Monday, May 31, 2004

Things that go bump.

And no, I don't mean my driving skills (if any).

I watched Panic Room last night. Good movie; Jodie Foster always gives a good performance. On the other hand, probably not the best choice of something to watch immediately before going to bed.

Almost asleep, I hear something from my backyard. Sounds like the trash can being blown over, or the lid from the can being dropped on the concrete pad. Probably wouldn't have bothered me had the wind actually been blowing. But with no rustling leaves or other wind noise, that clearly wasn't it. So I got up, checked out the window at the back yard (and saw nothing unexpected), made sure the doors were locked, and went back to bed, unclear whether the noise had been made by a neighborhood dog, raccoon, or Forest Whitaker.

Once I did drop off, I had bizarre dreams - one, introducing a speaker at some conference, and my introduction lasted longer than the speaker's talk - and in another one, the phone started ringing - buzz-buzz, buzz-buzz - so it sounded like the double ring of an "outside" call. It then woke me up, and I could tell it wasn't the phone, but sounded like four quick applications of an electric screwdriver (just like in Panic Room, natch). So I lay there, wondering what to do next - call the police, get up and find the noise, pretend I didn't hear it - and wondering why someone would be trying to break in - to take my bags of cans I haven't put out for recycling? - when I heard it again. Three quick screeches from some sort of bird. Ah: not a sneak thief, after all, so I could safely go back to sleep.

And yet - When I went outside this afternoon, I checked on the trashcans - and they were safely where they were supposed to be: not knocked over, not missing lids. I have no idea what the sound I heard last night actually was.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Great timing.

General Mills proudly announces that it is honoring Andre Agassi by puttng him on a Wheaties ("Breakfast of Champions") box, and that those boxes should be on your local neighborhood grocery store shelves this week, to mark the start of the French Open. I guess they'll only be on the shelf for about 2 hours, the length of his stay in the Open this year.

Sleep deprivation.

One of the things that happens to me when I fail to get enough sleep is that I make strange purchases. Thus, a couple of things I bought after my weekend push to meet a deadline are a puzzle to me a couple of days later, when I've pretty much caught up on my sleep.

One is a giant box of Cheerios. I don't have anything against Cheerios, you understand. It's just that, as a rule, I don't eat breakfast: breakfast is coffee, and nothing else. And if it is anything else, it's not cereal. My guess is that over the past quarter-century, I've averaged about one bowl of cereal every five years. So what would cause me to buy this? I'm guessing that it was the premium in the box: a free Shrek 2 watch. A free, glow-in-the-dark Shrek 2 watch, to be precise. And again, it's that sleep deprivation kicking in, because I don't wear a watch, either. (Virtually every room I'm in has a clock in it, as does this computer, and the cell phone, so it's not as though I need something else to tell me that I'm running late.) I guess I was so astounded by the concept that you could get a big box of Cheerios on sale for $2.99, and in addition to the Cheerios, there'd be a watch, too. I'm just hoping that if/when I eat enough Cheerios that I find the watch, the watchband will be child-sized and I won't be able to wear it.

The other odd purchase was of Baja Four-Cheese Wraps. I guess I'm always looking for something different for my sandwiches, and this qualifies. Nothing too odd in the purchase itself, but once I got the package home, I decided to look at the ingredients, to see what the four cheeses were that they named the product for. Let's see: there's cheddar cheese, and ... that's it. One type of cheese. Sounds fraudulent to me. On the other hand, boy is it shelf-stable! The sell-by date is October 8. Of this year, luckily, but that's still over 4 months away, and there's no telling how long it had already been sitting on the shelf.

This could be dangerous.

Mia, the official test subject.

I've now discovered how to add photos. Expect more, and soon.

(And by the way, this is a photo of Mia taken by her previous slaves. Umm, "owners." I don't have furniture that looks like that.)

The Times reviews IPAs.

And does a fair job of it, although no better than fair. They give some history of India Pale Ales - accurate, to my knowledge - and then review some. Well, they claim to taste 21, but give reviews on only 10 (and the video review has even fewer). The top-rated ones were the Smuttynose Big A IPA, Stone IPA, and Dogfish Head's 90-minute Imperial IPA. Can't really disagree too much with those choices, but I think their methodology was suspect: they were missing Pacific Northwest IPAs - such as Bridgeport's IPA - and they included non-IPAs in their tasting (Imperial IPAs - IPAs on steroids - and Imperial pale ales, where "Imperial" in the style designation indicates a lot more barley in the mix, resulting in more flavor and about 2% more alcohol than is normal for the style). And they were missing standard East Coast IPAs, as well - I can understand their not having Cottonwood's Endo Pale Ale, but leaving Tupper's Hop Pocket Ale out of their tasting?

Still, it's more complete beer coverage than the Post has.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

The Muse is on vacation.

Whereas I, alas, am not.

Haven't been able to post much over the past week. I've been doing some part-time editorial consulting for the legal publisher I used to work full-time for, and was doing some work that had a serious deadline crunch: enough of a crunch that I put in some 35 hours between Friday and Sunday. Met the deadline, of course, but in doing so, I've messed up my sleep cycle something fierce. Last night, for instance, I slept just fine between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., and between 6:30 and 10:30 this morning. Between 2 and 6:30? Not so much.

And since the editing I was doing last week was on actual paper, instead of computer files, I spread the papers out on the dining room table to work. The cat was pleased, as the dining room is her current favorite place to sleep, so she didn't have all that far to go to demand snacks whenever she woke up from her naps.

Convicted of battery, and sentenced to a dry cell.

There I was, last Thursday, having just jumped into the car, all set to go off to one of my favorite wine shops for a tasting from one of my favorite local vineyards - a tasting I'm willing to take credit for setting up. Just turn the key, and we're off.

RRr, Rrr, rrr, r-argh.

Hmm. Not a good sign. Tried it once more; no sound at all. Well, fine: I got to put my gasoline generator to good use again; first time since the hurricane. Within a half-hour, I was ready to go, so off I went to the wine tasting, which turned out to be fun.

Next day, off to do some errand or another, having completely forgotten the events of the night before. All I got this time was rr. Out came the generator again, and this time, the first errand was at the local car parts store, installing a new battery.

I suppose it was inevitable. Five-year-old car, five-year-old battery. And aging them doesn't make batteries better. But it made me wonder: does anyone ever replace their battery without having it die on them first? As I recall, I never have.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Some things should be sacred.

Sacred, I say.

TBS is casting for a new reality series, based on Gilligan's Island. They claim to be looking for "real life versions" of the characters from the original show, so if you're a real life skipper or professor, you can apply.

They also link to the eligibility requirements for taking part in the show. Some aren't too surprising: no convictions for anything worse than a minor traffic violation, and you have to reveal whether you've been on any other reality show. My favorite requirement: "Applicants may not presently be a candidate for any type of political office ('Candidate') and may not become a Candidate from the time the application is submitted until one (1) year after first broadcast of the last episode of the Program in which they appear." So, alas, we won't be treated to George Bush as Gilligan. At least, not on this show.

Filming is this fall, so I'd guess the show will air over the winter.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Breakfast of champions.

Perhaps doing your part to combat the cicada invasion by cooking up and chowing down on 30 of them isn't such a great idea, especially when you have an allergic reaction to eating cicadas. The genius chef has a history of asthma and shellfish allergies, so it shouldn't have come as all that much of a surprise to him.

Monday, May 17, 2004

Right result, wrong reason.

Near Cincinnati, an eighth-grader was sent home from her graduation for wearing a revealing dress. Or sent home from the day graduation pictures were being taken, or something. "I don't think nothing was wrong with the dress," she said. "I wouldn't have came to school if I thought something was wrong with the dress."

Personally, I can think of a better reason to prevent her from attending graduation ceremonies.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Grounds for disbarment, if not indictment for treason.

Bush's idiot White House counsel Alberto Gonzales wrote a post-9/11 memo to the President that excused following the Geneva Convention or being civilized. "In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions."

"Renders quaint." Sounds like this sleaze-bucket deserves this same quaint treatment, courtesy of lifers in maximum-security federal prisons.

Update: Trying to appear that he didn't really mean what he said in his memo to the President, Alberto "I give lawyers a bad name, and that's tough to do" Gonzales tries to paint over the past with a veneer of respectability. Nope. Don't buy it. It's too late to change those spots, except to prison stripes.

New wine in new bottles.

Or, at least, new to the writer of this article. Quality wine with screwtops isn't new, although the wider adoption by California wineries is a good trend. But some of the other things talked about at length in the article - including canned sparkling wine from Niebaum-Coppola, cardboard cartons, and 1-liter glass jugs are different, and not especially great innovations. Cardboard milk cartons - Tetra Brik packaging, to be precise - strikes me as signalling cheap, low-quality wine. I really don't see the point. And tiny little 187 ml aluminum cans of sparkling wine? That screams "gimmick!" to me, although I'm sure they'll get some amount of trendy sales until the fad passes. Especially since they're pink aluminum cans. I'd like to know how they're avoiding the metallic tang that accompanies other canned drinks, unless that's considered to be a bonus flavor nuance. I've seen the Three Thieves one-liter screwtop jugs. It does make their wine stand out in the store; I'm not convinced that's necessarily a good thing.

Shooting. Fish. Barrel.

Some jokes write themselves.

Up in Vermont, there is a "cherished tradition" of going out and shooting fish at Lake Champlain. And the hunters, in an attempt to outsmart the fish, dress in camouflage for the occasion, and bring all sorts of artillery - Magnum .357s, shotguns, even AK-47s.

Ah. A manly sport.

Almost time.

For the 2004 Tour de France, that is. Always great fun. Here's what looks to be one of this year's highlights: the stage at the Alpe d'Huez will be a time trial this year. Yes, it's a stage that riders eventually end up doing on their own - but it will all be on their own, this year.

Friday, May 14, 2004

Inside the Beltway? Or outside?

From an email from a friend of mine, explaining why she's not at the apartment she'd been renting for the past year: "I am house-sitting for a few months while one of my colleagues is in Iraq."

This strikes me as being a prime candidate for the List of Sentences That Could Only Be Spoken Within the Beltway.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Pay per click.

Article in the Post today on pay-per-click, as practiced at Google, and it's an interesting view into the finances of free sites like Google. Advertisers will pay the site for each person who clicks on an ad (and not, as used to be the case, for each person who sees the ad), and Google auctions off the right to have the ad placed on the first page of hits ("auctioning" here representing the per-clickthrough rate paid by the advertiser). The highest click-through payment is around $30 for "mesothelioma," an asbestos-caused cancer, paid by people hawking legal or medical help.

One of the interesting points is the art of determining the differing value of similar search terms - "digital camera" goes for 75 cents while "digital cameras" goes for $1.08, because advertisers have found that customers using plural terms in searches are more likely to end up as buyers. And another is that Gateway spends millions of dollars every quarter bidding on search terms. Perhaps that helps to explain Gateway's $6 million loss in the first quarter of this year.

As a consumer, I'm not sure I see the value of sponsored links and prime placement on search pages. Although I purchase a fair amount online, I've never purchased anything through a sponsored link, and just plain don't trust them. But I guess that advertisers are hoping that not everyone is as cynical about such things as I am.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

No, YOU get a life.

For all you Ghostbusters fans: a complete Ghostbuster suit on eBay, with lights and sound and everything. Well, everything except Sigourney Weaver, which rather lessens the value of this offering in my view.

And - shudder! - he'll be happy to deliver it in person in Pittsburgh, Richmond, or Charlottesville. Hmm. Wonder if we know anyone else who is connected to those cities?

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Roslyn has returned.

Roslyn the Neighborhood Bunny Rabbit, that is (this would be a photo of one of her friends and relations). Guess it's time to mow the yard again.

Would you buy a new car from these folks?

I wouldn't. Got a piece of junk mail from Ford today, with an offer for $400 back if I buy a Ford by the end of June. Well, I presume it's to me, although according to them, my first name is "Jhn". The offer that gives me that "cash bonus" is the 2004 Ford College Undergraduate Purchase Program, and it tells me that "Your undergraduate years spent at Duke University will be some of the most exciting and challenging of your life"; therefore, I should buy a Ford. As I recall, my undergraduate years were spent about 1000 miles to the southwest of Duke, and I didn't graduate this spring from there, either.

Yes, I understand: Ford bought a list of names of people who started at Duke in 2000 and made the silly presumption that all of those names represented undergraduates who are getting out of school this year. But it's incredibly sloppy work by their marketing folks to call all graduate students "undergraduates" and to miss their actual graduation dates by two years. I guess Ford's marketing department doesn't practice the slogan, "Quality is Job 1."

Theirs wasn't the only stupid junk mail I got today. I also received something from some mortgage refinancing organization. Big letters saying that it's from the "Veterans Information Department" with a "New VA Benefit" just for me, as they have identified me as "a U.S. veteran who may be eligible for a congressionally authorized home loan finance program." I'm curious as to how they identified me, as I sure don't remember being one. And elsewhere, in large capital letters, they tell me that I am "ELIGABLE" for a rate of 4.25%. Just not eligible, I suppose.

Planned obsolescence.

Perhaps not. But still a somewhat frightening article in the Post today, on "techno-rot" on CDs and DVDs. Apparently caused by some combination of poor manufacturing and poor storage or handling, CDs and DVDs can undergo deterioration of the data-carrying layer, causing them to skip and play poorly. And as a result, they're not quite as indestructible as once thought.

You were going to have to buy everything all over again when the next data-storage medium became popular, anyway.

Reasons to go to Cannes.

As though we needed another reason to go to the Cannes Film Festival: the Klingon Language Institute is hosting a seminar on the documentary "Earthlings: Ugly Bags of Mostly Water."

Well, at least they're not calling us a waste of skin.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Return of Pac-Man.

Kind of a cool article in the NY Times, about the use of cell phones and GPS instruments to play a real-life version of Pac-Man on the streets of Manhattan, and other large-scale games played in urban environments. These "big games" take advantage of the overlap between online spaces and the physical world; in essence, putting you into a real-life environment to play a video game. Looks like fun, and an unexpected use of technology.

Friday, May 07, 2004

Rummy and accountability.

A thoughtful piece by Juan Cole on why Rumsfeld should resign: the accountability of public officials to the public. Without accountability of public officials - especially those who aren't subject to the electoral process - the government acts more and more like those Middle Eastern countries that have elections but aren't really democracies.

"You really wonder whether the Bush plan to Americanize the Middle East isn't being turned on its head. We now have an unaccountable government not elected in accordance with the will of the majority of Americans, which victimizes critics like Joe Wilson and engages in torture. Bush and Co. are emulating the worst aspects of the military governments of Egypt and Yemen."

Books n stuff.

I guess it's again time to mention what I've been reading, watching, and listening to lately. And one thing I've listened to is Tom Clancy's latest, The Teeth of the Tiger. And I guess Tom Clancy books are good for listening to in the car, where you are more willing to put up with poor plotting and even worse characters. To me, the best part of the book was that a portion of it was set in Charlottesville, VA, where I lived for over 20 years. I always get some sort of vicarious enjoyment from books set someplace I'm familiar with (and movies: the day I saw Black Widow, I walked through a parking lot that showed up in the movie), so it was fun to track the characters as they moved through town. I don't mind location errors where they advance the plot - some of the action takes place in a mall on the north side of town, and at one point the heroes take the escalator up to the second floor of one of the anchor department stores, which in real life is all on one floor - or are tangential to it (the hotel where the bad guys stay is not one kilometer off of the Interstate, it's more like 4 miles up a U.S. highway; and while the Wal-Mart that's mentioned in the book is across the street from the mall where the action takes place, it's not directly across the street as the book describes - it's across the street and up the road a mile and a half), but sometimes the error is so blatant that it detracts from the story, and this book has a whopper. At one point, one of our heroes drives from Arlington, VA to "the farm" (a secret training complex, in the country near Charlottesville, but established elsewhere in the book as less than 10 minutes from the mall, so it's essentially in Charlottesville) - and he goes "directly" by taking I-95 to Richmond and then I-64 to Charlottesville. Everyone else in the world goes from Arlington to Charlottesville via I-66 and U.S. 29, which is (roughly) the hypotenuse of the right triangle formed by these two different routes, and about an hour shorter. A really odd mistake to make, as looking at a map - or a site like Mapquest - would have given the right answer, and given how accurate the description of Charlottesville is, you'd think that Clancy must have spent some time there, and surely would have known the right way to get there from the DC area.

But I digress. The book was an okay thriller with a very abrupt ending, and continues the Jack Ryan series into the next generation, which is either good or not, depending on your view of that series. (Although even if you like the Ryan books, it will strain your remaining credulity to accept the relationship that the particular protagonists of this book have with Ryan.)

A better book was High Country, the latest in Nevada Barr's Anna Pigeon series of mysteries set in National Parks; this one, in Yosemite National Park. In the Anna Pigeon stories, much of the fun is getting to see the operation of National Parks from the inside, and that's a bit missing in this book, as Anna goes undercover instead of keeping her usual role as a Park Ranger. While it's kind of fun to see a character you've gotten used to through the previous twelve books do something different, the park information, the secondary characters, and the plot itself all suffer a bit in comparison with the earlier books. If you're a fan of the series, this one is worth reading; if you haven't read this series before, I'd start with something else instead (perhaps Track of the Cat).

No Way to Treat a First Lady, by Christopher Buckley, is a very funny satire of the OJ trial, lawyers, politics, the entertainment industry, and the excesses of the Clinton White House, with entertaining courtroom drama thrown in. Worth reading, if you like that sort of thing, which it seems that I do.

I watched Heavenly Creatures, the 1994 Peter Jackson-directed and -written movie of a famed 1950's New Zealand matricide, and which was Kate Winslet's first movie. Two girls with an intense fantasy life - brought to life with claymation knights and princesses - and an extremely close friendship turn to murdering one's mother because she wants to keep them apart. In retrospect, you can see the glimmerings of a lot of scenes in the Lord of the Rings series. Well worth watching, so long as you understand that it ends up with a reasonably graphic murder.

And yes, I watched the Friends finale (and that was about all of the whole Friends love-in extravaganza I watched). I guess it was okay, as finales go: better than Seinfeld, not as good as Cheers or Mary Tyler Moore. For me, the best part was right at the very end, after the six have left their keys on the table, left the apartment and shut the door, and as the camera pans back to the view of the empty apartment, the guitar instrumental that's being played is by ... the Jefferson Airplane. A much classier piece of music than, say, the theme song.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Fleeting glory.

Ooh! Look! Another mention in the paper, and this time in the dead-tree edition. Two weeks ago, a Post columnist had complained that he'd never seen the Mona Lisa in Washington. Well, hmmph. Some of us did. I couldn't remember the precise year, but my recollection was that it was during the Kennedy presidency.

A decade later, when I went to the Louvre in hopes of seeing the painting in its native habitat, I suppose I shouldn't have been all that surprised to discover that it wasn't there - it was on loan to the Soviet Union.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

And that's not including Buddy Ebsen.

Cute article in the Post today on the number of buddies that kids have in their AIM Buddy Lists, and the utter amazement that parents have when they discover how many there are. The kids mentioned in this article had some 150 buddies on their lists; the parents were thinking numbers on the order of 1/10 that size.

It shouldn't be all that much of a surprise that kids have taken to new technology to make a fundamental shift in communicating: It's harder for parents to monitor instant messaging than it is to monitor phone calls, and since a lot of parents aren't even aware of instant messaging, it turns into an area of their children's lives they don't know how to begin to monitor. (Finding out how many are on the list is a good first step, followed by finding out who the list members are.)

Me? I've got 14 buddies on my list. And of them, there are 3 I've never seen online and 2 more who I haven't seen online in over a year. But then, I'm - you know - old. (And more importantly, so are my friends.)

Update: The Post's online chat about buddy lists.

Saturday, May 01, 2004

And the home team, the Fighting Bonzos.

It turns out that there won't be a Ronnie Reagan U, after all. Nancy Reagan announced that because the Reagan Library in California already has "an important educational component," the Reagan family won't support this Colorado effort. And with that, the supporters of the plan gave up.

And you can fool some of the people all of the time.

Don't like Disney World because it teaches evolution? (Although precisely where on the evolutionary scale Mickey Mouse and Goofy - especially Goofy - appear is unclear.) There's now a Florida alternative for you: Dinosaur Adventure Land, a creationist theme park. Set up by someone who doesn't believe in science - as he apparently also doesn't believe in paying taxes or getting building permits or business licenses - the park doesn't have mechanized rides, but instead has outdoor games, each with "science" and "spiritual" lessons. My favorite: "the Nerve-Wracking Ball," a bowling ball on a rope, suspended from a tree. You may also be familiar with the name "pendulum." You stand to the side, pull the ball up to your face, and let go. The ball swings away and then back, stopping just short of your face. You "win" if you don't flinch, proving you have "faith in God's laws." (The delicious irony, of course, is that gravity is "only a theory," just like evolution, and equally well proven.)

And I had to enjoy the comments from the home-schooling parents who had taken their children to Colonial Williamsburg over spring break, and then brought them to Dinosaur Adventure Land because it was similarly educational. Well, yes - although I'd note that the re-creations at Colonial Williamsburg are at least based on verifiable history.