29 Jul 2004

Transit

I had read in the airport guide that the last bus for the airport left Sants-Estació at 11:15pm, so I figured it left Plaça Catalunya maybe five minutes earlier. All the same, I wanted to try to get there by 11 just in case (and to allow for lateness, etc). Having left the restaurant, I walked at a fairly brisk pace and got to the plaça right on time; which left the problem of how to find the bus. Plaça Catalunya is a huge area, and it was not immediately obvious where to find the bus I needed. I saw one bus stand, but on closer inspection it seemed to be for city and night busses, having no markings at all for the Aerobus. Just then, I looked up and saw the Aerobus at its stand on the next side of the plaça, maybe forty yards away. I ran across the street, and it started pulling away. Now, I can run pretty well, and I can run with a backpack pretty well, but running with two very full, very heavy backpacks is simply not recommended. I'm not sure why I kept running even as the bus kept going; maybe I thought it'd see me and stop. In fact, he did stop, and as I approached I saw two girls talking to him in rapid-fire Catalan (or maybe Spanish; I was too addled to really notice) through the door. This went back and forth a few times, and then he opened the door for me. I tried to summon a bit of Catalan: "Aquest bus, um..." He helpfully prompted: "a l'aeroport?" Si! Si, si. I pulled out my money and got change, and then took a seat towards the back.

At this point, I took the opportunity to redivide stuff between the big and small backpacks: it had been "stuff I need today" vs "stuff I don't need today", but I had to make it "stuff I need on the plane/ever" vs "stuff I don't need on the plane/may never see again". Happily, there were only, like, five people on the bus, so I was able to spread out a little as I unpacked and repacked various compartments. I did decide to leave the bottles of wine and olive oil in the checked luggage, carefully surrounded by an assortment of clothes, despite some worry about the rough baggage handling at Schiphol, because I really didn't want to be lugging all that stuff around.

I finished the repacking and then sat back and tried to calm down from my mad dash for the bus. We got to the airport about 11:40, and a sign said that check-in would start at 1:45, so I loaded my stuff onto a (free!) luggage cart and settled in to wait. I bought a can of Coke for the exhorbitant price of €1,60, the first soda I'd had in more than a week. They use a different formula there, but it still tasted like home.

The check-in process was pretty uneventful, as was passport control (the guard glanced at it) and security (where they don't make you take your laptop out, so it's a lot less of a pain). My 3:55 flight was the only one between midnight and 7am, so we were really the only people there. I sat in the waiting area for another hour, reading, until they announced the start of boarding. Initially, they said "business class only", so I sat back down and waited; as more and more people went through, I kept wondering why they hadn't announced general boarding. They never did. The line got down to the last few people, the screen actually said "last call", and they still had made no general announcement. Whatever. It's not like it changed which seat I got. On the plane, I read for a little while and then went to sleep.

When we arrived in Amsterdam, it was somewhere in terminal B, I think, and on our way to our next gate, we had to go through passport control. I'm totally baffled as to the logistics of this airport. Anyway, I had checked the monitors and they said to go to F7, which I did (after calling home and getting a bite to eat). The monitor there did indeed include KLM611 as the next flight, so I sat down to read.

After about an hour, I glanced up and my flight was no longer on the listing. There were no general departures boards anywhere nearby, so I went in a bit, only to discover that the flight was now listed for gate E25, all the way at the end of a different arm radiating out from the main concourse. This was a solid ten-minute brisk walk, including walking on the moving walkways that covered about half the distance, so this other gate must have been at least a mile away. Sort of irritating. Anyway, I got to the gate, read for a while, realised I was falling asleep, and set my alarm for 9:00. This really freaked out a lot of the people in the area, until I groggily showed them that it was an alarm clock I was turning off; did they think it was a bomb or something?

Boarding was purportedly starting at 9:10 for the 10:50 flight, but there didn't seem to be a line and they hadn't made any announcements. I milled around in the general area (·) and noticed one person go into the gate area, and apparently through security. I asked if boarding had started, and they said yes, so I pulled out my passport and ticket and went through; I'm not sure why they didn't announce it, or why they didn't get the business class folks in first. I'm also not clear on when exactly they do at-the-gate security, whether it's for US flights or what, but in any case after getting felt up by a Dutch security guard I got onto the jetway and boarded the plane.

I've never been on a 747 before, so it was cool to see stairs in the plane going up to the business class section, but since we couldn't actually see anything up there, it was less cool than it might have been. When I got to my seat, though, I was scheduled for the window seat, but a man and his son were occupying the window and middle seats. I was disappointed, but didn't feel like making a big deal out of it, so I just took the aisle seat. This turned out to be a mistake, as the kid had to get up and go to the bathroom about every forty minutes. (I guess this probably had something to do with trying out the nifty airplane lavs, but it was still irritating.) About halfway through the flight, when he went I asked the guy if I could just take the window seat, since I was going to be sleeping the rest of the way. He agreed, and I got my window seat.

I didn't sleep the whole rest of the way, though. I slept a bunch, but then I got into half-watching the airline movie, which was the one where Julia Stiles falls in love with a guy that turns out to be the crown Prince of Denmark. The fascinating thing was that I didn't have headphones on, and it was subtitled in Dutch, which it turns out I can read more of than I would have expected. (On the other hand, this was an extremely low-entropy string of text, so maybe it's not so indicative. I'm sure I couldn't read a Dutch newspaper, for instance.)

On the plane we got our customs forms to fill out. The guy with the kid said he didn't have his glasses and asked if I'd help him fill it out. I kind of wonder if he was actually illiterate, because even after I explained what each blank was for, he appeared to be copying out of his passport and state ID, even for things like his name, which you might expect he'd already know how to spell, and his birthday, and country of origin. His English was really good, so I don't think it was just a language barrier. And he had clearly found ways to compensate. Still, it was interesting to see.

It turns out, by the way, that eight-hour flights are qualitatively longer than six-hour flights, in much the same way that four- to six-hour flights are qualitatively longer than two-hour flights. I don't know where the break is, but it's definitely there somewhere.

Finally, we landed around 11:50, and after about twenty minutes I was able to actually exit the plane. The line at immigration was long, but went fast (at least for the U.S. citizens). Then we had to sit and wait for our checked luggage to come out before we could process through customs; this took almost an hour. Actually waiting in line at customs only took about five or ten minutes, and the actual processing was pretty perfunctory. The only observation of note was that no photography was allowed in the customs area, and you're not allowed to use your cell phones either. Why not, I wonder? I can't think of any legitimate reason to ban them.

Anyway, having passed customs, I got to a bank of phones, dropped in a couple of quarters, and called home for my pickup. At 1:30 I was picked up, and I got home a few minutes before 2, having been in transit for a little over 22 hours. Whew!

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Last day in Barcelona

I got up relatively early and packed everything up, meeting Marcus down at the street so that he could take me up to his room where I could leave my big backpack all day. It's too bad his hostel was full, because it looks like it would've been a really cool place to stay---it was originally a convent, and all the rooms are arrayed about an internal courtyard with hanging plants and such. Ah well, at least I got to see it. (·)

As arranged, we got to the Museu Picasso just before 10. There was a line, but they hadn't even started letting people in yet, so we figured it would move fairly fast. We got in line, figuring we'd wave Noah and Karen in once they got there. The museum opened, and the line started moving, but still no Noah and Karen. Eventually we got to the front of the line, at which point we had to get out of line since we still hadn't seen them. I was just going to wait in the street, but Marcus thought to get back at the end of the line; I suppose that at least randomises the wait time from a guaranteed ten minutes down to somewhere between zero and ten.

The wait was pretty enjoyable, actually, because a pair of violinists had set up shop right next to the head of the line. They opened with the "Ave Maria", played beautifully. Their second piece was "Yesterday" (as in, "all my troubles seemed so far away..."); like one or two other Beatles songs, I think the harmonies and discords are brought out even better instrumentally than vocally, so this worked better than you might think. Then they played a jazzy number that sounded desperately familiar but for which I simply couldn't come up with a name. (Later, Noah would identify it as "Summertime", based on me humming just a few bars, thank goodness.) Then they leapt all the way back to the baroque era with something that sounded like Bach. I gave them a euro, because they were really quite good.

In the end, they showed up about 10:20, having been held up in the usual comedy-of-errors sort of combined hangups that usually happen in these cases. As it happened, the line was actually moving pretty quickly, so we were inside by 10:30. We had to check our bags, and again, no pictures were allowed, more's the pity. It was really cool to see some of Picasso's earlier and less-well-known work. True to form, I found that I preferred a lot of it to his famous stuff, actually.

After a few hours there, we decided to walk beachwards and look for lunch food along the way. We actually found a bureau de tabac first, which enabled me to buy a few more postcards and them to buy postcard stamps---they don't have post offices there, I guess, because you get your stamps at the tobacco shops---although I enjoyed going inside and seeing the other stuff for sale. Essentially all the tobacco derives from Habana or somewhere else in Cuba, unsurprisingly. I was amused that all the cigar boxes had (presumably legally required) big warning labels about the dangers of smoking---that sort of thing would never manage to get passed in the States. (·) (·)

A block or two later we found a tapes bar that seemed to have some vegetarian fare, so we sat down to eat. Aside from a slightly surly waiter, it was good; we had apparently stumbled into ordering a number of classic tapa dishes, including pa amb tomáquet (tomato bread), patates braves (fried potatos with spicy sauce), patates amb alioli (fried potatos with garlic mayonnaise), and truita de patates (potato omelet). All vegetarian, and all really good.

While we were eating, a pair of clarinetists and a drummer started playing a decent rendition of Hava Nagila, which we found somewhat amusing. When one came to us with tambourine in hand, I gave him a load of five-cent coins, as I had nothing else smaller than a euro. And he rejected it! He looked at it, shook his head, and handed it back to me. I was completely stunned. I've never heard of buskers rejecting money before.

Anyway, at this point we walked down to Platja de Barceloneta. (·) (·) (·) (·) Oddly enough, it was just a couple minutes' walk from where I'd been staying during the conference, but I never made it down there then, except for a brief sojourn just before I checked out. This day, though, we were dressed for it and had brought towels and sunscreen. The Mediterranean is very salty and rather warm, although less warm than I'd been led to believe. We stayed there for about two hours, and I did my best to avoid getting burnt; my sunblock was SPF 50 and it got applied twice (not counting the round I'd put on in the morning). As far as I can tell, my nose and cheeks got slightly pinked, and everything else got, maybe, imperceptibly, slightly tanned. So it was a success. :)

Marcus wanted to go to the modern art museum, so we split up at that point; Noah and Karen and I went back to their hotel room and took showers. We were going to go try the chocolate museum, but we didn't get there until 6:30, and since it closed at 7 they had already stopped selling tickets. Alas. However, Karen remembered a little gelat and sweets shop near the Palau de Música, and we went over there and I went overboard buying a bunch of assorted chocolates to bring home.

We met back up with Marcus at Plaça Catalunya at 8:30 and went to a restaurant not far from there. The kitchen didn't open until 9, so Marcus and I went back to his hostel to get my bag, which I brought back to the restaurant with me. We ordered right at 9, and so I knew I wouldn't make the 10:00 train, but the 11:00 bus seemed within reach. I ordered the "crunchy ravioli", which I didn't like, and the "side of ox", which was simply fantastic. For dessert there was a sweet curry bread, that was I think the most unusual flavour combination I've ever tasted. After a quick cup of café con leche, I said goodbye to everyone, put my big backpack on my back and my small backpack on my front, and as of 10:46 CEST I was In Transit.

Other pictures: (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·)

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Postconventional observation

Tuesday, the day after the conference, I was able to sleep in a bit, getting up at 9 or so to pack up my stuff and take some pictures of the area near the dorm, most of which I had explored earlier in the week: the beach (·) (·) (·) (·) , the parks (·) (·) (·) (·) , and the neighbourhood itself. (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) I also took some pictures of the dorm room for comparison purposes. (·) (·) (·) Finally, I checked out, checked my email, and headed into the city. Marcus was staying at the Hostal Peninsular on C/ Sant Pau near Liceu stop, so I tried there first, but all they had were doubles. Across the street, the Hostal River had an open room, which I jumped on; it was rather similar to the hostel I'd stayed in before, actually. (·) (·) (·) (·)

I arranged to meet Noah and Karen and Marcus to hang out and see the sights. There had been some discussion as to where to meet, and when at 1:00 they weren't at the Liceu station, and then 1:05, I suddenly remembered that we had settled on the cathedral. Embarrassingly, it was actually me that suggested the specific location: the reconstructed aqueduct and the "Barcino" sign. So I hoofed it over there and was only ten minutes late. :)

Since Karen is vegetarian (and Noah is too, more or less, although he eats some fish), she had consulted her guidebook to find veg-friendly places. We picked two that weren't too far away; the first had moved, but the second was there and open. Unfortunately, in the event, the only vegetarian thing they had was a green salad for the entrée and nothing for the main dish, so the rest of us felt bad. I had some bisteca, i.e. beefsteak, which was actually a very thin slice of beef that was actually quite good.

From there, we wandered over to the Picasso museum, but the line looked really long, so we continued on to the Museu d'Historia del Ciutat, which runs underneath a few government buildings and several streets, and actually is an active archeological excavation of the old city buildings and streets, from various eras in the city's history. The oldest portions have a laundry and cloth-dyer's from the first and second centuries AD, moving on through a variety of episcopal buildings to a major regional winery active in the sixth century. Really cool. No pictures, unfortunately. (I suspect it's more because they don't want flash than that they don't want pictures taken---and tourists are assumed to be too stupid to know how to turn off their flash. Yet another instance of stupid people making my life worse.)

We tried the Picasso museum again after that, but again, the line was lengthy, so we went on up to the Sagrada Família. (·) This is a church that has been under construction since 1882 and may be completed as early as 2035. It is probably the most famous monument in Barcelona, an icon of the modernista movement, and the life's work of Antoni Gaudí. The only really "done" part is the crypt, which has chairs crammed in every which way to house what must be a sizable parochial congregation---they'll fit just fine when the church is done, but until then, they're a bit cramped.

For dinner, we wanted to go to a part of the city we hadn't seen yet, and we selected the Grácia neighbourhood. (·) It's actually an old outlying village that got annexed to the city in the late 19th century (as is obvious if you look at a map). For perhaps the first time, I felt like the vast majority of the people were actually there because they lived there, rather than as tourists or locals from some other part of the town. We found a tapes (singular tapa) place called Sol Soler that sort of catered to vegetarian tastes, with five of the eight dishes being totally meat free. It wasn't bad as such, but it was certainly not the most thrilling meal I'd had. We decided to go elsewhere for dessert, and wandered a bit looking for an outdoor café.

The place we found was indeed on a plaça, the one where the church of Sant Joan (that's John, not Joan) is. (·) We found a seat and I expressed our interest in postres---i.e. dessert---but apparently they didn't serve any, so I asked for cava instead. There was some confusion as to what the price was going to be, but we figured it couldn't be too expensive; it wasn't, coming in at €13,50 for a whole bottle. It was excellent cava, too.

Finally, we wandered back to the metro, from which we dispersed after making plans for how to meet the next morning.

Posted by blahedo at 4:39pm | Comments (0) | TrackBack

More reading

I'm on page 590, and Neal Stephenson (via his character Randy Waterhouse) has just gone on a big rant about the proper way to appreciate eating cereal and the ridiculousness of anything other than whole milk, while at the same time giving a credible thoughtstream of a newcomer ballroom dancer. God, this book is good.

Posted by blahedo at 10:13am | Comments (0) | TrackBack

28 Jul 2004

Eating

The food here is fairly good, but you have to know where to look---and when to look for it.

During the conference, the main problem with finding food was that our schedules were off. Our morning sessions typically started before 9am, and there is simply nothing to be found before then. Our lunch breaks started around noon, and ended at 1 or 1:30, at which time the locals are just beginning to think about lunch, and the eateries are just beginning to open. Operating on this American eating schedule, we're getting pretty hungry by 7 or so, but dinner isn't really served until 9 or 10 at night. Really, things would've been a lot better if they'd just added one and a half or two hours to every time on the conference schedule.

Due largely to our messed up scheduling, it took a while to get the hang of getting good food around here. We were also confounded by the location of the Forum. This thing is in the back of beyond, relatively speaking, and there is very little around. After the opening reception, we got "dinner" at a little sidewalk cafe that really was not geared to dinner; I ended up with something that resembled an American country breakfast, with eggs and bacon. For the first several days of the conference, we were under the impression that the only available lunch food was on the Forum grounds, in kiosks that were overpriced and had much too small portions. It wasn't until Sunday that I discovered the food court of the mall across the street, which has at least one excellent sandwich shop---a chain, but at least a local one.

For dinner, we got the hang of it faster. The first actual night of the conference, a bunch of us arranged to meet at the Jaume I metro stop, from which we wandered and eventually found a place that served fantastic paella. The second night was the banquet, where the food was basically adequate, if not especially impressive. (The location, the Llótja, was much moreso. (·) (·) (·) (·) (·))

The closing night of the main conference, Saturday, we went to a place in Eixample that we accidentally discovered when I was reading my guidebook and asked, "what could they possibly mean by a 'distinctively gay restaurant'?" At which point someone looked over my shoulder and said "Well, presumably the drag queens and trapezes have something to do with it." Someone else pipes up: "They have trapezes?? We have to go there." And so we did. We got a table at La Miranda right as it opened, at 9 (see? I told you), and ordered our food. Most of the options for the main dish were, in fact, raw, but that didn't really bother most of us. (My veal carpaccio was, in fact, quite good.) What made it distinctively gay? Well, the waitstaff seemed to entirely consist of skinny guys wearing tight t-shirts and jeans, but the main tipoff was, in fact, the drag queens (and attendant trapeze). A little after ten, the lights went out, disco-ish music starts playing, and at either end of the aisle was a waiter waving a big flashlight. Onto the runway steps a really impressive drag queen who proceeds to lipsynch to the song, dancing up and down the aisle and slowly stripping to her lingerie. This engendered a lively debate as to whether she was, in fact, "just" a drag queen or an actual woman (this latter category including both post-op transsexuals and born women). About a half hour later the waiters came and asked one of us to move so they could lower the trapeze (and by this they mean a metre-diameter ring hanging by a chain from the ceiling); again, the lights went down, music started, and a different performer comes out and does this elabourate trapeze act involving balancing in this ring and hanging from feet and hands. Again, a debate started, this time with different people coming down on each side. Finally, the original dancer came out for a third number, where she lip-synched to a song "Spanish Rose", in English, badly, wearing a big red wig and a floral print dress. More people agreed this time that she was, in fact, a drag queen, although there were still holdouts. In any case, regardless, the entertainment along with the excellent food made this quite the memorable experience.

Sunday, the quest was a little trickier because a lot of places are closed Sunday evenings. Nevertheless, we found a perfectly good little restaurant off a plaça in La Ribera that served Basque cuisine; I got to eat another new thing here, as they served, of all things, pigeon. It was pretty good, actually, although the legs have so little meat that it's rather more work than it's worth. The brest meat was surprisingly tender, which leads me to believe that these were probably farm-raised in a small cage, but I'm at least happy I got to try it. The other notable thing about our trip to this restaurant was the prevalence of apples: nearly everything came with something apple-related, at least as a garnish. (The pigeon had an apple-flavoured chestnut sauce that was a lot like really thick, really tasty apple butter.) Must be a, you know, thing. For dessert I had the arroz con leche, which was a bit runnier than I expected, but John Hale really was the winner when he took a shot of some liqueur (and gave us a taste)---powerful stuff, with a heavy kick and just a hint of apple to it. I thought about ordering one myself after that.

Monday night we sought a tapas bar, figuring we ought to before we left, but we were unsuccessful given that we were in Barceloneta near the beach---they were all seafood restaurants. It was apparently very good seafood, although as a Midwesterner I really don't have the taste for it. I had the bream, and it was fine. I was amused that others at the table seemed rather more bothered than I that the fish was served with the head, tail, and eyes intact. I mean, seriously, you just work around them. I can't end this paragraph without mentioning the sangría, though: it was incredibly good, both the regular (red wine) sangría and the sangría de cava, made from the locally made sparkling white.

So basically, I've had some pretty good food experiences here. I definitely recommend not trying to skimp on the food if you visit; try a variety of restaurants. On the other hand, the food is probably not so special that it's worth scheduling a trip for. With apologies to Baker's Square: come for the architecture, stay for the food.

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27 Jul 2004

The languages of Barcelona

One thing I'm still trying to figure out is just what the place of la llengua catalana is around here. All signs, with very few exceptions, are in Catalan. Some are only in Catalan, some in Catalan, Spanish, and English; a very few are in Catalan and Spanish only. That indicates to me that, at least officially, Spanish is regarded as about the same as English: a language that a lot of visitors to the city will use, and so worth putting on signs.

When people talk, I definitely hear a fair number speaking in Spanish, not Catalan, even in the less touristy areas. There certainly is some Catalan too, but not as much as I'd guess from looking at the signage.

The thing that really gets me, though, is when people interact with me. I guess it's reasonable to speak to me in Spanish, since I'm obviously not a local and therefore probably can handle Spanish better than Catalan. But I'd think that if there really is this nationalistic feeling that Catalan is a full language, the local language, and just as good as Spanish, they'd want to try using it more, relying on Spanish (and English) more as fallback languages. I find it especially odd when I order something in Catalan, and almost inevitably, they confirm it in Spanish. (That, or they just write down the order or yell it back to the cook staff in Spanish.) Clearly, I need some sort of button to wear to indicate that Spanish isn't going to work for me any better than Catalan will, so you might as well try the latter. (Especially since my French will help me a lot more with Catalan than with Spanish!)

Posted by blahedo at 12:50pm | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Forum

It's hard to describe the Forum adequately, but I'll start by saying that it's really, really, really big. Everywhere else in Barcelona they seem to understand that size isn't everything, and keeping things close together brings a synergy, both in terms of working together and bringing people in. The Forum totally misses this point. Everything about it is big and spread out; they clearly spent a lot of money on it, and hired a lot of people to staff it, and they just aren't bringing in the numbers.

It's also got this crazy overdone security system that can't be helping matters any. Before we could go in to the conference reception, we had to check in at the accreditation centre across the street (and by "across the street" I mean "a couple hundred yards away"), show them our passports, and get little plastic cards that we were supposed to wear, in addition to the usual conference nametags. These plastic cards had barcodes that we could wave in front of scanners to get into the Forum grounds, after which our bags were X-rayed, we walked another eighty yards or so, had to card in and get our bags X-rayed again, and this time we had to go through metal detectors as well. What an incredible pain.

The reception was held on the ground floor, in a big room. Like, the sort of room you'd hold a huge convention with booths and stalls and vendors. Except that it was empty, exposing broad expanses of concrete and, way at the far end of the room, six tables with assorted hors d'oeuvres on them and two with drinks. People milled about uncertainly, not willing to be the first to cross this vast gulf to get to the food. (I know you think I'm exaggerating, but I'm really not.)

Later on, as we started attending the conference proper, we saw more evidence of poor planning. The coffee breaks were held in a hallway whose walls and carpet were blue and yellow. (Not IKEA colours, but close.) The problem with yellow carpets, though, is that when you hold coffee breaks atop them, they stain horribly. This place has been open for three months, and this whole hallway looks completely nasty.

The paper sessions of the conference were held in rooms 115, 116, and 117. Now, I'm sure it sounded good on paper to paint the room numbers in huge five-foot-high letters on the paired doors; but they were on the left side of the hallway, and when the left door of the pair was open, all we could see was "11". Furthermore, they did not have a central post that they closed against (the better to blend with the paneling on the wall---another bad choice), so the edge of the doors were bevelled so that you had to open the left hand door first. Which was fine on the outside, since that was the only one with a handle. But on the inside, both halves of the door had push bars on them---but if you pushed on the wrong one, you'd have to push two heavy doors open. There was no indication which one was the correct one to open.

Out in the main area of the Forum, there were some interesting exhibits. But the nearest of them was a full five-minute walk away, and I think the furthest would have been twenty or more. So we didn't get to see many of them. What was there was good (if rather bizarre), but there just weren't very many people who would come all the way out to the edge of the city, process a security clearance, go through security (and pay for entrance---those not with the conference had to pay €20 to enter!), and then walk across huge expanses, just to see an installation about biodiversity, or about fair trade. Ultimately, I think the Forum was a decent idea, executed really, really badly. Hopefully, they will be able to find some way to recoup at least some portion of their investment. (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·)

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Cathedral etc.

You wouldn't believe how hard it is to find a power plug adapter in this city. And yet, the hostels seem to have these dual US/Europe plugs (UK must feel left out). But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Wednesday morning I got up and packed up my stuff; I had thought I'd go get breakfast and then come back to check out, but it got to be about 9 and I decided I'd just check out then. A good choice, as it turns out, because nothing was open yet. Seriously. A bunch of places had their security doors half open to let workers in, as they prepared to open, but they really weren't open yet. So I wandered over to the cathedral.

The cathedral is gorgeous, as most are, and put together in a mishmash of styles reflecting its multi-stage construction. (·) The main part of the church is dominated by the choir, this vast expanse of woodwork right in the middle of the sanctuary that seems to be present in a lot of European churches---it has seats two deep on either side of the main aisle, and the whole thing is enclosed with walls on three sides (it is open to the altar). (·) In front of this are some pews, (·) then a broad staircase down to the tomb of Santa Eulàlia, which is beneath the major altar. (·) (·) Ringing the altar are a series of small chapels to a great variety of saints, each with its own little altar and about four chairs. (·) (·) I suppose that priests can say their daily masses in these, or perhaps they are just for the feast days. On the side of the sanctuary, then, is the cloister, (·) (·) (·) an open courtyard itself ringed by small chapels to various things. (·) (·) In the corner of this is a different sort of chapel, actually in its own room, to Santa Llúcia, patron saint of the blind, in which (reportedly) a huge number of blind people show up every year on her feast day, to attend mass. (·) The walls of the chapels, the cloister, and the sanctuary itself are fairly littered with dead people. Well, they're put away in little boxes (called "sepulchres"), but still. There are an awful lot of them. (·) (·) (·) (·)

Having finished my circuit of the cathedral, I had killed enough time that cafés were open, so I got a desayuno continental on a little terrace about a half-block from the church. (·) I still needed to kill some time before going to meet Sharon, so I went to the Palau de la Música Catalana.

This place was completely amazing. It's practically a shrine to the modernista movement, built right at its peak to house the Orfeó Català, a major symphony orchestra based here in Barcelona. (·) (·) (·) (·) I took a picture in the lobby (·), but apparently they don't want me to advertise for them, and they wouldn't let me take any pictures inside. (Trust me, if I posted pictures, it'd be an advertisement for them!)

My tour ended just before 1:00, so I needed to hustle to meet Sharon a few stops away at 1:15. Fortunately, it was on the same subway line as the stop near the Palau, so I wasn't too late. The place appears to be a dorm during the schoolyear, which they run as a hostel during the summer. It has laundry and a computer room with internet, and each room has a bathroom, a small kitchenette, a TV, A/C (well, some of the rooms did; ours, for instance), and a telephone. All of which basically means that we paid about half as much for our room as a lot of the hotel-residing attendees, and we got a lot better accommodations.

It's in the middle of a residential neighborhood, like and yet unlike those of the Barri Gòtic. Like, because the streets are somewhat narrow, often pedestrian-only, and have four- and five-storey walk-ups on either side with stuff hanging off the balconies. Unlike, because this area was highly planned, and the streets are all on a perfect grid, with each building being not much wider than the street, such that each building is only about one apartment wide, giving all the living spaces windows on two or three sides.

Being residential, it had a "supermarket", by which they mean something only slightly smaller than the Thayer Street Store 24, although considerably better-stocked. Since we had a fridge, we went out and got things for breakfast, like cereal, milk, orange juice, and bananas. We also got some snacks, namely yogurt and flan-in-a-cup. Despite the poor exchange rate, food was very inexpensive here. One purchase, of laundry detergent and bananas, was just €3, and the other, of all the rest of the stuff, rang in at only €5. Not bad, for breakfast and snacks for a week.

Eventually, we got ready to head in for the opening reception, and the Fórum.

Other pix: Of the Cathedral: (·) (·) Others: (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·)

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21 Jul 2004

a-HA!

Crème brûlée!!

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20 Jul 2004

Dinner

On my way to find dinner, I wandered into the Mercat de Sant Josep just off La Rambla. It's an open-air market, but probably not quite what you're thinking: each vendor has a stall that can be locked up, and there is a big canopy over the whole thing. (·) (·) At each vendor, then, there is a big stack of whatever they sell, from individual fruits and vegetables to identifiable pieces of dead animals. The prices seemed fairly reasonable, too, which probably has something to do with cutting out a number of middlemen.

I ended up getting dinner at a restaurant/tapas place named "Egipte", where I got the fixed menu for €15 (plus tax, a fact which made me actually grit my teeth as I realised we had exported that idiotic practice). The first course was this amazing mix of assorted shellfish into what would be a really good dip, served on a canonical shell (that is, shaped exactly like the Shell gas station logo) and with a few pieces of lettuce strewn across the plate. It came with a fourth (of a litre) of beer. Which, by the way, no longer is distasteful to me like it used to be; not sure when that happened, really.

The main course was turkey with plums (and potatoes and some sort of bean, but the title of it was "turkey with plums"). What I was not expecting was a leg of turkey on the bone, which I had to extract. (I also had to extract the plums from their pits, which was marginally easier.) It was a little tricky not to send things flying off my plate, but I managed.

I was presented with a dessert menu, and they all sounded plausible, but I figured I would try the "crèma catalana" as being local. It was exactly like that French dessert whose name I have been trying to remember for the last hour, a custard with a hard, caramelised layer on top, except served in a broad tart dish to give the custard a much larger surface area to torch. The French name is still not coming to me, and this is driving me nuts. Augghhh.

On the way into the hostel, I saw the garbage truck they use to serve the Barri Gòtic with its six-foot-wide streets: it's about the size of my mom's minivan. Smaller, actually. (·)

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Onwards

Well, I'm glad that I always am careful to pack yucky things (or, as Lee puts it, "things that don't taste good") instide plastic bags. I went to put on my sunblock this morning, and it was all over the inside of the bag it was in. Completely contained by the bag, which all works out for the best since it's something I won't mind jettisoning on the trip home, leaving me room for more stuff. But still, whew. Up til now I'd been doing it as a precaution against something that had never actually occurred. Vindicating, it is.

Anyway, I ended up leaving the hostel around 11. Today I wandered more southward, into the mazy oldtown area that wasn't marked "pedestrians only" on the map. I'm not sure what the actual differences with the roads are, because they all still are about seven or eight feet wide. It's just that here, there are wrong way, one way, no parking, and you-must-turn-here signs all over the place---mounted to the buildings, of course, because there's certainly no room for a signpost. Even in the places there are no road markings, so it's pretty free-for-all. (·) (·) (·) I now understand the enamel "entrada" and "salida" ("enter", "exit") signs that were on random corners---these mark the direction of that particular road, or did before various roads were barred to street traffic, and before the more modern symbolic signage came into use. (That's another thing---no words on almost any of the signs. It's all about shape and colour, although I think the colour is always redundant.)

On one street, I saw a sign "Urbá" and the much more important "Lliure" ("free"), so I went in. It appeared to be some sort of museum, although on closer inspection it appeared to be more of a showcase of the city (·) (·) and the current city planning projects. (·) I am deeply envious of the residents of this city and region; they understand quite well that designing a city is not solely about maximising revenue for someone or maximising space efficiency. Equally important are things like livability, and sustainability. (·) Integrating different sectors of the society is a priority---they have recently been building "10hj" subsidised housing, with some units set aside for young families that don't make enough to live in the city otherwise, and some units set aside for seniors on pension. (·) Even though this city this size of Chicago already has a better public transit system than anything in North America, they have several more metro lines planned, a few extensions to their existing metro and light rail lines, and a whole new streetcar system of which the first segments are just opening. (·) How can we get Americans to take this attitude?

So this little wander dumped me out into the Port Vell ("old port"). I poked around a little there, (·) (·) but decided to head up further north. I decided to go to the university, since the guidebook seemed to indicate a place nearby there to eat, and I was intending to head on further north from there. I popped into the university building (·) briefly, which was cool (they have a gorgeous courtyard (·)), but I was getting hungry so I left soon.

Then, I couldn't find the page in the guidebook I'd been looking at last night, but I ended up finding another place on the Ronda de la Universitat called "Le table de pain" (which I think should've been "du pain" but whatever), where I had a decent crêpe de salmon and a fantastic café con leche (con azúcar too, of course). I conducted the whole thing in Spanish, which as I've said, I don't speak.

From there, I was nearly at the Pça. Catalunya again, but this time I wanted to get a real look at the place, fountains and all. (·) Then I proceeded up the Passeig de Grácia, which is a lot more like the sorts of major roads I've seen before, albeit with somewhat different traffic patterns. (·) (·) (·) The sidewalks were huge, of course, and the main road was divided into ten (!) lanes. Two on each side were the "frontage road" lanes in the style of Palatine Road east of Rand: if you wanted to make a turn (in either direction), you had to be on these side roads (of which one lane was a parking lane). The remaining six lanes were in the middle, and the outside two of those were dedicated to bus and taxi traffic only. Somewhat oddly, the middle four "express" lanes were not evenly split, but had three lanes northbound and only one headed south. I suppose there's some other road with the reverse arrangement, and it no doubt makes a great deal of sense, actually.

This took me past the Casa Batlló, (·) (·) but I went straight on up to La Pedrera, (·) an apartment block designed by Antoni Gaudí. This guy was a machine. But before I went up to the "permanent collection" on the top floors, I checked out the free exhibition on the first (second) floor, which was on Mesoamerican cultures. Honestly, there's only so many Aztec figurines one can look at. Although, the curators may have realised this, and about two thirds of the way through they have the fertility-themed items, which included four items labelled "Fal·lus"---they were enormous stone penises, and none of this crude it-can-be-interpreted-as stuff either, as they were sculpted in loving detail and completely unmistakable for anything else. Also of note was a little sculpture innocuously named "Escultura masculina i femenina" that I mentally subtitled ": before the missionaries". Near the end of the exhibit was a bas-relief from the Mayan classical period of a captive. I didn't know they did bas-reliefs over there, but evidently they did. I'm not sure what caught my eye, but the thing was pretty intense.

So then I took my leave of the visiting exhibition to go upstairs, where for €7 I got to wander around a restored apartment from the modernista era, the "attic" which now holds the Espai Gaudí, a permanent exhibition of models and explanations of his work, and finally up to the roof, which was an Escheresque maze of staircases and chimneys and ventilation shafts, all decorated in the sinuous modernist style.

The apartment was pretty sinuous itself, actually. There wasn't a rectangular room in the place, and most rooms didn't even contain any right angles. The living and dining room had a hardwood floor in an awesome pattern that involved triangles of alternating colour (light and dark wood) that could be viewed either as arranged hexagonally or on a rectangular grid. (·) The bathroom had an old-fashioned elevated-tank toilet, but the tank was not directly over the toilet, rather on an adjacent wall that required the pipe to swerve on its way down. The kitchen had a pre-appliance arrangement from back when kitchens just had counters and a stove, and even running water was a relatively new development. Over the stove, though, was what could only have been a hot water tank; I'm not sure where the output for it was (it may have run through the walls), but it was designed such that without any pumps or for that matter any other interference, it would be full of hot water any time the stove was on (presumably more often than not). (·)

After the apartment, we went up to the "attic". (·) The majority of the building had been designed with the then-new-ish steel girder technology that obviated the need for load-bearing walls. Gaudí apparently wanted an attic as a matter of insulation, but didn't want to add to the weight carried down the interior of the building, so this floor supports the roof by means of a dense network of arches constructed out of flat brick. The effect is pretty attention-grabbing.

(Sidebar: when I went to see Sta. María del Pi the other day, I knew it was relatively close to my hostel; last night I was thinking that based on the volume of the bells ringing it must be closer than I thought. I was deceived by the maziness of the barri I'm staying in: I just poked my head out my window, and its bell tower literally forms the back wall of the other half of the hostel.) (·)

In the Espai Gaudí I learned just how cool this guy was. Without really having a math background in the conventional sense, he had an immense intuitive understanding of the mathematics required to engineer his architectural dreams. He discovered a way to operationally calculate an optimal load-bearing arch by hanging weights proportional to the load to lengths of string that were topologically laid out according to his design. (·) He understood minimal surfaces in a way that few do today. Furthermore, he also had a good grasp of the relationship between form and function, and the importance of colour, texture, and light in any space that humans are going to be spending any significant amount of time.

The roof was, as I mentioned, almost Escheresque, except for the fact that it is actually implementable in 3D. (·) The whole thing is rather whimsical rather than practical for anything I could think of, although points of it gave quite good views of the city. In particular, from this vantage point it was easy to see the brilliance of the city planners who designed the Eixample---the city region where La Pedrera is situated. The street is a strict square grid at ten blocks to the mile, except for where one or two angle streets cut through. One block (really more of a rounded square, as the corners are cut off to make every intersection more friendly to pedestrians and motorists both) has buildings all around its exterior. But these blocks are pretty big, so there's a big open area in the middle, with terraces and green areas for the people who live and work around the outside. (·) (Reminds me of some designs I saw at the carfree site.) Apparently, a number of these are being reclaimed as public green spaces. (Also reminds me of something I saw at the carfree site.) Even in this turn-of-the-century part of the city, whose façades show that it was quite well influenced by the French style, livability and communality were not dismissed.

On my way out, I browsed the gift shop and found myself wishing I knew somebody with a kid of, oh, about ten years old, who was into building models and stuff. There was one of those card-stock books with cut-out (with an exacto knife, that is) pieces for La Pedrera. There were a few different "Gaudí kits" to assemble to understand hyperboloids, paraboloids, and catenaries. Just the sort of thing I would've gone crazy for about fifteen years ago. :)

At that point my feet were getting really tired, so I hopped back on the metro to my hostel. Now I'm starving, so I'm going to head out for an early dinner.

More pix: Of La Pedrera: (·) (·) (·) Other pix: (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·)

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19 Jul 2004

Book update

I just got to the part of Cryptonomicon where Waterhouse goes to the embassy of Qwghlm. What. The. Fuck. I feel like I've fallen in a hole and landed in a Terry Pratchett novel. (Which novels are good, but rather different from the book I'm reading now.)

He does, however, manage to invent and use the word "preäntepenultimate". With diaeresis. I think I'm in love.

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Barcelona: day 1

Well, I'm in Barcelona.

The adventure started yesterday at about 3:30 Boston time, which was when Evan generously drove me to Logan airport. There was no traffic and checkin was almost painfully easy---I swiped my credit card at one of the auto-checkin places, typed in my passport number, and it printed my boarding passes. There was no line at security, so I just had to dig out my computer and kick off my shoes, and that was done. (Well, almost; they swabbed my computer, to test for drugs or something I guess. Whatever it was, it was negative.) I bought a copy of Rolling Stone for the interviews with Gary Trudeau and Bill Clinton. The flight boarded uneventfully and took off on time. After finishing the Rolling Stone and leaving it for the next person, I returned to Necronomicon and about this time the drinks service came through, and shortly after that, the dinner. By the time they got back to row 35 they had run out of the regular entree and apologetically handed me their "Indian vegetarian" option which, frankly, I'm considering ordering intentionally in the future.

Then it was nap time. We were a bit less than halfway through the flight, so it was either 9pm, midnight, or 3am, depending on how you looked at it---it was dark, at any rate. I slept decently until shortly before landing. Unfortunately, it was relatively cloudy, so I didn't get much of a view. :P

Amsterdam-Schiphol International Airport is fascinating. I'm still not sure I've figured it out. When we disembarked off the plane, we were dumped off into a relatively empty corridor, which I figured was to keep us in the "international" part of the airport, but evidently not, because it dumped out onto the main concourse from which one could enter any of the gate lounges without any barriers. I followed signs to my gate (which was different depending on whether I believed my boarding pass or the departures monitors, but fortunately the signage had both gates in the same direction). This sent me through passport control and customs, which I thought was a bit odd since I wasn't actually doing anything in the Netherlands, but I suppose that all the Schengen signatories can do passport control for each other, so they can put intra-EU flights behind the inside-the-EU passport control area, saving someone some hassle.

Inside the area, I decided to scout out my gate before finding breakfast. It directed me up an escalator, which seemed odd since we were already on the second floor, but then at the actual gate I was to go down the stairs to the glassed-in waiting area. The gate itself actually has a different number, which corresponds to the waiting area outside the glass, but which has access to the same gate. But to get to the downstairs waiting area (i.e. if I hadn't been directed up that escalator earlier), I would have had to go through a different passport control area. So my best guess is that the main inside-the-security area is ambiguously either an international area or inside the EU (Schengen signatory region), and that they use the gate number of your flight to carry some state as to which it is. Except that the gate number isn't a per-person thing---the flight didn't have a mix of people from the two different gates---so I'm still not sure exactly what's going on there.

It's easy to find your way around, though, as all the signs are in English. In fact, there are only a very few signs that are even translated into Dutch, and I don't think Dutch is ever the top-listed language.

Anyway, they checked us in and boarded us and the second flight was similarly uneventful. And then I was in Barcelona! The train to the city was oddly difficult to find, but eventually I did see the sign with the train logo on it, and headed on over. I was glad I had gotten money in Amsterdam, as that made buying my train ticket easy. The train to Plaça Catalunya was smooth and fast. I came out on the surface and decided to walk down La Rambla to the hostel I was hoping to stay at, just to orient myself. Naturally, I went the wrong way (down Rambla de Catalunya, which is not the same thing). After I'd walked further than I thought I had to, and got to a different Metro stop than I was expecting, I broke down and pulled out my map. (I hate to do that; I feel like such a target.)

The remedy was easy: take the Metro L3 down to the stop I was looking for. Of course, I got on L5, but rather than try to reverse it I just took it three more stops (to Sants-Estació) to where the L5 and L3 cross again. It was the long way around, but I chalked it up as a learning experience. :)

From Liceu station, I was looking to find the HI youth hostel Barcelona-Ramblas. I found it; it was full. Fortunately, in one of the Metro stations I noticed an ad for another hostel not far from there. It was also full. Fortunately, on the way to that hostel, I noticed another one. It was not full, so I took a bed for two nights. Oddly enough, it's less what I usually think of as a hostel and more like a really budget hotel: I have my own room with a sink and a mini-balcony. (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) Cheap sheets, but that's never bothered me before. I don't have my own bathroom, but the bathroom is right across the hall and is just a one-person bathroom, so really it's not a problem. I took the opportunity to change clothes and divest myself of the monster backpack, keeping only the little one, and I went back out.

I basically just wandered around the old city and started taking lots of pictures. I was getting hungry, so I had a panini and coffee at what was probably a chain, but a local one so I didn't mind. The menu was in both Catalan and Spanish, so I tried Catalan ("Un entrepan pernil serrà i formatge"), but the worker taking my order clarified in Spanish ("¿serrano y queso?"), so I just ordered the coffee in Spanish ("Café con leche") instead of Catalan ("Cafè amb llet"). It was €4,40, which is not bad. (The coffee was excellent. The sandwich, enh.) While I ate I perused my guidebook and figured out where to go next.

Park Guëll had been recommended to me, so I figured I'd make my way up there. First I had to figure out where exactly I was, and I realised I was close to a church (Santa Maria del Pi), so I had to go check it out. There were less pine trees than advertised (I saw one), but the façade still looked nice, if a tad run-down. (·) My way out of there took me past a string quartet out busking (now there's something you don't see every day), so I had to listen to them. (·) (·) Their second number made me laugh out loud, because it was the "Minuet in G" of Music Man fame. Anyway, then I walked past the cathedral. (·) (·) I was going to not pass that up, but they seemed to be charging admission, oddly enough, so I figured I'd skip it until I figured out when their free hours were.

On the way out, though, I noticed the diocesan museum, which also charged money, but (inconsistently enough) this didn't bother me. I paid my €3, and after surrendering my camera and bag I wandered around in there for a good hour. (·) (·) There were a couple pieces that really caught my eye, for reasons I can't really even explain. That seems to happen at every museum, and it's almost always the pieces that nobody else seems to like, and that aren't highlighted.

After leaving there, I finally made it to a metro stop to head up to the Park Guëll. Immediately after leaving the station, I started seeing signs for it (always nice), and I followed them; they led me to turn on the longest, steepest street I can remember seeing. (·) I went on and on, and just as it seemed to not be going anywhere, there was to my right a "street" with steps on either side and a series of escalators up the middle---that weren't running, alas. (·) (·) About two-thirds of the way up, there was a random pay phone, so I took the opportunity to call home, it being around 10am there by now. At the top of all these stairs, I realised that the entrance to the park involved another several flights of stairs, metal ones up the side of a hill. And from there the climb was taken over by winding, switchbacked footpaths. The view, though, was absolutely incredible. (·) (·) (·) (·) (·)

At the top was an art installation by Antoni Gaudí involving three crosses made of stone atop a big tower of stone on top of the already-quite-high hill (some would undoubtedly call it a mountain). (·) One can climb this, and I realised that the views I had gotten on the way up were mere appetizers for this main course.

(·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·)

After I stared out at that for a while, I tried to go down a different route. The terrain is decently varied, and various paths are gravel-paved, stone stairs, or just dirt paths through the woods. (·) (·) (·) Eventually, I came upon a bit of path work that was edged by stones that had clearly been arranged by humans, although you might miss it until after the double-take. (·) This is the upper end of the Portíc de la Begruda(sp?), which is a bizarre path of stone archways not quite like anything you've seen before. (·) (·) (·) (·) The other end is what I guess you'd call the main part of the Park; there is a wide plaza that sits atop a vaulted gallery with 80-some Doric columns that was originally intended to house a weekly open-air market. (·) (·) (·) Flowing down from this are a series of three fountains, each in its own unique pattern. (·) (·) (·) The whole place---the whole modernista style, really---is a bit bizarre, but really cool, and it's all over Barcelona, if you look for it.

At this point I bought a water so as not to die of dehydration, and commenced to walk back down the hill. I'd actually lost a lot of altitude just getting to the main entrance, but there was still a ways to go. I made it back to the metro in one piece, and came back to my room. Then I did the most daring thing: I plugged in my computer. The one power outlet in the room, I noticed, took both the continental round-prongs plugs and the US-style flat-parallel-prongs plugs. (I still haven't gotten around to buying an adapter.) Now, I knew that just because the plug fits doesn't mean it's supplying the right power, but my power supply says it can take input anywhere from 120--220V, and 50--60Hz; that's why I was going to be able to just use an adapter without a transformer. Still, I'd never actually tested the theory before, and this was my computer I was testing it on. And indeed, it seems to have worked: I've been typing this post for the last hour and a half with no ill effects. Now I need to see if I can summon the energy to go get dinner, or whether I'll just conk out for the night.

Other related pictures: (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·) (·)

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18 Jul 2004

Emergency shoes

Forget emergency pants, on this trip I needed emergency shoes.

After a great deal of deliberation on what kind of shoes to bring on this minimal-luggage three-week trip, I settled on my sandals as being good summer shoes, acceptable up through business casual (barely), and comfy to walk around in. All of these things are true, but I neglected to notice that the sideseam on the sole was a little loose.

So Thursday evening as I was walking back from Central Square, something popped and my right foot felt odd when I walked. I looked down and the back right join between the top and bottom of the sandal had completely pulled free of the sole. So it was sort of like a half-flip-flop; the right half. Not being designed for this, it was really uncomfortable and guaranteed to cause blisters. I was close to home, so I just finished walking and figured out what I'd do.

Clearly, I needed to buy shoes. I looked through the yellow pages, and ran into the usual not-in-a-planned-city problem: street numbers are totally meaningless in figuring out where on a map an address falls. Fortunately, mapquest came to the rescue and I found a couple shoe stores in Central Square. Didn't have time Friday morning (so the commute was fun), but on the way back I stopped at Payless. I think I spent nearly an hour trying on sandals, because I'm going to be walking a lot in the next week, and I'm not going to have a chance to break them in.

So anyway, I have new sandals now. They are perhaps 95% comfortable, although there's a bit of stitching that rubs my big toe funny. Hopefully no blisters will be generated, though.

"If I ever do get a car it will be something to tinker with and be small, old, and British. Just like my mum." --Simon Jansen

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A blog by any other name

As promised, I finally got around to changing the name of the blog. I selected the catchier and much more wieldy Digital Analogue. Despite the change in name, our audiences can expect the same high-quality programming they have grown to... er, nevermind.

Incidentally, I'm so sure that my little plan to lend some Google karma to Ryan's band Suburban Funk has only succeeded in making my blog post about them the #3 Google item about them. In the second page of hits are the (empty) trackback page from that entry, and an old listing of events at the Palatine Park District where they were playing. They weren't even in the top 100 hits. I wonder if there's something blocking Google from spidering them, somehow.

"The war on drugs is over. We lost. You cannot curtail the supply. You can decrease the demand. Change your priorities now." --Charles Lindner

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17 Jul 2004

Cryptonomicon: initial impression

I've started on Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, finally, after years of it sitting on my to-read list. I've read Snow Crash, and liked it, but none of his other books. This sucker is a tome of a paperback, weighing in at a cool 1,150 pages, but it's all good.

I knew it couldn't be bad when the prologue started out with a haiku:

Two tires fly. Two wail.
A bamboo grove, all chopped down.
From it, warring songs.
Well, strictly speaking it wasn't the haiku that got me all fired up. It's that I immediately made the mental observation that this guy must pronounce "tire" as something like "tahr", if he was only counting it as one syllable. And then right there in sentences one and two: "...counting the syllables on his fingers is out of the question. Is 'tires' one syllable or two?" My kind of book.

Incidentally, it's a little weird seeing a novel written in the present tense. I can't remember if Snow Crash was that way, and you certainly adapt fast enough. But all the stuff that happens in the "present", which due to the format of the book is at least two different years at any one time, is actually present tense. I'm definitely not used to that.

The thing that I most love about Stephenson's style, though, is his way of digressing for a paragraph or a whole page or two, such that you barely even register that this is totally irrelevant to the main storyline. Sometimes the digressions are the history of some word or device or character. Sometimes they just turn around a commonplace event and describe it from a completely different perspective than you're used to. For instance:

He starts up his laptop again. Seeming to levitate in the center of his dark room, the screen is a perfect rectangle of light the color of diluted milk, of a Nordic dawn. This light originates in small fluorescent tubes imprisoned in the polycarbonate coffin of his computer's display. It can only escape through a pane of glass, facing Randy, which is entirely covered by small transistors arranged in a grid, which let photons through, or don't, or let through only those of a particular wavelength, cracking the pale light into colors. By turning those transistors on and off according to some systematic plan, meaning is conveyed to Randy Waterhouse. A good filmmaker could convey a whole story to Randy by seizing control of those transistors for a couple of hours.
See what I mean? Brilliant. He has a way with words, a way that appeals to the geekiest of geeks without (I imagine) becoming so very unreadable to the teeming millions. When his characters are computer geeks, they actually make weird analogies in their heads just like computer geeks really do:
This was just the executive summary of a weird life that Randy only learned about in bits and pieces as the years went on. Later, he was to decide that Andrew's life had been fractally weird. That is, you could take any small piece of it and examine it in detail and it, in and of itself, would turn out to be just as complicated and weird as the whole thing in its entirety.
So anyway, I'm a bit less than a tenth of the way through the book. I imagine it will last me through my trip to Barcelona.

UPDATE: fixed embarrassing typo in second paragraph.

"Saturday, Dolly gets theological: "God never takes a vacation 'cause He can't find anybody good enough to fill in." Poor God. Handcuffed by His high standards. Too bad He can't just slap in two weeks of reruns from 1977, like Bil Keane. And Bil Keane has Jeff Keane to help him out. If only God had a son to help Him out. Oh." --Funny Paper

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King of Torts

The other day I finished King of Torts by John Grisham. It's a depressing book about a depressing, shallow man. While I don't feel that the time I spent reading it was wasted, as such, I really can't recommend it to anyone else. It was relatively formulaic, and without any particularly redeeming quality that I can think of. Hack sci-fi, I like. Hack fantasy, sure. But Grisham is just a plain old hack, and I think I'll start avoiding him now. (Fortunately, I got this one for free....

"I say to our enemies: We are coming. God may have mercy on you, but we won't." --Sen. John McCain

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16 Jul 2004

On the pedagogy of intro CS

The workshop I've been attending this week is called How to Design Class Hierarchies, about how to teach introductory computer science. It follows on the heels of TeachScheme!, whose primary philosophy is that the job of an intro class is to teach CS concepts, using a language with a very light, transparent syntax, rather than having to get bogged down in the heavy syntax of a language like Java. Of course, eventually you do get to Java, and what then? The thesis of this pedagogy is that you should keep developing concepts, and introduce language constructs only as they are well-motivated by the conceptual development.

The most revolutionary development, though, is that right off the bat it teaches class hierarchy. The notion of Shape being a class that is the abstract union of Circle and Rectangle (for instance) is one of the first things developed. The only concept taught before that is that of structured data, of treating objects as collections of related data. As crazy as it may sound at first, I think it'll work pretty well.

My main worries have to do with fitting it into our larger curriculum at Knox. Much though I'd like to start with a term of Scheme (as is presumed by the HtDCH book, at least), we don't right now. That means that there are some concepts, like boolean logic, that are presumed for HtDCH but that I'll have to teach. Furthermore, when kids finish the first term course, someone will have to take over teaching the second class, and so I need to bring them to a good stopping point, which could be tricky. And finally, the current plan is that after Winter 2005, I won't be teaching 141 (I think John is taking it), so I really need to get the other CS profs on board.

The IDE is also causing me some concern. I really like the notion of language levels, restricting kids to just a subset of java until they're ready to move on (and giving them error messages tailored to the level). But BlueJ doesn't implement them, and ProfessorJ---the official IDE of the program---strikes me as possibly not ready for prime time just yet. I'm pretty conflicted about which one I should use, since they both have their pros and cons. Just today, I think I decided that I'd teach in the Linux lab---which we control---rather than the Windows lab, so that I can maybe update the IDE mid-semester. We'll see.

"Well, I figured it was Anime, and thus I needed to know how japanese it was before deciding if I cared. By "japanese" I mean does it tend to throw out lots of pseudo-mystic crap that never gets even perfunctorially explained? Are all the female voice actors most comfortable conversing in a frequency only heard by dogs? Are there commonly unexpected and earth shattering deus ex machinas, uh, I mean, "plot twists" that happen at the end of every episode then completely ignored in the next episode?
Ie: How japanese is it?" --Sam Walker

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12 Jul 2004

Follows-up

To my last post: I just tracked down the website for St Malachy, and I was not imagining the preponderance of parabolae, as see this page.

To Two Conversations: yup, they did go to school together. My mom does, in fact, know everyone.

To Taste: clearly, I stole my sister's good-train-ride karma for that night, because she had an awful time.

"No. There is no null. null is a four-letter word." --Viera Proulx

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Church, or Quonset Hut?

The church I went to on Sunday was St Malachy in Burlington, the one closest to the hotel I was staying at. It is certainly the most uniquely-constructed church I've seen; the architect seems to have had a love affair with the parabola. The main length of the church was like a parabolic prism (probably technically a saddle, but the roof line's parabola was very shallow). In the front of the church was a little room that was a tightly-focussed paraboloid with lots of stained-glass windows. Inside, about two-thirds of the way up there was a wall of (mostly) glass that separated the main church from a smaller chapel in back.

The Mass itself was nice, and they selected good music, but nobody sang, alas. The congregation was mostly older, though I'm not sure that was related. Maybe it's better at their later Mass; I was at the 8:00 in order to get to the Brenners' Sunday brunch.

"The only phrase in Klingon I know is "Where is the bathroom?". I keep trying to work it into a joke hinging on "going where no man has gone before" but decided it was too geeky." --Sam Walker

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Mazel Tov!

So, this weekend I attended Sam and Claudia's wedding. It was, of course, awesome!

Due to a slight communications mishap I couldn't go to the shabbat service that started off the weekend, but after arriving in Boston and renting a car I did get there in time for most of the subsequent dinner. Afterwards, a bunch of us went to the Thirsty Scholar in Cambridge (not my first time there) for a little while en route to dropping off Coree and Mike at the place they were staying. Heading back to the hotel (after picking up my car at the temple), we took 128 to the Middlesex Turnpike and went north. And we drove. And drove. And after what seemed like much too far, I pulled over and asked Rob and Angela if we had gone too far, but we thought not and resolved to go at least to the next major intersection. It was about a half mile further down the road. :)

The following day, we all went in to Cambridge again, and we walked to Harvard Square where we had an excellent lunch at the Finagle a Bagel, and then browsed at the Coop for a while. We went back to the hotel fairly early because we (or at least, the wedding party) didn't want there to be any chance of rushing and being late for the pictures at 5:30. After they left, Mike and I finished watching Clash of the Titans (ha!) and then went to the cathedral of reading---that is, the ginormous two-story Barnes and Noble's just off of 128 in Lexington---before going back to the hotel to pick up my forgotten camera and then proceeding on to the temple.

We were still pretty early, so we stuck around outside and chatted with the non-occupied members of the wedding party and the few other people that were there at that point. Eventually, people started arriving for the pre-wedding reception; we helped direct people for a while until it became very obvious where the party was, and then went in. The hors d'œuvres were fantastic (of course), and I met several members of Sam and Claudia's family that I hadn't previously. Eventually, we were directed to enter the sanctuary.

The ceremony itself was relatively short, and since it was bracketed by a reception and a dinner it almost felt like it was just the middle part of the larger event. At the same time, there was not at all a rushed feeling of "hurry up so we can get to the reception" that some weddings seem to have. The whole ritual was entrancing, with the rabbi switching fluently back and forth between Hebrew and English, and the cantor singing beautifully in Hebrew. When they got to the "Do you?", Sam and Claudia both responded more loudly and clearly than I remember hearing at any other wedding, he with an "Absolutely!" and she with a "Yes I do!". The ceremony closed with a really catchy song and then we went back out to eat dinner.

Dinner, too, was excellent. There were no less than eight speakers (best man, all four parents, the maid of honour, and then Sam and Claudia themselves), but while this might have been a cause for dread in some places, here it certainly was not. Many of them ran long, but they were all witty and clever and made some really nice speeches. Two of them brought out emails that Sam had sent them just after meeting Claudia, and it was really sweet. Eventually they got everyone out on the dance floor to dance the hora, a circle dance not entirely unlike one I learned at a Greek (meaning Hellenic) party once, except for the lifting people up on chairs part. Anyway, the band kept playing until 12:30, and then the party broke up for the night.

It reconvened the next morning at 10 or 10:30, depending on who you talked to, and Rob needed to go pick up Coree and Mike in Cambridge, so Angela and I drove. Except, we left the hotel at 9:20, so we got to Sam's house ridiculously early and decided to drive to downtown Lexington and walk around a little before returning right about at 10. It was at this brunch that I finally met Sam's sister and her husband, who everyone assumed I already had met and so never bothered to introduce. The food served, catered by the same group as the other three food events, was again great, featuring omelets, blintzes, and some really good lox and bagels. After a long stretch of hanging out at this party, I finally departed with the last of the non-family-members around 1:30. I dropped off Rob's tux at the pizza place (which was next door to the rental place, which was closed on Sundays) and proceeded to Cambridge, where I dropped off my stuff and drove my car back to Back Bay, drove around for about twenty minutes looking for a gas station, and finally returned it.

"The closest I get is the first 10-42 seconds of the universe. You want to call that 'god', fine." --Mike Attisha

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8 Jul 2004

Renting a car

How to best spend my last night in Chicago? With an all-night Quantum Leap marathon, of course. The first five episodes. It was Kathy's idea, mostly... it's been ages since I've pulled an all-nighter just for the hell of it.

Now I am doing battle with online reservation forms, and I weep at the difficulty of attempting to actually rent a car. Find the nearest location to a specific address? Nope. Filter out locations that aren't open at the right times? Can't be done. In fact, almost all of the car rental places will let you get all the way through the rental before telling you that the location isn't open at the right times, without telling you which times are the invalid ones, what the actual hours of the location are, or what locations nearby might have hours that would be useful to you. And for all that renting from airport locations has massive surcharges on top of it, in a lot of cases for even just a two-day rental it would be cheaper to take a cab all the way out to the airport just to rent the car there. Not one of the car rental companies has what I would classify as a "useful" website; one or two manage to not be openly hostile. How on earth do these people make money?

"I'll take the pig. You keep the girl." --Sam Beckett, Quantum Leap

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7 Jul 2004

Two conversations

Conversation the first:

MOM: I have some numbers and I want to verify addresses.

DAD: Type "phone book" into google, or "reverse phone book". Well, try "phone book" first.

ME, FROM OTHER ROOM: Just type in the number!

KATHY: Yeah, pretty much anything not a cell, if you type in the phone number it'll find the address for you.

MOM: Hey, neat.


Conversation the second:

MOM: Hey, Don, there's one in Galesburg! Mike Mannino?

ME: Why are you looking up Mike and Molly Mannino?

MOM: You know her??

ME: Yeah, she's the advisor for the Newman Club at Knox. Do you know her?

MOM: I went to school with her!


We're still working on verifying this, but apparently they were just a couple of classes apart at a tiny Catholic grade school in Chicago. Molly's older sister was one of my mom's classmates. The alum list my mom had only had Molly's maiden name, and had the street address misspelled, and the reverse lookup on the phone number had her husband's name, but I've been to her house and the street number was correct. So, the world is really really tiny and my mom knows EVERYBODY.

"Edwards' central message of fairness and economic justice puts the question in play: Which is the true political morality? Opposing gay rights and abortion or heeding the biblical admonition "We shall be judged by what we do for the least among us"?" --Arianna Huffington

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6 Jul 2004

Yarn shop!

Today I taught Kathy how to drive stick. We drove over to the parking lot at St Thomas, and she practiced starting and stopping, and eventually, shifting into second. After about a half hour of this, I pronounced her ready to drive and told her to drive to Barrington. That went pretty well until the very end, when she stalled repeatedly on the railroad tracks, but that was just her getting flustered. The real destination was, of course, a yarn shop on east Station Street.

Gene Ann's of Barrington is a pretty well-appointed yarn shop (not quite in the league of Sakonnet Purls or Needleworks, but good nonetheless), and the proprietor certainly knows her stuff. I ended up spending a ridiculous amount of money there, mostly on yarn. Oddly enough, the most expensive yarn wasn't the all-wool skeins, but the acrylic-cotton-wool mix that I got talked into. Had I realised its cost, I might not have been; the prices weren't marked and I just assumed that the acrylic would make it cheaper. Ah well, live and learn. We'll see if the cotton and wool are enough to mitigate the unpleasantness of working with the acrylic. I also picked up some sock-length Brittany wooden double-pointed needles, one set each of 0s and 1s, which have been discontinued. I decided to try a set of "Pry-Flex" dpns, which are super-flexible plastic needles, which do come in sock-length needles but only down to size 2.

Finally, I got a great book of pattern patterns; that is, not patterns for whole garments, but patterns for little repeated patches. Ribs, slip-stitching, cabling; the simple stuff is in there, but quite a bit of more complicated stuff, too. Once I'm back in Galesburg, I need to start putting together a book of swatches of these, both for practice and to actually be able to see them. (The pictures are good, but of course, they're just pictures.)

"We have to fight the terrorists as if there were no rules and preserve our open society as if there were no terrorists." --Thomas Friedman

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5 Jul 2004

Domain issues

Due to an unfortunate chain of events, the blahedo.org domain expired a couple weeks ago and went offline sometime over the weekend. I submitted the renewal this morning, and it should process soon. Oops.

"They don't like you because you make them do what they're supposed to do anyway?"
"No, because I want to eviscerate them." --names withheld

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4 Jul 2004

Taste

Today, after bidding adieu to the Kimmitts, Kathy and I headed down to Grant Park. We took the Metra and walked to the Taste, where we were just in time for the Old 97s. I called Paul's cell and we managed to find him right away; we stood on the sidewalk and talked for a while. Gradually, the group accumulated people, each with one degree of separation from the next, making a rather odd conglomeration. At one point there was a guy Charlie, who I knew from IMSA alumni stuff, and his friend Aaron from college, all the way over to my cousin and his friend Henry from work. Fascinating.

After that we wandered a bit to get drinks, then headed back to the TMBG concert. I spotted Maura walking about ten feet ahead of us, and we chatted for a minute before she went off to find her friend from work, but we agreed to meet back where Paul was. There we sat just off the second sidewalk slightly into "left field" to listen to the TMBG concert, which was good. Charlie and I talked about the pros and cons of replacing a property tax with a land tax. Maura and I caught up on recent events, such as the house she just bought and is now fixing up.

Eventually that group dispersed and I wandered off to get food. Originally I intended to get some stuff and bring it back to eat it, but it turned out to be more efficient just to eat as I walked, maintaining a short queue of food items. At the Taste, (almost?) all of the food vendors have one item called their "taste portion", for a buck fifty, to let you try a little bit of everything. I had a half a breaded steak sandwich from Ricobene's, two pieces of crab rangoon from Quang Noodle, a garlic cheesebread from Lou Malnati's, and a small fried dough from Harry Caray's. All pretty good, although I don't think crab rangoon is really my thing.

Back at the Petrillo Shell, I walked over by where we had been, but didn't see Maura or Paul, so I stood there listening to the Counting Crows concert and watching random portions of humanity walk by. There was the middle-aged guy with leathery-brown skin wearing only a pair of sweatpants shorts who was, I can only describe it as "cavorting", down the path. There was the long-haired goateed Latino fellow in long white robe carrying a miniature cross over his shoulder. At one point a guy from British Columbia who was stranded in Chicago due to an airline snafu struck up a conversation with me about a variety of things, including the amazing climate of western Canada and his relief at finally completing his divorce. (No joke.) After I went back to wandering, I spotted a whole group of people, mostly guys, who were charcoal-black from head to toe with mud, presumably from a big pit up by the fence.

Eventually, I left the concert just before it ended, to beat the rush. I gave my remaining two tickets to some homeless guy near the exit, then dropped a couple quarters on a busker who was packing up his saxophone---while he was playing on the corner, this other guy wandered up about fifteen feet away and launched into a poor a capella rendition of "This Little Light of Mine", to which he only knew one verse, sung repeatedly. I hope the kid found a better place, because his saxophone playing was really pretty good.

At this point I started thinking about what I was going to read on the train. I had the triple-whammy of it being past 7pm, on Sunday, and a national holiday, so none of the bookstores were open. I couldn't even buy a paper, because all the newsstands were closed and apparently they didn't bother to put papers in the vending boxes last night. I could see stacks of the Sunday Trib in the newsstand in Northwest Station, but they weren't to be had for love nor money.

So I just got on the train. I followed a group of guys on and sat on the opposite side of the upper level of the train from them; eventually the car filled up, and a group of girls sat next to me. I overheard that they were going to the Palatine station, which was nice because it meant I could go to sleep, since they'd have to wake me to leave.

I don't think I ever really got to sleep, but I looked like I was sleeping, which was a great position to eavesdrop from. I found out that both groups had gone to Palatine High School, and the guys were sitting next to some girls who'd gone to Cary-Grove, so they were comparing notes about Palatine and talking about places I knew about, which was fun. I decided not to mention that I was from Palatine too, because that would first of all entail admitting I'd been eavesdropping, but more importantly it seemed like it'd be awkward, since we were unlikely to have any other shared experience. The conversation started out about the Counting Crows concert, but meandered around and was entertainingly post-adolescent.

After I'd given up on sleeping, I glanced down and thought I recognised someone sitting on the lower level across from me. Indeed, it was Miranda, one of the three dedicated students in my ballroom dance group at Knox! Turns out she's from Lake Zurich. In the course of that conversation, I mentioned that my parents live in Palatine, and when she inquired further, I pinpointed it as right by St. Thomas, and between Jane Addams and Winston Park, if that meant anything to her.

I never found out whether it did or not, because the upper-level Palatine folks caught wind of this and started making a lot of noise. Whoa, where did I live? Had I gone to Palatine? They booed the fact I'd gone to Viator ;), but not only were the girls next to me PHS alums, they had in fact gone to St. Thomas and all lived within a few blocks of me. None of them knew my sister, alas, although I suspect if I'd gone through the whole list of Kathy's friends that I knew, I probably would've found something there. I had overheard that a couple of the guys were going to Miami University of Ohio next year, which is where my cousin Emily will be, but I figured I wouldn't push that one either. Probably should've, oh well. Still, best train ride ever.

And then we got back just in time to catch the fireworks finale here in Palatine. Great day!

"I give you my blessing... AND my permission!" --Tevye

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3 Jul 2004

Theopolitics

Driving down Hicks this morning, I saw a sign on a church for a summer institute, of which one workshop was entitled "Would Jesus have been a Democrat or a Republican?" There is so, so much wrong with this. What's to say he'd be either one? What would it mean to be a Dem or Rep in 30 CE? Especially considering the ideology of both parties has changed considerably over their century-plus lifetimes. Even casting it as "If Jesus weighed in today, what would he be?", I know what I think, but even if this particular church agreed with me, I still think it's inappropriate to use the pulpit to preach politics.

Also, I hate blog spam. I think I'll have to install the MT spamblocker plugin sometime next week.

"I'm pro-abortion for Republicans. Does that count?" --Michael Kimmitt

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2 Jul 2004

The Fantasticks

So we saw The Fantasticks at the Metropolis tonight. The vocal talent was incredible; the actors did an amazing job with what they were given. The schtick was well performed, and the songs were well sung. The performance had some other issues, however.

One was the piano. I don't think it was actually out of tune, but there was something wrong with it. Maybe I just didn't like the tone; my mom suspects it was miked and then given too much volume. Whatever it was, it kept catching attention in slightly distracting ways.

Another was the microphones. All the actors had these fancy mikes that mounted to their ears, with the mike itself at about their cheekbone. The mikes weren't really needed much---you could tell they were only slightly enhancing the natural volume---but they caused weird interactions when the actors were actually facing each other, or passing close to each other. Unfortunate.

The choreography, meaning the actual dancing, didn't fit. I know that musicals always have this tendency to randomly break into song and dance, and that's fine. But somehow, the dancing in this show managed to seem very... perfunctory? It was as if the director said "they shouldn't just be standing there, and since they're singing, plain blocking won't do. We'll have them dance."

But the biggest thing the production had going against it was the show itself. The Fantasticks was the longest-running show in modern stage history, and you might think that indicates it's the best show out there, but really it has as much to do with the fact that it's low-budget enough that it doesn't need to keep bringing in lots of people just to stay open. It has a reputation, somehow, for having many songs that you've heard before but just didn't know where they were from, but that's not accurate either. (There's one.) Basically, the show is just very Modern, in the 50s/60s rejection-of-convention sense, and it tries too hard to be so.

Which is not to say it doesn't have its moments. A lot of the dialogue, especially in the second act, is very clever; in several segments the actors are speaking in rhyming verse (without making it sound like doggerel, but more like well-performed Shakespeare). The comic relief, in the characters of Henry and Mortimer, is precious if occasionally overdone. And some of the songs are great---generally when they steered clear of the discordant Very Modern things and went with the more musically cliché, it went a lot better.

So in the end, I can't quite decide whether I'm mad that I went to see it. In the abstract, of course, I'm glad to have seen it (in the way one likes to have read great literature). But I'm thinking that I had rather better ways to spend the evening. Ah well.

"Historically, the Bible has been used to justify some stupefying crimes, including slavery and genocide. I see no indication that we are any better at divining the Lord's intent now than we ever were." --Molly Ivins

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Hmph.

I'm sort of nebulously annoyed. Earlier this week I'd told Mike he could stay over here at any point, including Friday night, but the plan had not actually been made yet. This morning, Mom got an email about good tickets to The Fantasticks at the Metropolis, and asked if I wanted to go. I have a personal policy of not holding out on one actual offer of something to do in favour of a potential something to do (been burned by that before), so I said okay; I'd feel dumb if Mike didn't come over and I didn't go to the show, and I sat around twiddling my thumbs.

Of course, predictably, Mike called and asked if they could come over. They were still welcome, naturally, but we wouldn't actually be here until 10:30 or so, so they took a pass. Oracular information would have been so helpful in planning this.

"Drag God into politics, and you'll ruin his reputation in no time." --Molly Ivins

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1 Jul 2004

Happy Canada Day!

For our friends up north.

Canada flag-->[ |*| ]<--drapeau du Canada

"The major problem today is, `You're gay... what then?' So many people take it as their identity, their body, their psyche. I just don't find it that interesting." --Rufus Wainwright

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Suburban Funk

My sister's boyfriend Ryan has a band called Suburban Funk. It's not really a funk band; they do a little bit of everything, actually. Google hasn't found their site, apparently, so hopefully this post can send a bit of my google karma their way. ;)

"I love you all, but I am too busy to go to jail for you." --Leigh Anne Wilson

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