Tuesday, August 31, 2004

After you, my dear Gaston.

Why do weathermen get paid? At 9:30 yesterday morning, the forecast was that Tropical Storm Gaston would blow into town around 11, leave by 2, and deposit about an inch of rain. It actually arrived somewhere around noon, left around 11 p.m., and dropped ten to fourteen inches, depending on your precise location.

Tremendous rainstorm, not surprisingly. Wind blowing at 30, 40, 50 mph, so the rain was coming down sideways. And with all the rain we've already had this summer, this additional rain had no place to go but into the streets.

Four people I work with have been parking in a free parking area underneath I-95, and they discovered yesterday why there weren't any official lots there: one guy got to his car at 3:00, and drove it off. The next guy arrived 45 minutes later, got his car started, but then it stalled - and the car started floating away. He got out and swam to safety. The other two guys? Their cars got swept away - and one of them was a pretty hefty SUV.

Lots of power outages - not at my place, thankfully - lots of limbs down. Reminded me a lot of a miniature version of Isabel's visit last fall.

And what do you want to bet about where Hurricane Frances will go?

Sunday, August 29, 2004

The truth behind the War Medals of George W. Bush.

Since we're looking so closely at the medals that Kerry received for heroism in Vietnam, it seems only fair that we take a close look at the War Medals of George W. Bush.

Seems like a Pulitzer Prize is just waiting to be awarded here.

Not enough time to watch all 9 DVDs of the Alien series?

(And, for the record, these would be the "good" Alien movies; i.e., those with Sigourney Weaver in them.)

Well, you could always watch Alien in 30 seconds, as re-enacted by bunnies.

And thereby save enough time to also watch Jaws.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

"Muh. Huh. Huh. Li'l man make joke. Me no get."

What can you do at Kansas State University that you can't do at the University of Virginia? Or at Ohio State University, but not at the Naval Academy? Or at the University of Southern California, but not at Virginia Tech? If you're a football player, you can get course credit for playing football. Often, it's course credit towards graduation, although sometimes it's only credit for fulfilling a university physical education requirement. But it counts towards an NCAA-required minimum number of course hours per semester. At Ohio State, for instance, football players can take SFHP 196.06 ("Varsity Football") five separate times, for a total of 10 academic credits. Academic powerhouses like Brigham Young, Florida State, Georgia, Nebraska, and Penn State all have similar policies, allowing college credits for playing football.

If we're required to go through the pretense of calling football-playing behemoths "student-athletes," wouldn't it be nice if occasionally they actually were students?

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Beer in aluminum bottles.

The people who make Iron City Beer have a new gimmick for you: they're selling their beer in aluminum bottles. Yes, I can hear you wondering: aren't those things called "cans"?

Well, yes. But these are special aluminum cans, shaped to look like bottles. Complete with bottle caps, it looks like, so while they might be better at places where you don't want to drop and break a glass bottle (such as at a swimming pool), you appear to need a bottle opener to get the cap off.

The theory behind the gimmick is that beer is purported to stay cold "longer," although the article doesn't say longer than what. And it seems to me that it can't possibly keep beer colder than a glass bottle, aluminum being a good conductor of heat and all, while glass is a good insulator. (One of the arguments for aluminum cans is that they cool down quicker than bottles, which would be in direct opposition to this claim.) The brewery also thinks they look "cool," although is that enough to cause you to pay $1 more per case?

Not for me; but then again, I've had Iron City beer, and $1 is not the magic amount that would cause me to drink it again, even if you paid me that much per bottle.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Parachuting not exciting enough? Then parachute into a pond.

Speaking of newly legitimized sporting events: "Pond swooping" is the new thrill for those people for whom stepping out of a plane at 10,000 feet has gotten routine.

The idea is that the jumper converts downward velocity into sideways motion and lift, to sustain level flight at ground level such that the jumper skims one or both feet for up to 240 feet along the surface of a pond, coming to rest on the far shore. Doesn't always work correctly, of course, with resulting face plants in the mud, hard landings on the ground, broken bones, or worse.

I guess I can see the attraction in the adrenaline rush, but it's clearly not for me. (I've been skydiving before, once, and that was enough for me.)

But, I suppose this must be a legitimate sport: they've just held the sixth annual national Pond Swooping championship, and competitors there take part in the national professional tour.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Lobster-Eating Contest.

I guess they've now found something to make Rhythmic Gymnastics and Synchronized Swimming look like legitimate sporting events. In Kennebunk, Maine, they had a lobster-eating contest, won by a 105-pound Virginia woman who ate 38 lobsters - representing 9.76 pounds of lobster meat - in 12 minutes. (Presumably that 105-pound figure is pre-competition.) "I could eat more, but something else - not a lobster," she says.

But this must have been a legitimate sporting event: it's sanctioned by the International Federation of Competitive Eating, which notes that the winner also holds records for eating pork-and-beans, and hard-boiled eggs. (Yes, those were two separate competitions.)

Art collecting, the quick way.

Amazing to see that art thieves have gone after Munch's paintings again, this time stealing The Scream and Madonna from the Munch Museum in Oslo.

Personally, I think it's just a bunch of wacky Norwegians who believe that they are supposed to take The Scream out for some fresh air during the Olympics.

I've been to that museum, and saw The Scream, back some 30 years ago. (Don't recall Madonna, although I'm sure it was there.) And we've seen a lot of The Scream since then, usually in connection with some phrase like "President Quayle."

And I've even had inflatable versions of The Scream, both the 19-inch desktop one and the 4-foot one, and - somewhere - I have a Scream tie, perfect for wearing to the office for interminable meetings.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Also, probably not what my mother had in mind.

Sure, the one thing my mother wanted, more than almost anything else, was to see me married off. But I just don't think that this could possibly be what she had in mind. And yet, why not? For surely there can be nothing more romantic than a double-tattoo ceremony. Especially one where the bride and groom are escorted by dancing woodland fairies and frolicking elves.

Yes, this is a good reproduction of what was in the paper. But to get a better flavor, you have to click on the "Photo Gallery" button.

But wait! There's more! You also need to check out the Gift Registry (example: give money to MoveOn.org, to defeat George Bush) and the Guest Book.

And if that's not enough, you can always check out the Happy Couple's website, with even more photos of the ceremony.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Interesting reading at Slate.

A bunch of interesting articles there, actually. And I suppose I'd fine even more there if I didn't have to spend so much time at work. Alas.

Anyway: here are a couple. One article talks about how the red-state/blue state Bush/Kerry dichotomy isn't reflected only in news channels, films, and musicians. It's also reflected in discount retailers: Wal-Mart = Bush and Costco = Kerry. Of course, I don't especially enjoy shopping at either one. I suppose that makes me an independent.

The other article looks at men's soccer in the Olympics, and how it's virturally meaningless in international soccer. The other international tournaments - including the World Cup, the European Championship, and the Copa America - take all the time and energy of the top players, so there's little enthusiasm for yet another international tournament. And the Olympic organizers play along with this, by capping the number of players older than 23 to 3 per team. I look at Olympic soccer to be a view towards the future: you're seeing the players who will be playing for their countries' World Cup teams 6 or 10 years hence.

Rain, rain, go away.

The good news is that the worst of the hurricanes passed Richmond by, for which we're grateful. Last fall's Isabel was enough to last us for a while. The bad news is that, while the high winds and horribly intense downpours missed us, we did receive a lot of rain in the past three days. I'd guess something on the order of six inches in that period.

Yes, yes, I know. That's one and a half hours' worth of rain along the path of the storm. Trust me, I know. It's still more than enough to cause flooding (flash and otherwise), because we've had so much rain lately and the ground is saturated. Since the beginning of June - during a period where we'd receive an average of 10 inches of rain - we've gotten over 22 inches. (It seems to start about 5 minutes before I leave the office in the evening, and has done so 4 days out of 5 workdays in each of the past three weeks.)

So you 'd think that with the hurricanes blowing through, today ought to be clear and sunny. And you'd think wrong: overcast, and cycling through Threatening To Rain, Drizzling, and Raining, on about an hourly cycle.

Oh, well. We need the rain. It gives me an excuse not to mow the lawn.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Batten down the hatches.

Storms a-comin'. What are now Tropical Storm Bonnie and Hurricane Charley will hit here tonight through tomorrow and Saturday through Sunday, respectively. Lots of rain expected. Lots. and maybe related tornados. Flooding alerts already out. But the expectation is that they'll each have lost enough power (by travelling overland) that they will no longer be named storms by the time they reach us.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

The first Tuesday after the first Monday.

Can't wait until November to tally up the electoral votes? Here's a site that will do it for you. They take the most current poll in each state as a predictor of actual Election Night results, and add them up as a predictor of electoral vote totals.

The count changes almost daily, as new polls come in, so you can play out your own scenarios. Last week, if one Kerry-leaning state (Missouri) went for Bush and all the others went according to the current polls, there would have been a 269-269 tie, throwing the selection of the president into the House, where the likely majority of state delegations would be Republican even if the majority of representatives were Democratic (there are a lot of western states with one Republican representative; each counts as much as California or New York in this particular Constitutional role), so Bush would be re-elected. On the other hand, the Vice President is chosen by the Senate, and if the Democrats regained a majority (requiring a two-seat pickup), John Edwards would be the Vice-President. Yes, we could end up with a Bush-Edwards administration.

At the moment: Kerry leads in this calculation, 307-231. But many states have one candidate leading by less than the margin of error in that state's poll, and even more states have the lead less than the margin of error plus undecided voters.

To me, the most amazing statistic is that Bush's lead in Virginia is only 3%, with 5% uncommitted. That's in a state where Bush won in 2000 by 8%.

And yes, I know: come back in September and October when the polls will finally start to mean something.

Monday, August 09, 2004

A message from White House West.

A commercial for ACT, with Will Ferrell as the Prez. Very funny.

Where were you?

Let's play this game again. Where were you, thirty years ago today? When Richard Nixon resigned the office of President and flew off into the dustbin of history?

I was off in the wilds of Norway (Trondheim, as I recall), doing the Youth Hostel and Eurailpass summer-in-Europe thing, where the International Herald-Tribune - published in the morning in Paris - arrived by train about 5 p.m. the next afternoon. Whenever you saw someone who looked American, you'd stop them and ask if they'd heard anything. Invariably, they'd pull out the same copy of the Herald-Trib that you had. Finally, I saw a local paper with the headline "NIXON STORGT". Below the headline was a photo of Ford, and a caption with a word about 50 letters long, and someplace in the middle of that word was something that looked like "president". So, while we figured that something had happened, we really weren't sure what. At the youth hostel that evening, someone whose English was better than my Norwegian told us that Nixon had "gone by himself" and made the little gesture with two fingers of someone walking.

In the hindsight of many years, I regret not picking up a copy of the "Nixon Storgt" paper.

"Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit drinking."

I’m not normally one to pay attention to signs and portents. Perhaps I should be.

I took a quick weekend trip out to Indiana a couple of weeks ago. Flight out was fine: medium-sized jet to Charlotte, where I caught a medium-sized jet to Indianapolis. Smooth flights, no delays.

For the flight home, I made my connections through Pittsburgh. More reasonable departure time, shorter layover, substantially more reasonable arrival time. But, oops: I didn’t look very closely at the planes involved. Turns out that both of the flights were on tiny planes: only about 22 rows long, and each row consisted of one seat on the left side of the center aisle and two seats on the right. Worse still, although both flights were the same model plane, only the flight from Indianapolis was a jet – the other was a propeller-driven puddle-jumper.

The pilot wanted to leave Indianapolis early, due to the severe thunderstorms rapidly (and loudly) approaching from the west. And I suppose that pulling away from the gate at the scheduled take-off time qualifies as “early” for USAirways. Before we got to the runway, the skies opened up. We took off anyway, into the storm, and had a mighty rough ride for the first fifteen minutes, which is a pretty good-sized portion of the 55-minute flight. Up, down, up, dowwwwnnn, up, whoops! Way down. Urp. But the flight finally settled down, and we got into the Pittsburgh landing approach.

The view out my window on the approach was fairly repetitive: hill, golf course, water tower, hill, water tower, golf course, hill, etc. Finally we got set for wheels-down, and the last landmark off the left side of the plane was a hill, covered with little white buildings. The top of the hill was at window-level, so you had to hope that the pilot had the plane lined up properly. Thankfully, he did. As we passed the hilltop, I realized that we were a lot closer to it than I’d thought, and the little white buildings and spires on the hill actually turned out to be the gravestones and crypts in a cemetery.

Fine. Rush to the gate for the flight to Richmond. Get there just barely in time for boarding. Well, just barely in time to start waiting, as it turns out. They’ve decided that they have overbooked the flight by six customers. A flight with about 66 seats, you understand. So they want volunteers to step aside and take the next flight to Richmond, which will get you there around midnight instead of around 7:30. Ten minutes later, they ask again for volunteers. Ten minutes later, they ask again. By now, it’s already past time for wheels-up from Pittsburgh. One person volunteers. They ask again for volunteers, with the dual threats that (a) they won’t begin boarding until there is an appropriately small number of passengers and (b) if they don’t get enough volunteers, they’ll start bumping people. By the time it’s a half-hour past scheduled take-off, they grudgingly allow boarding to start. We all bolt for the plane and claim our seats.

Kind of a mistake, it turns out. A plane which is painted dark blue and which has been sitting in the strong July sun all afternoon turns into an oven. Especially when there’s no air conditioning on the plane. If you then load that plane up with more than 60 people, it turns into a mobile sauna. (Well, if it were moving, it would be a mobile sauna.) How many more than 60? By the time we finally took off, there were five empty seats. (And two of the filled seats were filled with USAirways pilots, dead-heading.) Somehow – between pre-boarding and post-boarding – the flight went from having 72 paying customers to having only 59 (plus the two freebies). Difficult to be successful at running an airline if you misplace that many customers at once. Add in the crew (I’m guessing 2 pilots and 1 flight attendant), and you get a total of 64.

So there we were, 61 passengers who had made a beeline for the plane, only to discover that it was about 120 degrees inside, and getting hotter. Minimal air circulation and no air conditioning. You can’t open the windows (all in all, probably a good design in an airplane). And the long wait inside the oven starts while USAirways looks around for the missing customers. Or something. They never actually told us why we were waiting, but wait we did. And the temperature went up. A half-hour later, I’d guess it was at least 140 degrees, and at that point, it really doesn’t matter if it’s “in the shade” of the plane’s interior. Everything that everyone was wearing was thoroughly soaked from perspiration. The flight attendant was as unhappy as the rest of us, and promised us cold drinks once we got up into the air (and not until). The pilot came on the intercom and assured us that once the plane was airborne, it would cool down.

We soon discovered what he failed to tell us: that when he fired up the engines, what minimal air circulation we had would go away, not to return until we hit cruising altitude, when the propellers no longer needed all the power that the engines could generate. And he warmed the engines up for 5 minutes – with the cabin door closed, of course – before we moved away from the terminal.

After we pulled away from the terminal, we stopped and waited a few more minutes, taxied a little more, waited some more, and finally took off. We got up about 2000 feet and leveled off, and the air conditioning finally kicked in, so the interior cooled off to a more reasonable level (and in this instance, “reasonable” means merely 105 degrees).

We did a slow 60-degree right turn, and I settled in to read my book. A few minutes later, I felt another 60-degree turn to the right, and tried to concentrate on the book. Or possibly to take a nap, no telling. After we’d been aloft for 20 minutes, I took notice of yet another 60-degree turn to the right (and realized there had surely been others that hadn’t impinged on my consciousness), and I could see a big city out my window; and you know? There really aren’t all that many big cities on the flight path from Pittsburgh to Richmond. And fewer still that have skyscrapers near the confluence of a couple of major rivers. And, hmm, that particular configuration of golf course, hilltop, and water tower looks awfully familiar. And while we’re at it, why are we still only about 2000 feet up? Other passengers have noticed, too, and are starting to murmur.

The pilot comes on: “You may have noticed that we’re still near Pittsburgh. When we got off the ground, we discovered that we have an instrumentation problem. So we’re going to circle Pittsburgh for another 20 minutes, land, and get the problem fixed.”

So we fly around for 20 more minutes, with a 60-degree right turn thrown in every few minutes, and eventually come back to my friends the water tower, golf course, and hilltop. And down we go to land, with the usual pre-landing instructions of putting the seat upright and the like.

As we land, we saw that the Pittsburgh airport had prepared a festive arrival for us, with a parade of yellow fire trucks beside the plane, pacing us down the runway with lights flashing and sirens blaring (presumably; we can’t hear them over the sound of the engines). I counted 5 hook-and-ladder trucks, 3 other fire trucks, a couple of ambulances, and a couple of pickup trucks painted fire truck yellow with the airport’s logo on the door. Very nice of them to have a parade for us, to make us feel better about having our trip delayed.

Oh, wait. Maybe that’s not why the fire trucks were staying so close to us.

The fire engines stay along side the plane until we hit the end of the runway, then they follow us almost all the way back to the terminal, before peeling off to go back to the airport firehouse. It’s chili night, I guess. We taxi back to the terminal we left from, and they open the door, but don’t let us de-plane. I imagine that they figure we would scatter and find another way to Richmond. (And what do you think happened to the air conditioning? Yep. Anyone who had gotten most of the perspiration evaporated from the first pass through the oven started sweating again.)

Oh, and once we come to a rest, the left-side engine starts smoking. Enough that you’d be worried if you saw that amount of smoke coming out of your car’s tailpipe, but not so much that you could legitimately call it “billows of smoke”. Certainly more smoke than I ever recall seeing come out of an airplane’s engine before, not that I’ve flown on propeller planes more than a dozen times. Perhaps you can imagine how calming it is for the passengers to see the engine suddenly start pouring out smoke when we’ve just been treated to a landing surrounded by fire engines. One of the dead-heading pilots looks at the engine and tells us not to worry, that’s common. The murmuring dies down some, only to start to build up again as it sinks in that it’s such a common occurrence on this airline’s flights to have the engine smoke profusely that it isn’t worth having a mechanic come look at it.

A guy in a suit watches as mechanics do something to one of the panels in the cockpit and possibly to something around the front wheel well. The pilot in the passenger section identifies him as being the head of operations for the Pittsburgh airport; presumably the head of operations for the airline, although that’s a big job since Pittsburgh is a US Airways hub. Still, you can tell he isn’t head of public relations for the airline, as he doesn’t pop on board, tell us what’s going on, instruct the flight attendant to pass out cold drinks (ideally with a slug of scotch in each), and wish us a happy flight.

Forty-five minutes of waiting passes. Slowly. Finally, it looks like we’re ready to take off. I’ve kept a close eye on the two dead-heading pilots, using them as my guides to staying on the plane. I figure that they know more about the safety of these planes than I do (and I truly don’t want to know it if they don’t), and if they’re willing to chance it for the flight to Richmond, I guess I will, too.

No problems on the flight to Richmond; at least, none that I could tell. Sure, the left engine started pumping out smoke when it was shut down at the terminal in Richmond. And sure, there’s no way to tell whether it was doing that all the way from Pittsburgh. But we arrived safely, albeit more than 3 hours late.

And if I had been driving from Indianapolis, and started home at the same time that I started out for the Indianapolis airport, I’d have probably driven up to my house about the same time that I actually arrived home from the airport after the plane trips. Hmm. Something else to consider.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Mystery ingredients.

I know that I've mentioned before that I read the ingredients panels on food. I've found another one.

Nestea has an interesting new product out, Unsweetened Iced Tea Concentrate. I got a sample packet of it a little while ago, and finally mixed it up today. Not bad. Better flavor than instant tea, easier to make iced tea this way than by boiling water to brew the tea from scratch. Not sure I'd go out of my way to buy it again, but I won't put it on my "don't ever buy" list.

The ingredients panel lists: water, tea concentrate [Okay, this means that they brew a more concentrated version of tea and water it down to put into this package. Not sure I understand the theory: why not leave it really concentrated and sell it in a smaller package?], natural flavors, phosporic acid, potassium sorbate (preservative), and caramel color. Wait a minute: they're making concentrated tea, and they feel the need to add coloring to it, like it was a Coke? That just seems wrong.

Perhaps the FAQ at the Nestea Iced Tea Concentrate website will help:
Q: Does this product contain artificial flavors or colors?
A: No, our NESTEA Liquid Concentrate does not contain artificial flavors or colors.

Personally, I'd have thought that putting caramel color into tea was the introduction of something artificial. But what do I know?