Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Space Geek

Just came upon this little nugget from (via Yahoo! News) and, I'm such a geek, I thought it outstanding.

Basically, tonight, you'll be able to look into the sky all night and see the planet Venus (just below the moon all night) and - just after sunset - Mercury and Jupiter. NOW for the cool part:

"Venus is so bright you can see it during daylight if you know where to look. Given Venus' proximity to the moon on New Year's Eve, this would be an excellent moment -- just before sunset -- to use the moon to help you find Venus and gain bragging rights for being one of the few people to be able to claim seeing more than one planet during the daytime (Earth being the other one)."

That's pretty flipping cool if you ask me. And what better way to start ringing in the new year by contemplating just how small we all are in this universe and yet we spend our time worrying about money and war most of the time. The universe could care less.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Tune Day: One or the Other

This is either the best song ever or the worst, and, since the second time I heard it, I've thought the former. I'm guessing you are going to hate it. And then it will be stuck in your head. And then you will adore it. And hate yourself a little for doing so.

As such, it might fit the definition of a perfect pop song.

Thats Not My Name - The Ting Tings

Monday, December 29, 2008

Hansel & Gretl never had it so good...

My sister-in-law and I inadvertently started a holiday tradition three Christmases ago when we made a gingerbread house together. We both enjoy baking, so we have the skills, but we also seem to work well together on this sort of thing.

We started simple that year: a basic house. It did have a pretzel-stick split-rail fence, mini marshmallow snowman and life-cereal thatch roof. It was an honest triumph. It went so well we spent a lot of 2007 thinking about what to do last Christmas and we made a gingerbread carousel.

This was MUCH more complicated. We could have taken the easy route and just made two large gingerbread circles and gone from there, but we wanted a slanted roof. So we made to equal hexagons, made triangles to go on top as a roof and supported the whole damn thing with candy canes. It was not easy. But we pulled it off.

This year, we did something technically easier, which gave us greater ability to experiment with some things. First off, Maggie read about how to build a more structurally sound house. Last year, we built the carousel too quickly. This year we let the walls "dry" before asking them to support a roof, etc. Also, we've talked about melting lifesavers to make "glass" but this was the first year we did it.

The result?

That is a gingerbread lighthouse! We didn't over-decorate this year for several reasons, but one being that we felt simple was better this go-round. The melted lifesavers make up the "lightbox" at the top of the tower. We also brought back one of my favorite parts from the first year: the Pez-candy chimney:

Anyhow, the ante may go up from here. We're getting good at this. We may try for some complex designs next year. Stay tuned...

Saturday, December 27, 2008

More soon...

Dear readers, I hope you are enjoying the break. We've been gifting, drinking and generally carrying on all week. Life is good. Stories to relate... all soon.

Enjoy the rest of the weekend!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Tune Day: It Really Is Christmas

Tune Day coming early this week (since it's technically still Monday here), but that beats it not being there at all like the past few weeks. With Christmas Eve upon us, I give you a song that made the mix this year... but is just hopelessly catchy and lovely. Enjoy!

The Christmas Song - The Raveonettes

Next week, we're done with holiday tunes

Airline WIN

With the conclusion of my flight home from Ft. Lauderdale Friday, I qualified (in four short months) for preferred silver status on US Air. On the US Air homepage this means I get a little silver icon next to my name when I sign in.

In practice it means more. Let's see:

  • First class upgrades. Sure, this is on an as-available basis. But even once in a while would be a treat. And, if Sarah & I travel together it counts for her, too.
  • Reserve choice seats free. US Air charges $10 to sit in the awesome coach seats at the airport. As in you check in and see an awesome seat at the window in an empty row... but you cannot get it unless you pay. Not for me anymore.
  • No checked bag fees. Ever. For me and for Sarah. WIN.
  • Priority security lanes in most US Airways airports.
  • ALWAYS board in Zone 2. This is HUGE. US Airways overhead compartments fill up due to not being big enough on some planes and people being idiots on others. This means virtually never having to store my bag in the bathroom or something.
  • Standby priority and no change fee for standby. A few months ago, I was in Tampa. I had been traveling three straight days. I wanted to be home. I could have gotten onto an earlier flight, except it cost $50. No more!
  • Bonus miles. Every flight, I get 25% bonus in miles. If it's a 1,000-mile flight, I get 1,250. So I get to gold status faster.
I was giggling as I read all this last night. Travel can be hard and it's nice to have some perks... and it's especially nice that those perks will apply to my wife who supports me through all the travel.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Actual Conversation By Actual People

The scene: Gate E5 of Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International airport. About 12:15 p.m. today.

The players: Unattractive, older married couple. The husband walks up and sits next to his wife...

Wife (loudly so the entire gate area can hear): You said you were going to the bathroom and you were gone 15 minutes!

Husband: (quiet speaking)

Wife (again, with volume): You worry about me?! I'm worried about you! We're about to board! Where are you? And I can't have a cigarette until 6 p.m.! You think I get stressed out and today you do this when I cannot even have a cigarette!

Husband: (quiet speaking)

Wife (many decibels): I don't know. We haven't been communicating well this week! I'm not sure any more that you're even listening to anything I say and you go running off to the bathroom and I can't have a cigarette. What are you trying to do to me?

Needless to say, I was beginning to understand why this guy's trip to the bathroom took a quarter-hour...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Gladwell does it again...

I have come to love the works of Malcolm Gladwell. His first book, The Tipping Point, was of special interest to me given my interest in PR. The theory (part of the larger concept of the "diffusion" of ideas) is that there comes a moment where everything that ever "catches on" - a new product or a disease - comes to a moment where it spreads like an epidemic. I always think of the iPod. One day on the NY subway in 2002, I saw someone with one. A year later EVERYONE had one.

His second book, Blink, basically examines how our snap judgments are usually right on.

These are gross oversimplifications of both books, but Gladwell takes these topics and, in an extremely accessible manner, breaks them down. I finish his books in about two days.

His new one, though, is the one I want to talk about. The book is called Outliers: The Story of Success. It is currently the #6 seller on Amazon.

Here's the thing... we tend to think of successful people a certain way. We especially love the romanticized story of the hard-off kid pulling up his/her bootstraps, working hard, having a great idea and making it happen to end up filthy rich. Hard work, some luck and so forth and your American Dream happens!

But Gladwell says that's not the case most of the time.

A few weeks ago, Sarah mentioned to me that I am one lucky SOB. I responded that, yes, that may be true, but I believe luck is created. You have to be in the right spot to get lucky.

Outliers comes closest to explaining how "luck" is created when it comes to success. At least that I have seen.

Gladwell starts with a discussion of hockey players. A crazy thing emerges if you look at the birthdays of most elite hockey players. Most were born in January, February or March. This doesn't mean there's anything special about being born those months, at least not genetically.

But most youth hockey leagues have a "cutoff date" for children playing based on their age on Jan. 1. In other words, say you have a 9-year-old hockey player. He was born on Jan. 2. The league is registering 10-year-olds, but to qualify, your kid has to be 10 before Jan. 1 or he has to play in the 9-year-old league.

This means your kid will sign up for the 9-year-old team as a result of a human-imposed cutoff date. It also means your kid will be the oldest kid on the team. Which, in all likelihood, means he's maturing a bit faster than his teammates. He's bigger, has better hand-eye coordination... he APPEARS to be a step ahead of all of his teammates. Which means he will get noticed more. He will get more coaching. he will become a better player through that. And he will get noticed more and more.

With a different cutoff date, he could have been one of many kids just like him, but the cutoff date makes him appear to have more ability. Which is then coached into more ability.

The crazy thing... this applies to SCHOOL, too. Gladwell finds study after study showing that the kids who start a year behind due to a cutoff date are the ones who grasp concepts more quickly, get more teacher attention... become BETTER students. Get more opportunities than other kids from teachers. It starts a cycle.

Now, Gladwell hints that maybe we should have different streams of kids entering school throughout the year. If the youngest kid in class is going to be at a disadvantage with older kids, why not break classes up into similarly aged kids?

There are other factors that Gladwell discusses, too. It's a fascinating read.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Places To Avoid Before You Die

Sarah and I have been discussing where we should take a trip next year and we've both decided that, since the economy is bound to continue to bite, we're going wherever we get the best deal. Airfare & hotel in a European rail hub for $250/person? Sign. Me. Up.

At the same time, I've got a friend wondering where she should use her frequent flyer miles to go. She's trying to base this on the 1,000 Places to See Before You Die book. At the same time, another friend of our and her husband are taking a trip to El Paso, TX to catch Pitt play in the Sun Bowl. They are extending their trip to spend quite a bit of time in New Mexico, which is awesome. This friend, however, mentioned they were going to take a day-trip to Mexican border town Ciudad Juarez.

Take it away Wikipedia: "Recent murders in the city have grown not only in numbers, but also in barbarity. A man recently was found near a school hanging from a fence with a pig's mask on his face, and another one was found beheaded hanging from a bridge in one of the busier streets of the city."

In fairness, the article also notes: "In 2008, Ciudad Juárez was designated as 'The City of the Future' by the prestigious magazine 'Foreign Direct Investment' published by the influential 'Financial Times group.'"

Point is, Juarez, despite some of its prosperity is the one place in Mexico I told my sister-in-law to avoid flat out when she spent a year in Mexico. Please understand that this means I was OK with her going near Zapatista-controlled areas but NOT with Juarez. My friend, a life-long Texan believes Juarez is best served as a place to get killed, and this man knows his filthy border towns.

Anyhow, it got me thinking, what are some other places to avoid? Here's my list of places that I will NEVER travel to, cheap airfares be damned!

  • Transnistria - Possibly the last place practicing full-on Soviet communism, this breakaway region of Moldova (not exactly a garden spot itself) is a bastion of organized crime. At last check, the US Embassy in Moldova wouldn't even permit Americans to spend the night in Transnistria.
  • Somalia - Again, Wikipedia: "Westerners and those working for western organisations continue to be targets of the violence."
  • Haiti - I love the U.S. Dept. of State's travel warnings and Haiti's is great example of why. It contains phrases like: "Americans are also reminded of ongoing security concerns in Haiti, including frequent kidnappings of Americans for ransom." And "The absence of an effective police force in many areas of Haiti means that, should protests reignite, there is potential for looting, the erection of intermittent roadblocks set by armed protesters or by the police, and an increased possibility of random crime, including kidnapping, carjacking, home invasion, armed robbery and assault."
Any other places (aside from the obvious like Iraq) I should avoid until I stop valuing my life?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Oldies anyone?

Some days, when I want to feel old, I don't think about how I just turned 30.

I think how Pearl Jam is preparing for it's 20-year anniversary in 2011. (I have to admit, I am going to get that version of Ten that includes "Brother." This has to happen.)

Anyhow, it's hard for me to believe that my teeny-bopper days are that far gone. And then today, I come to this story.

The basics: the baby who was swimming naked on the cover of Nirvana's Nevermind? That dude is 17! And apparently making money off his album cover notoriety.

What troubled me more about this particular story, though, was this atrociously-written lead, which wants, very badly, to be clever:

"All apologies, but here we are now, 17 years after Nirvana's breakthrough album irreversibly changed music, and the naked baby pictured on its cover is still chasing dollars."

See that? See how the writer worked not one but TWO Nirvana song references into the lead? If he had stuck with one, I might not be pointing this out, but here, the writer doth protest too much.

Anyhow, I suppose this is what I have to start facing... the athletes I cheer for, for the most part, are all younger than me. I can handle that. I don't want to watch a bunch of fogies out there trying to run the ball for a first down.

But, it's more this idea that my music (by that I mean the stuff I was stupid about in high school) is starting to show up on the classic rock stations. Driving outside of Philadelphia yesterday, I saw a billboard for Philly's 94 WYSP. Growing up, this was the place to hear your 1970s metal.

Now, it's "The Music You Grew Up With." Featured on the billboard? Pearl Jam. In protest I listed to XM/Sirius and the sounds of The Ting Tings, Death cab and more.

Monday, December 8, 2008

A year of savings

Just about a year ago, Charlotte opened it's first rail line, the LYNX Blue Line. It was a big deal for a lot of reasons. Not the least of which being that it has far-surpassed the ridership forecasts its supporters had (much to the chagrin of people who think we should just pave more highway b/c, as Los Angeles has shown us, more lanes means traffic moves. Oh, wait...).

Anyhow, I just did a tally. I've kept most of my train tickets for the year just for this purpose. Give or take a few trips on top of this, I have spent $51.10 on transportation from South Charlotte to Uptown. Parking is free at the transit stops. That's about 19 trips Uptown.

Usually, parking up there can run anywhere from $5-$10, depending. So let's say, conservatively, if I had driven instead of taken the train, I would have spent $133 on parking up there. That's uh... some savings over driving.

Furthermore, it's about a 20-mile round trip to Uptown. I get 40 miles/gallon on the highway, but I often don't take the highway if I have to drive Uptown. So we'll say I averaged 28 mpg on trips to/from Uptown. That means I would have used an entire tank of gas on Uptown trips this year, when I crunch the numbers. So add the cost of a tank to that savings.

So... why are there still people who don't support mass transit? Or is it simply because those people are afraid they might have to sit next to a stranger?

Saturday, December 6, 2008

By the chimney with care...

Chrismukkah has arrived in Charlotte. Halls are decked. Trees are decorated. Dreidels located.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Just Don't Read It WHILE Commuting

I am in the midst of a fascinating book by Tom Vanderbilt, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says About Us) and I highly recommend it for the non-fiction fan on your gift list.

Basically, this isn't a book on how to drive better. It is an analysis of the way we drive. For instance, have you ever been frustrated on the freeway to be clipping along at 60, slam on your brakes and sit there stopped for 2 mins, slowly get back up to 60 only to have it happen again... but see no reason for this? No accident or anything? Vanderbilt, using research and sources countrywide, tells you why this happens.

Some of the interesting things that this book has already pointed out:

  • Doesn't matter where you are in the world, whether you drive to work in LA or walk to work in an African village... your total commute time is likely around 1.1 hours round trip. Just about half an hour each way. In fact, if you look at how cities have grown, they've generally grown as far out as the current mode of "fast" transportation will take you in 30 minutes.
  • You know when there's construction and a lane is closing? And you merge into whatever lane and then get pissed b/c other people are "cheating" and going all the way up to the lane closure before merging? Believe it or not, the cheaters are making traffic move faster. This is because they're using the full capacity of the road (in this case, an empty, but about to close traffic lane) all the way until they cannot. This explains why, driving in PA last fall, I saw signs saying "Use both lanes until merge point." It seems like you're in a backup, but studies show more cars get through faster this way.
  • An interesting point I came to last night last night. It's not that people hate commuting. In fact, people like that solitary time. It's how the commute is unpredictable. Every day it could be different than the last - accidents, detours, traffic, weather. People don't like this kind of variation. So then... say you go buy the new big house farther away from the city. You love your new big house... for a time. Then, since you have neighbors, it begins to seem like everyone else has a new big house. But your commute is always unique to you. And the longer a commute you have, the more chances that all those variables come into play. So you bought the new house, but you end up enjoying life less because more time (something you cannot buy more of) is going away due to your commute.
Anyhow, it's a great book if you have a natural curiosity about the machinations of getting from here to there. And it's not overly dense in terms of the science, so it's approachable by all.

But the theories... it's amazing. This book keeps having me going "Oh right! I saw that on 485 this morning!"

Thursday, December 4, 2008

"Driving" Me Nuts

I love that I have family and friends that could use a full time job and the government is doing nothing to bail them out, but they're considering handing over billions of dollars to American automakers.

And let's be clear here... if there's one industry that has run a WORSE business than America's banks the past few years, it's our Detroit-based automakers. And these two industries are getting the bulk of the taxpayer-funded bailout? Amazing. It's like "you've done a bad job... congrats! Here's money!"

When I first moved to NYC, I had a car payment. After three months of living there, I opened up the ol' checkbook and realized that if I wanted to have cash, I needed to ditch the car. Like, less than $200 in the checking account. I called mom & dad. Their "bailout" for me, which I found RATHER generous considering I had made some poor decisions was:

1) to give me $100 to handle incidental expenses and
2) to find out who I could sell my car to to pay off the loan

Couldn't have asked for more.

So, anyway, today our automaker CEOs are in D.C. to beg for some coin. They mighty not get it, but to help their cases, instead of taking private jets to D.C. like they did last time, they each drove hybrid vehicles.

This is stupid. It's a 9-hour drive. And, get this... on the highway, hybrids USE GAS! It's when they're stopped that they don't. They save gas by not idling.

No one in these cash-strapped times would make the drive to D.C. from Detroit. They'd fly coach into Reagan and take the Metro into town.

But I suppose that means Mr. CEO would possibly have to sit in a middle seat, next to someone who doesn't think he deserves a bailout. The poor dear.

Simple fact of the matter is my 4-cylinder Camry gets great mileage and has the power of a 6-cylinder engine. Instead of asking for my money, how about y'all build a better car, guys?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Tune Day: Tis the Season

Even my contacts in Florida are saying it's cold. So, today, I remind you to keep the holiday season, uh, "dandy" with this little ditty:

Little Drummer Boy - The Dandy Warhols