December 31, 2014

December 31, 2014

My Best Books of 2014: A Threeve

As the year draws to a close, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about my Book of the Year selection. It was a strong, strong year, right up until the very end. I wasn’t able to finalize my selection until yesterday, when I finished Americanah. (Solid contender, but did not make the final cut. Though surprised by how much I liked it, I soon realized I’m that white person who wants to tell all her black friends how much she now understands their struggle. AS IF.)

Here, then, my top five books of 2014:

#5 - The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism by Naoki Higashida (Non-Fiction)

That this memoir is written by a 13-year-old autistic boy is reason enough to check it out, whether or not you understand autism enough to realize how impossible the idea of an autism memoir seems. I’m no expert, but the autistic are generally trapped inside themselves, no? Higashida learned to use an alphabet grid to communicate his ideas, and the insights into how those with autism—and to a lesser degree, Asperger’s and other social anxiety disorders—function. Fascinating.

#4 - The Martian by Andy Weir (Fiction)

The film adaptation of this book, starring Matt Damon, is due out next year. Beat the zeitgeist rush by reading it now. The titular character is not, in fact, a Martian, but a stranded astronaut. Will he manage to survive using his own derring-do in the face of impossible odds? No spoilers here.

#3 - Because I Said So!: The Truth Behind the Myths, Tales, and Warnings Every Generation Passes Down to Its Kids by Ken Jennings (Non-Fiction)

Most of what your parents told you is pure crap. Don’t take this personally; their parents probably told them not to swim after eating or stare into the microwave, and that apple seeds were poisonous. But you know what? False, false, and FALSE. In this book, Ken Jennings (yes, THAT Ken Jennings) takes many of those parental edicts and either proves or debunks them. And guess what? Turns out that most of what we weren’t allowed to do would have been totally fine. If you have procreated, read this and then let your spawn  go crazy. If you haven’t procreated, read this and then go crazy to make up for all those years you missed. I think this is what the kids mean when they say “yolo,” correct?

#2 - Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson (Non-Fiction)

I am just now joining the cult of the Bloggess, and I apologize for my tardiness. I can’t describe this book better than Amazon did: “When Jenny Lawson was little, all she ever wanted was to fit in. That dream was cut short by her fantastically unbalanced father and a morbidly eccentric childhood. It did, however, open up an opportunity for Lawson to find the humor in the strange shame-spiral that is her life, and we are all the better for it.”

#1 - Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (Fiction)

Set in 1970s Ohio. About a Chinese man, his American wife, and their three kids. Put into motion when the favorite child is found dead. Calling this a murder mystery, though, is like calling To Kill a Mockingbird a courtroom drama. It’s about family ties, the domino effect of small choices, racism, sibling rivalry, friendship, and more. Not since Gone Girl have I had such simultaneous, permeating feelings of dread and fascination while reading a book. Gripping. Not least because I saw in it many things still inherent in the Asian American experience today. The more things change, right?

December 18, 2014

December 18, 2014

Yankee Swap, Revisited

(For the original Yankee Swap from 2007, featuring firemen and personal lubricant in a situation far less-sexy than the one you're imagining, go here.)

Today is my office’s annual white elephant gift exchange. While you’re probably familiar with the concept, allow Michael Scott a brief moment to explain:

(“Christmas Party” is the first episode of The Office I ever saw, and also my favorite. Those two things may be related, since most people’s favorite episode seems to be “The Injury.” Which is not even my second-favorite episode; I prefer “Diversity Day.” But I digress.)

So whether you call it White Elephant, Yankee Swap, or something else entirely, you know about the picking of numbers, the unwrapping of gifts, the stealing of other people’s stuff, and the general malaise that accompanies 90% of the proceedings.

The other 10%, of course, is straight-up malice. The people who bring trash as their gift. The people who delight in stealing someone else’s gift because they don’t want that person to have it rather than because they themselves actually want it. You know what I’m talking about, and hopefully because you’ve SEEN it and not because you’ve DONE it.

I’m no fan of humanity, but even I try to get a decent gift for the office exchange. Something I wouldn’t mind taking home myself. This actually brings me to a sort of existential quandary: Is it bad karma to end up with your own gift?

I mean, I understand that it’s…shall we say…“questionable” to get yourself in a Secret Santa situation. Kevin’s delight aside:

But things are a bit more dicey when it comes to exchanges. For the most part, people get a selection of gifts. If they’ve passed over yours—and you think it’s a good gift—then I believe you can go for it with impunity. It’s like if you came to my home (unlikely) and I offered you a piece of cake (even more unlikely) and you didn’t want it. I would then happily eat it. In front of you. BECAUSE WHAT IMBECILE TURNS DOWN FREE CAKE?

Okay, bad example.

Anyway, at time of writing I have no idea what I’ll get. I try to go into these situations expecting the worst. The price of the gift that I purchased is simply the cost of social acceptance. Sunk cost.

May the odds be ever in our favor, gift exchangers.

December 16, 2014

December 16, 2014

We Googled It

My favorite of the many year-end lists, recaps, and reviews is the annual Google Zeitgeist video. It’s one of the few times a year that I marvel at humanity rather than wince at it. (Your mileage may vary.) In preparation for this year’s video, which came out yesterday, I re-watched 2010 through 2013. And while they’re all inspiring and mist-inducing, my favorite remains 2011:

Whether you believe we’re alone in the universe, put here by a higher power, and/or living lives of quiet desperation, the fact remains that we’re all in this together. For better or worse.

It’s difficult, though, to consider videos from prior years with no consideration for what came after. I really love the 2012 video, for example, but it features Oscar Pistorius pre-Punch and Shooty* show. It makes me wonder what from this year will suffer the same fate. “Remember 2014, before ebola mutated to turn half of humanity into zombies?”

But let’s focus on the positives. The things that unite us, which tend to be:

1. Sporting events
2. The weather
3. Accomplishments in space
4. Political revolution

So, note to alien species looking to conquer humanity: These—rather than butts, as you may have been led to believe—are the ways to endear yourself to us. Help make the 2015 video REALLY good.

* Couldn’t resist. I’ll gladly take the coal in my stocking for that one.

December 3, 2014

December 3, 2014

Recent Reads: A Threeve

Though I’m still in the process of choosing my books of the year, a few recent reads deserve brief mention here.

Sweetness #9: A Novel by Stephan Eirik Clark
Recommended by California author Eden Lepucki when she was on The Colbert Report to discuss the whole Amazon vs. Hatchette dealio. It’s Mad Men, but with artificial sweeteners instead of advertising. It’s also much longer-form than Mad Men (unless there’s one hell of a time jump coming up in the final episodes), going from the 1970s to the present day. While the theme is ostensibly the evils of eating artificial, I remain a convert to those blue and yellow packets. Your mileage may vary.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris
Dentist goes crazy. Many Red Sox references.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
Moriarty also wrote The Husband’s Secret, which I quite enjoyed despite a few confusing Aussie references. (Both author and setting are Australian.) In both that book and this one, Moriarty sets up a tangled web of school mums, husbands, townspeople, and kids, adds a complicating factor or two (an affair, a murder, etc.), and stirs. Quite enjoyable, even—or especially—when they’re having tea or calling cookies “biscuits.”

Wild: From Lost to Found by Cheryl Strayed
I enjoyed this book so much it inspired me to research the Pacific Crest Trail and buy a small fanny pack. On the down side, I feel like Reese Witherspoon is a little too glam for Cheryl.

The Miniaturist: A Novel by Jessie Burton
Sugar, sodomy, and the Dutch.

November 19, 2014

November 19, 2014

Things I’ve Read: The Aviator’s Wife

A recent trivia night reminded me that Time magazine’s very first Person of the Year was not Einstein or Hitler, the personal computer or an oily Kardashian. It was, in fact, one Charles Lindbergh, known primarily for flying across the ocean blue back when flight involved strapping yourself to a paper box and hoping for the best.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s a huge accomplishment. Lindbergh probably did more for aviation than almost anybody, particularly in transforming aviation from neato curiosity to legitimate industry. So rah rah and all that.

Some things Lindbergh was less known for: his secret families. That’s right: plural. Only recently was it revealed that he fathered seven children with three different women in Europe. You know that trope about the airline pilot with a family in every city? Exactly.

The Aviator’s Wife tells the story from the point of view of Anne Morrow (later Lindbergh). Flash forwards aside, it runs from just before she meets Charles through to his death in the 1970s. While he is (understandably) the book’s prime mover, it turns out that Anne was pretty amazing in her own right. The unassuming second daughter of the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico went on to become the first licensed female glider pilot*, her husband’s faithful navigator, and (less happily) the mother of the Lindbergh baby.

It’s that kidnapping fiasco that proves to be the watershed moment in their lives. (I’m not a mother, but I’m assuming the parents out there are knowingly nodding their heads.) Charles, like many Great People, was difficult to live with—selfish, cold, convinced he was always right—and his “my way or the highway” attitude didn’t exactly help the investigation. Even as Anne went on to have other kids, she never quite got over the death of her first one.

I originally thought this book was by the same author as The Paris Wife, a novelization of the life of Hadley Richardson, wife of Ernest Hemingway. I mean, look at the covers:

But this turns out to be a wholly separate tale. They say there’s a woman behind each great man. But with Lindbergh, Hemingway, and so many other cases, it’s more that there’s a man in front of each great woman.

* Amelia Earhart is referred to occasionally, but almost always as simply “The Aviatrix.” Anne was not a fan. It’s like The Real Housewives of Early Aviation.

October 29, 2014

October 29, 2014

A Real Frame-Turner

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the book was better than the movie.

Sure, there are exceptions. Sometimes you see the movie first and are so impressed that you read the book afterwards, skewing your perception in favor of the film that drew you in to the tale. (For me, Jack Reacher. I was so impressed by the movie—yes, I was that ONE PERSON—that I immediately read the entire series and went to see Lee Child in person.)

Generally, though, I think those of us who enjoy book literature and film can agree that the book medium allows for presentation of greater detail, especially through inner dialogue. (When I heard that The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was being adapted into a play, I needed someone to slap in the face.)

However, since films these days are essentially a license to print money, odds are good that any notable book will end up Coming To A Screen Near You. A shame, since some books are so beloved that nothing—no combination of director, cast, special effects, and/or Tom Cruise—will live up to the version in your mind.

Friend-of-blog M recently asked me if I’d seen Gone Girl, for instance, and I’m really reluctant to see the movie version of my 2012 book of the year. Not because I have anything against Rosamund Pike or Ben Affleck (she was in Jack Reacher!). Rather, I’ve read that author/screenwriter Gillian Flynn make some changes during the adaption process, and that worries me. I barely tolerated the absence of Tom Bombadil in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, guys.

Other films I’m afraid haven’t done/won’t do the book justice: The Giver, The Maze Runner, Chaos Walking, and The Fault in Our Stars. All YA books, and mostly YA Sci-Fi, which shows both what I like to read and what gets adapted into movies these days.

Have you ever gone into a film adaptation hopeful and come out disappointed? Or the other way around?

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


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:


New Girl
The Mindy Project

Modern Family

How to Get Away with Murder

Whose Line Is It Anyway?
Shark Tank

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

Ranks of Biological Classification

North America
South America

Deadly Sins

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

OSI Model of Computer Networking
Data link

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

North Atlantic
South Atlantic
North Pacific
South Pacific

Seven Sisters Colleges
Bryn Mawr
Mount Holyoke



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
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)

August 27, 2014

August 27, 2014

Pencils Down

Once upon a time, aspiring Civil Servants in the United States had to take a test to be admitted. As someone who enjoys a) being a Civil Servant and b) taking tests, I’m devastated that the Civil Service Exam is no longer administered. Obviously, if I ever get my hands on a time machine, this is the fourth thing I’ll rectify.*

Hope is not lost, however, for I learned today that some countries still administer an entrance exam for hopeful government workers. India’s is one of the most difficult, with less than 1% of applicants getting selected. Let me blow your mind with some sweet, sweet Wikipedia:

The examination is one of the toughest examination in the world with success rate of 0.1%-0.3% with more than 500,000 applicants. It is conducted in two phases - the Preliminary examination, consisting of two objective-type papers (General Studies and Aptitude Test), and the Main examination, consisting of nine papers of conventional (essay) type followed by the Personality Test (Interview). The entire process from the notification of the Preliminary examination to declaration of the final results takes roughly one year.

Did you get a thrill of excitement while reading that? ‘Cause I sure did. Hundreds of thousands of applicants? Eleven tests? One year? YES PLEASE.

It is not immediately clear to me what subjects are available for the nine essay papers, but I’m hoping at least two or three are related to literature, film, television, or food. I’ve spent a lifetime curating knowledge of those areas.** The personality test would obviously be the hardest part, but I assume that’s why they save it until the end.

(When I imagine myself as a Jeopardy contestant, the part that really makes me sweat is the interview with Alex. I’d much rather just sing the state capitals or something.)

Do the highest scorers get the best jobs? That would be nice, though that certainly isn’t how other standardized tests seem to work. The highest ACT scorers didn’t get the best dorm rooms at my college or anything.*** But imagine a world in which only the best and brightest are selected to work in government, with the greatest of those put in the most important jobs.

I need a number 2 pencil and a ticket to Delhi. (Also, a working knowledge of Hindi.)

* After visiting the Great Exhibition (1851), the Chicago World’s Fair (1893), and the Titanic (1912). I’ll get to killing Hitler at some point, but PRIORITIES, GUYS.
** Related: If you got on Mastermind, what would your subject be? I think mine would be Jello.
*** I got a 33 on the ACT, roughly equivalent to a 1450-1500 on the SAT. And I got stuck in the dorm on the edge of campus, next to the railroad tracks. So.

August 26, 2014

August 26, 2014

Welcome Class of 2018

Each year, Beloit College (yay Wisconsin) puts out the Mindset List, explaining how college freshmen see the world. For unless you’re a great deal younger than I think you are, you have very little in common with the Class of 2018. Born mostly in 1996. That’s right, middle aged people who think *I* am young. People born in the mid-90s are full-fledged adults now. Deal with it.

The full list is available at, but here are some that stuck out to me:

1. During their initial weeks of kindergarten, they were upset by endlessly repeated images of planes blasting into the World Trade Center.

18. Joe Camel has never introduced one of them to smoking.

29. They never tasted the “texturally enhanced alternative beverage” known as Orbitz. (I’m with them on this one. Isn’t Orbitz a gum?)

40. They have no memory of George Stephanopoulos as a senior White House advisor.

46. They have probably never used Netscape as their web browser.

Of course, I have to also post my favorites from my own list, the Class of 2006:

14. A "Hair Band" is some sort of fashion accessory.

23. Mrs. Fields' cookies and Swatch watches have always been favorites.

27. Fox has always been a television network choice.

34. Cherry Coke has always come in cans. (Did it originally…not?)

Kids these days, eh?

August 25, 2014

August 25, 2014

Wisconsin State Fair 2014

The 2014 Wisconsin State Fair did not disappoint, you guys. I was particularly counting on this to be a good year, since it was TheBoy’s first visit. The State Fair is almost like a crazy family member: it must be accepted no matter what, but things are a lot easier if it behaves itself.

I stacked the deck in my favor by carbo-loading early and often.

Saz’s Sampler Platter. I would stab for those fries.

I like to hit the Expo Center first thing, before its aisles are crammed with deal-seekers, slow-walkers, and quadruple-wide strollers. Once the place gets crowded, it’s a lot harder to see the miracle mops and wonder choppers. And your ethnic glues: 

Will invade your Polish and Russian glues.

The Sky Hunters: Birds of Prey talk is also one of my favorite things, because how often do you get to see a bald eagle IN YOUR FACE? 

Too young to have the white head and chest. Come back next year.

At this point, I’d been at the Fair for almost two hours. Time for more food. 

Shepherd’s pie on a stick.

The animals were pretty much the same, with one exception: the rabbits and poultry were relocated from their beautiful barn to some sort of jerry-rigged situation and I can’t even.

Where the rabbits and poultry were SUPPOSED to be.

Where the rabbits and poultry actually were. WTF IS THIS.

Also, I was pretty confused to see animals from another state on display.

Stick to your own freaking fair.

New this year, Australian animals on display. The Outback and Wisconsin are actually very similar, in that they are not at all similar.

My delight at this kangaroo was ironic considering what happened next.

While at the north end of the Fair park, I stopped at the Exotic Meat Grill.

Couldn’t decide between a python spring roll and kangaroo potstickers, so I got the combo platter.

And you know what? The kangaroo was DELICIOUS. I believe I’m now a good one-third of the way through eating Pooh and his friends.

The prize-winning baked goods, produce, plants, etc. were impressive as always. The decorated cakes continue to be my favorite.

They’d be even more enjoyable in a free sample situation, I’m just saying.

At this point, about five hours in, I was starting to lag a bit. Even a cruller on a stick wasn’t getting the job done.

"Wisconsin State Fair Gothic"

So I tried again with some shark:

Tasted like your typical flaky white fish. #SharkWeek

Had to settle for finishing the day with a ride on the SkyGlider.

“Eat all the things! For those of us who are too full!”

Until next year.

August 18, 2014

August 18, 2014

Lunch Trays: Another Item Made for the Right-Handed

Milwaukee Public Schools—the system responsible for my education from K-4* through fifth grade—has announced that it hopes to offer free lunch to all students this year. When I heard, my first thought was of course to reminisce about my personal favorite MPS lunch, the mock chicken leg. I’m tickled to discover that I’m not the only one.

Overall I’m quite pleased with the lunches I got at MPS, not least because they were less than $2. (I did get a second milk, though. That was a thing some of us did and I don’t remember whether it was because we were really thirsty, big fans of dairy, or just trying to be cool. Possibly all three.) Also, you never actually paid in money at the cafeteria. You had to give money to your teacher (or, if you got your lunch for free because you were poor* your name got crossed off some sort of list) and she gave you a lunch ticket. Extra milks were a separate ticket. And thus began my first experience with specie.**

(For the last few years of my MPS experience, our milk came in pouches rather than cartons. We were told this was more environmentally friendly. Getting the straw in without puncturing the whole setup was impossible, sort of like with a Capri Sun or drawing blood.)

But that’s just the payment. Let’s talk about the food. Other than the mock chicken leg, I remember very little of it…except that I had one of those weird childhood aversions to the sub sandwiches, and that the tacos hurt my mouth. That’s right, kids: When I was your age, we ate HARD TACOS.

Now, though? Here is an actual listing from the August 2014 MPS menu:


Never mind that the condiments are listed separately. There are probably legal reasons. Let’s focus on the fact that this meal includes two vegetables, and the meat is—one assumes—identifiable as turkey. What the what?

Here’s another:


Breakfast for lunch? Are you kidding me? Again with the carrots, though. They must have a shedload of carrots, and are trying to offload them at every meal. “Pizza? Add a side of carrots. Sandwiches? Let’s throw some carrots on there. French toast? WITH CARROTS IT IS.” Unless carrots for breakfast is a thing that I’ve just been missing out on lo these many years?

Anyway, now it looks like everyone will get their mock chicken legs, tater tots, and carrots for free. Not that many kids ever brought their lunch to my recollection—why pack a sandwich when you can get the whole kit-and-caboodle for a couple of bucks? But still. There is now literally such a thing as a free lunch at Milwaukee public Schools. Hometown heroes, indeed.

* The actual term was probably something like “economically disadvantaged” but I’m calling a spade a spade here, people.
** Others include Bible bucks at Vacation Bible School and the points schemes at casinos. Those have resulted in far less food, alas.

August 11, 2014

August 11, 2014

Know-It-Alls: District Trivia

(Follow-up from last time: I actually got the opportunity to use 'oxt' on vacation. Only TheBoy caught it, but I'm hopeful that it's like ebola: just the one occurrence can lead to a worldwide outbreak.)

(Too soon?)

While at this year’s World Quizzing Championships (856th, baby), I ran into a guy who invited me to play on his pub trivia team. I think the technical term for this is “networking,” though I don’t really understand human social interaction well enough to be sure. Bottom line: I’ve dipped a toe into the District Trivia waters and now I’m a wee bit obsessed.

District Trivia is one of a number of companies that run regular trivia games at DC-area bar/pub/restaurants. Your town—assuming you live in a somewhat-populated area—probably has a similar setup. During my recent visit back to Milwaukee, I was shocked to learn that at least two (TWO!) companies are running bar trivia there. Good old Milwaukee.

Anyhoo, District Trivia runs a robust game, and I say that as a Mensan quiz show champion.

(Allow me to pause a minute to finish patting myself on the back.)

Nearly a hundred questions are asked over the course of the evening, with over four hundred points available. (Details on playing and scoring can be found on the DT website.) The question writers are mostly (possibly entirely) bros, so there’s more sports than I’d like. Then again, I’m not the one writing five nights’ worth of trivia for dozens of venues every week. It’s probably pretty labor-intensive, and quite possibly my dream job.

Previously, I hadn’t done a lot of team trivia, because I myself personally know a lot of stuff (see: Mensan quiz show champion, above). But playing in a team definitely helps with my blind spots (e.g. 20th century popular music, pop culture of the 1960s/70s/80s, sports) and reaffirms my dedication to knowledge. For example, we were discussing naval ranks. Someone mentioned that US ranks mirror British ones. No fewer than three people quickly piped up that the US no longer has Commodores. That sort of thing doesn’t happen a whole lot to me outside pub trivia. Or ever.

Plus, when I know something no one else does on the team, it brings me great joy, of the type I assume other people get from having kids. (There has to be some reason they keep doing that.) Like when I knew what grawlix were. Or where you’d find a recombobulation area. Or all the Presidents in order. (Should the Books of the Bible ever come up, I may literally explode in happiness. But only after completing the worksheet.)

So, look, finals are coming up in September, and I’m pretty psyched. If you’re local, I will probably ask you to play. If you’re not local, you’re of no use to me consider finding your own local trivia situation. It’s a way to interact with people without really interacting and possibly also proving that you’re smarter than they are. WIN-WIN. Oh, and you'll probably get food and drink. WIN-WIN-WIN.

July 30, 2014

July 30, 2014

Until Oxt Time

Have you ever heard the term “next weekend” and been confused about what it meant? Today, for example, is Wednesday, July 30th. When is next weekend? Is it August 2-3? August 9-10?

I would tell you that “next weekend” is August 9-10. August 2-3 is this weekend. Duh doy.

But plenty of people, TheBoy included, would have you label the next weekend (in this case, August 2-3), as “next weekend.” Duh doy.

What’s one to do? Eliminate the ambiguity by using a new word: oxt. Meaning not-this-coming-one-but-the-one-after:

A thing of beauty, and a joy forever.

Speaking of things of beauty, my annual Tour of the Greater Milwaukee Area Featuring the Wisconsin State Fair starts tomorrow. My big three food items this year are Gator-on-a-Stick, Shark-on-a-Stick, and Python Spring Rolls. (Really, I’m looking for things that are odd and of questionable legality; those are the things that are tastiest. Adam Carolla had a whole thing on whales this week, and I can attest that they are DELICIOUS.)

So that’s what I’ll be doing this weekend, but we’ll come back together oxt Monday, okay?


July 25, 2014

July 25, 2014

In the Rear with the Gear

[Note: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of any country’s armed forces in any capacity. Mistakes in this piece are my own.]

There’s this thing the military uses called “Military Occupational Specialties” (MOS). Everyone from pilots to chaplains to missile repairers has one of these 3-digit codes to classify their job. (That is, the thing they do in addition to SUPPORTING AND DEFENDING THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES AGAINST ALL ENEMIES, FOREIGN AND DOMESTIC, HOOAH.)

I assume the MOS codes are important for paperwork purposes, like a Dewey Decimal System for people. Say what you will about the Department of Defense; they certainly know how to run an operation. After reviewing the many (many) options available to our soldiering men and women, I remain convinced that I would be best utilized as an Automated Logistical Specialist (92A) and/or Unit Supply Specialist (92Y).

(Not that I would ever make it in the military. I’m weak, outdoors-averse, nearsighted, and left-handed. There are people born to survive in the wild, and then there’s me. But let’s pretend.)

The Quartermaster Corps (as I gather the 92As and their ilk are called) actually run in my family. My grandpa* was in the QC during World War II, and my dad during the Vietnam Era. You could say that ordering, transporting, and organizing supplies runs in my blood. The quartermasters apparently are also known for keeping the best supplies to themselves. The technical term for this is “win-win.”

Let’s take a look at some of the duties:

- Review and verify quantities received against bills of contracts, purchase requests and shipping documents. (I manually reconcile all my credit card receipts every month.)
- Unload, unpack, count, segregate, palletize and store incoming supplies and equipment. (I worship at the altar of the Container Store.)
- Construct bins, shelving and other storage aids. (I’ve assembled two apartments’ worth of Ikea furniture.)
- Maintain automated supply system for accounting of organizational and installation supplies and equipment. (Spreadsheets ftw.)
- Operate unit level computers. (I’m basically doing that RIGHT NOW.)

Really, I’m concerned with just one task: Issue and receive small arms. Um. What am I supposed to do with the rest of the Barbie?

Should our future robot overlords reinstate the draft, I think this is the route I would take; it utilizes my skillset while limiting my ability to inflict actual damage. The worst I could do would be to eat the entire battalion’s supply of Nutella.

Peruse the list (Army’s is here) and consider your own plan of action. Whatever you do, don’t click on “Ask Sgt. Star” because that li’l fella is smack dab in the middle of the uncanny valley.

*Paternal. My maternal (Korean) relatives were all too busy fending off the Japanese.

July 24, 2014

July 24, 2014

One Wrong Thing

Much of the dystopian fantasy and science fiction I read—and you know I love me some dystopia—involves a world very different from our own. Verily, authors in the genre have chosen one or all of the following for the settings of their works: 

Nuclear war
Alien invasion
Existence of magic
Self-aware technology
Collapse of government/civil society

You get the idea. One of the best dystopian books I read last year was Wool, which involves remnants of humanity living in underground silos. Though it was gripping from start to finish, I recommended it neither to you nor to friend-of-blog P (for whose pleasure I read most books) because a lot of belief has to be suspended in order to get from here to there. (Unless you are, in fact, living in an underground silo. If so, carry on.)

Lately, then, I’ve been enjoying a few books that change just one thing and consider how humanity might react. Forget for a moment that I generally cheer against humanity, and allow me to recommend some selections.

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. What if the world literally stopped spinning? Already discussed.

The Returned by Jason Mott. What if dead people suddenly showed back up, looking and acting as they were before they died? Emotional toll notwithstanding, think of the logistics.

Brilliance by Marcus Sakey. What if 1% of people were born with savant abilities? If they could understand facial expressions, or recognize patterns, or memorize information without limit? Think X-Men without the laser eyes and weather manipulation. What are the normal people to do?

Enjoyable as the completely mindblowing dystopias are (see: Games, Hunger), it's even more chilling when fantasy is only a step or two removed from reality.

July 23, 2014

July 23, 2014


Portland, Oregon, strikes me as the sort of town that’s full of hipsters and good intentions. It’s a place with farmers markets and cyclists and more than one store selling bowler hats. Like Madison, Wisconsin or Austin, Texas. Not to say there aren’t good people there—friend-of-blog M lives in Portland and she’s one of the few people I would pull out of a burning building. They’re just…a people less impressed with Hello Kitty and Ikea than your humble blogger is.

If this article is to be believed, though, they are just as enamored with carbohydrates. Perhaps more so. For Portland is currently home to a donut* vandal. Egad! To wit:

For more than a month, mysterious vandals have been smearing pastries on cars, depositing donuts in lawns and leaving cakes strewn about the streets.

According to Hillsboro police, the baked-goods bandits first struck on June 1, smearing a maple bar across a car windshield.

In the weeks since, the pastry perpetrators have occasionally turned to healthier fare, leaving yogurt, bread and potato salad on vehicles and in driveways, although most of the incidents have involved sweets.

Great crime, or GREATEST crime? Though I don’t have a lawn, I’ve owned a car for years and not once—NOT ONE TIME—has anyone put even the smallest of baked goods on it. Gypped.

(Also, someone get me on the diet plan wherein potato salad is considered a healthy food.)

Leaving free food in public places? Dare I say it, this seems almost Canadian. Where will the bandit(s) strike next?

Sorting single-stream recyclables. Sure, the sign says you can mix your plastic, metal, and paper. But it looks so much nicer when you put like with like.

Organizing restaurant table sweeteners. No more rifling through a pile of Equals looking for a Splenda.

Leaving a penny. Only a penny taker and not a penny leaver? How dare you.

Portland, in this one area, I like the cut of your jib. (You’re still on notice about the other stuff.)

* Let's not start on "donut" versus "doughnut." Language evolves. Deal with it, and be thankful I didn't just use a donut emoji.