Saturday, March 31, 2018

Afternoon Tea at Le Salon

When I was very young, I had a fat old Irish nanny who helped take care of me and my siblings. My father worked a lot and my mom was both working and going to school. That, and the fact that we were all little monsters made it necessary for some extra help to be brought in. This lady doted on me and every afternoon we would have tea and snacks. With this in mind, I thought it would be fun to take my daughter to an "offical" afternoon tea. The Windsor Court Hotel hosts one every Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Le Salon.

There's a difference between afternoon tea and high tea. Afternoon tea is, of course, served in the afternoon and acts like a small meal between lunch and dinner. Tea is typically served with small finger sandwiches and snack sized pastries. Whereas afternoon tea is seen as a social occasion, high tea is a meal itself and replaces dinner. Meats, breads and pies are generally served at high tea.

Le Salon has over two dozen different teas to choose from. Pick your favorite and a pot will be brewed for you. While you're waiting for your tea, you choose a refreshing cocktail (non-alcoholic versions are available). And while you drink your tea, small sandwiches are served. The pastries are sent near the end. With a professional harp player adding to the ambiance, it's a good environment to have a small social occasion with friends and family.

I had thought it was a pretty novel idea, and my daughter and I had a pretty good time. The last time we had tea together, she was a toddler and her stuffed animals were invited.

Friday, March 30, 2018

A Tour Of St. Louis Cemetery #1

New Orleans is famous for its cemeteries with above-ground burial plots. Having plot after plot of stone crypts and mausoleums have an effect of creating cities of the dead, and, as such, make for unique tourist attractions. New Orleans was built on swamp land, and much of it is below sea level, which meant that if you dig just a few feet down, you'll end up striking water. And nobody wants a to be buried in a watery grave. So, the only solution was to build up.

St. Louis Cemetery #1 is located just outside of the French Quarter on Basin Street between St. Louis and Treme Streets. It's the final resting place of many famous New Orleans citizens like Marie Laveau, the voodoo queen. History records that the Laveau was buried somewhere in St. Louis Cemetery #1, but the exact location is disputed. Most sources say that she was buried in the Glapion family crypt, plot 347. Visitors to her tomb who seek her favor from beyond the grave draw an "X" on the tomb, turn around three times, knock on the tomb, yell out their wish, and if it was granted, come back and circle their "X," and then leave Laveau an offering.

Other famous New Orleans citizens who are buried in St. Louis Cemetery #1 include chess champion Paul Morphy, Homer Plessy of the landmark Supreme Court segregation decision Plessy vs. Ferguson and Ernest "Dutch" Morial, the first African American mayor of New Orleans (although he was moved to a family plot in St. Louis Cemetery #3 in 2014). It is also the future resting place of actor Nicholas Cage.

These days, due primarily to the desecration of the alleged Marie Laveau tomb, the cemetery has been closed to the public. The only way in is to pay for a tour, which usually costs around $20. However, if you are a genealogist or have family buried in St. Louis Cemetery #1, you can get a pass from the New Orleans Archdiocese and get in for free. Since I've written a fair amount of genealogy articles for various publications, I qualified.

I decided to do a video tour of St. Louis Cemetery #1, so, with my daughter in tow and with two passes in our hands, we trekked out to the cemetery. Immediately, I was struck with the large number of tour groups. I would also discover soon that those tour guides don't like it when someone gets in for free. Can't have someone horning in on their meal ticket. At about 9:32 into the video, I bump into a tour guide who asks me if I had lost my group. "I am the group", I replied. She then asks if I am taking video, and, of course, I lied and said that I wasn't. She then threatens to call someone and actually gets on her cell phone in the middle of her tour to try and get me busted. From that point on, I start trying to avoid the tour groups in the cemetery, which was not an easy feat, given that there were so many of them.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Paranormal Investigation at St. Vincent Infant Asylum

My daughter and I signed up for a ghost investigation run by French Quarter Phantoms. Now, I'm not exactly what you would call a believer. At best, you could call me an open-minded skeptic. I've had some weird paranormal type things happen to me a few times over the years, but most of what I have encountered could be explained away via various means. Still, a ghost hunt in a "haunted" area in the most haunted city in America sounded like an opportunity that we couldn't pass up.

St. Vincent's Asylum is located on the corner of Race and Magazine street just a few blocks East of the Garden District. It was originally built in 1861 as an orphanage for children whose parents were killed in the Civil War or by the Yellow Fever epidemic that ran through the city. It was run by the Sisters of Charity and heavily funded by Margaret Haughery. She was widely known throughout New Orleans as "Our Margaret," “The Bread Woman of New Orleans", "Mother of Orphans" and "Saint Margaret". She devoted her life to the care and feeding of the poor and hungry, and to fund and build orphanages throughout the city. St. Vincent's Asylum was home to a number of colorful figures throughout its operation including priests, nuns, children of various ages, and a sadistic doctor. St. Vincent's has been converted into a hostel where people on a budget can stay. Guests report seeing ghostly children playing in the rooms and common areas as well as hearing their eerie laughter throughout the hallways. The apparition of a Nun ascending the front stairway has also been reported. Before we were there tonight, we heard it told that a guest in Room 26 awoke this morning to the feeling of someone sitting on his feet at the edge of the bed.

We went in to Room 26 to try to make contact with whatever spirit may be lurking there. As part of the investigation, the lead investigator from French Quarter Phantoms used some proximity detectors and a tool called an echo vox which, in this case, uses brief snippets of sounds coming from random FM stations. Don't ask me how a ghost would use these tool to communicate with the living, because I don't know. And, to be honest, I feel that the human brain's tendency towards pattern recognition makes it likely that anyone using the tool would unintentionally recognize many of the FM snippets as actual words. So, straight away, I didn't think that it was a good tool to use for the investigation. The proximity detectors, however, did show some interesting results that are more difficult for me to explain. Go ahead and watch the video I took in Room 26 of St. Vincent's Orphan Asylum for yourself. It's dark in there, but you can see the lights of the proximity detectors that have been placed on the bed.

After we finished our investigation in Room 26, we ventured down to the common room of St. Vincent's Guest House which used to be the library of St. Vincent's Infant Asylum. Here, the investigation centered on using dousing rods as a sort-of poor man's Ouija board. In theory, you ask a spirit yes/no questions. The spirit is asked to cross the dousing rods for "NO" and uncross them for "YES" or vice versa. After a little bit of coaxing, my daughter got up to make a run with the dousing rods.

After the library, we all moved on to the dormitory. This part of the investigation was much like the one in Room 26. In my opinion, not much of note happened during this part of the investigation. However, one of the lead investigators does give a pretty good explanation of how the echo vox works.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The TSA Has Me On A List

Greetings from glorious New Orleans.

My daughter and I hopped a flight tonight and headed down to The Big Easy for a few days of fun while she's on Spring Break. A funny thing happened on the way to the Crescent City. While we were going through the TSA security check-point at the airport, we attempted to go through the TSA pre-check lane. My daughter was sent straight through. I, however, was denied and got sent through the regular line with the rest of the plebs. The TSA agent asked if it would be an issue for us to go through different lanes. I said that it wouldn't, but I was curious as to why I was denied.

"I don't know the exact reason, but you're on a list somewhere", the agent said.

So, after a bit of a laugh, and after getting through the checkpoint, my daughter asked me "Have you ever done anything to make the government take an interest in you?"

"Easily", I said.

"Recently?", she asked.

"Umm...I don't know. Maybe".

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Blue Screen Of Death On A Wal-Mart Self Checkout Kiosk

I was running through Wal-Mart yesterday morning to pick up some Chobani yogurt for breakfast and an apple for snack. I wanted to run through the self-checkout aisle because I was pressed for time. When doing so, I noticed that one of the counters was sporting a Windows blue screen of death. Now, I don't know all that much about self-checkout kiosks other than the fact that their implementation is increasing and that they are useful for when I can't handle interacting with another human being in the morning. As for speed? Well, if you've got maybe 5 items or less, you'll probably come out ahead. But, as you approach 10 items, it becomes readily apparent that a customer is nowhere near as fast at scanning items as a seasoned checkout person is.

In any given Wal-Mart, there's almost always at least one automated checkout machine that is experiencing an issue of some sort: Either the cash threader is broken or the card reader is inoperative or the change till isn't working correctly. However, I can't say that I've ever seen a blue screen of death on an automated check out machine before. I would guess that the Wal-Mart automated check out machines are probably running Windows XP embedded. Sure, XP is old, and not officially supported anymore, but it's a very stable operating system with a fairly light fingerprint.

This particular point of sale machine appears to have an issue with one of its hardware devices. Note the error message: IRQL_NOT_LESS_OR_EQUAL_TO. Okay, so what is an IRQL (pronounced "Urkel" like the annoying kid froM Family Matters) and why does Windows care whether is is less than or equal to something? IRQL stands for Interrupt Request Level and those levels define the priority at which requests from certain components can be processed. What basically happens is that the CPU on the computer is running, doing various tasks and a piece of hardware connected to it, like the barcode scanner or the chip reader will send a request to the CPU for processing. Those requests have priority levels. The CPU then looks at the tasks it has to do, executes the ones with the higher priority first and, while doing so, sets all other tasks in the queue to "pending" until it can get to them. If a low priority task is being processed by the CPU and a task of higher priority comes in, then the CPU will interrupt (see where we're going here?) the lower priority task in order to process the higher priority task that just came in. If we look at the STOP line in the blue screen of death, we see that the IRQ level (represented by the second number in the parentheses in the STOP error) is 2

Instructions for how hardware components interface with Windows and the computer's physical memory are written into little programs called device drivers. What's probably going on here is that a device driver is attempting to access a block of memory at an IRQL that is too high. This is usually caused by faulty hardware or an incompatible device driver. My guess would be that someone tried to update a driver belonging to one of the hardware components on the checkout machine and that newest version of the driver has some instructions in it that are incompatible with the system. The solution would be to downgrade the device driver. Just see what version of the drivers the other machines are running and make sure the one with the error is at the same version for each.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Pre-Need Cremation Services Call Me

An automated attendant called me trying to sell me pre-need cremation/burial services. Once a live operator came on, she asked me "May I have your last name?" and I replied "You can have it if you get married to me!" and was promptly hung up on.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Toys R Us Is Closing Its Doors

National toy retailer, Toys R Us, sought court approval yesterday to liquidate its remaining 735 stores, thus signaling the end for a chain known to generations of children and parents for its sprawling stores, Geoffrey the giraffe mascot, and its catchy "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" jingle. As Toys R Us implodes over the next few weeks, you'll hear a lot of talk about how Amazon and Wal-Mart caused the death of yet another brick-and-mortar retail operation. And, while Amazon and Wal-Mart certainly contributed to the downfall of Toys R Us, they weren't what struck the fatal blow.

In 1978, Toys R Us went from a privately held company to a publicly traded one. This, of course, meant that anyone could buy shares of Toys R Us on the stock market. In 2005, shares of Toys R Us were purchased by three companies, Bain Capital (connected to Mitt Romney. Get your "Mormans Destroyed Toys R Us" headlines out now), KKR and Vornado in a leveraged buyout. These companies joined together to get a $6.6 billion loan to buy Toys R Us and $5.8 billion in debt from the purchase went right onto the balance sheet of Toys R Us. This was right before Wal-Mart and Amazon started to eat Toys R Us' lunch. Plus, the trend of tablets and game consoles overshadowing toy sales didn't help either. This meant that Toys R Us had less profit with which to service its massive debt and less money to invest into improving its stores. And, for me, that's where Toys R Us massively failed. Going into a Toys R Us over the last several years was like walking into a Mad Max movie. Whenever I went in there, I expected to find post-apocalyptic gangs setting up rival camps in various different sections of the store. You'd find The Vuvalini in the Lego section and The Buzzards in the clearance aisle.

That's not to say that there isn't still a glimmer of hope that Toys R Us can survive this. The stores will remain open for the next 60 days and a buyer could still possibly be found. If that happens, and there's enough money involved to act on some initiatives to improve the stores and make them more inviting to customers, then Toys R Us may just come out of this alive. It's possible, but I don't think it's probable. It's much more likely that we'll have to relegate Toys R Us to the shelf of childhood memories like we've had to do with many other formally popular retail stores over the last few years.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

About Those Amelia Earhart Bones...

There has been quite the stir in the scientific community lately, thanks to a group of scientists boldly claiming that the mystery of the disappearance of Amelia Earhart has been solved. But, has it, really? It certainly sounds intriguing, and it makes for great headlines. We get the same stories about Jack the Ripper's identity finally being revealed or the Zodiac Killer's, or DB Cooper's every few months. I'd swear that the press just keeps these sort of stories around as filler material to use on slow news days.

In case you're not familiar with the latest wrinkle in this Amelia Earhart case, here's what's going on: Skeletal human remains were found on the remote island of Nikumaroro (aka Gardner) in the South Pacific around 1940. At the time, measurements of the bones were made by D. W. Hoodless who concluded that the bones belonged to a man with a height of about six feet. Recently, Richard Jantz, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Director Emeritus of UT’s Forensic Anthropology Center, took another look at those measurements. Using several modern quantitative techniques, including Fordisc, a computer program for estimating sex, ancestry, and stature from skeletal measurements Jantz concluded that Hoodless had incorrectly determined the sex of the remains. Jantz also compared the bone lengths with Earhart’s presumed lengths using data from old photographs of her. Jantz concluded that the bones have more similarity to Earhart than to 99 percent of individuals in a large reference sample. Based on this, Jantz declared "until definitive evidence is presented that the remains are not those of Amelia Earhart, the most convincing argument is that they are hers".

Sounds pretty conclusive, right? Wrong. There are a lot of other things to consider here:

  • Jantz was working from an analysis made by Hoodless rather than doing his own analysis of the bones, which wasn't possible because the bones have been missing for quite some time. Even if we assume that Hoodless' measurements were accurate, context is still important. How old are the bones? What does a DNA analysis say? What condition are the bones in? Under what circumstances were they found? How do any objects found near the bones compare to them? These are important questions that cannot be answered because the bones have gone missing. 

  • The island had been of interest to the British since the 1800s and had been inhabited for quite some time prior to the discovery of the bones. Also, the SS Norwich City was shipwrecked on the island in 1929. Given these facts, it's hard to say exactly who those bones might belong to. 

  • If Earhart crash landed on the island and lived long enough to die there, then where is the wreckage of the plane? And why didn't any of the inhabitants of the island notice her? 

  • Nikumaroro was searched a day after Earhart's disappearance and a week afterward. No signs of her were found there. 

  • Nikumaroro is 1200km off of Earhart's route and in the opposite direction of her last known location. It stretches the bounds of credibility to think that she would have ended up there somehow. 

  • The statement "until definitive evidence is presented that the remains are not those of Amelia Earhart, the most convincing argument is that they are hers" is troubling. It's bad science to believe that your conclusion should be considered true until it is proven false.

  • Jantz's study was funded by TIGHAR, a search group who have been vocal proponents of the Earhart on Nikumaroro theory. This implies bias. In other words, the study was not conducted with an open mind to any conclusion. Rather, it was looking to prove a theory on behalf of the expounder of said theory.

So, given the list above, I'd say that the study, while compelling, is far from conclusive. And, unless the bones are somehow found, I don't think that this mystery will ever be solved.

Monday, March 12, 2018

State Farm Eliminates 900 IT Positions

   When I was a Computer Information Systems student in college back in the mid-90s, my COBOL professor used to tell my class that, if we were good little programmers, worked hard, and documented our code well, then we could hope to get a job at State Farm doing Y2K conversions on their mainframe system. The prospect of expanding a 2 digit year field into a 4 digit year field didn't appeal to me, so I went into web programming. Well, that, and the State Farm recruiter took issue with my attitude. Something about me saying "If you judge my programming ability based upon how I shook your hand, then you're not someone I'd care to work for".

   Anyway, now comes news that State Farm is cutting nearly 900 IT positions in their Bloomington headquarters. About 300 of those positions will be moving out of Illinois and into other hubs around the country. Some of the affected employees, depending on their skill set, will have the opportunity to transfer to one of the other hubs. The announcement comes on the heels of a reported pre-tax operating loss of $1.7 Billion for 2017, largely due to significant catastrophe losses from hurricanes, wildfires and storms.

   I still have a few friends from college who work at State Farm, so I made a few calls over the last few days in order to get a feel for what's going on over there. The general consensus seems to be that this mess is the result of an over-staffed, under-worked IT department that has been subjected to the unnecessary duplication of processes and a refusal to listen to ideas for efficiency. Hundreds of contract workers were hired over the years to help keep up with the bloated processes, and now, the chickens have come to roost. There is optimism, though. I'm told that the claims department went through similar circumstances a few years back and now they seem to have their act together.

   Let's just hope that the IT department finally got all their Y2K conversions done.