Saturday, May 31, 2008

Building A Museum

Washington DC has a lot of museums. A lot. One of the biggest ones in physical size is the National Building Museum. It sits several blocks off the Mall and is located in what used to be the Pension Building. The Pension Building was built in the 1880s as a central place to process Civil War veterans’ benefits. The huge open floor in the center was originally banks of desks and files. Nowadays, the building is a traditional site for the quadrennial inauguration balls.

For a huge building it’s a little light on exhibits. It has two permanent exhibits, one on building materials and one on the history of Washington, DC. The centerpiece of the DC exhibit is a pair of models showing how the DC Mall looked around 1902 and how it would look after the Mall as we know it was built. Looking at the model reveals subtle differences between the plan and the execution, but over a hundred years later, the general intent is the same.

The big temporary exhibit is a retrospective of Eero Saarinen, the architect behind Dulles Airport, JFK Airport’s TWA Terminal, and the St Louis Gateway Arch. The exhibit also includes examples of his furniture which is positively Jetson-like. Seeing all this 60s architecture and furniture was like walking through an Austin Powers set. For all the attempts to define the future, this branch of Modernism looks positively dated.

All the swoopy curves and bright white surfaces have a Tomorrowland feel. That future with flying cars and meals in pills that never quite arrived. It's amazing how forty years of time have dated a look worse than Art Deco or Gothic or even Neo-Classical. We now look back on this era and marvel at how new the future looked.

In the center of the building center was an activity inspired by the Gateway Arch. There were 21 numbered foam blocks. The goal was to stack them to form an arch. It looked easier than it was. If the blocks weren’t perfectly aligned, the arch would tip over and collapse. It took my dad and I to hold the blocks while my wife handed us blocks to add and even after that, it only stood unsupported for a few seconds before collapsing.

After exhausting the exhibits and the gift shop, we walked over to find my brother and his brood at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Here the Memorial Day weekend tourists were out if force. Crowds of visitors made walking through the exhibits nearly impossible.

So if you ever want a large quiet place to take in some history, give the Building Museum a try.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Stonehenge Snaps

Updated: 8:45 A.M.England006

During our trip to England, the weather was always a little dicey but the worst of it was the morning we went by Stonehenge on our way to Bath. When we arrived, the overcast weather had changed from misty to a windy driving drizzle if that is possible. As we walked along the path surrounding the monoliths, the rain soaked us while the wind popped umbrellas.

Most people’s reaction to seeing Stonehenge, much like seeing Angelina Jolie, is to notice how much smaller it is than they expected. I don’t know what they were expecting, but I thought it was plenty large. Too big to fit on a stage with David St. Hubbins and Derek Smalls. Part of that perception might come because you aren’t really allowed too close to the rocks. I imagine they are a lot more impressive if you are looking up at them rather than staring at them from across a field.

Rather than quibble with its size, I prefer to be amazed by its age. These stones, some weighing as much as fifty tons were moved over two hundred miles and set up like kids’ blocks. And they’ve mostly remained standing for a couple of thousand of years.

National Geographic just did a big cover story on the meaning of Stonehenge and their conclusion was “No one knows.” The Washington Post today has a story saying that it was a rich family's private burial plot. I still hold to the theory that it was landing lights for George Jetson to visit Fred Flintstone. Suffice it to say, the arguments will go on.

Since this was perhaps the one chance in my lifetime to see this five-thousand year old site, I was determined to get some photos despite the uncooperative weather. You can see one of my shots below:

National Geographic is of course famous for its fantastic photography. Below is one of their pictures:

That is pretty much the same angle as mine only done with more talent and panache. Amazing what a couple of thousand dollars worth of equipment, carte blanche access, and cooperative weather can do. Ken Geiger, the photographer, explains how he got his amazing shots in this article. A lot of the special lighting was done by light sculpting during extremely long exposure shots. He used fifteen specialty flashlights that cost $400 each. Not something I have in my camera bag of tricks.

You can see more of my picture in this Flickr set. You can see National Geographic’s special on this ancient temple/graveyard/night club (one of the theories is that it was used for special fertility mating rituals) on the National Geographic Channel June 1st (check local listings, yadda, yadda, yadda). And maybe someday we will solve the many mysteries of Stonehenge. Like how Clark Griswold managed to knock them down so easily.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: Impressive, or just a pile of rocks?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Unemployment Benefits

For a brief time in early 1992 I was unemployed, drawing benefits and the whole works. This was before the internet and there is only so much resume writing and house-cleaning you can do.
Back then web-surfing was not an available option to fill the day, so I ended up spending endless hours never getting very good at a clunky DOS-based videogame called SU-25 Stormovik (now available as a free download here) on the 386SX I had bought my wife for her school term papers.

My wife had gone back to school to become a teacher when sh lost her job after taking an extended maternity leave. When she called about going back to work, her employer had told her no positions were available. This was pre-Family Medical Leave Act and she had no legal recourse. She dropped her teaching courses to get a refund on the tuition and substitute taught while I job-hunted (and played computer games) all day.

I was only out of work for a fairly short six weeks before finding a new job in West Palm Beach. The weeks of inaction were immediately followed by the flurry of activity required to move to a new city, sell a house, find a place to rent, and start a new job. Funny how things even out like that.

I mention this not very tragic vignette, because this weekend the Washington Post Magazine published a very funny and poignant story called “Terminated” by T. M. Shine. In the article he mentions the following piece of folk wisdom:
Nothing happens until it happens to you.
He is referring to what I call the “every car on the road is the same model as the one you just bought” phenomenon. When you have had something happen to you, you notice it everywhere. Shine started a blog (One entry so far. For a writer with a lot of time on his hands, he seems to be a little lackadaisical about the posting pace.) that has gotten over forty comments from people that are or have been laid-off.

Having been there, I know where he is coming from. Unlike him, I have a good education in a steady industry. Shine, despite being a wickedly sharp writer, is a high school graduate in journalism. He might as well be bilge pump operator on the Titanic.

As part of the article he held an online chat where he had this observation as well (archy and mehitabel approach to capitalization his):
someone told me 'being unemployed is a full time job.' no its not. unless king of queens reruns, teaching the cats how to dust with their tails and unraveling 250 ft. of tin foil are part of the job too.
And not having anything to do all day is one of the worst parts (other than wondering how to buy groceries) of being unemployed. In addition to Su-25, there was some other game I played way to much until it was time to cook dinner and play Mr. Mom.

When I was laid off, it was on a Friday afternoon and the boss told gave me my severance check and told me to come back on Saturday for my personal belongings. This was well before office networks or any other good level of IT sabotage could be performed from your desk. Nonetheless, I came by for a single box of whatever trash had been in the desk drawer and all my technical reference books including The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits (I won a lot of office bets using that).

Shine regrets not stockpiling enough office supplies at home to tide him over. The supply cabinet is one of employment’s most under-rated perks. His best idea is that employees should have air-raid drill practices so that they can time how long it takes to pack all their personal mementos into a single box for that long walk down to the HR office. While I don’t have much in my office worth saving, I would make sure I had my Georgia Tech Barbie, my broken HP-41 and the picture of Laura Bush (I can always get more pictures of my wife).

And anytime I hear of people out of a job, I feel their pain.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: If you got The Call, what cubicle litter would you be taking with you?

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Future's So Bright...

My son graduated from high school yesterday. The guest speaker was Vic Carter from WJZ-13. I paraphrase a few of his comments:

The road to success does not lead back home.

There are three things your parents do not want you bringing home: dirty laundry, bills (you make them, you pay them), and children. At least not until much, much later.

Wise words, Mr. Carter.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Mystery Business Trip

I was on a business trip for a few days earlier this week. Since I never blog about work, I don't really want to say where, but I took a lot of great pictures that I want to share. I guess if I just drop some hints, somebody can take guesses in the comments about where I was.

IMG_1244The entire town was festooned with with heron sculptures. It started years ago with Chicago and the bulls and since then I have seen pandas, fish, crabs, donkeys and elephants, and beehives as different cities do silly mascots.
IMG_1282This statue was in front of a building that we were told used to be a brewery headquarters. On our way out of town our hotel had a sign welcoming the North Central Propane Association Motorcycle Rally. We expected Hank Hill to show up at any minute, but he would have to ride 963 miles to get there
IMG_1323The town is too small to have a Hard Rock Cafe, but is does have a Hooters. But that's not much of a clue since this tacky yet unrefined chain is nearly as ubiquitous as Starbucks. We were wined and dined at places with such locale specific names as The Freight House, The Waterfront, and Piggy's.
IMG_1234If this picture doesn't give it away, I don't know what will.

If you need more hints, check out this Flickr set. The city name is pretty prominent in one of the photos. If you're a boodler and you remember me telling where I went, don't spill the beans but feel free to drop hints.

BlatantCommentWhoring®: Where was I? And even better, have you been there? I'm guessing that some of my readers have been.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Portfolio Pride

If you get bored about me bragging about my son, definitely skip this post. It is about as syrupy as I’m going to get. May is just a whirlwind of activity centering around him and I have to get in some sappy stuff while I can. Besides, I have to write as much about him on my blog as I can before his grandparents show up and spill the beans about how much I’ve been talking about him. They are notoriously indiscreet.

For his intern mentorship, instead of having a final exam he had to put together a portfolio. Portfolios are the latest trend in education as a touchy-feely way of showing work. Like most things, he didn’t take the assignment very seriously. He claims that most of the effort was in spelling out “PORTFOLIO” in duct tape on the cover. I found the artifacts he place in it very interesting. It has a lot of paper documentation for the things he had done either in school or as an extracurricular activities. There are certificates from his Rocketry Club and Math League competitions. His rather mono-alphabetic transcript is included. He has some graphs and pictures from the nanotube research. But one item struck me as more representative than any of the others.

His internship took him down to JHU APL four days a week. He kept Wednesdays free because that was when most of his afterschool activities happened. This gave him an empty part of his schedule from about 11 until 3. School rules prevent him from hanging around campus, so he had to go do something else.

At the elementary school level, sometimes kids get pushed into the advanced math courses ahead of their grade. It doesn’t happen often, but it eventually causes problems. When the kid hits fifth grade, he runs out of math because he has already taken the fifth grade GT class and the middle school program refuses to touch the kids ahead of schedule. The math teacher has to keep these kid busy for that year without getting too far ahead. There’s never more than one of these in any school at a given time and there isn’t one every year. It just happens whenever one of these advanced students comes along. It always causes problems with the teachers because they have regular classes to teach and with the parents that want to make sure their kid stays challenged.

This happened to my son and it worked out fine mostly because my wife was his math teacher and was able to keep him actively learning. This year my wife knew of another kid in that situation at her old school and suggested that my son might want to help him out. And then in her new school there was yet another fifth grader in the same boat. So every Wednesday he alternated visiting these two kids and working with them for about an hour on the independent study assignments they were doing.

This wasn’t anything he got any sort of recognition for. It wasn’t part of any formal program, and it wasn’t anything he had to do. He didn’t get paid or earn course credit or even accumulate community service hours. Probably the only people that knew this was even happening were us, my son, the kids and their parents, and the math teacher.

It was just him relating to a kid that was going through what he had gone through back when he was in fifth grade. It made the kids realize that they aren’t alone. It gave them a role model, something my son isn’t often accused of being. One of the kids gave my son this picture of the two of them with a Thank You card. The card said:
Thank you for taking time to come and help me with my math! Good luck in college! It was a lot of fun working with you.

Of all the scraps of paper in that portfolio, I think that thank-you note says the most about what my son accomplished his senior year.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Taco Truck

About once a week, my job takes me to a construction site (and that is about all I will ever blog about my job. There are too many cautionary tales to do otherwise). In case you are not aware, many construction industry workers, particularly in the “unskilled” trades such as blocklaying, drywall hanging, roofing, and especially asbestos abatement work, are Hispanic. I saw this not to start a discussion about immigration policy and the lack thereof. I have plenty of friends and family who make Lou Dobbs look like Cesar Chavez and I spend a great deal of time biting my tongue around them. I mention it because the employment trend has made my lunch hour on the jobsite much more delicious.

Everyday there are two taco trucks that visit the job site. You can get a burger or a ham sandwich, but more importantly, you can get a variety of traditional Mexican dishes. The tacos are the flour soft tortillas with cilantro and peppers instead of cheese and sour cream. But I like the quesadillas. For five bucks I can get two chicken quesadillas and a soda. That doesn’t even pay for the gas it takes me to drive to any nearby fast-food places.

And when I say ‘soda’ I mean not just Coke or Mountain Dew, I can get the obscure fruit sodas that are usually only found in specialty grocery stores. Champagne cola has little in common with standard American colas except for the carbonation. These are lighter, sweeter, and nearly clear. And we all know I love obscure soda flavors.

The way the taco truck works is that you order at the window to the two ladies working the grille. Then you go pay a guy that is standing at a small TV tray sized folding table. In just a few minutes, a piping hot fresh quesadilla is waiting.

One day as I was walking over to pay with my food, a rather redneck looking construction worker noticed my food and asked how it was. I said “delicious”.

He walked up to the window and said “Uno case-a-diya poy-yo” in a thick southern accent.

The money-taking guy kind of chuckled and asked me “He did say ‘pollo’ didn’t he?”

I smiled back and said “He sure did.”

And this is how cross-cultural understanding operates. Over food. Besides, quesadillas de pollo SON deliciosas.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: Place all tirades about how this little vignette is emblematic of how the country is destroying itself here.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

National Get Lucky Night

(Click on images for direct link)

I try to stay out of my son’s personal non-academic life. Particularly his romantic life. For the parents of a teenager a certain amount of willful ignorance and plausible deniability is bliss. But as certain rites of passage roll around, it’s hard not to engage in a certain level of vicarious voyeurism.

One of the biggest milestones is prom. For months we would discretely inquire if he had made prom arrangements, particularly whether or not he had a date yet. After weeks of vague replies it became apparent that he was going to end up going stag. As regular readers will know, my son has a lot more going for him than I did at that age. But he still wasn’t able to close the deal for this year. Part of his reluctance may because he is gun shy. His date to last year’s prom ended up passing out on the dance floor from exhaustion (My son had fed her a full dinner beforehand and no alcohol had been consumed) and had to be rushed to the emergency room. That made the rest of the evening rather awkward.

This year, he blames his condition on his own choosiness and the protectiveness of the parents of the girls he knows. His school is nearly one-quarter Asian and the level of the classes he takes tends to skew that percentage even higher. In his Calculus BC class last year, there were only a couple of kids of entirely European heritage. Many of his fellow students are Generation 1 or 1.5 immigrants, meaning they were either born in the US or moved here as small children. They have been raised as Americans with all the cultural adaptations thereunto, but their parents were born and educated abroad and have brought with them a lot of old world attitudes. They are very protective of their daughters, which troubles me with what it reveals of how women are treated in their native culture. Keeping your little girl from going to prom with a guy is unnecessarily strict and in complete defiance of decades of American tradition.

But American mass-media bears some responsibility for enhancing these parents’ paranoia. Teen movies before and since John Hughes have focused on prom as the centerpiece of the high school experience. This is the night where all the drama, conflict, and romance of the school year culminate. At movie proms, if there is not a catfight, a romantic clinch, or a baby being delivered, it just hasn’t been a real party.

A recent Washington Post article noted the disturbing trend that girls’ expectations for prom invitation have come to exceed the effort most guys put into a marriage proposal. Fueled by silly MTV shows, guys are now expected to come up with unique and romantic methods of asking for a date which puts a lot on the line. If the approach crashes and burns, the guy is now totally exposed and out of the running for discretely moving onto his second choice. No girl wants to be somebody’s back-up plan. It becomes an all-or-nothing proposition.

Likewise, guys’ expectations for prom night have also been raised to traditional wedding night levels. Prom has become National Get Lucky Night. Even back in my day there were always rumors of rented motel rooms and all night beach parties where clothes and inhibitions were bound to be abandoned. But today that expectation has risen to ridiculous levels. Since girls don’t even pretend to wait until the wedding night anymore, prom has now become the focal point for even the most demure girls that haven’t crossed the bridge into sexual activity already.

In order to fight the perceived perils of prom night many schools are now organizing very elaborate after-prom parties to keep these hormonally charged kids busy until daylight when presumably the risk of procreative activity subsides. I know of one private school that gives away a sports car as a door prize. Never mind that the winner usually has something as good or better in his garage already.

Last week we got a mass e-mail from the principal asking parents to not host private after-prom parties since the PTA goes to a lot of trouble and expense to rent out a local mega-fitness center. That’s not my son’s idea of a good time. Instead, he is having a half-dozen (or maybe more) of his equally unlucky in love friends over for a massive video game extravaganza. We are temporarily moving all the available audio-visual outlets to the living room so we can have multiple rounds of Smash Brothers running at once.

And isn’t having a good time with your friends to mark a milestone in your high school career what prom night should really be about?

BlatantCommentWhoring™: Is prom completely out of control, or am I a victim of fuddy-duddiness? How did your prom compare to the modern version?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Shaking Hands With George

IMG_9408My post a while back about stalking Maureen Dowd was anti-climactic because I never actually met MoDo. At best I got a curious and/or nervous look from here as to why I was taking a pictures. The person I did manage to meet was George Stephanopoulos. Like any celebrity, he is smaller than he appears in television, which is mighty small indeed. Despite his bushy eyebrows, he has never lost that boyish whiz-kid look he had as one of Bill Clinton’s inner circle.

IMG_9340Producing his Sunday morning show requires a fair amount of physical energy. The show is recorded in the smaller of the third floor studios of the brand new Newseum right next to a large staircase the runs up and down the height of the building. Right after the Roundtable segment, while the panelists are moseying over to the green room for the web post-interview, George and an assistant race up the stairwell to get to sixth floor for the Weekly Funnies segment.

I had been standing outside watching all the guests go by when he came out for the next segment. As he went past, to break the awkwardness of me staring at him, I said, “I really love the show.” I felt like a groupie hanging around the back door of a Hannah Montana concert.

IMG_9403He stopped and said “thanks” and continued on up the stairs. Once he gets up to the roof terrace (and these are tall floors), he sets up overlooking the Mall of DC. From there he points out a landmark and introduces the late show comic clips. After that, he does the closing remarks and the show wraps.

But that doesn’t mean he is done. I wandered back through the museum looking at some of the exhibits and when I got back down to the third floor I noticed a group hanging outside the door to the studio. I glanced into the studio and saw George sitting at the desk talking to the camera.

IMG_9400I wandered over to see what the crowd was for. Before I could find out, the door opened and a guy wearing tons of badges ushered them in and I wagon-trained along. I don’t like looking like a tourist even when I am being one. Even though I had a camera case over my shoulder, I had dressed for the day in pleated khakis and a nice earth-tone button down shirt. I looked positively Al Gore-ish.

This group that was on a private tour was also dressed pretty nicely for a Sunday morning in Washington. They turned out to be a group of VIPs from a company that owned several network affiliates. Everybody tip-toed back into the electronics filled back of the studio with all the cables and cameras. In addition to Snuffleupagus (as cruel bloggers call him), there was the guest wrangler and three or four production people.

IMG_9416George was doing drop-in interviews with local stations. The producer was on the phone and would tell George who they were going to talk to next. George would then sit there repeating the name and city of the local anchor he was about to talk to. The camera man would count down the feed and then George would turn on the charm. He’d make news-show happy chat with the local newscaster and pimp the panelists and topic for the day’s show which obviously hadn’t aired yet in that market. While I was in there, he talked to LA, Atlanta, and Miami.

Between the drop-ins, he would walk out from behind the desk and schmooze with the big wigs. The topic of the day was (and still is) when will Hillary throw in the towel. He would just shrug and reply to the effect of “when she is good and ready.”

I tried to stay as inconspicuous as possible. As he came around shaking hands and being introduced to everyone, it became inevitable that he would reach me. I just stuck out my hand and introduced myself. He said, “That’s right, we met outside.” He had remembered me from the hallway.

Once all the on-air promotions were done, the tour continued on over to the master control room, but I ducked out the other direction before anyone could notice me and call security.

The whole time I was there, George was nothing but polite and professional to everyone. That included senators, news columnists, corporate guests, and me, a nosey blogger that had wandered in off the street. Say what you want, but I say George Stephanopolous is a class act.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: When have you wandered into someplace you didn’t belong and were you caught?

Monday, May 12, 2008

Cooking Mama Mothers Day

Rather than go the flowers route or get yet more candy for the house, I did all my Mothers Day shopping at BigBoxOfElectronics. This is not as self-serving and clueless as it seems. My wife enjoys lots of little gadgets. She's the one that decided we were getting GPS units for Christmas. I claim that I have no need for one since I am never truly lost. She argues that when the GPS says "Turn around as soon as possible." that it is very politely telling me to catch a clue.

That is just one example. The house is littered gizmos and gadgets that even I think is overboard. Nonetheless, I decided that more gizmos and gadgets were just the ticket. A nice mini-USB hub would go great with her laptop and I also got a 5-in-1 memory card reader for use with her digital camera.

BigBoxOfElectronics is also BigBoxOfMusicAndMovies. She just bought herself the new Neil Diamond album, so that was out. Then in the movie aisle I saw a box set of Audrey Hepburn movies. I had never seen the original Sabrina and we both love Roman Holiday, so that went into the cart.

I wandered into the gaming area looking for WiiFit. Normally, any gift implying the need for exercise is a risky gambit. But she had mentioned it as something she was interested in and the hosts of Buzz Out Loud says that that is the free pass needed. Lucky for me, WiiFit doesn't come out for another two weeks.

Not wanting to go away empty handed, I threw a game into the basket called Cooking Mama Cook-Off. When I showed the gifts to my son, he decided that this was the perfect game for him to give. He declared it doubly ironic since she doesn't play video games or cook. He's made it a running joke that his mother doesn't cook. That's not true. She just hasn't cooked in his living memory.

It's not that she can't cook. She has just managed to trick me into it. When she was a first year teacher, she asked if I could help out by cooking meals to free up time for her to write lesson plans. I asked if this would just last a year or two until she had a good stockpile of lessons. She just smiled ambiguously. That was twelve years ago.

The game is a lot of fun. You have to prepare meals by doing all the different steps to prepare a recipe with the WiiMote. There is cutting, peeling, stirring, pouring, stir-frying, and all sorts of other esoteric procedures. Cracking eggs takes a pretty delicate touch. Like most Wii games it seems designed to induce carpal tunnel injuries in the most efficient manner possible. To give the game a spin, my son and I used the head-to-head challenge mode. While he easily won the minestrone and custard rounds, I rocked at mochi.

And when I looked up, my wife had quietly snuck out of the room. I think all the waving of the WiiMotes looked too much like real work to her. So I will just have to become the master chef on the Wii as well as in the kitchen.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: In your house, who does the cooking and who plays games?

BonusBlatantCommentWhoring™: On a scale of vacuum cleaner to diamond ring, how inappropriate were my gifts?

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Confessions Of A Bad Son

I’m not a very good son. I tease and torment my mother every chance I get. Many of my run-ins with her date back to my college days. Part of the problem was that in my sophomore year, my family got transferred to Italy and that made communicating more trouble than just picking up the phone.

She wanted frequent letters and I would get behind. She once sent me an entire book of stamps with no note or explanation. I wrote back explaining that I could buy my own stamps. She wrote back smugly that at least it got me to write.

Another time she had sent me a copy of Space by James Michener because one of the main characters was a Georgia Tech grad. The book was truly dreadful and I wrote a ten page letter explaining in excruciating detail just how bad it was. Rather than be impressed with the effort I had put into the analysis, she took it as a personal attack on her and broke down into tears.

Yet another letter from me was a long rambling April's Fools joke hinting that I wasn’t who I thought I was and that my whole life had been a lie. I was going to break up with my fiance because I needed to find myself and women just didn't interest me anymore. She completely missed the April 1st date on the letter and called international long distance to make sure I was okay. I could hear my dad in the background saying, “I knew he was just joking.”

That led into another running gag. My college roommate was gay (see this post for that story) and when my mother would visit us, she would pick up a slight tingle in her fairly unreliable gaydar. Anytime she hinted that my roommate might be a little light in the loafers I reacted in feigned ignorance. I would deny it and kept insisting that it was all part of her over active imagination. I kept that game going for several years.

I just loved playing on her trust and gullibility. I don’t know why, it was just fun to do.

And it’s not that she has ever been a bad mother. Twice she has had to emulate a single parent for a year while my dad was on assignment overseas. The first time was with toddlers. The second with teenagers. I’m not sure which was worse.

I still like to tease her when I can. I make fun of her bland New England cooking. I blame my bad driving habits on her easily frightened reactions while she was teaching me. I tell her that her 85-year-old neighbor with artificial knees is faster than she is (because it’s true).

I tease because I love.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: What have you done mean to your mother?

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Impractical Auto Advice

For a while in high school I had one of the most distinctive cars in the student lot. My dad had bought himself a 1973 VW SuperBeetle (the major distinguishing feature that made it Super seemed to be a slightly rounded windshield rather than a flat windscreen). Since he carpooled to work, the car became my de facto school commuter. When people saw the Orange Pumpkin in the lot, they knew I was near. While I don't have any contemporary pictures of that fine automobile, this one from the web is an identical twin, except for the lack of dented fenders.

As a junior, I didn't have the right to park in the paved lot, but instead had to park in the wooded area down by the football stadium. Over the months the flared fenders kept scraping trees and becoming slightly banged up, much to my dad's annoyance. There was as least one fender I had no idea when or how the dent happened. The worst was when I backed into a tree and wrinkled the rather flimsy bumper.

SuperBeetles have some well-known drawbacks. The engine is lightly powered and the heater is laughable. For suburban driving in Florida where the streets are flat, the speed limits all 40 or under and the weather never went below 30, all these problems were moot. Perhaps the only down side to this nearly indestructible car was that the gas gauge didn't work. As a part time employee at SquareBurgerChain, my paychecks were mostly in the $20 to $30 range, meaning a full tank of gas AND a movie ticket were budget busters.

I would lose track of the last time I put gas in and how much, which resulted in the occasional roadside flame out. I became quite adept at getting the fuel system filled and primed again. Now as a nearly useless public service I share that advice:

How To Restart A 1973 Pumpkin Orange VW SuperBeetle That Has Run Out Of Gas Because Of A Faulty Gas Gauge And Negligence On The Part Of A Broke High School Student.
  1. Beg a ride to a gas station from a classmate or family member. (Remember, cell phones did not exist in 1981.) Buy one gallon of gasoline and dispense into portable slightly rusted gas can.
  2. Return to shoulder of road where VW has been left. Fill tank with one-half gallon of gas from portable container.
  3. Gas must make its way to the engine.
    1. Wait eight hours for gas to siphon through fuel system.
    2. OR
    3. Have fellow student or family member crank starter while liberally splashing gasoline into carburetor. Step back once engine has started.
  4. Pour remaining gasoline into fuel tank while engine idles.
  5. Proceed to gas station. Pump five dollars or five gallons of gas, whichever is greater, into car.
  6. Note odometer reading. Make mental note to buy an additional five dollars of gas within 100 miles.
Bonus advice: Occupancy of a VW Beetle by six or more people for any distance further than the student parking lot to the nearest fast food restaurant is not recommended.

This is a time-tested proven-effective method perfected over a good half dozen incidents. Fortunately most occurred near the driveway or on local roads with wide shoulders. Eventually my dad sold the bug for a 1972 Pontiac LeMans Grand Prix station wagon for its boat-towing capability, a feature no Beetle I know of had. The station wagon was a sadly faded puke-pea green with peeling faux-wood paneling trim. It was much more practical but far less distinctive.

To this day, when I see an orange classic VW puttering down the road, I sigh nostalgically and hope that somewhere that Bug I drove is still coughing to a start and running out of gas.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: What sort of impractical auto advice can you offer?

Photo Credit: Found the doppleganger to my Bug, as well as many others, here.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

A Series Of Tubes

I don’t spend a lot of time on this blog bragging about my son. It’s not that there’s not a lot to brag about, but because I remember how embarrassing it was to me to have my mother talk me up to people I didn’t even know. And what is a blog but talking to hundreds of strangers in the grocery store check-out lane all at once.

But I have several things to be proud of even if I can’t take credit. About two years ago he became fascinated with the concept of carbon nanotubes. These things did not even exist when I was in college. Think of a sheet of paper rolled into a tube, only the paper is a one atom thick slice of graphite. Carbon nanotubes are so new they don’t even know what can be done with them yet.

Having finished up most of the courses he needed to graduate last year, he got interested in the school’s intern mentorship program. High school students get paired up with people in industry or commerce. He put down carbon nanotubes as his interest. At the beginning of the year he was told there was a chance to work with a researcher that was doing just that.

For the entire school year he has been putting in ten hours a week doing real lab work for a real PhD doing real research. Carbon nanotubes are small and finicky and delicate. He spent a lot of time cleaning glassware, preparing solutions, waiting endlessly for the centrifuge to work its nano-magic and logging raw data. Some of it was boring and tedious, but so are a lot of things.

Overnight, he upgraded his wardrobe from black denim and ironic tee shirts to twill pants and golf shirts. He would come home some days later than me from having to fight traffic from all the other enclaves of Really Smart People that lie between DC and Baltimore.

He never lost his sense of humor or his relaxed attitude to schoolwork that bored him. We had a few bumps along the year, but he is now in the senioritis strewn back stretch and it looks like he might make it.

Someday nanotubes may make the saying that the internet is just a bunch of tubes more than a misguided metaphor. And my son had some small, small part of it. He may not continue on with this field, but the skills and exposure he has gotten will serve him well in the future.

I may even be bragging about him more in the weeks to come. But only because he deserves it so much. Indulge me because I only get to do this once and it’s too exciting to not stop people in the street and tell them how proud I am of my son.

Monday, May 05, 2008


I hadn't done any memes or quizzes lately mostly because I haven't seen any decent ones lately. Just endless variations of the "Tell (some absurdly large number) Silly/Embarrassing/Extortionable Facts About You." But then comes Claude of Baltimore Diary to the rescue with What Punctuation Mark Are You? These silly "What [blank] Are You?" quizzes are you can be very clever or astoundingly obtuse (Which Next Generation Klingon Are You?).

Besides, punctuation is always funny. Many, many places on the web I've gotten into absurd little discussions about gross abuses of punctuation marks. The poor apostrophe seems to be the most critically mistreated. Put in all sorts of places he never belongs and left out of many respectable places he should. So I nervously took the quiz to see what punctuation mark I would be.

You Are a Colon

You are very orderly and fact driven.
You aren't concerned much with theories or dreams... only what's true or untrue.
You are brilliant and incredibly learned. Anything you know is well researched.
You like to make lists and sort through things step by step. You aren't subject to whim or emotions.
Your friends see you as a constant source of knowledge and advice.
(But they are a little sick of you being right all of the time!)
You excel in: Leadership positions
You get along best with: The Semi-Colon

Not as exciting as an exclamation mark or as necessary as a period, but still, a colon is good solid piece of punctuation.

Colons are authoritative. They perform many important functions: beginning lists, introducing quotes, and separating the halves of an appositive. The only unfortunate feature is that the name is shared with a portion of the digestive system which can result in silly scatological puns. But the colon isn't the only punctuation mark with that problem. Try do discuss periods in a middle school language arts class without getting a few snickers.

I do have to take exception to the last statement of the quiz explanation. I refuse to have anything to do with semi-colons. Kurt Vonnegut (he said it, I believe it) called semi-colons pretentious:
If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be a homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts. But do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites, standing for absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.
Gawker even declared the semi-colon dead.

Colons divide: semi-colons dither.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: Take the quiz and 'fess up.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Drunken De Maio

I don't do many diary style blog posts but today wans;t a typical day. I woke wup at 6:30 this morning wanting, no needeing, to go on a bciylce ricde. This was my firest time down to Ellic0tt City for the biking season. I love screaming down Main street in excess of 25 miles per hour and then having to make the hard right from Main Street onto New Cut Road and climbing out of the saddle to begin the two mile uphill ride back to Montgomery Roaad.

I put 16 miles on the odometer which pushed me over 100 miles for the year so far. I keep a pretty detailed log of my rides and I tend to sandbag the first ride or two each yera on a specivic route. I checked my rather anal-retentive records and saw that this ride beat my best time for that route from all of last year. Yay, me. I credit the new bike shoes and pedals that my wife gave me for Christmas. I get a lot more power going up hills. I'm still not used to stepping out of the pedals at stops so I tend to run more red lighst than I should, which makes me the sort of discourteous rider that motorists hate. Trust me, at that time of day, I'm not risking too many squealing breaks.

When I got home it was time to figure out why the computer in the den no longer connected to the wireless network in the basement. I dusted off a Belkin Wireless network extender I had bought and never got working right. This time I found a website whti tips on how to get into the web interface embeedded in the router rather than the through the useless interface program. I got it working and syncing, but no help for the computer.

That meant a trip down to BigBoxOfElectronics to buy a new wirelless network card. The original was D-Link but when I had FiOS installed, it wasn't strong enough to hook to the wimpy router/moden that Verizon gives. About six months I decided to go name brand and got a Linksys card that was doing fine, but has been slowly decaying. After perusing the choices, I went back to D-Link because their new 802.11n card had two antennas and gave me an upgrade path just in case Verizon ever decided to support that standard.

The card went in without a hitch and immediately found the network extender. Since I was futzing with the network already, I went ahead and chabged from WEP to WPA security since all the other wireless networks in my neighborhood use that. Peer pressure is a bitch.

Then it was time to get ready for not one, but two Cinco Di Maio parties. The first was at a coworker's of my wife who is the PE teacher at one of the schools she works at. Not to traffic in stereotypes, but.... well, nevermind. She throws great parties with a delightful cross-section of poeple. The second party was at my bosses house. I tagged along on the hosue tour and she has a wood shop that puts my son's middle school technical arts wing to shame.

So I managed to drive the two or three miles home without attracting any law enforcement attention. Normally I edit my posts in Microsoft Word and get rid of amy typos and missspellings, but tonight I feel very stream of consciousnness and will see in the morning just how embarrassing this post is.

BlatantCommentDismissing(tm): Really, I was fine enough to drive. Just nto sober enough to blog.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Madame Unmade

I swore never to blog about this topic again. But like a disingenuous Al Pacino in Godfather III, they keep dragging me back in. Yesterday afternoon I indirectly learned of an AP news story that went thus:
A woman police believe to be convicted Washington escort service operator Deborah Jeane Palfrey committed suicide, officials said Thursday.
And there in the fifteenth paragraph was that name. The parallels were too eerily similar not to be mentioned. And sure enough, wherever the DC Madam was discussed, such as on Wonkette, some show off brought it up.

My narcissistic first reaction was a pit in my stomach and the thought that my blog traffic is going to explode for all the wrong reasons. I was right. Here is a graph taken about 11:30 last night displaying a classic exponential decay curve:

Depending on whose stopwatch and turnstile you are using, I got between 20,000 and 25,000 page views yesterday. Here’s how they broke down:

Really Desperate Housewife 8,516
Brandy’s Back 8,673
HoCo Hooker Update 568
Brandy Britton, RIP 652
Cute Baby Pictures 985

The Cute Baby Pictures post has absolutely nothing to do with the topic at hand, but seems to be enjoying some sort of halo effect benefit from all the other traffic.

As oddly obsessive as I am about my blog statistics I have never kept a running track of my busiest days. The time Defamer linked to my Studio 60 Drinking Game was huge. And everytime Josh of Comics Curmudgeon finds something of mine worthy of mention the traffic it sends is twice as much as the time before. But clearly this incident has to be the new benchmark.

I’ve said it before in my protests-too-much voice that I would rather have ten regular readers than a thousand rubberneckers. This is pretty much that case writ large. Fortunately, the web is big place where people have short memories and there are lots of shiny objects. There will be echoes and aftershocks, but I hope this is a coda to an odd bizarre story that is finally closed.

I’m not really in mourning, but this is the third suicide of someone I don’t really know that has drawn my attention in the past week. The phenomenon both puzzles and concerns me. It’s such a harsh and permanent solution to a problem. Palfrey was facing a potential 55 years in jail (but likely only to be sentenced to four to eight) and had sworn she was never going to serve time. And she didn’t.

For those of you who feel (rightly, I think) that the whole Palfrey imbroglio has been pruriently overplayed, I offer this comparison: Ken Lay the pirate at the helm of Enron was looking at a potential twenty to thirty years in jail when he died of a heart attack before his sentencing.

BlatantComment(MetaphoricalOnly)Whoring™: Draw your own ironic conclusions.

Postscript: This Washington Post Palfrey piece is particularly poignant.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

BooksFirst - April 2008

Books Bought

A Purple Place For Dying by John D. MacDonald
Ballroom Of The Skies by John D. MacDonald

Books Read

The Big U by Neal Stephenson
Nightmare in Pink by John D. MacDonald


Having read the middle section of Quicksilver last month but not ready to start the final third, I added to my Neal Stephenson checklist by digging out a long buried copy of his first novel, The Big U. The titular U is American Megaversity, a troubled major university where the entire campus is a series of high rise dorms sitting on top of a single large labyrinthine classroom complex. The story follows a half dozen different misfits (in the ‘geeks are good’ sort of way) as the campus slowly descends into chaos. About half way through the book, Rodents Of Unusual Size show up and then it gets really weird.

Stephenson has downplayed The Big U saying that he would prefer that readers focus on his better, later works. Still, this book shows off many of the themes and motifs he would later use to better effect in Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon. While it has a first person narrator, the storyline shifts around to the several characters that will later all interact, just like pretty much everything else he writes. We have the disillusioned student body president, the misunderstood genius, the proto-computer hacker, and one of the first ever Live Action Role Playing groups described in print. Despite being written in 1984, a lot of the technology and social matrix stuff about campus life still works and applies.

The book is wildly uneven. Stephenson has never successfully managed the end-game chaos that he sets off early in his books, and this is no exception. Although I must say I came out less confused than I did with Zodiac. Pretty much from the first page I was reminded of a J. G. Ballard minor classic called High Rise that also documents a descent into madness among a group of buildings residents. And bad, early Stephenson is still better that a lot of other books.

About the time I started doing BooksFirst posts, I had an ambition to re-read my John D. MacDonald collection, especially the Travis McGee novels, and write about them. I’m a collector of the first editions of his paperback originals and I tend to have multiple printings of each title. For the BooksFirst posts, I like to add a picture of each book I read. Usually for the accompanying cover picture I just Google the appropriate image and appropriate it (for review and comment, I consider this reasonable fair use). From now on, for the JDM novels, I am scanning the cover of the true first edition and using that even though I probably actually read a later reprint. These yellowed paperbacks from the fifties and sixties are often too fragile to physically open any more.

Nightmare in Pink was the second of the Travis McGee novels and I have always considered it one of the weaker ones. Nothing in the rereading has made me change that opinion. Travis is a beach bum with cynical shell but a core of idealism. He finances his leisurely lifestyle by righting injustices for a split of the profit. In Nightmare, his war buddy (McGee is a Korean war vet, which became increasingly anachronistic as the series dragged well into the 80s) has a sister whose fiancé got killed after discovering a secret at his high-finance office.

Travis, despite his sense of obligation to his buddy, beds the sister and has some of the best sex anybody has ever had anywhere in print. The actual descriptions are delightfully coy, but the superlatives just roll off the page. James Bond could only dream of being the stud that Travis is. Of course, the conspiracy goes deeper than anybody knows. Where the book gets a little dated is when Travis is kidnapped and kept under an LSD haze (hence the pink nightmare) until he can escape and save the day. The book predates the hippie era and the descriptions of the hallucinations are delightfully trippy but whiff of Reefer Madness.

The action all takes place in New York and there are plenty of dishy society and finance type characters. In one set-piece, Travis sets up an undercover meeting with a escort service. With these old books, I like to add a zero to any price mentioned to adjust for inflation. In the book, the call girl costs $250, which would put her in Eliot Spitzer territory today. And MacDonald’s little asides about the mechanics and logistics of high class hookers is amazingly detailed. Travis McGee never wears on me and I need to redouble my effort to reread these books.

I never did get around to posting a real review of The Deep Blue Good-By back then, so I'm including it now. John D. MacDonald had been writing for about a decade before he embarked on the serial hero stories of Travis McGee for which he would become famous. The Deep Blue Good-By is the first of the colorfully titled books in that series.

The story takes place in and around Travis McGee's Fort Lauderdale stomping grounds. A dancer (legitimate, not exotic) friend introduces him to Cathy Kerr, a troubled girl whose husband died in prison before he could tell her where he hid the stash of precious stones he smuggled out of Burma in World War II (JDM had served in that theater as well). He did tell his bunkmate Junior Allen who stalks and befriends and eventually terrorizes Cathy to get to the loot. Junior Allen is one of the great sadistic sociopaths of pulp fiction. He should have been played by Robert Mitchum, who was in Cape Fear (based on a non-McGee JDM novel). It's not giving away too much to say that Travis nearly meets his match.

Despite being the first in the series, this is one of the best Travis McGee books. It has a lot of the elements that would become the cornerstones of the series: a setting near the sea, a sociopath, a troubled vulnerable girl or two, a bone crunching fight sequence, and sardonic sociological commentary. All it is missing is an overly complicate real estate deal to be unraveled by the yet to be introduced Meyer.

I can't recommend this book enough and despite being written over forty years ago, the insights and asides are as acerbically true today if not more so.