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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Great Northwest

My trip to Portland last week was great. The work part was interesting and went smoothly (and, crucially, was free). Portland has such a nice vibe...it's sort of the anti-DC. Washington DC is very yuppie and very status-obsessed; "What do you do?" is always the first question someone in a bar would ask. By contrast, Portland is pretty, friendly and low-key. People are hip and artsy, but in a less pretentious way than elsewhere. It was definitely nice when we went out on our first night to the Lucky Labrador Beer Hall near our hotel -- it was just a converted warehouse with a bunch of picnic tables inside, an indoor bike rack, and Modest Mouse's The Moon and Antarctica playing on the stereo.

The city also (famously) pays lots of attention to urban planning/design and public transit. The streetcar and light rail are nice, and people on bikes are everywhere. Powell's, apparently the biggest bookstore of them all, is very impressive.

We had a little extra time one afternoon and took a drive on the old Columbia River Road along the side of the gorge. It's pretty even through my cell phone's camera:

I continued my doughnut obsession by hitting the famous Voodoo Doughnut in Portland. Picture me wearing a suit walking into what I think is best described as a punk rock doughnut shop where "Movin' Right Along" from The Muppet Movie is playing. I stuck out, but the maple doughnut was delicious.

Reed flew in on Thursday night and we proceeded to put 550 miles on a rental car between 9am Friday and 7pm Saturday. We drove up to Mt. St. Helens in Washington State. We took a walk through the freezing cold Ape Cave. We camped one night in the national forest surrounding the volcano. I did lots of driving on winding national forest roads, which was fun some of the time in the kinda-sorta sporty Chevy Cobalt. It was a two hour roller coaster drive from our campsite to the Mt. St. Helens overlook (and we got slightly lost on the way back).

The mountain itself was extremely impressive. We went to the Windy Ridge viewpoint, which is the more remote one on the far side of the park from the Interstate. The drive in takes you first through standing dead trees, and then a stripped landscape with only low brush reclaiming the area. From the viewpoint you can see the huge side of the mountain that was blasted away in the eruption, as well as the area below that it swept across. You can also see more or less inside the crater, including the smoking new cone that the volcano is creating.

We drove out to the Oregon coast on Saturday. It was quite striking, very different than either the east or west coast landscapes I'm used to. Dramatic hills and lush greenery, and a middle-of-nowhere feeling you can really never get anywhere on the east coast.

Anyway, here are some crappy pictures I took using my cell phone camera (my digital camera is on its last legs). Reed had his digital SLR along, so I'll post some of his pictures later if I can convince him to send me a selection.

Spirit Lake was partially filled in the eruption of St. Helens (outside the picture to the left), and still has some dead timber floating in it to this day.

We stopped for a while in Oceanside, Oregon. The fog was rolling in.

We ate PB&Js on the beach, but the wind was blowing pretty well, so my second sandwich was a little crunchy. We were using forks because Safeway didn't have any free plastic knives to offer us...

The Mears Point lighthouse was cool.

There was this spit of land sheltering a bay that you could drive out on.

This is my last week of work. I'm off to visit Alex at his new place in NYC this weekend, and then classes start next week.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Unpopular Pop

From the Aaron Spelling eulogy in the issue of The Atlantic that I read cover-to-cover out of desperation on the (snake-less) plane ride home yesterday:
We don't really have popular culture anymore, so much as a fragmented market crowded with expertly segmented, mutually hostile opposing camps of various forms of unpopular pop culture.

The author's point in saying this is that Spelling ("The Maestro of Jiggle TV") was of the old school popular pop generation. A very well-put, relevant point (see Snakes on a Plane below), but I'll take my Modest Mouse anyway. (But wait, that's popular now. I got sort of cranky at the overgrazing of my cultural niche -- guess I don't know what I want.)

Once I wade through my email backlog, I'll post some Portland pictures.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Snakes on a Plane

A few words about Snakes on a Plane.

I can be a bit of a pop culture hermit at times, but there was no missing this cultural juggernaut. When I first heard the title a couple months ago, it was pretty clearly a brilliant title. It was so ridiculously blunt about its ridiculous premise that it stuck with me; it appears to have had the same effect on a lot of other people.

The movie got a lot of buzz on the internet, and somehow managed to gain a lot of fans prior to the movie actually being being finished. As the NY Times review put it, "snakes + plane + Samuel L. Jackson" was really all anyone needed to know. It appears to be the first movie ever to have material re-shot based on what bloggers demanded. (They had Samuel L. Jackson deliver the online-coined catch phrase, "Get these motherf***ing snakes off my motherf***ing plane!")

Because the entire hilariously gripping idea was captured in the title, it kept appearing everywhere I went...people were talking about it at work, it was referenced months ago on the Colbert Report, I overheard people on the street laughing about it. Online forums about audience participation elements (e.g. everybody throws toy snakes in the air when the snakes escape into the plane) were underway for months prior to the movie's release. The media writeups of the movie are already obsessed with what the film and the fuss mean culturally.

This is going out on a bit of a limb here, but I think this phenomenon might be in part due to a mass longing for common experiences. There are so many centrifugal forces in today's society, from suburbia to political polarization to the narrowcasting of the internet (a favorite topic of mine) that something that allows you to connect with a broad swath of other human beings is really appealing. We all get "snakes on a plane," and the opportunity to hoot and holler in a theater along with a bunch of other people feels good; it's nice to have something besides the weather that you can talk about with anyone.

I'm necessarily overstating my point here, and in large part it's just an entertaining movie. But I think the social dynamic is in there, too.

And with that, I'm off to see Little Miss Sunshine. Hah.

Happy Blogiversary

I just realized that I started this blog a bit more than a year ago. I've made 125 posts, which comes out to almost exactly one post every three days, on average. It doesn't feel like I posted that often, but I guess I did. I've enjoyed having a place to write things that are interesting enough to want to tell folks, but not interesting enough to call as say "Hey, guess what?" Anyway, I plan to keep it up for the forseeable future.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Fall approaches

The summer is rapidly drawing to a close. I have two more weeks at my internship, and it's been really good -- hopefully I'll get the chance to come back next year.

Not sure how I'll manage to do all of the things I've got on tap for the fall. Right now I'm signed up for six classes:

> Evaluation (required)
> Ethics (required)
> Advanced Quantitative Methods
> Juvenile Justice Seminar
> Intro to Health Policy (Public Health)
> Health and the Law (Public Health)

The Public Health ones only last for half the semester each, so I'm really only taking 5 classes. But that's still one more than a full load. I think I need to drop one, and it will probably be Juvenile Justice.

I will also be working on my thesis, which actually counts as a class. So I guess I'm technically enrolled in the equivalent of 6 courses right now.

I will also be working at the State Highway Administration again, which will be nice.

And finally, it was confirmed this week that I will be the teaching assistant for the first years' Policy Process class. I'm excited about this because it will be neat to see the first-years "in action," I like the course material, and my thesis is based on the process approach, so reabsorbing the materials will actually be helpful. Plus, it's a new professor, so it will be from a slightly different point of view. (Interestingly enough, she works at GAO, on my floor. She's on vacation now, so we haven't gotten together yet, but I think I actually met her earlier this summer.) It will also mean some extra money, which is always nice when you're tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

Anyway, that adds up to a lot of stuff. The spring will presumably be calmer.

The end of summer is pretty hectic, too. I will spend all of next week in Portland, Oregon for work, and will stick around in Portland through the weekend to hang out with Reed, who is flying up from San Francisco. Never been to Portland before, so I'm looking forward to it. The following week is my last one at work, then I will visit Alex at his new place in NYC for Labor Day weekend, and classes start the following week.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Fishy Video

I thought we had solved the mystery about the shellacked piranha I got in the mail when Hannah refused to out-and-out deny she was behind it. But new evidence throws that into doubt -- perhaps her confession was under duress?

In my YouTube binge of the last couple days, I ran across this video for They Might Be Giants' Ana Ng. And who should appear on the set, but my shellacked fish! Or at least his shellacked uncle -- see the family resemblance?

My conclusion: They Might Be Giants sent me a shellacked fish.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Perfect Rebuttal

Okay, sorry for having two posts in a day that just point to YouTube clips, but this bit from the Colbert Report about Gitmo is positively brilliant:

Not just hilarious, but depressingly true.

When Dogs Fly

This video is truly awesome:

Does this mean I wasted another afternoon watching music videos on YouTube? Yes, it does.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Not So Dull

I'm going to break the no blogging about work rule briefly to mention that we had a tour of Dulles airport yesterday, and it was awesome. I thought the highlight was going up to the tower and watching them move aircraft around...so cool. I would also point out that there is more than one way to take the name "Explosive Dog Unit."

I telecommuted today so that I could sit in on a breakfast meeting that was related to my thesis. I'm a little unsure about the etiquette for blogging about meetings with people, so I'll be general and say that I think my thesis will provide the opportunity to work with some really cool people, including a guy who's writing a book who I might be able to share interviews with.

This weekend I'll be putting some final touches to put on my thesis proposal, but aside from that I'm looking forward to finally having a few days where I don't have all that much to do.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Community policing

As I was riding home from the train station today (in the sweltering, sweltering heat), I passed a police car stopped in the middle of Guilford Ave. There was a Razor scooter lying in the road in front of the cruiser, and the officer was speaking through the car's loudspeaker to a couple young boys sitting on front steps a few feet away. "DOES THAT BELONG TO YOU? THE SCOOTER IN THE STREET. DOES THE SCOOTER IN THE STREET BELONG TO EITHER OF YOU?" The boys were mostly just looking unsure of what they should do. But it was a sort of pathetic example of the poor state of police-community relations...if you're 10 and leave your scooter in the street, and some cop comes along and tries to talk with you/reprimand you through his freaking loudspeaker from a few feet away, that doesn't exactly build mutual trust and respect. I guess the officer probably didn't want to get out of his car because it was really damn hot. Still, a clueless bit of policing.

The Baltimore police department has some really obvious problems, like a recent instance of a suspect raped by officers while she was being detained at a station. But I think the broader problem is in how the department relates to citizens. For instance, they just installed some additional police cameras in the neighborhood south of us (right where I was riding through this afternoon). These are on lightpoles and supposedly allow the cops to keep an eye on things from afar; a blue strobe light on top lets people know that they shouldn't try anything funny. Come on. They can't possibly be very effective, and they're such a grim symbol of the emotional distance of the police and the degree to which they feel overwhelmed.

The police helicopter is another symptom. It's forever hovering overhead here because of the high-crime neighborhoods to our east; it makes a lot of noise, they shine their searchlight around at night, etc. I'm sure there are some things a copter is really helpful for, like when someone is fleeing arrest. But there's this sense of siege and fear that comes with having a police helicopter overhead that I don't think is worth the tradeoff. Plus, I know it's insanely expensive (especially since it's in the air ALL THE TIME), and that money could be put to better use on cops who are actually a human face, not just a "thukka-thukka-thukka."