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Monday, March 31, 2008

Amtrak vs. Chinatown Bus

This past weekend was the first time I took the Chinatown bus from DC to New York instead of Amtrak. Let's compare the two:

> An hour or two faster
> More predictable travel time
> Cooler scenery (you see trees, marshes and the backs of buildings, which are invariably more interesting than the fronts)
> Usable bathroom
> Not sketchy (or, at least, sketchy in ways I find charming)
> It's a train!
> About four times as expensive as the bus, even if you buy early
> Less flexible times

Chinatown Bus
> $35 round trip DC to NYC
> If you buy 30 minutes before it leaves, it's still $35
> I can see the DC stop from my desk at work
> Dirty, slightly smelly bus
> Customer service likely to include yelling
> Potentially maniacal driving
> Slow, compared to the train
> Cramped
> Entering bathroom not advised

Cases in point on the sketchiness of the Chinatown bus: On the way out of DC, due to the broken overhead bin netting, a suitcase fell on me. Luckily it landed on my shoulder, not my head. Also, while on stopover in Philly, our driver suddenly came running down the sidewalk yelling in Chinese, ejected the guy collecting tickets on the bus, closed the door and immediately drove off down the street. Lord knows what was going on, perhaps the DOT safety inspectors were on their way.

It's hard to weigh what I'm willing to put up with to save 100 bucks. I must say, having your pick of hourly buses leaving Chinatown is pretty convenient. I'll probably split my future travel between the two, using the train when I'm planning ahead, and the bus for more last-minute trips.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Nested Eavesdropping

Having taken Friday off from work, I'm up in NYC for the weekend. This afternoon, I went to the Whitney and Guggenheim museums, which were both pretty cool. The Whitney Biennial is on right now, and there was some good stuff.

In the stairwell at the Whitney, I was half-intentionally eavesdropping on the conversation of the two women walking in front of me. I realized that one was telling the other about a conversation that she had eavesdropped on. "Ha!", I thought...how deliciously inane for me to be eavesdropping on a conversation about eavesdropping. But a moment later, it became clear that the conversation she had eavesdropped on was about something that person had overheard. My head exploded -- we were talking eavesdropping nested three deep here.

I later relayed this incident to Alex while we were walking down the street. I made sure to speak extra-loud.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Sneakers and Ironing

My old sneakers are old -- I got them my senior year of high school, more than 9 years ago. I've had a couple pairs since then that have done part-time duty, but these have always been my go-to sneakers. Now, however, my trusty Adidas can go into semi-retirement.

On a different subject, I brought my ironing board (the tabletop variety) and iron to work today. When I rolled up to the garage entrance at work with the board sticking out of my bike basket, the security guard cracked an amused smile and asked, "An ironing board?" The other two security guards came over to look, too; "Now you can iron while you bike!" said the landscaping guy from across the shrubbery. I somewhat furtively brought it upstairs, but I don't think anyone noticed. The ironing equipment will help me better maintain a crisp, professional appearance while bike commuting and leaving all my work clothes at the office. I did some ironing at my desk before leaving today, and it was a weird and hilarious feeling.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Mountain Goats

I saw the Mountain Goats on Saturday night at the Black Cat. It was a great, great show. Not having any of his recent albums, he/they didn't play a single song I have in my collection. But it was cool hearing all the narratives for the first time, straight out of John Darnielle's mouth. He has a great (geeky, but not the normal geeky) stage presence, and his between-song banter is excellent. The show was also much more rocking than I would have anticipated. (Furthermore, I enjoyed the opener, The Moaners, and bought their album, which is also good. For some reason I get a lot of satisfaction from enjoying an opening band and getting their CD on the spot. I guess maybe it feels more real than hearing some band's mp3 on a blog.)

Darnielle is apparently facing some sort of serious health problem, and has had to cancel the remainder of the tour. He made reference to it a number of times during the show, and was wistful and obviously enjoying his last time on stage for a while. An exchange that took place near the end of the set:

JD: [some reference to Easter/Jesus, I think]

Loud Guy in the Back: F*** Christ!

Rest of Audience: [murmur murmur disapproval amusement]

JD: Well, it's funny. [slight audience laugh...paraphrasing now] When you're looking at a health problem that could screw you up for the rest of your life, it gets pretty hard to hold onto your atheism.

Whatever illness John Darnielle is dealing with, I and many others wish him the best.

UPDATE, 4/5: I heard some news (okay, gossip) about this today from the presumably-well-informed owner of my local record shop.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

World Pillow Fight Day

Turns out yesterday was World Pillow Fight Day. I know this because as I rode through Dupont Circle, I noticed that there were a lot of people gathered in the middle by the fountain. A cloud of feathers was rising. I investigated, and found perhaps 40 people wildly swinging pillows. There was occasional laughter and some screams of glee, but for the most part it was weirdly quiet for a crowd of people going absolutely bonkers.

Picture by Georgetown Voice under a Creative Commons license.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Human Smoke

Speaking of Nicholson Baker (as I did in my previous post), I was not aware that he has a new book out. It's a work of nonfiction (as are some of his previous books) entitled Human Smoke. Here's the New York Times book review.

Also, here's a nice profile of Baker that the Times did a few weeks ago; it also talks about the new book.

I actually just bought A Box of Matches at Borders today with the proceeds of the gift card I got for Christmas (the book is tiny and cheap, so my $25 also scored me Gillian Welch's album Revival).

Thursday, March 20, 2008


Recently I've been trying to get back into reading again. Or reading books, anyway -- I've always read lots, but for the last 10 years or so most of it has been on the internet. Me and the internet get along really well, and I do end up reading plenty of interesting stuff, but hardly anything I read takes more than a few minutes to digest; it lacks that level of immersion that a book provides. Internet bits and pieces are a big sloppy mess, while in a book, someone has kindly gone through the trouble of putting things together in a nice coherent package. It also seems like my internet browsing has taken on more TV-like characteristics recently due to the proliferation of web video (centrifugal hamsters! creepy walking DARPA robot!). A more practical concern is that I tend to stay up later than I intend to reading stuff on the internet, but if I end the night reading a book, I can do that lying in bed, which will lead me to go directly to sleep once I get a little drowsy. (Diabolical, I know.)

Having the branch library a few blocks away from home and the central library a few blocks from work makes it much easier to follow through on my reading intentions. Last week I picked up And Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris because it was brightly colored and I had heard people talk about it. I'm already done with it because I ended up being home sick for a couple days, and I really enjoyed it. It's set in an ad agency at the end of the 90s boom as people are getting laid off, and it does a good job mining the inanity of office culture. It's also written in the third person plural, but this actually works, because it's an effective device for making you feel like you're part of that slightly depersonalizing office environment.

Anyway, finally getting to why I sat down to write this blog post: The book reminds me of The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker, which became my favorite book after Amanda lent me a copy this summer. It's not really very similar -- it's basically one guy's interior monologue as he goes through part of his workday -- but it's stunningly done and I recommend its enthusiasm for the minutiae of life as an excellent antidote to the more pathetic tendencies that Ferris writes about, if you happen to have been reading And Then We Came to the End.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Songs of the Moment (An Occasional Feature)

> Outkast - Liberation
> REM - Sitting Still
> Halo Benders - Your Asterisk
> Tribe Called Quest - Buggin' Out
Buggin' Out is only the last part of that video, but the whole thing is a cool throwback to good 90s hiphop.
> Phosphorescent - Endless Pt. 2
> Feist - My Moon My Man
In which Feist does the airport version of OKGO's legendary treadmill video.
> Sufjan Stevens - Come On! Feel the Illinoise!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Home of the White Squirrels

In my web wanderings I ended up at the website of the town of Olney, IL. Olney's tagline is "Home of the White Squirrels," because, well, they have a bunch of albino squirrels. This is central to their efforts to market themselves as a tourist destination; the mayor plugs the white squirrels at the beginning of the town's promotional web video, and the town's website provides info on white squirrel history. That page gives an overview of the competing hypotheses on their origin, and also notes that at the White Squirrel Centennial celebration in 2002, "The afternoon was rounded off with a dedication of a white squirrel monument and a blessing of the squirrel in the park."

God bless the white squirrels.

It's not just God looking out for them, though -- the town has laws protecting them. Squirrels have right-of-way on streets, it's illegal to transport them out of town, and free-roaming cats and dogs are prohibited. The town's police officers have white squirrels on their arm patches. (They say: "To serve and protect...squirrels" -- just kidding!) According to this Roadside America article, there are actually competing claims to white squirrel fame. Towns in Tennessee, Missouri, North Carolina and Ontario have all tried to make their name with white squirrels. They have attempted to prove their white squirrel supremacy with claims that they were there first (1869! 1902!), that other towns seeded their populations with kidnapped white squirrels, and that other towns' white squirrels are inferior ("Most of theirs have dark eyes").

Of course, Carleton also has its famous Parish House albino squirrel. I hear they're working on a memorial statue...

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Banana surplus

Me, Zach and Nils all individually purchased bananas, resulting in a record-high 16 bananas in the fruit basket. A plan has not yet been drawn up to deal with this market imbalance, but it may involve banana bread.

(P.S.: This means that our house is currently an "atheist's nightmare", according to Kirk Cameron's sidekick.)

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Thursday, March 06, 2008

United Stateses

Thanks to a tipoff from Louise, I found out that the Target down the street opened ahead of schedule yesterday morning. It's really weird to be in a space that cavernous and gleaming a short walk from home, but it gave me the opportunity to buy a whole bunch of $3.99 picture frames to put this on the wall in our dining room:

A month or so ago I had some IPS folks over for dinner, and as everyone was getting close to leaving, I asked if they would "help me with an art project." As I recall, a wary "Uh, okay..." was the consensus answer to my vague request. But I just asked everyone to draw an outline of the United States in freehand on copy paper.

This idea is not totally original -- I saw a post on Strange Maps a year or two ago about someone who had asked elementary schoolers to draw the United States, with interesting results. But despite its minimal originality, I think it makes a good piece for the dining room (and cheap, too, since labor was free!). The U.S. is a shape everyone is familiar with, but it's complicated enough that it's pretty hard to get it all that accurate. This allows the idiosyncracies of each person's past experience, spatial memory, and drawing style to produce pictures that are all clearly familiar and linked to each other, but also very different.

If you want to check out the squiggly details, you can click on the image for a larger version. Thanks to (starting with the bottom row, from left to right) Zachary, Sarah, Heather, John, Emily, Louise, me, Maura, and Lauren for helping out. (And to Adam, even though his United States did not make the cut.) John messed with Mexico, I went wild with Michigan (and got the "thumb" backwards), Lauren stuck with basic identifying features, Sarah was the only one who included the Mississippi delta, and I'm not sure what's going with Zach's...

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

1 2 3 4

Leslie Feist uses choreography for good, not evil:

Even though the style of music was quite different, her stage presence was obvious when I saw her perform with Broken Social Scene at the 400 Bar years ago in Minneapolis -- that was a great show. But it took Paul making me a copy of The Reminder for me to become a fan of her solo work.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Freer Gallery

Yesterday at the Freer Gallery, which has an excellent collection of ancient Asian art, I particularly enjoyed looking at the Chinese ceramics. Sometimes when looking at ancient art, the interest is more academic, based on what it shows about human (and art) history. But here, these were just really cool ceramic pieces, period, and many of them could pass as modern if taken out of their museum context. For instance, I wouldn't give it a second thought if I saw this piece, with its splashes of glaze, in a contemporary gallery:

Elsewhere, I also noticed this odd caption on a bronze piece:

This somehow seems to lack the formality usually present in these blurbs. For the record, it does look like a tapir to me. Which are cool, but not nearly as cool as lemurs.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Sound art

Eric heard about an event this evening put on by the DC Listening Lounge, an informal group that makes audio pieces. It sounded pretty cool (and only a few blocks away), so we went to check it out.

The show was held in a house that's been converted into some sort of church/community center. There were a few parts to the event, including some experimental-ish live music. The centerpiece, in my mind, was a series of audio pieces representing the four quadrants of DC -- contributors gathered sound around the city and then put them together into listening stations for NW, NE, SE and SW. There was a shopkeeper talking about his work and singing some of his favorite pop songs, a guy getting a root canal, people slaughtering chickens in their backyard, etc. When I took a radio narrative class in college, I remember the prof saying that audio tends to be more immersive than video, and I felt that in listening to these pieces.

This was exactly the kind of creative thing that I love to find, especially in my neighborhood. I thought I might see Morgan and Cameron there, because they live nearby and I worked with them back at Carleton's KRLX. Didn't see them, but I did run into three other people from Carleton, and two other Carls who weren't there contributed pieces (it was Dan Poppy's root canal that you could listen to). I guess this is our sort of thing.

Side note: I spotted someone there wearing an old school fanny pack in a fashionable manner. They're coming back, people! Hope they're not bringing Technotronic with them.