Saturday, July 29, 2006

Silly bear question

I just read the bear advisory from the parks service. In part, it states that you should put your sunscreen, deodorant, and bug spray in bear canisters so the smell doesn't attract bears to your tent. This seems like an obvious question, but doesn't that imply that you also shouldn't use bug spray, deodorant, or sunscreen unless you want to wake up to a bear trying to lick it off of your skin?

Friday, July 28, 2006

still too color-sensitive

I found another sign (as if there weren't already enough) that we're still not capable of talking reasonably about race in America. I just finished working with a dance company in which three of the men were black and one was white. I was listening to several choreographers talk about a dance piece, and I was amazed at how uncomfortable they were referring to the dancers by color. A snippet of the conversation looked something like this:
A: "What did you think of Tony's solo?"
B: "Which one was Tony?" (Tony was the white guy)
A: "He was the... the medium-sized one. With the curly hair. The longish curly hair."
This was a recurring theme throughout the conversation. Guess what--it's in no way racist to describe someone by a physical trait. If you're trying to differentiate someone in a crowd, you're allowed to say, "the black guy" or "the Asian guy" just as easily as you can say "the tall guy" or "the stocky guy with red hair". If I'm picking someone up at the airport for you and you deliberately leave race out of his description, you're not helping. The one thing you can definitely say without a tinge of racism is that a black guy is black. You're crossing into racist territory when your presumptions about something other than race are based on race. Being able to talk about race is central to actually solving our racial problems. And being afraid to mention race is probably a step in the wrong direction.

I should note that I'm not immune to this. I spent a moment agonizing over whether "black" should be capitalized, and wondering if it would offend anyone....

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Hands off !

It won't surprise anyone that I've got a messy desk at work. I know where everything is, but my system of organization is commonly referred to as "the pile system". Also, I'm the tech guy; I've got a lot of stuff. If you've got an organizational job, you don't need any equipment other than some paper and your computer. If you're the tech guy, you need enormous piles of pieces and tools and parts and random sundry odds and ends. As an example, I've currently got -- no kidding -- five kinds of wire and nine kinds of cable connectors on the table next to my desk. And I need them all. Sometime in the next few weeks, I'll use almost all of it. I've got stacks of audio gear, manuals, tech sheets for bands, riser parts, beam clamps, and a whole host of random things that most people wouldn't even recognize.

The other half of the desk is occupied by my co-worker Michele, and she has a very neat desk. I'm good about keeping my piles from encroaching on her space, but I'm sure the clutter six feet from her chair is a minor irritation to her. So, this week while I was upstairs installing and repairing gear, she decided to clean my desk by throwing away a bunch of stuff she didn't recognize. She doesn't know what it is, but she's sure I don't need it, so she throws it away. Her rationale was that she was reducing clutter, and if I really needed something I can always buy a new one. She threw away velcro cable ties, piano parts, a chair foot, a mini-molex plug, and I don't even know what else. Does anyone see a fundamental problem with this? For one thing, not everything is easily replaceable. You can't easily buy connectors for a lot of gear; they come in the package, and the company won't sell it to you piecemeal. A lot of stuff is special-order, and some stuff is just impossible to find. If you need a new spring for a soldering vise, your best bet is to buy a whole new vise. Another minor problem is that for the foreseeable future , if I can't find something, I won't know whether I'm just looking in the wrong place or if Michele threw it away. The actual problem I'm having, though, is that it's MY STUFF. And that she still doesn't think she did anything wrong by throwing it away when I wasn't looking.

I'm still having a lot of trouble wrapping my head around the fact that anyone can assume that something is junk if they don't know what it is or what it's for. It'd be like me going through someone's spice rack and throwing away anything that doesn't sound familiar. "Tarragon? I have no idea. Trash. Basil? Oh, yeah--like pesto. Save. What the heck is cumin? Trash," and so on.

If I'm wrong about this, let me know. But I feel pretty justified complaining about it.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Design concept

Laura's doing a design proposal for a corporate event, and she's expected to submit a completed design and all the paperwork as part of the design. Submitting a finished product as a proposal is apparently expected in the corporate world, even though they could then take your design and pay someone else to execute it. But she got the scene design from the proposed scenic designer, and it was basically sketched on a napkin with a dull pencil. Okay, I'm exaggerating that a little. It was actually on three napkins.

So, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, Laura made a rough sketch with a Sharpie marker on a legal pad. It looks like the set designer's front elevation, with sketched-in lighting truss (you can tell, because the drawing contains the word "truss", with an arrow pointing at the proper lines) and little circles for lighting instruments with rays shooting out of them to indicate where the lights are focused. She just faxed it off to the friend who is in charge of the proposal.

I'm telling this story to give a little insight into my wife's character. Laura's not only clever and creative, she's also pretty darn scrappy. I love that.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Library

Also in the news today: the Indianapolis Star did a huge report about the fiasco that is the Indianapolis Public Library's Central Library construction project. Two years of delays, at least $40 million dollars over budget, many basic things screwed up, much malfeasance on the part of library board members. Highlights include:
  • No structural analysis ordered on the old building before construction began. They were just planning on cutting a chunk of the limestone building away, and hoping it wouldn't collapse.
  • Library board members directing contracts to associates and friends; one member shoved a huge contract towards a company that was paying him consulting fees.
  • Library board used a construction manager, instead of a general contractor, to oversee the project. This basically means that the library is responsible for oversight and overruns. The library's facility guy resigned in disgust over this.
  • Major problems with the parking structure on which the rest of the new construction sits. Voids in concrete, beams jutting into elevator shafts, et cetera.

And, my favorite bit wasn't even in the article. A guy from the bond bank that helped fund the project was telling me about problems with the concrete pour. He said the contractor didn't even clean anything before pouring; there were fast food bags and trash sticking out of the finished concrete. Wow. So if you live in Indy and want a detailed explanation of your upcoming library tax increase, this article is it. Politicians suck in general, but I'll take this opportunity to point out that all the malfeasance and bad decision making was done by Republican political appointees. Remember that when you vote....

Hostile Media Effect

I read an article in today's Washington Post about bias in the news. Specifically, they were reporting on a psych study that says that people tend to see news as inherently biased against them. They're calling it "hostile media effect". The study showed subjects a collection of news clips from the 1982 war between Israel and Lebanon. Pro-Israel viewers saw the news as horribly biased against Israel, while pro-Arab subjects watching the same news clips saw them as horribly biased towards Israel. More informed viewers saw the news as even more skewed against them. And, the Hostile Media Effect only happens with news that's not obviously partisan.

I wonder what causes the hostile media effect. Do people have a persecution complex? Are partisans inherently suspicious of news coverage? I think it has more to do with people's perception of the world. You don't tend to see people who agree with you as "biased towards you", you see them as right. If a news article shares your bias, you're pretty likely to consider it as normal; it is normal, for you. But any article -- or even specific facts within an article -- that disagrees with you is suspect, not factual, biased.

I think this explains a lot about the general conservative view that the media is horribly liberally biased. Anything on the news that leans their way falls in the realm of normal, but anything that expresses a viewpoint they don't like is obviously an example of bias.

I don't know if they considered the ramifications of this study. The practical effect of the Hostile Media Effect is that you can't ever determine if the media is actually biased. The more unbiased a news source seems to you, the less likely it is actually unbiased. A truly neutral news source would appear skewed against you. This is true on a more institutional scale, too. Given that partisans on both sides of an issue watching the same news both see it as horribly biased against them, there is no subjective way to tell if the news is actually slanted any particular way. The effect is so radical that it'd be hard to find an unbiased observer; even a slight leaning on the part of the viewer would yield a significant bias. And there's no way to objectively measure bias. Even the testing criteria would likely show a significant user bias. I'm specifically reminded of the Republican congressional investigation into liberal bias on PBS. According to the Hostile Media Effect, of course it seemed to have liberal bias. Conservatives are doing the looking.

And, of course, some media is admittedly biased. Fox News barely pretends to be fair and balanced, and Mother Jones has an agenda of its own. Possibly a more telling observation is that such a large number of people don't seem to want unbiased news. If you're watching CNN, you might be shooting for objectivity. But for all the people tuned into Fox News, it's less for news and more for affirmation. If you're reading Molly Ivins, you've got your mind made up before you pick up the book. If you're reading Ann Coulter, you're not reading for an unbiased view -- you're just stocking up on powder for your rhetorical cannon.

So, on the practical end, is there a way to tell if you're getting accurate news? You can't go by numbers; you can make statistics say anything you want. Maybe a good test might be to use the Hostile Media Effect in your favor and gauge news by its irritation factor. If your news sources never irritate you with their obvious bias, you need to read more on the other side of the aisle. And, I always think it's a good mental exercise to read things I vehemently disagree with. It helps me be empathetic toward hardcore conservatives I know (hi, mom!); seeing the facts they bandy about explains a lot about why they believe what they do. And it's also good to stretch your mind by trying to fully understand things you don't agree with. Reading Sean Hannity's last book was better mental exercise, in some ways, than reading esoteric science. I had to think a lot to really understand Roger Penrose, but I had to strenuously engage my suspension of disbelief to make it through Hannity and try to see the world through his eyes.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Still more hiking stuff

I leave for The Hike two weeks from today. That's not as long as it seems; I'm working almost every day between now and then, and for the next week I'm working evenings as well as days. This morning I joined Laura on her walk. Normally I walk a bit faster than she does. Today I was trying new things with my old backpack, so our pace was about even. I adjusted my suspension and shortened the torso a bit, then loaded it up with 45 pounds of random camping stuff: two sleeping bags, a big tent, a cook kit, and some water. If you're thinking that doesn't sound like 45 pounds, you're right; I rolled a 25# dumbbell into one of the sleeping bags. It was more comfortable to walk with than I would've expected. And, I had forgotten the weirdness of the first few steps you take when you take your pack off after an hour or two. I imagine walking in low gravity feels similar.

On the positive side, the wildfires are nowhere near where we'll be hiking. On the negative side, we're in bear hazard territory. We're not in grizzly country, which is good; grizzly bears can eat people. We're in the land of the black bears, which is safer but more trouble. Black bears are analogous to raccoons. They're less of a threat and more of a nuisance. They can smell really well, so the rangers require that you carry all of your food in bear canisters. For the non-hikers, I should explain that bear canisters are light (hopefully), sturdy aluminum or PVC cans with a screw-on lid that can only be unscrewed with a coin or screwdriver. You put your food inside, sit the canisters on the ground away from your tent, and leave them there. Bears can still smell the food, they just can't get at it. And they won't claw their way into your tent or pack to find it. On the down side, canisters take up pack space and add weight, and you have to put anything that smells (bug spray, toothpaste, suntan lotion, and anything else that smells) in with the food.

The bear nuisance has a pretty common cause: idiots. As problems go, idiocy is less irritating than malice or corruption, but it still makes life harder for people like myself who (humor me) aren't idiots. After years of people feeding bears in parks, and feeding bears indirectly by poorly managing their trash and food, bears have figured out that hikers are a good source of food. And bears are fairly clever. They've learned how to peel open car doors, send cubs up trees to get food tied from branches, and recognize food containers by sight. It no longer matters if you buy packaged food that's pre-sealed; bears recognize soda cans, power bars, and Cheez-Its bags.

I'm also figuring out what to pack. To paraphrase Dave Barry: if I were at base camp deciding what to take for the final assault to the pinnacle of Mount Everest, paring things down to the absoute minimum essentials for survival, I'd probably take some aquarium filters, just in case. I instinctively pack really heavy and tend to bring a lot of stuff I don't or won't need, just in case. So when I have to pack light, it takes serious mental effort. For instance, I'm taking a camera and a flashlight that both take AA batteries. I was deciding how many spare batteries to take, and I came up with the number sixteen. That's almost a pound of batteries. The actual number I probably need? Four. I overpack like this with everything: clothing ("eight days...three pairs of swim trunks should work"), first aid kit ("just in case we all twist or sprain something, four ace bandages"), food ("six pounds of gorp should last me a week"), and even my sleeping bag ("I should take a lightweight bag, and another liner bag for when it gets cold"). My goal is to get my pre-food pack weight down to 22 pounds. I've only got 247 more pounds to trim to meet the goal. Let me think -- if I pare down to just three pairs of socks that'll help; I can omit the hardback book I'm reading; we'll be a hundred miles from the ocean, so I can probably skip the swim fins and snorkel; I'll be getting enough exercise on the trail, so I can leave the Bowflex at home....

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

I eavesdrop.

Had to mention this. While Laura and I were having lunch today, the table next to us was hosting a sales pitch. At one point, the salesman said, "You have to be careful of Cadillac ideas on a Volvo budget". Wha? This has always been an irritating cliche, but it's much worse if you don't even get it right.

If you've never been, you should make a trip to the Shelbie Street Cafe. It's reasonably priced, the service is friendly, and the food is great. The menu's eclectic, with a good sandwich selection and dishes like Thai chicken and Pasta Florentine. Don't quote me on those; the menu also changes regularly. And they have a reasonably comprehensive dessert selection, including Laura's favorite: Creme Brulee.

Lost luggage, and blowing stuff up

I said earlier that I picked Laura up at the airport. I didn't say, "Laura and her luggage," and that's on pupose. A very nice employee of Northwest Airlines told us that he couldn't locate the bag, but he'd get it to us if they found it. They did find her suitcase, and it only took about six hours. They couldn't tell us where the bag ended up, but it wasn't lost long enough to have gone somewhere interesting like Hawaii or Paris. We're guessing Detroit, which is a Northwest hub. The airline no longer makes you drive to the airport for your luggage; they now hire a service to deliver lost bags to their owners. A driver brought the bag to our door. I noticed the bed of his pickup was full of luggage, so I asked him about it. Because I'm procrastinating writing again, here's the scene:

Jeff signed the receipt and handed it back to the driver. He noticed the pickup's bed, crammed with a variety of lost luggage. A golf bag wrapped in plastic leaned its heads against an army duffel. Several of the more generic wheeled suitcases' handles were tied with brightly-colored ribbons, which were at the moment of no use helping their owners identify them on a baggage carousel. "That's a lot of bags. How many days' worth is that?"
"Those are all from this morning."
"Really? I didn't realize the airlines lost so many bags."
The driver tossed his clipboard onto his front seat. "The best part is, there are two other drivers doing this."
"Wow. Is this normal?"
The driver shrugged. "It's worse now. It's the TSA guys. They pull bags for inspection and are pretty sloppy about what they do with them. They'll put it back wherever it fits, and they don't care that it's on the wrong cart."
"TSA, heh. I feel safer already, knowing they're protecting me from my own luggage."
"I hear they aren't stealing as much stuff anymore, though."
"Stealing stuff?"
The driver laughed. "You never heard about that? Sure. Money, watches, jewelry, anything they find in your luggage. They installed cameras, but the screeners know where the cameras are. And if they get caught, nothing happens. I heard they have to get caught stealing five times before they can be fired."
"Remind me to carry on my valuables next time I fly."
"Yeah. I don't even check a bag anymore."

I wonder how many people think that the TSA exists to make us safe. I suspect they exist to make us feel safe, which is entirely different. General consensus is that an organized person can still get just about anything on a plane. And I think the next real terror threat won't be a plane used as a weapon. I really don't see people crashing airplanes into buildings again; that was a one-time trick. If I had to guess, I'd expect that the next big round of kabooms will be in the form of gasoline trucks. A gas tanker (or, better yet, a propane tanker -- but they're harder to come by), a few oxygen tanks from a welding supply, and a hundred yards of detcord, and you've got an impressive mobile bomb. And they're everywhere; you don't even notice them driving by. I'm surprised that nobody's using them in Iraq, which is currently serving as the world's terrorism testing ground.

I hope writing that doesn't get me on a terrorism watch list....

Laura's home!

Laura's back from Virginia, yay! I picked her up at the airport and took her to lunch at the Shelbie Street Cafe in Fountain Square. We did a little running around, and now we're home having an evening together. I don't think I'm a slave to routine, but I like the normalcy of our "typical" evening and I really enjoy Laura's company. She's cooking something yummy, and I'm sitting in the comfy chair writing. The cats are taking turns sitting on my arms while I type, and Laura's feeding them bits of chicken in the kitchen. A nice, normal evening. Yeah!

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Eating well

Laura's in Virginia for her mom's birthday. I tend to eat pretty poorly when she's gone, but I wanted to make sure everyone knows I've actually been good while she's been gone. I had some canned chili, but that was preordained. Tonight I bypassed the mac-n-cheese; instead I grilled polenta and served it with marinara and melted mozzarella cheese. That's actual cooking, I hope you're impressed.

But not too impressed, because grilled polenta is actually easier to prepare than mac-n-cheese. Here's the entire recipe. First, buy some polenta. Slice it an inch thick and toss the slices on the George Foreman Grill for seven or eight minutes. While it's grilling, heat up some spaghetti sauce and slice some mozzarella. Take the grilled polenta off the grill, top with the cheese, and slather with the marinara. Quick and easy, and there's almost no clean-up. If you're feeling fancy, toss some Italian sausage on the grill with the polenta and serve it together. A meal guaranteed to impress chicks, and all you need is three or four ingredients, George Foreman, and a pot to heat the sauce in. So I guess it's technically still bachelor food.

Not Really Off / lighting problem

I didn't mention that my day off yesterday wasn't an actual day off. I didn't go to work until 9pm, because I had to do lighting things that need to happen in the dark. And I was there until 5am today. I went home, took a nap, and came back to work to do a show.

The lighting didn't go well. This is my first architectural design project, and I made some equipment choices I regret; I bought 32 small lights and just 16 larger, more powerful lights. For the same money I should've gotten none of the smaller lights and 42 of the larger. I made the mistake of assuming that what I'm installing needs to be the aesthetic equivalent of what I'm replacing. It never occurred to me that the install design of the old lights was just as bad as the fixture design. The new lights I ordered are so much more versatile and useful than the old lights, I can start from scratch and do a completely innovative design. Unfortunately, I didn't realize I had the option of doing something creatively different until last night. And I ordered equipment based on my old, incorrect design assumptions. Sure, I can make it work. It might even be pretty. But I'm really not happy with it. And every time I place one of the small lights I keep thinking how much better it would look with one of the larger lights. Grr.

Monday, July 17, 2006

the new Battlestar, and porn

I've got a day off (I don't start work until 8pm), and I spent a chunk of it watching the first four hours of the new Battlestar Galactica series on DVD. Wow. It's seriously good. I had heard it was good, but I was expecting the worst; most remakes are pretty bad. This is a completely new take on the original Battlestar series, and it's well-crafted and interesting. It's fairly political, in that a lot of politics happens. The characters are very human. And the acting is excellent. I might have to catch up with the rest of the series later; so far, I'm very impressed!

And, I'm spending the rest of my day off writing. Generally, when I'm writing here it's because I'm procrastinating writing actual fiction. Today, instead of posting here I procrastinated by engaging in a literary experiment: I wrote some porn. Just a 2,000 word short story, nothing much. It turns out that it's easier than writing actual fiction, possibly because it's written to a much lower standard. Writing is liberating, in that you can write whatever you want; politics, mysteries, porn, even a 'blog. :-) And I enjoyed my writhing-bodies break from my actual work-in-progress. I kept thinking about an episode in one of the early seasons of Friends when Rachel decided to write a romance novel, hampered by the fact that she can't type well. Ross, reading the finished work: " '...his huge, throbbing pens'? You don't want to be around when he starts writing with those."

Now, back to the mystery novel.

GORP, and other hiking food

I'm in the throes of pre-hike planning. At the moment, I'm thinking about food. More specifically, I'm thinking about GORP. Gorp (Good Ol' Raisins and Peanuts) is a trail standard. It's easy to eat while you walk, it's crammed with carbs, fat, and protein, and it's harmless enough that you can eat lots of it without getting sick of it. It helps that it's gone beyond raisins and peanuts; it's expanded into dried apricots, macadamia nuts, coconut flakes, and a few dozen other random things to suit one's individual taste. I think anything with more ingredients than just raisins and peanuts is technically "trail mix", but I've heard the terms used interchangably.
I've been noticing that a lot of trail mix recipes (google "trail mix recipe" or "gorp recipe" for a sampling) include a lot of foods that aren't really trail-appropriate, things that either melt in heat (white chocolate or butterscotch chips) or are hard to eat in handfuls (wheat germ or sesame seeds). The worst are things that leave your hands sticky, since you're theoretically miles from a sink and towel when you're eating trail mix. I've seen recipes that include chocolate-covered pretzels, Puppy Chow (if this is new to you, it's made from Chex cereal, melted chocolate, butter, peanut butter, and powdered sugar), and honey-roasted nuts. I suspect most of these non-trailworthy variants are called "trail mix" mostly because it sounds cooler than "computer desk mix" or "Barcalounger mix".

Trader Joe's sells the world's best trail mix, consisting of peanuts, almonds, chocolate chips, dried cherries, peanut butter chips, and cashews, though the chocolate chips and peanut butter chips might push it over into the "Writing Desk Mix" category, rather than actual trail mix. It's highly yummy. If you've got a TJ's near you, check it out.

A lot of my favorite snack foods are pretty trail-worthy. I suspect we'll be eating a lot of nuts, sunflower seeds, dried fruit, and -- my personal favorite -- Trader Joe's Cinnamon-Frosted Mini Wheats. And I'm still trying out different members of the fifth food group, the Bar Group. Mostly my energy bar experiments have provided me with a list of things to not take on a hike; either they melt, or they're low-carb, or they just taste awful. I think I'll be sticking with Clif Bars, mostly; they really are the most trail-friendly. I've also become partial to ProMax bars, especially the Double Chocolate Brownie, Cookies and Cream, and Chocolate Coconut. I can't find their Black Forest Cake bar, but it sounds good too.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

long day/late night

It's been a long day. Laura left this morning for Virginia for her mom's birthday, so I made her coffee and drove her to the airport at 6 a.m. Taking Laura to the airport is always bittersweet; I always miss her when she's gone, but I have fun by myself too. And our goodbye hug after we get her luggage out of the car is one of the best hugs ever. Afterward, I came home, did laundry, and went to work at 10am. I had a show today with Governor Davis and the Blues Ambassadors, and they're always a great time. They've got a new bass player, which is a shame; their old bass guy was Jimmy V, and he was funy and fun to work with. The new guy's good and nice, but I was missing having Jimmy there. An excellent show, after which I started setting up for an event.

Tonight's event was Sanctuary, sort of an open-mic Christian poetry slam with a good house band. It was highly improvisational. Most of the six band members had less than a day's notice on the gig, and they had never rehearsed together. They were excellent musicians, in that they could completely improvise and not sound like they're improvising. They could even back up a singer performing an unfamiliar, original song and make it sound natural. They played well together; it really didn't show that they never rehearsed. They have a bad habit of not believing the sound guy when he tells them to turn things down, though. And the sound guy apparently isn't allowed to walk up on stage and smack them around, however much he occasionally wanted to. It bothers me when I can't make a band sound good, and the biggest problem is always stage volume. If a guy on stage has his amp turned up too loud, or if the drummer's banging, I can't turn other things up loud enough to match them without making everything sound muddy -- especially in the Big Glass Dome. I'm oversimplifying a complicated audio problem here, but that's a fairly accurate short version. It was definitely a problem tonight. On the plus side, we didn't have to deal with drunk people. Sanctuary was punch-and-cookies, no bar. I ended up getting home around 2:30am, so my work day was just over 16 hours.

Tonight's Sanctuary event is concurrent with this year's Indiana Black Expo. They say it's the largest gathering of its kind anywhere in the country, and I'd believe it. When the expo hall closes for the day, the streets are crammed with people. Saturday night of expo weekend has picked up a reputation as a big street party, with people jammed on sidewalks having a good time and guys in tricked-out cars cruising, stereos thumping. Unfortunately, big cool parties always attract a bad element. The police were using our balcony as a command center/lookout tower all night, which is fine with us; police presence, especially the SWAT team, keeps us out of trouble. As of midnight, downtown only had three shootings, which I believe is down from last year.

A few years ago there were reports of police brutality during Expo, including one incident caught on video tape. Somehow it became common knowledge that the guy with the video camera sold the tape for ten thousand dollars to a news station. In the years since, we've had a disturbing problem. Gangs of kids (defined as, "people younger than me") have been roving around trying to pick fights with police officers while a friend stands at a discreet distance and videotapes the incident. If they can actually provoke the cop into beating down on someone, they can sell the last ten seconds of their tape to a news network for big money. And the guy who gets beaten not only gets Rodney-King street cred, he can also sue for piles of cash. These kids can be pretty darn provocative; the fact that this has been happening for the last few years, yet nobody has gotten any footage, is a testament to our police officers' restraint and self-control (or at least their discretion).

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Good show, beautiful lighting, bad food

Laura opened a show tonight at the Phoenix Theater, and I was there. I always enjoy seeing her work; every time I see her lighting, I feel like I'm discovering entirely new reasons to fall in love with her. The show is The Ice-Breaker, and I enjoyed it. It was well directed, the lighting was beautiful, and it was written by a guy named Rambo. What more do you need in a theater piece? If you're in Indy, I'd recommend checking it out. The show is doing simultaneous world premieres in theaters in New Jersey and San Francisco, too. It's a love story about two paleogeologists. Really. It's got a few downer moments, and it's a serious non-fluffy play. But it's one of my favorite recent plays.

I'll admit I went into it with low expectations, but that's because a piece of promo literature described it as a show about an issue. In this case, it was described as "about global warming". I've had bad experiences with performances that are about important current issues. They tend to be bad theater, in the same way that Ann Coulter's a bad writer -- if both you and your audience are driven entirely by ideology, you can get away with being very bad at the rest of your craft. One good exception in theater is Angels In America, but it's only peripherally a play about AIDS. And, it has one of my favorite dialogue bits in any play I've ever seen. At one point in the play, a character is talking about freedom in terms of the Star-Spangled Banner and says that actual freedom is as unattainable as the incredibly high note on which the word "free" is sung; that only a very few can actually grasp that freedom. It's beautifully phrased, so I won't even try to paraphrase it from memory, but listen to the poetry if you see the show.

And, we had dinner before the show at one of Indy's coolest restaurants, Agio. It's on Massachussets Avenue in the arts district, and it's really not a good restaurant. They do great business for some reason, so the servers try to move you through as quickly as possible. They're polite, but they rush you. The food is decidedly average; I had a chicken and pasta dish last night, and it was substandard. They used bad cuts of chicken, the food was greasy, the pasta was overcooked, and it was much spicier than the server said it would be. I don't know from experience, but someone who knows about such things told me that their wine list values trendiness over quality. And it's all overpriced. On the plus side, their house band is great; Bill Lancton is their guitarist, and he's an excellent blues and jazz man.

inefficient crime

One of the things that really bothers me about the Enron fiasco and similar cases of corporate malfeasance is the enormous net loss involved. It's a very inefficient way to make some people very rich; a handful of Enron executives netted a billion dollars between them, and in the process they nearly bankrupted the state of California and a few thousand Enron employees. This was my problem with Michael Milliken, too. I was less bothered with his shaky/nonexistent business ethics, but the inefficiency of his crime irritated me to no end. He netted a few billion dollars, but the subsequent bail-out cost a few hundred billion (I also enjoyed the fact that he made three billion dollars and was required to pay $900 million in fines. This is functionally equivalent to paying a 30% malfeasance tax; I hope this taught him a lesson!).

We experienced the personal version of this a few years ago: someone slashed the top on Laura's Jeep and trashed the console stealing her radio. It cost us over a thousand dollars to replace the console, radio, and cloth top on the Jeep, and the thief got a radio that we figure he could pawn for $20. The most efficient possible theft would be the robbery in which a guy steals your wallet, takes the money, and gives the wallet back. You're out some cash, and he's gained exactly the same amount of cash. Of course, you're also minus a lot of peace of mind.

Ken Lay found innocent!

I didn't realize until I read the article in Tuesday's Fortune Online that Ken Lay's death invalidated his conviction. Since he died before all appeals were exhausted, his conviction is officially vacated. I think in the grand scheme of things that being dead is worse than being in a country-club prison. Still, he and his did a lot of uncaring harm to a lot of people, and he always stuck to the story that he never actually did anything wrong. For a lot of people, Ken Lay is also the poster child for what's wrong with The Man / Corporate America. His prosecution was an indictment of the entire system, a sign that corporate fraud shouldn't be Business As Usual. By invalidating his conviction, the law is technically satisfied but justice isn't really served. And, worse, the financial judgment that came with the conviction is also vacated. A civil court may be able to eventually collect the money, but the criminal court system took over four years to resolve the case. Civil courts are notoriously slower, and it's a lot harder to collect from a dead man. The financial judgment was more symbolic and punitive than practical anyway; the roughly $47 mil they were trying to collect is a few decimal places away from the actual loss caused by Enron's crash.

Absolutely my favorite thing about Kenny Boy dying? The large number of people who think he isn't dead, that he faked it (with the help of highly-placed friends) to avoid his prison term. Presumably he's now shacking up with Elvis, working at a Burger Lord in Iowa somewhere.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

LapDeskTop

I found a big ol' honkin' laptop for sale at Dell. At first glance, it seems ridiculous; it's got eight speakers and a subwoofer, a 20" widescreen monitor, and it's so heavy that they won't even tell you how much it weighs. It folds up into a briefcase, complete with carry handle, which is good; no existing laptop case will fit it. I think this crosses some sort of line. It's not really a laptop anymore; it's more of a portable desktop with a built-in UPS. Which is fine; I think it's niche which needed to be filled.

I've been debating getting a laptop (or, more likely, seeing if I can get my crappy old Toshiba working). I really enjoyed writing on one Monday. Laptops have one real advantage over desktops, and that's portability. You can take it anywhere; you don't need power, light, or even a desk to sit it on. Laptops have a whole host of comparative disadvantages, though. Here's the list:
  • They're ergonomically unfriendly. It's easy to hurt yourself with a laptop; the screen height isn't ideal, the touchpad is less friendly than a mouse, and the slightly small keyboard isn't great even on the rare occasions it's at an ideal height.
  • They're easy to steal. You can Kensington-lock them down, but at the cost of the portability that makes them useful. The worst-case scenario: years ago, one of the computer labs at IUPUI was full of notebook computers which were bolted to the tabletops.
  • They've got limited power. You can buy a desktop with four processors, a terabyte of RAID-1 hard drive space, 16 gigs of RAM, and this week's newest high-end video card. Even the best laptops can't compete with a high-end desktop.
  • They've got limited power. As soon as your battery runs out, you're chained to a wall socket -- also at the cost of portability.
  • They're not expandable. Sure, you can add Firewire hard drives, USB sound cards, external keyboards and mice, and a whole host of other peripherals. But all that extra crap to carry around comes (is this sounding familiar yet?) at the cost of portability.
  • They're not expandable. With a desktop, you can buy a basic model and expand it as you like: add and swap hard drives, add and swap RAM, change or add video cards, even change the motherboard. Laptops are (more or less) one solid unit you can't modify. If you own a laptop and you want a bigger monitor, you need to buy a new laptop with a bigger monitor. If you want a better video card, you have to buy a new laptop with a better video card.
  • And, one of their worst problems is a direct function of their portability: they're easily damaged. Not only are they made with lighter, more fragile components, it's in their nature that they move around a lot and have a lot more opportunity to get dropped. And, the whole package is right under your fingertips. Spilling coffee on your desktop keyboard might require buying a new keyboard. Spilling coffee on your laptop's keyboard is potentially a terminal (heh) injury.

Even given all that, I'm still thinking that the extreme portability of a laptop is a fair trade. My old Toshiba is nice, because several of the disadvantages don't apply. If someone stole my ten-year-old laptop, I wouldn't be unnaturally upset. Likewise, I wouldn't be too upset if I dropped it. Expandability and power problems are more than balanced by the fact that I already own it, and all I'm planning to use it for is writing. As long as I can load my dictionary onto it, I'm happy. I tend to do my best writing in Notepad anyway. Less crap to distract me. And I'm really easily distractable.

Speaking of, back to the Dell. I think its niche is computer commuters, people who do a lot of work on a laptop and carry their laptop back and forth between work and home, but who always use it at a desk (or, better, at a docking station). The portable desktop is ideal: you get a nice monitor, a powerful computer, a real keyboard, and the ability to lug it with you. I'll be curious to see if it catches on.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

raining inside

Every time it rains, we have water leaks inside the Artsgarden. They're getting worse with every storm; we haven't had to cancel an event yet, but we've had to rearrange a few and stanchion off sections where the leaks are the worst. The mall management -- who doesn't own us, but is responsible for our maintenance -- keeps looking at it, and talking about what a difficult problem it is to solve. I agree. For one thing, the Artsgarden has 2 miles of glass seams. For another, where the water's dripping down doesn't indicate where the water's actually leaking in; water can flow down and around the channel steel and fall fifteen feet from the leak. But it's still their problem to solve, and they're not doing it.

I'm wondering if I can get away with that -- refusing to do the hard parts of my job. "Sorry, I can't do that; it looks too difficult, so I don't think I'll try." I'll let y'all know how it works out.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Writing All Day!

Just a quick note to mention that I've spent the last eight hours sitting in the comfy chair writing. A little of it was here, but most of it was the Really Bad Novel. Writing: hard, but fun, but frustrating, but fun, but hard. And I'm bad at it. But I'm hopefully getting better. I think it was David Eddings who said, "The most important thing to realize about writing is that your first million words will be crap. The key to a successful writing career is to get those million words out of the way as fast as possible." And I'm slowly cranking them out. I'll let you know how I'm doing in 880,000 words. :-)

Bed now.

'80s nostalgia

I recently realized that I feel no sense of nostalgia for the 1980s. Part of it is that I spent the '80s completely unaware of two of the main precursors of nostalgia: pop music and fashion. I think it might also be because I had a pretty awful time for the whole decade. A brief recap of the two phases of Jeff during the '80s:

  • 1980 - 1985: the Catholic School Years. I had a miserable time at Catholic school. Part of it was circumstance; by the time I got to Holy Spirit in the fourth grade, the cliques had already ossified and I wasn't in any of them. Part of it revolved around the fact that I was kind of a jerk. And it definitely didn't help that I was maybe the smallest kid in my class, and I was the wheezy, skinny asthmatic kid who didn't play any sports. Americans have a myth of cultural tragedy that revolves around being the Last Kid Picked For The Team; a lot of people seem to suffer from the delusion of having spent their early years as the Last Kid Picked. I have to say that even I, the unathletic outcast, usually wasn't. There were three of us in the unpopular/unathletic circle, and we took turns revolving through the position of LKPFTT. But, yeah -- being radically unpopular in elementary school is miserable. It's a good thing I liked to read.
  • 1985-1989: the High School Years. I was pretty much a nerd in high school. As a badge of nerdhood, I offer up the fact that I was one of the founding members of the ninth-grade Dungeons & Dragons club. I picked up theater in high school, which is good. But it's a pretty small, weird social circle. I was desperate to fit in, and at the same time I was convinced I was never going to. I had a really good friend, which makes anything survivable. It was partially due to Barry that I started growing my hair. I think the hair was also partly due to typical teen rebellion and partly due to utter lack of fashion sense.

So, yeah -- no real '80s nostalgia. Songs shuffle through the radio that remind me of specific personal '80s moments, and I lunge for the station-changing button. Because, really, they weren't happy times for me. I don't spend any time dwelling on my life in the '80s (until now!). I'm not bitter, and I've done my coping. But I don't particularly want to be reminded of it, either.

being mobile

I'm writing this on a cool Acer TravelMate c300 TabletPC with built-in wireless. No, we didn't buy a new computer; I took the Artsgarden's laptop home for the weekend to do some design work, and I'm taking a break. I really like working on a laptop. That is, I like the flexibility of being able to work from wherever I happen to be. I can emulate the experience with my Axim handheld, somewhat; I have a folding keyboard that's not too bad (though you have to hammer the space bar to get it to register). The loss of portability with a full-size laptop is more than balanced out by the large screen, comfortable keyboard with wrist support, and the fact that you don't have to place it on a flat, level surface (as you do with the Axim's folding keyboard). I like the fact that it's actually a lap-top computer; it's a more comfortable typing position than a standard keyboard on a desk. I think it'd be hard to play games on a laptop, which is also an excellent incentive for using one. When I'm sitting at the big computer upstairs (right now, I'm leaning back in the Comfy Chair in the living room), I can constantly feel the pull of the enormous pile of highly replayable games just waiting for me on the hard drive. With a laptop, that's a lot less of an issue. No games on it, and I probably wouldn't put any games on it. Even games like Starcraft and Total Annihilation work a lot better with a real mouse.
I have been noticing one little quirk, though it's more of an operator problem than a hardware problem. I tend to type with my left thumb hovering over the off-center touchpad mouse. If I accidentally touch the pad, my typing starts from wherever the mouse is hovering. The easy solution is to always leave the mouse pointer over the header bar of the window I'm working in; if I accidentally touch the pad, it doesn't move where I'm typing. It took me longer than it should have to figure that out. It also took me longer than it should have to figure out what was happening when I looked up at the screen to realize I was typing over something I had already written.

Friday, July 07, 2006

magical boots

Ultralight hikers talk a lot about total weight. That is, they insist that pack weight isn't accurate unless you also factor in the weight of the clothes you're wearing, your boots, your hat, the Swiss Army knife in your pocket, et cetera. Given that, I finally realized what bothered me about the description of my hiking boots on Merrell's website. They list the proper use as hiking "without a pack, or with a very light pack". My question is, how do the boots know you're carrying a pack? Is there any significant load difference, in terms of footwear, between a 220-pound hiker with no pack, and a 160-pound hiker with a 60-pound pack? If there isn't, then either the listed use for the boots is strictly BS, or footwear needs to come with a user weight limit. Alternately, maybe the boots can tell if you're wearing a pack. Possibly they access your Total Information Awareness database for up-to-date pack info. Or maybe they're magic. I can picture this: eldritch factory rituals enchanting my boots with baleful spirits, granting them the power to sense how much my backpack weighs and give me shin splints if it's too heavy. That would explain why the color choices include "R'lyeh Red" and "Chango Gray".

I think that good footwear really does make a difference, because if you're used to walking with body weight only, adding 60 pounds means you'll step heavier. Maybe not heavier than someone who weighs 60 pounds more than you, but definitely heavier than your feet and shins are used to. So a little extra padding probably makes a big difference. But my boots feel fine. And I'm going to test them by walking around with a heavy backpack for a few hours to see if they're up to the task. If not, Gander Mountain has a pretty flexible return policy on boots; they expect you to test them before you start hiking.

Hey, I just realized that for the first time in my life I got to use eldritch in a sentence! Thank you, H.P. Lovecraft!

These boots were made for walkin'

I'm happy -- I just bought hiking boots for my upcoming trip! I've got four whole weeks, starting tomorrow, to break them in. It took me most of the day to buy boots, because I'm a pretty picky shopper about this sort of thing. Bad boots have the potential to make you more miserable than torrential rain, so it's important to find a pair you really like. I ended up buying at Gander Mountain, which seems mostly geared towards hunters. This focus was apparent from more than just the selection of rifles and tree stands; I couldn't find pants in my size (32 waist/34 inseam), but while I was looking I found several pairs that were 54/30. Definitely not for backpackers.
I spent almost two hours trying on boots at Gander Mountain, and I tried on probably twelve pairs of boots. Some of them were bad, most were okay, and some were very nice. I ended up deciding on a pair of Merrell Mesas. They're comfortable, light, supportive, and not at all prone to giving me blisters (I hope). I just realized when I looked them up online that Merrell doesn't consider them hiking boots; they're on the web page under "multisport shoes". Hmm. But I still think they're probably the best for what I'll be doing and where I'll be doing it. I should mention that Laura and I went shopping together, and that she was great about spending two hours watching me try on boots and jump around in them.
I also looked for boots at Dick's Sporting Goods, but they only carry the extremes: really expensive, and really crappy. Plus, their service is awful. The Dick's I visited was once a Galyan's, which was a great store with knowledgeable staff. If you wandered into the climbing gear section, the guy selling you stuff was an actual climber, and probably more experienced than you were. The girl selling rollerblades was on a first-name basis with the owners of every skate park in town. Dick's got rid of most of the original Galyan's staff when they bought out the chain, and apparently the way they hire staff is more akin to the practices at Target than the old Galyan's way of doing things. So even if you happen to find a staff person to help you, their answers are a blend of salesmanship and random guesses. I asked their camping gear "expert" a question about pack sizes, and he didn't know that the number on the pack was the size. The exception to the rule is the golf department, where they apparently have a golf pro on staff to help you buy clubs. They've got an iron grip on their target demographic, which doesn't include me; I don't tend to shop there if I can help it.
I also visited Rusted Moon Outfitters, a smaller, independent outdoor gear shop in Broad Ripple. The staff are all experts, their selection is pretty good, and their prices aren't any worse than you'd find elsewhere. Unfortunately, I didn't like any of the boots in their selection. But I'll probably buy any other gear I'll need for this trip at Rusted Moon. You've got to support local people who run their business right.
By the way, Gander Mountain has possibly the least helpful website in the world. It's almost embarrassingly bad for a catalog store to have such a useless website.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

A little while ago

While I was waiting in line at the grocery store today, I saw the latest special edition of People Magazine. It was a nostalgia issue -- for the 1990s. I'm a little surprised that anyone could possibly be nostalgic about the '90s yet, though now that I think about where I was and what I was doing in 1990, it does seem like a long time ago. I changed college majors (Chemistry / Math / Physics triple major, to Lighting Design / Sound Design double major) in 1990. I was still two years from buying my first CD player. And I'm embarrassed to admit that my 1990 music collection included Europe, Dokken, Slaughter, and Cinderella on cassette.
A while ago I was thinking about my earlier years, in and around my school days. And looking back on myself in 1990 I formulated my theory that all 20-year-old guys are jerks. I've asked around a bit, and every reasonably self-aware guy I asked thinks that he was a jerk when he was 20. Some guys never grow out of it, but by 1995 I was much less of a jerk. And now, of course, I'm the world's most perfect guy (if I keep improving at this rate, I'll be eligible for beatification by this time next year). I'm surprised that women don't give up on guys altogether, after some of the crap they were put through by the 20-year-olds they dated (me included).
The 90's nostalgia issue also makes me wonder about People's demographic. People of my age are among the youngest to have '80s nostalgia, so I assume you'd have to be 8 or 10 years younger than me to have '90s nostalgia. I don't know why it surprises me that the youth of today are fascinated by celebrity "culture". I suppose I was crediting the next generation with more taste and intelligence than that!

Where bad taste comes from

Found a new essay from Paul Graham about learning the wrong things by imitation. He's always good reading, and this is an interesting look at creativity. He also wrote a very short essay on finding your addictions. I did some thinking and figured out I'd take a book, nothing else. Most of my amusement comes from inside my own head. Then again, I'm pretty easy to entertain. :-)

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

hiking food

An enjoyable outdoor experience requires a certain base compatibility with one's hiking partners. You need to have similar walking styles and paces, similar ideas about what distance constitutes a full day's hike, reasonably similar attitudes about ideal pack weight, and temperaments suited to spending nights together in a smallish tent. And, you have to have the same taste in food. Hikers at one extreme survive long hikes on nothing but gorp and ramen noodles (also very light); at the other extreme, some people insist on gourmet-quality food on the trail, spending hours cooking every day, packing along stovetop espresso makers and even taking along multiple stoves so they can simmer on one while sauteing on another. I'm not really sure where Neil and Carl fall on this continuum. I'm (naturally) somewhere in the middle, as I assume they are. I can do ramen, but I prefer a little variety in my diet. And I tend to like hot food on cool evenings. But I'm also pretty happy with a huge assortment of instant food. And, as much as I like eating, sometimes you just don't feel like spending much time cooking after a long day of trekking.
Neil is a vegetarian, which isn't as limiting as it might sound. A lot of good food is meatless. I still don't know what kind of vegetarian he is -- that is, where he stands on dairy, egg products, fish, and meat-flavored things with no actual meat in them (like bouillon soups).
I read an article in a hiking magazine a while ago in which the author claimed that bad trail nutrition is one reason people quit long hikes early, that part of "trail depression" is due to poor diet. I think on a really long hike that's a serious factor. Even in the short term, I think well-fed people are generally happier.

unprepared

My hiking trip is approaching fast, and I'm not as prepared as I should be. I haven't been exercising and getting in shape, or at least not enough. We leave a month from today and I still haven't bought boots; it takes a while to break them in, so I need to start pronto. I had an entire day off Monday, and I was planning on spending the whole day hunting around for some necessities. The shopping trip fell through, so I need to find another time to hit the cool outdoor stores for comparison shopping. I definitely need footwear and a sleeping pad, and maybe a pair of those pants that turn into shorts if you zip off the legs: dorky but practical. I've also been debating picking up another backpack. A new pack isn't really a necessity, but my old Lowe Outback is pretty heavy. Solid, durable, versatile, and big, but heavy.

Ultralight hiking is starting to appeal to me. The theory is that you'll enjoy your hike more, cover more ground, suffer fewer injuries, and be less tired at the end of the day if you carry a lighter pack. Some traditional hikers have been known to hit the trail with 65 pounds of gear on their back; some ultralight hikers have managed to pare down to 15 pounds of total weight. In general, the trade-offs for ultralight gear are comfort and cost. You can trade your heavy, solid, weatherproof tent for a lightweight tarp, but it won't really keep you dry or keep bugs out. Or you can trade it for a space-age, high-tech outdoor shelter that weighs just a few pounds but costs $500. You can save foot weight by trading in your solid, full-grain leather hiking boots for Tevas, which are much lighter but a lot less cushioning and supportive; or, you can swap your old boots for some modern engineering marvels for a few hundred dollars.
In general, I don't think I'd want to trade away too much of the comfort factor to save weight, and I don't have the money to go the other route, but I'm looking at ultralight methodology to see if I can at least save myself a few pounds. This is a bad trip to trim a lot of weight. For one thing, our hike takes us through a pretty wide range of climates; the max temperature we can expect is above 90 degrees in the valleys, and we might hit as low as 40 degrees at night above the tree line. So I'll be packing more clothing than I'd really prefer. For summer hikes, my preferred dress is swim trunks; they're light, comfortable, breathable, easily washable, and they have built-in non-chafing underwear. I think I even have a pair with pockets. But I'll also need to pack something warm enough for cold evenings and mornings. Fleece is light but bulky; maybe I'll experiment with a compression sack to cram it into a smaller space. And I have a huge sleeping bag. It's warm (maybe too warm), but it doesn't pack small and it's a little heavy. I don't want to buy a new bag; maybe I can survive in my older, lighter one. It's only a week.
Hiking in a group of three has weight advantages. You can divide communal equipment, like the tent and cooking gear, between you. Only one person needs a good first-aid kit and equipment repair kit. You can probably share a camera and binoculars. And if someone starts lagging, the other two can share some of the food and water load.
I think I'll get myself a silly hat for this trip. I'm usually a bandana guy, but I'm thinking about a jungle hat or big ol' floppy hat of some sort. My last hike was long enough ago that I was wearing contacts; now I'm wearing glasses, which means I can't wear sunglasses. I'm hoping a big floppy hat will help a bit. I haven't spent a lot of time in the sun this Summer, so a big hat will also help keep my face from getting sunburned. In theory. Plus it'll help keep my unwashed hair out of my face.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

...from what, France?

I mentioned a few days ago that fireworks are now legal in Indy. The next day the Indianapolis Star had an article about people's buying habits. They interviewed a guy who said he's always bought fireworks, but he never felt guilty about breaking the law. They quoted the guy: "For me, this is just a way to celebrate our freedom from what, France?" Yah, a real patriot. And I found out that one of my coworkers thinks we won independence from France in 1776. It's a small sample size, but a disturbing trend. It's pretty common knowledge that math and science are in pretty short supply in American public schools, but I thought we were at least teaching the raw basics of history.
Because the Star has a sense of irony, on the same page (in the print version) as the fireworks article is an article about immigrants being sworn in as new citizens. The sidebar lists sample questions from the test that immigrants must pass to become citizens. One of the questions is, "What country did we fight during the Revolutionary War?"

And, a few blocks west of us, yet another shooting. Apparently some guy threw a firecracker at somebody's friend, and people started shooting. Two wounded, one dead.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Actual productivity!

One of my favorite things is the tiny euphoric rush you get when you cross something off your to-do list that's been there forever. I just did one today: I finally put the siding on the face of the dormer on the front of our house. Towards the end of last summer I tore off all the wood on the dormer, did some wiring, insulated, reworked the windows and frames, insulated some more, and painted everything. I was about to start the siding when the first snow started falling. I mean that literally: I was carrying tools upstairs when the snow began. I haven't done the sides yet, but I can't until we have our roof replaced. I'll see if I can actually get some pictures up here soon so y'all can see my handiwork.
And for the handy among you, I've got a great trick for cutting vinyl siding: use an angle grinder with a diamond tile/brick wheel. You can even cut vinyl siding in the cold without shattering. It also gives you a high degree of control; if you're good, you can even cut curves.
Now I'm tired. Naptime.