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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Some Superlatives

It seems to be obligatory to make end-of-year lists. This obligation is only increased by the fact that today brings both a year and a decade to a close. To be the proprietor of a blog and fail to issue some sort of list would be a dereliction of duty. I feel unqualified to make lists in most aspects of culture, but I think I can narrow this past decade of life to superlatives in three key areas: music, movies, and doughnuts.

Top 15 Albums of the Decade
1) Modest Mouse - The Moon and Antarctica
2) Sufjan Stevens - Illinois
3) Lateduster - 5 Easy Pieces
4) The Flaming Lips - The Soft Bulletin
5) TV on the Radio - Return to Cookie Mountain
6) LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver
7) Wolf Parade - Apologies to the Queen Mary
8) The Arcade Fire - Funeral
9) Ugly Casanova - Sharpen Your Teeth
10) The Weakerthans - Reconstruction Site
11) The Avalanches - Since I Left You
12) Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
13) Radiohead - In Rainbows
14) The National - Boxer
15) Broken Social Scene - You Forgot It in People

Top 10 Movies of the Decade
1) Mutual Appreciation
2) Grizzly Man
3) A Serious Man
4) Mulholland Drive
5) Sideways
6) Capturing the Friedmans
7) Beeswax
8) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
9) The Fog of War
10) Donnie Darko

Top 5 Doughnuts of the Decade
1) Granulated sugar coating, custard filling (Lisbon, Portugal)
2) Pumpkin glazed (Doughnut Plant, NYC)
3) Vanilla glazed with plum jam filling (Doughnut Plant, NYC)
4) Coconut glazed with coconut cream filling (Doughnut Plant, NYC)
5) Glazed (Hoehn's Bakery, Baltimore)

Regarding the doughnut rankings, I would allow that the spectacular and atmospheric setting in which I encountered the custard-filled doughnut at a small bakery on a hillside in Lisbon might have made its memory more delicious. But it was one tasty doughnut -- I think the shock of how good real custard could be in a doughnut was a big part of its success. And the doughnuts from Hoehn's earn their 5th place rank because even though they're not quite as good as Doughnut Plant, they cost 70 cents (or at least used to) and the old ladies behind the counter are lovely.

Anyway, off to the New Year's revelry, which is almost as obligatory as lists. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

States of mind

Five Most Minnesota-y Names of Minnesota Counties
1) Otter Tail
2) Yellow Medicine
3) Kandiyohi
4) Koochiching
5) Blue Earth

Five Most Texas-y Names of Texas Counties
1) Bexar
2) Val Verde
3) Jim Wells
4) Jim Hogg
5) Maverick

Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas

I had a good time visiting my family for Christmas. As per our usual holiday routine, we had Mom's side of the family over on Christmas Eve, and got together with Dad's side the day after Christmas. There, each family received a balloon animal kit in its stocking, resulting in a few minutes of uninterrupted huffing, puffing, and squeaky balloon twisting. This is rather blurry, but here's a picture of my parents wearing the balloon hats that my brother and I made for them:

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Snowpocalypse!


We sure did get a lot of snow. Looks to be somewhere in the 15"-18" range in our yard, but at that point the precise measurement doesn't really matter. It's a pretty big snowfall for most places, and it's a really big snowfall for DC. So it's perhaps not too surprising that that "Snowpocalypse" appears to have caught on as a name for this event.

I love snow, so I was thrilled. I also appreciate the way that big snowstorms like this one barge into everybody's daily life simultaneously. Normally, everybody's doing their own thing, moving along in their own bubble of narrowcasted culture and self-absorption. But a big 'ol blizzard comes along, and -- boom! -- the first thing on most people's minds is that there's a crapload of snow. Hopefully the next step for most people is realizing that they should forget whatever they were going to do and frolick outside or curl up with a book...but anyway, it's nice that everybody is in sync in a small way for one day...

I wandered around town for quite a while today, eventually heading to dinner and game night at James and Courtney's place. I put up a collection of blizzard pictures on Flickr.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Different kind of bubble

The Hirshhorn -- the Smithsonian's contemporary art museum -- is shaped like a doughnut on stilts. They are proposing a temporary bubble structure that would be inflated a couple times a year, billowing out of the doughnut hole and turning the courtyard into an indoor space for events.

If it turns out to be feasible, I think it would be pretty cool.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Different type of mashup

This nifty web gizmo will speak text you type through snippets of songs that use those words. Fun trying to identify some of the songs -- I recognized a few for the text I put in.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Swiss Army Knife

Keying off an NYT article I read this week on cities releasing databases for creative public use, I was reminded of two instances in the past week where technology pulled together information in a way that was very useful:

I just got the iConcertCal app for my phone. It's not that complicated, but it's clever and saves a lot of time. It looks at the songs on your phone, and makes a list of the artists. Then it looks at your current location. Then it checks to see if any of those artists have shows planned in your area, neatly organizing them by date or venue. You can click through a link to purchase tickets. This solves my problem of not checking club websites often enough, only to find out about shows after they're sold out. For instance, now I know to get tickets for the RJD2 show on January 9. The database the app pulls from is pretty impressive -- it must be assembled through some sort of web scraping -- and includes shows at venues that I wouldn't know to check. (iConcertCal is also available as a free iTunes plugin.)

I've mentioned NextBus before. On Saturday night, I didn't want to ride my bike, so I took the bus to go out. Before NextBus was available, I might have ended up shelling out for a cab back home because it's hard to count on the bus at 2:30 AM. But I simply checked the NextBus times for the nearby stop when I was thinking about heading home, and saw when the next one was expected. I hung around the bar for a while longer, then walked out to the stop, where the bus appeared right on cue. Banishing the dilemma of standing forlornly at the curb and wondering if you should bite the bullet and hail a cab is a major achievement, in my book.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Defriending threshhold

I just defriended someone on Facebook for the first time. My standards for accepting a friend request are pretty low (i.e. Do I know who you are and not actively dislike you?), so perhaps it's surprising it took this long.

This is an individual who went to high school with me, but I barely ever talked to him. In addition to constant Farmville updates, during the past week he posted 13 different status updates regarding Tiger Woods, all containing the term "manwhore." Example: "[former friend] wonders if anyone knows how many manwhores it takes to screw in a lightbulb not counting Tiger Woods of course".

Good gravy. Anyway, I'm done with that.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Thanksgiving weekend recap

(Photo credit: Davin)

Been busy this month, and slacking off on the blogging. A quick roundup of items from the long weekend:
  • Thanksgiving was great. Definitely my favorite holiday. Key stats -- attendance: 18, turkey weight: 20 lbs., pies: 6 (3 apple, 2 pumpkin, 1 cherry)
  • I had my 10-year high school reunion over the weekend, too. About 100 people were there out of the 400 or so in my graduating class. It was kind of surreal, but also pretty fun. I've done a bad job of staying in touch with folks, and I think there are a few who I might now actually keep up with after having a chance to chat again. (Also, it turns out the class president lives a few blocks from me in DC. Surprised I haven't run into her.)
  • I saw A Serious Man with Matt A. while I was in CT. I really liked it. A few moments were too goofy for my taste, but it's among the Coen brothers' best films, I think.
  • Also went to the beach for a walk with the fam:

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Lottery Slogan Fail

I noticed a bus shelter advertisement for the DC Lottery with the slogan "There's strength in numbers."

Finessing reality is part of marketing, but this is a little too much for me to swallow.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Double Bogie

When the financial crisis hit last year, the metaphors and similes were really flying in news coverage -- the economy was a patient in cardiac arrest, etc., etc. -- and I thought about starting a blog covering the good, bad, and interesting use of figurative language in the media. I didn't do it, in part because I wasn't sure I would want to write entries often enough to make it worthwhile, but I've been paying more attention to the metaphors in the news since then. In a New York Times article today about people taking steps to increase the energy efficiency of older urban buildings, I read one of the least effective similes I've seen in a while, from a guy describing the importance of energy efficiency in his ($5.95 million) brownstone:
Waste reduction should be part of the purpose of good design,” Mr. Mcdonald said. “It’s like in golf: you don’t want to waste any energy at all. It’s a long sport, and anything you waste ends up coming back and working against you.”

Maybe the problem is that I don't play golf, but the fact that games of golf are long and so you don't want to waste any energy seems mostly inapplicable to golf (don't you ride in a cart? how does wasted energy "come back and work against you?") and not at all related to the energy efficiency of this dude's brownstone.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Songs of the Moment (An Occasional Feature)

> Modest Mouse - Styrofoam Boots/It's All Nice on Ice, Alright
> Built to Spill - Kicked It in the Sun
> Panda Bear - Bros
> Smashing Pumpkins - Here Is No Why
> The Walkmen - Little House of Savages
> Broken Social Scene - 7/4 Shoreline

Sunday, November 01, 2009

A Brit in Baltimore

I've still only seen the first season of The Wire -- I watched it back when I was living in Baltimore, where it's set. (As I mentioned at the time, the viewing of one episode was punctuated, appropriately enough, by the real-life sounds of gunshots and a police helicopter outside.) It's an excellent show, and the remaining seasons are in my queue now that I've run through the available episodes of Mad Men.

Apparently the show has gained notice in the UK, and there have even been instances of politicians using it as a point of reference (along the lines of "Violent crime has increased, but it's not like The Wire"). According to a new blog that went up today at the Baltimore Sun, The Independent, a British paper, approached them about sending a reporter for a stint in Baltimore, to see whether the actual city resembles the one portrayed on the show. The Sun is in turn sending one of its own crime reporters to London to compare how crime and the justice system work there. Looks like it's only a two-week project, which I would say is not really enough time to get a nuanced understanding of the how the systems portrayed in The Wire work, but it should be interesting nonetheless.

And here's a game: with apologies to the Sun for snatching their images, here are the headshots of the two reporters involved in the exchange...can you guess which one is from Baltimore and which one is from London? Click through to the blog to see of you were right. Your chances of guessing correctly are high.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Feist on Jools

I've posted before about how great Feist is and how good Later with Jools Holland is at shooting live performances...and here's a clip of "My Moon, My Man" that brings both of those things together.


That shot at the 1:00 mark where the zoom follows the pianist's hands down the keyboard is just right, for instance. (Though the audience cut-away shot at 1:13 with the one guy standing there snapping his fingers is weird -- sort of looks like he's conducting the band.)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Pittsburgh recap

A few weeks have elapsed, but I wanted to add a couple more things about the bike trip to Pittsburgh. Some stats:

> Miles ridden: 348.5
> Days:5
> Feet of elevation gained: 2,392
> Panniers carried: 8 (4 apiece)
> Coffee shops visited: 5
> Tunnels passed through: 4
> Flat tires: 1

My photos are up on Flickr.

Also, Aron and I cut together some photos and video from the trip, providing a 5-minute summary of the trip (made more dramatic by the Arcade Fire soundtrack):


I think I stressed my knee a bit the night we hurried to get to Confluence, PA before it got dark...it has continued to hurt since I got back, so I'm going to see someone about it next week. But aside from that, it was a great trip that I would definitely recommend. For those who live in DC (or Pittsburgh), it's a trip that provides great scenery and little towns that feel very far from home, but it's actually fairly forgiving because of the not-so-steep hills and decent availability of food and lodging.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Rainy day

Whole lot of rain today, though I think it's drying out now.

Earlier, I was idly looking out the window as the rain fell. I heard the tempo of the raindrops on the roof suddenly go from a patter to pounding -- and in perfect sync with that, a small flock of birds that had been flying straight across the sky dove at high speed to the trees below. It was a really cool little thing...I've never seen birds react to the weather that way before, and it was the fastest I've ever seen them dive (they were sparrows or some other common small bird).

. . .

I've been a combination of lazy and busy since getting back from the bike trip, but I have ambitious plans to post a map-based recap of the trip with photo and video (in Google My Maps, like the unfinished map of my 2007 European trip). Also, I noticed that the USA Today article about our bike route was quickly followed by an article in the Times this past week. Though I would add that the number of crashes the reporter had is not typical -- it's a really smooth and easy trail!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Mission accomplished

We arrived in Pittsburgh this evening, getting to McKeesport, PA (where the trail ends, just short of Pittsburgh) as dusk fell, about 30 minutes before we were to meet our taxi to Zach's place. About 349 bike miles in total, including detours.

Since we lacked cell phone access, I haven't posted since Cumberland. The Great Allegheny Passage took us from there up a couple thousand feet (over the course of 24 miles) across the Eastern Continental Divide. At the top, there was the impressive Big Savage Tunnel, which cut through several thousand feet. The rest of the trail wound slowly down the other side, eventually ending near Pittsburgh. There were great views, enhanced by fall foliage. The towns along the way were interesting -- some small places that grew up along the railroad and the Yohiogheny River and have had the world pass them by, rotting industrial towns, and cute hamlets that have found a tourism niche.

The plan had been to camp out last night, after staying in a hotel in Cumberland. But we checked the forecast yesterday when we had a whisper of cell service, and it said there were freeze warnings for the area near the town of Confluence where we had planned to camp. We decided to sleep inside instead, and rolled into town around 6:30. Confluence has a hotel and upwards of ten bed and breakfasts, but we soon discovered (using the phone at the Sisters' Cafe, the only thing still open) that the hotel was full and all the B&Bs had closed up for the night and were not answering their telephones. "Well, I'm not sure what to tell you," said the guy at the hotel. With visions of shivering in our summer-weight sleeping bags, we struck out in the dark (with our bike lights on) for the campsite outside town. But, we took a wrong turn and ended up in a neighborhood. We were trying to find our way back when we saw two guys getting into a truck with a canoe on top of it next to a dark B&B. We asked if there were any rooms available, and they directed us to the house down the street of the lady who owns it, where we knocked on the door and miraculously obtained a room. The heat was much appreciated, as were the muffins and tea in the morning.

We're at Zach's place now, where between the three of us we ate 10 pancakes, 14 eggs with cheese, one pound of sausage, one pound of peaches, two pounds of strawberries, and 1 cup of cream. We'll look around Pittsburgh tomorrow and head back to DC on an early morning train (following, I should add, a pretty similar route to the one we biked). I'll post some of my many pictures when I get back to DC.

As Aron remarked, it was pretty cool to be in any one of the middle-of-nowhere places were were along the way and think "I biked here from my front door."

Monday, October 12, 2009

Third day

We biked the remainder of the C&O towpath today, from milepost 127 to 184.5. I think this was my favorite part of the towpath, with somewhat more varied terrain/scenery, including the amazing Paw Paw Tunnel, which is more than 3,000 feet long, and thus very dark. There was also a lot more fall color...it was overcast almost the entire day, but it seems that actually makes the colors on the trees more dramatic.

Because this was the most rural part of the towpath, was also the emptiest -- we rode for about two hours this morning without seeing anyone (this may have also had to do with the fact that it was kinda cold). We saw a beaver and a wild turkey.

We're in Cumberland tonight, at a Holiday Inn downtown that miraculously only cost $20 more than the hostel we had initially planned on for this night of the trip. And they let us take our bikes up the elevator and into our room. Cumberland is one of those small cities whose population peaked more than 50 years ago, so it's got an interesting feel.

Tomorrow it's 22 miles of uphill to start the day, and we'll brave the predicted chilly temps to camp out for our last night on the trail.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Second day

We did get an early start, as planned, but we were stymied fairly soon by by my flat tire. It's the first flat I've gotten since putting on Kevlar-lined tires last winter, but it wasn't their fault -- I hit a particularly pointy tree root with my heavily loaded wheels, and a couple miles later realized I had a slow pinch puncture. We fixed it with the help of a full-sized pump from a tour group that was unloading from their van.

We hit another delay when we didn't believe the Park Service sign that said the trail was too washed out to be passable ahead...after a few miles, we determined that it was in fact impassable. The back-tracking and 5 (very pretty) miles of detour chewed up a good bit of time.

Which is to say, we're a bit behind where we planned to be, camping near Hancock, MD. But there's room in our schedule for delays, while still allowing us to arrive in Pittsburgh on Wednesday.

Snafus aside it was a great day, with perfect weather and an increasing amount of fall foliage as we go. We also went slightly out of our way to get lunch at Waffle House, which is never a mistake. (Props to the iPhone for finding the Waffle House.)

We'll either stay in Cumberland tomorrow night, or camp a little way past that.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

First day

We're camping tonight at Antietam Creek, near the eponymous
battlefield. Mileage was about 75, ten fewer than we anticipated.
Though there was also less rain than we anticipated, just a few
sprinkles around lunchtime.

A couple nice things to mention: Beans in the Belfry was a neat (and
rather large) coffee shop in a converted church in Brunswick, MD,
which is otherwise a depressed river town. Also, the sunset, which
was just after we passed Harpers Ferry, WV, was a brilliant pink over
the Potomac River.

With a low around 40, it's pretty chilly tonight, but we hope to get
an early start in the brisk air tomorrow morning to cover the miles we
didn't do today.

Friday, October 09, 2009

To Pittsburgh!

Aron and I will be leaving tomorrow morning for Pittsburgh. According to an article in yesterday's USA Today, we're taking a hip-with-the-times "recession-resistant getaway."

We met up this evening to divvy up the common gear and make sure everything is set; the bikes are fully loaded. I've added a rack to the front fork on my Cross-Check -- with a pair of big panniers on the back and a smaller pair on the front, it's a lot of stuff. It's maybe slightly unnerving to realize that when we roll out tomorrow, it will be the first time I've ridden with cargo on the front wheel. But I don't think it will be too tricky, and we only have a few miles on city streets before we pick up the C&O Canal towpath in Georgetown. Then it's 180 miles of riding to Cumberland, and another 140 or so on the Great Allegheny Passage trail, almost all the way to Pittsburgh without any cars at all.

We're planning to camp three nights, stay in a hostel one night in the middle so that we can clean up (the one next to the opera house, as mentioned in the USA Today article), and stay with Zachary once we get to Pittsburgh. We'll spend a full day there, then take a train back to DC on Friday. Both the train ride and the bike ride should feature some nice fall foliage.

Per Aron's request, I will be emitting occasional blog blurbs from my phone as we go. (See how smoothly I shifted responsibility for such dorkiness?) I'll probably also post a few pictures to my Flickr stream, which you may peruse if you choose.

Really looking forward to my first long bike touring trip...

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Zipcar

I've been a member of Zipcar for a couple years now, but I've been using it a bit more recently, which has confirmed how awesome it is. Having it available makes it much more feasible to not own a car in cities (all American ones except NYC, basically) where you do need one occasionally. It would be a huge hassle to do a normal car rental to run an errand to the suburbs, and very expensive to take a cab, but Zipcar lets me do it inexpensively on a moment's notice. It was even slightly cheaper than renting a car for three days for my recent Catskills trip (though admitttedly this is mostly because the rentals were unusually expensive), and far more pleasant because we didn't have to trek down to the rental car office, fill out the paperwork, and turn down all the extras they would have tried to sell us.

And Zipcar has just released an iPhone app that does snazzy things like let you find out which cars are available near wherever you happen to be. You can also lock and unlock the car from your phone, as well as honk the horn.

There are Zipcars in Pittsburgh. If, after arriving there on my bike next week, I decide I want to get somewhere that's hard to bike to, I can check my phone for the nearest cars, reserve one with a few taps, and drive away. Pretty slick.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Long ride

Aron and I leave on our bike trip to Pittsburgh in less than a week. While we've each biked 60-70 miles in a day a number of times, this trip will still be somewhat challenging -- about 315 miles over four and a half days. So yesterday we decided to bike a good long way to prepare for the trip. Our route took us out to Purcellville, VA, and back, for a total of about 93 miles. It would have been a nice round 100 if we hadn't wimped out and hopped on the Metro for the last bit into DC as it got dark, but it's still the farthest I've ridden in a day. We packed a bunch of unnecessary stuff in our panniers to make sure it was good practice, and put in a respectable 14 mph average speed.

Only a bit sore today. I think things are looking pretty good for the trip -- it's a great time of the year to be biking through the Appalachians, both in terms of temperature (highs in the 60s) and foliage. I'm also looking forward to seeing a bit of Pittsburgh, which I've never visited. Zach moved there a couple months ago, and is generously letting us crash at his place. We're planning to arrive there on Wednesday afternoon, but our Amtrak tickets back to DC aren't until (very early) Friday morning.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Songs of the Moment (An Occasional Feature)

> Animal Collective - Brother Sport
> Modest Mouse - Edit the Sad Parts
> The Rapture - House of Jealous Lovers
> Death Cab for Cutie - Movie Script Ending [mp3]
> Neutral Milk Hotel - Naomi
> Soul Coughing - Soft Serve

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Trailer Trash

Cruising YouTube, I found this killer Modest Mouse performance of "Trailer Trash:"


It's from a show in Kentucky during October of 2001. Isaac Brock inserts some lyrics during the breakdown that I've never heard before: "And you spend most of your life / looking for the adult you are / And you spend the rest of your life / looking for the child that you were."

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Catskills trip


This past weekend I went to the Catskills with Alex. I took a couple days off, so it was an extra-long weekend. My only previous memories of the Catskills are a bit fuzzy because they're from a trip to the Catskill Game Farm with my parents when I was perhaps four years old -- the only things I know for sure are that 1) we fed a goat in the petting zoo, 2) there was a giraffe, and 3) the airplane carnival ride where you can push the stick to go up and down was highlight of my life up to that point. So this trip to the Catskills was bound to be different than my previous visit.

And it was great:
  • The Zipcar we picked up near Alex's place in Queens worked out well -- way, way easier than renting a car, and in this case, about the same price.
  • Storm King Art Center, a 500-acre sculpture park, was impressive both for its size and its excellent collection of modern sculptures. Maya Lin's new Storm King Wavefield was a bit of a letdown (it'll probably look better after the grass grows taller), but I liked just about everything we saw. Coming across sculptures while wandering the meadows and woods is conducive to appreciating each one, much more so than in a cramped urban sculpture garden like the one at the National Gallery. You see the piece first from farther away (at least for the large sculptures), and then reevaluate as you come up to it. The time it takes to walk among the pieces forces you to take more time to look at each one than you would in a museum environment, and many also play off their outdoor settings very effectively.
  • The Hudson Valley benefits from heavy traffic of well-off New Yorkers, who bestow its adorable small towns with excellent restaurants. We had several good meals, including a lunch in Rhinebeck (at a place called Arielle) that was among the best I've had in a long time, and not too pricey at that.
  • It was a bit colder than I expected at our campsite--it got down into the 30s at night. Cold toes in the morning in my summer-weight sleeping bag.
  • We hiked a vigorous 14 miles over three different peaks, which was a bit more than we meant to bite off due to some incorrect mileage info on our map. Great views, a bit more dramatic than down here in the mid-Atlantic part of the Appalachians.
  • The new High Line park in New York is really neat -- an old elevated rail line converted into a linear park with some very snazzy design touches. It works well as a public space, and was lively even when I visited in the middle of a Monday morning.
Didn't mean to be quite that talkative in describing my weekend. Anyway, pictures of most of the above can be seen on Flickr.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Featherweight match

As I was getting my stuff together before leaving work today, I saw a guy emerge onto his balcony a few stories up in the building across the street. He was brushing off a rug, and produced a white, fluffy wad...probably cat hair. He dropped the wad over the railing, but there was a slight breeze, and after falling for a moment, it drifted back onto the balcony next to his head. He grabbed the fluffball out of the air, and dropped it over the side again. He watched as it meandered around...and then came back onto the balcony. He hit it with the brush, pushing it outward, but it came back. He hit it several more times, it kept coming back. Then he grabbed it from the air again, walked to the far corner of the balcony, and stretched his arm out to drop it. The fluff came back through the bars of the railing. He snatched it again, and walked to the opposite corner of the balcony. This time, it momentarily threatened to drift back, but he watched as it slowly floated away. The guy was too far away from me to be able to see if he was frustrated or amused, but it was pretty funny to watch.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Monster caterpillar

I went bike camping with a few folks (instigated by Nils) up the C&O Canal for one night of the long weekend. We were lucky with the rain, which started as we were just about ready to turn in for the night, and held off today until after we were back in DC. Of note was the group at a neighboring campsite: a two girls, ages 8 and 11, camping with their grandfather, spent the day riding their bikes to DC, seeing the sites, and riding back to the campground. That's a total of about 45 miles, which is pretty impressive for an 8-year-old (or an 11-year-old, for that matter). They were from Pittsburgh, and when I mentioned that I'm planning to bike to Pittsburgh, the younger one said "Our daddy biked to Washington, but he says we have to wait until we're older." Heh.

The thing I really wanted to talk about, though, is the monster caterpillar we saw on the ride home:

A shot for scale comparison:

It was about 5 inches long! More than twice as large as any other caterpillar I've seen...watching it move was kinda creepy. So, what on earth does it turn into?

Friday, September 04, 2009

Emergency response

An article in the NY Times notes that in most cities, firefighters now spend a lot more time providing medical care than fighting fires.

It talks about a fire company in my own city, DC, as an example. A personal tidbit to add to this: My window at work looks out on the front entrance of a housing authority building across the street. It's not a huge place, 10 stories, probably less than 100 units total. Yet, I would estimate that the fire department responds to the building an average of almost once per day (and this is, of course, just during the workday). On only one occasion did I notice them doing things that indicated there might be a fire -- otherwise, they appear to be there for medical calls. In a building of no more than a few hundred residents, that certainly indicates deep dysfunction. It's hard to tell what portion is due to the medical system versus the pathologies of poverty in general, though...

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Oblivious

Reposting things from elsewhere is kinda lame, but this video from Fail Blog is amazing and hilarious:

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Miscellany

  • The weather we've had the last few days -- lows around 60, highs in the 70s -- is glorious.  Steve remarked yesterday that he appreciates fall more after moving to DC.  Same for me...in fact, I think I now look forward to cool fall weather even more than I look forward to the first warm days of spring.
  • On my way home last night, I saw a trailer go by with a business name on the side: "Royal Scent of a Moor."  What?  Is this a perfume store for people from a loosely defined area of northern Africa?  Or a store owned by someone who wanted a cutesy spelling of amor and is unaware that "moor" is an antiquated/derogatory term for arabs?  Googling turns up a listing that shows it exists (in Greenbelt, a Maryland suburb), but no other info whatsoever.  Not surprisingly, this store is the only occurrence of that phrase in all of Google (until now, I guess).
  • I decided to stop tempting fate with my many gigabytes of un-backed-up pictures and other stuff, so I bought an external hard drive.  I know this stuff always goes down in price, but I was still shocked that I came back from the store with a 1 terabyte drive.  This will be handy when I get back into video editing, which I've been meaning to do.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Cross-cultural holiday

My calendar reminds me that this coming Monday, September 7, is a holiday:

Labor Day
Labour Day (Canada)

Things are different up there, eh?

Monday, August 31, 2009

Facebook

An article in the NY Times about people leaving Facebook makes some good points -- Facebook owns all the content, your interests and social networks are mined for commercial purposes, it can cheapen social connections, etc. All are good points, but it's so useful that the problems aren't enough to make me abandon it yet.

It reminded me, however, how lucky we are that the internet itself was created as a government project, with radically open rules. Some sort of wide-ranging computer network was inevitable, but imagine if it had been created by a company, for profit. If we all logged on to AOL (version 15.2) today to do all the things we now do on the internet, it would be much crappier for having years of only certain companies who paid AOL offering content, and no wild and wooly experimentation. And there would no doubt be constant controversies over privacy and use of personal information, except the company providing the network (and maybe a couple rivals, like Compuserve version 23.8) would be the only way to tap into these essential services, so there'd be little consumer leverage. Facebook could potentially parlay its position as the premier social network into something genuinely worrisome, but thank goodness the network itself is, in some important ways, a public space.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Guilford's spaceship


Last week, while browsing the NY Times homepage during lunch, I glanced past one of those articles that are blurbed on the front page with just the headline and a small picture. "Hey," I thought, "that looks like that weird building we used to see when we went to the beach." It was that building, actually -- a 1980s condo building in my hometown of Guilford ("known for its almost-exaggeratedly adorable Colonial, Federal and Victorian houses") had made the Times.

I'm quite surprised that it ever got zoning approval -- Guilford is very conservative on that sort of thing -- but it is pretty cool. As a kid, I always thought it was an office building, and wondered why they had chosen a design that afforded them so little space for actual offices.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Songs of the Moment (An Occasional Feature)

Modest Mouse - King Rat
Spacehog - In the Meantime
Animal Collective - My Girls
Animal Collective - Summertime Clothes
Talking Heads - Once in a Lifetime
Andrew Bird - Fitz and the Dizzyspells
Hot Chip - Over and Over

Some good videos in there, too. "King Rat" is a new Modest Mouse single, and things get very Seussian in the last couple minutes. The Andrew Bird video is one of the few I've ever seen backed by a live recording. And the "Once in a Lifetime" clip reminds me that I really need to get Stop Making Sense.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Beeswax

I had a nice weekend in New York. As I mentioned previously, I brought my bike, which was really enjoyable -- the subway is great, and I still used it a number of times, but there's something to be said for the sense of the city you get when moving through it on a bike, as opposed to popping up in various discrete locations from holes in the ground. Kudos to Amtrak for changing their policy to allow folding bikes as carry-on luggage. (Carrying a folding bike is also a great conversation starter.)

Along with going to the PS1 Warm Up and the ritual staying out 'til 4 am with Nina and Shane, Alex and I saw Beeswax, one of those tiny indie films that won't be coming to DC. We picked it because we both count director Andrew Bujalski's other films, Funny Ha Ha and especially Mutual Appreciation, among our favorites. He's one of the originators of the "Mumblecore" genre, whose films generally don't have too much of a plot and emphasize characters and the interactions between them with realistic (some would say boring) dialogue. Beeswax branched out ever so slightly in subject matter with characters that were a bit older and less urban than those in Bujalski's previous films.

I liked it a lot. You know how when you watch a movie, even one that seeks to be true to life, the way that events unfold and the way that people talk are movie-fied? Beeswax, in contrast, feels real throughout. The film doesn't have that cinematic rhythm that seeps into even the smallest scenes of other movies, and as a result, I find it much easier to engage with the characters. To put it another way, films typically distill things a bit in order to convey characters and plot in a manageable amount of time. Bujalski still constructs the narrative for the viewer by writing a script outline (from which the actors improvise), choosing which scenes and shots to use, etc., but he leaves in a lot of the muddled stuff that would have been involved if the narrative had been unfolding with real people -- the conversations that don't really go anywhere, people not expressing exactly what they mean, the "um" between words, etc. He can't cover as much ground this way -- the plot moves very little -- but our understanding of the characters is much deeper and more nuanced. If you've got the patience for this approach, I'd recommend Beeswax and Bujalski's other films.

Friday, August 14, 2009

In Brooklyn

I'm in NYC for the weekend, staying with Alex. But he's at work today, so I'm biking around -- I brought my folding bike with me, and it's really cool to have a bike in the city. (Last night it took me less time to bike from Penn Station to Astoria than it usually does to take the subway there.)

Anyway, I went down to Doughnut Plant this morning (white peach raised and banana walnut cake), and then around Brooklyn. I'm in Prospect Park at the moment, and miraculously ran across an Animal Collective sound check for a show tonight. It's not as good as actually seeing the show, but I got to hear a couple songs -- they just played "Guys Eyes."

And while I was standing here, a woman walked by holding an iguana over her head, which she would periodically bring down in front of her face to talk to. As she came close enough for me to hear, she said "You're such a good boy," and brought its head to her mouth to give it a slobbery kiss, as some people do to their dogs (this being an iguana, the was presumably not much reciprocal slobber).

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Day's events

Today I:
  • Arrived home to find that the aloe plant in the kitchen had somehow tipped over and fallen off the counter during the day, leaving a big mess and a distressed plant.
  • Opened the mail and found that I've been called for federal jury duty "for a special trial that is expected to last at least 4 to 6 weeks."  Yikes.  Having served DC jury duty last fall apparently does not exempt me from the federal version.
  • Successfully made Pad Thai -- woo hoo!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Cheese

My doctor told me I should go without dairy for a couple weeks to see if I'm lactose intolerant (sorry if this is TMI). So, the weekend before last, I ate the last of my yogurt in a grand dairy finale, and set off on a couple lactose-free weeks.

Only, it turns out I'm really bad at this. Witness:
  • A few days in, we have an "ice cream social" at work, and soon after I finish my sundae, I realize that I have sabotaged myself.  But I still have a solid 10 days before my follow-up appointment.
  • A couple days later at frisbee, some kids from a Jewish summer camp give us their leftover kosher pizza.  Score!  Unfortunately, I later realize that pizza involves cheese.
  • While hiking this past weekend, I happily accept an offer of cheese and bread.  D'oh!
  • On the way to my follow-up appointment this morning, I get a croissant sandwich...with cheese.
I would note that three of four dairy errors involved free food.  Apparently my free food reflex remains strong enough to send a direct chomp signal without doing any cross-checking.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Cooking

Last month I took a class on Thai cooking at Leah's store. It was very tasty, and demystified Pad Thai to the point where I think I can make it (haven't tried yet -- it requires a run out to the Asian grocery store in Wheaton). In any case, I was inspired enough to buy a wok this weekend, which I seasoned yesterday and tried out for the first time tonight.

I made a veggie stir fry with ginger from a recipe I found online, and it was pretty good. It also reminded me how much I hate following recipes. I can't seem to keep more than one step/measurement in my mind at once, so I'm forever compulsively checking the ingredient list or instructions. It makes for a very halting, non-relaxing time in the kitchen. But I do really enjoy cooking once I get to the point of knowing a recipe by heart, or even better, mastering the general principles involved in a dish and then improvising from there. Of course, to date, I have only achieved the latter with lasagna and quiche. (And grilled cheese, but I don't think that counts.) I should be able to add stir-frying in short order -- although the recipe I made tonight had a few extra wrinkles, it's pretty simple in general.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Letterman history

Another YouTube music video kick has led to me watching a bunch of live performance clips from Letterman. There are plenty of good recent performances, but there are also some great blasts from the past:

The Presidents of the United States of America performing "Lump":


REM with "Radio Free Europe" -- in 1983!


Green Day's first time on TV, playing "Basketcase":


The Flaming Lips with a cool version of "She Don't Use Jelly":


And even if you don't like it, this this clip of 311 performing "Down" is oh so 90s:

Monday, July 27, 2009

Dolly Sods


I took a luxurious four-day weekend and went camping at Dolly Sods, in the Monongahela National Forest with Zach and Peter. Dolly Sods is interesting because it's a high plateau with a landscape that feels a bit exotic -- almost tundra-like, with scattered pines surrounded by a sea of low brush and occasional rock fields. The funny thing is that this landscape is so unique because it was totally devastated by human activity in the late 1800s; the area was logged, burned, and overgrazed. This stripped so much of the topsoil that scrub brush is the only thing that can survive on parts of it. Nevertheless, it is pretty.

We stopped at Zachary's parents' place in Keyser on the way to and from Monongahela for provisioning, and some awesome home-grown and home-cooked food. Zach had the foresight to plan the trip for blueberry season (they thrive in the scrubby landscape), so we spent some time tromping through the brush and picking them. We also spent a fair amount of time cooking (including blueberry pancakes!), tending the fire, and reading. (We weren't the only ones out there for the weekend, as we ran into Allison and Nat, who I hadn't talked to for a while, as they were unpacking their car before hiking out to camp in the backcountry.)

Upon arriving on Friday, I found that the rain fly for my tent had fallen out of the bag before I left DC, but we rigged up a tarp to cover the tent. Good thing we did, because we got lots of rain. Most of it was at convenient times, like just as we finished our hike up to Seneca Rocks, or the 10 hours between when we turned in on Saturday night and when we got up the next morning. But when more rain set in on Sunday afternoon while we were trying to dry out our stuff from the night before, we decided to head home instead of staying through Monday as we had planned. Still a great trip, though, and I'd like to head back there in the future.

A few pictures are up on Flickr.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Greetings from...

I went to visit my parents in Connecticut this past weekend, and enjoyed helping Dad with the deck he's building, hanging out in the more pastoral setting, and watching out for the big black bear that has made a couple appearances recently (s/he did not stop by).

We also went to visit Grandma up in Moosup. My great-grandmother's old house is next door, and although she passed away a number of years ago, the family is still working to go through the things she accumulated in her small home over the years. She was a bit of a pack rat, and there's a lot of stuff. My mom and her sister Liisa were going through things again this weekend, and I grabbed some of the old pictures they had found and looked through them with Grandma. She grew up in Finland, so some of the photos were taken there -- even one of the family posing on their cross-country skis, which is how she got to school in the winter. Very cool.

Anyway, getting to the impetus for my blog post: After coming to America, my great-grandparents worked in the household of the Reynolds family (of Reynolds Aluminum fame) for many years. The family had homes in several places, and my grandmother and grandfather would often travel with them. Among the many photos of them posing on the grounds of the homes, there were also postcards they had purchased when accompanying the family on vacation. I asked to take a couple of the postcards with me, and they're pretty awesome:





They're not just postcards, but actually little folders that the recipient opens up to see an accordion of painted images of the place:


The postcard for the "romantically located" cities of Miami and Miami Beach is copyright 1946. No date on the card from Havana -- "where beautiful homes are placed in tropical settings of languorous loveliness" -- but before Castro, in any case.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Yanking the supply chain

Wal-Mart has announced a long-term initiative to score the environmental credentials of the products it sells.

Wal-Mart will be asking companies that sell products at their stores to provide information on environmental characteristics of their operations and supply chains. The information gathered about the environmental impact will eventually be summarized in scores available to consumers alongside the prices. (The Times calls it "the environmental equivalent of nutrition labeling," which seems an apt analogy.) Wal-Mart is hoping to have other retailers adopt the index, as well.

When consumers try to make environmentally-sound purchasing decisions, it's actually pretty hard. A company may tout its innovative biodegradable material, but you wouldn't know if this new material required twice the raw materials and resulted in more emissions of CO2. Are you concerned about deforestation? Water consumption? Air pollution? There are so many aspects to sustainability that consumers rarely have access to information about all of them for a given product. Even if they did, it's not practical for individuals to process and act on that information for the huge range of products and things that go into them along the way. Having an index number (or several for different types of environmental impacts) would be a simplification, but it's a necessary one. (A better way is to put yourself in a position to see the entire supply chain, like buying milk from a local farmer. But this is not practical for most products. Though the very best thing to do, of course, is to buy less crap.) When consumers are armed with understandable scores of environmental impact, manufacturers might actually start to to get some market feedback on consumers' preference for sustainable products.

In the near term, the most influential aspect of this initiative may simply be Wal-Mart expressing its interest in these issues. The first round of questions to suppliers is pretty basic, but just having Wal-Mart ask could be a paradigm shift for many companies who have previously only answered questions about how many more fractions of a cent they can shave off the unit cost and if they can deliver on time. Just introducing environmental considerations into the discussion could have substantial impacts.

We just have the initial steps to look at now, and it will require a lot of follow-through for Wal-Mart to accomplish what it's talking about. Even in the best case, it will be impossible to create a true quantitative measure of sustainability, because it won't be able to capture every consideration and nuance. But it could be a lot better than the total lack of reliable and comprehensible information that we have right now.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Songs of the Moment (An Occasional Feature)

> Andrew Bird - Anonanimal [mp3 stream]
> Avalanches - Close to You
> Dosh - Um, Circles and Squares
> Fleet Foxes - White Winter Hymnal
> Cat Power - The Moon
> Ugly Casanova - Barnacles
> Fountains of Wayne - Radiation Vibe [mp3]

I've been really into Andrew Bird since seeing him again with the Decemberists last month. I picked up his latest album, Noble Beast, and have been addicted to it for the last couple weeks. (And as an extra bonus, Dosh is now part of his band...)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Boosterism

Apparently Tim Hortons, the famously Canadian coffee-and-doughnuts chain, is making a move on New York City -- a former Dunkin' Donuts franchisee reopened 12 of its stores today as Tim Hortons locations. According to the City Room blog, NYC Council Member David Weprin attended the grand opening ceremony at one branch. Tim Hortons' arrival, he said, "shows New York City is on the move, that we’re a desirable market."

So, for all you New Yorkers who are concerned about your city's limited cultural and economic importance, take comfort -- an influential Canadian doughnut chain has now opened franchise locations in town. You're on the move.

(We'll have to add Tim Hortons to the Doughnut Quest itinerary. Though, unfortunately, it looks like Doug won't be able to make it in August after all, so the real Doughnut Quest will be delayed until next year.)

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Facebook ads

This ad just appeared on a Facebook page I was looking at:
Modern Art by Indorato
Michael Indorato is an up and coming artist. Invest in his artwork now while you can. His work is sure to be famous and very expensive.

Subtle.

On the previous page, there had been an ad for a DC-area professional pet photographer who will get shots of your pets posed in front of the monuments. At least I'll know what's going on when I pass by the Washington Monument and see a doggie photo shoot underway.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Wallet endurance


This is the only wallet I've ever carried; it's been in my pocket every day since late high school -- more than ten years. (At first it lived in my front right pocket, but it was later booted to the back right when I got a cell phone.) It had been raggedy for a while, and it finally split in half a couple weeks ago, so I had to get a new one. I salute its long and faithful service.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

July 4th bike camping


I had a great long weekend, bike camping with Aron, Alex, Mike, Nils, Delphine and James. Our route took us just about exactly 100 miles -- up the C&O Canal, camping overnight, then looping around Poolesville, taking White's Ferry to Virginia, and heading back to DC on the W&OD trail. It made for a laid-back trip with the good weather and the fact that James met us by motorcycle at camp with the makings for a delicious dinner. I think we all had a good time despite three flat tires and one collision with a tree (none of those was me, and everyone was fine). We even made it back to DC just in time to watch the fireworks (official and unofficial) from Alex's rooftop deck.

Pictures are on Flickr.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

O Canada

The NYT ran a funny piece in honor of Canada Day, wherein they asked Canadians exiled to the U.S. what they miss most about their native country. Malcolm Gladwell offered this:

In history class, in seventh grade (or as we like to say in Canada, grade seven) we learned the story of the American Revolution — from the British perspective. Turns out you were all a bunch of ungrateful tax cheats. And you weren’t very nice to the Loyalists. What I miss most about Canada is getting the truth about the United States.

Of course, learning about America from the American perspective can also be problematic. For instance, until about 4th grade, I was under the impression that America invented the idea of democracy, and was the first place to have people vote on anything, ever.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Search for the Holey Grail

Doug and I both love pastries in general -- we've been known to get into repeated, heated arguments about the best chocolate croissant in Minneapolis. But we both hold doughnuts especially close to our hearts.

I've raved about Doughnut Plant to Doug for years, but he's never had a chance to visit New York. He ran across an article last fall where the author listed what she felt were the 13 best doughnuts in NYC. Increasingly convinced that New York is the center of the doughnut universe (or at least a major life-sustaining solar system), he suggested that we "someday" embark upon an "epic quest" to visit all the doughnut places listed. Well, someday is now! Or, at least, mid-August. Doug, Alex, and I will spend a long weekend consuming an obscene number of calories to see how we think they stack up.

I've plotted our target doughnuts on a Google map. We want to make sure we aren't missing any other places in the city with great doughnuts -- do you know of any bakeries we should visit as part of Doughnut Quest 2009? (I am also soliciting alternative names for Doughnut Quest 2009.)

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Chai

I've developed a taste for chai in the last few years. It's a great blend of flavors, and every chai is a bit different. Of course, it's actually somewhat difficult to get good chai in the U.S. The chai lattes at Starbucks and most other coffee shops are made from powder or concentrate, and are usually way too sweet and not very flavorful or spicy. I've tried it at a few restaurants (some of them Indian), and it's usually pretty good, but not great. Strangely, the best chai I've had is at Doughnut Plant in New York. (Between the best doughnuts and best chai, the place is basically the center of my universe.) The best chai I've had in DC is at Teaism, though it's a bit heavier on anise than I prefer. They sell packages of their blend so that you can make it at home, which is nice.

But I have chai at work every afternoon, and I have thus far deemed using loose tea too labor-intensive for a tea break. So a focus of my chai exploration has been identifying the best chai teabags. I've tried a bunch of brands, including Bigelow, Good Earth, Twinings, Stash, and Tazo. They're mostly pretty unsatisfying, and because I'm allergic to artificial cinnamon flavor (weird, I know), I can tell you that Good Earth and Stash both use artificial cinnamon flavor, even though it's ambiguously identified on the label. But Celestial Seasonings chai, I'm happy to report, is really good. It's not like a real cup of long-simmered chai, of course, but it's great for a tea bag.

This is on my mind because the Celestial Seasonings chai has mysteriously disappeared from the local grocery stores, making me very grumpy. I bought some Numi brand chai from Whole Foods last week (for more than twice the cost), and it's decent, but doesn't make a very strong cup of tea. I may have to mail order...

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Songs of the Moment (An Occasional Feature)

> Crooked Fingers - Cannibals
> Lymbyc Systym - Carved By Glaciers [mp3]
> Flaming Lips - Suddenly Everything Has Changed
> Modest Mouse - Teeth Like God's Shoeshine
> Radiohead - You and Whose Army
> Ben Folds Five - Don't Change Your Plans
> Beta Band - Dry the Rain

I went to the Lymbyc Systym show a couple months ago because Mike happened to know one of the guys in the band from middle school and figured he'd see them while they were in town. I ended up really liking the show, and I bought a record (yes, vinyl!). It's great, and I always love discovering a band by seeing them live.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

No so alert

The Metro Red Line accident yesterday left the city a bit stunned, and there will be plenty of time to figure out how something this gruesome happened during a normal rush hour commute. But meanwhile, I noted an item in the Post today listing all the official alerts Metro sent out during yesterday evening, i.e. email and SMS messages that riders sign up to receive so that they can find out about service problems and adjust plans accordingly.

The alerts following the crash were symptomatic of problems with Metro's approach to communications. A sample alert from last evening:

6:07 p.m.: WMATA Alert: (ID 55699) Disruption at Fort Totten. Trains are turning back at Rhode Island Ave and Silver Spring stations due to a train experiencing mechanical difficulties outside of Fort Totten station. Shuttle Bus service has been established. Customers should add an additional 30 minutes to their travel time.


Never mind that one should add a lot more than 30 minutes of travel time under the circumstances (it took a colleague 2.5 hours to make what is normally a 20-minute commute). An hour after two trains collided, and after having sent out several press releases on the crash to the media, why on earth would Metro continue to call it "a train experiencing technical difficulties"? These alerts are their direct line to customers, and they just pass along useless euphemisms. It fails to communicate the seriousness of the disruption, which riders need to know is substantial enough that they should make alternate plans, and it's patronizing that Metro is simply unwilling to say that there has been an accident, as if riders can't handle the news.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Grammar disagreement

From a month or so ago, when I was departing from Dulles airport on vacation:

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Chesapeake & Ohio

I had the day off on Friday, and I took maximum advantage by not getting up until 11 am and then taking a 60-mile bike ride up the C&O Canal. It's wonderful that I can take a 60+ mile bike ride from my house in DC and never encounter a car (or even a road crossing) for 55 of those miles. Naturally, Congress tried to make the canal into a highway in the 1950s, but Justice Douglas of the Supreme Court led a walk along all 185 miles to galvanize opposition, and it was eventually designated a national park.

The canal trail goes past Great Falls on the Potomac, and it was really rushing yesterday, with all the rain we've had:

I'll be taking a two-night bike camping trip over July 4th weekend with Aron and some other folks, of which a large part will be on the C&O. And Aron, Mike and I have tentative plans to take the train to Pittsburgh and bike back sometime in the fall, using the Great Allegheny Passage trail, which links up with the C&O at Cumberland, MD.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

NextBus


Some great news for those of us in DC: WMATA is rolling out real-time bus arrival information for all its routes.

The NextBus system, in case you're not familiar, has GPS transmitters on each bus, and combines their location with information on traffic patterns to estimate arrival times at a given stop. This is great because it reduces the information hurdle to riding the bus, which is higher than rail. Not only are bus schedules less accurate because of traffic, but outside of routes you use all the time, it's often not even clear if the bus you want comes by the stop, if it runs on Sundays, etc. Now, there are ID numbers posted at each stop, and you can just plug it into your phone and find out if it's worth waiting. (The graphic on the sign looks a bit like a bus saying "Whaaa?".)

I still prefer my bike, though...

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Vacation photos


England and Croatia pictures are now up on Flickr.

I had a wonderful time, and it was great to have a chance to hang out with far-away friends.  A few highlights from my trip:
  • Biking around Oxford.  The city is amazingly bike-friendly, and I borrowed Karen's bike for the day while she was at work.  It was a great way to see the city, and allowed me to get out into the countryside a bit, too.
  • Cherry strudel.  There are bakeries everywhere in Croatia, and most sell excellent cherry strudels that, unlike their American cousins, are tart and have an even ratio of filling to pastry.  Despite the fact that Croatia is not necessarily inexpensive overall, the strudels are only a bit more than a dollar apiece.
  • Driving around Croatia.  We rented a car for the last three days in Croatia, and it was great to see a few out-of-the-way places and the generally spectacular Croatian countryside in Zagorje and Istria.  Also, I rather enjoyed driving a VW Golf stick shift on curvy country roads.  (It was the first time I'd driven a manual transmission that was less than a decade old.)
  • Gnocchi in Groznjan.  I like gnocchi, and that was some really good gnocchi.  (I also like saying gnocchi.)
As a postscript, a coincidence:  I went to a happy hour a couple days ago, and a friend of Louise's was there...when he found out I went to Carleton, he asked if I knew Laura.  I said yes, I just got back from visiting her in Croatia.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Skola!

As seen in Zagreb:

Watch out! Exploding schoolchildren!

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Listening, telling

I hosted the DC Listening Lounge at our house this evening. A good gathering, as usual. In any case, I mention this for two reasons: One, the website has been revamped so that individual members can upload their own audio. So it's worth visiting site occasionally to see what's up.

Two, some folks in the group are involved with the Place + Memory Project, which seeks to gather memories of places that no longer exist. The end result will be a wiki map on the website, and audio pieces that air on Weekend Edition. To contribute to the audio side of it, you can share a memory of a vanished place by calling 1-888-910-2555 and leaving a voicemail describing it. Nothing polished, just talk about it.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Croatian observations

My trip is almost over -- I fly out from Zagreb tomorrow (to London, then home). I will probably write a bit more about it later, and certainly post some pictures, but a few quick observations about Croatia while they're on my mind:

- Croatia is much more Western European than most Americans (i.e. me) realize.
- While driving our rented car in the last few days (VW Golf stick shift!), there was ample time to flip through Croatian radio. Obama, Obama, Obama -- the Middle East speech goosed the coverage a bit, but Laura said it wasn't much more than normal.
- Why does almost every other country have better pastries than we do?
- Why does every other country have better yogurt than we do?

Friday, May 29, 2009

In Dubrovnik

I've had a great trip so far -- London, Oxford, Zagreb -- and Laura
and I arrived in Dubrovnik, Croatia this afternoon.

I'll do the obligatory showing-you-my-vacation-slides thing when I get
back, but for the moment, I wanted to add another social coincidence
to my running log.

Laura's been in Croatia for a while now, and has become friends with a
few folks in the city, including a family from the US who are living
here for a time. We went over to their place last night to cook
dinner (delicious!). In the course of conversation, we discovered
that they know my old roommate Zachary's sister, and have met Zach
briefly.

Funny to come all the way to Croatia and still run into people with
mutual acquaintances. But of course, it's not like some Croatian guy
I struck up a coversation with at the market happened to go to
kindergarten with my brother...now that would be weird.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Airport

A couple notes while sitting in the airport:

- I had to resist saying "Thanks, cupcake" to the woman who checked my
suitcase -- because her nametag said "Cupcake."

- When I got to security, I was reminded that I still had a pair of
wire strippers in my bag. Bad move.

Sound Bites

Here's the piece I did for the DC Listening Lounge's show, "Sound Scene 2009: The Human Body." At the show, it could be heard from headphones coming out of a mannequin's mouth.

It's called "Sound Bites," and I'll just leave you with the caption that was displayed with it: DC Community Potluck attendees put food into words.

video

I'm heading out of town this afternoon on a trip for work to El Paso and New Mexico, and right after I get back, I'm heading to to London, Oxford and Croatia to visit Jesse and Sophie, Karen, and Laura, respectively. So for the next few weeks, my blogging will likely be limited to short blips sent from my phone.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Doll chandelier

The DC Listening Lounge Sound Scene last Friday was a big success, with great turnout and lots of cool stuff to be heard. Some of the work may go up on the website later; if so, I'll link to it. Also, I made a short piece for the show that I'll try to put up tomorrow night.

But for now, I took some pictures of the creepy baby chandelier I made for the occasion with dolls from the dollar store. (The theme of the show was "the human body.")

The rest are at at Flickr. People seemed to like it, but I'm not really sure what I'm going to do with it now. It's probably a little too weird to have just hanging up in the house...

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Dollar

Regular dollar stores are kinda depressing, because there's just so much crap that has been made with such obvious lack of care. But I had occasion to browse some of the small, independent dollar stores on Mount Pleasant Ave this week, and though they're a bit depressing, they're mostly just strange. They cater to a primarily Latino audience, I think, and the merchandise often seems to have appeared out of some time warp -- like an entire garage sale of items still in their original packaging. It was hard to imagine anyone actually buying much of it, and I was the only customer in the three store I went into. I half wondered if they're a front for something, but I really wanted to ask where they got their inscrutable mishmash of useless household items.

It may be that much of the stuff was originally made to be sold in Latin America or other developing countries. I think that's probably the case with this doll:

Note that her ill-fitting outfit is baring the holes in her midriff (where the Fever Concert sounds come from, presumably) . Dear, your speaker is showing.

Anyway, the purpose of my visit was actually to look for dolls. I tried to buy Ms. Fever Concert, but $18.99 is pretty steep, and I only bargained the owner down a dollar, so I had to pass. I eventually found some less pricey ones, and used them to make a prop for the DC Listening Lounge show, "Sound Scene: The Human Body." It's this Friday night (5/8) -- check it out if you're in DC. More info is at the website.

Monday, May 04, 2009

NYC


I had a good long weekend in NYC hanging out with Alex, Nina, and Shane. I went to the Whitney with Alex to see the Jenny Holzer show, Protect Protect. We both thought it ended up being a bit underwhelming, but there were a couple very cool pieces in a different temporary exhibition, so it was okay. At MoMA, there were a couple excellent photo exhibitions.

I had never really been to the financial district before, so I also wandered around there for a while. At the iconic bull sculpture, people can choose two different, er, angles to approach the issue:

It might be amusing to see if there's a correlation between the numbers of photos taken at each end of the bull and the gyrations of the market. (I had always assumed there was also a bear, and it just never gets on camera. But I didn't see one.)

Alex identified a concert (The Dears and Great Northern) at a cool venue, and it was a great show. We were right up against the stage -- I haven't stood that close for a while.

And of course, I went to Doughnut Plant -- strawberry glazed (raised), tres leches (cake), and strawberry jelly with vanilla glaze (raised).

A few more pictures are up at Flickr.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Branded

I started reading Dan Neil in the LA Times after he won a Pulitzer in 2004. He won the prize for his automobile reviews, which piqued my interest, since car coverage is mostly devoid of actual information (beyond horsepower stats, anyway) and tends to lean heavily on cliches. It turns out that while the actual automotive content of Neil's reviews is a huge improvement over that stuff, what really sets his columns apart is that they're not really about the cars. Which makes sense, since cars themselves are usually not just about the engineering, but about identity, aspiration, culture, etc.

In that vein, I loved the column he has out now about the Ed Hardy brand. The ostensible subject of the column is the new Ed Hardy wine -- if you're not familiar with the brand, see their website for an indication of what an odd pairing it is. But the column is mostly about the vapidness of the brand and "branding" in general.

I love the line about the guy behind Ed Hardy trying to build an "off-the-rack psyche" to sell to his customers. This gets at the key issue: Brands are mostly benign when they convey useful information to the consumer (e.g. "Sony VCRs last longer than no-name ones"). They are often obnoxious when they turn things the other way and seek to convey information about the consumer to others ("This person with an Abercrombie & Fitch t-shirt is cool"). And they are downright insidious when they aim to save you the hard work and sell you an identity, sometimes subtly playing upon your insecurities to convince you that their identity is better than any you might be able to build on your own.

By the way, I have you tried Ed Hardy Structured Water? It's so much better than the normal water I've been drinking my whole life.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Weekend away


I took a couple days off at the end of last week and spent a long weekend with my parents in Hilton Head, SC. They picked me up on the drive down there, and I took the train back to DC today while they stay for a full week. It worked out well, and it was great to get a bonus weekend of hanging out with them at a time of year when I don't usually get home to visit.

I brought my folding bike with me, and got my parents on (rented) bikes for the first time in a while. We did the full-on tourist thing, going mini golfing and riding to the beach. (A couple more photos are on Flickr.)

The trip back on Amtrak was cool, seeing all the tiny southern towns -- it mostly made me want to hop off the train with my bike and ride around. Many of the places make it feel as though the train has somehow taken you back 20 years. And since I only took a backpack's worth of stuff with me, once I got to DC, I just unfolded my bike and rode home.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Heavy responsibility

I like my local Giant grocery store for the most part, but they are chronically short on checkout staff. So even though I typically go to the store late on Sunday evening, the lines are usually still long, sometimes stretching back into the aisles. (A social norm has developed for these lines whereby at a certain point, it breaks off and the next person waits at the front end of the adjacent grocery aisle, so that there is a space for people to move across the front of the store.)

Particularly if I'm there in the last hour the store is open, I've often observed this leading to a situation where the checker is scheduled to close his or her register, and turns out the light, but the end of the line is too far away to say "I'm closed" to new people getting in line. The checkers often deal with this by talking to the last person in line and tasking them with making sure no one else gets in line. Clearly, this is not a very desirable position for the customer to be in -- you have to tell potentially cranky people to go to another line, and to other customers you seem kind of obnoxious for having taken upon yourself (it seems, anyway) the authority to tell people which lines are closed.

But I've drawn some amusement from watching how different people handle it. Tonight's installment was particularly funny, albeit in a very understated way. The checker walked back to where the last guy was standing and told him he had to be an end-of-line enforcer. "Oh, okay," he said. A moment later I saw him somewhat sheepishly turn away another guy who got in line, but no big deal. A couple minutes after that, however, someone parked an unattended cart behind him for a moment, and the checker called back "Hey, that's not somebody in line, is it?" "Uh, no, I don't think so," he said. (Being accused of failing at your line-enforcement duties...harsh.) Several minutes later, the line had moved up enough that he was no longer waiting in the aisle, and I watched him look back and see a different unattended cart parked ominously at the end of the aisle. The poor guy looked slightly stricken, and he shuffled back and forth for a moment trying to identify whose cart it was. Not having any luck, he kept glancing between the checker and the cart until someone returned and moved it.

At that point, I got up to the register, so I don't know if he had any more travails as end-of-line enforcer. But I would happily give up this small source of amusement in exchange for shorter checkout lines...

Minnesota Saves the Day

Minnesota gets major props from the NYT for its food-borne illness monitoring:
If not for the Minnesota Department of Health, the Peanut Corporation of America might still be selling salmonella-laced peanuts, Dole might still be selling contaminated lettuce, and ConAgra might still be selling dangerous Banquet brand pot pies — sickening hundreds or thousands more people.

And that's a hard news article, not an editorial. Basically, most states are terrible at monitoring outbreaks, but Minnesota is pretty good at it -- as a result, they're the ones who give the rest of the country a heads-up in a disproportionate number of national outbreaks. Just goes to show what a little funding and some good management can do for the public welfare.