Sunday, August 30, 2009

Lost In Columbia

(click to embiggen)

Riding a bicycle in Columbia Maryland is not for the faint of heart. The 'planned' community is full of twisty roads, dead ends and endless loops. It's a quintessentially 1960s car-oriented bedroom community. Bordered by I-95 to the east and Route 32 to the south, it is bisected by US29, all very bicycle unfriendly limited access highways. To ride around Columbia requires a precise knowledge of which major roads lead into and out of any given 'village' as the neighborhood strip centers are called.

For my Sunday ride this week, I decided to combine some of my shorter routes and try for a forty mile ride which would be a record for the year. Little did I know how long it would be. As usual, I took Route 108 west to the edge of Columbia where Harpers Farm Road becomes Homewood Road and then Folly Quarter Road and finally Tridelphia Road all while staying the same road. From there it was back to Clarksville and the Bagel Bin. This was the 20-mile point and I rewarded myself with a bagel and a juice drink. Since my biking rule of thumb is one water bottle per twenty miles, it was time for a fill-up. With a cold full water bottle, I pressed on to the more experiemental longer route.

I skirted the edge of the Johns Hopkins Advanced Physics Lab campus and went past the famous Bollman Iron Truss Bridge in Savage. Then it was through Savage Park and back into Columbia. Here is where a bicycle route becomes tricky. All the major roads in this area including US29, Broken Land Parkway and Snowden River Parkway are major roads and not all that good for biking. But if you go north from the Kings Contrivance Village Center and cross 32 on Eden Brook Drive onto Shaker Drive (another road that changes names for no reason), you can thread your way through east Atholton and cross Broken Land Parkway at Stevens Forest. I had done this just once before, but I had had a map with me to figure out the precise twists and turns needed to make it. But I didn't.

  1. I pass Touché Touchet Bakery (which bakes excellent cupcakes) with half of bottle of water and the odometer reading 36.5 miles. I had been keeping a very steady 14 mile per hour pace and was eager to get home.
  2. I hit Beechwood Road and should have turned left, but instead I prematurely turn right.This was the critical mistake from which I would not recover.
  3. Wandering aimlessly looking for a landmark, I run out of road at the end of Allview. The road disappears down a narrow path and I figure it must lead somewhere. Somewhere is the wrong side of the river coming from Lake Elkhorn. Instead, I cross a smaller stream which requires getting my biking shoes thick with mud and lifting my bicycle over my head out of the stream bed on the other side. I then wander through nettles, miraculously none deflating my tires, and sneak through someone's back yard back to pavement.
  4. As I cross Route 32, I realize I have gone the wrong way and u-turn in traffic.
  5. Hot, muddy, and sweaty, I stop at the bakery and have half a coffee cake and an iced coffee. I also refill my empty water bottle. The odometer reads 41.5 miles. I have trekked five miles and gotten nowhere.
  6. Rather than get lost all over again, I cut my losses and cross US29 at Seneca Road. From here I can find my way back.
  7. Traffic is completely snarled at the entrance to Merriwether Post Pavilion. I assume there is some big festival concert going on.
  8. I cross US29 yet again, this time on Broken Land Parkway, which is exactly what I was trying to avoid.
  9. Finally back on the residential roads of Columbia I rejoin my planned route.
Just as the odometer swings past 50 miles, I get home at about 1 pm after having left at 8 am. I start rinsing the mud off my shoes in the shower when my wife tells me we are meeting some friends at the GiantWarehouseOfCrap where they are members so we can buy groceries on their card.

So the object lesson here is to never take roads in Columbia for granted. If you don't know where you are going, you will get lost. And while in a car, that is a minor inconvenience, on a bicycle, it turns a brisk Sunday ride into meandering nightmare.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Monday, August 24, 2009

Yellojkt's Help Desk

Many, many years ago, Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller fame, or infamy as the case may be, had a column in the back of PC/Computing magazine. It was funny and irreverent and doomed because it told too many truths to power.

In one classic column (which may be this one, but I can't get the link to work), he compared using a computer to using a toaster. Once everybody caught on, all the gurus and tech-wizards would be out of jobs. His advice was to cement your expertise as a 'computer expert' as quickly as possible before it calling yourself one became as lame as calling yourself a 'toaster expert'.

As this xkcd comic shows (and I predict it will be the most e-mailed, Facebooked, and Twittered link of the year), that day is not upon us yet.

Worse, my brand new toaster oven has three different knobs that all have to be precisely arranged to toast a bagel properly. Not only aren't computers getting any easier, toasters are getting much harder.

(h/t to TBG and ScienceSpouse)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Indecently Exposed

PPG Plaza and Parking Deck IMG_8126

One of the podcasts I listen to regularly is Indecent Exposure. While that title sure does sound like it's up my alley, it's not quite what it sounds like. The subtitle is "C-Net's Digital Imaging Podcast" and it's about cameras and photography. The hosts, Lori Grunin and Matt Fitzgerald, are professional photographers that dispense camera news and reviews, answer listener questions, and run a weekly photo contest.

I rarely enter the contests because I often listen to the podcast well past the deadline or just don't have anything that fits the category they announce. Also, the people that enter are really, really good photographers and it's a little intimidating, especially if you look at a few entries beforehand.

IMG_8131But last week's topic was 'architecture' which is what I do a lot of. I like architecture because you don't need to cajole a building to stand still, or look into the camera, or not get mad over how many pictures you are taking.

The picture I chose was of the PPG Place in downtown Pittsburgh with a parking deck in the foreground. PPG Place (which I miscalled PPG Plaza in the picture title) is the post-modernist Johnson and Burgee designed skyscraper which looks like a castle made of glass since PPG was originally called Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company.

As I was wandering through downtown trying to find my hotel, I stumbled onto a view of the building with a parking deck in the foreground. The upper railings of the parking deck mimicked the turrets of the building. While my picture didn't win or even merit an honorable mention, here are some excerpts of some of the kind things Lori and Matt had to say about it (all errors in transcription, spelling and grammar are mine).
Lori: [PPG Place] looks as if somebody had built Superman's Fortress of Solitude out of plastic. ... And it looks sort of like a crown on this parking plaza rail. It's very difficult to describe. You need to take a look at it. That is a completely interesting angle to shoot the building from instead of just going straight at the building.

Matt: Very well framed and composed. I personally really liked it because it's my personal favorite buildings. The first thing I think of what architecture is is that building.
So here is the more traditional view of the top of the building:


IMG_7924The one odd encounter of the weekend in Pittsburgh was when my wife and I were taking pictures of the fiberglass dinosaurs in the central plaza. A security guard came up and told us that while some pictures were okay, we couldn't take pictures of the entire building for security reasons. He explained that the plaza was private property and they could make up any rules they wanted.

IMG_7923I shrugged my shoulders since I had already taken some photos of the full building, but I worry about the post 9-11 paranoia that has been used to restrict the rights of photographers. It's all petty posturing and phony protection. While I would hate to have anything happen to this architectural icon, I can't imagine terrorists using my Flickr site as a planning tool.

Nevertheless, I am flattered to finally get noticed amongst such talented entrants and it just spurs me to try harder. This week's topic is 'decay.' Hmmm, I regularly ride my bike past some abandoned buildings along the Patapsco River. We'll see what happens.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Vonnegut In The Park

When I am traveling, I like to get up early in the morning and go wandering the streets taking pictures. The light at that time of the day is magical and the streets are never too crowded. On a Sunday morning, downtown Pittsburgh is populated by a few homeless early risers and the random jogger. I meandered my way down to Point Park at the tip of the city. The park itself had seen better days and much of it was trapped behind chainlink construction fences which I hope means renovations are imminent.

The one landmark that was still accessible and in operation was the fountain at the end of the park right where the Alleghany and Monongahela Rivers merge to form the Ohio. Marring my pristine view was a woman laying on the fountain reading a book at eight in the morning on a weekend. Making lemonade out of lemons, I put on the telephoto lens and took some shots with one of Pittsburgh’s great steel bridges as a backdrop.

I eventually wandered down to the edge of the water and took some panorama style shots of the river and the city back drop. Walking back inland, my unwitting photo subject had sat up and was staring into the distance. That’s when I noticed that the book she was reading was Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut, which is not even one of his better known novels.

Out of some sense of karmic connection, I told her out of nowhere that I loved Kurt Vonnegut. And then as an afterthought, I asked if I could take her picture with the fountain in the background. She was flustered and confused but said “yes.”

I have no idea who she is and we surely will never see each other again. I bet she is worrying her friends with her story about how some creepy guy with a camera wanted her picture and they are telling her not to hang around public parks alone. But I can’t help but think of the cosmic coincidence that brings two fans of Vonnegut to the same fountain on a random Sunday morning. Some chrono-synclastic infundibulum came unstuck in time to put us both there at the same moment and then spun us back into a separate lives. Hi ho.

For my pictures of Pittsburgh that don't feature random strangers, check out my Flickr set.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Fries Are NOT A Condiment

What I originally planned as a daytrip turned into a weekend getaway. Having exhausted most tourist destinations (particularly the ones with air conditioning) within a two-hour radius, we headed west for Three Rivers City. Our first stop in Pittsburgh was the famous Primanti Brothers where the sandwiches are famous for coming with the sides between the slices of bread instead of on the plate.

Each sandwich comes with French fries and coleslaw as condiments. The fries are thick cut and hot. The coleslaw is crisp and tangy. The overall effect is delicious if a little odd-looking. This approach to all-in-one eating does make for a rather un-photogenic meal.

Rather than getting the Pitts-burgher which is labeled as their “second biggest seller”, I went with a roast beef sandwich which was quite tasty in its own right. When I asked the waiter what the top seller was, he pointed to my pint glass of Yuengling and said “You’ll be drinking it in about five seconds.”

As we ate our way across the city, I could fill my arteries hardening and my waistline expanding. Sure enough, when I got home I had put on two pounds from just a weekend trip. I can’t imagine what would happen to me if I lived there.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Obama and Me On Vacation

I have semi-serious goal of going to all the restaurants that Obama makes the news by eating at. So far I've added to my collection Ben's Chili Bowl, Hell Burger, and B. Smith among others. Now it seems that Obama is taking a lead from me and going on vacation the same places I have been. For example, we both went to Yellowstone this summer.

Well, we weren't exactly there at the same time. I was there near the end of July and he and his family passed through last week. Here I am grinning like a goof while my wife takes a picture:

And here is Obama for his photo-op where he said: “That’s pretty cool.” Not exactly as great as "this is a great wall" from Nixon but it'll do.

From there, the Obamas skipped over to the Grand Canyon where we went three years ago. Here is me and my son on the edge of the canyon:


And here is Obama and his kids:

That picture was taken at Hopi Point where I got some great pictures of condors hanging around.

And later in this month, he will be heading off to Martha's Vineyard (where I did some serious lighthouse hunting last year). If he wants some ice cream, he should get the lobster flavor at Ben & Bills in Oak Bluffs.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Like It's 1994

A guy I know from the internet (which seems to be where I find most of my friends lately) is an astrophysicist who goes by the nom de web of ScienceTim. When he and his buddies are out at Mauna Kea playing in the snow at the top of the mountain and staring at planets through the telescopes, they use their downtime to make the world's geekiest music video parodies. It helps that one Kelly Fast (PhD, Atrophysics) has an incredible voice and is the hottest scientist this side of Denise Richards in The World Is Not Enough. If you don't believe me, check her out in her first geeky viral video, "Hotel Mauna Kea"

And that, as Jon Stewart would say, is your moment of nerd.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Anthropology Smack-Down

Fails To Verify The Mother-Fucking Hypothesis
Wait Until Dr Zaius Finds Out About This

Through the miracle of Facebook, I learned the a high-school classmate of mind was on The Daily Show last night. He's the NYU anthropology professor with the world's shortest mohawk refuting the claim that orangutans, not chimpanzees, are our closest primate relative:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Human's Closest Relative
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorSpinal Tap Performance

And to think that thirty years ago he and I were researching the diplomatic positions of Gabon for the Model United Nations. Now I am an HVAC engineer and he is an academic giant worthy of some gentle mocking by a parody news-show. I'm glad to see we have both overcome our gawky geeky teenage roots.

And in the chimp-orangutan spat, I'm on Team Bonobo.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Be A Birther

Thanks to the helpful folks at Blue Collar Industries, anybody can forge a Kenyan birth certificate. Here is mine:

Far more useful would be an app that would help forge a Hawaiian Certificate of Live Birth. I might need one if I ever run for president.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

BooksFirst - June and July 2009

Books Bought

Books Read
The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey
Driving Like Crazy by P. J. O'Rourke
The Flash Companion by Keith Dallas et. al.

Books Heard
I Love You, Beth Cooper by Larry Doyle
Lamb by Christopher Moore

While reading Carl Hiaasen's latest book aimed at younger readers, Scat (reviewed here), there were multiple allusions to the eco-terrorist classic The Monkey Wrench Gang. I have long had a copy of Edward Abbey's hippie era novel moldering in my to-read pile (which is soon to be larger than my have-read pile) but never quite got around to it. Perhaps I had some sub-conscious fear that it would be some sort of dated screed, but it was nothing of the sort. The book was wildly funny and even more true and appropriate for the modern day than ever.

The 'Gang' is a group of four misfits who take their penny-ante vandalism against the companies despoiling the American Southwest to the next level. In particular, they target a large mining and power plant operation. While on vacation driving through Wyoming we passed an open strip coal mine right next to the highway and they are no pretty sight. While the heroes have a definite agenda, their morals and means are more ambiguous. The characters are well-rounded and become more interesting than the underlying environmental issue.

One scheme of theirs is to blow up a dam so as to restore a river. Since the book has been written many dams, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, have been decommissioned. Perhaps George Hayduke does live on in spirit.

I am a big fan of PJ O'Rourke. I saw him at a book signing at the old Bibelot several years back. He was every bit as acerbic and witty as you would expect. His latest collection is a compilation of some of his automotive related journalism much like Parliment of Whores and Give War A Chance covered politics and third-world wars respectively. Despite starting out with his National Lampoon classic "How To Drive Fast While Having Your Wing Wang Squeezed And Not Spill Your Drink" the quality of the essays quickly sputter downhill from there. Many of the stories seem to deal with either breaking down in Mexico or why SUVs are better than mini-vans (a point I seriously dispute).

Every artist reaches a soak-the-fans stage where every little out-take and alternate track gets released just to squeeze another few bucks out of previously released material. PJ is well into that stage. These leftovers are stale and poorly warmed-over. Some of them have been seriously edited to keep them current with various intros and afterwards added to try to create some continuity. The book never quite makes a statement and is a disjointed mess. At least it was a quick read and there were some glimmers of PJ in his prime.

My prime comic book reading days were in the early and mid-70s during the waning days of the Silver Age. I had latched onto DC comics early on and developed a brand loyalty at the time when Marvel was the market changer with the long multiple issue story lines of X-Men and Spider-Man. Instead I stuck with DC which was still relying on stand-alone episodic comics. One of my favorites heroes was The Flash. Superspeed was always a great power and The Flash was the coolest speedster ever and every issue he faced some new threat from his infamous Rogue's Gallery. In the late seventies and early eighties in an attempt to catch up with the times, the stories got more and more serialized resulting in a long storyline where Dr. Zoom kills Iris and Flash eventually kills Zoom and gets put on trial. The character and the story get so messed up that by the time the Crisis on Infinite Earths comes around and Barry Allen sacrifices himself, it's more of a mercy killing.

The Flash Companion through vignettes and interviews recounts the entire history of the Flash from Jay Garrick to Bart Allen stopping just short of the newly revived Barry Allen. The format of short essays is very personal and give a lot of great first person insights but there is a lot of overlap and repetition. The same anecdotes get repeated several times, sometimes in mutually contradictory versions. The running thread is a reverence for the hero that they claim kicked off the Silver Age, a renaissance in superhero comics. The Flash is iconic. No other speedster hero has the recognizable image of that yellow lightning bolt on red spandex.

The book is big with lots of line art from all the different phases of the history. It's thorough and comprehensive if just a little hagiographic. Definitely for the fanboy only. Of which I am one.

For our vacation we were going to be in the car for long long hours. I loaded up the iPod with audiobooks. The goal was to find some books that were family friendly and everybody could enjoy. This is for a family where Avenue Q counts as quality-time entertainment. The recent movie I Love You, Beth Cooper got universally panned. In one review, the critic contrasted the movie unfavorably with the brilliance of the book. The book is full of tons of interior monologue and narrative asides that just don't translate to film.

Throughout the ride, our whole family was laughing out loud at the different incidents and events. Much of it relies on the conceit that the book is an over-the-top parody of teen flicks. It trots out, bends, and warps every movie cliche since Sixteen Candles. Everytime the action flags, some new twist comes along to drive the story even insaner. I watched the trailer of the movie version online and every scene was identifiable from the book but looked flat. But nothing could match the peals of laughter as my family rolled down the road listening to the most hilarious over-the-top comedy I have heard in a long time. It's a great look at geekdom and high school and life.

Our follow-up book on our roadtrip was Lamb: The Gospel According To Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal. I had loved Island of the Sequined Love Nun (reviewed here) and wanted to hear more Christopher Moore. Lamb is the biography of Jesus's lost years which includes the ages from six to thirty. According to Moore, Jesus, or Joshua in this version, spent fifteen years wandering east Asia studying mystical arts, Zen Buddhism and obscure Hinduism.

The book is alternately a plausible history with cultural, religious and religious insights and a madcap sex comedy. Biff, aka Levi, is crazed horndog that is always using the turn the other cheek virtue of his boyhood buddy to scam some booty. By trying to be two things at once, the two threads tend to undercut each other. Some of the religious commentary is subtle and insightful but the hijinks can be silly and slapstick.

It's a book that reaches to be more than it is, but while it falls short, it does so in a very funny and entertaining way.