April 30, 2013

April 30, 2013

This One Time? At ThinkGeek?

Have you heard of ThinkGeek? My parents hadn’t, so I explained it to them as a website that sells science-y toys, focusing on franchises like Harry Potter, Star Wars, and the Lord of the Rings. If you’re familiar with TG, though, you know that it’s much more than that. It’s a sort of FAO Schwartz for the brainiacs, where fans of everything from Portal to chemistry can find delights at all prices. I mean, I love it and I’m not even mildly autistic.

(Despite my hopes, I recently took an online examination that resulted in a diagnosis of “neurotypical.” Granted, it was an internet diagnosis. But still. I’d so been hoping to have something to blame my poor social skills and misanthropy on other than poor social skills and misanthropy.)

Luckily for me, TG is headquartered right here in the greater Washington, DC area. Vienna, Virginia, in fact. So when TG holds events at corporate headquarters, and I find out in time to apply, and I’m selected out of the gazilionteen applicants to attend, I don’t even have to cross state lines.

Such a serendipitous convergence of events happened last Thursday. It was epic.

The event: Star Trek movie night. Wherein we would be fed and watered (Diet Coked), given a tour of the TG corporate offices, shown the 2009 Star Trek film, and given the chance to win TG raffle prizes. Not knowing what the traffic would be like, TheBoy and I left ridiculously early so as not to miss any of the action. As a result, we got there slightly-less-ridiculously early and staked out the place a la Dateline.

Very low-key. I like it.

Once inside, they checked our names off the list and gave us Timmy handstamps. Timmy is the TG mascot, a monkey with a penchant for STEM and lots of costumes.

I forgot about the hand stamp and almost hand sanitizer-ed it off. Whoops.

Rest assured I took dozens of mental pictures on the tour of the cubicles, but restrained myself from taking actual pictures. My work with Cabinet-Department-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named has taught me that you do not enter a corporate headquarters and take photographs if you know what’s good for you. So pretend I have pictures here of cubicles stuffed with prototypes and such.

Then it was on to the pizza. I believe I alone may have eaten half a pizza. Suck it, other 29 attendees!

Then it was on to the movie, which we watched on a big screen TV prominently displayed on some sort of postcard-festooned wall. I’m sure there was a story there, as there seemed to be with many of the things at TG HQ.

After the movie, it was raffle time. While I didn’t win anything, everybody got swag: a Timmy t-shirt, a Trek fish (like those Jesus fish people put on their cars?), and a replica Starfleet medical badge.

Loved every minute of it, including the feeling that I was possibly in the 60th percentile for social skills in the group. That never happens.

April 29, 2013

April 29, 2013

The Week That Was

One of the many great things about living in DC is the plethora of things to do on any given evening. It’s an embarrassment of riches, and never more so than the spring and summer months. Last week was a perfect example.

[Note: If you’re expecting to be wowed with tales of louche nightclubs and boozy karaoke, you’re reading the wrong blog. Hi, have we met?]

On Tuesday, TheBoy and I went to trivia night. Not at a bar. Or even a restaurant. But at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Specifically, the Kogod Courtyard:

Lovely, no?

The theme was comedians. I’d done my homework, so we managed a decent second-place score. But TheBoy Kobayashi Maru’d us the prize for Best Team Name with “The Stately White Beard of G. Wayne Clough.”

 Consider that Clough was President of Georgia Tech (TheBoy’s alma mater) and is the Secretary of the Smithsonian, and BOOM. Prizes.

On Thursday, we visited ThinkGeek headquarters. And that merits its own blog because it was pretty freaking phenomenal. Not least because I ate half a pizza without greasing up any prototypes.

We watched a movie on that TV. At no point did I spill pizza or Diet Coke so ha.

On Friday, we attended a lecture. At the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. About a recently-declassified CIA mission. (Yeah, it’s not convincing until you get to that last part.) Turns out one of our Cold War satellites dropped some film into the ocean 40 years ago, and we had to send a teeny submarine 16,000 feet down to retrieve it. Whoops!

Imagine four old men talking about their adventures, and you’ve pretty much captured the evening. In fact, if you’re a fundamental Baptist, you should be able to envision it exactly. (With the possible exception that we were in an IMAX theatre. Now, if your church meets in an IMAX theatre, you win all the things.)

So yeah. I love living in Washington this time of year. Great events everywhere.

More on ThinkGeek soon. Ish.

April 28, 2013

April 28, 2013

Things I’ve Read: The Girls of Atomic City

It’s a fact of life when you work for the government that you can’t often talk about what exactly it is you do. Sometimes this is because you are Jack Bauer. Most of the time it’s nowhere near as cool. But the outcome is the same: “How was your day?” gets answered pretty summarily. You get used to it after awhile, since there are so many other things to do and talk about.

But what if your entire life revolved around work? Such was the case for the people of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a town purpose-built to enrich uranium for the first atomic bomb. The federal government seized the land, threw up a town, shipped people in, and created what I imagine to be some of the most potent paranoia this side of the Inquisition.

The book “The Girls of Atomic City” focuses specifically on a handful of women who did various things at Oak Ridge. One worked in the medical clinic. One cleaned the factory. One worked in the labs. One checked pipe welds. None of them knew (or even guessed much) about what “The Project” actually was. Partially because the utmost care was taken to keep each person focused on their tiny link in the chain. And partially because THEY WERE BUILDING THE FIRST FREAKING NUCLEAR WEAPON.

(Sorry. I get a little excited about this.)

The book cuts between the work at Oak Ridge and the work that went into discovering how an atomic bomb would even work in the first place. As someone who thinks squarely inside the box, I can’t fathom how one would just figure that out one day. Even now, having read about it, all I know is it has something to do with fission. And Fermi.

Anyway, in the throes of World War 2, everybody wanted a way to end this thing tout suite. Some people grew victory gardens, others knitted, and yet others said, “We’re gonna kick Nazi ass with science, so yippee-ki-yay!” It was this last group that got permission to build sites around the country to build “The Gadget.” (One was in Los Alamos, which you may have heard of.) An avalanche of money, men, and materials turned rural Tennessee into a factory town in like 60 days.

Word went far and wide (but quietly, because this is all hush-hush, you know) for people to come to Tennessee. To do something important. But don’t ask what. Just take the train from XXX at XXX and you’ll find out more later. Weird, sure, but it was a job. A job that could help end the war. So people went.

And then shit got real.

You know how this ends, but they didn’t. And reading about the atmosphere is fascinating. The secrecy. The social dynamics. Spies were everywhere, willing to report loose lips. All the while, THEY WERE BUILDING THE FIRST FREAKING NUCLEAR WEAPON.

(Sorry. I get a little excited about this.)

Though my interest in the book was piqued by a newspaper review, the author’s Daily Show interview sealed the deal. Maybe it will for you, as well.

April 22, 2013

April 22, 2013

The Food in the Machine

As an ardent foodie and misanthrope, the idea of the automat thrills my soul. A way to get the necessity of food without any human interaction. As you may not know (unless you grew up in the 1930s), an automat is a sort of giant wall-sized vending machine. Put a nickel in the slot (again, 1930s), open the door, and grab the food item/beverage of your choice. Behold:

Your first thought on seeing that picture should be “Wow, a wall of food!” Your second thought should be “What an interesting hat choice.”

Sadly, like many things I enjoy, automats went out of style years and years ago, replaced by fast food restaurants. And if you’ve ever gone to a fast food restaurant, you know that the automats almost certainly provided a higher level of service. (Misanthrope, hi.)

While researching for this blog entry (sometimes I research, shutup), I learned that someone of my bent opened an automat in New York City in 2005, but closed it in 2009. It’s the exact opposite of the scenario in the song “New York, New York,” I guess. Automats couldn’t make it there, so they probably couldn’t make it anywhere. Sigh. Not to sound all “I welcome our robot overlords with open arms” or anything, but replacing people with robots seems like a win-win-win. Labor costs go down. Error rates go down. You don’t have to awkwardly avoid eye contact with the help.

Maybe the food wasn’t very good at the typical automat? I can’t imagine it would have been if it had to sit under a heating lamp or whatever. Then again, I’ve been known to eat (expired) (possibly contaminated with salmonella) pot pies day after day, so I can’t judge.

We’ve automated car washes and cash withdrawals. Let’s automate lunch.

April 21, 2013

April 21, 2013

In My Opinion: Jack Reacher

As I’m wont to do, I spent my flights to and from Turkey catching up on feature films. Luckily for me, Turkish Airlines has an impressive catalog of new and old releases, as well as TV shows that they oddly called “Shorts.” On flight number one, I watched “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Mission: Impossible.” On flight number two, I watched “Mission: Impossible 2” and “Jack Reacher.” You might call it a mini Tom Cruise film festival. (I called it encouragement to seriously consider Scientology because the man HAS NOT AGED.)

Now while “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Mission: Impossible,” and “Mission: Impossible 2” were delightful films featuring nuclear weaponry, repeatedly tearing faces off, and repeatedly tearing faces off respectively, it was “Jack Reacher” that really wowed me. It’s a shame the film didn’t do better; I’d love to see a franchise.

If you’re not familiar with the series of books, don’t worry. I wasn’t, either, and that’s probably a good thing. For in the books, “Jack Reacher” is apparently a sort of Norse Hulk: think blond and beefy. Not exactly Tom Cruise’s body type. Fortunately, Tom Cruise can shoot, fight, and reason with the best of them, so he handles the character quite well.

The movie begins with a sniper targeting five people on a Pittsburgh boardwalk. Middle of the day. No provocation. Random people. WHAT GIVES, MAN?!

The sniper is sloppy, though, and leaves behind all sorts of evidence that leads the cops right to ‘im. When he’s pulled in for questioning, the sniper says only one thing: Find Jack Reacher. Turns out they knew each other back in the military, and if anyone can get to the bottom of this flustercluck, it’s Reacher. I say flustercluck because a) I try not to swear too much in front of you and b) things aren’t as simple as they seem. See, the guy the cops find isn’t the guy we saw commit the shooting. Even though the evidence says otherwise. As Mickey Mouse would say, C-O-N-S-P-I-R-A-C-Y.

Rosamund Pike (that woman from the thing) plays the accused’s defense attorney. She teams up with Reacher (reluctantly, until she sees him with his shirt off) to figure out WTF. What follows is an transfixing series of plot twists, car chases, knife fights, and shootouts. Reacher at one points finds he has literally brought a knife to a gun fight, but I totally think he could have won. BECAUSE HE IS EFFING JACK REACHER.

I give this one a rousing endorsement, folks. Watch it if only for the scene wherein Tom Cruise drives into the villians’ hideout completely in reverse.

April 17, 2013

April 17, 2013

Not So 1040EZ

Another tax season has come and gone, and with it the joys and anguish that is filing taxes in modern-day America. After several years of doing my own taxes (by hand, as the good Lord intended it), I caved last year and went to H&R Block. Either I spent countless hours getting frustrated and breaking into tears, or I paid someone $200 to do that for me. Since I’m both upwardly-mobile and childless, this was a no-brainer. DO MY BIDDING, ACCOUNTANT WENCH!

*cracks whip*

Both of my experiences with H&R Block have been acceptable. Note that I’m not raving, but neither am I complaining. (Count that as a win, H&R Block. Offer me refreshments next year and you’ll move closer to the “rave” column.) Be glad that I don’t own property, invest, or have kids. The only trickiness I bring to the table is a Health Savings Account and a surname with eleven letters.

While catching up on the USA TODAY*, though, I saw a startling headline: “My Tax Accountant is a High School Kid.” Now, obviously, there are a number of intelligent, diligent, responsible high schoolers out there. Maybe even the same number as when I was in that demographic.** But really? A recent statistic that I may be quoting incorrectly and/or out of context (minor details) cited the current tax code length as 73,000 pages. It’s not exactly The Scarlet Letter, is it?

[insert plug for a flat tax here]

The plus side to child labor, of course, is their willingness to accept complete nonsense at face value. Which, in a weird way, makes them the perfect intermediaries between us taxpayers and the IRS.


* BTW, so glad to be back in America. SO GLAD. Of all the countries I’ve visited, the only one that I regretted leaving was the UK. Otherwise I savor returning to a country with standard measurements, a 12-hour clock, and Diet Coke that is actually Diet Coke and not Coke Zero in a silver bottle labeled “Coca Cola Light.” USA! USA! USA!
** Which is over a decade ago. Pipe down, Grandma’s about to tell you more.

April 8, 2013

April 8, 2013

Sorry I Missed It: The Supersizers

Do you like food, comedy, and/or the British? You know I do, and so my rousing endorsement of “The Supersizers” should come as no surprise. The premise in a nutshell: two British comedians, Sue Perkins and Giles Coren, spend one week living as Britons did in a particular era. The 1940s. Medieval Times. The Restoration. And so on. They dress and eat the part, emphasis on “eat.”

What results is a fascinating peek into the less-romantic aspects of culinary history. As much as Sue and Giles craved a drink of water, the fact remains that London’s water wasn’t potable for most of history. And so they often must drink beer instead. It’s not as fun as it sounds. Sue, as a woman, often must resort to hobbies impractical and/or ridiculous while Giles hops off to his job, his club, and/or his mistress.

Before and after each week of historical living, the two are medically examined to determine what effects each era’s diet has on them. Turns out that wartime rationing does marvels for the waistline, while the meat-heavy diets of other eras wreak havoc on the bowels. You’d do well to remember that next time you’re considering a third Quarter Pounder. (Two is okay, but three is just ridiculous, dude.)

But no matter the era, the best part of the show is Sue and Giles. They have obvious camaraderie, even when forced to do ridiculous things while wearing ridiculous outfits. In fact, I’ve been scouring the internet to find their other work, to the point that I’m thisclose to turning stalker. JUDGE NOT.

The entire series is available on Hulu legally and for free. My favorite episode is the first, set during the 1940s. Do it. Do it now.

(PS, I'm spending the week in Turkey. The country. Don't ask.)

April 3, 2013

April 3, 2013

"Rounding Error"

“Vial of deadly virus missing at Texas bioterror laboratory”

The sort of headline that strikes fear into the heart of this USA TODAY reader. It’s a consequence of my reading habits—almost exclusively dystopian YA fiction. Today’s missing vial is tomorrow’s worldwide plague. It’s too bad, because the meteor I saw last Friday night had me convinced we were all going out with a bang. (Honestly, I was pretty spooked as that thing streaked across the sky. Calling it four seconds of sheer terror sounds trite, but that’s exactly what it was.) At least give me an alien invasion or something. Don’t germ me to death, bro.

Luckily for humanity, the article underneath that alarming headline was along the lines of, “It’s basically a rounding error.” Which sounds perfectly sensible unless you make a living out of leveraging rounding errors, as I do. In which case, OHDEARGODWHERESTHEPURELL?!

Friend-of-blog P does mysterious things in the health sciences field, and I’m constantly amazed that she, knowing the things she knows, is able to leave the house. From what I understand, that movie Contagion is pretty much happening at some point soonish. Stick THAT in your Hello Kitty face mask and smoke it.

(If I got a Hello Kitty face mask, would I wear it?)

(If I wore a Hello Kitty face mask, would it save me from sudden plague death?)

(Should I have asked the second question first?)

For once, I envy you who live in rural areas! As NBC’s “Revolution” taught us, it’s the cities that fall first; their infrastructure is just too unnatural. Flee to the hills, the plains, the cities with just the one Starbucks! If dystopian YA fiction is any guide (and I think it is), you’ll encounter  a community of hardy souls, at least one of which is a former doctor and at least one of which is naturally immune to whatever’s killing off humanity. It will be up to you to bring these two people together, help them develop a cure, and administer it to the rest of us. Preferably starting with the people in Hello Kitty face masks.