August 31, 2011

August 31, 2011

Deja Test

Did your teacher ever give pre-tests? I only remember them in spelling class, but I suppose the concept could be applied to any subject. Before each new unit, we would have a quiz on the new words. Anyone who scored 100% didn’t have to take the actual quiz for that unit. I’ve no idea if or how we were prevented from studying ahead; perhaps the whole point was to get us to do so. Regardless, I enjoyed those weeks when my voracious appetite for Baby-Sitters Club and Nancy Drew books helped me ace the spellings of “diverse” and “impostor.”

I wish pre-tests were a more common occurrence in adulthood. Though deadlines can be a positive motivator, my best performance tends to be when there’s no pressure. My favorite band practices were those the day after a big concert. We’d just performed (hopefully well), so maybe we’d noodle around on some new pieces, maybe we’d just high-five each other, whatever. No pressure.

Yet for every exam I need to take as an adult, I get no dry run. Well, no dry run that counts if I ace it. I didn’t get to take the driving instructor out a day early to show that I really COULD parallel park in less than 14 moves. I’d love to have my blood pressure measured the day before my physical, in the comfort of my own home. If there were a way to take the GRE and GMAT just to see what scores I’d get, without paying hundreds of dollars, you know I’d be all over that.

When you’re a kid, and things don’t really count, you get a lot of chances. As an adult, you have to figuratively stick the dismount on the first try. The universe assumes that we’ve all gotten more skilled and accurate since we were children. To which I say: have you looked at us lately? We’re still crashing cars, injuring ourselves, and making unwise investments.

Who wouldn’t appreciate a few dry runs?

August 29, 2011

August 28, 2011

August 28, 2011

The Best Show You’re Not Watching, Volume 2: Whites

Following in the footsteps of Extras and The Office, Whites is a British look on the absurdities of the workplace. While Extras examined movie sets and The Office…an office, each episode of Whites lets us peer into the goings-on of a country hotel restaurant. Not sure exactly where in the UK this restaurant is supposed to be; it’s that part of England where they drive on the left and have funny accents.

Why should you watch this show? Well, first off, because I’m recommending it, and you know I have only your best entertainment interests at heart.

Second, because the entire six episode run is available on Hulu to be watched at your convenience legally and FOR FREE.

Third, because you only need to know six characters:

Roland, the head chef
Darren, the sous chef
Caroline, the maitre d’
Skoose, the new chef
Kiki, the ditzy waitress
Celia, the hotel owner

Fourth, the wickedly subtle humor.

Fifth, scenes like this (between Kiki and Caroline):

August 25, 2011

August 25, 2011

The Day After Tomorrow

Tuesday's earthquake and the impending hurricane have convinced me of an obvious fact: we are all about to die.

It's okay. I've accepted it. When Jake Gyllenhaal* suggests we start setting Wendy's restaurants on fire, I will be prepared with matches and kindling.

I've begun sorting through my possessions determining what to take and what to leave when the tidal wave hits. This is harder than you'd think: my best stuff is often not portable (Clavinova) or tradeable in a post-apocalyptic society (TV, laptop, Hello Kitty memorabilia).

So I've settled on my collection of tiny newspapers.

(Pudding cup was included in the picture for scale. Pudding cup will be included when I flee for snacking purposes.)

Collected over many years (earliest is from 1995), at events from State Fairs to auto shows, these tiny newspapers are modern life in a nutshell: small, easily destroyed, and soon to be obsolete.

(What, too much of a downer? We who are about to die salute you.)

For those of you also in Irene's path, keep an eye out for me. I'll be the one with pudding on my shirt.

*Didn't even have to Google it. Draw your own conclusions.

August 23, 2011

Back to School

You may have noticed that “back to school” season is upon us once again. I realized yesterday that I have not been a full-time student for seven (SEVEN!) years; however, my body still recognizes that cooler mornings and notebook sales means summer vacation is almost over. Since I was the kind of kid who literally counted down the days until school started (one year, it was like 92 days), I imagine this internal clock will die hard. With a vengeance. Zing.

Even without my killer instinct, enough of my contemporaries teach or have children to keep me in the loop. School started in DC yesterday. Virginia starts after Labor Day. I figure these two weeks will be a gradual ramp-up of buses, small pedestrians, and crossing guards who take their jobs VERY. SERIOUSLY.

Unfortunately, I don’t get to go back to school. What do I miss about that?

I miss picking out my new backpack and lunchbox. They rarely matched, since I preferred a plain color backpack (usually pink) but a character lunchbox (My Little Pony, Strawberry Shortcake, etc.)

I miss poring over the supply list and making sure I got everything on the list, exactly as listed. I feel like some parents see “200-count box of Kleenex” and buy any old box of tissues. I, on the other hand, would search several stores to find a box of Kleenex brand with 200 tissues in it. Never mind that standard boxes hold either 90 or 180. (Yes, this is based on a true story.)

I miss wondering what my teacher would be like, and how long it would take him/her to realize I was the smartest kid in the class. If I’d already attended the school, couple days max. If it was a new school, or college, a week or two. No longer than the first test. I apologize to those of you who attended school with me; my aim was to prove I was the smartest one. In my defense, I willingly provided pre-class review sessions on quiz days. (My rising tide lifted all boats. And that was my good deed for…ever.)

I miss watching my mom cover my textbooks in brown paper. The private schools I attended hoped to use their textbooks until the Second Coming, so those things had to be protected with all the force a grocery bad could muster. Luckily for me, my mom is a wizard at anything that involves wrapping in paper. I have her do my presents to people whenever possible. Maybe it’s an Asian thing. Maybe this is how China is going to beat us. I dunno.

I miss owning a protractor. And having reason to use it. And remembering what a protractor does.

What do you miss?

August 17, 2011

August 17, 2011

Summer Movie Reviews: A Threeve

X-Men: First Class

It’s a funny thing, the origin story. Just because someone’s interesting now doesn’t mean they always were. As a young boy, Winston Churchill was probably just as noisy and sticky as the kids down the block, y’know? Even though I’d heard this film compared favorably to a Bond movie, I was skeptical. X-Men just isn’t X-Men without Patrick Stewart.

I wasn’t totally disappointed, but I wasn’t totally surprised, either. Though I enjoyed learning the backstories of Magneto and Mystique and the X-Men gang (including some really great cameos), I was unable to support the idea that mutants helped us solve the Cuban missile crisis. It’s like vampires and the Civil War, or cowboys versus aliens (more on this in a minute). Too much incongruity.

Still, kudos to the cast, who did the most they could with what they have. Now can we please let the grownups come back?

Captain America: The First Avenger

I am going to follow my above thesis (“Naturally-created mutants fighting communism is unrealistic”) with the thesis “Scientifically-created mutant fighting Nazis is AWESOME.” Please try to keep up.

I vastly preferred Captain America to X-Men. Is this due to better casting? More compelling plotlines? Flamethrowers? Yes. All dipped in stylized sepia tones. America was never better or more unified than when it fought and won World War II. Oh for a time when tea parties involved nothing more than drinking beverages.

Cowboys & Aliens

Nothing less than affection for my dad could have made me see this film. From the very first trailer, I treated it with a combination of fear (ALIENS, GAH!) and confusion (James Bond is a cowboy?). No interest in seeing it. None at all. Until I found out that my dad really wanted to see it and guilted myself into taking him. Be glad you have siblings.

Perhaps I’ve matured since I saw Signs; the aliens in this movie didn’t scare me nearly as much. More likely, it was the reassuring combination of Indiana Jones and James Bond protecting the townsfolk (and by extension, the viewer). No offense to Braveheart, but my money is on these guys.

August 16, 2011

August 16, 2011

Wisconsin State Fair 2011: Birds and Butter

As I’ve mentioned before, I am a great fan of the Wisconsin State Fair. I can’t say exactly how many I have attended (my parents were sorely lacking as the childhood documentarians), but it’s somewhere between 15 and 20. I originally thought that once I moved away, I’d have to make do with whatever passes for a state fair in Virginia.

Then I looked into it and decided to fly back every year for Wisconsin. Because the Virginia State Fair is little better than one guy with a George Foreman grill.

Though people can and do spend an entire day at the Fair, I’ve streamlined my routine to 4-5 hours of focused sightseeing, eating, and picture taking. Areas of concentration:

1. Animals
2. The Expo Center
3. Freaky Foods and Beverages
4. Prize Winning Whatnot
5. Unusual Shows

Animals. Though the variety of livestock hasn’t changed since I was a kid, observing row after row of bird and beast will never get old. Even dodging cow pies is all in good fun. I have the added bonus of having almost been one of those 4H kids mindlessly picking hay from their overalls: my grandma grew up on a dairy farm in Ashland. Had she not decided to come to the big city (Milwaukee), my geography would have been very different.

The Expo Center. You haven’t lived until you’ve walked past thousands of booths filled to the brim with wonder mops, sushi masters, and the like. The key is to scope the entire place out as soon as it opens at 9. Any later than that and it will be a seething madhouse of triple-wide strollers. Advice: if you’re going to buy something large or heavy, have them hold it or COME BACK LATER. Do NOT buy it now and lug it around the fair all day. There is a 100% chance I will run into it or spill food on it. Don’t worry that the vendors are going to run out. These people are professionals. They brought enough for everybody and don’t mind lugging the rest to Indiana.

Freaky Foods and Beverages. Some people come to the Fair looking for good summer food. Corn on the cob. Burgers and fries. Lemonade. I say, if I wanted to eat stuff like that, I’d go to the grocery store. When I’m at the fair, I want the weirdest, least-healthy, most stick-i-fied stuff you can give me. One year, this led to the consumption of six deep-fried Oreos with a smore-on-a-stick chaser. Not my finest hour, but you get the idea. Give me animals not regularly consumed since the Oregon Trail. Give me items thrice battered and fried. Give me enough calories-per-bite to shock even Dr. Atkins. This year: deep fried butter and fried mashed potatoes. (Plus my annual deep fried Snickers.)

Prize Winning Whatnot. Perhaps the quaintest part of the Fair: hundreds of cakes and jams and crafts entered in the hopes of getting that elusive blue ribbon. Well, perhaps not THAT elusive; they come up with more and more categories every year. (Many will enter, slightly fewer will win.) Still, I do so enjoy looking at the entrants (especially in the food categories) while wishing they weren’t locked up. It’s like they don’t want me to walk off with all the cheesecakes or something.

Unusual Shows. The Wisconsin State Fair has many events occurring simultaneously all day long. Musical acts, cooking demos, and so on. I’ve seen circuses. I’ve seen lumberjills. I’ve seen magicians and highdivers, too. I was hoping to see the new bear show this year, but everyone else had the same idea so I had no sightline. Luckily, fewer people were interested in the birds of prey demonstration, so I got to see a raptor, a peregrine falcon, and a bald eagle in person. Very cool.

It can be as a long or short a day as you wish. Just plot a good course of action. You can’t see it all, but there’s always next year.

August 12, 2011

August 12, 2011

Coders are people too?

So new job finds me in a very different environment from that to which I am accustomed. Namely, I am surrounded by the type of people one (I) might deem “computery.”

(Since Word just tried to autocorrect that to “computer,” I may in fact be the only one who would use that term.)

This, my friends, is a very different type of animal. And while I majored in business (both degrees, oh yeah), I’m finding that knowledge of marketing and accounting is relatively unimpressive to people who can speak to machines.

Thus I have spent the past weeks in Dian Fossey mode, attempting to discern the natural habits and habitat of Computerus Programmerus and to determine how I might blend in.

Lighting. Do not let there be light. Overhead lighting must be turned off at all times. If your eyes have not sufficiently adapted to allow for night vision, you may turn on a small (<6w) light as long as the bulb is shrouded in an old Dilbert comic.

Sound. Silence is ideal. Only the humans communicate with primitive sounds. True programmers know that the code will set you free. Or,

IF format=speaking;
set type=human
set type=Coder;

…and your response to the above lines of pseudocode probably tells you a lot about where you fall on the human-to-programmer spectrum.

Diet. These people do not eat. While I never miss my mid-morning yogurt or noontime protein/starch/vegetable/sweet combo, the true programmer can go for days on nothing but coffee.

Suffice to say I am still adjusting. My music is turned down so quietly I can barely hear it. I’m embarrassed that I can’t see in the dark. I’ve started to shame-eat my lunch behind a closed office door.

But I’ll be darned if I won’t find a way to win them over. (I’m betting free food isn’t going to do it. Maybe Dilbert books.)

August 8, 2011

August 4, 2011

August 2, 2011

August 2, 2011

Things I’ve Read: Robopocalypse

I am completely freaked out by the possibility that inanimate objects might come alive. Dolls, for instance. The Chucky series is quite literally one of my worst nightmares. (Fun fact: I once dreamed that a doll was biting off my ears.) Pocahontas painted with the colors of the wind; I just hope it won’t decide to suffocate me for a laugh.

On the other hand, I am completely enamored with books that portray a dystopian future in which we are overthrown by aliens, computers, and/or other people. Especially that last one. (I have seen the enemy, and it is…us!) It’s not that I have little faith in humanity. It’s that I have no faith in humanity, to the point that I believe our best shot at survival is launching ourselves into deep space with enough Moon Pies to last the seven years to Mars.

Daniel Wilson’s Robopocalypse is set in just such a world. Through loosely-connected narratives, we learn that a super-intelligent computer named Archos has managed to turn machines against mankind. When it all hits the fan (aka “zero hour”), self-driving cars drive their occupants to grisly deaths while running down as many people as possible. Domestic robots kill their masters. Even appliances go haywire with a vengeance.

The rise of the machines, so to speak.

The humans don’t go down without a fight, of course, but we are pretty puny on the whole. Limited temperature tolerances, easily broken, energy wasted through heat, etc. Archos learns and adapts at a phenomenal rate, herding much of humanity into labor camps while creating ever-new robots for exploration and domination purposes. “Rob,” as this technology is collectively known, seeks to rid earth of the scourge of people.

Good thing it’s in our natures to go down fighting.

Much of the book focuses on disparate bands of survivors and how they end up uniting to fight Archos at his home base in Alaska. You’ve got a couple of soldiers here, a scientist there, and so on. Do they win? Can one ever truly defeat an enemy who fights with information and energy?

Dun dun DUN.

This book was so good, I couldn’t even save it for commutes. I blew through it over the weekend. I’ve never been gladder to take a suggestion from Stephen King’s EW column.

Go forth and read. We can’t let the machines win.

August 1, 2011

August 1, 2011


Well, it’s here. The day I start my job at cabinet-department-that-shall-not-be-named. I expect to spend most of today figuring out where the bathrooms are and completing 98 forms in triplicate. I’ll also be setting up my lava lamp, collection of toys, and mementoes from federal-agency-that-shall-not-be-named.

No, wait a minute. I no longer work there. I can totally name it.


The Office of Personnel Management!


Unless you too are a federal employee, or perhaps a retired fed, OPM means nothing to you. I totally understand. Luckily, I have found a video that attempts to sum it up. Look for an appearance by your humble blogger at 3:43.

So…yeah. Hiring and retirements and insurance and whatnot. Again: if you don’t work in government, you’ll probably never hear of it. Well, except for on this blog.

Now I need to figure out an entirely new floorplan without causing a security breach.