july 2003

Finally, a perfect night for baseball. But...

If you're going to hate only one thing in the universe, it should damn well be the New York Yankees. And their fans are number two on the list. I swear, we've been to probably 25 or 30 games at Camden Yards over the last few years, and never once have I ever seen police even have to come over and calm someone down, much less escort groups of brawling fans from the stadium. But last night it happened. Twice. In our section alone.

I tell you what, Julie didn't quite get why I hated the Yankees so much before, but she sure gets it now.

I'm sitting here in the abandoned brain...

That's from Robyn Hitchcock. It's been running through my head all day. And now it's running throught yours.

Just like I said over two years ago, the more the media companies try to threaten and bully online traders in an attempt to strangle file sharing, the more the users are going to fight back in new and ingenious ways. The Apple Music Store shows that many people are willing to pay for rights to digital content, but not at the expense of convenience. The media conglomerates need to come up with new and economical ways to make their content appeal to users, not try to stamp out digital versions of their media altogether. And the longer they wait, the more kids that will grow up thinking that they deserve to get content for free by trading it illegally because the copyright owners haven't given them a reasonable way to access it legally. Wake up or die. Your time is running out.

So I should tell you about our Pittsburgh trip before Tori comes later this week. Almost two weeks ago, just a couple of days after getting back from our North Carolina trip, we headed up to Pittsburgh for a long weekend of real vacation, away from work, away from family, and away from obligations. Okay, so we weren't entirely away from family: the original reason for going to Pittsburgh was to go to the family day event at the convent where my grandfather's only remaining sister is a nun (she is 89 and has been at the convent since she was 17). But rather than drive up and drive back on the same day like we did four years ago, or ride with granddad and his wife Laryce like we did two years ago (we don't purposely go every other year, but things just seemed to work out that way), we decided to make a weekend of it and go up on Friday so we could catch a Pirates game and visit some other Pittsburgh attractions.

We drove up on Friday morning and got to our hotel in time to check in, unload our stuff, and head over to the stadium for that night's Pirates game against the Indians, who we had already seen play twice against the Orioles. We were still pretty early, but that was okay, because PNC park is one of the newest stadiums in baseball, and I wanted to have time to take a good look around. It is smaller than Camden, and although it follows the wave of neo-retro ballparks that have followed in the wake of Camden, it had a few unique characteristics that were improvements on Camden. First was a giant rotunda the created a multi-level spiral pedestrian ramp at the edge of the left field seats, which not only allowed massive amounts of people to exit the park at the end of the game, but also served as a huge amount of standing room during the game for the smokers and standing room only ticket holders. The outfield grass pattern was also one of the most interesting I've yet seen, with two intersecting patterns of lines that curved into a central spiral in center field. And the seats, the actual things that you sit in, were much better than Camden's: they were softer, it seemed like we had more legroom, and each person also had access to a cupholder built into the seat in front of them.

But there were a lot of things that copied Camden, too: a beautiful view of the cityscape beyond center field (which also included a few of the bridges that span the river that separates PNC from the city center), architecture that mimiced the steel and cables style of the nearby bridges the same way that Camden's brick and black steel mimics the nearby warehouse, and, of course, a design that makes everyone, even those in the furthest reaches of the upper deck, feel like they are close to the action. All in all, it was a pretty nice park, and you could tell that the Pirates fans were pretty pleased with it.

Since we were only counting on being able to attend one game, we decided to get some decent seats on the lower level behind home plate, which were surprisingly cheap and equally surprisingly still available only two weeks before the game, which was on a Friday night. Of course, the rain that has plagued us on game night this season followed us to Pittsburgh; the start of the game was delayed due to rain, which continued to fall half an hour later when play commenced. It fell steadily, but never too heavily, for the first nine innings of the game (that's right, I said first nine), which resulted in some nice rainbows over the city as the sun was setting. Luckily, we've learned from our rain-soaked Orioles season and we had our rain jackets ready; we also happened to be sitting under the edge of the overhang, so we didn't really get that wet.

Another trend in games we've seen this year is games that are tied in the ninth and go to extra inninngs, a pattern that the Pirates were all too happy to repeat for us. The rain started to come down really hard in the eighth, but the umps let it go on through the ninth, hoping that one team would score a run and wrap things up. But that didn't happen, so in the tenth they called a rain delay and we got to see the familiar site of the grounds crew covering the infield with the tarp. We wandered around for a little while, checking out the park, but after an hour or so we'd had enough and headed back to the hotel. The delay ended up lasting an hour and a half, with play resuming near midnight, and the game then continued for six more innings until a Pirates player hit a homer in the fifteenth to win the game. So unlike the Orioles games we've seen, the home team actually won after a rain delay and extra innings.

Tomorrow: Fallingwater.

After a relatively late night in Pittsburgh on Friday thanks to the rain-delayed game, we slept in until 10 or so on Saturday morning and then headed to a little cuban eatery called Kenny B's that was on the same block as our hotel. After eating a leisurely late breakfast/early lunch, we retrieved our car from the parking garage and headed out of town to Fallingwater. For those of you who don't know, Fallingwater is a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for the wealthy Pittsburgh family the Kaufmans, whose son studied under Wright. It was built in the late 30s, and it is located in rural Pennsylvania, where the Kaufmans had a summer retreat for the employees of their department store.

It was one of the first structures to use the then-new reinforced concrete as it's primary building material, and it basically constructed the three levels for the house by anchoring one end of the concrete slab into the rock face on the side of a hill, which allowed most of the slab to hang freely in space, suspended over rushing water. I'm not very knowledgeable about Wright's career, but I've heard a lot about this particular house and I've been interested in seeing it for a long time. And I wasn't disappointed: there were so many cool little things about the house, like the stairs the open up in the main sitting room and descend down directly to the stream below for fishing or swimming; the abundance of windows terraces that extend out over the stream (it seems like almost every room has access to at least one terrace, and every single room has at least one wall that is composed entirely of glass). There were tons of little innovations that I can't remember, like the corner windows that opened out in two directions and completely opened the room up to the cool breezes and sound of the roaring water below. It reminded me a lot of Monticello: obsessively designed by a genius who cared as much about how the house would be lived in as he was by perfecting the exterior design.

A little up the hill from the main house was the guest house, which also housed the servants and which was connected to the main house by a stepped concrete walkway that was poured as one piece, a process that our tour guide told us took 24 hours of continuous pouring and smoothing. What I really liked about this is that it was clear that it wasn't an afterthought; it was as meticulously designed and outfitted as the main house, and even the servants got to stay in style, each with their own room with the same windows, terraces, and handmade furniture that was present in every other part of the complex.

My main quarrel with the house was Wright's insistence on using his signature tan paint for the exterior with cherokee red paint for the trim on the windows and doors. When you look around at the setting for Fallingwater, the colors the come to mind are muted shades of green and grey that reflect the clear stream below, the rock face on which the house is built, and the lush Pennsylvania forest that surrounds it. Tan and red just don't work there, especially when one of Wright's design ideals was to create structures that work with the environment in which they are buit. In almost every other respect except the exterior color scheme, Fallingwater succeeds in this goal; I kept imagining how cool it would have been if the concrete had been left its natural grey and accented by a dark green trim. The house then would have seemed as if it had grown out of the rocky ledge, a perfect compliment to the beauty of the trees and water.

But the exterior colors are really a minor flaw, and it's one of those eccentric, stubborn choices that adds to its mystique as a Frank Lloyd Wright house. I would encourage anyone who has even a passing interest in design or architecture to visit it on their next trip to Pittsburgh. I'm interested in finding out more about Wright's work and design philosophy now (although with all the stuff that's going on at work and my summer class starting in two weeks, I seriously doubt I'll have the oppportunity any time soon), and I'd love to go back and visit the house again, despite the relatively steep price tag and stifling tour rules (see below for more details).

I originally thought that I could combine my story of taking a tour of the house with my desciption of it, but they really are two separate thoughts, and it just didn't work to try to force them to coexist in the same entry. Maybe a better writer with more time on his hands could do it, but I'm stuck with my limited talent and only another half hour left to write, so now I'll tell you about the tour.

If I had to guess, I'd say that the people of Pittsburgh must be descended from a particularly orderly colony of Germans, because they could be almost Nazi-like in their ruthless efficiency and insistence on following the rules. During the game at PNC park the night before, we had seen several people who tried to storm the expensive seats without a ticket unceremoniously escorted from the stadium by small squads of ushers who would appear out of nowhere seconds after the usurpers made their move. When it started to rain during the game, these same ushers would make the rounds telling people to close their umbrellas: they blocked the view of the rows behind them, and therefore weren't allowed as long as the game was still being played (not that I disagree with this rule, but it was just surprising to see ushers so empowered after experiencing the look-the-other-way attitude of the Camden ushers in the face of similar behavior). When we were walking the downtown streets, I saw the same disapproving looks directed at jaywalkers that I had seen in Austria: you never, ever cross against the light or cross in the middle of the street in the Germanic countries, and apparently you don't in Pittsburgh, either.

The reason that I'm bringing all this up is that we saw the most extreme examples of this behavior during our visit to Fallingwater. As we entered the gates, we were stopped by a guide standing on the side of the road who instructed us to approach the booth, tell them our reservation time, and have our payment ready. After finishing this transaction, we were directed to the parking lot, which was ringed with stern warnings about not leaving established paths when exploring the grounds. We went up the reservations desk to see if we might be able to join an earlier tour (we were scheduled for 3:30, but it was only about 2:00 when we arrived). We were put on the waiting list and told that we would be summoned if they could squeeze us in earlier. We lingered around the visitor's pavillion, stopping for chai teas in the coffee shop and examining the many Frank Lloyd Wright-related items in the gift shop. Every ten or fifteen minutes we would hear another group being ordered down to the main house; the schedule was so tight that the tours were supposed to start at disturbingly precise times as 1:57 and 2:09.

After 45 minutes or so, we were called to the desk and informed that we would be a part of a numbered group, which would be allowed to proceed down to the house in five minutes. When we arrived, virtually the first words out of our tour guide's mouth was a litany of rules we would have to follow while on the tour: no photographs of the interior; don't touch anything; don't sit on anything; don't walk on any rugs that you don't have to. I was all too happy to follow most of the rules, since, for the most part, the original furnishings were still present in their original locations, meaning that the tables and chairs and bookshelves were museum pieces as much as anything else in the house, but I couldn't understand why they wouldn't allow us to take photographs as long as we weren't holding up the tour. So of course I was compelled to take a couple of photos when the guide had his back turned (they came out blurry, however), and I wasn't the only one: I saw at least three other people in our group snap surreptitious pictures of their own.

After finishing the tour of the house itself, we explored the paths around the property, making our way downstream to a particularly nice view of the house that was tailor-made for photographers. On the way there, we again encountered scores of overly-dramatic signs telling us not to leave the paths or we risked destroying the entire local ecosystem. So we stayed on the paths; I envisioned squads of headphone-wearing PNC ushers emerging from the forest to escort us off the grounds if we didn't.

We had considered going to another Pirates game on Saturday night, but we didn't buy advance tickets for it because we didn't know what time we'd get back from Fallingwater and what the weather would be like (we were getting a little sick of watching games in the rain). But the weather seemed reasonably nice, and it looked like we would get back in time to rest at the hotel for a few minutes before going over and picking up some cheap upper deck tickets, which we thought would be plentiful because of the poor attendance at the previous night's game.

Heading into Pittsburgh, however, we hit bad traffic going into the tunnels, which wasn't a surprise but which was still pretty annoying. But by the time we turned onto the street for our hotel, we still had just enough time to park and drop some stuff off at the hotel before game time. Of course, since the parking garage we wanted to use was right across the river from the stadium, it was completely full, so we made the painful decision to pay the $20+ for valet parking at our hotel (a choice that was made even more agonizing with the knowledge that the hotel used the same garage that we had tried to park in ourselves, which costs only $3 normally).

We were still able to get to the game relatively on time, but when we approached the ticket window, we discovered that the only tickets left were standing room only. Okay, we thought, we wanted to keep this cheap, so standing room only it is. We stopped to eat a quick meal in the patio area behind the left field seats, and then made our way up to the upper deck to scout out the standing room locations. We ended up settling on the top level of the rotunda structure on the left field side, and other than the crowds of smokers that were swaming around us, I was surprised at how pleasant it was to watch a game leaning on a railing hovering over the left field seats.

As the bottom of the ninth began, the Pirates were behind by a run, so we decided to start heading over to the right field side, where I wanted to take some pictures before leaving the stadium. On the way, we kept track of the game by watching the television monitors that were mounted on the walls every few dozen yards, and watched in surprise as the Pirates scored a run to tie the game and send it into extra innings. We continued to head down to the main level, and after standing to watch a couple more innings, we eventually found some empty seats and settled in to watch the rest of the game. It ended up lasting 15 innings, just like the game on Friday night, and also like the game on Friday night, the Pirates ended up with the win.

The next day we checked out around 11 and headed over to the convent to see Sister Mary Terence and the rest of my grandfather's family (he and Laryce were there, too, of course). It was fun, but not substantially different from the last time we visited, so I don't feel compelled to go into much detail here (although I did find a cool religious trinket from Russia in the gift shop). After that, we drove back home and got ready to face what would be for me one of the longest weeks I've yet worked at Hopkins, despite the fact that the today's holiday shortened it to only four days.

On Thursday, Tori arrived for the start of a two and a half week visit with us. When she went downstairs to her bedroom to unpack her bags, she found this note waiting for her:


You have been a guest in our house several times before, but since you are going to be staying for a more extended period this time, we thought it would be prudent to go over some guidelines that we expect you to follow while you are here. It's not that we don't trust you or that we don't want to make you feel welcome in our home, but if we're all clear on the ground rules, it will make it much easier for us all to avoid any misunderstandings.

Curfews, television, etc.

  • If you plan to go out on your own, we expect you to be back by 11:00 PM on weeknights and 1:00 AM on weekends. We will not be furnishing you with your own key, so one of us will have to be awake to let you into the house.
  • You may not bring any guests with you to our house.
  • You may not spend the night anywhere else. Your parents are trusting us to make sure that you are safe, and we can't do that if you're not with us.
  • You are not to watch the television in the main room after 12:00 AM the night before we have work.
  • You have a television in your room that you may watch at any time, but after 12:00 AM, the volume on this television should not be turned up past the eighth increment.
  • We would prefer it if you did not watch more than five hours of television a day when we are at work.
  • You may watch any of our DVDs or play the GameCube, but you should receive instruction on how to use these systems from me beforehand.

We do not expect you to pay any rent while you are here, but you will be responsible for helping out around the house. Some of your responsibilities will include:

  • Scooping the kitty litter every third day
  • Fixing dinner at least twice a week
  • Doing the dishes at least twice a week
  • Giving Hunter his shot and feeding the cats in the morning
  • Cleaning the downstairs bathroom once a week
  • Making up your bed and generally keeping your room straight
  • Miscellaneous gardening tasks (weeding, watering, etc.)
  • Other chores may be assigned at our discretion

In addition, you will also be required to clean up after yourself, do your own laundry (including your sheets and towels), and vacuum the downstairs area of the house once a week.


  • Your room is also the room where the treadmill is stored. Julie is accustomed to using this treadmill on weekdays in the morning before she goes to work, so you should expect to leave your room sometime between 5:30 and 6:00 AM. You can sleep on either of the couches until Julie is finished with the room (she also likes to watch television in that room while having breakfast so that the television in the main room will not wake me up).
  • We don't expect you to pay for a third of the groceries or pay for your share of the meal when we go out to eat, but you should expect to pay for any specialty vegetarian items yourself. We will be fixing our normal course of meals while you are here, so you should expect to fix dinner for yourself every night.
  • You should also plan to pay for any snack food items or alcohol that you want for yourself.
  • You are not to open any of our mail or answer the phone.
  • You may not use our phone for long distance calls without prior authorization.
  • You may use Julie's computer to check your email and browse the web as long as Julie does not need the machine for anything and as long as one of us is in the room. You may not ever use my machine.

We are very glad that you have chosen to stay with us for an extended period, but since none of us have had to share a space for such a long time, the better you understand our expectations, the happier we will all be. We would be glad to discuss any of these items further if you have any questions.

Of course, this was all bullshit. We have no expectations that she will do chores, pay for food, etc. (although she certainly will, because she has always helped out with the dishes and cooking and has always attempted to pay her own way when she's stayed with us before), and I certainly don't think I need to regulate her television intake or phone usage. I was trying to strike a balance in the note between the believable and the absurd, because she knows that I can be very particular about my environment; I wanted her to be in disbelief while she was reading it, but still think that I might be serious.

And I think she did for most of the note. Ironically, it was the first item under the miscellaneous section about the treadmill that didn't seem real to her, even though the treadmill is stored in the guest room and Julie does use it very early in the morning. Plus, any lingering doubt she might have had was dispelled when Julie couldn't hide her grin when Tori came back up the stairs with the note in hand. For the effort I put into it, it would have been better if she had bought into it a little more (it would have been fun to try and keep a straight face while I made up ridiculous reasons for why she should have to follow all those rules), but it was still worth it.

Last Friday Julie and I were off for the Fourth of July holiday, and as it happened we also had tickets to the Orioles game against Toronto that night as part of our season ticket plan. As soon as we found out that Tori was going to be in town, we purchased her a ticket, too, so we could all go together. Even though her seat was only two rows behind us and a couple of seats over, we were still hoping that maybe the seats next to us would be empty and we could all watch the game together. People did show up, but instead of one of us moving up to the seat that we had purchased, Julie just moved down one row to one of a pair of seats that we knew were owned by people on the same ticket plan as us who only show up for about half the games (we've nicknamed the man "big hat" for the assortment of straw, cloth, and leather hats he inevitably wears that interfere with our ability to see home plate). They sometimes show up late, so it wasn't guaranteed that Julie would be able to keep the seat, but they've never come later than the fourth inning, so by then we knew we were pretty safe, and we were able to basically sit together for the duration of the game.

At first it was looking like another typical Orioles game for us: early in the game the grounds crew was hiding out behind the tarp, anticipating the approaching rain and ready to roll it out at a moment's notice. And even though rain did come, it was a very short shower, and more refreshing than anything else on a warm summer afternoon (the game started at 5 rather than 7 so that it would be finished in time for the fans to head over to the harbor to watch the fireworks afterwards).

And after five scoreless innings, Orioles pitcher Rick Helling had a meltdown in the sixth, giving up five runs, including a grand slam homerun, which put the Orioles at a five run deficit since they hadn't bothered to score yet, either. Now, usually when the Orioles are getting beat up on this badly, they'll mount a comeback attempt in the eighth or ninth inning that always ends in heartbreak, and that's exactly what they did in this game: with two outs in the eighth inning, they got a runner on base. And then another, and another, and soon they were scoring runs. The Blue Jays even switched pitchers three times to no avail: the Orioles just kept on putting men on base and scoring runs; eventually the entire order batted around. When all was said and done, the Orioles ended up with eight runs on the board, all scored with two outs in the inning. After that, closer Jorge Julio came on to finish the game and see the Orioles win. Believe it or not, this was the first time this season (and we're going on ten games now) that the Orioles have not had to play their half of the ninth inning because they had a lead and kept it.

Weird game observation: in honor of the Fourth, the Orioles substituted a group singing "God Bless America" for the traditional "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh inning stretch, and I was a little alarmed to see the majority of the men in the stadium remove their hats just as they would for the national anthem. I know that most of them didn't have any kind of self-righteous, more-patriotic-than-thou motives behind removing their hats, but if we start to take off our hats for songs other than the national anthem, I feel like it makes the gesture less meaningful when we do it for the anthem. And besides, what's next? If we remove it for "God Bless America", does that mean we also have to remove it for Lee Greenwood's "Proud to be an American", or whatever sappy country song happens to be popular in the redneck bars across our country?

Why is this story getting so much front-page coverage everywhere? I don't get it. Am I just a cold, heartless bastard for thinking that there are maybe a few more important things going on in the news that should be making the headlines?

After the Orioles game on Friday, we left our car parked in the Orioles lot and headed over to the harbor to watch Baltimore's Fourth of July fireworks celebration. Now, I wasn't necessarily expecting them to be as good as DC's, but I did expect them to be on the same level, simply owing to the fact that this was the city where the Star Spangled Banner was written.

But they sucked. They sucked ass. I'm sorry, but if I'm sitting on Federal Hill, looking out over the harbor where Francis Scott Key watched the battle rage that inspired him to write the Star Spangled Banner, I want a gigantic fireworks display. I want to feel like I'm seeing the modern day equivalent of that battle. I want to hear fucking bombs going off. I want noises so loud and lights so bright that they had to use the latest in military hardware to pull it off.

But it wasn't like that. Not at all. In fact, it wasn't even as good as the fireworks displays in Wilmington I remember from my youth. Hell, even Leila's mother's neighbor, who is known for the intense and almost certainly illegal fireworks that he sets off in the street every year, puts on a better show (that could be partly due to the fact that if you are close enough to see his fireworks, you are likely in mortal danger from being hit by one of them, but still).

I'm glad we didn't actually make an effort to see the harbor fireworks; we just went because we were already in the city because of the game and because we were allowed to leave our vehicle parked in the Orioles lot while we walked over to the harbor to watch the fireworks. If I had actually taken the time to drive in early, pay $10 to park in a downtown garage, and then end up snarled in downtown traffic for an hour after the show was over, I would have been really pissed. As it was, I was just annoyed and disappointed. But not really all that surprised, given what a half-assed job Baltimore does most of the time pretending to be a big city.

I think I ate someone else's sandwich for lunch yesterday.

See, on Wednesdays, we go over to the Eastern campus for testing on our new database and student marketing system. I usually try to bring my lunch, which lately has consisted of chicken salad on wheat bread in a sandwich size plastic bag. This week, however, I have been using up the rest of the sandwich rolls we used for dinner on Tuesday. When we go over to Eastern, we are allowed to keep our food in the IT department fridge, and I typically put my sandwich in the top compartment on the door because no one else uses it and it's easy for me to make sure I don't lose my sandwich among the dozens of other meals that are stored there.

Yesterday, however, I opened the fridge to put my sandwich in its normal spot and found another nearly identical sandwich sitting in the compartment already: some sort of chicken salad type food on a sandwich roll in a sandwich size plastic bag. Even the bags were virtually identical, the ziplocs with the yellow-and-blue-make-green zip. At first I considered just putting my sandwich on another shelf on the door, but then I thought that the other person might get confused and take mine, so I decided to put mine on one of the shelves in the body of the fridge.

This turned out to be a mistake, because when I went back to retrieve my lunch at noon, I completely forgot about the twin sandwich and took it right out of door. It wasn't until after I had taken a bite of it outside that I started to realize something was amiss. "Hmmm," I thought to myself, "this chicken salad is awfully salty. And very red. Almost like...ham." And indeed it was: a ham salad sandwich, not my chicken salad sandwich. That's when my brain finally kicked in and remembered the twin sandwiches, but by then it was far too late. I had taken a bite, and there was really no way to fix it.

So what else could I do? I ate the sandwich. I couldn't go back and get mine and throw someone else's away, and I didn't want to not eat lunch. I just had to trust that whoever it was that made the sandwich was relatively clean and disease free, and hope that they would discover my chicken salad on the shelf, think it was their ham salad, and go through the same process as me and be able to deal with the fact that someone else was eating their lunch and they were eating someone else's. The ham salad wasn't that good, but sometimes you just have to take what the universe gives you and move on.

Too much to think about and too tired to think about it. I need a couple of days off to absorb everything that's been happening at work.

Okay. First the Iraq uranium claim was accurate, then it was inaccurate but it was the CIA's fault, then it was still inaccurate and CIA's fault but we shouldn't really get mad at the CIA (and besides, the British said so, too), and now it's accurate again. For god's sake, people, first you get your stories straight and then you do the spin, not the other way around.

On Tori's first Saturday here, we decided to go back to the flea market that we'd discovered a month or two earlier, both because we went so late last time that many of the booths had closed for the day and because we thought Tori would really enjoy it. I also had my eye on some tacky religious stuff for my office, but I'd been too overwhelmed with the experience before to try my hand at bartering with the vendors (and since nothing had a price tag on it, I assumed everything was negotiable).

First we went to a booth in a back corner near one of the food stalls, where I picked up a picture of Jesus and the Virgin Mary with burning hearts and some sort of weird metallic printing effect that makes them seem to shimmer for $3 (including the frame). I didn't feel like bargaining on that one because it was so cheap in the first and it actually did have a price tag. I also thought about picking up a gift for my mom, who really likes frogs: they had little posed frog figurines doing things like playing pool, riding bikes, etc., which is not really all that unusual. What is unusual is that these were made from REAL FROGS. I don't know exactly what the process for creating these is (and I don't really like thinking about it), but it was fascinating nonetheless. The price was a little high, though ($8 for the smallest ones), and I didn't really feel like bargaining at that point, so I think I'll save that for a future Christmas present.

The next stop was a table that I had spent a lot of time at during our previous visit that had all sorts of interesting catholic paraphenalia: keychains and necklaces with pictures of saints on them, handmade rosary beads, hand-painted crosses, and little portraits of Christian religious figures in a deep frame with a large Christmas tree light bulb in the bottom that you could plug in to illuminate the picture. I really wanted one of these, and one of the hand-painted crosses with a village scene on it caught my eye as well, but the $18 price tag for both was a little steep for me, so I haggled them down to $15 (which was still a little more than I had hoped to pay, but it was my first shot at bargaining and I was just happy that had agreed to my reduced price offer).

After wandering around for a while longer, we ended up in another back corner stall that had a lot of old glassware, plates, and ceramic serving dishes. Nothing really caught my eye until, on my way out of the booth, I noticed a blue bottle on the floor. I picked it up and saw that it had a portrait of Charles Evans Hughes, a chief justice of the supreme, on one side, and a quote from him on the other: "I am happy to report that the Supreme Court is still functioning". There was no context given for this quote (though thanks to some quick Googling I have found that it dates from the mid-1930s), but it seemed more than a little ironic given the current state of our judicial system, and I was intrigued by the serendipity of discovering it lying on the floor instead of on one of the many display cases. I asked how much it was, hoping I could snag it for a few dollars, and was told that it was $5. That was a little more than I wanted to pay, so I told them I would think about it. While I was browsing around at some of their other items to see if there might be something I could double it up with to get a discounted rate, the proprietor of the store started digging in a chest at the side of the store and pulling out bottle after bottle from the same series, a historical/famous persons collection from the Wheaton glass company in New Jersey that had been issued in the early 70s. I can't remember them all, but out of the 13 she had, these are the ones that I can recall: Martin Luther King, Jr., the Apollo 16 astronauts, Mark Twain, Robert F. Kennedy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a couple of Christmas themed bottles, and two bottles shaped like donkeys with the names of the Democratic presidential and vice presidential candidates from 1972.

The vendor told me I could have the whole set for $3 apiece ($39 total), but I wasn't really interested in the whole set. I ended up settling on four bottles, partially for their colors and partially for the people depicted, and convinced her to give them to me for $15 ($5 off the sticker price for four of them): the Hughes supreme court justice bottle (blue), Mark Twain (maroon), RFK (green), and Apollo 16 (clear). At less than $4 per bottle, I didn't really care about their collectible value, but I did some research on the internet just out of curiosity (and to make sure that they weren't worth some obscene amount that would cause me to sell them immediately), and I think I did okay. They don't seem to be worth that much, maybe $5-$10 per bottle on average, but that also means I didn't get ripped off. I think I might make them into some sort of wall display, although I'm still trying to figure out how I could do this so that it was easy to see both sides of the bottles, since all of them are almost as interesting on the back as they are on the front.

The last thing I wanted to buy was a crudely made display of the musical instruments of bolivia that had been glued on top of a piece of colorful striped cloth. The guy who ran the booth wanted $10 for the bigger ones (about 18 x 12 inches), but I didn't want to go higher than $7. He went down to $8, but wouldn't budge on that price because $7 is what he wanted for the smaller ones. I decided to leave and try again another day, but I'm guessing if I really want it, I'll have to give him $8 for it.

Tori made one purchase at the market, a creepy near-life sized ceramic clown head with a slot in the back of the head for change. I'm not sure why she bought it, other than the bizarro factor, but when she decided to display it in her bedroom window so it would freak out the neighbors, I felt I had to intervene: as soon as I got home and saw the clown face staring out at me, I removed it and deposited in an as-yet undiscovered location, where it will hopefully remain until she heads back home. Of course, in retaliation for this abduction, Tori added a very unusual ornament to our front yard: a set of fake true-position breeding pair turkeys that she got from a hunting store. So basically it looked like we had turkeys humping on our lawn. Those have now been removed, too, and I'm hoping she doesn't have any other surprises in her bag.

It has been really fun having Tori here. In addition to our outings to the Orioles game, the fireworks, and the flea market, she has also been doing a lot of nice things for us around the house: she baked us brownies and banana bread (with chocolate chips!), made us a dinner that was kind of an eggplant/tomato/onion stew served over rice, and cleaned up the dishes a lot. I've never spent this much one-on-one time with her, and I was a little worried that we might start to get sick of each other after two weeks together, but it has already been a week and a half and I'm already dreading next Sunday when she has to go back to Wilmington. That will likely be the last time I see her before she heads off to Austria for a year of study abroad, which is going to be really hard for me to deal with (even though I think it's great that she's doing it; my semester abroad was one of the most memorable experiences of my life). I love her more than anything, and I'm going to miss her like hell.

I finally found what I need to be happy. And it's not friends, it's things.

Back to work today after taking last Friday and yesterday off to spend time with Tori. I'm not really looking forward to it because, in addition to the recent overload of work related to the far too many projects that we have going on simultaneously, I just found out that my immediate superior, Richard, has made a sudden decision to leave us after only nine months. And that's a devastating blow, both for me and for the office. He is probably the best boss I have ever worked for, and his management style was very similar to mine, so we rarely had conflicts about how to handle complicated situtations. He listens to everyone's point of view, he always gives you the chance to succeed, and he's genuinely a nice guy. And in addition to everything he has done for me, he was also a huge morale booster for the entire office. Now I'm worried that his unexpected departure, coming on the heels of four of our more experienced counselors leaving earlier this summer, will cause a mass exodus of the few remaining talented and hardworking people, both on my staff and in other key departments of the office. It's just not good for anyone.

The reasons that he's leaving are fairly complicated, but it basically boils down to the fact that his call to public service forced him to override his obligations to our office. As a former Navy officer who spent literally decades in the service as an Academy cadet, a pilot and captain, and director of admissions for the Academy, he has the respect of a lot of important people in DC, and one of them who he couldn't say no to finally called in a favor. He has been asked to serve on a committee overseeing the spending on the latest Strategic Defense Initiative program (better known as Star Wars). See, back in 2000 in the wake of the 9.11 attacks, Bush announced that he was restarting the program, and since then billions and billions of dollars have been spent on it. The problem is, those billions have produced nothing tangible, and with Bush's target date for implementation only a year away (coinciding with the heavy campaigning phase of his reelection bid, which isn't really a coincidence at all), the administration is getting antsy about the state of the project. Richard will be one of four committee members who will try to reign in the spending and make sure that the project will produce something real by September of next year.

I don't think that Richard really wants to go—one of the reasons he joined us at Hopkins was to get away from that world and live a more relaxing civilian life, and now he'll have a longer commute, longer hours, etc.—but the confluence of circumstances surrounding this particular offer compelled him to return for one last project in the military/defense arena. It was a sudden decision—he got a phone call from the project director on July 3 and handed in his resignation to us on July 8—but I think that speaks to the urgency and importance of the task. I certainly wish him well, but the timing couldn't be worse for our office, and we're really going to miss both his leadership and, simply, his presence.

I swear, if I knew that we were going to sing "Amazing Grace" every Sunday in church, I might go to more services than I do. That is just a perfect song to sing.

I need to tell you about our weekend trip to visit Tom in Charlottesville and my adventures in law-breaking with Tori on Monday, but I'd rather talk about the first night of my new class. It's called "The Artificial Human", and because it's a summer session class, it meets twice a week for two and a half hours for six weeks. The professor seems pretty interesting—majored in math with a minor in english, works in the computer industry now, and has a fascination with pop culture, especially science fiction—and by and large the people in the class seem pretty intelligent (if oddly uniform—out of the ten people who showed up, only two didn't major in english in college, and only three don't currently have jobs in the computer industry).

Since we have such a short time to meet, the professor has made the readings relatively light, and even though we have three papers, they are purposely designed to build on one another, so we're really showing him increasingly longer and more complex drafts of a single paper. Class participation is also a big part of the grade, since he really wants this to be a seminar, which I wasn't really worried about until I saw that we had a Talker in our presence. Really, I should have expected it—there seems to be one in every class—but in a course where class participation counts for a quarter of your total grade (and I have a feeling that the rest of us combined will barely be able to equal her output), her domination of the classroom conversations will go from mildly amusing to extremely annoying very quickly. Plus she's got an irritating drone that makes you quickly lose whatever interest you might have had in what she's saying. But don't all The Talkers have that?

I wish we had a little less going on at work right now so that I could focis on it more, but it should still be pretty fun. And thanks to the weird similarities I have with many of my classmates, I also have a better chance of meeting some interesting people that I might want to hang out with.

God I'm tired.

I don't like to get more than a week behind on stuff here, so I guess I should tell you about last Friday today. I took the day off again to spend time with Tori, and we had planned to into Baltimore to visit museums and have lunch with Kathryn and Julie. We were kind of slow getting started (as usual), but we were at Hopkins at around 11:30 or so to pick up Kathyn and Julie. We went to a little Indian buffet restaurant called India Tandoor that has the double benefit of being both very cheap and very good (plus they have a great selection of vegetarian dishes for Kathryn and Tori).

After that, we had planned to go to the American Dime Museum, a collection of oddities and weird artifacts, but by the time we finished lunch and returned Kathryn and Julie to their offices, it was getting awfully close to their 3 p.m. closing time, and it was very close indeed after I got lost on the way there. We thought about going to the Walters, but it's pretty expensive and we would have only had a couple of hours there. So we decided to head to Frederick (with a quick stop at home first) so I could pick up this month's supply of comic books and so Tori could look for a cheap used copy of the Harry Potter game for Gamecube.

We weren't successful in the game hunt, but on the way back home, Tori convinced me to stop at a yard sale. I saw a few things I liked, but they were labeled with prices that were a little more than I wanted to pay, and I wasn't really sure if I was going to buy anything until the lady in charge told us to make a pile of all our stuff and she would give us a good deal. So we wandered around the tables for about half an hour before returning to her desk with our loot: some George Bush the Elder campaign memorabilia, a bag of Bug's Life figures, a plastic ashtray with a very young looking Queen Elizabeth, some Socks the Cat refrigerator magnets, an orange juice decanter, a mug from Oral Roberts University, and some other assorted nicknacks. The prices for all this according to the tags should have been somewhere around $25, and I would have been willing to pay up to $15 for it, but we quickly discovered that bargaining was unnecessary because the woman only wanted $5 for everything, which I was more than happy to pay.

Julie was a little dismayed when we arrived home with our newly acquired junk, especially after the mini spending spree at the flea market the week before, but even she couldn't argue with the $5 price tag. And she should be glad that we didn't know how cheap it was going to be before we bought it, or else we would have come home with three times as much stuff.

Usually too much content is a good thing, but we've done so much during Tori's visit that I'm falling way behind on just relating the stuff that we've done with her, much less finding the time to talk about all the other stuff that's going on at work, school, etc. Hopefully I'll be able to catch up by the end of the month.

The Saturday before last, Julie, Tori, and I took a daytrip down to Charlottesville to visit Tom, who I hadn't seen in a while thanks to my busy summer schedule and his trip to LA in June. We met him at noon at Christian's Pizza on the downtown mall (I always seem to run into someone I know there—this time it was a husband and wife who I worked with on several shows at Four County Players back when I was a graduate student at UVA). After lunch, we wandered around the mall for a while, stopping in at a few stores here and there before heading up to campus to see an exhibit at the Bayly, UVA's campus art museum.

On the way to the car, we passed by Daedalus Books, where they always have a table of free books sitting outside that anyone can take. We stopped to peruse them, and I found a very interesting book indeed: it was called "The Pentagon: Politics, Profits and Plunder", it was published in 1967 by a writer named Clark R. Mollenhoff, who I had never heard of but who was apparently a Pulitzer Prize winner for one of his previous works (which include books with titles like "Washington Cover-Up", "Tentacles of Power", and "Despoilers of Democracy").

The chapter titles and the description from the book jacket flap (which had been torn off and stored in the back of the book) indicated that the book was primarily about the events that were causing a build-up of forces in Vietnam, the start of the Vietnam war, and the military bureaucracy that was being built that would give too much power to individuals who would not be required to wield that power according to a proper series of checks and balances (like the president or the joint chiefs). It also had this fascnating quote, which seems all-too-relevant given the current administration's lust for blood and their extreme lack of accountability:

While this book is important in connection with the Vietnam war, it deals with problems that will be with us as long as we are required to finance and manage a huge war machine.

There was also this epigraph from the author scribbled on the first blank page:

To Buck Buchanan—
Who understands the difficult problem of balancing effective defense with accountability to the people and the Congress—the dilemma of democracy.

Clark R. Mollenhoff
March 7, 1979

Those words hit pretty close to home these days, huh? I'd really like to read this book in depth sometime, to see how much it really does have to say about our current war-making culture and how that culture might have been formed during the cold war era, but I'm not sure if I'll get the chance before my summer class is over.

The exhibit that Tom wanted us to see at the Bayly consisted of some giant slabs of wood (giant for the indoors at over 20 feet tall) that had been carved out of fallen trees by a fascinating woman who makes the artworks using a chainsaw and chiseling tools and who continues to work to this day even though she's in her 80s. She also had some ghostly hanging displays made from bark, and the whole exhibit was accompanied by an interactive music piece that was comprised of sounds recorded by a different artist when she visited the workshop of the tree lady using a software program that had been developed by a UVA professor.

Despite the incredibly interactive nature of the exhibit (the tree lady demanded that visitors be allowed to touch her works without restriction, and one of them was even lying on the ground outside the museum exposed to the elements), pictures apparently weren't allowed, as I found out when I tried to take a few and was shot down by the lone security guard. I was hoping he would return to his post and everyone else could serve as lookouts for me so I could snap some good shots, but he tailed me until we left the museum.

We also met up with Tom's brother at the Bayly, who was recently accepted into the architecture school at UVA and who is taking a summer course to get him caught up on design fundamentals, and although he wanted to do some further research on his current project before everything closed for the day, he told us he would head out to Tom's when he was done. We were pretty much done with the exhibit at that point, so we returned to our vehicles and followed Tom out to his cottage at Birdwood.

I'm becoming increasingly convinced that the Comedy Central "reality" show I'm With Busey is totally fake and staged. But it's still fairly entertaining.

No time to write about our visit to the old cattle watching tower near Tom's Birdwood cottage. I have to finish Anne Rice's "Interview With the Vampire" by Wednesday, a book I'm increasingly pleased to say that I have never bothered to read before (although it's not as bad as it could have been). Why we're reading it for this class, however, remains a mystery to me.

But I do want to quickly and publicly congratulate CS Jeff and Connie on their recent engagement, of which I was informed via email this weekend. I've been waiting for Jeff to send me that email for quite some time now, and I'm glad to see that the day has finally come. They're getting married next May in a to-be-determined location, but wherever it is, I'm sure as hell going to be there. Good luck, guys—I know that you will have many long and happy years together.

Tom's home for the last year has been a little cottage outside of Charlottesville on the grounds of the Birdwood County Club, which used to be a cattle ranch a long time ago. His house used to be a two-room cabin for slaves, with two families presumably each occupying a room (although UVA also added an extension that included room for a kitchen and a bathroom). There is no air conditioning, but the walls are thick and the windows small, so a few fans scattered around the house are generally enough to keep the temperature bearable on the hottest days. He has one room set up as his studio and the other as his bedroom; with the kitchen and bathroom extension, he has little need of anything more.

There are other houses on the property, most of them also occupied by people affiliated in some way with UVA: a retired professor, a researcher at the medical center, etc. But the big house, the one that the ranch owner lived in back in the days when the land was home to herds of cattle, is currently empty and unused, except for the occasional intrusion by one of the secret societies at UVA, who use it for a meeting place every now and then.

Next to the main house is a brick tower that looks like a lighthouse, and which seems to have no function. In fact, Tom tells me, it was a tower that they used to use to watch the cattle in the fields, presumably so that they could make sure there were no stampedes or that none of them had found a hole in the fence and were escaping. Tom had been up in the tower once before, with Jonathan and his girlfriend, after finding that the grounds crew (who use it for storage) had accidentally left the padlock on the door unlocked. The day we went out to the Birdwood cottage, we checked again, and the padlock was fastened tight. But I had to go.

For some reason, there are also windows on the bottom floor of the tower, and while I considered whether I wanted to go so far as to break one of them to get access, I decided to try the obvious and simply open one. I had no luck with the first one, but the second opened with barely any trouble at all, and soon Tom, Julie, Tori, and I had all clambered on the the wooden platform inside that was even with the window sill. Words can't do justice to the maze of rickety staircases that filled the room above us, unsturdily lurching from one side of the tower to the other, eventually leading to a door halfway up that lead to an iron staircase the encircled the upper half of the outside of the tower. I have a mild fear of heights, especially when the height is enough for my body to recognize exactly how dangerous what I'm doing is, so making my way up the narrow, old, and not-too-solid flights of stairs was a real challenge, and I was drenched with sweat by the time I reached the platform that lead to the metal stairs outside.

I would have thought that these stairs would have been even more difficult for me to climb, but I was determined to finish the journey no matter what. To my surprise, they were relatively easy, possibly because the just felt so much more solid than the wooden ones inside. After less than a minute of cautious steps, I found myself sitting under the gazebo that was perched atop the tower, trying to calm my nerves and appreciate the unique view that I now had of the countryside. I was soon joined by Tom and Julie and Tori (we had decided to make the two parts of the journey one at a time so that there would never be more than one person on either sets of stairs). We sat for a while, looking out over the near-mountainous hills in which Charlottesville is nestled, and talked about nothing in particular and enjoying the quiet onset of late afternoon.

The journey back down was not nearly as harrowing, but it was still a little scary, and even though I was glad I had gone all the way to the top, I was also very glad when our feet were back on solid ground. We closed the window behind us, and headed back to Tom's house for water before heading our for an early dinner at a tapas bar. The tower was exhilarating and mentally exhausting, and I was so glad that they never saw fit to put locks on the windows.

This class is killing me, leaving me no time to write for this page and barely any time to do the coursework. I knew the summer courses were intense, but I don't think I can take another month of this.

But hopefully I'll be able to restore some equilibrium this weekend. I have a ton of half-written pieces of content that I'll finish up and post next week, and I'm also going to try to do the coursework for the next couple of weeks (including my second paper) over the weekend so I can proceed with the final two weeks' reading assigments at a more leisurely pace and also have plenty of time to devote to this site.

On Sunday (this is a week ago Sunday now, the day after we visited Tom in Charlottesville), I had to do a lot of reading for class, so after church we got subs for lunch and went out to the resevoir for a picnic. Julie brought work to do, too, and Tori brought a book, and we spent a pleasant afternoon by the water.

The next day, Julie had to go to work, but I stayed home to hang out with Tori. We considered going to a museum before we realized that they were all closed on Monday, so we decided to go to the movies again. I initially wanted to take Tori to see the new Matrix movie, since she hadn't seen it yet and I wanted to see it again, but on a whim (and probably influenced by the rave reviews it had been getting) we chose to see Pirates of the Carribean with Johnny Depp. And it was actually pretty good, especially considering that it didn't stray too far from the Disney formula. Depp really made the difference with his slurring, cunning, slightly insane pirate (I've always been a fan of his since Edward Scissorhands; he's probably the most underrated popular actor of our time).

All week Tori and I had been joking about going to the movies one day and spending the day hopping from theater to theater seeing movies for free. As Pirates wound up, we decided to try and sneak in to at least one other one, so Tori stopped in the bathroom on the way out and we took our time walking back to the lobby. Once there, we casually looked at the start times of the other movies, and decided to sneak into a showing of Terminator 3 that was starting 15 minutes later. We bought popcorn and a drink, wandered back towards the theater (I stopped in the bathroom this time to waste a little more time), and we finally ducked into the theater and found a seat in the back.

I don't think I've done that since I was a kid, and it was pretty fun. And that's all I really need, especially because Terminator 3 really wasn't worth paying full price for, but here's a justification: the theaters themselves collect very little of the revenue from ticket sales from the first two weeks, which is becoming an increasingly large problem since most big moneymakers gross more than half of their money in the first two weeks of release. So if we had paid for tickets for Terminator 3, the theater maybe would have been able to keep $3 from our $12. But the theaters take 100% of the revenue from concessions, so out of the $7 we spent on a drink and popcorn to help our cover while we were in between movies, the theater probably made $6.50 in profit. In the end, we helped the movie theater and screwed the movie studios. And I don't really have a problem with that.

Ahem...there's finally a new review up on Plug, the debut album from Bay Area band Rogue Wave called "Out of the Shadow". I promise to return to a more regular publication schedule. At least for a few months.

The second meeting for my new class was the Thursday night before last. It was the first one where we had assigned readings and were supposed to particpate in class discussion (in the first class, we just went over the syllabus, although that took a surprisingly long time given that this is just a six week summer course). I was a little nervous—the first two readings were heavy on philosophy, especially the one that was dealing with Aristotle's "De Anima", and I have virtually no background in philosophy (that was part of my downfall at UVA, I think—the head of my program was Richard Rorty, a fairly famous modern philosopher). I had also been reasonably impressed with the backgrounds and personalities of everyone when we had gone through our introductions during the first class, and I figured that they would be intelligent, erudite conversationalists, but hopefully not so wedded to critical theories that I was unfamiliar with that their ideas would be beyond my grasp (another occasional problem at UVA). I wasn't really worried about not having anything to say, but rather whether I would have anything interesting to say (something that the Talker is clearly not concerned with).

The first two readings were an article from Joseph Weizenbaum about his ELIZA program and the reaction to it from the scientific and psychological communities (which I found very interesting because it was basically a warning against the possibility of true machine intelligence and even against the reliability of science as a way of understanding the world) and excerpts from an introduction to "De Anima" written by the translator (which I found less interesting, both because it dealt with a very biological view of the definition of life and because the writer spent a lot of time arguing obscure philosophical points even after he claimed in his overview section that the text was really aimed at readers who were new to the philosophical debates surrounding Aristotle).

The assignment we had been given for class was to come up with two definitions for life, and the professor started the class by randomly picking names off of the class roster and asking for each person's two definitions, which would then be used as a springboard for conversation before the next person would be called upon to give their two definitions. As it happened, I went last, which was probably a good thing because everyone else helped me prove my basic point: that it was pointless to try and define life without first agreeing on the context in which we were discussing the concept. Almost everyone gave a biological definition of life for one of their definitions (consumes, metabolizes, grows, reproduces, dies) and a more spiritual definition for their other one (loving and creating relationships with others, reincarnation, life force, spirit, soul, etc.). And these are all perfectly legitimate descriptions of life, although it is all too easy to find quick examples of either inanimate objects (or at least things that are considered by most westerners in the 21st century to be inanimate) that fit the descriptions of living things or living things that do not fit those descriptions.

And that was really my point. Following on the heels of an idea in Weizenbaum's article that tries to solve the conundrum that all human systems and values are illusory, including science, but that only science and its methods of deduction are capable of proving that falseness, I was trying to open up the discussion to a much larger question. Here's a good sampling from the article:

Scientific statements can never be certain; they can only be more or less credible. And credibility is a term in individual psychology, i.e., a term that has meaning only with respect to an individual observer. To say that some proposition is credible is, after all, to say that it is believed by an agent who is free not to believe it, that is, by an observer who, after exercising judgment and (possibly) intuition, chooses to accept the proposition as worthy of his believing it. How then can science, which itself surely and ultimately rests on vast arrays of human value judgments, demonstrate that human value judgments are illusory? It cannot do so without forfeiting its own status as the single legitimate path to understanding man and his world.

I'm not sure if that excerpt is really the best single statement of what the article is trying to say (you really need the complete text of the last three or four pages, which is far too long to quote here), but hopefully you can get some basic understanding of the ideas I wanted to discuss from it.

I was arguing that all the definitions of life that had been presented so far were simply arbitrary designations that were almost uniformly human-centric. Even with this caveat, I still had to offer two definitions, and although I argured that I could have said things as simple as "anything that can cause itself to move" or "anything that breathes" or "anything that can die" or "anything with DNA" and still have been no less arbitrary than the more complicated explanations given by other class members, I tried to offer definitions that at least got us thinking about the question from a different perspective.

For a generalized definition of life, I came up with "anything that actively resists entropy". (As most of you probably know, entropy is the tendency of organized systems to become disorganized. Dictionary.com says it is "the tendency for all matter and energy in the universe to evolve toward a state of inert uniformity". It is the natural state of our universe, so far as we can tell.) For a definition of human life compared to artificial human life (the central question of the course), I decided that pain was somehow part of the understanding, because there would be no reason to design a robot to feel pain (sure, they do it in sci-fi all the time, but would anyone actually do this in real life?).

I was also very interested in the ideas of fire, which would fit many of the biological definitions for life presented by my classmates even though none of us consider fire to be alive, and the seed, which can remain completely inert (full of potential but not alive by most definitions) for hundreds of years and then suddenly erupt into life when the right conditions present themselves. I was hoping this would generate some new tangents on the discussion, but for the most part people were unresponsive.

This was probably partly because I was the last person to give my definitions and also because the Talker has a tendency to shut lots of potential conversations down by bringing up things that are either uninteresting (she has an astounding gift for stating the obvious) or unrelated to the main discussion. But still, I was a little disappointed in the overall level of the conversation; it was a lot more like an undergraduate class than a graduate class.

Again, that could have been due to a variety of factors: a lot of people are very new to the program and don't have any previous graduate school experience; the professor is not only teaching this class for the first time but this is also his first time teaching a course in this program; and the material for the first class was more disconnected from the topic of the course than laters readings. But we've also had two more classes since then, and the best one of the two still wasn't up to the level of this first one (the other was a near-disaster; it was very hard to see how the material related to the course topic and there was virtually no discussion).

I remain hopeful that this will turn out to be a good class, but I wish I had a little more time to develop my paper topic (I had to turn in an abstract last week during our fouth class). It's not a terrible topic (more about it later if I stick with it), but I think if this was a normal semester-long class, I would have come up with something different. I like a lot of the people, however (a staggering percentage are web or database developers who majored in English in college), and I'm hoping I can take away some new friends from it no matter what the quality of the course itself.

I don't dislike you. I just dislike being around you.

Okay. Almost done with Tori stories. Today I'll tell you about our trip to Six Flags America, and tomorrow I'll finish up with our second Orioles game.

Six Flags America is a relatively recent addition to the Six Flags franchise. In its previous life it was known as Adventureland, and it pretty much sucked. Since Six Flags bought it (they call it Six Flags America because of its proximity to DC), they have spruced it up a bit, adding a new ride every year, often a big new coaster, most of which have something to do with the Batman/Superman DC Comics franchises (including a Batman show, which is basically an excuse for lots of fire and explosions and guys in dumb costumes on ATVs). But mostly Six Flags has just raised the ticket prices for a park that still basically sucks.

We went the Friday before last, and we had this great plan to get there at 10 a.m. and take full advantage of our tickets when the crowds were at their smallest. So of course we didn't get there until after 1 p.m., just as the crowds were beginning to swell. Our first rude surprise, which I should have expected, was the mandatory $9 fee to park in the Six Flags lot, which was the only place you were allowed to park and which has presumably had originally been built for the convenience of (rather than the exploitation of) Six Flags' customers.

Anyway. Our revised plan involved heading for the two newest rides, which were bound to be the most popular and which would get ever more crowded as the day went on. But we took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up at one of the first rides that Six Flags had added to the park, Two Face: Flip Side. It was a ride where you sat in suspended chairs so that your feet were hanging in the air, and the idea behind it wasn't too bad: first you go through a series of twists, turns, and loops in one direction, then when you each the end, you are rocketed back through the same series of twists and turns in the opposite direction. To further enhance this, the sets of chairs were facing each other, so that half of the people in your group would experience the ride one way and half the opposite. I actually liked it a lot, but it might not have been the best ride for us to start with, considering that we were going in cold and none of us had been on a roller coaster in at least a couple of years.

Next we decided to head over to the Batwing, the newest roller coaster whose gimmick was to position you so that you felt like you were flying (they did this by basically hanging you from the track so that your back was parallel to the track). But apparently they were having technical problems because the ride was closed. Instead we opted for the next newest coaster, Superman: Ride of Steel, which is a fairly straightforward coaster that starts with an enormous drop and doesn't have any loops. It was still pretty fun, though, better than the next ride, The Joker's Jinx. The hook with this ride was that it rocketed you through a tunnel, going from 0 to 60 mph in three seconds. That part is pretty fun, and the it has some loops in the beginning which weren't too bad, but I had ridden this one the last time we were at the park a few years ago for a Saturn Homecoming event and it paled in comparison with some of the newer rides.

At this point we decided to catch the Batman Thrill Spectacular. As we were waiting for the gates to open for the next show, however, the clouds began to gather ominously and soon drops of rain were falling. We found shelter next to a carnival booth a few dozen yards from one of the entrances, which was good because soon the sky had erupted into a full blown thunderstorm. During one of the brief lulls in the precipitation, they opened the gates and let everyone inside (I was a little concerned about the wisdom of sitting in what was essentially a giant aluminum shed during a thunderstorm with frequent and powerful lightning strikes, but I trusted that it must be safe; the last thing they would want was a few hundred crispy fried customers). We sat for a while, and then a while more, and then a while more. And then some more, all the while thinking that a storm of this intensity couldn't possibly maintain itself for more than a few minutes. After about half an hour, the pyro tech announced that the show had been canceled, but that he would set off some of the fire effects for us and that the characters would come out for a meet and greet to make up for it.

That wasn't all that interesting (although the Joker mask was pretty freaky), so I was glad that the rain finally stopped and we were able to make our way back out into the park before Batman made it over to us. Again, we though we would be brilliant and head back over to Batwing so we could be the first ones on when it resumed operation, but along the way we ran into a park employee who said that Batwing and Superman were always the last two to reopen after a storm. There was one ride that we figured wouldn't be affected by the water, though: Penguin's Blizzard River (are you getting tired of the forced Batman theme yet, because I sure as hell was), which was a roller coaster/waterslide combo that didn't look all that exciting, but which, since it was the newest ride, was sure to fill up with riders quickly. Since it had no track but a half-tube with a current of water running in it, and since the passenger seats were in giant yellow rafts, we figured that this would be the first ride to reopen, since rain couldn't possibly interfere with its operation in any negative way.

We were wrong, of course: the Joker roller coaster, which was visible from our spot in the line, not only started doing warm-up runs before they even considered letting passengers back on Penguin, it actually started carrying riders. When they finally reopened the ride, we were in the first series of boats, but it still took about 20 minutes before we were able to board. It was actually really fun, much better than I had expected. And it would have been the perfect ride for a hot summer day had that hot summer day not already been rained on for an hour or two.

After that, Julie was insistent that we go over to Batwing and, if it was operational, wait in line no matter how long it took. I wouldn't have minded just repeating some of the rides we had done earlier, since I was getting bored of standing in lines, but Tori wanted to do it too, so I acquiesed. And we did have to wait a while, but it was probably worth it; it wasn't the best ride I rode that day, but it was the most interesting to get into. See, first you sit down in it like it's a normal ride. Before you start to climb that first hill, however, the seats are lowered so that you are on your back, staring straight up at the sky as you head out of the boarding station. Then, as soon as you have crested the first big hill and begin to drop, you are twisted around so that you are now hanging from the ride and staring straight down at the ground. The only complaint I had about it was that it seemed a little rough on some of the drops (that is, it seemed to catch and slow down a little, maybe on purpose). But overall I was pleased with it.

We had originally planned to stay as late as possible, but we were all getting a little tired, so we decided to start making our way to the exit. Along the way, we rode Superman, Joker, and Two Face again, and I have to say that I think Two Face was my favorite. After Two Face, Tori and Julie cajoled me into playing one of those "Guess Your Age" games, which they thought I would win for sure because people are constantly thinking I'm 5-10 years younger than I actually am thanks to my round baby face (and the dumb innocence lurking in my eyes, I suspect). I wasn't so sure, and I don't really like being the center of attention, but I pocketed my wedding ring and let Julie give the man five dollars. He gathered a small crowd, asking them to guess how old I was, and most of them were off by quite a bit (he had to get it within three years), and I know that Julie and Tori were still feeling confident. I still had my doubts, however, and those doubts were confirmed when he missed my age by only one year.

The final stop before the parking lot were the swings, the suspended single seat ride that every carnival, no matter how small, has. Julie and Tori went, and while they were whizzing around overhead, I got to see park security trap a wild racoon and put it in a cage for removal from the park (I didn't know racoons could make noises like that; before they got it in the cage, it was shrieking like a terrified five year old girl).

I had fun on most of the rides, and generally I guess it was worth it, although I think I'd need a steeper discount on the tickets before I would want to go again. But Tori and Julie both enjoyed it a lot, so I think I'll have to call it a successful outing.

I never knew I could have such strong opinions about a movie as terrible as Robocop. But apparently I do.

You know what? I don't even really remember the second Orioles game we saw with Tori, which at least means that it probably didn't rain. I guess that's about it for the Tori stories, then.

I've been listening to the Yeah Yeah Yeah's full-length, "Fever to Tell", a lot recently, and I'm pretty happy with it. In case you haven't heard of them, their one of those back-to-basics guitar/punk/early new wave bands like Interpol or the Strokes that got a ton of hype before their record came out. I wasn't expecting too much, but it has really grabbed my attention. There are some weak tracks, but "Y Control", "Man", and especially "Maps" can go toe to toe with anything else released this year. And when singer Karen O belts out the line "I gotta man who makes me wanna kill", there isn't a man alive who doesn't wish he was that guy.
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