Friday, February 27, 2009

"Heartbeats" by The Knife: Nugget de música

Say kids, have you ever retired to your drawing-room, late in the evening, cursing the stars that circa-1983-era Depeche Mode wasn't peppier? I haven't. But if you have, consider this song your gift from heaven! Huzzah!

And the video matches the music as well as any I've ever seen. Groovy times, footloose and fancy free.

80s synthpop lives!

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Dealing with bites (worse than barks)

Today I learned that you can buy bear Mace. It's like human Mace but stronger. "The strongest EPA approved animal repellant rating (2.0% Capsaicinoids)" the website gushes breathlessly, trailing zero for added impressiveness. It has "an extreme blast range of 35 feet!" It also costs 45 bucks plus shipping.

So with riding season a bit over a month away, I am faced with the dilemma of how best to fend off canine interlopers. Here are a few of the methods I've considered:

  • Ultrasonics. Think an electronic dog whistle. These things are supposed to emit a high-frequency squeal that dogs find unpleasant. So unpleasant that they will be frozen in their tracks with confusion. And if you're lucky they'll flee in terror. Or so the ads say. Something tells me they're an awkward pound of dead weight.

  • Cattle prods. These would definitely work. The major problem, however, would be misadventure by unintentional activation. Even a split second of current caused by, say, a bump in the road while in the middle of a 40-mph descent would send a person to biking Valhalla.

  • Dog biscuits. I read about this trick on a cycling forum, then remembered that I had used it to good effect with Toby. No doubt the kindest defense. Just drop a couple on the ground as a distraction. The problem is that once the chase is joined a lot of dogs will stop for nothing else in the world short of brute force, giving or taking.

  • Squirting water bottles. Another forum tip. Again I doubt the effectiveness of a spritz of electrolyte drink stopping a snarling dog. Plus my water bottles don't squirt...they more or less dribble. And I need my liquid for more important things, like drinking.

  • My freaking foot. The good thing about bike shoes is that they're made to be stiff, not only in the sole but on the sides as well. And they have cleats on the bottom. This makes them weapons. Drawbacks are that you have to unclip from the pedal first, which takes time and also dramatically reduces the rate at which you can pedal on and escape. This is one method I have put into practice in situ, most notably on my neighbor's dog -- one of the few that has actually gotten close enough to put its teeth on my person. A solid thwop to her skull and she hasn't so much as made one step toward me since.

  • Some sort of sharp-tipped medieval jousting-type implement. It's a thought.

  • A .40 caliber Glock. It's ok to admit that this was the first thing that popped into your head. It would definitely do the job. It may also come in handy when I'm riding amongst the shacks and cars-on-blocks of the Meth Lab Backcountry. But discharging a firearm in an area where there is an aggressive moving-target animal, asphalt, houses, and the shooter on a bike isn't the safest scenario. Some people treat their dogs like their kids -- little angels who can do no wrong. If they're after you it's because you were antagonizing them. Poor little Killer, he wouldn't bite nobody!

I love dogs. I really do. And I place the blame for attacks on irresponsible owners. But none of this matters when the dog looks up, sees you, and primeval instinct kicks in.

So when a pack of dogs comes sprinting toward me, yapping and yelping like I'm a giant slab of bacon, I have only a couple of seconds to decide what to do. Fight or flight? Out of every 500 dogs that decide to chase me, 499 will end up doing nothing but making a lot of noise. But how about this one? By the way, he's about six inches away now. From this position it would take all of three-quarters of a second for my leg to be on the business end of a canine's canines.

Pedal on and ignore him or attack preemptively? I've been bitten three times. The rabies waiting period is not fun. After this last incident, I'm leaning toward preemptive.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Fall (2006): Netflixin 2/18/09

  • Why I rented it: It just slowly marched to the top of my queue. Sometimes I forget why or when I added certain movies. I was probably on one of my fortnightly avant-garde kicks.

  • Verdict: 7.5/10. I enjoy visual flourishes in movies as much as anybody. They are, after all, a visual medium. But like everything else in life that produces money, there is a tendency by those in production roles to think that if a little bit is good, a lot is better. I think that too many movies in the past 10 years have relied too much on too many cartoonish-looking CGI. An example: I haven't seen all of The Golden Compass, but the parts I have seen in passing remind me more of Shrek than I'm sure the filmmakers intended. You know there's a problem when you're more convinced by ancient stop-motion and rubber-latex effects than by state-of-the-art CGI razzmatazz. At least latex and corn syrup are real.

    The Fall is a movie that should serve as an example of balance. First and foremost, it's a visual treat of set design and cinematography. Eye candy reminiscent of the garish colors of The Fifth Element and the impish darkness of The City of Lost Children. But the style is implemented with restraint. It's reported (and I guess we should believe) that it was made with absolutely zero computer imagery, which is a surprise considering what I've just said. Also it's directed by the guy who made REM's infamous "Losing My Religion" video -- a fact that turned itself into such an insidious visual earworm that I couldn't stop noticing similarities in look and feel between the two. Sorry if I spread it to you just now.

    There's a story, too, and it's ok. Occasionally brilliant (except for the non-ending), but in general just ok. And it's allowed to be if the rest of the movie makes up for it.

    One day in the future, technology will advance far enough that movies will be made completely on computers. There will no longer be any need for physical components like actors or sets. That time is far away. And even when it does come, imagination, as it always has been, will be one thing that can't be replaced.


Monday, February 09, 2009

A dog tries to eat my leg, or Today's Ride 2/9/09

Route: 18.4 miles, West Corbin - reverse Collier Hill loop.

Weather: Mostly cloudy, 66 degrees, 10 mph wind.

Performance: average speed 13.5 mph, time 50:32. Average HR 147 bpm. Average power 125 watts, maximum power 850 watts. Work 380 kJ. link:

Comment: With excellent weather, especially for this time of year, there was no way I could stay inside today. A great day for a leisurely ride. Heck, I even happened upon an unmarked state trooper as he pulled over a member of the "we own the road" Grays 4-Wheeler Gang. All was right with the world.

Sometimes I think about how a single decision we make can once and forever change everything that comes after. Sort of like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, only you can't go back and choose the other way if you don't like the outcome. It's kind of scary to think about how being 30 seconds earlier for work one day could mean that you are in the intersection at the exact time a semi comes plowing through. Or that deciding to go to Sav-a-Lot instead of Wal-Mart to buy your groceries one day means that you will run into a friend you hadn't seen in years and would otherwise never see again.

My bike rides are kind of like that. I usually have a route idea and mileage goal in mind before I set out, but sometimes I wing it. Like today. As this was only my second ride of the year, I decided to play it by ear and ride for as long as my early-season legs could take me.

About halfway through the ride, I decided the full-on Woodbine Loop was a bit much. But I still had enough in my tank that I didn't want to head straight home...a scenic return route would do. So I headed for the Collier Hill reverse.

I've put, over the past few years, a good 5000 miles on my bike. I've been chased by probably about that many dogs. And I'm happy to say that, except for a handful of instances, I've been able to outrun them. But, as this incident showed, man's best friend has the advantage over a cyclist climbing up a hill at 10 miles an hour.

So as my February legs were climbing, a dog came scampering my way from my right. A decent-sized mutt with a medium build but an ominously broad head. I pedaled on just as I have thousands of times before.

I looked down just as he made a definite grab for my foot.

Great. I pedaled harder and gave a couple of stern "hey"s as I sized him up. Unfortunately for me, he was tall enough to be able to reach my leg even if I kept it at the top of my pedal stroke. My only hope was that I would outrun him or he would give up.

But he wasn't done. All I could do was keep pedaling and wait for the next attack.

I felt something on my lower right leg that I can best describe as a cross between a tug and a pinch. Not violent -- the rest of my leg didn't react as if it was being pulled at all. Just a nip. More heys and more pedaling.

The dog was still trotting alongside. Still not ready to call it off. I began to weave toward him and away again, hoping to use my size to my advantage. Finally he receded behind me.

I glanced down at my leg just as my heart rate monitor screeched at me to calm down. I could see a dark area on the outside, not unlike a grease mark you would get on the inside of your leg from rubbing against the chain. I reached down to feel it. I brought my fingers back, hoping with some irrational hope that they would indeed be black with grease. They were wet with blood.

At this point I was pretty ticked off. I made a slow turn, ready to head back and give this guy's owner a piece of my mind. But with no owner in sight and Fido showing renewed agitation at my approach, I stopped. I would have to fight this battle another day.

A couple of hours later I was at the doctor's office getting my overdue tetanus booster. The dog is now tied up, and although his owner's exact whereabouts are (supposedly) unknown, the next-of-kin have assured me that they will keep an eye on him for the next couple of weeks. My neat little half-circle of tooth marks will probably be sore tomorrow.

My last severe dog run-in led to my buying a can of pepper spray. Maybe the legacy of this one will be the handlebar holster.

The culprit in quarantine.


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Thursday, February 05, 2009

In Praise of Cha

The first time I tried tea I thought I was going to die.

I was about five or six years old and was over at one of my friends' grandmother's house. I remember being thirsty. I remember asking her for something to drink. She told me there was some pop in the refrigerator.

I remember a big glass jar -- a jug, really -- on the top shelf of the refrigerator. It was filled with a cola-colored liquid that I identified as Pepsi. Yum. Time for a refreshing swig.

I thought I was going to puke. Tea. Accckkk.

The best way to describe the taste in my mind was that it was like taking a glassful of Pepsi and adding a bunch of ice cubes and a pinch of hay then letting it sit out for a day or two. Watered down, rancid, and flat. In the years that followed, this traumatic memory served one purpose in my mind: I don't like tea.

Then came my trip to China. We took a tour of Shanghai that included Yuyuan Garden. The Gardens are in the middle of one of the biggest cities on earth but still feel like a park should feel. They're almost 500 years old and are laid out in a way that conjures up images of "traditional" Chinese style: streams of koi, rocks, ornate buildings, and lots of stone lions and dragons. Smack dab in the middle of the park, atop stilts standing in a pond, there's a tea house.

I went inside and took a look around while we were waiting for everybody to catch up. Ancient Chinese guys were scattered throughout the room, many sitting in dark wooden booths along the walls. They looked very contemplative sitting there with their tiny porcelain cups. A couple were smoking pipes. The entire room had a character that fit the occupants: sage and weathered. In the middle of the room was a counter, a bar of sorts. Behind the attendants there was, floor to ceiling, the biggest assortment of multicolored tins I had ever seen. Every conceivable variety of tea must have been represented there, I thought. My then-current knowledge, the sum total of which was "sweet" and "unsweet", was forever changed. Something in my mind told me that I should try some of this.

But imagine my situation: I knew nothing about tea. The tins, though visually appealing and enticing, may as well have been labeled in Chinese, which of course they were. Plus I don't speak Chinese. So I figured I would hold that thought.

As you get older, your tastes change, and I like to think of myself as adventurous when it comes to trying new foods, a sharp contrast from my extremely finicky elementary school days. So once I got back to the ship I whipped up some Darjeeling from a teabag in the cafeteria and resolved to approach it with an open mind. And as I expected, it wasn't half bad.

The rest of the story is a bit of a blur: what started with me ordering a few small tins of green tea has developed into my spending entirely too much money on pretentious imported leaves and exotic brewing vessels. Just the other day I ordered some 2007 organic Tai Ping Hou Kui at almost a dollar a gram. I prepare it gong fu style in a jade porcelain gaiwan. It is good.

I have flipped.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

I get a Facebook

I am no longer an online social networking Luddite. After years of resistance, I have finally created a Facebook page.

Why? For years, this blog has been my main online presence and focus. And I plan to keep it so. But I would like to expand my readership while checking out what other people are doing. Facebook seems like the best way to do that.

I also considered Myspace, and as I'm writing this, I have a prototype page ready to go. But after trying out Facebook, its fate is uncertain. Myspace's music player is nice but Facebook seems to be more "meat and potatoes" -- emphasis on text and content rather than pages that look like overdone flash-and-clash mutant junkyards hit by tornadoes. But a lot of people I know are either on one site or the other.

Anyway, if you're reading this on Facebook, please visit my blog directly as there seem to be some features that don't fully translate over to the Facebook interface.

Sitting at the table

I went to Lexington the other day to take the Mensa Admissions Test. It's something I've always wanted to do since I first took a mock-up IQ test that I bought at the bookstore when I was a teenager. I had always been under the impression that you had to schedule a one-on-one session with a psychologist to take the bona fide test. To some extent this is true...the Mensa Test no longer gives you a raw IQ score due to complaints from psychologists that, as it is not administered under certified criteria, doing so would produce uncertifiable results. The test simply tells you whether you scored in the top 2% of the population. I figured it was as good a time as any, so off I went.

There were seven other people besides myself there to participate. All were male except for one female. Ages ranged from 14 to probably about 55, although most were college-aged or slightly older. You would expect such a gathering of geeks to produce some memorable (if not particularly engrossing) conversations, and yes, there were a few, like a rather heated debate over whether the infamous #2 pencil is harder than an HB pencil, whatever that is (short answer: it varies). This was the first test I had taken since my Pharmacy Boards (somehow six years ago), so these discussions added to the sense of nostalgia for me. These guys and the things they were saying were just like the guys I had known in high school and college. Simultaneously annoying and entertaining. One casually tossed out his ACT score (35) with no prodding whatsoever and for no particular reason other than to, I assume, pre-emptively one-up everyone in the audience who scored less. He went on to tell a story about some bouncer in Boston who has an IQ of 400 and "gets wasted every night." He seemed a bit let down when our only response was one big collective blank stare. I bet this is like the conversations bodybuilders have about how much they can bench-press.

So the test itself? Actually there were two: a 50-question Wonderlic Personnel Test and the Mensa Admissions Test (about 150 questions divided into 7 sections). You only have to "pass" one to get into Mensa. The Wonderlic was geared more toward speed, the questions getting progressively more difficult as you go on. My mind wasn't quite as crisp as I would have liked (waking up at 7am does that to me) and I didn't finish it, having to make wild guesses on five or so toward the end. The Mensa Test was a bit better, since time wasn't as much of an issue and it was divided up into ~20 question bite-sized chunks with short breaks in between in which to catch your breath.

Several sections consisted of nothing more than groups of pictures, one asking you to pick out the one that most matched the others and another giving you two objects paired in some way and asking you to choose one that most matched a separate picture in the same way. I had read where they also offer a "culture-neutral" test, and after seeing these I can see why. One that jumps out at me was a group of pictures of a guy dressed like Confucius, a Junk, and a paper lantern. It was followed by a shark, a lamb, a panda, and a cat. It took me a moment to figure out that they wanted objects associated with China and marked the panda. Questions like this test applied have to have a basic knowledge of Chinese culture to get it.

There was also the expected vocabulary / verbal analogies section (new word learned: propinquity = proximity). And a tedious but surprisingly enjoyable coin-counting section that I'm sure I aced because it reminded me so much of work. This section gives you a 20-line chart with columns labeled "cents", "nickels", "dimes", "quarters", and "half dollars." Each row has a series of numbers under each column, telling you how many coins of each. The questions would give you an amount..."47 cents" for example, followed by four row choices. You then had to scan the rows and mentally add up the money to find which choice was correct. For some reason, this quick "scanning and adding" routine reminded me of checking stacks of prescriptions at 5pm on a Monday. I suppose six years of that has re-wired my brain. I also suppose it's sad that there is so much skill overlap between a rote task like counting coins and doing a job that I spent eight years of my life in training for.

The final section was unlike any I had seen in any of the practice tests I had taken, and it kind of worried me: short-term memory / recall. Just as work has adjusted my neurons for quick bursts of robotic accuracy, it has also taught me to ignore background noise...anything not prudent to the task at hand, which includes 95% of the questions, phone calls, crying babies, computer problems, insurance issues, and impatient customer noises going on at any given time. So when the proctor busted out his almost comically ornate 3-minute story at the beginning of the session, I gave it my undivided attention, even though I had no idea what questions would be asked about it later. After we had all had ample time to forget it all while taking the rest of the test, it was time to see what we remembered. Again cultural un-neutrality came into play (to my benefit), since the story was about something I already knew about: ancient Greek theater. I think I did well even though some of the questions were rote detail recall (directions, numbers, etc.).

So then it was time to patiently wait the ascribed "5 to 10 business days" to receive my results. When the envelope finally arrived, I had another flashback to my college years: thick or thin envelope?

Kind of thick. Just not thick enough to settle it without opening it.

My eyes stopped at the big "congratulations." I was in.