26 November 2015

Implements of Destruction, American Blind Justice, & the Group W Bench

"you can get any thing you want, at Alice's restaurant"  ~~ Arlo Guthrie

Several years ago, and by "several" I mean "twenty", I was a thousand miles from home, having just moved to Valdosta, Georgia and started working on a grad degree, and had a four day weekend which included Thanksgiving Thursday, Black Friday, and just the normal weekend of Saturday and Sunday.  It was my first Thanksgiving away from home, well, at that distance, and also my first Thanksgiving in the South, so it was with bittersweet mixed feelings I headed down into North Florida to be a guest at my friend Spencer's house.

South Georgia and North Florida should be its own state.  Folks have more in common with each other than they do the other folks in their own states.  I mean, Atlanta folks disdain the folks in South Georgia and the folks in South Georgia, well, they don't really care too much for those folks up North.  And by "North", I mean "North Georgia".  But they tend to like North Florida folks, who feel sorta the same way.

Florida is one of the few states I know where the further south you go, the more northern you are.  I'm not exactly sure what they'd call a state that would break off just south of Tifton, Georgia and run all the way to say, Gainesville, Florida, or maybe a county south of that yet.  I'm thinking something like Spanish Moss, perhaps.  Probably not tho.

I was glad to be going to Spence's, for a few reasons, one being that he was a friendly guy, and nice, and sorta funny, and sweet and kind too.  Two, I was glad to be there because I was missing my own family and didn't think that I really wanted to spend the holiday alone.  Turns out that was an incorrect assumption on my part and was later glad to get back to my efficiency where I could be alone, but not lonely.  But had I not gone, I probably would have been very lonely, thinking that I should have gone.  But we'll never know for sure, now, will we?

No.  Third reason, I was interested to see how Thanksgivings would differ, between the North and the South.  When I'd arrived to Valdosta, Georgia in September of 1995, it was vastly different from northeastern Pennsylvania.  In just about all the ways that you'd imagine yes, but in case you aren't familiar with Catawissa, PA or Valdosta, let me tell you about a few.

It was warm in PA, when I left.  Short sleeve weather, sure.  But summer was over and school had started, and autumn was well on its way.  As I headed south, it was like traveling back in time; the year reversed and summer came back and all of a sudden I was in the sweltering heat of a muggy July day.  Later I'd find other ways the "traveling back in time" metaphor and simile applied.

It was late when I checked into a hotel in Tifton and had I realized how close to Valdosta I was, I probably would have kept going.  Distances are measured differently when your in the hills and mountains of PA, miles mean nothing, it's all about how long it's going to take you to get from here to there.  But in the flat south, miles and time are about the same, so a distance of thirty miles takes roughly thirty minutes.

Not that Valdosta is thirty miles down the road from Tifton.  It's forty~five.  So less than an hour of driving time would have gotten me exactly to where I was going, even though I'd only been to the apartment, where I was renting a room from a corrections officer named Kim.  We won't discuss that.

If I had just driven straight through tho, I would have been in the dark.  Because I'd been on the road, driving from Catawissa, PA for over fifteen hours by then and even tho it was September and before the time change, it was dark when I pulled off the interstate in Tifton and found a hotel.  Probably because I'd eaten supper that evening in Cracker Barrel, probably in southern Virginia.  Because I considered Cracker Barrel to be uniquely southern and at that time, it was.  Now, there is a Cracker Barrel in Buckhorn, PA, just about ten or fifteen minutes from Catawissa.

So if I had driven straight through, directly to Valdosta, it'd have been in the dark and I'd have missed those first southern impressions I gathered in the morning when I got back on the road, in Tifton.  It was a good thing that I did spend a few hours sleeping, for a couple of reasons.  But let's not get into that now.  The main thing that I noticed was that it was like there was a chalkline snapped right across Tifton.  Everything north of there looked more or less familiar, but south of Tifton, all of  sudden I noticed big changes.

Sand, instead of dirt.  And when I did see dirt, it was red clay.  Lots of odd plants and bugs.  Ya know, kinda tropical.  And the heat and humidity was the sort that I would eventually come to know as normal, altho I never quite got used to it.  My car, a 1986 Ford Escort, two door, hatchback, with extensive repair work, but not extensive enough to unite the several different paint jobs from several different vehicles after it was totaled out a few years before that, but the frame wasn't bent and the axles weren't twisted, so dad and I went to Harry's You Pull It and replaced some parts, had no air conditioner.  The car was grey with red stripes and accessories, before the elderly gent plowed into it.  And it was grey with a red left front fender, afterward.  But it ran and that's the main thing.

No air conditioner in the south is like having no heater in Alaska.  You pretty much need one.  So it got really hot, really fast, even tho it was early in the day and I was driving down the interstate with my windows open.  Breathing sand, bugs, and heat.

In addition to the topographical differences {it was flat and sandy}, the vegetation {Spanish Moss, Live Oaks, Pecan trees, and way more}, the insect life, and animals {alligators, armadillos, and koala bears ~~ no koala bears, but just checking to see if you were still with me, this getting long and I haven't even gotten to Alice's Restaurant by Arlo Guthrie, stick with me kid, we're going places}; I was to find the food was oh so much different.  I'd no idea there were so many types of beans and peas.

Southern cookin' is good, tasty.  Lots of new things for me to try, with all you can eat buffets everywhere, and lots of stuff fried, deep fried, pan fried, battered, coated with crumbs, and sauces, gravies, and sugars were entirely different.  I got to the south, weighing about 130 and standing about 5'7".  Twenty years later, I'm tipping the scales at 290 and I've shrunk to about 5'4" or so.  Southern cookin' will do that to ya.

So Thanksgiving that year, just about ten weeks after I'd arrived in the South, I was going to have dinner with a southern family, eating southern cookin'.  And by "dinner", I mean "the meal you eat at noon".  I was looking forward to it.

First off, I overdressed.  In a group of folks who were wearing shorts and t~shirts, I alone was wearing slacks and a turtleneck.  Good thing there was air conditioning in this house.

My First Southern Thanksgiving meal is mostly forgotten, tho I do remember having rutabaga for the first time ever, and I'm pretty sure there were collard greens and black eyed peas, probably some cornbread.  Sweet potato casserole is ubiquitous in the south, so I'm sure there was some there then, at Spencer's.

These were God Fearing folks, I was not.  They were more godly perhaps then your typical southern family, which is a pretty godly bunch typically.  Spence's father was a preacher.  Being a preacher in the south has its own identity, that's why there are Southern Baptists and not just baptists.  Southern has its own version of nearly everything.  In many ways, that's a good thing.

I'm just saying that it was a bit confusing for me to sit down for Thanksgiving dinner at the table, with food that The Missus spent days preparing, only to see her husband scoop up his plate and silver ware after giving a blessing for the food, friends {me}, fellowship, and something else I didn't quite catch {I figured it out later}, and head into the living room to watch the football game, the Florida Seminoles versus someone.  By "watch", I mean "participate in, with loud and frequent curses aimed at the referees, coaches, players, and opposing team's fans".  Turns out the extra something in the Thanksgiving dinner prayer was a command to god to bless the Seminoles.  And I was a bit uncomfortable with the idea of a preacher being so loud with the "are you shittin' me"s, the "goddamn"s, and the "getcher head outta yer ass"s.

It was good meal; the food was wonderful, I enjoyed my visit with Spence and The Missus, and was glad to have been invited.  Southern hospitality is a wonderful thing, you should try it.  Experience it and see if you don't start practicing it.  I did.  Still do.

But I was also glad to thank them and leave, get in my ragtag 1986 Ford Escort with its dings and scratches and head to my own efficiency.  At first, when I got "home", I enjoyed  the quiet.  I took a shower and changed from my sweaty turtleneck and slacks into cooler shorts and a comfortable T.  But then the quiet got to be loud.  You know how loud quiet can be.  Especially to someone who is used to music, constant music, I was 25, music was a must.

So I turned on the radio and there, on my favorite classic rock station, was Alice's Restaurant.  All eighteen and some minutes.  I sat down in my folding chair, I was a grad student, these are the things that you furnish your apartment with...a radio and a folding chair.  And I listened to Arlo strumming and telling his story.

Now, it wasn't the first time I'd heard Alice's Restaurant {which wasn't really about Alice, or her restaurant, which it wasn't her restaurant anyway}.  No, I remember hearing it several times throughout my childhood, because my parents were hippies of a sort and if we happened to catch it, it was usually Thanksgiving, and we usually listened, gathering around the kitchen table, while it played on the radio from another room, sometimes my parents' bedroom {Shohola, PA} or the living room {most of the other seven or eight other places I'd lived as a child}.  I didn't understand it all, I didn't understand lots of stuff when I was a kid of ten or so.  But I had the warm fuzzies from being with my family, my folks laughing along with the recorded audience, while this dude with a sing~song nasal sliding voice plucked strings of his guitar and others' compassion as well.

So when I heard the tale again, all those years ago, when I was a young adult, a thousand miles from home; I listened and remembered feeling close to family, the warm fuzzies of nostalgia, and listened and understood the story, probably for the first time.  Since then I catch it when I can.  For a few years, a local radio station would play it several times throughout the day, on Thanksgiving Thursday.  But I hadn't heard it recently until earlier today.

It made me think all sorts of thoughts, the way you do, thinking thousands of things in just a few minutes.  It's amazing how eighteen minutes can take you back forty years or more, and bring you right back to where you were all along.  How the world has changed, but still stayed the same in so many ways.  How faces change, how those near and dear remain so only in your heart, no longer alive anywhere but your mind.  How happy you can be, with the way you are now and who you were and who you are are still essentially the same, but better.  How you wish the world would be better, the best it can be, the best YOU know it can be.

Happy Thanksgiving.

19 November 2015

If you do not first succeed; try, try again...

and yet again.

I'd written a bit about attempting to learn "R" and then move from that into some of the online free courses involving data analysis using R.  And commented about a week later that it was not going well.  I sent off an eMail detailing my attempts to retrieve data files to the instructor of this archived exploration course, a remedial introduction to R; he's a professor in Sweden who happens to love all things R~related.  I hadn't heard anything from him, but I am not surprised.  There are a multitude of possible reasons he hasn't responded to my plea for assistance, by explaining what I might be doing wrong.

Then came SSsssssinusssss Sssurgery.  Mucking about in R didn't seem to be a priority during the first week of recovery, since my brain was not functioning at its best and I'd already been having issssssuess with R.  But then today, I decided to give it another whirl.

I'd downloaded "Data for the Life Sciences" textbook and started to read through the preface, which is prior to the forward, which is before the introduction.  Good thing I did; although most folks skip all that ~~ THIS is exactly why I do not.  There is a reason authors, editors, and publishers include these things; generally there is information included in there that is not explained elsewhere ~~ like what sorts of knowledge you should already have and if you do not have them, then where to find them and become familiar with them.

In this case, since this textbook is meant to be used for a specific online course, it has helpful hyperlinks that connect you to those resources, along with directions in what to do once you get to that site, what and how to download, and other suggestions.  So I added the RStudio, rTools, and an assortment of packages {data sets} to what I'd already downloaded a few weeks ago.

One of those tools is "swirl".  It comes with all sorts of lessons on how to do this and that AND the other thing in R.  It's step by step format, offers encouragement {"excellent job!"}, correction {"not exactly what I was looking for; try this instead..."}, and examples of what else you might want to try.  It's just my speed at the moment and I think this will nicely dove tail what some of the other instructional videos cover.  So I'm back in R.  sorta.