Maryland Renaissance Festival


The most upsetting of signs.

Reading this week:

  • The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa by Alex de Waal

This past weekend I went to the final weekend of the 43rd season of the Maryland Renaissance Festival. It was frankly a little upsetting to discover that this was the 43rd season because I distinctly remember the 25th season and I thought that was slightly more recent.


The King arrives!

So clearly I have been going to the Maryland Renaissance Festival for years. As a guy who has actually been to a number of these things, the Maryland version is probably the best and that’s what keeps on bringing me back. Plus my dad is hugely into it. I was probably the one that got him into it, which is a trend for him when it comes to hobbies, because I was also the one that got him into German Longsword and blacksmithing. Dad is indeed a jack of all trades, except his name isn’t Jack and those trades are focused largely on not so useful skills in the modern era.


My dad and me! Dad is in his Outlander getup. It was my sister that got him into cosplay.

But anyways the actual festival! It was a fairly gorgeous day for it, except it was rather cold, which I was very aware of seeing that I was wearing my utilikilt all day long. Very liberating, a utilikilt, but much better in warm weather.


I started off the day by seeing Puke & Snot, which has for years been my major draw to the festival. Due to various circumstances, the show is on its third Snot but was none the less good for it. Frankly I enjoyed all the jokes centered on the fact that he is Snot #3. Those are the only new jokes; they’ve been doing the same act for years but somehow it’s still pretty funny. Perhaps I am merely old and set in my ways.

After that trip down memory lane, I went on several more trips down memory lane just wandering around the festival. When I was I guess 18 years younger I would spend most of the time in shops deciding what I would buy with my whole month’s paycheck from my paper route, which was usually about $100. This was a phenomenal amount of money when I was 12 or 13 and I just about spent it all every time. These days I buy less and see more shows but hey they still got cool stuff and it is still fun to go back to the same magic shops and ball maze games.


They do, of course, also continually incorporate new stuff. The above photo is from “The Danger Committee.” They are one of many many shows at the festival that have about three tricks and manage to stretch it into a 45 minute show largely by being funny. Though the main dude there did also manage to compose a rather great poem about an audience member right on the spot, so he’s probably actually got four tricks. I was just proud of the above picture, where you can see a silvery blur which is the knife thingy (it had more pointy bits than a regular knife) that he is throwing at his compatriots’ heads. Well, he’s throwing it to narrowly miss their heads but still.


They also have this new (to me) falconry show where they have some falcons and the like and they show off their falconry skills. I am also very proud of the above picture, where you can see the falcon narrowly missing catching the target. What with the target being attached to a stick via a string, it was a lot like playing with cats, except the falcons are even more likely to wind up on top of a pole and not really want to come down. But all in all it was pretty neat.

Every time I go to the Renaissance Festival I am surprised at how quickly the day passes. You imagine you’re going to see every show and go into every shop, but just a few shows and a turkey leg later and you discover that the whole day has gone by and now you’re at the pub sing wondering how embarrassing it is that you are doing this weird dance thing they have you do but then a dude comes and plays a bagpipe really loudly right next to you and that is super awesome because bagpipes are awesome and you should really come to the festival more often but you keep doing this thing where you move to an entirely different continent. Anyways I recommend it. Until next year!

Apple Picking


Reading this week:

  • Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in Africa by Hussein Solomon

I was warned that this would happen almost as soon as I arrived at Yale, but I have talked about Marx more in the past two months than I think in the entire other 30 years of my existence. I don’t know how unusual that is, given that I lived in prototypical suburban America growing up, and then went to the Naval Academy, and then of course was in the Navy for five years before briefly working for Amazon Web Services, none of which are particular hotbeds of pro-proletarian revolutionary thought. In the Peace Corps there was of course much more of a leftist lean, though I think that manifested itself more as something like radical feminism or anti-patriarchy sentiment without ever quite getting to the notion that we’ll have to break down the foundations of capitalist society, or whatever (two months have not made me a Marxist scholar, as you can tell).

I do remember reading while in the Peace Corps In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck. In this book, as Wikipedia explains, “the central figure of the story is an activist attempting to organize abused laborers in order to gain fair wages and working conditions.” For me, besides of course rousing me to the fight for worker’s rights, the significant part of the book was that it is another example I think of how if you poke at the edges of some of the core authors of the American education system’s literary pantheon you find actual literal communist sympathies that we never quite get around to mentioning in high school. I’m going to lose the narrative thread here but yesterday one of the women in my program got Yale to sponsor an apple-picking trip for us to go on. So part of Yale’s endowment income (derived in a not-insignificant way from the fossil fuel industries) went towards providing a group of largely white and by definition privileged set of men and women the opportunity to pay to perform manual labor on an apple farm. What was the work the abused laborers were doing in the Steinbeck book? They were apple picking.


It was a lot of fun! We had hired a big yellow school bus to pick us up from New Haven to take us to the farm. The first activity was a “hay” ride. We in fact rode, but there was no hay, so the name is misleading, but it was pretty pleasant. The scheme here is that the tractor hauls its load of graduate students to the far end of the orchard (part of it anyways; I think they said they had something like 400 acres and we certainly didn’t see quite that many apples) and then you wander your way back picking apples and hanging out with people and apparently most importantly taking Instagram photos. I do not have an Instagram so I was at somewhat of a handicap.

They had a wide variety of apples and people had a whole lot of apple opinions but despite being perhaps the world’s #1 fan of apple pie I have never developed any strong feelings about apples. Some were better than others though. We sampled liberally as we moved along. The uh, cabaret apples I think were my favorite. Something like that. Some apples were clearly more popular than others, given the barren nature of the trees by the time our group got there, but that made it fun because you had to hunt down some exclusive apples. I had to climb a tree at one point. I was wearing my safari jacket though and ready for an expedition.


The day was pretty warm and the colors were fairly gorgeous. At one point I wandered off by myself to the crest of a hill (the trees were too young there to be bearing fruit) and looked out over the acres of trees. It was all pretty and peaceful and stuff. After we all managed to return from the fields the final part of the trip was apple cider and um, cider? donuts up at the barn/store thingy. That was yummy and we hung out some more before getting back on the school bus to head back home. Quite a fun afternoon. That evening I made apple cookies and I still had a lot of apples left so I will have to figure out what to do with them. Pie probably. I had imagined offering these baked goods to people but I think everyone else has the same idea so there will be too many apple-based baked goods. Very inefficient. I think we have discovered why we need collective action to make any real change.

Central Power Plant

Central Power Plant.jpg

Originally built in 1918! Still in use! Those brick towers are still exhaust towers!

Reading this week:

  • Foreign Intervention in Africa by Elizabeth Schmidt

So for two years in Zambia I had no one to talk about steam plants with. And lemme tell ya I love steam plants. Here at Yale I also have no one to talk to steam plants with, or so I thought until I got to take a tour of Yale’s Central Power Plant. It was amazing.

I figured out the Central Power Plant (CPP) existed when I walked by it one day on my way back from yoga and I spotted some piping and a load-testing resistor bank. Some googling later I was utterly surprised to discover that Yale in fact has two of its own full-sized power plants, and some other smaller installations. I spent like an hour or two trying to find an email address, and a bit later the manager of the plant had agreed to take me and some other people I convinced to go on a tour. It was by far the best way to spend a Thursday morning I could think of.


What I was most surprised to learn when I first started looking into the plant is that it is cheaper and greener for Yale to produce its own electricity than buy from the grid. The CPP’s main source of power are two large 7.9MW gas turbines which usually run off natural gas but can run off of fuel oil in a pinch. These suckers are cogen units, so the waste heat from the turbines are used to boil water for steam heating and other steam uses, bringing the total thermal efficiency of the system up to an astounding 80%. Plus they have a very clean emissions system and when those bad boys were installed in 2016 the CPP had the strictest air permit in the state. You could hardly go greener without going nuclear (which I would be totally in favor of for the record).

The tour started in the conference room where the three of us on the tour chatted with Troy, the plant manager, for half an hour, geeking out about load shedding and steam loads and all sorts of that good good talk. Then we got going on the tour, hardhats, eyepro, and earpro in place. We started in the control room, where one dude can pretty much control everything in the facility. That’s quite a lot, because the CPP provides electrical power, steam heating, and chill water to nearly the entirety of the Yale Campus, excluding West Campus and the Medical Center. They are capable of going into “Island Mode” and running the whole shebang for about three days straight with the fuel oil they keep on site before they need to refuel.


The two main cogen units (the turbines combined with the steam system) were massive units and still looked pretty much brand new. When we went by they were going full bore, producing about 15MW between them, but still the room was (fairly) quiet and you could barely tell there were two jet engines screaming on either side of us. I was particularly amused by the motto of Victory Energy, which was “Full Steam Ahead!” (as you can barely see in the photo above). The biggest reason I wanted to take other people on this tour is that people talk about energy policy and the like, but they don’t really know the actual infrastructure it takes to keep the lights on in even a small city.


Personally, I thought the funnest part of the tour was seeing all the steam equipment. In the winter, they have a very clear need for steam in order to heat all the buildings on Yale Campus. But in the summer, they still produce a whole lot of steam with the cogen units in order to keep up efficiency and help control the exhaust heat from the system. As a result of all this steam they produce, all over the plant they have a bunch of random steam-powered equipment. They had a bunch of steam-powered pumps (usually with an electrical backup for when they need the steam), but the thing I went giddy over was the steam-powered chillers. I didn’t even know such a thing existed! Imagine! Steam-powered air conditioning! Troy was trying to explain the whole thing but I was just going gaga and taking tons of pictures with my phone. It was amazing.


We went top to bottom on the whole plant, from the condensate tanks in the basement to the cooling towers on the roof (great views), learning all about the systems they put in place to keep the place efficient and running smoothly. The tour ended with a look at the switchboards, where they actually distribute the electricity to Yale’s campus. They’re not allowed to put power back into the grid, so they’re always drawing about half a MW and have the grid on-line of course to provide backup power to their plants. And like I said, in the event of a grid outage, they’ll automatically go into “island mode” to keep supplying power to critical Yale systems like science experiments or heating/cooling for the dorms. It was such a fantastic tour and Troy was a fantastic host and it was nice to be able to talk about how we actually go about keeping the lights on. I can tell you after Zambia that people take for granted the infrastructure that keeps us warm and fed until you don’t have it, and it’s a great learning experience to see what it actually takes to keep it going.

Powder Hill Dinosaur Park


So I have moved to New Haven, CT, which I should talk about more, but that is for another time. Today I am talking about Powder Hill Dinosaur Park!

So it was Sunday afternoon and I was doing homework and it was super boring because it was homework. I was dying to go out and do something and the best thing I could think to do was to head up to this little dinosaur park I had read about. It’s about 20 miles up the road so I popped into my super-rad DeLorean and zoomed right on up there. On the way I drove through a pick-your-own orchard growing apples and peaches, which is cool because I didn’t know peaches could grow up here. I might have to plant a tree. If I can find somewhere to plant a tree, that is.


The park itself is apparently maintained by a local troop of Boy Scouts. It was owned by the Peabody Museum for a bit but then the museum gave it back to the town of Middlefield, and it’s pretty neat for any town to have a dinosaur park. The big (only) attraction of the park are some dinosaur tracks. The park itself is the little yard-sized thing right on the side of the road in a residential neighborhood. There’s a fence surrounding it and you can walk right in. According to the informative signs, the rock formation that now forms the park probably used to be the shore of a lake that dried up in the intervening epochs between us and the dinosaurs. The tracks are identified as belonging to Eubrontes giganteus which was a therapod. So there ya go.


There are a few tracks scattered around the site and they aren’t too stunning but I guess let’s see how I look in 200 million years. The above photo is the best one I got; it’s hard to make them out without better contrast of course. I walked around and found all the tracks I could and tried to imagine dinosaurs roaming the neighborhood. All in all pretty neat.


The entire park.

Having experienced history or whatever I bundled back up into my car and went home to do more homework. It made for a lovely hour (including the drive out there) and I am well satisfied with what I got for the price of admission (free).

Corpus Christi


South American Porcupine wants a smooch.

Reading this week:

  • War on Peace by Ronan Farrow

This past weekend my mom and I went to go visit my sister in Texas. My sister works at the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi and performs in “Wild Flight,” which is the aquarium’s bird and animal show. Mom found some deal on Southwest to fly us down there so we bundled up and away we went.


The aquarium.

The whole state of Texas quite frankly makes me uncomfortable. Back at the Academy there was a “movement order” you could participate in to go see a bowl game the Navy football team was in over in Houston. I went and got kicked out of a bar for being too drunk (I was, in fact, too drunk) and then left Texas the next day and I haven’t been back since. Also it seems to be a very flat place from what I saw of it. And full of Texans. But my sister has made for herself a rather comfortable living there and so yeah. We went.


My sister rockin’ the show.

The first day we were there we accompanied my sister to work at the aquarium. We sort of had to because she only has her one car, but also of course she wanted to show off her work there and got us in for free. It is a pretty nice aquarium though if you know someone who works there I highly recommend it. She got us in to several animal encounters throughout the day and we got to meet a whole variety of animals, like the porcupine up top.

Pretty Kitty

Me and a cat you had to be very gentle around.

Besides the cat and the porcupine, we also got to meet a giant octopus (though they were a little shy) and a tiny baby alligator and a whole variety of birds. So pretty awesome! We spent the whole day at the aquarium (because, you know, my sister works full time) and then head home.


The next day we spent the whole day at the USS Lexington. The Lexington is right next door to the aquarium, and I didn’t think we’d wind up spending like a whole day there, but we did. It is, after all, a pretty big ship. It’s an aircraft carrier though, which like, lame, but hey these things have engineering spaces so they’re not a total wash. This ship is of course the second Lexington, the Lady Lex having been sunk and CV-16 here named in her honor. Her nickname was the “Blue Ghost” because she used to be blue and was reported has having been sunk a lot. But she never sunk!

On the ship they have a wide variety of planes from throughout her service career, and like, two different Blue Angels at least. That, uh, that’s really all the intelligent things I have to say about planes. This ship has an escalator to get the pilots to the flight deck, but if you didn’t want to climb 12 decks worth of ladders frankly you should have gone submarines. That’s why I went subs after all.

Besides the flight deck, the ship has extensive self-guided tours throughout most of the other operational portions of the ship. You can even go down into one of the enginerooms. They didn’t let you go into any of the boilerrooms, though I got to run around tracing the main steam piping from the bulkheads to the engines. This being an aircraft carrier they had both high pressure and low pressure turbines connected to the shaft via reduction gears, and I was rather stunned at how small the high-pressure turbines were, though I guess yeah of course. I don’t think they could have been much bigger than our turbines on the submarine. But they had a low-pressure turbine to go with it and those guys are in fact pretty big. So there ya go.

After that our third day in Texas was a trip to go look at the South Padre Island seashore (it was quite windy) and then to go antiquing. Before antiquing mom lectured me that the point of antiquing was to look at stuff and not to buy stuff (I wondered how mom thought she had never given me a similar lecture in my 30 years of life) but it was only her that wound up buying stuff. The next day my sister dropped us off at the airport on her way to work and back to Maryland we went!


USS New Jersey


“Firepower for Freedom,” the Big J herself.

After waxing poetic about the Iowa-class, I got to go on the USS New Jersey this past weekend. “This past weekend,” by the way, was in July because I am way ahead on these blog posts that no one reads. The New Jersey is parked across the river from Philadelphia in Camden, New Jersey, and I was in Philadelphia to see the Carly Rae Jepsen concert which was fantastic:


She is very blurry and my phone camera sucks but look it is her!!!

The weekend started off right because as soon as I got to the hotel room I checked to see if I had a view of the New Jersey and you can bet your sweet ass I did:


But anyways the ship herself. I went to go see her the day after the concert and it was hot as balls. It was hot as balls the day of the concert as well, but that’s irrelevant. I got to the ship right as she opened at 0930 and there were only a few other guys there besides myself, all Navy enthusiasts. I took the self-guided tour. The New Jersey is the third of the Iowa-class battleships I have been on, besides the Iowa and the Wisconsin. I have physically laid eyes on the Missouri several times before but never quite got around to touring her to complete the set. All that to say that I didn’t see anything radically new and different on this tour, but it’s always super awesome to see this view:


That bridge is doomed.

Of the ships I have seen I thought the New Jersey’s crew had done a particularly good job of keeping her up and making her a really nice place to tour. I was most amused by some of the details they added to make it really realistic:


The Naval Academy has a “sample Midshipman room” that tourists can see. It has the layout of one of the (nicer, two-man vice three-man) rooms and has some random crap in there to show the sort of things Mids have. But if you were a Midshipman you know it’s stocked with books no one ever reads and crap no one ever has, but the New Jersey took a different direction. I knew I was among people that cared about realism when there was a snuff tin in someone’s locker and a donut and coffee on the XO’s desk. Realism!


One thing that also amuses me on a sort of fundamental level is when these ships still have danger tags hanging. The above picture has one and there were several others that are dated 1990, from the ship’s last decommissioning. I love it. I always wonder if the WAFs are still around? Is the tagout log? What if they ever need to operate that equipment? Who is authorized to clear that tag? Does anyone care? Can you still cause an incident report? The world will never know.


The above picture is of two five-inch cannons. On the New Jersey (and other Iowa-class ships of course), these 5″ guns are the little secondary ones on the side that they use when it is too bothersome to crank over the 16″ cannons. But on a ship like an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer the main armament is a single little ole’ 5″ gun right on the front. The DDGs also have missiles (though the Iowas had some bolted on when they were re-commissioned) and those are neat I guess, and they probably have better targeting systems, but the Arleigh Burke’s pride and joy is just an afterthought on the New Jersey and besides the donuts and snuff and danger tags that also amuses me deeply.


Those were the highlights of the tour. I got to see inside one of the turrets, and some of the engineering spaces too though not as much as I would have liked (I could only poke my head into the boiler and turbine rooms). I spent about 2.5 hours on the ship before heading out and making it to the bus station to head back home. A real must-see if you’re ever in the area.

Lord Jim

Lord Jim

Reading this week:

  • The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power
  • Why Europe Intervenes in Africa by Catherine Gegout

So this post is about both Lord Jim and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I read Lord Jim in the Peace Corps and only came across it because it was free for Kindle on Amazon. I found the novel to be very powerful and it resonated with me on a personal level. It follows Jim, in Joseph Conrad’s “dude telling a story is the story” style, who we meet as he is first mate on the Patna, a steamship carrying Muslims on the Hajj. After the ship strikes an underwater object and appears ready to sink, Jim abandons ship with the other crewmembers, leaving the passengers to their fate. Once they reach port, the other crewmembers run away, but Jim faces a trial for his and their actions. After this he spends a great deal of time running away from anyone who might even have heard of him, before finding some level of glory on a remote island.

What made this book stick with me was the nature of Jim’s failure. Most of the failure I think you’ll find written about or shown in movies is just not reaching a goal. The hero tries really really hard but just can’t make it. They run as fast as they can but don’t make the touchdown, or fight as hard as they can but just don’t beat the bad guy. This is a relatable and blameless sort of failure. Maybe you studied really hard and tried to write the best admission essay possible but you just didn’t get into that dream school. So you failed, but as long as you put in the best effort possible that failure isn’t really your fault.

But Jim’s failure in Lord Jim is of a whole different sort. Jim is a relatively experienced seaman serving as an officer onboard a ship carrying passengers who’s life he is responsible for. When the ship appears ready to sink, he wants to load the passengers onto lifeboats and do what he can to save them. If he can’t save them, he knows it is his duty to die trying. But meanwhile the rest of the crew is abandoning ship, and doing it as quietly as possible so the passengers don’t panic, rush the lifeboats, and keep the crew from saving themselves. Jim teeters on the edge of this decision, standing dumbstruck as he watches the rest of the crew put the lifeboat to sea. Finally, at the last possible second, Jim jumps into the lifeboat and saves himself, leaving the passengers (so he thinks) to die.

This is a radically different version of failure. Jim knew what the right answer was, knew what his duty was, and instead chose the wrong answer aware the whole time that it was the wrong answer. It’s not that Jim just didn’t try hard enough, it’s not that Jim made a sincere effort and just made a mistake, it’s not that Jim made what he thought was the right decision that later turned out to be wrong, it’s that Jim leapt into that lifeboat knowing the whole time he was abandoning his duty. And while Jim faces his failure with honor in the courtroom, he afterward runs from every port he lands in as soon as he hears his failures are catching up to him.

Which brings me to The Last Jedi. One of the big criticisms of the movie was the character arc of Luke Skywalker. People didn’t want to believe that the young man so full of hope that takes down the Empire in the first three movies could turn into a bitter old man by The Last Jedi. But man when I saw that movie I got it. This Esquire article tries to explain Luke’s exile as some sort of enlightened pacifism, but that’s not it. The only reason Luke could fall so far is because he used to be that young man full of hope and righteousness. In Luke’s flashbacks we learn that the moment of his fall was when he came into Ben Solo’s room with the intent to kill the future Kylo Ren because Luke feared what Ben could become. Luke suffered the same failure that Jim did. Luke’s failure wasn’t that he didn’t try hard enough when training Ben, or that he didn’t kill Ben when he had the chance, Luke’s story is that he chose the wrong answer despite knowing it was wrong. Luke knew that killing Ben was wrong and evil, but chose to do so anyways. He stopped himself before he committed the act, but it was too late and Ben had seen his mentor betray him. Luke knew he had failed and couldn’t look himself in the mirror let alone face anyone else.

I understood both these characters because I had been there. At the Naval Academy and throughout the Navy they teach you integrity is the most important thing. We do trainings on trainings on trainings. We talk about it all the time, discuss scenarios. I was so tired of integrity trainings that I joked that you can only become so integreful, and I should be exempt because I was at maximum integrity (you can’t tell the truth more than 100% of the time). But then one day I was standing as a duty officer and I lied. I thought I had a good reason (and I learned everyone always thinks they do), but I knew it was wrong. And when I got caught and had to face my failure I couldn’t. You have a whole image of yourself and what kind of person you are but when it is put to the test you find out what you’re really made of. When Luke failed he sent himself into exile on Ahch-To. Jim ran away from any port that had even heard of his actions. I spent two years in Zambia.

Jim is saved because he winds up in the remote village of Patusan. Alone and just forced to be the best man he can be, free of anyone who might have heard of his past failures, he finds success and courage. The next time he has to decide to run or to do the right thing, he chooses the correct path. Luke is saved because Rey shows up. When he tells her of his failures, she just doesn’t care. She knows the kind of man Luke is and can be, and that’s all she demands of him. So that’s what he winds up giving. If audiences don’t understand these characters, I think it is because they have never really had to face failure the way these characters have had to. Theirs isn’t a failure of effort but a failure between them and the very nature of their being. Finding yourself after a failure like that is a deeper arc then just running a bit faster or fighting a bit harder.