Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sugar, honey, honey

I ate and ate and ate,/ no I did not miss a plate, well/ How much do these suppers cost?/ We'll take it out in hate.*
Leonard Cohen

I've been snacking since I came home from work. That's because there's nothing to eat in the house.

That's a gross simplification. Actually, there are no complex carbohydrates I want to eat. So I keep trying to fool my stomach, which isn't buying it.

For my non-Jewish, or non-observant readers, or people who are reading this post four months from now, as I write this, I'm observing Passover. That means there are a ton of restrictions on what I can eat: nothing made with grain (except matzo), nothing with legumes, nothing with corn, nothing with rice. Many people think it just means no bread, but it covers a surprisingly large array of foods. For example, did you know that peanuts are not actually a nut, but a legume? If I wanted a PBJ matzo I'd be out of luck.

Fortunately for me, I don't want one. I am not a fan of matzo, and try to have as little as possible. Unfortunately for me, that means there's not too many carbohydrates available. And I am not on the Atkins diet. One of the wonderful things about bread, rice, pasta, etc. is that they are filling. My stomach has adapted to assuming I'm full if it's got a good helping of carbs there. And without it, it keeps saying I haven't had enough, no matter how much I put in.

"Here's some trail mix," I'll tell my stomach. "Don't those nuts have the texture of whole grain bread? Don't those raisins supply you with the same sort of energy?"

"Ha!" laughs my stomach. "Nobody would think that an almond is the same as a nice chewy loaf of bread. And the sugar in those raisins will just give you a five-minute sugar rush. Then you'll crash and try another food that won't fool me."

I don't want to kvetch too much in this blog, so I'll point out the part of Passover food I do like: it has excellent candy and soda. Earlier, I mentioned corn is forbidden. Today, most sweets are made with high fructose corn syrup. (And plenty of other things. When I buy marinara sauce, I always look for a corn syrup free variety. Why would you put syrup in tomatoes? Why?)

For Passover, they have to be made with sugar. And sugar tastes better. Sodas don't have that slightly-off bitter taste they normally do. (The only decent lemon soda I've ever had I bought during Passover. It's a brand called Beer Mayim, and it not only uses sugar, but only half the normal amount put in most lemon sodas. So it's much, much less cloying and much more refreshing. Naturally, I haven't been able to find it for three years.) I think sugar also makes the chocolates and other sweets taste richer. And, since I'm snacking a lot, I have a lot of sweets.

That doesn't mean it's perfect. For one of the seders, I bought a chocolate sampler. Two different people at the table had the same reaction. The first piece they had was delicious. The next piece had some weird fruity filling they couldn't stand.

* I wonder if Leonard Cohen has a song about Passover. "Isaac" is a song about when Abraham attempted to sacrifice his son. "Who By Fire" is a play on a classic Yom Kippur prayer. "Hallelujah" is chock full of biblical references (and is a song I really dig, but never want to hear in another movie soundtrack). Plenty of others have a Jewish feel. But I don't know any specific Passover tunes from him.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Three Coins in the Fountain, which the plumber can fix

Your looks intoxicate me/ Even though your folks hate me/ There's no one like you...
The Turtles

The highlight of my week so far has probably been finding all the giant coins in World 3 of Super Mario Brothers Wii. 

In the last few years, I have played some video games that could probably be described as pretty hardcore. I have played God of War, where you are the antihero Kratos, doing the right thing for all the wrong reasons. He is dead inside, killing as casually as most people blink, and caring about it that much. I have played Shadow of the Colossus, where the smallest foe you face is fifty feet tall, and it's never clear if they would attack you if you weren't trying to kill them. I have played Resident Evil 4, where if you're not careful, xenophobic villagers will take your head off with a chainsaw.

They are nothing compared to a game where your enemies are turtles and mushrooms.

For Hanukkah, I got Super Mario Brothers Wii, which is easily one of the most hardcore and enjoyable games I have played in a long time. That's demonstrated by the fact I've already "won" the game, but keep on playing, and still keep playing it nearly four months later. Don't let the bright colors, bouncy music and nearly non-existent story line fool you. This is a serious game. Nintendo makes getting past a snowball-throwing turtle or an angry cloud just as challenging as a game where you're suppose to be saving the universe. And just as satisfying.

Not long ago, there was a fine article on the Onion A.V. Club, written by someone who had just played the original Super Mario Brothers for the first time. He was enchanted by how fun it was; how just by jumping, you could find hidden boxes; how you could get past rows of spinning, burning blades not by just running gleefully along, rather than careful timing. Nintendo still keeps that feeling of fun in the latest version.

When I got my Wii, it came with Super Smash Bros Brawl, which I could never quite get into. That upset me a bit; I love the concept of the game, but the implementation never really came together for me. One of the big issues was the fan service. They crammed in characters from dozens of games, some of which I'd never played, or which I couldn't recognize in their newer incarnations. Last time I saw Zelda, you met her on the last screen of your game after defeating Ganon, a big blue monster, and she thanked you for saving her and the kingdom. That was it. She didn't transform into a ninja back then -- which she does in SSBB --  and I can't relate to that. And there are other characters in the game who mean little to me, but the game seems to think I'll go "Oh my God, it's that fox in a space suit!"

Super Mario Brothers Wii manages to pay homage to the game while avoiding the feeling of fan service. I recognized many of the enemies from back in the Super Mario Brothers 1 or 3 days, but they were there because they get the job done, not to provoke nostalgia.

The plot, and basic game play, hasn't changed much from SMB 3. Bowser has once again kidnapped the Princess, and it's up to you, Mario, to save her. There are still eight worlds, each with many sub-levels, to go through. Each world has its own theme: water, desert, volcano, ice, bullets, etc. The controls are almost the same as they were 20 years ago, though occasionally you shake the Wii-mote. (Rather than wearing a raccoon suit to fly around, this one has a helicopter suit. Shaking spins your beanie around and launches you.) It does reference a few of the newer additions to the Mario universe; there are a couple of levels where you get to use Yoshi, a sort of dragon-steed. Figuring out how to use him was pretty easy, and watching him move is very entertaining. For example, Yoshi can barely fly; when he does, he's always flailing his feet as if trying to run on air with a look of intense concentration.

The Wii-mote also has one other great feature I wish that my NES controllers had: a wrist strap. Now, after trying to complete the same jump a dozen times and plunging to your death, you don't need to worry about ruining the controller by throwing it across the room. (A friend destroyed my Arkanoid paddle back in the day by doing that. Arkanoid is not the same with a standard controller.)

If I were still a teenager with infinite time on my hands, I'd probably say that this game is easier than its predecessors. Instead, I'd say it's less frustrating. For people who hate getting stuck, they include a cheat option. After dying on a level about a dozen times, you can ask Luigi to play through it and just watch him.  Then you have the choice of replaying the level, or just moving on to the next one. (I watched him to get through a few boards, but always did it myself. But I'm not judging you if you don't.)

Now on to the highlight of my week.

And as with the previous Super Mario Brothers, there's really more than one ending. In the first one, after you beat the game, you were given an option to play again, with harder monsters to "really win." Nowadays, that's considered commonplace, but it was revolutionary at the time.

In each level of this game, there are three giant coins. Some are in plain sight, but require fancy jumping. You might need to bounce off a flying turtle who's at the top of his flight path, for example. Others are hidden, and you need to find the secret tunnel to access them.

If you've defeated Bowser at the end of World 8, and collect all the coins in a world, you get to unlock a new level, on the ninth world.  (There are about 6-8 levels per world.)

I managed to find all the coins in World 1, but the others have proven tricky. I'm still stuck on a few places in World 2, but World 3 was easier. That, or I just took to the ice theme better than the desert theme. In ice worlds, you often get a penguin suit, which lets you swim better, slide down hills, keep your traction on slick surfaces, and shoot ice balls. Plus, you look like a penguin.

I don't know if it counts as cheating or not, but I had to look up the location of one of the coins, hidden in the haunted house. Don't ask me what a haunted house is doing in the middle of a frozen wasteland, but someone apparently thought it was a good idea. Other than that, I found all of them myself, and figured out the appropriate method to collect them.

I'm amazed how satisfying that feels.

World 9, from the two levels I've seen, takes some of what you've seen before, and turns the dial up to 11. I haven't gotten past either of the two I've unlocked, but World 9-3 features Bullet Bills -- bullets with frowny faces. Only these Bullet Bills are heat seeking, and sometimes you have a dozen coming at you at once from all different directions, homing in on you.

And each of these levels have three giant coins. I don't know if I'll ever be able to unlock them, but I'm curious what happens if you collect them all. 

Friday, March 19, 2010

There is no end

From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it.
Grouch Marx

I did less reading on my vacation than I expected.

Let me rephrase that: I read fewer books on my vacation than I expected. Partially it's that I was often busy with other things. The only time I read in a book when I was at the beach on Sanibel island, because as far as I'm concerned, the only two things to do at a beach are swim in the ocean and read. When I was a child, those two activities took up 95 percent of my time on the sand. Build sandcastles? Why? Play volleyball? Maybe in 30 pages. That was, and still is, my attitude to the coastline.

The other thing which cut into my book reading was the Internet. If any of you have Google Reader, check out their "Recommended Items" feature. You'll start, and three hours later you'll wonder where the time went. It's chock full of random cool things. The current link at the top of my feed is filled with pictures and descriptions of the Six Flags park in New Orleans, which has been abandoned since Katrina. I didn't even know that there had been a park, or it never reopened, but you can easily see how someone could spend 10 or 15 minutes looking at a site with pictures of rotting roller coasters and moldy cafeterias that haven't been used for half a decade. 

Anyway, I only got through two and a half books while I was traveling. (Technically, I got through one whole book, and three half-books). I didn't bring any great literature with me; these were books I checked out of the honor system section of the library. Those tend to be mass market paperbacks, not classics that will endure forever.Since then, I've finished three and a half books -- three sci-fi and a mystery -- and will give my impression.

Helix, By Eric Brown
Helix is a good vacation book. It's Ringworld, but without the intellectual stuff. Ringworld, by Larry Niven, is a Hugo and Nebula winning science fiction novel (that's the equivalent of the Oscar and Golden Globes from scifi fans) about some people who mean to explore a strange, enormous construct, but wind up stuck on it. 

Niven, a hard science fiction author, put a lot of puzzles and science in his book. His giant construct is a ring around the sun, about the same distance as earth is. To give you an idea how large that is, to walk around the earth at the equator would require going 25,000 miles. To walk around the Ringworld would require going 615,000,000 -- that's like going around the world more than  24,000 times. And Niven was really concerned with what this meant for the inhabitants -- how did you get gravity? How did they make day and night? How did they prevent disasters?

Brown's construct is a giant helix. Think of a spiral staircase 8,000 steps high, where every step is actually a planet. He kind of answers some of the big questions, but I get the impression he just threw in the answers to let things happen in the story. 

About the plot: Helix starts about 100 years in the future, on a dying Earth. Pollution, wars, and fanatic cultists have destroyed most of civilization. (Always a promising beginning for me.) The protagonist, Joe Hendry, is living alone in Australia, stoically accepting things will end for the human race. Then he hears from his daughter, who tells him she's going to be a colonist on a starship. She'll be frozen, and thawed out when they arrive at their planet 1,000 years n the future to start a new world.

A few days later, after she's been frozen, Joe gets an invitation to join the ship. Fanatics killed members of the crew, and he's one of the last qualified people on Earth who can manage the ship's computer system when it enters the new system. Thinking how nice it will be to see his daughter, he accepts.

Of course, things go wrong. The ship crashes into the Helix, and Joe and a few other members of the skeleton crew must travel from bead to bead on the Helix, trying to find a place to revive the colonists. 

This is complicated by the fact each bead is inhabited. Most of the action takes place in a world which is perpetually gray and snowy (because of where it is in relation to the Helix's sun). Small monkey-like creatures live there, ruled over by a cruel church. And they fly around in zeppelins. Because I think the author said "snowstorms, monkeys, blimps and the Inquisition would be a nice combination."

If you read Helix as a page turner, it's quite enjoyable. I wouldn't say the characters are fascinating, or the story makes a lot of sense, or that the ending is particularly profound. But it's a good ride along the way.

Watchers of Time, by Charles Todd
I don't follow mystery series too often, so I don't know how many Inspector Rutlledge books are out there. The inside cover says that Todd has six other books, but I don't know if they're in the same series, and don't feel like taking the six seconds it would require to open a new tab, go to Amazon, and look them up. I didn't think this book was terrible, but I only finished it because I felt I had time invested in it. 

Which is a pity, because on paper it sounds fascinating. The story is set in England, shortly after World War I, Inspector Ian Rutledge, a brilliant Scotland Yard detective, has come back from fighting on the front, badly injured both physically and mentally. He's almost recovered from his physical wounds, but not the psychological trauma. He still hears the voice of Hamish, a Scotsman who fought beside him, and whose corpse protected  the detective from getting killed after an explosion buried them. (It's even more complicated, but the point is that throughout the book he has silent conversations with an imaginary friend with a Scottish accent.)

The book starts in the small town of Osterly, when Harvey Baker, a dying man, asks to see Father James, a Catholic priest. This wouldn't be too unusual, by the Bakers are Anglican. Still, it's not too unusual, and the local vicar encourages it.

Not too long after that, the priest is killed, his head bashed in by an unknown assailant hiding and waiting for him.

Rutledge is asked to go to Osterly. Although the local police seem to have things in hand, the murder of a clergyman is considered heinous enough the bishop asks for the big guys to take a look. And his boss figures that it should be an easy assignment for a man on the mend: say a few comforting words to the priest's replacement, congratulate the local cops, and come back to London. But the priest is worried, the police sergeant would like an extra set of eyes, and things aren't what they seem.

The blurb on the back of the book suggested that the sinking of the Titanic would play a great part in the mystery. That's a bit deceptive, as far as I can tell. The ship isn't mentioned until halfway through the novel, and isn't as pivotal as the summary made it sound. Imagine you went to see a movie because it starred a particular actor, and they were in it for about 20 minutes. That's how I felt.
As I said, the book is finishable. But I think it could have been so much more. I wish I had seen a bigger glimpse into the world of 1919 England. There were pieces -- soldiers scarred by the war, cars that needed to be cranked to start, and people are still interested in buying Lordships and becoming nobility. But all these could have been more immersive.

Use of Weapons, by Iain Banks
If you live in Great Britain, Banks is a big, big author. He's known for both his science fiction and mainstream thrillers. When I was there in 2007, I saw bookstores with shelves of his work. In America, he's less well known. Most of what gets printed are his science fiction novels, like Use of Weapons.

Use of Weapons is part of Banks' Culture series, a really tough world to write in. The main problem is that the Culture is a super-advanced utopia. People can, pretty literally, do whatever they want. Feel like owning your own planet? They can find our build you one. Feel like being a duck? You can tell your DNA to change. It's probably no even that unusual. People who grow up in the Culture only know about unhappiness and misery from classes. In two memorable examples in the book, a crew of a Culture ship decide to give themselves colds because it sounds interesting. In another case, some members of Special Circumstances, the culture's special ops division, ask someone they've hired who doesn't belong to them , why he's asking for 10 percent more, he replies "inflation." "What's that?" they ask, unused to money.

The way Banks handles this in the books is by not focusing on the Culture, but looking at the other societies that inhabit the galaxy. Use of Weapons' main character is Cheradaline Zakalwe, a warrior hired by the Culture for certain operations due to his understanding of military tactics. The book jumps around in time, telling of the many battles Zakalwe's fought for the culture and before he was contacted by them. He's a man tortured by his past, especially an encounter with a mysterious "chairmaker." The main story consists of his attempts to complete a mission, for which the Culture has promised to take him to meeta woman from his past.

This was an okay book, but not my favorite by him. Banks always has some disturbing imagery in his books, but it's often leavened by more humor than he displays here. And while avoiding the Culture for lower tech civilizations (capable of only reaching a few dozen planets) avoids the problem of coming up with conflicts for nigh-omnipotent people who are perfectly content, it also means that you're not looking at the universe's reason for being. Imagine if Arthur Conan Doyle had written a book about how Sherlock Holmes walked around London for a day, doing nothing. It might be enjoyable, but don't you want to see him solve mysteries?

My other observation: the protagonist's last name kept grabbing my attention, because it sounds so similar to the Sept. 11 mastermind.  But since this was written in 1990, it's not

The Other End of Time, by Frederik Pohl
This is the half-book, which I haven't finished, because it's a tease. I got 63 pages into, according to the slip of stationery from the Days Inn I used as a bookmark. Here's how it opens: "When the first message arrived on Earth, five people who were on their way to the eschaton were busy at their own affairs."

It's not a bad introduction  What is the eschaton? (It's a rather obscure term.) Why are these five people important? What do their affairs mean?

I don't know. But every five or ten pages, there's a sentence like "so and so didn't know it, but bad things were going to happen." Then get to the bad things, Mr. Pohl! It's not that what was going on is boring, just that you're promising explosions and giving me sparklers. 

Hm. The more I write in this entry, the more I find myself using metaphor and analogies. Perhaps, much the way the crowing of the rooster indicates that it's time for the vampire to flee back to its castle, I should stop working on this.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Home again, home again, jiggety jig

We didn't have the time to think things over,/ We had a lot of fun, we had some tears/ Stepping out of loneliness,/ Now the road don't seem so long,/ After all these years.
-- Ringo

(The editor for this blog is acting weird, so apologies if the font looks strange or anything.)

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge is 20 miles long, consisting of three large bridges connected by two mile-long tunnels. Driving through the bridge was a microcosm of the day in general. At one point, I had my windshields going full speed before I entered a tunnel. I turned them off to avoid the squeaking of wipers against dry glass. As I saw natural daylight again, I turned them on. But that proved unnecessary. In the 90 seconds I was in the tunnel, the rain had stopped.

However, the trip was never pleasant. There is a scenic overlook in the middle of the bridge. I drove right past it. After all, looking out into a gray mist isn't particularly scenic.

Most of the trip was merely unpleasant, but not horrible. I'd heard there was horrible weather, and saw parts of Delaware where the water was almost lapping the streets, but not quite flooding it. Still, I didn't encounter any problems in Virginia, Maryland or Delaware. However, about the time I entered New Jersey, it got downright nasty. It was getting dark, and the rain was getting harder. Then, a few miles after I got on the New Jersey Turnpike, traffic ground to a halt. It took over half an hour to travel a mile or two.

Things got even worse after the sun set, as the wind and rain picked up. I'd gotten off the Turnpike, and though you can hardly call the roads I was on "back roads" they were less well lit than the toll highway. And given the intense rain, every car had a different idea of what a safe speed was. Some were driving only 45 in a 65 MPH zone; some felt safe at 70. It made for some intense driving.

Still, that's over now. I got home with no real incidents. It's been a fun 2,600 miles, but I'm too tired to think of anything profound to say about it.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Wow. I averaged .53 movies a night

Hooray for Hollywood/ You may be homely in your neighborhood/ But if you think that you can an actor/ See Mr. Factor, he'd make a monkey look good.
-- Hooray for Hollywood
Today was the last day of my vacation, and I was pretty tired of the usual things I do on vacations. I was sick of going to interesting sites and learning new things. I'd come to Newport News with a vague idea of seeing something called The Living Museum of Virginia, but it sounded too educational.

I wound up going to a museum anyway. It's not that I wanted to be educated, but the Virginial Air and Space Center had an Imax Theater showing Alice In Wonderland, and going to the museum seemed like a good way to kill a couple of hours before the film started. 

Rather than just talking about my day, I'll talk about all the movies I've seen on this vacation. I won't include any spoilers for Alice in Wonderland, and won't deliberately include spoilers for any of the other movies, but they may slip out anyway. I would say that five and a half of the seven movies I saw were worthwhile, which is pretty good.

First movie of the vacation: "Quicksand," a 1950 movie starring Mickey Rooney, Jeanne Cagney (James' sister) and Peter Lorre. 
Where I saw it: In a coffeehouse in Savannah, Ga. A group called the Psychotronic Film Society regularly shows old and obscure movies there.
What it's about: In this film noir, Rooney, a broke mechanic, borrows 20 bucks from the cash register of his shop so he can go on a date with a hot blond. He intends to pay it back before the bookkeeper comes to count the till, but the accountant comes a couple of days ahead of schedule. He knows he has to get money quick, and there's a store in town selling fancy wrist watches for $1 down. (This is probably the scene that dates the movie the most, when the shop owner asks him if he has a line of credit anywhere in town.) Rooney then pawns the watch for $30. And the next day, the police show up, saying they think he has no inention of returning the watch, and demanding he pay the shop owner $100 or get arrested. Things continue to escalate, rapidly, from there; Rooney digs himself into more and more trouble trying to solve each dilemma.

What I thought: It's a very enjoyable film. There's a certain morality to film noir, and I was curious to see what would happen to Rooney's character, who hadn't really meant to do anything bad, but couldn't seem to help himself. It also makes me wonder if Lorre ever got upset at being typecast as the creepy petty criminal. He does a fine job of it.

Second film of the trip: "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt," a 2009 I mentioned earlier.
Where I saw it: With relatives in Naples, Florida. We saw quite a few movies during those evenings.
What it's about: A TV reporter is convinced that a high-profile District Attorney is planting evidence to frame innocent people and secure convictions. So when there's a murder, he arranges to have it look as though the circumstantial evidence points to him. He plans to expose the D.A. after he gets put on trial and fake evidence is put showing his DNA was at the crime scene. Unfortunately, the DA in his corrupt police crony figure this out, and kill the man who had been assisting the reporter before he can produce the evidence. Will the reporter, sentenced to death row, somehow prove the corruption? (Hint: It's a Hollywood movie, so yes.)
What I thought: There were a lot of obnoxious twists. And there were several totally unnecessary, and uncinematic, car chase scenes. And the only character I really cared about was a Jack Russell Terrier mix. Don't waste your time.

Third film of the trip: "White Heat," the classic 1949 move starring the other Cagney sibling.
Where I saw it: With relatives, in Naples. We took this DVD from the library.
What it's about: Cagney plays Cody Jarrett, a brilliant but unbalanced leader of a tough and rough gang. They commit a massive train robbery, stealing a fortune and leaving several dead. In order to take suspicion away from him, Cody (falsely) confesses to committing a smaller robbery, which would carry a small sentence in a state prison. The police are on to him, but play along, so they can insert an undercover officer into the jail disguised as an inmate, and win Cody's confidence.  And hopefully find out who Cody's fence is, and catch the gang. This is the movie that ends with the "Made it Ma! Top of the World" scene.
What I thought: This movie is deservedly a classic. The characters are top-notch. As I said, there's a morality to film noir, and the evil characters are all evil, but in their own way. Cagney is a brilliant, magnetic psychotic. There's Margaret Wycherly's performance as his mother, a cold, calculating woman totally devoted to him. His wife Vera, who is willing to tell anybody what she thinks they want to hear. His second in command, Big Ed, who is ambitious but not as good as Cody. The dialogue is top notch too. Early on, Vera says something about Cody like "He's not human; if you shoot him, he'll keep coming." That proves prophetic. There's also some nice "choreography." That's not the right word, but the placement of the actors and vehicles relative to each other is important to the plot, and always well handled.

Fourth and Fifth film: "Murder She Said," and "Murder at the Gallop," two Agatha Christie films from 1961 and 1963, starring Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple.
Where I saw them: With relatives. We took out Murder She Said for a change of pace from the darker movies in our selection. Since we liked it, we took out the sequel the next day.

What they're about: In Murder She Said, Miss Marple is looking out the window of a passenger train when she sees a woman being strangled in a passing train, though only the pair of hands strangling her. However, the police refuse to believe her because there is no body or report of a missing woman on a train. Using her love of mystery books, she figures out the body must have been dumped by a household. To get access to the house, Marple becomes a maid, and there unravels the plot. In the second one, Marple suspects murder after a wealth recluse is killed. She goes to a riding retreat where all the relatives of the man are staying, under suspicion of murder. My favorite part of this movie is when she criticizes the police inspector for not reading enough Agatha Christie.
What I thought: The plots are pretty much identical. Had I been watching them in the theaters two years apart, that probably wouldn't have bothered me, but watched one after another it is less effective. But there were a few things I really enjoyed, probably because they were very British. Rutherford was 69 in 1961, and was willing to play an old lady -- and while Marple has some charms, she can be stubborn and rude. America has very few roles for actresses over 30, or someone who is not too likable. The movies are also set in a time when there was still a strong upper class in England, who hired maids and gardeners for their estates and went to riding stables on vacation. I suggest watching one in this series (there are a few others), probably Murder She Said.

Sixth Film I watched: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Disney's classic)
Where I watched it: A hotel room in Charleston while updating this blog
What it's about: I assume anyone over five knows the story.
What I thought: It's been a while since I saw it, but I was impressed by a lot of details. Most notably, Disney spent a lot of time getting into the personality of each character. I think this is missing from a lot of modern cartoon movies (and movies in general), which favor too much slapstick and action over characterization. You've got six pretty similar looking Dwarfs (Dopey is pretty distinct), but once they open their mouths, it's impossible to mistake one for another.

Seventh Film I watched: Alice In Wonderland
Where I watched it: At a museum
What it's about: There's quite a few reviews on the Internet that describe the plot: Alice goes down the rabbit hole for a second time, a decade later. She finds a world where the Red Queen rules with an even more tyrannical fist, and is told that she must defeat the Bandersnatch in combat to save the kingdom. Of course, she's reluctant to accept this, having convinced herself what happened years ago was just a dream. The plot is solid, but you don't really watch a Tim Burton movie for the storyline. (Mars Attacks is exactly what it says in the title; Beetle Juice is about ghosts who inadvertently summon a nasty spirit; Ed Wood is the life of Ed Wood; etc.) You watch it for the ambiance and the characters.
What I thought: I've seen Imax movies before, and I've seen 3-D movies before, but this was the first time I've seen them together. The end result is like chocolate and peanut butter. I really felt that if I put out my hand, I could touch Underland (as it is called in the film; the characters say young Alice got the name wrong, thinking it was some sort of fairyland).
   Burton and the actors did a good job of capturing both Lewis Carroll's sense of whimsy and the undercurrent of menace that permeated the books. The Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) is a despot, willing to execute anyone who betrays or angers her. But she's also a freak, with a head two or three times too large for her body. And she insists her court be similarly grotesque: her nobles have six inch noses, swollen bellies, or triple chins. (I was originally going to say "endowed with large parts," before I realized how that sounded. Possibly we're supposed to make that conclusion.) And the way Alice tricks her is both clever and involves the sort of wordplay Carroll might have used. Mia Wasikowska plays Alice very consistently; I found the character's evolution very believable. I know several people reading this will be upset if I don't point out Johnny Depp did a great job as the Hatter. He did, but I was expecting that. I think one of the more interesting performances that surprised me was Barbara Windsor's Dormouse, who's no sleeping beauty here.
   Burton also did a good job of not becoming too manic and wacky, or being too flat and disaffected. I think he's ruined several movies by doing that. Finally, the dialog struck me as pretty solid. It didn't have the perfected feeling of White Heat, where I thought just about every word did something, but it did have a lot of good thematic allusions and literary references without pounding you over the head with it.

Tomorrow, I head home, and wrap up this travelogue. 

Thursday, March 11, 2010

One of these years, I must watch Steven Speilberg's "Duel"

It was raining from the first/ and I was dying there of thirst/ so I came in here...
Bob Dylan

Another day of driving for hours on end. The "highlight" of the day was almost getting run off the road by a truck.

When I started out, it was raining heavily. That soon turned into one of those massive downpours where you can barely see 50 feet in front of you. So despite the fact the nominal speed limit was 65 mph, most vehicles were going way under the limit.

I was on a two-lane highway, passing a truck, which was probably doing 45 or 50. I wasn't going too much faster, but really wanted to get around it. When you're behind a truck in that sort of weather, it kicks up billions of droplets, swamping your windshield wipers at even the highest setting. There's a big difference between almost no visibility and no visibility.

I'm not sure if I was in the truck's blind spot, or something happened in the right lane, but suddenly it began to swerve into my lane. I started heading to the left, off the road, into the median.

Fortunately, the trucker realized what was happening (or the right lane became safe again) and swerved back; I was only halfway off the road at the time. Nobody was hurt, though I was shaken enough I decided to pull over at the next exit and take a lunch break, even though there was only a Burger King.

Other than that, not much happened. Here are two observations about the radio stations I heard.

South Carolina has a lot of public radio stations. More specifically, they have one public radio station, but it broadcasts on something like six frequencies, depending where in the state you are. It was strange; I'd be listening to a program, and when it got out of focus and I started flipping through the channels, I'd hear it again a couple of stations over.

Also, while it's not the mos headbanging song ever written, "Rock Me Gently" is very clearly a rock song. It even uses the word "rock" in its very title. But I heard some country cover while flipping through. It's not a song that can be toned down much from the original and still work, and the watered down country version was frighteningly bad.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Forts, fish and folios

And the poor little dog?
Why, after he had kicked and coughed a little, he sneezed so hard, that he sneezed himself clean out of his skin, and turned into a water-dog, and jumped and danced round Tom, and ran over the crests of the waves, and snapped at the jelly-fish and the mackerel, and followed Tom the whole way to the Other-end-of-Nowhere.
Charles Kingsley, The Water Babies

I did three things of interest today: visited Fort Sumter, visited the Aquarium of South Carolina, and visited a used book store.

Fort Sumter, for those who don't know U.S. history, was the first battle of the Civil War. As with the other historic sites I've visited, I'll let you Google the history if you're interested. (One fun fact: there were zero casualties during the battle, though a Union soldier died in an accident during the surrender ceremony.)

There were a few interesting things about the tour. The ferry ride out to the fort was the third narrated tour I've had this trip (the others during the Naples cruise and Savannah ferry) and the least satisfying. Rather than having the pilot narrate what we were seeing, they played a recording. That made it much less personal, and forced it to omit some facts, such as the fact there were sailboat races going on that day and we passed them. Also, the recording overlapped with what the ranger at the fort said, spoiling some facts. When he asked if we knew why there were forts off Charleston's coast, we'd just heard the answer 10 minutes before.

My other observation is that the tour was almost completely Caucasian. I only saw one African American on the trip. No comments on that.

On to the next tale of interest: the SC Aquarium has a theme: the fish and habitats of South Carolina. All animals there are native to the state. It doesn't really hurt the variety; there were gators, sharks, turtles (one is named Coretta, and weights 250 pounds), jellyfish, a type of salamander called a siren which is over a foot long and looks like an eel, and much more. In addition to fish, they have a couple of rescued animals who couldn't be returned to the wild, such as Liberty, the bald eagle. Her wing was injured a few years ago, so she can't fly.

I watched the fish feeding, which is now a little interactive. They have improved scuba gear so that the divers can have a microphone in their helmets. They can hear what the audience asks, and we can hear their comments over the PA system.

It's not the prettiest aquarium I've seen (that was in Chattanooga) but it was pretty interesting. I think the focused theme really helped.

On to the Book Exchange. I don't remember the last time I was in a used book store. (I know I don't need more books, but I'm addicted.) There used to be two in Red Bank, but both closed years ago. I mentioned to one of the owners (I didn't get her name) how nice it was to be in a used book store again, but she was pretty pessimistic.

"It's getting hard to pay the rent," she said. The recession has made people cut back on everything, including used books. And since the store offers credit (as the name implies, there's exchanges) a lot of people are just trading books, rather than buying them and bringing in revenue.

It's a pity, because there are lots of books which are hard to find at a library, and are out of print. Two of the books I picked up were by the late John Brunner and late Damon Knight, two highly regarded science fiction authors whose work is difficult to find any more. (Knight is probably best remembered for the story "To Serve Man." Brunner wrote the wonderful eco-tastrophe books "Stand on Zanzibar" and "The Sheep Look Up.")

Also, used book stores have a wonderful social atmosphere. The owner knew several customers by name. More importantly, she could bring her dogs to work. One was a big black dog (maybe some sort of sheep dog?) named Katie. The other was a puppy (same species) whose name I missed. She asked me if she could walk him down the aisle I was browsing, to help socialize him, since he's skittish around people.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

But it doesn't mean you ain't been on my mind?

Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisure wear and matching luggage.
-- Trainspotting

Below are a few rather random thoughts I had on my drive from Naples to Charleston.

1. Florida puts its politics on the road. While I was there, we saw several license plates that said "Choose Life." As you can see by the quote I chose, I suspect it means there are many people in the state who favor legalizing drugs. That's pretty daring; in New Jersey, the special cause plates are for issues like "honor our soldiers" or "protect endangered species." On the off chance I'm misinterpreting it, I also saw some billboards that seemed pretty anti-abortion, saying something life "a heartbeat begins in 18 days" and including some 800 number to call. Strangely enough, while I was there, I also saw several billboards advertising vasectomy services. Are either of these really appropriate? I'm used to my billboards advertising booze, vacations, restaurants, fireworks and other goods. But the most political I've seen before is "vote for X" signs. And does anyone

2. As I mentioned earlier, I heard "Shot Through The Heart" several times on my trip down. On my way to South Carolina, I heard "Sister Golden Hair" (will you meet me in the middle/ will you meet me in the air/ will you love me just a little...) at least three times. America is a popular group here.

3. A dishwasher is no longer the coolest thing I've had in a hotel room. This one (a Sleep Inn) has a fully functional ceiling fan.

4. My GPS took me on some pretty backward roads. I thought it would keep me on big roads like I-95. Instead, it took me on relatively smaller roads, through Arcadia in Florida. It was nice and rural feeling. I passed a couple of drive-in restaurants, and was tempted to stop at one for lunch, but a) wasn't hungry and b) wanted to stretch when I ate, since it was a long drive. And there was a period after I entered South Carolina when I was on this stretch of road where there was not another car behind me for 45 minutes. Since the sun had set, it was almost creepy; I'd look in the rear view mirror and see blackness behind me.

5. After arriving at the hotel, I was hungry (I'd missed dinner). Since the two closest choices were a Chic-Fil-A and a local wings bar called D.D. Peckers, I decided the bar was the safer and more tasty bet. They have a nice variety of buffalo wings. Strangely enough, the last time I ordered wings was also when I was on vacation.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Well, I _am_ a tourist

"If seven maids with seven mops/ Swept it for half a year./ Do you suppose," the Walrus said,/ "That they could get it clear?"/ "I doubt it," said the Carpenter,/ And shed a bitter tear.
-- Charles Dodgson

Today, I was one of those tourists who does things the locals know are stupid but the yokels think it's the right thing to do. The sort that cranes their neck up at skyscrapers in New York City, snapping photos and begging for their pocket to be picked. The sort that insists on eating at the Spanish Steps in Rome even though there's only a McDonald's there, and there are wonderful trattorias just blocks away.

In this case, I went swimming in the Gulf of Mexico.

We'd gone to Sanibel Island, to visit the "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Depending on traffic, it's either a 40-minute or two-hour trip from Naples to Sanibel Island. Going there it was 40 minutes.

The refuge is named for a famous editorial cartoonist from the early 20th century. This one actually has a lot of wildlife. We saw plenty of birds, and you could even see fish leaping out of the waters. My favorite part was when we encountered this flock of spoonbills. They're brilliant pink birds with a beak that looks like, well, you know. After this, we headed down to Bowman's Beach, for a picnic lunch.

This is the second time I've been to a beach while in Florida. Both times, the waters have been essentially empty. Floridians know that it's only March, and the water's not quite comfy for a dip. But I've been told that Florida has wonderful beaches and beautiful green water, and I was determined to take advantage of it. (I've also heard only to swim at beaches. Taking a dip in a river, or poorly fenced in swimming pool, is apparently a great way to feed the gators. But since I was at a beach, that wasn't a concern.)

Sometimes, when you go into the ocean, the water starts out very cold but soon feels comfortable. In this case, it started out very cold, but soon felt merely cool. Still, I spent about 10, 15 minutes splashing around.

Leaving took significantly longer. On our way back, we encountered a large traffic jam. I suspect it was caused by a nasty accident, because we stopped by a gift shop, She Sells Sea Shells, just as the traffic was snarling up. Their power was out, as were all the other ones on the island. The cashier said she suspected someone tried to drive under that bridge again, whatever that bridge was. She Sells Sea Shells has plenty of shell- and fish- themed items. My favorite thing in the store was a life-sized, almost realistic looking replica of a manta ray. It would have been completely realistic except for the googly eyes. So getting back took about two hours.

That wraps up my time in Naples. Tomorrow, I'm heading up to South Carolina.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

He's father, he knows best; Our kids watch Howdy Doody as...

Time keeps on slippin', slippin', slippin', into the future
-- Steve Miller Band

I have determined the reason I saw so few birds at the sanctuary on Friday is that the avians of Naples feel no need to be protected from humans. They're pretty fearless.

This morning, we went to the Naples Pier. Resting on top of the entrance was an egret. As we walked further in, a sea gull was perched on the railing, posing for photos. Seriously, he was letting people get within a foot or two of him for a picture. And on the way back, I saw a raven fly down and perch on the pier, with a piece of food in his mouth. Pelicans are also extremely common there. So common that they put out signs asking visitors not to feed them, the same way that lakes in New Jersey have signs asking people not to feed the ducks.

While at the pier, in addition to the ornithology experience, I was also stopped by a group of German tourists who asked me to take their photo. Why me, I don't know. Maybe I have a trustworthy face. I'm told, by the way, Germans like visiting Naples. I'm not sure why they find it a popular destination.

The pier would be an interesting historic monument, if it were genuine. The original one was built in the 1880s. However, it keeps getting destroyed by hurricanes and rebuilt.

This evening, we took a sunset cruise. Again, there were plenty of birds flying around and enjoying themselves. My favorite was the pelican who decided to hitch a ride on our boat. He (or maybe she) just hopped on, and stayed there, for 20 minutes of the tour. Like the seagull, he seemed happy to pose for pictures. A very cool bird.

He might have been interested in learning how homes in Naples are built, which the tour explained: if it's along the river, they're constructed by people who aren't aware the real estate market collapsed a few years ago. People are still spending tens of millions of dollars for property there, and often they'll demolish the mansions as soon as they've bought the land. There's one multi-millionaire who bought an island off the coast. He's already build a 24,000 square foot guest house, and he's building 13 more homes of similar size, one for each of his children. The only way to get to them is by boat. Crazy.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Thanks to your local library

Pathetic human race. Arranging their knowledge by category just made it easier to absorb. Dewey, you fool: Your decimal system has played right into my hands!
-- The Big Brain, Futurama

Since we were unimpressed with Blockbuster's selection, and since we still wanted to watch movies, and since they're free at the place referred to in the above quoted episode of Futurama as a "lie-berry" we went to the Naples Public Library to see what was available.

When we approached it, I thought it must have been a church at one point (see photo). Apparently, it wasn't. It was built for this purpose. Except for that little sign on the right hand side of the entrance, which lists its hours, you'd have no proof of its purpose.

In all honesty, it looks like a nice building. I didn't look around it too much, except for its video section, which seems decent. Too decent.

When you check out a DVD from Naples, you can keep it for up to three weeks. Twenty-one days. Five hundred and four hours. And we're not talking only for documentaries, but for all movies. That strikes me as a bit excessive.

There is a limit -- but a generous one -- on how many you can take out. While we were waiting in line, the people ahead of us had the following conversation:

CIRCULATION: I'm sorry sir, but you're only allowed to have six videos out at a time. You already have one checked out, and you're trying to check out six.
PATRON: Yes. I have six I want to check out.
CIRC: But you have a DVD at home already, right?
PATRON: Yes. I've got that documentary.
CIRC: So you can only take out five more.
PATRON: Okay. So can I take all these out?
CIRC: No. There are six here.

(If you enjoyed this conversation, and want to see others like it, I recommend the website

Friday, March 5, 2010

Hahahahaha hahahahaha hahahahaha

Hark to the whimper of the seagull. / He weeps because he's not an ea-gull. / Suppose you were, you silly seagull. / Could you explain it to your she-gull?
Ogden Nash

Today's blog post is dedicated to the Red Bellied Woodpecker I saw at Corkscrew Swamp. The full name of the place is Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and Blair Audubon Center, but that's a bit of a mouthful.

But as the full name implies, this place is an animal sanctuary. We got in for free since my aunt gave us her family pass, but I contributed two bucks in order to get a guide. According to the guide, the park has raccoons, otters, deer, snakebirds, herons, egrets, alligators, and more. Their website says there are also bears, armadillos, and even bald eagles have been spotted in the land.

These are the animals I got within 200 feet of (there were some large birds overhead, but they were way off in the distance, so don't count):
  • A spider
  • Some squirrels
  • A dove
  • Two bees (one was only seen through a telescope)
  • Although I didn't see it, a bunch of school kids on a tour said there was a beetle under a leaf. The kids seemed pretty honest, so I'll accept that.
  • Some tadpoles (or maybe just some eddies in the water)
  • And that woodpecker
Only the dove and the woodpecker were nice enough to stand still long enough to be photographed, and only the woodpecker strikes me as even a little unusual. How do I know it's a Red Bellied Woodpecker and not a Pileated Woodpecker, also found in the sanctuary? It's because of the new camera I bought before the trip. It's not anything spectacular by today's standards (or by the standards of the people who showed up to the park with telephoto lenses nearly as long as my arm) but it does have 5x zoom and 12 megapixels. That was enough detail for me to see the pattern on its back in the photo. All I could see in real life was the red patch on its head. (I'd load the photo, but I'm feeling tired.)

Not that I had a bad time at the sanctuary. But the animals were not cooperating. After we left the park, we saw some much more interesting critters, such as the pelicans flying over the water while we dined at Buzz's Lighthouse.

Today, I also learned that your Blockbusters card never goes bad. The last time I rented something from them was probably 2005, when I checked out some Playstation games. Still, after half a decade and 1,300 miles, it's still accepted.

We were looking for something to watch, obviously. Our choice, "Beyond A Reasonable Doubt," was probably not the best one. I won't talk about the film here, but I will complain about the IMDB's entry on it. As with all their films, the category "Plot Keywords" requires mousing over to avoid spoilers. But I don't think the categories of "Remake" or "Remake of an American Film" give anything away.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Turn the radio up

I want to shake off the dust of this one-horse town. I want to explore the world. I want to watch TV in a different time zone. I want to visit strange, exotic malls. I'm sick of eating hoagies. I want a grinder, a sub, a foot-long hero... I want to live, Marge! Won't you let me live?
-- Homer Simpson

I'm waiting for a call back, and expect to go out soon, so this will be a short entry. Also, I spent most of the day driving, not seeing interesting things.

First of all, my hotel room has a dishwasher, which I find really cool. I'm tempted to get the dishes dirty just so I can use the dishwasher.

Now two observations I had while driving:

1) Florida has a lot of bikers. I suppose it shouldn't be surprising. Up north, you can't take motorcycles out that well in the winter months. Here, you're not supposed to have to worry about cold weather, thought they were talking about the possibility of frost on the radio.

2) Each area you drive through has its own sort of radio stations. In the Outer Banks, I felt like I was living a few years ago, hearing songs like Three Doors Down's "Kryptonite." Going through Florida, I wasn't surprised by the numerous Christian and Country stations I flipped past on the way down, but the number of 80s stations was weird. I heard the song "Shot Through The Heart" at least three times today.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Cinema, signs, synagogues and supping

When we fought the Yankees and annihilation was near/ Who was there to lead the charge that took us safe to the rear?
-- L'il Abner

The scenic historic city of Savannah owes its continued existence to the fact that the Confederate Army ran away from Sherman as he was marching through the South. Because the Rebel Army retreated to South Carolina, the Union left the place intact. And, as the guide on the tour trolley I took (because hey, when will do I get a chance to ride a trolley car?) noted, without that, he wouldn't have a job pointing out the many interesting historic sites.

But, because you have Wikipedia, I won't go into detail about this place's rich history. I'll just point out a few things I found interesting.

1) Savannah was the inspiration for a host of movies, most of which I have little to no interest in. It was the site of the killing that inspired John Berendt to write "Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil," which inspired Clint Eastwood to make the movie. (I passed the house where the deed took place, and the cafe where Berendt got the idea for the film.) It contains an old railway car that has been converted into a restaurant, the Whistlestop Cafe. I think the movie "Fried Green Tomatoes" dropped the eatery's name when it turned the book into a movie. The opening scene of "Forrest Gump" takes place in one of the city's many squares. And the inspiration for "Driving Miss Daisy" came from a real Savannah woman who went to the synagogue I visited, described below.

2) See that funny looking message at the bottom of the sign? In New Jersey, the phrase "Stop for pedestrians at crosswalk" would mean "Honk to warn the stupid pedestrians to move back to the sidewalk or face the consequences." In Georgia, people take it seriously. Several times, as I was waiting patiently on the sidewalk for a car going 25 or 30 mph to go through an intersection so I could cross, the driver stopped to let me go through. Either the police really enforce that rule, or this is an example of southern hospitality.

3) I visited the third oldest synagogue in the in the United States, Congregation Mickve Israel, and saw what is probably the oldest Torah in the new world. It was brought over by the original founders in the 1730s, and was apparently a couple of centuries old then. They still read from it once a year. (They don't actually roll the scroll; it's always kept to the same place. The reading is in mid-July, so I guess it's some portion from the book of Numbers. I didn't spend enough time looking at it to figure out which passage it is.) At some point in the 19th century, it became a Reform temple; by the 1860s they were playing organ music during the services. I was also told by the man giving the tour, a transplant from Cherry Hill, NJ, that there are no good delis in Savannah, and it is impossible to get a good bagel in Georgia. "They have Panera's," he scoffed. "We had bagels at our hotel breakfast this morning," said the other couple on the tour, "...and they weren't very good." My biggest regret about the visit is my choice of souvenirs. I picked up a book of photographs. After I had stepped out, I realized that they had a bunch of t-shirts that said "Shalom Y'all," which would have been a much, much cooler memento of southern Judaism.

4) I had lunch at BD Burgers, which has been voted the best burger joint in the city for something like eight years in a row. They do have very nice burgers; the beef tastes rich; it was well cooked on the outside and pink on the inside. The buns are very soft; they almost dissolve in the burger's juices. And the onion rings were straight from the fryer and very crisp.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

I now know four Grateful Dead songs

Chicago, New York, Detroit and it's all on the same street./ Your typical city involved in a typical daydream/ Hang it up and see what tomorrow brings.
-- Truckin', Grateful Dead*

The most interesting part of my day was definitely the truck stop I accidentally wound up at.

When you're driving major roads in New Jersey, and most of the northeast, it's easy to figure out where to stop and eat: at the rest stops on the roadways. It's not great food, but you don't need to get off the thoroughfare. (Italy also has these; they call them Autogrills, and you can get both decent food and wine there).

In other states, you just need to look at the signs and figure out what you'd like. They list the restaurants and gas stations at the nearest exit. In this case, it was getting up to lunch time, I'd just gotten onto I-95, and the only restaurants around seemed to be McDonalds and a fast food place called Bojangles we don't have up north. I was tempted to try it, but wasn't really in the mood for fried chicken.

Then I saw a sign for five or six restaurants. I took that exit, and it turned out to be a truck stop area. There was a parking area for cars as well, so I went in. (It turned out that most of the restaurants were still under construction or renovation, so I wound up with fast food anyway.)

I've talked to truckers, and knew about the stops, but don't believe I've ever been in one before. A lot of it makes sense for people who are on the road a lot, like the pay showers near the bathrooms. They also sell a lot of things you'd want if you were spending a lot of time on the road. There are auto supplies, convenience-store foods, underwear, paperbacks, books on audio, and DVDs (they were advertised as discount DVDs, but I thought the price was average).

There was also, for some reason, a lot of Christian kitsch. One of the t-shirts they sold had the orange and brown pattern of a chocolate-peanut butter candy, but had put the word "Jesus" instead of Reese's. Another had a picture of the world on fire, and said something like "Get ready for global warming," followed by some bible verse. I assume it's connected to burning in hell somehow.

I'd have taken some pictures, but it seemed a bit rude to do that indoors. This photo was taken just as I left. I'd have tried for a better angle, but it was about to rain.

Two other notes about today's journey.
1) Apparently very few people go from the Outer Banks to Georgia, or at least few take the route I do. There was one period when I didn't see a single car on the roads I was on for over half an hour. This was by the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, which is a rather scenic area, even though I saw neither gator nor bear, which signs told me to look out for.

2) I'm staying at the Oglethorpe Inn in Savannah, and so far highly recommend it. The lobby is beautiful, and the rooms are spacious.

And, on a bookkeeping note, I've changed the options for commenting on this site, since several people said they had trouble leaving messages.

* (I had to look up the lyrics for that quote. I don't think I've ever listened to more than the first two lines before.)

Monday, March 1, 2010

I get no kick from a plane

Orville, Wilbur, go outside this minute,/ And there continue with your silly playing!/ Take these plans and take those blueprints./ Take that funny looking thing,/ Take that wheel, take that wing,/ I can't hear a thing that Mrs. Johnson's saying.
Mother Necessity, School House Rock

Before I tell about my trips today, two notes from last night.

As I mentioned, I travel with a Droid. One of the the things the mobile Google page has is a "near me now" link. If you press it, you can find nearby restaurants, shops, entertainment, etc. Very useful. Since I got hungry after posting, I found out about the Outer Banks Brewing Station. (They make their own beer, and they're wind powered. I had the Captain's Porter.)

Also, the Outer Banks is much prettier in the day than at night. When I got here, it could have been any town. But in the daytime, I can see the ocean from outside my hotel, and the roads all go over scenic bridges.

On Dec. 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright made history by making the flight. (Unless you count balloons, or birds, or pterodactyls. You know what I mean.) The spot where they made it is about a a mile from my hotel, so I checked it out.

I found it both awe inspiring and dinky.

The inspiring: I've been on planes that have flown to other continents, and it's amazing that several tons of steel can stay in the air for thousands of miles. And there's a sense of history. You can walk the same strip that Wilbur did as he guided his brother in the plane before it took off. Plus there's a majestic monument on a hill overlooking the site.

The dinky: The first flight went 120 feet. I think the planes I've been on are longer than that. And the ground around the markers commemorating the first flights are huge and barren. It's like the Wright brothers didn't want to try their experimental vehicle where there were any trees or buildings it could crash into.

Since you're reading this online, and they're probably two of the best known Americans in history, I won't go into most of the details. I will, however, share to things I learned and liked:
  • Orville Wright was a newspaper publisher. Since I work at a paper, that interests me. What I really love is that he was perfectly happy to cram his paper with filler (stories that aren't timely or necessarily local). Look at this Library of Congress copy of the paper, which starts out with a story of a Frenchman who wears disguises. The big news story about a gas company demanding it be allowed to raise its rates is in the middle of page 2.
  • I love the names of the towns in this area: Duck, Nag's Head, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills. They're so evocative. There was a quote at the monument site from Wilbur: "The practice ground at the Kill Devil Hills consists of a level plain of bare sand, from which rises a group of detached hills or mounds formed of sand heaped up by the winds. These hills are constantly changing in height and slope." So the place was named because of its devilish hills.
I also visited Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. Because that's abbreviated Fort Raleigh N.H.S. on the map, my Droid insists it is called "Fort Raleigh N High School." It's dedicated to the lost colony of Roanoke. I think my favorite part there (since the historic recreations are only done during the summer) was the nature trail. At that trail, they've constructed a narrative as to why the colony disappeared: the colonists had no idea how to live off the land, so they starved. They admit it's speculation, but it's interesting speculation. I also really loved how they reprinted notes from the would-be colonists with original spelling and punctuation intact. I liked it so much I picked up "A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia" written by Thomas Harriot in 1590. I believe in getting souvenirs for sites.

I did other stuff today too, but it was less interesting. Surely you don't want to hear about my quest for earphones. Actually, you might. I left mine at home, and realized during the nature walk that the plight of the lost colonists would be much more interesting with some They Might Be Giants playing. So I went looking for another set. I found a type I liked for a decent price at K-Mart. And this is the amazing part: I only had to wait in line for less two minutes before I was checked out. That never happens to me in New Jersey. There, I can be the only person in the store and it will still take them 10 minutes to ring up my order.

Tune in tomorrow for the saga of going down to Georgia. And now I have the Charlie Daniels Band stuck in my head.