October 22, 2014

October 22, 2014

Gunston Hall

George Mason’s Gunston Hall isn’t exactly atop anyone’s list of famous residences. Graceland, sure. Biltmore, yes. Mount Vernon, definitely. But Gunston Hall? No. Indeed, a great many people don’t even know who George Mason is, and that’s partially his fault.

[Quick primer on George Mason: Considered one of the Founding Fathers, Mason was a Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention. However, because the Constitution gave much power to the central government and lacked a Bill of Rights, he refused to sign it. Ironically, the Virginia Declaration of Rights, drafted by Mason in 1776, formed the basis of the Bill of Rights ratified in 1791. Herein lies an important lesson: You can have principles, or you can be famous, but it’s difficult to do both.]

Gunston Hall is in Lorton, Virginia, nearish to Mount Vernon. A Groupon and some classic October weather (sunny but not too hot) led to my recent visit. I started with the small museum, which contained a few displays and a great 10-minute introductory film that I’m pretty sure was on VHS. I learned that Mason’s first wife died at only 39 (aw), but that they had married when she was 16 (ew), and that he married his second wife partly to have someone to “warm his sheets.” Direct quote. Classy.

Next, the house:

Scaffolding not period-authentic.

For some reason that I didn’t catch, all of the furniture had been removed. On the plus side, this meant we could take all the pictures we wanted (pictures aren’t allowed when the furniture is in). On the down side, there was really nothing to take pictures OF. Here, pictures showing what the rooms are supposed to look like:



Unlike some other grand estates (e.g. Windsor Castle), Gunston Hall isn’t huge. The first floor has four rooms for entertaining, and the second floor has some very small bedrooms and closets. You had to wonder how the latter-day residents of Gunston Hall crammed modern amenities like kitchens and bathrooms into the floorplan.


After we toured the house, we checked out the outbuildings and gardens. One of the largest dependencies was the schoolhouse Mason built for his kids, which sort of takes homeschooling to the next level.


One of the best bits is the Potomac River view. Apparently Gunston Hall had its own ship landing back in the day, with even more trees cut back to expose the river. Even now, it’s pretty impressive.


While not on par with Monticello or even Montpelier, it’s not a bad day trip if you’re in the DC area. Maybe wait until they put the furniture back in, though.

October 7, 2014

October 7, 2014

State Fair Showdown: Wisconsin vs. Virginia

Though I’ve been going to the Wisconsin State Fair for years decades, and though I’ve lived in Virginia since 2008, I had somehow missed the Virginia State Fair. I guess it was in my State Fair blindspot, along with the 46 State Fairs that aren’t in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, or Texas. But in the interest of giving everyone a fair shot (no pun intended), I decided to check it out this year, if only to compare and contrast with my home state’s annual shindig.

Virginia, you never had a chance.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Contest: Opening Times
The Winner: Wisconsin

The Wisconsin State Fair opens at 8 a.m. This way, you can start with breakfast (the pancakes are always popular) before continuing on to the fried food of your choice. I myself like to arrive shortly before 9 a.m., when the buildings start to open and the deep fryers have been boiling for a while.

The Virginia State Fair opens at 10 a.m. Once I got in the gates, I headed straight for this place, obviously.

One of everything, please.

I approached, but was met with looks of confusion. I reminded myself that this is the South, and that’s sort of their default, so I asked whether they were open. The response I got? “Depends on what you want.” I WANT THE FRIED FOOD ADVERTISED ON YOUR SIGNS, BRO. Never mind that we’ve already cut significantly into my eating time by not opening until basically lunchtime.

The Contest: Food
The Winner: Wisconsin

Now, I’m trying to be objective when it comes to the food, because it’s certainly a matter of taste. Just because I like eating deep fried Oreos until I pass out in a sugar coma doesn’t mean that’s a plan for everybody. Thus I’m using quantity, variety, locality, and quality of fair food selection as my metrics. I was particularly pleased to see Virginia ham and seafood on offer in addition to popcorn, corn dogs, and other festival staples.

Of all the things to do with a peanut, boiling isn't even in my top five.

Even thus, I have to give the edge to Wisconsin on this one. We have an entire building dedicated just to the brands (Palermo’s Pizza, Berres Brothers coffee) and foods (cheese, cranberries, potatoes) of Wisconsin. Plus, the deep fried country ham biscuit was really salty.

The Contest: Activities/Displays
The Winner: Virginia

Though the Wisconsin State Fair has offered a lot of really cool shows over the years (circuses, bike stunts, lumberjacks, exotic animals), rarely does a single fair contain them all. At the Virginia State Fair, though, I got to see a magician and a team of (Yooper) lumberjacks.

He did much cooler stuff than this, but we weren't supposed to take pictures.

He proceeded to chop that log in half while standing on it. 

In addition, the prize-winning produce and condiments were in open-air displays. It’s not that I WANT to touch these things so much as I like to know that I COULD. (I actually did surreptitiously touch the cotton, because I don’t think I’ve ever actually touched a cotton plant.) Also, the giant pumpkin competition, which I don’t think Wisconsin even has:

Think of all the pies!

Wisconsin used to display the three biggest pigs, but that stopped a few years ago. Probably after that whole swine flu thing. Eesh.

Overall Winner: Wisconsin

You did well, Virginia. But you cannot beat the behemoth that is America’s Dairyland.*

* “First in Friendship, Fourth in Obesity"

October 2, 2014

October 2, 2014

Party Like It's Your Birth Month

You may have noticed that October is finally here, bringing with it cooler/warmer weather for those of you in the northern/southern hemisphere. For me, and several of the most delightful people I know, it also brings a li’l something I call Birthday Month. Because I’m a millennial, and we process things only as they relate to us.

It is time, then, for the serendipity to start flowing. Most shockingly, it has. Twice.

First, when I learned that Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. is opening up a location in London. TheBoy and I immediately started planning a 2016 visit because the only thing better than eating my body weight in shrimp while overlooking Times Square is eating my body weight in shrimp while overlooking Leicester Square. My favorite part of Time Out London’s review:

The most upsetting thing about eating here, though, is the service. Well-meaning is better than aloof, but in this case, the over-eager staff, themselves drafted in from every nation, were like wasps at a picnic. Trained to be ‘US-style’ friendly, they were constantly intruding to ask ‘how we were doing’ (‘fine, if you’d only go away and stop interrupting’), annoying us with snippets of Gumpian trivia, and quizzing us on our own Gump-based knowledge, ‘because it’s fun, isn’t it?’ (It isn’t.)

Screw 2016. I’m looking up British Air flights RIGHT NOW.

As if this weren’t enough, Pizza Hut has announced that it is bringing back Book It. With free pizza. For adults. If you’re counting at home, I could have stopped at any of those periods and still been overwhelmed with excitement.

Book It, for those of you who grew up abroad and/or illiterate, was a program that started with getting a pin that looked like this:


After reading a certain number of books in a certain time period, you got star stickers to cover the stars on the pin. Then, at the end of the year, you got a free personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut. I’m iffy on the specific requirements, because a) I always read more than the requirement, b) this was like 50 years ago, and c) IT ENDED IN PIZZA.

Now, we alumni just have to sign up at the Book It website and free pizza is given. This whole thing has made me realize that the very same things that motivated me as a kid still motivate me as an adult. Either I’m a kid in an adult’s body or I was an adult in a kid’s body. Betting on the latter.

Birthday month still has 30 days to go. Hang on to your hats and keys.

September 25, 2014

September 25, 2014

Things I’ve Read: My Salinger Year

Of all the city/industry combinations pursued by young people with a dream, New York/publishing is one of my favorites. I myself considered it*, because reading eight or more hours a day sounds pretty much ideal. Though I obviously ended up going a different way, no trip to Manhattan is complete without a walk past Houghton Mifflin, Random House, and the other great publishing houses in Midtown. (Also, a cupcake. But that is neither here nor there.)

Joanna Rakoff, the author and main character of this thinly-veiled memoir, finds herself as an assistant at an unnamed agency in the mid-90s. The job of the agency is to represent authors in negotiations with publishers, lawyers, and fans. The job of the assistant is to take dictation, process fan letters, and type. A lot. On a Selectric, because the unnamed agency takes a pretty dim view of modern technology.

(As someone who actually did learn to use a dictation machine in college, I took great delight in Joanna’s confusion at the peddles. I got my comeuppance when she was trying to figure out how to turn on the Selectric, though. I been there, girl. I feel you.)

Though I’m tempted to compare this book to The Devil Wears Prada, the similarities really end after “workplace memoir set in NYC publishing.” Sure, there’s a boss, but she’s not overtly hostile a la Miranda Priestly. Joanna never has to run personal errands—it’s all business. And while the book does include a fair amount of drama with Joanna’s so-wrong-he’s-right-but-really-he’s-just-wrong-dump-him-already socialist boyfriend, the focus is really on her relationship with a different man: J.D. Salinger.

As you probably know, Salinger was the author of The Catcher in the Rye. And a giant recluse. unless you lived in Cornish, New Hampshire (and even then), you weren’t likely to hear from him. Thus Joanna’s job, as assistant to the agent who represents Salinger, is a (tenuous) conduit to one of our great modern authors.** Salinger is a catalyst for Joanna, both personally and professionally. It is in dealing with him, and his fan letters, and all the other trappings involved in client work, that she confirms what she wants to be (a poet), where (Brooklyn), and with whom (not socialist boyfriend).

I’m a sucker for a good bildungsroman, and J.D. Salinger isn’t a bad quasi-mentor. Not by a long shot.

* It came in third, after DC/government and Chicago/journalism. Podiumed!
** Personal opinions of Salinger’s work aside, you can’t deny his impact on 20th century American literature. Me myself personally, read The Catcher in the Rye once and didn’t really care for it. File under things everyone but me loves, along with The Princess Bride and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

September 18, 2014

September 18, 2014

Resistors

I’m in the middle of reading a short story collection about the takeover of humanity by technology (Robot Uprisings, edited by the guy who wrote Robopocalypse). And while that concept remains fiction—FOR NOW—I’m more convinced than ever that humanity’s days are numbered. It’s less a matter of “if” than of “how.” There are a number of possibilities, some abrupt and others gradual.

- Technology becomes self-aware without humanity’s consent. In one story, a Roomba used by government coders in their classified workspace escapes, docks with a networked charging station, and uploads world-changing information. A ROOMBA, you guys.

- Technology becomes self-aware with humanity’s consent. Imagine if Rosie one day decided to kill the Jetsons. Breakfast with a side of death.

- Tiny tech, banding together. One story involves nanbots invented to clean up nuclear waste. Another has dust-sized robots that “infect” a smart house and turn it against its owners. Regardless, robots work much better together than people ever could. I suspect it’s because we get so angry when we’re hungry.

So now I’m looking for—and seeing—the signs everywhere.

Just today, some people were trapped for 20 minutes in a Metro elevator when a “random” “power surge” shut the elevator down. An almost brand-new elevator. Egad.

Yesterday, TheBoy told me about a problem he had with some code at work. He tested and tested. Isolated the line that was causing the problem. Verified that the line was in fact correct as-is. Tested again and found that IT WORKED.

For those of you concerned about such things, think carefully before strapping computers to your wrists, wrapping them around your foreheads, and splicing them into your houses and cars. (Though I myself personally am too cheap to do any of these things, I do dislike people on principle. It’s a start.) Also, don’t take it personally the next time your phone/computer/sexbot mysteriously and randomly malfunctions. It is neither mysterious nor random. It is an opening gambit in the robot wars, which humanity is likely to lose.

Have a nice day!

September 15, 2014

September 15, 2014

The State of the TV Schedule: Fall 2014

Though summer television is still going, fall shows are starting to trickle in. Boardwalk Empire showed us that even Nucky had a childhood. Only Connect remains as inscrutable as ever despite moving to BBC2. Ken Burns has 14 hours of Roosevelt goodness ready to pour into your eye- and earholes.

I say BRING IT ON. My plan of action:

Monday
Scorpion

Tuesday
NCIS
New Girl
The Mindy Project

Wednesday
Modern Family

Thursday
Scandal
How to Get Away with Murder

Friday
Whose Line Is It Anyway?
Shark Tank

Sunday
Madam Secretary
Boardwalk Empire
The Newsroom

I’m most anticipating How to Get Away with Murder—can Shonda pull off another Scandal? I’ve liked Viola Davis since Doubt, so I think she can do great things with good material.

On the other hand, I think Modern Family is starting to show its age…natural with any show featuring kids. Idea: Mitch and Cam adopt another Asian baby.

Scorpion (or as TheBoy corrects me, “closed tag Scorpion”*) could be something, despite the presence of Katharine “I Prefer Husbands” McPhee. It’s got Robert Patrick, and that has to count for something.

What will you be watching?

*Honestly, I don’t remember exactly what TheBoy calls it. Closed Scorpion? End Scorpion? Only one of us is a computer scientist. GUESS WHICH ONE.

September 8, 2014

September 8, 2014

Lucky Number

In preparation for the District Trivia finals, I’m studying a number of lists. Gemstones, moons, trophies, and other random objects are starting to merge together? What’s the traditional present for a 40th anniversary? A Stanley Cup made of emerald and named Phobos? I think?

At least a recent XKCD showed me that I’m not alone. The strip itself is great, and the caption is even greater. Behold (click to enlarge): 


A lot of good trivia to parse here. How many do you know?

Snow White’s Dwarfs
Doc
Grumpy
Happy
Sleepy
Bashful
Sneezy
Dopey

Ranks of Biological Classification
Kingdom
Phylum
Class
Order
Family
Genus
Species

Continents
Asia
Africa
North America
South America
Antarctica
Europe
Australia

Deadly Sins
Wrath
Greed
Sloth
Pride
Lust
Envy
Gluttony

Seven Layer Dip (n.b. This one seems to vary.)
Refried beans
Guacamole
Sour cream
Salsa
Cheese
Black olives
Lettuce

OSI Model of Computer Networking
Physical
Data link
Network
Transport
Session
Presentation
Application

Wonders of the Ancient World
Great Pyramid of Giza
Hanging Gardens of Babylon
Temple of Artemis at Ephesus
Statue of Zeus at Olympia
Mausoleum at Halicarnassus
Colossus of Rhodes
Lighthouse of Alexandria

Days of the Week
Monday
Tuesday
Wednesday
Thursday
Friday
Saturday
Sunday

Seas
Arctic
North Atlantic
South Atlantic
North Pacific
South Pacific
Indian
Southern

Seven Sisters Colleges
Barnard
Bryn Mawr
Mount Holyoke
Radcliffe
Smith
Vassar
Wellesley

Colors
Red
Orange
Yellow
Green
Blue
Indigo
Violet

Pleiades
Maia
Electra
Taygete
Alcyone
Celaeno
Sterope
Merope

Habits of Highly Effective People
Be Proactive
Begin with the End in Mind
Put First Things First
Think Win-Win
Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood
Synergize
Sharpen the Saw

Seals of Revelation
First Seal (White horse)
Second Seal (Red horse)
Third Seal (Black horse)
Fourth Seal (Pale horse)
Fifth Seal (Souls of martyrs)
Sixth Seal (Great earthquake)
Seventh Seal (Seven angels)