Thursday, June 28, 2007

Die Hardest-est: pretty good!

Laura and I went on an actual date last night: we saw Live Free or Die Hard at Showplace 12 at Washington Square. The original Die Hard was a genuinely good, entertaining movie. The sequel was somewhat less so, and the third in the series wasn't good. So I went into LFoDH with pretty low expectations. And I was pleasantly surprised. The action was excellent, the CGI wasn't blatant, and the story was good. If you're up for a summer action movie, this is better than most.

We had a funny moment during the movie (this might be a spoiler, but it's from the first five minutes of the movie so it doesn't spoil much): the plot of the movie revolves around a gang of hackers attacking America's information infrastructure. At one point in the movie, as the chaos spreads, a character mentions that the next thing to go will probably be the power grid. At this exact moment, the power went off in the movie theater. Nice timing! The east side was hammered by a thunderstorm while we were in the theater, and we were without power for probably ten minutes.

Random observation: at one point fairly early in the story, the bad guys hack the nation's traffic control systems and turn all the stoplights green in Washington, DC. And there's an instant wreck at every single intersection. Apparently, nobody notices when their light turns green that cross traffic isn't stopping, or just barges into the intersection anyway. I've driven in DC, and I find this completely realistic.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Good Poetry (for a change)

Indianapolis is hosting the 3rd National Gathering of Poets Laureate, in which the Poets Laureate of the states which have such a post all Gather. Nationally. For the Third time. As part of the gathering, the Artsgarden is hosting a series of poetry readings. While I'm normally opposed to poetry, I'm actually enjoying the readings. While the position of Poet Laureate is a political office (that is, it's not necessarily held by the state's best poet, but by the poet who's best at networking and selling himself), I've been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the poetry so far. One thing you can definitely say about the people in the post of Poet Laureate: they're all expert poets. Again, this isn't a measure of quality, but of skill. Poetry is, essentially, a spoken form. Poetry read aloud should flow better and make more sense than poetry written down, and the poets this week are all extremely good at reading poetry aloud. It's a skill more poets should learn. Clever typesetting and odd use of capital letters are signs of poets who have given up on poetry as a spoken form. I haven't seen any of this week's poems written down, but I suspect they aren't oddly arranged on the page; they're clearly written to be read aloud, not seen in print.

I've had people act surprised when I mention that I don't like poetry. I do have an English degree, after all; isn't it a bit heretical (or even hypocritical) for an English major to not love poetry? No, it turns out. Because we've heard the worst of the worst. There's a lot more terrible poetry than average poetry, and much more average poetry than good poetry. And the median quality for poetry is so low for a very good reason: it's impossible to get honest feedback on poetry. Workshops are awful. Most people won't ever directly mention when you're doing something wrong, generally from the fear that if they criticize another writer's poems, their own will get taken apart as well. And certain people are vitriolic about everyone's poems, for the same reason these people troll on the internet. Improvement in any field is dependent on an accurate appraisal of one's errors, strengths, and weaknesses, and accurate appraisals are sorely lacking in poetry circles.

Improvement is also dependent on having good models to follow. And the quality (even of published poetry) is so haphazard that it's hard for a beginner to tell what to emulate and what to avoid. One's poetry tends to be a mirror of one's taste in poetry, downshifted to match one's skill with language. So, yeah -- in the process of getting the big, bad English degree, I've heard enough bad, pompous, overbearing, irritatingly alliterative (my personal pet peeve: "gray-green [anything that starts with gr-]"), poorly-written poetry to last me a lifetime or two. Therefore, I tend to avoid poetry. Because it's statistically likely that any poetry I hear will be of the terrible or mediocre varieties.

That said, though, the poets laureate did a good job and I enjoyed their work.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Norfolk Pix

Just a few pictures from the trip to Norfolk, up on the Flickr page. Enjoy!

Fun, Yummy Discovery

Back to the perky. On the ride home Laura and I stopped in Staunton, Virginia. It's pretty much the middle of nowhere, but in Staunton was the highlight of our drive: Kline's Dairy Bar. It's a wonderful little creamery. It's attached to a barbecue restaurant with six items on the menu: two kinds of barbecue, hot dogs, cheeseburgers, breaded chicken breast on a bun, and chicken nuggets. Best of all, tater tots are one of the side-dish options. Laura and I only hopped off the interstate to get gas, but Kline's looked interesting and it was conveniently near lunchtime so we decided to give it a try. And it made us extremely happy. There are a few Kline's locations in the area; if you find yourself in central Virginia, it's worth the trip.

Also of the much fun: Young's Dairy, not far from Springfield, Ohio. Hop off I-70 at the Xenia and go south a few miles; you can't miss it. We didn't stop on this trip, because we were both pretty desperate to be home. But if you're in the neighborhood, it's a worthwhile detour off the interstate. The food is great, the ice cream is the best anywhere, and they even have a putt-putt course. You can't do better than that.

Friday, June 22, 2007

God, f***ing with me

While I was in Virginia I spent a lot of time working. I was planning on volunteering, and I mostly did; the first week I was there, we did a fundraiser to send Nijinsky's Last Dance to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Laura did the lighting, and I did wild techie things. After Nijinsky came down, we spent our last few days hanging a rep plot in the space. I actually got paid for this work, and paid well. I totally wasn't expecting it, so the money ended up in that precious "unbudgeted" category. On the drive back I did some daydreaming about how to spend it. I was planning to spend a few dollars replacing my mp3 player; Fry's now sells the same model for around $30, and I've been without one since before Christmas. The rest of the money was probably going to pay off some bills. I was planning on talking with Laura tonight about the possibility of using the money to finally fix my Saturn instead. As much as I enjoy biking everywhere, it'd be nice to have the car as an option.

This is no longer an option. While we were driving around this morning, the brakes died on the Jeep. Died hard, I should mention; when I stepped on the pedal, nothing happened. My reflexes are good, so we avoided a wreck, but we had to have the car towed to the dealership for repairs. I spent the afternoon waiting with the car, but they couldn't finish it today. It'll be fixed tomorrow morning sometime. I started suspecting that the sudden vehicle failure was Fate's way of keeping me from enjoying my small windfall. It was seeming pretty likely that this was the case when the mechanic told me how much the repair would cost. The repair plus the towing costs total to 22 cents less than my Virginia money. God left me almost a quarter -- gee, thanks. The real clincher? The brake failure occurred as we were pulling out of the parking lot of the bank, after depositing the money. I strongly suspect that God did this just to piss me off.

On the glass-half-full side, a lot of this could be viewed optimistically. The brake failure could've occurred a day earlier, while we were on the interstate, which would've been much worse. And if I hadn't gotten paid, the Jeep repairs would've had to go on credit. But I'm choosing to wallow in the grouchiness for now. I would've liked a working mp3 player, and I wanted to pay off some bills, and I wanted to be able to fix my car. Now I'm feeling like I spent my vacation volunteering. Which was the original plan, after all, but after having the money in my hands for a day or so, I'm now feeling like I traded my vacation to maintain our status quo.

Sorry about the slightly-bitter whining. I'll be back to perky and optimistic tomorrow.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Status update: the non-vacation

I'm on non-vacation in Virginia this week. Laura's working on a production of Nijinsky's Last Dance, and I'm playing the role of Tech Guy. We've been busy so far. We arrived Monday, worked an eight-hour day Tuesday, worked a hard twelve Wednesday, another moderate twelve Thursday, and a stressful eight or ten Friday. It's been more stressful than it really needed to be; we've had equipment problems, schedule issues, and too many long days in a row. I tend to have fun wherever I am, but I'll be really glad to get back to my real job after this.

My random thoughts from the trip so far, compiled from notes scribbled on 3X5 cards:
  • On the drive here, we encountered a two-hour traffic jam on the interstate. It's a bad sign when the state police have had time to put up big signs that say "Accident Ahead". It turned out to be a semi-trailer that rolled on a sharp corner, dumping its load of mirrors. Under different circumstances, it would've been really cool to look at.
  • I've never run a show on iTunes before. It's not bad; the only thing it doesn't do that I wish it would: you can't play two tracks at once. And, I ran it on a MacBook, which was a relief; had I been running it on a PC, I would've had to spend a long time cleaning the computer up to make sure I wouldn't have warnings and beeps popping up in the middle of the show. I'm definitely becoming more of a Mac guy as time goes on.
  • The Smartfade lighting console from ETC might be the worst computerized light board in the history of the theater. Laura and I are experts. If we can't figure it out in four hours with the manual in hand, the problem's probably not on our end.
  • A lot of the lighting gear -- the board and the dimmers in particular -- has that "made for DJ's" feel. This is not a good sign.
  • I'm really not a dog person. We're staying with two dogs, both of whom I've been assured are very cute. But their chief function, as far as I'm concerned, has been to make me glad we have cats.
  • I didn't realize until I saw the program on opening night that I'm officially the Technical Director for this production. Nice to get some surprise resume credit. And some acknowledgment for my work.
  • Norfolk is a nice town. And real estate prices are insane here.
  • I've spent almost no time online this week; until half an hour ago, the best I've managed is a few minutes of checking e-mail every day or two. I haven't even read the Whatever this week, and that's usually one of my first stops online.
  • Fun restaurant: there's a diner down the street called D'Egg. It's a true diner, and it's a great place to eat and spend time. If you find yourself looking for a nice breakfast in Norfolk, hit D'Egg; it'll make you happy.
  • I radically overpacked books for this trip. I brought three whole books, and in the first nine days here I've had a chance to read exactly none of any of them. The closest I've come is a few hundred e-book pages, all read at the sound board after the house opened.
  • Another fun restaurant: the Devil's Kitchen. It's all the quality food of a nice, expensive restaurant, combined with punk music and staff. Our darling waitress had purple micro-dreadlocks and the biggest tongue stud I've ever seen, and the steak was one of the best I've had.
  • Norfolk's downtown is pretty, but the Scruffy Homeless population is rather scarier here than in Indy. More surly and vaguely threatening, and they hang out in clusters. Laura says she feels a lot less safe here than in Indy.
  • I should mention that Nijinsky's Last Dance is an excellent show, one of my favorites I've ever worked on.
That's all for now. I'll try to write an actual recap of the trip when I get back. Wish me safe travels!

Saturday, June 09, 2007

The news: pathetic, appalling.

I spent two hours in a chair at the blood bank yesterday donating platelets. While I was there, I watched the last ten minutes of Walker, Texas Ranger and most of the movie Mystery Men, and a lot of cable news during the commercials. I was appalled by the snippet of cable news I saw. For two hours, the big three cable news stations covered nothing but Paris Hilton. Two hours of aerial helicopter shots of Paris's house, and nothing else. The news scroll at the bottom revealed actual news: that Peter Pace (chairman of the Joint Chiefs) resigned, that President Bush was preparing to meet with Pope Benedict in Rome, that an American was just arrested in Iran, Vladimir Putin proposes an alternative to the increasing hostilities over planned US deployment of a missile shield in Europe. But apparently none of this was as newsworthy as speculation over whether or not a rich blonde girl in LA was going to jail for probation violation.

To be sure, Paris Hilton's legal issues are news -- but not for the sensationalistic reasons the news stations are pushing it. Her case is important because is highlights the fact that we've got a different justice system in this country for the rich, powerful, connected, and pretty. I'm mostly okay with the concept of a "special needs" section of the jail, because I can think of a lot of reasons to separate celebrities and cops from the general prison population. But the fact that she apparently got released to home detention because she claimed, essentially, that jail would stress her out, is ridiculous. And if anyone not of the rich-powerful-connected-pretty set tried this, they'd be laughed at.

So, yeah -- two hours of intermittent cable news, and I'm appalled. This is why I get my news online. And, speaking of, if you're not using it you definitely need to install the Bug Me Not plugin for Firefox. It makes news a lot more accessible and hassle-free. And, they've got a list of discount codes you can use for online shopping just about anywhere.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Bad bike omen

The bike ride to work this morning was a little rough, so I checked the weather report for the ride home. Here's something a cyclist never wants to see:
Windy. Great. I think I'd prefer steady rain to high winds....

Oh, hey -- I just realized that for the ride home I'll have a tailwind. Nice!

Again, a sign of aging

I'm not talking about the strands of gray streaking my pony tail; the scarier signs are the mental ones. I used to wear a lot of black. It was partially occupational (working backstage a lot), partially a matter of laundry (at one time, I was bad at separating colors), and partially a matter of style (I think I look good in black). I still have a lot of black clothing, but I rarely dive into the all-black look anymore.

Given that, I don't remember how my brain used to translate seeing someone in all black. Possibly I thought it was fashionable, or the sign of someone too lazy to coordinate colors; I don't remember, really. But I realized on the ride to work today that I've shifted paradigms on black clothing. Whatever the old translation for all-black clothing used to be, the new translation is "all-black clothing = restaurant worker". I think this is yet another sign I'm getting older. Or, hey -- maturing! That sounds better! I'm getting more mature!

Monday, June 04, 2007

Lumosity: Teaching to the Test?

I've been watching the battle over intelligence for a few decades now. From IQ to Emotional Intelligence to Multiple Intelligences, people have been shifting around the idea of what it really means to be intelligent. Political correctness has played a large part; every shift in the nebulous definition of Intelligence tends to be towards a broader meaning of the term, with fuzzier lines between smart and dumb and fewer people clearly on the dumb side of the line. One of the biggest debates has been about measuring intelligence. I've noticed that testability is its own skill; when you're basing a measure of intelligence on the results of a test, all you're really measuring is the ability to answer test questions correctly. The testability problem is also becoming an issue in schools. With finances hinging on students' test results, teachers have gratuitously been teaching the material and methodologies found on standardized tests, rather than actually educating students.

Given all that, I recently signed up for lumosity.com's brain-fitness program. They say their program is "scientifically demonstrated to improve your memory, attention and processing speed". The training consists of a set of games of increasing difficulty, each game geared to develop a different aspect of brain function: memory, processing speed, attention, cognitive control. They're still in beta, so it's temporarily free to sign up for the program; it's a fun set of games, and it's nice to have games which you can at least pretend are good for you. Head there now while it's still inexpensive.

The games' pages come with little notes that explain that the program has been shown in scientific studies to improve the mental function in question. I don't know that I buy this. Anything you do repeatedly, you tend to get better at. If you play enough ping-pong, you get better at ping-pong; if you play Doom3 online, you get better the more you play. So you play a game designed to improve your visual attention. After the game, you take a test designed to measure your visual attention. If the test is anything like the game, all it shows is that you've learned to play the game well. So I'm not actually expecting to get smarter via Lumosity, but I like having some quick games I can play while pretending I'm bettering myself.

(Tangent: the artificial intelligence community is fully aware of the testability problem. Alan Turing proposed a test to determine if a computer is capable of thought: the tester carries on a conversation with two parties, one a machine and one a live human. The computer passes the test if the tester can't consistently tell which party is the computer and which is human. Computer scientists have done much theorizing about the test's accuracy, and they're fully aware that a computer which passes the Turing Test isn't necessarily intelligent. That is, passing the Turing Test is only a sign of a computer's ability to pass the test.)

Friday, June 01, 2007

the 95% mark

So, I'm not done with the painting project. But all of the painting is finished. I still need to replace all the woodwork I removed to do the painting and plaster, but everything else is done. In other words, the project is at the dreaded 95% Done phase. Uh oh. I've got a lot of projects around the house that are 95% done, and they tend to stay that way.

A few examples: before we moved in, in early 2001, we tore up the carpeting on the first floor and laid oak hardwood floors. That project was 95% done in a week, and the last 5% is still unfinished. All I need to do is stain and polyurethane the thresholds and nail them in place. Time so far? 6 years. I'm 95% done with the wiring in the basement; all I need to do is install a 3-way switch for the workshop lights, and it'll be done. Time so far? 3 years. I pulled up the carpet and refinished the hardwoods in the bedroom, too. Again, only the threshold remains unfinished (literally). Time so far? 2 years. I've got a few more of these almost-completed homeowner projects, and they're all languishing at the almost-but-not-quite-done phase. I'm not entirely sure why I do this. I think it has to do with the nature of home-repair projects. Once you start a big project, you're rendering part of your house unusable until it's done. So you've got strong incentive to make the house usable. Once you move the furniture out of the bedroom, you have to finish the floor before you can use the bedroom again. So you finish the floor and move the furniture back in, and suddenly there's no urgency to stain and finish the threshold. The house is functional, so you just don't worry about it. Or, worse, you finish the "important" part of the project and decide to step away from it for a while and take a little break before you finish it. And the little break can last years.

But I'm trying to be better about it. I'm trying to make it obvious that the project isn't finished yet, for one thing. The woodwork that needs to be reattached is in the way, for one thing; I didn't store it, I left some of it in the middle of the entryway, on top of the recycling. The rest of it is in the doorway to the studio. Every time I want to use the computer, I have to step around the bathroom door trim. I'll see if this system (I might call it Project Completion Thru Integrated Annoyance) serves me better than the previous system (which I'll call Not Getting Things Done, with apologies to David Allen).