectual Wild West.” The ideas discussed in this book will have a powerful and lasting impact on how we think, how we work, how we develop technology, and how we live. Topics include the importance of beauty in software design, how to make wealth, heresy and free speech, the programming language renaissance, the open-source movement, digital design, internet startups, and more. And here’s a taste of what you’ll find in “Hackers & Painters”: “In most fields the great work is done early on. The paintings made between 1430 and1500 are still unsurpassed. Shakespeare appeared just as professional theater was being born, and pushed the medium so far that every playwright since has had to live in his shadow. Albrecht Durer did the same thing with engraving, and Jane Austen with the novel. Over and over we see the same pattern. A new medium appears, and people are so excited about it that they explore most of its possibilities in the first couple generations. Hacking seems to be in this phase now. Painting was not, in Leonardo’s time, as cool as his work helped make it. How cool hacking turns out to be will depend on what we can do with this new medium.” Andy Hertzfeld, co-creator of the Macintosh computer, says about “Hackers & Painters”: “Paul Graham is a hacker, painter and a terrific writer. His lucid, humorous prose is brimming with contrarian insight and practical wisdom on writing great code at the intersection of art, science and commerce.” Paul Graham, designer of the new Arc language, was the creator of Yahoo Store, the first web-based application. In addition to his PhD in Computer Science from Harvard, Graham also studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design and the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence.

A Jaunt To Boston

I dread the question “how was your weekend” because I usually spend my weekends not going anywhere. But this time I have enough to do a whole “how I spent my weekend” post as my wife dragged me to Boston. She wanted to see Russian bells at the Lowell House in Harvard as well as break the loosely stay at home cycle that I am so prone to.

We took a Fung Wah bus to Boston (“Licensed and permitted by Federal Highway Administration” and everything). Fung Wah is one of the companies that operates New York Chinatown to Boston Chinatown trips at cutthroat rates – about $15 each way. Somehow they took on Greyhound and seem to be winning – Greyhound was forced to bring its rates down from about $45 to $15. We took a Greyhound bus on the way back, and I’ve got to tell you that the Fung Wah experience was a bit better. They left on time, had little shopping bags to throw you garbage into, and most importantly did not play a stupid movie at full blast – I really did not need to have my mind raped by former Batman performing in 1998 Christmas horror flick Jack Frost. Next time I am taking Fung Wah again.

We were driven around Boston by and old friend of mine, had dinner in an Indian restaurant and later drinks at the top of the Prudential Tower. Top of the Hub is located on the 52nd floor of the tower and has views to die for.

I had some Old Potrero which (as I now know) was incorrectly billed as a Canadian whisky. Even though it’s made in San Francisco and not Canada according to Anchor Brewing website, it was very good and unlike any other whiskey or whisky that I ever had. I’ll have to get acquainted with real hoser stuff later.

Our hotel room purchased with hard earned Mariott Points&tm; had this outstanding view of the controversially named Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge

We visited the “Art Deco: 1910-1939” exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts. There were two pieces that I really liked – a metal gate that was used as a door to an executive suite in the Chanin Building and a pottery vase. I tried to imagine what a regular employee would feel seeing that gate, with a design of cogs and wheels, coin stacks and lightning bolts so wild that it looked electrified. The vase had a design of spirals that looked like Cthulhu tentacles, actually shining with evil glow. Overall, for $20 the exhibition was too short and not that interesting.

The main purpose of our trip was a visit to the Lowell House Bells. As it turns out an amazing set of Russian bells from the Danilov Monastery was purchased from the Soviet government in 1920s by a diplomat and industrialist Charles Crane thus escaping smelting. Crane gave it as a gift to Harvard. The bells were installed and then tuned by Constantin Saradjeff, an eccentric Russian bell expert who reportedly had superhearing powers, being able to “identify by ear any one of 4,000 bells in Moscow”.

Harvard students organized a Society of Russian Bell Ringers and for 50 years have been trying to learn to play the bells and learn their history, passing everything learned onto the next generation. They practice for 15 minutes every Sunday and invite everyone to visit the bell tower, listen to and even play the bells.

There are 14 bells of small and medium size and two very big bells called “Sacred Oil” and “Pestilence, Famine and Despair”, which are played from a console that has pulls and pedals:

And then there’s an absolutely giant 26,700 lb “Mother Earth” bell that is played by standing inside and moving its 700 lb clapper by hand. It takes a few sways to actually ring it once.

I stood inside the bell when it was played, and it was an unforgettable experience. The reverberations would not stop for minutes. Some say that Russian bells have healing powers. I don’t know about that, but that ring of the Mother Earth bell must have had everything from infra to ultra sounds in it. My wife had a great time taking her turn playing the bells, and I kind of regret that I did not have the guts to try it. Next time I sure will, and advise that you do the same.

What I have seen on a half hour lunch break in NYC

New York Yacht Club building at 37 West 44th Street. I’ve never seen it before. It has these really cool bay windows. Here is what it looks like outside and here it is inside.

It’s located right next to the Harvard Club, where ‘s previous employer liked to give office parties before his company went bust.

Believe it or not, I can’t find a good outside picture. For having such a cool clubhouse they have a pretty crappy website. I guess I’ll have to take some pictures myself.

I don’t have a yacht (I have to ask how much it cost, so according to J. P. Morgan, I can’t afford it) and I have not gone to Harvard. And there is no Brooklyn College club. Or is there? I like the idea of a club. Clubs are cool. Be like a real gentelman. Have some steak. Read a book. Smoke a sigar. Have some scotch. Well, I do those things at home, but it must be much cooler in a club.

In Times Square, inside MTV studios, some show was shot live. I could see the host and the audience through the window.

Saw a middle aged cop with a citation bar for Medal For Valor. It’s kind of like Purple Heart.

Bought some lunch from and interesting street vendor, who apparently used to work as a chef in now closed Russian Tea Room. His name is M.D. Rahman. A few places wrote about him.

Well, the times are tough, but at least he is not Rahman, M.D.

Sex, Lies and Higher Education

On Sunday I finished reading an awesome book about college pranks, “If at all Possible, Involve a Cow”. Even though it was published in 1992, it’s currently out of print and somewhat hard to find. At abebooks.com prices range from $26.50 to $42.50 and there are only 5 books listed. Luckily, I was able to find a copy for $7 thanks to abebooks wishlist service.

I think that the rarity of the books is due to some influence of embarrassed college brass. The book tells stories about students making fun of narrow mindedness and idiocy of administrators and professors in some very prestigious colleges and universities.

Here is an example. If you’ve been to Harvard, you probably have seen the statue of John Harvard. You were also probably told a touching story about students, who rub his boot for luck on the exams (they really don’t, the boot is shined by hordes of visitors). Well, what the guide probably didn’t tell you, is that the statue is commonly known as “Statue of Three Lies”. Why? Because there is an inscription on the pedestal that says:

John Harvard

Founder

1638

Lie #1 : John Harvard was a financial contributor, not the founder.
Lie #2 : Foundation date was 1636, not 1638
Lie #3 : Depicted is not John Harvard, of whom no pictures exist, but a friend of the sculptor. To add insult to injury, both the sculptor and his friend graduated from .. You guessed it – MIT!

This makes one of the pranks in the book especially ironic: MIT students created a huge bronze copy of MIT class ring and epoxied it to John Harvard statue’s finger!

Other notable pranks: Harvard Lampoon’s editors hoisting Soviet flag on a flagpole in front of the Supreme Court during McCarthy era, Caltech Rose Bowl hack.