Thursday, June 28, 2007

That'll Be the Deity

Wow, I had no idea that being God, the Creator of the Universe, was so supremely dull that this is what he chooses to focus his energies on:
New Kensington resident Joey Salvati, 39, a father of two, was in the shower about a month ago when he first heard God speak to him about the matter. Whether it was an external or internal voice, he wasn't sure. He tried to ignore it, but it kept coming back, day after day, until he realized he had to do something about it. The message was for Salvati to make wooden paddles for corporal punishment and give them to parents who need help disciplining their children.
Curing disease and suffering? Nope. Putting an end to poverty? Uh-uh. Telling humans that killing people in his name is really bad idea? Not gonna happen, God's got better things to do. But making wooden paddles to beat the shit out of kids? Yep.

Oy gevalt.

Net Worth

Well, this is comforting. If someone were to sell my body to medical science, it would yield about four times what I got for my 10-year-old car. Truth be told, though, the car ran better.

$3950.00The Cadaver Calculator - Find out how much your body is worth

Mingle2 - Online Dating

Gimme 40

This appears to be the 40th anniversary of many things, such as "The Summer of Love," Sgt. Pepper, me, and, as it turns out, the bane/convenience of all our existences: the ATM.
Before the first ATM was installed by Barclay's Bank near London in 1967, there was a lot of standing in line and writing of checks, though there were probably a lot fewer $20 bills in the United States back then.
Funny with all the advances in chip power how ATMs have not gotten any faster over time. In fact, Bank of America ATMs are getting slower. Oh, wait, that's so we can read their dumb ads while trying to get money...

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Delta Dawn

Well, the trip to Atlanta went off without incident; actually, the flight(s) were far more pleasant than the drive down I-87 to Newburgh (why why why do people insist on doing <65 in the left lane when the signs quite clearly say "keep right except to pass"? Do they know the problems and near-accidents this causes?).

I was headed to Atlanta for the NAPL Technology Conference (or whatever it was called) and the hotel it was held at (the Renaissance Concourse) was located right at the airport, which was a pain, as I like to be closer to things to do and places to go rather than trapped at a conference. It was also one of those irritating hotels that have a fee for everything--Internet? $15 (uh, no, thanks; thankfully the BlackBerry worked just fine). Want to use the computer in the lobby? $10. Want the air conditioning on? $5. Want the air conditioning off? $6. Want towels? $9. Oy.

Still, this was the view from my room:
It's interesting how the universe loves to taunt me so. But sitting and watching planes take off and land for a while is really quite hypnotic, and was actually quite therapeutic for anticipating the return flight.

Anyway, I really don't like business travel all that much, and I find that the only advantage to it is to explore cities I've never been to--like Atlanta. The woman I sat next to on the plane (who is a sales rep for a company that imports handbags that resemble dogs--it sounds extremely upsetting) recommended a jazz club in Atlanta called Dailey's. I arrived at the hotel about 5:30 and was starving, and I try to avoid chain and hotel restaurants, so I looked up Dailey's Web site on my BlackBerry. It looked like a nice place, so I grabbed a cab and headed downtown. And it was a terrific restaurant--if a tad on the pricey side. They were known for a cracked pepper swordfish and it was phenomenal. I had never heard of black bean soup, but it was very good. After the second gin and tonic, I kept wondering if the restaurant was owned by Bill Daily, who played Major Healey in I Dream of Jeannie. (The spelling should have been a good indication that it was not.)

Next door to Dailey's restaurant is the jazz club/bar area I had heard about. I had about a half hour before the band came on, so I walked around downtown for a bit. Not a massively bustling city, but clean and pleasant enough. It definitely looks like it's in the midst of a renaissance of sorts.

The jazz club was nice enough, although it is also billed as a "cigar bar," which usually means you have to put your clothes in a HazMat van when you're done, but fortunately it wasn't crowded and no one was smoking cigars. It wasn't really a jazz band--more like a blues band and they did a decent enough job covering Van Morrison.

I was exhausted so I did not stay very long, although I did enjoy a local Georgia microbrew called Sweetwater Pale Ale, which is quite good.

The cab driver--the same one who had driven me there from the hotel; he gave me his card and was having a slow night and said to give him a call when I was ready to return--was a really nice if often impenetrably accented guy named Bade, who was of Nigerian extraction, having lived in Atlanta for 16 years. He gave me a tour (it was a flat rate to the hotel, so I wasn't being taken for a ride, so to speak) of the city--mostly of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthplace, his original church, and where one of his first marches took place (it's a National Park now). We also went past Turner Field (the Braves were playing the Red Sox--I do not know who won, but was glad that I do not have a New England accent).

I did not see "The Magician" (you'll have to watch the Futurama clip below).

After my presentation Wednesday afternoon, I headed back to the airport. As I mentioned previously, I had not flown since before 9/11 and was not used to having to remove my shoes (although all I could think of was Kurt Vonnegut's quote that it was a good thing no one tried to sneak exploding pants onto a plane). Still, even with the immense security lines in Atlanta, everyone was well-behaved and the staff there know how to keep everyone moving. The Atlanta airport has its own subway system, but I elected to walk (I had a lot of time) the 3000 feet to Concourse B. Unfortunately, I realized too late that I had left my shoe inserts (for my plantar fasciitis foot problem) in my dress shoes--which were in the luggage I had checked. Doh!

It was about dinner time and after searching desperately and with aching feet for a place to eat that was not completely mobbed, I finally found a Sam Adams pub right near my gate and had a few pints of Sam's Summer Ale and a cheeseburger that was slightly less inedible than a McDonald's cheeseburger.

As it turned out, the flight was an hour late taking off because the crew were delayed getting in from Gulfport, MS. There was some grumbling; actually, every Delta flight was delayed, leading some to think DELTA stood for "Doesn't Ever Leave The Airport," which I found amusing. Still, I'm a veteran of Amtrak, so an hour late is nothing. I just wish they had more seats at the gate (my feet were really killing me and the beer was wearing off).

The flight back itself was very pleasant (there's something quite ethereal about night flights), and I found the drive back up I-87 at 2 a.m. a much better time to be driving. I can see the appeal of being a vampire (except maybe for the blood thing).

All in all, I achieved my goal of coming several steps closer to getting over my fear of flying. London, here I come!

Monday, June 18, 2007

South by Southwest

I think a big part of my fear of flying came from all the times I had to fly on Southwest when I lived in California. I dug through my video archives and edited together these clips of my various flights on Southwest Airlines:

More Obsessing About Atlanta

Of course, I can never think of Atlanta without thinking of the Futurama episode "The Deep South," which explains what happened to Atlanta by the year 3000.

In the Court of the Crimson King

I couldn't find a video of King Crimson doing "One More Red Nightmare" (see below) but I did find pretty much the same lineup (except with the addition of David Cross on mellotron and violin) doing "Easy Money" from their 1973 Larks Tongues in Aspic record.

For the Birds

Video of Andrew Bird playing "Fiery Crash" live in Minneapolis, a week before mi hermano and I saw him in Boston.

The Robot Holocaust--Nice Day for a White Wedding?

Yes, but is this a non-denominational robot or can it "multitask"?
A robot called "Tiro" acts as master of ceremonies at a wedding for Seok Gyeong-Jae (L), one of the engineers who designed it, and his bride in Daejeon, 130 kilometres (78 miles) south of Seoul. The robot acted as master of ceremonies at a South Korean wedding in what its creators claimed as a world first.

This Fan Blows

Please kill me:
If you're the type that likes to call attention to yourself, and happen to need to lower the apparent room temperature at the same time, we can think of no better way than with this LED fan. With 42 LEDs mounted on the blades, the LED Art Fan spins and flickers at a brazillian* RPM to create beautiful persistence of vision images. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so make sure you behold the video below.

Unbelievable bright images 5 megs of memory holds up to 128 individual frames.
No, no, no! I do not want a fan whose specs include megabytes!

Baby Got Pac

This is funny:
Pac Man’s Skull Exposed

Who knew that a circle with a giant mouth and tiny eyes could have such interesting anatomy beneath the surface. Pac-man’s skull was carefully crafted by artist Le Gentil Garcon after studying the skulls of human and predatory animals. He even collaborated with paleontologist Francois Escuille to make the most accurate representation right down to the tiny sacrum on his back-end.

iPhone, Therefore I Am

Here's a dopey headline (from Information Week):
Applications May Be The iPhone's Shortcoming
No. Given my experience with crappy cellphones, the only shortcoming would be if it is incapable of sending and receiving phone calls, a feature which is becoming rarer and rarer on phones these days.

Baby Got Bacteria

So I subscribe to this Co-Op America Newsletter, which offers tips and tricks for "shopping green." Not that I ever really do, given the fact that I'm basically cheap and lazy, but I at least like the idea of shopping green. (I also can't quite get into the "organic food" craze, preferring as I do inorganic foods, like Twinkies, given that my biological forebears evolved on another planet and were thus not carbon-based.)

Anyway, the current issue has a column on antibacterial soaps. It contains the passage:
In 1998, Tufts University reseracher Stuart Levy published a study in Nature, which found that frequent use of antibacterial soap caused genetic changes in bacteria, to the point where Levy speculated that these genetic changes couold create antibiotic-resistant "supergerms" and cause a public health crisis.
However, in October 2005, reserachers from Tufts (including Stuart Levy), Columbia University, and the University of Michigan did a follow-up study and found that household use of triclosan-based antibacterial hygiene products for one year did not result in participants carrying antibiotic-resistant bacteria on their hands.
Let's be clear about what we're talking about. The phrase "genetic changes in bacteria" is a little misleading, as it implies that the chemicals go into the bacterium's genome and cause mutations (like a Godzilla movie or something). What happens is that those bacteria that happen to have a genetic immunity to antibacterial products survive and replicate while those that do not, naturally, die. So the number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria increases. This is not science-fiction; it's basic Darwinism in action, and it's been well-documented that the overuse of pesticides in past decades has in fact led to the emergence of pests that are resistant to them, and for basically the same reason.

Now, this is not to say that it's a foregone conclusion that such organisms will develop, or that bacteria that are resistant to Dial handsoap will kill off humanity, but it's not a completely outlandish notion.

Personally, I try to avoid antibacterial products, simply because I'm not Howard Hughes (although, rent me Ice Station Zebra and we'll see what happens...) and have more important things to be afraid of--like silver gleaming death machines that shoot across the sky and purportedly land in Atlanta.

One More Red Nightmare

And, of course, for my return flight on Wednesday, I shan't forget this classic King Crimson* track from 1974:

Pan American nightmare
Ten thousand feet funfair
Convinced that I don't care
It's safe as houses I swear
I was just sitting musing
The virtues of cruising
When altitude dropping
My ears started popping
One more red nightmare

Sweat beginning to pour down
My neck as I turned round
I heard fortune shouting
"Get off of this outing"
A farewell swansong
See you know how turbulence can be
The stewardess made me
But the captain forbade me
One more red nightmare

Reality stirred me
My angel had heard me
The prayer had been answered
A reprieve has been granted
The dream was now broken
Thought rudely awoken
Really safe and sound
Asleep on the Greyhound
One more red nightmare

*The best King Crimson lineup (Robert Fripp, John Wetton, Bill Bruford), IMO.

Yeah, I Know...

...long time no post. Hey, you get what you pay for.

Anyway, what follows are some recent activities.

I should also mention that I saw Ocean's 13 the other night--it was enjoyable (I did not see the previous two) although it strained the very limits of believability. (I would imagine that casino pit bosses would think something was awry when dice magically change sides after being thrown and how exactly does one get a permit to dig under a hotel and trigger an earthquake?!) Still, it did make some of the Mission: Impossible plots seen downright plausible!

Fiery Crash

So today is my day for wigging out—I am flying to Atlanta tomorrow for some NAPL thing. It is perhaps a testament to the success of Toastmasters that I am completely blase about giving the presentation, but am dreading the flight (I need to find a Planemasters group, methinks). This is the first time I will have been on a plane in more than seven years (April 2000 was the last time). Actually, I had no desire to do this NAPL thing whatsoever, but only took it on it as an excuse to take a “test flight” in preparation for a trip to London to visit Amy and Steven in August.

I figured it was high time I got over this ridicuous fear of flying—it reached the height (so to speak) of absurdity last Graph Expo when I spent more time getting to Chicago than actually being in Chicago.

Of course, one of the worst things about flying, I discovered, was actually finding a flight. I wanted a non-stop flight (I don’t like takeoffs and landings—well, I should say I like the latter better than the former...). Naturally, there was no non-stop flight from Albany to Atlanta that cost under $1,000, but with Dr. Joe’s help I discovered one out of Newburgh, NY—about a 90-minute drive south of here—for under $200. As long as I keep thinking logically—the drive to Newburgh is statsitically less safe than the flight—I should be fine.

I also will keep playing one of my favorite Andrew Bird songs—“Fiery Crash”:

turnstiles on mezzanines
jet ways and Dramamine fiends
and x-ray machines
you were hurling through space
g-forces twisting your face
breeding superstition
a fatal premonition
you know you got to envision
the fiery crash

oh close your eyes and you wake up
face stuck to a vinyl settee
oh the line was starting to break up
just as you were starting to say
something apropos I don't know

beige tiles and magazines
Lou Dobbs and the CNN team
on every monitor screen
you were caught in the crossfire
where every human face
has you reaching for your mace
so it's kind of an imposition
fatal premonition

to save our lives you've got to envision
and to save all our lives you've got to envision
the fiery crash

it's just a formality
why must I explain?
just a nod to mortality
before you get on a place

oh close your eyes and you wake up
face stuck to a vinyl settee
oh the line was starting to break up
what was that you were going to say?


My friend Rob and I decided to look into joining an outdoor/social club in the Capital District called Two Rivers and, as it happened, I know one of their members via my Toastmasters Club and I ran into her again at the parade last weekend (see below).

So Saturday, we went on a hike through Thacher State Park in Voorheesville. I loaded up my backpack with water, bug spray, sunblock (precious liquid), trail mix, Band Aids, aspirin, Immodium (I prepare for everything!), and, at my sister-in-law’s suggestion, dry socks. I didn’t need the extra socks, but it was great fun. It wasn’t especially arduous (thankfully, as I am old), but it was very scenic. There were eight of us, and getting us all together to head down to the park was rather like herding cats; people kept going off and getting lost and it was like those horror movies where one search party gets lost looking for other search parties.

Still, it was a great time, and I look forward to future hikes and other outdoorsy events. (There is a bike ride next weekend, although I do not have a bike.) Kayaking will be a challenge; I suspect if I try that I will end up upside-down in no time.

That New Car Smell

My 10-year-old Saturn was acting up, so after several years of shilly-shallying I finally bit the bullet and bought a new car: a 2007 Toyota Camry. I was willing to pay extra for a hybrid version (even though, doing the math, given how little I drive, I would need to own the car for about 90 years before it paid for itself in gas savings) but the only one they had was cherry red (an obnoxious color) and tricked out with an extra $6K worth of crap like GPS and Bluetooth that I have no use or desire for. (I’m a simple people—all I wanted was an iPod adapter and decent cupholders—both of which came standard).

If you’re in the Saratoga area and are in the market for a car, I highly recommend New Country Toyota at Exit 15. They were very friendly and not high-pressure—or at least Aimee, my salesperson, wasn’t, but then she said she was new at car salesmanship. I thought I got a pretty good deal (like I know...), although they could not answer my question about the difference between a sunroof and a moonroof (apparently, the only difference is time of day you use it) and whether the latter would accelerate my lycanthropy.

I was excited by the fact that I had an iPod adapter (and a decent sound system) and no longer had to use a craoppy tape deck adapter—but then the day after I got the car, my iPod died. (Yes, I felt like Burgess Meredith in that Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last” where he finally has the chance to read all the books he wants but then breaks his glasses). So my shakedown cruise was down to the Apple Store in Crossgates Mall to see what was wrong with it—fortunately, it just needed a power boost and a restart. Whew!

Pride (in the Name of Love)

June 10 was the annual Capital District Gay & Lesbian Pride Parade and Festival, held down in Albany. I was on the event planning committee this year, and a great time was had by all. I also volunteered to work the parade, and got to don an orange vest and walk alongside the Bomber’s Burrito float, keep traffic moving, and keep from being crushed by an immense burrito. We estimated about 3,000+ people showed up in Washington Park for exhibitors, live acts (Albany band Ten Year Vamp was really good), and general merriment.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Book 'Em, Dano

The latest roundup of what I have been reading lately.

Breakfast of Champions
Kurt Vonnegut
Apr. 2007

A reread of Vonnegut's seventh novel (1973), the first Vonnegut book I had read (I borrowed it from Steven Hodges sometime during my sophomore year in college in 1986). It's not a "typical" Vonnegut novel, in that it was, as he says, written as a birthday present to himself on his 50th birthday.

Kurt Vonnegut
Apr. 2007

A reread of Vonnegut's eighth (1976) novel, and one of the few I'm not really wild about.

Falling Man
Don DeLillo
May. 2007

Falling Man is the new novel from a favorite author of mine (although I have only read a fraction of his books). I still am having a tough time determining what to make of it. DeLillo is a New Yorker, and Falling Man is a novel that is based on 9/11--Keith Neudecker was in the WTC when the planes hit, and the book opens with him fleeing the devastation. The event reconciles him with Linnia, his estranged wife and their young son Justin. Meanwhile, Keith returns a briefcase he found on a stairwell as he was fleeing to its owner, another survivor, and they have an affair. There is also Linnia's mother's European lover Martin, who had been a terrorist of sorts in the 1960s, and sections of the novel follow one of the hijackers as he trains with Mohammed Atta. There is also the titular "Falling Man," a performance artist who appears in random locations around NYC reenacting the poses of people who jumped from the towers. Themes related to terrorism have suffused DeLillo's work since the 1970s, so 9/11 seems ripe territory for him. While there is much to recommend in the book, it lacks the brilliance of his best work, like Underworld or White Noise, which were exceptional (and often sardonic) glimpses of 20th (and 21st) century disconnected America. DeLillo has a gift for language, and much of the novel becomes psychological exploration of 9/11 and its aftermath. Keith's poker buddy died in the towers, so he becomes obsessed with professional poker. Linnia beats up her Middle Eastern neighbor. Most chilling, though, is young Justin, who has a secret game with his friends where they scan the skies with binoculars waiting for a man named "Bill Lawton" (that is, a childhood garbling of "Bin Laden"). The book has much emotional depth and resonance, but it was hard to really get into Keith and Linnia as characters, since they're just kind of unpleasant. It's a very short novel, and needs....something else, something I can't put my finger on. Falling Man is good, but I would have expected something better from DeLillo, especially on this topic.

After Dark
Haruki Murakami
May. 2007

My absolute favorite contemporary author is bestselling (in Japan) author Haruki Murakami. I first read his magnum opus The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle when it came out in 1997, and I have been a fan of his ever since. His novels are like dreams, in that they take surface reality and combine elements of what is called in literary circles "Magic Realism": cats talk, sage figures appear dressed as Colonel Sanders or Johnny Walker, and reality becomes distorted. It’s like the literary equivalent of a Dali painting; the point isn’t to explain and understand every aspect of it, but to just take it in and let the experience wash over you--and change you. It's a very visceral way to read, and one that doesn't always lend itself to being written about (ironically). Anyway, his last novel, Kafka on the Shore was a return to brilliance after a couple of (IMO) moderate misfires, and After Dark is not as good, but is still good Murakami. A very short book (more novella; I finished it in basically two sittings) takes place in the six hours after midnight in Tokyo. A young girl, Mari Asai, is eating in a Denny's when she is visited by a series of strangers--a young jazz musician and a housekeeper at a "love hotel"--the latter of whom enlists her help in translating for a young Chinese prostitute who has been beaten up and robbed by a businessman, who fled the scene. Meanwhile, Mari's sister Eri sleeps and is pulled into a strange netherworld visible through her unplugged television set (told you this was magic realism). "Time moves in its own way in the middle of the night," says a bartender at one point. "You can't fight it," which could be the best way to sum up the book. It distorts reality, rends time and space, and is kind of a head trip in parts, but there is some wonderful dialogue between Mari and some of the other characters. My only complaint is that it was too short and, even though you expect things to be unexplained in Murakami, it seemed a bit too unexplained this time. Still, I enjoyed After Dark very much.

The Undercover Economist
Tim Harford
May. 2007

And now for something completely different. A very good introduction to basic economic thought by a Financial Times columnist. It isn't really an economics textbook per se, but rather uses the basic principles of economics to look at everyday questions, such as "Why can Starbucks get away with charging so much for coffee?" "why are poor nations poor?" and "Why has China been such a success story?" This has been billed as the companion book to Freakonomics, but I disagree; Freakonomics was basically a way of using bizarre convolutions of economic thought to examine arcane and fairly irrelevant issues while The Undercover Economist is more a way of "thinking like an economist" in everyday matters. Very enjoyable, as well.

I’ll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon
Crystal Zevon
May. 2007

Warren Zevon was one of my favorite singer/songwriters and this book, published by his ex-wife and longtime friend (published at his insistence, not as a hatchet job by a vindictive ex-spouse) is an "oral history" of Zevon's life. That is, not written in a narrative form, but rather is a collection of interviews with friends (writers like Carl Hiaasen, Dave Barry, and Stephen King), family, fellow musicians (Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, etc.), ex-lovers, etc., that tells Zevon's story. Would that everyone had a bit nicer things to say about him. Almost the entire book reads like it was a hatchet job; detail after detail of Zevon's battles with alcohol, womanizing, his own temperament, etc., wear very thin, and one only occasionally gets a glimpse of the "good" Zevon, or ultimately what made him a great songwriter and a world-class entertainer. Ultimately, it's a very depressing book. I think I'd much rather listen to his records. In fact, I think I will...

How to Lie With Statistics
Darrell Huff
May. 2007

First published in 1954, I read this classic "pop mathematics" book way back when while I was working for You Know Who, but it deserves a reread. Huff was not a mathematician; he was a magazine editor (Family Circle) who wrote many books in his lifetime, this being the only math-themed one. It is a wonderful introduction to statistical thought and the ways that statistics can be used to mislead. Even though the examples from the 1950s are a bit dated, the principles sure aren't. This is required reading...for anyone, really.

Wickett's Remedy
Myla Goldberg
May. 2007

Hoo boy. I really wanted to really like this book. I thought Bee Season, Goldberg's first novel, was delightful, even if it went off in some bizarre directions. This one shows her mastery of language and a willingness to take chances. Essentially, Wickett's Remedy is about Lydia, an Irish woman from South Boston who, following the death of her husband and brother, becomes a volunteer nurse during the Spanish influenza epidemic of the 1910s during the First World War. What is cool about this book is that the marginal notes provide a sort of Greek chorus by characters who have died, "correcting" or commenting on action in the main text. It's a unique idea and it works very well (and is often quite funny). However, there is also a subplot (or maybe even a main plot, it's hard to tell) about the titular remedy itself. That is, "Wickett's Remedy" was a "health elixir" that Lydia's husband had invented and, after his death, his business partner stole the recipe and turned it into the nation's bestselling soda. Indeed, each chapter ends with excerpts from "modern" (that is, 1990s-era) “QD Soda” promotional literature, factory tour guides, a newsletter, and so forth. How this ties in with the Spanish influenza so well. It seems there were two books here and at the end of the day (or at the end of the book), the two stories are not integrated in a very satisfying manner--or, indeed, at all. Even the main story ends a bit abruptly, as if someone said "Pencils down" and Goldberg was forced to stop writing and it was published wherever she happened to stop. (I was amused to note in the Acknowledgements that her editor is someone I worked with--and hated--at St. Martin's Press and I'm happy--in a vindictive sort of way--to see that he has become a crappy editor.)

Blog Tired

Yeah, I know, it's been a while since I have posted (you get what you pay for...). Now that Spring is here and the weather has been beautiful, I have been eager to spend as little time as possible in front of the computer (just enough to get my work done) and more time out frolicking, gardening, wining and dining, etc.